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.

Rolling along within the walls

After a few months lying dormant, having been cleared, weeded and mulched, the four beds which occupy the centre of Osterley’s Tudor Walled Garden are beginning to be planted for this year’s display of edibles and ornamentals. On 8 March gardener Ed rotovated the plots and the Friday team of volunteer gardeners raked the surface with landscape rakes to create as fine a tilth as possible. The next step was to even out the surface still further using a faded green garden roller, the ‘Ogle Roller’. This venerable machine was made in Derby at the Castwell Foundry but I’ve not been able to find an approximate date when these might have been in production. We discovered that it is easier to pull not push a garden roller on soil and that it required two of us to keep the roller steady and the lines straight, as well as achieving a neat turn at the end of each row. The latter involved a tricky manoeuvre where the two barrels of the Ogle came into play, with one remaining stationary and the other turning to help swivel the roller to a position alongside the previous ‘stripe’.

While we were occupied with this task, colleagues erected the hazel pole bean supports. Whilst the Climbing and Runner Bean plants will not be planted for a few weeks, we did plant a couple of dozen Broad Bean plants. These are the first of numerous vegetable and salad crops being raised from seed to be planted out when both weather and soil are a little warmer.

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As an experiment this year, on 22 March one of the walled garden’s plots was sown with ‘green manure’ seeds. In 12 to 14 weeks’ time the plants will be chopped down, dug in and the bed planted with crops in the cabbage family for harvesting during next winter. The plot was first divided off into four triangular sections the interior of two of which were sown with Alfalfa and the other two with Purple Clover, with Black (Japanese) Oats being sown along the intersecting lines.

Whilst this part of the garden looks slightly bare at this time of year, these preparations are the foundation of the second of Osterley’s three garden zones. The Osterley garden is virtually divided into three principal zones, both for seasonal interest and to make it as easy as possible to manage with a small workforce of one Head Gardener and two full-time gardeners, albeit supported by a large team of volunteers. From now until mid-summer the first zone or Mrs Child’s Flower Garden (about which more in future posts) will dominate the scene. The Tudor Walled Garden will be at its height from mid-summer to October, followed by the third zone, the Winter Garden.

I shall plot the progress of the planting in the Tudor Walled Garden in this blog over the coming months.

 

 

Dickie’s Border

My last blog post included a reference to a clock and ‘Tick Tock’ is the nickname of the gentleman after whom a very imposing border in the gardens at Osterley is named. Dickie Denton was a gardener at Osterley from 1948 who lived in a flat in the stables, a short distance from the border, and looked after the clock in the stables.

In this brief image-based post I share images taken last Monday 25 February of a few of the shrubs featured in the middle tier of the planting scheme in Dickie’s Border.

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Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’ : Winter daphne
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Rhamnus alarternus ‘Argenteovariegata’: Italian buckthorn

 

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Arbutus unedo f.rubra:  Pink strawberry tree
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Teucrium fruticans:  Tree germander

Prunings

Secateurs poised, we stood, two students per rose bush, listening carefully to our tutor Mac. We could hear the traffic six lanes deep just a few yards from where we were standing . Tutorial over, we tentatively began to prune the Queen’s roses. Tidying up the plants in your own garden is one thing, but cutting into Her Majesty’s specimens is another matter altogether.

This was on the last Friday in February three years ago, the first day of the RHS Level 2 Certificate in Practical Horticulture course at Capel Manor’s centre in the Regent’s Park. After a morning in the classroom we had been marched through the park to the Crown Estate garden which consists of two half moons, north and south of the Marylebone Road, linked by a tunnel above the platform at Regent’s Park Underground station. We began to work, inwardly reciting the 3Ds pruning mantra ‘Dead Diseased Damaged’. I don’t think I made more than five cuts in my rose that cold afternoon. What with identifying the potential direction of stem growth to prevent crossing (which can encourage powdery mildew) and searching for the outward facing buds over which to cut (to maintain an open shape) I concluded that pruning is as much about looking as cutting.

I was reminded of this lesson this week when I pruned a mature Cox’s Orange Pippin apple tree in the garden of clients. It’s a beautiful tree, gnarled and branching out from waist height, with numerous fruiting spurs. ‘Achieve a good mix of useful wood of different ages’ counsels the RHS ‘Pruning & Training’ manual. I pruned the weak growth hard and the stronger growth lightly, and cut out a couple of older branches which were growing out so far from the central trunk they were in danger of splitting under their own weight. Again I found that I spent more time scrutinising the stems, spurs and buds than applying blade to branch.

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If the apple tree prune was conservative, that of its neighbour, a tall shaggy barked Deutzia, was definitely radical. The deciduous shrub needed renovation pruning to encourage it to produce its whitish pink flowers which I saw described on a label at a wholesale plant nursery I visited this week as resembling fairy’s dresses. Those juvenile specimens were a far cry from the much older plant I pruned on Tuesday. I thinned out older woody branches, cutting to as close to the base as possible, and lowered its height by a couple of feet so that the apple tree beyond it can now be seen from the house.

A day’s pruning was the perfect opportunity to try out the folding pruning saw a friend thoughtfully bought me for Christmas. It was ideal for taking out the medium sized branches. My sturdy Felco secateurs made light work of the slimmer stems. Coincidentally, the following morning, a friend demonstrated a very impressive long handled tree pruner made by Fiskars, with which he had recently pruned the magnificent Wisteria which clothes the house at ground floor level. He had not had to resort to using a ladder and was delighted with the by-pass pruner. I confess that when I tried to use it I found that I did not have adequate power in my arms to both hold the pole steady enough to make a cut and ‘pull the trigger’.

With perfect timing, the Osterley volunteers were treated this morning to a rose pruning refresher session with the head gardener, Andy Eddy. He ran through the basic principles of rose pruning before taking us to see the various roses throughout the garden most of which he has already pruned. Many of these are climbing roses and he showed us a beautiful Rosa ‘Madame Alfred Carrière’ in the courtyard outside the Study Centre whose stems he has encouraged outwards in a gentle curve so as to encourage new stems to develop along its length.

IMG_6562In the seating area behind the cafe red flowered R.’Etoile d’Hollande’, a climbing hybrid tea rose, climbs several metres up and across, supported by a series of taut horizontal strainer wires, around which the rose’s stems are tied with a double loop of green horticultural twine.

IMG_6564In the Magnolia Bed, beside the Cutting Garden, Andy demonstrated a method of creating a beautiful rounded shape to a hybrid tea or floribunda rose by training it onto a framework of hooped hazel stems.

IMG_6567The  deep bed which backs onto the American Border sports two species rose, R.Banksiae and R. Glauca, both of which are left alone and not pruned. Until this morning I hadn’t appreciated the range of roses in Osterley’s collection and will enjoy seeing them clothed in blooms having studied them this morning in their naked winter state.

 

Wool gathering whilst gardening

Of the many benefits of gardening- fresh air, exercise (what one RHS course tutor dubbed ‘the outdoor gym’), an outlet for creativity- the opportunity to let your thoughts wander at will is for me one of its principal virtues. The meditative state that can arise, particularly when carrying out a repetitive task such as weeding, can sooth anxieties or, as it did when I was working in a client’s garden a week ago, trigger memories. Whilst we are counselled against ‘looking in the rear view mirror’, remembering the gardens we grew up in or the first gardens we created, is a delightful route along which to allow one’s thoughts to meander.

As I worked my way methodically around the garden, knee pads in situ and weeding fork in hand, I recalled the pleasure I derived from making a tiny ‘garden’ at the first flat I owned. The little studio flat in South Kensington was on the top floor of a five storey white stucco building which had once been a hotel. A property developer had converted it into dozens of studio and one bedroom apartments of which mine was probably one of the smallest. Although its one window was behind the parapet which crowned the handsome building, the room had a very bright east-facing aspect. For fire escape purposes, a small flight of wooden steps led from the window sill to the valley behind the parapet. Having grown up in a suburban house with a generous proportioned garden which I had taken little interest in helping to maintain, I suddenly discovered an enthusiasm for growing plants. I indulged this new passion with baskets suspended on decorative ironwork lavatory brackets (from said childhood home) on either side of the wooden steps. In those days, the early 1980s, there was a small garden centre on a triangular plot immediately above Gloucester Road underground station: now occupied by a branch of Waitrose and a large office building. It was in this unique plant centre and at Rassells on Edwardes Square off Kensington High Street that I bought the geraniums, lobelia and Black-eyed Susans (Thunbergia alata) with which I filled the baskets. I revelled in the gaudy colours of the display which decorated my climb to the parapet valley from which I could survey the London skyline. From left to right: Hyde Park , the roof of the Albert Hall, T E Collcutt’s Queen’s Tower in the heart of Imperial College’s campus and the Natural History Museum. I also had a small collection of houseplants including a highly temperamental shrimp plant whose botanical name I discovered whilst researching this blog post is Justicia brandegeana. 

The shrimp plant gave up the ghost when four years later I loved to a larger but altogether gloomier basement flat in West Kensington. The flat did, however, have the advantage of its own garden, albeit one that could not be seen from the flat since it was on the same level as the raised ground floor flat upstairs. In my six year sojourn there I did battle with a compacted clay soil and rather moth-eaten lawn. The garden was surrounded by high brick walls (which I would be very happy to have surrounding my current garden). It was overhung at the rear with a burgundy leaved tree I believe may have been a purple beech, Fagus sylvatica Atropurpurea Group. In my first autumn in the flat, I remember a trip to a garden centre near Maidenhead with my dear friend Pat, where I bought several shrubs and climbers which I had carefully selected from Dr DG Hessayan’s ‘The Tree & Shrub Expert’. These included Spiraea japonica, Choisya ternata and Solanum crispum ‘Glasnevin’, the latter chosen more for its Dublin associated name than for its beauty, but which romped away despite the dry shade in which it was expected to grow. I was also given Kerria japonica and a witch hazel, Hamamelis mollis. Another gift was Paeonia lactiflora ‘Bowl of Beauty’. I moved before it flowered and have often wondered how it fared after I left.

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I went to a very inspiring talk by garden designer Dan Pearson at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew on Monday evening, ‘Journey of a Plantsman’. As he described his evolution from schoolboy botanist and horticulturist to world renowned designer and plantsman, I was struck by the detail with which he recalled the plants he included in the first flower border he created in his parents’ Hampshire garden 40 years ago. Hardly on the same level, but when during the gardening session last week I allowed my mind to focus on my own 1980s gardens, I found I too could see those gardens and the plants in them as if it were yesterday.

In other news, I spent today at Kew helping, along with many other volunteers,  to prepare orchids and bromeliads for the Orchid Festival which starts in early February. Attaching moss to the plants pots with elastic bands was a fiddly process but very satisfying and the horticultural chat around the table was fascinating. During a break I took a look at the progress with the installation of the exhibits and it’s already looking very impressive. The theme of this year’s festival is Colombia and the fauna of the country is being highlighted alongside its botanical treasures. A sloth, donkey and turtle caught my eye today. More orchid festival impressions to follow in a future post.

 

‘Blow Gabriel Blow’*

* Cole Porter ‘Anything Goes’ 1934

When, at New Year, I walked into the museum in Prague devoted to the artist Alphonse Mucha, the last thing I expected to find was the inspiration for Weeds Roots & Leaves’ first blog post of 2019. But there it was, amidst the stylised theatrical posters and advertising material, almost always portraying beautiful young women in dreamy poses dressed in flowing gowns with luxuriant hairstyles. In a section devoted to the artist’s drawings I found a couple of botanical studies. One featured the Czech national tree, Tilia cordata, the small leaved lime or linden, the latter somehow more appropriate in central Europe. Its layout and precision reminded me of the remarkably detailed botanical art in the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

But the drawing that most attracted me was of Brugmansia or Angel’s Trumpets. With fine pencil strokes, Mucha illustrates the elongated trumpet of this tropical tree/shrub’s flower. Subtly, the image transmutes into designs for lampshades and light fittings and what might be a rather lethal looking hair ornament. In turn of the century Prague, as in other European cities, Art Nouveau drew inspiration from nature, most notably in the art and designs of Alphonse Mucha.  Having seen the detail of the study of the Angel’s Trumpets I can appreciate the accuracy of the plant-inspired decorations in Mucha’s work. Further examination of the other images on display revealed that the majority include floral motifs, either entwined in the subject’s hair or as a decorative border to the painting or print. I found sunflowers, irises, scarlet geraniums, poppies: on an overcast late December morning an art gallery turned out to be the best garden in the city!

Finding the Brugmansia study spurred me into delving further into the genus of which I knew very little, other than being able to recognise its large and distinctive trumpet or bell-like flowers. Brugmansia is a member of the nightshade family, Solanaceae, and like its relatives potatoes and tomatoes, originates in South America. Sadly the seven species in the genus are now known only in cultivation and it is classed as extinct in the wild. In tropical areas Brugmansia can grow into a large shrub or a tree up to 11m high. Its spectacular flowers exude a strong fragrance, usually most intense in the evenings to attract pollinating moths. In southern Colombia the plant has been used as a hallucinogen in spiritual ceremonies. Whilst most parts of the plant are poisonous if ingested, it has been found that some of its properties have medical value, including as an anaesthetic. Numerous cultivars of Brugmansia have been developed including B. ‘Alphonse Mucha’!

The images which follow are of the specimens on display in Kew’s newly restored Temperate House, which I plan to make the subject of a future post.

On the subject of art inspired by natural forms, from this April the works of glass sculptor Dale Chihuly are to be displayed in Kew Gardens for the second time in 14 years. I remember that first exhibition clearly and recall fantastically entwining ‘chandeliers’ comprising numerous hand-blown tendrils in an array of vivid colours and a canoe moored near the Gunnera on the banks of the Palm House Pond brimming with multi-coloured glass gourds. Sinuous blue and clear glass forms resembling some exotic aquatic creature arose amidst the Nymphaea in the pool in the central zone of the Princess of Wales Conservatory. For me the 2005 Chihuly exhibition has been one of the most effective art installations at Kew in recent years. That is not to denigrate more recent events such as the garden-wide exhibition of the works of Henry Moore in Kew’s 250th anniversary year 2009. And Kew proved an ideal setting for David Nash’s sculptures in wood in 2012.

I’d like to think that from April I might find a glass sculpture inspired by the frilly skirted blooms of Brugmansia. If so, I believe that Mucha, master at translating botanical subjects into works of art, would approve.