The posh clothes shop, Toast, used to have a battered old (sorry, vintage) bench outside it, painted a lovely canal-boat green. The shop has now had a refit (although it looked fine before if you ask me), and the bench has gone.
It’s been replaced by this interesting set up: stacked breeze-block effect containers that have been painted black and filled with succulents. I like this look – it’s original, minimal and low maintenance (although someone or something has dislodged one of the plants) and the black background really makes the colours of the plants pop.
Last week I had to go to the Garden Museum twice in the same day – once for business, once for pleasure. The journey felt a bit groundhog day-ish, but it meant that I got to walk past this garden four times.
I walk past this garden every day, and it gives me an inordinate amount of pleasure. Unlike pretty much every other garden in St John’s Wood, it is entirely unreconstructed. It has no box balls, just some traditional shrubs and perennials. It doesn’t have electric gates, just a Rosa rugosa trained along a few wires, and no hard landscaping apart from a little pond. There’s always something new to look at, and over the past few weeks it has been filled with primroses, forget-me-nots, pulmonaria, daffodils and an azalea. It’s semi-wild, but lovingly tended.
My SJW mole tells me that the house is a Buddhist monastery. It’s the former home of Christmas Humphreys, a barrister (he worked on the Ruth Ellis case) and a Buddhist. After his death he bequeathed the house to a Zen foundation.
I love the fact that the house isn’t owned by an oligarch or a banker, but some gentle people who meditate. I hope they never have cause to sell it, because if they do, it will be paved over and some box balls added just as soon as the new basement and electric gates have been put in.
I went on a day trip to Bath this weekend. The weather was bloody awful – torrential rain and strong winds. It wasn’t the weather for spotting inspirational planting ideas, more for taking refuge in tea shops. But this magnolia, trained against a wall of a basement flat in the Royal Crescent, stood out, even through a steamed-up car window.
Now that I’m back in London, there are magnolias everywhere. It seems that all they needed was one warm day, and whoosh! They’re off. At last.
Just off Marylebone High Street is this little mews. You can’t really tell from the pic, but the bamboos are really bushy and abundant and form a perfect screen for whatever is behind them (an office, by the looks of it). They contrast well with the clipped box balls and the Helichrysum petiolare ‘Silver’, which have gone a little bonkers (and have impressively come through the winter unscathed).
Around the bottom of the box balls is lots of chickweed. It is, of course, a weed. But it’s green and fresh and positively springlike, and it actually looks quite nice.
When I was fairly new to this gardening lark, I went to a Gardens Illustrated talk about Great Dixter during Chelsea week. Christopher Lloyd and Fergus Garrett showed slides on the history of Dixter and described how their planting evolved during the year. Christo must have been in his early eighties then and was as mischievous as ever – he clearly relished revealing the politically incorrect names of the pet daschsunds in old family photos, prompting a collective gasp from the audience.
At the end of the talk, a lady enquired as to whether Christo left his canna lily bulbs in the ground during winter.* ‘Leave them in the ground?’ he spluttered. ‘LEAVE THEM IN THE GROUND?! That’s a lazy man’s game!’**. He said that of course the bulbs were lifted every autumn, and that the lady should be under no illusions – Great Dixter was NOT a low-maintenance garden. Plants were continuously refreshed to give a good display – oriental poppies that were past their best might be replaced with the aforementioned cannas, for example, but the following year, he might do something different.
Dixter is known for its successional planting (planting that looks good throughout the seasons), something that many gardeners struggle with. Fergus hosts popular study days on this very subject and also gives short talks. As he flashes up inspirational photo after inspirational photo, you can’t scribble down his words of wisdom fast enough.
Some of the techniques Fergus describes are unashamedly high maintenance – replacing spent plants with an ever-changing array of annuals and bedding, for example. They also demand space (Dixter has a stock bed from which to pilfer plants). It takes real skill and plant knowledge to play with colour and to contrast textures and shapes, and Dixter’s constantly dazzling combinations may be beyond many of us.
However some of Dixter’s ideas are refreshingly simple. Fergus advises growing some plants that flower for months (such as Geranium riverslealanum ‘Russell Pritchard’) as opposed to more flash-in-the-pan varieties, and choosing plants that offer more than one season of interest in terms of foliage, stem colour or flowers. Dixter also makes use of unfashionable ‘car park’ shrubs such as Euonymus fortunei ‘Silver Queen’ and Cotoneaster horizontalis (which are reliable and actually quite nice) and scrambles climbers such as clematis over shrubs to extend interest. Plants are often allowed to self-seed in the borders, creating unexpected combinations (although this does take some managing – deputy head gardener Siew Lee says they edit out 90% of the seedlings).
One idea that I reckon everyone can get behind is to plant bulbs at the base of a shrub. They’re unlikely to be disturbed by digging, and they’ll bring colour to the garden before the shrub gets interesting. The bulbs will then retreat underground, letting the perennials planted around them take over. In the picture above, snowdrops are planted under hydrangeas; elsewhere, hyacinths pop up from under a spiraea and Tulipa sprengeri nestle under a fuchsia. This is definitely something an ordinary gardener could do – and should do, to get the most out of their small space.
*The lady’s question shows how things have changed – I shouldn’t think many people would contemplate leaving cannas outside these days, given our recent freezing winters.
**’That’s a lazy man’s game!’ is now one of my favourite sayings. One of my friends once heard it as ‘That’s a lesbian’s game!’ which gives it a whole new dimension.
PS: In case you’re wondering about the hellebores, they’re ‘Anna’s Red’, named after the garden writer Anna Pavord.