A Dream of an Herbaceous Border

I spent most of last week trundling around Yorkshire with a large group of friends indulging in visiting gardens, plant buying and eating cake – what’s not to love.  I have been on this holiday for four years now, to different parts of the UK, and this year for some reason I was acutely aware that my taste and preferences in terms of gardens had changed, or maybe had become clearer.  I also found it interesting that some of my preferences were at odds with many of my travelling companions and this seemed to be possibly a generational divide.

It is some years since I wrote ‘reviews’ about specific gardens as they can become quite repetitive to read and my plan was to write a post which captured the gardens that I loved, and why I loved them as well as what I didn’t feel enthusiastic about but maybe others did.  However, looking at my photos I got stuck at the first garden we visited which I adored and took so many photos of.  So before I write a more analytical post of the gardens I thought I would indulge in a little flurry of herbaceous border photos.

The garden in question is Felley Priory, which is in North Nottinghamshire – we stopped on the way to Yorkshire.  I had never heard of it before but I learnt from fellow travellers that it hosts a wonderful plant sale later in the year so obviously is well known in the area.

If you asked me if I liked topiary I think my response would be indifferent but when I stop and think about it I realise that there is a deep sub-conscious attraction to some of these idiosyncratic creations.  I love the topiary at Levens Hall in the Lake District which reminds me of Alice in Wonderland and whilst not on the same scale as Levens Hall I loved the humour in the topiary at Felley Priory.  The topiary is something you encounter before you come across the herbaceous borders which are behind the yew hedges you see in the photo above.

For me the borders were breathtaking.  The planting was of an exceptional quality with a high level of unobtrusive maintenance.  Being someone who struggles with plants flopping I spent some time peering between the plants to see if I could see what supports were being used.  Our group, including professional plant growers and gardeners, all felt that there was no support so well was it hidden.  But supports there were, hidden away and clearly demonstrating the benefits of putting in supports early in the season so the plants grow up through them and not my approach of retrospective staking which never looks good.

I also loved the colour combinations in the borders which was wide ranging but not clashing, as many of the borders we saw later in the week were.  There is also something about the scale of the flowers to each other.  Nothing is big and blowsey and overshadowing anything else.  Each plant is part of the overall whole but allowed to shine in its own way. Some of the other borders we saw elsewhere had a complete imbalance of flower size and colour meaning that the border did not make a cohesive whole but felt very bitty to me – well that was my view.

I really liked this part of the border which is essentially red, white and blue but so subtle due to the inclusion of the burgundy scabious which provides a good link between the red mondara and the blues of the phlox and the eryginium. The skill is that the mondara is a bluey red, if you know what I mean, as opposed to an orangey red again adding to a harmonious whole. I also loved that the gardeners were happy to use white meadow sweet which many would worry was a weed.  The meadow sweet isn’t planted in a large clump or solid ‘drift’ but instead the planting is starting to move more towards the matrix style of planting which we came across a few more times on our trip and is, for me, the way forward.

 

 

Garden Visit – the birthplace of Crocus

Last weekend I had the delight of visiting Brockhampton Cottage, near Ross on Wye with a group of friends from Hardy Plant Society.  Brockhampton Cottage is the home of Peter Clay, part owner of Crocus (the online plant company) and was designed with the help of Tom Stuart-Smith.

The house sits on top of a hill in a site of several acres.  As you can see the views from the house are stunning, probably more so from the upstairs windows.  You can see for miles. Peter showed us around the garden and spent time explaining the ethos behind the development of the garden and how it inadvertently led to the creation of Crocus.

Peter is not a gardener by trade, coming instead from a marketing background but having inherited the property back in the 1990s he decided to create the garden of his childhood dreams – that country garden surrounded by wild flowers and meadows; the ideal of many a retrospective childhood dream.

He learnt that with a large space he needed to plant in large quantities and quickly became frustrated with phoning around nurseries tracking down a couple of plants here and a couple there.  This led to a evening conversation with a close friend, where fuelled by beer, they postulated about how the new worldwide web should be able to change things and make it possible to choose plants to decorate your outside space just as you could chose furniture and paint to decorate your inside space. This mad idea is where Crocus was formed leading to Peter having a career he had never envisaged.

Around this time Peter met a young designer called Tom Stuart-Smith and asked him to help him with his garden, their collaboration on the garden as continued ever since.

What I found fascinating about this garden was the complete celebration of its location.  The view is king and Peter explained how having cleared the land in front of the house he decided to mirror the natural landscape by planting a range of trees of different sizes and shapes to reflect the variety of trees in the wider landscape.

We also learnt how having planted a selection of trees across the site, these were under-planted by box bushes which in their growth habit replicated the shrubby under-planting you could see in the distant landscape.

Close to the house the planting is more formal with wide herbaceous borders full of large drifts of perennials.  The intention is that the colour pallet is limited and is partly driven by the naturally pink coloured bricks of the house.  This house can be seen for miles and there is a conscious attempt to help it sit comfortably within its landscape through the use of climbers, with only white flowers, and the creation of three wide shallow steps across the front of the house to help ground the house.

As the planting moves away from the house the colours fade into whites and greens – many different greens and many textures again referencing the landscape.

The landscape drops steeply away from the side of the house and the view of the house is broken with these beech columns which also act to filter the wind coming through the valleys.

The meadows and the sweeping grass paths are the real triumph of this garden but tucked away along the side of the property is a shady garden with a brook which flows down the side of the property and is clothed in ferns, siberian irises and these wonderful Primula florindae which caused many oo’s and arh’s.  On reaching the bottom of the hill you find wide beds of foliage rich herbaceous plants primarily with white or cream foliage.  This planting is in large blocks following the matrix approach which Tom Stuart-Smith is known for and which works so well on this scale.

The visit was a delight and I took away some interesting thoughts and ideas to play with in my own space.

The garden opens under the National Garden Scheme each year to coincide with the orchids flowering in the meadows.

Beardless Iris Study Day

On Saturday  I had the pleasure of attending The Beardless Iris Society study day in the depths of Herefordshire.  I haven’t been to a plant study day for a few years now as I think I was just overwhelmed with plant information but the break has reinvigorated me and the programme appealed to my inner plant geek,

It was only fairly recently that I discovered that there was a Beardless Iris Society, a sub group of the British Iris Society.  In broad sweeping terms, which would probably be frown upon by stalwarts of the society, beardless irises are generally the Siberian irises and Japanese (Ensata) irises along with a few others which don’t have beards. Whilst some in attendance fained a dislike of Bearded Irises I think most, like me, just loved iris in whatever form they took.

The study day started with 3 talks.  A quick round up of Siberian Irises from Alun and Gill Whitehead, our hosts; a talk about European Beardless Iris by Tim Loe; and a talk about the Iridaceae family by Dr Julian Sutton of Desirable Plants.  Julian’s talks are always so informative and engaging and I learnt loads from all the talks; although there seemed to be a difference of opinion about the importance of the number of chromosomes in the hybridising of Iris sibrica  with Iris sanguinea and the significance of I. typhifolia. Most of it passed me by but I do find the discussion about these things fascinating even if I only understand a bit of it.

After a lovely lunch provided by our hosts we went for a visit to their garden, Aulden Farm, which hosts a national collection of Siberian Irises. As ever in the depths of Herefordshire the journey to the garden involved single track roads, encounters with tractors and lots of reversing – all good fun especially when you are in a convoy of 5 cars.

I haven’t been to Aulden Farm for years although I regularly chat with Gill at various plant events.  I seem to remember some years back when there was a drought and everything looked a little dry.  Not so this year, all very lush and bountiful.  Aulden Farm is the type of garden that really appeals to me.  It is a very natural garden without being a wilderness.  The grass fades into the full borders which overflow with all manner of interesting plants.  This isn’t a garden which relies on design and structure nor for that matter is it a garden which relies on unusual plants; it is a garden which seems to capture both extremes in a space which envelopes you in plants and wildlife with paths that encourage you to explore further.

The Whiteheads are plantsmen (or should I say plants people).  They are consummate growers and sell all manner of plants at various groups and events.  They also have an informal nursery at their garden for open gardens days under the NGS and other visitors.  Needless to say being a group of plant fanatics the nursery was the first stop for many.  As ever in these circumstances I take advantage of the distraction to get into the garden and take some photos before it fills with people.

One of the key feature of the main garden is a dry river bed which meanders across the site being more full of water one end than the other – I didn’t really get a handle on the logistics of it.  But the moisture creates the perfect environment for Siberian Irises -as you can see from the photos on this blog post.  They look so good in large clumps and they were so full of flowers unlike mine which have been very mean with their flowers this year.

For some reason I hadn’t really registered that there was a national collection to see in the garden, although I have been told this before but my brain is full of work stuff and was obviously have a sabbatical on Saturday.  Anyway, I was rather surprised to come across a gate leading to a large field like area of garden full of raised beds full of irises. As with any good national collection the beds have a clear planting plan displayed for visitors so you can mostly work out the name of the variety you are admiring. I liked most of them, my tastes are so catholic, but I was interested in the varieties with larger petals (or perianths as I think we were told to call them by Dr Sutton – must check my notes).  I am used to the more simple, natural siberian irises but the hybrids have three larger chunkier perianths which really appealed to me; but then I do love Ensata iris and these have a similar type of flower head.

Having admired the garden I found the nursery empty of visitors so time for me to browse the remains left and do a little plant buying.  On returning home and sorting out my acquisitions from the garden and plant sale in the morning I seem to have acquired 5 new irises which is rather troubling as I have no idea where I am going to shoehorn them into.

I had a lovely day, learnt lots, met interesting people, had good food, visited a lovely garden and bought plants – what more can you ask for.

The Real Flower Petal Confetti Company

This started as a Wordless Wednesday post but then I couldn’t choose which photo and now its a full blog post.

The Real Flower Petal Confetti Company are based in Pershore about 30 minutes from me.  As you can see they grow larkspur and cornflowers from which they make confetti.

I have wanted to visit for some years now but they only open for about 10 days a year when the flowers are looking stunning and I keep missing the opportunity.  However, with my youngest and fiancée getting married next June not far from the confetti fields it was the perfect opportunity to make sure we went for a look see last weekend.

Biodegradable confetti is becoming more popular in the UK as many venues prefer not to have to clean up piles of paper confetti or even rice.  Our wedding venue is located in a deer park and they have very strict rules that any confetti has to be edible by deer so flowers it is.

The sheer volume and colour was stunning.  Aside from poppy and rape fields I have never seen so many flowers growing in one area.  Even the wild flowers we saw in Texas were interspersed with lots of grass whereas this is hedge to hedge flowers.

As you can see I took many photos, mostly because I am looking for design inspiration for my embroidery design course.  I particularly liked the white larkspur with the cerise in the background.  There is something to my eye especially pleasing with the combination of the white flowers and their very green centres.

I foresee some very flowery embroidery design in the future, which no doubt will include my favourite stitch French Knots.

Wordless Wednesday: Bishops Palace Gardens, Wells

A garden of inspiration

The trouble I find with spending a number of days visiting gardens is the sensory overload.  So many gardens, plants, owners, ideas and experiences and when you then start to try and think about how to distil your experience into a blog post; well sometimes it seems to be a challenge too far.

I have a habit of writing blog posts almost immediately I return from a garden visit but work demands have got in the way and I find myself a week after my return skimming through my photos, only a 1000 in my case, trying to decide what to blog about. What strikes me is the direct correlation between the gardens I enjoyed and the number of photos of them.  In each case these gardens are very much those of enthusiastic plants people.  They are full of texture and form often more from plants than structure and they offer me inspiration on so many levels.

I think Jenny and David Stocker’s garden was the real winner for me.  We visiting on a very wet day, although by the time of our visit the rain was light but poor Jenny had experienced a trying time during the gullywasher earlier in the day.  However, despite the overcast skies the garden sang to me.

Initially, it was the extremely skilled placement of pots and small vignettes that intrigued me.  I can learn so much from these.  My pots end up scattered around the garden, randomly placed, but as you can see from the above a small collection with a mix of leaf shapes, size of pots and a couple of small accessories takes on a whole identity of its own; a small work of art.

The cacti remind us that we are indeed in Texas, and I have included it to humour those of my friends who are convinced I spent the week looking at cacti and tumble weed.  However, as you can see from these photos the garden is far from a barren landscape.  David and Jenny built their home on the side of a hill and enclosed the garden with a wall creating a sense of enclosure and presumably creating a microclimate.  I think I am right in saying that the various spaces between the house and perimeter wall create six different garden spaces each with its own theme. 

I think this is what Jenny calls the English Garden. I loved the exuberance of the flowers in this space.  There is no formal rigid border, instead the plants spill out over the paving creating a very naturalistic space and a space I would love to waste a few hours in, listening to the bird and insects and watching the lizards run along the wall (which we were lucky to do a couple of evenings later).

The first and third photos are of the front planting area which as you can see is full of large succulents.  I am not informed enough to attempt to name any of them but I loved the juxtaposition of the spiky succulents with the surrounding trees which I think are oaks.  I developed a  love of the trees in Austin which seem to have quite broad and open canopies giving much needed shade but also with their small leaves bringing a lovely diffused light to the space beneath. I have been trying to think of a tree I could use to create a similar effect in England.

I think one of the reasons I love this garden is because of the polished combination of very English plants such as the Aquilegias, Geraniums and Poppies with succulents and cacti; I think this one is a Prickly Pear. So often you see plants corralled into a restricted planting scheme – succulents, hardy exotics, herbaceous border – and never the twain shall meet.  Jenny has shown that you can ignore these preconceptions and building on the plant’s cultivation needs and looking carefully at colour, form and texture you an create exciting and intriguing planting.

Although Jenny has been blogging for as long as me, if not longer, I hadn’t come across her blog until this trip but I am now following her assiduously and I feel that I have found a kindred spirit albeit on the other side of the pond.

 

 

 

 

 

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Centre

The first of, I suspect,  many blog posts from my garden visits in Austin, Texas. Our first stop yesterday was the Lady Bird  Johnson Wildflower Centre, part of the University of Texas in Austin. The Centre, opened in 1982 by Lady Bird Johnson and Helen Hayes, is one of America’s  largest online native floral resources and is dedicated to the promotion of native species.

As  you can see from the oppressive sky the weather was not in our favour yesterday and we experienced what I think is called gullywasher  with just under 4″ of rain falling. There was just time to scoot around the garden taking photos before the heavens opened so I didn’t have much time to stop and consider what I was seeing so I think I will just share some photos to give you a flavour of just how pretty Texan flora is.

The first photo is a Lady Bird Johnson quote which I really liked and thought was so true in so ,any ways.

The idea here is that each of the square beds show you what native plants to use in what conditions – simple but effective.

I may well get a chance to return before I fly home so I may be able to expand upon this post later.

I hope this has wetted your appetite for more amazing Austin gardens, we certainly have seen some fantastic gardens already and there is more waiting for us tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What makes a good border?

Double Herbaceous borders, Arley Hall, Cheshire

So what makes a good border these days? A thought that dogged me on my recent visit to gardens predominantly in Cheshire. And what do we mean by border? Is a good border classed as a typical herbaceous border as seen at Arley Hall or has that doyenne of the Victorian grand garden lost its edge and been replaced with more relaxed and mixed planting?

Bluebell Cottage Garden, Cheshire

This border, well large square island bed, at Bluebell Cottage has almost the same range of plants as the famous double borders at Arley Hall and yet for me they have more vibrancy and make my heart sing more. But what is it about the second border that speaks to me – again and again this came up over the trip.  The Arley Hall borders are historic, allegedly the oldest double herbaceous borders in the country but they haven’t stood still in time as new introductions have come along the planting is refreshed. However, unlike the Bluebell Cottage plants the Arley Hall plants are staked within an inch of their lives.  Don’t get me wrong the staking is unobtrusive but it is there and the plants are standing to attention, all neat and tidy.  By contrast Bluebell Cottage has limited staking, if any, in fact the owner, Sue Beesly, advocates moving borders into the centre of the garden as the plant grow more upright away from shading fences, hedges and trees.  Maybe the freer movement of the plants is what appeals?

Abbeywood Estate, Cheshire

The Prairie Borders at Abbeywood Estate from a distance impress on their sheer audacious scale, colour and textures but they are essentially large blocks which can become a little flat when considered for any length of time. Again, many of the same plants are present here as in the top photos.

Abbeywood Estate, Cheshire

Here is a shot of the same borders but closer up and consciously taken to give interest to the picture.  The colours work well and harmonious and there is texture.  This is possibly bringing us nearer to a rationale for my preferences.  I had never considered that I liked harmony in the colours in a garden and have avoided colour themed gardens as too contrived but maybe there is something about colour harmonies that is important to a good border.

Abbeywood Estate, Cheshire

And then there is texture and that often means foliage and I do love good foliage.  The tropical borders at Abbeywood Estate bowled me over so exuberant and masterfully constructed but again there is an element of harmony in the combinations of the colours here.

Trentham Gardens

I had high hopes for the Italianate Garden at Trentham, after all it has been designed by a top designer, but there was no quickening of the heart, no sighs and to be honest few photos taken (always a sign of disengagement).  Maybe it was the sheer scale that put me off but I think the planting is also too contrived for my taste – box hedging and fastigiate yews have never been my thing.

Trentham Gardens, Stoke on Trent

But the wildflower meadow planting was another thing altogether. Whilst there was a feeling that there was just too many white flowers in the planting the overall effect was loose, generous, floriferous and alive with insects.  You felt immersed in a world of flowers.

So it seems that the criteria for my perfect border is colour harmonies, texture, loose planting with minimum staking, and wildlife.

Grafton Cottage

Which brings us to the final garden of our trip, Grafton Cottage.  A tiny country cottage garden whose borders had consumed the instruction manual on planting a border, digested it and then spat it back out reconfigured.  Here we had colour harmony taken to a new level, possibly too far in some cases.  Borders of blues, purples and white; yellows, oranges and red; pinks and purples.  Textures, flower shapes, you name it the borders had it by the bucket load.

Grafton Cottage

It was quite breath-taking and you wondered how so much could be growing in such a small space.  Investigation showed that again staking was at the root of the success of this border.  Geranium flowers were lifted up from their normal sprawling mess and held upright allowing the flowers to be seen but also to take up less space. The same was true of the Dieramas which were held more upright than they would normally grow.  Maybe this was just too much – like a child who has gorged on an illicit box of chocolates I felt like I had experienced a huge sugar rush and then a sense of queasiness.

So what is the answer, what is the perfect border?  Well after a week with 36 obsessive gardeners my conclusion is that it is different for everyone. For some the formality and horticultural prowess of borders such as Arley Hall is something to aspire to;  others prefer the soft relaxed borders of Bluebell Cottage. For me I think it is a bit of all of the above – after all these are photos from the best gardens we saw – they each have something special, something to learn from, to take away and ponder but in the meantime the front border of Grafton Cottage with its mix of happy annual was a delight to my over stimulated mind.

Windy Ridge 

Windy Ridge, Little Wenlock
There is a faint possibility that my gardening mojo may be within faint sight of the horizon, it certainly has been away somewhere for most of this year. However, I am spending a few days with gardening friends visiting gardens largely based in Cheshire, last year we went to Essex and Suffolk, and there is the twinkle of inspiration forming somewhere in my mind.

Our journey north today was broken up by three gardens, all very distinct from each other not only in size but in style and it was the second one, Windy Ridge that I enjoyed most.

As you might suppose from the garden’s name it is located on a ridge and is windy according to the owners. However I think any wind is mitigated by the wealth of trees, hedges and shrubs in and around the garden.

This is a plantsman’s  garden but one that benefits from having at least one of its owners with an eye for colour, texture and form. The owners, Fiona Chancellor and her husband, whose name I strangely didn’t get, have gardened the two thirds of an acre plot for some thirty years. As you can see the quality of then horticulture and maintenance is exemplary but whilst the quality of the lawn may have impressed me it was the planting around the pond and also the gravel border that I really enjoyed.

I love gunneras but have never had a garden big enough to accommodate it. Here at Windy Ridge you push past the gunnera to find your way down a path to the back of the pond. I love planting that grows in volume as the season progresses bringing with it a temporary feeling of mystery and surprise to the garden. In any case I am a bit of a foliage nut so all the ferns, bamboo and oversized gunnera leaves were bound to make me happy.

More sumptuous foliage, there is hardly any colour in this picture except for green and yet it is alive with interest from the tall vertical leaves of the irises to the round shiny discs of the water lilies, one texture building on another giving depth and interest.

I’m not generally a fan of topiary and have a perverse dislike for box purely because it seems to be what everyone grows; the more people rave about something the less likely I am to engage with it. However, I did like the box at Windy Ridge. I liked the way the box ball give structure and rhythm to the planting. Their presence allows the surrounding planting to be freer and almost more informal; I suppose the balls anchor the planting.

So there was lots to learn from Windy Ridge, things to mull over in the future which is a nice feeling.

Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion)

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Ginkaku-ji (The Silver Pavilion) was our first Japanese garden of the tour and delivered on many of the archetypal Japanese garden elements. I’ve already shown you the Golden Pavilion, the garden of Yoshimitsu, and the Silver Pavilion is the garden of his grandson, Yoshimasa (1435-1490).

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Ginkaku-ji is home to some early examples of the dry landscape gardens of the late Muromachi era; these symbolise the ocean and the mountain. The ocean (above) is represented by ginshanada which means ‘silver sand open sea’ and you can see that the sand is raked to represent the waves.  I am curious as to how often the sand has to be raked.  Having peered at it and other sand gardens we saw it seems that the sand must be combined with something to keep it in shape, otherwise surely when it rains the patterns would be destroyed.  You can just about see how sharp the edges of the sand platform are and to my simple mind the sand must have been treated in some way to keep this looking good.

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Again, looking at the second element of the sand garden – the mountain, kogestsudai, a ‘platform facing the moon’, you can see how precise the shape is especially the flat top. The dry sand elements are based on zen principles and are intended for contemplation.

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I have to admit to being left rather cold by the sand gardens we saw, particularly as they are so antiseptic in appearance encouraging no wildlife whatsoever.

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I much preferred the garden away from the dry sand garden.  Near the Silver Pavilion you have a strolling garden which is a variation of the gardens, exemplified by the Golden Pavilion and would probably have originally been intended to be viewed from boats on the lake or from within the temples.  The current garden is much diminished in size from Yoshimasa’s time having only two buildings left of the original twelve.

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Having done some research since my return this waterfall could well be the ‘sengestsu-sen’ waterfall which means ‘spring in which the moon washes’ and apparently it is intended to capture the reflection of the moon ‘washing’ itself in the waters.  I much prefer the greenness of this part of the garden over the grey of the dry sand.

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From the lower part of the garden you traverse steep paths up the slopes to the upper garden from where you have wonderful views out over Kyoto. The upper garden is a moss garden with streams, islands and bridges. The path then brings you back past the Silver Pavilion.

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The Silver Pavilion is a bit of an enigma as there are no silver elements so no rationale for it name.  As Ginkaku-ji was not finished before Yoshimasa’s death in 1490 then I suppose its possible that there was an intention to finish the Pavilion along the lines of the Golden Pavilion, other theories are that the name was coined to distinguish it the two Pavilions or alternatively because the moon’s light was reflected off the building’s former dark timber.

The pavilion you see in these photos was reconstructed in 2010; we soon learnt during our travels that few of the buildings we saw were original.  Hardly surprising given the construction is based on timber, prone to fires and earthquake damage.

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For me the nicest part of the garden was up in the high garden amongst the trees, which were slowly changing colour for the Autumn, and looking out across Kyoto.

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Whilst I was bowled over by the splendour of the Golden Pavilion, I preferred the quieter gentleness of the Silver Pavilion garden.