England

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.

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. 18: Floral advent calendar: Antirrhinum majus 'Chantilly Bronze'

How’s this for a dose of serious summer color? Growing at Great Dixter this June, Antirrhinum majus ‘Chantilly Bronze’ really impressed me with its stature, vigor, and full-on vibrancy. I love the way the blooms of this snapdragon form a mouthwatering color gradient that conjures tangerines, melon and papaya. The phrase tutti-fruitti comes to mind.

‘Chantilly Bronze’ might not be the easiest flower to work into a border design in most gardens but it fit perfectly at anything-goes Dixter. I’d like to try growing it in a cut flower garden some day. It’s pretty lurid, but I love it.

Dec. 8: Floral advent calendar: Sparmannia africana

Sparmannia africana, photographed here in March at the Chelsea Physic Garden in London, is native to damp forested areas of the western and eastern African capes. It is a member of the Malvaceae (mallow) family, like hibiscus and Tilia, a common tree in Britain. Sparmannia africana was introduced to European cultivation in 1778 and became a common glasshouse plant.

Sparmannia africana doesn’t produce useful timber, but it can be used to make fiber, giving it a common name of African hemp. However, it never caught on as a commercial fiber plant once it was found to be inferior to jute.

The stamens of Sparmannia africana flowers are sensitive to touch, an adaptation it developed to possibly facilitate pollination. When brushed by an insect the stamens puff out, pushing pollen onto the insect’s body, which it then carries off to fertilize another bloom.

Dec. 6: Floral advent calendar: Tweedia coerulea

The specific epithet of my next flower, Tweedia coerulea, gives away that it is yet another of my favored elusively colored blooms. “Coerulea,” quite simply, means blue. This plant is sometimes seen under the synonym Oxypetalum caeruleum, but the meaning of the specific epithet stays the same.

This is another South American native photographed at Derry Watkin’s amazing nursery near Bath, Special Plants. After meeting Derry during her talk at the Parham House garden weekend, my husband and I stopped in to visit her on a weekend trip to Bath this August. It was hard to take a step in her nursery without oohing and ahhing, and the visit got even better with a walk around her unique garden, which is the work of 20+ years by a serious plantsperson. Derry, an American, married a British architect who designed her a house with a wall of Streptocarpus instead of curtains. I’ve stood in this house, and seen this wall and…be still my heart.

Derry has long lived in the U.K., starting her world-renowned nursery at age 40. She told me the nursery business doesn’t make any money but sure is a fun lifestyle. Of the myriad fascinating plants that stood out to me that day, this Tweedia has a color, uniqueness, and vivacity that can’t be ignored, much like Derry herself.

Dec. 5: Floral advent calendar: Puya alpestris

I have a well-documented affinity for a blue flower, and today’s is a stunner. Puya alpestris is a bromeliad native to southern Chile. Unlike many other bromeliads, which grow in trees, Puya alpestris is terrestrial, which makes it convenient for growing in a pot. I saw it in flower in early June at Sissinghurst Castle garden where it stopped me in my tracks with its metallic teal blooms.

Puya alpestris is hardy to a few degrees below freezing, so after a summer idyll outdoors it should be returned to the glasshouse to overwinter. It is supposed to be relatively easy to grow from seed, which is something I plan to try as soon as I get a glasshouse at home.

Dec. 4: Floral advent calendar: Cosmos bipinnatus 'Cupcakes'

Cosmos are one of my favorite flowers. Along with zinnias, they are some of the first plants I grew from seed as a child and I associate them with the beginning of my interest in horticulture.

There has been an explosion in cosmos introductions lately, and as gimmicky as some of them sound I still want to try them all. A new-to-me variety this year was Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Cupcakes.’ Some of the blooms, like the one above are double, while others are single. ‘Cupcakes’ was the first to flower in my home garden in July, mixed in a bed of other flowers for cutting. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but I loved this variety. Its fused petals really do make the flower look exactly like a paper cupcake wrapper. And it was the last plant to blacken in the autumn frosts, succumbing just last week after giving me an astonishing five months of flowers.

The soft pinks and whites of ‘Cupcakes’ mix nicely into bouquets such as the one I put together from my cutting garden this July along with another nice new Cosmos, ‘Fizzy’ series. Also included are Malope trifida ‘Alba,’ Bupleurum rotundifolium 'Griffithii,’ Ammi majus, Orlaya grandiflora, and Matricaria recutita (German chamomile), and the wonderful ornamental grass Panicum elegans ‘Frosted Explosion,’ all grown from seed this year.

If you do grow cosmos in Britain, keep in mind they don’t like being cold in the spring. This never seemed to be an issue when I grew cosmos in Virginia, probably because it got so hot so fast and the summer climate was more similar to the plant’s native Mexico. This year’s cool and protracted English spring, however, found my seedlings languishing despite the protection of the cold frame. Once they got a little heat, though, they were off and away just fine with no ill effects, .

Stourhead

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. 

Drought

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

Happy Solstice

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. 

Mud season

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. 

The cut flower garden comes to life

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.