Orchid hunting, part 3: Park Gate Down

We left Yocklett’s Bank and the Fly Orchids and cruised through the countryside, which was fluffy and white with cow parsley and new lambs. Our destination, Park Gate Down, lay deep in the North Downs of Kent, accessed by single-track roads so narrow our small car passed through with centimeters to spare.

Park Gate Down is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (or ‘TripleSI’ as I learned to call them at the Botanics). It is mostly chalk grassland and is famous among botanists for being home to 14 British native orchid species. We parked the car and walked into a beautiful valley, hazy in the spring sunshine.

We’d come to Park Gate Down seeking the Monkey Orchid (Ochis simia). This site is one of only three in the U.K. where this truly rare orchid grows.

As we passed through a series of fields there were lots of cowslips (Primula veris) but no Monkey Orchids to be seen. We did, however, see the lovely native columbine, Aquilegia vulgaris, our first sighting of this plant in the wild. There were a few fellow orchid-spotters about, and we passed a man leaving the valley with a large camera swung over his shoulder. We asked him if he’d had any luck finding Monkeys and he said they were just coming into bloom. He’d found one but it was a real challenge given the size of the site.

As we continued up the valley we did see some orchids, including Fly Orchids, an unopened Butterfly Orchid, below, and lots of Early Purple Orchids which are challenging to differentiate from Monkeys at a glance. We were in a series of three huge fields, and our hopes at locating a flower of just a few centimeters tall amongst the grass and hillocks were growing dim.

And then as we were heading out of the valley I stepped over a tussock of grass and almost landed on our prize: a Monkey Orchid right at my feet! I shouted to my husband who came bounding over, ecstatic. And there it was, this little plant no taller than a cowslip, our first Monkey Orchid.

You can see how the Monkey Orchid gets its name, with its “tail” hanging between its “legs.” It was just starting to come into bloom.

We spent a long time lying on the grass admiring our Monkey and marveling at our luck to have found it in such a huge space. It was truly a thrill of discovery that I can only imagine we’ve shared with centuries of plant hunters throughout time. Of course, the plant hunters of old would have picked or dug up their finds for transport back to their sponsors, but all we wanted to do was tread lightly on the earth and admire.

Our day of orchid hunting in the North Downs was the best day we’ve had living in southeast England and one we will not forget. Next year we look forward to discovering some of the later-flowering orchids and exploring the botany of a new area of the country.

Orchid hunting, part 2: Yockletts Bank

We reluctantly left Denge Wood and drove a few miles to Yockletts Bank. We turned up a lane that was, to me, the most perfect representation of a British woodland in spring. Bear’s garlic, Allium ursinum, carpeted the forest floor. Also known as ramsons, this was the plant we’d enjoyed with nettles a few weeks earlier in a spring tonic soup.

We headed into the woodland and met a nice stand of lady orchids, Orchis purpurea, in a clearing. But what we were after was much more subtle and hard to spot: the fly orchid, Ophrys insectifera.

And find it we did. There’s an orchid in the photo below. Can you spot it? This photo gives you an idea of just how small and challenging these particular orchids can be to see.

Elated with our discovery we continued on through the woods to find these intriguing trees. I dubbed them ‘resurrection ashes’ because new trees had grown vertically from where an old tree had fallen. If there ever is an actual incarnation of immortality, these trees may be it.

Further down the path we noticed a few tell-tale twigs just to the side of the path. We had both read Leif Bersweden’s recent book, The Orchid Hunter, and remembered that people will often use twigs to subtly mark/protect orchids. These twigs were guarding another small population of fly orchids.

We headed out of the wood and back to the car, enjoying the wonderful natural plant combinations growing on the verge. This mix of Allium ursinum; cow parsley, Anthriscus sylvestris, the fern, Asplenium scolopendirum; and the delicate grass, Melica uniflora, was a study in perfect plant combinations. I went to the Chelsea Flower Show a few days later and saw few plant combinations to rival what nature created right here on Yockletts Bank.

Up next, our final stop on our day of orchid hunting, and an excellent stop it was.

Tipping it down

It’s raining, it’s pouring. Finally, and not a moment too soon. I cannot remember the last time I left my house in the morning rain to have it still raining when I returned ten hours later. 2018? And—cherry on top—we just got a few good cracks of lightning and some blessed rolls of thunder. Summer thunder and lightning, so rare in Britain, are two things I really miss from home.

After last summer’s drought, we had a pretty dry winter, a very dry spring, and just last week the whispers of the dreaded hosepipe ban gained volume. The plants—both those I tend and those growing wild—had a drawn-in and dusty look I associate with conservation of their most precious resource. When the plants feel stressed the gardener feels stressed, no two ways about it. No amount of hosepipe watering, an emergency measure at best, can make up for a good long soaking rain like we’ve had today. Tonight, I can physically feel the plants relaxing, stretching and unfurling as their leaves grow turgid again. Now, if they could only pick themselves up from where they’ve fallen face-down in the mud…

I never dreamed when I moved to England that I’d go through two summers in a row anxiously watching the live radar, willing the little green blobs to move over my garden. I suspect this unease is new to many gardeners in Britain, some of whom may have taken rainfall for granted. I come from a place where hot, dry summers are more typical than not, and where browned out grass in August is the norm. So I’ve lived it, but that doesn’t mean I like it, especially now that I live in a country where the high quality of horticulture has traditionally been possible because of naturally copious rain.

Today we’ve gotten a bit of a reprieve, and I’ll turn the central heating back on and pour myself a wee whisky to celebrate. It’s not your typical summer tipple, but as temperatures head back into the 40s tonight (single digits in Celsius), it seems appropriate. Thank goodness for this rain.

A few from Sissinghurst, late spring

I’ll take a short break from orchid hunting to share these photos of Sissinghurst, taken May 26. The garden has definitely tipped into its summer chaos, with so many plants blooming together it is hard to take it all in. I’ve realized little and often is the best way for me to experience Sissinghurst in the high season.

On this visit the stars of the show were the German bearded iris, especially those blooming in a long row in the cutting garden. Sissinghurst has quite a collection of historic cultivars, including many of the Benton irises bred by the painter Sir Cedric Morris. Many of them are subtle, with tea-stained coloring that I find intriguing. Dan Pearson has a few good images here, and I was absolutely inspired by his latest image of his Bentons. If anyone could make a bang-up-to-date planting combining a concrete wall and vintage irises, it would have to be Dan. The Sissinghurst irises, below, are identified on hover if the cultivar is known.

Iris ‘Benton Susan’

Iris ‘Beottie’ with Erysimum 'Chelsea Jacket'

Iris ‘Lula Marguerite’

Iris ‘Benton Caramel’

The last of the late-flowering tulips are going over. This is a pretty combination of ‘James Last,’ which I trialled and liked at home this year, and the shorter ‘Blue Parrot.’

The newly replanted purple border is starting to knit together, with Lupin ‘Masterpiece’ stealing the show.

A new planting in the top courtyard is filling in nicely. Lots of good texture here with different leaf forms.

Orchid hunting, part 1: Denge Wood and Bonsai Bank

Southeast England, and in particular Kent, is known to have strong orchid populations including some species that are rare in Britain. And so it was in the spirit of great plant hunters’ past that my husband and I set out for a day of orchid hunting on May 18. Unlike the collectors who walked before us, our aim was to only botanize and take a few photos, not entire plants. The practice of plant collection can, and historically has, massively damaged native plant populations and their ability to reproduce and survive. As conservation-minded and responsible horticulturists uprooting or picking plants would be the last thing we would do. It is enough to just see these beautiful plants growing wild.

Our first stop was Denge Wood, an ancient semi-natural woodland on the North Downs. We began our walk through a stunning beech forest that was doing just what makes me love beech woodlands so much, creating a dynamic interplay of light and shadow on fresh, new spring leaves. Nothing else approaches the feeling of being in a living cathedral like a beech woodland. The bluebells were just going over but I could tell they had been a stunning carpet below the green canopy.

As we continued walking the forest opened up to include other tree species, including conifers and birch, and more grassland. It was then that we found what we were after: our first Lady Orchid, Orchis purpurea, growing tucked up right next to a yew. It was huge, with a raceme that was about eight inches long. You can see how the orchid gets its name—look for the lady in her dark bonnet and fluffy skirts.

As we continued along the track we met an older man walking the unlikely combination of an Afghan hound and a miniature poodle. We stopped to chat and as he’d visited the site for years he filled us in on all the orchids in the area and what we could expect to see. Once he learned we were botanists he fed us all sorts of intel about orchiding in Kent. Then he motioned us toward Bonsai Bank, where our horticultural lives changed forever.

The open forest/scrubland was full of Lady Orchids as far as the eye could see. In addition to Lady Orchids we saw many Common Twayblades, Neottia ovata, which are easily overlooked because they are the exact color of the surrounding grass. Once you “get your eye in,” they are easy to spot by their relatively large and rounded leaves.

While I was photographing the orchids I heard a rustling nearby and just caught this grass snake navigating under a thick layer of moss. In the almost five years I have lived in Britain I have seen only two snakes, both tiny and inconspicuous, as well as one slow worm (a legless lizard). Coming from a land where snakes are usually much larger, sometimes venomous, and have a penchant for living around human dwellings I admit the relatively smaller size and harmlessness of British snakes is one of the things I love about living here.

We continued on walking amongst the orchids, enjoying a display that had us both in awe. I really enjoyed seeing the variation in the Lady Orchids. Some were almost white and others deep purple. They were so thick it was hard to photograph them for fear of treading on others, or the later-flowering species yet to come.

There were a few other orchid enthusiasts on the bank, mostly men with great big camera gear, but it was quiet enough that we could easily be alone with the orchids. A very common plant in this area is a native British dogwood, Cornus sanguinea, growing at the base of the Lady Orchid below.

The man we met on the path had told us that a White Helleborine, Cephalanthera damasonium, had been spotted in this general area but was hard to find. And wouldn’t you know it, I found two while wandering alone down a path. They were growing right next to a Lady Orchid and a Common Twayblade, with other, later orchid species waiting to flower. Three orchid species in one photo is a pretty great find. Can you spot the White Helleborine and Common Twayblade, below?

We brought along a text we spent a lot of time with while studying botany at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh: The Wild Flower Key by Francis Rose. It takes a bit of practice to learn to use a floral key, as well as a good understanding of plant anatomy in order to differentiate your sepals from your stipules. But with time it is an excellent way to correctly identify specimens. Here we’re working on IDing this yet-unflowered orchid.

We had a few more stops planned on our great orchid-hunting day, so with reluctance we left Bonsai Bank and hiked back out through the magical beech woodland.

In Part 2, we continue our day of orchid hunting in Kent with some new discoveries and a woodland so beautiful it put everything at Chelsea to shame.

Orchid season begins

A few days into May my husband and I took one of our usual evening walks around the fields and woodlands near our home. We were headed to check a sunny bank that last year had a nice population of early purple orchids, Orchis mascula.

Well, the usual site had a good few flower spikes, but when we ventured off our track a bit we found the motherlode:

It is hard to put into words our excitement at this scene. Wild British orchid have always captivated me with their strange and complex beauty, ephemeral nature, choosiness of their growing sites, and in some cases, their rarity. I am not alone in my admiration—in the last few years several popular books have been written about the quest to see British orchids growing in the wild.

This particular site, photographed on May 3, is a west-facing grassy bank growing between an old coppice woodland and a newly planted woodland site. The bluebells were just wrapping up their show, and could still be seen among the orchids. The dogs mercury, Mercurialis perennis, along with the orchids, told me the site had been undisturbed for some time. Also growing with the orchids were brambles and foxgloves.

We spent a long time sitting amongst the orchids, just enjoying their beauty as the sun set. I wanted to wait until the sun popped below a thick bank of clouds, hoping it would illuminate the orchids for a sunny shot. Thankfully I married a patient man who loves few things more than spending the evening with me in a field of beautiful and unusual native plants. Orchid season has begun.

What happens to a garden when the spotlight goes off?

Last weekend my husband and I made the long trek out to east London to visit the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. When the park was built to host the 2012 Olympic Games, much of the horticultural world’s attention fixated on the project’s ambitious gardens. They helped make Sarah Price a household name amongst working garden designers, and brought even more attention to the work that the University of Sheffield’s James Hitchmough and Nigel Dunnett do with plant communities, meadows, and naturalistic plantings. The resulting gardens, which focused on plants from various regions around the world, looked stunning and won deserved praise at the time.

I didn’t visit the garden when it was at its peak, but I have always enjoyed the pictures of the display. And although the past seven years have seen a fair bit of press lamenting the garden’s decline, I still wanted to see it for myself. So a cold and overcast April day found me wandering what turned out to be an almost empty, post-apocalyptic site, combing the weed-infested banks for any sign of the gardens they once held. Here and there I could discern what once would have been the meadows, planned to very high spec by two leading researchers in ecological planting design.

But now most of the intended plantings were smothered in weeds such as Galium aparine.

The “2012 Gardens,” each designed around a different area of the world, fared a bit better than the meadows. I could at least tell that they had been “gardens” at one point, though it was clear that certain plants had begun to take over where others had died out, such as in the European garden where the euphorbia and phlomis appeared to be running the show. For images of this garden when it was created, visit Nigel Dunnett’s Web site here. Sarah Price also has a lot of nice images on her site here.

There was a lot of bare ground, and though it is still early in the season I had a hard time imagining how so much empty space would elegantly fill in with anything other than the weeds which were again rampant.

Sadly, the boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) that carried the evergreen structure of the gardens had been badly damaged by box blight. Its strangely chamfered top also seemed out of character with the intended style of the plantings and didn’t match the photos of the gardens when they were new.

I’m not sure why the gardens have reached their current state, though I suspect that once the spotlight of the Olympics shut off it probably became hard to justify the maintenance of these extensive plantings. It is possible that the plantings were just too complicated for the gardeners to maintain. The meadows especially would have required a highly trained horticulturist to differentiate between desired self-seeded seedlings and unwanted weeds in order to maintain the design’s balance. A lot has been written about the park and how the dreams that it would revitalize a “wasteland” area of London have failed to come to pass. For more, read here and here.

Though the overall impression of the 2012 Gardens was of a space that’s been neglected and lost its way, there were a few spots that still held potential, or if not potential at least its ghost. Certain sections seemed better tended and like they had enough robust plants to fill in and provide adequate ground cover to smother weed seedlings. I know it is early spring, and it is possible that some areas could knit together into passable designs come autumn.

I was also impressed by the interpretation boards that accompanied each region’s garden. They were meaty enough for a plantsperson like me, yet still accessible to a park visitor with no horticultural background.

My visit to the park left me with more questions than answers, and was a good learning experience. It’s easy to photograph and write about beautifully designed, pristinely maintained gardens, but those images often disguise the money, hard graft, and professional commitment by trained horticulturists that it takes to really keep a garden looking its best. It’s good to see, and to show others, just what can happen when a garden that starts out with all the advantages — a stimulating site, healthy budget, world-class talent and well-grown plants — declines. It sparks a lot of questions about why we garden, and what the ultimate goal is of our work.

The plantsperson in me is pained to see a garden fall to ruin, and not only because of the huge waste of money, labor, and time. I know the mental, physical, and emotional energy that goes into creating a garden, not only on the part of the garden designer but also the scores of supporting acts who actually source, grow, transport, install, and provide aftercare to the plants. Might there be an unspoken contract that creators of artificial nature, which gardens most definitely are, are obliged to carry on caring for their creations?

And yet the artist in me can easily see how gardens could be viewed as installation art, as large and living set pieces that are never intended to exist beyond their time in the spotlight. Then is decline the final act in the performance?

And the ecologist in me is frankly fascinated by succession. What happens when you throw a bunch of plants together and walk away, leaving a free-for-all where stronger competitors can run rampant and any bit of bare soil becomes the site of a life-or-death land grab?

These are all important questions that will continue to take my lifetime to tease apart.

Sissinghurst, start of spring

On the last day of March I crept around Sissinghurst as the sun went down. The garden was just coming online, with structure in the pruned roses and bare tree branches providing a moment of calm before the leaves and flowers fill in to create the voluptuous abundance for which the garden is known. I love Sissinghurst best in spring, before the summer excess creates a visual chaos that I sometimes find hard to process. In spring I can really take my time to notice and appreciate each plant both on its own and in carefully considered combinations.

As always, the beautiful red brick walls make Sissinghurst for me, creating negative spaces around the plants that are sometimes more engaging than the flowers. The architecture is as important as the plantings, and I believe it is their symbiosis that gives the garden its sense of romantic envelopment. The brick of Sissinghurst is like candlelight: in it everyone looks good.

More early spring at Sissinghurst here, and here.

Spring in a British woodland

Spring in Britain has a slow, sweet delicacy that I find so different from spring in Virginia, where I used to live. Spring in Virginia is stunning, with blooming redbuds and dogwood harmonizing with blue mountains and the first green leaves. But despite its beauty, spring never seems to last very long and most years you can feel summer breathing down its neck with a heat that causes the earliest blossoms to prematurely surrender.

Not so in Britain, where spring takes its sweet time, stretching out with weeks of flowers that follow in well-paced succession. The snowdrops kick things off, along with the first few buds of blackthorn. Then come the lesser celandine, dog’s mercury, and wood anemone, right around the time the primroses light up the forest floors. Then cowslips take up the torch from the fading primroses. Lady’s smock, wild garlic, and the dog violet cover the ground while the wild cherries and sloes haze the the fields with white. Ancient pears and apples come online in abandoned orchards. Then bloom bluebells and the first orchids, just before the hawthorns and cow parsley froth the countryside into a white wonderland. The whole process lasts a good few months and is so stunning that when the last of the cow parsley fades I always feel a major let down.

There is an old coppice near the farm where I live in Kent, and I frequently walk through it on my evening rambles. The other week I was stunned to find the entire forest floor carpeted with yellow wild primroses, Primula vulgaris. I had never seen so many in my life, and the effect in the low evening sun was fascinating. Tucked amongst them were dog violets (Viola riviniana), early bluebells, and even a tiny barren strawberry, Potentilla sterilis.

Primroses do particularly well in old coppices and woodlands, which allow light in during spring. This increases the amount of seed produced and also encourages seeds to germinate. But then as the trees leaf out and the canopy closes, it creates a moist and shady environment that woodland plants need to thrive. With the decline in coppicing, there has been a decline in the spread of wild primroses.

I found a secret population of wild early purple orchids (Orchis mascula) last year, and was happy to find that this year they seem to have spread. This is just one clump on a bank full of orchids, which will begin blooming next month.

The first of the bluebells are just starting to bloom. I even found a white bluebell, which, if it is actually a native bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) and not a hybrid or introduced garden-escapee Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica), is rare indeed.

Wood anemone, Anemone nemorosa, flowering along a streambank, surrounded by wild garlic, Allium ursinum. I’ve already enjoyed a spring tonic of wild garden and nettle soup this year.

One of my favorite British wildflowers, lady’s smock or cuckooflower, Cardamine pratensis, growing with the first feathery leaves of cow parsley, Anthriscus sylvestris.

Although I have devoted my life to gardening and had the opportunity to visit some of the finest gardens in the world, it is remarkable to me that the British woodland in spring is about as perfect a garden as one will ever see. Elegant in its simplicity, engaging in how plants naturally find their own “right place,” and long-blooming with perfectly timed succession, it provides a template for what gardens can and should be.

Prunus 'Accolade'

Three unseasonably warm days in February jump-started spring this year, bringing blossom and birdsong when last year we were still held firmly in the grip of the Beast from the East. Those three warm days, however, were followed by three weeks of back-to-back storms that brought high winds, downed trees, and restless nights. And then we hit a patch of middling grey. No rain, no wind, just flat grey for yet another week.

Overcast days can suck the life out of gardens, but there are some plants that fight back with a seemingly internal light. One such plant is Prunus ‘Accolade,’ an incredibly early flowering ornamental cherry that even kicks out the occasional bloom in deep winter. The specimen in the garden I tend for work has been the object of my fascination this past week as it has begun to bloom in earnest. This tree is planted on a slope in an area we call the wild garden, and its unique position means I can easily get underneath to stare up into its blooms, offset by dark yew behind.

Prunus ‘Accolade’ is a hybrid cross between Prunus sargentii, a species cherry that offers something interesting in all seasons, and the small, winter-flowering Prunus x subhirtella. Majestic Trees describes ‘Accolade’ as “breathtakingly luminous on the dull days of March,” and having been through a run of just such days I could not agree more. This tree glows. Even next to other beloved cherries, such as Prunus x yedoensis, which was the first tree I planted at my farm, ‘Accolade’ has something special.

The color of the blossoms ranges from soft pink to white, depending on the age of the flower, and it never steps over the line into lurid as some cherries can. Viewed from below on an overcast grey day, the lighter blossoms blend into the sky in a captivating visual trick.

The evening after taking these pictures I was reading Dan Pearson’s recent book, Natural Selection (Guardian, 2017), in which he wrote:

What I like about writing is the act of capturing the process of gardening, of distilling these experiences into words. Some thoughts draw to conclusions and are satisfying as a result, but others are equally interesting for remaining in flux. The writing might interrogate a colour, a feeling or a place. It might capture a moment that I know will only happen once, perfection existing for minutes and then passing: the experience of standing under a cherry when the very first blooms are opening, or the perfume of a solitary lily. Writing helps to keep these experiences present and alive and in the memory.

Well, this year I’ve stood spellbound under ‘Accolade’ as she opened her first buds, and I don’t think I will forget this tree any time soon. It provided my first transcendental gardening moment of the new year, fittingly on the first week of spring, and it is all the more appreciated because I know it is already almost over. When I left work on Friday the cherry petals were beginning to carpet the lawn, and by Monday there may be more on the ground that overhead. But for those few days, ‘Accolade’ was perfection.


Frosty, foggy

It’s been a week of frosty, foggy mornings, and today I crept out of the house before seven to walk the fields and forests around my home. Despite the ice underfoot the bluebell shoots are pushing up while the primrose rosettes are beginning to green again. Though I know it is far from over, it hasn’t been a bad winter, and more often than not there has been great beauty between the greys.

Sweet peas Part 2: Variety library

When shopping for sweet peas, or any flowering plants really, I find it very difficult to know just what I’m getting. The quality of plant photography, printing, and computer monitor displays vary so widely that varieties depicted in catalogs or online often bear no resemblance to reality. As I’ve fallen further down the sweet pea wormhole, I find that the only real way to know exactly what a bloom will look like is to grow it myself. This makes color planning a bit hit-and-miss, but the thrill of discovering a variety even more spectacular than its Web presence is worth the inevitable disappointment when some fail to deliver.

I do a lot of research before I order my seeds, and look at as many photos as possible in order to average them out in my mind to what I think I might get. I’ve often wished for more accurate descriptions of varieties and their colors, with photographs that were created to be as true to reality as possible. Having not yet found such a resource, I have decided to start one myself. What follows are images as closely aligned with what I perceive to be how the flowers actually look. As always, your computer monitor may vary, but this may still be helpful in some way. If nothing else this is a record for me of what I have grown, and what I’d grow again.

In 2018 I grew:

  • ‘Piggy Sue’: a pale ivory with peach tones

  • ‘Kingfisher’: supposedly a pale blue but this came up a bright red, pointing to a mistake from the seed supplier

  • ‘Nimbus’: an almost-grey flake with deep purple-red streaks

  • ‘Maloy’: coral orange'

  • ‘Noel Sutton’: solid mid-blue

  • ‘Betty Maiden’: white with purple blue flake'

  • ‘Oban Bay’: very pale blue, almost white

  • ‘Dorothy Ekford’: white

  • ‘Earl Grey’: purple and maroon flake

  • ‘Blackberry’: deep red

  • ‘Hero’: very dark blue

I had a few seeds left over from those I’d randomly collected off student plots my first year studying in Edinburgh. One of them turned out to be a very pretty lavender, which though it was a color I don’t think I would have bought, I ended up loving. Too bad I’ll never know its name!

I was excited to grow a coral orange sweet pea called ‘Maloy,’ which came heavily recommended by Floret. However, the second image perfectly illustrates why I consider ‘Maloy’ to be a failure. It’s just too hard to work into bouquets, especially as my tastes tend toward the cooler sweet pea colors. I was also disappointed with the white, ‘Dorothy Ekford.’ It’s an old-fashioned sweet pea, and thus smaller-flowered than the modern varieties, but it didn’t do much for me.

‘Piggy Sue’ was pretty and blended well into arrangements. The mid-blue ‘Noel Sutton’ was okay—it had nice big flowers but didn’t really get my pulse going. There may be more interesting blues out there. ‘Blackberry’ and ‘Hero’ served their purpose to provide some deeper tones in arrangements, but two sweet peas I grew at work, ‘Windsor,’ and ‘King-Sized Navy Blue’ were better options for those colors.

‘Earl Grey’ and ‘Nimbus’ were similar in that ‘Nimbus’ took on almost sinister tones. I know it is very popular among cut flower growers, but something about it didn’t thrill me. I imagine it could be very beautiful combined with flowers other than sweet peas, and silver foliage such as Senecio cineraria , so I won’t discount it. I liked ‘Earl Grey’ and found it a beefed-up version of ‘Senator,’ my favorite of the sweet peas I grew in Edinburgh, though ‘Earl Grey’ was less deliciously scented.

My favorite of the bunch was ‘Oban Bay,’ which was an ethereal pale blue that bordered on white. I also liked ‘Betty Maiden,’ a variety I first met in the demonstration garden at the Botanics in Edinburgh. It is white with a blue stripe, or “flake.”

In Edinburgh I grew:

  • 'Charlie's Angel’: mid- to pale-blue

  • 'North Shore’: dark and mid-blue bicolor

  • 'Jilly’: lovely ivory

  • ‘Senator’: maroon and purple flake

  • ‘Champagne Bubbles’: ivory and peach

  • ‘Almost Black’: very dark purple

I actually liked all of these and would grow them again, though ‘Champagne Bubbles’ wasn’t as robust as ‘Piggy Sue’ and had similar coloration.

I now have my seeds for this year’s sowing, so stay tuned to find out what I will grow and how these new varieties stack up against the ones pictured in this post.

Sweet peas Part 1: Sowing and growing

The longer days are quickly returning, and my thoughts now turn to what I will grow in 2019. I’ve started placing seed orders, and with each envelope that appears through the mail slot I get more excited by the possibilities ahead.

An especially important package arrived last week with my sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus) seeds from Roger Parsons. Since moving to Britain I have become a bit obsessed by sweet peas, most likely because they were impossible to grow well in my native Virginia climate. It just got too hot, too fast for them in the spring.

When I was living in Edinburgh I grew my first sweet peas supported by jute netting attached to the front of my house. They didn’t have much root run in their raised planter, but I got decent-enough blooms that I was hooked. They were so intricate and sensual with their ruffled flowers and evocative scent. They seemed the antithesis of zinnias, cosmos, and all the other bold, scentless hot-climate flowers I’d grown in Virginia. I slept with sweet pea posies on my nightstand that summer, and knew I’d grow sweet peas as long as I lived in Britain.

Last year—my first in Kent—I sowed my sweet pea seeds on Feb. 27 into root trainers. I didn’t knick, soak, or otherwise adulterate the seeds before sowing, though I do know one expert who germinates all his seed on damp paper towels before sowing to avoid any root trainer cells coming up blind. As is best practice, I labeled my cells with date and variety before sowing. My seeds germinated in the airing cupboard by March and then they went right outside into the cold frame. When each seedling had four true leaves I pinched off the top to encourage lateral branching.

When it was finally dry enough to work the soil I created a new bed in a section of my lawn that over winter stood pretty boggy and wet. Once the new bed, which was 16 feet long, was cut in I dumped a few bags of compost and manure into it along with handfuls of fish, blood, and bone. I heaped the soil up to create a somewhat drier planting bed and then cut some eight-foot poles in the forest, pounded them in, and strung jute netting between them.

The seedlings dragged along during our long, cold spring (as we all did) until I finally planted them out on April 22. I covered them with fleece for a week or so to discourage the pigeons. Each day I’d check them and patiently encourage the tiny tendrils to grasp the lowest strings of the netting. It always takes a while for them to get their roots going, during which time they don’t look like they are going to do much. But as the temperatures warm and they get established they soon shoot up. From then there is no holding them back as they stretch to the sky.

I watered them regularly, gave them a weekly feed of Tomorite and had my first blooms by mid-June when the stems were a bit more than half-way up their supports.

In another month, they had reached the top of their supports and were flowering so profusely that each dead-heading and harvesting session, which I did religiously to keep them blooming, took up to an hour. I drowned in blooms, harvesting fistfuls at a time and running out of vases in the house to hold them all. I felt so rich.

We had an atypically hot and dry summer last year, and I think the moisture-holding qualities of their location actually worked in the sweet peas’ favor. They kept blooming pretty well into August, when the constant baking and the lack of any more room to grow started to brown them out. They revived a bit in cooler temperatures, leading to me believe that without such extreme weather they would have happily grown all summer, but by then I was so tired of tending them that I thanked them for their service and cleared the bed.

In all, the 2018 sweet peas were a great success, and there isn’t much I’d change about their cultivation other than to grow fewer plants of each variety so that I have more flexibility with my arrangements. I do dream about having even more space to grow them, though that may be a mixed blessing given how time-intensive it is to keep them deadheaded so they don’t run to seed at the expense of flowers. I’ve ordered my 2019 line-up, which I will introduce soon, and in the next post I’ll share the varieties I’ve grown and my thoughts on each.

Resting

I am not good at letting myself rest. I never learned the value of stopping, letting down, cutting loose, recovery. Allowing myself to not fill my hours with projects, chores, and self-improvement is something I have been trying to teach myself over the last decade, but it is hard to change ingrained learning and temperament.

I have been fortunate to have partners who recognize the value of rest, and who have encouraged me—usually on the point of burnout—to slow down and just. do. nothing. It is still hard for me, but I try to learn from them.

I am grateful to have had 11 blessed days off work during these darkest weeks of winter, and for these 11 days I’ve not been doing much other than giving myself permission to truly, deeply rest, to recuperate from the challenges of the past year and gather my strength for the next. My husband and I had a quiet holiday—just the two of us—where we ate delicious food and exchanged beautiful gifts. There has been a lot of cuddling, and just being close and loving, filling up the reservoir. The furthest we’ve ventured is to walk the fields around our house, mud-slipping through cornfields and scaring up pheasants. These dark days of winter have an underwater feel. Everything is damp and never fully bright. We creep through the mists, holding hands, recovering.

Dec. 25: Floral advent calendar: Helleborus x hybridus

It’s Christmas day, and the end of our advent journey. I leave you with Helleborus x hybridus, photographed last February in my garden at work. Hellebores are known as the Christmas or Lenten Rose, with the origins of that name based in a story that the plant grew from the tears of a child who had no gift to give baby Jesus at his birth.

I have no idea of the cultivar name of this particular plant, and hellebore breeding can get so confused that cultivars are hard to track. Hellebores also hybridize so much in the garden that there is no telling who their parents were, and many are propagated by seed which introduces natural variation in the offspring. Nameless as it is, this hellebore is a very pretty color with a large bloom.

One of the last jobs I did at work before heading home for Christmas vacation was to cut back the old leaves on the winter-flowering hellebores. Budding shoots are already pushing through the soil, and removing the leaves puts the spotlight on the soon-to-come blooms. It also reduces disease by getting rid of host material. Mice are notorious for nibbling hellebore buds just as they break through the soil, and removing the plants’ leaves exposes their snacking and discourages their feast. Hellebores are one of the greatest joys of the winter garden, and getting them ready for their big show in January and February is one of my favorite jobs.

I hope you have enjoyed getting to know some of the plants that caught my eye this year. It has been nice to write about things that wouldn’t necessarily fit into longer blog posts and share some of my more flower-specific photos. I wish you all Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Dec. 24: Floral advent calendar: Rosa x odorata 'Mutabilis'

I feel I have to sneak one more rose on this list. Rosa x odorata ‘Mutabilis’ is one I discovered in my garden at work, and it is one of my favorite roses. It’s an old China rose from 1860. True to its name, it is a mutable creature in several ways. It starts the season with a few flowers floating above loose, red-stemmed foliage.

Then around the end of May it explodes in a rather lurid mass of hot-pink blooms—not my favorite look if I’m honest. Too over the top for me, but it does pack a punch.

Then after that big flush it settles back down and continues to put out regular blooms until…well, it was still blooming last week when I gave it a winter prune, and it would probably have continued all winter. This is my favorite state, when the blooms are sparser, floating about the plant like butterflies, but the foliage has matured and darkened.

The flowers of ‘Mutabilis’ also change as they progress. Each bud starts out orangey-pink, and then the flowers open to a copper yellow that changes to bright pink and finally “copper crimson,” according to David Austin (who passed away last week). It’s like three roses in one.

Rosa x odorata ‘Mutabilis’ can also be grown as a climber. Here it is in Charlotte Molesworth’s lovely nearby Benenden garden, Balmoral Cottage, in June, scrambling up a bit of topiary.

Dec. 23: Floral advent calendar: Wooden carvings

Some of my favorite flowers this year weren’t even flowers. They were made of wood and displayed on the walls of the Carved Room at Petworth House in West Sussex, where I visited in September. The finest and most detailed carvings were done by famous Dutch sculptor Grinling Gibbons in the early 1690s. Gibbons is widely considered the finest woodcarver in England.

The carvings at Petworth House were done from Tilia (lime) wood, which when they were new would have been white. They would have stood in stark and stunning contrast to their dark oak paneled background. Today centuries of soot, smoke and dirt have made the carvings brown, but it is still possible to appreciate their incredible detail. Horace Walpole said in 1763, "There is no instance of man before Gibbons who gave to wood the loose and airy lightness of flowers".

The National Trust, which currently manages Petworth House, has their hands full with the daunting task of conserving these carvings in the face of centuries of woodworm and fungi. Go see the Gibbons carvings while they’re still so accessible. Like any once-living thing, they won’t be around forever.

More intriguing floral carvings are found in Winchester Cathedral in Hampshire. The entirety of the exquisite building is full of representations of foliage and flowers in stone and wood.

Some of my favorite carvings are found in the choir stalls. I really like these representations of people with plants growing from their mouths and can’t help but wonder at their meaning. I suspect their roots lie in Paganism, like much Christian iconography particularly relating to plants. Little is known about their maker other than they are attributed to William of Lyngwode, a carpenter from Norfolk. There is record of him working on these carvings in 1308. His work is finely detailed and so representative that it’s possible to botanize the carvings and identify plants from their detailed leaves.

Dec. 22: Floral advent calendar: Primula auricula 'Fairy Queen'

Oh, auriculas. They’re a floral wormhole I’ve resisted entering for so long. And it’s not because I don’t love them: I do. So much so that I know once I buy one I will want to start collecting more and with my current lifestyle, and lack of a glasshouse, that doesn’t seem like a good idea.

So nevermind. I will just enjoy them when I see them, such as at the Harrogate Flower Show in April where several auricula nursery stands stood out like sweet shops. Primula auriculas had a moment in the British horticultural spotlight in the late 17 to early 1800s when they were grown by specialist horticulturists known as “florists” who competed against one another to grow the best plants.

Auriculas flowers and leaves are coated in farina, a white coating that may provide protection from the sun or predation. This farina degrades in rain, so as the fashion for auriculas grew so did the way of displaying them to best effect. Enter the auricula theatre, a purpose-built structure to both protect and show off these delicate blooms. Calke Abbey claims the only original (18th century) auricula theatre in the country:

The modern-day auricula theatre lives on at flower shows in the elaborate nursery displays.

Each plant fascinates me, and I would have a hard time choosing a favorite. ‘Fairy Queen,’ above, stood out to me for her unusual coloring, but there are others, such as Primula auricula ‘Grey Cloud’ that I found equally compelling:

Some day I very much look forward to starting my own auricula collection. In the meantime, I will just admire them when I can, ogling from afar.

Dec. 21: Happy Solstice

It is the day of the darkest night, and my most important holiday of the year. Flowers, with all their vibrancy and vigor, just don’t seem appropriate for a day dedicated to drawing in and embracing the shadow side of winter as we anticipate the return of the sun.

I took this photo out the window of my car as I was stopped at one of the innumerable roadworks I encounter in my daily commute. It was just past four in the afternoon, and today the day length will be one second shorter than yesterday at seven hours and 54 minutes. But tomorrow, we gain four seconds of new light and begin to climb out of the dark. Happy Solstice, wherever you are.

Dec. 20: Floral advent calendar: Saponaria × lempergii 'Max Frei'

Saponaria x lembergii ‘Max Frei’ was new to me this year when it flowered in my garden at work. I was really taken with its delicate pink that collaborates well with other colors. It went on to further impress me by its long bloom period—much of the summer into autumn—and foliage that stayed neat and attractive.

Here it is in full flower at work in July.

It’s not a plant that screams for attention, but it just quietly goes about its business looking good for months on end. I am impressed by it and glad we got to meet.