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.

How gardeners can help bees

Bees are in trouble. Echinacea flower with beeTheir plight is the subject of an EU vote today, when environment ministers gather to decide whether to vote against the use of certain neonicotinoids – the pesticides that scientists believe are the cause of colony collapse disorder. While most countries are voting for a ban, our environment minister, Owen Paterson is set to vote against. If you haven’t yet signed the petition to press him to change his mind, there’s still time. https://secure.38degrees.org.uk/bees-facebook.

While politicians and vested interests argue the toss, gardeners and garden designers can dig in and do their bit to help bees to thrive.

It’s all in the planting. Purists argue that planting native species is best for biodiversity and wildlife. But many of our native species don’t flower much beyond July. Which is bad news for hungry bees and not great if you want a garden that looks good all year round. Anyway, who wants nettles colonising their precious outdoor space? When I’m designing a garden I always think about extending the season at both ends with plants that flower long and reliably, or come into their own in late summer and autumn and provide valuable nectar for bees.

The long, cold winter hasn’t helped. Spring flowers that bees love — hellebores, pansies, muscaris – have been held back this year. I revisited a garden I designed last week, and the bees were gorging on the pulmonaria, which would normally have gone over by now.

At the tail end of summer, sedums, salvias (rigourously deadheaded), echinacea, nepeta are some of the perennials that have both a distinctive form, which we designers covet, and will get your garden buzzing. And when you choose plants, stick to single flowers, not blowsy doubles. Get the right things in and the bees will follow.

But not if you let them be killed off first, Mr Paterson.

A very easy clematis

PeopleClematis 'Constance' with dusky pink flowers Clematis macropetala with nodding flowers are funny about clematis. I have clients who won’t have them in their gardens, believing that they are fussy and capricious – feet in the shade, heads in the sun, greedy, drought-shy, needy, needy, needy. There’s some truth in that.

But Clematis macropetala (above) is a star. It’s normally at its best in April, but this year, like everything else, it’s been held back by the late spring. So right now, here in London, it’s smothered in nodding, double flowers the colour of bluebells that open from buds of deep purple and will last for weeks.

Clematis macropetala will cope with a bit of shade. It can handle dryish soil once established, and it belongs to the group that doesn’t need pruning, except when it outgrows the space you want it to fill, which it does only occasionally, being a moderate grower.

The leaves are pretty; delicately serrated and soft apple green, so it’s useful scrambling up to hide an unsightly corner. And the cultivars are as good. My favourites are ‘Constance’, (pictured above) which has dusky, rose-pink flowers, and ‘Purple Spider’, with finer petals drenched inky purple.

Sometimes Clematis macropetala come back for a second show later in the summer, too. And when they’re finished, each flower turns into a silky seedhead that lasts most of the winter. Just about perfect, really.

Wonders of trees in winter

Now that springWinter Tree seems finally to have sprung out of the shadows of winter, and buds are fattening fast, I wanted to sing the praises of bare trees and their importance in parks and garden design. Here in London, the Acacia dealbata (Mimosa) trees are ablaze with sulphur-yellow pom-poms, and the winter cherry, Prunus x subhirtella are showing off their delicate, snowflake blossoms, but a sunny walk on Hampstead Heath made me appreciate again the particular beauty of bare branches etched against the sky. The crooked skeleton of our native birch tree, Betula pendula, with its delicate linework of drooping twigs; the burnished red of limes, set against ochre willows; the patterns of lichen on the bark of the elder trees and the patchwork camouflage of planes. This long, hard winter, it’s been so easy to overlook them, heads down, braced against the cold, just longing for it to end.