Friday, 28 February 2014

Wisley revisited

There are very few things I miss about living in London. One of them, however, is the Royal Horticultural Society's garden at Wisley, in Surrey. I used to live about 30 minutes' drive from Wisley, and could nip down there whenever I fancied, either to wander round the gardens looking for inspiration, or to buy stuff at the plant centre or the bookshop, both of which are superb.
In the 20 years that I've been visiting, the gardens - and the facilities - have got better and better. There is much more emphasis today on landscape design - Tom Stuart Smith, Robert Myers, Piet Oudolf and Penelope Hobhouse are just a few of the names who have contributed - which means that although Wisley is still very much a show garden designed to cope with thousands of visitors,  it has much more of a sense of place and less of the feeling of being a public park full of plant "exhibits".
So when my friend Helen said she wanted to go garden visiting and did I fancy Wisley, I said yes, please. Helen is such a knowledgeable plantswoman that any garden visit with her is a pleasure.

We set off from Gloucestershire on a cold, rainy morning, but by the time we arrived in Surrey, two hours later, the sun was shining. We'd piled the back seat of the car with an assortment of coats (really warm coats and really really warm coats) but it turned out that we didn't need any of them. It was gorgeous. The figures of the Henry Moore sculpture King and Queen, which is on temporary show at Wisley until the end of September, seemed almost to be basking in the sunshine.

"Is there much to see in a garden like Wisley at this time of year?" a non-gardening friend asked me when I got back. Are you kidding? There are the crocuses, and the hellebores, and the snowdrops, and the bare stems of cornus in colours ranging from yellow to dark red.

Helen wanted to see the Alpine House, which was a delight. There is something very satisfying about all those pretty little plants in their pristine little pots. It's like dolls-house gardening. If you look closely, you can see that all the vents of the glasshouse are open, but it was still too hot to stay in there for long. We spent the whole day saying to each other: "It's so hot!" When we had lunch, in the newly revamped British Food Hall, we were able to sit outside. At a table in the shade!

This bank is in the rock garden, where there were huge drifts of species crocuses, and other spring-flowering plants such as Cyclamen coum.

This grassy area next to the Walled Garden was incredibly colourful and many people were stopping to take pictures. It was quite difficult trying to photograph it without getting someone's shadow in the shot. Helen liked it, but I wasn't sure. I think Dutch hybrid crocuses can provide a good pop of colour just at the time when your spirits need a bit of a lift, and in many garden centres, they are all that you can buy, but I love the subtle colours of the C. tommasinianus cultivars or the original C. vernus vernus from which the Dutch hybrids are descended.

I love grasses, and I think the grass border at Wisley looks wonderful even in winter, when the stems are bleached and dry. I would never have thought of growing crocuses with them (I will now!), but I thought this was a wonderfully dramatic contrast between the soft, almost furry texture of the grasses and the vivid colour and neat shapes of the crocus flowers.

Another interesting idea was to plant crocus beneath cornus, where the flowers contrast well with the bare stems. I'm not sure about this combination of mauve and red, though. White would be better here, I think, while the pinky-purple would look fantastic with yellow stems, such as Cornus sericea 'Flaviramea'. But that's just my personal taste.

I love the way the trunk of this magnolia rises like a sculpture from a sea of crocus and snowdrops. The snowdrops are just starting to go over, but their foliage still looks good.
All in all, Wisley still gets top marks. I like the way the new food hall is organised, and the choice of food was good. (We had spinach and ricotta strudel with coleslaw and green salad.) It used to be a rather dreary place, with huge queues, and I can't even remember the last time I ate there before this week.
In recent years, the gardens have become a popular destination for mothers or nannies with young children, which is not always a good combination with keen gardeners. Indeed, I walked straight into a branch, much to Helen's amusement, while trying to pass a large group of pushchairs and meandering toddlers. We didn't even bother going to see the butterflies in the Glasshouse because the queue of small children and their accompanying adults was a mile long.
I think it's fantastic, however, that children - especially very little ones - can experience gardens as fun places to go.  I'm sure it stays with them into later life and I wouldn't grudge them a day out at Wisley for a moment. But I'm glad the RHS is doing all it can to smooth the path of visitors in search of loos, or food, or cups of tea and cake.

Stop Press! Launch of Evolution Plants

A while ago, I bumped into an old Fleet Street colleague. John Fitzpatrick and I used to work together on the Evening Standard in London before going our different ways - John joined the Financial Mail on Sunday while I went to The Independent, where I worked for 13 years.
Between us we have probably covered more than our fair share of Royal weddings, political scandals and economic chaos. These days, however, our interests are more down to earth - we both write about gardening.
John edits the Alpine Garden Society Journal, while I'm now a freelance gardening writer.
Royal weddings? You can keep them. Political scandals? Yeah, yeah, whatever. Economic chaos? Same old, same old. What really gets our newshound noses twitching now is something like the launch of Evolution Plants, an exciting new nursery founded by plant hunter Tom Mitchell.
I admit to being a bit ambivalent about the whole rare plant thing. The idea of growing something that no one else grows isn't a hugely important factor for me. (Indeed, the rarer it is, the more I worry that I will kill it.) I'm not a stamp album sort of gardener - I want to create an impression, not a collection. What matters to me is whether a plant will thrive in the existing conditions in my garden, and give the effect I want.
And yet, and yet. I am always complaining that garden centres offer an increasingly limited palette of plants. The "Shade" section of a garden centre near me, for example, usually consists of a couple of hostas, a couple of ferns and one or two varieties of bergenia. If you're lucky.
I don't want to be deprived of trilliums, or epimediums, or erythroniums, or hacquetia, so it's important to support any effort that provides us with more of a choice.
I may think it is important, but for Tom Mitchell, it is a mission. His educational background is in natural sciences (he has a PhD in tropical rainforest biology), but he spent 15 years in banking after leaving university. He finally managed to escape the golden shackles of the financial world and go plant-hunting, and the nursery provides him with a chance to bring his discoveries back to the UK and share them with gardeners around the world.
The day I visited Evolution, it was lashing with rain (when is it not?) and I'd got lost twice trying to find the nursery. It was my birthday that day, so I was not feeling too happy, and by the time I arrived, Tom was halfway through his presentation to the gardening press. As he finished, he asked a colleague to crack open the champagne, so that we could all drink a toast. "I feel a bit embarrassed toasting my own website," he said, "so here's to Victoria - happy birthday!" Wasn't that nice? We then inspected the mouth-watering selection of plants in the (nice warm) poly tunnels and had a scrummy lunch. It turned out to be one of the nicest birthdays I've ever had.

Some of the plants that Tom Mitchell grows have not even been named yet, such as this Trautvetteria from Tennessee, a lovely woodland plant with delicate white flowers. It looks a bit like a cross between a green heuchera and a white thalictrum.

The other plant I fell in love with was Parnassia grandifolia (above), another woodlander with neat round leaves, a bit like those of Asarum europaeum, and green-veined white flowers.
These are just two of the amazing selection of plants on Tom's website. Every time I look at it, there is something else I covet. He will also ship anywhere in the world, as this paragraph under the Orders and Delivery section explains:
"We will, in principle, send any plant on our website to any customer, anywhere in the world, subject to the laws that apply in your jurisdiction and ours. Because the legislation governing the movement of plants across international borders changes regularly and is different in every jurisdiction, we have not attempted to standardise the terms on which we will ship plants. Our goal, however, is to work with you to get the plants you would like to order to you speedily, legally and with certainty. Please contact me directly at if you would like to discuss an international order and I will do my best to find a solution."

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Forces of Nature

We're not under water for miles and miles here in the Cotswolds (well, not quite, anyway), but river levels are very high and the meadows and gardens on its banks are flooded. The high winds seemed to claim a new tree every day, so it's a huge relief that the really stormy weather seems to have receded a bit. These two below are in the woods adjoining the cricket field.

The Rack Isle, above, is usually marshy, but not completely under water! It's now a nature reserve, but in the olden days, it was used by the weavers who lived in the cottages of Arlington Row as a place to hang their cloth, hence the name. The wall on the right between the river and the main road through the village is quite high, thank goodness.

Rows of sandbags protect the cottages themselves. The biggest problem here, however, is not the river overflowing, but groundwater coming up through the floor.

The water is so clear, even with the river in full flood. At least we don't have sewage or any other nasties to contend with.

One of the gardens in the village. They used to have a "Keep Off The Grass" sign, but it must have floated away.

Last Saturday, this huge cedar came down in the churchyard. I don't know exactly how old it was, but my guess would be around 200 years. It came down on the first weekend of half-term, which was just as well, because the tree stood between the parish church and the village primary school. Not only that, but it fell INTO the prevailing wind. This meant that instead of falling on the school, the topmost branches merely scraped against the wall of the church. Did someone say miracle?
However, you can see how much mess it has made in the churchyard. The enormous rootball ripped up the graves beneath the tree and you could even see human bones tangled in the roots. I didn't take a picture, because I thought it seemed a bit intrusive, but I like to think that those long-dead villagers somehow helped the tree to fall the right way. There will be a service of rededication for them once everything is back in place.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Snowdrops and marmalade

I've registered to attend the US Garden Bloggers Fling in Portland, Oregon, this summer, so I suppose I'd better start doing some blogging again or I'll be unmasked as a fraud. I haven't posted for ages, but I have an excuse (sort of), which is that I've been writing a book. It's on Cotswolds gardens, and it's being published by Frances Lincoln in February 2015. I'll tell you more about it nearer the time.
In the course of writing the book, I almost got to the point where I never wanted to see another Cotswolds garden. I didn't want to write the words "box topiary" or "yew hedges" or "old roses" or "pleached hornbeam" ever again.
That makes me sound terribly ungrateful. It's been a fantastic opportunity to see some really interesting gardens, and hear the stories of how they were made. Here in the Cotswolds, we are able to grow all the ingredients of the classic English garden - lavender, roses, clematis, apple trees - which, combined with an idyllic pastoral landscape of beech woods and green meadows, and villages built of honey-coloured stone, creates a picture that is postcard-pretty.
However, we're now in snowdrop season, and these too seem to love it here in the Cotswolds. Indeed, you might argue that the region is an important centre for snowdrops: Galanthus elwesii was introduced from Turkey at Colesbourne Park, and Galanthus 'Atkinsii' was developed by James Atkins while he was living at an estate cottage at Painswick Rococo Garden. Beneath hedgerows and on roadside verges, Galanthus nivalis, now naturalised in Britain, is in full flower.
Snowdrops don't like to dry out too much, but they don't like being waterlogged either. Cotswolds limestone, combined with the, ahm, generous rainfall we get in the south-west of England provides the perfect growing conditions.
Snowdrops inspire strange passions in the hearts of their devotees, known as galanthophiles. The garden writer Val Bourne, who also lives in the Cotswolds, wrote a very entertaining piece about them in the Daily Telegraph the other day, and you can read it here.
I love the idea of celebrating a seasonal flower, and it was fascinating to visit Colesbourne Park the other weekend and see visitors enthralled by the winter display there. There were plants for sale, there was tea and cake - and I could also take Rufus. A perfect afternoon, in other words.

At Colesbourne, you can see sheets of snowdrops growing beneath the trees, above, or in beds in the spring garden, below.

It's quite difficult finding planting companions for snowdrops on this scale. You can't have anything that is too invasive, because it crowds out the bulbs, so ferns, which form a tight clump, are ideal. Cyclamen and crocus, which flower at the same time, are good companions, as are the shrubby Cornus varieties, such as C. albus 'Sibirica' or C. sanguinea 'Midwinter Fire', whose bare flame-coloured stems look wonderful with snowdrops growing beneath them. Hostas and Sedum spectabile are also good, since they come into leaf once the snowdrops have finished.

All the snowdrop varieties (they have around 350 cultivars at Colesbourne) are clearly labelled. This is G. 'James Backhouse' (above), a variant of 'Atkinsii', and a good choice if you want a bigger snowdrop that establishes easily.

I love seeing snowdrops growing alongside Cyclamen coum. The pinks and magentas of the cyclamen flowers enhance the white of the snowdrops, and the cyclamen foliage makes a good contrast to the spear-like leaves. Traditionally in the UK, you plant snowdrops in the green (ie in leaf) rather than as bulbs. The theory is that they establish better, but according to Chris Horsfall, the head gardener at Colesbourne, this isn't strictly true. He says that many of the bulbs are imported, and might have become dehydrated which has given them a bad name. But if you can get hold of good fat bulbs, it is always better to plant snowdrops while they are dormant. If you have planted in the green, and you get a dry spring, he argues, then your new snowdrops may suffer.

I was invited to a coffee morning at the home of John and Lyn Sales this week. John Sales is the former gardens advisor to the National Trust. He is now retired, but his own garden hosts another wonderful collection of snowdrops, growing both in the woodland that runs alongside (above) and among the shrubs and trees of the garden itself. Again, the varieties are labelled, so you can exactly which one is which, and compare size of flower, colour of foliage and height of plant. The foliage colour varies considerably from a deep emerald green to a blue-green, almost grey shade. If you already have snowdrops and you want to introduce perhaps a taller variety to grow among them, I think it looks better if you choose one that has similarly coloured foliage.

Snowdrops flowering beneath the stems of Cornus sanguinea 'Midwinter Fire' in John Sales's garden.

Painswick (above and below), a gloriously eccentric garden and a wonderful place to wander during the snowdrop season.

So where does the marmalade fit into all this? Well, if you're frozen stiff after an afternoon of bending over snowdrops, there's nothing like standing in a steamy kitchen over a pan of marmalade, while the scent of orange peel wafts through the house. Seville oranges are in season only for a few weeks in the UK, from roughly mid-January to mid-February. This coincides nicely with the need to have an excuse to stay indoors and keep warm and dry.