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




Walking on the wild side

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Wild daffodils carpeting a valley, Bossost, Spain, March 2016

On the other side of the Pyrenees last week, Spring had sprung.  Masses of wild daffodils carpeted the valley sides.  Up close, the wild daffodil, Narcissus pseudonarcissus, is a delicate, wiry thing, with slim, cream petals and a long, slightly more lemon coloured trumpet, it is distinguished by it’s plainness really, the Jane Eyre of daffodils.  But, en masse, they make an uplifting display, swishing gently in the breeze. I might be wrong about the Latin name, as mine were certainly paler in tone than implied in the Kew article above.

Narcissus pseudonarcissus, I think, Bossost, Spain, March 2016 photo: Colin Massey

And there were other simple delights too.  A flower I have often seen but was unknown to me by name, (maybe wasn’t paying attention in primary school when identified) was also looking mysterious and delicate, Cardamine pratensis, or Lady’s Smock,  also called the Cuckoo Flower.   I am indebted to the article on virtualheb for more information.   Apparently here in France, because it often appears in May when adders wake up, there is a tradition of avoiding the plant in May in case of being bitten.  But, as you can see below, it has the palest pink colouring and almost the look of a freesia spray about it. Delightful.

Cardamine pratensis, Bossost, Spain, March 2016 photo: Colin Massey

I used to grow pulmonaria in Scotland, and lots of it.  It never took off with me here, but that is probably because I wasn’t savvy enough about where to place it.  I really should try again.  In the spring sunshine, it positively glinted with rich blue and purple tones, always with a deep pink or even red flower mixed in, when we walked up the lane into the Bossost valley.  I think that what we saw was probably pulmonaria affinis, the wild version.  Mary Keen, one of my favourite gardening columnists, tells all in a useful Telegraph article, and like many wildflowers, even Pulmonaria has various old names, including Spotted Dog- you can see why.

Pulmonaria affinis, Bossost, Spain, March 2016 photo: Colin Massey

And, meantime, back in Tostat, some second year tulips are back in flower.   Though, on reflection, whilst pale and interesting, I think I find ‘Apricot Beauty’ a tad too discrete, not quite pink or apricot enough.  But, I really shouldn’t be picky.

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March tulips, possibly Apricot Beauty, Tostat, 2016

Karl and the Grasses

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Miscanthus sinensis ‘Silberfeder’, Tostat, December 2015

It was too cold, shady and wet in my Scottish garden to try out tall grasses, and, truth to be told, I was slightly scared that they would overpower the garden- and me!  But 11 years later, in Tostat, I have many different grasses planted throughout the garden, and I adore them, come winter, spring or summer.

In our warmer climate, at least in the summer, Miscanthus can be a vigorous self-seeder, which, I read, is less likely in the UK.  In my experience, the plants take quite a while to settle in, maybe up to 3 years or more, and self-seeding isn’t an issue till maybe 5 years on from planting.  But to be honest, they are easy to spot as babies once you acclimatise your eyes to the slender tufts, and then they are easily hoiked out if you don’t want them there.  So, for my money, not a problem.

We have some great German nurserymen to thank for many of the varieties we grow.  Karl Foerster, the great early 20th century nurseryman, who ended his life as the only supplier of perennials in East Germany, bred one of the best ornamental grasses there is- Calamagrostris acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’.

I grow this here and it is one of my favourites, but to my shock, I realised I didn’t have a decent photograph of it.  So, what you see below, is how it looks today, slightly tatty, but you can maybe see that it is a delicate grass, very upright, with very slim, fine flowering stalks and leaves, in a delicate green, which is now winter brown.  In fact, Calamagrostris ‘Karl Foerster’ doesn’t appear to self-seed at all, and I have had it in the garden for well over eight years.  Leaning across the photograph is the much fatter seedhead of a Miscanthus, so at least you can see the difference!

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Calamagrostris acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’, Tostat, December 2015

Miscanthus, as a genus, is a star, and one I find very hard to resist. My absolute favourite workhorse Miscanthus is ‘Silberfeder‘.  Tall, pretty much vertical despite summer storms, it creates tall accents without drowning out smaller players, and the movement in the breeze is captivating.  When it flowers, the flowers emerge as bronze-pink and are enchanting against light.  Tough as nails, it will be a little fed up with extended winter wet, but has survived every rainy Spring with aplomb here.  Hans Simon, another famous German nurseryman bred ‘Silberfeder’ in 1955′.

‘Malepartus’ has struggled a little for me, unusually for a Miscanthus, but here it is, earlier in the summer, adding real pzazz to perennial sunflowers.  ‘Malepartus’ was the work of another great German nurseryman, Ernst Pagels, working a little after Karl Foerster.  He was keen to introduce Miscanthus varieties that would bloom earlier than Autumn, and would therefore extend the use of ornamental grasses in Northern gardens.  ‘Malepartus’ flowers more than 6 weeks earlier than my other Miscanthus- you can see how it looked in early August this year below.

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Miscanthus sinensis ‘Malepartus’, Tostat, August 2015

For one of the most stunning displays of grasses, visit Sussex Prairies, just outside Henfield, in Sussex.  I was blown away by my visit there.  Grasses are planted and designed to allow you to experience walking through them and amongst them, and the accompanying perennial planting is stunning. Here are a couple of photographs of my visit there in 2013. Persicaria orientalis, now that’s something I want to try…what’s not to like? Six feet tall, great big tobacco-like leaves and pink tassels?  And what’s more, Mary Keen likes it.


Kniphofia uvaria punching through Deschampsia and Rudbeckia Goldsturm
Kniphofia uvaria punching through Deschampsia, I think, with Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’, another thank you to Karl Foerster, Sussex Prairies, September 2013
Pink Miscanthus against Persicaria orientalis
Pink Miscanthus flowers picking up the pink of Persicaria orientalis, Sussex Prairies, September 2013