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.

Dec. 8: Floral advent calendar: Sparmannia africana

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

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

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

Dec. 7: Floral advent calendar: Salpinglosis sinuata

It’s not very sophisticated, nor subtle, but I love it. This is Salpinglosis sinuata, growing in the glasshouse at Parham House. It’s a bit like a cooler, more exotic-looking petunia, to which it is related. It’s common name is “painted tongues,” and I get the sense it is an bit of an old-fashioned glasshouse/bedding plant that used to be more popular than it is today. Regardless, it is fantastic in the glasshouse, and it is a plant I’d love to try. I don’t know the cultivar of this one, but many are available to grow from seed.


Dec. 6: Floral advent calendar: Tweedia coerulea

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

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

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

Dec. 5: Floral advent calendar: Puya alpestris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dec. 3: Floral advent calendar: Lapeirousia oreogena

This little beauty is Lapeirousia oregena, a member of the Iridaceae (Iris) family and native to the northwestern cape of South Africa.

This specimen was photographed in the Davies Alpine House at Kew Gardens in March, with Saxifraga x hornibrookii ‘Riverslea’ in the background. Alpine houses in early spring are some of my favorite places. They look like jewelers’ cases, full to bursting with tiny, colorful gems to catch the eye. Despite its tiny size, with each flower about the size of my fingernail, this Lapeirousia really stood out to me that day.

Dec. 2 Floral advent calendar: Allium amethystinum 'Red Mohican'

I’ve seen the new Allium amethystinum ‘Red Mohican’ described as the punk rocker of the plant world, and that’s not a bad description. Mohawk comparisons aside, when I first saw this plant in July at the Parham House annual garden weekend, what first drew me to it was its color. It is one of my favorites, an unusual deep, bricky red that reminds me of the desert Southwest.

The flowers aren’t large, being comparable in size to the much more common Allium sphaerocephalon, so I imagine it would take quite a few of these still-expensive bulbs to have much effect in a border design. I did see ‘Red Mohican’ used this way in a small section of garden at Parham, below, and I liked the effect especially next to the bronze-leafed fennel.

Because of its novelty and sophisticated color, I suspect we’ll be seeing more of ‘Red Mohican’ soon. Will it be the “it” plant of Chelsea 2019?

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.

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.

Stourhead

On the way home from a short holiday in Bath I visited Stourhead, an iconic landscape garden in Hampshire. In the past I wouldn't have considered landscape gardens to be a style that appealed to me, but I am finding myself more and more exhausted by bitty and high-maintenance "English" style gardens, composed of herbaceous perennials, flowering shrubs, and annuals that need to be constantly fussed over and swapped in and out according to their performance, or lack thereof. 

As my taste in planting style changes and morphs toward more simplicity, I find myself increasingly drawn to landscape gardens. Landscape gardens all but do away with smaller herbaceous plants and instead rely on trees, massed shrub plantings, and lawns. Stourhead, a 2,650-acre Arcadian fantasy in Wiltshire, is an exemplary landscape garden that's well worth a visit. 

The garden, which first opened in the 1740s, was designed by a series of men in the Hoare family who made their money in banking. Between 1741 and 1780 Henry Hoare II dammed a stream to create a lake in the bottom of a picturesque valley and then set about building a garden around it in the Italian landscape style. Greek mythology was a heavy inspiration to Hoare, who likened the journey around the lake and through the garden to Aeneas' decent into the underworld. To that end Palladian buildings are carefully sited throughout the garden to form classically composed views such as those in the paintings that were popular amongst British collectors in the 18th century. I am in awe of the mindset of these British landowners who set about to sculpt acres of their land as acts of personal expression, remembering, of course, that the actual heavy lifting was done by thousands of gardeners. The scale of such undertakings is mind-boggling but incredibly impressive. 

One enters Stourhead past a standard-issue English rock pile that was the Hoare family home but is now owned and operated by the National Trust. The incredibly lackluster garden surrounding the house does nothing to set the stage for the wonder that lies just within the woodline. The first view of the garden, above, is one of the most impressive feats of horticultural theater I have ever seen. A little window in heavy forest opens to reveal the garden buildings arranged around the lake covering the valley floor. Tantalizing. 

One makes ones way down the the lake along a series of paths, called The Shades, through mature woodland underplanted with cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus). I've never seen such a prosaic plant look so beautiful as it did at Stourhead, where its shiny green leaves reflected light and made the forest floor shimmer. Wait--I take that back: I was first impressed with cherry laurel as underplanting when I saw it at Rousham, lining the rill. Walking through the Stourhead forest was a masterclass in how to design with green, and no accident: 

"The greens should be ranged together in large masses as the shades are in painting: to contrast the dark masses with light ones, and to relieve each dark mass itself with little sprinkling of lighter greens here and there."

- Henry Hoare ‘The Magnificent’

At Stourhead I especially enjoyed how views into the greater landscape, outwith the garden, were used to extend the experience. Looking out of the garden the scenes are more natural and less contrived but no less beautiful. 

After descending through the woods one circles the lake on a journey that includes various temples and grottoes, all designed to manipulate the garden visitor's emotions from high to low and back again. I have to say such psychological trickery works--walking around Stourhead is as much an emotional roller-coaster as it is a visual delight. A large part of that delight is the feeling of relaxation brought on by being in a space that is so well-ordered and designed to mimic a sort of heaven on earth. Exiting the temple, below, I was struck by how perfectly the large tree, growing on an island nonetheless, was framed in the doorway. I am sure a lot has been written on exactly why such landscapes evoke these feelings in their viewers and it's something I'd like to dig into a bit more some day. But for now there is something very pleasing about this tidiness of composition: I find it very easy to visually process which in turn makes my viewing experience calming.

One aspect of Stourhead I did not find calming was how the garden was overrun with screaming children and their parents who were just as obnoxious. This is a problem I've increasingly noticed as I've visited more gardens in the south of England, particularly at National Trust properties such as Stourhead and RHS gardens such as Wisley. I get the sense that people buy memberships to gain access to what they regard as playgrounds for their little heathens, which they then let run wild without any consideration for the plants, landscape features or the people who visit gardens to find a moment of quiet reflection. I know gardens need to attract visitors in order to stay open, but I wish they could address this problem by creating "quiet" or "adults only" hours for those of us who want to enjoy the experience without a soundtrack of shrieking children. As much as I would like it, I am sure it's too much to hope that they all invoke the rule at Rousham--no children allowed.

Despite a heavily overcast day, the classic Stourhead view, below, still impressed. I'd like to return again some day soon, ideally on a weekday after the school holidays are over, and with a proper camera to get to know this garden better. I have the feeling I can learn a lot from it and look forward to the journey. 

Drought

We're getting the first real rain today in two months, to the day, and not a moment too soon. Eight weeks without water combined with near record-high temperatures has turned the lush green England is known for into a dry brown so extreme it's visible from space. British gardeners are wilting right along with their charges, and head gardeners such as myself are trying to balance responsible irrigation, the plant well-being and production we are paid to deliver, and the health of our staff. And the garden I'm not paid to tend and can't afford to water--my own--well, that's just sailed off into the sunset of the 2018 summer season as console myself with the spring bulb catalogues. 

As difficult as this summer has been for ornamental horticulture, I am really feeling for local farmers whose lives depend on rain. At work I'm doing my best to keep the high-value plants (in terms of money and years invested in their growth) such as trees, topiarized hedges and large shrubs alive, knowing full well I may need to replace some smaller herbaceous material. The most obvious effect on production I've known this year is my glasshouse tomatoes have failed to set fruit due to the sustained high temperatures over 120°F/49°C despite total ventilation and twice-daily damping down. Sustained days over 90°F causes pollen to become nonviable, leading to the abortion of flowers and any potential fruit. 

Not producing a home-grown tomato for one family is a luxury I can afford to lose, but local farmers who've seen their crops brown and shrivel weeks early, or fail to set fruit entirely, and whose income is directly tied to mass production have it much harder. Already there are reports of increased food prices this year tied to poor yields. I see the effects on wheat in the field just steps from my house. Where the mud on this path was deep enough this winter to pull my welly off my foot, a week ago it was so parched a full-grown man can insert his arm, up to the elbow, in a crack in the earth.

Today's gentle rain is a lifesaver, but won't be enough to make up a two-month deficit. And we're due to be warm and dry yet again next week and into August. I never thought I'd complain about weeks of hot and sunny weather in Britain, and if my vocation weren't horticulture I still probably wouldn't, but with so much on the line in terms of my livelihood, that of our farmers, and the viability of our entire food supply, I really just wish it would rain. 

July 13

July 21

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. 

Happy Solstice

The summer solstice, the longest day of the year, is always a special holiday in our household. This year we stayed outside as long as possible, enjoying a sunny 9 p.m. walk through fields growing head-high crops. Back home, we made a bonfire and sat around it talking as the twilight stretched out above our heads. The solstice is all about the sunlight, and this year we swam in it. 

Happy Solstice, wherever you are celebrating.