Oh, it’s a long, long while from May to December, but the days grow short when you reach September*: 2 days at Great Dixter

I’ve visited the garden at Great Dixter twice this year, in late May and early September. On each occasion the garden lived up to its reputation for presenting an ever-changing scene to the visitor. Given the eloquence with which Christopher Lloyd and now Fergus Garrett describe this special corner of East Sussex, I don’t plan to compete but to present some photographs taken on these visits and try to convey the uniqueness of Great Dixter.

May 2021

Meadow Garden
House entrance
Barn Garden
Sunk Garden
Beth’s Poppy: the first sighting of many in May. Gifted to Christopher Lloyd by his friend and correspondent, Beth Chatto
Yew topiary towers over the herbaceous planting
We spotted Fergus Garrett working in the High Garden
The house can be seen from most parts of the garden: here from the High Garden
The Cotinus in the Long Border responding well to a severe pruning
The house seen from the Long Border
The Hovel and Topiary Lawn

September 2021

Barn Garden
Holding up the mulberry tree
Christopher Lloyd set up Great Dixter Nursery in 1954. Here are the cold frames housing some of the nursery’s treasures. Note the bananas flaring up in the Exotic Garden in the middle distance.

Farewell to Great Dixter for this year. I shall leave the last words to Christopher Lloyd, whose correspondence with Beth Chatto I’m enjoying reading at the moment: Dear Friend and Gardener. In a letter dated 14 September 1997 he muses upon the secret behind his planting style: The placing of plants in relation to their neighbours is so important and so fascinating, colour being only one aspect to consider. Heights, shapes and textures, as well as season of comeliness, are all factors to be considered……I love the bumpiness of my plantings and the way it is possible to place a tall, but thin-textured plant quite near to the front, while channels of low-growers may appear as you approach and lead you to the border’s back or centre…… Continuity of interest is a subject I find specially interesting, and the devices for obtaining it, some of them quite labour-intensive, admittedly, but by no means all.

Visiting Great Dixter in late spring and almost four months later, in late summer, meant that I saw that continuity of interest in action in all its bumpy comeliness. I hope these photographs convey some of the magic of the place.

Kew: 10 October 2021

*September Song: Music: Kurt Weill / Lyrics: Maxwell Anderson

Perch Hill and Batemans

Sarah Raven’s cutting garden in East Sussex is near the village of Burwash on the outskirts of which stands the old stone manor house once owned by Rudyard Kipling. I visited both last Friday.

Perch Hill

The open day at Perch Hill started with lunch served on Emma Bridgewater crockery in an open sided marquee decorated with bunting. Nasturtium flowers and Dahlia petals decorated the salad.

The varied palette of colours compensated for the overcast conditions.

The Dahlia garden is a treasure trove of shades and flower types.

Unusual roses in the rose and herb garden include the two tone ‘For Your Eyes Only’.

Pot gardens and individual containers abound.

These Dahlia ‘Bishop’s Children’ were grown from seed 4 years ago

Perch Hill isn’t just about Dahlias: the roses are fragrant as well as beautiful.

Container lined arches add height and echo the wavy hedging to the rear.

Narrow stepped paths connect the terraces in this hillside garden.

Everything in the garden is clearly labelled.

The beautiful High Weald lies beyond the garden: note more wavy hedging.

Grasses and single-flowered dahlias in the perennial cutting garden.

Rare breeds in the chicken run.

The profusion of flowers in the garden is powered from the compost ‘palace’.

A rich burgundy Salvia in a metal container, and Sarah herself re-filling the seed display in the shop.

Batemans

The first thing I spotted when we arrived at Batemans was a sign quoting the following lines from Kipling’s 1911 poem, ‘The Glory of the Garden’.

Our England is a garden, and such gardens are not made

By singing:-‘Oh, how beautiful’ and sitting in the shade.

Putting to one side the patriarchal tone of the poem, when read in its entirety*, it does evoke the atmosphere of an Edwardian country house garden tended by dozens of gardeners. How sad to think that so many of them left estates such as Batemans within three years of the poem being published to fight in the trenches, never to return.

How much hands-on gardening was undertaken by Kipling I do not know, but he designed much of the garden layout himself. The formal water garden consists of a round pond surrounded by roses from which a cherub fountain feeds a short rill leading to the large waterlily pond.

The house dates from 1634, the entrance framed by a profusion of shrubs and perennials.

A majestic dovecote highlights this peaceful scene.

Exuberant planting in the walled garden includes fountain grass combined with statice.

 *The Glory of the Garden

OUR England is a garden that is full of stately views,
Of borders, beds and shrubberies and lawns and avenues,
With statues on the terraces and peacocks strutting by;
But the Glory of the Garden lies in more than meets the eye. 

For where the old thick laurels grow, along the thin red wall,
You’ll find the tool- and potting-sheds which are the heart of all
The cold-frames and the hot-houses, the dung-pits and the tanks,
The rollers, carts, and drain-pipes, with the barrows and the planks.

And there you’ll see the gardeners, the men and ‘prentice boys
Told off to do as they are bid and do it without noise ;
For, except when seeds are planted and we shout to scare the birds,
The Glory of the Garden it abideth not in words.

And some can pot begonias and some can bud a rose,
And some are hardly fit to trust with anything that grows ;
But they can roll and trim the lawns and sift the sand and loam,
For the Glory of the Garden occupieth all who come.

Our England is a garden, and such gardens are not made
By singing:-” Oh, how beautiful,” and sitting in the shade
While better men than we go out and start their working lives
At grubbing weeds from gravel-paths with broken dinner-knives.

There’s not a pair of legs so thin, there’s not a head so thick,
There’s not a hand so weak and white, nor yet a heart so sick
But it can find some needful job that’s crying to be done,
For the Glory of the Garden glorifieth every one.

Then seek your job with thankfulness and work till further orders,
If it’s only netting strawberries or killing slugs on borders;
And when your back stops aching and your hands begin to harden,
You will find yourself a partner In the Glory of the Garden.

Oh, Adam was a gardener, and God who made him sees
That half a proper gardener’s work is done upon his knees,
So when your work is finished, you can wash your hands and pray 
For the Glory of the Garden that it may not pass away!
And the Glory of the Garden it shall never pass away ! 

Rudyard Kipling, 1911

Sissinghurst in September

What more can be said about Sissinghurst that hasn’t been said before? On this occasion I’ll let the photographs speak for themselves. I’m in East Sussex for three days of garden visits and Sissinghurst was the first port of call. The newly opened area Delos is as impressive as I expected from recent TV coverage and a great deal larger than I’d imagined. The Mediterranean planting amongst ancient architectural artefacts contrasts with the lush planting in the other garden rooms.

As in the rest of the garden, the Tower is visible from Delos.

Greek island meets the Kent countryside: oast houses roofs gleam in the late summer sun.

Another highlight: the tapestry of zinnias along the Moat Walk. Note the sheep wool mulch to deter slugs and snails.

The still air and warmth today encouraged a fine display of pollinators throughout the garden.

I’m envious of Vita’s Flower Room complete with Belfast sink….

…..and Harold Nicolson’s book room.

September must be the best month to see the sunset colours in The Cottage Garden.

The gardeners are busy keeping Sissinghurst immaculate.

No visit to Sissinghurst is complete without seeing The White Garden.

Shakespeare in the Garden

Maggie Smith as Ophelia and her Bottom

The first professionally performed play I attended was A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Regent’s Park open air theatre. The year was 1970. We were taken on a school trip to a matinee. And it blew me away. Little did I know then that the glamorous couple playing Titania and Oberon were acting royalty: Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens. I remember it was a hot summer’s day and that I loved it all: the tree-surrounded setting, cheeky Puck, the fairies’ floaty costumes (chiffon was big in the 70s), Bottom as a donkey, the language. We were studying the play in the first year of secondary school and had had to learn Oberon’s ‘I know a bank where the wild thyme grows…’ speech off by heart. It was so exciting to hear it recited in the mellifluous tones of a real actor.

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enamell’d skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in

Last Wednesday I saw another open air performance of the play, this time in Kew Gardens. ‘Dream’ as I believe it’s known in acting circles, has been performed in the Gardens most nights this August. The stage is erected in a clearing beyond the Waterlily House and a group of handsome trees form a dramatic backdrop to the action. The lighting crew do a fantastic job of illuminating this leafy scenery with stunning colours, emphasising the stature and structure of the trees themselves and evoking the magical atmosphere of the wood near Athens where most of the action takes place. The ‘Rude Mechanicals’ and the fairies sometimes approach the stage from behind the audience, bursting out from the shrubs at the rear of the ‘auditorium’. Over the course of the evening they must cover several miles. Puck is acrobatic and athletic and when he vows to put a girdle around the earth in forty minutes you almost believe he can. The five minute walk from Victoria Gate to the site of the play takes you past the Rose Garden, the pale blooms almost glowing in the dusk. Later the route was lit by strings of warm white lights on either side of the path. It was an enchanting setting for the play and brought back happy memories of my first encounter with Shakespeare and with open air theatre.

Meanwhile in another part of the wood, i.e. in my garden, I’ve been having something of a Shakespeare festival myself. Early in the summer I celebrated a successful year for Weeds Roots & Leaves by buying a large terracotta container from Whichford Pottery. This was triggered by needing something in which to plant the Rosa x odorata Bengal Crimson which I brought back from my first ever visit to Great Dixter at the end of May. The rim of this hand thrown and frost proof pot is etched with an extract from Juliet’s famous line in her speech to Romeo in the balcony scene:

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
(Romeo & Juliet, Act 2 Scene 2)

Are those thumb prints I can see above the moulding?

Moulded in relief on the side of the pot is an elaborate illustration of a cluster of roses. When the pot arrived a couple of months ago I was pleasantly surprised to see that not a scrap of plastic had been used in packing it. The sturdy cardboard box was packed tightly with straw. But next time I splurge on a super pot from Whichford I’ve made a mental note to open it in the garden. I was vacuuming up traces of straw for several weeks after my eager unveiling of the new addition to the garden.

The Bengal Crimson rose, which was grown from a cutting of the large specimen in the Barn Garden at Dixter, bears deep red single flowers which seem to last barely a couple of days, before the petals fall. I hope there’ll be such a profusion of blooms in the years to come this ephemeral quality won’t be so evident. I’ve admired the rose since it was planted at the edge of the meadow bank opposite the American Border at Osterley. Looking at a few websites, I’m reassured to read that it is suitable for growing in a container.

Knowing the little rose would take a year or so to establish in the pot, I also planted the tiny maroon flowered African geranium (Pelargonium sidoides) and the deep red cultivar of Dianthus the seedlings of which I brought from Osterley before the first lockdown. You can see I have a deep red theme emerging with this choice of plants. I always perceive dark red petals as velvety and there’s a certain plushness too to the other red flowered plant in this arrangement, the graceful burgundy Cosmos which I grew from seed earlier this year. With its spikes of violet blue flowers, the annual Salvia farinacea Victoria, provides a contrast in both colour and form to the other plants in the pot.

Whichford Pottery is located, appropriately, in William Shakespeare’s home county of Warwickshire. Having read Maggie O’Farrell’s novel Hamnet earlier this year, and enjoyed its evocation of life in late C16 Stratford upon Avon, I can see a visit to both the pottery and Shakespeare’s birthplace would make a splendid day out. Indeed, now that theatres have reopened, perhaps I should make a weekend of it and take in a play!

The burgundy leaves of Oxalis triangularis complete the scheme

Bute is in the Eye of the Beholder

Winterbourne House and Garden is a favourite destination when I go to Birmingham. Located near Birmingham University’s campus in leafy Edgbaston, Winterbourne is the university’s botanic garden. Beyond the house built in 1903 for John Nettlefold, stands a garden billowing at this time of year with exuberant herbaceous planting.

Winterbourne House and Garden

When I was there ten days ago the star attraction was the bed just beyond the terrace containing the National Collection of Anthemis, a spectacular blend of soft yellow and white cultivars of this dainty member of the daisy (Compositae) family.

National Collection of Anthemis

We were there to meet Ruth, a friend of Cathie, my hostess. They had been classmates on the RHS Level 2 Diploma course. Ruth now volunteers at the nearby Birmingham Botanical Gardens. One of the many joys of studying and working in horticulture is meeting other gardeners and hearing about their routes into the industry, their current activities and projects, as well as benefiting from their expertise. When I admired a velvety dark burgundy regal Pelargonium, its petals rimmed in a lighter pink, Ruth identified it as P. Lord Bute.

Earl of Bute 1773

Whilst the plant wasn’t immediately familiar, the name was. I had read about Lord Bute as the courtier who in the mid eighteenth century advised George III’s mother Princess Augusta on the creation of a collection of exotic plants on the site of what evolved into the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Contemporary gossip speculated that their close relationship went beyond the botanical, but whatever the truth, it is known that John Stuart, third earl of Bute (1713-1792) and briefly prime minister in 1762/3, introduced the Old Lion trees to Kew from the Duke of Argyll’s estate in Twickenham. These are among the oldest trees in Kew and include an oriental plane tree (Platanus orientalis), a sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa) and a maidenhair tree (Gingko biloba). The latter is planted not far from the northern end of the Princess of Wales Conservatory which was named after Princess Augusta and not after Diana, Princess of Wales, which I had understood until I went to work at Kew.

Gardeners are generous souls, and I was very touched when later that day Ruth deposited three perfect rooted cuttings of the plant I admired on the doorstep. The little Lord Butes were carefully protected for transportation in a cut off plastic water bottle, a brilliant recycling hack. With the cuttings were two packets of seeds: the first those of the kangaroo apple (Solanum laciniatum). Only the day before I had used my phone’s plant identifier app to identify a tall and somewhat unusual shrub growing in a container in Cathie’s garden. Its mauve flowers were recognisable as belonging to the potato family (Solanaceae) but it was the leaves that attracted me. About 10 inches long and deeply lobed, they resemble pin oak leaves. Ruth treats this tender plant as an annual, raising it from seed each year, and she had given Cathie a young plant a few months ago. It struck me that it is rather like the castor oil plant (Ricinus communis) in its ability to produce so much vegetative growth in one season, and I wonder if, like that plant, it could be used as a focal point in an exotic border of tender plants such as Dahlias.

The other seeds belong to Hibiscus cameronii which I read is a native of Madagascar with large white and pink flowers with red-purple spots at the base of each petal. This is very tender and will be a challenge to grow, but I shall have a go using the heated propagator. I shall also ask the team at Osterley if they might be interested, perhaps for display in the Garden House, along with the citrus trees and other tender specimens. The David Cameron for whom this plant was named was not our erstwhile prime minister, but the first curator of Birmingham Botanical Garden, whose stewardship ran from 1831-1837.

Although I shall have to wait until next year to see the seeds germinate and mature, I hope to enjoy P Lord Bute later this summer. I shall plant them alongside a container planted with other dark red flowers including some Dianthus which are about to flower, having been raised from seedlings I was given early in 2020 when a colleague and I were pricking out a variety of seedlings one very rainy afternoon just before the first lockdown.

Speaking of plants not named after British prime ministers I have been doing some digging to find out whether the Pelargonium was named for Princess Augusta’s Lord Bute or for one of his descendants. In a 2010 Kew magazine article Kew’s Richard Wilford posited that because the plant was first raised by a plant nursery in Cardiff, Messrs S Treseder & Son, in the first decade of the twentieth century, the name Lord Bute was chosen because of the proximity of the nursery to Cardiff Castle, home to the Bute family from 1766 to 1947. So is it a generic aristocratic Bute being commemorated rather than our friend from the early days of Kew?

I would argue that it’s the latter given his fervent interest in horticulture and botany. Indeed he was a botanical scholar as well as a politician: he produced a limited edition ‘flora’ containing specially commissioned botanical images from artists such as Margaret Meen. And as well as advising Princess Augusta on the introduction of several venerable trees to Kew, he supervised garden alterations and is believed to have commissioned Sir William Chambers to design buildings such as The Orangery and the Pagoda. In order to fulfil his role at Kew, he leased Cambridge Cottage on Kew Green near the main entrance to the Gardens, now known as Elizabeth Gate. Cottage is a misleading description for a really quite grand three storey house. He is understood to have extended the house to accommodate his botanical library. Cambridge Cottage is now a wedding venue with offices on the upper floors. In fact for the first three years I worked at Kew Gardens, the Visitor Information team was located on the first floor of Cambridge Cottage in a room with a view across the Green to the cricket pitch and St Anne’s Church. I’d like to think that more than 250 years ago, Lord Bute might have looked out of the same window!

A cabinet containing a copy of Lord Bute’s botanical tables is held by the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle

Scenes and Herds

The last thing I expected when I set off this morning to see the David Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy was to encounter herds of elephants in two of the Royal Parks. The installation of life-sized Asian elephants in St James’s Park and The Green Park highlights the work of conservation charity Elephant Family and forms part of Co-Existence, an environmental campaign inspired by the way in which the reduction in human activity last year, as a result of the pandemic, had a positive effect on wildlife. The campaign reminds us that we share the planet with animals and must coexist with them rather than removing their natural habitats by our activities. A parallel photographic exhibit showed images from 2020 of, for example, penguins crossing a deserted Cape Town street.

At this stage I imagine you’re thinking what has this to do with gardening, I thought Weeds Roots & Leaves was a blog about gardens, plants etc.? Bear with me: in one of the interpretation panels I read that the Elephant Family charity works with indigenous communities in the Nilgiri Hills in Tamil Nadu in southern India to remove the plant Lantana camara as well as promoting peaceful human-elephant coexistence. Lantana camara? Isn’t that the rather pretty shrub you see in Spain with the two-tone yellow and red flowers? Indeed it is and to my surprise I have read this evening that it has spread around the globe from its origins in Central and South America to more than 50 countries and is classed as an invasive species.

The L. camara connection doesn’t end there. It is the material used to make the sculptures themselves. The 100 plus strong herds have been made over the last five years by the communities in Tamil Nadu as part of the initiative. On first inspection I thought the wonderful sculptures were made with bamboo but this material is clearly more pliable lending itself to the curves of the elephant’s forms. I can’t describe how uplifting this installation is. You can’t help smiling when you stand in the middle of the herd and sense the beauty and power of these graceful creatures.

One of the images in the photographic exhibition alongside the herd features a mother and very young (fuzzy still) calf walking alongside the road, (in a manner reminiscent of the New Forest ponies). They are on an ‘elephant corridor’ which connects the habitats of the Asian elephant. And Mum has the beginning of a small garden on her back: growing in the soil deposited during a cooling down trunk spray!

In St James’s Park a lone elephant heads to the lake!

Whilst the ‘anthropause’ brought wildlife into unexpected places in 2020, David Hockney was at his home in France creating a series of iPad images documenting the arrival of spring in his corner of Normandy. Occupying three of the main galleries on the first floor of the RA, these vivid images capture the transition from bare branched late winter trees, through the first chartreuse coloured flush of leaves to blossom heavy orchards. And whilst many of the images feature the wider landscape, a few show the area around the timber framed farmhouse, where clipped box doughnuts squat beside gravelled paths and an enormous tree shades a rustic table and chairs. In another a treehouse teeters: a far cry from that made for me by my father in the garden where I grew up, this one has a roof and a ladder! My favourite images are the night scenes, where trees are outlined by smudges of moonlight.

As I walked home from the station I noticed what I think might be a Kiftsgate rose emerging from Wisteria leaves atop a garden wall. A peaceful image to conclude a relaxing and happy summer’s day.

They made a garden: East Lambrook Gardens (and a vertiginous bluebell wood)

I’m gradually discovering what a beautiful and interesting county Somerset is. I visit regularly to see my niece and her family (with whom I’m in a bubble) and it’s been a joy exploring with them some nature reserves and gardens over the last couple of years. During my last visit a week ago we fitted in trips to a magnificent bluebell wood and a garden with a special place in twentieth century garden history.

The wood, to the east of Taunton, is managed by the RSPB. On the morning of our visit the sun had emerged after a heavy shower, the weather this month being more characteristic of April than May. The scarp walk we followed was aptly named, taking us up steep slopes, with steps built in in a couple of places. Bluebells flourished beneath the broadleaved woods, the blue haze interrupted here and there with other wildflowers.

East Lambrook Manor Gardens was created by Margery Fish and her husband Walter in the 1930s and is an exquisitely planted showcase for the English cottage garden style which she championed in her garden writing. Narrow stone-paved paths wind through the various rooms of the garden, allowing you to admire the treasures planted throughout. The immediate impression is of informality, until you reach the avenue of tightly clipped egg shaped evergreens. Thinking at first they were yew, closer inspection showed they were in fact conifers and I have since read on the website that they are Chamacyparis lawsonia fletcheri, raised from cuttings of the original ‘Pudding Trees’ planted by Margery Fish.

The pudding trees

Tempting as it is to keep looking downwards at the wealth of herbaceous perennials in the garden, there are several trees to admire which would look well in small and medium sized gardens. For example, Cornus florida which I fell in love with in Kew Gardens many years ago, distinctive for its large white bracts in April and May. Another favourite. of which there is a sprawling specimen in Kew’s Mediterranean Garden, is the Judas tree (Cercis siliquastris). East Lambrook’s specimens are far daintier.

Many of the interesting plants in this plant lover’s garden are sold in the plant centre. Just beyond the stands of plants for sale is a raised bed built from what looks like the hamstone which features in much of the architecture of south Somerset. This showcases specimens of a couple of dozen geraniums, all clearly labelled, a perfect way to compare colours and leaf shapes, scale and habit. This display is just one example of the way in which this garden inspires the keen gardener: so too do the absence of lawns, the myriad of herbaceous perennials, the planting combinations.

On this occasion I shall let the photographs demonstrate the beauty of this peaceful garden. What they cannot convey is the soundtrack of birdsong and the clip clop of horses’ hooves along the village street just beyond the walls of the garden. As soon as I got home I ordered Margery Fish’s We Made a Garden to learn more about the genesis of a very special place.