Hip hip eastrum!

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I hardly know a plant as forgiving as my hippeastrum. I can treat it as meanly as I please, and yet it will still bear the most beautiful blooms year after year. It’s rather like a pet dog: never a trace of resentment, no matter how cross you are or how much it is ignored. If only all plants were this magnanimous!

After my hippeastrum has flowered, I cut back the stalk and continue to water and feed it, and on the first of June I put it outside into the garden along with all my other houseplants for their summer holiday.

This is where the bad times begin for this poor neglected plant. While my other house plants revel for four months in the warm sun and gentle rain, this poor hippeastrum has a miserable time. Beloved by slugs and snails, the first thing that happens is that all its leaves are instantly eaten off. It then spends a great deal of energy fruitlessly trying to grow new leaves only for them to be attacked as they emerge from the bulb, rather like Banksy’s Girl With Balloon being slowly shredded as it exited the frame. Therefore it has to go in the cold frame, where there are fewer molluscs around, though still enough to do  damage. The cold frame is not in such a sunny position, and it tends to get rather forgotten in there, especially on my watering rounds. By September, when it is supposed to go into its rest period, it is has already been as dry as dust for three months and has no leaves to speak of.

At the end of October, all the houseplants come indoors again. Except that last autumn I forgot to bring the hippeastrum indoors, as it was in the cold frame. I recall that I didn’t bring it indoors until mid-December (gasp). But did it hold a grudge, this tropical beauty? No! It immediately began producing its fresh green strappy leaves, followed a couple of months later by its fabulous bloom.

So my apologies for your rough treatment, dear hippeastrum, and three cheers for your beautiful blooms.

In a Vase on Monday is hosted by Cathy at Rambling in the Garden, and I do recommend visiting her page to see what she and many other garden bloggers across the world have put in a vase for today. Although this clay pot is most definitely not a vase, I am sure that Cathy will as forgiving as my hippeastrum and allow me to pretend that it is.

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Survey results: Would you use a garden designer?

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Firstly a huge thank you to those who took part in my survey of a few weeks ago (Would you use a garden designer?). I was overwhelmed by the number of you who completed it and shared your thoughts on what is perhaps a neglected topic among gardeners. Reading the responses was an education: not only did they improve my understanding of the attitudes of garden owners towards garden design, but they also gave rise to some unexpected lateral trains of thought regarding other garden-related requirements that aren’t being catered for.

As promised, I’ll now share your responses, which were anonymous and included a mixture of multiple choice questions and open extended responses. You can see the full results here.

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Unsurprisingly, given that the majority of my readers are seasoned gardeners, more than half of respondents were already satisfied with the design of their gardens, and told me that ‘I’m working on it with a spring in my step’ or ‘It’s just about perfect’ (lucky you, whoever you are!). However, that left around 45% of respondents who were less content, in despair, or just too busy with other priorities.

“I would love a professional’s opinion, but don’t think I could afford their services or the list of plants they would suggest I need to supplement current plantings.”

By far the biggest barrier to using a garden designer was the perceived cost. Using a garden designer naturally goes hand in hand with the cost of the proposed work: the labour, the hard landscaping materials, the machinery, any planning permission required, and the cost of new plants, and all of this can add up to thousands. Garden designers usually charge a percentage of the total cost of the garden design budget, or for smaller projects an hourly fee. For many, spending several thousand pounds on their garden is simply not an option.

“The designer we chose was unfortunately very fixed in her ideas and didn’t really listen to what we were trying to achieve.”

Almost a quarter of respondents had used a garden designer in the past. While some were happy with the service they received, others had reservations. A clear concern was the perception or experience that a designer would impose their own ideas and not listen to the client. Many of the keener gardeners were clear that they wanted to maintain a creative input in their gardens.

“I would sometimes like a ‘shortcut’ by asking an expert for some advice about what to plant or what to do with a tricky area instead of having to learn/read/find out myself the hard way! But enjoy doing all the work and planning myself on the whole.”

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Around a third of respondents were interested in a total garden redesign service, and a further quarter in planting redesign. However, some more uncommon design services were also suggested.

“Would love to have informed advice for my intention of gardening for biodiversity.”

“Help with lighting, landscape and water features. I would love some design advice, but I don’t want to change everything I have worked so hard to accomplish”

Garden coaching or mentoring was one of the most popular options. I imagine that those who chose this option were gardeners who did not feel that they needed, or else could not afford, a total garden redesign, but who wished for an objective second pair of eyes and an experienced kindred spirit to bounce ideas off and refresh the gardener’s imagination. Another group that emerged were those who did not want a ‘designer’ or ‘instant’ garden, and this is a sentiment that I can relate to wholeheartedly. Aren’t some of the loveliest and most characterful gardens those that have evolved slowly with the owners, with different ideas added over the years? If the vision of the gardener remains consistent, then a sense of unity can develop across the whole despite this more piecemeal approach.

“It’s not that I don’t care about my garden, just that I don’t think having a ‘designer’ garden is important.”

“Gardens evolve and a garden design would seem too instant and manufactured.”

There is no right or wrong style of garden design: for the busy person who has just bought a new house with a run-down garden which they want to be able to use and enjoy as soon as possible, then a complete overhaul may be the only solution. But I’m not sure that the other type of garden owner, the gardener who wants to develop their garden slowly and needs only a light pair of guiding hands, is well served by the sorts of garden design services that are usually on offer.

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Regarding attitudes towards ecologically friendly gardening, almost all respondents agreed that it was ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ important to them.

“It’s the most important point and it can look very nice too.”

Although I wouldn’t need more than the courage of my own convictions in offering a garden design service that prioritises the local and wider ecology, it is reassuring to know that this view is generally well supported by garden owners.

Clearly the readers of this blog are of a certain demographic, as likely as not to be knowledgeable gardeners who enjoy creating their own gardens, appreciate wildlife, and are not so in need of a garden designer. As one commentator neatly put it below my original post, future garden design clients are most likely to have limited interest in gardening, and

“are probably reading blogs on entirely different subjects!”

And yes, I can relate to all of those regular readers of this blog who said they enjoy the process of designing their own gardens far too much to consider hiring someone else to do it for them. One survey respondent summed up my feelings succinctly in response to the question: What kind of things might prevent you from using a garden designer?

“I am afraid my wife wouldn’t want me to use a garden designer.”

Which I can confidently vouch is true, since this answer came from my husband.

Surveys can have their limitations, of course, and this one was not especially scientific. A slight alteration in the wording of these questions, or asking them at the height of summer, may well have produced an entirely different set of results. But it has given me an excellent starting point in ideas, and a fast track to knowing my market just a little better. The best garden designers listen carefully, and I’m grateful to all of you for giving me so much useful material to listen to.

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Tulip Review

If you want the best way to bring colour, life, optimism, joy and conviviality to a spring garden, you cannot do without tulips. The variety of colours is unbeatable with something for every taste, from chic and sombre almost-blacks and royal purples through crimson reds and fiery golds to pastel pinks and whites. I have always found it a challenge to choose my bulbs for autumn planting, and I suspect I won’t be alone in this. If selecting the best colours from a choice of literally thousands were not hard enough, the range of shapes, heights and sizes adds another dimension to the challenge. Little wonder how easy it is to either over-order or just give up in despair.

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I originally began this post with a sentence declaring that tulips were the ‘cheapest and easiest’ way to add colour to a spring garden, and then I deleted that sentence because tulip bulbs are not cheap when you come to think about it, especially not the ones that disappear after a season, nor the ones that get eaten by squirrels or mice, nor the ones that simply don’t appear for some unknown reason. Unlike other bulbs, tulips are most reluctant to increase their numbers, and only a handful of varieties can be relied on to come back year on year. As for declaring that tulips are ‘easy’ to grow, one has to remember that planting those hundreds of tulip bulbs every autumn can be back-breaking and repetitive; you need to plant so many of them to make a decent impression.

The quality of the bulbs you buy is important. Cheap, puny ones are usually a false economy because so often they come up blind or not at all. Not all bulb suppliers are equal; and even the better quality companies can get things wrong. By the time six months have passed and you are wondering why a patch of ‘Ballerina’ has appeared in your garden while there is not a ‘Charming Lady’ in sight, it seems too late to contact your supplier with a complaint. Challenges aside, tulips remain in my mind an essential key to bringing colour and joy to a spring garden, and with some judicious planning (and the wisdom of hindsight) it is possible to minimise the pitfalls and heartache while ensuring yourself a three month stretch of glorious, bouncy, elegant, exuberant tulips.

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Not a ‘Charming Lady’ in sight …

One thing I have learned is to take careful notes and lots of photographs during the tulip season, and store them somewhere that can easily be found when the bulb catalogues come out in August. Heaven knows but when you are surrounded by the florid hues of asters and dahlias you won’t be able to remember what spring feels like, much less care. And remembering what spring feels like is key to making insightful choices from the catalogues in order to recreate or even improve upon your garden of the springtime just gone.

Well, my safe storage place for my thoughts and photographs on tulips is the post you are reading at this moment. I’m going to talk about the varieties of tulips that I’ve tried over the past couple few years (successes, failures, surprises) and use it to help me decide what to order in three months’ time.

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Tulipa turkestanica

As I have mentioned elsewhere, the earliest tulip to appear and one of my most favourite tulips is the species tulip, Tulipa turkestanica, a heavenly little white and yellow burst of petals. For two years in a row I have filled two whole window boxes full of them so that I could enjoy them from indoors through the window, and they lifted my soul every time I looked at them. They would also look good in a pot with Muscari and primroses (pale pink or yellow) and the biggest bulbs can be lifted and stored once the leaves have died back.

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‘Purissima’ and ‘Golden Apeldoorn’
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‘Golden Apeldoorn’

‘Purissima’ is the best white tulip I have tried so far. A large single white tulip that flowers in April, its generous petals open in sunshine to reveal a splash of egg-yolk yellow at its heart. Like so many tulips it expires with great melodrama, the petals dropping one by one to the ground like enormous tulip teardrops. I thought it far superior to the double white ‘Mount Tacoma’ which I bought to take over from ‘Purissima’ but which was frankly a little dull. ‘Purissima’ looks wonderful in the border with ‘Apricot Beauty’, and would also look good with a yellow tulip such as ‘Golden Apeldoorn’, which flowers at about the same time. Both ‘Purissima’ and ‘Golden Apeldoorn’ made a good return two years in a row; however, I was disappointed that not a single ‘Apricot Beauty’ came back for a second innings. In my opinion, the latter is a lovely enough tulip to be worth the bother and expense of buying afresh every year, and vies with my old favourite, ‘Menton’, for the prize of best apricot tulip.

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‘Purissima’ and ‘Apricot Beauty’
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‘Apricot Beauty’

‘Menton’ is in a class of its own: a generous, peachy head sitting with remarkable poise on its tall, slim stem, a thing of exotic beauty that belies its sturdiness in a strong spring breeze. Such a carefully bred flower so far removed from the species should not be expected to grace us with its presence two years in a row, and yet twice mine returned, becoming one or two fewer each year; but I was so gratified that I forgave its eventual disappearance.

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‘Menton’
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‘Menton’

I was surprised at how much I liked ‘Prinses Irene’ (sometimes spelled Princess), a stocky, vibrant and vivid orange tulip with minky striped markings on the outer petals, which I planted around our circular brick terrace. One of my suppliers was giving her away for free in 2017, and she was even better value for coming back for another innings this year. Such a short-stemmed tulip also looked good in containers with Muscari: you just can’t beat orange with blue.

I adored ‘Bruine Wimpel’, in delicious shades of mink and rust, which I planted in pots, then collected and stored over winter before adding to my chaotic cutting bed with not a hope that something so classy would show up to the party two years in a row. To my enormous surprise, it reappeared this year in good abundance. ‘Bruine Wimpel’ is a good single alternative to the florists’ favourite double ‘La Belle Epoch’, which was everywhere on Instagram last year but can be so hard to get hold of.

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‘La Belle Epoch’
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‘Ballerina’

Given that I do not prefer lily-shaped tulips and certainly hadn’t ordered it, the grace and beauty of ‘Ballerina’ was a pleasant surprise, especially alongside the dark heads of ‘Paul Scherer’, the latter first seen at Shepherd House Gardens where we were reliably informed that it is a good returner – in fact, both ‘Ballerina’ and ‘Paul Scherer’ returned in excellent spirits this following spring. Although almost-black tulips are extremely striking, it is important to pair them with a worthy background to do them justice. ‘Ballerina’, on the other hand, is the kind of tulip that would look good next to anything, and I can see myself buying more and spreading them around the garden.

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‘Paul Scherer’
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‘Antraciet’

‘Antraciet’ had dusky red double heads and looked old-fashioned and expensive like a well aged wine, and returned beautifully for a second year. At the cheap and jolly end of the tulip spectrum, a Gardener’s World special offer of a ‘Bumper Border Mix’ of tulips for a fiver, thrown haphazardly into a large plastic pot and shoved in a corner, became the prettiest thing in the garden. It was so successful that it made me wonder if I shouldn’t just buy five bags of these at a third of the cost, make up several generous pots of them and sit back to enjoy the show thirty or forty pounds better off.

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‘Antraciet’
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Cheap and cheerful special offer

Tulips that were less to my taste included ‘Brazil’, which I’d bought in the patriotic hope of its being tall and tanned and dark and lovely, but sadly it turned out to be short, swarthy, sallow, and clearly living on a diet of beer and churrasco, though it did return for a second year running and has some interesting hues as it fades. ‘Blue Parrot’ and ‘Nightclub’ came out so late that the tulip party was pretty much over by the time they did (although ‘Nightclub’ was admittedly worth the wait); neither returned for a second year. ‘Chato’, which incidentally means ‘boring’ in Portuguese, was anything but boring. A remarkable lipstick pink, it is gay and delightful and just a little too flouncy for my tastes, though again returned in the border for a second year (I think about three returned).

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‘Nightclub’
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‘Chato’

Tulipa saxatilis was pretty enough, but did not return and was not a patch on its classier sister, T. turkestanica, while T. humilisOdalisque’ didn’t bother to flower at all. But the biggest disappointment was the non-appearance of ‘Charming Lady’, which I was so looking forward to.

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So my strategy for ordering this autumn will look something like this:

  1. Buy the best quality I can afford
  2. Order early
  3. Store the bulbs correctly until planting time (after the first frost)
  4. Don’t spend too long agonising over flowering times. Just ensure that any chosen as partners will flower at the same time.
  5. Keep to tried and tested favourites that return: ‘Purissima’, ‘Menton’, ‘Ballerina’, ‘Antraciet’, ‘Bruine Wimpel’, and the non-returner ‘Apricot Beauty’.
  6. Try at least one new cultivar.
  7. For bulk planting in pots, buy special-offer tulips.

I would love to find out what your favourite tulips are. Which cultivars do you buy year after year or which in your experience perennate reliably? Which have you never tried before but are planning to buy this autumn? Or have you given up on the fuss and bother of tulips in favour of less needy bulbs such as daffodils and muscari?

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A Jam Jar of Spring

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Isn’t May a glorious month? Suddenly so much to choose from! So when picking a quick hand-tied posy for a gardening friend this afternoon, I had no trouble in finding a good handful of airy, laid-back stems. Here we have an allium from my cutting bed, the last of the Narcissus ‘Cheerfulness’, Geum ‘Leonard’s Variety’, bleeding hearts, chive flowers, foraged cow parsley, an elegant buttercup that sprung up among my delphiniums, a final grape hyacinth, Geranium phaeum, forget-me-nots, and a stem of ornamental thistle.

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I also took my friend a courgette plant and a tray of other small seedlings and bits and bobs, and in return received one of her courgettes (a different variety), a geum ‘Totally Tangerine’, and some tiny aquilegias.

We while away a happy afternoon in her garden, admiring her plants, drinking tea, exchanging ideas, and steadfastly not revising for our forthcoming RHS exams.

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In a Vase on Monday is hosted by Cathy at Rambling in the Garden and I always enjoy visiting her page and following links to all the other vases created by garden bloggers around the world.

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Calm, collected rationality

When I’m faced with the tulip catalogues in August with their cornucopia of offerings in bright jewel colours and curving shapes, just two outcomes prevail: either I go bananas and order almost everything in sight (2016) or I dither until it is too late and there’s nothing left (2017). I blame Sarah Raven entirely for this. No one else comes close to the seductive mix of colour combinations, cunning ‘collections’, and hot summer photography contained within that thick paper catalogue of hers.

Therefore it’s a useful weapon to be able to narrow down one’s choice tulips so that when confronted by Ms Raven’s devilish catalogues you can keep your cool and calmly wield the strength to order only your very best and most favourite ones in good time.

One tulip that will certainly fall into this category henceforth is apricoty-brown ‘Bruine Wimpel’. I admired it longingly in the catalogue in August 2016, adored it unreservedly when it bloomed in spring 2017, and did a dance of joy when it reappeared in my cutting bed in spring 2018. In a jug with ‘Purissima’ (another firm favourite), forget-me-nots, Narcissus ‘Cheerfulness’ and a stem of lovage, it is a pleasure to behold. Purer and simpler than the double ‘Belle Epoch’, it is the very embodiment of calm, collected rationality. If ‘Bruine Wimpel’ were ordering tulips from a Sarah Raven catalogue, there’d be no splurging or panic-buying. Bruine Wimpel knows exactly what it wants, and what it wants is a quiet place at the back of the vase and to let the other flowers do the chattering.

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In a vase on Monday is hosted by Cathy at Rambling in the Garden who has also found tulips for us this week. I do recommend visiting her page and seeing what she and many other garden bloggers across the world have found in their gardens for a vase today.

First tulips from my cutting garden

I admit that when I write ‘cutting garden’, it sounds much grander than the reality: a single raised bed of about 150 x 150cm constructed of wooden boards that the builders brought down from our rotting roof last year. I didn’t know what (if anything) these ancient roof boards had been treated with, so the bed was destined to be a cutting patch and not for edibles. I filled it with a chaos of bulbs that had been exhumed during reconstruction of the front garden, as well as from last year’s pots, and was pleasantly surprised by the enthusiastic return of many of my tulips. It is a wonderful luxury to be able to cut tulips for a vase without the guilt of stealing from the herbaceous borders. One of the returning cultivars is Tulipa ‘Purissima’, which has come back in a much creamier shade white than last year. In-filled with stems of the abundant forget-me-nots that I have allowed to pepper the garden from head to foot, it is as though the spirit of the garden has followed me indoors.

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I bought this jar with the sole intention of filling it with armfuls of T. ‘Apricot Beauty’, one of my favourite tulips of last year. Disappointingly, however, none of those returned. When it is not full of flowers, the jar has the more mundane task of holding spoons and spatulas in the kitchen, which have been evicted in the name of aesthetic priorities. (Credit to my husband, who has not complained once about the jumble of upended implements lying on the windowseat.)

I am writing a review of some of my favourite tulips and shall share it with you imminently. Which are your favourite tulip cultivars, and which do you find come back reliably year after year?

In a Vase on Monday is hosted by Cathy at Rambling in the Garden, and I recommend following the link to her page to see what spirits of the spring (or indeed, autumn) garden have found their way into vases of garden bloggers across the world.

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The Backhouse Daffodil Festival

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My, but isn’t spring moving along fast? After a winter that never seemed to end, it’s hard to adjust to the rapid succession of spring flowers that are popping up and fading away faster than I can keep up with them. Once the snowdrops had gone, it was the turn of the daffodils, and the second week in April saw in the Scottish Daffodil Festival, hosted at the home of the of the National Collection of Backhouse cultivars on the Rossie Estate in Fife.

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It was in the 1800s that William Backhouse began to hybridise daffodils, pioneering new techniques and establishing the first in a long dynasty of important cultivars. Successive generations of the Backhouse family continued the work, until an impressive number of significant and popular cultivars were in existence. Now a descendent of the Backhouses, Caroline Thomson, is dedicating her life to collecting together hundreds of missing Backhouse cultivars from across the world, as well as researching, preserving and celebrating the heritage of her forebears.

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Grown in joyful drifts and clumps across the beautiful parkland and gardens, the daffodils make an impressive show. What better celebration of spring than to wander among these lovely things, so varied in their hues of yellow, cream and orange? Daffodils are most certainly a flower that rewards generous planting, and it was impossible not to be impressed by the sheer quantities millions of bulbs that we saw.

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It was fun to imagine the autumn frenzy of sowing, the great barrows of bulbs to be planted, the man-hours, the careful designing and placing, the covering over, and the long anticipation over winter for the results of spring.

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The daffodils themselves rewarded closer inspection. It could be easy to think that some of the more divergent types were hardly from the same species at all. From pure white through cream and pale lemon, to dandelion yellow, sunset orange and even coral, the range of colours presented by the Backhouse daffodils was vast. Added to that the combination of colours within a flower, and you can begin to imagine the variety within such a collection. Take N. ‘Pink Pride’, with its aloof corona of white from which extends a trumpet the colour of diluted brick pink, darkening at the complex crinkles of the margin.

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Compare it to N. ‘Replete’ in colours of poached-egg and smoked salmon, the traditional trumpet transmuted to the appearance of rumpled bedsheets.

The daffodils were not labelled, although this did not detract from our enjoyment of the overall effect. I hope that in future years they may consider labelling some of the cultivars in the walled garden for our education and so that we can seek out and buy our favourites.

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The walled garden itself was an inspiring mix of the formal and informal, with an orchard and a grass labyrinth as well as straight paths and borders full of backlit grasses. I have made a note to return again to see the borders in their high summer glory.

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Observing so many daffodils in one place gave us ample opportunity to decide on our favourite colours. My sister liked the joyful bright yellow ones; they were the most spring-like, she said. I preferred the lemon-yellow and white I spend too much time digging out dandelions to associate brightest yellow with anything other than trouble.

Always with a view to expanding my horizons, I bought a pot of ‘Pink Pride’ from the courtyard of little stalls, where Caroline Thomson herself was promoting and selling her beloved daffodils with great energy. It was such a pleasure to be able to take home a piece of this fascinating heritage, which will bring joy each spring for years to come.

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There were many parts of the estate to go walking. For children (and adults!) there was the ‘bear walk’, where carved wooden bears told a little story along a curving woodland path. For those desiring a longer stroll, there was a path through a newly-planted link wood into ancient woodland, in the midst of which lies the hidden ruined tomb of the covenanter Sir James Scott and his wife Antonia.

Back at the house’s courtyard, a little show room contained the most exquisite daffodils in vases. I made a note of two, ‘Rosemerryn’ and ‘Lemonade’, that caught my eye and which I hope shall find their way into my cutting bed alongside ‘Pink Pride’.

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Narcissus ‘Rosemerryn’

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And now let spring gallop along, for the ordinary daffodils that border our Meadows in Edinburgh are fading fast, as are the forsythias and early tulips. In come the magnolias and blossoming cherries, the late tulips and dicentras, soon the alliums and peonies and before we know it, summer will be with us and gone. But my afternoon at Backhouse was the perfect way to savour a lovely and all-too fleeting moment of spring, during which daffodils range these inspiring woodlands and gardens for all to enjoy.

Backhouse Rossie Estate is near Ladybank, Fife, KY15 7UZ and entrance costs £5 for an adult, with discounts for children, groups and concessions. Entrance for RHS members is free of charge on Fridays.

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Thalia: grace, muse, goddess

Depending on which Wikipedia entry you read, Thalia was a Greek goddess of comedy and idyllic poetry, one of the nine muses, and/or one of the three Graces responsible for rich banquets and festivity. The name ‘Thalia’ is Greek for abundance; perhaps Narcissus ‘Thalia’ was thus called because of the abundance of flowering heads on each stalk.

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It is this feature that makes ‘Thalia’ especially wonderful for vases. You don’t have to cut many stems in order to create the impression of abundance, and even with a sizeable number of stems taken from the garden, those double heads mean that the losses won’t be too noticeable.

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As the flower-heads open and mature in the vase, the colour fades from creamy white and that almost yellow centre towards pure white. The vase of ‘Thalia’ stands above the fireplace next to a print by the fantastic artist Natasha Newton, one of a pair that I recently bought and had framed, and that will eventually hang in my office.

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As described in my previous post ‘Some Flowers’ Of My Own, ‘Thalia’ is one of my favourite flowers to photograph, for her delicate beauty. If you stand very close in a quiet room, the scent is deliciously old-fashioned.

In a vase on Monday is hosted by Cathy at Rambling in the Garden and I recommend a visit to her page to take a look at all the vases created by gardening bloggers across the world today.

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‘Some Flowers’ of my own

With Vita Sackville-West’s ‘Some Flowers’ still fresh in my mind, I have chosen some favourite flowers of my own to describe. These aren’t going to be painters’ flowers, for I know nothing about painting, nor are they necessarily the best flowers of their kind for the garden, though I can recommend them to any gardener who has the right space and conditions. Instead they are some of my favourite flowers to photograph, flowers that have some nameless photogenic quality, a certain poise or elegance, when seen on film or screen.

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Narcissus ‘Thalia’

As I write this, four generous clumps of Narcissus ‘Thalia’ are decorating my front garden with their small, almost-white, downward nodding double heads. In fact, clumps is too indelicate and vulgar a word for such frail, elegant little ghosts. A glance down a dictionary of collective nouns for birds (there seems to be no such thing for flowers) gives me skein, flight, fling. None of these will quite do. I have some ‘Thalia’ in a vase above the fireplace, and I am standing before them, trying to work out what it is that makes them quite the most indescribably prettiest narcissus. I catch a faint scent coming from them that one might describe as the diluted scent of a florist’s shop. It is a dignified, subdued scent that seems fitting for an introverted flower that is so different from the others in its genus, the majority of which range from boisterous to cute. When photographing ‘Thalia’, I find it best to get a dark green background behind them so that the flower can stand out on its own. I like to capture the gentle waves of the petals, the intricacy of the veins, and a sense of fleeting time.


 

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Tulipa tukestanica

If everything you knew about tulips was related to the familiar, blowsy, colourful things bred in the vast fields of Holland that go by names like ‘Queen of the Night’, ‘Ballerina’ and ‘Belle Epoch’, you might be surprised to find out that a starry, delicate little flower about quarter of the size of a ‘regular’ tulip was in fact a tulip. But T. turkestanica is as genuinely tulipy as a tulip can be, and more so to a purist because it is a species tulip, one that grows wild on the sunny, stony slopes of Central Asia. If you search online you can see pictures of it doing just that, and very lovely it looks too among the scrubby grass and stones, for all the world like stars fallen ignominously to earth. In the garden it has certain charms that give it advantages over the more commonly grown tulips. It is perennial for a start, unlike most bred tulips, its numbers gradually increasing like a useful, proper bulb. In theory it should self-seed as well, if it likes you enough (it is not sure about me). As a photographer’s flower, its beauty lies in those pert cream petals, six of them, and the rich egg-yolk centre, which opens up when it sees the sun and closes gently in the shade. As they fade, the petals shrink and become papery paisley wisps, tinged with dusky pink. I grow it in window boxes mulched with grit and like to photograph it shining celestially against the dark window. I dodge about so that the drying laundry inside is no longer visible through the window, and try to capture the tulip’s repeating reflection in the glass.


 

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Clematis ‘Filigree’

Gardeners must develop a hard heart when visiting garden nurseries, a necessary thing if you don’t want your garden (and bank balance) governed by uncontrollable forces of desire. Chaos ensues when that happens, and chaos is not (usually) pleasing. But every so often, I see a plant and fall in love at first sight. The plant will have been skillfully brought into abundant flower by the scheming nursery workers and placed purposefully in my direct path as soon as they see me coming. Their tempting specimen is invariably too expensive, and completely unnecessary for my garden, and always lacks some essential quality like scent or hardiness. It won’t recompense its cost by self-seeding gently around; nor will it attract bees. But when I see it on the nursery shelf I give a little gasp of wonder, and clasp my hands, and look at the price label, and gasp again, and walk on two steps, and walk back, and place the prize in my trolley. Clematis ‘Filigree’ (PBR) is one such plant that came home with me through forces outwith my control. It is a clematis that is designed to tumble downwards out of a tall pot rather than twine up an arch or through a tree. Its large, crinkly, semi-double lilac flowers spill softly from the trailing vines, and glow in the soft light of a summer evening. The sight of it puts me in mind of a timeless, candle-lit terrace with gentle piano music, evening dresses and conversations in low voices between sips of champagne. For it is an elegant, almost aristocratic flower, staying just the right side of whimsical in its gown of silk and tulle. Of course it doesn’t smell of anything, the gorgeous, overbred thing. And I don’t recall ever seeing a bee come anywhere near it. But I forgive it over and over again, and have never regretted the loss of control that resulted in my taking it home with me.


 

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Iris reticulata ‘Katherine Hodgkin’

It is hard to pick a favourite Iris reticulata or indeed I. histroides as I have never seen one I didn’t like. Among those I have grown and loved, ‘Clairette’ and ‘George’ have always pleased me, while ‘Katherine Hodgkin’ can often look like a piece of dirty litter that has blown into the garden. I have a patch of it that reappears every year about six yards from the bedroom window, and it always comes quietly when least expected, looking all the world like something blown in on the east wind. There it shivers, lost among the dead stalks and shrivelled leaves of seasons past, and unless you have a camera with you it is quite hard to see any merits at all. But take a look down a 50mm lens with a vast aperture, and suddenly this little speckled flower makes all the sense in the world. Did it creep out of a jungle with the leopards and tigers? What kind of crazy pollinating winter insect is it hoping to attract? What fictional flying creature searching for food in the bitter January wind could possibly be attracted by its wondrous blue guiding stripes and black spots on splashes of yellow? It’s a flower you just couldn’t make up. I ought to advise you to grow it in pots so as not to lose it among the dirt-splashed January garden; however, I don’t think it would visually fare any better, and would be much more bother and upkeep. May as well grow it in the ground and mulch around it with something very rich and dark, which you won’t remember to do anyway, and even if you did you’ll never remember at the appropriate time where the damn things are.


 

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Rosa ‘Tess-of-the-D’Urbevilles’

 

I am not sure if I could describe this David Austin rose any more skillfully than Vita Sackville-West described her velvet red Rosa gallica ‘Tuscany’, and if I did no doubt you would mock my attempts just as I very gently mocked hers (see Book Review: Some Flowers by Vita Sackville-West). Perhaps I should let the photographs above speak for themselves as advertisements for Tess’s qualification as a good photographer’s rose. Like all flowers, these require a dark, quiet background, but a more gentle, glaucous or mushroom-coloured one. If you try photographing this flower in a vase against a pale wall, the primary effect of subdued luxuriance will be completely lost. Death becomes her, and it is worth not bothering to deadhead this rose’s final flowers. I grow her up a dark, damp wall beneath a dripping boiler outlet, and attempt to train her in to wires, a decryable position which she not only forgives but generously embraces.


 

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Galanthus nivalis

How can one photograph Galanthus nivalis? Let me count the ways. One of my favourites is from above, with a huge aperture of f/2.8 or more, the closed white buds like falling snow against the black winter soil. There are many alternative angles I’ve found: in a windowbox against a black window, or in swathes across a dark woodland, or with the winter sun beaming through the translucent petals. One of my most loved photographs of a snowdrops is one that had a bee hanging out of it, taken on an unseasonably warm February day last year. Being one of a very few flowers that are out in January, and given that emerging snowdrops are one of my favourite floral sights of the year (perhaps the favourite), it is not surprising that snowdrops get a great deal of my camera’s attention. Although you can spend a lot of time and money collecting wonderful varieties, for the camera’s sake you cannot do much better than a single nivalis against a dark background. By single I mean not the double ‘Flore Pleno’, which for my simple tastes can be a bit too much of a good thing, although of course they too have their rightful place in a cheerful winter garden.


 

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Erythronium ‘Joanna’

It is hard not to be smug when a flower that shares one’s name is so decidedly excellent. The story of ‘Joanna’ is a fun story that I have told elsewhere. Suffice to say that when I am a famous garden designer, I shall plant ‘Joanna’ as my signature plant underneath trees where no one is expecting it, rather as Miss Willmott used to scatter seeds of her ‘ghost’, Eryngium giganteum, in the gardens that she visited. Up it shall pop towards the end of March, with its lush, liver-spotted leaves, their waving margins catching the spring light as they drift outwards from the centre of the plant, whence presently will arise a small, unobtrusive but oh, so significant arrowhead flower bud on a slender stalk. This will open delicately to reveal petals, nervous, cream and yellow at first, then maturing to apricot as they upturn their ends like Turkish slippers, till they stand in a tiny glorious regiment of perfect poise. The verdant, smooth leaves provide the ideal backdrop to the pale flower. This is a plant that demands and rewards its close-up.


 

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Cosmos ‘Purity’

I don’t know anybody who doesn’t love this flower. Could those big saucer daisies be any more useful as they trail about the garden in high summer and adorn countless vases with their impertinent faces? On they flower, on and on, until you think you’ll be sick of them (but you never are), quitting only with the second or third frost of autumn, and in a mild autumn looking quite unseasonal about the house as you start preparing for Christmas. One might think they’d be too ordinary to be included in a list of photographer’s flowers, but if you let the light shine through them and come up close to see the veins and ridges of those crisp white petals, you start to take them a bit more seriously. It’s like watching a comedian take on a grave role in a film: you suddenly see them in a new light. There is something Art Deco in the structure of those petals, which is counter-balanced by the tangle of feathery leaves behind. My seedlings were eaten by snails two years in a row, and I was quite bereft.


 

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Meadow Rue (Thalictrum)

A recurring theme in my photography is the effect of hundreds of bright dots falling like the blur of snowflakes, taken with a huge aperture so the effect steeply softens and fades with just a few of the buds in focus. I love snow, and dots, and the abstract effect they cause; and the meadow rue, Thalictrum, perfectly fulfils the snowy, dotty role for me in summer. (Closed snowdrops and the seedheads of asters help out during other seasons). This particular meadow rue had self-seeded in an abandoned bucket of earth next to my mother’s potting shed. She didn’t know the variety; she doesn’t have a meadow rue growing anywhere in the garden. It doesn’t matter what variety, though. All small-flowered meadow rues will do the dotty thing well. Mine quite pointlessly grows to a hundred feet tall and then falls over sideways, so as a garden plant it’s pretty annoying. But as a photographer’s delight, I couldn’t be without it.


 

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Rosa canina

This is the only plant on this list that I do not grow myself. A British native, the dog rose grows wild among the plants and hedgerows of my grandmother’s Derbyshire garden, which is where I first came across it. But you can see it everywhere you look as it adorns the countryside and steep motorway verges in early summer. Goodness knows but they should rethink allowing this plant to grow along verges because catching sight of it flowering in a hedgerow is distraction enough to make me drive straight off the road and into the aforementioned hedge. There are lots of lovely ancient species roses, wild, native or otherwise, most of which are a bit grander and less common. But at this moment in my life, it is the pale pink Rosa canina that captures my heart the most completely. Those petals, which are poised like ballerinas en pointe and look as though they will blow off in the next breeze, the dotty spotty anthers on invisible filaments, the merest, shyest suggestion of pale pink, the transluscence of the petals when backlit by the summer sun… Nothing could be lovelier.

No doubt that if you asked me in a few years’ time for a list of some favourite plants to photograph the list will have changed considerably. Perhaps I will have worked out how to get the best out of skimmias, ferns and bergenias. No doubt there will be plants as yet undiscovered by me that find their way into my shopping trolley and heart, find new ways to provide me with my beloved dots, or surprise me with their unlooked-for elegance when photographed closely in a shadowed room. I do hope you enjoyed this list and would love to hear from you if there are any favourite flowers of yours that always do well in a photograph.

Book review: Some Flowers by Vita Sackville-West

‘This short book is personal, and therefore very arbitrary,’ begins Vita Sackville-West in the foreword to her book of essays on twenty-five of her favourite flowers. And at first glance down the contents page, the flowers she has chosen do appear to be haphazardly selected, heavily weighted as they are, for no reason that is immediately apparent, in favour of just a few genera with some oddities thrown in for good measure. In a list of twenty-five flowers that includes four types of old rose, three types each of primula and lily, and two types each of iris and fritillary, there isn’t much room left for the many other flowers that Sackville-West must have grown and loved. ‘What, no hardy geranium? No aster?’ you might well wonder as you begin to read, while also privately thinking, ‘What, so few of my favourites?’

But read on regardless, for you will shortly come to learn of the reason for Sackville-West’s choices. She has chosen ‘painters’ flowers’, though not the broad-brush flowers of the big border, not the flowers seen as an impressionist’s mass of blue or white from a distance. ‘The flowers I have chosen depend chiefly on their loveliness of shape, colouring, marking or texture,’ explains Sackville-West. ‘They are flowers which require to be looked at very intimately, if their queerness or beauty is to be closely appreciated. They are flowers which painters have delighted, or should delight, to paint.’

And it is refreshing that she has not restricted or restrained herself within self-imposed (or publisher-imposed) rules to widen the selection, a freedom that adds to the sense of casual. Don’t be fooled by her chatty, effortless style, which will transport you through the book as though riding a scudding cloud. Here is a mind alive with wit and information, and both are imparted as lightly as possible in a style that is by turns business-like, romantic, gossipy and indignant.

Always interesting and thought-provoking, she describes the many uses of mullein tea, which rose is the true York-and-Lancaster rose, and a memorable account of coming across a group of wild crown imperials growing in a dark ravine in Persia. But of course it is the descriptions of the flowers we are here for, and despite her admitting that it is ‘indeed very difficult to write about flowers’ we need not worry that she’ll fail us. Each is given its fair value in colour, texture, and the way light shines through translucent petals, while great care is taken not to descend to ‘purple’ language. A group of Verbascum Cotswold Varieties are fondly said to be ‘dusty, fusty, musty in colouring … as though a colony of tiny buff butterflies had settled all over them.’ Only about the Rosa gallica Tuscany does she get away from herself: ‘The velvet rose. What a combination of words! One almost suffocates in their soft depths, as though one sank into  a bed of rose petals, all thorns ideal stripped away.’ She brings herself back to earth by pointing out that ‘We cannot actually lie on a bed of roses, unless we are very decadent, and also very rich,’ and then apologises for her ‘fanciful way of writing’ before running away from herself again when looking closely into the ‘quivering and dusty gold of its central perfection.’ Don’t you just love her?

The edition in my hand is printed under the National Trust’s imprint, and gorgeously illustrated by the botanical painter Graham Rust. For some reason best known to themselves, the NT decided to print the book’s title not on the actual cover, but on a large sticker that looks most impermanent and strange, rather like a ‘3 for 2’ sticker commonly found on books stacked on tables in the entrances of commercial bookshops. It was just asking to be peeled off, which of course I started to do in a moment of distraction while on the phone. Sadly it would not peel off and so now I have a half-peeled sticker on the front of this otherwise handsome book, which in the spirit of things have tried to disguise with Some Flowers.

Eighty years have passed since the book’s first publication, and some of Sackville-West’s flowers have since become much more common and popular in ordinary gardens: the witch hazel, the meadow fritillary, the iris reticulata, zinnias. Some, like the Gerbera daisy have come through fashion and out again on the other side. The flowers have become popular because gardeners hang onto Sackville-West’s every word, and they hang onto her every word because she writes with such restrained beauty and sense, disguised as casual conversation. I urge you to rush out and buy this book, and then after you have read it immediately order everything else that Sackville-West has ever written, which is what I intend to do.

Sackville-West, V. (1937) Some Flowers. This edition (2014), London: National Trust Books.

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