Blue Monday

I spent yesterday on a one day course in cyanotype printing at the CityLit Institute in Holborn. I’d come across cyanotype prints in a couple of amateur art exhibitions and in a Landscape magazine article about an artist who prints onto fabric from which she makes lampshades and soft furnishings, and thought I’d like to try it. In case you’re wondering what this has to do with gardens and gardening, it’s a technique that has been used since it was invented in the C19 to document plant material.

The story starts with the astronomer Sir John Herschel who invented the cyanotype printing process in 1842. His friend Anna Atkins (1799-1871) is credited with being the first woman to create a photograph and the first to publish a photographically illustrated book. She was, first and foremost, a botanist and adopted this new technique to record with great accuracy the plants and seaweed she collected and studied. She often dried and pressed the plants she portrayed before laying them out for the image. Many of her works are now in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Our tutor Adam Hogarth explained that by the end of the course we would have learnt how to make cyanotypes using both photographs and found objects. The first step is to coat the paper with ‘iron salt’ a solution combining two chemicals with bottled still water. Adam prepared the light sensitive solution in a plastic flask and kept it in a cupboard to protect it from daylight until we needed it. Fortunately the day was very overcast and the light levels in the studio were low, because the process should be carried out in subdued light.

Using Canaletto 330g paper, we painted on an even amount of solution with a broad dry brush, leaving it to dry in a dark cupboard until needed. This usually takes about an hour, but the process can be speeded up by using a hair dryer. These sheets are called contact sheets.

Before I go on to describe the various techniques we learnt for creating the images which we were to learn how to print using the cyanotype printing process, here is the recipe for the solution:

10g Potassium Ferricyanide: using still bottled water, make up to 100ml in a calibrated flask.

25g Ferric Ammonium Citrate: ditto

Make sure both components are thoroughly dissolved before combining them.

Technique No. 1: Digital acetate

We emailed a few images to Adam who used Photoshop to convert them to black and white, he then adjusted the images for brightness and contrast before turning them into negatives and printing them onto A4 acetate sheets.

I chose four photographs: Seamus the cat on the kitchen windowsill, a scene from Kew Gardens with the Davies Alpine House in the background, a Euphorbia flower head and a pair of snowdrops photographed at East Lambrook Manor Gardens in February (Galanthus plicatus Phil Cornish).

Technique No. 2: Autographic marks

This was the bit I found very challenging: the brief was to hand draw bold marks on tracing paper using a selection of black wax crayons, a Japanese calligraphy pen, black markers etc. The blacked out areas would appear white when printed. I tentatively made some random shapes with a wax crayon, trying to make the blacked out areas as dense as possible. Drawing is not my strong suit and part of the appeal of this printing method is to create something artistic without having to draw!

Technique No. 3: Found objects

Plant material such as fern fronds, leaves or seed heads seem the obvious subject but I learnt that you can use all sorts: feathers, lace, scraps of woven fabric such as scrim, anything that might create a pleasing pattern on the finished print. Because we were using a light box with a rubber cover which was suctioned down flat onto the objects whilst they were being ‘printed’, our found objects had to be relatively flat so as not to damage the cover. Wineglasses were not allowed!

Next came the fun part: placing the acetate, tracing paper or found objects (or a combination of them) onto the surface of the lightbox and covering them with a contact sheet before closing the lid and pressing the GO button. The lightbox was on a setting of 55F meaning it was on full beam. A thin sliver of UV light was visible around the edges of the cover while the lightbox rumbled loudly during the period of exposure. Lifting the lid, we transferred the contact sheets into a bath of tap water to wash off the yellowy green solution. Swirling the paper around in the bath the image begins to emerge against a blue background which, as the paper dries, intensifies to a deep indigo. We stuck our images to a screen above the bath to drip dry for a few minutes before moving them to a huge multi-sectioned drying rack.

The original and most low tech method for developing cyanotype prints is to harness the sun’s UV light by exposing the contact sheets in bright sunshine. The rest of the process is much the same, save that because the light source is from above rather than below the contact sheet is placed facing upwards with the found object or the acetate* placed upon it. A sheet of glass or a perspex clip frame is used to hold the subject flat.

Once we’d printed a couple of conventional sheets using found objects and acetates, we were encouraged to experiment by mixing our source material. I tried superimposing a fern onto my Kew Gardens photograph, and popped a cut out of a snowdrop acetate onto the same image, resulting in a rather ghostly scene!

Cyanotypes can be tinted using tannin (tea, coffee, red wine!) to substitute sepia tones rather than an intense blue. Adam also told us about another technique, anthotype printing, where the light sensitive solution is made from strongly pigmented plants such as spinach leaves or beetroot instead of chemicals. The plants are mashed up in a blender and strained through a muslin, the liquid is used to create a light-sensitive contact sheet with the images or objects being placed on top of it as outlined above before exposing the sheet to the sun. Rather than blue, the images emerge in green or dark red, depending on the material used. It struck me this would be a great activity for the great nephews on a hot summer’s day.

I’d no idea until attending this course how popular cyanotype printing is and the extent to which you can make quite abstract images. I’m abuzz now with ideas for perhaps a seaside themed image, using shells and seaweed or for a cyanotype record of the flowers in the garden through the seasons.

*The image printed onto the acetate should be a digital positive when printing with a light source from above.

At lunchtime I walked across Kingsway to Lincoln’s Inn Fields and through to New Square in Lincoln’s Inn where I worked in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Although the squares and courtyards of this atmospheric Inn of Court are still lit by gas light I noticed that a concession to the 21st century has been made with the installation of electric car charging points. I admired the beautiful planting in the garden areas of the Inn, exemplified by this stunning combination of Euphorbia and Stachyurus praecox in the garden to one side of New Square.

I think this was my favourite image from the eight or so I made yesterday, combining the skeleton of a magnolia leaf, a piece of fern and a cut out acetate of an unusual snowdrop (Galanthus plicatus Phil Cornish).

Isle of Beauty

I was at a pub quiz once when the quizmaster asked contestants the former names of a series of places: Ghana (Gold Coast), Istanbul (Constantinople), Iceland (Bejam!!!)* I was reminded of this trick quiz question when I came across two plants within a week bearing similar species names** deriving from the word Formosa, the name given to the island of Taiwan by Portuguese sailors in the C16 and in common use by English speakers until well into the C20. Thinking it would be a jumping off point for a blog about a couple of plants sharing the old name of this island to the east of mainland China I started to dig into the subject. I discovered I was mistaken about at least one of the plants in question originating in Taiwan. Formosa means beautiful in Latin, so the botanists who named it were referring to its attractive appearance, not geographical origin!

For the last three years, in February, I have pruned all the late summer flowering shrubs in a garden in Teddington. One of the largest shrubs there is Leycesteria formosa, a spectacular deciduous shrub which is sometimes called Himalayan honeysuckle. Forming a thicket of upright branches, it can reach heights of 2m and bears tapered dark green leaves. At or near the the tips of the branches hang flower ‘spikes’ measuring up to 10cm long made up of white flowers threaded between dark purplish-red bracts. Pruning is easy: like Buddleia and hardy Fuchsia, the bare branches (which are hollow and bamboo like) are cut down to the base each winter. The RHS Encyclopaedia of Garden Plants states that it originates in cliffs and mountain woodland in India, China, the Himalayas and Myanmar, with no mention of Taiwan. This plant is named for its beauty not its native territory.

Thankfully though my romantically named island theory does apply to Tricyrtis formosiana which hails from Taiwan! The common name of this woodland herbaceous perennial is toad lily. Whether this is because its purple spotted flowers resemble a particular species of toad I have yet to find out. I recently refreshed the planting in a client’s shady cottage style front garden by introducing some shade loving ground cover (Brunnera macrophylla Jack Frost and Epimedium perralchium Frohnleiten) and thought it would be fun to throw in something more unusual in the form of a toad lily. The cultivar I chose is called Dark Beauty and flowers in August and September growing to approximately 60cm. Apparently young plants can be susceptible to slug and snail attack, so it would be good to think there might be some real amphibians in the vicinity to see off the gastropods!

Regular readers of this blog have probably noticed that I am fascinated by the history of plant names. Studying these two plants has taught me that it pays to look beyond the words used, because the obvious meaning is not necessary the correct one.

This is a rare post without photographs as neither plant flowers until later in the year. I’ve made myself a note to revisit this post when I’ve had a chance to take photographs of both.

*In January 1989, frozen food retailer Bejam was bought by its rival Iceland.

**Most plants bear names consisting of two words. The first is the genus name to indicate the group of plants it belongs to. The second is the species name and is usually descriptive of its origin, colour, appearance or other distinctive feature.

The Garden Press Event 2023

Swapping my secateurs for a notebook and pencil two days ago, I headed east to the Business Design Centre in Islington to attend the Garden Press Event where companies showcase innovations in garden tools, machinery, accessories and materials to the garden media. This was my third GPE if I don’t count the two virtual events held during the pandemic. As well as tracking trends it’s a great opportunity to meet up with fellow members of the Garden Media Guild be they bloggers like myself, journalists, podcasters or social media influencers.

It was refreshing to see the huge emphasis on sustainability throughout the show and I’m highlighting some of the initiatives in this direction in this blog post as well as a nifty way to stop garden hose connectors from leaking and a collaboration between the National Trust and a garden centre chain.

I chatted to as many of the stands as I could identify promoting growing media free of peat. By 2024 no compost can be sold containing peat. This is not a moment too soon to protect unique habitats such as the Somerset Levels, which we’ve plundered for decades to produce potting compost for amateur and professional gardeners alike.

I buy masses of peat-free compost throughout the year for myself and for clients, for use in containers as well as for propagating plants so it was interesting to see the well-established brands and some newcomers. The RHS endorsed Sylvagrow peat free range is made by Melcourt who this year celebrate 40 years in the industry. Cumbria based Dalefoot is gaining a reputation for high quality (and expensive) peat free products based on bracken and the wool of Herdwick sheep. Two exhibitors use compressed coir (coconut husk) in compost blocks: Eazy Grow Compost from Eazy Gardening Ltd and Coco & Coir from Southern Trident. Once soaked in water these relatively light blocks transform into all purpose potting composts. It would certainly save lugging 40 and 50 litre bags of compost around. Southern Trident has also blended different nutrients into 9 litre blocks specifically for orchids and houseplants respectively. New Leaf peat free compost made in Northern Ireland is endorsed by garden designer and TV personality Diarmuid Gavin.

I was very taken by the attractive designs of the 100% recycled plastic bird feeders from Dutch company Singing Friend. They have developed a way to recycle the plastic lining of Tetrapak-type drinks cartons, making it into lightweight bird feeders in a neutral khaki shade retailing for less than £10. I love the story of this family company, now run by its third generation, being founded in 1951 by a man with a passion for birds. Their mission statement sums up the company philosophy well: We build a bridge between design and nature, and stimulate the creation of new living environments for birds, by people. 

Continuing the sustainability theme, it was good to meet Chris Wiley of the Sustainable Plant Store, a new company selling eco-friendly alternatives to popular plants and garden products. I particularly liked the 8cm coir pots bound with natural latex as an alternative to the ubiquitous plastic flower pot. Another exhibitor proposing a substitute for plastic pots was Wool-Pots whose minimalist ecru coloured knitted ‘socks’ approx. 12 cm long can be filled with compost and stood on a terracotta saucer or stood en masse in a seed tray and used for potting on seedlings or growing cuttings and can then be planted straight into the ground. The wool will biodegrade in time and leaving the ‘lip’ proud of the soil is said to deter slugs and snails. At the moment the product is manufactured in Egypt in a factory which is SEDEX* certified and plants two trees for every order under their ‘plant one get one tree’ initiative. Wool-Pots ambition is to start its own factory in the UK.

I can’t be the only gardener to waste frustrating time each summer trying to fix a connector back on the end of a hose after it’s shot off under pressure. Qwickhose from Rivendale products have created a universal hose connector using a wing-lock system instead of the plastic teeth used in conventional connectors. Their starter set consists of two connectors, a tap connector and a nozzle spray to be stored in a neat wall mount which I shall fix to the shed wall this week. Unlike their competitors’ trademark yellow plastic, this product is a distinctive shade of blue. I got a pleasant surprise when I opened the carton to find it included a strip of recycled cotton embedded with tomato seeds!

One of the largest stands at the show was occupied by Blue Diamond Garden Centres which in 2022 began a five year collaboration with the National Trust. Naturally, as a garden volunteer with the Trust I was keen to find out more about this project. So it was fun to chat to Andy Jasper, National Head of Gardens and Parklands for the Trust. A fellow South Cornishman, he of course knows NT Osterley’s head gardener, Andy Eddy. The Blue Diamond/National Trust collaboration has resulted in several new lines including a collection of more than 60 flower seed varieties inspired by the Trust’s gardens, at least 10% of the retail selling price of which will be given to the Trust. The beauty of the Trust’s gardens is reflected in several ranges of bulbs, the collection of naturalising bulbs such as crocus and species tulips to be launched later in the year.

My favourite product on this beautifully designed stand was the box containing 14 herbaceous perennials in various sized pots inspired by the herbaceous border at NT Nymans in West Sussex. The cover of the container includes a plan of the planting scheme and a description of each plant. This bespoke collection includes Heuchera Lime Marmalade (which I love despite a client having told me after I planted it in his garden that it reminded him of lettuce!) and Rudbeckia Goldsturm. Close inspection of the plant descriptions revealed that they were all describing a Crocosmia, possibly Lucifer, but I think the exhibitors can be cut some slack for displaying a prototype containing placeholder text. The collections, which will also include the herbaceous border at Hill Top in Cumbria, the White Garden at Sissinghurst and the Red Borders at Hidcote will go on sale in April. These would be brilliant presents for someone moving into a brand new house with a blank page of a garden to plant up.

Another clever initiative arising out of this collaboration is the propagation of a limited number of specimens from two iconic trees at Trust properties: Isaac Newton’s Apple Tree from Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincs and the Ankerwyke Yew from the banks of the River Thames opposite Runnymede. The young trees are being raised in The National Trust Plant Conservation Centre based in a secret location in Devon and will be for sale in exclusive auctions in 2024. Blue Diamond is already selling a collection of the roses which can be seen in the rose garden at Powis Castle in Wales and is launching a new rose this summer: ‘Mottisfont’ is named for the home in Hampshire of the National Collection of old roses. From the photograph this new rose looks to be a beautiful multi-petalled rich deep pink.

My final shout out is to Niwaki who as always displayed their beautiful garden tools and accessories on a stylish stand. They displayed endless patience in answering my questions. The hori hori Japanese trowel remains my favourite garden tool and it was interesting to see a demonstration of its blade being sharpened with a diamond file. I also found out I’ve not been using the Crean Mate tool cleaning block properly: I should dip the tip of it in water before use. Thank you Niwaki for the selection of Japanese salad and vegetable seeds.

I’ve only scratched the surface here of what was on view at the GPE: makers of ladders, machine tools, plant foods were all there in force. It was a hugely enjoyable show and I’m only sorry there were a few Guild members I didn’t get to chat to on this occasion. Roll on next year’s show!

23 February 2023

Kew Gardens

*SEDEX stands for Supplier Ethical Data Exchange, an online system that allows suppliers to maintain data on ethical & responsible practices and allows them to share this information with their customers.

Winter Garden no.2

The winter garden I wrote about in my last blog post was planted over the course of the last couple of years. That at Osterley House and Garden is about 10 to 15 years old, but already has an air of maturity. In contrast to the symmetry of the layout of Mrs Child’s flower garden and the floral exuberance of the cutting garden, the winter garden feels more informal. The winter garden is located between the Long Walk (which skirts the gardens themselves and the perimeter of the park towards the lake) and the grassy slope opposite the American Border which is beginning to colour up at this time of year with hundreds of bulbs (narcissus, crocus and later on Camassia).

The wood chip surface path through Osterley’s winter garden is interrupted by a generous circular lawn in the sunniest part of this garden: a peaceful area to sit and listen to the birdsong and admire the winter flowering shrubs, colourful stemmed dogwoods and willows, and ground cover planting.

The season starts with the bright purple berries of the Beauty Berry (Callicarpa bodinieri) which complement the aqua tones of a Euphorbia. Scent arrives next in the clustered tubular flowers of Viburnum bodnantense Dawn and V. Charles Lamont and the delicate cream flowers of winter honeysuckle Lonicera fragrantissima. My favourite plant in the winter garden is the large paper bush (Edgeworthia chrysantha) whose silky flower buds open in February into tiny trumpets each lined in vivid yellow, gathered into neat hemispheres suspended from the generously spreading branches of this graceful shrub.

Like so many winter flowering shrubs, Japanese quince flowers on bare stems, emphasising the purity of the form of the blooms. The elegant white form Chaenomeles speciosum Nivalis features repeatedly in the bed opposite the paper bush.

The loss of a large conifer in the last couple of years has created a space for new planting and we recently spent a morning, supervised by head gardener Andy Eddy, planting hellebores and witch hazel in one of the newly cleared areas. The planting scheme includes the striking combination of black Mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus Nigrescens) and snowdrops which also features in Kew’s Winter Mound.

Wintergreen

When non-gardening friends ask me if I have anything to do in the winter, they’re surprised when I reply that I’m as busy at this time of year as I am in spring and summer. Doing what? Tidying, pruning and mulching mainly. And surely there are no flowers to see in a garden in winter? Quite the contrary, this is the season when shrubs that take a back seat for the rest of the year bloom their socks off to attract early flying pollinators, often flowering on bare wood as well as pumping out sweet perfume. Early bulbs too are a welcome sight in January and February gardens, flashes of brightness against the newly mulched soil.

There’s now an area of Kew Gardens dedicated to this season. The Winter Mound has been created on Flagstaff Mound*, one of the few ‘hills’ in Kew’s otherwise flat 330 acres. Whilst winter flowering shrubs abound in the Gardens, notably around the Ice House, it is a joy to see them centre stage in a new garden. A new path curves elegantly around the mound towards the summit, where vestiges of the flagstaff’s concrete base and fixings remain apparent. This vantage point gives a good view of The Temperate House’s eastern facade and a bench has been installed from which to enjoy it.

Snowdrops are now in flower on the lower slopes, in one section gleaming brightly amidst a mass planting of black mondo grass (Ophiopogon plansicapus Nigrescens). All the plant combinations are inspiring: the fern Polypodium vulgare nestles beneath white stemmed birches, Betula utilis subs. jacquemontii Doorenbos. The paper bush, Edgeworthia chrysantha Grandiflora is underplanted with Anna’s Red hellebores; the crimson stems of the Westonbirt dogwood, Cornus alba Sibirica contrast with fountains of a grass which I believe is Pennisetum.

The bare stems of dogwoods are used to great effect: yellow-stemmed dogwood Cornus stolonifera Flaviramea and orange Cornus sanguinea ‘Anny’s Winter Orange’. The latter provides a fiery haze towards the top of the mound. So far I’ve counted at lease two cultivars of witch hazel, Hamamelis x intermedia, to my mind one of the most striking winter flowering shrubs: scarlet Diane and sunset-toned Jelena. Like the paperbushes, these are planted more sparingly across the scheme, as are two further winter flowerers: Viburnum bodnantense Dawn with its sweetly scented pale pink flowers and Prunus incisa Praecox, a midwinter flowering cherry. I read that the latter will achieve a height of 4-8 metres in 20 years. Helleborus Ice Breaker is used extensively in the lower reaches of the garden as lower storey ground cover. Sarcococca hookeriana Winter Gem is another source of sweetness in this garden. Its rather insignificant shaggy cream flowers emit a powerful scent.

When the bare branches of the dogwoods, birches and Viburnums green over in spring, the Winter Mound will undergo another transformation and I’m really looking forward to seeing it evolve over the coming months.

See below for more photos of the Winter Mound, taken on a freezing day in early December. Next time I’ll take you to the Winter Garden at Osterley House and Gardens, a well established garden for this season.

Kew Gardens 5 February 2023

*When it was erected in 1959, a gift from the provincial government of British Columbia, the flagstaff was, at 225 feet long, entered in the Guinness Book of Records as the tallest in the world. It was the third flagstaff to be erected on the site and stood until 2007 when it had to be dismantled because deemed unsafe. Artist Edward Bawden has included the flagstaff in this charming image.

The Professionals

Part 2 Medicinal Garden of the Royal College of Physicians

At the south-eastern corner of The Regent’s Park stands a building quite unlike its elegant Regency neighbours. Designed in 1964 in modernist style by Denys Lasdun, architect of The National Theatre, this is The Royal College of Physicians. Its quarter acre garden is home to a large living collection of medicinal plants. My first visit was for a guided tour on 14 September, arranged by the WGFA, and when I returned with a friend in early November for a tour of the building and its collections of art and medical artefacts, we also strolled around the garden.

The September tour was led by a retired consultant dermatologist, Sue Burge, assisted by Anthony Dayan, Emeritus Professor of Toxicology at the University of London, both of whom shared a wealth of fascinating stories about the plants in the College’s garden. We learnt that nearly all plants have evolved to be poisonous to protect against animal predators, but that many poisons have been found to make useful medicines. This unique garden tells the story of plants once commonly used in the treatment of disease, those used in contemporary medicine and those with names commemorating early physicians. There are about 1,100 species represented, all of which are documented in a database. Each plant is clearly labelled, with those named after physicians having a brief biography on a blue label, and green labels denoting those used to produce modern medicines.

Tours start in the car park, where the raised bed opposite the main entrance is planted with specimens from the Americas and the three raised beds alongside the Outer Circle of the park form the World medicine area of the garden. In the small front gardens of the eight terraced buildings of St Andrew’s Place, opposite the College, the head gardener, Jane Knowles has incorporated plants whose flowers (house 1), roots (house 2), barks, fruits, leaves, seeds, sap, gums or resins were referred to by the College of Physicians in its Pharmacopoeia Londinensis of 1618. Low box hedges in knot garden style frame much of the planting, evoking seventeenth century garden fashion.

You enter the main garden through gates at the end of St Andrew’s Place, near William Harvey House, with its classically inspired facade, a Grade I listed building designed and built in 1826 by the architect of much of Regency London, John Nash.

Plants from classical antiquity and arid zones are represented in beds alongside the house. The lawn of the main garden is dominated by an oriental plane tree, Platanus orientalis, grafted from the plane tree on the Aegean island of Cos under which the ‘Father of Medicine’ Hippocrates is said to have taught his students. The borders surrounding the lawn contain medicinal plants from the orient and southern hemisphere, Europe and the Middle East. A shady courtyard tucked into a corner of the college building shelters a pot garden of tender plants including a fine lemon tree, Citrus x limon. From 1795 lemons and later limes were used to prevent scurvy in the British navy. Nearby is a a handsome memorial the Latin inscription on which translates: Remembering the doctors who died while working in the COVID-19 pandemic. It had been unveiled by Sir Christopher Whitty only a week before my first visit to the college.

Here I’ve picked out here just a few of the numerous plants which our guides, Sue and Anthony highlighted during the tour.

Arnica chamissonis. Used for bruises by Native Americans.

Taxus baccata, the European yew, source of paclitaxel (‘Taxol’) which is used both as an anti-cancer drug and to prevent clogging up in the stents used to open up blocked coronary arteries.

Rheum palmatum, Chinese rhubarb. Used in traditional Chinese medicine as a laxative. See photo above.

Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant. The coating of its seed capsules contain an extraordinary powerful poison, Ricin, which was used in the murder on Waterloo Bridge in 1978 of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov, where the KGB is alleged to have fired a pellet of the poison into his leg from the tip of an umbrella.

Pelargonium sidoides. This one intrigued me because it’s a plant I’ve grown for the last several years in a container, having been given a cutting at Osterley. In South African native medicine its tubers have been used in the treatment of acute bronchitis, coughs and colds.

Artemisia annua. Annual mugwort. The 2015 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was awarded to a female Chinese professor Tu Youyou ‘for her discoveries concerning a novel therapy against Malaria’. She detected artemisinin in the plant and proved its antimalarial properties.

There can be few gardens which concentrate so many extraordinary stories into so small an area. The garden can be visited between 9am and 5pm on weekdays and from April to October tours of the Medicinal Garden are given by senior physicians from the RCP on the first Wednesday of the month at 2pm.

The Professionals

Part 1 Inner Temple Garden

An aerial view of London shows plenty of green space amidst the urban layout of streets, shops and offices. The expansive royal parks account for much of those spaces- Hyde Park, The Green Park, St James’s Park and The Regent’s Park- as do squares (both public and private), churchyards, private gardens and the gardens attached to some professional bodies. In this and my next post I explore two of the latter: the Inner Temple (commonly known as The Honourable Society of the Inner Temple) and The Royal College of Physicians.

Occupying a site beside the River Thames, from which it is separated by the Victoria Embankment, the three acres of the Inner Temple Garden are surrounded to the west, north and east by the buildings of the Inn, housing barristers’ chambers, judges’ lodgings as well as Inner Temple Hall and the offices of this ancient Inn of Court, one of the four located in this area of London, between the theatres and shops of the West End and the banks and financial institutions of the City of London.

In early September, a kind friend who works for the Inn arranged for me to meet Sean Harkin, the Inn’s head gardener. During lockdown I had watched Sean give an online lecture to the Kew Mutual Improvement Society about Inner Temple Garden and was struck by his enthusiasm for plants and for his work in this unique sanctuary in the heart of the busy city. Sean’s CV is impressive: RHS Wisley, the National Trust’s gardener in residence for the city of Manchester and head gardener at Kensington Palace where he created the white garden in memory of Princess Diana. My friend and Sean took time out of their busy schedules to meet me on a rather overcast and damp day, a contrast to the extreme heat of only a week or so before. Sean explained that over the last couple of years, he and his small team of three gardeners had created a new meadow on part of the lawn in the centre of the garden. Now mown, I can imagine that the meadow added a very natural and contemporary aspect to what might otherwise be expected to be a rather conventional space. But Sean’s vision is for bold planting in scale, form and colour. And this is most evident in the deep herbaceous border along the garden’s northern side where tall grasses and cardoon seedheads jostle alongside blowsy pink dahlias, Salvia Amistad, giant fennel and rudbeckias. A broad-leaved plant I didn’t recognise (resembling a very tall canna lily or a banana) added an exotic accent. It reminded me of the long border at Great Dixter where what at first glance seems informal planting is in fact a carefully woven tapestry of textures and hues. Sean told me the garden is at its best in April and May, and I shall certainly return then, but I loved the late summer colour scheme of pink and gold and was impressed at how well the plants had fared in the recent drought.

Sean reminded me that until 1911, the Royal Horticultural society staged its annual spring show in the garden, before moving to its current venue, the Royal Hospital in Chelsea. The border I have just described was turned over to allotments in WW2 and blitz spoil lies beneath much of the soil of upper part of the garden. A magnificent avenue of London plane trees (Platanus x hispanica) runs parallel with the Victoria Embankment, screening the Inn from traffic and filtering the fumes. In a peaceful spot alongside the avenue stands a large circular lily pond, raised above ground and screened from the surrounding lawn by a recently planted hedge.

Elsewhere pillowy yew topiary forms settle plumply at the corners of a shady lawn. Silvery hued plants such as Mexican fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus) and a Euphorbia echo the pale stone of an elaborate pillar supporting a sundial.

Tucked to the east of the garden are steps lined with pots containing tender plants including a flamboyant Brugmansia and Cobaea scandens, the cup and saucer vine. A nearby lean-to greenhouse is full of succulents and cacti.

As well as the planes, the garden is home to some other beautiful trees including a Magnolia soulangeana and a dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides). And to some wonderful roses: tall China rose shrubs smothered in loose-petalled blooms.

Inner Temple Garden might be located in the heart of an ancient institution but thanks to the head gardener’s vision and flair, it’s a garden for the twenty first century.

The Inner Temple Garden is usually open to the public on weekdays (excluding bank holidays) from 12.30-3pm. Access is via the main gate opposite the Treasury Office on Crown Office Row, London EC4Y 7HL.

More images from the garden:

Finding Frogmore

Little did I know on 1 September, as I walked with a friend along The Long Walk in Windsor Great Park, that a few weeks later Queen Elizabeth’s funeral cortege would cover the same ground en route to St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle. Our destination was Frogmore House and garden, open for charity (in this case Guide Dogs) on one of its three or so fundraising occasions of the year.

Extending to 35 acres, the garden at Frogmore is less than a quarter of the size of Kew Gardens, the other estate influenced by the horticultural enthusiasm of Queen Charlotte, consort to George III. Apart from Frogmore House itself, another major landmark in the grounds is the Royal Mausoleum where Queen Victoria and Prince Albert are buried. The site of this Byzantine style edifice was identified by Victoria within days of her husband’s premature death in December 1861. The Royal Mausoleum has been described as one of the finest Victorian buildings in the country. The imposing building stands across the Frogmore Lake from a smaller mausoleum, built to accommodate the mortal remains of Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent.

The Frogmore estate also features several smaller buildings and follies, all of which combine to create a fascinating landscape from both a historical and garden design point of view. An elegant iron bridge, reminiscent of a bridge across the lake in St James’s Park, crosses Frogmore Lake which twines across the centre of the garden, its sinuous outline emulating a river. Looking back from the promontory to which the bridge leads, there’s a fine prospect of the south western facade of the house. A short walk from the bridge and one can see the Duchess of Kent’s Mausoleum and, nestled at the lake’s edge, the ‘Swiss Seat’, a timber hut dating from around 1833 which the guide book describes as ‘faced with split trunks arranged as gothic blind tracery’.

One of my favourite buildings at Frogmore was Queen Victoria’s Tea House. Built of brick and tiles, it consists of two small rooms joined by a loggia. An enormous Wisteria is trained over the colonnade which surrounds the building. Elaborately decorated chimneys dominate the tiled roofs of each half of the building. There were a few small Wisteria blossoms to be seen, presumably the third flush. This has been a plant which has revelled in the summer’s heat this year it seems, judging by this and the specimen in my own garden. Evidence of the drought was apparent elsewhere at Frogmore, where the soil in the borders (mostly shrubberies) was dry and cracked.

Another Wisteria lent a suitably mysterious air to the Gothic Ruin, almost obscuring its beautifully arched windows. An onion dome tops an elegant white marble structure, the Indian Kiosk, presented to Queen Victoria in 1858. There are few flower beds in the Frogmore garden. The glory of the place is the variety of trees from across the world which, with the lake, create a peaceful parkland within the Great Park itself.

Points make prizes

On 27 August 2022 I won a silver cup! For the first time in my life! At the Kew Horticultural Society’s 77th Flower & Produce Show. (Cue the Archers’ theme tune).

Always held on the Saturday of the August bank holiday weekend, the show is a Kew institution and takes place on the smaller Kew Green, across the South Circular Road from St Ann’s Church. As detailed in the ‘Rules for Exhibitors’ I staged my three entries on the evening before the show. I was only the 3rd exhibitor to enter the large marquee furnished with white paper covered trestle tables. I was given one card per entry on which I wrote the number of the class of the entry and my name. I then found the relevant section of the tables and set out my exhibits, the card name side down. My original intention had been to enter the ‘Montello’ plum tomatoes which cropped really well in this summer’s heat. But I realised when I inspected them earlier that week that I’d already picked and eaten the largest and juiciest! Reading through the rules on the Society’s website, I identified some categories to enter and spent an hour or so on the Friday afternoon assembling my offerings. Which were:

Class 34. GRAPES 2 bunches grown outdoors. In 2020 I planted a grapevine (Vitis vinifera ‘Lakemont’) in a large terracotta pot and trained it across the south facing fence at the back of the garden. This is a seedless dessert grape and this year, like the tomatoes, it soaked up the sunshine and produced a couple of dozen bunches of rather small but intensely sweet grapes.

Class 44. PERENNIALS hardy, 3 or more different kinds in a vase or bowl. Opting for the informal look, I picked a couple of stems of five different flowers and popped them into a half pint milk bottle from the 1960s, embossed with ‘Lord Rayleigh’s Dairies’, which I keep on the kitchen windowsill and use for roses and sweet peas or cuttings waiting to be potted up. These are the flowers I picked:

  • Anaphalis margaritacea var. yedoensis: ‘Yedoan pearly everlasting flower’. I bought this in May 2021 from the wonderful nursery at Great Dixter. It is also grown in the cutting garden at Osterley. In the sunny position where it’s planted at the far right hand end of my garden, its foliage blends really well with the similarly greyish leaves of the late summer flowering shrub Caryopteris × clandonensis, whose mid blue flowers are just emerging this week.
  • Salvia x jamensis Nachtvlinder. The velvety deep purple flowers contrasted well with the white everlasting flowers. This plant came from Kew Gardens about ten years ago whilst I was working there, when they dismantled the planting of the outline of a giant man which had been created at the foot of the Pagoda as part of a summer festival.
  • Salvia uligonosa. ‘Bog sage’. Sky blue flowers top 2 metre high stems. Arguably too tall for my tiny garden, but at this time of year it flowers profusely and helps create a slightly jungly, overgrown atmosphere.
  • Anemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’ or Hon Jobs as they’re referred to in the nursery trade. I mentioned in my last blog that they’ve struggled a little to reach their usual 1-1.5 metre height, but thankfully there were plenty of the creamy white flowers to spare for my arrangement.
  • Verbena bonariensis added to the cottagey feel I was aiming for.

Class 61. FUCHSIAS a vase of mixed varieties or one variety. I picked several sprays of Fuchsia ‘Burning Embers’ which I’ve grown in a medium sized pot for about four years after buying it in a plant sale at Osterley. I cut it down to a low framework of woody stems after it finishes flowering and for months it looks as if it will never recover until during April new shoots appear and by midsummer it’s developed into a neat dome covered in a mass of dainty maroon bells.

I returned to the show marquee the following afternoon with a friend, Liz, a fellow local gardener. Naturally, I was curious to see if any how my entries had fared under the judges’ scrutiny. Nul points for the grapes: the top three entries were wonderfully plump and juicy. But I was awarded second prize for the hardy perennials (3 points)- I was delighted, even when I noticed there were only two entries on display! The winner’s arrangement of Salvia Amistad was stunning. Turning to the table where I’d placed the vase of Fuchsias the evening before I was so excited to see a red rosette to indicate that I’d won First prize (4 points).

It was fun looking at all the beautiful fruit and vegetables entered in competition, as well as cakes, bread and crafts. Leaving the marquee, we walked around the stalls representing local organisations and selling crafts and plants and had tea and cake. And lovely chats with our respective clients, several of whom were enjoying the show and the sunny afternoon too. About to leave the show ground, I heard my name announced and was just in time to be presented with a handsome silver cup by Giles Fraser, the new vicar of St Ann’s. I had won the Kew Challenge Cup ‘for the first-time exhibitor gaining the most points in horticultural classes 1-64’.

The cup is in pride of place on the mantelpiece for the next 12 months and naturally I’m already planning which classes to enter into the 78th show in a year’s time.

The Kew Challenge Cup

Thirsty Work

The imposition of a hosepipe ban yesterday has made me rethink what plants I should be growing in my own and my clients’ gardens and how to keep a garden looking good without wasting water. I’ve been tasked with watering for several clients this summer which has enabled me to observe the effect of the drought in a number of different gardens. Just like us, some plants bask happily in exceptional heat and some wilt and wither. I’ve categorised the plants I’ve been monitoring into sufferers, survivors and thrivers. The sufferers have failed entirely or have had to be cut back prematurely. Survivors hang on grimly, but look far from happy and thrivers do not merely cope but positively burgeon in the heat.

Sufferers

The tough heart-shaped leaves of the bright blue flowered Brunnera macrophylla look dry and droopy. The usually resilient leathery leaves of the elephant’s ears (Bergenia) look scorched as do Heuchera leaves. If summer annuals like Verbena or Bacopa hadn’t established before the heatwaves, they have now given up the ghost altogether. The large leaves of Salvia amistad hang limply after a couple of days without water.

Survivors

Although Japanese anemones such as the tall-stemmed white-flowered Honorine Jobert are at least beginning to flower, I’ve noticed their flower stems are shorter than usual. Hydrangea Annabelle is growing well in large containers in three of the gardens I maintain, though I can’t help thinking that this is due to their being targeted for special attention when it comes to watering. Their blooms though, usually at least 9 inches across, are very much smaller than in previous years. Evergreens like Skimmia Kew Green have developed that silvery sheen which denotes a struggle for water. Small-leaved salvias like Hotlips and Nachtvlinder (red/white and purple flowered respectively) cope relatively well.

Thrivers

But it’s not all doom, many plants have been in their element recently. Amongst them, whirling butterflies, Gaura, which billows with clouds of dainty white or pink flowers. Verbena bonariensis also revels in this kind of weather, those rigid stems standing high above some unhappier specimens below. Agapanthus have had a field day, in particular the large flowered evergreen species A. africanus. Several years ago I planted three stands of this stately plant in my tiny south-facing front garden and they now practically fill the space, self-seeding through the slate chipping and mirroring the blue of the annual Salvia farinacea Victoria which I’ve planted this year in the window-boxes with a delicate flowered pale pink Pelargonium cultivar, Apple Blossom.

Given their South African origins and dislike of over-watering, Pelargoniums have succeeded in my ‘pot garden’. So vigorously had P. sidoides grown in the large pot it shared with Rosa Bengal Crimson, I had to extract it before it took over entirely. In doing so I was able to pot up half a dozen of the plantlets which develop along its trailing stems. Regal Pelargonium Lord Bute has been magnificent, the crimson velvety petals with their paler pink edges contrasting with serrated mid-green leaves. I took a couple of cuttings earlier in the summer and shall take a few more soon to ensure I have more plants next year. Swept up in enthusiasm for this genus, I ordered some plants from Fibrex Nurseries Limited in Stratford-upon-Avon, holders of the National Collection of Pelargonium. Scented -leaved Fair Ellen has dainty pale pink flowers, the upper petals sporting maroon blotches and the leaves when rubbed evoking a herbal Mediterranean scent reminiscent of thyme. I chose the Angel Pelargonium Captain Starlight because I’d seen it grown by Andy Eddy, head gardener at NT Osterley and displayed on the steps of the Garden House. The leaves resemble miniature versions of Lord Bute and the flowers are pansy-like with two darker pink petals above three in a paler shade of pink. I also chose a species, Pelargonium grandiflorum, whose shell-pink flowers are centred with fine flecked cerise lines leading to the nectar source. I’m optimistic that like Lord Bute last winter, these treasures will be protected in the vertical cold-frame or on the shelf which I erected in the shed earlier in the year.

Glorious though they are once established and past the slug fodder stage, Dahlias are not on my list of drought-resistant plants. Native to Mexico and Central America, their fleshy stems and large leaves and flowers make them very thirsty plants. Of the seven or so I started from tubers and, in a couple of cases, cuttings early this spring, three have survived. One, with single scarlet flowers with bright orange stamens, was given to me as a tuber by a fellow volunteer at Osterley. Bushy in growth, with stems about 12-15 inches long, it’s a perfect specimen for a container. I’ve had to stake the tall single-flowered Dahlia Blue Bayou, which I first grew last summer after buying the tuber from Sarah Raven. Deep violet petals, darker at the base, surround a yellow disc. It’s planted in a large ‘Long Tom’ terracotta pot and is approximately 1 metre tall. Dahlias need regular deadheading and I can see many more spherical buds to come. Although resembling buds at first glance, the spent blooms are elongated and must be removed, stem and all, down to the nearest pair of leaves. I’m still waiting for the third specimen to flower, Dahlia Red Honka: another kind gift from my Osterley colleague.

For the last few weeks I’ve used ‘grey water’ from the washing-up bowl in the kitchen and a bucket in the shower, to water the pot garden. It was a relief when it rained last Wednesday and today, knowing that it would re-fill the water-butts. I’ve continued to use mains water on the nine tomato plants. I’d not intended to grow quite so many, but a neighbour gave away a selection of unusual cultivar tomato seedlings in late May and so I added Black Cherry, Green Zebra and Tigerella, to the Montello and Sun Gold which I was already growing. It was a good call as it turned out, as this hot sunny summer has hastened ripening. I made a very rich tomato sauce for pasta this evening using the Montello plum tomatoes. I’ve selected four of them to enter into the Kew Horticultural Show which takes place this Saturday. Watch this space for the outcome!

At Osterley’s cutting garden, we’ve picked bucket-fulls of flowers for drying for the Christmas wreath-making: Limonium sinuatum (statice) with its rainbow colours. And lavender, the flowers now spent. It’s a great opportunity at this time of year to trim the stems back, including a few leaves at the base, neatening up the plant and ensuring it doesn’t become too leggy and woody. We tied a length of garden twine around bunches of each of the statice and lavender, leaving a generous tail with which to hang the bunches to dry in a shed in the vegetable garden.