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 Abebooks.co.uk- on the grounds that homes are needed for more used and secondhand books.

Margery Fish book

Margery Fish photo credit: http://www.eastlambrook.com

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

SR download sussexlife
Sarah Raven photo credit: http://www.westsussexlife.co.uk

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.


Holt book

Geraldene Holt photo credit: http://www.geraldeneholt.com

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.



Beth Chatto photo credit: http://www.gardenmuseum.org.uk

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



























Approaching Sissinghurst part 2

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Rosa ‘Meg’, Sissinghurst, June 2017

Sometimes, as with Hidcote, the National Trust marketing bods go far too overboard with trying to introduce you to ‘the person’ that they have identified as the ‘key person- attractor’ for their property.  As Robin Lane Fox rather acidly remarked in a recent article about Hidcote in the FT, this can lead to patent nonsense, such as your ticket apparently being a personal invitation from Lawrence Johnston. (I can’t link to this article because of the FT paywall, but I must have found it somewhere as I don’t subscribe.)   My understanding of Lawrence Johnston is that he was an intensely private person who would probably have undergone fingernail extraction than take part in such flummery.

However, in the case of Sissinghurst, this approach is far less ridiculous.  First of all, Vita Sackville-West was herself a columnist for ‘The Guardian’ from 1946-61, and she wrote ceaselessly of her successes and failures in her own garden- so this makes Sissinghurst almost a well-kent space for gardeners.  And secondly, the Nicolson family, including the author, Adam Nicolson, her grandson and his wife, Sarah Raven, the well-known garden and food writer, live in the property and are very connected to the ways in which the house and the garden are made available to visitors.

So, I really enjoyed the feeling of intimacy and connection with Vita as a woman, a lover, a wife, a mother, a writer and a great gardener that was opened to you as a visitor at every turn.

Another great rose, perhaps selected by Vita, was looking breathtaking when we visited.  Rosa ‘Meg’ was bred in 1954 in the UK but yet seems to hail from an earlier era. A truly gorgeous apricot rose, a climber/hybrid tea, once-flowering and thereafter the odd bloom, is really worth the space in the garden.  Set against the warm brick of the Sissinghurst walls, and it prefers the warmth of a wall behind it, it was sublime.

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Rosa ‘Princess Marie’, Sissinghurst, June 2017

Right above my head, a huge swag of this very pretty ivory-pink rose, was doing its best against the rain and wind.  Rosa ‘Princess Marie’ was bred in France in 1829 by Antoine A. Jacques and climbs well, although classified as a Hybrid Sempervirens.  Apparently the rose has a strong fragrance, but was too high above me to be able to tell.   Peter Beales, see the link, does describe it as a rambler.

And, finally on the rose front, I loved this little display in the entrance arch to the garden, introducing visitors to some of the roses flowering at that moment.

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Introduction to the roses in flower, Sissinghurst, June 2017

Now to other splendid plants.  There was a mouthwatering spread of absolutely beautiful opium poppies, some of which had taken a pounding in the rain the day before, but other of which had come through very well.   Somehow the rain accentuated the layers of the petals in the crimson one.

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Allium cernuum, Sissinghurst, June 2017

I loved the nodding heads of this little allium, it is commonly called ‘nodding onions’- a very pretty mauve-blue with such spirit and delicacy.  It wants full sun, well-drained soil but otherwise is not fussy it would seem, and is a good spreader, bulbs are available via Sarah Raven.

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Clematis ‘Hagley Hybrid’, Sissinghurst, June 2017 fresh as a daisy

Staying with the mauve theme, a clematis that would struggle with us, was looking fresh as a daisy.  Clematis ‘Hagley Hybrid’ was growing strongly in a corner of the White Garden if I recall correctly.  The International Clematis Society recommends HH as a star for a shady corner, so that’s quite a recommendation.

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Viburnum erubescens, Sissinghurst, June 2017

I was struck by the shining red berries on Viburnum erubescens, but we had missed the apparently gorgeous snowball-white flowers that adorn this small tree in May.  If you have the space, and a moist, semi-shady position, this would be a really attractive small tree/shrub to go for. The berries are only the second act, I would love to have seen the first.

And lastly, a plant that I had not realised I had grown, Digitalis ferruginea.  You know the way it is, a pot that loses the marker, a rosette of green, and a chance identification at le Jardin Champêtre. And then an ‘aha’…I did buy that seed once.  Such a strange and mysterious plant, I can quite see why Vita might well have chosen it, blooming out of time with other foxgloves, rusty brown flowers that have creamy centres, and a good rosette of leaves.  Easy from seed, as long as you remember you planted it!

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Digitalis ferruginea, Sissinghurst, June 2017

Oh joy! It is the season for…couchgrass

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Rosa sanguinea and friends, including….masses of couchgrass, Tostat, May 2016

I thought it would be best to confess.  I am one of the world’s greatest cultivators of couchgrass.  Well, I assume it is couchgrass although, according to various authorities, it may well be something else botanically.  But I am sticking with couchgrass as a generic term referring to what you see in large clumps above on my shitty bank.  My shitty bank is essentially stones and spoil from the swimming pool excavation, and so you may say, what do I expect?  And you would be right.  I have no expectations of not growing couchgrass.  But this late Spring season when, like last week, you get the fatal combination of warm sun and rain, is when the couchgrass seriously moves in.

And I am much more relaxed about it than I was eleven years ago.  I now understand that it just comes with the territory in a largely agriculturally surrounded village.  And, although I will welly in later when the rain stops and do some pulling up, knowing that this wet period makes the soil, such as it is, able to loosen its grip on the couchgrass roots- I also know that time will help me.  In about six weeks or so, shitty bank will be crispy dry and the couchgrass will burn and dry.  As long as I have made a bit of a dent in it with my pulling activities, time and weather will keep it at bay till the frosts come.  I also know that there is no point in planting small, delicate plants on shitty bank as they will not rise above the couchgrass guerrilla tactics.

Here is an example of how I have learnt to live with couchgrass in a damper part of the garden.

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Anemone hupehensis, Iris pseudacorus, Paeonia ludlowii….and a few wisps of couchgrass waiting to be pulled, Tostat, May 2016

Here, by the ruisseau, is a sunny and dampish part of the garden, which also increases the likelihood of bindweed.  Here, after various attempts at handling the couchgrass, I am opting for ground cover that will blot out most of it, leaving only what I call ‘wisp management’- same technique as above, but again, only after rain, the gentle, sharp tug will bring out root and all…for now.

Just to the left of this group, I have a new colony of Phlomis russeliana, which will do a grand job in a month or two.  I read about Phlomis russeliana as a weed suppressant in the helpful Noel Kingsbury blog.  He helped me see what I could have noticed for myself as I love this plant and have lots in the garden in all sorts of different spaces.  But, in the photograph above, you can see that the Japanese anemone works too…You just have to always manage the suppressor as well.  Otherwise the suppressor becomes the tyrant.

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Phlomis russeliana doing a great job in another part of the garden, no lovely creamy yellow flowers yet, Tostat, May 2016

On the subject, briefly, of bindweed, I have also grown Tagetes minuta from seed, following helpful advice from Sarah Raven’s website and the Wellywoman blog, another great source of help and advice.  I have about 25 good looking small plants, which I am going to plant in a couple of places and try out.  It sounds as if you need to plant them in groups around the affected area and the chemical extrusions from the tagetes root is what deters the bindweed.  It’s got to be worth a try, and at the worst, you have extra, feathery foliage that looks quite nice without much else in the flower department.

But meantime, I did do one thing in time this year- staking the herbaceous paeonies, and this one, not sure which it is, looked terrific even after another blasting by heavy rain.  Good for the soul.

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Droplets of rain on an unknown paeony, Tostat, May 2016

In praise of the Hardy Plant Society…

This January I joined the Hardy Plant Society. Really quickly, they sent me a couple of journals and special issues magazines, and then, about a month later, I received packets of seed through the post with a very kind note saying that as I joined at the beginning of the year, I had missed the seed catalogue, and so they had made a selection for me and were enclosing them. I was really surprised and very delighted.

I had decided to join pretty much once I had made my mind up that I was not going to let the automatic renewal for the RHS go through again in the summer. To be honest, although I am sure the readership is immensely complex to serve, I find the magazine irritating and oldfashioned, and as I am here and not in the UK, the other obvious ‘gardens open’ opportunities don’t really work for me. And the HPS is a very modest £17- so there’s more dosh to put towards plants!  So, this year, my Seed Central is half filled with the HPS seeds that they sent me.

Seed Central, Tostat, May 2015
Seed Central, Tostat, May 2015

Seed Central is located in our open barn, along with the cars, the gubbins for the swimming pool, and masses of junk. It is open at one end so sometimes the seedlings do a lot of leaning, but it is a good place, cool, gets the sun in the morning, and the only downside is that if we have a West wind, it tends to whistle through the door from the back garden over the seed trays. So, you need to pick calm days for seed sowing.

An old shutter tastefully mounted on concrete blocks holds the seedlings to the right, and an nearly-dead table was revived to form the seed germination side to the left. So, though it might not meet the most exacting requirements, it works fine for me.  So, front right, you can see Lychnis chalcedonica ‘Salmonea’ or Salmonella, as the great Bob Brown (good piece by Sarah Raven introducing him) of Cotswold Garden Flowers calls it. I haven’t grown this before, and it is a risk as it is clearly salmon-y ( not always my favourite) but HPS sent me the seed and so I am trying it.  Here is a photo from HPS of this Lychnis.

Lychnis chalcedonica 'Salmonea' credit: www.hardy-plant.org.uk
Lychnis chalcedonica ‘Salmonea’
credit: http://www.hardy-plant.org.uk

It is salmon-y but not too much and sounds like a ‘doer’ as long as butchered.

Further in, front right, are the fingery seedlings of Calandrinia umbellata ‘Ruby Tuesday’, a Californian purslane, that I am trying. I saw a calandrinia on Annies’s Annuals a while back, and then found this variety available as seed, and it has all germinated and made good happy plantlets. It is a small, romping groundcover for hot, dry spots, and is usually treated as an annual because it may not make it through a damp winter, but I have so many that I will try it outside and also keep a few in pots indoors. it looks fabulous, tough and shocking pink…The link above takes you to Chiltern Seeds, where I bought mine, a great seed catalogue and a splendid winter read. Here is how I hope it will look…

Calandrinia umbellata 'Ruby Tuesday' credit: www.chilternseeds.co.uk
Calandrinia umbellata ‘Ruby Tuesday’
credit: http://www.chilternseeds.co.uk

And what you can’t see, because they are tiny, are nearly 80 seedlings of Panicum virgatum ‘Emerald Chief’. Great success to have succesfully got 80 thus far, but that success masks a not-so-good picture.  I am growing them because I ripped out a long lavender hedge, yes, I know, it was lovely but I had failed to prune it properly and it was in a sorry state. So, I will have a modernist tall standing row of Panicum, which I can’t possibly mess up, instead of my lavender. Cruel, but practical.  And I think it will look great, if no scent. Great seed once again from Seedaholic.

Panicum virgatum 'Emerald Chief' credit:  www.seedaholic.com
Panicum virgatum ‘Emerald Chief’
credit: http://www.seedaholic.com

At the Inner Temple Garden, London…seclusion with just a dash of Billy Connolly

On a sunny and cold Tuesday afternoon, with 2 garden nut friends, I strolled round the hidden The Honourable Society of the Inner Temple Garden, just off Fleet Street, sandwiched between barristers’ chambers, the round 12th century Temple Church, and the busy Embankment with cars, buses and taxis whizzing by.  You get there by ducking down a little entry off Fleet Street, which immediately recalls the setting for Jarndyce and Jarndyce, the interminable legal case that chokes lives and life in Dicken’s ‘Bleak House’.  Weaving your way towards the Garden, passing barristers in full court tog, and people carrying tottering piles of files and paperwork, it is a cloistered world- literally.

The public can visit the garden from 1230-1500 each weekday, but mainly we came across young legal people enjoying some sunshine and a sandwich. Fringing a spreading lawn, are borders and pretty spots of themed planting. I particularly loved the zing of the Smyrnium perfoliatum, which looked luminous in the sunshine. Sarah Raven loves it with tulips and I can see why. It’s a biennial, which means you need to wait a year for it to flower, but it will get going and self-seed, and with 3 months of possible flowering, it’s a bargain.

Smyrnium perfoliatum, Inner Temple, April 2015
Smyrnium perfoliatum, Inner Temple, April 2015
Smyrnium peeping over the top of unfurling ferns, Inner Temple, April 2015
Smyrnium peeping over the top of unfurling ferns, Inner Temple, April 2015

There were some gorgeous herbaceous paeonies which I didn’t know the name of, they just needed another day to fully open. I am not a great fan of salmon pink, it always reminds me of 1950’s toilets for some reason, but this beautiful paeony just shaved in by only brushing against salmon pink. Not at all sure which one it is.

The light somehow saved it from being salmon pink. Unknown paeony, Inner Temple, April 2015
The light somehow saved it from being salmon pink. Unknown paeony, Inner Temple, April 2015

And, up on the terrace, in full sun, were several Geranium maderense, going full guns.  I have never managed to really get a geranium maderense going, although I have succeeded with Geranium palmatum on a couple of occasions, our rainfall is so very variable and I haven’t mastered the overwintering yet.

Geranium maderense, Inner Temple, April 2015
Geranium maderense, Inner Temple, April 2015

Sadly, a giant and striking Catalpa tree was destined for the chop, as 85% of it was dead. It is sad when a glorious tree has to go, but what a chance to imagine another great tree in the future when re-planting.  When you think about it, many of  Capability Brown’s parklands must have looked as if they’d been planted with sticks for at least two decades. We have really benefitted from the power of his imagination 200 years later.

I also loved the underplanting of a spreading Viburnum plicatum, not sure which variety, with Hakonechloa macra, the flowing Japanese grass.  The grass hasn’t quite filled the space out yet, but is nearly there, and it makes for such fluid groundcover in a rich green. Simple and elegant. I grow this one, and the more popular golden variety, in my garden. Funnily enough, the golden one, Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’, was planted by me in a state of early ignorance, in a boiling hot, dry, stony soil position. See how stubborn I can be. Well, I can report that it is in great health and is now 5 times the original size. It flags a little if there is sustained heat and dryness, but it has always come through. Perhaps though, not the recommended approach to take- a bit high-risk.

Hakonechloa macra underplanting Viburnum plicatum. Elegant. Inner Temple, April 2015
Hakonechloa macra underplanting Viburnum plicatum. Elegant. Inner Temple, April 2015

There was one ghastly bloomer, literally, in the garden, however. Maybe a case of my own forte for ‘It’ll come good’ when actually you are kidding yourself. I can only describe the planting pictured below as the horticultural equivalent of Billy Connolly’s jokes about diced carrots.  For those who like Billy Connolly, here is a link which explains what I mean, it takes 7 minutes but it will enrich your life! Back to the planting. Well, I have to say that the pale blue muscari look washed away when faced with the sweetie pink of the bellis and the loud yellow. It is repeated, unfortunately. Hmmm.

Billy Connolly, Inner Temple, April 2015
Billy Connolly, Inner Temple, April 2015

But to finish, how breathtaking it was to sit beneath the big, spreading Magnolia x soulangeana, and look up at the sun. Even with the sharp wind, it felt very good.

Magnolia x soulangeana, Inner Temple, April 2015
Magnolia x soulangeana, Inner Temple, April 2015