The Garden Museum Literary Festival – a long weekend in Norfolk Part 1

A blissful midsummer’s weekend celebrating the best in garden writing

I can’t remember when I first heard about the Garden Museum.  I’ve been to a few of their wonderful events over the years, have supported Christopher Woodward’s sterling fund-raising efforts for development, and have become rather fond of the organisation and everything it stands for. One day, when I was clearly in the mood to treat myself, I received an invitation to become a Lifetime Friend and my cheque was in the post by return. I was well and truly on board.

I noticed reports of the first Literary Festival, held at the home of Tom and Sue Stuart-Smith (Tom Stuart-Smith being a legendary garden designer) and it was with a little trepidation that we signed up for the second Garden Museum Literary Festival the following year, not knowing quite what to expect and hoping we wouldn’t feel out of place. It was a wondrous event, in the magnificent surroundings of the private gardens at Petworth House, well organised, under warm sunshine, and attended by interesting people who were also warm  and friendly. We immediately fell in love with the concept and decided this would be an event that we would always prioritise. In October 2016 the Festival was held at  Hatfield House  just after they had closed to the public for the year so we had the place to ourselves. In 2017 we went to Boughton House  in Northamptonshire and although we missed 2018 (at the Museum itself in London, the date was announced too late for our diaries to include it) we were determined that we would do everything we could to be present in 2019.

The venue was the magnificent Houghton Hall in north Norfolk, the home of the Marquess and Marchioness of Cholmondeley, our gracious hosts.

We decided to make a long weekend of it and booked a lovely room at The Hoste in Burnham Market, a hotel I’ve often read about and was delighted to have an opportunity to try out. All this was organised as soon as the date was announced and we’ve been looking forward to it for months.

Several hundred Literary Festivals are held in the UK, apparently, so what is it about the Garden Museum Literary Festival that makes it so special? It is one of the few, or perhaps the only one, that travels to a different venue each year. Numbers are limited (I think to a maximum of 200-250 people per day). And everyone books for an entire day, or for both days; its not possible to just attend one talk. So there are no crowds milling around, just a real sense of being amongst a favoured and chosen few like-minded people at a very special private event. We’ve met some  lovely people and enjoyed many great conversations. Everyone who’s there has one major topic in common: gardens, plants, gardening (and probably a love of culture too). So its a very civilised event indeed. We love it.

There are always at least two talks on at any given time, sometimes three, so there is always a sense of frustration that one can’t be in more than one place at a time. You have to turn down the opportunity to go to something wonderful, in favour of something even more wonderful. Tough choices!

This is what we did on Friday:

Arne Maynard : Gardens to be Gardened
As inspirational as always, Arne’s warmth and generosity shines through as he speaks. I was privileged to spend a day with him and a few others at his home in Monmouthshire three years ago, and it was great to be reminded of his approach.

Tim Richardson: Sculpture in the Garden and George Carter: Objects in the Garden
Two speakers with differing styles and approaches in this session but both informative, thought-provoking and entertaining.

A tour of the Walled Garden with Dimitrisz Sopisz, the new Head Gardener at Houghton Hall

A showing of the film Five Seasons : The Gardens of Piet Oudolf
This session was put on at the last minute in place of a previously advertised talk for which the speaker was unable to attend. We were thrilled because I’d tried to find a location to see the film but there had been nowhere within striking distance of us. So this was a huge bonus.

Peter Parker : Latin in the Garden
Peter started off his talk in the Marquee (there is always a marquee or two at the Festival!) and we soon went out into the Walled Garden for most of it. Some rather nifty earpieces were provided for this (and also for the Head Gardener tours) so it was easy to hear the speaker very well even in the great outdoors. This thoughtful touch was appreciated by many of us.

Lunch for some of us was a delicious pre-booked buffet in the Old Kitchen. Other Festival-goers picnicked outside in the grounds in the glorious sunshine that pervaded throughout the Festival.

On Saturday we started off with:

Caroline Donald  (the Sunday Times Gardening Editor) in conversation with Sam McKnight (celebrity hairdresser) and Jo Thompson (award winning garden designer) about their ongoing creative collaboration.

Then Luciano Giubbilei : Sulptures and Inspiration from Art. After Luciano sat down my husband turned to me and said “the man’s an artist”. We were enthralled by all he showed us and shared with us and bowled over by pictures of the recent project photographed on the home page of his website.

A house tour followed. Wow, what a place! As a break from words here’s some interior photos:

Victoria Fritz had the challenging (but extremely entertaining) task of keeping Robin Lane Fox on track and just this side of policitically correct acceptability in a wide-ranging conversation

And finally, we heard Shane Connolly  talk on Rediscovering the Meaning of Flowers.

By making the (very difficult) choices we did we missed hearing talks by Julian and Isabel Bannerman, Carol Woolton, Dr Catherine Horwood, Hugh St Clair, Lalage Snow, Lisa Chaney, Non Morris, Raffaella Barker, Richard Mabel, Lady Rose Cecil, Sir Roy Strong, Tim Marlow in conversation with The Marquess of Cholmondeley, Tom Williamson, and Viktor Wynd on a wide variety of topics.

A final “everyone getting together” occasion on the West Front Steps of the Hall saw Christopher Woodward thank our hosts for their generous hospitality, and our hosts thank the Festival for coming!

We then walked around some of the wonderful landscaped park in front of the Hall, looking at some of the Henry Moore sculptures which are currently on display, and finally left this most magical of events in such wonderful surroundings to return to our hotel.

Here’s a few of the sculptures in the grounds

I cannot recommend the Garden Museum Literary Festival highly enough. Our one plea is that the date is announced as early as possible (preferably at least six months ahead) as many people who want to take part have very complicated diaries. If you want to attend book as soon as you can; the 2019 Festival was sold out.

During our long weekend we also visited East Ruston Old Vicarage, and Pensthorpe Nature Reserve, and I will write about these in Parts 2 and 3, as well as show you some photos of the Walled Garden at Houghton Hall in Part 4 of a Long Weekend in Norfolk.


Advice for friends: planting in a difficult situation under trees

Two lovely friends in our French life, P & F, recently asked me for advice on what to plant in a very difficult position under trees which apparently suck all moisture and light from the soil. They’ve tried various plants none of which have thrived or even survived (so they tell me).

I’ve always adopted the “have a go” approach to gardening. Someone I knew in a previous life used to have a perpetually empty garden because she was always in a state of “not knowing what to plant” in stark contrast to me at the time which was to have dozens of plants “waiting to be planted” (with few spare spots to plant them in). Recently I read that you should always buy plants in multiples of three: one to plant, one to die, and one to give away. A great sentiment, but I digress …

I decided that I would have a good think about P & F’s situation and come up with a few ideas for them. Their garden is on the edge of a small, picturesque, ancient bastide town on the south-western corner of the Dordogne, not so far from our French house. They tell me it is surrounded by forest trees and on the edge of a steep cliff, with little good soil and a lot of rock. 

I haven’t actually visited it (yes, I know I should but I thought I’d start the ball rolling with a few ideas first). And I don’t really know for sure what they most want to use the garden for: to potter, to chill out and relax, or to be a party space entertaining family and friends.

I decided to list out the key elements of the situation:

  • hot and dry in summer, potentially cold in winter (overnight lows can occasionally be well below freezing)
  • shaded
  • poor soil
  • busy owners with limited time (and, dare I say it interest) for watering/tending plants
  • yet they are also very stylish owners who love to be surrounded by beauty

Its a tough brief!

My advice? Initially P & F need to decide how large an area they want to plant and what effect they want to achieve; do they want it to be colourful, to have interesting plants, or do they mainly want it to be tidy? They will need to spend some time tending to their new plant babies as they get established for success.

They will want to think in terms of layers of planting, to create an upper storey, a middle storey and an under storey. The upper storey is already in place with the forest trees. The middle storey would be shrubs some of which might be evergreen to give winter interest and structure (you don’t want the garden to be a one-season wonder). And the under storey would be low-growing plants such as herbaceous perennials, bulbs, and small sub-shrubs such as lavender.

Selecting a plant whose requirements match the intended position will give it a better chance of thriving. If you put a plant in a place where it wouldn’t naturally grow it is not going to be happy. Beth Chatto OBE, who died last year after a long and distinguished life, is renowned for the philosophy of “right plant, right place”. It is not foolproof (what is that involves growing things!) but is a very good philosophy to start from. Beth Chatto created a wonderful garden in Essex that was a mix of shady, damp, dry, and sunny conditions. Her success was very much down to making sure that she gave plants the conditions they liked best. Many plants do well in a shady situation, some do well in dry shade too. So there is hope for P & F!

Browsing websites for online nurseries and plant suppliers is a great way of learning which plants are good for which situation. Some have good search facilities which enable you to create a planting list suitable for your situation. Crocus.co.uk is a good example of this (although they don’t deliver to France). Beth Chatto’s nursery website too. And of course there are some excellent online French nurseries such as Promesse de Fleurs (from whom I’ve already bought a number of plants) or Senteurs du Quercy from whom I’ve not yet bought but fully intend to (and who come recommended).

Browsing through one or two books on the topic is still also a great way of being inspired. You can sit and daydream with a book more than you can with a website. You can flip the pages back and forth, and of course you can be enthused by a plant and look it up on your iPad! I often do this with magazines, newspapers and books.

For example, a fern may feature that does well in your conditions (let’s say dry shade). Your mind runs on and you envisage a group of ferns under a tree. So you do a google search “ferns for dry shade” and before you know it you have a list of 3 or 4 varieties that are suitable for your position.

There’s a great Facebook group that I belong to called Gardeners in France, which I’d recommend my friends joining. I’ve learnt a lot from it, and enjoy seeing photos of other people’s gardens too.

And of course they need to invite me round to have a look first hand at the location so I can refine my suggestions for them. P & F are great company too so I know we will have a great time talking plants and gardens, perhaps with a glass of bubbles in hand. Cheers!


In a vase on Monday – from the French garden

The garden is in a phase where there aren’t many flowers. At least that’s what I thought until I decided to walk around with a flower bucket in one hand and a pair of secateurs in the other. And I was pleasantly surprised. Here is this week’s #IAVOM, all picked from the garden. Keep reading for some identification and explanation.


Here’s another couple of views from different sides

I rather like how the vase has ended up, all loose and informal and flowery.

Here’s what found its way into the vase:

Prunus cerasifera: we’ve planted a number of these along a hedgerow

Verbena bonariensis: we love this and will always have it in all our gardens. In due course it will self-seed around and be very welcome

Rose, a pale pink climber, no idea what name, lightly fragrant, grows up the south side of the covered terrace (that used to be a tobacco barn)

Erysimum Bowles Mauve: another plant we usually have in our gardens and which is absolutely flourishing here. I must remember to try and strike some cuttings to keep it going as they can be short-lived

Lychnis coronaria: one of the few flowering plants that we inherited which self-seeds modestly in one or two places and is very welcome. I love the way it looks as though it is paying homage to the ancient plane tree.

Kaki flower: a small branch that was growing in the wrong direction (so OK to sacrifice for the vase!). We didn’t know what this tree was for a couple of years but last year it was covered with flowers and subsequently fruits. We weren’t able to enjoy the fruits as we missed the window when we could have ensured they were ripe enough to eat. Unripe they are very astringent and really quite unpalatable. I suspect we may need to get a system going where we pick them and encourage them to ripen in drawers or paper bags! The tree is making a lovely shape (spot the flower bucket put down while I took the photo!). You can just see our compost area in the background to the left, and the rose garden to the right.

Rhus typhina: a small sucker pulled up and trimmed for this vase. They sucker very badly in our region and for this reason we removed the couple of trees that we had, notwithstanding the lovely autumn colour.

Scabious: not sure which variety but beautifully fragrant and loved by butterflies

Heuchera sanguinea (not sure which variety) bought from a local French garden centre but thriving and absolutely beautiful

A spring of wild mint. It grows wild everywhere.

Calamagrostis Karl Foerster: bought a couple of years ago in Carcasonne to plant in front of (at the time) above-ground pool to try and disguise it. The pool was subsequently demolished and the Calamagrostis dug up, divided, and relocated to a new bed where it provides rhythm throughout. The clumps are bulking up rather too quickly and in danger of dominating so will need yearly attention I suspect

Gaura lindheimeri: also bought at the same time as the Calamagrostis for the same purpose and subsequently treated in the same way. Gaura grows well in our climate and location although it hasn’t yet shown any signs of self-seeding as we know occurs elsewhere

Leycesteria formosa: another plant I always like to have. I know some people find it a pest, with volunteers springing up all around, but we are ruthless in weeding out volunteers that are surplus to requirements and wouldn’t be without it.

A couple of sprigs of a small-flowered red salvia that we inherited; we like salvias and intend to grow a lot in due course.

Zantedeschia: all self-respecting French gardens (at least in this region: 33 Gironde bordering 47 Lot et Garonne) have a good specimen or two. Ours is just in its second year but building up nicely.

And finally a beautiful red rose from the climbing rose that soars over the front door. Its been spectacular this year. Its first flush has finished and there are only a couple of flowers to be seen at the moment. More will follow very soon. Sadly it has no perfume at all.

And if you think that I’m just living the dream in my corner of south-western French paradise … I’ll tell you that the weeds are growing like mad and I spent today raking and barrowing rubble. But that’s a story for another time.

#IAVOM thanks to https://ramblinginthegarden.wordpress.com

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The Exotic Garden: inspiration, planning and planting

Inspiration from Christopher Lloyd at Great Dixter

The first time I visited Great Dixter was the first occasion I was introduced to the concept of exotic/tropical style planting. It must have been not many years after the late Christopher Lloyd and his head-gardener Fergus Garrett (recently awarded the RHS’s prestigious Victoria Medal of Honour) replaced the long-standing rose garden with this new, challenging, and very exciting planting concept. I was enthralled by it.

At the time I still lived in the Surrey family house with its hot, dry front garden which I bedded out differently at least twice a year. Initially I’d used traditional bedding combinations that I knew would thrive in the conditions. But after visiting Dixter I decided on the much more dramatic option of the exotic style for the summer. Trachycarpus fortunei were planted as centrepieces, and cannas, dahlias, brugmansias, begonias amongst others filled the spaces in between. The hot conditions were ideal, dry not so, and watering therefore became an important feature of summer maintenance. At the same time a new permanent bed was developed in the back garden, known as “the hot bed” with a similar palette of plants including a musa basjoo (the hardy banana) which was almost always cut to the ground each year but grew back with vigour each summer. I had fallen in love with exotic-style gardening.

Inspiration from the late Will Giles

The next important influence was the late Will Giles, with his wonderful Exotic Garden in Norwich. A long weekend away a few years ago was built around wanting to visit his garden and meet him. I had already bought his books and the warmth of his welcome was a mark of a great artist who shared his knowledge and love for plants and gardening with such enthusiasm and deep generosity. I ended up Facebook friends with him and benefited from his interest and kindness on several occasions. You can read an obituary of Will here.

On Will’s suggestion we visit an outstanding garden in Barbados a few years ago, Hunte’s Garden which gives a wonderful impression of the style and creates a unique atmosphere where operatic arias waft around the garden from hidden speakers, as you admire the plants.

What is an Exotic Garden?

There are as many different interpretations of the exotic gardening style as there are gardeners, but if there is one element which is a recurring theme it is the use of foliage (coloured and large leaved) to create a lush effect where you could (almost!) imagine yourself in some kind of jungle environment. A number of signature plants recur including musa basjoo (the hardy banana), various palms, bamboos, tree ferns, tetrapanax papyrifer rex (often called T.rex), gingers, podophyllum (spotty dotty), fatsia, with dahlias, cannas, begonias and other annuals/tender plants for colour.

In my observation there is a danger that exotic-style gardening assumes a bit of a formula, with an element of competition added too, with examples of posts on various Facebook groups of people comparing leaf sizes in rather a schoolboy fashion and the same old, same old plants being used over and over again to greater or lesser effect depending on how well they are combined and placed.

Furthermore, many proponents of the exotic gardening style use a disproportionate number of plants which are not hardy in the UK/European winter and either end up with bare patches as everything is lifted under cover for winter or (worse in my view) unsightly protection structures creating a kind of shanty town for half of the year.

We wanted a year-round Exotic Garden which included unusual plants, and several layers of planting.

Development beyond the confines of formula

A visit to the new Exotic Garden at RHS Wisley last September showed a garden that is developing far beyond the confines of any formula, and with a great year-round structure. We had initially been disappointed on our first visit, soon after it opened, but a year on it was looking magnificent. And indeed the Exotic Garden at Great Dixter continues to develop each year with new ideas for planting and Dixter’s usual pushing back of boundaries led by the irrepressible, imaginative, and untiring Fergus.

Plans for our own Exotic Garden in France

With this background, an area devoted to the exotic style was essential. Not only do we have the space, but the climate offers opportunities not available in the UK. Although winter overnight temperatures can be lower than Sussex the summer temperatures are always significantly higher. The net effect of this is that plants that wouldn’t thrive in UK winters will do so in the French garden because the prolonged summer heat somehow ripens them in such a way that they are better able to withstand the colder temperatures of deep winter.

A very good example of this is a magnificent stand of Musa basjoo that we inherited. It has never been cut down in our four winters despite temperatures during that time as low as -6C. Here’s some photographs.


Taken in the early days, looking down the drive before the trellis fence around the sand filter had fallen down and been removed. And from inside the house:


This (below) is what the banana looks like in winter after the frost has hit it. We leave the fried leaves in place to protect the pseudostem. Some might think it looks unsightly but it rustles rather nicely and I think has a charm of its own.



Choosing and preparing the area

The existing position of the Musa Basjoo to some extent pointed to where we should create our own Exotic Garden. It is at the top of an area that used to go down to a deep dip which frequently filled with water, at least in winter. We loosely called this water the pond but it was really called a mare, and may have been a cattle drinking point, or it may simply be run-off from the sand filter of our septic tank going to the lowest point. The area is surrounded on two sides by a field (sunflowers and wheat on a two-year rotation), was covered with self-sown scrubby poplars, elders, willows, a huge pampas, nettles, and other weedy plants, and marred by a lot of rubble that had been dumped there over decades (possibly centuries). The slopes were too steep to walk down.

Our original intention was to create a proper pond in the dip and surround it with exotic style planting. But we decided against the pond because we welcome small children to the garden and reducing garden hazards seems a sensible course of action.

A large quantity of topsoil from the area which became the new car park at the beginning of 2018 was dumped into the dip, filling in “the pond” and smoothing the steepness of the slopes. I then sowed the area of bare soil with a mix of colourful annuals in spring 2018 to cover the soil and create some passing interest (for us and for pollinators!). They were absolutely gorgeous and definitely did the job!

After the annuals were frosted at the back end of the year they were cleared to compost and the ground prepared with several trailer-loads of well-rotted horse manure and then rotovation.

The steps down into the Exotic Garden

I wanted to make sure that we were enticed down into the Exotic Garden, that it became an easy destination and that we wouldn’t just stand at the top and look down at it. So Jon our gardener was enlisted to make a series of wooden steps filled with woodchip and he’s done a great job.

They are still looking a little bright and stark, but sunlight will fade the yellow to grey, plants will cover and soften the sides, and they will soon look very natural (which is our objective).

The planting

The Exotic Garden is quite a large area (and will indeed become larger as time goes on and we extend the planting area to both sides of the steps) and I wanted to make sure that we included a number of plants to give more structural height throughout the seasons not just in high summer. My first planting list reflected this and in due course (although probably not this summer) we will infill with many different smaller plants so that after a couple of years we achieve the real jungle effect that the exotic garden style aims for. And of course we will always have scope for adding some of the more colourful exotic flowers such as dahlias which we love.

As already mentioned, some exotic style gardens look wonderful for a short time in mid-late summer but pretty bare and stark for the rest of the year. I wanted to avoid this pitfall, hence aiming for a good structure of larger plants that will thrive year-round.

The hedge between the Exotic Garden and the farmer’s field

There is a fairly substantial area of grass below the planted area leading up to the boundary with the farmer’s field and we planted a line of interesting mixed shrubs in December 2018, a metre in from the boundary which will frame this area. In time these shrubs will grow together and merge into a kind of hedge, but very informal and loose with no straight lines anywhere. Some will grow tall enough to create a sense of enclosure and privacy, somewhere to put a bench.

I can imaging sitting in just that spot reading a good book, occasionally glancing up to be dazzled by the large leaves, intricate textures, and zinging colours of the Exotic Garden as it continues to develop, never standing still, following the footsteps and inspiration of wonderful mentors.

Planting list for the first phase

Here’s my initial planting list (showing the nurseries I bought from). You’ll see that I bought from several UK nurseries as well as the French online supplier Promesse de Fleurs and local French garden centres. The primary objective at this stage was to add plants that will become structural anchors and upper layers (although a few others have crept in – impulse buying always rocks!).

Abutilon Kentish Belle Burncoose
Acacia Pravissima Burncoose Am told it’s the least likely to sucker, therefore planted in preference to  dealbata which is widely seen around us
Acanthus mollis Hollard’s Gold Barracott Plants
Acanthus Whitewater Barracott Plants
Amicia Zygomeris Burncoose Fell in love with this originally at Great Dixter. Grew it fairly unsuccessfully in the Surrey “hot bed”, planting several in successive years which we lost in cold winters
Aralia cordata Sun King Promesse de Fleurs
Aralia Elata Golden Umbrella Promesse de Fleurs
Arundo Donax Variegata Promesse de Fleurs
Asarum Europaeum Promesse de Fleurs
Begonia Evandsiana Barracott Plants Was happy growing under our Musa Basjoo in the Surrey “hot bed”, and came back each year. Originally introduced to it by Will Giles in Norfolk.
Begonia Evandsiana alba Barracott Plants
Bergenia Overture Crocus Aim eventually to have several different bergenias for underplanting
Blechnum Chilense Crug Farm Plants
Callistemon  Laevis Promesse de Fleurs
Cercis Canadensis Forest Pansy Burncoose
Clerodendrum Trichotomum var Fargesii Burncoose
Cordyline Australis x 3 Promesse de Fleurs Have planted three groups of cordylines, one plain Australis and one variegated
Cordyline x 3 different variegations Jardiland Bergerac
Crocosmia Lucifer Crocus
Daphniphyllum Himalayense Macropodum Promesse de Fleurs
Datisca Cannabina Promesse de Fleurs Saw this growing in the cutting garden at Sussex Prairie. Enormous and very striking!
Ensete Ventricosum Jardiland Planted out before the frosts have reliably stopped. We shall see …
Eriobotrya Japonica Jardinerie Jay My Twitter chum Andrew tells me the fruit taste like Germolene (how would he know that?!). Notwithstanding that mixed recommendation I love the flowers and leaf form. Planted for height.
Eucomis Bicolor x 3 Promesse de Fleurs Both varieties of Eucomis remain unplanted and on a shelf. Next time …
Eucomis Comosa Sparkling Burgundy x 3 Promesse de Fleurs
Euphorbia Mellifera Crug Farm Plants Love the honey perfume of this wonderful Euphorbia
Farfugium Japonicum Promesse de Fleurs
Farfugium Japonicum Aureomaculatum Promesse de Fleurs
Farfugium Japonicum Wavy Gravy Promesse de Fleurs
Fatshedera Lizei Annemieke Burncoose
Fatsia Japonica Crocus
Fatsia Polycarpa Green Fingers Crocus A little less hardy than Fatsia Japonica. We shall have to see how it settles
Griselinia Ruscifolia Burncoose
Hakonechloa Macra Crocus
Hakonechloa Macra Aureola Crocus
Hakonechloa Macra Nicolas Crocus
Hedychium densiflorum Barracott Plants
Lobelia Cardinalis Queen Victoria Burncoose
Lomatia Ferruginea Crug Farm Plants
Luma Apiculata Glanleam Gold Promesse de Fleurs I love the texture and colour of the bark on a mature specimen and was hoping that this variegated version will perform well in that regard. However, a couple of weeks after planting it is not looking very healthy at all.
Mahonia Nitens Crug Farm Plants
Melianthus Major Barracott Plants We already have one in another bed but no self-respecting exotic garden could be without one so we happily planted another.
Musa Basjoo Already in the garden Having successfully grown Musa Basjoo (the hardy banana) in our Surrey garden (where it was mostly cut to the ground each winter but regrew) we were thrilled to inherit a huge specimen which hasn’t been cut down since we arrived. Being a monocot  the clump keeps reforming as stems that have flowered die off and new ones grow. In high summer it is absolutely magnificent. In winter it can look very scraggy … but there are always memories, and promises …
Myrtus Communis tarentina Promesse de Fleurs
Ophiopogon Planiscapus Nigrescens x 9 Several clumps, divided from the Sussex garden R included the name of this plant in his wedding speech, to prove that he was embracing my passion for plants. We therefore must always have them in our gardens!
Osmunda Regalis Crocus
Persicaria Microcephala Red Dragon Barracott Plants
Persicaria Microcephala Silver Dragon Barracott Plants
Phormium Cookianum subsp hookeri Tricolor Crocus Three different (hopefully reasonably compact Phormiums) will be joined by a dark purple variety which is currently outgrowing its allotted space in the Sussex garden. We have now dug it up and divided and potted up a dozen or so new plants to take to France next time we drive.
Phormium Rainbow Queen Promesse de Fleurs
Phormium Rainbow Sunrise Promesse de Fleurs
Phyllostachys nigra Originally from Jardiland Bergerac This has been in a large pot for a couple of years, originally bought to dress the covered terrace and disguise some rather ugly downpipes. I’d always vowed I would never plant a bamboo in our fertile ground, seeing many around us taking over the fields next door to their original positions. I weakened … and am hoping that its reputation as a clumper rather than a spreader is correct.
Pittosporum Tobira Promesse de Fleurs
Podophyllum Spotty Dotty Promesse de Fleurs Every exotic garden worth its name has a Spotty Dotty.
Pseudopanax Crassifolius Promesse de Fleurs
Pseudopanax Ferox Promesse de Fleurs
Pseudopanax Moas Toes Barracott Plants
Rheum Palmatum Barracott Plants
Schefflera Delavayi Crug Farm Plants Magnificent plant. I found myself saying “ooh”, and “aah” out loud when I originally unpacked it.
Schefflera Taiwaniana Barracott Plants Unfortunately the growing tip had broken off in transit. I’m seeing if I can root that, and hoping that the original plant recovers
Tetrapanax Papyrifera Rex Barracott Plants There’s already one elsewhere in the garden.
Thalictrum Ichangense v minus Chinese Chintz Crug Farm Plants
Trachycarpus Fortunei Proflora It wasn’t easy to find a Trachycarpus, many of the garden centres not stocking them at the moment because of the weevil problem.
Trochodendron Aralioides Promesse de Fleurs

The rose garden: planted in January, flowering by May

Many people have been asking me how the rose garden is developing, after the big plant out in January.

On arrival at the house last Thursday for a cheeky last-minute weekend I was thrilled to see that some of the roses already had flowers. Across a sunny weekend more opened. I was even able to enjoy one of my favourite gardening activities, a spot of deadheading.

On our previous visit over Easter we spent a long time weeding amongst the roses and the ground had stayed quite weed-free which I was very pleased to see. The thick layer of wood-chip mulch is helping to prevent germination of annual seeds and we will be relentless in removing any residual perennials as they show their faces above ground.

The grass paths between the beds will take some time to develop. We are simply allowing them to grow of their own accord as it is now too late to reliably sow seed in our French climate, especially as we aren’t there full time to water regularly.

Of the 87 plants (all bare-rooted) we put in all bar possibly two are growing well and we aren’t going to give up on that final two until we are sure. Here are some photos of some of the flowers I took on Tuesday in gorgeous sunshine.

82A1A7E2-E48A-4CE8-8A57-C82929366619The Verschuren variegated rose. We planted four, one in each quadrant.

64F22002-6851-4434-8E26-CA023E24607ANot a rose, but a magnolia grandiflora which was already in the area subsequently designated for the rose garden so will become a feature in one of the quadrants.


Climbers are beginning to grow upwards and will soon need to be tied in to the vertical pillars.


There are some glorious oranges and yellows


And whites and pinks


And of course deep reds.

All are fragrant, specially selected for that quality.

Many of the bushes haven’t opened a single flower yet although all are laden with buds. There is no sign of black spot or any other disease, although a little greenfly could be seen on one or two bushes. The prolific bird life will undoubtedly deal with those.

I’d better plan my next visit quickly; there’s going to be a lot of deadheading to do in coming months!


In a French vase on Monday

Am I cheating if I share some vases from a couple of weeks ago?

We are at the French house for a quick and cheeky last-minute weekend, returning to the UK tomorrow, so if I pick some flowers/grasses from the garden today they will go onto the compost heap tomorrow. And that seems like rather a waste.

A couple of weeks ago, here in France, we had a few friends to dinner on Easter Monday. Long before I started to prepare dinner I went out into the garden and picked what flowers I could find and arranged them in vases.

And of course I photographed them and I’m going to share them with you today. Here they are.


The white lilac from the drive was in full and perfect bloom. I put them in a vase with some phacelia tanacetifolia which had self-seeded around the car park. And in small vases in front I put phacelia with lily of the valley. Phacelia has a very good vase life (as well as being adored by bees and other pollinators. All three flowers are very fragrant. Here’s a close-up of the lilac and phacelia.


and the phacelia and lily of the valley


I plan to relocate the lily of the valley at some point. Its current position is in full sun and goes over too quickly. I want to try and establish them under some hedges in a shadier spot.

All self-respecting French gardens (at least round here) have a “snowball bush” also known as boule de neige. Of course it is Viburnum Opulus Roseum, the sterile version (so no berries to follow). I like it best before it is fully flowering, when the flowerheads are green. When I picked them two weeks ago they were on the cusp of green and white.


I quite like this combination of dark hellebore flowers with the perennial wallflower Bowles Mauve. I seared the ends of the hellebores in hot water (30 seconds, taking care to hold the flowerheads away from the steam) and they lasted well in the vase.


I also paired some of the hellebores with more “snowball” viburnum


And finally a couple of red roses from the climbing rose by the front door.


Red is such a difficult colour to photograph, but I’m sure you get the gist.

I hope you’ve enjoyed seeing some of the flowers I managed to find in the garden to decorate the house for our Easter dinner. In months and years to come I’m looking forward to an even wider selection as the plants we’ve put in establish and we add even more. Have a great week.

#IAVOM thanks to https://ramblinginthegarden.wordpress.com


A fortnight in April: cool, damp, and much progress

We set off from Sussex with a car packed to the gunwales with the usual random collection of items, this time mainly plants.


Our drive to Portsmouth is quick and straightforward (apart from the 11 roundabouts around Chichester) and we were smoothly on to the ferry.


where we quickly dumped our small bag in the cabin and went straight to the restaurant for dinner. Brittany Ferries put on an interesting selection of cold buffet for starters, followed by an OK main course and pudding. The wine list offers very good value. Eating dinner at a table near a window, watching Portsmouth Harbour gradually disappear, is a good way to pass a couple of hours until early bedtime.


Sleeping in a 2foot wide cabin berth isn’t easy, and dawn comes with some relief. On this occasion it was also particularly beautiful as we arrived at St Malo.


Soon after arrival we received a delivery of garden furniture from Sustainable Furniture in the UK, via a highly-recommended transport company working between UK and France, Safe Hands Haulage. I’ve been wanting to instal a tree seat around the walnut tree ever since the first summer when we discovered what beautiful shade exists in that spot in the hottest part of the summer.


And we also now have a few more garden benches to distribute around, not to give the “care home” experience but to provide coffee- and wine-stop opportunities during busy days.

We enjoyed a relaxing country walk with some friends and their dogs in nearby woodland, walking along ancient chemins, through small settlements, and alongside fields.


I saw the first banksia rose at close up. It wasn’t a particularly exciting specimen but made me more determined to ensure we plant one at some point, somewhere in the garden. They really are quite exquisite.

And a clump of lily of the valley was still looking good, despite growing in a wholly unsuitable place from where it will be moved on my next visit I hope. At the moment it is across the entrance to the new exotic garden; it will be moved to live under hedging.


Traditionally, French people give each other posies of lily of the valley (muguet) on 1st May. Ours, being in a sunny spot, will be well and truly over by 1st May.

The irises we inherited are looking good. These also need some attention, both to move them into more suitable positions and to divide and separate congested old clumps.


French gardens are frequently full of the most wonderful varieties of bearded iris.

The roses on the front of the house are opening up.


The red rose is a beautiful strong form, packed full with petals. Unfortunately it has absolutely no perfume whatsoever (and I have a sensitive nose). The pale pink rose on the old tobacco barn (which forms a covered terrace at the side of the house) is perfumed. The virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) on the right side of the house is now growing back after it was completely cut away when the new shutters were fitted. We thought we wanted to get rid of it but it had other ideas and determinedly grew back; we are pleased with the result! This is a post with “warts and all” and the front step (originally the base for a lean-to porch many years ago) needs some attention. Its on the list …


As we arrived at the house and stopped at the entrance to open the gates there was a distinct sense of “ah, its becoming a garden”. Rather exciting. The planting in the front garden (originally mown grass punctuated randomly by many old and decaying poplars) is intended to eventually create a woodland feel, with upper storey trees, middle-storey shrubs, and all underplanted with small shrubs, bulbs and herbaceous.

The hedge we planted the winter before last is beginning to establish.


It is a mixed hedge of plants that are ornamental and/or have some edible characteristics. Our intention is to keep it only loosely clipped so that it billows and has some form of its own, as a link to the countryside around.

The shrubs and trees we planted last winter are also establishing well. Here are some:

A Gingko Biloba


A Crataegus Laevigata Pauls Scarlet


An Amelanchier Lamarckii


And a Cornus Controversa Variegata


Is it normal for the leaves to be rather droopy on these?

And then some of the shrubs and trees we inherited are also looking just fine.


Solanum alba growing up over a corner of the covered terrace (formerly tobacco barn), a chaenomeles, a very fragrant white lilac, the medlar and kaki trees; all good.


The rose garden is coming on with most if not all of the roses having started to put on weight. I spent a lot of time weeding this area as I want to try and ensure that any last remains of couch grass or other pernicious weeds are removed before it really gets going. The paths are currently very messy, but keeping them regularly strimmed will soon get them into shape. These photos don’t really do it justice to be honest.

And then there are some extremely “warts and all” areas to be found, including the grass/weeds prolifically growing along the boundary with the adjacent field, a large pile of weeds already grassing over (needs to be moved quickly!!), a carefully planted (last year) line of oleanders which have caught the winter weather rather badly, the ever present pile of twigs and branches which blow down from the large plane trees, weeds (always weeds), the driveway being washed away by a heavy deluge of rain, a flight of steps that doesn’t exist yet, a large pile of topsoil that needs a digger to deal with it, and a bonfire that needs a chain-saw before it can complete its life as a bonfire.


The pond is also a very warts and all area. We inherited it and have grown fond of the concept of having a pond (and the goldfish who continue to grace us with their presence despite absolutely no attention at all), but it definitely needs some redesign. It needs to be bigger for a start. And we need to get rid of the horsetail. Having had an allotment for several years we grew to hate horsetail. Although this is an ornamental version it shows too many similarities to the allotment variety and needs to be eliminated before it spreads its wings too far. It has already shown some signs of wanting to creep …


The old animal trough is currently supporting some self-sown aquilegias, some rooted offshoots of rosemary shoved into it by me, and some weeds. The well is next to the trough and is on our list of items to tackle as soon as we can. I feel nervous about not knowing how safe it is, and want to redo it such that there is a proper safe wall around it and a grille over the top. France (and perhaps other countries too?) has well specialists, I don’t remember their name … This area will be one of the final areas of the garden to be developed, as it is the access route for heavy machinery which is still needed to finish off the pool work and the new roof (starting within the next week or two).

A fleeting highlight is the Phacelia Tanacetifolia, self-seeded from last year’s annual flower sowing in the top soil scraped off from the car park area. Its growing in a place we don’t want to be wild (there’s actually a baby hornbeam hedge under there) but decided to enjoy it this year. Hopefully it will pop up again somewhere else next year.


Bees and other pollinators love it, and it has very good vase life with a fragrance that will fill a room. French farmers often grow it as a winter cover/green manure crop or along field margins. We notice more of that kind of agricultural planting in France than we do in the UK.

And then the journey home to Sussex, driving through quiet roads north to Caen for an overnight ferry back to Portsmouth. Through the Charente and into the Loire area we saw great swathes of these flowers growing by the side of the motorway. We were able to stop at one of the many road side stops, aires, (many of which just have a parking area and an – always clean – loo) and get a close up view.


I wasn’t sure what they were so posted the photos up in a Facebook group focusing on European wildflowers. It turns out they are Asphodelus, possibly alba although I think myself more likely cerasiferus. I didn’t think to get close up to test whether they have any perfume. Wikipedia is, as always these days, helpful on the topic.

After a quick dinner at an aire with a petrol station and a restaurant we reached Caen, navigated past a few sad yet hopeful people looking for (almost certainly illegal) transport across the Channel, and on to our ferry for a surprisingly good night’s sleep. The crossing was shared with some (distinctly middle-aged looking) French bikers, queuing up for the ferry at Caen before departure and then, coincidentally, parked just in front of us on arrival at Portsmouth.


And so resumed our Sussex life, for the time being, until our next visit.

Edit: a well specialist is a puisatier (thanks to Helen for the reminder)


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In a vase on Monday

i hope I’m not committing a dreadful faux pas with this post.

Karen Gimson at The Bramble Garden, a blog I follow, posts #IAVOM, a record of a vase of flowers, each week. I like the idea and have decided to try and do the same (assuming – and hoping – I’m not called to task for plagiarism). I hope it’s a social media movement I’m joining and not Karen’s personal theme that I’m hijacking.

Hopefully someone will put me straight if needs be.

Here is my Monday vase for this week.


Frankly it’s not particularly interesting, consisting only of some supermarket tulips and four stems of pittosporum from the tiny Sussex garden. But it’s a start and I rather like the black stems of the foliage. Here’s a close up of the flowers.


In my defence I was on a cross channel ferry all last night, arriving at Portsmouth at dawn.

I’ll tell you about my recent trip to the French house next time I post.


Edit: I’ve discovered I’ve not committed a faux pas, but have joined a community! I still don’t fully understand the concept of memes or hosting memes, but gather I must (and am happy to) acknowledge Cathy at https://ramblinginthegarden.wordpress.com/ who is the host of the #IAVOM meme.