Can’t hold back, Alys

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The first, slightly frost bitten blooms on Chaenomeles speciosa Nivalis, Tostat, February 2018

Alys Fowler, a gardening writer who I always enjoy reading, urges restraint in this morning’s Guardian.  She is, of course, quite right, especially if you have heavy soil, but with my stony (mostly) stuff, I have started tidying up a bit, doing the annual cull on bramble, the dreaded honeysuckle, giant dandelions- that kind of thing. But I am only talking about going into the soil about half a fork’s depth to remove the bad boys- which I kind of need to do, because the daffodils are half way out the of the ground.  And, although this may be wishful thinking, a few warm days would bring them out good and proper.  It’s a hard life being a bulb in my garden.  When they are obviously up, even I manage not to dig them up by mistake, but they have a dangerous life if I can’t see them.  I am, however, very good at replanting them straight away, although there are always one or two that get split.

The white Japanese quince, Chaenomeles speciosa ‘Nivalis’, is one of those plants I look forward to seeing at this time of the year.  There is a good article by James Wong on Japanese quince, though I always find him just a bit too boy-scout happy- possibly an age thing.  Back to the quince, it never fruits for us, or it may be that it has very tiny fruits that get lost in the undergrowth at the back of the border.  I inherited it in the garden when we arrived, and although it can suffer sapling invaders being so near to the ruisseau, it really draws the eye especially when everything else is brown and sodden.  The rain has been biblical so far this year.

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Moss on our stone walls, Tostat, February 2018

The sights in the garden are on the miniature side right now.  Bucketing rain, and only the odd sunny day, has fed the moss on the stone walls.  It is so green it is almost golden, and looks like the most expensive velvet fairy coat from children’s tales.  Some nice freckling has popped up on a couple of the hellebores, very dark prominent freckles and also freckles of the finest dust.  I love the surprises that you get when they mix themselves up.

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Deeply freckled Hellebore, Tostat, February 2018

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Faintly freckled Hellebore, Tostat, Fabruary 2018

And the same conditions that feed the moss, also encourages the very tiny maidenhair ferns, Adiantum raddianum I think, to have a go at establishing themselves in the nooks and crannies of the stone walls.

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Adiantum raddianum, Tostat, February 2018

Tomorrow it is promised that the rain will stop and sun will come out.

 

The sun will return…

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Rescued wild daffodils, Tostat, February 2018

I had admired these beautiful double daffodils growing wild in the verges of the field behind us for years.  A few years ago, when it was clear that they were about to be exterminated by some overzealous field tidying by the farmer, I frankly admit that Andy and I organised a raiding party to rescue them.  Of course, that scuppered them completely for that year, and they have taken their time to settle in.  They are not the tallest, a bit on the stumpy side, but with big fat buds opening into disorganised, but fulsome, somehow almost homemade, bright yellow frilly doubles.  Some years, they come and go very fast, seeming to bloom and fade in a couple of days, but maybe this year, we might see them for a bit longer as the overall temperatures are on the cold side for the next couple of weeks.  I took this photograph on the Ipad in a rush two years ago.

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Wild Tostat daffoldils, February 2016

Lonicera fragrantissima is a twiggy, scrabbly thing, and it takes quite a few years to look any better.  But, now about nine years old, it happily sits in a hot, dry spot.  It’s main period of interest is winter and early spring, the rest of the time it simply makes a rounded, twiggy bush with soft green leaves, making a gentle accent in our stony soil.  In the winter and spring though, the very small flowers can fill the air with perfume on a sunny day.  Sunny days have not been plentiful this winter, but actually, from the photography point of view, a dull day is the best for pale and white-flowered plants.  So, no perfume, but a better photograph.

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Lonicera fragrantissima, Tostat, February 2018

The dampness has been wonderful for the moss on our old walls in the garden. It is so green it is almost golden.

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The moss is doing well, Tostat, February 2018

But, in the house by the back door, Abutilon ‘Red Trumpet’ has flowered, and oddly, even has a small greenfly family in residence.  I shan’t bother about the greenfly as the plant is in good condition, just waiting for frost-free nights before I put it out.  It will make a graceful, arching shrub to 1.5m all round within this year, but I will keep it in a pot so that I can overwinter easily.  The red is a black, rich, juicy red, absolutely stunning.  It reminds me not to be too demoralised by the weather.  The sun will return.

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Abutilon ‘Red Trumpet’, Tostat, February 2018

The bowing Hellebore…

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Hellebores, heads bowed, Tostat, January 2018

I grew lots of Helleborus Orientalis in Scotland- they loved the rich, moist soil and I loved them.  Tall flowers standing straight, and exotic-looking leaves that lasted all year, giving a jungly look to a damp Scottish garden.  Beth Chatto’s book about converting her carpark into a gravel garden inspired me to try them here, in much drier and hotter conditions in the summer, but surprisingly perhaps, not so different from Scotland in the winter and spring.  Here is a very useful blog article for more information about Hellebores and that makes them tick.  Thanks http://www.yougrowgirl.com.

To be honest, I have no idea what I have got growing in the garden, with one or two exceptions.  I have accumulated plants on a willy-nilly basis, lots from no-tag bin-end sales over the years, and of course, the one thing about Hellebores is that they self-seed wildly and mix it up, so the only thing that I do is to try and pull out the spindly seedlings and go for those with nice, strong-looking foliage.  I also don’t cut old leaves off.  Mainly because, even in this dark winter, the hellebores seem to race to produce flowering buds and they are all in place before I have even got round to thinking about trimming the foliage.  Actually, mine don’t seem to get too much black fungal action on them, so I live with a few dark splotches.

There are many who say, like Anne Wareham at Veddw, that the very best thing is to grow them in pots and lift them up on stands so that you don’t have to lie down to see into the flowers.

But one of their charms, in my view, is their nodding-ness.  The top photograph reminded me of a scene from Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ somehow, and below is part of the same group from a different angle. These have all inter-mingled, and it is true that not everyone likes the somewhat muzzy pink colouring that can become the only colour around.  But there is an apple-blossom freshness about this pink colouring that I am really appreciating this winter for it’s sense of optimism.

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Perhaps a bit more Orientalis in the mix here, Tostat, January 2018

I think I am fondest of the white and the dark red varieties that I have.  The single whites are almost indestructible, bearing their flowers with pride for days and days, and even when nearly over, each flower stays put.  People seem to suggest that the double varieties are less robust, and I have only a couple, but I would agree with this- and, of course, there are those who find them too frilly.  But I think that if you stay with the basic colours, and don’t opt for the new pistachio varieties for example, the straightforward double white is so classic and pretty, it’s hard to beat.

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Lovely purple freckles, Hellebore, Tostat, January 2018

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Double white hellebore, Tostat, January 2018

My Stephen Roff ( a very good ebay seller) double red hellebore, bought last year very small, has flowered, and is matched by a single with a lovely collar.  It could be that I prefer the collared single….but they are both the richest, darkest burgundy colour which is not reproduced well here in my photographs.

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More dark crimson than this, and with collared effect, Hellebore, Tostat, January 2018

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Double red Hellebore, Tostat, January 2018

Two species Hellebores that I adore are Helleborus foetidus, and also Helleborus argutiflorus Corsicus.  The latter got in with a bad crowd of Hellebores and has now mutated into a not very inspiring cross, but here it was in 2015, with the spikier leaves and the mint-green to white flowers, very simple but gorgeous.  I am going to invest in three more plants to start again.

Foetidus, often referred to as the ‘Stinking Hellebore’ doesn’t stink at all to me, and can look amazing as it rises up out of the deadness of the border.  Not yet this year, but back in 2015 on a sunny evening, the gorgeous purply-red colouring at the fringes of the petals suddenly came alight- and yes, the flowers do last for at least 2 months.

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Helleborus argutiflorus Corsicus, Tostat, March 2015

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Helleborus foetidus rising up as it does, Tostat, January 2018

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Helleborus foetidus in evening sun, Tostat, March 2015

What do you think, Tony Tomeo?

Darkest winter in 100 years…

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Single white Hellebore, with lovely collar, Tostat, January 2018

It is, apparently, the darkest winter since 1887 in the Northern Hemisphere.  I really feel that.  Despite being a month in to the slow return of light to the day, I am still unable to wake in the morning without an alarm, and we have only had two, maybe three, days when the sky has not been grey and almost black with rain. Plants brought into the house lean ever more desperately towards the window seeking the light, never mind sun.  Goodness me.  I almost wore sunglasses to watch Monty Don’s ‘Paradise Gardens’ programme the other night. I jest but only a little.

But…plants out there are trying their best against the elements.  I bought 3 small hellebores last spring from an ebay seller, Stephen Roff, who I would highly recommend.  They arrived, well packaged, small as advertised and in great condition, and have been settling in nicely in their new home, in the semi-shade near the big pine tree.  Hellebores like Tostat, and these have doubled in size and have just begun flowering.  I love the pristine clarity of the creamy colouring on the white one, and the complicated frilly collar surrounding the stamens- the leaves look very happy as well and although these are only in their infancy, I am looking forward to bigger and better.  This year, I also bought 3 more in the autumn, so they are really infants, waiting and seeing is what is needed.

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Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’, Tostat, January 2018

My unphased Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’ started out life as a 6″ weakling and now, 10 years later, has majestically taken over an entire corner near the back door.  She has been looking a little yellowy in the odd leaf, but I am not panicking, the flowers are massed and doing their best despite the endless rain.  Today, they brought to mind a job lot of Victorian bridal posies, the way they present themselves in little bunches.  There is not a lot of scent in the rain, so hoping for that when the rain stops.

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Helleborus niger ‘Christmas Carol’, Tostat, January 2018

This little Hellebore, Helleborus niger ‘Christmas Carol’, has spent too much time indoors, being a rush purchase just before Christmas, but the leaves are good, a dull emerald green with rounded ends, so quite different from the normal.  And I think it will have settled in by next winter.

Acanthus ‘Whitewater’ is a very fickle friend.  Acanthus should love the garden, and they do, but only after some considerable passage of time- like 7-8 years.  The ordinary Acanthus mollis is now a touch on the aggressive side, but did absolutely nothing for years.  It all hinges on the growth rate of the tuber.  And ‘Whitewater’, now 4-5 years old, is only strong enough to be seen in winter/spring conditions- it gives up and retreats underground when it gets too hot or dry- and no champagne-pink flowers yet either.   You have to be super-patient sometimes.

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Acanthus ‘Whitewater’, Tostat, January 2018

But look!  The expensive bulbules of Anemone x fulgens Multipetala that I bought last Spring are back and producing leaves- and I am thrilled, they are doing their best to imitate a hardy geranium at the moment, but that’s ok by me.

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Anemone x fulgens Multipetala, Tostat, January 2018

Because the gorgeous hot red fringed flowers are way out of the ordinary and something else in early Spring, and not to be missed.  I adore them.

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Anemone x fulgens Multipetala, Tostat, March 2017

Ok, sublime to the ridiculous.  The spotted laurel.  Which I always thought of as rather sinister as a plant, the sort of thing that would have enveloped the scary house in ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’.  But, in the right place, and especially if you can find one with a really zany splodge, my vote goes to Aucuba japonica crotonifolia– and I hope it will settle in quicker than the Acanthus.

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Aucuba japonica Crotonifolia, Tostat, January 2018

Now here is a survivor.  I bought 3 small plants of Libertia ixoides ‘Goldfinger’ and promptly planted them somewhere far too dry and hot for them.  Other things enveloped them, and to be truthful, I had completely forgotten that they were there.  Cut to last winter, when poking around, I found them again, now gently multiplied to about 10 small plants, but still going, if looking a bit thirsty.  I now have them planted as a weaving theme through the new perennial area I planted out 3 years ago, and they are doing really well, as winter colour especially in the low sun (when we get any) and as a bit of a small scale structural element when waiting for herbaceous stuff to come up.

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Libertia ixoides ‘Goldfinger’, Tostat, January 2018

And another survivor, Malvastrum lateritum in the driest, hottest spot, flowering albeit with teeny tiny flowers, but flowering now all the same.  I have to say that the flowers are normally much bigger, they get small when the plant is struggling a bit with heat or wet.  You have to be patient with the rambling nature of this plant, it lollops across other plants and pretty much follows it’s nose, so if you like it, you have to let it wander.

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Malvastrum lateritum, Tostat, January 2018

And here is a supreme survivor, Salvia spathacea. Rare now in the wild in California, I managed to grow one from seed a few years back and in 2016, it actually flowered for me with an immense 1.5m flowerspike, with tiered coral/magenta flowers- then it died that year.  So last year, I had another go at the seed, and this time managed to produce 3 tiny plants.  I decided to trust the dry shade reference, as I was sure that I had contributed to the demise of the original plant.  It really prefers shade, and forest type conditions, so I planted them out, with fingers crossed, in the Stumpery, with the ferns and the few other shade-tolerant plants that I have.  Eh voila!  They seem to be doing fine, despite the rain and cold…let’s see.

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Salvia spathacea, Tostat, January 2018

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Salvia spathacea, Tostat, June 2016

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Salvia spathacea and bee, Tostat, July 2016

 

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.

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Abelia grandiflora prostrata photo credit: http://www.rhs.org.uk

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.

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Cistus corbariensis photo credit: http://www.plantesexotiquesrustiques.com

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.

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Rosa ‘Mrs Oakley Fisher’ photo credit: http://www.promessedefleurs.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

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