Roses, part 2. Versatile and low maintenance

A lot of my clients want low-maintenance gardens and get worried if I suggest roses. Roses have a bad rep; greenfly, blackspot, mildew. But actually a bit of effort when planting (at the right depth, and throw in a handful of micorrhizal fungae) careful choice of varieties, proper pruning and a minimum of one feed a season see off most problems. I never spray with insecticide; I don’t like using chemicals, and of course, prevention is generally better than cure.
Rose – Munstead WoodRoses are more versatile that their cottagey image suggests. Some, such as the compact, deep crimson-red ‘Munstead Wood’, with its delicious fragrance, look fantastic with tall grasses, and a climber such as ‘Iceberg’ makes a crisp backdrop to an otherwise modern perennial border. And anyway, it’s good to stray from tradition and mix things up a bit.
Their only real downside is that most roses are not particularly widllife friendly; tightly scrolled petals and flower structure is too complex for bees and other pollenating insects to find their way in. I make up for this by making sure there are plenty of nectar-rich plants in the planting design to attract them. The exception is the Rosa rugosa species, with its single, open flowers which I use in wildlife gardens or more informal planting schemes. They don’t repeat flower, but develop fat, scarlet hips in the autumn.

Roses. Part 1. Deadheading

This week I’ve been deadheading roses. Here in London, the first flush of flowers is coming to an end, and now’s the time to be decisive and take out the whole truss to an outward-facing leaf node. Rosa 'Lady of Shallot'I quite often use this time as an opportunity to reshape the shrub a bit, too, particularly with varieties that put on a lot of growth in one season. One of these, and one of my favourites, is ‘Lady of Shallott’, a unusual pale sunset orange, very free flowering and fragrant, but it is pretty vigourous and shoots off in all directions, so it benefits from a bit of taming by deadheading by half a metre or so. A feed and water after doing this alleviates shock to the plant, which pays you back with banks of flowers later in the season.

Dali’s garden in Cadaques

Visiting Cadaques, Salvador Dali’s home in northern Cataluyna in springtime you can see straight away where he got his inspiration. First there are the crazy cloud formations, apparently strays from the trumontana winds that gust through here at this time of year. Then the trees — all sculpted and pollarded, to provide maximum shade – umbrella-pruned citrus trees, the giant, sinewy feet of Figus microphylla fromm which the tree gets its common name — elephant tree- topped with knobbly fists from which the leaves are just starting to burst. Then there are the mulberries, pollarded to within an inch of their lives. This is to restrain them and to restrict the growth of fruit. They have a strange beauty, like gnarly trees in a fairytale forest.
Go to Dali’s garden, and you can see these ideas played out everywhere. In one courtyard, a giant, white-painted pot contains an olive tree and spills over with white geraniums. The pot seems to grow at a skewed angle out of the crazy paving. The craziness of the shapes in the paving themselves are highlighted with thick, fat lines of white paint.
Turn a corner, and there’s a garden bench that looks like its been hewn haphazardly out of the rock. The fun continues with a white plaster Michelin man soaking up the shade by the pool in a white chair under the spines of a tamarisk tree.
But Dali loved the natural world too. On the green terraces that overlook the sea, wild flowers cluster everywhere. Red corydalis, Lupins, Orchids, Lavender and Rosemary.

Great Dixter’s autumn plant fair

To Great Dixter, the garden designed by Lutyens, revolutionised by the late, great writer and horticulturalist, Christopher Lloyd, and which is forging into the future under its present custodian and Lloyd disciple, Fergus Garrett.

Great Dixter autumn plant fair
Four years ago, Garrett decided to hold a plant fair, inviting hand-picked nursery folk from all over Europe to come and sell the plants they raise as quietly and painstakingly as children. Since then it’s become an annual event.
Autumn FlowerpotsI love few things more than pottering around a specialist nursery. Not a garden centre mind, a nursery, where staff know how to grow their stuff and can identify those oddball cultivars. So this, my first visit to Dixter’s fair, was heaven. Here were some of the champions of the horticultural world; those men and women who patiently propagate their own plants, develop new cultivars and talk about them with passion and knowledge. They came from France, Holland and Germany, Sussex and Kent, Essex and Wiltshire, selling (and selling out) of asters and salvias, grasses, hydrangeas and proteas from South Africa.
Of course you get to wander round Dixter’s gardens too, which always make me smile. This autumn, Garrett has replanted Lutyens’ famous circular stone steps with exotic aeoliums and succulents, and just as audaciously, flanked an old brick barn with bold rows of saucer-sized, flouncy pink dahlias two metres high.

Succulents
Dahlias

It’s already in next year’s diary.

Courtyard garden with roof terrace

Work is continuing apace on an angular courtyard garden in Hackney, with a roof terrace. It’s been a complicated job, involving to-ing and fro-ing with a structural engineer, a rotten joist supporting the doors to the roof terrace, crumbling walls, along with the fact there are no straight lines in the garden. It’s the kind of project where much of the problem-solving is done on site, and this one has gone smoothly thanks to a brilliant contractor and flexible, decisive clients.

I had wanted to reuse some lovely deco-style metal balustrades, but they proved too expensive to restore and make safe, so we’ve gone with Iroko posts and rails to match the roof deck, and glass panels between, which will look sleek and modern, if a bit less individual.

There have been quite a few changes as we’ve gone along. Originally the clients wanted to repaint some existing mdf panels around the garden, but they have been persuaded to replace these with acrylic, which will float in the space and have lights behind that will glow at night. In a space this small, it’s all about the detail, and it’s often harder to work with existing features, as they can look really shabby against the crisp, clean lines of new paving.

There are two levels in the main garden, and the original Heath Robinson construction was rotten, dangerous and made the space unusable. We’ve put in steps from the ground to the lower level, making two distinct seating areas, with a ground level, rendered bed linking the two.

Terrace view 2 onto courtyard
The final touch will be the planting that will soften everything. It’s what brings a garden like this to life.

Work is continuing apace in a angular courtyard garden in Hackney, with a roof terrace. It’s been a complicated job, involving to-ing and fro-ing with a structural engineer, a rotten joist supporting the doors to the roof terrace, crumbling walls, along with the fact there are no straight lines in the garden. It’s the kind of project where much of the problem-solving is done on site, and this one has gone smoothly thanks to a brilliant contractor and flexible, decisive clients.
I had wanted to reuse some lovely deco-style metal balustrades, but they proved too expensive to restore and make safe, so we’ve gone with Iroko posts and rails to match the roof deck, and glass panels between, which will look sleek and modern, if a bit less individual.
There have been quite a few changes as we’ve gone along. Originally the clients wanted to repaint some existing mdf panels around the garden, but they have been persuaded to replace these with acrylic, which will float in the space and have lights behind that will glow at night. In a space this small, it’s all about the detail, and it’s often harder to work with existing features, as they can look really shabby against the crisp, clean lines of new paving.
There are two levels in the main garden, and the original Heath Robinson construction was rotten, dangerous and made the space unusable. We’ve put in steps from the ground to the lower level, making two distinct seating areas, with a ground level, rendered bed linking the two.
The final touch will be the planting that will soften everything. It’s what brings a garden like this to life.

In praise of artificial lawns

The English love their lawns. Maroooned in a faraway fantasy that has more to do with the Brideshead Revisited and Downton Abbey than Belsize Park or Dagenham, they dream of swathes of manicured lawns sweeping between magnificent herbaceous borders off into the horizon.
All well and good if you’re lucky enough to have the time and the will to cut and feed and scarify and weed them. Or the budget to pay someone to keep them looking groomed for you.
In schools and public spaces, where heavy footfall and lack of regular maintenance will quickly turn new lawns into mud-wrestling arenas, artificial grass can be a boon. And when private clients with sunless, north-facing gardens, or time-poor parents with armies of small children kicking balls about tell me they really, really want a lawn, I often recommend artificial ones instead.
They cost a lot more to install, but a lot less to maintain. Once they are in, that’s pretty much it. And aesthetically they’ve come a long way from the lurid, scratchy, specimens of a few years ago. These days, fake lawns can look pretty natural and come in a range of different lengths and textures. I’ve even used them in wildlife gardens (see pictures of the School Wildlife Garden in the Portfolio menu) and softened the effect with ornamental grasses and frothy edging plants.
That might seem like a contradiction in terms, but a clipped lawn is a monoculture; it doesn’t support much wildlife. Far better to encourage biodiversity with the plants, which provide homes and hiding places for all sorts of insects and small mammals.
Anyway, for me it’s far more rewarding to use precious time spent in the garden making those herbaceous borders look magnificent than trudging up and down with a mower in pursuit of perfect stripes.

A poppy meadow for World War One

I've been commissioned to create a poppy meadow in a school to commemorate the centenary of World War One next year. We’ve found a sunny site near the playground that’s currently turfed over, which is ideal, as the soil needs to be weed-free. So we’ll have to scrape off the grass, dig over and possibly remove the existing topsoil. Next will come a layer of sand, so that we can see where the seeds are. The idea is that the children scatter the seeds in the spring and the meadow will be in full bloom in time for the anniversary in early July.
I’ve found a seed mix, which includes Flanders poppies, together with Bishop’s flower, Red Flax and Cosmos, which will extend the flowering season into the autumn and, importantly become a magnet for bees and insects.
It’s going to look fabulous for one year, but the dilemma is what to do with the space after that, so that it doesn’t just degenerate into a mass of weeds. Top of my list so far is to sow a perennial meadow the following spring which will just have to be mown once a year and raked over. It should be sustainable, even in a school environment, where maintenance has to be kept to a minimum.

A great plant for a woodland garden

Euonymus europeaus ‘Red Cascade’.
I saw this hiding in a hedge on Hampstead Euonymus europaeus 'Red Cascade'. Crimson fruits with orange centres. Best in NovemberHeath. A plant I had forgotten about, since it’s usually to be found on the edge of a woodland garden, and there aren’t many of those in London. The species, the spindle tree, comes from Asia, but all the cultivars look perfectly at home with native plantings. They don’t like dry soil, but will grow in sun or shade. Shy and inconspicuous in summer, ‘Red Cascade’ really struts its stuff in autumn, when the leaves burn scarlet and fall, and the fruits, like crimson jewels, burst open to reveal orange centres. Sometimes, in nature it’s all in the detail.

A parterre of grasses

Off to Cambridge Botanic Gardens for a bit of late August R&R. I went to see the new, prize-winning lab building, with the landscaping designed by Christopher Anamenthele lessoniana, pheasant's tail grass, spiral garden, modern parterreBradley-Hole. Blocks of yew hedging softened by a colourful fringe of perennials. Rows of the rarely used, ornamental lime tree, Tilia henryana, bisecting the public courtyard. And great views through to the central square, populated simply by olive trees laid out in a geometric design. Striking, clean and just lovely.

But round the corner, the surprise of the day was a modern take on a traditional parterre. In place of evergreen hedging carved into geometric shapes, this is a spiral garden created simply with curls of soft pheasant’s tail grass, Anamenthele lessoniana, which brush your legs as you follow the path through to a log seat at the centre.

This grass is useful for all sorts of reasons; it copes with a bit of drought, it’s evergreen and it manages in some shade. Because of this, we designers value it as a workaday, utlilitarian grass where we want some fountainous leaves, rusty tones and as an tough plant in low-maintenance gardens. So it was wonderful to see it used here as a statement, en masse, in full sun, glinting with shades of burnt umber, gold and russet like the bird’s tail from which it takes its name.

And making a point about simplicity in garden design, too.

Going native in a Connecticut garden

I visited an inspiring native plants, natural garden, conneticutgarden recently in rural Connecticut.Its owner, an artist, lives in a wooden cabin set in five acres and backed by mountains clothed in maples that seem to catch fire in autumn.

It’s laid out with his artist’s eye for peek-a-boo gaps and clearings that reveal themselves when you turn a corner. In one, a rusted grain silo has been sliced and turned into a giant firepit encircled by slices of trunks cut from dead trees. By the barn, he has arranged logs, rocks and stones as a rustic sculpture.

But it’s a garden that has largely been left to its own devices; its owner has widened and mowed existing paths made by wildlife and enjoys the vistas opened up where trees – mostly pine, black locust, walnut and tamarack, have been brought down by storms. As the years go by, he is defining the boundaries of the garden with loose stacks of undergrowth, like an informal withy.

All the plants in here are native to the region and the picture changes every season. As I wandered around it in August, Carpets of the royal fern, Osmunda regalis had sprung up from a network of underground streams. Giant, fluffy Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum) and strappy milkweed (asciepias syriaca)towered above spikes of soldago and purple loosestrife and the umbels of wild carrot. (The loosestrife has not yet become invasive, but he plans to make a raid on the Soldago come autumn.) The approach is to gently edit nature so that the less robust plants such as the Monarda (bergamot), and the North American cornflower (centaurea) so much paler and shyer than our own, can find their way up to the sun.

The only additions to the natural scheme are several Amelanchier lamarkii shrubs and a few annuals. Blood red sunflowers flank the side of the cabin, their colours reflected in the understorey of the Castor oil plant, Ricinus communis ‘Red Spire’. To one side, the brilliant orange flowers of jewelweed attract feasting hummingbirds and he grows sorgum, not as animal feed, but because he likes the rustle made by its huge leaves.

It’s a spectacular garden. Not showy, not ‘designed’ in the way we normally think of it. But easy to fall in love with.