Thursday, 31 December 2015

Jam tomorrow

New Year’s Eve, an hour or two till sunrise, the wind still howling around the house as it has for hours. It’s been a wakeful night, partly due to the wind, and partly due to us having forgotten to turn the central heating down, causing me to wake in the small hours feeling like a dehydrated prune.

I’ve used the restless hours to finish reading Roger Deakin’s Wildwood – it’s taken me an absurdly long time to get through it, savouring every page, and drifting into long daydreams of woods and trees and hedgerows, of exotic locations with towering walnuts and their heady, befuddling aroma, of wild apples in the East, and bush plums in the Australian outback, of generous, open-hearted people and comfortable old friends, and of time spent among trees, in solitude, but never alone. And throughout it all a prodigious knowledge of and respect for the skills and craftsmanship honed over centuries, and an implicit though rarely expressed concern that we might be on the cusp of throwing it all away.

And now the book is finished, I’m left with that sense of loss familiar to anyone who’s allowed themself to be immersed into a world between the covers. The best medicine for which is another book – five minutes later and two more are on their way, Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks and a secondhand hardback copy of Deakin’s Notes from Walnut Tree Farm, my delight at the convenience of Amazon tempered by a nagging thought that I’m overdue a penitential visit to my local indy bookstore.

“I’m sure I’ll take you with pleasure!” the Queen said. “Twopence a week, and jam every other day.”
Alice couldn’t help laughing, as she said, “I don’t want you to hire ME - and I don’t care for jam.’
“It’s very good jam,” said the Queen.
“Well, I don’t want any TO-DAY, at any rate.”
“You couldn’t have it if you DID want it,” the Queen said. “The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday - but never jam to-day.”
“It MUST come sometimes to ‘jam to-day,’” Alice objected.
“No, it can’t,” said the Queen. “It’s jam every OTHER day: to-day isn’t any OTHER day, you know.”
“I don’t understand you,” said Alice.
Through the Looking Glass & What Alice Found There, Lewis Carroll

Kettle. Tea. Still dark outside, and raining now, the first train trundling up to London, the sound carrying across the fields in the damp air. Everything’s louder when it rains. And now the birds are getting going – far too many birds, surely, for winter, reminding me that it’s not just gardeners who are still waiting for the cold weather to arrive. The prospect of a new year frost is held out like the promise of jam tomorrow. but in this crazy El Nino winter that has brought serious flooding to the north of the country (exacerbated, it has to be said, by the shortsighted land use policies of recent governments at both local and national levels), it’s hard to imagine that we’ll see anything other than a barely noticeable transition into a mild and wet spring. That said, the first week of January looks to be a chillier prospect than anything December had for us, though not quite sufficient to put a check either on the plants making an early appearance, or the persistence of garden pests and diseases, storing up trouble for the season to come. A friend tweeted a picture of a small aphid infestation in her garden a couple of days ago, and I don’t recall ever before having to swat away mosquitos on Christmas day.

Today, though, we’re promised clear skies and sunshine in Kent – a pleasant way to see out the year in the garden. Winter tomorrow.

The hellebores have been out for weeks

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Burn, baby, burn

There’s a cheer with a real fire that the civilising influence of several millennia can do nothing to dampen. It’s a primeval comforter, our response to it being hard-wired into us at some point on the evolutionary journey. The alluring blue light of smartphone or tablet might flirt with our attention and distract us from more constructive pursuits, but it can’t hold a candle to an open flame, lacking not only the warmth, but also somehow the substance.

I’ll often sit down of an evening and watch the play of the flames in the stove; it’s a decidedly superior way in which to while away the time, especially when compared to watching the telly, and the stories that unfold in the heart of the fire are more compelling by far. But this winter having been such a disappointment so far – so mild, and dreary – we’ve hardly had cause to light a fire at all, which is beyond miserable. Our one consolation for the awful darkness at the death of the year is the bright fire in our hearths; it’s a pitiful season that not only robs us of the daylight, but contrives to be too warm to make the lighting of a fire a daily event.

How glad is the gardener of a good blaze, though! Tediously mild or bitingly cold, there’s always plenty of material unfit for compost heap or shredder, and too unwieldy for the council’s green waste collection, that will amply acquit itself as fuel for a heartening burn to drive the dull drab grey away. I’m no cub scout and, much as I’m sure it would offend Messers Grylls and Mears, resort to firelighters and matches to get a bonfire going. But never, in the manner of one venerable assistant head gardener of my acquaintance, to diesel, poured liberally from an old red can. He was a fabulous character, a lovely man and an absolute walking encyclopaedia of gardening knowledge and experience, so it always came as a surprise to me when he reached for the accelerant, rather than beginning the process by the rubbing together of a couple of sticks. At least it wasn’t petrol. People who habitually start fires with petrol tend not to last very long.

Well contained
There are those who might look askance at my advocacy of the garden bonfire, pointing to the aggregate effects upon global warming of a nation of gardeners burning their winter waste. And they might have a point, if all of us did it every week. But I fail to see how the occasional, well tended and considerately managed fire could cause a problem. Besides which, I’ll only take lectures on the topic from those who have forsworn both meat and air travel*. I’m not sure how many bonfires I’ll get to a year’s worth of cattle farts and return flights to Lanzarote, but I’m willing to bet it’s a fair few.

Today has been damp, but tomorrow looks fine and I’ve high hopes of finding sufficient dry tinder and kindling to get a fire going. There’s always plenty of birch brash in my Wednesday garden, and that needs little encouragement to burn. All that remains is to pack matches, firelighters and hayfork, and pray the rain holds off overnight.

Can’t help seeing faces in things. A warm smile on the incinerator here.

*You’ll probably still get short shrift. But maybe a toasted marshmallow if you’re lucky.

Monday, 30 November 2015

’tis the season

There’s ‘a time for everything’, the good book tells us; chapter and verse with which gardeners are only too well acquainted. Advent is upon us, the shortest, darkest days approach and, the list of gardening activities one can achieve by torchlight being disappointingly short, we are at pains to follow the seasonal exhortations, making we joy, and generally being of good cheer, with a determination that is something to behold.

The last week in November provides an ideal opportunity for such merriment, as several hundred garden broadcasters and writers descend upon the Savoy Hotel for the annual Garden Media Guild Awards. I snuck in for the second year running and, also for the second year running, was delighted to be shortlisted as a finalist in the Blog of the Year category. It’s a tangible affirmation not only of the work I’ve put into the blog over the past year, but also the enthusiasm and engagement of the community that’s grown up around the weekly posts. But while I’m both tremendously grateful and immensely proud of all of this, it didn’t make me blush half so much as receiving several generously and unexpected endorsements from gardening twitter friends (you know who you are) both before and after the awards were announced. A season to be jolly, indeed.

And, as winter follows autumn, itself turning into spring when the moment is right, it seems timely to confess that for a while now I’ve had a feeling that the blog in its current form is nearing the end of a season, and entering a period of transition. The hibernation period must necessarily be brief, but I expect this online collection of my garden witterings to emerge as a thing transformed, albeit with roots very much in the current iteration. I have in mind something slightly more than a refresh with, in time, some new features, tweaks to the structure, and a more open, airy feel about the place. At least, that’s the intention, with a view to launching early in the new year – a daunting, but exciting prospect.

In the meantime, I plan to keep these pages running, but do please excuse me if I should appear to be a little slower than usual to respond while I’m tinkering with things under the bonnet – a vehicular metaphor – time to give the blog a good winter service. ’tis the season for it, after all. fa la la la laa, la la la laaaa.

Posh suit and shoes for hobnobbing on Thursday...

....back down to earth on Friday.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Taking steps

Autumn, windy and mild, with no sign of a frost. The leaves, like embers in slow motion, glow brightly as they fall, fast fading to dull ash grey and brown. Much of the garden’s energy retreats below ground at this time of year and, with a good proportion of the season’s growth now lying either upon the compost heap or the bonfire, access into the borders becomes considerably more straightforward. Conversely, passage through the garden becomes increasingly difficult. The winding grass path, charmingly informal throughout spring and summer, has by mid November become a muddy cart track, rutted and slippery, making each trip through the garden a messy and potentially hazardous affair.

O, for a red brick path! Solid under foot, and easy on the eye. Throughout my various excavations in the garden, I’ve managed to unearth a small pile of imperial red bricks in fair condition, but nowhere near the quantity I’d need for the path. I keep a beady eye out for the small ads, and auctions of reclaimed bricks on eBay, but somehow, something more pressing and grown up always seems to require paying for – a new boiler, or a replacement cross-member for the chassis on the venerable land rover. Even – dare I say it – plants. And in the meanwhile, sure as eggs is eggs, the path turns to mush.

This winter, I’m taking steps to avoid the quagmire. A roll of grass reinforcement mesh – the kind of stuff you find lurking just beneath the sward of the overflow car park at a country fair – which I unrolled and immediately split down the middle with the aid of a pair of tin snips.

Snip. Figured I only needed a 50mm strip down the centre of the path
A hideously cheerful, bright glossy green – quite revolting – but thankfully grass has already begun to grow up through the holes, and is doing a fair job of obscuring the playground-bright colour. With at least another three months of potential sogginess before us, it’s early to form a definitive opinion but, so far, I am impressed by the difference it’s made. No substitute for my lovely brick path. But, while I’m pining for that, at least I can get to the end of the garden and back.

Not pretty, but already disappearing

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Hairy bittercress

Some plants are just hard to love.

The admission causes me a degree of discomfort, having on numerous occasions made my admiration for weeds a matter of record, but even I find it hard to wax lyrical about hairy bittercress.

“Hairy bastard cress, more like”, a gardening friend of mine once quipped. It’s hard not to sympathise. Whilst the leaves of Cardamine hirsuta – a plant in the brassica family, closely related to mustard and also to garden cress Lepidium sativum – might possess a certain peppery, cress-like taste, it’s difficult to know what it’s good for. You would be bonkers to go out of your way to deliberately grow a crop, not least because surely every plant container in Christendom is sure to become home to at least one or two specimens in any given year.

It’s a nuisance in the nursery – perhaps not to the same degree as the liverworts which blanket the surface of the growing medium, but nonetheless a pretty ubiquitous presence, stealing nutrients and acting as a host for numerous glasshouse pests.

It’s also something of a gremlin in the garden, and you need be in no doubt that you will have hairy bittercress in your garden. Possibly also its cousin, wavy bittercress (Cardamine flexuosa) – very similar in appearance, though the small white flowers have six stamens to the four of its nominally more hirsute relative (the hairs on the leaf margins and axils aren’t particularly noteworthy, in spite of the name). As long as extremes are avoided, bittercress can’t bring itself to be discerning over the pH of the soil, seeming just as at home in acid, neutral or alkaline conditions, and will grow in shade, part shade or sun, in either moist or dry conditions. A hardy annual (C. flexuosa sometimes persisting as a short-lived perennial) it behaves as an ephemeral weed, producing several generations in one growing season, and each plant can produce up to 5,000 seeds.

Not wavy, but downy. Four stamens, so Cardamine hirsuta
Garden designer Chelsea Uribe (@CUgardendesign) pithily summed up generally held opinions on the plant. “That sodding little ruderal. I wish it every ill.” A coloniser of recently disturbed ground, it’s readily identifiable from its rosettes of bright green pinnate foliage with almost circular leaflets at the base, becoming more elongated higher up the plant. Weeding it out isn’t a particularly satisfying experience – although not deep rooted, it’s quite fiddly to handle when it first emerges, and so you might be tempted to allow a clump to grow to a more convenient size for hand-pulling. In which case, you’d best ensure this forward-dated task doesn’t slip your mind, due to the speed at which it will flower and seed.

Common names include lambs cress, spring cress, hoary bittercress, wood cress and flickweed. This last name is particularly descriptive of the manner in which the plant goes about dispersing seed, a trick which anyone who has carelessly reached for a plant which has gone to seed will be only too able to describe. The characteristic long, thin seed pods (known as a siliqua), common to many members of the brassica family, split open when dry, ejecting their contents with some force and scattering seed over a distance of up to six feet, unless prevented from doing so by some intervening object. Such as the face of a surprised gardener.

The ripening seed pods, or silique, ‘overtopping’ the flowers
In Old English herb-lore, bittercress is known as Stune, and included as one ingredient in the Nine Herbs Charm recommended as a cure for poisoning and infection. Given the generally poor state of health and hygiene we can assume in Dark Age Britain, this suggests that each of the nine herbs would have been in constant demand. I have my suspicions regarding the efficacy of bittercress a medicinal plant, but, by including it on the list of ingredients, our ancestors had clearly devised a way to guarantee a sustained and wide-ranging harvest of the stuff. They probably didn’t like it any more than we do

Let me know what your thoughts are on hairy bittercress, either on Twitter, or by leaving a comment below.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

A walk in the woods

A beautiful, dry and sunny autumn afternoon for a walk in West Wood. The leaves are beginning to fall, but still there are more on the trees than the ground.

Hawthorn, field maple, sycamore, sweet chestnut and hazel – each turns its own rich shade of yellow gold before releasing its leaves. We wandered along gilded corridors between stands of coppice understory, shafts of bright sunlight piercing the ceiling and spotlighting individual works of art – here a patch of moss on the trunk of tree, there a single leaf picked out on the muddy forest floor.

A gallery of sylvan wonders. Dogs welcome.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Great Comp Autumn Extravaganza

Sunday saw me driving the few short miles to the gardens of Great Comp for the aptly named Autumn Extravaganza. Having been at Great Dixter the weekend before, October is shaping up to be a month of great gardens and gardening events, and we’re not even half way through.

I arrived in bright sunshine to find the borders in their full late-summer glory, grasses and perennials having filled out and drawn themselves up to their full stature, and giving every impression of returning the admiring glances of the visitors with something approaching condescension, arising from a pride in the knowledge that this, of all moments in the year, is the moment in which they look their absolute best. I think we can allow the contents of the borders their lofty attitude; they look very fine indeed.

On to the plants. A goodly selection of specialist nurseries, although I had the impression that there were fewer than at the Spring Fling. Sufficient in number to provide temptation to a gardener with a roving eye, however.

I was half hoping to track down my unicorn, a plant that I’ve been after all year since one of my clients saw it in the prairie gardens at Wisley. I’d seen a few diminutive pots of the Arkansas bluestar, Amsonia hubrichtii, at Dixter last weekend but, having left my wallet at home, I was saved from having to buy the things – something of which I was quite glad, not having been entirely confident of my ability to see the tiddlers through the winter. Amsonia seems to be growing in popularity – a mainly North American relative of the periwinkle, although not sharing the vinca’s slovenly posture it bears its light blue, star-shaped flowers in early summer on upright stems. It hasn’t been hard to get hold of Amsonia tabernaemontana, and I spied A. ciliata on the stand of Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants at Chelsea earlier in the year (Rob and Rosy stock several species, I’ve subsequently found).

But Hubricht’s bluestar has much thinner, needle-like leaves, and in autumn, it does this...

Amsonia hubrichtii in full autumn colour the impression of the original Old Testament burning bush. I’ve learned from badgering various people that it does take a good while to bulk up, and had resigned myself to having to wait till next year. So you can imagine my joy to find that Paul Barney of Edulis, had brought several decent sized specimens with him. Those were coming home with me.

Today’s offerings, as you might expect from a plant fair in October, were distinctly shrubby, with the odd climber or tree thrown in for good measure. You might think this would be boring but, in that opinion, you’d be wrong.

I’m always a bit of a sucker for an attractive ilex, and the prickly pineapple holly, Ilex aquifolium 'Myrtifolia' bears perfectly formed, glossy green leaves about an 3cm long by 1cm wide, bristling with spines. It’s a neat, compact specimen, with the young shoots exhibiting a slight purplish tinge.

Ilex aquifolium 'Myrtifolia'
This next plant might quicken the pulse of even the most hardened hater of the ubiquitous evergreen euonymus. Euonymus fortunei 'Wolong Ghost' can be used as a mat-forming ground cover, or trained as a climber. It has thin, deep green glossy leaaves, with a prominent white mid-rib and veins, together with the usual pink spindleberry winged fruit.

Euonymus fortunei 'Wolong Ghost'
Now, writing about what I saw at the weekend, I wish I’d bought them all! But one plant that did come home with me is a variety of something very familiar, in the guise of something completely alien. If I hadn’t read the label, I’d never for a moment have believed this to be a cultivar of the wonderfully scented Confederate jasmine. This is Trachelospermum jasminoides 'Water Wheel', its deep blue-green leaves now having taken on the autumnal purple tint, although the silvery midrib still evident. The flowers are present in summer, although small.

Trachelospermum jasminoides 'Waterwheel'
Continuing the oddly narrow leaved theme of the day, this version of the alder buckthorn was new to me. Frangula alnus 'Fine Line', a deciduous shrub of columnar habit, not quite yet in its autumn shades.

Frangula alnus 'Fine Line'
And who can resist the wonderful autumn colour and rounded lobes of the rootbeer tree, Sassafras albidum? Not I.

Sassafras albidum. Used to flavour rootbeer
As I made my way towards the exit, clutching my small haul of plants, I became aware of a delicious smell, some baked fruit pudding, covered with caramelised sugar and just beginning to catch and burn at the edges. I spend t a few moments scouting the area for the culprit, and soon joined a group of people shuffling about in the fallen leaves beneath a katsura tree, Cercidiphyllum japonicum.

What’s that smell? Probably Cercidiphyllum japonicum

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Container Gardening with
Harriet Rycroft, week 4


The final week of the container gardening course with My Garden School. ‘Summer Luxuriance’, it’s entitled, and brimful of information to help you take full advantage of the long days and warm temperatures. Containers should be bursting with fabulous foliage and jewel-bright punches of floral colour from June well into September and beyond, and Harriet guided us through with advice on plant selection, what to grow in sun and shade, as well as some useful tips and tricks, such as growing climbers in pots, and using them to weave in and out of the display.

Irrigation is of course of prime importance during the hottest months, and watering methods were covered, along with other maintenance tasks such as feeding and deadheading.

Once again I was thrown something of a curve-ball by the assignment, in which we were asked to base a container display around our favourite colour. I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t have a favourite colour, tending to base my planting ideas around either harmonious or contrasting colour combinations, rather than monochromatic schemes, which can seem a little flat. So, I have favourite colour combinations to which I return time and again – greys and pinks, greys and yellow, lime green and deep red tones, to name but a few. If there’s one colour to which I’m drawn, it would those tones variously described as black, or burgundy, or deep red-purple – as with the foliage of Cotinus coggygria 'Royal Purple', or Actaea simplex 'Brunette', for example – and so I took this as my starting point.

The brief involved suggesting three plants, each of a different habits (tall, bushy and spreading or trailing) that feature the chosen colour in either foliage or flowers. After some head scratching, the following scribble emerged.

My tall plant is the switchgrass Panicum virgatum, which grows to 1.2 metres, although younger plants in a container are less likely to achieve the full height. The glaucous grey leaves will give some relief to the otherwise monochrome scheme, with deep, metallic red flower heads in August.

Panicum virgatum 'Warrior'
The middle layer is the purple leaved Sedum 'Matrona', with its dense clusters of pink-white flowers.

Sedum 'Matrona'. Image © Crocus
The spreading plant is one of my favourite hardy cranesbills, the pale pink flowered Geranium 'Dusky Crug', again with deep, maroon foliage.

Geranium 'Dusky Crug'
Relatively low maintenance, with minimal deadheading required, all three choices will prefer a free-draining compost, none being voraciously hungry (the sedum in particular has a tendency to become floppy with too rich a medium); neither watering nor feeding need be too onerous a task – depending on conditions, you could water when the compost begins to feel dry (perhaps once a week) and feed once a month.

I’m fond of this combination, but aware that it’s not perhaps quite in the spirit of the brief, reaching its peak in August and September – a pot for late summer and early autumn. If I’m to bring the season of interest forward into early summer, I could stretch the colour theme a little, to embrace deep red stems and foliage and/or crimson flowers. Then we could try a combination built around Lobelia cardinalis 'Queen Victoria', with Heuchera 'Autumn Leaves' occupying the middle layer, above the trailing deep green foliage and of Pelargonium 'Mexican Beauty' this would work well in partial shade, and although the lobelia would be the last to come into flower (August again), there would be plenty of interest throughout the period with the deep maroon of the stems, over the vibrant shades of the heuchera foliage (softened slightly by the white flowers from June) and the longer flowering period of the ivy-leaved pelargonium.

Lobelia cardinalis 'Queen Victoria'. Image © Crocus
Heuchera 'Autumn Leaves'. Image © Crocus
Pelargonium 'Mexican Beauty'. Image ©Fibrex Nurseries
The pelargonium would need to be included in my regular picking-over regime in order to keep it in flower, and a weekly high potash feed would help. Watering needs to take into account that the loblia favours damper conditions than the pelargonium, while the heuchera isn’t too bothered. Which sounds like a faff, but a can minus the rose, or the similar setting on a decent hose attachment, would make it perfectly possible to direct the majority of the water towards the centre of the pot. A good dousing, every other day, unless exceedingly warm or windy.

My imaginary courtyard pot display is now looking rather flamenco-inspired, with this container situated in a slightly sunnier spot than the partially shaded area enjoyed by the panicum-sedum-geranium combo, along with pots full of Dahlia 'Bishop of Llandaff', Cosmos atrosanguineus, Aeonium 'Schwartzkopf' and Ricinus communis 'Carmencita'. With plenty of green in between, and a large jug of sangria.

With thanks to Crocus and Fibrex Nurseries for the use of images.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Details at Great Dixter, and
Planty Fare

Would you mind terribly if I were to bore you with a load of photographs of Great Dixter? I thought you probably wouldn’t. It’s just that I can never walk around the gardens there without snapping away hundreds of exposures, torn between attempting to record the perfect, wistfully romantic garden image, recording new (to me) plants and planting combinations, and a desire to put the camera away and just be still. There is so much to learn from every visit here, but while some teaching gardens (Wisley, for example) manage to do this with an engaging but ultimately didactic approach, here it’s a totally immersive experience.

I visited yesterday ostensibly for the autumn Plant Fair, another fantastic event which sees the gathering together of some fine specialist nurseries from the UK and beyond, with a programme of regular talks from the nursery-folk throughout the weekend and, of course, rather good food. On arriving I was pleased to see a friendly face, although Rosemary on the Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants stand was in mid flow, drawing the attention of a crowd to the benefits of some of her stock. First up was what I would until recently have called Aster turbinellus, my parents would still call a Michaelmas daisy, and Rosy was at pains to point out has been reclassified as Symphyotrichum turbinellum (why use two syllables when you can use five?). Growing to four feet tall, it has a lovely open habit, is fairly mildew resistant, and, as I can testify having planted several in a garden besieged by the rotten creatures, will hold its own against rabbits (although they will have a good go at it).

Rosy Hardy explaining the joys of botanical reclassification
Symphotrichum turbinellum from Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants
Next up from Rosy was the beautiful red foliage shrub Physocarpus opulifolius 'Lady in Red'. Bearing sprays of white to pink flowers like the better known P. 'Diablo', it has a more compact habit than typical for a ninebark, which can get a little unruly when established.

Physocarpus opulifolius 'Lady in Red' from Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants
Other familiar names were in evidence. As ever, the selection from Binny's Plants was looking very tempting.

The Binny’s Plants stand at Great Dixter
By the time I’d finished nosing through the selection from Derry Watkins at Special Plants, I was beginning to regret my cunning plan of leaving my wallet at home to prevent me from yet another spending spree.

Derry Watkins of Special Plants, chatting to a fine beard
The Great Dixter Nursery stand, about 50 yards from the actual nursery
I lingered quite some while, effectively window shopping, but inevitably found it was useless to resist the call of the garden, trudging back up the hill and entering through the meadow, full now of autumn crocuses. As ever, the first thing that strikes you on walking down this path is the porch of the house, with containers arranged around the doorway.

The porch displays are always changing. Worth the visit alone.
Plenty for me to analyse here from my photographs over the next few days, but this time of year provides a perfect time to admire the blue-grey Eastern thorn tree on the right hand side, Crataegus orientalis, with its large, round amber haws. A perfect colour combination.

A different kind of hawthorn. Crataegus orientalis
I spied pelargoniums in the grouping of pots to the right of the porch, including one of my favourite species, Pelargonium sidoides with its glaucous kidney-shaped leaves and deep maroon flowers (bottom right). These tender plants will be protected for a while from the cooler temperatures, nestled into the display and out of the immediate chill, although they'll have to be brought into the greenhouse in a week or so. I was also pleased to see the glamorous Persicaria 'Purple Fantasy' that I’d first noticed on the Binny's stand at Wisley last month.

Pelargonium sidoides on the far right, Persicaria 'Purple Fantasy' two points to the left
A visit to Dixter’s gardens can be tricky for me to pace, not least because my favourite sections are right at the start – the meadow, the porch, and the peacock garden, with all their wealth of detail, so that before I'm half way through, I'm both delighted and mentally overstimulated. On my next visit, I might make my way through the garden in the opposite direction. Yesterday, however, I turned left at the house, and headed for the peacock garden.

Entering the Peacock Garden
I do like a detail. The more intricate, and the least fussy – if that's not a contradiction in terms – the better. It could be a small section of wall, with ferns and mosses clinging to the stones, crowned with the vibrant red berries of a self-sown cotoneaster which has been given leave to remain. It might be the pleasing combination of textures framed in my viewfinder – the planes of tightly clipped yew, the russet coloured house, and the feathered silver-gold plumes of miscanthus. In each little vignette, I look for the essence of the garden – that delicately balanced counterpoint between irrepressible force of nature, allowing itself for a while to subdued by the hand of the gardener. You don’t need to be in possession of a peculiar sensitivity to see that at work here.

In the High Garden, I had a moment of affirmation. I've been mildly berating myself for undertaking a slightly bonkers brief early in the new year, to transform an old vegetable garden into a prairie-style planting, but incorporating the fruit trees and soft-fruit. Standing here, however, I felt justified and, knowing this space so well, I’m fairly certain that it must have been there all along, deep in my subconscious, preventing me from trying to talk my clients out of the idea.

Fruit trees, grasses and prairie style perennials
Mine has a little way to go in comparison. But at least I can be confident in my reference point.

Climbing down the steps through the hedge into the orchard garden. What a treat.

Descending again to the long border, and another lesson for me with this openly pruned golden lonicera, echoing the form of the miscanthus in the background. Where I might feel pressure to clip this tight, how much more charming to allow it the space to breathe and assume an open shape. Artfully done, though, L. nitida being notoriously unruly when allowed free reign.

More lessons. I will use a golden spiraea as a blob in a border, but I hadn't thought to allow the form to flow and merge with an erysimum, let alone drape it around with nasturtiums.

Finally, for this trip, an encounter with a rather revolting variegated phlox, which nonetheless proved to be just the thing needed. Now, I can’t say with any certitude that the variegated phlox is a thing which should by law be allowed at all – I have my suspicions that quite the contrary should be the case. But on the long border, it somehow managed to ease a transition from predominantly warm colours to a patch of much cooler, greys, blues and pinks, which might otherwise have seemed to jar. Food for thought – I'm still not entirely sure what I think about the plant, or even about this patch in the border from which the colour appears to have bled, but that is one of the wonderful things about the way Fergus and his team are continually experimenting here, reviewing every element and assessing the role it plays within the whole.

Add caption
I didn’t get round the whole garden, for reasons already mentioned. But I think I have time to visit over the next few weeks, before it closes on the 25th of the month.