Thirsty Work

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

Sufferers

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

Survivors

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

Thrivers

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

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

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

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

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

From River to Green

65-73 Kew Green, NGS openings 22 & 29 May 2022

Imagine a 300 foot long garden behind an elegant Georgian house, running down to the towpath along the southern bank of the River Thames. Now imagine five such gardens, each divided into a series of ‘rooms’, rambling roses and Clematis softening the boundaries between each garden.

These five gardens, 65 to 73 Kew Green, open for the National Gardens Scheme on two Sundays every May, raising funds for charities including Marie Curie and MacMillan Cancer Support. I enjoyed my first visit on the afternoon of 22 May so much that I returned with another friend on the evening of 29 May.

Entered via gates along the towpath, each garden boasts an impressive compost area and some have leaf mould piles as well. Next come the kitchen gardens, ranging from rectangular box-edged beds to a potager blending vegetables and ornamentals. Planting styles and colour schemes vary from one garden to the next.

One garden, the narrowest, adheres to a restrained palette of greens and whites, the borders punctuated with carefully trimmed box balls and yew pyramids. A soft cottagey style of planting predominates elsewhere, borders billowing with roses, peonies and irises. Euphorbias introduce a lime green accent here and there.

Each garden includes a woodland garden, exploiting the shade provided by the very mature trees planted along the towpath, the perfect environment for shade-loving plants like Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum x hybridum). In one, variegated ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria ‘Variegatum’) lightened what might otherwise have been a gloomy spot.

There were some stylish garden pavilions and studios, one of them spanning the width of the garden, and a few well-placed sculptures.

Lawns are immaculate, but sizeable areas had been left unmowed in the spirit of ‘No Mow May’. The lawns tend to be closer to the houses, and surrounded by generous shrub borders. I was impressed by the variety of trees: including the maidenhair tree (Gingko biloba), contorted willow (Salix Tortuosa) and black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia). Pot gardens occupy some of the paved areas adjoining the houses.

73 Kew Green is I believe, the widest of the gardens, and features a small orchard, the trees set amidst a meadow through which inviting paths have been mown. In at least two of the gardens, sympathetic hard landscaping has been used to create ponds and water features, tranquil focal points in already peaceful spaces.

I succumbed to the temptation to buy a couple of plants at the plant sale set up at no 73, both relative rarities. Here are the descriptions provided by the donor of these plants:

  1. Malvastrum lateritium. In full sun and well drained soil this little mallow gives many flowers of a soft orange with a red eye. Its stems sometimes root as they creep about. Its perfume was once described by a friend as like a ‘high class talc’. From N. Argentina, S. Brazil.
  2. Lychnis ‘Hill Grounds’. A chance hybrid from Janet Cropley’s garden, Hill Grounds, Northants. Lychnis flos-jovis x L coronaria. A sterile hybrid, therefore grows plenty of bright pink flowers over a long period.

In my garden this afternoon I reduced two large clumps of Michaelmas daisies beside the trellis which supports climbing rose ‘Blush Noisette’ with a view to revamping that part of the flower bed and shall plant these new acquisitions, as well as Anthriscus sylvestris Ravenswing, which I bought last Wednesday morning at Hardy’s Plants after a marvellous tour of the nursery led by Rosie and Rob Hardy: the subject of my next blog.

Before finishing, I want to thank the owners of the Kew Green gardens for their generosity in opening their gardens for the NGS and their patience with visitors like me asking lots of questions.

Kew, 5 June 2022

Hever Castle & Gardens revisited

My last blog post about the gardens at Hever Castle was in July 2019. I had the good fortune to return to Hever last Monday with a great group from the Garden Media Guild. Head gardener Neil Miller lead a tour of the garden. Our visit coincided with peak season for the 40,000 tulips planted at Hever. Neil demonstrated throughout the tour that in a garden nothing stands still, it’s an ever changing space. Plants outgrow their site, new areas are cleared and planted, Yew topiary is cut back to the bone and re-shaped.

Despite being a listed garden there is scope for experimentation and innovative practices at Hever. With a third of a million visitors a year compaction is a problem in the Yew Maze so the opportunity was taken when the garden closed during the first lockdown in spring 2020 to revitalise the yews. Terrain Aeration was engaged to pump air and dried seaweed one metre below the compacted soil. Elsewhere in the garden digestate (the odourless by-product of anaerobic digestion of e.g. sewage sludge) is used to enrich the soil around established plants. In an area known as the Acer Dell a swathe of red and white tulips (a tribute to the Tudor Rose) was created last year using a bulb planting machine operated by Dutch firm Lubbe & Sons. The tines of the machine act as ‘dibbers’ to create the planting holes, the machine drops the bulbs into place and then backfills the holes.

No garden is immune from the ravages of the weather and Neil showed us a 120 year old poplar tree near the drawbridge across the moat which was blown down by Storm Eunice in February this year. Its rootball was winched back into position and it is hoped it will regenerate. Beside the Italian Garden it was sad to see that the severe frost about four weeks ago had taken out most of the flower buds of the Wisteria trained over the pergola*.

Neil explained that the herbaceous border alongside Two Sisters’ Lawn, named for Ann and Mary Boleyn who were raised at Hever, is planted in the style of Edwardian garden designer Gertrude Jekyll. In the summer, cool shades of white and silver will progress through the colour spectrum to warm reds and golds. The opposite border is punctuated with dainty standard forms of the earliest flowering rose, Rosa xanthina Canary Bird.

Beyond the Festival Theatre, a curving raised bed (the dahlia border) is graced with 3,500 tulips all of which are planted into crates as is done in the Keukenhof gardens in the Netherlands. Not only does this make it easier to remove the bulbs in time for planting dahlias in June, it avoids a rogue cultivar finding its way into the scheme. The theme changes each year, this year’s being cream (Tulipa Avant Garde), red (Tulipa Red Wing) and purple (Tulipa Purple Flag). The tulips from this area and those in the Italian Garden are lifted later in May and planted in less formal areas of the garden.

Neil introduced us to the six acre Italian Garden by telling us that it was designed to house the huge collection of ancient and renaissance statuary collected by William Waldorf Astor while US ambassador to Rome. Individual garden ‘rooms’ occupy the niches along the south facing border inspired by the ruins of Pompeii. These have been planted with tulips and complementary spring flowers. I was struck by the unusual Evergreen tulips underplanted with wallflowers, the fringed purple tulips interspersed with blue pansies.

One of the garden ‘rooms’ in the Italian Garden
Ditto

The south-facing border is also a perfect site for exotic shrubs like pomegranates, pistachio (mastic) and olives, the latter wall-trained so immaculately it resembles a trompe l’oeil painting. A fig and a loquat have been trained in a similar fashion against the wall opposite the Pavilion Cafe.

Espaliered olive tree in the Italian Garden

The long border on the other side of the Italian Garden, at the foot of the colonnade, is ablaze with the scarlet, orange and yellow of Olympic Flame and Apeldoorn Elite tulips.

Venerable camellias occupy the shady side of the colonnade. They are pruned back after flowering to keep them from growing too far across the pathway and pressure washing is used to treat those specimens affected by sooty mould. In the rose garden no insecticides are used, any aphids on the 4,000 roses are soon consumed by visiting blackbirds and invertebrates like ladybirds and hoverflies. Because the roses are planted very close together in a walled garden, airflow is impeded and blackspot can be a problem from July onwards, causing defoliation. To prevent this, the roses are sprayed fortnightly from the end of April until late September. A foliar feed is also added to the spray to encourage healthy growth. Deadheading is carried out throughout the flowering season. Neil’s pruning regime is to reduce the roses by one third in November to prevent windrock and in March to cut stems to three or five buds (hybrid tea roses) and five or seven buds (floribunda roses).

The Rose Garden in April

After a very sociable lunch we were taken to a newly planted woodland area of the garden: Church Gill where, seven years ago, long-forgotten stone steps and a pathway were uncovered when laurels and bracken was being removed from the top of the stream-side Sunday Walk, along which the Astor family would have made their way to the Hever parish church. Over the last three years the area has been revitalised with a scheme of shade-loving woodland and alpine plants designed by Graham Gunn and Monica Wylie of Kevock Garden Plants in Edinburgh. The steep sides of the valley through which the stream flows must have made planting very challenging.

The natural atmosphere of this part of the garden is a complete contrast to the colour and formality of the Italian Garden but it’s a beautifully realised example of how Neil Miller and his team of 10 gardeners develop new projects as well as maintaining the highest standards of horticulture throughout the gardens at Hever.

Kew, 1 May 2022

*In my own garden about 50% of the buds were checked by that frost but happily the rest have flowered successfully and it is currently looking and smelling divine.

Some more photographs of the gardens at Hever follow:

Magnolia walk at Borde Hill Garden

I love the view from the window of the spare room in March. An early flowering cherry, a starry flowered Amelanchier and a large Magnolia with pale pink flowers grow in the gardens behind mine. The Magnolia is now very large indeed. Sometimes on a dull day the sun breaks through the cloud and illuminates the shell pink petals, which shine out all the more against the grey of the sky. This year the Magnolia seemed to come into flower earlier than usual.

On a walk with a friend in Kew Gardens on 2 March several of the Magnolia Grove trees were flowering, including a couple of the very large old specimens, the flowers high above very difficult to capture in a photograph. Welcome as the sight of these gorgeous flowers was, after the dreariness of winter, we both expressed the same thought, that we hoped the magnolias would last until 29 March! I had persuaded my friend and her husband to join me on that date for a magnolia walk at Borde Hill Garden in West Sussex. I rationalised that the trees in Kew were more advanced because the temperatures in London are higher than in the countryside. Driving to jobs in the weeks that followed I saw magnolias in glorious bloom everywhere, and had begun to resign myself to having to imagine Borde Hill’s trees in flower rather than seeing the real thing on the day of the walk.

Thanks to Colonel Stephenson Robert Clarke, the great grandfather of the current owner of Borde Hill, this 35 acre garden a couple of miles from Haywards Heath is home to around 150 different species and cultivated varieties of Magnolia, including summer flowering evergreen specimens. Colonel Stehenson Clarke (‘Stephie’) bought the Elizabethan house and the surrounding estate in 1893 and created the garden, planting trees and shrubs collected by some of the famous plant hunters of the early C20.

The walk was led by Borde Hill’s Head of Horticulture, Harry Baldwin, and Dori Whatmore, Senior Gardener. Harry joined the team last November from Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew where after attaining his Kew Diploma he worked as a Dendrologist and Horticultural Taxonomist. The two-handed presentation by these knowledgeable gardeners worked really well and it was inspiring hearing about the work being done at the garden and Harry’s five year plan for it.

Dori and Harry at the start of the walk

In his introduction, Harry explained that the Borde Hill private archive includes letters to Colonel Stephenson Clarke from plant hunters like Ernest ‘China’ Wilson and George Forrest forming a fascinating record of the creation of the garden and the stories behind the introduction of new species. As we had noticed earlier in the month, magnolias are indeed beginning to flower earlier as a result of climate change, but Harry reassured us that because of the vast range of magnolias at Borde Hill we would still see plenty of trees in bloom during the walk. Colonel Clarke chose the property because of its geology: eight different types of clay have been identified on the site. It stands on an east-west ridge meaning it has both north and south facing slopes creating several different climate niches.

The Magnolia Trail

At our first stop near the entrance to the garden we were shown four trees which derived from seed collected by Ernest Wilson, including the fabulously named Magnolia sprengeri ‘Diva’, the Goddess magnolia. Near a pathway along the perimeter of the garden stands another Wilson discovery, not a magnolia but a rare tree which flowers so infrequently that when it does it’s a very special event: Emmenopterys henryi. Searching Wikipedia later I read that flowering (apparently the flowers resemble lace cap hydrangeas) seems to be triggered by long hot summers and that the tree is part of the Rubiaceae family, another member of which is the coffee plant! At Borde Hill, it last flowered in 2018.

We skirted the part of the garden called the Azalea Ring to find the next trees on our route. Named after a former head gardener from Caerhays near St Austell in Cornwall, Magnolia ‘Philip Tregunna’ is a young tree whose goblet like blooms are shaded deep pink at the base and fade upwards to a paler pink. Nearby, Harry described M. ‘Peachy’ as having ‘sickly looking flowers’. They reminded me of that shade ‘nude’ which was so popular in shoes a few years ago. Next was a tree which survived the Great Storm of 1987 despite being blown over, M. x soulangeana ‘Brozzonii’. Harry explained that the species from which this white-flowered beauty derives was named for Etienne Soulange-Bodin (1774-1846), who founded the French equivalent of the RHS, Le Société d’horticulture de Paris. We then encountered the first of the TROBI champion trees* at Borde Hill, a 60 foot high M. campbellii, a champion because of its great girth.

The walk paused at this stage to enable us to examine in detail the structure of a magnolia flower. Laid out on three picnic tables were small branches bearing a few blooms. Harry encouraged us to strip back the petals to the centre of the flower and explained the complex morphology of what is one of the most ancient of the flowering plants, including the fact that magnolias are pollinated by beetles rather than flying insects, which they pre-date.

We learnt that most magnolias dislike alkaline soil and prefer a neutral to acidic soil of 5.5 to 6.6 pH, the ideal soil texture being a good loam. Magnolia stellata is the exception in that it can be grown on alkaline soil. When planting a magnolia, incorporate organic matter into the planting hole and feed with an organic mulch. Harry has already created ‘tree circles’ around many of the specimens where the ground beneath the trees is cleared of grass and any competing growth. This not only looks attractive but makes mowing easier and prevents damage to the tree or shrub. He was asked if he would stake a newly planted magnolia and explained that he tends not to do so, preferring that the plant becomes stronger when allowed to move with the wind. Were he to stake he would angle the stake towards the south west and attach it to the tree with a rubber tree tie. In Harry’s five year plan for the garden the priority is to propagate the collection, ensuring its survival for years to come. Propagation is done by grafting one year’s growth from seed onto material taken from the tree’s own rootstock.

Continuing the walk we passed the rear of the house with a view across to the property’s North Park. In the area of the garden called the Garden of Allah, we were shown a couple of evergreen species, M. obovata from eastern Russia and Japan and M. fraseri from the south-eastern USA. Both bear scented flowers in early summer. the M. obovata is a TROBI champion tree by girth and the species’ wood is used for furniture making.

In the same way that we all exchange plants and cuttings and cuttings with our friends and neighbours, the next tree M. officinalis was a gift in 1933 from a neighbour, Col. Messel of nearby Nymans. In its native China an extract from the bark is used in traditional medicine as a cold remedy and the tree is becoming increasingly rare. Harry shared a sobering statistic: 48% of the approximately 240 species of magnolia across the globe are threatened with extinction, through logging and change of land use to agriculture and development. Which makes it all the more important to preserve and propagate collections of these magnificent trees such as that at Borde Hill. Because fleshy magnolia seeds are ‘recalcitrant’ they cannot be dried and stored in seed banks such as Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst, a few miles away from Borde Hill. Like acorns and chestnuts, they have to be planted and grown on in order to be preserved, which makes gardens like Borde Hill with botanic collections of rare plants, conservation communities in their own right.

Perched on a knoll across from M. officinalis is a near relative of the magnolia, the tulip tree. Liriodendron chinense again hails from China and was collected in the wild by Ernest Wilson. Harry described the leaves as saddle shaped, with their blunt upper edges. Like its American cousin, L. tulipfera, the tree flowers in early summer.

In the north-west of the garden, in an open space called Gardiner Grove, named after magnolia expert Jim Gardiner, several specimens of two species of magnolia have been planted: M. springeri and M. acuminata. The young trees are protected with guards against rabbits which are attracted to the sap in the wood. They are soon to be fitted with TreeGator watering bags, zip up bags which release water over a three day period whilst the plants establish themselves. As the walk continued we all admired M. Black Tulip with its dark purple tulip-shaped flowers.

Magnolia Back Tulip

The final stop on the tour was the Italian Garden, a formal space with a rectangular pond at its centre, created on the site of a tennis court, with a view out to the South Park. To one side of the garden stands a large example of M. stellata with its open long-petalled flowers, which are slightly scented. It’s a popular choice in small gardens or as a border shrub.

Chatting to Harry and Dori at the end of the tour we discovered that a small horticultural team looks after the garden, supported by a small group of volunteers. They must work tremendously hard to keep this varied space looking so good. We were strongly recommended to return in June to see the Rose Garden.

After the walk we had delicious freshly made sandwiches and excellent coffee at the open-air Gardener’s Retreat Cafe and then retraced our steps and explored the area around the Rose and Italian Gardens more thoroughly, finding some fascinating plants and intriguing pathways as we went. Tucked in the south-western corner of the garden are the roofless remains of the old potting sheds which have become a charming garden in their own right, planted with tree peonies and primroses, a vivid Japanese quince (Chaenomeles x superba) scrambling across the mullion windows which still contain their leaded lights.

Thanks to Harry and Dori’s informative tour of Borde Hill’s extensive collection of magnolias I’ve learnt a great deal more about this elegant tree. Borde Hill Garden is a delightful place and I shall definitely return at another season to discover more of its treasures.

10 April 2022

*TROBI (Tree Register of Britain and Ireland) champion trees are the tallest and largest trees in Britain and Ireland. There are 75 champion trees at Borde Hill.

Here are some more images from the day at Borde Hill Garden giving a flavour of the different sections of the garden and the diversity of planting.

The Only Way is Essex: part 2

RHS Garden Hyde Hall

Once a year throughout my teenage years we took Sean, our black Labrador cross, to Mr Montgomery’s kennels or ‘Monto’ as my dad called it. Mr Montgomery was an elderly Scotsman whose boarding kennels were down a country lane about 12 miles from our house in Brentwood. Mr Montgomery loved Sean and we knew he would be in safe hands while we were on holiday. The kennels were in the tiny village of Rettendon close to the Hanningfields reservoir which supplied water to much of south Essex. In those distant days there was no indication that from 1993 a remarkable new garden would develop in Rettendon, to be run by the Royal Horticultural Society: RHS Garden Hyde Hall.

My last post described my visit to the Beth Chatto Garden near Colchester. The next day we went to Hyde Hall. The only other RHS garden I have visited is Wisley in Surrey, not too long a drive from home for me and where I go a couple of times a year. I was curious to compare Hyde Hall with its older sister garden and the most striking immediate differences for me were the wide skies and open vistas of the Essex garden. If I say that a couple of areas reminded me of a golf course it is not meant as a criticism, it is to describe the openness of much of the site. It was fascinating to see the extent of the tree planting being undertaken and to imagine what the same views will look like in 40 years’ time when the trees have matured. It made me think about the work of the great 18th century landscape designers like Charles Bridgeman, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown and Humphrey Repton who moulded the land to their vision of the perfect landscape, moving trees and creating lakes and mounds. In the 21st century powered machinery has replaced men, horses and ingenious (and huge) tree planting devices.

The route indicated in the visitor map leads you first to the Winter Garden, always of interest to me for ideas for year round interest. I hadn’t gone very far before spying a low-growing plant with lobed and serrated leaves in a neat crown with a mass of starry white flowers flushed pink and held on dainty red stems: Saxifraga Sibyll Trelawney JP.

Saxifraga Sibyll Trelawney JP.

Grasses feature throughout much of the garden, such as at the foot of these birches, blended with Cornus, yet to be shed crimson leaves masking the scarlet stems which will come to the fore during the winter months.

Birches, grasses & dogwoods

I was surprised to find a Daphne already in flower, expecting these sweetly scented evergreen shrubs to flower in very early spring, but here Daphne x transatlantica Blafra was covered in waxy white blooms, smelling quite divine. Not far away, I was pleased to identify a tree that I have seen growing near my niece’s home in Somerset, Fraxinus angustifolia Raywood, the leaves of which turn a faintly metallic crimson shade from early October.

It was the third weekend in October and thanks to a blend of grasses and late flowering perennials such as Verbena bonariensis and Anemone japonica the Clover Hill Borders were both colourful and full of movement. The stems of Lythrum virgatum Dropmore Purple are garnet-coloured in autumn and complement swathes of Persicaria. Another combination that caught my eye was russet flowered Mahonia nitens Cabaret and the blue flowers of Ceratostigma willmottianum.

The area known as the Queen Mother’s Garden is composed of a series of woodland areas, packed with interesting trees and shrubs. This being an RHS garden I saw many unfamiliar cultivars, such as the white berry-bearing Callicarpa japonica Leucocarpa, its autumn leaves almost as pale as its fruit. Or Berberis Georgei, festooned with bunches of plump berries resembling scarlet jellybeans. Cornus Norman Hadden also bears unusual fruits which look for all the world like very large raspberries.

A tree cultivar suitable for a smallish garden thrust skywards through a grove of bananas: Liquidambar styraciflua Slender Silhouette. And the sun illuminated the plumes of a Pampas grass (Cortaderia).

Beyond the shaded slopes of Clover Hill the garden opens out to reveal a light-filled cafe and buildings such as a thatched barn, which once formed part of the farm on the site of which the garden has been created. Echoing Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden from the day before, but built on a sloping site, it was interesting to explore the Dry Garden where another pampas grass swayed gracefully in the breeze.

We cut through to the Global Growth Vegetable Garden, built in a circular design around an octagonal glasshouse. All manner of edible plants are displayed here including dahlias. When I’ve seen dahlias growing on allotments it’s usually for decorative purposes but here I learnt from an interpretation panel that they can be eaten! But when you can mash, fry or roast the common or garden spud, cooking dahlias seems like a lot of bother particularly if it means missing out on spectacular flowers like those on view here.

The crisp precision of the yew hedging in the very formal and traditional Rose Garden and Herbaceous Border was a testament to the high standard of horticulture at Hyde Hall, showcase as it is for the RHS.

Formality of a more contemporary kind anchors the last two gardens we saw on this visit. Located near the garden exit, the Modern Country Garden and Cottage Garden. In the former, yew pyramids at bed corners and drums created from (I think) olive trees, provide structure amidst grasses and Allium seedheads.

Vivid foliage shone out in the Cottage Garden: button snakeroot (Liatris spicata Kobold) and Euonymus alatus. Uplifting sights before facing the Sunday afternoon traffic on the A12 and M25!

20 November 2021

The Only Way is Essex: part 1

Beth Chatto Gardens

Writing about my gardening heroes and their gardens is like standing on the shoulders of giants. In this post I shall try to do justice to Beth Chatto (1923-2018) whose unique garden in Essex I visited a week ago today. In the same way that Christopher Lloyd stamped his personality and vision for his garden on Great Dixter (see my last blog post) the garden in Elmstead Market is redolent of its charismatic creator. You find yourself referring to ‘she’ and ‘her’ as you walk around the place, noticing details that she introduced, such as the three grass-covered bridges crossing the Water Garden and the pot garden in the courtyard close to the house, the displays changed according to the seasons. It was easy to imagine her walking around her domain chatting to visitors and inspecting the precious plants in the Stock Beds from which she and her team propagated the plants sold in The Nursery.

Reading Beth Chatto’s Garden Notebook and Dear Friend and Gardener, the latter a collection of letters between Beth and Christopher Lloyd, I’d already formed an impression of the garden itself and the daily influence Beth Chatto exerted on the Gardens that she and her husband Andrew began to create from an unprepossessing wasteland in 1960, the site ranging from ‘parched gravel’ to ‘boggy ditches’, according to the blurb on the visitor map. So when a conversation with a friend earlier in the summer revealed that we both wanted to see both Beth Chatto’s garden and RHS Hyde Hall near Chelmsford, a plan was hatched for a weekend trip to the county of my birth!

At this stage I shall digress to sing the praises of a much maligned county. Essex is far more scenic and interesting and indeed record-breaking than its detractors would have you believe. It boasts what has been described as the prettiest village in England (Finchingfield, also the home of Dodie Smith, of One Hundred & One Dalmations fame), the longest bar in England (in a pub in Southend, one of its several seaside resorts) and arguably the largest village green in the country in Great Bentley, a mile or so from Elmstead Market. And not forgetting two world class gardens: Beth Chatto’s and Hyde Hall. Once you travel beyond the commuter belt to the east of London, the countryside is dotted with picturesque villages and small towns, many with ancient churches and market halls built with the wealth generated by the wool trade in mediaeval times.

Essex also boasts a relatively low average rainfall in comparison to other parts of the country and this was a major preoccupation of Beth Chatto in her vision for her garden. Whilst the lower-lying, boggier parts of the site were excavated to create a water garden consisting of three elongated pools fed from the reservoir on neighbouring land, the dry upper section of the land, on which a car park was originally built, was transformed in 1991 into the Gravel Garden. As I write this in the week of COP 26, this garden is a pioneering example of one watered only by rainfall. In her book The Dry Garden, Beth reiterates her planting philosophy of ‘right plant, right place’, demonstrating that plants will grow in difficult places if you choose the species that will thrive in that location. In the third week of October, the Gravel Garden was as attractive as it would have been in high summer. The palette is beige and grey with occasional pops of purple. Felty silver-leafed plants from the Mediterranean form low mounds punctuated by dozens of swaying grasses, substantial lumps of Verbena bonariensis and related species tinting the aspect with deep mauve.

All plants are clearly labelled and I repeatedly noticed plants that have not crossed my radar before, such as the deeply veined, penny sized leaves of Marrubium ‘All Hallows Green’. This wasn’t the only hint of the Halloween season. Elsewhere in the garden the propagation manager has placed colourful displays of pumpkins and other decorative gourds, some carved, others displayed for their colour and shape. Rather than hollowing out the gourds, the designs have been executed on the surface of the skin, enabling the artist to create faces ranging from the comic to the macabre.

In the Water Garden the deciduous conifers, the swamp cypresses (Taxodium distichum) were just beginning to change colour, their emerging russet foliage echoing the woodwork of the little rowing boat moored alongside the Gunnera. Elsewhere the still pools reflect the lush planting on the banks. And again, more unusual plants such as the pretty mauve pom-pom flowered Succisella inflexa.

Beyond the Water Garden stands the most recently created part of the garden, The Reservoir Garden, opened the year before Beth died. This series of island beds was a mass of spectacular grasses, asters (now Symphyotrichum) and tempting but poisonous blue-flowered Aconitum. To the rear of the border alongside the neighbouring reservoir, stand multi-stemmed shrubs and small trees, including Sorbus glabriuscula with its small white berries flushed with pink.

The Reservoir Garden
Sorbus glabriuscula

Soft autumn colours are beginning to emerge on the trees of the Woodland Garden, the understorey comprising intriguing ground cover plants. I imagine this element of this area of the garden is at its height in spring, and for now it’s the trees which are the stars of this show, both their bark and foliage.

Between the Woodland Garden and the Nursery is yet another mainly herbaceous border where I spotted the leaves of Bergenia, more asters, a clump of pampas grass and both pink and deep red Persicaria flowers. When so many other plants have finished flowering by late October, the elongated, slightly twisted spires provide colour and low to medium vertical form. Plunging back into the Reservoir Garden we encountered a couple of beds of different grasses, in one the rice grain-sized flowers attached to strands of Panicum Frosted Explosion resembled raindrops.

It took considerable restraint not to linger for the rest of the afternoon in the ‘plantarea’ section of the Nursery, where many of the rare plants we had admired are for sale at what looked like very reasonable prices. I noticed that the sales areas are divided between damp and dry garden plants, which highlights the right plant, right place philosophy evident throughout the garden. There’s even a zone devoted to Scree plants.

We left Beth Chatto’s garden to drive east a few miles to the coast to visit Frinton. Although I’m too young to remember holidays there, this was where we holidayed when my sister and I were very young. Why leave the county when there’s a resort with a safe sandy beach a relatively short drive away? It was fun to walk along the beach and photograph the beach huts, trying to imagine which of them we played in front of all those years ago. I wonder what changes my parents would have noticed? The turbines of the Gunfleet Sands Offshore Wind Farm would not have dominated the seascape to the south as they do now, strangely beautiful in the setting sun and supplying coal-free power to hundreds of homes.

My focus turned once more to Beth Chatto when I went to the Garden Museum in Lambeth last Wednesday afternoon. In a long display cabinet devoted to Beth I picked up a little more background to the creation of her garden.

Beth Chatto celebrated at The Garden Museum

From 1976 Beth was awarded ten consecutive gold medals at the Chelsea Flower Show. In her Garden Notebook she chronicles the painstaking and sometimes fraught preparations for a Chelsea show. As a result of her increasingly high public profile at this time she was offered a role as George Harrison’s head gardener which she declined. As well as examples of many of the gardening books written by Beth Chatto, the display case includes a pile of the nursery’s catalogues, with their distinctive cover design graphics, the stylised nine leaf stem.

Next time I visit RHS Hyde Hall and rediscover the lost art of pargetting.

1 November 2021

Oh, it’s a long, long while from May to December, but the days grow short when you reach September*: 2 days at Great Dixter

I’ve visited the garden at Great Dixter twice this year, in late May and early September. On each occasion the garden lived up to its reputation for presenting an ever-changing scene to the visitor. Given the eloquence with which Christopher Lloyd and now Fergus Garrett describe this special corner of East Sussex, I don’t plan to compete but to present some photographs taken on these visits and try to convey the uniqueness of Great Dixter.

May 2021

Meadow Garden
House entrance
Barn Garden
Sunk Garden
Beth’s Poppy: the first sighting of many in May. Gifted to Christopher Lloyd by his friend and correspondent, Beth Chatto
Yew topiary towers over the herbaceous planting
We spotted Fergus Garrett working in the High Garden
The house can be seen from most parts of the garden: here from the High Garden