Monday 31 December 2012

Plant of the Year 2012

Calamagrostis × acutiflora ‘Overdam’, early May
In a year of great change and without much active gardening, no immediate candidate for my plant of the year presented itself, but on reflection, and on going through my images it became obvious that one plant had in fact been outstanding in the cottage garden at Colesbourne. It's the grass Calamagrostis × acutiflora ‘Overdam’, raised in Denmark, which I'd planted quite extensively in the gravel border in 2011. It emerges as the weather warms up with each blade crisply variegated with white and flushed pink: a very pleasing clean, fresh look for spring. It looks good on its own at this stage, but it pairs beautifully with many other plants, whether with more solid green foliage, or flowers.

Calamagrostis 'Overdam' with tulips, April

With Allium 'Purple Sensation', May.
With the bulbs it almost becomes a supporting act, but after they fade it becomes a star in its own right (again), with massed plumes of pinkish-purple flowers providing a remarkable depth of colour in the border, though the variegation fades. The flowering stems are extremely strong and flexible and return to the vertical however buffeted they've been, through summer, autumn and most of the winter. They begin to get a bit dishevelled in late winter and at that time I would cut them back to tidy them up and let the new shoots up. It is not faultless; my main quibble is that is perhaps just fractionally too stiff and that the clumps, at least in their early years, remain distinct rather than blending together, but much depends on the angle at which the stand is viewed. This is a minor flaw, however, in an outstanding, and to me, indispensable plant.

In full flower (back, behind Deschampsia 'Goldtau'), July

Bleached by now, the flowering stems remain attractive in October.

Calamagrostis 'Overdam', with Rudbeckia triloba 'Prairie Glow', October.

Simon Savage 1965-2012

Simon Savage with Carol Klein in Devon
(img. A. Byfield)
One of the sad points of 2012 was the death in September of Simon Savage (from cancer of practically everywhere). He was one of the old guard of galanthophiles, from long before snowdrops became fashionable, and he named quite a number of discoveries. Not all will be regarded as classics, but I have been impressed by the rather aptly named 'Shropshire Queen', a simple snowdrop resembling 'S. Arnott' but extremely vigorous and soon forming a very attractive clump. He was a good general plantsman, however, with particular interests in primroses, ferns and daffodils. He raised some lovely hybrids of early-flowering daffodils, which I hope will eventually be bulked-up and released. His garden at Church Farm, Wrockwardine, Shropshire, was full of interest but when the lease expired he took much of his stock to Devon, where a relationship and proposed nursery sadly failed to prosper. He returned to Shropshire and for the last few years found love with his partner Simon '2'. 

Although I knew him for over twenty years we saw each other relatively infrequently, mostly at snowdrop time. Two memories stand out: a hilariously convivial evening at Church Farm with a pack of irreverent galanthophiles in full cry, and his courage and calm when I visited him for the last time in the Severn Hospice in August and we had a lovely talk about plants. He will be much missed.

Sunday 30 December 2012

Garden people 2012


Nurseryman and traveller: Tom Mitchell (Evolution Plants)

Garden manager: Matt Pottage (Wisley)

Good gardeners: Valerie Bexley, Richard Bashford, Alice Munsey

Enthusiasts: Maurice Foster and Chris Sanders discuss Deutzia

Elder statesman: Otto Fauser

Propagator: Ryan Guillou (Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden)

Friends, star-scattered on the grass: Sarah, Charlie, Mairi, David, Maria, Anna

Tuesday 25 December 2012

Christmas flowers

Galanthus plicatus 'Three Ships', taken on the iPad during a half-decent monent yesterday

I am visiting my parents for Christmas: the Thames Valley is as soggy as North Yorkshire, and the rain keeps pouring down, but there are quite a few flowers in the garden. I had a quick run-round this morning when it wasn't raining too hard and made this list:

Galanthus plicatus 'Three Ships', G. 'Castlegar', G. 'Faringdon Double'; Crocus laevigatus, C. caspius; Narcissus 'Cedric Morris', N. cantabricus (in alpine house); Cyclamen coum, C. hederifolium subsp. crassifolium (alpine house); Iris unguicularis 'Walter Butt'; Sternbergia lutea; Arabis ferdinandi-coburgii; Helleborus foetidus; Primula vulgaris; Clematis cirrhosa wild from Israel (lovely greenish-cream, no spots), 'Freckles'; Lonicera x purpusii 'Winter Beauty'; Viburnum farreri 'Candidissimum', V. x bodnantense 'Dawn'; Chimonanthus praecox.

These are the flowers, but the garden is better furnished by the evergreen shrubs and perennials, especially the masses of Polypodium, which look great in the wet.

Merry Christmas!

Saturday 22 December 2012

Tasty mince pies

Not perfect in appearance but very tasty.

Cranberries and dried fruit simmering in port.

 With a group of friends and colleagues coming round for 'drinks and nibbles' last night it seemed obligatory to provide the seasonal staple of mince pies. Trouble is, I don't like mince pies with their usual heavy and excessively sweet filling, so I needed to find a recipe that got away from tons of currants and lashings of suet ('or substitute butter'). A little online research suggested that Nigella Lawson's 'Cranberry-studded mincemeat' recipe (available on the BBC food website) would be nice, as it uses fresh cranberries as its main ingredient with no fat at all. It turned out to be easy to make, though how anyone gets the zest off a clementine is beyond me, so I flung in a handful of mixed peel and a drop of orange juice, and as cranberries come in packs of 250 g, not 300 g the weight difference was made up with raisins and sultanas. An extra drop of port and Zwetschgen-wasser instead of brandy were the other changes I made. The finished mincemeat is a lovely dark red and just slightly on the tart side. I used ready-made shortcrust pastry for the crust but although I didn't get it rolled out quite as thin as it should have been,  it made a good firm savoury receptacle for the filling. I also made the mistake of filling the pies too generously, so they bulged out in baking, but the taste was excellent. I can happily recommend the recipe as a refreshing change from the average mince pie on the Christmas circuit, but I think such a pie would also be a savoury and stylish accompaniment to winter game: a nice venison steak, perhaps, or, dare I say it, a rich jugged hare.

Wednesday 19 December 2012

Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne

Palm and pine: a Butia (probably capitata) and a Bunya-bunya Pine, Araucaria bidwillii, setting the tone at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne.
RBG Melbourne is effectively a grand city park, much-loved and much-used by the people of Melbourne; big trees and lots of lawn-space between them give it a very spacious feel.

The Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne is just what you expect a 'colonial' botanic garden to be - lush with exotics, inviting a pleasant stroll and a gentle stimulation of the senses, but with a serious purpose too - originally the introduction of new plants to the colony of Victoria and the discovery of its flora, and with a research element continuing today. It was founded in 1846 by Lieutenant Governor Charles La Trobe but its fame was built up by two successive directors, Baron Ferdinand von Mueller (director 1857-1873), who was a pioneering explorer of the Australian flora, and William Guilfoyle (director 1873-1909). Von Mueller brought a great collection of plants to the garden, but planted them formally and apparently rather boringly, so much so that, despite his reputation and position as Government botanist (held until his death in1896), he was replaced as director. Guilfoyle used von Mueller's collection to make the grand landscaped garden that we see today, with bold sweeps of lawn and beds, and a large central lake. It was a creation that has stood the test of time.  Unfortunately I only had a couple of hours to spend in the garden, which meant a fairly brisk circuit of the edges, missing out most of the middle completely, but it was enough to show me what a glorious place it is.

Baron Ferdinand von Mueller (1825-1896)

One of the great Australian native trees, Grevillea robusta, in full flower.

William Guilfoyle is now commemorated in the gardens by the recently restored feature 'Guilfoyle's Volcano', a water storage tank concealed in a conical 'hill'. It has been brilliantly planted with colourful and sculptural succulents.

Alcantairea with Festuca on the slopes of Guilfoyle's Volcano.

A beautifully airy grass - I couldn't find the label - underplanted beneath a columnar cactus.

A whimsical feature near the childrens' garden, of animalesque shapes made of Muehlenbeckia - obviously very popular indeed.

Saturday 15 December 2012

First snowdrop in the new garden

Galanthus plicatus 'Three Ships'
The garden here is looking pretty desolate, with the unmulched surface of the new beds bashed into silt  by the rain and frost, but there are plenty of 'noses' emerging and the first snowdrop has 'popped' today, a welcome sight. It is Galanthus plicatus 'Three Ships', delayed a few weeks by the move and replanting, but soon to show a nice patch of flowers - perhaps by Christmas if the current milder weather persists.

Friday 14 December 2012

The Australian Garden, RBG Cranbourne

The Red Sand Garden, aka the 'red centre'', Cranbourne's most famous feature. Suitable desert plants form islands, while irregular white shapes are ceramic, symbolising salt-crusts from evaporated pools. The broad line across the space runs north-south. 
I have no hesitation in saying that the Australian Garden at the Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne was the most exciting garden I visited on my travels in November. Cranbourne is the out-of-town satellite for the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne, acquired for the development of a collection of Australian natives requiring conditions that could not be provided in the RBG's city site. The estate was purchased in 1970 and covers 300 ha, most of which is still (and will remain) under natural vegetation, a rare pocket in the sprawl of Greater Melbourne.

From 1994 plans for an Australian Garden were drawn-up by the landscape architects Taylor Cullity Lethlean, with Paul Taylor advising on the plants. Construction of the first phase was started in 2003 and finished in 2006: it included the Red Sand Garden, the Rockpool Waterway, display gardens and other feartures. These are now looking well-established. The second phase was commenced in 2009 and opened only in October this year, in fact less than a month prior to my visit. Not surprisingly much of the planting has yet to establish - in fact in some cases one could tell it had come from somewhere protected not very long before, but this enabled the extraordinary boldness of the design to show through.

Design is the great strength of the Australian Garden: big, bold and beautiful and certainly bizarre at times, but uniquely striking. Not many botanic gardens have the freedom to use modern design except in small corners, but on the virgin site at Cranbourne the opportunity was seized with both hands and the result is triumphant. I doubt traditionalists like it, but it must prove inspiring to the younger generation of Australian gardeners and with its solidly Australian native plantings shows that there is no need to resort to exotics to create superb gardens. As well as the big spaces smaller demonstration gardens show off good plants in settings that are both domestically achievable and water-wise.

A very-well done feature: an ephemeral stream rises and flows down the 'rockpool waterway' to the lake, becoming wider and deeper under a great rust-red steel sculpture named after and evoking an 'Escarpment Wall'.

The new portion of RBG Cranbourne is still rather raw in terms of planting, but shows off the strength of its design.

Even the supports for climbers in the Arbour Garden are beautifully, if starkly, designed. One almost hopes the climbers don't all do too well...

Among the splendours of the layout the plant collection is excellent, featuring plants from all over Australia, often in selected forms of particular garden merit (another departure from tradition) and planted with a designer's eye, though in appropriate conditions. A few are shown below. Cranbourne is going to be a place to watch and revisit whenever possible.

The incredibly blue Lechenaultia biloba, a Western Australian species.

Grass-trees, Xanthorroea johnsonii

Hymenosporum flavum, a fine flowering tree with a delicious scent.

Alyogyne huegelii 'West Coast Gem'

I had not realised that Ajuga occurred in Australia - this is A. australis. I also saw it wild in the Tinderry Nature Reserve.

An amusing sculpture of massed blue watering cans - promoting water-wise gardening, of course.

Sunday 9 December 2012

Around Melbourne

Eucalyptus regnans towering over Otto Fauser's garden. Huge and fast growing, there is some evidence that individuals of this species once achieved heights of 130-150 m, making them the largest trees ever recorded. Alas, they were logged-out long-ago, but E. regnans remains dominant in the mountains of south-eastern Australia and Tasmania.

The clasic understorey accompaniment to E. regnans is Dicksonia antarctica:it is amazingly abundant.The Victorian forests are/have been the principal source for the tree ferns imported into Britain as 'logs'.

Otto Fauser's rock garden: Aquilegia alpina and Daboecia azorica are conspicuous.

The choice New Zealand alpine shrublet Leucogynes leontopodium.

Celmisia asteliifolia: a native Australian member of this antipodean genus, flourishing in Otto's garden.

I was invited to Australia to give a talk about snowdrops to the Alpine Garden Society Victorian Group, so my first port of call was Melbourne. Rather to my surprise - I hadn't thought about it - the Melbourne conurbation is vast, but members of thegroup were indefatigable in driving me around to see a diversity of gardens, nurseries and wild habitat. I am particularly grateful to the President, Di Barrie, for organising the whole affair and doing much of the driving, but I also had the great pleasure of staying with the doyen of Australian alpine gardeners, Otto Fauser, at his home in the Dandenong Hills east of the city, and I must thank everyone for their very generous hospitality. Visiting so many gardens gave me a fascinating insight into the diversity of plants Victorian gardeners can grow: the fabled draconian import restrictions seem not to pose too many problems. The result is a remarkable profusion of 'garden' plants, but in many ways I found it much more fascinating to see how Australian natives are used in the gardens.

A world-class traditional garden: Cloudehill, Olinda. Beautiful formality and great combinations, created over the past 20 years by Jeremy Francis and his team, on the site of a former nursery. These are the warm borders.

The cool borders at Cloudehill.

South African bulbs (Sparaxis, Ixia, Freesia) naturalised in a 'meadow', with Ranunculus repens. A fun variation on the theme. At Cloudehill.

I don't know if this effect is deliberate, but I found it ravishing. Bellis perennis and Pittosporum 'Irene Paterson' at Cloudehill.

Lilium lankongense in plantsman and nurseryman Stephen Ryan's garden, Mount Macedon.

Miscanthus 'Rubra' - a bit of fun at Stephen Ryan's.

Cantua buxifolia 'Tricolor' - a striking clone at Stephen Ryan's Dicksonia Nursery.

A small extent of Eucalyptus pauciflora subsp. pauciflora grows on the top of Mount Macedon.

The extraordinary dark foliage of Eucalyptus cladocalyx 'Euc 78' sold as Vintage Red, at Kuranga Nursery.

Banksia ericifolia 'Little Eric': a superb selection. Much work is being done to select Australian natives that are able to give the ornamentals a real run for their money.

A display barrow at Kuranga Native Nursery, Mount Evelyn: making Aussie natives look really appealing.

A hybrid waratah, probably incorporating genes from several species of Telopea: every bit as attractive as the rhododendrons so abundantly grown in the Dandenongs and elsewhere round Melbourne. At Ferny Creek Horticultural Society.