In 2015 I started growing a stock of Sesleria autumnalis with a view to edging the little meadow with a band of bright foliage. This is a low growing grass, said to be usually evergreen and endowed with eye-catching lime green foliage. As a European native sesleria is very easy to grow in UK gardens, either in full sun or part shade – as long as the soil is not too wet.
Most other members of this useful and underrated family of grass, like blue leaved Sesleria caeruela, can be grown easily from seed, but not this one.
Sesleria autumnalis seed is difficult to germinate, rather than fret over dud seed trays I ordered 24 9cm pots from Knoll Gardens. However, enjoying a gently spreading habit, sesleria can be divided sooner rather than later 😉. This also makes it a wonderful ground cover plant.
Although autumn was in the air the plants in the nursery beds grew vigorously from day one, as you would expect from a typical cool season grass that has just woken up from its summer siesta. Above is what the same little plants looked like just a month later.
By the following spring the beds were filling out nicely, when the poppies bloomed in June you’d never have guessed they’d only been planted the previous autumn. This grass has two periods of active growth – spring and autumn – either of which is a good time to propagate it by division. I aim to split each plant into at least three fist-sized divisions in early autumn 2017, pot them up into a gritty loam mix and then transplant them when the meadow is strimmed in mid December. Now, the general rule is not to cut evergreen grasses down but this is an exception : so far, I have cut second and third year plants back quite hard to refresh the foliage in both spring and autumn without setting them back.
Sesleria autumnalis starts to flower profusely from mid July, producing fresh inflorescences right the way through until August.
Fresh inflorescences are laden with loosely held silky stamens that quiver in the slightest breeze (or swish of the cat’s tail).
As they age the flowering spikes shrink, turning tan in autumn and darkening on damp days. Through the autumn and late winter the effect is like a volley of tiny rockets shooting across the increasingly sharply coloured yellow-green foliage.
Primarily, I’m growing this grass for the colour of the foliage plus size and shape. My hope is that the addition will achieve two things : draw the eye down from the swirling mass of Molinia caerulea subsp.arundinacea, and, conceal the scruffy thatch of Deschampsia cespitosa.
When I planted the meadow in the spring of 2015 I placed one 2 litre pot of Sesleria autumnalis on the most prominent corner of the meadow where I could keep a close eye on things. Looking at this photograph taken in October 2016, I wonder if you think the combination works?
This gallery contains 3 photos.
Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ dancing in today’s strong north-westerly winds with gusts of up to 40mph.
Spending most weekdays commuting to London doesn’t leave Hitesh much time to help in the garden these days. Luckily, there’s a merry band of helpers I call on when the going gets tough. Before we went away on holiday just one look at the To-do list was enough to leave me feeling exhausted so I lined up two half days of help in the run up to Christmas.
The first job was to clear the little meadow. The planting is a matrix of two native grasses, Molinia caerulea subsp. arundicea which collapses into an easy to scoop up heap in the second or third week of December, and Deschamspia cespitosa which can be left to stand through the winter. Last year I left the deschampsia to see how it fared. Let’s just say I didn’t sigh too much when I came to cut it down.
So, this winter the whole area has been cleared in one fell swoop using hedge cutters and strimmers. If all goes to plan the deschamspia will form neat green and tufty mounds by the time the snowdrops are out.
I’ve lined the horseshoe shaped access path with old cut off terracotta pots filled with compost, then sprinkled Papaver somniferum seeds mixed with fine horticultural grit over the top. There should be a scarlet ribbon of poppies floating above the silvery deschampsia, the first wave of grasses to flower in the meadow, in time for our NGS day on Sunday June 25th 2017.
The second task was phase one of regravelling the drive. It took four tonnes to do the turning and parking area at the bottom of the drive. Don’t worry, the pink dust will wash off over the next couple of weeks.
The third item on the list was to tackle ‘the dumpy blue pine’ which we inherited with the garden in 2006. I often look at the Pinus sylvestris ‘Chantry Blue’ and think that it looks like an enormous bowling ball, one that gets bigger and bigger as the years go by. Although it’s not my favourite tree in the garden there’s lots to be said for keeping it : the blue colour of the needles is rather attractive; the bulky form acts as both a sheltering nurse for Hitesh’s precious Acer griseum to one side and a foil for Stipa gigantea to the other; and, the dense canopy is popular with nesting birds.
After a lot of head scratching, which is inevitable when you’re crawling around in a tight space being showered by prickly pine needles, I decided which branches of the lower skirt might be pruned without completely ruining the shape of the tree. From a distance the tree looks the same, however, the scaly legs of the tree have been exposed. At close quarters it looks a bit odd but the plants at the edge of the dripline now have breathing space, at least for a year or two.
Between these last minute blitzes, there’s been good news to spur us on and something nice to read over our tea breaks : two lovely pieces about the garden have been published this month. The first, Carole Drake’s article ‘Winter Glow’ is featured in the January 2017 edition of Country Homes and Interiors magazine. (Apologies for the time it takes for the page to load.) The second, ‘Some grassy inspiration from Barn House Garden’ is a blogpost by local designer Lisa Cox and appears on her garden design website The Room Outside.
What a wonderful end to a busy gardening year. This week I can kick off my wellies and finally turn my thoughts towards Christmas.
Here’s to the holidays!
Over the last week or so I’ve been dismantling thirty odd patio pots at the south end of the house. Partly, to clear the decks for the painters who need access to the windows and, partly, in preparation for loading the containers into the greenhouse for the winter. As it marks the end of the season for this bit of the garden, it’s not a job I relish, especially when it still looks good. However, little did I know : this year I was in for a pleasant surprise.
On Thursday, with all the cutting back done well ahead of time, I took a deep breath and armed myself with the optimistic floor plan with which to brief the two strapping young men who were going to haul the pots of tender and borderline hardy exotics into the greenhouse.
This is not a job for the faint-hearted, the pot sizes for the Arundo donax and Muhlengergia dumosa are 75 litres apiece and the remainder average 50. Totally unfazed, they cheerfully got on with it leaving me to sweep up the bamboo leaf litter in front of the 8’x10′ greenhouse. Hidden under a cloak of summer greenery, it forms quite a deep layer around the pots of gingers and cautelyas.
As I reached for the broom I spotted a rash of startlingly blue mushrooms at the base of the bamboo stand to the right.
I just had to take a closer look ….
Newly emerged from the mixture of leaves and bark mulch, the rounded young caps looked distinctly slimy. Older caps are first scaly, then less smooth with traces of a white veil showing at the edges. Although the caps loose the lustrous appearance as they age they are still an interesting sea-green colour.
I couldn’t resist picking a couple for closer inspection. The details of the reverse sides are quite delicate and equally beautiful.
Turning the cap over the milky coffee-coloured gills are distinctly notched where they meet the stalk. The stalks are pretty too, with streaks of a more cobalt blue against a shiny white background. In the older mushrooms, faint traces of brown spores collect in a ring towards the base of the stalk, below that the surface is covered in scaly down and flecked with soil.
Wondering what they could be, I googled ‘blue mushrooms’ and came across a very helpful website, First Nature. Identifying mushrooms or toadstools can be a minefield but as there are only a few blue mushrooms in the UK it wasn’t quite as hard as I expected. Of these, the ones in my garden are recognisable as either Stropharia caerulea Kreisel or Stropharia aeruginosa, although they look very similar, especially in colour, a good guide can help pinpoint the subtle differences between the two. It comes down to each species showing differences between the rim/gill and gill/stalk edges. These turned out to match the Blue Roundhead rather than the Verdigris Roundhead mushroom.
Like the vast majority of mushrooms, these are respectively noted as being inedible and, possibly, poisonous. They’re for ‘looking not cooking’.
As it seemed a shame to waste the ones I’d picked, I decided to see if I could catch a spore print. It’s not hard to do and is fun try : select a fresh, fully opened mushroom; place downturned caps on a sheet of stiff white paper; pop a glass/bowl over the top of them to stop the spores drifting in air currents; and, then leave undisturbed for at least a few hours, if not overnight for the print to develop. Damp conditions keep the caps moist and help with the release of the microscopic spores. I left mine outside under a heavy Pyrex pudding basin, but a damp swab of cotton wool works well too.
The following morning I rushed out to see if It had worked. Attempting to lift the first cap as carefully as I could by hand smudged the print, the second I skewered with pointed tweezers. I was amazed at the number of spores that had been released. Apparently, they can be fixed as a keepsake. Now, where’s the hairspray?
When I’m asked why I made this garden I reply I simply wanted a room with a view, not not just for myself but for the dogs who were otherwise fixated by any passing interest on the lane so they might enjoy a volley of woofs. Airedales are like that😉.
Personally, I was fed up with looking up the awkward rocky slope to the gates across from the drive lined with parked cars, not to mention the yellow sticker on the neighbouring electricity pole. Arcadia, it was not.
We cast a shadow on something wherever we stand, and it is no good moving from place to place to save things; because the shadow always follows. Choose a place where you won’t do harm – yes, choose a place where you won’t do very much harm, and stand in it for all you are worth, facing the sunshine.”
― E.M. Forster, A Room with a View
It took me several years to grow the mainstay of hundred of grasses : standard forms of Calamagrostis x acutiflora.
Year after year I divided them out, while their numbers increased, it gave me time to figure out what I’d plant with them and how I’d arrange them to create a view that felt in keeping with the gentle valley slope. It also had to look good for most of the year with as little extra help from me as possible.
Knowing the slope was exposed to each and every passing wind, I didn’t want plants that would keel over with the slightest gust nor those that gave up the ghost in high summer. I wanted something that was so very simple, so pared down to the essentials, that the view would delight me in each and every passing season.
As a bemused friend observed in the late summer of the terraces’ first year in 2012, “but” it is just the same plants in lines with the odd block of Periscaria amplexicaulis thrown in for bee friendly colour. Her “but” lodged in my mind, because, yes, the planting was really that unsophisticated.
Miraculously, for the most part, it works.
For at least 10 months of the year I have my longed for room with a simplified view and we are all quietly contented. From late summer through autumn the planting sings its dazzling technicolour aria accompanied by the joyful thrum of happy bees.
But, to be honest, the reason I’m writing this now is that, one of our very dear dogs is so very unwell I really can’t say if she will make it or not. So much of this garden has been built around the two of them. Our two furry tanks have been such an inspiration.
‘How did you get to be on television then?’ asked a recent visitor as they gazed at some bindweed flowering in the miscanthus hedge. That’s a very good question. Without going into the subplot of how I have shamelessly waylaid any poor unsuspecting professional (or good garden blogger😉) who happened to be passing, in my quest to pick their brains about how I can improve upon my work, the answer is ‘Thanks to the NGS’. Horticultural journalists like Mandy Bradshaw with a critical eye for plants, design and the niggling details found us in The Yellow Book in 2013 – their flurry of articles sent us on our way.
Cotswold based, she recently ventured across The Severn Bridge and braved the narrow lanes, this time to visit Jackie Healy at nearby Greenfields. Since we last met Mandy has set up a great website, The Chatty Gardener.
She has kindly posted two pieces, the second ‘Gardens on the edge 2#‘ is about how my grassy garden has developed over the years.
The title made me laugh, perhaps she means ‘of reason’ too?
Sandwiched between the grasses terrace and the house is a sunny patio edged by Lavenders Munstead and Hidcote.
From left to right, clockwise, the cast of characterful ladies in lavender includes geraniums, with a cameo appearance by Clematis Petit Faucon.
‘Vision Light Pink’ and ‘Blue Sunrise’ win as many adoring glances from their fans as …
these two marvellous grand dames of the theatre.
Sunshine is the cue for a mesmerising array of extras to flit upon the lavender stage.
Today, being our twenty fifth wedding anniversary and so deserving of a special treat, we have booked front row seats from which to watch the high summer show.
Having planned for rather mixed weather today, I’m delighted to say not only is the sun is shining but the rain is likely to hold off at least until late afternoon. Finally, I have a few spare moments to sit down and write a brief post.
Thanks to the amazing plants we grow our Wye Valley garden is looking great this morning, there’s just enough of a gentle breeze to stir the grasses and keep us cool.
There are lots of lovely plants for sale, most of which have been donated by our dear friend and horticultural mentor Roger Grounds. We’re delighted that Roger will be here today to help greet our guests.
Roger has also generously donated a wonderful selection of books. Proceeds from both plants and books will be given to the National Garden Scheme which supports a raft of deserving charities such as Marie Curie hospice care and Macmillan Nurses.
And, of course, the afternoon would be not be complete without a range of refreshments, delicious homemade cakes are floating in through the kitchen doors as I type. Paws crossed, there will be lots of friendly faces to help make the day a success.
Like all new NGS garden owners, Jackie and Fintan Healy, who live just down the lane, have been working extra hard to ensure that : the garden is up to scratch, easy to find, there’s ample parking and, most importantly, visitors can be assured of a very warm welcome come rain or come shine.
Inspired by Tammy’s Casa Mariposa blog, I have been trying for some time to compile a list of UK Garden Centres and Nurseries which sell plants without neonics – systemic insecticide us…
A few months ago I wrote about the felling of the big blue cedar which used to dominate the front garden.
Everyone was right to say I’d get used to the void. At the end of May as I sit on the apple barn steps I find I’m enjoying the more open view of the garden.
I’ve stopped looking up and fretting about replacement tree planting. Instead, a new use has been found for the stump situated where two paths converge. I think the solution suggested by a friend brings the eye back down to earth.
In late spring the bank of Calamagrostis surges from a knee to thigh high sea of foliage. In a few weeks the grasses will be even taller and topped with purple flowering spikes at just above head height. By mid June the four staggered rows of Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ (to the far right of Mia) will obscure the curving path running along the wall top. The obvious way around the terraces will be via the wide gravel path between the lower wall and the single row of variegated Calamagrostis ‘Overdam’ (to the left).
Once the grasses are singing their summer song only those in the know, like Lily the cat, will venture along the secret path. Like the meadows around us, the grassy terraces are home to lots of interesting creatures. Occasionally some loose their way.
Last week I came across a 60 mm long furry Drinker Moth caterpillar inching its way across the gravel towards the grasses in search of a snack. As I was heading that way I offered it a lift on the trowel.
I delight in finding a reason for a stroll along this maintenance path simply because the child in me loves hearing the grasses rustle as I brush past them. My latest springtime excuse is to see what the latest variation in the promiscuous aquilegia seedlings has turned out to be. They seem to be at home in what was the shady area under the cedar and, lately, like me, their flowers have been looking a bit frazzled in the heat. Otherwise, their leaves seem quite healthy.
According to the RHS there’s less risk of introducing the dreaded Aquilegia downy mildew if plants are raised from seed. (If buying plants, or if there’s concern about existing plants, the expert advice from Touchwood Plants is very helpful.) I’m tempted to sow some greeny-white ones to add a starry springtime sparkle to the little meadow. Sarah Raven’s descriptions of either A. ‘Munstead White’ or ‘Lime Sorbet’ sound perfect. If I’ve understood Derry Watkin’s online cultivation notes correctly, there’s less chance of aquilegia cross-pollinating if different forms are sited a minimum of thirty inches away from each other.
While we were wandering along the access path a friend kindly pointed out that in my wild and wooly garden I don’t stand much chance of enforcing chaste behaviour among the carefree columbines. This is quite true, I might just as well sprinkle a mix of the predominantly purple or pink seeds that are ripening in the jolly jesters’ hats with a shrug and a smile for good luck.
The more serious question arose when we arrived at the T-junction where the two paths meet, dead ahead of which is site of the stump. Even in April, when the perennial planting is not shrouding it, the path is barely three feet wide. We decided that as there isn’t room to manoeuvre a stump grinder without unpacking a lot of the planting, it will have to stay.
In which case, Jackie suggested, why not use the stump as plinthe for a simple sculpture to draw the eye in my rambles along the path. This conjured images of bespoke budget-busting spheres which would look more at home in a Chelsea Show Garden than in our rustic patch. On the other hand, the earthy coloured salt glaze globe that I bumped into in the garden centre while dropping off NGS posters seemed just right.
It’s also a perfect springtime perch from which to enjoy the aquilegia.
Perhaps one of the best things about gardening is the friendships it fosters and, as a result, the sharing of good ideas.
Update : A day or two after posting this I discovered these are not seed pods but unfurling new leaves.
Until this week I had been putting off a couple of winter jobs in the front garden, partly because a photographer was working in the garden on a last minute winter set, and, partly because I wasn’t quite ready to say my goodbyes. The first was to start cutting back the mass plantings of grasses, starting with the terraces in front of the house; and, the second, to have the ailing blue cedar felled to the ground.
This journal entry is about how this particular tree came to be the focal point of the front garden. The blue cedar is the second, tallest, and rather gaunt looking conifer from the left shown in the image above.
In 1970, when the house was a commune, the cedar was tucked away in the right hand side of this arc of conifers that ringed the north end of the house. Possibly it’s behind the one cloaked with a rambling rose. Perhaps they were intended as a shelter belt. If so, they were planted very close to the house.
By the time we moved here in 2006 only four of them remained. On the advice of the surveyor the tallest (a conical shaped green cedar) was felled, leaving the stump to the left. At the time the photo above was taken in 2010, the blue cedar sat behind a billowing Scots Pine in the top right hand corner of the frame. Perhaps the pine had sheltered it from the northerly valley winds, which regularly hit 50mph, as well as the harsh winters of 2010-11.
In the summer of 2011 we started drawing up plans to remodel the front garden, starting with the rocky barren slope in front of the house. One of the first things we considered was which of the trees we’d build the design around. We also had to consider which of those had either outgrown their space or were on their last legs. The very first teatime sketch of the slope in front of the house shows the blue cedar (green pin) at the midpoint of concentric terraces, with the diseased pine to be deleted.
Plotting each and every tree, slope, and sightline etcetera on a structural plan led to curving parallel stone walls that echo the contours of the valley hillside. The position of the cedar is marked by an eggcup, the dashed line shows the all important extent of its dripline. From the scribbled jottings on this enlarged section of my dog-eared plan I can see I was jumping ahead, noting ideas for the fun bit – planting, including nearly a dozen small ornamental trees to replace those that had been lost.
To my mind’s eye, the late summer colour plan looked ‘right’ with the statuesque blue green tree as the centrepiece.
Six months later, the ground work was completed and the new terraces, which taper to ground level just beyond the dripline of the tree, were ready for planting. This image is not flattering to the tree, taken at this angle it shows that the cedar’s shape had suffered, its ‘skirts’ had been lifted leaving 3 metres of bare trunk. Planted as it was so close to the drive, lower side branches had been snapped off by successive passing builders’ lorries or removals vans. Branches on the opposing side were lopped off to balance the shape. A knowing visitor once wryly observed ‘such is the fate of a parkland specimen in a modest sized English country garden’.
Once the areas around the tree were planted up the tree sat more comfortably in its new surroundings. Personally, I liked the shock of the vibrant blue rising above the technicolour summer ‘prairie’ planting, and, I liked the way this jolly blue giant arched its long limbs in greeting across the garden. One way or the other, the cedar worked its way into practically every image, often boldly so. But sometimes the effect was more subtle, perhaps a feathery bow fringing the roofline of the house, or, extending like a finger across either a path or the planting below.
Then, midway through 2014, the tree turned an anaemic looking green colour before shedding abnormal quantities of rusty coloured needles. The advice was to monitor it for a year and in following it closely in its decline I came to appreciate the not so blue cedar all the more, knowing that if we lost this particular tree the garden would never be quite the same again. Even sadly defoliated, minus its lush blue mantle and brittle limbs on show, the tree in its entirety still possessed a certain graceful charm.
So, the decision to fell a 50′ tall tree, that must have taken nearly as many years to grow, wasn’t taken lightly. Short of leaving it to die back further, and then perhaps turn it into a totem pole, we felt we had no option but to call in the best tree gang we could find. They were brilliant, so gently was the framework dismantled that to my amazement not one cyclamen nestling among its roots was damaged in the process.
This is the same view from the apple barn steps as in the opening image, I take a shot of the garden from here at least once a month for my records. This is the first in which the cedar doesn’t feature, a red trug sits on its stump as a marker. The terrace of grasses, rudbeckia and nepeta has been cleared too, revealing the cheerful mix of dogwoods, birches and luzulus. Just as I was studying the gap left by the missing cedar, we had some good news : the photographer’s set has been accepted by a magazine for publication in late winter 2016. I shall be looking out for a glimpse of the blue cedar among the images that the editorial team select.