Sunshine and Showers at Saltwood

I have met some Americans who believe all us Brits live in quaint thatched cottages and are intimately acquainted with The Queen. We might also happen to know a distant relative they might have in Kettering, Peterborough or Cumbernauld. It’s a small country after all. As a proud Englishman I am more than happy to go along with such mythology, despite the fact that Her Majesty always declines my dinner party invitations. I am keen to build on the idea that we all live a pastoral life, strolling around rose-filled gardens, picking flowers and placing them in trugs, or ordering servants to bring us tea, Darjeeling preferably, with just a dash of milk. Indeed I wish it were true. Hence, for any gullible US citizens reading this blog (I feel confident none of my regular followers fall into this category) I will state, quite unashamedly, that British gardeners purchase all their plants from sales held in the grounds of ancient castles. There is, simply, no more appropriate way for one to furnish one’s garden.

Saltwood Castle's imposing gatehouse from the outer bailey
Saltwood Castle’s imposing gatehouse from the outer bailey

Saltwood Castle is everyone’s idea of the perfect English castle and therefore the ultimate plant fair venue. There has been a some kind of fortification here since 488AD and the main buildings have looked fairly similar to the present day for over 600 years. It was at Saltwood that the four knights who killed Thomas Becket plotted his death in the Great Hall on December 28th 1170. According to our friend’s children there are also dragons living in the castle’s dungeons, but I think that might be pushing the mythology too far.

The Gents' toilets are housed at the bottom of a ruined tower
The Gents’ toilets are housed at the bottom of a ruined watch tower

There is nothing modern or updated about the fortress. Its rough-and-tumble walls, lagged with common polypody (Polypodium vulgare), yellow wallflowers and blue campanula are maintained just sufficiently to permit them to remain standing. Nevertheless it seems that small improvements are underway. Some of the stonework has been re-pointed and the borders in the inner bailey have been cleared and mulched, showing off clumps of bright red tulips and sky-blue Dutch iris. The grass bordering the drive has been neatly edged and there is evidence of drainage work in and around the moat. Being custodian of a building so old and of such national importance must be a source of great joy and enormous stress, especially on the pocket.

Dutch iris (Iris × hollandica)
Dutch iris (Iris × hollandica)

Hence the spring plant fair is an opportunity for the owners of Saltwood Castle, the Clark family, to raise funds for the upkeep of the buildings and, this year, for the Air Ambulance Service. It being May Bank Holiday weekend we expected the weather to be unpredictable at best, chilly at worst, and so we were pleasantly surprised to be treated some warm sunshine on the quick run down through east Kent, passing by Dover and Folkestone en route. There’s always a great turn-out in terms of local nurseries and naturally, it being spring, all the plants looked fresh as a daisy. There was an abundance of herbs, ferns, spring-flowering perennials, auriculas, geraniums and irises, as well as a handful of trees, climbers and shrubs for those with big gardens or big cars to fill.

A Lutyens bench, Euphorbia mellifera, Abutilon vitifolium "Album" and Him Indoors
A Lutyens bench, Euphorbia mellifera, Abutilon vitifolium “Album” and Him Indoors, taking the weight off
Abutilon vitifolium "Album" flowering in the shelter of the castle walls
Abutilon vitifolium “Album” flowering in the shelter of the castle walls

There are many factors guaranteed to get me spending, sun and the scent of freshly mown grass being two of them, so here’s the damage:

From Decoy Nursery, Pevensey, East Sussex:

  • Epimedium zhushanense ‘Zhushan Fairy Wings’ divine copper-coloured foliage and huge, bicoloured lilac and purple flowers. Utterly oriental.
  • Matteucia orientalis – (oriental ostrich fern) – More compact than M. struthiopteris, with a longer leaf stem.
  • Hosta “Liberty” – thick green leaves with a contrasting wide border of yellow that later changes to creamy white. Makes a vase-shaped plant. Relatively slug resistant and therefore a useful variety to have in the garden.
  • Podophyllum “Spotty Dotty” – (May apple) – Upright stems appear in spring, bearing large, lobed umbrella-shaped Chartreuse leaves boldly marked with chocolate-brown spots. Mature plants produce garnet-red flowers and fleshy fruits. An exciting plant for shade and rich soil.

All of the above are destined for our London garden.

Snake's head fritillaries (Fritillaria meleagris) in Archbishop Courtenay's Garden
Snake’s head fritillaries (Fritillaria meleagris) in Archbishop Courtenay’s Garden

From Ringwould Alpines, near Deal, Kent:

  • Gallium odoratum – (sweet woodruff) – four plants of this pretty native groundcover plant to replace a colony in Broadstairs that’s slowly died out.

 

From Bean Place Nursery, Headcorn, Kent:

  • Viola sororia “Albiflora” – Neat clumps of short-stemmed, deep green leaves and masses of rounded white flowers in spring.
  • Viola sororia “Red Cloud” – purple-red flowers in spring produced over mounds of heart-shaped, dark green leaves.
  • Euphorbia stygiana – an imposing, architectural evergreen euphorbia from the Azores.

 

From Rotherview Nursery, Hastings, Kent:

  • Currania dryopteris plumosum – (Gymnocarpium dryopteris or oak fern) – a low-growing, spreading, deciduous fern with triangular fronds. Purchased to underplant Lilium “Scheherezade” in large planters.

 

Ringwould Alpines set up beneath the boughs of a tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) planted by The Queen Mother in 1957
Ringwould Alpines set up beneath the boughs of a tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) planted by The Queen Mother in 1957
Well polished: the spade used by Her Majesty The Queen Mother to plant one of Saltwood Castle's finiest trees.
Well polished: the spade used by Her Majesty The Queen Mother to plant one of Saltwood Castle’s finest trees.

As always the Saltwood Castle Plant Fair was a lovely occasion on which to bid farewell to April and celebrate the arrival of May. As we loaded the car up with plants the sky behind the fortified walls turned ominously black. The heavens opened just as we drove away. April wasn’t quite ready to call it a day.

The next plant sale at Saltwood Castle is on Sunday September 18th 2016

Tulip "Gavota" emerging from the orchard sward
Tulip “Gavota” emerging from the orchard sward