Twenty days to go and the countdown to my NGS garden open weekend is well underway. In truth the garden does not need another twenty days to look its best; it’s there already. I am mildly concerned that it will peak too soon, but there’s no holding it back now. Recent weather has been exceptional, providing perfect conditions for the kind of plants I like to grow. Their rampant growth has been accelerated by copious watering and regular feeding, an ongoing labour of love during this heatwave. Many gingers, cannas and salvias are already well above head-height and producing wondrous flowers. Early clematis have been little short of spectacular. This weekend I will be staking and deadheading to maintain some semblance of order.
As for me, I do not feel ready at all: my ‘to do’ list is starting to keep me awake at night. Opening one’s garden, as anyone who’s done it knows, requires planning, elbow grease, nerves of steel and a great support network.
So what can you expect to find if you visit The Watch House on August 4th and 5th? There will be two gardens to enjoy this year; the Jungle Garden (top of post) and the Gin & Tonic Garden (above). Each one is a small courtyard measuring no more than 20ft x 30ft. Visitors will be welcomed in via the workshop, where, fingers crossed, I will have a handful of plants for sale and there will be delicious teas, of course.
The first section of the garden you’ll encounter is a narrow passageway dominated by a long wall of Trachelospermum jasminoides underplanted with ferns. The current proliferation of white flowers may be gone, along with their sensational fragrance, but the simple green corridor creates the perfect decompression zone between the harsh brightness of the street and the dappled profusion of the Jungle Garden. Returning visitors will recall this space is quite tight, and I can report it will be even tighter this year. My lack of restraint, combined with the best growing year I can recall*, means that there is barely room to swing a cat#. I make no apology for the cramped conditions as this is precisely the look I am aiming to achieve. My inspiration for this garden is a heady blend of Henri Rousseau’s avant-garden jungle scenes with the sounds and seclusion of a Marrakeshi riad. Gardens are, after all, a personal indulgence, and mine is very much so.
The main event in the Jungle Garden is foliage. Big, small, plain, variegated, filigree or frond-like, I rely on leaves to create structure, enclosure, drama, shade, interest and an overwhelming sense of immersion. Green is such an incredible colour, at once soothing and invigorating. Green is the colour of life and, like life, I can’t get enough of it. That said, I have been experimenting by introducing more variegated foliage plants, trying out several varieties of zonal pelargonium and coleus (solenostemon). I think the results are good, but I shall be interested in visitors’ reaction to these more extrovert additions. The garden is home to too many species and cultivars for me to list here, so I will be updating my plant list over the next couple of weeks in order that visitors can identify all that capture their imagination. What I hope people will take away is that much can be achieved in a very small space, if it suits you. I like that the tropical atmosphere is so unexpected in the centre of a busy, English, seaside town. This garden is especially magical on a warm night, when I can almost imagine I’m in the tropics, surrounded by exotic scents and unexplained sounds. For opening my hope is that the ginger flowers will be in their prime, along with dahlias, salvias and begonias. I am growing several new varieties of colocasia, including the lovely ‘Maui Gold’ which produces chartreuse-yellow leaves on ivory stems.
The Gin and Tonic Garden is accessed via a narrow path further up Thanet Road. This is a much sunnier garden, especially in summer, and is home to an eclectic mix of flora. So far it seems to suit plants from hotter, drier climes such as the Mediterranean, South Africa, the Canary Islands and Australia. Protected from easterly winds by the bulk of the house, there were many more winter survivors here than in the Jungle Garden, including the spectacular Geranium maderense which seeds itself freely here. The Gin & Tonic garden is a small but pretty space, demonstrating what can be achieved in just 12 months. I have bigger plans for this garden when my budget allows, including replacement of boundary fences and the introduction of columnar trees to screen the houses behind. Visitors will spy a specimen of Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Slender Silhouette’ which I am trialling to assess whether it could be the perfect candidate. In time, inspired by Islamic paradise gardens, I want to create a more formal, less cluttered layout. Such a plan would require the removal of my greenhouse, which will be painful since I have waited so long to get one.
If the weather is fine I will open the doors to the small garden room which is where I write. Beyond the garden room is my library, devoted almost entirely to books about plants and gardening. It’s incredible how many books have been published on these subjects and the shelves are filling up far faster than I anticipated. Alas, no time for reading during the summer months, so new arrivals will be perused later in the year.
Now that the heatwave is firmly entrenched I am keeping my fingers crossed that it doesn’t come to an end before my big weekend. If it does turn out fine and you are planning to visit, I’d recommend coming at the beginning or end of the 12pm-4pm period as it may get very busy indeed. Well behaved dogs are welcome but space in the garden is extremely limited, so perhaps leave your Rottweiler at home. The nearest parking is in the Crofts Place Car Park directly off the High Street, 30 yards away, otherwise it’s only a hop, skip and a jump from Broadstairs train station or the nearest Loop bus stop. If you’re a reader of this blog do come and say hello: I’ll be the one in the flowery shirt. And if you’re too far away to hear the beat of the jungle drums there will be a pre-opening video tour, I promise. TFG.
Five Facts about My garden
The Watch House is not one house, but three. It is an amalgamation of numbers 3, 5 and 7 Thanet Road. The oldest part is 200 years old. Before there was a house here, this plot of land was an orchard belonging to one of the houses on the High Street.
Beneath the Jungle Garden are vaulted undercrofts, which means there is no soil. What you are experiencing is basically a roof garden. Everything is planted either in containers or raised beds. Local legend has it that tunnels built by smugglers run from the undercrofts to the beach, although I have found no evidence of these. The name ‘The Watch House’ stems from the idea that smugglers kept watch over the English Channel from the top floor windows.
The Jungle Garden was created ten years ago. Prior to that the garden comprised a bomb shelter, a range of privies and a large expanse of crazy paving. Nothing remains from that original layout, except the boundary walls.
Frost is a rare occurrence in my garden, but we did not escape The Beast from the East which wiped out several tender plants and damaged others. There were days when I found myself sweeping up snow laced with sand and shells, such was the force of the wind off the sea. As you will see, all was not lost and there is very little evidence of the carnage four months on.
Depending on their tenderness and growing habit, half-hardy plants are overwintered in the greenhouse (unheated), workshop (also unheated) or the garden room. A surprising number, including the rare Isoplexis sceptrum, make it through the winter without any protection, but benefit from low rainfall and extremely good drainage.
I am becoming predictable. Just as at Chelsea, it was a contemporary garden featuring a blast of vibrant yellow and a generous entertaining space that captured my imagination at Hampton Court. In spite of the tongue-twisting name (henceforth I shall refer to it simply as the Santa Rita Garden), this was one of the show’s stand-out gardens and one that I could easily have lifted and shifted into a place of my own. The Mediterranean style and drought-tolerant planting felt entirely ‘of the moment’, basking as it did beneath a flawless blue English sky.
Designed by Alan Rudden, the Santa Rita Garden enjoyed its first outing earlier this year at Dublin’s Bloom garden show where it went by the name ‘Life is Rosé‘. It won a gold medal in Éire and repeated that success on British soil last week, also picking up ‘Best World Garden‘ in the process. I am not sure how I feel about gardens being repeated at more than one show and hope this isn’t the start of a trend. I can certainly appreciate how reprising a design offers a sponsor more bang for their buck, whilst making good use of expensive plants and bespoke materials. If a garden is worthy of a gold medal I suppose it deserves the widest audience, but if taking a garden on tour were to become a routine exercise, I’d be disappointed.
For the Santa Rita Garden the sponsor’s brief was to create an outdoor living space in which to enjoy the brand’s wines in the company of friends. Santa Rita is based in Chile, which is a country possessed of a staggering range of climatic and geographic conditions. The estate producing the brand’s flagship wine, Casa Real, enjoys an arid, Mediterranean climate. Alan Rudden thoughtfully combined plants from around the dry temperate world to create a modern garden, although I didn’t pick up much of a South American vibe. Let’s be fashionable and call it fusion, appealing to anyone from California to Cape Town.
In a nod to Mexican architect Luis Barragán, four bold steel monoliths coated with yellow oxide were balanced in the body of the garden by seven pollarded strawberry trees (Arbutus unedo). These might have been considered ugly ducklings had they not possessed so much character, suggesting that the garden might have been made around them. This was clever touch, lending a sense of permanence to the plot. Gabions filled with a warm, pale stone offered some degree of compartmentalisation and the illusion of a level change. I like the idea of gabions but always wonder how they’d look after a few years in our damp, humid climate. Water featured in the form of an elongated yellow tank feeding a narrow rill, but this was quite understated and I’d like to have seen a larger expanse of water somewhere in the garden.
The planting stole the show for me, a complex tapestry of species chosen for their tolerance of dry conditions, if not their hardiness in the UK. Pittosporum tobira ‘Nanum’ (Japanese mock orange) is a superb shrub for a well-drained spot, producing neat mounds of glistening emerald-green foliage and white flowers when planted in the sun. It’s a great foil for blue flowers and silver foliage. Other favourite plants of mine included Tulbaghia violacea (society garlic), Senecio ‘Angel Wings’, Astelia chathamica (Maori flax) and Agapanthus africanus (African lily, both white and blue versions). A bevy of spikey plants were used to furnish a section of the garden resembling a dry river bed, including Yucca rostrata ‘Blue Swan’ (beaked yucca), Puya harmsii (a terrestrial Bromeliad from the Argentinian Andes), Agave gentryi ‘Jaws’ and Echinocactus grusonii (golden barrel cactus). The inclusion of several aromatic plants lent the whole garden a characteristically Mediterranean fragrance.
I would like there to have been more changes of level in this garden, as overall it felt too flat: perhaps a raised bed or a more generous water tank would have satisfied me. Although it would have been challenging to achieve on a level site, I think there could also have been more exaggerated mounding of the ground to create a pronounced stream bed with banks on either side. I do like to see an agave on a slope.
I am finding fault with a garden that was overall very good and that I liked a great deal, so I will search no further for improvements. There’s no doubt that the appearance and atmosphere of this garden was greatly enhanced by a blue sky and warm sunshine, making each element feel ‘just right’. Who would not have wanted to settle down and enjoy a bottle of perfectly chilled wine in this invigorating garden? As for the spikey plants, perhaps these were protection against anyone having one too many and trampling on the plants. Echinocactus grusonii is, after all, occasionally known as mother-in-law’s cushion. TFG.
Who would have imagined that a garden jam-packed with common-or-garden Busy Lizzies would win a gold medal the prestigious Hampton Court Palace Flower Show? Or that such a garden would land Best in Show and the ultimate horticultural accolade, The Tudor Rose Award? Well, thanks to talented designer Matthew Childs and a partnership between DIY giant B&Q and plant breeder Syngenta, such a garden just has …. and it richly deserved to.
Since 2011 the poor old Busy Lizzie, stalwart of hanging baskets and window boxes across the temperate world, tolerant of shade and flowering for months on end, has been struck down by a virulent strain of downy mildew. The disease cannot be controlled by fungicides, consigning one of our favourite garden and house plants to the B list of bedding. Acknowledging the problem, and the popularity of this forgiving little plant, B&Q and Syngenta have brought to market a new breed of Busy Lizzie called ‘Imara’, which means ‘strength’ in Swahili. Not only are ‘Imara Bizzie Lizzies’ highly resistant to downy mildew, but they are also adaptable to sun or shade and will flower from late spring until the first frosts. To me, they appear unrecognisable from the plants we knew and loved before pestilence struck.
This is all great news, but it requires a stretch to imagine Busy Lizzies starring in the top garden at the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show. Yet from the moment one rounds the corner and catches sight of this expansive garden, one recognises it as a winner. It’s been a hot, bright show so far this year and the heat really makes this vibrant space quiver with energy. Rich, saturated greens of musa, ficus, aucuba, hosta, canna and osmunda zip and ping in front of graphite-grey hard landscaping elements. Pops of gold, acid-yellow, silver and plum prevent the composition from becoming a monotonous sea of green. Then come the Busy Lizzies in feisty shades of red, orange, magenta a purple, fizzing and popping beneath a leafy canopy, just as they would in the forests of East Africa. The plants were deliberately grown taller for the most shaded parts of the garden to mimic their natural habit as a woodland understory plant. I especially love a section where a mass of cherry-red Busy Lizzies is shot through with pale yellow Virginia wild rye (Elymus virginicus). Apart from a couple of waterlilies and hostas, Busy Lizzies are the only flowers in this garden.
What is clever about the design is that it offers varied and interesting views from the outside in, deftly demonstrating the power of the diagonal in creating depth and the illusion of greater space. Nothing infuriates me more than a show garden that cannot be appreciated from its perimeter. This is why I had no great appreciation for Chelsea’s Best in Show, which appeared to be designed almost to the exclusion of the outside viewer. This is all well and good in a private garden, but not at a flower show: there’s something not very inclusive about a show garden that looks in on itself. Matthew Childs’ garden is exciting from every angle, the saturated colours refusing to pale in even the brightest of sunlight. A stiff breeze added to the exotic feel on Monday … as if a tropical storm had just blown through. Water is incorporated boldly and seamlessly, dotted here and there with Thalia dealbata and Cyperus papyrus, which are tender but fabulous pond plants. A feature in at least three show gardens this year, an outdoor bar suggests infinite entertaining opportunities. There is even the option to retire to a small studio with a bed inside, should all the socialising get too much for you. Surprise, surprise, all the materials used are available to buy at B&Q and that in itself will be a revelation to some.
It is hard for the other show gardens to compete with the scale and sheer exuberance of the Bursting Busy Lizzie Garden, but the accolades are genuinely deserved for the quality of the build and the imaginative design alone. The scale of the structural planting, including mighty specimens of Ailanthus altissima ‘Purple Dragon’ (tree of heaven) and Gleditsia triacanthos ‘Sunburst’ (honey locust), mean that every last bit of attention is captured by the garden and not by the RHS’s ugly tents and flags. Of course this design was always going to appeal to me with my love of bright colours and tropical foliage, but I was not alone. I would be no surprise if it were to land People’s Choice and secure a clean sweep of the top awards.
To sum up this is a garden that both a passionate gardener and a socialite might enjoy. It could be adapted to be high or low maintenance, although I should note that the tender nature of some of the planting, including cycads, bananas and Busy Lizzies, mean it would take some revision for a more northerly location. The majority of plants used would overwinter outside with some care. Whilst the hard landscaping elements seem appealingly affordable, the larger plants certainly would not be, unless one was prepared to be patient. The consolation is that many would be fast growers.
It’s great to see the Busy Lizzie restored to health and, one hopes, to our gardens. I have relied heavily on white-flowered varieties in previous gardens and marvelled at their willingness to grow neatly and flower abundantly. If you still have any gaps left (and heaven knows I don’t!), get to B&Q, snap up some some ‘Imara Bizzie Lizzies’ and let us all know how you get on. TFG.
Imara Bizzie Lizzies (available exclusively from B&Q in 16 colours)
I write this post, naked from the waist up, basking in the sun at The Watch House. It’s not a pretty sight, but only I can see it. Beyond the garden gate bodies of all shapes and sizes litter the beach, reclining on vast towels, shielded from their neighbours by gaudy windbreaks despite there being no wind. Here in my little haven I am spared the sight of lobster-coloured flesh, but still get to enjoy the heated and very public disputes all families seem obliged to have on their way back to the car. Sometimes they even stop in the street outside so that I can enjoy several minutes of their impassioned performance. The roles are always the same – screaming mother, obstinate, unsympathetic father and wailing child / children. Occasionally there may be a cameo role for a pacifying grandparent or disinterested dog. I marvel at how indecision over where to consume fish and chips can cause such monumental rifts in a family, but we’ve all been there. That’s the heat for you: it makes us tired and teasy.
I have not been immune to the effects of the heatwave. I slept very poorly every night last week, not helped by an overnight stay at a hotel where I was compelled to sleep with the door open just to get some air moving through. I can’t decide whether it was the impact of the heat on others or on me that caused me to be uncharacteristically short-tempered at work, but I was relieved when it came to Friday and I could work from home. Even the drilling and chattering of the electricians putting my chandeliers up could not put me in a bad mood. Although the temperature has increased daily, my good humour is restored, for now at least.
It is nowhere near as warm in Broadstairs as it is inland, yet it’s still quite warm enough for me. I have been trying to clear the workshop so that the electricians can bring power through from the house next week. It’s a job that needs to be done ahead of my open weekend so that we have somewhere to plug the tea urn in. Facing due south the workshop heats up like a brick-kiln during the day and holds the warmth overnight, so there is no good time to tackle it. Serves me right for packing it full of stuff that ought to have been dealt with at the time. Just as I was looking my most hot and flustered who should pop her head round the door other than Torrington Tina and her husband, all the way from sunny Devon. Despite regular encounters in the blogosphere we had never met before. It was fantastic to finally be able to put a face to a name. I was soaking my airplants in a bucket of water, the horticultural equivalent of drying my Y-Fronts on the washing line, so I made my apologies and went on with an impromptu tour.
During this warm, dry weather the garden needs watering every other day. Even in my tiny garden that’s a three-hour job if I do it properly, longer if I am feeding as well, which I am tonight. On a weekday that means I must spend the entire evening with a watering can in my hand. Despite the time commitment, I find watering incredibly therapeutic. It’s a great opportunity to really look at the detail of your garden and make adjustments as you go. The downside, as you may have noticed, is that I’ve had very little time to keep this blog updated. I have ideas for new posts coming out of my ears, but they must wait. At times like these one must live in the moment, enjoy the wonderful weather and do what your garden demands of you.
Blessed with long, sunny days the plants have gone bananas; even the bananas have gone bananas! Both gardens are looking so good I could open tomorrow and feel reasonably content with what I have achieved. With another five weeks growing time ahead, I am starting to wonder how I’ll actually fit anyone in come August. Flowers are just starting to appear in numbers, starting with Lilium ‘Pink Flavour’ and Dahlia ‘Totally Tangerine’. I’ve already spied flower spikes forming on Hedychium yunnanense, which is extraordinarily early for a ginger to be producing flowers outside. Just for now I am happy to wait and enjoy this period of green anticipation.
First thing tomorrow I set off for the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, where once again I will be assessing the trade stands for the RHS. I would love to avail you of my thoughts on what I am going to see, but alas I’ve not so much as looked at the website, or my instructions, so it will be a pleasant surprise for us both. If you are there on Tuesday and spot a man with oranges printed on his short-sleeved shirt, that will probably be me. Do say hello. If it is not, you’ll have met a man with fabulous taste anyway.
Whilst I am posting less frequently I am continuing to update other forms of social media regularly, so do give me a follow on Facebook or on Instagram and you’ll be among the first to see what’s in store at the world’s largest (and possibly hottest) flower show. I shall also be making more short films and posting them to IGTV. In the meantime stay cool, keep your garden well watered (if you are permitted to) and try not to let the heat get you. TFG.
I am a sucker for a rare or unusual plant. Give me a packed table at a plant fair and I will spot the rare treasure from a mile off. The plant may not be pretty, cheap, or suitable for my garden, but I shall probably buy it; not simply because I can, but because it interests me. I am fascinated by plants, how they grow and how they look. I want to broaden my knowledge and learn by doing rather than from reading text books. A new plant may flourish or it may die, and though I don’t enjoy killing plants, I’d rather have a go than not try at all. Even if death is the result of my careful ministrations, I will have learned something; usually sufficient to know whether I should try again. Plants are like friends – some will come and go, making space in your life for new ones. The ones that really like you will stick around for the long haul.
And so we come to today’s subject, Buddleja speciosissima, a shrub that hails from the mountains of southern Brazil. I am sure we can all agree that these conditions are probably quite different from those in east Kent. However Nicholas Lock, specialist grower of rare and hard-to-find trees and shrubs, assures me that it has been cultivated succcessfully in gardens in northern France, so I decide to give it a go. I picked up my plant, perhaps 14″ tall, at the Cornwall Spring Flower Show (see above, the plant second in from the left). It was one of only two on a stand spilling over with seriously choice plants. My buddleja has already been repotted twice and now stands 4′ tall and counting. At the base of the main stem there are lots of healthy side-shoots forming. My plant is rudely healthy and I’m excited to see if I will enjoy flowers this year. So far, so good.
The foliage of Buddleja speciosissima is unmistakably that of a Buddleja – elongated, slightly floppy and a mid-green shade. The big difference with this species is that both the underside of the leaves and the subquadrangular stems are covered in a thick white coating (correctly described as indumentum), as if someone has taken a can of spray snow to the plant. I believe this attractive woolliness diminishes as the plant matures. In summer the main event is the appearance of flower spikes – also woolly – which grow up to 20cm in length. They carry tubular, orangey-red flowers, each 2-3cm long. In their natural habitat they are pollinated by hummingbirds. Not so many of those in Broadstairs so we shall see if they attract butterflies instead.
At home in Brazil, Buddleja speciosissima colonises dry, rocky grassland at high altitudes, suggesting it will grow well here in poor soils with good drainage. Being new to the UK, the plant’s hardiness has yet to be established, although Arven Nurseries in France suggest it will cope with short spells as cold as -8ºC. I intend to protect mine over winter to be on the safe side. As for its place in the garden, Buddleja speciosissima would obviously look terrific in any exotic planting scheme, or in a dry, sunny situation such as a gravel garden. Eventually reaching 3m in height, Buddleja speciosissima is possibly a little too large for a conservatory or greenhouse and I’m not yet sure if it will take the kind of coppicing that keeps other buddleja in check.
I can find only two sources of Buddleja speciosissima in the UK. The first is Nicholas Lock, from whom you can buy at a number of specialist plant fairs throughout the year. Call in advance to check there are plants ready for sale. The second is Pan Global Plants, who offer mail order, subject to availability. Visit the website for details. In France, Arven Nurseries also offer Buddleja specisiossima, although they are out of stock at the time of writing. I hope the nurseries mentioned will forgive my use of their images until such a time that my own plant flowers. Early results would suggest this a shrub well worth seeking out, especially if you garden in the warmer south or drier east. TFG.
When a plant does well in my garden, I want to grow more of it. As a gardening strategy, this makes perfect sense. So often we struggle on, trying to grow things that are not best suited to our conditions. Then we ask ourselves why we fail. I wonder how many people have abandoned gardening based on failure to maintain a baize-like lawn, a compact lavender bush or some tender beauty pushed to the front of the garden centre bench? My sincere advice is not to bother in the first place. Unless you are very skilled, very determined or very fortunate, you are heading for bitter disappointment. Celebrating and building on what grows well in a garden is a sound philosophy. That’s why my tiny plot is rammed with agapanthus, zantedeschia, hedychiums, begonias and cannas. Hey, I should probably up sticks and move to South Africa or South East Asia rather than soldiering on here in East Kent!
On many occasions over the last decade I have planted coleus in my garden, usually in pots. Provided they are a decent size and adequately hardened-off they perform brilliantly in my cool, dappled courtyard, rewarding me for months with boldly splashed, feathered or bordered foliage. When it comes to vibrant, even zany leaves, coleus have few peers. I adore them for that. The nondescript flower stems, mauve and elongated like a poor-man’s salvia, are normally pinched out to extend the foliage display. This does eventually become something of a futile task, but cuttings can be rooted in a glass of water and vigorous replacements created within weeks. Coleus can be grown indoors or outdoors, appreciating a degree of protection from scorching sun and benefitting from regular watering.
This summer my local garden centre is offering an irresistible coleus (now correctly reclassified as solenostemon), named ‘Henna’. I’ve now purchased ten of them, and they were cheap at half the price. Already substantial plants, they have doubled in size over two weeks and everyone is commenting on their bold, tooth-edged foliage coloured Chartreuse green and brick-red.
‘Success!’, I think, ‘I’ll get hold of some other varieties’. I search my mind and recall a cultivar named ‘Gay’s Delight’ (can’t imagine why that stuck with me), an acid-yellow coleus with dramatic black venation. I grew it at some point over the last decade at a time when I didn’t have a greenhouse to keep tender plants alive over winter. I Google ‘Coleus Gay’s Delight‘. The RHS website lists a single supplier. A single supplier, for an easy-to-grow plant with an Award of Garden Merit? I am surprised. I click-through to Primrose Cottage Plants in Cheshire and find a photograph of ‘Gay’s Delight’, but no further details and no means to buy.
Unperturbed, I return to the RHS website to see what varieties might be more readily available. Perhaps I had been searching for the rarest of all coleus …. which would be typical of me. Ahh, yes, 431 results for solenostemon. Brilliant. Then I begin to scroll through the list. The first variety, ‘China Rose’, is a classic coleus with beefy, burgundy, serrated leaves, each with a fuchsia-pink flash down the mid-rib. It also has an AGM … but no suppliers listed. Odd. Next up, ‘Buttermilk’ is a slightly tamer creature with lemon-yellow leaves generously edged in Granny Smith green. Also no suppliers listed here either. Number three is ‘Campfire’, shortlisted for the 2016 RHS Chelsea Flower Show Plant of the Year and winner of the People’s Choice Award for best new summer flower in the same year. Not bad for a plant that isn’t grown for its blooms. Two suppliers this time. Really? Only two? Primrose Cottage again, and Hillview Hardy Plants who actually do appear to have plants available at £8 each if you search really hard for them.
Mildly encouraged, I continue scrolling down the RHS list. On the first two pages, only the cultivar ‘Henna’, which I already have, has two suppliers listed, the rest have none or one. By page three of forty-two, the RHS do not even display a photograph. Now feeling slightly irritated, I return to Google and search ‘buy coleus plants UK‘. First up come Dibleys Nurseries, best known for their splendid offering of streptocarpus and begonias. I shall return to them shortly. From then on the top results are all for seeds or plug plants of mixed varieties, which is a result, but not the one I am after.
Like many budding gardeners I grew coleus from seed when I was a child, and still recall the experience vividly now. While the flowering plants would take weeks to start doing anything interesting, coleus would begin to produce colourful foliage immediately after the seed leaves. Even these might be speckled or bronzed. Coleus provide as close to instant gratification as any plant grown from seed.
Too late to start from scratch with seed and too fussy about what colours I might receive in a mixed tray, I click through to a website called Coleus Finder. Created by enthusiast Wouter Addink, Coleus Finder could well be to coleus what the Millenium Seed Bank is to preserving genetic diversity. It lists 570 coleus varieties from ‘Alabama’ to ‘Zebra’, each with a photograph (RHS please note). The diversity of form and colour is incredible and by page two I am salivating. A helpful list of suppliers from around the world leads me to believe coleus might be considerably more popular in the USA than they are in the UK. Most of the suppliers listed on this side of the Atlantic are either seed suppliers, out of business, or do not offer mail-order. Another dead-end as far as my purchases were concerned. J. Parker’s offered some hope of obtaining ‘Campfire’ and ‘Gay’s Delight’ as part of a ‘unique collection of coleus that demands attention in any garden‘, but were out of stock of all coleus, even cat shoo, Coleus canina, which is good for only one thing – deterring cats.
This is exactly how I hope my garden might look in a month or so!
I return to Dibleys Nurseries, which I was avoiding until this point because they only supply coleus as part of a collection of six, twelve or twenty-four plants, albeit one can select from named cultivars. I love Dibleys but the ordering process was not smooth, and the varieties available differed from the miniscule photographs displayed. None of them were coleus I was especially looking for, but by this point I was not going to be fussy. Dibleys provide no indication of what size the plants might be and no individual descriptions of the cultivars on offer. Having had a couple of glasses of wine by this stage, I decided on eight varieties, three plants of each. I figure that any I don’t like can be grown on and sold at my garden open weekend in August. Knowing me I will love them all. The list includes ‘Autumn Rainbow’, ‘Combat’ AGM, ‘Kiwi Fern’, ‘Durham Gala’ AGM, ‘Lord Falmouth’ AGM, ‘Pineapplette’, ‘Winsome’ AGM and ‘Walter Turner’ AGM. When they arrive, I shall provide a full report.
My experience leads me to believe that coleus are in crisis here in Britain. As far as I can determine there is no National Collection, nor specialist grower in the UK. I can find only two books on coleus, both long out of print but now on their way to The Watch House library courtesy of Amazon. The more recent title, published by Timber Press in 2008, heralds coleus’ dramatic comeback. If it happened, I blinked and missed it. The earlier volume, Coleus: A Guide to Cultivation and Identification was published in 1974, which must be approximately the last time anyone here took any interest these poor plants.
The majority of coleus offered for sale in the UK are presented as mixed bedding for the end consumer, or as wholesale plug plants for nurseries to grow on. Where they go after that, heaven only knows. In an age when house plants are back in vogue and we’ve reconnected with the flamboyance of flowers such as the dahlia and the gladiolus, why are coleus still consigned to the Z list of cultivated plants? They..
There were points during February and March when I thought my garden might never regain its former glory. The Beast from the East had ravaged every plant with any sensitivity to cold, wet or wind. In the ten years since my garden was built I had not experienced such degrees of damage or destruction. Like me, the garden had been knocked off course. Drowned out by howling gales and silenced by snow, the rhythm of my urban jungle seemed to have ceased. And yet, just over 100 days later I stand at the front door and can hear the drums beating louder and more vigorously than ever.
A rapid recovery has not been achieved without some effort. In my determination to get everything back to ‘normal’, I’ve been patient with plants that needed time to rehabilitate. A few, including Cobaea scandens and Agapanthus africanus, are only just out of intensive care. A handful have shuffled off this mortal coil, including my marguerites and a cherished tibouchina. Such is life. They can be replaced. I have been particularly careful to leave striken plants alone rather than smother them with love. Overwatering and zealous cutting-back can turn a minor calamity into a fatality. Vine weevils are also a problem for me, the tiny white grubs preying on the roots of already weakened plants. I go out daily at nightfall to pick the adults off and crush them.
Clearing the garden of blackened vegetation post the big freeze presented opportunities to repair the garden’s perimeter and install a soaker hose to irrigate the driest parts of my raised beds. This has already extended the range of plants I can grow, in what was becoming impossibly dry shade. Bananas, gingers and colocasias are already flourishing, and my clematis are the best they have ever been. The abundance of Clematis ‘Happy Anniversary’ (purchased because I liked it, rather than to celebrate an occasion), has inspired me to plant four more shade-loving, large-flowered clematis: ‘Wada’s Primrose’, ‘Dawn’, ‘Fujimusume’ and ‘Guernsey Cream’. Given a couple of years they will light up the darkest recesses of the garden just when it needs a colourful boost. The pastel colours I’ve chosen work much better than the plums, limes and oranges I favour for brighter spots.
What I find remarkable is plants’ capacity to pick up the beat as soon as weather improves. Where in April the flowering of narcissi was about a month behind, the time-lag in later developers has reduced to a week, if that. Over the last fortnight the pace of growth at The Watch House has been spectacular, with new plantings settling in and filling out in no time. Long, warm days and balmy nights certainly help, although rain has been scarce. Whilst watering I have started to administer a balanced fertiliser to plants in recovery and tomato food to those that are established which I want to flower their socks off. Tomato food works especially well for gingers, dahlias and agapanthus. Any remaining gaps are closing over before I can wedge in a trowel and plant something else. It’s all rather exhilarating, if at the same time exhausting. On Monday mornings I can barely shift my aching body out of bed.
The beat goes on, hopefully maintaining a steady rhythm between now and my open weekend on August 4th and 5th. By then there will be far more flowers: the slow, sultry rumba that’s just picking up tempo will have transformed into a vigorous, passionate, seductive Argentine tango. TFG
What a rollercoaster ride last week was. It began with visits to two very fine private gardens, open by appointment for the National Garden Scheme, and ended with a frantic day of potting up and bedding out in my own garden at The Watch House. In between came the RHS Chatsworth Flower Show in Derbyshire and a whirlwind tour of Coton Manor Gardens in Northamptonshire. The days had all become a blur by Sunday. Writing this post, it’s been a pleasure reflecting on what was a happy, varied and sunny week: the sort I’d like to enjoy many more of. England is magical in May and early June, which is why I like to take most of my holidays then. I return to work today looking forward to a well-earned rest. How lucky we are to live in a country so blessed with beautiful countryside and great gardens. I sometimes have to remind myself of that.
All the locations I visited last week will be getting their own posts in due course (perhaps not Newport Pagnell Motorway Services), but in the meantime, here’s a taste of my adventures.
First stop was The Orchard, home to Mark Lane who you may recognise from the BBC’s Gardeners’ World. When not on our screens, Mark is a busy and successful garden designer and writer. He made his name in publishing before an accident and subsequent diagnosis with spina bifida meant that he required a wheelchair to get about. Mark re-trained and has never looked back. As one might expect, The Orchard is skilfully adapted for wheelchair access, but the design is not compromised by this. Mark’s aesthetic is contemporary, softened by varied, multi-layered planting. There’s a strong emphasis on structure, interesting perennials and plants which attract wildlife into the garden. The Orchard is open by appointment to small groups of four or less, between July 1st and August 31st 2018. Individuals are also very welcome. Mark and his partner Jasen are charming, enthusiastic hosts, making my visit a thoroughly enjoyable one. Click here for details about how to arrange a visit to The Orchard.
On the same day I visited Marshborough Farmhouse near Sandwich (pictured above). Rarely does one come across a private garden of this calibre in terms of plantsmanship and standards of gardening. Quite simply it blew my socks off. I left wanting to return again and again, bowled over by the owners’ knowledge and commitment to their garden, which is all consuming. From 2.5 acres of Kentish farmland Sarah and David Ash have gently fashioned a garden of great character. Their collection of plants, many of which have been raised from seed or cuttings, is stupendous and will delight anyone with a passion for plants. Unlike my garden, which is on chalk, the soil here is slightly acidic, sandy loam and very sharply drained. This makes it possible to grow all sorts of Australian and New Zealand natives, as well as Mediterranean plants. I don’t mind admitting that I was completely in awe of this garden and returned home feeling that I must try harder. Visits for groups of ten or more can be arranged between the 18th and 29th of June 2018, and again between the 20th and 31st of August. I would heartily recommend taking a notebook and pencil as I guarantee you will encounter plants you’ve never seen before. Click here for details about how to visit Marshborough Farmhouse.
Whilst at Chatsworth I managed to sneak up to the walled gardens, located on a gentle slope high above the big house and with a magical view of Capability Brown’s expansive landscape park. The hanging woods behind march right up to the mellow stone walls, lilac rhododendrons spilling bountifully over. This is the sort of place I imagine gardeners might go if they qualified for heaven. Gardener and guardian angel Becky Crowley presides cheerfully over a cutting garden packed with peonies, hesperis, irises, geums and roses, alongside generous plots of fruit and vegetables. Much longer required here on my next visit.
When I’m travelling cross-country I try not to waste an opportunity to stop off at a garden en route, especially when I have a car that I can pack with plants. The night before my journey I Googled “Gardens near the M1” and up popped Coton Manor Gardens. I’ve been researching and visiting gardens for over 25 years, yet somehow I’d never heard of this one: remiss of me, yet what a fabulous find. The garden at Coton Manor possesses the kind of quality, charm and personality that is lacking in some better-known gardens. It has developed slowly and organically around a handsome house, resulting in a layout which is both unexpected and exciting. The use of water in the garden is especially ingenious, with pretty streams, pools and rills that could easily inspire smaller gardens. A flock of placid, coral-pink flamingos is a point of fascination for young and old. The plant nursery is full of good quality, home-grown plants and naturally I succumbed to its charms as well. Mine were a rose called ‘Pearl Drift’, Iris chrysographes (black form), Viola ‘Irish Molly’, Clematis recta ‘Purpurea’, Dahlia ‘Ragged Robin’ and Agapanthus ‘Silver Moon’. Of course, I needed them all, no question. My greatest regret is that I didn’t have time to stop for lunch, which looked good. If it comes to a choice between buying plants and feeding myself, buying plants will always come first. This is a possible but very expensive diet plan.
I was compelled to go back to work for two days before the weekend began. I love my job, but at times like these I’d rather be outside getting my hands dirty. Saturday was a bit of a write-off as I had made plans to spend time with friends. On Sunday I set about the Jungle Garden with a remarkable amount of vigour given I couldn’t actually remember getting home the night before (I do know I was in bed by midnight and I appear to have eaten toast and marmalade before doing so).
I was feeling a little overwhelmed by the task in hand, but quickly found that there’s nothing like getting stuck in to make a job seem less daunting. In the space of eight hours I managed to plant out my aeoniums (a task which requires some delicacy now that some are over 5ft tall), half a dozen colocasias and trays of a superb coleus named ‘Henna’. I also put some effort into grouping my potted plants so that they can start to mingle and knit together. I reckon on them needing a good two months to look established before my garden opening in early August. Ideally visitors won’t be able to detect any pots at all by then and the plants will have formed parallel banks of flower and foliage. TFG.
Tuesday in Derbyshire dawned grey and dank. I had only packed my Man from Del Monte outfit, so arrived at Chatsworth looking a trifle too tropical for the tepid conditions. I was not about to carry a Fedora around all day, so on my head it stayed. Perhaps I’m imagining it, but I am sure people are more deferential when they meet a man in a smart hat – I must wear one more often. Whether that’s true or not, it kept the drizzle off my glasses whilst I crouched uncomfortably on the metal walkway to take photographs of the show gardens. Totally untropical and not a pineapple in sight.
As expected, the number of gardens at RHS Chatsworth had dwindled significantly compared to last year: in fact there were only five. My suspicion is that sponsors were wooed and cajoled into staging gardens at the inaugural show, but decided not to return a second time, either for reasons of cost or disappointment with the return on their investment. Wedgwood, official partners of the RHS at Chatsworth, went from producing a full-on show garden to a section of limestone wall bisected by a gigantic sliver of glass. This was, apparently, inspired by Joseph Paxton’s Great Conservatory, though quite how is anyone’s guess.
I’ll say it because I’m in a provocative mood, but the introduction of a category dubbed ‘Installations’ smacked of filling the void left by ‘proper’ gardens with something cheaper and less engaging. The problem is that I’m not sure installations are what visitors come to RHS shows to see. I certainly don’t. With the exception of Brewin Dolphin’s homage to a village that stood in the shadow of Chatsworth House before Capability Brown swept it away (pictured above), the installations were at best amusing and at worse dull. Crowds did not gather round them, only cursory photos and selfies were taken. I found the Long Border competition slightly more titillating, but the siting of these was not brilliant and the quality sadly lacking in some instances. As for the ‘river’ of cosmos, something had gone awry there.
Moan over, otherwise I’ll never be allowed back.
On a brighter note the show gardens that were presented at Chatsworth were good, with a couple heading towards greatness. The close adjacency to Chelsea in the calendar means that few designers are able to create gardens at both shows, with the notable exception of Paul Hervey-Brooke’s who delivered at both and was still smiling at the end of it. His garden for Brewin Dolphin was categorised as an installation and was therefore ineligible for a medal, despite looking for all the world like a garden. Confused? So was I.
Anyway, of the five show gardens I felt four were worthy of comment and here they are, fully illustrated and in no particular order:
CCLA: A Family Garden, designed by Amanda Waring and Laura Arison (Silver-Gilt Medal)
This garden had three distinct sections – a dining area beneath a modern, grey pavilion; a child’s play area comprising a flowery meadow surrounding an onion-shaped willow ‘den’; and an informal seating area with luxuriant planting around a bench and water feature. I felt the three spaces could have linked better visually, but overall the garden was very nicely done. The downside for me, as it was for other Chatsworth gardens, is that the backdrop consisted of a row of garden sheds and a couple of ghostly white marquees. Why the RHS don’t think this through I do not know. I hope the designers challenge them to position the plots more sympathetically in future. Had the copper beech hedge at the back of this garden been continuous and higher, at least the ugly sheds might have been blocked out. Apart from that I felt the garden fulfilled its brief to create an attractive, safe space for a family of diverse ages. It looked its best in the early evening with the sun filtering through pale ox-eye daisies and illuminating the inviting seating areas.
Hay Time in the Dales, designed by Chris Myers (Silver Medal)
After the success of Mark Gregory’s Welcome to Yorkshire Garden at Chelsea, I felt sure that Hay Time in the Dales would follow suit with a gold medal. Although staged on a smaller plot, the romance and atmosphere captured by this garden was magical given it had only been in situ for a matter of days. On a cool, drizzly morning in early June it took no imagination at all to place this scene in the Yorkshire Dales. I loved all the little details such as the woolly socks on a rotary washing line and a sign on the gate reading ‘Winter food for stock. Please keep in single file’. Plants emerged from and enveloped a tiny converted barn, its roof and walls encrusted with ferns, mosses and grasses. I wonder if the judges found the meadow area too loose and unstructured? I really could find no fault with Hay Time in the Dales, despite this not being remotely my personal style of gardening. Chris – you got my Best in Show if that’s any consolation at all. The Man from Del Monte – he say yes!
The Great Outdoors designed by Phil Hirst (Gold Medal and Best in Show)
This was a solid show garden and deserved a gold medal. For me it felt ever so slightly dated, perhaps because of the colour scheme used, or the purple floor cushions which I could have done without. Something about the arrangement of green, purple, magenta, yellow and orange in geometric blocks reminded me of an 80’s shell suit. Once imagined, this is a hard image to shake! However some of the planting was divine, especially towards the back of the plot where luminous Anemone ‘White Swan’ romped about with hostas, ferns and black-leaved elder in the shade of a young oak tree. There was heaps of interest in structures, seating and..
Liz Patterson, Show Manager for the RHS Chatsworth Flower Show, will have been glued to the weather forecast for the last fourteen days. Last year’s inaugural show, in the magnificent park surrounding the home of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, was hampered by spiteful weather and lengthy traffic delays. Press Day was a total wash out, with everyone evacuated from the show ground in the early afternoon for fear that some of the structures might blow down and cause injury. The shoes I wore that day went straight in the bin. All seemed lost, but the sun returned for Members’ Day and the show went on to welcome thousands of visitors. Not much gets between the English and a good flower show! Liz can sleep soundly tonight, at least as far as the weather is concerned: light winds and only a 2% chance of rain we can cope with. As for the parking situation, we shall see!
Scanning over the site plan, visitors can expect a new and improved layout, with the show gardens grouped together and an extensive plant village offering some amazing opportunities to purchase. An inflatable replica of the famous Great Conservatory (aka The Great Stove) returns, as do the enormous Devonshire and Cavendish Marquees. These will host over a hundred exhibits from nurserymen, growers and plant collectors from across the land. Lessons have been learned and I am looking forward to a great day assessing trade stands for the RHS again tomorrow.
RHS Chatsworth Flower Show | Behind the scenes 2018 - YouTube
I am slightly apprehensive about the number of show gardens this year, substantially down on last year and sited very much on the fringe of the show. This is not a surprise, given the event is kicking off only ten days after Chelsea ended. There is only so much sponsorship available, but gardens are one of the main draws for a flower show of this calibre and I’d like to have seen a few more in the programme.
Top billing goes to a colossal installation of phalaenopsis orchids being staged in the Great Conservatory. Over 5,000 plants of 100 varieties will be used to adorn chandeliers, decorate a waterfall and form a living wall. Floral Designer Jonathan Moseley is the man with a plan to transform this space into a phalaenopsis fantastia.
The Chatsworth estate is vast and impressive, lending itself to bold and ambitious projects. A massed planting of 12,000 Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Razzamatazz’ will be planted in a river formation beneath the facade of Chatsworth House. If you’ve ever wanted to capture yourself having a Timotei moment, this could be the place to do it.
A scarcity of show gardens will be partially counterbalanced by a new competition which invites designers to create ‘iconic’ borders with the theme of movement. The initial Long Border competition was open to students, garden designers, community groups and talented individuals. The top eight borders have been realised in full at Chatsworth and will be presented to the public this week. I think this is a great idea, providing visitors with ideas that should be incredibly easy to replicate or adapt at home. I also like that the RHS have invited entries into an affordable category from a diverse variety of entrants, including complete newcomers. Below is a long border entitled ‘Summer Breeze’ by designer Kristian Reay, which heralds the approach of a long, hot summer. Here’s hoping.
Finally, a new Living Laboratory will explore the vital role plants play in an urban environment. Plants and technology will be displayed to highlight how different varieties can help address a number of challenges we have in our towns and cities, including pollution, flooding and lack of plants for pollinators.
The Chatsworth Flower Show, in partnership with Wedgwood, runs from Wednesday June 6th to Sunday June 10th 2018 and tickets are still available. Keep an eye on my Facebook Page, Instagram and You Tube Channel for updates.
Top and bottom of post – Sam Ovens’ Wedgwood Garden at Chatsworth in 2017.