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.


When two frogs love each other very much


frog in hosta by sheila averbuch stopwatch gardenerPeople tend to think you’re kind of crazy if you count the plants in your garden, which is why I stopped at 157. That’s 157 different kinds of plants, not the number of things out there that have roots, or different varieties of the same kind of plant. From herbs to fruit bushes to bulbs, annuals and evergreens, this tiny patch has stuffed itself with more types of plant than I would ever have thought possible for such a modest space. I was trying to estimate its size today, and I reckon it is 20m x 10m, with two additional strips of 11m x 5m each.

But even now, as osmanthus, daphne and fancy double narcissus push April to its fragrant, flowering peak, there’s not a single plant in the garden that’s making me more excited than the pile of translucent goop I found in our tiniest pond this afternoon. We’ve been in this garden for 12 years and no frog has ever laid spawn in any of our three micro ponds. That’s all changed this spring, when two frogs who loved each other very much found a quiet corner. We’ll watch with interest to see whether gloop turns into tadpoles that turn into frogs. I wonder what baby froglets eat when they get big enough to do so – frog eggs, maybe? We’ll see.

I think the diversity of plants in the garden, and my total moratorium on pesticides (and the mini-ponds, of course), has helped birds, frogs, toads and newts make themselves more at home here. There is the occasional bird casualty from our predator cat, and my children know to warn me if they see anything disgusting I wouldn’t want to come across (“Oh, Mummy! A mouse head!”). But overall, the wildlife and the cat have reached a kind of detente, and things are right with the world in terms of wildlife friendliness here. This year I also loaded up a bird feeder with niger seed, curious to see if its reputed powers of goldfinch-attraction were true. Sure enough, the yellow-winged, red-faced goldfinches showed up in January and haven’t left.

It’s a challenge, in garden design terms, to fit a huge variety of plants into a garden without giving it a piecemeal, chaotic feel. I’ve tried to repeat plants down the longest stretches of the garden, and I’m trying to fit in another osmanthus delvayii in the farther reaches of the garden, although it might mean the ruthless extraction of something else. (As I wrote in an earlier post, I’m a huge fan of purging plants I don’t love, and I gleefully yanked out a perennial pea last autumn that did nothing for the space.)

I’ve also become a big fan of empty containers, and thanks to our local Freecycle I picked up four enormous terra-cotta pots that had been painted white – something I never would’ve done myself, but which has picked out the paler narcissus, the white flowered osmanthus, and earlier in the year, the snowdrops. The stretch of garden outside my office tends to be dark, and the white pots are like beacons, luring me into the garden and away from my desk.

Must. Resist.

What’s going on in your garden this time of year? Has wildlife made its presence felt?


SWG004 Early-mid-March in a Scottish cottage garden


Magic portal in the garden - through the fireplace surround

Welcome to another episode of the Stopwatch Gardener podcast, where this week I’m rushing about the garden like a mad thing, getting excited about every early-spring plant and the very first humming bumblebee of the season.

I also take a minute to remember my lovely, much-missed dog Lizzy as I look at the place in the garden where she was buried a few years ago.

I’m delighted that Crug Farm has joined Beth Chatto, Vanessa Mann and Frank Kirwan to donate plants to my Rare Plants for Rare Disease fundraiser for neuroacanthocytosis research on 24 May 2014. If you run a nursery, especially if you trade in rare or unusual plants, I’d love to ask you for a donation to this worthy cause. Contact me here if you can help with a rare plant donation.
Read the rest of this entry »


Have you voted for the Scottish site to win a wildflower transformation?


The Sarah Raven special a couple years ago about Bees, Butterflies and Blooms opened my eyes about the need for more pollen and nectar-rich flowers for bees and other pollinators, and the viper’s bugloss I planted in the garden last year were, along with my oregano plants, complete magnets for all kinds of beautiful insects this summer. I’ve become as excited about bees as I became about frogs after getting over my initial queasiness about them. Big community spaces have a huge role to play in supporting insect life, so if you are reading this, please could you take a moment to vote in the Grow Wild competition? Three sites across Scotland who’ve submitted plans for new community gardens have now been shortlisted to win a £100,000 Grow Wild transformation, supported by the Big Lottery Fund: the transformation of the winning site will include large sowings of UK native wildflowers.

The shortlist of sites in Greenock, Livingston and Barrhead has been put together following a call made to people to nominate a site in their community that would benefit from a Grow Wild transformation. The judges went through submissions from youth groups, community associations and residents groups, artists, high school design students, and landscape architects, who’ve pulled together some inspirational plans, and the three shortlisted Scottish projects now need your vote.

Win tea for two at the Botanics in Edinburgh or Glasgow – leave a comment on this blog

There are only a few days left to vote, so please cast your Grow Wild vote here, where you can also read more about the three shortlisted sites. Leave a comment on this blog, or re-tweet my tweet to let people know you have voted, and I’ll put you in a draw to win a gorgeous afternoon tea for two at Edinburgh Botanic Gardens or Glasgow Botanic Gardens.

The three sites in the running to win the £100,000 prize are:

  • Belville in Greenock
  • Frog Pond, Dedridge, Livingston, West Lothian
  • The Water Works, Barrhead, East Renfrewshire

Have you voted yet? Go vote! Voting runs until midnight on 3 November and the winner will be announced in mid-November. Don’t forget to leave your comment below, or re-tweet my tweet letting people know you voted, and I’ll put you in the draw to win the gorgeous afternoon tea.

UPDATE:  Thank you to everyone who voted – Waterworks in Barrhead won the Grow Wild £100 000 funding!  Almost 20,000 people across Scotland voted for the three projects in total.  Thanks so much to everyone who spoke up to have their voice heard on this vote.


Girls’ Week goes to the spring gardens of New York


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I have a patient family. My sister and mother have agreed to devote our annual Girls’ Week holiday to visiting the gardens (and a few wineries) of the New York area – Stonecrop, Innisfree, The Mount and a few others. In practice this means they walk about with me a little bit, photographing a few tulips or touring the gardens’ adjacent historic properties, then they sit in the car reading and knitting and letting me ogle plants. I’ve promised we can do Munich next year, which may bring the alcohol-horticulture ratio into a fairer balance.

It is spring in New York, which is weeks ahead of where I live in Scotland. The cherry blossom and dogwoods are over-the-top beautiful, great clouds of perfume are rising off the lilacs and the hostas are well-unfurled. Wisteria – which grows as wild and indifferently as buddleia – has draped its grape-bunch flowers at roadsides and over derelict buildings and along the front porches of houses whose owners don’t really care about gardening.

Herb Gardens at Boscobel
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In a country of 300 million, it isn’t easy to find people who really care
about gardening. A neighbour looking at another’s property is more likely to admire the giant gas barbecue or the new Prius in the driveway, or perhaps the most prized plant in American gardens, the well-watered lawn. But there is a passionate minority who care very much: like the 3,000 NGS-style gardens that open annually, or like the Philipstown Garden Club, who tend Boscobel House’s historic herb garden with only heritage varieties of fruit, herbs and flowers. The large but light-touch blossom of the Boscobel quinces has made me realise how much I need one in my garden near Edinburgh. You can see more Boscobel garden pictures here.

With so many municipally planted cherries and cornus and red-pink cercis, there is a magnificent show even without fanatical gardeners on every street. The flat-faced cups of the white dogwoods are my favourite, but I love the way all the cornus rise up towards the light in what is a heavily wooded landscape here: houses are all detached, unlike in Scotland, and trees crowd in everywhere, between houses and behind grassy back yards that trail off into the ever-present woods.

Herb Gardens at Boscobel
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I grew up near Boston, and these wild, uncultivated woods are what strike me most when I come back. In Scotland, every scrap of roadside land looks to me to be farmed or inhabited. It’s a great contrast to the acres of idle scrubland along New England roadsides: thousands of trees grow upright or lean against each other from storms, or stand dead and bleached in the ponds that appear here and there. The wildlife must love this, I keep thinking: so much water, so much cover and wild food. Bill Bryson, another American who like me has an unusual perspective on the US as a long-term ex-pat, has noted this, too: there is a impressive amount of wild nothingness here in the New England woods.

Woodland wonders and the Hudson River Valley at Stonecrop

In such a landscape, hand-crafted spaces like Stonecrop Gardens have an altogether different feel: this isn’t the crowded UK, where hiving off a bit of land for ornamental gardens can seem almost indulgent. Stonecrop, which is the former home of Garden Conservancy founder Frank Cabot, is marked by a simple sign along the endless treescape of the main road through upstate New York. It feels like the woods have been forcibly pushed back to allow this stunning space to breathe in the landscape. The views over the Hudson River Valley are memorable, and frankly compete with the expert planting, which I think I photographed from every angle. I loved how emerging herbaceous plants were blended with generous swathes of tulips, and a great lawn dedicated in part to ferns and lily-of-the-valley help the garden blend well into the woods beyond. More Stonecrop Gardens pictures are here.

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A separate woodland garden at one side of Stonecrop is the best I’ve ever seen. So many plants I didn’t know – caulophyllum thalictroides, mertensia virginica, glaucidim palmatum, plus simple, dark-stemmed adiantum ferns I fell in love with – in well-planned beds (I remember seeing one labelled “Woodland Bed 10”) that have been labelled with up-to-date Garden Tour markers.

I haven’t visited a garden that has such a well-planned Garden Tour – a printed list that’s given to every visitor. One of the head gardeners prepares the list by walking the garden every week or so, and figuring out the ideal route to take at the moment, moving numbered labels to mark current star plants. This walk is written up on the tour, with a numbered list of star plants, including the Latin and common names and plant family of each. Phew! “It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it,” one of the nice ladies in the potting shed told me. I bet it’s worth it for them, too – they can get on with propagation and planting without identifying the same plant for thousands of visitors.

Open Days with the Garden ConservancyClick for larger image

We left Stonecrop, later to be given tea and biscuits by the wonderful Lisa-Ann and friends at the Garden Conservancy, which is like a cross between the National Trust and the NGS in the UK: the Conservancy both preserves historic gardens and encourages private home owners to open their gardens, a bit like the Yellow Book, but as 100% fundraiser for the Conservancy’s work.

Meeting the Conservancy folk and seeing jewels like Stonecrop convinced me that gardening isn’t a fringe activity here, there really do exist my kind of people, who would drive hours to peer at an interesting planting concept – like this cool idea at Innisfree Gardens below: flat stones interplanted with what I think is hakonechloa macra aureola. But I do get the sense that fanatical gardeners exist, much like that grass, in tiny, fertile pockets of land in an otherwise indifferent environment in America.

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The television last night showed us a parade of intriguing things, including an advert for a steakhouse that promised to drape their bacon burgers with extra bacon nuggets (“At Longhorn Steak House, we don’t just do bacon, we do bacon-on-bacon”), and a food show that tours the greasiest diners in North America, serving dishes like butter-topped burgers and chicken that has been double deep-fried (don’t ask). But more memorable than the cuisine was how gardening is portrayed. Adverts lean heavily toward the chemical, advising which weed killer to pour on your flower beds, and which bedding plants to buy now so your garden will appear instantly full: I think it was an advert for a home store selling flower-towers of impatients and petunias. No waiting, no gardening, just add water – a bit like pot noodle, when all you want is that full feeling, and taste doesn’t matter.

A good way to garden

Today we’ll see something we haven’t experienced yet: two Open Gardens for the Garden Conservancy, both in New York, including the garden of Margaret Roach, who produces the A Way to Garden podcast that made my top 5 a few weeks ago. Margaret writes in her blog about her organic methods and grow-your-own ideas, and she is always careful to say that her methods aren’t the only way, but just “a way” to garden. I guess she’s trying to inspire, rather than dictate. Seeing the environment in which gardens are made here in the US, I think a little inspiration can go a very long way.

What were your impressions of the gardening culture when you’ve visited other countries?

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