Normal service is resuming now …


Sorry about that. ‘Best intentions’ and everything. But somehow for the last few weeks the business of blogging just came second to the business of life. But as you can see, the gardening has gone on. And how.



Trish has been out there in all sorts of weathers, and the way the garden looks now just confirms my thinking – that I’m really lucky to live with a wonderful plantswoman. Look at these pictures. I may be biased (by marriage), but I rest my case.


Trish seems to have picked the most beautiful bulbs this year. This is ‘Queen of the Night” in front of ‘Maytime’, making the most wonderful tulip combinations on the mound bed.

Now we’ve had some much needed rain, yesterday morning saw me out there too, on the damp lawn in my dressing gown and slippers, camera in hand. I was lured out
by the strength of the early sun, and the glistening brightness of the wet flowers.






It was looking fabulous. Just as well, as we’re getting ready over the next few weeks for our National Garden Scheme opening weekend on 24 and 25 June.

The list of things to be done is huge. And many thanks to our son Sam for his hand with getting on top of the time-consuming pressure washing of all the slate and stone paths.





And looking over the back garden this morning, boy, is there a lot of work to be done. But look at the sky. Over the past few weeks we’ve had a drought basically, and I’ve been out with the hose and watering can, ‘rescuing’ some stressed plants when necessary. Now though, if we’re lucky, the right combination of rain and sun should help to see us through.

And for this year’s opening we have a couple of new attractions.

By way of a tease, let’s go back a few months.


After each NGS opening we review what large projects we need to get stuck into in the garden to ‘improve’ things. Last autumn was no exception.

It’s nice in a garden to have ‘secret’ journeys that people can embark upon without fully knowing where they lead. A sense of surprise can be good – perhaps like the ‘come-hither’ attraction created by this tunnel-like hole in the vegetation of dogwoods, willows and hedging below the vegetable plot. If you could get through this, you’d discover the small stream below.


The trouble was that, as alluring as it seemed, the gradient was actually very treacherous. So last year we had to use a paling fence to restrict access.


This (below) is the area that we’d be trying to get down to – a densely overgrown section of willows, bamboos and hydrangea that flank the small hidden stream. It very much feels like a hidden garden. To make it a little more accessible, while not losing its ‘hidden’ atmosphere we first had to clear a lot massive willow fronds.


If we could get there – it’s somewhere to take a seat in solitude and contemplation (in the old arbour seat I reconstructed last year),.


What we needed was a solution as to how to get here in style, and here is a hint of what we came up with. It’s probably best called the ‘willow walkway’. More details on that in the next blog entry.


And finally – we’ve always enjoyed bringing ‘art’ into the garden. Before we left our NGS garden in Cornwall, we featured sculpture from several artists at our garden openings.

Here in Somerset we thought we could branch out, and use one of the Old Vicarage’s outbuildings – the Old Barn – as an art venue.

So here, in the Old Barn we’ll have paintings from the local Heath House Art Group on display, and on sale.


And that’s not all.

We’ll also be featuring these ‘garden ceramics’ from local potter Karen Edwards.

IMG_0339 2

So it’s all change here at The Old Vicarage, with lots to look forward to over the coming months.


Rose-scented dreams


Following on from Alys Fowler’s plea not to ‘tidy’ the winter garden (see our previous post and her article) – to protect insect biodiversity – I’ve been studiously ignoring the sorry brown beds and pruning the roses instead.

It’s undeniably therapeutic, and I’ve found it’s taking me right back to the heady days of summer when our roses, the sweetest of flowers, are in their fullest, most scented, bloom.


I’d say that 2016 was a pretty good year for roses – both old favourites like the climber ‘Phyllis Bide’ and new ones to me such as ‘Blush Noisette’ above (planted here at The Old Vicarage only one year ago) all flourished.

I have to admit I was pretty ignorant about roses until about 20 years ago. Childhood memories are of a row of the classic hybrid tea ‘Peace’ in my grandmother’s front garden, and a ‘Zéphirine Drouhin’, like the one below (photo by Emily Barney), that popular thornless climber (popular just because it was thornless, perhaps?) – on the garden shed at home.


Apart from that, roses didn’t really figure in my gardening thoughts.Then two things happened.

First, in 1996/7 I had a freelance editing/ proofreading job. The book? This one:


An update of Peter Beales’s original book. It was a privilege to work on, and in so doing I learnt an awful lot about roses, from the writings of one of the best rose growers in the UK.

The second thing, at about the same time, was that Jeremy and I bought an old farmhouse in Cornwall.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe farmhouse at North Tregeare, near Launceston, was a quaint old building, listed because of its rather unusual asymetric porch. It was pretty spartan inside, but it had a delightful cottage garden wrapped around it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was a very agreeable one to work in – very private and secluded – the farmhouse lay at the end of a rough old track which discouraged all but the most determined of visitors.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIts original mullioned windows lay side by side with later Victorian multi-paned sash additions, combining to give strong atmosphere and character. But with such history came very low entrances and beams that often caught taller inhabitants, namely Jeremy, by painful surprise.

The garden surrounded the house, and it was here at North Tregeare that we began to appreciate the need to always have good sight of a garden from the house.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe previous owner had left us a fairly detailed planting plan of the garden, which included quite a number of roses. At the front of the house (we called it the front because it’s where you arrived), the wrought iron gate led onto the entrance path, and beside the gate there was a hedge – a rose hedge.


Our predecessor told us we could just trim it with shears. We’d never seen it in flower so it was a joy to discover it in bloom in the first summer we were there.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt’s a scotch or burnet rose – I think it’s Rosa pimipinellifolia ‘Double Pink’ – the sweetest little pale pink bud roses with a wonderful scent and pretty fern-like leaves.

If left untrimmed, it has dark, almost black hips in late summer. It spreads by suckers – so I’ve always been able to propagate it and it’s come with us wherever we’ve moved since, and been given to many friends. And she was right – you can just cut it back with shears.

At the back of the house (which with its asymetric porch looks more like a front) were other striking plantings that revealed themselves as our first summer there wore on.


On one side of the porch was this stunning wisteria with very long flowers (variety sadly unknown) and a Hydrangea petiolaris.

On the other side of the porch, an ‘Albertine’ ran rampant. But it had been left untended, unpruned for a number of years.


It was beautiful, but it was very very thorny (‘large, spiteful, hooked thorns’ according to Peter Beales). A devil to prune.

At the front of the house (sorry but I can’t find a picture of it)  was ‘Mermaid’ – another thorny devil but with exquisite single lemon yellow flowers with pronounced stamens and scent too. I’m afraid their viciousness put me off both these climbers, especially when there are so many other easier-to-handle ones. But their beauty had an undeniable influence on my taste and fascination for roses.

Some of them at North Tregeare were less successful than others.


‘Margaret Merrill’ planted in a short row in front of the porch was a martyr to black spot – but a number of the other roses we inherited in the garden were so good that I was smitten. And some of them are still in our garden today, several of them the offspring of the originals.

In the North Tregeare garden I also added ‘Souvenir du Docteur Jamain’ – not all that vigorous and such a rich ruby-red color but it needs to be kept out of scorching sun. ‘At its best it is of rare beauty and even at its worst can still be enjoyed’ is how Peter Beales described it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter a few years we eventually had to admit that the farmhouse was too small for us – when all the family visited we could hardly move. Jeremy was reluctant to do so, but every time he wavered I reminded him of each and every painful low beam.

So we sold it, and bought The Mill House further up on the North Cornish coast. It was an old mill, but had been taken down and rebuilt by the previous owners so that it was light and spacious. For a few years we worked hard on the house and garden to get it looking the way that we wanted.


Below the main lawn was a small virgin field area sloping away from the house which we’d developed into a flower garden. By 2010 it was all beginning to look presentable, and we started to open for the National Gardens Scheme.

mill house flower garden

Above the flower garden we built a trellis, a perfect spot to train roses.


Somewhere along the way I’d discovered ‘Phyllis Bide’ (below and at the top of this post) – I really can’t remember how – and loved the way she flowered all through the season, even on Christmas Day.



When we had the trellis built, it offered an irresistible opportunity for more roses, so one had to be ‘Phyllis Bide’ (on the left here) and she was joined by a David Austin rose, ‘Snowgoose’ (on the right).


On the other half of the trellis was the pale yellow David Austin rose ‘Malvern HIlls’ and ‘Ghislaine de Féligonde’ (below).


These are all such good performers – repeat flowering, healthy but not overly rampant. And most years they all go on flowering until December.

Beside the flower garden we had sited a greenhouse and eating area, and next to the table I planted ‘Goldfinch’ against a trellis (seen here beside one of our pointers sleeping on the chair). ‘Goldfinch’ is almost thornless but similar in its colouring to ‘Mermaid’ with the same prominent anthers.



It’s beautifully delicate and cuts very well for display inside.


On another trellis, one that divided the vegetable garden from the flower garden, I had the deep rich pink of Meg (nearest), followed by the ever dependable ‘Phyllis Bide’ (with Clematis ‘General Sikorski’ in between), and right at the very end you can just see the orangey-yellow of ‘Emily Gray’.




I planned and planted the flower garden originally for people to walk in and enjoy when our son’s marriage took place in a marquee in our field beside the house. It’s mainly a mix of annuals and perennials but for colour contrast and height I planted two Gallicas. The one above is ‘Charles de Mills’ and the other is ‘Tuscany Superb’ (below). Other roses were added later.


They may only flower once, but their scent and colour makes having them worth while. (Helen Dillon mentioned in a talk I heard that ‘Charles de Mills’ was known by a friend of hers as ‘Dark Satanic Mills’ as Charles did dark things in castles in Italy, though what these ‘dark things’ were was never specified!)

Others I’d recommend, that were also among the shrub roses we had inherited at the old farmhouse, are the brilliant ‘Buff Beauty’ and ‘Penelope’ (both hybrid musks) which are ones I continue to grow, as well as the dark purple Gallica ‘Cardinal de Richelieu’.

Finally in this area beneath the house was a shady spot beneath the apple trees that looked good for relaxing in, beneath a rose bower. In truth Jeremy and I very rarely seemed to have time to put our feet up. Still don’t.

As the biographer of the landscape architect and garden designer Brenda Colvin, I just had to have this one. It’s a rose named after her, a seedling that she discovered in her garden.


Graham Thomas thought it was probably a hybrid of a ‘Kiftsgate’ rose she had in her garden, and an ‘American Pillar’ rambler next door. (My book was published by Frances Lincoln in 2011 – still available on Amazon!)


As you can see, both this one, and another climber, ‘Rambling Rector’, did very well in trees in Cornwall, and both are now also growing well in our current garden here at The Old Vicarage in Somerset. The ‘Rambling Rector’, appropriately, is beside the vicarage front door. A friend tells me her mother always grows ‘Maiden’s Blush’ (aka ‘Cuisse de Nymphe’) beside him, but for sentimental reasons I have ‘Brenda Colvin’ there.

One other favourite I grew in Cornwall is the white ‘Maxima’ with its lovely grey-green foliage and a fantastic scent. I don’t mind a rose that only flowers once but one without scent seems quite wrong.


Here in Somerset, I’ve planted a ‘Maxima’ in a large trough with salvias but as I was late getting it in (not until mid March 2016), it didn’t perform very well last year. I have high hopes for 2017.

So all in all I confess to having become a bit of a rose fanatic – every year I can’t resist trying another one or two. This shrub rose below is ‘Susan Williams-Ellis’ – new to me last year – good scent, good repeat flowering  – a winner.


Whenever I read someone’s recommendations or see a rose I admire in someone else’s garden, I’m lost. Surely I can squeeze another one or two in? And, as for positioning them, I’ve always liked them to be mixed in with the rest of the perennial and annual planting – and that has the added bonus of giving me more space for just one more …

And I do create some of my own – when pruning any of the roses in the winter, I always stick some of the offcuts into a tall pot and put them in a shady spot. Generally speaking about 75 per cent of them take. Ideal for plant sales, or gifts to friends.

That’s it. Time to stop dreaming. Back to the pruning.






I’m with You, Alys – Most of the Way



Down here in Somerset we’ve had some unusually cold weather. OK, not Russian steppes cold, but last night the sky was clear, and we had a hoar frost which rendered the messy winter garden a thing of some beauty.




As always, I like to get out there on most useable gardening days, because even this early in the season I feel the pressure to begin clearing out the beds and borders. And, anyway, the daylight and exercise are just what I need – especially after Christmas.

We don’t have any help in the garden and I know just how quickly the spring growth explosion will be grabbing all our precious time as our June garden opening for the NGS looms ever closer in the diary.

And so, until I read Alys Fowler’s latest article in the Guardian, on the last day of 2016, I’d made a very small start on clearing some of the messier areas.


But Alys’s timely article  (you can read it here) was a really useful reminder to let the garden stay messy for the sake of hibernating insects.

It’s so tempting to start tidying up – cutting back all that dying foliage and those dead flower stalks that can start to look really drab. And most recent winters haven’t even given us the benefit of the hoar frosts we’re currently having that make even the messiest bits look beautiful.

So I’ve decided to review my approach – from now on I’ll be concentrating on pruning roses and other climbers – heaven knows there’s enough of them in the garden to keep me seriously busy for a while.


But I hope you’ll forgive me, Alys, if I do, carefully, poke around a bit to check that the bulbs which are already emerging aren’t getting squashed by the debris.



Because under all that rotting tangle I’d like the bulbs to have every chance to put on their much anticipated spring display. I might just have to give the dead stalks covering them a little trim.

Like all gardening, it’s a compromise, but, hopefully we can meet the insects’ needs at least two-thirds of the way to help diversity – we love having butterflies and moths in the garden and long may they thrive.



This garden visiting thing


It may be strange to start with someone else’s photo, but this picture really piqued my interest. It’s taken from a recent post from the excellent US gardener/blogger James Golden’s View from Federal Twist website. Look closely. As they’re passing by the gates, these people are aiming their cameras to catch every detail and nuance of their unfolding experience. They must be entering hallowed turf.

They’re visiting Hummelo, the private garden of new perennial guru Piet Oudolf. When I saw James’s blog post, I felt pangs of excitement and considerable envy – Trish and I had had every intention of making the same journey earlier this year – but all the work in the garden here at The Old Vicarage made that impossible.


I was also taken with this other picture from James’s post, with, as James notes, the juxtaposition of the airy grasses and the stiffly formal hedging. This may be a rather longer post than normal but, bear with me, I’ll come back to that – eventually.

My post is, ostensibly, about how our garden visiting has, through time, shaped our thoughts and ideas, and inspired us to create our gardens, both in North Cornwall (below) and here in Somerset.

But it may also be about something else.


If I think back over the years of our own particular growing interest in gardening, perhaps the most seismic shift in UK garden style (and I speak here as the partner of a serious garden historian, so I realise the consternation this assessment may arouse) was the ‘new perennial’ movement of relaxed drift planting. Instrumental behind this shift was the increasingly abundant supply of a far wider range of plants from small growers and enthusiast nurseries, on both sides of the Channel, through the 80s and 90s.

To get the real perspective on the history of this development in northern Europe I’d commend Noel Kingsbury’s brilliant book Hummelo. (No pecuniary interest – sadly.) It sits there in our over-large library of garden books, and of all the more modern titles Trish has collected, it’s the one that has given me the greatest pleasure to read. I think it’s because I’m reading something that charts the period of my own growing aesthetic interest in both the design, and emotion, of gardens.


It’s a history that reminds me of the many years that I have trailed behind Trish as she seeks out those little out-of-the-way nurseries – the growers and suppliers who can satisfy her desire and curiosity to have and grow the plants that have been such a mainstay of her gardens. Time and again I’ve come to love these plants and marvel at her ability to track them down, nurture them, and and thereby enrich our lives.


Mind you, I also wish we had the room on our library shelves to put all our large collection of another rather seminal publication from the time – Gardens Illustrated. Through the 90s and beyond, this magazine gave so much stimulus and pleasure. Currently the collection sits high up in a cupboard in one of the copious ‘not yet done’ bedrooms upstairs in The Old Vicarage.


I remember the excitement when each new edition of Gardens Illustrated came out – arguably the best and most eclectic glossy gardening magazine ever. It felt very very fresh, bringing a wonderful collection of inspiring domestic and continental articles, with mostly stunning photography as well – all with a serious feeling of discovery and expertise. It’s a publication that gets its rightful credit in Noel Kingsbury’s book, along with its founding editor Rosie Atkins, for its role in those years for supporting and enabling the growth of the new perennial movement.


Looking for inspiration from new styles in gardening and garden design is a very absorbing occupation. But inspiration from even the best magazines is only part of the stimulus – there’s nothing to compare with getting out there and making the thrill of discovery for yourself.

Throughout the late 80s and 90s, and into the new millennium, Trish and I frequently travelled through France (initially to and from our dilapidated barn that we once owned in the deep South West) and often tried to seek out inspirational new gardens.


We felt a little like new frontiersmen, but in those earlier years interesting new ideas in French gardening seemed few and far between, and what few there were were not well publicised. (Not like now, where their ‘Jardins Remarquables’ system encourages small garden visiting.)

There was of course the occasional wacky ‘conceptual’ affair, but most visitable gardens were in fact the grounds of old châteaux, in various states of repair, often with some charm, but little freshness of thinking.

This one we visited back in 2002, at Miromesnil, not far from Dieppe, showed promise however. Its grounds were beautiful and natural, the patterned grass mowing showed creative inspiration, and its walled kitchen garden was encouragingly active.



OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn this same year, 2002, we also took the chance to improve our knowledge and appreciation of the gallic fundamentals, from the impressive elegant formality of Villandry to the colourful extravagance of Monet’s garden.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut on this trip we did see something that felt really fresh and inspiring. We sensed times were changing.

The Prieuré d’Orsan is an old priory that’s been transformed into an intricate garden of rooms with elegant yew  and hornbeam hedging and chestnut woven hurdling. There are many fruit trees, and vegetables, but few flowers – but it is a fun garden with surprise constructions in abundance, like these peepholes Trish is discovering. You can see more of this wonderful place in a previous post.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd also in the Autumn of 2002 we discovered the ‘Journées des Plantes’ at Courson. (This had started in 1983 with just 12 nurseries involved.) By the time we visited, this atmospheric garden festival, loosely laid out in a magical château setting, attracted growers and enthusiasts from all over Europe to exhibit their ever-increasing range of new plants.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATo us it was a revelation. Courson opened our eyes to the new directions European growers were taking, with a wide and inspiring range of plants and grasses. Many new-to-us things, like exotically cloud-pruned shrubs and trees, yet to become fashionable in the UK, were being displayed on the more upmarket stands.



OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALike this well loaded-up couple above, we soon learnt that subsequent trips to Courson would result in a string of intriguing new purchases needing to be shipped back. The back of our estate car often resembled a travelling nursery. Bringing plants across the Channel in this way had only been allowed since 1995 – when the Schengen Agreement opened up ‘European’ borders.

We were back in France, still searching, in 2004, and we travelled to one municipal garden, near Nantes, without great hope, and what we found was a stunning surprise.

Admittedly the weather was fabulous, but this Japanese inspired garden, the Parc Orientale de Maulévrier, would be impressive at any time. We felt that our often fruitless explorations had this time struck gold.


All was tranquil perfection. The garden buildings were as perfect as the landscaping and planting.


The mature ‘cloud pruning’ in the gardens had clearly been here for quite some time.


Over the subsequent years, France and the rest Northern Europe of course became very much a growing source for garden inspiration.

And as these years passed, we even conquered our fears of the ‘organised’ coach tour, and tentatively dipped our toes into the excellent trips organised through a very good little company, French Gardens Today (now Susan Worner Tours). In fact discovering gardens with privileged private access to their owners and creators, in the company of like-minded souls, proved to be brilliantly absorbing.

So it was that in 2011 we found ourselves driving back to the gardens of that château at Miromesnil, which was now being used as a base for a French Gardens Today garden tour. Our bedroom was at the top of the château, from where, once more, we could appreciate the patterned mowing.


By this time the younger generation was in charge at the château, and telling our party all about their plans and methods. Clearly the revitalisation of the gardens was well underway, and whole new range of colourful new plants were being grown.





The walled garden was now a stunningly productive and beautiful place.

Also on this tour we visited Le Jardin Plume, which had just won the coveted European Garden of the Year award. It really felt like France had come alive with gardening inspiration.


The house is partly enclosed by formal box hedging which itself encloses colour themed planting  – predominantly red, orange and yellow when we viewed it. The hedging is kept at a low height so that it gives extensive views across the small square pond towards the flat open field beyond. That section itself has regular lines of fruit trees set in a grid system of unmown grass areas.


The grid system is flanked by striking, large stands of grasses, billowing out over the mown walkways.


There are of course other areas too, all displaying exuberant, expressive, but controlled design ideas. We were impressed by Le Jardin Plume, and of course Trish gave the plant sales area her usual scrutiny. She keeps a spreadsheet of all plants planted throughout the years (really!), so from this I can tell you she bought a Stipa barbata and an Althaea cannabina – the number limited by the space constraints of our chosen mode of transport – a 1959 sportscar. Both plants picked because at the time they were hard to find in the UK.




In retrospect, our whole experience of garden visiting in Europe engendered a very inclusive feeling – the civilising influence of common interests shared across boundaries. And the next year, 2012, we had an opportunity to reciprocate. Opening for the NGS puts you on the garden map, and we were contacted by a young woman organising garden tours to the UK.

So it was that we welcomed a group of German and Scandinavian visitors into our NGS garden, then in North Cornwall. Despite it being early in the season, the April visit was as enjoyable for us as it clearly was for them. As ever there were lots of questions for Trish, and many ideas shared.




We were back in France with French Gardens Today the next year too.

We had come to like the informality of the ‘tours’. You make your own travel arrangements to get there, which suited us fine as we could once again motor across the channel with ease, no passport restrictions and delays, and have a combined motoring and plant adventure – another voyage of discovery.

The gardens on this trip in 2012 were excellent, clustered around Britanny’s Armorique coast .






I love this photo of Trish.Two like-minded souls, enjoying each other’s company, in a perfect garden setting.


The garden in question has to be one of the most intriguing we visited on all our French excursions. It belonged to a French film director, and we felt privileged to be able to see it. We did meet many of the garden creators, but sadly in this instance the owners were away in Paris. As I remember it, the garden staff live in or nearby, and keep the intricate topiary at a state of perfection.

Rarely do private gardens have so many well executed and strongly controlled ideas. I was deeply envious of this garden. Sadly, for various reasons, Trish and I have moved house a number of times. We seem to create gardens and too often move on, and getting to this level of maturity and detail is normally only achieved over time, and with immense creative dedication.

Just look at this. A shot from the same garden.


The materials used, the granite cobbles and the grey pea gravel feel just right for the site, as do the substantial granite steps between levels, leading the eye off into the left distance. The whole is unified by the greenest, finest, grass out of which the delicate topiary (Muehlenbeckia complexa) winds its way up the trees – like a troupe of sea lions. Pure horticultural theatre. Gardens should sometimes be capable of taking your breath away. This one did.

And that’s why I felt envious of the garden visitors arriving at Piet Oudolf’s garden. They must have felt such anticipation and intrigue, about to meet someone who has been a huge inspiration in transforming garden style and form over the many years he’s developed his craft.

Here at The Old Vicarage in Somerset we’ve certainly been influenced by his themes and methods, but we’ve added our own twists – not least because Trish couldn’t be without roses and bulbs … And we’ve had to integrate these styles into a mature Victorian backdrop of high hedges and shoulder-to-shoulder shrubs. But as James Golden noted in his post, that juxtaposition can often be a good thing.

This is what we created in just the first year of the new garden section.


Here’s hoping next year is as enjoyable as this has been – and let’s hope the garden visiting thing, both welcoming many more NGS visitors and garden groups here in Somerset – and being visitors ourselves elsewhere – especially in northern Europe, features large in our experiences in 2017.

And let’s hope these years of change don’t damage the chances of the easy cross-border fertilisation of experiences and ideas.

You know what I’m saying.


Some you win …


The main feature of the new garden (the tennis court as was) is essentially a mound. You can dress it up in fancy design talk if you want, but it’s still basically a mound – a mound created by excavating the tennis court tarmac and stone and replacing it with copious tractor loads of topsoil from a nearby farm.


It was ready for planting with less than a year to go before we’d committed to opening for the National Gardens Scheme. So it needed all the help it could get to fill up nicely with presentable plants. I created a Pinterest board of plants for each of the three sections and set about putting the plans into action. This is the area as the tulips were coming up in the spring earlier this year, before the driveway was even completed.


But come late September, two months after our NGS opening, it was time for me to begin taking stock of what had been successful, and what needed ‘dealing with’.


When it was first planted up and some attractive umbellifer leaves appeared in the new soil, I let them stay – I was grateful for anything that would help to fill the space. Some turned out to be lovely, delicate things (upright hedge parsley, I think).


And others, despite initially attractive appearances, were thugs.


These pretty leaves were misleading. It turned out to be hemlock – ‘foetid, very poisonous biennial’, according to my wild flower book. Nice. Whatever, they’re coarse, greedy brutes with roots like giant parsnips.


Those took some digging up. Some spurges appeared too – pretty in their youth but definitely not wanted as they grew bigger and threatened to fire their seeds off everywhere.

Initially too I was fooled by the stalks of something I thought was this, purple toadflax – Linaria purpurea.


Linaria seeds prolifically so it didn’t surprise me to find some appearing in the new soil of the mound.


‘Leaves linear, untoothed, numerous up stems.’  Check. Then it flowered. Yellow. It was common toadflax (Linaria vulgaris).


I’d not really come across it before. Unlike its cousin, it has an ‘extensive spreading root system’ (Garden Organic). And it’s a pig to get rid of. All the more surprising that the RHS lists its use as: ‘Flower borders and beds. Low maintenance. Underplanting of Roses and Shrubs. Cottage and Informal Garden’.

Obviously we expected weeds in such a quantity of imported soil – buttercups, docks, dandelions, plantains, hairy bittercress etc etc – but the common toadflax and one other, creeping yellowcress, are both new to me. Again extensive root system – roots that snap all too easily.


In general though, the mound came out better than I’d dared to even hope. It’s one thing to create a Pinterest board, and quite another to have it actually coming through creating the intended effect.


In the central part of the mound – mostly white and yellow – I planted ox-eye daisies as cheap, quick-growing fillers. And they did what I wanted and looked pretty good, flowering on, even now.


But I hadn’t realised quite what prolific self-seeders they were.


I shall be deadheading them a bit more assiduously in future. If they get to survive, that is.

The downside of all that new soil has been the weeds, annual and perennial, but on the plus side, it’s been incredibly fertile. Some plants have just grown and grown – Artemisia ludoviciana ‘Valerie Finnis’ seen here at the bottom of the picture, has become a giant,


and the Cosmos ‘Purity’ plants are enormous – but inadequately staked. Must do better next year.

img_5547On our open day, one person asked me if our alliums (Allium sphaerocephalon) were on steroids the flowers were so fat.



I planted two white roses in this same section – both ‘Susan Williams-Ellis’.


As I criss-crossed the mound weeding earlier in the year, I enjoyed their strong Old Rose scent – in fact they’re both still flowering now, in late October.

What hadn’t occurred to me until someone asked me on our open day whether they had a good scent was that I’d planted them where no one else could enjoy them. One job for this winter – move them both to a position close to the path.


A damp and misty visit to Hidcote and Kiftsgate


At the end of last month we were staying with friends in the Cotswolds, a golden opportunity to see Lawrence Johnstone’s Hidcote again, and also, for the first time to see the garden over the road, Kiftsgate. Sadly, the weather was poor, becoming damper and greyer as the day went on.


The outside public areas were pretty forlorn, but somehow the garden atmospheres were enhanced in the end-of-season stillness. There were certainly not many other visitors. We were with our hosts, and could have the gardens largely to ourselves.




With relatively few people around I could take up space in the pathways, juggling an umbrella in an attempt to cover and protect my large SLR camera. In this I singularly failed. As the day went on, the lens began to mist over.


Perhaps it was not a problem though, as the colours were nicely muted. The loudest were the anoraks of the occasional passing group.





The gardeners were working as a crew tidying edges and borders. I thought they may need encouragement, so thanked them for their work in the miserable conditions. I thought they seemed surprised – perhaps it doesn’t happen often.



In places the garden was looking a little woolly, clearly they were working their way round the hedges, but it brought a delightful soft framing to some of the formal settings.



Hidcote is of course all about structure and design. On a rainy, end-of-season day, you have every chance to admire its carefully thought through, mature formality.



But the rain didn’t relent, and eventually, the Plant House brought welcome relief from the drizzle, and provided one of the most enjoyable experiences of the garden.


It’s covered, but with open airy sides, and the colours on display were truly vibrant, even on so dull a day. Sorry, I didn’t take note of exactly what individual plants and flowers were. But I do know this one, which is of course a wonderfully vibrant kniphofia, which lies just outside the covered area.





Back out into the garden, to finish what had been a most absorbing visit.



With a lens misting over so much, it was time to head for the café. To dry out, and fill up. Very good it was too – a large, well run and satisfying environment to match the quality of the garden.

We’d had vague memories of Hidcote, and although it was enjoyable to see it again, there was a palpable increased sense of excitement as we made it over the road to see its neighbour garden, Kiftsgate, for the first time.


The early signs were encouraging. A vibrant blue seat set against the lush planting at the base of the front wall is striking. I often don’t like such a blue on garden furniture, but here it seems to work.


As you walk along the main green pathways though you become increasingly aware of the relationship between house and garden. The original owner moved the house from way down in the valley that lies in front of it.  The house now dominates the garden from many of the vistas. And it’s a gaunt house, or at least it appeared that way on this grey day. For us it set the mood of the garden.


To the side, a sunken garden, around a pool, with more blue furniture, is attractive from one side, but again, from the wrong perspective, the house imposes itself heavily on the mood.



At the end of a long, bordered path is a more modern surprise, heralded by the shape of an impressionist sculpture.



Our weekend host Liz read out the description of the creation as we sheltered in its adjacent  covered area, and contemplated what lies inside the green walls.



The sculpted metal leaves spout water seemingly randomly, the splashing adding to the steady steady drips of the continuous rain. All rather elegant, absorbing, and calming.

The delight of any good garden visit is to be moved by something unfamiliar.

And on this front Kiftsgate delivered on another level too, as we next came across a beautiful plant – Salvia confertiflora, planted in elegant pots in front of contrasting rose. Neither of us had seen this salvia with its crimson red colour before.


Kiftsgate has a plant stall area to the front, and we were pleased to find it for sale there.


It came home with us in the back of the car, along with a few others that had taken Trish’s fancy.


A couple of days later, it’s a glorious day back in our garden, and Trish gets stuck back into the tasks at hand, interest re-invigorated by a short break away from home, as ever.


We had enjoyed seeing the Cotswold gardens in the rain, but to spur you back to work, there’s nothing quite like a beautiful sunny day.


And pretty soon, the new salvia is potted too. Can’t wait to see it flowering fully next year.



Trough of memories


This is the story of the rebirth of an old cattle trough. It’s the big old one Trish is leaning over, far off in the picture above, taken a few months after we moved into the Old Vicarage. The lawn is barren, and the pots and garden ornaments that moved with us are grouped behind the trough.

IMG_1013The trough was here when we moved in, resolute in battleship grey. It was standing beside the driveway, alongside the unlovely tennis court fence. Planted in it is a dense, juniper shrub. Our forlorn pots of never-quite-used hedging plants lie stranded beside it on the hard and unwelcoming court surface.

One day we would have plans for this trough. But not just yet.


Eventually, after two years living here, when all the other more pressing work on the house and existing garden had been done, we got round to laying out the design that we hoped would transform the tennis court into a new garden.


As the work progressed, just over a year ago now, builder/landscaper Paul moved the trough closer to where we planned to site it. And there it sat for a few weeks as the rotavating and base preparation was done.


But eventually it found its place, sat beside the new driveway, awaiting planting. Note the cypress trees around the driveway edge, a key part of the original design, but sadly no longer there. Planted in the heavy clay that borders the driveway edge (long story), they didn’t survive. Had we known to plant them in their original plastic pots, with the bases cut out, apparently they would possibly have been okay.


Anyway, eventually Paul also built a paved base for a seat to stand in front of the trough. The green metal posts behind it are the remains of the tennis court fencing, which we left in position to support the very dense, and very heavy, mature Clematis montana.


In May this year, with the trough now a slightly lighter shade of grey, Trish set about planting it up. She put in Salvia ‘Phyllis Fancy’ and Salvia ‘Waverley’ into some really good well-rotted compost that we inherited here in the Old Vicarage compost bins. The fruits of others’ labours. This is where the memories come into play.


We had bought the salvias in Chantilly the previous October at the wonderful Journées des Plantes, and planned to put them in the trough. We always enjoy these trips to France, and the plants become memories of the event, and its wonderful atmosphere.Courson Journee des Plantes at Chantilly. 2015


Bizarrely, we bought them from a stall run by a nursery local to us – The Botanic Nursery just outside Bradford-on-Avon. So with our purchase, they became much travelled plants – across the Channel and back. Trish had been keen to find the elegantly flowering ‘Phyllis Fancy’ ever since seeing it on a garden visit with Somerset Gardens Trust to theatre impresario Cameron Macintosh’s very special garden, Stavordale Priory.

On the advice of the Botanic Nursery we planted them very deep, so they’ll hopefully survive the winter outside.

Between the salvias she put a white rose, Rosa ‘Alba Maxima’ that we loved so much in our previous garden in Cornwall, and brings memories of the good times we had there. This is a very poor photograph of what we should expect if it flourishes.


And then in went something special, that was inspired by another place we always like in France – the port of Honfleur.


We stayed here on our way back to the Poole-Cherbourg ferry. One evening we were strolling around the harbour, and saw Plectranthus argentatus growing abundantly in the planted containers there.


With its beautiful soft velvety leaves it’s come into its own in the trough this summer, flowering from early September – every bit as successful as in the containers in the French port.




So there for the bulk of the summer all our memories have sat up proudly, or tumbled gracefully from the trough, a backdrop to a much needed place of rest for our NGS and garden club visitors.


Apart from one incident, that is – dog-related, we suspect.

Both of our pointers are in the habit of scrabbling among plants if they sense a small rodent may be in the vicinity. We suspect that’s why we one day discovered that some of the Salvia ‘Waverley’ had been stomped on with heavy paws.


So Trish set about taking cuttings from the stricken section of the plant. As you can see, ‘Phyllis Fancy’ on the left is doing very very well, but ‘Waverley’ is now a little depleted.


But there’s enough left of ‘Waverley’ for it to come back and flourish in the trough, and the cuttings will provide more stock for the garden, or for next year’s plant stalls.

And one more setback I’m afraid. The rose has been got at by caterpillars – why is anybody’s guess, we’ve never had that happen to this rose before, and so far the plant has resolutely refused to display this year but then it was planted a bit late.


Some successes will have to wait it seems. It’s no doubt just a temporary blip in the trough of memories.


Open days over – back to a bit of basic gardening


It’s been very tempting after the various garden openings to just relax and enjoy the late summer.


After all, the weather has been pretty good. And the pruning done a few weeks before we opened has brought on the ‘Phyllis Bide’ on the barn wall superbly. What a rose!


The range of colours it travels through as it matures are stunning. The pinks, the peaches and the yellows – sometimes you can’t believe it’s all just the same rose.


But at some stage some ‘work’ has to be done. But actually it’s work that I rather enjoy.


So with one of my ever-present canine ‘helpers’, it’s down to it.

I love creating new plants. Whether from seed, cuttings or division. And now is the season for semi-ripe cuttings, or rather getting close to the very end of it …


So I’ve been busy – four different types of sage, Phlomis italica, curry plant, trailing rosemary all potted up already.



Trachelospermum jasminoides, daphne and hydrangea ‘Annabelle’ are in my sights. Later on, it’ll be hardwood cuttings that will need a slim trench, not too sunny, into which they can be planted.


But where can all these new plants (I hope) go, once they’re potted up ready for future plant sales or for filling gaps in the garden? It’s seems silly in a one-and-a half acre plot, but we’re short of good available, light and potentially clear space, for a ‘nursery’.


But there is a small square area between the Japanese wineberry side of the veg plot and the ‘rose bed’.

Found when we arrived here, this was quite a traditional style bed of roses – nothing else – and roses of all types and colours planted together – deep crimson, bright yellow, garage-bouquet bright orange, multiflora pink – you name it, it’s probably there.


Very few are labelled although there are a couple of nice David Austin ones (like ‘Mary Rose’ below) but that doesn’t necessarily make the overall combination any better.


To soften the look and the colour combos, I’ve planted other things in this bed – sweet rocket, grasses, a euphorbia, a white potentilla, a favourite old Scotch briar rose (R. pimpinellifolia ‘Double Scotch Pink’ that’s followed us around in Cornwall and now found a home here) and so on.


And this year some very successful sweet peas on a rather ‘rustic’ hazel wigwam. Anything to soften the existing raucous rose mix.



Previously I’d also tried growing sweet peas on the square patch behind the rose bed but basically it’s stone chippings with a minimal soil covering and they just didn’t work. And in the course of this spring and summer it became rather overgrown. For the garden openings, I tidied it up. There was a sweet pea seedling growing, so I gave that an iron spiral to climb and left it alone.


Today I discovered it’s now flowering – pretty white flowers, but virtually no scent that I can detect.

white sweet pea

It’s not like the perennial sweet pea that tends to choke the beds by the front door. Much more like a cultivated one. But no scent. Puzzle.

Anyway, this morning I tackled the area. Cleared it of some of this garden’s common menaces. Lemon balm – has seeded everywhere and before you notice it is a massive, ugly plant, seeding itself everywhere all over again. I know I should like it – bees like it – but here there’s just too much of it.


Other pests were ivy, willowherb (minor problem), and enchanter’s nightshade – such a pretty name, such a nightmare of white spreading roots that snap when you touch them.


And not to mention the enchanter’s nightshade prickly seeds, that stick to anything.


And then there’s stinking bob (herb robert, again minor problem), brambles and nettles.

nursery area

But I didn’t find any bindweed. Makes a change.


So, now I have a good flat area for keeping plants in – open to the light and rain. And a narrow shady bed behind it that should be ideal for heeling in those hardwood cuttings. Simples.


What? The Big ‘O’? In our Old Vicarage garden? Really?


A couple of days ago we were greeted by this wonderful morning light. In the mist the garden felt magical. Ethereal. A fitting location for what we’re about to reveal.


The mist softened everything. Even the old brick steps took on the feel of an old master.


Slowly the sun began to burn through, touching gold highlights on every surface.


Weirdly, the sky was full of vapour trails, hanging high above the house.

old vicarage weare

The garden began to look very beautiful. And this was pretty much the first sight that one of our previous weekend open garden visitors, Mark, must have seen as he came up the drive. It must have been magical for him, because he hadn’t seen inside the garden since his childhood living here from the late fifties.

redwoodUnder his arm Mark carried an album of wonderful old pictures which he delighted in showing us. This was the land around the house showing the full height of the redwood, before its more recent topping (done about 15 years ago in the name of safety it seems).

snowy view with redwood, lawsons and grove house jan 1974And this one shows both the tall trees we have. The Lawson Cypress on the right must also have been shortened at some stage, perhaps for the same reason.

aerial view

In this aerial shot you can see both trees, and the the grass section at the bottom left that became the hard tennis court, and that in turn now has become the new garden.

yew treeThis was all before the Church’s sale of the Vicarage, when Mark’s father was a vicar here. At some stage his parents also did B and B, and he thinks this group perched in one of the old yews were B and B  visitors.

This is the same tree today.


The dead wood was at some stage cut out, and behind the tree now serves as our garden store area, complete with the NGS sign on the gate to hide the mess from impressionable prying eyes.

cluttons details sold july 2003_0008

Mark had also acquired these sales particulars from 2003 – some time after his family had moved on. They show the tall ginkgo tree behind the house (standing on the right) that has since been felled. The owners then were clearly pretty keen gardeners. And it was then that Mark told us the most bizarre and wonderful fact about the Old Vicarage.


webbington night spot of the west


This is an old ad for what was then a nearby ‘night spot’, run at the time by a manager named Alan Wells. Mark says he and his father were friends, and so they were able to arrange for visiting celebrities appearing there to come and open the church fetes that were held here in the Old Vicarage garden.

And so we can reveal that on one occasion this was the celebrity concerned:


YES! Really! Here in this garden. Roy Orbison, The Big ‘O’ himself, once stood on what is now hallowed turf, and declared the tombola and bat-the-rat stalls open! Magic!

But where exactly was it held?



No doubt somewhere like here, on what was once a level front lawn, and on the level land opposite that later became the hard tennis court. From now, as we toil and mow, and of course, in our dreams, we shall always remember him, The Big ‘O’, Roy Orbison. Now where’s that plaque?


Learning from experience – what you get from open days

It’s knackering opening your garden. No matter how experienced you are. We’d opened our previous garden in Cornwall several times for the NGS, but here in Somerset was a first time exposure to visitors’ expectations. And they came in big numbers.


The build-up takes months and months of work. But if the openings have been good, with a good amount of money raised, a warm glow of satisfaction means you can relax, content, knowing more about your garden. You’ve now seen it through others’ eyes.



Apart from all the comments and conversations on the day, feedback comes in many ways. A tweet from one visitor appreciated the persicaria and grasses planting, and another liked the timeline story on this website on how we made a garden from the tennis court.


Not surprising really as there’s very little out there. We searched far and low for ideas on how to do it and in the end just went with what seemed logical.


I even found some people sitting in the garden seats, and then taking pictures of them. Not all of them mind you, just the ones we have from Gaze Burvill. They’re steamed oak – moulded to shape your body – the most comfortable seat made. (No monetary interest – we wish.)


One of the areas that seemed very popular was pretty much the newest, the nascent fern and stumpery. The feel and mood of it seems to run pretty naturally into the environment created by the redwood beyond.


Even though it dominates the garden, one woman walking through the paths hadn’t realised a redwood stood there, and was surprised to be confronted by the girth of its trunk.


And more than one couple sat on the new seat beneath it. I like to think they imagined the seat was long standing there, but we’d been looking for something with the right feel for some time, and came across it recently at the reclamation yard.


One woman asked me what Trish predominantly used the greenhouse for. I could see what she was thinking, so confirmed the truth, that it was just really for overwintering and seed cultivation – it’s too dark for much else. She said she liked the pot adornment in there. I laughed – she’d rumbled they been ‘tidied’ for presentation. Very NGS.


It was almost a surprise to me to see what many remarked on, that the hydrangea Annabelle seemed very suited to its position under the redwood. We’d been working so hard in the garden that its prominence had gone almost unnoticed by us.


Now it seems to have its feet firmly in the soil. And in the relatively dry conditions under the giant tree.


A number of people also remarked appreciatively on the fuchsias that lie either side of the front door. Trish and I have discussed many times what we really need here. We’d even bought yew columns for a more formal look. But somehow the fuchsias win through. They’re relaxed, buzz with bees, and go so well with the dark grey. They stay.


And, perhaps most remarked on by all, the front bed.


On the open days, the sun shone across it, igniting the colour fireworks. It’s a wow of an entrance spectacle. Leading on to the new garden main event.


If we didn’t know it’s become a success, we certainly do now. Most asked question? What is that? Is it cow parsley? No it’s wild carrot. Oh wonderful, they said, we must have some.


As usual we approached the open days with some trepidation – we’d been washed out totally once in Cornwall. But the sun shone here in Somerset, and we learnt lots. But the biggest revelation – is the subject of the next post. It’s a biggie.