Friday, 30 June 2017

Manderston House

On a hot and sunny Sunday afternoon, a minor misunderstanding led to a serendipitous visit to Manderston House, a mile outside Duns in the Scottish Borders.  The house, which sits in 56 acres of ground, was completely remodelled in the early years of the last century by the architect John Kinross, who had also worked on the restoration of Falkland Palace in Fife.

However, much of the garden was completed in the latter part of the nineteenth century and has been influenced by the many styles common at this time.

The main entrance to the house is to the north and is reached via a large sweeping gravel drive, edged to the north by an expansive lawn, planted with specimen trees.

To the south is an Italianate parterre terrace. Box edged beds planted with roses are contrasted effectively with mass plantings of hostas and yew and box clipped into abstract shapes.  To my mind, this prevents the terrace feeling too formal and restrictive and also helps to link the terrace with surrounding landscape.  And certainly the abstract topiary shapes are very much in keeping with the style of the Italian gardens of the nineteenth century.

The symmetrical design also incorporates two circular raised pools that greatly helped to cool the air on this hot afternoon.  And, with the weather as it was on this day, you could be forgiven for thinking you were wandering the Boboli gardens in Florence or Villa Rufalo in Ravello.

Looking south from the terrace, out over a lower grass terrace and a boating lake you can see the influence of the eighteenth century picturesque movement. The spoil from the lake has been used to create a bank of rhododendrons, that flows into, what was originally called, the Pheasantry Wood, which, in turn, sits comfortably within the landscape beyond.

The general effect is a harmonious blending of the formal style of the nineteenth century garden with the open, more natural sensibilty of a picturesque landscape. 

To the east of the terrace, passing through wrought iron gates with piers adorned with griffins, and down a flight of steps, you reach a tennis lawn and down another flight of steps you come to a croquet lawn.

To the north of the house, beyond the lawn is a walled garden.  Through gilded gates (to reflect the light of the setting sun) is a central path, the full length of the walled garden, lined by borders of roses.  I would have loved to see these planted more fully with a mix of roses, shrubs and perennials which would have made this quite a spectacle.

Off to one side of the central path is an orchard, whilst the other side is part formal garden, part nursery.

The formal garden is prepared for summer bedding around a central marble fountain, and is bordered to the north by a rose pergola.

The nursery area, on the other hand has a more neglected feel and was once the location of a series of glasshouses. However, all the glasshouse foundations still exist, and it is fascinating to imagine the ranks of benches and planting pits that would have been the engine room of the garden.

In a sense, moreover, this merely adds to the understanding of these gardens.  They are all a trip back in time that allow you to conjure a sense or impression as to how they were when they were in their full pomp and ceremony, but also, how circumstances have changed over time and the effect this has had.

The gardens are open from May to September on a Thursday and a Sunday and on bank holidays, from 11.30am to dusk, and are well worth an exploration.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Woodland Spring

Spring is really the time for woodland plants to shine.  In the height of summer, with the trees fully in leaf, the space around and beneath the deciduous canopy can seem quite difficult to make interesting.  However, with some good design, Spring can be the time for these areas to come to the fore.  In a frantic race to flower and set seed before the tree canopy closes in, there are numerous shrubs, and perennials  that come into their own at this time of the year.  I have been looking at some spring garden ideas for my garden and below are some suggestions that may help make these 'difficult' spaces a little bit more enticing.

If your soil has a pH that is neutral to acidic, then why not try any of the number of rhododendron species and cultivars that begin flowering in April.  One of my favourites is Rhododendron hodgsonii.  It has tight balls of rose to magenta flowers and, with is long, slender fingers of metallic green leaves and its cinnamon, peeling bark, it is a plant for all seasons.   Situated on the edge of the tree line, away from the heaviest of the tree roots this will make a shrub of over 1.8m.

On a smaller scale,  you could try the shorter growing R. 'Penheal Blue' with its deep violet blue flowers.  This rhododendron will mature to a size of about 1.5m. The leaves of this variety have the added advantage of turning a reddish bronze in autumn.

The cornelian cherry, Cornus mas, here in Scotland, is in full flower at the beginning of April.  This shrub will reach a mature height of between 2.5m and 4m, and planted on the edge of the tree canopy, its dense clusters of sulphur yellow flowers will clothe the branches in a shroud of yellow.

Happier in the deeper shade is Skimmia x confusa 'Kew Green'.  It is a small shrub, which at maturity will reach about one metre in height and during spring it produces large clusters of yellow green flowers.  These flowers are heavily fragrant and in a sheltered corner the fragrance will linger - an ideal location to put a seat or bench.  The skimmia also has glossy green leaves that reflect any light in all directions adding another dimension to the planting.

Pulmonarias can be used to great effect as ground cover beneath and around the larger woodland shrubs.  The deep blue flowers of Pulmonaria longifolia 'Betram Anderson' have red-purple sepals and red stems and the semi-evergreen leaves are spotted white and silver.  The flowers will last well into May, with the red stems and sepals picking up on the cinnamon colouring of the rhododendron bark.

Brunnera 'Jack Frost ' has heavily brushed silver mottled leaves and is happy even in complete shade, as long as its roots do not dry out.  During spring it produces a mass of blue 'forget-me-not flowers'.  The silver leaves also help to lighten the shady understory during summer when the canopy has filled in.

Wood anemones are perfect for the edge of the canopy, beside a path, perhaps.  As long as they are not crowded out by other plants they are happy in the humus rich soil.  I love the variety Anemone nemorosa 'Robinsoniana' which has an almost ghostly, lavender blue colour, but the larger flowered A. nemorosa 'Leeds Variety' would be very effective as a counterpoint to the blues and yellows, and the white flowers team well with the silver leaves of the Brunnera.

Bergenias make excellent ground cover plants for the canopy edge.  I like the white flowered Bergenia 'Bressingham's White'  The deep green glossy leaves are tinged with red and the white flowers are grown on stiff red stems and have pale pink sepals.

Within this planting I would included some hellebores to give some winter interest.  For example Helleborus x ericsmithii, H. foetidus or any of the H. x hybridus varieties are invaluable for adding winter colour and the leaves are good ground cover for the summer months.  Finally, I would scatter through the area, random clumps of daffodils such as the pure white Narcissus 'Thalia' and our native daffodil N. pseudonarcissus.

Sometimes it is good to plant for interest the whole year round, but occassionally, planting for impact for a particular point in time gives you something to look forward to each year.   That anticipation can make the effect all the more exciting.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Autumn Fire

Now that autumn has well and truly arrived, and if the recent storms have left anything worth seeing, we can bask in all the glory of the changing colours in the garden.  It may be short lived, but it is all the sweeter for that.  And the warm, sunny weather in September is giving us quite a spectacle this year as, like in Hollywood, the hero goes out with one final glorious act.

Given their scale, our deciduous trees and shrubs are the most obvious, but the finery of autumn colouring can be found on most plants that die down for the winter as the lifeblood seeps back into the plant, revealing a range of hues in orange, yellow and red.

I think that it adds a dynamism and energy to any garden if you can plant to track and experience the changes in the season. As the points of interest change as you pass through spring, summer, autumn and winter, you can almost feel time moving and really tune in to the rhythms of the year. It also means that there is always something to look forward to, and that sense of anticipation can really intensify the pleasures enjoyed from having a garden.

The other thing to bear in mind is that autumn interest doesn't just come from leaf colour. As we move through autumn and the leaves start to drop, the berries of many plants start to become more noticeable. The hedgerows around me were alight with hawthorn that had turned a bright yellow which was setting off, brilliantly, the glossy red haws. The same is true of shrub roses with their fat red hips, euonymus with their bright red fruits and with crab apples, now ripe for picking.

No matter the size of a garden, there is always something that can be included to give interest for this time of the year. If you have space, large trees such as birch, beech, rowan, field maple and liquidamber are some of the most majestic for autumn colour. However, even if your garden won't accommodate such large trees, some of them still can be incorporated in the form of hedges.

Some of my favourites within the 'shrub' layer include euonymus, acers, witch-hazel's and the katsura tree, Cercidiphylum japonicum. Euonymus alatus turns a deep scarlet in autumn, and colouring to pale yellow and orange are the related Euonymus planipes and Euonymus europaeus, both of which also have fleshy red fruits that spilt open on the branch to reveal their bright orange seeds. The many species and varieties of ornamental acers offer an almost endless spectrum of autumn colour as do the numerous varieties of witch-hazel, which have the added benefit of giving a splash of much needed colour in winter. Cercidiphylum japonicum, on a still autumn day, gives off a scent of burnt sugar as the leaves fall, introducing another dimension to the garden at this time of year.

Of the herbaceous perennials occupying the ground level planting, one of the most spectacular has to be Euphorbia griffithii 'Fireglow' that turns a fiery red and orange in autumn. However many grasses such as molinia and miscanthus turn varying shades of orange, red and yellow and look magnificent with the soft autumn sun shining through the stems and seed heads. The same is true of Solidago 'Golden Mosa', where the bright yellow flowers fade to cream feathers atop stems of yellow and orange. Right down at ground level, many varieties of bergenia turn scarlet red as the temperatures drop and just now my bugle, Ajuga reptans is fading from dark bronze to bright red.

With clever selection and positioning these plants can be used to provide a number of autumnal focal points, either enticing you to go outside to see them close up on a bright crisp morning or merely to enjoy them from afar from the warmth of the house as they brighten a dull, overcast and 'dreich' day.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Harrogate Dahlia Show

A couple of weeks ago, I tagged along with my friend as he made the long journey down from Fife, in Scotland, to enter some of his dahlias in the National Dahlia Society competition at the Harrogate Flower Show in Yorkshire.

He had been up since six that morning cutting in excess of 100 blooms that he required to take with him for the 'classes' he was entering. As he is looking for blooms that have to be at their best in 24 hours time, selecting them requires a great deal of experience, and a keen eye.

I was picked up en route, and almost struggled to find space to sit, as his estate car was full to overflowing with dahlias, all tied into various Heath Robinson containers made both to stop the flowers from wilting and the stems from snapping on the journey south. These 'contraptions' ranged from plastic buckets filled with scrunched up chicken wire and with garden canes wired to the bucket, to old milk bottle crates with cut off drinks bottles in the compartments and yet more canes. And, arriving at the show, it was obvious that everyone had their own particular way of transporting their flowers in tip top condition as there were as many different types of frames as there were competitors.

In the show there were 107 classes ranging from miniature pompoms through to 'the giants', large pompoms and large spiky cactus cultivars, and any combination of flowers in between. My friend had entered three main classes, with each class requiring three vases of either five or six blooms. We spent seven hours 'staging' the entries, finishing just after midnight and, I guess, it wouldn't have been right to rush this final stage, after all the time and care that had been put into getting here in the first place - the hours spent taking more than 700 cuttings, the potting on and the planting out, the weeding and feeding, the watering, the staking, the dis-budding. The level of commitment and attention to detail is incredible!

The Harrogate show attracts entries from all over the UK, and alongside the Wisley Flower Show, it is the largest dahlia show in the country. When we arrived, the hall was already busy with competitors and as the evening progressed there was a steady stream of dahlias being unloaded from cars, vans and trucks. This would continue right through the night until the hall had to be emptied at 7.30am to allow the judging to start.

Later that morning, as we returned to a hall abuzz with excitement and chatter we made our way to the classes that we had entered. A first place and two seconds. 'Well chuffed!' was my friend's reaction. However, there was no real time to revel in the success. After a couple of hours taking in the rest of the show, we were then back off up the road to Fife to cut and stage more flowers for a local show in Perth that evening. It's a fine line between dedication and madness!

Although it was a long, tiring couple of days, it was a delight to be in the midst of such high levels of expertise and perfection. I had a feeling that, although we have witnessed such a strong resurgence in the grow your own movement for fruit and vegetables, the traditions and practices of growing flowers for showing were slowly dying out . However on the evidence of the Harrogate Show, this part of our gardening heritage is in rude health.

It was also a joy to just wander around the hall and experience the panoply of colours, sizes and forms of this wonderful plant. The vibrancy of colour for this time of the year makes it a worthwhile addition to any garden, adding strong, rich colours as other perennials are starting to fade and look a little washed out, and they will carrying on doing this right until the first heavy frosts of the year.

They do require some extra work, as most will have to be lifted and stored for the winter, but, whether you are growing them as a decorative plant for the garden or the house table or indeed for showing, that effort pays itself off in spades.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Designing in the Dark

The other night I had been working in the garden, taking advantage of all the available light to prune back some of my hedges. The darkness was starting to descend and I had tidied away all my tools, and I sat down to enjoy the stillness of the dusk. The bats had just began to make their haphazard flights and in the trees the last of the blackbirds and sparrows were settling down in their nightly roosts. In the distance the faint noise of the combines came drifting over as the farmers were making use of the dry spell to bring in the grain harvest.

As I was casting my eye around the garden, watching where the bats were flying and trying to locate where the birds were roosting, I became aware, not of specific plants and points of interest, but the general shape and flow of the garden. I could see the garden in blocks of three dimensional shapes and how these shapes interacted within the space. I was also acutely aware of the depth of the garden as the play of the low light and the shadows emphasised the relative positioning of borders, trees and structures.

When I begin designing a project, I tend to begin sketching ideas using a fairly heavy nibbed pen to outline general shapes and contours, avoiding any detail at all. I do this both in plan and as three dimensional sketches and it allows me to play around with different ideas to create a harmonious layout that works within the garden space and with the surrounding buildings and environment. Its only when I am satisfied with the design at this level that I start to think about adding detail. It may, however, be the case that as the detail is added the design gets changed slightly, but these skeleton drawings do help to inform the eventual finished design.

Reviewing a garden in this quarter light light allows you to do a very similar exercise. Does the weight of a border look right relative to the scale of the house or a planting of trees? Do the heights of the plants in your borders create enough interest and movement, or is there too much of one height? Does the positioning and size of your plantings and structures work as a whole and add a sense of depth and flow around the garden? Without the interference of detail and colour, you can focus on layout, structure and form.

Obviously this is only one way to assess a garden, but it does give a different perspective and it makes for quite an interesting exercise. On a still, late summer evening it was a very pleasant way to spend a little time.