Every rose in England

June13

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.

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Conquering the fear of frogs

April24

A couple years ago, I found myself screaming if I uncovered a frog in the garden — it was just the suddenness and mouselike look of their movement that startled me. I got over it by figuring out where they might like to hide, and preparing myself whenever I approached. It worked! Now I love my frogs: last year we built a little pond for them and our local newt, but it’s in a sunken part of the garden inaccessible to many of our plants, so I collect slugs from where I don’t want them and deliver them poolside. The frogs don’t hop off when I approach, but I’ve discovered that the slugs do have to be the right size, or frog struggles to cope, as you’ll see here:

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In bulbs we trust

September6

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It’s not happened yet, but I can feel that the bulb lust will soon be upon me. I work my tiny garden intensively and only manage to get four season colour into the border by packing in bulbs among herbaceous perennials. It’s probably inconceivable for me to stuff any more tulips into the hall border near my office window, but for May through August interest, I’m planning for more alliums, more lilies and possibly my first camassias next year. I saw @lialeendertz ‘s piece in the Guardian about alliums and it underscores the most useful thing you’ll ever want to know about ornamental onions: if you don’t hide their tattered leaves with something, you’ll be sorry. I’ve just tucked mine in among astrantia, nepeta and delphiniums and I’m hoping for the best.

So yes, I’m renewing my commitment to summer flowering bulbs to squeeze maximum colour from my small space, but it’s the late winter and early spring flowering snowdrops, crocus, chionodoxa, narcissus and most of all tulips that cast the real spell over me — and my budget — every autumn.

Do you remember how the Catholic church got into a good bit of trouble some centuries ago for selling indulgences, advance absolution for future sins? Hell was big back then, and folks terrified of dying with unconfessed sins on their conscience paid big sums for indulgences, hoping to guarantee life after death by ensuring they’d die “clean”…or so the reasoning went. Spring flowering bulbs are a bit like indulgences: against reason, gardeners faced with the dying of the light invest too much every autumn, trying to guarantee life for their borders on the far side of winter’s chasm. For me, planting spring bulbs — especially those chestnut brown tulips, fat and perfect — is like casting a rope to the other side of January, where my friendly bulb vendor secures it and talks me across with comforting words about “brave crocus” and tulips “like a Dutch still life”. I can resist the crocus (they may be brave, but they get battered by day two), but the tulips will always have a hold on me.

Actually, my bulb vendor is very friendly; Anne and Jack Barnard at Rose Cottage Plants have never sent me tulips that failed to dazzle or, God forbid, were wrongly labeled, an experience I’ve had many times with other mail-order companies. The blackcurrant tinted late purple parrot “Muriel” they recommended last year was indeed stunning, and this year they’ve sourced “Happy Generation” for me, one of the many I saw in my Keukenhof tour this past April, but not usually available from Rose Cottage Plants, as Anne says her customers often avoid bi-coloured tulips. I’ve ordered 30; who knows where I’ll put them, but maybe in pots at the gate.

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If you’re trying to decide what tulips are worth buying, definitely ask your vendor, or see these two video tours of the Keukenhof tulip tents I made earlier this year. My voiceover rambles a bit, but you will get a sense of how many beautiful tulip varieties look, rather than relying on the hyperbolic catalog descriptions. You can also see still shots of the tulips and other parts of Keukenhof in my Flickr set.

I have scattered galanthus nivalis, a February flowering double snowdrop, among my hall border and would love to plant a short, black centred perennial like Rudbeckia, whose black eyes might hold on through the snowy months to give me a black-and-white effect in late winter. Any ideas? Rudbeckia “Goldsturm” looks good but seems a bit too tall.

Do you have a bulb addiction? Which tulips mean the most to you, and can you get away without lifting them annually?

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Sandy tulips are happy tulips

May13

Click for larger imageAs you may or may not know, I went to Amsterdam recently for the tulips, and stayed for the volcano. Stupid geothermal activity. The delay has thrown my work schedule completely, keeping me away from the blog for some time. But I had to post something this evening because, looking over my pictures from the trip and especially the visit to Keukenhof (a huge spring garden in Lisse, in the midst of the bulb fields south of Amsterdam, open until this Sunday), I’m stunned again at the growing conditions of tulips in Holland.

As the proud Dutch will tell you, God made the world but the Dutch made Holland, systematically draining tracts of land (which they call polders) for agriculture, and keeping the land drained with their network of dikes. This is reclaimed, thoroughly sandy soil: passing some builders digging up a sidewalk, I marveled at the spoil they’d dug out, exactly like children’s play sand. I’d always heard that tulips should sit on a little nest of sand at the bottom of the planting hole, but truthfully they’re happy in a very sandy environment, a realisation which will definitely inform where and how I plant this autumn.

It was a cold spring in Holland, just as in Scotland, and only some of the large single early tulips were out, along with miles of hyacinths. Keukenhof isn’t to be missed if you get over to the Netherlands in spring; growers each take a section of land around the lightly wooded lawns of the garden, planting their own displays with thousands of bulbs each autumn. The mature trees are just coming into leaf as the flowers emerge below, creating that dappled sunlight effect that, along with the occasional babbling stream and the dreamy scent of narcissisus and hyacinth, deliver a pretty good approximation of my mother’s idea of heaven.

I don’t know about you, but every October I develop such a strong bulb lust that all memory of the sad, fading foliage of tulips in June disappears, and I can think only of those goblets of colour lit up like Tiffany lamps. This year, I’m thoroughly smug at how well a new combination has turned out: I’ve added the single purple “Passionale” tulip alongisde the wavy orange wonderfulness of the parrot tulip, Prof. Rontgen. Those reliable folk at Rose Cottage Plants recommended (and who was I to resist, browsing their offers during the depth of That Winter) a parrot called Muriel, a sumptuous purple thing which is supposed to marry my Passionale with the Professor. Muriel is just about to make her appearance — I’ll let you know how she fares.

Oh, and those tulips I planted in a row beneath my window? Fabulous. They give exactly the 17th century colours I was looking for, although after seeing at Hortus Bulborum (a bulb “zoo” outside Amsterdam which keeps the greats alive) the wee Duc van Tol tulips that fueled tulipmania way back when, I think my soaring, 24 inch high Mickey Mouse single early tulips have much more majesty.

Click for larger imageAt Keukenhof, planted in the ground under cover were a selection of tulips from each grower, and many of these were almost over when we saw them, but enough were in good shape to give me that October feeling. The perfection of “Happy Generation”, a red-on-white striped Triumph tulip, far outdoes the fluffy “Carnival de Nice” which I’d had my eye on. Red and white will fit fine into some parts of my spring colour scheme…just. But really I need a bigger garden.

Would you like to see the videos I took inside the Keukenhof tulip tents? I’m in the process of publishing them here on the Stopwatch Gardener channel on YouTube.

Do you get bulb lust? How have yours performed this strange spring?

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Fake tree is a real relief

December20

Click for larger imageIf Christmas was part of your childhood and your memories of it are generally positive, you’ll probably look to replicate what you can of Christmas past when you’re all grown up. For me, a favourite memory is lying down and looking up through the boughs of my parents’ Christmas tree, with red and green lights casting a glow on the ornaments, and breathing in the pine scent. I’m not sure if I did this before or after seeing Pluto’s Christmas Tree, a 1952 Disney short (you can watch it in full here — thanks, YouTube), where Mickey Mouse and his dog are thwarted in trimming their tree by the chipmunks inside it. Watching Chip and Dale leap about, loosening lights and stealing ornaments, I was sure nothing could be better than living inside a Christmas tree, and I always imagined myself as one of them when I peeked through the branches every year.

So it’s extra strange that, this year, I’ve bought my family’s first ever fake Christmas tree.  I’m stunned at how happy I am with it. There is no scent of pine. Its boughs are too thickly woven to see up through. It’s unnervingly symmetrical. But even with all its conical artificiality, I dig this tree. So many things about it save me time and hassle, this year and in future Christmasses, and so it hits the bulls’ eye for me.

It has great clearance at the bottom for presents; our old real trees have been so crowded at the bottom that presents spilled far into the room. Its shape may be too perfect, but it reaches to the ceiling while keeping to its corner, and I don’t miss the real trees that thrust their fat rumps into the room, begging to have needles knocked off. The kids love the tree’s tall twinklyness, and with the “night” setting on my Fuji, I can capture endless Disneyesque, inside-the-tree shots. Most important, I’ve avoided hacking down a young tree to create a decoration that is only briefly perfect. This tree will last, and I am already appreciating how fresh and festive it still looks after 10 days. With all its Christmasy aroma, the real tree and its slow death inside the house is a downer, and the decline is visible so quickly, even with TLC. And did I mention we’re not running the vacuum cleaner every day to erase signs of decay? Plus, no more two-hour tree-hunting trips in December, the month when I can least spare the time.

Instead maybe I’ll get to spend a few hours in December as many other gardeners do, laying plans for the next season. My mother phoned from Boston yesterday to say she had sent us some money for Christmas, so I found myself in Dobbies this afternoon with a budget in mind and a list in hand. I now have the essential ingredients for The Eatin’ Project, as I’m calling my first proper attempt at growing vegetables in a 1m x 1.2m raised bed. I have been rubbish at growing vegetables but I will make it happen this year. If I teach my kids nothing else about the garden, it should be basic skills about how to turn seeds into food, just in case the climate goes to hell sooner than we think and commercial agriculture simply can’t support us all. If I invest five or 10 years making all my mistakes now, maybe I can help them get a better start.

Merry Christmas to all.

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