We’ve been experiencing a beautiful long autumn here in southeast England. Temperatures have remained well above average, with no killing frost yet, and no rain. The later, while not ideal for germinating grass seed during lawn renovation, is fine by me as it means clear skies most days and abundant sunshine of that low, liquidamber color that brings out the beautiful warm tones in all the fading foliage. Despite not usually being a fan of hotter colors in the garden, I love this time of year with its golds, russets, and earthy browns. I like the plants as they die and their characters change so dramatically from their all-green summer guise. I think it’s called a swan song, their final performance that’s just as pretty as the freshness of spring or the fullness of summer.
Maybe it’s also the working gardener in me who recognizes that each of these glorious autumn days is stolen from Father Frost, who will visit one night soon and render many of these tender plants piles of blackened mush. And then the real winter graft begins, cutting back and cleaning up, another growing season over as we layer up against the next six months of laboring in the cold, dark and wet. Lights out is coming, but today let’s enjoy the sun.
On the way home from a short holiday in Bath I visited Stourhead, an iconic landscape garden in Hampshire. In the past I wouldn't have considered landscape gardens to be a style that appealed to me, but I am finding myself more and more exhausted by bitty and high-maintenance "English" style gardens, composed of herbaceous perennials, flowering shrubs, and annuals that need to be constantly fussed over and swapped in and out according to their performance, or lack thereof.
As my taste in planting style changes and morphs toward more simplicity, I find myself increasingly drawn to landscape gardens. Landscape gardens all but do away with smaller herbaceous plants and instead rely on trees, massed shrub plantings, and lawns. Stourhead, a 2,650-acre Arcadian fantasy in Wiltshire, is an exemplary landscape garden that's well worth a visit.
The garden, which first opened in the 1740s, was designed by a series of men in the Hoare family who made their money in banking. Between 1741 and 1780 Henry Hoare II dammed a stream to create a lake in the bottom of a picturesque valley and then set about building a garden around it in the Italian landscape style. Greek mythology was a heavy inspiration to Hoare, who likened the journey around the lake and through the garden to Aeneas' decent into the underworld. To that end Palladian buildings are carefully sited throughout the garden to form classically composed views such as those in the paintings that were popular amongst British collectors in the 18th century. I am in awe of the mindset of these British landowners who set about to sculpt acres of their land as acts of personal expression, remembering, of course, that the actual heavy lifting was done by thousands of gardeners. The scale of such undertakings is mind-boggling but incredibly impressive.
One enters Stourhead past a standard-issue English rock pile that was the Hoare family home but is now owned and operated by the National Trust. The incredibly lackluster garden surrounding the house does nothing to set the stage for the wonder that lies just within the woodline. The first view of the garden, above, is one of the most impressive feats of horticultural theater I have ever seen. A little window in heavy forest opens to reveal the garden buildings arranged around the lake covering the valley floor. Tantalizing.
One makes ones way down the the lake along a series of paths, called The Shades, through mature woodland underplanted with cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus). I've never seen such a prosaic plant look so beautiful as it did at Stourhead, where its shiny green leaves reflected light and made the forest floor shimmer. Wait--I take that back: I was first impressed with cherry laurel as underplanting when I saw it at Rousham, lining the rill. Walking through the Stourhead forest was a masterclass in how to design with green, and no accident:
"The greens should be ranged together in large masses as the shades are in painting: to contrast the dark masses with light ones, and to relieve each dark mass itself with little sprinkling of lighter greens here and there."
- Henry Hoare ‘The Magnificent’
At Stourhead I especially enjoyed how views into the greater landscape, outwith the garden, were used to extend the experience. Looking out of the garden the scenes are more natural and less contrived but no less beautiful.
After descending through the woods one circles the lake on a journey that includes various temples and grottoes, all designed to manipulate the garden visitor's emotions from high to low and back again. I have to say such psychological trickery works--walking around Stourhead is as much an emotional roller-coaster as it is a visual delight. A large part of that delight is the feeling of relaxation brought on by being in a space that is so well-ordered and designed to mimic a sort of heaven on earth. Exiting the temple, below, I was struck by how perfectly the large tree, growing on an island nonetheless, was framed in the doorway. I am sure a lot has been written on exactly why such landscapes evoke these feelings in their viewers and it's something I'd like to dig into a bit more some day. But for now there is something very pleasing about this tidiness of composition: I find it very easy to visually process which in turn makes my viewing experience calming.
One aspect of Stourhead I did not find calming was how the garden was overrun with screaming children and their parents who were just as obnoxious. This is a problem I've increasingly noticed as I've visited more gardens in the south of England, particularly at National Trust properties such as Stourhead and RHS gardens such as Wisley. I get the sense that people buy memberships to gain access to what they regard as playgrounds for their little heathens, which they then let run wild without any consideration for the plants, landscape features or the people who visit gardens to find a moment of quiet reflection. I know gardens need to attract visitors in order to stay open, but I wish they could address this problem by creating "quiet" or "adults only" hours for those of us who want to enjoy the experience without a soundtrack of shrieking children. As much as I would like it, I am sure it's too much to hope that they all invoke the rule at Rousham--no children allowed.
Despite a heavily overcast day, the classic Stourhead view, below, still impressed. I'd like to return again some day soon, ideally on a weekday after the school holidays are over, and with a proper camera to get to know this garden better. I have the feeling I can learn a lot from it and look forward to the journey.
Of all the dahlias I grew this year, 'Senior's Hope' is my favorite. It's hard to see in this photo, but the reverse of each petal is a blackcurrant-syrup color that makes the blooms very dramatic when viewed at an angle. It brought a lot of depth to the flower arrangements I used it in, and looked great with Amaranthus tricolor 'Red Army.'
We're getting the first real rain today in two months, to the day, and not a moment too soon. Eight weeks without water combined with near record-high temperatures has turned the lush green England is known for into a dry brown so extreme it's visible from space. British gardeners are wilting right along with their charges, and head gardeners such as myself are trying to balance responsible irrigation, the plant well-being and production we are paid to deliver, and the health of our staff. And the garden I'm not paid to tend and can't afford to water--my own--well, that's just sailed off into the sunset of the 2018 summer season as console myself with the spring bulb catalogues.
As difficult as this summer has been for ornamental horticulture, I am really feeling for local farmers whose lives depend on rain. At work I'm doing my best to keep the high-value plants (in terms of money and years invested in their growth) such as trees, topiarized hedges and large shrubs alive, knowing full well I may need to replace some smaller herbaceous material. The most obvious effect on production I've known this year is my glasshouse tomatoes have failed to set fruit due to the sustained high temperatures over 120°F/49°C despite total ventilation and twice-daily damping down. Sustained days over 90°F causes pollen to become nonviable, leading to the abortion of flowers and any potential fruit.
Not producing a home-grown tomato for one family is a luxury I can afford to lose, but local farmers who've seen their crops brown and shrivel weeks early, or fail to set fruit entirely, and whose income is directly tied to mass production have it much harder. Already there are reports of increased food prices this year tied to poor yields. I see the effects on wheat in the field just steps from my house. Where the mud on this path was deep enough this winter to pull my welly off my foot, a week ago it was so parched a full-grown man can insert his arm, up to the elbow, in a crack in the earth.
Today's gentle rain is a lifesaver, but won't be enough to make up a two-month deficit. And we're due to be warm and dry yet again next week and into August. I never thought I'd complain about weeks of hot and sunny weather in Britain, and if my vocation weren't horticulture I still probably wouldn't, but with so much on the line in terms of my livelihood, that of our farmers, and the viability of our entire food supply, I really just wish it would rain.
The reservoir garden is the newest area of Beth Chatto's garden. This area of the garden has been under redvelopment since 2014, and was just planted last year. It has a similar feel to the gravel garden, with crushed stone paths. Where it differed is in the soil substrate of the beds. The plantings also felt lusher and looked more full-bodied, in the manner of traditional herbaceous borders, and used plants such as roses, iris, salvia, nepeta, and geraniums.
I especially enjoyed some of the color combinations in this garden, such as the dusky purple and terracotta, above, with the silver-leaved stachys. This will be a garden to watch as its plants gain stature and mature.
From the reservoir garden we wandered toward the house, where dozens of pots containing all sorts of interesting plants clustered around Beth's house. It was lovely to see these specimens displayed museum-style, and I imagine it would be even nicer to sit amongst them every morning with a cup of tea.
The water garden tumbles downhill from Beth's house along a series of small ponds. It strongly reminded me of the pond sequence at Chanticleer Garden, in Pennsylvania. In fact I see a lot of parallels between Beth Chatto's and Chanticleer in terms of unique plant selections, detailed combinations of foliage and form, and color use.
I've heard some criticism of this garden that it's dated, most likely because of its island bed layout and some plant selections (such as rhododendrons). I liked the water garden area the least, and I think it's because the contrast of blue, yellow, red, and bright green foliage just felt too hodge-podge and yes, dated, to me. Of all Beth's creations, this is the one that's aged the least well.
Despite being visually incongruent, there was a calm and peaceful energy that, although present everywhere, was especially strong in this part of Beth's garden. It felt very feminine to me, and soft.
Just a few days after our visit I saw this picture of Beth's funeral on Twitter, posted by the Beth Chatto Gardens, and it really struck me as the most beautiful funeral image I have ever seen. I like how so much of Beth's presence is there in the potted plants displayed by the church, just as they were on her patio, and in the stunning flowers that surely came from her garden atop her beautiful and natural basket.
Our pilgrimage to Beth Chatto's garden certainly lived up to both our dreams and expectations. As anticipated it is a plantsperson's paradise with inspiration around every bend. The nursery, which I walked around in circles for hours, is one of the most educational places I've ever been, and we couldn't leave without filling the car with treasures. Back home we dug up a corner of our garden and planted our Beth Chatto Memorial Garden, which will remind of us this influential person and our trip to her home.
As I walked the garden I couldn't help but wonder how it will change now that Beth is no longer living in the small white house at its center. I am encouraged by the direction of new plantings such as the reservoir garden, and am sure Beth's family and her many acolytes have similarly ambitious plans for the rest of the space. I am sure Beth's spirit will live on in the landscape she designed and planted, the wonderful and unusual plants she brought into public awareness through her nursery, and in her wise and elegant garden writing.
We entered Beth Chatto's woodland garden by passing between two tall oaks, up which had been trained climbing hydrangeas (Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris, right). The effect was one of a living gate, festooned with white flowers even above our heads. It telegraphed that we were crossing a threshold into a special place.
Like all good woodland gardens, Beth's uses light and shade to make its point. We wandered the dirt paths noticing how gaps in the tree canopy created pools of light on the woodland floor that pricked out and highlighted certain plants, such as the glaucous Hosta and small Cornus controversa 'Variegata.'
I have a woodland as part of my property in Virginia, and I would love to start cultivating it into a garden inspired by this space. Of course, I'd have to invest in acres of deer fencing first! I know there isn't the same deer pressure in most of the U.K. as there is in the U.S., but I would still be curious to know how pests such as rabbits are managed in Beth's garden. Perhaps the garden is now mature enough that it can withstand some grazing pressure and still survive.
A beautiful Cornus kousa and geranium combination, below.
I liked this characterful Acer griseum, above, dead center, and below, at right. It's one of my favorite small trees.
I loved this all-green, textural planting combination of Kirengoshoma palmata, the Sensitive fern, Onoclea sensibilis, Viburnum sp. and Hydrangea sp. blending into the background.
The views looking out of the woodland garden were just as interesting, as the dense shade made windows into the brighter, more open areas of the garden beyond.
Up next: Out of the dark and into the reservoir garden.
One month ago my husband and I took a weekend trip to Essex. It was a pilgrimage to visit Beth Chatto's home garden and nursery. Beth, who had died just weeks earlier, was one of the greatest gardeners, and garden writers, of the past century, and someone both my husband and I had admired from afar for as long as we've been aware of gardening. I ordered my first book of hers, 'The Garden Notebook,' from England when I was still living in the U.S., and Beth's beautiful, informative writing voice was one of the many that guided me toward the start of my horticultural career. You can read more about the philosophies and gardens she developed during her remarkable 94 years here.
Beth's famous gravel garden greets visitors and invites them to wander even before purchasing tickets to enter the rest of the garden. Originally designed to take advantage of a tricky site (a former car park with free-draining, sandy soil) and the challenges of hot, dry Essex weather, it was created to not require watering even in the most extreme weather. We've just passed the one-month mark with no rain where I now live and garden in southeast England, so there's a lot to learn from this garden that's becoming more relevant by the day.
In addition to being ecologically prescient, the gravel garden it is one of the most visually stunning gardens I have ever seen. It's not easy to combine so many disparate plants in such a pleasing arrangement, and the perfectly considered combination of horticultural skill and visual artistry really moved and inspired me. We spent hours crunching over tawny stones, heads bent low, studying the intricately layered plantings.
I loved the bombast of happy, bright colors that held their own in harsh sunlight, as well as the mix of textures in flowers and foliage. Silver-leafed plants provided a calm Mediterranean vibe, but were punched up with spots of acid-green that kept the entire design awake and pulsing.
I love a good buttery yellow in the garden, and this California poppy (Eschscholzia californica 'Alba') is my ideal shade. A packet of seeds immediately made its way into my clutches once I hit the nursery.
With climate change already well underway, and many gardeners facing hotter and drier conditions than ever before, Beth's gravel garden provides an ahead-of-its-time blueprint for how to have a beautiful garden with minimal inputs. It made me incredibly joyful to see and experience, and I can't wait to try such a garden myself someday.
Up next: Beth's woodland, water, and scree gardens.
Midsummer weekend, 9 p.m., Sissinghurst
The summer solstice, the longest day of the year, is always a special holiday in our household. This year we stayed outside as long as possible, enjoying a sunny 9 p.m. walk through fields growing head-high crops. Back home, we made a bonfire and sat around it talking as the twilight stretched out above our heads. The solstice is all about the sunlight, and this year we swam in it.
Happy Solstice, wherever you are celebrating.
Two weeks ago I drove to North Yorkshire for the Harrogate Spring Flower Show. En route I bought a box of three doughnuts: salted caramel and chocolate, nutella, and biscoff cookie. Not only was each doughnut decorated with its chosen poison, it was stuffed with it inside too. My husband and I sat in the car at a rest stop parking lot, cold rain pouring down outside, as caramel and frosting dripped down our chins. It was more sugar that we both usually eat in months, but in that moment it was exactly what I wanted...until it made me sick.
This post is a bit like those donuts. What follows is a sugar rush of spring tulips in colors bright enough to make your eyes ache. Subtle, no, but so satisfying after a long, cold English winter. Most images were taken at Sissinghurst April 22.
Tulipa 'Sanne' and 'Chato', above.
'Amazing Parrot,' in the foreground, above.
A new favorite, sadly unidentified, tulip at left and below, along with a longtime love, 'Belle Epoque,' right
Trial beds in the cut flower area of the Sissinghurst nursery.
Two new favorites are the Rembrant tulips 'Insulinde,' left, and 'Absalom,' right, and growing together in my garden below (with a rogue 'Acuminata'). I love the Rembrants because I am a big fan of a Dutch floral still life painting, and these are some sexy tulips. I haven't always liked tulips, most likely because I was familiar only with the huge, primary colored goblets that seemed too simple and artificial for my taste. But this year, with the discovery of some more sophisticated varieties in a greater range of colors, I am a new fan.
As lovely as all these tulips are, it's been a tricky year for them with many British gardens being hit by tulip fire disease (Botrytis tulipae). I first noticed it at Great Comp garden, below, at their spring fair on April 15, but I have since seen it at Sissinghurst, Great Dixter, my own garden, and the garden I manage for work. Even the well-known garden designer and plantsperson Dan Pearson has reported it in his garden. This fungal disease is characterized by small round lesions on the leaves and petals of the tulip which spread until the entire plant succumbs in a withered heap. It's a nasty pathogen that can remain active in infected soil, thus it's recommended to immediately lift and burn all infected plants and refrain from planting tulips back in the same area for at least three years.
The earliest tulips were definitely hit the hardest, which makes sense as cold, wet weather conditions play a large part in this disease and we had a very late, rainy and frosty start to spring. Certain varieties got it worse than others, and the late-flowering varieties seem comparatively unscathed. I'm curious about how other large gardens are planning to manage the disease, and haven't heard a definitive plan from anyone. It's a tricky call to make with lots of money in bulbs and labor on the line in large-scale plantings. I plan to lift and destroy the worst of the plants at work, making a record of their locations, and then this autumn plant fresh bulbs in new areas of the garden where the soil hopefully isn't as contaminated. I also plan to use a preventative fungicide spray as the foliage emerges from the ground next spring. Hopefully that will keep the worst of it at bay and with luck the weather might be better for tulips next year.
On Sunday I visited Sissinghurst early in the morning, before it was open to the public. It's a privilege to be able to see a garden that gets 200,000 visitors a year completely empty, but now that I have been so spoiled I've got no interest in filing through with the masses. The garden, which during the high season can feel like an overcrowded theme park as coach loads of visitors donder through, reverted to what it was originally intended to be: a quiet family home and refuge for artists and writers. I know Head Gardener Troy Scott Smith is keen to return the garden to its relaxed informality, with the little spots of "imperfection" that characterize domestic gardens. I look forward to seeing how his vision manifests himself in such a high-profile National Trust property known for capital-H horticulture.
I didn't see much imperfection on Sunday, but what I did experience was a total bombast of spring color and fecundity so overwhelming I was left reeling from overstimulation. If I have one criticism of Sissinghurst it's that the garden is so intensively cultivated that there is little breathing space. Walking around it I longed for a visual resting place, and I think it shows in my photographs. There was just so much happening in every nook and cranny that I walked in circles, forward and back, and kept seeing new views from each angle of approach. As much as I love the full-on gorgeousness of it, it also left me with a reeling with an impressive headache. Yet this over-the-topness is what Sissinghurst is know for, and part of why this grade 1-listed garden is often held up as the epitome of an English Arts and Crafts-style garden.
My favorite part of the garden on this visit was the Nuttery. This area was expanded this past winter by Sissinghurst gardeners, who added a new path and plants between the garden boundary and the central block of Kentish cob nuts (Corylus avellana). This new planting looks promising, and as wonderful as the soft bark path was to wander down alone, I am not sure how it will hold up to the intense foot traffic on the way.
What I loved most from the entire visit was this backlit view of the Nuttery and its more established central planting beds. The sun coming through the brand-new ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) fronds and picking out the different foliage shapes--all in shades of lime green--was mesmerizing.
The overall effect was great, but even more interesting detail was happening at ground level. When viewed at a distance euphorbia, anemones, tiarella, epimediums, trilliums, oxslips and more made a green carpet, but up close the combination was startlingly detailed. I spent a very long time lost in what was essentially groundcover, a utilitarian planting style that in many gardens often seems like an afterthought. Not so at Sissinghurst, where it was the star of the spring show.
I am fortunate to be able to visit Sissinghurst regularly, and I look forward to seeing how it changes as the year progresses. Stay tuned for the spectacle Sissinghurst is most known for: roses!
I was walking near my house tonight when I spotted my first native British orchid of the season: an early purple (Orchis mascula). It was growing in a small patch of woodland between two farm fields, right beside a public right of way. This orchid was a welcome distraction from faceplanting in a sodden field not two minutes before, my boots stuck six inches in mud and impossible to extract without sacrificing my dignity and clean clothing.
Further up the path I spotted another of springtime's pleasures: lambs. There's nothing quite like standing in a (still muddy) field for the better part of an hour watching these little creatures kick their heels up and jump about, playing on hillocks and downed trees. From where I live the sound of ewes calling to their lambs is a constant background noise that punctuates the spring songbird chorus.
All may look well, but this harsh and prolonged winter has really taken its toll and these lambs are lucky to still be frolicking. A local nursery man speaking at the Great Dixter spring plant fair last weekend said the weather we've just come through was a once-in-a-lifetime event for this area of England, and some experts I follow say the season is running up to four weeks behind usual. I am facing a lot of plant damage in the garden where I work, and it will require patience in order to assess its extent in the next few weeks and then possible removal and replacement of large, established plants.
Damage to ornamental gardens is one thing, but more importantly the British food supply and the livelihoods of farmers will take a big hit. This article explains more of what we should expect in the months to come. For now, though, its definitely a watch and wait situation as spring tries its best to shake off winter. Thank goodness there are orchids and lambs to distract us in the meantime.
This past winter my husband gave me one of the best presents I've ever received. Starting December 1, he presented me with an Advent calendar made up of a collection of brown paper envelopes embellished with beautiful dried leaves. I was to open one envelope each day throughout the month. Inside each envelope was a packet of seeds, carefully chosen to reflect plants that hold special memories or that we'd talked about growing before we ever had the space to cultivate. And thus, in the darkest days of winter, our first garden was born.
Around Valentine's Day I got another nice present. We commissioned a local carpenter my husband knows through work to build us a cold frame. I never had a cold frame in Virginia, but I really came to see their value studying in Scotland, where cold frames helped nurture seedlings through protracted British springs. We have the perfect spot for one here, on a south-facing wall of the house with the solid concrete driveway base beneath.
When the base of the cold frame arrived we added a roof and some hardware then got to work sowing all those Advent seeds. It's a messy business done inside at the kitchen table, which sits on white carpet, so a glasshouse and potting shed are the next big items on our garden wish list.
We pricked out a bunch of seedlings last weekend (above), and the image below taken today shows they are settling in nicely.
The extreme (for England) cold and snow has really set spring back this year--some people saying by as much as four weeks--so some of our little plants aren't taking off quite as quickly as one would expect. But I'm sure that under the soil they're busy putting down new roots and as soon as the temperatures rise a bit they'll be off. In the meantime they are snug and protected in our beautiful new cold frame. It is a joy to watch them grow. Every evening when we get home from work we open the cold frame and gaze at our seedlings for a moment, then shut the lid and head inside. As my husband says, they're the best kind of children. I agree--if they misbehave we just toss them on the compost heap.
Now if it would just stop raining so we could finally get our planting beds prepared, the 2018 garden season would be well underway!
Last weekend a good friend and RBGE classmate paid a flying visit before embarking on the prestigious Triad Fellowship, a year-long journey that will take him to Longwood Gardens in the U.S., Hidcote, and Japan. We took him around Sissinghurst then drove down to see what was happening at Great Dixter. Though Dixter isn't technically open to the public in winter, we walked in and found a garden with so much to offer despite the earliness of the season.
The usual winter-interest suspects were all present. The hellebores, snowdrops, and first narcissus were flowering, red Cornus stems glowed, and the crocus backlit in the low sun looked like handfuls of cut-glass gems had been tossed across the lawns. But what was different from many winter gardens I've seen is how these predictable plants were combined with more exotic and unusual plants that shook up the expected paradigm with great effect. The Great Dixter gardeners have added Euphorbias, Astelia chathamica and bamboo along with conifers of all shapes and sizes to the winter mix, above.
Cotoneaster, above right, has a reputation as car park plant, but I like it for many reasons. In winter it has a delicate structure that reminds me of fishbones, followed in spring by small white flowers reminiscent of Crataegus (hawthorn). It's unsurprising as the plants are closely related, both members of Malinae, the apple subtribe of the Rosaceae family. Cotoneaster grows little glossy leaves in the high season and its bright red berries heading into winter complete its four-season interest.
Whether it's Erigeron karvinskianus spilling from the characteristically-Lutyens circular steps or these self-seeded hellebores above, gardeners at Dixter don't shy from encouraging plants out of their bed into paths. It's a lovely effect, but hard to achieve in many public gardens because of the amount of foot traffic. Yet instead of bowing to the masses, Great Dixter instead asks a lot of its visitor: To walk through this garden you have to pay attention. Branches overhang paths, possibly poking eyes, herbaceous plantings grow head-high, limiting movement, and perfect vignettes grow right underfoot. Woe be it to the careless wander who'd trample a hellebore.
With each visit I make to Dixter I understand the Exotic Garden, above, a little more. This time it was looking hard-hit by our recent spell of record-cold weather. The Exotic Garden has always pushed the limits of hardiness in order to grow more tropical and subtropical plants, so it will no doubt be informative to see what recovers and what's lost. What I liked about this winter view was how it felt like I was on a stage set. The giant plants wrapped in straw and bamboo felt like set dressing, like at any moment they could burst open and undergo a total transformation, which they'll no doubt do with warmer weather. It was a novel feeling for a garden visit, and one I enjoyed even as others might just see the death and dishevelment of a harsh winter.
I don't love crocus, disliking their weak necks and tendency to flop face-first into the inevitable winter mud. But I didn't mid these great swathes covering the meadow at Dixter, and I think it's come down to two reasons. First, I saw them backlit in the sun, and they made the entire field sparkle. Second, there's not a yellow crocus among them. I don't like a lot of yellow flowers, and I especially hate yellow and dark purple together. So the usual white-purple-yellow triad of crocus has always left me cold. Take away the yellow, though, and I've had to re-evaluate my anti-crocus stance.
Our eyes were all caught by the distinctive form of the grass, at right, in front of the peacock topiary. We spent a good deal of time trying to figure out if this groomed configuration was the product of perfect combing at the hands of a loving gardener or if it was natural growth. Or maybe it was the wind? These are the kinds of chats you have when a bunch of garden geeks get together. We were in heaven, but you've been warned.
Great Dixter is known for its exuberant, incredibly full planting style. In the high season its often difficult to walk around the garden because the plants are so lush and thick. This could make it difficult for gardeners to tend the carefully curated (yet artless-appearing) displays. One system that helps is to use bamboo canes, above to demarcate the locations of plants on the ground. These canes provide a road map, a hidden guide that allows gardeners to swap plants in and out of complicated combinations. It's a useful trick I may use someday.
The portico of Christopher Lloyd's house is always one of my favorite spots in the garden. It always has a novel and usually thought-provoking display. I've heard the current head gardener, Fergus Garrett, has a thing for exotic conifers and is incorporating them throughout the garden. I love that this display is a collector's passion project that showcases the amazing diversity, and beauty, of conifers.
And finally we ended up in the nursery, a pristine space packed with unusual plants. It always makes me happy to visit the Dixter nursery, which is orderly yet feels academic in the amount of information provided about the plants on offer. We spent quite a while here, oohing and ahhing over this and that before retiring to the pub to chat plants and gardens over beers. Just like old times, and a lovely day. Yet again, Great Dixter proved inspirational and exciting, even in late winter.
Thanks to a heated propagator, the sweet pea seeds I sowed at work a week ago are already germinating. The tenderness I feel toward these tiny translucent stems, so delicate yet incredibly robust in their intent to thrive, is the closest I'll ever come to a maternal instinct. The seedlings are working perfectly. Now it's just up to me to keep them alive.
The wind is blowing at 20 mph, making it feel like -5°C (23°F). I'm at the top of a 12-foot ladder as first rain, then snow, then sleet blows around me, rocking the slender aluminum support that's the only thing holding me in the the air. My steel-toed wellies slide on the metal rungs, my five layers of clothing making me as graceful as a rubber-suited snowman. I clutch at wisteria, at icy wires fixed into old mortar by improbably slim metal vine eyes. My wet pruners slip from my hand and fall, the open blade thwacking two inches deep into the mud below. All I hear is wind.
Down on the ground to retrieve my pruners I give up on ladder work and turn toward a climbing rose that needs pruning. I untie it and carefully tease the long canes out from where they'd been stuffed behind wires. My mouth is full of muddy lengths of flexi-tie. It's the easiest place to store them when it's too wet and cold to root around in pockets.
My gloves are soaked through and anyway it's impossible to bend and tie stiff rose canes wearing them. I take off my gloves and throw them to the ground. In just a few moments my exposed hands become so cold they burn with pain and I'm having trouble feeling what I'm doing. A rose cane under pressure springs out of my wet grip and lands a thorn into the back of my finger, right into a vein. I'm too cold to feel it but a bright stream of blood spouts in an instant. It flows down my finger, down my hand, then down my wrist. I stare at the blood, fascinated that one thorn could unleash such a torrent. My hands are so cold. I want to put my gloves back on because even wet at least they'll block the wind. But do I really want to wear a glove full of blood for the three and a half days left in this week?
It's too cold to think straight. I smear the blood across my dirty waterproofs. Later I'll wipe mud from around my mouth. Even later that night my husband will take my hand and notice the purple discoloration of internal bleeding puddled under my skin the entire length of the thorn-stabbed knuckle. When I examine it I'll find next to the bruise another rose thorn buried a quarter inch deep in my skin. We've been pruning roses since October; by now I know the drill. I'll sterilize a sewing needle, rootle around in my flesh, and the blood will run down my hand again.
It's that time of year again when the post-holiday reality of winter has set in and the ostensibly lengthening daylight seems to take one step forward and two steps back. In this part of the world sun is in short supply, and every week seems to bring gales and downpours. When it's not storming it's just miserably mizzling, hiding the sun for days on end.
It's a real struggle to keep the faith, especially when the ground is too sodden to spend much time working in my own garden. Last weekend I tiptoed around slicing newly germinated weed seedlings from the clay mud. I might as well have been making bricks.
One antidote I turn to every year is a long walk with the purposeful intention to hunt for beauty and emerging signs of spring. Yesterday I rambled (well, squelchily slid) a few miles around a nearby forest. Aptly named Moor Wood, it is a little patch of clearly acidic soil hosting many of the plants I so strongly associate with Scotland. Bracken and brambles, heather and rhododendrons, ferns and lichens galore. I suspect these patches had been planted as game cover for a large estate many years ago. As if on cue, I flushed a woodcock from the undergrowth.
Nearer the villages were more definitive signs of spring, such as this day-glo patch of tiny Cyclamen coum growing along the (muddy) path.
Snowdrops are beginning to bloom, narcissus are budded up, and I saw the year's first blooming native primrose, Primula vulgaris.
So despite the mucky days of late winter there is hope to be found. And even if I don't love the mud, I did come across someone who seemed perfectly happy, ankle-deep and loving it.
I've started planning the cut flower garden at work, which I'm to be in charge of from design to planting, tending, and harvesting. I'm working with seed left over from last year, which is an intriguing constraint and a bit of a gamble that could keep me on my toes. I may be able to sneak in a few more things I feel are missing from the stash, such as greenery and fillers.
This assignment is timely as one of my Christmas presents was the wonderful Floret book of cut flower farming. I've followed Erin's farm for years online and have nothing but respect for her flower business, visual aesthetic, work ethic, and most especially her willingness to share what she's learned to empower other would-be flower farmers.
Growing cut flowers was one of my favorite aspects of gardening at my farm in Virginia, and it's something I've done since I was given a few packets of zinnia seeds as a kid. Now that I'm sitting in the head gardener's office of a beautiful garden in southern England, I keep pinching myself that I am getting paid to do something I love so much.
Most of gardening in winter is an absolute slog: one is always covered in mud, burning calories just to stay warm in cold, snow, wind, and rain whilst doing the most labor-intensive tasks of the year (shoveling compost, digging over beds, large-scale cutting back, renovation pruning...) But half a day spent planning for spring and summer was a total joy.