The Diary of a Plant Addict

If my blog did not already have a title, ‘The Diary of a Plant Addict’ would be a strong candidate. I’ve had the most horticulturally indulgent week one could imagine, starting with the Chelsea Flower Show and ending with a three day stretch getting my own garden in shape for summer. In the middle came visits to three of England’s finest gardens. How lucky am I? However, I’ve purchased plants or bulbs every single day for a ten day stretch and it’s starting to get expensive …. not to mention creating a lot of additional work and space anxiety.

Here’s what I’ve been up to and what I’ve added to my collection at The Watch House over the last week or so.

The Savills and David Harber Garden designed by Andrew Duff was easy on the eye.

Tuesday 21st May – The RHS Chelsea Flower Show

Helen of Oz and I meet just after 7.30am under the magnolias outside Sloane Square underground station. A few minutes later we join the throng at the gates to the Chelsea Flower Show and make a beeline for the densely shaded Artisan Gardens, where awards are already being presented. In the distance a loud cheer and clapping can be heard, a sure sign that Kazuyuki Ishihara has won another gold medal, this time for his contemporary ‘Green Switch’ garden.

Andy Sturgeon’s masterful garden for sponsor M&G was inspired by nature’s ability to regenerate.

Someone certainly had flipped the green switch at Chelsea this year. Several gardens were dominated by the verdure which is so prevalent in our country during May. Greens are refreshing, restful, infinitely varied and easy on the eye, creating a strong feeling of calm and restraint.

2019 felt like a mature, grown-up Chelsea, but not a vintage one in my opinion. Lots of the show gardens sought to highlight environmental challenges or mimic natural habitats. There was very little frivolity or technology this time around. This made for a strong and pleasing set of show gardens, but provided less to fuel my imagination than I had hoped for. The show felt unusually busy and our overall experience was marred by an excessive amount of filming and recording, which meant many gardens and exhibits could not be appreciated fully without a second or third pass. Increasingly I feel the best way to experience Chelsea is by watching coverage on the television. Perhaps next year I will do just that and forego the hefty entrance fee.

Sarah Eberle’s Resilience Garden for the Forestry Commission was almost never free of interlopers.

We start on the rosé at 10.30 and meet friends at intervals throughout the day, making it feel like a very social occasion. I am glad that I took a small step back from from my usual scrutiny as this certainly enhanced my Chelsea experience. I apologise to those of you who would have appreciated more detail from me – it might still come if I can find the time over the coming weeks.

Jonathan Snow’s garden for Trailfinders transported us to Chile’s temperate rainforests.

My favourite gardens? The Trailfinders Undiscovered Latin America Garden designed by Jonathan Snow and the Dubai Majlis Garden designed by Thomas Hoblyn. Both gardens sought to evoke regions of the world I am not familiar with and did so with conviction and panache. Andy Sturgeon and Chris Beardshaw pulled off incredibly intricate and beautiful gardens, reminding us all what quality looks like when it comes to garden design.

The Damage:

  • 6 x Lilium ‘Nymph’
  • 6 x Lilium ‘Kaveri

N.B. I recommend buying lily bulbs at RHS shows and planting them immediately in order to enjoy a succession of blooms throughout the year. Those purchased at Chelsea will flower in July or August, whilst those purchased at Hampton Court will bloom in September or October.

Thomas Hoblyn’s Dubai Majlis garden transported us to a desert oasis brimming with aromatic plants.

Wednesday 22nd May – The Salutation

We rise late, having had an arduous journey from London to Broadstairs with five suitcases and numerous smaller bags in tow. (If anyone needs material for a comedy sketch, I will gladly avail you of the details of our journey. It was more fun to watch than to participate in.) We take a leisurely stroll around town and I buy cushions. At least they are not plants, but they do bear a floral design featuring marigolds, roses and violas.

The long borders lead the eye towards The Salutation’s Queen Anne inspired frontage.

We are blessed with beautiful weather all week; not warm by Helen of Oz’s standards, but dry and sunny. Arriving at Sandwich by train we breathe in the town’s quaint Englishness en route to The Salutation, where we enjoy a leisurely lunch and yet more rosé. We are already establishing our routine for the week. The gardens at The Salutation, where Head Gardener Steve Edney works his magic, are brimming with life. The borders are at that spine-tingling tipping point, lightly sprinkled with colour before they explode into summer exuberance.

The Damage

  • 1 x Anisodontea ‘El Rayo’ (a particularly pretty and delicate mallow)
  • 1 x Persicaria ‘Purple Fantasy’ (I killed the last one)

Thursday 23rd May – Sissinghurst Castle

Having picked up the hire car we bowl through the Weald of Kent towards Sissinghurst. We know to expect crowds as the weather is good and the garden is eternally popular. Somehow the hoards seem lesser within the boundaries of the garden, perhaps because of the walls and yew hedges that create Sissinghurst’s famous ‘rooms’. The result of projects to restore the garden’s ‘gay abandon’ and original planting are plain to see. There are roses and bearded irises everywhere one looks, whilst cow parsley foams through perennials that are slower to get going. It is all very pretty and very well done, as always.

Is there anything more lovely than a white wisteria coming into bloom?
Or a pale yellow, single rose?

What one-time visitors miss is just how much has changed in recent years, with the opening of the Cutting Garden and Little North Garden, the extension of the Nuttery, restoration of the Sunken Garden and replanting of the Moat Walk. Despite being a garden of enormous historical and cultural importance, Sissinghurst never stands still and always looks immaculate. That’s a credit to the National Trust and Head Gardener Troy Scott-Smith who is soon to take up a new post at Iford Manor in Wiltshire. What an incredible legacy he leaves behind him.

Bearded Irises in the Cutting Garden are part of a project to recover Vita Sackville-West’s lost collection.

The biggest change at Sissinghurst, and perhaps the most significant since Harold Nicholson handed it over to the National Trust in 1967, is the reimagining of Delos, an area of the garden that Vita and Harold hoped would remind them of visits to Greece. Unusually for this expert pair, they never quite managed to pull the idea off. Under the guidance of Landscape Architect Dan Pearson, the majority of what was planted here, which one might best describe as ‘nice but nothingy’, has been removed to make way for a new layout and planting which might finally transport visitors to the Cyclades. It’s a brave move but a commendable one. I’m incredibly excited to see the result on a future visit as I know it’s going to appeal to me and add a new dimension to my experience. Projects like Delos do not come along often in a garden such as Sissinghurst, ensuring the new Head Gardener will have an opportunity to make her or his mark over the coming years.

Head Gardener Troy Scott-Smith (right) surveys the plans for a revitalised Delos.

The Damage

  • 1 x Paeonia ‘Garden Treasure’ – an Itoh peony with double yellow blooms.
  • 2 x Lavandula multifida.
  • 1 x Lophospermum ‘Magic Dragon’.
Great Dixter’s Barn Garden is a rich tapestry that evolves throughout the seasons.

Friday 24th May – Great Dixter

We could not decide whether Helen of Oz had been to Great Dixter before, or not. I thought she had, she thought she hadn’t. Turns out I was wrong. The route to Dixter from Broadstairs is similar to that taken to reach Sissinghurst, but we are diverted down a network of narrow lanes owing to an accident at Rolvenden. It is so tempting to marvel at the beauty of the countryside that I must concentrate on not driving us into a ditch. Car hire companies are not sympathetic about such things.

The Long Border, looking towards Lutyens’ extension and Yeoman’s Hall.

Dixter is already busy when we arrive, shortly after opening. There are scores of coaches spewing out foreign visitors on organised garden tours. I wonder what they make of our gardens, since few give much away in their facial expressions. I should probably just ask. We are bowled over by everything at Dixter; the nursery, the pot groupings, the intricacy and skill of the planting, the vegetable garden, the meadows and, oh, the marvellous weather. No garden provides me with more inspiration than Great Dixter. I come away wanting to throw everything up in the air and start again.

As at Chelsea, green dominates Dixter’s pot arrangements this spring.

The Damage

  • 3 x Actaea simplex ‘Brunette’
  • 3 x Mathiasella bupleuroides ‘Green Dream’
  • 3 x Persicaria alpina
  • Clematis ‘Margaret Hunt’
  • Clematis ‘John Huxtable’
Pots galore! If it’s good practice at Great Dixter, that’s good enough for me.

Saturday 25th May & Sunday 26th May – The Watch House

Helen of Oz departs from The Watch House at 4am, in time to catch a flight to Dubai. I am sad to say goodbye as I know it will be another two years before we get to do this again. It is already getting light and the dawn chorus has begun. As the taxi departs I take a few moments to peruse the garden and I spot my first lily beetle. I thought I might have escaped this nuisance for a year, but obviously not. I have a lot of lilies this year so I will need to be vigilant.

All week Dave the Carpenter has been working on the replacement of the boundary fences in the Gin & Tonic Garden. It’s gone smoothly, unless you are one of the clematis that was growing up the fence previously. These poor plants are now in various states of disarray and will probably need a belated ‘Chelsea Chop’ to help them recover. All week I’ve been moving pots around to keep them out of harm’s way, but it’s not a pretty sight.

By my calculation this fence and the section which runs at right angles to it will take 70+ hours to paint!

The back of my raised beds needed some major attention, so that was Sunday’s job. I fed and mulched the merging colocasias and gingers (all overwintered successfully outside) and planted the hoard purchased from Great Dixter, along with one or two other acquisitions. Feeling the urge to do something creative, I planted a bowl with bromeliads, salvias, sempervivums and black petunias to adorn the garden table for at least the first part of summer. The gardens at Miami’s Vizcaya Museum inspired me to be much braver and more experimental with my planting, so we’ll see how this combination performs in an altogether cooler climate. Afterwards I spent a happy half-hour wiring my airplants into the Japanese olive tree (Phillyrea latifolia). They were not looking at all happy indoors and will hopefully benefit from the shade and humidity they’ll enjoy under the tree’s canopy.

Peekaboo! Helen of Oz in her element at Great Dixter.

Today is for tying up loose ends and reflecting on a week packed with flowers, friendship and plant shopping opportunities. I’m intoxicated by all the wonders I’ve seen and bursting with inspiration. At the same time I’m ready to return to work for a ‘rest’. Everyone should take a week off to visit gardens and get their plant fix …. and if you can do it with a friend, all the better. TFG.

Helen of Oz and Yours Truly – happy as pigs in muck, only with posh hats on.