Saturday, 19 December 2009

Winter Colour

Winter colour in the garden is now easier to achieve than ever before.  No longer restricted to a palette of dark and glaucous evergreens with maybe heathers and a few berrying plants, the range of shrubs and small trees with coloured stems increases all the time. 
Within the genera of Salix and Cornus alone there is a wide variety of colour available, from subtly bronzed greens to vibrant reds, acid yellows and deep reddish blacks.  Careful combinations can yield brilliant effects, especially near water, where these plants thrive, and the range can be extended with the waxy white-bloomed stems of the ghost brambles, Rubus cockburnianus and R. biflorus. 
Add in the jazzy barks of the snakebark maples and the gleaming mahogany of Prunus serrula and you have the possibility of creating effects at least as colourful as those of summer, and given that we welcome anything bright in these darkest, coldest months, you may be given the licence to let rip with something truly psychedelic.  The effect has to be well-planned, however - these are big plants, needing to be viewed en masse and preferably at sufficient distance to haze the individual stems into a more general block of colour.  Across water, where the late, low sun can reach them, the combinations can be made dazzling, and if the planting is properly maintained, with old stems removed each year to allow vibrant new growth through, you are assured of fireworks for many years.  See the list of winter plants for some suggested varieties.

Monday, 7 December 2009


Few of our native plants have such an extensive and tangled mythology as the mistletoe, Viscum album. Reduced to a tiny sprig dangling forlornly from the light shade at Christmas time, this plant was in times past a powerfully magical symbol, only an echo of which now survives.
The plant is a semi-parasite, with roots that invade the body of larger woody plants to access minerals and water. Unlike fully parasitic plants it does photosynthesise, so is not dependent on the host for all its needs. In Europe this species lives happily on some 200 species of tree, although we tend to associate it with orchards. In Oxford there is a wonderful colony infesting the trees next to Magdalen Bridge, visible only after the leaves have fallen in autumn. The image is of a young plant growing conveniently low down on a small Sorbus near my house. The leaves, leathery and yellow-green, are paired on whippy stalks, with small clusters of the sticky, gelatinous berries in the axils. In overall habit the plant makes a decorative ball of foliage - a few years ago I bought an entire plant instead of the usual sprig, and was amazed by the intricacy of the 70cm ball of leaves and berries that arrived. It also looked much bigger in the house than it had in the market.

And so to mythology...

A magical plant as far back as the Ancient Greeks, mistletoe was thought to be the Golden Bough of Aeneas, the ancestor of the Romans. In early Christian tradition it had once been a tree, but the timber for Christ's cross was hewn from a mistletoe, since when the plant has been reduced to a withered parasite clinging to others, presumably as a punishment for allowing itself to be put to this use by the Roman soldiers. With a reputation for immortality mistletoe held, in Ancient Britain, a central role in the Druidical rites celebrating the winter solstice.

Finally its use as a Christmas decoration, which must have some connection to the midwinter ceremonies of the Druids. Though only recorded as far back as the 18th century, the use of mistletoe in the home still has shreds of earlier mythologies adhering to it - the mistletoe should not be allowed to touch the ground after harvesting, for instance. Originally the greenery would be kept in the house until Candlemas in early February, although other traditions have it hanging throughout the year as a preventative measure against fire and lightning strike (something akin to the old country practice of growing house-leeks on the roof) before being replaced the following Christmas Eve.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009


Of all the myriad materials used in exterior design (and the list increases by the week, usually at an exponential rate during the show-garden season), timber is easily the most versatile.

At the most basic level, it is structural. Thanks to its flexibility, great tensile strength, ease of handling and durability (when cared for) timber has an essential role to play in the safe creation of many garden structures (and most of the buildings we still live in). In this role it supports decking, stairways, roofs and floors, holds up gateposts and prevents doorways from collapsing.

Beyond this however is the great and inescapable fact of its natural good looks - even beauty - and this quality has been exploited for centuries to embellish the man-made environment, both indoors and out. Whether shaped or left in its native state, wood brings something of the primitive to the garden. As our first building material and the fuel for our earliest fires wood has claim to be as deeply rooted in the human subconscious as the tree is in the earth. Living and dead it has been of critical importance to our survival, sheltering and warming our species since its infancy. In the form of the living tree it continues to be a source of spiritual solace, although paradoxically the forest has also the capacity to inspire fear - the sinister beings of fairytale lurk there.

I think this is the source of its fundamental importance - trees are alive, as we are, and this (despite the fact that they can survive for many times the span of a human life) gives us a kinship with the material that is simply not possible with, for instance, stone. To see trees resisting the force of the wind, growing in the least promising situations, of such varied appearance and habit is to be halfway to imbuing them with personality, character and motives. So far as we know they possess none of these attributes, yet it is hardly surprising that our forebears viewed them as spiritual entities. Even reduced to decking planks wood has spring, resistance to the environment, something of life about it.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Looking good at the moment...

Crocus sativus
There is nothing quite like the pale purple-blue of this crocus, appearing as it does at the fag-end of the flowering season when pretty much all else is over and done.
It's a delicate thing, and can struggle in the gusts and heavy rain of late autumn, but with a few days of still weather and sunshine it's possible to get a great show. Pushing through the fallen leaves of a magnolia, this bloom shows the close-up loveliness of the flower, with the orange stamens glowing in the heart of it.
The stamens are the valuable culinary spice, saffron, and for this reason the bulb has been cultivated for centuries. Valuable for two reasons - the labour involved in harvesting any amount worth having is intensive, and the flavour is unique: there is no substitute for this curious warm, fragrant spice, nothing comparable for adding to cakes, bread, stews, puddings.
Highly prized in Northern Europe during the medieval period, when mixtures of savoury and sweet were all the rage, the spice was cultivated on a large scale around, for instance, Saffron Walden in Essex. Also essential in the cookery of the Levant, saffron is grown all around the Mediterranean, featuring heavily in the cuisines of Spain, Morocco and the Middle East - the finest spice is now grown in Spain, on the plains of La Mancha. Never buy ground saffron - like all valuable powders it is easily adulterated - but look for the whole dried stamens. Steer well clear, in particular, of the huge mounds of orange powder paint on display in the souks of Marrakech and markets of Spain, which clearly cannot be what the vendor claims. Invest well, enjoy the flowers and then relish your own saffron in a bouillabaisse, tagine, paella or humble saffron bun.

Thursday, 12 November 2009


It's time for those of us who fancy our chances in the International Garden Photographer of the Year competition to get busy. The deadline for entries is in a couple of weeks, with cash prizes and the glory of winning up for grabs.
I entered a number of images last year, with little expectation of success, and my expectations were fully realised. However, with my great new kit and a lot more practice I'm finding that I am starting to produce images that I feel have some real worth. I have much higher hopes this year, with one or two photos really standing out for me - the collage above shows some of my entries, but you can get a clearer view by visiting my photostream at Flickr, where most of the photos are grouped in their own set.
Fingers crossed!

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

A Sunny Courtyard

This is an image from the computer model of the design for my own garden, which is currently under construction.
The design on the ground is ridiculously simple, but it amazes me how much editing is necessary to achieve the end result - in a garden as small as this every element has to earn its right to be there. The key to the design is the large water tank in Cor-ten steel, completed yesterday and just starting to weather in the lashing rain today. This three metre long cistern anchors the whole garden, and the small gravel terrace is linked directly to it, establishing these two elements in a direct relationship. The water will be still - in such a limited space the sound of running water will be inescapable, and therefore irritating to me, in the same way those ghastly wind chimes clank incessantly.
The balcony to the first floor is being extended to the full width of the house, and beneath it will be a timber-clad 'room', increasing the usable space in the ground floor on fine days. From this projects a timbered catwalk, which will be the only access into the body of the garden, this linking to the little terrace. Enclosure and privacy will be subliminally implied by the elevated beam structure surrounding the terrace.
The temptation in a small space is to cram in all the features of bigger gardens, but on a reduced scale, but this just results in a fussy, over-elaborated space with insufficient room for anything to work well.
The only other element to this garden will be the planting, surrounding all these landscape features in a sea of vegetation, which will be the subject of future posts.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009


The poet Philip Larkin wrote that he would have used water if called in to 'construct a religion', conveniently forgetting that all the main religions already make use of this essential substance in deeply symbolic ways.
In exterior design water has always played a pivotal role - indeed the very first gardens were devised as ways of providing access to water and the shade of trees thus enabled to grow in otherwise hostile desert environments. In these settings too, water played a symbolic role. Water can soothe, excite, reflect the changing sky, provide focal points and demarcate pathways and routes of flow. In the grandest gardens it has often been used to define a dominant axis. It can be still, offering a chance for contemplation and allowing the eye to rest after the stimulation of a crowded and visually busy part of a garden, or it can move, making noises from the gentlest murmur to a galloping roar - although the gardens where this is possible are necessarily on the largest scale. In the history of landscape design it has been poured, sprayed, sprinkled, dripped, channelled, dammed and, just occasionally, left to its own devices.
In my own small garden I am having a large, free-standing tank constructed. This will be the dominant feature in the garden, and it will have water plants, fish (if the cats keep their paws to themselves) and in a few short weeks an ecology of its own. I can't wait for my first dragonfly - I'm banking on May next year. It will also, as in the photograph above, bring the sky down to ground level, reflecting light.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Late colour

This autumn has seen long periods of wonderful weather, extending the summer for us all. The tree colours will probably be at their best in the coming week or so as temperatures start to fall, but there is plenty of colour in gardens still, with leaves, fruits and berries all contributing. Here the fading butter-yellow leaves of the Whorled Solomon's Seal, Polygonatum verticillatum, are offset by the red berries, perched in the axils of the leaf stems. This is a terrific plant for dappled shade, particularly at this time of year, brightening up the darker corners of the garden.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Last night I dreamt of...

...Venice. The city I know as well as my home town, and love above all others. It is nearly two years since I was there last - far too long.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Now the real work starts...

Well, my efforts this year have really paid off. It was great to get the news today that I had passed the Post-Graduate Diploma at the Oxford College of Garden Design with Distinction and an overall mark for the year's work of 84%. I have been very proud of all my projects this year, and can't wait to see more of my ideas reach fruition on the ground. The three core design projects all offered different challenges, but I ended up happy with the solutions I designed for each of them. They didn't win any prizes, but I believe they would all have made wonderful gardens, with strong ground plans, well-conceived underlying philosophies and magical planting.

So, thanks to all the wonderful staff and my fifteen female fellow-students - we had a great year and invented some lovely gardens together - real landscapes of the mind, which will never need weeding, and will always look their best...

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Time out

I spent a great couple of days in Cornwall this week, cashing in a very late Christmas present - a two-day fish cookery course at Padstow - and enjoying the autumn sun.
These small fishing villages in North Cornwall are idyllic for the visitor - probably quite tough for locals struggling to afford property that is being bought up by wealthy outsiders, but wonderful for a short holiday, especially outside the summer season and in fine weather. There is always something to observe, and something to photograph. Returning to the harbour after an hour or so wandering the coastal path into the neighbouring coves, I was taken by the richness of this mustard-coloured hull in the low evening light, accenting the rust and red hues in the paintwork. The matching buoy and softly rippled water were lucky bonuses. I really love these sorts of colours, and the harbour wall gave plenty of opportunities for some more graphic compositions, exploring the textures of seaweed, concrete and iron.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

The Bones of the Earth

I returned on a recent afternoon to White Horse Hill on the Berkshire Downs, although the hill is now in Oxfordshire, thanks to the reorganisation of the old county boundaries in 1974. I taught at the village in the valley below for five years, but had not been back for two or three years since then.
This is an ancient managed landscape, which preserves the monuments created at the end of the Bronze Age in Britain, about three thousand years ago, in approximately 800BC. The rippled walls of the dry valley known as The Manger are offset against the level floor, carved into terraces along the looping sides of the valley. Nearby rises the artificially flattened cone of a natural outcrop, to which has accreted one of the many legends of the surrounding landscape. Now called Dragon Hill, it is reputedly the spot where St George slew his dragon - a patch of chalk, where grass refuses to grow, still marks the place where the dragon's blood fell. Beyond this lies the Vale of the White Horse, its parish boundaries still adhering to the pattern of ditches which marked the territories of those ancient communities of 800BC.
Even more enigmatic than Dragon Hill, however, is the chalk-carved figure of the horse itself. Dated to the same period, this stylised figure has its own canon of tales and associations. Long thought to have been carved to mark the victory of King Alfred over the Danes at the nearby Battle of Ashdown in 871CE, the figure was already ancient by this time. Among many other stories and traditions the best known is that which says that a person standing in the eye of the Horse will have a wish granted. It doesn't stop here. Above the figure of the Horse, on the brow of the hill, the highest point for miles around has the remains of a ditched fort, the earthworks now moulded to gentle curves by the passage of time.
Over everything is the sheep-bitten turf, the occasional crow, and, on this afternoon, a hawk, flying low in the wind.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Conference time

A packed lecture theatre at Imperial College yesterday for the SGD Autumn Conference, titled 'Heavenly Gardens in Hellish Places'. Five inspirational speakers throughout the day addressed the problems they have encountered in creating gardens and landscapes in difficult circumstances. Exposed roof gardens, huge projects in the US, gardens for large estates and for degraded urban environments were all covered. Lisa Delplace from Oehme, van Sweden discussed her work on the Chicago Botanic Garden, amongst others, with reference to her sources of inspiration in the mood and mutability of the natural landscape - the work, on an enormous scale, beautifully validated her approach. Nigel Dunnett showed what is possible in socially and environmentally compromised city-centre sites - his work on low maintenance meadow plantings to enrich the urban experience while mitigating the effects of unpredictably heavy rainfall shows that the evocation of 'wilderness' is something that can be achieved in the least promising sites. If not botanically accurate as meadows the plantings have far greater importance as areas for recreation and amenity, bringing the pleasure of wonderful landscapes to all. Anthony Paul closed the day with images of his iconic creations around the world - often in precarious situations and under difficult climatic conditions. I was thrilled that he used some of my photos (see above) of his own garden in Surrey in his final slide of the day.
There was a good turnout fom this year's Oxford College of Garden Design diploma course, there to see Sarah Naybour awarded the Student Designer of the Year prize - and to do the essential networking of course!

Friday, 2 October 2009

Future Gardens

A few images from this summer-long garden show, visited a couple of days ago, just before it closed. Featuring a dozen show gardens of very mixed quality, there was at least a lot of wonderful autumn planting to enjoy. The aim of the enterprise is to highlight sustainable, wildlife-friendly gardening and novel design. As a lot of butterfly and wildlife-friendly plants are late-flowering perennials or annuals there was a good mix of flowers still to see, and if the design was not all it might have been in each of the gardens, there were some great ideas to be mulled over in all of them. As always, it was the simplest, strongest statements that were the most effective. Looking forward to the new gardens next year...

Tuesday, 29 September 2009


One of the best things about the house I moved to last December is the view of the sunset. There is an open view of the sky, and this summer, especially in the past two months, there have been amazing sunsets. These are four skies that caught my eye enough to warrant running down three flights of stairs to grab the camera - I think they were worth the effort...

Sunday, 27 September 2009

A recent project

These three images, taken from the same spot, show the development of a simple and easily-maintained garden. The garden when first seen (bottom) was an almost impenetrable mass of overgrown conifers and scrubby shrubs, the shrub layer ailing in the dark and dry conditions created by the trees. What had once been lawn had become a patch of scruffy and uneven grass with a weaving line of loose bricks and rubble holding back the soil from a slightly higher level at the far end of the garden. The proximity of the trees to the house closed off the rear part of the garden and blocked light and views of the nearby cathedral.
By clearing the garden of everything but the one cherry tree that had any merit, the space has been opened up to allow for a gravel terrace at the far end, positioned to catch the evening sun. A light screen of the wonderful Himalayan birch (Betula utilis var. jaquemontii 'Doorenbos') permits views of the cathedral whilst giving a sense of privacy. The change in level has been formalised with a brick step across the site, and the remaining planting, shown one month after completion (top), uses dramatic blocks of evergreen shrubs and grasses to provide contrast and further define the space. Within a couple of years the clipped shapes of the yew and laurel will provide a graphic counterpoint to the sea of soft grasses from which they emerge. The remaining ornamental planting relies on scented drought-tolerant varieties, including herbs of both decorative and culinary value.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Looking good at the moment...

Arum italicum 'Marmoratum'
The foliage has died back by this stage of the year, but this arum lily, like the others of the genus, extends the season of interest with a display of vivid orange fruit, clustered around the remains of the flower spike. Coping well with dry and shady conditions, the plant is ideal for brightening a dark corner in the autumn and early winter months - as here under overhanging shrubs. This plant is one of my favourites, and one of the most hard-working in the garden: by early spring the new leaves, a gleaming dark green with creamy veining, are emerging for their six-month tour of duty.

Monday, 21 September 2009


As we enter autumn in Britain, here is one of my favourite images of the summer. Taken in early June in Andalucia, it shows wild grasses in the hills behind the coast, backlit by evening sun. Although we have had a good deal of fine weather this summer, we have had very few predictably hot and sunny days - the sort of days that we remember a summer for, and which I hope this photo reminds us of...

My submission for the SGD Student of the Year failed to impress the judges sufficiently to gain me an award, but I am delighted that my work was considered good enough to be included in the first place. I'm even more pleased for my friend Sarah, who has scooped the first prize - very well deserved and a great testament to her talents and professionalism.
Here's to autumn...

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

A Billion Painted Ladies

A bumper year for the Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui). Conditions were so favourable in the early summer this year that much larger numbers of this migrant butterfly were recorded arriving in the UK. After two washout summers in which butterfly populations fell dramatically, entomologists predicted an immense hatching of the Painted Lady in particular - estimates were for a billion of these salmony-orange butterflies to appear in mid- and late August. Certainly the lavender in the Fellow's Garden at Merton College had a good covering, including this pristine specimen, feeding in the sun.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Looking good at the moment...

Helenium 'Chipperfield Orange'
The sneezeweeds, prairie plants from the Americas, flower in late summer and early autumn. They associate well with grasses, sedums and the fading bracts of eryngiums. This variety, with a clearer, brighter colour than some of the duskier forms, is valuable in giving potentially uniform autumnal plantings a jolt.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

An idealised landscape

I spent Sunday morning at Stowe, the great landscape garden in central England which is generally recognised as the most complete expression of this native style. A little over-mature now (the wooded glades probably looked at their best a hundred years or so ago) the garden still has impressive vistas and retains its power to entice the visitor along its paths to view the idealised landscape that is evoked. The temples, columns and follies that are strewn throughout the glades and walks draw the visitor on through the garden, whilst also indicating the political and intellectual allegiances of its makers - we are in the English version of Ancient Greece, with its lofty idealism and anti-establishment mores.
There are in fact rather too many structures in this landscape for my taste - from one vantage point at least six are in view at once - and when first completed there were even more, but the existing landscape has been magnificently moulded and adapted, and the famous approaches have lost none of their power to impress, with the great house appearing and disappearing over successive ridges, framed at times by the arches and pavilions along the way.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Society of Garden Designers' Student of the Year? Well, maybe...

It has been a very busy year since last September, and the completion of my diploma in Garden Design has coincided with the competition to find the Society of Garden Designers' Student of the Year. I am one of four people from the Oxford College of Garden Design to be put forward this year, and it is a great honour. I am submitting my work this week - the judging will take place in early September, so there isn't long to agonise over the outcome.
The project I am putting forward is a bold scheme which uses mass planting to create a densely textured prairie effect, within a strong geometric design of terracing and water that will allow the clients to give full rein to their love of entertaining. We'll see how it goes down with the judges...