Blues in the site

‘Well, you’ve got just about enough to make a placemat!’ I’d been showing a retired art teacher friend the collection of blue and white ceramic shards unearthed from my garden and from those of clients, with a view to getting her advice on how to create a mosaic table top. Her reaction confirmed that I would need to up my game to accumulate enough pieces to achieve this. I mentioned my project to a few people and with contributions from allotment sites in Richmond and Ealing and a garden in Northamptonshire, the glass vase in which I keep these little treasures is three quarters full. Short of buying a willow pattern plate from a charity shop and embarking upon a Greek restaurant style plate smashing session, I anticipate it will take another 12 months before I have enough broken pottery to complete the planned masterpiece. And that’s fine: most of the fun of this exercise is in collecting the raw materials and in knowing that these ‘objets trouvés’ may have lain undisturbed for 100 years or more.

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It’s always a mystery to me how you can dig over the same area of soil year after year without finding pottery pieces and then suddenly your fork turns over a fairly substantial segment of an old plate or vessel. There are several theories expressed online about why so much discarded pottery is found in gardens. One school of thought considers that the pieces were applied to the soil to improve drainage. Another that in the absence of council recycling centres, broken blue and white tableware was dumped into a corner of the garden. Whatever the explanation, I always experience a frisson of excitement and curiosity when I spot a gleaming white or blue fragment when weeding or preparing an area for planting. So many questions occur to me. Did the plate smash accidentally or was it hurled across the room in a temper tantrum? How many cups of tea had rested on it before the saucer broke? Was a scullery maid hiding the evidence of a dropped cup from the mistress of the house? Where did the plate originate from: China, Japan, Stoke on Trent? Or was it imported from the near continent, part of a Gien de France tea set or a Royal Denmark dinner service? Was it bought in an exclusive shop or in Woolworths?

Sometimes the original pattern is discernible: a willow bough or part of an ornamental bridge, a chrysanthemum flower or sprig of lavender. One piece in my collection stands out as it is black and white and appears to be in Art Deco style. Another is solid turquoise: I found it last year in the cinder paths which lead to the Loder Valley nature reserve at Wakehurst Place in West Sussex.

Okay, so it’s not the Staffordshire Hoard or the Sutton Hoo treasure, but in their own way these chipped and misshapen fragments have a value of a kind because they have their own stories to tell. To me there is a mystery attached to every humble piece of china I find whilst I’m digging. Not least of which is what to call them. My late father, who hailed from Birmingham, used to call them ‘chinies’ but I’d be interested to know if there are other regional words to describe them.

In the meantime if anyone knows where I can source a smallish cafe table suitable for the garden on which I can create my first garden china mosaic do let me know! One thing is for sure, I shan’t be digging it out of my or anyone else’s garden.

Postscript 14 April 2020: An exciting find

Whilst weeding in the alleyway behind my garden on Good Friday, making space to stand a few potato planters, I found two pieces of blue and white china which, when fitted together like jigsaw pieces, spelt ‘Asiatic Pheasant’. The initials ‘C&E’ indicate that the earthenware vessel was made at the Cartwright & Edwards factory of Longton in Staffordshire, one of the five towns known collectively as ‘The Potteries’. The Asiatic Pheasant design was hugely popular in the Victorian era, and this piece probably dates from 1880-1890, coinciding with the building of the house in the 1890s. Although when the utensil that this came from was smashed is anyone’s guess. An elderly neighbour who has lived on the street throughout her life, tells me she remembers playing with her friends in the network of alleys between and behind the terraces and finding blue and white pieces which they used to decorate their fairy gardens.

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Christmas reading: Gardens in London and Essex:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TLAs, DMCs and AGMs

During a recent meal with friends I learnt a new Three Letter Acronym (TLA): DMC or Deep & Meaningful Conversation. And it struck me that like most activities, gardening has its fair share of TLAs, about which there may well have been some DMCs.

So before we all go MIA (Missing in Action) for the Christmas and New Year festivities, I thought I’d share a few of the obvious horticultural TLAs. When it comes to late winter  we can lavish much TLC (Tender Loving Care) on our gardens with an application of WRM (Well Rotted Manure). When pruning mature shrubs we should be using the mantra DDD (Dead, Diseased, Dying).  I would argue that useful as this is as a guide, it doesn’t include the reminder to eliminate those crossing branches which rub together, potentially creating a site for disease to enter.

Having prepared the garden to withstand the winter, during any quieter times ahead we can plan new planting schemes, perhaps inspired by a gardening book received as a Christmas gift. One of my favourite sources of ideas for combining shrubs with herbaceous perennials, is ‘The Creative Shrub Garden’* by Andy McIndoe published by Timber Press. The book groups garden styles and colour combinations, with the shrub suggestions supplemented by ideas for complementary herbaceous perennials or grasses. There are also expanded schemes for larger gardens. I heard Andy McIndoe speak at a lecture a couple of years ago hosted by the Kew Mutual Improvement Society (KMIS): a FLA? His enthusiasm for his garden in Hampshire and practical approach was infectious and inspiring.

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Many of the cultivars listed in my now well-thumbed copy of the book bear the epithet AGM indicating that they have been awarded the Award of Garden Merit by the RHS (Royal Horticultural Society). This means the RHS has trialled the plant in question and that it fulfils certain criteria including that it is ‘excellent for ordinary use in appropriate conditions’, ‘of good constitution’ ‘stable in form and colour’ and reasonably resistant to pests and diseases (PADs?). It must also be available which of course makes perfect sense as there would be little point in bestowing the honour upon a plant no-one can get hold of. I have read that if for some reason it is not practical to trial a plant, the RHS might award the AGM after a roundtable assessment by a forum of horticultural experts who debate its characteristics and garden performance.

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I recently planted climbers in a couple of clients’ gardens, and each plant bore the reassuring AGM suffix. One was Trachelospermum jasminoides AGM, commonly known as Star Jasmine or Confederate Jasmine. I see from the nursery label that it has recently been renamed Rhynchospermum jasminoides. This perfumed white flowered evergreen ticks so many boxes in terms of being a good ‘doer’ for clothing a fence or wall. It needs some support whilst getting established, either on a trellis or strainer wire, but in due course it thickens up and supports itself and I have seen it entirely framing a friend’s back door.

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Trachelospermum jasminoides AGM planted in October 2019 supported on newly installed strainer wires.

The other AGM  climber I used was Clematis ‘Ernest Markham’ AGM whose flowers are described as velvety crimson-red on the RHS website. It looks unremarkable at the moment but I hope to see it in flower in the client’s garden in early to late summer.

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Clematis ‘Ernest Markham’ AGM

My client with the cottage style garden full of unusual shrubs (which I wrote about in a recent post entitled The Generous Gardener), told me a couple of weeks ago that she plans to plant an AGM shrub this coming year which she read about in the December issue of The Garden (page 82), Heptacodium miconiodes AGM. The common name of this autumn flowering tree is the wonderfully evocative ‘seven son flower tree’, which hints at its origins in China. This is another plant with fragrant white flowers and I understand they are very attractive to bees.  Pink bracts remain when its flowers fade, lengthening the season of interest well into the autumn.

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Heptacodium miconioides AGM

No doubt there are many more TLAs applicable to or peculiar to horticulture and I am now on the look out for some more to add to my list. Before I start my quest, I wish you a happy Christmas and a successful and satisfying start to the new decade.

*ISBN 978-1-60469-434-5

Plug in meadow

It began with a simple enquiry from my ‘client in the country’ (in fact my niece!) asking if I could recommend a supplier of meadow plants in plug form. A quick Google search led me to Crocus’s collection of ‘wildflowers for a stronger colour meadow display’, perfect for the south facing site with very little shade. It was agreed that I order the plants and bring them to plant on my next visit which was in the first week of November. The collection arrived in less than a week in a neat cardboard box containing 104 perfect little wildflower plants, in a black plastic tray divided into egg-cup sized plugs.

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The 13 species were arranged in clearly labelled rows of eight, each plant being well established with a substantial root system.

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The weather was thankfully dry and bright on the morning of planting, enabling me to mow the grass as short as possible before marking out the 4 metre x 5 metre site with short lengths of bamboo cane. Crocus’s instruction sheet advised a density of five plants per square metre, grouping the smaller plants in fives and the larger specimens in threes. The rain of the previous couple of weeks had softened the clay soil satisfactorily, making it relatively easy to dig the tiny pockets into which to deposit the plugs. As I inched my way around the grid, I was glad of the integrated knee-pads, just one of the many practical features of my investment purchase this autumn, Genus gardening trousers.

 

I had company during the whole process: my niece’s three hens: two feather-footed bantams and a very inquisitive ranger. I did my best to dissuade them from grubbing up the newly installed plugs by heeling them in as firmly as possible. Reports from Somerset indicate that I have been largely successful although said niece has had to re-plant a couple of the plugs after the hens’ excavating activities.

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The final stage of the project is to rake the seeds of Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor) onto the plot so as to suppress the vigorous lawn grass. Yellow Rattle semi-parasitises the grass and is said to almost halve a lawn’s vigour once established.

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Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor)

The list of specimens reads like the edited highlights of my Collins’ guide to ‘Wild Flowers of Britain and Europe’.

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It features meadow specimens in predominantly yellow, blue and pink shades, for example Cowslips (Primula veris), Harebells (Campanula rotundifolia) and Maiden Pinks (Dianthus deltoides). The client is keen that the flowers attract bees and butterflies to the garden and most of the plants featured in the collection are rich in nectar. The pale blue flowers of Chicory (Cichorium intybus) are visited by bees and hoverflies and the brighter blue flowers of the wonderfully named Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare) lure both bees and Painted Lady Butterflies. Dusk should be a fascinating time in this little patch of meadow next summer judging by the several moth species mentioned on the labels: Northern Rustic Moths are partial to Cowslips and Harebells and two of the plants attract their namesakes. For example, Yellow Toadflax (Linaria vulgaris) is pollinated by the Toadflax Pug Moth and Ragged Robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi) by the Lychnis Moth. Another bee magnet is the Oxeye Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) whose white flowers on one metre stems should stand out beautifully when the meadow area becomes established.

The mint family is represented by two of the plants in the collection, violet blue Wild Clary (Salvia verbenaca) and pink Betony (Stachys officinalis).

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Betony (Stachys officinalis)

I love the old fashioned names of these and all the wildflowers featured in the list and am so looking forward to seeing this little patch of meadow develop in the next couple of years. I shall report back next summer with a progress report and some photographs of my own. Those I have used to illustrate the various species I have found on the web and cannot claim the credit for these beautiful images.

Clockwise from top left hand corner: Ragged Robin, Wild Clary, Cowslip, Oxeye Daisy, Heartsease, Chicory, Harebell, Maiden Pink, Lesser Knapweed, Red Campion, Yellow Toadflax, Viper’s Bugloss.

 

 

The Generous Garden(er)

‘I describe it as a generous garden’, my new client explained earlier this year when showing me around her garden before engaging me to assist with seasonal maintenance tasks as and when needed. The long slim plot behind a Victorian terraced cottage was brimful of treasures when I first saw it at the beginning of May and vegetation was thrusting out of every available inch of soil. At every turn along the narrow lawn between deep curved edge borders I spied interesting plants- to one side a statuesque tree peony and the Euonymus alatus or Spindle Tree. And on the other side: large stands of Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Fascination’ and Acanthus mollis (Bear’s Breeches). The overall effect was punctuated by light purple dabs of Honesty flowers (Lunaria annua).

A keen and knowledgeable gardener, my client has loving maintained this extraordinarily productive space for more than three decades. She attributes its ‘generosity’ to regular and liberal applications of well-rotted manure and garden compost. These have contributed to a deep layer of humus rich soil, teeming with earthworms. An open aspect, unimpeded by mature trees in neighbouring gardens, and an irrigation system snaking across all the borders, also play their part. Unlike more recently planted gardens where the black irrigation pipes can look quite unsightly lying on the surface of the soil, these pipes are hidden amidst the undergrowth.

Inevitably uninvited guests presume on the garden’s generous hospitality. One morning last week I removed at least a dozen substantial plants of Green Alkanet (Pentaglossis sempervirens), those Borage relatives which masquerade so convincingly as Foxgloves until the last minute when their forget-me not blue flowers emerge. By this stage their deep roots have secured a toehold at least six inches beneath the ground, rendering them tricky to extricate from surrounding growth without snapping. Like Dandelion removal, it is all the more satisfying when the root emerges intact. Fortunately the recent rains and a fundamentally sandy soil mean that in this garden this is a relatively easy task.

More welcome guests I have seen whilst working in this garden are robins and blackbirds and last week a vividly green-plumaged Rose-ringed Parakeet roosted for several minutes on a branch a few metres from where I was working.

During one of my May visits one job was to tidy the three chunky clumps of Liriope muscari near the rear of the garden. I stripped away last year’s browning leaves from the healthy dark green strappy leaves into which they were embedded. It was a joy to discover that the garden had repaid my earlier efforts with a stunning display of bright purple flower spikes, a sumptuous foil for the orange, yellow and scarlet flowers of the hugely overgrown and soon to be grubbed up Nasturtiums which had escaped from a neighbouring bed and overrun the sunny paved area at the rear of the site.

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Liriope muscari

Beyond this paving is a deep border backed by a brick wall which I cleared of spent tomato and runner bean plants, as well as several suckers of the Stag’s Horn Sumach (Rhus typhina). My client tells me this spectacular tree was itself a blow-in from a nearby garden. The same border also houses a fair sized peach tree which is ideally placed in its due south-facing location.

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Golden dahlias in the foreground of the Stag’s Horn Sumach in its autumn glory
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The client often sends me home with a bunch of beautiful Dahlias

In another client’s garden, that adjective ‘generous’ crops up again, this time applied to a David Austin climbing rose which I recently pruned and then trained against the fence, having first installed three rows of strainer wire. ‘The Generous Gardener’ (the definite article is part of the name) is described in David Austin’s catalogue as ‘a rose of delicate charm with beautifully formed flowers…a soft glowing pink at the centre, shading to palest pink on the outer petals…when open, the numerous stamens create an almost waterlily-like effect’. Judging by the girth of some of its lower stems this rose was planted many years ago and had, as often happens, grown into the habit of reaching skywards with few flowers below a height of a couple of metres. The time had come to fan out the stems against the fence, and by encouraging them in a near horizontal direction, to produce flowers as far down to the base of the plant as possible.

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Generous she may be but in her mature years this rose has developed some serious thorns and both pruning and training proved challenging. But now that I have started the taming process, I am optimistic that next summer the promised perfume of ‘Old Rose, musk and myrrh’ will fill the courtyard garden rather than evaporating into the branches of the neighbouring garden’s trees. Some yers ago I gave this rose to a friend as a present and earlier this year helped her to support it with a hastily lashed together trellis of bamboo canes. I anticipate this proved a flimsy solution and have made a mental note to ask after The Generous Gardener and check that the extravagant horticulturist of the rose world has not exceeded her brief and attempted a takeover of my friend’s garden.

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Banks & Banking

In the spirit of stepping outside my comfort zone to do something I have not done before, I joined other volunteer gardeners at National Trust Osterley this summer to deliver guided tours of the gardens. Once, sometimes twice a week, two of us led a group of up to 15 visitors through gardens which reflect the history of the house, from its origins in Tudor times, through its elegant Robert Adam makeover in the eighteenth century to today’s innovations, pausing on the way to mention the garden’s role in the Second World War.

As the season changes and we plan to alter our itinerary to take in parts of the garden designed to look at their best in the winter and early spring, I invite you to join me in this post on a virtual early autumn walk through Osterley’s gardens. You start your tour at the rear of the house, at the top of the elegantly curving double staircase facing the park beyond the garden, which Henry James (a weekend guest at the house in the late nineteenth century) describes in the opening passages of his novella, ‘The Lesson of the Master’. The hero Paul Overt, a writer, stands in the same position and observes that the steps ‘descended from a great height in two arms, with a circular sweep of the most charming effect’. He also commented on ‘the expanse of beautiful brickwork that showed for pink rather than red and that had been kept clear of messy creepers by the law under which a woman with a rare complexion disdains a veil’. From this vantage point you can see a classic feature of an eighteenth century landscape garden: bucolic pastureland framed by specimen trees, the pasture grazed by the neighbouring tenant farmer’s Charollais cattle. Before the scene we see today was created, John Roque’s immensely detailed map of London of 1741 showed three avenues of trees radiating from both the front and back of the house. This device is known as a ‘patte d’oie’  or goosefoot. The avenues have long gone save for two oak trees which once formed part of one such avenue.

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The rear of the house and the double staircase
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The Charolais cattle

Trees feature throughout our tour. Let’s descend the steps and head to the shade of the Oriental Plane tree which was planted in 1755. One of my fellow guides describes this huge tree as a grand old lady resting on her elbows, a reference to the gnarled limbs which swoop down to the ground to shade the path to one side. Look up into the leaf canopy and spare a thought for we volunteer gardeners when over the next couple of months we shall sweep up and gather the leaves to deposit in the leaf pile on the boundary of the garden. In a couple of years time we shall use the ensuing leaf mould as a winter mulch to the beds and borders in the garden so as to maintain moisture and improve the texture of the soil.

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The Oriental Plane

Come with me now to ‘Dickie’s Border’, the symmetrically arranged three layered shrub border named after Dickie Denton, the last Head Gardener before the property was gifted to the National Trust in 1949. His nickname was ‘TickTock’ because he was tasked with winding the clock in the Stable Block each morning. In the middle layer of planting compare the red dimpled globular fruits of the Strawberry Trees (Arbutus unedo) with the developing catkins of the Silk Tassel Bushes (Garrya elliptica). A variegated form of Rhamnus alaternus is the third shrub at this level. Alternating Magnolia grandiflora and Loquat trees (Eriobotrya japonica) provide a dark evergreen backdrop, whilst at waist height you can see shrub roses, rosemary and the gold margined leaves of Daphne Odorata aureomarginata

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Dickie’s Border

Our next stop is Mrs Child’s Flower Garden where you have a perfect view of Robert Adam’s recently restored white stucco decorated Garden House which stands at the heart of the ranks of curved flowerbeds planted for spring and summer interest. Here tall Verbascum tower candelabra-like over Salvia sclarea, Maltese cross (Lychnis chalcedonica), Centaurea Montana to name only a few of the intriguing plants to be found in these beds.  The grounds here were used at the beginning of the Second World War for training the forerunners of the British Home Guard in guerrilla tactics and house to house fighting. Led by a left-wing writer, Tom Wintringham, they were described by MI5 as ‘the bunch of socialist revolutionaries at the end of the Piccadilly Line’ and soon afterwards the operation was closed down and the park used for food production as part of the war effort.

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The Garden House with Mrs Child’s Flower Garden to the right

As we walk towards our next stop please take a look at the four beautiful and unusual trees near the brick wall: Foxglove trees, Pawlonia tomentosa, and do mind your head on their low-hanging seed cases which develop from the spires of bluish mauve bell-shaped flowers which the trees bear in April. Other trees to note here include weeping limes and a Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) and nearest the path take a look at the unusually lobed leaves of the Sassafras albidum, whose roots flavour Root Beer, and which this week is glowing with a rainbow of autumn shades.

Let’s proceed to the Picking Garden, where the flowers are grown for the 65 floral arrangements which decorate the house each week. As well as several members of the Daisy family: Heleniums, Shasta daisies and Cosmos, you can also see a row of Pot Marigolds (Calendula). These are the symbol of Childs Bank, associated with the family which owned Osterley. The variety chosen this year is Calendula ‘Radio’. You can tell from its name that this is a modern cultivar. Whilst the species of plants in this part of the garden are era authentic and would have been available to an eighteenth century gardener, their cultivars tend to be more modern and are chosen for reliability and resilience to pests and diseases.

Now we move to the main section of the Tudor Walled Garden which is laid out into four large central beds. In the bed devoted to brassicas you can see the latest member of the garden team, Harry the Hawk, whose job it is to scare pigeons from the cabbages. The next two beds are planted potager style with both ornamental and edible plants and are designed to look at their best in late summer and early autumn. Dahlias feature strongly as do Cleome (the Spider Flower), gladioli and nicotiana. Chard and amaranthus provide the edible element of these beds and at the corners of the beds you can see pyramid shaped supports to which cling the deep purple morning glory, Ipomaea ‘Grandpa Ott’. In the centre of the beds look out for the tall Castor Oil plants, Ricinus communis,  with their spiky pink flowers and large hand-shaped leaves. This plant played a key role in a tale of international espionage from 1978 when the Bulgarian dissident Georgy Markov was murdered in London with an umbrella the tip of which contained a pellet of the deadly poison Ricin which is derived from this plant. The fourth bed is planted almost exclusively with vegetables and salads. At this late stage in the season the various beans have been harvested and their supports removed, but turnips and beetroot (both red and golden) abound as do aubergines and salad leaves.

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Harry the hawk scaring pigeons from the brassica bed
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Amaranthus, Spanish Flag, cannas, dahlias and the Shoofly plant in one of the mixed beds in the Tudor Walled Garden

Our virtual tour is almost over. I shall leave you at the far side of the walled garden, beside the Long Border and point out to you the enormous specimen of the climbing rose Rosa banksiae and ask you to imagine a curtain of pale yellow blooms in April: it is one of the earliest roses to flower. It is named for Joseph Banks, who accompanied Captain Cook on the Endeavour, and on his return advised George III on the creation of a botanic garden at Kew. There is a local connection too, as Banks lived at Spring Grove House about half a mile to the south of Osterley. What remains of his house now forms part of West Thames College. Before we part, consider this: the Osterley site was once slated as a possible site for a national exhibition centre. Thankfully a site near Birmingham was chosen for the NEC enabling us to enjoy the gardens as they exist today. Thank you for joining me today and do come back on another occasion to see the American Border and the Winter Garden.

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Salvia microphylla with fragrant scented leaves in the foreground with Euphorbia mellifera, the Honey Spurge and Stipa gigantea, Elephant Grass behind: the planting beside the last stop on the tour.

 

Daisy, Daisy

Mountain thistles, a suburban palace and a maritime sink garden

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

Gundelia tournefortii

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

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

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

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In Osterley’s Picking Garden in late July another daisy, Echinops, towers over young flowers of Solidago
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Erigeron karvinskianus at the rear of Osterley House growing beneath a Magnolia grandiflora and Rosemary ‘Sissinghurst Blue’
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Heleniums

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

POSTSCRIPT: 1 October 2019

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

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Always Meadowsweet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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An American in Paradise: Hever Castle Gardens

After becoming a British subject in 1899, American multi-millionaire William Waldorf Astor purchased Hever Castrle, near Edenbridge in Kent, the childhood home of Henry VIII’s ill-fated second wife Anne Boleyn. Between 1904 and 1908 he transformed the property, including the gardens surrounding the moated castle. I have read that the equivalent of £110 million was spent creating the gardens alone.

I visited Hever with a friend just over a week ago. Approaching from the Lake View entrance, the first part of the garden we encountered was the Blue Corner. Red brick walls enclose a steeply raked lawn on each side of which deep beds accommodate large boulders and hydrangeas and clematis in varying shades of mauve and purple contrasting with the foliage of ferns, hostas and euphorbias. Purple annual bedding plants provide ground cover in the form of velvety petunias and densely flowered heliotrope the common name of which, Cherry Pie, aptly describes its sweet scent.

In the Rose Garden brightly coloured and fragrant shrub roses occupy beds separated by lawned paths radiating from large urns, representative of the classical antiquities and Italian renaissance pieces which Astor collected whilst American ambassador in Italy in the late 1880s. Much of his collection of sculptures, urns, cisterns and fountainheads is displayed at Hever.

Beyond the Rose Garden stands the classically inspired loggia flanked by colonnades facing the 35 acre manmade lake fed by the River Eden. Set behind the loggia (the romantic venue for a wedding on the afternoon of my visit) is the Italian Garden where most of Lord Astor’s sculpture collection is displayed. Marble gods and goddesses stand amongst arches and pillars festooned with climbing roses and clematis. On the shady side of this large plot is the ‘Gallery of Fountains’ where ferns and hosts grow in abundance along a water filled channel beneath a succession of arches. The crevices of the stone wall bordering the gallery are filled with shield ferns and mosses.

The classical formality of this part of the garden gives way to blowsy prairie planting behind the walls of the Italian Garden. Diana’s Path follows the lakeside towards the castle complex and is bordered with Verbena bonariensis, Echinacea purpureum, Crocosmia, fennel and the silky tresses of a bronze fringed grass. Nepeta, Eryngium and Veronicastrum represent the blue and mauve parts of the spectrum. A magnet for bees, the Veronicastrum displayed signs of that mysterious botanical phenomenon, fasciation. Some of the mauve flower spikes flatten and fork, their bizarre forms swaying in a scene reminiscent of a submarine landscape, through which one might imagine tiny tropical fish darting. According to the RHS website, the abnormal flattening of the flowers in Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Fascination’, is thought to be caused by a genetic tendency to the problem.

Approaching the castle and the adjoining ‘Edwardian Village’, the style of the garden reverts to formality, evocative of Tudor England rather than renaissance Italy. Inside an outer moat lie a Yew Maze and a Tudor Garden, the latter containing a number of sheltered ‘rooms’ bounded by crenellated yew hedging. Here are an intricate knot garden   created entirely from box (Buxus sempervirens) and a physic garden featuring medicinal plants. Hever’s second rose garden consists of a square pond decorated with a two tiered fountain surrounded by stone paving and beds spilling over with a pretty pink and white polyantha (formerly floribunda) rose, Rosa ‘Ballerina’. Beyond the rose garden giant topiary chess pieces fashioned from golden yew loom across a lawn on which stands a tall sundial.

The castle itself stands within a square inner moat in which coy carp swim amongst the waterlilies. The ‘art of creative pruning’ as the inspirational Jake Hobson calls topiary, is represented on Topiary Walk by a series of large box and yew shrubs fashioned into abstract and animal shapes. They reminded me of the fanciful designs I saw lining the Thyme Walk at Highgrove when I visited in May.

Vibrantly coloured planting in the style of Gertrude Jekyll decorates the Long Border between the castle and the lake. Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’, Hemerocallis (Day lilies), Leucanthemum x superbum (Shasta daisies), Echinops ritro (Globe thistle) and fennel predominate but with subtly supported climbing plants dotted amongst the herbaceous scheme. I particularly liked a delicate yellow jasmine (Jasminum officinale ‘Clotted Cream’ and a dainty mid pink clematis which I believe is Clematis texensis ‘Princess Diana’.

Hever is described as one of the great gardens of the world and I plan to return to explore it further.

 

 

‘A Ridiculous Blue’

Arusha, a small town in northern Tanzania near the border with Kenya, is probably best known as the starting point for expeditions to climb Mount Kilimanjaro or for safari tours of the national parks to the south. For me, in 2001, it was the latter, with the holiday company Exodus, and where we spent our first night in East Africa. It was also where Agapanthus, the African Lily, first came to my attention. The short walk from the hotel to the centre of town took us along a road lined with relatively modern bungalows with lushly planted front gardens. Here were stands of Brugmansia (Angel’s Trumpets) and hedges of Poinsettia, which until then I had seen only as a Christmas pot plant, doomed to fade and shrivel shortly after Twelfth Night. But most memorable was the profusion of Agapanthus Africanus, because they were ‘a ridiculous blue’, as David Nicholls describes his heroine’s eyes in his new novel ‘Sweet Sorrow’ read last week on BBC Radio 4.

In the years that followed I planted an Agapanthus in my little south-facing front garden, where it not only succeeded but positively took over for a year or three, self-seeding itself generously. Now confined to three chunky clumps of approximately 6 or 7 stems apiece, they dominate the front elevation of the house throughout July and are this week opening to their full splendour. They have shrugged off their pinkish tissue-like membrane to reveal numerous individual flowers, held on fine stemlets about 4cm long, branching from the apex of a sturdy 1 metre stem rising from a crown of strappy leaves. And they are indeed ‘a ridiculous blue’: not lavender, not navy, not saxe, but resembling the bright skies in mediaeval illuminated manuscripts. The flared six-petalled flowers are very attractive to pollinators.

IMG_8563They will remain in flower now for several weeks, before shucking off the shrivelled petals to reveal pods of slender black seeds which judging by the many plantlets that take root in the slate surface of the front garden, are both viable and vigorous. I root out these fleshy rooted seedlings every autumn and pot them up to give away or fill yet another of the terracotta pots which are threatening to crowd the sunny spot at the back of the rear garden. I feed all the Agapanthus plants monthly during autumn and winter, with a liquid seaweed feed to ensure good flowering the following season. In the summer after I failed to do so, one of the large front garden plants failed to produce a single flower. Elegant and architectural as the mid green leaves are, the absence of flowers was noted by most visitors to the house, even the non-gardening ones.

The narrow beds which surround the Palm House in Kew Gardens are planted with Agapanthus praecox, creating a soft fringe at the base of Decimus Burton’s Victorian iron and glass structure which, along with the Pagoda, symbolises the Gardens.

Another programme on Radio 4 which attracted my attention this week was ‘The Pleasures of Brecht’, which focussed on a deceptively simple poem by the German poet and playwright. Written in 1954, ‘Vergnugungen’ lists life’s pleasures including two of my own, ‘writing, planting’.  Of course planting is only one aspect of the greater pleasure which is gardening in general, although I do derive a tremendous satisfaction from the act of choosing where to plant, preparing the ground, firming the plant into the soil (using the thumb and index finger method favoured at Osterley) and watering it in.

A friend who is a German scholar tells me that composing a list of one’s favourite things, in the style of Brecht, was an exercise she was set during her A Level German course. I am trying to compose my own (inevitably horticulturally biassed) list which I might share in a future blog. Meanwhile here is a translation of the original version:

‘First look from morning’s window
The rediscovered book
Fascinated faces
Snow, the change of the seasons
The newspaper
The dog
Dialectics
Showering, swimming
Old music
Comfortable shoes
Comprehension
New music
Writing, planting
Traveling
Singing
Being friendly’

Lest it appear that I spend the entire week listening to Radio 4, I have also been working in both a client’s garden and in my own. Weeding and hedge trimming for the client and and carrying out a major ivy and bindweed clearance in my garden, in an effort to hold back the invasion from the unoccupied property next door. I also took a friend from out of town to see the Dale Chihuly glass exhibits in Kew Gardens and her delighted reaction to the first sight of the white and clear glass ‘petals’ in the pond in the Waterlily House was a highlight of my week. The pink Lotus flowers (Nelumbo nucifera) have grown through the sculptures, creating an exquisite tableau.

On Friday I joined Ed, a colleague from the Friday volunteering team to lead a guided walk in the gardens at Osterley, my first experience of doing so. Starting on the elegant steps at the rear of the house, facing the parkland, he began with a brief history of the garden and as we progressed into the garden we took it in turns to address the group of 16 visitors at pre-arranged places, to point out seasonal highlights and share stories of particular plants. When we paused beside the weeping silver lime, Tilia tomentosa, my explanation of the narcotic effect of the tree’s nectar on bumblebees was somewhat contradicted by a large bee loudly exiting from between the tree’s drooping boughs and ‘buzzing’ the audience.

Earlier in the week the garden team had cleared an area behind the scenes which contained an accumulation of plants which were superfluous to requirements. Gardener Ed (not everyone at Osterley is called Ed, though sometimes it does feel like they are), sent me home with three Iris germanica or Bearded Iris rhizomes. He anticipates the flowers might be white, yellow or blue. I am hoping that late next spring I shall find out if one or more of them is ‘a ridiculous blue’. In the meantime the sight of plump Agapanthus flowerheads as I approach my front door is definitely one of my daily pleasures.

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