Sweet Peas – ‘so very pretty, so very, very fragrant’

January, straight after Christmas, when the gales are gathering and the fireside beckons, that is the traditional time for snuggling up with the new year’s seed and nursery catalogues, daydreaming glorious growings for the year ahead. In my case this usually means enthusiasm for long-forgotten vegetable and flower varieties to be planted in the as-yet unweeded allotment beds. The triumph of hope over experience.

But not this year. I’ve been far too busy designing gardens and, unbelievably, digging over my allotment beds in my spare time, to have had any cosying-up time with the catalogues. Until this weekend, when a week of freezing temperatures and snow has kept me in the study re-scheduling the delivery and planting of a mile of bare-root hedging, and doing all the paperwork I can face. I have a free weekend, a pile of seed and nursery catalogues, and three large beds prepared for planting. Where to start?

It has to be Sweet Peas. They are my June and July, my moon and my stars. Every year, whatever else I fail to do in the garden, I grow Sweet Peas.  I started last month with the group of young asylum seekers I work with at the Community Garden.  I gathered up all the seed I had  left from last year, and we planted Mrs Collier, Lord Nelson, Prince of Orange and Cupani. They wondered at the strange names, and showed polite but frank disbelief at the idea of anything in this freezing climate producing the fragrant flowers I promised. Given that the pots are now undercover in a freezing poly tunnel they may well have a point.

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Sweet peas sown and labelled February 2017 by young asylum-seeking students from Oxford Spires Academy

But last year this selection surpassed itself – sown late in March and planted out even later in May they were glorious in July and August, and still flowering,  fragrant and without any sign of mildew, in mid October. I grew most of them at the ends of my rows of climbing French beans and runner beans, and I wonder if they appreciated the company?

This year I’ll grow this mix again, but what else do the seed catalogues have to offer? Sarah Raven is disappointing  – she has obviously decided her core market wants her enticingly named ‘collections’ – Clouds of Scent, Vintage Silks, Blackcurrant Ripple, Amethyst, and Onyx- and is not much interested in individual varieties, of which she offers only seven (possibly more online). DT Brown – a new catalogue to me, with a huge illustrated selection of vegetable seeds – offers more single varieties, but few of the ‘Old Fashioned’ Sweet Peas of the nineteenth century (and earlier) I love.  But I’m tempted by the clear scarlet of Air Warden, a twentieth-century creation.  But for the widest choice, time to return to my original and ever-reliable supplier, Chiltern Seeds. Unlike the other two they rely on words rather than pictures to promote the charms of their wares, to my mind the dying art of describing a flower can conjure a different but equally powerful desire to grow it!

So, what shall I choose for my new varieties ?  Prince Edward of York, ‘striking two-toned flowers, deep magenta-crimson with a lighter brighter pink, a sweet spicy scent’ is irresistible, and whilst new to me it has been around since 1897.  Nelly Viner is a must too, again from the turn of the nineteenth century, ‘a gorgeous clear pastel pink with attractive rounded petals. So pretty and so very very fragrant’  And from the modern varieties I’m tempted by the ‘long, strong stems’ of Charlie’s Angel, a ‘lovely, subtle, pale watercolour blue with a heavenly scent’. Now I just need the snow to clear and the sun to shine.

 

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Working with young asylum seekers at Barracks Lane Community Garden

 

Since 2016 I’ve been helping Unaccompanied Young Asylum Seekers from Oxford Spires Academy to enjoy learning in the community garden just along the road from their school.  I work with the teachers and young people on the Academy’s ‘First Steps’ programme to use Barracks Lane Community Garden as place of learning and enjoyment, different to the more formal classroom settings at school.

Many of the young people on the First Steps course have had their education interrupted by the circumstances that caused them to become refugees and asylum seekers in the first place. Regular schooling is often yet another unfamiliar aspect of life in Oxford that they need to adjust to, and having a safe outdoor space in which to learn a little bit about plants and wildlife in the local community makes a change from the classroom for these young teenagers. Many of them come from farming or rural backgrounds, and I am always struck by the enthusiasm with which they recognise familiar fruit trees, herbs, vegetables and plants. They may not know their English or botanical names, but they can tell us their names in their own languages, and how the herbs and fruits are used in their own cultures and cuisines.

This Autumn 2017 term we have been planting broad beans and garlic for harvesting next year, and looking at the students’ favourite foods using these ingredients. We’ve planted bulbs for the Spring, and made feeders for wild birds. We’ve looked at all the different places in the garden where wildlife can shelter, and the different foods for birds and insects. All simple activities, but providing fun and enjoyment outdoors, even in the snow.

Next year we hope to get some funding to expand the programme, and secure its future, so that these young people new to life in Oxford and the UK can continue to enjoy and learn from the safe pace our garden provides.

A short interview for the Garden Design Journal about the work in 2016 can be found here.

More information about Barracks Lane Community Garden.

 

 

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The Great Broad Walk Borders, Kew Gardens, London, UK

It is just breathtaking to stand at the beginning of a wide path and look as far as the eye can see, and beyond, at 320 metres of herbaceous border – a Great Broad Walk indeed. It was a bold move from Kew to  resurrect a garden form that many say has had it’s day, and on such a grand scale. But its success is not only in scale, it’s also superbly well done.

What makes it work so well? It seems to me it’s following the classic rules and implementing them really well – rhythm of form and colour, punctuation, unfolding seasonal interest, combined with huge horticultural skill so that every plant grouping, almost every flower, is the best it can be.

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Overview of the Great Broad Walk borders in early Summer (photograph from Kew Gardens website)

The overall form of the border is a series of curves, said on the Kew’s web page about the borders to resemble a giant bean pod, so that the border ebbs and flows symetrically on either side of the path. The narrow part of each section, where the curve meets the path, is punctuated by clipped yew pyramids, and rather beautiful facing pairs of wooden seats. The backs of the borders, the broadest part of each curve, incorporate the existing conifers, and as well as adding a fabulous dark green backdrop of foliage for the show of plants, they support the flow of the border along its huge stretch. For most of the walk the background trees enclose the border, but every now and then a vista or view other than the axis of the path unfolds, most dramatically of The Hive, Kew’s current sculpture and music installation about the lives of bees.

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View of The Hive from the Great Broad Walk borders

The plants for each section of the border have been chosen on thematic grounds that reflect the breadth of scientific and horticultural research at Kew. Some sections use a single plant family or type – for example, the daisy family, Compositae, with fabulous selections of Heliopsis and Heleniums, or Monocots, the large grouping of  single leafed plants including many grasses and bulbs- whilst others reflect a particular use or characteristic – pollinators or shade plants for example. This approach could have created some rather dry and uninteresting areas (think of the ‘family beds’ of many botanic gardens, which are horticulturally useful, but aesthetically dull), but the plants for each theme have been chosen with skillful attention to colour and form, creating beautiful patterns and contrasts, and showcasing interesting varieties.

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Monocot themed section of the border, with Alstroemeria ‘Indian Summer’, Agapanthus ‘Jack’s Blue’,  Hemerocallis ‘Lemon Bells’ and Kniphofia ‘Nobilis’

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Helenium ‘Loysder Wieck’ from the daisy – Compositae– family themed border – an unusual cultivar with subtle colouring and distinctive spatulate petals  -Wieck means ‘Windmill’ in Dutch  (thank you Chris Marchant of the wonderful Orchard Dene Nurseries for your informative catalogue description!)

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Helenium ‘Sahin’s Early Flowerer’

The plans for the border and each section have been beautifully realised and labelled with the species and cultivar names in a semi-photographic way, repeated on raised boards along the length of the border. It was easy to see that these were creating huge interest amongst the visitors wanting to identify particular flowers to use in their own gardens.

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I found stunning examples of cultivars I didn’t know, and also wonderful new combinations of colour and form  – I loved the moody, bruised blues of the Agapanthus ‘Jack’s Blue’ and Verbena bonariensis below.

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Fabulously moody combination of Agapanthus ‘Jack’s Blue’ and Verbena bonariensis

 

Do visit during August or September if you can – the borders should be superb until the end of September, with many grasses  on the verge of flowering right now.

Kate Jury

 

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Meadows for gardens

© Mim Saxl Photography, www.mimsaxl.com

Meadow turf green roof, Barracks Lane Community Garden© Mim Saxl Photography, http://www.mimsaxl.com

 

Now is probably the best time of year to go out looking for wildflower meadows – although you are as likely to find them in a garden or managed landscape as in the open countryside. By the year 2000 nearly all our heritage of wildflower hay meadows had disappeared – according to meadow expert Pam Lewis (note 1), over 98% were destroyed in the 60 years after WW2.

Hay meadows were man-made creations, dependent on traditional practices of grazing and stock management, and cutting hay for winter storage. Many took thousands of years to evolve their precious mixtures of wildflowers and native grasses, and are literally irreplaceable now they have been superseded by fields of coarse grass managed by machine and fertiliser.

However, some have survived and can act as seed stores for local restorations, and inspiration for garden and landscape imitations, and whilst they will never replace the delicate balance of flower and grass evolved over centuries, they will at least help sustain some of the insects and wild life which have suffered from loss of habitat.  Many of the most beautiful meadows we have left are now under management by wildlife trusts and similar organisations.

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Warneford meadow, Oxford; Sorrel and buttercups

Of course, hay meadows are not the only types of meadow we have in this country, or Europe. There are other meadow-like habitats – water meadows, such as the fritillary meadows in Oxfordshire;  the ‘Machair’ coastal meadows of the Ireland and the Western Isles; the alpine meadows of Europe.

I’ve been designing gardens with wild flower meadows for six or seven years now. The first I ever worked with was at Barrack’s Lane Community Garden, where we incorporated a small wildflower meadow onto the roof of a timber shelter with solar panels. I’ve also incorporated wild flower ‘meadows’ into garden designs in quite urban or suburban settings, usually as part of a distinct wildlife area with a pond.  I’ve never tried to create a meadow from seed but always used turf supplied by the Wildflower Turf Company (note 2), who supply a wonderful species rich turf with 33 species of flowers and grasses (note 3). They have recently introduced naturalizing bulb mixtures to scatter before the Wildflower turf is laid, and a meadow laid this Autumn with bulbs underneath has produced stunning results this Spring.

What I and my clients find entrancing about these meadows is the way that different species shine in different years, according to the climate and season – one year it will be Ragged Robin, the next year Wild Carrot, another year Sorrel and Yarrow. But always there is a glorious mix changing from month to month, and even the smallest area of meadow will bring a breath of the countryside to gardens, and a feast for insects and birds.

Oliver's meadow

Oliver’s meadow, Doddington, Northumberland

 

Notes

  1. Pam Lewis, Making Wildflower Meadows, Frances Lincoln, London 2005
  2. http://www.wildflowerturf.co.uk/Info/wildflower-turf.aspx#
  3. WFTurf Wildflower Turf Ltd Landscape spec v3 20.3.15
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The Heritage of Common Plants

oxford herbarium specimen urtica dioica

Oxford University Herbaria specimen for Urtica dioica

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Nettle cloth from Denmark, retrieved from a bog-grave

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m very pleased to be working with Barrack’s Lane Community Garden again, and with The Nature Effect, to implement the new lottery-funded Heritage of Common Plants project. There are several strands to the project, which focuses on the cultural and productive heritage of five common garden and hedgerow plants – Stinging nettle, Mint, Lavender, Dog-rose, and Elder. One of the aims of the project is to create a unique Herbaria for the Garden, collecting the experiences and memories of the garden’s users around these common plants, as well as collecting physical specimens to create herbarium samples. This kicks off on Saturday 19th March with a day programmed around the Nettle – there’ll be soup, fibre-making and nettle tea as well as a host of other early Spring gardening activities and the annual Seed Swap. Later on in the project we’ll be working with a group of unaccompanied young asylum seekers as a part of their support programme, introducing them to some of Oxford’s beautiful plant- related heriatge sites and collections, and working with them in the Community Garden. I’ll post more information as the project develops.

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Illustration from the fairy-tale, The Six Swans, collected by the Brothers Grim. Their sister had to weave six nettle shirts to help break the spell put upon her brothers by their wicked stepmother.

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Rousham

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I visited Rousham House garden (Charles Bridgeman 1725/William Kent 1737 to 1741) in the Spring sunshine on Sunday – so unspoiled and yet beautifully maintained. Horace Walpole described it as the ‘most engaging of all Kent’s works. It is Kentissimo’ – which sounds surprsingly modern to me for an 18th-century description! The dovecote and parterre in the walled garden pre-date Kent, but are a charming and intimate counterpoint to the broad outward looking sweep and thought-provoking imagery of the gardens designed by Bridgeman and Kent. Here in the walled gardens we are charmed by the concerns of gardeners – the beautifully trained pear tree on the wall of the dovecote, the very ancient looking espaliered apples, the beautifully kept potting shed and glass house with shelves of sweet pea seedlings, drying chillies, and scented pelargoniums; the cold frame full of pots of tulips being brought on to place in the gardens later in the season. There are no postcards, no shops, no tea-rooms, and on a sunny Sunday in March, practically no people. I hope this wonderful balance between fidelity to the genius loci and ability to maintain the gardens at this standard can be kept forever!

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Just potted: Sweet things

More of my obsession with Spring’s sweet whites. Two beautiful plants for the wilder/more natural areas of the garden, both with species name ‘odorata/um’ from the latin for perfumed or fragrant:

Sweet woodruff, Galium odoratum : Tiny white flowers hover above fresh green whorls of star-like leaves. Valuable under-planting, forms a carpet under shrubs and trees, loves alkaline soil. Leaves persist right though the year until the new ones burst through the older leaves.  Much more garden-friendly relative of Lady’s Bedstraw, Galium verum, and the ever-spreading Cleavers or Sticky Willy, Galium aparine

Woodruff/Galium odoratum

Woodruff/Galium odoratum

Sweet Cicely, Myrrhis odorata: Vigorous perennial with fine soft grass green umbellifer leaves, and big panicles of white flowers – in growth and in flower before most other umbellifers are even thinking of it, a really useful precursor to the Ammi genus such as Ammi majus. Strong aniseed smell and flavour to the leaves, which are edible and a great addition to rhubarb.

Sweet cicely, Myrrhis odorata

Sweet cicely, Myrrhis odorata

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