I drive on from Charleston (see THE DAHLIA PAPERS June 2015, ‘A dithering blaze of flowers, butterflies and apples’) to Rodmell, the home of Virginia and Leonard Woolf from August 1919 until Leonard’s death in 1969. Unlike Charleston, I know very little about Monk’s House. All I have to go on is a memory of a seductive pea green drawing room dull of books, paintings and scarlet pelargoniums in terracotta pots, once seen in a magazine.


The approach to Monk’s House, photograph © Caroline Arber from Caroline Zoob’s book Virginia Woolf’s Garden

The house is right on the street in the pretty village of Rodmell. The National Trust ticket office is cleverly situated a little further down the road which means that when you open the plain wooden gate and walk up along the first brick path that leads you behind the house into the garden, you feel completely as if you are visiting a private house.

The initial impressions are a little confusing. Almost immediately I turn into The Italian Garden. Here a pair of urns flank a rectangular pool and are simply and effectively planted with Geranium macrorrhizum ‘Bevan’s Variety’. The Italian Garden looks dreamy and romantic in the tree-filtered sunshine, but was heartily scorned by Virginia Woolf’s friend Vita Sackville-West ‘You can’t recreate Versailles on just quarter an acre of Sussex, it just can’t be done.’

urnmH 2 urnsurn water

Geranium macrorrhizum filled urns and rectuangular pool in The Italian Garden

But next up is a disconcerting towering palm tree and I am surprised to see that the entire back of the house is formed of a lean-to conservatory.


Conservatory and palm tree at Monk’s House

Stepping inside the house I am thrown again by a clearly very personal collection of cactus, succulents and vines, together with well worn stripy canvas deckchairs, brooms and a garden table. Except for a single sheaf of leaflets in a plastic holder, the whole scene looks as if its passionate gardener-owner has just popped out to fetch something from the back of the garden.

cactus cupIMG_1442MH CACTUSvineIMG_1445 (1)

Cactus, succulents, pelargonium and vines at the entrance/ conservatory of Monk’s House

Once inside, I find myself quickly in the calm, green painted sitting room. I am convinced that this is the colour I need to use if I ever move into a country cottage of my own. As I read afterwards in Caroline Zoob’s completely absorbing book about the ten years she lived at Monk’s House as a tenant of the National Trust, green ‘was Virginia’s favourite colour and seems to have seeped into the fabric of Monk’s House such that one cannot imagine the house any other colour. On sunny afternoons the plants curling around the windows “green veined and quivering” cast shadows in the sunlight reflected on the walls.’

IMG_1428mh sitting room

IMG_1425Filtered light and shadows in the green painted Sitting Room at Monk’s House.

Throughout the small house there is an atmosphere of thoughtful, polished homeliness – as opposed to the academic chaos I may have expected – and it seems entirely natural to fall into conversation with a retired academic from Sussex University who remembers coming to have tea on the lawn here when he was a young PhD student with the very charming political theorist, author and publisher, Leonard Woolf, Virginia’s husband.

IMG_1446The Dining Room at Monk’s House

IMG_1435Portrait of Virginia Woolf by her sister Vanessa Bell c 1912 with flowers from the garden

More complicated is the visit to Virginia Woolf’s bedroom. The bedroom is in a stand alone section of the house which opens out onto the garden – but there is something about its simplicity and small size, with its basic washstand and single bed that makes my visit feel too intrusive.

vw bed insideIMG_1449

Chest of drawers and washstand in Virginia Woolf’s bedroom

I wish I had read Caroline Zoob’s book on Monk’s House before my visit:


Monk’s House is now owned by the National Trust and Zoob was a tenant of the house for ten years. Her description of the layers of experience of living in a house which was so famously lived in before by such well known people is fascinating. I love her account of the experience of bathing in the same bath in which Virginia Woolf bathed every morning, reading out loud passages from a work in progress. The bath is fitted at a slight tilt so that water level is always strangely angled in the tub – a detail that makes you smile and that catapults the past into the present.

Throughout the book, Zoob highlights the Woolfs’ deep-held beliefs about the relationship between a house and its occupiers. Leonard Woolf writes about this brilliantly: ‘…what has the deepest and most permanent effect upon oneself and one’s way of living is the house in which one lives. The house determines the day-today, hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute quality, colour, atmosphere, pace of one’s life; it is the framework of what one does, of what one can do, and of one’s relations with people.’ It is an enduring approach to living which makes complete sense to me and which adds an important weight to visiting and thinking about both Monk’s House and Charleston.

Before coming to live at Monk’s House, Virginia and Leonard Woolf were already greatly enjoying the simple pleasures of time spent out of London and away from their busy literary and political lives. While spending Christmas at a hotel in Lewes in 1910, Virginia Woolf declared herself – rather splendidly – to be ‘violently in favour of a country life’ – and when the lease on a previous country house was not renewed, the couple were determined to buy Monk’s House. Leonard Woolf remembers their first impression of the garden in his autobiography. ‘The orchard was lovely and the garden was the kind I like, much subdivided into a kind of patchwork quilt of trees, shrubs, flowers, vegetables, fruit, roses and crocus tending to merge into cabbages and currant bushes.’ And on 14th August 1919 Virginia writes passionately: ‘our address will be Monk’s House, with niches for the holy water, and a great fireplace; but the point of it is the garden. I shan’t tell you though for you must come and sit there on the lawn with me, or stroll in the apple orchard, or pick – there are cherries, plums, pears, figs, together with all the vegetables. This is going to be the pride of our hearts, I warn you.’

It is a relief to get out of Virginia Woolf’s bedroom and to look back at it from the garden:

IMG_1506Exterior of Virginia Woolf’s Bedroom, Monk’s House

The planting that frames the door and window is very pretty in an abundant, cottage garden sort of way. The climbing rose, Rosa ‘Princess Marie’ – a good form is available from Peter Beales – is the perfect midsummer rose to grow around a bedroom window, scented, cupped flowers gathered in generous clusters. I love the way the outer petals fade to a bluish-white.

VW ROSE CLIMBINMy new favourite midsummer rose, Rosa ‘Princess Marie’

The rose is excellent in combination with the slightly frayed-looking, dusky pink Clematis montana ‘Broughton Star’:

IMG_1451Clematis montana ‘Broughton Star’

allium ger vw bedGeranium, lavender, forget-me-nots and alliums under the window of Virginia Woolf’s bedroom

As I make my way out into the main body of the garden along The Flower Walk, I am surprised by the intensity of the birdsong. There is a fantastically peaceful atmosphere here despite the proximity of other village houses. The Flower Walk is beautifully planted with a range of dusky to intense pinks: astrantia, Rosa x odorata ‘Mutabilis’ and Pericaria bistorta ‘Superba’ for example – with sudden bursts of the same luminous, crinkly, salmon-pink head of Papaver orientale ‘Cedric Morris’ as at Charleston. The handsome, boxy steeple of St Peter’s Church is a wonderful focal point.

PALE PINK PATHThe Flower Walk with the steeple of St Peter’s Church in the background

MH astrantiaAstrantia

MUTABRosa x odorata ‘Mutabilis’

PERS GERPersicaria bistorta ‘Superba’ and geranium

ch poppyPapaver orientale ‘Cedric Morris’

Further brick paths thread their way though the dense planting – Virginia Woolf described this style of planting frequently, ‘our garden is a perfect variegated chintz: asters, plymasters, zinnias, geums, nasturtiums and so on: all bright, cut from coloured papers, stiff, upstanding as flowers should be.’ There is the pair of handsome terracotta urns much used in portrait photographs whilst the Woolfs lived at the house and a stand of brilliant crimson lupins which light up the view from every direction.


mh conservatory 2Dense planting at Monk’s House – crocosmia foliage amongst geranium, iris and honesty, backlit by the late afternoon sun with the conservatory behind


One of the terracotta urns much photographed in portraits taken when the Woolfs were at Monk’s House

lupin and lavIMG_1465LIPIN

Crimson lupins catch the eye from every direction

One of the most fascinating aspects of Caroline Zoob’s account of her years at Monk’s House is her thoughtful and detailed research into the timelessly troubling practical and financial side of creating an idyllic country garden. The available archive material ranges from diaries, letters and published ficiton and non-fiction writing and it is riveting to see how elements of the house and garden came about as the couple became increasingly successful and increasingly solvent. A surge in income, from Virginia Woolf’s novels in particular, would translate directly into new furniture, pictures, hot water, the car. In 1926 Leonard and Virginia quarrelled about priorities and how best to spend their money. Virginia wanted to buy rugs and armchairs and complained of Leonard’s ‘assumption that we can afford to saddle ourselves with a whole time gardener, build or buy him a cottage, & take in the terrace to be garden. … we shall be tying ourselves to come here; shall never travel; & it will be assumed that Monk’s House is the hub of the world.’

But they did continue to invest steadily in the garden – even if it was Leonard  who would devote days and days in the winter to meticulously pruning the fruit trees – and the garden continued to give them both huge amounts of pleasure. They managed to buy additional land beyond the original curtilage of the house and the orchard they created there was an important addition. They loved it as a ‘the very place to sit and talk for hours’, for its intense spring beauty when the trees were in blossom, and for its productivity.

orchard 2mh orchardbeehive

The orchard at Monk’s House, with mown and paved paths, and beehives nestled in the long grass

I walk through the timelessly seductive space, making the pilgrimage to Virginia Woolf’s Writing Lodge – a wooden building with a brick terrace outside and an apple loft above, tucked into the furthermost corner of the garden. For 22 years Virginia worked here writing her novels. On the day of my visit, the writing lodge has a slightly dry feel and is disappointingly shut. However, reading Caroline Zoob’s book when I get home brings the writing lodge back to life. Zoob tells how Leonard describes VIrginia’s disciplined approach to her work – when she was well – making the journey across the garden to her writing lodge ‘with the daily regularity of a stockbroker.’ I smile at Virginia’s rather more romantic version: ‘(tomorrow I) shall smell a red rose; shall gently surge across the lawn (I move as if I carried a basket of eggs on my head) light a cigarette, take my writing board on my knee; and let myself down, like a diver, very cautiously into the last sentence I wrote yesterday.’

But the terrace which emerges from a sea of cow parsley is lovely and alive and I can quite imagine the conversations over tea here, looking out over the water meadows.


The Writing Lodge Terrace


mh grasses downsView from the Writing Lodge Terrace

This spacious, flat, tightly-mowed area of lawn is the final surprise. It was a perfect place to play bowls – and the Woolfs played competitive games of bowls against each other and against their friends almost every evening. Virginia wrote in her diary ‘now I am going to beat L. at bowls, on a fine blowing evening with the children playing with their dolls in the meadow , all the trees in blossom, and some heat in the sun for a wonder.’

Visiting Monk’s House is revelatory and a great privilege. I have learnt so much. I would not have put Virginia Woolf down as an enthusiastic jam maker or a keen bowls player, neither did I know that it was from the house – despite her love for the place even in the depth of depression (she wrote during a dark period in November 1921, ‘the worst of it is that the country is lovelier and lovelier. We have put brick edges to the flower beds. We have a garden room … every flower that grows, blows here. We have pears for breakfast’) – that she walked off on the morning of 28 March 1941, with stones in her pocket, to drown herself in the River Ouse.

It was heartening to discover that Leonard Woolf continued to live at Monk’s House until the late sixties, gardening, writing, entertaining and enjoying a lasting and seemingly completely viable romance with a colleague’s artist wife, Trekkie Parsons. The conservatory and collection of cactus and succulents belong to this later period – which all makes perfect sense. Monk’s House is a wonderful house and garden which has hugely influenced – and indeed influenced by – those who have lived there.


Leonard and Virginia Woolf in the garden at Monk’s House

Photography © Woolf Estates.




IMG_1392crazy daisyA sea of foxgloves, iris and oxeye daisies in the Walled Garden at Charleston, East Sussex, the garden of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant

I have just returned from a midsummer trip to the gardens of Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf.  The two sisters had country retreats, part holiday homes and part wartime refuges,  only a few miles from each other in East Sussex at Monk’s House and Charleston. From 1916 until the late 1960’s they, and later their extended families, lived rich, passionate and inspiring lives in these two comparatively simple, but intensely personal country houses.

The lives and creative output of these two women are too vast to begin to tackle in a Dahlia Papers blogpost, but what excited me about my trip was not just the heady scent and tangled multi-coloured loveliness of both gardens on a cloudless midsummer’s afternoon, but the warm and personal way both houses and gardens are still cared for and the attitudes to living that they reveal. I came away from my visits feeling genuinely welcomed and seduced afresh by the English country garden.

charleston establishThe entrance to Charleston

Vanessa Bell came to live in Charleston in 1916 with the love of her life and fellow artist, Duncan Grant, her two children, Julian and Quentin, and Grant’s then partner, David Garnett. I remembered my first visit twenty years ago very clearly. At that time you could walk around the house without a guide or a time slot and I was nervous that the new, more stringent system would dull and sanitise the atmosphere. Most of all, I remembered the Walled Garden. I had an image of it in my head: a brilliantly colourful enchanted box of a garden that led from one side of the house – the entire space literally waist high with flowers.

However, as I sit in the Folly Garden – now part of the café – eating my earnest but delicious houmous and red pepper sandwich and relaxing in a sunny blend of wall trained figs, mounding Euphorbia mellifera, brunnera, aquilegia and forget-me-nots, I begin to feel reassured that things in the main house and garden are going to be as lovely and as inspiring as I had hoped.

IMG_1312Folly Garden at Charleston with wall trained figs, Euphorbia mellifera, Brunnera, forget-me -nots, aquilegia and water lilies in the pond.

The house is extraordinary, not least for the tireless passion that led to every cupboard door, fireplace and bedstead being hand decorated. However much you know about Charleston (and Quentin Bell and Virginia Nicholson’s book, ‘Charleston a Bloomsbury house and garden’ is an excellent and beautifully illustrated way to find out more), there is something constantly refreshing about a mindset which compels a group of people to lovingly decorate and nurture their environment. What greater tenderness is there than that displayed by Duncan Grant when he painted two panels for Vanessa in the room that is now the library but had previously been her bedroom – a cockerel above the window to wake her up and a lurcher below to protect her whilst she slept? I love the idea that if one of the household designs was worn out, a family member would simply paint a new design over it. The current dining table – a gentle painted wheel of stone, rich yellow, pale grey and green – is a 1950’s version over a 20’s original. And I love the fact that the intricate stichwork which covers many of the chairs is the work of Ethel Grant, Duncan’s mother. The greater the list of contributors, the greater the intensity of feeling of lives intertwined and well lived.book coverCover of ‘Charleston a Bloomsbury House and Garden’ by Quentin Bell and Virginia Nicholson with photographs by Alen Macweeney

Throughout the house there are enticing glimpses of the garden, and the garden is a constant source of inspiration for paintings and decorative motifs. There are many references in letters and diaries to the effect of the garden on the work of those who lived in the house.  On 6th August 1930 Vanessa Bell wrote to Roger Fry that the garden was “full of reds of all kinds, scabioius and hollyhocks and mallows and every kind of red from red lead to black. Pokers are coming out…. I have of course begun by painting some flowers” and a week later “I’m painting flowers – one can’t really resist them … when the sun comes out once in a blue moon, you can’t conceive what the medley of apples, hollyhocks, plums, zinnias, dahlias, all mixed up together is like”.

My favourite painting of flowers in the house is the surprisingly cool-hued and delicate ‘Iceland Poppies’ by Vanessa Bell:

Iceland Poppies  c. 1908-09, Vanessa Bell (1879-1961) owned by The Charleston Trust

In Clive Bell’s pea green bathroom (Vanessa’s husband came to live at Charleston during the Second World War) there is a brilliant view onto a blaze of the wonderful orange honeysuckle, Lonicera x tellmanniana:

geissblatt-tellmaniana-gold-geissschlinge-m002096_h_0Lonicera x tellmanniana

And the drawing room (known as the Garden Room), Vanessa Bell’s bedroom and the Studio all lead directly out onto the garden. In his book on Charleston, Quentin Bell writes alluringly about the pleasure of strolling out from the Garden Room into the moonlit garden on a summer night: “cheroots were lit and there was Haydn or Mozart on the old clockwork portable. One went out through the windows, and to Mozart was added the delicious scent of tobacco plants… we who had ventured out spoke in hushed voices as though in deference to the night. Eventually guests would begin to feel cold and we would return to the drawing room with its warm, shabby, comfortable armchairs, a tot of brandy and conversation”.

view to garden roomThe path leading from the french windows of the Garden Room

Once outside, I follow the same path into the heart of the garden. My pace is slowed at first as I admire the immaculate and restrained shady planting near the house:ch shade door

ch polygonatum Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris, ferns, aquilegia and Solomon’s Seal (Poygonatum x hybridum) against the house

But it is only a matter of moments before I am pulled into the garden’s brilliant, kaleidoscopic centre. The scene is made up of deliciously narrow paths, billowing box hedges, and seas of oxeye daisies with spires of bright pink Gladiolus communis subsp. byzantinus. There are pools of rich blue Iris sibirica, flat, mustard-yellow platforms of achillea and sudden huge, luminous salmon pink flowerheads of the oriental poppy, Papaver orientale ‘Cedric Morris’.ch oxeye head path                                                         Deliciously narrow paths

ox gladGladiolus byzantinus and oxeye daisies

ch irisIris sibiricach meadowYellow achillea with oxeye daisies


hedge viewBillowing box hedgesch poppyPapaver orientale ‘Cedric Morris’

Wandering with smiles on our faces amongst the plants in the Walled Garden, it is not hard to imagine the happy effect this atmosphere must have had on the family in the 20’s and 30’s, especially as the garden became a haven for Vanessa’s children and their friends. In his book, Quentin Bell records his mother writing to his brother Julian in 1936: “I must say it has been rather amazing here this week … the house seems full of young people in very high spirits, laughing a great deal at their own jokes … and lying about in the garden which is simply a dithering blaze of flowers, butterflies and apples.”

 At the back of the garden, the kitchen garden beckons seductively with joyous mounds of purple honesty and outsize heads of Angelica archangelica – given celebratory space amongst the ordered wooden structures for supporting beans and peas.

IMG_1349Mounds of Lunaria annua and box hedging, brilliant green with new growth, with the kitchen garden behindfennelAngelica archangelica in the kitchen garden
ch gatreThe kitchen garden gatekitchengWonderful onion family seed head against raised beds and cane wigwams

Throughout the garden there are pools and terraces and stone casts of sculptures or busts that each tell a further story about a friend or family member. Terraces are constructed partly from mosaics made from broken household china and Quentin Bell’s lovely fountain and pool nestle gently in the shade.

pond spout

Quentin Bell’s pool and fountain

I am very taken with the cheerful, Picasso-esque ciment-fondue urns also by Quentin Bell which flank the close boarded front gate. Replica urns are available to buy in the shop for £355 and I am still trying to decide if they would work in a different garden. I think they quite possibly would:ch urn

One of a pair of Ciment-fondue urns which flank the front gate


Replica cement urns for sale in the shop

The classical busts that guard the wall dividing the main garden from the pond have an exhilarating quality against the vibrant blue of the sky:

ch headch glad wall

Classical busts against blue sky on the garden wall

pond chThe pond at Charleston, today

The pond used to be much larger and deeper, full of eels and other fish, and was home to a punt, the starting point for many elaborate Swallows and Amazon style games for the children, Julian and Quentin. My favourite story of their style of play comes from Virginia Nicholson: “Julian and Quentin were both pyromaniacs. One of their favourite games as children consisted of building a city out of newspaper and paste, complete with houses, churches and fortifications which they then bombarded with lighted torches, a splendid sport which left rather a mess”.

glad front gate View back to the front gates from the pond

As I return to the front of a house I feel wistful that I must soon be moving on. I am keen to photograph a particular bench to the right of the front door and next to the gate which leads directly into the walled garden but, like most thoughtfully placed benches, it is already taken. As I photograph the excellent combination of honesty and cherry pink fuchsia – and the roses and poppies  – that decorate the front of the house, a conversation about cameras begins with the elegant woman in black occupying the bench.  lunaria fuchs                                    Purple honesty and pink fuchsia by the front doorrose window 2

poppies front hseSilvery grey Senicio cineraria, roses, poppies and alliums at the front of the house

The conversation evolves and it turns out my new friend is the photographer Sue Snell whose book ‘The Garden at Charleston, A Bloomsbury Garden Through the Seasons’ I had bought just the day before:

snellCover of ‘The Garden at Charleston’ by ©Sue Snell

The book is a radiant and very personal photographic diary of Charleston taken over a period of ten years. Reading the book helped me understand more fully the development of the garden, how it moved on from its early role as a productive garden, a muddy swathe of potatoes and fruit trees during the grim period of the First World War, to its transformation into the current colourful and sensual style based on a design by Roger Fry. When the garden was restored in 1986, after a period of almost 20 years of unavoidable decline, the eminent architect and landscape architect, Sir Peter Shepheard was asked to oversee the project. He was a brilliant choice, having – I discover – designed everything from the slick and practical campus at Lancaster University to elements of London Zoo, and he was known and revered as much for his exquisite drawings as for his lifelong love of the natural world.  His goal was to restore the garden using plants which Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell would have chosen and to recreate “a garden filled to overflowing, the plants jostling and blending with one another as in a meadow, but not too precise but with a sweet disorder”.


Photograph of Head Gardener, Mark Divall by ©Sue Snell from her book ‘The Garden at Charleston’

Current Head Gardener, Mark Divall was part of the original team who took over after this restoration and after a long spell in the South of France is now back, keeping this enchantment alive in a sensitive and brilliant way. I read more about Mark Divall in an uplifting, refreshing gardening blog,  The Garden Edit. I warmly recommend the post on Charleston for its atmospheric photographs by Ambra Rowlands and thoughtful words from Mark. One of my favourite moments in the piece is when Mark relays the wise gardening advice once given to him by a much older gardener: “the best manure is a gardener’s feet”. “It slowly dawned on me”, writes Mark, “that the more you wander around and look at your garden, the more you’ll see and the sooner one can react to anything going awry, and maybe make a difference”.  For me, a Head Gardener looking and reacting constantly at the garden and indeed regarding the garden he is working at as his whilst he is there are the key reasons for Charleston’s ongoing energy and charm.

ch bench 2

The favoured bench










Andrew’s Honey – Union Street Farmers’ Market

The forecast for Saturday 25th April is cold but sunny.  I am up at the 30th Street access to the High Line for its opening at 7am.


On the High Line at 7am

On the way there is the occasional tantalising glimpse of what might be to come:

IMG_3941 (1)

Kris Martin, Altar, 2014, seen from the street

The 30th Street access brings you to the most newly planted section of this mile and a quarter stretch of public garden created from a disused section of freight railway line suspended between Chelsea and the Meatpacking District on Manhattan’s West Side

Initially, the High Line impresses as a thoughtful, well designed, technically demanding piece of landscape architecture – the leading landscape architectural practice was James Corner Field Operations 


IMG_9798–  but the planting, masterminded by Piet Oudolf, and the dynamic, intuitive way the whole project interacts with the surrounding buildings, soon begins to take your breath away.

At this very early point in a New York spring, it is the range and sheer quantity of the trees that I find most extraordinary. The visitor’s proximity to these trees, planted in shallow soil in exposed conditions, is exhilarating. You are right there, walking through an intimate forest:

road sunlit stripApproaching a young forest of silver birch

One minute you are catching a cheery rainbow-painted building through bud-laden branches:

IMG_3887 (2)

A rainbow-painted building viewed through branches of a cercis tree in shadow

The next, the nearest buildings are lost behind a haze of catkins:

view thru silver birchNeighbouring buildings disappearing behind a haze of silver birch catkins

This great proximity slows you down so that you can really look at the unfolding neat bronze leaves and white flowers of an Amelanchier:

amelanchier plusAmelanchier laevis

Or try to work out the tree from which these magnificent pale yellow-green hands of leaves are unfurling:

more unfurling

IMG_9827The leaves of either Magnolia macrophylla or Magnolia tripelta (too early for even the Friends of the High Line to be sure!) so close you can watch them unfurl before your eyes

You have time to appreciate the impact of a burst of dazzling pink against great swathes of regimented brick:

IMG_3879 (2)

Cercis canadensis at full throttle (the extensive High Line plant list numbers four varieties )

I love this almost schmaltzy coming together of pink and white blossom, sky blue and glass:
cercis amel and blue love pic cercis amelCercis canadensis and Amelanchier against blue sky and blue glass

And I enjoy the muscly, richly toned silhouettes of Rhus typhina – Stag’s Head Sumach – against the milky aqua glass and telling typography of the Giorgio Armani building.

georgio armaniRhus typhina buds against an office window

On the other side of the walkway, the same russety buds and outspread branches confidently frame the muddy waters of the Hudson below, and the proudly fluttering U.S. flag beyond.

IMG_9861Rhus Typhina branches on the High Line framing a U.S. flag

There is a constant intuitive awareness of the way the planting and architecture will relate. I like the simplicity and pallor of these silver birches against a chapel facade:

IMG_3909 (1)

Silver birch against a chapel

And the way the lovely apple-blossom-coloured ornamental quince,  Chaenomeles ‘Toyo-Nishiki’, is gently repeated along the walk-way to form soft mounds against which a bench looks settled or a naked barrier more clothed:

chaenomels close upPG chaenomelsChaenomeles ‘Toyo-Nishigi’giving the bench a settled feel

The shadows of trees and shrubs against the walls beyond the High Line are extraordinary too:

shadow more shadowShadows of trees and plants, the High Line

At other points, where there is mostly only the promise of things to come at ground level,  there are simple bulb plantings which are intuitive and spot on. There is an exhilarating intensity to the yolk-yellow Narcissus ‘Hawera’ which are planted in daringly dense clumps under the shimmering new leaves of silver birch to make an impact on this high open rail road:

IMG_9868 IMG_9871

close up narcissus

 Dense clumps of Narcissus ‘Hawera’ lighting up the old railway track of the High Line

I look around me one last time (before descending to eat an almighty blueberry pancake breakfast, obviously) and wish myself back as soon as possible to see this wonderful strip of wooded city later in the season:

silver birch amelanchier skyscraper thru trees

The amazingly wooded High Line, April 25, 2015

On to The Union Square Farmers Market to visit Andrew Cote who sells the honey he harvests from beehives all over the city. I have been sent here by artist Judi Harvest  who took me to her wonderful Honey Bee Garden on Murano, Venice which I wrote about in my post of October 2013 .

IMG_3954 (2)

Buckets of Pheasant’s Eye Narcissus for sale at Union Square Farmers’ Market

IMG_3957rainbow honey

Andrew Cote’s honey stand at Union Square Farmers’ Market

Andrew is a passionate and pioneering beekeeper who takes care of beehives all over New York, including several sited – such as the hives on the rooftop garden of Judi Harvest’s studio – near the pollen rich High Line. He sells this delicious, locally produced honey in Farmers’ Markets in the city (the stall was teeming and we buy a bag full of honey and honeycomb) and travels the world with the organisation Bees Without Borders teaching beekeeping as a way to help alleviate poverty.  Andrew tells us that there are possible problems ahead with retaining permission to hang on to these brilliantly positioned rooftop hives.  If anyone can campaign successfully to keep them, I am sure it will be him.


The passionate Andrew Cote with his High Line, Brooklyn and special ‘Whipped’ honeys

In the afternoon we arrange to meet our son at Ground Zero.  I don’t know quite why a visit here had not been on our original itinerary –  maybe we casually believed we had a pretty good idea what to expect. We are so glad that our plans changed. We leave the 9/11 Memorial grounds moved, educated and powerfully reminded.

poolOne of the two ‘Reflecting Absence’ pools at Ground Zero designed by Michael Arad with landscape architect Peter Walker

The atmosphere on the site when we arrive is gentle, thoughtful, bustling – just a little light family-group-photography, but mostly people are quiet from the impact of the unbearably elegant, cavernous pools that mark the footprints of the Twin Towers.  These large, open ‘voids’ are fed with relentless sheets of water which head down further into the darker, recessed pools at their centre.  The memorial plaza was designed by Michael Arad in conjunction with landscape architect Peter Walker, the winning entry of an international design competition with 5201 submissions.  Around the edge of each pool, grouped together to represent the floor of the building where the victims died, the names of the people who lost their lives are beautifully engraved.  Almost immediately, in clear, finely chiselled script, we find the name of a close friend’s brother. He had been working in one of the towers and when he died he left behind the most loving family including a young wife and three very young children. I had not expected to be so tremendously saddened.

Looking again across the South Pool I am entranced by a stately, blossoming, almost ghostly tree amidst the sea of young swamp white oaks (Quercus bicolor) that have been selected for their toughness, durability and rich autumn colour.

Our son, Llewelyn, who had been into the impressive 9/11 Memorial Museum told us the extrordinary story of The Survivor Tree.

The tree, a Callery Pear, (Pyrus calleryana), had been discovered in the devastation at Ground Zero a few weeks after the terror attacks.  It was severely damaged, with broken roots and burned and broken branches. The tree was removed from the rubble and cared for by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.

11survivor tree rehab

The Survivor Tree being nurtured back to health by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation – photograph from the 9/11 Memorial website

It was returned to the Memorial in 2010 with new, young limbs growing from gnarled stumps.

survivor tree back in

The Survivor Tree being lowered back into position at Ground Zero – photograph from the 9/11 Memorial website

The tree has become a living reminder of resilience, survival and rebirth and is often the focus for gatherings of remembrance.

Osurvivor tree obamaPresident Obama at a service of remembrance next to The Survivor Tree – photograph from the 9/11 Memorial website

I felt a little ashamed that I did not know about this remarkable tree before I came to New York.  Looking back at the photographs I took during my trip, I wonder if this ethereal iPhone image of The Survivor Tree is not in fact the photograph which I will remember for the longest time:

survovor tree

The Survivor Tree, 9/11 Memorial


THE A-Z OF A SPRING WEEKEND IN MANHATTAN shadow cericis arainbowCercis canadensis in silhouette against a rainbow painted building – a view from the High Line

IMG_3791Ready for scones and raspberry jam, looking onto Abbie Zabar’s rooftop garden

IMG_0271Non – in Brooklyn – the freezing wind overwhelming the lure of the Japanese Cherry trees in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden

I have just returned from probably the last truly chilly spring weekend in New York. The temperatures this week are in the high 20’s, but ten days ago the skies were still a cold, hard blue (or grey) and there was a gasp of surprise that trees, especially, were getting on with their spring unfolding against all odds in this extended winter.

love pic cercis amelCercis canadensis and Amelanchier, wonderful companionson the High Line

But Spring was relentlessly trying to make itself felt. In Central Park, magnolias and azaleas presented sudden ballgown sweeps of pink against the familiar buildings towering at the park edges:

central park azalaeacentral magnoliaAzaleas (above) and magnolia trees in Central Park

Walking the streets – which often felt tougher and grittier than I remember – the wonderful, free-limbed Gingko trees were lighting up the darkest redbrick with brilliant, fresh green leaves. Individual branches caught the light like a streak of liquid metal.

IMG_3939Ginko trees in a Manhattan street

gingko like goldGinko leaves catching the light 

Our first morning began at the wonderful Frick Collection.  I have always loved the pale, formal elegance of the three dome-pruned, 1930’s planted, magnolias in the Fifth Avenue Garden, a flurry of restrained pale pink against the extensive grey of the museum and simple topiary planting below. It is rare to prune magnolias – you are generally advised not to do so unless you have to – but these trees have become distinguished sculptural shapes and look great all through the year, especially wonderful when covered in snow.

mags oneMagnolias, Fifth Avenue Garden, Frick Collection – images courtesy of the vivacious NYC blog, Tales of a Madcap Heiress


Magnolia in snow – image from The Frick Collection archive

After our happy pilgrimage to Piero della Francesca, Vermeer and Holbein we wandered down to the Seaport area on our way to Brooklyn. We made a beeline for Emily Thompson Flowers on Beekman Street who has a reputation for creating extraordinary floral decorations.


IMG_3673Emily Thompson Flowers, Beekman Street, New York

Emily is an accomplished sculptress, trained at the University of Pennsylvania and UCLA who has become know for exquisite, unconventional flower arrangements which aim to combine ‘the uncultivated organic world and the delicacy of classical ornamental design’.  The girls taking a lunch break in the shop were incredibly welcoming and invited us to look around.   The colour palette in the studio was vibrant yet subtle – burnt oranges, pale pinks, dusky mauves. I loved the delicacy of garden plants such as hellebores and fritillaries – graceful plants which usually stay firmly in the border and are not generally used as cutting flowers. There was an atmosphere of rich potential everywhere you looked: in the intriguing selection of foliage plants, the towering shelves of tarnished brass vessels, the hanging rows of black and natural candles and the collection of natural props such as wasps nests.

Now back in the UK I look back at this palette and think how wonderful it would be to design a planting scheme using the same balance of brilliant and muted shades as a starting point …


IMG_3654 IMG_3651

IMG_3672IMG_3656IMG_3669The exquisite palette at Emily Thompson Flowers candles etc IMG_3657 IMG_3658Towering shelves of vases and candles at Emily Thompson Flowers IMG_3671 orchidsBrilliant foliage against geometric floor tiles and a silver tray at Emily Thompson Flowers

In the evening, after Evensong at Saint Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue where our son, Llewelyn is singing with the wonderful choir, we went to our new favourite Italian restaurant, Il Buco on Bond Street, just off The Bowery.IMG_3631

How did they know that ‘roasted gnocchi with morels and English peas’ would be my new favourite supper and that placing a gorgeous vase of blown peach coloured peonies on our table would make me smile from the moment I arrived?IMG_3965 (2)

The further advantage of the relaxed and delicious Il Buco is that there is a relaxed and delicious sister deli/restaurant Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria in the next street. Obviously this means that each day in the city can begin with a perfect breakfast of fresh orange juice, imaginative homemade bread, ‘red-eye coffee’, and homemade ricotta with olive oil:bucoIMG_3972

IMG_3638Our daily breakfast at Il Buco Alimentari&Vineria

On our second morning I head up to The Cloisters  – an extraordinary museum of medieval art, part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, situated way up on 190th Street in Fort Tryon Park which overlooks the Hudson River.  As you emerge from the subway it is disorientating to be in Northern Manhattan, but to feel so far away from the hub of the city:

HUDSONView of the Hudson River as you emerge from 190th Street Subway Station

CLOISTER TOWERView of The Cloisters through early spring trees at Fort Tryon Park

It takes me a while to get my head around the very premise of this museum which is a dazzling collection of important cloisters, chapels, stained glass, sculptures and tapestries, mostly French, mostly from the 12th to 15th Centuries, which are incorporated into a single purpose built museum funded by John D Rockerfeller and which opened to the public in 1938.  But I am soon wooed by the staggering beauty of the collection and by the feeling that everything is so well loved and so intelligently cared for.

I head first for the Cuxa Cloister – a salmon pink marble cloister from the Benedictine monastery of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa near Perpignan, France, dating from around 1130-1140.



IMG_3715The Cuxa Cloister, The Cloisters Museum, New York

The monastery was sacked in the 17th Century and had fallen into ruin by the 19th Century.  As reconstructed here, it is about a quarter of its original size, but the proportions remain the same and additional stone required for the reconstruction was painstakingly sourced from the original quarry. It is bizarre to find yourself peering through stone arches at a twelfth century stone fountain having been on the A train from Columbus Circus only moments before – but I am quickly enjoying the intriguing early spring planting in the beds under the four expertly pollarded crab apple trees. I am enchanted by the tall spires of Fritillaria persica – both the greenish white form and the very dark bruised purple form.   NARCISSUS FRITILLARIAFritillaria persica alba and Narcissus poeticus in the Cuxa Cloister


Two forms of Fritillaria Persica with Narcissus poeticus above and a small white Narcissus  – possibly ‘Jenny’ or ‘Thalia’ – below

They look rare and elegant amongst sheaves of neat white Narcissus  –  and the jewel-like mood is extended by flashes of sharp pink from low-growing species tulips (for example Tulipa ‘Little Beauty’) and touches of delicate rose from pink muscari. This is a satisfying and contemporary interpretation of planting inspired by medieval treatises, herbals and works of art. It would be exciting to try out a similar scheme at home: Fritillaria ‘Ivory Bells, an excellent new selection of the greenish white flowered form, and Fritillaria persica ‘Adiyaman’, with dusky purple flowers, are available from Broadleigh Bulbs, and Kevock Garden Plants offers ‘Ivory Bells’ and Fritillaria persica ‘Midnight Bells’. Both nurseries offer the pale pink grape hyacinth, Muscari ‘Pink Sunrise’.


Muscari ‘Pink Sunrise’ with white Narcisssus in the Cuxa Cloister

I drink in the endless gorgeous candelabra, perfect orange trees in terracotta pots and the vaulted halls of exquisite stained glass until I have to stop and linger again in front of the Unicorn Tapestries – a series of seven beautiful and complex story-telling tapestries from the South Netherlands (1495 -1505) woven in fine wool and silk with silver and gilded threads.


IMG_9782 IMG_3687Potted orange tree and medieval candelabra, The Cloisters Museum

The iconic ‘Unicorn in Captivity’ may have been created as a single image and is rich in imagery of love, fertility and marriage:

UNICORNThe Unicorn in Captivity part of The Unicorn Tapestries, The Cloisters Museum

The unicorn sits under a tree laden symbolically with ripe pomegranates, and the tapestry is wonderfully and intensely decorated throughout with delicate, mostly botanically accurate, representations of flowering plants offering layers of symbolism on the theme of love and sex. Of the 101 plants featured, 80% have been identified by the New York Botanical Society.

IMG_3750The sweet smelling white stock – Mathiola incana – symbolising love and purity

IMG_3751The Madonna Lily – Lilium candicum – with its symbolism of purity and the Virgin birth

IMG_3753The blue of the  Iris – often associated with the blue of the Virgin Mary

In the next room, I fall completely for a single, earlier – 1400-1415 – South Netherlandish tapestry, ‘The Falcon’s Bath’.

IMG_3758Here courtly figures are persuading a trained falcon to take a bath against a richly clothed rose trellis and a perky flowering turf bench. It is the vibrant, celebratory, highly stylised traditional ‘millefleurs’ background that draws me in.  Such strong shapes, sureness of touch and wonderful use of colour – milky pastel pinks and oranges against an inky blue-green:



IMG_3761IMG_3766Details of ‘The Falcon’s Bath’ tapestry, The Cloisters Museum – at the bottom my favourite detail complete with excellent red stockinged foot

And so I tear myself away from the 15th Century and rattle back on the A train and then up to the fourteenth floor of an Upper East Side apartment block to meet artist, writer, designer and gardener, Abbie Zabar, and find out about the passionate way she gardens on a tiny Penthouse rooftop.  It was Abbie who had warmly recommended The Cloisters to me.  I had not met her before but we had corresponded via The Dahlia Papers and she had very kindly invited me to visit. I knew (not least when she announced that her great friend, Chris, CEO of a major not for profit organisation, was managing to find time to make me her ‘special scones’ !) that the visit would be a brilliant treat.

From the moment I emerge and step directly into her rooftop garden, the collection of olive oil jars which house a refreshingly free-growing collection of boxwood, create a sense of shelter and intimacy away from the blasting wind and industrial feel of the roof tops beyond:

ZABAR OLIVE POTSOlive oil jars with a collection of boxwood, Abbie Zabar’s garden, New York

IMG_3844Looking beyond the intimate grouping of wooden bench, boxwood and terracotta

The elegant apartment paved with smooth limestone flags and discreet, perfectly proportioned cupboards, is orientated always to the rooftop terrace at its perimeter. From the neatest stainless steel kitchen – where lemon verbena tea is simmering away in the covetable vintage pyrex coffee pots she has been collecting for years – a single slim window frames the now famous hawthorn terrace ( see New York Times feature) and an 18th Century gilded Italian mirror above her caramel leather sofa holds an image of the terrace which greets you as soon as you arrive:

IMG_3841Lemon verbena tea in vintage Pyrex coffee pots ZABAR KITCHEN VIEWAbbie Zabar’s roof terrace framed by the kitchen window


The terrace is tiny, but Abbie – who has written books about container gardening, topiary and is a herb and alpine plant specialist – had the brave idea 12 years ago to plant three hawthorn trees (Crataegus pyracantha) in containers to see if she could harness their long season and fantastic toughness to create a natural shade canopy fourteen floors up in a position which is battered by wind and harsh winter conditions and then overwhelmed by sun and heat in the summer. The project is a continued labour of love – Abbie, who as a matter of extreme good fortune ‘loves to prune ‘, is a petite woman of a certain age, but she gets up on a seven foot ladder with goggles and protective clothing throughout the winter to remove the staggeringly long thorns from the trees. She has just repotted them into newly made oak Versailles tubs –  which took serious man power and the risk of a slightly slower start to the season, as the trees adjust to their new homes.

IMG_9932Thorns collected from Abbie Zabar’s Crataegus pyracantha

ZABAR HAWTHORNZABAR CHIMNEYThe winter framework of Abbie’s hawthorn trees against sky and chimneys

Abbie loves the trees for the shape of their leaves, their flowers, their vibrant orange berries and rich autumn colour, and most of all she loves them for the shelter they provide once the temperatures begin to rise which allows her to enjoy being outside despite the heat and to grow a host of other plants in the gentler climate the trees create at their base. The new oak containers and the immaculate trellis (which includes a cunning sliding trellis section to screen a working area of hose pipe and garden tools) are all painted in an excellent demure milky brown which will be a perfect foil for the rich greens and reds to come:


IMGZABAR TABLEVersailles tub and trellis painted in the same demure milky brown – with the beginning of a summer collection of pots.

Abbie is a passionate and inspiring collector of beautifully made objects. As well as 1950’s Murano glass and rare Shaker baskets, she has collected these ‘Jailbird’ nesting boxes made by prisoners in the 30’s and has arranged them in a soaring pattern on her dusky brick wall:

ZABAR BIRD HOUSE‘Jailbird’ nesting boxes, Abbie Zabar’s roof top garden

Abbie’s spirited approach to making the most of every possible opportunity to garden in this limited and often hostile space is uplifting. Away from the main terrace, at the end of a skinny external passageway between terrace wall and the interior solarium, I am led to a specialist rock garden – a tiny dynamic city of terracotta and stone containing an expertly nurtured collection of low-growing alpine plants. I love the way the pots hold their own against the sky scrapers beyond.

IMG_3813 IMG_3818


IMG_3814Abbie Zabar’s brilliant roof-top Alpine rock garden

Here she nurtures rather battered young olive and fig trees with impressive faith:

OLIVE TREES Two young olive trees hoping to make it through

And yet the Boston Ivy beginning to make its presence felt against the brick suggests that this is a garden which will blow your breath away for its lushness – and sheer audacity – in a couple of months time:

IMG_3831Boston Ivy beginning to make its presence felt

I am taken along a further black painted passage, passing two elegant green-painted wooden benches, hooked up efficiently ship-cabin style, on the way:


Vintage wooden benches, folded away and hooked up ship-cabin style

Here, in the toughest, darkest section of rooftop is a background of dark paint, mirrors, green glass pebbles and softening elements of terracotta and wood ready to be clothed in green as the summer progresses:



IMG_3824Abbie Zabar’s rooftop garden, continued

Buffeted by the wind we are relieved to get back inside where Abbie serves me a quite wonderful feast of the scones, homemade jam and cream delivered to her, wrapped in a cloth  – for me! – earlier that morning:

IMG_3839 (4)

Chris’s special half moon scones IMG_3791 Abbie’s hand monogrammed napkins – she sources antique napkins to embroider in the annual ‘Christmas rummage sale’ at St Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue.

There is too much to talk about, but we manage to cover the beautifully, solid orchid pots in fine Italian terracotta she has just designed for Seibert and Rice. I naturally bought one to bring home in my hand luggage. The orchid pots are reviewed in detail on Matt Mattus in his excellent blog GROWING WITH PLANTS.


abbie4Abbie Zabar’s Seibert and Rice Orchid Pot photographed by Matt Mattus

Abbie also told me about her exhibition which begins in June 2015: Abbie Zabar: Ten Years of Flowers at Wave Hill, the public garden and cultural centre just outside the City. This is a woman who managed to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art every week for ten years to make an unbroken record of the famously extravagant floral arrangements in its entrance hall …


A taste of Abbie Zabar’s works on paper or board for her Wave Hill Exhibition, Summer 2015.

I wish I could be back in New York for the exhibition and to revisit this garden when it has fully sprung to life. Instead I go on my way back to street level and down to the Lower East Side.

That evening we discover the serene underground Japanese restaurant, Kyo Ya.  I am charmed and calmed by the wooden interior with beautiful iron screens, the opportunity to taste different ‘Spring sake’ from tiny pottery vessels, and completely delicious food.

IMG_3867Elegant, geometric iron screens at Kyo Ya

Each slice of pressed sushi with marinaded mackerel was decorated with tiny flowers and delicate piles of wasabi or pickled ginger:

IMG_3866 (2)

Pressed sushi of marinaded mackerel with flowers at Kyo Ya

We sit against a perfect screen of almost luminous Honesty (lunaria annua) seed heads pressed within panes of glass.

IMG_3861 (3)Glass screen with honesty seed heads, Kyo Ya Japanese Restaurant

Part II of An English Gardener in New York, From the High Line to Ground Zero, to follow shortly.



maryMilky blue painted seat with Madonna and Child at Wyken Hall Gardens

We have just returned from a week of extraordinary snow in our favourite mountain village of Gargellen, Austria:


Arthur and a fruit tree under heavy snow in Gargellen, Austria

At times the only way to track down a faint whiff of spring was to indulge in a little medicinal yet subtly fragrant Gentian root schnapps:


Enzian or Gentian root schnapps

Back in Suffolk for an Easter holiday weekend and things are beginning to warm up.  I grab the chance to sneak off to my two favourite Suffolk gardens, Wyken Hall and Fullers Mill.

I head first to our near neighbours at Wyken Hall.  Here Sir Kenneth and Lady Carla Carlisle have created a richly coloured, welcoming homestead. They have developed a wonderful garden around their intensely copper-red limewashed Elizabethan Manor house, planted a productive vineyard and converted elegant barns into The Leaping Hare restaurant and stores – they also host a first class farmers’ market every Saturday morning. This is a place where careful thought, dextrous – sometimes daring – use of colour, and great style infuse every garden path, view and would-be naked gable end. Even the sign to the car park is richly painted with a velvety palette of plants to match:


parking close up

The garden itself can be visited every afternoon except for Saturday until the autumn.  IMG_9563

From the moment you approach the house, the deep ‘Suffolk Pink’ of its walls and the series of blue painted rocking chairs under espaliered crab apples – the rocking chairs an echo of the verandahs of the Southern States of America where Carla Carlisle was brought up – create a wonderful sense of welcome.


rocking establish

I love the almost dangerous choice of bright red Chaenomoles (ornamental quince) against the red limewash and the way the strong colour of the house enables even the dusty winter-pruned lavender to work a sort of silvery magic at this spare time of year.

3 rockers

Red Chaenomeles and pruned lavender against rich Suffolk Pink walls

By early summer no tricks will have been missed – electric blue ceanothus will be adding another layer of colour:

ceonothusElectric blue Ceanothus adding another layer of colour, Wyken Hall, May 2010

As you make your way around the garden you pass through a small courtyard with a beautiful old copper container at its centre.  Every element of this space is suffused with the same rich, moody palette.  The aged verdigris container contrasts with yellow and royal purple of Viola tricolor which sings out between the tulip leaves.  In the border, the pale blue of forget-me-nots and the clear pinks of Cyclamen coum act as exquisite highlights to the soft red and darkest purple-black of the hellebores, and on the wall leading to the orchard sits a peacock, a swoop of rich green and blue.


close up viola tricolorViola tricolor amongst tulips in copper urn

paletteHellebores, forget-me-nots and Cyclamen coumpeacockPeacock contemplating the orchard, Wyken Hall

As you enter the Hot Border – there is just a small taste of the outrageous colour to come – neighbouring stands of brilliant ‘Orange Emperor’ tulips and even deeper orange crown imperials – Fritillaria imperialis  – brilliant against the smooth dark green of the clipped yew hedge.

orange green

‘Orange Emperor’ tulips and Fritillara imperialis against a clipped yew hedge

Looking back an the house the acid green of Euphorbia characias contrasts almost as vividly with the more demure planes of yew and box:

euphorbia against red

Euphorbia characias with box and yew hedging

In every direction the views are strongly framed:

viewYew and box frame the view to the woodland beyond

Or there is a strong simple idea – such as these espaliered pear trees against a brick and flint wall underplanted with a stretch of iris…

pear tree iris allumEspaliered pear underplanted with Iris 

…and one more example of a wonderful, inventive gate – I love this simply made, Art Deco inspired stepped wooden gate revealing the life of the field beyond:

great gatePGWooden gate, Wyken

Around the house is a series of intricately laid out rooms – originally designed with the help of Arabella Lennox Boyd.  A pair of impressive standard white wistera with fattening buds provide substance and energy amongst the clipped topiary of the Knot garden, even this early in the season:

new wisteria

wisteria budPair of standard white wisteria and fattening wisteria buds

It won’t be long before this garden room is alive with both white and mauve wisteria:


Vintage Wisteria at Wyken Hall – May 2010courtyard

As the afternoon begins to cool off,  the next garden room, with four standard viburnum as centre pieces, is looking sober and beautifully ordered.  Even the lichen on the brick is an extra, gently decorative layer:

lichen tilelichen on diamond- pattern brick terrace

The garden at Wyken Hall is a masterclass in creating a sense of comfortable enclosure and  making sure that every place to sit feels inviting. This bench nestles between generous shapes of topiaried box and a pair of neatly pruned weeping silver pear, Pyrus salicifolia pendula.

IMG_9614Painted bench looking settled between topiaried box and weeping silver pear trees

Another old – rather pink-tinged! – photograph this time from 2004,  gives an idea of how bright and full this scene becomes later in the year:


In the cottage garden a friendly bench is placed invitingly beneath a window and at the end of the central path which leads through the front garden which is about to become a sea of colour:IMG_9567

Centrally placed bench, cottage garden

At another point around the main house, a table and pair of chairs look settled – where they might have felt a little lost and wrong in scale – positioned with the neat rectangle of clipped yew and wavy, bright gree hedge of Hebe as a backdrop and further anchoring device:

hebe taxusPGTable and chairs with yew and hebe as backdrop

There is a celebratory quality to much of the garden – a very pretty pergola of trained fruit trees is underplanted with starry blue Chionodoxa – I think Chionodoxa luciliae  –

pergolachionodoxaPergola underplanted with chionodoxa

There is a double gate leading invitingly to the pond just beyond the rose garden with its welcoming Adirondack chairs and framed pontoon.  Rummaging again through my boxes of garden photographs I smiled when I found this image of ten year younger husband, Nick, (funnily enough, mid very long work phone call …),  sitting on the pontoon in all its gorgeous full summer splendour.


Pontoon and pond at Wyken in April 2015 and below in August 2004

Walking back to the front gate the garden opens out onto a quite splendid oak tree with a sea of cheerful narcissus lighting up the scene

oak tree and narcissusOak tree with narcissus

A path cut through this spring flowering meadow takes you to a half hidden glade with an arched seat painted in the same milky blue as much of the other garden furniture – this time with an inset panel of Madonna and child.

mown path spring meadowPath through spring flowering meadow

maryArched seat with Madonna and Child panel

The entrance to the glade is formed entirely and unashamedly of intensely scented winter/early spring flowering trees and shrubs – Lonicera x purpusii ‘Winter Beauty, Sarcococca confusa and a pink flowered Viburnum – (surely ‘x Bodnantense’ which would be entirely fitting as Kenneth was born and brought up in the wonderful house and famous garden at Bodnant in Conwy, North Wales).  I love the way the artfully broken path leading to the seat is scattered with jewel-like, navy blue muscari, more chionodoxa and delicate sheaves of pale narcissus.

wyken glade

The entrance to glade is framed by scented shrubs

close up narcissus and chionodoxa

The broken path is strewn with sheaves of pale Narcissus

The garden at Wyken is a modern country garden with a now mature structure which acts as a fine backdrop to seasonal planting as it emerges throughout the year.

Beyond the garden, the shop and farmers’ market provide equally tempting seasonal delights and a chance to admire the most magnificent stretch of immaculately pruned and wall-trained figs.

fig long viewplant stand

figWall trained figs at Wyken

pumpkinsAutumn pumpkin display at Wyken

I visit my other favourite, old friend of a Suffolk garden, Fullers Mill, the following morning.

IMG_3620Path through The King’s Forest, leading to Fullers Mill Garden

Fullers Mill near Bury St Edmunds is only about twelve miles away from Wyken. It is a completely different style of gardening and inspiring for its passion for nature and for its fascination with each individual plant.

You approach this extraordinary 7 acre garden along a track through the King’s Forest.  If you hit the right moment in June this part of the forest is waist high in shocking pink and purple foxgloves – and that is before you even arrive at Fullers Mill:

foxgloves fullers millThe forest path waist-high in foxgloves

Hidden away at the end of the path is an incredibly peaceful and very personal garden which has been carved out of not always hospitable soil around a mill house for over fifty years by Bernard Tickner. Bernard, nearly 91, has now given the garden to the charity Perennial but still lives there and with their help is still caring for –  indeed still extending and improving  – the garden.bernartd

Bernard Tickner on his almost daily round of Fullers Mill Garden

A passionate plantsman, Bernard still exchanges plants annually with his long-standing and much revered friend, Beth Chatto and over the years devoted as much time as he could away from his job as Head Brewer for Greene King to travel to Crete and the Pyrenees to seek out plants in their natural habitat. Years ago, renowned botanist John Raven – father of Sarah Raven – offered guidance as to the cleverest places to visit. Bernard has a Pyrenean fritillary named for him and in the shelter of a small private courtyard by the mill house itself is a tiny Cretan Iris named for his late wife, Bess.

On this early April morning, the garden is looking immaculate and fresh, with swathes of gentle red hellebores threading their way through the softly mulched space and the the acid yellow-green of Euphorbias catching the cool spring light:




Bernard and I set off around the garden together. We stop first at a sheet of naturalised Narcissus bulbocodium :

IMG_9693IMG_9694Narcissus bulbocodium, Fullers Mill

Bernard is proud of his ever expanding display which started of as four or five small pots – this six by six metre patch has been encouraged by sowing yellow rattle to weaken the grass.

One of my favourite things about the way the garden at Fullers Mill has developed is that there is real space for plants to spread and be themselves. There is magnificent witchhazel for January and February, as elegant as a movie star in a cool skirt of snow and later flowering at full blast:

fullers mill snow

fullers mill sun

Spreading Witchhazel at Fullers Mill

Today a mature Magnolia x loebneri ‘Leonard Messel’ lights up the woodland with its pale pink starry flowers. Under the magnolia, a large pool of the woodland dicentra, Dicentra formosa, is given space to thrive.IMG_9710


Magnolia x loebneri ‘Leonard Messel’ underplanted with Dicentra formosa

Everywhere there are treasures to discover. Here a text-book healthy clump of Arum creticum with clear yellow spathes and long yellow spadices:


Arum creticum

Close by there is a patch of lovely, pointyflowered Tulipa sylvestris :


Tulipa sylvestris

and not far away a patch of the creamy yellow fritillary, Fritillaria pallidaflora:

IMG_9709Fritillaria pallidaflora

There is a wonderful specimen of the tree heather, Erica arborea var. alpina whose long, fragrant candle-like panicles make softly energetic patterns:

IMG_9712IMG_9717Erica arborea var. alpina

We pass under an enormous, tunnel-forming Cornus mas.  Even now, as its flowers lose the intensity of their yellow, the branches look fresh and pretty as they hang over the millpond in the spring sunshine:

IMG_9727IMG_9730Cornus mas 

And the still tiny leaves of the Cercidiphyllum japonicum – which will smell of toasted sugar in autumn – catch the light like hundreds of coins.

IMG_9739Cercidiphyllum japonicum

There is a lovely area of Fritillaria meleagris too:


” I don’t know why they call it the snakeshead fritillary’ remarks Bernard “‘meleagris means spotted like a guinea fowl”.  A fair point.

By midsummer, today’s clump of exquisitely pleated leaves of Veratrum nigrum will be the base of statuesque flowerheads:IMG_9746veratrumpg

Veratrum nigrum leaves then flower

And the garden will be shoulder-high with a dazzling collection of lilies.  “They are not as difficult to grow as people might think”, sighs Bernard. As always with him it is a question of growing the right plant in the right place. “What they should shout from the rooftops is ‘good drainage!’ ” he cries out in his inimitable part deadly serious, part playful manner.

Non Summer 2010 207

Fullers Mill

Bernard Tickner amongst lilies, and lilies and campanula at Fullers Mill

Before I leave, I photograph Bernard next to the stand of plants for sale.  There is a new polytunnel in the garden and an exciting new commitment to propagate and sell as many plants as possible from the garden.  Fullers Mill is open to the public on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays, 2 – 5pm until the end of September. The quality of the coffee and walnut and lemon drizzle cakes goes without saying.IMG_9695

Bernard Tickner with plants for sale from the garden.



It is a teasing time of year – gorgeous one minute and miserable the next.  If the skies are glowering and the temperature still demands a bobble hat, a clever move is to head off to one of the RHS shows in Vincent Square for a fix of Spring.   This photograph of a camellia judging table from an Early Spring Show is permanently pinned to my notice board and has sustained me with its intense rainbow of pinks since 2004…

rhsCamellia judging table, RHS VIncent Square 2004

And this image of the elegant, dancing Narcissus ‘Snipe’ on the delightful Broadleigh Bulbs stand was taken on a gloomy Sunday afternoon this February. Now firmly on my bulb order list for next September, the photograph will cheer me until early 2016 when I hope to find it flowering in my own garden.

IMG_2964Narcissus ‘Snipe’, Broadleigh Bulbs, The London Plant and Potato Fair 2015

We have had some staggeringly beautiful early Spring days and the whole season seems to be moving rather fast, although farmers tell me that we are two weeks behind last year. As I set out a few days ago to visit the camellia collection at Chiswick House in West London, the view from my kitchen is hazy with promise:

camberweelBrilliant March sunshine, Camberwell

I have been planning a trip to New York and feel slightly guilty as New York friends continue to endure deep winter…

Image 1

Image 3Scenes from New York, March 2015

… whilst I’m padding about the newly restored glasshouse at Chiswick House, my jacket under my arm, admiring the ranked antiquity of its camellias, some of which have been grown here for 160 years:

IMG_3205View of the Chiswick House Camellia Collection

The sunlight casts exhilaratingly crisp shadows on the walls and floor:


IMG_3172Camellia japonica ‘Betty Fox Saunders’ and Coade stone vase laced with shadows in the conservatory at Chiswick House

And it is easy to delight in the voluptuous flamenco frills of Camellia japonica ‘Rubra Plena’


IMG_9192Camellia japonica ‘Rubra Plena’

the intense red and white marbling of ‘Coralina’:


Camellia japonica ‘Coralina’

and the cool, palest pink of Camellia ‘Gray’s Invincible’ – my favourite of this important collection, a camellia that was bred by a London head gardener in 1824:

IMG_9172IMG_9173Camellia japonica ‘Gray’s Invincible’

The collection at Chiswick has had an extraordinary history. Some of the twelve foot high specimens survived bomb damage to the glasshouse during the Second World War and despite periods of considerable neglect they have managed to keep going – whereas a once similar collection at Chatsworth no longer exists.

But as a gardener, I find myself wondering how I apply the immaculate sight of an entire neatly clipped tree in perfect candy-pink bloom to a real garden situation :

IMG_9200IMG_9202 (2)IMG_9203Camellia japonica ‘Incarnata’

 I am distracted for a moment by the handsome pots of young Camellia Japonica ‘Lily Pons’ planted with the fern, Dryopteris affinis:

IMG_9216lily pons from in forntlily pons from behind

Camellia japonica ‘Lily Pons’

I have always liked this elegant, white-flowered camellia which has glossy dark green leaves, translucent white petals and a relaxed, upright habit.  It is known as an excellent camellia for training along a shady fence.  I would love to try it, but can’t quite imagine how effective it would be in the flesh –  perhaps this image of an immaculately trained red camellia, found on the seductive website Gardenista, will tempt someone to give it a go?


An immaculate wall trained camellia

It is a relief to step outside the conservatory and find a further enormous tree of a camellia planted jauntily in the open air, taking charge of the glass house. This is no longer a beauty parade – it is just a wonderful specimen tree, with good space around it, welcoming you into the handsome white painted glass house.


 Red camellia at the Conservatory Entrance, Chiswick House

The key with camellias in a garden situation is to think hard about how they will work in context before being seduced by the enticing brilliance of a particular flower. There are too many camellias out there, chosen for the perkiness of their flower, but looking brash and lonely in the middle of a front garden or wintery border.

One of the cleverest ways to grow camellias is to celebrate their well-groomed neatness and plant them as a formal hedge.  A neighbour’s extremely pretty front garden in Camberwell has a hedge of Camellia japonica ‘Forest Green’ which forms a year-round glossy screen of emerald green against the shiny black Victorian railings:



Camellia japonica ‘Forest Green’ against black railings, Camberwell

‘Forest Green’ is late to flower but when it does the hedge is lit up by dashes of brilliant carmine, and for the rest of the year it is a handsome foil to an immaculate knot garden.IMG_9558 (8)

Knot garden – Camberwell

Another way to go to with camellias is to find a gentler form which will work with, and not against, a planting scheme.  My absolute favourite camellia is Camellia ‘Cornish show’.  This is a compact camellia with a relaxed, slightly arching habit and very pretty single white, fragrant flowers, tinged pink on the reverse of the petals. There is a wonderful specimen of this in a woodland edge planting at the Chelsea Physic Garden.



Camellia ‘Cornish Snow’ just coming into flower at the Chelsea Physic Garden, March 2015

As with all camellias, ‘Cornish Snow’ prefers acidic conditions, but I plan to follow Monty Don’s example – he planted a Camellia  ‘Cornish Snow’ a few years ago in neutral soil in the Gardener’s World garden and has been successfully using composted bracken around the plant to reduce the pH of the soil.

It is worth visiting the Chelsea Physic Garden just to see this very lovely camellia covered in white flowers – it is planted next to the fantastic Rosa x odorata ‘Bengal Crimson’, famous for being in flower every day of the year, and it was indeed blooming gently all over earlier this month.

IMG_9105Rosa x odorata ‘Bengal Crimson’, Chelsea Physic Garden

Elsewhere in the garden was a perfect, rounded specimen of the lemony-scented Daphne odora and wonderful shoots of Iris orientalis catching the cool spring sunshine.


Daphne odora, Chelsea Physic Garden


Iris orientalis, Chelsea Physic Garden

Where there is space of course, and the right soil, camellias provide a vital early radiance to the spring woodland garden.  Here at RHS Wisley camellias have the chance to become substantial plants and look great because they are nestled amongst shrubs and trees of similar scale.

Camellias amongst woodland, Battleston Hill, RHS Wisley

At Great DIxter camellias are used predictably well too.  When I visited this month, a lovely pale pink camellia provided a shot of soft colour in this beautifully balanced garden, poised for another electric spring:

Palest pink camellia, Great Dixter, March 2015

IMG_9243Pink Azalea and clipped topiary, Great Dixter, March 2015IMG_9231

The Peacock Garden with canes marking ‘stockbed’ planting areas, Great Dixter, March 2015aucubaLush Aucuba japonica f. longifolia and hellebores, Great Dixter, March 2015

By April a deep crimson camellia will be flowering amongst pale and richer pinks of magnolia – a perfect example of the kind of heady delight that the garden provides so much of:
great dixter camellia magnolia

Camellia and magnolias, Great Dixter, April 2013

New York yesterday was back to this:

ImageBut in London the sun is – amazingly – still shining. There remains another week to wander up and down the aisle of brilliant champion camellias at Chiswick House (the Camellia Show runs until March 29th) or you could slip into the Chelsea Physic Garden any week day to admire Camellia ‘Cornish Show’. If you want a wonderful fix of spring garden plus the chance to buy rare and gorgeous plants of every kind, head to the unusual and generous  Great Dixter Spring Plant Fair next weekend.

Dixter fair



WINTER DEERThe last day of January 2015 was bitter and wet. January has been its grim self and I rather badly want a break. In the darkening afternoon I take myself off to the Dulwich Picture Gallery to catch ‘From the Forest to the Sea – Emily Carr in British Columbia’ (on until 15th March).  It is quietly uplifting to be welcomed again into its dark red old-master-encrusted walls and the exhibition of paintings by this feisty, pioneering Canadian painter (1871-1945) is indeed a revelation. I love the folding, almost tropical richness and weight of her earlier forest scenes.  There is a mesmerising strength to the white simplicity of the chapel building against the oppressive, towering greens in Indian Church, 1929.

Indian Church

Indian Church, oil on canvas, 1929, Emily Carr

A decade or so later Carr was working in a different, lighter, faster way. She had moved from the study of monumental, mature forest to painting more open woodland. “I bought cheap paper by the quire. Carrying a light, folding cedar-wood drawing board, a bottle of gasoline (petrol), large bristle brushes and oil paints, I spent all the time I could in the woods”.  The resultant paintings of younger, ‘frivolous’ trees have the scratchy energy and flickering licks of colour that remind me of Rodin’s watercolour sketches of dancers.


Happiness, oil on paper, 1939, Emily Carr

Her writing is as intoxicating as her painting. One of her most famous paintings is a dazzling image of a skinny survivor in an area of felled forest Scorned as Timber, Beloved of Sky, 1935. 


Scorned as TImber, Beloved of the Sky, oil on canvas, 1935, Emily Carr

She writes “there is nothing so strong as growing…life is in the soil. Touch it with air and light and it will burst forth, like a match”.  Definitely the sort of fighting talk I was in need of.


Sissinghurst way

On Monday morning, still thinking about the tirelessness and individuality of Carr’s celebratory study of landscape, I set off to meet Nettie Edwards who has been spending an intensive year as Artist-photographer in Residence at Painswick Rococo gardens.  Nettie – whose photographs of Painswick I recommended in my December 2014 blog – has invited me to see the famous Painswick snowdrops and to find out more about her work.  The day – happily we are now in February – is cold and bright.

I have decided to spend the journey to Gloucestershire listening to Ian Bostridge’s new recording of Schubert’s WInterreise. As I pass the towering Tesco signs at Earl’s Court to turn West onto the M4 I am driven achingly forward by Bostridge’s fine, eloquent, sometimes startling performance. I arrive at the appointed hour at Painswick Rococo Garden Coach House Restaurant with a bit of a bump.


Before we set foot in the garden I spend two brilliant hours in a subtle rainbow world of plant dye and the quest for sunlight. Nettie’s enthusiasm for her work at the Rococo Garden where she has focused on developing her photographic work with Anthothotypes in particular, is inspiring .  She describes the process and many of her experiments eloquently and generously in her blog Hortus Lucis A year in a garden of light : ‘Quite simply, to make an Anthotype you need plant matter and sunlight. Not much of the former, but in most cases, rather a lot of the latter. Dye is extracted from the plant matter, paper is coated with the dye, a photographic transparency is placed on top of the dyed paper, both are exposed to UV light which bleaches away areas of the dyed paper, leaving an image.’

Working at Painswick Nettie wanted to use material seasonally available from the garden.  It is the perfect artistic residency for a garden – an incredibly intimate way for an artist to work, where the garden provides both the medium and the subject matter. The often surprising discoveries made by trying to extract dye from different plants gives her work a rich story-telling resonance – during a residency in the town of Atina, Italy she worked with geranium petals from the town square and poignant transparencies from war time photographs and she has just returned from Versailles with a quantity of fallen lichen which she will perhaps use in combination with her strongly geometric photographs of this tightly structured garden.

ATINA_GERANIUMSAtina Geraniums, copyright Nettie Edwards @lumilyon 2014

Versailles Avenue, copyright Nettie Edwards, @lumilyon 2014


Midnight Eclipse, Sweet Peas, Versailles, copyright Nettie Edwards @lumilyon 2014

The fragility of the final works when they are exposed to light powerfully echoes the ephemeral nature of the flowers and plants from which they are made and this fragility is for Nettie a crucial part of the process.

Nettie’s first experiments with anthotypes had been with wild garlic leaves – the  resultant, crisped pale green japanese papers still smell faintly of garlic.  The effect of tap water or spring water, the age of the paper (Nettie sometimes uses paper from old books with their built in chemicals which produce extraordinarily different effects) or sometimes vodka are all different and always a journey into the unknown.  The names of her portfolio covers alone are rich with connotation: ‘Blue plumbago and tap water’, ‘The Sweetpea papers’ ,’Lilac buddleja with vodka,’Red onion skin and geranium leaves”.

On arrival at Painswick, a surplus of beetroot from the Kitchen Garden led to a fantastic range of papers to work with.


Beetroot coated papers – copyright Nettie Edwards @ lumilyon 2014

This glowering transparency of her photograph of the Eagle House at Painswick:


Transparency of The Eagle House, Painswick Rococo Garden, copyright Nettie Edwards @lumilyon 2014

was pinned against a beetroot coated paper and given many days of sunlight:


Transparency of The Eagle House, against a beetroot coated paper being exposed to sunlight –  copyright Nettie Edwards @ lumilyon 2014.

The resultant image is wonderful – rich and subtle and ethereal:


Beetroot Anthotype of The Eagle House, copyright Nettie Edwards @Lumilyon 2014

And here is a gorgeous, subtle later image made with a surprisingly grey-green paper made from purple alliums.


Anthotype with purple alliums, copyright Nettie Edwards @lumilyon 2014

And then we visit the garden itself.  There is a lot to work out. Painswick Rococo Garden was created in the 1740’s by the Hyett family and is regarded as one of the finest examples of this kind of personal idyllic pleasure ground.  It is laid out in a hidden valley behind Painswick House – the natural shape of the land allowing for a combination of long, formal vistas and geometric patterns as well as the informality of winding paths, asymmetry and a playful collection of garden buildings. A 1748 painting by Thomas Robins is so detailed that no-one is certain if it is a record of the original layout of the garden or indeed a proposed garden design.


Painting of Painswick House and Garden by Thomas Robins, 1748

The garden you see today – restoration from a neglected and overgrown state began in 1984 – is immaculately well cared for and as delightfully easy to enjoy as Robin’s painting:

establish 3 snow

Painswick Rococo Garden: view to the vegetable garden and yew allée

Nettie shows me some of her favourite elements of the garden –  loving the simplicity of sheets of snowdrops, glassy reflections on the Exedra pond and stark regiments of perfectly pruned espalier apple trees  – and yet wishing I could somehow simultaneously see it in the softness of late spring:

snowdrops 1

Sheets of snowdrops in the woodland

pond reflection

The Exedra Pond – the slender line crossing the image is just a temporary fence


The Exedra – faithfully restored with timber and lime plaster –  beyond immaculately pruned espaliered apple trees

There is an attractive, practical integrity to the way the garden is now run. Produce from the abundant kitchen garden supplies the friendly Coach House Restaurant which produces delicious food.  We had delicious roasted pumpkin soup and shared an incredible orange and almond cake for lunch. The restaurant is the sort of place that puts out a plate of squares of treacle tart on the counter so you can be tempted to a whole slice perhaps or just be happy to have half an inch of outrageous deliciousness.

The garden uses heritage seeds wherever possible and is concerned to grow as many plants as possible which would have been available in the eighteenth century. Even the maze, planted in 1998 to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Robins’ painting of the garden is cleverly designed by Professor Angela Newing – a  physicist and maze specialist who amazingly lived in the town of Painswick – to represent a 2, a 5, and an 0.


The Maze at Painswick Rococo Garden

The two acres of woodland planted in the 60’s are being gently transformed to include a serious holly collection and there is an ever-increasing, well curated list of snowdrops including huge swathes of the substantial, honey-scented  Galanthus ‘Atkinsii’ – named after a worker who lived on the Estate in the 1800’s.Iatkinsii

Galanthus ‘Atkinsii’

Snowdrops are beautifully grown – they are especially lovely here with sheets of foliage from autumn flowering Cyclamen hederifolium:

snowdrops cyclamen

Snowdrops with sheets of Cyclamen hederifolium as a foil

And here with the hart’s tongue fern, Asplenium scolopendrium, catching the light and creating a sumptuous glossy woodland feel.

snowdrops asplenium

snowdrops with Asplenium scolopendrium

We visit the stocky Pigeon House (the only building in the garden that had a practical purpose – i.e to house pigeons), and the enticingly positioned Gothic Alcove:

IMG_2819The Pigeon House, Painswick Rococo Garden

IMG_2817The Gothic Alcove, Painswick Rococo Garden

We walk carefully around The Plunge Pool – famous for being as cold in summer when a gentleman might choose to take a dip, as it is now in mid-winter:

IMG_2801The Plunge Pool, Painswick Rococo Garden

And as I catch another glimpse of the Exedra, this time through woodland:

edcendera thru snowdrops

The Exedra glimpsed through woodland, Painswick Rococo Garden

and see how two of the buildings play effectively off each other – there is an inevitable, rather impressive view of the Eagle House in the distance with the crisp white Exedra in front – I begin to understand the garden and its buildings better.

two building togetherThe Eagle House seen in the background with the Exedra in the foreground, Painswick Rococo Garden.

But it is probably only when I come to The Red House – a richly lime-washed asymmetric building with  ‘hinged facades’, angled so that each one is enticingly positioned at the end of a key path or allée green door – that I begin to feel really excited:

red house painswick snowThe Red House, Painswick Rococo Gardens

I love the lichen-laced oak door which has become a brilliant and inviting bright green:

greener doorThe welcoming green door to the Red House

And the mottled, chalky texture of the red lime wash – a handsome backdrop to the light gloss of the hart’s tongue fern

fern red houseHart’s Tongue Fern – Asplenium Scolopendrium – against the red lime-washed walls of the Red House

The door way frames the view effortlessly:

IMG_8869View framed by the Red House doorway

And the simple ashlar stone interior with its handsomely paved floor is brightly illuminated by intense pockets of stained glass; these in turn cast floaty pools of colour on the pale grey interior:

stone floorStone floor, The Red House, Painswick

IMwindowA stained glass window, The Red House, Painswick

pale glass reflectionReflection of coloured glass on stone, The Red House, Painswick

As I walk around the garden one more time in the fading light, the windows take on a tantalising mirrored effect: 

mirror windowTantalising mirrored effect of late afternoon sun on the windows, The Red House, Painswick

I leave the garden and drive towards Aston Magna to spend the night with my sister and her family in their new house.  As we peel ourselves away from the wood burning stove to head for bed we realise it has started snowing properly.  There is something special about experiencing your first snow in a new house.

And so to my perfect bedtime reading.  I am part of the way through Ian Bostridge’s book about his relationship with Schubert’s ‘WInter Journey’, the ‘Winterreise’ which he sings so beautifully.


I am hugely enjoying the book:  it is written in a compellingly simple style with a perceptive clarity that shines a light on everything it touches.  I love the graceful, investigative pace of it, the way the text moves from an illuminating analysis of a single line to a rich exploration of other literature or a painting, perhaps, that has a connection to the Lieder.  In the chapter on Frühlingstraum, Dream of Spring, Bostridge explains what is at stake in the piece and the subtle decisions needed from the piano introduction onwards.  He then takes the idea of the ‘leaves and flowers’ ‘painted’ by the frost on the window pane, and the painful longing for the green of spring throughout this song, and illustrates how German literature is “suffused with the notion of Eisblumen, ice flowers”. He moves outward to take in images of fire and ice in Charlotte Brontë’s novels and then to give a beautiful account of the exquisite history of the study of snowflakes.


Page from the Frühlingstraum chapter,  Schubert’s Winter Journey – by Ian Bostridge


Page from the Frühlingstraum chapter, Schubert’s Winter Journey, by Ian Bostridge

We wake the next morning to a delightfully pale world and go for a wonderful winter walk.

WINTER DEERA pair of deer, winter walk, Gloucestershire

lines in snow

 Lines and tracks in snow, winter walk, Gloucestershire

bird foot  printsPheasant footprints in snow, winterwalk, Gloucestershire

lichen and snowPatterns of snow on lichen-encrusted branches, winter walk, Gloucestershire.

I drive back to London listening again to the Winterreise but promising to return to Painswick when it is soft and full again with Queen Anne’s Lace and apple blossom.

eagle-house-colour-120514-e1400020545316Eagle House, Painswick Rococo Garden, May 2014, copyright Nettie Edwards @lumilyon 2014




Wood pigeon in crab apple tree, Laxfield, Suffolk, December 2014

At the turnstiles, South Kensington tube station. I am bracing myself for a first session of Christmas shopping when I find myself turning right into the tunnel instead of making my way upwards to ground and shop level.  The station has long borne a tantalising sign that simply says ‘Museums’ and flashing through my mind was the knowledge that the refurbished Cast Courts at the Victoria and Albert Museum had re- opened only the night before.  How could I resist sneaking off to the V&A instead of weighing up the impact of the ‘faux’ aspect of a ‘faux mohair’ throw for my mother or worrying if an 18 year old boy, closely related to me, would show any sign of increased animation when discovering a  ‘reinterpreted piece of apparel from the Adidas archive” (i.e. a navy blue t-shirt that says ‘By Nigo’ under a giant Adidas logo) in his Christmas stocking?

On arrival at the museum I am immediately drawn towards the ruddy glow of the John Madejski Garden – the wonderful courtyard garden at the heart of the museum.  Here,  glittering softly in a quiet rainbow of reds and golds, is the most wonderful, gently radiant, Liquidamber.  Two wise visitors are picnicking calmly in the fading light under the best possible early Christmas tree.


Two wise picnickers under a Liquidambar, The John Madejksi Garden, V&A

I feel eighteen again myself as I enter Room 46a – which together with its neighbour 46b – now named the Weston Cast Court – are the only public galleries in the museum which display the same collection of objects as when they first opened: an exceptional group of 19th Century plaster cast reproductions which allow you to travel wondrously around Europe and through history in the space of a gorgeous hour.

IMG_2477Towering Trajan’s Column, Room 46a, Cast Courts, Victoria and Albert Museum 

I am drawn first to the glimmering bronze detail of the Porta di San Ranieri – from Pisa Cathedral, c. 1180 – with this rhythmic scene of palm trees and Wise Men.
Electrotype of Panel from the Porta di San Ranieri, Pisa: The Three Wise Men

And then to the pale exquisite perfection of casts from the cloisters of the Church of San Juan de Los Reyes at Toledo c. 1480-1500:

IMG_2487IMG_2489Detail from cloisters of San Juan de Los Reyes, Toledo

There is a sense of wonder and tremendous calm in these rooms and yet it is fantastically intimate. You are allowed to get close, to photograph, sketch, just sit and imagine you are in Southern Spain or Florence.

I love the rhythmical boxy flowers carved from milky reddish stone from the central pier of a doorway at Amiens Cathedral, 1220-35:


And in the next door room, the yellow-gold exuberance of Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, Florence, 1425 -52:

IMG_2522Detail from Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise

There is an exhilerating sense of scale and it is a fantastic privilege to be able to experience seeing the Gates and Michelango’s David at a mere arm’s length from each other – even on a visit to Florence to see the real thing separate pilgrimages would of course be required to the Baptistry and the Uffizi Gallery respectively.

IMG_2536Michaelangelo’s David and Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise

I am entranced by the rather magical photographs which you cannot help but take of the box-framed ‘Fig leaf for David’ – believed to have been made in 1857 to protect the modesty of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert:

IMG_2527Fig Leaf for David, Brucciani & Co. c 1857

There is the crisp, star-burst clarity of decoration from the Tomb of Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, 1505-09:


Detail from the Tomb of Ascanio Sforza, 1505-09

And I stay for quite a while before the exquisite cool angel-wing carving of Donatello’s Cavalcanti Annunciation, 1425-50:

IMG_2509IMG_2507Donatello’s Cavalcanti Annunciation

Before I leave I enjoy the inventive charm of the 3D oak tree and wheat sheaves of Orcagna’s ‘The Assumption and Death of the Virgin’:


The Assumption and Death of the Virgin, 1352, Andrea de Gione, known as Orcagna

I dart – for further fortification –  into the cafe. Here the Gamble Room is resplendent with its year-round giant bauble lighting:


A giant bauble light, The Gamble Room, V&A Cafe

I am feeling much readier to think about Christmas and indeed Christmas presents and am going to change my approach. For myself (should anyone important be reading this …) I would be keen to start a collection of antique William Morris/William de Morgan tiles so that one day I will have enough to line a garden loggia …


IMG_2556William Morris tiles from the Cafe at the V&A


The loggia at the Arts and Crafts house,  Standen, National Trust, East Sussex

More realistically, inspired by the Liquidambar in the John Madejski Garden,  I am thinking  that alternative Christmas Trees would be a great place to start for presents for family and friends:


The Madejski Garden at nightfall – The Liquidambar is now gold against gold

One of the prettiest trees to give at Christmas is a winter flowering cherry: Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’. This is a small tree – worth looking out for a multi-stemmed one – which quietly lights up the garden from November to March with delicate, pink tinged white flowers.  www.bluebellnursery.com has bare root plants at 125-150cm available for mail-order for £29.50.


Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’

Another great present choice is a ready-trained U-cordon apple tree.  Three of these  – there is still time for a Christmas delivery if you hurry – arrived from Pennard Plants in time for Christmas last year. The trees were inspired by my visit to the Prieuré D’Orsan (see my December 5th 2013 post): they have been handsome and prolific and are excellent hosts at Christmas for midwinter lighting.


IMG_8705 2


U-Cordon Apple trees, Camberwell with young fruit and with festoon lights and naked wire lights (both the latter are available from Cox and Cox )

prieure pommesU-cordon apple trees at the Prieuré D’Orsan

The apple trees carry slate labels which were also inspired by the labelling at the Prieuré –  permanent gold marker pens, slate labels with or without holes and fine galvanised tying wire are all available very inexpensively from the brilliant The Essentials Company and would make another good present.

gold sign

Gooseberry label, La Prieuré D’OrsanIMG_8724

Queen Cox label, South London

A crab apple tree with particularly long last red fruit would be another excellent tree to give at Christmas. Helen Fraser and I planted a pair of Malus x atrogsanguinea ‘Gorgeous’ from Landford Trees in one of our favourite gardens in Oxfordshire (see our Fraser&Morris website) where it is both long flowering and holds onto its fruit well into December:

december 2010 003Frosted Malus x atrosanguinea ‘Gorgeous’ fruit, Oxfordshire, December


A welcoming pair of red-fruited crab apples in a front garden at Laxfield, Suffolk

Another tree to buy in a pair for a welcoming front door would be some handsome half standard variegated holly trees – Ilex aquifolium ‘Argentea Marginata’.  Really good size plants at 160-180cm are available for £44.50 each from the Big Plant Nursery



Ilex aquifolium ‘Argentea Marginata’ – flanking a front door in Canterbury and a close up of the light-catching leaves

My final suggestion of a tree to give for Christmas is a standard form of the White Currant ‘White Versailles’ – available mail order from Blackmoor Nursery for between £12 and £25 depending on whether you would prefer a bare root or a container grown plant.

Whitecurrant_LW A standard whitecurrant will grow into quite a sturdy, weeping small tree. It can cope with semi shade and leaves plenty of room underneath to plant with herbs perhaps or cutting tulips and wild strawberries which is the case in my own garden.  Whitecurrant fruit is hard to find in the shops but a single small tree can be very prolific, producing fruit to be eaten fresh with other berries in the summer and then made into an exquisite jelly for the winter:



Frozen whitecurrants for making into jelly

Jane Grigson’s recipe from her wonderful ‘Fruit Book’ – another brilliant, enduring present – is based on Eliza Acton’s instructions.  You don’t even have to remove the leaves and stalks from the currants  – just cover the base of the pan with a thin layer of water, add the same quantity of sugar to fruit, boil hard for 8 minutes and strain to produce ‘a strong jelly of fine flavour’. The jelly is completely delicious with roast pheasant or lamb or with a blue cheese such as stilton. You will even be ahead of the game for Christmas presents the following year year…


IMG_8640Jarof jewel-like white currant jelly, Camberwell

Two other book suggestions are Frances Bissell’s The Floral Baker – which is like a jar of sunshine with recipes for tomato and lavender tart and marigold, olive and manchego scones and will keep your friends and family happy, dreaming of the summer to come:


And I can strongly recommend an almost dangerously provocative book for a plant nut: Bob GIbbons’ Wildflower Wonders of the World. I love this book – it cannot fail to make you want to make serious journeys to experience the intensity of the World’s most spectacular displays of wild flowers. 


For a different kind of present for someone who loves plants and gardens, I have the work of two photographers to suggest.

I am a long standing admirer of Chrystel Lebas who uses a panoramic camera and long exposure times to create dreamlike sweeping landscapes which are hard to forget.  Her series ‘Between Dog and Wolf’ – a translation of the French phrase for twilight,  ‘entre chien et loup’ – has fantastic images of frozen shadowy, fairytale forests –  what could be a better present to receive on Christmas morning? Her covetable prints are available from The Photographers Gallery


An image from the ‘Between Dog and Wolf’ series by Chrystel Lebas

Newly discovered for 2014 and absolutely on my own Christmas list, are the innovative iphoto images of award-winning photographer Nettie Edwards who is currently an artist in residence at Painswick Rococo Garden in Gloucestershire – more on this in The Dahlia Papers in 2015. You can read about her work and her time at Painswick in her blog Hortus Lucis A year in a garden of Light . I love the soft, atmospheric painterly quality of her photographs.  Prints are available from about £100 – contact Nettie Edwards direct on net@nettieweb.co.uk

rococo_chinoiserie1kale-flowers-05_14gothic-bench-salt-print-05_14exedra-04_14Four Photographs taken at Painswick Rococo Garden by Nettie Edwards, net@nettie.web.co.uk

I came upon my very last idea for an alternative Christmas tree – or indeed Christmas present – when walking in Peckham last week with artist and writer, Jake Tilson. We talked about his brilliantly illustrated, perceptively written new book about Christmas food (available mail order, of course from Tender Books ) as he led me to his latest find …Cooking Christmas

Together we peered over a back garden fence to admire the most fantastic Persimmon tree, heavily laden with orange fruit.   The wonderful attribute of Persimmon – if you are after a spectacular December display – is that the fruit ripens very late and stays on the tree to dazzle on a winter’s day.  Reads Nursery in Suffolk are selling large grafted specimen trees 5 – 6 feet tall,  a bargain at £64.50.

Persimmon tree laden with fruit, Peckham

Do go to the Cast Courts at the V&A for a moment of Christmas calm then sit back and buy everyone  you know a tree. Wishing you a very Happy Christmas, Non.


Trained apple trees with lights, Petersham Nurseries

IMG_2417IMG_2414Classic, perfect, holly decorations, Laxfield Church, Suffolk




We are excited in our Camberwell kitchen – one of my twin sons has spotted that a movie of Sondheim’s wonderful, funny and of course ultimately dark musical, ‘Into the Woods’ opens – with Meryl Streep! – on Christmas Day. We are all fans and both twins know that singing the hilarious Princes’ song ‘Agony’ (when the two Princes moan about not being able to secure the hands of Rapunzel and Cindarella respectively despite their undoubted marvellousness) will be obligatory (from my point of view, anyway) at some significant party or other in the future.


Still from Disney’s 2014 “Into the Woods”

Outside the days are getting shorter and the world is turning rust and gold. Fired up by dreams of woodland adventures I am keen to put on my coat and get a blast of it.  But like all journeys into the woods, the path to the magical world in my head is not always an easy one.

A week ago today I am chauffering the same twin through the Essex countryside, agonisingly, (yes indeed), late for an audition.  As we finally leave the A road, the mist thickens and starts to rise softly about us. At the same time the red-rust of the black limbed oaks and the yellow-gold chainmail of stands of mature beech seem to loom more richly from the swirling gloom. Old fashioned wooden signposts emerge from the haze, directing us to ‘Flatford Mill’ and ‘East Bergholt’.  I have unexpectedly found myself in Constable country! I am surrounded by exquisite, lacy, rust coloured woodland against the dreamy palour of a fading November afternoon.  My camera is in the car, my heart is racing … but so is my son’s and nervous snatches of a Handel aria remind me that we need to press on to his appointment in a chilly school hall a few miles further on.

Cenotaph to the Memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds by  John Constable

Cenotaph to the Memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds by John Constable

I mark out a day the following week to try again.  I remember a trip to the Valley Gardens near Windsor, years ago, when I was studying Plants and Plantsmanship at the English Gardening School.  I have a vivid image of  a rather wonderful basin like parkland with groups of fantastic orange berried Sorbus trees and crab apples with jewel coloured fruit …

I decide to visit the neighbouring Savill Garden first – a serious and richly planted garden – famous for its Magnolias and rhododendrons in the spring and early summer – at its most ideal, a testament to plant hunters past and present.  I will not bore you for too long with the layers of my disappointment: the grim lunch – a  chilly tuna roll on its huge porcelain tray of a plate with a little mound of garnish – lost and lonely – at one end, the aggressive entry and exit procedure which makes you feel as if you are in a heavily bureacratic airport and not about to enter a world of natural wonder:

intercom line engaged

The non stop retail opportunities and bland ‘garden guide’ with attractive seasonal photos and not enough excitement about what is currently happening in the garden and important plants not to miss.


By the time you get into the garden the tightly manicured paths make even the stands of fine birches look like props for an expensive railway set. Ihorrid rubbber treeThe extremely tidy Savill Garden

But like a teenager who has just managed to reach the peak of annoyance, the garden suddenly produces moments that make my heart melt.  As I look back up to the main building, a proud swathe of majestic Fagus syvatica ‘Dawyck Gold’ glint and cast elegant shadows in the winter sun:

Dawyk gold x 5A majestic stand Fagus sylvatica ‘Dawyck Gold’

Then a glade ofJapanese maples in the smallish Autumn garden begins to make me smile.  I love the open spreading form of this pair of yellow leaved Acer palmatum. Although a newly planted tree may take many years to grow to this size, it is so worth leaving space around it.  Planting in pairs  – and in turn giving the pair space –  can be very beautiful too.

acer establishA pair of yellow leaved Japanese Maples

Close up I get a satisfying whiff of fairy tale as I admire the cinnamon tinge of the neat, star-shaped leaves.

anna's ginger ginger thin 2 I am reminded of the delicious spiced biscuits which my boys loved as children – and still do now, when I happen to buy some – ‘Anna’s Ginger Swedish Thins’


Nearby, a wonderful Acer palmatum ‘Elegans’ has brilliant pink petioles and pink veins in contrast to the butter yellow of the leaf:

IMG_8245Acer palmatum ‘Elegans’

And a little further into the woods I am startled by the depth of red against black of straight Acer palmatum. For a near guarantee of such a brilliant red, tree specialists Bluebell Nursery recommend Acer palmatum ‘Osakazuki’.

acer palmatum how red is redAcer palmatum

For me Japanese Acers have always been like high heeled shoes – something too tricky to bother with, to be enjoyed by other people but probably never by me.  Bluebell Nursery has comforting advice, however, clearly explaining on their website some things l already knew – that Japanese maples “prefer a situation sheltered from the most severe wind, that they are more sun tolerant than some maples but appreciate a little shade if possible” – and then reminding me of the magic trick required to enjoy their rich colours wherever you garden: “The autumn colours of many maples, especially selections of Acer palmatum, is very dependent on the pH (acidity / alkalinity) of the soil. They prefer lime free soil, so here (in Ashby de la Zouch, Derbyshire), on our almost neutral ground, we are applying an annual dressing of sulphur granules round our maples at the rate of 1 or 2 oz per square yard, to make the soil more acid, and year by year the intensity of the autumn colour increases”. Aha!

One last treat before I make my way out of here – the blazing red-orange foliage of Sorbus sargentiana. Sorbus – or Mountain Ash – are arguably much fussier about growing conditions than Acers.  They are happiest on fertile, well-drained soil – indeed think mountain slope – with moist summers (as drying out is hopeless) and yet damp soil around roots in winter is not appreciated either. If you have the right conditions this small, slow-growing tree, famous for its plump, sticky, crimson buds in spring, is a wonderful choice.

saville sorbus against sky

Sorbus sargentiana

Once in the Valley Gardens itself, I feel freer but again it is hard to feel immersed in the hugely spacious parkland or find particular specimens as the emphasis is on jolly not-very-well-labelled pram trails (well I think the best person to be when visiting this garden may be young parent pushing a buggy) rather than inspiring or well thought out directions to some of the wonderful trees.


The irritating and often illusive trail signs, Valley Gardens

But again it does not take me long to forget my crossness and no sooner have I left behind the rather splendid Obelisk – erected by King George II following the death of the Duke of Cumberland in 1765 who had contributed much to the landscaping here – I am quickly enchanted.

IMG_2336The Obelisk, The Valley Gardens

As I follow the path into the gardens, an avenue of fine columnar trees lures me forward.  The route is magnificently lined with enormous tulip trees, Liriodendron tulipifera – a majestic North American import, for very large scale gardens only.  They are called tulip trees for the yellow and green tulip shaped flower it bears in early summer – although do bear in mind that if you plant one tomorrow you may have to wait 20 -25 years until it flowers.

monumental tulipA curving avenue of tulip trees

single tulipA handsome tulip tree specimen

Tuliptree_flowerFlower of Liriodendron tulipifera

I love the way the now-golden, spade-shaped leaves flash and flap slowly and calmly in the light, as if they are on a very fine, magical hinges:

single winking tulipTulip tree leaf, November, Valley Gardens

A little later, one of my favourite Sorbus trees, Sorbus huphehensis catches my eye – I love its dull, rounded,metallic bronze foliage against the sky:

sorbus huphehensis gold blueSorbus huphehensis autumn foliage

And the handsome clusters of porcelain berries on dark pink stems:

sorbus huphensis fruit

Sorbus huphehensis fruits

Elsewhere there is a lovely young crab apple, Malus yunnanensis, with glowing foliage and red blushed yellow fruit:

malus yunnanensis establsihMalus yunnanensis

malus yunnanensisMalus yunnanensis fruit

But the trees really worth coming for today are again the acers – they are here in every shade from palest yellow tinged with pink and brown:IMG_8444to deeper yellows and oranges:IMG_8493To rich salmon:IMG_8481and soft crimson:

IMG_8459I love the colour contrasts between the swooping branches of two neighbouring, contrasting acers:

sweeping red and yellow acersweeping yellow with red burstThe contrast continues when the leaves have fallen to the ground:

Back in the Savill Garden there was a wonderful red leaved Acer palmatum next to a magnificent ballgown of a yellow leaved Parrotia persica and again the two sets of intertwined foliage (once you got right in underneath the branches) made for a dizzyingly beautiful pairing:

parrotia persica portriatRed leaves of Acer palmatum and the autumn yellow of Parrotia persica growing into each other

parrotia persica establishParrotia persica

Stepping back for a moment from the magnificent girth of the Parrotia – or Persian Ironwood  tree – I remember the wisdom of great planstman, Bernard Tickner who at 90 still gardens at the lovely Fullers Mill in the middle of the King’s Forest in Suffolk.   His advice to a young gardener is never to plant a Parrotia too close to a path.  In his sixty years of gardening he has never known a gardener who has not ended up having to move a path to accommodate his ever burgeoning specimen tree.

As I leave the Valley Gardens feeling better about, but not quite sated with, the autumn woodland, I soften one last time at the sight of huge bundles of mistletoe in a network of bare branches making great eerie patterns against the sky. IMmistletoe establsh

IMG_8511 Huge bundles of mistletoe amongst bare branches scratching out glowering monochrome patterns against the sky

Back in Camberwell for the weekend and the wettest Sunday anyone can believe.  It is my birthday and our house is excellently full of boys who have travelled home from both ends of the country.  The only solution is to stay inside,  light the fire, curl up and dream about trees from the comfort of my chair.

I wonder first at the the extraordinary way trees have entered our minds and have been used for centuries as a fundamental way to explain ideas and organise our thoughts.  Manuel Lima has found exquisite , often staggeringly inventive examples of this kind of thought mapping in his new book: ‘The Book of Trees, Visualising Branches of Knowledge’.Lima

One of the most memorable and beautiful examples is this delicate ‘visualisation of the words used in eight hundred of US president Barack Obama’s speeches from January 2009 to November 2011… words were sized according to the number of times they appeared and were plotted in an arboreal layout, with less frequently used words placed farther from the main trunk in a succession of increasingly smaller branches:

obama 2
But when I am tired of being fascinated by the agility of minds that can for example represent ‘the organisational structure of a company with roughly four thousand employees’ in a graphic, ‘hyperbolic tree format’ –  I turn back to my favourite of all books on trees, Roger Deakin’s’Wildwood’.
WildwoodIf you have not already read this wonderful, free, quite beautifully written book – it was published in 2007 so you may well have done so –  I would beg you to add it to your Christmas list, or if you have read it already, do as I did and read it again.  This is the real thing.  Here is a man who can explain better than anybody the wonder of sleeping outside under a tree, Roger Deakin is the warmest, most modest, open-eyed companion to take you with him to find the original apple trees in Kazakhstan and the most observant, respectful guide to the way the sculptor John Nash approaches his work with wood.  Anyone who can get you excited about the walnut veneer found on the finest Jaguar cars “Burrs are found only on large, old trees, perhaps one in a thousand. They are like pearls in oysters. The veneer used in Jaguars comes from the old walnut orchards of the valley of the Sacramento River in California …” is a true magician.

All too soon it is time for one of the boys to head off back up North to St Andrews where he is at University.  I remember the rather ethereal walk we took – and the eerily lit wild-looking tree we saw – the night before we dropped him off for the first time in early September.  Now this is the kind of tree I have been searching for all week. This is the kind of tree that draws you in and I am sure it is the kind of tree that has many a story to tell.


Windswept tree, Stirling, Scotland



urn 2

Vibrantly planted urn at the centre of the Garden of St John’s Lodge

You are walking through the imposing Avenue Gardens in Regent’s Park.  Maybe you are on your way to the Frieze Art Fair, or to the zoo or returning from a doctor’s appointment or a shopping trip.  There is something gracious and international – Parisian almost – about the perfect symmetry and the monumental scale of the avenues and the formal gardens which flank them but you might feel a little lonely here amongst the glowering, repeated foliage and inky topiary sitting on a bench unwrapping your lunchtime sandwich: 

side view avenue regents parkRegent’s Park, London
avenue regents park
Regent’s Park, London

IMG_2198 (3)Avenue Garden, Regent’s Park London

If you move away from the immaculate paths you will of course come across some gorgeous surprises – when I visit a few days ago, the ripening fruits of this strawberry tree, Arbutus unedo, has the brilliant primitive energy of a Henri Rousseau painting:

arbutus unedofruits of Arbutus unedo – the Strawberry Tree

And it is exciting to venture further off the main drag (just off the Inner Circle near to the junction with Chester Road) and discover the peaceful, intimate Garden of St John’s Lodge.

 St John’s Lodge was the first elegant white stucco villa built in John Nash’s Regent’s Park. The house, finished in 1819, was originally (and is now again) a private residence, but it has had various other lives as headquarters of the RNIB and as Bedford College, London University.  In 1888 the then owner, the 3rd Marquess of Bute, commissioned Robert Weir Schultz to create a garden ‘fit for meditation’. The garden  – with its feeling of enclosure, a series of comfortable garden rooms around a circular central space – has been open to the public since 1928 when the Cabinet decreed that more of Regent’s Park should be accessible to Londoners.

The garden was renovated by Colvin and Moggridge in 1994 and the style of planting is as soft and natural as the outer world of the Park is restrained and formal.  Even at the end of October vibrant mounds of Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’ spill over onto the sunken lawns.

Erysimum bowles mauveErysimum ‘Bowles’s Mauve’

bench at st johnsA high backed wooden bench surrounded by geraniums, Viburnum davidii, and ferns

There are handsome high backed wooden benches, sensitively set apart from each other and enclosed in wonderful arbours of green. In summer the generous benches are framed with trailing clematis and wisteria. In autumn they are still encased in a booth of green: a classic but enduringly effective combination of geraniums, glossy Viburnum davidii and ferns. Here the bench itself is rather brilliantly underplanted with Sarcococca confusa – Christmas Box – which will provide a delicious, secret supply of heady scent in late winter.

I am running late and trying to leave the garden with a view to returning as soon as I can, when my eye is drawn to the brilliant coral planting of a huge urn, glimpsed through an arch formed in a hedge of lime trees, with white Japanese anemones lining a tunnel-like path and luring me to come closer.

longest view urn

Giant urn enclosed by a circle of Limes, Garden of St John’s Lodge

I cannot resist and move forward to take a look. As I approach the fringe of back-lit, lime leaves glows a brilliant green:

urn through fringe limeThe urn seen through a fringe of brilliant green lime leaves

The winter planting of the urn is not quite finished but it is rather sensational:  young plants of Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ amongst salmon, plum and toffee-coloured winter pansies against a densely scalloped backdrop of dark green:

close up urnClose up of the urn with Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’, winter pansies and trailing ivy

Clutching my new London secret garden to me, I walk down the hill that evening with my family to our brilliant local cinema, Peckham Plex.  I am thrilled to see that my evening of enjoyable but ridiculous adventure (Gone Girl) is made sweeter by the sudden arrival of ‘Rye Lane Orchard’ – a series of fruiting trees in galvanised metal containers that now line the unglamorous path between McDonald’s and the cinema:
rye lane establish 1

Rye Lane Orchard, Peckham

rye lane establish 2

 Rye Lane Orchard, Peckham

There are red and white stripey benches to perch on while waiting for a friend:

rye lane establsh girl perchingPerching Bench, Rye Lane Orchard

Or two of you could arrange to meet up and have a drink or a chat:

bench peckham orchardBench for two in Rye Lane Orchard

I love the gentle orange red of the crab apples against the harsher 1970’s brick buildings:

crab apple close upClose up of Crab Apples, Rye Lane Orchard

I like the simple, thorough, industrial style of the labelling:

IMG_8188And I like the way that you can quietly find out more about how the trees got here if you want to:
And the slightly out of place – but hats-off-for-trying – addition of recipes and information about the trees :
hazlenut G

When I get home I do want to know more. I find out that the ‘Orchard’ arrived in fact in April 2014 and will remain as part of an experiment in enriching this urban, bustling part of South London with plants for a couple of years. It was originally part of ‘Octavia’s Orchard’, an innovative 2013 collaboration between The South Bank, The National Trust and architects, ‘What if: project’  – for which a greater collection of trees and benches spent the summer on the South Bank.  I am intrigued to learn that the original project was named for Octavia Hill who not only founded the National Trust but also campaigned powerfully for everyone to have access to green spaces “the sight of sky and of things growing” – I had not known that securing public access to Parliament Hill FIelds, Vauxhall Park and Brockwell Park were just some of her triumphs.  If you think the National Trust is too cosy, even slightly old fashioned it is worth remembering Ms Hill’s founding fire nearly 120 years ago: “Destruction of open spaces is imminent because we are all so accustomed to treat money value as if it were the only real value”.

slg may benchThe Fox Garden, South London Gallery, in May – the path lit up with Libertia grandiflora

Elsewhere in Peckham there is another secret garden you should know about – The Fox Garden at the leading contemporary art gallery, The South London Gallery.  I have to come clean that this is a garden I am closely involved with (I designed the planting for the garden with my partner, Helen Fraser) and it is one of our favourite projects.  It is such a beautiful space – flanked on one side by the towering wall of the original  Gallery, (opened in 1891 – around the same time that Octavia Hill was gearing up to co-create the National Trust), and framed at each end by the elegant Clore Studio and No. 67 Cafe, designed by 6a architects. Also, and perhaps most importantly, the garden is open to everyone, every day except Monday, and like the Gallery itself, free to visit. It was the vision of gallery director, Margot Heller, that led to us becoming involved: she was adamant that this was an opportunity to provide a surprising seasonally rich garden within the gallery walls, only steps away from the gritty reality of Peckham Road.

Here, on simple oak benches , you can eat your lunch surrounded by a palette of plants which changes significantly as the year progresses:

slg janThe rich palette of The Fox Garden in January – Libertia grandiflora foliage and the red berries of Nandina domestica 

slg spring

The same Nandina in spring, this time illuminated by the pale spires of Tellima grandiflora

slg phaeum plus heuchera cylindricaPale claret flowers of Geranium phaeum with skinny green spires of Heuchera cylindrica in May

slg cornusJune: the beautiful milky bracts of the enormous Cornus Kousa var. chinensis that fill the glass windows of the cafe.

The garden surprises with scent too at different times of year – mounds of Sarcococca confusa flank the path at each end of the garden and the scent of Philadelphus fills the space in June.  And of course sometimes an artist will want to use the garden as part of the Gallery space itself. Until 23 November 2014 you can eat your lunch contemplating the elegant, swooping ‘wall sculpture’ by Lawrence Weiner – part of his ALL IN DUE COURSE exhibition in the main gallery:


Lawrence Weiner wall sculpture on expansive Victorian Gallery/Fox Garden wall

Close up Lawrence Weiner wall sculpture on SLG Gallery/Fox Garden wall

A short journey away by train and tube is the place to find London’s most brilliantly colourful benches to sit and eat on:


Bench surrounded by `Salvia uliginosa, Salvia involucrata ‘Bethellii’ and Rudbeckia

Iinner temple bench with miscanthusBench with Miscanthus sinesnsis, Salvia leucantha and Salvia involucrata ‘Bethellii’ spilling over

This is the garden of the Inner Temple which is gardened with wonderful energy and originality by Head Gardener, Andrea Brunsendorf – and is a place not only for learned, dark-suited lawyers to come into the sun for a few moments but is again open to everyone from 12.30 to 3.00 each weekday:

inner temple bence establish

Andrea is well known for her exuberant late summer borders (but please check out the garden at tulip time and come again to see the Peony Garden in full bloom). Here in late October, the borders make you smile with their exuberance:inner temple spilling over


IMG_8062You can tell the way it is gardened by the relaxed bearing of the self seeded verbascum on the garden steps:

verbascum on stepsSelf seeded Verbascum on Inner Temple Garden Steps

And by the celebratory way the Verbascum petals are allowed to linger like stars on the stone steps:

verbascum petalsIndividual Verbascum flowers against stone

Peak through the railings on your way to court and you will catch the orange flash of tangled mexican sunflowers – Tithonia rotundifolia :

orange against orange brickOr you might stop to admire silky clematis seed heads spilling out onto the pavement:
close up clematis seed headClematis seedhead

Or maybe you will wonder – as I did – about the amazing shrubby plant flanking the entrance with tulip shaped leaves and yellow pea like flowers?amicia

Amicia zygomeris flanking the steps


Close up of Amicia zygomeris

Andrea kindly put me out of my misery and revealed this plant to be a fantastic woody-based perennial which can survive a temperature of -14 degrees celsius (it will regenerate if cut down by frost) – a brilliant, or as Christopher Lloyd puts it ‘unexpectedly stylish’ foliage plant for a courtyard garden.  I remembered in fact that there is the most beautiful stand of this Amicia in the Exotic Garden at Great Dixter – I had been drawn to the purple veining of its leaves and stipules but had never seen it flower …
amicia dixterAmicia zygomeris at Great Dixter

Walking down the steps to the main body of the garden the autumn sunshine has a magical dancing effect on the surprisingly relaxed planting on either side:

miscanthus sinensis 'unidine' with Verbena hastata 'Rosea'Miscanthus sinensis ‘Unidine’ with Verbena hastata ‘Rosea’