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October - November - December 2007

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Ask people in different parts of the world to draw a tulip, and the results will fall into contrasting camps. Most Northern Europeans, and certainly the Dutch, will depict a flower with rounded, inward-curving petals – the classic Darwin Hybrid or Fosteriana type. Further south, however, and in particular in Turkey, Morocco and the Middle East, the petals would more likely be pointed, and gracefully reflexed. It’s a distinction that goes back many centuries. For although we in Britain tend to associate tulips with the Dutch – and, indeed, have them to thank for most of the hundreds of different shaped and coloured tulips that grace our gardens today, it was from Turkey that tulips first originated, and in a form far removed from the bright, bowl-shaped blooms of the modern-day breeders.

The standards set forth by the head gardener to Sultan Ahmed III, who presided over Turkey’s own ‘Tulip Era’ of 1703-1730, specified that “the petals should look like a dagger or a needle. If the tulip has not these petal characters it is a cheap flower. The tulip with the needle is the better of the two; if it has both needle point and dagger shape it is priceless.” Paintings of these elegant blooms abound in early Ottoman manuscripts such as The Book of Tulips, published around 1725 and beautifully reproduced in Anna Pavord’s classic The Tulip (Bloomsbury £xx). They are also easily recognized as the lyre-shaped flower that crops up in Turkish textiles and ceramics through the centuries.

Today, the nearest we get to the strange etiolated blooms of the ‘Istanbul tulip’ is Tulipa acuminata – a curiosity on account of its thin twisted petals that end in mad spidery points. In early spring, long thin buds open into creamy yellow flowers streaked with red whose long-drawn-out points appear to claw at the air around them. Like some of the stranger alliums, such as ‘Hair’ and A. schubertii, they can look untidy and seem hard to place in the border, but it is worth thinking carefully to find plants that associate well in their company. Michael King, whose book Gardening with Tulips (Frances Lincoln £25) is packed with useful ideas and advice, suggests highlighting their shape against the dark dramatic foliage of purple-leafed Ligularia dentata and Rheum palmatum, and this combination would certainly look attractive. He has also had success, he says, mixing T. acuminata in equal quantities with the lovely lily-flowered tulip ‘Ballerina’. Lower-growing, with flame-coloured flowers streaked in yellow, toffee and tangerine, ‘Ballerina’ picks up the tawny splashes and streaks of the more delicate T. acuminata, and provides a more regular pointed shape to counter all those crazy twisted spikes.

Bold in colour yet graceful in form, Tulipa ‘Ballerina’ is one of my favourite tulips, so I was delighted when it was crowned ‘Spring Bulb of the Year’ by the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Centre’s judging panel. As well as a stunning colour combination (its official description - ‘Exterior flamed blood red on lemon yellow ground with orange-yellow veined edge; inside, feathered marigold orange with capsicum red, buttercup yellow star base, anthers pale golden yellow” – doesn’t do justice to the glowing subtletly of the effect), it also has a sweet scent unrivalled in any other tulip. Pair it with another lily-flowered tulip in red such as the lovely ‘Jane Packer’ (slightly shorter, at 40cm to ‘Ballerina’s 50cm) or (Christopher Lloyd’s favourite) ‘Dyanito’ for a fantastic fiery splash, or with other striped yellows and reds such as showy ‘Mona Lisa’ (yellow feathered with raspberry) or ‘Queen of Sheba’ (rusty red with a well-defined yellow edge). Planted deep enough (six to eight inches as opposed to the official guideline of double the height of the bulb), ‘Ballerina’ is capable in good soils of coming back year after year and multiplying to form quite a colony. If you can’t wait that long, plant it in drifts of 25-30 as has been done to dramatic effect at The Eden Project in Cornwall. Lime green euphorbias form a fantastic backdrop – especially E. x martinii with its dark red ‘eye’, and even the fiery orange-flowered E. griffithii. Even if all you have room for is a pot of seven to ten blooms, you won’t regret making room for ‘Ballerina’. With its subtle colours and graceful pointed blooms it is a lovely, latterday descendant of those much-loved Istanbul tulips now all but lost to history.

14 Oct 2007 - APPLES FOR CIDER

Every autumn I complain that I can’t keep up with the abundant cropping of our five apple trees. Well, if my latest project is a success, I hope that the moaning – not to mention the hours bent over steaming vats of apple pulp, jam and chutney – will be a thing of the past. The solution hit me as I shook my head at the price of organic cider (my current favourite tipple) in the supermarket the other day: why don’t we brew our own? Not only would this kill two birds with one stone – coping with the apple glut while saving money at the same time – it’d be fun into the bargain and save a good few food (or drink) miles.

Growing apples for cider has a long and illustrious history in the UK, as the excellent new Apple Source Book (by Common Ground founders Sue Clifford and Angela King, see offer below) explains. Back in the Middle Ages, monks were brewing cider from the orchards within their monasteries, and it helped protect sailors from scurvy. By the 1640s Lord Scudamore was experimenting with fermentation in bottles to produce a passable “apple champagne”, and in 1797 the fruit breeder Thomas Andrew Knight produced the first of two scholarly Treatises on Cider. A rich tradition of cider making grew up which to this day divides strongly along a line drawn between the Wash and the Solent. To the East, most notably in Norfolk, Suffolk, Kent and Sussex, cider is made from whatever local eating or culinary apples are to hand. But in the wetter traditional cider-making counties of the South and West, 400 or more varieties, some with splendid names such as ‘Redstreak’, ‘Sweet Coppin’ or ‘Slack Ma Girdle’ were cultivated specifically to bring the desired degree of sharpness or sweetness to the cider they were blended to create. In the 17th and 18th centuries much of the country from Devon to Herefordshire was planted with towering 30-40ft cider apple trees, and to this day there are few more lovely experiences than to wander through an ancient apple orchard, whether the boughs are blowsy with blossom or fuzzed with lichen, tracing a filigree pattern against a pale winter sky.

Since the Seventies, when denser plantings of modern bush varieties became popular, this experience has become rarer – and is now all the more so due to the demise of so many of our beautiful old orchards. And in spite of the recent resurgence in popularity of cider, the cider industry is now dominated by giants such as Bulmers and Magners, whose mass-scale production too often uses apple concentrate bought on the world market. It’s by no means all doom and gloom, however. A new wave of private and community orchards has been planted over the past decade or two, and, fuelled by our newfound appetite for local, pesticide-free produce, a growing group of artisan makers are brewing single variety and organic ciders, and (in the case of Julian Temperley) cider brandy to rival the finest Spanish calvados. Schemes such as Orchard Link in Devon are finding markets for small apple growers – even providing a mobile mill and press so that anyone with a few trees in their garden can make their own juice and cider.

Inspired by all this, I’ve joined forces with a friend with a similar surfeit of apples to invest in our own basket press (between £65 and £400, depending on size, from www.art-of-brewing.co.uk). The great thing about cider making when compared to wine is that there seems to be no subtle science or snobbery involved: all you need is apples. And as my garden falls firmly on the East side of the country, I don’t even need special varieties: my Bramleys, Cox’s and James Grieves should by all accounts be fine, though I might need to plant a sweeter one such as ‘Alfriston’ or ‘Sunset’ (the Apple Source Book has a useful gazetteer of local varieties and advice on suitable pollinators) to counteract a tendency to sharpness. The recipe I’m following (from the new Self-Sufficiency Handbook by Alan and Gill Bridgewater (New Holland £12.99)) seems astonishingly simple: gather windfalls (even washing is frowned upon as it removes the natural yeasts that aid fermentation), crush to a pulp, pass through the press, ferment for a few days, decant to a barrel with an airlock and leave for six months to two years before drinking.

Assuming the end product is drinkable, there should be absolutely no waste. The must or ‘pomace’ left over from the pressing can be fed to livestock or scattered around the garden to condition the soil. And I’ll be keeping an eye out for seedlings from the pips. Some of the best cider apples such as ‘Foxwhelp’ and ‘Yarlington Mill’ were derived in this way and – who knows? - I could even end up with a new variety to supply the cider-makers of the future.

Apple Day – founded by Common Ground in 1990 and dedicated to celebrating locally grown apples, orchards and traditions - is officially on 21 October, but a huge variety of events, including cider making and tastings, apple identification, art workshops, cookery demonstrations and produce markets, take place throughout the month up and down the country. For detailed listings under counties check out commonground.org.uk or contact Common Ground, Gold Hill House, 21 High Street, Shaftesbury, Dorset SP7 8JE (017447 850820).
The new Apple Source Book by Sue Clifford and Angela King with Philippa Davenport (Hodder and Stoughton £16.99) is a readable, extremely informative and beautifully produced celebration of British apples. Packed with advice on apple identification; varieties to plant for different uses and fruiting times; planting an orchard or creating a community orchard and small-scale juicing and cider-making, it also includes a huge number of recipes garnered from top chefs and apple enthusiasts such as Sally Clarke, Raymond Blanc, Sophie Grigson and Hugh Fearnely-Whittingstall.

21 Oct 2007 - AUTUMN VINES
The wet summer means we’ve had to wait a while for the trees to turn colour, but the vines in my garden have been putting on a great display for many weeks now. Most spectacular is Vitis cognetiae, whose common name, the crimson glory vine, gives a clue to the splendours in store. Its huge heart-shaped leaves, green all summer, are veined and puckered with the texture of embossed leather, their undersides covered in a buff-coloured felt. Come the first whiff of colder weather, however, and they start to turn, spreading from yellow between the veins to take in all shades of crimson, scarlet, orange and purple. As Beth Chatto says in her lyrical Plant Portraits (sadly out of print but available through www.AbeBooks.co.uk), “It is as though a match were put to the great ropes of leaves which may cascade from a wall, or tumble from the top of a tall tree… [the colours] burn as bright as the embers of autumn bonfires.” Garden books usually recommend Vitis cognetiae for larger gardens, because of its tendency to take over, but judicious pruning can keep it under control. The one in my little London garden, planted ten years ago, is cut back dramatically every two years, along with all the other climbers that romp around the walls. Its gnarled old stem is now a good two inches round, and the main framework confined to a south-facing wall. The buds are late to appear, not bursting till well into April or May, but it soon throws out long wands covered in leaves, and in the space of a single summer can snake its way round to the French windows, where its autumn leaves are backlit by the sun. They are joined there by leaves of the slightly less rampant V. vinifera ‘Purpurea’, whose bunches of dark purple fruit are complemented by leaves which, though smaller than those of V. cognetiae, are almost as dramatic. The young foliage has a downy texture that gives it a soft silvery appearance, but as summer progresses and the leaves grow larger, the veins turn purple and a reddish flush spreads over the surface. The colour deepens into autumn, when the leaves appear almost as dark as the fruit, but glow like wine when lit by the low autumn sun. My kitchen/living room faces south-west, so from mid-afternoon the doorway is framed by foliage as luminous and lovely as stained glass.

When planting an ornamental vine – and late autumn into winter is a good time, when the plants are dormant – it is worth remembering to place them somewhere where the autumn foliage can be enjoyed at its best. If you have an outdoor eating area in a sunny spot, consider planting one of these vines over a pergola that covers all or part of it. Vines’ capacity to put on abundant growth in the summer months means that shade will be provided exactly when it is needed, leaving the canopy open to let the sun in at other times of the year. By early autumn, you’ll need to thin the leaves to allow any fruit to ripen, which lets in a bit more light and warmth as the sun begins to lose its power. And even though the fruit of most ornamental varieties is too sour to eat, there is something gloriously sybaritic about eating with bunches of grapes hanging just above your head – shades of Andrew Marvell’s famous poem, The Garden – “The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine” and all its autumnal bounty. Vines should only be pruned in winter, as they have a tendency to “bleed” – cut back the previous summer’s growth to two or three strong buds close to the main stem or framework.

If you don’t have a porch or pergola, consider constructing an arch around which autumnal vines can climb. Attractive accompaniments include Clematis orientalis, whose wispy seedheads, like white whorls, provide an interesting contrast of shape and texture, or the lovely Solanum jasminoides ‘Album’, whose clusters of starry white flowers, from July to the first frosts, are a charming compliment to the dark leaves of V. vinifera ‘Purpurea’. The most colourful leaves can be brought inside as part of autumnal arrangements, or used to line plates for cheese or fruit. I always press a few, too, to stick up at a sunny window to enjoy their autumn colours for just a little while longer.

29 Oct 2007 - BLACK BEAUTIES

Black-flowered plants have an aura of magic and mysticism about them, and the onset of Hallowe’en seems an apt time to explore their appeal. Plant breeders, ever eager to pursue a rarity, have gone to extreme lengths to create black flowers, and never with such zeal as in Victorian and Edwardian times, when all things dark and sombre were in fashion. Yet even today, among the 2750-odd plants with dark flowers, only a very few are truly black. Most, like the popular near-black tulip, ‘Queen of Night’, have a purplish cast, or are actually the richest ox-blood red, such as ‘Guinee’ or ‘Black Baccara’ roses, or a beguiling brown like the small-flowered foxglove Digitalis parviflora.

Among the flowers with truly coal-black petals are members of the iris and viola families. Once seen, never forgotten, Iris chrysographes has mesmerizing midnight black petals veined with gold – the stuff of Grimm’s fairytales. Sadly, I have never had much success with it, but it is offered for sale by iris enthusiasts Woottens of Wenhaston (01502 478258/www.woottensplants.co.uk), along with other dark beauties such as ‘Black Tie Affair’ (huge frilly black blooms) and ‘Black Out’ (actually the deepest, darkest violet). The striking Snakeshead or Widow iris, Hermadactylus, is also worth a mention, with its velvety black ‘falls’ or lower petals, and chartreuse upper parts.

The viola family also has some true black cultivars, which is fitting, as violas are said to be the flowers that Persephone was gathering when Hades came upon her and carried her off to the Underworld, and have a lasting association with death. Varieties such as ‘Black Jack’ and ‘Bowles Black’ were apparently created by repeatedly crossing the darkest wild violets, and are much hardier than their delicate appearance might suggest. If the blooms of pansies are often compared to cat’s faces, Viola x wittrockiana ‘Black Moon’ must be the witches’ cat of flowers. Its large blooms, with petals resembling pure black tissue paper, are easily grown from seed (Thompson & Morgan 01473 688 821/www.thompson-morgan.com for sowing from February to March) and, if constantly dead-headed, should keep coming for many months.

Alluring though they might be in principle, black or dark flowers can be difficult to place in the garden if they are to be seen to best advantage. Sombre colours can sink into the shadows if not set off by contrasting flowers or foliage. In sunny parts of the garden, silver-leafed plants can create a foil for black opium poppies, cornflowers such as ‘Black Boy’ and ‘Black Ball’ (also known as the Devil’s Flower), or fashionable black scabious, Scabiosa atropurpurea, also called Black Mourning Bride. And in shadier corners, sinister Arisaema, with their cobra-like or monk’s cowl spathes, sometimes striped in darkest purple or brown, and Asarum, or wild ginger plants, with three-petalled flowers in similarly sombre shades, should be surrounded by silver-streaked Arum italicum ‘Marmoratum’, or one of the variegated ivies, to prevent the impression being one of completely unrelieved gloom. The partnership works both ways, of course. In autumn, black or near-black scabious and late cornflowers can give depth to plantings of fiery red and orange dahlias and Mexican daisies, while in spring, dark aquilegias such as ‘Black Barlow’ and ‘William Guinness’ will save pale pink tulips from looking saccharine or ‘over-pretty’.

White, of course, is the absolute opposite to black, and in winter, nothing works better than clumps of snowdrops to throw even the darkest hellebores into relief, or set off strappy fringes of the Black Mondo grass, Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’.

Some black blooms are best partnered with other flowers of the same type, but in a contrasting and more commonly-encountered shade. A relatively new nasturtium, ‘Black Velvet’, for instance, looks amazing partnered with deep red ‘Empress of India’, which also has a contrasting leaf, or paler varieties such as ‘Milkmaid’ or ‘Strawberries and Cream’. And spires of the dark chocolate foxglove, Digitalis parviflora, would be stunning woven through swathes of milky-green D. viridiflora or dusty pink D. obscura ‘Dusky Maid.’ (Seed for these nasturtiums and foxgloves is available from Plants of Distinction’s beautiful new brochure (0870 460 9445/www.plantsofdistinction.co.uk.))

Prize for the strangest and spookiest black plant has to go to the Bat Flower – Tacca chantrieri, otherwise known as the Cat’s Whisker or Devil Flower. Introduced from the forests of the Far East around the turn of the 20th century, it was formerly grown as a foliage plant, but these days interest is increasingly in its curious heads of dark brownish-purple flowers, thought by some to resemble the muzzle of a bat, and with long whiskery appendages up to twelve inches long. Best grown in a pot, as it needs to be kept frost-free, the Bat Flower is easier to grow than its exotic and somewhat sinister appearance might suggest.
Thompson & Morgan (see above for details) are offering bare-root plants for £8.99 plus p&p for delivery in March.


I’ve been helping one of my sisters choose a tree for her front garden – a pleasant task at this time of the year, when bare-root and root-balled trees can be purchased more cheaply than pot-grown specimens and, if planted well, put down a good root system between now and next spring. This tree is to be planted in a diamond-shaped bed in semi-shade surrounded by lawn, so it’s a small ‘specimen’ tree that we’re after – if possible one that’s attractive all year round. Not a keen gardener herself, my sister has asked for some suggestions, and we’re trying to decide between a few of my favourites.

A strong contender has to be the winter-flowering cherry, Prunus subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’. Not only do its narrow elegant leaves turn all manner of beautiful tawny shades in autumn; the tree then puts out puffs of pretty pink-tinged blossom on the bare black branches from November to April, when fresh new leaves appear. Send a summer-flowering clematis up the trunk to bloom in June and you have pretty much the whole year covered. There’s a pink-flowered version called ‘Rosea’, but I find the white blossom more appealing – a few sprigs in a vase have all the simple charm of a Japanese watercolour.

Also good on autumn colour is Amelanchier canadensis, whose slender branches are studded with starry white blossom in spring and weighed down with reddish-purple fruit, beloved of birds, in summer. Also known as the serviceberry, its elegant outline and compact habit have made the tree a favourite for front gardens, but its natural habitat is at the edge of woodland, with some shade in high summer, so I’d hesitate to recommend it in full sun.

A wildcard candidate is the stag’s head sumach (Rhus typhina, to give it its unattractive Latin name), which thrives outside our seaside house. I adore it both for its long pinnate leaves, which never fail to put on a stunning and extended autumn show, and for its curious clustered fruits. Borne on the tips of bare winter branches, shaped like torch flames and clothed in a rusty-red fur not unlike the velvety covering on a young stag’s antlers, these are found on female plants only – the males have spikes of greenish-white flowers instead. Gardeners get wound up about sumacs spreading, but surplus suckers are easily grubbed up, and the parent plant left to grow into a gracefully branching tree. The feathery, filigree foliage of R. t. ‘Dissecta’ (always female) is particularly desirable, but the trees remain small, rarely topping six feet.

Sorbus aucuparia, the orange-berried wild mountain ash, was once believed to ward off evil spirits, which might explain the popularity of sorbus in front gardens. Of the ornamental rowans, ‘Joseph Rock’ is deservedly famous for its orange, red and purple autumn leaves and bunches of bright yellow berries, while gorgeous S. cashmiriana has blue-grey leaves that flare to crimson and gleaming, pearl-like white fruit that hangs on the tree, blissfully unbothered by birds, until pretty pink blossom appears in the spring. All sorbus are easy to grow, but it’s worth remembering that they resent summer drought.

Last but not least, come two members of the dogwood family. Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’, the wedding cake tree, must be one of the most eye-catching specimen trees ever, particularly when its horizontal tiers of white-streaked leaves have a dark yew hedge as backdrop. More preferable to me, however, are the subtler charms of Cornus kousa var. chinensis, with its greenish-white bracts, like large four-petalled flowers, appearing to float above the fresh green foliage in June. Pink arbutus-like berries, long-lasting autumn colour and ease of growing in all but hot chalk soils make this a great yet inexplicably under-used garden tree.

One of the first lessons I learned in gardening was “better a five dollar plant in a ten dollar hole than a ten dollar plant in a five dollar hole” (don’t ask me where the Americanisms crept in). And it’s a maxim I still subscribe to – indeed I try to provide a fifteen dollar planting hole wherever I can, digging deep and wide, working in spades of well-rotted manure or compost and a good sprinkling of a slow-release feed such as organic bonemeal. Planting a tree is definitely a two-person job – one has to hold the tree and stake in place while the other fills in the hole and firms around the trunk. So next weekend, having made our trip to the nursery, Rebecca and I shall be out in her front garden hard at work. Something tells me it might be me doing the spadework, but I’m happy to have the exercise. As for which tree we’ll be planting, the odds are currently on the winter-flowering cherry, but as a rank outsider, Cornus kousa might still be worth a flutter.


It’s the time of year when my fingernails – never a glamour strong-point, if truth be told – are indelibly ingrained with soil. It’s bulb-planting season again, and this year I’ve been doing double measures, as I’ve been helping plant up the playground at my daughter’s nursery, too. In just a couple of hours I and 16 little helpers transformed a weed-strewn patch into what I hope will be a riot of colour next spring. Fearing the average three or four-year-old’s stamina and attention span might not be up to too much weeding and digging, I cleared most of the 8ft by 4ft bed before we began, and then let them loose with miniature trowels and forks to make trenches for a gaudy mix of tulip and daffodil bulbs - good taste must be thrown firmly out the window when gardening with children. After planting the bulbs and filling in with soil, we gently put in some pansy plants on top – partly to provide interest before the bulbs begin to show, and partly to prevent the trampling of tiny boots in playtime.

It’ll be a long wait for the children before the tulips and daffodils bloom, so as an interim, we planted ‘Paperwhite’ narcissi on pebbles in a clear plastic bowl inside the classroom, filling with water just to the base of the bulbs. These bulbs are specially forced for early flowering, and my daughter and her friends should enjoy watching the green shoots gradually extend upwards and the white roots snake themselves around the stones. In the warm atmosphere of the nursery they should make good progress – a wooden ruler has been inserted as one of the supports so they can mark how fast they grow. I imagine they’ll be in full fragrant flower in four to five weeks’ time.

Back at home, Mary and I have confined our bulb planting mainly to pots. I like grouping large containers of early spring bulbs around the french windows so we can watch them come into flower from the warmth and safety of the kitchen, and always plant some smaller pots, too, that can be carried inside and given away to friends. The other morning we planted a couple of big turquoise glazed pots with orangey ‘Ballerina’ tulips and some slightly smaller hand-thrown terracotta ones with white and pale yellow narcissi such as ‘Cheerfulness’ and double-flowered ‘Ice King’. Tulips resent being crowded, and often come up blind (just leaves) if short of space, but daffodils don’t seem to mind, so we crammed the latter in on two levels, the first covered just to their noses with compost, and the second layer resting on their shoulders. Smaller pots were filled with delicate dwarf daffodils such as ‘Hawera’, white ‘Thalia’ and ‘February Gold’, with pretty violas popped in on top – these will be lovely on desks and bedside tables or given as Christmas presents.

With the larger pots, instead of planting flowers on the surface, I grubbed up some of the ground-cover ivy, ajugas and dark-leaved violets that run riot around the flower beds, and divided them into smaller sections that should spread, come spring, to cover the soil. Acting on advice in Kathy Brown’s excellent Bulbs for all Seasons (Aquamarine £20), I’m trying to train a length of small-leafed variegated ivy around the rim of one of the pots of daffodils to form a decorative wreath. This idea can also look good if you plant your bulbs in hanging baskets – with three or four small ivy plants, pegged in place with wire staples, you can clothe the entire exterior of the baskets in greenery.

Being three and a half, Mary is a die-hard devotee of all things pink, so we couldn’t get away without a bag of ten peony-flowered pale pink ‘Angelique’ tulip bulbs and another of darker, white-edged ‘Esther’. These were potted up in pride of place on roof of the bay window outside her bedroom, where she can keep her beady eye on them. (The strawberries planted there this summer were a huge success, as the slugs and snails have yet to find a way up, and we hope to do tomatoes and courgettes this year.) Silvery grey Stachys or ‘lamb’s ears’ and forget-me-nots were used as underplanting here, to complement the pink. And to help stave Mary’s impatience, I added snowdrops and bluey mauve Anemone blanda corms to bloom well before the tulips. Inevitably, though, she is often to be found with her nose against the glass imploring, “Mummy, why are plants so slow?” It will take her many years, as it did me, to realize that waiting and planning and dreaming, year after year, are some of the many great joys of gardening.

18 Nov 2007 - SECRET GARDENS
Apart from an inclination to grub about in the soil, there were a couple of clues in my childhood that pointed to a career in gardening.One was a cardboard box that contained the components of an artificial miniature garden: a green felt lawn, model walls and paving slabs and several blobs of moulded plastic (brown for flower-beds and grey for rockeries), into which one plugged garishly-coloured rubber "plants".

I have not seen such a toy since, but it occupied me for many happy hours as I arranged and re-arranged my ideal garden.
The other clue was my obsession with The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett; indeed, it remains one of my favourite books to this day. The story of orphaned Mary Lennox, and how the discovery and gradual restoration of a neglected, walled garden helps the child recover her health and good humour has a timeless appeal.

The descriptions of the overgrown garden - "the sweetest, most mysterious place anyone could imagine" - made a deep impression on me, and I remember loving the idea that "when its old walls shut her in, no one knew where she was".
That notion of secrecy, mystery and enclosure is still, for me, a vital ingredient of my ideal garden.

In larger gardens it is relatively easy to create an air of intrigue, with curving paths leading off at angles or diving behind hedges to emerge at a secret summerhouse, shaded seat or secluded glade of trees. But even a smaller space can have a quiet corner tucked away; somewhere to sit with a glass of wine on a summer's evening, or a scented enclosure filled with flowers.

The key is not to give away all your garden's secrets at first glance. Gardens that are instantly "readable" can easily become boring, while the suggestion of something hidden invites exploration. In a long, narrow town garden, there's scope to divide the space into a series of smaller, square "rooms", which are not only easier to design and plant, but can each have a different character.

But even in a tiny plot, screening one corner with a hedge or, if you're too impatient to wait for box or yew to grow, a panel of woven willow or trellis with climbers scrambling up it, can create that crucial feeling of enclosure. You can enhance the feeling by framing the opening with a metal or trellis arch, and place an attractive seat inside; you could even commission a simple bench from a local artist or craftsman, perhaps with your initials or a fragment of a poem inscribed on the back.
If space really is at a premium, there are a few more tricks guaranteed to conjure up an air of mystery. Mirrors work instant magic, their reflections suggesting hidden worlds beyond, and are especially effective when framed by something resembling a doorway. False doors work a similar spell, maybe with a small window, glazed with mirror, at the top - any old skip-find, painted up and framed in wood, will do.
These are simple tricks, but gloriously effective: the first visitor to my London garden after I'd installed a large mirror, its edges obscured by climbers, on the back wall, asked, "Gosh is that another part of the garden through there?" So perhaps I got my own secret garden in the end, even if it was only through artifice.

Incidentally, though I grew up with my own image of the "secret garden" from Frances Hodgson Burnett's book, I had no idea that Misselthwaite Manor existed in real life. So I was immensely intrigued when, leafing through Leslie Geddes-Brown's lovely new book The Walled Garden (Merrell £29.95), I learnt that Great Maytham Hall in Kent, not far from where I was born, had provided the inspiration.

The author lived there during the first years of the 20th century and apparently, just like Mary in the story, found the door into the overgrown walled garden by watching a friendly robin weave his way through swathes of ivy. She, too, set about restoring it, grubbing up an ancient orchard and planting the rose garden that can still be seen today.

Sir Edwin Lutyens added a pergola and other details when remodelling the house, which has now been converted into luxury flats.

The garden can be visited by appointment (01580 241346) but be warned: now tended lovingly and enjoyed by the lucky residents, it has long ceased to be secret and bears no resemblance to the magical, mysterious place of childhood dreams.


Driving through the lanes of Kent and East Sussex last weekend, I thought how well nature's pared-down winter palette suits the English landscape. Midwinter, with its bare branches, ploughed brown furrows and tawny dried leaves and grasses, has a subtle beauty. The oak and hawthorn, most English of trees, are among those whose true majesty is revealed only when their bare branches are silhouetted against a blue or gun-metal grey sky. I love the monumentality of the oaks, their gnarled and twisted trunks often shrouded in ivy, against the smaller, wind-warped hawthorns, their tight-knit branches alive with chattering sparrows and finches.

Stands of bleached-out reeds mark the paths of streams and other waterways, their feathery seedheads whipped up in the wind, while whorls of old-man's beard festoon the hedgerows. Against all this wildness, I relish the beauty of neatly clipped hedges, some evergreen, some bare and some, like beech, with copper-coloured leaves still clinging.
In gardens, too, there is a similar, pleasing contrast between the bare and the clothed parts of the design; the plants left wild and woolly to catch the passing winds, and those that have been cut back or shaped to create some seasonal structure. Here, too, the subtle winter palette provides the perfect backdrop for the shy white flowers of late December. Underfoot, what could create a better foil for the first snowdrops than a carpet of paperybrown leaves, with the odd flash of bright green grass or moss? My heart beats faster when I spot the pointed blades of snowdrops piercing the soil: to me they are the sign that the pendulum of the year has begun to swing the other way and that lighter and longer gardening days are on their way.

Another midwinter treat is the heavenly Christmas rose, Helleborus niger - notorious for not usually being in bloom on Christmas day. This year, whether due to global warming or some other seasonal variation, mine actually seem ready to be in full flower on the day. H. niger is also renowned for being difficult to place in the garden, as the downward-facing flowers on short stems are the horticultural equivalent of a white velvet party dress, and a magnet for every splash of mud. Unless you are lucky enough to have a shady bank with a path along the bottom, where you can stand and look up into the faces of their beautiful blooms, I find it best to grow hellebores, particularly H. niger, in deep pots that can be moved around - even inside the house for a few hours at a time if you are careful - so they can be appreciated during their all-tooshort- lived span of glory.

Incidentally, the nigercors hybrids are hellebores that have been bred to have flowers that stare you in the face, unlike their bashful niger and orientalis cousins. H. nigercors 'White Beauty' is particularly beautiful, and enjoys an extended flowering season, well into February, too. As a backdrop for white hellebores, I also like the strappy black grass Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens', but feel the dark dusky pinks and purples are best shown off by interspersing large clumps of common-or-garden snowdrops. Monochrome beauty is all very well, but at about this time I do sometimes long for just a touch more colour. Happily, the natural winter palette is also a great foil for splashes of red - which is the shade we most closely associate with Christmas, after all. In my own garden, I particularly enjoy the tomato-red hips of Rosa rugosa, as round and bulbous as Christmas tree baubles, and sprays of the smaller wild rosehips dripping with dewdrops or rimed with frost. Crab apples and cotoneasters are also good for red winter fruits that persist on the bare branches well into the coldest months. Cotoneaster frigidis 'Cornubia' is spectacularly abundant in berries and a good winter tree for larger gardens, while for smaller spaces, it's hard to beat the ornamental crab Malus x robusta 'Red Sentinel' whose bunches of bright red berries exude festivity, even against a grey sky. Finally, around the metal arch that surrounds my French windows, my favourite clematis, C. cirrhosa var balearica, is coming into bud. Its pendant creamy yellow flowers, spotted with burgundy red and set off by dark, deep-cut ferny leaves, possess a quiet elegance perfectly in tune with the subtle beauties of the season.


Sunday Telegraph: Gardening
I write regularly on gardening in the Sunday Telegraph.

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