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.

Tulips in Fairyland: Part 2

I left you at the end of my last post on the threshold between the Collector Earl’s Garden and the rest of the extensive grounds of Arundel Castle. This part of the estate is called the Landscape and nestles at the foot of the castle fortifications. According to the Gardeners’ Chronicle article of July 1875 I mentioned last week, this part of the grounds

was used as a kitchen garden, but Mr Wilson, the present gardener, did away with it as such and and laid it down in grass, planting on it a considerable number of coniferous trees

Cork oak in The Landscape

The ‘present gardener’ Martin Duncan has planted hedges and areas of perennial wildflowers. Swathes of spring bulbs sweep through the wooded areas, in which I spied an impressively gnarled cork oak (Quercus suber). Turning our backs on the castle walls, we entered The Fitzalan Chapel’s White Garden, bounded on one side by a flint wall and on the other by the perpendicular style windows of a former priory now a nursing home. The focal point of the garden is the huge stained glass window of the chancel of the parish church of St Nicholas. Thought to be unique, the building combines the Church of England tradition in the main part of the church and the Catholic in the chancel, the resting place* of the Earls of Arundel and Dukes of Norfolk.

Wall shrub Exochorda x macrantha ‘The Bride’ clothes the walls of this peaceful space, and the densely planted border is crammed with White Lizard and White Triumphator tulips and the oddly named Summer Snowflake, (Leucojum aestivum) whose white bells resemble elongated snowdrops. In the lawn opposite the border stands a plain rectangular tank pool, its corners marked by Chusan palms. The haunting silhouette of a soldier stands guard, one of thousands erected across the country in 2018 in the ‘There But Not There’ campaign to commemorate the first centenary of the First World War.

Our route to the Rose Garden led us past the longest stretch of cloud-pruned hedge I’ve seen, trimmed we were told with hand shears, its bumpy bulk lightened by airy pink blossom.

Cloud-pruned box hedge

Planted on the site of what was the Jacobean bowling green, the Rose Garden entrance is formed by a perpendicular arch clothed in the climbing rose Adelaide d’Orleans. In keeping with the eye for detail evident everywhere in these gardens, a similar arch stands opposite it, sheltering a black seat backed with triple gothic arches, echoing parts of the castle architecture. Crisply clipped box edging surrounds the beds, each centred with a tall obelisk entwined with climbing rose The Generous Gardener. Now that I’ve studied my photographs more closely the gold hoops topping the obelisks remind me of quidditch goals, not surprisingly perhaps, given that in part 1 of this blog, I wrote that these gardens have a magical atmosphere! Indeed, in her account of our visit, one of my fellow Garden Media Guild members, Laura, one third of the brilliant 3 Growbags, likens the gardens at Arundel to a fantasy film-set.

The rose beds have been filled with a very generous manure mulch, through which grow Delft blue hyacinths and yet to open Angelique tulips. In another of his video tours, Martin Duncan guides us through the Rose Garden at its summer height and shares his prescription for healthy, blackspot-free roses: 2 tablespoons of Epsom Salts (high in magnesium) dissolved into 8 litres of water administered monthly in April, May and June.

Next stop on the tour was the newest part of the gardens to open to the public (July 2020), the Stew Ponds. In contrast with the formality of the White and Rose Gardens and the manicured grandeur of the Landscape, these water gardens are a haven for wildlife and wild flowers. But nature has had a helping hand here: last autumn the garden team planted 1,500 water plants, wildflowers and bulbs in this area. Two large ponds are divided with a wooden boardwalk, to one side of which nesting swans zealously guard their nest. In 2020, six cygnets hatched and recently moved out to give way to this year’s brood which it is hoped will emerge soon. The ponds are fed by a spring and at the far end of each stand wooden thatched buildings: a boat house and a round house, the latter used for education groups.

We returned to the Collector Earl’s Garden via the motte, the dry moat which surrounds the castle. Strategically located atop a hill, this castle had no need for a water filled moat for defence. The steep slope beside us would challenge even the most sure-footed gardener, let alone an armour-clad attacker. We were told that the bulb planting on the steepest slopes was undertaken using some form of abseiling technique!

I can thoroughly recommend a visit to the Arundel Castle gardens, open from Tuesday to Sunday, 10.00am to 5.00pm. Thank you to the Garden Media Guild for arranging a splendid visit there a fortnight ago: a very special way to celebrate the gradual easing of lockdown restrictions.

  • A day or so after my visit I heard Philip Larkin’s poem ‘An Arundel Tomb’ read on Radio 4, with its poignant final line: What will survive of us is love. Thinking that the mediaeval tomb which inspired the poet must be in the Fitzalan Chapel, I did an internet search and discovered in fact that the stone effigies of the third Earl of Arundel and his Countess (their hands entwined) lie in Chichester Cathedral a few miles to the west.

Tulips in Fairyland: Part 1

When she was a little girl, my niece, on the drive from Sussex to Hampshire to visit her Granny and Grandad, would look up to the Arundel skyline and call it fairyland. The spires of the cathedral and battlements of the castle still lend the view an other-worldly appearance. On Monday I visited the castle’s gardens and found that those apparently impenetrable walls do indeed shelter an enchanted space. With fellow members of the Garden Media Guild I was there to see the gardens in their spring livery and in particular the thousands of tulips which are planted every year.

Having been divided into small groups, our tour began in the courtyard of the Collector Earl’s Garden with head gardener Martin Duncan, whose enthusiasm and passion for his domain was infectious. The immediate impression is of a historic formal garden decorated with pavilions, pools and fountains. Closer inspection reveals that the pavilions and columns are built of oak rather than stone and Martin explained that this part of the garden was created only 14 years ago, by the design partnership of Isabel and Julian Bannerman. Dozens of pots of brightly coloured tulips stand at the foot of the classically styled ‘Hunting Temple’ which is decorated with deer antlers from the Duke of Norfolk’s estate. Noting from their website that the Bannermans had also designed parts of HRH’s garden at Highgrove, I saw that there too is a rustic temple constructed of green oak.

Thomas Howard the Collector Earl by Peter Paul Rubens

In November Martin and his team planted 180 different named tulip cultivars throughout the gardens: fringed, parrot, lily and peony flowered, Darwin hybrids and many more. Some of the larger pots contain 60-70 tulip bulbs which are treated as annuals and replaced each year.

This section of the garden is a tribute to Thomas Howard, 14th Earl of Arundel (1585-1646), known as the ‘Collector Earl’, who when travelling extensively on the continent on diplomatic missions, amassed a huge art collection. On one of his trips he was accompanied by the architect Inigo Jones of whom more later. Between the water garden, which represents the nearby River Arun, and a spectacular labyrinth of Narcissus ‘Thalia’, stands a double wooden pergola clothed in newly emerging hornbeam. Martin explained that in a week or so red Apeldoorn tulips will appear amidst the white Narcissus in the labyrinth.

The curving borders around the labyrinth comprise the Exotic Borders and are dominated with multi-stemmed Trachycarpus fortuneii, which were sourced in Italy. At a lower level, ruby Rheum leaves thrust through the foliage of orange Crown imperials (Fritillaria imperialis) and yet to flower Alliums.

On a raised terrace at the far side of the labyrinth, stands a turreted wooden pavilion topped by a dome. True to the magical atmosphere of the gardens, this is Oberon’s Palace. Inside is a shell grotto, the walls decorated with planted urn images fashioned from navy blue mussel shells with a bubbling fountain in the centre of the space. The plaque states that the building is based on a design by Inigo Jones for a masque first performed in 1611, ‘Oberon the Fairy Prince’. Martin drew our attention to the distinctively shaped planters on either side of the entrance to the temple, which he had commissioned and which resembled lead but were in fact made with distempered steel, and cost a fraction of the price.

From here the exoticism of the labyrinth borders gives way to the symmetry and formality of clipped yew hedges, forming compartments housing the herbaceous borders. Judging by a video tour on the castle’s website, again led by head gardener Martin, these look stunning in the summer months. Martin proudly pointed out that the yew spires which separate this part of the garden from the next, deliberately mimic the spires of the cathedral. Arundel’s Victorian cathedral church of Our Lady and St Philip Howard, dedicated as a cathedral in 1965, forms a spectacular backdrop to this part of the garden.

Hidden by the yew spires is another enchanting area, the Stumpery, which, Martin pointed out, is in an open position and gets more sun than those which are usually built in shadier spots and are planted with ferns and hostas, for instance the stumpery at Highgrove. When I checked later I found that too was designed by the Bannermans. The massive upturned trunks, roots akimbo, are sourced from trees downed in the park during storms. Each stump provides several planting pockets into which are tucked exquisite specimens: a rosy coloured Hellebore, diminutive species tulips, snakehead fritillaries, dainty dog tooth violets (Erythronium), primroses and Thalictrum aquiligifolium. In a corner of this garden stands a willow bower fit for a fairy queen, the fresh new leaves beginning to clothe it in a green mantle.

I should at this stage mention that the long gap between this and my last blog posting is due in part to the online English landscape garden history course that I have just completed. I found it incredibly interesting and absorbing, but the course, a busy period of spring tidying in clients’ gardens and a new web content writing role has left little time for the blog. One of the activities in week 8 of the course, when we studied Victorian gardens, was to dip into the pages of The Gardeners’ Chronicle, a weekly illustrated journal, to which we were given online access. I lighted upon the editions of 3 and 10 July 1875 and amidst advertisements for Calceolaria seeds and lawnmowers, a book review of a ‘Book for Beekeepers’, reports of onion trials in Chiswick, a weather report from Blackheath (29 June fine, but dull and cloudy throughout. Rain in early morning) and want ads for gardeners (wages £1 a week), was a two part article by T.Baines about ‘Arundel Castle: the seat of his Grace the Duke of Norfolk’. Featuring a history of the castle and a beautiful engraving of the castle, the article details a tour of the gardens which at that time consisted of extensive kitchen gardens and an arboretum.

The article describes numerous fruit and plant ‘houses’ for peaches, nectarines, vines (Muscats and Hamburghs), melons, cucumbers as well as flowering plants ‘for decorative purposes’ (presumably for the Duke’s apartments in the castle) such as orchids (Cypripedium and Dendrobium), pelargoniums and nepenthes. The author mentions no less than four ‘pine-pits’, each 45 feet long! Today the castle’s organic kitchen garden is impressive but more modest in scale, though it does have two very fine glasshouses, one a restored Victorian vinery dating from 1853. The garden was restored in the mid 1990s and is based on the design of the gardens at Frogmore House in Windsor Great Park.

We were told that the garden is operated on a four year rotation for growing vegetables, and that there is extensive use of companion planting, with flowers such as Sweet Williams planted to attract pollinators and create a natural barrier to deflect pests like carrot fly. Martin pointed out an elaborate network of ropes almost at eye level along which gourds will be trained later in the season. The beds are edged in box and the walls shelter several fan-trained fruit trees: Morello cherry, plum (protected with a tarpaulin on the day of our visit which was unseasonably cold) and Conference pear among them. An arched frame running through the kitchen garden is trained with old apple varieties including the wonderfully named Peasgood’s Nonsuch. In one of the beds is a pocket meadow to bring in pollinators and there’s also a very fine house for that master slug-slayer, the hedgehog. At the foot of the long glasshouses stand a rank of cold frames all heaving with seedlings ready to be planted out once the risk of frost has passed. We were shown red-veined sorrel and a species sweet pea called ‘Tutankhamen’.

Leaving the kitchen garden, you enter a courtyard where a dense display of tulips in pots is massed beneath a flower-laden cherry tree: another magical touch in this special garden.

Like T Baines in The Gardeners’ Chronicle, I am going to leave you mid tour until next week. But before I go, in the 1875 article, after admiring the manner in which the fruit trees in the orchard were maintained, the author states that ‘here, as in each department of this fine place, are ample evidence of Mr Wilson’s ability as a gardener’. Were T. Baines to visit Arundel Castle’s gardens today I’ve no doubt he could say the same for Martin Gardner, his team of six gardeners and cohort of volunteers.

(Next time: The White Garden, the Rose Garden and the Stew Ponds)

Of scythes and sails

The absence of posts to this blog for a month has been preying on my mind. Other tasks took precedence in the form of gardening work both on site and on the page. On site because it’s mulching season meaning that some gardens in TW9 have been generous covered with a 5cm layer of shredded horse manure from Woodland Horticulture delivered from Somerset. And when not mulching I’ve been pruning wisteria and roses and preparing two gardens for re-planting projects scheduled for completion in the next fortnight. On the page because I was fortunate to be asked to update some pages for a commercial gardening website, the subject matter being garden pests and diseases.

And as if those tasks weren’t enough to fill my time, I’m now at the halfway point in an online course on the history of the English landscape garden through Oxford Continuing Education. This week we’ve been looking at three of the key gardens of the earlier part of the C18, Stowe, Studley Royal and Stourhead. But in fact it was another garden of the period that no longer exists in its 1730s incarnation that I want to share with you, or more specifically three charming paintings of the garden. Hartwell House near Amersham is now a luxury hotel and the current layout of the grounds dates from a later period. The garden was made in the mid 1730s by Sir Thomas Lee. When the garden was complete he commissioned Balthasar Nebot, a little-known Spanish painter, based in Covent Garden, to record his estate and garden.  This he did, portraying the estate workers and gardeners in great detail.

How little and yet how much has changed in the work of a gardener. We still collect weeds and grass clippings in a container, my turquoise plastic trug being the equivalent of the C18 gardener’s basket. In non-lockdown winters we still manoeuvre a roller over the vegetable garden beds at Osterley after mulching them with leaf mould. And we still clip yew hedges by hand using shears. 300 years may have passed but these simple tasks and tools connect us to the gardeners who have gone before us.

And during a passionate talk this week by head gardener Ben Preston of York Gate outside Leeds, I learnt that the use of scythes is not confined to 300 year old landscape paintings and Ross Poldark. The meadow at York Gate is cut by hand by Ben and his team. He explained that by cutting it by hand they can identify the areas where the grass grows thickest. The hay is cut into windrows and sent to a local community farm. Apparently Eastern European visitors to the garden comment that the sight of the hay meadow being cut by scythes reminds them of seeing their grandparents working on the land in a similar way.

Meadow at York Gate

Another element of the garden at York Gate chimed with the Hartwell paintings where clipped yew is used to such dramatic effect. At York Gate a line of yew ‘sails’ cuts through the garden forming both a focal point and a boundary with one of the many ‘garden rooms’. The garden is owned and run by the gardening charity Perennial and a friend who until a couple of years ago also volunteered at Osterley now volunteers in the York Gate shop. I’ve added this special garden to a growing list of gardens to visit.

The yew sails at York Gate

I shall leave you here as I have some course reading to finish about the glorious landscape at Stourhead in Wiltshire, a garden I HAVE visited. I went on a beautiful autumn day in November 2019. Stourhead is only a short drive off the A303, my route to and from my niece and her family in Somerset. It was such a glorious day that I made a detour on the drive home and immersed myself in the tranquil atmosphere of Stourhead, where classical temples reflect into the lake and, on the day of my visit, the scene was all the more beautiful because of the leaves changing colour. A classic image of the garden follows.

Gardening advice, 9th century style

Walafrid Strabbo, a ninth century abbott in what is now modern Germany, wrote a poem in Latin, Hortulus, in which he extols the virtues of gardening. I discovered the following extract during background reading for an online course I’ve started this week about the history of English landscape gardens. It contains advice as relevant to those of us lucky enough to have a garden in 2021 as it was 1,100 years ago. Though I do wonder if he penned the final line after a day shifting manure and before a restorative Epsom salts bath!

Though a life of retreat offers various joys,
None, I think, will compare with the time one employs
In the study of herbs, or in striving to gain
Some practical knowledge of nature’s domain
Get a garden! What kind you may get matters not…..

The advice given here is no copy-book rule,
Picked up second-hand, read in books, learned at school,
But the fruit of hard labour and personal test
To which I have sacrificed pleasure and rest.  

Audit participation

With 2,300 species recorded in one year, I can hardly expect a biodiversity audit of my garden to compete with Great Dixter’s 6 acres. In a terrific online lecture for the Kew Mutual Improvement Society, the archaically named organisation run by Kew’s Diploma students, whose winter lecture series always contain some gems, head gardener Fergus Garrett reported on the findings of a Biodiversity Audit of the famous East Sussex garden covering the period 2017-2019.

He began by setting the scene for those like me who haven’t been to Great Dixter. With uplifting summer images he showed us the ‘show gardens’ near the house, the meadows rich in common spotted orchids and the coppiced woodlands. Lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis) and Mexican daisies (Erigeron karvinskianus) spill across limestone paving slabs and steps. Ribbons of ox-eye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) flow around the stock beds. Foaming cow parsley umbels are encouraged in some of the formal planted areas and roses tumble across buildings. A multi-layered system of plants co-exist creating a seemingly informal style of planting. Such an intensively planted garden requires careful management, but from the images I saw this is delivered with a light touch.

Pandemic permitting, I’m determined to get to Great Dixter this year. But Fergus Garrett’s enthusiasm has inspired more than a garden visit. The surprise finding from the Great Dixter audit is that the formal gardens are the most diverse, leading me to want to investigate how biodiverse my garden is. Of course January isn’t the ideal month to undertake such a project, but I’ve done a quick non-scientific mental audit, and have come up with a good number of species of creatures as well as native plants (in other words, weeds!).

Plants: without having to think about it too deeply, in most years you’ll find the following here:

  • Green alkanet (Pentaglossis sempervirens)
  • Hedge bindweed (Calystegia sepium)
  • Spurge (Euphorbia peplus)
  • Mind your own business (Soleiriolia soleiriolii)
  • Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum)

The alleyway beside the house would probably yield a list twice as long of the weeds inhabiting the earth path and which I pull out when they become too tall, but otherwise tolerate. When I was studying for the RHS Level 2 Diploma a few years ago, that narrow strip was perfect for practising identification of most of the plants featured in the ident. test during weed week.

From left to right: spurge, herb Robert, mind-your-own-business, green alkanet photographed this morning.

Creatures: here’s my quick list of vertebrates and invertebrates spotted in the garden over the last couple of years:

  • Frogs. Last May I counted 11 frogs disporting themselves in the 150cm x 60cm pond. Their croaky chorus is an annual delight.
I photographed this chap in a puddle next to the house in April 2020.
  • Bees. In 2021 I want to learn to identify the different bee species that come to the garden. This looks like a handy field guide from the Field Studies Council: https://www.field-studies-council.org/shop/publications/bees-identification-guide/ Three years ago I remember sitting on the garden bench with my then four year old great nephew watching for several minutes as a leaf-cutter bee (Megachile species) methodically cut neat. semi-circular portions of leaf from a plant growing in a pot beside the bench. These solitary bees use the leaf pieces to build cells for their eggs. In a scene reminiscent of a David Attenborough documentary, on one of the bee’s return journeys from its nest it flew directly into an elaborate web spun by a stripey garden spider (Araneus diadematus?). The more the bee struggled to escape, the more entangled it became and we watched as the spider dashed across the web to its wrap its victim in a silken harness. Having secured its prey the spider went about its business. The following morning we checked to see if the bee had been able to free itself, only to find that the spider had eaten half of it. Thankfully the small person was unphased by this demonstration of ‘nature red in tooth and claw’.
  • Scarlet lily beetles. Beastly in more ways than one! I didn’t claim this was a list of benign species only! I try to be as vigilant as I can in spotting these vivid red pests and their slimy brown ‘frass’ (poo, in which larvae are concealed), squishing the former and wiping off the latter from the stems of the pink oriental lilies that I’ve been growing in the same container for a few years now.
  • Stag beetles. Sadly I found a dead beetle, like the upturned hull of a ship, lying on the yard last summer. I used to recoil from them in flight, I think due to their size, when they don’t seem much smaller than a wren. But having learnt more about their detritus-clearing activities I now recognise them as a force for good. One of Fergus Garrett’s initiatives at Great Dixter is the creation in the meadows and woodlands of ‘habitat piles’ made from shrub prunings from the garden. As gardeners we often feel compelled to over-tidy our gardens, clearing away leaf-litter and twiggy material which might shelter beneficial organisms. I’m gradually learning to leave pockets and corners of the garden undisturbed to allow ‘detritivores’ such as stag beetles to do the clearing for me.
  • Bats. Until last summer I’d not seen bats gliding over the garden on hot summer nights for several years, but I’m happy to report that they came back in 2020. I love to watch them silently pursuing their airborne prey.
  • Field mouse. Out of the corner of my eye I sometimes glimpse their tiny forms disappearing into corners and behind flower-pots. There was an old teak bedside cabinet in my old shed in which I kept bits and bobs such as old bulb packet labels etc. I once opened a drawer to find the cardboard shredded into minute strips and moulded into a cosy nest, the little family long dispersed.
  • Butterflies. I spotted many butterflies in the garden last summer, including a peacock butterfly, although the photograph below right was actually taken in the Agius Evolution Garden in Kew on 14 July 2020. I see from the photo stream on my phone that I photographed this red admiral on the garden fence on 28 June 2020.
  • Birds: according to the recorded clip on my ‘Chirp-o-matic’ app, it was a tawny owl’s eerie cry that I heard on the evening of 17 August 2020 as I stood at the back door. I feed the birds in my garden every day. After drawing the kitchen blinds and putting the kettle on to boil, it’s part of my morning ritual to put seed into the a feeder on the ground for blackbirds and robins and into the tray of a wooden hanging feeder. In the recent cold spell I defrosted the birdbath daily with a kettle full of boiling water. A birdbath provides fresh drinking water and an opportunity for the birds to bathe. They do this to dislodge parasites and trap moisture in their plumage which after a post-shower shake-out helps keep them warm. Last Sunday, an hour after it had started snowing, I glanced out of the window to see that something (robin or blackbird?) had washed and brushed up so vigorously that the recently defrosted dish was completely empty! This weekend’s Big Garden Birdwatch for the RSPB has been an opportunity to count the birds in my garden over a one hour period. Sadly this morning’s vigil for the BGB yielded only the usual suspects on this cold last day of January: two bedraggled feral pigeons and a forlorn wood pigeon. And a great tit systematically searching for grubs in the hazel tree in the garden behind mine.
Bathing robin April 2020
Rose-ringed parakeets sometimes visit the garden

Thank you Fergus Garrett for reminding me why I garden. Naturally I want to create a space which is visually attractive and pleasant to spend time in. But as you memorably expressed it in your talk we can also ‘blur edges between horticulture and ecology without compromising artistic merit’.

31 January 2021

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