Bluebells in a New Zealand springtime

There is something wildly romantic about a proper bluebell wood. I have never forgotten being entranced by the haze of blue through woodlands near Castle Douglas in Scotland and that was more than two decades ago. Those particular bluebells and woodland trees are native to the area but this does not stop many of us trying to replicate the effect at home.

Bluebells are best suited to the meadow look, in our experience. They grow too vigorously to tuck tidily into garden borders but their charms become obvious in a less constricted, wilder setting. The whole woodland style is dependent on having deciduous trees fairly widely spaced because the bulbs need light to bloom. In this country, we tend to have a mix of deciduous and evergreen in our gardens and lean more to “bush” or even “forest” than open “woodland”. On top of that, the time at which the bluebells are in growth, coincides with the spring flush of grass so mowing becomes problematic. As with most bulbs, it is best to let them die down naturally because that leafy stage is replenishing the strength of the bulb for next season’s flowering.

We solved this problem by planting bluebells in our wilder areas that we do not mow and on the margins of plantings in the park where we used to mow the wider area regularly. That way, we had defined swathes of blue in bloom and then swathes of long foliage until they went dormant. Now that we have stopped the regular mowing, it will be interesting to see if they spread naturally to give us expansive carpets rather than swathes. They set seed so freely that we try and remove at least some of the spent flower spikes.

It took UK writer Ken Thompson to demystify bluebell differences for me. The English Hyacinthoides  non-scripta has sweetly scented, deep blue flowers on a droopy spike which means most hang to one side. Individual flowers are narrow tubes with reflexed tips. The Spanish H. hispanica is much stronger growing with an upright spike and flowers radiating all round. There is a greater range of colour from pale to dark blues and lilacs along with the pinks and whites. Individual flowers are bell-shaped and while the tips of the blooms flare out, they don’t reflex. They have little scent.

But to add to the mix, there are the natural hybrids. The English and Spanish forms cross freely and the hybrids fall somewhat in the middle with characteristics from both parents.  I had previously tried to unravel the species and headed out looking for the cream anthers that define the English one as compared to the blue anthers of the Spanish form, ending up totally confused. Of course I did. I wasn’t factoring in hybrids. If Ken Thompson is right in his interesting book ‘The Sceptical Gardener’ – and I am willing to accept that he is correct given that he is an academic plant ecologist – and the majority of bluebells growing in UK gardens now are either the Spanish version or hybrids, then it seems likely that almost all of what we see in this country will be the same.

I stopped down the road to examine some bluebell patches on the site of one of the first settler houses built in Tikorangi. If we had any proper English bluebells around here, Mark hypothesized, that seemed a likely site. No, they were either Spanish or hybrids. Ditto with the bluebells here which date back to his great grandmother’s days and have now mixed with all the others we have.  I can’t see any point in nursing ideals of species purity when it comes to bluebells in New Zealand.

A word about white or pink bluebells. While the English bluebell can occasionally throw a white mutant, given the rarity of H. non-scripta in this country, it seems likely that all colour variants we have are either Spanish or hybrids. The whites and pinks are charming mixed with the predominant blues, making a pretty scene. Isolate them out by colour on their own, and they become a novelty plant. Bluebells, by definition, should be mostly blue. A display of only pink bells would look awfully contrived for this simple flower while a mass of white bells might as well be onion weed, really. That is my opinion.

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

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Greening the Grey

At the altar of the motor car

I have nothing but admiration for the lead Britain’s Royal Horticultural Society takes on public education on matters related to plants and the natural environment. And boy oh boy, the  paving front yards to accommodate cars is a huge issue. One in three front yards is paved, they say. This is not unique to Britain. Every western city probably has a similar situation.

The alternative suggested by RHS

Does it matter? Yes. It matters in many ways. Out of pure self interest, the paving enthusiasts of this world should worry about increased flooding. The earth is like a giant sponge that absorbs and filters water. If large areas are paved, the water is then channelled to a limited number of collection points which can’t cope in times of heavy rain. No matter how much one rails at the local council’s inability to deal with flood waters, there are limits to what can be done when water is being turned into a flowing torrent rather than being absorbed into a wider flood plain. Channelling it to flowing water also stops the natural filtration that operates through earth’s own systems so all toxins and pollutants are being headed straight to waterways.

The environmental benefits of growing plants are perhaps a harder concept to sell to people who don’t see anything wrong with living in concrete jungles. But we ignore the evidence of declining insect populations and the loss of biodiversity at our peril. Our planet is hitting crisis point, fuelled by human ignorance.

Twenty six years ago, I went to Britain on a study bursary as a Commonwealth Relations scholar. Many interesting things happened on that trip. That was how I once ended up in Belfast as a guest of the Irish Information Service at a time of high tension during The Troubles. Also, the House of Lords to listen to a famous debate about the smokies from Arbroath. As part of a fortnight hosted by the Foreign Office, we had many briefings including one from a senior government official who proclaimed, “Britain leads the world in conservation.” I hope I kept my snort silent. At the time, New Zealand really was pretty clean and green and Britain could not have been a sharper contrast. I was deeply cynical. I am not now.

We have heard and seen far more discussion at the most local and personal level about environmental matters in the parts of England we have visited. There is an awareness of the importance of green space, of trees, hedgerows, ponds, wild flowers, meadows and gardening that leaves us for dead in New Zealand. We have seen little back gardens that are set up as mini nature reserves. It may all be too little too late in global terms but at a personal level, I think it is important to daily life.

It is not that the RHS are the only body leading public education in this area, but they are an influential one and all power to that.

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