spring

Orchid hunting, part 2: Yockletts Bank

We reluctantly left Denge Wood and drove a few miles to Yockletts Bank. We turned up a lane that was, to me, the most perfect representation of a British woodland in spring. Bear’s garlic, Allium ursinum, carpeted the forest floor. Also known as ramsons, this was the plant we’d enjoyed with nettles a few weeks earlier in a spring tonic soup.

We headed into the woodland and met a nice stand of lady orchids, Orchis purpurea, in a clearing. But what we were after was much more subtle and hard to spot: the fly orchid, Ophrys insectifera.

And find it we did. There’s an orchid in the photo below. Can you spot it? This photo gives you an idea of just how small and challenging these particular orchids can be to see.

Elated with our discovery we continued on through the woods to find these intriguing trees. I dubbed them ‘resurrection ashes’ because new trees had grown vertically from where an old tree had fallen. If there ever is an actual incarnation of immortality, these trees may be it.

Further down the path we noticed a few tell-tale twigs just to the side of the path. We had both read Leif Bersweden’s recent book, The Orchid Hunter, and remembered that people will often use twigs to subtly mark/protect orchids. These twigs were guarding another small population of fly orchids.

We headed out of the wood and back to the car, enjoying the wonderful natural plant combinations growing on the verge. This mix of Allium ursinum; cow parsley, Anthriscus sylvestris, the fern, Asplenium scolopendirum; and the delicate grass, Melica uniflora, was a study in perfect plant combinations. I went to the Chelsea Flower Show a few days later and saw few plant combinations to rival what nature created right here on Yockletts Bank.

Up next, our final stop on our day of orchid hunting, and an excellent stop it was.

Orchid hunting, part 1: Denge Wood and Bonsai Bank

Southeast England, and in particular Kent, is known to have strong orchid populations including some species that are rare in Britain. And so it was in the spirit of great plant hunters’ past that my husband and I set out for a day of orchid hunting on May 18. Unlike the collectors who walked before us, our aim was to only botanize and take a few photos, not entire plants. The practice of plant collection can, and historically has, massively damaged native plant populations and their ability to reproduce and survive. As conservation-minded and responsible horticulturists uprooting or picking plants would be the last thing we would do. It is enough to just see these beautiful plants growing wild.

Our first stop was Denge Wood, an ancient semi-natural woodland on the North Downs. We began our walk through a stunning beech forest that was doing just what makes me love beech woodlands so much, creating a dynamic interplay of light and shadow on fresh, new spring leaves. Nothing else approaches the feeling of being in a living cathedral like a beech woodland. The bluebells were just going over but I could tell they had been a stunning carpet below the green canopy.

As we continued walking the forest opened up to include other tree species, including conifers and birch, and more grassland. It was then that we found what we were after: our first Lady Orchid, Orchis purpurea, growing tucked up right next to a yew. It was huge, with a raceme that was about eight inches long. You can see how the orchid gets its name—look for the lady in her dark bonnet and fluffy skirts.

As we continued along the track we met an older man walking the unlikely combination of an Afghan hound and a miniature poodle. We stopped to chat and as he’d visited the site for years he filled us in on all the orchids in the area and what we could expect to see. Once he learned we were botanists he fed us all sorts of intel about orchiding in Kent. Then he motioned us toward Bonsai Bank, where our horticultural lives changed forever.

The open forest/scrubland was full of Lady Orchids as far as the eye could see. In addition to Lady Orchids we saw many Common Twayblades, Neottia ovata, which are easily overlooked because they are the exact color of the surrounding grass. Once you “get your eye in,” they are easy to spot by their relatively large and rounded leaves.

While I was photographing the orchids I heard a rustling nearby and just caught this grass snake navigating under a thick layer of moss. In the almost five years I have lived in Britain I have seen only two snakes, both tiny and inconspicuous, as well as one slow worm (a legless lizard). Coming from a land where snakes are usually much larger, sometimes venomous, and have a penchant for living around human dwellings I admit the relatively smaller size and harmlessness of British snakes is one of the things I love about living here.

We continued on walking amongst the orchids, enjoying a display that had us both in awe. I really enjoyed seeing the variation in the Lady Orchids. Some were almost white and others deep purple. They were so thick it was hard to photograph them for fear of treading on others, or the later-flowering species yet to come.

There were a few other orchid enthusiasts on the bank, mostly men with great big camera gear, but it was quiet enough that we could easily be alone with the orchids. A very common plant in this area is a native British dogwood, Cornus sanguinea, growing at the base of the Lady Orchid below.

The man we met on the path had told us that a White Helleborine, Cephalanthera damasonium, had been spotted in this general area but was hard to find. And wouldn’t you know it, I found two while wandering alone down a path. They were growing right next to a Lady Orchid and a Common Twayblade, with other, later orchid species waiting to flower. Three orchid species in one photo is a pretty great find. Can you spot the White Helleborine and Common Twayblade, below?

We brought along a text we spent a lot of time with while studying botany at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh: The Wild Flower Key by Francis Rose. It takes a bit of practice to learn to use a floral key, as well as a good understanding of plant anatomy in order to differentiate your sepals from your stipules. But with time it is an excellent way to correctly identify specimens. Here we’re working on IDing this yet-unflowered orchid.

We had a few more stops planned on our great orchid-hunting day, so with reluctance we left Bonsai Bank and hiked back out through the magical beech woodland.

In Part 2, we continue our day of orchid hunting in Kent with some new discoveries and a woodland so beautiful it put everything at Chelsea to shame.

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.

Prunus 'Accolade'

Three unseasonably warm days in February jump-started spring this year, bringing blossom and birdsong when last year we were still held firmly in the grip of the Beast from the East. Those three warm days, however, were followed by three weeks of back-to-back storms that brought high winds, downed trees, and restless nights. And then we hit a patch of middling grey. No rain, no wind, just flat grey for yet another week.

Overcast days can suck the life out of gardens, but there are some plants that fight back with a seemingly internal light. One such plant is Prunus ‘Accolade,’ an incredibly early flowering ornamental cherry that even kicks out the occasional bloom in deep winter. The specimen in the garden I tend for work has been the object of my fascination this past week as it has begun to bloom in earnest. This tree is planted on a slope in an area we call the wild garden, and its unique position means I can easily get underneath to stare up into its blooms, offset by dark yew behind.

Prunus ‘Accolade’ is a hybrid cross between Prunus sargentii, a species cherry that offers something interesting in all seasons, and the small, winter-flowering Prunus x subhirtella. Majestic Trees describes ‘Accolade’ as “breathtakingly luminous on the dull days of March,” and having been through a run of just such days I could not agree more. This tree glows. Even next to other beloved cherries, such as Prunus x yedoensis, which was the first tree I planted at my farm, ‘Accolade’ has something special.

The color of the blossoms ranges from soft pink to white, depending on the age of the flower, and it never steps over the line into lurid as some cherries can. Viewed from below on an overcast grey day, the lighter blossoms blend into the sky in a captivating visual trick.

The evening after taking these pictures I was reading Dan Pearson’s recent book, Natural Selection (Guardian, 2017), in which he wrote:

What I like about writing is the act of capturing the process of gardening, of distilling these experiences into words. Some thoughts draw to conclusions and are satisfying as a result, but others are equally interesting for remaining in flux. The writing might interrogate a colour, a feeling or a place. It might capture a moment that I know will only happen once, perfection existing for minutes and then passing: the experience of standing under a cherry when the very first blooms are opening, or the perfume of a solitary lily. Writing helps to keep these experiences present and alive and in the memory.

Well, this year I’ve stood spellbound under ‘Accolade’ as she opened her first buds, and I don’t think I will forget this tree any time soon. It provided my first transcendental gardening moment of the new year, fittingly on the first week of spring, and it is all the more appreciated because I know it is already almost over. When I left work on Friday the cherry petals were beginning to carpet the lawn, and by Monday there may be more on the ground that overhead. But for those few days, ‘Accolade’ was perfection.


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!

The new cold frame

This past winter my husband gave me one of the best presents I've ever received. Starting December 1, he presented me with an Advent calendar made up of a collection of brown paper envelopes embellished with beautiful dried leaves. I was to open one envelope each day throughout the month. Inside each envelope was a packet of seeds, carefully chosen to reflect plants that hold special memories or that we'd talked about growing before we ever had the space to cultivate. And thus, in the darkest days of winter, our first garden was born. 

Around Valentine's Day I got another nice present. We commissioned a local carpenter my husband knows through work to build us a cold frame. I never had a cold frame in Virginia, but I really came to see their value studying in Scotland, where cold frames helped nurture seedlings through protracted British springs. We have the perfect spot for one here, on a south-facing wall of the house with the solid concrete driveway base beneath.

When the base of the cold frame arrived we added a roof and some hardware then got to work sowing all those Advent seeds. It's a messy business done inside at the kitchen table, which sits on white carpet, so a glasshouse and potting shed are the next big items on our garden wish list. 

We pricked out a bunch of seedlings last weekend (above), and the image below taken today shows they are settling in nicely. 

The extreme (for England) cold and snow has really set spring back this year--some people saying by as much as four weeks--so some of our little plants aren't taking off quite as quickly as one would expect. But I'm sure that under the soil they're busy putting down new roots and as soon as the temperatures rise a bit they'll be off. In the meantime they are snug and protected in our beautiful new cold frame. It is a joy to watch them grow. Every evening when we get home from work we open the cold frame and gaze at our seedlings for a moment, then shut the lid and head inside. As my husband says, they're the best kind of children. I agree--if they misbehave we just toss them on the compost heap. 

Now if it would just stop raining so we could finally get our planting beds prepared, the 2018 garden season would be well underway! 

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. 

Portrait of a pear

One of my favorite trees at the Botanics is in bloom. I've been visiting recently trying to take its portrait, but the grey weather hasn't been cooperating. Then last weekend the clouds broke for a few minutes and I got the sun for which I hoped. 

This is Pyrus korshinskyi, the Kazhak pear. It is native to Kyrghystan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, but it seems quite at home in Edinburgh. Unfortunately this tree is critically endangered in its native habitat because of overgrazing damage by livestock and harvesting. 

This particular tree at the Botanics is listed on the Tree Register of the British Isles as the largest Kazhak pear in cultivation. 

I especially love the upright habit of its gnarled, lichen-covered branches and they way it seems to lift its blossoms skyward. It is truly spectacular and a rare tree that some day I hope to raise in my own garden. 

Spring cleaning

It's been good weather for getting a start on the garden. Sweet peas are planted, herb and lettuce seeds sown. It felt like the right time to give my secateurs a spring tune-up. A light scrub with fine steel wool and white spirits removes any accumulated sap or rust. Then I sharpened each pair with a diamond sharpener. Ready for duty. 

Return of the sun: First day of spring

The sun has finally climbed high enough that for the first time since last autumn my front garden is getting some direct sun. It only lasts a little while, and is usually interrupted by skudding dark clouds (or hail, or snow, or sleet, or icy rain, all of which we've had this week). But in late March, after another challenging Edinburgh winter, I will happily take what I can get--even if it is only a few minutes that light up the awakening garden and give me hope that brighter times are on the way.