Monthly Archives: June 2014



APPLWE TREE AVENUWI have just returned from a works outing (well an end of project trip with my garden design partner, Helen ) to the Welsh Marches.   Top of our list of gardens to visit was a return to Bryan’s Ground near Presteigne in Herefordshire – three acres of intimate garden rooms and arboretum around a yellow painted 1912 Arts and Crafts House. The garden at Bryan’s Ground has been developed for the last twenty years by David Wheeler (publisher of the distinguished gardening quarterly, Hortus ) and artist and garden designer, Simon Dorrell.

The approach to Bryan’s Ground is elegant but initially subdued – a slightly after the party feeling.  The Amelanchier leading to the ‘Parking for Motors’ is in its most restrained phase – post blossom and bronze leaf and pre autumn fire:

Iamelanchier avenue

The Amelanchier lamarkii lined drive – in its quietest phase

The front of the house, cloaked in Hydrangia petiolaris, and protected by solemn heavyweight sentries of giant, shaggy Prunus lusitanica, is looking shadowy and ripe almost for a the opening of a darker fairy tale:


And the famous grid of 25 different apple tree which emerge from mown paths, each tree surrounded by a private sea of blue anemone, followed by Pheasant’s Eye narcissus, followed by  show-stoppingly dense planting of the slender, pale blue Iris sibirica ‘Perry’s Blue’  – is now quietly lush.


Drifts of Iris sibirica ‘Papillon’ – image from patient

apple tee grassBut it does not take long to warm us up. Looking more closely, the planting around the apple trees is now laced with pale pink field geraniums and softly fluttering tall grasses are now taking over as quieter, paler stars amongst the stiffer stems of the flowered iris.


There is a handsome new entrance archway to frame the arrival to the house via the orchard :IMG_4343

Entrance into the front garden at Bryan’s Ground

The archway has been built, beautifully, sturdily in the same handsome Dutch/Herefordshire vernacular as the ‘dovecote’ which lures you to enter the main part of the garden.

view sulking house

The Dovecote

The Dovecote has it all – which is when you remember why this is a garden of inspirational confidence and charm. It is a focal point from and axis into three sides of the garden  – each with its own flavour – and what is most covetable, perhaps, is that on the first floor there is a small dining room with idyllic views onto the Welsh Marches beyond.

The dovecote takes you through to a parade of formal topiary (albeit sweetly coexistng with leggy pink geraniums which lounge about freely throughout the garden) and acts as a handsome backdrop to the dense green of the yew and the softly planted steps – about to be set ablaze by Crocosmia

longer view side 2side two sulking houseThe steps here are about to be set ablaze by Crocosmia

And then you are finally let loose into the principal ‘Sunk Garden’


The Sunk Garden

For a moment I look back to see the dovecote nestling happily in stands of campanula and draped in roses.  No need to worry about missing the iris moment – which is brilliant and absolutely worth making a pilgrimage to see – the new midsummer fairy tale version of Bryan’s Ground is just unfolding.

side 3 sulking houseThe Dovecote with roses and Campanula

And I have two new loves in my life: the statuesque pointiness of fresh green teasel (Dipsacus fullonum):


Self seeded teasel and foxgloves against topiary hawthorn

– and the endlessly forgiving romantic haze of quantities of green fennel:

sulking house in sea fennel

The Dovecote nestling in a haze of topiary and fennel


fennel, teasel and lavender

stchys daisy and fennelGreen Fennel, Stachys byzantina and daisies

The wild self-seeding generosity of these two plants works so well, of course, because of the the dark solidity of the topiary it is dancing between:


Green fennel dancing between structural forms of hebe and yew

Every so often there are joyous rockets of super high foxgloves in the mix:

lightness of quicksilver

And throughout the garden the silvery, deliciously scented shrub Elaeagnus ‘Quicksilver’ is planted to add contrast and a shimmering brightness to the palette of greens:


Elaeagnus ‘Quicksilver’

In one corner of the Sunk Garden there is a wonderful rather medieval monster-head wall of yew with a wonky sliver of an entrance to tempt you furhter in:

fab monster head opening

Above all this is the generous loggia where you can sit and eat spiced apple cake and idly imagine for a moment that this is your own. The path back to the Dovecote is splendidly narrow with overspilling plants:longer view side 3

 Or you might choose to have your tea under a voluptuous swoop of pineapple broom (Cytisus battandieri) whose vivid yellow flowers are almost intoxicatingly pineapple scented:


Bench under gorgeous headily scented pineapple broom

And then the garden is calm again. Lime Alley on June 23rd 2014 is a shaded walk flanked by a quietly frothing carpet of Alchemilla mollis:

lime avenue

Lime Alley

In the spring, Lime Alley is singing with orange tulips, acid yellow Euphorbia polychrome and rich yellow azaleas but now it is calm and ordered, a perfectly judged break between the exhilarating Sunk Garden and the other midsummer rooms to come.

What really impresses me as I move around the garden is the simplicity of the planting – large quantities of astrantia and Geranium psilostemon:


Geranium psilostemon and astrantia

IMG_4271knautia macedonica and pink geranium

There are lovely walks through shades of pink with classic columns of yew for structure:long view psilostemon yew


–  And yet there is a constant supply of surprise and invention too.

There are sudden bursts of a new colour to keep you on your toes:SURPRISE BLUE AND CLARET

Aconitum and Cotinus amongst the pinks


Angelica gigas and Cotinus

A gently shabby archway of recycled materials adds a layer of quirky grandeur to the cottage garden planting:

home made arch

Archway of recycled materials

And then as you turn the corner, the palette changes completely.  FIrst to rich dusky blues and purples:


Acanthus and clematisIMG_4287

And round again to a corridor of pale yellows and silver
Phlomis russeliana a key plant in this corridor of yellow and silver

There is the cool quiet of the Canal:
dog canalThe Canal

and the wonderful formal garden with pool – first glimpsed tantalisingly, of course, through an opening in a hedge:


Pond glimpsed through hedge opening

Again we have missed the further swathes of Iris sibirica and what must have been a delicate knee-high forest of aquilegia in May. But the scene, here immaculately framed by a stilted hornbeam hedge and viewed from a perfectly place bench, is wonderfully restful.

POND THRU STILITSThe pond seen through the elegant limbs of a stilted hornbeam hedge

I love the license a plant has to self seed in this garden:


carpet of Aquilegia seedlings under stilted hornbeam hedge

As we move away from the garden and enter the Cricket Wood – a still growing collection of specimen trees and shrubs started in 2000 – we are aware again of the intensity of a particular moment in an area of planting. In early spring there are hundreds of bulbs in the woodland, later scented walks of viburnums and the fragrant yellow azalea, Rhododendron luteum and many of the trees are specially selected for the strength of their autumn colour. But for now the palette is subtle and beginning to fade and bleach into high summer.

The transition from garden to woodland is marked by a lovely tree-fringed area dominated by a stunningly beautiful Cornus tree – I think it is ‘Norman Hadden – with pink tinged white bracts. The Cornus is underplanted with swathes of palest pink astrantia and dashes of richer pink Martagon lily:CLOSE UP MARTAGON COTONEASTER CORNUS CLOSE UP

Cornus – probably  ‘Norman Hadden’ HELENGenerous swathes of palest pink astrantia in dappled shade


Within the wood itself there is a perfect tin-roofed house which looks increasingly fit for a fairytale the further you wander away from it and deeper into the woods:IMG_4414


The long softly planted avenues will take you to treasures such as a fine crumple-leaved medlar:


a gorgeous Cornus kousa var. chinensis:


and a cloud of light-catching bronze cotinus amongst its towering silvery neighbours:


Much grown since the last time we visited is The Mezquita  – a grid of bird cherry trees (Prunus avium) inspired by the onyx and marble columns of the the Mezquita in Cordoba. This had looked rather stiff and organised when we visited a few years ago but it is now a wonderful sturdy forest of slim-trunked trees which frame the view in every direction and offers a delightful place to sit:

IMG_4427The Bird Cherry ‘Mezquita’


 ripening fruit of the Bird Cherry

IMG_4440An enchanting place to sit

The planting around Strongacre Pool at the edge of the Cricket Wood is particularly lovely.  Papery pale and delicate with a boathouse to add to your dreams.


The Cabin at Strongacre LakeSOFT PALETTE BY PNDThe delicate palette of plants at the water’s edge

As you walk away from the boat house the little building seems to be floating in a sea of dusky pink grass.


The Cabin at Strongacre Lake

I should not have worried for a moment that missing the irises would mean missing the magic of Bryan’s Ground.IMG_4433




Gatwick airport, Thursday 15th May 2014.  I check the weather forecast for the weekend ahead on my iPhone.  Forecast for London over the weekend: a scorcher, rising to 28ºC.  Edinburgh (where we will spend the night): not bad, quite sunny today at least, temperatures may reach 18ºC.  Stromness, Mainland, Orkney – three hundred miles further north, where we are heading the next day – maximum daytime temperature 8ºC. Rain.

the tough sea

Coastline on Mainland Orkney – Sunday 17 May 2014

We have a lovely evening in Edinburgh and stroll around tamely in our shirt sleeves munching tiny hand baked oat cakes unpasteurised Orkney Cheddar from specialist cheese shop I.J Mellis.mellis

We admire the elegant lifestyle of an Edinburgh dweller in his idyllic Mews house with the fragrant Syringa meyeri ‘Palibin’ exactly matching the faded raspberry paint of his front door:

edinburgh lilacAs we settle down in the small plane for a weekend on Orkney I ignore the fact that the temperature gauge outside must be plummeting and sink back into Helena Attlee’s wonderful sensual and sun-filled account of the citrus in Italy, ‘The Land Where Lemons Grow’.

It is a brilliant, constantly surprising history of the impact of Citrus on  communities across Italy at different times.  But is arguably a dangerous choice for this particular trip.  “You only have to fly into Catania airport in Sicily in late spring to appreciate the raw power of zagara (citrus blossom) for, as the doors open, the scent will bludgeon its way onto the plane … green buds form like a haze all over the sour orange tree, opening into pure white, five-petalled stars around a clutch of yellow stakes.  Zagara fills the air with an invasive, migrant scent ….”

When we arrive at our hotel in Kirkwall things are a little grey and treeless but we are glad to note that the our hotel offers one potential – does the name ‘Highland Park’ mean anything to you? – way to cheer us up:


Before I put on my bobble hat and waterproof trousers for the first major expedition of the weekend I sneak in a few more dreamy lines from Ms Attlee:

“Silence, heat, a scent of wild fennnel and a view across the great bowl of the Conca d’Oro to the blank blue sea beyond … a common orange, like the Navel or Valencia has a sugary, one-dimensional taste.  Eating a Sicilian blood orange is a much more complex experience.  Take the Tarocco: its meltingly soft flesh also has a high sugar content, but its sweetness is balanced by high acidity.  The result is a complicated, multi-dimensional flavour that unfolds slowly, subtly, beguilingly … wafer-thin discs of its marble flesh are combined with fennel, good olive oil, salt, a sprinkiling of choopped fennel leaves and black pepper, or used in pale pink risotto, bright red jelly and dark pink ice cream …”


Detail of Botticelli’s ‘Spring’ in the inside cover of ‘The Land where Lemons Grow’

I am riveted by the history of the the complex art of creating perfume from the essential oil of the bergamot. In 1708, when he was only 23,  Giovanni Marina Farina invented a bergamot based perfume named Eau de Cologne after the city where he lived.  In a letter to his brother he described his invention as “the scent of a spring morning in Italy, of mountain narcissus and citrus blossom after rain”.

I read on – it is as if I have been personally rumbled: “for his northern European customers the perfume conveyed the exotic essence of everything they yearned for in the sunny south”. Eau de Cologne “became the perfume of the great houses and royal courts of the eighteenth century Europe” … Voltaire described is as a “fragrance that inspired the spirit” and if you visitied Goethe “you would have found him writing beside a box of rags soaked in the stuff”

Enough! (I may or may not have ordered a bottle of the original Farina 1709 cologne using the hotel wifi before going out and join the others on the bus.)


Farina 1709 Eau de Cologne

This afternoon, as the sky hangs thick and white-grey around us, we are in search of the Scottish Primrose.  It is a slightly crazy sight – forty or so conservation experts and environmentalists (plus the odd spouse)  spilling out onto an RSPB maritime heath reserve to search for this diminutive, scarce, plant.

2 blokes in search of a primrose

The heathland looks vast and unpromising but it is only here in Caithness and Sutherland – these days mostly in protected areas of wild habitat – and only in May and then again in July that we have a hope of finding this dark purple primrose, 4cm high and 8mm in diameter with five heart shaped petals ….


Then at last!

girl photographinprimrose

Non is on the case


Primula Scotica – each flower less than a quarter of my finger nail

Tiny, rare, an incredible survivor. I am struck by how important it is for a jewel like this to get the chance to carry on.

By the next morning I am in a new phase and start falling for the incredible greens yellows and ochres that pervade Orkney.

I love the unstoppable ranks of flag iris that march onwards towards the shore:iphone flag iris

And the pale dancing leaves of Silverweed (Argentina anserina) amongst the turf:

silverweedSilverweed – Argentina anserina

I love the natural artfulness of  flag iris and marsh marigold planting itself deftly into the folds of a stream:

flag iris and calth iphone

Flag Iris (Iris pseudacorus) and Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris)

And then I get to see the lichen.  The walls of the sixteenth century St Magnus’ Church on the island of Birsay are enveloped in the most wonderful velvety camouflage of rich ochre. st magnus church

St Magnus’ Church, Birsay

st magnus close up 1

Lichen on dry stone walls surrounding St Magnus’ Church, Birsayst magnus gate post

Handsome rocket-shaped gate post, St Magnus’ Church, Birsay

st magnus dry stone stepsIngenious – lichen-laced – steps built into dry stone wall around St Magnus’ Church

st magnus close up 2

My particular favourite map-of-the-world lichen

The famous Ring of Brodgar – the beautiful neolithic henge and stone circle surrounded by sea, the cleanest air and wild flower meadows – provide even more addictive examples of lichen on stone.
ring brognar

Three standing stones from the Ring of Brodgar

brognar stone 2A powerful standing stone piercing the sky – incredible lichen

brognar lichen 1 Close up of white-on-grey lichen on a stone from The Ring of Brodgar

brognar lichen 2 Close up of paint-splash lichen on a stone from The Ring of Brodgar

broganr lichen 2 Velvety lichen on a stone from the RIng of Brodgar

Elsewhere the cliffs are gorgeously stepped and lightly coated with the same rich yellow:
drystone cliffs 2

We are in this spot for a long while – entranced by the swooping lines of Kittiwakes and gannets. Shocking to learn that the numbers of Kittiwakes alone have diminished by 87% in the last five years.  Sweet lacy clumps of ribwort plantain and bobbing pink thrift edge the cliff.IMG_3514

Thrift and Ribwort Plantain

Even the world under the clearest seawater shares the same gold against grey palette:IMG_3500


We walk past a beautifully restored house with handsome crow-stepped gables. The house is in the ultimate position with a dry-stone walled garden that wanders loosely down to the shore.  There was obviously only one colour to paint it:

dreamhouse iphotoOchre house on Birsay, Orkney

As we look out of the bus window on the way home I realise that in this raw land of outstanding natural beauty I have found something new to dream about:
dream house thru bus window

View from bus window of sea, sky and ochre house on Birsay, Orkney