The Call of the Wild


What follows is a summary of a talk I gave on 14 October to the Friends of Pensford Field, a conservation project here in Kew.

A garden doesn’t have to be a wilderness in order to be a haven for wildlife. I’ll detail the key components for a wildlife friendly garden, and argue this isn’t merely a trend, but that it’s vital that we all take steps to maintain and hopefully increase the biodiversity in our gardens.  

Biodiversity loss is increasing at an alarming rate: Since 2004 the insect population in these islands has decreased by 64%. In the State of Nature report issued in the last week of September, it was stated that 1 in 6 of 10,000 species assessed is at risk of being lost from the British Isles, with a far higher figure for birds.  In the January 2023 Big Garden Birdwatch the sighting of sparrows, song thrushes and skylarks was down again as it had been the year before.     

Gardens are said to occupy more landspace than all Britain’s conservation areas and nature reserves combined, so re-wilded gardens could create important wildlife corridors between fragmented woodlands, meadows and other wild habitats.  

As a gardener, my instinct is to keep the garden looking neat and tidy so surely making it wildlife friendly will mean sacrificing that sharp-edged smartness for something resembling a jungle? Not at all, you can for example devote a small area of the garden to a ‘re-wilded’ area where the grass is longer, there are woodpiles and wildflowers, perhaps a pond or a bog garden and after a while, the place will be buzzing with insect and amphibian life. This doesn’t mean that the rest of the garden should still need treating with pesticides and herbicides: if you get the balance right pesticides won’t be needed because birds and invertebrate predators like solitary wasps will have seen off the destructive bugs.  As for weedkillers, there’s nothing like a session of intensive hand weeding to clear the mind, relieve stress and achieve attractive results without the equivalent of that scorched earth effect when the poison has done its stuff and the weeds have turned to an unsightly brown crispy mess.  

What are the fundamental elements of a wildlife friendly garden? If you think about the three things we all need to function the same applies to garden wildlife: shelter, water and food. Dealing with each of these in turn:   


Imagine micro versions of the habitats that wildlife thrives in: woodlands, meadows and wetlands. 

Trees: You might already have a tree in your garden which shelters many different organisms, both at the invertebrate level as well as larger creatures like birds and squirrels. If you possibly can do introduce a tree into your garden. Many trees are well suited to smaller gardens and there are cultivars that have a narrow growing habit rather than having wide spreading branches. Examples are Prunus Amonagowa and Amelanchier Ballerina: both are deciduous but with interest in all seasons with spring blossom, fruits attractive to birds in late summer and attractive autumn foliage.  Use the height and protection offered by the tree to install bird nesting boxes or open-bottomed bat boxes. Bear in mind that brand new boxes are usually made from treated wood which will smell of the chemicals used to preserve the wood (do also make sure that the product you buy is made from wood from sustainable sources). Birds and bats prefer to wait for a season or two until the box has weathered before setting up home. A bat box has an open bottom for the roosting bat to fly up into and needs to be fixed as high as possible, say at least 2 metres. Bird boxes must be sited away from potential danger points, such as fencing where a determined cat is likely to be able to take a swipe at a parent flying in or out while feeding a brood or indeed a fledgling leaving the nest for the first time.  

Log piles: Piles of rotting wood in the form of log piles or stacks of brash, such as the prunings from a renovation prune of a favourite shrub, can be placed in shady corners to accommodate myriad invertebrates, including stag beetles. Despite their scary appearance and erratic bumbling flight, these fascinating animals are garden friends and by feeding on rotting wood the larvae help to keep our gardens tidy. The adults live for a few weeks of the summer and when seen on the wing are likely to be in search of a mate. Their distribution is confined to the southern counties with the highest concentration recorded in the south east. They are classed as endangered in many European countries and indeed have gone extinct in Denmark and Latvia. If you have to have a tree cut down for some reason, do not have the stump ground down but leave it to decay naturally where it will provide a des. res. for stag beetle larvae. If the stump looks unsightly in the centre of a bed or border, plant herbaceous perennials around it to grow up around it each spring and summer and hide the stump.   Amphibians such as frogs, toads and newts will favour log piles for over-wintering. They also like to shelter in compost heaps, leaf litter, and spaces under sheds or greenhouses and decking: somewhere damp and protected. Their bodies need to be allowed to enter a period of low metabolic function to help them survive the cold. You don’t have to have a pond to attract amphibians (although a pond is a wonderful addition to a wildlife friendly garden as I shall go on to demonstrate). As long as there is dense planting rich in insect life for hunting which provides a damp hideaway, amphibians can reach other nearby ponds.  

Bug hotels are another fantastic way to provide shelter for invertebrates in your garden and there’s a splendid example of one at Pensford Field. They’ve also become a popular garden accessory and can be bought off the shelf, though they’re not quite the same as creating one out of a log drilled with varying sizes of holes and stuffed with hollow stems for solitary bees and wasps. A commercially made bug hotel, like the bird and bat boxes, might smell and feel rather new and strange so may take a while to be occupied. There are houses for solitary bumble bees in the kitchen garden at Kew Gardens.

Long grass/meadows: Since the 1970s we’ve lost a shocking 97% of flower rich meadows in this country. The No Mow May campaign has been running now for a few years, started by Plantlife, the charity which aims to protect the vital habitats which so many creatures call home. The purpose of the campaign is to encourage gardeners and green space managers not to mow during May, thereby creating a space for nature. Long grass shelters many species of insect, grass hoppers included, and is a vital habitat to support their life cycles.  If you do decide at the end of the month of May that you want to make the lawn look more Wimbledon Centre Court than Serengeti, there are a few things you can do to protect wildlife as you mow. 

  • Before starting to cut, hand search longer grass areas for small mammals like hedgehogs. 
  • For the first cut, set the blades as high as possible, and mow strips only half as wide as the mower to reduce the load on the mower. 
  • Don’t mow around the edges to the centre, as this prevents the creatures which have adopted this area as home from escaping towards the uncut section of grass. 
  • As you mow progress gradually towards sanctuary areas such as uncut grass strips at boundaries.  

Let it Bloom June allows the lawn wildflowers which began to emerge in May to bloom by extending No Mow May into June and making part of the garden a wildflower landscape:  encourage an area of lawn to be left as a flowering lawn to be mown once every 4 to 8 weeks during the growing season. Common low growing plants will re-grow and re-flower throughout the summer after a cut to maintain a shorter, neater height: red and white clovers, golden trefoils, blue self heal and white yarrow. Even in a period of drought, when the grasses fall dormant and go brown, the wildflowers remain green.  

You can go one step further by mowing only twice a year avoiding the period from April to July. This enables you to recreate the effect of a traditional hay meadow. Taller flowers like red campions, purple knapweeds and mauve scabious will thrive. Treat an area like this as a perennial herbaceous border you never need to feed or water: by leaving it undisturbed for longer, the wildflowers and grasses will support the lifecycles of the invertebrates which depend on them.  

By leaving some grass permanently unmowed, it won’t support as many wildflowers but will provide a sanctuary for wildlife in hot summers and cold winters: this could be a sanctuary strip at the base of a hedge or fence for toads and voles with seed heads acting as natural bird feeders for finches. This is low maintenance gardening with the only management being to snip out woody saplings or over-vigorous brambles. 

When you do cut the meadowed area, it is advisable to collect and rake off cuttings : leave them for a day or so to dry and for invertebrates to escape. This prevents a build-up which might inhibit the re-growth of wildflowers and no cuttings rotting down into the soil means less soil fertility. The more fertile the soil the better the grass will grow at the expense of wildflowers.  A further advantage of a wilder lawn is that it captures and locks away more carbon helping you to do your bit for the climate. In the next section I look at creating a wildflower meadow from scratch.  


Soil dwellers: When you’re planning a garden that will provide food for the creatures you want to attract, it helps to start at the bottom of the food chain with the invertebrates and other creatures and organisms which occupy the soil in your garden. We are constantly being told by gardening pundits to enrich our soil with organic matter. Not only does this improve the structure of the soil (particularly important here in Kew where we have very sandy soil from which nutrients are easily washed away), it provides fodder for the soil fauna like earthworms, mites, nematodes, springtails, ants etc. that spend much of their life underground. These in turn feed burrowing rodents like moles as well as omnivorous birds such as robins and blackbirds. You can mulch the garden with garden compost you’ve made yourself in a home compost heap or bin or with a number of media which will bulk up sandy soil or open out the structure of clay based soil. Examples are spent mushroom compost, composted bark fines or well-rotted farmyard manure. The best time to apply such mulches is in late winter just as spring bulbs and last year’s herbaceous perennials are nosing through so you can work around them rather than submerging them. As well as helping the underground creatures, your garden plants will thank you too as such mulches help to conserve moisture in the soil and feed the plants for the rest of the season.  

Butterflies: Moving up the food chain brings us to the larvae of the butterflies and moths which when full grown will help to pollinate many of the flowers and food plants we grow. It’s easy to forget that a beautiful peacock butterfly was once a plump caterpillar. Caterpillars are also a favourite food of many bird species and invertebrates such as solitary wasps. A bluetit chick can eat as many as 100 caterpillars a day. In a fascinating butterfly talk and walk at Pensford in July the supervisor of Kew’s natural habitat areas, highlighted a number of plants which are particular favourites of certain species of butterfly: 

  • Brimstone caterpillars feed on buckthorn. 
  • White species of butterfly famously eat brassicas but as they also like nasturtiums these can be planted alongside as a sacrificial plant to distract the caterpillars from your cabbages.
  • Tortoiseshells feed on stinging nettles. 
  • As well as holly, holly blue butterfly caterpillars feed on ivy and brambles
  • Meadow browns and small skippers feed on grasses 

Thistles are also good caterpillar food plants. If possible, leave an area in a sunny corner of the garden as a caterpillar larder for some of these plants to thrive. The results of the Big Butterfly Count this summer organised by Butterfly Conservation published in September revealed the great news that butterfly numbers increased this summer compared to the last four summers, though sadly many species have been shown to be in decline since the count started 13 years ago. This year’s mixed weather meant there was an abundance of green food plants for caterpillars and nectar-rich flowers for adult butterflies. The most successful species were red admirals, gatekeepers and holly blues. Since it is habitat loss which causes species to decline, it’s all the more important that we create wild spaces in our gardens for butterflies to feed, breed and shelter.  

Pollinating insects: Choosing nectar-rich plants is easy these days when many garden centres use special labelling to highlight ‘plants for pollinators’ using a bee logo to reinforce the message. The important thing to remember is that the flowers you choose give insects easy access to the sweet nectar at the base of the flower and enable the pollinating insect almost incidentally to brush against the male pollen-bearing stamens and transfer the pollen to the female organ, the stigma. This can mean for example: 

  • Open, single-flowers are easy for flying insects to access: the petals are arranged as a guide, directing the pollinators to the centre of the bloom where the nectar is found. Think of daisies where the petals arranged around a central disc guide the insect to the bectar via the pollen.  With dahlias, the slim-petalled ‘Honka’ dahlias or the ‘Bishop’ series like the dark-leaved, scarlet flowered Bishop of Llandaff are more likely to appeal to flying insect pollinators than the big showy blooms of dahlias like fashionable Cafe au Lait. Roses are another popular flower where we all fall for the multi-petalled beauties promoted by the likes of David Austin Roses. For a wildlife friendly garden choose a single-flowered china rose like the multi-coloured Rosa mutabilis, the deep red Bengal Crimson or the white climber White Star.  
  • Flowers with a wide landing platform (technically known as an umbel) where the flower heads consist of dozens of tiny flowers arranged in a plate-like structure. These include members of the carrot family such as fennel or sweet cicely, the succulent Hylotelephium (formerly Sedum) spectabile also known as the ice-plant or several members of the daisy family such as Achilleas.  A. Goldsturm is a deep yellow cultivar which is very popular and looks particularly good in the borders either side of Kew’s Great Broad Walk.      
  • Flowers with a landing strip often highlighted with markings on the petals at the entrance to a tube or trumpet leading to the nectaries. Think of the spots near the lip of foxglove flowers or the wide apron like lower petal of salvia flowers.  
  • Thistle’ like flowers attract pollinators. Examples include the globe thistle, Echinops ritro ‘Veitch’s Blue’ or the crimson Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’ which featured a lot at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show. Also teasels and cardoons.  
  • Spires of flowers are popular with pollinators: I’m thinking of Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Fascination’ from North America or the various cultivars of loosestrife, Lythrum salicaria, whose nectar and pollen rich flowers are a hit with bees, butterflies and moths.  
  • Verbena bonariensis, has become a garden staple over the last few years and is a good flower for the hummingbird hawk moth whose long proboscis is able to feed on the nectar at the base of the tiny tubular flowers which make up the purple flowerheads.  

Early and late flowers: Many of the flowers I’ve listed so far bloom through the summer months but let’s not forget the early months of the year when some of the early emerging pollinators are foraging for sustenance. This is where the early spring bulbs like snowdrops, scillas and crocus are important. And if you choose carefully from the bulb catalogues advertising their wares at this time of year, you’ll find varieties of Narcissus (daffodil) covering February all the way through to April, when some of the herbaceous perennials start to flower in earnest. Late sources of nectar are important too, and the creamy globe-shaped flowerheads of mature ivy are perfect for providing nourishment in October and November.

Flowerhead of mature ivy

Flowering shrubs.  The many forms of flowering shrub provide nectar. An obvious example is lavender, but early in the year Forsythia flowers are good, followed by Buddleia which if you keep deadheading them will flower well into September and are called the butterfly bush for good reason. In the last few weeks of Sepember I revelled in the bright blue spiky flowers of deciduous shrub Caryopteris clandonensis which plays host to dozens of solitary bees, hoverflies and honey bees. A useful evergreen shrub for pollinating insects is Abelia.   

Establishing a wildflower meadow I promised earlier to return to wildflower lawns and meadows. I’m including this topic when considering the food that will attract wildlife to the garden because the flowers that thrive in this kind of habitat are usually rich in nectar for flying insects. You can supplement the naturally occurring flowering wildflowers you find in lawns (aka weeds! like plantains and dandelions) with a wider range of meadow plants. either by sowing a wildflower mix of seeds, planting individual plug plants or installing a square or strip of wildflower turf as has been done here at Pensford. If you decide to make a meadow on bare soil don’t be tempted to enrich the soil with fertiliser, the poorer the soil the better. And dig out all perennial weeds like nettles and docks! Nurture these instead in the area you’ve set aside as a caterpillar larder. Let the area rest for a few weeks before sowing or planting, so that any ephemeral weeds can be hoed off and the soil raked, levelled and firmed lightly with penguin steps.  

  • Seeds. Broadcasting a packet or packets of seeds is the cheapest method of making a meadow. The seed companies produce mixes to attract particular creatures (eg. pollinating insects, birds) and it’s a question also of whether you want to make an annual or a perennial wildflower meadow. An annual mixture of seeds consists of colourful cornfield annuals like cornflowers, field poppies, corn marigolds and corncockles which will distribute their seed at the end of the season and produce flowers the following year although further sowings may be needed. Other mixes contain the seeds of perennial meadow plants. These can take longer to establish and might include ox-eye daisies, ragged robin, red campion, knapweed and field scabious. The best time to sow wildflower seeds is March or April or in September. The site you choose should ideally be in full sun and well-drained, though there are mixes for other areas such as shady or damp sites where the species chosen will thrive in such conditions.  
  • Plug plants. Using plug plants to create a meadow is more labour intensive and expensive but ultimately often more effective at establishing perennial meadow plants. Approximate cost: a tray of 104 plugs of 13 different species is about £90 and would cover an area of approximately 20 square metres. Method: create a grid of metre squares with canes and garden string and plant about 5 plugs per square metre.  
  • Meadow turf is sold by the metre and has been created by the suppliers sowing onto a mesh or a biodegradable plant fibre backing. The latter is the preferable method. Like seed mixes, in the case of both plug plants and meadow turf, there are numerous permutations depending on aspect, site conditions etc. The method of site preparation is the same. You’ve probably all seen the wildflower meadow around the base of The Hive in Kew Gardens? This was made using metres and metres of wildflower turf, much of which had to be pinned to the steep sides cut into the mound on which the structure is built. 
  • It is always recommended, in particular where a meadow is being created in a formerly lawned area, to sow yellow rattle seed in late summer to suppress the growth of the grass which if left unchecked will out-compete the floral element of the meadow. Yellow rattle, Rhinanthus, is a semi-parasitic plant which reduces the vigour of established grass.  
  • Teasels. Dipsacus fullonum, grow to about 2 metres and as well as looking pretty in flower with fluffy mauve flowers to attract pollinators, dry back to spectacular seed heads which will attract charms of goldfinches during the winter months. Like foxgloves, teasels are biennials and complete their life cycles in two years: growing a crown of leaves in year 1 and flowering and setting seed in year 2. To establish an annually recurring display, plant the crowns two years running.  

Berries & hips for birds I’ve concentrated on pollinators but as the season progresses and berries and hips develop, many shrubs are good food sources for birds. Examples include the shiny berries of the so-called Guelder rose, Viburnum opulus, a favourite for thrushes and redwings, or the pink and orange fruits of the spindle tree Euonymus europeaeus beloved of starlings. Another good reason for planting this useful shrub is that it is host plant of the species of aphid that in their turn attract an army of predators such as ladybird larvae which will deter aphids from infesting your roses and broad beans. Rosehips are a great food source in late autumn and winter for birds. 


Ponds.    On a bat walk in August at the field, led by one of the rangers from Barnes Common, he described a pond as a ‘food funnel’ for species such as bats because it draws insects towards it on which bats can predate. In the same way that a watering hole in East Africa attracts animals from many miles around to quench their thirst, so a pond in your garden will act as a gathering point for an army of invertebrates. Not only the obvious waterside dwelling insects like dragon and damselflies, which if the pond is large enough to support a population of underwater creatures on which dragonfly larvae can feed, might breed there, but also pollinators like bees, hoverflies, moths and butterflies will swoop down to the surface of a pond to drink.  As I mentioned before, a garden pond will provide a wonderful habitat for amphibians like frogs, newts and toads. It doesn’t have to be enormous, but you must provide some form of exit route for these creatures to get out of the pond because they spend much of their time on land, sheltered in the undergrowth. A staircase arrangement of bricks leading to the surface or a wooden ramp as I’ve seen in some gardens will enable them to get out when they need to. The huge advantage of having a resident colony of amphibians is that they will suppress the population of snails and slugs. An example of the phenomenon that introducing wildlife friendly gardening practices, like making a pond, will have a beneficial effect on the way you garden.  If you’re making a pond from scratch, be sure to site it in a position where it will get direct sun for at least 8 hours a day in summer. The best practice is that one half or up to two thirds of the pond should be covered with vegetation. Having a small fountain in your pond will not deter the wildlife and will help to oxygenate the water. Even in a dedicated wildlife pond, as opposed to one that is ornamental, it is important to make sure that the water is kept moving, to avoid the water becoming stagnant. It is best not to install a water feature which throws the water high into the air as this will cause the water to evaporate more quickly in hot weather and in a dedicated wildlife pond would look incongruous. Just install a water pump with the fountain base just showing above the water line for a gentle bubble effect which is enough to agitate the water. Even with a fountain, you should still introduce submerged oxygenating plants (available from water garden suppliers) as these provide a habitat for small animals to live and breed.  

Cleaning ponds. Even taking these precautions, ponds inevitably get clogged up and benefit from skimming over occasionally with a fishing net to remove blanket weed and any fallen leaves from neighbouring trees. Don’t immediately empty the debris you collect into the compost bin: just deposit it on the side of the pond to give any creatures that you’ve scooped up to disperse back into the pond. After about three days you can pick up the waste and dispose of it. 

There are dozens of aquatic plants available for garden ponds, with waterlilies being the most popular. Whatever you choose be sure to avoid invasive species like parrot’s feather (Myriophyllum aquaticum), though the sale of this is restricted and shouldn’t even be available from a reputable aquatic plant retailer. Choose your plants according to the scale of your pond: there are several dwarf cultivars of water lily available for smaller ponds. Make sure to include some marginal plants around the edges of the pond for amphibians and insects like dragon and damselflies to shelter in. There are several rushes which look attractive though bear in mind they can grow quite densely and are hard to shift once established: an example would be Juncus effusus (Soft rush). If you’re looking for an online supplier, Lincolnshire Pond Plants is a good one. They won gold at both Chelsea and Hampton Court Flower Shows and are really helpful with advice as to the best plants to choose. 

Bird bath If you hang birdfeeders in the garden for garden birds you should also provide a bird bath or similar to enable them to drink and bathe. Do keep it as clean as possible and make sure it’s kept topped up.  

Bee bath. You don’t have to have a full-sized pond to help pollinators to swoop down and drink: you can provide a shallow saucer with a few pebbles which you keep topped up with water.  

Having covered the basic 3 elements needed to attract wildlife to the garden, I’ve a list of DON’TS to share with you. 

  • DON’T use weedkillers. In the words of Joni Mitchell in Big Yellow Taxi ‘Hey farmer, farmer put away that DDT now, give me spots on my apples, but leave me the birds and bees, please’. She went on to sing ‘they paved paradise, put up a parking lot’, but run off from hard-standing which causes surface flooding is a whole other talk about resilient gardens! There’s no substitute for hand weeding accompanied by a good podcast or audiobook, not to mention a hori hori or Japanese trowel which while it might look like an offensive weapon is the most useful tool in my gardening toolbag. 
  • DON’T use pesticides. Once you establish a good balance in your garden by attracting natural predators with shelter, food and water, you won’t be as troubled by aphids, slugs, snails and pesticides won’t be needed. There are biological controls available for certain pests in the form of predators or pathogenic nematodes but this is a whole other topic and perhaps a talk designed to encourage wildlife is not the forum to be looking at ways to kill certain elements of it!
  • DON’T use slug pellets aka molluscicides. Although the really toxic ingredient in slug pellets (metaldehyde) is now banned, you might have some of the old product in the shed. It’s poisonous to birds and pets as well as gastropods and SHOULD NOT BE USED.  
  • DON”T let the cat out at night. According to a Landscape & Urban Planning report in April 2022 on small mammal predation, UK cats kill 160-270 million animals a year, a quarter of them birds. Cats Protection League recommends the following steps to reduce predation: a dusk to dawn curfew, feed cats meat-derived protein food, and playing with your cat for at least ten minutes a day.
  • DON”T over-illuminate your garden. It’s better to use a few solar-powered bulbs than an elaborate lighting system that confuses birds who don’t know what time of day it is and a brightly lit garden deters bats. 
  • DON”T deadhead roses from late summer onwards. Leave the spent flowers to develop into nutritious hips for over-wintering birds. They look decorative too.
  • DON’T cut hedges or large shrubs before checking for nesting birds. 
  • DON’T cut sunflower heads when the flowers have finished. Leave them in place after they have finished flowering as blackbirds love the oil rich seeds. 

Here are a few suggestions for wildlife friendly gardens which are open to the public:

  • Kew Gardens: especially the natural area in the south of the Gardens. 
  • The wildlife garden at RHS Wisley next to RHS Hilltop, designed by Ann-Marie Powell. The beds are inspired by the shape of a bee’s wing and includes two large pools with aquatic and marginal planting.
  • The Knepp Estate in West Sussex. Like the wider estate, the walled garden is  being managed to maximise biodiversity, whilst being as sustainable as possible. You can join a ‘rewild your garden safari’.     
  • Vineyard Passage Burial Ground in Richmond. ‘Wild woodland garden’
  • Pembroke Lodge gardens in Richmond Park where there are two ‘wildflower’ meadows being established. One is a traditional wildflower meadow, the other is in the North American prairie style and planted with pollinating attracting flowers such as Dianthus carthusianorum and Echinacea.  

Kew Gardens

21 October 2023

A Portrait of a Garden


Long Barn: Vita and Harold’s garden before Sissinghurst

Most people, when they move to a new property, make some changes, perhaps a new kitchen or bathroom, or even an extension. When in 1913 Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, home from a diplomatic posting in Constantinople, bought two farm labourers’ cottages and adjoining land in the village of Sevenoaks Weald in Kent, they went a step further and moved a mediaeval barn from the bottom of the hill joining it to the cottages to create a large house. Their radical approach to property renovation extended to garden-making, culminating years later in the creation of the unique gardens at Sissinghurst. 

I visited Long Barn on a blistering hot day in early June. Organised by the WGFA, the visit consisted of an introduction to the property by the owner Rebecca Lemonius, followed by a tutorial in plant sketching by head gardener Anna Ribo. It was a very memorable and rewarding day in a fascinating garden. The link with one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated gardeners and garden writers made it all the more special. As for the art element, Anna’s non-judgmental approach gave this non-artist the space and freedom to have a go at drawing the bold planting combinations without feeling daunted. 

Having grown up only 1.5 miles away, in her ancestral home Knole (nicknamed ‘the calendar house’ because of its reputed 365 rooms), it was important for Vita to live somewhere with an intriguing history. Long Barn was reputed to have been occupied at one time by the founder of the printing press, William Caxton. The house went on to develop more history when in the 1930s, after Vita and Harold had decamped to Sissinghurst, it was let to aviator Charles Lindbergh and his wife when they sought solitude and privacy from the press intrusion following the kidnapping of their infant son in 1932. During the 2WW the house was used as a nursery by the NSPCC to accommodate children affected by air raids. Rebecca told a touching story of her correspondence with a gentleman who had lived at Long Barn during this period. Following his recent death, his ashes are to be scattered in the garden. 

In developing a new garden at Long Barn, Vita and Harold addressed the property’s sloping site by installing a terrace. Architect Edwin Lutyens, a lover of Vita’s mother Victoria, the spirited Baroness Sackville, advised on the construction of a series of raised beds at the foot of the garden (now the Dutch Garden) and the planting of a long row of clipped yew columns across the middle of the main lawn, but is not known to have been involved elsewhere in either the remodelling of the house or development of the garden. 

Vita and Harold made a good team when it came to making gardens. His strength was in the vision to create the structure and hard landscaping, whilst Vita’s talent was in choosing the planting, informed by her admiration for the writings of William Robinson, pioneer of the wild gardening style, a reaction to the rigidly formal bedding fashion of the Victoria era. The garden was said to be the glue which held their marriage together. When it was rumoured that a chicken farm was to be built on adjoining land, the Nicolsons looked for another property, a blank canvas on which to create a garden. And so they arrived at Sissinghurst which has of course come to be known as one of the great gardens of the world. They moved there in 1932 but didn’t sell Long Barn until 1945.

In terms of gardening partnerships, it’s clear that Rebecca and her head gardener Anna share a similar vision for the atmosphere they want the garden to evoke, their philosophy being that the design is led by their choice of plants. Anna explained that her approach to gardening at Long Barn (she has been there five years) is to be sympathetic to what is already there. A gardener has to approach a garden with a degree of humility, get a feel for the soil and condtions and get to know the client. The soil here is Weald Clay which is rock hard in summer and sticky and claggy in winter: they improve it as far as possible by mulching it with organic matter such as composted bark and spent mushroom compost which help to break up the clay. The only place they use grit is in the Cretean Bed, a narrow south-facing border running parallel to the Box Parterre where the plants are reminiscent of the Mediterranean style planting at Delos at Sissinghurst, with a limited colour palette accented by handsome multi-headed Aeoniums.

This large site consisting of several different areas or ‘rooms’ is maintained by what amounts to seven man days a week, and Rebecca and Anna recognise that ‘everywhere doesn’t have to be perfect all the time’. After an area has gone over, it is allowed to be quiet. With such a small team, there has to be a realistic view of what can be achieved in terms of maintenance. There is an irrigation system in place in the Dutch Garden, but everywhere else is watered by hand. A further challenge is posed by the rest of the village’s surface water draining down towards Long Barn. On the site of an old tennis court, they are developing the ‘Rose Meadow’ where roses are encouraged to be as tall as possible, interplanted with grasses and wild flowers such as cow parsley and buttercups.

Head gardener Anna is also a garden designer with a fine art background, and prefers to hand draw her designs rather than using a computer programme. When sketching a plant she told us you should look at the character of the plant and ask yourself is it, for example, upright, frothy, strong, structural? If you spent ten minutes a day on sketching the plants in your garden you would soon see progress. After these words of encouragement we were free to draw plants in the Dutch Garden which was a joyful experience. We hunkered down in the shade on the cool grass between the raised beds and drew the plants at close range, considering how one plant relates to its neighbours and trying to capture something of the sheer exuberance of the planting here. Since the day at Long Barn I have sketched in my garden for a few minutes but haven’t devoted enough time to it to see such progress. I certainly find it a mindful experience regardless of the results my concentration produces.

Anna shared some useful design tips for planning planting schemes. When assembling a choice of plants for a border you should introduce lots of different flower shapes. Umbels, the flattish umbrella-like flowerheads of plants such as Valerian officinalis, will attract beneficial insects like hoverflies which eat aphids. Heavily edit self-seeders when they have finished flowering, but don’t remove them altogether. For example bright cerise Gladiolus byzantina, itself a self-seeder, was lighting up the beds in the lower part of the garden with vibrant spires of flowers. In a large herbaceous border like those in the Dutch Garden, maintain planting pockets which carry a quiet period, during which you can introduce annual plants such as Ammi majus (more umbels!) Anna’s plant descriptions were wonderfully lively: she pointed out zesty euphorias and described small flowered, low growing plants as ditsy.

There was something of Great Dixter about the garden at Long Barn. I think it’s the handsome and weathered old house rearing up amidst a sea of bold colours and diverse flower shapes and leaf textures. The team at Long Barn have certainly honoured Vita and Harold’s horticultural legacy by maintaining the unique structure of a historic garden but within that framework experimenting and playing with scale and colour.

Here are some more of my images of the three acre site.

Weeds, prints and (butter)flies


A week in and out of the garden

After a few non-gardening days last week with family coming to stay, I returned to volunteer at Osterley, to find that an interloper had arrived in the vegetable bed in the Tudor Walled Garden that we had thoroughly weeded a week earlier. Numerous substantial seedlings of gallant soldier had pioneered their way along the aubergine and chilli pepper rows. Gallant soldier is a corruption of this plant’s scientific name Galinsoga parviflora, a member of the daisy family which bears very small white flowers amidst serrated oval leaves.

I’ve got a new plant identifier app on my phone, Flora incognita, which swiftly identified the vigorous invader. Subsequent reading reveals other common names for this fast reproducing plant: quickweed, potato weed and (my favourite) galloping soldier. It was originally collected in its native Peru in 1796 and brought to Kew Gardens, from whence it escaped, earning the moniker the Kew weed! There’s a delicious description in William Edmondes’ ‘Weeds Weeding (& Darwin): The Gardener’s Guide‘, my weed bible, of the prolific Galinsoga parviflora being brought to Kew Gardens and ‘almost immediately galloping away down the street and all over London’. This conjures a vision of it heading north along Kew Road and marching across Kew Bridge to Brentford, with a breakaway battalion hopping onto the District Line to spread across the city.

We made short shrift of the energetic soldiers after some careful weeding around the precious crops. However, I’m expecting to see them back on duty this Friday after several days of heavy showers and relatively mild temperatures.

Every day’s a school day, as they say, and my education continued last Friday with an excellent butterfly talk and walk at Pensford Field, led by Ruth from Kew Gardens, who oversees the wildlife in Kew’s Natural Area (formerly the Conservation area). She began by listing the several benefits of butterflies: as pollinators, by spreading pollen from plant to plant while drinking nectar; as part of the food chain in the form of caterpillars which feed wild birds and even wasps; as an indicator species to signal the health of an environment as well as inspiring people to take an interest in the natural world. There’s a huge amount to learn about these fascinating creatures. For example that butterflies detect smell through their antennae which means that in polluted areas their numbers can be reduced because it’s harder for them to detect sources of food. It’s a blessing that places like Pensford Field and the surrounding gardens exist to support butterfly and moth populations, given the proximity of the Field to the South Circular Road.

Other key facts that Ruth shared with us: purple flowers attract butterflies; grow nasturtiums near brassicas as a sacrificial plant to prevent large and small white butterflies from feeding on the crop; stinging nettles are a vital food source for tortoiseshell caterpillars; always site a wilder area of the garden in a sunny spot; treat brambles as a beneficial plant because they provide shelter when other habitats are not available, perhaps during droughts; when you see two butterflies ‘dancing’ in the air, they might be mating or two males fighting! Species with darker wings such as the ringlet which has charcoal coloured wings are more tolerant of shade and can be found in woodland.

Ruth’s talk coincided with the Big Butterfly Count which runs until this Sunday 6 August. I sat in the sun in my garden at the weekend and spied a day flying moth (the Jersey tiger), a holly blue and what I think was a large white.

Although I did no gardening whilst my niece and three great nephews stayed last week, we did spend time in the garden when the weather improved mid week and I introduced the two older boys (aged 7 and 9) to ‘sun printing’. Earlier this year I attended a day course on cyanotype printing at London’s City Lit in March which I reported upon in a blog post. We collected some fallen leaves during a visit to Kew Gardens earlier in their visit and I had been collecting and drying some flowers and fern fronds for a few months in anticipation of their visit. The boys enjoyed the whole process starts with treating the paper with the light sensitive chemicals, drying it the paper with the hairdrier then carefully placing their finds onto the paper. They got really excited when they saw the change in colour of the background of the images once they were exposed to the sun. We dried the washed images on the clothes line and all agreed they weren’t bad for beginners!

Kew Gardens, 3 August 2023

Sculptures and Serpents


In the garden at Chatsworth House: Part 2

Since visiting Chatsworth almost five weeks ago I have discovered the Channel 4 documentary Chatsworth House: A Great British Year. I’m glad not to have come across it before as it’s fun to see the house and garden again and learn how such a vast enterprise works. The kitchen garden featured in one of the shows and like everything at Chatsworth it is beautifully designed and cultivated. Even at the end of November when most of the crops had been harvested, there was plenty to see and interesting details to examine.

The kitchen garden occupies a sloping west-facing site of about three acres. A relatively new addition to the gardens, it was created in the early 1990s. As in the wider garden, water has been channelled from parkland behind the garden to feed rills and ponds. I was interested to see tulips being planted in handsome terracotta pots, tucked into a nook beside the cold frames. The lower boundary of the garden is formed by a tightly clipped beech hedge. Large golden stalks adorn a trio of metal frames fashioned into apples and a pear, each housing a yew shrub which in the years to come will fill out the frames to form topiary fruits at the entrance of the garden. Rhubarb forcers from Whichford Pottery in Warwickshire stand to attention like terracotta warriors. A couple of stone plaques caught my eye: a quirky mission statement for creativity from dress designer Paul Smith and a heart-shaped memorial to the late Duchess Deborah. Straight rows of chard and brassicas appear to radiate from the corner of the large plots in which they are planted.

Unmistakeable for their charred finish, David Nash’s sculptures look entirely at home in the Arboretum which occupies the upper slopes of the gardens. The gardens are separated from the surrounding parkland by a ha-ha, the eighteenth century innovation which enables a garden to blend seamlessly with the landscape beyond. Here the ha-ha is a stone retaining wall. I noticed that a meshwork fence has also been fitted near the top of the wall, presumably to deter deer from entering the garden and munching the rare specimen trees. On the subject of dry stone walling, an installation called ‘Emergence’ demonstrates the evolution of this ancient craft, fundamental to the rural landscape of not only Derbyshire but so many other areas of the country. It contains one giant rock, a reference to the practice of using naturally occurring boulders in field walls. The transition from the older random style of limestone dry stone walling to the more modern sandstone wall of shaped stones is marked by a giant pane of glass. The interpretation panel informed me that the glass also represents Joseph Paxton’s pioneering work on the Great Stove at Chatsworth which led to him designing the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition in 1851. Giant redwoods tower above the other conifers in the Pinetum, an echo for me of the area of Kew Gardens devoted to these majestic trees.

More nineteenth century technology features in much of the seating around the gardens at Chatsworth. Cast iron benches with a plant inspired designs are placed around the remains of the Great Stove and in the terrace beside the 3rd Duke’s greenhouse. I found nasturtiums, passionflowers and lilies of the valley, as well as a design showing gardeners sowing, raking, harvesting and scything.

The Serpentine Hedge separates the Maze from the woodland area beside the Canal Pond. A double row of symmetrically planted beech which curves in and out, this dates from 1953 and was inspired by the ‘crinkle-crankle’ walls found in many old gardens, the alternating concave and convex planes providing stability. Seeing the north face of the house reflected in the Canal Pond, the Emperor Fountain rising skywards in the centre, has to be one of my highlights of 2021. This end of the garden also contains more remarkable sculpture: a horse’s head by Nic Fiddian-Green

and Allen Jones’s Dejeuner sur L’Herbe, a 3D take on Edouard Manet’s famous painting. If asked to name a favourite work from the garden, I would choose Cornwall Slate Line by land artist Richard Long, which runs parallel with the Canal Pond. Not far away Dame Elisabeth Frink’s Walking Madonna strides through a grove of trees.

The family’s dogs appear in several sculptures nearer the house, faithful hounds keeping watch or assembling on the steps leading to the north front with its Ionic capitalised pilasters and windows framed in gold leaf. A frieze above the windows features coiled serpents, part of the Cavendish family crest. This motif is picked out in a pebble mosaic on the terrace near the 3rd Duke’s greenhouse, reminding me of the two dachshunds, Canna and Dahlia, immortalised in similar fashion in the Walled Garden at Great Dixter.

Classical statuary also abounds in the gardens, reminding me that this place has been a treasure house of art for many centuries. More mundane perhaps, but elegant in its own way, is the weather station on the Salisbury Lawns near the Broad Walk where temperature, rainfall and hours of sunshine are recorded and reported to the Met Office.

I shall leave you here with a final image from my memorable visit to Chatsworth, Flora’s Temple decorated for Christmas.

Well, not quite the last image. The finger post pointing the way to Chatsworth marked my exit in the early evening dark from the park into the village of Baslow where I was staying. It’s also inviting me back one spring or summer to explore further and to see Dan Pearson’s Trout Stream planting and Tom Stuart-Smith’s Arcadia in their full glory.

Kew, 29 December 2021

World Class

The World Garden at Lullingstone Castle

We humans like sorting things into categories: even when doing the laundry and the washing up. We separate socks from T-shirts and put knives, forks & spoons into the correct compartments of the cutlery drawer. I guess it’s our way of exerting some control in what sometimes feels like a chaotic world. Horticulture and botany excel in sorting. Botanists classify plants into families, genuses (genii?) and species. Gardeners divide them into trees, shrubs, herbaceous perennials, biennials and annuals, with sub-categories for plants thriving in particular soils or in certain aspects: sunny or shaded, dry or boggy. I could go on ad infinitum: herbs, grasses, succulents…..

Nowhere is the horticultural imperative to sort plants into categories more manifest than in a botanical garden. Traditionally these consist of sometimes dozens of rectangular order beds where plants of a particular family or genus are massed together forming a living textbook for study by professional and amateurs alike. I’m thinking here of the botanical gardens in Edinburgh, Oxford, Cambridge and the Chelsea Physic Garden. And, until a few years ago, The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. The Order Beds in the northern section of the Gardens were replaced in 2019 by the Agius Evolution Garden, where those rectangles were transformed into sinuous curved ‘rooms’ containing plants of species and families linked by evolutionary connections revealed by DNA research.

On 14 September this year I went with other members of the Garden Media Guild to a botanical garden in Kent created less than 25 years ago, where a map of the world informs the horticultural sorting. This is the World Garden at Lullingstone Garden near Eynsford in Kent, the creation of plant explorer Tom Hart Dyke within an existing one acre walled garden* and one acre of polytunnels. A world map is set into the walled garden, the continents containing ‘phyto-geographically’ categorised species, the borders against each perimeter wall housing hybrids and cultivars. Tom was our hugely enthusiastic guide around this unique garden, generously spending the morning with us and regaling us with fascinating facts about the many rare species featured in the garden.

This is a remarkable garden for many reasons. It’s been made with a small budget, 92% of the plant material having been donated, often raised from cuttings and small plants. The ‘continents’ are landscaped with rocks from the British Isles, but chosen because their geology mirrors that of the continent featured. Where appropriate, Lullingstone’s flinty alkaline soil has been replaced with acidic soil sourced from glacial deposits near Wisley in Surrey.

But perhaps the most remarkable fact about the World Garden is that when Tom had the idea for it he didn’t know if he would live to see his beloved Lullingstone Castle again let alone make the garden of his dreams there. In 2000, whilst on a orchid hunting trip to Central America, he and fellow adventurer Paul Winder were kidnapped and imprisoned by guerillas when crossing the notorious Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia. Tom made very light of his ordeal in the introduction to his tour, but I’ve been reading The Cloud Garden (2003), his and Paul’s account of their 9 month captivity, which reveals the desperately dangerous and terrifying nature of their situation during that period.

After being kidnapped a day or so after beginning their 66 mile trek to the Colombian border, they were forced to move between several encampments, trekking many miles through the thickly forested mountain terrain. They often spent several weeks in each camp, some of which were located in the cloud forest where Tom found relief from the oppression of his circumstances when he found immensely rare orchids growing in profusion. Bizarrely his captors would occasionally allow him to wander from the camp to collect these epiphytic plants which he brought back to camp and displayed on a makeshift luggage rack he had fashioned out of cut branches. When the time came to decamp, he was forced to abandon his living collection of rare species which would have been the envy of many an orchid specialist.

Their captors changed leader several times during the nine months, as did the armed guards in the camps, some reappearing after a few weeks. Despite their protestations, the kidnappers believed that the pair came from wealthy families able to afford million dollar ransoms for their release. Or that they were CIA operatives intent on foiling the exploits of the drug cartels operating in the area. Between gruelling interrogations, Tom and Paul found solace in playing draughts with pieces hand carved by Paul or teaching the guards to sing ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’! Their good humour and resilience saw them through dark times of illness induced by poor food and parasites, as well as the terrifying uncertainty of their circumstances.

The pair were held from February until being freed shortly before Christmas 2000, having endured many months of deprivation. They never established for certain who their captors were, though they were thought to be guerrillas belonging to FARC, the anti-government armed militia with whom the Colombian government reached a peace deal in 2016. Tom has written about the building of the World Garden and his plant-hunting exploits in An Englishman’s Home: Adventures of an Eccentric Gardener (2007).

Starting his tour near the crenellated gatehouse built in 1493, Tom introduced us to the rare conifers planted between the house itself and the walled garden. I think this photograph captures something of his infectious enthusiasm for the plants in his care. In all there are 450 different species of tree at Lullingstone.

A series of island beds, approximately 3m across, planted with about 500 dahlia cultivars, draw the visitor towards the moon gated entrance to the World Garden.

Our first stop in the World Garden was Asia where we saw species from across the continent, before moving to Australia to admire a Eucalyptus volcanica, one of the specimens which make up the National Collection of Eucalyptus of which Tom is the registered curator. Mexican plants, including a tree Dahlia from the cloud forest region, enjoy a south-facing aspect. Protection against winter cold takes the form of a polytunnel about 18 metres long and over a metre wide.

I was fascinated by the use of a coal mulch on the South American bed to protect many tender plants from slugs and snails. I’ve not come across this material being used in this way before.

Pots of aeoniums are embedded into soil and dug up and protected under cover during the winter. The south-facing border provides the right place for numerous salvias, Helianthus, and South American Dahlias such as species Dahlia Dahlia merkii.

I am now going to let the photographs do the talking. Sadly I didn’t photograph all the plant names so a few of the plants featured are unidentifiable.

The anti-burglar plant Colletia histrix, also hails from South America.

The following images of a Begonia, Pelargonium and spectacular cacti were taken in the polytunnels.

Tom and his small team run a nursery shop stocked with plants raised at Lullingstone. A beautiful garden in its own right, few of us could resist the temptation of buying a souvenir of a memorable visit to this unique place. I treated myself to a pretty light purple Salvia Lavender Dilly Dilly, destined for new resilient planting in the front garden, a project I plan to progress and document here in the coming months. Also a green tinged Aeonium Velour, now getting VIP over-wintering treatment on the shelf in the spare bedroom. I feel a responsibility to nurture these two plants, given that Tom mentioned them both when signing my copy of his book!

How much the poorer the horticultural world would be had the kidnappers not freed their prisoners 23 years ago. Tom Hart Dyke’s vision of a garden encompassing unique specimens from across the globe would never have seen the light of day, a garden which has put Lullingstone Castle well and truly on the map for all plant lovers.

Kew Gardens, 3 December 2023

*The walled garden was formerly home to the white mulberry bushes (Morus alba) for the Lullingstone Silk Farm set up by Tom’s grandmother Lady Zoe Hart Dyke. Silk produced by the farm was used for the late Queen’s wedding dress in 1947 and her coronation dress in 1953. I love the fact that until the operation of the farm moved to Hertfordshire in 1956, hundreds of thousands of silkworms were bred in 30 rooms in the house where they grazed on the leaves of the mulberries.

Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival 2023

5 July 2023

The designers of the show gardens in this year’s festival successfully conveyed the message that we gardeners cannot ignore the fact that our climate is becoming dryer and hotter. We need to put sustainability into practice by making our outside spaces resilient to such changes. Alongside this, and often as a consequence of gardening in this manner, we can attract and sustain the wildlife which would otherwise fall prey to climate change, pollution, the indiscriminate use of pesticides and the mania for covering our domestic open spaces with artificial grass or impermeable hard landscaping.

Tom Massey’s RHS Resilient Garden contained clever solutions to some of these threats. In the sunny front garden area, freshly dug gravel was replaced with recycled aggregate made from construction waste. ‘Rubblazzo’ paving made with such waste also featured. Rather than excess water produced by heavy rain storms overwhelming the sewage system, run-off was reduced by gathering the water into a wide shallow pool spanned by a boardwalk constructed from reclaimed timer. Day lilies, Agapanthus and (I think) Origanum vulgare contributed to a predominantly yellow, blue and mauve colour palette. To coincide with the unveiling of this inspirational garden, Tom Massey has penned a book for the RHS, Resilient Garden: Sustainable Gardening for a Changing Climate.

Unlike the Chelsea Flower Show where only invited guests get to step onto the show gardens, many of the Hampton Court gardens encouraged you to walk through them, a far more immersive experience than standing behind a rope and craning your neck to see the furthermost corners of the exhibit. The path in the RHS Wildlife Garden designed by Jo Thompson and Kate Bradbury replicated an old railway track with disused industrial land on one side (suggested by rusting machinery) and the rear portions of urban gardens on the other. If proof were needed that the clever planting in this garden was specifically designed to attract pollinators, the flowers of purple orchids and bergamot (Monarda didyma) were being mobbed by small skipper butterflies. The planting scheme included the native hawthorn, Crataegus monogyna, often cited as one of the best species for providing a food source for wildlife: nectar rich flowers in spring for invertebrates and juicy berries in the autumn for birds.

The winding path in Carol Klein’s RHS Iconic Horticultural Hero Garden passed six habitats: a bog garden representing wetlands, a small wood planted with beech trees, a native species rich hedgerow, a meadow blending grass and perennials, a rocky mountainside area for alpine species which merged into a shingly beach. The variety of species and cultivars used throughout was hugely impressive, as you’d expect from an expert plantswoman like Carol Klein, exemplified by these purple, mauve and silver shades in differing flower forms creating an exquisite painterly effect. There was even a vegetable patch and a greenhouse in which Carol could be seen sharing propagation technique tips with visitors. The plants used in the gravelly seaside garden were raised for the show by Beth Chatto’s Plants and Gardens. I loved the blend of mauves and deep pinks of Verbena officinalis var. grandiflora ‘Bampton’ and Allium sphaerocephalon punctuated occasionally with pops of yellow and flowing Stipa tenuissima.

A restful pool sat at the heart of the Cancer Research UK Legacy Garden designed by Paul Hervey-Brookes. Looking at the photographs now, it is hard to imagine that a month earlier this tranquil space would have been a construction site. The willows and hostas sprouting between the massive rocks edging the pool gave the garden an air of permanence and screened visitors onto the garden from the show hubbub a few metres away.

I enjoyed the theatricality of the Oregon Garden, where a mini vineyard sat alongside a colourful meadow bordering a miniature lake. White corncockle (Agrostemma githago) shone out alongside pink and yellow Achillea, the overall palette deepened by burgundy Hylotelephium (formerly Sedum).

The key components for attracting and protecting wildlife (food, water and shelter) could be seen in a couple of the smaller show gardens. In the Nurturing Nature in the City garden by Viriditas, the walls created from stone-filled gabions would provide ideal homes for solitary bumble-bees as well as cover for small mammals. Ponds in rectangular boxes made from scaffolding boards made habitats for amphibians and invertebrates and drought tolerant and nectar rich flowers such as Achillea and Salvia nemorosa Caradonna were attractive for bees and butterflies. I liked the free-standing vertical garden idea where climbers like honeysuckle (a favourite for night-flying insects like moths) were being encouraged to grow up railway sleepers and along strainer wire fitted between the sleepers.

More wildlife friendly and sustainable ideas were included in The Wildlife Trusts: Renters’ Retreat designed by Zoe Claymore. This was full of clever solutions for making a garden which might have to be packed up and moved to a new space: a mini-pond in a pot; steel raised beds that can be dismantled and moved elsewhere, a tree planted in a container. The densely planted ferns and Lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis) supplied cover for insects and small mammals whilst bees and hoverflies would be drawn to the nectar in the foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea).

Hedges make wonderful habitats for wildlife. The Traditional Townhouse Garden designed by Lucy Taylor Garden Design was surrounded by copper beech hedging, with the burgundy colour scheme repeated in the bark of Tibetan cherry trees planted into huge pale green containers, underplanted with Lady’s mantle. Oversized chairs of green metal picked up the colour of the containers. A shallow circular pond accessible for amphibians was set within a sedum filled square. A ‘black’ and white planting scheme framed a large bronze apple: the bright white of Gaura lindheimeri ‘Snowbird’ contrasting with the dark petals of Viola cornuta ‘Molly Sanderson’ and Cosmos atrosanguineus.

I believe I am right in saying that ever since the first RHS Hampton Court 30 years ago, rose growers have exhibited in their own marquee, rather than the enormously long Floral Marquee. This makes for a wonderfully concentrated experience of exquisite flowers and fragrance.

There are another two ways in which Hampton Court contrasts with Chelsea: dogs on leads are permitted and you can buy plants at the show as well as all manner of horticultural accoutrements. Many visitors arrive armed with plastic crate trolleys to accommodate their purchases. I bought a beautiful purple flowered Streptocarpus from Dibbeys of North Wales for a friend’s birthday. It was lovely to chat with Lincolnshire Pond plants who were awarded a gold medal for their display (as they had been in May at Chelsea). In an effort to minimise blanket weed in my pond, I bought oxygenator water shamrock (Marsilea quadrifolia) which I was interested to learn is an underwater fern. I also stocked up on allium bulbs to plant in the autumn from WS Warmenhoven: more Purple Sensation to bulk up those already in the garden. Their display of numerous cultivars arranged against a black background was stunning. Having reviewed my photos, I’m now wishing I had also bought Allium sphaerocephalon which also popped up in several of the show gardens.

This brief account of the day inevitably cannot do justice to a fantastic show which I so enjoyed returning to after an absence of several years. I’ll leave you with a few more images from the day.

Kew Gardens, 22 July 2023

These Walls Have Years

Luton Hoo Walled Garden

In some gardens a sundial helps you to tell the time. At Luton Hoo Walled Garden the walls themselves ARE the timepiece. The octagonal walls enclosing this 4.83 acre space were aligned to capture the maximum amount of sunlight to aid the production of peaches and other tender fruits.

…some walls face the direction of sunrise and sunset at the spring and autumn equinoxes and at the midsummer and midwinter solstices, maximising the sunlight on the walls

Short History of the Luton Hoo Estate 2022

The Walled Garden was commissioned by John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute shortly after he bought the 300 acre Luton Hoo estate on the Hertfordshire/Bedfordshire border in 1763. Having engaged Robert Adam, the eminent architect of the time, to redesign the older mansion, he selected landscape architect Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, to reshape the park land surrounding it in the fashionable English landscape style with which Brown had made his name. As part of his vision for the estate, Capability Brown chose a 10 acre site on the highest part of the land, sheltered on two sides by woodland, on which to build a garden to supply the big house with vegetables and fruit as well as raising flowers with which to decorate the mansion. Within the 10 acre site, a 4.83 acre octagonal enclosure was built surrounded by high brick walls.

In the following decade Bute built a conservatory within the octagon for the rare species of plants he had collected throughout his life, including during his time advising George III’s parents Frederick and Augusta, Prince and Princess of Wales, on the development of a botanic garden in Kew. He also had a catalogue compiled in 1777 of the plants grown on the estate which has been consulted when selecting some of the plants now grown in the Walled Garden. That conservatory was dismantled by Lord Bute’s eldest son, and when the estate was sold to Mr John Shaw Leigh in 1847 he built a new conservatory and boiler house. Leigh also revitalised the garden by installing a new drainage system and underground water storage tanks. The area outside the walls is known as the ‘slips’ where a fine double fronted house was built for the head gardener together with glasshouses. The garden became a showcase of horticultural excellence, producing thousands of bedding plants every year for the formally laid out beds and fruit trees trained into extravagant designs. A vinery housed several grape varieties and out of season carnations were grown in heated glasshouses as well as orchids.

The birth of the Edwardian era brought another change in ownership with Sir Julius and Lady Alice Wernher buying Luton Hoo in 1903. The old conservatory was demolished along with the north-west wall (the eighth wall of the octagon) and a huge range of glasshouses (229 feet long) was commissioned from Edinburgh firm, Mackenzie and Moncur, with a fernery at its centre topped by an elaborate glass cupola, and six smaller houses. More propagation houses were built by Foster and Pearson and 54 gardeners were employed under the leadsership of head gardener Arthur Metcalfe who worked at Luton Hoo until 1934. During the 2WW the Women’s Land Army trained in the Walled Garden. After the war, areas of the garden ceased to be cultivated, and the glasshouses became increasingly expensive to heat and maintain. Part of the garden was used to rear pheasants and a garden centre was established in the northern section of the garden, which operated until 1977, after which the Walled Garden remained unused as a productive area until the first decade of the millennium.

After a research project was instigated to investigate the viability of reviving the garden and opening it to the public, since 2006 the energy and enthusiasm of a loyal cohort of volunteers (now numbering approximately 120) has been harnessed to carry out building conservation work and make a garden which is both decorative and productive. A team of research volunteers continues to uncover the stories behind the garden and the people employed there over the centuries. Thanks to the volunteers, the Walled Garden is one again a cared-for space, accommodating numerous beds and borders producing fruit and vegetables and an array of herbaceous perennials, annuals and shrubs.

The ‘service’ areas beyond the walls, have been sympathetically restored as a unique record of life working in a grand garden at the turn of the C19 into the C20.

At this stage of the conservation project the Edwardian glasshouses remains unglazed, but the framework of the range remains intact and the houses have been made safe to explore. All possible original features have been preserved such as winding mechanisms, ironmongery for opening and closing air vents and decorative grille work on the flooring above the hot water pipes. Whilst it would be wonderful to see the glasshouses restored to their former glory, there is something eerily beautiful about the skeletal forms which dominate the northern side of the garden, facing out to the southern sky to harness as much sunlight as possible as they once did for the generations which have gone before.

I visited Luton Hoo Walled Garden on 7 June, coinciding with one of their Open Wednesdays and joined a guided tour of the garden. Here I learnt that the gardeners referred to early colour photographs of the garden, known as ‘autochromes’, when reinstating the layout of the garden. But whilst honouring the long history of a garden on this site, this garden is not being frozen in time as an example of Edwardian extravagance. The estate owners and volunteers are ensuring that this unique garden can be enjoyed by everyone now and into the future. They are working with SENSE college in Luton to involve young adults with complex disabilities in growing things as well as other outreach projects with the wider community.

The botanical legacy of John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, is evidenced in the names of several plants. Sadly, like my own handsome regal Pelargonium Lord Bute, those being propagated for sale in the garden’s produce shop suffered despite being protected from last winter’s freezing temperatures. But a week or so after my visit, during my Friday morning stint at Osterley Park and House, head gardener Andy Eddy led us over to the American Border to see the ‘silky camellia’ in flower: Stewartia malecodendron, named for the botanist and aristocrat (and erstwhile Prime Minister!) whose Luton Hoo Walled Garden is going from strength to strength.

4 July 2023

Kew, Surrey

Tales of the Riverbanks

  1. Chiswick Mall and 7 Hammersmith Terrace

When I was aged around eight and nine, we spent two summer holidays in the south Cornwall town of Fowey, staying in a block of holiday flats with a balcony overlooking the Fowey River. There was constant activity on the river: tankers laden with china clay heading out to sea and deep sea fishing boats coming in the opposite direction, as well as the foot ferry plying back and forth to Polruan on the opposite bank of the river. Here is my grandmother, Annie Austin (née O’Leary), known to her family as Nano and to my sister and myself as Granny Austin, photographed in about 1967, enjoying the view from the balcony.

There was a garden attached to the flats. I say attached, in fact it was across the road which led from the centre of town to the small cove called Readymoney Beach where we played and paddled most days. I can remember thinking it was a huge novelty to be separated from your garden by a road.

I was reminded of this configuration of dwelling and garden when I walked along Chiswick Mall recently. The houses and blocks of flats are to the north of the street, their riverside gardens to the south. One gets tantalising glimpses of the gardens, through gateways and railings, enough to reveal an orchard style garden with beehives, another brimming with roses. Beyond clumps of poppies and Amsonia the River Thames flows swiftly, the south bank of the river obscured from view by the wooded Chiswick Eyot, giving the impression of a rather more rural setting than is in fact the case. Sadly I missed the annual opening of some of these gardens for the National Gardens Scheme last weekend.

I was in that part of town a week earlier, walking west towards Barnes Bridge beyond Dukes Meadows, having visited Emery Walker’s House at 7 Hammersmith Terrace. Sometimes called the most authentic Arts and Crafts home in Britain, the Georgian terraced house remains as decorated by Walker, using wallpaper and textiles made by his friend William Morris’s firm, Morris & Co. The blue plaque on the plain frontage of the property describes Emery Walker (1851-1933) as a ‘typographer and antiquary’, to which occupations can be added printer, engraver and photographer. William Morris lived nearby at Kelmscott House (now home to The William Morris Society). The interior’s preservation is due to the efforts of Walker’s daughter Dorothy (1878-1963) and her companion Elizabeth de Haas (1918-99). Elizabeth de Haas left the house and its contents to a charity she created, The Emery Walker Trust, thanks to whom the house is opened for guided tours.

Walker set up the Doves Press at 1 Hammersmith Terrace in 1900 where with his partner TJ Cobden-Sanderson he created an elegant typeface, Doves Type, based on a C15 Venetian type. Our excellent guide on the tour of the house told us the extraordinary story of a falling out between the partners, leading to Cobden-Sanderson’s throwing almost a ton of metal type into the Thames from nearby Hammersmith Bridge over the course of several nights in 1916. Almost 100 years later graphic artist Robert Green recovered three pieces of type from the foreshore and 147 more were found by professional divers. Using these and the books published by the Doves Press using the type, Green recreated the Doves Type font after three years’ painstaking work.

I was particularly interested in the house’s link with printing as my maternal great grandfather Edward ‘Ned’ O’Leary (father of my grandmother pictured above) was a printer for Easons in Dublin in the early C20.

Unlike Chiswick Mall, the Hammersmith Terrace gardens adjoin the houses. That at No.7 is maintained by a team of volunteers and is accessed through a conservatory at raised ground floor level, from which steps lead down to the garden. The old grapevine growing in the conservatory is said to have been taken from a cutting from William Hogarth’s house in Chiswick. The garden is laid out in a series of straight terracotta lined paths around quite narrow flower beds. A raised walkway which once separated the properties on Hammersmith Terrace from the river, now forms a terrace at the rear of the garden. The guidebook reports that Dorothy Walker was an ‘enthusiastic gardener’ and kept a notebook recording her planting. I’ve seen a reference to a plant having been named after Dorothy but have been unable to trace what this might have been. The garden is certainly awash with roses so perhaps there’s a Dorothy Walker rose? Amidst the roses are cottagey style perennials such as a maroon and white Centaurea montana.

Of course William Morris’s wallpaper and textile designs were invariably based on flowers and animals, and it was such a treat to see so much of it at 7 Hammersmith Terrace. For example the woollen hangings in the dining room feature Morris’s ‘Bird’ design, reproduced on the cover of the house’s guidebook. There are many tapestries and embroideries on display, several of them worked by May Morris, William’s daughter. The finale of our tour was the guide revealing what lay beneath a plain sheet over the bed in the main bedroom: a woollen bedcover embroidered by May Morris with daisies, poppies, forget-me-nots and daffodils.

2. St Just in Roseland Church and Gardens

When I was in Cornwall in April, I explored another waterside garden: at St Just in Roseland Church. Located beside the Fal River, a couple of miles south of the King Harry Ferry which I talked about in my post about NT Trelissick Gardens, the square-towered church sits close to the water’s edge at the foot of a sloping site which is both churchyard and sub-tropical garden. As well as the sombre yew trees you’d expect to see in a churchyard, here are palm trees and tall pines as well as a grove of Gunnera manicata. I was lucky enough to see the loose, fragrant clusters of starry flowers of the tree commonly called winter’s bark, Drimys winteri. This tree, which originates from Chile and Argentina, is a clue to the unusual history of the garden surrounding the C13 church.

In 1897, after many years living in Australia where he built a nursery business and designed parks and gardens, John Garland Treseder returned to his native Cornwall and established a nursery for sub-tropical plants on a site adjoining the original churchyard of St Just in Roseland. He imported many Australasian plants, including the tree fern, Dicksonia Antarctica, Cordyline, Phormium and Eucalyptus. After the 2WW the church took over the nursery land as a burial ground. Thanks to a restoration project in 1984, the horticultural heritage of the site was secured with paths laid through the planting to enable visitors to enjoy the rare species.

A short walk around the creek, past a covered spring built by JG Treseder, leads away from the sub-tropical plants towards a winding wooded path lined with native wild flowers and ferns. I identified red campion, bluebells, wild garlic, lords-and-ladies, navelwort, dead nettle and hart’s tongue fern. Through the trees, which had yet to come into full leaf, I could just spy the granite church in its exotic setting. The church’s website refers to the writer HV Morton having fallen under the spell of St Just in Roseland in the 1920s when he met a clergyman tending the garden. An account of his impressions of the place and this encounter appear in ‘In Search of England’ published in 1927.

I have blundered into a Garden of Eden that cannot be described in pen or paint. There is a degree of beauty that flies so high that no net of words or no snare of colour can hope to capture it, and of this order is the beauty of St Just in Roseland…. I would like to know if there is in the whole of England a churchyard more beautiful than this.’

3. 65-73 Kew Green

I shall round off my post about the riverside gardens I’ve seen these last few months with a mention of the five wonderful Kew Green gardens which open for two Sundays each May under the National Gardens Scheme. I returned one evening about three weeks ago, having enjoyed seeing them so much last year. They didn’t disappoint, and you can read my impressions of them in a post I wrote in 2022, From River to Green.

In my next blog post, I’ll take you to Luton Hoo Walled Garden in Bedfordshire.

Kew, Surrey 17 June 2023

Ramster Gardens

Sculptures lend themselves to display in gardens. The play of light and shadows cast by trees and shrubs brings them to life. A sculpture can be viewed from all angles and if sympathetically positioned, enhances the space in which it stands. I was fortunate to witness just such effects when I was invited to the final day of the Surrey Sculpture Society exhibition last Monday at Ramster Garden, Chiddingfold, Surrey. The exhibition featured 93 mainly figurative works in a beautiful woodland garden setting.

Ramster Garden is in the The Weald, the area between the chalk escarpments of the North Downs and the South Downs, from Hampshire in the west to Kent in the east. The garden’s acid to neutral Wealden clay soil with pockets of sand, provides the perfect conditions for growing rhododendrons and azaleas. The garden was originally created out of native oak woodland in 1890 and added to from 1922 by the great grandparents of the current owners. The sloping site and rich collection of acid-loving plants reminded me of the grounds of Caerhays Castle in south Cornwall which I visited in April.

Unlike that visit, when it drizzled ceaselessly all afternoon, the weather on Monday was perfect: bright sunshine and a gentle breeze. Our route took us past the formality of the Tennis Court Garden along Acer Avenue to a path around the western perimeter of the garden into the Valley of the Giants. Here there are magnificent specimen trees including redwoods. Before the descent into the valley, there are broad swathes of meadowland awash with oxeye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare), meadow buttercups (Ranunculus acris) and wild orchids: possibly purple orchids (Orchis mascula), but I shall have to ask an expert to verify that. Set amidst the meadowland I spotted a graceful Acer backed by a huge white Rhododendron and unusual shrubs such as Japanese snowball (Viburnum plicatum Grandiflorum).

The nursery which supplied many of the trees and shrubs when the garden was first laid out, Gauntletts of Chiddingfold, specialised in Japanese ornamentation as well as plants, and this Japanese influence can be seen in ornamention around the garden, including a striking red bridge. The perimeter path eventually led us to The Bog Garden and a stand of Gunnera manicata, another reminder of my recent Cornish trip. The route of a rill flowing from Ant Wood was traceable upstream by a brightly coloured ribbon of candelabra primulas. As well as a collection of hybrid rhododendrons, I noticed in Ant Wood a pretty tree dripping in scarlet, the ‘keys’ of a snake bark maple cultivar, Acer davidii Serpentine, sometimes called Père David’s maple. Père David (1826-1900) was a French zoologist, botanist and missionary in China after whom several species have been named (see below).

To mark the centenary of the current owners’ family’s association with Ramster Garden, a new garden was laid out in 2022, the beds radiating from a stone Japanese lantern. A carved wooden dragon fashioned into a bench stands guard. Nearby on Loderi Walk stands the Loders White rhododendron, festooned with large white flowers. This is one of the hybrid rhododendrons bred by Sir Edmund Loder in the early C20, at the Leonardslee estate in Horsham about 18 miles to the east of Ramster. I love to see the lower limbs of rhododendrons removed to highlight the sculptural form of the trunks and branches and I noticed this had been done in a number of places, making a perfect backdrop for a colourful pair of parrots. And the bare trunks of Rhododendron Cynthia are sculptural forms in their own right.

I noticed a couple of fine handkerchief trees displaying a profusion of fresh white bracts, a full month after I had seen them in Glendurgan in Cornwall: a demonstration of the mild climate enjoyed in the valley gardens of south Cornwall compared with the south east. This is another plant named for Père David, Davidia involucrata and is sometimes called the dove tree.

The placement of the sculptures along the main path through the centre of the garden was masterful, taking full advantage of the woodland surroundings. For example, a charming sculpture of Red Riding Hood.

I detected a few themes running through the sculpture exhibits: dance, animals, particularly cats both wild and domesticated, birds, horses (especially their heads) and humans with their dogs. Not falling into any of these categories were the graceful Flora, the quirky photographer ‘Watch the Birdie’ and Shelf Life. I’ve picked out a few of my favourites in the images which follow.

Ramster Garden is open until 2 July. I plan a return visit for the autumn colour when it re-opens from 16 September to 12 November. Thank you to Beth Meades of Limeflower PR for inviting me and a friend to Ramster and to Rosie Glaister of Ramster Hall and Gardens for welcoming us on Monday.

Kew, 1 June 2023

Chelsea Flower Show 2023

23 May 2023

For the last three years I’ve treated myself to a ticket to the Chelsea Flower Show. The long suffering friends I go with are primed for an early start and late finish so as to squeeze maximum value from the day. Having said that I always come away knowing I haven’t covered every single inch of the place but I really think you’d need to be there for three days to see everything.

Inevitably I bring back dozens of photographs and leaflets from most of the show gardens. The plant lists in the latter and the BBC’s comprehensive coverage help me to identify which garden is which when I sort through the images. I’ll try in this post to give an overview of my impressions of this year’s show and to pick out some of my highlights.

Sustainability was a recurring theme in the show gardens, with for example a reduced use of cement in concrete mixes and some walls constructed from hay bales. The grant-giving charitable fund Project Giving Back has financed the creation of 15 of the gardens at the show. It’s a proviso of a successful application for funding that the garden has a life beyond the show and this year several of the gardens are to be re-located to hospitals, community gardens and health support centres.

The importance of attracting wildlife to the garden was also apparent with several gardens featuring wild flowers or, as some would have it, weeds! It was refreshing to see bees already foraging amidst the many single petalled flowers in many of the planting schemes, despite show gardens having been planted only up to three weeks before the show.

It’s always intriguing to spot plants that recur from garden to garden. The umbellifer Orlaya grandiflora recurred several times as did the shrub or small tree Cornus kousa. Plus another white-flowered shrub which I couldn’t identify: it had Viburnum-like flowers but leaves resembling a flowering currant. Another white flower, sweet or dame’s rocket, featured too: Hesperis matronalis.

The RHS featured horticultural heroines in the Floral Marquee with portraits of women who have made their mark in the history of gardening: Gertrude Jekyll, Ellen Willmott, Vita Sackville-West and Beth Chatto; in conservation: Wangari Muta Maathai* in botany: Janaki Ammal and botanical artist and intrepid traveller Marianne North.

Dozens of inspirational growers exhibit in the huge marquee including the three biggest names in roses: Peter Beale, Harkness Roses and David Austin. I loved the delicate species rose Rosa cymosa with its tiny white flowers. Hedgehog Plants’ exquisite Epimediums were another highlight along with Taylors Bulbs’ daffodils and the peonies and irises on the Claire Austin stand.

The balcony gardens are a good source of inspiration for small-space and container gardening. I enjoyed the plant theatre and shelving for pots on the timber-shingled wall of The Restorative Balcony Garden plus the ingenious shallow water feature or ‘water table’. The gentle colours of the planting in this garden were very appealing as well: a soothing space after a busy day at work. Warmer shades were used in the containers in The Platform Garden, contrasting with the backdrop of green tiling.

I always have to stand inside the posh greenhouses on display in the retail areas and fantasise about having a garden large enough to accommodate one!

Finally part of the fun of Chelsea is seeing the crews filming segments for the extensive BBC coverage of the show and watch the presenters going through their paces, seemingly unperturbed by the crowds massing around the show gardens. And then to catch up with the programmes later in the week to see the show gardens from the inside out.

Kew, 27 May 2023

*When I worked in the visitor information team at Kew Gardens, the then Prince of Wales planted a tree in commemoration of Wangari Muta Maathai (1940-2011) on a small mound near the Elizabeth Gate. I shall have to take a look to remind myself of the species of tree.

Here are more of my photos from the show

Cleve West’s Centrepoint Garden. This is one of the gardens funded by Project Giving Back.

Horatio’s Garden designed by Charlotte Harris and Hugo Bugg. Another Project Giving Back garden, this will be re-located to a spinal injuries unit in Sheffield.

The Biophilic Garden designed by Kazayuki Ishihara. Wonderful moss.