A walk around…Wakehurst Place

In between the dismal weather, we have had a few nice days out in the country recently, but a couple of trips to Kent have reminded me that, no matter how lovely the countryside, the hum of a motorway is never far away. When your own back garden in inner London is quieter than an idyllic Kent valley, you know something isn’t quite right.

That isn’t a criticism you could level at Wakehurst Place, where we went a few weekends ago. It wasn’t a particularly nice day, but neither was it cold or wet, and the place has an atmosphere no grey skies could dampen.

For a start, there was colour:

I hadn’t known really what to expect – I knew it was an RHS site as well as a National Trust one, and I knew it had the Millennium Seed Bank, but beyond that, I went in with no preconceptions. To start with, it was country house landscaping of the kind I’ve come to expect – then to turn a corner and find the huge banks of colour, almost took my breath away.

The bright pink swathe of whatever it was in the top picture (not a rhododendron, maybe an azalea?) was the most impressive, I nearly missed it as the path had snaked down and round the pond – I happened to turn and look back, and saw the flowers looking like a fuchsia pink waterfall tumbling into the water.

From the landscaped areas around the mansion, we took a path which dropped steeply down a valley and into proper woodland (though being RHS woodland, there were still flowering shrubs popping up everywhere, and of course bluebells).

As the path dropped further down towards a lake, I began to appreciate the calm even more – though also began to worry about the walk back UP and the likelihood of one child doing a face plant and the other needing a wild wee (yes, both happened). The site is HUGE – we saw maybe less than half of it, and we never made it into the Seed Bank either.

It was the Mr who pointed out, though, how quiet it was. I had felt the difference, but I hadn’t been able to put my finger on it. No aeroplanes, though we weren’t far from Gatwick, no motorway drone, no screaming kids except our own.

Deep in that valley, we felt completely cut off – not in an oppressive ‘in space no one can hear you scream’ way, but in a peaceful, ‘Lake Isle of Inisfree‘ way. Give me a little cabin there by the lakeshore and I’d have been quite happy (provided there were no mozzies).

The climb back up to the mansion was much slower, with grumbling children in tow – we are well out of the days of buggy walks now, though much of the site could have been negotiated with a buggy. I stopped to admire raindrops on Alchemilla, one of my favourite plants, late flowering narcissus, and those gorgeous red unidentified leaves. There was more gorgeousness to come – a walled garden full of tulips. I must forget there was ever a time I didn’t really like tulips (did I ever really think they were too garish? Look at these lovely subtle colours!)

We also found a well-stocked mud kitchen, where a t-shirt got irrevocably ruined, and a potting shed where children could plant sunflower seeds.

Plus I haven’t even mentioned yet the impressive nature-inspired sculptures dotted around. I liked these ones in the bee-friendly garden which looked like giant seed-heads, and also a bit like (now I come to think of it), the 2012 Olympic torch.

And I nearly forgot to include the troop of goslings we encountered, and the very tame pheasants wandering around.

Looking back at the photos, I am amazed we packed so much in – and still so much more to see when we next go back.

Definitely adding to the list of favourite places, and when I need to escape the pavements grey, I’ll think myself back into that valley where the rest of the world seemed to drop away.


April showers lead to May & June…showers.

I have been listening to rain pounding very pleasingly on our skylight windows – pleasing as long as they don’t start to let water IN, which they aren’t at the moment, luckily. The act of recalling summer camping holidays and the sound of rain on canvas, without actually having to get wet – an instant hit of nostalgia with no tent-based discomfort.

There has been no end to the rain these past few weeks, it seems, but I can’t bring myself to complain. It has been (mostly) warm and it has been occasionally sunny in between the downpours and thunderstorms, so the garden has responded eagerly and put on its best early summer showing I can remember yet.
Partly I have been delighted by some of the plants I picked up cheap as chips at a local school fair last year – some of them were planted as tiny seedlings last July, so it has taken almost a full year for them to come into bloom, but it was worth the wait.

These amazing poppies, for instance – they are huge compared to typical field poppies, and whilst bright bold scarlet wouldn’t usually be my colour of choice, I find that I love them.

There is also this enormous triffid plant which came from the school fair – no idea what it is, but it grows bigger & bigger by the day.

Both the poppies and triffid-plant are in the raised bed which is finally looking like someone has planted it in a proper planned way (so far from the truth!) – once all the finished bluebells were pulled up, the other plants all immediately seemed to creep into the bare patches until there was hardly any soil left visible (bar 1 or 2 problem patches). Up close there are plenty of flaws, and some plants I’d rather not have there at all, but overall, by some miracle, it works.

The empty spaces in my shady woodland garden under the shrubbery are also finally filling up – foxgloves and periwinkle both steadily expanding, and I have added a new Pulmonaria with lovely pale leaves (and pale creamy flowers rather than the usual pink and blue, when they finally come) and a Dicentra. There are a few other shade-loving plants I still want to find – would love to have some comfrey to fill in the bare spaces at the back as I know it spreads very easily – it self-seeded in my old garden but I’ve not seen it in any garden centres and I suspect most would see it as a weed!

Apart from all the rain, there has been one other big challenge keeping me out of the garden, in the shape of a toddler. She is not quite walking yet, but can put on some serious speed when crawling, and scramble up onto flower beds and precarious ledges. 

If my back turns for an instant she is usually cramming dirt into her mouth or pulling up plants – it makes for rather slow progress if I’m trying to do any gardening, or even trying to sit with a cup of tea. 

Our new garden bench doesn’t get much use as a quiet place for tea and contemplation, more for scrambling and balancing tricks. Oh well, one day I will get to sit there undisturbed, I guess.

The one positive to come out of this rather demanding toddler phase is that I’ve taken to doing a lot of gardening in the evenings – the perfect time to be out there when the days are so long, enough time to stop and look at what actually needs doing rather than just hacking away for 5 minutes here and there – and of course in the evening light and at sunset I can stop and appreciate how nice it’s all looking. 

It’s now the longest day, so nights will start drawing in again (boo!) and it’s currently raining cats and dogs AGAIN, but at least everything looks green and lush and I don’t have to worry about the water butt running dry this year. Silver linings, eh?

Tale of a Tree

As I wrote towards the end of last year, one of the garden plans for 2016 was to do something about our scruffy old shrubbery, and plant a tree. 

It took a few months to get going with this project, but I can now safely say, we have begun. Our first task was to remove the gnarled old buddleia stump – I sawed back what I could manage of the trunk, the Mr did the rest, and we discovered the underneath of the stump was completely rotten anyway, so it all came out with a few hefty kicks and levering from him. 

Here’s how it looked at the end of Feb:   

And once the stump was all gone we were left with this:    

I spent a few hours raking up twigs, digging out roots and pulling up ivy till we had a nice clear patch of bare earth, uncovered properly for the first time in years. 

(This was the remains of the buddleia stump, or rather about half of it!):   

I had canvassed opinions from various gardening friends and we had decided – as anticipated – to buy a silver birch

One recommendation had been to buy a multi-stemmed tree, which would give the appearance of being a fully-formed mini grove of trees rather than a solitary trunk. This would fill out the empty corner very well, we thought, and also mean the tree would not grow as tall as a single trunked one would – as we already have a tall cherry tree in the garden we didn’t want anything to have to compete with that too much.

My only worry was that a multi-stemmed tree would be three times the price – 3 trunks meant 3 trees, right? – but luckily that was not the case, and my favourite local garden centre sold us a lovely multi-stemmed tree for the same price as a single stem.

They also sold us a wooden stake and gave us some helpful advice about positioning it, but we are certainly not experts and when the tree arrived on Easter Saturday, the tree itself went happily into the ground but the stake snapped in half when it was hammered in.

One return trip to the garden centre a few days later, a bit more explanation needed about correct staking procedure, replacement stake given free of charge (hurrah!) and we were in business!

(Staking tips: apparently you need to angle the stake so that it’s outside the tree root system, and also the stake must not rub against the wood of the trunk, so you need a rubber tie thing which goes around stake and tree in a figure of 8. So now you know).

The leaves were just coming out on the tree when we planted it, and it has had plenty of good soakings since then (thank you April showers), so now in full leaf, it really shows what a good choice it was to fill that dull spot:

The broad, generous shape of the three trunks already feels like it was made to go in a corner, and the dancing golden green leaves bring the whole area to life. What was a particularly dark and gloomy corner of the garden is now full of movement, interest and colour. What a joy!

From a distance looking down the garden it really shows how well it has filled the empty gap:

In a word, I am thrilled with it. Less thrilled that the poor Mr has damaged a shoulder from all the digging, but he seems to be on the mend now, and I won’t ask him to plant any more trees for me for a while…I promise. 

Too much else to plan now, that I have a mini woodland glade at the bottom of the garden, I don’t need more trees, the question is what else to plant around and under it? And what about the children’s play area? (When are we going to get a chance to do that, exactly?)

We are not going to plant anything too near the tree yet – let it get established first – but there are plenty of other gaps in the shrubbery that need filling now that I’ve thinned out a bit of the dull stuff, and lots more inspiration to seek out first before I make any decisions!

Farewell to summer, autumn’s on the horizon…

Back in the day, it always seemed as if there was a distinct chill in the air on the first day back at school, so I always anticipate a crisp biting feel to early September, but the truth is more likely that the first day of school was the first in six weeks I was up early enough to feel that chill, after a summer of lazy starts. 

The last couple of years, though, we’ve barely even had a frost at the height of winter, let alone autumn, so that first chilly morning just doesn’t register with me at all, and I measure the gradual change in seasons by other means – the day I put away my flip flops and reluctantly got out my slippers, and the day I much less reluctantly made plum cobbler with the fruits of  Beryl-down-the-road’s tree, along with the first Sunday roast of the season. 


Our garden is still looking lush and green, after a few spectacularly wet days which restored the lawn from its summer dry spell, and we took the opportunity to do a bit of real – if rather basic – bit of structural work to the bane of my life, the raised bed.

One of my repeated frustrations with having such a large raised bed was the inability to work on it without trampling plants – and I end up gardening round the edges and never in the middle.

So a quick trip to Homebase for some aggregate and stepping stones later….

…and I now have the ability to cross the bed from front to back without having to tread on anything. I’m hoping the stepping stones will also give a bit of structure to the bed, and if I can encourage creeping plants to bed in around them and soften the edges, I’ll keep working towards my goal of as little visible bare earth as possible.

Here’s how it looks a week or so on – lovely cosmos in the left foreground which I hope is going to flower before the end of the year, but on the far side of the bed I’m still swamped by marigolds which no amount of weeding and hoeing can get rid of.

I suspect it will go on being a work in progress (aka dog’s dinner) for a long while yet – but at least the stepping stones make it a more practical space to work in now.

Beyond our own little patch, I’ve seen a few signs of autumn approaching – and given me yet again a few ideas of plants I’d like to have in the garden one day.

On Wimbledon Common we saw gorgeous teasel heads:

– a must-have in the garden for attracting seed-eating birds like goldfinches, and in their own right as a beautiful piece of natural sculpture.

At Dulwich Park we saw a favourite from my childhood (and from Flower Fairies of the Autumn), the glorious spindle, a plant so glamorous I can hardly believe it exists in nature.


Aren’t they splendid? If the shocking Schiaparelli pink outer shell of the berry weren’t impressive enough, they split open to reveal a flame coloured berry within. Such an unexpected contrast! I’ve decided I definitely MUST have spindle in the garden somewhere.

(However surprising that clash of pink and orange, it can’t beat the shades of these heathers I saw in Homebase the other week for unnatural garishness. How these colours were achieved other than by spray-painting them, I don’t know. And who would want such horrid plants in their garden, I have no idea).


Dulwich Park also has a lovely wild flower meadow which was packed with poppies and cornflowers when I saw it last. Much more restful to the eye.


Then we were back in Suffolk for a weekend and every field seemed crammed full of fungi, including this specimen:


– I certainly don’t know enough about fungi to take any risks (and I don’t endorse anyone picking anything without knowing what it is), so I left that one well alone, but I did decide I recognised a plain old field mushroom well enough when I saw one and took these beauties home:


(And no ill effects from eating them roasted alongside our home grown tomatoes, so I think I’m safe).


What’s next? I still have a few pie-in-the-sky gardening plans before the end of the year which I’m trying to make a bit more concrete, but in the mean time, let’s make hay while the sun shines and keep enjoying it all.

Springtime snooping, 2015 style

i was gifted a lovely day off last week – the Mr booked me a trip to a hotel spa where I had a morning lounging around in the pool and steam room, followed by a massage, whilst he wore out the big girl (I can’t call her a toddler any more) at Battersea Park zoo. 

I was then delivered two suitably tired children, who were happy to have a rather quiet and non-stimulating afternoon (well, baby sister doesn’t get much choice on the matter yet, anyway) and I got to do what I like best, take a long leisurely walk past some of my favourite local gardens. 

Not that this isn’t interesting for a 3 year old too – we stop to say hello to cats or dogs, watch birds and snails, and see which plants and trees she can recognise. But mainly, it pleases me and soothes my soul…. so let the snooping begin!

First of all, I was seeing irises everywhere. The white, dark purple and yellow variants were all familiar to me, but I’d never seen the pale purple and yellow variety before – nor the bright yellow with a dash of burgundy.

To my mind, irises are best growing wild by a pond, what I know as yellow flag, and while the lilac ones in my back garden look very nice when they are flowering, they are a bit ugly at other times of year when a big messy-looking bulging mass of roots is left behind (rhizomes, as my mum has taught me). Still, they do add a bit of drama and height to a bed, as you can see above.


I caught sight of something next that I hadn’t seen in years, and hardly ever seen in urban areas – cuckoo’s spit. The curious name hides a tiny green bug, the larvae of the froghopper – I had to resist the temptation to clear away the froth to show the big girl what was inside (I always used to do this as a child, but now it seems a terribly cruel thing to do, to leave the tiny thing without its defences).

Then I saw a plant – and smelt a smell – which always makes me think of summer, gorse. I know it flowers all year round, as the old saying goes, but the heavenly scent of gorse is one that always recalls summer holidays to me, walks along cliff tops and sand between the toes. Not very often seen in urban gardens, either, so it was very cheering to see it there.

This wasn’t just aimless wandering, either, (though there ain’t nothing wrong with aimless wandering!) – I am actively on the look out for ideas of plants which might fill in a gap, or things I’ve been missing from the old garden and yearning to replace. 

Some of these I spotted and photographed – Nigella (love-in-a-mist, to give it the prettier name) and California poppies (how I love that splash of vivid orange!) I have already bought seeds for, and waiting for the right time to plant them. Honeysuckle I long for – need to find the right spot for it. And snapdragons can be fitted in any old where, I just need to find some from somewhere!

I’ve already had a few successes this year – a heuchera and Mexican daisies which were transplanted during the building works last year are thriving in their new locations, and I’ve found an old friend, London Pride, on a recent trip to a garden centre and am thrilled to have it growing in my garden again.

The weather has been a bit too hit and miss to do any serious gardening, but it’s looking pretty good out there right now – and there always plans afoot for more things to do…

In praise of…purple

If you had asked me, when I was a child, what my favourite colour was, I would have had a very definite answer: purple.

Not just any purple, either; I particularly liked the pastel shade of purple Smarties, and claimed they were my ‘favourite’ Smarties. (How stupid was I? Everyone knows the orange ones are the best).



(Yes, I did buy Smarties just for the purposes of illustrating this blog, and no, I’m not ashamed…)

These days, I can take or leave purple Smarties, but I do have a lasting fondness for that pale shade of purple, especially when I come across it in the garden.

The classic purple spring blossom, for me, has always been lilac – so classic, in fact, that it gave its very name to that delicate, lovely pale shade of purple.

Besides my early interest in Smarties, I can remember that I loved the Lilac variety of the Flower Fairies – indeed, the Flower Fairies can be found at the root of many of my most-loved flowers from childhood – and of course the Lilac Fairy of the Sleeping Beauty is the stuff of many a ballet-mad girl’s daydreams, so there are clearly all sorts of reasons why I’m predisposed to like lilac.

However, as I’ve discovered, not all lilacs are lilac!

Classic pale purple lilac

Classic pale purple lilac

This gorgeous specimen above is on an otherwise rather shabby street corner near me, and as far as I’m concerned is a proper shade of lilac. When I came across it, I had to stop and take a picture straight away, regardless of the fact that the house behind was shrouded in scaffolding and it was otherwise not a great photo opportunity – the lilac simply demanded to be photographed.

Then, I discovered to my delight that we had a lilac in our garden. As it prepared to bloom, I noticed the buds were much darker, closer to the brash, showy colour of buddleia, and was a bit disappointed it wasn’t my favourite pale shade.

Our lilac, a deeper shade of purple

Our lilac, a deeper shade of purple against a perfect blue sky

Looking at it in full bloom, though, I would be seriously churlish not to admire such a magnificent tree – and close up, the smell is wonderful. I’ve noticed, too, that the blossoms seem to get paler as they mature, so I have been able to enjoy a whole range of lilac shades in the last few weeks.

White lilac, raindrop

White lilac, raindrop

Suddenly I began to see lilacs everywhere – even a white variety, above, and one that was so pale it was almost pink.

Another recent purple favourite is wisteria – not a plant I’ve ever appreciated very much before, but I’ve come across it in a couple of local places recently and been blown away by how beautiful it was – and again, the scent is also gorgeous.

It’s one of those plants which impresses with its scale, whether it’s covering the front of a house or along the length of a garden wall. It would never work on our 1930s house, which is far too boxy and lumpish, but on the more elegant proportions of this Georgian style house it looks just right.

Wisteria on a Georgian house

Wisteria on a Georgian house, in late afternoon sun

What with the lilac, and pansies, and sweet peas (hopefully, eventually) and irises, and violets, and lavender, my garden certainly isn’t short on purple, but from my front garden snooping there is one thing I REALLY want…

Purple columbine

Purple columbine

I love columbines in all sizes, shapes and colours anyway, but isn’t this dark purple shade just heavenly? Photographed in a rain shower with raindrops still on it, which somehow made it even better.

Finally, something bizarrely NOT purple, also seen in a local garden: a white lavender.

White lavender

White lavender

I’ve heard of white heather, sure, but white lavender, never. Didn’t get close enough to find out if it smelt properly lavendery, but it certainly looked rather classy (although I will admit to picking a bit of goose-grass out of the middle of the bush to make a better picture. Yes, I’m now actually weeding my neighbours’ gardens for the sake of this blog. Don’t thank me, folks, it’s all part of the garden snooping service…)

Springtime Snooping

Spring has finally caught up with us, and the garden has exploded into life, virtually overnight – much as I try to avoid the over-used and maligned word ‘literally’, some plants did appear to have literally shot up from nowhere.

Some of these new arrivals are welcome – irises, tulips, violets, lilies of the valley – but some are foreign interlopers (I am strictly against invasive non-natives of the plant variety only, before you start thinking I’m a Daily Mail type).

The mysterious bulbs in my raised bed turned out to be bluebells – sadly the rampaging Spanish variety not the woodland British flower, which is hard to source by legitimate means. If I do want proper bluebells, I will have to find a wildlife-friendly retailer which sources them ethically…and all the Spanish ones will have to be dug up, eventually. I’ll let them have their moment in the sun and bloom in full this year, though.

Plus I have sycamore seedlings popping up everywhere, which must be coming from a nearby tree – so those will have to be dug up and disposed of as soon as I can get round to it. And everywhere I look, dandelions and groundsel – I need to get a guinea pig, sooner rather than later, to help me dispose of all these weeds, as part of a healthy cavy diet.

Buddleia removed

Buddleia removed, and neighbouring house suddenly looms into view

Not that we’ve been lazy, though – after a morning’s work in the garden, we reduced the buddleia to a large ivy-covered stump, and an enormous pile of wood, which we are going to have to dispose of somehow or other.

The house which backs onto ours IS a lot more visible now, and of course the buddleia will sprout again, but we can keep it under control, and encourage other things to fill in the gaps a bit – I’ve now discovered I have a rowan and a hazel in the shrubbery, which were previously obscured by the buddleia, so I am delighted to have two of my favourite trees already in the garden.

Aside from this hard work (and a break in the weather which finally allowed the lawn to get mowed), I’ve been seeking out signs of spring in my neighbouring gardens.

First of all, a lawn dotted with golden celandines was simply a joy to behold on a sunny day:



A lush border full of mixed hyacinths: lovely combination of pastel shades and deeper blue muscari.

Border with hyacinth and muscari

Border with hyacinth and muscari

A very intriguing couple of front gardens were seen in the direction of Dulwich and Herne Hill, where houses tend toward the grand and front gardens tend toward the well-manicured – or stripped back to the bare minimum to create more space for cars.

A house which doesn’t have a front drive at all, then, devoting its entire frontage to plants, and doesn’t even have a tiled, heavily gravelled, or paved path, sticks out like a sore thumb on a road of Victorian mansions – albeit a rather lovely sore thumb.

Garden path, bordered with hyacinths and forget-me-nots

Garden path, bordered with hyacinths and forget-me-nots

This garden, compared to its neighbours, was more like a miniature nature reserve, complete with well-trodden earth paths winding through it, and a pile of sticks which looked like the perfect hidey-hole for a hedgehog.

Lovely pile of sticks for a hedgehog

Lovely pile of sticks for a hedgehog

This was a planned wilderness, as far as I could tell, a beautiful, fascinating mess on an otherwise tidy street.

It reminded me that according to the London Wildlife Trust, urban front gardens are essential habitats for wildlife in cities – and, like school playing fields and derelict ground, they are increasingly disappearing.

Every front garden I see which has been sacrificed to make way for cars, or has relegated its green space to a mere plant pot by the front door, makes me think sadly of the potential habitat lost to wildlife, and of the flowers that will never grow there.

On to more cheerful things, by contrast I also saw a wild front garden that appeared entirely unplanned, and this one even more likely to be sneered at by its neighbours, as it was in a very smart Herne Hill street.

Surprisingly, the house itself was smartly done up, the tiled path had neither a crack nor a weed visible, so it was not evidently a case of total neglect, but the residents did not appear to be doing much with the garden. The result was a lush green lawn, filled with dandelions, and backed by a swathe of forget-me-nots against the wall. The contrast of bright green and yellow, with the flash of intense blue behind, was quite glorious – and all the more lovely and amusing for being so unplanned.

Dandelions and forget-me-nots

Dandelions and forget-me-nots

Finally, a reminder that even the smallest places can be turned into habitats, and a gem of a garden to please the human eye, too – the phenomenon of planting around the bases of trees on pavements has gone from being the odd daffodil here and there to some quite carefully planned and thoughtful displays.

This one, also in Herne Hill, had some amazing white muscari which I’d never seen before – they looked so pristine against the dark soil, I was enchanted by them, not to mention confused, as at first glance I thought they must be some strange kind of late snowdrop. I may have to seek them out for my own garden, one day.

White and blue muscari in a pavement bed

White and blue muscari, in a pavement flower bed

(Apologies for the badly-focused picture – I was in a hurry when I took it, and didn’t follow my usual golden rule of taking at least 2 pictures in case one doesn’t come out well…shameful admission!)