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.

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.

Indian summer at Great Dixter

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. 

Beth Chatto's Garden: Part 3, the Reservoir and Water Gardens

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. 

Photo courtesy of Beth Chatto Gardens.

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. 

Beth Chatto's Garden: Part 2, the Woodland Garden

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. 

Beth Chatto's Garden: Part 1, the Gravel 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. 

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. 

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. 

Great Comp: A late-season surprise

On Monday--before the sky turned apocalyptic orange from Saharan dust and Portuguese smoke--I visited Great Comp garden in Sevenoaks, Kent. I was familiar with Great Comp through the work of its curator, William Dyson, who grows and sells his extensive collection of salvias in a nursery onsite. As an RHS partner garden, entry is free for members in September and October. 

It's getting late in the season for garden visiting, and Great Comp was quiet and almost empty. It was just my luck as on this 70-degree October day the bright sun really brought out the best in fall colors, ornamental grasses, and hundreds of salvias of all shapes and sizes. 

The garden is criss-crossed with meandering paths that lend a real sense of discovery to its exploration. It also features "ruins" throughout that add some height to the otherwise flat site and provide vantage points from which to look down upon the garden. They reminded me of the ruins at Chanticleer, though at Great Comp they look less theatrically contrived and almost plausibly original. 

I love photographing gardens in autumn, when they are so full of warm colors, texture and senescing beauty. One of my favorite views was of the phlomis seedheads, above, left standing in counterpoint to the tightly clipped shrub behind it. 

I also enjoyed an extensive area of ornamental grasses. Their seedheads swished around at head height and made walking among them feel like an adventure. Throughout the garden late-season stars such as asters and dahlias brightened up the browning foliage. 

I've always liked salvias, but I came away from Great Comp with an even greater appreciation for their range of color, size, and form. My favorite of the day was Salvia bullulata 'Pale Form," grown in a container above. It's one of those rare true-blue plants that have my heart. 

In all I was unexpectedly surprised by Great Comp. The garden is big and detailed enough to hold your attention for a couple of hours, and it is very neat and well-maintained. The plantings look healthy and vibrant, even as we stand on the doorstep of winter, and are artfully arranged with attention to form and texture as well as color. There is a lot to discover in this garden, and I look forward to returning in other seasons. 

Great Dixter: The right garden at just the right time

Tonight I'd like to share a few photos from Great Dixter, which I visited two days ago on a quick trip to East Sussex. I didn't have my big camera and lenses with me, so these photos are more like sketches, quickly snapped with my iphone as I let the garden wash over me. Right now I don't feel the need to analyze what I saw--goodness knows that's been done to death with a garden as influential and famous as Dixter. So instead just enjoy what caught my eye free from Latin names or any plant names at all, in the spirit of Christopher Lloyd.*

This was exactly the garden I needed at exactly this time. It's been a challenging summer with more than a fair share of major life transitions to navigate, and I'd be lying if I said my faith in gardening and what I love about it hasn't been put to the test. Lately all the work and risk-taking required to earn a science degree and pull off a mid-life career change in a foreign country have seemed like questionably sane decisions and left me wondering if I wouldn't have been better off staying in America and sticking with an uninspiring but profitable line of work I didn't love. 

But walking around Great Dixter on Saturday I felt a tiny bit of joy tiptoeing back into my broken heart. Just a bit, as here and there and then everywhere I looked were planting combinations and colors and arrangements that went right to my artist's eye, reminding me of how much I love this living/looking and don't want to do anything else. When I visited Great Dixter in July a year ago, the garden registered as clashing and in some ways garish. But this year the bright and happy late-summer flowers, all tumbled together in a shouty riot, were just what I needed when I'm having a hard time registering anything more subtle. The garden reached out beyond the confines of paths and planting beds, embracing me and forcing me to feel its September exultation. Great Dixter cut right through my darkness, letting light spill in.

This weekend was an important lesson in both garden making and garden appreciation. Like any art, we look at gardens through a scrim of our own moods, judgements, and preconceived notions. There is no way to control these elements in our viewers when we make a garden, just like it's impossible to look at any garden objectively. Our personal histories, memories, proclivities and dislikes are always standing next to us, staring out at the garden through our eyes.

Some gardeners take a widest-net approach, creating gardens to appeal to the most middle-of-the-road tastes and expectations. Other gardeners follow their own stars, not caring how off-putting or ungardenlike their visions are to an untold number of people. It's into this later group that Great Dixter falls. I am so glad I got to see it when I was feeling sad and doubting, when it reminded me of how much beauty and never-ending inspiration is to be found in my new vocation, and how vital it is that I keep the faith just a little longer. 

*Posted in the Great Dixter nursery shed: 

This post is dedicated to R.B., who stands with me in the garden, bright and dark. 

Culross Palace: A 17th century garden

From an au courant contemporary garden let's travel back in time to 17th century Dunfermline, just across the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh. Culross "Palace" is a merchant's home built between 1597 and 1611 by the Laird of Carnock, Sir George Bruce. Sir Bruce pioneered undersea mining, sinking a shaft into the Firth to extract coal. His home at Culross is one of the most interesting spots I've visited in Scotland, with a bit of glamour added by the gorgeous spirits of Sam Heaughan and Caitriona Balfe, who've filmed Outlander scenes there. In addition to Sir Bruce and big-screen bonafides, there's also a recreated 17th century garden that climbs the southern-facing slope behind the house. 

Culross Palace is now a National Trust for Scotland property, and researchers analyzed literature and illustrations from the early 17th century to piece together how the garden may have looked then. 

For much of time gardens have not just been used for beauty and relaxation. They were larders, general stores, and pharmacies providing food, materials, and medicines. The garden grew plants that were used for dying, making cosmetics and soap, brewing, and strewing herbs that were spread on floors to smell nice and keep pests at bay. What resonated with me about Culross is that it's a useful garden in addition to being attractive.  

In addition to herbs, the garden includes many edible plants including mulberries, quince, medlars, and figs as well as old varieties of apples and pears. 

I was struck by this inspired combination of hollyhock and berries. Whether it was intentional or not I am liking this idea of incorporating traditionally ornamental plants to make bolder aesthetic statements in the production garden. 

The garden also includes other more unusual edible plants. John Gerrard's 1597 Herball, which informed the recreation of the garden, tells of vegetables that would be unfamiliar to many gardeners in 2017. Skirret, in the Apiaceae family and a relative of the parsnip, is a vegetable grown for its white roots, eaten boiled or fried. Scorzonera is a perennial plant in the Asteraceae, or sunflower family. It's also used as a root vegetable and is sometimes referred to as black salsify. 

I loved these little shelters almost completely overgrown by the blowsy late summer garden. How lovely to sit inside and have ripe red currants so easily at hand! 

And how can I forget the icing on the Culross cake: Scots Dumpy chickens!

As a chicken aficionado and former flockmaster I was thrilled to finally meet a breed I'd read so much about. The Scots Dumpy has a semi-lethal gene that shortens its leg length, creating a characteristic slow, waddling gait. Some claim that the shorter-legged birds don't wander as far from the homestead or croft as more lanky chickens, and that this limited movement makes their meat more tender and succulent. 

They're not the most attractive breed to me--I like my animals well-proportioned--but it was really nice to spend some time with a small flock that reminded me of the one I used to have, broody hens and all. 

Broadwoodside Part 3: The Courtyards

After leaving the House Field and walking back toward the South Garden, we ducked through a large stableyard door and into the Upper Courtyard. 

This garden is structured on a grid of paving stones interspersed with lawn and square planting beds containing Acer platanoides trained into standards. I especially liked that each tree was underplanted with a different evergreen species. An aviary--built around another Acer--is the centerpiece, and on this day it was home to this bright-looking African grey parrot.

Beneath an open shed is a fantastic picnic area painted one of my favorite colors and festooned with Wisteria. It would be a lovely space not only for relaxing but also for outdoor projects requiring open air under roof. I find these types of spaces incredibly useful in a garden, and miss the ones I had on my farm even though using them usually meant clearing the area of snakes, dead and alive, before entering. I am sure I will enjoy living in a country where that isn't as much of an issue!

The tour carried on into another courtyard, through a beautiful ochre building dating to 1680, and out into the Hall Garden, which was another of my favorite spaces. It was full of frothy, delicate plants that looked as though they just been poured into the container created by the building and surrounding hedges.

Brunnera, Anthriscus, Rosa rugosa, Nepeta, Phlomis, AquilegiaGeraniums and ferns all joyfully tumbled beneath pollarded Tilia creating the effect of a stylized woodland glade. I loved it. 

Behind the buildings was the Orchard, where the only fruit in sight was cast bronze. What I loved most about this area was evidence of the chickens that must very happily forage there. There were many other treats to be found in this garden and further afield on the estate, including a temple and pond. I'll leave you to discover those for yourself, and end our tour here. 

Broadwoodside is one of the creatively inspiring gardens I've visited. I appreciate its domestic scale and came away full of ideas I'd like to implement when I have a large garden again. I like the use of art and color throughout the space and the way the owners' sense of humor and wit translates through their choices in the garden. Gardening, like any art, is a very personal form of expression and one at which Broadwoodside excels. I can't wait to visit some day in the future and see how the garden continues to evolve. 

Broadwoodside Part 2: South Garden and the House Field

Following the path around the ochre tower one enters the South Garden. What I like about this garden is how domestic it feels, and yet it looks so stylish with excellent use of color, witty art installations, and simple but repeated plantings that form a rhythm along the path. It doesn't hurt that it faces a bucolic pasture that housed, on that day, two stunning white horses that were kicking up their heels as if on command to frolic.

I'm not usually fond of purple smokebush (Cotinus coggygria). I suspect it's because for the five years I lived near Washington, D.C. I had to walk past a solitary, unhealthy, and pathetically maintained specimen going in and out of my flat each day. I itched to put it out of its misery, but lacking that agency I just let it sour me on the whole genus. I keep trying to come around, but its slow going. This garden is probably the first in which I found myself enjoying Cotinus, most likely because it is well-maintained and so effectively used as a dark accent along the walk. The perfectly chosen and contrasting blue on the posts also goes a long way toward my enjoyment of the Cotinus. Imagine the image below without the blue posts and Lutyens bench at the far wall. Not nearly as effective, right?

Further into the South Garden is a very inviting patio and a few pieces of art that I really enjoyed. I always like a big tree trunk repurposed as landscape art (a la David Nash), and this elm with its golden sphere hits the spot. Once again notice the color work here--that sphere picking up the tones in the ochre building. Beautiful. Cover either the sphere or the building with your finger and see what happens to the composition. 

I also loved these mirrored portholes making a feature out of what is potentially a mechanical eyesore. They looked especially nice covered in raindrops. 

From the South Garden one passes through this gate on the way to the House Field. The stone plinths beneath the urns read "Going to" on the left and "the Dogs" on the right--a joke that didn't reveal itself until I found the pet cemetery in the far corner of the field. 

Looking back toward the house I failed to see the point of the House Field. I suspect it may have been a timing issue, as I've seen photos of the bed by the wall filled with bright red blooming Crocosmia. Again it's not a favorite plant but it makes a strong statement when flowering. I really couldn't tell what was going on with that bed between the two mown areas. It had a few little blooms but mostly just looked like a weed patch.

Another view of the South Garden shows a hint of its borrowed landscape. This spot was one of my favorites at Broadwoodside, possibly because I feel most at home in places with long countryside views. What can I say other than I'm a typical Homo sapiens with an evolutionary bias toward the savanna--just like Capability Brown! 

I'll leave you to follow that link for some fascinating reading and when I return we'll head into the courtyards for Broadwoodside: Part 3.  

Broadwoodside Part 1: Entrance and Walled Garden

On June 4 Broadwoodside, a private garden in the small village of Gifford, opened for the National Garden Scheme Open Gardens. For one day a year the public is invited to see the the garden that Anna and Robert Dalrymple and their gardener have created over the past 17 years from a derelict farmstead. 

Broadwoodside has received lots of positive attention from horticultural publications far greater than mine, which you can read about here, so I'm loathe to repeat those stories here. Instead I'd rather write about what Broadwoodside actually looked like on this particular day, and how it felt to be within it. 

The garden is entered up a simple mown grass path through a meadow interplanted with trees and roses. After having worked so hard at my own farm to maintain mulch circles around trees that were essentially planted in a hayfield, I would like to embrace the relative ease of this cultivation technique. I like the casualness of this approach as it feels like the beginning of an adventure into a private space, which of course it is. If you couldn't tell it from the artwork displayed around the entrance meadow, it becomes clear when one passes through this garden gate that what lies ahead will be a creative and whimsical space. 

Through the gate one immediately enters a small vegetable garden. It's not really enough space to grow anything on a scale I'd like, and not as lush as the surrounding borders, but I appreciate the nod to the walled garden's practical origins.

The rest of the garden is an unusual mix of formal and casual as a rectangular pond edged with willow (Salix) provides the structural core around loose mixed borders backed by espaliered fruit trees growing on the walls. The willow pond was very much a "look at me" feature in this garden, and it felt like a space to pass through instead of a space to be lived in or even one that would invite much pause. I suppose the interest lies in the ever-changing Salix, which is cut each year and then allowed to grow up to nine feet tall over summer, effectively creating a room within a room and an area that felt a bit disconnected from the lush herbaceous borders around it. 

I enjoyed the view from a little bench tucked into the corner, below.

So often herbacious borders are viewed from one direction--outside looking in--and this perch provided the unique vantage point of being within the border. 

Next, we'll travel deeper into the garden and see some of my favorite bits. 

More than just topiary at Levens Hall, Cumbria

Though topiary is the main draw at Levens Hall, the rest of the garden contains a mix of well-done features and some questionable bits. First up is one of the nicest double herbaceous borders I've ever seen, all in shades of blue, yellow, white and purple, capped off by a Lutyens bench at one end. I liked the weathered wood tuteurs in that they looked sturdy but naturally pretty and blended well in the border. I also appreciated how the color and texture of the Nepeta reflected the very worn stone walls and urns. Despite being a bit weather-beaten, the Delphinium were doing their magic trick of injecting the ever-elusive true blue into the composition, and Cephalaria gigantea sprinkled its pale yellow stars just above head height. 

The purple, blue and white theme continues near the house with a small foundation planting of HostaNepeta, and climbing vines, including Clematis. The white giant Himalayan lily, Cardiocrinum giganteum, was looking very fine. 

There is a willow (Salix) maze, which looks better in this photo than it did in real life. It was pretty overgrown with grass and weeds, and I think being able to see through the maze "walls" defeats the point of a maze. It was, perhaps, just young and may grow into something more substantial. I could see it being popular with children. 

A large beech (Betula) hedge encircles part of the garden, and one may walk underneath its canopy for great views reminiscent of looking at the sun from under water. The cripples supporting the branches made for some beautiful natural sculpture.  

One of my favorite areas was the old orchard, which in spring is planted with red tulips in square patterns under each tree. That must look great, but I enjoyed the pattern left over once the tulips have been mown off, and I think this is an attractive way to deal with the inevitable messiness that follows a spring-flowering bulb display. Making a feature out of "disorder," or manipulating ephemeral spaces through periods of transition so they still contribute to the overall design, is something I'd like to try in my own garden. 

A pretty substantial network of pleached lime (Tilia)  tunnel arbors impressed me with its horticultural skill. Attempting to get this many living trees to grow at almost 90 degree angles is a challenge, and these were just about perfect. I think the secret lies in the strong timber framework just barely seen in this photo. I imagine that without it in place it would be hard to achieve this precise effect. 

The pleaching and extensive topiary at Levens bring to mind another garden that I really enjoy in pictures, having not yet visited in person: Arne Maynard's Allt-y- bela: 

Image from Town and Country Magazine, with more here. Gardens Illustrated just ran a really great series written by Arne about his garden, which can be read here. Check it out and I think you'll see Levens was a source of inspiration for this newer garden. 

Emerging from one exit of the pleached lime arbor one sees this water feature, which didn't do much for me. Maybe in a sunny, warmer day it would feel refreshingly welcoming, but on a cool, stormy day it left me, well, cold. 

The bowling green/croquet lawn is bordered by masses of Lychnis coronaria with some tall yellow spikes of Verbascum. This combination didn't work for me, and the border's position right next to the beautiful double blue border made it look like Cinderella's ugly stepsister. 

Finally, the herb garden showed off the very flashy golden hops (Humulus lupulus 'Aureus'), one of my favorite climbers. More red Tropaeolum speciosum can be seen climbing through the yew on the left side of the photo. 

That's it from Levens Hall, a fantastic historic garden that is well-worth your time, rain or shine. Up next, the journey continues south to pay homage to one of my horticultural heroes, Joseph Paxton, at Chatsworth. 

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...

A solstice trip to Drummond Castle Garden

The longest day of the year seemed as good as any to take a drive into the beautiful Perthshire countryside. The destination was Drummond Castle, and after a nice lunch and walk around the nearby town of Crieff my companion and I turned into the long and narrow beech-lined drive in search of what Historic Scotland calls "the best example of formal terraced gardens in Scotland." 

I think it's safe to say that neither of us find Italianate-style gardens particularly compelling, and formal parterres usually leave us cold. We do know, however, that this style of garden is designed to impress, and on that count the initial view of the garden at Drummond succeeds. 

A few steps beyond the castle courtyard the garden unfurls 60 feet below like the saltire it is meant to represent. Blue lavender, which wasn't yet in bloom, and silver Anaphalis form the flag of Scotland. This combination of Scottish patriotism with Italianate terracing and French elements makes for a garden that, although striking, left me feeling confused and questioning. 

All gardens are amalgamations of changing fashions, historical periods, and owners. And Drummond, which has been in development for a mind-boggling five centuries, is no exception.

The castle dates to 1490, and the first garden was laid in the 1630s. The formal gardens and terracing were added 200 years later with the long vista through the far woods. This garden has seen war under Oliver Cromwell, Jacobite uprisings, and been walked by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. In the 1950s the gardens were refurbished, and since 1978 have been maintained in a trust. 

Even taking the cumulative effect of so much history into account, elements of the garden felt "stuck on" or assembled together without a sense of cohesion. I sat and looked at the garden for a good long while and found myself playing the editing game, wondering what could be subtracted to make the picture before me make sense. Would it be the bright white urns and sculptures? Or the occasional oddly shaped topiary? Or maybe additions were in order, perhaps in the form of more acid-yellow Acers, which effectively brought nice lightness to the composition. 

Walking down through the garden wasn't particularly interesting but for the view back up to the castle. I suppose I'm just not a huge fan of box broderie infilled with not-yet-blooming roses and patchy bedding plants. And topiary usually just strikes me as bizarrely contrived. Or maybe I just needed a corset, some petticoats and a bit of courtly intrigue for this garden to stir me.

Instead, what was most interesting was the trick of perspective played in this garden, and how the formality disguises a significant slope through the five-acre site. It's objectively interesting, but hardly raises the pulse. 

I did enjoy the kitchen garden, which is cleverly tucked into the south-facing slope behind the garden's far hedge. The brick walls made the perfect suntrap for growing climbing roses and espaliered fruit trees, and I'd love to have the potting sheds, cold frames, glasshouse, and fruit cage at my disposal.

I always find it funny to see plants that I am used to growing outside in Virginia, such as everything in these photos--figs, tomatoes, peppers, sweet corn, and grapes--being so coddled in Britain's colder climate. This method of indoor food cultivation has its roots in the Victorian-era rise of glasshouse innovation. To me it feels like it will never evolve out of antiquity, which leaves me equally charmed and frustrated. 

I was pretty impressed, and jealous, of this amount of bench space devoted just to Streptocarpus hybrids. My own collection is quickly outgrowing the only window in my flat that gets even marginally enough light to keep the plants alive.  

Incidentally you may have seen Drummond Castle on television just this year and not even known it. The gardens stood in for Versailles in the second season of Outlander, a show worth watching because it is thought-provoking, beautiful (particularly the costuming), and features one of my favorite female protagonists in the character of Claire.

So have a look at Outlander to catch a glimpse of Drummond, or visit it yourself if you're headed Perthshire-way. Though it didn't move my soul, it's still a striking garden that I'm glad to have visited on the longest day of 2016.