RHS

Dec. 9: Floral advent calendar: Viola spathulata

Viola spathulata is a totally charming little plant with beautifully colored flowers. I really like the dusky purple that’s such a toned-down change from more highly bred bedding violas. Viola spathulata, which is native to Iran, is a favorite of alpine and rock gardeners and looks equally pretty growing in a small pot or on a tufa wall. Here it blooming in late April in the alpine house at RHS Harlow Carr.

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. 

2017: Where to even begin?

I've been trying to think of a word that sums up 2017. The first few that spring to mind are uncertainty, change, exhaustion, and adaptation. A few on a slightly more positive note would be wonder, gratitude, and love. In short, there is no one word to encompass the monumental life achievements and transitions of the past year, along with their highs and lows. I am happy to have made it through relatively intact...and looking forward to 2018. 

Last year's review post featured lots of exotic foreign travel and and world-class gardens. In 2017 I was too busy to leave the British Isles. I finished my horticulture degree, learned to drive a manual car on the left side of the road and passed my U.K. driving test. I got married, obtained my next U.K. visa, moved to south-east England, bought a car, re-adapted to life in the country, and found and began my first professional horticultural job. 

Mixed in with all the life groundwork above were some truly beautiful moments, the finest of which was without a doubt my wedding. There were other highlights including a class outing to the Victorian fernery on the isle of Bute, a trip to Broadwoodside garden in June, a visit from my parents in July, and my first trip to RHS Wisley, which helped assuage the pain of missing Edinburgh's Botanics. A much-needed trip to London this past week topped up my depleted reserves of art, culture, and delicious food. Even simpler pleasures were time spent walking along the Water of Leith in Edinburgh, spotting kingfishers and otters. I walked miles a day in that beautiful city, taking in all I could before I knew I'd have to leave. 

Now that I am starting to stabilize into the next phase of my life, I plan on spending 2018 exploring as much of southern England as I can and visiting the many famous gardens planted in this warmer and sunnier part of Britain. I'm looking forward to wearing shorts and sandals for the first time in this country, fingers crossed. I hope to take advantage of living almost within sight of France and generous vacation time to do more trips to the Continent. Along with my husband, I am excited to plan, plant, and tend our first garden--the seeds of which were my favorite Christmas present. Most important, I'd like to gather my strength to plan the next step in my brand-new horticultural career, in which I want to combine my technical gardening skills with my writing and photography to teach people about plants. 

Wherever you are, thanks for reading along, and have a wonderful new year. 

RHS Wisley: A Tom Stuart-Smith garden and thoughts on innovation

I've been a Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) member since moving to Britain, and I treasure their monthly magazine, The Garden, as an exemplar of horticultural journalism. However, I'd yet to visit one of their four major gardens (soon to be five when RHS Bridgewater opens in 2019). But today I was on an errand in Hampshire and realized I was very close to the RHS flagship garden, Wisley. Of course I stopped in, flashing my membership card and gaining free entry for myself and my companion. 

On this clear and cold Sunday in November it seemed that every London family had chosen Wisley to exercise their children. The garden had the feel of a theme park totally overrun with strollers and overly-cautious city parents. "We don't touch red berries," warned one hipster dad to his daughter, probably setting her up for a lifetime of soft-fruit aversion. 

The garden surrounding the large glasshouse complex was less populated than other areas of the property, and it was pure joy to wander amongst the plants under a clear blue sky. This area was designed by Tom Stuart-Smith, one of Britain's most well-regarded garden designers. I've always wanted to see this garden, and as I am now working in a Tom Stuart-Smith-designed garden I'm particularly keen to experience more of his work. I enjoyed pointing out plants at Wisley that I tend every day and noticing stylistic similarities between the two properties. 

I am also particularly interested in the management of gardens in the style of Tom Stuart-Smith, which are designed for four-season interest. Traditional herbaceous perennial management has dictated that all plants are cut to the ground in autumn, leaving bare earth over winter. The newer thinking--led by the New Perennial et al. movement--advocates growing herbaceous perennials that "live well and die well," in the words of Piet Oudolf, the Dutch master who popularized the style. This means growing plants that look good even as they turn brown and crispy, and that are able to stand up through winter providing not only visual interest but also food and shelter for animals, birds, and insects. 

In my nascent professional horticulture career I've come across more than one gardener who still believes all herbaceous material must be cut down, removed, and the garden "put to bed" for winter under a thick layer of compost. I've no truck with the compost layer--more compost is usually always a good thing--but I do believe that gardens designed in the style Tom Stuart-Smith uses should be left standing as long as possible into winter. On the flip side, though, I do understand that time, staffing, weather, and seasonal changes dictate what happens when in large gardens. Sometimes there are simply too many other jobs in an already packed calendar to delay the autumn chop. What's most interesting to me is the intersection between what designers are creating and what boots-on-the-ground gardeners believe is the best way to manage these same gardens, even if they aren't actually able to put their knowledge into practice. I notice a disconnect here, as I do in many areas of horticulture. The "newer" ideas about garden design and management--including new best practices backed up by scientific research--so very rarely make it into everyday gardening at many established properties. 

For example, this summer I interviewed for a gardener job at a historic garden run by the largest gardening charity in England. On my walkaround I noticed American skunk cabbage, Lysichiton americanus, growing along a stream that ran through the property. Lystichon americanus is a bog-dwelling North American native that was introduced to Britain in 1901 as an ornamental. Like so many ornamental plant introductions, Lystichon really liked its new territory--so much so that it's run wild, outcompeting native British plants in boggy and marshy areas. Lystichon is now considered an "invasive non-native species" subject to EU regulation, according to the RHS, which does not recommend that the plant be grown in Britain. At Dawyck Botanic Garden, part of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh portfolio, all the Lystichon was dug up and removed from the garden once gardeners realized that even with frequent deadheading to remove seeds before they could spread through the watercourse, the plant was still making its way downstream:

"American skunk-cabbage (Lysichiton americanus) has also been removed following its recognition nationally as an invasive non-native species of significant concern. The plants at Dawyck were popular for their spring flowers and grew well for many years...Dawyck has taken the lead on the removal of this plant and will look forward to replanting new species in the areas once occupied by the skunk cabbage." --RBGE

And yet the gardener who was interviewing me for this job openly scoffed at the idea that Lystichon could ever be a problem.  

All this to say, I wonder how best to disseminate new ideas about gardening out to professional gardeners, particularly when many still have "old-school" attitudes rooted in Britain's Victorian horticultural glory days. I wonder how much change will really happen, outside of botanical and research gardens such as the RHS, until that old guard returns to the nitrogen cycle. 

Anyway, I would love to know the management strategy used at Wisley to care for such a large area (two hectares) of herbaceous perennials. I know similar gardens use hedge cutters or even mowers to take everything off in one fell swoop in late winter--eliminating much tedious and hand-numbing secateur work. If anyone is reading from Wisley or Tom Stuart-Smith's team is reading, please let me know what you do so I can make better management decisions going forward. 

National Collection: Delphinium elatum at Regent's Park, London

During my trip to London I spent a lot of time outside in parks and gardens, soaking up as much sun and warmth as I could. I visited Regent's Park for the first time, mostly to see the roses in the Queen Mary's Garden. But that's a post for another day. Right now I want to share another part of the park and some of the most unreal-looking blooms I've seen growing outdoors:

Encourage the propagation and conservation of cultivated plants in the British Isles; encourage and conduct research into cultivated plants, their origins, their historical and cultural importance and their environments; and encourage the education of the public in cultivated plant conservation.
— Plant Heritage

Regent's Park holds full National Collection status for this planting of Delphinium elatum hybrids that have received the Award of Garden Merit (AGM) from the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS). That's a lot of pomp, circumstance and acronym for my non-British readers, but what it boils down to is that the National Collection scheme is one way Plant Heritage, a charity also known as the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and & Gardens, seeks to:

AGM plants are simply plants approved by the RHS, the nation's (and some argue, the world's) leading horticultural organization dedicated to "excellence in the science, art and practice of horticulture." As a student of horticulture at the Botanics, my curriculum is based on RHS-recommended practices, and many an hour was spent studying from their fantastic books and Web site. The AGM is basically a seal of approval, and is awarded by the RHS only after extensive trialing by nurserymen, qualified horticulturists and academic institutions.

But back to this special collection of Delphinium elatum...

I don't think I've ever seen flowers quite this blue, unless perhaps on Meconopsis betonicifolia (Himalayan Blue Poppy). As blue as those little poppies are, their scale is tiny compared to these inflorescences that were several feet long. True blues are rare in the plant world, and 'Langdon's Pandora' grabbed my attention from across the park.

The plants and their blooms were pristine, but I found the staking very distracting. I know staking is necessary with such overbred, top-heavy blooms, and it was clearly done in a neat and professional manner, but I wonder if there's a way to provide more subtle support. As a start I'd use darker-colored stakes, to better blend with the foliage than the blonde bamboo, and I'd make the stakes shorter as the tops of them weren't being used (although it's possible they're long to add another layer of jute twine to support the blooms).

Last winter in horticultural practices we learned how to create birch supports for what would, when spring came, be a large clump of Delphinium. The birch branches were inserted in the ground, bent over, and the twiggy tops interwoven to form a cube-like armature. Now, at the height of summer, the plants have grown large enough to totally obscure the support while remaining tidy and upright.

I have a natural aversion to plants that have to be corseted and trussed to stay upright, but as this is a display collection in a public park, grown without the natural support and disguise provided in a mixed border, I can almost see the justification.

It was nice to spend some time with a genus of plant that I normally don't pay much mind but I so strongly associate with British gardening. As gaudy as these plants are, there's no denying they are impressive examples of both breeding and cultivation.