The surrounding walls of the garden are interspersed with eccentric, brick follies providing miniature towers, turrets and shady garden rooms, all in soft old brick with silvered timbers. If only we all had such fairy-tale buildings to weave into our gardens.....Wisteria and roses hug the walls and the planting seems inseparable from the built structures enhancing the feeling of a secret garden lost in time.
We took advantage of the gorgeous weather recently to make a trip out to some nearby nurseries. All with the excuse of market research of course : )
Stone House Cottage Garden has been on my list to visit for some time and I am really glad we made the effort to get there. Just outside Kidderminster, it sits in the tiny village of Stone on the A448. The garden has been created inside a one acre walled kitchen garden and is one of the most eccentric and romantic gardens I have visited.
The style is very much English Romantic and includes the classic yew hedges, abundant herbaceous borders and garden rooms. But far from been a cliché it has a very personal touch and feels like the private garden of a passionate plantaholic. It has distinct areas and the use of hedges to create separate rooms and passage ways makes it feel larger. The wandering visitor is presented with tempting glimpses and vistas leading you one way and then another - one of my favourite design techniques.
The entrance into the Garden is through one such folly and leads you into an open grassy area and the visitors first choice of route. To your left there are some excellent specimen trees including two of my favourites magnolia and the less common but stunning Cornus kousa. The latter is a small, bushy tree (8m when fully mature) and follows these graceful flowers with strawberry-pink fruits and purple-red autumn colours. In fact the 'flowers' we all admire are actually modified leaves called bracts and these surround the actual flowers, which are white and tiny. It can be slow to establish and you may have to wait a few years for it to start flowering but in my opinion worth the wait.
Alternatively straight ahead takes you along a refreshing vista of green and white, walking along a wide mown path flanked on our visit by swathes of ox-eye daisies. Many of the garden rooms are colourful and the owner obviously has a favourite palette of pinks and purples. I would have liked to have seen a greater variety or contrast in colours between one area and the next but then one of the charms of this garden is that it feels so personal and loved- not a conceit created with the sole aim of impressing visitors.
Next door to the garden is a small nursery where you can buy many of the plants you have been admiring in the garden, some of which are the rarer and more special varieties that you just don't see in the larger, everyday garden centre. Well worth a visit to get ideas on how to create mystery and surprise in a garden and for some beautiful plant combinations - particularly the good use of contrasting shapes and colours in foliage. Its not a nursery to visit for your standard everyday bedding or plants but a good source of the more unusual varieties of perennials and shrubs. Its not the smartest or tidiest of nurseries but for some of us that's part of the charm and the plants themselves look in robust condition. They do not offer mail order but you can view their plant lists online or order a catalogue.
In mid-May, I spent an enjoyable day visiting the Dorothy Clive Garden in Wiloughbridge, Staffordshire. Set on a hillside the 12 acres of garden are well worth a visit and will provide a leisurely work-out as you meander up and down the hillside exploring the pathways. Run by a charitable trust the gardens aims are to maintain and develop the gardens in the memory of the late Dorothy Clive and to promote horticultural education.
The original gardens were developed by Dorothy's husband to provide her with somewhere interesting and beautiful to walk: walking and exercise were the 1940s prescription for Parkinson sufferers.
There are many more areas to explore including a waterfall, pool, gravel garden and two new developments include an edible forest garden and winter garden. Anyone fancy Shuttlecock fern shoots and Dahlia tuber mash for supper? Both areas are on my list for a re-visit later in the year.
Although the garden is large, it has lots of smaller areas and is full of ideas to take home. It shows just how important it is to create surprise and a sense of journey within a garden - whatever the size. Meandering paths and strategic placing of shrubs leads you on to explore and prevents you seeing everything in one quick glance. A lot of the paths are generous, wide swathes of grass - we often forget that grass can be used this way and doesn't always have to be the traditional lawn.
The final praise must go to the tea room which serves scones to die for- freshly baked and delicious. This has to be the perfect destination for National Cream Tea Day (yes there really is one) on the 26th June- yum yum....
The highlights in spring include an amazing array of rhododendrons, azaleas and camellias in every colour available. They all sit within the woodland garden, created within an old quarry and with its own gentle micro-climate thanks to the canopy of mature trees. These shrubs are not my favourites for small domestic gardens, as to me they seem dull and 'heavy' for the majority of the year but even I had to admit that the blaze of colour was fabulous. They really come into their own in a large garden and the woodland setting provides them with the perfect backdrop. I did fall in love with this delicious Magnolia 'Lemon Drop'.
We were given an excellent guided tour of the garden highlights by knowledgeable gardener Zdenek Valkoun-Walker, who also looks after the bee hives in the gardens orchard. Zdenek is in charge of the beautiful seasonal borders and garden areas which tumble down the hillside. Although the tulips were beginning to turn they still provided a colourful display hovering above a forget-me-not sea. This type of bedding scheme would be very labour intensive at home but incorporating some later flowering perennials to take over after the spring flowers have finished would prolong the display. Forget-me-nots will seed quite happily everywhere, so make sure you really do like them before you bring them into your garden.
Another seasonal highlight is the Laburnum Arch, which was just starting to come into flower when we visited. This is a great way to grow this cheerful tree and it will provide you with a stunning display each spring. The seed pods are poisonous but then so are many other plants so don't cross it off your plant list too hastily. The arch is underplanted with box balls which create a sense of rhythm and draw the eye along the path. Intermingled are alliums, about to burst into flower and contrast beautifully with the sunshine yellow of the Laburnums. On our visit there were just hints of yellow and the arch created a cool, green retreat on a very sunny day.
Last weekend I spent a grey, wet November morning wandering around the Ventnor Botanical Gardens. Although the weather was dull and gloomy the gardens were guaranteed to lift your spirits. The Isle of Wight benefits from a very mild climate and so many late summer perennials such as heleniums and penstemons were still in full swing. But what really caught my eye were some of the beautiful tree trunks whose colours and textures were glistening and glowing in the autumnal drizzle.
One of the most spectacular sights was the almost luminescent bark of Arbutus 'Hybrid Seedling'.
The Arbutus family is often overlooked despite offering evergreen trees and shrubs with ornamental bark, clusters of creamy flowers and colourful fruits. Surely ticking the boxes of providing year round colour and interest. They are largely tolerant of most soils and aspects and only ask that you protect them from cold winds and water-logging.
The fruits are long lasting and you will have new ones forming alongside the fully ripe , resulting in a wonderful mix of green, yellow and reds. Although they are said to resemble strawberries, to me they resemble fluffy Christmas baubles. They are also edible although an acquired taste. Needing minimal care they offer a lot in return for little input.
Arbutus unedo (AGM) is probably the smallest and can be grown as a shrub or trained to form a small tree (simply prune out unwanted lower branches to create your main trunk) . The tree Arbutus x andrachnoides will provide wonderful bark, similar to the Hybrid Seedling or if those colours are not quite to your taste try Arbutus menziesii. below, delicious in cinnamon and pistachio shades.
Native to temperate climates, they bring us a taste of the mediterranean without the tenderness and difficulties associated the popular Olive tree.