Every rose in England


scenic english country house


It didn’t take much prompting to convince my husband to come with me to England when I said I couldn’t wait any longer to see rose gardens on my must-visit list. The gardens include Mottisfont Abbey in Hampshire,  Hidcote Gardens in Gloucestershire (both of which are run by the National Trust) and Abbey House Gardens in Wiltshire. He Google-mapped our route to the nearest centimetre, found us great places to stay, and waited in the parking lots while I visited the properties.

Wait, WHAT? Yep, that’s right. It took me some convincing, but he assured me he’d be far happier with his puzzles in the car, or in a cafe, than gazing at Bourbon roses and marvelling at the pruning and training techniques employed by the genius gardeners.

Mme Isaac Periere rose

And so I’ve enjoyed the first two gardens in rather splendid isolation, getting the chance to glimpse the roses just approaching their peak.

Mottisfont is as miraculous as you may have heard, with Graham Stuart Thomas’s collection of old roses stretching across brick walls, spread over 7-foot arches, or pegged down to create arches of colour close to the ground, as you see with rose Mme Isaac Periere here. I grow this rose, but it doesn’t look as healthy as this. It felt as if every rose in England was growing here, and that might just be the case — every old rose, anyway, which are the kind I love most. The gardens were tended for more than 30 years by David Stone before his retirement last year, and the health and beauty of the gardens are testament of his and his successors’ wonderful hard work.

At Mottisfont I also got the chance to have a sniff of roses I’d only ever read about, including Desprez a Fleur Jaunes (which isn’t fragrant enough for me to bother with) and Rosa Spinossisima, which Gertrude Jekyll reportedly included in most of her garden designs, and which smells wonderful.

Rosa Lamarque from Mottisfont Abbey

I also discovered a white rose called Lamarque at Mottisfont which is meant to be difficult to grow, but it had a rounded, full scent and an overall grace that could make me change my generally low opinion of white roses. Arching over a brick wall that was already studded with pale lichens, Lamarque looked and smelled sensational.

But it was at Hidcote (where my husband said he enjoyed an uninterrupted 2.5 hours of newspaper puzzles) where I fell in love with Blairi No. 2, a very old and overlooked rose that nevertheless has every characteristic I love most about the old roses.

The fragrance is indescribably rich but not heavy; and its flower changes colour dramatically, from palest pink-white buds to light pink heads that develop warm, dark-pink centres. The texture of the petals is like wrinkled tissue paper, and the plant (which I think must be 50 years old at least) that stretched across the warm gable wall of one of the Hidcote outbuildings reached right up to its thatched roof, with canes and canes of healthy growth. Only some canes were filled with flowers, but the overall magnificence of this rose already has me searching my mental inventory of spaces in my garden for any south-facing surface I could grow it on. There’s not a lot I wouldn’t do to get Blairi No. 2 into my life.

Rose Blairi No. 2 All Rights Reserved

Hidcote wasn’t quite what I expected. Yes, there were the endless garden ‘rooms’ I’d heard of, but there were also several empty expanses that I was grateful for: the hide-and-seek layout of the smaller rooms left me a bit disoriented, and the empty spaces were restful to the mind.

The kitchen garden, which the kindly woman at Hidcote reception advised me not to miss, was a delight of pleached apples skirted by merry, purple-headed chives, as well as rows of cutting flowers like cosmos, lupins and cornflowers. I noticed they’d stopped the cosmos after three sets of leaves to promote flowering, which is something I’ve done ever since a flower farmer in Virginia advised it (I did a short YouTube video showing the technique here – how to get more cosmos by making a bold, low cut when dead-heading).

I heard a couple visitors at Hidcote being a bit uncharitable about the relaxed planting style — “I couldn’t live with a garden like this,” one said, pointing at a crowd of plants that jostled each other — but I loved it. Hidcote allows plants a bit of freedom, and it’s a wonderful experience: it looks more like a real garden than a showpiece, with some areas left to self-seeders (like sweet rocket, Welsh poppies, columbines).

But there are also sculpted and formal areas, like the much-photographed white bench framed by white wisteria, which was visited by a hungry red admiral butterfly while I was watching.

espallier apples and chives at Hidcote

At the time of writing, we’ve still to visit Abbey House Gardens in Wiltshire, and it’s currently pelting rain here. But I hear the garden owners provide umbrellas, so even though the puddle outside my window is dancing with raindrops, we’re suiting up and heading out.

A note on garden-touring: it’s not so bad going around the gardens myself, although I felt more than a little guilty that my husband holed up in cafes rather than walk around with me.

But at this stage of the tour, I’m convinced we’re both doing what makes us happiest: having a few days of indulgent me-time, away from work and parenting responsibilities, and enjoying relaxing dinners and chats without thinking about email, deadlines or school lunches.

Being driven from garden to garden while I relax and take in the ludicrously gorgeous English countrywide feels terribly indulgent — I feel like a horse box, being lugged from place to place — but I’ll get over it. When a casual glance out the car window shows castle-like cottages draped with roses and flowers like something from a story book, it’s hard to feel guilty for long.

And we’ll be back at the deadlines and school lunches in no time, so we might as well make the most of it, dancing puddles and all.

white wisteria and red admiral at Hidcote


Have you visited any outstanding rose gardens you’d recommend I see? Let me know in the comments.


Annual surprises in the October border



I’ll bet you clever gardeners realised this long before I did: a few annuals spangled across an autumn border can be terribly effective.

This is the first year I’ve really seen this in action. The orange daisy above is calendula “flashback mixed”, and elsewhere I have morning glory looking stunning and deeply purple every morning. Alongside the more sturdy perennials, like the Aster Frikartii Monch in the background above, the annuals make a great picture this time of year.

I showed my daughter the morning glory through the window before school today, and asked her what she thought it looked like. She looked at the heart-shaped leaves and the purple flowers and said, “it looks like the trumpets are blowing love kisses.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

What’s in your autumn border looking gorgeous?


Climb every surface: gardening is on the up


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First, thanks to everybody who helped with donations for Rare Plants for Rare Disease Research in May; we raised almost STG1000 for research into neuroacanthocytosis, one of Britain’s rarest rare diseases, whose sufferers include the daughter of my friends Glenn and Ginger.

The fundraiser gave me a taste of opening my garden to the public for charity, and I’d like to do it again. I’ve realized that a climbing-plants showcase is the most useful attraction this garden could offer. Our old cottage was extended before we bought it, with much of the old lawn carved out to make space for the house. This means the garden wraps around the house in a U-shape: I’m surrounded by a 4 foot high retaining wall that holds back the upper lawn, as well as the usual fences and walls along our boundaries with the neighbors. In 2003 I had what felt like acres of bare vertical space; now most of these are lush and green, and I’m venturing into the tricky business of growing fruit trees flat against walls — trained as fans, espalliers and diamond-pattered Belgian fences.

Here’s what climbs in our garden (this list is what I’m growing, not exhaustive), plus a note on the three big mistakes you should try to avoid when covering bare walls and fences.

What roses climb? What other climbing plants are worth growing?

Climbing roses: Rosa Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Rosa Falstaff, Rosa Gloire de Dijon, Rosa Zephyrine Drouhin, Rosa James Galway, Rosa Margaret Merrill, Rosa Jude the Obscure, Rosa Lykkefund, Rosa Etoile de Holland. Margaret and Jude, by the way, don’t really climb, but they’re against a short three-foot fence and I’m cutting away growth that points out toward me from the fence while spreading the growth I want left and right along the fence. Zephyrine Drouhin is brilliant because it’s 100% thornless: ideal for an arch people need to walk through.

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Winter climbers: jasminum nudiflorum, hydrangea petiolaris (pictured), various kinds of ivy (aka hedera), winter flowering clematis cirrhosa Jingle Bells, lonicera japonica Halliana (an evergreen honeysuckle whose summer flowers have a powerful, glorious scent). The hydrangea is the best plant in my garden but can take 6 years to grow 5 feet. Its leaves drop to show red peeling bark in winter; most of the others keep their leaves. The jasmine is unscented and urgently needs support on taut wires strung through metal vine eyes, as the RHS mentions here.

Climbers that stick to walls: hydrangea petiolaris, parthenocissus quinquefolia (aka Virginia creeper), hedera.

Evergreen climbers: hedera, winter flowering clematis cirrhosa Jingle Bells, lonicera japonica Halliana.

Scented climbers: Wisteria floribunda, Lonicera periclymenum, Lonicera japonica Halliana, philadelphus (mock orange), lathyrus odoratus (sweet pea), summer jasmine, climbing roses. Only the sweet pea has to be grown from seed each year.

Climbers for shady walls: Jasminum nudiflorum, hydrangea petiolaris, Parthenocissus quinquefolia, Clematis Polish Spirit, Clematis Rouge Cardinal, hedera. I also grow Rosa Gloire de Dijon against the shady wall but I think it’s struggling and would prefer more light. Both the Clematis grow slowly but are are happy as long as the soil at their feet is rich and very deep – don’t skimp on that – and they can climb towards the light.

Riotously colorful climbers: ipomoea purpurea (morning glory) and lathyrus odoratus (grow both from seed yearly), Clematis rouge Cardinal, Rosa Zephyrine Drouhin, Clematis Mme. Julia Correvon, Clematis Polish spirit, Clematis Mrs. Chomondeley.

Easy to grow climbers: hedera, hydrangea petiolaris, lathyrus latifolius (perennial pea, unscented), Clematis Montana.

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Edible climbers: plum Marjorie’s Seedling, pear Williams bon Chretien, pear Concorde, apple Greensleeves, peach Avalon Pride, sugar snap peas. given that some climbers can take 5 to 7 years to look their best, I’m surprised at how quickly (3 years – pictured) I can begin to cover a vertical surface with a fruit tree. They have strong roots which throw up lovely long branches quickly to “green up” a vertical surface. I grow my peach outside in Scotland against our warm living room window and it bears fruit. The diamond-trained pears next to it look lovely with their bare stems in winter, and two trees take up ground space measuring just 5 feet wide by 18 inches deep. The RHS explains how to train fruit trees here.

Slow growing climbers: I wouldn’t grow these if they weren’t worth the wait. Hydrangea petiolaris (6 feet in 5 years), summer flowering jasmine (4 feet in three years), Clematis Polish spirit (12 feet in 7 years), wall-trained fruit trees (6 feet in 3 years).

Fast-growing climbers: Lathyrus odoratus (sweet pea) and morning glory (an annual), Lathyrus latifolius (perennial pea), clematis montana (pictured top). The hard truth is that great climbers take time. Try decorating the surface in the meantime with ornaments like a mirror that looks like a window, or a buddleia (not a climber but a shrub that will grow fast as a focal point). All you need is something for the eye to the rest on, you don’t need complete coverage in 12 months.

Don’t make these climbing plant mistakes:

Poor support. If branches are pulling on weak string that’s been tied to badly-erected nails or screws, hard up against the wall, it’s sad to see and bad for the plant! Use vine eyes and wire and follow the RHS instructions for putting them up. They hold the plant away from the wall to allow air circulation (and a cozy home for snails, which are easily harvested).

Haste and desperation. You don’t need mile-a-minute Russian vine or leylandii in your garden; you just don’t. See fast-growing climbers, above. Poorly prepared soil around the roots is another cardinal sin: give your climbers deep, rich, wide wonderful soil to put their roots into, because the roots below drive the greenery above that you’re waiting for. Do wait – it is always worth it.

Vertical roses. If you let roses grow straight up, you’ll get one or two straggly roses at the top, and who wants that? Bend their long branches to a 45° angle and tie them to horizontal support wires. All the dormant buds along those long canes, with a bit of luck, will turn into flowers.

What climbs in your garden? What’s been worth the wait, and what’s been a mistake?


New Year’s gardening resolutions I can live with


I’ve decided it’s sensible to keep my gardening New Year’s resolutions short and realistic, but still of a certain scope, so there’s some sense that I’m aiming high and not just planning more of the same in the garden this year. Click for larger image

Last year one of my key gardening New Year’s resolutions was to stop and sit in the garden more (done) and the previous year it was my own personal Eatin’ Project I was planning, trying vegetable growing for the first time (done).

Gardening resolution one – water those vegetables

Speaking of vegetables, this year I will do the edibles better, because I’m resolving to plan my watering properly. The beans and other edibles never had the best chance because my watering was so erratic, but 2012 is the year I will irrigate. Must find a good leaky hose supplier. Suggestions?

Gardening resolution two – force bulbs properly

I will not mess up my hyacinths next winter. This year I could have (just barely) have had them flowering for Christmas but I never brought them in from the cold conservatory to the warm sitting room – I never realized I had to until @imogenbertin set me right. Here in Scotland I have to plant the prepared bulbs in August, as soon as they are on sale, so I can get them into the light by October, and into the conservatory by November. Until now I’ve never known I needed to do a final step of bringing them into the warmth in December, but I will get it right in 2012.

Gardening resolution three – love my window boxes

I’ve never done window boxes well, but this year my mother-in-law gave me books on the subject, the bare windowsills of our roadside cottage here at the market cross are desperate for plant life, and I love the idea of challenging my worst gardening vice – I willfully, spitefully neglect container plants. So, window boxes it is. Secret weapon in the war against my neglectful side: when I prepared the new window boxes last week, I mostly used plants I’ve grown myself, so their said, thirsty faces should (I hope) move me more than the nameless, shop-bought trays of pansies I’ve watched die in my window boxes in the past. I’ve chosen vinca, fern, schizostylis, hosta, hebe, lamium and ivy, along with a rash of bulbs and tubers including cyclamen coum, muscari armeniacum fantasy creation, Kaufmanniana tulips Heart’s Delight, triteleia (formerly brodiaea) and autumn crocus to plug gaps between the plants.

Gardening resolution four – train a stepover apple

It won’t really be a stepover apple, because the single tier I’m planning will be about 90 cm off the ground, so I guess we can call it a leap over. I’ve Click for larger imagechosen the Apple Greensleeves on an M106 rootstock, and since it’s on the north side of the short fence, the horizontal cordon will only see the sun if it starts at 90 cm high. I’ll let you know how that one goes. I credit this resolution to Helen, who was tweeting about the stepover apples she was planning; it’s something I’d always wanted to do, and who was I to resist a three-year-old tree on sale for just 9 pounds sterling?

Gardening resolution five – easy cutting garden

Earlier on Stopwatch Gardener I video blogged about how to nip out cosmos to encourage more side shoots and robust flowering, and the US flower farmer Lisa Ziegler who taught me that technique has now inspired me to try her scheme for a 3′ x 10′ cutting garden. It’s meant to be a low-maintenance plot of zinnia, celosia, choice sunflowers and lemon basil. Any advice on telling my husband I plan to remove 30 square feet of lawn?

I really want to know what you all are planning for the new year — please drop me a comment below before you go!


Grow plants from seed and let the healing begin


Click for larger imageTell me something more exhilarating than growing from seed. I’ll bet you can’t. Drop a hard little fleck onto a fertile bed of damp compost, and just days later feel a gasp in your throat when the seed leaves push their shoulders up into the light. At the moment I’m looking at the purple-streaked leaves of baby baby beets, hairlike shoots of spring onions and round carrots, the fleshy heads of robust wild lupines, and the minute green specks of teensy alpine strawberries.

A number of the experts on some of the US gardening podcasts I listen to have been saying recently that they prefer to buy “starts” (young plants) for some of their gardening. And compared to buying a broad bean seed packet I’ll never use up this year, maybe six broad bean plants would save money. It would certainly save time. But give me seeds any day. In gardening I’m all about the miracle, less about the practical.

The real world presses in on me, as I’m sure it does on you: this week alone offered me a big dose of unloveliness, including one vomiting bug (mine), then another one (my son’s), the imminent loss of a client (government cutbacks) and the likely sale of the house I grew up in — all against a mustn’t-grumble backdrop of guilt as images of tsunami, war and death scrolled across the TV.

I need my gardening to be as absorbing and as miraculous as possible if it’s to be an adequate salve against the real world. Those seed trays may give me beets in June. But right now I see a windowsill full of hope, and that’s the food I need.

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