In search of Dan and Christopher…

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Lime-green fresh new growth on Melianthus major, the Cloister Garden, Garden Museum, London, February 2018

I have followed Dan Pearson and his career from being a handsome, alternative television gardener way back, to now, at the age of fifty or so, having become the master of peaceful, thoughtful gardens, respectful of their place and situation with choice species planting as his speciality.  In his writing he has honed an almost zen-like long range perspective on how gardens live and evolve side by side with their human carers.

In a very cold and wintry London, I made two small sorties to see his work close up.  More than six years ago, I used to enjoy visiting the Garden Museum, and especially, the café, which, managed by several warm and serious women cooks, made great teas, coffees, baking and lunches to enjoy in the tiny graveyard that was tucked away at the back of the old converted church.  Since then, the Musuem has undergone a transformation.  With no public funding, it has still managed a skilful rehabilitation of the church while Dan Pearson and Christopher Bradley-Hole have brought alive the new Cloister Garden and the entrance/wrap-around garden respectively.

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The Cloister Garden, the Garden Museum, London, February 2018


Winter exposes all, and the Garden is not yet a mature planting.  But, the bananas and the astonishing new growth on the Melianthus major, the upright spikes of Equisetum, and the cheery red Nandina domestica berries provided much more focus than you would imagine.  The underplanting, a lovely mix of Ophiopogon, ferns and not-yet emerged perennials, was only just on the move, but will make a really lush carpet through which the ‘Garden of Treasures’ will appear.  I really enjoyed the use of ancient gravestones, set into the planting, often askew, which will allow you to get up quite close and intimate with the planting.  They also remind you, as does the presence of the decorated tombs of the two John Tradescants, father and son, probably England’s first botanical collectors, of the vivid past and people of this small parish in Lambeth.  Give it all a year or two more, and this little garden will beautifully evoke the Victorian Wardian case that inspired Dan Pearson.

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Nandina domestica, the Cloister Garden, Garden Museum, London, February 2018
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The use of stones to ‘bring you’ into the planting, Dan Pearson’s garden at Chelsea 2015

Christopher Bradley-Hole is another designer who seems almost modest in his search for a simple aesthetic which favours harmony and purpose, rather than decoration.  I thought his 2013 Chelsea garden was a stand-out, though it seemed unassuming in comparison with some of the richesse on display in other gardens.

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Christopher Bradley-Hole, Chelsea 2013

He has opened up the entrance of the Garden Museum with sweeping yew hedges which embrace and create a generous curved and gravelled courtyard space, simply opening up the ancient church buildings to their Museum function.  Using the existing flat and standing tombstones, he has planted amongst them, using a mix of ferns, perennials and grasses to populate these tiny spaces.  This makes little rivers of mixed planting around the stones, bringing them into focus and linking with the use of stones in the Cloister Garden.  There is no bling- and a real economy of focus.

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Christopher Bradley-Hole, entrance to the Garden Musuem, London, February 2018
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Standing clumps of white hellebores and the bright red stems of Cornus, Garden Museum, London, February 2018

The planting towards the boundaries of the Entrance Garden links to the small public space nearby of St Mary’s Gardens, a very tiny smile-shaped area between the Museum and the busy traffic of Lambeth Palace Road.  Bright red Cornus stems spear upwards, maybe ‘Midwinter Fire’ but could be the species Sanguinea, surrounded by clumps of tall Hellebores and bulbs, ferns with probably hardy geraniums to come.  Simple, semi-shade loving with the tall tree canopy to contend with, and very lovely.



Le Jardin Secret: simplicity and elegance matched with drama and boldness

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Kalanchoe beharensis, gold and velvet, feels like cloth, Le Jardin Secret, Exotic Garden, Marrakesh, March 2017
A lone Tulbaghia violacea floats in a sea of Stipa tenuissima, Le Jardin Secret, The Islamic Garden, Marrakesh, March 2017

Le Jardin Secret is a magnificent addition to all that Marrakesh offers, opened only a year ago.  Right in the heart of the Medina on an historic site, an Italian investor wisely chose not to build a hotel, but instead, to create a magical evocation of the Islamic Garden, and an accompanying Exotic Garden.  What a man. I take my hat off to him.  Using skilled local artisans and an international team of archaeological surveyors and historians, as well as the contemporary botanical, architectural and design skills of Tom Stuart-Smith,  Andy Hamilton, Sante Giovanni Albonetti and Karim el Achak– they have all created something quite stunning. Given the people-squash that was Jardin Majorelle, by contrast, Le Jardin Secret was calm and quiet- and therefore, a double delight.

These two plantings above capture the essence of the 2 gardens at Le Jardin Secret.  The first garden you come to is an explosion, an eruption of drama, shape and colour using exotic plants from all over the world.  It soars, surprises, creeps at your feet and draws gasps.  Beautifully brought together for maximum impact and contrast, the planting uses surprisingly few varieties, but creates a rollercoaster of a picture, from a four-trunked palm at least 200 years old to splashes of limonium at your feet.  This garden had no archaeological heritage to honour, there were no traces of what may have once been here at the height of the Riad’s fame in the nineteenth century- and this gave a design free hand.  Fully used, in planting terms.

The Islamic Garden, which sits at an angle to the Exotic Garden, with a dogleg through a new pavilion as the bridge between one and the other, had lots of archaeology which presented itself to the team.  More was discovered as the clearing and excavation went on preceding the build.  This gave the team a classic Islamic Chahar Bagh to work with.  The team took the decision to honour that tradition fully in the choice of plants and trees, with one concession to water preservation and contemporary dislike of bare soil.

Where the traditional Islamic Garden would have preserved bare earth between plants, Le Jardin Secret has chosen boldly to go with a flowing sea of Stipa tenuissima, into which lavenders and other aromatics are inserted.  This grass is a delight. The movement, the way light hits it, the tousled look of it, all create dynamism and flow, but yet no sense of effort or forced energy.

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In the brilliant sun, Stipa tenuissima and lavender, Le Jardin Secret, The Islamic Garden, Marrakesh, March 2017
Rosemary hedges hold the sea of Stipa, but the Stipa fringes the raised, classically tiled and paved paths that lead to elegant seating and small, bulbous, fountains.  Le Jardin Secret, The Islamic Garden, Marrakesh, March 2017
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View down onto The Islamic Garden.  The central rill divides the 4 squares feeding a fountain at the far end (out of view).  Le Jardin Secret, Marrakesh, March 2017
Looking down the central rill to the lotus fountain, The Islamic Garden, Le Jardin Secret, Marrakesh, March 2017

How do you feel in this garden?  It creates simplicity and unity from a limited, traditional palette of planting- but the star of the piece is the humble Stipa which, as water would do, subtly changes the look and the feel of the garden without disturbing.  It was a truly tranquil moment in the rush and bustle that is Marrakesh.  Stunning.

Looking through the dogleg, the traditional staggered entrance, from The Islamic Garden back into The Exotic Garden, Le Jardin Secret, Marrakesh, March 2017

They are a brilliant complement to one another.  The Islamic Garden is a class act, simple, elegant, restrained and cool, whilst the Exotic Garden bursts on the scene like a contemporary firework.  A tour de force.

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Intense light and shade on a hot day, with surprise and stature to match, The Exotic Garden, Le Jardin Secret, Marrakesh, March 2017
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Brick red Aloe ferox gives a shot in the arm, The Exotic Garden, Le Jardin Secret, Marrakesh, March 2017


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In the shade, Euphorbia dendroides, Aloe ferox (yellow) and Melianthus major, The Exotic Garden, Le Jardin Secret, Marrakesh, March 2017
Socking purple, the bee heaven that is Limonium perezii, The Exotic Garden, Le Jardin Secret, Marrakesh, March 2017
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Red-pink Aloe striata against the deep pink-red of the new pavilion creating the staggered entrance to the Islamic Garden, The Exotic Garden, Marrakesh, March 2017

Book your tickets to Marrakesh now!

January glimmers….

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Unknown double white hellebore, Tostat, January 2016

This week, inbetween the tropical downpours, there have been moments of clear, wintery sunshine- and so I have nipped out with the camera to see what there is.  The answer is, surprisingly, not a lot.  Despite our roasting, dry sunshine and temperatures up to 16C in the daytime for weeks right up to the New Year, only a few paperwhite narcissi dared to make an entrance.  Now we have had rain to make up for the dryness, and more normal winter temperatures are promised next week.  Just as well for the skiers, who have been crossing their legs or skis for weeks as snow falls and promptly melts.

This is the first hellebore out in the garden.  I have lost the name, but I love its crinkled, scalloped edges, and the pale green interior.  I don’t trim off the old leaves as you’re supposed to, mainly because the new foliage comes through so quickly that it hardly seems worth it, and any fungal activity seems to fade away as the weather dries.

Hellebores are pretty invasive here, seeding madly and roaring up ready to go as tiny plants in the spring, but I let them do what they want, and then just cull when needed. They keep their bright leathery green leaves throughout the summer no matter the heat, and can look quite tropical in some settings. This double one is not invasive, but I don’t know if that’s a general rule with double ones or not.

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First single white Hellebore, Tostat, January 2016

The single hellebores are the most promiscuous in my experience.  This can mean that you end up with some rather muddy pink ones, which are only marginally attractive.  I haven’t become so ruthless that I have got rid of them yet, but it’s in the stars to start again one year with some fresh stock.

And here is a surprise- the almond-shaped bright red berries are still there on the Berberis ‘Helmond Pillar, or to give it it’s full name, Berberis thunbergii f. atropurpurea ‘Helmond Pillar’.   This is such a good plant.  Upright, undemanding, takes full sun, grows to about 1.5m x 1m across, and is a great vertical colourful plant with almost anything around it all year round.  In the winter, the bare stems have these brilliant little berries, then the spring growth comes with leaves that turn red by early summer, small yellow-red flowers as well, and then often, beautiful autumn tints of flame-red.

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Berberis thunbergii f. atropurpurea ‘Helmond Pillar’, Tostat, January 2016

In the stumpery area that is slowly growing, I transplanted a Mahonia ‘Winter Sun’ very brutally last year.  Fortunately, we did the hatchet job really early in the year, and so by the time we were hit with the heat, the Mahonia had got down into the soil with some new root growth.  So it survived and is doing pretty well.  The scent from the bell-shaped yellow cream flowers is delicious, but you do need to get up close to it.  Even so, it cuts a fine figure in the architectural sense, a bold, vase shape to about 2m high with firm branches and good, cut-leaf splayed foliage all year round.  It does like some shade, but as I know, will take more dryness than you might imagine as long as it gets plenty of moisture in the winter and early spring.  This variety is Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’.

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Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’, Tostat, January 2016

There were one or two other good sights in the garden this week.

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Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’, Tostat, January 2016

This Cornus needs some sun to bring out the colour, but, when you get the sun, it is gorgeous.

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Concertina fan-shaped new leaves emerging on Melianthus major, Tostat, January 2016

The Melianthus major is taking a risk here, but it is in a bone-dry, sunny spot.

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One of the last fruits standing on the Passiflora caerulea, Tostat, January 2016