Thursday, March 8, 2018

The dwarf winter irises

Have you ever bought a packet of the dwarf, winter flowering irises, planted them out in a nice sunny spot in Autumn, watched them flower the first year and then dwindle away?  If that's the case you're not alone.  It's a common lament amongst gardeners.  No wonder we treat beauties such as Iris reticulata 'Katherine Hodgkin' as temporary treats, re-bought annually.

Iris reticulata 'Katherine Hodgkin'
At The Garden House they treat them a little differently.  The Bulb Meadow is an area of the garden on a North facing slope, well drained with the addition of grit to the underlying shale soil, and annually mulched with shredded bracken from local Dartmoor farms.  Summer herbaceous planting - hardy geraniums and begonias - ensure the roots remain cool and dry and this enables the bulbs to increase rather than diminish year on year.  They're also grown in cool beds that will be shaded by shrubs in the summer.  It's a policy also advocated by Broadleigh Bulbs, a prominent UK grower of these pretty little treasures.

The net result is a display of these winter treasures that recurs year after year.  Long may it continue.

Iris reticulata 'Katherine Hodgkin'

Iris reticulata 'Alida'
Iris histrioides 'Angel's Tears'

Iris histrioides 'George'

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Snowdrops at The Garden House

Galanthus elwesii ’Monostictus’
I am not a galanthophile, a passionate lover and collector of snowdrops.   In common with most gardeners I can’t help but like their cheerful indifference to the worst of winter weather but I’ve never been interested enough or had the room to grow more than a handful.  But spending the colder months of 2016-17 photographing the collection built up at The Garden House by Matt Bishop, the previous head gardener, has opened my eyes to their beauty and variety.

Galanthus reginae-olgae

The Garden House had no sooner closed for the winter season than the first of them had opened.  Early November saw Galanthus elwesii ’Monostictus’, closely followed by G.reginae-olgae.  December saw more until the floodgates opened in January and February.

Galanthus elwesii 'Fly Fishing'
The giant snowdrop, G.elwesii, with silvery
leaves and the largest flowers, is an imposing sight no matter the variety.  It’s hard to pick favourites – I leave that to the true experts – but I was certainly taken by two I photographed in mid-January.  ‘Fly Fishing’ is characterised by extremely long flower stalks.  The slightest breeze and the blooms dance in the wind.  ‘Godfrey Owen’ has six inner and six outer petals producing a symmetrical bowl shaped bloom. A perfect double flower – if not the doubling we normally associate with snowdrops.

Galanthus elwesii 'Godfrey Owen'
With doubles it’s more common to have an intense doubling of the inner petals and no doubling of the outer petals.  Photographing this isn’t always easy for snowdrops growing in the garden.  They’re small and hang their heads down – which means working at ground level, usually with wet knees.  But, with persistence, they do reveal their secrets.  More refined is ‘L.P Long’, particularly when compared with the blowsier ‘Lady Beatrix Stanley’.

Galanthus 'L.P.Lomg'
Galanthus 'Lady Beatrix Stanley'
There are times when the situation makes it easy to photograph up and into the heart of the flowers.  G.nivalis Sam Arnott’ is grown in a raised bed under the wedding cake tree, Cornus controversa ’Variegata’, perfectly positioned to admire the green markings on the inner petals.

Galanthus nivalis 'Sam Arnott'
Such markings are standard on the inner petals of most snowdrops  but the effect is more pronounced and even extends to the outer petals in some of the selected forms grown at The Garden House. Some have the conventional snowdrop flower shape, as with G.’Alan’s Treat’ or G.plicatus ‘Greenfinch’.  Others, such as ‘Trumps’, begin to deviate from the normal form.

Galanthus x hybridus 'Trumps'
Galanthus 'Alan's Treat'
Galanthus plicatus 'Greenfinch'

Some varieties take this even further, combining heavy marking with elongated outer petals.  G.nivalis ‘Walrus’ retains elegance but looks very little like a normal snowdrop while G.’Doncaster’s Double Sharlock’ offers even further variation on the norm.  Fascinating curiosities that were a pleasure to photograph and admire.

Galanthus nivalis 'Walrus'
Galanthus 'Doncaster's Double Sharlock'
This is only a fraction of the collection at The Garden House.  There are many more interesting variants on the basic white with green markings snowdrop design to be seen on the open days in Winter.  If you've previously visited I hope this will be a reminder to drop in again.  If not, well the open days and directions to the garden can be found on The Garden House website.  Visit The Garden House for the latest details.

I’ll finish with my own favourites, the varieties where green has been replaced with yellow in the ovaries and the markings.  And what better to illustrate this than G.plicatus ‘Wendy’s Gold’, which flaunts itself close to the entrance to the garden.

Galanthus plicatus 'Wendy's Gold'
I'll be out at The Garden House throughout this winter to add more photos to the collection.  The images are available for purchase through the Alamy stock agency or by contacting me directly.  Many of the species and varieties are available through Matt Bishop's own website.  Matt Bishop's Snowdrops contains all the details and a link to his publications and detailed monograph on the genus (co authors A.Davis and John Grimshaw).

Monday, November 7, 2016

A final flourish

The Garden House is now closed until March but it certainly went into hibernation with a final flourish.  The Acer Glade was originally planted with 40 varieties of Japanese maples at the end of the 1970's.  They've grown, of course, and seem to colour up more spectacularly every year.  This year has been no exception and, aided by warm days, cool nights and very moderate winds, the colour has been glorious.  It's certainly yielded some interesting photos.  As always, click to embiggen.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

How fast do Dicksonia antarctica tree ferns grow in the UK - the saga continues

On 4 April 2014 I published a update on the growth rate of the Dicksonia antarctica tree fern in my Plymouth garden.  Two years and three growing seasons further on it's time for another update.

Measured this afternoon in now stands at 46.5 in / 118cm from ground level to the height of the growing point.

Dicksonia antarctica in the rear garden 20/10/2016
This represents a fairly moderate slowdown in growth since I last reported.  Graphically it can be represented as follows:

Dicksonia antarctica trunk growth rate in inches
Still not too bad.  There are many shrubs and dwarf conifers that can't manage this amount of height extension despite ultimately growing larger than the Dicksonia.  It can probably be explained by two factors.  Firstly trunk extension is being matched by a increase in trunk girth and this all takes energy. The fronds are larger and heavier, requiring a thicker stem for support, so the earlier growth spurt is beginning to diminish.  Secondly, watering and feeding has been reduced over the last couple of years.  I've had other preoccupations and constant attention has diminished.  Taken together, growth has slowed a little.  Still encouraging, though.  Plant a number of young (cheap!) sporeling ferns in a lightly shaded spot, nurture well and 15 years later you could have a grove of specimen plants with nearly 4ft stems and their palm like rosettes of fronds.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Working in the walled garden - part the first

Throughout July and August and now into early September the walled garden at the Garden House has looked spectacular.  In particular, the lowest of the four terraces on the hillside below the house, within the walls and ruins of the 15th Century vicarage has been a delight to photograph.

View across the lower terrace borders towards the tower at the Garden House
One trick I've been using is to get height by mounting the camera on a monopod and hoisting it up into the air to give me photo viewpoints at the 10-12ft/3-3.5m level.  It's a bit hit and miss - but when it works it gives me a view over the Phillyrea angustifolia var. rosmarinifolia hedges that are a wonderful feature of this part of the garden.  Planted as an experiment to provide an alternative to the increasingly disease prone box hedging, they're cut three times a year to a narrow topped vertical accent that sways and undulates if the wind gets hold - or a vagrant hand should happen to brush the hedge in passing.

Effectively, they divide the lower terrace into separate planting areas that can be individually themed amidst the overall theme of hot colours at this time of year,  It also leads to some attractive patterns - as with this zigzag of the hedges and the central grass path all framing the tower.

Hedges and grass path produce a zigzag affect leading to the tower at the Garden House
There are a couple of viewpoints that allow a higher vantage without the need to hoist the camera on high.  The window of the tower, visible in the shot above, provides a great vantage point for an overview of the west end of the lower terrace.

Overview of the west part of the walled garden lower terrace taken from the tower
There are also views from the top of the tower.  Regrettably, I suffer from vertigo* so you won't see many of those on this blog.

Given the wealth of colour and interest in this small part of the overall garden it's hard to pick out favourite combinations.  But here's a couple to whet your appetite.  I'll add more in part two of this post.  After I've updated my Dicksonia antarctica growth posts with the latest stats.  It's grown a bit more.

Astilbe, Helenium and cactus Dahlia in the lower terrace of the walled garden

Phlox, alstroemeria, Black mondo grass and Dahlia 'Summertime' in the lower terrace of the walled garden
*Strictly speaking it's not vertigo.  I actually suffer from a fear of standing on any unstable surface and of grounds.  Specifically, of hitting the ground at gravity accelerated speed after a fall from height (any height will do) due to the unstable surfaces.  If my footing is stable I'm - theoretically - OK to gaze down bottomless chasms.  Not many of those around Plymouth so I'm rarely tested. However, I don't care how stable they are, do not invite me to walk across glass bridges.  My reply will not be polite.

Friday, July 8, 2016


One of the features of the Garden House is the use of naturalistic planting in a number of different areas in the garden,  Drifts and mixtures of plants - annuals, perennials, shrubs - planted and allowed to seed around to produce tapestries of colour and interest.  It requires a lot of maintenance to avoid thugs taking over but, done well, it can produce some magical effects.  Different combinations and plants dominate at different times of the year.   Late June and early July is highlighted by the annual poppies.

Papaver rhoeas is the Flanders poppy, a common European and British annual that thrives in cultivated land.  The seeds can lie dormant for decades, only to sprout when exposed to light.  Open pollinated variations on the basic red, pink or white theme are all over the Summer garden, Cottage garden, and Bulb meadow, producing bright colour for the start of the long summer season.

Papaver rhoeas provides bright colour in the Summer Garden....

....and in the cottage garden....

..and in the bulb meadow
Most of these are the descendants of an initial planting of Shirley poppies.  Bred from a single seedling found by the Reverend William Wilks in late Victorian times they are characterised by a white centre rather than the black of the wild type.  Two examples are shown below.
Pink flowered Shirley poppy

Red flowered Shirley poppy
Unless rigorously rogued they can revert to type - but enough survive to produce very interesting contrasts with their attractive colouring and crumpled petals.  Tough and hardy, once you have them they will always be there, even if as dormant seeds waiting for the kiss of sunlight as you turn over a bit of the garden.

Much the same can be said of the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum.  Dozens of different seed strains are available, singles and doubles, in a bright variety of different colours and colour combinations, but all having the waxy, glaucous foliage that tells of their arid land origins. Personally, I find them a bit overblown - except when the buds are unfurling.  Then, their beauty is at its most evident.

Unfurling bud of a double flowered opium poppy, Papaver somniferum

Thursday, June 9, 2016

More from the Garden House

Even though it means getting up at stupid o' clock to shower, eat breakfast, walk Polar bear the frog hunting terrier (we lost Pippa earlier this year at nearly 15 years old, advanced old age for a greyhound), and driving for 20 minutes or so it's worth it to get into the Garden House early on a summer's morning.  The air can be still, the light good - especially if there is some cloud cover - and the plants at their freshest.  It produces some inspiring images.

The Ovals Garden at the Garden House
This section of the garden links two levels with a set of steps and oval pathways constructed of drystone walling and high quality paving to produce a delightful meandering walk down a fairly steep slope.  Replanted this year, it will look better and better as it matures.  With shapes and curves to lead the eye to the summer house at the top it's a photographers dream - and, with the restoration of some of the old planting including a river of blue Corydalis flexuosa running down the centre of the Ovals, also a gardener's dream.

One of the areas it leads to is the Tennis Court Terrace and some idea of the drop can be gauged from the height of the backing wall.

Part of the tennis court terrace border and backing wall looking back to the house
This area comes into its own later in the summer, although lupins and Primula pulverulenta provide contrast with the Wisteria and Rhododendrons on the upper terrace.

Halfway along the tennis court terrace is a set of steps leading up the upper terraces below the house. Framed correctly, these, and the pathway leading down to the the lower part of the walled garden, present a very pleasing picture, inviting you to step in and up.

Tennis court terrace pathway and steps
The whole garden is designed to reveal itself slowly with different views and vistas opening up during a walk around.  The design is complimented with the planting.  Only the best is grown here, in keeping with the philosophy of the garden's founders.

For example, Morea huttonii, a slightly tender South African iris relative, thrives in the summer garden, starting the season with elegant yellow grace.

Morea huttonii produces yellow flowers on long stems in the Summer garden
Here it's given the space it needs to produce a dominant feature in its season, while still complementing the other, later flowering inhabitants of this area.  I admire the planting.  No wonder horticulture students go on from here to top positions in prestigious gardens.  I can see my hardest job will not be finding things to photograph but having the time to photograph everything that demands attention.  I look forward to the challenge.