A Cornish Sculpture Garden

Slate monolith sculpture by Darren Evans and view across to St Michael's Mount
The highlight of a recent trip to West Cornwall was Tremenheere Garden, near Penzance. It announces itself as a sculpture garden as soon you arrive; a slate monolith from a former Chelsea garden by Darren Evans rises up (above)and on the hill behind, a what appear to be a series of ancient stone pillars sway in the wind. (This is actually Penny Saunders’ Restless Temple, and the pillars are made of jointed wood).

But this is so much more than a conventional sculpture garden. It was carved into a sheltered valley in the 1990s, from land originally owned by the monks of St Michael’s Mount, then cultivated by the Tremeneere family.

There’s no great house and sweeping driveway to restrict the layout. Instead, the gardens are structured around a series of winding paths that follow the natural camber of the valley and experimental planting which frames and punctuates the sculptures.

Mature broadleaf trees provide both shelter from prevailing winds and shade, and a stream winds through the valley floor, opening out into a series of natural ponds. The soil varies from neutral to acid, and the combination of habitats means that all sorts of plants flourish here, from boggy, sub-tropical, to rocky alpines.

Follow the paths along the hills and views to St Michael’s Mount open up across the sea; turn a corner and the planting becomes exotic, with the biggest gunneras I’ve ever seen, unusual bamboos and exotic palms, then grasses studded with dark sempervivens (below, left)and huge banks of agapanthus.

In the wooded valley, tender wild Arisaema gingers flourish among the huge-fingered leaves of Tetrapanax papyrifer and tree ferns (Dicksonia antartica). And there’s a collection of palms, bamboos and unusual plants from south Africa and Mexico.

The sculpture is of varying quality; there’s a wonderful camera obscura, but my favourite is Tewlwolow Kernow, by James Turrrell, an elliptical white chamber, with a disc cut out of its top to frame the sky. You reach it via a tunnel cut into a mound, and there you sit, perfectly reclined and gaze up at the sky and the clouds.

At night the whole garden is floodlit, so if you’re lucky enough to go then, you can meditate under the stars.

Dark sempervivens, agapanthus and grasses
Exotic tree ferns (Dicksonia antartica) line the valley at Tremeneere Gardens

www.tremenheere.co.uk

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.

In love with dahlias

riots of colour and shapes of dahlia at the national collection in Cornwall
Black monarch dahlia, dark blood red at the national collection in Cornwall

It’s always a thrill to visit the national collection of a plant. These growers might be the trainspotters of the horticultural world, but for those of us who care about plants, they do important, painstaking work – preserving, propagating and documenting a particular group, and by so doing, conserving plant heritage and preventing cultivars from dying out.

In the case of dahlias, which have come in and out of fashion more regularly than platform shoes and mini skirts, the years in the wilderness when they were derided as the height of suburban vulgarity, could easily have meant the loss of many cultivars.

So a wander through the beds of the 1600 varieties grown at the National Collection near Penzance in Cornwall, is a revelation. The first thing that hits you, even on a drab day in August, is the carnival of colour, one of the things that the late Christopher Lloyd, creator of Great Dixter garden in Sussex, who always championed dahlias, prized about them.

Here brilliant yellow clashes with pink and scarlet with apricot. Then there are the shapes: pompom, waterlily, cactus, orchid, peony – from uptight, pencil-skirted waltzers to flamboyant glowstick ravers.

These are some of my favourites: Emory Paul, (below right) classified as formal decorative, dark pink, blowsy and the size of a dinner plate, Quel Diable, semi cactus, blazing orange; the twin clergy with their black, cut leaves contrasting with bright flowers – Bishop of Llandaff (peony, scarlet) and Bishop of Canterbury (below left) (single, magenta) and finally, Black Monarch (above, right) (decorative, dark blood-wine red).

Yet they are a labour of love. They hate sitting in water, so it’s a risk leaving the tubers in the ground over winter. And even if you do, slugs are likely to munch on the new shoots as they emerge underground in spring. But if you have time, patience and a handy dry cellar, the national collection’s website tells you all you need to know. https://nationaldahliacollection.co.uk/growing-tips/tubers-getting-started/.

If, like me, you don’t have space to grow them, just be glad they are back in vogue. And try to get to Cornwall.

Bishop of Canterbury dahlia with black leaves and magenta flowers
Dahlia Emory Paul, the size of a dinner plate, at the national collection in Cornwall

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.

Recycling at Hampton Court Flower Show

Hampton Court Flower Show recycling sculpture from Cleve West's Chelsea garden
Hampton Court Flower Show crazy paving with a contemporary twist

Two noticeable trends at this year’s Hampton Court Flower Show: new twists on recycling and, wait for it, crazy paving. One of my favourite gardens, The Power to Make a Difference, by Joe Francis (above right, below right), is a really well-thought out take on the perennial theme of recycling. Standing in the rubble was a huge ice sculpture that resembled shards of glass as it melted. In this garden, crevices of traditional concrete crazy paving were filled with mortar, then sand and finally grass as you moved round the garden, a lovely detail that demonstrated how nature encroaches when land is laid to waste.

At the other extreme, the fabulous show garden by Andy Sturgeon (above left, below left) used recycled plants, paving and sculpture from past Chelsea gardens to make a new space. And it was built by trainee landscapers to give them a taste of making a show garden. The theme here was how you can make something new from what’s around, and Sturgeon clearly had fun with the planting. In a conventional show garden, the planting has to have an integrity of its own; here, Sturgeon could use what was there in his own way, so there’s a splash of Agapanthus ‘Navy Blue’ with the feathery grey leaves of Crambe maritima flanking two tall cylindrical sculptures rescued from Cleve West’s Chelsea garden of a few years ago. Elsewhere, ferns make a vivid green filigree against the monumental bronze slabs borrowed from one of his own previous Chelsea gardens. And, a lovely touch this, the recycled paving was sliced into large, haphazard shapes, slotted together with narrow joints in a nod to crazy paving that looked unfailing modern.

Hampton Court Flower Show using crazy paving to make a recycled garden
Hampton Gourt Flower Show ice melting in the recycling garden

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.

School wildlife garden nearly finished!

The landscapers have all but finished the large wildlife garden I designed for a primary school in Hackney, North London. I’m particularly pleased with the bridge/pond-dipping platform, which is made of a recycled material I’ve not used before. It looks really natural, but won’t collect algae or get slippery, so no maintenance. We had to make the handrail out of wood though, so we’ve stained it a different colour.

I’ve designed the garden around a central meadow with a circular path, with the idea that not all the garden should be visible at once – I want the children to approach it with a sense of adventure. So I’ve put in a long, sinewy living willow tunnel along one side of the path, which, once in leaf, will conceal one of the ‘bug hotels’ and the living arbour at the back, and have the added advantage of hiding the shed and compost bins. The turf mound which skirts one of the paths is made from spoil from the ponds we dug out

The mound looks rather neat at the moment; but I’m going to let it get long to encourage insects, and just strim it occasionally. We’ve had to go with artificial lawn, so that the children can use the garden all the year round, so it’s important that the planting softens the effect.

Wildlife garden in Hackney school with pondWildlife garden in Hackney school

Why the Judas tree died

We’ve had Cercis siliquastrum or Judas treeto take out a majestic Cercis siliquastrum tree in the garden of a client. It’s commonly known as the Judas tree, because of a myth that it was the tree from which Judas Iscariot hanged himself after betraying Jesus. But that’s just a theory. Others say that the name comes from the French common name, Arbre de Judee, meaning Judea, which seems sensible, as it tallies with the tree’s origins in the East Mediterranean. It’s a fantastic garden tree; pretty leaves, gorgeous spring flowers, autumn colour. One that’s not used enough.

I’d never Ganoderma applanatum, the offending fungusseen one as big as this, neither had our tree surgeon nor the tree officer from the council who was to authorise its removal. Normally they live between 25-45 years but the trunk of this one was about 50cm in diameter, so we think it could have been older. It had been invaded by a killer fungus called Ganoderma applanatum, or Ganoderma Butt Rott, a huge, woody mushroom that attaches itself to a wound in the tree and slowly rots the wood from the inside.

Although the tree had been sick for a couple of years and had suffered remedial amputations, this spring the glorious swags of Barbie-blush, pea-like flowers that usually hang from bare branches like ribbons on a party dress were reduced to a few tatty trinkets. It wasn’t going to stagger on and when we felled it, it was rotten to the core.

We will plant another tree in its place. I’ll report back.