Points make prizes

On 27 August 2022 I won a silver cup! For the first time in my life! At the Kew Horticultural Society’s 77th Flower & Produce Show. (Cue the Archers’ theme tune).

Always held on the Saturday of the August bank holiday weekend, the show is a Kew institution and takes place on the smaller Kew Green, across the South Circular Road from St Ann’s Church. As detailed in the ‘Rules for Exhibitors’ I staged my three entries on the evening before the show. I was only the 3rd exhibitor to enter the large marquee furnished with white paper covered trestle tables. I was given one card per entry on which I wrote the number of the class of the entry and my name. I then found the relevant section of the tables and set out my exhibits, the card name side down. My original intention had been to enter the ‘Montello’ plum tomatoes which cropped really well in this summer’s heat. But I realised when I inspected them earlier that week that I’d already picked and eaten the largest and juiciest! Reading through the rules on the Society’s website, I identified some categories to enter and spent an hour or so on the Friday afternoon assembling my offerings. Which were:

Class 34. GRAPES 2 bunches grown outdoors. In 2020 I planted a grapevine (Vitis vinifera ‘Lakemont’) in a large terracotta pot and trained it across the south facing fence at the back of the garden. This is a seedless dessert grape and this year, like the tomatoes, it soaked up the sunshine and produced a couple of dozen bunches of rather small but intensely sweet grapes.

Class 44. PERENNIALS hardy, 3 or more different kinds in a vase or bowl. Opting for the informal look, I picked a couple of stems of five different flowers and popped them into a half pint milk bottle from the 1960s, embossed with ‘Lord Rayleigh’s Dairies’, which I keep on the kitchen windowsill and use for roses and sweet peas or cuttings waiting to be potted up. These are the flowers I picked:

  • Anaphalis margaritacea var. yedoensis: ‘Yedoan pearly everlasting flower’. I bought this in May 2021 from the wonderful nursery at Great Dixter. It is also grown in the cutting garden at Osterley. In the sunny position where it’s planted at the far right hand end of my garden, its foliage blends really well with the similarly greyish leaves of the late summer flowering shrub Caryopteris × clandonensis, whose mid blue flowers are just emerging this week.
  • Salvia x jamensis Nachtvlinder. The velvety deep purple flowers contrasted well with the white everlasting flowers. This plant came from Kew Gardens about ten years ago whilst I was working there, when they dismantled the planting of the outline of a giant man which had been created at the foot of the Pagoda as part of a summer festival.
  • Salvia uligonosa. ‘Bog sage’. Sky blue flowers top 2 metre high stems. Arguably too tall for my tiny garden, but at this time of year it flowers profusely and helps create a slightly jungly, overgrown atmosphere.
  • Anemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’ or Hon Jobs as they’re referred to in the nursery trade. I mentioned in my last blog that they’ve struggled a little to reach their usual 1-1.5 metre height, but thankfully there were plenty of the creamy white flowers to spare for my arrangement.
  • Verbena bonariensis added to the cottagey feel I was aiming for.

Class 61. FUCHSIAS a vase of mixed varieties or one variety. I picked several sprays of Fuchsia ‘Burning Embers’ which I’ve grown in a medium sized pot for about four years after buying it in a plant sale at Osterley. I cut it down to a low framework of woody stems after it finishes flowering and for months it looks as if it will never recover until during April new shoots appear and by midsummer it’s developed into a neat dome covered in a mass of dainty maroon bells.

I returned to the show marquee the following afternoon with a friend, Liz, a fellow local gardener. Naturally, I was curious to see if any how my entries had fared under the judges’ scrutiny. Nul points for the grapes: the top three entries were wonderfully plump and juicy. But I was awarded second prize for the hardy perennials (3 points)- I was delighted, even when I noticed there were only two entries on display! The winner’s arrangement of Salvia Amistad was stunning. Turning to the table where I’d placed the vase of Fuchsias the evening before I was so excited to see a red rosette to indicate that I’d won First prize (4 points).

It was fun looking at all the beautiful fruit and vegetables entered in competition, as well as cakes, bread and crafts. Leaving the marquee, we walked around the stalls representing local organisations and selling crafts and plants and had tea and cake. And lovely chats with our respective clients, several of whom were enjoying the show and the sunny afternoon too. About to leave the show ground, I heard my name announced and was just in time to be presented with a handsome silver cup by Giles Fraser, the new vicar of St Ann’s. I had won the Kew Challenge Cup ‘for the first-time exhibitor gaining the most points in horticultural classes 1-64’.

The cup is in pride of place on the mantelpiece for the next 12 months and naturally I’m already planning which classes to enter into the 78th show in a year’s time.

The Kew Challenge Cup

Hever Castle & Gardens revisited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Espaliered olive tree in the Italian Garden

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

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

The Rose Garden in April

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

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

Kew, 1 May 2022

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

Some more photographs of the gardens at Hever follow:

Perch Hill and Batemans

Sarah Raven’s cutting garden in East Sussex is near the village of Burwash on the outskirts of which stands the old stone manor house once owned by Rudyard Kipling. I visited both last Friday.

Perch Hill

The open day at Perch Hill started with lunch served on Emma Bridgewater crockery in an open sided marquee decorated with bunting. Nasturtium flowers and Dahlia petals decorated the salad.

The varied palette of colours compensated for the overcast conditions.

The Dahlia garden is a treasure trove of shades and flower types.

Unusual roses in the rose and herb garden include the two tone ‘For Your Eyes Only’.

Pot gardens and individual containers abound.

These Dahlia ‘Bishop’s Children’ were grown from seed 4 years ago

Perch Hill isn’t just about Dahlias: the roses are fragrant as well as beautiful.

Container lined arches add height and echo the wavy hedging to the rear.

Narrow stepped paths connect the terraces in this hillside garden.

Everything in the garden is clearly labelled.

The beautiful High Weald lies beyond the garden: note more wavy hedging.

Grasses and single-flowered dahlias in the perennial cutting garden.

Rare breeds in the chicken run.

The profusion of flowers in the garden is powered from the compost ‘palace’.

A rich burgundy Salvia in a metal container, and Sarah herself re-filling the seed display in the shop.

Batemans

The first thing I spotted when we arrived at Batemans was a sign quoting the following lines from Kipling’s 1911 poem, ‘The Glory of the Garden’.

Our England is a garden, and such gardens are not made

By singing:-‘Oh, how beautiful’ and sitting in the shade.

Putting to one side the patriarchal tone of the poem, when read in its entirety*, it does evoke the atmosphere of an Edwardian country house garden tended by dozens of gardeners. How sad to think that so many of them left estates such as Batemans within three years of the poem being published to fight in the trenches, never to return.

How much hands-on gardening was undertaken by Kipling I do not know, but he designed much of the garden layout himself. The formal water garden consists of a round pond surrounded by roses from which a cherub fountain feeds a short rill leading to the large waterlily pond.

The house dates from 1634, the entrance framed by a profusion of shrubs and perennials.

A majestic dovecote highlights this peaceful scene.

Exuberant planting in the walled garden includes fountain grass combined with statice.

 *The Glory of the Garden

OUR England is a garden that is full of stately views,
Of borders, beds and shrubberies and lawns and avenues,
With statues on the terraces and peacocks strutting by;
But the Glory of the Garden lies in more than meets the eye. 

For where the old thick laurels grow, along the thin red wall,
You’ll find the tool- and potting-sheds which are the heart of all
The cold-frames and the hot-houses, the dung-pits and the tanks,
The rollers, carts, and drain-pipes, with the barrows and the planks.

And there you’ll see the gardeners, the men and ‘prentice boys
Told off to do as they are bid and do it without noise ;
For, except when seeds are planted and we shout to scare the birds,
The Glory of the Garden it abideth not in words.

And some can pot begonias and some can bud a rose,
And some are hardly fit to trust with anything that grows ;
But they can roll and trim the lawns and sift the sand and loam,
For the Glory of the Garden occupieth all who come.

Our England is a garden, and such gardens are not made
By singing:-” Oh, how beautiful,” and sitting in the shade
While better men than we go out and start their working lives
At grubbing weeds from gravel-paths with broken dinner-knives.

There’s not a pair of legs so thin, there’s not a head so thick,
There’s not a hand so weak and white, nor yet a heart so sick
But it can find some needful job that’s crying to be done,
For the Glory of the Garden glorifieth every one.

Then seek your job with thankfulness and work till further orders,
If it’s only netting strawberries or killing slugs on borders;
And when your back stops aching and your hands begin to harden,
You will find yourself a partner In the Glory of the Garden.

Oh, Adam was a gardener, and God who made him sees
That half a proper gardener’s work is done upon his knees,
So when your work is finished, you can wash your hands and pray 
For the Glory of the Garden that it may not pass away!
And the Glory of the Garden it shall never pass away ! 

Rudyard Kipling, 1911

Bute is in the Eye of the Beholder

Winterbourne House and Garden is a favourite destination when I go to Birmingham. Located near Birmingham University’s campus in leafy Edgbaston, Winterbourne is the university’s botanic garden. Beyond the house built in 1903 for John Nettlefold, stands a garden billowing at this time of year with exuberant herbaceous planting.

Winterbourne House and Garden

When I was there ten days ago the star attraction was the bed just beyond the terrace containing the National Collection of Anthemis, a spectacular blend of soft yellow and white cultivars of this dainty member of the daisy (Compositae) family.

National Collection of Anthemis

We were there to meet Ruth, a friend of Cathie, my hostess. They had been classmates on the RHS Level 2 Diploma course. Ruth now volunteers at the nearby Birmingham Botanical Gardens. One of the many joys of studying and working in horticulture is meeting other gardeners and hearing about their routes into the industry, their current activities and projects, as well as benefiting from their expertise. When I admired a velvety dark burgundy regal Pelargonium, its petals rimmed in a lighter pink, Ruth identified it as P. Lord Bute.

Earl of Bute 1773

Whilst the plant wasn’t immediately familiar, the name was. I had read about Lord Bute as the courtier who in the mid eighteenth century advised George III’s mother Princess Augusta on the creation of a collection of exotic plants on the site of what evolved into the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Contemporary gossip speculated that their close relationship went beyond the botanical, but whatever the truth, it is known that John Stuart, third earl of Bute (1713-1792) and briefly prime minister in 1762/3, introduced the Old Lion trees to Kew from the Duke of Argyll’s estate in Twickenham. These are among the oldest trees in Kew and include an oriental plane tree (Platanus orientalis), a sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa) and a maidenhair tree (Gingko biloba). The latter is planted not far from the northern end of the Princess of Wales Conservatory which was named after Princess Augusta and not after Diana, Princess of Wales, which I had understood until I went to work at Kew.

Gardeners are generous souls, and I was very touched when later that day Ruth deposited three perfect rooted cuttings of the plant I admired on the doorstep. The little Lord Butes were carefully protected for transportation in a cut off plastic water bottle, a brilliant recycling hack. With the cuttings were two packets of seeds: the first those of the kangaroo apple (Solanum laciniatum). Only the day before I had used my phone’s plant identifier app to identify a tall and somewhat unusual shrub growing in a container in Cathie’s garden. Its mauve flowers were recognisable as belonging to the potato family (Solanaceae) but it was the leaves that attracted me. About 10 inches long and deeply lobed, they resemble pin oak leaves. Ruth treats this tender plant as an annual, raising it from seed each year, and she had given Cathie a young plant a few months ago. It struck me that it is rather like the castor oil plant (Ricinus communis) in its ability to produce so much vegetative growth in one season, and I wonder if, like that plant, it could be used as a focal point in an exotic border of tender plants such as Dahlias.

The other seeds belong to Hibiscus cameronii which I read is a native of Madagascar with large white and pink flowers with red-purple spots at the base of each petal. This is very tender and will be a challenge to grow, but I shall have a go using the heated propagator. I shall also ask the team at Osterley if they might be interested, perhaps for display in the Garden House, along with the citrus trees and other tender specimens. The David Cameron for whom this plant was named was not our erstwhile prime minister, but the first curator of Birmingham Botanical Garden, whose stewardship ran from 1831-1837.

Although I shall have to wait until next year to see the seeds germinate and mature, I hope to enjoy P Lord Bute later this summer. I shall plant them alongside a container planted with other dark red flowers including some Dianthus which are about to flower, having been raised from seedlings I was given early in 2020 when a colleague and I were pricking out a variety of seedlings one very rainy afternoon just before the first lockdown.

Speaking of plants not named after British prime ministers I have been doing some digging to find out whether the Pelargonium was named for Princess Augusta’s Lord Bute or for one of his descendants. In a 2010 Kew magazine article Kew’s Richard Wilford posited that because the plant was first raised by a plant nursery in Cardiff, Messrs S Treseder & Son, in the first decade of the twentieth century, the name Lord Bute was chosen because of the proximity of the nursery to Cardiff Castle, home to the Bute family from 1766 to 1947. So is it a generic aristocratic Bute being commemorated rather than our friend from the early days of Kew?

I would argue that it’s the latter given his fervent interest in horticulture and botany. Indeed he was a botanical scholar as well as a politician: he produced a limited edition ‘flora’ containing specially commissioned botanical images from artists such as Margaret Meen. And as well as advising Princess Augusta on the introduction of several venerable trees to Kew, he supervised garden alterations and is believed to have commissioned Sir William Chambers to design buildings such as The Orangery and the Pagoda. In order to fulfil his role at Kew, he leased Cambridge Cottage on Kew Green near the main entrance to the Gardens, now known as Elizabeth Gate. Cottage is a misleading description for a really quite grand three storey house. He is understood to have extended the house to accommodate his botanical library. Cambridge Cottage is now a wedding venue with offices on the upper floors. In fact for the first three years I worked at Kew Gardens, the Visitor Information team was located on the first floor of Cambridge Cottage in a room with a view across the Green to the cricket pitch and St Anne’s Church. I’d like to think that more than 250 years ago, Lord Bute might have looked out of the same window!

A cabinet containing a copy of Lord Bute’s botanical tables is held by the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle

Audit participation

With 2,300 species recorded in one year, I can hardly expect a biodiversity audit of my garden to compete with Great Dixter’s 6 acres. In a terrific online lecture for the Kew Mutual Improvement Society, the archaically named organisation run by Kew’s Diploma students, whose winter lecture series always contain some gems, head gardener Fergus Garrett reported on the findings of a Biodiversity Audit of the famous East Sussex garden covering the period 2017-2019.

He began by setting the scene for those like me who haven’t been to Great Dixter. With uplifting summer images he showed us the ‘show gardens’ near the house, the meadows rich in common spotted orchids and the coppiced woodlands. Lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis) and Mexican daisies (Erigeron karvinskianus) spill across limestone paving slabs and steps. Ribbons of ox-eye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) flow around the stock beds. Foaming cow parsley umbels are encouraged in some of the formal planted areas and roses tumble across buildings. A multi-layered system of plants co-exist creating a seemingly informal style of planting. Such an intensively planted garden requires careful management, but from the images I saw this is delivered with a light touch.

Pandemic permitting, I’m determined to get to Great Dixter this year. But Fergus Garrett’s enthusiasm has inspired more than a garden visit. The surprise finding from the Great Dixter audit is that the formal gardens are the most diverse, leading me to want to investigate how biodiverse my garden is. Of course January isn’t the ideal month to undertake such a project, but I’ve done a quick non-scientific mental audit, and have come up with a good number of species of creatures as well as native plants (in other words, weeds!).

Plants: without having to think about it too deeply, in most years you’ll find the following here:

  • Green alkanet (Pentaglossis sempervirens)
  • Hedge bindweed (Calystegia sepium)
  • Spurge (Euphorbia peplus)
  • Mind your own business (Soleiriolia soleiriolii)
  • Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum)

The alleyway beside the house would probably yield a list twice as long of the weeds inhabiting the earth path and which I pull out when they become too tall, but otherwise tolerate. When I was studying for the RHS Level 2 Diploma a few years ago, that narrow strip was perfect for practising identification of most of the plants featured in the ident. test during weed week.

From left to right: spurge, herb Robert, mind-your-own-business, green alkanet photographed this morning.

Creatures: here’s my quick list of vertebrates and invertebrates spotted in the garden over the last couple of years:

  • Frogs. Last May I counted 11 frogs disporting themselves in the 150cm x 60cm pond. Their croaky chorus is an annual delight.
I photographed this chap in a puddle next to the house in April 2020.
  • Bees. In 2021 I want to learn to identify the different bee species that come to the garden. This looks like a handy field guide from the Field Studies Council: https://www.field-studies-council.org/shop/publications/bees-identification-guide/ Three years ago I remember sitting on the garden bench with my then four year old great nephew watching for several minutes as a leaf-cutter bee (Megachile species) methodically cut neat. semi-circular portions of leaf from a plant growing in a pot beside the bench. These solitary bees use the leaf pieces to build cells for their eggs. In a scene reminiscent of a David Attenborough documentary, on one of the bee’s return journeys from its nest it flew directly into an elaborate web spun by a stripey garden spider (Araneus diadematus?). The more the bee struggled to escape, the more entangled it became and we watched as the spider dashed across the web to its wrap its victim in a silken harness. Having secured its prey the spider went about its business. The following morning we checked to see if the bee had been able to free itself, only to find that the spider had eaten half of it. Thankfully the small person was unphased by this demonstration of ‘nature red in tooth and claw’.
  • Scarlet lily beetles. Beastly in more ways than one! I didn’t claim this was a list of benign species only! I try to be as vigilant as I can in spotting these vivid red pests and their slimy brown ‘frass’ (poo, in which larvae are concealed), squishing the former and wiping off the latter from the stems of the pink oriental lilies that I’ve been growing in the same container for a few years now.
  • Stag beetles. Sadly I found a dead beetle, like the upturned hull of a ship, lying on the yard last summer. I used to recoil from them in flight, I think due to their size, when they don’t seem much smaller than a wren. But having learnt more about their detritus-clearing activities I now recognise them as a force for good. One of Fergus Garrett’s initiatives at Great Dixter is the creation in the meadows and woodlands of ‘habitat piles’ made from shrub prunings from the garden. As gardeners we often feel compelled to over-tidy our gardens, clearing away leaf-litter and twiggy material which might shelter beneficial organisms. I’m gradually learning to leave pockets and corners of the garden undisturbed to allow ‘detritivores’ such as stag beetles to do the clearing for me.
  • Bats. Until last summer I’d not seen bats gliding over the garden on hot summer nights for several years, but I’m happy to report that they came back in 2020. I love to watch them silently pursuing their airborne prey.
  • Field mouse. Out of the corner of my eye I sometimes glimpse their tiny forms disappearing into corners and behind flower-pots. There was an old teak bedside cabinet in my old shed in which I kept bits and bobs such as old bulb packet labels etc. I once opened a drawer to find the cardboard shredded into minute strips and moulded into a cosy nest, the little family long dispersed.
  • Butterflies. I spotted many butterflies in the garden last summer, including a peacock butterfly, although the photograph below right was actually taken in the Agius Evolution Garden in Kew on 14 July 2020. I see from the photo stream on my phone that I photographed this red admiral on the garden fence on 28 June 2020.
  • Birds: according to the recorded clip on my ‘Chirp-o-matic’ app, it was a tawny owl’s eerie cry that I heard on the evening of 17 August 2020 as I stood at the back door. I feed the birds in my garden every day. After drawing the kitchen blinds and putting the kettle on to boil, it’s part of my morning ritual to put seed into the a feeder on the ground for blackbirds and robins and into the tray of a wooden hanging feeder. In the recent cold spell I defrosted the birdbath daily with a kettle full of boiling water. A birdbath provides fresh drinking water and an opportunity for the birds to bathe. They do this to dislodge parasites and trap moisture in their plumage which after a post-shower shake-out helps keep them warm. Last Sunday, an hour after it had started snowing, I glanced out of the window to see that something (robin or blackbird?) had washed and brushed up so vigorously that the recently defrosted dish was completely empty! This weekend’s Big Garden Birdwatch for the RSPB has been an opportunity to count the birds in my garden over a one hour period. Sadly this morning’s vigil for the BGB yielded only the usual suspects on this cold last day of January: two bedraggled feral pigeons and a forlorn wood pigeon. And a great tit systematically searching for grubs in the hazel tree in the garden behind mine.
Bathing robin April 2020
Rose-ringed parakeets sometimes visit the garden

Thank you Fergus Garrett for reminding me why I garden. Naturally I want to create a space which is visually attractive and pleasant to spend time in. But as you memorably expressed it in your talk we can also ‘blur edges between horticulture and ecology without compromising artistic merit’.

31 January 2021

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.