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

 

Dickie’s Border

My last blog post included a reference to a clock and ‘Tick Tock’ is the nickname of the gentleman after whom a very imposing border in the gardens at Osterley is named. Dickie Denton was a gardener at Osterley from 1948 who lived in a flat in the stables, a short distance from the border, and looked after the clock in the stables.

In this brief image-based post I share images taken last Monday 25 February of a few of the shrubs featured in the middle tier of the planting scheme in Dickie’s Border.

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Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’ : Winter daphne
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Rhamnus alarternus ‘Argenteovariegata’: Italian buckthorn

 

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Arbutus unedo f.rubra:  Pink strawberry tree
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Teucrium fruticans:  Tree germander