Pole Position

Our London Garden, May 2015

Somehow, and not by design, we have ended up with scaffolding on both houses simultaneously. I know maintenance has to be carried out, but this is not an experience I’m enjoying in the slightest. Scaffolding is the architectural equivalent of Hannibal Lecter’s mask: ugly, sinister and restricting ….. but ultimately necessary. In small gardens like ours building work makes a confined space even trickier to work in, and inevitably plants get squashed, mashed or showered with all manner of unpleasant detritus. Try spattering your prize hostas with wet, caustic mortar and you’ll understand my distress.

It’s unlike Him Indoors to see the bright side, but he was rather relishing the high-level sunbathing opportunities created by the aerial platforms. That was until he cracked his head on a scaffolding pole when trying to extricate his bicycle from the basement and then he changed his mind pretty rapidly.

Our London Garden, scaffolding, May 2015

In fairness, the scaffolders have been particularly careful. In both gardens poles have been deftly positioned so as to avoid my most precious plants. Between you and I, I’m quietly impressed. But, what goes up, must shortly come down and I am not counting my chickens. I’ve been here often enough to know that workmen who care about plants (with the exception of landscapers, and even then I’ve had dodgy experiences) are rarer than hen’s teeth, so it pays to lay it on the line in terms of what must not be annihilated.

The Watch House, scaffolding, May 2015

In our coastal garden we had it coming. The Watch House windows haven’t been decorated properly in eight years, which is pushing it, and the roof has so many old seagull nests on it you could forgiven for thinking it’s thatched. From a gardener’s point of view the ideal time for this kind of work would be midwinter, but for some reason decorators like to wait for fairer weather. Tragically this means our Rosa banksiae ‘Lutea’ is pinned mercilessly to the wall by iron bars. By the time she breaks free her fleeting moment of glory will be over and we’ll have to wait until next April for another glimpse of her golden tresses. Shaded by the first ‘lift’ of scaffolding boards, my agapanthus will hopefully recover quickly.

Echium wildpretii, The Watch House, May 2015

Two vulnerable plants were to be protected on pain of death – Echium wildpretii (above and below left) and Geranium maderense – the former flowering for the first time following 2 nail-biting winters. I am so pleased with my ‘tower of jewels’ and wish I had planned ahead so that I had plants primed to flower next year. The seedlings I’ve raised this spring may not send up flower spikes until 2018 and then of course they will die. I may have to cheat and buy some mature specimens in. Geranium maderense is also monocarpic (i.e. it dies after blooming), but thankfully I have four more of these at different stages so that I have the best chance of getting a display each season. Planting up of pots for summer has been put back by at least three weeks.

Echium wildpretii and Beschorneria yuccoides, our coastal garden, May 2015

Back in London the scaffolding has been less disruptive although, given the scale of the job (re-pointing), it’s akin to using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The structure has created some unhelpful shade and an almighty trip hazard, but will disappear before the urge to grow a clematis up it takes hold.

Should I ever feel inclined to develop either garden vertically I will not be short of ideas, although the topmost level will be furnished with steamer chairs and a cocktail bar. Never mind if it’s right outside the neighbours’ kitchen window.

Hosta fortunei var. albopicta f. aurea, London, May 2015


Chelsea Flower Show 2015 – Stars of the Show: World Vision and Dark Matter

Fluorescent yellow rods, The World Vision Garden, John Warland, Chelsea 2015

Big budget show gardens are all well and good, but it was two of Chelsea’s smaller gardens that really impressed me on Tuesday. The ‘Fresh’ category is where the RHS loosens its corset and affords designers a little more freedom, provided they remain on the right side of good horticulture. Designers are permitted to choose the shape and size of their plot (in modules measuring 3m x 3m) and are encouraged to embody an idea or concept whilst experimenting with new materials and technology. Sadly these gardens often struggle to deliver the impact of larger show gardens; not for lack of brilliance, but because they float randomly between trade stands that are attempting emulate show gardens themselves. The unfortunately stark backdrop of the Great Pavilion does not help matters. A shake up of Chelsea’s layout is long overdue and it would be good to see the Fresh garden promoted to a less confused position.

The World Vision Garden, John Warland, Chelsea 2015

Fluorescent yellow rods, The World Vision Garden, John Warland, Chelsea 2015

Nevertheless, in today’s featured gardens designers John Warland and Howard Miller manage to capture the current zeitgeist without being pretentious. Eye-popping fluorescent yellow and rusted steel combined with burnt orange flowers were common sights at this year’s Chelsea, whilst inky black water, bamboo and umbrella plants suggest more global influences filtering into garden design. In neither garden are flowers given centre stage. Each is completely different, and yet together they epitomise much of what is new and exciting in garden design.

Fluorescent yellow rods, The World Vision Garden, John Warland, Chelsea 2015

I could not take my eyes off The World Vision Garden and the camera loved it too. Inspired by the beauty of rural Cambodia designer John Warland swapped rice plants for fluorescent acrylic rods, ‘planting’ them deep in a pool of dark water. Growing through and around them were frothy water buttercups, cyperus and taro plants providing shade beneath their elephantine leaves. The garden’s message is a harsh one: surviving on just two bowls of rice a day, the life of many children in Cambodia is permanently blighted by poor nutrition. Contrasting with the yellow rods, purple irises and water violets are planted to indicate that water conditions are improving enough to allow delicate plants to thrive in the paddies. As well as attracting attention with the mind bending suggestion of a reverse oasis (or should that be anti-oasis?) mirrored boxes filled with cacti are sunk into the water representing light at the end of the tunnel for the country’s impoverished rural communities.

The World Vision Garden, John Warland, Chelsea 2015

Sunken cacti,The World Vision Garden, John Warland, Chelsea 2015

Although this garden probably isn’t something you’d emulate at home (the water needed relentless filtering to maintain that lacquer-black appearance) it is wonderful to look at and in my view deserved better than a Silver Gilt medal. Perhaps one take-out would be the idea of planting cacti in a mirrored glass cube. If sharp drainage could be provided the light, bright habitat would be perfect for these prickly customers.

Fluorescent yellow rods, The World Vision Garden, John Warland, Chelsea 2015

Architect Howard Miller probably thought he had the toughest brief of all when he was asked to portray the entire universe and the unidentified constituents within it using plants and rusty metal. Since I am no astrophysicist, I will not embellish what the accompanying leaflet tells me, that is without what’s known as ‘Dark Matter’ there would be no planets, stars or galaxies. Pretty dramatic news for us Earthlings. No one knows what Dark Matter is, apart from a cloud of mysterious invisible particles that float around in empty space. Its presence is only known because it is believed to bend light and create huge gravitational effects. Lost? Me too, but let’s go on ….

Dark Matter by Howard Miller, Chelsea 2015

The garden uses wind as a metaphor for Dark Matter as it cannot be seen but its effects can. Plants have been chosen to be sensitive to the slightest breeze, so that the garden is continually moving in response to air movement. The presence of Dark Matter is reinforced by undulations in the ground, symbolised by a hollow where Dark Matter exists above it and a mound where it does not. I know now why I studied plant science and not astronomy, but evidently when the two disciplines collide the result isn’t too catastrophic. There is no explanation of the large cut-out cogs, but I like to imagine that this is what the Large Hadron Collider looks like, only shinier.

Through the black hole, Dark Matter by Howard Miller, Chelsea 2015

Detail of grasses and rusted steel, Dark Matter by Howard Miller, Chelsea 2015

Given the rather esoteric message behind this garden, it’s just as well it’s attractive its own right. The ideas Howard Miller presents in this garden could be translated into a small urban strip, roof terrace or balcony, coming together to make an edgy, private yet usable outdoor space. There’s a boundary of bamboo, focal points in the giant rusted steel sculpture and planter, and plenty of year-round interest. The finishing touch is a bench on which to sit and contemplate the meaning of the universe. I may be some time.

The Dark Matter Garden for the National Schools’ Observatory won Best Fresh Garden and a Gold medal. How would you have judged it, and which of the two gardens do you prefer?

Orange verbascum, Dark Matter by Howard Miller, Chelsea 2015

Rusted metal rods,Dark Matter by Howard Miller, Chelsea 2015

Dark Matter by Howard Miller, Chelsea 2015

Chelsea Flower Show 2015 – Stars of the Show: Laurent-Perrier Chatsworth Garden

Candelabra primulas fringe the water

At about 10.30am yesterday morning a small crowd surrounded Monty Don and RHS Director General Sue Biggs as they prepared to announce the prize for ‘Best Large Show Garden’. Their position, next to the island site at the bottom of Main Avenue, left little doubt as to the winner – the Chatsworth Garden designed by Dan Pearson for Laurent-Perrier. It was the bookies’ favourite to take the accolade and, judging by the rapturous applause, the public’s as well.

Managing Director of Laurent-Perrier in the UK, David Hesketh, is the man with the enviable task of selecting a designer for the Champagne house’s Chelsea garden each year. He is clearly persuasive, as Dan Pearson has not designed a Chelsea garden for eleven years. David’s brief to his designer is a simple one, purely to reflect the value’s that Laurent Perrier adhere to when crafting their distinguished cuvées: lightness, freshness and delicacy.

Rocks surrounded by the fragrant flowers of Rhododendron luteum

Rocks surrounded by the fragrant flowers of Rhododendron luteum

There can be no argument that David’s brief was achieved. During last night’s BBC coverage Monty Don described The Chatsworth Garden as one of the most significant ever created at the Chelsea Flower Show. I would have to agree. Not only is it one of the largest (no show garden has ever occupied the full island site before) but also one of the most ambitious. Taking his inspiration from two of Joseph Paxton’s lesser known features within Chatsworth’s 105 acre garden – the magnificent rockery and the ornamental trout stream – Dan Pearson has masterminded a garden of unrivalled detail, impeccable naturalism and enormous charm.

The layout of the Laurent-Perrier garden suggests it may occupy the Rock Bank site

The layout of the Laurent-Perrier garden from the northern edge

Dan’s design is unusual for Chelsea in that it can be glimpsed from all sides. This in itself is a challenge as views from every angle have to be considered, whereas in other gardens the main viewpoint is from the front and one side. A tiny stream begins high on an austere rocky outcrop, out of view from visitors. It then flows gently down and through meadows of flowers where it is crossed by giant stone slabs, ending its course in a small pond: “Getting the levels right was crucial” explained David “every stone and pebble in the water course has been carefully secured in place to achieve the right effect”. The mammoth stones used for the garden do not just simulate Paxton’s monumental rockery of 1842, they are the actual rocks that Paxton rejected during his original project. They were found discarded, scattered around the Chatsworth estate, many weighing several tonnes.

Rheums and osmundas in the shadow of Paxton's heavy rocks

Rheums and osmundas in the shadow of Paxton’s gargantuan rocks

Although they are species commonly found in England, the trees that Crocus sourced for Dan Pearson have come from all over Europe. “British nurseries don’t tend to hold mature specimen trees for landscape projects” Crocus founder and CEO Mark Fane told me, “so we had to look to Europe”. The characterful pollarded willow that stands at edge of the garden came from Holland, whilst other trees were found in Germany and France. I was interested to learn that the location of one of the willow trees had to be changed during the build after the team discovered a Victorian sewer running under the site. It was doubtful that the old pipes could have withstood the direct weight of the tree, so it had to be moved elsewhere at the last minute.

The rocks, flanked by Enkianthus campanulatus, through which the tiny stream flows

The rocks, flanked by Enkianthus campanulatus, through which the tiny stream flows

The comment that was repeated by everyone I overheard was how incredible it was that this garden had been created in a matter of days and yet appeared as if it had been there forever. David Hesketh explained to me that the entire garden had been created at the nursery three months earlier and allowed to knit together over the weeks leading up to the show. Unlike some other show gardens, all the plants were transferred growing in the ground to Chelsea, and not left in pots. A swathe of wild flower meadow was grown specifically for the garden and cut into large square sheets of turf before being transported on trollies to the site.

A grassy bank strewn with red campion, troillius, irises and primulas

A grassy bank strewn with red campion, troillius, irises and primulas

The planting creates as rich and colourful a tapestry as one could ever hope to see. Completely unswayed by trends and ‘it’ plants, Dan Pearson has used a palette of natives, carefully augmented by ornamentals, just as you would find in the wilder recesses of a garden like Chatsworth. I loved the floating canopies of Rhododendron luteum;  the fringes of candelabra primulas which appeared to have seeded themselves alongside the stream; the random spikes of camassia and marsh orchids poking through the turf; and the white clouds of Luzula nivea, Lychnis flos-cuculi ‘White Robin’ and Cenolophium denudatum foaming at the base of the trees. There were wonderful touches such as clumps of Narcissus poeticus hiding beneath the bushes and purple stemmed irises along the water’s edge. Many visitors would not have noticed these details, but the judges certainly did.

Turks cap lilies in all shades of orange populated shady parts of the garden

Turk’s cap lilies in all shades of orange populated shady parts of the garden

I was lucky enough to be invited to walk through the centre of the garden, across a heavy plank boardwalk, over rough stepping stones and then onto a lightly worn grass path. From inside, the garden felt even more permanent, as if I was standing on a little island of Chatsworth that had floated down from Derbyshire to South West London. Any team capable of creating a show garden this convincing deserves a gold medal.

Heavy oak planks greet invite visitors into the garden

Heavy oak planks invite visitors into the garden

A privileged view from the grass bank inside the garden

A privileged view from the top of the grass bank inside the garden

Unlike many other show gardens there is a future for the Chatsworth Garden. When the show closes most of the trees, plants and stones will be transported back to Chatsworth where they will be used in the regeneration of the trout stream area. This was one of the main reasons Dan Pearson took on the project. He says: “I felt when I was here the last time it was wrong to make a garden for just five days and I felt uncomfortable about the waste and that the gardens were not being recycled. I wanted to work on something that lasts decades rather than days, so that is why I said I was important that the garden had another life.” The Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, who live at Chatsworth, were clearly delighted with the whole project and spent the day handing out leaflets and talking to the public.

White thalictrum

White thalictrum

Dan Pearson vowed yesterday never to work on another Chelsea Garden. In the short term his Garden Bridge project will keep him out of mischief, yet firmly in the limelight. With that under his belt, surely another Chelsea garden will seem like a walk in the park?

In Paxton's original design for Chatsworth, rocks were delicately balanced and could be made to sway for the amusement of visitors

In Paxton’s original design for Chatsworth, rocks were delicately balanced so that they could be made to sway for the amusement of visitors


Plant List

A complete plant list was not provided, and would have run to many pages. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Asarum europaeum AGM
  • Asplenium scolopendrium AGM
  • Briza media
  • Brunnera macrophylla ‘Betty Bowring’
  • Cenolophium denudatum
  • Cornus canadensis
  • Deschampsia cespitosa
  • Digitalis purpurea f. albiflora
  • Dryopteris erythrosora AGM
  • Enkianthus campanulatus AGM
  • Euphorbia palustris AGM
  • Hemerocallis lilioasphodelus
  • Iris ‘Berlin Tiger’ AGM
  • Lonicera pericylmenum ‘Graham Thomas’ AGM
  • Lunaria rediviva AGM
  • Luzula nivea
  • Mahonia ‘Soft Caress’
  • Matteuccia struthiopteris AGM
  • Melica altissima ‘Alba’
  • Osmunda regalis
  • Polygonatum x hybridum AGM
  • Rhododendron luteum
  • Smyrnium perfoliatum
Cornus canadensis carpeting the ground

Cornus canadensis carpeting the ground

Chelsea Flower Show 2015 – The Dream Ticket


Generally speaking I am not the kind of person who wins lotteries or ballots. I don’t even come out of tombolas or raffles particularly favourably. I am the man that walks away with the cider vinegar or the oversized tea cosy fashioned from yarn that looks like it would induce an electric shock. But today fortune was smiling on me as, for the very first time, I managed to get my hands on that most precious of prizes, a Chelsea Flower Show Press Pass. Rather like turning left on a plane, once you’ve experienced preview day at Chelsea it is hard to go back. There are film crews, photographers, hacks and celebrities galore, but compensating for that is the space and time to take in one of the greatest celebrations of horticulture on the planet. It was as if all my birthdays had come at once. Of course I will be back tomorrow for the first member’s day, but the experience will feel decidedly ‘economy’ compared to today, even though I only had a couple of hours to spare and an iPhone in my pocket.

Despite the inclement weather (high winds and drenching showers), most of the show gardens on Main Avenue were holding up well. I felt for the designers of the Hidden Beauty of Kranji garden who had bravely bedded out orchids beneath palm trees almost bent double by the gale. My highest hopes were for Dan Pearson’s Laurent Perrier garden, but, exceptional as it was, I am not sure it’s a shoe-in for Best in Show. So skilled is the garden’s execution that it appears to have been torn straight from the Derbyshire countryside and pasted into the grounds of the Royal Hospital. It is wild and authentic, but is it a Chelsea garden? We’ll know what the RHS judges think first thing tomorrow morning. If the accolade does not go Dan’s way, My top tips for the big prize would be The Retreat, designed by Jo Thompson for sponsors M&G investments, and Matt Keightley’s Hope in Vulnerability garden for Prince Harry’s charity Sentebale. Jo Thompson has created an archetypal English garden (above), with a contemporary twist. Matt’s design (below), inspired by the Mamohato Children’s centre in Lesotho, made my heart sing with it’s colourful planting and warm, friendly atmosphere: if not the top honour it deserves serious recognition.


Given my rare good luck, I think it’s only fair to share with you the highlights of my afternoon at Chelsea. Whether you are visiting, watching the TV coverage or admiring from afar, I do hope you enjoy the show. Check back throughout the week for more pictures, analysis and my top 10 Chelsea plants for 2015.




A Walk on Walmer’s Wild Side

Valerian, Kingsdown, Kent, May 2015

We needed to blow away the cobwebs today, so settled on a drive down to one of our favourite spots, the stretch of coastline between Kingsdown and Walmer in Kent. The sun was up, the hood was down and the countryside smelt of damp grass and lilac blossom. It was about as good as a May day gets. Kingsdown is a charming, oft-overlooked little village, tumbling from the fledgling white cliffs to a grey English Channel. Above the tide line, marshalled rows of whitewashed cottages spring directly from the pebble beach.

Fennel and shingle, Kingsdown, Kent, May 2015

Immediately on the shoreline, The Zetland Arms is now a rather smart pub. Having felt decidedly run down the last time we set foot inside it has been tastefully done out with bleached wood, ticking-stripe cushions and nautical paraphenalia. If you are not ‘in the know’ Zetland is the old name for the Shetland Isles and the pub’s name probably refers to The Marquess of Zetland.

The Zetland Arms, Kingsdown, May 2015

Together with Him Indoors I enjoyed an enormous homemade burger washed down with Whitstable Bay Pale Ale brewed at Britain’s oldest Brewery, Shepherd Neame. Sitting on benches fashioned from stone-filled gabions the front of the pub is the perfect place to watch the world and his wife go by.

The Zetland Arms, Kingsdown, Kent, May 2015

Most plants look their best in May, even wild ones. That’s why May is my favourite month. Through the golden shingle emerged feathery mounds of fennel, stiff, upright tree mallow (Malva arborea) and the conical plumes of valerian (Centranthus ruber) in shades of pink, vermillion and white. Outside their cottages residents had improved upon nature with colourful swathes of osteospermum, the Cape daisy from South Africa.

Garden flowers, KIngsdown, Kent, May 2015

South Road, Kingsdown, Kent, May 2015

Osteospermum, Kingsdown, Kent, May 2015

Strolling towards Walmer, past widely-spaced beach huts, we stumbled upon an imaginatively named boat…

Argh Sole, Kingsdown, Kent, May 2015

….. smirking we walked onwards to a spot in the shingle where an elderly gentleman was tending a garden of broom, phlomis, mallow, calendulas and teasels. The garden possessed no boundaries and bled seamlessly into the beach.

Shoreline garden, Kingsdown, Kent, May 2015

The shingle banks along this stretch of the shore have been invaded by all sorts of garden plants. I spotted bergenias, red-hot pokers, yuccas, Spanish bluebells and rosy garlic (Allium roseum) making themselves at home. Looking at the scene below, featuring windswept holm oaks, yuccas, alexanders, fennel and Spanish bluebells, one could almost imagine oneself in the Mediterranean. In fact, apart from the yucca, that’s where all of these plants originally come from. Like Broadstairs, this part of the Kent coast is dry, sunkissed and rarely suffers from frost.

Yuccas, Kingsdown, Kent, May 2015

As I did between Polperro and Talland Bay in April, I collected a small bunch of blooms to enjoy at home. They are, clockwise from top left, valerian (Centranthus ruber); ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare); honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum) – an especially rich red form which may be ‘Serotina'; rosy garlic (Allium roseum); kidney vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria); valerian (Centranthus ruber); alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum); tree mallow (Malva arborea); meadow buttercup (Ranunculus acris) and hoary cress (Lepidium draba).

Wild flowers of Kingsdown and Walmer, Kent, May 2015

Much of the shoreline and clifftop between Kingsdown and Dover is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest, so I took care to pluck my flowers from the path side and not to trample the undergrowth. Any plant that survives here in salt laden gales, exposed to the sun, has to be pretty tough. But, as we can see from the foreign species that have integrated themselves, the balance is a fine one.

Shingle and wildflowers, Walmer, Kent, May 2015

The combination of real ale, vitamin D and sea air did the trick, and I write this from the garden table feeling full of vim and vigour. It’s time to return the dahlias to their night time shelter as I prepare them for planting out, so I will leave you with a picture of the beautiful tree mallow, Malva arborea. Have a wonderful weekend and happy gardening.

Tree mallow (Malva arborea), Kingsdown, May 2015

The American Garden, Saltwood, Kent

Matteuccia struthiopteris, The American Garden, May 2015

Primped and polished gardens are all very well (we’ll be seeing a lot of them at Chelsea in a few days’ time) but for those of us who work and can’t afford help they can be a little intimidating. Small imperfections are natural and larger ones excusable. They render a garden approachable and understandable, revealing something about the way it works and the gardener that tends it. Flaws also lend a garden part of its atmosphere: glorious disarray is so much more evocative than clinical maintenance. The only gardens I never warm to belong to those stately homes, suburban villas and monotonous bungalows possessed of velvet-pile lawns, gappy planting and bushes so tightly pruned that they appear to have given up on life.

The American Garden, Saltwood, May 2015

Exemplifying glorious disarray, if not wild abandon, is a little known valley in South East Kent known as The American Garden. You won’t find it in any guide book, and without a decent map you may not locate it at all. However, during the month of May you’ll find The American Garden open each weekend from 2-5.30pm. I’d urge you to make the detour and immerse yourself in its dank, dark, yet exuberant depths.

This part of The Garden of England has been mercilessly bisected by both the M20 and the HS1 train line on which Eurostar runs. Many years ago, as a Landscape Architect, the firm at which I worked acted for many of the landowners in this part of England who wished to keep their estates intact. Most, including Sandling Park, failed in their appeals. Both routes narrowly miss The American Garden, but the roar of traffic can still be heard.

Gunnera, marsh marigold and ostrich ferns, The American Garden,  May 2015

The American garden is so called because of the Californian redwood tree that was planted at its heart by William Acomb in 1854. Acomb was employed by Archdeacon Croft, who was rector of Saltwood from 1812 until his death in 1869. Educated at Eton and Cambridge (a winning formula then, as now), he married, appropriately, a daughter of the Archbishop of Canterbury. With his stipend of £4,850, which was one of the richest in England at the time, he purchased Saltwood Alders, an area of bog created behind ancient beaver dams. Croft proceeded to clear the land for charcoal manufacture, creating a garden in its wake.

Rhododendron buds, The American Garden, May 2015

At that time new plant discoveries were arriving thick and fast from around The British Empire, including rhododendrons and azaleas from the Himalayas. Conditions in Archdeacon Croft’s garden mimicked the humid mountain valley climate perfectly and new introductions such as Rhododendron ponticum and R. arboreum flourished in their new home. Having employed William Acomb as gardener, the Archdeacon went on a spending spree, purchasing plants from all corners of the Far East and North America. His successor, Canon Hodgson, continued to build the collection, followed by a gentleman called Alfred Leney, a brewery entrepreneur from Dover who improved the structure of the garden. Between 1947 and 1976 Stanley Harland and his gardener Alex Pleuvry replaced large swathes of laurel with newer varieties of rhododendron, including the Kurume azaleas which still grace the Dell Walk.

Kurume azalea, The American Garden, May 2015

Stanley Harland died in 1998, passing the garden on to his son Nigel, who valiantly continues its upkeep. Managing a garden on this scale cannot be easy, especially on a budget. The maintenance regime appears to be one of managed decline, with the focus on clearance and access rather than new planting. This is a pity as there must be many unmarked hybrids in the garden that are worthy of identification and propagation.

Yellow azalea, The American Garden, May 2015

On a previous visit a tree-sized Embothrium coccineum, the fabulous Chilean fire bush, grew in the centre of the garden’s largest glade. Sadly this has now fallen, leaving behind the clump of wisteria-covered azaleas that grew in its shade. I hope The American Garden does not go the way of other gardens from this era that have found themselves without sufficient funds; swamped by sycamores and brambles, waiting for rescue. East Kent could benefit from a garden of this kind if only it had the means to smarten up its act and resume the building of a strong plant collection. In the meantime the experience of a visit to The American Garden, parking in a neighbouring orchard and plunging into the gloaming of The Dell, is like entering Jurassic Park. Your senses alive, you’ll discover many things, but there won’t be a tightly clipped bush in sight.

Discover more on The American Garden’s website.

Rhododendron, The American Garden, May 2015

Time Out

Dicksonia antarctica, London, May 2015

Late yesterday afternoon as I was watering, it struck me that I never take the time to enjoy my garden. Quite why this came as a surprise I don’t know, because Him Indoors is always telling me so. I guess sometimes you have to work these things out for yourself.

Hosta 'Guardian Angel', London, May 2015

Jaded after a long day of email wrestling, I have come outside with a gin and tonic to just sit, look and listen. The plants are growing so fast I can almost hear the sap gurgling through their veins, rising like an unstoppable tide. The gaps I purchased plants for two weeks ago are already gone, and still the cold frame is full. Above my head a honeysuckle is about to put on a firework display and tulip petals litter the decking. Summer is just around the corner.

Adiantum venustum, London, April 2015

The garden has never looked better and that’s no accident. I’ve worked at it. By and large that’s the first rule of gardening: what you put in, you get out. I feel momentarily gratified, knowing there is so much more to do. Just not today.

Dicksonia antarctica, London, May 2015

Geranium maderense vs Geranium palmatum

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

Three years ago when I started The Frustrated Gardener this was my first ‘proper’ post. For some reason it has gone on to be one of the most popular articles I have ever written, so I have taken the liberty of updating and reissuing it. I continue to grow both species alongside one another, sometimes losing Geranium maderense in cold and wet winters. They always return from seed, often in the most surprising places, so provided you can get plants to flower once, you will never be without. I am currently bringing on two white cultivars of Geranium maderense named ‘Alba’ and ‘Guernsey White’. The latter were grown from seed and ‘Alba’ was bought from a nursery. When they do bloom, which I hope will be next year, it will be interesting to compare the flowers and see which is the purer white. I’d love to hear your experience of growing these lovely Mediterranean geraniums and any top tips for cultivating them successfully.

Geranium maderense 'Alba' and 'Guernsey White' have white flowers with pink eyes

Geranium maderense ‘Alba’ and ‘Guernsey White’ have white flowers with pink eyes

Canary Island natives Geranium maderense and Geranium palmatum are often confused by nurseries and gardeners, but are actually very different in terms of habit and hardiness. Both are large beasts, possessing gorgeous, fern-like foliage and sprays of pink flowers that go on for several weeks. Neither enjoys being baked, preferring light shade in the afternoon and moist but well-drained soil. They detest wet which, when combined with cold, can prove fatal. However, there the similarities end. Geranium maderense likes to prop its heavy crown up on a pylon of red-tinged leaf stalks (so don’t chop them off!) and frequently reaches 6ft across in my garden. It will mercilessly smother anything beneath it, so I site plants where they can spread their wings or take the consequences. After flowering, which takes 2-3 years from sowing, the whole plant generally dies. Occasionally offsets appear at the base of the trunk-like stem. They are often weak in comparison to the main plant and I find it’s better to start again with a vigorous young seedling.

The foliage of Geranium palmatum is apple green, without maderense's red tinge

The foliage of Geranium palmatum is apple green, without maderense’s red tinge

Geranium palmatum has a more perennial habit (my oldest plant is 9 years old and has a trunk 2ft long), producing a wide Catherine-wheel of flowers rather than Geranium maderense‘s mushroom cloud of blossom. The leaves are slightly smaller and a fresher apple green, but still sprout from a thickened stem. They look their best early in the year, but any tired leaves can be snapped off with a sharp tug to the left or right which gives a neater appearance. I have never lost a plant of Geranium palmatum to cold, but in conditions that are not well enough drained they can be short-lived. Attempts to grow them in London where the soil is heavy clay have not been successful, yet they relish the raised beds in our seaside garden.

The flowers of Geranium maderense fade from fierce magenta to antique pink in bright sunshine

The flowers of Geranium maderense fade from fierce fuchsia to antique pink in bright sunshine

There is no question that Geranium maderense is the more glamorous and desirable of the sister species: the single flowers are fuller, more robust, brighter pink and produced in far greater profusion than G. palmatum. You will often spot Geranium maderense cultivated in greenhouses and there is a reason for that – it does not like any degree of frost. A light chill will at best cause damage to the leaves, which proceed to droop and yellow, but this in itself does not kill the plant as long as the crown is protected. What seems to put the final nail in the coffin is rot, which sets in to the damaged tissue as soon as the weather warms up again in spring. In some years all of my plants have survived snow and ice only to keel over and die in March, when the hollow stems perish. It’s enough to make a grown man cry. Another enemy, if you choose to grow Geranium maderense in a pot, is the vine weevil, whose grubs will quickly demolish the modest root system and cause the plant to collapse. This is always a tragedy, so I take precautions by using a liquid vine weevil treatment. Container cultivation is fine if it’s the only option, but plants never grow as large or flower so spectacularly.

The flower stalks of Geranium maderense are covered in sticky pink hairs

The flower stalks of Geranium maderense are covered in sticky pink hairs

It’s the atomic cloud of Barbie-pink blossom that gives Geranium maderense the edge, supported by a scaffold of old leaf stems. Flowering begins tight within the leaf rosette but the hairy stems rise quickly up into a cone and then finally fan out to form a huge ball of flowers 3-4ft across. These are very attractive to bees and butterflies and the end result is something akin to one of those fabulous lady’s swimming caps from the 1960s.

The flower heads of Geranium maderense can measure 4ft across

The flower heads of Geranium maderense can measure 4ft across

The show will continue into mid summer before the plant, exhausted, begins to collapse and die. During that time the seed pods lengthen, dry out and split in dry weather, distributing seed to every corner of the garden. I’d wager than every pot that leaves my garden goes with at least one little geranium seedling nestling beneath the main event, spreading my love for these plants far and wide. For colder gardens I’d always recommend starting with Geranium palmatum, but if you want the real deal and can hold your nerve then go for the G. maderense and be prepared to be dazzled.

The first flowers of Geranium maderense emerge from the foliage before exploding into a giant mop-head of bloom

The first flowers of Geranium maderense emerge from the foliage before exploding into a giant mop-head of bloom

Where to see Geranium maderense – you don’t need to venture quite as far as Madeira to see Geranium maderense, although this may be more fun than some of my suggestions. The Eden project grows masses of them in their Mediterranean biome and, also in Cornwall, they are plentiful in the Isles of Scilly where frost is rare. In London, The Chelsea Physic Garden displays plants in its Atlantic Islands glasshouse and Kew and Wisley cultivate them too.

Where to buy Geranium maderense – if you have the patience to grow from seed (and they are easy-peasy, even for beginners), then the standard pink version is available from Thompson and Morgan and Jungle Seeds. The only place I know that offers ‘Guernsey White’ is Seeds of Distinction. For plants, Cornwall is a good place to search as they are more frequently grown outside there. Car boot sales such as those at Hayle and Rosudgeon have good plant stalls with local favourites. The Lost Gardens of Heligan was offering large plants of Geranium maderense for a good price on my last visit this year. Plants can be purchased mail order from Burncoose and the variety known as ‘Alba’ from Special Plants (also as seed).

Geranium palmatum at the foot of our front steps

Geranium palmatum at the foot of our front steps


Sandling Park Open Garden 2015

Azalea, Sandling Park, May 2013

The chance to view the extraordinary collection of rhododendrons and azaleas built up by the Hardy family at Sandling Park in Kent is one of the highlights of my May. I adore these acid loving shrubs, especially as I have neither the space nor the soil conditions to cultivate them. At Sandling, sheltered in a shallow valley deep with peat, they find the perfect environment and are grown to perfection. Deciduous azaleas, with their fiery flowers and heavenly scent, are a speciality, although a cold April could mean they are a little late coming into bloom this season. Never mind, the range of cultivars grown at Sandling ensures there is something beautiful to see whatever the weather throws at it. It’s the lavender blues that always get me, so dazzling, plentiful and ridiculously romantic.


A garden needs a lot of space to accommodate so many potentially clashing colours. A walk around Sandling’s 25 acre garden will take about 2 hours if you dawdle and stop to take photographs like I do. If the weather is fine you will want to take a moment to find a bench and drink in the sights and sounds. Wear stout footwear as the valley sides are drained by hundreds of springs and tiny rivulets, each fringed with candelabra primulas and erythroniums. The ground can get boggy underfoot towards the bottom of the garden.

Primula japonica, Sandling Park, May 2014

Sandling Park is a garden worth going out of the way for and is open just once every year. In 2015 it’s Sunday May 11th from 10am until 5pm. You need not go hungry as there are lovely teas available and plants to buy too. All proceeds go to our marvellous local Kent charity Pilgrims Hospices, so you can indulge yourself in flowers, ferns and fondant fancies without feeling the slightest twinge of guilt.

Click here for directions and further details on the Pilgrims Hospices website.

Other posts about Sandling Park: Great Balls of Fire (2014), A Spring Spectrum (2013).

Rhododendron atlanticum 'Seaboard', Sandling Park, May 2014


No Rest For The Wicked


It’s one of those weeks when the balance between getting stuff done and writing about it tilts in favour of the former. After a busy Bank Holiday weekend there are new plants to find temporary homes for, a burgeoning population of seedlings to pot on and tomato plants requiring hardening off. I have booked my Hampton Court Palace Flower Show tickets and started researching Chelsea, now only 13 days away. And still there is more to be done. Heavy showers over the last few days have resulted in an explosion of foliage in our London garden, so much so that each morning I peer out of the bedroom window and wonder if I am still looking at the same garden I tended yesterday.

Damp weather and emerging hostas are a recipe for disaster, so I am keeping my eyes peeled for slugs and snails, whilst the ones in the back of my head watch out for destructive wood pigeons. Life is literally surging up through the ground around me, so vital and envigorating I wish there were some way to bottle it. Not a hope. Nature will have her way, which for us gardeners means only one thing: not a moment to rest if we’re to stay in the game.