Canada, October 2015
A recent written commission took me across the water to the cities of Toronto and Detroit. Although the two occupy separate countries, they share their regional territory with an ancient woodland: the Carolinian forest. Much of this once sprawling and prolific disiduous wood has sadly been lost, 90% in fact. Originally spreading across America, climbing North-West from the Carolinas into southern Ontario, Canada, sadly now only pockets can be found: those baring the original broadleafed footprint of the true Carolinian forest.
Having undertaken the otherwise strictly-urban commission in prime-time, fully swung, brightly glowing autumn, making a few dashed escapades into the surrounding woods was something I couldn’t have resisted.
Caldey Island, May 2015
I spent three nights on the island of Caldey off the Tenby coast in Pembrokeshire, West Wales. As well as a handful of well-weathered residents, Caldey is home to a long serving community of Cistercian monks. With their practices stemming from pre-refformation Benedictine origin, Cistercians believe in a devotIon to both a spiritual and simplistic way of life; developing as close a relationship with nature as with God.
There is a guesthouse on the island where visitors are accommodated during their short stay, offering simple meals, a modest bedroom and access to the stunning and secluded island beyond the day-visitor hours. You can chose to attend services held by the monks (some beginning at 3:30am..) but are not obligated, and your stay need only be as spiritually-orientated as you like. For me, irrespective of my interests in the monastery itself, the big draw is the nature on the island. The Pembrokeshire coastline has some of the most incredibly diverse flora in the UK, and the islands themselves are home to a handful of particularly rare birds including the crow-like cough, puffins and nesting manx sheerwaters. Although Caldey is not a large island, it encompasses dark woodland, dramatic headland passes, intriguing caves and isolated, secluded beaches.
This year’s stay somehow even topped last year’s. I spotted grey seals, fulmars, blackcaps, made copious notes on wildflowers like thrift and kidney vetch, discovered a rope down to a hidden beach and watched the sunrise from an ancient cave.
Great Dixter, April 2014
As a full-time horticulturist I’m a strong believer in the need for continual study, education and development. Every gardener; even the oldest, wisest and most famous ones agree: there is always more to learn. My most recent ‘study break’ has landed me back in a place very close to my heart and quite simply the greatest flower garden in Britain. I’m enormously lucky to be spending a month with the team at Great Dixter gardens in East Sussex, living on site and learning under the profoundly gifted hand of head gardener, Fergus Garrett. In this section of the blog I hope to relay a little of what I’ve been getting up to and some of the unique and well-seasoned practises that demonstrate why this place is so unrivalled in it’s ambition and success. For more information on Great Dixter, please visit: http://www.greatdixter.co.uk
Sadly yesterday was my last day at the gardens. I feel I’m leaving much more invigorated, interested and excited in the work I do. While spending my month at Dixter I met so many people who also had the fortune of spending a period learning at Dixter; whether as casual relief from a demanding job or more acute study in a particular field of horticulture. The gardeners and staff are so generous with their time, welcoming and engaging, it’s a hard place to resist and I know I’ll be coming back frequently now. If you haven’t been and visited, I highly recommend doing so – you couldn’t be disappointed.
01.05.14 A few Favourites
Of the many new plants I’ve liked, learned and intend to use more since being at Dixter, these three are at the top of the list. Each fall into the category of ‘prolific self-sowers’, and all can be found easing that seasonal gap between spring and summer. Grown as biennials being sown the previous year, they make a fantastic addition to any ‘cottage’ style garden; whether placed out together as a mass, or left to dot themselves into the corners and cracks.
One of the best things about spending time at Great Dixter is getting the chance to brush up on my wild orchids. Although I’ve long had an interest in the wildflowers of our native British meadows, orchids are an element I’ve had less firsthand experience of (or perhaps been a little ignorant of and therefore blind to). At Dixter, in the spring months, orchids are one of the star players. In the last week or so the orchard meadow has been a wash of stunning purple; green-winged orchids in profession -a sight rarely seen even in the most suitable of conditions. Before them came the early purple orchids (some of which of quite substantial hight with a spike up to 30cm), and following soon after will come the common spotted, a few already beginning to open flower.
It’s well known at Great Dixter that if, as a student, you ask one of the resident gardeners to identify a plant, you’re unlikely to receive an answer unless your notebook is to hand. It’s a hang-on from Christopher Lloyd’s quite sensible mantra; what’s the point in telling if only to be forgotten soon after. I certainly don’t retain names if they aren’t quickly scribbled down, let alone those in latin.
But the sentiment goes much deeper at Dixter. At the heart of the garden is education. Their entire ethos is geared around helping gardeners to learn and develop their knowledge, skills and understanding of horticulture. It’s a community rooted firmly in inspiring a deeper connection with the plants we’re surrounded by, from cultivated, multi-floral giants to the delicate and self-sown wildflowers along the hedgerows.
Today I was fortunate enough to be invited to sit in on Fergus Garrett’s lecture on successional planting. It’s just one of the hundred + talks he gives each year on varying elements of his vast experience as Head Gardener at Great Dixter; this one being held in the house itself and to a packed room of gardeners and plant enthusiasts. He covered in great detail subjects including bedding schemes, mixing and contrasting plant forms, successional planting for colour, structure and diversification, and working with self-seeders (such as cow parsley, forget me not, Lunaria and Oenithera, to mention just a handful). I could see the entire room hurriedly taking down notes in similarly mud-coated and worn-out notebooks to mine.
A subject I’ve been interested in recently is our connection with ‘nature’, and our relationship with it, particularly in contrast to days when we had a much more utilitarian need to understand plants, creatures and their varying habit. Though we are less farmers; less workers of ‘the land’ these days, and not so dependant on the changing season (or at least less in touch with it), there are moments that still make us feel a deep bond and identification with elements of the wild; a tree in blossom perhaps, or the screech of a swift along our urban cityscapes. However there is so often also a darker, mysterious detachment that can gloom over the relationship; a moment when we feel no connection, and a kind of indifference emanating from the wildness we might seek to find solace within. I’ve certainly experienced it myself, and it is well documented by even the most enthusiastic naturalists. It’s the bleak feeling of a separation from nature; the kind of dog-eat-dog world that comes into view when you’re knocked over by a wave in the sea or a cold wind along a country lane. In his introduction to a recent collection of Edward Thomas’ poetry and prose, Robert Macfarlane writes, ‘Nature can cure but it can also be brutally mute, shocking in its disinterest: the river’s seawards run, the chalk’s whiteness, the hawk’s swivelling stare.’
Leaning on a gate looking out over one of the fields by the garden the other night I was struck by a sudden but subtle revelation. As I listened to the lambs bleating in the darkness, watching moths lift up from the damp grass and thinking over the plants I’d immersed myself within earlier in the day, it occurred to me that the way to overcome moments of such disconnection from nature might lie solely in education. We will almost always fear or mistrust the things we do not yet understand or are unfamiliar with. But the deliberate and persistent study of these plants, creatures and seasonal elements, is the thing that brings us closer to them and forms a deeper bond. This isn’t to say that the sight of a bird on the wind cannot be enjoyed without the knowledge of it’s specific species. However, that infrequent yet heavy, disheartening feeling of disconnection might just spur from a gap in our acquaintance; and by studiously familiarising ourselves with these otherwise simplified and under-appreciated forms in our lives, there may be an unlocking in our separation from them.
14.04.14 ‘Pot Displays’
For anyone who has visited Great Dixter, among the most elaborate and eye-catching attractions on show are the pot displays. There are pots placed right the way through the garden, however there are three key spots where the sheer volume and variation of plant material placed together drums up an impact that can almost be a little overwhelming. Pot displays are so often easy on the eye, soft and blended. I’ve visited many gardens where a coherent mass of forms and colour is an accepted fundamental when considering which plants to put out in containers. At Great Dixter a pot display is instead just another opportunity to do something different, and then change it all over again the following week. In this way there is always something new to experience in the displays, be it what you might consider ‘good taste’ or not. Having spent an entire day devoted to re-assembling the three displays with Dixter gardener, Rachel, I can say firstly that visitor’s reactions do very much vary between awe and aghast, and secondly that no small amount of attention or methodology goes into laying out these displays by the gardening team. Which, when you consider how frequently the pots are altered and replaced, I find pretty impressive.
‘Getting it right’ with a display in the garden is very much an open discussion among the gardeners and, provided the timing is right for any tender plant inclusions, the plant pallet is equally so. Rachel talked me through the Dixter ethos of every plant having a place, and how forms and colours can be used to contrast with each other, enabling plants to stand out more than they might do when isolated or in a border. Inside the porch there are also single cut flowers stood in jars; with the advantage of a closer perspective, the individuals are given their place too.
Today was all about the very thing Dixter is renowned for; working that balance between the cultivated and the wild. Fergus set me to work up in the high garden -one of the stock beds in full (relentless!) sun- seeking out self-sown Atriplex ‘Red Orach’ and spacing them to 1.5 meters apart, placing them in preferred areas where they would be able to reach their full potential. The eventual hight of these Atriplex will be around 60-80cm, with a spread (once pinched-out) of a similar dimension. However, at this stage these key additions to the bed only stand at around an inch tall, and appear almost completely insignificant. But knowing your seedlings, and the potential there-in, is what the gardeners at Great Dixter preach so ardently. Maintaining and developing a display that can change from year to year depends enormously on this process of choosing the plants where they are found, and at their least developed stage. By getting to know the seedlings, the creative stage can begin right at the start of the season, negating the necessity for excessive plug-planting or later ‘filler’ additions. One year, for example, seeds set from fennel, borage or euphorbia could be allowed to develop, whereas in another they can be discarded by weeding out. The mid to late Summer display will be dramatically altered by decisions made about plants the size of a finger nail.
The second task for the day was then to ‘plug’ opium poppies into spaces around the existing planting, set out earlier in the year. Fergus demonstrated the ideal spacing and together we agreed how the drifts would run through the structure of the bed. This particular poppy is Papaver ‘Dutch Flag’, a very striking frilled-edged flower consisting of white and red. Somniferum poppies hate having their roots disturbed and from my own experience tend to hate you for putting them through it. However, Fergus assured me that it would be well worth the effort, and if planted carefully and deeply enough, they would do as instructed. He added that people often have an opinion on things like this, but what is so great about this garden is that they give things a go, they have the freedom to try things out and that’s what makes it an exciting place to be.