Primrose Blue

Blue primroses, London, March 2015

You’ve all heard of primrose yellow, but let me introduce you to primrose blue. As a flower colour blue is something of acquired taste, especially when it doesn’t come naturally. Could there be anything more abhorrent than a blue rose, a turquoise chrysanthemum (please note Tesco cut flower buyer) or, worse still, a sapphire orchid? And yet few blooms are as rich or vibrant as those of delphiniums, campanulas or gentians, which are blue through and through.

In part it’s about what we are accustomed to. This may be why I am not quite sure about the pot of marbled, lavender-blue primroses I currently have on my deck, purchased on a whim at the garden centre. They just about get away with their curious colouring on account of veering towards mauve but, like many bedding plants, they have that slightly too processed look about them. Too many flowers, not enough leaves.

Blue primroses, London, March 2015

Blue is not uncommon in primroses, although rarely could one describe the colour as true blue. Among the doubles, P. ‘Blue Ice’ is a deliciously chintzy powder blue, whilst old favourite P. ‘Blue Sapphire’ is a kind of faded indigo. Last year at the RHS Plant and Design Show I ran into P. ‘Blue Zebra’ for the first time; a flower that looks too much like cheap Chinese crockery for my liking, but the novelty of which will doubtless win fans. Perhaps the prettiest of the lot are the violet blue singles, including P. ‘Blue Riband’ and P. ‘Hall Barn Blue’, which sport masses of delicate golden-eyed flowers. Positioning them alongside other blue and yellow flowers is probably the best bet.

As for these chaps they’ll be straight on the compost heap once they finish flowering. Give me a primrose primrose any day.

Blue primroses, London, March 2015

Daily Flower Candy: Dutch Crocus (Crocus vernus)

Purple Dutch Crocus, Stour Row, Dorset, March 2015

The groundflame of the crocus breaks the mould,

Fair Spring slides hither o’er the Southern sea,

Wavers on her thin stem the snowdrop cold

That trembles not to kisses of the bee:

Come Spring, for now from all the dripping eaves

The spear of ice has wept itself away,

And hour by hour unfolding woodbine leaves

O’er his uncertain shadow droops the day.

She comes! The loosen’d rivulets run;

The frost-bead melts upon her golden hair;

Her mantle, slowly greening in the Sun,

Now wraps her close, now arching leaves her bare

To breaths of balmier air;

 

From ‘The Progress of Spring’, Alfred Lord Tennyson

1809-1892

If flowers were sweets then Dutch crocuses would be Quality Street – bright, inexpensive and hard to resist. As spring bulbs go they are not the most refined flowers, shunned by the same breed of gardeners that turn their noses up at dahlias, chrysanthemums and petunias. But what Dutch crocuses lack in delicacy they make up for in sheer presence, multiplying vigorously and forming dense clumps in borders and lawns. For me they are forever connected to my childhood, when my mother would tell me a story involving three different coloured crocuses, one purple, one white and one yellow. It was not quite Tennyson, but held me in rapt attention every time it was told.

White Dutch Crocus,Stour Row, Dorset, March 2015

That tale, long forgotten, was accurate in so far as Dutch crocuses come in a limited number of shades. For royal-purple flowers, Crocus vernus ‘Flower Record’ and ‘Remembrance’ are good choices, carrying large, lustrous, chalice-shaped blooms. A handful of these planted in amongst Narcissus ‘Tete-a-Tete’ or N. ‘Jetfire’ make both flowers shine like sweet wrappers. A subtler creature altogether is C. vernus ‘Vanguard’, which flowers particularly early and produces flowers of gentle mauve-grey. For later, lavender-blue flowers you could try C. vernus ‘Grand Maitre’, which like many Dutch crocus cultivars has endured for 90 years or more. At the other end of the blue spectrum, C. vernus ‘Twilight’ has incredible midnight-blue petals, contrasting dramatically with startling orange stamens. C. vernus ‘Pickwick’ possesses sparkling white petals deeply veined and feathered with purple, whilst C. vernus ‘Jeanne d’Arc’ is pure white except for the odd violet streak. This just leaves yellow, of which C. vernus ‘Yellow Mammoth’ is one of the best-known cultivars. Its glossy flowers and stamens are the colour of free-range egg-yolks.

Dutch Crocus 'Pickwick', Stour Row, Dorset, March 2015

Dutch crocuses are great bulbs for naturalising in grass. They should be planted at a depth two or three times the height of the bulb in September, deeper if you have problems with mice or squirrels. Once the bulbs have flowered, leave the grass uncut for six weeks to encourage self-seeding. C. vernus will put up with poor soil as long as it’s well drained and the position is sunny. If you don’t have a suitable area of sward, just a few bulbs planted in a terracotta pot will provide early flowers and a magnet for bumble bees. They may be a little coarse compared to the species, but what Dutch crocuses lack in finesse they make up for in sheer flower-power.

Photographs taken on location at Blynfield, Stour Row, Dorset, with special thanks to Sam.

Purple Dutch Crocus, Stour Row, Dorset, March 2015

 

Divine Decay

Faded purple tulip, March 2015

Whether in gardens, nature, art or through the camera lens, flowers fascinate me. At the root of my love of gardening lies a deep-seated passion for flowers in all their myriad forms. On the journey from bud to seed, my favourite stage of a flower’s development is its first opening. There is something about the perfection of silken, unsullied petals and the dusting of fresh pollen on stamens that of speaks to me of life at its most pure and hopeful. Rarely does a bloom in senescence set my heart racing in quite the same way.

Faded purple tulip, March 2015

Returning home last night after a couple of days away, a bouquet of mauve tulips and pink freesias had declined quickly from plump-petaled youth to puckered old age. Instead of bowing out gracefully, the flowers were clinging onto their glorious past in the manner of Norma Desmond – gaudy, dry and railing against the inevitable. Affording them one last moment in the spotlight I photographed them with my iPhone under the harsh lights of our kitchen counter. During their final performance, they displayed a wild, complex beauty. Hardly the big time, but more glamorous than the bin where they’ll be heading today.

Faded tulip, March 2015

Faded purple tulip, March 2015

Daily Flower Candy: Ypsilandra thibetica

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Just occasionally, well, maybe a little more often than that, I buy a plant for all the wrong reasons. Invariably my foolishness leads to failure, followed by guilt. I hate to see a plant die, especially when it’s through no fault of its own. I tell myself I should know better than to waste my money on a fragile life I cannot guarantee, before commiting the same crime again. Just occasionally the story ends happily, as is the case with Ypsilandra thibetica.

My first reason for picking this unusual plant (which, as far as I am aware, has no common name in English), was its copper-coloured flowers, protruding like dirty bottle brushes from a rosette of grassy leaves. It was May and I was attempting to create a small border with flowers in shades of rust and orange. I was soon to learn that these were in fact the long-faded tresses of a plant which carries fragrant lilac-white flowers in March. The second and more stupid reason for selecting this plant was that its name was so fabulously silly. I felt sure any perennial with such a bonkers name must be interesting (in the way that Liberace eltonjohnii might be, if it existed). Almost a year on, I am pleased to report that Ypsilandra thibetica appears to possess many virtues, not least the ability to withstand our soggy London clay and to flourish in a completely sunless spot behind the tank which feeds our pond. (Regrettably Ypsilandra cannot play the piano or throw booze-fuelled tantrums, which it really ought to be able to do with a name like that.)


The rosette of leaves is lush and brightly evergreen, making it perfect groundcover material, and the white flowers smell intensely of vanilla. Each wand of blossom unfurls quickly from the centre of the plant as soon as the days begin to lengthen, creating a dramatic impact amongst last year’s decaying foliage. Native to the Himalayas, Ypsilandra thibetica remains so rare in cultivation that you may struggle to get your hands on it. I purchased mine from Madrona Nursery in Kent, which might be a good place to start. I’d recommend giving the plants a moist, shady spot with lots of organic matter added. Placed close to the front of a border it makes a great edging plant and is more easily admired.

So you see, this is why gardening is not for those who don’t like to take a risk. For every improbable, impulsive, ill-informed choice there is a chance that your foolishness will pay off. As follies go, Ypsilandra thibetica is a damn fine one.


 

Book Review – Garden Design: A Book of Ideas

Marianne Majerus - Layered Landscape: a moment captured

I love a new gardening book, which is a dangerous passion when so many fresh titles hit the shelves every year. Most are glossy, many interesting and just a handful destined to become classics. (Fewer still feature my own garden, so I confess to a degree of heathy bias when it comes to this post’s subject.) Cutting it on the coffee table is not an easy feat, but in Garden Design: A Book of Ideas, Marianne Majerus and Heidi Howcroft have carved themselves out a niche with their sharp images and pithy prose.

Make no mistake, this book is all about the photography. More than 600 ambrosial images are featured, lavishly strewn across 320 pages. Each one is the work of Luxembourg-born Marianne Majerus, who I’ve had the great pleasure of meeting on a number of occasions. A consummate professional, Marianne is happy to share the secrets of her great skill as a photographer, safe in the knowledge that few possess the dedication and artistry required to follow in her footsteps. Marianne is fastidious about choosing the right time of day and best weather conditions for her shots, setting each one up with incredible depth of field. What you cannot see in one of Marianne’s images is not worth seeing, and yet none of the gardens’ mood and magic is ever lost. Such consistency and quality makes for a book of rare quality. Any keen garden photographer will find Garden Design: A Book of Ideas as much of a page turner as any Jackie Collins or Ian Rankin (whichever tickles your fancy!).

Garden Design A Book of Ideas

Garden writer Heidi Howcroft must have found herself with a hard act to follow, but rose admirably to the challenge. In approximately a fifth of the page space, she manages to deliver tips and insights that enhance rather than detract from Marianne’s photography. Together, Marianne and Heidi take us on a journey from assessing a plot, through to deciding a style and choosing design details without so much as a chapter break. It’s an exhilarating rollercoaster ride of a book, packed with more ideas than any keen gardener or garden designer could need in a lifetime. What’s also refreshing is the absence of the usual suspects. Much as I admire the gardens at Sissinghurst, Hidcote, Biddulph and Stourhead, their triumphs are well catalogued elsewhere. This book brings to the fore work of lesser known, contemporary garden designers and gardeners, which has to be a good thing.

Garden Design: A Book of Ideas achieves exactly what it sets out to do – to be a visual compendium of the very best gardens and garden features in today’s design sphere. It is illustrated by one of the world’s finest garden photographers and accompanied by illuminating text from an eloquent and insightful garden writer. What more could one wish for in a garden design book?

Garden Design: A Book of Ideas (Hardback), by Heidi Howcroft and Marianne Majerus is published on March 15th by Octopus Publishing Group. ISBN: 9781845339210. Me and Him Indoors can be spied on page 19, under the heading ‘What Do You Want From Your Garden?’

All images copyright Marianne Majerus.

Lime Avenue, Marianne Majerus

 

 

Portrait of a Lady: Iris histrioides ‘Lady Beatrix Stanley’

Iris histrioides 'Lady Beatrix Stanley', The Watch House, March 2015

Spring arrived in earnest today, with temperatures reaching a balmy 16 degrees in the sunshine. The mercury has not been that high since October and one could almost hear the sap starting to rise through each branch, stem and leaf. It was a day firsts: the first day that we enjoyed lunch in the garden (fish-finger sandwiches – naughty but nice); the first day I gardened in a t-shirt (hence I now look like I’ve been in a fight with a farm cat) and the first day that Iris histrioides ‘Lady Beatrix Stanley’ graced us with her presence.

Iris histrioides 'Lady Beatrix Stanley', The Watch House, March 2015

Lady Beatrix is a petite little thing, beautifully dressed in light cornflower blue. Her petals are feathered with demure white lace and finished with a daring flash of gold. I did not invite her, she was a substitute for another iris with a name I have long forgotten, such is her allure. In contrast to the reticulata irises I’ve written about recently, I. ‘Lady Beatrix Stanley’ has ample, rounded petals and a softer, more feminine profile. She stands a mere 10cm tall and smells delicately of violets, transported by the warmth of the sun.

Iris histrioides 'Lady Beatrix Stanley', The Watch House, March 2015

Naturally I was interested to discover who Lady Beatrix Stanley was. It transpires that she lived at Sibbertoft Manor in Leicestershire (disappointingly now a residential home) with her husband, George, brother of the Earl of Derby. Whilst George was Governor of Madras, Lady Beatrix developed the gardens around their official residency in Ootacamund (Ooty) and sent her drawings of the province’s plants back to the RHS in London. When she and George returned to England, Lady Beatrix took to propagating bulbous plants, particularly snowdrops, hence Galanthus ‘Lady Beatrix Stanley’, a delightful double, was named after her in 1981.

Iris histrioides 'Lady Beatrix Stanley', The Watch House, March 2015

I can’t help but imagine that Lady Beatrix would have relished a day like today, striding out into her garden to examine her prized spring flowers. To have survived Southern India in the closing years of the British Empire she must have been made of reasonably stern stuff, and I picture her as one of those ladies, like Rhoda Birley and Vita Sackville-West, who never picked up a trowel unless jauntily attired in tweeds and a hat. As for her namesake iris, she can hold her own amongst the new cultivars that have come on the scene: good breeding always shines through.

Iris histrioides 'Lady Beatrix Stanley', The Watch House, March 2015

Daily Flower Candy: Primula vulgaris ‘Taigetos’

Primula vulgaris 'Taigetos', London, March 2015

I do so love it when a plant utterly defies the wrong situation and flourishes, when really it should turn and fail. In our London garden we count on such miracles, as the conditions we can offer are far from ideal. Last spring I purchased three pots of Primula vulgaris ‘Taigetos’ from Christine Skelmersdale of Broadleigh Gardens, and was advised by the great lady herself to plant them somewhere that would be dry in summer. This reflects the prevailing conditions in the mountain ranges of the Greek Peloponnese from whence these delicate little flowers originally came.

Primula vulgaris 'Taigetos', Broadleigh Gardens, RHS London Spring Plant and Design Show 2014

In our dank, sun-deprived London garden dry-anything is a big ask, so I planted my charges beneath a magnolia tree with minimal hopes for their future. Not once did the ground dry out last summer and I fully expected my primroses to slowly rot away, as so many other plants do in our poorly drained soil. But no, Primula vulgaris ‘Taigetos’ is a survivor, tougher than its Mediterranean origins might suggest. Delicate, milky-white flowers started to appear at the end of January and are now covering each plant, lighting up a very gloomy corner of the garden. Soon the blooms will completely swamp the plants, mingling with yellow epimediums and narcissi to create a pretty spring tapestry. They make look frail and vulnerable, but the flowers of Primula vulgaris ‘Taigetos’ are a lot tougher than they look.

Plants are available from Broadleigh Gardens priced at £4.50 each or £12 for 3. They are completely sterile so there’s no risk of polluting any native primrose populations you may have nearby.

Primula vulgaris 'Taigetos', London, March 2015

 

Daily Flower Candy: Iris reticulata ‘Blue Note’

Iris reticulata 'Blue Note', The Watch House, March 2015

I adore irises. Their blooms recall the style and elegance of days gone by and appear throughout the spring and summer, starting in early February. After last year’s RHS London Plant and Design Show I vowed to try out some of the new introductions of spring-flowering Iris reticulata shown there by Jacques Amand. My decision is now being richly rewarded with a succession of chic flowers in shades ranging from bleached denim to deepest indigo. The darkest flowers of all those I chose belong to Iris reticulata ‘Blue Note’. Saturated violet petals graduate into midnight blue falls, as if someone had spattered ink on a sheet of brilliant white writing paper.

Iris reticulata 'Blue Note', The Watch House, March 2015

Iris reticulata cultivars are extremely easy to grow, but I have found them difficult to sustain in open ground. Neither of our gardens offer the kind of sunny, well drained, sheltered conditions these little flowers prefer, which is why I grow them in clay pots. Far from being a nuisance, this allows me to admire the flowers up close, and to enjoy their delicate perfume. If pots are to be left standing outside, a top dressing of grit will prevent any compost splashing up onto the petals, but moss would look prettier for an indoor display. Rarely do I bother to keep my iris bulbs from one year to the next, but treasures like I. ‘Blue Note’ deserve to be nurtured. After a summer rest, they will be replanted in fresh compost next autumn.

Iris reticulata 'Blue Note' in foreground.  RHS London Plant and Design Show 2014

Iris reticulata ‘Blue Note’, like I. ‘Spot On’, is an introduction from Canada, where enthusiast and breeder Alan McMurtie has spent many years hybridising and selecting the very best cultivars. I particularly admire the slender, V-shaped petals of ‘Blue Note’ and their yellow-freckled undersides. Oddly, they remind me of the markings on a great crested newt’s tummy. Photographed yesterday, against a backdrop of Narcissus ‘Tete-a-Tete’, the velvety texture of the iris’ falls sparkles in the sunlight. Pure joy, and a reminder that spring is just around the corner.

Iris reticulata 'Blue Note', The Watch House, March 2015

 

Duty

Galanthus nivalis, Trelissick, Cornwall, February 2015

I have been particularly dutiful this week, even if I do say myself. I began the week in Cornwall, entertaining my beautiful, happy, intelligent niece. As duties go, this was an absolute joy. Martha has taken to walking like a duck takes to water, and is now in proud possession of her first pair of shoes – red – her uncle’s favourite colour. Just one of Martha’s gummy smiles is all that’s needed to secure my devotion in perpetuity, but my loyalty was tested when our winter walk at Trelissick was abruptly ended. Despite a generous number of layers, Miss M took umbrage at the biting wind and had a mini-meltdown in the middle of the garden. We were just approaching a clearing flooded with trembling snowdrops, so I quickly sank to my knees, took a few snaps and accompanied my charge back to the National Trust tea-room. All that was required to restore her normal good humour (and everyone else’s for that matter), was a sizeable chunk of cake – a girl after my own heart.

Galanthus nivalis, Trelissick, Cornwall, February 2015

Work has demanded a different kind of dedication. Sign off on our Christmas ranges looms and my team of wonderfully conscientious colleagues have been working like stink to get everything done. I am extremely lucky to have such great people around me: the camaraderie takes the sting out of the most dreary tasks. After a series of 14 hour days I yearned for a nice quiet weekend to recover, but duty called again. We’ve spent today piecing our seaside home together after an excessively protracted kitchen project. Between ourselves and the fitters we managed to create mess and mayhem in every room of the house. Where fine, pale-pink dust has not reached is not worth knowing about. I am sure it will all be worthwhile when Him Indoors is finally able to cook up a storm using all the latest gadgets and appliances. He would be doing so now, were he not asleep on the sofa. Being dutiful, whilst rewarding, can be rather exhausting.

Galanthus nivalis, Trelissick, Cornwall, February 2015

Bewitched

A beautiful golden-yellow witch hazel provides eye-level colour in the winter garden

No winter garden is complete without at least one witch hazel (Hamamelis spp.). These superb shrubs flower reliably during the harshest, bleakest of winters, scenting the air with their uniquely spicy fragrance. I featured this lovely yellow cultivar in a recent post, and remarked how the feathery, crinkled flowers reminded me of lemon zest. They smell equally delicious. The trick with witch hazels is to grow them somewhere that is consistently moist, but not wet. A sunny streamside bank or woodland glade would be perfect, offering moisture, shelter and good light. Should you not possess the right natural conditions, then you are setting yourself up for a lot of watering, as witch hazels do not tolerate drought. That’s a tall order for most of us, and added to that one needs neutral to acid soil and plenty of patience: witch hazels are not speedy growers although, in time, they can achieve the proportions of a small tree.

E. A. Bowles, the 20th-century plantsman and garden writer, referred somewhat romantically to witch hazel as the Epiphany tree. This is the time when it commonly blooms, ‘with flowers of gold and scent of frankincense’. In fact there are varieties of witch hazel that bloom from autumn through to March, so chosen carefully one could enjoy a long succession of flowers in colours from pale yellow, through foxy orange to burnt red. For yellow flowers, two witch hazels I can recommend are Hamamelis × intermedia ‘Pallida’ AGM, one of the best sulphur yellow cultivars, and Hamamelis mollis ‘Wisley Supreme’ which has a lovely scent and canary yellow flowers.

Aconites and snowdrops make perfect companions for witch hazel, enjoying the same moist growing conditions

Aconites and snowdrops make perfect companions for witch hazel, enjoying the same moist growing conditions