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?


SWG002 Early February in a Scottish cottage garden


Galanthus Nivalis flore pleno

Welcome to the latest Stopwatch Gardener podcast, where I take a sunny February walk around the garden. If you use iTunes, there’s a link to subscribe at the bottom of this blog, or you can sign up in the margin here to get an e-mail alert whenever I publish a new episode.

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.


Nectar-rich versus Franken-flowers: Sarah Raven’s buzz


We’ve been drinking in the glory of high-def tv this week with the sumptuous floral close-ups of Sarah Raven’s latest Bees, Butterflies and Blooms episode. Unfortunately Britain’s insects are drinking very little in gardens that lean heavily on double begonias, busy lizzies and other flowers that offer no pollen or nectar. They are empty: their sweet nectary bits have been bred out of them, in exchange for extra petals and other showy attributes. (Jump to the bottom of this post if you want tips on how to choose flowers that are bee-friendly).

Click for larger image

Our garden here at Mercat Cottage is fairly buzzy with flowers that make insects happy, from the February crocus to the early November cosmos daisies. This flower choice was more through accident than art; so was our choice to put in a pond, which was really meant for the newts and slugivore frogs, but which I’ve learned is vital for bees, who consume litres of water. (In this week’s episode, Sarah Raven’s beardy garden naturalist told her she could bump up the wildlife value of her walled garden “two points” by adding water).

The “perfect for pollinators” initiative launched by the Horticultural Trades Association and the RHS, also discussed in this week’s show, was probably the single most important blow for Sarah’s campaign. Gardeners need advice at the point of sale, and the yellow and black logo will now make it easier to choose pollen and nectar-rich plants in the garden centre. It’s a shame it’s taken so long to do something so sensible; gardening magazines, even those I love, haven’t done enough to drive home the urgency of the biodiversity message. The magazine messages I remember about pollinating insects and garden plant choice have been along the lines of, “double plants don’t do much for bees.” After listening to Sarah, I think her alarmist opening gambit (“pollinators are in crisis and we gardeners have to act now”) is more appropriate at this stage of the game: three species of bees are extinct and hundreds more insects are on the brink because traditional habitats (country wildflower meadows) have been replaced by modern farming methods.

The millions of hectares of British back gardens could feed rather than frustrate pollinators who land on our flowers looking for a nectar payload, not just pretty colours. My husband calls the foodless plants — like the double begonias — “Franken-flowers” and he’s right. Over-bred and over-valued by gardeners craving a “wow” factor, they could easily be exchanged for colourful and nutritious alternatives, flowers that take care of the “wow” as well as the welfare of insects. Don’t forget, they’re the ones who pollinate the crops that feed our families.

“Why does biodiversity matter?”

It’s fair to ask the question, and I did once, when speaking to an ecologist. I’m a writer by day and was doing a brochure for a university wanting to attract more students to study science at third level. I asked him why biodiversity — multiplicity of habitats and species — is so important. He told me the stories you’ve probably already heard, but which were new to me in 2009, about the disappearance of bees in parts of China, where crops now need to be hand-pollinated by humans. That’s expensive — but it’s also the beginning of who-knows-what kinds of chain reactions in the environment.

Biodiversity, the ecologist said, is like the rivets in an airplane: lose one habitat or species, and it may not matter; but you never know which loss will trigger the catastrophe.

“What flowers should I plant to help bees and butterflies?”

In the cutting garden I’ve been planning as part of my New Year’s Gardening resolutions, I’ll have lots of sunflowers, lemon basil and zinnias. I’d thought about skipping the sunflowers, but now that I know the bees and other insects need them badly, they’re going to make the cut.

Sarah’s experts on the show this week made it clear what to look for when planting bee- and butterfly-friendly flowers:

  • Visible pollen: If you can see the yellow centre, there’s probably something there for bees. Bees need daisy-like flowers and other “singles” that aren’t so packed with petals you can’t see the flower’s reproductive bits.
  • Variety of shapes: Imagine a crocus, a foxglove, a daisy, a buddleia (butterly bush), an achillea and a lily. From trumpet shapes to goblets, flat landing pads to long clusters of close-packed flowers, all require the insect to work in a different way to get the pollen and nectar. This attracts and feeds a wider range of insects than loading up your garden with a single flower type or shape.
  • Early to late: Look for plants offering food in the quiet periods like February and October…fill any gaps like these with flowers guaranteed to offer nectar and pollen, so insects never go away empty-handed.
  • Click for larger image

  • No excuse for no water: If you’ve no water already, go outside today and fill a large drip tray or shallow bowl with water and put a stone in the middle for insects to land on. Tiny ponds are also cheap to buy and easy to maintain, if you’re feeling more ambitious.

Make a bee-loud border

Remember the Yeats poem about his desire to live in a “bee-loud glade”? Imagine if British domestic gardens were full of bee-loud borders. We may live in imperfect and troubled times, but still — what a wonderful world that would be.

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