Falling for hawthorn

It’s early October 2015 and we’re progressing in single file along a narrow ridge at the top of a steep wooded hillside. I’m with three colleagues from Kew and a Peak District National Park ranger. We each carry seed-collecting equipment, in my case a couple of plastic buckets filled with cotton drawstring bags and stringed labels. We pick our way cautiously, conscious of the steep drop to our right. I’m third in the line and concentrating hard to maintain my balance. Suddenly I pitch sideways and hurtle downhill. I can see my boots above my head! Somehow I curl myself into as compact a shape as my height allows and roll into the trunk of a large old tree, about a third of the way down the hill. Winded but unhurt I can see my companions looking anxiously down at me and one of them, Jason Irving (@ForageWildFood) is coming down the hill after me, using the pruning pole he’s carrying as a brake. I unravel myself and we clamber uphill to rejoin the expedition. Appropriately, we find out that evening that the area we had been walking through was known locally as The Fall!

Thus began the first afternoon of a collecting trip for Kew’s UK Native Tree Seed Project, a lottery-funded initiative to build a genetically comprehensive collection of the seeds of UK trees, to support research and conservation. The call had gone out earlier in the year for volunteers from across the organisation to join trips across the country. In July we had attended a training day at Wakehurst to practise using the equipment and to learn more about the species from which we would be collecting seed. We had spent the morning beside the River Manifold collecting rowan berries (Sorbus aucuparia), choosing at least ten trees growing in relatively close proximity, filling several cotton bags with the slightly sticky fruits. The target species we were aiming for that afternoon was native ash, Fraxinus excelsior, whose rustling bunches of ‘keys’ we clipped off using the parrot-headed pruning tool. At each site, in addition to recording the location of the collection using GPS and marking the trees from which we had taken seeds with a small metal disc gently hammered into the trunk, we collected the end of a small branch from one tree, including leaves and seedcases, from which a herbarium specimen sheet would be created. This involved sandwiching the sample of plant material between sheets of newspaper laid inside a wooden frame held together with webbing belts similar to yoga belts. As the week progressed the ‘press’ became fuller and heavier, a record of the various species collected.

On the subsequent days we harvested sloe (Prunus spinosa) in Lathkilldale, alder (Alnus glutinosa) in Topley Pike Wood and downy birch (Betula pubescens) in Yorkshire Bridge Wood. But one tree eluded us: the midland hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata). At each collecting site, our team leader, Dr Chris Cockel, cut open a haw from the several hawthorn trees we found, to check if it contained two seeds as opposed to the one seed found in common hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna). Although we found a couple of trees on one of the days, there were insufficient to constitute a population, making them unsuitable for the project.

Fast forward five years to yesterday. Planted a few feet from the boardwalk (a raised timber path created a few years ago to wind through the conservation area at the southern end of Kew Gardens) I see two saplings of the Glastonbury Thorn. Distinguished from common hawthorn by flowering twice a year, a sprig from the tree is sent to the monarch every year to be placed on the royal Christmas table. When the tree was vandalised a decade ago, cuttings were propagated in Kew’s Arboretum nursery overseen by Tony Kirkham, Head of the Arboretum. A young tree from one such cutting was planted in Glastonbury, on Wearyall Hill, in 2017.

Legend links the original Glastonbury Thorn, a type of C. monogyna, to Joseph of Arimathea, the wealthy man stated in John’s gospel to have arranged the burial of Jesus. Joseph is thought to have subsequently travelled to Britain, to Glastonbury. When he set his walking staff down, it is said to have miraculously taken root, growing into the tree that became known as the Glastonbury Thorn.

It seems that for a tree relatively modest in stature and appearance, there are many legends and customs associated with hawthorn. We are all familiar with the advice not to ‘cast a clout ’til may be out’. I adhere to the theory that the may referred to is the hawthorn blossom rather than the month of May. Given the high temperatures often experienced in May, I think we’d all expire with the heat if we clung to our winter woollies until 1st June.

Until I began reading about hawthorns for this post I ignorantly assumed that the blackthorn so often referred to in Irish folk tales was the same tree. It is another species altogether: sloe (Prunus spinosa) mentioned above. Like the hawthorn it bears five petalled white flowers in spring, but blackthorn flowers first, from March, and does so on bare wood. Both species are often found in ancient hedging and in fact both belong to the rose family (Rosaceae).

In autumn 2020 I contributed copy for a picture spread in the December issue of ‘Garden Answers’ magazine, ‘Decorate with Hips and Haws’. In the course of my research I discovered that waxwings, winter visitors to the UK, love red berries and particularly the fruit of the hawthorn, haws. According the the RSPB website, they will typically descend on hawthorn plants in supermarket carparks. Now that’s a sight that would cheer me up after a masked and hand-sanitised dash around my local Sainsbury’s!

I also found a recipe for hawthorn tea which I confess I haven’t yet tried but which is said to benefit the heart and circulation system. Using one teaspoon of berries per cup, pour boiling water over the berries and steep for 15 minutes before straining through a fine mesh and sweetening to test with honey and perhaps flavouring with a cinnamon stick.

When I take the shortcut across Osterley’s front lawn to reach the gardeners’ bothy every Friday, I pass two spreading hawthorn trees which bear strikingly large dark red fruits in autumn. These are Cockspur thorns (Crataegus crus-galli, literally a cock’s leg) and named, presumably, for their long curved thorns which can measure 3cm to 8cm. The species originates in the eastern USA. On bright autumn mornings I’m often late reporting for volunteer gardening duty because I’ve paused to admire and photograph these handsome trees!

Talking plants and gardens

Part 1

National lockdown in England has morphed into Tier 2 restrictions here in the London suburbs. During lockdown, because I work outside, I was fully occupied during in the daytime, tidying clients’ gardens, planting bulbs and creating winter themed containers. And thanks to a wealth of online talks and events I was busy in the evenings too, spending time in the virtual company of garden designers and plantsmen, touring a university botanic garden and a world famous garden in Kent and attending an awards ceremony celebrating the work of the garden media industry. Were it not for these webinars and films I doubt I’d have covered so much ground in such a short space of time. On a dreary late autumn evening I might have thought twice about venturing out to a Plant Heritage meeting in Cobham or a Garden Museum lecture in Lambeth and certainly not wearing my slippers and pyjama bottoms!

My horticulture vulture November began courtesy of the Garden Museum with a talk about gardens in the work of the painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) by his great nephew Richard Ormond. He described a career as a society portrait painter counterbalanced by summers spent painting in some of the great gardens of Europe: La Granja, outside Madrid; the Borghese Gardens in Rome; the Boboli Gardens in Florence. Many of these paintings featured Sargent’s favourite subjects of classical architecture, topiary, fountains and statuary.

Due weight was given to the atmospheric ‘Carnation Lily Lily Rose’ in which two young girls light Japanese lanterns at twilight amidst the flowers of the title. Although painted out of doors, the set-up we were told could hardly be described as spontaneous since the canvas was painted over the course of two seasons with the bought-in flowers being attached to wires.

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose 1885-6 John Singer Sargent

The myriad of slides we were treated to included sublime still-lives of roses and gentians as well as gourds and pomegranates growing in a garden in Mallorca.

Two evenings later I was transported to the walled environment of the Oxford Botanic Garden by the Surrey Plant Heritage Group. The speaker Timothy Walker retired in 2014 after 26 years as the gardens’s Horti Praefectus (director). Engaging and erudite, he crammed the 400 year history of the garden into an entertaining hour and a half, prefacing the talk with with a reading list and historical context for the creation of the garden from 1621. But this was no dry academic lecture. As both a botanist and (Kew-trained) horticulturist, he revealed the site’s wonderful 30 feet depth of topsoil and referenced specific trees in the garden, including a Pinus nigra planted in 1834 said to be JR Tolkein’s favourite tree. We learnt of the acquisition in 1946 of land outside the city of Oxford which became the Harcourt Arboretum, where the acid soil favours the cultivation of rhododendrons. Timothy Walker also shared family photographs showing his children happily posing atop the enormous leaves of the giant waterlily Victoria amazonica to demonstrate the plant’s strength and rigidity. What makes it all the more extraordinary is the fact that the plants are propagated annually in the Oxford Botanic Garden’s glasshouse.

Giant waterlilies photographed this summer in the Waterlily House in Kew Gardens

Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), the first unofficial director of Kew Gardens or ‘the Richmond allotments’ as Timothy Walker dubbed them, was the subject of the next talk I ‘attended’. The Gardens Trust hosted Professor Jordan Goodman of UCL describing the global botanical projects launched by Banks to source plants for George III at Kew. The first of these, in 1787, was the notorious voyage of The Bounty, with Captain Bligh at the helm. The objective of the expedition was to transport breadfruit plants from Tahiti to the West Indies, returning to London with exotic plants from both the Pacific and the Caribbean. Banks had first encountered breadfruit 20 years earlier when he joined Captain Cook’s voyage to the South Pacific Ocean. To facilitate the transportation of living plants, the ship’s cargo included over 1000 empty pots and there was a gardener on board whose job it was to look after the precious cargo. The captain relinquished his cabin to accomodate the breadfruit plants which were duly collected in Tahiti. What happened next has been dramatised in several movies. Led by Fletcher Christian, the ship’s company mutinied, the plants were thrown overboard and Bligh and 18 seamen loyal to him, including the gardener, were set adrift in an open launch. Bligh and his men eventually reached Timor. By 1790 Bligh had found his way back to London and he commanded the next expedition organised by Banks. The voyage of The Providence (which, with a greenhouse installed on the quarter deck, was described as a ‘floating garden’) was a great success, visiting Tahiti, St Vincent and Jamaica. It docked in Deptford in 1793 laden with more than 2000 plants destined for Kew. Even the final stage of the journey took place on water, when they were transported along the Thames by barge to Kew.

Use of the Thames to transport plants cropped up again in Andy Sturgeon’s lecture for the Kew Mutual Improvement Society to raise funds for the Kew Diploma students’ third year field trip to Spain. During ‘Making the Modern Garden’, the Chelsea Gold medal winning designer described a project for a garden on the banks of the river in Putney. Apparently there are only 93 houses in London whose gardens connect directly with the Thames and the materials for the hard landscaping and the plants for this design were delivered via the river. More than 200 years since Banks’ botanical expeditions and plants are still being transported by water! This lecture was both a reflection on a hugely successful career as a garden designer and an assessment of changing fashions in garden design during the three decades since Andy began creating gardens. In locations from London Docklands to Bermuda, via a gravel garden in Snowdonia, his gardens share a spaciously elegant quality and often feature a restricted colour palette. This isn’t to say that the colours are muted or dull, far from it, but he argues that it is unrestful to use too many colours. I was encouraged to note that in the list of plants which Andy favours for his designs: euphorbias, Mahonia ‘Soft Caress’, Nandina domestica, Bupleurum and Astelia, I have used them all in planting schemes for clients save Bupleurum.

Plant names came thick and fast in Irish plantsman Jimi Blake’s tour de force for the Hampshire branch of Plant Heritage. We learnt that he grew up at Hunting Brook near Blessington in County Wicklow, to which he returned to create a unique garden of contrasts after training at the National Botanic Garden in Glasnevin and a stint as a head gardener. Deep beds on the sunny slopes of this steep garden sport flowers as colourful as Jimi’s extensive collection of floral shirts. The site descends into a tranquil wooded gorge intersected by a stream running down from the Wicklow Mountains, where Jimi has created an understory of shade-loving plants. Jimi spoke with such infectious enthusiasm about his garden, his passion for so many different geniuses: snowdrops, species dahlias, kniphofias, salvias, geums, that I felt uplifted listening to him. He loves woodland and spring plants, the latter ‘so good for your mind’, giving a feeling that ‘momentum is mounting’. He prefers daffodils to tulips. He breaks rules and obtains great results, dividing plants in summer rather than in autumn and winter, for example a favourite of his, Lychnis ‘Hill Grounds’. He creates unusual plant combinations such as foxtail lilies with alliums. By pollarding non-tender plants like Populus glauca he achieves the exotic look of larger leaves without the tenderness. A hallmark of his planting design is the use of narrow-leaved woody plants like Pseudopanax linearis amongst flowering plants to introduce an element of exoticism. He’s fond of orange-flowered plants: Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’, Cosmos ‘Tango’, the cigar plant Cuphea ignea. He loves silver-leaved plants: Artemesia stelleriana ‘Boughton Silver’ provides good ground cover. He gardens organically. His dogs Doris and Billy appeared in a few photographs and he advised pet lovers to avoid planting Aconitum, Euphorbia and Heliotrope. Needless to say I’m already day-dreaming about going to Hunting Brook Gardens when we can travel freely once more and to Costa Rica where Jimi described seeing hillsides covered in dahlias. In the meantime I shall make do with putting Jimi Blake’s new book ‘A Beautiful Obsession: Jimi Blake’s World of Plants at Hunting Brook Gardens’* on my Christmas list!

In Part 2 of this account of lockdown lectures I’ll report upon a conversation between the author of a new book about Sissinghurst and the director of the Garden Museum and attending an awards ceremony dressed up from the ankles upwards.

*ISBN: 9781999734527

Two Men, One Rose

Born two decades apart, Harry Walker and Graham Stuart Thomas shared a passion for the flowering plant voted in a 2017 poll as the nation’s favourite, the rose. My quest to find out a little more about these horticultural heroes began a few months ago, between lockdowns, when a friend invited me to tea to see a collection of material about her maternal grandfather. 

A precious archive

Henry James Walker, known as Harry Walker, (1888 – 1960) was a professional rose grower whose business, Wiltshire Roses, was located in the Gloucestershire village of Ashton Keynes, near Cirencester. As well as a feature in The Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard dating from April 1954, the documents I was shown included immaculately preserved nursery catalogues dating from the 1940s and 1950s as well as National Rose Society publications.

Harry Walker with my friend’s mother (approx. 1935)
Harry Walker with my friend’s sister photographed in the Rose Gardens in Ashton Keynes (approx. 1957)

Born in Borneo, Harry Walker arrived in England in 1901 and at the age of 14 he went to work for a nursery in Cirencester, where he learnt the art of rose propagation. In 1931 he established his nursery on a two acre site known as The Rose Gardens. There Wiltshire Roses produced approximately 5000 roses a year, each one ‘budded’ by hand. This grafting process involves a bud from the variety to be propagated being inserted beneath the skin of the rootstock, usually Rosa canina, before being bound tightly to the parent with raffia. After a year’s growth, the resultant plants were ready for sale. In those pre-online days, many of the roses were posted to mail order customers, damp moss being wrapped around the roots before packing.

Mr Walker’s catalogues list rose varieties now sadly forgotten, their pre-decimal prices betraying their vintage, each succinct description conjuring an image of a gorgeous bloom. Who could fail to be tempted by Rosa ‘Grandmere Jermy’ (pale gold edged with rose: 5 shillings) or R. ‘Hector Dean’: (carmine and salmon pink, yellow at base of petal, fragrant: 4 shillings). But some, such as R. ‘Ophelia (flesh pink) and R. ‘Peace (yellow shaded pink at edge, a fine rose, large, vigorous) remain popular.

Interestingly, the climbing roses and ramblers seem less affected by the vagaries of fashion. Here I noted some of the classics, among them R. ‘Gloire de Dijon (buff yellow, rich scent), R. Mermaid’ (creamy yellow large single flowers, almost perpetual) and R. ‘Dorothy Perkins’ (clusters of beautiful pink flowers). 

By the time the newspaper article I mentioned was published, Mr Walker had been cultivating roses for more than 51 years and naturally had some advice to impart. He recommended the replacement of the top layer of soil beneath roses affected by black spot, after careful removal of affected leaves. Whilst he favoured clay soil as the best for rose growing, because of its moisture retaining qualities, the soil at his nursery was light and gravelly to which he applied ‘plenty of manure’. As well as growing roses at The Rose Gardens, Mr Walker was in demand to prune other people’s roses, describing pruning as ‘the surgical art of gardening’. 

At a time when the special relationship between the UK and US is as important as ever, and we avidly follow the news from across the Atlantic, I am reminded when studying the Wiltshire Roses catalogues that it was ever thus and the roses listed include several with American names and associations: 

  • R. ‘New Yorker’: large velvety scarlet
  • R. ‘President Hoover’: coppery orange blended gold and red, tall
  • R. ‘General MacArthur’: crimson
  • R. American Pillar’: pink with white eye. This rambling rose remains popular today and is listed on David Austin’s website.
Rosa ‘American Pillar’

Flowers and gardening styles, like clothing and interior decor, are subject to shifting trends. Rose gardens were in their heyday in the mid C20. Most gardens, small and large, contained at least one or two beds devoted to roses, often with nothing planted beneath. Somewhat featureless from October to March, such beds would burst into colourful life in the summer. At Meadowsweet, my parents’ first home, roses grew in a bed beside the back door and later a similar display was created in the garden of the house where I grew up. The bed was beside the garage and was edged with Polyanthus. It was a feature of the garden I came to know intimately, especially a thorny single flowered apricot rose bush into which I toppled several times whilst learning to ride a bike. When they retired to Petersfield in 1986, my parents planted roses in the south facing raised beds at the front of the house.

I was pleased to see that one of the two named varieties I remember, R. ‘Ena Harkness’ (bright crimson scarlet, excellent habit and growth) was listed in the Wiltshire Roses catalogue. This was my mother’s favourite rose and she loved to pick one or two flowers late into the autumn, to display and admire in a glass vase. The other rose I remember was R. ‘Uncle Walter’, named for Walter Gabriel, a character in The Archers. I cannot imagine a rose being named after one of the current cast of characters in this everyday story of farming folk (or ‘contemporary drama in a rural setting’ as the Archers website now styles it!). Somehow the Eddie Grundy rose doesn’t have the same nostalgic ring to it. 

Whilst the idea of writing a blog post about my friend’s rose-growing grandfather was marinating in my mind, the name of the second plantsman in my introduction kept cropping up in my reading. In The Garden Notebook*, Beth Chatto refers to Graham Stuart Thomas (1909 – 2003) as a great friend and correspondent. In the October 2020 edition of The Garden I read that he helped revive the gardens at the Indian inspired stately home Sezincote after the Second World War. I also knew him as the donor to Mottisfont of his collection of pre-1900 ‘old roses’, now the National Collection, for which he designed the area within the walled garden, blending roses with herbaceous perennials. Reaching their peak in early summer, the roses had long finished flowering when I visited Mottisfont this July, but the structure of the garden was impressive and whilst the roses had gone over, the clematis were thriving. 

To prepare for this article I bought a copy of Thomas’s ‘Shrub Roses of Today’, first published in 1962, one of a trilogy of classic books on roses, the others being ‘Old Shrub Roses’ and ‘Climbing Roses Old and New’. In his introduction, Graham Thomas notes how shrub roses and ramblers ‘act as a foil and complement in shape and form to the brilliant moderns’. So while Harry Taylor was propagating the ‘brilliant moderns’, Graham Thomas was engaged in collecting and documenting the species roses and their hybrids which have become known collectively as ‘old roses’. I was struck in the introduction by a reference to ‘the Hitler war’. In this week of remembrance for the members of the armed forces who have died in the line of duty it is sobering to consider that like many of their contemporaries, Harry Walker and Graham Thomas lived through two world wars. 

As well as collecting roses and writing about them, Graham Thomas was a gifted artist and the book is illustrated with his own colour and monochrome pictures. Having recently contributed copy for an article in the December edition of ‘Garden Answers‘ magazine about how to decorate with hips and haws (pp28-30) I was happy to see that one of the colour plates in his book features ‘Fruits of roses’. This includes the distinctive urn shaped hips (or ‘heps’ as he calls them) of R. moyesii ‘Geranium’.

Like Harry Walker, early in his career Graham Thomas was a nurseryman, culminating in his becoming a partner at Sunningdale Nurseries, where he remained a director until 1971. In 1955 he became the gardens advisor to the National Trust, having advised upon the gardens at Hidcote Manor when it passed to the Trust in 1948. He was the recipient of many honours and awards including an OBE for his work with the National Trust and in 1983 David Austin named ‘an unusually rich, pure yellow’ English shrub rose R. ‘Graham Thomas’. 

Before this current lockdown I completed the renovation pruning of the very vigorous climbing rose R. Madame Alfred Carrière (creamy white blooms tinged with pink**) in a client’s garden. It was a major task involving three visits to tame and train it. What fun it would have been fun to have consulted with Messrs Walker and Thomas on the project. I hope that they would have approved of my work to give this beautiful rose a new lease of life.

*ISBN-13: 97814746

**Description from David Austin’s website.

In a Manor of Speaking

If to repeat the same behaviour expecting a different outcome is the definition of insanity, then to repeat the same behaviour expecting a similar experience presumably indicates the perpetrator is of sound mind? I do hope so as a happy outcome was certainly what I hoped for when I decided to return to the gardens at Chenies Manor only a couple of weeks after I’d gone there for the first time. So taken was I with these magical gardens on the edge of the Chilterns that I enthusiastically persuaded friends to return with me on 15 October. I judged they would enjoy the colourful dahlia displays and precise topiary, as well as the Elizabethan manor house and generous afternoon teas. I was only too willing to experience these again, but I also wanted to explore parts of the gardens I had missed the first time.

The Physic Garden is tucked away to the rear of the Sunken Garden and comprises several beds of medicinal and poison plants, clearly labelled with the conditions that the former are said to alleviate and the adverse outcomes should you be unlucky enough to ingest the latter. There was none of the theatricality attached to Alnwick’s Poison Garden (I recall a skull on the entrance gate and certain specimens displayed in cages when I visited a few years ago) but the range of plants grown was impressive. A handsome fig tree guards the brick gateway into the garden, conspicuous for its pale leaves in the familiar modesty protecting shape. A circular brick building, closed on the afternoon of our visit, houses an ancient well. I read later that the depth of the well is greater than the height of Nelson’s Column!

Beyond the Front Lawn, and in the shadow of the parish church, a low open hedge of pale pink roses surrounds a grassed area from which an elaborate circular labyrinth has been fashioned. A narrow gravel path branches off in frustrating impasses, entertaining the amused onlooker watching the brave soul who sets off to reach the centre of the puzzle who has to change direction every few seconds in an accelerating frenzy of false starts and dead ends.

Between the Labyrinth and Chenies’ Kitchen Garden stands a pretty orchard. The Kitchen Garden is an extensive densely planted area. As well as luscious ruby chard plants, I noticed an impressive number of rhubarb crowns interspersed with several terracotta forcers. To one side I saw a work area housing a large compost heap and a pot store. Nearby there was a pretty cottage garden (or cutting bed?) full of long stemmed dahlias and cosmos interwoven with a medium height grass which created a bronze misty effect throughout the planting scheme. I noticed that the area included a diminutive Eucalyptus sporting the disc-shaped juvenile leaves so useful to flower arrangers. Before leaving this part of the garden I took a close look at the fruit of the Medlar (Mespilus germanica) which stands in the centre of one section of the Kitchen Garden. I understand these bizarrely shaped fruits are a delicious treat once they have been ‘bletted’ or allowed to ripen for a few weeks after picking.

Having satisfied my curiosity about these outermost sections of the gardens, we returned to the Rose Lawn, White Garden and Sunken Garden which I had admired a fortnight before. They did not disappoint and it was a pleasure to see my friends enjoying their beauty too. The dahlias remained impressive despite some heavy rain during the intervening weeks and one plant had come into flower into the meantime, the tall and stately (but poisonous) Monkshood (Aconitum carmichaelii).

As well as the playful Labyrinth, Chenies also boasts a fiendishly complicated Maze. The path between sharply cut yew hedges at least two metres high leads to innumerable culs de sacs before with some relief you find the central rectangular stone, from atop which there is a tantalising view of the manor house and the serenity of the White Garden. Stepping off it you embark on a bewildering quest to find the exit from which you emerge with even greater relief. Then it’s time to return to the car and to leave the timeless atmosphere of this special garden, until next spring when tulips replace dahlias as the star attractions in Chenies’ beds and borders.

To the Manor Born

A September afternoon at Chenies Manor

What links George W Bush’s Vice-President and the proprietor of Acorn Antiques? Answer: Chenies Manor in Buckinghamshire. According to the guide who related the history of the magnificent Elizabethan manor house when I visited a couple of weeks ago, both Dick Cheney and actor Celia Imrie are related to families who once owned the house.

Used to parking some distance away from the house when visiting a historic property, I was surprised to find myself being directed to the car park through the entrance gates and passing immediately in front of the house and through part of the garden itself. That brief glimpse from the driver’s seat promised I had arrived somewhere special. For here was a square lawn bordered on one side by a redbrick wall beyond which stood the parish church, a very picturesque scene.

The Inner Court

Once parked, closer inspection of the border beside the wall revealed a textbook blend of leaf shapes and textures: sword-like Phormium leaves interspersed with cream and yellow variegated shrubs (Euonymus and Cornus alba ‘Sibirica Variegata’) and the crisply serrated blue/green leaves of the giant honey flower, Melianthus major. The lawn is cornered with yew columns, and in the centre a stone cherub stands amidst a circular bed of burgundy leafed Heucheras and castor oil plants (Ricinus communis).

Melianthus major

The redbrick of the Manor House forms an L around two sides of this entrance lawn. Variegated hollies frame the doorway of a grand brick porch, one holly trimmed into a five tiered design, beneath which grow ferns and ladies’ mantle (Alchemilla mollis). Lead planters at the door blend shades of yellow and white, with dahlias, nicotianas and hydrangeas. Grouped containers feature elsewhere in the garden. Coincidentally, when reading the September chapter of Beth Chatto’s ‘Garden Notebook’ this week, I noticed she calls such arrangements ‘pot gardens’. The architecture of the house is perfect for tucking terracotta pots of ferns into shady corners or filling a courtyard with a collection of clipped box in pots, the evergreen foliage softened by a blue-flowered Salvia. A metal jardinière houses a collection of tender pelargoniums, amongst which I spotted Pelargonium sidoides, which I’ve grown for the first time this year in my own pot garden.

Dotted around the garden are a number of sculptures, all for sale, including a greyhound-lurcher which, according to Boo McLeod Matthews, the current chatelaine of Chenies Manor, who I chatted to whilst admiring the sculpture, is so lifelike that her two spaniels growled at it when it was first installed. Two angels in conversation and a swooping owl also appealed to me, nestling naturally in the greenery.

The garden consists of several rooms beyond which lies a larger expanse of lawn, clipped yew pyramids drawing your eye towards a pretty metalwork gazebo, a souvenir of the filming onsite of an adaptation of Dickens’ ‘Little Dorrit’. At the far side of this lawn stands an ancient oak tree, where legend has it Elizabeth I mislaid a piece of jewellery.

The Little Dorrit gazebo, viewed from the Rose Lawn

Chenies Manor is a popular wedding venue and it’s easy to see why. Everywhere you turn are vistas and flowery bowers, a wedding photographer’ dream. Boo explained that with no wedding business this year, she has worked almost-full time in the garden with the rest of a small team of gardeners.

The first room I explored was the Rose Lawn bordered on one side by plantings of frothy annuals, formality imposed by broad based clipped box cones. Purple Heliotrope and Verbena bonariensis flowerheads jostle against Cosmos (in pink and white) and graceful pink Nicotiana and Cleome. The pink and purple theme is continued around the Rose Lawn, pale and deeper pink dahlias interspersed with more Heliotrope amply fill beds trimmed with a foot high hedge.

Dividing that bed from an adjoining lawn, tall lavenders and nicotianas tumble either side of a gravelled path, on which stood a wheelbarrow of deadheaded Dahlia blooms, a clue to the garden’s immaculate presentation. The path continues beyond domed yews to a metal pergola-covered green alley, square slabs set into the gravel at an angle to create a diamond pattern. Luminous autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale) illuminate the edge of this secret path which divides the next two rooms in the garden, the White Garden and the Sunken Garden.

Entered via an archway in a Wisteria laden wooden trellis screen, the White Garden’s restrained colour palette creates a calm tranquil atmosphere. The lawn snakes around imposing yew drums, embedded between which white dahlias (including the single-flowered ‘Twynings After Eight’) and tall Nicotiana sylvestnis dazzle against the dark green of the yew.

The Sunken Garden comprises a rectangle within a rectangle, a narrow strip of grass separating the planted sections. Repetitions of the shuttlecock fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris), blue/grey Euphorbias and ribbed-leafed hostas provide an understated backdrop for the stars of the show, dozens of dahlias in warm shades from peach through soft orange to scarlet and crimson. The skilful staking which must surely have been necessary to support the taller and larger flowered decorative dahlias was all but invisible.

Seated at a trestle table near the tearoom was Mary, one of the garden team, who generously shared her expertise in the annual propagation of many hundreds of dahlias, demonstrating the technique for taking cuttings from stored tubers early in the season. Arrayed on the table were several vases each containing a single bloom, in bright and pastel colours and of differing shapes: single, cactus, pompon, waterlily, collarette and the large bloomed decorative. By mid November, ideally after the first frost, the dahlias are dug up and dried off for a week or so. The stalks are cut down to 2 or 3 inches and the tubers are covered with dry compost or shredded newspaper in fruit crates and stored in every conceivable space that can be found, protected from frost, damp and mice. 60% of the dahlias in the garden are grown from cuttings. The rest are last year’s tubers or new varieties. Some are also grown from seed. Cuttings taken in January are started off in heated propagators. The new shoots from the tuber are sliced off with a small piece of tuber attached and dipped into rooting compound before being planted into pots with four other cuttings, watered and covered with a plastic bag.

The varieties Mary showed us included:

  • ‘Karma Prospero’: a longlasting waterlily style decorative dahlia
  • ‘Karma Choc’: a deep chocolatey red, good for flower arranging
  • ‘Spartacus’: a velvety red dinnerplate sized decorative dahlia
  • ‘Belle of Barmera’: terracotta fades to soft pink and buff
  • ‘Café au Lait’: cream blush blooms, a favourite for wedding bouquets
  • ‘Labyrinth’: apricot orange with wavy petals
  • ‘Honka Fragile’: White star shape with red edging

Massed tulip planting takes place before Christmas in preparation for a magnificent display each April. Judging by the impact the dahlias make, I can only imagine the spectacle that awaits visitors to this beautiful garden next spring.

Next time…..I pay a return visit to Chenies Manor. Having concentrated on the central areas of the garden on my first visit, I saw neither the Kitchen Garden nor the Physic Garden and have booked tickets to return with friends later this week. And I plan to take a closer look at the ancient oak tree with its royal connections.

First day of term at Homeacres

The days are shortening and an autumnal chill descends when the sun goes down, but September remains a time of new beginnings, new opportunities. It’s the beginning of a new academic year, the first day of term. And in the garden it’s arguably the start of the gardening year when you plant bulbs and biennials in preparation for a well-stocked flower garden next year and salad leaves and herbs for a spring harvest. Both elements coincided for me on 7 September. I was staying in South Somerset with my niece and her young family. I usually drive home from these precious weekends on Sunday but this time I stayed until Monday to see my middle great nephew on his first day at school and, on the way home, to visit a very special market garden 12 mile away.

Posing with his big brother for photographs, this usually mischievous small person looked very smart in his school uniform and very happy to finally join his brother at school. Subsequent reports confirm he has taken this major life change entirely in his stride. Early that afternoon I headed for the village of Alhampton, near Castle Cary, and Homeacres, the garden where Charles Dowding grows vegetables by pursuing his famous No Dig method.

I joined four garden writers* and photographers for a tour of the garden and introduction to the No Dig system. We were warmly welcomed by Charles and his business partner Stephanie Hafferty, herself a gardener, a writer AND cook. The productive part of Homeacres is surprisingly compact- a quarter of an acre with every inch utilised, long beds stretching away from the house, closely planted with crops, red frisée leaves contrasting with another chicory, this a vivid green.

The overall effect is of order, tidiness and plenty. Charles explained that by removing the lower leaves of, for example, Kale he discourages slugs and neaten its appearance. The fiery coloured flowers edging the beds as companion planting to attract pollinators and deflect less welcome insects throw the subtler greens, dark reds and purples of the beds into sharp relief. I saw orange marigolds, magenta flowering flax (Linum grandiflora), bright pink zinnias and now finished, but still displaying its double decker seedheads, bergamot (Monarda didyma). Charles tells us that a lemon sunflower (Helianthus annua) is grown for picking for the house.

Underlying this vision of plenty are years of layers of mulch atop a long dissolved away layer of cardboard. When he established Homeacres in 2004, Charles suppressed perennial weeds like couch grass and bindweed with cardboard before applying a deep (7 to 15cm) of organic matter: well-rotted manure, garden compost and municipal compost. He then planted into the compost. Now 3 to 5 cm of mulch is added to every bed in early winter.

Cardboard remnants visible at the corner of a bed

I heard Charles Dowding speak at a KMIS (Kew Mutual Improvement Society) lecture a few years ago and was struck then by his infectious enthusiasm for his subject. He extols its simplicity: no effortful double digging when establishing a new vegetable plot and reduced weeding. But the principal benefit is its protection of the soil. Digging, whether manually or by rotavation, damages the mycorrhizal fungi so essential for establishing a healthy relationship between plant and soil. It is no coincidence that one of the chapters, or lessons, in Charles’s new book ‘No Dig Gardening: From Weeds to Vegetables quickly and easily’ is devoted to understanding soil and throughout the book he emphasises the importance of maintaining the integrity of the soil structure and encouraging its helpful micro-organisms to thrive.

The proof of the No Dig effect is demonstrated in two raised beds near the house, established 13 years ago. The right-hand bed was prepared and is maintained using traditional cultivation methods, that on the left is No Dig. Both beds are planted with the same crops in the same positions. In 11 years out of 13, the No Dig bed has produced a higher yield. The 1.5m x 5m beds in the garden produce 70kg of vegetables and Homeacres supplies salad leaves to shops and restaurants in the nearby town of Bruton.

The engine room for these abundant harvests is the long wooden roofed compost complex at the heart of the garden. Several compost bays fronted by removable slatted panels contain green waste from the garden (including the kale leaves mentioned above) as well as the municipal waste which is kept to ferment for a further 4 to 6 months before use). Compost thermometers can be seen inserted between the slats with the temperatures recorded and dates of turning carefully noted on the adjoining wooden pillars. On the day of my visit (cool and rainy) one bay registered a temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit despite its contents of green waste and carbon materials having been deposited only the day before. That new bay will be full of a rich, fertile compost 6 to 12 months from now. Knowing that the compost will reach very high temperatures during the rotting down process, Charles has no qualms about including blighted tomatoes and bindweed in the green element of the compost content.

A polytunnel installed by First Tunnels contains ranks of expertly cordoned tomatoes, lower leaves removed to both improve appearance and encourage the plants to photosynthesise at their apexes. On 10 August each year, the tops of the tomatoes are pinched off and now watering is being reduced to encourage ripening. The tomato beds are underplanted with French marigolds (Tagetes patula) and the side beds of the polytunnel are full of various types of basil.

In one corner of the polytunnel Charles showed us a fine watermelon vine and we were invited to taste a slice of ripe white-fleshed melon which was both fragrant and very juicy. We had already sampled a sweetly sharp baby plum tomato, a variety called Rosada, which because it is no longer available from seed merchants, Charles propagates from cuttings. We also experienced a couple of other unfamiliar flavours. As we progressed around the garden, we tasted a raw Edamame bean and the shield shaped leaf of buckler or French sorrel (Rumex scutatus). One of our party commented that this tasted like salt and vinegar crisps. And the tasting didn’t end there, as we were sent home with a generous bag of No Dig salad leaves- crunchy frisée and tender oak-leaved lettuce included.

Charles’s latest book (see above) is based on the first of his two online courses and explains the time-saving simplicity of the No Dig system. There is a quiz at the end of each chapter with answers at the back of the book. The book covers planning the layout of a vegetable plot, creating and maintaining paths and making compost. There is also a chapter devoted to identifying weeds with excellent photographs.

I drove away from Homeacres wishing that I was higher up the waiting list for a local allotment (I’m 3 years into a 5 year wait!) but determined that when the time comes I shall employ the No Dig method. In the meantime my keen gardener niece is keen to start a new vegetable plot to add to the existing two plots in her garden and I have already tasked her with saving cardboard to start it off.

*Including Abigail Willis whose exquisitely illustrated book ‘Secret Gardens of Somerset’ has been published this week.

The Shearing of the Green

The season started with weeding an artificial lawn and has ended with a variety of lawn maintenance jobs. I was focussed on mowers and grass when I drafted this post while staying with my niece (otherwise known as my client in the country) as I had offered to cut the lawn of her largeish, squareish, south-facing Somerset garden. In fact, a combination of rain, dew and lack of time meant that I left without mowing the grass for her. Most of my jobs have involved lawn work in the last couple of weeks and I’ve also seen a couple of impressively pristine lawns, both with royal connections.

But before we get to pristine, let’s take a look at the other end of the greensward spectrum. With my Osterley volunteering colleague Andrea Blackie (ablackiegardendesign.co.uk) I carried out a thorough tidy-up of a large garden in Twickenham belonging to INS, a fantastic local charity which provides support for people with neurological conditions such as multiple sclerosis (MS), Parkinson’s disease (PD), and Stroke. The garden is usually maintained by a team of volunteers but like so many places the volunteering programme had to be suspended earlier this year because of Covid 19 and the garden had become rather overgrown. We weeded paths and raised beds and rationalised a number of containers whose contents had gone over. In the absence of a scythe , or a Ross Poldark lookalike to wield it, we used hand shears to cut back the tall grasses established across the L-shaped lawn and raked off the cut stalks and thatch. Then we shuffled our way across the plot on kneelers, removing as many of the coarse-leaved dandelions and low-crowned plantains as we could. Only then did Andrea run the electric mower over for an initial rough cut. With perfect timing, a tremendous thunderstorm crashed across TW2 within half an hour of our packing up for the day, and after steadyish rain for much of the following morning, when we returned 36 hours later for day two of the clear-up, the lawn had perked up and looked more green than brown. Andrea lowered the blades of the mower and cut the lawn once more and I followed with an application of Safelawn, which combines seed and feed, to repair the impoverished grass.

Before
After

On a subsequent visit we would like to scarify the lawn even more, remove any remaining weeds and give the lawn an autumn feed to put it in good heart for 2021. It’s never going to rival the Centre Court at Wimbledon, but with some further TLC it will make a lush foil for the deep border which runs the length of the garden. This is effectively a linear orchard of mature greengage, pear, apple and cherry trees (varieties unknown sadly) interspersed with shrubs such as Mahonia and underplanted with hellebores and Japanese anemones. The latter is a striking deep pink cultivar, revealed when we cut back a couple of wayward shrub branches.

Anemone japonica: cultivar unkown

It was fun collaborating with another gardener for the tidy-up project, and I was grateful not only for the shared labour and company but also the recommendation of Hebe ‘Mrs Winder’ to place in the concrete planters on either side of the main entrance. Although almost waist high, the actual planting depth of the containers was deceptively shallow and the Hebes should be less hungry than the previous incumbents, a couple of conical bay trees. I sourced the plants from the wholesale nursery near Chobham, North Hill Nurseries. It was my first visit since lockdown and I was glad to be there again impressed as always by the quality of the stock and the wide choice of cultivars available. I am usually very disciplined when I’m there and resist the temptation to deviate from my core list, but I confess that I did treat myself to a plant for the top right hand corner of my garden where I’ve twice failed with Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’. I succumbed to Caryopteris x clandonensis ‘Heavenly Blue’ with its fluffy sky blue flowers and dainty light green leaves. It looks very good in this position where it will continue the blue/mauve theme from the nearby honesty (Lunaria annua) and Wisteria.

Another purchase that day was a magnificent Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ which I planted in a large terracotta container in another client’s garden a week ago. I also gave the lawn there an autumn treatment, raking out the thatch and aerating (or spiking) it using the fork. I applied grass seed to a couple of bare patches which had developed and here again the rain gods obliged and provided a drenching as I was finishing the job.

I promised you pristine lawns at the beginning of this post. The first is in the centre of the turning circle outside the Elizabeth Gate entrance to Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. I’ve been monitoring it this spring and summer when running around Kew Green, fascinated by its perfection. Short, weedless, stripey: a textbook fine lawn. I’ve watched two kneeling gardeners excise any hint of a weed and I see from this image taken a few days ago that it has recently been spiked. Even the spacing of the holes is precise.

The turning circle at Elizabeth Gate
Aeration by the book

The next lawn has even stronger links with royalty. This striped sward lies within Windsor Castle which I visited at the end of August in order to see the East Terrace Gardens which have been opened to the public for the first time this year.

Within Windsor Castle

Although these rose gardens interspersed with antique bronze statues were beautifully elegant, I preferred the informality of The Moat Garden, adjacent to the Norman Tower of the castle which is the home of the Constable and Governor of Windsor Castle. A snaking red-tiled path runs alongside a border of interesting perennials leading to a rock garden containing a series of waterfalls. Along the way I was drawn towards Poets’ Corner, tucked to one side and lined with garden-themed quotations. The garden is maintained by volunteers and is open to visitors on August weekends.

The stripe maker

A quirky urn nestles beside the plume poppy Macleaya cordata ‘Flamingo’

Next time I leave lawns behind to visit Homeacres, the realm of the king of No Dig, Charles Dowding.

Colour Palettes and Wooden Pallets

One of the joys of the gradual easing of lockdown since June has been garden visiting. From The Newt in Somerset to Vann House in Surrey I’ve enjoyed several days off from a busy gardening schedule to explore some beautiful sites. At the start of August I went to The Savill Garden next to Windsor Great Park. Despite low clouds and fine rain my overall impression was of concentrations of vivid colours brightening dense ornamental woodland. Dazzling pinks and purples welcome you in the double borders leading from the visitor centre. Edged with pinky mauve Osteospermum, a block of warm pink Salvia microphylla is given an airy feel by clouds of Verbena bonariensis hovering overhead. Alongside are dark-leaved Dahlias bearing pom-pom flowers in puce, a shade which here looks better than it sounds. Puce is one of those words describing colour (heliotrope is another) which I associate with gloomy Victorian parlours.

In the Bog Garden I found more colour than I expected with the soft sky blue of bog sage (Salvia uligonosa) contrasting in both form and colour with the buttery yellow daisy flowers of Inula. I should mention that a welcome feature of this garden is the presence of plant labels. Spoilt by proximity to the world’s greatest botanic garden, I expect to find every plant clearly labelled in all gardens which are open to the public! But I accept the argument that whilst Kew is the repository of a priceless living collection of plants from across the world, the plants in many other gardens are to be enjoyed in their own right without a similar emphasis on identification.

The Summer Gardens consists of plantings of herbaceous perennials dedicated to individual colours. Some were vivid,  indeed ‘brash’ as the visitor map put it (yellows, reds, pinks) and some cooler (white and blue). Mauve Cleome blended with the furry pink tails of Sanguisorba and a tall stand of Phlox. 

2761F1B9-B39B-4A49-BD50-C875AFAB302F

In the blue border, alongside dainty Salvia ‘So Cool Blue’  with its almost black stems, I found a plant I’ve not heard of before, the blue lace flower, Trachymene coerulea. I mistook it at first as a form of Scabious, due to its plump lavender blue pin cushion flowerheads atop stiff stems. But the scale of the flowerhead (up to 5cm) prompted me to find the label. The RHS A-Z Encyclopaedia of Plants informs me that the plant is an annual or biennial from Western Australia, long-lasting when cut. The flowerheads are composed of tubular flowers which flare out into clusters of five petalled stars studded with anthers bearing white pollen, all supported by a claw of narrow sepals reminiscent of the setting for a large gemmed ring.

Echinacea purpurea ‘Virgin’ contributed its pearly white flowers to the green and white of another border, to one side of which Thalictrum ‘Splendide White’ was thrown into relief by the dark yew of an adjoining hedge. The mass of cup-shaped flowers resembled a 3m high swarm of white bees.

In another border red was represented by scarlet Dahlias with dark foliage (one of the bishop cultivars perhaps?), fronted by a profusion of red daisies which might be Echinacea ‘Hot Papaya’ although I cannot be sure as I failed to note the plant label.

1F034F97-9303-4148-B8E4-9C0F025FEBAA

That area of The Savill Garden called Summer Wood hosts a wonderful collection of Hydrangeas in muted pastels, a contrast to the primary colours of the Summer Gardens. There’s an excellent plant shop in the Visitor Centre where I bought a Bog Sage to use as a stock plant from which to take half a dozen stem cuttings. A week has passed and the cuttings remain perky, so I am keeping my fingers crossed for a success propagation. When they have taken and grown larger I shall pot them on ready to be planted out in a moist part of a garden next year.

On 7 August I did my third session this summer at Osterley on a day when the temperature reached 36.4% at Heathrow Airport 4 miles to the west. Gardener Ed thoughtfully deployed us to weed the shady cobbled courtyard outside the Study Base. After lunch we worked under the awnings over the tables outside the bothy, tidying the pots of plants stacked in the nursery area.

On the subject of propagation, at home this summer I have created a couple of shelving areas for young plants where they have grown enough to leave the protection of the glazed vertical cold frame which I use like a mini greenhouse in the summer months, leaving the lid permanently raised to ensure plenty of ventilation. The new shelves are simply upended wooden pallets: one from a bulk delivery of shredded horse manure in February and the other kindly donated by clients who were glad to find a home for it. Not only that but they drove it over to me when it was far too wide to fit in my car. I’ve attached the pallets to the outside of the fence where it faces east to the alley between my end of terrace house and the neighbouring terrace. Barely 15 cm deep they take up very little space and have created additional space just outside the garden.

F85FBD71-0E05-4B5F-9BE4-CBC8AC819229

I shall sign off with an image of the garden itself from a week or so ago, showing a palette of blue, white, pink and purple.

5071A2BA-F68D-4B3A-8E67-3228451F4DEE

 

(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?*

During lockdown I entered a competition run by the Garden Museum in Lambeth. The theme was a memoir based on the garden as ‘Sanctuary’. I chose Kew Gardens for my subject and although I didn’t get shortlisted but would like to share the piece with you.

*Thank you to Elvis Costello for the title to this post. He performed a wonderful acoustic set at Kew the Music in July 2014. To date my favourite concert in this annual six day music event. Sadly cancelled this year.

29 April 2020.

A soothing voice on the meditation App advises me to visualise my ‘happy place’. Without hesitating I imagine myself sitting on a bench in a wood. Blue tits and great tits alight momentarily on feeders hanging from the branches of a tree across the path from where I sit. I can see a nuthatch inching down the trunk, its profile resembling a miniature woodpecker. From far above me I hear the mournful high-pitched call of a peregrine falcon.  I am in the Natural Area in Kew Gardens. Less than half a mile away the outside world goes about its business: traffic flows along Kew Road and golfers trundle trolleys over the pristine greens of the Royal Mid Surrey Golf Course. But here is my sanctuary, where I am cocooned from the new normal of Zoom meetings and tense grocery shopping expeditions. 

Is a sanctuary a physical place or can it be a mental refuge to be visited when your spirit needs soothing? As I write this, going into the sixth week of lockdown, staying home and staying safe, I believe that it is both. Kew Gardens remains closed but in my imagination I can visit any part of it whenever I wish. In 1968 James Taylor sang ‘In My Mind I’m Gone to Carolina’ and if I concentrate hard enough I’m gone to Kew. I’m gone to green glades lined with rare shrubs and trees from around the world, to the Redwood grove or the native woodland where now, in the last week of April, the understorey is carpeted with bluebells, the blue carpet punctuated here and there with the lime green flowers of Smyrnium perfoliatum. I can go at any time of the day or in any season. I can relive a frosty winter’s morning walking through the Plant Family Beds (now the Evolution Garden) and stopping to admire the frost riming the sculpture of the gardener leaning on his spade, surveying his domain. Or I can enjoy once more a late June picnic beneath the lime trees, their pale yellow flower clusters perfuming the warm still air. 

I was in my twenties when I visited Kew for the first time. I lived in central London then and Kew’s spaciousness and sense of calm contrasted with the bustle and fumes of city streets. I returned once a year at first and then more regularly, until in my mid-thirties I was fortunate enough to move to the area. 

A walk in the Gardens became a weekly ritual. I would often go late on a Sunday afternoon in preparation for the working week: the crowded Tube, the targets, the deadlines. Entering at the Lion Gate, I would skirt the Great Pagoda, heading towards what was then called the Conservation Area from which I emerged onto the lawn between the Gardens and the Thames towpath at the end of Syon Vista. Across the river, I could see the Northumberland lion standing defiantly atop the ornamental battlements of Syon House and at the other end of the wide double avenue of Holm oaks the rounded glass and metal outline of the central atrium of the Palm House. My route led to the northern shore of the lake, where in April creamy bracts centred with tightly clustered green flowers decorate a large Cornus florida. Skirting the southern end of the Temperate House I would arrive at Lion Gate just before closing time, save for one occasion when I mis-timed it and had to use the yellow emergency phone beside the gate. I was hugely relieved when the kind member of the Kew Constabulary who took the call released the remotely controlled catch on the gate. 

That might have remained my weekly routine had not life intervened. By 2008 I had stopped commuting into the city and had been working locally for a couple of years. When the financial crisis hit I was, as the most recent recruit to the firm, made redundant. Roles in my field were hard to come by so as well as attending a typing and computer skills course, I answered a call on the Kew website to volunteer at an exhibition to be staged in the Nash Conservatory about the work of Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank. I also volunteered in the visitor information team and by early the following year was offered a part-time job. I remember worrying if, by working there, the place I had come to regard as a place of sanctuary would lose that aura for me and become just another workplace. Yes, there were days when the relentless flood of emails and calls threatened to make me forget what a special place Kew is, but a gentle cycle ride home along Holly Walk on a summer’s evening restored a sense of calm and perspective. If time allowed, I took a longer route home, alongside the southern shore of the lake, passing the group of monkey puzzle trees, Araucaria araucana, towards the Natural Area, where I would sit for a few minutes on that bench near the birdfeeders. 

A year or so after I started working at Kew my elderly and increasingly frail mother came to live with me. We used to visit the Gardens most weekends, my mother in a wheelchair, reluctantly to begin with but content to do so when she realised how much more of the Gardens we could explore. We always took coffee and a picnic and on colder days, equipped with a hot water bottle under her blanket, she was the warmest member of the party. My mother loved sitting in the sun and one of her favourite places in Kew was the sundial lawn at the foot of the steps leading up to King William’s Temple in the Mediterranean Garden. On the hottest days I fancied we could detect the distinctive scent of the Garrigue, that combination of cistus, broom, lavender and oregano which characterised the hillsides of Provence where she had enjoyed several holidays. My mother’s dementia meant she was often sad and confused but a visit to Kew would raise her spirits, and when as we arrived home she would say ‘I’ve had a lovely day’, mine too. My mother died six years ago.

I no longer work at the Gardens, but once a week I volunteer for a few hours in the plant shop and will continue to do so when the lockdown is lifted. Kew remains a deeply special place to me. It has soothed me when my heart has been broken, when I’ve raged about some now forgotten injustice, worried about a health issue or grieved the loss of a loved one. I know I am not alone in missing Kew Gardens at this challenging time of fear and uncertainty.  But by conjuring in my mind’s eye its vistas and paths, stretches of water, ancient trees and the exquisite contents of its glasshouses, Kew offers me a refuge, a sanctuary.                                                                                                                                    Weeds Roots & Leaves                  29 April 2020

The Temperate House viewed from the Chinese Fringe Tree
The Palm House Pond in summer 2019 with a Dale Chihuly sculpture reflected in the water.
Snowdrops in the Rock Garden in December 2019
The Magnolia Grove in March 2020, just before lockdown
The Broad Walk Borders in July 2020

In the Dock

Last Friday, after an absence of 127 days, I returned to volunteer in the garden at Osterley House. My last session was in early March when we spent the day in the sunshine clearing brambles from the margin of the Middle Lake.

Bramble clearing on 6 March 2020

In the photographs I took that day I see that the rosemary in the borders at the rear of the house was in full bloom, the grey green foliage complementing the clear blue flowers with their prominent lower petals. In the Cutting Garden I photographed the Anemone coronaria ‘St Brigid’s Series’ against a chrome yellow backdrop of daffodils. Little did I know when I took these images it would be four months until I was in the garden again.

Anemone coronaria ‘St Brigid’s Series’
Rosemary

It felt so good to be back, another step nearer normality in the gradual easing of lockdown. Naturally a new normal has had to be established. Flasks of tea brewed at home replace the lunchtime teapot ritual and the tool handles have to be disinfected when we finish for the day. Two of the five volunteers weeded in the Tudor Walled Garden and planted several new additions in one of the potager style beds. One of these plants was Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare). Thankfully its appearance belies the slightly sinister sounding common name, the spires of rosemary blue flowers being a magnet for bees and other pollinators.

The rest of us trimmed the edges of the four rectangular beds in that area, moving via the Magnolia borders to work our way along the paths in Mrs Child’s Flower Garden, our razor sharp shears guided by the metal edging strips to create that crisp finish which instantly neatens a lawn. Head gardener Andy Eddy was mowing the lawns in ‘Mrs Child’s’ and stopped for a catch up. During lockdown he and his partner maintained the garden, enjoying the temporary lull from fewer planes heading to Heathrow and the vastly reduced traffic on the M4 which borders the parkland surrounding the garden. There was also the novelty of the presence of the neighbouring farmer’s Charollais cattle herd on the field immediately in front of the house.

We sat outside the bothy to eat lunch, the reduced number in the team making social distancing easy to achieve. Afterwards we worked in the cutting garden, keeping the bark topped paths clear of weeds and transplanting stray self-seeders such as geraniums into the relevant sections of the garden. I found that the portion of the border beside the wall where I was working was choked with docks (Rumex obtusifolius) and as I worried away at this patch with first a hand fork and then a border fork I realised that I haven’t had to clear these before and had no idea how difficult they are to tackle. To find out more about what I had hitherto assumed were innocuous weeds with the benefit of calming nettle stung skin, I consulted the RHS website which states ‘They are often difficult to eradicate as their deep tap root can regrow from the top section and they produce large amounts of seed.The tap root can be up to 90cm (3ft) in length.‘ A 3ft tap root: no wonder I struggled!

I did manage to clear a section of roughly a couple of feet square but confess that, with the permission of gardener Graham, I had to cut several of the most persistent plants down to ground level rather than rooting them up. It felt appropriate that almost my first task as a ‘re-opening volunteer’ was the clearance of stubborn weeds, just as that last pre-lockdown session had involved bramble eradication. Despite my emphasis in this post on weeds and weeding, the gardens at Osterley are looking stunning as the following photos attest.

The Cutting Garden 10 July 2020: Echinops and Alliums

Robert Adam’s Garden House
Fuchsia Thalia inside the Garden House
Crocosmia and Honey Spurge (Euphorbia mellifera) in the Tudor Walled Garden