A day at Wisley

An attention grabber! The Pink Pantser in the RHS Wisley glasshouse.

We like to end up our UK garden trips at Wisley, the flagship garden of the Royal Horticulture Society about an hours south from London. It gives a context to what we have seen and it is interesting to look at the evolution of some of the recent plantings and reflect on styles and designers over time. The twin Piet Oudolf borders are a personal favourite. And they are certainly standing the test of time with considerably lower input than the classic double herbaceous borders. They were not without controversy when first planted in 2000. I still recall talking to an English visitor in our garden here. I commented that we were heading over to the UK to look at contemporary planting directions and he replied disdainfully, asking if we would be planting in a herringbone design as they had at Wisley.

The Oudolf borders July 2, 2017

The Piet Oudolf borders are not in fact a herringbone design and when we got to see them, they were a delight – soft rivers of colour. Those rivers give a sense of form to a garden which has no hard landscaping. In case you are interested in the background to these borders, I quote the instigator of this planting. “I started talking to Piet about these borders in 1997 with plans agreed in 98/99 with planting using 17000 9cm plug plants in Jan.2000.The only significant change to Piet’s maintenance regime was to mulch the entire borders with 6mm quarried gravel in c.2004 to a depth of c.60mm.This was `topped  up` in 2009.”

And back at the same time of year in 2014

There is considerable restraint and knowledge in the selection of plants. It is a lot more than just picking for flower colour. Obviously, compatibility in growth habits is an issue but so too is a high level of uniformity in height, an ability to stay upright without staking, repeat flowering without the need to deadhead and a succession of blooms and foliage interest from spring through to autumn. Allied to that, there is no place for dominating thugs in this type of planting, nor for prolific seeders. I would guess a fair proportion may be sterile (in other words, not setting viable seed) which usually prolongs flowering, eliminates seeding issues and keeps the plants true to type. When we did a count on our last visit, we estimated a proportion of about 3 perennials to each grass in these borders. Each river of colour is comprised of just a few different plants. I think it was looking at the composition of several rivers that led us to the 3:1 ratio. The borders have to work equally well viewed looking up or down the slope and also close up, so the individual combinations of plants are as important as the mass effect. For those readers trying to keep echinaceas going, over time these borders have apparently shown that E. pallida is short lived while E. purpurea is longer lived. It is multiple visits that help us to understand better how these plantings are put together and managed. You can never take it all in on just one visit.

Detail of one river in the Oudolf borders

I posted earlier on the Missouri Meadow as observed over our visits.  In 2014, we saw the new South African meadow in its infancy. This is Professor James Hitchmough again, as was the Missouri Meadow but in this case, the focus is on South African plants, not North American ones.

 

South African meadow 2014

and three years on in 2017

Three years on, the dominant plant at this time of the year is the eye catching Berkheya purpurea, which Mark covets for our garden. It is a thistle. The maintenance regime on this meadow is clearly more hands-off than the Oudolf borders. It will be interesting to see it again a few years’ time. With agapanthus, kniphofia, crocosmia, nerines, geraniums, eucomis, osteospermum, gazanias and more, there is quite a mix in there including a few that would be thugs in our climate. We love these meadow plantings and find the range of meadows illuminating but our London friends (one a keen home gardener) could not relate to the whole idea of a South African meadow in this context. So that was an interesting response.

These friends had recently been to Great Dixter and expressed surprise at Christopher Lloyd’s dramatic ‘subtropical’ garden being taken out and seeing conifers going back in instead. It became a little clearer when we came across the Wisley project along similar lines. The conifers are being used as a framework for subtropical plantings. This is not a combination that would ever occur to a New Zealander but we will reserve all judgement until we see the finished product. Sometimes it is good to be surprised. Conifers are long overdue a revival and who knows? Maybe a new combination will launch a new fashion. Or maybe not.

Tom Stuart-Smith plantings were a delight

There is so much more to Wisley. The Tom Stuart-Smith plantings in front of the glasshouse really appealed to us this visit. They had seemed a little ‘blocky’ and amenity in style when young. Now the combinations and the relaxed style of mature plantings is a highlight. The trial grounds included both echinaceas and nepetas as well as coloured lettuces. The national collection of rhubarb never fails to amuse – though more the concept of it than the reality, I admit. I have posted an accompanying album of more photos to Facebook again. It starts with the succulent cake and ends with the Famous Five and the issue of whether George was a boy or a girl.

More naturalistic than wild at Wildside

Layer upon layer of plants in this complex but relaxed style of new naturalism

It was raining on the second last day of June when we visited Wildside Garden in Devon but this did not deter us. However, it did mean some of my photos have raindrops blurring out sections when I failed to check my lens. At least it was summer rain and neither cold nor windy. It was our second visit to see if the buzz we felt when we first saw it in 2014 was still there. It was. This is an exceptional garden in our eyes.

Keith and Ros Wiley had shut the garden for the past two years in order to start building their house and are still only open for very limited days but it is worth planning a trip around those days. It was interesting to see the way in which the building of the house gave a central heart to what is a private and very personal garden. But also, we knew we were looking at a situation where the owners’ energies had largely been going into the house in recent times. The garden hadn’t expanded physically into the remaining areas that had already been prepared when we visited in 2014.  It will happen at some stage, I am sure. The existing plantings had filled out and softened in the intervening time.

A plant collector is one for whom the thrill of acquisition and ownership of plants is an end in itself. A plantsperson is one who not only knows what plants are special, but also how to grow them and feature them to advantage. Sometimes a really good gardener is also a top plantsperson and they don’t come much better than Keith Wiley. He finds plants fascinating. He collects plants. He knows how to grow them well, even very difficult material. And he gardens with a huge range.

Wildside has been sculpted from a 4 acre, near flat paddock like this one next door

It is even more remarkable when you consider that Wiley started work with a near flat block of land. He has not only manipulated the contour to create a landscape of hills, hollows, banks and even the odd ravine, he has managed the depth of soil and its composition appropriate to the plants he wants to grow. From the start, his planning was to accommodate communities of plants – to create different ecosystems within the garden to enable growing a wide range of different plants.

Like an Impressionist painting

If you are not much interested in plants themselves, you can admire the scenes he composes These can be like Impressionist paintings though perhaps more Georges Seurat and pointillism than Monet. I am sure it is no coincidence that Ros Wiley is also a painter who prefers flowers and landscape as her subjects. But we are interested in the plants and plant combinations as well. Presumably Wiley has one of the most comprehensive collections of dieramas (angel’s fishing rods) around but they are used throughout and not all concentrated in one block, as “national collections” are usually displayed. We were in the wrong season for the erythroniums for which this garden is renowned but it also has extensive collections of different daphnes, cyclamen, Japanese maples, kniphofia, roscoeas, agapanthus and a host of other bulbs, perennials and smaller growing woody plants.

Dieramas or angels fishing rods in abundant quantities and many hues

There is next to no hard landscaping beyond deliberate placement of rocks and constructions of microclimates. Wiley is one of the early practitioners of the new naturalism gardening style, predicated on working in cooperative harmony with nature and creating eco-systems which are a refined version of many different, natural habitats. Do not confuse this with a wild garden which is left to its own devices. It is controlled but deceptively so, with a light hand.

We had been looking at the naturalistic prairie-style plantings around Olympic Park just a few days prior, greatly enjoying their simple charm. At Wildside, we felt that the Wileys were achieving a hugely detailed, complex and skilled variation of those Sheffield School plantings at Olympic Park, but still on the same spectrum of contemporary naturalism. It is no designer garden. It is a landscape created with sensitivity and top level plantsmanship.

It is also a garden that we will make the effort to keep returning to see. There aren’t many gardens that we have visited where both of us walk out feeling as if we have had an experience of joy. Wildside is one.

New Zealand cordylines in Devon

Raindrops keep falling on my camera lens…

If you want to see more of Wildside, I have posted the companion album to our Facebook page.

 

The sweet beet conundrum

Not parsnips. Sugar beet, albeit planted a little late so the tubers are smaller than commercially grown crops

The row of sugar beet may not be a gourmet delight. Mark likes to try different vegetables and I felt obliged to give this new crop a fair trial in the kitchen. The relatively low number of recipes on the internet was a bit of a giveaway. Along with a Canadian friend who described the crop as stock feed. Indeed a fair proportion of the recipes on line were for using the green tops, not the white root.

The first sugar beet root that he brought into the house, we tried raw and grated but it had a bit of an aftertaste. I used the rest of that one in a vegetable stock. Reaching for the internet,  the only recipe I could find that appealed was for sugar beet latkes. I am not sure if there is any fundamental difference between latkes, rosti, hash browns or plain old potato pancakes but the sugar beet version required grating and then salting. During this process, it turned greyish so that by the time I added the other ingredients, it bore a distinct visual resemblance to the New Zealand treat of whitebait. It did not, however taste of whitebait (a very small grey fish with noticeable black eyes, for overseas readers). Following the recipe, I added grated fresh ginger and a pinch of cardamom.

Looking more like the NZ fishy delicacy of whitebait – sugar beet latkes

When it came to frying the latkes, they browned much faster than the potato latkes cooked alongside. That will be the high sugar content. They tasted fine when cooked. Perhaps rather sweet for our taste, gingery with a hint of cardamom. But not good enough to convince me we should make it a dietary staple.

I might try just boiling a couple of beets in water to get a sugar syrup. But as we don’t eat stewed fruit, I can’t really think we need sugar water. The sugar beet crop may be a one-off crop.

Impressions of Parham – horticultural excellence

The white border at Parham

Parham was the only garden we went to on our recent trip without knowing anything about it in advance. As a result, while I have a fair number of photos and recollections, I lack an overview, a wider context. There is an interesting lesson for me there on future trips – we learn more if at least one of us does a bit of advance research on the destination. When we live so far away, making a second visit is unlikely so we need to short circuit the familiarisation step to have any hope of getting beneath the superficial.

The yellow border at Parham

That is why I only offer this as ‘impressions of Parham’. Just for context, it is a private house, garden and estate in Sussex that opens to the public. They say house. We New Zealanders are more likely to describe it as a mansion. Or stately home, at least. Big, historic – Elizabethan in fact. That is the sixteenth century one, not last century’s one who is still with us. We did not tour the house. I did not even think to photograph it. Nor did we look at the estate, a 16th century deer park and working farm, or test the on-site café which serves locally sourced food including from the garden. I can report that the plant centre had some of the best displays I have seen in a garden centre and good plants on offer and that the gift shop was better than many I have visited and not exorbitantly priced. I bought myself a souvenir – a pretty milk jug with Redoute’s roses on it.  I don’t even think we found the Pleasure Grounds. It was just the extensive walled gardens that we looked at. But, as you may gather, this is a multi-faceted operation which has to work hard to keep it financially viable and in private ownership.

There was a team of seven hard working gardeners though I can’t tell you if they are all full time. We met the head gardener because he did his apprenticeship under the eye of our friend who took us there. Britain still has an enviable tradition of training professional gardeners. I have seen a few gardeners at work when we have been out touring, and I can tell you that these Parham ones were hard workers and focused on tasks to hand.

From memory, they are required to provide 30 buckets of blooms to the big house a week. That is a huge amount and they must be hard pressed in winter. But the production of both food and cutting flowers was impressive – highly productive, in fact. Also done without chemical sprays.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The herbaceous borders were another modern take on classic design and techniques. The blue border was the most recent to have had a major makeover and it certainly looked glorious. I complimented the woman in blue whom I photographed strolling through the border, for her superb choice of toning colours. The yellow border was less flowery on the day but carefully composed and  easy on the eye. The shorter white border was also at peak border perfection that the Brits can do so very well. If there was a red border, I missed it entirely but I do not think there was.

Along the back wall – for this is all contained in a walled area – were the hot, vibrant colours and combinations, many of which were designed to zing.

Some of the statuary was… very white. Not necessarily to my taste. Some were more subtle than others. This was not. I am sure there will be somebody out there who can explain the significance of this figure and the inscription he is marking out with his finger.

Railway tracks of blue nepeta that many of wish we could achieve in NZ but rarely succeed

What we saw of Parham’s gardens were predominantly herbaceous or productive and sometimes both at the same time. They were not flashy or even particularly innovative, but they were very good. It is an example of high level horticultural excellence. Presumably it is tourism, both domestic and international, that enables a private estate such as Parham to maintain this level of excellence.

If you want to see more photos and get more detail, I have matched again to an album on our Facebook page.

The garden at Bury Court

Layers of Oudolf plantings in the walled garden

One of the gardens that so impressed us on our 2014 visit that we wanted to go back and have another look was Bury Court Barn near Farnham in Surrey. On this recent visit, we were honoured to be taken around by the garden owner himself, John Coke. I say honoured because while this garden is attributed to two big name designers – Piet Oudolf and Christopher Bradley-Hole – this does not accurately reflect the skills and hands-on involvement of the garden owner himself. It is very much his place.

The front garden was the first to be done and is a walled area. We have seen a number of large scale Oudolf plantings now. Bury Court is early Oudolf but, more interestingly, it is domestic and private in scale and design which makes it very different. The perennial plantings are still big, bold and bouffy but on a scale suited to this environment.  I look at the photos and I see how much thought has gone into the combinations and juxtaposition of plants but when you are surrounded by them in person, it is more an experience of being enveloped by the vibrancy.

One of the prettiest of meadows

The meadow is signature Oudolf, I realised when I spotted the Trentham grass rivers. And tactile, evocative, full of gentle movement and startlingly pretty. Again, deceptive simplicity. John Coke wryly noted that to keep it looking as it does makes it the most labour intensive area of the garden. We saw the same hands-on intensive maintenance going into Les Carrés Américains at Le Jardin Plume in Normandy. There are lower maintenance styles of meadow but they won’t look like this one.

Clearly the white wedding border by the functions hall in a converted barn

Bury Court has embraced the wedding and events market, as have many gardens. We have done the opposite and shunned weddings at least, but that is another story. I couldn’t help but notice the brilliant placement of all the event paraphernalia. They do the full shooting box – wedding ceremony, function, corporate events and all but it has been organised so that it does not dominate or dictate the nature of the entire property and the privacy of the home has been preserved by clever design, not barriers. Despite a sophisticated functions set-up, it still feels a personal and private garden.

The techniques of separation of different areas of this garden are both subtle and effective

Considering they started with quite a lot of buildings (oast houses, even!) and the area is not huge, the design skills that underpin this discreet separation are considerable but hidden. As I commented on the perfect Cotswolds garden, the thing about really-o, truly-o good design is that you don’t notice it but it underpins the entire garden environment and experience. As we sat having coffee in the front grass garden, there was a wedding taking place but it was entirely removed from us. I would have asked John Coke about this subtle separation had I thought about it at the time. It was only afterwards that it occurred to me that this was what had been achieved and that it was done by skill, not chance. My guess is that this is the result of a collaborative effort between the designer of the front garden, Piet Oudolf, and the garden owner himself.

The grass garden at Bury Court

I wanted to go back to Bury Court to have another look at the grass garden, a more recent major garden designed by Christopher Bradley-Hole. Despite my initial cynicism (how could a garden comprised almost entirely of grasses be remotely interesting?), I found it nothing short of inspirational when we first saw it in 2014. In the intervening three years, it appears that the flowering perennial count has dropped We worked it out to be about one perennial to eight grasses on that earlier visit but that seems unlikely now that the grasses have matured.

A bold Japanese-inspired summer house and reflecting pool

This grass garden is signature Bradley-Hole, I am told – sharp-edged, geometric design filled with gentle movement and informal plantings. On a second visit, I noticed the level of unobtrusive detail that underpins this garden – how the slight change of ground levels is handled, the definition and the materials used to strengthen the sharp lines of the design, the proportions of the summer house, the pond and the total space. Again, highly skilled design can be so subtle that you are barely aware of it yet it provides the foundation for everything else.

Now I want to see this garden in the autumn when the grasses are all shades of tawny gold and brown.

Again, I have too many photos of this particularly good garden to use in this post so have added an additional album to our Facebook garden page.

Garden owner and creator, John Coke

Postcards of Devon

The hunt dogs! Or hounds, I have just been informed (see reader comments below). Indubitably hounds. Out for a morning run on a Devon lane with their keepers on bicycles. Beautiful hounds, so very well trained and an interesting scene but still incomprehensible to me. English garden media personality and writer of steamy romantic novels, Alan Titchmarsh, may defend foxhunting on the grounds that it is, apparently, a traditional part of country life – country life, that is, as experienced by the toffs who cry ‘tally-ho’, not so much a traditional pursuit for the peasantry. But tradition alone is not a justification for anything, really.

It was interesting to be told elsewhere that the keeper of another pack of hounds had recently resigned because, he told my informant, he was worried by how often he was expected to break the law. Apparently, foxhunting may just have become more covert and is sometimes justified on the grounds of an upsurge in the population of foxes. Hmmm. The failure to institute other, more humane strategies of population control is a dubious justification for a savage method of hunting a terrified animal to the point of utter exhaustion and then letting it be torn apart, all for the pleasure of privileged humans who regard it as “sport”.

Lovely dogs, though.

The Devon roads can be notoriously narrow, though they are by no means alone in that. These roads can carry more traffic than the upgraded, single carriageway that passes by our place at home but there does not appear to be an uproar with loud demands that they be widened, straightened and allegedly made ‘safer’ for cars and trucks. It means drivers must be fully alert, dropping speed to meet the conditions, courteous and capable of backing up to the passing bays that are dotted along these roads. It is a very different ethos to the aggressive driving on New Zealand roads. If we were more defensive, tolerant and patient drivers, maybe our corner of the world would be a better place?

We went to south Devon to have another look at one of our all time favourite gardens – Wildside. More on this garden in a future post, but it is on the edges of Dartmoor. It rained on our day there, though fortunately it was not cold. There is a certain evocative gloom to the open moorland on a grey day with low light levels. Because I have always done my reading from across the world in New Zealand, the geographic location of different moors is hazy at best (though I think I have the heaths and heathers of Scottish moorland separated in my mind). I kept thinking of the likes of Daphne du Maurier but I see she set ‘Jamaica Inn’ on Bodmin Moor which is the next one down and Dartmoor belongs to ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’. But one can imagine this landscape with the bleak winds of winter blowing across it and it certainly has its own identity, including the roaming stock and lack of fencing.

While in the area, we headed over to see the RHS garden, Rosemoor. The original garden and accompanying land was gifted to the RHS by Lady Anne Berry, now a long-time resident of Gisborne. Lady Anne had been particularly kind to us in our earlier years so we were pleased to finally get to see Rosemoor. While the traditional rose garden left me unmoved, the rose and clematis combinations in the adjacent garden enclosure were a delight.

I make Mark pose for vanity photos beside what we call ‘Jury Plants’ as we come across them around the world. Part gentle boasting, part family record. In this case it is Phormium ‘Yellow Wave’, bred by his father Felix and one of the first generation of variegated flaxes for home gardens. He never received a cent for it (or a penny, as it would have been back then) and is rarely credited with it. It is not easy to keep good foliage on phormiums in New Zealand so Felix moved on to astelias and then clumping cordylines in his attempts to get an extended colour range into plants with this habit of growth and foliage. Eventually, this led to our Cordyline ‘Red Fountain’ but Phormium ‘Yellow Wave’ continues to hold some ground internationally.

Still at Rosemoor, the herbaceous plantings are terrific. If you are looking for a middle road between the traditional herbaceous border and the grassy new wave look of Oudolf, Stuart-Smith and New Perennials proponents, you probably end up with something closer to these Rosemoor beds and borders. Lots of vibrant colour and care with combinations, often quite tight colour toning but also lighter on plant options that need continual maintenance to keep them flowering and looking good. However, these are herbaceous plantings for large, public spaces, not so much for downscaling to the home garden. You can see more in the album on our Facebook page if you are interested.

The colour purple. Magnolia Lanarth

Lanarth in all its purple glory

Ah, the colour purple. I have yet to see a purple magnolia that eclipses the glorious sight of ‘Lanarth’ in full bloom. That is Magnolia campbellii var. mollicomata ‘Lanarth’ to be precise, not to be confused with the pink and white Magnolia campbellii var campbellii about which I wrote last month. Same species but different variants.

‘Lanarth’ is another example of a variety that belongs in every magnolia collection but, as a single specimen for the home gardener, it is not without its issues. Even if you can find one for sale – and it is not easy to propagate and get growing strongly – it is not what is known as a reliable, commercial plant. Its biggest problem is that it only sets flower buds on its branch tips. This means that all of them come out at once, giving a spectacular but brief show and a bad bout of spring weather can cut that display overnight. Modern hybrids are often selected for the plant’s ability to set flower buds down the stems so they come out in sequence over a longer time. We are happy to enjoy this species in its glory and I have a particular affection for what I call petal carpets. ‘Lanarth’ creates a wonderful carpet down by our largest pond.

Besides, this particular magnolia has a special place in our own family history. Mark’s father Felix imported what was meant to be ‘Lanarth’ in the early 1950s when first planting out the park area  here. It took some years to get large enough to flower and when it did, it was clearly something else. Enquiries from the nursery source, Hilliers in the UK, established that what he had was most likely a cross with M. sargentiana var robusta. They sent a replacement, grafted this time to ensure that it was correct and that is the plant we have growing as a splendid specimen. Felix named the earlier seedling for his youngest son and Magnolia ‘Mark Jury’ went on to be the not-so-secret Jury weapon in breeding a whole new range of magnolias. It is the father of ‘Athene’, ‘Atlas’, ‘Iolanthe’, ‘Lotus’, ‘Milky Way’ and ‘Serene’ and is also influential in the following generations of ‘Felix Jury’, ‘Black Tulip’ and ‘Honey Tulip’.

The true ‘Lanarth’ finally flowered here in the 1960s and it became the key to Felix’s best known success – the colour breakthrough from purple into red tones, first seen in Magnolia ‘Vulcan’. The rest, as they say, is history and New Zealand is now recognised internationally as the home of the best red hybrids. These days with the downstream breeding, the purple tones of ‘Lanarth’ are being eliminated in favour of purer red shades. Now it is the case that there are several  good red magnolias on the market, but no large, purple-flowered, garden-friendly improvement on the original ‘Lanarth’ that we have seen. It has been attempted. We just haven’t seen one yet that we think is as good as, let alone better than the original.

Looking up into the sky, the petals can take on the look of stained glass

‘Lanarth’ originates from a seed, one of only three that germinated from those collected by plant hunter George Forrest in southern Yunnan, China, near the border with Burma in 1924. There were other collections of Magnolia campbellii var. mollicomata around that time but most flowered pale. Being raised from seed, there was the typical seedling variation that one expects from these early specimens and ‘Lanarth’ was the stand-out plant, particularly in flower colour. In order to maintain the desirable characteristics of ‘Lanarth’, it is necessary to propagate subsequent plants vegetatively (not just to raise seed) – which means layering, budding or grafting because it is does not generally strike from cutting. So every magnolia named ‘Lanarth’ should be a genetic carbon copy of that first plant that was raised in the garden of the same name in Cornwall. Raised from seed, there is no guarantee that it will be the same as ‘Lanarth’ and it then goes back to its species name of M. campbellii var mollicomata.

There is always something to learn and we had not realised that Magnolia ‘Charles Raffill’ is a cross between the two different species of campbellii – that is var. campbellii and var mollicomata (though a paler form) so it is still technically a species, not a hybrid. If that is as clear as mud, then just accept the glory of purple ‘Lanarth’ for what it is.

The pollen of Lanarth is in the genes of the red Jury magnolias

It was Lanarth that enabled the colour breakthrough to the reds – in this case Vulcan looking at its very best

Magnolis ‘Mark Jury’ is thought to be half ‘Lanarth’ in its genes and has been a brilliant breeder parent.

First published in the August issue of New Zealand Gardener and reprinted here with their permission.

Lanarth by our big pond