Last week’s grassy wand-waving, aided by your kind well-wishes, seemed to pay off. Despite the iffy weather forecast and localised heavy downpours, Brockweir Common stayed dry for Sunday afternoon’s garden visitors. This year, we have a lot both to be thankful for, and, to think about ….
A dry day was a relief to our furry meeters and greeters, as garden visitors are much more inclined to make a fuss of dry dogs 😉.
Nearly two hundred visitors raised lots of money for the National Garden Scheme, Gwent Wildlife Trust, Alzheimer Society and Brockweir Moravian Church. Among the more familiar faces was a lovely surprise – fellow garden blogger Brian and his wife of Our Garden@19.
Visitor numbers were a little lower than last year, but this gave us more time to chat with people. Happily, as a newer garden, Greenfields enjoyed the lion’s share (114). The straw poll taken at the gates shows that most visitors are still attracted by what used to be called ‘The Yellow Book” as well as the county booklets.
Despite the rebranding, which I wrote about back in March here, proportionally fewer visitors seem to find gardens via the attractive new website or social media. Speaking to other NGS garden owners and our trusty Assistant County Orgainsers, the new stationary may be less effective than we’d like it to be. The feedback seems to be that due the new poster’s background colour and quirky font the lettering is less visible from the roadside, plus there’s less information available to browsers of notice boards. For instance, both Greenfields and Barn House gardens are open by appointment, yet, this is no longer advertised on the posters. Another local NGS garden owner thinks that this sort of thing could be addressed if garden owners had access to the unique font and so were able to create/customise their own publicity material.
Maybe it’s going to take a while longer for garden visitors to switch to using the internet, yet, having set up a garden website in 2015 my experience is that this isn’t the whole story. Following the garden’s feature on Gardener’s World in August 2016 Hitesh noticed that our sleepy little WordPress website stats hit the roof causing us to fear ensung gridlock on the lane not to mention mayhem in the parking field. Luckily, the virtual interest translated into a far more manageable 85 visitors spread over the 8 weeks after the programme was aired.
Hitesh also pointed out that it’s a bit odd that this is the first year that Askimet hasn’t shown any referrals from the new NGS website.
One way or another, hundreds of intrepid garden visitors have found their way to us since we first opened the gates in July 2013. Over the last 5 years we have hosted an NGS Open Day 8 times, in addition to which 20 groups will have visited by appointment by the end of September 2017. While there has been keen interest in the garden from further afield, such as from Swansea or Bath, it seems unlikely that many regional groups, with a sensible preference for travel by coach, would as happily brave longer journeys by car. Maybe they’ve heard that the secluded Lower Wye Valley’s winding lanes are charmingly pretty but prohibitively narrow?
This may be a blessing in disguise. Never mind the country lanes, our country drains wouldn’t cope with large parties without creating an almighty fuss.
I’m considering a low-key opening of the garden in 2018 on a set day for a local charity while offering the garden to groups of 10-30 by appointment on behalf of the NGS. (Interested individuals or organisers considering a group visit are always most welcome, contact details are given on the website’s Visit page.)
For the last 3 years we’ve deliberately opened early in the summer, to show that a naturalistic garden doesn’t look too bad in June, months before ornamental grasses are ‘supposed’ to look good. Why, even the hedgerow bindweed winding its way up the bamboo canes looked rather marvellous to me ….
Update : On the afternoon of Friday 30th June, NGS garden owners received an email from Chief Executive George Plumptre reassuring us that teething problems with the new website, posters etc. would be addressed for 2018.
One of the most graceful and glamorous of the early summer flowering ornamental grasses in my garden is Lamprothyrsus hieronymi. Apparently, the genus name comes from the Greek “lampros” and ‘thyrsos’ meaning ‘splendid ornamental wand’ and, as far as I know, this grass is rare in having no other common name.
Who knows, with a wand in hand, we might enjoy a dry, sunny but not too hot NGS day this year. So, this plant profile is by way of a bit of grassy wand-waving.
The nodding, feathery flower spikes are made up of a mass of light reflecting filaments that are silky to the touch. From June to July they are produced in such generous quantities that the whole plant seems to sparkle across the garden. Held atop slender 4′ long wand-like stems that flex in the breeze, the 12″ long spikelets shimmer in a most beguiling way.
With a weeping habit this grass in full flower has the 8′ wingspan of an albatros. Even so, it doesn’t swamp the shrubby neighbours enveloping the grass or the pot in which it’s grown. To the left is a usefully lax form of Phlomis fructicosa I got from Waterperry Gardens, and, to the right an elderly burgundy coloured cotinus inherited with the garden.
By August, with seed spent, the grass assumes a less showy silhouette. The 2′ by 3′ tightly compact mound of evergreen foliage droops to conceal the 50 litre terracotta planter. The glossy leaves are about 3′ long, narrow and coloured a bright, fresh green. Unlike some evergreen grasses, the surface and edges of these leaves are smooth. Over winter a few naturally die back but come spring these require little more than a quick tug to tidy them up along with the wispy spent flowering stems. Sadly, so far, there are no signs of any self-seeded babies😔.
Like many grasses, this South American beauty prefers well-drained soil and to be grown in a reasonably sunny, open site. Despite its exotic looks, this grass has proved fully hardy to -10 C, even when grown in a pot which usually makes a plant more susceptible by -5 degrees. In my garden this grass grows well in a west facing spot. As this area is overshadowed by tall trees it benefits from only 4 hours of direct afternoon sunlight.
Given the extraordinary beauty of this grass I am surprised it’s so seldom seen in cultivation, really it should rank alongside other early summer flowering beauties like Stipa gigantea or Chionochloa conspicua. Nor, does there seem to be much written about it – even on the internet, references and images are frustratingly few and far between. In the Cotswold Garden Flowers catalogue shown above, Bob Brown notes that Lamprothyrsus is a “dwarf pampas grass”. Maybe this attribution stems from the labelling of Enrico Banfi’s images as Cortaderia hieronymi? Gazing at the details of this grass, the botanical allusion escapes little old me. Whatever the case, my inspiration for squeezing this very light, airy and beautiful grass into a porous pot came from reading Noel Kingsbury’s post Salta Province – Argentina’s California? (December 2012). There’s even a fab photo of it growing in the wild, tumbling en masse down a steep sided slope. Noel recommends Lamprothyrsus hieronymi to be a “really good grass”, and, I agree. I think it’s well worth tracking one down via the RHS Plant Finder. Living in South Gloucestershire, my closest supplier stocking this choice grass in 2017 is Nick Macer of Pan Global Plants :
Elegant pampas grass relative from South America, only 1metre tall and hugely more refined ….
Growing improbably large, erstwhile “refined” plants for an improbable number of years in outsized pots is one of my passions. If quizzed by horrified horticulturalist about how I get away with such mistreatment, I admit that while this can be a challenge it’s one that I’ve long enjoyed. Depending on the plant in question, ongoing maintenance can be an issue, especially in the summer months. I think that these challenges can be addressed by the addition of a few lucky charms at the preparation stage.
Over the last several years, this museum quality specimen was repotted – but only twice – just frequently enough to get a good sized root ball going. Once established it was repotted for a third time into its ‘forever home’. For mature grasses in general, I use a 3 to 1 mix of weed-free, sterile loam, plus a generous helping of fine horticultural grit and a couple of trowels of slow release feed. Finally, the plant is treated to a top-dressing of grit.
Rather than use gloopy hydrating gel, which I think sours soil/compost forever, I fill the bottom third of planters with magical clay pebbles as an additional drainage layer above an inch of crocks. The hydroponic properties of products like Hydroleca are incredibly useful for any plant indefinitely confined to pot life because the malteser-like balls act as a reservoir for both moisture and nutrients. (This lightweight product is much better value if ordered in 75 litre sacks, and, as it can be washed for reuse, it’s a good investment too.)
With Sunday’s weather in mind, perhaps I should wander off flourishing this splendid grassy wand while intoning “Lamprothyrsus hieronymi!” with the same gusto as “Abracadabra!'”? I shall let you know whether or not the spell worked next week 😉.
Long, long ago the garden here at Barn House was a productive orchard. The house itself started as a humble apple barn, built in 1780, the telltale steps leading to the second storey loading platform still remain today.
Over the following hundred years a few workers cottages were tagged on in a row, the fruit they grew supplied a local cider maker.
The sole remaining door with the storm porch is now our front door but you can still see where the other doors would have been from outlines in the stonework. Over the last century quite a lot has changed in the garden. In 2011 we terraced the once rocky slope in front of the house to create a bold, contemporary but naturalistic garden that we hoped would suit the warmly wooded setting of the surrounding countryside.
A dozen well-spaced fruit trees remain to remind us of times past. Apart from four stand alone Bramleys, probably dating back to this variety’s heyday of the 1940s, most of the apple and pear trees are either unproductive or less than palatable. Nevertheless, they deserve to be cherished. If nothing else, they reward the bees with a show of blossom in spring, and, in the autumn, flocks of ground feeding birds feast on the windfalls leaving neatly scooped out apple skin shells in their wake.
Most of the smaller trees in the little orchard in the back garden are standards with a traditional, upright vase shape. As are three of the four enormous but useful Bramley’s : two serve to screen out the unsightly service poles that have marched through the garden since the 1950s; and, one acts as a climbing frame for a rampant rambling rose. For many reasons, the fourth is rather special.
One unexpected bonus of felling the big blue cedar is an unobstructed view of the dome of the apple tree across the garden, especially at this time of year while the grasses are low. The giant Malteser-like sphere marks the spot where the conifer stood, fortuitously this turned out to be right in the line-of-sight from the kitchen breakfast table window.
This umbrella shaped specimen, is by far the loveliest of all the fruit trees in the garden. Standing beside the seating area in the dogs’ paddock and casting shade or shadows on the lawn, we have enjoyed so many happy times in its proximity.
Spared from wind and rain, this year’s show of cerise pink buds opening into rock striped blooms is nigh on perfect. With sighs we sat there yesterday, in awe of the tree’s renewed health and vigour. You see, when we moved here in 2006 the branches were so bald and barren that we feared the worst. Nor could we tell what sort of apple tree we thought we might lose.
When we remodelled the garden in 2011 the appleless tree’s graceful framework spared it from the axe plus we liked the sense of history that such an old tree, even in decline, can lend to a garden.
We also adored the shaggy patchwork of moss and lichen covering the network of elderly limbs.
Remarkably, the tree has served as more than a just Jungle Gym for the cats. In early winter 2014, when the water mains situated nearby sprang a massive leak the mysterious decline of the tree was explained. A metre length section of ancient pipe that ran under the stone wall was a careless way to connect the blue plastic, modern pipes between the mains and house. It must have been seeping for a very long time. What was dug up was as rusty, perforated, and so, as fit for purpose as a brandy snap. To our amazement the dear old tree, which must have been drowning by degrees, recovered in just one season. Last year’s first show of blossom was such a joyous sight.
Then came the lazy days of late autumn when the garden visitors had gone, there was such a prolific quantity of fruit that Hitesh spared a few ‘edible balls’ to play a game of fetch with Poppy. Two months before she’d lost her right eye to a very nasty secondary cancer, but like the tree, delighted us by quickly regaining her zest for life.
By the huge, flat bottomed fruit whose sunny side ripens to a rosy red and clings on right through until the end of November, the tree revealed itself to be the cook’s, cider maker’s and blackbird’s favourite : a tough skinned, tart fleshed, Bramley’s Seedling.
So many times have I leant wonderingly against a favourite padded bough thinking about all we owe to the skilful hands of long ago and thanking them for shaping this dear old tree with such knowledge, love and care.
* Footnote :
The saga of the mother of all Bramley’s Seedling apples, which was planted more than two hundred years ago, and this historic tree’s subsequent pomological adventures is quite fascinating.
If you’d like to know why the Bramley apple tree should really be called ‘Miss Brailsford’s Seedling’ you can read about it here.
Eagle-eyed garden visitors in search of snowdrops or hellebores may have noticed that the National Garden Scheme has had a face lift. Offically, however, the new brand wasn’t launched until earlier this week at the Royal Festival Hall in London, alongside the announcement of this year’s record donations of £3 million.
To top it all, 2017 is the 90th anniversary of the scheme – it must have been quite an occasion. Since its foundation in 1927 the organisation has donated over £50 million to charity and is the most signifanct funder of nursing charities in the UK. If you’d like to see how this year’s donations were distributed you can read about it here.
The rebranding was announced to some 3800 garden owners who volunteer to open their gates on behalf of the scheme in the run up to Christmas. The news came in the form of an interesting video presention by our Chief Executive, George Plumptre, and brand consultants from Big Fish. Quite a few changes have been made to freshen up our image and so, we hope, will encourage a wider range of people to visit our gardens. My first glimpse of the 2017 Garden Visitor’s Handbook came earlier this month just as Narcissus pseudonarcissus burst into bloom.
Last week, our South Gloucestershire County Organisers made their annual rounds to drop off the large pack of publicity material which includes the year book, county pamphlets, posters and signs. Garden owners like me spend time checking that details are correct, but, this year, I was also curious to see how the new look compared with the old. Superimposed upon the new gate logo, in uniquely stylised lettering, is the name ‘National Garden Scheme’ and the word ‘Open’. Significantly, the name has been simplified and the ‘s’ has been dropped in what was ‘Gardens’. The background colour is still yellow but of a richer, warmer hue. Then there’s a raft of playful icons designed to inject personality into the brand, everything from teacups to plant sales ….
Perhaps I shouldn’t mention that albeit ‘trendy’ colloquial contractions like ‘Fancy a Cuppa’ just make me cringe, but, hey ho, they do!
Of course, the website has been given the same professional treatment too, and looks to me like a real improvement on what we had before. Let’s face it, in this day and age, website information is probably becoming the main portal for visitors in search of an open garden. In addition, the National Garden Scheme Find a Garden app can be downloaded which saves scrabbling around for a book in the glove compartment of your car.
In celebration of the scheme’s big birthday, there will be a special open garden Anniversary Weekend on 27th – 29th May. Of the 400 gardens that will be opening, 12 originally opened in 1927. Keen photographers might like to check out the competition that will be launched from May 27th, details of which are available here.
There are some great prizes to be won and, as President of the scheme, the wonderful Mary Berry says “I am looking forward to welcoming the winner to my garden”.
Greenfields and Barn House are proud to be opening their gates again this year on Sunday 25th June, as well as by appointment from June to September. The question of how to raise the profile of this marvellous organisation is a good one. Perhaps we shall quiz a few of our garden visitors about this over a cup of tea and slice of lemon drizzle cake?
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!
Last week we were away in north Cornwall, staying at Helsbury Park for the third time in nearly as many years, when the weather turned delectably still, dry and cold. For a whole week the landscape glittered under crystal clear skies. For both humans and dogs it was holiday heaven.
Mornings dawned with the promise of deepening frosts and mysteriously swirling river mists.
With 100 acres of livestock-free pasture and woodland, plus a mile of riverbanks waiting to be explored our early morning walks got off to a good start from day one.
Three award winning self-catering properties sit at the top of a combe overlooking the Camel valley and to the east the source of the river, Bodmin Moor. Jaw-dropping dropping views equal exposure to the elements, at this time of year that usually means howling gales sweeping in from the Altlantic ocean. I admit, on blustery days I’d be quite happy to take in the panoramic views from the comfort of the fireside sofa in the company of a good book. However, this year the conditions were so alluring that I found myself first at the door and heaving on my wellies without the usual grimace.
The walks are pleasingly circular. Parallel farm tracks lead you down to the bottom of the valley and adjoining woodland, then back again. Centre point is a pond.
This is one of my favourite places from which to marvel at the vision of the owners who have gone to great lengths to develop this site while still preserving its inherent natural beauty.
The pool building with its green sedum roof is beautifully designed to nestle into the lee of the land. Three sides are built into the slope, while the fourth’s glazing is etched with a map of the winding river which is, undoubtably, the genie in the bottle of this special place.
Grand designs like this are one thing, yet, to my mind a sense of harmony relies on a multitude of smaller details, many of which are easily overlooked when making a garden. I find lots of inspiration here, be it from the choice of local materials – some modern, many reclaimed – to the pared back gardens that blend with the landscape and lead the eye to the views beyond. I particularly like the forest of irregularly shaped staddle stones punctuating the gravel garden beside the cobbled drive.
Setting aside my thoughts about why the modern landscaping works so well with its setting, here are just a few of the things that make early morning walkies here such a very special treat
A bench from which to watch the dogs splash about in the river, the bank is shelved to allow easy access.
Sniff (and stick) rich woodland speaks for itself.
Hillsides drenched in golden light while below them in their shade lay the most marvellous expanse of icy meadow.
Who knew Juncus effusus, the lowly soft rush, could look so stunning?
Not only did we leave with wistful sighs, we left with mud free paws and wellies too 😉.
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?
Westonbirt Arboretum was created by two generations of the Holford family at a time when Victorian passions for plant hunting and pictureque landscapes were at their peak. What were once common, wood, and chalk down lands were fashioned into an ambitious showcase for the family’s taste and considerable wealth.
Today, the 600 acre estate is managed and conserved by the Forestry Commission along much more scientific lines. It ranks as one of the finest collections of trees in the country. Every year it attracts well over 300 000 visitors, many of whom flock to see the six week long spectacle of autumn colour.
I admit I’d forgotten this when we jumped in the car on Sunday morning. We arrived mid-morning, which is peak time, especially when the weather is warm and sunny. Finding ourselves first parked miles away from the newish entrance and visitor centre, then swept along with the throng across the really new Treetop Walkway heading for Silk Wood, I wondered if we’d made a mistake. We are such quiet country mice ….
Last time we were here, bright and early on a wet Saturday morning in early June, we had the wonderful 300 metre long walkway all to ourselves.
This time our progress was inchingly slow, as the dogs were delighted to be making as many friends as possible. We were intent on heading towards one of our favourite areas, the Japanese Maple collection.
Miraculously, the beautiful cathedral like glade, sheltered by towering larches, was deserted, perhaps because it is still rather early for colour from the carefully nurtured 400 acers it contains.
We always linger here for a spot of wistful window shopping.
Beyond this point and following the ride called Oak Avenue the character of the woodland changes dramatically. Gone are the clusters of artfully arranged rare and exotic trees, in their place is burgeoning native woodland rich in wide ‘weedy’ margins, and so, rich also in wildlife. Back in the late spring I stood transfixed watching a hedgerow teaming with goldcrests.
This time it was the swathes of rosebay willowherb with their corkscrew seed heads glinting in the sunshine that caught my eye. It has good autumn leaf colour too.
Where the unregimented avenue meets Waste Drive you can see how the modern management of the woodland works, here on the periphery of Silk Wood are the species trials plots containing hundreds of trees raised from seed or propagated by cuttings. Plus, mountainous piles of by-products from the never-ending tree work.
Conveniently close-by is the impressive Woodchip Sterilisation Unit with its mighty state of the art, temperature controlled bays that ensure the mulches are free from diseases like honey fungus.
Silk Wood is quite simply doggie heaven, well behaved dogs are welcome off lead so the place is full of friendly wagging tails. All of which which made it a brilliant place to socialise our dogs when they were young.
This final stretch of the walk towards The Downs has an excellent collection of mature shrubs, small trees, plus conifers – among them a wide range of continus and shoulder high sweeps of sculptural silver leaved sea-buckthorn. Throughout the arboretum, information boards are nearly as numerous as benches, it was news to me that native sea-buckthorn is so good for the skin that Russian Cosmonauts used it to protect their skin from solar radiation. Personally, I’d rather use it as a salve than eat recipes construed from the bitter bright orange berries😉.
The combinations look great at any time of the year but for me on this perfect early autumn day one in particular stood out. The delicious scent of candyfloss wafting from the closely planted group of a dozen or so young Cercidiphyllum has the same allure to me as a Bonio to the dogs, off I went for a closer sniff. As you might expect, Westonbirt excels in the provision of precise botanical labels, in this case, it turned out to be the very same C. magnificum Roy Lancaster has written about in this month’s RHS The Garden magazine.
We have a little, lone Cercidiphyllum japonicum growing on in fits and starts at home, this year the leaves on its upper branches have been looking so crumpled and parched that I’ve wondered if it hasn’t missed the light shade and shelter of the big blue cedar we felled in February. Westonbirt have the katsuras facing the morning sun, then protected by an arc of tall conifers to the rear. They say, planting over a gravel path where the fallen leaves are crushed by passing feet heightens the aroma.
In between are a mixture of medium height trees with wide canopies including a very beautiful veteran Acer Japonicum or Full Moon Maple with its swooning branches topped with a crown of dazzling colour.
It reminded me that, once ablaze, the star attraction for thousands of visitors will be Robert Stayner Holford’s Old Arboretum (which is sited opposite Silk Wood). Then the air near the old visitor centre will be heavy with the smell of bangers and burgers sizzling away in gourmet catering vans. Maybe next time I shall take a spin around the dog free zone while one man and his dogs partake of a bacon butty for breakfast?
The secret is said to be in its three sets of bristles …
Conjuring moisture from thin air is a pretty neat trick!
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?
Answering the phone on Friday evening, I sighed thinking ‘oh please, not another sales call’. Wrong : the caller was a researcher letting us know the garden will be on Gardener’s World on Friday 19th August, BBC2 at 8.30pm.
Filmed in late October 2015, the footage was to be shown this autumn. Hearing that it had been brought forward was a nice surprise.
Who knows, given that the garden is open until the end of September we may even enjoy a few more NGS visitors?
As confusing as it may seem to viewers, we’re described as a Gloucestershire couple living in a Welsh postcode whose grassy garden was “inspired by living in the Far East”. Given the blurb, I’m hoping for some esoteric ‘dingly-dangly’ music to complete the Bermuda Triangle effect.
The footage of Barn House Garden is 15 mins into the YouTube video.
If you’d like to see what the garden looked like last October please press play.
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.
This gallery contains 4 photos.
I’m delighted to say that Greenfields and Barn House gardens had a very successful afternoon on Sunday 26th June. Getting on for two hundred visitors dutifully consumed quantities of tea and cake before heading home with armfuls of gardening books and plants. All in all, the event raised the best part of a couple of thousand pounds on behalf of the NGS and local charities – Gwent Wildlife Trust and the Moravian Church, who provided refreshments, help with car parking and tickets.
First thing in the morning the forecast looked dismal, but, as it turned out the weather gods were on our side. It stayed fairly dry until the last hour when the heavens opened. As all good garden bloggers know, numbers are definitely higher on fine days which makes all the difference to the spirits of garden owners and your kind wishes were appreciated.
It’s one thing to end up with a spick and span if soggily empty garden, but, quite another to have spent seemingly fruitless days on the logistics of posters, parking, signage and sorting out all the trappings of a mini garden fete. A successful day justifies all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes, starting with the publicity provided by the NGS.
Apparently, it takes something like 55 visitors for the well oiled machine that is the NGS to cover its costs. All of which explains why NGS gardens often open on more than one day and why NGS garden owners go the extra mile to make their visitors feel welcome on the day.
Although our Brockweir Common gardens don’t open for another ‘big day’ both gardens are open by appointment until the end of September. So far, we have a dozen smaller groups of 10-30 booked in throughout the summer and, as it’s all a lot of fun as well as for good causes, we’re very happy to see if we can accommodate people who happen to be passing. Contact details are on the gardens’ websites as well as on the NGS website.
Opening the garden jointly with Greenfields has worked out really well for both garden owners and visitors alike. Even if we’d have preferred wall-to-wall sunshine everyone seemed to enjoy themselves, which is what it is all about. As new garden owners. Jackie and Fintan deserve a medal for their alternative wet weather arrangements, very few of us would decant a conservatory of furniture in order to set up a tea room!
Having had a quick conflab to assess tickets and takings, there’s another to come about plans for next year. One thing is for sure, we shall remember to avoid the mud cursed Glastonbury Festival weekend like the plague.
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.
Last week I set out to inspect the little stylised meadow for weeds, I was curious to see if anything more interesting than creeping buttercups had popped up. Among the swathes of fresh grassy growth I secretly hoped I to find opium poppy seedlings in the gritty mulch. Their blood-red blooms were beautiful last summer.
At this time of year it’s the fresh new growth of the semi-evergreen Deschampsia cespitosa that catches the eye, at least, from a distance. In my search for tiny poppy seedlings I was peering at the mulch of horticultural grit around the forty or so molinias which otherwise go unnoticed at this time of year. All except one of them looked the usual dull and uniformly mid-green.
Much to my surprise this one contained a rash of stripy leaves.
Looking at the rogue more closely, the leaves in question range from a simple white striped vein to a sporty profusion worthy of a George Melly suit.
I dug up the four year old plant in order to divide the variegated and plain green portions. The rootball was a good size.
This was the best I could do at this time of year, it’s getting a bit late to divide cool season grasses, especially those with a cespitose or tightly bunched, clump forming habit.
As there’s more growth to come I shall continue pinching out the plain green shoots as they appear. Next year early spring will be the time to divide the plant again using the little electric saw. I imagine it takes many years, not to mention probable losses, to produce a predominantly variegated plant in this fashion. Still, it will be fun to give it a go.
As with so many of my little grassy adventures one thing leads to another. In rummaging through online sources and reference books I’ve discovered lots of things I didn’t know about cream-green variegated dwarf molinias. According to Seedaholic there are four variegated clonal cultivars, one of which is widely available and well known, Molinia caerulea subspecies caerulea ‘Variegata’ (AGM). Less commonly seen cultivars are ‘Camarthan’ and ‘Claerwen’. Presumably, they originated in Wales. Beth Chatto and Marchants nurseries both list at least one of them in addition to ‘Variegata’. Marchants lists both of the rarer ones and describes ‘Claerwen’ as being the “choicest” form. Roger Grounds compares it to ‘Variegata’ as being “similar but more subtly coloured and distinct in its narrow, almost black panicles” (RHS Grasses : Choosing and Using these Ornamental Plants in the Garden, Quadrille 2006). It sounds wonderful!
Prior to my discovery in the meadow, I’d have glanced at the image above without thinking too much about it. Now that my interest in the patterns of variegation in molinias has been piqued it’s a different story. In the lower right hand section there’s one green leaf as well as two green flowering stems – the rest of the flowering stems are cream coloured.
The first battalions of yellow creeping buttercups and dandelion clocks are timely reminders that next week I really must get back to the more serious business of weeding the meadow. If I get a bit of free time next week I’ll pop back and do the links to websites.
*It seems the serrated looking abscission layers explain why the flowering stems of these grasses tend to topple in December. According to Bob Brown’s notes in his Cotswold Garden Flowers website the dwarf cultivar ‘Dark Defender’ doesn’t develop this layer and so stands throughout the winter.
Bluebells are the quintessential wildflower of spring. Surely, the sight of an ancient forest floor carpeted in violet-blue is among one of the wonders of the natural world?
Traditonally the Early May bank holiday weekend is bluebell time, where we live on the border between south Gloucestershire and Wales we are spoilt for choice as to where to see them at their peak. In the woodlands of the Lower Wye Valley they have been flowering for over a fortnight, whereas in the nearby Forest of Dean, thanks to the higher altitude and cooler climate, the bluebells lag behind by about two weeks.
Yesterday morning we set off bright and early to Blakeney Hill Woods near Soudley, one of our favourite spots for quiet woodland walks with the dogs. Wide forestry commission roads and public bridleways criss-cross the woods.
Despite the celebratory bunting strewn around a stout beech tree and a poster advertising teas in the local church the bluebells in this wood were not yet fully open. The woods were deserted and with a cool start to May we can hope for a couple more weekend walks in the bluebell woods before the understorey is engulfed in bracken and the tree canopy closes for another year.
This year the signs of the barrage of late winter storms were all around, with piles of brash and side boughs littering the forest floor. Where the rides were blocked the brash has been moved aside.
One or two old veterans have succumbed to successive winters of wet, windy weather leaving surreal living walls. Here bluebells, foxgloves and moss cling to the turfed up rootball.
Besides the charismatic bluebells, the woods are full of other tiny treasures making it interesting to see how the bulbs fare in their natural habitat. Since we started visiting these woods nearly fifteen years ago things have changed a bit.
In certain places Deschampsia cespitosa, a clump forming semi-evergreen grass with a vigorous self-seeding habit, has migrated from the network of damp ditches towards the heart of the forest floor. Elsewhere yew seedlings have grown into stout young trees that shade out everything including the bulbs.
Pink or white bluebells are uncommon, the contrast in colour makes them stand out from the crowd. This one growing in the woods near Soudley bears the hallmarks of our indigenous Hyacinthoides non-scripta with its delicate drooping flowering stem and one-sided racemes of up to a dozen or so nodding recurved flowers held elegantly above narrow foliage.
My guess would be that at home in the garden we have the results of a mix between the native bluebell and its more vigorous Spanish cousin, Hyacinthoides hispanica which was introduced to the UK in the late 17th century. In 1909 it was first recorded as having naturalised in the wild. Although the two species are quite distinct, their hybrids, which were first recorded in 1963, can be hard to tell apart from either parent.
Perhaps puzzling over the degree of scent or fusion between the anthers and perianth, or the colour of tepals, let alone tint of the pollen in the hybrids may be best left to skilled botanists or DNA analysis. To the left is a neighbour’s probable H.hispanica, to the right an interloper from my garden’s hedgerow.
Most of the country gardens around here contain inherited clumps of Spanish bluebells dating back to a time when the wisdom of planting them in a rural setting wasn’t questioned. I pass this naturalised display every day, with their taller, upright stems, broader leaves plus paler, shorter bells arranged in a radial fashion you’d think they’d be recognisable for what they are at a glance.
Across the lane and a short stretch of field beyond that, is the historic Hudnalls woodland. Composed mainly of beech it remains a typical home for bluebells. Following the enclosures of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the commons were apportioned into smallholdings for pasture, orchard and meadowland. Bluebells persist in our gardens today to the extent that some regard them as a nuisance and turn to the RHS Bluebells as weeds for sound advice. It’s curious to think that the cottars might have pulverised bulbs from the neighbouring woods to starch their washing.
Even if the ocean of bluebells shimmering on the local woodland floor or threading their way along the field margins and hedgerows are the hydbridised Hyacinthoides non-scripta x hispanica, syn. H. massartiana, I think they are still a charming springtime sight.
According to Plantilfe International’s report Bluebells For Britain the UK is home to almost half of the world’s common bluebells. Apparently, at the time of the 2003 survey, one in six of our woodlands contained a proportion of hydbridised bluebells. Apart from the ‘threat’ of competition from non-natives, the report highlights : habitat loss; the unsustainable and, if for sale, illegal collection of bulbs or seed from wild populations; and, possibly, climate change as factors endangering what was voted as being Britain’s favourite wildflower.
Update : A day or two after posting this I discovered these are not seed pods but unfurling new leaves.
Sailing merrily through April, Chaucer’s uplifting take on spring burbles away in my thoughts like the comforting murmurings of an old and dear friend.
Vernal wind and rain seem gentler on the senses, the valley’s morning mists a passing, soft caress.
Meanwhile below ground there’s a gathering crescendo, each day a little more growth unfurls in response.
As the season ratchets up a gear I weed and dig, divide and replant with a greater sense of purpose. Last week, I rejigged the greenhouse to accommodate 18 pots of hastily purchased then speedily planted dahlia tubers, having never grown them before, I followed Sarah Raven’s How to plant dahlias. The tubers, Bishop of LLandaff, came from Avon Bulbs, they’re destined for the late summer/early autumn display of patio pots.
Stripped back to the bare bones of its design the front garden resembles a stage set, finally it’s starting to look as though the garden is ready for the year ahead.
The last job was a shrubby one I’d been putting off until the very last mid-April minute : coppicing the jaali screen of red, lime-green and orange Dogwoods, they line the winter garden on the upper terrace in front of the house.
However, this week I’ve been enjoying some very special company in the garden, my father and his wonderful wife are visiting all the way from southern Ontario. Extra pairs of happy helping hands are most welcome at this busy time of year, between us we’ve cleared the thicket of multi-coloured cornus in no time at all.
When they set out from home there was still snow on the ground – the late winter sort that quickly turns to salty brown slush. In early May I’ll weave the prunings into supports for the rudbeckia hedge, by then I’ll be wondering if their garden is fast-forwarding to high summer.
Which reminds me to celebrate the fleeting springtime blessings bestowed by our mild and gentle temperate climate while I can. At such a busy time of year it’s easy for me to overlook the demure charms of wild violets lacing their way through the cracks in the paving at the foot of the Lonicera nitida hedge.
Here on the rural Welsh borders my so-called ‘lawns’ are verdant pools of mossy green studded with tiny treasures. Between the shady double set of main gates, the patch is densely packed with Crocus tommasinianus, I see the adventurous lesser celandine has crept in amongst them.
In spring 2006, when we viewed the property, the garden was a riot of blowsy blooms. We tease each other that we’d made our minds up before we reached the front door. Aina’s exuberant mixtures of daffodils, planted with ardour in the 1990s only to be corralled by me a decade later, are still the hallmark of the season in my garden. Among them, the paler or daintier ones are my favourites.
Only those in the orchard are as my predecessor left them, perhaps this year I’ll find time to move some aside to create a navigable path through the orchard.
Moving the masses that once filled the dogs’ paddock left me with a green swathe of grass, not to mention a seasonally sore Achilles’ tendon. The shorter, sturdier wild narcissus pooled under an old red leaved cherry tree bounce back from this treatment better than our furry tank’s ancient football.
When in April the sweet showers fall
And pierce the drought of March to the root, and all
The veins are bathed in liquor of such power
As brings about the engendering of the flower ….
This is the poetic earworm of opening lines from Chaucer’s The General Prologue, translated by Nevill Coghill.
The first of several pre booked groups of NGS garden pilgrims will arrive in several weeks time in search of flowers, foliage, tea and cake. This year our ‘big day’ is Sunday 26th June, we’re delighted to be joined by Greenfields, a beautiful new NGS garden created by Jackie and Fintan Healy who live just down the lane. Spring is nature’s prologue to another busy, thrilling, and, paws crossed, successful gardening year.
This morning’s brief flurry of plump snowflakes was a lovely surprise!
Unlike their deciduous cousins, which once established can be cut right down to the ground in late winter/early spring, evergreen grasses grow throughout the seasons so they won’t thank you for treating them in the same way. Here are three of the several evergreens I grow, each is groomed in different ways according to the instructiions on their care labels. Given the right conditions none are hard to grow, I’ve rated the annual effort it takes to keep them looking good.
Chionochloa rubra : easy
Chionochloa rubra is the lowest maintenance grass I grow, since planting it in 2011 I haven’t laid a finger on it. Chilly weather enhances the foxy-red tints in its foliage. Thatchy strands blend in, as do spent flowering stems.
Last year this group flowered rather inconspicuously for the first time alongside the opium poppies and red valerian. Noticeably, in mid-summer, tussocks look greener than in winter.
Unlike many grasses Chionochloa rubra doesn’t divide happily, let alone romp away. Five years ago a 0.5 litre division struggled to establish, this is what it looks like today. At a third of the size of the ones bought as larger plants from Pan Global Plants a year later, this is slow progress.
Admittedly, conditions are much more favourable down in the sheltered yard, the plants growing in gravel in an open sunny spot are much stronger as a result. Even so, I’d hesitate to risk one of these tightly bunched mature specimens. So far, seed hasn’t germinated. All of which suggests that sourcing good-sized plants from a specialist nursery is a sound investment.
Stipa gigantea : medium
These days I’d say Stipa gigantea is a close second to being ultra-low maintenance. Since finding them a sunny, sheltered, and spacious spot in well-drained soil they’ve thrived on very little attention from me. Having sulked in four other positions in this as well as my last garden, I’d almost given up on them. Since 2012 the original three at the front of the border did so well that I added a further five in 2013.
Orientating them to catch the sun pays off, tall airy flowered grasses look amazing backlit, here by the mellow evening sun in high summer.
Much earlier in the year, planted a metre apart on centre allows room for clumps of Iris sibirica ‘Tropic Nights’ to be squeezed in between them, both flower early in May so any tidying of the stipa has to be done sooner rather than later in the spring. There’s not much to do, the flowering spikes fall by December here, which only leaves snipping out the woody stubs of last year’s stems in early April. If they’re looking thatchy I might lightly rake them through either using a spring tine rake or by running my hands through from the base of the plant. Stipa leaves are leathery, for me gloves are a must. Showa gloves are great for gently grooming grasses by hand, designed to be slightly tacky loose leaves stick to them. Three of these plants are now in their twelfth year, remarkably they’re still looking good, I’d expect them to be getting a little bald and nobbly in the centre. I haven’t tried it, but I’m told mature clumps divide well.
To my utter delight and amazement, the once miserable plants self-seed profusely now. The above images of seedlings lifted from the gravel path were either potted-up or planted in a nursery bed last spring. Seedlings take two years to grow a good root system, only then do they make sturdy plants for spacing in the border. Until then they’re top-heavy and, although stipa doesn’t like to be overcrowded, they work well from a young age with early summer flowering bulbs like alliums. Stipa gigantea comes in a range of sizes, from the shortest ‘Pixie’ to the tallest ‘Gold Fontaene’, last year Neil Lucas introduced ‘Goldilocks’ which is of medium height.
Anemanthele lessoniana : harder
Perhaps it’s the third of the evergreens that’s trickiest to grow well. The regime can seem complicated, especially where greater numbers of plants are involved. Anemanthele is a stunning subject for mass planting but as a short-lived New Zealand native the key is a steady supply of new plants. Fifty of them are planted a metre apart formimg a low hedge beside the drive which then curves back in a loop around the Acer griseum. Planted in three waves, they don’t need replacing all in one go. This grass doesn’t flower fully until its third year, after which a steady supply of seedlings are available to keep the structured planting going.
It took me a while to work out that young plants thrive best on relative neglect while older plants can be treated more ruthlessly. Part of my winter reading was Lawrie Metcalf’s The Cultivation of New Zealand Native Grasses. I was whooping in agreement when I read his authoritative cultivation notes : anemanthele should never be cut right back to ground level. The veteran group above planted around the acer are due for retirement next year – April 2016 was their last haircut. I reduced them by 30%.
In our exposed garden overwintering foliage tips are first tinted, then dried by frosts as well as by desiccating winds, cutting them back too soon risks the new foliage too. Prolonged cold and wet spring weather can also put off them off. This year the younger and more vigorous row beside the more sheltered cedar path were cut back by 50%. For a while the blunted ends may look unsightly but as long as the tightly bunched foliage is green and lush the plants should recover.
Once the centre of the plant looks this thatchy it’s time to replace them with seedlings coming into their third year. I don’t mind the extra bit of work because between the third and fifth year the impact of the continuous mass of flowers is sublimely beautiful.
The longevity of grasses versus their seeding or growth habits fascinates me, I can see that some are much lower maintenance for being truly perennial than others. For me short-lived, free-flowering, self-seeding grasses are useful, even if their habits have to be controlled. In 1998 Metcalf warned that in optimum conditions NZ landscapers should be aware of anemanthele’s propensity to become a self-seeding nuisance, the gossamer sprays of infloresences are loaded with fine seed held on arching wiry stems intent on being tracked by hoof or boot rather than being windborne. In a garden setting this makes it easier to deal with unwanted seedlings.
To curtail wayward seedlings I deadhead anemanthele, preferably on a damp day before the seed sets. I also site them where either the mower or passing cars will check their spread. Come spring I hunt out the remaining seedlings, they’re usually huddled close to the parents, then pot them up.
Based on my experience, anemanthele does well for at least five years, more perhaps depending on the conditions in which it’s grown. Above is the runt of the driveside plants, ticking over in a very inhospitable spot this one deserves a little extra TLC, hence time with a wide-toothed dog comb. Anemanthele is a likeable chameleon, in a dry sunny spot the orange tints are sharpest, in damp shade foliage is more olive-green. In either extreme flowering seems to be restricted. Come summer I move first-year seedlings into a shady spot in the nursery area, second-year seedlings are grown on in a shadier nursery bed.
Brian Skeys also grows grasses, among them beautiful Chionochloa rubra. Thanks to a top-tip from him I’ve recently discovered an inspirational planting of this easy-going grass in Devon. Googling Chinonchloa rubra along with The Garden House will transport you to designer Sophie Dixon’s oh so tempting images of what can be achieved planting this grass en masse. Alas, I don’t have an extensive sheltered, sunny slope for such an ambitious planting here, a late summer sortee to Buckland Monachorum will have to do. Meanwhile, I shall enjoy the small group of zero maintainance grasses planted in the sun trap of the yard.
The shady vine pergola is my favourite place to sit in the back garden.
Or, I should say, it was until recently.
Storm Jake hit us on the first Wednesday in March causing the pergola to sink to its knees. This was a wild wolf of a wind, it huffed and puffed in gusts well in excess of 50 mph throughout the day, I hardly dared venture out. Little by little the pergola sank neatly to one end until it came to rest on the two big pots of Chionochloa conspicua sitting on the steps behind it. Ever the hero in a gardening crisis, Hitesh helped me prop things up when he returned home from work that evening and we sorted out the tangled mess of metal and woody top growth the following weekend.
As it turned out this was to be the first of two rounds with the pergola on dark and stormy nights. Precisely a week later another storm howled through the garden casting the now freestanding corners aside. From the bedroom window the patio looked like a bowling alley.
Admittedly, the pretty pergola’s demise has been on the cards for a while. Last year we added a parasol to help support the weakening central boss of the pagoda style roof and kept our fingers crossed that it would see the summer out. It worked a treat, kept the rain off and bought us time. In the late autumn 2015 a local metalworker was found to supply a more robust replacement by Easter 2016 – in time to salvage the climbers before they came into leaf.
All things considered, we are far from saddened or surprised. The powder-coated tubular steel structure had given nearly ten years’ sterling service. Designed to support the weight of a flimsy canvass cover, not to be heavily draped with unruly vines, it did remarkably well. Thanks to the shade their large leaves cast, this was our haven on an otherwise inhospitable southerly facing sun-baked terrace.
At the end of the second year, when the canopy with which it came showed signs of deteriorating beyond repair, two sets of grape vines and actinidias were planted to succeed the cover. As the vigorous vines grew, the shade grew denser. To my delight with the shade came caps of moss shortly followed by wild orchids, their lance-shaped, spotted leaves were just peeping through in mid-March. That was when the apologetic metal worker got back to me to say the order couldn’t be filled until Whitsun … at the earliest.
To avoid playing skittles throughout the spring we cancelled the order and hit the garden centres.
It took three of us a full day to install the new one. The calibre of the metalwork is very similar to the old one, with a gauge of 1mm (where 3mm would be optimum). Kits like this that are all about convenience and cost-effectiveness, they’re manufactured to be boxed, shipped, then loaded into cars at the garden centre. Everything is configured into boot-friendly lengths and sizes – inevitably, rot sets in where lengths are joined together on assembly. In their defence, manufacturers do recommend dismantling metal pergolas at the end of the season. However, going through the specifications for a bespoke frame suggested other ways to prolong a shop-bought pergola’s life. These include light welds to weak spots such as fixture plates and bolt heads, plus, a cap of lead flashing at the apex where the roof struts meet and are bolted together. Ideally, sanding back the paintwork followed by repainting it using a zinc based primer, then topcoat would better protect against rust. With all this in mind, and much of it yet to do, I was rather bemused by the inclusion of a nail polish sized pot of touch-up paint.
Funnily enough, the new canopy is of a much higher quality fabric than the original. Of course, that makes it heavier too, perhaps at least equal in weight to the vines. Given time and a bit of retraining the mature vines will recover the roof. Meanwhile, we’ll use a parasol to shade the table and consign the superior canopy to the store cupboard.
Remarkably, all but one of the two pot grown Actinidia deliciosa ‘Jenny’ has survived. Hope is on the horizon.
Calamagrostis xacutiflora 'Karl Foerster' and 'Overdam', Deschampsia cespitosa, Maintenance of ornamental grasses, Miscanthus sinensis 'Malepartus' and 'Starlight', Molinia caerulea subsp.arundinacea, Seslaria autumnalis
A couple of week’s ago we were glued to the telly, eyes agog, watching the nation’s favourite gardener wading about knee deep in a mass of grassy leaf litter.
Bless you Monty, for reminding me of “jobs you can be getting on with this weekend”.
Grasses are very low maintenance plants yet what needs doing, needs doing in good time. Monty was right to remind me to pick up the pace. Faced with three mass plantings containing hundreds of grasses one solution is to bring in a couple of helpers armed with power tools and to stock up on chocolate biscuits. Each year we get a few steps closer to getting the job done as quickly, neatly, and efficiently as possible.