Autumn days at Sissinghurst

SissinghurstHello, poor neglected blog! I’ve thought of you a lot over these past few months and yet never found the time / energy to pop in and say hi…

Late pregnancy this time round has been a total crusher of energy. Partly, I suppose, because I’m older, partly because I have two other little people to look after and partly because I seem to have been ill with one thing or another at least once a week. (Though the last of those is down to the first two, I am pretty sure…)

Anyway, here we are with ten days to go before the baby is due, and I’m finally managing to drop in and share some pictures of our trip to Sissinghurst from a few weekends ago.

Sissinghurst

Sissinghurst

It was one of those glorious Autumnal days, the sky blue, the sun shining, the leaves just starting to turn and the fruit trees dripping in bounty.

The kids ran around, I slowly wandered about admiring the planting and ruminating on the how the garden design fit the architecture and surrounding environment (I was compiling a sketchbook on said topic for one of my garden design assignments) and we all ate heartily at the (rather expensive) cafe.

Sissinghrust tower

Sissinghurst oasthousesI don’t need to say much about Sissinghurst, I’m sure, as it must be one of the most famous gardens in the country. But, despite the glamour and renown of the garden rooms, I have to confess that I find some of the outlying parts a little more appealing. The kitchen garden, surrounded by views of the fields, was fat with pumpkins. The orchard was full of apples, crabapples and pears. The lakes, towards the very perimeter of the “gardened” land were looking beautiful with huge stately oak trees shaking their branches over the top. And perhaps my favourite parts are where you can catch glimpses out to the Kentish farmland beyond, the gentle chug of a tractor in the distance, a few faraway figures walking the dogs through the yellow fields… I do love the domestic romance of the English countryside.

Country view

Sissinghurst lakes

crabapples

I noticed, for the first time, that there is a B&B on the grounds of the estate. (Website here: sissinghurstcastlefarmhouse.com) One to add to the list for a child-free weekend away at some unspecified point in the future!

Anyway, I hope you’re all well. I suspect I won’t have time to drop in again now until after the baby arrives, until when I am busy trying to finish my last assignment for the course (designing a show garden for Chelsea / Hampton Court!) and finishing off the blanket that I have only just started knitting. (You can see it on my IG account here: baby blanket) Oh dear, little baby, I am sorry that before you are even born I have had less time to spend on you than I did on your siblings!

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Peak bloom at Thames Barrier Park

Thames Barrier Park, LondonThames Barrier Park is one of those slightly random places in London that I tend to read about and never visit.

Built in 2001, next to, you guessed it, the Thames Barrier, it’s a really cutting edge bit of garden design and I’ve seen photos of it in magazines, online, and, frequently, in lectures at my garden design course.

Thames barriers

And yet, it always seemed so far away and hard to reach that I’d never had quite enough impetus to go and visit. And that’s coming from someone who already lives in London.

But at the end of July, we had a scheduled visit on my course, so I hit the jubilee line and then the DLR and set off for Pontoon Dock, the station beside the park. (Side note: Pontoon Dock! What a fabulous name!)

My reservations about travelling so far must be shared by others. It was a gloriously sunny day, but the park was all but deserted, apart from my gaggle of eager garden designers to be.

The park is surrounded by a huge amount of new buildings and new building work, bordered at one edge by the river and the barriers, and at the other by the DLR line, and directly under the flight path of City Airport, with planes taking off and landing every few minutes. Yet, despite the noise and the bustle, it’s a surprisingly relaxing place to be.

Thames Barrier Park

At the centre of the design is the sunken garden: the one you’ll probably already recognise from photos. Clipped hedges of yew are shaped into huge rows of undulating waves, the long lines leading your eye all the way down the barriers. Interspersed with the green yew is a range of colourful perennials and grasses which, when we visited, were at peak bloom.

Rolling waves of yew hedging
Thames Barrier Park in July

Thames Barrier ParkIt’s an impressive and innovative spectacle, no doubt, but maintenance issues were apparent when we visited (and, I think, all the time) as the clipped forms need constant care and were growing straggly in places and had even died off completely in others.

You can walk down into the garden and wander along the lines of plants, but it’s really designed to be viewed from one of the bridges that cross over its width.

Hydrangea
That instagram fave, the hydrangea, was in full flower when we visited

Around the main area, is a swathe of wildflower meadows, interspersed with a grid of birch trees and, I have to confess, I found this a more enjoyable place to sit and spend time. The semi-natural environment provided more of a relief from all the construction and hard lines around, and it was lovely to watch the grasses waft in the wind and the bees landing on the flowers.

wild flower meadow wild flowers

I would say it’s well worth a visit if you’re already in the area, but that begs the question who would be in the area and why? I wondered exactly why such a contemporary garden had been built here and whether the original intention was to draw people to this rather neglected part of the docklands simply to come and see it? If so, I’m not sure it’s been successful, but I’d love to hear your thoughts if you’ve visited…

I am delighted to say I am joining in with Annie Spratt’s wonderful How does your garden grow once again. Annie’s has long been one of my fave blogs to visit and I was really sad when Annie announced her decision to stop blogging recently, and over the moon when she decided to resurrect HDYGG again. Do go over and visit everyone else’s posts, there’s always some great inspiration to be found…

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Kew’s tremendous trees

Kew palmhouse in AutumnKew in the AutumnThe hubby excelled himself with my birthday presents this year. Back in September, on the day itself, I got a gorgeous grey wool winter coat from the littles. (Who are still too little to choose their own pressies, I should note…) It makes me feel as if I’ve stepped into a moody French black and white film when I wear it, as if I should be wandering along the banks of the Seine and meeting with lovers. (Though it’s mostly worn to the playground…)

The crowning glory, however, was my present from the hubby itself: a two day photography course at Kew, getting tips and hints on how to photograph trees. Uh-huh, he knows me well.

I took the course in the tail end of last week, in rather crappy, grey, drizzly weather – nothing like the glorious weekend we’ve just had. (Though that did mean I could wear the new coat.) But even damp and mizzling grey British rain can’t spoil the beauty of Kew, nor my enthusiasm for endless course taking, nor my love of chatting with other people about how nice trees are. Oh, and snapping the odd pic in between.

Ginkgo leavesGinkgo trunkOur course tutor, Edward Parker, seemed to live my dream life. He is a one time environmental campaigner, turned photographer, learning as he went on his travels around the world.

He’s now photographed or written more than 30 books (including Ancient Trees and Photographing Trees which are both now on my Christmas list). He works with awesome organisations like the Eden Project, WWF, and the National Trust. And – if that weren’t enough – also runs a “rural centre for creative and sustainable living” in Dorset called Springhead. I know, I know, I totally wanted to hijack his life too.

He also had fascinating facts about loads of the trees we visited in Kew. The ginkgo, above, for example is the oldest ginkgo in the country. He told us that the evergreen oak opposite it was uprooted in the storms of 1987. As the Kew gardeners went round trying to see to the many tree casualties, they righted the oak, only as temporary measure before they had time to fell it properly, but were astonished to see that it started growing in far ruder health than before. (The earth around its roots had become compacted over many years of people stomping above. Coming right out of the ground had brought oxygen to the roots that the tree needed to grow well…)

Red Autumn leafTree trunkFallen leavesAnd, of course, rain or no, the stunning Autumn colours round Kew led to plenty of time photographing hundreds of leaves. In fact, this selection are my favourites from, erm, around 500 photos I took in the space of two days.

Pine tree at Kew Pine branches

So, in all, a most excellent few days photographing trees. Incidentally, if you share my tree love, I heard recently that if you use the tag #treesfortrees on instagram, then the Heart of England Forest will plant a tree for every tag they see. Which is pretty cool.

Relevant info:

  • Kew runs hundreds of amazing-sounding courses, there is more info on their website: Kew short courses (I can’t see another photographing trees one at the moment, but there are various other photography courses over the next few months).
  • You can see some of Edward Parker’s photography on his website: Edward Parker or check out Springhead if you’re in the market for an eco retreat. It sounded really heavenly as he described it.
  • Finally, take a look at Trees for trees for more info on the tree planting.

Inspiration from Beth Chatto’s garden: 9 tips for drought-tolerant planting

Our latest (and final) assignment for my garden design course this year is my favourite so far.

We have to design a gravel garden, inspired by Beth Chatto’s, using plants that are capable of surviving without being watered.

tips fordrought tolerant gardeningI am massively into the whole idea of “right plant, right place” – in other words using plants in situations where they will thrive, so you need to do a minimum amount of care to keep them happy.

Yes, I admit, this is partly because I am quite lazy, but it’s also because I wholeheartedly buy into the sustainable / environmental implications of the idea as well: don’t waste precious water on plants, instead making sure they can live on whatever rainwater they receive; don’t pump your soil full of chemicals to fertilise them, but choose plants that like the conditions you’ve got; and don’t spend ages pruning plants into small shapes, but just let them grow to their natural form. (Though, that’s not to say that I’m not partial to a bit of topiary…)

All these ideas, in fact, are almost a given these days in garden design, but back when Beth Chatto started advocating them in the 1960s they were a radical departure from the manicured, high-labour-intensive, high-irrigation form of gardening that was popular.

A few weeks ago, we took a college trip to see the gardens and had a tour from one of the gardeners there. Now, we’re busy working on our own designs and selecting plants.

Along with sharing some of my photos, I thought it might be interesting to pass on a few tips to bear in mind if you’re planning a drought tolerant garden…

1. No watering…

Beth Chatto's gravel gardenThe ultimate aim of a drought tolerant garden is that you never need to water it. In the gravel garden at Beth Chatto they never, ever water the plants there. Even in the hottest driest summers. Once the plants are established, they survive entirely on rainwater, and never get topped up by a hosepipe.

It’s a liberating thought, both in terms of labour reduction (I find watering things a spectacularly tedious task in the summer, I have to admit) but also because — even when there isn’t a hosepipe ban in place — we should take care of our water usage and be aware that it is a finite resource.

2. …except at the beginning

The only exception to the no-watering rule is for newly established plants. When first plonked into the soil, all plants need to be watered for a while as their roots grow and they settle into their new home.

At Beth Chatto’s garden, we were told that all new plants were watered for the first six weeks while they established themselves in their new position. Of course, if rain is forecast, don’t worry about watering, but if you’ve just planted something and there are weeks of long dry weather, then you will need to irrigate while they get settled.

3. Know your conditions

Beth Chatto bog gardenThe Beth Chatto gardens are located near Colchester in Essex, one of the driest parts of the UK*. The gravel garden is the sunniest, driest part, on the site of what used to be a car park. Plants, obviously, need to enjoy sunshine and drought.

Just around the corner, though, the bog garden is planted in a hollow at the side of a river, where it always damp and the plants need to survive with frequently water-logged roots.

My point? Even within the same garden, you can have all sorts of different conditions. Check the soil type before you plant. Drought tolerant planting does well in dry, slightly arid soils (many of the plants used tend to come from the Mediterranean or other warm locations) so choose the place in your garden that meets these conditions best.

4. Choose the plants carefully

Tips for drought tolerant plantingIf you’ve got good conditions for drought-tolerant plants, the next thing you need is… …drought-tolerant plants. Ha ha, it sounds obvious, but it’s worth pointing out.

Depending on their origin, different plants thrive on a huge variety of different conditions. If you’re planning on having a no water garden, you’ll need plants that are capable of surviving drought. I think I’ll do a whole separate post on some suitable plants, once I’ve finished choosing my favourites for my design, but you can always find good options by searching on websites like the RHS plant finder. Select the full sun and drought tolerant options. On the Beth Chatto website, there is a huge list of suitable plants sold at their nursery that are used within the gardens as well and you (by which I mean, I) could spend many a happy hour browsing through the selections: drought loving plants.

5.Harmony and contrast

Contrasting foliage texture at Beth Chatto's gravel gardenAs a general rule of thumb, great garden design is all about harmony and contrast. You want to use plants that look good together, so you want some of their characteristics to be shared: colour (for example, similar flower colour or a flower the same colour as another plant’s leaf), shape, leaf size, or form, for example.

But it’s really important to use contrast in order to notice all of the amazing characteristics of a plant. So, if you had a plant with big, fat leaves (known as a “coarse texture”in garden design terms) like a bergenia (seen at the front right of the picture above) you could place it next to something with thin, delicate, feathery leaves (a “fine texture”) such as a tall grass like Stipa gigantea, as seen in the photo above.

As we were shown round the gardens, the gardener pointed us to a part that he jokingly referred to as “Beth Chatto by numbers”. It was a line up of a hosta (big, broad, flat leaves), next to a fern (delicate, small, frondy leaves), surrounded by a drift of arching grasses (fine, delicate leaves, with a contrasting arching form). Though each plant had a contrast of form (plant shape) and texture (leaf shape), they all shared the same colour of green, which provided harmony.

To be honest, I think if you knew nothing else at all about garden design, you could still make really stunning, eye-catching displays, just thinking about harmony and contrast.

6. Vary the height.

Eucalyptus treeAnd a final design point: don’t forget to plant upwards! Don’t just use small plants, but ensure you have planting at eye level. Trees are great for bringing height to gardens, as are really big shrubs or climbing plants. Yes, it’s great to go out into the garden and look at the ground and really appreciate all the plants down there, but when you first step out (or look out of your window) it’s really important to have things at eye level, so the space doesn’t look boring.

My favourite of the tall plants at Beth Chatto was this spectacular Eucalyptus dalrympleana. Disclaimer: do not plant a huge eucalyptus if you have a small garden. They are beautiful, but grow very, very tall and may well take your whole house out with their roots…

7. Think about the whole of a plant’s lifespan.

Phlomis seedheadIt’s oh-so-easy to look at pictures of lovely colourful flowers in catalogues, be seduced with their beauty and buy a plant that ends up doing nothing for 48 weeks of the year. Beth Chatto, actually, hardly ever uses flowers, preferring plants with dramatic leaves, shapes, seedheads and so on…

Think about how a plant will look at all points of the year. If it flowers, will the seedheads look good afterwards for the winter months? How will the new shoots look as they push through the soil in spring? Is the bark particularly appealing in winter months on a deciduous shrub?

The more interest a plant can give at different stages of its lifecycle, the more deserving it is of a space in your garden.

8. Leave space for plants to grow.

Planting space: Beth Chatto's gravel gardenBeth Chatto’s style is very much a natural one. Plants aren’t clipped and pruned to resemble odd shapes, but left to take their natural form. And, unlike the traditional herbaceous borders, stuffed full, cottage-style, with hundreds of plants, the gravel garden has plenty of space between plants, allowing them to get bigger, and grow to their natural shapes.

The benefit of this? You need fewer plants (which costs less money), you don’t have to spend lots of your time pruning, plants won’t compete with each other so much for valuable water and you don’t need to be removing plants that have outgrown their spaces. Plus, personally, I think it looks really lovely and evocative.

9. Prepare the beds well

gravel gardenYes, you’re going to need tough plants that can make it on their own without being pandered to. But that doesn’t mean you don’t give them any help at all.

Though they don’t water or fertilise the gravel garden, they do make sure to prepare the beds really well before planting. They dig through the area and add lots and lots of well rotted organic matter (manure or compost or something similar) so that nutrients are retained in the soil.

This is good practice for any type of gardening, to be honest, but especially important if the plants are “going it alone”.

So, phew, the end of a monstrously long post. Congratulations if you made it this far! Hope there was something useful in here. I’ll share some more of my final design and the plants I’ve chosen once I’ve got a bit further along with it all…

* They get around 60cm of rainfall a year, compared to 76cm where I am in London, or 90cm in Bristol where I spent a wonderful, if soggy, four student years and to where I would return in a heartbeat except for the incessant rain…).

Notes from a summer: Regent’s Park sunshine

Echinacea in Regents ParkHellebore leavesRegents Park sausage borderA few Fridays ago, I had the most blissfully relaxing day I have had for some time. Possibly for three years, in fact.

The thing about living with small kids, I find, is that no matter how many wonderful, cute, endearing individual moments there are, day-to-day life can feel a lot like a repetitive slog.

Well, I speak only for my own small kids, of course, who both still need post-lunch naps to avoid serious meltdowns, and who will both only contemplate taking post-lunch naps in their own beds, which ties us close to the house at all times, and mostly on a merry-go-round of park visits / singing classes / soft play excursions, all accompanied with a never-ending soundtrack of “why haven’t you put your shoes on yet to go out when I’ve asked you ten times?” or “can you please eat something from your lunch plate that’s not just grated cheese” and “why are you throwing that bouncy ball at your brother / the priceless Ming vase / my head”…

Chocolate cosmosSedumAnyway, a rather exciting development at the end of August was that both boys started to go to nursery two days a week. Leaving me with one day a week to attend my garden design course and one day to… …do whatever I like!

This particularly blissful Friday a few weeks ago, was the very first of my child-free days. I left the boys together at nursery, sitting next to each other at the breakfast table, eating rice crispies and looking very happy and not at all sad to see me leave, which was completely wonderful.

Then I had to pop to Regent’s Park to take some photographs of one of the flower beds there for a garden design assignment.

Regents Park in the sunSunflowers in Regents ParkSedum flowers at Regents ParkAfter which, I went and had lunch with the hubby at a French wine bar in Farringdon. I had pâté and cured ham and drank a kir. Oh my days, I tell you, I felt so carefree and relaxed!

The sun was shining, I travelled the tube unencumbered by prams and without any deadlines to arrive anywhere, I had an actual conversation with my husband without being either completely shattered or interrupted. Well, all in all, it was a pretty heavenly day. And it made me realise that having a few more days like that would no doubt do me (and the rest of the family) the world of good.

All pictures here, by the way, are from Regent’s Park on that day. One of our assignments for my garden design course is to photograph the same flower bed each month of the year to see how it changes. The bed I chose is known as the “sausage border” because, erm, it’s sausage-shaped. It has some really lovely herbaceous plants in there and at the height of summer is an exuberant riot of abundance. If you’re ever close to the park, head over to the Mediterranean garden, just past the rose garden, and you can find the sausage bed a little further north from there, just next to a small pond. It’s a great space to sit and think on a sunny day…

So here’s to days for relaxing, days to yourself and days of sunshine. May we all have at least one of these this month.

Notes from a summer: London Wetland Centre

London Wetland CentreAhoy there! Hello! How are you? It’s been ages, I know. I fell off grid a bit, this August. Technology (such as this dear old laptop on which I write all my blog posts) becoming substantially less appealing than lying outside in the sun on a picnic blanket.

Anyway, such times have come to an end, it seems, with this utterly relentless and miserable rain of the last week, so I’ve finally remembered how to open up Word and plug my camera into the computer to take a look at some pictures I’ve taken over the past few months.

It’s been something of a pottering sort of summer. No big holidays, but the odd weekend away. Few exciting day trips, but lots of time poking around in our garden pond, or building soil castles in the flower beds, or mooching along to the local park.

Still, I have a couple of little gems of visits to share with you so, for the next couple of days, a few notes from summer 2015.

First up, the utterly wonderful London Wetlands Centre. We visited a fortnight ago, when the summer flowers were just reaching their end, and the first hints of autumn were coming in.

Summer planting at London Wetland Centre
Kniphofia, grasses and asters looking abundant
Wood sculpture at London Wetland Centre
I loved this wood sculpture
London Wetland Centre
I shared this pic on instagram, having been astounded at my wondrous photography prowess. Very few people liked it, ha ha. Just goes to show, you never can tell with instagram,

It’s a great spot for kids: acres and acres of lakes, surrounded by long winding paths, perfect for running down and exploring.

(Side note: last time we visited the littlest was still pram-bound only, and I found that a more peaceful experience than our most recent visit when he was off toddling away and I had to keep a close eye to ensure he wasn’t about to leap off into a huge body of water. So if your child is toddling age, perhaps wait six months or so until they really understand why it’s best not to run headfirst at a lake…)

Of course, there’s lots of wildlife to see, of the ducks, birds and otters variety, but I am always especially taken by the glorious plants. It’s naturalistic planting at its best, in my opinion, everything appearing to be growing just where it wants to but – I am sure – in fact carefully planned and designed.

London Wetland Centre
Paths for wandering
London Wetland Centre
All the reflections made me think a lot about what plants are best to sit next to water. There is something lovely about seeing the flickering mirror image upside down of a beautiful plant.

A high point of this trip was discovering three sleepy ducks sitting on a wooden bridge. As we approached, they opened their eyes to take a look at us, but made no attempt to actually move, so I got the chance to photograph them for some time, while the sprogs stared and asked various questions about their feathers, their legs and why they had chosen to go to sleep on a bridge.

Ducks at London Wetland Centre
Zzzzzzz
Duck feathers
Those amazing feathers!

And aren’t these just the sorts of conversations you want to be having on a day out?

Practical info:

  • The Wetland Centre is in Barnes and is run by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT).
  • Entrance is £12.75 for an adult or £7 for a child. Various family, concession and membership options also available. I’ve just seen, while checking prices to write this, that you can save 10% by booking online. Doh, if only I realised that before we went.
  • Their website is here: London Wetland Centre
  • There’s a cafe (essential in my eyes) and various activities for children too.

Bishop’s palace and gardens

Perhaps this is a terrible indictment on the state of education in the UK, but the extent of my knowledge about the bishop of Bath and Wells (of whom, presumably, there have been many) is his appearance in Blackadder.

You know the one, the “baby-eating Bishop of Bath and Wells” who turns up and demands money owed to him by Blackadder, but is instead painted in a compromising position with Percy. Ah classic Blackadder, how I used to love that show when I was younger.

Wells Cathedral | Wolves in London
No babies consumed here

Anyway, I’d love to tell you that my recent trip to the Bishop’s Palace and Gardens, right next to Wells Cathedral, gave me the chance to learn loads of factually accurate non baby-eating information, but actually I just spent a lovely morning there wandering round the gardens and looking at trees and plants.

Ah well, I’m clearly just not up for edukashun on a brilliantly sunny day.

We have lots of family in Wells, so we go down there fairly frequently, yet I’d never spent much time before wandering round the town. It’s a truly beautiful place; a lovely old market town with some glorious views and, of course, there’s the famous cathedral and the adjacent palace and gardens.

Bishops Palace | Wolves in London
Wall of the Great Hall

Parts of the palace are still intact and inhabited, though the Great Hall is just a rather picturesque wall. An enthusiastic guide told us, as we came in, that the Victorians pulled the hall down intentionally as they thought it would look better as a ruin. Gung-ho, to be sure, but I agree with them that it did look rather spectacular; the cathedral beyond framed in the windows…

Bishops Palace and Gardens | Wolves in London Bishops Palace WellsWe wandered round the gardens, the sproglet and his cousin having a lovely time examining the flowers and bees.

Wells cathedral | Wolves in LondonBishops Palace and Gardens | Wolves in LondonFlowers | Wolves in LondonThe planting was really lovely, and I’m rather regretting now that I didn’t take a few notes about some of the things that were there.

Oh but I could cheerfully spend every sunny day wandering round a garden and looking at flowers. Here’s to plenty more this summer, please.