Tag Archives: Chelsea Physic 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



garden museum against blackUnspeakable February storms and not being able to drive for a couple of weeks has meant that apart from being chauffeured to see this extraordinarily transformed – because so rarely flooded – water meadow in Suffolk:IMG_0695

there has been a slightly feverish need to get a horticultural fix in the city wherever it can be found.

The weather app on my iPhone last Tuesday foretold that despite black skies and continuous sheets of rain all morning – it would be sunny in the afternoon.  By 1pm I could sense there might be some truth in this. I slammed the front door behind me and headed speedily for the Chelsea Physic Garden, lured by the idea of witnessing a snowdrop theatre and the knowledge that this beautiful walled garden in which grapefruit and pomegranates ripen to full size -outdoors! – would be the most sheltered place I could find if the weather suddenly turned on its head.

snowdrop theatreThe snowdrop theatre was sweetly enchanting in its perfection and an intelligent, uncluttered way of comparing the different cultivars.  You enter a dangerous world, of course, and it was swiftly done to lose my heart to the gorgeous, lantern shaped, seersucker-petalled Galanthus plicatus ‘Diggory’:

Image.aspxDespite its glamorous appearance, ‘Diggory’ is a vigorous snow drop, if fairly slow to increase,  and would work perfectly happily in a semi-shaded garden situation.

But I soon fell, even more seriously, for another, quieter, utterly lovely snowdrop, Galanthus plicatus ‘Wendy’s Gold’ :another wendy's gold close up wendys goldI love the slight glow of its rich yellow markings and the slim bell-like simplicity of its petals.  ‘Wendy’s Gold’ is the favourite snowdrop of botanical artist, Helga Crouch http:/www.wildlybotanical.co.uk  whose storybook garden in Essex I have written about for the December 2014 edition of Gardens Illustrated Magazine. Helga has a reliable eye for the exquisite and it was brilliant to see ‘Wendy’s Gold’ for myself, better still to learn that it is again an easy garden snowdrop and best of all to be able to buy some there and then at the Physic Garden.

But it was also riveting, within the perfectly groomed context of the snowdrop theatre, to see that the darting elegance of the common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis holding up so extremely well against its less well known – and more expensive – rivals.


There was a great, very simple idea at the Physic Garden for using Galanthus nivalis in large pots – mass planting the snow drops in a mound of soil and using moss to cover the bare earth:

big pot nivalis sunpot shade

Naomi Slade was giving a talk at the garden when I visited and spoke about the different approaches to planting snowdrops in pots.  There is also really helpful practical advice on the website http://www.galanthus.co.uk.

The main reason that collections of snowdrops are kept, preciously and expertly, in alpine houses is to get the watering regime right.  Potted snowdrops need watering throughout their full growth cycle, not just when they are in flower. If they are allowed to get dry and badly wilted, ‘even once’ says Galanthus, (this is where gardening can feel seriously intimidating), the bulbs are likely go dormant prematurely and may take a couple of years to flower well again. The pot should never be allowed to freeze either  – snowdrops are fine, of course, when the ground is frozen but they become vulnerable when in freezing temperatures above ground.

But most gardeners agree that it is still worth a try. The best chance of success is to use a large container and fill it with a thoughtful compost mix – Naomi’s recipe is for John Innes, leaf mould, bonemeal and grit – which, snow drops being greedier than you might think both in pots and in the ground – you replenish every year. In a shady, city garden Naomi proposed a large pot with snowdrops for the early spring and a handsome hosta for summer.  I recommend snow drops planted at the base of the compact, reddish-green Hydrangea preziosa which work brilliantly well in a container and are, of course, bare stemmed at this time of year.


One of the most effective use of snow drops I have seen in a small garden is in the front gardens of the beautiful painted 17th Century wooden lakeside houses in Broek in Waterland just outside Amsterdam – a cosy and atmospheric place to stay if you are visiting the city.broek misty house broek in waterland lakeIn the garden below, the design is clean and spare – a row of glossy topiaried trees densely underplanted with snowdrops, smart and pretty against the deep gloss of the cool grey and white paintwork of the house.

broek snowdrops broek snowdrops closeupBack in Camberwell, my friend, the artist Charlotte Verity  http:/www.charlotteverity.co.uk urged me to walk down the hill to see ‘one of the great London sights of spring’.  camberwell front garden close up massed flowersIt was indeed brilliant to see such a wild sea of white snow drops and mauve Crocus tommasinianus in a world of quiet front lawns and too many recycling bins.

At the top of the hill, Crocus tommasinianus is planted in a more restrained semi circle around a single multi stemmed Magnolia:

closed crocus circle closed crocus close up

The difference in colour intensity after half an hour of February sunshine never fails to amaze me:purple crocus circle purple crocous close up

The great thing about this semi circle of purple is that everyone stops to smile at it for a few weeks and then the lawn returns obediently to green as the year progresses.  I love the idea of secret plantings of crocus. I have a friend who stealthily planted his wife’s initial in the lawn one September so that she would see a silvery-mauve letter ‘O’ suddenly emerge the following Spring.  And I remember seeing a great photograph of long herbaceous borders in the garden at Petersham Nurseries – in a scheme designed, I think, by Mary Keen  – in which the grass path between the borders was planted with crocus creating a playful, chequerboard effect for early spring.

But enough of gorgeous spring days.  When the weather, even in London, was truly atrocious in the middle of the week, the only solution was to go flower hunting inside.

The feisty floral artist, Rebecca Louise Law (www.rebeccalouiselaw.com) was having a solo exhibition at the Coningsby Gallery.GalleryInviteCAROUSEL-1080x580Entering the space you are drawn immediately to the sunnily-lit main installation, ‘The Hated Flowers’:

the hated flowers

hated flowers close upIt is an absolute pleasure to come close to the pink, yellow and red flowers dancing deliciously and plentifully form the sky light on their spun frame of glistening copper wires.  Daughter of a Head Gardener at Anglesey Abbey, Rebecca trained in Fine Art at Newcastle University and has been working in ambitious and original ways with flowers for seventeen years.

I wondered why the title  “The Hated Flowers”?  Rebecca explains that it is a “piece I have wanted to do ever since I experienced the ‘Floristry’ world.  Coming from Art and using flowers as my material, I found it fascinating listening to Florist’s opinions and trends on what flowers to use.  The first rule of high class Floristry is to never buy Chrysanthemums or Carnations, not even to stock them.  I suppose I just wanted to make a statement about this’

We have a very good conversation about the powerful tyranny of fashion in everything including flowers.  Rebecca also tells me more about some of her other works in the exhibition which explore her constant struggle with the ephemeral nature of cut flowers.

There were some wonderful smaller installations: glass cases filled with an alluring complexity of papery dried flowers, butterflies and other treasures.

Also some seductive still life photographs – in collaboration with the photographer Tom Hartford:

pair still life

I really liked these: wonderful homages to Dutch Still Life painting with the Rebecca Louise Law twist of introducing tiny plastic figures into the scene – a Busby Berkeley capped lady swimmer with towel ready for a bathe, a few suited executives ploughing their way through the jungly foliage, a little family group of horses neatly trotting along a leaf.

On the other side of the River, I was blown away later that day by the scale, billowing shape and gorgeous subtlety of her installation in the main body of Garden Museum to celebrate the Museum’s current exhibition, ‘Fashion & Gardens’:

garden museumMy friend, Alice Burroughes and I could not wipe the smiles from our faces.  Museum Director, Christopher Woodward emerged to say hello.  He revealed that the best thing currently about his job was lying on the floor at the end of the day to look upwards: garden museum ceiling

Alice suggested they provide bean bags to encourage people to lie down or that they copy the mirrored trolley idea at Norwich Cathedral which lets you admire the ceiling without strain.

But actually it was fine just noticing the difference in the flowers from different viewpoints. Wonderful and peaceful against black:garden museum against black

hazy and fragmented against the stained glass:


Alice and I could not resist one last plant fix and walked back to the Courtauld Gallery at Somerset House to see ‘A Dialogue with Nature, Romantic Landscapes from Britain and Germany’.

One particularly luminous watercolour to recommend: Caspar David Friedrich’s ‘Moonlit Landscape’ thought to have been painted around 1808:

Caspar_David_Fried_2807602bA fantastic, ethereal painting in which a full moon floats brightly and symbolically (representing Christ) above a shadowy lakeside scene.  The painting is unusual because it is a ‘transparent’ – the moon’s almost halo-like clarity is achieved by inserting a piece of plain paper behind a hole cut in the painting.  The idea was for transparents to be viewed in a darkened room, lit from behind by a candle, accompanied by music. An unsurpassably civilised solution to a wet and windy night.

Tonight, however, I confess that I will be spending the evening with 7 boys and one girlfriend watching Wales v. France, Six Nations Rugby, on the telly.

My name, Non, is the name of the mother of St David and I am 100% Welsh. One final toast to Rebecca Louise Law who created this supremely cheerful trailing and fluttering column of daffodils for the London Welsh Centre on St David’s Day – March 1st 2011! St-Davids-Flagr-360x480