Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Beth Chatto, Christopher Lloyd and Defending my Beloved

One man’s meat might be another man’s poison, but when it comes to gardening, there are few things more likely to make a placid gardener’s blood boil than somebody maligning one of their best-loved plants.

Think of Beth Chatto when she read The Well-Tempered Garden and discovered that Christopher Lloyd had no time for bergenias. Beth, of course, grows hosts of bergenias, using them to great effect in creating breathing spaces after more complex planting. So troubled was she by his comments that she took the time to write and tell him.

Several years ago, I was watching a gardening programme on television and the presenter hacked one of my favourite plants from a border, peppering the slaughter with less-than-sparkling asides about my beloved. I was furious! I should have written in. Of course, I never got round to it because of my old friend, procrastination. I am still incensed about the televised butchery and character assassination of a choice plant, so today I am going to set the record straight.

A member of that distinguished cohort, the deciduous year-round interest brigade, Leycesteria formosa is a plant with many common names - Himalayan honeysuckle, Pheasant berry, Flowering nutmeg and Granny's curls to name a few. New shoots with a bluish bloom emerge in spring to form arching bamboo-like fresh green stems from which burgundy bracts drip from early summer to mid-autumn, carrying white flowers and later, raspberry coloured berries which ripen to a deep claret.  

The green tapered leaves are red where they join the stem and as summer progresses, they become red-edged with hints of wine-coloured veining flooding through the leaf.

The flowers are abuzz with bees in summer, then in winter, plump berries provide food for birds. In the dormant months, the skeletal bamboo-like stems make a hauntingly beautiful contribution to the winter garden. It is a plant that I would not want to be without and I am planting six of them in the farmhouse garden here in Norfolk.

Beth Chatto’s letter provoked an invitation from Christopher Lloyd to meet him for lunch, which in turn led to a long-lasting friendship and a collection of their inspirational letters to one another in Dear Friend and Gardener. That is how it should be done. I have learnt an important lesson today. I feel better for defending my beloved Leycesteria formosa and if anyone speaks ill of one of my cherished plants ever again I will not stew furiously for years and do absolutely nothing about it. I will speak out with confidence... immediately...

... just let me weed the borders first... pick some beans... and courgettes... feed the chickens.... eat some chocolate and gather my thoughts for a year or two.

* You will probably have guessed that the first photo was taken in Christopher Lloyd's garden at Great Dixter; the second, of Bergenia 'Silberlicht' was taken at The Beth Chatto Gardens.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Skinny Beans and Falling in Love 

Isn’t it great when you look forward to something and it turns out to be even better than you had anticipated?

I had wanted to see Felbrigg Hall's walled garden for some time, but since I am a seasoned procrastinator I only got round to it a few days ago. Thankfully there are no photos of me stepping into the garden, although I am certain I wasn't the only visitor who stopped dead in their tracks and stood open-mouthed with eyes like organ stops.  

The use of wall-trained plants was superb. Uncompromising mass planting resulted in a whopping wall wow-factor. I have never been the number one fan of climbing Hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris). It is a solid, dependable plant and I rely on it to do a job, which it does very well, but it has never set my heart aflutter, until Felbrigg. 

Here is what the wall looked like from the other side. These are not the best photos in the world. No camera shake facility is any match for a flabbergasted gardener.

They were not in full flower when I saw them. Imagine what they will be like this week! The same full-on effect was achieved with figs in the allotment area. 

The plants seemed more exuberant than any others I have seen this summer. Clearly the walls help to protect them, but we mustn't overlook the addition of a jaw-dropping 75 tons of mulch which has been applied every winter since 1999. They use their own garden compost on the main borders and mushroom compost in the vegetable gardens. Oh how I love a good mulch.

The allotments there are delightful. Trug-loads of delicious fruit and vegetables are interspersed with flowers which are grown thickly in serried ranks of great gorgeous herbaceous hedges

Areas are set aside for families to grow their own food. Fruit and vegetables grown in the garden supply the restaurant and when fruit is ripe in the orchard, visitors are invited to take one piece to enjoy. Bees are encouraged and no pesticides are used on the vegetables, fruit, or borders in the walled garden.  
Bantams control insect pests in the allotments and rescue guinea fowl free range in the orchard. It is this generous, inclusive approach which makes the garden all the more special.

For me, the most relaxing area was the orchard. Mown paths meandering through longer grass and a thoughtfully placed bench is an unbeatable combination, especially when you are still recovering from Hydrangea heaven.

Having feasted my eyes on all these uberplants**, my thoughts turned to my climbing French beans which are not their usual feisty selves this year. Their stems are skinnier and the leaves are set further apart than usual. The same thing has happened with a number of my friends’ runner and French beans. I have taken the precaution of a later sowing, just in case cropping is reduced. Of course, now I have done this, we will be in for a great bean glut later this summer. It’s a good job that we love beans as much as we love mulch (although, much as we love it, we don’t eat the latter).

* Felbrigg Hall, Norfolk. www.nationaltrust.org.uk/felbrigg-hall

** I'm sorry, I don't know where my laptop keeps its umlauts.