The Shearing of the Green

The season started with weeding an artificial lawn and has ended with a variety of lawn maintenance jobs. I was focussed on mowers and grass when I drafted this post while staying with my niece (otherwise known as my client in the country) as I had offered to cut the lawn of her largeish, squareish, south-facing Somerset garden. In fact, a combination of rain, dew and lack of time meant that I left without mowing the grass for her. Most of my jobs have involved lawn work in the last couple of weeks and I’ve also seen a couple of impressively pristine lawns, both with royal connections.

But before we get to pristine, let’s take a look at the other end of the greensward spectrum. With my Osterley volunteering colleague Andrea Blackie (ablackiegardendesign.co.uk) I carried out a thorough tidy-up of a large garden in Twickenham belonging to INS, a fantastic local charity which provides support for people with neurological conditions such as multiple sclerosis (MS), Parkinson’s disease (PD), and Stroke. The garden is usually maintained by a team of volunteers but like so many places the volunteering programme had to be suspended earlier this year because of Covid 19 and the garden had become rather overgrown. We weeded paths and raised beds and rationalised a number of containers whose contents had gone over. In the absence of a scythe , or a Ross Poldark lookalike to wield it, we used hand shears to cut back the tall grasses established across the L-shaped lawn and raked off the cut stalks and thatch. Then we shuffled our way across the plot on kneelers, removing as many of the coarse-leaved dandelions and low-crowned plantains as we could. Only then did Andrea run the electric mower over for an initial rough cut. With perfect timing, a tremendous thunderstorm crashed across TW2 within half an hour of our packing up for the day, and after steadyish rain for much of the following morning, when we returned 36 hours later for day two of the clear-up, the lawn had perked up and looked more green than brown. Andrea lowered the blades of the mower and cut the lawn once more and I followed with an application of Safelawn, which combines seed and feed, to repair the impoverished grass.

Before
After

On a subsequent visit we would like to scarify the lawn even more, remove any remaining weeds and give the lawn an autumn feed to put it in good heart for 2021. It’s never going to rival the Centre Court at Wimbledon, but with some further TLC it will make a lush foil for the deep border which runs the length of the garden. This is effectively a linear orchard of mature greengage, pear, apple and cherry trees (varieties unknown sadly) interspersed with shrubs such as Mahonia and underplanted with hellebores and Japanese anemones. The latter is a striking deep pink cultivar, revealed when we cut back a couple of wayward shrub branches.

Anemone japonica: cultivar unkown

It was fun collaborating with another gardener for the tidy-up project, and I was grateful not only for the shared labour and company but also the recommendation of Hebe ‘Mrs Winder’ to place in the concrete planters on either side of the main entrance. Although almost waist high, the actual planting depth of the containers was deceptively shallow and the Hebes should be less hungry than the previous incumbents, a couple of conical bay trees. I sourced the plants from the wholesale nursery near Chobham, North Hill Nurseries. It was my first visit since lockdown and I was glad to be there again impressed as always by the quality of the stock and the wide choice of cultivars available. I am usually very disciplined when I’m there and resist the temptation to deviate from my core list, but I confess that I did treat myself to a plant for the top right hand corner of my garden where I’ve twice failed with Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’. I succumbed to Caryopteris x clandonensis ‘Heavenly Blue’ with its fluffy sky blue flowers and dainty light green leaves. It looks very good in this position where it will continue the blue/mauve theme from the nearby honesty (Lunaria annua) and Wisteria.

Another purchase that day was a magnificent Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ which I planted in a large terracotta container in another client’s garden a week ago. I also gave the lawn there an autumn treatment, raking out the thatch and aerating (or spiking) it using the fork. I applied grass seed to a couple of bare patches which had developed and here again the rain gods obliged and provided a drenching as I was finishing the job.

I promised you pristine lawns at the beginning of this post. The first is in the centre of the turning circle outside the Elizabeth Gate entrance to Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. I’ve been monitoring it this spring and summer when running around Kew Green, fascinated by its perfection. Short, weedless, stripey: a textbook fine lawn. I’ve watched two kneeling gardeners excise any hint of a weed and I see from this image taken a few days ago that it has recently been spiked. Even the spacing of the holes is precise.

The turning circle at Elizabeth Gate
Aeration by the book

The next lawn has even stronger links with royalty. This striped sward lies within Windsor Castle which I visited at the end of August in order to see the East Terrace Gardens which have been opened to the public for the first time this year.

Within Windsor Castle

Although these rose gardens interspersed with antique bronze statues were beautifully elegant, I preferred the informality of The Moat Garden, adjacent to the Norman Tower of the castle which is the home of the Constable and Governor of Windsor Castle. A snaking red-tiled path runs alongside a border of interesting perennials leading to a rock garden containing a series of waterfalls. Along the way I was drawn towards Poets’ Corner, tucked to one side and lined with garden-themed quotations. The garden is maintained by volunteers and is open to visitors on August weekends.

The stripe maker

A quirky urn nestles beside the plume poppy Macleaya cordata ‘Flamingo’

Next time I leave lawns behind to visit Homeacres, the realm of the king of No Dig, Charles Dowding.

Colour Palettes and Wooden Pallets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Still making a virtue of the virtual

Stay at home and tour the world: Part 2 South and North America

Welcome back to Weeds Roots & Leaves’ global garden tours. Today we’re visiting the Americas: south, central and north. There has been some debate at tour HQ (interesting how a pandemic amplifies one’s internal dialogue!) about whether North and South America are classed as one continent or two. Whilst researching this point I have read that before the Second World War the USA viewed them as a single continent, but now geographers worldwide treat them as separate continents. When I calculated the total number of continents visited on this tour (five) I adopted the latter approach.

Had this tour been real rather than virtual we would at this stage have embarked from the shores of New Zealand to cross the Pacific. The nearest body of water I can muster is a small pond. A few days ago rustling sounds emanating from the dense thicket of hard rush (Juncus inflexus) at one end of the pond and a faint series of croaks hinted at the return of amphibian life to the garden. On Easter Sunday I saw two frogs luxuriating in the cool water and the warmth of the spring sunshine. Once this dry spell of weather comes to an end they will no doubt have an endless supply of snails and slugs on which to predate.

We find the first two plants from the New World in Brazil. I first saw bog sage (Salvia uligonosa) in the gardens of the Palace of Versailles on a visit last August. It was the unusual shade of blue that attracted me: light but not insipid. Fringing parterres near the palace, their height (1.5m to 2m) and profusion of flowers made an impact. Last October one of the gardeners at Osterley gave me a portion of a plant which had recently been divided telling me it was quite tender and would need to be under cover in the winter. I have been checking the specimen regularly and until this weekend it would have been an exaggeration to say it was thriving but this weekend I was relieved to find a couple of fresh stems emerging at its base. Once the threat of frost has passed at the end of April I shall plant it in a sunny spot next to its close relatives, natives of the next country on the itinerary, Mexico, in what I have decided to call the ‘Salvia Bed’, in homage to Kew’s splendid Salvia Border.

I cannot leave Brazil without taking a look at Verbena bonariensis. This too I first saw at a grand palace: Blenheim in Oxfordshire. It was probably 20 years ago and at that time these tall slender stems topped by purple flowered ‘cymes’* swaying above lower growing species were an unusual sight. Since then this has become a very popular choice for providing height without bulk in a planting scheme. It is elegant, takes up little room at its base and is easy to grow. Its geographical range is from Brazil to Argentina: indeed its alternative species epithet is V. patagonica. Although it self-seeds quite freely, I’ve always found it does so in appropriate places. Flowering from mid-summer to early autumn, it has to be one of the hardest working herbaceous perennials in the garden. Furthermore the seedheads can be left untrimmed over winter for structure and interest.

Leaving South America, our route leads us beyond Central America to the North American continent, first stop Mexico. There are three Mexican plants in this section of the tour, all introduced to my garden from the gardens at Osterley. Yesterday I planted the sage relative, pakaha or pitcher sage (Lepechinia hastata), in the Sage Bed after a winter’s protection in the upright cold-frame next to the kitchen window. Were I to adopt airs and graces I could call this a mini greenhouse, but in my opinion to qualify as a greenhouse it must be possible to open the door and step inside. Until I can find a way to miraculously expand the garden to accomodate such a structure, this two shelf solution is wonderfully useful: more later. A mature specimen of this sub-shrub can grow to 1.5m bearing spikes of tubular purple-magenta flowers in late summer. Its felty grey-green leaves are spear-shaped, or ‘hastate’, from the Latin ‘hasta’, meaning a spear. When rubbed, the leaves have an intense fragrance, like a rich blend of essential oils. Judging by the number of stock photographs featuring visiting bees, the flowers will be attractive to pollinators.

I recently planted up a Dahlia tuber into a container but have no idea what colour its flowers will be. It came from last year’s scheme in one of the potager style beds in Osterley’s Tudor Walled Garden which means it could be a deep wine red, vivid scarlet or the very pale pinky beige shade the fashion pages refer to as ‘nude’. A good place to see a spectacular Dahlia display in late summer is in the asymmetric walled garden at Kelmarsh Hall in Northants. Let’s hope the current crisis will have eased by August and September when I anticipate there’ll be a frenzy of garden visiting. In the meantime we shall have to settle for virtual tours such as this.

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Dahlias in the Walled Garden at Kelmarsh Hall

I’ve no wish to mimic one of those tour operators promoting hotels which on arrival turn out to be half built, so I confess here that the next Mexican plant has yet to germinate. I sowed the flat papery seeds of the cup and saucer plant (Cobaea scandens) approximately a fortnight ago, having harvested them from a fruit of one of the specimens trained up the hazel pole pergola which is the centrepiece of the quadrant of beds in the Tudor Walled Garden at Osterley. I had left the fruit on the kitchen windowsill for months, fearing it might go mushy and mouldy, but it dried perfectly and when opened, revealed dozens of seeds neatly stacked inside its four chambers. I understand the seeds need bottom heat to germinate and fear they may not reach the requisite temperature. But it’s too soon to give up and I would be thrilled to grow one of these vigorous climbers from seed. The large flowers can be cream or mauve and do indeed resemble a cup resting on a saucer. A prolific example of the plant grows at the base of the down spiral staircase in the central section of Kew’s Temperate House (diagonally opposite the Tree Ferns). While clearly at home in that protected environment, at Osterley it flowers well into a cool and rainy autumn, until finally seen off by a frost.

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Cobaea scandens, the cup and saucer vine at NT Osterley House & Gardens

Following the spine of mountains northwards from the Sierra Madre to the Rockies, leads us to the home of that versatile ground cover plant, Heuchera. Coming from rocky woodland sites, in my garden it thrives in the ‘Woodland Area’ and alongside Cyclamen hederifolium in a large terracotta pot beside the garden gate. The beauty of Heucheras lies chiefly in their foliage, with wide variations in leaf margins and colour. Leaves range from deep mahogany (H. ‘Palace Purple’), through a lime green cultivar to my favourite, the roundly lobed leaves of which are shaded apple green fading towards the centre to a silvery white, intersected with burgundy veining. I touch wood as I write this, but I have not known these specimens to suffer vine weevil larval damage, a common problem for this group of plants causing the entire upper structure to part company with the roots when the pest has munched through the stem.

I grow another North American ground cover plant, Tellima grandiflora, which comes from cool moist woodland from Alaska to California. Like Heuchera it grows in a low rosette and carries its flowers above the plant on slim stems.

Before leaving the Americas, I should mention that I have joined the dig for victory brigade and am growing two crops introduced to Europe from the New World. Tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum) and potatoes (Solanum tuberosum), both members of the nightshade family. The tomato seedlings are doing well in the tall cold frame having sprouted their first non-seed leaves and I’m growing the potato variety ‘Charlotte’.  I’m experimenting with new kinds of container for both crops and shall explain more in a future post.

In my small garden alone it’s been striking while planning this itinerary to discover how many of the plants in my garden come from Asia or the Americas. But the time has come to travel east across the Atlantic to Europe. And I haven’t forgotten the promised side trip to Africa. I look forward to welcoming you to the third and final part of the tour.

*As in Part 1 of the tour I thought it would be helpful to include a drawing showing some differing flower forms.

cyme umbel drawing

Christmas reading: Gardens in London and Essex:

This rainy Boxing Day presented the perfect opportunity to dip into the two gardening books I received for Christmas. The one rich in sumptuous images, the other a treasure house of garden prose by a horticultural heroine.

The coffee table book format of ‘Great Gardens of London: 30 masterpieces from private plots to palaces’ by Victoria Summerley, is the perfect scale for showcasing stunning photography by Marianne Majerus and Hugo Ritson Thomas.

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An initial glance through it revealed a couple of gardens I have visited such as Eltham Palace (which I wrote about in my post ‘Daisy, Daisy‘) and Clarence House. But for me the appeal of the book lies in it featuring gardens of which I was unaware, such as the Downings Road Floating Gardens in Bermondsey which are open during Open Garden Squares Weekend (6 & 7 June 2020).

Tantalisingly, several of the gardens are entirely private and do not appear to open to the public, even just once or twice a year under the National Gardens Scheme. One such garden is The Old Vicarage, Petersham, which looks glorious. However, its inclusion in the book has prompted me to check the date of Petersham Open Gardens (17 May 2020). I visited half a dozen gardens in this pretty village on the outskirts of Richmond on a very warm day in June 2018. I loved the contrast between the grander spaces such as Petersham Lodge and more modest gardens.

The garden of nearby Ormeley Lodge in Ham, features in the book. An aerial view of an exquisite Knot Garden and a shot of a peony and poppy filled herbaceous border have whetted my appetite for a visit to this garden which opens under the National Gardens Scheme on Sunday 21 June 2020.

The chapter devoted to Inner Temple Gardens includes an image of exuberant herbaceous planting in ‘The High Border’.  The use of Cannas, Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia rotundifolia) and Spanish Flag (Mina lobata) reminded me of the late summer display in two of the four large beds in Osterley’s Tudor Walled Garden. A woodland garden created in an area beneath plane trees at the Inner Temple, is planted with snowdrops (Galanthus) and I have made a mental note to visit this hidden gem one afternoon this winter.

With a cover design inspired it seems by William Morris and line drawings interspersed throughout the text, Beth Chatto’s ‘Garden Notebook’ is visually appealing even before you start reading.

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Devoting a chapter to each month, the writer describes her famous Essex garden and the seasonal tasks undertaken to maintain it and to stock the specialist nursery attached to the garden. Impressions of trees and plants are recorded as well as vignettes of birds and other wildlife. She can conjure a memorable scene with just a few words. This example is near the end of the January chapter: ‘The thinnest silver rind of new moon was drifting among violet puffs of cloud’. She goes on to describe beautifully that fleeting sensation one can experience a month or so after Christmas that a new season is approaching, with the light growing ‘stronger and longer every day’.

If I can capture in prose a fraction as limpid as Beth Chatto’s my impressions of the plants and gardens I encounter in 2020, I shall be a very happy blogger. Happy New Year.

Daisy, Daisy

Mountain thistles, a suburban palace and a maritime sink garden

High in the mountains of Northern Iraq grows a wild thistle-like plant the young leaves, stems, roots and undeveloped flowerheads of which are gathered every spring whilst its the spines remain tender. The flavour of the plant when cooked is said to resemble asparagus and artichoke. In a recent conversation with a Kurdish friend I learnt that the wild harvest of this delicacy heralds the arrival of spring in Kurdistan. Called ‘Kereng’ in one of the two Kurdish languages, Gundelia tournefortii is also known as Tumble Thistle. A member of the daisy family, it grows at altitudes of up to 2,500m, and is pollinated by honeybees and pollen feeding beetles. By mid-May, the stem separates from the root, allowing the entire plant to be rolled into a ball by the wind and carried over the ground to disperse its seeds.

Gundelia tournefortii

Analysis of pollen in the fabric of the Shroud of Turin in 1998 revealed that over a quarter of the pollen identified was assigned to Gundelia, leading some researchers to suggest that Christ’s crown of thorns was made from its spine bearing branches. I read that Gundelia has been cultivated in Paris’s botanic garden, the Jardin des Plantes, since the early C18 when it was introduced by Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (1656—1708), a professor of botany at the garden who carried out a plant expedition in the Middle East accompanied by the German botanist, Andreas Gundelsheimer (1668–1715).

Containing more than 32,000 species, the daisy family or Asteraceae rivals the orchid family as one of the largest in the plant kingdom. Late summer and early autumn is an ideal time to see the colourful members of this diverse family lighting up herbaceous borders with vivid hot shades of yellow and orange. On a visit to Eltham Palace in south east London in late August, I found swathes of Echinacea and Rudbeckia in the Lower Moat Garden. I first visited Eltham Palace a year or so after English Heritage reopened it in 1999 after an extensive restoration of the unique Art Deco mansion attached to a Tudor Great Hall built by Stephen Courtauld in the 1930s. My chief memories of that visit were the salmon pink leather upholstered dining chairs and the huge carp in the palace moat and I do not recall the gardens making much of an impression. But I can see that the gardens have since been lovingly restored with their secluded ‘rooms’ providing welcome shelter from the hot sunshine on the day I was there.

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At Osterley the daisies feature throughout the gardens at the moment. There are diminutive Cornish daisies, Erigeron karvinskianus, near the elegant steps to the rear of the house, perennial sunflowers, Cosmos and Goldenrod (Solidago) in the Picking Garden and Heleniums in Mrs Child’s Flower Garden. With a handful of us volunteer garden team continuing to lead 45 minute garden tours twice a week, these cheerful flowers provide colourful highlights as we progress through the garden to where deep burgundy and orange Dahlias (also daisy family members) are complemented in one of the potager style beds in the Tudor Walled Garden by the velvety plumes of Amaranthus.

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In Osterley’s Picking Garden in late July another daisy, Echinops, towers over young flowers of Solidago

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Erigeron karvinskianus at the rear of Osterley House growing beneath a Magnolia grandiflora and Rosemary ‘Sissinghurst Blue’

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Heleniums

In a digression from daisies, I would like to share my favourite plant scene from the last week in August, and one created without human intervention. At one side of the coastal path from Croyde Bay in North Devon to the promontory of Baggy Point, I noticed an expanse of upended slivers of shale, in the crevices between which were growing a myriad of tiny succulents. I have often admired these miniature landscapes replicated in troughs displayed outside the Davies Alpine House in Kew Gardens, but to see one such terrain ‘in nature’ in the golden hour before sunset with the outline of Lundy Island hovering on the horizon 20 miles away to sea was a special experience. IMG_8934IMG_8941

POSTSCRIPT: 1 October 2019

I began this post with a reference to Tumble Thistle, Gundelia tournefortii, named for a seventeenth century French botanist, Joseph Pitton de Tournefort. I was lucky enough to spend a few days in Paris last week and joined a walking tour of the area around Rue Mouffetard in the 5th arrondissement, in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway who lived there in the 1920s. Eager to show us an example of a street sign which had been altered due to historic events, the guide took us to the former Rue Neuve Genevieve, where the name was etched into the stone wall of a building at the corner of the street. The abbreviation ‘Ste’ was obliterated after the French Revolution in 1789, when religion was outlawed during the period known as the Terror. By coincidence the street is now called Rue Tournefort, with the classic green edged blue Parisian street sign showing the name of the botanist who lends his name to one of the more intriguing members of the daisy family. The Jardin des Plantes is located approximately half a mile from this spot.

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Always Meadowsweet

When my parents arrived as newly-weds in Billericay in 1951 it was a small, rather sleepy Essex town, on the railway line from London’s Liverpool Street Station to Southend on Sea. This was long before the advent of Essex man and woman and the brash image of the county promoted by TV shows such as The Only Way Is Essex. Ian Durie had yet to pen ‘Billericay Dickie’ and the writers of the wonderful sitcom partly set in Billericay, ‘Gavin and Stacey’, had yet to be born.

My parents’ first home was a pretty cottage with a long narrow Rhododendron hedged garden with a boggy area at the far end, beyond which lay the local park, Lake Meadows. A wooden sign hung in the front porch with ‘Meadowsweet’ written in pokerwork. My dad and a neighbour discovered a spring at the foot of their adjoining gardens, hence the damp area of land, and dug out a pretty stream over which they built picturesque rustic bridges.

When in 1959 we moved to the larger town of Brentwood a few miles away, the sign was hung over the door of the wooden shed at the far end of the garden, and bore witness to many a cycling lesson, bonfire and the memorable occasion when my dad hurled a collection of precious Fuchsia plants out of the shed which had failed to survive the  winter. Many years later my parents left Essex for Hampshire, where a new garden shed was christened ‘Meadowsweet’ using the same sign. Sadly the sign is lost but that first home survives in the form of a treasured wooden musical box, modelled on the original cottage. Almost 70 years later, the sentimental strains of Irving Berlin’s ‘Always’ ring out as clearly as ever when I lift its tiled roof.

‘I’ll be loving you always
With a love that’s true always.
When the things you’ve planned
Need a helping hand,
I will understand always.’

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Until recently Meadowsweet was what the sledge Rosebud was to Citizen Kane, a symbol of a vanished childhood. But last week, whilst carrying out a little gardening work for some local friends, I discovered a cultivar of the plant which inspired that Billericay cottage’s evocative name. Meadowsweet or Filipendula multijuga ‘Red Umbrellas’ is a very attractive foliage plant. Its serrate edged palmate leaves are prominently veined in deep burgundy, in contrast to the lime green of the leaves. Growing in a terracotta container, it reminded me of some similarly marked cultivars of Heuchera. Reading about the plant I learn that it has fluffy pink flowers from July to September although the specimen I saw was not yet in flower.

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Another species of Meadowsweet, Filipendula ulmaria, seems a more likely inspiration for the house name, given that it is ideal for boggy areas of the garden or beside water, and I like to think that an earlier owner had named the house for the creamy-white flowered plant growing at the foot of the garden in suitably damp conditions.

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With white flowers in mind, I recently came across another plant with which I was not familiar, Viola cornuta, or the Horned Pansy. It was planted in combination with a low growing Pittosporum and Verbena ‘Lollipop’. Its delicately scented pure white flowers are about 3 cm wide with long spurs and its foliage is evergreen. It grows to a height of 15cm and I understand that it is susceptible to slugs, snails, aphids, powdery mildew and pansy leaf spot. Perhaps that list of potential pests and diseases accounts for its apparent rarity. That said, I was able to find a couple of beautiful plants at North Hill Nursery this week and which I plan to include in two late summer/ autumn hanging baskets which I am planting for a client next week. I would hope that the altitude will at least deter the molluscs.

I have found the epithet ‘Chameleon’ applied to a couple of plants recently, one of which I grow in my own garden and the other I saw in a garden I visited in Northamptonshire last week. The chameleon in my garden is Houttynia cordata ‘Chameleon’, which grows profusely in my garden and is a very good ground cover plant in a sunny or partially shaded position. It has a tendency to spread by underground stems and I can understand why it is recommended that it be grown in containers to control its progress. It bears tiny yellow flowers above white bracts, but for me its most attractive feature is the foliage which is heart shaped and variegated with splashes and margins of cream and often heavily flushed in red. Until I researched the plant for this post I had forgotten that when crushed the leaves smell strongly of orange.

Colourful foliage is the feature of the next chameleon plant: Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Chameleon’. A member of the rose family, Rosaceae, this deciduous shrub grows to a height and width of about 1.5m. The leaves emerge green in spring but as the season progresses, the green darkens to wine red before turning deep purple and brown. Another plant for full sun or partial shade, the location in which I saw the similarly hued cultivar ‘Diablo d’Or’ in The Old Rectory Garden, Sudborough, was in dappled shade on the margin of the garden pond which is fed by a tributary of the river Nene. There is a great deal more to say about this exquisite garden which I shall reserve for a later post but in the meantime I shall let this image speak for itself.

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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.

 

 

Bicycle botanics

Perched on a road bike on a hill climb and in the lowest gears is not the ideal situation in which to identify plants growing at the roadside, but I confess to finding myself doing so on Monday this week. I was lucky enough to spend last weekend with a friend in the north of the beautiful island of Mallorca. In preparation for a cycling challenge later this summer, we completed a 25 mile round trip to a cafe a couple of kilometres beyond the monastery of Lluc, in the mountains of the Serra de Tramuntana. Much of our route was a steady climb, craggy peaks visible ahead.

I was peripherally aware of intriguing plants to my right, but so fixed was I on the task in hand I did not give it the attention I might have done had I been on foot. The descent posed different challenges with bike handling taking precedence over botanising. However, along with a sense of a rise in air temperature as we rode towards sea level, I noticed that the scrubby white Cistus bushes (Rock roses) and Scabious (Balearic pincushion flowers) which lined the road at the higher levels, gradually gave way when we reached the plain to margins carpeted with Daucus carota (Wild carrot). Beyond the verges are olive groves and fields of almond trees.

Self-seeded beneath the wooden barriers which protect road users from cliff-sides and sheer drops I spotted species of Euphorbia and Verbascum. For most of the higher regions to either side of the route lay forests of Holm oak (Quercus ilex) and an aromatic conifer I haven’t been able to identify, with roadside signs indicating wildlife reserves and hiking paths. Fat dark brown pods approximately 15cm long scatter the tarmac in some places, the fruit of the Carob tree (Ceratonia siliqua).

Needless to say, being on a bike prevented me from photographing the plants I’ve mentioned. There follow images of some of the plants I saw in gardens on the island, several of which are grown in the Temperate House in Kew Gardens.

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Mediterranean fan palm: Chamareops humilis

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A species of Cycad

Strelitzia reginae

Succulents entwine the terracotta heads above this stone table in the gardens of a sculpture garden near Alcudia, ‘Museo Sa Bassa Blanca’.

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Apricot fades to cream in this climbing rose at the Museo Sa Bassa Blanca.

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Beyond the rose garden at the Museo sa Bassa Blanca lie the hills of the Alcudia peninsula

 

The wild banana, Strelitzia Augusta,  or giant white bird of paradise.

Finally, I’d love to identify the following plant, a shrub approximately 2 metres high, with pea-like purple flowers opening from this delicately veined bud. Do comment if you can tell me what it is.

 

 

 

Ex box and a princely garden

I recently completed the third front garden planting makeover since launching Weeds Roots & Leaves last autumn. The brief was to replace low box hedging and five larger box balls, all of which had been decimated by the lethal combination of box blight and box tree caterpillar, with Ilex crenata, Japanese holly. Whilst the central circular hedge and that beneath the bay window of the house were relatively easy to extract from the sandy soil, the mature box balls were reluctant to relinquish their positions, having developed very tenacious root systems. They eventually yielded in the face of extreme determination on my part, leaving behind soil in the planting holes which was depleted and dusty. I worked in several bags of well rotted farmyard manure and topsoil in order to improve the soil. This week, with the welcome help of a friend, I re-planted the hedged areas with 56 Ilex crenata plants which I sourced from North Hill Nursery in Chobham, using 2 Litre plants for the bay window hedge and 1 Litre plants for the circular hedge.

IMG_7957Because the garden already has a restrained dark green and cream colour scheme, I planted Anemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’ behind the bay window hedge. The gently curving bed beside the path to the front door already contained two fine Skimmia japonica ‘Kew Green’ and I  added a further specimen of this glossy leaved cultivar in the space left by a box shrub as well as two more beside the wall bordering the pavement.

When I visited Prince Charles’s gardens at Highgrove on Thursday for a guided tour, I learnt that even a future monarch’s plants are not immune from box blight. On a couple of occasions during the tour the guide pointed out box substitute hedging. The first of these was Euonymus ‘Green Rocket’, a low hedge of which surrounds a bed in the Sundial Garden, framing the deep red flowers of an Anemone coronaria cultivar and the blue of Camassia leichtlinii. The guide explained that as soon as the box shows signs of infection or infestation it is grubbed out and replaced with alternative evergreen hedging. It was good to see that many box plants are thriving throughout the garden indicating that the strategy appears to be working. The other example of a successful substitution was in the very impressive walled Kitchen Garden where the box hedges had been replaced with Teucrium x lucidrys, commonly known as germander.

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The only area where photography is permitted is beside the Orchard Room visitor centre where I spotted these tulips and olive tree.

The two hour tour took in much of the extensive grounds and, since photography was unsurprisingly not permitted, I jotted down the notes from the guide’s commentary and my impressions of a garden which has been 35 years in the making. A distillation of my notes follows.

  • A ‘signature plant’ whose bright yellowish green foliage highlights several sections of the garden is Philadelphus coronarius aurea, golden mock orange.
  • Throughout the garden are examples of what the guide described as ‘Highgrove whimsy’: wooden or stone pavilions and summer houses which I interpreted as the C21 equivalent of William Chambers’ ‘follies’ for George III at Kew.
  • The organic site is managed on sustainable principles, with all plant waste being recycled for mulch and compost and rainwater collected for irrigation. Biological control methods are implemented rather than pesticides. I was surprised to learn that in two areas of the gardens where azaleas are planted in raised beds, the soil is imported from Bowood House at Calne in Wiltshire approximately 22 miles away.
  • Camassia leichtlinii interspersed with deep red tulips are currently in bloom in the large wildflower meadow to the south east of the house, where the soil is Gloucestershire clay. An avenue of hornbeams, edged with low willow hoops, leads across the meadow to the Winterbourne Garden where more exotic species such as Chusan Palm and Tree ferns create an exotic display.
  • From here a long high walled corridor lined with waist height terracotta pots planted with azaleas, runs between the Kitchen Garden and the Arboretum. Halfway along this Azalea Walk a gate decorated with Egyptian hieroglyphs leads through to the Arboretum. The hieroglyphs read ‘The flowers in the garden are a reflection of the stars in the sky’.
  • In the Arboretum the acidic soil occurs naturally and acers and azaleas abound, the predominant colour being the pinkish red of  Acer palmatum ‘Shindeshojo’. The understorey included Narcissus jonquila ‘Sun Disc’ and wood anemones.
  • An apple arch leads through the Kitchen Garden to a ring of Malus ‘Golden Hornet’ at the centre of which stands a pool into which a woven willow frog ladder has been lowered to assist exiting amphibia. Several gardeners were planting up the vegetable beds when we toured this part of the garden.
  • One of my favourite parts of the garden was The Stumpery, with upturned tree trunks accommodating a profusion of Tellima, ferns and species of Epimedium, Dicentra, Trillium and Pulmonaria. The genus which recurs throughout this area is Hosta and the guidebook reveals that Highgrove holds the National Collection of large and broad-leaved hostas.
  • Topiary features in many areas of the garden such as the yellow yew balls either side of the Thyme Walk which the garden team have fashioned into crowns, helter- kelters and cakes, and the extensive yew hedge which surrounds the most formal parts of the garden and which was designed in 1989 by Sir Roy Strong.

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Acer palmatum ‘Shindeshojo’

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Philadelphus coronarius aurea

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Camassia leichtlinii

As we drove away from Highgrove a cloudburst descended which accompanied us most of the way home, the only comfort being that hopefully the Ilex I had planted two days before were receiving a similar drenching. Rain, or the lack of it, was a popular topic in the Gardeners’ Bothy at tea and lunchtime at Osterley on Friday, where my gardening week concluded. The previous day’s heavy rain in the West Country had made less of an impression in Middlesex and it remained dry during our garden volunteering duties on Friday save that at 3.15pm as we were preparing to leave the heavens opened and gave the gardens a much needed soak and us a good excuse for a cup of tea.

The Friday team was deployed in the Winter Garden in the morning, cutting back the colourful stems of the willows and Cornus, before they begin to leaf up further and make pruning a heavier job. This will encourage the plants to develop fresh stems this summer  in preparation for another display of orange, red and yellow stems next winter. Head Gardener Andy pruned out branches of the large variegated hollies in the Winter Garden which were beginning to revert to a dark green. These prunings were shredded in the afternoon and deposited onto the pile of plant material in the yard which is the first stage of the composting system.

To the accompaniment of the shredder we split into smaller teams in the afternoon to work in and near the Tudor Walled Garden. Two of us weeded the area through and around the bean supports in the bed into which most of the edibles have been planted so far this year. Another three pricked out seedlings which will be hardened off in the cold-frames before being planted out in the next few weeks. The week before we had planted both flat leaved and curly parsley and lettuces in this bed which is divided into four quadrants, the planting lines having been marked out with twine. Slowly but surely the foundations are being laid for the profusion of crops which this bed will be producing by the end of the summer.

 

 

 

Purple days

Betrayal, remorse, death: and yet such beauty. Cercis siliquastris is said to be the tree on which Judas hanged himself after turning Jesus in to the authorities having identified him with a kiss, and in return for 30 pieces of silver. The Judas tree as it is commonly called is planted throughout the various gardens of the Alhambra in Granada: in those beside the Nasrid Palaces, the ramparts, the monastery of St Francis (now a hotel) and across the valley in the Generalife which my guidebook translated as ‘the garden of lofty paradise.

When I visited in the third week of March, few deciduous trees were in leaf, highlighting the many evergreens across the estate, notably the ranks of cypresses silhouetting the upper terraces of the Generalife. Consequently, the deep mauve flowers of the Judas tree stood out boldly in the landscape. Close examination reveals that the pea-like blooms erupt from branches, twigs and even trunks of these remarkable trees, with the heart-shaped leaves emerging several weeks after the flowers making the colour of the trees  all the more prominent.

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Shades of purple predominated in many of the plants in flower during my visit to Granada: the irises in the foreground of this view of the city from the Generalife Gardens and the wisteria clothing ancient walls and perfuming the air with the unique fragrance which in this country I associate with mid to late April.

And it wasn’t only the purple flowers which were in bloom at least four weeks before those at home. The palest of pink peonies dominated a bed surrounded with clipped myrtle in one of the Generalife’s upper gardens, the Jardines Altos.

This garden was beside the intriguing Escalera de Agua, where instead of a banister rail, water flows along stone channels on either side of the steps leading to the wonderfully named Mirador Romantico. This feature reminded me of William Kent’s early 18th century landscape garden at Rousham House in Oxfordshire where the shallow zig-zagged rill’s source is in a woodland glade leading to the cascades and pools which eventually flow into the River Cherwell. In the Generalife and the palaces of the Alhambra the numerous rills connect the pools and fountains at the centre of the patio gardens, many of them cloistered with elegant pillared arcades, off which lead chambers decorated with intricately worked plaster and ceramic tiles in vivid colours.

In the final week of April, at home in west London, the two notable Judas trees in Kew Gardens have been in full flower. One spreads its branches dramatically at the foot of the steps from King William’s Temple in the centre of the Mediterranean Garden and the other overhangs the perimeter wall beside the Queen’s Garden at the rear of Kew Palace. The former forms a backdrop to some of the glass sculptures of Dale Chihuly now erected in many parts of Kew Gardens, and to which I shall return in future posts. In my back garden at home I have been delighting in the extravagant purple and mauve swags of the wisteria, as well as its gorgeous perfume.

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