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

Willowy supports

I wrote earlier this year about the many different ways in which to support garden plants and trees. On 4 May I learnt how to build supports for herbaceous perennials using willow at a workshop organised by WGFA (Working for Gardeners Association) at the privately owned Dunsborough Park in Ripley, Surrey. WGFA was founded in 1899 as the Women’s Farm and Garden Association and one of its principal objects is to ‘promote, encourage and establish the opportunities to study and practice within the horticultural profession’.

Now I do like a long drive, I don’t mean a three hour slog along a motorway but a gracious tree-lined approach to an elegant house and garden! And Dunsborough Park didn’t disappoint, said drive beginning with four tall brick built gatehouses, topped with domes which wouldn’t look out of place in an adaptation of Wolf Hall.

Redbrick gatehouses

The drive itself seemed about quarter of a mile long and so many rabbits hopped along in front of the car I began to feel I was in a Disney movie! Arriving at a locked gate with an entry phone beside it I realised I’d used the wrong entrance, but thankfully one of the two full-time gardeners at the property, Oleg, kindly opened the gate for me. Apparently access to the garden on occasions such as this is via another entrance behind the High Street in Ripley. I clearly missed that email! Since 1997 Dunsborough Park has been owned by garden statuary dealer Dolf Sweerts de Landas Wyborgh and his wife Caroline. Antique sculptures abound throughout the garden. Even in the work yard where the gardeners’ bothy is located, a ferocious lion stands guard.

But we were there to learn the craft of willow plant support making, (where flexible willow and hazel stems are woven into domed structures through which tall herbaceous perennials can grow, eventually concealing the woody ‘cage’ beneath), not to swoon over our surroundings. We were a group of eight gardeners, all working in horticulture, from across the south of England. Head Gardener James Gillions and Oleg led us to the walled Dutch Garden for a demonstration before we were let loose to have a go at building the structures ourselves. With four slim coppiced willow branches already in situ above a clump of Delphinium, Oleg skilfully bent the pliable wood into a series of arches, at approximately chest height, using garden twine where necessary to secure the structure. He then wove the smaller branches and twigs together to form a rounded dome to prop up the stems of the plant. The finishing touch to the structure is a cat’s cradle fashioned from garden twine, about halfway up the poles for support as the plant grows upwards.

Demonstration over we were set to work in a double herbaceous border intersected by a path leading to the Dutch Garden on one side and to the door of a large Victorian greenhouse on the other. Named the Penelope Hobhouse borders, they were originally created by the eminent garden designer, their distinctive feature being standard Wisterias planted at regular intervals along the borders. Apparently the borders were replanted in 2005 with a blue and white colour scheme. Our task was to build supports for the delphiniums and peonies in the border, still low mounds of greenery in early May. Having picked out four suitable canes from a generous pile of pollarded willows harvested on the estate in February, before the emergence of the leaves, we used a heavy metal pin and sledgehammer to make holes deep enough to accomodate the canes. Given the extraordinarily dry April we’d had this wasn’t as easy as you might think. the soil at Dunsborough is very sandy and free draining but its looseness meant that if the hole wasn’t deep enough, the poles tended to spring out of the soil when you started to bend the stem across to meet the neighbouring pole. The art is to find the natural bending point in the wood. Bend at too sharp an angle and the wood splinters.

We worked in pairs for the first structure, working individually after lunch. I thoroughly enjoyed the process of making the structures, using the natural curves of the material to guide the direction of the arches and ultimate contours of the support. By the end of the afternoon the elegant borders were inhabited by a dozen or so creatures which James observed resembled Doctor Who monsters. For a few weeks, these will be features in their own right until the plants they’ve been build to prop up grow up and through them, disguising the skeletal forms beneath. It was notable how different each ‘cage’ looked, some interconnected to make up an organic series of supports for a particularly large clump of delphiniums. When in the autumn the plants in the border die back, and are cut down, our wooden cages will be removed, shredded and composted.

I tore around the garden at lunchtime to capture the last hurrah of the tulips, a magnificent water garden with a folly-topped bridge, numerous statues and the garden’s resident golden retriever cooling off in the dipping pool. The following photos give a flavour of this fascinating garden.

The Penelope Hobhouse borders

The tulips

The Water Garden

The statues

The box parterre

Gateways and arches

Greyhounds on guard

Dog in pond

Kew Gardens

23 May 2022

Marching forwards

Meteorological spring starts on 1 March heralding a new season in gardens. Bulbs which have been nosing through the soil for several weeks without progressing much have suddenly burst into life and the garden is full of tight clumps of Tete a Tete daffodils. The days are stretching out too and the prospect of visiting other gardens is very inviting.

I started the garden visiting season by going to Hinton Ampner in Hampshire ten days ago. Run by the National Trust, this largely formal garden near Cheriton in Hampshire occupies a magnificent position overlooking the South Downs. From the terrace nearest the house (largely rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1960) the view extends south across downland studded with copses of trees, sheep grazing peacefully in the fields. Yew hedging separates the garden from the adjoining farmland. The four rectangular beds which make up the Sunken Garden are punctuated with plump yew pepperpots, the immaculate topiary lending this part of the garden its character. Much of this section of the garden is currently roped off, to prevent the grass being damaged in the winter months. But it is still possible to steal tantalising glimpses along vistas such as the Long Walk, where huge Irish yews stand like a guard of honour either side of a grassy avenue leading from a sundial to a marble statue of the goddess Diana.

The Sunken Garden

We walked beyond the garden across the fields in bright sunshine, the sensation of the wide sky and open space exhilarating for me, so used to working in smaller gardens where borrowed landscape means a neighbour’s tree and where the horizon (glimpsed from the footbridge over the District Line tracks) features a disused brewery in one direction and the Kew Pagoda in the other. Admittedly not a bad view but lacking in sheep.

More clipped yew, fashioned into billowing clouds several metres tall

The outside wall of the large Walled Garden is intriguingly buttressed with clipped box, the spaces between filled with dense swirls of winter jasmine.

To one side of the Walled Garden stand several lean-to glasshouses, one a vinery where the vines are planted outside, like the venerable Black Hamburg vine at Hampton Court. The whitewashed far wall of a neighbouring house supports a beautifully trained peach or apricot (I was peering through the glass and couldn’t see a label) which basked happily in the sunshine. This walled garden is full of variety: vegetable beds at one end and a lawn into which sinuous beds of daffodils have been cut. A deep shrub border lines a path to the side of the garden, featuring winter interest plants such as Cornus Midwinter Fire and Daphne bholua Jacqueline Postill: the tallest I’ve seen outside Wakehurst Place. The scent of the Daphne stopped me in my tracks.

The church of All Saints stands a short distance from the house, beside an orchard. I was intrigued by the tiled roof of the bell-tower which I read in the guidebook was added in 1879 when the tower was added to the C13 church. Spring flowers stud the East Lawn beyond the church, the daffodils superseding the snowdrops.

I mentioned the track-stopping scent emanating from a Daphne at Hinton Ampner. This reminds me that it’s easy to overlook how fragrant another winter flowering shrub can be. Yesterday I was at North Hill Nurseries near Chobham, buying plants for clients. The shade tunnel which houses shrubs such as Pittosporum and hardy Fuchsia is home to a large number of Skimmias . Their sweet perfume was intensified by the warmth of the spring sunshine and the confined surroundings. These are such good plants for small gardens: their domed form never seems to get too dominant and as evergreens they look good all year. My favourite (which I have in my garden) is Skimmia x confusa Kew Green: its creamy green flowers have been flowering for months.

When not at Hinton Ampner or spending other people’s money at the nursery, I’ve been working hard to make clients’ gardens (and my own, when I’ve time) ready for the warmer days. I’ve applied mulches to most of them: some shredded horse manure, some composted bark. I’ve pruned roses tall and small, trained climbers and a few ramblers, and weeded and pruned like fury, producing enough green waste to fill a recycling centre skip. Thankfully many clients have their own green bins but I do tend to make at least two visits to the tip a week, bulging bags crammed into the car.

At Osterley over the last few Fridays we’ve been edging the beds in the Tudor Walled Garden, ridding a border to the south of the house of green alkanet, and picking up the dead wood sprinkled across the lawns by Storm Eunice. Sadly the storm brought down a number of trees in the wider park and tore off a branch of the enormous Cedar of Lebanon on the Temple Lawn. We’ve also taken time out to admire the beautiful display of winter shrubs and spring bulbs in the Garden House. More winter fragrance here, with sweetly scented Sarcococca confusa overpowered by Narcissus Paperwhite Ziva.

To round up this summary of recent activities, I have two other items to report:

  1. I picked the first rhubarb of the season in a client’s garden last week. It is a large mature crown and must be a particularly early variety. I rushed home to check progress of my now three year old crown, growing in a container. The leaves are stretching out from the creased buds but it’ll be several weeks before I can pick a stalk or two.
  2. A large clump of frogspawn has appeared in my pond this week. Frogs occupy the pond every summer but this is the first time I’ve seen frogspawn. I can’t wait to see the tadpoles develop and hope there are enough ponds in the vicinity to house what promises to be a large brood.

Support Act

In January, if I’m not spreading manure on my clients’ gardens, I’m installing strainer wire supports for climbing plants on fences and walls. It’s one of those jobs that’s easier in winter, when the borders are clearer and the subject to be supported will, if it’s deciduous, have shed its leaves. I bought a new drill last year, which has made this job much quicker and means that I can drill into cement posts which I couldn’t with my old Black & Decker drill (inherited from my Dad). Once I’ve drilled the holes, tapped in the rawlplugs (if I’m working with brick or cement) and screwed in the vine-eyes I do battle with the coil of wire! When I first started putting these supports up three years ago I got into horrible tangles trying to unravel the wire from the coil without creating kinks in the wrong places. I’ve now learnt to pay out the wire gradually and avoid this problem. My favourite part of the procedure is after fastening the wire to the vine-eyes when I tighten it by turning the vine-eye through 360 degrees using a screwdriver. It’s so satisfying when the line is good and taut. Depending on the height of the wall or fence I’m working on, I put up 3 or 4 tiers of supports: enough to provide plenty of options when tying in the climber or wall shrub.

With a climbing or rambling rose, my modus operandi is to train the branches horizontally along the wires, tying them in as I go and only then pruning the branches back to an outward facing bud. Last week I worked with two very large climbing roses which had been attached to stylish horizontal timber fencing but in a vertical direction meaning that the flowers had accumulated at or near the top of the rose, 2.5 to 3 metres from the ground. It took several hours and a return visit to finish the task but now these two roses should I hope flower at eye level. Both were English climbers from David Austin, one Rosa Wollerton Old Hall and the other Rosa Mortimer Sackler: the first pale apricot, the other light pink. In the David Austin catalogue, Wollerton Old Hall is described as having a ‘strong, warm myrrh fragrance’ with ‘intense hints of citrus’: sounds gorgeous. Hopefully my efforts mean that this summer the perfume is pumped back into the garden rather than wafting skywards.

Installing these supports has made me consider the myriad of methods used to control the plants in our gardens by either holding them up from the ground or back against a wall or fence. Here I share a few examples from gardens I’ve visited and from volunteering in the gardens at Osterley House. In no particular order, here they are.

Wall supports

In early December last year we garden volunteers cleared ivy from the brick wall between the Long Border in the Tudor Walled Garden and the American Border. I noticed that a stretch of wall was studded with fixings for wire supports and Head Gardener Andy Eddy explained that the wall had once formed the backdrop of one of the Victorian glasshouses at the property which had been used to grow stoned fruits such as peaches and nectarines. The plants would have been trained against the wall onto wires arranged in closely spaced tiers. This was my first experience of using a tripod ladder and it felt so secure and steady in comparison with a stepladder, as well as being more manoeuvrable.

Hurdles

I saw these in use at both Great Dixter in East Sussex and at East Lambrook Manor Gardens in Somerset. These ‘Sussex hurdles’ measure H56 x W69 cm and resemble mini gates. They are used to support herbaceous perennials, preventing them from flopping onto and swamping other plants, or to prevent lawns and meadow areas from being walked on. In one of those moments of frugality I didn’t buy a hurdle from the nursery at Dixter, despite being tempted to do so and have put my name on a waiting list for one. They are made in the Great Barn there, from chestnut harvested on the estate.

Tree stakes

I usually install a single tree stake for small saplings, such as a Prunus Amonagowa I planted in a newly replanted local garden in November 2020. I wrap an adjustable black plastic tie around both tree and stake, ready to be let out once the trunk’s girth increases. I was very taken with this double staking method seen in the orchard beside the World Garden at RHS Hyde Hall in Essex. The tree looks sturdily supported and if the crop is anything to go by, the tree is very happy with the arrangement.

Apple tree at RHS Hyde Hall , October 2021

When I was in Kew Gardens today I was able to study the superstructure for the two huge stands of Wisteria growing in the northern end of the Gardens, between the Stone Pine and the Duke’s Garden. These are deliberately grown to eye level only, rather than on a taller support which means that you can see the flowers at close quarters in April, as well as appreciate their delicate fragrance. The plant’s sturdy branches are attached to cylindrical tree stakes measuring about a metre and a half, using buckled ‘belts’ which can be loosened or tightened as necessary.

Rose supports

Apart from the system I described above for training climbing and rambling roses against fences and walls, there are many different ways to support vigorous roses. I first saw the swag arrangement in Queen Mary’s Garden in The Regent’s Park, where tremendously thick ropes are swung from a wide circle of timber supports. It’s an absolute picture in June when it’s smothered in rambling roses. I saw a similar system, bare of flowers of course, in the Kitchen Garden at Chatsworth in November using a chunky chain rather than ropes. Another favourite of mine is the obelisk, which I’ve seen installed in varying heights in different gardens. Those punctuating the Broad Walk Borders at Kew Gardens are about three metres tall as are those I saw in the Rose Garden at Arundel Castle last April.

In my own garden I grow Rosa Blush Noisette against a wooden trellis and Rosa White Star around the timber support of a single arch. I attached strainer wire to each of the vertical planes of the post and each year I train the branches of the rose around the post in an anti-clockwise direction. Last year, in its third year, it reached the top of the post and I shall now encourage it along the archway.

At Osterley roses are grown against walls and on timber frames. Here is the rose trained onto the rear wall of the Garden House.

Metal supports formed into an arched tunnel were festooned in roses and clematis in Kate Stuart Smith’s garden at Serge Hill in Hertfordshire which I was lucky enough to visit last July. A metal archway is a relatively new feature at RHS Wisley, located near the old entrance into the garden.

In September dahlias are the main attraction in Sarah Raven’s garden at Perch Hill in East Sussex. It was an education to see the methods used to support the array of colours and forms of dahlia abounding in this garden which showcases many of the varieties in the inspirational catalogue. Although almost hidden by foliage I could just make out a timber framework constructed I believe from silver birch. In her book A Year Full of Flowers*, Sarah Raven devotes several pages in the April chapter to the structures used at Perch Hill, each constructed afresh every year. I also admired the cat’s cradle effect of string between coppiced branches in another part of the garden.

Talking of coppiced branches, I spotted this simple but very effective way to hold up lavender used along the driveway at North Hill Nurseries, the wonderful wholesale nursery near Chobham where I buy plants for my clients. A single pole is supported by shepherd’s crook style metal stakes at just the perfect height to prevent the shrub sprawling onto the grass.

In the last year or so I’ve discovered the merits of the half hoop metal support, the taller versions of which are very valuable for keeping exuberant perennials like Salvia Amistad in check. They are very versatile: for example, two can be arranged in a ring formation or a single hoop can be enough to separate one plant from another. They are not cheap though and I shall continue looking for the mythical versions a client told me were once stocked at an excellent price by Wilko!

My final images are a miscellany of sui generis solutions to unique scenarios. V-topped struts support a limb of an ancient lime tree at Great Dixter. A massive banana plant in the Temperate House at Kew is held upright by strong wire encased in rubber tubing attached to very substantial wooden posts. And perhaps the ultimate in plant supports, the brickwork buttress for the trunk of the Pagoda tree (Styphnolobium japonicum) in Kew Gardens, the horizontal branches of which rest on metal stands.

I’ve omitted many, many other forms of plant support in this quick overview and can see this is a subject I shall revisit, as I collect more examples from my travels.

*ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 152662611X