A Spring Walk in Highgrove ~ February 2018

Bee HQ seems to sit squarely in what feels like the epicentre of a huge number of great gardens and houses one can visit. We are  surrounded by beautiful, notable gardens as well as a lot of NGS gardens open to the public which might otherwise not be seen.

So nipping over into Gloucestershire to take a guided tour of Highgrove’s garden seemed too good an opportunity to miss, so I booked two tickets for a Guided Spring Walk. I will add right now that Mr Bee who was due to accompany me (a staunch Republican, and my sometime Undergardener) decided to stay at home and weed the borders. I am kidding of course: chance would be a fine thing. He bailed on me, but I set off knowing I would be able to spend far more in the garden shop without him.

 

Highgrove house and garden

The 90 minute drive west was delightful, taking in the changing nature of the Cotswold stone colours as I headed towards Tetbury. I even drove past the Waitrose where local customers threw bread rolls at Camilla P-B, back in the day when she had been outed as The Other Woman. I would have spent longer in Tetbury as it looked charming, but I was following strict instructions from Highgrove regarding the  timing of my arrival, and finding Highgrove itself was easier said than done, due to the complete lack of signage (for security reasons I assume).

Sadly the only rule for visitors is you are not allowed to take a mobile or a camera into the property. So this is all from memory, my note-taking and sketches, although there is a very nice book about the gardens if you feel the need to read up. It felt very peculiar not to be able to take photos, but the huge sign on arrival,

“YOU ARE NOW ENTERING AN OLD-FASHIONED ESTABLISHMENT”

left one in no doubt that this was a largely digital-free zone. To be wandering around, using one’s eye and memory (and notebook) felt like a challenge in this day and age.

The security wasn’t as tight as I had imagined, which makes me think HRH probably wasn’t in residence. The pot-holes which are currently blighting the UK winter roads continued up the drive, and there was rather a relaxed and unassuming feel to the entire operation they run there. It is fairly low-key and disarmingly informal. It struck me that for the Prince, Highgrove is the equivalent of us mere mortals having a weekend caravan, a she-shed, or (at most) a holiday cottage for the odd weekend get-away. The house itself (my guess  is it has maybe 10-12 bedrooms) is not as big as you might imagine; mind you, when your normal residencies are a series of castles and palaces, arriving there must feel a bit like going camping for Mr & Mrs Mountbatten-Windsor.

Having said that, there are 12 gardeners  in total, and the property extends to a huge acreage, much of it farmland. And whilst billed as “old-fashioned”, HRH has always been way ahead of the game on ecological/sustainability matters (more of which, including the reed-bed sewage system! you can read about here) , and if he does still talk to his plants (one of the Bees, when asked what he knew about Prince Charles said, “he talks to plants and has flappy ears”), the garden is a very good advert for doing just that. It is 100% organic and looks very good on it. My guess is we saw a fraction of the whole garden on the tour, but we certainly got a good feel for it, and were allowed surprisingly near the house. We were too polite to peer in the windows however tempted we were: how British!

So what did I take note of? Despite it being smaller than I thought (and I have read the book), it is by normal standards pretty big, so everything is done on a large-scale. No single bags of compost or mulch for His Royal Highness from Tetbury B&Q. So for example, while you or I might think planting 80 snowdrop bulbs in one go an industrial project worthy of note in the local paper, just last year alone 40,000 were planted at Highgrove, and heavens, they looked magnificent, mingling in with the cyclamen.

Mid-February is perhaps not the most popular time to visit, but (as you might remember) I have a deep fascination with structure, and winter is the best time to appreciate it. The other bonus was that it was certainly “peak snowdrop” ~ they couldn’t have been prettier. In a week or two, the daffs will be out, but too much yellow in a garden, even in the spring, makes me nervous. What was not in evidence in late winter was the famous wild-flower meadow, which I would absolutely love to see in full swing. Apparently the Guild of Scythe Cutters come and in and give it its most important cut. I can’t say they would probably be available to come and do my wild-flower meadow cutting (such as it is).

I noticed that much of the hedging, particularly in the less formal areas of the garden (further away from the house) is mixed, so there is a lovely tapestry of native species, intermingling  ~  it’s very pretty, and importantly, good for wildlife. Another idea I liked very much is the way several ‘windows’ have been cut out of the formal yew hedges, allowing visual vistas to open up. Also, one small stretch of hedging was laid out in a ‘crinkle-cranke’ manner, thereby allowing some attractive planting in the curves.

Daphnes: it seems there is no such thing as too many and the scent was good, despite it being a bitterly cold day. Some are evergreen which gets a very big tick from me. The national collection of Hostas are at Highgrove; again, nothing to see in Feb, but I imagine they are lovely, running throughout the various ‘garden rooms’.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle is taken very seriously in the garden. Little homemade fences, willow hoops to keep the riff-raff to the paths, logs used to edge drives, were things you and I  could also do. Using historically, architecturally important stonework which has been lying about for centuries to make a beautiful wall might well be beyond us, as might be the other myriad of structures such as the thatched tree-house, which wasn’t that much smaller than my first house I bought in Kent in 1986…. Presumably as well, there is plenty of material lying around for jobs like staking – no green plastic plant supports for our future King.

Using foraged pine-cones to mulch around a shrub in a pot looks charming. Interestingly, there is an amazing collection of  terracotta urns, some of them HUGE, and I was surprised they were left out over winter; our guide explained that they are filled with wood-chips, which acts as an insulator apparently. A good tip.

I was very interested to know whether there have been issues with Box Blight. We have it at Bee HQ, and my master-plan to ignore it, hope for the best, treat with fungicide (which may be helping, but it is unlikely), and occasionally raise a prayer to the Goddess of Gardening (Dionysus?) does appear to work. At Highgrove they have taken a somewhat more targeted approach: they have ripped out the box parterre completely and have replanted with Euonymus japonicus ‘Green Rocket’, which has slightly larger, darker green leaves than box but looks very good to me. Interestingly the Box further afield, and used as part of the mixed hedging, looked perfectly healthy.

What else went down in my notes? The use of what I call Crinkly Ivy (possibly Hedera helix ‘Ivalace’); slinging down a handful of alpine grit on the soil to mark where perennials will come up (in this case, Delphiniums); and finally, as I am thinking very seriously about keeping bees, Highgrove’s decision to keep Welsh Black Bees (which hail from Anglesey), which are apparently rather more hardy and resilient than other species – I will have to do some research into that. HRH’s chooks looked flippin’ delighted to be living at Highgrove, and their coop was as upmarket as you would expect from the next in line to the throne.

And what of my shopping trip? The little shop had a few lovely things, and I stocked up on plenty of delights I don’t need but which caught my eye, including an attractive little double-flowered Primula, which will look nice when it blooms. The cafe was excellent and the gluten free fare was delicious.

All in all, another very successful Annie Bee Gardening Adventure, and a few lovely ideas and memories to take home.

NB: all profits from Highgrove go to Prince Charles’s charitable foundation; even the most rampant Republicans should be happy to hear that.

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Annie Bee xx

The Making of the White Garden ~ 5. Adding Grey

There have been many takes on colour-schemed gardens. But white gardens are perhaps the most difficult to pull off – or at least I think so! Often thought of as simply the colour of light, white is most often used in gardens to dot light around, highlighting other colours and brightening up darker areas. Technically it is an achromatic colour ~ that is a colour without a hue. Used en masse white works best against dark, enclosing hedges (of Yew or Buxus perhaps, or in my case, beech). Interestingly Vita Sackville-West referred to her famous (the most famous?) white garden at Sissinghurst both her “pale garden” as well as a “green, grey, white and silver garden”. Whether white is a colour or not, in terms of plants, there are many shades of white and it does to be fairly open-minded. Pale creams, pale yellows, pink tinges, the blue flowers of a Hosta – are they welcome?

On Gardeners’ World this week, Mat Reece, Head Gardener at the 10-acre private garden Malverleys in Hampshire said that when an unwanted colour pops up in their white garden, it is like having a nasty mark on a pristine white shirt. I have ended up moving a few creamy-yellow Wallflowers which were frankly too coloured. The odd rogue self-seeded scarlet poppies have also been given very short shrift.

I have found that it is A) hard to stick with white, pure white and nothing but the white and B) softer and more interesting with other colours allowed to act as a foil to the white. Grey (and silver) and green are the most obvious choices  and these seem to add depth to the two borders – so which grey plants have I included in this first summer?

I have found that Senicio cineraria ‘Silver Dust’ (which I grew from seed in vast quantities) has proved invaluable. I have also enjoyed using Eryngium giganteum ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’ (so-called because Miss Ellen Willmott, apparently never went anywhere without a pocketful of seeds of that particular Eryngium which she would liberally throw about in other people’s borders). The evergreen dwarf shrub, Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’ is also a key grey plant in my scheme. The felty Stachys byzantina ‘Silver Carpet’ will make an appearance next year and I will also add some Hostas which have a grey leaf (this year I just went for Hosta ‘Francee fortunei which is green and white) – well,  I say grey, but they technically have a blue-ish tinge. Hosta ‘Babbling Brook’ would do nicely.

The photos below show the cineraria; Eryngium, Stachys, Hosta and Artemisia.

Cineraria

 

 

 

 

 

I planted several pots with white Lilium regale, underplanted with cineraria, ready to dot them around the borders as some of the other annuals start to die back or look scruffy. Already, here towards the end of July, my White Ensign  sweet peas, which have been spectacular (lovely long stems so very good for cutting) are beginning to go over and will leave unsightly gaps in August before the white Asters and Anemones start their moment in the sun.

Sun? We haven’t had much of that of late, but one lives in hope. I am known for fussing about lack of anything – rain, sunshine, chocolate….. As a gardener, lack of rain seems worse to me than lack of sun, but both end up driving me mad!

Do let me know if you have any favourite white or grey plants. A fellow blogger who I enjoy reading, Jenny Williams, suggested the following white plants, which work well for her: Geranium sanguineum ‘Album’;  Hesperis matronalis (Sweet Rocket) ‘White’; the Japanese Anemone ‘Honorine Jobert’ and Narcissus ‘Thalia’, all of which I will try out as the garden develops.

In fact, as the weather is rubbish and a storm is due to blow in this afternoon I might as well go to the Garden Centre right now.

Happy gardening, friends.

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Annie Bee xx

 

 

 

 

The Making of the White Garden ~ 3. Which Plants Where?

Having sorted out the space for the new White Garden (parts 1&2 here) the task of researching appropriate plants was the next step.

However, my priority was to get some bulbs planted in the autumn for a blast of spring colour. So before I got down to doing the homework, I bought about 30 bulbs of 2 varieties of Allium: ‘Mount Everest’ (which can be slightly more difficult to grow than the more common purple varieties) and Allium Karataviense ‘Ivory Cream’ which is lower growing and, despite the name, annoyingly came up slightly pink. For now, it can stay, but I am learning that a few plants which have “ivory” in the name have a tendency to have either a yellow (or even pinkish) blush. How fussy one should be when building a white, green and grey garden is a good question ~ the jury is out. I also planted 2 Camassias (‘Semiplena’) and the (again) alarmingly yellow Wallflower ‘Ivory White’. These all went in at the end of September 2016. A week or so later I added 2 ‘Iceberg’ roses, and started to postcrete in a few timber structures which were left over from an unwanted fence. I am terribly keen on vertical structures in any garden and I wanted to learn how to concrete. The hardest part was keeping 2 curious kittens off the newly laid, wet concrete!

postcreting the first 3 posts

Over the next couple of months I took the risky decision to also plant up some shrubs, most of which survived despite some very sharp frosts (-9C) in our first winter at the property. I wanted a good lot of evergreen structure in both borders and to that end chose the following, mostly in twos or threes:

Sarcococca confusa; Choisya ternata ‘White Dazzler’; Daphne ‘Eternal Fragrance’; Fatsia Japonica ‘Spider’s Web; Salvia ‘Schneehugel’; Phormium tenax; Skimmia ‘Kew Garden’ and Hellebore ‘White Beauty’ + ‘Molly’s White’; Buddleja ‘White Profusion’ and Ilex Crenata, which I tried to cloud-prune, thereby almost losing them. They held on and are now thriving, but the cloud-pruning mid-winter almost killed them! A couple of Hydrangeas, one of the Fatsias and a Philadelphus sadly didn’t make it through the winter and have now been replaced (Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ from cuttings).

My choices were made using a vast array of books in my library as well as seed and plant catalogues and various websites. I made copious lists, noted measurements of the eventual height and width and checked hardiness. The next job was to autumn sow some seeds: Sweet Pea ‘White Ensign’; Nigella ‘Albion Green Pod; Papaver (Poppy) ‘Swansdowne’; Hollyhock ‘Halo White’ and Antirrhinum (Snapdragon) ‘White Giant’. Keeping these alive and thriving over winter in the unheated greenhouse during several lengthy periods of severe frost was quite a task, but with fleece and hope, they mostly thrived. Sowing in the autumn gives you a bit of a head-start in the spring ~ with luck, by the time the last frosts are over, your strong (pinched out and potted on) plants are eager to get their roots down into the warming soil.

These plans show the bare bones of the evergreens, as it looked after the first few plants had gone in.

 

These 3 pics show some of my notes on possible plants, organised by Evergreen Structure, Summer and Anything Goes (not very helpful in the long-run).

 

Of the things I sowed, the Snapdragons, Poppies (below), Hollyhocks and Sweet Peas have all been spectacular. I am letting them all self-seed copiously, as well as spreading their love further afield in the rest of the garden.

Next time I will show where we are with the White Garden now, mid-summer of its first year and how to add grey into the mix.

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Annie Bee x

The Making of the White Garden ~ 2. Farewell Parterre

This post follows the first of my blogs on how the White Garden came into being.

There is that old saying,

If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans

Plans: they are all very well, but when you are a novice, fitting a garden plan onto a lovely, fresh, white piece of A3 is asking for trouble. If only life were that simple! It took me months and a visit from my BF to accept just how wonky my back garden is; however long I watched it and however straight I wished it to be, it simply wouldn’t budge. It is as curved as a crescent moon. Or, perhaps more appropriately, a scythe. A parterre simply would not work ~ cheerio symmetry and four Weeping Pears.

A slow rethink and a new sheet of A3 and I arrived at this (below) and even this one doesn’t do the bendy nature of the beast justice:

white garden final plan

What did this new garden have going for it? Well, three lines of hedging (Copper Beech and Photinia) into which could nestle two new large, square borders for starters and a lovely, promising aspect, which is more or less due north/south. A few concerns: it sits fairly high up, so is quite exposed and I had no idea what I might find on removing the vast quantity of turf.

We moved in to the house at the end of April 2016 and it was in August that I finally set about marking out the plot. With the help of my two practically minded and mathematically competent sons, we decided on the dimensions and paced it out. Pegging it out with string made it seem very real and I was sure this was the right answer. Son No.2 came up with the brilliant idea of introducing a curve (now fondly known as “The Bill Curve”). Still more time was spent thinking (an under-rated part of planning) prior to starting the excavation. We toyed with the idea of hiring a digger and some skips (No.1 son and I both fancied the idea of a digger!) but, for various logistical reason, ended up hiring a turf cutter for a weekend. The turves (vast quantities) have all been saved and are slowly rotting down and will be added back onto the garden in 18 months or so.

 

 

The turf-cutting weekend was September 19th 2016, with a view to having the two beds ready for planting some spring-flowering bulbs in mid-autumn. It was a cold and drizzly experience, but we ploughed on, No.1 son and I, with a little help from the kittens. The turf-cutter was a big old beast of a thing to manoeuvre in the damp conditions, and if you weren’t careful, you could easily over-step the pegged lines. However, after a full day’s work the basic outline of the north and south borders were there and the turf-stacking had begun.

And what of the soil? Well, on the whole it is fairly good, apart from the remnants of a kids’ sand-pit and some hefty roots from the old orchard. The critical thing was to get as much of the grass and weeds out early on, otherwise I could see years of remedial weeding ahead of me. And nobody wants that.

The next blog will detail the plant lists and my final choices of bulbs, shrubs, perennials, grasses and annuals.

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Annie Bee xx

The Making of the White Garden ~ 1. The Plan

Since the relocation of Bee HQ to a small village in north Oxfordshire, (is it the Cotswolds? ~ no, not quite but we can see it from here) I have spent a great deal of time on and in my new garden. The last time we moved house, at the turn of the new millennium, we didn’t have the knowledge or the skills to design the garden ourselves, so employed a landscape garden designer. This time round I have just enough know-how, chutzpah and creativity to test myself and boy! am I having fun. I am now spending the majority of my time in the place that gives me the most pleasure: the garden.

The ‘bones’ of this garden (which is just under an acre in total) are exquisite. Clearly somebody with a good eye for structure, dimension and form planted heaps of simple but useful yew, copper beech and box hedging, a few good shrubs (repeated throughout the garden), a handful of hardy perennials, some classic topiary and half a dozen espaliered fruit trees. The lines are clean, the proportions are just right and the borders, such as they are, are small but of reasonable depth. Apart from a bit of tinkering, I have left all that largely alone, other than pruning, trimming and general maintenance. The soil still needs a lot of organic matter adding, but that will happen over the next few years, and beyond.

On first seeing the garden, in January of 2016, I was struck by the opportunity to do something bold with a fairly large expanse of lawn at the back of the house. A sales brochure from 1874 calls the house a “gentleman’s farmhouse”; it was built at the very end of the 1700s. The brochure also talks of “a large piece of highly productive garden ground and lawn”. Neighbours have said that a few decades ago, there was an orchard on the area in question and the village children used it as a playground. Presumably in the mists of time, it may have had farm animals on and around it. Certainly the soil is generally fairly good at the back. Unlike the front of the house, which is quite manicured and designed, we found a rather dull and under-utilised space ~ perfect for a new project; it felt like the owners who made all the design decisions at the front simply ran out of steam.  I must admit now that even before we had exchanged contracts on the house, I was already planning what I grandly referred to as my parterre. I even did some initial drawings.

Below, you can see my (very) rough drawing of how it looked in the January, followed by a photo (looking north-ish) which should give you an idea of the blank canvas. The two lines of fastigiate yews made no sense to me at all and they were removed (and resold and therefore reused) within a week of us moving in. The white A3 plan below that is a very simple sketch of the ‘parterre’ idea and I was bold enough to include a plant list. At that stage, the idea of it being a white (+ green + grey) garden hadn’t occurred to me.

 

White Garden

What did happen when we moved in at the end of April 2016, was that I planted up a cutting garden (look out for a separate blog post to come) and spent several months deciding whether the parterre idea could work. Taking that time to decide ended up being an excellent decision. So how does it look right now, in June of its first year?

Annie Bee\s white garden south border

 

Annie Bee's white garden north border

 

More soon ……..

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Annie Bee x

Hidcote Manor Garden: Something For Everyone

There are a few significant gardens in the UK which are on any keen gardener’s ‘must-see’ list; Hidcote in Gloucestershire is one of them. Today it is owned by the National Trust and, unlike most NT gardens which seem to open in March or at Easter, Hidcote opens in mid-February, giving visitors the opportunity to discover its winter bones. From our new Bee HQ, Google Maps took me winding through 3 counties and many narrow lanes, and despite being in the very back of beyond, I finally found it after a couple of wrong turns here and there. Just in time to get a take away coffee and start my mooch about, note-book in hand. Being February, it wasn’t too busy, despite it also being half-term. It was peaceful and tranquil. The hover-flies massing on the Mahonias were about as loud and hectic as it got.

Hidcote Manor Garden Gloucestershitre

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Evergreen ‘bones’ to any garden are fascinating I think. This is a garden which was built on the idea of different ‘rooms’, by the famous American plant-hunter and gentleman gardener, Lawrence Johnstone (1871 – 1958). Other gardens are set up in a similar fashion (notably Sissinghurst in Kent) and it is now a technique often employed in modern gardens.  The bones at Hidcote are mainly box hedging, plenty of yew, pleached hornbeam, pergolas and topiary. Gates, pillars, vistas and gazebos abound and there are beautiful views of the Malvern countryside too. I have a particular interest in vertical structures and am always on the look-out for exciting ideas for my own garden. It is often easier to see these in the depths of winter than when they are smothered in luxuriant flowers later in the year.

 

Beech Allee at Hidcote

It was very noticeable just how many actual gardeners (as opposed to visitors) were at Hidcote today. Presumably a mixture of volunteers (the National Trust has thousands of volunteers who help maintain their properties and gardens) and paid staff. None of them seemed at all put out by my many questions (primarily about box blight and pruning times for some shrubs). Indeed the advice was thorough, expert, interesting and willingly given.

Lawrence Johnstone's Tool Shed, Hidcote

Hidcote Facts & Figures

If you have never been, I thoroughly recommend a visit. A cafe, National Trust shop and a plant sale area all add to the delight.

 

Annie Bee x

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Garden Inspiration (Full of Bees)

When your country has been turned upside down, nobody knows what the future holds, there is enough political infighting on all sides to last several lifetimes, and the summer refuses to arrive, what is a girl to do?

Visit a garden and wallow in the simple beauty of a gloriously planted space of course.

The Cotswolds are absolutely laden with lovely gardens and houses to visit, and I plan to visit each and every one; Asthall Manor, near Burford, seemed a great place to start. There has been a house on that site since 1272 but the core of the house you see today was built in 1620. The reason it is currently open to visitors is the stone sculpture exhibition , “on form 16“, which is organised, curated and hosted by the manor’s current owner, Rosie Pearson. I over-heard one of the gardeners explaining that there are 3 types of visitors to Asthall: those who want to see the garden and admire the house; those who are interested mainly in the sculpture, which is dotted around the extensive grounds, the neighbouring church and churchyard plus a couple of the rooms inside, and then you have people who are interested in the Mitford family, who lived in the manor between 1919 and 1926.

Asthall Manor on form 16

For me, it is always the garden, and this one is utterly gorgeous. Designed in 1998 by Julian and Isabel Bannerman (who also designed the gardens at Highgrove) it is a Grade II listed Historic Garden, and is a wonderful mix of scented, pastel borders, a sloping parterre, wild meadows, woodland and water (including a hidden lake and a glorious natural swimming pond).

swimming pond at Asthall Manor

sempervivum at Asthall

Is it just me or does it seem to be a particularly good year for roses? The roses at Asthall were quite something to behold, draped all over the ancient walls and house, gently scenting the air. I spied a number of gorgeous Astrantia and Achillea which I have noted and will need to try to source for my new garden which will be planted next spring. And the entire 6 acres were a pollinators dream. The place was a-buzz, despite the unseasonal chill in the air.

Astrantia Asthall Manor

roses at Asthall Manor

My photos don’t do it justice ~ if you can, go and visit. There is a nice little pop-up cafe in the walled garden and you get a lovely catalogue for the entry price of £10.

on form 16 catalogue

In the meantime I am having to deal with the possibility that we have Box blight at Bee HQ. A truly horrendous thought. I have also just heard on the weather forecast that there may be a ground frost tonight in parts of the UK. In July.

The world seems to have tilted on its axis. Hold tight and buckle up folks.

Annie Bee x

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