Garden Visit: Montpelier Cottage


I had a delightful afternoon visiting Noel Kingsbury and Jo Eliot’s garden in deepest darkest Herefordshire within spitting distance of the Welsh borders.  I nearly didn’t go as I wanted to get on with the front garden but having planted up half the space in the morning and with unexpected blue skies at lunchtime I set off for what is always an enjoyable drive west.


Noel’s garden is not what many would call the traditional style of garden.  Indeed I ran into someone I know from a garden club who hadn’t visited before and was a little perplexed by the research beds and the intensive planting in some areas and the large meadow and ponds with wildflower planting.   We agreed that it made a nice change from many of the gardens you visit, particularly under the National Garden Scheme, and my fellow garden club member said it had certainly given him real food for thought.


Personally I really enjoy this garden.  I have visited before, last August, when I went for lunch and had a proper tour with Noel.  The garden demonstrates Noel’s interests in plant communities and how perennials, in particular, grow together.  The area above is a series of research beds with various perennials planted out in blocks to see how they fare in Noel’s heavy clay soil  However, plants are allowed to self seed as is evident from the prolific number of aquilegia and trollis which are scattered around the garden and really pull everything together.


I really like the intensity of this area of planting with all the purples and cerise flowers; it was alive with insects.  It is this intense style I am trying to achieve but its a style which looks more natural than the traditional style of perennial planting and I think that although it looks so natural it is quite hard to make work well.  It is one of those things that everyone thinks looks easy until you try it yourself. As the year progresses the grasses and late perennials which are currently hidden amongst the early flowering plant will have bulked up and bring a new wave of interest and colour.


And finally a real surprise as Noel’s Aeoniums are already out on the patio, and have been out for two weeks.  Mine are still lurking in the greenhouse and looking the worse for it so this week they will be moved out into the fresh air and hopefully it wont be long before they look as glossy and healthy as Noel’s.

I’m off to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show tomorrow and it will be interesting to see if any of the show gardens, with all their immaculate planting, have the same sense of place as Noel and Jo’s garden; I suspect not.

Of Trilliums and other shady things


Today I went to the inaugural meeting of the HPS Shade and Woodland Group which conveniently for me was held near Tewkesbury where I go for my monthly HPS meetings and in addition to this the talk was by one of our committee members, Keith Ferguson with a visit in the afternoon to his and his wife, Lorna’s, garden. The meeting was attended by some 80 people at a rough guess which isn’t bad for the inaugural meeting of a national group.


Keith’s talk on Trilliums and other US woodlanders was fascinating and I learnt lots, how much I will remember remains to be seen.  I did learn that it was a myth that trilliums need acidic soil, there are one or two which do, but generally this isn’t the case. I still think trilliums are a bit tricky, I have a couple and only one flowers and in 5 years it has only bulked up to two flowers! I think I need to start mulching more with leaf mould etc. I overheard Keith telling someone that they mulch extensively in November so that seems to be the answer – worth a go anyway.


After lunch we drove 20 minutes to the Ferguson’s home which is set down a narrow country road within sight of May Hill – a very pretty part of the world.  They have lived here nearly 20 years and worked hard to develop the garden.  Both Keith and Lorna are botanists and are real plants people.  Whenever there is a tricksy shrub that needs identifying at our group meetings it is them we look to and inevitably they know or can make a knowledgeable guess.


I frequently visit gardens generally on my own, sometimes with a friend or two but this, and a visit with some of the same group last week, are the most enjoyable garden visits I have had for some time.  I think the secret lies in visiting with such knowledgeable plants people who are generous with their knowledge and not in a stuffy or superior way. We had a laugh and it is wonderful to hear a real hum of people talking about plants and indulging in their passion. 2015_05220069One half of the garden, in front of the house is more formal and is very bright being home to lots of wonderful colourful perennials and also the vegetable garden.  The other half of the garden (which altogether is around 2.5 acres) is the newer garden which is devoted to shade loving plants.  Here were clumps of trilliums which make my tiny specimen look even more pathetic. I enjoyed the planting style here as everything intermingles giving a wild appearance albeit managed.  I suspect William Robinson would have approved.  So many new plants to discover and learn about and at the same time familiar plants to see afresh and covert.  I was particularly taken with the Papaver orientale ‘May Queen’ which I have been promised a bit of, although it comes with a warning of being a thug!


There were also plants that I doubt I will ever grow such as this Berberis jamesiana which Sally Gregson and I were completely bewitched by.  It is hard to propagate and given its size I suspect this is something I wouldn’t be able to grow unless I moved but still it is something to aspire to.

2015_05220092Whilst the reason for the visit was due to the HPS Shade and Woodland Group meeting what I really took away from the Ferguson’s garden was a wonderful demonstration of ‘right plant right place’.  Being botanists they understand what conditions each plant needs and the plants repay this care and attention by growing incredibly well.  It was a lovely afternoon.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Depth


I have struggled with this week’s photo challenge theme: depth.   So I have decided to choose some images that show a depth of field, the depth of the garden so to speak.

This photos were taken at Wollerton Old Hall in Shropshire in 2012.  A garden I must visit again as I have found looking back through the photographs I took there inspiring at a time when I feel a little confused about the garden.


‘England’s Greatest Snowdrop Garden’

Galanthus nivalis Sandersii Group
Galanthus nivalis Sandersii Group

When I tell people that I am going to look at snowdrops they often look at me quizzically -” surely a snowdrop is a snowdrop is a snowdrop” they say. “What’s the fuss, they are just pretty small white flowers?”  And so it may seem until you start to look beyond the blanket of the big garden retail chains and seek out the specialist nurseries and horticultural groups and then you start to notice, come the winter, that there is a small club within the club who are all obsessed with snowdrops.  They can be seen huddled around a single specimen in a pot discussing its virtues, or lack of, who bred it, its ancestry and you quickly realise that there is a whole hidden world out there – the world of the galanthophile.

I only started to understand the fascination a few years ago when I visited a galanthophile’s garden and saw the different varieties growing alongside each other. It dawns on you that this variety is much taller than that, or some have glaucous leaves, some strappy leaves, some double flowers, some with longer petals than others but the important thing, I think, is that you have to see them growing in a garden setting in clumps to be able to start to see the differences.

Sir Henry Elwes at Colesbourne Gardens
Sir Henry Elwes at Colesbourne Gardens

Today I was fortunate enough to have a tour of Colesbourne Gardens in Gloucestershire, the home of Sir Henry and Lady Elwes. Colebourne has been described in Country Life as ‘England’s greatest snowdrop garden’.  Why is this so when you only have to look in any Sunday supplement or gardening magazine at this time of year to see lists of ‘snowdrop gardens’? Well, apparently it is one of very few, if any, open to the public where you can not only see drifts of the species snowdrops but also sizeable clumps of the more choice varieties planted in a garden setting.  Most snowdrop gardens have the drifts of naturalised snowdrops and some of the specialist gardens have pots of choice snowdrops on display but rarely are the two combined and few take the risk of labelling all their snowdrops including the rare varieties, for fear of theft.


Sir Henry and Lady Elwes’s attitude is that the garden is a private personal garden which they like to share with the public at this time of year.  Sir Henry’s great-grandfather, Henry James Elwes, was a renowned plant collector and collected the original Galanthus elwesii in Turkey in 1874.  He was a leading light in the galanthophile world of his time and just as now there was much sharing and swapping of plants leading to significant collections being established including at Colesbourne.  Sadly, after his death, his plant collections did not fare too well and were either dispersed or disappeared.  Since inheriting the property Sir Henry and Lady Elwes have worked hard to re-establish the snowdrop collection with the garden opening for the first time in 1997. Establishing such a display is not for the faint hearted or work shy.  Few snowdrops produce seed, so to create the stunning drifts you see you need to lift and divide and replant the clumps on an annual basis.


In 2003 the couple embarked on a major restoration project with the assistance of the then Garden Manager, Dr John Grimshaw, to restore the gardens and to celebrate the work of their illustrious ancestor.  The work has led to the snowdrop collections being enlarged and added to on a yearly basis with some 5000-6000 bulbs planted up each year for sale.  The Elwes, along with their current Head Gardener, Chris Horsfall, believe in selling the plants growing in pots so you know you will not only get a plant from a reputable source but one that is growing well.  But it isn’t all about the snowdrops, the couple believe strongly in supporting local charities, and over the last 10 years £70,000 has been  raised from catering for visitors and donated to charity.


At Colesbourne the snowdrops are planted out in the woodland but as you get nearer the house the plantings start to become more formal with a Woodland and Spring garden and then a much more formal garden by the house where the choicest snowdrops live.  I particularly liked the way that the snowdrops in the garden settings were planted amongst plants with good foliage which set off the snowdrops such as cyclamen, corydalis, heuchera, ferns and epimediums.  It showed you that a winter garden really doesn’t have to look dull at all and with a little clever planning the border does not have to be an exclusively winter one if you remember to plant the snowdrops where they won’t be disturbed such as in the shadow of deciduous ferns, bergenias and stacys.


Having established a reputation for Colesbourne as one of the must see snowdrop gardens, Sir Henry is now working towards achieving a similar reputation for the garden’s arboretum.  His great-grandfather collected many choice trees during his travels and these, along with the snowdrops, still remained when the couple inherited the property.  The style of the arboretum is more naturalistic than say Westonbirt, it is more of a landscape and plantsman’s garden and given the pedigree of some of its specimens it is hardly surprising to discover there are 8 champion trees.  This year, from May, the garden will be opening for arboretum tours.


Colesbourne Gardens is open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays from 1pm from the 31st January 2015 to 1st March 2015 – details of how to find the garden can be found on their web-site along with details of the study days they are also running.


Book Review: Secret Gardens of The Cotswolds

Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds

I am lucky to frequently receive books from Frances Lincoln to review but I have to admit that I was thrilled to be asked to review Secret Gardens of The Cotswolds written by my friend Victoria Summerley. I did tell Victoria some time ago when we were discussing her book that I wasn’t going to review it as I like to be honest and I would feel inhibited reviewing a friend’s book.  However, when it came to it the offer was too good to refuse but I will try very hard to be impartial.

Victoria’s approach to the book, which is clearly articulated in the introduction, is quite simply what we all love to do, if we are honest with ourselves, and that is to have a nose behind the walls of people’s gardens.  We want to have a look round the garden, learn a bit about its history and background, maybe meet the owners or the gardeners and get their views and possibly take a few ideas away.  This book sets out to try to achieve most of these objectives for 21 gardens set in the Cotswolds.  These are not the ‘go to gardens’ you might think of when you consider visiting the Cotswolds – so no Hidcote or Kiftsgate.  Instead we are presented with a range of gardens that we might not be so aware of. They range from the Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens which is beginning to get a real reputation for its planting schemes as well as the wildlife it looks after to Walcot House owned by the book’s photographer Hugo Rittison-Thomas.

Most gardens have a view that grabs your attention more than any other view and these have been used as the frontispiece for each description of the garden.  Hugo has then included other views of the gardens in some cases, such as Sezincote, focussing on the oriental sculpture or in the case of Colesbourne, focussing on the plantings with close up of the flowers.  This approach helps you get a real feel for that particular garden whether it be a landscape garden, strong on planting, topiary or sculpture.  But what I particularly liked was the inclusion in the majority of cases of a portrait of either the owners or the head gardeners and in some cases both.  Their voices are heard throughout Victoria’s essays on the gardens so it is nice to have faces to put to the stories, trials and tribulations.

Victoria argues in the introduction that she isn’t an academic but I know she spent many hours researching each garden, tracking down their histories and in at least one case telling the owners things about their garden’s past that they didn’t know.  Having had a career as a newspaper editor you can rely on the text being well written but I think this is added to by Victoria’s own style which flows well and she manages to combine sometimes dry facts and details with humour and a personal point of view.

It is a pity that 4 of the 21 gardens are not open to the public even under the National Garden Scheme, personally I would have preferred if there were opportunities to visit all the gardens featured in a book but of course not everyone who reads the book will be planning to visit some people just enjoy a good read and nice photographs.  However the opening details of the remaining 17 gardens are included at the back of the book along with a map showing where they are all located so you can plan your trips if you are that way inclined..

This is an enjoyable book – a nice coffee table book but also an interesting read to dip in and out of.

Weekly Photo Challenge – Shadowed



This week’s WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge is Shadowed.  I have toyed with the obvious ideas of shadows but instead have gone for a feeling of being shadowed from the heat of the day.

These photos were taken in July on the Isola Madre in Lake Maggiore in Italy.  The island is a botanic garden full of lush planting and shadows from the bamboos and are exotics create cool places to escape from the mid-day sun.