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’.

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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: 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: 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.

BBC Gardener’s World Live Day 2 & 3

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My second day on site and I was joined by fellow Academy student, Adam. After leveling out the soil in the border, we sorted through all of the plants, picking off dead flowers, leaves and the odd rogue weed.

As we worked though the plants I decided to start placing a few in the border. Starting with the tall white-flowered Primulas, which needed to be positioned so the willow trees shaded them from the strong afternoon sun. After that I moved onto the low planting around the stepping-stones, trying to make the plants flow between the mosaics.

To begin with it was quite easy to place the plants, but as the border filled I had to start shuffling them around to avoid having blocks of one particular type. I knew I wanted the border to look informal with soft drifts of blue and white flowers and eventually after some experimentation I started to achieve the look I was after.

The sun shone for most of the day and by the late afternoon the plants were in place. We then walked away from the border and returned a while later to scrutinize each plant, circling the border numerous times to check the flow and composition. It was hard to know if they were in exactly the right place, especially with the plants sitting on the soil in their pots. So Adam made the decision and we began! It was great to start putting some plants in the ground and at the end of the day I was really happy with what we had achieved. I can’t believe the border is actually beginning to look like the design I had imagined.

Adam showing off his border design

Day three on site, the final full day of working on my Beautiful Border. Owen joined me today to help complete the planting and brought delicious, homemade edible treats to fuel our day! We continued with planting, having to work in harmony with the bees, who did not care that I needed to get the plants in the ground before judging on Wednesday. Owen and I both agreed it was lovely to spend time doing some gardening, even if in quite an unusual setting.

I was animated when the final plant was tucked into the border, only to then find another I had missed whilst watering later in the afternoon. So I got the satisfaction of planting the final plant a second time too. In fact, I then filled another gap with a cornflower, so that’s three huge sighs of relief!

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I was so pleased to have the planting finished in really good time, I had been having visions of hurriedly stuffing plants into the border right up until the deadline. This meant that there was plenty of time to titivate (a word which has been thoroughly over-used the last few days), water and put down the bark mulch between the stepping-stones. My original plan had been to leave the protective plastic on the mosaics until Wednesday morning, but once the mulch was down I lost patience and had to reveal them. They need a wash, but even in their slightly muddy state I think they added another level of detail to the border.

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I have loved the BBC Gardener’s World Live build. It has had a completely different atmosphere to the Chelsea build, a lot calmer and that has definitely kept any last minute stress at bay. I have obviously loved being able to create a design that I imagined and am a combination of relieved and sad that it is complete. However, I am really excited about talking to visitors once the show opens and hopefully giving them some inspiration to take home. I am really proud of what I have achieved.

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

The Urban Retreat in photos

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Now that the Chelsea Flower Show is over, it is sad to think that photos are the only means we have to revisit so many beautiful gardens. I hope I have taken enough to remember all of the little details that intrigued and fascinated me, especially in our garden. The texture of intense green leaves again the coarse rusty steel. The contrast of shapes throughout the garden; bold collections of circles sitting within linear boundaries of concrete and the way the building perfectly framed the jungle-planting behind. Watching bees appear from nowhere and make the garden their temporary home, and the spicy, sweet smell of cedar. One benefit is that I can spend as long as I want looking at each photo, studying the layers of planting or the sun through the petals of the Iris. They flatten the busy real-life scene into a one-layered image and really allow the garden to be fully appreciated as a whole.

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RHS Chelsea Flower Show Part 2 – The Planting

CP5I returned to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show last week to experience four days of planting. The garden had altered dramatically since I was last at SW3, even though I had only been away for a couple of days! A fortress of plant trolleys guarded the developing design. Two-deep and surrounding the two open sides of the garden, uniformed rows of solider-like plants were ready and waiting to create wildlife friendly borders.

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CP4Come rain or shine a small team of people worked tirelessly to recreate Adam’s vision of the planting. To begin with I found it hard to imagine how the completed scheme would look, but suddenly the puzzle pieces all locked together and the drifts of tall spires naturally flowed between borders. The bees began taking full advantage of the beautiful blooms, especially the nodding bonnets of the Aquilegia and the striking bursts of orange Geums. The garden has three distinct areas of planting. At the front of the garden three long rectangular beds overflow with bright, soft herbaceous plants. On the roof of the architectural Bauhaus building square corten planters are filled with wildflower turf, a perfect place for a cedar-wood beehive. Finally, at the back of garden is the jungle, where lush Tree Ferns, Hostas and Euphorbias weave their way between smooth concrete stepping-stones. I love this secret area, which takes complete advantage of a shady aspect enclosed by tall Yew hedges.

As the design drew closer to completion we had to dance our way around the garden (and one another) trying not to get the concrete or cedar dirty. Our efforts at trying to keep the walkways clean and mud-free were dampened on Thursday, when torrential rain poured down on the show ground all day. Cups of tea became hand warmers, as well as fuel to keep us going and I realised how lucky we have been to have so many dry days.

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CP2The areas of turf were one of the last things to be completed. All the Chelsea gardens have pristine lawns, which are laid around the perimeter of the design, like putting a frame around a painting. Although, I have noticed that Adam’s garden is one of the only ones on Main Avenue to have a ‘proper’ lawn included with in the design. Perhaps lawns are not very fashionable anymore, however there is nothing nicer than spreading a blanket on the grass on a hot day and lying in the sun. The fresh blades of grass are like the punctuation between the overflowing borders and the crisp pools of water and I think they both soften and accentuate the framework of concrete copings.

CP1I have spent over 130 hours on site, with a diet consisting mostly of tea and takeaways. I knew that I would learn lots of new skills, especially having never experienced a garden being constructed before. Although, I had no idea about the variety of different things I would get to do. There are definitely lots of less obvious things that I have gained too, including an awful lot of patience and a keen new eye for attention to detail. I have heard a lot of people saying that it is not a competition between you and your neighbour; it is a competition with yourself. They are completely right. When you are soaked through to your skin with little sleep, probably smelling pretty unattractive and covered in more dirt than just one shower will wash off, you need to dig deep and find your own momentum to keep going.