Weather is weather…

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Hibiscus palustris, after the rain, Tostat, August 2017

I am really trying.  To accept the weather for what is is, and not rail against it.  For being too hot, for being too dry, too windy, rarely too grey but sometimes, and so on.  Monty Don says that this is the only way to garden.  But it is a hard habit to break.  So, I am trying to get even rather than angry.  Thinking of what I can do to help the garden be more bountiful in the hard, hot days of summer, and planning more tough structure to support those perennials which can make it through.

But these plants give me hope- as does the weather in the last couple of weeks- which has remembered to rain on occasion.  Dahlias have been a bit of a disaster this summer.  New bulbs that I bought have not come up at all, and everything has been on a serious go-slow.  But I am so glad that this appeared.  With a wonderfully exotic name, Dahlia ‘Verrone’s Obsidian’ (whatever that means) is actually gorgeous.  Sharp, tart carmine red around the golden centre gives way to almost-black twiddled petals.  There is probably a better botanical term than ‘twiddled’ but I am sure you get my drift.

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Dahlia ‘Verrone’s Obsidian’, Tostat, August 2017

Two small plants survived the beating summer of my self-grown Gaillardia x grandiflora ‘Burgundy’, but they make me very happy and I will grow more.

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Gallardia x grandiflora ‘Burgundy’, Tostat, August 2017

And you can’t keep this Rudbeckia down.  It is widely used because it is such a dependable plant. It may be half the size it normally is, but it still comes back fighting. Another trait to battle is snobbery against good and dependable plants.

If the wind is in the right direction, the light in the right place and you don’t look too hard at the detail,  some of the garden is still quite presentable despite it all.

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Lovely disguising evening light does well if veiled through leaves, Tostat, August 2017

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Populus deltoides ‘Purple Tower’‘ is undeterred, Pennisetum alopecuroides and Miscanthus Malepartus, with not-yet-flowering Miscanthus Silberfeder, and a bit of artistic light drifting in, Tostat, August 2017

Kentchurch Court, a joyous tour of Centaureas and more

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The Walled Garden, Kentchurch Court, June 2017

A bright, sunny Sunday morning took us to Kentchurch Court gardens when we visited ‘Gardens in the Wild’ in June.  Our visit started with a very good-humoured mixup over our tickets, and in a way, that set the tone for what was a very warm, sunny, joyous garden- and that included the totally fabulous cream and raspberry scones that finished off the visit.  We met the gardener in charge of it all, who seemed as bright and optimistic as his garden over a discussion about Lychnis chalcedonica, the bright red pompoms of which can be seen in the view above and in detail below.

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Lychnis chalcedonica, Kentchurch Court, June 2017

The Walled Garden, in particular, was a joyous mix of shrubs and trees for structure, with big, bold repeating borders stuffed to the armpits with happy plants, some rare and unusual, others cheap as chips, and with repeating swathes of Lychnis chalcedonica, Centaurea cyanus ‘Black Ball’  and Centaurea phrygia.

So brilliant. 300 seeds of ‘Black Ball’ from Sarah Raven, see above, and you would have an industrial scale planting possibility.  I was inspired and have done that, though in lesser numbers, with the Lychnis and ‘Black Ball’.  Really, really easy from seed.

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Centaurea cyanus ‘Black Ball’, Kentchurch Court, June 2017

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Centaurea orientalis, Kentchurch Court, June 201

I adore Centaurea orientalis too, but it does go to mush quickly as my friend Jane observed. For more about Centaurea as a family, Dan Pearson has a useful article.  But there was more to see than a Centaurea tour!

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Lovely mix of Hemerocallis and grasses. Kentchurch Court, June 2017

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Hemerocallis, Rudbeckia occidentalis ‘Green Wizard’ and blue Penstemon, Kentchurch Court, June 2017

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A generous pergola, Kentchurch Court, June 2017

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Verbascum nigrum ‘Album’, the Lychnis, Geranium psilostemon, Kentchurch Court, June 2017

And lastly, a mystery plant, well, to me at any rate, and a possible rose identification.  NB. My pal, Jane the Shropshire Gardener, has identified the mystery plant as Salsify– (Tragopogon porrifolius) and it was weaving its way all through the border plantings, with these exquisite flowers and seedheads popping up all over.

What an inspiring garden, full of fun, colour and energy.  And great scones, trust me.

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Mystery plant now identified:  Salsify, aka Tragopogon porrifolius, Kentchurch Court, June 2017

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Stunning Salsify seedhead, Tragopogon porrifolius, Kentchurch Court, June 2017

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Rosa ‘Wild Eve’ perhaps, Kentchurch Court, June 2017



The slimmest of pickings…

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Filipendula rubra Venusta and friend, Tostat, end July 2017

Well, actually, I’m not picking anything.  And the last couple of days have consisted of a massive electric storm, plummetting rain, and now we have boomeranged down to 17C from 37C, with grey skies and more heavy rain.  Not that I mind the rain, far from it, though it is a case of too little, too late, but at least it will reduce the death rate.  All small plants are being carefully tended and watered, not to venture into the ground until this madness is over.  But I liked this view of the Filipendula rubra Venusta, caught in morning sun a week or so ago, and thought that it looked good mingling in with the wild umbellifers.

Yesterday, the buds of the Hibiscus palustris still looked as if they were auditioning for a bondage movie, but today the first flower is out, photograph to follow if it survives this downpour.

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Buds waiting on Hibiscus palustris, Tostat, August 2017

I grew this Hibiscus trionum from seed about five years ago, and it has finally made it to just over a metre tall in our poor, stony soil.  But it is beginning to look worth the effort, and it looks ridiculously green despite the dryness.  Oddly, most English sites describe it as an annual, but I have to say mine is quite definitely perennial.  Even our Maire gloomily pronounced last week that he hadn’t seen such dryness since the terrible summer of 2003, the summer when we first saw the house on our househunting visit over from Scotland.

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Hibiscus trionum, Tostat, August 2017

Miscanthus sinensis Malepartus has decided to flower about a month earlier than normal and has gone straight to the silver stage.

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Flowering already, Miscanthus sinensis Malepartus, Tostat, August 2017

The Sanguisorba menziessii clump that I moved last year is very much liking where it is- again, I suspect that there is water in small springs under this part of the garden.  But the lovely red flowerheads are quickly going over.

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Sanguisorba menziesii, Tostat, August 2017

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Vernonia crinita ‘Mammuth’, Tostat, August 2017

Vernonia crinita ‘Mammuth’ has been flattened prior to flowering this year, as the rain poured off the bending banana leaves, so there are only one or two stray flowerheads surviving.

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Plumbago auriculata capensis, Tostat, August 2017

Having talked about Ceratostigma last week, this week the rather more refined South African cousin, Plumbago auriculata capensis, started to flower.  In South Africa, this could grow in a lax fashion to maybe 2m high and wide, but with me, more like 1m x1m. It is definitely tender and has to come under cover at the end of autumn.  For me, the darker skyblue of the Ceratostigma willmottianum is more attractive than the paler Plumbago, but in the land of small pickings, I will take what I can get.

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Hydrangea paniculata ‘Great Star le Vasterival’, Tostat, August 2017

This Hydrangea paniculata ‘Great Star le Vasterival’ flowerhead is perhaps half the size of last year, but I am glad it kept fighting to flower, and hope it gets an easier ride next year.  it is named after another incredible plantswoman, Princess Greta Sturdza. who died in 2009.  Of Norwegian and Russian background, she married into the Moravian Sturdza family, and on moving to France in 1955, began her superb garden at Le Vasterival, near Varengeville in Normandy.  Le Vasterival still exists as a garden, not far from Le Bois des Moutiers, with more than 9,000 species and varieties of plants.  More than fifty years of skill and passion created this garden, not to be missed if you are visiting Normandy.  Among her cultivars is Hydrangea paniculata Great Star le Vasterival.


Gardens in the Wild 2017

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Cotton grass blowing in the breeze, Euriophorum angustifolium, The Old Rectory, Thruxton, Gardens in the Wild, June 2017

A garden festival that has great intentions- bringing unusual individual gardens together in a loose network for visitors to combine over a weekend, coupled with a base that offered some stalls with garden plants and items, as well as a programme of speakers.  I really enjoyed listening to the soft, grande-dame tones of Mary Keen for an hour, a great plantswoman and garden-maker, musing and reminiscing with invited interjections from Anna Pavord who was in the audience.

But the central base creates it’s own problem- it’s a long way from any of the network of gardens back to the base, so probably many people only go there once.  Charging a fiver each time you  parked the car seemed a bit steep to me.  End result, seeing the visibly-less-than-gruntled faces of the stallholders for whom there were only slim pickings in terms of business.

And maybe some of the gardens need to showcase the smaller, more domestic gardens that surely do exist in Shropshire and Herefordshire, rather than just the gardens of those with obvious means?  A garden doesn’t have to be stately to be beautiful and interesting to the visitor.  So, I wonder if a bit more rigour in the selection of the network gardens in finding those that are not yet on the NGS radar, or doing some community endeavour and finding 2-3 in a village that could be viewed together, might not broaden the appeal of the festival, which did have a very high panama hat count. Not knocking, honest.

Meantime, at the Old Rectory, Thruxton, there was a garden made and being made over the last 7-8 years with great passion and dedication by the owners, both charming and very helpful people.  The garden around the house had some lovely planting, and a stupendous veg garden with a wall of mellowing fruit, with apricots already looking luscious in the hot June weather.  At the end of the garden, an accidental pond made when earth was removed, was a real highlight.  Big, shaped as if by nature, and planted with beautiful reeds and marginals, it was a delight to wander around and sit by. Amongst the planting there was a billowing cotton grass, Euriophorum angustifolium, and a pretty little marginal, Pontederia cordata, was just coming into flower, with fat spear-shaped bright green leaves.

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Pontederia cordata, The Old Rectory, Thruxton, June 2017

Two other lovely things that made me smile for different reasons were Morina longifolia and Romneya coulteri.  The former as I have grown it from seed in the garden here, and whilst short-lived with me, I adore the bizarre ice-cream coloured flower spikes and the thistle-like bright green leaves.  The Romneya has been dug out from our garden.  I love the fried-egg flowers but the thug price to pay is too high here where it revels in heat and sharp drainage- mine would have reached the moon shortly and was busy exterminating everything around it.  Maybe it would work in a cage?

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Morina longifolia, The Old Rectory, Thruxton, June 2017

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Romneya coulteri, The Old Rectory, Thruxton, June 2017

In the shadier part of the garden, my heart was won by a lovely small foxglove, Digitalis lanata, with strong lemon flowers in the usual spike, much yellower than the link shows, but there you go.

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Digitalis lanata, The Old Rectory, Thruxton, June 2017




Musing on Willmottianum…

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Ceratostigma willmottianum, Tostat, August 2017

Looking for reasons to be cheerful this week in the garden led me to buy some perennials that had been on the list for a while, and spend some time splitting and dividing them, followed by remedial re-potting and placing in the intensive care location, a shady area just by the back door.  I have to say that this activity, never before undertaken in August, has led to a mood of great happiness (on my part) and great new growth on the part of the plants. So, given that I am looking out on a desert of dryness with occasional spot deep watering now happening for newer plants, this seems to be a good way to look forward to the autumn when there may be SERIOUS rain, and then enjoying these newcomers in their planted spots.

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Colouring up the foliage, Ceratostigma willmottianum, Tostat, August 2017

One of these newcomers is Ceratostigma willmottianum.  Brilliant periwinkle blue starry flowers cluster at the end of the upright stems, whose leaves are already beginning to turn scarlet in places- so the autumn foliage is already lining up in the wings.  It has the look of a good plant about it, easily taking my brutal splitting activity in its stride, and happily rooting into a new pot.  And, as ever, I am intrigued by the name, and as the heat baked me into the kitchen, I set about finding out a bit more about Miss Ellen Ann Willmott (1858-1934).

She was an exceptional gardener, collector, photographer and plantswoman, recognised by the RHS in their award of the Victoria Medal of Honour to both her and Gertrude Jekyll in 1897.  Sadly for Ellen, she is now largely forgotten whereas Jekyll’s name and legacy has lived on.  Jekyll gardens are preserved, though there are not many, and restored whereas Warley Place, Ellen’s great passion and possibly the most famous garden in England until the late 1920s, was abandoned and dismantled.  Very little remains except some, now carefully tended by Essex Wildlife Trust, archaeology which hints at the vast garden once gardened by Ellen and her team of over 100 gardeners.

Warley Place by Alfred Parsons credit:

She grew over 100,000 differing species and varieties of plant at Warley Place and financed many plant discovery expeditions, including the expedition led by ‘Chinese’ E.H. Wilson, which discovered and brought back the Ceratostigma in 1907, later named as Willmottianum.  There are three roses named for her, Rosa willmottiae, found by E.H.Wilson in 1904 in China, and two named Ellen Willmott, one bred in France in 1898 by Pierre Bernaix and the other raised by Barber in the UK in 1936.


Rosa ‘Ellen Willmott’ photo credit:

It is undeniable that Ellen really did blow her two fortunes.  But, reading the few accounts of her life, this sparky and intelligent woman is mainly reduced to being categorised as ‘foolish’ and ‘reckless’, not womanly enough (she never married), and even, rather bitchily, I thought, by one male commentator as having a ‘weatherbeaten’ face.  A once beautiful young woman, eminently eligible, who threw aside everything conventional society demanded of her, for her gardening passion- she is not described in appreciative tones by her contemporaries or most later commentators.

She is described as being demanding of her team of gardeners, impatient and testy at times, and famous for her demands for perfection at all times.  And yet, she was also up at dawn already working hard in the garden when her gardeners arrived for work, and she had a prodigious energy for the physicality of gardening.  By the end of her life, she was forced to sell her two garden estates in France and Italy, and valuables from Warley Place were already being sold as her money ran out.


‘My plants and my gardens come before anything in my life for me and all my time is given up working in one garden and another, and when it is too dark to see the plants themselves I read or write about them’ Ellen Ann Willmott image credit:

But, for me, there is a clear disapproving judgementalism displayed in accounts of Ellen Ann Willmott.  Many a man has also lost money, blown their inheritances, and has given far less to the world of discovery and horticulture than Ellen Willmott.  Gertrude Jekyll described her as ‘the greatest of all living women gardeners’.  That is quite something.  I admire her passion and her resolute stubbornness in demanding the best of herself and those around her, even if sometimes there was a price to be paid for that. She deserves better than to be known as the batty old lady scattering Eryngium seeds, she really does.

There is one full biography available, and I read two other interesting articles, one by the gardening historian, Jane Brown, and the other in a blog article by the Oxonian Gardener.   Thank you all.




Sarah Price said ‘Wow!’…Nant y Bedd…

Ian, the co-gardener for the past 18 years along with Sue, who has been gardening here at Nant y Bedd for the past 38 years, welcomed us cheerily to the garden on the afternoon we visited as part of the ‘Gardens in the Wild’ festival in June.  Opening the door to the garden, we all said ‘Wow!’ and Ian laughed, telling us that on a recent visit to write about the garden, Sarah Price, the well-known designer and writer, had also opened the door and said ‘Wow!’.

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Through the high door into a plant paradise, Nant y Bedd, June 2017

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A sea of cow parsley at the edge of the Potager, Nant y Bedd, June 2017

What greets you is a flambuoyant Potager planting of perennials and annuals, all jostling for space and limelight.  There is nothing modest here.  And the surprise of it is enough to make you laugh.  The rest of Nant y Bedd is equally full of surprise and risk-taking.

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Across the bridge to another world, Nant y Bedd, June 2017

A substantial rope and slat bridge takes you from the little tearoom and the colour, to the other side of the bank and the beginning of the forest trail.  Except that, before you set off into the woods, there is a wide open natural swimming pool, beautifully planted with water-lovers and equipped with a shepherd’s hut, ready for the post-swim cup of tea. Looking out from the pool,  it feels as if you are on the roof of the forest, and the little boat made me think of the landscapes of Edward Hopper.   Ian told us that he swims most days in the summer- a shortish season at 1200 ft up in the Black Mountains.

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Looking out across the pool, Nant y Bedd, June 2017

A winding path then takes you through the forest, dotted with objects, chairs to sit on in the landscape, sheep skulls eerily placed on tree trunks, down to the rushing water of the Gwynne Fawr river.

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A seat in the forest, Nant y Bedd, June 2017

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Surveying all, Nant y Bedd, June 2017

The garden is divided into two halves by the forest road.  Ian and Sue’s house, on the other side, is wedged into the hillside, with the garden extending up and around it.

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The Cottage Garden wraps around the back of the house, Nant y Bedd, June 2017

Ian must be a champion mower driver- the hillside mounts steeply behind the house, with sharply carved out beds crammed full of plants, using natives and good, tough perennials, ferns and shrubs, and immaculately trimmed and kept lawn everywhere. After the naturalistic rough and tumble of the Forest, the wild, colourful Potager and clean, cool swimming pool, the garden on the other side of the road presents something else.  With the rocky waters of a stream tumbling through it, nevertheless Sue has created formality in shape and clean-cut lawn, whilst stuffing as much as she can into the planted areas.  The contrast is wonderful, and yet another surprise.

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The rushing water of the stream running into the Gwynne Fawr river and Sue’s brilliant planting, Nant y Bedd, June 2017

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Pilosella aurantiaca, Fox-and-Cubs, Nant y Bedd, June 2017

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Looking towards the house, Nant y Bedd, June 2017

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The Cottage Garden, Nant y Bedd, June 2017

I loved the surprise formality of the three grey pots with lollipop shaped standards in them against the house, see below, under-planted with Solierolia soleirolii, the mind your own business plant tumbing nicely.  I have never tried this plant, but have it on good authority from a nurseryman in the Lake District that it is much tougher than you think- handling Lakes winters outside by going into dormancy and then growing back in the Spring.

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Another view towards the house, Nant y Bedd, June 2017

Ian and Sue are passionate ecologists and conservationists.  Their little by-donation, d-i-y tearoom is a delightful space, crammed with interesting books and pictures.  And plants are for sale, all reproduced from plants in their garden- so it is very, very easy to spend three hours or more in the delightful company of their garden and their passion.  Not to be missed.







Russian roulette…

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Some of it still looks like this, Tostat, July 2017

Yes.  Some of it still looks like this, but an awful lot of it doesn’t- as in ‘toasted’.  Of course, I am the one heralding the new dawn of ‘summer-dry’ gardening, whilst at the same time bemoaning the dried out, crisp-like state of what I see in my own garden.  It just goes to show that changing the aesthetic, changing the way you see things, ain’t so easy.  In my logical, rational head, I know that everything I see roasted in front of me will re-grow next year, and that I get another year of grace to find a better balance between growing plants and weeds, between plants that thrive in hot,dry conditions and those that don’t.  But emotionally, it’s a bit on the gutting side- and that’s me indulging in British under-estimation and stiff-upper-lipness.  Humbug.  So, roll on the day that my book bought at vast expense from the US Ebay arrives, and helps me work this all out.  Should be arriving this week.

So, there is only one thing to do. Indulge in the Russian Roulette of growing new things from seed for next year- you can tell that being a glutton for punishment is a personal trait.  So, I thought I would cheer myself up by writing about what I am trying out and why, and I might finish with a couple of very cheering photos from my friend, Colin the photographer.

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Centaurea cyanara ‘Black Boy’ seeds, Tostat, July 2017

These did make me smile an hour ago.  Looking for all the world like a miniature group of upmarket shaving brushes, these tiny seeds have just gone in a tray.  A few words about growing from seed might not go amiss.  Not that I am in a position to claim expertise here, but I am improving year on year.

First off, I use trays that I buy on Ebay, sometimes they have to be smuggled in in hand luggage if the postage costs are exorbitant.  Then I use a purpose-made seed compost.  I could make my own, but getting good-sized grit is a problem here, and so I don’t.  I haven’t got a bigger tray to soak them in, so once the compost is in, I spray heftily with a mister, leave the tray for 15 minutes or so so that any excess drips out, and then I sow or sprinkle finely depending on the size of the seed.  The main thing is to make sure that the seeds have contact with the moist seed compost- so push them lightly or cover with a fine layer of aquarium grit, the only thing (very pricey!) that I have found that is fine enough for this.

Then I mist again, and leave them in a place with a constant temperature of around 20C- which works for most seeds I find.  This can be outdoors in the covered barn just now or on a bedroom windowledge if earlier or later in the year.  Then you wait, and develop your patience muscle.  Annuals might pop in a week, perennials can take much much longer and be erratic.  But the first sight of a little green something or other pushing through the grit is such a thrill.  You can tell I don’t get out much.

So what am I trying this year?  Well, the appearance of a stray Centaurea cynara ‘Black Boy’ in a strange place earlier this summer, so maybe not down to me, reminded of what a pretty thing it is.  Chiltern Seeds are one of my favourites.


Centaurea cynara ‘Black Boy’ photo credit:

Also from Chiltern Seeds came Linaria vulgaris.  I think that this could really work for me, tough, undemanding sun-lover for poor soil, and I fell for it at the Ludlow Food Centre.

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Linaria vulgaris and Stipa tennuissima, Ludlow Food Centre, June 2017

I can’t quite remember why I liked the look of this, but I thought, well, why not?  Silene laciniata ‘Jack Flash’ seemed like a good idea to take over when the Dianthus deltoides ‘Flashing Light’ has finished, so for less than the price of a cuppa….from Thompson and Morgan.


Silene laciniata ‘Jack Flash’ photo credit:

Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker Red’ comes from Nebraska/Missouri and is supposed to be really up for wet, cold winters and hot, humid summers- now this might mean that we don’t have enough water in the summer, but I am giving it a go.  I like it’s style, dark foliage and pale, luminous flowers.  The RHS like it for pollinators, tick.  Seed from Thompson and Morgan again.


Penstemon digitalis ‘Huskers Red’ photo credit:

And lastly, Cephalaria gigantea– which I raved about in a recent post about Kiftsgate. I saw it amazingly upright despite fierce wind and rain, and so, although it runs the risk of being decked, I am going to try.  Of course, all of this may come to nought, but equally, I could end up with 20 good plants of each.  Let’s stay positive.

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Cephalaria gigantea, Kiftsgate Court, June 2017

Leaving you with some colour….my friend Colin, the photographer, has been out and about in Gloucestershire at Cotswold Lavender.

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