Tag Archives: Euphorbia characias

TO SISSINGHURST – IN JANUARY – TO ADMIRE THE ROSES

BALLETIC ROSE PRUNING, CRISP STRUCTURAL PLANTING, PREPARING FOR ‘THE EXTRAVAGANCE OF SPRING’img_3305

Immaculately choreographed, pruned stems of Rosa mulliganii against the sky, The White Garden, Sissinghurst.

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Effervescent – also beautifully choreographed, obviously –  Burns Night Haggis Dinner in Peckham given by Jake TilsonJeff Lee and their daughter Hannah Tlison (above).

img_3377The Top Courtyard, Sissinghurst Castle, the walls laced with the curving stems of pruned roses.

I am standing at the entrance to Sissinghurst Castle barely able to keep myself away from leaping over the box hedge and forensically examining the wall ahead of me. It is almost the last day of January. The glowing end-of-winter Burns night festivities are over and after a freezing couple of weeks – down to -7ºC here in Kent – the weather has become milder and there is a feeling that things in the garden are beginning to get on their way. I am with Sissinghurst Head Gardener, Troy Scott Smith, who bends down gently to point out the emerging shoots of peonies –  for now just tiny dashes of carmine red against velvet brown soil. He is describing how it feels to be in the garden at this time of year “There is something nice about a quiet spell.  I think gardens that are open to the public need it. There is something wholesome about that full cycle, the contrast with the extravagance of spring and summer”.

Troy has generously agreed to show me the garden in winter and knows I am dead keen to start with the roses.

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img_3370 img_3371                  The entrance to Sissinghurst Castle, Rosa ‘Alister Stella Gray’ against the brick wall.

To the right of a brick arch there is an eighty year old ‘Golden Rambler’, Rosa ‘Alister Stella Gray’. Peter Beales describes it as ‘ a repeat-flowering Noisette rose with cascading clusters of double, shapely flowers, yellow with ‘eggy’ centres paling to cream and eventually white at the edges. Highly perfumed and producing long, slightly spindly branches ideal for arches and trellises’. It is wonderful to see how carefully and cleverly the rose has been pruned for maximum coverage and softly-falling flowering. Long stems are retained and curved to form softly rounded steps and counter-steps against the wall. There are plenty of the horizontal stems (necessary for maximum flowering),  but the whole system is flowing rather than rigid, as so much rose-pruning tends to end up. These gentle shapes will be entirely achievable (I tell myself) if I look hard enough at these images and use them as a guide next time I head out into the garden with my secateurs ….

I feel a little pressurised to learn that rose-pruning at Sissinghurst is almost over – indeed pruning began on October 15th! The climbing roses against the walls go first – ‘for two reasons: first it is cold and windy high up, second we can clear the beds after pruning at the right time of year.’ Troy uses the classic Nutscene garden twine (in green) and was so frustrated with the flimsiness/garishness of modern vine eyes that he had a mould made of an old one and now a blacksmith keeps the garden supplied with these bespoke chunky vine eyes for the 2mm wires that stretch along the brick. ‘We tend to go twice round the wire and once round the stem of the rose’.img_8605                                                                  Nutscene garden twine.

img_8581             Troy Scott Smith’s handmade vine eyes based on an old example from the garden.

When the roses have been pruned they are given fertiliser (Sissinghurst has its own recipe: 2 parts Sulphate of Potash to 1 part Kieserite), and then a layer of compost – ‘compost is an underrated thing’ sighs Troy – is spread at the base of the plant. Once the buds have started to break in mid March, a fortnightly spraying regime begins – it takes two gardeners two hours to get round the extensive rose collection. There is a wisdom combined with an experimental curiosity in Troy’s approach which I will see again and again over the course of the morning. He will try out different combinations of traditional fungicides and Savona soap solution and regularly sprays with liquid seaweed feed or SB Plant Invigorator (which is new to me and looks impressive) too. ‘We pause for the main flowering period June, July. Last year we did a little bit of an experiment where we didn’t spray a number of roses for the last part of the summer’. The blackspot and rust came back with vigour but he is happy that he has tried.
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SB Plant Invigorator.

Against the entrance arch the octogenarian ‘Alistair Stella Gray’ is not as vigorous as it used to be so instead of trying to get it to stretch over the entire arch it has been ‘retreated’ to one side and a new ‘Alistair Stella Gray’ planted on the opposite side of the arch so that the two can meet.

Ageing plants provide a constant challenge for Troy and his team throughout the garden. In the White Garden there is a famous central arbour smothered in Rosa mulligani .

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Rosa mulliganii in flower.

 In fact, to maintain a spectacular display of this fragrant rose (believed to be the biggest of climbing rose available in the UK), there are now three roses, the original one, a second one planted by the previous Sissinghurst Head Gardener, Alexis Datta, and now Troy has added a third rose – all trained over the iron arbour designed by Nigel Nicholson, with assistance from rose expert Graham Stuart Thomas, when the original rose was at its most vigorous. The pruning regime of the three roses remains the same with the aim of producing spare, dancing ‘living lace’  that stops the heart on this cold winter day and will produce an incredible frothing canopy of white in midsummer.

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img_8408 img_8411 The Rosa muliganii arbour in The White Garden – the stems of the rose are pruned into heartstoppingly beautiful ‘Living Lace’.

Elsewhere in the garden the same looping pruning discipline prevails – against walls, next to a spur-pruned apple tree at the back of the shop, along strong wire to create a stand alone rose ‘fence’ and, looking particularly handsome on this grey January day, against the white clapboard building next to the café:

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The Sissinghurst ‘living lace’ style of rose pruning against walls and fences.

In the walled Rose Garden the shrub roses are supposed to be finished by the end of the week.  There is a rhythmic calm as the team (there are six full time gardeners, two part time gardeners and a number of invaluable volunteers) make their way through the space, pruning and clearing as they go, creating a low creeping world of supple crinolines and elegant towers. The crinolines are created by arching the new, flexible stems into semi-circles and training these onto hazel hoops or ‘benders’ in the ground.

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img_8469           img_3368Shrub roses, trained into Louise Bourgoi-like spider shapes, take over the Rose Garden.

The South facing Rose Garden walls are dizzy with fabulously tangled figs. It is fascinating to see, again, how crucial curves are to achieve the right sort of comfortable fullness when the figs come into leaf. Pruning the figs is a finely judged matter – it takes place as late as possible at Sissinghurst because of the tenderness of the figs. But in a warm spell the leaves break fast so when the moment comes the walls need to be tackled at speed.

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The fabulously tangled wall trained figs – pruning to take place as late as possible.

As we watch the steady transformation of the taller shrub roses from stands of impenetrable shagginess to clearly defined towers with neat scalloped frames, Troy explains his plans to reintroduce an avenue of cherry trees into the Rose Garden. Despite extensive research, it is not known which cherries Vita Sackville-West originally planted so he has decided on the winter flowering cherry (Prunus subhirtella autumnalis) which she is known to have liked and which crucially has a reasonably  light  canopy. Obviously the moment you plant trees in a border there will be a knock-on effect on the planting beneath it … …’The only problem with the winter flowering cherry is that visitors won’t really see it’ he adds with a slightly anxious laugh (giving me a glimpse for a moment of the incredible number of ingredients that must be juggled for every decision made in this world famous, historic garden), but then he is reassured by the fact that the Rose Garden can be seen from the Tower and glimpsed en route to the the newly open-to-the-public South Cottage, both of which are open throughout the winter.

img_8467 img_3367The transformation of a taller shrub rose.

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The compact boards which are used throughout the borders during pruning to protect the heavy clay soil.

As I walk to take in the famous view from the Tower I am reminded that there is one rose in the garden which will not, of course, be pruned until just after it has flowered. The thornless evergreen rambler, Rosa banksiae ‘Lutea’, is one of the earliest roses to flower – it has clusters of pale lemon flowers in late spring – and at Sissinghurst it forms a delicate screen of foliage in the central arch which beckons you onwards and which will explode into a haze of yellow later in the year.

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Rosa banksiae ‘Lutea’ against the arch that separates the Top Courtyard from the Lower Courtyard.

Once at the top of the tower it is a complete pleasure to take in the clean-edged sculptural quality of the yew hedges and the quartet of Irish yews in the garden of South Cottage. If you are ever flagging in your faith in the power of structure in the garden, head to Sissinghurst as early in the year as you can (the entire garden will be open this year from March 11th).

img_3379 img_3381The clean lines of yew hedges especially seen from the Tower.

Within the garden the hedges play a shifting series of roles. Here, tight clipped yew provides ballast and guides the eye firmly into the distance:

img_8488                                     Yew hedges guide the eye firmly into the distance.

Elsewhere the velvet green planes provide a wonderful back-drop to red winter stems or the pale silvery buds of magnolia  :

img_3349img_8570Red winter stems and silvery magnolia buds against velvety green yew.

I love this glimpse of the Herb Garden with pea sticks leaning ready for action against the wooden bench which nestles so comfortably between buttresses of yew. The bleached-out, silvery-mauve aromatic plants remain soft and inviting against the vivid green backdrop.

img_3317The Herb Garden.

Not a hedge – obviously – but this mown path through the damp grass of the Orchard has a surprisingly powerful presence.

img_3310The serene Orchard path.

There is a considerable amount of important box hedging in the garden which carries the usual worries of box in the 21st century – plus particular stylistic concerns for this famous garden.   Troy is tackling the situation in his characteristic surefooted and gently experimental way. In the White Garden he wants to loosen up the low box edging for a more abundant, relaxed feel – ‘I think Sissinghurst became too tidy’ – but at the same time has to balance the more fitting, softer aesthetic with the level of irritation the narrower paths might bring forth from demanding visitors. He is relaxed about the way the expanding hedges are looking a bit rough around the edges as they are allowed to grow. If there is an ailing section of hedge he moves box plants from elsewhere in the garden to fill the gap (he would not consider introducing new box into the garden now) and, in case the worse happens – ‘I have the sad feeling we will have to take all our box out one day’ – he has just brought in a load of Euonymus japonicus ‘Microphyllus’ (the box leaved euonymus) to trial.

img_8416             Box edging in the White Garden – beginning to bulge satisfactorily.

Elsewhere in the garden the Lion Pond at the base of the old Elizabethan wall is brought alive in winter by the vibrant fresh green of some low box hedging.

img_8571The fresh green of a section of box hedging near the Lion Pond gives this area energy at the beginning of the year.

Yew and pleached lime trees are a vital and anchoring combination both at the front of the Castle and at the approach to the Lime Walk from South Cottage.

img_3385Yew hedge and pleached limes at the front of Sissinghurst Castle.

The four Irish yews in the Cottage Garden are incredibly beautiful at any time of year. In this photograph there is the wonderful extra layering of Irish yew with box drums behind and then a clipped yew hedge directly in front of a section of  pleached lime.img_3364              Rich layering of Irish yew, box, yew hedge and pleached lime in the Cottage Garden

The Lime Walk is famous for its immaculate avenue of trained lime trees underplanted with spring bulbs.

img_3323The Lime Walk.

But of course nothing about a garden can stand still and it takes a skilled and subtle gardener to tackle the challenges that the Lime Walk quietly but insistently poses. Troy has changed the pruning regime of the trees themselves – bringing the date forward from August to Midsummer’s Day. This brings more light into the walk itself during the summer and leads to a haze of wonderful ruby growth.

img_3325Deep red new growth on the lime trees a result of midsummer pruning.

He is fond of this effect, but at the back of his mind is a slight worry that this pruning regime may perhaps be weakening the trees. At the same time the branches are becoming altogether too long and a further experiment is taking place – luckily on a shorter stretch of lime trees elsewhere in the garden – to reduce the branches considerably .

Then there are the bulb beds underneath the trees. I can see hundreds of Crocus tommasinianus shoots, but my enthusiasm is quickly checked as Troy explains that the crocus has become ‘so aggressive and spread so well that it outcompetes some of the finer tulips and fritillaries’.  Sections of border are being taken up each year, cleared, sterilised and then the bulbs (which are planted in mixed groups in pots to create as natural an effect as possible as quickly as possible) are sunk into the beds.

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Hundreds of unwanted Crocus tommasinianus shoots in the beds of the Lime Walk.

Then there are questions of opening up the area immediately beyond the Lime Walk so that visitors can stroll down unimpeded to the lake – and how best to do this of course – and beyond the Lime Walk is the Nuttery where the underplanting is also getting out of balance (Troy remembers a lighter, more dancing tapestry of planting when he was here before in 1992-97 ). Added to this, the mostly yellow azalea border across the path is about to be replaced with a much richer palette of azaleas underplanted with brightly coloured polyanthus (which Vita had until 1973) and glamorous peonies and lilies ‘It might be a bit bold in places but you don’t want to be too tasteful’ muses the Head Gardener with a grin.
img_8443                                                   Silhouette of pleached lime against the sky.
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img_8433The Nuttery – the underplanting is under review so that the epimedium seen here for example does become too dominant.

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The Azalea Bank left – about to undergo a 1970’s polaroid transformation.

As well as a host of venerable garden advisors and historians, Dan Pearson comes on a voluntary basis twice a year to act as an advisor and sounding board. I can imagine that these are productive and hugely enjoyable days much appreciated even by the most thoughtful of Head Gardeners..

Before I leave the garden I make a note of the straightforward plants which are looking good even at this time of the year. The blue-grey leaved Euphorbia characias is as always looking fresh and strong – such a great architectural plant that always helps an area of the garden look well furnished and happy.

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Euphorbia characias adding fullness to the spare winter border against the Elizabethan Wall.

At the entrance to South Cottage Mahonia and Helleborus foetidus look bright and fresh, especially perhaps because they are each given a good amount of space in which to shine.

img_8564Mahonia and Helleborus foetidus against the entrance to South Cottage.

One of my surprise favourites is this fine, spikey pair of Astelia chathamica which I admit to never having used, but which looks wonderfully at home with box and rosemary at the base of this aged red wall.

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Astelia chathamica anchoring the entrance border.

One sneaky inclusion in this list is Rosa ‘Meg’ which is also growing at the entrance. It is a rose I have not grown – and which was obviously not in flower! –  but which has, I discover, large, almost single, beautifully waved flowers and a delicate pink-apricot colour, with red-gold stamens. It would look wonderful in a garden with my favourite Rosa mutabilis whose flowers pass through shades of apricot yellow to coppery pink.

15094Rosa ‘Meg’.

Another new discovery is the rare evergreen shrub Distylium racemosum, or Winter-hazel, which is sunning itself on the left of the central Courtyard archway with some Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Sissinghurst Blue’ bursting out at its feet. I have tracked it down to the wonderful Bluebell Nursery where it has a rave review ‘a slow growing attractive evergreen tree from Japan… in spring attractive, small, red Hamamelis-like flowers with lurid purple stakes appear on the older branches’. One for the shopping list.
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Distylium racemosum growing to the left of the Courtyard arch.

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The red witch hazel like flowers of Distylium racemosum. (Photograph courtesy of Bluebell Nursery).

The oldest rose in the garden is the ‘Mme Alfred Carrière’ that covers the front of South Cottage. This was the first thing planted by Vita Sackville West in the entire garden and it is this rose that gets ceremoniously pruned first in the middle of October. I was charmed to discover that Vita had determinedly planted the rose before the couple had actually signed the Title Deeds for the Castle, a sort of guarantee to herself that she was going to make a garden here.

It is a move I might employ myself in some lonely country plot in the coming years. Husband, be warned.
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Rosa ‘Mme Alfred Carriere’ against South Cottage – the oldest plant in the garden.

 

ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS A CYMBIDIUM (OR AN ONCIDIUM)

PLUS WHAT TO DO WITH A BAG OF SPANISH MOSS?

img_7903Plump citrus yellow Cymbidium flowers just opening at McBean’s Orchids

img_7974_3Glamorous, particularly fine Oncidium plants at McBean’s Orchids

The scent is extraordinary – vanilla? clove? tuberose? Exotic of course, from far away.  It is outrageously seductive.  I have only just stepped out of an exhilaratingly frosty December day and into the first of a series of milky-paned glasshouses at McBean’s Orchids in East Sussex and already I find myself wanting more of the intense perfume, coveting an exquisitely salmon-marbled Oncidium and wondering simply where orchids have been all my life?

img_7977_3Just opening claret coloured Cymbidium in the glasshouse at McBean’s Orchids, East Sussex

img_7972_3Exquisite salmon-marbled oncidium, Mcbean’s Orchids, Sussex

I love the energy of the Cymbidium leaves:

img_7863_3Yellow flowered Cymbidium its leaves stretching upwards and outwards.

There are orchids everywhere in a series of greenhouses, stretching away on long wheeled tables.img_7870                             wheeled tables stretching away into the distance, McBean’s Orchids

There are junior plants dense in their trays  (it takes four to five years to nurture an orchid until it is ready for sale).img_7908_3                                      Tray upon tray of tiny orchid plants, McBean’s Orchids

There are teenage ones, signposted with delightfully incongruous Scottish names such as ‘Castle of Mey’ – never forget that Mr McBean, who established the nursery in 1879, was a Scot. Originally the business specialised in ferns but Mr McBean was canny enough to spot the potential of the seedling orchids that appeared uninvited on imported fern plants and so the revered orchid nursery began.

img_7921_3Young Cymbidium ‘Castle of Mey’

And there are champion ones such as ‘Big Tracy’, a 40 year old sweet smelling Cymbidium tracyanum with pistachio coloured flowers marked with brown. Every year there is a playful flower-count as the plant grows even bigger.  2016 has been a bumper year with 630 translucent tiger-striped blooms.

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img_3227The enormous 40+ year old ‘Big Tracy’ – Cymbidium tracyanum –  at McBean’s Orchids

It has been a wonderfully crisp and blue-skied early winter here in London and the South East.  There have been freezing nights followed by glittering early mornings which have transformed the spreading leaves of cardoons and the sculpted mounts of Euphorbia characias in my local Ruskin Park into exquisitely shimmering ball gowns:

img_7857Gorgeous frosted leaves of cardoons and Euphorbia characias 

Sheets of Cyclamen hederfolium huddled in the grass are frozen solid, the frost lacing the slightly puckered marbled leaves with an icy pompom edging.

img_7855Frozen Cyclamen hederifolium

Stands of Calamagrostis are ablaze in the morning sunshine and the still-hanging-in-there, rich yellow festoons of wisteria foliage make for a slightly decadent party atmosphere.

img_7854                                     Stands of Calamagrostis ablaze in the morning sunshine


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Festoons of rich yellow wisteria foliage make for a slightly decadent party atmosphere

Back at McBean’s my spirits rise as I find out more about their speciality Cymbidium and Oncidium orchids and how they could fill my house with colour from December until April just as the garden has gone so quiet. Above the exuberant light-catching foliage there are bursts of speckled pink, an elusive grey-orange, white with dashes of the freshest egg yolk yellow and spotted claret and pink ones ones like slivers of the most expensive Italian marble.

img_7969_3Cymbidium December Orange

img_3246An arching stem of yellow Cymbidium

Cool growing Oncidium (formerly know as Odontoglossum) and modern hybrid Cymbidium hail from subtropical Asia and were hugely popular in Victorian times. But they have been lying quietly beyond the contemporary mindset, our interest dulled by the elegant but supermarket invading moth orchid (Phaelonopsis). Not that McBean’s does not sell tempting, strangely speckled or dark wine coloured Phalaenopsis too, but their speciality and comparative rarity lies in their range of gorgeous, exuberant Cymbidium and the more delicate and only slightly more challenging Oncidium.img_3253                                            A perfectly poised stem of deep pink Oncidium
img_3257                                          A prize Oncidium with marble-like markings in claret.

‘They are the ultimate sustainable plant’ explains the feisty Rose Armstrong as she takes me on an uplifting tour of the nursery which she bought – pretty much by accident – in 2015.  Rose had been coming to McBeans for years. On a visit to buy an orchid as a present she was distraught to find that the business was on the verge of closing down, and found herself buying the whole set up  (along with her headhunter husband, Stretch) and taking on the task of saving and reviving this longstanding British brand.  ‘McBeans have exhibited at nearly every Chelsea Flower show and have won over 80 gold medals. We are one of only three remaining British orchid nurseries, we have an incredible stock to breed from and unbeatable expertise.’  Indeed Head Nurseryman, Jim Durrant has worked at the nursery developing ever more exquisite plants since 1971.

McBean’s has provided orchids for Royalty – famously for Princess Diana’s wedding bouquet – Mrs Thatcher is said to have insisted on McBean’s orchids at No. 10 and there are still a handful of country house chatelaines who order several thousand pounds worth of orchids to decorate the house before a shooting party, but Rose is determined that the McBean orchid – the less well known cymbidiums and oncidiums in particular – are seen as a straightforward and cheerful addition to any contemporary home.

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Princess Diana’s wedding – her bouquet contained trailing stems of white orchids from McBean’s

I think Rose Armstrong has the right ingredients to make this work. She has a great eye and orchids are in her bones: amazingly both her grandmothers used to come to Mcbean’s in the autumn to buy orchids for the house.  She is also refreshingly straightforward in her approach to the task ahead. She tells me fondly that her other business is a petrol station with a small, perhaps old-fashioned, but perfectly successful shop ‘that just sells what you need when you’ve got a hangover after Saturday night:  ‘Redbull, fags … and sauces for Sunday lunch’.

Most importantly her approach to caring for orchids dispels the kind of myths that may have built up in your head for years. You may have stored away information gathered from pieces such as Amanda Gutterman’s entertaining but worrying feature for Gardensita  – The Orchid That Owned Me – in which Ms Gutterman achieves success by watering her orchids with gently melting ice cubes: the ultimate way to ‘water sparingly’.

10-orchidcare-erinboyle-gardenista      Photograph of the melting ice cube orchid-watering technique  by Amanda Gutterman courtesy of Gardenista

But for Rose Armstrong the advice is much more straight forward.  ‘Rule no 1 is to water with rainwater only – just keep a lemonade bottle of rainwater mixed with Orchid feed under the sink and use this every three out of four times you water’.

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Rule 2: Don’t water very much (use a wooden stick poked in the potting medium to see if there is still moisture available), and put a layer of gravel under the pot to help drainage and keep the atmosphere around the plant moist. Rule 3: Keep the plant in good light but not direct sunlight away from radiators and draughts.  Rule 4: In the summer (April to October) put the plant outside in dappled shade ‘under the apple tree at the back of the garden’ . The plant needs a drop in temperature at night to form buds.  You can keep watering and feeding a bit during this time but not in July when the bud formation is taking place.

The really exciting thing about orchids of course is that as well as flowering for at least six to eight weeks, they will come back again year after year.  Some people worry that they will get too big but ‘it is easy to split them in two with a hacksaw’ –  with the obvious bonus of creating two plants from one.

img_7924_2Mature Cymbidium tracyanum on a trunk at McBean’s Orchids

I love the way that even the smaller cymbidiums have the potential to really change a room, the way they offer something of the settled quality of a log fire or a piano. And the bigger plants can be spectacular. At McBean’s there is a particularly covetable, heavenly scented Cymbidium tracyanum comfortable on an old trunk at the end of a sloping red-floored passageway in the nursery against an industrial painted glass wall.

The red-floored passageway leads to the Exhibition Room. This is an extraordinarily atmospheric stage set of a place with a backdrop of futuristic, silvery-grey corrugated window panes, waterfalls, pools, scented tumbling orchids amongst ferns and tiered stands of velvety green, ear-shaped begonia leaves  – the whole hung with ghostly festoons of Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides).  I have only ever seen Spanish Moss before hanging spookily from gnarled trees in the ground of plantation houses outside New Orleans.  Here the Spanish moss is cool and airy and a curiously refreshing foil to the glossy firework exuberance of the tropical plants.

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img_3233The amazing Exhibition Room with pools, waterfalls, scented orchids, begonias, ferns and Spanish moss.

Elsewhere in the nursery I am taken by further sturdily voluptuous plants against milky blue glass (am feeling an urgent need to expand my knowledge of a whole new area of plants!)

img_7967Sturdily voluptuous plants against pale blue glass

And everywhere there are workbenches with new treasures.   I fall for a wonderful table laden with  gawky, long-limbed shrimp plants (Judicia brandegeeana ), Blue Rabbit’s Foot fern (Phlebodum pseudoareum) – and more Spanish moss:img_7915_3img_7976_3img_7917_3A potting bench where Shrimp plant cuttings share space with Spanish moss and a Blue Rabbit’s Foot fern

On the next table I am introduced to the slim and elegant mahogany flowered Cymbidium ‘Prince George’ and his neat, smaller younger sister ‘Princess Charlotte’

img_7968Cymbidium ‘Prince George’ and ‘Princess Charlotte’prince-georgeCymbidium ‘Prince George’

And so I am back in the sales area and in a mild panic about what to buy.  img_7971 img_7974_3ceramic-pots-main                                           The all too tempting sales area at McBeans’s Orchids

I go for a starter trio of Cymbidium ‘December Orange’, a soft pink speckled Cymbidium ‘McBean’s Loch Gilp Lewes’ and an Oncidium with magically suspended delicate pink on white flowers along a curved stem – just to raise the stakes.

img_7975_3My trio of orchids arrive home.

I have a Malaysian friend,  Valentine Willie who deals in contemporary art and has bases throughout Southeast Asia. He is crazy about orchids and I have always assumed that it is all very well for him – after all he will goad me with photographs of his jade vine in full bloom in his garden in Ubud, Bali – but that orchids are a no go area for me.

image-2Valentine’s Jade Vine, Ubud Bali

I am entertained to discover that where there is no garden at his KL apartment he has turned an entire bathroom into an ‘orchidarium cum fern house’.

imageValentine Willie’s KL bathroom/orchidariaum

A week on, my orchids are blooming away.  They are sitting on gravel, the rainwater/orchid fertilizer cocktail is mixed up in its plastic bottle under the sink and I hope I have chosen bright enough places for the plants to be happy.

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Cymbidium ‘December Orange’ – in terracotta orchid pot designed by Abbie Zabar for Seibert & Riceimg_8021Cymbidium ‘McBean’s Loch Gilp ‘Lewis”
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An elegant pink on white Oncidium

I didn’t quiz Rose for her line on misting the orchids. I feel I may succumb to a plant mister (Haws do a a very tempting nickel plated one which would make an ideal Christmas present – for me),  but I am unable to succumb to mixing olive oil, washing up liquid and water and using this to give the foliage a weekly polish.  Once you start reading up on orchids it is not too hard for the fear of impossibility to begin over again…Mostly I am excited at the way my new orchids add texture and colour to a room and even more excited by the challenge of keeping them going year after year.

There is one more immediate challenge of course (apart form three boys breaking up simultaneously next week from school and university, the whole of Christmas and the arrival of our first ever puppy …) to think of something artistic and festive to do with an entire bag of slivery-grey Spanish moss that Rose kindly gave me as I left.  Something for the weekend.

imageSpanish moss

NB If you are in London there is a Pop Up McBean’s Orchids now open at 235 Westbourne Grove W11 

 

STEPPING INTO A BANNERMAN GARDEN EN ROUTE TO VAUX-LE-VICOMTE

THE DREAM GARDENS OF LE NÔTRE AND JULIAN & ISABEL BANNERMAN

img_3140View through an old glass pane at the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte: forest, box parterres (‘broderies’), stone balustrade, moat.

I would like to bet that André le Nôtre and also Isabel and Julian Bannerman would enjoy this view through one of the side windows of the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte about an hour south of Paris. The reflection in the old glass gives the image the slightly burnt-out quality of an old photograph. The ordered parkland, the painstakingly curvaceous broderies of clipped box, the restrained, light-catching pallor of the gravel, the perfectly proportioned balustrade of local stone, now blotchy with lichen, and the serried ripples on the shiny blue-green water of the elegant square moat that makes Vaux-le-Vicomte appear to float on water are even more tantalising because they are seen from the inside and make you want to get out and explore the garden for yourself.

img_7461Vaux-le-Vicomte – the approach.

I am on the Eurostar to Paris, and onwards to the Château of Vaux-le-Vicomte, checking my facts with a certain amount of trepidation: Vaux-le-Vicomte is the precursor to Versailles, an estate of 1235 acres, 8 miles of surrounding wall, 81 acres of French formal garden, 17 acres of water, 1.86 miles main axis, 26 basins in 1661 of which 20 remain, 12 miles of pipework ….

I let the miles go by and allow myself to get lost again in the gloriously enthusiastic new book by Isabel and Julian Bannerman about their ambitious, inventive and heart-on-sleeve approach to garden-making over the last 25 years: Landscape of Dreams.

img_7611Landscape of Dreams by Isabel & Julian Bannerman.

Landscape of Dreams is the finest, most intimate, most generous book about garden-making I have read since Frank Lawley’s Herterton House and a New Country Garden .  It is also fundamentally infectious. Isabel Bannerman takes you step by step through the reading and looking and learning that has evolved into the couple’s personal, ambitious and dream-filled approach to garden making, and you immediately want to follow. “Looking across the shelves here there sit a broad range of heroes: John Aubrey; Inigo Jones; Charles Bridgeman; Thomas Wright; Batty Langley; William Blake; Eric Ravilious; Barbara Jones and Hylton Nel. Books about all the decorative arts as well as architecture and gardening have been pivotal in shaping the way we both think, along with of course observing the real world closely at all times”. You are sent off in so many directions, making lists of who next to find out about, and you feel safe in this exciting, brilliantly layered world where nothing you might find out about will ever be wasted.

There is a French connection in stories of Julian’s childhood. Holidays spent at Tours-sur-Marne staying with the Chauvet family who ran a small champagne house ‘opposite Lauren Perrier’ (a playful pleasure in all things more glamorous than less glamorous is a constant theme). Here Julian absorbed the ‘cyclical and studied way’ of living in France but, although his spoken French remained excellent, the impossibility of passing his Maths O Level ‘put paid to his ideas of becoming an architect’. But you don’t need a Maths O Level to be inspired by everything around you and to put it all to wonderfully good use. Inspiring images, such as American landscape architect Dan Kiley’s description of his long driveway in Connecticut where he had planted so many lilac shrubs that ‘when they flowered in May it resembled a puffing steam train’, were the sort of romantic inspiration that Julian would store away and never forget.

img_3121The entrance facade to Vaux-le-Vicomte – you can glimpse the main part of the garden through the three central arches.

We are crunching along the fine gravel to the entrance of the château itself. Le Nôtre’s great idea was that the central axis of the garden should start with the approach, travel through the house and continue without stopping to the main garden on the other side. I look back at the achingly huge entrance courtyard with unfinished almost Egyptian 17th century stone figures, looking dangerously white against the dark forest and stormy sky beyond and I begin to get excited.

img_7468Entrance Courtyard with unfinished 17th century stone figures at the boundary wall.

Suddenly we are in the Grand Salon, built by architect Louis Le Vau and decorated with paintings by Charles Le Brun, looking out on Le Nôtre’s garden, the whole commissioned as one integrated work of splendour by Louis XIV’s Superintendent of Finances, Nicolas Fouquet.  Key to understanding the significance of this commission is that Fouquet brought the three men together for the first time and invited them to take the empty land stretching before them and work together to create something splendid. Fouquet’s rise had been rapid and extraordinary, but his fall was more dramatic still. An extravagant party was held for King Louis XIV on August 17, 1661 – a new play by Molière was just a fraction of the delights on offer – but weeks later Fouquet was imprisoned, and the King requisitioned the entire contents of the château (except for a pair of extremely heavy marble topped tables you can still see in the dining room) and brought Le Vau, Le Brun and Le Nôtre to Versailles to transform his hunting lodge along similar lines. Versailles the TV series – with its infamous offer of  ‘sex, violence and intrigue, sometimes simultaneously’ (The Telegraph) –  was filmed mostly at Vaux-le- Vicomte rather than Versailles as there is so much at Vaux that has remained in tact and unchanged.

img_7471View of the garden from the Grand Salon.

Taking my eyes off the view spread out before me for a moment, I am smitten by the glittering candle stands (the château is famous for its magical candlelit evenings every Saturday from May to October when the house and garden are lit by hundreds of candles), the way the black and white stone floor is further chequered by light and shadow from the enormous windows, by glimpses of the garden to the front, back and to both sides, and by the arching sky blue oval ceiling painted with a soaring eagle.

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One of the handsome tiered candle stands catching the light in the Grand Salon.

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img_7472Shadows and light falling across the black and white stone floor.

img_7511 View through to the garden at one of the sides of the château.

img_7476View from the Grand Salon back out to the entrance to the château.

img_7473 img_7489Windows everywhere framing a tempting view of lawn, topiary, and statuary.

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The gorgeous domed oval ceiling painted in the 19th century.

Before I am let loose in the gardens I explore the house. Although richly decorated on almost every surface – my visit coincides with a major restoration programme for many of the painted areas, unusually and imaginatively the restoration is taking place in situ, in full view of the visitors – everything is somehow on a manageable scale. So different to Versailles where to enter the house you have to pass through airport style security and the density of i-phone wielding visitors is overwhelming.

The newly restored Games Room is extremely beautiful with every surface painted, and mirrors and gilt to add depth and glamour. There is a charming table with candle stands and an open game of backgammon which you could almost sit down to play:

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The Games Room with backgammon table and exquisite shutters.

More brief snatches of garden – broderies, water, brick wall and stone figures – through a richly textured series of shuttered windows and patterned floors, and then we are out on the roof top looking down. I love the contrast of chalky grey-blue paint and skinny gold edging with the bright blues and greens of the garden beyond, and I love the promise of light and air in a room so dark that even its shiny floor cannot warm things up.

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Glimpses of garden through a series of windows.

So at last the garden and the opportunity to drink in the scale of ambition and let yourself be fooled by the brilliant tricks of perspective designed for the visitor by le Nôtre. I am not often excited by a cool mathematical approach to gardening, but I do marvel at the cunning and sheer effort involved in making the garden seem longer by increasing the size of objects the further they are from the château –  the circular pool at the centre of the photograph below may seem the same sort of size as the square pool behind it but the square pool is in fact eight times as big.

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From the roof top looking down – the main garden extending into the distance.

img_7520You can start to see that the square pool is considerably bigger than the round pool closer in the foreground.

The square pool turns out to be designed as a reflecting pool, Le Miroir d’Eau, easily and magnificently embracing the reflection of the entire château on a calm day:
img_3181img_7533                                                  The château reflected in the Square Pool, Le Miroir d’Eau.

And then a third surprise, the ‘pool’ beyond the Miroir d’Eau turns out to be a section of canal that extends substantially to the West and East.

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                                                        View to the East along the canal.

img_7539View to the West along the canal.

The path around the garden then splits and takes you up through drooping avenues of plane trees towards the statue of Hercules –  rather staggeringly  Hercules is nearly 2 miles away from the front entrance to the house.

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Hercules at the top of the hill at the centre of an avenue of drooping plane trees.

Hercules was a 19th century addition by Alfred Sommier who bought Vaux-leVicomte in 1875 and spent his lifetime and much of his fortune restoring house and garden. His descendants, the de Vogüé family, still live in the château buildings and run the place passionately, which explains why Vaux feels warmer and more intimate than its state run rivals. Over the winter of 2017 the bronze Hercules will be gilded once more to add another layer of lure and sparkle to this extraordinary garden.

I would love to return and spend more time exploring the garden. On this visit I am invited to whiz around in one of the Vaux-le-vicomte golf buggies and although time is tight (and some nameless people naturally derive a ridiculous amount of pleasure from driving the buggy around the slightly lethal/steep pathways ) I would love to spend another day here, in the Spring with a picnic, and maybe a bike, to do things at an easier pace with time to discover the wilder parts, to appreciate the deft and shifting balance of stone, water, topiary, perhaps even to return to see the fortnightly Water Show – when fountains and cascades are switched on for a couple of spectacular hours. I find myself extremely excited by the idea of the whole thing taking place with no electricity, just brilliant engineering and the pull of gravity.

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Horse Chestnut trees in bloom at Vaux-le-Vicomte. Photograph by Bruno Ehrs from the book A day at Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte by Alexandre, Ascanio and Jean-Charles de Vogüé.

img_7531Stone and topiary across water.

img_7523The moat and outbuildings seen from the top of the château.

img_7546Lichen on a stone balustrade.

I would love to come back too to see the filled urns and flower parterres (to the right of the garden as you look down towards the canal) at their height in summer. Here is a golf-buggy-hazy October impression of the flower parterre:

img_7529And here is a photograph of the slightly lost and curious-looking pelargoniums in diminutive pots (well diminutive in such an enormous space) – could there be another approach, I wonder, to this kind of border planting once the resoration to interior painting and garden statuary is complete?img_7518                      Curiously small pots of pelargoniums next to the broderies parterre.

But it is Mathieu Lespagnandel’s statue personifying the Anquiel River which runs through the estate which brings me back to Juilan and Isabel Bannerman:

img_7609Mathieu Lespagnandel’s statue personifying the Anquiel River, photograph by Bruno Ehrs from the book A day at Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte by Alexandre, Ascanio and Jean-Charles de Vogüé.

The statue transports me powerfully to the image I have just been looking at of the beautiful, muscly Rother God sculpture constructed of bath stone and Whitstable oyster shells by Tom Verity as part of a Bannerman scheme for Simon Sainsbury and Stewart Grimshaw at Woolbeding.  

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Tom Verity’s Rother God (bath stone and oyster shells) for Woolbeding, photograph from Landscape of Dreams by Isabel and Julian Bannerman.

Isabel and Julian’s verdict on the woodland garden there, particularly the area around the painted Gothic pavilion designed by Pip Jebb, was that it ‘lacked mystery and needed ‘lifting’. Lightness of touch is an intangible quality, something we all always seek to achieve and can never be sure of finding’. The Bannerman proposal was to dramatically cut away the river leading up to the pavilion so that the house would sit on a cliff and ‘for the entrance we lighted upon the idea of a raggedy ruin, a whisper of Northanger Abbey, fragments in the grass, a gothic portal and tracery window’. There followed a thatched rustic hut intricately lined with hazel wands and fir cones, an ‘oozing fountain’ of tufa, a swooping chinese bridge in a rich yellow (to replace the ‘sticky chocolate brown things they had chosen in haste and regretted at leisure’) and an uplifting, contemporary, almost mediterranean garden for National Trust visitors at the house entrance.

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Images of the Rother God, Pip Jebb Gothic Pavilion, Tufa Fountain and yellow Chinese Bridge at Woolbeding from Landscape of Dreams by Isabel and Julian Bannerman.

I love Isabel’s storytelling about the way the Bannerman approach to gardens – and indeed houses – has evolved and become an unstoppable way of life. Falling in love with old, derelict, houses has been a long standing addiction. Julian’s first major purchase was a 1727 crumbling pile, The Ivy. The great age of the house ‘sparked in Julian and, later me, a crush on the formal gardens of England, Holland and France in the 17th century, the canals and terraces in Kip’s birds-eye engravings which were heartlessly, ruthlessly rooted out by Capability Brown’. The challenge involved in rescuing such a demanding building ‘appealed to all Julian’s natural love of the underdog and glamour’ and their priorities will always be upside down in the eyes of some. Their great friend, David Vicary, described Julian as impulsive saying it was ‘impetuous for the impecunious’ to plant ‘two avenues of lime trees’ when there was ‘barely a flushing lavatory on the premises’. It was the same friend who ‘taught that nothing is new, nothing is original and nothing comes wholly formed from the imagination. It is all observed and logged and then drawn on and altered, adapted or amended to a particular situation.’ Drawing constantly on all they have learnt, their goal is to create quiet settled spaces – ‘we like the kind of dreamy ‘left alone’ quality that allows the garden and the person in it to be.’

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The Antler Temple at Houghton Hall from Landscape of Dreams by Isabel and Julian Bannerman.

After the absorption of history comes the need to make and invent. The temples at Highgrove were inspired as much by Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta as by a souvenir cork model of the Temple of Concord, Agrigento, Sicily which they had bought in the visitor’s car park. Scouring for old building materials or the right plant requires a constant eagle eye – they spotted the spreading fifty year old mulberry tree for their 1994 Chelsea garden driving back from a Sunday lunch with Julian’s parents, their car full of young children. A small but perfect example of their tirelessness and attention to detail is their solution for a 70th birthday present for Paul Getty, for whom they had been ambitiously and painstakingly transforming a garden in the Chilterns. ‘At a loss for a present we gave him seventy little oak seedlings in a box which we had grown from acorns picked from the veteran oak at Hanham Court, a tree under which James II had dined on venison in an act of reconciliation with the owners following a misunderstanding during the Monmouth Rebellion’.

And at its best, despite the hard work, they manage to make making gardens tremendous fun. ‘Building Euridge’ (for Jigsaw founder, John Robinson) ‘was probably the happiest thing we have ever done. It involved many children, dogs, stonemasons, chippies, hippies, builders and project managers, drinking, dancing, fancy dress, head-scratching, problem solving …’ or at Highgrove ‘The Prince himself would sneak out whenever possible and help, chat, despair of Julian’s Coca-Cola drinking and send for tea and sandwiches to be shared by everyone among the roots’.

img_7617Wisteria against the house wall at Hanham Court from Landscape of Dreams by Isabel and Julian Bannerman.

But the pair’s approach to planting, their deeply knowledgeable, tried and tested, passionate understanding of how plants work together to create atmosphere is perhaps the most uplifting element in the book. I remember visiting Hanham Court near Bristol whilst the Bannermans still lived there. It was possibly the only time I have been truly blown away by the scent of wisteria which hit you as you entered the garden through a darkened gateway and stepped into the sunshine under the south facing walls of the house which was completely smothered in the most voluptuous purple flowers. I remember fantastic, simple, but astonishingly effective, combinations of yew mounds, Euphorbia characias, Iris pallida subsp. pallida and Erysimum Bowles Mauve, and elsewhere yew, Iris pallida subsp. pallida, with the silvery Eryngium bourgatii. I remember being introduced to their new passion, the yellow magnolia (I am now completely hooked), I remember the louche, comfortable, faded Riviera feel of the planting and ‘ruined’ buildings around the swimming pool and, most of all, I remember a deep romantic enthusiasm for a certain kind of enduring English garden plant (NB my copy of the book is already covered in notes).

img_7621Yew, Iris pallida subsp. pallida, Hanham Court from Landscape of Dreams by Isabel and Julian Bannerman.

img_7631The swimming pool Hanham Court, from Landscape of Dreams by Isabel and Julian Bannerman.

There is huge generosity here and so much to learn – why Isabel will choose Noisette roses for a house wall ‘because they are long-flowering, tend to be exquisitely scented and have a great ‘garlanded’ quality forming natural swags of flowers ‘and  how they might use ‘ferns, ash sapling, ivy, primroses, cowslips, rambling roses, valerian and acanthus’ to create an ancient feel to a newly built structure. Do not dismiss her throw away description of the outer ring of the Rose Garden at Houghton Hall ‘mixed Sissinghurst-like planting, shrubs and shrub roses underplanted with delights. Just the usual favourites, philadelphus, lilac, old fashioned roses washed about with pinks and aquilegias’ – it is this insistence on plants like philadelphus, lilac and old fashion roses (and plenty of them) to make a garden feel lived in, that can be too often missed in the more calculated contemporary planting plan. Isabel describes visiting ‘Queen of Hellebores, Helen Ballard’ where they learnt about north-facing borders and the winning combination of snowdrops, hellebores and species peonies. For Houghton Hall they are keen to create ‘a peony border mixed with regale lilies, a pairing we had seen in Vaux-le-Vicomte and vowed to reproduce’.

And so we are back at Vaux where I feel that the current châtelaine, the ever glamorous Comtesse de Vogüé, has not a little in common with Julian Bannerman and his pleasure in high standards, celebration of the past and the all round delight of living.

img_7608The Comtesse de Vogüé in the black and white tiled Grand Salon at Vaux-le-Vicomte. Photograph by Bruno Ehrs from the book A day at Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte by Alexandre, Ascanio and Jean-Charles de Vogüé.

img_7606The Comtesse de Vogüé’s Floating Island with Pink Pralines and Green Tea Custard – a family recipe. Photograph by Bruno Ehrs from the book A day at Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte by Alexandre, Ascanio and Jean-Charles de Vogüé.

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Julian Bannerman in the Smoking Garden with black and white tiled floor and shell fountain they designed for ‘private members’ establishment’, 5 Hertford Street. From Landscape of Dreams by Isabel and Julian Bannerman.

My second bet is that this splendidly outrageous scene from the Bond movie Moonraker, with the elegant Vaux-le-Vicomte as a backdrop, has all the theatrical, fun, immaculately executed ingredients to please Julian and Isabel Bannerman immensely.

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Scene from Moonraker, shot at Vaux in 1978 with Roger Moore playing James Bond,  Photograph from the book A day at Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte by Alexandre, Ascanio and Jean-Charles de Vogüé.

SMITTEN BY THE GARDEN OF THE PETIT PALAIS

SURPRISING GARDENS IN MUSEUM & GALLERIES IN PARIS AND LONDON

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

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

IMG_4056Petit Palais Garden  – pool and palm trees

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

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

IMG_4021              Pont Alexandre III, Paris.

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

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

IMG_4022Petit Palais entrance.

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

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A series of windows overlooking the Seine.

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

IMG_4126Mosiac floor, entrance hall, Petit Palais.

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

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

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

IMG_4098The Loggia ceiling, Petit Palais.

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

IMG_4050Perfectly judged café chairs and table, Petit Palais.

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

IMG_4053The Petit Palais garden, framed by Vosges granite columns.

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

 

 

 

Decorative gold swags silhouetted against the sky

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

IMG_4048The lush planting of the Petit Palais garden

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

IMG_4105Curves and columns of the Petit Palais garden.

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

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

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

IMG_4059Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’ against banana leaves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_5567IMG_5555Libertia grandiflora which makes everyone smile the garden in May.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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