If I had to sum up the business ethic in Thanet, I would describe it as entrepreneurial. Everywhere one looks someone is opening a cool new shop or niche restaurant, starting a micro brewery or launching an innovative new service. It’s one of the advantages of living in an area that’s still relatively affordable: things can succeed financially that might falter elsewhere. However, it’s not plain sailing. Consumers are not spending in the same ways they did five years ago, the local demographic is mixed and we exist on the very edge of England, closer to Ostend in Belgium than we are to London, as the crow flies. To succeed in Thanet you need vision, guts and determination by the bucket load.
Since its inception the Margate Mercury has thrown the spotlight on the talented folk who have contributed to our sister town’s 21st Century resurgence. This summer the team behind that magazine has turned its attention to Broadstairs, issuing the first ever edition of the Broadstairs Beacon just a couple of weeks ago. Through the magazine’s newspaper-style pages you’ll meet Justin and Annita, a couple who have turned a disused shelter and public toilets into a coffee addicts’ paradise; Simon and Corina, the saviours of Britain’s cutest cinema, ‘The Palace’; and Dave Melmoth, founder of a music and action-sports festival called ‘Wheels and Fins’. Somewhere towards the back you’ll find an article written by someone who’s yet to display their entrepreneurial side but has established strong roots in the town – yours truly. Here’s what I had to say:
“I’ve always felt I belonged by the sea. I enjoy the sense of space and constantly changing weather, as well as that certain shabbiness you get when the wind, rain and sun take it in turns to assert themselves on rock, brick and render. But the thing I love most is that the sea makes the land warmer, and for me as gardener that presents all manner of opportunities to grow unusual plants.
The Jungle Garden in Summer 2018, expertly photographed by Marianne Majerus
After moving from Reading to London for work, I found myself a bolthole in Broadstairs. I am not a city boy and I needed to escape, first at weekends and later permanently. I am an impulsive kind of guy and bought the first house I looked at on my first visit to Broadstairs: being a buyer for John Lewis I know to trust my instincts. The Watch House had atmosphere (my friends call it cosy) and a sunny courtyard cluttered with privies and a bomb shelter. That sufficed for a couple of years, but as I settled in I sensed I could make a lot more of the space. It’s a challenging situation since there are cellars running underneath the garden and hence no natural soil to grow in. On the advice of a garden designer I swept away the outbuildings and created beds generous enough to plant trees and shrubs. I’d spent a lot of time in America where everyone seemed to have an outdoor kitchen, so I decided to build one of my own. Although the first attempt wasn’t perfect it is one of the best things I ever invested in, after all, who wants to be stuck indoors cooking when the sun is shining?
The outdoor kitchen in 2018. This year it’s barely visible owing to the abundance of foliage.
My garden has evolved enormously as I’ve worked out what I can grow. In Thanet we are blessed with far more sunshine and much less rain than in the West Country where I grew up. Now I live on the edge in terms of plant hardiness, thinking nothing of testing out plants from as far afield as Brazil, Mexico, the Himalayas, California, Madagascar and New Zealand. If it’s new, unusual or difficult to grow, I want it. I started my blog, The Frustrated Gardener, to turbo charge my interest in plants and it’s worked – what was a passion is now bordering on an obsession.
The Gin & Tonic Garden, Photographed from above by Marianne Majerus
Three years ago the opportunity to buy a neighbouring cottage came up. I leapt at it, so now I have another small courtyard, the ‘Gin & Tonic Garden’, so named because the garden catches the sun in the late afternoon and because I grow lots of G&T garnishes in there, especially rosemary, mint and cucamelons. I also created my pride and joy – a library for all my books on plants and gardening. I have hundreds, mostly collected from second hand bookshops. Cicero said “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need”. I agree to a point, but I’d have to add companionship, as without that I’d find my life a lot less rewarding. I am lucky that my partner and I share a keen interest in plants and books.
My latest acquisition is a large workshop that’s attached to my house. It was once the depot for a fleet of ice cream vans that plied the streets of Broadstairs selling Eldorado ice creams. I want to turn it into a winter garden, packed with ferns and lush vegetation hanging from the rafters. That’s the thing, living in the middle of Broadstairs; I’m hemmed in on every side, so I’m now looking upwards for new opportunities.”
Yours Truly, Photographed by Marianne Majerus
The Watch House will be open on August 3rd and 4th from 12pm – 4pm in support of the National Gardens Scheme. Entry is £4 for adults and children are admitted free of charge. Well-behaved dogs are welcome. Teas will be served in the workshop (if I get it tidied up in time!). Owing to the jungly nature of the garden we ask that large bags are left at home or in the workshop to avoid damage to the plants. For further details click here. My plant list, which I’m in the process of updating to include hundreds of new introductions, can be found by clicking here.
The Broadstairs Beacon is available from numerous outlets around Broadstairs and I hope to have copies to pick up on open days. If neither of those options is open to you, you may read it online here.
The beauty of growing plants in pots is that they can be shuffled around endlessly until the most pleasing associations are made. I do this regularly, moving plants to the front, a little to the left or right, hiding them at the back or removing them from the picture altogether. Although occasionally tough on one’s back, creating an ever-changing tapestry of foliage and flowers can be fun and rewarding. It’s also essential if you’re as much of a perfectionist as I am.
With so much going on in other aspects of my life this year, many plants ended up where they first landed in spring and not where they’d usually be. So it was that Lobelia tupa, the magnificent scarlet-flowered species from Chile, ended up next to a pot of Lilium regale ‘Album’. There was nothing remotely calculated about this introduction, but somehow the relationship worked beautifully.
Both plants appreciate sun and shelter, but Lobelia tupa is altogether thirstier and will wilt if not watered every other day. One of the many advantages of growing in pots is that growing medium, watering and feeding can be adjusted to suit each plant perfectly. The lobelia suits a heavier, water-retentive, loam-based compost, whilst the lilies appreciate something lighter, sandier and freer draining. In a conventional border they might struggle to live side by side, but in pots they can be given exactly what they need to thrive.
What I like about this combination is that both flowers are striking, yet completely different in form and colour. One can see through the lobster-claw lobelia flowers to the smooth white trumpets of the lily. Red and white is a dramatic, if not harmonious colour combination, calmed by plenty of green or silver foliage. I enjoy it in tulips such as ‘Red Shine’ and ‘White Triumphator’ or all together in the blooms of ‘Flaming Spring Green’. I’ve introduced a cooling splash of pale lime in the form of Cryptomeria japonica ‘Sekkan-sugi’ AGM, a plant I was inspired to purchase after enjoying Fergus Garrett’s adventures with conifers at Great Dixter. It also seems very happy in a pot, although it will soon outgrow the one it’s in now. The colour of the new needles gives a nod to the centre of each lily. A nice addition to this grouping might be a bi-coloured dahlia such as ‘Red and White Fubuki’, although I’d want to hide the relatively coarse foliage at the back.
Lobelia tupa has no scent – I guess no flower has it all – but the fragrance from the lilies is more than enough to compensate. The only drawback of this arrangement is that I have to brush past the lilies to reach the greenhouse door, getting myself covered in indelible yellow pollen in the process.
Naturally it does help that both plants have flowered at the same time. They might not necessarily do so in other parts of the country, in different conditions or even next year, which is why advice of this kind is always comes with caveats. It pays to experiment and keep an open mind when planning a garden. It’s also wise to just wait and see. The most surprising things happen when you simply let plants be. If they don’t oblige then just move them and they will quickly make new friends. TFG.
I won’t lie, my job takes me to some fascinating places. I don’t always get to see a great deal of the cities and countries on my itinerary, but I generally experience enough to decide whether I’d want to return under my own steam. This week’s business trip was to the Veneto and Fruili in the northeastern corner of Italy. I went in search of wine, and I found it by the barrel full. And it was good, very good, the local Refosco and Prosecco especially. Even without the pleasures of wine, I can say without question that I’d want to go back, albeit when the weather is cooler. The Frustrated Gardener rapidly becomes the Hot and Bothered Gardener if the temperature rises above 25ºC, and at 35ºC he turns into a pool of boiling green slime.
We arrived at Venice Marco Polo Airport on Sunday evening. Even at 11pm the temperature had barely fallen below 30ºC. We were greeted by a fug of hot, muggy air that clung around us until we returned to Gatwick on Wednesday. Overnight in our cosy Agriturismo, I was visited more than once by the local zanzara (mosquitos).
Venice has long been on my bucket list, but for some reason I’d never got around to making the trip. I feared the worst – too hot, too crowded, too expensive, too smelly – which can often be the making of a pleasant surprise. Yes it was hot, but not as crowded as I’d imagined. Away from the main attractions the canals were positively tranquil. Venetian shops were certainly expensive, but, unusually, there was nothing I wanted or needed to buy. There was a salty, seaweed-laced tang in the air, but none of nasty whiffs I’d heard complained about. Perhaps we just picked the right day for our whistlestop tour. As a first experience it was a good one. It left me wanting more.
It’s hard not to imagine you’re in an enormous film set wherever you find yourself in Venice. So many of the scenes are familiar from the big and small screen that you can mistakenly believe you’ve been there before. The view from Ponte Rialto is utterly timeless and completely mesmerising; the same bustling scene I’ve marvelled at in paintings by Canaletto and James Bond films. Elegant palazzi, fluttering awnings, chattering gondoliers and glittering water make for a heady concoction, one I’d experience nowhere else. Had it not been so unbearably hot I could have stayed there and watched the world go by for hours.
Venice is not a green city. If it were it would not be Venice. Those gardens that exist are either hidden away behind high walls, cloistered in the precincts of expensive hotels or restricted to narrow alleyways and rooftops. Like me, most residents are limited to growing in pots, often small ones, arranged around the edge of a balcony or beneath a window. Petunias, calibrachoas, sedums and geraniums seem to be the order of the day, perfectly at home in dazzling sunshine and exposed to the sea air. Where there’s space to plant in the ground, campsis (trumpet vines) are allowed to climb up and spill over the ancient city walls. Cool green foliage and blistering orange flowers provide the perfect adornment for mellow red brick.
Elsewhere the ubiquitous Mediterranean oleander is heavily relied upon for screening and colour. A tutti-frutti tumble of blossom greets travellers as they exit the gloom of the main station into the glittering light of the Grand Canal, a frivolous, temporal cloud of loveliness amidst all the serious antiquity. There is nothing uglier than a unhappy oleander (which accounts for most of those seen clinging on in English gardens) but when they are happy there’s little to rival them for the enthusiasm with which they bloom.
Would I return to Venice? In a heartbeat. During our scorching saunter I failed to scratch the surface of the city. I’d like to return when the streets are a little cooler and quieter, perhaps in late April or May, and travel there by train if I could. I’d want to visit the islands of Torcello and Sant’Erasmo which are known for their market gardens. What a luxury it would be to spend a few weeks at leisure, pottering around without the intense pressure to experience everything at breakneck speed like most other visitors. A Venetian soggiorno. I already like the sound off that. TFG.
This spring I potted up more lilies than ever before. My intention was to bridge that awkward gap between the tulips fading and the first dahlias flowering with their bold, bright, often scented blooms. However, as is so often the case, nature had different ideas, resulting in both lilies and dahlias coming into bloom simultaneously this week. I have no complaints, since it finally feels as if the garden has hit its stride. Green reads well, but it needs other colours for punctuation.
Many of my lilies were repotted in March following a winter rest. I checked each bulb for vine weevil damage before planting in fresh compost; ericaceous for the orientials and John Innes No. 2 for the asiatics. I find that a sprinkling of slow-release fertiliser helps each plant to power through the season. This year I am welcoming back ‘Pink Flavour’, ‘Golden Splendour’, ‘Lionheart’, ‘Night Flyer’ and ‘Mapira’ which have all emerged bigger and stronger than last year.
The Beau gifted me a generous clump of ‘Miss Feya’ in March, each bulb has produced a handsome plant with a dozen buds per stem. In the polytunnel where they had been growing previously, each stem reached 10ft tall. No such stature has been attained in my windy garden, but they have quickly reached head-height, offering the perfect opportunity to admire Miss Feya’s crimson flowers when the buds burst in a week or so.
Meanwhile I’ve found (and squished) just half a dozen scarlet lily beetles this year, but vine weevils remain a curse. Last night alone I dispatched twenty or more adults as they sat quietly chomping through my foliage in the cool night air. This morning I noticed that friendly neighbourhood spiders had entrapped another two of the blighters. Spiders are always welcome in my garden.
With my autumn bulb order I included two new asiatic lily hybrids; ‘Forever Susan’ and ‘Whistler’. The latter belongs to a group of lilies bred in Holland using a variety called ‘Latvian Promise’ as a parent. ‘Latvian Promise’ has pronounced freckles at the base of each petal and has passed this attractive feature on to its progeny. The flower petals of ‘Whistler’ are a wonderful, rose-peach colour with plum-coloured sprinkles petering out towards the tip. For some reason I am repeatedly attracted to this colour combination whether it be in lilies, osteospermums, tulips or dahlias. Now I’ve seen Whistler’s flowers in context I will move Dahlia ‘Verrone’s Obsidian’ (pictured below) alongside to pick up the depth of those smouldering speckles.
In common with other asiatic lilies, Whistler’s foliage is bright green and glossy. Nothing special in itself, but a decent foil for the flowers. Each bulb has produced between four and seven flower buds in year one, which is not bad going. Lazily I planted all fourteen bulbs in one large pot, so when in full bloom I am expecting quite a display.
With its striking orange and black flowers, ‘Forever Susan’ has not performed nearly as well. Several bulbs came up blind and some leaves are soggy and browning. I suspect this might be down to me overwatering in the early stages of growth. Hopefully ‘Forever Susan’ will live up to her name and come back again next year for another attempt at glory. It’s always worth trying new plants, even if they don’t work out quite how you intended the first time around. As for ‘Whistler’, I am sure I’ll be welcoming this pretty lily back for many seasons to come. TFG.
Since the last time I wrote about my garden, my sole purpose has been to prepare it for summer. I’ve been potting, repotting, feeding, staking, tying-in and mulching, whilst at the same time doing battle with an army of voracious slugs and snails. All the lifting, shifting, arranging and rearranging has taken its toll on my out-of-shape body. On a Monday morning I ache all over, but it’s a good ache, and satisfying when progress is made. Another fortnight and I should have the majority of plants roughly where I want them for the next four months. (Gardening in containers is quite unlike gardening in the ground, since endless adjustments can be made to ensure every plant looks its best in relation to its neighbours. Once in situ they can mingle, sprawl, tangle and twist as much as they like, until the containers disappear from view and a jungle-like effect is achieved. See below for evidence ….. and this is only June!)
This year my summer preparations have been especially arduous owing to a number of projects and circumstances that have complicated my plans. None of them have thwarted me, but they have each slowed me down to a degree. Here are my top four hindrances, in no particular order:
1. You Can’t Swing a Cat In Here
The greatest hindrance has been lack of room. It has come as no surprise to me (and it won’t to you) that I have too many plants for the space available in my garden. Over the spring a constant trickle of new plants arrived at The Watch House and yet more will arrive with The Beau in a fortnight. In complete denial of the impending plant pile-up, I have been taking cuttings and nurturing seedlings, some of which I planned to give away, but most of which I intended to keep. Finally, I have run out of space in which to indulge my obsession. Any gaps I did have disappeared weeks ago. There’s no two ways about it, the plant buying has to stop.
2) Good Fences Make Good Neighbours
The long awaited replacement of the fence around the Gin & Tonic Garden has been my next challenge. The old fence was already tatty when I first acquired this little plot at the back of my house. It became progressively more shabby and decrepit as the elements took their toll. I wanted the new fence done and dusted by the end of March, but Dave the Carpenter wanted to wait for fine weather before starting the job. Fair enough, but this meant hanging on until mid-May, by which time everything was growing like topsy. Dave got his tan and I got my fence, but the clematis I planted to disguise the ugly old boundaries had a tough time of it. Each was carefully detached from its supporting wires before Dave started work, but a month of laying on the ground did them no good whatsoever. C. ‘Princess Diana’ has recovered fastest – what a classy clematis she is – but C. ‘Princess Kate’ has been chewed right down to ground-level and I am not sure I will be able to save her. She is no match for her late mother-in-law and rather a sickly plant in my experience.
Painting the fence is going to take me several weeks, so the summer will continue to be challenging for all the clematis in this area. In the short term I’ve made them look as respectable as I can and they are valiantly producing a few, bedraggled flowers. Meanwhile my neighbour’s clematis, which are planted in baking sun and biscuit-thin soil, are putting on a marvellous display.
3) A Dripping June Sets All in Tune ….
…. Or so sayeth the ancient proverb, the sentiment being that rain in June will increase the bounty of fruit, vegetables and flowers later in summer. Last Monday alone we experienced more rain in a single day than we normally do in an entire month. If the proverb has any truth it, we have unparalleled abundance to come. The result so far is a green, lush garden with a conspicuous lack of flowers. Although I’d planned to bridge the June gap with potfuls of lilies, these have been held back by the cold weather in May. So far not a single one has flowered. They will now bloom in tandem with the first of the dahlias.
4) We All Find Time To Do What We Really Want To Do
During the summer months everything revolves around the needs of the garden: housework and friends are neglected, meals turn to toast and watering is done in the dark. What the garden needs, the garden gets. Every moment of my spare time is spent outside, in the workshop or tending to my houseplants. Somehow everything gets done, even if it’s only in the nick of time. In the end we find time to do the things we really want to do …. which does not bode well for the ironing. TFG.
May and June are among the busiest months for gardeners. Has it all been plain sailing in your garden, or have you experienced challenges too?
We were all set to go to the rare plant fair at Tregrehan in Cornwall last Sunday. My train was booked months ago, the was itinerary planned and a wish-list written. Then two highly predictable things happened: I purchased a whole heap of plants elsewhere on Saturday (good ones too …. see below for details) and then it poured with rain on Sunday morning. So instead of buying plants I didn’t have the space for and getting wet in the process we stayed local and went back to Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens.
Through sheets of fine, sideways rain – a Cornish speciality – we were surprised to find that the carpark was full. It turns out everyone was in the restaurant, and who could blame them? It’s excellent. So we shared the garden with just a handful of German ladies who had dressed for inclement weather and returned to the restaurant for lunch just as the sun came out.
Tremenheere is one of those gardens where it helps to know what you are looking at. From a design and layout point of view it is not exceptional, although the view towards St Michael’s Mount from higher ground are panoramic and beautiful. Sculptures add much needed punctuation points to an informal garden that lacks a fine house to anchor it.
For me this garden is all about the microclimate and the plants that flourish in it. From a shaded, babbling brook to open, sunbaked terraces, Tremenheere is jam-packed with fascinating plants quietly doing their own thing. None of them are labelled, which I would usually find frustrating. To avoid irritation I’ve turned each visit into a test of my plant knowledge – ‘what sort of ‘panax’ is that?’; ‘is it a magnolia or a michelia, or are they all the same thing nowadays?’ You know how the game goes. Lately The Beau has started to join in, which makes the whole experience a lot more enjoyable and, dare I say, slightly competitive.
Below are just five of the treasures we particularly admired on this visit and which I’d recommend to you if you have the right conditions to grow them.
1) Saxifraga stolonifera (creeping saxifrage)
I know Saxifraga stolonifera well having grown it in London when I lived in town. My clump never looked this good though. I suspect that’s because it revels in damp rather than dry shade. At Tremenheere it’s used to terrific effect as a groundcover, often planted on sheltered, sloping ground. Although it spreads by runners or ‘stolons’, just like a strawberry does, it is not invasive or weedy. Left alone it will cover as much or as little ground as you wish. The flowers are divinely delicate; each one reminds me of the angel that goes on top of a Christmas tree. A few sprays would make an ethereal addition to a wedding bouquet.
Where to buy – Edrom Nursery (N.B. Beware the very high prices being charged by some online retailers. There’s no need to pay this much for a plant that multiplies relatively quickly. If you can’t get a plantlet from a gardening friend, wait until later in summer when nurseries like Edrom have produced saleable stock.) Plants are also available to buy from Tremenheere’s on-site nursery at the time of writing.
2) Wachendorfia thyrsiflora (red root)
This statuesque, large-scale plant is a must for almost frost-free gardens. In my opinion it’s better placed somewhere informal as the clumps of pleated leaves can get a little scraggy over time. In late spring and early summer long torches of yellow flower emerge and keep coming over a period of weeks. Wachendorfia thrysiflora prefers damp, even marshy conditions, but must have its head in the sun. At Tremenheere it’s planted on a sunny slope, where it must rely on water filtering down from higher ground.
Where to buy – Burncoose Nurseries. Large plants are also available to buy from Tremenheere’s on-site nursery at the time of writing.
3) Decaisnea fargesii (dead man’s fingers)
What a headache this plant gave me. I knew I knew the name, but try as I may to confirm my identification I could find no reference to it anywhere. Turns out I was spelling Decaisnea incorrectly, which is easily done. Anyway, here we have a rather unusual shrub, known more for its creepy finger-like fruits that its elegant racemes of green flowers. Decaisnea fargesii produces both male and female flowers. Each female flower contains three separate carpels and therefore produces a ‘hand’ of three distinctive ‘fruitlets’. It’s these bluish-black, finger-shaped fruitlets covered in skin-like peel which have earned Decaisnea fargesii its ghoulish common name, dead man’s fingers.
There is some debate about whether the Chinese D. fargesii is one and the same species as the Indian D. insignis, only with blue fruits rather than yellow. (D. insignis is nowhere near as common in cultivation. The common name ‘monkey shit tree’ probably does not help matters.) Found growing wild at high altitudes, Decaisnea fargesii is hardy enough to be grown outdoors in the UK. Use the fruits as Halloween decorations, if you dare!
Impressive, would be one word to describe this enormous Schefflera. Huge leaves, bigger than a dustbin lid when mature, suggest Shefflera delavayi might not be hardy, when in fact it’s at least as tough as commonly grown Fatsia japonica. Plants will reach quite a size in time (12ft+), the one at Tremenheere being as wide as it is high, lolloping across the woodland floor in search of dappled sunlight. If I had a large, woodland garden Schefflera delavayi would be one of the first shrubs I’d plant, not just for splendid, glossy foliage, but for the bristly panicles of ivory flowers that appear in summer and autumn.
Every time I visit Tremenheere I am forced past a lush clump of this small-flowered Busy Lizzie relative. It sprouts from the top and sides of a moss-covered boulder, producing clusters of yellow, red-speckled flowers. Native to the mountains of Nepal and Bhutan, Impatiens stenantha feels at home in the cool, wet, West Country and prefers a good degree of shade. Unlike the summer bedding variety, this impatiens is hardy to -15ºC if planted in the ground and mulched. It will die down and obligingly reappear in spring.
The irony of last weekend is that I purchased at least as many plants at Treemenheere as I would have done at Tregrehan, so my attempt at abstinence failed entirely. The Beau, when next he visits Broadstairs, will need to convert his mini into a greenhouse on wheels. He had better get used to it. TFG.
I’d love to hear what plants you’ve indulged in over the last few days. Were they planned or purchased on impulse? Did you have room for them or not? Do share your moments of weakness … it will make me feel a lot better.
I imagine I have a lot to deal with at The Watch House, but being the custodian of a large, historic garden is a different matter altogether. Responsibilities range from maintaining the fragile fabric (living and non-living) to deciding the future course of the garden’s development; not to mention fathoming out where all the money will come from. Only one course of action is not an option and that’s attempting to stop the clock. Historic gardens must evolve and adapt, perhaps by rolling back the years to an earlier period or moving forward with new methods, layouts and plant varieties, but never, ever, stand still.
The custodians of the gardens at Sissinghurst Castle (the National Trust) and neighbouring Great Dixter (a charitable trust) have an especially tough task in respect of steering their charge’s future direction. Both gardens were created by talented, wealthy, eloquent individuals who exerted enormous influence over the practice of garden making, not only in Britain but globally. The prolific works of Vita Sackville-West, Harold Nicholson and Christopher Lloyd are still right up there in the pantheon of garden writing – at once entertaining and eccentric, witty and wise. Both Sissinghurst and Great Dixter have extant Head Gardeners who worked alongside these legends and understood their visions perfectly. Meanwhile legion visitors and would-be visitors, experts, staff and volunteers have their own expectations of how these gardens ought to look and feel. It takes a strong individual to set a course and deliver it, a responsibility that often falls to the Head Gardener.
A swathe of anemones carpets the ground in Delos
Sissinghurst’s current Head Gardener is Troy Scott-Smith …. just. After seven years in this prestigious but no doubt burdensome position he’s about to move to pastures new. He arrived with a mission to restore some of the ‘gay abandon’ that Harold Nicholson and Vita Sackville-West cultivated during their time at Sissinghurst. “Beauty is the governing goddess at Sissinghurst. The place should be so over-brimming with plants, you can hardly move” said Troy in May 2013, shortly after taking up his post. That is a tricky thing to realise when you’re managing one of the most visited gardens in the country, but somehow the essence of his ambition has been achieved. Sissinghurst now feels far more free and easy than I recall during my university days and the experience is all the better for it.
One of Troy’s many other achievements is to begin the reintroduction of hundreds of rose and iris varieties that Vita and Harold would have collected and cherished. This is an ongoing mission involving a worldwide search for old and ‘lost’ cultivars. However the completion of one project – the reimagining of an area of Sissinghurst named Delos – will be left to Troy’s successor.
Delos photographed in March 2017. By this time any suggestion of Greekness had long since vanished.
In 1935 Harold and Vita visited the sun-baked island of Delos, part of the group of Greek islands known as the Cyclades. In Greek mythology Delos was the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis, a mythic isle possessed of a sacred harbour and sanctuary dedicated to Zeus. The couple were quickly spellbound by the island’s ancient ruins, softened here and there by colourful carpets of aromatic wild flowers.
An abundance of wild flowers on the Greek Island of Delos
On returning to England Harold and Vita identified a plot in front of the Priest’s House where they attempted to recreate the ancient landscape they’d been so entranced by. It was not a success. The spot they had chosen was north-facing and, unusually for such experienced amateur gardeners, their knowledge of Mediterranean plants was sorely lacking. What slowly evolved was a garden of low trees underplanted with spring bulbs and woodland perennials. In recent years any reference to the garden’s original roots disappeared altogether.
I have always thought of Delos as a decompression zone between the bright open spaces of the main courtyard and famous White Garden; not a garden room, but a transitional space with no particular theme or prowess. The name had always puzzled me, even when I knew a little more about the story. Most guide books gloss over Delos completely, and even Vita wrote relatively little about it. I guess she was not someone accustomed to admitting failure. Whilst pretty, especially in spring, Delos fell a long way short of the brilliance and originality found in other parts of the garden.
Troy Scott-Smith (right) surveys the plans for a revitalised Delos
Clearly someone at the National Trust decided enough was enough and that Delos presented an opportunity to create an exciting new garden for Sissinghurst. Dan Pearson was duly appointed and his reimagining of Delos is due to be completed later this year. Using modern design practices and a more robust palette of plants than perhaps Vita and Harold were familiar with, Dan’s design aims to be sustainable, whilst at the same time authentic. It’s a tough, high-stakes commission. One does not expect to chance upon a patch of Grecian earth in the Weald of Kent, surrounded by poplars and oast houses. The juxtaposition could be awkward, but if anyone can pull it off, Dan Pearson surely can.
During my visit with Helen of Oz on a dry, sunny May day I could already sense something of the new garden’s Mediterranean atmosphere. Huge chunks of Kentish ragstone, a form of indigenous limestone used to build many prestigious buildings including Westminster Abbey, The Tower of London, Dover Castle and Vita’s childhood home, Knowle, lay scattered over a newly cleared space. The freshly-cut blocks are pale ochre with irregular greyish areas, similar to the colour of the rock found on Delos. Over time they will weather to a warmer, richer tone.
Each piece of Kentish ragstone is numbered in order to identify its final location
In total, fifty-five stones weighing between one and twelve tonnes will be used to complete the design. Three hundred cubic metres of soil blended from washed quarry gravel, river sand and neutral topsoil will provide an anchor for thousands of plants that are currently being sourced by the gardening team. They will be planted during the summer and autumn, in full view of visitors. The illustration below provides some idea of how the reimagined Delos will look, with the faint lines at the top indicating where Sissinghurst’s famous tower is situated, immediately to the south.
I for one am excited about this brave new venture. It takes some guts to meddle with a garden as steeped in gardening lore as Sissinghurst, but someone was finally prepared to say what we were all thinking – Delos wasn’t what it ought to be, a bit of a let-down in an otherwise remarkable garden. Herein lies not only an opportunity to resurrect Harold and Vita’s memories of Greece, but for a new designer and Head Gardener to create a legacy for the future. TFG.
If my blog did not already have a title, ‘The Diary of a Plant Addict’ would be a strong candidate. I’ve had the most horticulturally indulgent week one could imagine, starting with the Chelsea Flower Show and ending with a three day stretch getting my own garden in shape for summer. In the middle came visits to three of England’s finest gardens. How lucky am I? However, I’ve purchased plants or bulbs every single day for a ten day stretch and it’s starting to get expensive …. not to mention creating a lot of additional work and space anxiety.
Here’s what I’ve been up to and what I’ve added to my collection at The Watch House over the last week or so.
The Savills and David Harber Garden designed by Andrew Duff was easy on the eye.
Tuesday 21st May – The RHS Chelsea Flower Show
Helen of Oz and I meet just after 7.30am under the magnolias outside Sloane Square underground station. A few minutes later we join the throng at the gates to the Chelsea Flower Show and make a beeline for the densely shaded Artisan Gardens, where awards are already being presented. In the distance a loud cheer and clapping can be heard, a sure sign that Kazuyuki Ishihara has won another gold medal, this time for his contemporary ‘Green Switch’ garden.
Andy Sturgeon’s masterful garden for sponsor M&G was inspired by nature’s ability to regenerate.
Someone certainly had flipped the green switch at Chelsea this year. Several gardens were dominated by the verdure which is so prevalent in our country during May. Greens are refreshing, restful, infinitely varied and easy on the eye, creating a strong feeling of calm and restraint.
2019 felt like a mature, grown-up Chelsea, but not a vintage one in my opinion. Lots of the show gardens sought to highlight environmental challenges or mimic natural habitats. There was very little frivolity or technology this time around. This made for a strong and pleasing set of show gardens, but provided less to fuel my imagination than I had hoped for. The show felt unusually busy this year and our overall experience was marred by an excessive amount of filming and recording, which meant many gardens and exhibits could not be appreciated fully without a second or third pass. Increasingly I feel the best way to experience Chelsea is by watching coverage on the television. Perhaps next year I will do just that and forego the hefty entrance fee.
Sarah Eberle’s Resilience Garden for the Forestry Commission was almost never free of interlopers.
We start on the rosé at 10.30 and meet friends at intervals throughout the day, making it feel like a very social day. I am glad that I took a small step back from from my usual scrutiny as this certainly enhanced my Chelsea experience. I apologise to those of you who would have appreciated more detail from me – it might still come if I can find the time over the coming weeks.
Jonathan Snow’s garden for Trailfinders transported us to Chile’s temperate rainforests.
My favourite gardens? The Trailfinders Undiscovered Latin America Garden designed by Jonathan Snow and the Dubai Majlis Garden designed by Thomas Hoblyn. Both gardens sought to evoke regions of the world I am not familiar with and did so with conviction and panache. Andy Sturgeon and Chris Beardshaw pulled off incredibly intricate and beautiful gardens, reminding us all what quality looks like when it comes to garden design.
6 x Lilium ‘Nymph’
6 x Lilium ‘Kaveri
N.B. I recommend buying lily bulbs at RHS shows and planting them immediately in order to enjoy a succession of blooms throughout the year. Those purchased at Chelsea will flower in July or August, whilst those purchased at Hampton Court will bloom in September or October.
Thomas Hoblyn’s Dubai Majlis garden transported us to a desert oasis brimming with aromatic plants.
Wednesday 22nd May – The Salutation
We rise late, having had an arduous journey from London to Broadstairs with five suitcases and numerous smaller bags in tow. (If anyone needs material for a comedy sketch, I will gladly avail you of the details of our journey. It was more fun to watch than to participate in.) We take a leisurely stroll around town and I buy cushions. At least they are not plants, but they do bear a floral design featuring marigolds, roses and violas.
The long borders lead the eye towards The Salutation’s Queen Anne inspired frontage.
We are blessed with beautiful weather all week; not warm by Helen of Oz’s standards, but dry and sunny. Arriving at Sandwich by train we breathe in the town’s quaint Englishness en route to The Salutation, where we enjoy a leisurely lunch and yet more rosé. We are already establishing our routine for the week. The gardens at The Salutation, where Head Gardener Steve Edney works his magic, are brimming with life. The borders are at that spine-tingling tipping point, lightly sprinkled with colour before they explode into summer exuberance.
1 x Anisodontea ‘El Rayo’ (a particularly pretty and delicate mallow)
1 x Persicaria ‘Purple Fantasy’ (I killed the last one)
Thursday 23rd May – Sissinghurst Castle
Having picked up the hire car we bowl through the Weald of Kent towards Sissinghurst. We know to expect crowds as the weather is good and the garden is eternally popular. Somehow the hoards seem lesser within the boundaries of the garden, perhaps because of the walls and yew hedges that create Sissinghurst’s famous ‘rooms’. The result of projects to restore the garden’s ‘gay abandon’ and original planting are plain to see. There are roses and bearded irises everywhere one looks, whilst cow parsley foams through perennials that are slower to get going. It is all very pretty and very well done, as always.
Is there anything more lovely than a white wisteria coming into bloom?
Or a pale yellow, single rose?
What one-time visitors miss is just how much has changed in recent years, with the opening of the Cutting Garden and Little North Garden, the extension of the Nuttery, restoration of the Sunken Garden and replanting of the Moat Walk. Despite being a garden of enormous historical and cultural importance, Sissinghurst never stands still and always looks immaculate. That’s a credit to the National Trust and Head Gardener Troy Scott-Smith who is soon to take up a new post at Iford Manor in Wiltshire. What an incredible legacy he leaves behind him.
Bearded Irises in the Cutting Garden are part of a project to recover Vita Sackville-West’s lost collection.
The biggest change at Sissinghurst, and perhaps the most significant since Harold Nicholson handed it over to the National Trust in 1967, is the reimagining of Delos, an area of the garden that Vita and Harold hoped would remind them of visits to Greece. Unusually for this expert pair, they never quite managed to pull the idea off. Under the guidance of Landscape Architect Dan Pearson, the majority of what was planted here, which one might best describe as ‘nice but nothingy’, has been removed to make way for a new layout and planting which might finally transport visitors to the Cyclades. It’s a brave move but a commendable one. I’m incredibly excited to see the result on a future visit as I know it’s going to appeal to me and add a new dimension to my experience. Projects like Delos do not come along often in a garden such as Sissinghurst, ensuring the new Head Gardener will have an opportunity to make her or his mark over the coming years.
Head Gardener Troy Scott-Smith (right) surveys the plans for a revitalised..
Regular readers of The Frustrated Gardener might have noticed the absence of posts about the Chelsea Flower Show so far this year. There’s a reason for this – I have decided to take a year off. What I really mean is that I am stepping back from writing long and detailed posts in order that I may enjoy the show at leisure with my very special guest, Helen of Oz. Going to Chelsea is one of the highlights of my year, but recently the pressure to post, and to post well, has consumed more and more of my time at the show, leaving less time to actually enjoy the experience. I felt it was time for a break. Whilst I may never master the art of mindfulness, I do recognise the benefit of living in the moment every now and again. If you’re feeling let down, never fear, I will be sure to take time to reflect on our day at the end of the week. Between now and then my coverage will be via Facebook and Instagram where I hope to post as many lovely pictures as I can between sipping Pimms and gawping at the flowers.
I’ve been trying to avoid all the hype that accompanies the build-up to the show, but there does appear to be a consensus that 2019 is going to be a good year for show gardens. Let’s hope so. It will have been a tricky build for the designers and nurserymen, with such a chilly start to the spring: perhaps cool conditions are easier to mitigate than warm ones, since plants can always been coaxed forwards with a little supplementary heat.
The Trailfinders ‘Undiscovered Latin America’ Garden, designed by Jonathan Snow
There are a handful of gardens I am excited to see, the first being The Trailfinders ‘Undiscovered Latin America’ Garden by Jonathan Snow, the designer who brought us a vision of the South African winelands in 2018. This year’s garden looks completely different, but is no less accomplished. The garden occupies the challenging yet visually arresting rock bank site, where a previous Trailfinders garden won Best in Show. Could this be a good omen? With towering monkey puzzle trees and that stand-out, vermillion-painted walkway, it is sure to be a show stopper.
The Welcome to Yorkshire Garden, designed by Mark Gregory
Judging by what I’ve seen already on social media, the Welcome to Yorkshire Garden is going to take some beating in the popularity stakes. Ever ambitious, Mark Gregory’s design recreates a Yorkshire canal complete with a pair of narrow lock gates and a lock keeper’s cottage. The cottage has its own carefully tended garden and beyond the gate lies a species-rich meadow and lush waterside vegetation. As always the level of realism achieved by Landform Consultants is exemplary and this ‘garden’ will, without doubt, be a crowd-pleaser extraordinaire.
The Dubai Majlis Garden, designed by Thomas Hoblyn
Finally, lest I get drawn back into the very trap from which I am trying to escape, I am particularly looking forward to seeing The Dubai Majlis Garden designed by Thomas Hoblyn. There is a bit of a formula at Chelsea, so I admire any designer who attempts to break it, especially if they are transporting me somewhere hot and sunny. Inspired by the sculptural beauty of arid landscapes, the garden’s hard landscaping combines white limestone and burnt sienna gravel to create a feeling of sun-baked terraces. Bountiful planting around a sweep of water as cool and polished as marble suggests a desert oasis. All very uplifting, especially after two drizzly, back-breaking days working in the garden here at The Watch House.
Whether you are visiting The Chelsea Flower Show in person, virtually via social media, or watching the coverage on television, I hope you have time to give it your undivided attention. It is, after all, the greatest flower show on earth. TFG.
I started this blog with a clear personal ambition to preserve what I already knew about plants and to encourage further learning. It was as simple as that. Looking back this sounds like a selfish mission, but there was always an intention to share that knowledge, otherwise I may as well have written my thoughts in a notebook and stashed it under the bed. I’ve learned so much through sharing, fuelled by the encouragement given to me by my followers. Over time I have reached out and explored the worlds of garden design, travel and fragrance, but have always returned to my fascination with plants as the main driver for my existence in the blogosphere.
It is over ten years since I visited Madagascar on a tour that took me all over the ‘Red Island’. It was an unforgettable experience. I visited spiny forests in the south; rainforests in the north and east; dry deciduous forests in the west, each environment bursting with fabulous biodiversity. Even then it was plain to see that these unique habitats were but mere fragments, pale shadows of what they had once been, but of global importance nevertheless. A flight from the bustling capital to the west coast of Madagascar laid bare the effects of rampant deforestation and severe erosion. A livid landscape of raw, desolated, deeply-scored hills stretching to the horizon is a vision I shall never forget.
On the BBC news this weekend we heard that Madagascar’s natural environment has arrived at the Last Chance Saloon. It’s almost closing time and the landlord is ready to pull down the shutters. Madagascar’s natural riches teeter on the brink of disaster, with many species facing extinction. No-one really knows if they can be saved and what has already been lost forever. Madagascar is a poor country and the communities that live there must feed themselves. Whilst many Malagasy people understand that healthy forests are essential for medicines, shelter, clean water, fertility, soil stability and even tourism, few are in a position to do anything to save them. A change of leader offers faint hope that matters could improve, but recent history provides little encouragement.
Uncarina grandidieri, photographed in Madagascar in 2008
My visit to Madagascar came before I started writing this blog, but every so often I encounter a plant that I recognise from that adventure. One such is the mouse trap tree, Uncarina grandidieri, a curious plant which possesses barbed seed pods capable of ensnaring small rodents. I originally came across this endemic tree in the car park at a visitor centre in the southern-most part of Madagascar, and was reacquainted with it recently at the Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden in Miami. More on that encounter another day perhaps.
Today it’s a tree that I didn’t encounter in its native land that I wish to write about – the wood shaving flower, Strophanthus boivinii.
Looking for all the world like a relative of our winter-flowering witch hazel (which it isn’t), the wood shaving flower is named in honour of its spiralling, burnt-orange, yellow-edged flowers. Each corkscrew petal appears as if it’s just curled elegantly from a carpenter’s plane. The flowers are borne in clusters, maybe two or three times each year, on trees that can reach up to 100ft tall. In common with other trees from Madagascar’s dry deciduous forests, Strophanthus boivinii will drop its handsome, laurel-like leaves during times of drought or stress, refoliating when conditions improve. In favourable conditions the foliage remains evergreen. Although the tree is used to prepare treatments for gonorrhoea, colic, wounds and itches, all parts are considered toxic if ingested by humans or other animals.
Strophanthus boivinii, The Kampong, Miami
The fine specimen photographed here was found growing at The Kampong in Miami, part of a collection started by David Fairchild, one of America’s great horticulturalists. It had made a low, domed canopy in a lawned area and was just coming into leaf and flower, giving the whole tree an appealing, zesty freshness. There’s no doubt that the wood shaving flower would make a splendid ornamental tree in the right situation and an eye catching addition to a floral arrangement. Suited to climates in USDA zone 10 or above, this tree is too tender for UK gardens, except perhaps the Isles of Scilly. I can find no evidence of any examples in botanical collections here, although the obvious starting place would be Kew. There are a few sources of seed online, including rarepalmseeds.com, an outfit with a mouthwatering selection of exciting plants to choose from so worth a visit in any case. If you felt inclined to grow from seed, the wood shaving flower might tolerate life in a large, well-ventilated, frost-free greenhouse. It would certainly impress your gardening friends. TFG.
N.B. The future of thousands of little-known plants such as the wood shaving flower is under threat. Not at some later date, now. As well as looking pretty, many of these plants have little known or untapped medical potential in addition to other economic benefits. One day they could save our lives. The best way to preserve these precious resources is in their natural habitat, as part of the complex ecosystems they’ve evolved within. There are several conservation organisations working to preserve Madagascar’s biodiversity, one such being Madagasikara Voakajy. You can read more about their work here and in a recent BBC report by Victoria Gill.