Tag Archives: Great Dixter

Finally the Dahlia Papers on dahlias

The perfect crimson dahlia ‘Doris Day’, 2017 dahlia trials, Parham, West Sussex

I track down Parham Head Gardener, Tom Brown, in his office where he is carefully stowing away a fat pile of seed packets into a battle-worn filing cabinet.  ‘Melon seeds’ he grins. The seeds have been brought back from Italy by the Barnard family, who live in this beautiful Elizabethan house in West Sussex, and one of the many challenges Tom will be cheerily taking on in the coming months will be to see how successfully he can get these new varieties of melon to grow.

Tom has invited me to Parham to see his 2017 Dahlia Trials. I am delighted to be returning to this atmospheric and constantly inventive garden (see my July 2016 post) and I am thrilled to have the chance at last, after four years of writing a blog called The Dahlia Papers, to consider this most uplifting plant.

I love pretty much everything about the dahlia. I love the sheer ballroom-dance-competition glee of each fluffier, more neatly sequinned variety:

Gorgeous salmon pink and cream dahlia above and Dahlia ‘Karma Yin Yang’ below spotted at the Chelsea Flower Show

And I love the neat pompom and ball dahlias for the impossible regularity of of their daintily sculpted, rounded heads – here in polka dot form at the Great Dixter Autumn Plant Fair  (7th and 8th October – go if you can!).  

There are single dahlias too, of subtle or dazzling shades, that can lift or add depth to a border over a long period in late summer. Dahlia ‘Poppy Scotland’ is a particularly clear bright red cultivar available as a rooted cutting from the National Dahlia Collection .

                                                                       Dahlia ‘Poppy Scotland’

Dahlias have, of course, become fashionable again in recent times. As has my part of London, Peckham, where exquisitely wrapped English dahlias are available alongside equally exquisite flat breads, pears and cheeses at the lovely General Store in Bellenden Road.

Exquisitely wrapped English dahlias, General Store, Peckham

Naturally, for the 21st birthday party of our twin sons at the beginning of this month, dahlias were the obvious cheerful choice:

Party preparation – rainbow candles, bunting and dahlias

21st birthday party – with dahlias – photo by Freddie Reed

21st birthday party – with dahlias – photo by Freddie Reed

But back to Parham where fifty glorious dahlias have been trialled this summer alongside swathes of gladiolus and a huge patchwork square of zinnias.



The 2017 dahlia trials at Parham, West Sussex

This is the third year of plant trials in the garden. They began as an ingenious solution to the question: how do you get rid of an infestation of bind weed in a tired border and simultaneously offer something for the visitor to look at? As an experiment, Tom Brown asked his team to see if they could come up with 100 varieties of sunflower. The team cleared the bed and covered the ground with plastic membrane to smother the regrowth, but at the same time  planted the sunflower seeds through small holes in the plastic. The result was a fantastic display and of course the chance to really get to know and compare the sunflowers so that future selections could be based on their own close observation and not just the persuasive description in a seed catalogue. This is gold dust research – for the record, favourites include ‘Alchemy’ , the creamy white ‘Vanilla Ice’ and ‘Munchkin’.

The ‘Munchkin’ sunflower has been a particular favourite of the Parham ‘flower ladies’ who use cut flowers from the garden throughout the spring and summer to create displays for the house. They like the smaller scale of the flower heads and its branching habit is helpful when creating relaxed arrangements. As we pass a particularly exuberant ‘Munchkin’ plant, Tom admits that he is unable to explain what happened to the supposedly ‘dwarf’ characteristic on this one:

An inexplicably tall  ‘Munchkin’ sunflower

In 2016 there was an equally seductive allium trial and for 2017 Tom enlisted the help of dahlia expert Richard Ramsey (of nearby specialist dahlia nursery Withypitts ) to come up with a list of fifty favourite dahlias for the Parham gardeners and visitors alike to get to know better. The dahlias are arranged in long rows, supported with a grid of string, and have been picked continuously so that their vase performance can be tested too.

The sumptuous pink Dahlia ‘Prefet Demange’, Parham dahlia trials

Each of the six Parham gardeners has had their say in the ultimate list of top ten favourites and some tubers  will be immediately reordered for use around the garden next year.

The perky orange and yellow ‘Charlie Dimmock’ has made the top ten and will be used in the about-to-be-revamped Gold Border. Again the flower ladies liked its lightly spreading, smaller flowered form when left to its own devices. To get a larger flower on a long straight stem, the trick with a dahlia is to remove the two side buds and leave the terminal bud to develop into a champion flower.

Dahlia ‘Charlie Dimmock’ – a long stemmed champion flower

Dahlia Charlie Dimmock – left to grow as more relaxed sprays

The substantial semi-cactus Dahlia ‘Black Jack’ has also confirmed its place as an absolute favourite (I particularly love the energy of ‘Black Jack’ as a just opening bud).

Dahlia ‘Black Jack’ – open and in bud

And Dahlia ‘Small World’ – a free flowering crisp white pompom dahlia did not in fact get to the Top Ten (it was pipped tot the post by ‘Snowflake’ but has been selected by one of the gardeners, Reese, to be used next year as a sort of small mounding shrub at the front of the White Border.

Dahlia ‘Small World’

There is a gorgeous, waxy salmon pink dahlia ‘Aljo’ which also made the top ten.

Dahlia ‘Aljo’

And two of my favourites which are looking particularly good on the day I visit (not such a reliable approach, clearly) are featured below: The cheerful, ‘Dutch Carnival with its super neat circles of red and yellow petals and the delicate, almost transparent ‘Brother Josh’.

Dahlia ‘Dutch Carnival’ (above) and ‘Brother Josh’ (below)

The trial bed is buzzing midweek in September with visitors examining and selecting their own preferred blooms.  The next stage, of course – if you are not growing dahlias on their own as cut flowers –  is to work out how to combine them in the border.

Dahlias are always used with exhilarating panache at Great Dixter . Visitors to the Autumn Plant Fair will be able to catch the late autumn garden there in full swing.

I love the sugar pink Dahlia ‘Hillcrest Candy’ here soaring to the sky with a backdrop of arching miscanthus.

Dahlia ‘Hillcrest Candy’, Great Dixter

In the Barn Garden, the fiery red Dahlia ‘Wittermans superba’ is used with brilliant simplicity against a plain green foil of a fan trained fig. 

Dahlia ‘Witterman’s Superba’ against the magnificent fan trained fig, Barn Garden, Great Dixter

And here a deep pink dahlia – possibly ‘Hillcrest Royal’ – is a rich accent in a celebratory dance of a border with spiky cardoons, the burnt orange Helenium ‘Sahin’s Early Flowerer’ and the crazily tall Persicaria orientalist – kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate.

Dahlia ‘Hillcrest Royal’ adds a deep accent to a border, Great Dixter

One of my favourite Great Dixter combinations is Dahlia ‘Mexican Black’ – a single flowered dahlia which is actually a cross with the chocolate scented Cosmos atrosanguineus  – used as a covetable bobbing partner for the rhythmic, deep purple Salvia ‘Amistad’.

Dahlia ‘Mexican Black’ with Salvia ‘Amistad’

I cannot leave Parham, of course, without endless other aspects of the garden catching my eye.

The Entrance Border is looking spectacularly bruised and moody.

Entrance Border, Parham

I am smitten by Dicentra scandens – a pale yellow, climbing bleeding heart I have not met before that lightly clambers over and through the bed which Tom assures me can be grown as an annual if planted in June.

Dicentra scandens clambering over sedum in the Entrance Border, Parham

I like the subtle combination of both pale pink and coral pink persicaria with feathery calamagrostis:

Persicaria amplixicaulis ‘Rosea’ and ‘Firetail’ with feathery calamagrostis, Entrance Border, Parham

There is a slightly more silvery version of this palette in the Prairie Border. I love the use of pale yellow Bidens heterophylla to lighten the mood and the way the silky tassels of miscanthus and the dull pink of Eupatoreum work so well with the mottled brick of the wall behind them.

The Prairie Border, Parham with pale yellow widens lighting up the border

There are simple, strong effects such as this stand of white Japanese anemone against an open garden gate

Japanese anemone against garden gate, Parham

And the zinnia trials introduce me to the delicious antique looking  ‘Queen Red Lime’ (which did indeed make the Parham 2017 top ten):

Zinnia elegans ‘Queen Red Lime’

Of the many exciting projects at Parham, I am particularly intrigued by a new planting of lilac and Iris sibirica .

New planting of Syringa vulgaris ‘Katherine Havemeyer’ and Iris sibirica

Landscape designer,  Todd Longstaffe-Gowan comes to Parham a couple of times a year to act as an advisor and sounding board. A plan was developed to do away with a tired looking lavender cross and fill the space with romantic and traditional lilac shrubs emerging from pools of slender Iris sibirica. The gorgeous ‘Katherine Havemeyer’ was selected for the lilac: Ashridge Trees describes it as is a scented, double flowered lilac with ‘an elusive colour that ranges from lavender pink to mauvey blue depending on the time of day and  the intensity of the light’.

Syringa vulgaris ‘Katherine Havemeyer’

100 each of 12 different cultivars of Iris sibirica were planted, as a sort of fast track on-the-job  trial. ln fact Iris sibirica ‘Silver edge’ is already outstripping its neighbours as ‘by far the best blue’. This part of the garden is looking young and quiet at the moment and Tom and his team are making sure that the iris are given a couple of years of pampering, removing any competing grass and mulching generously to get them established. I can imagine a visit in late May in a year or two’s time when the groups of iris with their fine mauve-blue flowers and slim sword shaped leaves form a wonderful graceful understory to the clouds of lilac in full flower.

Iris sibirica ‘Katherine Havemeyer’

A quick peak into one of the new glasshouses reveals that Tom has, despite his initial modesty, already succeeded in growing some perfect specimens of melon. The glass house is heady with their scent and I feel very stupid not to have known before that melons are supported in string bags.

Melons in the glass house at Parham

My contribution is to recommend the passionate Amy Goldman’s book on melons  (I have written about Amy Goldman in my post A Gardener’s Letter to Paris ).

As I am leaving Parham a magnificent stone trough catches my eye. Airy rich yellow bidens, scarlet salvia and gorgeous trails of the purple bell vine, Rhodochiton atrosanguineus. The planting is one hundred percent Parham: exuberant, delicate and slightly unexpected. Thank you Tom for another inspiring visit.

Stone trough with widens, salvia and purple bell vine, Parham, West Sussex




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



urn 2

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

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

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

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

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

arbutus unedofruits of Arbutus unedo – the Strawberry Tree

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

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

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

Erysimum bowles mauveErysimum ‘Bowles’s Mauve’

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

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

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

longest view urn

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rye Lane Orchard, Peckham

rye lane establish 2

 Rye Lane Orchard, Peckham

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

rye lane establsh girl perchingPerching Bench, Rye Lane Orchard

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

bench peckham orchardBench for two in Rye Lane Orchard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

slg spring

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

inner temple bence establish

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


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

verbascum on stepsSelf seeded Verbascum on Inner Temple Garden Steps

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

verbascum petalsIndividual Verbascum flowers against stone

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

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

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

Amicia zygomeris flanking the steps


Close up of Amicia zygomeris

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

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

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


Teasels back lit by the autumn sunshine

Here you will find quieter, shadier places to sit:  I loved this benches’ backdrop of Begonia grandis subsp. Evansiana 


Begonia is not used often enough as a late flowering plant for shade: in the Inner Temple Garden it is brilliantly and simply combined with Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’:


Begonia grandis subsp. evansiana with Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’

IMG_8103IMG_8102Close up elegant flowers of Begonia grandis subsp. Evansiana

There is one further, perfectly positioned bench, a quiet bench in an arking canopy of just turning greens and yellows:


This bench reminds me suddenly of my fig tree at home – that fantastic moment between green and yellow:

IMG_8176still Matisse green fig leaves

yellowed fig leafI realise I will be back here again tomorrow. Just round the corner is the Temple Church where one of my sons is singing.  I love these connections between art and gardens and film and trees and gardens and music.  Come to the concert tomorrow and try to visit the Inner Temple Garden whenever you can.



    TOM STUART-SMITH’S VIBRANT, SCENTED JULY GARDEN (AND THE CAKE TO MATCH IT) broom and seatThe Sunken courtyard garden, Serge Hill  with brilliant yellow Mount Etna Broom billowing overhead and a soft tapestry of grasses, salvia, astrantia and Euphorbia at ground level


The problem Tom Stuart-Smith must face when he occasionally opens his Hertfordshire garden is that none of the visitors are inclined to leave.  It is a glorious Monday in July and only a few miles north of the clutter and bustle of the Edgware Road. I step out of my car and am immediately met with this: idyllic, gently rolling parkland –  blond grass and spreading oaks, the view softened by perfectly judged swathes of uncut meadow that divide the house from the countryside beyond:

the view from Serge Hill

The view from Serge Hill

Sweetly clad outbuildings begin the sense of welcome and tip you, deliciously unsuspecting, into the different garden spaces beyond. IMG_5005

Outbuildings festooned with clematis and roses

Turning right, my breath is taken away by stretches of pale, delicate Echinacea pallida which float freely like exquisite jelly fish in the Prairie.

IMG_4853 (1)

Echinacea Pallida

In this gorgeous area of of prairie planting Tom has created a dreamy place to experiment with broad sweeps of colour and form: as each plant comes into its own it casts a certain new intensity or contrast of texture on the scene. Here, fantastically generous quantities of Dianthus carthusianorum add both an earthy density and an almost luminous glow to the softly pastel, slightly shredded quality of the Echinacea.

pallida and carthusianorum

Dianthus carthusianorum and Echinacea pallida

The wonderful coral red Penstemmon barbatus coccineus is scattered gently through the planting to lift it away from the coolness of the pinks:


Coral red Penstemmon barbatus coccineus amongst Echinacea and Dianthus carthusianorum

And there are – almost hidden –  dashes of a really wild orange from the native American milkweed, Asclepias tuberose

dianthus pentstemon and orange one

Asclepias tuberose with Dianthus carthusianorum

The whole scene is naturally masterfully framed – here by handsome hedges and rusty roof tiles:roof and meadow

Here by the simple pale blue-grey of the corrugated iron building designed by Ptolemy Dean:corrugated roof and the tall onesThe towering forms of Silphium laciniatum – another native American prairie plant, the Compass plant – seem to herald a leitmotive throughout the garden, as if Tom Stuart-Smith is keen to ensure that there are tall elegant shadows of his tall elegant self just in case he is not personally there to greet you.

the tall ones

Silphium laciniatum against the sky

Through a simple oak gate into a classic, scented kitchen garden:


It is at this point that the visitors – who are here to support the NGS and The Garden Museum – begin to find the whole thing highly covetable and start to put down their own roots.  The Prairie has been a surprising and ethereal adventure but here, there is a manageable, settled feel with that brilliant combination of productive order and sense of overspilling colour that you get from the happiest kitchen gardens:

verbena kitchen

Verbena bonariensis and Allium sphaerocephalon amongst beans in the kitchen gardenkitchen garden sans ladiesView through to the Pelargonium and tomato-filled greenhouse

kitchen garden door

 The blue-grey corrugated iron and bleached wooden door of the kitchen garden ‘shed’ a subtle backdrop to pots of scented sweet peas, white agapanthus, espaliered fruit trees and lavender.

tulbaghia against cabbageIMG_4905

Tulbaghia violacea a brilliantly perky edging to a bed of moody blue-green cabbage

Back out of the kitchen garden and into the calm of meadow and hedge:


A further rounded, shaggy yew hedge forms a protective embrace around the main family garden:soft protection of yew

Beyond the hedge I find myself in a rich terracotta, green and fading mauve haven of comfort and softness.  This a National Garden Scheme version of the Marie Celeste – the table and chairs are set out and ready to go, an embroidered cinnamon coloured shawl is draped casually over a bench the doors to the house are breezily ajar. But there are no Stuart-Smiths about and again the visitors find themselves settling down at the table, moving on only with difficulty:terracota barnThrough the barn windows framed by a voluptuous draped vine, there is an intoxicating glimpse of rich yellow from the Mount Etna Broom beyond:IMG_4924Palest yellow hollyhocks provide a serene offbeat echo to the riot of yellow through the archway:yellow holly hock

As you pull away from the house you reach a potentially formal area of clipped box hedges and sky-scratching yew columns (that Tom Stuart-Smith leitmotiv again) but in fact the topiary shapes serve more as a happy, forgiving foil to overspilling herbaceous planting.

yew columns terracotta roofThe topiary shapes are used as a happy, forgiving foil to overspilling herbacious planting:yew columnsStately white Epilobium dances in the space between the yew columns

phlomis and stipa lightStipa gigantea and Phlomis russeliana catch the light

There is a moment of elegant calm with neatly clipped hedges and a troupe of slender, lacy poplars (the need for something tall and slim again):IMG_4948

Poplars and clipped hedges agains the sky

And then the chance to meander along gently shaded wooded areas: shady walk

The planting combinations are simple, and always brilliantly thoughtful – here a blue geranium is illuminated by the tiny rice like flowers of the arching grass,  Mellica altissima ‘Alba’ :

melica and blue geraniumMelica altissima ‘Alba’ and a blue geranium

Here a rusty coloured Helenium and a dark red Dahlia have the glaucous foliage of Macleaya cordata as a backdrop and the signature brilliant green underplanting of Hakonechloa macra:

dahlia , machalya, helenium and hakenacloadahlia etc + maclaya to skyA wooden bench is almost hidden by the surrounding planting (again I watch as visitors make their way almost competitively over to this so that for a few precious moments the bench can be their own).snuggly bench

And then I am back to the sweet outbuildings again, almost forgetting that my tour is not yet over:

IMG_5005But beyond a papery constellation of white Romneya coulteri is a compelling sunken garden the star of which on this mid July day is without a doubt three brilliant Genista aetnensis – or Mount Etna Broom, known for the scrubby volcano edge habitat on which it grows wild.


One of my favourite Mount Etna Broom’s stands as sort of celebratory sentry – like an attractive, slightly bonkers festival-going uncle – outside the gates of Great Dixter in East Sussex

DIXTER BROOMGenista aetnensis outside the front gate at Great Dixter

For a few weeks in July the tree tirelessly waves its relaxed limbs of cheery brightness and can be spotted mid-dance over hedge and meadow:DIXTER BROOM OVER HEDGE

Here at Serge Hill, Tom Stuart-Smith has used its airy extravagance to lighten and brighten a sophisticated courtyard garden with  Corten steel pools and panels, flemish brickwork and slender hardwood decking recycled from his RHS Chelsea Flower Show garden of 2006:COLOUR SCHEME WITH STIP 2006

Stuart-Smith’s Chelsea 2006 garden


slender hardwood decking from Tom Stuart-Smith’s Chelsea 2006 garden


Square corten steel pools and flemish brick path from Tom Stuart-Smith’s 2006 Chelsea garden

The palette of the courtyard garden in 2014 is subtle and properly lived in.  I love the broken streak of steel blue Eryngium amongst the bright greens yellows and mauves:IMG_4983

sea holly broom gardenSteel blue Eryngium amongst the acid yellow of Euphorbia and soft grasses

Purple-black sedum adds depth to the bold architectural foliage and pea-like seedheads of Euphorbia mellifera:

the tapestry

Grasses additonal layers of hazy rhythm:

broom and grassesThe richness of the velvety Chelsea Irises has been replaced by much gentler buttons of Astrantia ASTRANTIA AND CORTEN

and the corten steel itself has become softer and satisfyingly dull.LUSH PLANTING AROUND TRADEMARK POOL

The decking is now silvery and tempting underfoot. The simplicity of this low chair at the base of an outstanding cloud burst of the fragrant Myrtus luma is intensely seductive.CHILEAN MURTLESo seductive in fact that pairs of women in white linen and couples with plump princely babies hover and perch and try to stay just that bit longer.  


I am imagine staying too and my start wondering what would be the perfect thing to eat or drink in this refined, colourful haven.  What should one bring to eat in this garden if one were ever invited as a guest?


I have been relishing Frances Bissell’s book, The Scented KitchenIMGI have loved every minute of her learned, uplifting text: I have learnt how ‘In America, day lily buds are deep-fried and served as one would okra’ or, on the subject of flower oils I have been imagining ” a lobster brushed with jasmine oil prior to being roasted, or perhaps rose or carnation oil brushed on scallops before you grill them”. There is an enchanting process called enfleurage which can be used for flower butters “all you do is wrap a piece of fresh unsalted butter in muslin, bury it in a bowl of petals, cover and leave it in a cool place for about 12 hours… this method works well with roses, jasmine, pinks and violets … delicious on toast or teatime scones”…


I am pretty sure that  ‘Taffety Tart’ would be surprising, sophisticated and deft enough to do the trick. Frances Bissell describes the tart as ‘an exquisite combination of lemon, rosewater and anis’  which was once a grand success when she cooked at the British Embassy in Cairo. It is a very light open apple tart with a layer of scented Pelargonium ‘Attar of Roses’  leaves between the pastry and the apple and sprinkled with sugar, softened butter, rosewater, lemon zest and anis or fennel seeds.

Option two would be Yotam Ottelenghi’s Apricot, Walnut and Lavender cake I have been wanting to make all year since it was published last summer in the Guardian.

Yotam Ottolenghi's apricot, walnut and lavender cake




Photograph: Colin Campbell for The Guardian


There is something enduring and seductive about Ottelenghi’s description of the recipe “it’s like Provence in a cake”.  The colours, rich orange with soft mauve and the texture dense with ground oily walnuts and lightened by lemon zest could be just the thing to savour as you hang on for a few last minutes in this loveliest of gardens.





Convallaria majalis var. rosea after the rain

On the wooden table outside our kitchen door I have a terracotta pot of the most elegant pink lily of the valley, Convallaria majalis var. rosea.  The pot was given to me as a precious container of newly planted bulbs by my friend the painter, Charlotte Verity .  The gift was important as it was a memento of an extraordinary year Charlotte spent as Artist in Residence at The Garden Museum in London in 2010.  Here in the shadow of the ruddy castellated walls of neighbouring Lambeth Palace, Charlotte spent a year painting in Tradescant’s Garden – the knot garden created in 1981 by the Dowager Marchioness of Salisbury around the important tomb of the Seventeenth Century plant hunters.

majalis 3

Lily of the Valley 2009 – Charlotte Verity

Here amongst the formal framework of box with its spring halo of brilliant green, Charlotte’s observation of the garden’s plants was intimate and exquisite:

‘The medlar tree painting is taking a long time, the paint thickening and in danger of losing light.   Trying to get the direction of the branches the way they step back and forth, the silvery bark shining in the light and dark in the shadows” (extract from the wonderful diary she kept through the year and published by the Garden Museum).

I love the love lush fullness of her 2009 painting of white lily of the valley – in which the leaves almost battle for position.   Early twentieth Century plant hunter, Reginald Farrer describes lily of the valley as “the worst of all delicious weeds when it thrives” because of its  sometimes rampant tendency.  But as Beth Chatto writes in her nursery catalogue, conditions are not always easy to achieve and if one has “humus rich soil, among shrubs perhaps, where there is room for the wandering rhizomes … who would not plant lily of the valley for its heady scent in May and June and the chance to pick handfuls for the house”.

One of my favourite examples of the way lily of the valley can be grown to exploit this energetic tendency is the regimented mass of them in the walled kitchen gardens at West Dean College and Gardens in Sussex. Here amidst the covetable order of fruit tunnels, lined out vegetables and the ultimate gothic-gated apple house, lily of the valley grows in impressively deft order at the base of a beautiful flint wall.

apple store

The Apple Store in the Walled Kitchen Garden at West Dean

Lily of valley west deanLily of the Valley at the base of a flint wall at West Dean

Charlotte’s painting of the pink lily of the valley she encountered in the Tradescant Garden at the Garden Museum is one of my favourites.  I love the way she has captured the spare, framing curve of the strong leaves which form an arch around the pale, silvery pink of the flowers, and I am moved by the clarity of colour given to the Convallaria against the deep earthiness of the background.  
charlotte 2

Convallaria Rosea 2010 – Charlotte Verity

If you should have a problem with over zealous species lily of the valley, choosing this less vigourous pink form or one of the Saville-Row-handsome variegated forms would be a rewarding move for a shady spot in your garden:


Convallaria majalis var rosea – a present from Charlotte in September 2013


Convallaria majalis ‘Variagata’

If you opt for the variegated route it is important to source your plants from a really good nursery. Beth Chatto is open about the trouble her nursery has had in the past with the handsome leaves of variegated lilies of the valley often reverting to plain green in a ‘disappointingly short time’.  The nursery now offers the seemingly steadfast  Convallaria majalis ‘Albostriata’ when it is available.

One of the really helpful characteristics of lily of the valley is that the foliage dies back after blooming which makes it a perfect subject for Great Dixter style intensive successional planting.  There is an excellent article by Gareth Richards about lily of the valley in the April 2014 edition of the RHS Garden Magazine.  Here, National Plant Collection holder, Brigitte Haugh recommends a rather brilliant sequence of snowdrops, followed by lily of the valley, followed by Turk’s cap lilies.  All three thrive in similar conditions and yet only one will be present in the same spot at any one time.


Today, in France it is La Fête de Muguet or Lily of the Valley Day.  It is a national holiday (also Labour Day!) with a sweet tradition of giving fragrant bunches of lily of the valley to family and friends. This symbolic gift of flowers is said to date back to 1560 when King Charles IX was given a posy on the first of May as a token of good luck and prosperity for the coming year.  It became an annual tradition for the King to give members of his Court lily of the valley on May Day –  a tradition revived in around 1900, first as a romantic present and now a ubiquitous part of the holiday.

I remember seeing cellophane wrapped cones of rather giant lily of the valley on sale EVERYWHERE in Paris, (garages, department stores, pavements), when I spent a rather idyllic few months studying History of Art at the Sorbonne in my Gap Year.  It turns out rather satisfyingly that there is a particularly favoured chunky variety called ‘Géant de Fortins’. Despite the rather over commercialised reality of today’s version of the tradition there is a lingering fragrant romance to the very idea.

It is tied up with the freshness and the scent and all our romantic notions of Paris in the spring.  When the perfect Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier III of Monaco in late April 1956 she carried a demure, bouquet of tiny pearl-like lily of the valley and our hearts have been irrevocably caught ever since:

Grace Kelly 1

My own parents got married three years later during a very snowy January in Wales.  My mother is famous for worrying most that her cream satin dress would ‘look dirty’ against the white of the snow.  But she looked beautiful, of course, and I will always treasure this photograph with her own simple bouquet of lily of the valley nestling near the wedding cake.M&DI am about to plant my delicate pale pink lily of the valley in the ground and hope they will multiply with unseemly vigour.  Happy May 1st!



On the cusp of December, on a day of thin winter sunshine, I visit Great Dixter (http://wwwgreatdixter.com) for the last time this year.  The garden is still ablaze with the crimson berries of Cotoneaster horizontalis. In one celebratory combination the orange berries of Iris foetidus burst up brilliantly through its fan-shaped branches.

cotoneaster and irisRound the corner in the sunken Barn Garden, something completely magical and unexpected is waiting for us.

In the inky stillness of the hexagonal pond, floats an ethereal flame-red reflection of the cotoneaster on the steps above.  I have visited this garden at least once a month for a year but this dramatic reflection is new and takes my breath away.pool 4Looking up from its painterly centre, the whole garden seems to be playing out a great end- of-year finale – the naked branches of fan trained fig a dynamic firework at one corner, balanced by the solid, rounded green of the Osmanthus delavayi at the other.

pool 1The mood is festive.  In the Orchard there is an apple tree as fine as any Christmas tree – a majestic spread of dark branches with pale yellow apples for baubles:

apple and christmas treeThere is a wonderful ivy nearby which I have admired all year – Hedera helix ‘Buttercup’.  The leaves of ‘Buttercup’ are lime green to dark green in shade, but a brilliant milky yellow-gold in full sun.  At Dixter it is grown as a fine, ordered garland over a barn roof:

butter ivy

Another brilliant ivy to recommend at this time of year is Hedera helix ‘Maple Leaf’ – with dark green, glossy, five lobed leaves.  It is a fast grower and at the Prieuré d’Orsan (see my post on this beautiful garden in December 2013) clads an entire shady wall with a smart coat of rich green.  Both ivies can be sourced at http://www.fibrex.co.uk .

ivyA few days later and the ancient oak trees at Ickworth Park in Suffolk make an elegant scene of dull hazy gold against green (http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk) .

GOlden Ickworth park

At the park entrance there is a cottage with the sort of fairy tale planting which makes you promise to plant yourself a small yew tree in 2014.  You may have to wait a while until you get such a gorgeous fat green, bulging creature on your doorstep – but it would surely be worth the wait?

plant a yewOf course, if you can also find a champion Copper Beech to tower brilliantly over your little house – even better.

A short drive away, the King’s Forest is glowing with horizontal tiers of yellow-gold and bronze:

kings forestWithin the forest there is a wonderful 7 acre treasure trove of a garden called Fuller’s Mill (http://fullersmillgarden.org.uk). Here the porcelain-white berries of Sorbus ursina hang with covetable elegance and clarity.

sorbus ursina

If you wanted to buy a similar Sorbus, choose a Sorbus cashmiriana – a very pretty small tree with soft pink flowers in late spring, and clusters of marble white fruits in autumn. The fruits  often well into winter.  Try either http://ashwoodnurseries.com or http://bluebellnursery.com – both wonderful nurseries.

Further on in the garden, the fruits of Euonymus elatus ‘Compactus’ are gorgeous tiny luminous bulbs in a delicious tangle of papery purple calyx and fine naked branches.
euonyous red cascadeAnd the week before Christmas I am in a tiny skiing village in Austria.  Here the houses are framed with dense ranks of deep green spruce and the lacy branches of red berried Mountain Ash.  It is wonderful to see native trees growing simply and plentifully where they are happiest on fertile well-drained soil on a mountain slope.

green shutter house plus rowan

The Rowan berries  are shiny and festive in the winter sunlight. We ate two kinds of rowan berries last night for supper with pigeon paté,: they were almost bitter but rather good against the richness of the meat.rowan berries As the light fades at the end of the day, the clusters make elegant drooping patterns against the mountain sky:silhouette rowanI love the beautiful scalloped tiles – made of spruce – which clad entire buildings.  scalloped tiles

Cladding buildings like this is the work of farmers during the snowbound winter. The tiles last for about twenty years and age to a wonderful smokey darkness.

little chalet

Even the plain rectangular tiles are softly lovely:lean to tilesI like the idea of this handsome door – slim logs painted with a pale grey stencil:door made of logs And I have a soft spot for this painted shield with a message of welcome above the door.welcome sign But my real discovery this week is the larch. I have never really enjoyed it before, despite my attempts to appreciate an often slightly shabby specimen of Europe’s only deciduous conifer on a tour of an arboretum.  But here I am enchanted by its regal stature and elegance:grand single larch  by the soft gold of its needles against the cherry red of the rowan fruits:larch and rowanand by the ethereal way it catches the sun and lights up the valley bottom – a soft ghostly gold against velvety green against the white mountain.IMG_1739



At Great Dixter (http://greatdixter.co.uk) clusters of tight, unripened figs glow like little light bulbs on naked branches against the timber barn.  A brilliant, self contained symbol of autumn on a November day.

There is an uncertain edge to the mix of fresh full-colour plants and the fading crispy hues of others.

Here clumps of Nerine bowdenii provide bursts of bright pink against a more subdued palette – they work because the clumps are repeated regularly along the length of the path.


More Nerines, at the base of the lower terrace, loving their place in the sun with garlands of Erigeron karvinskianus.  This is November!


It is a classic and brilliantly reliable combination.   The Nerines take over easily from the richer red of Centranthus ruber which billows over walls and steps in the early summer.

centranthus erigeron

The real stars of the autumn show are plants which triumph when back lit by the early winter light.  The common teasel (Dispascus fullonum) is a perfect example of this – an architectural plant which will grow happily from seed – and which will self seed happily when established.  It catches the light brilliantly.


Here against the cherry-red seed capsules of the wonderful Euonymus europaeus, the teasels with their late afternoon haloes give the planting an intoxicating ethereal quality.

teasel and euonymys

And then there are the berries.  Worth taking note now and thinking of planting for hips or berries next year.

One of the greatest sources of wisdom on the best plant choices for autumn colour is John Massey of Ashwood Nurseries in the West Midlands (http://www.ashwoodnurseries.com). Massey is a self taught nurseryman who has been a plant collector, plant breeder and passionate gardener for forty years.  He gives specialist talks throughout the year – which include a visit to his private garden.  Absolutely a pilmrimage worth making

You know you are in the presence of the real thing when even his house is draped in a starry chain mail of yellow and orange foliage with the rainbow leaves of Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Worplesdon’ AGM falling so knowingly onto the deep green holly hedge.starry house

liquidamber on holly

And there is real golddust to come:  when John tells you that the best yellow crab apple is Malus ‘Comtesse de Paris’ -an elegant tree with pearl-like golden fruit which hang down from slender red stalks

comtesse yellow

and that the better known Malus ‘Golden Hornet’ is no contest because its fruits turn brown so fast, it is the sort of rare and generous advice that can transform a garden.  His other favourite crab apples are the long lasting ‘Red Sentinel’ and ‘Crittenden’, the larger red fruiting ‘Evereste’ – and ‘Sugar Time’ with really tiny berries.  Perhaps his favourite of all is ‘Indian Magic’ (below) which has dark pink blossom and deep red fruit on long stems which become brighter orange as the winter progresses.

indian magic

One of the prettiest crab apples we see in his garden is Malus ‘Toringo’ – the Japanese crab – a small, semi-weeping tree with fragrant flowers that are pink in bud but fade to white, and gorgeous butter yellow leaves in autumn and tiny blood red fruit.

malusAs we are guided round the garden the conversation dances from Parthenocissus quinquefolia ‘Red Wall’ – a Virginia Creeper with particularly shiny green leaves in summer which turn a sensational flaming red, Euonymus alata compacta – the most reliable spindle for bright crimson leaf colour in Autumn and Hydrangea paniculata ‘Great Star’ which he was originally given by the late Princess Sturdza of the Jardin du Vasterival (http://vasterival.fr ) in Normandy and for whose support he feels indebted.  ‘Great Star’ is the opposite of the worryingly, almost permanent, plumpness of one of the new super breed of hydrangeas such as  Hydrangea arborescens ‘Incrediball’  – a wonderfully graceful hydrangea with clusters of fresh, white star-shaped flowers from late summer to autumn.

greatstar                  Photo by Ashwood Nurseries

I am smitten by the violet-blue Aster ‘Little Carlow’ – which I have previously classified as just too brash and intense for the autumn garden – here looking airy and elegant amongst the bleached sketchy sheaves of grasses.

aster and grassMy favourite moment of all is when John stops to pick a tall, soft bottle-brush stem of Actaea matsumura ‘Elstead Variety’ from an elegant dancing group in full flower. We are all surprised and delighted by the intensity of its perfume.  actaea group cropThe Actaea are growing in brilliant combination alongside Euonymus bugneamus ‘Fireflame’ – which has a seductive limp quality to its milky green leaves and gorgeous perky apricot coloured seed heads –

salmon euonymus bungeaanus fireflame and the sculptural, ruby-polished foliage of Cornus kousa ‘Miss Satomi’ – one of the finest small dogwoods which will have rich pink flower bracts in early summerMISS SATOMI

Important to remember, of course,  that where acres of intricate planting are sadly not a possibility –   just a single source of brightly coloured berries or rich autumn leaf colour can spectacularly transform a space.

Here at the entrance to Gravetye Manor, (http://www.gravetyemanor.co.uk),  former home of eminent Victorian ‘wild’ gardener, William Robinson and now my favourite country house hotel – I love the rough simplicity of this planting of Rosa moyesii on either side of the entrance steps.rosa moyesii gravetyerosa moyesii close upBack in Camberwell a neighbour’s Cotinus ‘Grace’, has been pruned into a small tree which takes your breath away with the richness of its colour on a grey November day.cotinus camberwellclose up cotinus camberwellShifting down a scale, a Hosta sieboldiana var. elegans in a pot on my terrace suddenly hurtles – caramelises almost – into winter.  Don’t forget to stop and look.hosta 1hosta 2



The last day of September and Great Dixter (http://www.greatdixter.co.uk) is still comfortably pumping out rushes of sheer happiness all over the garden. I am part of a monthly study group led by the tirelessly enthusiastic Kemal Mehdi – friend of the late Christopher Lloyd and Dixter Trustee. It is always the same – as we turn the corner from the Front Meadow and get the first dancing glimpse of the Barn Garden beyond the dark yew entrance – no one can help that moony Dixter smile wash over their faces. The rest of the world stops for a day as we get looking, hungrily.

salvia confertiflora

Salvia confertiflora

This wonderful – tender – sage has tall spires of glowing crimson flowers on soft, felted calyces with bold corrugated green leaves. It has the perfect common name – ‘red velvet sage’ – and is dangerously irrisistable here against the rich reddish brown of the wonderful barn roof tiles. The daisy in the background here is the tall Erigeron annuus which is one of the late summer leitmotiv plants at Dixter. It works especially well when used lightly as it can look a bit marooned and leggy when there is too much of it in one go. The elegant arching foliage belongs to the compact and surprisingly elegant pampass grass – Cortaderia selloana ‘Pumilla’. Time to throw out all prejudice about pampass grass perhaps and enjoy instead the elegant, slender evergreen foliage and soft white upright plumes?

cyperus 1

Cyperus eragrostis

Growing near the pond at the centre of the Barn Garden – but introducing itself with style up the steps and into the barn itself – the yellow greens and bronzes of this supposed bog sedge glow vividly against the brilliant red of Cotoneaster horizantalis behind it.

kniphofia rooperi

Kniphofia rooperi

At the top of the steps is a stand of fantastically robust and brilliantly coloured red hot pokers. Evergreen architectural foliage and a reliable offering of orange-red torches every October. All this against irridescent dashes of magenta – the incredibly long flowering Salvia microphylla ‘Cerro Potosi’, the rich purply blue of even longer flowering Geranium ‘Rozanne’ and the intense coral red of Hesperantha coccinea Major (Hesperantha the new name for Schizostylis). Every member of the happy club muttering quietly to themselves already.

For really trying to understand the impact of certain plants and how they work together there is nothing to compare with looking closely at any garden again and again throughout the year. At Dixter – famous for a density of successional planting that few other gardens could even begin to emulate – visiting and revisiting is relentlessly rewarding. What is even more energising is the tone of happy and constant experimentation that Head Gardener, Fergus Garrett now sets for his wonderful team. There are many moments at Dixter that are beyond the manpower and skill of most gardens but there are also plenty of ideas that will work really effectively elsewhere.


Taking the time to track down a particular variety and then giving it space and growing it well.

nb best white mophead

Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Mme Emile Mouillere’

Christopher Lloyd always declared this to be the best pure white mophead hydrangea – a clear white rounded flower head with faint pink markings which gradually fade to a soft speckled pale greeny- pink. It needs to be given space away from brighter more magenta toned pinks or it will appear to be almost salmony in colour which might irritate – well it would irritate me. On its own or amongst green foliage, this late summer colour is gorgeously subtle and happy to be occasionally illuminated by the occasional freshly emergent white flowerhead.


Actaea simplex Atropurpurpurea Group

Looking through a stepped yew arch from the High Garden down into the orchard garden a group of Actaea simplex are planted, brilliantly, by themselves. The slender white bottle brush flowerheads catch the early evening sun – dancing afternoon fireworks leaning and fizzing in every direction.

pandanifolium close up

Eryngium pandanifolium ‘Physic Purple’

Well admittedly this monumental plant – situated at the bench end of the Long Border is hardly on its own – but it is a fantastic year round architectural presence with a rosette stiff grey green leaves and wonderful towering – 6 or 7 feet high – branched heads of tight wine coloured flowers from October to December. I am on a mission to find a place for this plant.

figs and figs

Ficus carica ‘Brunswick’

A wonderful fig grown against the South facing wall on the Lower Terrace. Worth stopping to admire the rhythmic patterns formed by the overlapping deeply cut leaves. Even better to discover it is a reliable and heavy fruiting fig in the UK with greeny-yellow skinned fruit with sweet tasting pink flesh.


cotoneaster horizontalis and Rubus cockburnianus 'Goldenvale'

Cotoneaster horizontalis and Rubus cockburnianus ‘Goldenvale’

Cotoneaster horizontalis is hardly a fashionable plant but is used brilliantly at Great Dixter – clothing the base of walls and flights of steps with its dynamic fans of branches, tiny glossy green leaves and at this time of the year generous beading of glossy red berries. Here in the Walled Garden, the combination with the lime green leaves and chalky white stems of the white stemmed bramble, Rubus cockburnianus ‘Goldenvale’ is exquisite.

simple achievable combo

Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Dazzler’ and Molinia caerulea subsp. arundinacea ‘Transparent’

Not an earth shattering combination but easy to recreate – the rich colour of the Cosmos and the airy texture of the grass working so well together.

hydrangea macrophylla 'Sea Foam' Fuchsia magellanica 'Aurea'

Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Sea Foam’ and Fuchsia magellanica ‘Aurea’

An absolutely classic combination of Hydrangea and Fuchsia – one of my favourite pairings which lasts so well in late summer through to autumn. Great Dixter is brilliant at bringing a person round to certain types of plant. I have always been slightly reluctant to pick golden leaved forms of any plant, but as with the Rubus this Fuchsia is the best of its kind with yellow green leaves veined in beetroot with dark red stems and fantastically desirable glowing pink pendant flowers.

heuchera a nd paris

Paris polyphylla and Heuchera villosa

The comparatively rare Himalayan woodland perennial, Paris polyphylla has elegant layers of leaves and fine whiskery petals on upright stems. Even before the arrival of the wonderful surprise of the bright orange seed heads that is yet to come, this combination with the graceful Heuchara with its spires of tiny greenish white is graceful and covetable.


salvia indigo spires plus buxton

Salvia ‘Indigo Spires and Geranium wallichianum ‘Buxton’s Variety’

The elegant violet blue spires of the Salvia in a gentle combination with the paler blue of the Geranium billowing beneath.

indigo spores and mexican black

Salvia ‘Indigo Spires’ and Cosmos x Dahlia ‘Mexican Black’

The depth of red in the Cosmos x Dahlia ‘Mexican Black’ brings out the richness of the the Salvia – a very different, velvety effect.
salvia indigo spires and dahlia 'Hillcrest Candy'

Salvia ‘Indigo Spires’ and Dahlia ‘Hillcrest Candy’

Suddenly a more playful, sweet shop effect with the clear pink and white of the Dahlia energising the colour of the darker Salvia.


pyschadelic salvia and mexican black

Salvia ‘Amistad’ with Cosmos X Dahlia ‘Mexican Black’ and Hydrangea aspera Villosa Group

I am finding this Salvia dangerously enticing. There is something about the glowing purple of the flower, the black-purple of the calyces and the horizontal spread of the bright green leaves that creates a particularly tantalising, slightly drunken, fluttering tapestry. The rich red of the Dahlia x Cosmos and the way the flower heads pop up and look out in every direction like dainty periscopes adds to the dancing mood and then the laid back softness of the Hydrangea adds a smokey haze which deepens the mood.

psychadalia 3

Persicaria orientalis, Amaranthus ‘Autumn Palette’, Aster thompsonii Canna ‘Phasion’, Aster laterifolius var. horizontalis – plus a white Cosmos and an orange Crocosmia.

This is an amazing combination. The Amaranthus is completely wild – outrageous cinnamon suede flower heads and completely mismatching jack-and- the-beanstalk fresh green leaves. The bright pink arcs of the Persicaria orientalis – which are repeated wonderfully all over the garden – frame the scene which is enriched with the soft mauve of the aster, the crazy stripiness of the Canna (the RHS description of the Canna reads “bronze-purple leaves striped with pink, ageing to shades of pink and orange and large deep orange flowers in summer) and dashes of white cosmos and orange crocosmia complete this utterly celebratory planting.
psychadelic photo 2

Crataegus persimilis ‘Prunifolia’, Yew, Persicaria orientalis, Aconitum carmichaelii ‘Kelmscott’ and Tagetes ‘Cinnabar’

Crateagus persimilis ‘Prunifolia’is a wonderful hawthorn with glossy leaves, white flowers and deep red fruits. Known for its dramatic autumn colour it is worth noting just how early and how vivd this colour is. The Aconitum is vivid and compelling (at Dixter apparently Aconitum is divided pretty much every year to maintain this kind of flower power) and the stripy red and gold of the marigold keeps the energy going – as ever the broad stretch of flat green provided by the yew pulls everything together.

just do it (now and then?

Zinnia ‘Aztec Sunset’

At the beginning of the Lower Terrace there is a stone trough which always has something pretty seductive going on. At the end of September the trough is bursting with these neatly kaleidoscopic Zinnia – so cheerily stripy and circular that you can only smile and persuade yourself that every additional moment like this is worth going for.