The Watch House Awaits….

The garden viewed from the narrow passageway which leads from Thanet Road

In just less than two weeks, we open our garden at The Watch House in Broadstairs for the National Gardens Scheme. It has not been a long held ambition to let the public in, in fact it still seems a little absurd to me when you consider the garden measures just 20x30ft. However we were persuaded, quite forcefully by some proponents, to take the plunge and here we are just days away. The garden’s diminutive size is intended to be its USP amongst the other, more expansive gardens that open in Kent each year. We hope it gives visitors lots of ideas about they could do with their own small spaces and look forward to inviting them in to our little sanctuary.

The view from the living room window towards the outdoor kitchen

The view from the living room window towards the outdoor kitchen, July 2014

We moved to Broadstairs to be close to the sea and chose a town centre location. This meant a small courtyard garden, which we hoped would look after itself. We quickly found that we spent most of our time outside, but the space was cluttered with outbuildings of no particular historic interest. The house itself, two fishermen’s cottages knocked together, is not without charm, but hardly distinguished. In six years it will be 200 years old, an age I am sure the builders never anticipated it would reach. At the time of construction it was at the very edge of town, looking over the rooftops to the English Channel beyond, hence the name, The Watch House.

Broadstairs is famous for its seven sandy bays, each backed by gleaming white cliffs

Broadstairs is famous for its seven sandy bays, each backed by gleaming white cliffs

It’s probable that the plot would have originally belonged to one of the buildings in the High Street, but is unlikely to have had a layout that would have been worth recreating. We took the decision to start again and turn it into a contemporary space where we could entertain visitors (it’s amazing how popular we became when we moved to the seaside!). Nothing apart from the surrounding walls remains from the garden we inherited in 2006.

With a rectangle of this size the opportunities to create surprises and areas with different moods are limited. Instead, we decided upon what one might call a very traditional layout, with borders around the edge of a terrace. This was born out of necessity, as beneath the garden lies two vaulted undercrofts that cannot take a great deal of weight. One of our proudest moments was being chosen to feature in a BBC2 programme about Sissinghurst’s influential role in 21st century garden design. We have a garden room but, in comparison to Sissinghurst, The Watch House is a broom cupboard alongside the presidential suite!

Him Indoors during the filming of Alan Titchmarsh's Garden Secrets in 2009

Him Indoors during the filming of Alan Titchmarsh’s Garden Secrets in 2009

I hope the result of our garden transformation is anything but traditional. We have made as much use as possible of the vertical plane, choosing trees which are taller than they are wide to screen ourselves from neighbouring houses. The planting is unashamedly non-native. Indigenous plants in this essentially urban setting would be incongruous and the flowering season too short. Instead I’ve looked to California, The Canary Islands, Tasmania and South Africa for plants that will thrive in our sheltered microclimate. We also have a lot of evergreens for structure, which are wonderful until July when they all seem to drop their old, yellowing leaves simultaneously.

Digitalis sceptrum (formerly Isoplexis sceptrum), one of my favourite plants in the garden

Digitalis sceptrum (formerly Isoplexis sceptrum), one of my favourite plants in the garden

Slowly the garden has assumed the feel of one of those tranquil courtyards one finds at the heart of the Riads of Marrakech. The mass of foliage, which needs keeping in check constantly, deadens any noise that comes from the narrow back street running alongside the house. Birds seem to think it’s a paradise, regularly nesting in our trees and climbers, serenading us all day long. The only thing we are missing is a water feature, but I figure we have the best kind just two minutes walk away, the sea. When we come home and close the gate behind us, the hubbub of Broadstairs seems a million miles away.

In such a small space it’s been easy and inexpensive to incorporate little luxuries such as lighting, speakers and mains gas appliances, making the garden perfect for entertaining. Over the years we’ve probably spent more time in our beloved outdoor room than in any other part of the house. The initial project, which included design fees, demolition, materials, services, plants and labour, set us back the princely sum of £35,000. In my book that’s a small price to pay for such sustained pleasure and enjoyment.

Lunch at The Watch House in the early years

Lunch at The Watch House in the early years. Our friend Oli holds court

The garden is approached down a narrow passageway, which is the only opportunity we have to create any element of surprise or mystery before the whole space is revealed. The vista from the front gate remains important and is terminated by my favourite tree, Lyonothamus floribundus ssp asplenifolius, the Santa Cruz Ironwood. This year it is flowering for the first time; the heads of white, achillea-like flowers are the size of dinner plates. I hope they will hang on for visitors to admire in August. My attempts to keep the passageway clear of pots have been pretty lame. If the garden is the stage, then the slate path acts as the wings where a cast of young plants await their cue. Getting to the front door often involves wading through foliage and getting wet trousers!

The garden viewed from the narrow passageway which leads from Thanet Road

The garden viewed from the narrow passageway which leads from Thanet Road

Our outdoor kitchen is the feature that’s most often commented on by first time visitors. “How do you keep it covered?” we are asked, “we don’t” is the reply, it survives perfectly well with just the barbecue protected, mainly from seagulls and their shocking toilet habits. We did not get it right first time. The original slate worktop had too many joins and wicked water into the cupboards, so it was replaced last year with the granite surface we’d always aspired to. A ceramic sink in a garden is a godsend, useful for washing up pots, refreshing dried-out plants and chilling drinks. It looks as good as the day it was installed and comes up sparkling white after a quick scrub with my secret weapon, Astonish. Marine grade steel ensures that the barbecue and hob remain blemish free.

The outdoor kitchen

The outdoor kitchen after adding the new granite worktop in 2013

We have no shed or garage, so the cupboards make a convenient storage space for pots, tools, fertilisers and garden chemicals – no room for baked beans here! The shelves to the side of the barbecue were meant to be decorative, used occasionally for ingredients awaiting their turn on the grill, but have become the place to bring on seedlings and young plants in spring. In summer trailing begonias in fiery reds and oranges dangle dangerously from the top shelf.

The last of the day’s sunshine hits the sink area at about 4.30pm, after which the garden is plunged into shade. It’s a warm spot and perfect for grouping pots of sun worshippers which I swap around regularly to keep them looking fresh. The combination of the moment brings together hot pinks, wine and plummy shades. It is lovely to be able to examine up close the unusual flowers of plants like Rhodochiton atrosanguineus, the purple bell vine.

A combination of Aeonium 'Zwartkop', Rhodochiton atrosanguineus, Fuchsia arborescens and Begonia 'Benitochiba' by the outdoor sink.

A combination of Aeonium ‘Zwartkop’, Rhodochiton atrosanguineus, Fuchsia arborescens and Begonia ‘Benitochiba’ by the outdoor sink.

Maybe it’s a gardener’s natural instinct to try growing things against the odds, but I do like a challenge. Many of the plants I have collected over the years are slightly tender and on the whole they survive thanks to Thanet’s mild temperatures and long sunshine hours. Geranium maderense is the most borderline hardy for me, but emerges afresh from seed in years where the frost gets the better of the mature plants.

Geranium maderense in bloom the year after the garden's new design was completed

Geranium maderense in bloom the year after the garden’s new design was completed

I am not interested in having a low maintenance garden, they have no appeal to me, and instead create work for myself at every opportunity. The profusion of pots around the front door requires the most labour and planning. In October they are crammed with tulip, narcissus, muscari and fritillary bulbs, every year a slightly different combination depending on my mood in July when I order them. Bright colours work well because of the amount of evergreen foliage in the garden and enhance the generally tropical feel. I have tried limiting myself to white, but it just doesn’t work, so in come the reds, oranges and plums which I seem to gravitate towards. I have nowhere to store or replant bulbs from year to year (unless they are very special) so they are replaced anew every season.

Tulipa 'Red Shine" and 'White Triumphator'

Tulipa ‘Red Shine” and T. ‘White Triumphator’

Winter is a quiet time, but the garden remains vital and green unless we experience a frost. Then the echium leaves hang down sullen and dry and the zantedeschias turn to slimy green mush. Once March arrives, the work, all done at weekends, is pretty constant, moving around pots to create new combinations of foliage, flower and texture. I start planting out tender perennials and annuals from Easter time, after which we rarely experience frost. This year the gamble has paid off, with many plants a good six weeks ahead of where they were last year. I make no apology for filling any gaps that appear unexpectedly with mature plants from the garden centre – this is something one can do inexpensively when working in a small space.

Now I hope for a perfect storm of regular, steady showers, cool days and light breezes to keep the garden in tip-top condition for our open weekend. A chance would be a fine thing – our weather just isn’t that well behaved. I hope that one way or another I will have done enough to interest people and make the experience worth the £3 entrance fee. If you can come along on August 2nd or 3rd, I look forward to meeting you and showing you around. If not, I hope you enjoy this post and that a little of my enthusiasm for small scale gardening will rub off on you.

Click here for a full plant list

New garden furniture arrived this June, a reclaimed teak table surrounded by 'Air' chairs by Magis.

New garden furniture arrived this June, a reclaimed teak table surrounded by ‘Air’ chairs by Magis.

Open Weekend Practicalities

The garden will be open on Saturday August 2nd and Sunday August 3rd from 12-4. Entrance £3. Well behaved adults, children and dogs are most welcome. Please be mindful of the garden’s size (you can see more than two thirds of it in the image above) and that at times it may become quite cramped. This being our first time we don’t know quite how many people to expect.

There will be refreshments in the garden, but in a town like Broadstairs there are lots of options from fine dining to fish and chips so perhaps combine your visit with a stroll along the seafront and a nice lunch.

There is no car parking immediately outside the house. A carpark immediately off the High Street is your best bet, turn in between Cooke and Co. Estate Agents and The Fireplace Company. On Sunday there is unrestricted parking on some of the surrounding streets. From the station, The Watch House is about a 7 minute walk.

The address of the Watch House is 7, Thanet Road, Broadstairs, CT10 1LF.  It is immediately next door to Elite Fitness Studio which is well signposted around the town.

The Watch House Directions

 

 

Jungle Warfare

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At a certain point each year our seaside garden passes from a neat, orderly state into jungly bedlam. It becomes increasingly hard to move around without getting swiped in the face by a wayward lily, tripped by a flailing jasmine or toppled by a booby-trapped begonia. Getting to the front door requires a machete, if we can find it in the first place. The plants are waging a guerrilla war and will hold their territory until late autumn. I was hoping they might do the decent thing and agree a truce until our National Gardens Scheme open weekend is over, but the intense heat and rain we’ve experienced over the last two weeks has stirred everything into rampant action. My defeat is my own doing, highlighting an appalling lack of restraint when it comes to planting; all at once everything is on top of one another and fighting for supremacy.

Going ape. Pots outside the front door

Going ape. Pots outside the front door filled with Eucomis bicolor, begonias, fuchsias, salvias and members of the ginger family

The forfeit has been two weekends spent staking, cutting back and reorganising the collection of pots by the front door. Importantly, I have also been removing any dead leaves and flowers. This is for two reasons; first to discourage the army of snails which form a munching platoon at night; and second to avoid any mould and rot setting in. As in all jungle warfare, disease can be devastating, so it’s best not to take any chances and keep the air moving between plants.

Roscoea auriculata produces purple flowers from June until October but requires propping with small canes

Roscoea auriculata produces purple flowers from June until October, but requires propping with small canes

The spectacular thunder storms that have been sweeping the country have not passed us by. They have brought welcome rain, although not sufficient to reach the closely packed pots. In front of each storm has been a gusty wind, so staking has been essential to keep top heavy plants from toppling over. In most cases canes have been sufficient, but with plants such as Solanum laciniatum and Echium pininana, tree stakes are the only option. Around the kitchen area, Begonia corrallina (angel wing begonia), Thunbergia gregorii (orange clock vine) and Rhodochiton atrosanguineus (purple bell vine) manage well with a wigwam of split canes.

Rambling Rhodochiton

Rambling Rhodochiton atrosanguineus trails as well as climbs, making it perfect for pots and urns

I had hoped that my wonderful lilies, L. ‘Golden Splendor’ and L. ‘African Queen’, would hold themselves back for our open weekend, but alas they have peaked too soon. Heavy rain has smudged pollen over their lower petals, but they still smell incredible, especially on these still, sultry nights.

Lilium 'African Queen' holds court in her jungle kingdom

Lilium ‘African Queen’ holds court in her jungle kingdom

Thankfully the dahlias are right on cue, their first flowers just beginning to open. More on these next weekend, but already D. ‘American Dawn’ is a new favourite. Doing especially well this year are the begonias, which I started into growth early and which are now dripping with bloom.

Bountiful begonias

Begonia ‘Firewings Orange’ cascades from a low bowl

With just two weeks until our open days I am hoping to establish some kind of entente cordiale which will allow visitors to enjoy the garden unmolested. Any pots which are past their best will be secreted away in our basement light wells and the hose and watering cans will be relegated to the cellar. For just once weekend I hope peace will prevail, before manoeuvres begin again…..

A barrage of blooms. The view from the front gate

A barrage of blooms. The view from the front gate this weekend

 

Daily Flower Candy: Zantedeschia ‘Picasso’

Zantedeschia 'Picasso', July 2014

I have always rather shunned the colourful, smaller cousins of the Ethiopian lily, Zantedeschia aethiopica, mainly because of their artificial looks and regular, cellophane-wrapped appearances in florists’ shops. But, as with most plants, I eventually succumbed and decided to give them a try this year.

The beauty of bulbs and rhizomes is that they can be picked up and transported home easily from shows. Many nurserymen will keep them in cold storage so that they burst quickly into growth after planting. I found my Zantedeschia ‘Picasso’ at the Chelsea Flower Show in May and planted them in a pot promptly afterwards. I was recommended to use a free draining compost and keep them in a bright, sunny position. It worked, and in just six weeks four rhizomes have produced a mass of paint-splashed leaves and a surprising number of almost perfect blooms.

Each rhizome, about half the size of my palm, has produced more than 10 flowers in the first flush

Each rhizome, about half the size of my palm, has produced more than 10 flowers in the first flush

The flowers (properly ‘inflorescences’) appear as if fashioned from sugar paste – yellowish white, smudged a deep mulberry purple. When the first blooms unfurled I was not sure I would like them, but en masse they work well. Nevertheless their appearance is a little too foreign to blend in with many garden plants, so I think they work best planted in a pot alongside other exotics or ferns. Unlike their larger cousins they do not appreciate their feet in the wet, but still look great at the water’s edge.

Zantedeschia 'Picasso', July 2014

I can’t think of easier, more trouble free bulbs to grow in pots, provided you have the right conditions and can keep them frost-free over winter. The spectrum of colours available extends from white through to yellow, orange, red, pink and inky purple. I for one will be trying more in future.

Zantedeschia ‘Picasso’ is available mail order from Brighter Blooms in Preston, Lancashire.

The elegant flowers of Zantedeschia 'Picasso' are perfect for cutting and last well indoors

The elegant flowers of Zantedeschia ‘Picasso’ are perfect for cutting and last well indoors

 

Hampton Court Flower Show 2014: Vestra Wealth’s Vista

Vestra Wealth's Vista garden, Hampton Court Palace Flower Show 2014

I had never heard of Vestra Wealth before this year’s Hampton Court Palace Flower Show and that’s for one very good reason – I have no wealth to manage. Should I come up trumps in the lottery, I would have no hesitation in beating a path to Vestra’s door, based purely on the strength of their show garden. Decisions like these are probably why I am not a millionaire.

Vestra Wealth exercised a fair degree of prudence in commissioning show garden veteran Paul Martin to design their showpiece. The result, a contemporary space focussed on outdoor entertaining, was cool, calm and carefully considered; the sort of space someone in possession of both money and taste might aspire to. I certainly did.

A cedar rill seemingly floats above a plinth of clipped box

A cedar rill seemingly floats above a plinth of clipped box

Everything from the materials to the planting was beautifully detailed. A smooth cedar rill delivered water into a pool surrounded by hostas and irises. The monolithic table, constructed from the same timber, cantilevered over an area thickly planted with ferns, Geranium ‘Rozanne’ and Lavandula ‘Hidcote’, delicately veiled by Deschampsia cespitosa.

The dining table cantilevers over an area of lush planting

The dining table cantilevers over an area of lush planting

Ground level surfaces were composed of traditional hoggin, smooth terrazzo and neatly sawn slate which contrasted beautifully. Gabions topped with copper sheeting or cedar wood were intended to attract wildlife, although how welcome bugs and beasties would have been in this sleek space is debateable.

Cool terrazzo, traditional hoggin and stacks of cedar logs create varied textures

Cool terrazzo, traditional hoggin and stacks of split cedar create a varied texture

Set for six, Paul Martin was clearly minding his sponsor’s pennies when he poured the wine, but who would not have wanted to join this garden party? The silver mesh chairs were a great accompaniment to the heavy slab of timber and slid neatly underneath. At night, lit by lanterns, the white flowers in the garden would have appeared cool and luminous.

More wine please!

A top-up please!

In a garden so strong structurally it would have been easy to oversimplify the planting, but this element of the design was not found lacking. Paul’s training at the National Botanic Gardens in Dublin shone through in the discerning palette of plants, which focussed on greens, whites and blues.

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Hosta sieboldiana ‘Frances Williams’ mingles with Geranium ‘Rozanne’

Paul Martin had understood his client’s brief, and his client’s clients’ well, producing a garden rich in texture, interest and quality without resorting to ostentation. I am certain it will have gained him some suitably affluent new customers. As for me, I’m off to buy a scratch card…..

Plant List

Acanthus mollis ‘Rue Ledan’
Agapanthus africanus ‘Albus’
Agapanthus ‘Northern Star’
Agapanthus ‘Silver Moon’
Agastache foeniculum ‘Black Adder’
Ammi majus
Angelica ‘Ebony’
Aster laterifolius ‘Horizontalis’
Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’
Buxus sempevirens
Darmera peltata
Deschampsia cespitosa
Echinacea purpurea ‘Magnus’
Epimedium rubrum
Eryngium bourgatii ‘Oxford Blue’
Ferula communis
Geranium ‘Rozanne’
Hakonechloa macra ‘Albo Striata’
Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’
Hosta ‘Royal Standard’
Hosta sieboldiana var. elegans
Hosta sieboldiana ‘Frances Williams’
Hosta tardiana ‘Halcyon’
Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’
Hydrangea arborescens ‘Incrediball’
Iris pseudacorus
Lavandula ‘Hidcote’
Lavandula stoechas ‘Christiana’
Nepeta faasenii ‘Six Hills’
Nepeta faassenii ‘Blue Wonder’
Penstemon ‘Electric Blue’
Perovskia atriplicifolia ‘Blue Spire’
Salvia nemerosa
Selinum wallichianum
Stipa gigantea
Thalictrum rochbruneanum
Thymus ‘Pink Chintz’
Tiarella ‘Pink Skyrocket’
Tulbaghia violacea
Verbena bonariensis
Verbena macdougalii ‘Lavender Spires’
Veronica longifolia ‘Charlotte’
Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Album’

RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show 2014 – Show Garden Highlights

Lust, designed by Rachel Parker Soden, Hampton Court Palace Flower Show 2014

Chelsea needs to watch her back. Her bigger, louder and brighter sister at Hampton Court Palace is slowly but surely stealing her crown. Chelsea may be smarter, better educated and popular with the establishment, but compared to Hampton Court she is starting to look a little too prim and proper.

Costing just £15,000, this sunken garden by Alexandra Frogatt had all the quality of a garden costing ten times as much

Costing just £15,000, this contemporary sunken garden by Alexandra Frogatt had all the quality of a garden costing ten times more

I used to view The RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show as very much a poor relation to Chelsea. I doubt I will ever warm to its overtly commercial side, over which I wish the RHS would exercise a little more restraint, but whilst Chelsea appears increasingly stuck in a stylistic rut, Hampton Court gets more and more daring every year. For the first time, I think I prefer what Hampton Court has to offer: more variety, more adventure, more excitement and more inspiration for real gardeners.

The 100th anniversary of the start of The Great War was commemorated at Hampton Court using gardens, flowers and even scarecrows

The 100th anniversary of the start of The Great War was commemorated at Hampton Court using gardens, flowers and even scarecrows

Hampton Court’s gardens were split into four categories: the big-money show gardens; small but perfectly formed summer gardens; ‘Your Garden, Your Budget’ gardens (with price tags ranging from £7,000 to £15,000) and finally conceptual gardens. The result, to my mind, was a well balanced spectrum of size, style and cost, offering something of interest for everyone. The quality of gardens at Hampton Court has come on in leaps and bounds over recent years, but still one or two, disappointingly staged by garden centres, fell wide of the mark. That aside, I have never been harder pressed to choose a favourite, so here’s a selection, about which I hope to write in more detail shortly.

In Vestra Wealth's Vista garden, designer Paul Martin created the ultimate outdoor living space

In Vestra Wealth’s Vista garden, designer Paul Martin created the ultimate outdoor living space

If I had to choose my number one it would be Vestra Wealth’s garden entitled ‘Vista’, designed by Paul Martin. This really was a garden for entertaining on a grand scale and frankly made me green with envy.  The quality of the materials and plants used to create this superlative design was second to none.

For a garden with such a rosé outlook, the glasses were not quite half full

For a garden with such a rosé outlook, the glasses were not quite half full

In ‘A Space to Connect and Grow’, designer Jeni Cairns had thrown in everything bar the kitchen sink. In fact there probably was a sink amongst the recycled and upcycled materials used to create this vibrant garden. Interest and detail was incorporated into every corner, justly earning the garden both a gold medal and the award for best summer garden. Unlike Chelsea, many of Hampton Court’s show gardens are designed to be viewed from three sides, or in the round. Jeni had embraced this opportunity, treating the boundaries of the garden with as much love as the centre. The choice of plant material was suitably upbeat, including zesty yellow eremurus and plant of the moment, Echinacea ‘Hot Papaya’.

Featuring recycled and upcycled materials, a green roof, flowers, fruit, vegetables and herbs, Jeni Cairns' garden ticked all the boxes

Featuring recycled and upcycled materials, a green roof, flowers, fruit, vegetables and herbs, Jeni Cairns’ garden ticked all the boxes

I am not sure who had the idea of theming the conceptual gardens around the seven deadly sins, but it was an inspired decision. Rachel Parker Soden’s ‘Lust’ included a neon Peep Show sign draped with Gloriosa superba ‘Rothschildiana’ (top of post), orchids exploding from a red velvet settee, and suggestive anthuriums parading themselves gaudily behind steamed-up windows. Never have plants looked more suggestive.

Steam rising from ‘Wrath – Eruption of Unhealed Anger’, designed by Nilufer Danis, drew unsuspecting crowds in, rewarding an unlucky few with a soaking from sudden jets of water. As an evocation of a volcanic landscape it was near perfect; flame coloured kniphofia, achillea, crocosmia and echinacea mingling with Dryopteris erythrosora and grasses, all emerging from a landscape of charred black rock. Ominous rumblings from the smoking mound added to the brooding, sensory experience.

Smoke rising from Nilufer Danis' gold medal winning conceptual garden, entitled 'Wrath'

Smoke rising from Nilufer Danis’ gold medal winning conceptual garden, entitled ‘Wrath – Eruption of Unhealed Anger’

If ‘Lust’ wasn’t provocative enough, Katerina Rafaj drew attention to the vast amount of food we waste in her garden entitled ‘Gluttony’. Despite the relative lack of planting the garden was awarded a gold medal.

Love it or hate it, the design for 'Gluttony' highlights the huge amount of food that we consume or waste every day

Love it or hate it, the design for ‘Gluttony’ highlights the huge amount of food that we consume or waste every day

Equally thought-provoking was The World Vision Garden designed by John Warland. This large show garden celebrated the transformation of the Antsokia Valley, part of Ethiopia hardest hit by famine thirty years ago, from drought stricken wasteland to fertile farmland. Orange-clad assistants helped visitors interpret the garden’s exuberant displays of tomatoes, maize, cut flowers and fruit, all products that Ethiopia now exports to the rest of the world.

30 Years on, The World Vision Garden celebrates Ethiopia's recovery from famine

30 years on, The World Vision Garden celebrated Ethiopia’s recovery from famine

My new found interest in vegetable growing was piqued by these pot-grown cherry tomatoes

My new found interest in vegetable growing was piqued by these pot-grown cherry tomatoes

Having been absent from Chelsea this year, Hampton Court welcomed back Australia and Trailfinders with a superb garden designed by Jim Fogarty for Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne. Naturally this huge plot had a completely different feel to any other garden, featuring a palette of plants from the states of Victoria and the Northern Territory. Many plants were unfamiliar to me, but the varied textures of silver foliage set against red Devonian sandstone were easy to appreciate without any knowledge. A timber-clad structure at the back of the garden symbolised the rock formations of the Northern Territory, such as Uluru and the MacDonnell ranges. The sinuous layout of paths and pools was inspired by the Rainbow Serpent, a dreamtime creature from Aboriginal culture.

Essence of Australia celebrates the beauty and diversity Victoria and Northern Territory Flora

Essence of Australia celebrates the beauty and diversity Victoria and Northern Territory Flora

We return to the UK for my last three gardens. The first was the winner of a competition run by TV’s The One Show, designed by architecture student Alexandra Noble. The garden featured nine regularly spaced reflective pools representing the underfloor heating systems the Romans knew as hypocausts. Fine, billowing grasses were employed to create the impression of steam rising from the water, with other planting in shades of purple and lime green. This was a wonderful design for a sunken space and I am sure we’ll be seeing more from Alexandra Noble in future.

The designer of The One Show Garden, Alexandra Noble, was inspired by the Roman hypocausts of my home town, Bath

The designer of The One Show Garden, Alexandra Noble, was inspired by the Roman hypocausts of my home town, Bath

Nothing could have been more English than The Forgotten Folly, designed by Lynn Riches and Mark Lippiatt. The garden centred around a ruined stone building sitting high above a tumbling stream. Exuberant planting demonstrated how garden plants can successfully be combined with native wildflowers to create a haven for wildlife, as well as a beautiful space for humans to enjoy.

Nature takes hold in and around a ruined folly in this naturalistic garden

Nature takes hold in and around a ruined folly in this naturalistic garden

Finally, a garden which could have been a complete shocker, the NSPCC Legacy Garden designed by Adam Wollcott and Jonathan Smith. Four periods of garden style, from Victoria through to the present day, were represented in this small summer garden. The progression was marked by changes in the paving and plants, beginning with a shaded Victoria fernery, then an Edwardian rose garden, moving on to the the kind of 1970’s gaudiness I remember from my childhood. The present day section was filled with a familiar assemblage of perennials, but it was the humorous accessories, the teddybears, plaster ducks and lead soldiers, that really brought this whimsical garden to life.

A little bit of joyful whimsy, the NSPCC Legacy Garden depicts garden styles from the Victorian era to the present day

A little bit of joyful whimsy, the NSPCC Legacy Garden depicts garden styles from the Victorian era to the present day

I hope I have managed to illustrate the enormous stretch of the gardens at Hampton Court Palace Flower Show this year and that you found something among them that inspires you. Already I am looking forward to seeing how the show moves forward again next year. Chelsea needs to take heed of her more worldy, provocative sister and let her hair down, just a little so as not to frighten the horses.

Exemplary planting was a feature of 'Untying the Knot' designed by Frederic Whyte for Bounce Back Foundation

Exemplary planting was a feature of ‘Untying the Knot’ designed by Frederic Whyte for Bounce Back Foundation

 

Absolute Beginner

Seed packets, July 2014

I am a complete novice when it comes to growing fruit and vegetables. My last real experience was in my early teens when I grew an abundance of lettuce, courgettes and sweetcorn in my parents’ garden. Since then herbs have been the extent of my daliance with edible plants. Legumes are unfamiliar, root vegetables foreign and brassicas positively alien. This is new, unexplored territory.

I’ve recently completed an assessment at work to establish where my strengths lie. It reveals amongst other things that I am positive; strategic; a collector of knowledge, things and experiences; someone who always looks to the future. Exploration is fundamental to me, whether it’s new foods, far flung countries or unusual experiences. I am the person that sees an unknown ingredient on a restaurant menu and instead of enquiring what it is, orders it in order to find out. Rarely have I been disappointed, and this is my point. Apart from obviously dangerous pursuits, a bit of adventure rarely leads to disaster and frequently rewards in a way that maintaining the status quo cannot. Growing fruit and veg is not an extreme sport (at least not the way I intend to do it) so I reason that the outcome can only be a positive one.

Victorian school children would once have used this spot as a playground

Victorian children would once have used this spot as a playground

Earlier this year, although sadly not soon enough to give us a full growing season, we tore up an area of rotten decking and demolished a rickety shed. The deck occupied the sunniest spot in the garden, furthest away from the tall shadow of the Victorian school in which we live. It’s the only space where we could ever hope to grow fruit and vegetables, which are generally sun loving creatures. In place of these ageing features we have built a raised border, about 1m wide and 75cm deep, with broad seating on two sides, affording about eight square metres of growing space. The void was filled with some 240 sacks of sterilised, graded topsoil and 60 sacks of Dalefoot Double Strength Wool Compost. Quite a task, and one which took four long nights.

Various forms of lighting mean that we can enjoy the garden in the evenings

Various forms of lighting mean that we can enjoy the garden in the evenings

Ideally we’d have given the rich mix of loam, composted wool and well-rotted bracken a chance to settle, but it’s early July and there’s no time to dally. Seeds of lettuce and rocket planted last Thursday germinated within 4 days, and are joined tonight by radishes, spring onions, mustard leaves, climbing French beans and wallflowers. The only way with other vegetables, and in reality we need only a few to feed the two of us, was to start with plants from the garden centre. Within a few days courgettes, three varieties of tomato, peppers, sweetcorn, perpetual strawberries, parsley, tarragon and chives have taken hold of their futures, helped along by gentle rain. There is even room for a clutch of cosmos to provide flowers for indoors. I am already hooked, a hopeless cause, with visions of a colossal autumn harvest.

Tomatoes, peppers and strawberries occupy the sunniest, most sheltered spot

Tomatoes, peppers and strawberries occupy the sunniest, most sheltered spot

In the autumn we intend to plan further ahead, planting ‘step over’ apple trees against the low walls to give us fruit without creating shade. I am toying with the idea of a loganberry or a dwarf nectarine trained against the left-hand wall, which is sunnier and slightly higher. As with the rest of the garden the possibilities seem endless. So many options, so little time, even less space!

 

Our London Garden, vegetable garden, July 2014

Daily Flower Candy – Campanula lactiflora

Campanula lactiflora, Old Bladbean Stud, Kent, 2014

I have been a little quiet of late and that’s for three reasons. The first is work, which has been abnormally busy.  The second and third are garden related. In London we have been building raised beds in which we intend to cultivate vegetables. I am ridiculously excited at the prospect of growing my own, having not had the opportunity since being a teenager. I will not be revealing how long ago that was, but sufficient to forget everything but the basics. The construction part was quick and easy; the filling with soil and compost has been a labour of love and is still ongoing. In Broadstairs we are preparing for our NGS open day (more on which tomorrow), which is going well, apart from the excessive amount of watering needed to keep everything from withering.

Campanula lactiflora. The Latin specific epithet 'lactiflora' means milk-white flowers.

The Latin epithet ‘lactiflora‘ means milk-white flowers, but the variety available today includes white, blue and pale pink

Neither of our gardens is capacious enough for leggy lovelies such as Campanula lactiflora, but it doesn’t stop me admiring them in other people’s gardens. Campanula lactiflora is a lax, romantic perennial designed for life on the big stage. It is happiest rampaging among roses and darting around delphiniums, a shining star in the early summer show. The profusion of flowers in blue, white or pale pink is simply beautiful swaying in a summer breeze, but may require surreptitious support. Grow in fertile, moist, neutral or alkaline soil for best results and cut back after flowering to encourage a second flush of bloom.

Varieties with the Royal Horticultural Society Award of Garden Merit (AGM)

  • Campanula lactiflora ‘Alba’ – pure white flowers
  • Campanula lactiflora ‘Prichard’s Variety’ – violet blue flowers
  • Campanula lactiflora ‘Loddon Anna’ – soft, rose-pink flowers
Campanula lactiflora 'Loddon Anna' combined  with a delphinium of the same shade at Old Bladbean Stud, Kent

Campanula lactiflora ‘Loddon Anna’ combined with a delphinium of the same shade at Old Bladbean Stud

Old Bladbean Stud, Elham, Kent

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Joyful and life affirming is how I’d describe the garden at Old Bladbean Stud. Hidden among the labyrinthine lanes of South East Kent, owner Carol Bruce has created a garden of great substance from a site that was utterly derelict as recently as 2003. It’s a rarity these days to come across a new, large garden created by a private individual, and all the more compelling when you discover that Carol has no horticultural training and maintains the whole place single-handed. Having gardeners would be ‘like buying a jigsaw puzzle and then hiring someone to do the puzzle for me” remarks Carol in the garden’s new guide book. Old Bladbean Stud is testament to what can be done with a little grit, determination and imagination. I came away feeling genuinely encouraged and at the same time slightly humbled by her achievement.

Up the garden path, a view through the patte d'oie layout of the rose garden

Up the garden path, a view through the patte d’oie layout of the rose garden

Of course, a garden on this scale (three acres) does not come cheap and Carol is candid about the total cost of her project: about £100,000. However when one reflects on what this might equate to in property or even cars, it’s lot of bang for your buck. Spread out over ten years, it’s probably less than some people (ahem) spend on clothes in a year. Best leave the comparisons there!

A lovely combination of astrantia with Hydrangea arborescens

A lovely combination of Astrantia major with Hydrangea arborescens and Allium christophii

A tour of the garden begins in an unprepossessing gravelled yard, where Carol sits in the cool shade of a tree, welcoming visitors. Passing through a brick arch, the experience is how I’d imagine entering Narnia’s summer counterpart. Immediately one is immersed in a maelstrom of scent, movement, texture and colour. Crowds of spikey allium heads carpet the ground beneath robust, lusciously scented roses; campanulas and delphiniums shoot up like rockets in the spaces between the bushes; and verbascums, eryngiums and geraniums flood any gaps that their compatriots have left. Like Narnia, the scene represents what is for many of us a fantasy, a dream of what an English garden should look and feel like.

Biennial sea holly, Eryngium giganteum, mingles with roses and white geraniums

Biennial sea holly, Eryngium giganteum, mingles with roses and white geraniums

The plot’s unusual shape calls for some interesting transitions. What could be an awkward, curving lawn, named Lamby’s walk, is afforded a focal point in the form of a life-sized Irish Wolfhound sculpture. The grassy walk leads visitors from the rose garden to the most ambitious of Old Bladbean Stud’s features, the double mirrored borders. How many people in this day and age have the vision and guts to create parallel herbaceous borders 300ft long by 60ft wide? Not many. The planting is superb, even following a spell this winter when large sections were submerged in water for over six weeks.

The planting in the 300ft long borders is mirrored in two planes and reflects the colours of the sky

The planting in the 300ft long borders is mirrored in two planes, designed to reflect the colours of the sky

There are two lines of symmetry in the planting, one running down the length of the lawn and the other across the middle, meaning that every plant grouping appears four times. The architecture of the borders is important as it bears little relation to the house or any other anchor point. Handsome stone benches provide a spectacular vantage point at either end of the lawn, whilst obelisks create height, rhythm and accentuate the symmetry of the planting. Carol has chosen flowers which echo the colours of the sky, creating a third line of symmetry. Naturally in borders of such immense scale, planting blocks are substantial and there is room for beasts like Crambe maritima, Campanula lactiflora, Macleya cordata, Cynara cardunculus and Eryngium yuccifolium. Not denying the frequent greyness of British skies, Carol has made abundant use of silver leaved plants such as Artemesia ludoviciana ‘Silver Queen’.

Eryngium yuccifolium, known locally in the USA as rattlesnake master

Eryngium yuccifolium, known locally in the USA as rattlesnake master

A long gravel path shaded by Magnolia x loebneri ‘Leonard Messel’ guides visitors to the enviable kitchen garden, itself 330ft long. Carol describes it as a ‘crop rotation conveyor belt’ and has positioned taps and compost bins along its length the reduce the amount of plodding up and down required. The soft fruit was at its peak this weekend; blackcurrants, redcurrants, raspberries and strawberries all sweet, jewel-like and begging to be harvested. Of course we restrained ourselves, but it was tough!

Ripening berries, trained against the wall which divides the double mirrored borders from the kitchen garden

Ripening berries against the wall which divides the double mirrored borders from the kitchen garden

Closer to the house, which unusually has very little relationship with the garden, lies the pastels garden. This enclosed square space is so called because of the way Carol has arranged the pale colours to blur into one another, like an artists pastels. To the left of the photograph below, the cloud of pale pink is composed of Campanula lactiflora (perhaps ‘Loddon Anna’?) and a pale pink delphinium of exactly the same shade.

The greenhouse, rising from its own gravel peninsula, lies on one edge of the Pastels Garden

The greenhouse, rising from its own gravel peninsula, lies on one edge of the pastels garden

The yellow garden was one of the very first areas Carol tackled, and was intended as a place to sit, eat, read the paper, shell seeds and brush her dog. It now provides a beautiful setting for a refreshing cuppa and is slowly morphing into a tea garden. The rose varieties are predominantly hybrid musks and David Austin hybrids mixed with white flowered albas. Other plants include sissyrinchiums, aquilegias, geraniums and Digitalis lutea.

White geraniums, yellow aquilegias and cream roses in abundance in the The Yellow Garden

White geraniums, yellow aquilegias and cream roses in abundance in the the yellow garden

The garden was exuberant when we visited in late June, filled with bloom, alive with bees and heady with scent, but this stud is far from a one trick pony. Carol has planned her planting schemes to provide a long season of interest, extending from April to October. She recommends the peak time for the double mirrored borders and pastels garden is August and September, demanding a return visit. Despite its off-beat location, Old Bladbean Stud is a garden that deserves to be better known. For now, let’s keep it our little secret ;-) Old Bladbean Stud is open for the National Gardens Scheme on 13 and 27 July, 24 August, 7 and 21 Sept and 5 Oct 2014. Admission £5.50.  Click here for more details. The damage – extraordinarily only one plant this time, Phuopsis stylosa, the large-styled crossword, which Carol allows to romp around beneath her roses.

A view through the rose garden towards 'Angel', a sculpture by Pete Moorhouse

A view through the rose garden towards ‘Angel’, a sculpture by Pete Moorhouse

Daily Flower Candy: Lilium ‘Pink Flavour’

Lilium 'Pink Flavour', June 2014

I have a new favourite lily and it’s called ‘Pink Flavour’. The bulbs were an impulse, end of season purchase from Sarah Raven and I didn’t have a place for them, so into a pot they went.  Within weeks the flower spikes emerged, growing nice and evenly, the foliage subtly tinted bronze. Arriving home late last night the flowers had opened so I was excited to see what they looked like in daylight. The colour is hard to describe; a burnished, sophisticated coral-pink rather than the candy shade the name suggests.

Lilium 'Pink Flavour', June 2014

An Asiatic type lily, ‘Pink Flavour’ has elegantly placed, downward facing flowers

I am pleasantly surprised how well the flowers tone with the deep purple foliage of Eucomis ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ and Aeonium ‘Zwartkop’, picking up reddish tones in the stems of gingers and begonias too. For those who detest the scent of lilies (how could you?) ‘Pink Flavour’ is a great choice; the blooms have only the faintest fragrance. L. ‘Pink Flavour’ is one of the first lilies to open in the garden this year, offering a welcome taste of summer. I think this one will be a keeper.

Lilium ‘Pink Flavour’ is available mail order from Sarah Raven (in season) and Hart’s Nursery, Cheshire.

A taste of summer, Lilium 'Pink Flavour'

A taste of summer, Lilium ‘Pink Flavour’

 

Amsterdam Open Gardens Weekend 2014

The narrow garden at Singel 124, Amsterdam

We all know Amsterdam as a city arranged along tree-lined canals. Some are fronted with fine houses, others modest ones, but all share similar characteristics – lofty edifices, punctuated by vast windows and topped by fanciful gables. Less well known are the gardens, which linger in the long shadows of the buildings to which they belong. On one weekend each year, twenty nine of these hidden gardens, many of which belong to private individuals, fling open their heavy doors to the public. Whilst the gardens may be secret, the open days certainly are not. Visitors clutching their bright green passepartouts throng the quays of the three main canals where most of the gardens are to be found.

The imposing garden house at Keizersgracht 173 is no deeper than a kitchen cupboard

The imposing garden house at Keizersgracht 173 is no deeper than a kitchen cupboard

In the 17th century, Amsterdam’s gardens were productive ones, devoted to the cultivation of vegetables and fruit trees. Enlightened legislation ensured that only a certain proportion of each new canal-side plot could be built on. As the city’s elite grew in wealth they acquired country estates which were better suited to providing food for their household. Town houses were principally occupied during the winter months and their gardens became ornamental; structured spaces to be appreciated from the comfort of indoors. Originality was not considered a virtue at the time and city plans of 17th century Amsterdam show remarkably similar layouts repeated from property to property.

Garden of the Museum Geelvinck, Amsterdam, June 2014

Pools and water features are relatively recent additions to most Dutch gardens

By the mid 18th century, early formal styles had given way to the English fashion for ‘landscape’ gardens, characterised by serpentine paths, lawns and majestic trees. Grander households constructed fine summerhouses, guest lodges and stables at the end of their plots, often giving them the appearance of much grander buildings. The best example of this can be seen at the Museum Van Loon, a double-fronted townhouse, still partly occupied the Van Loon family, where the coach house and stables were disguised as an ornate villa. The gardens here, having been much simpler at the turn of the 19th century, have been returned to 17th century formality. The roses in the radiating beds are Rosa ‘Gruss an Aachen’.

The grandiose garden of the Museum Van Loon with it's stately coach house and towering copper beech

The grandiose garden of the Museum Van Loon with it’s stately coach house and towering copper beech

Nearby, another of Amsterdam’s most distinguished and cultured couples, the Wilett-Holthuysens, created a typically baroque garden bounded by pleached limes. All the gardens of this period were designed to be appreciated from the first floor (or bel étage) where the family had their most elegant reception rooms. The result is impressive at a glance but not especially engaging to stroll around. Control, rather than exuberance, was the order of the day.

Reconstruction of the parterres de broderie at Museum Willet Holthuysen

Reconstruction of the parterres de broderie at Museum Willet-Holthuysen

At the Museum Geelvinck on Herengracht the garden has two very different moods. The plot immediately to the rear of the glamorous mansion has been returned to elegant formality, sporting a long pool and fountain designed in 1991 by Robert Broekema. The area to the rear of the coach house, which fronts Keizersgracht, has a very different feel; a shady refuge composed of diamond-shaped box-edged beds filled with hostas, geraniums and more roses.

A formal garden designed by Robert Broekema in 1991 for the Museum Geelvinck

A formal garden designed by Robert Broekema in 1991 for the Museum Geelvinck

The garden specialises in roses and has a fine collection of hybrids old and new. I was especially taken with a climber named Rosa ‘Citronella’, which has sweetly scented flowers not the least reminiscent of citrus. A good selection of heritage roses was offered by Belle Époque Roses of Aalsmeer.

The pale yellow single flowers of Rosa 'Citronella' contrast well with the yellow stamens

The pale yellow single flowers of Rosa ‘Citronella’ contrast well with the golden stamens

Ships registered in Amsterdam sailed around the world bringing back goods from the Dutch colonies. As in England, the city’s gardens soon brimmed with exotica from the furthest corners of the globe. Quite what happened to Amsterdammers’ enthusiasm for the rare and unusual I am not sure. Today’s town gardens for the most part adhere to the same palette of hydrangeas, hostas, philadelphus, ivies, camellias and box, with the odd plume of aruncus or shower of blue campanulas to brighten the composition. Some of this is born out of necessity. Gardeners have had to seek out plants that will tolerate the dry shade created by vast trees that their predecessors planted in pursuit of the landscape idyll. It’s an issue experienced across the city as copper beeches, horse chestnuts, oaks and elms reach maturity. From above, Amsterdam’s gardens appear almost wooded, a far cry from their tightly corseted origins. Despite the constraints of shade, with which I sympathise, I was surprised at the lack of variety and experimentation with plants, which is in stark contrast to English gardens. Perhaps something of the 17th century resistance to uniqueness lingers on in 21st century Dutch gardeners.

Detail of the garden at Singel 124, Amsterdam, June 2014

A classic combination of hydrangeas, hostas, geraniums and campanulas

Several of the gardens on the tour have been laid out within the last decade. They tend to make better use of hard landscaping to form seating areas, especially in areas of the garden that catch the sun. This would have been a horrifying concept for the residents of old Amsterdam, who looked for every opportunity to protect their noble skin from the sun. Brick paviours are most commonly used, a narrow profile allowing for refined curves and patterns to be created. This gave me a few ideas for our garden in London where this treatment would be perfect.

Only three years old, the garden at Singel 124 was carefully designed to make the most of the very narrow site

Only three years old, the garden at Singel 124 was carefully designed to make the most of a narrow site

Constructed in 1996, the garden at Herengracht 68 replaced a vast warehouse constructed after WWII

Constructed in 1996, the garden at Herengracht 68 replaced a vast warehouse constructed after WWII

The garden at Amstel 216 appears modern, but struck me as a contemporary take on traditional Dutch style, incorporating many features that would have been familiar to earlier inhabitants. A guest lodge-cum-office simply breathes new life into the idea of an ornamental building to admire from the main house. An armillary sphere sundial, de rigeur in the 17th century, occupies an open part of the garden and acts as a focal point. It’s mirrored on the other side by a fine sculpture of a horse. Not visible in the picture below are two juvenile trees, a copper beech and a tulip tree, continuing the English landscape garden tradition of planting trees which will ultimately outgrow their welcome. The use of dog woods was the only deviation from the tried and tested palette of hydrangeas, hostas, box and geraniums. Curiously for such a watery city, pools and water features are a relatively new development in Amsterdam and would not have appeared in early garden designs. The Netherlands have a complex relationship with water, it having enabled immense power and encouraged the rats which transmitted the dreaded plague. Hence stagnant water was rarely welcome in the city of old. Other new features in this carefully composed garden are the bicycle shelters, secreted behind blocks of yew hedging so that they cannot be seen from the house.

A sober composition of water, paving and symmetrical planting at Amstel 216

A sober composition of water, paving and symmetrical planting at Amstel 216

Amsterdam’s open garden weekend is a unique opportunity, not only to visit some very special gardens, but also to delve into the city’s fascinating history. For small gardeners a glimpse of these shady, often overlooked gardens reveals a host of clever ideas for maximising the appeal of a small space. I for one came away inspired by the owners’ ingenuity and encouraged to keep experimenting with our own shady, awkward city garden. Practicalities Most of the open gardens are situated on Amsterdam’s three encircling canals, the Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht. Walking between them is easy, although bicycles are always an option in Amsterdam. A passepartout which gives access to all the gardens can be be purchased for €15 from four key gardens, including Museum Van Loon and Amnesty International. Be mindful that some of the gardens are accessed via low doorways and worn stairs and mind your step. To see all the gardens in one day requires something of a route march, so I’d recommend spreading them over two or three days, noting that one or two do not open on all three days. We found Sunday to be the quietest day, and Saturday by far the busiest. Many gardens offer refreshments, ranging a glass of wine to sandwiches and homemade apple cake. Also worth a look, but not part of the open weekend, is the Hortus, Amsterdam’s historic botanical garden. The 2015 garden open days will be June 19, 20 and 21.  Click here for more details For a more in depth history of Amsterdam’s fascinating canal house gardens, track down ‘Canal House Gardens of Amsterdam, The Hidden Green of the City’ by Saskia Albrecht and Tonko Grever.