Good fortune and…not so good

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Cestrum elegans, Bourton House Garden, June 2017

This stunning shrub flowerhead was unknown to me when I took the photograph last June, but this morning I met it again.  Cestrum elegans could not be resisted.  Going for 6 euros in the sale at Jardiland (just the name makes me sniff with disdain!), I nearly fell over the trolley grabbing it.  It is just a touch on the picky side, wanting not too much wet in the winter, and semi-shade.  So this means that I will have to fufill my dream of digging out the Kerria japonica that has been a marked plant for the last 2 years, and putting it where the Kerria was, just in the lee of our big pine tree but far enough away to be moist and not wet.  But if it likes me, it should shoot up this year to maybe 2-3m all round and flower nonstop from June till November.  And when the flower is the cerise-pink pineapple that it is- how can you fail to love it?  The old nuisance of a pine tree will also give it a bit of winter protection, which will help.

Now why am I so snotty about Jardiland? I really should grow up and get over it, because there were yet more gems in the Jardiland sale.  I bought two Abelia grandiflora prostrata (in white I think), and two Cistus corbariensis.  What a coup.  I had been mulling over the Abelia, more than 10 euros elsewhere, not to mention the postage.  I am a recent almost-fan of Abelias.  Firstly, they are really tough, secondly, they flower in July-September, and thirdly, they are good-sized shrubs.

Yes, shrubs.  This from the woman who rarely waxes lyrical about shrubs, I know.  But I am undergoing character reformation.  I know I need more of them in the garden.  I need to think of the garden as more of a smogasbord, and sue the shrub element to bring green where there is none, flowers when I need them and above all, structure and shape.  So, the past year I have concentrated on growing perennials myself from seed, well, maybe 80% of the time, and spending my cash on some shrubs that are not entirely pipsqueaks to start with.  So, I am focusing on shrubs with a couple of years behind them, but still small enough to be affordable.


Abelia grandiflora prostrata photo credit:

I think the Abelia will be lovely- no more than a metre high and maybe 1.5 m wide, so bigger on the spread, and fairly dense, which will help with groundcover.   The Cistus is reputed to be the hardiest one, and I am going to plant it in a couple of hot spots that are currently empty.  Cistus can just suddenly give up on you.  You can’t blame them really, all that frantic blooming for weeks at a time comes at a cost.  So, best to keep an eye on them.  The other, rare, dry day I was doing a bit of an inspection and realised that a good half of a massive Cistus pulverulentus had died away unbeknownst to me.  The other half will probably be fine, and it was probably due to the general exhaustion and the relentless dryness we had right up until the end of November.


Cistus corbariensis photo credit:

And in the same vein, I am hoping that my Lespedeza thunbergii ‘Edo-Shibori’, so pretty and which I love, will also make a comeback this Spring.  It is looking pretty done in, all thin, pasty twigs at the moment. And it may be that it has coughed much as the aforementioned Cistus and for the same reasons.

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Lespedeza thunbergii ‘Edo-Shibori’, Tostat, August 2015

Rosa ‘Mrs Oakley Fisher’ is in the last chance saloon.  This is my third attempt to grow this rose, and I have succeeded only in killing it so far.  It has big sentimental pull for me as I bought one for my Mum years ago, from the late and much-missed ‘Plants from the Past’ nursery run by the inspirational David Stuart in Belhaven, outside Dunbar.  I bought loads of lovely plants from there for our garden in Linlithgow.  Actually, I remember now my Mum managed to kill ‘Mrs Oakley Fisher’ as well.  Must break the ‘Like Mother, like daughter’ thing here.

So, the last chance plant is now inside the house in a pot in our cold hall, near to the backdoor window, and without tempting fate, it is already budding.  A lovely soft apricot shade, with golden stamens, she dates from about 1921 and was bred by Cant’s of Colchester, the oldest rose hybridiser in the UK dating from 1765, and still in business.  Pray for her now and in her hour of need.  And me.


Rosa ‘Mrs Oakley Fisher’ photo credit:







Starkness and beauty in the dry…

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Huerto del Cura, Elche, October 2017

In October, when we spent 2 weeks with friends in the Alicante region, I found myself doing more work on my own sense of what is beautiful in a garden.  I am elasticating what I used to consider beautiful to include a much wider range of plants, styles and looks- which has to be good for working on gardening more sustainably.

By this, I principally mean firmly fixing on the Beth Chatto motto of ‘Right plant, right place’ but also including more and more emphasis on the use of water, ability to withstand cool, wet winters and increasingly hot, dry summers- and reducing labour in the garden too.  So this means reducing the use of plants that need special attention, for example winter lifting, and thereby trying to increase the time spent in the garden actually enjoying it rather than making lists of what needs to be done.  So, in the dryness of the Alicante region, I was brought face to  face with some really tough customers which live by exactly those principles.

In Elche, the Huerta del Cura is an impressive and intriguing place developed over more than a hundred years by a succession of three visionary men from a rented orchard to a remarkable botanical garden. In Elche, the word orchard is only used to describe a piece of land devoted to the growth, development and protection of palm trees. More than a 1000 palm trees are grown and tended in the Huerta del Cura, an area of only 13,00o sq metres.  Elche has the highest concentration of palm trees in any one area in the whole of Europe.

The palm tree, especially the date palm known to have been grown and harvested more than 5,500 years ago in Egypt, is known as the ‘tree of life’.  Wandering amongst them feels more like visiting a reserve of strange and amazing massive beasts than being in a planted space.  The bright sunlight and shade plays with the differing textures of trunks, leaves and roots, making shapes and designs in the light.

I adore the jumble of it, little baby plants self-seeding next to giant parent plants, small fat, spikey plants settling next to tall, slim, sleek plants.  Each part of the day with differing light and shade would bring different pictures to the forefront.  A constantly changing tableau of the arid plant kingdom shifts in front of you as you watch.

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Huerto del Cura, Elche, October 2017

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Huerto del Cura, Elche, October 2017

Across the road from the Huerto del Cura is the Palmoral.  This looks more like an orchard in the sense that the trees are grouped, and irrigated with a canal system that probably dates back to the very origins of the introduction of the palm tree by Arabic rulers more than a thousand years ago.

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Palmoral de Elche, Elche, October 2017

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Massive sprays of dates hang from the date palms, The Palmoral, Elche, October 2017

Ancient trees can also be found in Alicante city itself.  The charming Gabriel Miró Square contains some very famous examples of ficus trees, all more than 120 years old, but somehow seeming to reach back Hobbit-like to an earlier prehistoric time.  Their extraordinary pendulous and arching roots intertwine, probably making for a nightmare for drains and sanitation- but they seem to create a fantasy world in the heart of the city.

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Ancient ficus trees, Gabriel Miró Square, Alicante, October 2017

What grows here needs to be very tough.  I want the same qualities and durability from my plants, but have the fortune to have a kinder climate in which to garden.  On the one hand, the starkness of the Alicante region landscape can be forbidding, but yet, the right plants respond to create planted landscapes that are every bit as fabulous as the lushness of a Sissinghurst.  The mind and the eye can develop an appreciation of beauty beyond our own normal.  It’s a refreshing experience.

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Alicante region


Great Dixter

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Dahlia Chimborazo, Great Dixter, June 2017

This wickedly flambuoyant dahlia which I saw in the Great Dixter Nursery sums up the spirit of the place almost on it’s own .  Colour, variety, surprise and a little naughtiness mixed in.

Great Dixter was the last highlight of visiting gardens in England last summer.  It has a special place in my heart because when I first arrived in France, faced with a gardenspace that was new to me, I got into a groove of reading Beth Chatto and Christopher Lloyd’s beautiful, funny and incisive ‘Dear Friend and Gardener’ which led to me reading much more of both authors. ‘Dear Friend and Gardener’ may be out of print now, but good old Abebooks has copies, see the link.

Like all really great gardens, big or small, the wonderful thing about Great Dixter is the huge sense of presence from Christopher Lloyd, although he died in 2006,  and the freshness of the legacy of his style, his flair and also his massive commitment to the development of young people as gardeners and craftspeople.  The Great Dixter Trust is doing and has done great acts of restoration and of community building in it’s re-development of estate buildings and facilities- almost all of which, including the use of the house, is devoted to the education and growth of young people.  Fergus Garrett, who worked with Christopher Lloyd from 1992 when he joined him at Great Dixter, is now the Chief Executive of the Great Dixter Charitable Trust, and continues developing and extending the legacy of the garden.  When he is bored, he will leave, he says.

So, what a pleasure to spend a day there at the end of June.  So much caught my eye.  I loved the forcing pot in the vegetable garden towered over by mighty dying seed stems.


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Great Dixter vegetable garden, June 2017

The Orchard Garden was giving the Long Border a run for its money with a glorious mix of Acanthus, yellow hemerocallis, orangey-red crocosmia and allium seed heads, not to mention the leafy underplanting.

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The Orchard Garden, Great Dixter, June 2017

I have visited Dixter once before.  Back in the mid90s, my gardening was a small-scale pleasure with three small children, a fulltime travelling job, and a small, shady garden in Linlithgow near Edinburgh.  Back then, Christopher Lloyd had horrified the gardening establishment by ripping out his mother’s Rose Garden and creating the Exotic Garden.  I had never seen bananas growing before.  This time, I noticed the exquisite precision of the paving creating exciting and unusual angles for planting, see below.

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The Exotic Garden, Great Dixter, June 2017

In the Long Border, which was not blocked by crowds of other visitors, we could sit at the far end on a bench and really drink in the cacophony and delight of it all.  Some people could be heard grumping about the drips and moisture from the closeness of the plants to the path.  There will always be killjoys.  The splendour and colour of it drowns them out.

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The Long Border, Great Dixter, June 2017

Down in the Sunk Garden, there was a group of very raucous ladies, so, despite inner calls of ‘Go away’, I managed to sit it out and wait for the storm to pass.  In 1911, Lutyens created some of the parameters of the garden and its design which remain today. Curving hedges, sandstone paving, decorative tiling which echoed the use of tiles in local farm buildings, all ripple through the garden.  Christopher Lloyd’s father, Nathaniel, created the Sunk Garden (and much else), ripping out the vegetable garden remaining from the First World War effort, saying famously, ‘Now we can play’.  Like father, like son.  I love the pool…octagonal, I think.

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The Sunk Garden, Great Dixter, June 2017

All through Dixter, there are echoes and usages of the past.  The Horse Pond was originally used to water the heavy horses on the Dixter farm. Now, it is a luxurious oasis of aquatic plants, and Pontederia cordata was looking gorgeous with blue flowering spikes and sharp, spear-shaped leaves.

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The Horse Pond, Great Dixter, June 2017

Airy opium poppies drifted through other parts of the Vegetable Garden.

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The Vegetable Garden, Great Dixter, June 2017

And the whole is grounded by the house, combining modern to the left with Lutyen’s respectful and yet bang up to date design from the early 20th century, with the old, the ancient reconstructed house from Benenden added on, saved by Nathaniel Lloyd to add to the modern design.  Respect, use or change, and move on.  A Lloyd motto perhaps.

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The Porch of the House, to the left Lutyens, to the right 15th/16th century, Great Dixter, June 2017

First snowdrops…

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First snowdrops en masse in the woods, Tostat, January 2018

Yesterday was the first day of sunshine, bar the odd hour, for what has seemed like almost a month of high winds and deluging rain.  Given the general state of drought that existed for most of last year, there is a lot to be thankful for, but grey, wind and rain doesn’t do much for the spirit, no matter how festive the season.

But the snowdrops, and I am no galanthophile, that arrive with splendid timing usually just after but sometimes just before Christmas, in the woods, are a wonderful thing.  They decorate the woods beautifully, bringing just enough brightness and bounce into the wintry landscape.  The dog and I did a 10k circuit walk yesterday, spending much of the time (me) jumping over huge puddles and soggy patches while Molly romped through the middle of everything with glee.

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Snowdrop close-up, Tostat woods, January 2018

Our river, the Adour, which has spent most of the year trickling along on the rocks is now a raging spate of wild water, which is how it should be.

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The Adour in full flow, Tostat, January 2018

The sunlight brought out the colour that there is in January.  Mistletoe glowed golden against the bare branches of the trees, and some grass seemed so green as to be almost freshly grown.

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Mistletoe in the trees, Bazillac, January 2018

In the winter, lines and shapes in the landscape are revealed- I am always taken by the sombre, communal, standing-to-attention of trees that demarcate fields and maybe ownership, such as these coppiced trees in Ugnouas.

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Old coppiced trees stand sombrely, Ugnouas, January 2018

In some of the fields outside our village, there are still small patches of vines, grown originally by grandfathers or great-grandfathers two or three generations back for home consumption.  Our house once offered the service of pressing the grapes to people in the village- big gatherings would happen in our barn with shared food and drink to celebrate the work of crushing the grapes.   We still have the press.

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Looking away towards Escondeaux, January 2018



Snobbish tendencies meet Paloma Blanca…

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Anemone hupehensis var. japonica, Tostat, September 2017

Starting a New Year, and some tendencies to tackle, I think.  One tendency is certainly a kind of plant snobbery.  I have a yen to always find something different, off-beat, not yet tried by me, and in this hunt for the different and the new, I realise that I can often overlook the really good plant that is not exceptional or unusual, but just does a good job where it is. Even the phrasing of ‘just does a good job’ seems to somehow denigrate.  I admit it.  But this year, I am going to outface this tendency as being, frankly, silly- not to mention more than a bit snobby.

The good old Japanese anemone (see above) is one such plant.  For me this plant grows not only where you might expect, moist, sun and goodish soil, but also, it has stuck itself in one of the hottest, driest parts of the garden, and, albeit, a little stunted in comparison with it’s more well-off neighbour, it still flowers nonstop for more than two months and the foliage looks great even if in baking heat.  Hitherto, I have only had the pink, but now, I have been given bits of the white- and so, it is getting the recognition it deserves.

I have a tricky area right in front of the house.  A very old and grotty spiraea has given up and been strangled by bramble, and I have one or two other shrubs that have never got beyond their first year.  Two reasons mainly- first, it is soaking wet in the winter and then bone-dry in the summer, and secondly, despite my attempting to protect them with stakes, they have been mown down twice or three times by us or a helpful housesitter.  All in all, they have thrown in the towel.  And, I frankly admit, owing to the snobbery problem, I have refused to look again at spiraea.

But this is plainly ridiculous.  What I need is a tough, good-looking shrub that flowers well at some point, and arches nicely but doesn’t grow too tall and annoy the shutters or windows- so 1.5m height is about the max.  Spiraea, particularly Spiraea cinerea Grefsheim seems to utterly fit the bill.  Early Spring flowering, and drought-tolerant according to all the sources I have found, and the perfect size- so this is what it will be.  This variety is a sort of baby version of the Bridal Wreath spiraea which needs more space than I have, so it comes with good parentage.  The right plant for the right place, as Beth Chatto would say, and only a trace of  snobbery.

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Spiraea cinerea Grefsheim. Photo credit:

Euonymus Paloma Blanca

Euonymus japonicus ‘Paloma Blanca’ photo credit:

Europop not being my thing, the mere mention of ‘Una Paloma blanca’ is enough to make me cringe- but look, this is the name of a very interesting, well to me, variety of Euonymus, which is a good doer in many situations for me- notably sun and dry.  It is a small, fat upright shaped euonymus, Euonymus japonicus ‘Paloma Blanca’, which for 9 months of the year is a deep, glossy, emerald green and so does very good shaping in the garden.  But, for 2-3 months, the new Spring growth is a startling, brilliant white until it turns green… sounds a bit naff?  Maybe, but it has stuck in my mind and finding 3 small plants this week in a post-New Year forage at a nursery in the Gers, the Embalogue at Mirande,  was enough for me to cave in.  So, tres Paloma Blanca it is.

Back to Alicante in my mind…

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Hymenocallis festalis, Carmen del Campillo, Alicante, October 2017

Sometimes a new plant haunts you.  This slightly spectral photograph, taken almost in the dark, is of a plant which is currently haunting me.  Wispy, spidery white tendrils surround an almost-daffodil centre, with loose, floppy foliage a touch reminiscent of agapanthus.  It should be grown in the sun, though clearly the gardener at Carmen del Campillo, Crevillente, just outside Alicante knows his conditions well.  So unusual and so pretty.  I am searching for bulbs of Hymenocallis festalis right now.  It may also be called Ismene x deflexa.  Darn it, Crocus are offering 2 bulbs for £1.50 right now, but they don’ send to France- sniff.

Carmen del Campillo is a lovely place to visit, a delightful, shady courtyard garden with snaking paths and many little corners to visit- and as importantly, charming little nooks in which to taste a superb selection of teas and delicious Moroccan pastries.  The garden evokes Morocco in every way, smells of blossom, intriguing objets and plantings, and moments of mystery and beauty.

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Lanterns, sharp light and shade and fountains, Carmen del Campillo. Alicante, October 2017

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The light and shade of it, Carmen del Campillo, Alicante, October 2017

Deep marmalade orange and a falling head of flowers, Clivia x cyrtanthiflora was another clever pot choice.  It might work for me with a little protection according to San Marcos growers, so it’s a maybe.

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Clivia x cyrtanthiflora, Carmen del Campillo, Alicante, October 2017

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Foliage and containers, and lanterns…Carmen del Campillo, Alicante, October 2017

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Polygala myrtifolia with gorgeous stamens, Carmen del Campillo, Alicante, October 2017

Many thanks to Dan, aka ‘The Frustrated Gardener’ for the identification of Polygala myrtifolia!  I love his blog and he is a serious and committed plantperson- there is always something to learn from him.

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Light opening up shadows, Carmen del Campillo, Alicante, October 2017

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Framed by scented pelargonium, Hibiscus hids out by a pillar, Carmen del Campillo, Alicante, October 2017

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And a pink Hibiscus caught in a spotlight, Carmen del Campillo, October 2017

If you visit, beware of the tiny roads and use a GPS!  It is really worth a relaxing stroll and an hour or so of feeling completely removed from the everyday…

Happy New Year by the way.  I forgot to complete this post just before Xmas.

Sissinghurst dreams…

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A Bagatelle urn, given to Vita by her mother, placed amongst tumbling rosemary and euphorbia, planted with Verbena ‘Sissinghurst’, Sissinghurst, June 2017

Two recent cold weather reading bouts brought me back to the hours spent at Sissinghurst at the end of June.  There is always the risk that an iconic garden can be overwhelming, disappointing or even just too hard to take in because it is so heavily visited.  There was an element of the first two possibilities in my experience, but, actually, I was not disappointed.  I realise now, looking back, that I didn’t get to grips with Harold Nicholson’s clever and thoughtful structural elements, and that I wandered, in a rather delirious fashion, round the garden without much order or thought.  So, remembering what was where required a lot of post-visit referencing of the garden map and descriptions.

So, is there a problem with garden delirium?  Actually, I don’t think so.  I do have in my mind the sense of joyful chaos, of generous planting, the excitement of meeting plants that I didn’t know, and then had to try and identify later.  I did really love the hovering sense of Vita in her garden, even down to the slightly artful arrangements of tools and equipment that had been placed so well to give the sense of a working garden.  So, probably that feeling of the love and absorption that Vita gave the garden and the place is one of the most important things to take away.

But back to the reading episodes- one, a book, the other, an article.  I had seen in the NT bookshop, the book written and compiled by Sarah Raven about Vita and her garden.  I confess to later buying it in pristine condition and half the price from Abebooks.  I really enjoyed it.  No silly worshipping here, good, honest information and a really  solid compilation of Vita’s writings about her gardening habits and practices- and an abundant sense of the garden as it is now, a mixture of history, Vita and those modern gardeners who have championed the garden since her death.  I really recommend this book.

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Looking down on the garden from the Tower, Harold’s double planted Yew Walk cutting cross the garden, Sissinghurst, June 2017

And then secondly and by pure chance, as I always check the Tory press, so important to know what the opposition is doing I reckon- a really good and interesting article 2 days ago, sadly in the luxury section of the Telegraph online.

When I look at my photographs, only a few managed to reach into the garden.  This is a visitor-numbers issue.  It was almost impossible to draw breath or take a photograph in the White Garden for example- not that people were jostling, just the amount of movement around you made it really hard to concentrate at all.  I only have hazy memories of the White Garden.  So, I took the photographs that I could rather than the ones I wanted. Ah well.

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The view through the Bishop’s Gate into the White Garden, Sissinghurst, June 2017

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The domination of the Tower, Vita’s sanctuary, Sissinghurst, June 2017

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Pruning the pleached limes to the Bacchante statue, Sissinghurst, June 2017

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Haze of hot colours, the Cottage Garden, Sissinghurst, June 2017

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The White Garden, the mysterious statue of a vestal virgin by Toma Rosandic, shrouded by the leaves of the weeping silver pear, Sissinghurst. June 2017

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Cram, cram, pots, troughs and corners, Sissinghurst, June 2017

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Harold’s Irish yews and the Cottage Garden, Sissinghurst, June 2017

There were some truly gorgeous plants as you would expect.  I have talked about the roses and some of the plants in two earlier posts, here and here, but here are some photos and links for some of the plants I have managed to identify.  Happy hunting.

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On a very wet day, a pale orange lily soaring through the Allium heads and white valerian in the White Garden, Sissinghurst, June 2017

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Berkheya purpurea, beautifully fringed, Sissinghurst, June 2017

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Cichorium intybus ‘Roseum’ in the Herb Garden, Sissinghurst, June 2017

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And the blue chicory, Cichorium intybus in the Herb Garden, Sissinghurst, June 2017

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And this is fabulous and on the list for next year, the redoubtable Pittosporum tenuifolium Purpureum, Sissinghust, June 2017