Tag Archives: Petersham Nurseries




We are excited in our Camberwell kitchen – one of my twin sons has spotted that a movie of Sondheim’s wonderful, funny and of course ultimately dark musical, ‘Into the Woods’ opens – with Meryl Streep! – on Christmas Day. We are all fans and both twins know that singing the hilarious Princes’ song ‘Agony’ (when the two Princes moan about not being able to secure the hands of Rapunzel and Cindarella respectively despite their undoubted marvellousness) will be obligatory (from my point of view, anyway) at some significant party or other in the future.


Still from Disney’s 2014 “Into the Woods”

Outside the days are getting shorter and the world is turning rust and gold. Fired up by dreams of woodland adventures I am keen to put on my coat and get a blast of it.  But like all journeys into the woods, the path to the magical world in my head is not always an easy one.

A week ago today I am chauffering the same twin through the Essex countryside, agonisingly, (yes indeed), late for an audition.  As we finally leave the A road, the mist thickens and starts to rise softly about us. At the same time the red-rust of the black limbed oaks and the yellow-gold chainmail of stands of mature beech seem to loom more richly from the swirling gloom. Old fashioned wooden signposts emerge from the haze, directing us to ‘Flatford Mill’ and ‘East Bergholt’.  I have unexpectedly found myself in Constable country! I am surrounded by exquisite, lacy, rust coloured woodland against the dreamy palour of a fading November afternoon.  My camera is in the car, my heart is racing … but so is my son’s and nervous snatches of a Handel aria remind me that we need to press on to his appointment in a chilly school hall a few miles further on.

Cenotaph to the Memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds by  John Constable

Cenotaph to the Memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds by John Constable

I mark out a day the following week to try again.  I remember a trip to the Valley Gardens near Windsor, years ago, when I was studying Plants and Plantsmanship at the English Gardening School.  I have a vivid image of  a rather wonderful basin like parkland with groups of fantastic orange berried Sorbus trees and crab apples with jewel coloured fruit …

I decide to visit the neighbouring Savill Garden first – a serious and richly planted garden – famous for its Magnolias and rhododendrons in the spring and early summer – at its most ideal, a testament to plant hunters past and present.  I will not bore you for too long with the layers of my disappointment: the grim lunch – a  chilly tuna roll on its huge porcelain tray of a plate with a little mound of garnish – lost and lonely – at one end, the aggressive entry and exit procedure which makes you feel as if you are in a heavily bureacratic airport and not about to enter a world of natural wonder:

intercom line engaged

The non stop retail opportunities and bland ‘garden guide’ with attractive seasonal photos and not enough excitement about what is currently happening in the garden and important plants not to miss.


By the time you get into the garden the tightly manicured paths make even the stands of fine birches look like props for an expensive railway set. Ihorrid rubbber treeThe extremely tidy Savill Garden

But like a teenager who has just managed to reach the peak of annoyance, the garden suddenly produces moments that make my heart melt.  As I look back up to the main building, a proud swathe of majestic Fagus syvatica ‘Dawyck Gold’ glint and cast elegant shadows in the winter sun:

Dawyk gold x 5A majestic stand Fagus sylvatica ‘Dawyck Gold’

Then a glade ofJapanese maples in the smallish Autumn garden begins to make me smile.  I love the open spreading form of this pair of yellow leaved Acer palmatum. Although a newly planted tree may take many years to grow to this size, it is so worth leaving space around it.  Planting in pairs  – and in turn giving the pair space –  can be very beautiful too.

acer establishA pair of yellow leaved Japanese Maples

Close up I get a satisfying whiff of fairy tale as I admire the cinnamon tinge of the neat, star-shaped leaves.

anna's ginger ginger thin 2 I am reminded of the delicious spiced biscuits which my boys loved as children – and still do now, when I happen to buy some – ‘Anna’s Ginger Swedish Thins’


Nearby, a wonderful Acer palmatum ‘Elegans’ has brilliant pink petioles and pink veins in contrast to the butter yellow of the leaf:

IMG_8245Acer palmatum ‘Elegans’

And a little further into the woods I am startled by the depth of red against black of straight Acer palmatum. For a near guarantee of such a brilliant red, tree specialists Bluebell Nursery recommend Acer palmatum ‘Osakazuki’.

acer palmatum how red is redAcer palmatum

For me Japanese Acers have always been like high heeled shoes – something too tricky to bother with, to be enjoyed by other people but probably never by me.  Bluebell Nursery has comforting advice, however, clearly explaining on their website some things l already knew – that Japanese maples “prefer a situation sheltered from the most severe wind, that they are more sun tolerant than some maples but appreciate a little shade if possible” – and then reminding me of the magic trick required to enjoy their rich colours wherever you garden: “The autumn colours of many maples, especially selections of Acer palmatum, is very dependent on the pH (acidity / alkalinity) of the soil. They prefer lime free soil, so here (in Ashby de la Zouch, Derbyshire), on our almost neutral ground, we are applying an annual dressing of sulphur granules round our maples at the rate of 1 or 2 oz per square yard, to make the soil more acid, and year by year the intensity of the autumn colour increases”. Aha!

One last treat before I make my way out of here – the blazing red-orange foliage of Sorbus sargentiana. Sorbus – or Mountain Ash – are arguably much fussier about growing conditions than Acers.  They are happiest on fertile, well-drained soil – indeed think mountain slope – with moist summers (as drying out is hopeless) and yet damp soil around roots in winter is not appreciated either. If you have the right conditions this small, slow-growing tree, famous for its plump, sticky, crimson buds in spring, is a wonderful choice.

saville sorbus against sky

Sorbus sargentiana

Once in the Valley Gardens itself, I feel freer but again it is hard to feel immersed in the hugely spacious parkland or find particular specimens as the emphasis is on jolly not-very-well-labelled pram trails (well I think the best person to be when visiting this garden may be young parent pushing a buggy) rather than inspiring or well thought out directions to some of the wonderful trees.


The irritating and often illusive trail signs, Valley Gardens

But again it does not take me long to forget my crossness and no sooner have I left behind the rather splendid Obelisk – erected by King George II following the death of the Duke of Cumberland in 1765 who had contributed much to the landscaping here – I am quickly enchanted.

IMG_2336The Obelisk, The Valley Gardens

As I follow the path into the gardens, an avenue of fine columnar trees lures me forward.  The route is magnificently lined with enormous tulip trees, Liriodendron tulipifera – a majestic North American import, for very large scale gardens only.  They are called tulip trees for the yellow and green tulip shaped flower it bears in early summer – although do bear in mind that if you plant one tomorrow you may have to wait 20 -25 years until it flowers.

monumental tulipA curving avenue of tulip trees

single tulipA handsome tulip tree specimen

Tuliptree_flowerFlower of Liriodendron tulipifera

I love the way the now-golden, spade-shaped leaves flash and flap slowly and calmly in the light, as if they are on a very fine, magical hinges:

single winking tulipTulip tree leaf, November, Valley Gardens

A little later, one of my favourite Sorbus trees, Sorbus huphehensis catches my eye – I love its dull, rounded,metallic bronze foliage against the sky:

sorbus huphehensis gold blueSorbus huphehensis autumn foliage

And the handsome clusters of porcelain berries on dark pink stems:

sorbus huphensis fruit

Sorbus huphehensis fruits

Elsewhere there is a lovely young crab apple, Malus yunnanensis, with glowing foliage and red blushed yellow fruit:

malus yunnanensis establsihMalus yunnanensis

malus yunnanensisMalus yunnanensis fruit

But the trees really worth coming for today are again the acers – they are here in every shade from palest yellow tinged with pink and brown:IMG_8444to deeper yellows and oranges:IMG_8493To rich salmon:IMG_8481and soft crimson:

IMG_8459I love the colour contrasts between the swooping branches of two neighbouring, contrasting acers:

sweeping red and yellow acersweeping yellow with red burstThe contrast continues when the leaves have fallen to the ground:

Back in the Savill Garden there was a wonderful red leaved Acer palmatum next to a magnificent ballgown of a yellow leaved Parrotia persica and again the two sets of intertwined foliage (once you got right in underneath the branches) made for a dizzyingly beautiful pairing:

parrotia persica portriatRed leaves of Acer palmatum and the autumn yellow of Parrotia persica growing into each other

parrotia persica establishParrotia persica

Stepping back for a moment from the magnificent girth of the Parrotia – or Persian Ironwood  tree – I remember the wisdom of great planstman, Bernard Tickner who at 90 still gardens at the lovely Fullers Mill in the middle of the King’s Forest in Suffolk.   His advice to a young gardener is never to plant a Parrotia too close to a path.  In his sixty years of gardening he has never known a gardener who has not ended up having to move a path to accommodate his ever burgeoning specimen tree.

As I leave the Valley Gardens feeling better about, but not quite sated with, the autumn woodland, I soften one last time at the sight of huge bundles of mistletoe in a network of bare branches making great eerie patterns against the sky. IMmistletoe establsh

IMG_8511 Huge bundles of mistletoe amongst bare branches scratching out glowering monochrome patterns against the sky

Back in Camberwell for the weekend and the wettest Sunday anyone can believe.  It is my birthday and our house is excellently full of boys who have travelled home from both ends of the country.  The only solution is to stay inside,  light the fire, curl up and dream about trees from the comfort of my chair.

I wonder first at the the extraordinary way trees have entered our minds and have been used for centuries as a fundamental way to explain ideas and organise our thoughts.  Manuel Lima has found exquisite , often staggeringly inventive examples of this kind of thought mapping in his new book: ‘The Book of Trees, Visualising Branches of Knowledge’.Lima

One of the most memorable and beautiful examples is this delicate ‘visualisation of the words used in eight hundred of US president Barack Obama’s speeches from January 2009 to November 2011… words were sized according to the number of times they appeared and were plotted in an arboreal layout, with less frequently used words placed farther from the main trunk in a succession of increasingly smaller branches:

obama 2
But when I am tired of being fascinated by the agility of minds that can for example represent ‘the organisational structure of a company with roughly four thousand employees’ in a graphic, ‘hyperbolic tree format’ –  I turn back to my favourite of all books on trees, Roger Deakin’s’Wildwood’.
WildwoodIf you have not already read this wonderful, free, quite beautifully written book – it was published in 2007 so you may well have done so –  I would beg you to add it to your Christmas list, or if you have read it already, do as I did and read it again.  This is the real thing.  Here is a man who can explain better than anybody the wonder of sleeping outside under a tree, Roger Deakin is the warmest, most modest, open-eyed companion to take you with him to find the original apple trees in Kazakhstan and the most observant, respectful guide to the way the sculptor John Nash approaches his work with wood.  Anyone who can get you excited about the walnut veneer found on the finest Jaguar cars “Burrs are found only on large, old trees, perhaps one in a thousand. They are like pearls in oysters. The veneer used in Jaguars comes from the old walnut orchards of the valley of the Sacramento River in California …” is a true magician.

All too soon it is time for one of the boys to head off back up North to St Andrews where he is at University.  I remember the rather ethereal walk we took – and the eerily lit wild-looking tree we saw – the night before we dropped him off for the first time in early September.  Now this is the kind of tree I have been searching for all week. This is the kind of tree that draws you in and I am sure it is the kind of tree that has many a story to tell.


Windswept tree, Stirling, Scotland



le snip

Matisse in his studio working on his Cut-Outs – from Issue 31 Tate Etc Magazine.

What would you wear if you were a beautiful young woman, already living with Picasso, and about to be introduced to the older artist, Henri Matisse, who you regard as ‘God’?


Françoise Gilot holding a red gladiolus, photographed by Gjon Mili, 1948.

There is a wonderful series of interviews in the latest edition of Tate Etc magazine which celebrates the uplifting Matisse: The Cut-Outs exhibition at Tate Modern. I loved discovering that the young woman in question, Françoise Gilot, decided on her outfit with knowing precision: “I remember very clearly that I dressed in almond silk trousers and a mauve silk top, because I knew he liked those colours”.

The choice hit the spot and during the course of their subsequent friendship Matisse drew and corresponded with Gilot, relishing the disconcerting impact his attention had on the the ten year junior, Picasso.   In the same interview Gillot gives a riveting description of watching Matisse make an abstract portrait of her in 1947.


Henri Matisse’s gouache cut-out Abstract Portrait of Françoise Gilot (1947).

“He got hold of a sheet of paper, painted bright green and a piece of magenta paper and considered the shocking clash of these two colours and the sobering effect that would be achieved by the addition of a black shape”.  Initially Matisse was frustrated with the black shape he had made for the bottom right of the piece. “The whole composition looked too even, a bit dull …with his gigantic scissors he began to reduce it mercilessly until it became quite small and sharp edged.  All the prettiness had been eliminated but in the process of miniaturisation, the energy had been maximised … it was perfect”.

And so to gardens.  Even if they are never able to come near the perfection of one of these masterful works on paper or in glass – and the stability of a completed artwork will always elude the gardener – the best plantsmen are forever thinking deeply about the elements they work with. The challenge is constant: how best to balance shape and colour, form and texture and the impact of a small amount or large amount of one colour on a small amount or large amount of another.

establishing shot double border

The 150 foot long double border at Petersham House, Petersham.

The garden at Petersham House, reached via the delectable Petersham Nurseries, was open for the National Gardens Scheme one Sunday at the end of April and will be open again on June 1st as part of the Petersham Village Open Gardens, as well as on Sunday 20th July for the NGS. The double borders were originally designed by landscape architect Helen Dooley and have been gently adjusted over the years by the Head Gardener, Rosie Bines. They  are a wonderful example of exuberant spring planting and a skillful and inspiring approach to colour, form and texture.

The long borders at Petersham House lie beyond the slightly severe lawned garden with its handsome topiary chess piece like shapes emerging from columns of yew:

unfinished topiary

Unfinished topiary shape
finished topiary

and a complete topiary shape.

The shapes work best when viewed together with Petersham Church beyond – balancing its handsome curves and domes:

Petersham Church and the garden of Petersham House.

For a moment I am distracted by piece after piece of covetable antique garden furniture which is beginning to feel at home amongst bowers of rambling roses and enclosures of clipped yew – and one cannot fail to be distracted of course by the watchful Anthony Gormley sculpture standing quietly on the grass.


Serpent bench in bower with Anthony Gormley sculpture.more gorgeous benchesone of a pair of covetable curvaceous dining benches in a yew enclosure.

But your heart really starts to race when you step through the gates beyond which the borders have been doggedly trying to catch your attention from the moment you arrive. The colours are rich and gorgeous against a classic framework of tightly clipped dark yew hedges and wonderful bold buttresses of rounded yew – and the balance changes constantly:

IMG_3208 (5)Fiery orange heads of Euphorbia grifitthii ‘Fireglow’ glow against the acid yellow of a different Euphorbia.

IMG_3196Dark tulips, pointed buds of Nectaroscordum siculum and subdued foliage of Macleaya Cordata.

Using yew as a dark background in a garden has the same ‘sobering effect’ on bright colours as black does for Matisse – it both subdues and energises:

thalictrum against yew

Fluffy, pale pink Thalictrum aquilegiifolium against yew.crocosima against yewSword shaped leaves of Crocosmia and Tellima grandiflora against yew.rheum characias yew

A spectacular combination of Rheum palmatum, bluebells, red tulips and Euphorbia against yew.

In another Tate Etc interview, Jacqueline Duhême, Matisse’s assistant from 1947-49, described how Matisse, worked on the design for the stained-glass windows for the Chapel of the Rosarie in Vence: he would lay down piece after piece of coloured paper until he had obtained the right “density that still let the light shine through.”

IMG_0003Jaqueline Duhême standing in front of designs for the Tree of Life stained-glass window for the Chapel of the Rosary, Vence.

imagesDisplay from ‘Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs’ showing the range of colours Matisse was using.

Of course, working with plants, it is only in the more theatrical – and ultimately artificial – context of a flower show that this sort of immediate creation of an entire picture can take place. Visiting the RHS Chelsea Flower Show during the build stage last week, we chatted with wonderful plantswoman Chris Marchant of Orchard Dene Nursery about whether or not Cleve West would add a scattering of orange poppies to his already beautiful M&G garden.  A delicate sugar pink annual poppy was working brilliantly amongst the shimmering green-blond stems of Stipa gigantea, purple honesty and pale yellow evening primrose:

pink poppy

How would the richer note of the orange poppies, still in their trays at the side of the garden affect the whole picture?

I am finishing this blog after spending the day at Chelsea and the answer is that, in the end, the decision was to go for both pale pink and orange-red poppies.  The deep orange poppies offer a dash of fire which has a powerful, intensifying effect on the gentler tones of the surrounding plants.

orange poppy 2

Part of Cleve West’s M&G Garden, RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2014 – with orange-red poppies at the centre.

Away from the show garden most plant choices have to be made months or years before they will be required to work together. Here at Petersham the planning and weighing up of possibilities is bearing fantastic fruit.

The parallel idea of using a flash of crimson as a source of contrasting energy has worked brilliantly:

Tulip and RheumRed tulip against giant Rheum palmatum foliage.
the red tulipA single red tulip glows like a light bulb against blues and claret.

Elsewhere the pale green bell-like flowers of Tellima grandiflora add light and grace to the planting throughout the border.

IMG_3161 (2)

Tellima grandiflora 
tellima amongst camssaia
Tellima grandiflora adding a lightness to Camassia.

And the clever use of the diminutive rusty flowered Euphorbia dulcis ‘Chameleon’ adds depth and a deft subtlety to the planting:

dark euphorbia

Euphorbia dulcis  ‘Chameleon’ adding depth to lilac honesty and tulips.

The swathes of vivid blue Camassia have a surprisingly powerful effect on the surrounding colours – the coolness of the blue somehow makes the contrasting colours sing more loudly:


I am reminded again of Jacqueline Duhême’s recollection of her time assisting Matisse: “there was always one colour that would make the others come to light and for Matisse it was usually blue that made the yellows, oranges and reds brighter”.

At Petersham this late spring border is full of signs of the way the garden is about to change. This rounded oriental poppy bud is on the verge of bursting open into a ball of colour:

IMG_3211_2 Bud of oriental poppy.

Torch-like shrubs of alternating claret and bright green Cotinus parade up the borders – their leaves growing daily and the pool of colour they provide getting bigger and having more influence day by day:torches of cotinusCotinus shrubs parade up the borders.

And the lush green leaves of Crambe cordfolia, which for now sit so demurely at the feet of the handsome yew acorns, will soon spin out into such huge airy clouds of white flower that for a while you will barely be able to squeeze past. The picture is about to change completely.

Crambe cordifolia leaves (left) at the base of a topiary yew acorn.

I make my way back from this private garden to the public Petersham Nurseries – back through a lovely ornamental potager with pale wigwams of papery silver birch:

kitchen garden 1Silver birch plant supports underplanted with herbs and narcissus.

I pass a wonderful small fleet of fat terracotta pots each housing a greedy artichoke plant.

It is a delight to see a young chef darting around the kitchen garden collecting flowers of borage, thyme and chives to use in the cafe and restaurant:IMG_3257 And I love the way that tulips and cow parsley are growing together with the culinary herbs:IMG_3262Purple sage with tulips and cow parsley.

Next to the garden gate is a luscious patch of blousy peach coloured tulips, Tulipa ‘La Belle Epoque’. I absolutely want some of these to plant next September.


Tulipa ‘La Belle Époque’

I chat on the way out to Rosie Bines.  I tell her how much I admire her work and she tells me that she likes my favourite, ancient, tomato-soup coloured gardening mac.  I am glad, obviously, that I had worn something that more or less suited the garden …


My tomato-soup coloured gardening mac.

On the pin board above my desk I have a beautiful Matisse touchstone: a postcard of a black cut-out leaf against mint green from the Royal Academy Matisse exhibition of 2005:

matisse leaf

Next to it is a photograph of my idea of the ultimate swimming pool –  the pool at the hotel, La Colombe D’Or in St Paul de Vence in the South of France.  It is, of course, the perfect place to stay if you want to visit Matisse’s Vence Chapel in person.

Everything comes together: the blocky deep green of tightly clipped Cypress – sobering, balancing –  and the exuberant yellow of the mimosa which is made made more heady and electric by the richness of the blue sky.


The swimming pool at La Colombe d’Or.