CHERRY BLOSSOM TIME

WILD CHERRIES, CHERRIES THAT LIGHT UP THE CITY,  SALT-PICKLED CHERRY BLOSSOMS

IMG_4991Fallen cherry blossom, Richmond Park

Cherry blossom in spring never fails to tug at our heartstrings. We are moved by the fragile mosaic of fallen petals on the grass and exhilarated by the sight of pale blooms against a brilliant spring sky:

yoshino close upYoshino Cherry against sky, Batsford Arboretum , Gloucestershire

Sitting stuck in traffic at a noisy junction at Vauxhall Cross I am distracted by two elegant white-flowered cherry trees which spread out their branches at the base of the movie-set-weary MI6 building and exert a self-contained, civilising influence over this grimy corner of the city. A little further south, the looming steak and curry-night posters outside the pub on Denmark Hill are masked for a few weeks by the intense blooming of a pair of cherry trees, one pink and one white.

I look up ‘cherry tree’ on Amazon – the titles are infused with nostalgia: the fresh delight of spring, the poignant passing of time. I smile at the cover of Josephine Elder’s 1954 ‘Cherry Tree Perch’. It is an impossible cover for a 2016 teenager, but there is a timeless element too – the beginning of the summer term, escaping from revision, dreaming about the time when school is over for the summer.

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And Enid Blyton does not miss a trick when she locates a set of young heroes in the idyllic and comforting world of  ‘Cherry Tree Farm’:

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I confess we followed the same path when we asked our friend the portrait painter, Paco Garcia, to paint our three young sons. We were powerfully drawn to the idea of placing the boys under the ‘Great White’ cherry tree – Prunus ‘Tai-Haku’ – at my husband’s family farm in Suffolk.
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Prunus ‘Tai-Haku’ in the middle of the lawn, Suffolk

portraitPortrait of our three sons by Paco Garcia, spring 2003

The tree was planted forty years ago in the middle of the lawn nearest to the terrace. As well as its dazzling spring display, this tree has been a key player in family life for decades. It has provided shade at teatime when it is hot, it has been the place to put your new baby in his pram to gaze up at the gentle semaphore of the waving branches against the clouds, it was where the grandsons, when they were bigger, tumbled about on the petal-strewn grass with their grandfather’s new puppies. It was even – rather magnificently – incorporated in full flower into the 21st birthday marquee of my sister in law.

But this year, the cherry blossom in the UK has kept us waiting. Gardens with notable collections of cherry trees such as Batsford Arboretum and Kew Gardens invite visitors to telephone for updates. Each time I call, the recommended start date for a satisfactory blossom viewing is nudged a little later. The British approach is rather more gentle than the high-powered Cherry Blossom Watch in Washington DC – a city famed for its spectacular cherry blossom for over a century. In Washington, peak cherry blossom bloom is when the trees are exactly 70% out. Accurate forecasts and guidance are available for visitors and if you are still hopeful of catching some blossom, I’m afraid I have bad news. “Are DC’s Cherry Blossoms blooming?”, I want to know on April 27th, “No, they’re done for the year” declares the website. “The cherry blossoms reached peak bloom on March 25 2016”.

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Back in London there is a moment at the end of March when entire London streets revel in their pale pink canopies of the particularly early flowering cherry plum, Prunus cerasifera ‘Pissardii’:IMG_4768IMG_4767cherry over front doorIMG_4793                                Prunus cerasifera ‘Pissardii’ – Holland Park, London

But there is a downside to this exuberant beginning – when the blossom floats away, the trees’  brownish-purple leaves give them a heavy, rather sulky look.

Down the hill in Ladbroke Grove, Chesterton Road is lined entirely with cherry trees, but even in the second week of April they are tightly in bud. I have to confess I am slightly hoping that the trees will be pink to match so many of the houses:

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chester then 2Cherry trees in Chesterton Road, tightly in bud

When I return on the gloomiest of spring days a couple of weeks’ later, the cherry trees are happily all in flower. They are not pink at all: instead they are lovely, clean, white-flowered Prunus avium ‘Plena’ – the more formal, double version of our native wild cherry. The street is softened by this haze of blossom as far as the eye can see.

pink house now chester now JPG chester now bestPrunus avium ‘Plena’ in flower, Chesterton Road, London

In a neighbouring street I catch sight of a little and large version of Prunus avium ‘Plena’ outside a pair of handsome Victorian houses. I love the balance of green and white against terracotta and green and white against white stucco, and it must be lovely to walk under a bower of pendulous blossom on your way to your front door. But there is a serious size issue to be considered when planting a dainty young cherry tree in your front garden. Too many trees – I am now rather obsessively observing them from my car and from the bus – were always destined to become too big for their site: they have become too heavy and have been chopped about in an attempt to squeeze them into the available space.

IMG_4963 prunus avium plena close up prunus avium plena elginPrunus avium ‘Plena’ – against terracotta and white painted stucco

On a more gorgeous day in a less lovely street in South London, indeed on the pavement alongside a railway, a row of fastigiate street cherries – I think they are the popular Prunus ‘Amanogawa’ – makes every passer by smile.

camberwell 1camber 3Railway-side cherry trees, Peckham

I love the added bonus of the trees’ elongated shadows on the tarmac:camber shadow                                              Cherry tree with elongated shadow

And looking up, the combination of palest pink flowers against a rich blue sky is exhilarating:camberwell 2camber 5camber 4Cherry blossom against blue sky, South London

As I wait for the right moment to head out of town I think about Japan, a country synonymous with cherry blossom.

The world of Japanese ‘hanami’ (flower viewing) is I am sure very beautiful, in parts. If you research it even for a moment you will be bombarded with extraordinary images of ‘sakura’ (cherry blossom) with Mount Fuji beyond, or of ‘night sakura’ or ‘yozakura’ when the cherry trees are hung with paper lanterns:

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japanese-lanterns-in-park-full-of-sakura-trees_16Cherry blossom with Mount Fuji and ‘night sakura’ from the excellent blogpost ‘Insider Journeys’ by Rachel McCombie

Picnicking under the cherry blossom has unsurprisingly become big business, however, and websites such as Japan Monthly Web Magazine are happy to explain ‘How to Hanami’. The ‘must have’ shopping list includes ‘a typical plastic picnic sheet’, ‘more garbage bags than you think you will need’ and two types of ‘disposable body warmers’ – one is hand held and the other has adhesive so you can ‘tape it to your underwear to keep your back warm’.

Of course even McDonald’s has a special hanami menu – a teriyaki glazed pork patty with cherry blossom flavoured mayo in a pale pink bun and an outrageous looking Sakura Cherry Float to wash it down:

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McDonald’s Hanami burger – image courtesy of the cheery blog EATAKUtumblr_inline_n2wyp1ubX91qb3qcf

McDonald’s Sakura Cherry Float – image courtesy of http://www.mcdonalds.co.jp

I know of course there are deeply beautiful, gentler ways to visit Japan at this time of year and I would head there like a shot. This seductive post from Gardenista, which shows how forager Louesa Roebuck pickles cherry blossom, brings the tempo back down to a subtle, delicate celebration of this fleeting moment in spring.

Gardenista-pickled-cherry-blossomsHow to pickle cherry blossoms – photograph from a series by Chloe Aftel on Gardenista

It is the third week of April and I can wait no longer for an expedition to see cherry trees growing in the countryside. My plan is to drive to Batsford Arboretum in Gloucestershire (which holds a national collection of cherries) via the Chilterns where I will look first for the wild cherry, Prunus avium.

I am inspired by Richard Mabey’s description of wild cherries in his ‘Flora Britannica Book of Spring Flowers’. He writes that ‘the wild cherry is arguably the most seasonally ornamental of our native woodland trees. The drifts of delicate white blossom are often out in early April, just before the leaves, while in Autumn its leaves turn a fiery mix of yellow and crimson. Even the bark – peeling to reveal dark, shiny-red patches – is extravagantly colourful for a British tree.’ In the Chilterns, when the trees ‘are at the edges of woods, as they often are (cherry needs light to regenerate), they can make the entire wood seem to be ringed with white at blossom-time.  A couple of weeks later, when the flowers have fallen, the woods are ringed again, on the ground. After the great storms of October 1987 there was another cherry delight the following spring: windblown trees blooming horizontally in the woods, like flowering hedges.’

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Trying to research the best Chilterns woodland to aim for I am distracted by a wave of images of the American funk rock band, Wild Cherry. I fail hopelessly to get the band’s 1976 hit ‘Play that Funky Music’ out of my head as I make my way West on the M40.

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But it is has been so cold that the only tree that is lighting up Ibstone Common when I arrive is still the delicate blackthorn or sloe, Prunus spinosa:

IMG_4849 prunus spinosa prunus spinosa instaPrunus spinosa, Ibstone Common

I find a single, skinny wild cherry, just in flower, under a canopy of taller trees at the edge of the path:
dat wild cherry 2 dat wild cherry                                      First wild cherry sighting, Ibstone Common

As I drive on I catch sight of further trees loosely radiant with flower. They have always found their way to the sunniest spots – not least the edges of motorways. At this rate the wild cherry will be with us well into May.

IMG_5008wild cherry view        Wild cherry – Prunus avium – in full flower, in the sunshine, at the edge of woodland

By the time I reach Batsford Arboretum the sun is warm enough to have lunch outside and it finally feels like spring. I set off hopefully around the 55 acre grounds. One of the first cherries I admire is this Prunus ‘Pink Shell – I like its rather startling top-heavy stance and its delicate bell-like flowers. Matthew Hall, Batsford’s Head Gardener, tells me that ‘Pink Shell’ is “not well enough known” and “never planted enough”. If you have the space to let it spread out in this exuberant way, you could source one from the nursery there.pink shellIMG_1763                                           Prunus ‘Pink Shell’, Batsford Arboretum

Also recommended by Matthew – and indeed on nearly every expert’s list of recommended cherry trees – is Prunus x yedoensis, the Yoshino Cherry. This is another cherry that grows in a lovely open way with profuse, palest pink, almond-scented blossom. In a large, meandering garden such as this, the Yoshino Cherry has the sort of fresh intensity that catches your eye from a distance and draws you towards it.

yoshino cherryyoshino cherry skywardsyoshino close upYoshino Cherry, Batsford Arboretum

A little further on I come across an elegant group of three young Prunus incisa ‘Fujima’. ‘Fujima’ is a wonderful cherry for smaller gardens – described by nurseries as a large shrub or small tree – with prolific palest pink blossom and handsome red and orange autumn colour once established. Prunus incisa ‘Kojo-No-Mai’ would be a great alternative for a small space. If you have a slightly larger space you could of course follow this example and plant three together.

fuji threesomefuji 2A group of three Prunus incisa ‘Fujima’, Batsford Arboretum

An even smaller tree is Prunus ‘The Bride’ with very pretty tight pink buds that open to white. The trees I see planted out and in the nursery at Batsford are very young indeed. I wonder if they will always look a little congested or if they will relax as they grow into a softer shape? I am undecided but the flowers are so charming it could be well worth a try.the bride close up

the bride closestBuds and flowers of Prunus ‘The Bride’

I make my way past a disconcertingly handsome mature Prunus cerasifera ‘Pissardii’. My general view of this purple leaved plum, of course, is that it can only disappoint once the flowers are over, but growing a tree well and giving a tree enough space can make all the difference, I tell myself.

IMG_4885                          Handsome, spreading Prunus cerasifera ‘Pissardii’, Batsford Arboretum

And then I come across a cherry tree which makes my heart sing. In fact there are a pair of  them – Prunus ‘Hillier’ – planted together. Each has been given room to grow old in a wonderful, slightly bent, gorgeously layered way. The towering cherries add a pale, fluttering lightness to the mature trees which surround them.

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hillieri establishPrunus ‘Hillieri’, Batsford Arboretum

They perfectly frame the view beyond and I love the way the hanging branches act as the loveliest of veils.

IMG_4877A pair of Prunus ‘Hillier’ framing the view beyond

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hilleri tangle close

hillier veil Hanging branches of Prunus ‘Hillieri’, Batsford Arboretum

Frustratingly I cannot find a current supplier for Prunus ‘Hillieri’. Matthew Hall at Batsford kindly suggests Prunus ‘Jaqueline’ as his first choice for a possible alternative.  ‘Jaqueline’ is a relatively new introduction with deeper pink single flowers. A probable hybrid of Prunus sargentii, it has the bonus of dramatic pink-red autumn colour.

I look again at the two fine ‘Hillieri’ cherries trying to work out what else it is about the planting that is so satisfying. My eye is drawn to the handsome,  katsura tree – Cercidiphylum japonicum – standing next to themThis has long been one of my favourite trees with its fine rows of suspended, light-catching leaves which smell deliciously of of burnt caramel in the autumn. It is clearly the absolutely perfect pairing with a shell pink flowered cherry and one I will aim to repeat.  IMG_1752                               The elegant dirty gold leaves of Cercidiphyllum japonicum

cercidiphyllum and hillier IMG_4868IMG_4871                                      Cercidiphyllum japonicum and Prunus ‘Hillieri’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CAMBRIDGE GARDENS – COOL, GREY, ON THE VERGE OF SPRING

CHAMPION WISTERIAS, CARNIVEROUS PLANTS,  A SECRET CHURCH GARDEN

IMG_4606Bronze green and 23.5 carat gold railings, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

It has been a hard, grey start to the year. Just as spring is on its way I have been struck down with every kind of cold and reduced to spending many hours doing very little on the sofa.

I am cheered up by a splendid parcel of single snowdrops in the green from the charismatic Cambo Estate near St Andrews – see my October 2015 post on Cambo.

The snowdrop bulbs are wrapped in perfectly moist moss and then wrapped again in sheets of Cambo’s own newspaper. The cheery assertion that the Cambo Courier is ‘Scotland’s Leading Snowdrop Newspaper’ makes me smile and is clearly the tonic I had been missing.

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Whilst sofa bound I wander dreamily over Scottish mountainsides and remote moorland courtesy of Robert Macfarlane’s passionate book about the powerful relationship between language and place, Landmarks.

landmarks

In Landmarks Macfarlane describes the work of the writers whose “books have taught me to write, but also …to see”. I am already a fan of his beloved Roger Deakin, but I am riveted by Jaquetta Hawkes, a bisexual, icy, daring, Primrose Hill academic who “knew she had had written an unclassifiable work” with her 1951 bestseller A Land – a combination of geology/anthropology/history/literature “flamboyant enough”, writes Macfarlane, “that I can imagine it re-performed as a rock opera”. Another passionate introduction is to Nan Shepherd (1893-1981) who spent hundreds of days and thousand of miles exploring the Cairngorns on foot. Macfarlane’s enthusiasm for Shepherd’s book, The Living Mountain, is intoxicating. “The Living Mountain is thick with the kinds of acute perception that come only from staying up (in a certain place) ‘for a while’. ‘Birch needs rain to release its odour’ Shepherd notes. ‘It is a scent with body to it, fruity like old brandy, and on a wet warm day one can be as good as drunk with it'”. “I had never noticed the ‘odour of the birches’ ” comments Macfarlane “but now cannnot be in a stand of birch trees on a rainy summer’s day without smelling its Courvoisier whiff”.

Threaded throughout Landmarks are collections of words – some regional, some technical, some poetic – which precisely describe an aspect of landscape in a way which stimulates and enriches. A tiny sample of my favourites:

clock-ice: ice cracked and crazed by fissures, usually brought about by the pressure of walkers or skaters, Northamptonshire.

smirr: extremely fine, misty rain, close to smoke in appearance when seen from a distance, Scots.

endolphins: swimmers’ slang for the natural opiates (endorphins) relaeased by the body on contact with cold water (Roger Deakin, poetic).

Shockingly, just as Macfarlane comes across the Peat Glossary (a treasure trove of collected terms for elements of moorland on the Isle of Lewis) he is made aware of extraordinary deletions from the new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary. Words “no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood” included “acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, willow”. Replacement words included “attachment, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, cut-and-paste”. Clearly room must be made for new terms which form part of contemporary life, but it is chilling to think that a dictionary effectively endorses the idea that a modern day child does not need to also describe an acorn, a young swan, a catkin.

emmaFirst Court, Emmanuel College, Cambridge

And so I find myself in the middle of March in the middle of Cambridge – I am an Open Day escort for a child who no longer uses a junior dictionary. I feel that the first place I should head once I have dropped him off is Emmanuel College for, when not roaming rainy hillsides, Dr Robert Macfarlane enjoys this immaculate and elegant environment in his role as Director of Studies for English. He happily acknowledges the irony: “Cambridge is, unmistakably, a curious place for someone who loves mountains to have ended up. I live in a country so flat (as the old joke goes) you could fax it”.

Flat it is and quite a jolt after the world of Landmarks. It is nonetheless an ordered, uplifting space and must be a brilliant place to think and work. I admire the expanses of cobbled path, the elegant yellow stone architecture and perfectly striped lawn. I am particularly taken by these stone curlicued lawn corners:

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Decorative stone lawn corners

A serene colonnade divides First Court from the extensive gardens beyond but – despite the luxury of green space/benches/ponds – I am disappointed by a slightly heavy, municipal gardening style after the crispness of the first courtyard.

IMG_1603Emmanuel College, colonnade

There is a moment of sugary prettiness – low-slung pink cherry, pink bergenia, and darker pink hellebore (plus white van):

cherry bergenia and hellebore white van Pink cherry, bergenia and hellebore

And across the pond, bright white silver birch trunks and the ornamental plum blossom – Prunus cerasifera – make a handsome pair – but the rest could be a park pretty much anywhere.

cherry silver birch

I am happier in the First Court of Christ’s College – a masterclass in training plants perfectly to cloth buildings. None of the plants are unusual, but they are all grown very well and work hard to add another layer of texture and life to their privileged framework.christs                                         First Court, Christ’s College, Cambridge

Here a ballgown of a Magnolia grandiflora bulges glossily in the corner adding light and evergreen richness to the scene. To the right of the doorway a gnarled, sculptural wisteria frames a set of eight windows and will look spectacular in a few weeks’ time. christs                       Magnolia grandiflora and wisteria, Christ’s College, Cambridge

wisteriaTrained wisteria, First Court, Christ’s College Cambridge

On a shadier wall a Hydrangea petiolaris is a chunky three dimensional presence framing a pair of windows. The feisty, surprisingly long, green buds are just beginning to smatter the russet mass of branches with dashes of bright green.

mystery plant christs

On the opposite wall a Jasminum nudiflorum looks great too – shaggy, green-stemmed and dancing with illuminating star-shaped yellow flowers:

jasminum nudiflorum nudiflorum close up

Jasminum nudiflorum, Frist Court, Christ’s College, Cambridge

And further along a hard pruned wall-trained Chaenomeles – flowering quince – is beginning to glow with scarlet flowers:

chaenomeles chaenomeles 2Wall trained Chaenomeles – flowering quince, First Court, Christ’s College, Cambridge

Perhaps my favourite of the wall trained plants is this delicate Abutilon ‘Kentish Belle’. The apricot flowers from red calyces really do add tiny points of light to their sober stone backdrop.  ‘Kentish Belle’ will only ever grow to about 3 metres, probably less, and is semi evergreen. It should flower from June to November but, in a sheltered position like this, will hold onto its leaves and flower perpetually. A not particularly fashionable plant – but one we should definitely use more often.

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abutilon close up

Abutilon ‘Kentish Belle’, First Court, Christ’s College, Cambridge.

I nip into Pembroke College. Most of the garden is looking hard-pruned and shut down until spring, but I like the wave-like mounding shrubs that form a run against the Chapel wall and note the classic combination of Viburnum davidii and Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna that nestle so comfortably around the sculpture of William Pitt.

willliam pitt pembroke william pitt pembroke

Pembroke College Chapel with close up of Vibrunum davidii and Sarcococca hookeriana at the base of the Pitt sculpture.

I walk over to Clare just to admire the brilliant bulb-spangled grass verges that I know will be there. I am not disappointed. As well as the neatest sheafs of Narcissus ‘February Gold’, there are crocus, powder blue Anemone nemerosa ‘Robinsoniana’ and the richer royal blue of the tiny star shaped, Chionodoxa lucilae. Of the latter, Christine Skelmersdale of specialist bulb suppliers Broadleigh Bulbs, writes “in the spring tapestry there has to be something to tie it altogether and these little bulbs do just that”.

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Path leading to Clare College, Cambridge with bulb rich grass verges on either side

I am smitten yet again by the elegant stone balustrade and cobbled shadows of Clare College Bridge in combination with the two razor-sharp yew domes of the Scholars’ Garden beyond.

IMG_1540 IMG_1543View across Clare College Bridge to the Scholars’ Garden

Peering into the Scholars Garden itself the yews continue to be a distinguished and brilliantly sculptural presence. I ache slightly to be here so early in the year. The borders are prepared and mulched and just waiting for the seasons to progress:IMG_1547 empty border                                         Scholars’ Garden, Clare College, Cambridge

My walk takes me past a tree that fills the shadowy space between the west end of King’s College Chapel and the wrought iron gates. The tree is Prunus ‘Taihaku’ – the great white cherry.   Sarah Raven wrote an excellent piece for The Telegraph about this tree in 2001. Her father was a don at King’s and she describes the way the tree “glows” with its ‘”huge, pure white, straight-edged flowers … as if lit from inside”.  For now the tree is a hardened winter network of fine branches which play lightly against the lacy architecture of King’s Chapel. It is exciting to think of the transformation of this space next month.

IMG_1548 IMG_4539Prunus ‘Taihaku’ against King’s College Chapel, Cambridge
2399222517_25aea94968Prunus ‘Taihaku’ flowers

From this point on, Cambridge is at its headiest with brilliantly different architectural styles coming at you from every direction. I walk past the intricate, sandy-stoned, 16th Century Gate of Honour belonging to my old college, Gonville and Caius:

IMG_1550Gate of Honour, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge

In huge contrast is the neighbouring Senate House – formal, white, austere with a completely plain lawn and vast Roman Urn – a 19th Century bronze copy of the ‘Warwick Vase’ from Hadrian’s Villa Tivoli. I smile at the extremely neat, elongated shadow the urn casts on the enormous lawn:

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IMG_4546Senate House, Cambridge, with Bronze copy of the Warwick Vase

Immediately next to this, the looming shape of King’s College Chapel is perfectly echoed by the surging dome of a two hundred year old horse chestnut tree. A magnificent pair when the horse chestnut is in its skeletal winter guise, but how much lovelier when the chestnut is in leaf and laden with its candle-like flowers?kings 2 CROCUS UNDER HORSES                                 Kings College Chapel and Horse Chestnut tree

I head to the Fitzwilliam Museum – just to turn the screw a little on the memory lane experience – but before I go in I am thrown by the outrageously glamorous green and gold pineapple railings which guard the stone balustraded entrance. Had I really never noticed these before? I am relieved to discover that the railings were only repainted in their “original livery of bronze green with 23.5 carat gold leaf ornaments” in 2014 having been quietly painted black for decades. The railings, I tell you, are now some of the finest you will ever have the pleasure to see.

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IMG_4608Bronze green and 23.5 carat gold railings, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

I have just enough time to step into ‘Crawling with Life: Flower Drawings from the Henry Rogers Broughton Bequest’. The exhibition is held in an enclosed cabinet-like exhibition space and contains just a small number of exquisite 17th and 18th Century drawings of flowers – with their accompanying insects.

There is a feeling of dark playfulness in the air – it is like entering a sedate drawing room where you discover that no one is quite as respectable as they initially seem to be. Jacob Marel’s ‘Venetian Glass Goblet with Flowers and Insects’ is radiant with spring colour but the jewel-like insects which lace themselves slightly secretively throughout the composition have an unsettling effect.

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Marel open wicker basket Venetian Glass Goblet with Flowers and Insects, Jacob Marel, 1634, plus a detail from ‘An Open Wicker Basket of Flowers with a Frog and Insects, Jacob Marel, Henry Rogers Broughton Bequest, Fitzwilliam Museum

There is a more clinical, very handsome, series of drawings of carniverous plants by George Ehret including this unnervingly stolid drawing of a Stapelia – the carrion flower – a South African plant that generates the odour of rotten flesh to attract specialist pollinators.

IMG_4565Stapelia, George Dionysius Ehret, 1765, Henry Rogers Broughton Bequest, Fitzwilliam Museum

But from the moment I enter the exhibition my eyes are drawn to the pair of drawings by the Dietzsch sisters whose shared style of adding layers of opaque and semi opaque water-based pigments over a blackish ground results in powerfully quiet, almost ghostly paintings that tell knowingly of the fleetingness of life:

IMG_4581Primula auricula with a Clouded Yellow Butterfly, Barbara Regina Dietzsch (1706-1783), Henry Rogers Broughton Bequest, Fitzwilliam Museum

IMG_4584Common dandelion with a garden tiger moth, Margaretha Barbara Dietzsch (1726-1795), Henry Rogers Broughton Bequest, Fitzwilliam Museum

It is nearly time to retrieve Arthur. A quick misty-eyed glimpse at the bike-cluttered History of Art faculty which was pretty much my home for a couple of years.

IMG_4601History of Art Faculty, Cambridge

I am struck by the delightful difference in mood struck by the History of Art department’s fading nameplate against peeling stucco and the action-man (albeit of a certain era) stainless-steel-against-brick lettering of the Engineering faculty next door.

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History of Art Faculty nameplate

IMG_4605Department of Engineering nameplate

I am less misty-eyed that the favourite café for art historians and architects has changed its name from Martins – to Hot Numbers.

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No time to sneak off to the Botanical Gardens with its glasshouses, dry garden, scented garden and systematic beds which will be soft with mulch and ready for the spring – but just time to tell you about my husband’s traumatic experience aged about 7 and at school in Cambridge.  An exciting outing was proposed to the MECHANICAL GARDENS –  how disappointed was he to find himself with a day of looking at trees and shrubs in the Cambridge BOTANICAL GARDENS.

IMG_1619Cambridge Botanic Garden Systematic Beds (grouped in plant families) – I only went in for a moment!

I meet up with Arthur by a railing smothered timelessly in University posters. He has emerged appropriately and unashamedly excited by the idea of tackling ‘ridiculously difficult’ German poetry and agrees cheerfully to visit one more garden on the walk back to the station.

IMG_4609Poster smothered railing, Cambridge.

On Trumpington Street, next to Peterhouse College, we scoot in to the almost always open gardens of Little St Mary’s Church. You know you are onto a good thing when a Church sets a playful tone on page one of its website “Why ‘Little?’ Because down the road is the well known University Church, Great St Mary’s. We are smaller, but higher”.

This tiny semi-wild churchyard is a magical place, a listed City WIldlife site and brilliant because it is specifically gardened to nurture the feeling of wildness and seclusion.

mary 1Path leading into Little St Mary’s Churchyard
mary 4 foxgloveGravestone with foxgloves

mary 4 graveMoss covered tomb seen through a screen of winter branches

mary 6 petasitesmary 7 petasites pathNarrow curving paths through lush heart-shaped leaves of Petasites fragrans

mary 9Soaring yew and magnolia against the Church

IMG_4610Roses, Philadelphus and yew share the space with ancient headstones

The transformation into this romantic and informal garden was masterminded by Robert Lachlan  – a former churchwarden, Fellow of Trinity and distinguished mathematician. In 1925 the churchyard had become derelict. Lachlan used fragmented or fallen headstones to create a series of gently winding interlocking paths which entice the visitor to explore. Species roses and other flowering shrubs were planted to live alongside wild strawberry and sweet violet and the tradition of a secret garden, where the more invasive plants are kept in sufficient check to allow other plants to flourish, was begun.

mary 10 grave path

mary 11 grave pathHeadstones used as steps and path

The air throughout the garden is heady with scent from a champion Sarcococca confusa and there is a feeling of thoughtful layers to the planting, careful placing of benches, cherishing of new plants. A quiet example of this is the fleet of gravestones running down the side of the church, each with a small cloak of snowdrops floating steadily in its wake.

mary final little fleet snow dropsA fleet of gravestones each with a small cloak of snowdrops floating steadily in its wake.

Applying to Cambridge these days is as hard a mountain to climb as any Northern peak tackled by Dr Macfarlane. But for everyone who succeeds, this would be an excellent secret place to disappear to once in a while.

IMG_1664 (3)Dancing seedheads against late afternoon light, Little St Mary’s Churchyard, Cambridge.

SMITTEN BY THE GARDEN OF THE PETIT PALAIS

SURPRISING GARDENS IN MUSEUM & GALLERIES IN PARIS AND LONDON

IMG_4060 (1)               Petit Palais garden with pool, palm trees and golden swags.

I was so surprised by the iridescent energy of the garden of the Petit Palais when I visited this month that I stayed out much too long taking in the different views, framed here by a pair of heavy leaved palm trees…

IMG_4056Petit Palais Garden  – pool and palm trees

…and here, guided by the upward-sweeping branches of the cherry trees with their copper-brown trunks and rosy haze of grasses behind and electric green eyes of just-opening Euphorbia characias in front.
IMG_4106Petit Palais garden – grasses, cherry tree, euphorbia

It is a freezing, clear-skied January morning in Paris. The vistas are open and enticing, huge expanses of pale grey and blue laced with gold:

IMG_4021              Pont Alexandre III, Paris.

A glimpse through a side-door into the empty cavern of a between-exhibitions Grand Palais gets my heart thumping – I am always happily seduced by the heady potential of a rough studio-like space:
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                                               Side entrance to the Grand Palais. 

Up the steps and through the imposing arch of the gilded Beaux- Arts doorway – The Petit Palais art museum was built in 1900 for the Exhibition Universelle and then completely renovated over four years from 2001-2005 –

IMG_4022Petit Palais entrance.

and then into the sweep of sunlit corridors of this entirely circular building, with towering glass doors and windows in every direction.

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A series of windows overlooking the Seine.

The floors are entirely of mosaic in subtle shades of rust, green, black and mustard against soft white:

IMG_4126Mosiac floor, entrance hall, Petit Palais.

The spacious exhibition halls glide seamlessly into a curved outdoor loggia, with a pair of deep blue and white Sèvres porcelain pots on plinths coaxing you on. The swirling mosaic of the floor is punctuated with lovely circular frosted aqua glass sky lights.

IMG_4035IMG_4043 (2)External loggia, Petit Palais, with a pair of Sèvres porcelain pots on plinths.

Even the curving ceiling of the loggia is decorated with a brown-on-gold trellis festooned with powder blue clematis and pink roses:

IMG_4098The Loggia ceiling, Petit Palais.

Looking back against the interior wall of the loggia, the delicate, punched metal chairs and deep green marble tables add just another layer to the subtle grandeur.

IMG_4050Perfectly judged café chairs and table, Petit Palais.

And then, between the soaring scale of the grey-brown Vosges granite columns, you get your first proper look at the garden.

IMG_4053The Petit Palais garden, framed by Vosges granite columns.

If you look up you see the pale gold swags silhouetted against the sky:IMG_4055

 

 

 

Decorative gold swags silhouetted against the sky

If you look across, out into the garden, you begin to get an idea of the intoxicating lushness of the place.

IMG_4048The lush planting of the Petit Palais garden

This interior courtyard was always intended to provide a breathing place for visitors to the gallery itself. It is a grand but inviting framework for a garden – a deftly designed space with curves and columns of the palest mustard, grey and pink stone, with the deeper tones of the roof tiles and the uplifting gleam of decorative gold.  IMG_4083                                  View along the central axis of the Petit Palais garden.

IMG_4105Curves and columns of the Petit Palais garden.

IMG_4103Close up swirly marble table top and skinny milk-green café chair against strong shapes in pale stone.

It has a fundamental dynamism which invites you in to explore and – enriched by simply brilliant  planting – every view is different.
IMG_4060Palm trees adding structure, gloss and glamour.

I love the mix of tropical plants with grasses and evergreen shrubs and perennials. Palm trees add structure, gloss, glamour and a constant sense of surprise. I have never seen the delicate scattered flowers of the winter flowering cherry Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’ against the weighty arching branches of a banana tree, but here the combination works brilliantly, not least perhaps because of the glint of gold peeping through.

IMG_4059Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’ against banana leaves.

Tough stalwarts of the shadier garden are employed with confidence and energy. Here the waxy dark green leaves and perky just opening flower buds of Fatsia japonica look fresh and handsome against the golden stone:
IMG_4111                                                        Fatsia japonica, Petit Palais garden.

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Euphorbia characias, Acanthus, Fatsia japonica and Bergenia provide an understory for the deciduous trees.

Elsewhere Euphorbia, Acanthus, Bergenia and Yucca plants combine to make a strong rich green understory for the deciduous trees. I have seen photographs of these cherry trees in spring when their vase-shaped branches are covered in deep pink. This is their moment to swan around outrageously like dancers from the Folies Bergères and I would love to catch the sight for myself.

The other surprising element of the garden is the extensive use of grasses. Here is the most elegant use of pampas grass I know, and the Miscanthus sinensis look graceful and distinguished with their pale fragile heads and rosy winter foliage.

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IMG_4109Grasses, including Pampas grass Cortaderia selloana & Miscanthus sinensis, Petit Palais garden.

On either side of the main steps into the garden there are two magnificent fleets of strapping white-painted Versailles planters filled with handsome specimens of palm tree and Magnolia grandiflora:

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Versailles planters with specimens of palm and Magnolia grandiflora, Petit Palais garden.

I go into the café to warm up and eat an elegant slice of lemon cake with my coffee. “Bon appétit, Madame” says a guard, who is also taking a break. “You must have become very cold out there”. I can barely feel my fingers, but I have had a brilliant half hour. The guard leaves,  bows slightly and wishes me a ‘bonne journée’. I am indeed having a very good day, I think, as I gaze for one more time at the banana leaves and the dancing Miscanthus heads catching the winter light:
IMG_4119Winter heads of Miscanthus sinensis and banana leaves catching the winter sunlight, Petit  Palais garden.

Back in London, I am at the Royal Academy on a glowering January day, a week or so before the opening of its ravishing Painting the Modern Garden exhibition. I am still musing about what it takes to make a successful garden within the walls of a gallery or museum.

IMG_4266Royal Academy, Painting the Modern Garden, 30 January – 20 April 2016.

Clearly one of the main challenges is to create a garden that will look good all year round, often within a very limited space. I head for the Keeper’s House, now a restaurant, café and bar, open to RA friends until 4pm and after that to everyone. Tom Stuart-Smith created a garden here in 2013 in what he describes as ‘one of those curious architectural left over spaces’ with almost no natural light. His aim was to make the garden feel as if it has been dug out of the space with an ‘almost archaeological’ quality.

First glimpses of the garden from the windows of the sophisticated mohair velvet sofas of the Belle Shenkman room are as vibrant and seductive today as they would be in midsummer.

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Views from the Belle Shenkman Room at the Royal Academy onto Tom Stuart-Smith’s garden.

The green of the spreading arms of the 250 year old Australian tree ferns brought into the UK under license is dazzling, and Stuart-Smith is superbly vindicated in his use of his favourite  grass, Hakonechloa macra. In its winter form it is a fiery, eye catching streak which lights up the garden further.

You have to go down a flight of stairs to start climbing back into the garden which is elegantly tiered and tiled throughout in dark brick so that the ground and walls are of the same deep earthy tones. The exuberant tree ferns are accompanied only by the hakonecholoa, the low-growing evergreen shrub Pittosporum tobira ‘Nanum’, with just two climbers, Trachelospernum jasminoides and Virginia Creeper for the walls and railings. Here, restraining the planting palette is key.

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IMG_4294Ground level views of the Keeper’s House garden, Royal Academy.

When you look up, the energy of the tree ferns is celebratory and infectious.
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IMG_4285Looking upwards, Keeper’s House garden, Royal Academy.

I go back into the gallery and start climbing the stairs. What Tom Stuart-Smith has achieved so cleverly is a garden that delivers from any level in the building. I look down through huge panes of glass from the second floor onto David Nash’s blackened wood sculpture, ‘King and Queen’.  The tree ferns and egg-yolk yellow grass are a wonderful foil for these dark figures. This is a fine platform for art and the Academicians must enjoy selecting work for this space.

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IMG_4297IMG_4299IMG_4296View onto the Keeper’s House garden, Royal Academy, with ‘King and Queen’ by David Nash.

In 2010 my design partner, Helen Fraser, and I were asked to develop a planting scheme for a new garden at the South London Gallery on the busy Peckham Road.  IMG_4258IMG_4261Exterior of the South London Gallery with and without bus

The Fox Garden was a new space that emerged as part of the 6a architects‘ extension of this constantly innovative contemporary art gallery.

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The garden would link the ncafé, NO. 67, with a new building, The Clore Studio, and was flanked on one side by the enormous exterior wall of the main 1891 gallery, and on the other by a tall garden wall.  A much simpler proposition than the Petit Palais or Keeper’s House gardens, but nonetheless a rather unevenly lit garden with the need to look good all year round and to offer change throughout the seasons. The noise and grime of the road outside would increase the sense of surprise when the visitor came across the garden for the first time.slg before 1slg before 2Framework of The Fox Garden – the towering gallery wall with elegant new buildings by 6a architects at either end and a wonderful, sinuous brick path.

Our solution was use tough, hard-working plants which could create an impact for as long a season as possible. The star plant has perhaps been Nandina domestica – or heavenly bamboo – which has thrived here and provides an almost constant succession of white flower sprays followed by red berries:

IMG_4255IMG_4243IMG_4253IMG_4256IMG_4250IMG_1463Nandina domestica – or heavenly bamboo – creating a lush and welcoming atmosphere in The Fox Garden, South London Gallery on a January day.

We have used three flowering dogwoods – Cornus kousa var Chinensis – including a fabulous almost outsize specimen directly outside the café. These illuminate the garden in June, matching the glamour of Paul Morrison’s covetable gilded wall painting in the café atrium, and provide a period of rich autumn colour.

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IMG_5568Cornus kousa var Chinensis – with a close up of the beautiful white bracts which surround the tiny flowerhead.

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Views through to the flowering dogwood from the No. 67 dining room with its exhilarating  Paul Morrison gold mural.

IMG_2229Claret red autumn colour of the Cornus kousa var Chinensis with Lawrence Weiner’s swooping ‘wall sculture’ on the gallery wall, part of his 2014 ‘All in Due Course’ exhibition.

Other repeated plants are Euphorbia characias with its long lasting lime green bracts…IMG_2179                                      Euphorbia characias with its lime green bracts.

…and Libertia grandiflora which we love for its white flowers in May, long lasting seedheads, and year round architectural presence:

IMG_5567IMG_5555Libertia grandiflora which makes everyone smile the garden in May.

The Libertia even makes Heidi smile – Heidi, gardener of The Fox Garden, is of course the secret ingredient:IMG_5543                                        Heidi – The Fox Garden’s secret ingredient.

Happily it seems that gardens within museums and cafés are providing so much enjoyment that there are new gardens in development wherever you look. Right here in the South London Gallery a new garden by artist Gabriel Orozco is slowly emerging to be unveiled in the autumn of 2016.

A couple of miles away at the Garden Museum, next to Lambeth Bridge, Dan Pearson is designing a completely new garden within a substantial extension by Dow Jones Architects.

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 Tradescant Knot Garden, Garden Museum – image thanks to www.culture24.org.uk.

The design has been a challenge, not least because a decision had to be made to lose the knot garden of the existing Tradescant Garden, but Garden Museum director Christopher Woodward tells me ‘Dan has designed a new garden which will try to startle the visitor with unusual shapes and beauties and surprise you with unfamiliar plants … I hope the space with have something of that atmosphere of the Zumpthor-Oudolf pavilion at the Serpentine a few years ago’.

ImageProposed garden café within the new Dow Jones Architects’ pavilions. Garden to be designed by Dan Pearson. Visualisation by Forbes Massie, image courtesy of The Garden Museum.

The Garden Museum is in the safest possible hands with the thoughtful and often magical input of Dan Pearson. The reference to my absolute favourite of the Serpentine Gallery‘s annual summer Pavilions – the 2011 Serpentine Gallery Pavilion designed by architect Peter Zumthor with planting by master plantsman Piet Oudolf  – makes the new garden a tantalising prospect.

I look through my photographs and find only a few hazy images of my visit to this blackened, open-roofed, box-like cloistered garden that landed for a few summer months next to the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens. I remember being surprised and deeply cheered by the almost physical pull this hidden garden had on passers-by on a completely beautiful day in an already completely beautiful green space. The contrast between the plain, rather severe building and the planting (which became taller and blousier and more relaxed as the summer wore on) was compelling, and the impact of sunlight and shadows on the space was exciting and dynamic.
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IMG_4521Images of the Piet Oudolf planting within the Peter Zumthor Serptentine Gallery Pavilion, September 2011.

I hope that when it is warm again I will have the chance to return to Paris to visit a museum garden that fell off my list on my recent trip.  The Musée de la Vie Romantique is housed in a green shuttered villa in Montmartre which belonged to the 19th Century artist, Ary Sheffer. It is said to have a lovely garden and outdoor café with poppies, foxgloves and fragrant roses. I read somewhere that it is the perfect place to sit amongst the roses sipping tea and pretend to be Georges Sand who famously lived nearby. Now this is a whole new angle on museum garden visiting.

A piece I have written for The Daily Telegraph on other gardens to visit in Paris will be published in the Spring.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ANGEL TRAIL – THE GARDEN IN WINTER AT GRAVETYE MANOR AND RHS WISLEY

LOOKING AT THE GARDEN IN WINTER WITH AN ANGEL ON MY SHOULDER
pennisetum                Ethereal seedheads of Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’, RHS Wisley

It has become something of a personal tradition at this time of year to set off with my backpack for a day of Christmas shopping and to find myself veering off into the cool marble halls of a favourite gallery or museum instead. Last week, on my way to buy some boxes of heavenly salted caramel chocolates from Fortnum & Mason (purchased with the time-honoured principle of three boxes to give as presents, one box to present to yourself … ) it became obvious that my time would be best spent in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery. Here, amongst roomfuls of paintings which must collectively feature hundreds or even thousands of angels, the Gallery has cleverly chosen just ten particularly fine, 14th and 15th Century paintings to form a manageable and uplifting ‘Angel Trail’ for the Christmas visitor.

It is a powerful and cheering experience and I urge you to call in and see the paintings for yourself – at any time of year. The modest size of the ‘Angel Trail’ is key to its success because you have space in your head to look at the paintings properly. I remember hearing David Linley  on Desert Island Discs describing how his father, Anthony Armstrong-Jones, would regularly pop into the National Gallery with him, maybe on a Saturday afternoon on the way to something else, with the mission to look at just one painting intently. It was a brilliant gift from father to son.

The ‘Angel Trail’ paintings linger in my head as I return to my everyday world of plants and gardens. Ranks of golden willow leaves suddenly have the quality of angel wings and a fragile, papery seed head becomes a light ethereal presence. So here is my Christmas blogpost looking at the garden in winter, with an angel on my shoulder.

‘ANGEL TRAIL’ PAINTING NO. 1

Matteo di Giovanni, active 1452; died 1495 The Assumption of the Virgin probably 1474 Tempera and gold on wood, 331.5 x 174 cm, 150 kg Bought, 1884 NG1155 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG1155

The Assumption of the VIrgin, Matteo di Giovanni, tempera and gold on wood, probably 1474, National Gallery, London, Room 59

This monumental Assumption of the Virgin in its towering frame, offers a bulging Virgin Mary, radiant in pink, gold and white on a shimmering gold ground. The angels busy themselves in a fluttering network around her.

As I walk around the RHS garden at Wisley, the leaves of Hamamelis mollis ‘Boskoop’ hang fat, round and golden, happily echoing Matteo di Giovanni’s bold, fecund painting.

hamamelis closeHamamelis mollis ‘Boskoop’

Witch hazel is mostly grown for the fiery flowers that will open up from those velvety buds, but the power of the shrub to bring light into the late season garden with its autumn foliage colour should never be under estimated.

In a sunnier part Wisley’s Battleston Hill, the fine, shredded flowers of Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Orange Peel’ are already blazing away in this exceptionally mild December.

IMG_3503Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Orange Peel’

For the white and pink of the Virgin’s robe, and the throng of angels that encircle her, I offer this lovely rose – a tangle of white blooms and fading red hips against a pale blue winter sky:
white rose hips 2white rose hips 1

White roses and rose hips against a winter sky

‘ANGEL TRAIL’ PAINTING NO. 2

Lorenzo Monaco, active 1399; died 1423 or 1424 The Coronation of the Virgin: Central Main Tier Panel 1407-9 Egg tempera on wood, 220.5 x 115.2 cm Bought, 1902 NG1897 This painting is part of the group: 'San Benedetto Altarpiece' (L2; NG215-NG216; NG1897; NG2862; NG4062) http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG1897

The Coronation of the Virgin, part of the San Benedetto Altarpiece, Lorenzo Monaco, tempera on wood, 1407-9, National Gallery London, Room 53

I am struck by the simple clarity of the pale pink, yellow and blue of the angels’ robes in this Lorenzo Monaco painting.

At Wisley I find the lovely evergreen ground cover Vinca difformis beginning to light up the woodland floor with its translucent powder blue flowers. This is a  vigorous but not invasive periwinkle which reliably flowers in late winter and early spring. I am happy to note how the pairs of bright green leaves form pairs of angel wings along the stem.

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IMG_1290Vinca difformis, RHS Garden, Wisley – palest blue flowers and pairs of leaves like angels’ wings

I struggle to match the chalky yellow of the central angel’s drapery, but in Rosa ‘Mortimer Sackler’, (an almost thornless repeat flowering shrub rose with loosely double, very fragrant soft pink flowers), I find an excellent echo for the subdued whitish-pink of the angels on either side.

IMG_3653             Rosa ‘Mortimer Sackler’

Near the Alpine Houses, trailing rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Prostratus Group’) is in full flower. The shape of its arching stems mirror the shape of angel wings:

IMG_1360Rosmarinus officinalis Prostratus Group

‘ANGEL TRAIL’ PAINTING NO. 3

English or French (?) Richard II presented to the Virgin and Child by his Patron Saint John the Baptist and Saints Edward and Edmund ('The Wilton Diptych') about 1395-9 Egg on oak, 53 x 37 cm Bought with a special grant and contributions from Samuel Courtauld, Viscount Rothermere, C.T. Stoop and The Art Fund, 1929. NG4451 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG4451

‘The Wilton Diptych’ – Richard II presented to the Virgin and Child by his Patron Saint John the Baptist and Saints Edward and Edmund, English or French (?), egg on oak, about  1395-9, National Gallery London, Room 53

‘The Wilton Diptych’ is one of my favourite paintings. Here the eye is immediately drawn to the unforgettable rhythmic quality of the angels’ wings on right hand panel, as well the rich cobalt blue of the angels’ and Virgin Mary’s gowns.

At Wisley I fall for a fantastic willow with its suspended ranks of golden-yellow autumn leaves. It is Salix udensis ‘Sekka’  – the Dragon or Fantail Willow. It is a handsome plant for a moist part of the garden with unusual flattened stems and silvery green catkins. It can be stooled to 30cm above ground in spring to keep it a manageable size and is available from the wonderful Bluebell Nursery.

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Salix udensis ‘Sekka’, RHS wisley

In my search for elegant, rhythmically arranged leaves I make a new discovery: a really good looking, low growing Mahonia. Here the Mahonia eurbracteata ‘Sweet Winter’ – which will only reach a metre in height – makes a valuable evergreen understory to a handsome, rounded specimen of variegated Chinese privet, Ligustrum lucidum ‘Excelsum Superbum’:

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Mahonia eurobracteata ‘Sweet Winter’ growing under variegated Chinese Privet at RHS WIsley

A few days later I am walking around the garden of Gravetye Manor  in East Sussex, the former home of Victorian ‘wild gardener’ William Robinson and now a wonderful hotel. The garden is is being passionately and imaginatively restored under Head Gardener, Tom Coward, and I have a brilliant morning with him learning so much about every aspect of the garden.

The heavy-boughed Magnolia campbellii – whose graceful branches dip down over the terraces of the Little Garden and the Flower Garden – also reminds me of the elegant Wilton Diptych angels. The Magnolia is silvery in bud against the bursts of rich blue sky.

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Magnolia campbelii, Gravetye Manor

‘ANGEL TRAIL’ PAINTING NO. 4

Piero della Francesca, about 1415/20 - 1492 The Nativity 1470-5 Oil on poplar, 124.4 x 122.6 cm Bought, 1874 NG908 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG908The Nativity, Piero della Francesca, oil on poplar, 1470-75, National Gallery London, Room 66

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IMG_3710Details from: The Nativity, Piero della Francesca, oil on poplar, 1470-75, National Gallery, London, Room 66

I have long loved the soft, sober, no frills – no wings – absorption of these music making angels in this scratchy, tough, almost monotone countryside Nativity. There is a timelessness and naturalness to the painting style – you can feel the arrival of winter in a warm, dry land.

In the garden at Gravetye, stands of artichokes are left to cast jagged silhouettes against the sky, the glaucous new foliage contrasting as sharply as baby Jesus’ blue blanket with the arid land around him.

chok1 1 choke 3 Winter seed heads of artichokes, Gravetye Manor

In one border, slender golden stems of Calamagrostis form a sand coloured sheet beneath the artichoke seed heads:chosek2WInter seed heads of Artichokes with Calamagrostis, Gravetye Manor

Back at Wisley, Phlomis russeliana forms neat stands of pompom seed heads on upright stems – a good match for the tightly shaped trees in the background of the Piero della Francesca painting.

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Phlomis russeliana seedheads, RHS Wisley

‘ANGEL TRAIL’ PAINTING NO 5

Fra Filippo Lippi, born about 1406; died 1469 The Annunciation about 1450-3 Egg tempera on wood, 68.6 x 152.7 cm Presented by Sir Charles Eastlake, 1861 NG666 This painting is part of the group: 'Medici (Overdoor?) Panels' (NG666-NG667) http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG666

The Annunciation, Fra Filippo Lippi, egg tempera on wood, about 1450-53, National Gallery, London, Room 54

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Details from The Annunciation, Fra Filippo Lippi

An extremely beautiful and intense painting with subdued, subtle colouring and a powerful sense of the Virgin Mary bathed in the light of the Angel.

In the garden at Wisley the arching stems of this berberis, the leaves just turning to gold, light up and give energy to a rather demure autumn shrubbery.

colouring berberis? colouring berberis 2Arching stems of berberis, RHS Wisley

It is hard to find a sweetly jewelled spring meadow in December, but this lone magenta Cyclamen coum has emerged from a low mat of rounded, silver-marked leaves and will soon be joined by more flowers.

cyclamenThe first flower in a mat of Cyclamen coum

In the garden at Gravetye I am smitten by the soft, low mounds of winter flowering heather – Erica carnea.  Tom Howard is pleased that I like them so much – winter flowering heathers have become so deeply unfashionable -but here they look wonderful, gently clothing the stone walls and providing an inviting, cushioning, tiny-flowered back drop to the steps and benches. He has been trying to champion them, but is not sure how well the conversion attempt is going!   They are fantastically easy to grow and, unlike most heathers, don’t need an acidic soil. These heathers at Gravetye have the idiosyncratic, spreading elegance that comes, of course, with plants of a certain age, so consider planting sooner rather than later.

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Mounds of Erica carnea providing a soft backdrop for steps and benches at Gravetye Manor

‘ANGEL TRAIL’ PAINTING NO. 6

Master of the Saint Bartholomew Altarpiece, active about 1470 to about 1510 The Virgin and Child with Musical Angels about 1485-1500 Oil on oak, 52 x 38 cm Bought, 1985 NG6499 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG6499

Virgin and Child with Musical Angels, Master of the Saint Bartolomew Altarpiece, about 1485-1500, oil on oak, National Gallery, London, Room 64

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Details of Virgin and Child with Musical Angels, Master of the Saint Bartolomew Altarpiece, National Gallery, London

This lovely, playful, much more mannered painting is full of movement and the colours are bright – clear pinks, whites and a luminous pale gold. The delicate columbine to the left of the Virgin allludes to the Holy Ghost and to the right there are cornflowers and carnations – the latter symbolic of Christ’s future sacrifice.

In the absence of these early summer flowers I suggest the beautiful, velvety buds of the winter flowering shrub Edgeworthia chrysantha. I love the baby-toed neatness of the buds against the elegant network of cinnamon coloured branches. Soon the buds will open to reveal fragrant yellow flowers, immaculate clusters of tiny yellow trumpets which look almost too perfect to be true.

IMG_1345 IMG_1347Edgeworthia chysantha, RHS Wisley

For pale pink and an even sweeter fragrance which carries tantalisingly in the air, upright shrubs of the wonderful Daphne bholua are already in flower all over the garden.

daphne b 1Daphne bholua, RHS WISLEY

‘ANGEL TRAIL’ PAINTING NO. 7

Geertgen tot Sint Jans, about 1455/65; died about 1485/95 The Nativity at Night possibly about 1490 Oil on oak, 34 x 25.3 cm Bought, 1925 NG4081 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG4081The Nativity at Night, Geertgen tot Sint Jans, oil on oak, possibly about 1490, National Gallery, London, Room 63

This ‘Nativity at Night’ was unknown to me before this visit to The National Gallery but it will now be amongst the first Nativity paintings I will think of at this time of year. It is a powerful painting with an extraordinary radiant glow emanating from the baby Jesus, a lustrous depth to the surrounding darkness and a haunting, tiny, crumpled angel hovering above.

The ethereal angel follows me closely as I observe the winter garden – here in a stand of delicate just-standing seed heads of the white globe thistle, Echinops bannaticus ‘Star Frost’:

echinops 4Echinops bannaticus ‘Star Frost’, RHS Wisley

Here in the fine, bleached fragility of end of season Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’:
pennisetum                                               Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’, RHS Wisley

and here in the tousled, light-catching, cotton-wool seed heads of white japanese anemones Anemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’:

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jap anemoneAnemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’, RHS Wisley

At Gravetye Manor in East Sussex the air is so clean that the naked branches of deciduous trees and shrubs are lacy with exquisite lichen which has something of the same suspended, ghostly quality.

lichen 1lichen 2                                            Lichen on naked branches, Gravetye Manor

‘ANGEL TRAIL’ PAINTING NO. 8

Bartolomé Bermejo, about 1440 - after 1495 Saint Michael triumphant over the Devil with the Donor Antonio Juan 1468 Oil and gold on wood, 179.7 x 81.9 cm Bought by Private Treaty Sale with a grant from the American Friends of the National Gallery, London, made possible by Mr J. Paul Getty Jnr’s Endowment Fund, 1995 NG6553 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG6553

Saint Michael triumphant over the Devil with the Donor Antonio Juan, Bartolomé Bermejo, oil and gold on wood, 1468, National Gallery, London, Room 63

This extraordinary painting of an elegant angel in fully armoured battle mode is infused with a dull golden glow and a pinky-red, the colour of the interior of a pomegranate.

I am struck by the fine, metallic, wing-like quality of the classic garden sea holly, Eryngium giganteum ‘Silver Ghost’ in its crisped December phase:

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eryngium 2jpg                                           Eryngium giganteum ‘Silver Ghost’, RHS Wisley

And I love the way these backlit velvety buds of Magnolia campbellii at Gravetye frame the view of the soft red Liquidambar tree in the mist beyond – a fine match for the subtly burnished tones of the painting.

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Liquidambar framed by backlit buds of Magnolia campbellii, Gravetye Manor

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Liquidambar in the mist, Gravetye

There is a similar regal, wintry feel to this sombre view of a pine tree and heavily berried Viburnum opulus:

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Pine tree and heavily berried Viburnum opulus, Gravetye Manor

‘ANGEL TRAIL’ PAINTING NO.9

Simon Marmion, active 1449; died 1489 A Choir of Angels: From Left Hand Shutter about 1459 Oil on oak, 57.6 x 20.9 cm Bought, 1860 NG1303 This painting is part of the group: 'Fragments of Shutters from the St Bertin Altarpiece' (NG1302-NG1303) http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG1303

A Choir of Angels, Simon Marmion, oil on oak, about 1459, National Gallery, London, Room 63

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Detail from A Choir of Angels, Simon Marmion, National Gallery, London

The clear, almost tropical colours and wonderful dynamic energy of these perfectly arranged angels in their gorgeous curving robes make for a painting more powerful and more memorable than you might expect from its modest size – just over 50 by 20cm.

This brilliant green and yellow oak leaf is a perfect echo:

IMG_1394Oak leaf, December, RHS Wisley

As are the neatly arranged leaves of one of my favourite shrubs for winter/early spring, Stachyrus praecox – here showing brilliant acid green end of season colour which contrasts perfectly with the luminous pink of the petioles. In early spring the tiny ruby buds will open into pendant strings of primrose yellow bell shaped flowers on bare branches.

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Leaves and buds (bottom photograph) of Stachyrus praecox, RHS Wisley

I come across this stand of Cornus sericea ‘Hedgerows Gold’ at a rather brilliant moment – the leaves going into winter with a wild dance as they turn from green to yellow to pink:

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mystery angel plnat 3 mystery angel plant 2 Cornus sericea ‘Hedgerows Gold’, RHS Wisley

‘ANGEL TRAIL’ PAINTING NO. 10

Hans Memling, active 1465; died 1494 The Virgin and Child with Saints and Donors (The Donne Triptych) about 1478 Oil on oak, 71 x 70.3 cm Acquired under the terms of the Finance Act from the Duke of Devonshire's Collection, 1957 NG6275.1 This painting is part of the group: 'The Donne Triptych' (NG6275.1-NG6275.3) http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG6275.1

The Donne Triptych, Virgin and Child with Saints and Donors, Hans Memling, oil on oak, about 1478, National Gallery London, Room 63

IMG_3702Detail of The Donne Triptych, Hans Memling, about 1478, National Gallery, London, Room 63

I love the calm order and balanced structure of this Hans Memling painting, the flat mid-green of the landscape beyond, a gentle, anchoring contrast to the rich red of the Virgin’s robes and  the canopy above her throne. The focus is, of course, upon the fruit being offered to the baby Jesus. There are no enticing pears to be found on my travels around the December garden but there are other gorgeous fruit which are celebratory enough for a Christmas painting.

I have long wanted a strawberry tree – Arbutus unedo. Such a handsome evergreen tree which has the generous quality of offering its pretty shell-pink flowers at the same time as its scarlet pendant fruit. Arbutus unedo is pretty as a small shrub but worth planting as soon as you can, as a spreading, slightly gnarled mature tree is particularly handsome. The fruit are edible although famously ‘unedo’ is believed to be a contraction of the Latin ‘unum edo’ – meaning ‘I eat one’ i.e. they are not as appetising as you might hope.

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arbutus 2 more arbutusArbutus unedo ‘Roselily Minlily’, RHS Wisley

Elsewhere at Wisley this medlar tree is humming with its strange brown fruits suspended like tiny, happy space ships amongst flying yellow leaves:

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Medlar fruit and leaves, RHS Wisley

My favourite fruit – absolutely worth seeking out if you can – is the extraordinary fruit of the Handkerchief tree, Davidia involucrata. The garden at Gravetye boasts two wonderful mature Davidias – and maturity is what is required as a young tree typically takes 15-20 years to flower. The flowers are surrounded by spectacular, slightly drooping, white flower bracts – which give the tree its ‘handkerchief’ name:

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Davidia involucrata in flower

The spherical nut-like fruits that follow hang from particularly graceful curving pink stalks – as dynamic and covetable as an Alexander Calder mobile:

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davidia fruits silhouetterDavidia involucrata fruit, Gravetye Manor

My final festive offering is this perky alternative Christmas tree – a monkey puzzle or Araucaria araucana. I love its muscly form – the fine mid-green takes me back to the immaculate grass sward of The Donne Tryptich:

monkey puzzle monkey puzzle close upMonkey Puzzle tree in the December sunshine, RHS WIsley

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The Donne Tryptich, Hans Memling, National Gallery, London

So I have reached the end of another year of THE DAHLIA PAPERS.  It has been a brilliant year with so many unexpected and uplifting new friendships and new connections. Thank you so much for reading, following and commenting and I wish you all a very Happy New Year,

Non,

19.Xii.2015

PS You may enjoy listening to a podcast I recorded this week for the Guardian on the best gardening books of 2015 – with the Guardian Gardening Editor, Jane Perrone, Books Editor, Clare Armistead, Matthew Wilson (‘Landscape Man’) designer, writer and snowdrop expert, Naomi Slade and Director of the Garden Museum, Christopher Woodward

http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/gardening-blog/audio/2015/dec/19/sow-grow-repeat-best-gardening-books-of-2015

A GARDENER’S LETTER TO PARIS, NOVEMBER 2015

THE ART OF THE ESPALIER TO THE MILKY SHADE OF ‘VERSAILLES GREEN’

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‘Versailles’ planter with palm, Versailles green, Versailles

As I sit down to write my November post – the starting point, a family half term trip to Paris – I am filled with an aching sadness that our memories of those cheerful and inspiring three days have been shaken upside down by the horrifying terrorist shootings which took place a week ago today.

But I am keen to take you back to our trip to Paris, one of many visits over my lifetime (indeed I spent a few months living in Paris as an Art History student in my Gap year) to rekindle the deep fondness I have for the city and for French life beyond the city, to show my support and to tell you about my commitment to be back there again in the spring.

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Still I worry a little about starting my account with our first stop on our first day in Paris: a return visit to the ultimate sock shop, Mes Chaussettes Rouges .

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Cheery ad for Gammarelli ecclesiastical finery sets the tone at Mes Chaussettes Rouges

 Mes Chaussettes Rouges is a small, delightfully eccentric shop which sells such wonders as long red socks by the Italian tailor, Gammarelli – the Pope wears the white versions – and long green socks in ‘vert académie’ by the French brand, Mazarin, the green knee-highs worn by members of the Académie Française.  Fundamentally, of course, these are excellent quality, traditional socks, which have been introduced to a wider market. And if you have married a certain kind of husband you will make him pretty happy if you spend a few minutes in this immaculate rainbow of a shop helping select some hosiery of exactly the right weight, length and shade of soft blue.
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The finest gentlemen’s socks on display at Mes Chaussettes Rouges

Some homemade pasta and a glass of wine in the cosy Italian deli on the other side of the rue César Franck and then an afternoon only gently frogmarching our sixteen year old son to the Army Museum at Les Invalides.  We had discovered this excellent combination of socks and spaghetti only six months earlier when we visited in the spring with our older boys on our way to the France v. Wales rugby match at the Stade de France – a post exam celebratory treat.  How heavily the name ‘Stade de France’ sits in my stomach now after the Friday 13th shootings.

The Musée de l’Armée is an enormous, graceful, museum of pale Parisian stone with exhaustive collections. We are on a mission to discover more about Napoleon. We visit Napoleon’s extraordinary oversize marble tomb, are dazzled by Ingres’ mesmerising, high-gloss portrait of Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne – we are moved by his battered black hat (famously and symbolically turned on its side and worn the way a commoner would wear a hat) and admire cases of beautifully crafted flags and ceremonial clothing decorated with the most exquisite embroidery.

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‘Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne’, Ingres, 1806

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         Fragment of military Tricolor in quilted silk, Musée de l’Armée, Les Invalides, Paris

IMG_3266Detail of oak leaf embroidery in gold thread, late 18th Century French uniform

I have never even walked close to the Eiffel Tower before and am rather amazed to understand that I have agreed to a twilight visit .

IMG_3029Eiffel Tower, late October, late afternoon

But the tower looks elegant and a satisfyingly subtle shade of brown against the autumn leaves of the surrounding trees. I learn riveting facts about the painting of the Eiffel Tower. Originally, in 1887-8, it was painted a rich ‘Venetian Red’, in 1899 the tower was painted in shaded tones from yellow-orange at the base to light yellow at the top, in 1954-61 it was painted a ‘brownish red’ and since 1968 the exclusive ‘Eiffel Tower Brown’ paint has been used – a sort of milk chocolate grey-brown, a colour chosen to blend in with the Paris cityscape. Cunningly it is still painted in three different tones, darker at the bottom and lighter at the top to accentuate its height.

 I start to smile when we get to the top. I love spongy, painterly quality of these iPhone images capturing the glowing autumn colour and rhythmic layout of the trees along a network of pale Parisian paths.

IMG_3044IMG_3048IMG_3043Autumn colour along a network of pale paths viewed from the Eiffel Tower

Our son is completely riveted by the whiteness of the City’s architecture.  It is a privilege – and perhaps more so in retrospect –  to to see this silvery city lluminated by the last rays of sunshine:

IMG_3040Sunset over Paris, October 2015

When the last burst of red sunset has gone I enjoy the scale and very French precision of the stretch of green park – the ‘Champ de Mars’ – which leads to the École Militaire:

IMG_3042I love the pearly green of the elliptical central pool and the way the soft light of the water seems to fragment into sophisticated pockets of glowing green light as darkness falls:

IMG_3045The milky green of the elliptical pool, Le Champ de MarsIMG_3055IMG_3054Le Champ de Mars at night – an elegant network of green lights

The next day we travel out to the town of Versailles, only twenty minutes from the centre of Paris by train.  We have arranged to visit the grounds of the Château de Versailles – originally the hunting lodge of Louis XIII and transformed into a sumptuous palace by the Sun King, Louis XIV who moved the Court and government there in 1682, where they remained until the French Revolution in 1789.

Our plan is to get a feel for the 2000 acres or so of palace grounds – with the famous gardens, avenues of lime trees and the imposing Grand Canal designed by André Le Nôtre – and to travel around by bike. We stop first to buy a picnic lunch in a market square.

My heart stops at the sight of the perfect wooden Versailles planter, painted in a soft ‘Versailles Green’ containing a slightly ragged palm which fits perfectly with the gently sagging, peeling shutters on the building behind. Versailles planters were designed by Le Nôtre in the 17th Century so that the hundreds of orange trees at Versailles could be moved under cover for the winter with reasonable ease. They are brilliant, of course, for permanently potted trees and shrubs as the sides of the planter can be easily removed for root pruning. The ultimate source of the Versailles Planter today is the Parisian company  ‘Jardins du Roi Soleil’ who make the original design under licence in different sizes and twelves classic colours using a muscly cast iron frame, solid oak from the Auvergne and heavy duty steel bolts.

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Versailles Planter with palm, Versailles Green, Versailles

ImageCast iron frame of the Jardins du Roi Soleil Versailles planter

And so with our picnic in our bicycle baskets, (baguettes ‘tradition’, fresh goats cheese studded with raisins and huge, speckled yellow ‘Pommes Golden’ – completely different to the insipid ‘Golden Delicious’ apples available in the UK ) we set off through the park gates:

IMG_3084Avenue of Lime Trees, Chateau de Versailles

It is a perfect, gently rich moment in the  year to see the park and the autumn colours are wonderful – I love the way the leaves gather in pools around the trees.

IMG_3086 IMG_3089 IMG_3085Autumn colour in the parkland, Château de Versailles

We visit the particularly curious Queen’s Hamlet given by Louis XVI to his Austrian bride Marie-Antoinette in 1783 – a model village based on rustic Normandy vernacular architecture. There are glimpses of the perfect country idyll in the individual buildings framed by neat kitchen gardens enclosed by gates and fences made from chestnut paling (see my post on the garden at the Prieure D’Orsan for really covetable uses of chestnut paling in a kitchen garden), but there is something a little forlorn about the atmosphere of this place.

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The ‘Queen’s Hamlet’, Versailles

IMG_3099IMG_3102IMG_3100IMG_3101Rustic buildings with immaculate kitchen gardens, chestnut fencing and glowing autumn woodland behind, The ‘Queen’s Hamlet’, Versailles

In the more relaxed, fiery woodland surrounding the hamlet we sit for a while admiring this fine Malus transitoria – my favourite crab apple – which has a spreading cloud of white blossom in May and in autumn hundreds of tiny yellow fruit which hang like miniature pumpkins from crimson stems.

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Malus transitoria

We cycle away towards Le Grand Trianon – built in 1687 for Louis XIV and described modestly by its architect, Mansart, as ” a little pink marble and porphyry palace with delightful gardens”.  The soft pinks and beiges of the palace frames the autumnal woodland beyond perfectly. It is interesting that Napoleon Bonaparte had the palace restored after the Revolution and enjoyed staying there with his wife, Empress Marie-Louise, and that in 1963 Charles de Gaulle had it restored and modernised for use as an official Presidential Residence.

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The pink and beige arches of the Grand Trianon provide a perfect frame for the autumnal woodland beyond.

The regimented avenues of fastigiate hornbeam opposite the Grand Trianon are exhilarating in the richness of their gold leaves and the soaring precision of the way they are so grandly ordered.

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Elegant avenues of fastigiate hornbeam

We cycle five or so kilometres around the Grand Canal and picnic at the far end enjoying the late afternoon sun lighting up battalion after battalion of impeccable lime tree:

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Regiments of lime trees around the Grand Canal, Versailles catching the light

Inside the Palace itself it is a crazy international tourist bunfight, everyone wanting a piece of the dazzling Hall of Mirrors and the King and Queen’s ‘Grand Apartments’.  We have something else to catch before dusk so we hurtle through. I stop for a moment amongst the bustle to admire the brilliant succession of jewel-like colour in the rooms I am walking through. It would be wonderful to design a contemporary formal garden inspired by this intensity of colour – with a blue garden room, behind which is a garden of brightest green, and behind that perhaps a red garden and then a magenta garden …

IMG_3263IMG_3145IMG_3148Room upon room of intense colour in the Palace of Versailles

As I look through the window, every element of the garden beyond is so finely balanced – the perfect velvetiness of the clipped yew, the pristine white of the statuary, the shell pink of the paths and the hazy softness of the woodland beyond – that I cannot believe it is quite real.

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View onto immaculate Palace Gardens, Versailles

The light is fading, but the Potager du Roi (The King’s Kitchen Garden) is only a walk away from the main palace and I cannot leave without at least a glimpse.

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Original plan for the Potager du Roi

The 22 acre potager was created for Louis XIV by Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie who was named first director of the garden in 1670. The original site was swampland and completely unsuitable but the King was keen on fine fruits and vegetables –  especially when tantalisingly out of season – and so the site was cleared, drained, filled with good soil and it was the architect Mansart, again, who designed a series of terraces and walls that would create particularly hospitable micro-climates for certain fruits and vegetables. La Quintinie must have been thrilled to note that he was successful in producing “strawberries at the end of March … peas in April, figs in June, asparagus and lettuces in December, January …”  He raised fifty varieties of pears, twenty varieties of apples and sixteen different types of lettuce for the King’s table.  Louis XIV would send samples of his favourite pear, ‘Williams Bon Chrétien’, as a gift to heads of state and the brilliant letter writer, Mme de Sévigné  remarked drily on the fashionable fervour for the finest produce “the craze for peas continues; the impatience of waiting to eat them, to have eaten them, and the pleasure of eating them are the three subjects our princes have been discussing for the past four days now”.

Almost as soon as we enter the Potager we come across an entire wall of figs with purple fruits and leaves turning a deep yellow:

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IMG_3154wall of figs, Potager du Roi, October 2015

This is modest of course compared to the pre Revolution ‘Figuerie’ – a sunken garden dedicated to the production of 700 fig trees grown in pots so they could be moved and housed under glass each winter – but it is a gorgeous sight and I step further into the garden.

It feels a slightly unfair moment to visit this incredible collection of 450 varieties of fruit trees, including 5000 espalier trees and possibly the world’s largest collection of fruit trees pruned into historic forms – now also the home of the  National School of Landscape Architecture (ENSP)  – but even now as the light is fading the variety of shape and tireless skill sing out.

IMG_3173IMG_3183IMG_3178IMG_3193  A tiny sample of trained apple and pear trees, Potager du Roi, October 2015

This is a garden of experimentation which has moved with the times and is always trying something new. The slightly unkempt feel to the garden is due to the more recent approach to let the grass grow up amongst the rows of trees to encourage the presence of insects and other natural predetors and reduce/eliminate the need for chemical controls.

 My heart goes out to the row of ‘Reine Claude’ greengages which are being trained into ‘Palmiers concentriques’.

IMG_3187IMG_3269Reine Claude greengages being trained into circles, Potager du Roi

And I am smitten by the tall walls of white peaches – including the white fleshed ‘Donut’ peach, Saturn – which are grown as double vertical ‘wavy’ cordons – ‘cordon vertical ondulé double’.

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Double wavy cordons of white fleshed peach, Potager du Roi

Although there are fine examples of this kind of fruit tree training elsewhere, France is undoubtedly at the forefront of this painstaking art. If you want to know more you must turn to Jacques Beccaletto’s extraodinary ‘Encyclopédie des Formes Fruitières’ which continues to be a five star recommended bestseller even on UK Amazon.

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Encylopédie des Formes Fruitières

Everything I discover about the Potager du Roi makes me want to come back for more in the spring. Historic varieties of fruit and vegetables are regularly re-introduced and selection is based on taste as well as rarity. The garden is keen to champion diversity in everything it grows and is determined to remind us that strawberries, for example, need not be the glossy giants available in supermarkets today – instead they grow varieties such a ‘Versaillaise’, ‘Vicomtesse Héricart de Thury’ and ‘Capron Royal’ which have relatively modest crops of small sweet fruits.

Back in London, thinking about the crucial work being undertaken in Versailles to keep local  heritage varieties of fruit and vegetables from dying out, I am delighted by the timing of a message from Amy Goldman: she tells me that the Potager du Roi is ‘one of her favourite places on Earth’. For the last couple of days her gorgeous and powerful new book, Heirloom Harvest has been distracting me from other tasks. I was introduced to Amy by the exuberant New York artist and plantswoman, Abbie Zabar (see my May 11th 2015 post ‘An English Gardener in New York, Part 1). I love the way that gardening and writing about gardening brings new friendships and connections from all over the world.

IMG_3361IMG_3346The sumptuous front and back covers of ‘Heirloom Harvest’ by Amy Goldman

For me, whereas France and all things French have been woven in and out of my life for decades, the world of American fruit and vegetables is tantalisingly exotic. When Amy writes of serving up ‘homegrown specialities from “the old country” like Tennessee Red peanuts, Southern Giant curly mustard greens, Clemson Spineless okra and Beauregard sweet potatoes’ I am transported to her beautiful 1788 white clapboard farmhouse in the Hudson Valley, New York and I begin to see, smell and taste her life starting with the produce from the soil around the house.

And what a productive life. Amy Goldman has been gardening seriously since she was eighteen, has already written three award winning, personal and intensively knowledgeable books, ‘The Heirloom Tomato’,’ The Compleat Squash’ and ‘Melons for Passionate Growers’, and is a dynamic and influential advocate for heirloom fruits and vegetables and the importance of protecting genetic diversity.

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images‘Heirloom Harvest’ is gripping because it is the story of one person’s life and the garden they have made and how one stage of the journey lead to another. She is clear that two key books changed the course of her life. Rosalind Creasy’s ‘Cooking from the Garden’ which ‘opened my eyes to the splendour and diversity of heirlooms, their uses in cookery and edible landscaping’ and Cary Fowler and Pat Mooney’s ‘Shattering: Food, Politics and the Loss of Genetic Diversity’ which ‘alerted me to the dangers of crop uniformity and the staggering and mounting losses of genetic diversity in agriculture’. If Paris is the ‘City of Love’, it fits well with this post that Amy ended up falling in love with and marrying Cary, and they now live and farm together, always trying to grow and protect new varieties of fruits, vegetables and now rare breeds of animal too,  and storing seeds in their basement refrigerator seed bank.

Equally compelling are the book’s startlingly rich daguerreotype photographs by Jerry Spagnoli.  I try to work out what it is about the images that is so fascinating.  There is an inviting, shimmering softness to many of the photographs but perhaps it is the depth of tone  – one critic describes it brilliantly as ‘an austere sepia’ – which surprises me into looking more closely. The technique is wonderful for capturing the roughness of earth-caked vegetables or for the almost gritty surface of the ‘Tyson Pear’ and there is a wonderful, clear, light-catching quality to  photographs such as ‘White Currants’:

IMG_3349 ‘American Flag Leek’ by Jerry Spagnoli from ‘Heirloom Harvest’ by Amy Goldman

IMG_3357 ‘Garlic Chives’ by Jerry Spagnoli from ‘Heirloom Harvest’ by Amy Goldman

IMG_3369‘Tyson Pear’, photograph by Jerry Spagnoli from ‘Heirloom Harvest’ by Amy Goldman

IMG_3363 ‘White Currants’ by Jerry Spagnoli from ‘Heirloom Harvest’ by Amy Goldman

I remind myself what the daguerreotype process entails. There is a sobering You Tube film by Anthony Mournian of Jerry Spagnoli demonstrating the basic principles. It is a complex, hard graft, photographic technique invented in 1839 that produces images on highly polished, silver clad copper plates. Jerry Spagnoli collaborated with Amy Goldman for a period of 14 years on the photographs for the book. His depth of commitment and constant, inventive resourcefulness in producing these beautiful, time-suspended images is inspiring.

In Paris we are staying in our favourite, relaxed  Le Citizen Hotel (not to be confused with the Citizen M hotel chain!) in the Canal St Martin area.  We love the easy friendliness of the hotel, the quirky breakfast or fragrant cup of tea that they will make for you at any time.  It is our last day and we call in at the small and charismatic flower shop,  Bleuet Coquelicot.  The charming ‘Tom des Fleurs’ invites us – but what is so uplifting is the way his plants spill out onto the pavement – in front of the cafe next door and beyond.

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IMG_3215Bleuet Coquelicot, florist, inside and out

Bleuet Coquelicot is thoughtful and gentle and unorthodox in its approach to flowers and to life – Tom is well known for only selling plants to people he can trust to look after them properly. If you order flowers from the shop you will be likely to receive what French Vogue has described as ‘more wildflower meadow than curated city bouquet’.

I am hugely saddened to say this is exactly the part of Paris, youthful, vibrant, constantly evolving, with its network of tiny restaurants and experimental shops that was hit so hard on Friday 13th November.

We walk through the Tuileries Garden admiring a pair of ever handsome ‘Luxembourg’ chairs painted in that familiar shade of mid green, now empty at the end of the day.  We promise to return to the city in the spring.

IMG_3243IMG_3244‘Luxembourg’ chairs, Tuileries Gardens, Paris

 

HERTERTON AND CAMBO: TWO LUMINOUS GARDENS FOR A DAMP OCTOBER DAY –

(AND A HOUSE TO TOAST YOUR TOES IN)

IMG_2818Cercidiphyllum japonicum, brilliant and toffee-scented at the entrance to the Walled Garden on the Cambo Estate, Fife

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Crocosmia x crocosmiiliflora ‘George Davison’ with Colchicum ‘Lilac Wonder’, Herterton House, Northumberland

It is early October and we are finally travelling up the M1 to deposit one son at Durham University and visit his twin brother at St. Andrews, another long 175 miles further North.

IMG_2643The road North, October 4th 2015

We pass Hatfield House, where only the day before at the Garden Museum Literary Festival I had fallen for the avenue of glowing storybook medlar trees laden with fat yellow quince:

IMG_2638IMG_2629IMG_2640                                Medlar and Quince trees, laden with fruit, Hatfield House

Deep in the car boot, under duvets and trumpets and carrier bags of cereal and chocolate bars, I have not forgotten the book that has recently taken over my life, my study, my entire approach to making a garden, (and indeed a home): Frank Lawley’s inspiring ‘Herterton House and a New Country Garden’ newly published by Pimpernell Press.

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Frank and his wife, Marjorie have spent forty years steadfastly creating a personal, multi-layered garden and a deeply comfortable home out of an acre of Northumberland and a dilapidated stone barn – the whole of which is rented from the National Trust. Frank’s story of the evolution of Herterton is a book to be read in so many different ways – it is a rare and intoxicatingly honest autobiography of a life stretched to great things by industry and imagination, it is an illuminating history of gardening covering the still rather veiled period of Post War Britain and the second half of the Twentieth Century, and it is a precious practical guidebook, manual even, taking the reader with extraordinary thoughtfulness and generosity through every step of the creation of the garden and house.

I am inspired by the couple’s decades of hard work. ‘It is remarkable to discover what can be done if it has to be done and how absorbing it is to do it’ writes Frank, describing his approach to their disciplined year-round approach to developing the house and garden. ‘Holidays have not featured’: there is outdoor work when it is light and needlework, seed sorting or researching until nine ‘oclock at night. But the hard work is always driven by an enormous sense of satisfaction and pleasure in what has been created. The couple met as art students in Newcastle –  ‘while Newcastle had many Chinese restuarants there was only one Jazz club – and there was Marjorie!’ – and they spent their first few years together in Marjorie’s home territory of the Wallington Estate, which had been the vibrant, generous home of the socialist MP, Charles Trevelyan, where learning about design, plants, furniture, porcelain was to be had if you opened your eyes to it.

As Frank Lawley describes the avid way the pair went about scanning the world around them, trying to work out what sort of world they might want to create for themselves, you cannot help learning too. They fall almost accidentally into a love of gardening – knowing that there must be something beyond a strip of lawn and a straight border for flowering plants, but genuinely not being sure what. They hitchhiked their way around Britain – Frank points out that Post War Britain was a perfect time for free travel, the generosity of drivers an enduring legacy of a system that evolved for off-duty soldiers to find their way home – and they read books on garden and architectural history painstakingly ordered from the mobile library. As they visit Great Dixter and Sissinghurst, they look hard and take notes (of Dixter: ‘when we looked inside the house …the furnishing was perfect and masterly’). Alongside the once in a lifetime visits, they drink in the wisdom of books by Nathaniel Lloyd (‘The History of the English House’ (1931) and ‘Topiary, Garden Craftsmanship in Yew and Box’ (1925)) and Ralph Dutton (‘The English Garden’ (1937) and ‘The English English Country House’ (1936)). As I read about Herterton, a small pile of wonderful second hand books forms on my own study table in an attempt to keep up with the Lawleys:LLOYDIMG_0001

81LWsdyE02LOn visits to local churches and to Ely and Durham Cathedrals, Frank and Marjorie Lawley observe that church gardens ‘offered hollies and yews, sometimes beautifully clipped … and that they were often ‘surrounded by reassuring stone walls.’  The great step forward –  ‘perhaps our greatest discovery’ came when they visited the Elizabethan Anne Hathaways’ Cottage and Gardens and Mary Arden’s House at Stratford-upon-Avon. At Anne Hathaway’s cottage ‘the garden planting was unsophisticated, here were the daisies, thrift and pinks we knew. The house border had clipped yews and ivy …glorious  furniture inside …pieces of vernacular character’ which ‘all looked so comfortably at home.’ At Mary Arden’s house they were delighted to see how the box hedge ‘bulged and spread, denying any entry by path’ and the interior of the house struck them both deeply ‘you could have toasted toes there’. Crucially they had discovered that ‘making small houses and gardens come to life seemed important’ and, despite the huge challenges of money, labour, exposed situation, this discovery, as well as a joint life-long love of the notion of home expressed in WInd in the Willows, propelled them forwards.

I will leave you to read the step-by-step account for yourself and to enjoy Marjorie’s beautiful, utterly idiosyncratic, garden plans, as well as the garden itself when it is open again next spring. (The house is not open to the public, but the garden is open daily, 1.30 -5.30 pm, except Tuesday and Thursday, from April to September).

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Two of the Marjorie Lawley’s hand drawn plans for the garden at Herterton

The slow pace with which this garden has evolved is extraordinary a world which is speeding along ever faster. Except for a number of more mature shrubs acquired in the 70’s from Matheson’s nursery which was sadly closing down, Marjorie has propagated everything for the garden herself. Who else will you find just beginning a garden of this this size and ambition, noting happily that ‘Marjorie had now a good collection of yew and holly seedlings, already six inches high’? Equally, when Frank very generously walks us around the garden on our pilgrimage forty years later, who else is likely to look at the roof of the yew ‘Sitouterie’, which is not yet joined at the top, and calmly advise that ‘it’s about to happen’ – meaning, on closer questioning, that the yew will join in two or three year’s time! (A ‘Sitouterie’, if you do not know, as I did not, is a sheltered place, usually created from a single shrub, with a space carved out at the base to ‘sit’ ‘out’ ‘in’).

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The ‘nearly finished’ yew Sitouterie

It is so wet during our walk around the garden that all photos are, I am afraid, rather dank-looking iphone images, but you will, I hope, get the idea.

We enter the garden via a luminous arch of golden yew supported by a simple, beautifully clipped hedge of Euonymous – possibly ‘Silver Queen’ – with a stretch of the handsome male fern Dryopteris filix-mas ‘Cristata’ below and a pair of Spanish stone urns flanking the gate:

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IMG_2667The entrance to the Flower Garden – Golden Yew arch, Euonymus ‘Silver Queen’ and Dryopteris filix-mas ‘Cristata’ below

You know from this simple beginning that you are in safe hands, that everything has indeed been carefully thought through and immaculately implemented.  As Frank writes with such fond assurance in his book, ‘Marjorie has cooled everyone down before they walk under the golden yew arch into the flower garden’. But there is another layer to this simple combination – when the ferns are cut to the ground in midwinter they reveal a dense swathe of snowdrops to light up the entrance until the new fern leaves unfurl again.

The Flower Garden itself, even on this miserable day, is an extraordinarily deft, three dimensional tapestry of a garden which delights whichever way you look:

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IMG_2754IMG_2751IMG_2728The Flower Garden at Herterton, offering colour and texture , pattern and detail in every direction

From the outset the Lawleys’ plan was to use different forms of the ‘four native evergreen, yew, box, ivy and holly’ to ‘create different effects of colour and light’. The use of golden yew, is especially effective in their year-round mission to ‘create our own sunshine’. In most of the garden the use of different shades of green adds depth and subtle layerings, but occasionally the volume is turned right up. Here a flamboyant swathe of the yellow and green variegated ivy Hedera canariensis ‘Gloire de Marengo’ drapes itself against the house, contrasting dynamically with the exuberant fiery bronze autumn fronds of the Royal Fern, Osmunda regalis:

IMG_2740                              Hedera canariensis ‘Gloire de Marengo’ and Osmunda regalis

But despite the years of preparation and careful planning, this assured combination of shape and form, colour and texture was not instantly achieved. As well as the Lawley’s determination to use clipped evergreens and beautiful stone paths and walls, they were keen to learn as much as they could about flowering plants and to work with colour in the garden in a painterly way. They had been inspired by the work of the gardener and writer about gardens, Margery Fish, and they had visited her and her home and nursery at East Lambrook Manor  in Somerset, bringing back with them as many plants as they could carry.

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But although Marjorie Lawley had found the way plants were used together in the garden at East Lambrook Manor ‘incomprehensible’ and ‘unkempt’, Frank was shocked when visitors who arrived as a result of the garden’s entry in the influential 1981 book, ‘The Englishman’s Garden’, also described Herterton as a ‘riot of colour’  The pair resolved ‘urgently’ to ‘compose in terms of colour too’: ‘you needed to have clearly defined sections with separate policies, and you should not have any repeat planting’. The revised Flower Garden found its natural – and brilliant – balance and their feeling that a relatively ‘tight’ formal structure might still leave ‘scope … for an element of frivolity to fit in’ has lived on successfully ever since.61D-MQHcOcL._SX392_BO1,204,203,200_

I am completely resolved to return to Herterton in midsummer to see Marjorie’s carefully graded Impressionist-inspired colour schemes in full flow, but for now, at the beginning of autumn, the balance between strong shape and brilliant colour, solid velvety background and fine texture is exhilarating enough.

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IMG_2721IMG_2724The Flower Garden, Herterton, with tightly clipped hedges a foil for late summer colour and a close up of the brilliant blue willow gentian, Gentiana asclepiadea 

As well as the overall feel of the gardens, one of the many details I would love to witness in June is the trough and plinth pictured below which, densely planted with clipped ivy and two different kind of London Pride (the tiny Saxifrage cuneifolia within the urn and Saxifrage x urbium forming a mat below), have a subtle sculptural presence in autumn but will soften into a foam of pink in early summer:
IMG_2749IMG_2747IMG_2745                          Trough and urn with clipped ivy and two forms of London Pride

We walk through to The Physic Garden which is dominated by  ‘one of the garden’s largest topiaries’ – a splendid storybook version of a weeping silver pear, Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula’. This is the ‘only topiary’ says Frank, calmly, ‘that needs to be cut twice a year – in early July and early October.’

IMG_2674Topiaried weeping silver pear at the centre of The Physic Garden

In this scented garden each bed is edged with soft, sculptural planting – thrift, Armeria maritima has a particularly successful plump, velvety quality – to contrast with the soft grey-pink ‘river sand’ underfoot.

IMG_2686                                                           View of the Physic Garden

IMG_2682Close up of Armeria maritima used to edge some of the beds

The house wall forms one of the sides of this courtyard garden and around the front door is a magnificent ‘Romanesque’ arch of the tiny ivy, Hedera helix ‘Spetchley’.

IMG_2678The romanesque arch of Hedera helix ‘Spetchley’ around the front door

Here again Frank and Marjorie Lawley have been inspiring beacons of patience – the ivy is so tiny and so slow growing that the arch has taken over thirty years to complete – the top edge was only joined up for the first time in 2013!

An open-sided stone barn forms another side of the Physic Garden. Here simple, silvered oak benches and salvaged medieval figures are joined by a rill of mounding wild ivy. The Lawley’s tried to grow ferns here but the position was too dark – the exuberant ivy is a clever solution.

IMG_2668A wave of wild ivy softens the stone arches

A favourite lichen-encrusted witch-hazel guards the exit of the Physic Garden. Frank Lawley writes beautiful about why it was chosen for this position – ‘for its mass of yellow flowers … a winter delight, always catching the sun or making it.’

IMG_2684                                                       Lichen encrusted witchhazel

We visit the Formal Garden at the front of the house next. Again Frank writes beautifully of his original hope for the way this vibrant topiary garden might function – ‘a gesture of respectful hospitality…splashes of yellow may be the first indication to the traveller that there is a garden ahead.’

IMG_2694IMG_2810 (2)The Formal Garden, Herterton

I am completely smitten by the mounded ‘bee skeps’ (based on the traditional domed basket-style bee hive). Frank says they are of ‘japanese box’ – perhaps Ilex crenata ‘Golden Gem’?

Beyond the field wall the landscape is ‘flamboyantly informal’ – I admire the way the wall is so thickly draped in ivy that the stone itself has disappeared and I love the view through the tightly clipped topiary and wooden gate to the soft grasses beyond:

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IMG_2710Views through to the wilder landscape beyond the garden

As we return to the house, Frank points out the bright-leaved thyme at the foot of the box hedge. In the book he captures the way ‘the luminous colour’ of this ‘ribbon of lemon-yellow, citrus-smelling, non-flowering thyme (Thymus pulegioides ‘Aureus)’… ‘is a pleasure in all seasons.’  It would be excellent to return in early spring to see the thousands of Crocus tommasinianus planted here, followed by a display of crown imperials in April and May ‘yellow and one end, red at the other, with the best a fine orange in the centre section.’IMG_2707                        border edged with Thymus pulegioides ‘Aureus’, The Formal Garden

Finally, with the rain now soaking into us, we reach The Fancy Garden – a formal box parterre only planted in 1999 with a gazebo on the boundary. The idea was to have a garden with less colour (‘now we must return to green again’, writes Frank), as the garden meets the landscape. I had not understood before that the original function of a gazebo is to offer a view onto the surrounding countryside on one side and back into the garden on the other. The Lawleys learnt about this from Ralph Dutton and I am now learning from them.  Frank Lawley’s design for the gazebo – as an echo to a slim elevation of the house – came to him in a ‘eureka moment’. The stone lavabo at the centre of the garden was hard won – you will have to read the book – and it is now believed to be Roman.

IMG_2767                                             View to the gazebo and Fancy Garden
IMG_1115                                       The box parterre in The Fancy Garden
IMG_2771                                                     The stone lavabo, Fancy Garden

But again, the idea of simple and green is not quite accurate. Frank explains that in the spring, the darkly serene yew ‘Sitouterie’ is invaded by hosts of aquilegia, then white martagon lilies and finally Campanula lactiflora. Now at the beginning of autumn, it is the end of the garden that gets the sun for longest, and Frank and Marjorie Lawley have naturally made the most of this late opportunity with vibrant combinations of apricot, salmon pink, magenta and lilac flanking the gazebo:

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IMG_2778      Crocosmia crocosmilliflora ‘George Davison’ with Colchicum ‘Lilac Wonder’, ferns and pinks

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Tritonia disticha subsp. rubroluce with another Colchicum,  possibly byzantinum and Nerine bowdenii

IMG_2774Nerine bowdenii

Just occasionally, even Frank and Marjorie Lawley will take a few minutes off to sit on the covered bench in the open ground floor of the gazebo and enjoy a cup of coffee in this immaculate stone chamber:
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Bench within the open ground floor of the gazebo

Through the lovely stone gateway there are the nursery beds where you will find ‘our last group of topiaries, mostly variations upon pyramids in yew and domes in silver holy which conceal our wooden sheds and a heap of sand.’ I would expect nothing less than a beautiful and ordered working area from this amazing garden. IMG_2785

                                        Stone doorway through to the nursery beds

 We say a fond goodbye to Frank and I remember a line from his book which makes me smile because of its almost outrageous modesty: ‘one acre has been perfectly sufficient, for we have a very intensive style.’IMG_2794

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Frank Lawley, Herterton, October 2015

We drive further North and arrive at St Andrews on the East coast of Scotland at dusk. The rain has faded away and the handsome stepped roof of the St Andrews Castle is silhouetted against a clear evening sky.

IMG_2805 (1)St Andrews Castle

The Chariots-of-fire-famous West Sands is pale and silvery in the evening light and stretches out before us, simple and open: 
IMG_2807                                                            West Sands, St Andrews

Our no. 1 mission for the next couple of days is naturally to bring (rather genteel) supplies to our student son – mattress topper, decanter, fine olive oil etc. – but we do manage to fit in a blustery rust-coloured walk along the coastal path picnicking on delicious smoked salmon and oat cakes from the East Pier Smokehouse in St Monans.
IMG_2854IMG_2855                                       The Coastal Path between St Monans and Elie

IMG_2866The East Pier Smokehouse

As the rain returns we call in to the Victorian walled garden on the Cambo Estate. The approach is traditional and formal with an enormous, heavily draped, Vitis coignetiae turning a brilliant shade of crimson.

IMG_2908Vitis coignetiae, The entrance to the gardens on the Cambo Estate

For me, Cambo is synonymous with snowdrops – the estate has a National Collection of Galanthus and is well known for sending out high quality snowdrops ‘in the green’ in the spring.  I have no idea, as we walk into the garden past a fantastically burnt-sugar scented Cercidiphyllum japonicum, that I am about to enter an end of season garden of such atmosphere and faded romance.

IMG_2818Cercidiphyllum japonicum in the woodland garden en route to the Victorian Walled Garden, Cambo Estate

As we peer in tentatively beyond the potting shed, we come upon a pair of gravel rectangles planted with elegant restraint – mauve Tulbaghia violacea, the white Galtonia candicans, and Gladiolus ‘Ruby’ (Papillo Hybrid) sing out in the low misty light.  It is an idea that could be lifted from this faded two and a half acre Scottish garden and transplanted successfully in a much smaller domestic space.
IMG_1150            Gravel beds with Tulbaghia violacea, Galtonia candicans and Gladiolus ‘Ruby’
IMG_2821                                                         Gladiolus ‘Ruby’ (papilio hybrid)

Only later do I find out more about the history of the garden, how it is perhaps in the last fifteen years, when Lady Catherine Erskine hired the current Head Gardener, Elliott Forsyth, that the garden began to evolve from its former guise of productive rows of vegetables, dahlias – and even Christmas trees –  into this hazy grass and colour-filled haven.

For now I enjoy the surprise and the simple intensity of the experience. This rich combination of scarlet-fruited apple tree underplanted with pale pink japanese anemone and the toad lily, Triscyrtris formosana:
IMG_2907IMG_2843                    Apple tree underplanted with pink japanese anemone and toad lily

Rosy apples are met with the fading wands of Lysimachia ephemerum and crisp green apples look wonderful with the clean white of japanese anemone ‘Honorine Jobert’:
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                                       Apple tree with Lysimachia ephemerumIMG_2832                                 Apple tree with Anemone japonica ‘Honorine Jobert’

A huge stand of the brightest orange red hot pokers glows in the water-filled gloom:

IMG_2829                                                                   Red hot poker and yellow achillea

IMG_2827Red hot pokers taking centre stage.

You cross the burn that runs through the garden via a beautiful, lichen encrusted ironwork bridge:

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IMG_2915Victorian iron bridge, Cambo Walled Garden

Everywhere you turn there is something to catch the eye: rusty teasels soaring skywards from a sheet of yellow-green grass, the firework-white of Actea against the crumbling red brick walls and the rich dark red of rodgersia, its leaves edged in fast-moving claret.

IMG_1127IMG_2917IMG_1133Teasel, actea and rodgersia in the Walled Garden, Cambo

There are grasses everywhere, softly mound-forming or stormily turbulent in the pelting rain:IMG_1142IMG_1140IMG_2884                                     Turbulent grasses, The Walled Garden, Cambo

The lilac-purple of Verbena bonariensis, the orange of the Kniphofia and the lavender-blue of the asters are electric in the low light:
IMG_1146IMG_1145IMG_2889                                  Electric colours of Verbena bonariensis, kniphophia, asters and salvia amongst grasses, The Walled Garden, Cambo

As we turn to leave the garden there is a brilliant combination of spiky palm tree, orange poker and ruby-pink Persicaria amplexicaulis against a backdrop of an ageing greenhouse and darkening sky.
IMG_2890IMG_1149   Palm tree, red hot poker and persicaria against darkening sky, The Walled Garden, Cambo

In the shelter of the courtyard, the lights are burning brightly and there are tables laden with little piles of just-dug-up already rooting snowdrops ready to be packed in moss and newspaper and sent out in the post now, in October, to flower in the coming spring.
IMG_2920IMG_2919IMG_2813Piles of just-dug-up snowdrops, bowl of fresh moss, snowdrops wrapped in newspaper, ready to be posted out, Cambo

It is a cheering activity for a glowering day.

We call back briefly to see Frank Lawley at Herterton on our way home. It is still raining but lunch is over – and therefore it is time for work. Frank invites us to join a smilingly serious debate. ‘I almost got involved in making marmalade’ he tells us, ‘we live almost entirely on marmalade and we are facing something of a marmalade crisis. Do you think it is a marmalade day? No it’s a sowing day, I think.’

And off he goes to sow.IMG_2893

The road home

THE WHITE ROAD – FROM EDMUND DE WAAL TO SISSINGHURST

ON LOOKING HARDER, HARD WORK AND THE COLOUR WHITE

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Edmund de Waal  – portrait ©Ben McKee

Edmund de Waal is a potter whose quietly radiant work pushes the boundaries of what you think a pot can be. After more than thirty years of friendship with Edmund, I should not be surprised that his writing continues to be intoxicatingly erudite and singingly story-telling. I have just finished the newly published ‘THE WHITE ROAD a pilgrimage of sorts’ and my mind is buzzing.

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‘THE WHITE ROAD’ is the story of Edmund’s journey to find out as much as he can about the history of porcelain – the medium in which he makes his pots. He travels from his studio in Tulse Hill, South London to China, Germany and Cornwall “I need to get to these places, need to see how porcelain looks under different skies, how white changes with the weather. Other things in the world are white but, for me, porcelain comes first.”

And you are there inside his head and looking through his eyes as he unravels the past and weighs up the present. His description of working with porcelain, the need to get it “thinner and thinner until it is as thin as gold leaf and lifts into the air” – thin enough to let the sun shine through, hard enough to ring like a bell – is a crucial hook. He describes the French porcelain clay he has on his bench – “the colour is of full-fat milk, with a bloom of green mould” – and importantly he explains how when he throws a pot he is “trying to still a small part of the world, make an inside space.”

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A mind of winter (2015), Edmund de Waal © Edmund de Waal. Photo: Mike Bruce

Edmund and I met on a student committee for the extraordinary Kettle’s Yard  in Cambridge – the private house and collection of art, furniture and found objects belonging originally to Jim and Helen Ede which has evolved into an important contemporary art gallery. Crucially at the heart of Kettle’s Yard there is still a home, with its modest, white loose-covered furniture and small jugs of flowers from the garden, alongside paintings by Ben and Winifred Nicholson and inscriptions by David Jones. The great perk of our student role was the requirement to be in the house as invigilator on a mid-week afternoon – escaping the bustle of university life and giving us time to think amongst the cast shadows and inspirational landscape of this calm interior:
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Dining area, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge
pebb;es‘Spiral of Pebbles’, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridgek yard shadow Objects and shadows, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridgek yardInterior Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge
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mag k ypot k yardWindow recess with potted plants, magnifying lens and engraved glass, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge

As Edmund tracks the centuries-old hunger both to create and collect the ‘white gold’ that is porcelain, it is riveting to follow his considered account of his own fiercely pioneering journey. A degree in English Literature was followed by two tough years in the Black Mountains “My friends were in London with jobs, writing , partying … and I was making dishes, unglazed, rough oatmeal brown on the outside, and green on the inside, pots to  disappear into the landscape.”

I visited Edmund in Herefordshire and made a ridiculous chart to encourage him as he laboured to build his first kiln and I still treasure one of his – now unlikely – rich brown bowls:
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Cox’s apples in a brown fruit bowl by Edmund de Waal

I visit him in Sheffield too, where he has set himself up to make pots and study Japanese. “I got to work. As I was starting again, I chose white”. Edmund shares with us his longing to get the white right. “I want poems that compare white porcelains to smoke coiling up from a chimney, or from incense on an altar, or mist from a valley.” Finally a year’s scholarship to Japan “I know how this porcelain feels.  Japan is where my porcelain changed.” From now on, Edmund is unstoppable.

IMG_1087Thin white porcelain – Christening mugs for our twin boys, 1996

‘The White Road’ takes us from medieval Florence, where porcelain is so precious that drinking from a porcelain cup is thought to prevent poison, to Nazi Germany where a chilling production line is revealed in the belief that “white porcelain is the embodiment of the German soul.” In 1708 in Dresden, after years of perilous pioneering, the mathematician Tschirnhaus “makes himself a little jar. It comes out ‘half translucent and milky white, like a narcissus.”

Throughout the book Edmund tries to weigh up the fragile and tantalising quality of white itself. Herman Melville’s description from Chapter 42 of Moby Dick, ‘The Whiteness of the Whale’ is a key moment “In many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas and pearls” – and he talks eloquently about the quality of light on his own work: “I’m watching the light play on the wall opposite me …great Gerhard Richter-like smudges across the top that move across an installation I made last year for Sue, seven stacked dishes inside a white lacquered cabinet. The top dish is gilded on the inside so that there is a reflective halo above it.”

I love the book because at the root of everything is Edmund’s drive to look harder, read harder and keep making pots with his hands. He is generous and inspiring. No-one is too young or too old to fall under his spell.

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Our son Arthur aged three at Edmund’s studio.

And if the book is not enough, Edmund has curated an almost secret collection of exquisite white objects, from Turner’s porcelain watercolour palette to the death mask of a Royal Academician, in the Library and Print Room at the Royal Academy.
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Two handled porcelain cup & saucer, Meissen, Germany, c.1715. Collection of Edmund de Waal

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 Bust of a woman, possibly Ippolita Maria Sforza, after Francesco Laurana (1452-1502).         C.19th plaster cast, RA Collections

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Horatio Ross, Fir trees on the banks of Dornoch Firth between Ardgay and Fearn, c. 1850-60. Waxed paper negative, Hans P Kraus Jr, New York

And what about white in gardens? I decide to head to Sissinghurst to visit Vita Sackville-West’s White Garden to concentrate, if only for an afternoon, on the matter.

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Sissinghurst Castle, Kent

Unsurprisingly perhaps, using white in the garden is more demanding than you might at first suppose. The photographer Andrew Lawson, in his newly republished classic, ‘The Gardener’s Book of Colour’, has wise and practical advice:  “the brilliance of white means that the shapes and patterns that the white flowers make catch the eye and so are more intrusive than those of other colours in a mixed colour planting. Because they are light-reflecting, flowers with a solid silhouette, such as lilies or phlox, tend to stand out most among other darker colours.”

 I am looking out, as I type this, at a rather startlingly clump of white japanese anemones in my own garden that draws the eye away from the fading pinks and yellowing greens elsewhere, and needs to be divided and broken into smaller groups as soon as possible.

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Japanese anemone ‘Honorine Jobert’

Lawson continues: ” Plants that have sprays of tiny white flowers on the other hand, like gypsophila or Crambe cordifolia, create a misty diaphanous effect that is bright without being intrusive. Other colours seen through this translucent haze are fragmented and seem to shimmer.”

As with porcelain, there are of course endless subtle distinctions to watch out for between the whites of flowers. Very few turn out to be pure white and, as Nori and Sandra Pope lament in ‘Colour by Design’  (the account of their brilliant homage to colour in the garden they made in the 80’s at Hadspen, Somerset ) “please note that very often white flowers die badly – their petals turn brown and cling to the plant instead of dropping off.” And white planting schemes, because of their simplicity, draw particular – if you are not careful, unforgiving – attention to the shapes, sizes and textures of flowers and foliage.

Generally, however, as Lawson says “the effect of white in gardens is to lighten them and make the mood more cheerful” and this is especially so in shade. I love Gertrude Jekyll’s description of white foxgloves illuminating a patch of woodland –  she writes of the way they “spire up among the birches.”

Perhaps the ultimate trigger for the creation of an all white garden is the dream of a ‘moonlight garden’. White flowers (as well as pale pinks and creams) have a luminous quality and will remain visible after dusk. Vita Sackville-West’s winter vision of sitting on an imagined seat made of rough oak and living box and looking out at her new garden is as intoxicating as ever:

” When you sit on this seat you will be turning your backs to the yew hedge and from there I hope you will survey a low sea of grey clumps of foliage, pierced here and there with tall white flowers….I cannot help hoping that the grey ghostly barn owl will sweep silently across a pale garden, next summer, in the twilight, the pale garden that I am now planting under the first flakes of snow.”

It is Saturday afternoon and I have not been to Sissinghurst for years. I am easily distracted on my pilgrimage. Firstly by the simple, handsome planters made from salvaged galvanised cattle troughs which look wonderful planted with just white valerian – Centranthus ruber ‘Albus’ – against whitewashed timber, or the billowing purple and white Salvia leucantha against warm brick.

cattle trough 1Galvanised cattle trough planted with Centranthus ruber ‘Albus’
salvia troughIMG_0867Galvanised cattle trough planted with Salvia leucantha

I am struck again by the Sackville-West/Nicholson brilliance of opening up the brick barn to create a perfectly framed view to the Kent countryside beyond the garden – and by the gorgeous patterns and shades of red in the brick itself:

arch with viewFramed view through barn, SissinghurstIMG_0857 (1)Barn wall, Sissinghurst

This is a garden with wonderful bones. There are patterns and rhythms everywhere you look.  Here the brilliant emerging shoots light up the dense framework of pollarded limes:

lime tree close upPollarded limes, Sissinghurst

Here handsome, dark soldiers of Irish yew, cast dark egg-shaped shadows away from the pale strip of path:
IMG_0896                                          Irish yews lining the path, Sissinghurst

Within the entrance arch there is a flurry of colour in vases to entice you:
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From top left to right: Dahlia ‘Pink Michigan’, Salvia uliginosa, Anemone japonica ‘Honorine Jobert’, Boltonia asteroides, Caryopteris x clandonensis, Salvia involucrata bethellii

I feel encouraged now to look at everything closer up – the delicate creamy bells and twining foliage of Clematis rehderiana – in such perfect scale with the diamond leaded glass window panes – and the solid, speckled antique-looking fruits of ornamental quince (Chaenomeles speciosa) and, further on, fat timeless rose hips against brick:

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Clematis rehderiana

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rose hipsFruit of ornamental quince above, rose hips below

Wherever they can, the plants are having their tousled, exuberant, last-gasp September burst:

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Soaring rose branches, dusky pink flowerheads of Abelia grandiflora and Solanum jasminoides ‘Alba agains the wall of The Tower Lawn

I walk through a haze of rich pinks – Salvia, dahlias, asters, cleomes – and the very lovely shredded pink petals of Anemone hupehensis japonica var. ‘Prinz Heinrich’.IMG_0953IMG_0892
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Anemone japonica hupehenis var. ‘Prinz Heinrich’

On this hazy September afternoon, everything comes together in the Cottage Garden – which has always been filled with hot colours. Apparently both Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicholson claimed this ‘sunset’ scheme as their own idea. I love the stormy silhouette of rounded black green irish yews and the tapering sky-scratching poplars beyond.


IMG_1006Silhouette of Irish Yews and poplars, The Cottage Garden, Sissinghurst

With the sun more helpfully behind me, I can revel in the towering shapes – I particularlyl ove this leggy annual, Leonotus ‘Staircase’ –  and bicolour dahlias:
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Most of all I keep coming back to the wonderful anchoring, framing effect of the towering yews at the centre of which a verdigris coated copper planter is glows magnificently, billowing over with the bright yellow Bidens ferulafolia.cottagwIMG_1000

Bidens ferulafolia in a copper urn at the centre of four Irish Yews in the Cottage Garden

I have lost my husband, Nick, to a sunwarmed wooden chair against the cottage wall. It is time to go and find The White Garden:

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The White Garden was always going to be something of a disappointment, I suppose – not being June when the roses would be famously powering over walls and pergolas. Not very disappointing, of course, just a bit quiet and less obvious. I need time to start to appreciate the blocky patterns and undulations of the clipped box and surges of paler planting:
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The White Garden, Sissinghurst

From some angles The White Garden is teeming and a little shapeless in that lovely end of summer way. If you look the other way, patches here and there feel a little empty and end of season:
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The White Garden, teeming softly
IMG_0931The White Garden beginning to look a little empty

I like it best when there is a dense coming together of contrasting shades and textures – here the soft, velvety Stachys byzantina, the dainty wiriness of Potentilla fruticosa ‘Abbottswood’, the silvery grey of artemisia, and right at back the handsome architectural grey-green of Melianthus major:

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There is space in the White Garden for the sun to light up the bright green leaved Nicotiana sylvestris like a cool summer torch. The Solanum jasminoides ‘Alba’ is going nicely crazy over an arch, and the delicate daisy we met in a vase at the entrance to the garden (Boltonia asteroides) is contrasted by dynamic, velvety green flowerheads of Agastache rugosa ‘Alabaster’.
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Nicotiana sylvestrisIMG_0940 (1)Solanum jasminoides ‘Alba’IMG_0924Boltonia asteroides and contrasting Agastache rugosa ‘Alabaster’

I am thinking again of Edmund de Waal and would like to collect together a few notional plants to celebrate his book ‘The White Road’ and his Royal Academy exhibition, ‘White’. Edmund is so thoughtful about placing his work – in cases, vitrines, on shelves, plinths. Should I bring together plants and vessels? My mind turns momentarily to the lovely hand coloured photographs of Constance Spry flower arrangements in her books ‘Winter and Spring Flowers’ and Summer and ‘Autumn Flowers’ – so outrageously staged and old fashioned that I think they might zoom back into our way of thinking any time soon:

IMG_0007IMG_0016                                           Constance Spry flower arrangements

I can see this old French wine bottle working too – the narrow neck a perfect light embrace for the soft heads of Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Westfalen’, Thalictrum delavayi and Hydrangea quercifolia:
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But I think I would prefer to suggest individual plants which Edmund might like to grow in his garden.

My first suggestion would be snowdrops – any snowdrops would be good. In fact I would wager that the simplest white of the single white Galanthus nivalis might be his first choice. Snowdrops are especially apt because of the way they increase and repeat to form a gorgeous rhythmic carpet to echo the way Edmund creates installations out of series of pots “like an idea unfolding.”

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A repeating carpet of single white snowdrops

If I had to choose a special snowdrop to be lifted into an earthenware – or indeed porcelain – pot whilst it is in flower and then lowered back into the ground for the rest of the year, it would be Galanthus ‘Wendy’s Gold’, with its clear yellow ovary and glimpses of a yellow interior. This would be to celebrate the way Edmund has used gilding on porcelain very lightly on some of his most beautiful work.

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Galanthus ‘Wendy’s Gold’

For later in the Spring, and for their translucent elegance, I would choose the now increasingly rare Narcissus ‘Jenny’, a perfect, demure narcissus with elegant, light-catching, swept back petals and a subtle creamy trumpet. I could not resist the Pheasant’s Eye Narcissus either – Narcissus poeticus var. recurvus. This is a fragrant, later flowering ‘Poet’s Narcissus’ – for Edmund’s evocative storytelling.

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Narcissus ‘Jenny’

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Narcissus poeticus var. recurvus

For spring blossom – to celebrate the influence of China and especially Japan on Edmund’s work – I could choose any number of cherry, almond or plum trees. I think the white ornamental quince Chaenomeles speciosa ‘Nivalis’ would be a good choice as the flowers have a certain spare clarity to them.  

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Chaenomeles speciosa ‘Alba’

For June there would be the flowering dogwood Cornus kousa ‘Madame Butterfly’ – which has pink blushed white bracts to echo the slight blush or bloom on a glaze or piece of porcelain, carefully examined. ‘Madame Butterfly’ is known also for fantastic autumn colour and generous crops of pendant bright red fruit – so definitely a plant to shake things up a bit if this collection looks for a moment as if it is trying too hard.

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Cornus kousa ‘Madame Butterfly

I think quince would be a perfect fruit tree for Edmund – a simple, oriental quality to the blossom in spring, large oval leaves which are fantastically translucent in the sun and fragrant, slightly downy fruit which can sit quietly in a bowl on his writing desk and be held when a little light distraction is required.
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Quince in late summer sunshine

My final tree choice would be Sorbus cashmiriana – for its porcelain like clusters of fruit and gilt tipped foliage against a brilliant September sky.


sorb cash 1IMG_1579Sorbus cashmiriana

But I haven’t finished yet with The White Garden at Sissinghurst.  Against one wall is my favourite white rose for a sheltered garden wall, Rosa laevigata ‘Cooperi’. A neat climbing rose with particularly fine, glossy foliage and glistening white flowers, held singly, each with a large boss of yellow stamens:

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Rosa laevigata ‘Cooperi’ against the wall of the The White Garden, Sissinghurst
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Rosa laevigata ‘Cooperi’ flower in June

Here in The White Garden the rose is underplanted with a completely magnificent swathe of autumn flowering bulb Zepharanthes candida:

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Zepharanthes candida

Clambering lightly over the rose is the loveliest clematis  – with pink-tinged, white, bell-like flowers on slender stems – this is the Estonian herbaceous Clematis ‘Kaui’ which will flower from June to September:

IMG_2573                                                                  Clematis ‘Kaiu’

A strange coincidence occurs as I am about to recommend this group of plants to my friend. I discover that the other name for the species, Rosa laevigata (as opposed to the more highly bred selection ‘Cooperi’) is the ‘Cherokee Rose’. It was introduced from China to the USA in the 1780’s and has been long associated with the ‘Trail of Tears’ – the forced relocation of Native Americans. One of the most poignant moments of the journey related in ‘The White Road’ was  a trip to the Appalachian Mountains to track down the ‘white clay’ so valuable to Europeans such as Josiah Wedgewood and often so roughly prized from the Cherokees.

Such are the dangers of any kind of investigation I suppose. I am a little thrown by my discovery, but still think this group of three white flowering plants are a strong combination. They would be a restrained, elegant addition to a sunny studio wall.