Robinson College: Old with New and Mistletoe too. (1)

I was very surprised to find a garden open for the National Garden Scheme on Monday 2nd January.  So with Christmas and New Year safely over for another year we set off on a bright but very cold day to  visit Robinson College, Cambridge. The first of my 90 garden challenge.

None of the familiar yellow signs were displayed because this is a garden open most of the year. Directed by the NGS Gardens to Visit book, we entered through the Porter’s Lodge.  It is the proceeds from the garden guide that you buy from the Porter which are donated to the NGS.  The guide is a complete joy and provides the history, a comprehensive list of the plants and maps:


Entering the very modern courtyard we were disappointed to find the chapel with its John Piper windows was not open.


The entrance to the garden was not terribly obvious and it took us a little while to figure out which steps to take.

Up and over a stairway we found ourselves in the college garden. It is icy cold and the bridge is a touch slippery. Leaving the main building behind us we crossed over the Bin Brook into what is an amalgamation of gardens from Edwardian to Modern.


It is not specifically a winter garden as such but there was plenty of interest, either in the form of colourful bark,

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or winter flowering shrubs such as  Mahonia with yellow flowers exploding like fireworks.


The Sarcococca or winter box generously lining the path was smelling a dream.


Throughout the gardens there are plenty of places for scholars to sit, to think and to dream. Was the sail-like stainless steel sculpture meant to imitate the shape of the Wellingtonia (sequoiadendron giganteum ‘Pendula’) growing across the flat lawn. Or is it the other way round?


“Sailing into the future’ by Philip de Koning

Also called the Weeping Redwood, this mighty tree is almost human in form and looks as if at any moment it might pick up its branches and lumber right across the lawn.

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A beautiful vase stands in front of an older college building,


and to the side is a cluster of seed heads of Verbena bonariensis which add a little interest and highlight the smoothness of the green beyond.


Even the unripened figs are a delight in the morning sun.


Not all the buildings are modern and at the entrance to this house is the inevitable bike with a Jasmine nudiflorum growing magnificently.


A metal fence with a central moongate not only provides a frame for the newly planted ivy Hedera hibernica to climb but also divides an eating area:


The Bar table seems refreshingly modern but somehow keeps a natural feel. The giant golden oat Stipa gigantea brighten the border behind.


Lutyenesque steps are an striking feature and also cleverly link a serious drop in ground levels.

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Round the corner a splash of colour catches my eye, cyclamen so small yet so bright:


Old, old espaliered apple trees stretch their boughs along the straight path.


The outdoor theatre was created in memory of Maria Bjornson a celebrated stage designer. The empty stage now waits for its next summer performance:


Mistletoe Viscum album inhabits the surrounding trees growing on the outside of the college grounds; always so high up in the branches and out of reach,


within the garden it grows on the apple trees at eye level. You just don’t appreciate how very pretty it looks; the opaque berries are enchanting.


We were the only visitors in the garden that morning except for one Japanese student,  the odd squirrel, a noisy cock pheasant and much to his surprise, and ours, a muntjac deer. Sited on the other side of the pond and viewed from many angles are two ghostly objects apparently in silent communication:


“Conversing Figures” by Christophe Gordon-Brown

We return to the main college building. It is the juxtaposition of the old and the new which is so striking; an aged tree lies propped up in front of the modern red brick building.


The sound of rushing water can be heard as it travels under the many levels of brick  passageways,


and it is the many layers of gardens that have been so absorbing. We have enjoyed the sculptures and the spaces throughout the garden; the enclosed and the open, the wild and the tamed, the formal and the relaxed with a huge variety of plants and trees. It is  a perfect garden for the scholar not just to sit, study and contemplate but also to eat, watch and even to act. We look forward to returning in the summer.


NGS – not quite. (2)



It is always very pleasing when someone phones and invites you to visit their garden with a view to opening for the NGS and hopefully being included in the wonderful yellow book.


So the other day I grabbed fellow volunteer Graham (a serious horticulturist and garden owner) and we took up the invitation to visit my second garden of the year.

You may think January is not the best time to judge a garden; however this is when you can see the backbone and get a real sense of the structure. There is no distraction of how good someone else’s rose might be whilst yours is struggling, or whether you are overwhelmed by the dislike of a colour or a plant which might be filling the borders. This is the time when each area is stripped down to the minimum and the harmony and overall design is clearly revealed.

The garden owners were very keen to open. It was a neat garden. They planned to have chickens and a few animals; however it was small which should not necessarily prevent it being in the scheme but it was also rather short on interest.


We suggested visiting the next door neighbour’s garden and they were keen but even combined, the gardens did not really seem up to the mark to be open to the public. Then there was the huge problem of nowhere to park plus the difficult access onto a very busy main road. Teas it was suggested, could be served in the small summerhouse; however what if there is a cloudburst, and you have to remember that this for some visitors is the most important part of the garden.

It is a tricky moment when you have to say thank you, but no thank you. Many might perceive this as a rejection. I would like to call it a postponement. We departed amicably, a garden not quite ready for opening and reiterating the advice to keep on gardening and visiting other gardens.



Trentham’s Capabilities (3)

Yesterday I was lucky to combine my visit to Staffordshire with a private garden tour at Trentham. An event organised to raise funds for the NGS; what better way to bring such a large public garden into the Scheme?

Every garden tells a story and head gardener Carol was brilliant in giving us Garden History, Horticulture and masses of Enthusiasm. Not knowing anything about Trentham, I was grateful for the brief history of the site, the rise of the family and the knowledge of their departure following the pollution of the River Trent.

We began by the lake, dazzling in the sun and being enjoyed by rowers and wildfowl. Charles Bridgeman’s plan shows it straight and formal; it was then enlarged in area by Capability Brown who insisted the lake be dug to a depth of only 4′  – enough for a man to stand in. An accident had occurred on one of his earlier sites  where the lake was much deeper and he did not want a repetition at Trentham. Across the water on a headland,  we could imagine the lone piper in the early morning standing under the Cedar of Lebanon, playing his bagpipes for the Duke of Sutherland.

We walked through the ‘rivers of grasses and perennials’ designed by Piet Oudolf, an area best in late summer and autumn but still providing texture and height. dscf7437

The right plant in the right place makes economic sense in a garden of this size. Carol points out tiny cyclamen coum peeping out from under the yew tree busy defying the drought conditions. She no longer plants snowdrops as they are eaten constantly by battalions of mice. I do however catch sight of one large galanthus:


We pass by the sad remains of the decaying orangery with its overgrown wisteria. Fenced off and out of bounds, it is a reminder of an age of grandness now lost for ever. Carol hints of a restoration plan and we can but hope.


We arrive at the platform built on the site of the long gone house.

DSCF7466.jpgHere laid out on a vast wide terrace below and in front of the lake, is Charles Barry’s Italianate Garden. The blighted box is slowly being replanted with euonymous and the borders which were once filled by the Victorians with bright annuals, now have been given a contemporary lift with perennials, the hand of Tom Stuart-Smith.


Brown spent twenty years at Trentham and it is quite proper that a bronze statue should celebrate his tercentenary, and standing in what was previously his landscape and now Barry’s formal garden, what would Mr. Brown think? Weighing in at 6 tons it would be quite a job to re-position him.


Moving away into the wider landscape, I can’t help but notice the constant traffic noise from the M6 in the far distance. However we are kept amused by the huge metallic dandelion heads rising above us and Carol keeps us enthralled with tales of the Georgian boat house and also of the icehouse now in ruins.


Much has been cleared of the wretched rhododendron ponticum and in place are great plans, drawn up by Nigel Dunnet and already begun, of a variety of understory planting in a sizeable area of woodland.

Trentham is indeed a landscape of great ‘capabilities’ and it has a history of taking only the best advice. There is an energy to it which engages diversity, regeneration and sustainability, all aimed at the garden tourist.

After 2 1/2 hours, we are a little chilled, to say the least,  but so much the wiser.  Dusk is falling and the swans are snucking up for the night. Rarely have I had so much pleasure out of £5.50.



The Well Nourished Garden (4)

There was nothing to commend the weather today. We were promised rain and it came. Cloudy and with poor light the roads in Bedfordshire were dirty grey. In the centre of Ampthill we found the NGS signs pinned to the lamp posts brightly pointing the way to the King’s Arms Garden and thank heavens, because the King’s Arms has long gone.

Through an alley way and down what we would call in Norfolk a loke, we were able to admire the new style posters which have been created for this NGS 90th year; the yellow has become buttery, the writing in a style which looks hand written. Oh, and a garden gate. Slightly Quirky?


We found the entrance to this small garden originally created on poor ground in the 60s by a retired horticulturalist, a Mr. Nourish, it is owned by the Town Council.


Hey, and the gate is just like the one on the poster! The entrance is neat, and there is  an air of orderliness with a lovely smell of Winter Box.  


We are greeted by one of the helpful volunteer gardeners and it is solely volunteers  who maintain the garden. A useful sheet  identifies the plants and we are proudly told the history. On this wet day we are grateful to the council for providing their annual layer of woody bark along the paths. The paths meander through shrubs and trees, some deciduous, some evergreen and many labelled. There are flowering mahonias, viburnums and hellebores. Aconites are struggling through and our favourites, the  snowdrops grow  cheerfully through the rich brown earth. A volunteer comments disappointingly  on their late showing but they are far ahead of mine at home.


We round the corner and look enviously at the organised leaf bins which look like something you might find on a large estate somewhere rather than in a small enclosed garden tucked away next to a bowls club:


It is no wonder there is so much leaf fall as there are over 70 trees grown here. Who said trees are boring in winter? The naked branches are in themselves an art form:


The tulip tree still bears its tiny tulips on the twiggy tips:


While the birch quietly peels its own bark:


And the straight metasequoia reaches elegantly up to the sky:


Natural springs are responsible for the little streams which gently flow through the garden accentuating the area of the plot and culminating in a sizeable pond.

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I cannot resist buying a plant or two, sweet Box and snowdrop, a reminder of a remarkable garden nourished by hard work, community spirit and good cheer.  Mr Nourish would be well proud.


A Snow Drop of Knowledge (5)

Driving down to West Sussex last Saturday I decided to make a detour and called in on a small garden open in Kent. Not having had time to read up about Spring Platt I guessed it would have snowdrops.

As I parked the car my heart began to sink as I spied, not a mass carpet as expected, but a small patch growing under some trees. Walking up the hillside towards the bungalow I wondered whether I should have stayed on the M25.

My fears were soon alleviated when the delightful daughter of the garden owner greeted me and began to show me her collection of snowdrops. Growing in specially built raised beds set by the side of the bungalow they were growing in pots plunged into gritty soil:


All clearly labeled too, something Julie insists on because  it infuriates her when she goes to snowdrop collections and cannot find the label. The names are amusing and there are over 600.

The sun is beginning to shine. The knowledge is bursting forth and I am enthralled.

The season she explains begins at the end of October, with some varieties having already flowered. I am surprised but can see that ‘Peter Gatehouse’ is producing seed:


While others like ‘Upcher ‘are just appearing:


I admire ‘G F Handel’ who is playing nicely:

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‘Big Bertha’ is looking great:

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‘Hippolita’ is pretty special too.


While ‘Fenstead’ seems confused:


I could go on

and on ……….

Perhaps there is just one more, and that is the enchanting Lady Fairhaven:


And that is what it is like, hundreds of little gems.

It is not only the different markings on the flower petals that differentiate the species, but also the variety of the leaf in colour, form and size.

We walk up to behind the bungalow through an enclosed garden which has been designed for summer flowering plants and where no snowdrops are allowed. Following a skilfully laid path we arrive at the greenhouse and potting area.


Here we are joined by mum Carolyn. She gives a tour of the nursery area explaining the technique of chipping the bulbs, which she does from May onwards. The plants are lined out in various stages of growth, and checked regularly. It is a horticultural cottage industry and fascinating.

More raised beds are situated on the other side of the bungalow with yet more varieties:


I am introduced to a splendid golden form of ‘Ronald Mackenzie’:


and the rather special two headed chap called ‘One drop or Two’:


Naturally all this knowledge has made me hungry so I slip in doors where food is served from the kitchen. Just as a reminder that we are in the home of a galanthophile (such a hideous word) the table is festooned with books on the subject:


Enjoying my home-made soup and checking over the books, I am reminded of a sentence that often I recite in my talk on the NGS:

 ‘While Gardens opening in support of the scheme have changed in size and style, so too has what visitors are looking for. Education about plants, or ideas for design, often enriched by a conversation with the garden owner and a purchase of a plant cultivated in the garden.’

 And this is exactly what it is. It has been quite an education.

Time to be on my way again. Relieved not to have taken up the offer from my husband of a little more cash for my journey, I am restricted to buying just a couple of snowdrops.These are special and they don’t come cheap. For him it is has to be ‘Fly Fishing’:


And for me  ‘Roger’s Rough’, a locally bred snowdrop, a memento of a Kentish garden.

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The sky has brightened and opened up the views over the Kent Weald which are stunning, even on a February day and my knowledge of snowdrops has grown immensely.


——- 5 ——-



West Dean; A Perfection in Pruning (6)

Don’t tell me that people don’t visit gardens in Winter. They do. It was West Dean’s first day of the season, a bonus that they were opening in aid of the National Garden Scheme, and it was humming with visitors.

B and I consulted the map, not really sure why,  not from a fear of getting lost but I suppose because it was there.

We headed up to the walled garden along a path where the trees stripped of their lower branches and under planted with box, allow glimpses of the open lawn and beyond:


A stately deciduous tree stands, almost in defiance of man’s interference, it gracefully stretches out arms and bends hands towards the sky in supplication.


In the Apple store, a deliciously smelling, cool, round thatched building, we found the jolly Sussex NGS team. B herself is one of their garden owners and so much chat ensued.


The County Organiser, a volunteer here at West Dean showed us around and the work and devotion to horticulture is enviable. The Victorian Walled garden is filled with fruit trees. Apples and pear are espaliered and fanned against the walls and over arches:


Also cunningly trained around carousels and pyramids:


We wander along the neat box edged paths. This one echoes the crinkle-crankle wall:


and hello, the garden gates is open……..


….even the Head Gardener’s own gateway. So tempting to snoop but we have to resist as this garden is to be open another day.


Grateful to our guide we leave her handing out her county booklets and return to the main part of the garden where we delight in the abstract forms of box and are surprised to find it so very recently clipped:


There is no sun today but the Sarcococca, still fills the air with its heady scent. It too has received a trim:


It is good to have a friend with me; B and I discuss the merits of hellebores. We agree that although the dark maroon looks lovely, almost exotic when displayed in a vase, it is rather lost against the dark soil, unlike the paler colours which look bright even on this dull day:


I imagined there to be more ornament around the garden but of course Harold Peto’s huge pergola takes centre stage.  A sculpture itself, the reflection is also a work of art:


Vines are latticed around Petos’s sturdy pillars reminiscent of Tudor chimneys:


His attention to detail is magnificent:


As we circulate around the garden I think this must be a disabled visitor’s dream. Easy access all the way round on smooth spacious paths. Nobody knows what it is like to push a wheelchair until you have had to. An inviting tunnel clothed simply in ivy and anchored by the box balls:


We are not really sure about the fibreglass tree. At the very least it serves as an amusing conversation piece:

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Undeniably false but a bit of fun. The real thing is so majestic:


And the cornus provides vibrant colour.


More clipped shapes help to blend the cold flint walls to the garden.Time has run out for us today and we have yet to visit the Parkland walk and Arboretum.

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We will have to return to this garden in its glorious setting of the South Downs, and not just for those unexplored areas, but to try every one of the courses that the college can offer.


A Garden Designer’s Garden (7)

Norfolk NGS last week launched their county booklet at the home of George Carter. Over 90 of us gathered which included many of the garden owners, sponsor and advertisers.

Intrigued by what a designer might do on his own patch, so to speak, George Plumptre, NGS Chief Executive, having written articles on several gardens with which Carter has been involved, also joined us.

The rain bucketed down and the peacock (there is only one) sensibly keeping dry watched our arrival, seemingly unperturbed.


A record £110,000 was raised in Norfolk last year for nursing charities. Nicola from Macmillan Cancer Support thanked us for our contribution and reminded us of the importance of the NGS as its single largest donor; she enlightened us with the shocking fact that every day in Norfolk 15 people are diagnosed with cancer. This has a huge effect on the extended families.

The magnificent Barn, magically restored, is set amongst farm buildings. Cart sheds house all sorts of ephemera, and the yards are cunningly designed giving a pleasing and  orderly  effect that does not distract from their original use.


Elegant sturdy ornaments are found throughout the garden. Carefully placed they are not always as solid as you might think and are often lightweight, being made of modern materials.


Proportions are perfect but the water not so inviting on a day like today.


It is a working place with sheds storing carpentry, ironwork and anything that Carter considers might be reused in a future design.


By the farm building is an obelisk which defines the boundary of the property.


A full stop at the end of the leafy drive:


It is the attention to detail which is so immeasurable. Balls, cones and obelisks pop up everywhere including within the foliage. It is a lesson in geometry.


The elegant garden gate is open and invites in:


Whilst another is horticulturally amusingly:


This is a garden without a flower in sight. No snowdrop here. As Karen, a garden owner herself describes, it is like a theatre set and we are  expecting someone to appear in 17th century costume. Not today though, it is far too wet.


An apple made of lead and part gilded is a prototype for the design of a garden in America.


Carter makes his paths narrow and straight; they have a presence within the overall design.


Not just at the back of the house, but in the front too.


And to our delight he agrees to open his garden for the NGS next year. Sometime in October would be perfect. We are thrilled at the prospect. The last two cars are hauled out of the mud and Fiona skilfully changes her punctured tyre single-handed. That’s county organisers for you!



Snowdrops, Spike and Baked Off at Welford Park (8)

Grey skies seem an endless trait at the moment and it was indeed a particularly dull day when I set off from London along the dreary M4 to visit Welford Park.

Open for six weeks during the flowering period, today a Wednesday, was given over to the NGS. Was it perhaps a little too early in the season for the snowdrops and aconites? Not everyone thought so as there seemed to be plenty of cars in the car park.

I crossed over the busy road and walked along the chipped bark trail towards the gatehouse, a little concerned at the regimented line of planted snowdrops but at least content that they were in flower.


Turning the corner, my spirits were lifted not only by sight of the gentle covering of snowdrops either side of the drive, but also the seemingly curious interest displayed by a Muscovy drake, combined with the warm welcome from the NGS Berkshire team who were braving it in the cold.


So what had attracted me to Welford Park on this utterly bleak day?

Well, it happens to be one of the founding gardens to be open back in 1927, and secondly, apart from a beautiful house and the promise of drifts of snowdrops, it is has been the setting for three years of that wondrous contest The Great British Bake Off.

If you look very carefully you can see the marks left by the marquee.


And here are the very steps that our Mary would pop up and down. I say our because, after all, Mary Berry is the NGS President. At the top of the steps is Heather, who heads up NGS Berkshire. Overwhelmed by the size of the Tulip Tree behind her I fail to enquire into her baking skills.


We take a look at the enclosed garden by the side of the house. Reserved for those special cultivars of snowdrops it will be at its best in the summer. I wonder if stressed bakers might have slipped in here for a few moments of calm.


and perhaps found a little wisdom as we did, perched on a fork.


After grabbing a cup of coffee we pass by a garden gate charmingly framed by giant galanthus:


We are then joined by Peter, and more importantly his terrier Spike:


Snowdrops adorn the banks of the River Lambourn:


they grow both near:


and also stretch far:


more and more…….


We are amazed.  Tiny as these flowers are they create quite an impact when they are growing in such quantity. Contemplating whether trusty Spike might be more of an aconite chap, it is at this point that I discover that Peter, the great Crocus chief, is an NGS  Trustee himself.

Crossing back over the river and heading back towards the house we pass under the mistletoed lime avenue:


under which there are even more snowdrops, and an abundance of aconites:


Swathes of yellow in front of a perfectly proportioned house:


and a warm glow of cornus by the Bake Off lawn:


Without drawing Spike’s attention, we quickly passed by the dog cemetery and headed for warming soup.


Knowing that the garden owner is married to the Lord Lieutenant I asked her if she grew the snowdrop bearing that name. She had, and along with several other special snowdrops. Mrs Puxley related the story of how one day, a visitor rushed up to her waving a particularly precious flower in her hand: “I don’t know if you realise it but you have a very rare snowdrop” she reported breathlessly. Mrs Puxley could hardly believe that the visitor had possessed the temerity to pick her treasured bloom, and she nearly cried.

Another visitor had picked snowdrops for her buttonhole, “I hope you don’t mind” she haughtily said “but you do have so many”. Indeed Mrs Puxley did mind and asked her to remove them questioning what would happen if all the 10,000 visitors picked them.

I suppose in six weeks of opening there is likely to be some collateral damage but hopefully never on NGS open days!

With my purchase of a snowdrop named‘Brenda Troyle’ (who was she?), I set off for home. Daylight  rapidly diminishing as I leave through the open gate, so noble in stature.  A long drive home but it was so worth it.


Forty years on and still growing strong at Gable House (9)


After a wretched week of cold dull days Sunday 12th proved to be a killer. In snow, sleet and an easterly wind, I reluctantly set off in pursuit of Gable House, quite near to Beccles in Suffolk. Who on earth would want to visit a garden on such a day, even one that has been opening for the Scheme for 40 years? However,  I was pleased to find that I was not the only one and 80 hardy visitors had already beaten me through the garden gate.

The two inches of snow which had fallen that morning had almost melted. Entrance  to the garden is unpretentious, and a small path to the side of the garage brings you round to a vegetable garden.  Clumps of primroses are an attractive addition in the fruit cage and this productive area is divided from the rest of the garden by a row of espaliered apple trees several of which are smothered in mistletoe.


It is such a pretty plant and a joy to see close up. I had not realised, until the garden owner pointed it out, that the plant is dioecious. Naturally it is the female that bears the white berries.


Indeed white seemed to be the dominant theme today; Snowdrops flowered brightly throughout the borders. Good sized clusters carefully labeled, identify the many different varieties grown here. Galanthus ‘Atkinsii’ looks particularly charming:


And Galanthus ‘Richard Ayers’, named after that one-time great head gardener of Anglesey Abbey, bows his heavy  head.


I have learned a lot from my February garden visits about the snowdrop, and recently discovered a cultivar named Tilly. John the garden owner, assures me that he has seen her somewhere in his large collection.  Today she is proving to be a little elusive so I purchase the grey leaved and large flowered Galanthus ‘Brian Matthews’.


Another white flower and looking rather stunning is  Edgeworthia chrysantha.  An elegant shrub it is related to the Daphnes and as the name suggests, the flowers are similar to miniature chrysanthemum which dangle at the end of its branches.


It is always good to hear the sound of children in a garden. Here the garden owner’s grandchildren were enjoying the network of narrow straight paths, running up and down in T shirts they are happily oblivious to the cold.

Many of the trees are adorned with climbing roses and ornamental ivies. Along the outer perimeter path I  notice the shiny green leaves of the evergreen climber, hydrangea seemanii  healthy in its pursuit to reach the top of the tree.


The more I look at gardens in these early months, the more I wonder at the sculptural forms created by shrubs and trees in their natural winter guise.  A dizzy tangle of branches on this slightly unusual form of a persian ironwood, parrottia persica, in circulation 30 years ago John is not sure what it is called. How different this will appear come the summer.


A creamy white solid trunk is grounded by a colourful mat of aconites and cyclamen.


In some patches the cyclamen flower is not so dense, but on what other plant would you find such charming leaves. Fitting for a Valentine posy?


Also pretty in pink is a daphne, the closed flower buds just waiting to burst open when the sun finally comes.


There is a warm glow from the coppery-orange flowers of the witch hazel, Hamamelis x intermedia Jelena. No wonder the plants do so well here, the soil in the beds is looking enriched, well-cared for and fertile.


It is the scent not of the Hamamelis but rather the Sarcococca or Sweet box that pervades this garden in the greyness of today;  no garden should be without it.


Even the grasses still provide colour after the long winter, some still holding on to their shape after so many months of standing.


This garden is evidence of John’s knowledge as a plantsman and it is the greenhouse that is further testament to his horticultural skills. Despite the cold, he and his neighbour enthusiastically sell their plants displayed by the greenhouse. It is humbling to recall that this hard work and dedication is being undertaken for charity.


The visitors today are real enthusiasts, many of whom are clearly regulars. I pop into the conservatory where I find several of them keeping warm with a mug of soup.  I buy something tasty for my return journey, overlooked by these regal beauties who I am sure have been here for most of the past forty years:

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Dragons; a plantswoman’s garden. (10)



My friend Lesley who is into garden antiques (  has found me the perfect bird bath for my garden. So last Wednesday I headed down to Essex to collect it and incorporated a visit to the nearby Dragons, a 3/4 acre garden near Chelmsford.

Well, why would a garden be called Dragons? It is a legacy from the former owner’s children who used to play dragons in the garden and hence the name stuck. No children now but there is still a dragon who greets us at the entrance:


Curved paths lead us round from the neat front garden which is packed with an assortment of shrubs underplanted with snowdrops. The path emerges into a  dry shingle area where herbs and evergreens are resting in the weak sunshine. Bare twigs, like the rest of us, are longing for the summer warmth. Even at first glance it is obvious that this is a plantswoman’s garden.


Bare wooded shrubs are in evidence. Some are looking  distinctly oriental with slender shoots stretching and twisting outwards above bright aconites. A Red cornus grows guardsman-straight in contrast behind,


others appear bright against the evergreen hedge.


A black willow looks very striking.


And the corylus is tangled and gnarled.


As a child on rare visits to London, my mother would encourage me to look right up to the tops of building. It is a practice I continue to adopt but nowadays from beneath the trees  in winter.


A good sized ditch full of water is the boundary at the bottom of the garden, and here is a wooden gazebo hidden away and perfectly sited to admire the farmland and landscape beyond.


It is not all bare branches. At the base of a mature tree I find a tapestry of green emerging up the trunk.


We circulate around the garden admiring the well cared-for beds. In my most recently visited garden, John’s paths were straight. Here, Margot’s paths bend.  It just occurs to me to question if this is a gender thing? Do the men make straight paths whilst the ladies curve theirs? No doubt I will be proved otherwise.

There are more places to sit but I wonder if Margot ever has time to enjoy such a luxury.


At first glance  I thought this was a man-made garden sculpture. The seed heads of the cardiocrinum giganteum look as beautiful now in winter as their flowers must have done last summer.


The seed heads do not detract from the tidiness of this garden. My camera begins to use its flash as it detects the darkening skies. I introduce Lesley to the lovely Sue and Doug who, with a wonderful sense of humour devote their lives to the NGS and not just in Essex.


Rain has been forecasted for 3pm the exact time when Dragons is closing. Spot on cue the first drops appear. We head for the exit. Passing the back door there are raised beds cunningly hiding all those necessary things that need to be stored by the door. It is pleasing to see small plants at eye level and through the window too.


A little jewel of a hepatica


Oh and aren’t other peoples sheds so interesting. Look at the shining cleanliness of those tools!


Margot collects snowdrops and I try and avoid the ugly word ‘galanthophile’. She warns me off the word ‘snowdropper’ because it was not only a slang term used in 1920s for cocaine addicts, but also a turn of phrase referring to those who have a penchant for stealing women’s undies off clotheslines!

She digs me up some galanthus woronowii which has particularly glossy green leaves so strikingly reminiscent of its big cousin the Amaryllis.


It has been a difficult time personally for Margot, and I cannot help but admire her. She managed to ‘garden and carry on’ and single-handedly has somehow found the strength to open her garden. There were 50 grateful visitors today. That is not bad for midweek in February.

A dragon perched high up watches us leave.