Colour Palettes and Wooden Pallets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In the Dock

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

Bramble clearing on 6 March 2020

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

Anemone coronaria ‘St Brigid’s Series’
Rosemary

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

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

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

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

The Cutting Garden 10 July 2020: Echinops and Alliums

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

Cutbacks and Restructuring

No, not financial restraints or a cabinet reshuffle, but the theme of most of the jobs I’m doing at this time of year. Before spring arrives in earnest it’s time to cut back herbaceous perennials, prune most roses and some species of shrubs, and restructure woody climbers or old shrubs needing renovation.

Recent cutbacks in my garden have been directed at the Japanese anemones and Hylotelephium (formerly Sedum). Using well-sharpened secateurs is essential, to avoid damaging the new growth already emerging from the crown of the plant at ground level. I support the vogue for keeping last year’s herbaceous perennials for as long as possible, particularly those with distinctive silhouettes, so as to provide structure in the garden in winter.  When Jack Frost visits, he deposits an icy halo around their seedheads or spent flowerheads and outlines any remaining leaves with a silver rim. Although in the mild winter we’ve had to date in south-west London, there have been few icy mornings, meaning fewer frosty photo opportunities and, thankfully, less windscreen scraping.

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Symphyotrichum (formerly Aster) in the Cutting Garden at Osterley on 7 February 2020 

In the Cutting Garden at Osterley, we have taken the name of the garden literally on February Fridays, by cutting to ground level the rows and rows of stems which didn’t make it last year into the 65 floral arrangements created for the house every week in spring, summer and early autumn.

We loaded barrow after barrow with sheaths of Verbena bonariensis, Shasta daisies (Leucanthemum x superbum), Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Fascination’, Echinops, Echinacea and Rudbeckia. In what might be deemed a botanical restructure by taxonomists, another of the plants we cut back, Michaelmas daisies,  have been reassigned from the genus Aster to the genus Symphyotrichum.

Among my gardening friends we generally agree that pruning is a favourite task. Not just because much of it can be done standing up, avoiding muddy knees and sore lower backs, but also because when done well, it results in a well-formed plant which enhances the overall appearance of a garden. For myself, I also enjoy the precision involved in identifying the stems to remove, i.e. those that are dead, diseased or dying (‘DDD‘), and those to shorten to an outward facing bud, ensuring the cut is angled downwards to avoid water resting on the bud. I even find chopping the cut branches and stems into smaller pieces to fit in the garden refuse sack satisfying. A fortnight ago I applied this treatment to the Wisteria which grows against the rear fence of my garden, cutting back the stems to a series of nobbly clusters bearing pairs of shiny black buds from which the flowers will appear in April.

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A recently pruned climbing rose framing a view of the cutback Cutting Garden

I wrote last winter about the benefits of training or restructuring climbing roses or rambler roses so as to bring stems as close to the horizontal as possible. This encourages bud break along the stems, resulting in more flowers at eye height and below. Left unchecked, roses grow upwards to find as much light as they can, giving the best view of their blooms to the birds and squirrels. To make this task more comfortable, I’ve invested in a pair of tough suede cuffed gauntlets and was very glad of them in a client’s garden last week when I tamed a very large and thorny climbing rose. Because ivy had entangled itself around the rose’s branches I had to remove as much of that as I could before pruning the rose and tying it into the trellis. One particularly stubborn section of ivy needed numerous cuts with the pruning saw before I was finally able to lift from the trellis post, Perseus style, a Medusa-like mass of several seasons’ growth of entwined woody stems.

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Perseus with the head of Medusa

Checking my diary for local gardening jobs scheduled for this week, I see that the cutbacks continue with herbaceous perennial trimming tomorrow and Hydrangea pruning later in the week.

Banks & Banking

In the spirit of stepping outside my comfort zone to do something I have not done before, I joined other volunteer gardeners at National Trust Osterley this summer to deliver guided tours of the gardens. Once, sometimes twice a week, two of us led a group of up to 15 visitors through gardens which reflect the history of the house, from its origins in Tudor times, through its elegant Robert Adam makeover in the eighteenth century to today’s innovations, pausing on the way to mention the garden’s role in the Second World War.

As the season changes and we plan to alter our itinerary to take in parts of the garden designed to look at their best in the winter and early spring, I invite you to join me in this post on a virtual early autumn walk through Osterley’s gardens. You start your tour at the rear of the house, at the top of the elegantly curving double staircase facing the park beyond the garden, which Henry James (a weekend guest at the house in the late nineteenth century) describes in the opening passages of his novella, ‘The Lesson of the Master’. The hero Paul Overt, a writer, stands in the same position and observes that the steps ‘descended from a great height in two arms, with a circular sweep of the most charming effect’. He also commented on ‘the expanse of beautiful brickwork that showed for pink rather than red and that had been kept clear of messy creepers by the law under which a woman with a rare complexion disdains a veil’. From this vantage point you can see a classic feature of an eighteenth century landscape garden: bucolic pastureland framed by specimen trees, the pasture grazed by the neighbouring tenant farmer’s Charollais cattle. Before the scene we see today was created, John Roque’s immensely detailed map of London of 1741 showed three avenues of trees radiating from both the front and back of the house. This device is known as a ‘patte d’oie’  or goosefoot. The avenues have long gone save for two oak trees which once formed part of one such avenue.

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The rear of the house and the double staircase

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The Charolais cattle

Trees feature throughout our tour. Let’s descend the steps and head to the shade of the Oriental Plane tree which was planted in 1755. One of my fellow guides describes this huge tree as a grand old lady resting on her elbows, a reference to the gnarled limbs which swoop down to the ground to shade the path to one side. Look up into the leaf canopy and spare a thought for we volunteer gardeners when over the next couple of months we shall sweep up and gather the leaves to deposit in the leaf pile on the boundary of the garden. In a couple of years time we shall use the ensuing leaf mould as a winter mulch to the beds and borders in the garden so as to maintain moisture and improve the texture of the soil.

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The Oriental Plane

Come with me now to ‘Dickie’s Border’, the symmetrically arranged three layered shrub border named after Dickie Denton, the last Head Gardener before the property was gifted to the National Trust in 1949. His nickname was ‘TickTock’ because he was tasked with winding the clock in the Stable Block each morning. In the middle layer of planting compare the red dimpled globular fruits of the Strawberry Trees (Arbutus unedo) with the developing catkins of the Silk Tassel Bushes (Garrya elliptica). A variegated form of Rhamnus alaternus is the third shrub at this level. Alternating Magnolia grandiflora and Loquat trees (Eriobotrya japonica) provide a dark evergreen backdrop, whilst at waist height you can see shrub roses, rosemary and the gold margined leaves of Daphne Odorata aureomarginata

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Dickie’s Border

Our next stop is Mrs Child’s Flower Garden where you have a perfect view of Robert Adam’s recently restored white stucco decorated Garden House which stands at the heart of the ranks of curved flowerbeds planted for spring and summer interest. Here tall Verbascum tower candelabra-like over Salvia sclarea, Maltese cross (Lychnis chalcedonica), Centaurea Montana to name only a few of the intriguing plants to be found in these beds.  The grounds here were used at the beginning of the Second World War for training the forerunners of the British Home Guard in guerrilla tactics and house to house fighting. Led by a left-wing writer, Tom Wintringham, they were described by MI5 as ‘the bunch of socialist revolutionaries at the end of the Piccadilly Line’ and soon afterwards the operation was closed down and the park used for food production as part of the war effort.

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The Garden House with Mrs Child’s Flower Garden to the right

As we walk towards our next stop please take a look at the four beautiful and unusual trees near the brick wall: Foxglove trees, Pawlonia tomentosa, and do mind your head on their low-hanging seed cases which develop from the spires of bluish mauve bell-shaped flowers which the trees bear in April. Other trees to note here include weeping limes and a Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) and nearest the path take a look at the unusually lobed leaves of the Sassafras albidum, whose roots flavour Root Beer, and which this week is glowing with a rainbow of autumn shades.

Let’s proceed to the Picking Garden, where the flowers are grown for the 65 floral arrangements which decorate the house each week. As well as several members of the Daisy family: Heleniums, Shasta daisies and Cosmos, you can also see a row of Pot Marigolds (Calendula). These are the symbol of Childs Bank, associated with the family which owned Osterley. The variety chosen this year is Calendula ‘Radio’. You can tell from its name that this is a modern cultivar. Whilst the species of plants in this part of the garden are era authentic and would have been available to an eighteenth century gardener, their cultivars tend to be more modern and are chosen for reliability and resilience to pests and diseases.

Now we move to the main section of the Tudor Walled Garden which is laid out into four large central beds. In the bed devoted to brassicas you can see the latest member of the garden team, Harry the Hawk, whose job it is to scare pigeons from the cabbages. The next two beds are planted potager style with both ornamental and edible plants and are designed to look at their best in late summer and early autumn. Dahlias feature strongly as do Cleome (the Spider Flower), gladioli and nicotiana. Chard and amaranthus provide the edible element of these beds and at the corners of the beds you can see pyramid shaped supports to which cling the deep purple morning glory, Ipomaea ‘Grandpa Ott’. In the centre of the beds look out for the tall Castor Oil plants, Ricinus communis,  with their spiky pink flowers and large hand-shaped leaves. This plant played a key role in a tale of international espionage from 1978 when the Bulgarian dissident Georgy Markov was murdered in London with an umbrella the tip of which contained a pellet of the deadly poison Ricin which is derived from this plant. The fourth bed is planted almost exclusively with vegetables and salads. At this late stage in the season the various beans have been harvested and their supports removed, but turnips and beetroot (both red and golden) abound as do aubergines and salad leaves.

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Harry the hawk scaring pigeons from the brassica bed

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Amaranthus, Spanish Flag, cannas, dahlias and the Shoofly plant in one of the mixed beds in the Tudor Walled Garden

Our virtual tour is almost over. I shall leave you at the far side of the walled garden, beside the Long Border and point out to you the enormous specimen of the climbing rose Rosa banksiae and ask you to imagine a curtain of pale yellow blooms in April: it is one of the earliest roses to flower. It is named for Joseph Banks, who accompanied Captain Cook on the Endeavour, and on his return advised George III on the creation of a botanic garden at Kew. There is a local connection too, as Banks lived at Spring Grove House about half a mile to the south of Osterley. What remains of his house now forms part of West Thames College. Before we part, consider this: the Osterley site was once slated as a possible site for a national exhibition centre. Thankfully a site near Birmingham was chosen for the NEC enabling us to enjoy the gardens as they exist today. Thank you for joining me today and do come back on another occasion to see the American Border and the Winter Garden.

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Salvia microphylla with fragrant scented leaves in the foreground with Euphorbia mellifera, the Honey Spurge and Stipa gigantea, Elephant Grass behind: the planting beside the last stop on the tour.

 

Sub-Lime

Step out onto any suburban street from mid June to early July and the pervading scent will be that of lime tree blossom. I do not mean the citrus  limes whose juice graces a Mojito cocktail. I’m referring to the flowers which, when dried, become the ’tilleul’ infusion popular in France. Before it became a familiar high street brand, no day trip to Calais or Boulogne was complete without a visit to L’Occitane to buy the delicately perfumed lime flower soap. These last couple of weeks the lime trees have been at the height of their intoxicating power, pumping forth the freshly sweet perfume which to me epitomises early summer.

Close examination reveals that the yellow green clusters hanging below the heart-shaped leaves of Tilia cordata (Small-leaved lime) and the roundly oval leaves of Tilia platyphyllos (Broad-leaved lime) consist of downward facing bunches of four or five stems. These are attached to a wing-shaped bract which aids seed dispersal and each stem terminates in a cluster of yellow pollen-tipped stamens surrounded by five outer sepals, the central core of each of which ripens into a small spherical fruit. The fruit or ‘nutlet’ as I have read it is called, is covered in fine down lending them a whitish grey appearance.

 

On warm days, lime tree flowers attract many pollinators, and an odd phenomenon has been observed with the Silver leaved lime, Tilia tomentosa, which is pollinated by honeybees. The trees’ nectar appears to have a narcotic effect on the bees, with dead or dying bees found under the trees each year. A team at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is investigating the issue and there is an interesting article on the Kew website entitled ‘Do Lime trees kill bees?’

I haven’t reported recently upon my Friday stints as a member of the team of garden volunteers at the National Trust’s Osterley Park. For the past two Fridays we have concentrated our efforts in the Tudor Walled Garden, preparing it for its annual colourful impact in late summer and early autumn. In fact, thanks to a myriad of self-sown poppies, two of the quadrant beds have exploded into sheets of mauve, pink and red. In the bed where the green manure was sown earlier this year, (see my blog from this March, Rolling along within the walls), the crimson clover blends beautifully with the poppies.

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Last week, in the bed closest to the gate leading to the gardener’s bothy, we planted a mixture of four Gladioli cultivars: Roma, Indian summer, Espresso and Purple Flora. I’m looking forward to seeing their blend of colours later this summer. Meanwhile, our colleague Tracey has worked tirelessly to sow, plant and harvest produce on the third bed. Where possible the rest of the team help her with weeding and some planting, as well as harvesting early crops for the coach house cafe. A gentle job I was assigned last week involved deadheading the sweet peas which grow up obelisks at the corner of the plots, the variety this year being ‘Beaujolais’. Removing the seed pods which develop so swiftly after the  flowers have faded encourages more flowers by preventing the plant from expending energy on seed production.

 

Whilst weeding the edge of one of the plots we found two self-sown members of the Nightshade family, Solanaceae, to which potatoes, tomatoes and aubergines belong. The pioneers we found are the Shoofly plant, Nicandra physaloides, and the Thornapple, Datura stramonium. We left the former in place as its pretty mauve flowers are attractive but the latter will be removed as it doesn’t form part of the planting scheme as well as being poisonous.

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Nicandra physaloides: the Shoofly plant

This Friday saw us working on the five round beds  alongside the wall which divides the Tudor Walled Garden from the picking garden (which is bursting with colourful flowers at the moment). A small fruit tree is planted in the centre of each round bed, and is underplanted for spring and early summer impact with Doronicum, Irises, Papaver somniferum (Opium poppies) and Love in a Mist (Nigella damascena). Sadly the plants have finished flowering and our task was to remove the poppies and Nigella (both annuals) and to reduce the iris leaves by 2/3rds and cut their flower stalks to ground level. We had an hour left in the afternoon to begin a similar task on the long border of the Tudor Walled Garden where a repeating planting scheme of Salvias, honey scented Honey spurge (Euphorbia mellifera), Plume poppy (Macleaya macrocarpa) and Foxtail lily, (Eremurus), is bestowed a sprinkling of gold dust by the shimmering stems and flowers of Elephant grass (Stipa gigantea).

 

Thinking of taller plants growing through lower growing plants, in my own garden I’ve been admiring the delicate yet long lasting flowers of Chinese meadow rue, Thalictrum delavayi, for about three weeks. At a height of about two metres they hover gracefully above the nearby Astrantia major ‘Abbey Road’, a burgundy Heuchera and Houttynia cordata. Like the small leaved lime mentioned above, another plant named for its heart-shaped leaves.