Jan 172014

Radstock, Somerset

I first passed this garden in Radstock in late summer. It’s bold planting for a public space, stuffed with grasses and late-season perennials. I passed it again a few weeks ago and the grasses were at their winter best.

I’d love to know more about this garden – who designed it? Does anyone know?

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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.


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.

Aug 172012

South Bank

I’ve waxed lyrical about the  Queen Elizabeth Hall roof garden a couple of times on this blog, and that definitely qualifies as a secret garden. But there’s a new kid on the block now too, a few hundred metres away: the garden outside the National Theatre.

These grasses had caught my eye several times from Waterloo Bridge, but I couldn’t figure out exactly where they were. I eventually got up close and personal with them last week (they’re a couple of floors up, near one of the Olivier theatre’s bars). They’re planted in large blocks, intercut with rows of box, and their buff colouring complements Denis Lasdun’s concrete perfectly.

And you know what? On a balmy summer’s evening, most of the bar tables were empty. So if you want a quiet drink in London with a view to die for, you know where to go.

Jan 162012


I took a trip out of London last week to the much-loved and respected Ashwood Nurseries in Staffordshire. I was there to meet the owner, John Massey, who has a beautiful three-acre private garden in the nursery grounds.

John’s garden looked so good it was almost enough to make me love January. Everything was about three weeks ahead, so my timing turned out to be perfect – the carpets of snowdrops, magenta cyclamen coum, yellow aconites and hellebores of every hue looked impossibly pretty among the yellow and red witch hazels (hamamelis) and red-stemmed dogwoods.

Sadly my camera couldn’t really do them justice (it’s got a rubbish zoom and I didn’t want to trample over John’s borders), but you can see some pics here. I did however manage to capture this border, in which most of the grasses and perennials have been left standing over the winter.

A big part of planting up a border is getting the right combination of contrasting forms and textures. The upright grasses contrast with the button-like heads of Aster ‘Little Carlow’, the coneshaped coneflowers (echinaceas) and the cotton-wool like seedheads of Clematis tangutica ‘Bill Mackenzie’.

John’s garden also makes use of evergreens, many of them clipped into distinctive shapes. His cloud-pruned holly hedge is Ilex aquifolium ‘Alaska’ – its small leaves lend themselves to being pruned in this way.

John’s garden is open to the public several times in January and February. Do go for some winter cheer, inspiration and the amazingly popular tearoom.

Oct 142011


I lived in Bath for three years when I was a student, and never knew it had a Botanic Garden. I wasn’t interested in gardening then – at the time the University offered a BSc in Horticulture and I used to think that all the glasshouses looked a bit boring. Mind you, I thought the boffins in labs tapping away at something called the ‘World Wide Web’ looked a bit boring, too. Thank heavens I didn’t embark on a career as a trend forecaster.

Anyway, I’m not a huge fan of botanic gardens as I’m not that interested in plant collections as such – more how plants are put together. But Bath Botanic Garden was set up (over 100 years ago) with the aim of being an attractive garden with botanical interest, rather than a garden that is purely of botanical interest. So it has an interesting layout and lots of nice features such as a scented walk and some surprisingly contemporary herbaceous borders.

Apparently it looks its best in spring but it was looking pretty good at dusk on an October day. The borders were still looking good and there was lots of autumn colour, berries and grasses, plus some amazing scents from the likes of a huge Abelia x grandiflora.

Apr 022011

Eden Project

It’s a bit early for swathes of tulips yet – these are under glass at the Eden Project. As tulips need lifting and replanting every year for the best display (which is expensive, labour intensive and not sustainable) the gardeners tend to favour daffodils. The Mediterranean biome, however, is the exception to the rule. Particularly striking are the swathes of the orange ‘World’s Favourite’, so bright it almost looks photoshopped, set off by the tiny acid-green sedums and grasses.

The man in the green T-shirt and funny hat is a ‘pollinator’ – he shows kids how plants grow. When he’s not doing that he polishes leaves in the warmth of the biome. It strikes me as a pretty nice job.

Jan 302011

Abbey Road

Just down from the Abbey Road Studios and the famous zebra crossing is this mansion block front garden. The brick raised beds look like they’ve been there since Paul, John, Ringo and George’s day, when they would have probably have been filled with colourful bedding. Now they’re planted up with grasses, euphorbias, sedums, iris and other perennials and much better they look for it too. I’ll pop back in the summer to see what they look like then.