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.

 

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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.

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

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.   

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