Sissinghurst

A few from Sissinghurst, late spring

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

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

Iris ‘Benton Susan’

Iris ‘Beottie’ with Erysimum 'Chelsea Jacket'

Iris ‘Lula Marguerite’

Iris ‘Benton Caramel’

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

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

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

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.

Dec. 15: Floral advent calendar: Iris 'Langport Storm'

I gave up on growing bearded iris at my house in Virginia after multiple cultivars succumbed to iris leaf spot, a fungal disease that causes round brown lesions on the leaves and eventually weakens the entire plant. It’s too bad, as I love bearded irises, and I fell even more in love when I saw Iris ‘Langport Storm’ at Sissinghurst in mid-May.

Many descriptions of ‘Langport Storm’ say it must be seen in person to be fully appreciated, and I agree. It’s a mix of pink, purple, blue and brown that’s hard to pin down in a description or a photograph. I love flower colors that defy characterization, and Iris ‘Langport Storm’ does that in spades. It’s definitely one to tempt me back to growing bearded irises again.

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. 1 Floral advent calendar: Lunaria annua 'Chedglow'

I visit gardens, plant shows, and nurseries year-round, and I am constantly photographing plants and flowers that catch my eye. I have collected thousands of these flower photos that never make it into blog posts but are still valuable to me for education and inspiration. I thought it would be nice to share some of these flowers here, one for each day of advent this December.

First up is Lunaria annua ‘Chedglow,’ which caught my attention in April at the Harrogate Flower Show. This plant was all over the nursery displays, actually glowing when exhibited on dark backgrounds. Its deep purple-brown leaves and magenta flowers looked particularly fine with the dark-leaved elder, Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’ (below).

Lunaria, or honesty, is a biennial that germinates one year to flower the next. I bought some seeds of ‘Chedglow’ and sowed them this past summer, when I sowed other biennials such as wallflowers and foxgloves. All my other seeds germinated and went on to grow well, but ‘Cheglow’ refused to appear. It’s too bad, but I was consoled to learn that the gardeners at Sissinghurst had trouble germinating it this summer as well. At least I am not alone…and there is always next year to try again.

Sugar rush of spring tulips

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. 

Spring at Sissinghurst

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. 

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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!

Late Winter at Great Dixter

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. 

2016: A good year

2016 was, world events aside, a very good year. My biggest achievement was surviving my second year of the horticulture with plantsmanship course at the Botanics, and gaining my HND as well as my Diploma in Plantsmanship, with distinction. I memorized innumerable Latin plant names, drew dozens of floral diagrams, wrote a very long paper on the history of horticultural journalism, and completed myriad other assignments that flew fast and heavy.

I also traveled a lot in 2016, with international adventures to new countries as well as two trips back to the U.S. I happily got to see much more of Britain, including famous gardens the length of the country: Levens Hall, Chatsworth, Sissinghurst, Great Dixter, Newby Hall, Drummond Castle, Cambo, Shepherd House, Scampston Hall, Glasgow and St. Andrews Botanical Gardens, and more. And of course I fell deeper in love with Scotland, checking off the Isle of Skye from my life-long must-visit list.

It's been a great year, and I'm looking forward to many big adventures in 2017. Happy New Year!