In a Manor of Speaking

If to repeat the same behaviour expecting a different outcome is the definition of insanity, then to repeat the same behaviour expecting a similar experience presumably indicates the perpetrator is of sound mind? I do hope so as a happy outcome was certainly what I hoped for when I decided to return to the gardens at Chenies Manor only a couple of weeks after I’d gone there for the first time. So taken was I with these magical gardens on the edge of the Chilterns that I enthusiastically persuaded friends to return with me on 15 October. I judged they would enjoy the colourful dahlia displays and precise topiary, as well as the Elizabethan manor house and generous afternoon teas. I was only too willing to experience these again, but I also wanted to explore parts of the gardens I had missed the first time.

The Physic Garden is tucked away to the rear of the Sunken Garden and comprises several beds of medicinal and poison plants, clearly labelled with the conditions that the former are said to alleviate and the adverse outcomes should you be unlucky enough to ingest the latter. There was none of the theatricality attached to Alnwick’s Poison Garden (I recall a skull on the entrance gate and certain specimens displayed in cages when I visited a few years ago) but the range of plants grown was impressive. A handsome fig tree guards the brick gateway into the garden, conspicuous for its pale leaves in the familiar modesty protecting shape. A circular brick building, closed on the afternoon of our visit, houses an ancient well. I read later that the depth of the well is greater than the height of Nelson’s Column!

Beyond the Front Lawn, and in the shadow of the parish church, a low open hedge of pale pink roses surrounds a grassed area from which an elaborate circular labyrinth has been fashioned. A narrow gravel path branches off in frustrating impasses, entertaining the amused onlooker watching the brave soul who sets off to reach the centre of the puzzle who has to change direction every few seconds in an accelerating frenzy of false starts and dead ends.

Between the Labyrinth and Chenies’ Kitchen Garden stands a pretty orchard. The Kitchen Garden is an extensive densely planted area. As well as luscious ruby chard plants, I noticed an impressive number of rhubarb crowns interspersed with several terracotta forcers. To one side I saw a work area housing a large compost heap and a pot store. Nearby there was a pretty cottage garden (or cutting bed?) full of long stemmed dahlias and cosmos interwoven with a medium height grass which created a bronze misty effect throughout the planting scheme. I noticed that the area included a diminutive Eucalyptus sporting the disc-shaped juvenile leaves so useful to flower arrangers. Before leaving this part of the garden I took a close look at the fruit of the Medlar (Mespilus germanica) which stands in the centre of one section of the Kitchen Garden. I understand these bizarrely shaped fruits are a delicious treat once they have been ‘bletted’ or allowed to ripen for a few weeks after picking.

Having satisfied my curiosity about these outermost sections of the gardens, we returned to the Rose Lawn, White Garden and Sunken Garden which I had admired a fortnight before. They did not disappoint and it was a pleasure to see my friends enjoying their beauty too. The dahlias remained impressive despite some heavy rain during the intervening weeks and one plant had come into flower into the meantime, the tall and stately (but poisonous) Monkshood (Aconitum carmichaelii).

As well as the playful Labyrinth, Chenies also boasts a fiendishly complicated Maze. The path between sharply cut yew hedges at least two metres high leads to innumerable culs de sacs before with some relief you find the central rectangular stone, from atop which there is a tantalising view of the manor house and the serenity of the White Garden. Stepping off it you embark on a bewildering quest to find the exit from which you emerge with even greater relief. Then it’s time to return to the car and to leave the timeless atmosphere of this special garden, until next spring when tulips replace dahlias as the star attractions in Chenies’ beds and borders.

To the Manor Born

A September afternoon at Chenies Manor

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

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

The Inner Court

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

Melianthus major

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

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

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

The Little Dorrit gazebo, viewed from the Rose Lawn

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

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

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

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

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

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

The varieties Mary showed us included:

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

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

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

First day of term at Homeacres

The days are shortening and an autumnal chill descends when the sun goes down, but September remains a time of new beginnings, new opportunities. It’s the beginning of a new academic year, the first day of term. And in the garden it’s arguably the start of the gardening year when you plant bulbs and biennials in preparation for a well-stocked flower garden next year and salad leaves and herbs for a spring harvest. Both elements coincided for me on 7 September. I was staying in South Somerset with my niece and her young family. I usually drive home from these precious weekends on Sunday but this time I stayed until Monday to see my middle great nephew on his first day at school and, on the way home, to visit a very special market garden 12 mile away.

Posing with his big brother for photographs, this usually mischievous small person looked very smart in his school uniform and very happy to finally join his brother at school. Subsequent reports confirm he has taken this major life change entirely in his stride. Early that afternoon I headed for the village of Alhampton, near Castle Cary, and Homeacres, the garden where Charles Dowding grows vegetables by pursuing his famous No Dig method.

I joined four garden writers* and photographers for a tour of the garden and introduction to the No Dig system. We were warmly welcomed by Charles and his business partner Stephanie Hafferty, herself a gardener, a writer AND cook. The productive part of Homeacres is surprisingly compact- a quarter of an acre with every inch utilised, long beds stretching away from the house, closely planted with crops, red frisée leaves contrasting with another chicory, this a vivid green.

The overall effect is of order, tidiness and plenty. Charles explained that by removing the lower leaves of, for example, Kale he discourages slugs and neaten its appearance. The fiery coloured flowers edging the beds as companion planting to attract pollinators and deflect less welcome insects throw the subtler greens, dark reds and purples of the beds into sharp relief. I saw orange marigolds, magenta flowering flax (Linum grandiflora), bright pink zinnias and now finished, but still displaying its double decker seedheads, bergamot (Monarda didyma). Charles tells us that a lemon sunflower (Helianthus annua) is grown for picking for the house.

Underlying this vision of plenty are years of layers of mulch atop a long dissolved away layer of cardboard. When he established Homeacres in 2004, Charles suppressed perennial weeds like couch grass and bindweed with cardboard before applying a deep (7 to 15cm) of organic matter: well-rotted manure, garden compost and municipal compost. He then planted into the compost. Now 3 to 5 cm of mulch is added to every bed in early winter.

Cardboard remnants visible at the corner of a bed

I heard Charles Dowding speak at a KMIS (Kew Mutual Improvement Society) lecture a few years ago and was struck then by his infectious enthusiasm for his subject. He extols its simplicity: no effortful double digging when establishing a new vegetable plot and reduced weeding. But the principal benefit is its protection of the soil. Digging, whether manually or by rotavation, damages the mycorrhizal fungi so essential for establishing a healthy relationship between plant and soil. It is no coincidence that one of the chapters, or lessons, in Charles’s new book ‘No Dig Gardening: From Weeds to Vegetables quickly and easily’ is devoted to understanding soil and throughout the book he emphasises the importance of maintaining the integrity of the soil structure and encouraging its helpful micro-organisms to thrive.

The proof of the No Dig effect is demonstrated in two raised beds near the house, established 13 years ago. The right-hand bed was prepared and is maintained using traditional cultivation methods, that on the left is No Dig. Both beds are planted with the same crops in the same positions. In 11 years out of 13, the No Dig bed has produced a higher yield. The 1.5m x 5m beds in the garden produce 70kg of vegetables and Homeacres supplies salad leaves to shops and restaurants in the nearby town of Bruton.

The engine room for these abundant harvests is the long wooden roofed compost complex at the heart of the garden. Several compost bays fronted by removable slatted panels contain green waste from the garden (including the kale leaves mentioned above) as well as the municipal waste which is kept to ferment for a further 4 to 6 months before use). Compost thermometers can be seen inserted between the slats with the temperatures recorded and dates of turning carefully noted on the adjoining wooden pillars. On the day of my visit (cool and rainy) one bay registered a temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit despite its contents of green waste and carbon materials having been deposited only the day before. That new bay will be full of a rich, fertile compost 6 to 12 months from now. Knowing that the compost will reach very high temperatures during the rotting down process, Charles has no qualms about including blighted tomatoes and bindweed in the green element of the compost content.

A polytunnel installed by First Tunnels contains ranks of expertly cordoned tomatoes, lower leaves removed to both improve appearance and encourage the plants to photosynthesise at their apexes. On 10 August each year, the tops of the tomatoes are pinched off and now watering is being reduced to encourage ripening. The tomato beds are underplanted with French marigolds (Tagetes patula) and the side beds of the polytunnel are full of various types of basil.

In one corner of the polytunnel Charles showed us a fine watermelon vine and we were invited to taste a slice of ripe white-fleshed melon which was both fragrant and very juicy. We had already sampled a sweetly sharp baby plum tomato, a variety called Rosada, which because it is no longer available from seed merchants, Charles propagates from cuttings. We also experienced a couple of other unfamiliar flavours. As we progressed around the garden, we tasted a raw Edamame bean and the shield shaped leaf of buckler or French sorrel (Rumex scutatus). One of our party commented that this tasted like salt and vinegar crisps. And the tasting didn’t end there, as we were sent home with a generous bag of No Dig salad leaves- crunchy frisée and tender oak-leaved lettuce included.

Charles’s latest book (see above) is based on the first of his two online courses and explains the time-saving simplicity of the No Dig system. There is a quiz at the end of each chapter with answers at the back of the book. The book covers planning the layout of a vegetable plot, creating and maintaining paths and making compost. There is also a chapter devoted to identifying weeds with excellent photographs.

I drove away from Homeacres wishing that I was higher up the waiting list for a local allotment (I’m 3 years into a 5 year wait!) but determined that when the time comes I shall employ the No Dig method. In the meantime my keen gardener niece is keen to start a new vegetable plot to add to the existing two plots in her garden and I have already tasked her with saving cardboard to start it off.

*Including Abigail Willis whose exquisitely illustrated book ‘Secret Gardens of Somerset’ has been published this week.

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.

(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?*

During lockdown I entered a competition run by the Garden Museum in Lambeth. The theme was a memoir based on the garden as ‘Sanctuary’. I chose Kew Gardens for my subject and although I didn’t get shortlisted but would like to share the piece with you.

*Thank you to Elvis Costello for the title to this post. He performed a wonderful acoustic set at Kew the Music in July 2014. To date my favourite concert in this annual six day music event. Sadly cancelled this year.

29 April 2020.

A soothing voice on the meditation App advises me to visualise my ‘happy place’. Without hesitating I imagine myself sitting on a bench in a wood. Blue tits and great tits alight momentarily on feeders hanging from the branches of a tree across the path from where I sit. I can see a nuthatch inching down the trunk, its profile resembling a miniature woodpecker. From far above me I hear the mournful high-pitched call of a peregrine falcon.  I am in the Natural Area in Kew Gardens. Less than half a mile away the outside world goes about its business: traffic flows along Kew Road and golfers trundle trolleys over the pristine greens of the Royal Mid Surrey Golf Course. But here is my sanctuary, where I am cocooned from the new normal of Zoom meetings and tense grocery shopping expeditions. 

Is a sanctuary a physical place or can it be a mental refuge to be visited when your spirit needs soothing? As I write this, going into the sixth week of lockdown, staying home and staying safe, I believe that it is both. Kew Gardens remains closed but in my imagination I can visit any part of it whenever I wish. In 1968 James Taylor sang ‘In My Mind I’m Gone to Carolina’ and if I concentrate hard enough I’m gone to Kew. I’m gone to green glades lined with rare shrubs and trees from around the world, to the Redwood grove or the native woodland where now, in the last week of April, the understorey is carpeted with bluebells, the blue carpet punctuated here and there with the lime green flowers of Smyrnium perfoliatum. I can go at any time of the day or in any season. I can relive a frosty winter’s morning walking through the Plant Family Beds (now the Evolution Garden) and stopping to admire the frost riming the sculpture of the gardener leaning on his spade, surveying his domain. Or I can enjoy once more a late June picnic beneath the lime trees, their pale yellow flower clusters perfuming the warm still air. 

I was in my twenties when I visited Kew for the first time. I lived in central London then and Kew’s spaciousness and sense of calm contrasted with the bustle and fumes of city streets. I returned once a year at first and then more regularly, until in my mid-thirties I was fortunate enough to move to the area. 

A walk in the Gardens became a weekly ritual. I would often go late on a Sunday afternoon in preparation for the working week: the crowded Tube, the targets, the deadlines. Entering at the Lion Gate, I would skirt the Great Pagoda, heading towards what was then called the Conservation Area from which I emerged onto the lawn between the Gardens and the Thames towpath at the end of Syon Vista. Across the river, I could see the Northumberland lion standing defiantly atop the ornamental battlements of Syon House and at the other end of the wide double avenue of Holm oaks the rounded glass and metal outline of the central atrium of the Palm House. My route led to the northern shore of the lake, where in April creamy bracts centred with tightly clustered green flowers decorate a large Cornus florida. Skirting the southern end of the Temperate House I would arrive at Lion Gate just before closing time, save for one occasion when I mis-timed it and had to use the yellow emergency phone beside the gate. I was hugely relieved when the kind member of the Kew Constabulary who took the call released the remotely controlled catch on the gate. 

That might have remained my weekly routine had not life intervened. By 2008 I had stopped commuting into the city and had been working locally for a couple of years. When the financial crisis hit I was, as the most recent recruit to the firm, made redundant. Roles in my field were hard to come by so as well as attending a typing and computer skills course, I answered a call on the Kew website to volunteer at an exhibition to be staged in the Nash Conservatory about the work of Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank. I also volunteered in the visitor information team and by early the following year was offered a part-time job. I remember worrying if, by working there, the place I had come to regard as a place of sanctuary would lose that aura for me and become just another workplace. Yes, there were days when the relentless flood of emails and calls threatened to make me forget what a special place Kew is, but a gentle cycle ride home along Holly Walk on a summer’s evening restored a sense of calm and perspective. If time allowed, I took a longer route home, alongside the southern shore of the lake, passing the group of monkey puzzle trees, Araucaria araucana, towards the Natural Area, where I would sit for a few minutes on that bench near the birdfeeders. 

A year or so after I started working at Kew my elderly and increasingly frail mother came to live with me. We used to visit the Gardens most weekends, my mother in a wheelchair, reluctantly to begin with but content to do so when she realised how much more of the Gardens we could explore. We always took coffee and a picnic and on colder days, equipped with a hot water bottle under her blanket, she was the warmest member of the party. My mother loved sitting in the sun and one of her favourite places in Kew was the sundial lawn at the foot of the steps leading up to King William’s Temple in the Mediterranean Garden. On the hottest days I fancied we could detect the distinctive scent of the Garrigue, that combination of cistus, broom, lavender and oregano which characterised the hillsides of Provence where she had enjoyed several holidays. My mother’s dementia meant she was often sad and confused but a visit to Kew would raise her spirits, and when as we arrived home she would say ‘I’ve had a lovely day’, mine too. My mother died six years ago.

I no longer work at the Gardens, but once a week I volunteer for a few hours in the plant shop and will continue to do so when the lockdown is lifted. Kew remains a deeply special place to me. It has soothed me when my heart has been broken, when I’ve raged about some now forgotten injustice, worried about a health issue or grieved the loss of a loved one. I know I am not alone in missing Kew Gardens at this challenging time of fear and uncertainty.  But by conjuring in my mind’s eye its vistas and paths, stretches of water, ancient trees and the exquisite contents of its glasshouses, Kew offers me a refuge, a sanctuary.                                                                                                                                    Weeds Roots & Leaves                  29 April 2020

The Temperate House viewed from the Chinese Fringe Tree
The Palm House Pond in summer 2019 with a Dale Chihuly sculpture reflected in the water.
Snowdrops in the Rock Garden in December 2019
The Magnolia Grove in March 2020, just before lockdown
The Broad Walk Borders in July 2020

The Eurogarden Flower Show: Part 3 of a virtual round the world tour

Several weeks ago I promised to complete Weeds Roots & Leaves’ global gardening expedition with a tour of Europe. You know the rules by now: this is a virtual tour inspired by the countries or regions of origin of the plants in my small suburban garden.

Let’s begin in the Caucasus in the east of the continent, where Asia meets Europe. Both Alchemilla mollis and Brunnera macrophylla hail from this area and are excellent ground cover plants, but there the similarity ends. A.mollis is drought tolerant and I often find self-seeded pioneers in the garden, nosing through gravel or nestled in paving cracks. B.macrophylla prefers a shadier, moister position and has been the star of the woodland planting beneath the Amelanchier tree for weeks this spring thanks to its blue flowers which make up for their diminutive size by intensity of colour. Borne above the heart-shaped leaves in dainty sprays they resemble the flowers of their Borage family cousins Forget-me-nots (Myosotis sylvatica). However, the flowers of the species form in particular are deeper in colour and sing out even when the light starts to fade at dusk.  I also grow the popular cultivar ‘Jack Frost’ named for silver veining on the leaves, whose flowers are a paler shade of blue. I find the species form self-seeds freely and am constantly digging up the seedlings and growing them on to give to friends. Jack Frost hasn’t yet propagated itself around the garden in the same way.

The genus Alchemilla, I was intrigued to read while researching this post, is a member of the rose family. I first came across it when visiting a friend’s family home in Staffordshire in the 1980s. My friend’s mother was both a gardener and flower arranger. During my visit in high summer she created several stylishly simple arrangements for the village church combining the frothy chartreuse greeny yellow flowers of A.mollis with a deep purple sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus) which she also grew in abundance. I still pop a couple of sprays into the vase when I pick sweet peas. She also told me that when she was a student nurse, in the days when flowers were allowed in hospital wards, they called bouquets of red and white flowers ‘blood and bandages’!

The slightly hairy pale green leaves of A.mollis are rounded and slightly ‘toothed’ with shallow lobes, sometimes up to 11 per leaf. When you examine these felty leaves you can understand why the common name of the plant is lady’s mantle. After a shower water droplets cling to the leaves long after the rain dries on the leaves of surrounding plants. Alchemists (from the Arabic ‘alkemelych’) regarded these mercury like beads of water as the purest form of water, using it in their quest to turn base metal into gold.

Travelling westwards, it’s the turn of three plants from the Mediterranean. There must be few gardens which do not include at least one lavender plant. Mine are in containers: a woody and rather unsatisfactory specimen in the back garden and exuberant examples in the window boxes in the front garden. I planted them last October, when assembling the winter arrangement, to provide some grey-leaved interest. Until recently, they were content to play a supporting role to the showier cyclamens, violas and chrome yellow Narcissus ‘Minnow’. But now foot long stems shoot upwards craving attention. And getting it: I plan to leave them in situ when I plant up the boxes with pale pink zonal Pelargoniums in a fortnight or so. The latter arrived as small plugs a week ago and after potting them on to fatten them up in the vertical cold frame I kept them covered at night in horticulture fleece as a protection from several exceptionally cold nights. I believe the lavender cultivars are ‘Hidcote’ but confess to having misplaced the labels.

In a couple of clients’  gardens I have seen foamy cuckoo-spit nestling among the stems of more mature lavender plants. This is the liquid secreted by the nymph stage of the sap-sucking bug known as a frog-hopper. The insect does the plant no harm but has attracted attention in the last few years since being discovered as a vector of Xylella fastidiosa, a bacterial disease of certain trees and shrubs which has caused serious problems for olive farmers in Southern Europe. The disease has not been detected in the UK and strict new import regulations have been introduced for plants hosts of the disease such as lavender and rosemary, as well as olives. The RHS has published an interesting article about the issue on its website entitled ‘Preventing pandemics in plants‘.

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As well as lavender, I grow another Mediterranean plant: a compact prostrate rosemary which seems perfectly happy in a container.

After some years of trying I have established reliable clumps of autumn cyclamen (Cyclamen hederifolium) and later winter-flowering C.coum in the crowded area beneath the Amelanchier. Autumn cyclamen with its larger ivy-like leaves are found from Turkey to Italy.  C.coum comes from the eastern Mediterranean and has smaller disc-shaped leaves. The flowers of both species share the back-swept petals which always remind me of the graceful arm movements of the corps de ballet in ‘Swan Lake’.

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Cyclamen coum photographed in spring 2019 in the garden at Osterley. Mine are not quite this impressive!

A couple of months ago I wrote a post about the other Mediterranean plant in my garden, bear’s breeches or Acanthus mollis. 

European woodlands are represented by four species which I shall describe in the order in which they flower. The first to flower is Pulmonaria officinalis which came to be called soldiers and sailors due to its sporting blue and pinkish red flowers on the same plant. Its alternative common name is lungwort deriving from the practice of equating plants to parts of the body based on appearance, and using them to treat ailments of that limb or organ. In the case of lungwort its spotted leaves were thought to resemble diseased lungs and the plant was used to treat lung infections. Like Brunnera, Pulmonaria is a member of the borage family.

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Pulmonaria officinalis

The next to flower is Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum multiflorum) whose graceful arching stems seem to grow longer each year, from which dangle green tipped cream flowers. If previous years are anything to go by, in a few weeks’ time the flowers and leaves will be systematically devoured by the pale grey caterpillars of the sawfly. Since the larvae do not appear to munch on other plants I do not begrudge them their feast.

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Solomon’s seal

Hesperis matronalis is a southern European and at its best in May. Sweet rocket is described as a biennial or a short-lived perennial. I’m always thrilled when it returns each spring, but I recently sowed seed to ensure it presence in the garden next year. I am particularly fond of the white form because it both illuminates and scents the garden at dusk. I wrote a post about it and other white flowered plants in the garden here

Abbey Road, London NW8 is a far cry from alpine woods and meadows, the home territory of Astrantia major. But the street with the most famous zebra crossing in the world lends its name to the cultivar of A.major which I grow. A.major ‘Abbey Road’ has  reddish-purple flowers which look poised to open during what should have been Chelsea Flower Show week. More accurately what appear to be flowers are a rosette of bracts surrounding a neat cluster of tiny flowers held on slim stems wafting above the foliage. They were the favourite flower of another friend’s mother, in whose Maidenhead garden I first saw these growing.

The tour concludes here, but watch this space for a trip to Africa later in the summer, when all being well three plants from that continent will be in flower. Thank you for allowing me to guide you on this journey of discovery. I owe an acknowledgment to the invaluable RHS A-Z Encyclopaedia of Garden Plants which so usefully includes the country or region of origin of the thousands of plants listed in its pages.

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A view of the garden from the house, taken very early on the morning of 18 May showing that you don’t have to have a large space to grow species from all over the world. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cork and Pork

Since Kew Gardens expanded its Mediterranean Garden about 15 years ago and created two new mounds criss-crossed with rocky paths between ancient olive trees, cypresses, lavender and cistus, I have been intrigued by another of the trees planted there, the cork oak, Quercus suber. What a tree! Every few years it is stripped of its unique corky bark, which gradually regenerates, only to have it peeled off again several years later: sustainability in action! The cork production industry is vital to the economies of rural communities in Portugal and south west Spain as well as parts of North Africa, southern France and Italy.

One of the most memorable interpretation displays I have seen in any museum (and Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is a museum, it’s just that its collection is living), was erected in the Mediterranean Garden to demonstrate the threat to the cork industry of the introduction of synthetic wine bottle stoppers made from plastic and metal. Visitors were invited to return with their used wine bottle tops and deposit them in one of three clear-fronted compartments to demonstrate which of the three methods of sealing wine bottles was most commonly used. This citizen science project proved surprisingly popular and the containers gradually filled over the course of the summer. I seem to remember that the natural corks container always appeared the fullest but I haven’t been able to find the official outcome of the experiment. It certainly drove home the message that far from plundering a natural product, choosing wine in bottles with natural corks supports a sustainable way of life.

A fortnight ago I was lucky enough to visit the beautiful area to the north west of Seville known as the Sierra de Aracena. Wooded hillsides protect quiet villages, the forests of cork and holm oaks providing rich foraging for the Cerdo Ibérico (popularly known as the Pata Negra), the black-footed pigs from which the region’s famous Jamón Ibérico is produced. The friend I travelled with lives in the New Forest and commented that it reminded her of the pigs which each autumn are allowed to roam freely in the forest snuffling for acorns, beechmast and chestnuts under the ancient tradition of ‘pannage’.

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‘Pata Negra’ foraging for acorns

Our base for three days’ walking was a small hotel, the Posada San Marcos, in the pretty village of Alájar.

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Alájar

The 18th century house on the edge of the village was restored about eight years ago, using sustainable building materials including cork. With fire-proof and damp repellent qualities, cork is apparently often used as an insulating material and has the benefit of conserving heat and acting as a sound-proofing barrier.

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Cork and sheep’s wool is used for insulation in building projects

The hotel’s garden ran down to a river, beyond which rose a steep hillside densely planted with cork oaks with smooth trunks to about three or four metres.

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The hillside beyond the hotel in Alájar

Undeterred by heavy rain on the first day’s walk, we followed a path through the forest towards a neighbouring village, Linares. Narrow and rocky, the path was reduced by the rain to a small stream in places bounded on either side by moss and fern covered stone walls beyond which grew the cork oaks.

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A stone wall photographed on the second day of walking when the sun shone

Slick with rain, the lower trunks of the cork oaks resembled dark chocolate riven here and there by reddish gashes, with what resembled long sleeves of gnarly cork encasing the upper trunks and limbs.

 

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It was clear that the junction between the two surfaces was created by man, given the neatness of the margin between the flayed trunk and the lichen encrusted cork. The weather was fine and dry during our second and third days’ walking and I could see that when dry, the more recently stripped cork oak trunks are a beautiful reddish brown. I understand that the cork outer bark can be peeled away once the tree reaches 25 years of age, and the tree can then be stripped every nine to ten years without damage.

We stayed in Seville at the end of our trip and came across a chain of shops selling accessories made from thinly cut cork: handbags, fans, watch straps and jewellery. Very pretty but a far cry from the coarse surfaces of the trees 80k away in the shady forests of the Aracena. My favourite cork object were the rough-hewn (and very light) stools and bowls we found in a the small town of Fuenteheridos where we stopped for lunch during one of our walks.

When I returned to Osterley on the Friday after my holiday I went to see the Osterley Park Cork Oak, an impressive 250 year old specimen located beside the Middle Lake and protected with a metal railing barrier. It is designated as one of the ‘Great Trees of London’. Whilst the climate of west London cannot rival the hot and generally (!) dry conditions in the western Mediterranean, Osterley’s cork oak is thriving. As an ornamental it has not been shorn of its cork carapace and its trunk remains gloriously gnarled. With this and the specimens planted at Kew, it’s comforting to know that examples of this fascinating tree exist close to home, no passport required.

 

 

 

 

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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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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A sacred strawberry tree

In a secluded area behind the Garden House at Osterley stand two tall trees with richly russet coloured peeling bark: they are Arbutus menziesii, a species of strawberry tree whose fruits are distilled in Portugal into a spirit known as ‘Madrone’. When I visited Seville Cathedral a fortnight ago I found in one of the numerous side chapels a relief called La Virgen de Madrono, the Madonna of the Strawberry Tree. A kneeling angel offers the infant Jesus a dish brimming with the fruit of the Madrono. I read that the tree originates on the western coast of North America, from British Columbia to California and can reach a height of 25 to 30 metres.