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Jul 232013


My recent blog posts may suggest that I have been spending my time touring stately homes in southern England, like a character in a Jane Austen novel. First Gravetye Manor, and now Mottisfont Abbey. Rest assured that despatches from the gritty streets of London will return soon.

Mottisfont is perhaps best known for the walled rose garden planted by Graham Stuart Thomas. It’s impressive, and the roses are underplanted with lots of perennials. But there were things I liked more about Mottisfont. It’s home to lots of great art (and art exhibitions), has a racy past thanks to notorious Bloomsbury Set parties and some amazing trompe l’oeil in the drawing room. Oh, and it has a 1950s ice cream parlour, trout leaping from the river and a secondhand book shop.

It was the busiest, hottest weekend of the year when we visited but it didn’t feel overrun (although panic did ripple through the ice cream queue when rumours of a shortage circulated). The National Trust is all about being accessible and giving kids freedom to roam these days, and they’ve certainly got it right at Mottisfont. Families were picknicking, lying under trees, rolling down grassy banks and dozing in the sun. And best of all: dangling their feet in the stream. I half expected a health and safety official in a tabard tell us all to move on, but no one came. It was truly lovely.


Jun 292013


There’s a new entry to my notional and ever-changing list of Top Ten Gardens That I’ve Ever Visited: Tom Stuart Smith’s garden in Hertfordshire. It was open for the Yellow Book a couple of weeks ago and a £7 donation to charity bought the opportunity to see the private garden of one of Britain’s best garden designers.


And boy, it’s good. The setting is incredible – just off the M25, in one of the most densely populated areas of the country, yet surrounded by green fields. And of course there’s oodles of space – perfect for experimenting with different planting styles and indulging every design fantasy. But just like Tom’s gold medal-winning Chelsea Flower show creations, his own garden is not remotely showy, just perfectly executed.

The hard landscaping is classy, but not flash – it doesn’t detract from the plants. Part of the garden is more traditional, with deep, tall herbaceous borders against a backdrop of shaped but shaggy hedges. The more contemporary part of the garden is home to the water tanks that formed part of his Chelsea 2006 garden – one of my favourites ever at Chelsea. At the moment the dominant colours are acid greens, dark pinks and purples from astrantias, euphorbias, French lavender, grasses and sage.


I’ve seen Tom do talks on his Chelsea gardens, and he’s very modest about his achievements. He makes the whole thing sound so effortless – like it’s really no big deal to create a Best in Show garden. On the open day, I heard him telling one visitor that he doesn’t do any particular lawn care and saying to another that many of the plants he uses are ‘bog standard’ – Geranium psilostemon, alliums and sweet rocket. I don’t know if that makes me feel better or worse – most people have bog standard plants in their gardens and don’t bother much with lawn care, but their gardens don’t look like Tom’s. Not least because of their size, but also because it’s darn hard to put plants together well. Mum and I went back to her problem border (home to several of Tom’s ‘bog standard’ plants), and made a note to get hold of some sweet rocket pronto asap. Well, it’s a start.


Jun 232013


Here’s one of the best gardens I’ve seen in a long time. It belongs to Deborah Nagan and Michael Johnson, and it was open during the Chelsea Fringe. Deborah and Michael are architects and landscape architects and not surprisingly, their own space is pretty special. It has a cunning layout, classy hard landscaping (including some metal-edged raised beds) and a rill that eventually falls into a pond in the basement garden below. Like all cleverly designed gardens, it looks effortless, and works brilliantly.

The planting is deft, too – a mix of the traditional (foxgloves, peonies) and the contemporary (dark foliage, acid green flowers, and grasses). Edibles are used to ornamental effect – the bolted rainbow chard has an architectural quality all of its own and a screen of raspberry canes conceals the rabbit hutch, potting bench and compost heap. It’s a garden to linger over – there is so much brilliant detail.

Deb Nagan's garden in Brixton

And if that wasn’t enough, the front garden is pretty amazing too. It has raised beds, with some suitably architectural supports. Not what you expect on the busy Brixton Road.

Deb Nagan's garden in Brixton

May 022013


This 10m long window box outside Locanda Locatelli bowled me over when I first saw it last July – it looked like a summer meadow, transported to a London street.

Now, it looks like a spring border on steroids. The bergenias provide flashes of pink, while the grasses and Leucojum aestivum (summer snowflake) give it an airy feel. It smells sublime. 

This could so easily have been planted with the usual spring bedding, just like the rest of the building, which is currently sporting colour co-ordinated primulas. Hats off to whoever came up with this.

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Mar 042013
Carex, ivy and silver birch in a pot


The walk from Lambeth North tube to the Garden Museum isn’t the most scenic (it’s better to walk from Westminster, and enjoy the view of the river and Houses of Parliament on the way), but I like it.

If you go via the Imperial War Museum, there are some interesting town houses (some with nice gardens) to nosey at. If you take the short cut, you walk through an industrial estate that has some unusual-looking businesses. Whichever way you go, you walk past a cafe that always looks horrible and an industrial bakers that always smells amazing. And then you end up at the Garden Museum, a haven for garden lovers in the midst of thundering traffic.

Last week I took the industrial estate route, and saw these pots: a grass (carex), ivy (its stems growing upwards) and multi-stemmed silver birch. There are quite a few of them, outside what I think is a design studio. A nice bit of permanent, low maintenance but high-impact planting, don’t you think?

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Dec 082012

Fondation Cartier, Paris

I only ended up going to the Fondation Cartier because my Parisian pal Esther needed to order some curtains that were on sale in a shop nearby, but I’m really glad we went. It’s a very interesting space, all steel and glass, designed by the architect Jean Nouvel. As soon as you draw near you can tell that the garden is pretty special too.

It’s designed by an artist, Lothar Baumgarten, and is inspired by the idea of a Theatrum Botanicum, an inventory of medicinal plants and herbs kept by mediaeval monks. Like mediaeval gardens it is enclosed, but by a wall of glass, so you can see it from the street. It has curved terraces and an ingenious sunken area.

It wasn’t the best time of year to visit, but the garden is home to 35 tree species and 200 native French plants, including fig trees, mint, violets and lily of the valley. It also has wildflower meadows which are quite a sight in summer.

I was pleased to see that there were none of the usual signs telling people to keep off the grass. But as I left, I spotted a sign that said ‘No picnics’…

Nov 052012


North Dulwich

This is Marcia’s garden, planted up just over a year ago by… me! When Marcia moved in, it consisted of the decking with gravel around the edge, plus a Fatsia japonica, a mahonia and a very large bay tree. Marcia asked for my advice over tea, and I ended up doing a planting plan for her.

In many ways it wasn’t an easy garden to plant up. For a start, Marcia’s budget was around £500. That sound like a lot but it doesn’t go far, even when you’re only filling a few square metres. We saved money by buying plants in the smallest possible size, and for the time being the perennials have outstripped the slower growing shrubs. There was also the orientation of the garden to consider – it’s largely shady (only the border on the right gets a decent amount of sun). There was no budget to alter the layout of the garden, or to do a proper survey of the site, so the gravel was removed and replaced with new topsoil.

Marcia wanted quite a contemporary look, so I dusted down my plant books and got Googling, and after a very long time spent dithering (if I was a full-time garden designer I’d be lucky to earn £1 an hour) I came up with a plan.

The garden has lots of plants with bold foliage such as bergenias, oak-leafed hydrangeas and ferns, and grasses such as Deschampsia and Stipa tenuissima  for texture. Hardy geraniums, Japanese anemones and sedums supply the flowers and Christmas box (Sarcococca confusa) and Trachelospermum jasminoides (on the sunny wall) provide the scent. I wanted Marcia to have an awareness of the seasons changing, so there’s spring blossom courtesy of a star magnolia and autumn colour from the Vitis on the back wall. Many of the plants should die back quite gracefully and many of the plants are evergreen, so Marcia won’t be looking out on to a sea of hard landscaping in winter.

You’re obviously not seeing it at its best (this pic was taken right at the end of October), plus the plants are still establishing etc etc. But all things considered, I’m pleased with it. And most importantly, so is Marcia.

PS The furniture is from John Lewis.

Oct 092012

If you’re feeling glum because the days are shortening, the temperatures are falling and everything is dying back, take yourself to the Inner Temple Garden without further ado. The High Border is still a riot of colour, and for a few glorious moments you can kid yourself that it’s still late summer.

The border contains many of the plants you’d expect in a late-season garden – grasses, dahlias, rudbeckias, asters, cosmos etc – but head gardener Andrea Brunsendorf puts them together in an original and adventurous way. She chooses varieties for their form, flower shape and colour, and thinks carefully about how they might complement other plants; the centre of one flower might complement the petals of another, for example. And she isn’t afraid to mix colours in combinations that more traditional gardeners would shy away from: orange, pink and red sit happily next to each other in the form of Tithonia rotundifolia ‘Torch’, Dahlia coccinea ‘Mary Keen’ and a red rose (above), as do red roses, magenta dahlias, blue salvias, purple aconitums and yellow rudbeckias (below).

The border also looked pretty amazing when I visited the garden in May. At that time it was filled with alliums, aquilegias and oodles of tulips; oriental poppies then carried it through until June. Andrea admits that the border has a ‘June hole’ when she lifts the tulips and replaces some early flowerers with the tender late season plants such as dahlias. But for a border that powers on until the first frosts (which can be as late as December in central London), that’s a very small price to pay.