Watch this space, I’m going to be back blogging very soon and with some exciting news too….
Watch this space, I’m going to be back blogging very soon and with some exciting news too….
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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
Whilst moving from my Somerset home to the positively foreign landscape of the east Midlands, I had to come to terms with the awkward truth that I am becoming a hoarder. Packing my home into boxes revealed that my assortment of garden-related paraphernalia goes well beyond the essential.
Included in my collection are excessive numbers of garden magazines, kept like sacred scriptures; stored in my equally hallowed memory box is a variety of show tickets and guides; then there are numerous packets of seeds, hose nozzles and connecting pieces, enough gardening gloves to be worn by a mob of octopuses, one brand new BBQ – still in its box – a library of coffee table books, posies of dried flowers and pretty floral greeting cards that I have no intention of giving to anyone.
Thankfully I know I’m not alone. A garden designer friend has a garden overflowing with memorabilia from his RHS Chelsea Flower Show career. Walking around his garden is a literal ‘walk down memory lane’ with mismatched seats and sculptures at every turn. An elderly neighbour has a barn full of perfectly weathered terracotta pots, crying out to be filled with delicate auriculas and put on display. I imagine most gardeners have their own living hoards of plants from neighbours, previous gardens, plant sales and given as presents, all doted on with particular affection.
My hoarding extends beyond the physical to the invisible online world. I’ve got virtual banks of plant photographs, from flower shows, garden visits, country walks and holidays, all fond memories and potential inspiration. I also have albums of photos with no sentimental value at all, saved purely because I aspire to make my own garden look like that one-day. Countless hours have been spent collecting these images to merely swoon over.
Perhaps gardeners make such good hoarders because we are optimists, always making plans. Keenly awaiting the first signs of spring, leafing through seed catalogues to ponder next year’s crops and stuffing sheds with things we anticipate coming in useful. Having only ever rented places to live I am busy collecting for when I eventually have a garden of my own to tend to. Until then I shall continue hoard anything that catches my eye.
Austere as the granite fortress may seem, perched on the edge of a gorge-like valley overlooking rugged countryside and bleak moorland beyond, it was never intended to defend or do battle. The highest garden owned by the National Trust, 862 feet above sea level and only completed in 1930, Castle Drogo is a modern masterpiece, and the last castle to be built in England.
I have grown up with Castle Drogo right on my doorstep. As a little girl I carried armfuls of flowers through the wood-clad corridors and watched the local flower club, which my mum belonged to, bring the house alive. Formal fireplaces were set ablaze with bold stems of scented lilies, while the kitchens were a cottage garden delight of produce and annuals. In my teens I performed in a play that told the story the Drewe family who once lived in the castle. The gardens were our stage and the moving performance wound its way down to the imposing granite entrance of the cosy castle.
The Drewe family bought the empty plot of land and gave gifted architect, Edwin Lutyens, a budget of £50,000 to build the house and £10,000 for the gardens – although the project had cost three times the original estimate by the time it was finished. Lutyens embraced the unusual brief of a Norman fantasy fortress, but made sure that the castle had all the mod cons it would need to be a snug family home. The design included a flat asphalt roof, which began to leak soon after the castle was completed and continued seeping water into the house until a major scaffolding-clad restoration project began in 2012.
Completely detached and hidden from the family home, the gardens are approached by a set of moody granite steps; flanked on either side by towering yew hedges, which are guarded by a windbreak of beech trees. With out this wall of greenery the borders would be battered by unforgiving moorland winds – the location receives an average rainfall of 45 inches every year. Anyone making their way down the long, sweeping drive would travel straight past the gardens completely oblivious. There are no entrance lodges, ornate sculptures or flawless topiary, just unruly heathland and beech trees.
Lutyens put as much effort into the gardens as the castle and with the help of knowledgeable plantsman George Dillistone, the area was divided into three separate spaces. The first room, discreetly hidden by the yew fortress, is a formal garden. A checkerboard of rose beds divides the pristine lawn, with four newly planted crab apples adding height to the lowest part of the garden. Making sure the roses are healthy is a labor-intensive job as the soil condition is poor acidic and stony. Each corner of the formal garden is punctuated with breathtaking domes of pleached Persian Ironwood (Parrotia persica ‘Pendula’) – welcome areas of cool air and shade on hot, still days and simply planted with hart’s tongue ferns (Asplenium scolopendrium) and European wild ginger (Asarum europaeum). On either side of the lawn are raised terraces with deep herbaceous borders. A path runs from one end of each terrace to the other, although instead of being a continuous line, elliptical curves allow planting to spill over the path and create a meandering walk. It is believed that the design work Lutyens did in Delhi influenced the shape of these paths.
More glittering granite steps, with twisted wisteria mirrored on either side, lead to the next level of terrace – a small fragrant garden. Again, balance is key. The long strip of terrace has two of the four Persian ironwood domes at either end. Yew forms the skeleton of this area also; two benches look back down towards the formal garden, positioned in alcoves cut from the hedge. It is clear how important shape and symmetry are in the formal garden below. Even though there are multiple levels, the strength of shape and sharp line makes it all interlock seamlessly.
The formality suddenly changes, after climbing another flight of steps, as crisp lines of the pathway disappear, blurred by the branches of Japanese maples, magnolias and azaleas. Winding woodland paths loop around the back of the shrubs where ferns and foxgloves grow side-by-side under the towering beech trees. The formal garden is a distant memory, with the boundaries of the surrounding Dartmoor National Park trying to creep into the garden. The Shrubbery is a complete contrast to the perennial-heavy formal garden; it provides a fiery display in spring and autumn when the rest of the garden taking a breather.
One last room awaits and it is possibly the boldest space in the entire castle. A final ascent of steps leads to the huge, but empty, circular croquet lawn. The simplest but most striking part of the garden, a pathway circles around the island of grass, with a loop of familiar yew hedge and beyond that the halo of beech, appearing taller than ever. The framing provided by the trees makes the sky as important as the plants themselves. The branches seem to reach up and touch the clouds, pulling the atmosphere down into the garden. For an enclosed space, the structure and size of the trees and hedging, coupled with the vastness of sky, stops the garden feeling small and understated. The simplicity of the croquet lawn never ceases to excite me whenever I visit.
The gardens at Castle Drogo are not large, especially compared to many stately homes. However, this helps them to feel more like a family space, not a statement of wealth or something boasted about whilst taking tea in the drawing room. It owes its success to three elements: beech, yew and granite– the backbone of the design, and the defense system guarding the precious microclimate. Combined with beautiful planting and enforced by inspirational line and shape, Castle Drogo is a garden that will always feel like a second home – forever welcoming me back with open arms.
Stepping 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.
Aside 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.
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.
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.
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.
A cold and frosty Saturday morning seemed like the perfect time to start feeling a bit festive and decorate our little house for Christmas. Coming from a family of florists, I realised that I had no excuse not to make my own decorations. Having spent many hours watching my mum turn cut stems gathered from the garden into beautiful arrangements, it was now my turn to give it a go. After an hour or so collecting berries and branches from the fields surrounding my home, I was ready to start. Here’s how I did it: ONE. Gather your materials. Evergreen plants, seed heads and berries are ideal for a seasonal wreath. I literally collected anything I liked the look of. I had far too much for a wreath, however whatever was left I knew I could use to make other decorations or simply put in a vase. Some of the plants I collected were: Ivy, Hawthorn berries, Travellers Joy seed heads, Larch cones, Rosehip berries, conifer and fir. TWO. Make the base. I used long stands of Ivy, which I bound together with wire, to make a base to build the wreath on. The ring perhaps wasn’t as rigid as I would have liked, something like Willow would have made a stronger frame. I used galvanised gardeners wire to bind the wreath together. THREE. Start wiring. Cut small pieces of your chosen material and start wiring them to the ring. I had decided that I wanted my wreath to have a definite top and bottom, so I started by wiring part of the bottom section so I knew where the top would be. The wiring is quite hard work on your hands, as it needs to be as tight as possible! FOUR. Building up the layers. After wiring a bottom section I actually moved up to the top of the wreath and started layering pieces back down toward the bottom again. This meant that I was always covering up my last wired section with a new bit of greenery and all the foliage would be pointing upwards. I used Nordman fir for the majority of the wreath, occasionally adding Ivy, berries or seed heads to add interest. FIVE. Adding extra bits. Once reaching the bottom of the wreath I went back up to the top again and did exactly the same on the other side. After that I wired lots of extra Travellers Joy seed heads to the bottom of the wreath to make a focal point. SIX. Balancing the shape. At this point I probably could have stopped, however I felt like the wreath was still missing a few finishing touches. As a lot if the focus was at the bottom of the wreath I used some brown gardeners string to bind some beautiful berries into the top part of the wreath. I felt that it balanced the overall appearance and also added a more rustic element by breaking the circular shape of the wreath. Having the block of string at the top also meant I could incorporate a loop for hanging it up. SEVEN. Finishing touches. Every wreath needs a bit of sparkle, so I twisted wire around the bases of pinecones and sprayed them silver before wiring them into the foliage. EIGHT. The final flourish. To complete my festive decoration I made a large raffia bow and tied it in place. I then hung my wreath up, stood back and admired the lovely collection of foliage, berries, colours and textures I had married together on a frosty Saturday morning. LEFTOVERS. As I had hoped, I had quite a lot left over once I had finished my wreath. I made a very simple length of swag by wiring together conifer branches and long tendrils of ivy. Then attaching seed heads of Travellers Joy with raffia bows. Simple, but effective. There is something so lovely about bringing greenery inside at Christmas time.
It’s funny how the simplest of things can transport our nostalgic memories back to our childhood and in a matter of seconds we have gone back in time all just from a taste, smell, place or object.
When I visited Rousham Gardens, I found myself fondly recalling countless hours spent playing in water. Whether pointlessly collecting broken china from a neighbour’s stream, building dams in rivers or exploring the bed of an empty reservoir. There is something about water that brings out our playful inner explorers!
Water is definitely a prominent feature at Rousham. Created by William Kent in the 18th Century, the gardens are unaltered, making them the purest example of the English Landscape gardening style. It’s easy to forget that what appears to be a very natural parkland with rolling lawns and huge trees, was in fact all carefully planned, to make the most of views and really heighten our expectation and surprise as we explore.
The garden is full of amazing, grand classical buildings and sculptures, which really did blow me away with their size and craftsmanship. They are anything but dainty. In fact, the whole garden has a huge presence that overshadows the very beautiful house, even though the majority of the garden is tucked away.
My favourite part of the garden absolutely had to be the rill leading to the Cold Bath. The rill winds its way through a simple piece of woodland, flanked by laurel, to a crystal-clear, octagonal cold bath. The idea of an octagonal shape in the garden sounds quite strange, however it just seemed to sit so perfectly with in the setting. The rill and bath is Grade II listed and is the earliest example of the Rococo theory, ‘Line of Beauty’ being applied in Garden Design. Line of Beauty is a term that describes an S-shaped curved line. The theory behind it is that curved lines create a liveliness and excitement that attracts attention, where as straight lines signify inanimate objects and more dramatically, death. Funnily enough, it was as I skipped back and forth either side of the winding rill that I had my nostalgic moment. It was a very quiet day, I was genuinely skipping and knew nothing about the ‘Line of Beauty’ theory at the time!
A separate walled garden, much closer to the house, has a large fruit and vegetable garden, box parterres, a dovecote and long herbaceous borders, including one dazzling border of just dahlias. It is also where you will find all these various pictured doorways and archways, which could not be more charming.
Rousham has definitely escaped the 21st century and remains a quiet and unspoilt place with plenty of hidden corners and meandering pathways to tempt your inner child.
Visited September 2014