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.

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Places: A Secret Garden

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Autumn highlights…

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Of all the seasons autumn seems to be the most fleeting. Like a horticultural firework display, the sudden explosion of colour lights up the garden, but one stormy night is all it takes to blow away the season.  The noticeably shorter days and the weather reaching its climax of unpredictability, makes any opportunity to get outside a real treat. It’s a great time to walk around just looking and marveling at nature’s last hurrah for the year. A dazzling display of fiery colours to recall during the colder months.

Whilst at Barnsdale with the Homebase Garden Academy last week, I had the perfect opportunity to capture all the fantastic autumn colour around the garden. Here are some of my favourites:

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It is a difficult decision, however I think autumn in my favourite season. (At least it is at the moment)!

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The ‘Town Paradise’ Garden

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So many layers of colour