East meets west, in the west: Sezincote

On the last day of August this year, I visited a unique house and garden in the Cotswolds. From the main road, the A44, the tree-lined drive conceals the extraordinary sight of Sezincote House until its final bend. The grand honey coloured Cotswold stone house is crowned by an Indian style dome and decorated on the four corners of its roof by smaller domes. Peacock tail inspired window surrounds grace the front facade and the Indian theme was reinforced by a classic Ambassador car parked at the front door decorated with flowers in preparation for a wedding at the property the following day.

The garden also contains several Eastern features, the first to be encountered by a visitor being the Indian Bridge at the entrance to which stands the ticket kiosk. The bridge is decorated with kneeling Brahmin cattle sculptures, metal replicas of the Coadestone originals, the manufacturer’s name legible on each plinth. The bridge spans the area of the garden known as The Thornery, an extensive water garden. This descends in a series of pools and streams from a circular pool in front of a small temple dedicated to the Hindu god Surya down to the Island Pool, beyond which real cattle graze in the surrounding meadows. Immediately beneath the bridge and reached by a narrow path, a series of rectangular stepping stones lead you to the Snake Pool, in the centre of which stands a serpent entwined column.

The damp environment of the banks of the streams and less formal pools encourage plants such as Hosta sieboldiana, Rodgersias and Alchemilla mollis to thrive, their contrasting green shades, leaf shapes and structures providing interest at the water’s edge. The lawns to either side of the stream are planted with rare specimen trees and shrubs including three stately Cedars of Lebanon (Cedrus libani). Hydrangeas feature here as do two species of hazel: the ‘wriggly nut’ Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’ and the purple nut Corylus maxima ‘Purpurea’. Late summer afternoon sunshine highlighted the tiered branches of the wedding cake tree, Cornus controversa, which has been given adequate space in which to extend its graceful limbs.

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The artfully ‘natural’ planting of The Thornery contrasts with the formality of the Persian Garden to the south of the house. In keeping with the design principles of the paradise garden, this area consists of four quadrants, created by a waterlily filled canal intersected by paths lined with Irish yew columns (Taxus baccata ‘Fastigiata’). At the centre of the quadrant sits a raised octagonal pond.  A life-like pair of Asian elephant sculptures placed at the end of the canal have something of Disney’s Animal Kingdom about them. Beyond these beasts a steep slope rises towards woodland beyond the garden.

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The Sezincote guidebook contains a beautiful photograph of the garden showing brightly coloured autumn foliage beyond the bridge. A good season in which to return perhaps?

Next time I plan which spring bulbs to buy for containers and observe some bulbs which flower in autumn.

Such a bind: two foes and a friend

Having spent many of my hours in the garden this summer waging war against an invading army of the twining stems of Hedge Bindweed, Calystegia sepium, I found myself pondering whether other members of the Convolvulaceae family might have more merit in a garden context. A recent day in the Tudor Walled Garden at Osterley House and Garden provided the answer: yes and no!

Although its white trumpet shaped flower is attractive, it is better to prevent Hedge Bindweed flowering in the first place so as to avoid the plant setting and scattering seed. A pernicious perennial weed, it also spreads via a prodigious root system which can colonise mixed borders and, if left unchecked, strangle the plants it scrambles up and around. Where this is allowed to happen, the plant beneath is all but obliterated by a cloak of overlapping heart shaped leaves with prominent drip tips.

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Calystegia sepia on the banks of the River Crane in Twickenham

I’ve always tried to control this unwelcome tenant in the flower bed to the left of my own garden by removing it by hand, carefully prising the roots from the soil and taking care not to snap off the white fleshy root before extracting its tip. This is easier said than done and I’ve learnt that the roots extend for several metres like an underground rail network with numerous branch lines. When the bed is filled in the growing season with herbaceous specimens, it is impossible to remove the Hedge Bindweed completely and it is just a question of being vigilant and removing it as soon as it emerges. When the plants in the bed have died back in the winter months is the time to dig out as much of this root system as possible.

This summer, for the first time ever, I became so frustrated by this wretched weed penetrating from the neighbouring garden beneath the gravel board at the base of the fence and entwining itself  around every plant in this bed, that I resorted to using a chemical control in the form of a herbicide gel. Applying Glyphosate gel to the leaves of the weed is a tricky task because it is imperative to avoid the foliage of other plants. The gel took effect within a few weeks with the treated stems turning brown and the leaves withering. However, in the meantime, a report about the potentially carcinogenic impact of the chemical was widely publicised and my brief flirtation with non-organic gardening came to an abrupt end. When the bindweed was at its worst I nursed a megalomaniac’s fantasy of replacing the fence with a wall with footings deep enough to stop the onslaught, but the thought of the disruption and expense soon put pay to that.

Field Bindweed, Convolvulus arvensis, is another unwelcome member of the bindweed family. It is singled out for special attention when weeding the four large ornamental vegetable beds which make up Osterley’s Tudor Walled Garden. With smaller leaves than is cousin from the hedgerows, its flowers are smaller and pale pink. Its habit is to creep along the soil, supported by another immense root system. I’ve read in a wonderful book, ‘Weeds Weeding and Darwin’ by William Edmonds, that the roots can descend as far as five metres. Like Hedge Bindweed, the upper roots are brittle and because the weed will regenerate from any fragments left in the soil, one of the cohort of garden volunteers is appointed to concentrate on Field Bindweed removal and to extract as much of the root as possible collecting the debris in a separate bucket from those used for other less pernicious weeds. This material is not tipped onto the heap waiting to be composted but is placed in a separate container in which to rot down, lest it contaminate the compost carefully created by the Osterley garden team for use as a mulch throughout the garden in early spring.

It was while working in this spectacular section of the gardens at Osterley a fortnight ago, in a bed where cucumbers and courgettes grow alongside lime green Nicotiana and white spider flowers, Cleome spinosa, that I encountered, trained up an obelisk, the benign and very handsome  Ipomaea purpurea ‘Grandpa Ott’. This is a cultivar of Morning Glory, an annual cousin of the unwelcome bindweeds mentioned above. Osterley’s Head Gardener observed that unlike the plant bearing the clear blue flowers of the classic Morning Glory, ‘Grandpa Ott’ does not succumb to powdery mildew. Its deep purple flowers are velvety and prolific. I was assigned the task of gathering the black peppercorn like seeds into an envelope and a few minutes of popping open the fragile dried seedheads yielded a substantial harvest, ready to sow for next year’s display. I am happy to have observed that not all members of the bindweed family are a bind.

Two ‘stout’ gardens in Dublin

On a visit to Dublin this August I discovered two very different gardens, linked by associations to the Guinness dynasty.

The first, Farmleigh House and Gardens, lies on the western perimeter of Europe’s largest enclosed public park, Phoenix Park. The estate was created in the latter half of the C19 by Edward Cecil Guinness, the grandson of the founder of the Guinness Brewery, J. Arthur Guinness. The Irish state bought Farmleigh in 1999 to host official visitors to Ireland, and photographs displayed in its elegant rooms record visits by Barack Obama, Elizabeth II and Justin Trudeau. Before reaching the house and gardens, you walk from the car park along a lane bounded by pastureland occupied by a herd of shiny black Kerry cattle and, in a neighbouring field,  four rescue donkeys.

As well as landscaped grounds graced with mature specimen trees and a peaceful lake overlooked by a popular Boathouse Cafe, there is a large walled garden area. Yew hedging acts as a foil to the pale palette of a double herbaceous border, where the whites of lilies and Acanthus mollis, Bear’s Breeches, are accented by orange day lilies, Hemerocallis,  and the giant thistle-like heads of mauve  Cardoons, Cynara cardunculus. The garden glasshouse is in need of restoration but the surrounding cutting garden is neatly arranged into plots demarcated with wooden shuttering, one section of which housed a glorious display of Echinacea purpurea.

Another Dublin garden owes its origins to Ireland’s most famous beverage. The Landscape architect Ninian Niven was commissioned by Benjamin Lee Guinness in the 1860s to create Iveagh Gardens for his nearby townhouse. They were gifted to the Irish state by a subsequent Lord Iveagh. The peaceful public park is situated to the south of the more well known St. Stephen’s Green, where memories of the struggle for Irish independence during the Easter Rising of 1916 contrast with its formal Victorian flower beds, fountains and bandstands. Iveagh Gardens are so secluded as to be almost secret. I found a modest entrance on Earlsfort Terrace, to the side of the National Concert Hall, in an area housing international law firms and financial institutions. The Gardens’ long rectangular footprint is surrounded by mature trees, masking the multi-storeyed buildings nearby. An avenue of standard hollies links a rose garden, The Rosarium, and yew maze to a sunken lawn which was Ireland’s first purpose-built archery ground. The recent drought had stilled the water features to either side of this avenue. The Rustic Water Cascade is spectacular, its high rocky outcrop reflected in a pool at is feet, framed by clifflets in the crevices of which numerous fern species thrive. These include several large Tree Ferns, Dicksonia antarctica, their geometrically arranged fronds mirrored in the water below. Twin circular pools in a lawned area feature elegant female figures in Art Nouveau style, atop rocky plinths. Each lady bears a large dish from which water spills in damper times. I had noted earlier, in a service area in St. Stephen’s Green, a water tanker on which a laminated A4 sheet indicated it contained ‘canal water’, presumably from the nearby Grand Canal. The lawn of the archery field was patchy, its parched areas beginning to re-green following the return of wetter conditions. My exploration of  a narrow gravel path along the perimeter of the park led me towards a gateway beside which stands a stout figure, preserved in bronze in the act of singing, arms outstretched and lips parted: Count John McCormack. A plaque celebrates Ireland’s greatest tenor of the C20. His statue is set in a woody glade, with low growing shade loving plants at his feet, including several self-seeded oak saplings.

Next time: an Indian garden in the heart of the Cotswolds.

The author’s garden 7 July 2018

Sweltering temperatures for the past month and scarcely any rain have necessitated frequent watering sessions in my Kew garden assisted by a new acquisition, a very elegant long reach galvanised watering can from Haws, replacing the cracked plastic can I’ve used for years.

Thankfully several specimens in the garden are relatively drought tolerant and there are plenty of flowers on display providing nectar for an assortment of pollinators. Verbena bonariensis flowers, consisting of tiny five petalled florets clustered atop an Angelica like stem, attract both honey and bumble bees. Last summer’s window box lavender plant has settled comfortably into a pot in the sunniest corner of the plot, its grey-green foliage a foil for the sugary pink and orchid shaped petals of the Chinese Foxglove, Rehmannia elata. Nearby, a cerise pink Osteospermum has re-flowered, after I split the original specimen into the three plants of which it was made up when I was given it earlier in the summer. Each individual was enmeshed in the teabag like material which I sometimes feel inhibits vigorous growth of plants sold as annuals. Having dead-headed the spent petals and released the roots I re-planted each plant in pots located in different areas of the garden. Significantly, that in the sunniest spot has been the first to re-flower.

A tomato plant in this corner of the garden is the epitome of strength and vigour and I hope to avoid the blight which saw off last summer’s plants in an overnight collapse. I’ve enjoyed monitoring the success of three plants bought from a plant sale at Osterley House a year ago, all propagated on site from stock plants. Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ has been a star performer. Tucked into a shady spot near the kitchen window, its blooms emerge as bright green pom-poms, fading as they increase in girth to a soft cream, until reaching the size of a football. The weight of the flowers means staking the stems but this is a small price to pay for a display which lifts my spirits each time I look out at the garden. Phygelius capensis was a discovery and thrives in the dappled sunshine provided by the Pieris planted in a corner of the patio. One of its common names is Cape Fuchsia and the 3cm orange trumpet shaped flowers certainly resemble those of Fuchsia ‘Thalia’. The tips of the petal openings are bright scarlet, visible only when tilted upwards for closer inspection. Like Annabelle, it’s a thirsty plant and a challenge during the current dry spell. Less susceptible to a scarcity of water is another pot-planted purchase from Osterley, Stipa tenuissima, whose fine curled tips create a golden haze of filaments which shimmer in the sunshine.

Having removed a yellow flowered Day Lily, Hemerocallis, from the pot in which it had languished without flowering for a couple of years, I have replaced it with perennials identified in the July edition of the RHS’s The Garden magazine as attractive to pollinators. Two are members of the daisy family: Echinacea purpurea ‘Magnus’ and Erigeron karvinskianus. The third, Eryngium planum ‘Blue Hobbit’, is a distant relative of the carrot and having read that the genus dislikes being crowded by other plants, I’ve now put it into a separate pot. This is a relatively dwarf cultivar, due to reach a height of 30cm.

Next time, I discover a hidden park in the centre of Dublin.