An autumn garden reshuffle


It was a good summer for the back garden. I enjoyed sitting out on the terrace in the hot sunshine, gazing in unabashed admiration as various pleasing planting combinations waxed and waned. How could any of the plants yet to come be as good as these tulips and forget-me-nots, I wondered in May, as the gorgeous twisted tulip petals relaxed into their fading farewells. But then the garden (with only a moment’s hesitatation) triumphantly produced geraniums, alliums, icelandic poppies and perennial cornflowers, peonies, foxgloves, delphiniums, roses, catmint, and its annuals (nasturtiums, gypsophila) in a glorious parade of bright, precious colours. Then the season shifted to late summer, and suddenly there were calendula, crocosmia, cosmos, achillea, dahlias, and persicaria, their flame colours now punctuated by a backdrop of green allium and poppy seedheads. Yes, I enjoyed the show very much.


But come mid-August I noticed a niggling feeling that the garden was entering an early decline. Now that the best of the flowers were fading, there were no longer enough of them to distract me from the garden’s inevitable faults. Areas that lacked interest started appearing. The corner in which a host of white foxgloves and blue delphiniums had proudly stood last month now bore not a single colour or texture of note. It’s too small a garden for large patches of dullness. I went out and bought a Ceratostigma willmottianum for the bare corner, and planted it. Although it’s too small a plant to make much of an impression yet, I am hoping that it will look good this time next year with its gentian-blue flowers and red autumn foliage. But it wasn’t enough; other things were starting to chafe: an ornamental thistle that was smothering a rose, and nearby, the unattractive brown lower leaves of an echinops in plain view from the back door. There were some bearded irises that had failed to perform for the fourth year running, and a young sedum was being drowned by a surprisingly vigorous pineapple sage. (When will I learn to leave more space between plants?)

When I saw a beautiful billowing sedum while visiting Dr Neil’s Garden in Duddingston, it was the nudge I needed. How I wished my sedum looked the same: healthy, vigorous, enthusiastic, and surrounded by wafting perennial grasses. I knew the very spot I wanted to try moving mine to, under the arch where it would catch the full benefit of the summer sun and provide personality to an otherwise lacklustre corner. Of course, moving the sedum meant moving a lot of other things first. That’s half the fun of it.

First to be dug out were some foxgloves to make space for the echinops, which I split into three or four smaller plants. Christopher Lloyd once wrote that an echinops does the same job as an eryngium, and since the latter is more exciting you may as well plant that instead. But I disagree –  echinops is less startling, more subdued and graceful, and grows more upwards than outwards, taking up far less room. Yes, there is the problem of its ugly lower leaves, but if you place it carefully they can be hidden behind the foliage of other plants. In its new position by the wall, mine would be disguised by some geraniums and a peony.


The ornamental thistle came out too. You could almost hear the rose behind it breathing a sigh of relief. In fact, I breathed a sigh of relief too to see it come out. Now with a few spaces created in the border, I fetched a potted camellia that I’d been wanting to plant out for some time. There is no point in keeping a camellia in a pot unless your soil is alkaline, which mine isn’t. After trying the camellia in various positions and looking at it from all angles, I decided it looked the business in the place left vacant by the echinops.


I took great delight in digging the bearded irises out. I’ve had one flower (admittedly a spectacular one) from these irises in four years. I reckoned that if the stupid things couldn’t flower in the hottest summer on record, then they’re hopeless cases and need replacing. In their place I planted a hydrangea that my mother had given me. I don’t have many shrubs in the border, and I’m looking forward to the structure that the camellia and this hydrangea bring to the garden.


Finally to move the sedum. There was a large drumstick primula (Primula denticulata) that had to come out first, which I planted next to my peony ‘Sarah Bernhardt’. The sedum went into its place under the arch, and behind it I placed a little pheasant’s tail grass, Anemanthele lessoniana. Both sedum and grass were gifts from Cathy (Rambling in the Garden) so it seemed appropriate that they should go in beside each other.


While working, I was able to appreciate the rest of the garden: the cosmos in full bloom, asters and astrantias, nasturtiums, erigeron and dahlias. Autumn days in the garden are some of the most glorious. The whole garden has an atmosphere of quiet and calm, of falling slowly asleep. The birds are still singing, but less frantically than in the spring. The light is more interesting, but of shorter duration. Interesting things are happening to seed heads, to the colour of leaves, even to the colour of flowers.

After my garden ‘reshuffle’ the garden once more became a place I wanted to spend time in, to wander around and enjoy the changing season. No longer was I troubled by those niggles and annoyances. (I should say that naturally there are ongoing niggles as in all gardens; merely less urgent ones.) I look forward to next year, when the fruits of my reshuffle will show themselves in an improved autumn outlook.



Two Topiary Gardens


On my return journey to Scotland from our trip to the Cotswolds in September (see my write-ups on Snowshill and Hidcote), I stopped off at Levens Hall in Cumbria on the recommendation of my mother. Levens Hall has the oldest and most extensive topiary garden in the world, and since topiary is my spirit garden style, a coffee and wander around its extraordinary collection of clipped yews made for a magical break in the six-hour journey.

The topiary garden of Levens Hall was laid out in 1694 and completed in 1720, and it is the oldest such surviving garden, having escaped the destruction that its contemporaries suffered when the fashion for informal landscape gardens waxed in the eighteenth century.




Many of the ancient shapes, which are clipped from yew, golden yew and box, have names: Queen Elizabeth and her maids of honour, the Judge’s wig, the Lion, the Jug of Morocco. Summer bedding plants, including masses of heliotropes and verbena, are grown in between the trees, bordered by dwarf box hedges.



Isn’t there something utterly mysterious about a topiary garden? Perhaps it is because of the aloof, animal bulk of the trees, standing like inscrutable statues in a museum (but which surely come alive behind your back); or perhaps because of childhood books like Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse in which an orphan is driven through a moonlit park adorned with topiaried chess pieces: an atmosphere of magical suspense pervades. The wonkiness of the spirals and twirls of Levens’ yew trees, some looking like toppling wedding cakes, others dumpy yet dignified, somehow added to the sense of enigma. Feeling as though I’d stumbled into a convention of eccentric butlers or an eighteenth-century Ent Moot, I wandered like a small intruder among a gloriously claustrophobic crowd of other-worldly presences.




It takes four gardeners about a month to clip all the shapes, and they were undertaking this gargantuan task during my visit, meaning that some of the trees were bowling-green smooth, while others were still fuzzy around the edges. And talking of bowling greens, I wandered further on to find that the topiary thinned out and the rest of the garden came into view. A real bowling green, used by a local croquet club, lay beyond an orchard (particularly boggy underfoot – bring stout boots) and next to a dark and ominous beech alley, which led to a wilder part of the garden that was partly wooded and contained a willow maze with a curious centrepiece.





The fountain garden, containing a large, round, stone pool full of lilies and a modest fountain at its centre, was laid out in 1994 to commemorate 300 years of the gardens at Levens Hall. Returning towards the house was the herb garden, herbaceous borders, and finally the simple but pleasing 17th Century Garden beside the house itself.



Due to life’s continual gyre of obligations, distractions and circumstances, it has taken me over three months to get round to writing this post, and as I was editing the photos of these remarkable 300-year-old trees I recalled that I had not shared my photographs of another magnificent topiary garden that I visited over two years ago: Drummond Castle Gardens in Perthshire. I do hope you will not mind if I indulge my admiration for topiary a little longer and show you this quite different garden.

Drummond Castle Gardens also has a long history, having been restructured several times. Grander in style and scale than Levens Hall, there is less a sense of the whimsical and more of a stylised majesty in the formal parterre, laid out in a St Andrew’s Cross with a seventeenth century sundial at its centre. Topiaried beech and yew trees are solemn stalagmites, politely spaced, and contrasting in height and colour with the collection of gorgeous ruby-red acers nearby.




Drummond is magnificent for autumn colour, and our visit, in October, was at the perfect time to witness the spectacle. Relatively little herbaceous planting exists in this part of the garden, but there is more than enough interest to be found among the many types of trees (two copper beeches were planted by Queen Victoria who visited in 1842), in the disciplined structure of the planting, the elegant statuary, and in the peacocks that waft gracefully about the lawns.



Being Perthshire, there is no shortage of dampness in the air, and many of the trees were adorned with delightful lichen that added to the sense of timelessness. Exploring further on, we stumbled across beds and beds of the most exuberant dahlias, while just below the castle were herbaceous beds rich in late summer colour.


Levens Hall Gardens near Kendal in Cumbria are open from April to October on Sundays to Thursdays, and adult admission is £9.90, or £13.90 to include admission to the house, with lower prices for children and family groups.

Drummond Castle Gardens near Crieff in Perthshire is open on Easter Weekend, and then daily between May and October inclusive. Entry for an adult costs £6.00 with reduced rates for concessions, families and children. The castle itself is not open to the public.


The Living And The Dead

November is a funny time of year. Certain plants remain in flower across the garden mainly salvias and roses but also Acanthus mollis, pelargoniums and Cerinthe major and their bright blooms look quite out of place beside those that are dying back.

In July I harvested all the spent allium seedheads, and plonked them in a hurry into a vase on our bedroom chest of drawers, where they have been annoying both of us ever since. The arrival of a new jug prompted me to do something about them, and so I cut their long stems back to size and rearranged them. In a month’s time I will probably spray them with a dusting of silver and use them as Christmas decorations.


The drawing is called ‘January Beeches’ and is by an artist called Pamela Grace, who is exhibiting at the Dancing Light Gallery at Whitmuir Organic Farm, just a few miles south of Edinburgh. Winter trees are an appropriate subject for today’s post, because one might say that, like Schrödinger’s Cat, they are both dead and alive at the same time.

And just to prove that we still have plenty of plants still alive and kicking, I made a second vase in this little pewter cup Cerinthe, Salvia ‘Amistad’, the David Austin rose ‘Tess Of The D’Urbevilles’ and a stem of snapdragon in the identical shade of velvet red. If anyone is looking for a deep red rose, I couldn’t recommend Tess enough.


In a Vase on Monday is hosted by Cathy of Rambling in the Garden, and I do recommend visiting her page and taking a look at all the blooms, both dead and alive, that she and gardeners across the world are cutting from their gardens today.


Two Cotswolds Gardens. 1: Snowshill Manor


When it comes to patience, servitude and kindness, coupled with a tendency to forget to do nice things for herself, my mother gives the holy saints of Heaven a decent run for their money. Therefore, to celebrate the occasion of her 70th birthday, my sister and I came up with the idea of taking my mother away for a tiny holiday, just for herself, doing only things that she likes to do. We thought she might like to see some beautiful gardens and eat in some tasty restaurants, and have a lie in, and not do any cooking for anybody. Some negotiations followed. (‘Well, I don’t mind where we go. Where would you and Lou like to go?’, was her typical response, not quite getting the point.)  Ideas included a tour of Sussex gardens such as Sissinghurst, Great Dixter and Perch Hill, or else a trip to East Anglia to take in Beth Chatto’s garden. But the most popular suggestion was a trip to the Cotswolds on a pilgrimage to Hidcote, and so the date was set, the Airbnb was booked (a charming mill cottage overlooking a tumbling stream) and the route decided.

Casting round for a smaller garden to timetable for the afternoon of our arrival, we came across Snowshill Manor in the North West of the Cotswolds, about a 30 minute drive from our lodgings and crucially open on a Monday. Snowshill Manor is a sixteenth-century house set in gardens and orchards overlooking a valley of sheep fields. Nestled by its side is the charming village of Snowshill (pronounced locally as Snozzle).


The front aspect of the house is built of smooth, North Cotswold honey-coloured limestone, and at first glance is perfectly symmetrical, but look closely and you can see from the mullioned windows of the right half that it dates much earlier than the left. Behind this compact facade is a rambling house in mottled stone, filled with the curiosities of its early-twentieth-century owner, Charles Paget Wade, who collected everything from bicycles to Samurai warriors and used the house to display his eccentric hoard while living in a tiny cottage (‘The Priest’s House’) beside the Manor. The interior of the house is worth a visit in its own right, but the surrounding garden is no less filled with delights, treasures and humorous oddities.


Our tour began with a pleasant ten-minute ramble from the parking area, away from the promising tea-rooms and dangerous plant centre, along a winding path bordered by tall hedgerows through which could be glimpsed the sheep pastures of a green valley, and on past an orchard filled with large, untamed apple trees heavy with rust-coloured apples, through a pair of stone pillars and onto the formal front lawn.


At our feet, the tiny pink and white origami hearts of Cyclamen hederifolium were dispersed between trees and sheltering under lichen-mottled walls. Asters, roses, catmint, helenium, red-berried honeysuckle and several varieties of clematis filled the colourful but simple borders, and blush-coloured Japanese anemones, elegant in their eager simplicity, popped up all over the grounds.


Water appears regularly throughout the gardens at Snowshill Manor, in a large copper, dripping into a rough stone trough draped with harts-tongue ferns and unusual vines, trickling from gargoyles, and calm and still in a small formal square pool.

But most notably and delightfully is the water in the large pool that forms the centre of the lower terraces of the garden, a foil and prop for Wade’s pièce de résistance, his model Cornish fishing village, Wolf’s Cove, recently restored to its former charm and boasting houses, huts, a railway, bridges, harbour, ladders, a stone hovel, upturned dinghies and two pubs.



Elsewhere not to be missed were the dovecot and the neat kitchen garden, bordered with dahlias. I can relate that the tea-rooms did not disappoint (I can recommend the flapjacks), and several little treasures from the plant centre including two Heucheras and an Osmunda regalis ‘Purpurascens’ found their way back to my car. And I’m pleased to say that my mother was not abstemious in either the flapjack or the plant-purchasing department.


Snowshill Manor is owned and managed by the National Trust, and details of opening times, admission prices, and how to get there can be found on their website.

And of course, coming shortly to these pages will be Part 2: Hidcote Gardens.



Scotland’s Gardens 2017


That there are Narcissus ‘Tete-a-Tete in bloom in this photo shows how long I have been meaning to write this (or any, for that matter) post. I half intended to take a fresh, more seasonally appropriate photograph to reflect the fact that it is all of a sudden July, but my copy of the Scotland’s Gardens guide is by now so bruised and battered that it would not have looked nearly so appealing. On second thoughts, such a photo would have amply shown more than words what an essential and useful guide this book has been. If you live in, nearby, or travel to Scotland, and you love gardens, how could you do without this daffodil-coloured tome of horticultural promise?

The rill at Shepherd House, Inveresk

Scotland’s Gardens is an organisation that allows private and public gardens to open for the benefit of local and national charities, with the help of volunteers and of course the generosity of the gardens’ owners. This year, some of the noteworthy gardens included a 700-year-old monastic priory, the apple-walk at Tyningham House, and an Edwardian Japanese garden, as well as 70 new gardens including Drumstinchall House in Kirkcudbrightshire, a wildlife garden at the Auld Post Office in Caithness, and Carey House garden in Abernethy. Beware – there are nine highly dangerous plant sales advertised, and several ‘Garden Trails’ and garden festivals are highlighted in the guide.

Delphiniums and roses: Tyninghame Gardens, East Lothian

I have been a visitor of gardens all my life, at first in tow of my parents, who taught us to appreciate historic houses and their glorious rambling parklands and formal gardens from an early age. As I chased through the rhodadendrons after my sister, I cared little for the details of a garden but must have absorbed the whole unconsciously. These days, there is almost nothing I like better than to spend time in a beautiful, well-tended garden, and my sister and I often spend pleasant Sunday afternoons touring the gardens and historic houses of Scotland. Scotland’s Gardens is our signpost, a guide to all the gardens across Scotland, the majority of which are not routinely open to the public, set out region by region and detailing the days upon which they are open. There is also an online guide at in which gardens are searchable by date of opening or region.

From the window: Crathes Castle, Aberdeenshire

This weekend, the annual East Lothian Garden Trail is our destination: twelve private gardens across East Lothian, which can be accessed for £5 per garden or £40 for all. For a map and downloadable guide to the gardens, follow this link.

With many thanks to Emma Mason for so kindly sending me a copy of Scotland’s Gardens to review.

Bluebell woods: Newliston Estate, nr Edinburgh
Tyninghame Gardens, East Lothian


In The Garden: February

With this month’s warm and balmy temperatures, the garden has begun its slow explosion into green, starting of course with the snowdrops and dwarf irises, while narcissi and tulips line themselves up to begin their show next month. So, what is looking good in the garden this month?

Looking Good

Narcissus ‘Tete-a-Tete’ in a vintage clay pot has come out to see the February sun.


A surprise of crocuses, which I did not plant! I imagine they must have self-seeded from our nearby park, which is absolutely thick with the most beautiful displays.
Helleborus argutifolus. I adore these subtle shades of lime and the soft rounded texture of the sepals.
I planted a handful of ‘borrowed’ bulbs from our rented garden in 2015, and last year I divided and spread the clumps, so now this year at last the garden is starting to fill up. Nothing in the garden gives me greater joy to see at this time of year. I am not a galanthophile by any means: I am happy with old faithful G. nivalis. Perhaps one day I will splurge on some different varieties, but right now, these simple flowers couldn’t be making me happier.
Electric blue Iris ‘Clairette’ saved over from last year’s pots.
Another spring favourite of mine just coming into bloom. I have a white and a baby blue variety somewhere in the front garden and am awaiting their appearance with anticipation and hope.
An enormous primrose taken as a seedling from my grandmother’s garden. It needs splitting.
I am delighted to have spotted my first Anemone blanda, which I planted in autumn 2016 under the cherry tree.
Iris ‘Katharine Hodgkin’ making a surprise appearance at the back of the back garden. I ought to move these nearer the house as they were almost over by the time I spotted them in the distance through the rain-spattered window.


  1. This is the month for sorting and sowing seeds. I stocked up on coir pellets (which I am using for the first time as an experiment) and washed out my seed trays and root trainers to ensure they were fresh and clean of any dirt that could have harboured disease from last year. I sorted my seeds into those that needed planting right away (sweet peas, Calendula, Cerinthe, Aquilegia, Nigella, Antirrhinum), those that could wait a month, and those that needed direct sowing. I had lots left over, which I packaged up to send to friends.
  2. It was a good month for mulching the beds with some left over horse manure, as well as some seaweed that I picked up on our recent walk on Tyninghame beach. I try to collect seaweed whenever I go to the beach (always the loose, dead stuff) as it is so wonderful to spread on the garden or to add to compost.
  3. Early spring is the time for pruning hydrangeas, clematis in groups 2 and 3, and certain other woody shrubs that flower later in the year. img_1902
  4. February is the last opportunity for clipping hedges before bird nesting season begins, after which it is necessary to wait until late July. Last year I had sparrows nesting in our privet hedge, so I took to them with hand shears instead of electric.
  5. Each year I grow a different variety of new potato in reusable deep sacks. I find it deeply satisfying earthing them up, watering them, and then tipping the bag out and finding all the new potatoes among the dark earth, even though our local greengrocer sells delicious new potatoes for far cheaper than I could ever manage to produce them. February is the time to ‘chit’ potatoes so I put mine in egg boxes by our french doors, where it is bright but not too warm.img_1901
  6. A general tidy-up was a satisfying way to spend a Saturday afternoon a few weeks ago, cutting back all the dead stalks and foliage for the compost heap to allow new growth to come through.
  7. Dividing perennials can begin this month if the ground isn’t frozen. I have my eye on a Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’, some Bergenias and a Christmas rose that I would like to split so that I can increase my stock.

February Garden View

At last the front garden is beginning to green over with the fat shoots of bulbs growing in thick clumps all over the beds. Snowdrops are spreading beneath the roses and in small corners.


The back garden too is changing: no snowdrops here, though I plan to spread some to this garden as soon as possible. However, many bulbs planted both this autumn and the previous one are making bold appearances.




So that is it for February, a joyful month in the garden as spring begins to break through and cheer us all up after a long winter. I am now thoroughly looking forward to March, when the first species tulips and narcissi will be bringing even more colour to the garden. What have you been enjoying about your garden in February, and what are you looking forward to seeing in March?

Finally, can you see a face in the photo below?



In the Garden: January


Hasn’t it been a confusing month! While gardeners in some parts of the country have complained of the bitter cold and the lateness of their bulbs, those in other parts have been basking in clement, agreeable, if not exactly seasonable, weather. Here in Edinburgh, I am not sure what to make of the alternating balmy days of 11 or 12 degrees, and the frozen days of one or two below zero. But my bulbs are appearing just as they should, with Galanthus nivalis, the common snowdrop, already flowering in some of the more sheltered spots.



Looking good

The mild days have brought on some unseasonable growth from all sorts of plants besides the bulbs. Here are the brand new leaves, good enough almost to eat, of my Acanthus mollis. (As you can see, these clement days have also brought out the molluscs from hibernation.)


New buds are appearing on the honeysuckle beside the front door and the Hydrangea petiolaris:



And the raindrops look especially becoming on new foliage of Aquilegia:


The Scarcococca flowered briefly, and quickly produced its shining berries:


And the seedheads of the hostas are providing elegant hidey-houses for overwintering insects:


But the stars of the garden are the hellebores:

Helleborus ‘Winter Bells’
Helleborus argutifolius


1)  I have no greenhouse, and there is no room in the cold frame for tender plants, so I have wrapped hessian protection around my potted pelargoniums and alstromeria to ward off the worst of the frosts.

2) To prevent blackspot, last year’s hellebore leaves can be cut back and composted, allowing the new buds to shine through.

3) Squirrels just love to nip off the buds of emerging bulbs, and I have already found buds of my Iris ‘George’ on the ground. I like to paint on an unappetising concoction of garlic and paprika or cayenne pepper (but not chilli pepper, which can be harmful to wildlife) to put the squirrels off.

4) With all of summer’s growth dead and gone, now is a wonderful time to assess the garden and make any architectural or structural adjustments. I am building an extension to the brick terrace at the back of the house, and thinking hard about which shrubs to add for winter interest and structure.

5) I do not keep the garden too tidy, as a scruffy garden is best for wildlife, and though the jury is out on tidying up dead leaves, I err on the side of messy and leave them where they lie. However, where they are lying too thickly or have formed a mat over new growth, it is good to tidy up the leaves, and any dead or rotting stems that are not providing winter interest.

6) Having tidied up the garden and planned the garden’s permanent structure, now is also an excellent time to order seed for the coming year and make a sowing plan. I have ordered cornflowers, ammi, and sweetpeas, and will start sowing in early to mid February.

7) This is almost the last chance to trim hedges before birds start nesting. In the UK, it is illegal to cut a hedge that might contain nesting birds, which is usually from early spring until mid to late summer.


January garden view

The following photos show views of the front garden in mid-January, as the first bulbs were emerging from both ground and pots.








And a view of the back garden, which is still something of a building site, so I have cropped in close!


So that is it for January, and not a moment too soon, some might say. Things start ramping up in February, with snowdrops and irises in full bloom, and pots just bursting with emerging bulbs. Which jobs have you been getting up to in the garden this month, and what have been your favourite sights?