Tag Archives: kitchen garden



Lush woodland path, Plas-yn-Rhiw estate

It has already been a frantic summer with non-stop gatherings and celebratory toasts. It is the end of school for our youngest son (and the end of an era for us),  our twins have turned 21 and there has been the happiest Gloucestershire wedding – my sister to the learned doctor – who took time out from his gruelling hospital shifts to bake these tiny wedding cakes:

Tiny wedding cakes from my sister’s wedding to the learned doctor

Not surprisingly I am in a somewhat fragile state by the time I find myself on a radiant July evening sitting on a remote grassy slope at the end of the Llŷn Peninsula – known by some as Snowdon’s Arm – in North West Wales.  Accompanied as I am by marvellous and ever patient husband, Nick, I am ready for a little romance myself.

Just stopping for a while to take in the quiet and the view of Porth Neigwl (Hell’s Mouth), Llŷn Peninsula

The garden we have come to see, Plas-yn-Rhiw, has closed for the day moments before we arrive. But although this is frustrating, there is something very sweet – when you are very tired – about converting to a simpler agenda, just raising your face to the evening sunshine and taking in the blue curve of the bay below.

The next morning is heavy with an almost tropical grey sky:

Almost tropical grey sky with view across Hell’s Mouth

But I am excited by the lushness of the ferns in the surrounding woodland  –  I have never seen hart’s tongue fern ( Asplenium scolopendrium) with such long, exuberant fingers – and, by the house entrance, the crocosmia glows neon orange in the eleven o’clock gloom.

Lush ferns – extra-exuberant hart’s tongue ferns below

Crocosmia glow neon-orange in the morning gloom

Plas-yn-Rhiw is a small 17th Century stone manor house built onto a hillside ledge with wonderful views of the sea, entirely surrounded and protected by woodland. In 1816  the house was extended and elegantly glamorised. The roof was raised to add an extra floor, french windows leading onto the garden were cut into the sturdy walls and a slim-limbed Regency veranda was constructed along the facade. But having remained in one family for nearly three hundred years, the house was sold in 1874 and then abandoned in 1922 by the son who inherited it and left to decay.

The rarity of the house and the exquisite nature of its position was noted by the architect  Clough Williams-Ellis who designed the Italianate coastal village of Portmerion (about 50 miles away) and whose own imaginative and stylish garden at nearby  Plas Brondanw is absolutely worth visiting.

Williams-Ellis had tried to get a friend to buy it in the early twenties and wrote passionately about the property as an important example of Welsh rural architecture that needed saving. “To those sailing bleakly across Hell’s Mouth bound may be for the last hospitality of Aberdaron or northwards around North Wales’ land’s end through Bardsey Sound – there is just one spot where the eye may gratefully rest on relative ‘snugness’ and that is where the wooded policies of Plas-yn-Rhiw meet the sea in a little bay. Here, sheltered by the shoulder of its protecting mountain from the tempestuous west, crouches an ancient manor house …its French windows and verandah look out across the wide expanse of Cardigan Bay between its trees and over fuchsias, figs, rhododendrons and azaleas that here flourish so famously that, when I first reconnoitred the (abandoned) place some twenty years ago… the house was buried in a blossoming jungle which also obscured all view of the sea as well as most of the sunlight”.

But, it was in the end three unmarried sisters, Eileen, Lorna and Honora Keating, who, having holidayed on the Llŷn Peninsula since 1919, managed to buy the house and a reduced estate of 58 acres in 1939.

Eileen, Lorna and Honora Keating with thanks to the National Trust Plas-Yn-Rhiw website

There are stories of the garden being so overgrown that the women had to clamber in through a first floor window to view the house. Once it was theirs, the sisters set about restoring the building (a slow process during wartime especially), creating a wonderfully deft and welcoming garden and caring for the surrounding land.

The green and welcoming garden at Plas-yn-Rhiw

As time went by they bought up every available parcel until they had restored the estate to about 400 acres so that it could be protected from development and conserved for wildlife.  They donated the land to the National Trust in 1946 and donated the house itself in 1952.  The youngest sister, Lorna, lived in the house until she died in 1981, but the sisters had opened the house to the public long before. During the restoration process they were keen to unveil the original stonework and the house is filled with (covetable!) old Welsh oak furniture. It looks as if the sisters have just popped out –  there is a fur jacket hanging behind a door, a bottle of lavender scent on the dressing table and a small but serious office where business was clearly attended to with wisdom and thoroughness.

Best of all there are brilliant views – and indeed doors – out of the rooms to the garden. Seeing the garden through the French windows of the main living rooms feels comfortable and completely modern, but every glimpse is tantalising, not least from this small kitchen window out to the ruined and romantically planted outbuildings:

View to ruined outbuildings, Plas-yn-Rhiw

The Keating sisters restored some of the early 19th century outbuildings – there had been stables, a dairy, a threshing shed, coach house and a stone dog kennel – but also, with almost visionary grace, they left many of the buildings as ruins, there to enjoy for the contrast of stone form against living green. There are archways and rough hewn walls brilliantly energised with voluptuous green ferns and the tiny creeping soleirolia soleirolii (the super invasive ‘baby’s tears’) becomes a delicious verdant foil for the handsome cobbles of the courtyard floor.

The handsome cobbled courtyard and ruined outbuildings energised with green

Soleirolia soleirolii weaving its way between rhythmical courtyard cobbles

As always in this kind of mild, watery, West coast terrain, I love the way that green starfishes of Maidenhair spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes) dart across the walls.

Maidenhair spleenwort – Asplenium trichomanes growing happily on the stone walls

There is running water mirrored by prostrate rosemary flowing almost endlessly to the ground.

Prostrate rosemary flowing down the wall like water, Plas-yn-Rhiw

And there are magical views through glassless window openings:

Here the upright forms of Pennywort stand like candles in the window, Plas-yn-Rhiw

There is so much luxuriant green. The ferns that line the walls of The Gardener’s Cottage (which is in the middle of the garden – you can rent it for a holiday from the National Trust see the Plas-yn-Rhiw website) are as big as a medium-sized shrub.

The ferns that line the wall of The Gardener’s Cottage are shrub size

Gentle corridors of dynamic ferns make way for healthy, bulging corridors of deep green box:

Ferns and box line the paths at Plas-yn-Rhiw

A home-made, age-old sort of layering makes walking through the garden a deeply charming experience:

Bulging, layered box hedging surrounds the Kitchen Garden

An apple tree leans into position against cushioning box hedges

The occasional steely mauve of acanthus, pale pink hydrangea and velvety blue of aconitum sing out against the contented sea of green:

Every so often steely mauve acanthus, pale pink hydrangea and rich blue aconitum sing out against the waves of green.

At the top of a box-lined path, a former outbuilding has become an inviting chalky white place to sit:

An inviting loggia has been created from an empty outbuilding

At the front of the garden, cheerily uneven compartments of box hold fiery red crocosmia, steely acanthus and royal blue agapanthus against the milky grey sky and matching sea.

Cheerily uneven compartments of box hold acanthus, crocosmia and agapanthus against the milky sky and matching sea

Finally, round to the elegantly groomed front of the house with its veranda and scalloped beds filled with delicate heads of nicotiana and fuchsia:

The front of the house with Regency veranda. The Gardener’s Cottage is at right-angles

In a corner a Hydrangea aspera in bud falls elegantly over a stone trough. The acanthus to its left and purple sage at its feet share the same silvery-purple tones. You get a glimpse here too of the towering trees that rise above the lower level planting. I failed to photograph these but there are gorgeous, lushly growing specimens of magnolia and bay amongst other often slightly unlikely species, many donated to the Keating sisters from other National Trust gardens at their request  when they were first renovating the garden and needed anything they could get hold of to fill the space.

Hydrangea aspera falls elegantly over a stone trough.  Acanthus mollis and Salvia officinalis    ‘Purpurascens’ are excellent companions

I am completely smitten by both house and garden at Plas-yn-Rhiw. The chance to sit on an old stone bench and relish the green and the spreading view and the occasional electric dash of orange or palest pink. I love the plump, guiding corridors of box and – everywhere – the energy of the ferns.

An old stone bench, Plas-yn-Rhiw

Throughout the garden old stone walls are an enticingly rough contrast to jewel coloured fuchsias, bright orange crocosmia and, under the elegant Regency veranda, this deep raspberry abutilon which twines its way along the front of the house.  A hard place to leave.

Abutilon against the stone facade of Plas-yn-Rhiw




    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.