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.


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. 

July 13

July 21

Historic topiary at Levens Hall, Cumbria

A few weeks ago I took a road trip around England with the intent to visit a handful of famous gardens. The trip was originally planned as a reward for finishing a grinding second year of school, and a home-grown study tour to further my understanding of garden history and design. However, after a disastrous Brexit election and deeply disturbing news out of the U.S., the trip quickly became necessary for sensory soothing, escapism, and inspiration for what I'd like to someday achieve in my own garden--all weapons in the battle against state-of-the-world-induced depression.  

The first stop was Levens Hall, which calls itself "the finest, oldest, and most extensive topiary garden in the world." It was in many ways the perfect garden to visit first, as it was so strange it provided a nice, hard break between the reality of life "outside the garden" and that lived within, and set the tone for the trip. After driving through pouring rain down to Cumbria, and having to replace a punctured tire en route, we arrived at Levens just as the rain stopped. 

The manor house has been occupied since 1350 and has been in the Bagot family for more than 400 years. We didn't have time to view the Elizabethan interior, and instead headed straight for the gardens. 

Guillaume Beaumont, a French garden designer who trained under Andre Le Notre at Versailles, laid out the ten-acre garden at Levens Hall in 1694 after working at Hampton Court for King James II. Levens is notable because, in addition to being what the Guinness Book of World Records recognizes as the oldest topiary garden in the world, it's a very rare example of a garden that survived changes in garden fashion and exists today in much the same state as it was created.

Some of the more than 100 pieces of yew (Taxus baccata) and box (Buxus sempervirens) topiary are original plantings, and now more than 300 years old. The gardens were enhanced by Alexander Forbes, head gardener from 1810 to 1862, who added shapes in golden yew (Taxus baccata 'Aurea'). The planting beds are edged in Ilex crenata, and infilled with various bedding plants including purple Verbena bonariensis and yellow Antirrhinum, which were just beginning to flower. 

I really loved one of my favorite plants, the perfectly red Tropaeolum speciosum, twining through the topiary. The effect was almost like needlework, like crimson embroidery. As we were admiring it another visitor came up and huffed, "It's a special plant. From Scotland." My companion and I looked at each other and smirked. Though Tropaeolum is a special plant, I didn't just get a degree from a Scottish botanical garden without knowing it's from about as far from Scotland as one can get--Chile, in fact. I did just learn, though, that its common name is Scottish Flame Flower, which makes it easy to see how she could be confused. 

At Levens, a team of four gardeners clips the topiary once a year, beginning in late August, a process that takes three months and requires lifts and scaffolding. Though I found it difficult to make much sense of the mostly-abstract shapes, some of the topiary is said to represent crowns, chess pieces, peacocks, and royalty. 

The topiary now dominate the garden, but John Anthony, in his "Discovering Period Gardens," suggests this was far from Beaumont's original intent. Indeed, this 1880 image shows that the topiary, though still important, was more in scale with the landscape and house. 

As I've said before, topiary usually isn't my cup of tea. But the outsized, overgrown, and fantastical nature of the ancient topiary at Levens is what makes it interesting to me. I enjoyed the way the different shapes played off each other, shifting and recombining into new views with each step. The emotional effect was even more striking. The largest topiary felt hulking yet playful, and created a strange sensation of otherworldliness, of walking amongst possibly friendly, potentially fanged giants. 

As I walked the garden, which thanks to the late hour and wet weather was mostly empty, I found myself wishing I could have seen it in sun in order to view what must be spectacular shadows. But when the sun did come out for a few minutes I soon realized that the effect of the garden was diminished in bright light as shapes and edges were lost to high contrast. Further proof that viewing, and photographing, gardens is often best done in "less-than-perfect" weather. Which is good, as that's what you're most likely to get in Britain!

Up next, there's much more than just topiary at Levens Hall...