A flash of winter light

I was trying to leave the house. I roved back and forth from room to room to recruit hat, gloves, rucksack, keys, coat, a large box of recycling to dispose of on my way up the street. Sometimes I have nightmares about not being able to leave the house, stuck in an endless gathering of things and keys and clothing. Anyway, on this day in my real, awake life, right at the point of triumph, just as I’d heaved the rucksack onto my back, the gloves onto my hands, the hat onto my head, the recycling into my arms, the keys in my hand, just as I thought that the wicked old universe had finally aligned its ambitions to mine, a sly slant of winter light flashed through the window and lit up an old metal jug that contained a spray of dried seedheads.

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Down went the recycling, the gloves, the keys, the ambition to leave on time. Winter light never stays long, and it never comes back to the same place again.

My camera was nearby (occasionally it pays to be untidy). Already the light started to fade. I took my pictures, and then watched the light disappear. In no time at all it had gone.

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I put down the camera. I retrieved keys, coat, gloves, recycling. I finally left the house.

In a Vase on Monday is hosted by Cathy at Rambling in the Garden, and I recommend visiting her page to see what she and many other garden bloggers across the globe have found to put in a vase today.

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Would you use a garden designer?

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Have you ever used a garden designer, or if not, would you employ one? Would you be willing to share your thoughts in a survey?

The question of using a garden designer might not be one that you have ever asked yourself. Or else it might be on your mind every time you catch sight of your garden through your kitchen window.

Is a professional garden designer something you could afford? Would you feel afraid of losing control of your garden, that the finished project might not align with your style, or afraid that it might look too ‘done’? Or do you feel that your garden is fine just the way that it is? No time for such projects? Too many other priorities to worry about the garden?

I would be so interested to know your thoughts and read your comments. The survey should take no longer than 2 minutes to complete, and is open to everyone, regardless of who you are or where you live. The survey will be available for about a week, and I am looking forward to sharing the results with you. Because it is an anonymous survey, I am unable to offer any sort of gift for taking part, other than my genuine gratitude and some good gardening karma!

As a garden design student, I am keen to understand the attitudes of garden owners towards garden design. I am also planning to introduce some design focus to this blog, and so any insight into the sorts of topics that might be of interest to you would be of splendid help. Please leave any extra comments in the usual place below!

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My garden diary in 2018

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In autumn 2017 my aunt gave me a little notebook as a belated birthday present, and I decided I would use it to start keeping an ‘analogue’ garden diary. After all, my online ‘Edinburgh Garden Diary’ had been going for four years, and I had been inspired by various other garden bloggers who keep written diaries (such as Green Bench Ramblings) to keep a written record. To my surprise, writing in my notebook about the garden became a habit as effortless and enjoyable as making a cup of tea. I treasure the delicous moments when I pick up pen and notebook, settle into my seat on the garden bench, or pull a chair up to the window, and lose myself in thoughts about the garden. There’s always something to say, and the words flow easily. Now a year of my diary has passed and I enjoyed reading back through so much that I thought I would share some of my writing with you. I have edited it for brevity, though not for style. I hope you enjoy this little review of mine of a year in a small Scottish garden.

January

2.1.18 A good 90 minutes in the garden today. Very pleased to get my last bulbs in: Woodstock hyacinths in narrow terracotta pots with ‘Peppermint’ muscari, and the rest of the muscari in the maze. Rainy and a slow dusk. I was able to carry on until after 4pm. Buckets of ferns, primulas and hostas drowning in water, but the first day back at work tomorrow so nothing I can do.

7.1.18 Another severe frost of -4 last night, and today a bright blue, clear, freezing day. The clay pots of violas are troopers, blooming away regardless. Incredible things. Old dried flowers on the ‘Tess’ rose by the back door. I should have deadheaded them and pruned this rose in November, but I declined to… Each square brick in the path is rimmed with frost. I have topped up the bird feeder, and the birds are waiting for me to go indoors. The city is quiet. Birds sing in distant back greens.

27.1.18 I have managed a Saturday morning wander and noticed the purple tips of the iris ‘George’ spear, which may flower this week, new tips of returning tulips, and plenty of snowdrops. The snowdrops in my window boxes are in various stages, but the oldest had their petals open beautifully today.

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Old flowers on ‘Tess Of The D’Urbevilles’
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Snowdrops under a hedge at Humbie Kirk Woods, a few miles south of Edinburgh

February

11.2.18 A sparkling early spring weekend. Snowdrops in the hedgerows at Humbie Kirk Woods where L and I went for a deliciously squelchy walk today. Snow on the high ground, and bright blue skies, and sun slanting through the beech woods. I was surprised and gratified that my Clematis montana ‘Miss Christine’  has survived an undignified winter in an old compost bag. She is now planted under the arch and will no doubt make it look most pretty in the summer. To my horror, I found two New Zealand flatworms underneath an old sack near the compost heap. I have often wondered if we had them. Bulbs (including repeating tulips) popping up all over. Gave the roses and Hydrangea petiolaris a good mulch. Hope they will do wonders this summer in their new positions (the roses, that is).

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Brick tiles of the garden path rimmed with frost
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Birds in the snow

March

3.3.18 We are snowed under. I don’t have a garden anymore, just a white blanket with some twigs sticking out of it, and a few hungry, desperate birds sitting in trees, tweeting weakly. I have been feeding the poor birds, first with bird seed, and then when I ran out of that, muesli with the larger nuts taken out, and sesame seeds. They liked the muesli very much, but many sesame seeds were remaining on the path this morning when I had a look (pyjamas, snow boots, bobble hat). I also realised that besides having nothing to eat they would have nothing to drink, so put out two containers of water for them.

It has been light enough to step outside into the garden before work this week therapy. My ‘Katharine Hodgkin’ irises , a whole two clumps, a lovely surprise, are looking tip-top by the arch. [Drumstick] primulas are starting to form their rosettes, rising from deep down in the earth like slowly emerging sea monsters. The snowdrops in the front garden have been a most cheering sight, especially when all else looks bare, and a mess.

17.3.18 Another icy weather front moves in from the East. Will this winter last forever? Occasionally a flash of sun intercepts the snow, which has been falling languidly for most of the morning. Not serious snow, and there is no settling. I rushed out during one sunny spell to rescue some quince blossom, but couldn’t stay out for long, and there is little to stay outside for anyway. This time last year we already had forget-me-nots, but not a sign today. But I was happy to see that my Helleborus ‘Winter Bells’ is out of its sulk and producing new flowers…

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Erythronium ‘Joanna’
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Primula denticulata in the front garden
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Narcissus ‘Thalia’ in the front garden

April

22.4.18 The weather has been suddenly so wonderful for the past weeks that I have done immense things in the garden and it’s hard to keep up or remember everything that has happened. I’ll start by describing the wonderful things that are to be seen as I look out of the window.

Firstly the front garden: The snowdrops are well and truly over, and now we have Narcissus ‘Thalia’ in three generous clumps (a fourth less generous clump towards the back). The bigger clumps contain perhaps ten bulbs each, demonstrating how well ‘Thalia’ bulks up, and the effect is of course doubled as each head contains two flowers. . Complementing these in a perfect match are the lilac pompoms of Primular denticulata, another plant I could never get tired of. Towards the front, Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’ is looking exceptionally pretty, and Erythronium ‘Joanna’ is underneath the cherry tree (‘Morello’) which is about to burst into blossom. (I was afraid it would have none given its maltreatment in December but I have seen the buds I do not deserve them!). My little Sorbus cashmiriana has come charmingly into fresh green leaf and flower buds are visible. The habit of the upturned branches is so uplifting … it is such a pretty tree that R noticed it and remarked upon it.

Not looking good: the Iris foetidissima… no fresh new leaves at all yet just sulking. I wonder if a feed would kill it or cure it. Also not looking good: the piles of topsoil, the piles bricks lying around, the big white sack of sub-base. The camellia needs moving … it is in the wrong place, but has two white buds that are promising to burst. Again, a dowsing with feed and water may help it decide to go ahead with this seemingly onerous task (everyone else’s camellias are almost over).

Now for the back garden. It is hard to see through the window for the enormous window box before my eyes, containing Primula vulgaris, Primula ‘Wanda’, and tall fat blue muscari. It has been my most successful w.b. yet, especially along with the snowdrops that started out in there. Such a scene it is! Anyway, the garden beyond, which had a big tidy-up, is looking pretty nice too as it springs into life. The most noticeable thing is the cerise P. denticulata. I also have some Tulipa ‘Purissima’ … Clematis ‘Miss Christine’ is coming cautiously to life by the arch. Under the roses, tulips, and all around are forget-me-nots, which I allow to spread at will because they are so useful and delightful. The Icelandic poppies I bought at Chatsworth have fat buds on them, and so does the geum at the front of the garden, but not the back geum. The delphs are looking bushy and fabulous, as are the foxgloves. The best thing is that the [white] peony has many buds on it. When I say many, I mean two so far, but that is many for me my first peonies! In four years!

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First peony!
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The back garden in spring

May

10.5.18 The tulips are in full bloom. Some ‘Belle Epoch’ popped up in the cutting patch along with numerous ‘Purissima’. Combined with Narcissus ‘Cheerfulness’ (or is it ‘Winston Churchill’?) and forget-me-nots it makes a very pretty jug for the dining room table. I have been ordering my perennials for the front garden. I am very excited to be getting such gorgeous plants for the front garden. The Euphorbia amygdaloides ‘Purpurea’ is a real risk  I fear it may be too red rather than dusky purple. Time will tell. R and I have been enjoying a lot of rainbow chard, which is just beginning to bolt. The sweetpeas are in and the courgettes are germinating. Seeds need pricking out and plants potted on. Nematodes all watered in last week. I wonder if the positive effects on the plants have as much to do with the watering as the nematodes themselves, as I used litres.

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Icelandic poppy

July

5.7.18 The RHS exams and my college application took all my time and energy for most of May and June. It has been the hottest, driest summer we’ve had so far in Scotland. Beautiful days of no wind and temps in the mid-twenties for weeks. The garden is not looking too parched; it is Scotland after all. But things are worse down south. Now, thinking back to May, once the tulips finished there was a gap, and suddenly the geraniums sprang into being, as did the geums. The foxgloves emerged, and the roses (‘Tess of the D’Urbevilles’ always first). Then my delphiniums, all mixed in with the white and pink foxgloves, oh, and the best poppies, Icelandic bright orange with big creamy yellow centres, just keeping on and on all summer, and the perennial wallflower ‘Winter Orchid’. No bearded irises for me this year. I wonder what has got their goat? Two flowers on my peony ‘Avalanche’. The buds took weeks and weeks to develop and open up. It really was quite painful to watch. I am not sure I would plant peonies again. I don’t go crazy for them like other people seem to. My lovely Geranium pratense now there’s a plant that gives good value. Covered in bees, wafting elegantly in the breeze, it is gorgeous every year. I am thrilled to have masses of dill. Broad beans are doing marvellously and have been the easiest vegetable I have grown by far. Just stick ’em in the ground and stand back.

The front garden is so dry that nothing is settling in properly, and some things are looking quite sad. But I cannot water them very frequently it seems wrong when we are so short of rain to use tap water on the ground. One plant I am terribly pleased with is Luzula nivea such a lovely, soft white flower that complemented Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ quite brilliantly.

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Foxgloves in June

August

12.8.18 At last, the Scottish summer we are used to has arrived. Rain, temperatures in the low teens, a cold wind… all in time for the Festival as usual. But I don’t care. The weather can do what it likes we’ve had our hot summer and it was wonderful. Most of the plants survived pretty well regardless. I shall forever remember the summer days of 2018 spent on the terrace with a cup of tea, just looking at the tall, green plants. Now many of my favourites have gone over the foxgloves, delphiniums, roses, geums, wall flowers all stopped, and the far back corner is a green mess of not terribly attractive foliage. It is a corner that does very well in spring and summer, but not very pretty at all after July.  I spent a lot of time on that corner last autumn, but I think some more work is needed.

Looking really lovely at this time of the season are the following:

Echinops: covered in bees, beautiful purple-blue drumsticks.

Crocosmia: I always dismiss it rather, but it does perform superbly in late summer and it is so reliable

Persicaria: so reliable

Thalictrum: high clouds of purple dots love them!

Calendula and cerinthe

Cosmos ‘Purity’ hooray!

21.8.18 The signs of autumn are everywhere: dew on the grass, the first cotinus leaves turning that incredible burnished fiery copper colour, the whitening berries on the Sorbus cashmiriana. That tiny sorbus is just about my favourite thing in the garden at the moment. So small, neat and pert, its branches heavily laden with huge clusters of pale green, soon to be white, berries. They hang down like too-heavy earrings. I just adore this little tree. It has been a pleasure every day of the year so far. The ‘Limelight’ hydrangea is looking good in the far corner by the house. In full bloom with its green flowers, it is most elegant. In other people’s gardens these flowers turn white in the sun, but I prefer the subtle colours of mine, which stay green, then pinkish. The Luzula has turned brown, though I forgive it because it was the loveliest plant in June.

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The back garden in July
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Cosmos ‘Purity’

September

3.9.18 I am sitting by the back door, which is open, and looking on the wet garden, hearing the splatter of rain and feeling the cold breeze on my ankles and it is lifting my page as I write … I see the pale pink Japanese anemone I planted last week, along with Lizzie’s Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’ and behind the crocosmia (so I can’t see it but know it’s there) a small Ceratostigma plumbaginoides that is flowering a very pretty blue and will bring much needed colour to that far corner. The poor sunflowers are waving violently in the breeze, so heavy are they with their large, wet flowers on stalks that are too tall and dare I say, too spindly. I think I shall go and rescue those sunflowers. There, I have just brought in two perfect, large sunflower heads. They are a yellow merging with dark bronze and just the sort of colour I should hate but I love them they are so cheerful. High on my list of annuals I should continue to grow, along with Cosmos ‘Purity’, calendula, nasturtiums and this gorgeous, cloudy gypsophila.

30.9.18 Today a bright blue day, for the most part, and I seized upon the whim to move some plants around that had been annoying me. ‘You need to move plants a dozen times before you get the position right’, said Christopher Lloyd, and he’s right.  By the way, if ever there was an argument for cryogenic preservation, he would have been it. I’m most delighted to have got that camellia into the ground. And that the scrappy bases of the echinops will be hidden henceforth behind geranium, acanthus and peony. A good sweep of the patio and all is well with the world.

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Planting my bulbs in autumn
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My little Sorbus cashmiriana and its white berries. Next to it is a potted Cotinus ‘Dusky Maiden’, its leaves turning to a burnished copper

October

7.10.18 Some plants in the back garden feel as though they are winding down, while others are still soldiering on despite the lack of sun and the cold temperatures. The roses are doing fantastically, beautifully. Moving them was most certainly the right thing to do. I would love to attend a class on pruning my climbing roses correctly. When? How? (Those questions apply both to the task of pruning and to my ability to attend a class as I’ve failed to find one nearby and have no money anyway). My dahlias are suffering from a lack of light and water and probably nutrition too. I am seriously considering buying in a big sack of organic horse manure and mulching the entire garden front and back.

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Those Cotinus leaves again…

November

27.11.18 Multiple unavailable weekends have kept me from the garden, but at this time of year it hardly matters. The weeds don’t grow; nothing grows, except the mounds of leaves. At this time of year, every year, I ask myself, to leave the leaves on the ground (the beds, I mean) or to collect them? Collecting them would be neater, and I could make leaf mould. But they are protecting the soil in the absence of any mulch. Today I took the veg waste out to the compost in the darkening afternoon. I pulled out the cosmos, now just stalks, and the hollyhocks, which were quite annoying this year. A few weeds too. I cut some roses for the house as many buds were there, and put them in a jug with some nasturtium plants, leaves and roots but no flowers. This looks pretty good. The acanthus is back with a vengeance, all glossy-leaved and boisterous, too much for November. All the window boxes need sorting out, and my snowdrops and muscari need to be dealt with. The afternoons are so short that it is hard to do anything that takes more than half an hour, or jobs that lead on to other jobs.

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Helleborus niger (Christmas rose) in the front garden in December. Sadly enjoyed by slugs, so better viewed from afar.
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Old hydrangea flower catching the pale winter light of December

December

2.12.18 Everything is damp and rotting, except Geranium ‘Rozanne’, which flowers on and on. I like the damp, rotting part of the year. You feel in control. I like putting the rotting stuff on the compost heap, although I am treading the line between clearing and leaving habitats. There has been a lot of wildlife in the garden this year and I want it to keep increasing. Mulched ‘Shropshire’ and ‘Tess’ but the other roses still to mulch with the horse manure I brought back last week. First I have to tackle what’s beneath them dead leaves, far too many wallflowers etc. Need to tackle the delphs area and sort that clematis out. I have a frame for it, if I can get it fixed to that impossible wall. First bulbs already showing their tips under the cherry tree. Best sight in the world.

9.12.18 More bright blue winter skies, temps in the low single figures, and it is most definitely winter now. I shifted some pots around, which I hadn’t touched since last year’s bulbs. Miraculously the bulbs are reappearing already. I wonder if they will be any good this year. I think a judicious feed could save the day. I have ordered my mulch … I have learned my lesson from previous years. [The mulching] needs doing before the snowdrops make their appearance. I aim to apply it this week.

27.12.18 Mulch done! I would have chosen it to be less whiffy. It should really have no smell at all, but it is only being used as a mulch so I expect no harm will come (I will scream if all my snowdrops come up with nitrogen burns!). I am in Derbyshire now, but I am hoping for sightings on snowdrops when I come back. There was already a good clump of Iris ‘George’ visible before I left. My planting design needs a total overhaul in that front garden this is a place-marker for that intention.

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Mulch ado

There are two types of jobs in the garden: those that require a great deal of careful thought in either the planning or the execution, and those that require little or no brain power at all. Mulching is the latter kind, which one might categorise as ‘drudgery’ or ‘simple pleasure’ depending on your mood, the state of your back muscles, and the prevailing weather. Personally I place mulching in the simple pleasure category: a perfect job for the end of the year when one’s brain is saying ‘no more’; a somewhat mindless task that feels virtuous, requires no decision making, and has a pleasing aesthetic result. You can listen to music or an instructive podcast while mulching, or ruminate on higher thoughts.

For those who have never indulged in the pleasant occupation of mulching a garden and are wondering what on earth I am talking about, mulching is the application of organic matter to the surface of the soil in order to protect the soil from erosion, raise the temperature of the soil, and aid water retention. It replaces the organic matter lost through digging, and is taken down by earthworms to act as a food source for the soil microbiome, ultimately providing nutrients to the roots of your plants. Adding organic matter to the soil will help to break up a heavy clay soil, and equally help to bind a sandy, dry soil. It also buries weed seeds, and certain mulches can make life harder for slugs.

In the wild, nutrients are returned to the soil through a combination of leaf-fall, dying plant material, animal excrement, and animal carcasses (both large animals and tiny insects). However, in our gardens we tend to harvest or tidy up and remove fallen leaves, plant material and animal waste. The ecosystem of the average garden is greatly limited and impoverished in the name of tidiness, and therefore we are obliged to add back to the soil what we take away.

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There are various good organic mulches that can be used: farmyard or horse manure is ideal, but it must be well rotted. Others include green waste from the council, finely shredded bark, garden compost, leaf mould, shredded seaweed, composted bracken or sheep’s wool, and commercial products such as Strulch. It pains me to say that plastic sheeting and weed control membranes such as Mypex also come under the category of mulch, though the onomatopoeia is a damp squib when applied to these rustling, unnatural and most unsquelchy of items. Though sheeting can protect large areas from soil erosion, they clearly do not supply nutrients to the soil, and are frankly far less satisfying to apply or gaze at and what is gardening for if not for satisfaction and gazing?

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I am lucky in being able to source small quantities of horse manure from Emily, my grandmother’s horse. It’s always well rotted, but contains a lot of nettle seeds, and I can’t bring back enough for the whole garden. So as an early Christmas gift to myself, I ordered eight sacks of organic enriched manure from Garden Solutions, a local company that sells a variety of mulches and soil enrichers (their website is here). It duly appeared in my front garden as though delivered by Santa Claus, and the following Saturday I leaped eagerly from bed and got to work. First using a hand cultivator to gently break up the soil surface and dislodge any weeds, I then applied double handfuls of the lovely mulch and spread it over the surface of the soil in between the plants, about two inches thick. There is no simpler pleasure than the handling of dark, rich organic matter in one’s bare hands, especially if the sun is shining and it’s almost Christmas.

It is said that a clay soil should be mulched in spring, and a sandy soil should be mulched in autumn, but in fact a mulch can be applied to any soil at any time of year. The reason I apply mine in December is a combination of factors. The bulbs are all in, but have not come up yet and so do not get in the way. Rather, they come up through the mulch about a month later. Take my word for it that trying to apply a mulch around bulbs that have already sprouted is a challenge, especially where those dratted flopping allium leaves are concerned. In December there is not a lot else to do in the garden anyway, the bare soil exposed by plant die-back looks bare and vulnerable to heavy rains, and a clean, dark mulch is the perfect foil for the virginal white flowers of my beloved snowdrops and Helleborus niger.

The soil in our front garden is dry and poor due to the proximity of the street trees and also due to the privet hedge, which is the main reason that I redesigned the front garden with its path around the edges. This is how the garden looked before I mulched it:

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And below is the garden after mulching and a tidy-up. As you can see, the soil is now much darker, which will help with heat retention. And if you can just about see the hellebores below the Sorbus cashmiriana you might get an idea of how nice they look against the darkness of the mulch.

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Now that the brick maze is finished,  I am looking forward to writing a post all about the design and execution. In fact, this would have been the post you’d be reading now, except I’m writing this from Derbyshire and all my ‘before’ photos are on a hard drive 300 miles away in Edinburgh, so it will have to wait. Meanwhile, I am off outside to feed Emily her breakfast, with a mind to many more satisfying manure-spreading operations in Decembers for years to come.

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Christmas Roses

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The flowers that appear at this time of year seem so much more precious than those that appear during the abundance of summer. It’s not yet time for my favourite, the snowdrop, but the Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) is a close second on my list of appreciation. Last year I divided up my single plant to give three, and they sulked like nobody’s business for the rest of the year, only to spring forth in a multitude of white blooms this Christmas.

Any white flower would be welcome at this time of year. White flowers glow out of the darkness, and are easily appreciated from the light of a kitchen window at seven-thirty in the morning before a winter’s sunrise. They look good against a black mulch, and their delicate features belie the sturdiness with which they resist the winter storms.

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A single flower of the Christmas rose looks  with the last few rescued rose buds from one of my real roses. I wish all of you, dear readers, a most merry and bright Christmas full of good cheer and all the seed catalogues that the postman can bring.

In a vase on Monday is hosted by Cathy at Rambling in the Garden, so do visit her page to see what she and other garden bloggers across the world have put in a vase on this Christmas Eve Monday.

Cambo Estate, Fife: a Festival of Snowdrops

I am of the opinion that a strongly held viewpoint should be put regularly to the test. A few weeks ago I boldly stated on Instagram that I would never spend two (and definitely not three) figures on a single Galanthus bulb. Committed galanthophile though I am, I remain perfectly content with the charms of lovely G. nivalis, the common snowdrop that crowds our British woods and hedgerows at this time of year. The people who commented on that post agreed: most were happy to buy ordinary snowdrops, especially if on sale. Either that, or no one was confessing to any extreme snowdrop splurges in public.

Nonetheless, questions and doubts remain in the back of my mind. There must be some reason that sane gardeners splash out relatively large quantities of money for snowdrop varieties that vary in often minute (read: undetectable) ways. What was it that I was missing? Rona Dodds, owner of Quercus Garden Plants, recently posted a piece on her Quirky Bird Gardener blog about the seven or so varieties that she grows, including a helpful photo of them side-by-side and crucially face-up. Arranged like this it was easy to see differences between them. One was chalice-shaped, another shaped like a stylish wind turbine. Inner splashes of green and yellow varied enormously, and double varieties threw a whole extra dimension into the mix. And yet, when we view snowdrops in the garden or in the wild, we don’t see them face up, we see them from above and often from a distance, tepals pointing downwards with all the inner intricacies hidden from sight. For me, the beauty of snowdrops has always been in their plurality. What could be more breathtaking than the sight of a woodland naturalised with those countless tiny white heads devoutly nodding together like a congregation praying for spring?

And so every year I go snowdrop hunting. Not just to the woods and fields close to Edinburgh, but also to gardens that showcase unusual varieties of snowdrops. I like to look at the different varieties on display and try to spot the differences. Some are easy to notice, others need a trained eye. I also like to look at the prices if varieties are on sale, and if I am with someone else I like to point the prices out to them and enjoy the ensuing debate. ‘What, £28 for a single bulb?’ my companion will inevitably gasp. ‘But it looks exactly like all the others.’ And so far I have not yet advanced far enough in my galanthophile training to counter their astonishment with a sturdy defence of the prices.

Only two special Galanthus varieties have ever stopped me in my tracks. One is G. ‘Primrose Warburg’ (£18 a bulb), a delightful little yellow variety, recognisably different from the common snowdrop to even the rookiest observer by its little yellow topnot (though I can’t distinguish it from G. ‘Wendy’s Gold’). The other is G. ‘Daphne’s Scissors’ (£8 a bulb) which has a sweet little pair of scissors marked on the inner segment. Both of these I saw first at Shepherd House Gardens and are still on my mind a year later.

Snowdrops are celebrated each winter during the snowdrop festival at the Cambo Estate in Fife, just across the water from Edinburgh. Cambo is home to the national snowdrop collection. As well as 300 special Galanthus varieties, their 70 acres of beautiful woodland is home to endless G. nivalis that wander as far as the eye can see. According to Cambo’s website, members of the Erskine family, who have lived and gardened at Cambo for generations, would spend hours digging, dividing and replanting the snowdrops across the woodlands in order to create the impressive colonies we see today. A couple of weekends ago I took my sister to Cambo with me to admire the naturalised woodland snowdrops and the fine collection of specials, and to have fun gasping at the prices of those on sale.

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The walled garden at Cambo

Before heading for the woodland walk, we took a quick tour around Cambo’s famous walled garden, with its naturalistic planting of grasses and tall perennials, its lovely glasshouse with stained glass panel, and its gentles slopes running down to the little brook that bumbles merrily through the middle, traversed by three pretty bridges. The walled garden had an air of dormancy, a sleeping beauty. I had some fun taking shots of the perennial seedheads that had been left standing to such good effect, and vowed to return in summer when it will be at its best.

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The glasshouse in the walled garden, with stained glass window
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Perennial seedheads in the walled garden
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Perennial seedheads in the walled garden
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Perennial seedheads in the walled garden
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The walled garden slopes down to a brook
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The glasshouse in the walled garden
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Woodland snowdrops

The woodland snowdrop walk was everything it promised to be. Acres of venerable old trees had beneath them vast undisturbed expanses of snowdrops (I’m trying not to use the word ‘swathes’ but it’s hard). They grew thickly alongside the paths, down to the brook and away into the distance where they merged to give the impression of far off snow. In some places they were interspersed prettily with yellow Eranthis hyemalis, the winter aconite. The woodland path, satisfyingly mossy at the edges as most Scottish woodland paths are, ran down to the seaside about half a mile away, where children were clambering on the rocks and the landscape briefly joined forces with a golf course. The route circled on a lower streamside path back to the big house and the snowdrop collections.

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Cambo’s woodland snowdrop walk: the lower path wound alongside the brook
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The snowdrops were interspersed with winter aconites
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Sarcoscypha coccinea, the scarlet elf cup, a common native woodland fungus
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The woodland snowdrop walk
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Snowdrops and aconites: a classic combination
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Snowdrops and aconites beside the brook

Cambo’s display of special snowdrop varieties began in a long raised bed at the side of the house, and continued in the beds leading into and around the delightful little winter garden, filled with hellebores, iris, and fiery red dogwoods. Most were labelled (some labels were missing or unclear). In their close groupings, it was easy to see that some varieties were taller, or fatter, or more dainty than others; some had sharp, pointed tepals, others rounded. To choose a favourite would be impossible. These were not snowdrops to be naturalised in a corner of the garden; they were a true collection: to be possessed and categorised and labelled and displayed, part of their value being in their membership of the divisible whole. There is no point in owning just one or two specials. A collection by definition needs to contain as many varieties as possible, and it also needs to be expanding; there is no satisfaction in owning a static or dormant collection. Once a collector gives up his hunting and accumulating and sorting, he may as well sell the whole lot off.

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Special variety: Galanthus ‘Wasp’

Herein may lie the practical part of the truth for me. A collection consisting of just the one or two varieties I find genuinely interesting would be no collection at all if I didn’t foster the intention of adding further to it. I wouldn’t have the money or space for a large collection anyway, and since we’re unlikely to stay in this flat for the long haul, I’d only end up losing some of my precious bulbs if we moved. (Don’t tell me pots you know I’d forget to keep them moist for the other 9 months of the year.)

But there’s another, more abstract, part of the truth. It’s to do with two differing ways in which we humans observe and consider our environs. Some people are very interested in detail. They are the pointillists, the people who might buy a shirt not because it goes with anything else but because of the intricate pattern of tiny birds on the fabric, the people who follow a recipe to the very last gram or who notice every tiny bit of dirt missed by the cleaner. These are the collectors, the true Galanthophiles, the clever people who know their snowdrop markings well enough to spot a new hybrid popping up in the garden. But the other type of person is the painter of broad brush strokes, the person who is more interested in the overall impression, who has a sense of the bigger picture but forgets to notice the detail, or who would rather feel the pervading atmosphere than get down close with a magnifying glass. Not for us the tiny markings of special varieties. We just want our swathes.

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We just want our swathes
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Bright red Cornus (dogwood) in the winter garden with Bergenia and grasses.
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A red-stemmed Acer provides a striking focal point against a dark background in the winter garden
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Iris reticulata in the winter garden
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Hamamelis in the winter garden

This is not to say that I shan’t some day be persuaded to start my own special collection of Galanthus. Even as I write this and check the internet for my facts on prices and varieties, I feel my opinion changing as I stumble across pages with photos of unusual and beautiful snowdrops. Each year I will continue to take stock of my viewpoint by visiting places with fine collections of special snowdrops, and I already know which two varieties will be the first to make a dent in my pocket. But that won’t happen until I have a bigger garden, one with space for a collection worthy of the name, and one that I know I will be gardening in for the foreseeable future.

The Cambo Estate is at Kingsbarns near St Andrew’s in Fife, KY16 8QD. The Snowdrop Festival is on until 11th March and costs £5.50 per adult (children free).

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9 Ways I’ll Improve My Gardening in 2018

Happy new year! No, I’m not Chinese, but I have come to realise that I forgot to wish you all a happy new year at the beginning of January, partly because I was too wrapped up in revision for my RHS exams, and partly because I was in a rut with wanting to write a post about my gardening year in 2017, but didn’t know where to start. The reason I didn’t know where to start was because 2017 had mainly been characterised by not gardening, or at least, not enough, and that wasn’t going to make for very good reading. New Year, then January, slipped by in a flurry of snow and studying. Now that the exams are over, it’s far too late to start talking about 2017 (what a relief) so let’s move swiftly on and look ahead to this year. This year, my garden is going to be very beautiful, and here’s what I’m going to do differently this year in order to achieve this:

Be tidier (but not too tidy)

When I confess to you that my garden is a mess, I am not just talking about a few stray seed heads or the inevitable pile of plastic pots that all gardeners accumulate in dark corners behind sheds. My blind spots include: discarded plant labels lying on paths; empty plastic compost sacks blown into hedges; piles of topsoil that I have no idea what to do with; the four-foot stalks of last year’s Salvia ‘Amistad’ left on the terrace because there’s no room in the compost bin; empty seed trays collecting stagnant water; uprooted Everedge lying like dismantled bear-traps on the grass. When I wanted to find my root trainers to sow my sweetpeas, I had to scour the privet hedge for the inserts (I found all but one of them). None of this is beautiful to behold. But this year I will be tidier. I vow that I will be able to take photos of the garden from any direction without having to crop out the ugly parts. Conversely, it should hardly need pointing out that healthy gardens are not too tidy, nor heaven forbid, sterile. Gardens with wild areas, where nettles grow, and insects hibernate in old logs, and the seedheads are left on for the winter birds, are gardens with reverence for the ecosystems that make them what they are.

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Avoid plastic

You can’t have missed the current debate around plastic, unless you come from another planet, perhaps one that is not mad enough to have designed single-use items out of a material that lasts for ever. Plastic garden villains include: pots and trays, compost sacks, plant labels, polypropylene ‘fleece’ (a sad misnomer), netting, modules, plant supports, rabbit guards, bird feeders, the ‘lights’ of a cold frame, the protective packaging around plants sent by post, and even the plastic cover around gardening magazines and seed catalogues. As well as hanging around undegradable for hundreds of years, clogging up waterways and damaging wildlife, plastic is ugly, and gardens are for beauty; therefore, ought plastic to have a place in the garden? We gardened successfully for centuries before the invention of plastic; could we return to a life without it? The June 2017 issue of the RHS’s The Garden magazine (which arrived in its polythene wrapping) carried an article written by Sally Nex about her attempt to eliminate plastic from the garden, which inspired me to try doing the same. Like Sally I have started with wooden seed trays and terracotta pots as well as copper labels; I will report back with more ideas as they come.

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Improve winter structure

Eager to cram in as many delicious herbaceous perennials as one can discover, it’s easy to forget that for six months of the year the garden is essentially bare of herbaceous perennials. This is undoubtedly a lesson that many beginner gardeners learn to their cost as they gaze out at the garden of a frosty January day and see only the sad emptiness of a garden without bones. My experience in this regard has shown me that a garden ought to be designed primarily with the coldest months in mind — the gaps can always be filled in later. Luckily, it’s not too late for me to correct my early mistakes, and there’s a variety of ideas that I can add to my garden to get it looking good in winter: patterns of topiaried box and low hedging, arches, and neat edges along elegant or intriguing paths.

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Educate myself…

Well, I am already deep into this one, having followed my Certificate of Practical Horticulture straight into the RHS Principles of Horticulture Level 2 course. The improvement in my horticultural and botanical knowledge has been intensely satisfying — but talk about the tip of the iceberg! There is so much more to learn, and there always will be. I intend to carry on learning as much as I can, firstly by trying to attend further a further course once my current one is completed (I haven’t decided which yet), and by reading my steadily multiplying collection of gardening books as I go. Then there are gardening shows, magazines, the blogs of other gardeners …

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… And do things the proper way

When I do things the proper way, the way I have been taught on my various courses, taking care and paying attention to the small details — using the correct type of compost, labelling my seed trays, pruning each plant at the appropriate time in the appropriate way, and so on — the garden rewards my efforts with better-looking and happier plants, improved yields, healthier soil, more diverse wildlife: a better and more beautiful garden. I have noticed that since applying the techniques and skills that I have learnt on my practical horticulture course, my seed germination has become much more reliable, my cuttings root successfully, and I waste fewer plants by keeping them happy and healthy. A seed tray that has been filled and tamped properly and evenly sown with an appropriate quantity of seed not only germinates more successfully but looks good too. Sometimes doing things the proper way seems to take more time, but this time is often saved elsewhere later on.

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Try new seeds

Although I never get tired of my old favourites (Cosmos ‘Purity’, cornflowers, Ammi, ‘Café-au-Lait’ dahlias) it’s good to try new varieties and discover new favourites. Last year I successfully grew heartsease violas for the first time, cheerful little faces that kept my spirits up throughout autumn and winter. This year I’ll be trying sunflowers (Helianthus ‘Claret’ and ‘Double Dandy’), poached-egg plant (Limnanthes douglasii), Dill, Rudbeckia hirta ‘Sahara’, two new sorts of gypsophila, and two new dahlias, ‘Linda’s Baby’ and ‘Penhill Watermelon’.

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Protect my soil

A healthy garden begins with a healthy soil. Preventing the erosion and capping of topsoil by protecting it with mulches, ground-cover plants or green manures is one of the simplest things to be done to keep a garden healthy and beautiful. I started this year as I mean to go on, by mulching my herbaceous beds with heaps of delicious home-made compost. This will protect the surface of the soil and feed the soil organisms, providing nutrition for roots and organic matter for moisture retention. My raised beds are mulched with mushroom compost, which again protects the soil and provides organic matter and good weed suppression. But there are still areas needing improvement, places where I ran out of mulch, spots that have been neglected: an area of bare, compacted soil underneath some trees, patches that shouldn’t have been walked on (but were). Taking care of soil means being kind to earthworms too, and this will be of even more importance since last week’s discovery of two small New Zealand flatworms near my compost heap (a total scream-mask moment).

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Keep better records

Detesting plastic as I do, I’m not the best at labelling my plants. My record keeping is patchy at most, because it’s not easy to write things down on paper while wearing muddy gardening gloves, especially if it’s raining, and because I enjoy planting things spontaneously, grabbing the nearest suitable pot and kidding myself that I’ll remember what tulips I planted in six months’ time, an effect that is ruined by pernickerty record-keeping. And often a lovely surprise awaits: a terracotta jar of ‘Apricot Beauty’ suddenly appearing in April is no bad thing. And I can usually tell what my seedlings are by the leaves. However, records help us to learn from our successes and failures, and can be a pleasure to read back to oneself after a year or so. On top of blogging, I have started keeping a handwritten diary of the garden: what I tried that day, what I did, what was in leaf or flower or died or looked awful or sprang like Lazarus from the bare soil. What the weather was like, what birds were singing, what it felt like to be out in the garden on that cold morning.

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Just garden!

In the end, all these improvements will come about only if I step outside and actually garden. Life is very good at getting in the way: emails that need sending, laundry to attend to, husbands that want something (almost always involving having to stop whatever I’m doing to admire a piece of carbon-fibre cycling equipment). Then there are the excuses: weather awful, too cold, wrong sort of leaves on the ground, don’t know where to start. By prioritising gardening wherever possible I am hoping that the garden will respond in kind, and I have been inspired by Laetitia Maklouf’s ‘Five Minute Garden’ because there is so much you can do in five-minute bursts if that is all you have time for, and those seemingly insignificant bursts will eventually add up to a great deal of improvement.

So these are the things I will be doing better in 2018, in the hopes of a new, improved garden and a better gardening year over all. I’d love to know what you will be doing this year to make your garden a better place, or to hear about any changes you made in the past that had a fabulous impact on the health and beauty of your garden.

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Simply snowdrops

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February has few attributes to recommend it, save its shortness and the occasional warm day towards the end of the month when spring really does feel as though it is coming upon us at last. Some of us might feel, come February, that winter has outstayed its welcome; but others, myself included, reckon that the years go by too quickly for us not to savour every moment, even the soggy, slushy, bitingly cold moments that February has to offer.

February has charms too, if you’re willing to look for them. They’re not hard to spot in the garden: the smart blades of daffodils, or the tiny pink buds of Chaenomeles trained against an old stone wall that shines wanly in the winter sunshine. Then of course are the snowdrops, just coming in to their own at this time of year. Cheap, easy to grow, willing to spread, simple, adorable snowdrops, clustering together sociably and unfolding their tepals in the warmth of that slanting February sun. For the snowdrops alone, I would not wish the short month of February to rush past any faster than it already does.

In a vase on Monday is hosted by Cathy at Rambling in the Garden, and I recommend visiting her page to see what she and many other garden bloggers across the world have found to put in a vase today.

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The forgiveness of a garden

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I have been revising solidly for weeks. The weather has been most kind: too rainy to go for walks, too frozen to plant my new Sorbus cashmiriana, which has been waiting patiently in its pot, propped back against the wall with a sack of potting compost (or ‘growing media’, if the RHS insists.) Thanks to the weather, there has been almost no temptation to leave my desk for the entirety of January. I have been surrounded by piles of notes and endless labelled diagrams of plant cells and transverse sections of root, stem and dicotyledonous flowers for months, with the rain and snow lashing down and the garden ignored below a blanket of mud and leaves.

I am studying for the RHS Level 2 exams, and the first four exams are today. This semester’s topics have been Botany, Soil, Pests and Diseases, and Propagation, and I have wholeheartedly enjoyed each one, spellbound by the enthusiasm of our tutors, the arresting facts, and the ‘Oh, that’s why…’ revelations.

Yesterday I finally reached that blissful stage of revision I like to call the ‘Whatever will be will be’ stage, where you are reluctantly hopeful you can pass and you are ready to stop revising and just get it over. I looked up from the past-paper I had just completed, and saw through the window a fat ray of sunlight hitting our front garden, beckoning me to come and inspect the emerging shoots and buds of early spring. Having vowed to revise all day, guiltily I put down my pen, donned a coat and bobble hat, and wandered outside.

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The front garden was, at first glance, sparse of life. This was unsurprising, since during the autumn every single plant from the front garden was dug up, heeled in and replanted for the Great Maze Reshuffle (I promise to update you on the maze in due course). Similarly in the back garden, most of the refugees that no longer had a home in the front garden are still finding their (frozen) feet. It’s been a cold winter, colder than any I’ve yet experienced here in Edinburgh. Nonetheless, on closer inspection there were signs of spring everywhere. Green tips abounded: the beginnings of tulips, snowdrops, muscari, iris, alliums, crocosmia (rather too many of those) and some brave gladioli. Primroses and snowdrops were out in the window boxes, and tiny new shoots were appearing on the roses. In the front garden maze, my Iris ‘George’, which I divided and replanted beneath the cherry tree (also replanted) were up and almost out. In fact, two blooms had already made their showy attempts, only to be knocked down by rain, cat or other tragedy. I fetched scissors and rescued them, along with a snowdrop, a fading Helleborus niger flower, some variegated ivy and a sprig of wonderful smelling Sarcococca confusa that is flowering beautifully despite being heeled up in a temporary sack of earth.

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I was humbled by the forgiveness of a garden that, though bare earth six weeks ago, already offering up flowers for the house. Everywhere were signs of neglect, but I knew that the garden would keep on keeping on until I had time to pay it the attention it needed. A potted Skimmia japonica with raging chlorosis blooms relentlessly away in a corner. Seeds are as yet unplanted but they’ll catch up. That Sorbus will be just fine in its pot for one more week. And with any luck the weather will continue its kindness until next weekend so that I can enjoy my first gardening session of 2018 in fat rays of sunshine rather than snow and rain.

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In a vase on Monday is hosted by Cathy at Rambling in the Garden, and if you follow this link you can visit her page to see what this weekly challenge is all about, as well as find links to vases of flowers and foliage grown in the gardens of many other garden bloggers across the world.

Many of the photos on this blog post also appear on my Instagram page, where you will find a great deal more of my garden photography and regular tiny snippets of gardening life.

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Book review: Lessons From Great Gardeners by Matthew Biggs

Madame Ganna Walska was a Polish beauty of enormous charisma, charm and energy.  Her initial career was in opera, but her particular talents lay in two quite different directions: firstly, in making prudent marriages (she married a succession of men of huge wealth); secondly, in exotic, exuberant, and extravagant gardening.

After divorcing for the sixth and final time, Walska set about creating ‘Lotusland’, her vast garden in California. ‘She filled the garden with rare and exotic species, falling in love with their beauty but never knowing their names,’ writes Matthew Biggs in his delightful book, Lessons From Great Gardeners: forty gardening icons and what they can teach us. ‘Wanting plants that always looked good, Madame… was more interested in their art, style and beauty.’

Her garden was funded, of course, by her acquired marital wealth. Biggs quotes a story in which Walska drove around the neighbourhood in search of choice specimens, and whenever she saw something she wanted in someone else’s garden, she had her chauffeur knock on the front door, offering to buy it. If the person refused, ‘a case of champagne was delivered; that usually changed their minds.’ She would go on to sell almost $1m of jewellery to fund her various collections, including a garden of 900 cycads representing half the world’s species, many of them incredibly rare.

Madame Walska’s accompanies thirty-nine similarly spellbinding four-page histories, written in chronological order starting with the fifteenth-century Japanese artist Somai who created Ryouan-Ji, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to the contemporary plantsman and plant hunter Dan Hinkley. Most of the gardeners one would expect to find here are present and correct: Paxton, Lloyd, Sackville-West, Chatto, Oudolf; and there are several whose names I recognised, perhaps from cultivars (Edward Augustus Bowles, Ellen Willmott), awards (James Veitch) or other subjects (Thomas Jefferson, Claude Monet), but about whom I knew much less. Then, like Walska, there were many I had never heard of at all, including the plantswoman Rae Selling Berry and the creator of the garden in the ruins of Ninfa near Rome, Princess Leila Caetani.

The gardeners are satisfyingly varied: there are those like Walska or the businessman Henry E. Huntingdon who built their gardens from great riches. Then there are those who gardened on behalf of the rich, like André Le Notre of Versailles, or Joseph Paxton of Chatsworth. Some gardeners had other jobs and gardened for relaxation (Thomas Jefferson, Sir Thomas Hanbury), others gardened obsessively to the exclusion of all else (Ellen Willmott, Madame Walska). The artist gardener is well represented in Claude Monet, Gertrude Jekyll and Jacques Majorelle.

I was unfamiliar with the writing of Matt Biggs, accustomed as I am to hearing his cheery voice on Gardeners’ Question Time. His writing style is as soothing as his subjects, telling their stories in clear, well written, well researched paragraphs, and it carries a quiet joy in its theme. Like many RHS published books, Lessons is printed on good quality mat paper: a satisfying book to feel and hold; each gardener is accompanied by a little portrait along with botanical illustrations of some of those plants best associated with them: Deschampsia for Piet Oudolf, Gentian for Geoffrey Smith, Asters for Gertrude Jekyll, Geranium for Margery Fish. Every gardener has a page of ‘Lessons’. Geoff Hamilton teaches us that ‘things don’t have to be perfect… Gardening is all about enjoyment; don’t take it too seriously’. Beth Chatto tells us to ‘accept the existing conditions, choose the right plants for that location’. Vita Sackville-West ‘disliked excessive tidiness’ (me too, Vita). Madame Ganna Walska has advice for us in conservation and sustainable gardening, though no specific instruction is given on the acquisition of husbands.

But while the lessons Biggs extracts from his subjects are mostly practical tips and ideas, a greater lesson was emerging for me. The unifying characteristic of these great gardeners, the thing they all had in common, was an overwhelming drive and passion for plants, gardens and nature, a strong desire for self-education, and a work ethic that set them apart. Whatever your background, your education, your income or your starting point, so long as you have courage, a will to work and conviction in your own style, there is room for you and your story among the stories of all the gardeners who have ever lived.

Biggs, M. (2015) Lessons From Great Gardeners: forty gardening icons and what they teach us. 1st edition, London: Mitchell Beazley.

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