Snowdrops at East Ruston Old Vicarage

Inspired by the eloquent voice of George Plumptre CEO of the National Garden Scheme announcing the start of the Snowdrop Festival I decided to visit East Ruston Old Vicarage Garden http://www.e-ruston-oldvicaragegardens.co.uk who were hosting their own Snowdrop Specialist Growers Day.

The owners Graham and Alan warmly welcomed us in the car park directing us to park under the crab apple trees which despite the cold, were still looking so good against today’s blue sky.

The entry fee was modest and it was good to see the knowledgeable Ian handing out the newly printed NGS Norfolk “Gardens open for charity” booklet. Nearby a Chusan palm trachycarpus fortunei, bathed in morning sunlight seemed to wave us on,

and around the corner the air was filled with the delicious scent of Daphne Bhoula ‘Jacqueline Postill’.

East Ruston has its own nursery, guarded by friendly dogs,

but it is for the snowdrops that we have really come, not carpeted on the ground but displayed in neat rows on tables by the keen and knowledgeable nursery people who breed them.

Known as ‘Galanthophiles’, it seems such a chunky word for these delightful collectors of such a tiny flowers. With so very many varieties how do you choose?

I am still very much in the learning stage, but with what might seem rather oversized labels it is easy to read their charming names. I am looking for Galanthus plicatus ‘Three ships’, an early flowering snowdrop often out before Christmas and discovered in a garden in Suffolk; I discover it is not on display so order if from Joe Sharman from Monksilver Nursery.

I spy a tray on the ground; characters in the waiting so to speak, and looking just how they do peeping through the snow.

Under this hat is John. It was in his garden a couple of years ago that I began to have my first stirrings of galanthomania and bought the beautiful ‘Tilly’. John and his wife Brenda will be opening their garden Gable House just south of Beccles for the National Garden Scheme on Sunday 17th February. Today I buy three more beauties to add to my modest collection, Trumps, Chequers and my first yellow Spindlestone Surprise.

With such fine purchases made, my friend and I celebrate with a sausage roll and a cheese scone in the tea room before walking round the garden. I have only ever been here in the summer so it is interesting to see the bare bones of the garden.

In the winter you notice the structures so much more, the archways, hedges and the elegant metal obelisks with their neatly trained roses.

It will be awhile before the plants emerge from this (frozen) water-filled magnificent container, but along with its great size it is the weathering of the copper to an attractive verdigris which we can admire today.

Planted in the beds are a variety of snowdrops; this good sized clump is ‘Colossus’ which sports rather handsome foliage.

With 30 acres of gardens to explore, it is easy to immerse oneself and forget that there is a world outside, just occasionally there is a little reminder; in the far distance Happisburgh lighthouse can be seen,

and on the other side of the garden the parish church is framed in the view.

It amazes me how some flowers can survive undamaged following a severely frosty night and this joyful Camellia is seemingly untouched.

It is during these winter months that we can appreciate and enjoy the rich tapestry of greens from stems and leaves,

and you cannot help but enjoy this great combination of Silver Birch, Cornus and Skimmia.

At first I am not sure whether it is my eyesight but this Pussy Willow growing gracefully in a pot is definitely pink; originally from Japan it is Salix gracilistyla ‘Mount Aso’.

It is at this time of year that you appreciate those clipped shapes whether it is in Box, Beech or Yew.

This tree on a corner is firmly rooted into the swirl of low Box hedging that seamlessly runs into the wooden bench.

The garden is divided into so many different areas, many of which will come into play in those warm summer months ahead; you might be forgiven for thinking the Desert Garden might be one of those, however today you would never know it is winter.

Walking back to the house we admire this striking seat framed by the hedge,

and the collection of neatly clipped topiary.

Then just by the house in the perfect place is an explosion of colour and scent, a Golden Mimosa Acacia¬†baileyana is underplanted with Coronilla¬†glauca ‘Citrina’.

Alan Gray can be heard most weeks on Radio Norfolk’s ‘Garden Party’ programme. He is an Ambassador for the National Garden Scheme and he will be opening his amazing gardens at East Ruston, Norfolk twice this year on Saturday 9th March and Saturday 12th October https://www.ngs.org.uk/find-a-garden/garden/12923

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A touch of wintery enthusiasm at St Timothee

On a very dreary, drippy-wet Wednesday last week I attended the first open garden event of the National Garden Scheme’s year held in the delightful private garden of St Timothee, just outside Maidenhead.

Garden owner Sarah welcomed us with coffee and cake, a particularly delicious slice of Orange and Almond. She then proceeded to give us an interesting illustrated talk about what she has growing in her garden at this time of year.

This is not especially a ‘winter garden’ but Sarah feels strongly that during these short and often grey days (and today was no exception) you need plants that catch your eye from the window and inspire you to get out into the garden.

January, Sarah reminded us, is named after the god Janus, the god of archways and doorways who is depicted with two faces looking backwards and forwards, which we can connect to this time of year as we cling on to the growth of the previous year whilst looking forward to what will shoot forth in the coming Spring.

The winter palette you might think is somewhat limited but Sarah explained that the key points to planting are shape, colour and scent; careful consideration should also be given to ‘hotspots’, those places that you regularly walk past or are in your frequent field of vision. Armed with umbrellas we followed her into the garden walking past a colourful Phormium,one of those bright ‘hotspots’

Sarah explained that shape can be observed at several levels; on the ground where the direction of lawns and paths lead, and the configuration of a border itself can be a thing of beauty. At the next level perennials including the huge variety of grasses can provide a lengthy season of interest.

Keeping seed heads are important as they are not only decorative but also provide food for the birds. These dark seed heads are from Phlomis russeliana.

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Sarah created this two acre garden a few years ago from a blank canvas but was fortunate to have inherited some mature trees. Inspired by the small book The Wood in Winter by John Lewis-Stemper she emphasised the importance of not only the solid shapes of evergreens like this robust yew,

but also deciduous trees either with graceful spreading branches,

or tall and straight as in this line of poplars at the edge of the garden.

Even the fiercely pruned fruit tree growing close to the house could be considered an art form.

Of course not all trees are naked at this time of year. A recently planted Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’, the winter flowering cherry will continue to give much pleasure in future years. 

Coloured stems are a great feature of this garden and Sarah feels it is important to underplant; the green of Cornus stolonifera ‘Flaviramea’ and the yellow Eranthis hyemalis the winter aconites, are a striking combination,

and the red Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’ looks good with the tiny flowers and attractive leaves of Cyclamen coum.

But the real show-stopper of coloured stems, even on a rainy day is Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ which positively lights up the garden and glows. Sarah comments on how she enjoys the now unfashionable pampas grass Cortaderia selloana ‘Pumila’ and reminds us that plants go out of favour through unnecessary plant snobbery and, as it is here, the right plant in the right place can be very effective.

Hellebores are a joy at this time of year, either planted in woodland or in clumps in the border by the wall.

Also peeping through are the Crocus ‘Snow Bunting, Sarah was a little disappointed that they were not further ahead and today the flowers were remaining firmly closed and their fragrance dampened by the rain.

However the Chaenomeles speciosa  was undeterred by the rain and the pretty white flowers were a perfect colour against the brick.

A simple knot garden adds great charm to the garden; planted with evergreen box and the silvery stems of Perovskia ‘Blue Spire’ it looks good all year round.

Box balls of various sizes are dotted around the garden; a focus point they also outline an entrance to a path or highlight the corner of a bed.

I love compost and leaf bins, which of course are an essential part of any garden but these have to be the most ornate I have ever seen.

There are touches of softening the hard landscape, and this ornamental evergreen grass does the trick on the edge of the York stone path,

and while we somehow never seem to regard Rosemary as a shrub with winter interest here it is brightening an area by the steps.

Finally, Sarah touched on the importance of scent and even on a wet day the Lonicera fragrantissima winter-flowering honeysuckle lifted the spirits and was smelling delicious.

Despite the rain it was a real joy to get out and visit a garden in January. Sarah is passionate about gardening and while she wants to share what she enjoys in her garden, she is careful not to tell us what we ought to be planting in our gardens.

The Winter palette might seem limited but there was enough to see at St Timothee to come away inspired to look once again at those hotspots and to enjoy our gardens a little more in winter.

Perhaps this might be the start of a trend for other garden owners to share their garden in winter.

The garden at St Timothee is open by arrangement for the National Garden Scheme and will also be open for the NGS on 14th and 15th June 2019. Sarah will be giving another talk and walk (a ticketed event) ‘Successional Planting’ on 14th August https://www.ngs.org.uk/find-a-garden/garden/33095/

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The Garden Museum

If you find yourself in London and you simply can’t face the noise and swirl of shoppers and traffic then I can recommend a quiet visit to the delightful Garden Museum located south of the river in a church right next door to Lambeth Palace.

The Church of St. Mary-at-Lambeth was made redundant in the early 1970s. Boarded up and ready for demolition it was fortunate that Rosemary and John Nicholson visited the churchyard in search of the tombs of the gardeners and plant collectors father and son John Tradescant . Subsequently the Nicholsons formed the Tradescant Trust which basically saved the church and converted it into the worlds first museum dedicated to Garden History. Glass doors quietly slide open doing away with that hideous clerical creaky door syndrome….

….inside it is spacious and well lit; a fantastic use of a parochial building, modern but without destroying that old ecclesiastical feel.

Delighted that my Art Fund pass ( https://www.artfund.org/national-art-pass) allowed me half price entrance I headed for the small room to the side which holds the present exhibition on the life and career of Humphry Repton (1752 – 1818).

Last year was the bicentenary of Repton’s death and there has been much research undertaken. This exhibition brings together objects, watercolours and some 24 of his Red Books. These leather bound books were his designs, works of art and a clever marketing tool for his commissions from clients up and down the country. One book stands out that is the grand design for Brighton Pavilion, yet it proved to be a commission Repton failed to win possibly due to the fact that he failed to respond quickly enough; you just cannot keep Royalty waiting.

Included in the exhibition is a short film, a clever digital animation bringing the art of Repton alive; the smoke seems to drift away in the far distance and with the soothing narration from Jeremy Irons you feel you are part of that landscape.

What I really enjoyed about this exhibition is how Repton’s legacy lives on. Although after his death he seems to have been rather forgotten in this country, he became a role model for American landscape architects who wanted to combine the design of buildings and landscape with horticulture and the science of transportation. Repton had advised his clients of the importance of ‘The approach’ incorporating it as a feature in the landscape. He was very interested in travel, enjoying roads as ‘a constant moving scene’ and felt they should not be hidden. His ideas influenced the design of the carriage rides in Central Park, New York.

‘Others prefer still-life, I delight in movement’ and Repton realised that we observe landscape at a fast pace (even from a carriage) very often from the curving sightline of a road and this theory of optics was applied to the new roads being developed for Americans to enjoy their scenery such as the Parkway and the Sky Drive.

With his ideas of integrating architecture and landscape, Repton became a major influence on Denis Lasdun, he of University of East Anglia fame.

A small photo shows Lasdun visiting Repton’s grave (which Repton designed himself) made into a Christmas card that I realise was sent from a family I had known in my childhood and suddenly I too felt I had made a tiny connection with the great landscape designer himself.

With much still to see of the museum I hurried on past a group being shown the Walcot room, a small library tucked behind the rood screen,


just glancing up at the little stained glass window above.

I moved on into a small room that houses a collection of ‘curiosities’. These items were collected by John Tradescant, gardener to Robert Cecil and later to King Charles 1. Tradescant created Britain’s first Museum not far away in Lambeth which became known as The Ark. Lawyer, friend and neighbour Elias Ashmole published a catalogue and when Tradescant junior died the collection was bequeathed to Ashmole and became the foundation of the Ashmolean Museum.

 Such items range from the cast of a Dodo head,

the rather quirky Barometz or ‘Vegetable Lamb’ believed to be half-lamb and half-plant from the 18th century,

 a glittering collection of shells,

to a Herball by John Gerard dated 1597 in which over 1,000 plants are described.

It is a very active museum and I suddenly realise that Elias Ashmole is speaking to me.

Upstairs is a glorious collection celebrating British gardening through the years. Suitable for all ages it is a delightful mix from paintings…

 a portrait of a relaxed Prince Charles greets us at the top of the stairs.

Many famous people connected to gardening have contributed archives and objects and it is a wonderful eclectic mix. Amongst the many items in the collection is a gardening hat belonging to garden designer Nancy Lancaster (1897 – 1994),

a Certificate of Good Service in the Women’s Land Army, yes that is all they got after ten years hard work.

And wouldn’t you have longed to give your wife this glorious lawn mower.

Amongst the displays are interesting information boards on a variety of plants – not too many just enough to realise the serious side of gardening.

and of course there just had to be a jolly old gnome.

From a small window in the Finnis Scott Gallery where you can become totally absorbed on the works of the Artist gardeners, you can look down and once again remember that you are in a fine building .

There is a good display of plans executed by various Garden Designers over the years, this masterpiece is by Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe (1900 -1996).

Video clips introduce us to influential landscape architects like Charles Jencks.

 At the other end of the raised gallery there is a fine collection of tools;

a 17th century glazed earthenware watering pot,

and even a standard potting shed with audible displays of the stories of six people and the different ways they have utilised their sheds.

The shed comes complete with a fine weather vane.

Within the walls of the museum is a small charming courtyard garden designed by Dan Pearson; all the plants growing are helpfully listed in a book,

and it is here that the fine tomb of John Tradescant can be found,

surrounded by a variety of all-year-round plants including the bright berries of Nandina domestica which reminds me that I still have not purchased this beautiful shrub yet.

Sadly on this occasion I do not have time to visit the award-winning restaurant; it is buzzing and smells divine and I can really recommend it from a previous visit.

The Garden Museum is a charity and the National Garden Scheme annually funds a trainee gardener here. Before today I had never really thought about the definition of a gardener, but the museum informs me that the first recording was ‘Edmund the Gardener’ who worked at Windsor Castle during the reign of King Edward l. In 1605 the profession was recognised by James l “for the trade, craft or misterie of gardening” and an apprenticeship took 7 years. By 1914 there were over 4,000 Head Gardeners in this country. And now?

The Garden museum is open most days but you can check for opening times on the website: https://gardenmuseum.org.uk/ do make a visit and take the children they would love it.

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