Month: March 2015

An Opening to Remember

Like it says on the box!

Like it says on the box!

It somehow seemed appropriate that Architectural Plants ( finally opened their impressive new premises a couple of miles north of Pulborough last week at the same time as the Garden Museum in London is about to celebrate the life of that most structural and inspired of designers, Russell Page.

Last Thursday they held a really good party in a marquee there to celebrate the move with a talk to remember from Tom Hart Dyke ( ). Funnily enough, all these events brought together a quality that is much professed, even if less felt in today’s world, “passion”. It is certainly something shared by Architectural Plants’ proprietor Angus White, by Tom himself and Guy Watts, the founder of the charity Streetscape for which a silent auction was held. Streetscape provides horticultural training for 18-25 years olds who might otherwise have fallen through the net ( and Guy is an AP alumnus who clearly feels strongly and cares deeply about providing opportunities in horticulture for young people. Someone also won, and was highly delighted with, a very nice, large, cloud pruned “niwaki” tree as a result of a competition promoted in the Daily Telegraph.

Tom Hart Dyke spoke in a way that evidenced his real love for horticulture and plant hunting. Inspired by the example and support of his beloved grandmother and his upbringing at the family home, Lullingstone Castle in Kent, he trained at Sparsholt College before setting out with a friend on a plant hunting trip to South America, aged 23. Having survived many obvious risks, they decided on a final orchid-hunting venture into the Darien Gap, a stretch of largely unmapped territory where the Pan American Highway temporarily disappears on the border between Columbia and Panama. At this stage their luck ran out, big time, and they were captured by a group of teenage, but extraordinarily dangerous, guerrillas. For nine months they were moved from camp to camp in conditions of extreme hardship. Tom made light of the dangers as he spoke to us, telling us for example that spider chips and fried parrot were really quite good to eat, but it was clearly seriously scary by any normal standards. Indeed, Tom, believing he was about to be executed, planned in his mind the garden he would build at Lullingstone if he was lucky enough to return.

Tom Hart Dyke, talking with passion!

Tom Hart Dyke, talking with passion!

Their relations at home despaired and planned their memorial services. Eventually Tom’s obsession with orchids drove his captors mad and the pair was released, with all their belongings returned untouched, on condition they never came back. Even then they ignored the advice, returning since they had forgotten to ask for directions out of the jungle. Miraculously released again, this time they actually got home in time for Christmas. After that it is little short of amazing that Tom’s passion for plants, and plant hunting in hazardous conditions, has if anything even grown. He has managed to create the World Garden he had dreamt of as a captive – an outline map of the world imprinted on two acres at Lullingstone and filled, perhaps painted is the best word, with plants typical of every continent. He has gone on to become a television personality, founding and expanding many horticultural events at Lullingstone, and has become a source of inspiration for many gardeners of all ages, but especially the young.

Architectural Plants is something of an anomaly, although a very successful one, in the staid world of nurseries. Firstly, Angus White who founded the firm in 1990 when he was frustrated he couldn’t buy the plants he so wanted and has since seen it go from strength to strength, came from a background in furniture design rather than horticulture.

Secondly Angus has a very clear vision of what he believes gardens should be about, namely plants that are “tremendously green and sculptural”. Most people who buy and use his plants are likely to share these values, although anyone who recognises the importance of structure in a garden will be a potential customer. Indeed many of his customers are perhaps not typical “flower gardeners” but rather people with a strong sense of design and style in other areas coming new to this vocation.

Thirdly he believes in fully informing his customers about what he sells and how they can be best used saying “We decided to be bossy, but nice bossy”. The best example of this is APs “traffic lights” system of climate hardiness where the appropriate colour of the plants’ labels indicates their hardiness. Green labels should survive anywhere in the UK below a 1,000 feet .This group includes the old staples of holly, box, Portugal laurel and yew together with a further 200 plants many of which are not generally known . Amber labelled plants are generally tender, but may perform unscathed through the winter in town gardens and sheltered environments. Those with red labels such as Hedichum gardnerianum and Melianthus major are definitely tender and will be cut down by frost and need protection through the winter.

Fourthly the business recognises its long term success depends on customers’ very expensive purchases actually thriving as well as surviving so enhancing the firm’s good name, reputation and demand for what they sell. They therefore offer design, planting and ongoing maintenance services as an essential part of their business model rather than the relatively half hearted add-ons that are more typical of the nursery trade in the UK.

Angus White, Guy Watts and Tom Hart Dyke viewing the stock.

Angus White, Guy Watts and Tom Hart Dyke viewing the stock.

There’s still some construction work to be finished and in a few weeks time the spring warmth will have put a lot of growth on the plants; but it really is worth a visit so April or even May would be good months to go.

So what did I learn, beyond the fact the nursery has a huge stock, very knowledgeable and friendly staff, and offers an extensive range of services, together with a cafe?

There are simply too many plants to write about in a single article, so here are five out of the many which I believe are still underused and are excellent when well placed to give structure and movement to a garden. All provide interesting and viable alternatives to the traditional topiary plants, which are of course also available in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.

The loquat, Eriobotyrea japonica, is marginally hardy but has wonderful shuttlecock green leaves and will grow to 12 feet. The green olive tree, Phillyrea latifolia, was used much more in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when Celia Fiennes wrote of seeing “stiped ffileroys” at Woburn, probably a variegated variety we no longer see. The orange stem myrtle, Myrtus (or Luma) apiculata has a wonderful orange and white bark. It’s borderline hardy but fine for most towns. The long leaved bay, Laurus nobilis angustifolia is significantly tougher than the normal variety and I would prefer it any day. Finally, the Chinese cloud tree, Ligustrum lucidum, is completely hardy and my favourite. Sometimes called the Chinese privet, it produces the most wonderful airy balloons of glossy leaves above standard stems that may well make 12 feet, and once seen is most compellingly desired.


Picture Credits PMW

Bursting Out All Over

DSC00144Although both of us write part-time professionally, having a website like this means one can sometimes discuss something just because it makes you feel good. Such solipsistic pleasure, if over-indulged, leads to the intense boredom and disengagement of the reader. However, today it may just be permissible.

Suddenly it feels like spring and as the days have been getter longer signs of new life have appeared everywhere. Our dog’s apparently purposeless barking was traced to a bird trying to build a nest under the roof, his roof. We’ve seen the best of the snowdrops already, although on a local bank where they are sheltered from direct sunlight, even now they really give the effect of a sudden snowfall at the roots of the hedge. The hellebores are still going strong. Primulas have appeared in colours that would be considered gaudy later on in the year but right now just seem wonderfully cheerful.

For weeks we’ve had small species and reticulata irises (I do wonder whether the veining is really that reminiscent of a net, but I suppose it’s as good a word as any) lightening up the beds. Little daffodils are everywhere. At least some of our camellia blossoms have survived the frost and there is a huge reserve of unopened buds to replace the numerous browned casualties where early sun hit frosted tissue.

And it’s really the buds and the twigs and the general change in colour and tone of the countryside that shows that spring is nearly here. Many of these flowers have actually been around for a while. In some cases and in some parts of the country they are even going over, but the general lightening, streaking and flushing of colour in the countryside is something very recent. It’s sometimes hard to pin down what’s done it until you start to look carefully.

Certainly there are hazel catkins in quantity with soft yellows dangling down above the darkness of the road. The twigs of willow have taken on a range of greens, oranges and brighter yellows that sometimes appear illuminated from within while some lime twigs seem quite red. When the sun catches lichens on trees their rusts, jades and sharper greens all come to life. In general the outlines of trees and bushes are changing, becoming gentler and lighter. The blurring results from buds, not yet opened, starting to push through their sharp crisp winter lines. The fruit buds on the apples are much fuller and more plumped up, distinguished more than ever from the pointier leaf buds, although it will be a while before they open into this year’s blossom. New growth on the roses forms delicate, almost transparently crimson shapes that are, incidentally, very difficult to photograph in anything but the best light. The camera seems much happier to focus itself on the harder outlines in stronger colours somewhere else in the picture plane.

As the air has become warmer, animal life has sprung back into being, and the trees and hedgerows bulge and bud before their frothy tumescence follows in April, so the quality of sound in the countryside has changed. The harsh winter noises have been dulled down a bit and a predominance of chirping and gentle rustling of foliage in softer breezes is just beginning to take over. It’s still too cold to sit outside without a jersey for very long, even around lunchtime, but at least you can sit, as opposed to scurrying back inside. The slide show below shows nothing in itself that is very spectacular, but presents a stream of images of things we have every cause to be glad of and make welcome. Chris.

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Winter in the Garden at the Garden Museum

The garden at the Garden Museum

The garden at the Garden Museum

When I recently visited the Garden Museum to see Rachel Warne’s exhibition, I had a further reason for going there; I wanted to see how much colour there was in the garden.

My garden is just beginning to wake up. The witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Rubin’) is finally flowering. This cultivar isn’t scented but for my purpose that doesn’t matter; its role is to be seen from the kitchen window. It lives in a large pot and has grown naturally (with only a little help) into a very pretty fan. I bought it nine years ago and everyone said ‘Your garden is far too small; you can’t possibly have a witch hazel.’ It proves that one shouldn’t listen to other people too much; it is still a manageable size and fulfils its task of announcing the approach of the end of winter perfectly. Dotted around the garden are little irises, crocuses, puschkinia and the beginnings of the daffs, but not much else. I was interested to see what 17th century gardens would have had.

The day started crisp and clear, with a promising blue sky but, as I cycled along the Embankment, the sky got greyer and greyer and by the time I arrived it looked as if it might rain, not a very auspicious start for a wander round the garden looking for colour. Everything always looks better after a visit to the café and, sure enough, a Gnocchi alla Romana and butternut squash cake later, the sun had come out again.

What actually struck me most about the garden were the textures, rather than the colours. There was colour; amongst other things there were vivid purple Iris germanica, flowering completely out of season, head-hanging hellebores, blue anemones and a single daffodil flower, which was clearly going to wait a little longer to open fully. What I noticed more though, were the patterns and shapes of the leaves and plants. Even the dry, brown leaves providing protection for the banana plants were interesting to look at.

There is great attention to detail in this garden and it is worth taking time to look at each area carefully. There are tiny pink squills hiding beneath the trellis, blue and pink pulmonaria, and periwinkles sheltering against the wall of the church. There are pots of Narcissus thalia and irises and the tips of the shoots just appearing above the gravel hold promise of colour to come. More sinister looking are the shoots of the dragon arum or voodoo lily (Dracunculus vulgaris).

I read that this garden is the poor cousin to the Chelsea Physic Garden; I am not so sure. The café and shop alone make a visit here in winter more pleasurable as both are closed at the Chelsea garden until April. The Chelsea garden has a wider selection of plants, and much more space, but I rather like the restrictions here. I have long fancied making a garden using only plants known to the Romans who settled in Britain, but have always baulked at the limitations. Looking at the garden at the Garden Museum a 17th century garden would be a much more realistic proposition. Jane.