Saturday, 31 January 2015

Beat the winter blues and catch the best orchids and snowdrops in Britain this February

Snowdrops at Welford Park, Berkshire © Charlotte Weychan
As we step into February the days are getting longer and there have been some wonderful frosty mornings. Check out any leading garden website and you'll see a wonderful array of glistening pictures as horticulture hacks around the country capture frozen plots and plants on camera. In the south of England we've escaped lightly this winter and although the temperatures have plunged and there have been dire warnings of snow and ice storms, the snowdrops are beginning to appear. For some of the best places to visit to see white gold, click here, but my favourite is Welford Park in Berkshire where you will witness spectacular displays of this hardy little plant from this week. For a comprehensive list of snowdrop gardens around the UK, visit Great British Gardens
'Alluring Orchids' opens at Kew on 7 February - every year the display (2014 seen here) is spectacular
But if snowdrops aren't your chosen spice, head for one of the two orchid exhibitions that are about to open in in Britain. Both Kew and the Cambridge University Botanic Garden offer spectacular displays in their glasshouses during February, opening on Saturday 7th. And there's also the Butterfly Exhibition at RHS Wisley, which runs until early March. This year the RHS is offering timed tickets for the first time to help with queues.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds - Book Review & Reader Offer

Garden visiting takes on a whole new dimension with “Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds” - published this month by Frances Lincoln. This book will whet your appetite for some exquisite private gardens that you will only ever be lucky enough to see if you can get there on the rare days they open for charity. But this is the joy of this book because it takes you behind the scenes and shares the history, planting and feel of each unique landscape through Victoria Summerley’s pen and Hugo Rittson-Thomas’ eyes. 

Victoria Summerley has a relaxed writing style and draws you into every garden in the book. She makes no secret of her desire to look over the garden fence and her love of the Cotswolds. Fellow garden writers and Facebook followers will know we are friends and I make no secret of my admiration for the way she has approached her content. She applauds not just the owners, but also the people who make these gardens work – the stewards who care for them with their extensive knowledge and the gardeners who work there full time.

Hugo Rittson Thomas takes excellent pictures and has graced readers with views of his own garden – Walcot House – although sadly this is one of just six that NEVER open to the public.  Readers will have to live vicariously through his pictures and dream about this garden, which has shades of chateau-style grandeur combined with elements from the Garden of Cosmic Speculation, thanks to its impressive “mound”.

I’ve visited five of  the featured gardens, Two are accessible to the public on a regular basis – Sezincote, near Moreton-in-Marsh, with its irresistible Moghul architecture, but so often overlooked by garden lovers en route to the big Cotswold crowd-pullers – and nearby Bourton House.  Asthall Manor, former home of the Mitford sisters, throws open its doors for a bi-annual sculpture exhibition; Colesbourne Park is about to unlock its gates for its world-renowned snowdrop displays; and Upton Wold is accessible to those who are prepared to join the elitist world of small, private garden tours. 

This is definitely a book to add to your garden library and UK readers can order it for the discounted price of £16.00 including P&P* (RRP £20), by telephoning 01903 828503 or by emailing and quoting offer code APG281. *UK only - please add £2.50 if ordering from overseas.

It makes a good read, is well illustrated and leaves you feeling satisfied to have had an insight into the 20 unique properties within, even if you do have to accept that the chances of you gaining admittance to most of these plots requires incredible tenacity, or friends in the right places.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

A winter walk with John Brookes at Denmans and his thoughts on garden design

John Brookes, with his camera in the garden at Denmans today
What better way to spend a Sunday that with my dear friend John Brookes in the garden he has created over the last 30 years - Denmans - looking at what's already in bloom? John is remarkable - at 81 he is still designing gardens, both here and overseas, and apart from his own plot, near Chichester in Sussex, is best known for the Chicago Botanical Garden and numerous private gardens around the world. While we walked around his four-acre garden, which is already beginning to bloom, John talked to me about his design philosophy. 
John identified this as camellia "Adolphe Audusson"

While chatting to John about his design work, he explained: "First of all, for smaller gardens, I work with the proportions of the house and evolve a module or a grid using those proportions. Then I determine the kind of pattern the garden needs, asking if it's symmetrical or asymmetric and then I start thinking about the work of the 20th century Modernist painters and reflect on their patterning techniques."      John has become world-renowned through his work and the 24 books he has written to date, translated into many different languages, and there can be few of us in the gardening world who don't have a copy of one of them on our shelves. I certainly had John Brookes' books long before I was lucky enough to meet him in a garden he designed in Sussex. Our close friendship came later and as many readers know, he has been integral to my work in India over the years, and often travelled there with me.

Signs of life for the magnificent magnolia at Denmans
John says:  "I have recently discovered the work of the Russian painter, Malovitch, but have always been inspired by the work of painters closer to home - notably Piet Mondrian and Ben Nicholson. And while not slavishly copying their work, it inspires me to look at patterns and patterning that would be suitable for use outside. I was also interested in the work of the Brazilian, Roberto Burlo Marx and the Mexican, Luis Barragan. Marx was renowned for his organic-shaped gardens and Luis for colouring his various buildings and making them almost sculptural." But as John said: "This has nothing to do with horticulture, but everything to do with the building, which the garden is to surround, the clients who live in it and their age, and of course, the location."

As we walked around his own garden this afternoon, enjoying the watery sunlight and shivering slightly in the almost sub-zero temperatures, we were flanked by his two pugs (right). In between looking at the early flowering plants and shrubs at Denmans he explained the way he sees his work:

"It's so obvious to me, all those wonderful patterns that can be translated into garden design."

And when he has digested all this and decided how a garden will be laid out, planning areas of grass or water, then comes the planting, where he starts with what he calls his "skeleton plants, which work ultimately with the scale of the structure and the scale of the surround of the site."

"It goes without saying that the suitability of soil and location is also a prime consideration and of course what the client likes and dislikes."

"So I build up my garden design in these stages", said John, as he photographs some of the shrubs that are beginning to show signs of colour so early in the season here in the UK.

"And only when I am happy with my concept do I talk with my client and present it to them. But it's got to be said that I only work with hand-drawn plans, not computer programmes, because for me they are much more personal for the client. Many of the initial drawings which are not actually plans are presented as overlays on a site image and this helps the client to envisage the full potential of their site, whilst understanding the various stages involved in taking the plan from drawing board to planted project.

"When it comes to bigger gardens, this basic theory is applied to whatever scale of site I am asked to work on and simply by doubling or trebling the basic module or grid, I can work from the smaller scale of the house, through to the larger scale of the site and even its landscape beyond."
In bloom at Denmans today, we saw many camellias, Daphne odora, bountiful hellebores and the joyous beginning of spring as bulbs are starting to erupt from the frozen ground after so many months of winter. The weather forecast is for a further spell of very cold weather in the next week, so watch this space as I endeavour to catch frosty plants with my lens in the next few days. 

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Where plants of the world meet at England's heart - Biddulph Grange, Staffordshire

The Dahlia Walk at Biddulph Grange - planted with tulips in springtime
Biddulph Grange in the heart of England is a fine example of Victorian exoticism. The 26-acre site features 18 acres of formal gardens surrounding an Italianate mansion. James Bateman and his wife Maria, both passionate and knowledgeable about plants, moved here in 1840 and built the extravagant house in place of a former vicarage. Bateman and his close friend Edward Cooke then spent many years creating the garden on the edge of wild moorland. But although the garden was famous in its day, its later use as a hospital led this much-admired garden into decline and it was only when it passed to the National Trust in 1988, that restoration work began.
The Italianate mansion at Biddulph Grange, built in 1840,  is now divided into flats
James Bateman was a wealthy local industrialist who thought nothing of spending a huge amount on his new home. But he was also a botanist and avid plant collector, so many of the plants and trees at Biddulph Grange were acquired from plant hunting expeditions to the Himalayas, which he sponsored.  His garden grew as a result of his desire to showcase his ever-growing collection of plants from around the world, even though his personal passion was orchids. He was regarded as a leading orchidologist in his day, who produced the largest book ever written on them - a massive, 10-volume tome.
The Chinese bridge at Biddulph Grange in the heart of the garden
The Chinese Garden (above) at the heart of Biddulph Grange is so well hidden that it is easy to miss! You can approach it via the Himalayan Glen through a dark tunnel and grotto, or at the base of the Egyptian garden, which takes you through the stumpery. Whichever route you take, you suddenly emerge inside the 'Great Wall' conceived by Bateman and Cooke and find yourself in a brightly-coloured foreign landscape, featuring a bridge and a temple, as well as gilded sculpture in the form of a water buffalo head. The planting here is all from the far East and you can expect spectacular autumn displays when the maples change colour.
Biddulph Grange is spectacular in springtime with its tulip and rhododendron displays
Today Biddulph Grange is one of the most visited gardens in this part of England. Located in the heart of potteries country near Stoke-on-Trent, it is famous not just for its Chinese and Egyptian gardens, but also its international collection of plants. The result is a world garden, with an extraordinary landscape created by Bateman and Cooke featuring huge, imported rock formations, a series of tunnels, a Himalayan Glen and a stumpery. But this innovative approach to garden design, which includes 400 steps to link the different areas, also provides a sheltered climate for the plants growing there.
Much of the charm of this garden (apart from the extraordinary range of plants and trees on show) is the way that the various different areas are linked. The house is built on high ground and there is a steep gradient down to the gardens, so you suddenly find yourself at the mouth of a tunnel (above), or winding your way down irregular steps, uncertain where you are going, except for the areas adjacent to the house with the impressive parterre and Italianate gardens. And part of the element of surprise is emerging into a totally different landscape.
Biddulph Grange is open daily throughout the year (see NT website for times and prices) and is well worth visiting if you are in the area. Other notable gardens nearby include The Dorothy Clive Garden(also spectacular in springtime, because of its rhododendron displays) and Wollerton Old Hall. At the time of writing, one of the nine apartments within the main house there is for sale, so if you fancy a garden of monumental proportions on your doorstep, this may well be the place for you!

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

"Wow" gardens of the world I - Lotusland near Santa Barbara, California

Densely planted cactus plants surround the Spanish-style house (designed by Reginald Johnson) at Lotusland
In the first in a series of gardens that have really impressed me during the years I've been writing this blog, Lotusland in California ranks as one of the most memorable. Visitor numbers to this extraordinary 37-acre estate in Montecito - an exclusive residential district near Santa Barbara and a couple of hours drive north from Los Angeles - are strictly limited and you need to book well ahead to gain access. I was lucky enough to visit last summer. Sadly, the day did not look promising, with a heavy mist rolling in from the Pacific and a distinct chill in the air, but never be deceived by this coastal area of California because within an hour of arriving, the sun had burned off the low-lying cloud and I was able to enjoy this extraordinary garden in bright sunshine.
The citrus arbor at Lotusland
If you visit Lotusland, you’ll realise this is no ordinary garden, and understand that its eccentric and determined owner had extraordinary vision when planning and planting her home plot. Created by a flamboyant Polish opera singer - Madame Ganna Walska - who went through husbands quicker than most of us can reasonably create a landscape, the legacy she left behind is one of the most extraordinary private gardens in America and also houses two of the greatest cycad and cactus collections anywhere in the world.
The cactus garden at Lotusland, donated by Merritt Sigsbee Dunlap in 1999
Gardens, like interiors, reflect the personality of their creators, so it will come as no surprise that Lotusland is both flamboyant and exotic, as was the woman who came in search of a new life in California and eventually settled here while Europe was at war, championed by her final husband. Walska was a legendary socialite, who married six times. She came to the United States via Paris from Russia, leaving a succession of husbands behind her and was in her 50s when she arrived here. But this was to be her last union because gardening became her new love.
Lotus in full bloom in the Water Garden, formerly the swimming pool, at Ganna Walska's estate
Lotusland had originally been the Cuesta Linda estate, and a fully-functioning nursery, operated by the pioneering nurseryman R. Kenton Stevens, who planted many of the well established palms, exotic trees and subtropical plants here. His son, Ralph Stevens, returned to work with Ganna Walska when she was developing the garden many years later. She bought the estate in 1941 on the advice of her sixth husband, Theos Bernard. They had ambitious plans to use the property as a retreat for Tibetan monks and renamed it Tibetland.
The water stairs at Lotusland have been completely restored in recent years
But neither monks nor monastic robes materialised and having dispatched Mr Bernard, Ganna Walska turned her artistic talent and considerable wealth towards creating the magnificent garden which survives today, with the help of well-known landscape architects and designers of the day. Lotusland became her spiritual retreat and although the garden rarely opened to the public during her lifetime, she left the means to maintain the estate and today it operates as the Ganna Walska Lotusland Foundation. 
The Aloe Garden at Lotusland contains hundreds of different species
Within the 37-acre estate, there are a series of garden rooms and some 3,000 plant species, including one of the most important cycad collections in the world. Cycads are one of the oldest plants on earth - a cross between a palm and a conifer, with magnificent, giant cones - and can be traced back to the age of the dinosaur. Most species are endangered and some are extinct in the wild. But Ganna Walska became passionate about them. 

Huge cycad cones at Lotusland
The cycad collection here is famous - not just because it houses 900 specimens and two thirds of all known existing species, but also because of the way Madame Walska acquired the means to make it possible. She sold her collection of jewels - for in excess of £1 million - to raise the funds to start her new garden. It was the last section of garden created by her and houses three Encephalartos woodii, which are no longer found in the wild. 
     The only other cycad of this type in the Americas is housed at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania. In Europe, there are also surviving specimens at Hortus Botanicus in Amsterdam, Glasnevin in Scotland and Kew Gardens in London, where the plant produced a male cone for the first time in September 2004, more than a century after it had arrived there, much to the excitement of both staff and visitors to the Temperate House, where it lives.
     The cactus garden is also a collector's paradise. Donated to the Foundation in 1999 by Merritt Sigsbee Dunlap, a friend of Madame Walska. He had been acquiring specimens for 70 years and grew many of the plants seen here from seed. There are more than 300 different species of cacti in the garden, grouped by country of origin. Dunlap was a close friend of Madame Walska and although she did not live to see his wonderful gift, he celebrated his 97th birthday in the garden in 2003, before it opened to the public the following year. 
The horticultural clock (top) and topiary in the garden

Other gardens within the estate include a well-established five-acre Japanese garden, famous for its flowering cherry trees in springtime and maple colours in the autumn; a large collection of bromeliads; a theatre garden; the much-applauded Blue Garden (see below) and a topiary garden with 26 immaculately-clipped topiary animals surrounding a working horticultural clock (right). There is also an established orchard, a butterfly garden that is relatively newly planted and an aloe garden housing hundreds of different species. There are also hundreds of abalone shells to be ogled around the sculpted pool in this part of the garden.
     But what sets Lotusland aside from so many gardens, quite apart from its huge range of plants and trees, is the way in which it is so abundantly planted, be it aloes, cycads or bromeliads. Madame Walska never did things by half and when she finally chose a plant she liked, she set out to acquire hundreds for her collection. The overall effect within the garden is startling.
      The Blue Garden (below) is another is another well-loved part of Lotusland - created by Madame as long ago as 1948 with Ralph Stevens, the son of the original owner, working alongside her. It features Mexican blue palms (Brahea armata) and Blut Atlas cedar (Cedrus atlantica 'Glauca'), plus Chilean wine palms (Jubaea chilensis), with many Australian conifers at the rear. The pathways, lined with blue-green glass, add to the shimmering blue effect.

You can only visit Lotusland on a docent-led guided tour and booking details are available on the website, but do book well ahead if your heart is set on seeing this garden. You certainly won't be disappointed! But you may well find that you are overwhelmed by the huge amount there is to see in the limited time available. The docents are incredibly knowledgeable and can answer all your questions about both the history of the property and the amazing range of plants you can expect to see there, but you will only get a couple of hours to see everything.
Shells are a major feature in the Aloe garden at Lotusland
The restricted opening hours and constraints on visitor numbers to this extraordinary garden are the legacy of a long-standing dispute with neighbours, since Montecito is a very exclusive residential area and the local community did not want visitors disturbing their peace. Opening hours are Tuesday to Friday only, from February to November, with two guided tours available at 10.30 and 13.30 - all tours are docent led and numbers are strictly limited to 10 visitors per session, to ensure that adjoining properties are not disturbed by tour buses, relentless traffic or parking problems en route to this wonderful garden. Cost is $45 per adult.