The hiatus is almost over…

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Watch this space, I’m going to be back blogging very soon and with some exciting news too….

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Plants: Dog rose

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When the rigid days of summer begin to slouch, someone flicks a switch and the bounty of autumn is everywhere. The countryside becomes a squally mess of exhausted hedgerows, their aching limbs laden with fruit. Bunches of berries cover the hawthorn’s branches, lasting into the colder months long after the leaves have fallen. Others don’t keep; the smell of rotting apples lingers, and deceptive blackberries still appear ripe until the fruit is touched and turns to a sodden pulp.

Strings of rose hips hang like plump fairy lights. Draped over branches for support, the hips glow red and orange. They are filled with many small seeds, each one covered with a head of fine hairs – so minute they make a fantastic itching powder. Guarding the tempting fruits is a tangle of stems with tooth-like thorns. These are where the dog rose gets its name. Their bite could certainly rival any terrier’s canine. Other stories say it was a good medicine to treat rabid dog bites, or that it was originally named ‘dag’ rose after the dagger-like thorns.

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From late May to July, long before the pitter-patter of falling leaves, the thorns are blunted by a mass of blushing flowers. Each lightly scented bloom is neatly arranged of five confetti pink, heart-shaped petals. Harvested and used to make syrup or rose water, their floral flavour evokes an Eastern feast of exotic spices and sticky puddings. Both are simple to make; gathering the quantity of petals needed is the only difficulty.

The fat hips are also good in the kitchen and contain 20 times as much vitamin C as oranges. During World War Two when citrus fruits could not be imported, the government encouraged people to gather hips as an alternative. They make a fantastic sweet preserve, perfect for spreading on a Sunday afternoon crumpet, while a syrup of the fruits has long been used to treat the common cold. A fine excuse for a spoonful of bright red, warming and sickly ‘medicine’.

In the garden

Another theory for its name is ‘dog’ meaning worthless, presumably in comparison to cultivated roses. It is the rebellious sibling in the family, but shouldn’t be dismissed from the garden entirely. Its tough, vigorous nature (and thorny barrier) makes it ideal as a hedging plant, robust-enough for coastal locations, and tolerant of poor soil.

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The sprawling silver stems make this briar more suited to informal gardens. It has a natural familiarity and is perfect for wildlife-friendly gardens, as well as blurring the boundaries between our tended borders and nature beyond. At The Courts Garden near Bradford on Avon it is used with an unusual twist, or perhaps a happy accident. Planted in long rectangular borders, the nodding branches of thorns and berries skulk between billowing Nepeta and mounds of Stipa tenuissima.

Growing to more than 3m (10ft) the dog rose does need space to stretch. In rural locations along tunnels of wiry undergrowth, it is clear this native briar thrives rooting around a maze of rabbit warrens and badger runs. Relying on the support of its neighbours, yet fighting for the biggest autumn crop is the endurance the dog rose revels in from one season to the next.

Places: The Beth Chatto Gardens

After such a long hiatus (take a look at my Published work to see what I’ve been up to), I couldn’t help but write about a long awaited trip to a very special garden.

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Stood with in earshot of the A120, and less than 15 minutes from the centre of Colchester, it is difficult to imagine that a garden could so easily transport you away from the present moment. And yet among the island beds of Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden, I could have been stood in the mountainous foothills where she found inspiration.

The Gravel Garden was started in 1991, converting 0.35ha (¾ acre) of parched grass car park into a new garden. Faced with low average annual rainfall and poor quality, heavily compacted soil there was uncertainty about whether anything would ever grow. However, instead of despairing at the conditions Beth used these to her advantage. This included taking into consideration the changing weather patterns, with hotter, dryer summers and milder winters.

By early spring 1992 the first plants started to fill dry riverbed-inspired design. Beth used hosepipes to define the beds, creating two long outer borders with a series of sinuous island beds between. The pathways looped their way around the garden with no formal direction or shape.

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Bergenia and Poa labillardieri (left); Allium sphaerocephalon (right)

Every plant was dunked in a bucket of water until saturated, planted and watered again, after that only Mother Nature would provide further watering. To begin with Beth experimented with plants that grew wild in countries bordering the Mediterranean; tolerating free-draining soil and dry summers. She knew that not every plant would be able to cope with the irrigation-free conditions and at the end of the first summer wrote: ‘Not all plants will be successful, some may die, other may prove unsuitable, or simply it may be I won’t like the effect, or the way one thing smothers out another.’

Exploring the borders

In a dry, gravel-covered garden, especially on a hot summer’s day, the atmosphere could have felt arid. However, the Gravel Garden is anything but. The planting is abundant and vivid, combining herbaceous stalwarts with unusual neighbours. Swathes of purple and silver, including Allium sphaerocephalon, Eryngium giganteum and Verbena bonariensis mix with airy grasses, such as Stipa tenuissima and S. gigantea. The planting is a magnet for wildlife too, with pollinators hopping between blooms and birds taking cover in the plants.

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Sedum telephium (Atropurpureum Group) ‘Karfunkelstein’; Verbena officinalis var. grandiflora ‘Bampton’; Origanum laevigatum

Many of us are driven by colour when we garden, but in the Gravel Garden dramatic combinations of texture and shape are the main focus – even in the height of summer. At the edge of one bed the almost succulent leaves of Bergenia, with their stout, upright stems of flowers are set against a background of the fine billowing New Zealand blue grass, Poa labillardierei.

Elsewhere, Verbascum bombyciferum seeds freely around the garden. As a biennial, the silvery leaves create architectural rosettes, before throwing up triffid-like spires of yellow flowers that tower over the borders. The rosettes, which almost look like a Sempervivum on steroids, are such a contrast to the surrounding plants, including the strap leaves and arching blue heads of Agapanthus, and delicate, scented Origanium. Somehow everything is harmonious, yet the considered planting design means that every border is punctuated by a glut of shape and texture.

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Verbascum bombyciferum

With such a varied and rich use of plants, the gravel plays an important role in keeping the whole area securely linked together. Although the borders and pathways have clear definition, the sea of gravel that creeps between the spreading plants softens any hint of a line.

In many ways the Gravel Garden doesn’t feel like a garden at all. It is an ongoing plant study, living art installation, nod towards our changing climate and sickening proof that so many of us could spend less time watering. If the ‘right plant, right place’ adage needed a mascot the Gravel Garden would surely be it. Flaunting the rules of planting may seem like fun, but if following them can create a garden as beautiful as Beth’s then I’m happy to oblige.

Photos taken: early August 2016


Visit The Beth Chatto Gardens website for more information.

 

Places: Anglesey Abbey

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It often feels like the period between New Year and the end of January is a gardening void. Pre-Christmas, winter-interest shrubs and frosty scenes on greetings cards are prominent. Then once Christmas and New Year have gone, and we are well and truly fed-up with tinsel and turkey, there is a lull. At this point I am desperate to get excited about the approaching seasons, but they still feel far away.

However, a sunny cold day is the perfect chance to get outside and explore other gardens. I love to see the uncluttered bones of a design and although I miss busy summer borders, the bare stems of winter can be just as attractive. The purpose-designed Winter Garden at Anglesey Abbey, just north of Cambridge, is no exception. In 1996 the modest garden was created in the 114 acres of parkland, and 20 years later it is at its peak.

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Looking at the estate map the garden looks small and narrow, especially in comparison to the rest of the vast estate. However, the Winter Garden is anything but. Measuring 20m wide by 350m long, the design is simple but maximum impact. Two long borders run the length of the walk, divided by a gently curving serpentine path – with just enough bend to obscure the view around the next corner. Trees have also been planted on the curve of the path, breaking the perspective and adding height.

Clever planting helps to make walking down the single path an enticing journey. The planting is bold, with confident blocks used to heighten the impact of winter colours, textures and scents. Cornus sanguinea ‘Winter Beauty’ is planted en-masse, the fiery stems licking the edges of the path. Nearby a sea of Sarcococca is in bud, ready to fill the air with a beautiful sweet scent, while pollarded Salix erupt through the evergreen foliage.

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Varigated Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald Gaiety’ is used liberally and pruned to keep the shrub as a frothy lower layer. Under planted around winter flowering Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ and contrasting against the toasted bark of Acer griseum.

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The chalky, distressed stems of Rubus have space to roam down the borders. Below the thorny arms is an array of emerging spring bulbs. Early snowdrops are upright and blooming, while daffodils are still developing; even some unseasonally early Iris’ are braving the cold. Other flowering winter gems include many forms of hellebore and the yellow ribbon-like flowers of Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Barmstedt Gold’.

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The planting scheme in the Winter Garden may be big and bold, but the combinations could easily be scaled down to suit a smaller garden or border. Even at the end of the meandering path the spectacular ghostly grove of Betula utilis var. jacquemontii could be recreated with just one specimen tree taking the focus. Thank goodness winter gardens aren’t just for Christmas.

Visited: 10 January 2016

Gardener’s World Live – Day 1

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A couple of hours up the motorway and I was united with my border. It’s funny that I have spent the last month or two thinking and organising my 3×3 meters plot, yet I could not quite imagine what it would look like until I arrived. It definitely feels a lot bigger than just 3×3 meters and I did not realise it was going to slope quite so much, however once filled with plants it will be a lot less noticeable. Plus, I’m hoping the gradient might work in my favor, giving more height and depth.

The first thing that had to be positioned were the stepping-stones, once they had been laid I was able to play around with where to put the three willows. I really wanted to get them planted by the end of the day, so that I can look at them with fresh eyes tomorrow morning and make sure they really are in the right places. Representing the chimneys of bottle oven kilns, I hope that the way I’ve staggered them will echo the many layers of kilns that would have once dominated the West Midlands’ skyline. The balls of foliage should hopefully provide some light shade, meaning I can have a bigger variety of plants in the border.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was good to see the plants again today, even though I only last saw them on Friday! I had been worrying about whether I had made the right choices over the weekend. However, by the time I had unloaded them all off the trolleys and placed them in the shade, I thought they looked like they might work well together.

I’m really excited about making a start on the planting tomorrow. It is a little terrifying that I don’t have a concrete plan to work from, but I’m excited to see what I can create.

BBC Gardener’s World Live – A confession

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Wrapped and ready to go

I cannot start work on my Beautiful Border soon enough. Even though a large part of me just wants to be at home in sunny Somerset and celebrate my first sweet pea flowers opening, if I worry about how I’m going to place my plants for many more days I will be grey-haired by the time the show opens.

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I’ve been appearing here, there and everywhere.

Yesterday I visited New Forest nursery to select the plants I will be using in the border. Everyone was hugely helpful and even more patient as I wondered back and forth between row upon row of plants, trying to make firm decisions. I am really happy that the plants are now sorted and I have got some beautiful things, but it was hard. There was no one there to hold my hand and it felt weird that I just had to make my mind up.

So, having previously spent my time worrying about not having any plants, I am now worrying about the plants I do have and I am feeling a bit embarrassed.

Is a public show really the best place to bring my first ever planting design to life?

I should have probably done something behind closed doors first, with out prowling TV presenters and judges with clipboards to look at what I’m doing. I have plenty of books about planting design and I have spent far too many hours adding hundreds of garden photos to my Pinterest account, but nothing compares with practice and experience.

Trying to think a bit more positively, if I can, for want of a better phrase, ‘pull it off’, then it hopefully proves that anyone who wants to have a go at designing his or her own border absolutely must give it a try. However, unless they want some added pressure, maybe in the familiar surroundings of their own home first.

Today I have been packing the van with everything from tea to topsoil and then tomorrow morning I am off to the NEC to start work on my blank canvas. I’m wondering when it’s going to sink in that I’m actually bringing my design to life, hopefully sometime in the next 24hours…

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Not everyone is quite so worried

Show Garden Update – April

Probably about time I did an update about my forthcoming show garden!

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I think everything is starting to take shape. I’m trying to get as much done as soon as I can, just in case any unexpected problems arise – quite possible considering I am feeling my way through the whole process. Whenever I sit down to spend some time planning one particular aspect, I usually realise I have at least four other things to plan before I can finish what I started.

I’ve been busy making final decisions about the number of plants I’m going to need. Probably over 200. The tree for the border has almost been finalised. Finding a mature pollarded willow has been difficult, so instead I have opted for three Salix that have been woven into bold living columns. Their shape is reminiscent of the chimneys of bottle oven kilns, which would have dominated the industrial skyline. Standing like living monuments to the pottery industry and the world-famous willow pattern.

I have started designing my mosaic stepping-stones and have a good collection of blue and white ceramics to use. Found in charity shops and boxes of plates that never made it into our cupboards, they are so lovely I feel guilty about breaking them. Imagine if one of them was a priceless heirloom and I take a hammer to it!

Juggling working full-time and trying to organise my border is a little tricky. I could easily spend all my time deliberating over the planting plan or the design of my leaflet, so perhaps it’s a good thing that lack of time will make me more focused. Fingers crossed the completed garden will look like the image I have in my head.

Growing aplines, the new un-cool cool thing to do?

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There is something quite fascinating about alpines. Robust little rock plants with jewel-like flowers that look like they have arrived from another planet. Their rugged-exotic appearance makes them look unpredictable and hard to grow. However, mainly originating from cool mountainous regions, they are very suited to our climate and make great plants for containers or small gardens.

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The other day I visited an alpine show. The room was filled with admiring ‘oos’ and ‘ahhs’, as crowds of people all cradling cameras, huddled around tables trying to get the perfect photo of a delicate mass of tiny yellow flowers. It was great to see so many people, however I don’t think my presence did much to alter the average age of the shuffling crowd. It struck me that growing alpines probably isn’t very ‘cool’, but why not? It’s definitely alternative and if you are a fashionable, twenty-something living in a studio flat in London, some vintage terracotta pots with curious-looking plants would certainly make a good talking point. Not to mention an awesome Instagram subject. Perhaps growing alpines is the answer that all of us un-cool folk have been looking for?

 

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The alpine growers of the future? Cool guy from http://come2england.com/hipster-london/

 

With that in mind, here are some tips about why we should all grow alpines and hopefully, why it should make us all a little bit cooler…

  • Alpines are often thought of as plants that grow ‘above the tree-line’, however anything small and hardy can be an alpine, like conifers or cacti.
  • I’ve seen that cool people like to put flowers in their beards and hair; alpine flowers are the perfect size for accessorising one’s facial features. The flowers come in a multitude of different shapes and colours.

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  • Nothing says ‘trendy-without-trying’ like someone who is well travelled. Rock plants come from every corner of the globe and are simple way to bring the rest of the world to your garden with out going anywhere. You could even pretend to have been soul-searching whilst staying in a boutique mountain retreat where your alpine grows.
  • Alpines can be planted at any time of year in unfrozen soil. Although the best time to plant them is March and April.
  • If the thought of gardening is a little daunting, something like a small rock garden in a bowl is a great way to get started and also a great way to get kids growing too.
  • Do your bit to save the planet. There are lots of alpines from southern Europe and further afield that are drought-resistant and once established will happily grow and flower with little water. Really useful if you just forget to look after your plants or live in a hosepipe ban area.

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  • Spend a long time maintaining your appearance so that you look like you don’t care about your appearance? Alpines genuinely don’t need much maintenance at all and they still look great.
  • A single alpine looks lovely in a statement container. A perfect excuse to go rummaging in thrifty little shops or grab a bargain at your local street market. Just make sure that the container has good drainage.
  • The following plants all have alpine varieties, are easy to grow and could be your unique new DJ name: Aubrieta, Crepis, Ranunculus, Thymus, Sempervivum, Sedum or Erinus.

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  • There is also a huge range of alpine bulbs, a lot of them flower in the spring when there aren’t many other plants growing. Great bulbs to start with would be Crocus, Fritillaria, Narcissus or Tulipa.
  • Remember how at university all the cool people would join the obscure clubs, like the ‘Tea-drinking Society’ or the ‘Human vs. Zombies Society’? Alpine-lovers can join the AGS (Alpine Gardens Society) who hold loads of events, local meetings, plant sales and seed exchanges.

Take a look at the AGS website for loads more infomation about growing alpines: http://www.alpinegardensociety.net

Exploring the explorers: Do we still need Plant Hunters?

planthunting2Stepping foot on the soil of an unknown terrain, a land so different from the lush grass of home. Hundreds of questions cross your mind. What dangers will you face? Will the locals be willing to help? Will you even find anything to take home? Forcing doubt to the back of your mind and focusing on your motivations; a thirst for knowledge, love of plants and desire to uncover the unknown. Exhaling deeply, you press on, who knows what undiscovered plants wait in the next valley.

Whether during the age of colonial Britain or the Post-Imperial world, the motivations of a plant hunter have remained the same. Their passion forms the foundations of why planting hunting is still hugely relevant in the 21st Century and arguably even more important than ever.

Tens of thousands of plants are yet to be discovered. As a result, there are still numerous opportunities for Scientists to research and understand global biodiversity, with newly discovered plants often providing the ‘missing links’ to evolutionary questions. As well as discovering new plants, there is also a rare, but completely feasible possibility, that plant hunters can unearth plants thought to be extinct. They can then be reintroduced into their natural habitat and also grown in more controlled environments to ensure they are not lost again.

planthunting1Aside from Science, there are reasons much closer to home as to why plant hunting is still relevant. Enthusiastic gardeners create demand for new plants. Whether it is something exotic in appearance or an unusual variety of a more commonly known plant. Nothing excites a gardener more than the somewhat romantic notion that a particular plant originates from a far-flung country, yet it can still be grown in our own gardens.

Another benefit planting hunting provides to gardeners is the opportunity to obtain plants that have been improved through breeding. A new plant cultivar found in the wild might offer a better disease resistance or be more drought tolerant. These qualities can then be bred into existing varieties, creating a more sought-after plant. This is especially true with the increasing presence of climate change, gardeners will not stop wanting beautiful flowers and foliage to fill their gardens, however, the plants will need to alter to suit our changing climate.

Climate change, plus the destruction of natural habitats creates the need for conservation. This is the key reason why plant hunters are still relevant in the Post-Imperial world. Kew indicates that 22% of plant species already face the threat of extinction, a figure that already sounds too high. Unfortunately, many of the countries where threatened plants grow cannot put the time, money or resources into making sure they are safe from extinction. Therefore, plant hunting becomes hugely important as a means of bringing plants back to specialist nurseries where they can be cultivated. Growers can then sell these plants onto the eager gardener, meaning we can all do a little bit to help keep rare plants and plant hunting alive.

Searching for Spring

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Clockwise from Top: Shoo-fly seed case, Camellia buds, Rhododendron bud

January can often feel like a very bleak month. The excitement of Christmas and New Year has past and the grasp of winter can really take hold. Even my pots of winter bedding seem to have given up trying to look nice. A roaring fire, cup of tea and a good gardening magazine are my comforting companions, transporting me to dry, warm days spent outside with a trowel in hand.

I always feel that as soon as the New Year begins that spring should too, but realistically it is still many weeks away. However, take a closer look at the garden and you can find spring. Not yet bursting forth in all it’s vibrant glory, just progressing steadily in the background and waiting for the right moment to take us by surprise.

As well as the first signs of spring, there are also the final hints of the previous autumn. Beautiful seed heads are a last reminder of borders overflowing with plants in summer. The lantern-shaped pendants of the Shoo-fly plant, Nicandra physalodes, looked beautiful in the winter sun. Their papery shells would be blown away if a multitude of veins weren’t holding them together.

Camellias and Rhododendrons have been quietly developing their plump flower buds all winter and clusters of catkins hang like tails from branches. Incidentally, Catkin comes from an old Dutch word katteken, meaning kitten, on account of the flowers looking like a kitten’s tail.

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Clockwise from Top Left: Shoo-fly seed case, Catkins, Cyclamen leaves, Mahonia berries

The dull light of winter is repainted with a palette of dazzling yellows in spring. The delicate heads of the Mahonia are the first strokes of paint that can liven up any garden in winter. The berries that follow, first lime green then turning to deep purple, sit like a crown above the almost prehistoric looking leaves.

It was a lovely surprise to see a Primrose flowering so early in the hedgerow; a very telling sign that it has been a mild winter so far. Nothing says spring like Primroses, or in medieval Latin prima rosa, meaning ‘first rose’. Especially when they carpet a whole bank or hedgerow. Although they are frequently seen in abundance, Primroses are actually protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act. This means it is illegal to pick or remove a Primrose from the wild.

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Clockwise from Top Left: Mahonia flower, Primerose, Winter Clematis, Winter Heather

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Clockwise from Top Left: Robin Redbreast, Mahonia, Spring bulbs

The flowers of Winter Heathers seem to go on and on, creating a gorgeous blanket of lipstick shades. More subtle flowers can be found on wintering flowering Clematis, Clematis cirrhosa. The dainty bell-shaped flowers look so delicate you would think they should be growing in the cozy warmth of a greenhouse, not outside facing the harsh winter weather. Each petal has a light smattering of freckles, although some varieties having so many their petals are almost pink. It is very uplifting to see their graceful flowers in the middle of winter and will definitely keep a gardener’s spirts lifted, whilst they dream about the warmer months and patiently wait for their spring bulbs to flower.