Exploring the White Garden at The Rookery

I was going to call this A Whiter Shade of Pale but I just couldn’t bring myself to. So in place of awful pun, a very pedestrian title for a beautiful place.


I have written more than once about the Rookery, our lovely local walled garden on Streatham Common, and we go there more than ever these days, due to the upgraded cafe, much-loved paddling pool and the convenience for dropping in on the way to or from school. 

With our visits being so frequent, I wasn’t sure there was anything new to write about – till I realised I had never really looked closely at the famous White Garden

It’s right at the bottom of the main walled garden, secluded and usually peaceful, but a bit of a through-route to the other half of the common, Norwood Grove, so I’d never spent time really sitting and appreciating it.


However, recently I had the time, and a compliant toddler, so I decided to stop and have a proper look. (And it was probably the time of year to see it at its best, too).

Apologies that so few of the shrubs or trees are identified – I’d love to know what some of them are, though I do know some of the planting is meant to reflect the history of the gardens and replicate some of what was there originally.

Sweet peaHydrangea
To begin with, there were sweet peas growing up tripods which were exclusively white – I must admit, a little dull when you are used to the classic pastel shades – and a gorgeous pale hydrangea.

The next things I noticed were plants evidently chosen for the pale or silvery foliage (ok, in the second image here, it’s still fairly green, but it has a kind of silvery sheen on it I rather like).

CranesbillOx-eye daisyArum lily
Then there were more cottage garden-y plants – a white cranesbill, popular with the bees, ox-eye daisies (ditto) and the slightly more exotic arum lily.


A proper view of the border gives you a real sense of the scale of the place – the way the greenery is offset by the warmth of the brick wall is very pleasing, with little dashes of white here and there, and the dramatic height of the tree behind.


I especially liked the contrast of this frothy, fluffy shrub against the wall.


And on the other side of the garden, another even more fluffy bush. No idea what it is, but I love it!


Finally, a view of the other border, which is dominated by the tree left of centre – it was hard to get a good picture of it alone, but it had creamy white flowers like a magnolia, but flat rather than bell-shaped.

Not much else to say except what a pleasure it was to take these photos and how glad I am I took the time to have a proper up-close look at the White Garden. 

Please, if you’re lucky enough to have local parks and gardens as nice as this, visit them, enjoy them, appreciate them!

The lazy spring garden

I had a strange realisation about the garden earlier this month – it is the usual time of year when I remark with apparent surprise how the garden is suddenly green and blooming (as if it should be a surprise that spring happens! I always have to remember Larkin said it best: ‘begin afresh, afresh, afresh’).


However, there was something different this year – I was doing my usual pruning back and deadheading and digging up of dandelions and sycamore seedlings, but usually there are also some gaps to fill in, new plants to buy, things on my wish list to be added in here and there.

This year, though – no gaps! For the first time, plants I put in one or more year ago and didn’t necessarily expect to appear, have popped back up and are thriving.


On the raised bed, poppies from the plant stall at the school fair two years ago are sprouting again, a sedum my mum put in as a tiny seedling is now enormous, and my white thrift is thriving too. 

Even the nigella seeds I scattered last year, assuming I’d only get one year’s flowering from, are back.


The woodland garden at the back is also doing well, too, with bugle, periwinkle and lungwort, which I used to have to water all the time and coax back into life every time they drooped, spreading to cover the bare soil, and the one recent new purchase I allowed myself, a couple of hellebores, also settling in nicely.

It is nice not to have to do too much beyond basic maintenance and weeding – nice to see plants which used to struggle now taking care of themselves – and it’s certainly good not to be spending so much money on plants (though I do always hunt out the bargains and half price tables!). It is especially nice to look out over the raised bed and see a continual wave of colour, although I know once the bluebells are over there will be big gaps.


The silver birch tree, now in for a whole year, is also looking good, and with all the leaves out, we have a big improvement in terms of our privacy – looking out from the kitchen window, I can only just see the top roof of the house opposite, not their windows at all.


The question is, where does this leave me? I have two big beds I’ve worked very hard to fill, and now with our fourth summer in the house, they seem to be mature. I do still have two border beds with lots of shrubs, some very overgrown and prickly, and a lot of undergrowth spreading like lemon balm – none of it exactly weeds, but all a bit dull and samey. 

That is probably the next big task to contemplate, but for now, I’m going to enjoy what’s been done so far.


Plus I have a couple of junior gardeners to help me out – they are busy planting nasturtiums in this picture – and the poor old lawn which has become so lush and green, is going to be sacrificed for the new big toy, a trampoline.

A walk around…Bodnant Garden

Half term already seems aeons ago – I was all set to blog some more about our trip to Wales, then the small matter of the US election (falling on my birthday, in a choice piece of bad timing) plunged me into too much gloom to think about writing much. 

So a month has passed, and I’ve cheered myself up by starting sewing again, which definitely helps, but an unwritten blog nags at the brain and demands to be finished. 

Bodnant Garden had been on my must-visit list in Wales for a long time, and the chance to go at the height of the fall colours was too good to pass up on. (Yes, I know it’s an Americanism but doesn’t ‘fall’ sound so much more evocative than ‘autumn’?)


The first thing that caught my eye was a border packed with verbena and dahlias (well, my mum said they were dahlias, I wouldn’t know one from another, I get them mixed up with chrysanthemums). Despite not being a great admirer of dahlias, I had to gawp in amazement at that shocking red and purple together, how suprising but how effective! (was the planting trying to emulate the much-anthologised poem about the woman suddenly starting to wear purple with a red hat that doesn’t match?)

After traversing a series of formal gardens with trellises and ornamental ponds we came to the start of the really exciting bit, a ravine which suddenly dropped away with steep paths switching back between towering trees. (This was taking the step free route, there were masses of paths and routes criss crossing the site).

It was like stepping from the dainty floral world of, say, Mary Mary Quite Contrary into the Brothers Grimm or Tolkien – I felt a bit like I might be a hobbit on the slow and weary approach to Rivendell. There was a trail of pumpkins leading down the path which was a great trick to keep the children interested – although we had to stop the toddler trying to lift up pumpkins almost as big as her.

At the very bottom of the valley, just to add to the fairytale feel, was an weir and old rustic water mill, with a very welcome bonfire burning outside – plus (the incentive to get the children there), craft activities for Halloween going on inside. Two pipe cleaner spiders later, we headed on down the valley. 


There was a fork in the path, with one route leading to a lake used for skating on the edge of the estate, the other over a bridge and back towards the house, so rather reluctantly we took the sensible route and headed back. The path was not step free in this instance, but luckily with the toddler now quite sturdy on her feet, she acquitted herself well and the buggy was heaved up without too much trouble. Without a buggy altogether would have been better, though.

The real highlight, though, was coming to the acer grove, just where the ground levelled out again. We’d been told this was the best time of year to see it, and boy, were they right. 


Can you believe such colours exist? Aren’t they wonderful?

From the acers it was a short walk across a field back to the main entrance – the cafe is outside the main site and through an underpass where the car park is, so by the time we had gone all the way back through and had lunch, we had a baby in need of sleep and going back into the gardens seemed a bit of a tall order. So we left a good half of the garden unexplored – and there are new trails in the woodlands being opened up all the time. One to add to the list to visit again, though maybe in spring next time.

Tale of a Shrub

I have big plans for our garden next year! (Adopts megalomaniac pose, arms aloft, boldly gazing at the horizon). I’m going to pick it up by the scruff of the neck and give it a good old talking to.

Actually, no, I’m going to do no such thing – a big garden makeover is just not on the cards, but I do have a couple of slightly more achievable goals I’m working towards: I want to tidy up the shrubbery, and create a children’s play area.

The shrubbery has always been a bit of a conundrum to me – on the one hand, we need to keep a bit of privacy and screen off the view of some ugly garages, but on the other, we have an awful lot of garden space devoted to a tangled mess of trees and shrubs which are, for the most part, not really my taste.

So, what will stay and what will go?

Working left to right (looking from the house), the first thing I’d give the chop to is a ceanothus. It is already being choked to death by ivy, so I’ve cut out loads of dead branches over the years and it’s now in a rather sorry state. It does have nice blue flowers in spring, but it’s also very gnarled and spiky and just not my thing.

However, we do need to keep it for screening off the uglies, so I contented myself with chopping off a low overhanging branch which had been driving me mad. Doing the job myself was really satisfying, too – I haven’t wielded a saw in years. 

  
Next to the unloved ceanothus is a viburnum of some kind – that can stay. Nice dark green glossy foliage, evergreen so it provides privacy all year round, pretty cream pompom flowers. My only gripe is that it’s not one of the scented varieties.

Next to the viburnum is a rowan, which I have no complaint with. It’s my favourite tree by far, beloved for its beautiful orange berries and its place in folklore. It stays!

In the middle of the shrubbery, we have a horrid variegated laurel which I hate and would like to rip out altogether, and various unidentified shrubs and sprawling trees. There’s something that shoots up everywhere which I think is a dogwood, and something that might be hazel. I’ve hacked back quite a lot of this but I don’t quite know what to put in its place, is the problem…we’ll come back to that one.

At the far right hand side is the real ‘problem area’. There was a mahonia, a plant I really can’t love, sprouting everywhere, the ubiquitous buddleia, and a huge tree stump covered in ivy. 

  
This entire corner of the bed I cut right back to the ground (bar the big tree stump) over a couple of intense gardening sessions – the pile in the foreground is only about half of what I cut down in total!

This was all removed by the excellent Green Go Waste, an environmentally conscious waste clearance company who I can highly recommend. Now remains the question of what goes in place of all this tangled shrubby mess I am so glad to be rid of?

The right hand corner has a gap where the mahonia and buddleia were and is an obvious place to put a larger tree, to help screen us better from a couple of the houses that we back onto. The tree we all like most is the silver birch, with its pale bark and golden yellow leaves providing a nice contrast to all the dark evergreens – but at the same time, it’s an opportunity to plant a fruit tree and actually grow something useful. 

Cooking apples would be my preference – pies and crumbles all autumn and winter without having to pay for apples, sounds good to me. But I think aesthetically silver birch will win the day – next step is actually to buy and plant the tree, and I have no clue how to do this, I’ve never planted anything as big as a tree and I’d hate to get it wrong. Job for next year, anyway, she says, deferring having to make an actual decision yet.

There is also a large patch of bare earth in front of the old tree stump and it’s here I’d like to create a play area for children. I freely admit here to being heavily influenced by Sally’s Secret, by Shirley Hughes – I loved playing in dens and Wendy houses as a child, and in the story, Sally makes a perfect den in the shrubbery at the bottom of her garden.

So I want to make space for a den, but I want children to be able to make it their own. A fancy playhouse is not on the cards, but we do want to make a safe surface underfoot – bark chippings or Astro turf, perhaps. Certainly with a layer of matting to keep the weeds down.

Then we need something to give it the feel of a den, to make it feel a bit enclosed. The obvious choice would be a willow structure, which I’d love to have, but the space is tight and I’m not sure it would quite work. 

The finishing touch will be something to use as play furniture – chopped off logs for stools and tables, of course, and maybe a low stretch of fence to make the play area feel distinct from the rest. The other half of the bed, underneath the rowan and viburnum, is my rather haphazard but pleasing shady ‘woodland garden’ where I’ve planted ferns, foxgloves, lungwort, etc – I want to keep this area well planted and hopefully not trampled too much by children. 

There is also the matter of my compost bin which sits, Dalek-style, under the ceanothus – I’d like to screen it from view a bit, but I’m not sure how. I should have positioned it further back behind the shrubs but it’s far too heavy to move now! Another thing to fix one day.

  
That’s the goal for 2016, as far as the garden is concerned – plant a tree, and make a play area. We’ll see how it goes – and I’ll update, if either thing actually happens…

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).

Smarties

Smarties

(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…)