Daily Flower Candy: Phytolacca polyandra

Phytolacca polyandra, Odney Club, August 2014

One of the joys of writing this blog is having the incentive to seek out and learn about new plants. Today, on a training course at our company conference centre, I took some time out to explore the grounds. In the otherwise flagging herbaceous borders I spied these curious fruits and lush leaves, which belonged to a helpfully labelled specimen of Phytolacca polyandra.

Phytolacca polyandra, Odney Club, August 2014

Otherwise known as Chinese pokeweed, Phytolacca polyandra is a robust perennial which first produces white or pale pink flowers in long spikes, a little like a polygonum. These develop into tiny clasps of immature green fruits. The flower stems slowly turn magenta-pink as the fruits, which are toxic, develop a glossy black sheen. How marvellous this exotic plant would look amongst deep purple and pale pink dahlias, or with Sedum ‘Purple Emperor’ and Fuchsia arboresecens. An unusual contender for the late summer border and one which has already joined my extensive wish list.

Have you grown Chinese pokeweed in your garden? If so, I’d love to know more…

Phytolacca polyandra, Odney Club, August 2014

Salad Days

Oriental Mustards, London, August 2014

…My salad days,

When I was green in judgment, cold in blood…


William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra

It’s going to be one of those weeks when I have no time to do anything other than work, eat and sleep. So thank heavens for the quick, easy crops that are coming thick and fast from our new vegetable garden. They require no preparation other than a wash under the tap and help me feel healthy and wholesome after a day dining on uninspiring, packaged sandwiches.

Tomatoes are ripening just fast enough for me to harvest a few glowing fruit each evening. They are sweet, juicy and nicely tart, just as they should be.

The ripening fruit of tomato 'Sweet Million'

The ripening fruit of cherry tomato ‘Sweet Million’

Herbs are growing at a tremendous rate of knots. Parsley is lush and glossy green, tarragon (my favourite herb of all) in the rudest of health and chives are fine and tender. We are adding them to curries, pasta dishes and salads in quantities that would be prohibitively expensive if bought from a supermarket.

A fine bunch of happy herbs

A fine bunch of happy herbs

Purchased at Hampton Court Flower Show, a single plant of shiso (Perilla frutescens var. crispa) is forming a pretty, purple-leaved bush with fragrant, tasty leaves. It is used in Japan for pickling plums; we use it as an attractive ingredient in salads when the leaves are very young.

Known as shiso, or 'beefsteak plant', Perilla frutescens var. crispa makes an unusual addition to salads and stir-fries.

Known as shiso, or ‘beefsteak plant’, Perilla frutescens var. crispa makes an unusual addition to salads and stir-fries.

It’s hard to believe that all of these fruits, leaves and herbs were planted just seven weeks ago. A warm July followed by a damp August has certainly helped (although not the courgettes which are rotting) and we are already planting more lettuce and radishes to last us into autumn. Such instant gratification is welcome in a world where we are all so short of time, worth every penny for the superior flavour and there’s no need for waste. These really are our salad days.

Rocketing rocket and marauding mustards

Rocketing rocket and marauding mustard

A Drama of Dahlias


As far as I am aware, and please enlighten me should I be mistaken, there is not a collective noun for a group of dahlias. I have taken this terrible oversight into my own hands and, having considered ‘a dazzle’, ‘a blast’ and ‘a riot’, I’ve settled on ‘a drama’, summing up the dahlia’s extraordinarily ostentatious, extrovert blooms. Should anyone be unconvinced my choice, take a look at Dahlia ‘Black Monarch’ below and tell me I am wrong.

The dark, velvety blooms of Dahlia 'Black Monarch' echo the interior of a West End theatre

The dark, velvety blooms of D. ‘Black Monarch’ have all the glamour of a vintage Hollywood movie

It’s quite right that dahlias should once again take their place in gardeners’ affections. For a while during the 90’s and early 00’s, they fell from favour. Many gardeners considered them too gaudy, vulgar, ugly and overblown to be worthy of their borders. Increasingly absorbed in composing ‘tasteful’ planting schemes, middle class gardeners struggled to find any place for them amongst finer, blowsier perennials. This was the same sad malady that befell gladioli and chrysanthemums, other flowers commonly grown on allotments or for showing.

Dahlias like 'A La Mode' are very much in vogue

Bi-coloured dahlias such as ‘A La Mode’ are very much in vogue again

It was one variety, the single-flowered D. ‘Bishop of Llandaff’, that helped dahlias return to social acceptability. Hardly new to horticulture, D. ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ was awarded the Royal Horticultural Society Award of Garden Merit back in 1928, but was to save the whole genus from horticultural turpitude. The simple red flowers with their bright yellow centres, rising above finely-cut bronze foliage, appealed to the staunchest dahlia snobs. They quickly found a place for this free-form hybrid in their rarefied planting schemes, using it more as a perennial than a showstopper. D. ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ was helped by its ability to make great associations with other plants, looking good in front of purple-leaved cotinus and with crocosmias, cannas and lime green Nicotiana langsdorfiiThe veteran hybrid’s new found popularity gave rise to a psalter of bishops (a fine collective noun) and even a seed strain known as ‘Bishop’s Children’.

Single-flowered dahlias remain in vogue, and in recent years I have grown varieties from the ‘Happy Single’ series and D. ‘Marie Schnugg’ below. I would love to grow species such as single pink D. merckii and orangey red D. coccinea var palmeri, but these are both giants of the dahlia world and too demanding of space and sun for my tiny garden. The Twynings series is also worth exploring, especially for the white-flowered, black-leaved D. ‘Twyning’s After Eight’.

The star-like blooms of D. 'Marie Schnugg' are similar to the native dahlias of Mexico and Guatemala

The star-like blooms of D. ‘Marie Schnugg’ are similar to the native dahlias of Mexico and Guatemala

There are fourteen classes of dahlia, defined by flower shape, listed on the National Dahlia Society’s website. They include pompon, cactus, anemone and fancy colarettes, such as D. ‘Carstone Firebox’ at the top of this post. I have a soft spot for most of the classes, but especially the ‘waterlily’ types such as D. ‘Firepot’ and D. ‘Amercian Dawn’. The flowers tend to be modestly sized and easy to associate with other perennials and exotics.

An unnamed dahlia with flowers in the 'decorative' class

An unknown dahlia variety with flowers in the ‘waterlily’ class

The lilac flowers of D. 'Blue Boy' combine well with pinks, blues and silvers

The lilac flowers of D. ‘Blue Boy’ combine well with pinks, blues and silvers

After my recent visit to Great Dixter I am keen to experiment with other dahlia flower shapes, including cactus, semi-cactus (with less tightly rolled petals than a true cactus) and pompons. Fergus Garrett and his team have no qualms about using dahlias throughout the garden, emerging from amongst foaming perennials, filling gaps where spring flowering plants have faded, and in pots. It’s a joy to see them employed with abandon in such a current and trend-setting garden.

A semi-cactus dahlia variety in the Sunk Garden at Great Dixter

A semi-cactus dahlia variety in the Sunk Garden at Great Dixter

Not quite a pompon, this vermillion dahlia was the perfect choice for Great Dixter's Exotic Garden

Not quite a pompon, this vermillion dahlia was the perfect choice for Great Dixter’s Exotic Garden

We are fortunate here in East Kent to have The Secret Gardens at The Salutation, where Head Gardener Steve Edney is constantly indulging his passion for dahlias with inventive new plantings. Following this winter’s devastating floods, Steve has filled a lot of the gaps where other plants perished with interesting groupings of dahlias. On the whole this has been successful, although one wonders what Lutyens and Jekyll would have made of it. The garden’s trial bed is a great place to assess new varieties and appreciate the vast spectrum of colour, stature and form available.

Room for one more? D. 'Sam Hopkins' could be contender for our garden next year

Room for one more? D. ‘Sam Hopkins’ could be contender for our garden next year

When we visit Cornwall in September I am excited to visit the National Dahlia Collection at Varfell Farm near Penzance. The collection consists of over 1600 named species and cultivars and should be in its prime after an unhelpfully dry start to the growing season. My aim will be to pick out new varieties for my garden next year, ensuring we capture, once again, the sheer drama that dahlias can deliver.

At The Salutation, a trial  bed demonstrates the dahlia's huge range of colour and flower shape

At The Salutation, a trial bed demonstrates the dahlia’s huge range of colour and flower shape


First Timers

Canna x ehemanii, The Watch House, August 2014

The longer one has to wait for something (apart from death, visits from the mother-in-law and tax return forms) the more exciting it is when it finally happens. This certainly applies to gardening. Happily, several plants at The Watch House have chosen 2014 for their floral debut, and there has been much anticipation as the unfamiliar buds emerge and then start to unfurl. As they do, I spare a thought for the great plant collectors of yesteryear who had to wait 10, 20, 30 years for their precious discoveries to produce flowers, sometimes not knowing quite what they’d get. Few gardeners these days are quite so patient – we all expect immediate results from our nursery-grown plants. However, even with modern growing techniques, not all species are happy to be rushed.

The longest I have waited is seven summers to enjoy the foamy-white flowers of Lyonothamnus floribundus ssp. asplenifolius, or the Santa Cruz ironwood tree. This species is endemic to the rocky, wind-swept islands of Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Clemente off California, but finds itself very much at home in Broadstairs. Although the ferny leaves and stringy red bark are reward enough for growing this unusual tree, the flowers are a nice bonus. They lasted just a few weeks in July before turning brown, and are now starting to develop seed. The drawback is that they formed at the very top of the tree, 25ft up, so were only visible from our bedroom windows on the second floor.

Lyonothamnus floribundus ssp. asplenifolius, The Watch House, July 2014

You’d need a tall ladder, cherry-picker or zoom lense to get close to the lofty flowers of Lyonothamnus floribundus ssp. asplenifolius

It has taken Digitalis canariensis only a year to begin flowering, compared to its reluctant cousin Digitalis sceptrum, which took five. The flowers are sparser, smaller and more fiery in colour, borne on fine burgundy stems. This is the second flush, which sprang up readily from beneath the main spike. It looks tremendous planted with other exotic companions, such as sapphire blue Echium candicans, the pride of Madeira. A relative of our native foxglove, Digitalis canariensis is a short lived shrub from Tenerife which I have found to be completely hardy by the coast. Give it dappled shade and moist, well-drained soil for best results.

A long way from its home in Tenerife, Digitalis canariensis flowers for the first time

A long way from its home in Tenerife, Digitalis canariensis flowered for the first time

Canna x ehemanii is new to the garden this year, but is already putting on one hell of a show. Although never demure, the plants are now producing leaves the size of a banana. I dislike the stiffness of most cannas, but C. x ehemanii holds its raspberry-pink flowers with grace and poise. Already there are sharp new shoots emerging from the ground, which will hopefully keep on producing flowers until the first frosts.

As the season progresses, the leaves of Canna x ehemanii expand to banana-like proportions.

As the season progresses, the leaves of Canna x ehemanii will exceed 3ft in length.

I did not have to wait at all for this post’s final plant to flower, as it was purchased already in bloom. At first I could not believe that Spigelia marilandica, the Indian pinkwas a North Amercian native: the flowers appear so unashamedly exotic. It would not be out of place lining the pathways of a Caribbean resort, but in fact this perennial plant revels in the moist, sheltered woodlands of Missouri. The first flower spikes were mercilessly snapped off during the weekend’s stormy weather, so I only have this grainy image to share with you. With its eye-catching red and lime green flowers, I feel sure S. marilandica is going to become a new favourite of mine.

Back home in Missouri, USA, Spigelia marilandica is a woodland native

Back home in Missouri, Spigelia marilandica is a woodland native

Below is a picture, courtesy of Carolyn’s Shade Garden, to demonstrate the potential of this little known shade plant.

I find most things are better the first time round, so if these plants are new to you I hope you have enjoyed them as much as I have. I would love to know what’s flowered for the first time (or even the last!) in your garden this year.

Spigelia marilandica carpeting the ground in Pennsylvania USA

Spigelia marilandica carpeting the ground in Pennsylvania, USA



Plant Portraits: Aeonium arboreum ‘Zwartkop’

Aeonium arboreum 'Zwartkop'

Succulent plants are not everyone’s cup of tea, but one which attracted a lot of admiring glances when we opened our garden for the National Gardens Scheme was Aeonium arboreum ‘Zwartkop’. It’s hardly surprising given its height (hence arboreum, meaning ‘tree-like’) and the colour of the fleshy leaves, which are quite unlike the average houseleek. The glossy, purple-black rosettes which top each stem lend the plant its common name ‘black rose’, rather nicer than the direct translation of ‘Zwartkop’, which is ‘black head’.

A. 'Zwartkop' is readily propagated, so you can be sure of a supply of small plants to replace or give away

A. ‘Zwartkop’ is easily propagated, so you can be sure of a ready supply of small plants to use or give away

Anyone who’s made a trip to West Cornwall or The Isles of Scilly will recognise Aeonium ‘Zwartkop’ from the mild coastal gardens in this part of the UK. When we visited the island of Tresco in April, the sub-tropical Abbey Gardens were full of mature, well-branched plants topped with chunky panicles of bright yellow flowers. These appear only in the most favoured locations; those with the greatest similarity to the Aeonium’s native Canary Islands and North Africa. Hardiness is an issue elsewhere in the country, so even in balmy Broadstairs I keep my plants indoors when there is any chance of frost.

Mature plants grown in mild gardens will produce panicles of golden yellow flowers

Mature plants grown in mild locations should produce panicles of golden yellow flowers

Despite its tenderness, A. ‘Zwartkop’ is happiest outdoors in a sunny, well drained spot. Even if overwintered indoors it can be bedded out during the summer. At The Salutation aeoniums are used as a striking accent plant in Lutyen’s white garden. I keep my plants in pots and use them to punctuate a mass of dahlias, lilies and gingers by the front door. If grown indoors A. ‘Zwartkop’ needs the brightest spot you can offer, and even then the leaves will rarely be as richly coloured as they are outside. Keep a close eye out for tiny green caterpillars which can destroy the centre of the rosette in late autumn.

Mixed pots, The Watch House, July 2014

When allowed to grow tall, A. ‘Zwartkop’ mixes well with other tender exotics

Happily A. ‘Zwartkop’ is extremely easy to look after, needing very little water in winter (perhaps a drop every fortnight) and a weekly drink in summer. Aeoniums like dry air, so are quite happy in a centrally heated room. Propagation is equally straightforward. Leaf rosettes with a few inches of stem can be cut cleanly away from the plant with a knife and the cut surface left for a week or two in order to callus over before potting into in a gritty, well-drained compost. The drying stage is essential to avoid rot setting in and to encourage rooting from the sides of the stem. Within a month or two the new plant will be growing away strongly whilst the old one produces a number of new rosettes, helping to create a well-branched bush. This process can be carried out several times, meaning lots of spare plants to give to your envious friends. If you are selfish like me, plants can be allowed to grow tall and lofty, perfect for making a statement in the garden.

For Aeonium arboreum ‘Zwartkop’ and a great selection of other choice, named aeonium varieties, visit Trewidden Nursery’s website.

Him Indoors, seated as usual, basks in the sort of sunny position that aeoniums love

Spot the black head! Him Indoors soaks up the sun in Tresco’s Abbey Gardens







Daily Flower Candy: Dahlia ‘Firepot’

Dahlia 'Fire Pot', August 2014

If ever a dahlia deserved the classification ‘waterlily’, describing the shape of the blooms, it’s Dahlia ‘Firepot’. The juicy-fruit colours might have given Monet a fright, but the lush, softly incurved petals are a gardener’s delight. They begin sulphur yellow at the centre, fading out to tangerine and then coral at the tips. In bud the flowers are shocking pink so, with blooms at different stages on the same plant, the effect is hot, hot hot. The flowers positively glow, even on dull days, as if they had their own internal flame.

Fire Pot's petals curve gently inwards, like a waterlily

Firepot’s luscious petals curve gently inwards, like a waterlily

This is the second summer for my tubers, which I overwintered in a dry cellar and am growing on in large pots (the black ones typically sold for tomato plants are ideal). D. ‘Firepot’ is the perfect subject for container culture as it’s compact and reaches only 2ft high. The only drawback is that the flower stems tend to be rather short, the smallish blooms held tightly against the foliage. If you decide to cut some for indoors they will last almost as long as they would on the plant; they will soon be replaced, as D. ‘Firepot’ is incredibly floriferous.


Firepot produces a succession of flowers about 4′ across, and is one of the earliest dahlias into bloom

Admittedly this hybrid, which was introduced in 1969, might be challenging to integrate into your garden if you have a pastel colour scheme, but amongst other hot colours, or on its own, D. ‘Firepot’ is a stunner. It’s tricky to photograph but these images are accurate for colour and a fair reflection of what you can expect should you choose to give the variety garden room. I, for one, would not be without it.

Dahlia ‘Firepot’ is widely available, mail order, in the spring.

When fully opened the blooms of D. 'Fire Pot' display all the colours of a sunset

When fully opened the blooms of Firepot display all the colours of the sunset

To Fly Another Day

A Bumble Bee on Dahlia 'Marie Schnugg' AGM, August 2014

I was in the garden early this morning, the very best time to be out there, enjoying the collared doves’ soft cooing between bursts of raucous squealing from the circling herring gulls. Whilst ducking down into the entrance of our undercroft for tools I spied an enormous bumble bee clinging pathetically to a pile of black plastic pots. At first it seemed she, surely a queen, was beyond salvation. Thinking such a splendid creature deserved to feel the sun on her wings again, I transported Her Majesty up into the light and positioned her carefully on the first bloom of Dahlia ‘Marie Schnugg’. Thank goodness the glossy bud had opened overnight as it’s the only single dahlia I grow, and by far the most appealing to pollinating insects. After a stumbling start Queen Bumble tucked in, scouring every millimetre of the flower’s golden centre for nectar. Whilst she was moving at a stately pace I was able to study her magnificently striped thorax, athletic legs, jet black eyes and tiny wings. They looked about as inadequate as a thong on a weightlifter. How she became airborne I will never know.

After 30 minutes, and amusingly by sliding down the flower’s stem like a fireman’s pole, she had a brief rest on a leaf and mustered energy enough to transfer to a neighbouring agapanthus. The pale blue trumpets bowed under her regal weight. After a few more sips she was off, cruising slowly through the air like a furry zeppelin, up into the summer sky, returning to her loyal subjects.

On reflection I wonder if when I found her she was asleep, or resting her eyes in the manner of Him Indoors, but my instinct was that she was exhausted and ailing, ready to abdicate. Either way she seemed to respond well to my humble resuscitation attempts and, happily for me, lived to fly another day.

Breakfast time for Mr Bumble Bee

Queen Bumble breakfasting like royalty on Dahlia ‘Marie Schnugg’ AGM

Dazzling Dixter

Great Dixter House from the Long Border

Having been utterly engrossed in our own garden for the last few weeks it was a relief to get out and about and start the summer holiday proper. Our destination was Great Dixter, the house and garden of the late, great Christopher Lloyd, nestled in the bucolic East Sussex countryside. The mellow Wealden house is a combination of an original 15th century dwelling with part of a 16th century yeoman’s house, transported here from neighbouring Kent. In 1912 the resulting building was sympathetically added to and updated by Edwin Lutyens, accentuating the property’s air of great antiquity.

Tall chimneys, typical of many Lutyens country houses, rise above the flowers in the Peacock Garden

Tall chimneys, typical of many of Lutyens’ country houses, rise above the flowers in the Peacock Garden

I have to confess to not having fully appreciated or enjoyed Great Dixter’s gardens on previous visits. I understand this statement might be considered tantamount to blasphemy in horticultural circles, but I put it down to poor timing and my own underdeveloped taste. On paper I ought to be in complete harmony with Christopher Lloyd’s philosophy of combining any and every colour effectively. I am happy to report that I am, not before time, converted.

A visitor admires the dazzling display of potted plants outside the front entrance to Great Dixter

A visitor admires the colourful display of potted plants surrounding the porch at Great Dixter

I chose Great Dixter to break my garden visiting fast for two reasons: first, to study the arrangement of pots outside the 15th century porch and second to seek inspiration in the exotic garden. You will already know from posts about our coastal garden at The Watch House that I am bound to grow many of my treasures in containers. The gardeners at Dixter have plenty of open ground to play with, but we each set out to welcome our guests with colourful displays of seasonal flowers in their prime. The terracotta pots at Dixter are handmade in England at Whichford Pottery. They are a little pricey, but a wonderful indulgence every once in a while. Having explained to many of our visitors at the weekend that I do not bother with pot feet, I was pleased to see that Dixter’s gardeners don’t either.

Coloourful rudbekia, amaranthus, dahlias, geraniums and Tulbaghia violacea 'Silver Lace' grace Great Dixter's Porch

Colourful rudbeckia, amaranthus, dahlias, geraniums and Tulbaghia violacea ‘Silver Lace’ grace Great Dixter’s porch

As one expects of Great Dixter, the assemblage of plants is diverse and unconventional. Lilies, cannas, lobelias and variegated miscanthus tower over a tumble of dahlias, amaranthus, persicarias and shorter geraniums, fuchsias and succulents. As in my garden the subjects are swapped around constantly to ensure the display is always fresh, vibrant and pleasing to the eye. The joy of grouping pots in this way is that plants with very different growing requirements can come together in perfect harmony, if only temporarily. Dixter also illustrates that it’s not necessary to stick to the small range of plants typically cultivated in pots, bringing hope and inspiration to many a compromised gardener. The possibilities are endless and mistakes easily rectified if they occur. I took great heart from the joyous abandon with which the eclectic plants were amassed, and was spurred on to try new permutations myself. I was particularly excited by a form of Persicaria that was twinned with bronze leaved Canna purpurea – a combination I’d like to try at home next year.

An unnamed Persicaria . possibly a variation of P. virginiana var. filiformis 'Lance Corporal'

An unnamed persicaria, possibly a variation of P. virginiana var. filiformis ‘Lance Corporal’

It’s hard to imagine that the space occupied by the Exotic Garden was not so long ago filled with roses. With the help of trusted Head Gardener Fergus Garrett, Christopher Lloyd tore up the rule book and replaced Edwin Lutyen’s Edwardian formality with an exuberant display of plants designed for tropical effect. The bananas, hardy Japanese species Musa basjoo, stay in situ all year with protection through the winter. They are joined by the massive palmate leaves of Tetrapanax papyrifer, the rice paper plant, and coppiced Paulownia tomentosa which might both be candidates to replace one of our larger evergreen trees next year. Great Dixter was one of the first gardens I can recall to discover the virtues of Verbena bonariensis and its wispy outline continues to lighten the garden’s extravagant structure.

Luytens' formal rose garden has been replaced by exuberant exotics

Luytens’ formal rose garden has been replaced by exuberant exotics

At waist height there is lots of interest in the form of orange-flowered impatiens, dahlias, variegated cannas and more persicarias. Everywhere seedlings take advantage of any square inch of ground that receives light and water, just as you’d expect in a rainforest. I gained some mean pleasure from noting that Great Dixter’s Begonia luxurians were afflicted with at least as much capsid bug damage as my own. Garden pests are, if nothing else, democratic in their deliverance of misery. Less than gloomy was Him Indoors who, having been allowed to drive there and back with the car’s hood down, was the embodiment of happiness.

A rare sighting of Him Indoors standing on his own two feet!

A rare sighting of Him Indoors standing on his own two feet

No visit to Great Dixter is complete without witnessing the tumultuous tapestry of plants that is the Long Border. Christopher Lloyd believed that no bare earth should be visible from late May onwards, and Fergus Garrett continues to uphold that principle. Any empty spaces are quickly bedded out with ephemeral plants such as lupins and cannas which peak and fade at different times. Tall plants are also encouraged to the front of the border, joining others that tumble gaily over the mellow flagstones.

The Long Border is separated from the informality of the orchard meadow by a wide flagstone path

The Long Border is separated from the informality of the Orchard Meadow by a wide flagstone path

The Long Border is a constantly evolving beast. Regular visitors will rarely experience it (and it is an experience) looking the same way twice. Verbascums, fennels and exotic annuals such as Persicaria orientalis are positively encouraged to seed themselves around, contributing to the colourful exuberance of the scene. Experimentation is, and will always be, a guiding tenet for the gardeners at Great Dixter, which is why the garden is almost constantly in the spotlight and at the cutting edge of planting design.

Christopher's Lloyd's wish was to create a closely woven tapestry of foliage and flower

Christopher’s Lloyd’s wish was to create a closely woven tapestry of foliage and flowers

I never met Christopher Lloyd and visited Great Dixter just once whilst he was still alive (he passed away in 2006). Fortunately he was careful to leave his legacy in safe hands. In Fergus Garrett he has a natural successor, trained and confided in by the great man himself, but with a mind of his own. The estate is in the stewardship of a charitable trust which continues and extends the good work that Christopher Lloyd started. Everywhere one looks young people are gainfully employed, whether it’s looking after the shop, planting up pots or turning the compost heaps. From a visitor’s perspective Great Dixter remains as its creator must have wanted it, a beautiful, refreshing, evolving, irreverent and ultimately happy place where his unique style of plantmanship endures.

Even in hazy sunlight, Great Dixter's heleniums were dazzling

Even in hazy sunlight, Great Dixter’s heleniums are dazzling


The Watch House NGS Open Weekend 2014

National Gardens Scheme signage for The Watch House

It was about this time last year when our friend Beth began twisting our arm to open for the National Gardens Scheme. We took the plunge, and in February found ourselves numbered 104 on the map of Kent in the famous Yellow Book. On the eve of this weekend it still seemed unlikely to me that anyone would go out of their way to visit a garden that measures just 20x30ft, but I was to be proved wrong. Over the two days we welcomed 220 charming visitors and 6 well behaved dogs in a steady stream from midday to 4pm. Everyone who came along was kind and appreciative. Some had travelled from as far away as Leicestershire; many came from the four corners of Kent. It was a pleasure to stop, talk and share gardening tips with so many interesting folk. This alone made it all worth the effort.

The garden was thronged with visitors on both days

The garden was thronged with visitors on both days

The Gods were smiling on us in every way, providing two days of almost unbroken sunshine, a cooling breeze and light, refreshing showers overnight. And we could not have wished for the garden to look more fulsome; the dahlias were in their prime and fragrant gingers soared skywards. Dahlia ‘Amercian Dawn’ was a big favourite with visitors, as was Hedychium densiflorum ‘Stephen’, the kangaroo apple (Solanum laciniatum), elephant’s ears (Colocasia esculenta ‘Black Magic’) and towering Echium pininana.

Reaching for the stars, visitors were fascinated by Echium pininana (Photographed by Scarlett Wardell)

Reaching for the stars, visitors were fascinated by Echium pininana, photographed by Scarlett Wardell

I chatted solidly for the whole eight hours we were open, thus was in my element. I answered countless questions about how to get agapanthus to flower well, to which the answer was always “grow them in a bright, well drained spot; keep them tightly confined and feed with a high potash fertiliser from April to September”. Hopefully the agapanthus of Kent will bloom brighter and more bountiful than ever next year. There was a lot of interest in how to cultivate dahlias in pots and how to reduce the amount of water needed to maintain containerised plants. I shared my secret, which is to use the biggest pots available, use water retentive John Innes No. 3, pack pots together tightly and mulch with surface of the compost with horticultural grit. This way we only need to water our pots twice a week, even in the hottest weather.

Dahlia 'Amercian Dawn' photographed by Scarlett Wardell

Dahlia ‘Amercian Dawn’ photographed by Scarlett Wardell

On both days there was a lovely atmosphere, with visitors relaxing in the sun and unexpectedly bumping into friends and neighbours. What was so encouraging was that several people told us that they had only come to see us because our garden was is so similar in scale to their own. We were flattered that visitors told us how inspired they were by what we’d achieved in a small space and how many plants we’d packed in. The slate terrace was especially admired for its simplicity and clean lines, whilst the outdoor kitchen generated a lot of questions about maintenance and how often we use it. Fortunately this summer we have been able to cook in it almost every weekend, and in truth the kitchen requires very little routine care.

Radiant, Lilium 'Debby', photographed by Scarlett Wardell

Radiant, Lilium ‘Debby’, photographed beautifully by Scarlett Wardell

My partner Alex (aka Him Indoors) slaved over a hot stove to create delicious orange and poppy seed loaves, lemon cupcakes, chocolate cookies, flapjacks and fruit cake. They went down a treat with a chilled glass of Belvoir fruit cordial, with the elderflower proving to be the favourite thirst quencher. Apologies to those who missed the offer of a refreshing cuppa, hopefully we can add this to the menu next time.

Our outdoor kitchen was much commented on.

Our outdoor kitchen came into its own

Refreshing Belvoir cordials were kept on ice

Refreshing Belvoir cordials were kept on ice

Friends Nigel and James sample the home-made cakes

Friends Nigel and James peruse the home-made cakes

Special thanks go to the special people who made the open weekend possible, starting with the wonderful Vanessa, Irrigator General and PR Guru. Here she is with husband Colin, who did our write up in the church magazine. Thanks to Vanessa, many people arrived with their NGS brochures pre-circled with our garden’s details.

Vanessa and Colin

Unsung heroes, Vanessa and Colin

Garden journalist Lesley Bellew gave us a glowing write-up in the Kentish Gazette which tempted a lot of visitors to make the pilgrimage to Broadstairs. NGS Assistant County Organiser, Caroline Loder-Symonds was marvellously supportive and encouraging throughout, convincing us that our garden was worthy of wider attention. Having persuaded us into opening in the first place, it was only right that Beth should travel from deepest Cornwall to make sure we did things correctly. No stray leaf, bare twig or fading bloom escaped her expert scrutiny and was dealt with accordingly.

Me and Beth, NGS pro and Artistic Director

Me and Beth, NGS pro and Artistic Director (shirt and blouse, models’ own)

On the gate collecting entrance fees, and on occasion managing the crowds, was Jack, Scarlett, James, Nigel and Simon. They did a marvellous job talking to visitors, dishing out booklets and providing directions. Scarlett, aged just 11 years, doubled as my talented young photographic apprentice and, I am sure you will agree, took some cracking shots for this post.

The men with the money, Nigel, James and Simon man the front gate

The men with the money, Nigel, James and Simon man the front gate

In the kitchen Rachel and Alex ran a very tight ship, keeping me out of the way until the very end of the day on Sunday when I just had to help myself to cake.

My attempt to blend in with the flowers was futile.

My attempts to blend in with the flowers was futile. Captured expertly by Scarlett Wardell

The whole experience has renewed our faith in human nature and put us in touch with lots of local people and keen gardeners. I won’t pretend that it didn’t involve a lot of planning and work, but it was worth every bit of it to hear visitors’ lovely comments. Preparing for the weekend helped crystallise my ideas about how the garden should develop in the future and this morning I looked upon our tiny patch with fresh eyes and a new determination to make it better than ever next year. Thank you to everyone who helped, visited or wrote about us, and in doing so provided valued support for the NGS charities.

Just desserts - a glass of chilled rose and a cupcake to round off the weekend.

Just desserts – a glass of chilled rosé and a cupcake to round off the day.

Gardening Leave

The Watch House garden, late July 2014

No, I haven’t quit my job or been given my marching orders, but I have taken a couple of days off to prepare the garden for our National Gardens Scheme open days this weekend. I am fastidious at the best of times, but risk turning a little bit obsessive-compulsive over the next 24 hours. Suddenly every yellowing leaf, fallen petal or stray branch has come into sharp focus and I can see flaws everywhere. Will visitors notice the horrific capsid bug damage and the dirty windows? Well, they will if they read this before coming along; the polite ones will kindly avert their eyes towards the abundant flowers.

Welcome to our jungle!

Welcome to our jungle

No garden is perfect, but in truth ours is looking about the best it ever has done. I was concerned last weekend that we may have peaked a few days too soon, but I was worrying unnecessarily. The dahlias are covered in bloom and I wonder now why I didn’t introduce them to the garden sooner. They seem very much at home in large pots. Joy of joys, the gingers, Hedychium densiflorum ‘Stephen’, started to open yesterday, their flowers like exotic bottlebrushes, towering over my head. The scent in the garden last night was indescribably beautiful.

Hedychium 'Stephen' sparkles

Hedychium densiflorum ‘Stephen’ sparkles

So, here we go, the final push. The weather forecast changes by the hour, but it seems we’ll miss the worst of the showers tomorrow and have a fine day on Sunday. Even at their most ravenous the snails and vine weevils can’t thwart me now. It only remains for me to wash down the paintwork, jet-wash the terrace, put up the famous yellow signs and count the float, whilst Him Indoors bakes for England. See you on the other side…..

Agapanthus africanus and Dahlia 'Amercian Dawn'

Agapanthus africanus and Dahlia ‘Amercian Dawn’