Summer with the Bees in Scotland

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Inula magnifica, at the Bees, August 2016

A lightening dash to Edinburgh a couple of weeks ago gave me the chance to swap my burnt-to-a-crisp garden for one that was overflowing with colour, insects and gorgeous things all doing beautifully in fine, Scottish weather.  It is always a delight to visit a friend’s garden as you can really have a good nosey around and also spend a long time chewing over the ins and outs of this or that plant.  Time flies.  So, in the Scottish garden was a full-tilt flowerer, Inula magnifica, and true to name, a bee arrived at the right moment on the Bees’ Inula.  I don’t grow this as I am pretty sure it would want more moisture than I can give it, but it is such a splendid thing reaching 2m in height and standing proud with great, billowing leaves. I do grow Telekia speciosa, which is a first cousin, and I love it, though here right now we are talking plant corpse condition.  Fatter centres and more stumpy petals on the Telekia would seem to be the main difference between the two.

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Telekia speciosa, Tostat, June 2015

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Dahlias on top of their game, the Bees, August 2016

Fabulous and super-sized dahlias were doing magnificently. I am embarassed to show you any of mine other than Dahlia Twynings After Eight, which has been the exception to the rule this year of stunted growth, repeated brutal attacks by slugs and snails and no flowers. Ah well.

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Dahlia Twynings After Eight, Tostat, July 2016

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The Shed, the Bees, August 2016

I adore this shed.  I wish I could steal in during the night and whisk it away to Tostat, where, admittedly, it would look very Scottish next to our pigshed, currently under renovation.  This shed is so solid and serious about what it does.  I love the home made table outside with potting stuff on it, and the sense of considerable work in progress. Yum.

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Persicaria amiplexicaulis Alba, the Bees, August 2016

I love the see-through delicacy of this new-to-me white Persicaria, Persicaria amiplexicaulis ‘Alba’ which has been planted in the midst of an elegant Miscanthus, and the two are a very good match.

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Ligularia dentata ‘Desdemona’, the Bees, August 2016

This is such a good plant.  The dark, wine-red stems, handsome green, tinting towards autumn foliage, and the custard yellow flowers with extravagant centres, studded as if with jewels.  Ligularia dentata ‘Desdemona’ is a trouble-free plant, only wanting enough moisture to fully develop its stately presence, up to about 1.25m high and wide.  With me this year, it has faded fast before even flowering, but I am sure it will return next year to try again.

And there were white lilies on the other side of the Miscanthus, not far from the Persicaria, still blooming and lighting up the gloomy end of the afternoon. They really demonstrate so well the power of white and pale colours to bring luminescence where you need it.

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Lilies snuggling up to Miscanthus, the Bees, August 2016

And, lastly, there was a mountain of tumbling sweetpeas, bringing colour and freedom to a pyramid wire structure- and just a glimpse of the beautiful brick wall which encloses this part of the garden.  Which always reminds me of one of my favourite books as a child, ‘The Secret Garden’ by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

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Lovely, tumbling sweetpeas, the Bees, August 2016

“…And then she took a long breath and looked behind her up the long walk to see if any one was coming. No one was coming. No one ever did come, it seemed, and she took another long breath, because she could not help it, and she held back the swinging curtain of ivy and pushed back the door which opened slowly–slowly.

Then she slipped through it, and shut it behind her, and stood with her back against it, looking about her and breathing quite fast with excitement, and wonder, and delight.

She was standing inside the secret garden…”

from Chapter 8, ‘The Secret Garden’ by Frances Hodgson Burnett, published in 1909.


Gallery of heat-survivors, almost all pot-dwellers…

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Surviving well in a watered pot, though this was last week and it is toiling a bit now, the gracious leaves of Astilboides tabularis, now having its fourth birthday from seed, Tostat, August 2016

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New to me this year, Begonia luxurians, semi-shaded position and well-watered, and I really love it. What luxury!

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Clerodendrum bungei lasted only a week in the heat and is already setting seed

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Deinanthe caerulea ‘Blue Wonder’ is taking it’s time to settle into a pot. But the strange flowers are quite unique.

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The lobster-pink flowerspike of Hesperaloe parviflora– very badly treated by me, but it has flowered for the first time! Unfortunately it was decked this week by the dog!

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Hedychium gardnerianum flowered with great ceremony, but only for a few days!

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The fleeting beauty of Lilium lancifolium Flore Pleno with added spider web…

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Stunning black flowerhead of Pennisetum alopecuroides f. viridescens… first one this year.

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New to me this year, Salvia x hybrida ‘Embers Wish’ with delectable colouring

The story of the ‘Women’s Tree’

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Vitex agnus castus against a blue August sky, Tostat, 2016

There is a small, spreading tree which I grow on Shitty Bank next to the ruisseau.  When I planted it there 9 years ago, it probably only measured about 0.5m high.  Now, it is a magnificent, spreading, but also delicate, small tree, up to maybe 4m high and wide,  that flowers abundantly in July- September, sending strong shoots of flowersprays out at an angle from the trunk of the tree.  These lilac, mid-blue flower sprays are a magnet for bees, butterflies and other insects- almost as popular with them as the more traditional buddleia.  It copes very well with heat and dryness, but it also loves to be close to water, which is why the plant near the ruisseau is bigger and bolder than the one planted elsewhere in a drier spot.  It’s name?  Vitex agnus castus.

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Vitex in the landscape of Shitty Bank, with close neighbour, Rosa chinensis ‘Mutabilis’ and Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Lavendelturm’ in the foreground, Tostat, August 2016

But, I have always been intrigued by it’s many common names, such as ‘The Chaste Tree’, or in Germany, ‘The Monk’s Pepper Tree’.  I am indebted to Christopher Hobbs, whose site is a mine of interesting detail, but to summarise, this small tree has been used medicinally from the earliest times.  The ancients revered the small, hard, dark fruits which were taken in the form of a tincture or drink made from the more concentrated fruits or new leaves, according to Pliny.  It was used to treat women suffering from menstrual or menopausal hormone imbalance and discomfort- and, interestingly, for men who wished to calm their sexual appetites, hence the name ‘Monk’s Pepper’.  However, Christopher Hobbs quotes a well known 19th century, French herbalist, Cazin, who took the view that the treatment was more likely to arouse passions than calm them!

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An early flowering sprig, Tostat, July 2016

In the garden, it slowly opens up from tight, woolly grey buds into individual florets that last for weeks.  It’s ability to weave through other plants and not be too dominant is a big asset for the smaller garden.  It has proved very hardy with me, reliably holding on through -10C for a fortnight, for example, but I suspect that, despite liking to be close to water, it would be excessive winter wet that might make it turn up its toes.  So, free draining soil, a slope or added grit would handle that. And it has no need for rich soil, and probably, the thinner and rockier the better.  It is not a fast or showy grower, but here in Tostat, it is a stalwart of the late summer bulge when the scene can look pretty tired by August until September rains kick in.  This year has really tested that point.

A companion plant, which is not well known but should be for those of us with difficult, hot situations is Elsholtzia stauntonii.  Successfully posing as a normal shrub or shrublet, this tough plant in fact can cope with any amount of dryness and hot sun, and, with me, returns reliably on deceptively fragile looking stems each late Spring.  In fact, beware: the fragile stems can look very like a spot of couchgrass or weed, so remember where you put it!  A very good blog article on habit and with good photographs is available here at Robert Pavlis’ Garden Fundamentals.  I read about it on Annie’s Annuals emailing and grew mine from seed about 4 years ago, and in the toughest position, they are doing fine, now about 1m tall and flowering soon.   It takes it’s time to grow, but given how much harshness it can take, it has all the lush, green foliage you would expect of a woodlander.

And outside, the garden fries at 36C, the return of the Spanish plume, and no rain forecast of any note.  As for me, I am indoors.

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Elsholtzia stauntonii, flowering in September last year, Tostat






















Gallery of positives

It’s another of those days, when, despite real excitement at the prospect of a woman US President, the news has been mostly about ghastly events around the world, especially in Syria.  So, to buck up, I decided to go outside and take a photograph of what’s looking good in the garden, despite hot temperatures and no rain.  Enough moaning, I said.

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Unknown crocosmia blooming beautifully in the bucket I stuffed it in and never re-planted, Tostat, July 2016

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Artichoke flower, nearly-O Flower of Scotland, Tostat, July 2016

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It’s the dark chocolate that does it, Dahlia ‘Twynings after Eight’, Tostat, July 2017

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Dianthus amurensis ‘Siberian Blues’ growing where it is hottest and driest, Tostat, July 2016

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It only lasts a day or so, Hedychium gardnerianum, Tostat, July 2016

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New to me this year, and so pretty, the Australian Salvia ‘Ember’s Wish’, Tostat, July 2016

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Abutilon pictum close-up, Tostat, July 2017

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So tiny, and so fabulous, Pelargonium x ardens, Tostat, July 2016


Sometimes you need new eyes…

Sometimes you need to go away and come back again, to see the garden in a different way. Having had a day away in the Valle d’Aran just over into Spain, coming back yesterday afternoon and evening was almost a re-discovery.  It was partly thanks to the soft light of late evening, which gave a kindly glow to plants that are suffering, again, owing to drought since our last rain, but it was also that I realised I often look at the garden from the same vantage points, and so, I see the same things.  If you couple this with my usual micro-vision tendencies, where I examine the individual performance of a particular plant- it’s a wonder I am not totally blind really.

So, this is what I noticed yesterday evening, as if for the first time.

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Looking towards the olive tree from the back door, Tostat, July 2016

The light really caught it.  Begonia grandis subsp. evansiana ‘Claret Jug’ shines out from the image with the ruby-red leaf backing picking up the light.  It is such an easy plant.  Although often described as hardy, I wouldn’t risk it even in our often mild, wet winters.  I grow it in a massive pot, partly filled with polystyrene chips to reduce the weight, and I just lug it into a covered, but open space in November, keep it pretty dry, and then start watering in March under cover.  I drag it out in April and the rest is all done without my help, though I do a weekly feed from about May onwards.  I am not really a begonia flower person, so the pink flowers are not my thing, but they are small and the leaves are the main act.  Tons of tiny bulbils get scattered and so you will have this plant forever, and keep your friends supplied if you just pot them up in the autumn.

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Being Gothic, Verbena bonariensis and an arch, Tostat, July 2016

I have often raved about Verbena bonariensis.  I love it for it’s attractiveness to butterflies and other insects, for it’s abundant self-seeding (which can also be a pain), but mostly for the electric quality of the flowers.  In low light, it’s as if it’s wired to the mains.

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A new view, Tostat, July 2016

This is a new view.  I am looking back towards the back of the house, across the top of my only-planted-this-year-from-seed-grown-last-year area.  This area has toiled a bit in it’s first year, finding the spring very cold, the summer very dry and the wind very debilitating.  But, I think it will make it, although this year will be a bit of a damp squib. These Liatris spicata bulbs, bought from Aldi for 60 bulbs at E3, a total bargain, have done a great job in providing some points of punctuation where flowering, as I hoped, has not quite materialised.  I don’t find Liatris a reliable returner year on year, I probably lose about 50% of them over a wet winter, but, they are so cheap and dependable, that I am still a great fan.  In the US, where they are native plants, they are often called ‘Blazing Star’- you can see why, something of the electric about them too.

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Slightly new view, Tostat, July 2016

This is a new view as far as the further away view is concerned.  In the foreground, is a reliable and terrific Pennisetum alopecuroides which I bought ages ago, put in the wrong place, replanted and now it adores where it is.  Slightly flattened by dryness, it is a gentle punctuation point at the end of the promontory bed.  It may be the variety, ‘Hameln’ but I can’t remember after all this time.  ‘Hameln’ is supposed to be the hardiest of the varieties and so it may well be that.   The thing with Pennisetum is that nothing seems to be happening in the growth department until really late in Spring, then up it pops, so it’s important not to poke it and panic.  The other main new-this-year-area is encircling the olive tree, and I have planted, though you can’t see it, another Pennisetum, Pennisetum alopecuroides f. viridescens.  I couldn’t resist the idea of dark-charcoal-purple-black flowerheads meeting, almost head-on in a Pennsietum-off, the older Pennisetum you see above in the photograph.

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A new view, Tostat, July 2016

This is a new view to me.  The foreground is of the new area encircling the olive, this year planted with, a great success in our dry summer, Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Xanthos’ has been sterling.  It might even win me over to annuals.  But the real feature of the view is the borrowed landscape.  It is the dark green of the ornamental cherry tree, actually growing in a commune space, over our wall, which brings the Stipa gigantea to life.  Without it as a backdrop, you would hardly see the delicate, golden flowerheads of the Stipa.  Thank you, Tostat.

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The one that nearly got away, Tostat, July 2016

And this is a view that I nearly rejected.  Then I thought, ‘hang on, it’s different’ and so it stays.  Looking back across the grass towards the old privvy door, what you actually see is how comfortable the Hydrangea arboresecens ‘Annabelle’ is with its’ big, creamy flowers still looking good against the big leaves of Telekia speciosa.  And further along to the left, you can imagine though not quite see, the now-pinky flowerheads of Hydrangea paniculata filling in the space.

So dry and thirsty, but not yet down and out.  By contrast, the Valle d’Aran looked bewitchingly green.

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Near Vielha, Spain, July 2016






Finally, it has rained.  Sunday night was a wakeful one.  Lightning dancing around in the sky, very little thunder, and steady-Eddie rain all night…and all day Monday, with a few breaks.  Since then, we have had continuing really heavy downpours.  This is the right way round for us.  It had got so dry that heavy rain at the front end would have just bounced off the soil and smashed plants up.  So, the softly-softly start has meant that the heavier rain has also gone in, without too much destruction at all.  The first day looked impressively damp, but on digging lightly with a trowel, bone-dryness was only an inch below the surface.  Today, Wednesday, and yesterday inbetween showers, I actually got quite a bit done as this week temperatures are only just at 20º, so things that have been banking up in the hospital area can finally be planted out.

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Monarda fistulosa, Tostat, July 2016. Last year’s seed done good.

This is a great success!  I have been waiting for the lilac flowers of Monarda fistulosa  to appear, and they popped out in the middle of all the rain, and remained unbattered.  I am so pleased with this.  This plant is the biggest one that I have from the collection I planted out in the spring, but it is a very commendable 0.5m wide and about 0.40m high.  Which I reckon is pretty good going given the weird and variable spring and summer weather we have had.  Best thing is, that it is clearly a tough customer, so I am hoping for better and bigger as the summer progresses.

In the front garden, I have been able to plant our my small plants of Panicum virgatum ‘Emerald Chief’.  I lost a few over the winter, and though they have not been deliriously happy in their pots for the past few weeks, I wanted to hang on for more clement conditions, and so now, they have their reward and are in the ground.  I am part-lining the front driveway with them, to make a good, interesting, upright edge to the grass and give the driveway some definition.  This was the area where I had originally planted lavender when we arrived, but having failed to prune it properly, and old wood-itis having set in, I ripped them out last year and planted Panicum seed.  ‘Emerald Chief’ is very green as the name suggests, should reach about 1.2m high when flowering with deep pink flowerheads and good yellow colouring in the autumn.

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Platycodon grandiflorus’Fuji White’, Tostat, July 2016

Just coming out is a plant that is very little bother, and so I tend to forget about it, until suddenly I see a flower.  Through the rain this morning, from the kitchen window, I could just see the flash of white.  Utterly upright, slender and delicate, yet tough, the Platycodon grandiflorus ‘Fuji White’ or Balloon Flower ( you can see why) is a good doer, and enjoys the more moist moment of the last few days.  This year is probably it’s eighth birthday, and it just pushes it ‘s way through the other plants with ease, and then tops out at just over a metre high.

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Dahlia ‘Twynings After Eight’, Tostat, July 2016

It has been a battle royal with snails and slugs this year, as they have loved the lower temperatures so much that they have not been deterred by the dryness.  I have several Dahlia corpses that may not make it this year.  But ‘Twynings After Eight’, after a bad start, has come good with 2 out of 3 tubers making good, healthy plants.  What an attrition rate, though.  And this is despite planting them in pots on gravel, and away from other slug/snail favourites. Clearly, my snail/slug population possesses Olympian qualities.  I love the coolness of the single, white flower against the dark foliage, and can even cope with it turning faintly pink as it ages.

Making an appearance for only a couple of days before being demolished by the rain sadly, was a favourite of mine by the stream-side.  Filipendula rubra ‘Venusta’ is usually a lovely thing, which I forgive for bring sherbert-pink.  This year, the pink mophead which is so pretty when the many tiny buds are forming, only lasted for a couple of days.  But it is a great plant, spreading itself in single-stem formation through other plants, almost like a watchtower, as it is tall, maybe 1.5m high.

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Filipendula rubra ‘Venusta’ just before the rain, Tostat, July 2016

A new plant that has gone in this week is Cistus x hybridus ‘Gold Prize’.  I love sharp yellow and lime-green colour combinations and so fell for this low, ground-hugging Cistus, which will flower next Spring, but meantime, do a good spreading job where I want it.   Right now, it is not looking at it’s most distinguished, but I think it will be tough enough to fill a space where a cotton lavender has mostly pegged it.

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Cistus x hybridus ‘Gold Prize’, Tostat, July 2016

And the rain is back on…



A bit of bling and Louis XIV, Paris pt 3

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Versailles, Paris, June 2016

It was a warm, but not boiling, ideal day for making the big visit to the Gardens of Versailles- and with the added attraction of the Musical Fountains Show- a weekend event which recreates the spirit of Le Nôtre‘s astounding display gardens and fountains, all playing away to the sound of eighteenth century French music by Rameau, Lully and contemporaries.  Versailles was, after all, a spectacular display case for the power and sovereignity of Louis XIV– but as well as the display, the gardens contained more private spaces for entertainment, assignations and celebration.  We spent a good four hours enjoying it all, despite my less than enthusiastic support for the serried ranks of minutely ordered planting to be seen nearest to the Chateau.  Symmetry has a short shelf life for me.

There were many examples of delightful, smaller scale fountains and planting to be found, especially in the groves or bosquet areas, and in the King’s Garden,

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Simple, elegant and relatively unadorned, a fountain playing in one of the grove areas, Versailles, June 2016

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Detail of copper bulrushes circling a fountain in one of the groves, Versailles, June 2016

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Just off the King’s Garden, I loved the coolness and simplicity of the planting, offset by the cream stone vase, Versailles, June 2016

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A simple, cottage-style border in the King’s Garden, Versailles, June 2016

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And there had to be one. Positively Waddesdon-like, topknotted bedding scheme in the King’s Garden, Versailles, June 2016. Not my favourite.

We were so thrilled that we watched it twice.  The music and choreographed fountain action at the Mirror Pool was really fabulous.  I found myself entranced by it, which was a surprise.  Music by Lully and Charpentier played and the choreography was quite stunning, ebbing and flowing with the music and the mood. The Mirror Pool was commissioned in 1702, and the show captured a sense of the magnificence that Le Nôtre and Louis created, albeit with modern technology.

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Reminded me of 18th century twisted glass, a moment from the Mirror Pool, Versailles, June 2016

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Another Mirror Pool moment, Versailles, June 2016

One of the groves, the Theatre Grove, which had originally been designed by Le Nôtre in  the early 1670s, was re-designed in 2015 by Louis Benech and Jean-Michel Othoniel  the former tackling the planting and the latter the fountains.  Honestly, a bit of a dud.  The fountains, see below, closely resembled a Barbie crown from Woolworths, and the planting was dull, prosaic, flat and insufficiently generous to create the necessary lushness.  It seemed a strange choice to go for short, stumpy shrubs and perennials pretty much throughout.

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Theatre Grove, Versailles, June 2016

But a superb detail must be mentioned.  The huge strip planting of Equisetum hyemale against the corten steel wall of the modern pool was really striking and dramatic.

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Equisetum hyemale looking stunning against the corten steel wall of the pool, Theatre Grove, Versailles, June 2016

The Enceladus Grove was a good surprise.  Although designed by Le Nôtre,  it had an almost Victorian feel to it.  A round pool, with a central sculpture, was surrounded by heavy, bronze coloured double trellis, punctuated by passageways, golden urns and a spectacular, small flowered rambling rose that wove it’s way through the trellis.

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Detail, Enceladus Grove, Versailles, June 2016

And, as eighteenth century baroque elegance gave way to Romanticism, Apollo’s Bath Grove, designed by Hubert Robert in 1776, shows the shift to a pre-Gothic, wild, tumbling landscape, complete with a specially constructed mountain top and grotto, filled with sculptures of Apollo and his nymphs which had originally been made for the abandoned Thetis Grotto built by Louis XIV.

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Apollo’s Bath Grove, Versailles, June 2016

Simplicity always works.  The magic of the falling water cascading down the fountains steps is every bit as exciting as the tall Obelisk fountain itself.

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Fountain steps, Obelisk Grove, Versailles, June 2016

Versailles does bigscale superbly.  There is one exception to that comment.  I am really not sure that sticking a socking great pylon at the centre of the view from Apollo’s Fountain looking down the Grand Canal is a good idea.  Le Nôtre would certainly not accept the trade-off of a huge waterfall as being a good enough reason to effectively destroy his hard-won perspective view down the Grand Canal.  Imagine something with the height and beauty of a football stadium lighting mast- I don’t think so.

Looking back as we left, the Orangery parterre is almost domestic in size, albeit given grandeur by being looked down upon.  Back in England, William and Mary were giving Hampton Court it’s Dutch make-over, but there is no denying the need to keep up with the Joneses, as can be seen below in photographs I took in July 2014.

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The Orangery parterre, Versailles, June 2016

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Hampton Court detail, July 2014

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Hampton Court detail, July 2014

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Hampton Court detail, July 2014