Tag Archives: Stipa gigantea



IMG_5573Electric blue delphiniums emerge from the box parterre in The Vegetable Garden, Parham

IMG_2959Quietly psychadelic succulents fill a stone trough in The Herb Garden

I must have visited the gardens of Parham House for the first time about ten years ago in the era of talented Head Gardeners Ray Gibbs and Joe Reardon-Smith. I remember the uplifting, overspilling opulence of the planting and trying to hold onto exactly what was making each group of plants sing. The dashes of white which turned out to be the palest blue Veronica gentianoides and the subtle interweaving of burnt – or not so burnt –  orange and terracotta to jolt a border soft blues into something richer and more velvety.

IMG_5518Parham House, West Sussex

The 16th Century house at Parham has been owned and lived in by a member of the Pearson family since the early 1920’s. The Pearsons, together with architect Victor Heal and American garden designer Lanning Roper, did much to create the shape and atmosphere of the current garden and there was another big push in the 1980’s when, with the help of garden designer Peter Coats, the 18th century walled enclosure was moved one step further away from its original life as a productive garden for a large household and turned into a garden of mixed borders and lawns. The current Head Gardener is Tom Brown. A Sarah Raven article in the Telegraph about his recent allium trial – ‘How to Grow the most show-stopping alliums for your garden’ – triggered seductive memories of my earlier visit. The last day of June was one of brooding skies, but no rain, and I found myself heading towards the South Coast, hoping quietly to find some midsummer inspiration.

IMG_5521St Peter’s Church, Parham

IMG_5519Parkland and views to rolling Sussex countryside, Parham
IMG_2923A stand of mature oak trees, Parham

I am delighted by pretty much everything. The parkland around the house, stretching out to the rolling Sussex countryside,  is exquisite, with views framed by the dipping branches of mature cedar and oak trees. The grass is still mostly green with just the beginnings of faded coral where bands of grass have allowed to grow tall.

I walk through the Clock Tower courtyard under glowering skies and enter the garden via a walkway of lovely multi-stemmed box and holly trees.

IMG_2918 The Clock Tower, entrance courtyard, Parham

IMG_2926Multi-stemmed box trees lead the way into the garden.

The  Entrance Borders are just beginning to come into their own but I am thrilled to see the radiantly highlighted, bruised colouring I have been trying to recall. The borders are wide enough to accommodate a series of tree-like pineapple-scented philadelphus, and the famous tapestry-style planting uses claret coloured berberis and cotinus together with the bright greens of Alchemilla mollis and golden hops to frame the borders which are laced with fiery red marigolds, the cooler almost mint green of Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ (in its June guise) and an almost apricot yellow daylily:

IMG_2928The dusky Entrance Borders, Parham, illuminated with spreading white Philadelphus

IMG_5628Golden hops, bronze fennel, apricot-yellow day lilies, and yet-to-ripen head of Allium sphaerocephalon, The Entrance Borders, Parham



Philadelphus, Sedum ‘Autum Joy’ ( June stage!), Alchemilla mollis, aliums, marigolds, bronze fennel – Entrance Borders, Parham

As with all good planting the proportions of plants and the way they are combined is constantly and skilfully varied. There are more sombre areas – here a leggy mauve geranium is screened by a haze of bronze fennel with just a small quantity of red marigold at the base of the planting:

IMG_2931A sombre moment of geranium, bronze fennel and a flash of red marigold

Elsewhere, a stretch of quiet green and white is lit up by a dazzling pocket of Berberis thunbergii “Aurea’:
IMG_5527                          The border is lit up by a pocket of the shrub Berberis thunbergii ‘Aurea’

Berberis seems to me such an old-fashioned plant, but I am smitten by the way it works in this border and am tempted to try it myself. Here it is again as a fine contrast to a clear mauve geranium (possibly ‘Mrs Kendall Clarke’ ) which in turn sings out against the shady burgundy seed heads of honesty, Lunaria annua:

IMG_5530Berberis thunbergii ‘Aurea’ , mauve geranium and seed heads of Lunaria annua

A little further up the same geranium is more intensely luminous against the rounded, deep red leaves of the smoke bush, Cotinus coggygria (probably ‘Royal Purple’):


Geranium ‘Mrs Kendall Clarke’ against Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple

And a little further on still, the Cotinus becomes more intense – almost black –  when it is a foil to the bright green leaves and  vivid pink-red tapers of persicaria amplexicaulis ‘Firetail’:

IMG_2949Persicaria amplexicaulis ‘Firetail’ against Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’

The smaller leaves of the equally dark red berberis, a form of Berberis thunbergii f. atropurpurea, catch the light more easily themselves and form a more balanced picture with the marigold, sedum and daylily in this group:

IMG_2948A balanced, light-catching group of Berberis thunbergii f. atropurpurea, red marigold, orange yellow day lily and Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’

Looking up, I love the dirty gold-green of golden hops, Humulus lupus ‘Aureus’, and the way it is encouraged to loop and festoon its way over the handsome smudgy green trellis, casting a greenish light on the already not-completely-white Philadelphus.

IMG_2943Golden hops festoons the trellis, with sweet-scented Philadelphus in the foreground

And I cannot help but be enchanted by the mushroom of brilliant green wisteria foliage that forms a fairy tale entrance into the nursery:



Wisteria foliage makes a fairy tale entrance into the nursery

Further along, another softly clothed opening in the border – alchemilla, pink geranium, red marigold: why not? – leads you through a brick opening into the Herb Garden:IMG_5528 (1)                                                      Softly clothed entrance into The Herb Garden

The Herb Garden at Parham is pretty perfect. There are four completely charming, immaculately proportioned, wooden benches, one in each corner of this voluptuous space enclosed in high hedges of clipped yew. Each bench is settled lightly and invitingly into its corner.  I love the bench below with its patchwork apron of worn flagstones and Alchemilla mollis, its simple backdrop of upright ferns and its anchoring neighbour, a rectangular stone trough which is gently fizzing with slightly psychedelic pink and grey succulents.

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IMG_2959One of four perfect benches in The Herb Garden – this one settled into its space with a stone trough planted with slightly psychedelic pink and grey succulents

Another bench is at the end of a small, winding green path brightened with tantalising spires of the slender cream foxglove, Digitalis lutea:

IMG_2965Winding gravel path to a second bench with slender spires of the creamy Digitalis lutea

A third bench is satisfyingly deeply set in the shade of an old apple tree:

IMG_2963 (1)A third bench deep in the shade of an old apple tree

The centre of the Herb Garden is exuberantly planted with culinary herbs and herbaceous perennials. The almost decadently fading flowers of the towering Angelica archangelica take centre stage, with the tall daisy-like flowers of inula providing a fresher yellow, and the tiny button like lemon-yellow flowers of the green leaved santolina, Santolina pinnata subsp. neapolitana, making a handsome curved edging for the central pond.

IMG_2944 (1)


The centre of The Herb Garden with towering Angelica archangelica, Alchemilla mollis everywhere and the tiny lemon yellow flowers of Santollina pinnata subsp. neapolitana edging the pond.

The way out of the Herb Garden looks as richly enticing as the way in – you know you are in the hands of masterful gardeners:

IMG_5539View as you leave The Herb Garden

A central pair of borders, The Blue and Gold Borders, cross the entire walled garden, with cooler blue colours to the West and warmer gold colours to the East:

IMG_5550FIrst view of the Blue Border

The borders are flanked at intervals by muscly espalier apple trees and elsewhere by simple wooden fencing which is cleverly broken up by basic wooden arches in a staggered art deco shape. These work brilliantly, especially as they age and become covered in lichen and, as here, host the purple leaved vine Vitis vinifera ‘Purpurea’:

IMG_5549Espalier apple trees edge the border

IMG_5571Art deco style arches act as pause points in the fence – the older lichen-covered arch above is clothed in Vitis vinifera ‘Purpurea’

The planting at the ‘blue’ end is particularly inspiring. In this photograph, the white rosebay willow herb, Chamerion angustifolium ‘Album’, is planted with the palest lilac-flowered Valeriana pyrenaica. Tall stands of red orach,  Atriplex hortensis  var. rubra, pick up the maroon staining of the Valerian’s stems and allow the white and dusky lilac to be read. It is a gorgeous group of plants.

IMG_5551Chamerion angustifolium ‘Album’, Valeriana pyrenaica and red orach

A little further on, the all-yellow, fluffy headed thalictrum, Thalictrum flavum subsp. glaucum (which I have never used, but faithful readers will know that I am becoming an unstoppable fan of the colour yellow in the garden) provides a soft foil for the vibrant Persicaria amplexicaulis ‘Firetail’:

IMG_5553Thalictrum flavum subsp. glaucum and Persicaria ‘Firetail’

And elsewhere, the bicolour taller thalictrum, Thalilctrum ‘Elin’, is an intriguing combination of soft yellow and purple:

IMG_5540Thalictrum ‘Elin’

At this point in the border, the mix of low-key yellow, faded pink and white have a seductive 70’s polaroid quality:
IMG_5544        Thalictrum flavum subsp. glaucum, Valeriana pyrenaica, Chamerion angustifolium ‘Album’

The classic, mound-forming, silver foliage plant, Artemisia ludoviciana ‘Valerie Finnis’ is one that has definitely moved higher up my list of plants to try to bring a border together with a gentle sparkle. It is used throughout the garden and is a wonderful foil for both bright and more subtle colours.


The silver foliage of Artemisa ludoviciana ‘Valerie Finnis’ with the just emerging Chamerion angustifolium ‘Album’

Elsewhere there are the rich purple uprights of Salvia nemerosa ‘Caradonna’ together with the dreamier mauve-pink catmint (probably) Nepeta grandiflora ‘Dawn to Dusk’ – the opposing qualities of each plant work surprisingly well when put next door to each other.


Salvia nemerosa  ‘Caradonna’ with Nepeta grandiflora ‘Dawn to Dusk’

The salvia, together with classic blue catmint and a rich blue geranium, anchor the border and                      keep it just about in the blue/purple spectrum!
IMG_2998                              Mounds of salvia, catmint and blue geranium anchor the border

There is an immediate colour shift as you approach the Gold Border. Stipa gigantea erupts with its usual brilliancy into a series of fine bronze fireworks and, here, the sword-like foliage and pale yellow flowers of Sisyrinchium striatum anchors the planting:
IMG_5558 IMG_5559

IMG_5563The bronze fireworks of Stipa gigantea are anchored by the swordlike foliage and pale yellow flowers of Sisyrinchium striatum in the Gold Border

The subtle colouring continues with the coppery mauve foliage of Rosa glauca acting as a foil for pale lilac Valeriana pyrenaica – with the dirty gold of Humulus lupulus ‘Aureus’ above and golden marjoram below lighting up the scene.


Rosa glauca with Valeriana pyrenaica, Humulus lupulus ‘Aureus’ and Origanum vulgare ‘Aureum’

The dusky mauve Sedum ‘Matrona’ – my favourite sedum – is introduced as a deft rhythmic base plant and then little shocks are introduced: more golden hops threaded though at low level, a burnt orange knifophia singing out from a haze of bronze fennel, and then a flotilla of flat red brown heads amongst the mauves: Achillea millefolium ‘Terracotta’:


                                                                          Sedum ‘Matrona’IMG_3016                                                  Sedum ‘Matrona’ with golden hops

IMG_5561An orange Kniphofia amongst sedum and bronze fennel
IMG_3018The flat heads of Achillea millefolium ‘Terracotta’ with Sedum ‘Matrona’

Next to the Blue and Gold borders is The Vegetable Garden – a huge box parterre for growing cut flowers so there are sudden bursts of electric blue delphinium, cloudy white heads of Amni magus, or pokey heads of the last-to-flower giant allium from the June allium trials.

IMG_3024 (1)


IMG_5575Clipped box, electric blue delphinium, Amni majus, and giant allium in bud
IMG_5574The Vegetable Garden Parterre

The spring meadow grass around a pair of charismatically ageing medlar trees has been raked into stook-like piles at the base of the trees. I am suddenly transported to the South of France and summer holidays:



Medlar trees with raked meadow grass

There is the charming wendy house built in 1928 by Clive Pearson for his three daughters – a perfectly detailed two storey cottage built into the garden wall  – and there is the rather less impressive photographic record of me hopelessly trying help you work out the scale of the perfectly formed wendy house for yourself…. I love the idea that the family still have an annual tradition of spending one summer night here, lighting the fire, cooking sausages and telling ghost stories.

IMG_5582                                                                 The 1928 Wendy House

IMG_5586 (1)                                        A not very helpful selfie to show the scale of Wendy House …

Next to the wendy house, another perfectly lichened bench surrounded by ferns and mounds of silver Artemisia ludoviciana ‘Valerie Finnis’:


And then a lovely stretch of old brick and flint wall, gates painted with red estate paint and confident shady planting of Digitalis lutea, hosta, Alchemilla mollis, and the rather brilliant addition of sea holly – Eryngium giganteum ‘Silver Ghost’? – which at this point of the year is a pale silvery green (it will turn to silver blue as it matures) and a fantastic counterpoint to the acid green of the alchemilla:IMG_5585                                                                                Digitalis lutea



IMG_3042A fine stretch of shady planting – the bottom photo shows the acid green of Alchemilla mollis and the pale silvery green of the young Eryngium giganteum ‘Silver Ghost’

Moving round the garden, the orchard has also been mown and neatly raked, and is ready for summer. There is a feisty wildlife-friendly strip of ferns and stinging nettles against the orchard wall: proof that wild life friendliness and a sense of order can be happy bedfellows.


IMG_3050                         The orchard with a strip of wild-life friendly nettles at its edge

I pass the elegant lake with its latticed wall and views out to the Sussex hills:

IMG_5599The lake at Parham

And as I leave the main part of the garden I notice this excellent combination of plants for shade – Begonia evansiana ssp. evansiana whose heart shaped leaves will be joined by simple shell pink flowers in late summer – and Tiarella ‘Spring Symphony’ with its starry pale pink flowers and purple blotched leaves which will carpet the ground all summer.

IMG_3046 (1)

Begonia grandis sbsp. evansiana and Tiarella ‘Spring Symphony’

One final leg to my tour. I pass through a shadowy room with lead paned windows where jewel coloured pelargonium flowers are collected in simple glass vases:

IMG_5631 IMG_5632                                            Pelargoniums in simple glass vases against lead paned windows

through the elongated kaleidoscope of the greenhouses:

IMG_3061Route through the greenhouses

to the loveliest, completely simple composition of flint wall, catmint in quantity, stone pineapple, glossy banana plant and pair of orange fox tail lilies:



IMG_5637 IMG_5643

Emerging from the green houses to a sea of catmint, a stone pineapple, a banana plant and some brilliant orange foxtail lilies

I sneak inside the house before I leave, I am running out of time. Worth visiting alone for the 160ft Elizabethan Long Gallery ceiling painted with a twisting design of leaves and flowers in green and gold against white by stage and set designer Oliver Messel in the 20th century:
messel 1 messel 2

Barrel vaulted ceiling of the Long Gallery, Parham,  restored in the 20’s and 30’s and painted with a design by Oliver Messel which was completed in the 1960’s

Even the windows of the house have subtle colour shifts that offer dreamy pallor and sweet intensity in the most enticing combinations:


View of the park at Parham from one of the house windows.

Post Script:  I will not be posting again for a couple of months as I am travelling all over the UK on writing and also garden design commissions .  Wishing you a very good summer, Non.






    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.




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.