What’s in a name?

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Gladioli murielae or acidanthera

Gladiolus murielae or acidanthera

There was a time when plant names were long-winded descriptions of a plant’s most notable features or vernacular monikers which might have only been recognized in a small geographic area. Some native plants have, as a result, a remarkable number of names by which they could be known. Arum maculatum or lords and ladies has, according to Richard Mabey in Flora Britannica, another nine common names including ‘Parson in the pulpit’ and ‘Willy lily’. Even over five hundred years ago, when discussing and writing about plants was limited generally to a select few, these methods must have been incredibly tiresome and not at all foolproof ways of identifying plants. Casper Bauhin (1560-1624) was one of the first scientists to devise a more structured way of identifying plants by giving them two names, but it wasn’t until the 18th century that Carl Linnaeus took the idea and ran with it. He set about the task of classifying all living creatures, now known as taxonomy, and giving them a genus and a species name in Latin, a bit like our surname and Christian name.

There’s no doubt his system has been incredibly useful. If we just relied on common names confusion would be widespread. For instance, in Scotland a plane tree refers to the sycamore or Acer pseudoplatanus, in England the plane tree generally means the London plane tree or Platanus x acerfoila but in North America their own native plane tree Platanus occidentalis is commonly known as the plane or sycamore. And, grouping plants together based on shared characteristics has many benefits, from knowing the sort of habitats plants might share to similar chemical compounds which could be useful when creating medicines.

Latin was always the language of science, universally recognised and accepted, and this has allowed scientists, botanists and horticulturalists to share knowledge and plants without the encumbrances of language barriers. However the system is by no means perfect. Whilst Latin may have been embraced by scientists us gardeners haven’t been quite so enthusiastic. So many of us are put off by Latin names as if they hold some mystical quality about them that means the Latin is only for academics. If you do use the Latin there’s always a worry you’ll sound pretentious or you simply won’t be able to get your tongue around the words. I still can’t pronounce the grass anemanthele (pheasant’s tail grass) without sounding as if I’m trying to teach it to a five-year-old by breaking it down into syllables. And then, just when you think you have mastered the names of the plants in your garden, groups of botanists go and change them to something else. The subject of name changes came up last week with Christina over at My Hesperides and she suggested we should both write posts on the subject.

Jacobaea maritima, Senecio cineraria or dusty miller

Jacobaea maritima, Senecio cineraria or dusty miller

The ‘Rule of Priority’ is one reason for name changes. Hostas were first named as such in 1812 after the Austrian botanist Nicholas Host but five years later they were renamed funkia after Heinrich Funk. Right through Victorian Britain they were known as funkias, but in 1905 under the ‘rule of priority’, which states that a plant must be known by the earliest published name, the name hosta was reinstated.

Most name changes which are occurring now are due to improved scientific research and the desire to categorize plants based on genetic information rather than the opinion of individual botanists. In the past, plants were grouped together generally on the basis of shared visual characteristics of the plant, seeds and how the plant reproduced. Botanists are now reclassifying many plants as improvements in microscopy, biochemistry and genetic research improve the understanding of how plants evolved and relate to each other.

It has been only in the last year or so that I have become aware of just how important a regulated and agreed universal system of botanical names actually is. Writing a book which will be sold in other countries has certainly opened my eyes to the complexities of plant naming and the importance of people knowing which plant you are referring to. Despite the Latin system it’s surprising how many plants are still known more readily by a common name, sometimes this can be complicated further by some names being used only in particular countries. Then, of course, there are some plants which have no common name and the Latin is the only way we know the plant. What we’ve ended up with is a remarkably confusing situation which has been complicated further in recent years with the advent of DNA research. For instance, the silver-leafed plant Senecio cineraria more commonly known, particularly in the US, by the name dusty miller should now be known as Jacobaea maritima. Then there are the Michaelmas daisies, Aster novi-belgii and Aster novae- angliae, which it has been decided will now be known as Symphyotrichum novi-belgii and S. novae-angliae and Schizostylis coccinea, or the kaffir lily, which now goes under the name Hesperantha coccinea.

Heartsease or Viola tricolor has a variety of common names

Heartsease or Viola tricolor has a variety of common names

For my books my editor uses the RHS Plant Finder and/or RHS A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants as her guides but even then life isn’t simple. The house style of my publisher asks that a plant has the Latin name used when the plant appears in the text for the first time and then subsequently it can be referred to by the common name. But which common name to pick? Would you know what ‘Harry’s walking stick’ is? Well I didn’t. Turns out it’s another name for contorted hazel. Fortunately there is a degree of flexibility and I have a very understanding editor, so we went with contorted hazel in the end.

So who decides what name a plant will go by? Well, committees of botanical experts meet to discuss potential changes every 5 or 6 years at the International Botanical Congress. Often a botanist will suggest a plant doesn’t belong in the genus it is currently in but it can take years 20 or 30 years in some cases before the idea has picked up enough momentum to be accepted. Changes can also be blocked if it’s believed it could be detrimental; crops in particular tend to be protected from botanical name changes. Imagine the impact name changes could have on areas of the horticultural trade. If, for instance, the name of petunias changed, as was suggested at one point, how would this affect the vast business in bedding plants? Would they continue to use the name petunia thereby making the change seemingly pointless or adhere to the new name and risk losing business if customers didn’t know what they were buying?

So what does all this mean for gardeners? Certainly the need for a regulated and universally accepted system of plant names has never been greater and not just for scientists. As many more gardeners are communicating about growing via social media and blogs we all need to be able to know which plants were are writing about. It does seem to me a little odd though that the system we have means it is easier to revert to a plant’s common name despite all the inherent problems this can cause. And as plant names come under further scrutiny with changes arising it seems more likely that we will continue to use common names. Some plants now have two Latin names, the old one and the new one, and a multitude of common names. I’m not sure this is the ordered system that Linnaeus had in mind. However, I do see that plants placed in groups based on their genetic make-up seems the most logical and useful way of classifying them.

Human nature is generally conservative, we rarely like change and certainly change that makes life more confusing or difficult, even if it’s just in the short-term. I was of a generation which was taught metric at school but I have parents who still use imperial, as a result I have grown up using a mix of both and still favour imperial in certain circumstances. It shows that just because it has been decided that something is the accepted and recognized way of doing it, it can take a long time for changes to filter down and be used by everyone. In the mean time there’s a muddle where both systems have to run alongside each other. Acidanthera is no longer and should be referred to as Gladiolus murielae instead but how many bulb catalogues have made the change? How long it takes for name changes to become accepted outside scientific circles is hard to know but one thing we can be sure about is the world of taxonomy is going to get a lot more confusing.

 

Behind the walls

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Victorian glasshouses and cold frames at West Dean

Victorian glasshouses and cold frames at West Dean

I love walled gardens. There’s the sense of intrigue as to what lies behind those solid, sturdy walls and a feeling that I’m stepping into another world, somewhere where the distractions of life won’t trouble me. It feels as if the walls envelop me like a hug protecting me like they do the plants that grow within the boundary. All walled gardens have a magical air about them, but it’s the classic Victorian versions that are the true pinnacle for me.

Packed herbaceous borders

Packed herbaceous borders

I’ll admit I’m someone who lives by the phrase ‘a place for everything and everything in its place’. I’ve always been like it. My parents were never subjected to the horror of a teenager’s messy bedroom with mounds of clothing in the ‘floordrobe’ and items of food left to cultivate an impressive range of moulds. It stood me in good stead for the poky student digs I lived in and the tiny ‘can’t swing a cat’ flat we rented when we first got married. Now I find it hard to write if I know the kitchen is in a bit of a state i.e. Wellyman has been baking again, even if I’m upstairs and the plumes of flour are downstairs. I’ve heard that it’s not unusual for writers to feel they can’t work unless the space around them is tidy – a cluttered house, a cluttered mind perhaps. And I have a bit of a theory that my slightly obsessive tidiness is why I have such a thing for Victorian walled gardens. I drool over the neatly arranged potting sheds and the rows of wheel barrows lined up ready for use. The rows of little plants germinating in perfect rows make me think of my own pathetic attempts where clumps of seedlings are interspersed with bare patches.

Orderly veg

Orderly veg

West Dean, near Chichester in West Sussex, is a magnificent example of a Victorian walled garden restored to its prime and two summers ago I finally managed to visit. Head gardeners Jim Buckland and Sarah Wain have spent over twenty years bringing the gardens and the wider estate back to its former glory days.

Peachy!

Peachy!

Like any grand house in 19th century Britain, West Dean wanted and needed a kitchen garden and orchard to supply the house with food, and it was a notable place with King Edward VII a regular visitor enjoying pheasant shoots held on the estate. The orchard is enclosed within walls. Walled gardens are often thought of as providing protection from the weather but often it was more to do with protecting valuable produce from animals and hungry humans. The fruit collection is impressive with some of the fanciest trained trees I have ever seen, including heritage varieties specific to West Sussex. The walls are put to good use with pears, apples and plums trained against them but there are also specimens dotted about that have been intricately contorted into goblets and domes. Two herbaceous borders run through this walled garden too, offering an ornamental touch to what are often considered purely productive spaces. Although these borders would have been a clever way of supplementing the cutting patch to provide the house with vases of home-grown blooms.

West Dean's cut flower garden

West Dean’s cut flower garden

Ah ha! The cutting patch, now this was a bit of a surprise. I walked through a gateway in the wall into another enclosed space and what was the real hub of the walled garden, with rows of the original cold frames, potting sheds and glistening glasshouses. On the left hand side were beds and borders planted with the sole purpose of supplying flowers for cutting. Needless to say I was in my element. I do love the sense of order created by rows of plants and I think this is why I’ve found growing on my allotment easier than designing and planting my garden.

Elaborate fruit training

Elaborate fruit training

Beyond this was the walled kitchen garden where every bit of the space was used to its full potential. Red and white currants were trained against the walls of a shed now used as an information centre, herbs lined the edges of beds and cane fruits, such as raspberries, were grown in neat rows.

One of West Dean's stunning glasshouses

One of West Dean’s stunning glasshouses

The glasshouses were quite something. I have been to many a walled garden where glasshouses lie unused and forlorn, shades of their former selves, crying out to be loved and filled with plants. Victorian walled gardens are nothing without these buildings. Clever engineering coupled with the ingenuity of 19th growers meant that in a time before air freight and the mass importation of food, crops such as pineapples, peaches, apricots, melons and citrus fruits not suited to our climate could be produced to grace the tables of the wealthy. The sight of the restored glasshouses at West Dean is something very special. There was the peach house with fat, juicy, hairy fruits dripping from a beautifully trained tree, melons dangling from above in another, there were glistening black aubergines and a fantastic array of chillies. There was the glasshouse devoted to tender plants we recognise as house plants. I’ve never been much of a house plant lover but the collections of succulents, streptocarpus, begonias and fabulous stag’s horn ferns were enough to make me change my mind.

Filled with basil. That would make quite a lot of pesto!

Filled with basil. That would make quite a lot of pesto!

It’s incredible to think these glasshouses were completely derelict in the 1990s. They were originally built at the end of the nineteenth century by Foster and Pearson of Nottinghamshire whose client list read like a who’s who of late Victorian high society and included Queen Victoria herself. The glasshouses were an ostentatious symbol of wealth. Only the richest in society could afford these creations and the teams of workers needed to put them to full use. Now though they are not just a symbol of that wealth but also one of our most precious links with our horticultural heritage and the skills, knowledge and hard work of the gardeners who worked there. The glasshouses underwent a restoration process in the 1990s but two of the glasshouses are in need of urgent attention once again. The team at West Dean need to raise £30,000 to repair just one of the glasshouses.

If you’d like to help you can donate. Just £10 could pay for 1kg of nails and a sense of satisfaction that you have helped to save these precious buildings for the future.

For more information about West Dean and visitor information.

Up the Garden Path

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My garden path

My garden path

I have spent quite a lot of time this year assessing my garden, noting what has worked and what hasn’t. If we move I want to learn from my mistakes, if not there are aspects of the garden which most definitely need an overhaul. Surprisingly for someone who considers themselves a plant lover the path we added to the back garden is one of the most successful, and perhaps one of my most favourite elements. I don’t tend to like garden designs which are heavy on hard landscaping. Often show gardens at Chelsea leave me feeling cold because the expanses of sleek and sharp paving are too large in comparison to the areas devoted to planting. That’s not to say though that I don’t appreciate the importance of paths, walls, terraces and patios in a garden but it’s all about getting the proportions right. In my mind the hard landscaping is there to provide the backdrop to what should be the main stars of the show – the plants. So often though vast expanses of paving have replaced plants altogether. Over the last few months I’ve been reacquainting myself with the language of house selling. I know when I see the phrase ‘low-maintenance gardening’ in estate agent blurbs it tends to mean no plants at all and an awful lot of pink paving slabs.

Redesigning a garden

Redesigning our garden back in 2008

One of the reasons why hard landscaping is so hard to get right is partly down to the cost. When we move into a house we often inherit someone else’s taste which doesn’t match our own, but budget often doesn’t allow full-scale change. Most of us have other demands on our money when we move, so digging up a perfectly serviceable but interestingly coloured patio isn’t top of our priority list, particularly if there’s an even more interestingly coloured bathroom to be removed. And so gardens end up with a hotchpotch of hard surfaces which read like a potted history of the DIY centre. In years to come Time Team archaeologists will be able to stratify our gardens – crazy paving – 60s and 70s, coloured paving slabs – 80s, the remains of decking – 90s.

When we moved into this house we inherited an expanse of inoffensive concrete slabs for a patio but the only way to get to the shed was across a patch of grass. In hindsight this blank canvas was fantastic but I spent that first winter cursing every time I slid my way to the shed to collect logs for the wood burner and trod muddy footprints across the kitchen floor. A garden path moved up the priority list pretty quickly. In fact it ended up top-trumping the new bathroom.

The garden and path in 2008 just after it had been laid

The garden and path in 2008 just after it had been laid

There was a lot of graph paper used to come up with the final layout of the path. It needed to provide access to the shed primarily but also to the space behind it – that place where old compost bags reside and the stumpy remains of plants which have seen better days. It also needed to provide the demarcation for the new borders. Beds need to be in proportion with the height of the boundary behind so they should be the same depth as the height of the fence or wall. There was also a tricky part of the garden, a shady spot under the crab apple tree. Grass hadn’t thrived there. Rather than the path go nowhere we decided to make this into a semi-circular terrace, although terrace is perhaps too grand a term for somewhere so small.

I knew what material I wanted for the path before we even moved in. I have always had a thing for old, reclaimed bricks. I wanted any path we created to look like it had been there for a while and old bricks are perfect for creating this lived-in, established look. New landscaping materials just don’t age very well. Even new bricks don’t have the depth of colour and quality of Victorian versions. The idea that we were reusing something too, rather than buying a new material appealed.

A maturing garden

A maturing garden

From the kitchen window I look out on to the path every day and I love it. It has served its practical purpose of providing access to the garden, but has done so much more than that. It has defined the planting areas. In late winter and spring the path lets me get close to the tiny bulbs which line the path. By May voluptuous geraniums and alchemilla tumble over the edge. There comes a point in June when the plants take over and I have to shimmy my way through. Never once do I think about cutting these plants back – I love the exuberance they create. In autumn the path is festooned with leaves from the acer and liquidambar. As winter arrives the herbaceous perennials die back and the path is visible in its full glory providing structure. I’ll idly watch blackbirds scoot about eating fallen crab apples as I wait for the kettle to boil. The free-draining sandy gaps between the bricks where they were bedded in provide the perfect conditions for grasses and primroses to self-sow in among the crevices, which I then prick out and pot on. Then there are the mosses which have colonised the shady part of the garden creating a green carpet. A couple of bricks have cracked due to frost but I even like this as it again gives the garden a feeling of age.

Tumbling plants

Tumbling plants

Ultimately the path has become the backbone of the garden and I love it.

Is there something in your garden or on your allotment which has transformed the space?

P.s. I know, I should have taken more photos of the ‘before and after’. I trawled through my photo archives in the hope I’d taken more, but I hadn’t. It’s funny how blogging has changed my ideas about recording what I do with the garden. It won’t happen again!!!

Heaven Scent

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Night-scented stock

Night-scented stock

A few weeks ago I was asked to come up with a design for a hanging basket for the online plant nursery Plant Me Now. The design had to include a selection of plants which would fit a 30cm rattan basket, there would be no side holes for planting, there should be no more than 7 plants and they had to come from the Plant Me Now bedding plants range or were plants which could be easily sourced.

Oddly, I’ve never made a hanging basket before. I’m not sure why. My neighbour had a beautiful one by her front door this summer and they are an integral part of my village’s Britain in Bloom entry, with shops and pubs producing a spectacular show every year. Because my focus for the last couple of years has been the allotment and the cut flower patch I haven’t even planted containers to have by the front door or on the patio, but this year I did do a few decorative pots for the back garden. The simplest, and what turned out to be the most effective, was a zinc container filled full of night-scented stock. It was one of the first plants I remember growing from seed when I was about seven but for some reason I hadn’t grown them in years. The scent was so fabulous; one pot filled the garden with scent throughout the summer. The fragrance drifted into the house on those warm summer evenings that seem such a distant memory now. It was also so easy to grow from seed and just kept on flowering. I love the element of scent in a garden, something that makes you linger and stops you in your tracks, and that’s where the idea for my summer evening fragrant hanging basket started to form.

I had a quick look around the Plant Me Now website and a few old Gardens Illustrated and Gardeners’ World magazines for inspiration and then set about deciding on the planting criteria for my basket. There would have to be scent obviously, the plants should flower over a long period, they should be compact and there would need to be an element of trailing and tumbling plants to dangle down the sides of the basket.

dianthus-sweet-black-cherry

Dianthus ‘Sweet Black Cherry’

Buying a bunch of sweet Williams from a local cut flower grower at a farmers’ market was one of the reasons why I started growing my own cut flowers. They have an old-fashioned charm, the sort of flowers you remember being given by your granddad when you were a child. Most sweet Williams are biennials so they are often forgotten about, and when you do come to think about adding them to your planting plans you realise it’s too late. That’s why I was so pleased to discover a range of annual sweet Williams. The subtle clove-like fragrance and compact upright habit makes them perfect for planting in the centre of my hanging basket. I chose the gorgeous claret coloured ‘Sweet Black Cherry’.

Nemesia 'Lady Scented'

Nemesia ‘Lady Scented’

Around this central planting I plumped for Nemesia ‘Lady Scented’ with its pretty lilac/pink flowers and its strong fragrance. It forms neat mounds and is very free-flowering.

petunia-tumbelina-melissa

Petunia tumbelina ‘Melissa’

As this hanging basket has no space for side planting I wanted to include a selection of trailing plants which would tumble out of the top and spill over the sides softening the edges of the basket. Petunia ‘Tumbelina Melissa’ with its frilly, double ivory-coloured flowers fitted this role with the added bonus of scented blooms.

Planted amongst the petunias would be night-scented stock. They have a naturally leggy, sprawling habit perfect for cascading out of a hanging basket. The flowers of night-scented stock open in the evening to release their perfume providing a source of nectar for moths. The flowers aren’t especially showy but I love the pale lilac, pink and white four-petalled blooms for their daintiness. If you would prefer a flower that opens during the day you could grow Virginian stock instead which is scented too.

Verbena 'Aztec White Magic'

Verbena ‘Aztec White Magic’

Finally, to add some extra flowery oomph, I plumped for Verbena ‘Aztec White Magic’ as the last addition to the planting. Although not scented it makes up for this with its long season of flower production and it will tumble and trail out of the basket too. Verbenas come in a range of colours but I chose white because I love how white flowers almost ‘glow’ as light fades in the evening.

So that’s my summer evening scented hanging basket. Perfect for hanging by French doors where the scent will waft into the house and linger in the air around an outdoor seating area.

*I received a fee from Plant Me Now for working on this project and I will be donating a proportion of this to the Crisis at Christmas Appeal.

A Christmas Read – Snowdrops and Edibles

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The Plant Lover's Guide to Snowdrops

The Plant Lover’s Guide to Snowdrops

Time for reading this year has been hard to come by but when I have managed to grab a moment the two books by bedside have proved to be fascinating reading. A Plant Lover’s Guide to Snowdrops by Naomi Slade is perfectly pitched as a present for gardeners this Christmas. It’s the fourth in a series of books by the publisher Timber Press which focus on a particular genus – the others include dahlias, sedums and salvias. Naomi’s book is an enchanting mix of her love affair with these plants, a botanical study, potted history and guide to growing. Most of all I loved the approachable style of the writing. Sometimes books which are focused on one plant don’t hold my attention and can feel quite dry. Naomi has struck a great balance between being both informative and accessible.

The gallery of snowdrops – a selection of hybrids, species and cultivars – is a fabulous showcase for this plant and it includes a guide to how easy or difficult the various snowdrops are to grow. A particularly good idea, as some snowdrops can be quite expensive. I visited a snowdrop day several years ago and was gobsmacked to see the price tags – £10, £15, even £30 – on tiny pots with no more than a small cluster of leaves and a tiny flower stalk appearing. I would want to know my investment stood a good chance of establishing in my garden for those sorts of prices.

Seductive snowdrops

Seductive snowdrops

The diversity of the genus and the sometimes tiny, almost imperceptible, differences have made snowdrops a perfect plant for collectors. Galanthophiles as their known are incredibly passionate about these little flowers. I have always loved them. They’re the plant which brightens the January and February garden and they give hope that the winter will come to an end. Seeing them planted en masse at Painswick or Colesbourne is my first garden visit of the year and gives me the chance to escape outdoors. But I would say that I’ve never considered myself a galanthophile. I have slowly built up pockets of snowdrops in my garden but they are all simple Galanthus nivalis, or the common snowdrop. Having read this book though I am considering expanding my collection to at least more than one type of snowdrop. I was very taken by ‘Blewbury Tart’ and ‘Boyd’s Double’ but as both don’t include ‘easy’ in the cultivation section I think I might start with ‘Wendy’s Gold’ with it’s striking yellow markings.

The book is peppered with interviews from snowdrop experts, nursery owners and collectors and fascinating snippets on topics from snowdrop theft to how the bulbs increase using a kind of natural mathematics. It was interesting to see that galanthophilia isn’t just a British phenomenon with the power of this little plant to capture our hearts reaching across Europe, America and Australia. The information on how to grow is comprehensive, as is the guide on where to see snowdrops in the UK and further afield, with lists of snowdrop related events. And, if you’ve been inspired to branch out and add a few other snowdrops to your garden, Naomi has included a guide of where to buy.

Groundbreaking Food Gardens

Groundbreaking Food Gardens

The second book Groundbreaking Food Gardens is a really interesting concept. It consists of a collection of 73 garden designs created by passionate growers, from community gardeners and professional horticulturalists to garden bloggers and TV presenters, all based around the theme of edibles. The book is published by American publishers Storey so there is a bias towards North American contributors but it does include gardens designed by British bloggers Michelle Chapman of Veg Plotting and Emma Cooper. There are gardens to inspire whether you have a tiny balcony or the space for a biodynamic farm and everything in between. There’s an edible hedge, a terraced hillside, a design based on Asian vegetables and a cocktail garden.

Veg Plotting's edible garden design

Veg Plotting’s edible garden design

Our very own Michelle Chapman has taken her 52 Week Salad Challenge, which proved to be so popular on her blog, and designed planting plans based on the idea. Successional growing and making the most out of a small space are challenges most gardeners face, both of which Michelle neatly combines in her suggestions. Certainly if you’re fed up of soggy bags of salad leaves from the supermarket this is the design for you. Emma Cooper’s idea is based around creating a self-sustaining garden with an emphasis on space for recycling nutrients including composting, comfrey and chickens.

Initially I thought that because the book was mainly aimed at the American market it wouldn’t feel relevant to my own growing conditions. However, as I read on, I found it is the inspiration it offers and the insight into how growers in another part of the world view gardening and growing edibles that are the attractions to this book. It would have been nice to have had some photographs – the book is illustrated instead – but I understand the logistics of this, with so many gardens included and over such a large geographical area, that this would have been difficult and expensive to do.

So, if you’re starting to think of gifts for gardening friends this Christmas or compiling your list for Santa then perhaps one, or both of these books is just what you’re looking for.

Both books are available online or from your local bookshop.

Many thanks to Rebecca O’Malley at Storey Publishing for these review copies.

Flowers, friends and the finish line

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Autumn inspired arrangement

Autumn inspired arrangement

It probably wasn’t the best of ideas to go to Cornwall for an October break two weeks before my book was due in but, in my defence, I had booked it when my original deadline was February 2015. The reason for my visit wasn’t to see the sea, although I did manage to squeeze that in, it was something altogether more flowery. Becca and Maz of The Garden Gate Flower Company had decided, back in June, to celebrate the end of the growing season with a get together of flower growers/florists who had come to know each other via Twitter. There’d be the chance to chat, pick flowers and arrange, how could I resist. At that point my book deadline was the middle of February so it wouldn’t be a problem, I could easily squeeze in a break away. Then I worked out I could get everything I needed for the book done much earlier and it was agreed to bring the deadline forward. Scroll forward to a Sunday night in the middle of October and a restaurant in a converted lifeboat station in a tiny Cornish fishing village. I’m so excited to be meeting a group of flowery friends for a pre-workshop dinner but quietly panicking about the long list of jobs still left to do.

It struck me, on this Sunday evening how Twittter has transformed how people come together. There were those of us who had already met several times and had become firm friends, then there were those who were meeting for the first time. We had come from Wales, Wiltshire, Berkshire, London, Oxfordshire and Cornwall. It’s quite strange to think that only five or six years ago these connections would have been difficult to forge, if not impossible. And, you know the night has been a good one when the restaurant staff are doing everything, bar switching off the lights, to get you to leave.

Salvia uliginosa

Salvia uliginosa

So to Monday and Becca and Maz’s flower farm. There was chat followed by guided tours of their flower fields, more chatting, then flower picking. For a bunch of people who had spent all year growing and picking flowers it was perhaps a little odd that we all got so excited about picking yet more. It reminded me of when you’re out for a meal and the food other people have ordered always looks more interesting than your own plate. That surely isn’t just me?!!

We spent the next few hours arranging and photographing our creations in one of the stunning barns. Initially, I felt like a bit of a fraud. Here I was surrounded by people who arrange flowers for a living, whereas my own flower growing and arranging has only ever been to satisfy my own taste. I found myself and my bucket of flowers on the same table as Lindsey from The White Horse Flower Company, who will have arranged for an epic 70+ weddings this year, and Thomas from Petersham Nurseries, who creates beautiful floral designs for the rich and famous in London. Eek!! But everyone was so friendly, it wasn’t long before I was so absorbed by the process that I forgot my nerves.

Flowers and barn wall

Flowers and barn wall

Becca and Maz specialise in growing and arranging for weddings. They had such a beautiful array of flowers in soft colours that it was a real treat and inspiration for me to get my hands on flower varieties I haven’t grown before. My mind is still buzzing with ideas for my next cut flower patch. I can’t say I had any great plan when I initially started picking. I had taken a real shine to a particular dahlia called ‘Peaches’ and my arrangement ended up being built around that. I also took inspiration from the autumn countryside around the farm. I love teasels which capture the fading glory that I love so much about this time of year; they also remind me of my favourite artist Angie Lewin. In the end, my arrangement included dahalis, teasels, the rusty coloured and faded flower spikes of dock, straw flowers, Rudbeckia ‘Cherry Brandy’ and some fantastically sculptural seed heads from a couple of hedgerow plants such as ribwort plantain.

Another beautiful arrangement

Another beautiful arrangement

Then came the photography. I’ve become a bit obsessed with this whole process in recent years. It has been fascinating to learn a little bit about the difference light and the right background can make to showing off flowers. What I’d give for Becca and Maz’s barn. As one person commented ‘You could photograph anything in here and it would look fabulous’. The quality of the light, the rustic doors, mossy bricks and stone walls added so much to the arrangements we had all created.

Since then it has been a crazy couple of weeks with late nights and being driven close to tears by Windows 8. It turns out I had inadvertently clicked on some tracking shortcut which it remembered each time I opened up the document, I couldn’t get rid of the damn thing. Fortunately Wellyman worked it out in the end. This final stage is so fraught with worry that you’ll click on the wrong button and something will disappear into the ether. There was a story, which did the rounds at university, about someone who had lost their dissertation only a few weeks before it was due, in a house fire. Whether this was an urban myth or not, it was enough then, and now, to make me overly cautious, with documents backed up several times to various places and emailed to myself. But even these can be a tad confusing when you’re on the umpteeenth draft.

Fabulous flowers

Fabulous flowers

I had the final photo shoot on Monday and I clicked on the send button this morning. The next month or so will consist of the publishers designing the book and then there’ll be the edit but I’m nearly there and I can’t wait to see it all come together. So, I’m really very glad that I managed to get down to Cornwall after all.

The last photo shoot

The last photo shoot

If you fancy learning about flower growing and arranging Becca and Maz run a series of courses throughout the year which are open to anyone who love flowers, you don’t have to have a background in floristry. Becca’s mum provides a delicious lunch and fantastic cake to keep you going through the day. They’re also perfectly located near Fowey to combine one of their courses with a holiday in Cornwall. For more details check out their website The Garden Gate Flower Company.

Mossy trees and furry creatures

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Yew berries - Dawyck Botanic Garden

Yew berries – Dawyck Botanic Garden

I think it might be a sign of growing older that time appears to have sped up. I now find myself saying phrases like ‘Where has the time gone?’, ‘Is it 5 o’ clock/ Friday/ October already?’ Things creep up on me now. I was horrified to see Christmas crackers and puddings in the supermarket the other day not because of frustration with the over-commercialisation of the festive season, but rather the realisation that Christmas isn’t actually THAT far away. Oh, and I woke up the other day in a cold sweat when it dawned on me that I have less than a month to finish the book.

Dawyck Botanic Garden

Dawyck Botanic Garden

September merged into October for me whilst on a trip to Scotland. We loved Edinburgh so much last year that we thought we’d go again. It was a fantastic break catching up with a friend, eating great food and taking in the stunning scenery. I do wish someone would invent teleportation though. Any journey which involves the M6 is a slog, and if there’s one thing I hate, it’s being stuck in a traffic jam. If it’s possible I try to plan a stop-off to beak up long journeys. Not only are they a way of seeing somewhere which I might not otherwise, they are essential for restoring the blood flow to my legs after a prolonged period in the car. Dawyck Botanic Garden is an hour or so south of Edinburgh, so it seemed the perfect place to stop for a walk and the obligatory cup of tea. Dawyck, a few miles outside the town of Biggar (stop the sniggering at the back), is an arboretum under the management of the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh. The collection, covering over 60 acres, was once part of the Dawyck Estate where, over 300 years, 3 successive families have planted and maintained a globally significant collection of trees.

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It was the fresh clean air which I noticed first. Now, it’s not as if I live in a polluted city choked by traffic exhaust fumes. Okay, sometimes the air in my village is a tad potent thanks to the silage the farmer has spread, but generally I’m lucky to be able to take deep breaths of clean Welsh air. There was something very noticeable though about Dawyck, it had a zing to the air that you get in alpine villages. It’s the sort of place that makes you feel as if you’ve had an expensive facial when you haven’t. Then you notice the trees. My, what trees! They were like green skyscrapers shooting up towards the clouds; there’s something awe-inspiring about such gigantic trees. I get a similar feeling when I’m on a beach and I’m faced with the vastness of the sky, clouds and sea; this is nature in all its glory and it’s fabulous. If you love trees you’ll love it here. The location, with the mountains, craggy hillsides and gushing streams, is unlike the other arboretums I have visited, which tend to have been created in more gently undulating landscapes. Thanks to the stunning surroundings Dawyck has some fabulous vistas. My favourite was looking down from the Beech Walk towards the privately owned house with its classic Scottish Baronial architecture and Trahenna Hill looming over it.

Dawyck House

Dawyck House

The Veitches were the first family to live at Dawyck, in the castle which predated the current house, and they started the tradition of tree planting. The Naesmyths who followed continued the legacy. This was a family with a serious interest in plant hunting and especially trees. Sir James (1704-1779) trained under the tutelage of the famous botanist Carl Linnaeus, and his grandson Sir John Murray discovered a new species of beech growing on the estate with an unusual columnar habit of growth; it subsequently became known as the Dawyck Beech. Sir John also funded the trips of plant hunters such as William Lobb and David Douglas. The Douglas Trail within the arboretum includes the famous firs named after him which are believed to be among the first to have been grown in the UK. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Balfour family became the new owners. Fred Balfour added to the arboretum including trees from North America and Asia. He too financed plant collectors in return for seed. He wasn’t just a tree lover though, under his ownership azaleas and rhododendrons, meconopsis and daffodils were planted to add interest to the gardens throughout the year. The Balfours still live in Dawyck House, but they gifted the arboretum to the Botanic Gardens in 1979.

Lichen covered trees at Dawyck Botanic Garden

Lichen covered trees at Dawyck Botanic Garden

In the clear unpolluted air lichens thrive. There were some trees which were so covered in lichen it was hard to tell what they were underneath the dripping, Gandalf-like lichen beards. A whole area is devoted to crytogams. Despite 4 years of studying horticulture I’d never heard of the word before – it means a plant which reproduces by spores instead of flowers and seeds, and includes mosses, fungi, liverworts, ferns and algae. The damp conditions make it perfect for mosses and the understory to the trees was a mossy equivalent of a shag pile carpet, deep, springy and verdant green.

The Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh are a world leader in the study of cryptogams. As part of this research a Scots Pine, planted from seed at Dawyck in the 1840s and blown down in the 1990s, is being studied as it decays to see which fungi and organisms make it their home. I find these elements of horticulture, the less glamorous side of it, fascinating. It’s easy and obvious why we adore flowers but I love that there are people out there who make it their life’s work to study the plants that so often go unnoticed.

Edinburgh panda

And so to the furry creatures mentioned in the title. It wasn’t part of the plan to visit Edinburgh Zoo but the rain came down and we didn’t fancy wandering around an art gallery. I did wonder if we’d made the right decision as we squelched our way to the entrance but I’m so glad we chose animals over Whistler and Monet. Of course, the pandas have grabbed a huge amount of attention since their arrival at the zoo. The will-there-won’t-there be the patter of tiny panda paws has disappointingly come to nothing. It did mean however that the panda enclosure was open to visitors once again. I have learnt from years of zoo visits not to get my hopes up about seeing any particular creature. I have stood in front of many an enclosure searching high and low for the advertised creature only to shuffle off still none the wiser as to what a slow loris looks like in the fur. We timed our visit to the panda enclosure perfectly. We arrived to be told by the keeper that the male panda had been lying on a plinth for 4 hours. Within seconds it got up, strolled along the back wall, then walked straight towards us so it was within inches of the fence, before disappearing inside and out of view. For the briefest of moments we got to see one of the most iconic creatures on the planet and closer than I had ever imagined.

Another creature, an animal I have wanted to see ever since I can remember, was even more obliging. Edinburgh Zoo is the only place in the UK where you can see koalas and it was such a treat to see them. Considering koalas spend 23 out of 24 hours a day asleep we were lucky to see to see one of them eating, stretching and climbing, albeit all done at a measured koala pace. It must have exhausted itself though because it too joined its fellow koalas for a snooze, but I’m not sure it can get any cuter than a sleeping koala resting its head on a paw.

P.s. Thanks to Wellyman for his fab photos.

Sleeping koala

The Laskett

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The Laskett

A statue of Britannia – The Laskett

The Laskett is tucked away down a Herefordshire lane. We’ve driven past here before but we had no idea what lay behind the tall hedges of brambles and ivy, and it’s not what you would expect to find here among the rolling hills, orchards and pastures of such a rural county. For thirty years the gardens at The Laskett were the creation of Sir Roy Strong and his late wife, Julia Trevelyan Oman. She was a celebrated set designer working for TV, film, opera and ballet, he is an author and one time director of the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Italianate gardens with nods to early English gardens and a theatrical theme running throughout were created from scratch, carved from simple bare fields surrounding the house. Julia died in 2003 and there was a period where the gardens remained untouched, but in recent years the gardens have been subject to a programme of renewal which is ongoing.

The Laskett

Snapshots – Windows in the hedging – The Laskett

I had very little knowledge of the gardens, to be honest it came as a bit of a surprise when I came across The Laskett and realised that we lived so close by. Generally you can only visit as part of a group but a few weekends ago the gardens were open as part of the National Gardens Scheme. I deliberately didn’t read anything about the garden before we went. I wanted to go there without preconceptions or expectations. I’d caught a glimpse or two from the website when checking the location, so had an idea that it would be theatrical, but other than that it would be a surprise and hopefully a pleasant one. Coming across a formal garden, statuary and topiary isn’t unusual in rural parts but they tend to come with a grand entrance and an even grander house. Both of these features set the scene and expectations. The Laskett has the surprise element because it lacks this grandness. That isn’t meant as a criticism, in fact in my opinion it’s a plus. It’s the sort of setting where you would expect to find a cottage garden wrapped around the house, instead I felt as if I had been transported to a villa outside Rome, which was the real joy of this garden. The early autumn sunshine helped somewhat but it was easy to forget I was in Herefordshire. There were follies, temples, statues and vast urns but it takes much more than a few urns and statues to convince someone they’re in Italy.

The Laskett

The Laskett

This is a garden that has been made by people with a great eye for detail but also for the bigger picture. The vistas which have been created by the paths and hedges dividing the garden have created living set designs. It’s very easy to see how Julia’s work on large productions for ballets and operas have translated into the creation of The Laskett. It makes for an incredibly photogenic garden and a very pleasing space to spend time.

The Laskett

Knot garden in front of the house – The Laskett

Initially, I was bit underwhelmed when we first entered the garden. The path takes you into an area in front of the house with a topiary knot garden which, although perfectly fine, just didn’t have a great deal of impact for me. Off to one side of the house was an area under reconstruction. I’ll admit that ten minutes or so into the visit I was wondering if this was it but then we followed the path around the side of the house and that’s when the element of surprise really hits.

The Laskett

The Silver Jubilee Garden – The Laskett

If a garden is about expressing the personality and passions of the owner/s then The Laskett certainly does that. Many of the structures and plants commemorate people and periods in the lives of both Roy and Julia – there’s an arbour for Sir Frederick Ashton, a choreographer for the Royal Ballet for whom Julia designed sets and a sundial from Sir Cecil Beaton’s garden, marking their friendship. Most of us can’t name drop knights of the realm but it’s easy to relate to wanting our gardens to reflect our lives, particularly if we’ve lived somewhere for a long time. Reading about the garden afterwards I discovered that certain plants around the gardens held special memories. There is a quince tree which grew from a cutting taken from a tree growing in Julia’s grandfather’s garden; rosemary, which could be found dotted about the garden had strong family connections too. I think most of us have plants in our gardens which we’ve inherited or been given as a present. For me gardens designed by a designer for a client so often feel a little sterile because they lack these personal connections and touches.

The structural planting of pruned yew, box and beech form the backbone of the garden. There are some fabulous specimen trees including an Acer griseum whose copper-coloured peeling bark glowed in the early autumn light. The majority of the planting comprises shrubs and seasonal highlights. It’s quite traditional in many ways and follows the Italian style of planting which relies on structure rather than colourful plants. Changes can be seen though – the new border was a riot of colour in early September with prairie-style plants in full bloom.

Structure from topiary - The Laskett

Structure from topiary – The Laskett

If you described a garden to someone as set in rural Herefordshire but designed on Italianate principles, which had a ‘Triumphal Arch’, a colonaded temple to provide shelter when having tea and cake and a life size stag statue with gilded antlers they would be forgiven for thinking it would be like a theme park. The Laskett isn’t. It’s somewhere that feels like a genuine expression of the lives of two people who had an immense passion for the place, a garden which has been created with love and which has given immense pleasure in return.

A plum …. but not as you know it

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Greengage 'Cambridge Favourite'

Greengage ‘Cambridge Favourite’

I’ve become a bit of a recluse recently. Book number 2 is taking up all my attention at the moment with a final push before my deadline and I’m digging deep to keep the motivation going. I only really realised how little time I have spent in the garden over the last few weeks after a whole day of gardening on Saturday. The garden had started to look a little rough around the edges but it was the stiffness which followed the gardening that took me by surprise. I felt like I normally do at the start of spring, at this time of year I would expect to be ‘garden fit’. I sat down on Saturday night for an hour or so and then got up to get a cup of tea and Wellyman had to give me a helping push to get me upright. Too much time sat in front of my computer, I think. And, you know you need to get out more when you get a tad too excited about a punnet of greengages at the supermarket.

The greengage is a fruit I’ve heard about but until relatively recently had never actually come across. It had almost started to take on mythical properties – a fruit that had once, many moons ago, filled late summer and early autumn kitchens where cooks wearing mop caps and proper aprons, surrounded by copper pans, would turn them into jams and compotes. Of course, I couldn’t turn down the chance to taste them, so a punnet was purchased. On the way home I wondered why they were such a rarity – they are deemed as a ‘speciality’ fruit by the supermarket. This thought only grew stronger once I had tried them, they were delicious.

Greengages are cultivars of the plum family. If you think greengages are a fruit of the past it turns out there are also yellowgages, such as the amber-coloured ‘Coe’s Golden Drop’, and the strangely titled ‘transparent gages’ like ‘Early Transparent Gage’, not much time was lost on thinking up that name! Greengages tend to be slightly smaller and a bit more round than a normal plum but the most obvious visual difference is the green-coloured fruit.  There is something a little odd about biting into a green fruit. Your brain is saying ‘don’t do it, it’ll not be ripe and it’ll taste bitter’ but in the case of greengages your brain couldn’t be more wrong. That first bite is very much of a delightful honeyed sweetness and it is this that distinguishes gages, in all their various hues, from a typical plum. I love plums with their slight tartness but greengages are something else, so why are the shelves of supermarkets groaning under plums, and greengages are sidelined to the ‘unusual fruits’ section?

Greengages have been cultivated from a wild green plum and are popular in Europe, particularly France, Germany and into Eastern Europe. It’s believed that they came to Britain from France in the 18th century, but the story is a little confused. Accounts vary as to whether they were imported by Sir William Gage to plant in his garden at Hengrave Hall in Suffolk or whether it was another branch of the family and Sir Thomas Gage (1781-1820) of Firle Place in Sussex which introduced the greengage. Whichever Gage, the story is that the labels were lost in transit and that when the plums turned out to be green they became known as green Gage’s plums. An avenue of greengages form the structure to the current kitchen garden at Firle.

In France greengages are known as ‘Reine Claudes’ after a 16th century queen. Perhaps she gorged herself on them, which would be perfectly understandable, or maybe the royal gardener discovered these honey-flavoured fruits and named them after her.

‘Cambridge Favourite’, an old heritage variety is the greengage I bought but as it turns out there are quite a few to choose from if you’re thinking of growing your own. Some are more suitable to growing in the UK than others. And this is where we get to the crux of the matter – why they aren’t more widely available as a cultivated fruit? Well it seems like they might be a bit difficult to grow in a typical British climate. Gages need a lot of moisture which isn’t normally a problem for most British growers but they also dislike sitting in waterlogged soil. They also flower early in spring and, whilst the plants are hardy, the blossom is prone to being damaged by early frosts. Siting gages in a sheltered spot with plenty of sunshine to help that sweet, honey flavour to develop is essential. If you live in a frost-prone area there are varieties which flower later such as ‘Late Transparent’ – wow fruit- naming people you really pushed the boat out with those transparent gages. Some gages are self-fertile, others will require another fruit in order to produce a crop. For this reason it’s worth consulting a specialist fruit nursery if you fancy trying to grow your own.

As for how to eat them. Well their natural sweetness makes them perfect for just as they are but they are an incredibly versatile fruit. Try them in crumbles, pies, jams and chutneys.

I often daydream about having my own orchard. The planting plans always included plums but never greengages. I’m not sure I’ll ever have the orchard but hopefully one day I’ll have the space to squeeze in a gage or two.

 

Scampston Walled Garden

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Scampston Walled Garden

Scampston Walled Garden

I have long been a fan of the garden designer Piet Oudolf. Dutch born Oudolf has championed a new style of planting and landscaping known variously as ‘new European’, ‘new wave’ and ‘new naturalism’. Whatever you want to call it, it has become THE design style of the early 21st century and his ideas of large blocks of perennial planting have captured the imaginations of gardeners, designers and urban landscapers alike. Grasses such as molinias and calamagrostis and rudbeckias, echinacea and heleniums are all classic Oudolf plants. But it’s not just the visual impact of his design and planting style that have made his ideas so popular. His choice of plants, often inspired by the prairies of North America, tend to flower in later summer and autumn. Whereas many of the more traditional English cottage garden plants have given up the ghost by August, gardens planted with these late flowering perennials are just coming into their own. They also leave behind stunning seed heads and skeletons as the garden descends into winter which gave structure and interest. Another attractive feature of these perennials is that they tend to need little attention. Many benefit from the ‘Chelsea chop’ in late May and need dividing every 3 or 4 years but other than that they can be left alone. The other huge plus is that the plants are loved by pollinating insects. In many ways it is a much more sustainable approach to gardening particularly for parks and country houses which used to rely heavily on intensive and expensive bedding schemes.

Piet Oudolf’s style of planting has proved to be hugely popular with urban planners. The mass planting works particularly well on a large-scale where the dramatic effect of large blocks of colour can be seen at their best. Parks and urban areas in Germany, Sweden, the UK and America have all had the Oudolf treatment. Perhaps his most famous and inspirational project to date is the High Line in New York, a public park built on an old railway line raised above the streets of Manhattan.

Painterly planting - Piet Oudolf

Painterly planting – Piet Oudolf

There is something painterly about Oudolf’s designs. The blocks of colour created by sedums, eryngiums and eupatoriums make you feel like you’re looking at a work of art. The first Oudolf planting scheme I saw was at RHS Wisley where he had created his own take on the classic English country garden double herbaceous borders. It was an impressive sight but it was his garden at Pensthorpe Wildlife Reserve in Norfolk which really blew me away.

I’ve wanted to visit Scampston Walled Garden for some time now. Scampston is the largest example in the UK of a privately commissioned Piet Oudolf garden. In 1998 the owners decided to transform the derelict 4 acre walled garden and rather than restore it in a historical way they decided to go for something modern. It’s a brave choice to try to combine the old – a late 18th century Regency house and Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown grounds – with something contemporary. For me it worked incredibly well and I loved the combination of old and new.

Katsura Grove

Katsura Grove

The Piet Oudolf area is contained within the walled garden. A path initially takes you around the edge of the garden. Known as Plantsman’s Walk, the high brick walls on one side and tall beech hedges on the other give the impression you’re walking into a maze. Deep borders are filled with hydrangeas, geraniums and the fabulously red wine coloured leaves of Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ and the unusual berried Actaea alba. From here a path leads into a series of ‘rooms’ divided by more beech hedges. I particularly loved the Katsura Grove. I had heard of this mythical tree, whose leaves smell of cinder toffee, from my tutor at college but I have never come across them before. You know when you’ve been told something is fantastic and then when you experience it you wonder what all the fuss was about, well I’m please to report I wasn’t disappointed – they really do smell like toffee. Beds were planted with multi-stemmed Katsuras (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) and underplanted with Aster divaricatus. It was a beautiful combination and both plants have gone straight to the top of my ‘plants to buy for my next garden’ list. From here paths lead off into areas with more traditional style borders backed with beech hedging and planted with late summer flowering perennials and grasses. But it was the central perennial meadow which was the showstopper. Divided into quarters with a circular pool at the centre each section is planted with a rich palette of colours punctuated by swaying, tactile grasses. And it was teeming with bees, butterflies and hoverflies.

Drifts of Grass - Scampston Walled Garden

Drifts of Grass – Scampston Walled Garden

Currently one end of the garden is boarded off. The old glasshouse, in desperate need of restoration has been removed in sections to be repaired with the help of Lottery funding. It will be an impressive sight once completed looking out on to the hub of the garden. It’s a pity more thought isn’t given to construction work on tourist sites though. I remember as a child my dad complaining that wherever we went on holiday in Europe there would always be scaffolding or a crane spoiling the very view we had travelled so far to see. The Italians though had a very nifty idea. They used to – I don’t know if they still do – hang huge canvasses over the building which is being restored. The canvas would have an artist’s impression of the restored building which would hide the worst of the building work. It wasn’t perfect but vastly superior than a lot of plywood and a big blue lottery sign.

Piet Oudolf planting at Scampston Walled Garden

Piet Oudolf planting at Scampston Walled Garden

In contrast to the colour of the perennial meadow the adjoining area consisted of blocks of one type of grass, Molinia caerula ssp caerula ‘Poul Peterson’. It was simple, striking and hugely effective. It was impossible to walk through without stroking the grasses. There are other areas too, a small orchard and kitchen garden and the landscaped grounds which, on this occasion, we didn’t have time to see, but these really are the sideshows to the spectacular centrepiece. Designs, styles and plants come and go in gardening just as they do in fashion and interiors but I think the influence of Oudolf will be around for some time to come. If you can, try to visit one of Piet Oudolf’s gardens or parks – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

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