Saturday, March 31, 2012

Sissinghurst at Sunset

On Thursday evening after work, seven of us from Great Dixter all went over to Sissinghurst to see the garden in all its springtime splendor. It was great to be there when the garden was closed to the public and to stroll the paths in the fading afternoon light. The head gardener, Alexis Datta, unlocked the gate and left us to roam freely through the garden. It was incredible!

A walk through the Nuttery

The Cottage Garden

Stachyurus chinensis 'Celina' in bloom, under planted with Erythronium toulumnense

The amazing roses, beautifully pruned into wonderful shapes and standing structures.

Ribes laurifolium, a scrambling shrub hangs behind the bright yellow cups of Scopolia podolica 'Hladnikiana'

It is hard to see, but in the background there is a magnificent white magnolia in absolute full flower. It was intensely fragrant, filling the air with scent. I had never seen such a floriferous magnolia before, blossoms up and down every single branch.

The Delos garden flush in scilla, anemones, and mauve hellebores

Sissinghurst has the most beautiful brick walls throughout the garden and they are covered with finely pruned trees, shrubs, and vines, such as this incredible Chaenomeles 'Knap Hill Scarlet.'

Clematis alpina 'Ruby'

The Moat

Looking up at the castle, across the daffodil filled orchard meadow

Magnolia 'Galaxy'

This Magnolia 'Galaxy' opened its first flower a few days after I arrived. I noticed it for the first time on top of the compost heap, a few bright spots of pink rose over the hedge, standing brightly against an evening sky. Since then I have kept tabs on it, from the compost pile and other view points in the garden. It is a lovely specimen and a relatively young one, planted 15 or 20 years ago. In these photographs, the early morning light has hit the top of the branches and the rest of the tree is shaded by the yew hedge. This is one of those planting decisions (right plant, right spot) that must have surpassed even the highest expectations- it is perfect. You can see under the eaves of its branches lots of freshly turned earth and new plantings- this is the garden called Vietnam. Emma and James, two of the students, have been working on this area for months- completely redesigning the area with Fergus. They have made great headway in the three weeks since I arrived. I will hopefully do a post on Vietnam later this week.

Magnolia 'Galaxy' is a cross between M. liliflora 'Nigra' x M. sprengeri 'Diva.' It was released in 1980 and is hardy in zones 5-9.

Evaluating Spring Bulbs

I apologize for not posting much this week, but we all have been very busy working to get the garden ready for opening day, tomorrow, April 1st. Since all the students volunteered last weekend, today is the first day off in 12 days! It has been an amazing week, long, hot, sun burned days, full of planting, weeding, sweeping, pruning. However, it has not been all work and no play. On Wednesday after lunch Fergus took the students and some staff around the garden to evaluate the spring bulbs. Everyone had their notebooks out and we all scribbled names and notes about the various things we were seeing. The pot displays are packed full of new bulbs; not only do they look beautiful arranged all together, but it is a great way to study and evaluate them for their potential garden worthiness. Things to consider: length of flowering (evidenced by buds and old flowers at the same time), how high the flowers sat above the foliage, the foliage (leaves too fat, too long, too floppy), consistency of the plant (color variation, shape or size variation), proportion of plant, color (flowers, buds, foliage), and then of course, the overall affect. Fergus really wanted to know what we all thought- which plants we thought were the best and if we liked something he didn't, he wanted to know why. It was so inquisitive and since then I have looked at every plant with a more critical eye. That is how we should be looking at everything we do.

The above Narcissus 'Spellbinder' was one Fergus said looked like it had been to the gym, it was proud and bold. Anecdotal comments like this make a plant stick in your mind. This large flowering, "good" plant could make a great display in a border garden. Fergus was always standing back and talking about what sort of impact a bulb would make out in the garden.

Narcissus 'Jenny' remains one of my favorites at the end of the day.  It is small flowered, well proportioned, and has a dynamic shape with its long, slender trumpet and reflexed petals. I like its subtle color variation, with a pale yellow trumpet and a spring green on the backside of its petals.


Another favorite, Narcissus 'Cragford,' is tall and stately, with a rich orange center and multiple blooms on each stem; this one is capable of making a statement from far away.

Muscari 'Valerie Finnis'

This plant set Fergus off on a story about Valerie Finnis, the great plantswoman, gardener and photographer- apparently she was a bit of a prankster! Anna Pavrod wrote her obituary and you can read it here. The last quote in the article is rather poignant and lines up well with recent conversations I have had with students. Here everyone loves their work so very much that it is hard to strike a balance between work and the people you love. "For years plants used to be more important than people to me. But really it's only people that matter." -Valerie Finnis

Muscari 'Blue Magic'
This one is a more vibrant color than the photo shows, it has a squirrely habit, a long bloom time, and slender leaves. Fergus says this one is his favorite..

Narcicssus 'Jet Fire'
A really good, all around favorite. Well proportioned, good shape and color, and it makes a strong impact.  This one blooms early and lasts for quite a while.

These last few photographs are bulbs planted out in the beds. This Fritillaria verticillata stands tall and spindly in the walled garden. It has tendrils like sweet peas and it flowers hang like bells all along its stems.

Tulipa praestans 'Fusilier' is one of the best!

Tulips saxatilis seen flowering on the ledge. Stay tuned for more bulbs!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Woodland Plants

The weather has been amazing and it is kicking everything into high gear. On Sunday afternoon a group of us went down into a patch of Dixter's woods and saw mass plantings of the native Anemone nemerosa with scatterings of early bluebells (hyacinthiodes non-scripta).

A carpet of anemone in the woods

Fritillaria meleagris in a small meadow behind the topiary garden

Erythronium dens-canis in the same meadow

Scilla bithynica with Arum italicum as seen in the Barn Garden

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Volunteer Weekend at Great Dixter

This weekend there were 23 volunteers in the garden on both Saturday and Sunday. Most of the volunteers were students or gardeners from Kew, Wisley, Cambridge, and the Chelsea Physic gardens and the five Great Dixter students, including myself, joined in the fun. My team built this lovely wood pile and I felt at home in this project as it reminded me of all our New England wood piles. The volunteer weekend was a real chance for other gardeners to get a glimpse at some of the things that set Great Dixter apart from other gardens. One of those things is the fact that overall Great Dixter is a very sustainable system. Not only do they run their own nursery and start nearly all plants from seed or cuttings, and literally make their own potting soil by digging turf, letting it sit for 7 years, sifting it, sterlizing in a crazy burning machine, and hand mixing it with other ingredients, but they also make everything out of wood harvested in their woodlot. And I mean everything. They harvest chestnut trees, cut them into poles, and then while they are green they shave the bark, hand split the poles to make wooden fences, plant stakes, large plant labels, soil boxes, apples crates, etc. The gardeners themselves do some of this work and so during the volunteer weekend we all had a go!

A very tidy pea stake pile. The weight on top helps keep the branches flat, which makes it easier for staking.

A volunteer splitting the chestnut

 Volunteers shaving the chestnut bark


Even the horse to sit and shave the chestnut was made by the Great Dixter staff!

Friday, March 23, 2012

Ranunculus ficaria

Ranunculus ficaria, also known as lesser celandine, is a weedy ephemeral thing with a bright yellow buttercup like flower. Christopher Lloyd discovered a dark leaved variant growing in his woods and he named it 'Brazen Hussy.' This dark leaf version is now available to many gardeners and I have even seen it growing in New Hampshire in Michael Gordon's garden. Yesterday, my task was to dig up all the Brazen Hussy I could find in the High Garden and bring it to the nursery. The nursery needed some for next year's stock and we wanted to clear an area to get it ready for planting.

Here the ranunculus is dug and laid in soil trays. We placed soil on top and set them out in the nursery to go dormant. Next year it will sprout in early spring and it will be potted up for sale.

This is a variety called 'Copper Knob' which is more bronze and looks like a fried egg.
 No one seems to like it nearly as much, but I like the orange of it. Fergus says we have to keep it just for its name.

The same patch of 'Copper Knob' closing up its petals for the night.

Daffodils in the Orchard Meadow back lit by the setting sun.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Planting out in the High Garden

Emerging leaves of Thalictrum flavum 'Illuminator' seen in the High Garden.

 On Wednesday Rachel and I moved to the High Garden to plant out a section of summer bedding. The first thing we needed to do was find a shrub to anchor the corner. We were to dig out the shrub just beyond and to the right of the yucca (an Olera of some kind) and find something else, different, new. So off to the long track of plants with Fergus in the lead. We pulled out about six different shrubs, from a compact lime green berberis, to Rosa glauca, to Kalopanax septemlobus (monotypic genus, tree aralia!), a few unknowns, and finally an old fashioned philadelphus. Which is the one we planted; Fergus liked its "twiggy-ness." Next we looked for another, smaller shrub to anchor a back corner and Fergus chose Cistus skanbergii (this Cistus looks completely amazing in flower). Then it was on to the bedding plants.

The first thing Fergus was set on was an Aquilegia 'Tequilla Sunrise' with dainty, glaucus foliage. After a great deal of going back and forth to the nursery, picking up this plant or that, looking, thinking, considering from all angles, we chose Penstemon 'Garnet' and Polemonium yezoense 'Purple Rain.' We uprooted a dark leaf Angelica 'Vicar's Mead' and transplanted them into more strategic places. Then, I planted the philadelphus and laid out all the plants. Fergus approved, tweaked a little bit, we planted, and then the last thing we did was thread Larkspur 'Azure blue' throughout the whole area, to tie it all together. 

Philadelphus planted and plants laid out...

End of the day, in the late light, the planting area is finished.

Cistus skanbergii in bud

Once we were all cleaned up, Fergus called out to come look at a little violet. He was on his hands and knees smelling this little gem. He said that we all get so distracted by all the big things that sometimes we miss the small things. He pointed to this sweet purple-pink violet, "These are the real treasures- this is what it is all about." He wants to take root cuttings and start selling this violet in the nursery. He said this was a real Dixter thing to do.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Planting Unusual Plants

It has been a very full, busy, and exciting couple of days. I have already learned a years worth in one week. I have mostly been working on planting projects in different areas of the garden, Monday we were in the Long Borders where we planted Rudbekia triloba (a northeast U.S. native), Digitalis, 'Apricot', Larkspur 'Azure Blue,' and Ammi majus as well as transplanting the precious forget-me-nots and Verbascum olympicum strategically here and there. 

On Tuesday we worked on planting out the Ledge (as seen in the above photo). The first two pictures are before pictures and the last few were taken after the project was finished. I have mostly been working alongside Rachel who is the current Christopher Lloyd scholar. She is great, knows a million plants, and so far we make a great team. The initial goal was to select 5-7 cow parsleys (Anthriscus sylvestis) to keep and then transplant the rest back into the bed. Then we would do the same with the Oxide Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare). Once that was finished we were going to thread a smaller umbellifer, Trinia (possibly glauca? from Hungary) through the bed. In any given project, Fergus pops in an out, to check how things are going, and then you watch the project unfurl! Once we cleared space, Fergus decided to go looking for odd plants to add. The three of us went on a hunt. All along the nursery, along the driveways, and along the edges of everything are hundreds of special and random plants in pots waiting for their moment to shine. These are special places to hunt for just the right thing. We filled four crates with things that caught our eye. He encouraged us to pick up plants we liked. I selected a Euphorbia and Fergus smiled and said, "That was one of Christo's favorites." In the crate it went. 

We got back to the site and started arranging the plants, mindful of what was there, what we thought the plants might like, and how the different shapes, inevitable sizes, and colors all fit together. We stood back and Fergus asked what we thought. I always like a tapestry of interesting plants; and Fergus thought it was interesting because there is no other place in the garden quite like it. It was a dream project for me because there were so many gems planted, many I didn't know and many interesting species of some of my favorite genera. They all might require different environments, but Rachel is charged with monitoring their relative happiness or unhappiness! Once all those specimen plants were in, we planted the Trinia throughout the whole planting.

 Before we started, the ledge was overrun with cow parsley. The conifer is Cryptomeria japonica 'Bandai-sugi.'

After it is all planted...
with Euphorbia characias 'Portuguese Velvet'

Plant List: Many of these plants were brought back from De Hessenhof nursery in Holland

Scutellaria integrifolia (another east coast U.S. native!)
Thalictrum ichangense 'Purple Marble'
Thalictrum rochebrunianum
Saxifraga fortunei 'Rubrifolia'
Aquilegia chaplini
Meconopsis cambraica
Athamanta vestina
Angelica japnica
Succisella inflexa 'Frosted Pearls'
Euphorbia 'Blue Haze'
Geranium sanguineum 'Glenluce'
Hepatica nobilis 'Alba'
Hepatica transsylvanica 'Azuga' (this looks amazing!)
 Epimedium rhizomatosum
Geum 'Mrs. W. Moore'
Patrinia sp. (heehee) was literally written on the tag.. a mystery!
Trinia (glauca?)
Nigella 'Mulberry Jam'

Foliage of the Aquilegia chaplini

Saxifraga fortunei 'Rubrafolia'

The Euphorbia 'Blue Haze' that Christopher Lloyd loved