Twiddling thumbs…

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Tulipa clusiana Lady Jane, Tostat, March 2018

How does this little tulip do it? We are talking stems the width of shoelaces, and the flowers seem so delicate, looking rather ghostly in the greyness and wet of today.  In fact, their light meter is definitely stuck at ‘sunny’.  I am astonished by the casually butch approach it is taking to our latest bout of winter.  We are back to freezing temperatures, wind and rain, even thunder, and once again, any sensible plant has just stopped in its tracks.

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Ranunculus ficaria ‘Brazen Hussy’, clumping up, Tostat, March 2018

Indoors, I have been laughing out loud at Anna Pavord’s 2010 book, ‘The Curious Gardener’.  Her deft wit and sense of humour pervades this selection of articles she wrote when gardening correspondent for ‘The Independent’.  I really did laugh at her account of Pavord family Christmases- and I love her self-effacing acceptance of gardening bloomers and disasters.  Unlike some, whose books can simply load you up with guilt-inducing instruction, she lightens all loads with her humour and likes and dislikes.

When the weather has given up annoying me for short periods, I have been out planting.  I have to, as my experimental growing perennials from seed phase has produced about a hundred small pots.  All of these have either been sitting on gravel through all the weather we have had, or some lucky ones got planted out in a spare patch to be dug up in the Spring.

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Stachys officinalis ‘Hummelo’, Tostat, June 2015. This clump produced about 10 plants when split.

Included in that number were some purchases last Autumn that I split and re-potted, so all in all, there is no excuse for not planting up generously.  I have been really struck by how bombproof these small plants have been.  I reckon that the death rate has been only 1-2%- which is brilliant.  The baby Echinacea pupureas were almost washed away in the rains of January and February, but all are putting on good growth although I need to top them up with a bit more compost.


Helenium autumnale ‘Helena’, was a great success from seed photo credit and seed supplier:

So, I am having a dense planting push.  I am ignoring conventional planting distances and going for less than half the normal recommendations.  I have one area that is entirely perennials with some added structural plants- and this area, now approaching its third birthday, is looking very promising, with lots of self-seeding. All I am doing is taking out dandelions and other major pests- otherwise, I am leaving it alone.


Aster tartaricus ‘Jindai’. This split really well and easily, producing about 4-5 plants from each mother plant. photo credit:

In other parts of the garden, I am using this chance to really beef up the planting.  Mulching is a tricky proposition for me.  It risks flattening self-seeding, which is what I am after, and so I am trying out a slightly different approach.  Having read a short article about Thomas Rainer, an American landscape architect who is a big mover in the sustainable planting world, I then bought his book, written with Claudia West, ‘Planting in a post-Wild World’.  This is a scholarly tome, which carefully explains the building of resilient plant communities, but at the heart of it are the following principles:

  1.  Amending the soil- don’t
  2. Double digging- don’t
  3. Soil testing- do
  4. Mulching- don’t
  5. Planting cover crops- do
  6. Buying a lot of plants- do
  7. Curbside planting- do
  8. Experimenting and having fun- do

By all means read the book- it is very inspiring, but to get the gist, the Gardenista website article kickstarts all you need to know.  I am not a regular Gardenista reader, too much designery clap-trap for me, but just sometimes, it is spot-on.

So, with my small and brilliantly tough plants, I am setting out to offer them co-habitation in the hope that they will make me some resilient plant communities.  And where it is tricky to that fully, I am doing something different again.

My driest, hottest parts are actually pretty much jam-packed with plants- but even so, in  our wet Springs, I get masses of passing-through weed activity.  By that I mean, naturally occurring early season weeds, which actually mostly get burnt off or dried out by the height of summer.  So, this year, I am not going to charge about pulling them out, I am going to leave them be.  This is on the grounds that they have a role in protecting the durable plants through the winter and spring, and then, by and large, they die off.  So, as long as the balance between them, and the permanent plants stays in place- they are actually preventing the dessication and erosion of the soil by being there.

Thinking over- I am dying to get out there again!





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Caught in a flurry, Magnolia stellata, Tostat, March 2018

Strange how the cold breeze ruffled some of the new flowers on the Magnolia stellata, but not others- and with no windbreak either.  The weather is bouncing quixotically from 2C in the morning, to 21C, and then greying over in the afternoon with a cold wind- which accounts for the fact that most things are biding their time for more stable temperatures- but it is Skegness-bracing for us humans- and the ground is slowly regaining malleability as the torrential rain seems to have stopped.

Only small moments are happening in the garden- human activity is focusing on big-weed removal, like dandelions where I don’t want them- they can help themselves to the ‘lawn’ in my view.  Personally, I wouldn’t grace our mossy and dry, how can it be both?, grass with the term ‘lawn’.  But then again, I’m not that bothered about lawn-stuff.  My eyes glaze over when Monty Don starts on about lawns and grass.

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Tulipa clusiana ‘Lady Jane’, Tostat, March 2018

I rather like the delicacy of this little tulip.  I have a feeling that I should have planted them deeper, I will try and remedy that for next year.  I bought a handful of Tulipa clusiana ‘Lady Jane’ in the autumn, as an experiment.  Of course, I had forgotten where I had planted them, and then I had also done a massive clearout of the vicinity, which may have disturbed them a bit.  So they are a bit on the wobbly side.  I had a go at tucking them up a bit more with some pale gravel, which does set them off quite well but may not really help anything.  Let’s hope that they are tougher than they look.

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Tulipa clusiana ‘Lady Jane’, Tostat, March 2018

If there is enough sunshine, the flowers open wide to show thick chocolate stamens and a splash of liquid gold at the centre.  I think, though, that I like the half-open position, so that the soft pink contrasts with the white of the flower.

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Narcissus Finland, I think, Tostat, March 2018

Continuing with the pale and delicate theme, these daffodils have graced me with a return this year.  I think I have to review my bulb purchasing.  The last couple of years, tulip and narcissus bulbs have done very poorly for me, despite growing them in pots with sharp sand to help with drainage.  So, last autumn, I just threw some old bulbs into the ground, thinking, ‘Fat chance’.  But, there they are.  Looking back, I think I have named this variety properly, but carelessness abounds.

By contrast, these daffs, from a purchase last autumn, have positively shocked me with their Disneyland colouring.  I am sure that these were meant to be cream with an orange trumpet, a sort of extra-frilly one, but you need your sunglasses on for these.

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Narcissus ‘Chantilly’, Tostat, March 2018

With a name like ‘Chantilly’, you would expect cream, wouldn’t you?!

The white Japanese quince, Chaenomeles speciosa ‘Nivalis’, was pretty nipped by the frost the other week, but bolstered by a background show from the Magnolia stellata, was giving a final show.  I rather liked the impressionistic feel of the breeze through the blossom.

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Chaenomeles speciosa ‘Nivalis’, last flurry, Tostat, March 2018

But for more to happen, we must wait more.  A beautiful installation at the Garden Musuem, London last month took my fancy on a wintry day.  Called ‘The Vitrine’ and made by Rebecca Louise Law, it is a simply gorgeous copper wire suspension and arrangement of flowers.  Here is the view from one side, and, with reflections, from the other side.  Magical.

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The Vitrine, by Rebecca Louise Law, 2017, Garden Musuem, London

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The Vitrine, from the other side with reflections, Garden Museum, London


Honouring five women gardening writers…

I am always behind when it comes to ‘Days’- like International Women’s Day.   So, here I am, several days late.  But I enjoyed seeing what ‘Ali, The Mindful Gardener’ and my gardening writer friend, Sarah Salway, had to say on Facebook, and thought ‘Why not list my five favourite women garden writers and books?’.  All my book links are to on the grounds that homes are needed for more used and secondhand books.

Margery Fish book


Margery Fish photo credit:

Margery Fish :  ‘We made a Garden’ first published in 1956, the re-published by Faber and Faber in 1983

This book is a complete joy.  It describes Margery’s decision to create a garden at East Lambrook  in Somerset in 1937, and her endless tussles with her husband, Walter, who had very different views on what a garden should look like, there are so many wonderful moments as when she reveals that

‘When it came to the job of making paths I discovered that this was a subject on which Walter had very strong views, and I had many lectures on how to achieve perfection’ ¹

Her gently ascerbic tone is a delight of under-statement, and she never shirks from talking about her mistakes and her learning, whilst retaining a good dose of laughter about how she, and Walter, make it through the arguments and lectures.  Along the way, there are invaluable lessons for any maker of gardens- and her garden remains a much loved and inspirational space which I would love to visit.  This is the book I have most often bought for women friends who love gardening.

¹ quoted p.25 of ‘We made a Garden’, Margery Fish, ISBN 0-572-13141-7


Sarah Raven

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Sarah Raven photo credit:

Sarah Raven: ‘The Bold and Beautiful Garden’, published by Frances Lincoln, 1999

I bought this book not long after we had moved to France, and, although my garden, as I was to learn, could not host many of the luscious plants that Sarah describes in her book, I was absolutely set on fire by her use of colour and mixtures of colour- as well as her boundless enthusiasm for the plants that she is writing about.  Jonathon Buckley’s photographs are almost edible they are so good, fresh and exciting.  Christopher Lloyd’s foreword sums up her approach and, of course, she has learnt so much from him I think.

‘Go for it, lash out and express yourself with the help of vivid dramatis personnae sums up her vitalizing message’  Christopher Lloyd. ¹

¹ quoted in the foreword by Christopher Lloyd, of ‘The Bold and Beautiful Garden’, Sarah Raven, ISBN 0-7112-1752-1

A shout-out also for her beautiful compilation and authored book on Vita Sackville-West and Sissinghurst, ‘Vita Sackville-West and the creation of a garden’, which I really enjoyed after visiting Sissinghurst for the first time this year.


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Geraldene Holt:  ‘Diary of French Herb Garden’, published by Pavilion Books, 2002

I love this little book.  It is a modest and utterly engaging book about Geraldene Holt, the well-known cookery writer, and her restoration of an ancient walled garden in the tiny village of Saint-Montan, in the French Ardèche.  It was the book that inspired me the most in developing village contacts here when we moved, and over the years, gradually finding a role, which I would never have imagined, as the co-ordinator of a group of committed gardening people, who are gradually softening the edges of our village with sustainable planting- and having a lot of fun as well.  Her own garden lives on, now run by a local Association, much like ours I imagine, and is definitely somewhere I want to visit.

She says, at the end of her book’

‘That I am not the proprietor of this French herb garden matters not a jot.  Indeed, this aspect has enhanced my joy.  Working here has not been solely self-gratifying, it has also been a shared pleasure, carried out for others with a result that, I hope, will survive for some time.’ ¹

¹ quoted p. 123, ‘Diary of a French Herb Garden’, Geraldene Holt, ISBN  1-86205-488-6

I know what she means.




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Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden, published by Frances Lincoln, 2000

Beth Chatto is such a hero- quietly determined, delicate and yet robust, and so much a real pioneer entirely on her own terms.  Her book ‘Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden’ was like a Bible to me when I first realised that I couldn’t imagine Tostat as being a slightly hotter Surrey, where I had my very first garden in my early 30s.  Turning her carpark into a dry garden, as she did, with no irrigation at all, was a vital experiment for the time.  She has a love for the unorthodox, which broke new ground then, seahollies, prickly thistles, felted plants and wild Verbascum.  She is, above all, a calm observer of the garden that she is creating- and now, after nearly 15 years, I am almost able to do that too in my own garden.

‘ It is good sometimes, perhaps in low evening light, to take my stool and settle in an unexpected part of the garden, to sit and contemplate a piece of planting that I normally pass or drive by. ¹

¹ quoted p.88, ‘Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden’, Beth Chatto, ISBN 0-7112-1425-5



Nora Harlow, editor, EBMUD, ‘Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates’, published 2004 by EBMUD, East Bay Municipal Utility District

Nora Harlow has done a great job at pulling together the strengths and a shared philosophy behind this big book, which is really designed to encourage residents of the East Bay Area, in San Francisco, to abandon water-hungry garden spaces and embrace a different aesthetic.  The book reads easily, pithily and the message pulls no punches.  What’s more, the philosophy is incredibly helped by the sensitive and compelling photography of Saxon Holt.  Two thirds of the book is a compendium of plants, trees and shrubs that actually welcome summer-dry gardening by having growth patterns outside of the hot, dry period, and many of them are entirely dormant during the summer.  So, shifting the aesthetic needs to be as much about embracing winter-autumn-spring as the main seasons of interest, and learning to love the dried-out looks and shapes of the summer.  What a bold move for a Utility Company.  How’s this for inspiration?

‘ It is possible to create and maintain ornamental landscapes in ways that conserve water and energy, protect air and water quality, minimise impacts on landfills, provide habitat for wildlife, reduce fire hazard, and help to preserve natural wildlands…

The least any of us can do is to be mindful of our individual and collective impacts on natural resources-clean air, clean water, energy, open space and biotic diversity- and to accept personal responsibility for our actions.’ ¹

¹ page xv, the preface, ‘Plants and Landscapes for Summer-dry Climates’, ed. Nora Harlow, EBMUD 2004  ISBN  0-9753231-0-5



























Real Jardín Botánico Madrid…

Leiden Hortus Botanicus two years ago,  Berlin Botanical Garden last year and now, Madrid.  Botanical gardens are not quite what we sometimes imagine, they are not gardens in the sense of personal choice of plants and settings, and the botanical part was always absolutely fused with the growth of trade, empire, and often with the manipulation of indigenous agriculture in order to better support the economy of the colonial power.  Wandering around historic botanical gardens in the 21st century, which I love to do wherever I go, it’s easy to forget the reasons why such places were made, often back in the eighteenth century.

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Dark verticals of winter trees,  Real Jardin Botanico from the entrance terrace, Madrid, February 2018

Scrambling to stay within commercial reach of the Dutch, the French and the English was a big pre-occupation for eighteenth century Spain.  The Italians had founded Pisa and Padua Botanical Gardens in the mid sixteenth century, followed by the French crown investing in le Jardin du Roi in 1626, the predecessor for the present-day Jardin des Plantes. 

The Spanish crown funded numerous botanical expeditions to the Americas in particular, searching for marketable crops as well as scientific knowledge.  This was the heyday of the eighteeenth century enlightenment when the acquisition of scientific knowledge, including the natural sciences, was a driving economic and philosophical force in European society.  The Real Jardin Botanico was initially founded in 1755 in Madrid, and moved to the current location in 1774.  Britain joined the race with the establishment of what would become Kew Gardens in London in 1772.

Nearly three hundred years later, botanical gardens are now regarded as extremely valuable scientifically in the exploration of how plants contribute to ecology, the identification of possible medical applications of plants, and for understanding what is happening with our climate and the way that nature is adapting to change.

For me nowadays, a botanical garden gives a wonderful setting, often in busy city centres, for escape into an organised natural world, which is tended and cared for so that we can appreciate plants in their natural settings.  It is always interesting to come across plants and plant communities that are new or different- I love just wandering and spotting shapes, colours, leaves, flowers.

On a cold, bright February day, the garden was only slowly waking up.

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Camellia japonica ‘Nuccio’s Cameo’ had successfully hidden from the frosts, Real Jardin Botanico, Madrid, February 2018

This shell-pink Camellia was beautiful, though I admit to being a Camellia philistine and not a lover of pink!

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Camellia japonica ‘Perfection White’ had a visiting friend and nipped petals, Real Jardin Botanico, Madrid, February 2018

The winter sun was really strong, imagine the summer!, and really brought out the colour and filigree leaf shapes of the Cycas palm.

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Sunlit Cycas petrea, Real Jardin Botanico, Madrid, February 2018

I am going to have to find a way to grow Hamamelis.

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Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Birgit’, Real Jardin Botanico, Madrid, February 2018

The Graells Greenhouse, dating back to 1836 was named for Dr Graells who invented the ‘gloria’ technique,  an unusual form of heating for this greenhouse for tender plants.  Underground channels were filled with rotting manure, covered over with metal grilles, which produced the heat and humidity needed for the plants and released both into the greenhouse.  Not sorry to have missed the manure!

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The Graells Greenhouse, Real Jardin Botanico, Madrid, February 2018. Spot the grille.

This small tree, Anagyris foetida, was spectacularly laden with flowers.

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Pendulous yellow blossoms on Anagyris foetida, Real Jardin Botanico, Madrid, February 2018

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The Edibles garden, Real Jardin Botanico, Madrid, February 2018

Looking like Christmas decorations, the peppers glowed in the sunlight.

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Drying peppers, Edibles Garden, Real Jardin Botanico, Madrid, February 2018

Would that my backstage looked as thoughtfully arranged as this. But no….

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Backstage at the Big Greenhouse, Real Jardin Botanico, Madrid, February 2018

Verging on too much Libertia grandiflora…

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Libertia grandilfora, Tostat, May 2017

The weather being on the clement side for the first time in ages, I have just come in, four hours later, from what was, to my mind, a quick job.  In my head, that clump of Libertia grandiflora was not that big, and anyway, all I needed to do was wield a quick saw, and Bob’s your uncle.  But, as we Piaseckis say, ‘No, Dave’.

For a start, the clump was huge and took several circuits of digging to even slightly budge, and then, when finally lifted out, I realised that the wet winter and the recent cold snap had rotted off some of the original plants, and all that stuff had to be picked out.  Then, I realised that, even with quite big bits ready for planting, I now had 20 good sized plants to re-locate, not to mention 14 x 1 litre pots of 3-4 babies to be looked after until our Tostatenfleur Troc’Plantes at the end of April.

By the way, if you are ever in France with a car and pass a sign for a Troc’Plantes, stop and see!  Technically, it is a plant-swap system, but most Troc’Plantes also sell rooted cuttings and baby plants for pennies.

So, having done all of that, and found new homes for my 20 good sized plants, I found that four hours had passed. Good heavens.

But the thing is, Libertia grandiflora is a jolly good plant. Looking a  bit like an iris on a diet, slimmer, more arching leaves, in May, it goes Japanese, and produces these simply gorgeous sprays of creamy-white flowers.  The rest of the year you are back to the ‘iris on a diet’ look, but it takes all weathers and stays green- making a good, 0.75cm high clump, that looks quite architectural in winter.  It was also one of my first successes from seed, and so I am very sentimentally attached to it.  It took several years for the tiny plants to mature their rhizomes enough to flower, so flowers will take a hit this year with my saw-style division- but the plants will be healthier without all the decaying stuff in the middle, and so I will wait.

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Libertia grandiflora close-up, Tostat, May 2017

Many books say, as this is a New Zealand native, that it needs moist soil.  I think it is much more adaptable than that, as I have now got it planted in varying degrees of moisture from bone-dry (where it copes by being smaller and producing fewer flowers) to semi-shade and moist- it has not given up anywhere in my garden. It has handled cold down to -10C with ease, so is not as tender as some say, but I agree winter wet is not good, though probably won’t kill it.  From seed it grows easily, though the seedlings are very tiny, they are tough.  I got my seed from Special Plants, a fabulous nursery with seed by post, run by the brilliant Derry Watkins.

There is a second clump, possibly even bigger than this one, so it may be on the cards for tomorrow…

Siberia arrives…

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Anemone x fulgens Multipetala, Tostat, February 2018

We got back from our trip to Madrid and London on Saturday in sunshine and just a little warmth.  Spirits were utterly lifted and the dog very puzzled, by the screams of joy as Scotland took the Calcutta Cup- a lot of Queen-type air punching accompanied the screaming from our sitting room.  You must allow me this weakness.  I am not a fan of nationalist politics, which, in general does not end well as history tells us.  But I am just thrilled when small countries bite back.  And Scotland deserved it in every way.  My Dad would have loved it.

Meantime, Siberia was advancing…last night temperatures reached about -8C, and those parts of the garden not touched by the bright sunshine today are in a permafrost lockdown.  But those hardy perennials can take it.  The Anemone, which was a new and expensive purchase as three small corms early last Spring is sporting three flowers today, all of which were decked at first but have popped back up as their stems thaw out.  The only bulb from the winter planting in a shallow bowl of Iris unguicularis ‘Mary Barnard’ to have flowered yesterday, has remained utterly unfazed.

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Iris unguicularis ‘Mary Barnard’, Tostat, February 2018

The two rescued wild daffodils to have flowered are still lying down, but as we only have another day and a bit of these cold temperatures, I am hoping that the rest will just stay put and wait.  They come out in different shapes and sizes, as you can see.  A wide, almost peony-type flower turning up as well as a star-framed flower with internal hoops of yellow. I adore them, and look forward to the four small clumps gradually expanding in the future.

Madrid photographs beckon…to be accompanied by the Mindful Gardener’s rather delicious orange, apricot and, in my case, seeds flapjack, as no almonds in the cupboard.  Yum.

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Rescued wild daffodil, Tostat, February 2018

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Rescued wild daffodil 2, Tostat, February 2018



Playing about in Handyside Gardens…

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Meet the snakepit, Handyside Gardens, Kings Cross, London, February 2018

The other Dan Pearson project that I was keen to see in a cold London was the small, but perfectly formed, Handyside Gardens, complete with play park, which slithers between new buildings at Kings Cross to make great use of a little ribbon of land.  I have borrowed 2 photographs from Dan Pearsons own site to show what I mean, thank you Dan Pearson Studio.

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Handyside Gardens, aerial view at the opening, November 5th 2013 photo credit for both images:

All of the planting that was up looked in great shape, especially the flowering Cornus mas hedges which thread their way through the beds and playpark.  The bright yellow open pompoms were very welcome on a cold and wintry day.

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Flowering Cornus mas, Handyside Gardens, Kings Cross, February 2018

There was fun to be had- and not only from the snake sandpit, which I loved.  Pretending to be four years old, I climbed up the slide steps to get a bit of a view, nothing quite as aerial as the Dan Pearson photographs though.

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The swings, the pergola tunnel, and, just, the snake sandpit, rocks for climbing and jumping, soft surface and planting, Handyside Gardens, February 2018

The site sits on top of Underground tunnels and so soil depth was an issue.  Raising the planting up in parts of the site, using warm coppery Corten to make raised beds, also created lots of impromptu seating possibilities, especially near the play equipment.

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The big, bold, pergola tunnel wraps around the circular play area with the sandpit, Handyside Gardens, February 2018

I loved this massive, hefty pergola, underplanted with grasses and, in summer, probably a great play thicket as well as an adult pleasure.

From the aerial photographs, you can see the sinuous, elongated tear-shapes of the beds, which reminded me of the great John Brookes, whose sinuous Modernist design for Bryanston Square, didn’t survive the return of the traditionalists.  The design drawings for this simply beautiful design can be seen in the current Garden Museum exhibition on John Brookes, a man who speaks such clear sense about design.

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John Brookes’ sinuous design for Bryanston Square, London 1965 photo credit:

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Raised Corten steel beds, seating, and half a small water rill, spring planting just coming through, Handyside Gardens, February 2018

Two halves of a sweeping water rill bring you towards the canal end of the Gardens, with winter planting of the stunning Bergenia purpurescens ‘Irish Crimson’ and flowering Hamemelis.  No scent, as I think it really was too cold to be able to smell anything.

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Flowering Hamamelis, not sure which, Handyside Gardens, February 2018

But that Bergenia….well, an outrageous and simply brilliant beetroot red in the little bit of sunshine that broke through.  This variety came from the Irish botanical garden at Glasnevin, was tended and raised by the great Irish gardener, Helen Dillon, who then gave it to the great Beth Chatto, and from the Chatto Nursery, it has made its way into the trade, though it is not yet widely available.  Gorgeous, and who needs flowers?

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Bergenia purpurescens ‘Irish Crimson’, Handyside Gardens, February 2018

The underplanting that had already made it out was doing a very good job, and none better than Helleborus orientalis.  Flowering starts with me around late December, continues right through to late March, and, as the plants warm up, so the flowerheads rise up on growing stalks, so that the look of the planting in early March is quite different from early January.  And the foliage lasts, with a faintly jungly look about it, pretty much right through the rest of the year.  It’s a bargain.

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Hellebores do underplanting so well, Handyside Gardens, February 2018

Race you to the snake…