Tag Archives: Acacia pravissima

THE SWEET INTENSITY OF SHAKESPEARE’S GARDENS

INTOXICATING SPRING GARDENS FROM STRATFORD-UPON-AVON TO SOUTH LONDON  

Anne Hathaway’s Cottage Garden – a sculptural philadelphus ‘tree’, a sweet-scented riot of tulips and new perennial foliage

Charles Rutherfoord’s headily fragrant South London garden – a sculptural laburnum tree, a border of stepover apples and brilliantly coloured tulips

I have badly wanted to visit the houses and gardens of Stratford-upon-Avon since reading Frank Lawley’s inspirational book on the making of his exquisite Northumberland garden, Herterton (see my October 2015 blog post).

For Frank and his wife Marjorie, the gardens at Anne Hathaway’s Cottage  and Mary Arden’s Farm triggered an understanding, a recognition even, that a relaxed, abundant style of planting, anchored by architectural trees and shrubs, was just the kind of intimate, uplifting garden they wanted to create. (Anne Hathaway became Shakespeare’s wife, and Mary Arden was his mother).

‘Perhaps our greatest discovery was in Stratford-upon-Avon. It was not the river nor the theatre but the entrancing group of places belonging to the  Shakespeare Birthplace Trust . Following signs through the suburban edges of the town, dodging traffic, a long stretch of clipped hawthorn hedge … confronted us. Along the pavement beside it, a crocodile of Japanese visitors was approaching this English shrine that is Anne Hathaway’s Cottage … the garden planting was unsophisticated: here were the daisies, thrift and pinks we knew.  The house border had clipped yews and ivy and the profuse white rose, Rosa alba.  

And three miles away another long old farm, Mary Arden’s House, stood closely beside its lane. Just inside its low wall, warmly furnished with red valerian, there was just space for a very organic thin parterre. The box was well cut, but it had long forgotten any concept of horizontal tops and matching vertical sides. It bulged and spread, denying any entry by path. An odd delphinium was trapped inside. The very narrow house border had topiaries shrubs, this time with clouds of the old pink and purple ‘everlasting’ sweet pea.’

Herterton House Garden – bulging hedges and tousled planting

At last, dreaming of bulging hedges and tousled native flowers, I head off to Stratford at the end of April. It is a bit of a jolt to arrive at Shakespeare’s New Place and be greeted by immaculate stretches of hard landscaping, a glittering ‘Tempest’ themed galleon, and shiny bronze raised beds with primary coloured pennants representing all thirty-eight of Shakespeare’s plays.

       The Golden Garden, Shakespeare’s New Place, with pennants representing Shakespeare’s                                                           thirty-eight plays

But this is just the beginning. I am nearly down with one blow at the sight of the monumental bronze tree ‘bent under the force of Shakespeare’s power of imagination’, with its tortured branches hovering over a potent looking ‘celestial sphere’.

The bronze tree ‘bent under the force of Shakespeare’s imagination’

But then I listen more attentively to the historian from the Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust and realise that I have made the same mistake as many visitors. Shakespeare’s New Place is the site of the extensive house and grounds Shakespeare bought for his family and lived in from 1597 until his death in 1616, but the house itself no longer exists. The building we take to be Shakespeare’s house is in fact Nash’s House, the home of Thomas Nash who married Shakespeare’s granddaughter. New Place was, rather astoundingly, demolished by a Rev. Francis Gastrell who, on buying the house in 1753, became so infuriated by visitors asking to see the mulberry tree reputed to be planted by the bard that he cut the tree down in 1758 and knocked the house down the following year, much to the fury of locals and worldwide admirers alike.

Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust was established in 1847, following a campaign with vigorous support from luminaries such as Charles Dickens, to save Shakespeare’s home for the nation and is now custodian of an enormous world class collection and archive. To celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death the garden at New Place has been given a substantial and – despite my initial sense of surprise – deeply thoughtful overhaul. Archeological investigations have established  for the first time the footprint of Shakespeare’s house and outbuildings and these are discreetly marked out in elegantly engraved bronze strips. Every element is a tool for story telling to make the past come alive. I loved discovering that the feisty Anne Hathaway ran her own successful malting business from buildings in what is now the Great Garden.

Engraved bronze strips embedded in the paving mark the footprint of Shakespeare’s house, barns and outbuildings

A circle of pleached English Hornbeam marks the position of the house, offering a fitting structure and the feeling of shelter for a set of magnificent curved oak benches – space to sit for some of the 825,000 visitors each year to the Trust’s properties. The benches were made with the help of local students by Warwickshire cabinet maker Armando Magnino.

A circle of pleached hornbeam offers structure and shelter to a set of magnificent locally made curved oak benches

Glyn Jones – whose immaculate pedigree includes working alongside Penelope Hobhouse at the seventeenth century Tintinhull and many years as Head Gardener at Hidcote – has been appointed as Head of Gardens. He has five Stratford Gardens in his care: Shakespeare’s Birthplace, New Place, Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, Mary Arden’s Farm and Hall’s Croft, the home of Shakespeare’s daughter, Susannah, and her husband Dr John Hall which is to have a newly designed physic garden. He admits that the gardens have become a little too uniform over the years and he has plans to develop their individuality and to encourage creativity and experimentation.

Wisteria against the soft red brick walls of Nash House

Despite the demanding scale of his brief, you cannot fail to have faith in a man who looks with fatherly tenderness at the imposing elegance of the pleached hornbeam and describes his relief that each tree has come happily into leaf this spring as they were seed grown and as such there were ‘no guarantees’. He offers a similar almost wistful concern for the long established mauve wisteria trained in a happy tangle against the soft red brick of Nash’s House.  ‘That’s Chinese Wisteria,  Wisteria sinensis.  Japanese wisteria (Wisteria floribunda) would have been a better choice – it is more fragrant and comes into flower later and so is less likely to be hit by frost’.

For me, the New Place garden gets really interesting in the next section where a newly renovated Sunken Knot Garden lures the visitor on with its subtle order and soft tapestry of santolina, hyssop, thyme, standard roses and dusky Tulip ‘Queen of Night’.

The Sunken Knot Garden at Shakespeare’s New Place

Paths have been unobtrusively widened for full disability access and the original arched ‘bower’ which runs down one side – a sort of rounded pergola – has been lovingly rebuilt in oak and the old crab apples (some 100 years old) carefully repositioned over their new frame.

The fine new oak Bower with openings for benches from which to look onto the Knot Garden

The walls and fences on the other three sides of the Knot Garden are clothed, as befits the archetypal knot garden, in productive plants and every detail is beautifully arranged. I love the way the spreading wall-trained fig is lushly underplanted with a simple combination of silvery-blue iris and inky tulips.

The Knot Garden wall clothed in a fan trained fig underplanted with iris and tulips

Euonymous japonicus ‘Green Rocket’ has been used with great success instead of box to mark out the shapes and edges of the knot garden. ‘It is not as tight as box’ admits Glyn ‘but it looks very good’. Garden designers have become reluctant to specify box for new gardens because of the blight which has ravaged so many European and now New Zealand and US gardens, and long established gardens such as Sissinghurst are growing stocks of this kind of Euonymous as a back up should the worst happen. However, the cheerful neatness of this ‘Green Rocket’ encourages me to suggest a knot garden – or at least formal evergreen edging – the next time an opportunity arises.

Euonymous japonicus ‘Green Rocket’ (with thyme above) providing a smart bright green edging to the Sunken Knot Garden, New Place

As I am mulling over elaborate possibilities for creating my own intricate Elizabethan knot garden, I have the rug pulled again from under my feet when I learn that the original Sunken Knot Garden at New Place was only installed in 1922. It is clear that Shakespeare was familiar with knot gardens – there is a ‘curious knotted garden’ in Love’s Labours Lost and in Richard II the whole of England is described as a garden in a state of neglect: ‘the whole land/Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers choked up/Her fruit trees all unpruned, /Her knots disordered, and her wholesome herbs/ Swarming with caterpillars’…  But it was an eminent Edwardian garden historian, Ernest Law who set about designing ‘a sunken parterre’ for New Place, convinced that the addition of a historically accurate garden of the kind  Shakespeare would have known would be an important and illuminating addition. The Trust has in its collection an original copy of Thomas Hill’s ‘The Gardener’s Labyrinth’, regarded as the first English gardening book, which has detailed guidance and templates for the shapes of knot gardens Law could have used. But, as Roy Strong sets out in his 2016 book ‘The Quest for Shakespeare’s Garden’ (which I have to tell you, includes a well observed and very funny chapter on Lucia’s ‘Shakespeare’s Garden in E.F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia), Ernest Law was  ambitious for something special.  As well as drawing inspiration for ‘balustrades of Warwickshire elm’ and a  ‘dwarf wall, of old fashioned bricks – hand-made, sun-dried, sand-finished’ from Thomas Hill’s work, he sourced his four knot designs from ‘Mountaine’, ‘Gervase Markham’s ‘Country Housewife Garden’ (1613) and William Lawson’s ‘New Orchard and Garden (1618). Donations for the Knot Garden included plants from major UK botanic gardens plus four standard roses from different members of the Royal Family to stand at the centre of each square. The garden is notable as the first attempt at recreating a historic garden and opened the door to Garden History as a rich and revelatory subject.

An illustration from Thomas Hill’s The Gardener’s Labyrinth showing a hand pump for watering

Roy Strong’s ‘The Quest for Shakespeare’s Garden’ published for the 400th year anniversary of Shakespeare’s death

Finally to the Great Garden – an acre and a half of lawn, spreading mulberry trees (more stories – for another time perhaps) and 295 feet of tremendous bulging yew hedges!

Tremendous bulging yew hedges and buttresses at New Place

Unsurprisingly perhaps, these hedges are another test for the lens through which we view historic gardens. Despite the great age suggested by the uneven, spreading bulk of these glorious stretches of yew, with their substantial buttresses marking out broad beds for herbaceous plants, they were in fact only planted in the 1920’s, and the shape of the borders was developed with advice from the great Edwardian plantswoman Ellen Willmott. The hedges were also crucial in Ernest Law’s eyes to hide the formal  Victorian cast iron railings that ran the length of the garden and were doing nothing to help bring a Tudor garden to life. Head of Gardens, Glyn Jones eyes up the hedges and explains that they would have first lost their crisp, ordered shape during the Second World War when the gardeners went off to fight. He wonders for a moment (with a Hidcotian glint in his eye?) if the correct thing to do would be to restore them to their original 1920’s proportions. Horror! For me – and clearly for the rest of the group – the hedges as they are now are a key pleasure of New Place and help the gardens feel anchored and settled despite the great bustle that goes on all around them.

The garden is suddenly flooded by a group of French school children. I smile at the proprietorial way a girl stands before the hedge they call ‘The Elephant’ to photograph her friends in the cave-like inside. The garden – with its fine hedges – is robust enough to take it.

The garden is suddenly flooded by school children

Taking a photograph of The Elephant

It is a twenty minute walk from New Place to Anne Hathaway’s Cottage at Shottery.  In Shakespeare’s time Shottery was a separate hamlet to which the young eighteen year old would head (Macron-style) to woo Anne who was twenty six. But now it is situated just at the edge of town. You follow a path up to the Cottage with a just- seen Shottery Brook on your left screened by a rather beautiful, unashamedly Ophelia-resonant, living willow fence.
                                      The living willow fence which screens Shottery Brook

It feels rather surreal to be finally arriving at such an iconic place, not least as I realise again that the thing to grasp is the complex layering of time. What we are about to see is a house that would have stood in Shakespeare’s day and a garden that is our 21st Century interpretation of a late Victorian/Edwardian notion of a cottage garden. A more natural look and a celebration of simple native plants had been made popular by the persuasive words of William Robinson in books such as ‘The English Flower Garden’ (1883) and so, when drainage improvements were made to Anne Hathaway’s Cottage in the early 1920’s, Ellen Willmott was asked to redesign the garden. You are likely to have heard of ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’ – the silvery sea holly (Eryngium giganteum) named for the imposing plantswoman’s supposed habit of scattering seeds secretly in other peoples’ gardens. How stories turn into other stories: I was rather taken aback to see the entry for Eryngium giganteum on the Chiltern Seed website with the advice that as it is a ghostly coloured plant  ‘grow it and scare your friends!’ …                                             Eryngium giganticum – Miss Willmott’s Ghost

The approach to Anne Hathaway’s Cottage

Glyn Jones has many plans afoot to invigorate and further sweeten the garden at Anne Hathaway’s Cottage. His first idea is to slow down the visitor’s arrival so that instead of seeing the house straight away over the garden hedge, they approach it more slowly – and more romantically – through the orchard. He and his team are already hard at work trying to relax the orchard – the grass has been over-fertilised and needs to be stripped of nutrients and sown with yellow rattle to achieve the mown-paths-through-long-grass look that is as desirable today as it was a hundred years ago. He is letting the surrounding hedges grow loose for the next three years with a view to laying them properly when there is enough new growth.

The Orchard in the grounds of Anne Hathaway’s Cottage

There is already a successful programme of vegetable growing using varieties that would have been available in Edwardian times. Nestling into the low hawthorn hedges, they help anchor the cottage in a timeless seasonal pattern.

Traditional vegetables at Anne Hathaway’s Cottage

When our group is finally standing before the perfectly thatched cottage with its three broad borders of jewel-coloured tulips emerging from the luxuriant new foliage of herbaceous perennials,  it has just stopped raining and we are all grinning from ear to ear to be amongst this sea of fresh and fragrant colour. Glyn Jones tells us that his team has been taking cuttings from the now tree-like Philadelphus (mock orange) by Ellen Willmott near the house and how they will be echoing her method of blending the ornamental into the wild. She used to plant ornamental shrubs into the hedgerows, at first one shrub every few yards and, as you got further from the house, perhaps one shrub every twenty yards, so that the transition was barely noticeable.

Anne Hathaway’s Cottage borders filled with tulips, a tree like Philadelphus now almost as tall as the house

He explains how the Willmott-designed borders are going to be meticulously cleared and replanted one at a time:

The first of three borders lying fallow as it is cleared of weeds before replanting

Glyn wraps up by airing his worry about the tulips: surely they are too much of a muddle, not of the period, too garish? …. There is an outcry!

The riot of tulips and fresh foliage in one of the borders in front of Anne Hathaway’s Cottage

My group all love the technicolour buzz of the place and cannot bear the idea of a filter of perfect taste being applied to future plantings.  But caring for this kind of iconic garden, considering what might be historically accurate, respecting the input of other passionate gardeners over the years and leaving room for some contemporary creativity is a demanding balancing act .  I will definitely be back to see the gardens as they are guided into the future by such a fine and thoughtful gardener.

The borders at Anne Hathaway’s Cottage remind me – almost uncannily – of the wonderfully intense garden I have just visited in London.

Charles Rutherfoord’s Garden – an exhilarating, scented kaleidoscope of tulips and step-over apple trees.

Charles Rutherfoord’s and Rupert Tyler’s Clapham garden had an almost identical, giddying impact on the 250 or so  NGS visitors on a late April afternoon. In a private garden, of course, a sense of excitement of entering a different world can be created and enjoyed with utter freedom. I love the way that Charles and Rupert just go for it. This is a celebratory garden where thousands of tulips, voluptuous tree peonies and velvety iris blaze away with abandonment at the back of their sleekly elegant house. The peonies alone make you want to hit the Kelways website to order the voluptuous, rich pink Japanese tree peony ‘Cardinal Vaughan’ as soon as you get home.

Paeonia ‘Cardinal Vaughan’ amongst tulips and irises

I am riveted to discover that – as well as the glowing pink tulip ‘Mariette’ which Charles has planted for the first time and the dark foil of tulip ‘Queen of Night’ – the red and yellow flamed tulips which light up the display are in fact tulips which have just emerged this way – older tulips with a virus. ‘It’s so exciting. Last year there were one or two, now the whole space is filled with them’.

This is a garden that is gardened intuitively by a passionate and knowledgeable plantsman. ‘I only really think about the garden when I am working in it. I move plants around and put them where they feel right. He does not remember consciously arranging the three groups of rich purple iris, but enjoys the fact that they have found perfect places –  two clumps flanking the step-over apple border to the tulip bed and a third clump in a slightly different part of the garden, serving as a comfortable echo.

Paths to take you round the garden are developed in a similar hands-on, organic way with a section of sun-warmed path made from raised sleepers forming a central axis under the yellow glow of a laburnum tree, a handsome path of stone and brick flanked by the stepover apples and mounds of rosemary and new curving path of reclaimed yellow brick lighting up a shady tunnel under the weeping branches of Acacia pravissima.

Hand built paths of railway sleeper, stone and brick paths flanked by apple trees and rosemary  and a curved brick path through a shadier part of the garden

I love the contrast of the painterly feel of the garden with the restrained perfection of the house interior and the way that the garden fills the windows with such generosity.

Painterly view from the top floor of the house – the sculptural, weeping branches of Acacia pravissima in the foreground. The grey leaved tree behind it is Acacia baileyana ‘Purpurea’The rear of the garden with a delightful tapestry of Cercis canadensis, Cotinus ‘Grace’ and more flamed tulips

The immaculate, elegant interior of Charles Rutherfoord and Robert Tyler’s house with views through to the abundant garden. House & Garden May 2017 edition, photographs by Michael Sinclair

Euphorbia mellifera is used wonderfully throughout the garden as a relaxed, deliciously honey-scented architectural plant – here with its bronze flowers providing delightful contrast to the ceanothus and borrowed wisteria behind:

And here with the canopy of large specimens lifted so that you can walk underneath and enjoy the light shining through:

There are mounds of acanthus and huge-leaved rosettes of Echium pininana all over the garden which will provide soaring structure later in the season. And everywhere, there is the refreshing use of yellow!  An inherited laburnum tree has been flat-topped so as not to restrict the view from the house and has become is a sunny, sculptural presence at the heart of the garden.

The flat topped Laburnum tree at the heart of the garden

The laburnum lights up the comparatively austere back of the house – and its flat top provides a cheerful tiered staging effect for the theatrical row of dancing tulips on the balcony above.

Laburnum and dancing tulips against the house

Mounds of deliciously scented, paler yellow Coranilla valentina subsp. glauca ‘Citrina’ flank the sleeper path. This is my new favourite must-have plant (after the tree peonies) for its structure as well as its early colour and fragrance:

                       Coranilla valentina subsp. glauca ‘Citrina’ flank the sleeper path (with an already surging echium front right)

And in delightful, shadier spaces, the curving stems and rich yellow lantern-like bells of Brugmansia suaveolens (Angel’s Trumpets) light up the shadows:

Brugmansia suaveolens Angels Trumpets

There is a fine yellow tree peony (Paeonia lutea var. ludlowii ) also just opening in the shade – a less showy tree peony to be remembered for its fine architectural leaves – and a rare yellow, wonderfully fragrant honeysuckle Lonicera ‘Anne Fletcher’ draped over a clever screen made of sleepers which divides the garden and creates a discreet place for a table and chairs:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paeonia lutea var. ludlowii

Lonicera ‘Anne Fletcher’

The clever screen – tall enough to really feel hidden away but light enough to see through – made of railway sleepers

The glass table is the first piece of furniture Charles designed.  He has made many pieces of indoor furniture: it would be fantastic if he would consider making outdoor furniture too. I love this curved oak slatted seat and footstool. Next step a bench in the same elegant, rustic/industrial style?

Oak seat and foot stool designed by Charles Rutherfoord

The garden is full of much loved individual touches. There are exquisite plants Charles has fallen for which intrigue close-up but have a surprisingly easy going presence within the garden as a whole. This finely veined pink camellia for example (which I think is Camellia japonica ‘Lady Vansittart’) or the white-edged purple lilac ‘Sensation’ which billows in soft clouds in one corner of the garden.

Camellia japonica ‘Lady Vansittart’

Lilac ‘Sensation’

And there are covetable pieces of sculpture, my favourite are a pair of stone finials of shooting flames which Charles has placed to frame the view of the garden from the balcony.  I love the simplicity and strength of the flames and their robust stands – they could almost be contemporary but they are Italian Baroque – from a church or bishop’s palace perhaps.

One of a pair of baroque stone finials which frame the view down to the garden

Fascinatingly – and fitting for a story about gardens which have many layers – these finials were used by Cleve West in his 2012 Chelsea Garden and bought by Rupert for the garden when the show garden was dismantled. Cleve West had used them brilliantly at the top of Arts and Crafts influenced gate posts – so when the flames arrived in Clapham the bulbous stands were an added bonus.

Cleve West’s 2012 Chelsea Garden for Brewin Dolphin

Nestled at the end of the tulip border is a rather space age Solardome greenhouse. Inside, on beautiful hardwood shelving (of course), are succulents, pelargoniums and a happy lemon tree with impossibly fat lemons. The centre of the greenhouse is filled with huge containers of dahlias just coming into leaf –  ‘purples and oranges, mostly cactus varieties’. These will replace the tulips for the summer. There is something magical about looking out onto the exuberant garden through the misty geometric panes.
Succulents and a lemon tree in the greenhouse with glimpses of the exuberant garden beyond

How extraordinary to have seen so many centuries of intense English spring garden in the space of just a few days. I could not have done more even with my own time travel machine.

Charles Rutherfoord’s and Rupert Tyler’s Solardome Greenhouse

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WHAT I LEARNT FROM THE CROCUS KING

ON THE TRAIL OF E A BOWLES – SLOWING DOWN MY THINKING ABOUT CROCUS AND OTHER SPRING BULBS

img_2199The silvery outer petals of not-yet-open Crocus tommasinianus, my front garden.

img_2207Radiant silvery-mauve Crocus tommasinianus displaying their rich orange stamen in the sunshine.

My relationship with crocus has, up until now, been a simple one. I have loved the gentle reliability of the silvery-mauve Crocus tommasinianus and as a garden designer I have often used it as the first to flower in a bulb programme for clients’ gardens. It works well planted generously (they are not expensive) to form an undulating ribbon to quietly light up a border in February. It is also wonderfully effective in grass. In my own front garden I have planted a semi circle around a multi stemmed magnolia tree. I love the way the crocus foliage emerges suddenly each year from the expanse of lawn, at first offering an almost ghostly silvery sweep and then, on the first really sunny day, socking it to the street, an uplifting arc of rich purple which literally stops passers-by in their tracks.

img_2198The closed crocus form a discreet ordered semi circle.

img_2210For a week or two the open crocus become an eye-catching swathe of purple.

Contrary to popular myth my semi circle was not intended to form a ‘C’ (the initial of my family surname) but I do have a friend whose husband planted her initial – ‘O’ – in Crocus tommasinianus in the lawn one autumn as a complete surprise for her. If the weather works in your favour the crocus should be in flower on Valentine’s Day so a romantic gesture to try perhaps this autumn?

Earlier this week I found myself heading, initially rather unpromisingly, to Enfield, North London, to find out more about one of the twentieth century’s great gardeners – and  ‘Crocus King’ –  E A Bowles (1865-1954).

img_8894img_8823Turkey Street Enfield – en route to Myddelton House.

It is hard to imagine now what it must have been like to arrive at Bowles’ home, Myddelton House, in the late 19th and early 20th century, but on March 1st 2017 it was a relief to get away from the network of subways leading from a lonely section of Ginger Line and arrive at the imposing early 19th house where the eminent plantsman spent so many years growing studying, painting and writing about plants.

img_8877 img_8876Myddelton House

In 1914 Bowles wrote ‘My Garden in Spring’ based on his personal and passionate observations of the garden around the family home. He gardened here with tireless experimentation despite his frustration at the growing conditions: “the climate, soil and trees contrive to make it the driest and hungriest in Great Britain”. ‘My Garden in Spring’ was followed by ‘My Garden in Summer’ (also published in 1914) and ‘My Garden in Autumn and WInter’ (1915). These became best sellers, regularly reprinted, and were followed by ‘A Handbook of Crocus and Colchicum’ (1924)  and ‘A Handbook of Narcissus (1934), both leading studies of their day.

springMy 1972 edition of ‘My Garden in Spring’.

Bowles befriended the great plant hunters of the time – including the legendary Reginald Farrer who wrote a feisty introduction to ‘My Garden in Spring’ –  made hundreds of drawings and painting of plants (many now held at the RHS Lindley Library) and nurtured fine cultivars of a wide range of plants, many of which still bear his name today. These include the richly coloured – and edible – Viola ‘Bowles’s Black’, Carex elata ‘Aurea’ or Bowles’ Golden Sedge – a wonderful evergreen grass that lights up the darkest corner and Vinca minor ‘La Grave’ or ‘Bowles’ Variety’ – a fantastic ground cover plant, less invasive than Vinca major, smothered in lavender blue flowers from April to September. With typical charm, Vinca ‘Bowles’ Variety’ was spotted in a French churchyard en route to a plant hunting trip to the Alps.

bowles-blackThe richly coloured – and edible – Viola ‘Bowles’s Black’.

2a90ea6cd877be47ddbddb235629317b

Carex elata ‘Aurea’ or Bowles’ Golden Sedge – a wonderful evergreen grass that lights up the darkest corner.pl2000003981_card_lgVinca minor ‘La Grave’ or ‘Bowles’ Variety’ – a fantastic ground cover plant, less invasive than Vinca major, smothered in lavender blue flowers in from April to September.

‘My Garden in Spring’ has a gentle honesty that feels refreshing despite its age. ‘Many find the garden too museumy to please them’ he sets out frankly near the beginning of the book and there are some spectacularly ponderous diversions such as the following saga on the elusive definition of spring: ‘a large number of people over a certain age would insist that Spring no longer exists, and would probably endeavour to prove this assertion by lengthy reminiscences of halcyon days of yore, which provided early opportunities for picnics and thin raiment. Who has not heard their Great-Aunt Georgina hold forth on the Indian muslins that in bygone Mays were all-sufficient for her comfort…’

But it does not take long for the reader to be caught up in Bowles’ enthusiasm and enormous attention to detail. Here his description of Crocus balansae gives a taste of the depth of his passion:

crocus-oliveri-zwanenburg

Crocus olivieri ssp. balansae ‘Zwanenberg’ – photo courtesy of specialist Alpine nursery Potterton’s.

Crocus balansae … has three outer segments externally of a deep mahogany colour, and in bud looks nearly black and is very hard to see, but the moment these deep-coloured segments part, the rich orange of the inner segments makes a most conspicuous and beautiful object of the flower … Everyone who sees it for the first time is astonished at its beauty, and can hardly believe it is real, like the little girl at the Zoo, who after gazing at the Anteaters said, ” But there aren’t really such animals as those, are there, Nurse.”‘

Bowles can be as furiously dismissive of certain crocus as he is enthusiastic about others. ‘I do not care so much for large clumps of any white form. At the back of the borders they look too cold, and suggest unmelted snow pats’ or, of Crocus graveolens, ‘one little yellow crocus has an obnoxious trait in its character and is a little stinking beast, as Dr Johnson defined the stoat’. But mostly he just wants to explain why ‘every garden ought to have large clumps of (yellow) crocus to brighten up the bare soil in February’ or the charms of his favourite Crocus chrysanthus ‘I greatly admire a gourd-shaped crocus; it means that the throat is wide and full, and the segments ample and rounded … so that an unopened blossom has a distance waist about two-thirds of the way down … when fully expanded the segments bend outwards from above this waist, forming a round rather than starry flower.’

I am beginning to look at the crocus with different eyes. ‘We treat Crocuses au grand sérieux in this garden, giving over two double-light frames to their service in the very sunniest part of the kitchen garden’ writes Bowles at the beginning of his chapter on the genus. It is these frames, re-introduced to the garden at Myddelton House by the hard-working E A Bowles Society,  that I have come to see with the London group of the conservation charity, Plant Heritage.

Walking into the same ordered kitchen garden – extensively restored since 2009 with money from the Heritage Lottery Fund – and peaking into the steeply slanting Peach House with its immaculately fan-trained peaches pink with blossom, I feel a pang of desire when I arrive at the jewel box National Collection of Crocus, each in its individual pot embedded in sand.

img_8840The Peach House with fan-trained peaches in full blossom.

img_8835

img_3397

img_3386 img_3398The fleet of stilted cold frames containing the E A Bowles Society National Collection of Crocus cultivars.

Liz MacNicol is the splendidly named Crocus Co-ordinator at Myddelton House  (NB this is a Plant Heritage job title – extreme general enthusiasts go under the banner of ‘Croconut’).  A National Collection is defined as a collection of at least 75% of available cultivars and, in the case of the E A Bowles Society collection, cultivars includes all those bred by E A Bowles and still known to be in existence. Infuriatingly the yellow Crocus chyrsanthus E A Bowles seems to have disappeared altogether – although there have been hopeful sightings as reported by John Grimshaw in 2010.

e-a-bowles-painting

Painting by E A Bowles of Crocus chysanthus ‘E A Bowles’ courtesy of John Grimshaw’s Garden Diary

The Myddelton House Crocus Collection is painstakingly monitored at every stage of growth. Watering begins in January and carries on weekly until the leaves have died down. The crocus are fed Phostrogen every fortnight during the same period and deadheaded weekly so that the plants do not set seed (with the obvious danger of cross fertilisation). This year everything was very late because of the cold spell in January. Liz was convinced there would be precious losses as ‘there was no green at all’ in the second week of January, but in fact the cool but steady early spring that has followed seems to be bringing about a satisfyingly long display. I am surprised and then saddened that the crocus are not labelled and only numbered for security reasons, but perhaps the advantage of no name is that you look even harder at the tiny differences in shade and delicate marking of the pots of crocus on display.

Of course there is no harm in a little light guesswork. This gorgeous, singing pink, starry-flowered crocus is probably Crocus tommasinianus ‘Roseus’ described by the specialist nursery Potterton’s as ‘an outstanding and justifiably popular form with numerous large, bright rose-pink flowers, that are silvery-grey outside’.

img_8848Possibly Crocus tommasinianus ‘Roseus’.

And this is possibly Crocus chrysanthus ‘Snow Bunting’ which Potterton’s Nursery describes as    ‘…ivory with a faint purple blush on the outside of the petals. It has a delicate musky scent and bright yellow orangey anthers and has received the RHS Award of Garden Merit.’ img_8849

The wonderfully delicate ‘Snow Bunting’ is the only crocus bred by E A Bowles still commercially available. It naturalises happily and is absolutely one for my autumn list:
snow-bunting-full

Crocus ‘Snow Bunting’ – photograph © the E A Bowles Society.

As I read up about the finely marked, washed lavender ‘Blue Pearl’ – often one of the earliest crocus to emerge and surprisingly tough and long lasting in grass – and the vibrant purple feathering on the pale yellow fragrant ‘Gypsy Girl’, I realise that my list of desirable (and happily readily available) crocus is growing longer and longer.

blue-pearl-fullCrocus biflorus ‘Blue Pearl’ – photograph © the E A Bowles Society.

gipsy-girl-full

Crocus ‘Gypsy Girl’ – photograph © the E A Bowles Society.

Other crocus are extremely rare, surviving only by being nurtured in this careful way and should be enjoyed for the short time they are in flower. The Myddelton House Collection contains such treasures as the slow-to-reproduce and the graceful Crocus ‘Kittiwake’ (Bowles named a whole series of crocus after birds, one of his other great interests), and Crocus tommasinianus ‘Bobbo’ named ‘to remind me of the sharp-eyed boy who was the first to spot it’.

kittiwake-full

Crocus ‘Kittiwake’ – photograph © the E A Bowles Society.

bobbo-fullCrocus tommasinianus ‘Bobbo’ – Crocus © the E A Bowles society.

Beyond the cold frames at Myddelton House, Bowles encouraged Crocus tommasinianus to form generous uplifting drifts along with snowdrops. He would be constantly on the look out for unusual crocus which he would select and grow on. So now, as well as being able to choose a particular shade – a darker purple or a more rosy hue perhaps – there are opportunities to extend the period of colour by planting bulbs which flower in succession. 

img_8855 img_8856 img_8862Huge numbers of Crocus tommasinianus and snowdrops in the Alpine Meadow and Rock Garden at Myddelton House.

I find myself turning again to Anna Pavord’s wonderful book ‘Bulb’ (published in 2009, so a mere sprig in horticultural book years) to find out more. ‘Bulb’ was the result of season after season of growing every kind of bulb and taking the trouble to observe them closely and to appreciate both finer and irritating qualities. It is written in her usual seductive style which is both learned and personal and by the end I am dangerously resolved to grow entire table-fulls of bulbs in pots next year, as well as to attend to the question of succession in my own front garden.

bulb-2BULB by Anna Pavord.

A wise sequence of Crocus tommasinianus could well be the mid February flowering ‘Whitewell Purple’ (‘the stigma is brilliant orange, the stamens paler, though you need sun to see the beauty of the inside, when the flower opens flat like a spreadeagled sunbather’), ‘Barr’s Purple’, named after the great Victorian nurseryman Peter Barr, and finally the late February ‘Ruby Giant’ which, as Ms Pavord wryly observes, is ‘neither ruby, nor a giant, it is a beautiful crocus, the three outer petals faintly stippled with paler streaks’.

crocwhitewellcuCrocus tommasinianus ‘Whitewell Purple’ – photograph © Broadleigh Bulbs.

Crocus ‘Barr’s Purple’ – photograph © Potterton’s Nursery.

crocus-tomm-ruby-giantCrocus tommasinianus ‘Ruby Giant’ – photograph © Potterton’s Nursery. 

Mulling this over – how many of each to order to top up my existing Crocus tommasinianus? – I step out of the Kitchen Garden into a series of glass houses. These are furnished with families of colourful exotic plants and have the friendly, storytelling quality of a Henri Rousseau painting.

 Glass House next to the Kitchen Garden.

My favourite is a glass conservatory built onto the house itself. I love the chequered floor tiles, the white painted, curly Victorian ironwork and inside a little world of shocking pink flowers,  skinny, emerald green cactus and a louche flowering Aeonium in an old lead water tank.  Perhaps because of the curiousness of the collection, and the proximity to the house, there is a feeling of pure excitement in the conservatory that brings us a little closer to the great man himself. 

Conservatory, Myddelton House

I speed back into town where I am to meet Andrea Brunsendorf, the talented and exacting Head Gardener of the Inner Temple Gardens – the constantly surprising three acres of garden surrounded by Barristers’ chambers between Temple and Blackfriars stations. I wrote about the gardens in their full September glory in my The Dahlia Papers post SECRET LONDON BENCHES. 

I have already heard about Andrea’s frustration with the damage a group of six or seven pigeons, a mixture of wood and street pigeons, are inflicting year after year on the south facing bank where she has tried everything she can to achieve something even close to a sheet of crocus.  She explains that her lack of success is particularly galling as she trained at Kew which is famous for its huge spreading seas of pale purple and white at this time of year and yet all she has to show on March 1st are these sporadic dark purple clumps of ‘Ruby Giant’ (remember Anna Pavord’s wise words : ‘Ruby Gian’ is neither ruby, nor giant’).

Crocus tommasinianus ‘Ruby Giant’ on the south facing bank – The Meadow – at Inner Temple Gardens.

Beheaded clumps of Crocus tommasinianus ‘Ruby Giant’, Inner Temple Gardens.

Pigeons are well known for attacking yellow crocus, and some gardeners will avoid yellow ones completely, but Andrea has used only purple and white cultivars, and has done everything by the book: successional planting of different crocuses in an open sunny spot, starting off with several hundred in each section and then adding perhaps 150 new bulbs each year; she has employed fake birds of prey; real hawks (‘the hawks came on Wednesdays and the pigeons just came back on the Thursday’); and one year she went for the full allotment style CD’s dancing in the wind. We discuss other possible crocuses – Sarah Raven’s favourite crocus is Crocus chrysanthus ‘Spring Beauty’ which she regards as super tough as well as exquisite with deep purple feathering on pale mauve and Dan Pearson had success in his London garden with Crocus tommasinianus ‘Lilac Beauty’ – one that Andrea has not in fact tried. Andrea notes these down with wistful enthusiasm and then her face lights up with a fanciful idea of sourcing hundreds of yellow windmills – the kind children play with at the seaside – and planting them in droves amongst the crocus… There have been better years: ‘once we had not cleared the Persicaria orientalis on the borders immediately above the meadow so there was a great alternative food source nearby which seemed to make a difference.’ But it is an incredibly difficult thing to experiment with scientific precision when you are caring for a garden that has to look good throughout the year.

In the end Andrea thinks she will have to look to other plants to accompany the crocus – scillas probably (although they are ‘disappointingly pale’), or the rich gold and mahogany coloured Primula ‘Gold Lace’.

Primula ‘Goldlace’ amongst emerging Smirnium perfoliatum elsewhere in the garden.

The Inner Temple Garden is open to the public during the week at lunch time. There are rare trees and shrubs, amazing displays of tulips and the herbaceous borders are an extraordinary contrast to the manifestly serious buildings which surround them. It is worth visiting at absolutely any time of year. What is more,  Andrea Brunsendorf’s quarterly column on her work in the garden, Garden News, is full of inspiring and generous observations.

When I visited a few days ago I was smitten by this gorgeous, weeping Acacia pravissima – a small elegant evergreen tree about to burst into yellow, fragrant flower and by the low mounding cushions of Coronilla valentina subsp. glauca ‘Citrina’ softening the central stone steps and again on the verge of opening into scented, paler yellow flower:

Acacia pravissima

Coronilla valentina subsp. ‘Citrina’.

As we are saying goodbye, Andrea has an idea. Looking across at the Iris unguicularis that are thriving on the same bank, nestling amongst lush mediterranean planting, she suddenly wonders if she could use mounds of this ‘Algerian Iris’ on the challenging south facing bank. Iris unguicularis is an exquisite plant which flowers over a long period from late winter to early spring and would give exciting height and bulk to the entire slope.

Iris unguicularis nestling amongst Mediterranean planting on the Wildflower Bank, Inner Temple Gardens.

Extraordinarily, E A Bowles writes in ‘My Garden in Spring’ ‘Suppose a wicked uncle who wished to check your gardening zeal left you pots of money on condition you grew on one species of plants: what would you choose? I should settle on Iris unguicularis.’ Bowles loved the plant for its ‘soft lilac colouring and crystalline texture’ and for  its’ scent, ‘fuller than the scent of Primrose, with a promise of honey strong enough to wake any bee (but with a) correcting sharpness in it, like that of lemon with the sugar of a shrove Tuesday pancake’. Best of all, even for the Crocus King, it is simply ‘the first flower of spring’.

Andrea worries for a moment what would happen to the Iris unguicularis when, later in the year, she mows the entire bank. How would Iris unguicularis react to that?  ‘Well, you are not supposed to cut Kniphofia to the ground but I do it and it comes back …’.

 I suspect a wonderful solution has been found.