Euphoria

So I’m a lightweight! You don’t have to tell me! The weekly posting promise I made at the beginning of the year has gone tits up. A few days away, a run of the kind of weather that life was invented for, and there’s just too much going on outside for me to be sitting at my computer writing about the garden when I could be in it. So I’ve got a bit of catching up to do.

It’s also hard to do justice with words and photos to the miracle that is taking place outside my window. I am trapped in a state of frustration at my inability to capture the constantly changing scene that is taking place in my garden. From day to day there are new delights. And the truth is I can’t keep up.

But nobody likes a quitter. And this morning it’s raining. Which the garden desperately needs. And it gives me time to write rather than do. So here goes.

At this time of year I’m ‘dropping the b’ and turning the name of one of my all time favourite plants into the word that best describes the feeling I get when I do my garden shuffle. If you read this blog on a regular basis you’ll know the plant I’m talking about because it gets a fair bit of space devoted to it within these pages. But it’s now, when the slow build of early spring is gathering pace and the garden is really beginning to sing, that the Euphorbia is really beginning to look its best.

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Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii

At the moment it’s the Euphorbia characias wulfenii weaving its way through the garden that draws the eye, giving structure and coherence and energy to the borders.

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Brightening the borders

But there is also the Euphorbia amygdaloides var robbiae bringing light to the difficult corner under the bay cones in the border by the drive. And the Euphorbia palustris I fell in love with at Beth Chatto’s garden, beginning to get going in the long border. There’s the Euphorbia myrsinites spilling out across the paths in magnificent contrast to the deep red tulips whose name I’ve forgotten but who keep coming back each year.

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Euphorbia myrsinites

And not to be left out, there’s Euphorbia ‘Redwing Charm’, its twinkling red eyes bulking up to fill the tricky space under the Osmanthus burkwoodii.

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Euphorbia Redwing Charm

Euphorbia… Euphoria… it’s impossible to resist.

And it’s not just the Euphorbia that is prompting this feeling. The euphoria is being given a boost when I look at the borders where I can see the new shoots of all the planting I put in a couple of years ago when I carried out my great garden edit.

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Border Action

Last year it was hard to get a feel for how it was going to go. Some things thrived, others didn’t. New shrubs looked underwhelming, and the balance I was aiming for was a matter of faith. This year I can already see that I’m getting closer to what I was hoping for so I’m feeling really excited.

The other thing prompting euphoria is that for the first time in quite a few years whatever it is that digs up my tulip bulbs has stayed away. It has been a source of intense pain to me, seeing my beds dotted with neat little holes marking the spots where all my hard work in late autumn has been laid to waste. Year after year the tulip activity in my garden has been patchy, and yet I go on planting and hoping that this year might be different. Well this year is. In November I planted my bulbs deeper than ever and mulched with a thick layer of spent mushroom compost and it seems to have done the trick. Tulip fever here we come.

These days of warmth and action, interspersed with days of gloom and grey are what spring is all about, the teenage time of year when it’s impossible to predict what is going to happen next. Apart from the certainty that we’re moving towards something better. The challenge for me is to live in the moment and enjoy the detail, and not get swept away by the thought of what is to come.

My failure to write posts for the past couple of weeks means that some things have come and gone without getting the attention they deserve. The Narcissus February Gold on the banks in the field garden, which this year ignored their name and did their thing in March, shone in the sunshine.

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Narcissus February Gold 

Narcissus Jenny, one of my particular favourites, is still being graceful in the front garden although past her best.

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Narcissus Jenny

The hellebores continue to deliver under the Viburnum opulus by the drive. The new Prunus cerasifera I planted in the field garden a couple of years ago established itself sufficiently to make a proper contribution as blossom bringer to coincide with the the daphne and lonicera in the main garden.

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Prunus cerasifera

Scilla spread through the beds in the far corner, bringing its intense blue to the party.

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Scilla with Asplenium scolopendrium

Those pesky muscari are finally proving their worth under the espaliered apples.

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Muscari and apples

And the rhubarb. The rhubarb deserves its own post.

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Forced rhubarb living up to its name!

If I can find the time to write it.

 

 

A Lion Called Doris

You know what they say about March? In like a lion, out like a lamb. Well, if the last few days are anything to go by, the end of March is a treat in store.

I’ve got to be honest and admit to taking the coward’s option and staying firmly inside while Storm Doris has been doing her thing. And it was with an element of trepidation that I ventured out into the garden when the sun finally dared to show itself. From what I could see the damage was not too great, but the bits of the garden I can’t see from the house include the veg garden, and the amount of timber strewn across the lawn made me a bit anxious that the greenhouse might have suffered a direct hit.

I’ve also been lazy about going out to check the new sowing in the greenhouse, preferring to focus my gardening attention on the indoor window brigade who are shooting up nicely. (Although now I’m worrying that they are going to turn into leggy blondes rather than the nice compact little folk I’m hoping for!)  But once in the garden it was a relief to find everything in reasonable shape, although of course the weeds have not been put off in the slightest by the weather and are having a high old time. I’m already experiencing the onset of the hairy bittercress anxiety that is an inevitable companion to the spring and summer months.

But the Euphorbia wulfenii are unfurling their heads,

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A lion called Doris? (Don’t you think it looks like a lion’s head?)

Arnold is delivering big time on his Promise,

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Hamamelis Arnold’s Promise

the Tete a Tetes are glowing like lanterns.

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Narcissus Tete a Tete

So I decided to ignore the voices in my head telling me to get on with the weeding, and take some time to wander round and have a go at taking photos with a wide angle lens to try and give a sense of the garden at this time of year.

I do struggle with the bigger picture. The natty little close ups of my favourite plants that I’ve been practising seem so much simpler; the wider shots invariably include the bits I don’t want. But I’m going to switch off my critical eye to walk you round the garden.

Starting at the front. We live in what used to be the farmhouse, with a dairy attached on one corner which has been converted into three more homes around a courtyard. The house faces out across the fields to the southwest, with a strip of garden, lined with hornbeam and native hedging separating us from the lane.

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View from our window – one glorious night of full moon last summer

When we moved here sixteen years ago the front door was at the end of the house, leading into a very small narrow hallway. Four years ago we moved the front door to the centre of the house, converting what used to be our dining room into a proper entrance hall.

The day we moved in ....
16 years ago

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When the door was at the end of the house the front garden was rather under-appreciated; we walked past but rarely into it. One advantage of moving the door was that we now walk through the front garden on a regular basis. So I planned the planting with this in mind.

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Front garden from above!

(This photo was taken from an upstairs window a couple of years ago. The rather pale looking viburnum on the right has died and been removed since then. And the other plants have filled out more. But for a space that is difficult to photo as a whole at least it gives some idea of what it looks like.)

I see the front garden as the entrance hall to the entrance hall. I had in mind a garden that you open gates to go into, that feels as if you are leaving the outside world behind as you enter into a separate space. I wanted a more formal feel to it than the back garden, a garden that keeps its character throughout the year, acting as a staging post for the inside of the house. You will see that I’ve kept the emphasis on evergreen shape, shade and texture. There are balls of Buxus and Pittosporum Golf Ball, lollipops of bay and Viburnum Tinus. Clumps of Euphorbia wulfenii define the entrance to the porch and front door, the domed bracts chosen to mirror the evergreen mounds.

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The new entrance

 

Scent is important –  delivered by vase shaped Sarcococca, and tapestries of Trachelospermum jasminoides climbing the walls either side of the porch.

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Structure and Form

Hebe rakiensis underscoring the bay trees at the lower level continues the mounded theme with ferns and sword shaped iris for contrast.

By the side of the house another painted gate opens into the back garden. Here I’ve continued the evergreen structure from the front but in a more relaxed style, so that it anchors the planting to give it definition. An intensive edit conducted a couple of years ago meant that I moved and took out and changed a fair bit, trying to achieve year round structure  and harmony. I’m pretty pleased with the way it’s shaping up and can’t wait for the summer to see how the perennial planting I introduced into the centre beds is bulking up.

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Through the gate

It’s taken time but I’m finally learning to accept the fact that a big chunk of this garden is more shady than not. We’re at the bottom of a slope that faces northwest, tucked in against a wooded area with very very big trees that cast shadows across the garden even in the height of summer. I’ve wasted a fortune planting sun lovers and praying for them to prosper. Now I’m embracing the shade dwellers and keeping the sun worshippers for the cutting bed.

Mention of the cutting bed happily leads me to the field garden, named the field garden because it used to be… yes, you’ve guessed it… the field. When the field garden was more field than garden it was pretty boring. Now – although it’s still very much work in progress – it’s one of my favourite areas.

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More field than garden!

I’ve planted yew to define the lawn and disguise an unattractive bank. I’ve separated the sloping orchard, vegetable and cutting garden with wings of yew and mixed native hedging. A couple of years ago I planted three hornbeams, (getting ready to be cut into boxes on sticks when they fill out), to lead the eye to a seating area under a newly planted prunus. At the same time as planting the hornbeams I planted three Malus Everest either side of the path up to the gate. It’s an area that can become very soggy when there is heavy rain as water runs this way off the field so I’m hoping they are going to survive. Last year I planted narcissus and camassias on the banks and under the hornbeams.

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Hornbeams in training!

 

The veg garden and greenhouse are my favourite bit of all. Here is my sunny space, the place where I go to enjoy warmth when the rest of the garden is still stuck in winter. Here rhubarb is accelerating, tulips are showing and the Hesperis matronalis and Matthiola incana that I’ve been shielding from the bunnies for as long as possible in the cold-frame are waiting for transfer to their final position. The espaliered apples I planted to act as a backdrop to the beds a few years ago have reached to the ends of the wires. Next door’s garden waits to be hidden by the mixed native and beech hedging I planted a couple of years ago. Annoyingly I lost a Victoria Plum tree last year. It had been carefully positioned to go with the apples and pear and leaves a hole I can’t fill as I would like because of the risk of the same thing happening. So I’ve got to rethink a bit before I replant.

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In case you’re wondering, we’re the bit on the left!

The last view to show you is from the top of the bank where I can look back across the garden to the downs.

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Across to the Downs

It won’t be long before this all looks very different. It’s one of the great joys of a garden, isn’t it? That it’s constantly changing. So maybe I will aim to do the same thing through the seasons.

 

Bare bones and skeletons

So it begins.

With snow.

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Not very much snow. But still a chance to see the bare bones of the garden. Which is as good a place to start this year of weekly posts as any.

But before I embark let me fill you in on a bit of background.

For those who may not know the history of this garden, I should explain that sixteen years ago it wasn’t… a garden that is. What it was was an awkward triangle of about half an acre of sloping lawn surrounded by stock fencing. The kind of space you look over and out of rather than into. It was the garden developers leave for you when they’ve finished. Need I say more!

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Room for improvement….

And this is how it stayed for a couple of years. Until the time came to ask for help from my mate Judes; who happens to be a garden designer of the very best kind. One of that rare breed who understand space and function and form.

Under Judy’s expert eye the contractors got going and the garden began its transformation. Once the landscaping was done it was time to get on with the planting. In a haphazard, unplanned, suck it and see kind of way that taught me a great deal about what goes where and what doesn’t, I bought plants I liked and put them in the ground. Which gave me an unimagined amount of pleasure, along with a fair amount of pain, as things outgrew their allotted spaces, self seeded, spread, grew this way when I wanted them to grow that, looked wrong, failed to thrive, died; in fact did all those things that plants do when you add a bit of sun and rain, and wait to see what happens.

Because when I started out as a novice gardener I was under the impression that you just planted things and left them to get on with it. I had no idea that shoving a drought loving plant into my heavy clay soil was like uprooting a camel from the Sahara and expecting it to thrive in Greenland. Plants know what they like and I learned that trying to force them to do anything different is an expensive mistake.

As for leaving them to get on with it. I realise now that this is akin to believing that the hair on your head should be left to grow as nature intended. Without interference. Now there may be many who are completely fine with this approach, but I’ve always been a seek out a good hairdresser and visit them regularly kind of girl. Plants need to be shaped, fed, nurtured. They need to be re-assessed and re-styled every now and then. It’s not that I don’t love natural. I just think it needs some help along the way.

Two years ago, with the benefit of all the years of hard work in my own garden, along with garden visits, trips to flower shows, books read, garden magazines thumbed, catalogues poured over, conversations had, and my garden design course under my belt, I took a step back, looked at what was in front of me, and realised that it was time for a major re-edit.

I went through the garden bed by bed, plant by plant, getting rid of any that didn’t please me. I drew up proper planting plans for the main beds. I reworked the area on the other side of the hedge which had been field, and was now home to a very uneven lawn, greenhouse and vegetable garden.

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Work in progress!

Over the past couple of years I’ve rejected, replanted, moved, cut back and generally overhauled the entire space. This year I hope to see the fruits of my labours start to deliver. Which is another reason I want to keep this blog/diary.

This week the garden is resting, for a couple of days slumbering under a light blanket of snow, with the odd downpour thrown in for good measure, and today a burst of winter sunshine. I’ve been out there with my camera. This is the time when the structure of the garden is revealed. Now is when I can see if it’s working. And I’m pleased to report that the skeleton is looking pretty good.

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Snowy garden

At this time of year it’s easy to believe that there’s nothing going on in the garden. But when it seems that there isn’t much to look at, you just have to look a little harder!

There’s beauty to be found in the bones.

Time for a Cunning Plan

You just never know what’s round the corner.

I come home at the end of September after a month away, feeling relaxed and rejuvenated, and full of creative energy. And wondering what to do with it. But before I’ve had time to put away the suitcases and pack up the summer clothes, a project lands in my lap. Completely out of the blue. And it’s a cracker!

The project is to design the garden for a house on the edge of the Ashdown Forest, a stunning 17th century cottage which is undergoing a transformation and needs a garden to go with it.

I couldn’t ask for a better job. But it’s a big deal for me. My first proper project for someone other than myself. Which feels pretty mega… And a little bit scary. But there’s no time to ask myself if I’m up to it. Because it has to be done immediately. Like right this very minute.

The situation is that my sister, (who owns the stunning 17th century cottage), has found herself in a bit of a fix. Along with writing cookery books and becoming a bit of a media superstar in the past couple of years, (which you can read all about at https://trufflehound.wordpress.com/) she has been up to her eyes with the planning and construction of an extension for her newly purchased home. She’s adding a kitchen, and a bedroom and bathroom linked by a glass walkway to the original house. The builders have been hard at work since June.

Work in progress
Work in progress

This project started a couple of years ago, when architects were called in to help turn a lovely but impractical house into a lovely but practical one. The lovely but practical house needed a lovely but practical garden to go with it. At the time I was still on my garden design course, and not in a position, time-wise or experience-wise to take on such a challenging job. So my sister briefed other garden designers, and they visited the site and drew up plans for her.

But now it comes to the crunch. Because, as tends to happen with these things, plans changed and the build cost went up. Which meant the original plans for the garden were no longer viable. The builders are at the stage where they are ready to start on the outside space. But the original plans can’t be achieved within the new budget. Time to call for the cavalry. In this instance the cavalry is me!

The back garden!
The back garden!

We’re talking about the perfect country cottage here: the oldest house in the village, tucked in between the church and the school. The garden folds itself around the cottage like a security blanket. There’s an orchard and a well and an old brick path leading into the churchyard. It’s very very lovely.

Or rather… it could be very very lovely.

But the cottage was a weekend retreat for the previous owners, and, both inside and out, shows the lack of attention that goes with people not spending much time in it.

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The front garden before it all started

The architect and builders are doing a great job of turning the building into something amazing. Now it’s time to do the same for the garden. But time is what we have very little of, so I take the site survey away with me, and I get going, and over the weekend I come up with a solution to the most pressing requirement, which is a plan for the courtyard garden in front of the new extension.

I turn up at the house on Monday morning, talk my idea through with my sister, who likes it (phew!), and passes it on to her builders. They begin marking out right there and then. At this stage it’s still on tracing paper. I haven’t even had time to put it on the computer.

Marking out the plan
Marking out the plan

So I’m hard at work. And loving it. This site isn’t easy – it drops away by several metres from top to bottom, there are gardens to be planned front and back, a request for different areas for sitting and eating and screening needed from nearby neighbours. My sister’s thing is food, so she wants to be able to cook outside, she wants a space to entertain, a separate seating area in front of the downstairs bedroom because she’s thinking about doing bed and breakfast; she wants places to sit and contemplate; and both she and the house demand a cottage style planting plan.

All this has to be achieved with respect and consideration for the spirit of this wonderful place. Because this cottage has been here a very long time. The architect and builders have done a superb job of adding an extension that fits perfectly with the old building. Now this stunning new old house needs a stunning new old garden to go with it.

It’s happening before I have time to draw breath. I do get a chance to tweak and make changes. After they’ve started! And I do manage to put the plan into the computer. But there’s been no time for any frilly bits – this is all about producing something that the builders can work from. ASAP!

The Cunning Plan
The Cunning Plan

And there’s no time to rest. Because there’s the front garden to consider. And again another plan to be produced at speed, because the builders have to lay a terrace and want to know how and what and where. And then there are the planting plans to be done for the courtyard and the front garden.

So no pressure then!!!

But it seems to be going ok. My sister is happy. The builders are happy. I’m happy. And on top of that I’ve got a garden to plan for sister number two.

Looks like I might be a garden designer after all!