Humphry Repton: Art and Nature for the Duke of Bedford

2018 is Humphry Repton’s bicentenary year and over the next few months events and exhibitions all over the country will be celebrating his life and work. The first person to use the title of ‘landscape gardener’, Repton (1752-1818) began to practise in 1788, five years after Lancelot Capability Brown’s death. His designs reinstated the importance of the garden around the house, whilst also developing the landscape to create vistas with impressive visual impact. One of his most elaborate garden designs was at Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire, and this year the Abbey is showcasing Repton’s work through a new exhibition featuring a collection of designs, maps, letters, artifacts and two of his red books in which he presented his proposals for his clients. The red books include watercolour scenes showing before and after views of the estate, intended to impress upon the client the beauty and scale of Repton’s designs.

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The restored Doric Temple (Photo credit: Woburn Abbey and Gardens)

Repton was commissioned by the 6th Duke of Bedford in 1802 to create a design to enhance the gardens and parkland, and by 1805 he had produced one of the largest and most ambitious of his red books for the Duke showing detailed plans of the approaches to the Abbey, the lakes and plantings in the surrounding parkland and the formal pleasure grounds. In 2003, nearly 200 years after the red book was created, Her Grace the Duchess of Bedford and her dedicated team of gardeners began to work on plans to bring Repton’s designs back to life.

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The restored aviary (Photo credit: Woburn Abbey and Gardens)

One of the projects involved reconstructing the aviary and cone house which were burnt down and later deconstructed during the second world war. In 2011 restoration work began to rebuild the aviary using green oak and the final stage of the project commences this month with the construction of green oak open-sided cottages complete with cedar shingle tiles situated either side of the aviary to mimic the keepers’ houses.

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The restored cone house (Photo credit: Woburn Abbey and Gardens)

When discussing the project, Estate Gardens Manager, Martin Towsey said “It is fantastic to reveal the reconstruction of the aviary according to Repton’s plans and it has felt like a true ‘phoenix from the ashes’ project. We have all worked so hard to restore this magnificent structure to its former glory and the aviary is now home to an array of birds once again including golden pheasants, budgies and a quail. The final structure is due to be opened by Her Grace during the Woburn Abbey Garden Show held on 23rd and 24th June.”

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The folly in the children’s garden (Photo credit: Woburn Abbey and Gardens)

Alongside the ongoing work on the aviary, temple and walled garden, the children’s garden with its folly and planting has also been restored. This area of the garden is still used by the Duke and Duchess and their children, and it is important to them that the gardens are designed for the use by the family as well as for the public.

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The folly in spring (Photo credit: Woburn Abbey and Gardens)

The launch of the exhibition, Humphry Repton: Art & Nature for the Duke of Bedford took place last week and it will be open daily between 11am and 5pm (last entry 4pm) until 28th October 2018. It’s a fascinating opportunity to see the work behind the design of the gardens and a rare chance to see Repton’s red books and accompanying documents, maps and artifacts alongside the restoration work of the historic garden itself.

Creating A Winter Garden (Part 2)

Last weekend, the first part of Creating a Winter Garden considered structure and flowers. Thanks to everyone who shared images of their winter gardens: those small moments which lift our spirits on short December days.

Stems and Bark

The scarcity of winter flowers means that a wall liberally covered in clematis ‘Freckles’ is a precious sight, but a successful winter garden needs to rely on more than flowers for year-round visual impact. Stems and bark create drama in a garden of any size – if you have room for a small tree like the popular Tibetan cherry (Prunus serrula), it will add a coppery sheen to even the dullest winter afternoon. I used to have the privilege of a mature specimen just beyond the garden and without any room in our own plot for extra trees other than the apples, plum and greengage I planted upon arrival, I counted myself fortunate to be able to ‘borrow’ this cherry, along with a tall silver birch in my neighbour’s garden to the left and a hazel to the right which drops its nuts over our fence. Then, a few years ago, the cherry was removed to make way for a shed. I still mourn the loss of the mahogany giant, more than I miss the resulting loss of privacy beyond our fruit cage.

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Himalayan silver birches at Anglesey Abbey

Himalayan silver birches have an ethereal quality which lifts any dark space. In the magnificent grove at Anglesey Abbey these slender trees are underplanted with evergreen Bergenia ‘Bressingham Ruby’ and tulips in spring. However, unnamed forms of Himalayan silver birch (Betula utilis) vary greatly in size and most will outgrow a small garden. Val Bourne recommends Betula utilis var. jacquemontii ‘Silver Shadow’ as the smallest, slowest growing birch with white bark, reaching 8m when mature. The Chinese red-bark birch (Betula albosinensis) is also a winter beauty with smooth cinnamon bark beneath the peeling layers, although cultivars will reach up to 15m when mature. Acer griseum – the paper-bark maple – also looks spectacular in winter as its textured bark peels and flakes like a lizard shedding scales. At a mature height of 10m or less and with vibrant red autumn foliage, this is a hard-working tree for any medium-sized garden.

If your garden, like mine, is too small for additional trees – don’t despair! Rich colours can still be achieved by using stems rather than tree trunks. Bamboos offer colour all year round. Phyllostachys nigra has matt black culms and Phyllostachys aurea golden-yellow. Over the summer I visited the 2 acre Henstead Exotic Garden in Suffolk, where the bamboo grove is both delightful and powerful; the height of the plants alongside the sheer density of the thicket, transported me to another world. I felt drawn to the plants, to run my fingers up the smooth grain and round the ridged nodes. Even a small area of bamboo can create a tranquil ambience in a garden with its exotic form and gently swaying culms, but the atmosphere will be far from relaxing if the bamboo rhizomes transgress outside their allotted space, so always find out which species are suitable for your garden and add any necessary barriers to protect the rest of the garden from exploring roots.

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Bamboo grove at Henstead Exotic Garden

I couldn’t end my musings on winter garden stems without mentioning shrubby dogwoods. As regular readers will know, I admire these plants for their resilience, versatility and vibrancy in the depths of winter. I currently have ten dogwoods in my garden, of three different species: Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’, Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’ and Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’, but I also love the variegated Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’ and the dark, almost black stems of Cornus alba ‘Kesselringii’, both of which I’ve planted in previous gardens and Cornus alba ‘Aurea’ which was looking fresh and alive with such bright yellow-green foliage en masse at Bressingham Gardens in Norfolk earlier in the year.

 

 

Grasses and Cornus alba ‘Aurea’ creating contrasting layers in Bressingham Gardens

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Potting shed ‘Midwinter Fire’

The advantage of these shrubs is that they can be stooled (cut back to near ground level) in spring and will slowly regrow throughout the summer as a quiet backdrop to other shrubs and perennials, and then be ready to take over once winter arrives. Single plants can be used in this way in small borders, but they look better in groups of three or more, especially if they are kept as smaller plants. Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ is not as tolerant of hard pruning as the other species, so I lightly prune the three in the front garden each year to manage their size and shape, and to encourage new stems which have the best winter colour. I have a larger specimen in the back by the potting shed, which I leave to grow to around 1.5m and cut back by about a third every couple of years. ‘Midwinter Fire’ also has the advantage of gentle orange autumn colour and this year, in the shelter of the back garden, the foliage remains even though it is long gone at the front.

Scent

One of the most pleasurable sensations on a winter walk is when you suddenly catch a sweet scent stealing over a garden wall or from a hidden shrubbery. Using fragrance in a winter garden entices you to stop and appreciate the sensory experience, grounding you in the physical garden rather than just passing quickly through en route to the warmth of the home. Plants with winter scent need to be situated carefully – in a place where their fragrance will be caught in passing, so front gardens and containers are ideal spots. One of the best plants for winter aroma is Christmas box (Sarcococca confusa) with its tiny white flowers belying its intoxicatingly sweet scent. Alongside evergreen foliage, its tolerance of shade and ability to create a neat hedge mean that Christmas box is a must have for any serious winter garden.

Viburnum x bodnantense is another shrub whose insistent perfume causes a pause for a moment’s joy when out walking and Dan Pearson recommends the cultivar ‘Deben’ or Viburnum farreri ‘Candidissimum’ which can be seen at Anglesey Abbey with its white scented flowers. Winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) has lemon scented flowers which cover this rather untidy looking shrub for much of the winter. It doesn’t stand alone as a specimen plant, but works well combined with evergreen shrubs, waiting in the background whilst its perfume pervades the surrounding area. Daphnes also provide a beautiful winter scent, with Daphne odora and Daphne mezereum being the best choices for colder gardens. It’s worth noting that daphnes are highly poisonous, so not suitable for gardens with young children. Where scent is concerned, it only takes one fragrant shrub to add magic to a cold bare garden and if grown in a container, once the flowers have gone, the container can be moved to make way for spring bulbs.

 

 

Look out for winter jasmine this month and flowering quince and hazel flowers in late winter/early spring

Part 3

On Saturday, I’ll be looking at seed heads, containers and crops in the winter garden. Hopefully the weather will be kind over the weekend and enable a few forays out into the fresh air. 🙂

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Creating A Winter Garden (Part 1)

The speckled flowers of Clematis cirrhosa ‘Freckles’ and its creamy white counterpart ‘Jingle Bells’ have begun to festoon the bare apple espaliers with some intrepid stems nearly trailing along the ground. I planted the clematis by the post closest to the dining room window so that we could see it from the table and judging by the profusion of tight buds, we should be enjoying their swaying bells throughout the next few months. I’ve just been chatting to Nick Coffer on BBC Three Counties Radio this afternoon (our chat starts at 2:38:20 on the iplayer link) about the precious beauty of winter flowers and why every garden should have at least one dogwood to shine out in the darkest days (but I would say that!)

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Clematis cirrhosa ‘Freckles’

To my mind, one of the key aspects of a successful winter garden, especially on a smaller plot, is being able to see plants from indoors. Although I love nothing more than wrapping the family up like a troupe of miniature snowmen to venture out in frost or snow to explore magnificent winter gardens like those at Anglesey Abbey, Cambridge University Botanic Garden and Hyde Hall, the average back garden doesn’t have the space for groves of silver birch or sweeping vistas of dogwoods and willows, and much winter viewing will be conducted from the warmth of the home. So it’s important to consider the overall winter structure of the garden first, to ensure that when viewed from the house there will be strong lines to create interest. Then other factors can be explored, such as adding scent and colour to the garden within the evergreen structure.

Structure

The key element of any garden is its underlying structure, created by the hard landscaping (patio, paths, etc…) and its use of evergreen plants, especially trees and shrubs. When other plants lose their foliage as winter approaches, these evergreen stalwarts take centre stage and the bare bones of the garden are revealed.

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Front garden rosemary hedge from January to March

Traditionally low hedges and topiary are used to create this structure, often in box (Buxus sempervirens), yew (Taxus baccata) or holly (Ilex). In my front garden, we’ve adapted this principle by using edible evergreens – trisecting the space with a rosemary hedge (Rosmarinus officinalis) and defining the boundary with a low Chilean guava hedge (Ugni molinae). Alongside three box balls, the hedges give the garden a strong structure in winter and their low height allows my summer flowers to quickly overtop them, softening the garden and creating a less formal atmosphere.

 

Winter bare bones followed by summer profusion

We’ve also used this idea in the side garden, where the relatively slow growing balls of Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Tom Thumb’ create a stunning contrast to the golden gravel. These chocolate-purple shrubs with their sprinkling of light green new leaves are a good alternative to box balls if your garden suffers from box blight (a fungal disease) or box tree caterpillars (extra-voracious versions of The Very Hungry Caterpillar).

 

The evergreens going in and maturing

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If you don’t have space to add shrubs in the ground, any of these plants can be grown in containers and simply moved into position in beds and borders to act as winter focal points when the perennials die down. Using containers also has the advantage, in a small garden, of allowing winter stars to shine in their season and to be moved into a less obvious positions as the spring and summer plants get into their stride. For this reason, I have two witch hazels (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’ and ‘Diane’) in containers behind the shed, ready to place on the patio in full view of the windows as their flowers emerge in late winter and to return to the shelter of the shed later in the year.

 

‘Diane’ and ‘Jelena’ in flower

Flowers

As I write, sitting on the window seat in the December sunshine, I can see next door’s mahonia (very likely Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’) with its yellow racemes of flowers reaching into the blue. I used to dislike mahonia with its tough, spiny foliage and cold lemon flowers, but recently I’ve come to admire the colour it adds to the garden on darker days and its tolerance for partial shade and a wide variety of soil types, including our heavy alkaline clay. My volte-face was complete when I learnt that the fruits are edible – their common name is ‘Oregon Grape’ and they are often used for preserves in the US due to their tart, earthy flavour and large number of seeds.

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How could I have failed to relish the sheer winter joy that is mahonia?

Hellebores are also an important element in many winter gardens with their delicate down-turned flowers encouraging a close-up study best undertaken lying recumbent in the leaf litter. I’m excited to be growing hellebores for the first time this year, especially as I bought the plants from our community garden open day, so their exact colour is currently a mystery. It’s a plant I’ve wanted to grow for many years and I’m looking forward to getting to know this understated woodland beauty better.

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Winter sun washes the hellebores in Regent’s Park

Part 2

Next time I’ll be considering scent and stems/bark as ways to extend the season of interest in the garden. In the meantime, enjoy the unexpected sight of any winter flowers (although in my garden a couple of summer annuals seem not to have realised that it’s December) and celebrate evergreen structure wherever you find it. Happy December!

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Calendula ‘Snow Princess’ is living up to her name and resolutely refusing to admit that it’s December!

 

 

 

7 Best Alliums To Plant This Week

Growing alliums makes me happy. I love their versatility, their diversity and their sheer brilliance in the spring borders. They are equally at home in cottage gardens, amongst perennial grasses, in containers and as an architectural feature throughout contemporary planting schemes. I’ve grown quite a few varieties over the years and have reliable favourites which always make it into the garden alongside new additions each year, chosen either for their striking colours, interesting shapes or to extend my allium season. With their dramatic globe-flowers fading to structural seed heads, alliums create interest in the garden for much of the spring, summer and into autumn (as I type, the tall ‘Cristophii’ in the back border are still punctuating the late summer rosemary growth).

Bee Happy

Allium flowers delight the bees – in fact at RHS Tatton Park Flower Show this year on the allium stands, it was hard to decide whether the displays were there to celebrate the flowers or their apian companions. This adaptable plant can be used in so many ways in gardens and containers, depending on the size and height of the flowerhead and the density of planting. Alliums can be planted in the next few weeks in borders, cut flower patches and pots – so here are my favourites, either planted in my garden or to be added this year…

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The bees loved these Allium ‘Giganteum’ at Tatton Park

1. Atropurpureum

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This is my absolute favourite allium for its graceful shape and rich crimson-purple starry florets with deep smoky plum centres. It has real presence in the border, but is subtle enough to co-exist happily with other alliums (I grow it in the narrow herb border beneath the espalier apple trees alongside ‘Cristophi’, ‘Purple Rain’, ‘Purple Sensation’ and ‘Sphaeracephalon’). At around 75cm high, they create continuity throughout the long, narrow border without being imposing and the thick stems make them ideal for cutting.

2. Purple Rain

I first grew this allium a couple of year ago and was delighted by its spreading firework flowers. As a cross of A. ‘Purple Sensation’ and A. ‘Cristophii’ it is a reliable allium with sturdy stems up to about 1m. I grow it beneath the windows in the front gravel garden where it thrives and, unlike many of the bulbs in the back garden on our clay soil, in the front sandy soil by the foundations ‘Purple Rain’ has proved consistently perennial.

3. Mount Everest

Another of my front garden alliums, A. stipitatum ‘Mount Everest’, creates a striking contrast dotted within drifts of purple alliums such as ‘Purple Sensation’, or it can be planted en masse for greater impact and set off against the dark foliage of shrubs like Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’ and Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’. The creamy white flowers also emphasise the fresh green allium foliage and the pea green eyes at the centre of each floret.

4. Cristophii

IMG_20170511_164912‘Cristophii’, or star of Persia, lives up to its name with its spiked purple florets touched with silver. At around 50cm and with its imposing, yet intricate globes, it encourages the eye to focus on the details in a border, which in my garden always includes bees feeding from the florets. ‘Cristophii’ is a reliably perennial allium and the seed heads are long-lasting. Last year we collected the ageing seed heads and after a few weeks drying in the shed, sprayed them silver to use in a Christmas display with dogwood stems and fairy lights.

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5. Red Mohican

I met this allium at Chelsea last year and have been wanting to add it to the garden ever since. Its funky topknot gives it a modern charm which would add a sense of fun to a border and I love the rich burgundy colour dotted with creamy white florets. A rather more expensive cultivar than some, this would be good to dot through a border with white alliums or the darker A. atropurpureum.

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6. Purple Sensation

One of the most popular alliums, A. hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’, marks many people’s first foray into allium growing, mine included. Its bright purple spheres create impact in large drifts, but also look spectacular under planted with blue Camassia leichtinii or the greenish-yellow flower clusters of Marsh Spurge (Euphorbia paulstris). It’s an affordable allium, so can be bought and planted in greater numbers than some of the rarer cultivars.

7. Sphaerocephalon

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These small, late-flowering drumstick alliums are a cheerful addition to the July garden. They can be planted in swathes against paths and border edges to soften the margins and lead the eye through the space. ‘Sphaerocephalon’ also look great mixed in with grasses such as Deschampsia cespitosa and Stipa tenuissima. I’ve been growing this variety for several years and unlike the larger alliums in the back garden, not only is ‘Sphaerocephalon’ reliably perennial, it also self-seeds along the path edges. With its tight, rich blackcurrant heads it creates a dramatic flash of colour and can be bought in bulk to create maximum impact as it is the cheapest allium bulb available.

Growing Alliums

Allium bulbs should be planted in early autumn, so this week is a great time to place an order or start getting your bulbs in the ground. They prefer well-drained soil in full sun, so if you have heavier soil (as I do), it is a good idea to use a handful of grit (about 5cm depth) under each bulb to improve drainage. They should be planted at 3-4 times their own depth to help ensure they remain perennial. Smaller alliums should be 8-10cm apart and larger ones 20cms. After planting, firm down the soil to remove air pockets and add a balanced fertiliser in spring on poorer soils.

Over the past few years I’ve mostly bought my allium bulbs from Sarah RavenSuttons and JParkers, all suppliers of quality bulbs with good allium ranges to choose from.

What are your favourite individual alliums and combinations? What spring bulbs are you most excited about planting this autumn?

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Mix of atropurpureum, ‘Purple Rain’, ‘Purple Sensation’ and ‘Cristophii’ seed heads