Cherished Collections

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When gardeners aren’t outside planting, digging or sowing they are busy hoarding to their heart’s content

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.

 

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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.

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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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.

Places – Rousham Gardens, nr Oxford

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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

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

PLACES: Piet Oudolf @ Hauser & Wirth

 

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Layers and layers of planting

I couldn’t quite believe it when I found out that one of Piet Ouldolf’s newest garden designs was a stone’s throw away in the quaint village of Bruton, Somerset. The renowned designer and plantsman has worked on some truly incredible projects, from The High Line in New York to the Serpentine Gallery, London. A leading figure (he basically invented it) of the New Perennial movement, his design style is effortless, natural and unlike any other. For many designers he is someone to idolise and aspire to.

The garden in question, at Hauser & Wirth gallery, has been planted with no less than 25,000 plants! All carefully placed around the modest 1.5-acre site. It is a perfect example of the New Perennial movement, layered swathes of grasses and herbaceous perennials with sinuous pathways that guide you around the space. I wish there had been places to sit with in the garden. With out places to pause it felt like I was on a conveyer belt, being slowly led around the garden with all the other visitors. However, it was still a delight. Each turn created a completely new perspective of the garden and a new collection of plants layered together.

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Looking up the garden from the gallery

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A small selection of key plants

Alongside the garden there is an exhibition of Oudolf’s planting plans, an insight into how he creates and develops his signature style of planting. They are definitely worth seeing and a great reminder (particularly for me) that it is best not to be too precious about your work. If something needs changing, grab a pen and change it!

What also interested me, as I walked around the gallery of felt-tip pen planting plans, was this idea of gardens as art. To go and visit an art gallery to appreciate scribbles and lines on tracing paper. It is probably a subject with no perfect answer; I definitely don’t know where I stand. However, it did make me wonder whether placing garden design in hushed, whitewashed rooms would unlock horticulture to new audiences. Does linking gardening and contemporary art make it appear youthful and trendy? Or does it just raise Garden Design up another step higher on the social ladder?

I could probably dedicate an entire blog to debating the subject and perhaps still end up with no definitive answer. If you like art, wear those peculiarly cool-but-oversized-glasses and haven’t heard of Piet Oudolf then the exhibition is probably a good thing. If you are a 16-year-old school leaver with a slight interest in horticulture, but you don’t know how to pursue it, then a pretentious art gallery probably isn’t for you.

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Perfect colours even in the dull weather

It’s hard to end a post when I cannot even come to a conclusion with myself. Promoting garden design and horticulture in new and unique ways is obviously a good thing. However, I hope garden design never looses sight of the dirt under its nails.

Not forgetting Piet Oudolf and his marvellous new garden, here is a lovely and rather apt quotation from his book Designing with Plants. ‘In the same way that a painter works with a palette of coloured pigments, so the garden designer can select what plants to use from the palette of plants’.