Gardening advice, 9th century style

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

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

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

Talking plants and gardens

Part 1

National lockdown in England has morphed into Tier 2 restrictions here in the London suburbs. During lockdown, because I work outside, I was fully occupied during in the daytime, tidying clients’ gardens, planting bulbs and creating winter themed containers. And thanks to a wealth of online talks and events I was busy in the evenings too, spending time in the virtual company of garden designers and plantsmen, touring a university botanic garden and a world famous garden in Kent and attending an awards ceremony celebrating the work of the garden media industry. Were it not for these webinars and films I doubt I’d have covered so much ground in such a short space of time. On a dreary late autumn evening I might have thought twice about venturing out to a Plant Heritage meeting in Cobham or a Garden Museum lecture in Lambeth and certainly not wearing my slippers and pyjama bottoms!

My horticulture vulture November began courtesy of the Garden Museum with a talk about gardens in the work of the painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) by his great nephew Richard Ormond. He described a career as a society portrait painter counterbalanced by summers spent painting in some of the great gardens of Europe: La Granja, outside Madrid; the Borghese Gardens in Rome; the Boboli Gardens in Florence. Many of these paintings featured Sargent’s favourite subjects of classical architecture, topiary, fountains and statuary.

Due weight was given to the atmospheric ‘Carnation Lily Lily Rose’ in which two young girls light Japanese lanterns at twilight amidst the flowers of the title. Although painted out of doors, the set-up we were told could hardly be described as spontaneous since the canvas was painted over the course of two seasons with the bought-in flowers being attached to wires.

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose 1885-6 John Singer Sargent

The myriad of slides we were treated to included sublime still-lives of roses and gentians as well as gourds and pomegranates growing in a garden in Mallorca.

Two evenings later I was transported to the walled environment of the Oxford Botanic Garden by the Surrey Plant Heritage Group. The speaker Timothy Walker retired in 2014 after 26 years as the gardens’s Horti Praefectus (director). Engaging and erudite, he crammed the 400 year history of the garden into an entertaining hour and a half, prefacing the talk with with a reading list and historical context for the creation of the garden from 1621. But this was no dry academic lecture. As both a botanist and (Kew-trained) horticulturist, he revealed the site’s wonderful 30 feet depth of topsoil and referenced specific trees in the garden, including a Pinus nigra planted in 1834 said to be JR Tolkein’s favourite tree. We learnt of the acquisition in 1946 of land outside the city of Oxford which became the Harcourt Arboretum, where the acid soil favours the cultivation of rhododendrons. Timothy Walker also shared family photographs showing his children happily posing atop the enormous leaves of the giant waterlily Victoria amazonica to demonstrate the plant’s strength and rigidity. What makes it all the more extraordinary is the fact that the plants are propagated annually in the Oxford Botanic Garden’s glasshouse.

Giant waterlilies photographed this summer in the Waterlily House in Kew Gardens

Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), the first unofficial director of Kew Gardens or ‘the Richmond allotments’ as Timothy Walker dubbed them, was the subject of the next talk I ‘attended’. The Gardens Trust hosted Professor Jordan Goodman of UCL describing the global botanical projects launched by Banks to source plants for George III at Kew. The first of these, in 1787, was the notorious voyage of The Bounty, with Captain Bligh at the helm. The objective of the expedition was to transport breadfruit plants from Tahiti to the West Indies, returning to London with exotic plants from both the Pacific and the Caribbean. Banks had first encountered breadfruit 20 years earlier when he joined Captain Cook’s voyage to the South Pacific Ocean. To facilitate the transportation of living plants, the ship’s cargo included over 1000 empty pots and there was a gardener on board whose job it was to look after the precious cargo. The captain relinquished his cabin to accomodate the breadfruit plants which were duly collected in Tahiti. What happened next has been dramatised in several movies. Led by Fletcher Christian, the ship’s company mutinied, the plants were thrown overboard and Bligh and 18 seamen loyal to him, including the gardener, were set adrift in an open launch. Bligh and his men eventually reached Timor. By 1790 Bligh had found his way back to London and he commanded the next expedition organised by Banks. The voyage of The Providence (which, with a greenhouse installed on the quarter deck, was described as a ‘floating garden’) was a great success, visiting Tahiti, St Vincent and Jamaica. It docked in Deptford in 1793 laden with more than 2000 plants destined for Kew. Even the final stage of the journey took place on water, when they were transported along the Thames by barge to Kew.

Use of the Thames to transport plants cropped up again in Andy Sturgeon’s lecture for the Kew Mutual Improvement Society to raise funds for the Kew Diploma students’ third year field trip to Spain. During ‘Making the Modern Garden’, the Chelsea Gold medal winning designer described a project for a garden on the banks of the river in Putney. Apparently there are only 93 houses in London whose gardens connect directly with the Thames and the materials for the hard landscaping and the plants for this design were delivered via the river. More than 200 years since Banks’ botanical expeditions and plants are still being transported by water! This lecture was both a reflection on a hugely successful career as a garden designer and an assessment of changing fashions in garden design during the three decades since Andy began creating gardens. In locations from London Docklands to Bermuda, via a gravel garden in Snowdonia, his gardens share a spaciously elegant quality and often feature a restricted colour palette. This isn’t to say that the colours are muted or dull, far from it, but he argues that it is unrestful to use too many colours. I was encouraged to note that in the list of plants which Andy favours for his designs: euphorbias, Mahonia ‘Soft Caress’, Nandina domestica, Bupleurum and Astelia, I have used them all in planting schemes for clients save Bupleurum.

Plant names came thick and fast in Irish plantsman Jimi Blake’s tour de force for the Hampshire branch of Plant Heritage. We learnt that he grew up at Hunting Brook near Blessington in County Wicklow, to which he returned to create a unique garden of contrasts after training at the National Botanic Garden in Glasnevin and a stint as a head gardener. Deep beds on the sunny slopes of this steep garden sport flowers as colourful as Jimi’s extensive collection of floral shirts. The site descends into a tranquil wooded gorge intersected by a stream running down from the Wicklow Mountains, where Jimi has created an understory of shade-loving plants. Jimi spoke with such infectious enthusiasm about his garden, his passion for so many different geniuses: snowdrops, species dahlias, kniphofias, salvias, geums, that I felt uplifted listening to him. He loves woodland and spring plants, the latter ‘so good for your mind’, giving a feeling that ‘momentum is mounting’. He prefers daffodils to tulips. He breaks rules and obtains great results, dividing plants in summer rather than in autumn and winter, for example a favourite of his, Lychnis ‘Hill Grounds’. He creates unusual plant combinations such as foxtail lilies with alliums. By pollarding non-tender plants like Populus glauca he achieves the exotic look of larger leaves without the tenderness. A hallmark of his planting design is the use of narrow-leaved woody plants like Pseudopanax linearis amongst flowering plants to introduce an element of exoticism. He’s fond of orange-flowered plants: Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’, Cosmos ‘Tango’, the cigar plant Cuphea ignea. He loves silver-leaved plants: Artemesia stelleriana ‘Boughton Silver’ provides good ground cover. He gardens organically. His dogs Doris and Billy appeared in a few photographs and he advised pet lovers to avoid planting Aconitum, Euphorbia and Heliotrope. Needless to say I’m already day-dreaming about going to Hunting Brook Gardens when we can travel freely once more and to Costa Rica where Jimi described seeing hillsides covered in dahlias. In the meantime I shall make do with putting Jimi Blake’s new book ‘A Beautiful Obsession: Jimi Blake’s World of Plants at Hunting Brook Gardens’* on my Christmas list!

In Part 2 of this account of lockdown lectures I’ll report upon a conversation between the author of a new book about Sissinghurst and the director of the Garden Museum and attending an awards ceremony dressed up from the ankles upwards.

*ISBN: 9781999734527

Two Men, One Rose

Born two decades apart, Harry Walker and Graham Stuart Thomas shared a passion for the flowering plant voted in a 2017 poll as the nation’s favourite, the rose. My quest to find out a little more about these horticultural heroes began a few months ago, between lockdowns, when a friend invited me to tea to see a collection of material about her maternal grandfather. 

A precious archive

Henry James Walker, known as Harry Walker, (1888 – 1960) was a professional rose grower whose business, Wiltshire Roses, was located in the Gloucestershire village of Ashton Keynes, near Cirencester. As well as a feature in The Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard dating from April 1954, the documents I was shown included immaculately preserved nursery catalogues dating from the 1940s and 1950s as well as National Rose Society publications.

Harry Walker with my friend’s mother (approx. 1935)
Harry Walker with my friend’s sister photographed in the Rose Gardens in Ashton Keynes (approx. 1957)

Born in Borneo, Harry Walker arrived in England in 1901 and at the age of 14 he went to work for a nursery in Cirencester, where he learnt the art of rose propagation. In 1931 he established his nursery on a two acre site known as The Rose Gardens. There Wiltshire Roses produced approximately 5000 roses a year, each one ‘budded’ by hand. This grafting process involves a bud from the variety to be propagated being inserted beneath the skin of the rootstock, usually Rosa canina, before being bound tightly to the parent with raffia. After a year’s growth, the resultant plants were ready for sale. In those pre-online days, many of the roses were posted to mail order customers, damp moss being wrapped around the roots before packing.

Mr Walker’s catalogues list rose varieties now sadly forgotten, their pre-decimal prices betraying their vintage, each succinct description conjuring an image of a gorgeous bloom. Who could fail to be tempted by Rosa ‘Grandmere Jermy’ (pale gold edged with rose: 5 shillings) or R. ‘Hector Dean’: (carmine and salmon pink, yellow at base of petal, fragrant: 4 shillings). But some, such as R. ‘Ophelia (flesh pink) and R. ‘Peace (yellow shaded pink at edge, a fine rose, large, vigorous) remain popular.

Interestingly, the climbing roses and ramblers seem less affected by the vagaries of fashion. Here I noted some of the classics, among them R. ‘Gloire de Dijon (buff yellow, rich scent), R. Mermaid’ (creamy yellow large single flowers, almost perpetual) and R. ‘Dorothy Perkins’ (clusters of beautiful pink flowers). 

By the time the newspaper article I mentioned was published, Mr Walker had been cultivating roses for more than 51 years and naturally had some advice to impart. He recommended the replacement of the top layer of soil beneath roses affected by black spot, after careful removal of affected leaves. Whilst he favoured clay soil as the best for rose growing, because of its moisture retaining qualities, the soil at his nursery was light and gravelly to which he applied ‘plenty of manure’. As well as growing roses at The Rose Gardens, Mr Walker was in demand to prune other people’s roses, describing pruning as ‘the surgical art of gardening’. 

At a time when the special relationship between the UK and US is as important as ever, and we avidly follow the news from across the Atlantic, I am reminded when studying the Wiltshire Roses catalogues that it was ever thus and the roses listed include several with American names and associations: 

  • R. ‘New Yorker’: large velvety scarlet
  • R. ‘President Hoover’: coppery orange blended gold and red, tall
  • R. ‘General MacArthur’: crimson
  • R. American Pillar’: pink with white eye. This rambling rose remains popular today and is listed on David Austin’s website.
Rosa ‘American Pillar’

Flowers and gardening styles, like clothing and interior decor, are subject to shifting trends. Rose gardens were in their heyday in the mid C20. Most gardens, small and large, contained at least one or two beds devoted to roses, often with nothing planted beneath. Somewhat featureless from October to March, such beds would burst into colourful life in the summer. At Meadowsweet, my parents’ first home, roses grew in a bed beside the back door and later a similar display was created in the garden of the house where I grew up. The bed was beside the garage and was edged with Polyanthus. It was a feature of the garden I came to know intimately, especially a thorny single flowered apricot rose bush into which I toppled several times whilst learning to ride a bike. When they retired to Petersfield in 1986, my parents planted roses in the south facing raised beds at the front of the house.

I was pleased to see that one of the two named varieties I remember, R. ‘Ena Harkness’ (bright crimson scarlet, excellent habit and growth) was listed in the Wiltshire Roses catalogue. This was my mother’s favourite rose and she loved to pick one or two flowers late into the autumn, to display and admire in a glass vase. The other rose I remember was R. ‘Uncle Walter’, named for Walter Gabriel, a character in The Archers. I cannot imagine a rose being named after one of the current cast of characters in this everyday story of farming folk (or ‘contemporary drama in a rural setting’ as the Archers website now styles it!). Somehow the Eddie Grundy rose doesn’t have the same nostalgic ring to it. 

Whilst the idea of writing a blog post about my friend’s rose-growing grandfather was marinating in my mind, the name of the second plantsman in my introduction kept cropping up in my reading. In The Garden Notebook*, Beth Chatto refers to Graham Stuart Thomas (1909 – 2003) as a great friend and correspondent. In the October 2020 edition of The Garden I read that he helped revive the gardens at the Indian inspired stately home Sezincote after the Second World War. I also knew him as the donor to Mottisfont of his collection of pre-1900 ‘old roses’, now the National Collection, for which he designed the area within the walled garden, blending roses with herbaceous perennials. Reaching their peak in early summer, the roses had long finished flowering when I visited Mottisfont this July, but the structure of the garden was impressive and whilst the roses had gone over, the clematis were thriving. 

To prepare for this article I bought a copy of Thomas’s ‘Shrub Roses of Today’, first published in 1962, one of a trilogy of classic books on roses, the others being ‘Old Shrub Roses’ and ‘Climbing Roses Old and New’. In his introduction, Graham Thomas notes how shrub roses and ramblers ‘act as a foil and complement in shape and form to the brilliant moderns’. So while Harry Taylor was propagating the ‘brilliant moderns’, Graham Thomas was engaged in collecting and documenting the species roses and their hybrids which have become known collectively as ‘old roses’. I was struck in the introduction by a reference to ‘the Hitler war’. In this week of remembrance for the members of the armed forces who have died in the line of duty it is sobering to consider that like many of their contemporaries, Harry Walker and Graham Thomas lived through two world wars. 

As well as collecting roses and writing about them, Graham Thomas was a gifted artist and the book is illustrated with his own colour and monochrome pictures. Having recently contributed copy for an article in the December edition of ‘Garden Answers‘ magazine about how to decorate with hips and haws (pp28-30) I was happy to see that one of the colour plates in his book features ‘Fruits of roses’. This includes the distinctive urn shaped hips (or ‘heps’ as he calls them) of R. moyesii ‘Geranium’.

Like Harry Walker, early in his career Graham Thomas was a nurseryman, culminating in his becoming a partner at Sunningdale Nurseries, where he remained a director until 1971. In 1955 he became the gardens advisor to the National Trust, having advised upon the gardens at Hidcote Manor when it passed to the Trust in 1948. He was the recipient of many honours and awards including an OBE for his work with the National Trust and in 1983 David Austin named ‘an unusually rich, pure yellow’ English shrub rose R. ‘Graham Thomas’. 

Before this current lockdown I completed the renovation pruning of the very vigorous climbing rose R. Madame Alfred Carrière (creamy white blooms tinged with pink**) in a client’s garden. It was a major task involving three visits to tame and train it. What fun it would have been fun to have consulted with Messrs Walker and Thomas on the project. I hope that they would have approved of my work to give this beautiful rose a new lease of life.

*ISBN-13: 97814746

**Description from David Austin’s website.

To the Manor Born

A September afternoon at Chenies Manor

What links George W Bush’s Vice-President and the proprietor of Acorn Antiques? Answer: Chenies Manor in Buckinghamshire. According to the guide who related the history of the magnificent Elizabethan manor house when I visited a couple of weeks ago, both Dick Cheney and actor Celia Imrie are related to families who once owned the house.

Used to parking some distance away from the house when visiting a historic property, I was surprised to find myself being directed to the car park through the entrance gates and passing immediately in front of the house and through part of the garden itself. That brief glimpse from the driver’s seat promised I had arrived somewhere special. For here was a square lawn bordered on one side by a redbrick wall beyond which stood the parish church, a very picturesque scene.

The Inner Court

Once parked, closer inspection of the border beside the wall revealed a textbook blend of leaf shapes and textures: sword-like Phormium leaves interspersed with cream and yellow variegated shrubs (Euonymus and Cornus alba ‘Sibirica Variegata’) and the crisply serrated blue/green leaves of the giant honey flower, Melianthus major. The lawn is cornered with yew columns, and in the centre a stone cherub stands amidst a circular bed of burgundy leafed Heucheras and castor oil plants (Ricinus communis).

Melianthus major

The redbrick of the Manor House forms an L around two sides of this entrance lawn. Variegated hollies frame the doorway of a grand brick porch, one holly trimmed into a five tiered design, beneath which grow ferns and ladies’ mantle (Alchemilla mollis). Lead planters at the door blend shades of yellow and white, with dahlias, nicotianas and hydrangeas. Grouped containers feature elsewhere in the garden. Coincidentally, when reading the September chapter of Beth Chatto’s ‘Garden Notebook’ this week, I noticed she calls such arrangements ‘pot gardens’. The architecture of the house is perfect for tucking terracotta pots of ferns into shady corners or filling a courtyard with a collection of clipped box in pots, the evergreen foliage softened by a blue-flowered Salvia. A metal jardinière houses a collection of tender pelargoniums, amongst which I spotted Pelargonium sidoides, which I’ve grown for the first time this year in my own pot garden.

Dotted around the garden are a number of sculptures, all for sale, including a greyhound-lurcher which, according to Boo McLeod Matthews, the current chatelaine of Chenies Manor, who I chatted to whilst admiring the sculpture, is so lifelike that her two spaniels growled at it when it was first installed. Two angels in conversation and a swooping owl also appealed to me, nestling naturally in the greenery.

The garden consists of several rooms beyond which lies a larger expanse of lawn, clipped yew pyramids drawing your eye towards a pretty metalwork gazebo, a souvenir of the filming onsite of an adaptation of Dickens’ ‘Little Dorrit’. At the far side of this lawn stands an ancient oak tree, where legend has it Elizabeth I mislaid a piece of jewellery.

The Little Dorrit gazebo, viewed from the Rose Lawn

Chenies Manor is a popular wedding venue and it’s easy to see why. Everywhere you turn are vistas and flowery bowers, a wedding photographer’ dream. Boo explained that with no wedding business this year, she has worked almost-full time in the garden with the rest of a small team of gardeners.

The first room I explored was the Rose Lawn bordered on one side by plantings of frothy annuals, formality imposed by broad based clipped box cones. Purple Heliotrope and Verbena bonariensis flowerheads jostle against Cosmos (in pink and white) and graceful pink Nicotiana and Cleome. The pink and purple theme is continued around the Rose Lawn, pale and deeper pink dahlias interspersed with more Heliotrope amply fill beds trimmed with a foot high hedge.

Dividing that bed from an adjoining lawn, tall lavenders and nicotianas tumble either side of a gravelled path, on which stood a wheelbarrow of deadheaded Dahlia blooms, a clue to the garden’s immaculate presentation. The path continues beyond domed yews to a metal pergola-covered green alley, square slabs set into the gravel at an angle to create a diamond pattern. Luminous autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale) illuminate the edge of this secret path which divides the next two rooms in the garden, the White Garden and the Sunken Garden.

Entered via an archway in a Wisteria laden wooden trellis screen, the White Garden’s restrained colour palette creates a calm tranquil atmosphere. The lawn snakes around imposing yew drums, embedded between which white dahlias (including the single-flowered ‘Twynings After Eight’) and tall Nicotiana sylvestnis dazzle against the dark green of the yew.

The Sunken Garden comprises a rectangle within a rectangle, a narrow strip of grass separating the planted sections. Repetitions of the shuttlecock fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris), blue/grey Euphorbias and ribbed-leafed hostas provide an understated backdrop for the stars of the show, dozens of dahlias in warm shades from peach through soft orange to scarlet and crimson. The skilful staking which must surely have been necessary to support the taller and larger flowered decorative dahlias was all but invisible.

Seated at a trestle table near the tearoom was Mary, one of the garden team, who generously shared her expertise in the annual propagation of many hundreds of dahlias, demonstrating the technique for taking cuttings from stored tubers early in the season. Arrayed on the table were several vases each containing a single bloom, in bright and pastel colours and of differing shapes: single, cactus, pompon, waterlily, collarette and the large bloomed decorative. By mid November, ideally after the first frost, the dahlias are dug up and dried off for a week or so. The stalks are cut down to 2 or 3 inches and the tubers are covered with dry compost or shredded newspaper in fruit crates and stored in every conceivable space that can be found, protected from frost, damp and mice. 60% of the dahlias in the garden are grown from cuttings. The rest are last year’s tubers or new varieties. Some are also grown from seed. Cuttings taken in January are started off in heated propagators. The new shoots from the tuber are sliced off with a small piece of tuber attached and dipped into rooting compound before being planted into pots with four other cuttings, watered and covered with a plastic bag.

The varieties Mary showed us included:

  • ‘Karma Prospero’: a longlasting waterlily style decorative dahlia
  • ‘Karma Choc’: a deep chocolatey red, good for flower arranging
  • ‘Spartacus’: a velvety red dinnerplate sized decorative dahlia
  • ‘Belle of Barmera’: terracotta fades to soft pink and buff
  • ‘Café au Lait’: cream blush blooms, a favourite for wedding bouquets
  • ‘Labyrinth’: apricot orange with wavy petals
  • ‘Honka Fragile’: White star shape with red edging

Massed tulip planting takes place before Christmas in preparation for a magnificent display each April. Judging by the impact the dahlias make, I can only imagine the spectacle that awaits visitors to this beautiful garden next spring.

Next time…..I pay a return visit to Chenies Manor. Having concentrated on the central areas of the garden on my first visit, I saw neither the Kitchen Garden nor the Physic Garden and have booked tickets to return with friends later this week. And I plan to take a closer look at the ancient oak tree with its royal connections.

Capital embellishment

I can still see them, bound in scarlet leatherette with gold embossed lettering, the three volumes of the Reader’s Digest Encyclopaedic Dictionary, which my father bought when I was about ten years’ old. They were kept in pride of place in the book case in the sitting room. Unlike the flimsy paged dictionaries in the school library, these felt rather luxurious and many entries were accompanied by small black and white line drawings which were perfect for tracing, and I illustrated several school projects with squares of greaseproof paper showing smudgy images of cocoa pods or Elizabethan costumes. But the pages I seemed to return to most often were those showing architectural features. Here I learnt to distinguish a Norman arch from a Gothic arch, a buttress from a gargoyle. And here I first learnt the three basic classical orders of architecture from a drawing of the capitals of antique columns. First the austere Doric style, then the moustachioed Ionic and finally the flamboyant Corinthian.

Outings to country houses and a few archaeological sights, notably the Forum in Rome and Jerash in the north of Jordan, provided examples of the types of capital. But many years passed before I connected the elaborate ‘Acanthus Scroll’ of the Corinthian capital with a plant that grows in British gardens: Acanthus mollis, commonly known as bear’s breeches.

Before spreading a mulch of shredded horse manure on a client’s flower beds last week, I made sure I wasn’t suffocating the crowns of any precious herbaceous perennials emerging from their winter dormancy. Gleaming in some rare sunshine, I found the glossy dark green leaves of A. mollis. There have been few frosts this winter in this area, and this was in a very sheltered town garden, so the leaves have already grown quite large. Late last year I cut back the spent leaves and distinctive flower spires measuring up to one metre in length on which are stacked curved pinkish bracts (resembling the bears’ breeches which give the plant its common name) protecting white two-lipped flowers. This is no modest plant content to blend into the background, but an extrovert of a specimen strong in both design and structure.

It’s easy to see why the ancients chose the architectural form of its leaves to decorate their buildings. But the plant wasn’t just used as architectural inspiration. In Claire Ryley’s ‘Roman Gardens and their Plants’ (ISBN 0-904973-16-6) I read that both A. mollis and A. spinosus were used by the Romans to line paths in formal gardens. The leaves of A. spinosus are more deeply lobed than those of A. mollis and each lobe has a sharply toothed outline. According to Claire Ryley the cooked roots of both species were applied as a poultice to burns and sprains as well as being used to treat gout and prevent hair loss.

Acanthus leaf decoration can be found in the National Trust’s Osterley House, where as regular readers know, I volunteer in the garden each Friday. In the late eighteenth century the house was modernised by Robert Adam. The Tudor building was transformed into a sophisticated grand mansion in the classical style. Adam’s designs reflected the latest discoveries. of the ancient world which he had seen for himself during a tour of Europe from 1754 to 1758. When I went inside the house for the recent ‘Treasures of Osterley’ exhibition I didn’t have to look far to find Acanthus leaves used in elaborate wall and ceiling plasterwork mouldings and on marble fireplace surrounds.

Thanks to those red bound volumes published in the 1970s, I still admire Corinthian columns with their leafy capitals as these photographs taken over the last year or so testify.

I was disappointed this morning when I inspected the A. mollis in my garden to find that the broad shiny leaves seem to be peppered with the first signs of the disease to which the plant is prone, powdery mildew. No doubt the frequent heavy rain of the last several weeks has spread the spores of the mildew from leaf to leaf. My strategy will be to remove the affected leaves, allowing unaffected leaves from beneath to unfurl comfortably. At least two millennia have passed since the Greeks and Romans chose Acanthus leaves to decorate their homes, public buildings and temples, and I am happy to report that with or without powdery mildew, it remains a handsome plant.

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.

 

An American in Paradise: Hever Castle Gardens

After becoming a British subject in 1899, American multi-millionaire William Waldorf Astor purchased Hever Castrle, near Edenbridge in Kent, the childhood home of Henry VIII’s ill-fated second wife Anne Boleyn. Between 1904 and 1908 he transformed the property, including the gardens surrounding the moated castle. I have read that the equivalent of £110 million was spent creating the gardens alone.

I visited Hever with a friend just over a week ago. Approaching from the Lake View entrance, the first part of the garden we encountered was the Blue Corner. Red brick walls enclose a steeply raked lawn on each side of which deep beds accommodate large boulders and hydrangeas and clematis in varying shades of mauve and purple contrasting with the foliage of ferns, hostas and euphorbias. Purple annual bedding plants provide ground cover in the form of velvety petunias and densely flowered heliotrope the common name of which, Cherry Pie, aptly describes its sweet scent.

In the Rose Garden brightly coloured and fragrant shrub roses occupy beds separated by lawned paths radiating from large urns, representative of the classical antiquities and Italian renaissance pieces which Astor collected whilst American ambassador in Italy in the late 1880s. Much of his collection of sculptures, urns, cisterns and fountainheads is displayed at Hever.

Beyond the Rose Garden stands the classically inspired loggia flanked by colonnades facing the 35 acre manmade lake fed by the River Eden. Set behind the loggia (the romantic venue for a wedding on the afternoon of my visit) is the Italian Garden where most of Lord Astor’s sculpture collection is displayed. Marble gods and goddesses stand amongst arches and pillars festooned with climbing roses and clematis. On the shady side of this large plot is the ‘Gallery of Fountains’ where ferns and hosts grow in abundance along a water filled channel beneath a succession of arches. The crevices of the stone wall bordering the gallery are filled with shield ferns and mosses.

The classical formality of this part of the garden gives way to blowsy prairie planting behind the walls of the Italian Garden. Diana’s Path follows the lakeside towards the castle complex and is bordered with Verbena bonariensis, Echinacea purpureum, Crocosmia, fennel and the silky tresses of a bronze fringed grass. Nepeta, Eryngium and Veronicastrum represent the blue and mauve parts of the spectrum. A magnet for bees, the Veronicastrum displayed signs of that mysterious botanical phenomenon, fasciation. Some of the mauve flower spikes flatten and fork, their bizarre forms swaying in a scene reminiscent of a submarine landscape, through which one might imagine tiny tropical fish darting. According to the RHS website, the abnormal flattening of the flowers in Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Fascination’, is thought to be caused by a genetic tendency to the problem.

Approaching the castle and the adjoining ‘Edwardian Village’, the style of the garden reverts to formality, evocative of Tudor England rather than renaissance Italy. Inside an outer moat lie a Yew Maze and a Tudor Garden, the latter containing a number of sheltered ‘rooms’ bounded by crenellated yew hedging. Here are an intricate knot garden   created entirely from box (Buxus sempervirens) and a physic garden featuring medicinal plants. Hever’s second rose garden consists of a square pond decorated with a two tiered fountain surrounded by stone paving and beds spilling over with a pretty pink and white polyantha (formerly floribunda) rose, Rosa ‘Ballerina’. Beyond the rose garden giant topiary chess pieces fashioned from golden yew loom across a lawn on which stands a tall sundial.

The castle itself stands within a square inner moat in which coy carp swim amongst the waterlilies. The ‘art of creative pruning’ as the inspirational Jake Hobson calls topiary, is represented on Topiary Walk by a series of large box and yew shrubs fashioned into abstract and animal shapes. They reminded me of the fanciful designs I saw lining the Thyme Walk at Highgrove when I visited in May.

Vibrantly coloured planting in the style of Gertrude Jekyll decorates the Long Border between the castle and the lake. Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’, Hemerocallis (Day lilies), Leucanthemum x superbum (Shasta daisies), Echinops ritro (Globe thistle) and fennel predominate but with subtly supported climbing plants dotted amongst the herbaceous scheme. I particularly liked a delicate yellow jasmine (Jasminum officinale ‘Clotted Cream’ and a dainty mid pink clematis which I believe is Clematis texensis ‘Princess Diana’.

Hever is described as one of the great gardens of the world and I plan to return to explore it further.

 

 

Hollies and composts: John Innes Park SW19

Not for the first time while working for a client in an unfamiliar area, I have stumbled across a public park with an intriguing horticultural history. In my post dated 25 February 2019 I described discovering Grove Gardens in Teddington, formerly part of a garden designed by Sir William Chambers, architect of the Kew Pagoda. Earlier this week I did some pruning in a garden in Merton Park: Lonicera fragrantissima (winter flowering honeysuckle), Viburnum bodnantense and a Pittosporum. Planning my route on Google Maps, I noticed that the clients lived a few hundred metres from John Innes Park and an internet search led me to the website of the John Innes Society where I learnt that this was the same John Innes of compost fame.

The park was formerly the garden of this property developer and benefactor known as ‘the Squire of Merton’, who developed this area near Wimbledon as an early garden suburb, Merton Park. When he died in 1904, John Innes left money for the founding of a horticultural training and research centre, which became the John Innes Horticultural Institution. The composts which bear his name were developed in the Institution’s premises in Merton in the 1930s. In 1945 the organisation moved to Hertfordshire and since 1967 it has been based in Norwich.

Once I’d completed my pruning I explored the park and was delighted to find an Arts & Crafts style entrance lodge, a wooden bandstand, half timbered public conveniences and a bowling green and tennis courts: in short an old fashioned public park. It is fitting that John Innes Park, a public space with such strong horticultural associations, boasts attractively laid out ‘rooms’, linked by paths bounded by tall yew and holly hedges, the latter dating from John Innes’s time, holly being associated with the Innes clan.  The park also contains a large rockery, a rose pergola and a lawned area with a fish pond.

There are numerous species and cultivars of holly throughout the park.

The holly theme is continued in the suburb of Merton Park itself, much of it a Conservation Area, with street signs bearing a holly motif and a stylised holly leaf featuring in the stained glass windows in the entrance halls and front doors of many of the houses. Holly hedging abounds in the estate and in one road I found the hedging is at least two metres high and planted either side of an avenue of stately London Plane trees.

I cannot conclude this post without a brief account of the growing medium I referred to earlier. Each John Innes compost is based upon a soil mix which consists of seven parts medium sterilised loam, three parts peat (or a substitute) and two parts of coarse sand. The basic recipe for each of the three composts, John Innes No. 1,2 and 3, also contains nutrients in the form of hoof and horn meal, super phosphate and sulphate of potash in varying proportions. For example, John Innes No. 3 provides a rich mix for established plants, trees and shrubs and No.2 is suitable for most houseplants and vegetable plants in containers. The more delicate the plant, the fewer nutrients are required, and John Innes No. 1 is suitable for pricking out or potting on young seedlings.

When the John Innes composts were developed, the inclusion of peat in the formulae would not have been deemed to be as environmentally undesirable as it is rightly considered to be today. Whilst researching this post I have been relieved to read that peat substitutes are being included in some products, without deviating from the proportions so carefully laid down by the Institution 80 years ago for the growing mediums which have been in use by gardeners ever since.

More purple prose

The common names of plants often reference other plants. For example, the ‘tulip tree’ (Liriodendron tulipifera). Not only do its generous waxy cream goblets resemble tulips,  its uniquely shaped leaves with their truncated upper edges remind me of stylised versions of the flower. And this weekend I came across the ‘snowdrop tree’ on Instagram, Halesia Carolina, whose snowy white bells are reminiscent of the blooms of its namesake.

Another tree whose flowers resemble another species, and which is in glorious flower at the moment, is the foxglove tree, Paulownia tomentosa. Four examples of the tree occupy a corner to the right of the Garden House in Mrs Child’s Flower Garden at Osterley, one of which stands slightly apart from the others, behind the wall in the section of the garden where stands the unusual species of strawberry tree, Arbutus madrona, which I featured in my blog dated 17 April 2019.

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Like foxgloves, the tree’s petals are a fleshy tubular shape with a flared rim to entice pollinators. Approximately 5cm long, the mauve flowers are topped by exquisite tan calyxes, like suede jackets shrugged over elegant pastel ballgowns.

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When after a heavy shower last week I picked up one of the many flowers which the rain had loosened onto the ground beneath the tree, I detected a strong violet scent. The ripened seed cases are almost as attractive as the flowers themselves, being egg-shaped capsules containing numerous winged seeds. When driving along the busy Chertsey Road (A316) the other day I noticed Paulownia trees lining part of the carriageway, presumably indicating a toughness and resistance to pollution belied by their flowers’ delicate appearance.

I read that the tree originates from Eastern Asia, notably China, Japan and Korea. And whilst it is an introduced species in Europe and the USA, it was interesting to note that fossilised Paulownia tomentosa leaves have been found in Washington State. The name Paulownia was given by the German botanist Philipp Franz von Siebold in honour of Anna Pavlovna, 1795-1865, daughter of Tsar Paul I and wife of William II of the Netherlands: hence the tree’s other common name, the Princess tree. The image above demonstrates why the species epithet ‘tomentosa‘ meaning ‘covered in hairs’ is so apt.

Shades of mauve and purple are prevalent in gardens this month as shown in the images which follow. From left to right: Cerinthe major ‘Purpurascens’; Centaurea montana; Lavandula stoechas; Allium ‘Purple Sensation’.

 

 

Springtime showtime: Amelanchier lamarckii

Bird feeder support, squirrel roost, canopy for tiny woodland garden area: the one tree in my small garden has multiple functions. And for one week every March it stages a show which rivals the pink Magnolia in a neighbouring garden. The tree is an Amelanchier lamarckii. Its bare wood borne buds are already limbering up for the opening in a few days’ time. The elongated bud clusters have rotated to an almost vertical position, the individual flowers visible within silky pink and green flushed cocoon-like structures. Sadly this show always has a short run despite universally appreciative reviews. But the delicate bronze leaves which follow the flower show are also attractive and birds love the small black fruits which emerge during the summer before the foliage reddens for another short lived display in early autumn. Both flowers and leaves succumb to the strong winds which can occur in late March and late September weather.

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A. lamarckii photographed on 14 March 2019

As well as accomodating three bird feeders and a hanging bird bath, this versatile tree provides a perch for the small birds visiting the feeders such as Blue Tits, Great Tits and Goldfinches as well as those waiting to fly down to the feeder on the ground nearby: Blackbirds, Robins, Wood Pigeons and Dunnocks. The tits also nibble the invertebrates to be found in the tree. In August the pigeons lumber clumsily about the branches in a variety of ungainly poses, reaching for the tempting black fruits.

It must be about 16 years since I planted this tree, as a replacement for a rather untidy Euonymus which was here when I came to the house. I remember driving home from Syon Park’s garden centre with the young tree taking up most of the car and praying I would not be stopped by the police. I bought a tree stake and support from the nursery on the site of what is now Petersham Nurseries, and a few years ago was able to remove it because the strong trunk had pushed the support away, rendering it redundant.

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Seen from an upstairs window, Amelanchier lamarckii in the foreground prepares to upstage a nearby Magnolia.

Amelanchier lamarckii is named for Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), a French naturalist who took up botany and zoology after a military career. He is best known for his contribution to evolutionary theory, making him a precursor of Charles Darwin. I was intrigued to read that in 1790, at the height of the French Revolution, when he was keeper of the herbarium of the Royal Gardens in Paris, he changed the garden’s name to the Jardin des Plantes, which did not imply such a close association with King Louis VII. As well as my beloved tree, Lamarck’s name has been applied to other plants including species of foxglove and evening primrose. A honeybee and numerous marine organisms also bear his species epithet.

Like the plant featured in my last blog post, Sorbaria sorbifolia ‘Sem’, A. canadensis is a member of the rose family, the Rosaceae. One of the common names for A. lamarckii is Snowy Mespilus and when it is in flower it does look as though it has been sprinkled with snow. Mespilus is the botanic name for the Medlar tree, also a member of the extensive rose family but Amelanchier is a distinct genus in its own right.

When I was in Kew Gardens earlier this week I went to see if another member of the Amelanchier tribe, A. canadensis, had started to flower and found it at a similar stage to my tree. These are dense, erect, suckering shrubs which when in flower form a magical grove to the north of the Waterlily House.

 

 

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The grove of A. canadensis in Kew Gardens on 18 March 2019

Amelanchier lamarckii is an ideal tree for a small garden. It grows to between eight and twelve metres, although mine seems to be happy to remain at approximately six metres. Its small leaves almost dissolve into the flowerbed below in the autumn and apart from having to sweep them off the yard beside the house are not the nuisance some larger trees’ leaves can become in smaller gardens, for example Sycamore. I can’t wait for my specimen to reveal its spring costume and perform.

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A. Lamarckii photographed on 22 March: flowers poised to open