Monthly Archives: January 2014



IMG_2112This gorgeous, spirit-lifting image is of a bowl of floating Auricula flowers at the entrance to a small ‘Alpine plant sales’ glasshouse at Ashwood Nurseries which I visited this week, (  The nursery is completely worth a pilgrimage even if the round trip from home – London to Wolverhampton and back – is over 250 miles and even if the weather forecast during this wettest January on record is simply not be borne.

We have come – my friend and garden design partner, Helen Fraser and I – lured by the promise of a rare talk by Witch hazel authority, Chris Lane.  Infuriatingly, we end up arriving late for the morning session but this is Ashwood, a nursery with an extensive and covetable plant collection much of which is for sale – so we are swiftly distracted.  Within moments I am beginning a small love affair with a recently named species Hellebore Helleborus liguricus:

IMG_2024We discover that it is a tall, strong, easy garden plant, with palest green flowers held elegantly well above the foliage and the most extraordinary sweet and powerful scent.  Apparently, people try to compare the scent to that of Mahonia or lemons or even cucumber.  I would say it is definitely citrus-y but I like the idea of cucumber too – it begins to communicate its alluring freshness.  I buy several plants for my partly shaded but very sheltered London terrace. I will use them in combination with Euphorbia mellifera and Polystichum setiferum:


Nandina domestica:

IMG_9150and Japanese anemone ‘Honorine Jobert’ (for later in the year!):

IMG_0062 I will love to have the graceful, bobbing saucers of intoxicatingly scented pale green just outside my back door.

Back at Ashwood Nurseries, we stop to admire the finely etched lines of deep pink on white of this lovely Hellebore:


– a perfect example of Helleborus x hybridus ‘Ashwood Garden Hybrid’ – hellebores selected for their purity of colour, beautiful markings, quality of their flower form and shape with a reputation for retaining their intensity of colour over a long  period.  We start talking about hellebores to Phillip Burden, an Ashwood nurseryman – whose specialities are in fact Cyclamen, Auricula and Lewisia.  Phillip has the patient, generous-spirited, knowledgeable calm which seems to characterise the approach to plants here.  He invites us to the Hellebore glass house – reserved really for the renowned ‘Hellebore Tours’ where visitors can buy from an exhilerating range of unique plants (you are not too late, there is one further Hellebore day on February 15th). This is the glasshouse – we were feeling pretty excited at this point …

IMG_2031-And here are some of my favourites:

IMG_2040 IMG_2052 IMG_2053 IMG_2036 IMG_2037

A few of the  Ashwood hybrids have slightly extreme, decorative qualities which are perhaps for specialist collectors only but most of them are subtle and gorgeous, super-healthy plants which would be wonderful additions to soft and natural spring gardens.

Dizzy with hellebores, we move onto Cyclamen.  Phillip shows us fantastic fat pots of Cyclamen coum.cyclamen coum1cyclamen coum 2 We are struck by the tremendous success of the seemingly simple idea of taking one 9cm pot of Cyclamen coum, potting it up with plenty of drainage “perlite rather than grit”, says Phillip, and just transferring it to a slightly larger pot each year.  The plants he shows us are satisfyingly dense and offer a brilliant injection of colour – they are ten years old. I buy a tiny pot and pledge to keep it going for at least a decade.

We move onto more rarified treasures such as the delicate windmill-flowered Cyclamen alpinum:IMG_2065Dangerously tempting, but these are jewels for a glass house or alpine house and not for outside.

We are bowled over by the quietly dazzling subtleties of the Cyclamen creticum foliage:

IMG_2058and smile at the rarest of all with its excellent label:

IMG_2062And then we are outside again and have the chance to see nursery owner, John Massey’s private garden.

The Cyclamen coum is looking as vibrant outside as it does under glass – and looks great, gentler probably, with the ground covered with a mulch of fine gravel rather than just bare earth:

IMG_2109Not surprisingly, my favourite moments here on this bitter day are small ones.  I love to see the tiny buds of the small spreading tree, Cornus mas just on the verge of opening – ten days more and it will be a haze of bright yellow:

cornus mas

After admiring  the fine princesses of the Hellebore world, it is a pleasure to see the distinctly muscly, Helleborus x sternii with soft pink-grey flowers take on the role of a small architecutural shrub:

Helleborus x sterniiclose up sterniiAnd I love the dense mat of Cyclamen hederifolium, Ajuga and the bright green Euphorbia cyparissias – fantastic persian-carpet-like ground cover under mature trees.

ground coe=ver matBut what about the witch hazel?  There are Witch hazels in John Massey’s garden:

IMG_2099and although the day was too grim for us too find their scent they offered bursts of clear yellow and rich gold – especially effective as glimpsed in the denser planting in the private area  around his house.  Chris Lane – who breeds Hamamelis and has the national collection gave a wonderful and inspiring talk about Hamamelis x intermedia – a talk with human passion as the clear cornerstone to the wonderful range of Witch hazel available to us today.

But the next day my plan to visit Chris’s nursery in Kent (  to photograph his incredible collection was just washed out by the non-stop rain. And so I have decided write about Witch hazel properly another time.

Eating away at me, however, is Chris’s dangerous suggestion that as well as fantastic mature specimens in the Savill and Valley Gardens near Windsor, the place to see Witch Hazels is the ‘Hamamelisfest’, (on until 23rd February), at the Kalmthout Arboretum near Antwerp in Belgium – the original home of many of the intermedia hybrid Hamamelis we grow today.

naamloos2_tcm7-164262The real celebration here is seeing Witch Hazels which have become glorious spreading trees in their own right.

I am becoming increasingly keen on letting a good plant have the space it really needs.  At Fullers Mill Garden in Suffolk ( there is a single, prize witch hazel which lights up the woodland in winter – not least because it is has been given room to throw out its arms and be itself.

fullers mill sunfullers mill snow



It’s cold outside in London. Although I can sometimes enjoy a dreamy morning like this, as I set off  around my local park…


…and sometimes foggy days in London town do indeed have the ability to turn into mornings like this…


…what I am really dreaming of, as the rain begins again and every stretch of green turns into a murky expanse of brown, is THIS – soaring palm trees and walls heavily, exuberantly cloaked with billowing Plumbago, Bougainvillea and Jasmine:

palm trees

The Casa de Pilatos in Seville is one of my favourite gardens in the world. A wonderful series of elegant, slightly faded gardens, courtyards and loggias, exquisitely and abundantly decorated – with five hundred year old Cuenca tiles (Casa de Pilatos holds one of the largest collections in the world):

more tiling

detail tiling

and richly pigmented paint:IMG_0001

It is above all a masterclass in thinking about the garden from the interior of a building, with the different garden rooms, framing the view , luring the visitor from one part of the space to another.

entrance gate

yellow chamber doorgreen beyond the corridor

I could be lured there again anytime.  Seville in Southern Spain is a great place to visit in the cooler months of the year.  The last few days of January 2014 will apparently be sunny, with day time temperatures of between 15 – 20°C.

I start to smile when I am in a part of the world where the windows are bordered in yellow

entrance cleaner

and where you can stop for a moment to  enjoy the muscly elegance of its doors. Here is  a wonderful glossy green paint and brass door in the nearby hilltop town of Carmona:

palace of justice door detail And here is the kind of soft geometric wall pattern that you find a burst of everywhere:

painted wall cordoba

It would be great to try something like this in a London garden:

close up painted wall

Cool, verdant courtyards are crucial here to provide somewhere to sit and calm the spirit when temperatures rise.  And there are lessons everywhere we could take away for urban back gardens anywhere.

The rusty orange awnings that can be drawn to completely enclose a courtyard

orange blind close up

are clean and elegant and cast a brilliant glow on the patio below.  IMG_0007

Casa de Pilatos itself, in the Santa Cruz district of Seville, is the ultimate courtyard garden.  Created within the exquisite walls of an innovative and influential Andalusian palace, it was built in several phases in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries for a wealthy Aristocratic family.  The first ambitious phase built by the Chief Governor of Andalusia, Don Pedro Enriquez, and his hugely wealthy wife, Dona Catalina de Ribera in 1482.

Behind the simple, gothic facade (with excellently riveted double doors):

IMG_0005 IMG_0006is an elegant cloud- coloured mansion built around a spacious central patio in the lacy, Mudejar style :


During the sixteenth century, successive generations of the family travelled to Italy and returned inspired by Renaissance ideas  – and loaded up with classical sculpture.   Remodelling – to include ideas found in Italian architecture – took place between 1526 and 1539 and again in 1568 when Neopolitan architect, Benvenuto Tortello was commissioned to build a ‘new palace’ within the gardens of the Casa, the main purpose of which was to house the now extensive collection of classical art.

In particular, Tortello adapted the Italian notion of the Loggia – traditionally an open-sided building with views over the countryside – to suit the Casa de Pilatos’ position amongst a dense urban network of Seville streets, and of course the Aristocratic desire to be screened from public view. Two loggias and an arcaded corridor were built opening instead onto the enclosed gardens – creating an intimate and yet monumental setting for the extraordinary family collection.


Here, the combination of deep ochre yellow walls, perfectly placed sculptures and fragments of classical architecture and a soft green fringe of lingering foliage is seductive and feels entirely personal.

tablets yellow wall green fringecentral stone

Everywhere, the extent of the detailing is breathtaking. If you look down, the chalky terracotta floor is embedded with jewel-like coats of arms:

detail floorIf you look up, an iron gate may be framed with a gorgeous corrugated roof of jade-coloured tiles:

green roof tileEven the steps up to a working area of the palace are densely lined with pots of impressively lush spider plants IMG_3825

A tactile mannerist grotto – turbulant papier-mâché style pebble work against a crumbling Venetian red wall – houses a sixteenth century marble ‘Sleeping Venus’

pink grotto–  it is a delicious surprise after the cool, intricate elegance of the Mudejar plasterwork. lacy wall and tiles

The planting itself is a slightly ramshackle version of formal, with fading Acanthus casting laddered shadows against the walls,

IMG_0002mounds of suckering but sweetly scented Clerodendrum bungei,

IMG_0003and trees of rather mismatching scales amongst ranks of Aganpanthus.


But it is this relaxed, comfortable imperfection, combined with the quality of the architecture and decorative elements that make it such a pleasure to visit.

I love the rugged, hairy  palm tree trunks and their stiff strings of fat pea-like seeds –IMG_0009

in such close proximity to the fine, Mudejar, marquetry doors and shutters:


and the intense, sometimes incredibly freely-patterned, tiling.

IMG_0004I love the way the trees are allowed to close over sculptures to form a bright green canopy:

verdant towerand the way shadows form new patterns of their own against the rich backdrop of colour and tile.pot shadow tile

I love the way a bench can be merely another curving line of green against an intense, multicoloured tapestry of tiling:

tile benchor it can provide a perfectly judged balance of red against yellow in a neighbouring room.

yellow chamber with benchCasa de Pilatos has the eclectic charm and multi-layered beauty of a house and garden which have been cherished and invested in by generations of passionate owners.  It has a romantic, timeless atmosphere that could perhaps be the starting point for lifting an interior or an exterior design simply by painting a wall in a rich yellow geometric pattern:

IMG_0002Or it could be the trigger to a hundred stories and daydreams.  It is not surprising to discover that David Lean used the Casa de Pilatos along with other locations in Seville to represent Cairo in his film, Lawrence of Arabia – Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence meets Jack Hawkins’ General Allenby in the main patio:

3620131502184552w lawrence-of-arabia-1962I am very tempted to jump on a plane …IMG_0008