RHS Bridgewater – the Good and the Bad…

Seeing pictures of the new RHS garden in various stages of construction, it was difficult to envisage how the garden would turn out. I couldn’t see how those restricted planting holes between the paths could support the necessary enveloping mass of foliage and flower that make a garden. From above, the emerging layout of the new Kitchen Garden (one of two new gardens within the original walls – the other is the Paradise Garden) looked rather like an airport, with a wide runway crossing diagonally. There was an awful lot of path.

RHS Bridgewater finally opened on the 18th May, after a long delay due to the on-going pandemic, and I was very excited to visit the gardens for the first time a few weeks ago.

Now that the plants are in, and filling out, the effect is less stark, but it still looks to me as though there’s too much path, and not enough planting. And the designs for the main formal parts of the garden are largely on one level. In the wider landscape, and around the lake, there is more height, with native woodland, and mature trees. And non-native trees have been incorporated into the planting in the Chinese streamside garden.

Close to the stream they are small – cloud-pruned pines and smaller varieties of Japanese maples. Further from the water there are larger trees, such as Davidia involucrata (hankerchief tree). But in the formal gardens, the trees are all both small – either by their nature, or by training – and isolated.

The designs for all three main areas are along the same lines – a geometric pattern of paths, interplanted with a mix of perennials and grasses, with regular, individual vertical highlights from clipped beech, and in the case of the kitchen garden, from metal structures.

RHS Bridgewater is unusual in this respect. Most gardens have combinations; groups of trees and shrubs of varying sizes, with vertical interest from the ground up to the top of tall trees. Shrubs and trees are allowed to grow naturally to the shapes and sizes they would achieve in the wild. RHS Bridgewater doesn’t appear to have that. Instinctively, it feels as though there’s something missing. Intellectually, you might consider it to be a good thing that the RHS are giving us something new; something different.

The formal gardens at RHS Bridgewater are a patchwork, populated by plants that are diverse, interesting and beautiful. But it feels somewhat two-dimensional – apart from the clipped beech, the metal structures and a small arrangement of pleached Parrotia (Persian ironwood), it’s all on the same level.

Beyond the formal gardens are large, open expanses of wildflower meadow leading up to woodland. Both add to the overall experience. They contrast with the formal planting, and it’s great to be able to stretch your legs through these more natural areas, after shuffling through the intensity of the formal gardens. But moving from the open, formal gardens, with most of the planting on one level, into native grasslands, one phrase kept repeating in my mind. PRAIRIE STYLE!!!

It is though. It’s very Piet Oudolf, albeit a segmented version of that style which, according to the horticultural press, is still very popular. Personally, I’ve never been that sure about it. For me, the style has too many grasses (though at Bridgewater, they’ve managed to reign that in). It’s too cold; too open. There’s no sense of mystery, no horticultural embrace; where’s the love? The trees and shrubs are too controlled, too isolated – they look lonely to me. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again now; the overall effect is of massed carpet bedding, but with perennials and grasses – carpet bedding on steroids.

Maybe it just takes time. Come back in a few years and it may all look very different. Despite the criticism, there are some great features. And if you’re not enamoured of the design style, it’s very easy to ignore that and lose yourself in the wonderful selection of plants on show. Plants such as this lovely Iris…

This variety appears in a few places, but I couldn’t see a label for it anywhere. Labelling is a work-in-progress I think – very good in some areas, non-existent in others. This, for instance, was very clearly labelled…

Such vivid blues are not always easy to come by, so this could prove useful. It’s a speedwell called Veronica ‘Shirley Blue’. The individual flowers are similar to those of the tiny ones of the speedwell you find in lawns (possibly my favourite wild/native flower) but a little bigger, and arranged around flower spikes.

Still on the blue theme, this one looked better in real life than the camera portrays it. This is Amsonia illustris (shining bluestar’), apparently good for well-drained soil in part shade…

The peonies were doing well when I visited. I didn’t find a label for this deep red one…

And while I might have preferred a different layout and design approach, I do think Tom Stuart-Smith has done a great job on the Paradise Garden. This is the lily pond (which will be better once the lilies have established) and rill, showing a great use of symmetry and combining curves and straight lines…

Towards the back of the Paradise Garden, where it becomes less formal, he’s used a small, shrubby tree called sea buckthorn (Hyppophae rhamnoides), once again arranged as isolated specimens. It has long, thin, silver-green leaves and lots of character, with twisty, gnarled trunks. They would look great in a Mediterranean style garden, and they look great here too. Olive trees are vulnerable to the dreaded xylella, and in any case, tend not to thrive (or even survive) in our cold, wet, windy climate, but sea buckthorn is as hardy as they come, apparently taking strong winds and even salt spray in its stride, so would make a superb alternative to olive.

They may be selling us short in the tree and shrub department, but the RHS have managed to pack a fantastic array of lower growing plants into the garden in such a short time. This is in the Paradise Garden…

This area is essentially a gravel garden. I love this low-growing, creeping thyme, which would make a fabulous alternative lawn, for an area you didn’t need to walk on much. You can see that here, the labelling has been done.

The glasshouses are looking impressive, with grape vines along the front and soft fruit against the back walls. They’re just a little bigger than my greenhouse…

There is still some work to be done at RHS Bridgewater…

But no cause for complaint – love the design style or not, the amount of work they’ve done, and what they’ve achieved, is phenomenal. The amount of time, money, and ingenuity that’s gone into the place is awe inspiring. The empty areas just add interest – I can’t wait to see what they do with them. I loved the contrast between two arrangements of pots; one at the front entrance, the other somewhat more tucked away…

In case you’re wondering, the cafe is great too – good food, not bad coffee, and a lovely terrace overlooking the new lake. But even after restrictions have been lifted, I suspect it will be busy – you may need to be flexible over what time you eat, if you want to avoid queuing for too long. There’s an extensive plant sales area which is more like one of the larger garden centres. The prices are not low, but plant prices have gone up noticeably in the last few years, probably down to rising costs of production. Having spent so long in the gardens, I took one look at the plant sales and decided I didn’t have enough time left to do it justice (I also know that I really don’t need any more plants at this time!) Sadly, it was time to leave.

So there you are; a brief introduction to a rather different garden. RHS Bridgewater is shiny and new in every respect, from the hard landscaping and the garden seating, to the welcome building. That newness felt different to the gardens I’m used to visiting in the UK; it reminded me of some gardens overseas – the Desert Botanic Gardens in Phoenix had the same freshness and energy.

I can’t imagine Bridgewater will ever be my favourite garden, but there is a lot to admire, and I suspect I will grow to love it in time. I’m sure it will be interesting watching it develop and mature.

text & photographs © graham wright 2021

Early June

This was the ‘wildflower meadow’ in our front garden just over a week ago. For a long time in the early season it was looking quite sparse, but now it’s burst into growth. The grasses have shot up, with feathery flower spikes, and there’s a diverse range of wild flowers, including campion; both pink and fringed (Silene fimbriata), ox-eye daisies, yarrow, and birds foot trefoil. The alliums add interest, even though they’re not wild flowers (well, not this particular variety, in this country!)

This is one of the same alliums (Allium hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’) in the back garden…

The wallflowers were starting to look good – here against the contrasting foliage of a rose (Rosa ‘Judy Dench’)…

A week later, and most of them are well past their best. Time to rip them out and make space for other plants. I think. Taken from the right angle, the beds are looking quite full. The alliums and wallflowers work well together. The impressive fern behind them precedes our arrival. The yellow evergreen on the left is a euonymus, probably E. fortunei ‘Emerald ‘n’ Gold’…

You can see the structure of the grass path that runs along the left hand side of the garden…

Eventually, the beds will be edged with box hedging (box blight and caterpillars not withstanding) and the shrubs and taller perennials will mean you can’t see the whole thing in one go, encouraging you to want to move on to see what’s around each corner.

This next plant is a beech – Fagus sylvatica ‘Dawyck Purple’. In time it will grow to be a tall, columnar tree. Now, it’s only around four feet high, but the leaves are beautiful…

This tree peony isn’t the one I bought! I think this has grown out of the rootstock (and the grafted plant died). Still, it doesn’t look bad. Peonies don’t last long; only about a week…

The Irises (Iris sibirica) in front of the pond are still looking good…

And these self-sown Californian poppies (Eschscholzia – not an easy one to spell!) are in full flower…

The rhododendrons are coming to a close. They’ve put on a good show, considering they have all been moved in the last year…

And at last, the roses are beginning to flower. A bit late, but it was a cold start to the season, and most of the plants were only planted last autumn. I’ll share them with you next time…

text & images © Graham Wright 2021

Saving Money with Seeds…

The magic of planting a seed, seeing a tiny green shoot pushing out from the soil, and then watching it grow into an amazing plant – beautiful, fragrant, and sometimes edible, never fails to be a source of wonder.

These beauties are ‘Datura metaloides ‘Evening Fragrance’; a form of ‘Angels Trumpets’, grown from a packet of seed from Thompson and Morgan (the seedlings in the other pot are aubergines). I’m not clear whether Datura and Brugmansia are synonyms, or separate species – different sources give different answers. I once heard someone say that Brugmansia flowers hang down, whereas Datura flowers are held upright (as in the photo).

Seeds can also be very frustrating. I was very pleased that these germinated in just a few days (even though the packet said they might take between 21 and 60 days) but with other seeds I’ve sown, it’s been a different story. Most seed sowing involves annuals – both flowers and edibles, but there’s an increasing range of perennial seeds available.

With perennial plants typically retailing at around £6.00 for a very small plant, and more like £10.00 to £15.00 for a plant of a good size that will establish quickly, you can save yourself a lot of money by growing them from seed. And this is exactly what I’ve been doing, on and off, for the last few years, but with mixed success. These are one of the successes – echinacea purpurea

Mind you, even these have been quite slow. Sown in the spring of last year, they barely reached any size, and went into the winter in small pots. I wasn’t confident they would come back this year. But of course, they did. I’ve potted them on this spring, and maybe I’ll get them in the ground later this year (if I can get the bed prepared first!)

I’ve had success in the past with Echinops, a large perennial with spiky-shaped leaves and lovely blue floral globes that are irresistible to bees…

But there have been plenty of failures, both from bought seed, and seed collected from plants in my own garden. I’ve never managed to get aconitum (one of my favourites) to germinate. This year I sowed scabious, oriental poppies, and anchusa. They sat on the greenhouse bench for two months without a peep – why they didn’t germinate, I don’t know. You follow the instructions on the packet, and nothing happens. Frustrated, I’ve resorted to my old heated propagator, even for seeds that are supposed to need a cooler environment. So far it’s worked for the anchusa, and for basil. Maybe it will work for some of the others too…

text & photos © graham wright 2021

Spring moves on…

The weather hasn’t been conducive to growing this spring – a prolonged drought, late frosts, followed by heavy rain, with temperatures continuing to be disappointingly low for the time of year. But in my garden as much as elsewhere, the plants are getting on with it regardless. One of two new apple trees, this blossom is on Worcester Pearmain. Blossom on the other (James Grieve) is all but over…

I planted two purple hazels (Corylus maximus ‘Purpurea’) as focal points in the main bed. The dark leaves make a great contrast with the various shades of green, and particularly with the variegated plants, such as the grass Phalaris arundinacea ‘Feesey’ (known as ‘Gardeners’ garters’).My hazels are still only just over 2 feet tall, but they are going into their second season now, so should hopefully start to put on some growth. Both are fully in leaf now…

I put in lots more bulbs last year. Various tulip varieties have done their thing and are ‘going over’ now, but the alliums (Allium hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’, and Allium christophii) are just coming out…

I put some of these into the miniature wildflower meadow in the front garden too. A bit cheeky, as they aren’t wild flowers (not in the UK at least), but I thought they would add some sparkle. A few have expired – some of the soil there is more builders sand than soil – but most have survived. I’ll post pictures next time (the meadow is beginning to look good).

Another plant used to add early colour is wallflower (Erisymum). They’re biennials,as opposed to annuals, which means they grow foliage one year, sit out the winter, and then flower early the next year…

I think of them as slow annuals – they don’t have time to grow into a mature plant and produce flowers in one year, so they have to struggle across two. And boy do they struggle. The plants come ‘bare-rooted’, and in my experience are never in great shape, which doesn’t help them to establish. You can grow them from seed, and while I’ve never found the time or been sufficiently organised to do this, I suspect it would give a much better result. Pretty and colourful as they undoubtedly are, they create problems. In theory, they do their thing, then you rip them out in time for the perennials (as well as any annuals you want to put in) to take over. In reality, the wallflowers go on for long enough to get in the way. Plus, some of the plants don’t stop at all, and even survive into the following year. Great, but they tend to look a bit scruffy, a bit ‘leggy’. You need to be ruthless, and pull them out as soon as you need the space, even if they’re still looking good. But for a plant lover (and an environmentalist) it can be difficult to do.

What you’re looking at above is a beech tree, even if it is small as yet. It’s Fagus sylvatica ‘Dawyck Purple’. Closer to the house, and in the same bed, is the green version (Fagus sylvatica ‘Dawyck’!) These will eventually make very tall trees, but with a narrow profile. A mature beech would eventually take up most of the garden. With the Dawyck varieties (there’s a ‘gold’ variety too) you can have more than one and yet still have a garden. I do love a beech tree.

This magnolia was here when we arrived. I’m not sure of the variety. I thinned it out last year, because it was very congested. Sadly the flowers get hit by late frosts every year. This is a cold, exposed area, but I’m hoping that in years to come it may be more protected by the plants around it, as they increase in size…

The broom next to it is spectacular, but to me, the colours clash. It’s also in the way of what on my garden design is a grass path, so it will have to go. The roots on broom appear to go straight down, so getting enough out to transplant it isn’t feasible. Fortunately there is another large specimen by the pergola. That one is a lighter, more subtle yellow, and is much more fragrant.

The ‘landscaping’ is continuing slowly due to other commitments (like work!), so you may notice random piles of brick or rubble, or covered heaps of lifted turves. Forget-me-nots have settled in to this little semi-wild area. I’ll let them set seed and then sprinkle them around the garden to add to next year’s supply of plants-for-free

With all the rain we’ve been having, the wildlife pond has finally filled up. I had to make some minor adjustments to the edge levels so that it over-flows into the bog garden at the front. The water is still beautifully clear, and I have to put my hands up and admit to not knowing why. It cleared after I put some bunches of rosemary into the water, but I tried the same trick with the holding pond for the fish, and it didn’t work. I’m not complaining though…

The garden is slowly coming together, and many of the plants that have been languishing in pots for too long are now in the borders. But some are still waiting. The new shady border at the back of the house is yet to be dug. That will have to wait until the builders have finally finished and gone (which is way overdue!) Among the plants that will go in that border are these ferns, Polystichum polyblepharum. I potted them on so they could bulk up prior to planting. They too have suffered with the weather, but they’re coming on now…

The weather shows no sign of warming up just yet. But from the forecast, it looks as though we could just have seen the last of the frosts. The garden is really beginning to grow. I’ve got seedlings of annuals, perennials and veg coming on, including more tomato and chilli plants than you can shake a stick at. And I’ve booked a trip, in mid-June, to visit the new RHS Bridgewater garden in Salford, the prospect of which fills me with excitement. Expect a review on this blog in due course…

text & images © graham wright 2021

Bodnant Gardens

Bodnant, for anyone who isn’t familiar with it, is a very large (80 acres) National Trust garden in North Wales, just south of Llandudno. It’s particularly renowned for its large collection of rhododendrons and camelias, which thrive in the acid soil there. The site is on a hillside, with some steep slopes, and picturesque dells. The entrance to the gardens, and the house (which is impressive, but privately owned, and not open to the public) is at the top of the hill. Winding gravel paths lead through dense planting, which at this time of year is very colourful…

I visited on the last day of April, and was surprised at just how many of the rhododendrons were already flowering…

Having always (until recently) gardened on neutral to alkaline soil, I’m still a little unsure of rhododendrons. Their colours are diverse and spectacular, intense, beautiful; but also a bit shocking and outrageous. Verging on the blousy, they can feel like something of a ‘guilty pleasure’.
Another indicator of low ph (as well as damp, humus-rich soil), I spied this Himalayan poppy (Meconopsis x sheldonii) in the understorey…

Still close to the entrance is this beautifully ordered, green and calming parterre with a central fountain…

Still in the Himalayas, this attractive stand of Himalayan birch (Betula utilis, possibly ‘Jacquemontii’) caught my eye. This kind of arrangement has been very popular in garden design for some years…

And I just had to take a photo of this gentian. I had one of these in a pot for many years, though that was a late flowering variety. They have the most intense blue, large flowers – very striking indeed…

Another blue-flowered plant I’ve recently heard a bit about it Omphaloides. I’ve been considering its use as ground cover in moist, shady areas. It was recommended by one of the famous garden designers (I can’t remember which one). I have seen it before, and was unimpressed, but at Bodnant it’s clearly thriving and looks good. As a ‘semi-evergreen’ it should provide some cover over winter, especially in milder winters…

Moving down the hill, the formal gardens give way to a more open, grassy landscape. This avenue appeared even more inviting due to being roped off (presumably because the daffodils have finished)…

Bluebells were just coming out beneath this incredible old, gnarly beech tree. The house, complete with Victorian conservatory, can be seen at the top of the hill…

There must be miles of paths to be walked, and it’s easy to get lost. With all of the bright colours at this time of year its like an enchanted land…

The Pin Mill, with the reflecting pond in front, is perhaps the most famous image from Bodnant gardens. The end of the reflecting pond is one of those magic spots where you just can’t help taking a photograph, even though you know millions got there before you (and many made a much better job of it). This view mirrors the famous view of the Taj Mahal (though on a slightly less grand scale)…

And finally, another choice plant. Another one for the woodland floor, in damp shade, this is a trillium – Trillium erectum…

Some of you may have seen a recent short series documentary about Bodnant, and the on-going efforts to improve the gardens. I found it a bit disappointing. The narrative was a little disjointed, and perhaps somewhat flippant – trying to sensationalise the problems the team encountered. And I don’t think it did the gardens justice. But having seen Bodnant once more for myself, I could see how much work has been put in. There’s more to do, but it’s looking very good indeed.

The documentary highlighted the problems Bodnant has had attracting enough visitors, most likely due to the location, which might be very beautiful, but is also a bit out of the way (which is probably why it’s still beautiful!) The plan was, I believe, to update the gardens to give them the best chance of attracting more visitors. I already knew Bodnant was an amazing place. It’s in an incredible setting, with views towards Snowdonia national park, and the gardens themselves have always been fabulous. From my latest visit, I would say they match any of the larger gardens in the United Kingdom for their beauty, for their plant collections, and for their facilities. For anyone who, like me, loves plants and gardens, Bodnant is unmissable.

text & images © Graham Wright 2021

Plants For Free…

Growing annuals from seed can be a time-consuming process, fraught with worry. Will the seeds germinate? Will the seedlings be eaten by slugs. Will the stems succumb to rot (known as damping-off). Will you forget to water them, so they wilt and die? But then, there are some annuals that take care off all this themselves…

This is borage, flowering in our garden last week; putting on a fantastic show very early on in the season. I grew borage from seed last year. The plants flowered, and distributed their seed, and now, as if by magic, there are new borage plants in various stages of development, from just-hatched, to fully-formed, all through the long border…

Three metres deep in places, and running the length of the garden, this is a big bed to fill, and while the shrubs are still small, and the perennials are yet to clump up, annuals have an important role in filling in the gaps. When they do it themselves, so much the better. Above you can see some of the borage seedlings, in among newly-planted white phlox (‘Peacock White’) and Echinops (E. ritro ‘Veitchs Blue’ – incidentally, also grown from seed). Another plant that I grew from seed last year and which is prolifically self-seeding is Ammi major, a lovely, frothy white umbellifer that adds depth, cohesion and mystery to a planting scheme. This is how it looked in the bed last August, engulfing a young Cornus koussa

The garden has farmland bordering it to three sides; it’s quite exposed to wind, and we get some cold nights, so I wasn’t sure these auto-didactic annuals were going to make it. But they’re coming through nicely. Of course, they don’t necessarily come up exactly where you want them, so they will need to be moved around. Other desirable self-seeders coming up in the garden are foxgloves (Digitalis) and forget-me-nots (Myosotis). This year I’ve sown some sweet rocket (Hesperis matronalis) and honesty (Lunaria) to add to the mix of regenerating annuals (and biennials, in the case of the foxgloves and honesty).

Elsewhere in the garden, the tulips are in full flow. This is ‘Princes Irene’…

And here’s another of my favourites, ‘Queen of Night’…

Due to on-going, delayed building work (will it ever be finished?) the pots of tulips have had to be located in front of the workshop, by the veg patch, nestled behind last year’s rainbow chard (still cropping well, but about to bolt)…

There’s a varied and interesting collection of daffodils around the garden (from before my time) including some that are absolutely tiny. I’ve added my favourite, which is ‘Thalia’…

Last year’s tulips were planted into the beds, where they should hopefully come up year after year. In addition, there’s a clump of a variety I hadn’t tried before, a red ‘lily’ tulip called ‘Pieter de Leur’, looking good with ‘Spring Green’…

The heavy rain over the bank holiday came just in time to rejuvenate the garden, which was looking parched. You can already see the plants on the starting blocks, ready to grow. With so many new shrubs and trees, it’s an exciting time. There are two established trees; a large birch in the back, and a crab apple in the front, by the side of the drive. The crab apple was very congested, and obviously hadn’t been properly pruned for some time. I cut out quite a lot of wood, and this year it’s rewarded me with an impressive show of blossom. I believe this may be Malus ‘Torino’…

Spring blossom is such a spectacular show. It may not last long, but it ushers in the main growing season and, hopefully, some warmer weather pretty soon…

text & images © Graham Wright 2021

Making a Wildlife Pond

I’ve previously written about the pond we acquired when we moved house. It started life as a very deep, formal pond for Koi carp, but we’ve been transforming it into a home for wildlife. The liner had to be replaced, as I think it was leaking (and I wanted to re-shape the pond and reduce the depth too).

Late January – the liner is in place, with a layer of underlay over the top, and the pond is ready to be filled.

To protect the liner, I put the old underlay into the hole, and then a layer of new underlay over it. Next was the liner itself, followed by another layer of underlay over that. I know this sounds strange – it’s called underlay, not overlay after all; the clue’s in the name – but the idea is to protect the liner from being damaged by anything sharp that might be put on top, such as plant pots, bricks and slabs for raising up water lilies, and any stones or sharp objects that might be in the soil you put in for marginal plants.

I wanted to get it right, so I followed instructions in a book called ‘The Water Gardener’ by Anthony Archer-Wills, apparently a very respected figure in the industry. The book isn’t always entirely clear on the details, and I’m not convinced about some of the construction methods – more on that later. This is the pond the next day, when snow and cold weather stopped play…

You can see I built a shelf for planting all the way around the perimeter, and bricks along the edge of the shelf to stop the earth collapsing. In the deep section there are two slabs, supported on bricks, for a water lily and a water hyacinth.

The start of February – the shelf has soil on it, and has been planted up, and the pond is nearly full

By the middle of March, the frogs had moved back in, and had started laying frog spawn…

I think I got the pond filled just in time. Last year I think most of the tadpoles were eaten by the fish, but they’ve been relocated elsewhere, so the tadpoles should have less predators this year. Panning out, this is what the pond looked like at that time. You can see we’ve planted the far side with some dogwoods: Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire (times 1) and Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ (times 2). It needs more, but I’ll take some cuttings this year, and try to be patient

The water got cloudier and cloudier, and a scum of green algae formed on the surface – it didn’t look very appetising. Something had to be done. Rather than spending a fortune on bags and bags of aquatic compost, I had just used garden soil on the pond shelf – which is, I believe, as the book directed. I wondered though – could all the nutrients in the soil mean that the pond would inevitably remain scummy?

I remembered reading that putting bunches of lavender in a pond will clear the water. Obviously, at that time, there was no lavender to be had. So instead, I tried rosemary. I couldn’t imagine it would work. But, amazingly, it did – after only a week, the water had cleared, and the algae had disappeared. Surprisingly, the water has got clearer and clearer. So much so, you can see right down to the bottom. And the tadpoles have now hatched….

The water may be clear, but there is a bit of a problem with the level – it’s going steadily down. I’ve been emptying a water butt into it now and then, but that’s not enough. I think the problem is that the water is wicking out and over the sides via the layer of underlay over the top. The book did say you might need to have a system to top up the water, but it’s just losing too much. Mains water isn’t great for topping up a wildlife pond (and the supply is too far away anyway). There’s only so much rainwater you can collect. I’ve already got three water butts, but the water in those will be needed for watering plants when the prolonged dry spells arrive. Here is the edge, with the underlay lapping over and tucked into the soil around the pond…

To stop the water loss, I’ve cut away the under (over?) lay so that the liner, which of course isn’t absorbent, is exposed. The next problem is how to hide the liner. I’ll have to top up the soil on the ledges. Hopefully the plants should hide most of it once they’ve grown up. I may just need to put some stones around the edge too…

Don’t let anyone say I don’t fill this blog with pretty pictures! To the left (front) side of the pond the liner dips down and extends under the width of the bed to create a bog garden for plants that like damp soil (Ligularia, Rodgersia, Hostas, Iris sibirica, etc.). I’ve left the under (over!) lay on that side because I want the water to over-flow into that bed when there’s been a lot of rain. I’ve also run a pipe from the down-pipe on the side of the workshop where there isn’t room for a water butt. So the rain that lands on that face of the roof feeds straight into the pond. Hopefully that will fix the problem with the water levels. This is how the pond was looking a few days ago…

The water hyacinth is flowering nicely. You can see the water level still needs to come up somewhat. Hopefully that will happen in time. We’ve planted up the bed on the left of the pond with damp-loving perennials (from Claire Austin, as well as Ligularia seedlings and Iris divisions that we brought with us from our previous garden). They’re not showing much as yet – hopefully they will put on some growth over the summer. We’ve got tadpoles, water beetles and water boatmen. It might take a few years, but I can’t wait until there are dragon flies and damsel flies skimming back and forth over the surface all summer long…

Text & images © Graham Wright 2021

Garden Visit – Wollerton Old Hall Gardens

Wollerton Old Hall Garden, in Shropshire, is referred to in the David Austin rose catalogue as one of the most beautiful private gardens in the country. So beautiful in fact, that they decided to name a rose after it. When I discovered the garden was only seven miles from where I now live, I got very excited, and of course, had to visit at the earliest possible opportunity. That was back in October last year. I kept my review back, so I could bring it out to brighten the dark days of the lockdown. Now seems to be an appropriate time.

We visited on a cool, fairly dull day. It was well into Autumn, and some of the leaves were colouring up well. The late-flowering perennials, such as asters (most of which were probably in the newly created category of symphyotricum – thanks for that, botanists!) had taken over the floral responsibilities. They also have quite a range of salvias, which flower over a long period, and were still going strong…

Most of these are slightly tender, so may need some protection in a cold winter. Having them in well-drained soil, in a sunny, sheltered position, should normally be sufficient. The flower in the next picture is unfamiliar to me, and there wasn’t a label, so if anyone knows what it is, please let me know.

Unidentified, but striking – actually, I’m wondering if this isn’t a form of salvia

Apparently the gardens were created in 1983, but look as if, like the house itself, they’ve been there for centuries. It isn’t clear from the website, but I suspect many of the solid features – walls, pillars and gateways – are original.

Doorway to autumn!

Beyond this doorway, a grass path curves around, adding (cliche alert) a sense of mystery…

There are lots of hydrangeas at Wollerton; particularly the paniculata types, which in my opinion are the best. This magnificent specimen is Hydrangea ‘Unique’ (except it isn’t, because I’ve seen it elsewhere!)…

Wollerton is arranged as a series of themed areas, or ‘garden rooms’. This one is called the hot garden…

There are some decidedly cool colours in there too; particularly the blue aster making its late season entrance among the fiery dahlias and cannas. And there are a few cheeky little blue salvias invading this jungle-like banana and dahlia combination…

This is salvia ‘Amistad’; a large, beautiful deep blue variety with almost black calyces. Salvias are pollinated in a particular way. Called the ‘staminal lever mechanism’, when an insect (say, a bee) enters the flower, they weigh down a trigger that causes the stamen to press down on their back and deposit some pollen, which they then transport on to any other flowers they visit. Except, some bees struggle to get all the way into the flower. So instead, they cheat; biting through the base of the flower to get to the nectar. Here’s one in action…

A peep at the old hall itself, hiding among the salvias…

This is the upper rill garden (not to be confused with the lower rill garden). The design makes full use of different levels, from the height of the standard trees, through the mid-level hydrangeas in large terracotta pots, right down to the rounded shapes of box at ground level. And all of it reflected back up through the surface of the water in the formal pond. The plants are set out like chess pieces facing each other…

Back in October the cafe was still open, albeit with social distancing measures, and masks to be worn when not sitting at your table. It’s an attractive interior space, and I seem to remember the staff were friendly, and the cakes were very good.

The plant sales were limited due to the pandemic (I hadn’t realised it can be transmitted to plants) but I couldn’t stop myself from buying a couple of salvias. Unfortunately they’d had a run on ‘Amistad’, so I picked up a couple of other varieties, including a vibrant red one called ‘Royal Bumble’ – one for my very own hot garden.

To have such a wonderful garden so close to where you live is a great privilege , and not one I intend to waste. I’m going to buy a season ticket, and visit often; I’m looking forward to watching the garden as it changes throughout the year.

Wollerton Old Hall Garden re-opens at the end of this week (Easter Friday).

Text & photos © Graham Wright 2021

Wooden plant label trials

I’m trying to get away from using plastic as much as I can. I have a supply of plastic plant labels that I re-use and re-use, but they’re getting worn and brittle, and so I’ve started to look for more sustainable replacements. Over the winter I did a little trial of wooden labels. I planted up pots of bulbs – tulips, daffodils and alliums – and labelled them using a variety of wooden labels. Some were re-purposed, others were shop bought; specifically intended to be used as labels. I wrote on them in pencil, as I’ve found this to be by far the best implement when it comes to the plastic labels – I haven’t come across any ink that doesn’t get washed off in time. They’ve only been in the pots since November, and so I’d say the results were disappointing.

The first is a wooden toothbrush handle (I cut off the bristles!) The writing is still there, but it’s barely legible…

The emerging leaves tell you more. If I zoom in to the photograph I can just about read ‘ Allium christophii‘. And on closer inspection, I can pick up ‘Queen of Night’. Interesting that the alliums are more advanced than the tulips.

The next pot has two labels…

These haven’t weathered too well either. Curiously, the writing is much clearer in the photo. There’s that old cliche of the camera never lying – well I can barely read these in real life. The one on the right (for Allium hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’) is one of the shop bought labels. They’re laminated, and as you can see, the layers of wood veneer are separating. Unfortunately I’ve thrown away the pack, and I can’t remember the make (or, fortunately, for the manufacturer and the garden centre!) In fairness to them, this hasn’t happened with all of these labels. The one on the left (for Tulipa ‘Princes Irene’) is a very thin, balsa wood type which I believe was handed out free as a drinks stirrer (I don’t usually accept these, but it was during the pandemic, and I think I wasn’t given the option). Despite their flimsy nature, these stirrer have fared the best. As you can see from the next shot…

They’re both the same shape, I just tried them different ways up. The writing is still relatively clear on this one (reminding me that I’m lucky enough to have Tulipa ‘Princes Irene’ in two pots – Hurrah!)

So, not exactly a scientific study, but it has given me an indication of just what a challenge it will be to find plant labels that perform as well as the plastic ones. It isn’t easy being green! I’d be interested to hear any experiences you may have had with plant labels in sustainable materials…

Allium christophii, just before reaching their full, spherical shape. Christophii are one of the most unusual, interesting alliums. They look almost as if they’re made of metal; very striking, and very beautiful.

Text and images © Graham Wright 2021

Lovell Quinta Arboretum

It’s been a difficult year. For too long we’ve all been trapped; unable to visit the places we love, and those we’d love to discover. When Autumn arrived, and having missed out on so many garden visits, I was looking for somewhere to see some autumn colour. A web search suggested the nearest arboretum to where I live (about an hour away) was the Lovell Quinta arboretum in Swettenham, Cheshire. It’s just down the road from Jodrell Bank – the arboretum was created by Sir Bernhard Lovell, who was also responsible for the Lovell telescope at Jodrell bank.

The Lime Avenue

The arboretum entrance is beside the Swettenham Arms pub, in the little village of Swettenham, and after somewhat longer than an hours drive, it would have been rude not to pop in for a socially distanced coffee and desert. Refreshed and ready to go, we (Mrs Pullingweeds and myself) headed for the trees. The entrance fee is £2.50 with an honesty box at the entrance. It’s free to RHS members, but I felt they were underselling themselves, so we put a fiver in.

Our visit was perhaps a little early to catch the very best of the autumn colour, but there was still a lot to see. They had a Taxodium distichum (Swamp Cypress) planted as a focal point behind the lake…

Taxodiums are, as the common name suggests, one of the few trees that will flourish in waterlogged soil. They are deciduous, and produce good autumn tints. The lake looked somewhat scruffy, with a low water level, but that’s because it’s managed for wildlife.

The arboretum has an impressive avenue of Lime trees, from which pale yellow confetti was falling at a slow but steady rate…

This old oak had a hollow trunk, and exposed wood showing intricate patterns…

The arboretum has an astonishing range of trees, with those of different types arranged together. It holds national collections of Fraxinus (Ash) and Pinus (Pine). I was interested to see a little grove of Dawyck beech – Fagus sylvatica ‘Dawyck’, ‘Dawyck Gold’ & ‘Dawyck Purple’. Last winter I planted two of these in our garden; one each of ‘Dawyck’ and ‘Dawyck Purple’. You would need a very large garden to accommodate two standard beech trees, but the Dawyck varieties are tall, columnar trees. They give you the height and grandeur of a large tree, but only spreading to a width of around 2.5m to 5m, depending on who you believe (and perhaps it may depend on the individual specimen – trees of the same variety are not identical; they’re all individuals, with their own character).

I loved this combination of Eucalyptus (I can’t remember the variety) with the finely cut leaves of a rowan (I think this one is Sorbus commixta ‘Embley’). With the blue sky in the background it could almost be Australia…

I said we were there before many of the trees had reached their autumn peak, but our timing couldn’t have been better for this deciduous euonymus (Euonymus alatus ‘Compactus’)…

There are longer walks leading out from the arboretum, with some great views out over the Cheshire countryside, and of an impressive brick viaduct. Being limited for time (when are we never not limited for time!) we didn’t head out too far. We spent a couple of hours wandering through the arboretum, admiring the diverse beauty of all those trees, enjoying the peace and quiet. It’s a place that I’m sure we’ll b going back to this year (lockdowns allowing).

I was very restrained when it came to taking photographs – I probably could have taken more, but hopefully the ones here will act as a teasing preview that will encourage you to take a look yourself, should you find yourself anywhere near. It’s a Lovelly day out! Ouch! Bad, I know, but it had to be done ;¬]

text & images ©Graham Wright 2020