Tuesday, December 21, 2010


            So with temperatures down to –13C (which I suppose might be regarded as a rather pleasant day in some places where this is being read), what else is there to talk about. We have had several weeks of this, which seems to add insult to injury.
            Last winter was pretty bad too. Anyone who wants to see what survived and what didn’t should have a look a the RHS report, based on a nationwide survey. Losses as interesting as survivals.
            I wonder just what impact this winter will have on the fashion that has developed over the last twenty years for growing tender stuff. During that time a whole generation of people have become gardeners without knowing what a ‘proper’ British winter is (though in fact this is worse - a central European winter) – this 20 years has co-incided with a time when the garden industry went on its great expansion.
            I’d better put my hand up. Back in the late 1980s, early 1990s I was certainly one of the early pioneers of the great gardening boom’s promotion of the less-than-hardy. I was actually primarily interested in widening the range of cool conservatory plants – that great swathe of flora which just needs protection from freezing (and in many cases are ok above (round about ) –5C. Selling plants at RHS flower shows in London (remember them, before the RHS decided it could make more money renting the halls out than running flower shows – which some of us naively thought was their core mission) I remember being vaguely shocked by people saying that they have planted some of my stuff out and it had survived. We began to realise just what a warm microclimate London has – and indeed any big city is warmer than its surroundings.
            I long ago moved onto hardy perennials, which are nearly all from climates far more severe than ours, and living in the Welsh borders I am not tempted to be too experimental on the hardiness front. Maybe one day I’ll live by the sea and have one of those fabulous west coast gardens where you can mix and match from different climate zones. Maybe in my old age. But back then, I was certainly part of that zeitgeist, and I remember thinking that some of my colleagues who just got deeper and deeper into the whole hardy exotic thing were doing something which was just going to end in tears.
            Anyway, what happened in the 1990s was a coming together of several things: a long run of mild winters (assume global warming, probably on top of cyclical climate change), an increase in plant introductions from borderline frost climates all over the world which went hand-in-hand with the great consumer gardening boom. Lavandula stoechas was never seriously regarded as hardy, maybe a few folk in Cornwall grew it. Mild winters created an opening for introductions from different parts of its range – we got aware of the concept of provenance, where something came from, how (in some species) there are appreciable genetic differences  in ability to survive cold depending on between plants over an altitudinal and latitudinal range. And then of course you can hybridise, so Lavandula stoechas blossoms into , quick look at RHS Plant Finder – 55 taxa in commercial cultivation in Britain.
            By the way I do like Lavandula stoechas, but I am going to use it to illustrate my point. Wholesalers started selling it, probably run by people too young to remember a cold winter (am I sounding like a grumpy old man here?), what with those little rabbit-ear ‘flags’ on the flowers the gardening public just love it. I remember, years ago, looking at some in a garden centre, at the little plastic tag which tries to give information without actually using any language (like IKEA flat-pack furniture), and no mention of (lack of) hardiness.
            So here we are, with a whole new diversity of plant life in our gardens, being subjected to a big experiment. There will be lots of surprises when the big thaw finally happens. I just hope that the growers of ‘plants on the edge’ make notes and let the rest of us know about survivals and casualties.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

"I'd give it three years"....... how perennial are perennials? and other awkward questions.

Ever bought a 'perennial' from a garden centre and then wondered why it drops dead after a number of years? You like the thing so you try it again. Ditto. Naturally you blame yourself/the soil/the fact that the dog peed on it, but then you discover that everyone else has the same problem.

Welcome to the world of the 'not-perennial'.

Annual, biennial, perennial - three words which actually represent points on a gradient - from ephemeral to Bob Brown's "bomb-proof". Between 'biennial' and 'perennial' there are a host of short-lived perennials which do generally die after a few years. Their saving grace is that often they self-seed. If they don't its a bit of a con the hort industry telling us they are perennial.

How often do the garden reference books tell you that a perennial is short-lived? Or if it runs about, and if it does, how rapidly or its mechanism of spread. Lots of questions the books don't tell you the answers to.

But go to something like a Hardy Plant Society meeting and the air is thick with anecdotal material on just these kind of questions. So, I thought, why not design a research questionnaire which aims to get experienced gardeners answering carefully targeted questions on just these issues? As it happens there was an EU project: European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), European Territorial Cooperation 2007-2013.Interreg IVB North Sea Region Programme, which I was able to join and get (pretty decent) funding. Hurray for the EU! And of course to the Landscape Department of the University of Sheffield, in particular Nigel Dunnett and Mel Burton.

So, here are the results.

There is the 'lite' version, reprinted from the Hardy Plant Society journal (long-term plant performance), and for those of you who feel up to it, the full report.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Those Robinia logs, and the Dutch Wave

Lots of queries about how Monique & Thierry Dronet at Berchigranges (see last blog) use robinia logs to build up slopes. Philippe Ferret kindly sent me some pictures of the technique soon after construction:

Meanwhile back home, the Garden Museum have launched their Dutch Wave exhibition, funny to see one's life become history, The exhibition probably would not have been there if it hadn't been my plugging away telling everyone about the Dutch garden scene back in the mid 1990s. There have been a series of events featuring Piet Oudolf, "they sold out quicker than anything else we have ever organised" said museum director, Christopher Woodward. Back in the 1990s we bewailed the chauvinistic inward-looking nature of the British gardening scene. How things have changed!

See an article in The Daily Telegraph. to hear some reminiscences.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Is this the most beautiful garden ever? Travels in Mitteleuropa part5.

             Well I have been back home now for a week, and le Jardin de Berchigranges, isn’t in Mitteleuropa, but in France, on the way back home, but the Vosges mountains do feel a bit like central Europe. It is a lovely setting in which to create a garden, and this particular one blends into its landscape perfectly. It is the garden I think I would like to create if I had the time, the commitment to opening it to the public, and an endless source of robinia logs.
            I was absolutely blown away, which to be honest I am very rarely these days.
Knew the garden was going to be good when i met these box
            The planting, needless to say is very naturalistic, with some bold new departures, such as asters growing in rough grass, lots of self-seeding, and the feeling that the plants have a large say in deciding where they grow. There are lots of just the kind of additional elements I love - slightly whacky, imaginatively creative touches in the form of buildings, sculptures, odd structures, unexpected views. There is hardly a straight line in the place, so the massive hornbeam hedge ‘structure’  at one end of the garden which reads like a fortress has all the more impact. What I particularly like is how they have achieved structure without using cement, brick and the usual array of ‘hard landscaping’ materials (I have a deep loathing of hard landscaping). Much of this is by using logs rammed vertically into the ground with the gaps between them filled with soil, and needless to say plants - so dealing with elevations. Its all so inventive.  And technically, really well done. I love it! I love it! I love it!
Gärtneri Hügin
            The house, is so like our own ‘pavilion’, even down to the angle of the roof and the ornamental ‘dagging’ fascia. Clearly people after my own heart. I can’t wait to get back here.

Before leaving Germany
            I dropped in on Ewald Hügin, who is one of the most talked about  nurserymen in Germany. His nursery is reassuringly British, which is  a way of saving its idiosyncratic, rather untidy and full of really unusual plants. He has created some very good display gardens since I was last here – perennials and annuals together, wonderfully colour schemed.

And on the way back.
            France’s reputation for good summer planting is now well-known and appreciated this side of the channel. I dropped into Metz on the long drive home, which markets itself as a ‘ville de jardin’. The plantings I saw were in a way nothing special for France, but streets ahead of anything you see back home. What I like about them is the sheer inventiveness and range, and they look very well trialled, in terms of composition, getting height and spread right – that kind of thing. There is obviously a whole genre of planting design here . Why  isn’t anybody in Britain doing anything like this? I mean, why?
Spot the celery!
            To illustrate the inventiveness, in the park I looked at in Metz, there was a very glossy leaved plant which looked vaguely familiar, obviously an umbellifer – a bite proved it to celery. This lateral thinking approach to planting design is what I love about the French style – and you see it in Germany sometimes too.
            Final stop en route to the ferry was Chris Ghyselen just outside Bruges in Belgium (or perhaps I should say Flanders). I’ve wanted to meet him for years, as Belgium has not figured highly in the new perennial movement;  he combines a classically Flemish love of hedges with a passion for plants. And some very clever little secret paths through the garden, so very much a garden where there is so much more than what you see at first.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Swissinnovation - Travels in Mittleuropa part 4

Experimental 'perennial hedge'
       Lots of good things happen at Hochschule Wädenswil. The ‘integrated planting system’ for one, which aims at making randomised mixes of perennials and bulbs, and annuals for the first two years, and some other ‘mixed planting’ systems where again the emphasis is on choosing plants compatible with the site, and each other and then randomising them. Works well in slabs rather than conventional borders. And they are trialling a ‘perennial hedge’ too, with Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ as the main element, oddly flowering component not randomised, but interesting idea – more of a summer-autumn screen planting than a hedge. I’ve always thought tallish perennials work well as shallow screen type plantings.
Doris, maestra of the urban annual mix
            They have also started working with annual mixes, using them on sites left temporarily vacant in the constant rebuilding which seems to afflict Zürich. Public love them. They work here as the country gets quite high summer rainfall (which I remember only too well from childhood holidays); stress annuals with low soil moisture, and they go into seed-production mode and an early death, a trajectory difficult to stop, but keep them moist and many will flower all summer. Annual mixes don’ t work in eastern Austria or further east as the summer is too dry and they will all be dead by the end of July.
Doris Tausendpfund who designs the annual mixes (and the very promising looking perennial mixes) describes how she sees the mixes working on two levels – one colour dominates from the distance, perhaps as you drive by in your car, but then if you stop and look more closely, like whilst waiting for the tram, you see that there are many other colours.
Climbing plants in containers in Basel (Hochbergerstr.)
On the subject of building sites, it never ceases to amaze me how much the Swiss love cement, in fact the smell of wet cement always reminds me, in a really Proustian way, of Switzerland, as I spent several months here as a child and the frenetic building with cement clearly impacted the hard-wiring of the scent bit of my brain. Perhaps all this rather unsustainable use of cement is one reason for the counter-reaction, that the country is the world leader in green architecture and engineering; green roofs are everywhere, climbers are used to dramatic effect on buildings, whilst slope stabilisation using plants is increasingly seen, or actually not seen, as it is a lot less obvious than great concrete bastions or gabions.
            Whilst I’m having a moan about my recent dear hosts, it also never ceases to amaze me how much the Swiss smoke. Like the proverbial chimneys, so unless you have an alp to yourself you can forget about the pure mountain air. Although, smoking in restaurants has finally been made Verboten. Putting two things together, perhaps the country should be symbolised note by the alpenhorn, the Emmentaler cheese or the Swiss army knife but a re-inforced concrete ashtray.

Monday, October 11, 2010

What do you do when the Schau is over? Travels in Mitteleuropa part 3.

     What happens when the last Stein has been drunk, the last leaflet on bio-dynamic slug control handed out and the last Tagetes wilts in autumn's first frost?        
     Gardenshows are a big part of the German garden scene, lasting all summer and (key thing this) leaving behind the legacy of a regenerated urban space. Many of the best parks are former Gartenschau sites. We tried it in Britain during the Thatcherreich but no attempt was ever made to keep them as public spaces, and in the sad case of Liverpool, the show site is now quite well-known for its grafitti daubed ruined Chinese garden.
Playground - durability all right! Had to stop myself running up it.

            How you turn a one-summer event into something permanent is a challenge, one which has apparently been met pretty well here. Of course I tend to visit the successful ones, but I have seen places with  artworks that look like beached whales, avenues which go nowhere, and perennial borders run amok. A couple of days ago I dropped in on a 2004 Bavaria State show at Burghausen. On the whole a successful transformation, 8 out of 10, I think Herr  (or Frau) Burgermeister. One series of perennial borders pretty well abandoned – why not just replace with ground cover? and some strange objects which could only be artworks, but a fantastic children’s playground – the kind of really inventive place which can be one of the best features of these events, overall a good urban green space, and a whole series of little gardens between beech hedges – nice intimate spaces (assuming the good folk of Burghausen don’t go in for too much spliff-rolling or needle-based activities, which is always a problem if you create too much quiet space in urban parks). These were all designed by design practices, a bit like Chelsea Flower Show gardens, but permanent. Some looked really good, the others … well, I am sure the designers would be horrified if they could see their names attached. There is always a real problem with these individual gardens in places where they become permanent and get maintained by the same staff – they all sink to a common level. On the whole though they make for garden vignettes you would never get normally in a public park.
Panicum virgatum grass with Aster dumosus at Weihenstephan
            Quick visit to Weihenstephan, home to the world’s leading collection of perennials, meet the new prof. of planting design, Swantje Duthweiler, whose interest in early 20th century planting styles heralds the prospect of some interesting new takes on plant use (watch this space?).
            Now in Switzerland where I have spent a fascinating day at Hochschule Wädenswil, a teaching and research centre in canton Zürich. They have done a lot of work on perennial mixtures – randomized combinations of plants for particular visual effects or management techniques, sometimes just perennials, but sometimes including bulbs and annuals too. Some very high tech means of teaching plant ID too – you use an iPhone app. to zap a code on a pillar and your phone downloads a plant list, plant information and other stuff about the planting; meanwhile some nicely designed little leaflets give you plants lists too.
Most stunning of all though are the vertical gardens they are working on for indoor environments, including some wonderful ‘plant pictures’, exploiting the fact that a lot of tropicals perform well when growing vertically.
            A lot of fruit growing happens at Wädenswil too – it has a mild climate, being on Lake Zürich; some fascinating unusual fruit here too. Actinidia arguta makes tiny sweet little Kiwi fruit – much nicer than the normal kind, and I never realised you can eat Schisandra chinensis berries – although to be honest the flavour made me think of what it would be like if you bit into a chunk of incense – a challenge for the truly innovative cook perhaps.
            Odd how in the German- speaking world, it is public horticulture  which is where innovation happens, and private gardens are relatively unsophisticated - mirror image of back home. Our nearly all having private gardens (in the UK) has meant, sadly, a lack of political pressure for quality public space. But given the very different agendas of private and public gardening, there is so much scope for cross-fertilisation of ideas.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Travels in Mitteleuropa 2

Jo and I try out the exercise machines on Bratislava's new Danube river promade - a real boost for the way you can enjoy the city and the river.

The perennial revolution marches on! The Czechs and Slovaks are now doing research into public use of perennials, very much inspired by the German randomised mixing technique. Extremely interesting afternoon at the Landscape Dept. of the Slovak University of Agriculture in Nitra. Jo worked at Bratislava Comenius Univ. from 1993-5, so we now all about alcoholic Stalinist heads of department, reinforced concrete buildings , dead hand of Marxism-Leninism exams etc, etc. So delighted to find lovely new building,  ditto perennial border, ditto prof, and young staff well clued up on all the German research, on Oudolf, and ‘the Sheffield school’. On the subject of profs. a sure sign of age is when the professors start to be younger than you are.

Reading Prof. Hallova’s research I realise that she’d brought up an issue none of the rest of us have ever considered – that plants engage in chemical warfare through ‘allelopathy’ amongst themselves and that this impacts on planting combinations, so for eg. nepeta and euphorbia suppress the growth of asters and geraniums. I immediately think of all the Euphorbia cyparissias I let rampage in my borders. Fascinating! I think I should set up some trials back home this winter and really see if it is an impact we should really worry about in a practical sense. 

Perennial beds in every town I drove through! Plus trusty Renault Kangoo
Given that it's a long time since I’ve driven round Austrian roundabouts it is just amazing to see how much perennials (in the 40-60cms height range) are used in traffic islands and roadside environments. Really just about every place I have driven through in Oberösterreich seems to. Wunderbar!

A misty, soggy, chilly stomp around some dry meadow habitat near Mikulov in Czechia, Scabiosa ochroleuca and Aster linosyris flowering away in profusion. Sabine Plenk (a colleague from Vienna’s BOKU) and I agreed it was a ‘second spring’ effect as autumn rains re-moisten very thin stony soils. Nice to see the local flora (Pannonian-Pontic) used in the grounds of the castle in town in an ornamental way. Not so sure about the monstrous Christmas tree in the town square and all the artificial snow – but it turned out to be a film set. Made me freeze just looking at it.
Dialectic of locally native dry meadow plants with box parteer at Mikulov Castle, CZ.

More soggy foggy in Austria, can’t see the mountains! Furchtbar! Schade! However thinking long-tmer garden visiting in Austria is looking up. There is a new guidebook, published by Callwey Verlag and based on the very thorough Gärten Reiseführer for Germany. Lots of really rather nice sounding Privatgarten open too – how soon can I get back to check them all out? Only managed Linz Bot. Gdn. (good, some nice mature rarely-seen shrubs) and Christian Kreß’s nursery – Sarastro – at Ort-in-Innkreis. FAB, FAB, FAB. If this nursery were outside Guildford, you’d be blown away by it. Its not just plants, its really funky architectural salvage, kinky walls, alpines grown in all sorts of weird rubble. Its Berlin grunge meets Alpine Garden Society. Its cool. Ain’t nothing like it back home.

Forget the Sleazyjet flight to ‘Vienna’ (in reality Bratislava). Get the car out – the GB sticker, the green card, the ferry/chunnel  ticket, the headlight deflectors, and thrash down the autobahns (yes, you really can drive as fast as you like) and load the car up with plants. There’ll be loads here you’ve never seen before. And while you about it you can load up with Austrian wine, all of it totally gluggable and varieties like Grüner Veltliner you never find amongst the Chard and SauviBlank in Sainsbury’s, and the time spent on the autobahn will feel like its worth it. I did one better, stocked up with Slovak wine at the Nitra Tesco – just as good and miles cheaper. Stuff the Dordogne, up the Danube!

Sunday, October 3, 2010


An invite to lecture at a new garden event in Vienna – Flora Mirabilis. Very stylish, in the way that these things usually are over here. The posters for it are shown above. Wonderfully kitsch-Botticelli,  and rather naughty (look at the guy’s pants). Probably wouldn’t be acceptable in prudish Britain.

Over here – on the mainland. I drove over, a long way, but having the car enables you to be so flexible and you can just throw all your possessions in the back and not worry about squeezing everything into a flight bag; and you can stop at nurseries and buy plants, ditto winemakers and cases of wine etc. I used to do this a lot – drive all the way to central Europe, but haven’t done so for years. Back in the mid to late 1990s it was when I discovered the wonders of what was going on in German and Dutch gardens – crucially Jo was working in Bratislava 1993-1995, just after Slovak independence, and so I got into the habit of driving, which enabled me to visit gardens on the way – and if you take a kind of broad corridor from disembarking at Calais to say Munich, there are just so many stunning examples of horticultural innovation on the way. And so many great historical gardens too – if the sight of perennials and grasses gets a bit much after a while.

I made the first trip in June 1994. This was a month after my mother died, which was kind of symbolic, as she had been a great traveller in Germany and Austria in her youth. It is one of the curses of the human condition  that we burst with questions for our parents when it is too late. There is so much now that I would have liked to ask her. She came over with a bicycle and made several big trips in the 1930s – the last time a month before war was declared in 1939. This was a time when educated Brits were far more likely to spend time in Germany than France; it seems strange now – the Brit summer middle-class rush to their second homes/gîte in France now takes on the appearance of the annual departure of the Gadarene Swine – but most of them come back complaining - about a) too many other Brits and b) the French. Now Germany is just seen as a large car factory with a bit of rather gloomy forested scenery attached.

I have my mother’s diary of her German cycling travels – I have thought about trying to retrace it (although how much I would do on a bike is debatable). Reading it now, I inevitably do so with the knowledge of the horrors that came after, which I think is a real problem in dealing with anything to do with 1930s Germany. On the garden front, Karl Foerster had the sense/decency to go into exile (Sweden), Willy Lange accepted a Nazi medal – do we trash his reputation as a result? Anyway back to my mum’s diary – most of it is actually pretty boring, she wasn’t a very political person and anyway life in ‘interesting times’ goes on much as the same as it always does. She complains a lot about how dirty places are, and how friendly everyone is.

As a kid we often had family holidays in Switzerland, where my mother’s German proved invaluable. Her first trip back to Germany was in 1966? when we did one of those boat cruises down the Rhine. I remember standing in a bomb site in Cologne which just seemed to go on for ever – it must have been a deeply emotional moment for her. Another time we did the Romantishe Straße through all those fairytale towns in Bavaria (now signposted in Japanese by the way), and I remember a lot of her memories came back. I have her photograph albums – which are fascinating to look at, especially when you realise that much of the cityscapes she photographed were bombed into ash in 1944-5. There are a number of photographs missing – just as I’m sure you’d find with many surviving German/Austrian  albums of the time too.

Students at BOKU show off their planting design projects
Since 1994, I think I have been back to Germany almost every year. There is so much to see here in the garden world, but in a kind of mirror image of back home – the interesting things, the innovation, is all in the public sphere: garden shows, urban planting schemes, parks, green roofs. The same is largely true of Austria and Switzerland, which makes events like Flora Mirabilis, aimed at the private gardener, all the more interesting. I hope it succeeds, I’d love to come every year. And those posters – well – maybe these will become the garden equivalent of the Pirelli calendar.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Mob rule in Bexhill

It is not often I have to face a baying mob whilst planting. But I did last week in Bexhill – a small and quiet town on England’s south coast, one of those middle-middle places between the better known bohemian/down-at-hill Hastings and trendy Brighton. The town’s chief claim to fame is the De La Warr Pavilion, a superb early modernist building; it’s just had a refurb and of course it is now the surrounding landscape, including a section of seaside promenade which is getting some attention from the local council.

There has been local opposition – there probably has been a failure of community consultation (a mixed blessing at the best of time, see below), but you can’t help but feeling that there are a lot of folk here who just dislike any change - Bexhill does not feel like a go-ahead with-it kind of place. The planting in question was right behind the walkway that runs along the top of the beach – right in the teeth of salt-laden winds and spray. I’ve looked at a fair number of coastal gardens over the years, with varying aspects, and got a good feel for the tough wiry sorts of plants which survive, a lot of them Mediterranean sub-shrubs like lavenders and cistus and grasses. And I took advice from Naila Greene, a garden designer in Devon, whose garden is in a very similar location on the south coast – and is a superb mix of intermingled perennials and low-growing shrubs.

The Bexhill locals who gathered on the other side of the Harris fencing where we were setting the plants out maintained that nothing would survive here. I went out to meet “the local residents”; some of them were prepared to engage in a discussion about what would work and what wouldn’t, but one woman got into a total frenzy and started to shout at me about the whole development, with her gang adding in their halfpenny’s worth in the background.  She was just short of abusive. You end up feeling like a scapegoat for everything they don’t like about the new development, which by the way includes play areas, seating, shelters and shower points - scarily trendy stuff - replacing grass, a low wall and strips of annual bedding.

I suspect there could have been more ‘community consultation’. But this does cost a lot of money  to do properly – which means less to spend on the actual development, and you will never satisfy all ‘the community’. Besides which ‘the community’ have a variety of views, and many of these are conservative, unadventurous and driven by prejudice. I think many of us felt sympathy with the well-known garden designer at a Vista evening who declared “f*** the community”. If all landscape designers were led by ‘the community’ we would never get anywhere further than beds of petunias and grass. My own feeling is that it is important to listen to people: their ideas, experiences of the locality and fears, but at the end of the day, a landscape designer has to be allowed to be creative, without which there will be no innovation.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Awarding Rewarding Plants

I got invited to an interesting meeting the other week, a gathering at the Royal Horticultural Society garden at Wisley to take part in a ten-year re-evaluation of the plant trials system. An interesting gathering – felt good to be amongst so many people who just know so much stuff, mostly members of one RHS committee or other, and a few from the nursery trade. I think I was the only one there who didn’t fit into either category. Felt a bit like I’d joined the grown-ups.

 The RHS awards an ‘Award of Garden Merit’ to plants which it deems “outstanding excellence for ordinary garden decoration or use” after subjecting them to a trial – usually at the Wisley garden. The AGM’s credibility tends to decline the further away from Wisley you go – which is perhaps not entirely fair, as a lot of the characteristics for which something gets the AGM are genetically-determined factors, which will show up wherever the plant is hardy enough to survive. Actually, life beyond Planet Surrey is recognised - to answer an obvious question – a hardiness rating is integral to an AGM award.

As part of some research I did earlier in the year (of which more later in a future blog) I did a comparison between the very different RHS and German systems. They are actually very different, with different objectives; there’s more money for trialling in Germany  I think – how else could you trial something in 14 different places (which include Switzerland and Austria), and the German system is not aimed at an award but a grading (3 stars, 2 stars, 1 star, “for collectors” (i.e. second rate plants for nerds) and then a final grading which I understood to be a polite way of “to the compost heap”. I liked the objective set of criteria which was used to judge the plants in Germany, and was rather puzzled by the lack of anything like this for the RHS system. A certain amount of prejudice as well perhaps – visions of RHS committees of blazer-clad old buffers voting in a post-Jolly Good Lunch stupor are, to be honest, rather a thing of the past. The RHS system seems to be entirely relative, but the reports are thorough and are in fact the very best sources of information on garden plants available.

So there we go. Invigorating to be amongst so many experts, and to have our opinions really respected. Let’s see if this  actually very useful system can be fine-tuned and made even more useful.

Pic above by the way is of ‘Uchiki Kuri’, a Japanese winter squash, a group which does not appear yet to have been trialled; bred on Hokkaido and at 150m up in the Welsh borders the only squash worth growing. Its flavour is also really good  - I suspect its dry matter content is higher than any of the others. 21 fruit from 8 plants and more to come.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

I don't usually do this kind of thing

I don't usually do this kind of thing – summer bedding that is, but with some empty beds in front of my office building I thought I'd give it a go. Specifically I wanted to do something with a Mexican theme; having made a couple of visits to the country over the last few years I wanted to play with some colours I'd got to particularly associate with the place, in particular a very strong carmine pink which you see a lot, in fact my Mexican friend, Dr. Cruz Garcia Albarado, describes it as the national colour. We wouldn't dream of combining it with yellow, but the Mexicans love to.

So, with a backdrop of corn (a sweet corn variety) and amaranthus, two of the crops which fed Aztec and other Mesoamerican civilizations, I splurged out with some outrageously colourful flowers, all bred by the Aztecs (dahlia, tagetes, tithonia, zinnia), or of Mexican origin, nicotiana and bidens. Mostly started off in plugs sown March or April in the polytunnel and planted out May.

A few lessons for if I ever do it again. One is that it is almost impossible to get hold of a tagetes marigold which isn't ridiculously compact, although my friend Blair Priday saves seed every year of a very loose-growing one which would have been better. Same problem with the tithonia, but that might have been my problem choosing the variety. What happens is that compact plants get swamped by the sprawling bidens and nicotiana, quite apart from the irritating parks department look of compact annuals.

Everyone LOVES the zinnias, they don't seem to be a particularly fashionable flower right now, but the colours are so intense, and brings together that real Mexican pink and yellow.

sweet corn
Amaranthus 'Marvel Bronze
Amaranthus 'Autumn Palette'

Bidens ferulaefolia 'Golden Goddess'
Tithonia rotundifolia 'Fiesta del Sol'
Agastache mexicana 'Sangria'
Tagetes 'Legion of Honour'
Zinnia 'Scabious flower mix'
Nicotiana affinis
and although you can hardly seem them in this pic: Dahlias Dahlia 'Gallery Art Deco', 'Princesse Gracia', Bishop of Auckland, 'La Recoleta', ‘Ellen Huston’.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


A little while ago I had my second visit to Northwind Perennials in a year, they are just outside Lake Geneva in Wisconsin. Run by three people who all take different roles in the company, it is Roy Diblik who is known as the plantsman - he was a real pioneer in the containerised production of native perennials.

Colleen Garrigan does some wonderfully artistic or even wacky assemblages of old tools, architectural salvage etc. 
Roy has developed a sophisticated take on the art of putting together native and non-native perennials - all explained in a neat little book - 'Small Perennial Gardens: The Know Maintenance Approach'.                                                                                                                                                                        The pun is based on the fact that what so many (American) gardeners seem to want is NO maintenance, but Roy is keen to stress that if you KNOW your plants then you can reduce maintenance - and this is key, without smothering the ground with wood chip mulch.               

The plant combinations are very much about creating a complete canopy so grasses shoehorn in between flowering forbs like liatris and echinacea and sprawly (but not actualy spreading) low things like calaminthas can fill in the gaps. The display gardens around the nursery are very accomplished with a good 'field' type effect, and nicely integrated with shrubs and small trees.

Now - the wood chip. A good example of how a 'good thing' becomes a 'bad thing'. Not so long ago mulch was seen as solving  a lot problems - like reducing moisture loss and smothering weeds, but of course like all good things (chocolate cake, beer etc.) can be overdone. Wood chip has become one of Roy's pet hates, and I can see why - a lot of folk around Chicago seem to think that wood chip is an end in itself, any plants standing out looking rather lonesome. The stuff is dumped on every year, so not surprisingly plants underneath can be completly buried, and in the hot humid summers, all sort of diseases get going. What's more, a lot of the wood chip gets shipped up from Georgia, so the transport miles are pretty crazy.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Jim Archibald

Jim Archibald, who died last week, was one of the 'last of the great plant hunters'. This is what I wrote about him for an obituary to be published in The Daily Telegraph.

    For those of us in the gardening world who enjoy the challenge of growing unusual and rare plants, the annual arrival of a seedlist from Jim and Jenny Archibald was keenly awaited. Unillustrated, and consisting of A4 sheets stapled together, it would inevitably list scores of intriguing plants, mostly offered as seed collected in the wild. Some would be new forms of familiar species, some species of groups we know and are familiar with, but many would be completely unknown. However it was the introduction that many of us would read most keenly. Who would be Jim Archibald’s target this year: a botanist whose opinions on plant naming he disagreed with, the Royal Horticultural Society, Kew Gardens, or someone being holier-than-thou about the ethics of collecting seed in the wild? The introduction was always erudite, well-informed, witty and often very hard-hitting; in the world of gardening, where there is little openly-expressed disagreement they were a true tonic.
    Archibald’s career as a freelance plant hunter and seedsman extraordinaire began, appropriately, with another plant catalogue. That of Jack Drake, a famous grower of perennials and alpines in Aviemore. As a teenager Archibald was a keen gardener, and it was the listing of some plants grown from an expedition to Nepal in 1954 which fired his enthusiasm. His holidays were spent working at Drake’s nursery, and even at university (Edinburgh), where he read English Language and Literature, he continued to grow, and even sell, unusual plants. Early trips to look at plants growing wild and collect seed followed, to Corsica and Morocco.
    Travelling, often in out of the way places, looking for plants was soon established as a lifestyle. He would make light of the process, I remember him telling me once that “seed collecting in the past might have involved intrepid hikes or perilous adventures on donkeys but these days the road system makes it a lot easier, we rarely need to go anywhere more than a few hours from at least a track”. But soon he would talking casually about collecting alpine plants from the “mountains of the Iran/Iraq border region”. Then there is the story, legendary amongst alpine plant enthusiasts, of ‘the van to Van’, when he and Jenny towed a caravan to eastern Turkey, to use as a base for seed collecting.
    The only period Archibald was not spending at least part of the year travelling, it was running a nursery – The Plantsman, near Sherborne in Dorset, from 1967 to 1983. Working in conjunction with Eric Smith, it was the forerunner of the great many small specialist nurseries which make the British gardening scene so vibrant. The Plantsman was famous for its hellebores and hostas, many varieties bred by Smith. Unable to make a success of the nursery as a business, Jim turned to his first love, of travelling.
    Usually accompanied by Jenny, who he had met in the early 1970s, Archibald established an annual cycle of summer and autumn seed collecting, selling the seed in the winter and spring. With a clear focus on alpines and small bulbs, JJA Seeds sold primarily to enthusiastic amateurs, but also to botanic gardens (at least until the restrictions of the Convention on Bio-Diversity made this difficult) and nurseries. Some of his bulb introductions were used by Dutch breeders to produce new varieties for the general public, but it was commercial growers of alpine and rock plants who relied on him for a constant supply of interesting plants; it is reckoned that almost anyone growing such plants today will have some which originated as JJA seed.
    Famed for his memory, Archibald seemed to have an almost photographic memory for the plants he collected, even able to take fellow travellers back to the exact rock where he found a particular plant, many years after he first visited the spot. His favourite hunting grounds for the plants he loved were the mountains of Iran and Turkey; occasional run-ins with military check-points or secret police did little to dent his enthusiasm. In later years he spent more time in the mountains of the western USA, often working alongside the growing number of local botanist-gardeners who were passionate about both seeing their native flora in the wild and growing it.
    Archibald was resolutely not commercial. Many times I tried to persuade him to pay more attention to collecting seed from larger herbaceous plants – apart from anything else they could have been more remunerative, but he stuck to what he loved.
     Many of us also wished that Archibald had taken up journalism. Those seedlist introductions were always worth re-reading – barbs flung (but always politely) at the pomposity of botanists who concealed data (supposedly in the name of conservation), at the effects of political-correctness on horticulture, at the dogmatic application of ill-thought out quasi-legal concepts like the Convention on Bio-diversity or Plant Breeders Rights.
    Archibald’s knowledge and ability to communicate it was recognised by the Alpine Garden Society, who in 2003 gave him their highest award – the Lyttel Trophy, given annually in recognition of a lifetime of achievement in contributions to the growing of alpine plants, their culture and botany. His incredibly wide circle of friends and colleagues in the garden and botanical worlds will remember a man of great intellectual integrity, enormous and infectious enthusiasm, who combined real erudition and learning with an ability to communicate it, and great personal warmth. Eloquent too, one seedlist introduction ended -  “we sell dreams to ourselves and hope to pay for their reality by work and knowledge…what are seeds but dreams in packets?”

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Great prairies.............but stick to the smoothies

All pictures are of Shoe Factory Road prairie, near Elgin, IL. A dry to mesic site.

When Europeans go to the USA 99.99% of them do the same three things: go to NYC and go "ohmygodohmygod, look at those buildings" or the Grand Canyon and go "ohmygodohmygod, isn't it big, you could fit the whole of London/Paris/canton of Zurich in there" or they drive from San Francisco to NYC and all you ever hear is "ohmygodohmygod it is so boring driving across Nebraska". But we all complain about the coffee.

The other 0.01% tend to have a nerdy interest in something American like those people who know every single Indian tribe or every single Civil War battle. But there is a growing number who get obsessive about prairie. Personally I love it. This is the most fantastic habitat. It sums up what I love about being in the Midwest. It and the wooded surrounding landscapes are familiar enough to make you feel at home, but foreign and exotic enough to be give you a real thrill of excitement and novelty.
Silphium terebinthinaceum leaves

A dry habitat form of Phystostegia virginiana

Prairies are like Euro-wildflower-meadows but more diverse, with richer flora and an incredible level of difference between them. They are very beautiful but over a surprisingly long time, with flushes of different wildflowers from May to September. There are wet prairies, big and lush, right across to dry prairies, often on sand or gravel moraines - where the vegetation is short and sparse. Exploring any of them is an extraordinarily rich aesthetic/ecological experience, as it seems like every single bit is actually different to every other single bit, with different species or combinations of species.

Spotting mighty bright yellow silphiums with their sandpaper-textured leaves or deep purple/violet Dalea purpurea is like meeting old friends, and they always look so much better in nature than in the confines of a border. Bit like having a proper cup of coffee instead of the stuff that comes out of the tub the size of an oil barrel which says 'makes 240 cups'.

I only had a  day and a bit to look around this time but you can pack a lot in. Roy Diblik of Northwind Perennials in southern Wisconsin took me round to look at some of the local wildflower sites. Hot and humid, so a bit like walking around in mosquito soup, but who cares. At Kettle Moraine you can see how the Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources is trying to buy up parcels of land to create a 30mile long prairie corridor. Its places like these that make give you a feeling about what this country looked like before fields of soybeans, highways, malls and as-far-as-the-eye-can-see suburbia took over. And on the way to the airport we scrambled through a fence to look at a fantastic site at Shoe Factory Road.

Its just a shame about  the coffee. But then if it got better I might be tempted to emigrate.

Check out Shoe Factory Road Prairie, at:

Friday, July 23, 2010

Visionaries and ground elder

A visit to Waltham Place in Berkshire is a good opportunity to confront some of the dilemmas of the nature-inspired garden. Owner Strilli Oppenheimer employed the late Henk Gerritsen to help her ‘naturalise’ parts of the 1920s Percy Cane layout, all pergolas and walled and hedges and walled off garden rooms. Henk’s own ‘Priona Garden’ in eastern Holland had been her inspiration to get him over, as he was obviously good at gardening without making war on nature (although I don’t recall much food growing at Priona, I think it grew in the local supermarket where there was no nature to go to war with). Priona was wonderful for the balance between wildness and hedged and trimmed and mown order – a very Dutch balance, so it was right he should be involved at Waltham.

Ground-elder is a problem at Waltham, and since the garden staff cannot rid the garden of it using the bio-dynamic methods they are instructed to use (chemical warfare is actually little better either in my experience) the pragmatic decision has been taken to accept it. In one big courtyard area it is allowed in part (but heavily suppressed by lots of seriously big perennials) but kept from spreading by a cordon sanitaire of box, ingeniously Henk-clipped into a caterpillar shape – so much more fun than self-consciously trendy cloud pruning. In another garden it is allowed free-rein, but has to face vigorous perennials and so is too kept in check; earlier in June I think this is a very effective naturalistic perennial blend but by July it has gone over. A gravel garden is a riot of self-seeding, whilst the most successful part of the garden as far as I was concerned was an allee edged by walls, where shrubs and climbers had been allowed to spread just so, perennials to spread and intermingle and self-sow – the whole looks just so perfectly on the edge of tumbling into wildness. Head gardener Beatrice Krehl and her staff have managed to create a perfect embrace of the wild and the formal here.

Not all works, or has achieved such balance yet. A perfectly good terrace has been almost entirely lost to cistus and lavender and much other shrubbery in the final stages of the rangy senile decay to which many Mediterranean species seem to suffer, while a long border seems a long way from having a successful mix of species (nothing in flower in early July!). All in all, though, an immensely brave experiment in letting formality go to seed skillfully and gracefully.

Radical idea..... plant out some wildflowers in turf, maintain by "grazing like a cow" (Henk Gerritsen) - pulling up tufts of what you don't want and the add definition by deep edging between the wildy bits and the mown lawn.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

A brief hop across the ditch

    I haven’t been to France for 7 or 8 years (I’m rather embarrassed to admit), but am on the way back from a visit to the Chaumont garden festival, where I took part in a conference on naturalistic planting design. Back in the mid-1990s there was a flurry of such events with a loose group called ‘Perennial Perspectives’ – with an event organised at Kew by Brita von Schoenaich in 1994 a notable watershed, as it introduced British gardeners to the astonishing virtuosity and technical skill of planting designers in Germany. The half-dozen or so PP get-togethers involved Brits, Scandinavians, German-speakers and Dutch. No-one from Latin Europe ever showed up, which on one level was a puzzle, as we all new that there were some individuals in France who were very keen on wild-style gardening, including of course the incredibly gifted Giles Clement; but on another level confirmed our prejudices about Gallic landscape dirigisme, and the very different garden traditions of Latin Europe …. yes it does involve a lot of straight lines, and a strangely obsessive desire to separate the garden from nature.

    So, an invitation to speak in France, alongside James Hitchmough from Sheffield University and Cassian Schmidt from Heremannshof in Germany was very welcome. But to us it felt like we were in a timewarp, with speaker number  one (president of the French landscape association) pompously describing a park project which supposedly involved nature – nature being confined to an inaccessible wilderness area and a few bits of unmown grass. What is it about French landscape culture which seems unhappy with any public space which looks empty with less than 5,000 people in it? Tired by endless slides of vast mown grass spaces and thrusting walkways, speaker number two (a garden journalist) addressed us with the kind of “love your weeds” hippy ramble which we last heard about 20 years ago. He did however end up with a spirited critique of ‘natives-only’ planting, reminding us of its fascistic history. Then it was over to me, and then James and Cassian.
      We all agreed that the Chaumont garden show this year was more planty than in previous years, although only one garden made us go “wow”. In previous years the boundary between ‘garden’ and ‘installation art’ was a pretty fluid one, with many of the gardens combining art-school abstruseness with a use of materials which bore little relationship to what anyone could achieve in a permanent garden. One of the show mottoes is ‘ideas to steal’, but whilst there was some good planting to inspire visitors, so much of the non-planted elements simply don’t have permanence : willow, willow, willow, and plastic, and while Corten steel is pretty damn permanent it is beyond most people’s pockets and (yawn) we have just seen so much of the stuff in show gardens of late.
   The Chaumont site however is fantastic, kicking any British garden show into the compost heap, as the show gardens are shoehorned into the landscape by hedges, and blocks of permanent perennial planting. The whole event is a delightful experience, and surprisingly intimate. All terribly tasteful and stylish and so very French.

       The whole thing though does reinforce my feeling  of many years that French garden style is very good at the cosmetic - the stylish but not necessarily durable, whereas what Dutch and German garden style is more about combining style with technical proficiency and practical longevity. I suppose we are in the latter camp, but scoring lower on all counts. The bedding schemes which French munipalities invest in may belong to the cosmetic camp, but oh, they are so good, very high quality, and there is clearly no problem with funding them; that any British town council would stump up such funds is sadly unthinkable.

This was jolly clever, on the edge of the parkland to the south east of the Chateau de Chaumont,  bedded out plants in ribbons so that when you see them sideways or diagonally on, there appears to be a field of planting.

       On to a night at a grotty hotel in Paris, and a meal in a pavement café with James in which we go into raptures about French food culture, and vengefully remind myself that escargots are merely a cover for butter and garlic. Dutifully set off for Parc la Villette, one of the most important parks made in the latter years of the 20th century. Trudged around, admiring the red steel ‘folies’ but cursing the grey gigantism of everything else, more spaces which needed 5,000+. Yes, there are some wonderful little corners too, and a fantastic variety of spaces, but not a perennial or a flower to be seen anywhere. The whole place feels oddly sterile. Came back to grumbling, I hope not too xenophobically, about French landscape culture: form over all else, a fixation with hard materials and straight lines, a general lack of softness. Lets hope the little signs of interest in wilder styles take root. I’d love to see a real French take on naturalistic planting.