Myriad early flowers and blossom fill a riverside garden in Kent, its planting a legacy of one woman’s vision.
On the outskirts of the ancient Kentish village of Yalding, a narrow lane leads across the floodplain of the River Medway to the daffodil-flanked drive of a former oast house. This is Parsonage Oasts, the home of Edward and Jennifer Raikes. In spring, the garden erupts into a haze of flowering trees and shrubs. White magnolia and Ribes sanguineum compete and blend with red and pink Japanese quince and camellias. All are under-planted with more than 30 types of daffodil, fritillaria, hellebores, lime green euphorbia and tiny tulips.
The early 19th century red brick and timber-clad oast house, originally designed to dry hops, occupies an idyllic position at the water’s edge. There are sweeping views in both directions of the Medway. “The river is a great asset. I like seeing the people and the birds on it,” says Jennifer. “It keeps the garden a bit warmer. But it also means that the soil is very light and full of gravel. It dries out a lot, so needs plenty of watering to encourage plants such as grape hyacinths and geraniums to get going.”
To this end, seven water butts are dotted around the ¾ acre plot to collect water from various roofs. Jennifer also relies on plentiful supplies of spring water pumped up from a small well. This is situated behind the house on a patch of lawn. Sometimes the river contributes too. Yalding hit the national news over Christmas 2013 when it was flooded after a deluge of rain. Parsonage Oasts did not escape and the garden was doused. The floodwater disappeared as quickly as it came and left no lasting damage to the plants, trees and shrubs. The main victims were the beehives Edward has kept for 30 years, although these have been replaced now.
The Raikeses are used to the river’s moods, having lived at Parsonage Oasts since 1968. They moved in to help look after Edward’s grandmother, Gladys, in her very old age. “It was Gladys who made the garden when she came here in 1954,” says Jennifer. “She bought the derelict oast and a parcel of land from Parsonage Farm and, with the help of her architect, turned it into a home. Aided by a local man with the lovely name of Mr Startup, she started to create the garden out of the farmyard, which was a complete bramble patch, all overgrown.”
Although Gladys was well into her 70s, she planted magnolias and apple trees. She also put in hedges of yew, box and shrubby honeysuckle. Lawns were laid out and low brick walls built, with gravel pathways that flowed around the garden. She put in a small rose garden and a variety of shrubs. “It was already a very nice garden when we came here,” remembers Jennifer. “But, as we spent most of our time looking after our three small children, it got quite overgrown and weedy. It was only after they got a bit bigger that we began to garden in a more serious way, at the end of the ’70s.”
An outside dining room
One of their first major additions was an arbour on the sun terrace outside the drawing room. This was created for a young strawberry vine, Vitis vinifera ‘Rembrandt’, to clamber over. “The vine is a cutting taken from an original planted by Gladys. That had died in 1971, the same year as Gladys died. We got some old water pipes from a junkyard and put them up.”
In spring, this wonderful old vine starts sending out new shoots, which result in masses of edible, bronze-coloured grapes in late summer. With its snug position against the house, the sun terrace is one of the Raikes’ favourite places to sit. As soon as the weather is good enough, they take their meals out here, breakfast, lunch and dinner. Tucked into one corner is a favourite garden ornament, an armillary sphere. A pidgin Latin inscription translates as: “This garden is the fruit of the wisdom of Gladys Raikes.” It was made for them in 1975 to commemorate Granny’s creation of the garden.
To the left of the terrace is a low brick wall, beyond which is the river. Beneath it, a well-stocked herbaceous border is brightly lit with bold, orange-flowered crown imperials, Fritillaria imperialis. Its large bulbs are planted between the burgeoning lilies, geraniums and tulips. “Granny put some in to start with, but I do keep them topped up, and they carry on year to year,” says Jennifer. “They are scene-stealers, very dramatic.” There is a great deal of foliage as well, because Jennifer loves the soothing qualities of the colour green. “I like white, silver and green together, and contrasting leaf shapes,” she says. “These range from pointy such as fritillaria, and palmate, geraniums for example, to big sheaves of leaves such as tulips and daffodils.”
From the terrace, there is a picture-postcard view onto one of Granny’s best legacies. On the far side of the well-kept lawn, a huge Magnolia x soulangeana, or saucer magnolia, is covered in lightly scented flowers. “The magnolia comes in March,” says Jennifer. “It is at its best at the beginning of April, then has a second flowering in July. We mulch it every autumn with its own leaves and a bit of fertiliser, perhaps some hoof and horn.”
Next to the magnolia, and helping to set it off, is the tiny, snowy blossom of a delicate white flowering currant, Ribes sanguineum. Jennifer planted this to increase the visual interest in that corner of the garden. Beneath both trees are swathes of purple hellebores Helleborus purpurascens, white windflowers Anemone nemorosa, and drifts of daffodils. This underplanting seems to anchor the nut-brown trunks in a sea of gentle colour that enhances all the varieties of green Jennifer adores.
Another of Granny’s stars lies across the lawn to the right of the arbour. This is a large and prolifically fruiting ‘Gascoyne’s Scarlet’ apple tree. “It has the most gorgeous blossom,” says Jennifer. “Despite its age, last year we had 130 bottles of juice from it. Edward prunes it very severely in February or early March to keep that parasol shape. It’s quite a big job and takes a couple of days to do properly.” Approximately three decades ago, Edward attached a swing to one of the tree’s sturdy branches for their grandsons to use. It is still being enjoyed now by their youngest granddaughter, Etta.
Spheres of box
One of Granny’s introductions that did not stay the course was her rose garden. This originally led out from a back door, bisecting the lawn, in front of the apple tree. “By the late 1970s the beds were full of bindweed and the roses weren’t doing well. We took the whole thing out to replace it with something less high maintenance,” says Jennifer. In its place, they put down a simple gravel path, flanked by two rows of hardwearing Tunbridge Wells paviours, interspersed with box balls to create a focal point. “Each ball is made up of up to 30 plants that have grown together to form a mound. Edward always trims them on Derby Day [the first Saturday in June],” says Jennifer. The magnificent spheres are now 3ft (1m) in girth. They are teamed with pots of abelia ‘Sunshine Daydream’ and ‘Confetti’, chosen for their contrasting pale pink-green-yellow foliage.
At the end of the lawn, through a gate and down a few steps, is the wild garden. This is dotted with all manner of trees, including ash, oak, pine, willow, crab apple, alder and hornbeam. In 1999, they dug a pond on the side of the wild garden nearest the river to encourage frogs, though none have yet colonised it. “We bought a pocket of woodland in 1996 with the idea of having a managed wildness. This area is full of old-fashioned daffodils, bluebells, snowdrops, white Anemone blanda and hybrid whitebells. Someone gave me a sack of them, so I planted them all here.”
A hawthorn that was taking light from the area has been cut down. Instead, they have started to plant camellias, which like the shady, slightly damp conditions. On the little path above that looks into the wild area from the main garden, camellias in pots are putting their roots down to get established. So far, the collection has approximately 15 varieties.
Returning to the formal garden, beyond the apple tree, the flower beds running next to the house are punctuated with a variety of scented shrubs. There are wintersweet Chimonanthus praecox, and winter honeysuckle Lonicera fragrantissima. “You can’t beat natural fragrances,” says Jennifer. She is delighted to add another sensory element to her spring garden with shrubs such as sweet box Sarcococca confusa, and the deliciously scented daphne ‘Eternal Fragrance’.
A host of daffodils
On the far right of the garden is a storage area in the shape of ‘the little barn’. Growing next to this former bullock shed is a striking Japanese quince, Chaenomeles speciosa, creating spring impact with its intense red flowers. In front of the bothy, the kitchen garden is now starting to burst into life.
From here, the path meanders through a gate round to the front of the house, past drifts of more daffodils. “We started putting in the daffodil bulbs about 20 years ago and now have over 30 varieties,” says Jennifer. They start flowering in December with ‘Rijnveld Early Sensation’ and finish in May with ‘Pheasant’s Eye’. Some of her favourites include the heritage variety ‘Baths Flame’, bred pre-1913, and the modern white daffodil ‘Thalia’. Other favourites include scented narcissi such as bright yellow ‘Little Witch’ and white and yellow ‘Jack Snipe’. “We don’t replenish the daffies because they last forever. We do get a few extra varieties every year from our local bulb specialist, de Jager,” she adds.
The Raikeses work in the garden all year round, planting, weeding, pruning, clipping, mowing, edging and mulching. Tasks include growing on cuttings from favourite plants such as Jennifer’s collection of pelargoniums.
The spring season, however, is a time of enormous pleasure and anticipation of good things to come. “The garden delights both of us,” says Jennifer. “It’s our hobby like other people play golf or have a yacht, and we’re out in it most days. But we don’t spend huge amounts of money on it. We have lots of plants given by friends, and I give away cuttings and bulbs too.”
Her favourite time in this season is between 4pm and 5pm. This is when she potters round to see what needs a bit of attention, such as feeding or tying in or deadheading. “Plants need help, of course they do, and the garden is very much a work in progress,” she says.
Words: Caroline Wheater Photography: Abigail Rex
Parsonage Oasts, Hampstead Lane, Yalding, Kent, ME18 6HG. Tel 01622 814272.
The White Garden at Sissinghurst provides inspiration for planting schemes using a sample palette.
A profusion of radiant white flowers amid silver, grey and green foliage creates a picture of ethereal romance on a summer’s day. Scent fills the air above borders frothing over with blooms. It is a breathtakingly beautiful sight.
The White Garden at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent
was first designed six decades ago by writer and poet Vita Sackville-West. This is a garden of simple elegance, expressed through complex planting. It makes the most of the freshness and purity of white.
“I visualise the white trumpets of dozens of Regale lilies, grown three years ago from seed, coming through the grey of southernwood, artemisia and cotton-lavender...,” she wrote. Her vision included silvery mats of Stachys lanata, white pansies, peonies and irises. All these plants continue to thrive today as part of a living, changing composition. Different textures and forms add distinction to the restricted colour scheme. Measuring just 40ft (12m) by 115ft (35m), the scale of the garden is modest. The majority of the plants at Sissinghurst sit well in gardens or borders surrounding less grand homes.
White in all its shades
An all-white planting scheme adds a touch of refinement to any border. There is no risk of one shade clashing with another. It has a singular intensity arising from the sheer concentration of one colour, but in many hues. “A great advantage of white is that there are so many different shades, but you have to keep the plants very fresh-looking. Faded white does not look good,” says Troy Scott Smith, Sissinghurst’s head gardener. This applies to a single border as much as it does at Sissinghurst.
In fact, white is rarely totally pure, but a greatly toned down version of a specific colour. Apparently white blossom carries a pink tint, daffodils a creamy one. Sea hollies are blue in tone and nicotiana often carries hints of green.
Herbaceous perennials are the mainstay of a limited colour garden or border, combined with scores of roses, climbers, shrubs and bulbs. Individual plants stand out from the crowd
by virtue of contrasts between colour tone and form. At Sissinghurst, erect spires of lilies, delphiniums, foxgloves and Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Album’ contrast beautifully against the soft, rounded shapes of phlox, peonies and hydrangeas.
Actors on a stage
Vita’s vision for the garden was of “a low sea of grey clumps of foliage, pierced here and there with tall white flowers”. In keeping with this, the White Garden features many plants that send up flower spires. Lustrous white delphiniums are one of her original choices, rising like altar candles. “Cutting back the main flower spikes once past their best encourages smaller, side shoots, prolonging flowering,” advises Troy.
These are joined by white campanulas, foxgloves, mallows, rosebay willowherb and veronicastrum. The delicate creamy-white flowers of perennial herb meadowsweet fill the air with their strong, sweet smell.
Within the overall picture, different plants play specific roles, in terms of structure or juxtaposition to others. There are those that create a white haze, subtly linking divergent plant forms and levels. These include Gillenia trifoliata with its masses of tiny, wayward flowers. At its feet, spreading plants such as
violas, hardy geraniums and creeping forget-me-not cover the earth. These serve a double purpose, retaining moisture while stifling weeds. Spontaneity comes from self-seeders such as honesty and love-in-a mist.
From dwarves to giants
Vita achieved an almost effortless lavishness. “Always exaggerate rather than stint,” she wrote. A key factor when packing in plants in any border or garden is the careful gradation of heights. This starts from low-growing ground cover rising to border giants such as Crambe cordifolia, greater sea kale, which erupts into a cloud of tiny white flowers in summer.
“After flowering, it can leave a hole, but the cut stems create
a convenient cage to support climbing plants such as everlasting peas,” says Troy. Climbers are used to add height in borders,
as well as clothe walls. One of the most prolific is Cobaea scandens ‘Alba’, the cup-and-saucer vine. A vigorous plant, it happily scales a wall with support and can grow up to 20ft (6m). It has exotic white flowers that look like a cup sitting on a saucer.
The White Garden is contained on three sides by ancient brick walls, their mellow earthy tones weathered by lichen. There are many roses, in particular Rosa mulliganii. This is one of the largest tree climbing roses, here trained over a central arbour. “The original rose is about 40 years old and no longer drips in flowers. Roses dislike being in the same soil for too long, so we have added some new plants,” explains Troy. The brick walls are ideal for climbing and rambling roses, such as ‘Madame Alfred Carrière’. ‘Princesse de Nassau’ is trained over the corner pergola. Its semi-double white flowers appear from August. All would be at home in any white border, as long as they are kept pruned and within the space allotted to them.
Within the box-edged beds there are rose bushes, including several from Vita’s list. These include ‘White Wings’ with papery-white single blooms and Rosa pimpinellifolia, a very old, low-growing, dense rose with single white flowers. One that does not feature is ‘Iceberg’, a stalwart of many garden borders. “We’ve taken it out even though it’s a good doer, but it was not on Vita’s list,” says Troy. “It is too white, too strident, and took all the attention.”
Importance of leaves and bark
Foliage plants are a vital ingredient to a single colour garden or border. Foliage acts as both a foil to flower colour and a calming backdrop that unifies different elements. It reinforces the tonal variations, adding structure amidst effervescence.
To complement shades of white, gardeners can choose from foliage that varies from a myriad of greens to greys, such as pewter, leaden or steely. In between are silvers that veer between near white to pearly in intensity. The tone of individual white flowers affects the choice of foliage partners. Cool papery white blooms stand out better against lively greens. Warmer ivory tones blend well with soft pewter greys.
Small trees with silver bark or foliage include birches, equally at home in a smaller white garden. Other silvery plants include the sea holly, Eryngium giganteum, and Stachys byzantina with its soft woolly leaves, hence the common name ‘Lamb’s Ears’. Large-scale leafy plants include silvery-blue Melianthus major, the honey bush, which Vita considered very dramatic. “We tried it most timidly. We thought it wasn’t going to be hardy and put mountains of straw and manure over it to keep it. However it seemed to be absolutely hardy without having any qualms.”
For grey foliage, the artemisia family is invaluable. Silvery wormwood, A. arborescens, forms clumps to nearly a metre in height. For low-growing mounds, there is A. absinthium, which forms 20in (50cm) high clumps of finely divided greyish-green foliage. The dwarf A. schmidtiana ‘Nana’ barely reaches 4in (10cm) tall, but slowly spreads to form grey, feathery ground cover. “We regularly take cuttings because some varieties struggle through wet winters. Artemisia arborescens has to be replaced every year,” says Troy.
With its flowers in many shades of white, grey and green, all playing a role in conjunction with texture and form, this is a garden filled with inspiration. Plants of different heights and spreads all have a role to play in the overall effect of abundance and beauty. Vita Sackville-West’s vision is proof that a riot of colour is not needed
to create a captivating scene in any size of garden or border.
Planting and maintenance
There’s an art to creating a colour-themed flower border in which many different plants peak at the same time, blending together harmoniously. Success hinges on choosing plant varieties that suit the situation in terms of soil type, aspect and position. Achieving ‘right plant, right place’ ensures healthy plants that bloom plentifully, and are less prone to disease. Soil health is especially important when so many plants are packed into a small area. “The White Garden’s soil had become very poor, so last year we removed every plant, and double dug the beds. We also added loads of organic matter and grit,” says Troy.
A substantial herbaceous border requires a high level of maintenance. It needs planting, staking, watering, dead-heading, pruning, plant dividing, mulching and weeding. This decreases with maturity as plants merge together, covering the soil and smothering all but the most stubborn weeds. Regular hoeing starts in spring in the White Garden, reducing as the ground cover plants take over. “Every week, we spend a day cutting back and staking,” says Troy. “We keep to a minimum, preferring to partner plants that support each other. If a plant group needs bulking up, it is lifted and divided in early September and planted in the nursery. They will be planted out in spring.”
Roses are fed in early spring and July to keep them in pristine condition. The gardeners at Sissinghurst use a homemade mixture of sulphate of potash with the mineral kieserite, in a 2:1 ratio. Old roses are prone to blackspot and rust, and need spraying fortnightly. “We mix seaweed feed, soapy solution and fungicide, applying with a leaf blower that contains the spray,” he adds.
Annuals are useful for filling any holes that appear. Cosmos is invaluable, with the variety ‘Purity’ bearing large open flowers in purest white, above delicate foliage. Taller snapdragons such as antirrhinum ‘Snowflake’, are another staple.
Foxgloves are grown as biennials at Sissinghurst. Sown in the summer, they are planted out in autumn ready to flower next year. Throughout the garden are white perennial violas. These are the older variety Viola cornuta Alba Group which Troy finds more robust and resilient than newer varieties. In packed borders, this viola not only creates a pretty edging plant, but also flowers twice with a first flush in early summer. “After flowering we cut
it down to ground level, propagating from the cuttings, while the plant flowers for a second time in August,” explains Troy.
Flowering shrubs pad out planting but need to be kept in trim and not allowed to outgrow their allotted space. These include philadelphus, hibiscus andvarious hydrangeas. There are delicate and sparsely flowered lacecaps and varieties such as ‘Annabelle’ with very large, spherical heads.
Vita planted several cistus, common gum cistus, ‘Blanche’ and rock rose, which, over a long period, produce pristine white flowers that die gracefully.
From pig farm to beauty
In Saxon times, the land here was owned by the De Saxingherstes, hurst meaning enclosed wood. It was used as a pig farm. Later it became a medieval moated manor farm. This was replaced during the 1500s with a Tudor courtyard house and the Elizabethan tower, which survives today.
Gradually, the property fell into disrepair. In the 1700s it housed 3,000 French prisoners of war in appalling conditions during the Seven Years’ War. It was also used as a workhouse and then homes for farm labourers.
By the 1930s, the estate agent’s details describe many original buildings as “picturesque ruins in the grounds of a working farm in the Weald of Kent”. This was the scene Vita first saw, prompting her to write that the place “caught instantly at my heart. It was Sleeping Beauty’s Garden: but a garden crying out for rescue.” Initially, her husband Harold did not share her enthusiasm. As the buildings were renovated, he was drawn into designing the structure of the garden. “I could never have done it myself,” writes Vita. “Fortunately I had the ideal collaborator. Harold has a natural taste for symmetry, and an ingenuity for forcing focal points or long-distance views where everything seemed against him.”
Vita developed the planting, defining her approach as “profusion, even extravagance and exuberance, within confines of the utmost linear severity.”
Words: Nicola Stocken
With subtle tones and smooth curves, an Essex garden quietly bursts into life.
Down a country lane, past wooded glades and heathland, sits a garden brimming with unfurling foliage and pristine spring flowers. In the crystal clear sunlight of early morning, a myriad of tulips shimmer from beds and borders. All are carefully colour-themed and blended with ornamental grasses, burgeoning perennials and evergreen shrubs.
Furzelea, a Victorian house, lies outside the village of Danbury, Essex, on a south-facing hillside. As one of the highest points in the county, the incline is regularly brushed by cold easterly winds. The surrounding woodland, however, forms a natural shelter-belt that allows tender plants to survive winter. The soil is a mix of sand and clay that, combined with the typically low rainfall of this area, creates dry conditions. As a result, regular mulches of compost are needed to increase water retention, while watering in prolonged warm spells is vital for the plants to thrive.
Welcoming the tulips
Owners Avril and Roger Cole-Jones have gardened on this plot for 36 years. They greet each spring with keen anticipation.
“I love to see the garden coming to life again after winter, with
new shoots breaking through the earth, fresh leaves emerging
on the trees, and a succession of bulbs,” says Avril. “I am no lover of yellow, and big golden daffodils are my pet hate. So
after the snowdrops and dainty white narcissi, tulips are what
I look forward to.”
When the couple first arrived in 1980, the one-and-a-half-acre garden showed little promise. “It was a jungle of self-seeded birch, oak and blackthorn. We could not even see the boundaries,” recalls Avril. Roger hacked a tunnel through the undergrowth, their two young daughters closely bringing up the rear, until he reached the thatched summer house at the end of the plot. He set himself a target of removing seven tree roots a weekend – an antidote to his job as an electrical engineer. Over several years the garden was cleared. “He unearthed much of the Victorian brick edging. We incorporated it into the new garden, laid on end at 45-degree angles to edge beds, paths and borders,” says Avril.
In the early years, one half of the garden was used as a paddock for the children’s ponies, while the remainder was laid largely to lawn. “We built several arches and pergolas from timber that came from the felled trees,” says Avril. The ponies left in 1991 and strips of the original garden were sold for development a few years later. She could finally realise her dream of developing the remaining two-thirds-of-an-acre plot. “The time had come to divide the garden into separate rooms,” she says. “I wanted to do this, not by creating dense screens from formal hedges, but with informal plantings of shrubs and small trees. That means there’s still a hint of what’s round the corner.”
Dividing the garden
Initially, Roger was horrified at the thought of no longer being able to see all the way from the sitting room window to the back hedge, but Avril prevailed. “I wanted a garden that you couldn’t see all in a glance, with hidden areas that would entice us outside, however bad the weather.”
Together, they started planting trees and shrubs to create partial, informal divisions between different areas. The lawn was stripped back to form beds. “Before we start a new project,
I always sketch out my ideas to scale, and then translate them onto the ground to check that they will work,” she explains. “I can’t draw so they’re little more than doodles on paper, but
I do have an eye for colour.” From the start of work in 1997, the garden is an ongoing project, continually developing.
The layout is based on circles and curves. This creates a continuous flow from one area to another, as opposed to a staccato series of beginnings and ends. “There’s something very pleasing about curves,” she says. The main view is from a raised stone terrace that lies immediately outside the kitchen. This directs the eye down the sloping garden. There are tantalising glimpses of a pond, arches, a thatched roof and shapely trees.
From the terrace, eight brick steps descend to a lawn, each side bordered by stepped box hedges. “I wanted some sort of barrier alongside the steps, but nothing as permanent as brickwork. Box hedging was ideal,” explains Avril. More box hedging edges an island bed to the right, encircling a willow standard. Just a few steps away is a large circular bed, edged in some of the original Victorian bricks. This is planted with a soft blend of buttermilk violas, wallflowers, narcissus ‘Cheerfulness’ and yellow tulip ‘Fringed Elegance’. “I prefer the pale primrose yellow of this tulip to deeper golden shades,” she says.
Past the pond
A grassy path leads from the circular bed down the garden, straddled by a wooden pergola bearing the double blue Clematis macropetala ‘Maidwell Hall’. To the right lies a pond, once
home to the family’s ducks. This was enlarged five years ago, excavated to a depth of 24in (60cm), and relined. “The ducks had pecked away the original grassy edges, so we built straight-sided walls topped with bricks. This helps deter the heron from eating the goldfish.”
The grassy path continues southwards, passing camellias, a purple-leaved cherry and flowering Magnolia soulangeana. It arrives at a rustic arch covered in Akebia quinata, the chocolate vine. This produces clusters of wine red, chocolate-scented flowers in spring. “Wherever a path provides a natural passage to another part of the garden, it lends itself to an arch for climbing plants,” says Avril. “I like the idea of structures in the garden not only being features, but also having a purpose and being used.”
This arch is used to frame the view of the lowest third of the garden. Here a circular lawn is overlooked by a thatched summer house, flanked to each side by twin topiary shapes. “They started out as boring potted balls, so I gradually clipped two cottage loaf-style layers. Since then, we’ve kept adding layers.” The curving lawn is enclosed by borders filled with late-flowering tulips, primarily chosen for their colours and differing heights. “I leave tulips in from one year to the next. The deeper they are planted, the greater the chance they will return, largely because there’s less chance I will inadvertently put a fork through them,” she adds. Avril only digs deeply when planting anew. Otherwise she does little more than use a small hand fork to weed, or break the crust of the earth allowing rain to penetrate.
The palette of tulip colours changes subtly, creating an informal effect. Pinks and mauves flow down the eastern border, beneath a pink blossoming prunus ‘Kiku Shidare Zakura’. They pass a clump of blue Muscari armeniacum that originated from Roger’s mother’s garden. In the bottom border, there is an old camellia, Magnolia liliiflora ‘Nigra’ and a shrimp-pink Acer pseudoplatanus ‘Brilliantissimum’. Here, yellow and orange tulips start to dominate, changing to reds, oranges and creams along the western border. “There are no sharp contrasts, just
a gradual change of colour,” says Avril. Among the many tulips she grows, a particular favourite is the scented orange tulip ‘Ballerina’. This returns annually, each year a little shorter than the one before. She covets it for its lily shape, beautiful clear colour and fresh, strong but sweet fragrance. “I always add new bulbs to the existing clumps, so that there are different heights. It looks much more natural.”
No fan of the municipal-style massed planting, her preference is to mix tulips in with other plants. “I hate the idea of serried ranks of tulips standing over forget-me-nots or pansies,” she says. Instead, she favours specific pairings, such as red ‘Abu Hassan’ tulips with variegated sisyrinchium, and burnt orange ‘Cairo’ with Euphorbia polychroma. Other combinations include pink ‘Caravelle’ with honesty, and ‘Ballerina’ with either rusty-coloured Carex testacea or Carex elata ‘Bowles’ Golden’. “Carex are reasonably evergreen and there are eight varieties that look good in spring,” says Avril. “Grasses go well with tulips, creating a lovely informal look.”
Letting the sky in
Among the other ornamental grasses she grows are Anemanthele lessoniana, Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ and Deschampsia flexuosa. These are interspersed among tulips in various shades of pink that drift through the large island bed in the centre of the circular lawn. Shaped in the manner of a three-leaf clover, this bed was formed just two years ago after being marked out and stripped of turf. “We hired a rotovator to excavate down, and added our own compost. With undernourished soil like ours, you can never have enough.” Now well established, it is a very different picture from the huge old red-flowered chestnut that stood there until 2008 when it was felled by a mini tornado.
That occurred two weeks prior to a charity opening of the garden. The rotten stump was quickly dug out, then the hole backfilled with topsoil and turfed over. “We finished the day before the first visitors arrived,” recalls Avril. She now prefers to see the sky and cloud formations rather than a dense tree canopy. “Big trees hide the sky, and the grass beneath struggles to grow,” she points out. “Even when a tree is used to block an unsightly view, it often grows too tall, and hides something you’d otherwise choose to see.”
As a result, she prefers shrubs and bamboos with a finite height, or small trees that will not rob the garden of light. For example, in the island bed stands a Cercidiphyllum japonicum, the katsura tree. This is a deciduous tree with beautiful heart-shaped leaves that open a soft bronze before turning green and colouring up in autumn. Beneath it are tulips in various shades of peach and coral. Threaded through them are silver clumps of leafy Artemisia ludoviciana ‘Valerie Finnis’ and Astelia chathamica. A variety of heucheras, including ‘Mocha’, ‘Brass Lantern’ and ‘Marmalade’ with leaves in shades of bronze, coral and caramel sit with bronze fennel.
An outcrop of Euphorbia mellifera adds height, while there are
a number of spiky phormiums. Among them are pink-striped ‘Maori Queen’, gracefully arching ‘Jester’, and compact, brightly coloured ‘Flamingo’. “The old-fashioned Phormium tenax grow too big, but most modern varieties are smaller. They come in
a range of eye-catching colours and, being more arching in habit than upright, blend easily into the planting.” By mid spring, Avril’s phormiums are immaculate thanks to tough treatment earlier in the season. “I hack back any damaged leaves and they look so much better after being thinned out.”
Different phormium varieties punctuate the borders enclosing the circular lawn. They culminate at the top of the western border with a magnificent Phormium tenax ‘Purpureum’. This provides a dramatic, dusky backdrop to orange ‘Ballerina’ and caramel-coloured ‘Cairo’ tulips. To the right is a second archway that frames a view of the White Garden, sitting in a quiet corner bordered by the boundary fence, house and, to the east, the pond. A white metal bench is surrounded by a border of tulips ‘White Triumphator’ and ‘Queen of Night’, narcissi, spirea, alyssum and self-seeding honesty. “It’s a lovely quiet place to sit with a cup of tea, when I find the time,” adds Avril.
Time is in short supply because maintaining a garden ofmsuch interest is almost a full-time job from spring until autumn. But Avril would have it no other way. “I’ve always gardened, helping my mother sow seeds from a very young age. I can’t imagine life without a garden. It is forever stimulating and, with the unpredictability of the climate, is never dull, even if the outcome is not always what you expect.”
Furzelea, Bicknacre Road, Danbury, Essex CM3 4JR.
Tel 01245 225726.
Words and photography: Nicola Stocken
PLANTS KEEP CHANGING THROUGHOUT THE ICY MONTHS TO PERFORM WELL IN THE SPRING AND SUMMER
Under its seasonal covering of snow or frost, the winter garden appears dead and lifeless. Brave splashes of colour come from witch hazels, viburnums and a few other shrubs. But the majority of the garden seems to be sleeping, waiting for the warmer weather and longer daylight hours.
This is an illusion. The garden never sleeps, and all winter there are subtle but vital changes taking place. Under the soil, the cold is working its magic on seeds, bulbs and roots. Even the chill winds have a role to play to ensure flowers and fruits appear later in the year. Without the winter cold, gardens would be less beautiful in the summer.
A period of cold weather is essential to many plants and crops. Without it, some would struggle to grow at all, while others would not flower or produce crops.
One example of crops that need a cold spell are fruit trees such as apples, plums and pears. If temperatures remain high, these trees would not come into growth in spring, nor produce flower buds. In a process known as vernalisation, the reduction in daylight initially induces the trees to go dormant. They shed their leaves, which would require too much energy to maintain in winter when they make less food. Then the trees must be exposed to a certain number of days with a minimum temperature, usually less than 7°C. Only when this has happened are they ready to burst into growth and bloom when temperatures rise. This process is designed to ensure this happens in spring, and not in autumn.
The amount of days of cold required is expressed in chill hours. Some require longer periods of cold than others, although the reason for this is not currently known. However, the plants are believed to store the necessary information and pass it on in their genes.
Bulbs in winter
Hardy bulbs need different weather conditions at different times of the year to grow and produce flowers. Flower bulbs are formed in summer, as a result of heat in a process called baking. Root growth is stimulated by the cooler and wetter weather of autumn. However, it is the cold of winter that is needed to stimulate stem growth. Temperatures of 10°C or below trigger the elongation of the flower stem.
Attempts to grow hyacinths or daffodils in the home often results in hyacinths with a clump of flowers crowded in the neck of the bulb or daffodils on dwarf stalks. This is the result of ignoring the bulbs’ need to spend at least 10 weeks in cool conditions, ideally outside below 10°C. There are exceptions to this such as ‘Paperwhite’ and ‘Soleil d’Or’. Native to warm Mediterranean regions, they do not need a period of cold for their stems to grow. It is autumn rain, rather than winter cold, that spurs on these daffodils’ growth.
Getting ahead in the race for light
In winter, herbaceous plants stop growing and die back. Instead, they store the carbohydrates they make from water and carbon dioxide from the air in their roots. This provides the plants with a reserve of energy, designed to give them a head start in spring. They store the carbohydrates as starch because this is more concentrated in energy (calories) than simple sugars. Starch is not water soluble, making it difficult to move around the plant in the sap.
The onset of cold weather, however, triggers enzymes in the root to convert the starch back into soluble sugar. This means it can be moved to the growing tips of the plant, ready for early spring’s surge of growth. Once the conditions are right, they are able to push their shoots to the sunlight ahead of surrounding plants such as annuals. This stops the new growth from being smothered by the hundreds of annual seedlings which are germinating at the same time. Peonies and dahlias are both examples of the wide range of plants this benefits. It is also the reason why parsnips taste sweeter after they have been frosted.
Saving the next generation
When grown from seed some plants need a cold spell before they will flower. These include biennials such as wallflowers, aquilegias, sweet Williams and onions. Blooming in late spring, they release their seeds in summer. If the seeds germinated immediately, they would flower and set seed as soon as they were big enough. These new seeds would not have time to ripen before winter arrived. The cold weather would kill them, with the loss of a whole generation. Instead the plants make healthy clumps of foliage the first year. Then they wait for a sufficient winter chilling before producing flowers. No matter how early in spring these seeds are sown, they will only produce leaves in the first year, never flowers.
The necessary cold period to stimulate flowering can be very short. Several biennial plants, such as parsnips, carrots, beet and onions, are grown as vegetables. The starches and sugars stored in their roots provide valuable food when eaten. If these vegetables are sown too early in spring, there is a risk of short cold snap while they are growing in April or May. This could fool them into thinking that winter had come and gone, and it was time to flower. At this point the plants ‘bolt’, sending up flower stems and the crop is lost to the gardener.
The biennials above require winter chilling to make them flower. There are other plants, however, that need their seeds to be vernalised before they germinate at all. The seeds undergo a period of dormancy. In some cases, simply the softening of the hard coat by frost and weathering action will allow the seed to germinate. This applies to some lathyrus species including sweet peas.
In other cases, this weathering is linked to the need for a cold, moist period. This triggers the seed’s embryo to grow and expand. It breaks through the softened seed coat seeking the sun and nutrients. Seeds do this because if they germinated in autumn, the seedlings would be unlikely to survive the winter. If frost did not kill them, grazing animals, slugs and snails would eat them in the absence of other food. Delaying germination till spring gives every seed a better chance of survival to maturity.
All these processes show that winter is not just a time of frosty beauty. Its chilling weather creates more than a snowy landscape, it plays an essential role in ensuring that the following season is as productive and beautiful as the last.
Words: Geoff Stebbings Photography: Alamy
ICY COVERING OF CRYSTALS TURNS THE COUNTRYSIDE WHITE ON A CLEAR NIGHT
Onclear, still winter nights, a delicate covering of crystals turns the countryside white. The phenomenon is hoar frost. Leaves, flowers and stems are covered with delicate patterns. Spiders’ webs are outlined with a fragile coating. Fine feathers and needles turn grass silver and give trees a ghostly frame.
The name hoar comes from the old English word, hor or har, for white or grey. These frosts form on cold, cloudless nights, with little or no wind. The conditions must be right for crystals to form directly from water vapour present in the air. This process is called sublimation and happens when air changes to a solid without passing through a liquid stage. A true hoar frost is formed solely by sublimation, and is neither frozen dew nor droplets of water. In practice, the frost is often a combination of frozen dew and sublimation.
On these nights, the ground, and the air just above it, steadily cool as they rapidly lose heat to the atmosphere by radiation. Eventually the dew point is reached – this is the temperature at which water vapour in air condenses into liquid water. Both the air temperature and the dew point need to be below the freezing point of water for hoar frost to form.
When the radiation persists, and the temperature continues to drop, the air becomes supersaturated with moisture. The excess moisture is deposited in the form of needle-like crystals that bind themselves onto surfaces.
A crystal world
If there is a lot of moisture available during the long winter night, hoar frost is formed in a thick layer. This can resemble a covering of snow. The pure white is caused by the reflection and refraction of light as it interacts en masse with the frost’s crystalline structure.
An area of high-pressure during the winter will provide the quiet conditions suitable for the formation of a hoar frost. An old weather rhyme says ‘clear moon, frost soon’. When it occurs on successive nights, and does not melt during the day, an ever thicker coating of crystals are formed. This can be 1in (2.5cm) or more long. Conversely a cloudy sky or windy conditions inhibits radiation, preventing a frost.
It is possible for a lawn to be coated with hoar frost while trees and shrubs are frost-free. This happens when the ground temperature is several degrees colder than the air higher up, which remains above freezing point.
Places that are particularly susceptible to a frost are known as frost hollows. As air chills its density increases. On a clear night, slopes in undulating country lose heat by radiation cooling the air above them. The cold air runs downhill like water into hollows and valleys. It is known as a katabatic flow, from the Greek word katabatikos, meaning downhill. If it is trapped by embankments across the valley or by natural spurs jutting outwards, a lake of cold air can form. The valley floor is coated with a thick hoar frost whereas higher up may be frost free. During March 2012 there was only one air frost at a weather station in east Surrey situated above a downland valley. A weather station close by on the floor of the valley recorded 16 air frosts.
Hoar frost in the garden
Gardeners can inadvertently create frost pockets by building a solid fence across a slope. The type and texture of soil is also a factor in contributing to the likelihood and severity of a frost. Sandy soils lose heat more rapidly and reach the frost point more readily than a clay soil. Moist soils will not cool as briskly or lose as much heat.
Hoar frost can be harmful to more delicate plants, shrubs and trees. Water freezes within the plant’s cellular structure, breaking down the walls. A vulnerable time is just after dawn when the air is often at its coldest. Rays from the rising sun are cast onto foliage, causing a rapid defrosting. This ruptures the sides of the plant’s cells when the sap expands. By putting fleece covers over plants, frost is prevented from forming on the plants themselves and averts that sudden thawing. Plants inside a glass cold frame get some protection from a coating of hoar frost. The covering raises the temperature inside by several degrees, giving some protection from radiation.
The longer the duration of the frost, the more a plant suffers. It is the buds and flowers that are most tender. One plant that is susceptible is Magnolia soulangiana. A mild winter induces the tree to flower early, then a spring frost scorches it.
In an average year, many places will have twice as many grass or ground frosts than air frosts. Air temperatures measured at 4ft (1.2m) can often be up to 40C higher than those on the lawn, flower bed or vegetable patch. A thick hoar frost can blacken potatoes while the blossom high on an apple tree may be untouched, remaining just above freezing.
The effects of nature’s frozen tracery are unpredictable, but its beauty remains one of the wonders of the winter.
Words: Ian Currie Photography: Alamy
VIVID BERRIES AND LEAVES OF SPINDLE TREE PROVIDE FOOD FOR BIRDS AND VISUAL TREAT
With the approach of winter, spindle trees start to set the garden ablaze with the colour of their fruit and foliage. These shrubs, botanically known as euonymus, shake off their previously plain appearance, as the leaves burn red and purple. It is, however, the bright, jewel-like fruits that gleam in misty hedgerows. In spinning cascades of pink and orange, they create droplets of pure, bright colour amid the drab branches of other deciduous shrubs. These fruits persist like hot embers long after the foliage has fallen.
A feast for birds
The fat seed capsules are divided into four plump symmetrical lobes like miniature lanterns. These split to reveal glossy orange, rounded fruits that descend from their covers and spin in the breeze. As they ripen and become more prominent, the colourful seeds provide a valuable food source. Persisting well into winter, birds feast off them through the coldest months.
The birds are attracted by the orange fleshy seed coat, with its high-calorie nutrition. Inside the coat the true seeds remain intact after being eaten. Because of this, they are able to make their way through the birds’ digestive tracts to be deposited far away from the parent plant. This is an exquisitely balanced natural relationship. It supports native birds, helping them to survive through winter, while the spindle tree is able to propagate itself throughout the countryside.
The native Euonymus europaeus is such a veritable larder for birds that it will often be aggressively defended by robins making it part of their territory. For this reason,
it is known as ‘robins’ bread’ in some areas of the country.
The fruit is poisonous to humans, as are all parts of the plant. The toxic berries, however, have been put to good use. One traditional remedy for head lice involved applying the crushed berries to the scalp. Referencing the plant’s poisonous nature, the name ‘euonymus’ may originate from Euonyme. In Greek mythology she was the mother of vengeance-wreaking goddesses, the Furies.
The bright fruits are often initially seen dangling below a mantle of colourful leaves. Before it falls, the spindle tree’s foliage has one of the most impressive transformations in the British landscape. It turns from an unobtrusive dark green to a bright pinkish red with splashes of purple and hints of orange.
‘Red Cascade’, a cultivar of Euonymus europaeus, has the brightest and perhaps best colour for this time of year of any plant. A spreading shrub, it reaches 10ft (3m) across and 8ft (2.5m) high. The scalloped leaves gradually turn deep red, starting at the midrib and spreading to the leaf edges. Before the metamorphosis is complete, the leaves take on hues of pink, orange and purple. ‘Red Cascade’ bears plentiful fruit, the branches bowing under the weight.
A lesser-known characteristic of spindle trees is just as fascinating. A close look into the criss-crossing mass of leafless winter branches and the ‘winged’ outline of the straight stems becomes apparent. The branches develop four wings of corky bark, which if cut through have a cross-shaped silhouette. This feature is most prominent on Euonymus alatus, known as the winged spindle. Originating in Asia, it grows to 10ft (3m) in height, gradually spreading to a similar width. With age the bark of the main stems may become fissured, adding to the unusual and sculptural winter outline of this plant.
A limestone lover
The native European spindle, Euonymus europaeus, thrives on alkaline soils and is common on the chalk downs of southern England and on limestone hills and vales. Preferring full sun and freely draining soils, it is tolerant of winds and hard frosts. While it can be found in the shrubby lower canopy of ash, beech or yew woodland, the leaves will be at their most colourful in an open, sunny position. The one situation it will not tolerate is boggy, waterlogged ground. In its natural habitat a spindle tree may live for over 100 years.
Once a very common hedgerow plant, a campaign of grubbing out in the 1970s has left it a rarity in the wild. The spindle tree was thought to harbour crop diseases and pests, especially black bean aphid, which is a major pest of vegetable crops. There was little evidence that euonymus was a truly significant threat to farming.
Now the native plant is spreading in gardens, where it is an easy-to-grow, highly ornamental shrub.
Where to grow in the garden
Ideally, spindle trees are grown where there is an unobstructed view of them in winter. The centre of an island bed is a good location, where its summer foliage offers a useful green foil for tall flowering herbaceous perennials. A winter border with bright-stemmed winter dogwoods Cornus alba, Cornus sericea and Cornus sanguinea is another good site.
There are over 170 species of euonymus around the world but just a handful make suitable garden plants. Euonymus europaeus prefers alkaline soils, but will also grow well in neutral or slightly acidic ground as long as the soil is free-draining.
It is one of the easiest shrubs to maintain, growing in full sun, part shade, sheltered or exposed situations. It is a tough plant that can be used to provide a windbreak, particularly when grown with other wind-tolerant trees such as hawthorn and dog roses. With its abundant food, it is an excellent choice for a wildlife or nature garden.
‘Red Cascade’ is one of the best cultivars of E. europaeus for the garden. Its colour and fruit has earned it an Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society.
Euonymus planipes is another good spindle tree for the garden. Displaying some of the most dramatic winter colour, it grows to 10ft (3m) high. With pinnate leaves reminiscent of an ash tree, it has a vase-like shape that spreads upwards and outwards from a narrow base.
Euonymus alatus ‘Compactus’ is an ideal shrub for less spacious gardens, reaching only 3½ft (1m) in height. With the same distinctive winged wood as the larger E. alatus, it makes an attractive, smaller sculptural winter plant.
Spindle trees need little work. They form a naturally balanced and well branching framework. Little pruning is required, removing only dead, diseased or crossing and rubbing branches, or branches that are growing in an awkward place. Any pruning is done in late winter or early spring before weeding around the base. The tree will then benefit from a mulch of well-rotted garden compost.
The spindle tree is a fascinating plant, valued for its unique aesthetic qualities, wildlife-friendly properties and its many practical uses. It deserves a home in British gardens where the bright fruits and colouring leaves welcome the changing of the seasons and feed hungry birds.
Words: Melissa Mabbit Photography: Alamy
FLOWER-FILLED HAVEN FULL OF COLOUR AND FRAGRANCE
All summer long, a garden nestling in the valley of the River Pang in Berkshire resonates to the sound of bees. From a small wildflower meadow at the front of the house to a formal walled garden at the rear, the plot is filled with nectar- and pollen-rich blooms. Since starting to keep honeybees eight years ago, owner Fran Wakefield has filled her quarter-acre plot with plants that provide these essential foods for her two hives.
“Nearly everything I plant now is with bees in mind,” she says. “It’s wonderful to see them in the air at this time of year. They are always so busy and even when you can’t see them, you can hear them. They make a lovely noise.”
Making a bee-friendly plot
Tithe Barn and its garden are in Tidmarsh, an ancient village surrounded by low-lying flower-filled meadows. The soil is rich loam with chalk from the river. The 18th century barn sits almost in the centre of the 28½sq yd (24sq m) plot. When Fran moved here more than 30 years ago, the garden was bounded by leylandii and saw very little sun. The sloping plot was mainly lawn with an old acacia tree in the centre and a few containers to provide colour. Then eight years ago, the neighbouring manor house was pulled down and redeveloped. As a result of the work, Fran lost hedges and the acacia tree, although she gained a new wall to match her existing two 10ft (3m) high red brick walls.
“The changes let the sunshine in,” she says. “I thought, I need to make the most of this.” She decided to strip the garden out and start anew. At the same time, she wanted to keep bees, something she used to do. She got two hives, which are each home to between 45,000 to 60,000 bees in the summer.
“I wanted to create a classical walled garden to complement the 1760s brick and flint barn,” she says. “There is a formal framework of low hedges, straight paths and box-edges borders filled with flowers in soft pastel shades.”
This scheme provides the backdrop for her bee-orientated planting in the rear garden, where one of the hives is located. The other sits in a small wildflower garden at the front of the barn. It all combines to create a haven for both Fran and her bees.
Abundance of flowers
The wildflower meadow replaced an area of lawn to the left of the drive and courtyard area. “It’s a favourite bee haunt,” says Fran. The hive here is surrounded by corn poppies, white field chamomile and purple toadflax. Rich in pollen and nectar, these are magnets for the bees.
From the front of the barn, a path leads down the side, past a small patio with pots of hostas, to a gate into the walled garden.
In summer, this is a riot of colour with roses, peonies, clematis, delphiniums and other herbaceous perennials in full bloom. Flowers tumble over antique terracotta pots, fill the beds, line paths or climb arches and walls. This abundance of flowering plants is ideal for Fran’s honeybees, as it is easy for them to work their way across the borders. They do not have to fly far from their hives in the garden to find sufficient pollen and nectar. Each colony needs to collect 66lbs (30kg) of pollen and 264lbs (120kg) of nectar simply to survive. To provide a store of honey, they need to gather more than this.
“The bees have plenty of choice for their foraging,” says Fran. “They like single, simple flowers such as geraniums that give them easy access to their pollen or nectar.
“I avoid hybrids or double flowering plants, as the bees struggle with these. However, if there is something I want that the bees don’t like, such as a rose or peony, I still plant it. There is enough in the garden for the bees to feed on.”
To the right of the gate is a border of lavender ‘Hidcote’. Every single stem on this plant has multiple flowers, so the bees can work it easily, moving from one to the next with little expense of energy. Lavender also has the ability to release its nectar gradually, to keep the bees coming back.
To the left, a climbing rose, ‘Goldfinch’, covers the walls of the nearest corner. This restrained rambling rose is ideal for a small space. Its button-like, fruit-scented blooms are covered with golden anthers, loved by the pollen-gathering bees. The petals fall onto the square brick courtyard below. Here, square Victorian seed pans are filled with succulents and thyme. These tiny, low-growing plants are ideal for the bees, flowering even when a lack of water affects other plants.
“They all shrug off drought, and are virtually maintenance free,” says Fran. “The only thing I do is add crocks and pea gravel to the bottom of the pot to ensure good drainage because waterlogging will kill the succulents.”
Fran’s second beehive sits in a quiet and sheltered spot between two herbaceous beds along the east wall. Creamy white rose ‘Alberic Barbier’ standards and allium ‘Globemaster’ are planted here. The bees swarm to the alliums’ starry clusters of violet-purple flowers. Flourishing alongside them are valerian, hardy geraniums, catmint and delphiniums. All are popular with the bees, particularly the open-cupped geraniums, which allow easy access to their nectar to the short-tongued honeybees. The open flowers of delphiniums are visited for their pollen, rather than nectar. Valerian and catmint both have clusters of small flowers that are easy for the bees to work. Flowering through the summer into autumn, they provide a long-lasting food source.
Behind the beds, espaliered apple and pear trees, their varieties now forgotten, grow along the east wall. Planted as part of the redesign, they burst into a mass of blossom in spring. On warm days, they are covered in bees seeking nectar and in turn helping to pollinate the trees.
A place to drink
A path leads past these herbaceous beds, to a corner where an arbour is tucked away beneath trees. This is an area of dry shade where pachysandra, ivy, and periwinkles grow. Flowering from March, pachysandra and periwinkles provide food for bees early in the season when other flowers have yet to bloom. The late-flowering ivy is an important source of nectar later in the year when the bees build up their store of food to see the colony through the winter.
A shady stumpery spills over with ferns and hostas, one of Fran’s favourite plants.
“I’m passionate about hostas, growing 20 different varieties. The leaves are like an embroidery. The bees do go to the spike-shaped blooms, but they prefer flowers they can work and work, such as the verbena,” she says.
Access to water is essential for the honeybees. As well as drinking it, they carry water back to the hive where it is used to regulate the temperature. They also use it to break down nectar from plants such as oil seed rape, which crystallises in the hive. The rape grows in the countryside beyond the garden, and Fran often watches her bees travel out to work it. Under the arbour is a rescued animal feeder perched on brick pillars. Planted with waterlilies, it is an important place for the bees.
A path continues along the back wall, where a border is planted with more hostas and frothy yellow alchemilla. This is another plant whose myriad tiny flowers are covered with foraging bees. The foxgloves planted here are another of Fran’s favourites.
The south and west boundary walls support clematis ‘Montana’ and climbing roses. Covered with big, open flowers, clematis are ideal for bees. Climbing rose ‘Perennial Blue’, is a mass of bluish purple blooms each July. Its open flowers are good for the bees who can get into them easily and take pollen.
A central pathway connects the back wall with the barn’s terrace. It widens in the middle of the walled garden to create a square that encloses a still, round pool. “I love watching the honeybees sit on the edge of the pool to drink, before flying off in search of more nectar,” she says.
Fran puts as much energy into her garden as the bees that work the flowers. She is rewarded not only by the beautiful plants but also the honey from her bees. “The garden gives me a deep connection with nature. This comes from the fact that the flowers I grow are to attract insects, not only for their beauty,” she says. “I’m giving nature’s cycle a helping hand.”
Words and Photography: Nicola Stocken
The feature about Fran's bee garden originally appeared in the July / August 2015 issue of LandScape.
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A DEVON PLOT is filled with a variety of tall grasses that tumble onto curving paths
Autumn brings silver grasses and golden leaves to a Devon garden that tumbles in terraces down the Blackdown Hills near the hamlet of Dalwood. To the south, just seven miles as the crow flies, lies the sea. Below, the gently undulating landscape of the Yarty Valley stretches eastwards as far as the eye can see. Wooded hills, grazed pastures and fertile fields are bounded by ancient hedgerows, a living reminder of the generations of farmers who have worked this land.
It is now more than half a century since Mary and John Benger settled at Burrow Farm and, bit by bit, turned the fields surrounding their farmhouse into a 10-acre garden and woodland. The hillside lies mostly on heavy clay, but John ran a dairy farm on the land, so there was no shortage of well-rotted manure to improve the soil.
In the early days, all the pasture was needed to feed the cows. The only unused land was a derelict former Roman clay pit. “I was so desperate to create a garden that I started there,” recalls Mary. Slowly, with help from their four small children, she cleared the brambles in the old clay pit, revealing an ancient field maple. This still stands today in the Woodland Garden, a tranquil shady oasis filled with birdsong.
Initially, there was no money to spare for planting, but some informal bartering with a local nurseryman resulted in milk being exchanged for plants. “After that I just kept planting, planting and planting,” she says.
In the mid-1980s, John retired and the cows left. “For ages, I had been quietly stealing little bits of field to turn into garden, but now I had all the pasture to choose from,” says Mary.
Since then, she has created new areas including a Terraced Garden, Millennium Garden and, five years ago, the Anniversary Grasses Garden. Each section is allowed to mature before work starts on the next. “The garden has evolved slowly, and a few years have always passed between establishing one area and designing a new one. This means each has a very distinct character,” she explains.
Separating each area are mature oaks, maples, ash, magnolias, birches and cherries, that frame distant vistas, shrub borders and sweeping lawns. “Broad expanses of lawn are like a sorbet between courses, cleansing the palate before you encounter a different style of garden,” says Mary. The lawns not only separate, but also serve to bind the variety of styles together. They link naturalistic planting with formal, colour-themed areas, cottage style with rose pergola, woodland with herbaceous or terraces with courtyard.
In autumn, it is the grasses garden that takes pride of place. Delicate wafting fronds mingle with rich perennials such as asters and sedums. Sited on the westerly boundary, it was created in 2010 to celebrate the family’s 50 years at the farm. It consists of twin, prairie-style borders that run downhill, from north to south. “The idea was to make a garden that, at its autumn peak, feels enclosed with the plants towering up to either side,” Mary explains. This was achieved by lowering the level of a central, winding path and building up the borders. The result is that the planting appears to be tiered. “Then the path twists and turns, obscuring what’s ahead, which gives a feeling of mystery in a relatively small space.”
The grasses garden
The grasses garden was created in a field on the farm’s westerly boundary, down the hillside from the house. The start of the path through the garden is flanked by the first of many clumps of Miscanthus sinensis grasses. These include variegated ‘Cosmopolitan’, and diminutive ‘Yakushima Dwarf’. Its pink-tinged spikelets grow to just 24in (60cm) high, turning silver with age.
“Miscanthus are repeated along the borders’ length. They are the key to the design. Their height ensures that, once the first corner is turned, you cannot see out in any direction,” explains Mary. By chance, when she was planning the beds, a local nursery was closing down. She bought the entire stock of miscanthus for £200.
As the path winds deeper between the borders, the towering clumps of miscanthus and pampas grass become ever more deeply interspersed with flowering herbaceous perennials. There are pink sedum, bistort, purple Verbena bonariensis, pink and purple asters. “I plant them in conjunction with later-flowering plants for extra interest,” says Mary. “The borders are densely packed so that the plants hold each other up. This removes the need for staking.”
She originally planned a mauve and pink colour scheme, but there are also some yellow nasturtiums that have spread far and wide. “When I first planted the borders, I wanted to echo the yellow of the buttercups in the neighbouring field, so I planted nasturtiums. They did so well I have been pulling them out ever since,’’ she says.
The yellow flowers tumble onto the path as it narrows round the first corner, intermingling with foliage of Lathyrus tuberosus, a perennial sweet pea. Nearby is the first of many clumps of geranium ‘Rozanne’, a great favourite. “It’s so vigorous that it almost climbs up other plants,” marvels Mary. It is a wonderful filler that binds the planting together, as well as spilling into the path. This reinforces the seamless transition between path and border, created by an all-embracing mulch of wood chippings.
When planning the borders, Mary first marked out the path that curves between them so that neither end is fully visible from the other. With the path being countersunk, any excavated top soil could be piled onto the borders each side to create gentle slopes for planting. “Then I laid the pots of ornamental grasses onto the soil, arranged according to height. This is so that the eventual effect will be graduated from path-side to back, with see-through grasses near the front edge,” she explains.
Prior to planting, compost was added to each hole and every potted plant was soaked in water for a couple of hours. “After that, the borders were only watered as needed during dry spells, until well established,” she says.
Once the grasses were planted, they were interspersed with Michaelmas daisies. “I repeated the same varieties at least twice along the length of each border, in order to create a sense of rhythm,” she adds. Finally, any gaps were filled with lower-growing plants such as persicarias, salvias and sedums. These quickly spread into their allotted spaces. “The great advantage of grasses and herbaceous plants, as opposed to shrubs, is that they reach their ultimate height in the first year, filling out in subsequent years.”
With its all-embracing mulch of wood chippings, the border is low maintenance. The only work is in late winter when that year’s flowerheads are cut back. To prevent the borders looking bare after this happens, several columnar evergreen Thuja occidentalis emerge as the path winds downhill.
At this point, the border on the left side parts to reveal a wooden bench, edged in a low box hedge. “I like seats where you can sit and contemplate the plants. Otherwise, you just walk straight through, without pausing,” says Mary. From the bench, the tiered planting of the border opposite can be fully appreciated. It ranges from sedums, asters and hardy geranium, past clumps of Miscanthus sinensis and Verbena bonariensis, to the highest point where pampas grasses stand tall. Cortaderia selloana ‘Pumila’ is a great success, a compact variety with silky, silver-yellow plumes.
To the right of the bench stands a clump of Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Goldtau’, a shimmering golden mass when caught in the evening light. Nearby are clumps of Verbena bonariensis and pink Aster amellus ‘Brilliant’, a magnet to tortoiseshell and peacock butterflies.
“So many of the later flowering plants are rich in nectar,” adds Mary. There is also an unusually restrained, pink bistort. “Both bistort and sedum are grazed by the deer that wander in from the countryside,” she explains. Nowadays, when cutting back the previous year’s sedum heads, she leaves the long stalks to protect the new foliage from being eaten.
With its blend of autumn-flowering perennials and ornamental grasses, this garden changes in mood according to the light. As dawn breaks above the distant hills and valleys of the Devon landscape, the grasses take on a cool silvery sheen. At sunset, they bask in a warm, golden glow, blending into the surrounding landscape with deceptive ease and great beauty.
Words and Photographs: Nicola Stocken
The full feature on the garden at Burrow Farm appeared in the Sept / Oct 2015 issue of LandScape.
The borders of this Worcestershire garden are filled with old-fashioned flowers
Sitting on a Worcestershire hilltop, Highfield Cottage's borders are filled with the scents and colours of flowers grown in English cottage gardens for centuries. Behind high hedges, that protect from the winds, an abundance of roses bloom, here against a backdrop of birdsong, and softly buzzing bees. They scramble over trellis, sheds and rustic arches framing views of billowing borders filled with fragrant flowers.
Owner Valerie Mills moved here 40 years ago with her husband David and two daughters.Then the plot was open to the countryside and was completely over grown. Today it is a beautiful garden where paths meander past clematis, foxgloves, lavender and campanula to name but a few of the beautiful plants that flourish here. Majestic delphiniums line up, tall and stately. Around their tall blue spies, other colours flow freely in every direction. The main border is mainly creams, pinks, whites, blues and purples.
Many of the plants are allowed to self-seed, such as Verbena bonariensis and aquilegias. As well as allowing plants to self-esteem Valerie exchanges plants with other keen gardeners. One of the first she got this was was hardy Geranium x magnificum, with pretty blue flowers. This was joined by Geranium psilostemon, a rampant perennial with shocking-pink flowers. Valerie describes her geraniums as the glue that holds the borders together.
Photographs: Nicola Stocken
The full feature on Highfield Cottage appeared in the May / June 2016 issue of LandScape.
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With subtle tones and smooth curves, an Essex garden quietly celebrates springRead More
The yellow tips of Fritillary michailovskyi radiate warmth when set against the dun tones of an old wooden table. Whether displayed in galvanised watering cans, or even an old food grater, this daily flowers bring a golden glow to a garden.
They are one of 100 species of fritillary, and are among the oldest cultivated plants. With its narrow strap-shaped leaves, they grow to 8in (20cm) in height.
Photography: Richard Faulks
This craft feature appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of LandScape.
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FRESH TURF BRINGS NEW LIFE TO A SPRING GARDEN
Large or small, a lawn provides a splash of colour in the garden all year round. It also gives a backdrop to set off colourful border plants and shrubs. Whether starting a lawn from scratch, or replacing a tired-looking patch of grass, laying good quality turf creates an immediate effect. Spring is the ideal time to do this, as the grass will start growing in the warmer weather.
For the best results, the ground needs first to be carefully prepared. Existing turf is removed. If this is severely compacted, a turf cutter can be hired. Perennial weeds such as docks and dandelions are eradicated either by digging out by hand, or with a specially formulated herbicide. Sufficient leaves need to be showing to soak up the chemicals, while time is allowed for weeds to die prior to laying the turf. If digging out by hand, care is taken to remove the long tap root, which can be more than 18in (45cm) in length.
The soil is then dug to a minimum depth of 6in (15cm), either using a fork or rotovator. The soil is broken down to a fine tilth using a rake, with new top soil or compost added to give the new lawn the best possible start.
Laying the turf
The ground is levelled with a rake, and then firmed either by treading the area several times in different directions on foot or using a roller. The longer the ground can now be left to settle, the more level the lawn will be.
Lawn turf varies according to the mixture of grass species used, so it is important to choose the correct turf for the situation. Fine-leaved grass creates a velvety but delicate putting green effect. Tougher, broader-leaved varieties create a resilient, hard-wearing lawn. At least five per cent more turf than required is ordered, to allow for cutting and shaping. The turf should be laid within 24 hours of delivery, but if work is delayed, laying the turves flat and watering will avoid discolouring.
Using a wide board to stand or kneel on when laying turves avoids indenting the soil. Starting from one corner of the area, as each new roll is unrolled, it is closely butted to the previous one. No gaps are left. To conceal the joins, they are staggered on each subsequent row, so that the grass knits together. The turf is pushed into the joins, never pulled or stretched as this damages the root structure. If unevenness is apparent while laying the turves, soil is added or removed. At regular intervals during laying, it is important to ensure that the underside of each turf is in firm contact with the soil. A scaffold board is laid over the surface, and walked evenly along to press down the turves.
Wherever the lawn finishes, the edges are finished neatly. In instances where the turf runs directly up to a brick wall or wooden decking, the turf is draped over the hard surface. It is patted down and carefully cut to fit with a kitchen knife. Once the excess turf is removed, the edge is pressed down on the inside. Matching the level of the edge and turf allows a mower to run over it easily, creating a clean edge. If the turf finishes at a flower bed, top soil is piled up to cover the bare edges. This prevents them drying out, curling up and dying. Once the turf has taken, a new clean edge can be cut with a turf cutter.
When laying is complete, the turf is watered thoroughly in the early morning or evening. It is kept moist for several weeks, until firmly established. Thereafter, the grass only needs watering during dry periods, with an occasional thorough soaking. Watering little and often only encourages shallow rooting.
Two weeks after laying, the turf is ready for its first cut. The mower blades are set high so as not to remove more than one quarter of the grass blade length. Thereafter, it is cut weekly, removing one third of the blade length. The direction of cut is varied, alternating straight with diagonal stripes on different occasions. This avoids ruts being created by the mower going over old ground every time. Finally, crisp, straight edges are cut using a string line and turf cutter.
Words and Photography: Nicola Stocken
The feature about creating a lawn originally appeared in the Mar / April 2016 issue of LandScape.
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