Wild Whites

Some our most beautiful native species are the white-blossomed trees, shrubs and perennials of Spring. In many years, including this year, Spring is slow succession of flowering whites – the Blackthorns followed by Whitebeams and Hawthorns, the Sweet cecily by the Cow-parsley, the Wood anenomes by the Sweet woodruff.  (Last year, 2013,  Spring was cold and wet until mid-May, then it all happened at once,  the roadsides, fields, gardens and parks becoming a riot of white froth and flower).

The true glory of these spring-flowering natives  is in the open countryside, but they can also make a stunning contribution to the garden, town or country, wild or formal. Imagine the beautiful, delicate Sweet woodruff (Galium odorata) planted at the shady base of a formal low box hedge,  the stately Sweet cecily (Myrrhis odorata) making an early contribution to a potager, or the Whitebeam (Sorbus aria) as the focal point of a lawn, perhaps bridging the more formal part of the garden with  a more naturalistic woodland or meadow area.  And even in the smallest garden a clump of Sweet cecily will give value for many months, the finely divided soft foliage being beautiful and the aromatic black seedheads architectural, whilst the Guelder rose (Viburnum opulus), can be pruned to keep it as a medium-shrub providing spring flower and autumn berries for the small garden.

So, here are five of my favourite ‘Wild Whites’, all of which deserve a place in our gardens.  Starting with the smallest and working upwards:

Sweet woodruff (Galium odorata)

Sweet woodruff (Galium odorata)

Sweet woodruff (Galium odorata)

A tiny, delicate wonder of a plant with starry white flowers, and slightly shiny whorls of rich green leaves, the overall impression being of a gently exploding  carpet of green and white firework. It prefers shade, and well drained but moist ground, and form excellent ground cover where  it is happy.  Flowers above the leaves begin to appear March, flowers April through May.


Star of bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum)

Star of Bethlehem,  Ornithogalum umbellatum

Star of Bethlehem,
Ornithogalum umbellatum

This native bulb has an array of charming (and not so charming) folk names – Betty-go-to-bed-at noon, Shamefaced maiden, Dog’s onions – the first two of which refer to the flowers’ habit of closing at midday on cloudy or overcast days. But for me the beauty of this bulb is as much in the clear grass green markings on the the underside of the petals as in the shiny, almost pearlescent side that face thelight. It likes the moist, and naturalises well in grass.

Luzula nivea, this is a cultivar of the native woodrush

Luzula nivea, this is a cultivar of the native woodrush

I grow mine in a deep wooden tub, by the side of my pond,  with a cultivar of the native Sweet woodrush, (Luzula nivea), where, this year, it looks stunning from April  through early June.




Sweet cecily (Myrrhus odorata)

Myrrhis odorata Photo © Carl Farmer 11 May 2002 Inverness

Myrrhis odorata
Photo © Carl Farmer
11 May 2002 Inverness


Such a lovely name! Elspeth Briscoe, a founder of My Garden School called her daughter  Cecily, and what a good choice it is. It is sweet and lovely plant. The foliage is fresh like new ferns unfurled, but soft to the touch,  the flowers a haze of creamy white, and even the seed-heads have beauty as they age through the summer. I grow mine close to the kitchen, and in spring snip its leaves to cook with Rhubarb, the anis sweetness of the leaf replacing half the sugar I would usually use.

This is a tall perennial, up to 1.2m in good conditions. The wonderfully fresh foliage begins as the ground and the air warm in early Spring, and the flowers come before the Cow-parsley, in my garden at least! Use it in the border, the herb garden, or the potager. Or as a fringe to a meadow or grass area – where it is happy it will naturalise and give great value.

Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)

Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), garden of brother-in-law

Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), garden of brother-in-law

No point in preaching to the converted about this wonderful native tree/shrub: it will give you trees and hedges, blossom and berries, and nurture the birds, invertebrates and insects of your garden. Not showy in the individual flower or berry, there is nevertheless something quintessentially natural about the hawthorn en masse: pushing forward its blossom into the welcoming arms of late spring, showing its crimson berries against the blue skies of autumn.  Not a choice for the courtyard garden – but in larger urban settings a hedge of hawthorn (or ‘Mixed natives’) or shrub given room to grow will bring the country to your urban corner.

Guelder rose (Viburnum opulus)

Viburnum opulus, the Guelder-rose, in May.

Viburnum opulus, the Guelder-rose, in May.

The Guelder rose or Wayfaring tree has  two seasons of real beauty. The first is in late Spring and early Summer, when it is covered with fragrant, white, lace-cap type flower heads, each composed of an inner ring of creamy-white, tubular, fertile flowers surrounded by larger, porcelain-white sterile florets. The second is  in Autumn, with vibrant reds and oranges, a magnet for the eye and the birds.

For smaller gardens there is an excellent berry-bearing cultivar Viburnum opulus ‘Compactum’ . There is also the very attractive V. opulus ‘Roseum’, Snowball plant, but avoid this if you are creating a wildlife area, as it is completely sterile and has no nectar or fruit.


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Just potted – Orchids in the Toulousaine


Pyramidal orchids in the Toulousain


In England we love our wild flower meadows – foxtail, vernal, quaking grass, and oat grasses, buttercups and cornflowers, ox-eye daisies and poppies, knapweed and scabious, many beautiful and often localised combinations of flowers and grass according to soil and season. In April if lucky we can have the wonderful sight of the Snakeshead fritillary (Fritillaria melagris) creating a jewel like carpet across low wet meadows. Often in the UK these habitats are a rarity, a diminishing source of joy and diversity to be protected and conserved.


Pyramidal orchid - Anacamptis pyramidalis

Pyramidal orchid – Anacamptis pyramidalis

Sainfoin - Onobrychis viciifolia

Sainfoin – Onobrychis viciifolia

France seems so much bigger, emptier, and perhaps more casual about its floral treasures. My french-living friends tell me that herbicides are used enthusiastically in the huge agricultural fields around Toulouse, and yet there seems to be space enough for beautiful and seemingly unprotected wildflower meadows. It was pure joy whilst out walking last weekend to come across these beautiful grasslands, copiously dotted with Pyramidal orchid,  Sanfoin, Common Bird’s-footoot Trefoil, Bedstraw, and more rarely the spectacular and mysteriously bedecked Lizard’s tail orchid – almost hidden green and purple striped flowers from which emerge a long, slightly scruffy, curled tongue or tail, the labellum which gives the plant its name.

Lizard orchid - Himantoglossum hircinium

Lizard orchid – Himantoglossum hircinium

Lizard orchid - close-up

Lizard orchid – close-up

Lizard orchid - flowers

Lizard orchid – flowers



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Bare-branch beauty – top picks for February

There is always something magical about flowers blooming without foliage – think of the mysterious beauty of the native Autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale), hovering in a lilac haze above the earth on its pearly stems.  In winter we can enjoy the exuberance of delicate petals and flowers bursting from bare wood on garden shrubs and trees: an elegant combination of flower and wood which brings to mind Japanese or Chinese painting, a foretaste of Spring.

Here are six of my favourite bare-branch tree and shrubs – they all have exquisite flowers, and many have much to offer outside the flowering season.

Paper bush, Edgeworthia chrysantha

Exotic, slightly tender Edgeworthia chrysantha

Exotic, slightly tender Edgeworthia chrysantha

The most exotic of the bunch, and very under-used in gardens.  Clusters of fragrant tubular yellow flowers spring from the papery bark in January/February.  It’s borderline hardy, but will survive most winters against a sheltered wall or well-sheltered in a shrub border. 1.5m x 1.5m



Japanese quince, Chaenomeles x superba

Elegant japanese quince, Chaenomeles x superba

Elegant japanese quince, Chaenomeles x superba

A long-time garden favourite, available in a range of colours from white through corals to deep scarlets. Prominent rose-like yellow stamens add to the interest. Flowers over a long period from December sometimes through to April. In the Autumn golden, quince like fruit will form. Usually grown against a wall or fence.  1.5m x 2m NB: Branches have spiny thorns, care needed.

Witch hazel, Hamamelis x intermedia


A species cross between Hamamelis japonica and Hamamelis mollis, with an interesting and increasing number of cultivars (e.g. Pallida, Arnold Promise, Jelena) producing flowers from pale sulphur  through egg-yolk yellow to deep burnt orange. A faint but bewitching spicy smell, not at all like the astringency of the witch hazel tonics you buy.

The shrub or small tree has an elegant vase-like shape, with large hanging hazel-like leaves, which on some cultivars turn a beautiful butter-yellow to orange-gold in Autumn. Needs a sunny open position to get the best value from the scent, flowers and form.

Persian ironwood, Parrotia persica

Spidery red flowers of the Persian Ironwood, Parrotia persica

Spidery red flowers of the Persian Ironwood, Parrotia persica

Another member of the witch hazel family, this medium-sized, short-trunked tree is usually grown for its stunning Autumn foliage, each leaf a dusky mixture of bronzes, oranges, reds and greens. In winter it has the most enchanting petal-less flowers, consisting of spidery bright red stamens, such a delicate surprise from this imposing and solid tree.

Autumn cherry, Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’

Lasting treasure, the Autumn cherry, Prunus x subhirtella 'Autumnalis'

Lasting treasure, the Autumn cherry, Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’

One of the best winter-flowering trees for gardens, streets, woodlands and parks, this cherry will flower intermittently from late Autumn through to early Spring, offering a delicate scattering of palest shell pink flowers on dark brown bark in mild spells. Pale bronze young foliage in Spring, and butter yellow autumn colour. Guaranteed to lift the spirits on a grey day.

Shell-like beauty of the Prunus incise, the Fuji cherry

Shell-like beauty of the Prunus incise, the Fuji cherry

Fuji cherry, Prunus incisa

Smaller and shrubbier than the Autumn cherry, Prunus incisa is one of the first cherries to flower in late Winter and early Spring, with beautiful white or pale pink single flowers, with the added bonus of bronze-flushed new leaves in Spring after flowering and  rich orange-red autumn foliage.

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Borders, and a shed for the Autumn

I’ve just come back from Yorkshire – the South Pennines, Brontë country – a wonderful landscape of moors and hills studded with stone-built towns and villages and mills- some abandoned, some still in use adapted to modern industry, converted to galleries and shops, housing and offices.

Whilst there I took a trip to Harlow Carr, the RHS garden in the North, tucked into the much prettier and more obviously picturesque landscape of North Yorkshire, just outside Harrogate.

View of the main border


It’s a beautiful garden in a very fine setting, with some lovely planting. The autumn borders are splendid, well-maintained, a magnificent example of their kind. There’s a lot to be learned from studying perennial planting done this well – contrasts of colour and form, lasting seed heads and brilliant foliage ensuring interest and structure well into the late autumn.  The borders were replanted in 2005, with sustainability and ability to resist drought in mind – given the weather we’ve all had, especially Yorkshire, this summer, they’ve done remarkably well. One might expect the prairie-type perennials to be looking a sodden and woebegone, but they’re standing proud,  showing off their colour and their form.

Standing proud: Echinops and Stipa gigantica seen form under the Mayten tree

Standing proud: Verbena hastata ‘Rosea’


I think that a lot of this can be attributed to the great attention paid to soil preparation and protection of soil structure in the planning and maintenance of these beds.  I was very interested to hear that Harlow Carr are  experimenting with Strulch (a University of Leeds developed  soil improver made from composted wheat straw): I’m trying it for the first time this Autumn,  I’ve heard great things about it, and am looking forward to seeing similar results in my gardens and allotment.

If you’re sensing any sort of a  ‘but’ there is one – the planting and the borders are all just a tad too much like the borders at Wisley, no distinct personality.  The same could be said for the extensive streamside planting; think Beth Chatto, think Kiftsgate, there’s nothing here that shouts  Harlow Carr, Yorkshire, moorlands! But maybe RHS Harlow Carr will introduce a distinct personality with the new landscaping they are planning around the Queen Mother’s Lake, or the new show gardens that they will introduce later this decade.

Which sort of brings us to the shed! One distinctive, although not regional, feature of Harlow Carr is its ‘Gardens Through Time’ exhibition – apparently developed for a television programme in 2005. It’s not meant to be permanent, and will be replaced in a few years, but whilst it’s there, it’s well worth a visit. It starts with a regency garden, and works through major periods – Victorian, Edwardian, 1950’s Modernism, 1970’s ‘Room Outside’ and a ‘Contemporary’ 2004 Garden designed by Diarmuid Gavin.

Gaudy Victorians


It was the Victorian and Edwardian gardens that really caught my imagination – in the Victorian garden there was a gaudy Autumn planting of Dahlias, and the most beautiful potting shed: a pale washed blue inside setting off the clay pots and terracotta stands; tools hanging neatly from the walls, and beautiful copperplate handwritten plant labels propped up ready to use.

Potting shed blues

Potting shed copperplate




I don’t know how many Victorian potting sheds were kept in such glorious order, but this one would give any gardener a bad case of shed-envy!

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A garden by the sea

If seaside gardening is meant to be difficult, and limit the choice of plants, Gertrude Jekyll didn’t know. You can hardly get more ‘seaside’ than Lindisfarne, the Holy Island of Northumbria, for most of the day there is sea nearby on all sides. But in the walled garden that she and Edwin Lutyens designed in 1911 for Edward Hudson, publisher of Country Life and owner of Lindisfarne Castle, she has used a wide range of herbaceous plants and shrubs, that within  the confines of the grey stone walls seem to thrive despite the salt air around them.

The garden is  sensitive to its surroundings, and whilst roses, irises, and sweet peas may not be the natural flora of the Northumbrian coast, the palette of silvers and pale yellows, pinks and whites which the garden showed in June were highly suggestive of the small flowers, grasses and ferns clinging to the stones of nearby Lindisfarne priory, and the rocks of Beblow Hill.

Vetches, thrifts and stonecrops on Beblow Hill

View to the south

The design of the garden  benefits greatly from a strong geometry, with wide borders in front of the walls, and five island beds, two L-shaped, and two rectangular partly enclosing a central rectangle (the garden was designed with tapering paths to give an illusion of greater size, but this isn’t evident when walking around). On the North side of the garden a simple garden bench stands at the central axis, looking south to the entrance and the castle. The materials used for the walls and paths blend effortlessly with the surrounding rocks and seascape.

In early June a lot of the impact of the summer-flowering annuals was still to come – sweet peas were scarcely more than 10cm high, and none of the roses were yet in bloom. There were irises (not included in Jekyll’s original plan), Cornflowers (Centaura cyanus), Mignonette (Reseda odorata) , a clear magenta species gladiolus – like the Byzantine gladiolus – and some glorious pale orange-apricot poppies about to open (also not on Jekyll’s original plan).


The National Trust have worked hard to restore Jekyll’s original planting design, and have provided a helpful leaflet listing the plants they have sourced and showing their interpretation of Jekyll’s characteristically  illegible planting plan. It doesn’t always seem to match up to what you see on the ground – but the overall effect of the planting feels true to Jekyll, and, perhaps just as importantly to the genius loci.

There is here the feeling of something slightly left behind by time; and it is. Nowadays we would not plant like this, we would design a more ‘natural’ and ‘sustainable’ style of garden and planting, using salt and drought-tolerant plants, and probably many more natives than Jekyll has included. But Jekyll and Lutyens were good at place. They had a different sensibility, and probably a more relaxed relationship with nature (in that they would see themselves as nature’s natural allies, rather than potential destroyers), and their garden works, sympathetic to, and enhancing the environment, both in their time and ours.


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The beauty of small things

The weather has been so glorious the last few weeks that my eyes have been drawn skywards – the glory of magnolias blossoming early against the clear blue skies of late March, the Clematis armandii (the species, and ‘Appleblossom’) in my garden tumbling down in fragrant profusion, the darkly purple new growth of Silver birch and the golden olives and reds of willows and dogwoods lighting up the country side.

In colder and wetter springs my eyes have drawn more to the ground, and to the details of foliage and flower emerging from the rubble of winter. And even in this warm, sunny and blue-skied Spring it’s been a joy to look at the small things growing on the banks of roads, the edges of borders, and some of the shade containers in my garden.

I have two old wooden barrels planted with Witch hazels  (Hamemelis x intermedia‘Pallida’, and H. x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’) which provide wonderful colour in late winter and early Spring. Underplanted with several different species,  a profusion of foliage begins to grow, and this year, just as the last flowers of the Witch hazels have begun to wither and drop off to reveal the nascent nuts in the stems, the flowers have begun to emerge from the foliage beneath.


Ranunculus ficaria ‘Double Mud’ (Lesser Celandine cultivar)

First are the violets – the native Sweet violet (Viola odorata) with dainty flowers and exquisite heart-shaped foliage, either fresh green  or a rich green tinged with a purple edge. Soon the flowers of Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) open – the cultivar I have is the bewitching but unpromisingly named ‘Double Mud’. The flowers are attractive in themselves, but what makes this cultivar so special is the wonderful grey sheen on the outside of the petals, which are a glowing cream on the inside.

Erythronium ‘Pagoda’

Rising above these are  flowers ofErythronium ‘Pagoda’ – a cultivar of the North American Trout Lily. As the elegant long buds open out into the graceful nodding flowers I am reminded of nothing so much as the poise of a Degas ballet dancer.

In the other wooden tub I’ve planted the native European Erythronium – the dog-violet, Erythronium den-canis. These are not yet flowering (the spot is shadier), but have already thrown up there strange and mysteriously mottled foliage, which I think looks wonderful as a backdrop for  the flowers and heart-shaped leaves of the Violets.

Leaves of Erythronium dens-canis with flowers of Viola odorata.


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Hortus conclusus, The Serpentine Pavillion 2011

Sitting here on a wild October day, watching 40 mph gusts of wind blow through the birches round my garden, it is lovely to remember the shelter and intimacy of Peter Zumthor’s 2011 Serpentine Pavillion – a Hortus conclusus of washed black walls enclosing a  ‘tableau vivant‘ of planting designed by Piet Oudolf, open to the sky with tall grasses reaching out to the park around the pavillion.

Strictly speaking the Hortus conclusus traces its roots back to the Middle Ages, and a specifically Christian symbolism rising out of reverence for Mary – but its origins could be traced back to classical and pre-classical Europe, and even earlier to  the wellspring of Persia and the paradise gardens of Mesopotamia.

This modern interpretation draws on the essence of the idea, and expresses the spiritual purpose, without being explicitly religious:

“I see a great cycle and I am part of it. For a little while I am here. I did not exist before my time, and I will no longer exist after my time. But in my time I belong to the process of life on this planet; for a little while I am part of the organism of human beings , animals, and plants, that exists on this planet and that passes life on……A garden is the most intimate landscape ensemble I know of.  It is close to us. In it we cultivate plants we need. A garden requires care and protection. And so we encircle it, we defend it and fend for it.  We give it shelter. The garden turns into a place. ” Peter Zumthor,  from his introduction for Hortus Conclusus.

From the outside the Hortus conclusus of Peter Zumthor is a stark building, an uncompromising near-black modernist structure, with no decoration – the only interruption to its mesh-textured walls the retangular open entrances and exits.

Once inside the visitor is immediately reminded of the monastic origins of the Hortus conclusus – a cloister-like passage completely encloses the garden within, offering glimpses of both the world outside, and the garden at the centre.

There is nothing particularly surprising about the plants chosen by Piet Oudolf for this garden – those familiar with his style will know that he favours naturalistic drifts of perennials, with tall and small plants woven amongst the whole planting. An important feature of Oudolf’s planting, well displayed here, is using plants that will outlast their flowering season, adding structure and interest with seed heads, stems and foliage for many months.

When I visited in late September (just as the Indian summer heatwave began to strengthen) the dominant plants were the tall grasses (Molina caerula subsp arundinacea ‘Transparent’ and Deschampsia ‘Goldschleier’) the bugbane Actea ramosa, and the large solid but fluffy heads of Joe Pye Weed Eupatorium maculatum ‘Risenschirm’ and Rodgersia pinnata ‘Superba’.

But amongst these structural drifts, there are also smaller flowers, gem-like spots of bright colours – the intense blue of Monkshood Aconitum carmichaelii Wilsonii  group’Barkers’ ,  the  violet starts of Michaelmas Daisy Aster macrophyllus ‘Twighlight’ and the snaky delicate shapes of Toad Lily, Trycirtis formosana .

The Serpentine gallery have helpfully provided a planting plan with plant names – a real bonus for the horticulturalist or deisgner who wants to get to grips with the scheme.

The Hortus conclusus closes on 16 October – do try to visit it in these its last senescent days.  It has spiritual quality that genuinely reflects its origins, but is also modern, the energy and vitality of the planting contrasting with calmness and stillness of the building.

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Gardens of the Real Alcazar, part 2

The ‘historic’ gardens of the Real Alacazar, which I wrote about in first part of this blog are all to do with close integration of indoor and outdoor space in Moorish/Mudejar design. Close to the palace there is a wall within which this mixed space is defined, outside the wall, although there are many archways and gates through it, and a spectacular galleried walkway, we are in much more into the conventional  European style of garden as a distinct entity and a space in its own right.

The move from intimate to spacious is gradual, both in terms of space and age.  The Alcove garden was the first to be restored in the 16th century, created from the former orchards of the Moorish gardens.  This area is centred on the Charles V Pavillion, a magnificent restoration of the original qubba.

Railings between Damsel's Garden and Alcove Garden

The next major change the original gardens was the expansion of the Damsels’ Garden, and building of the Grotto Gallery, by Vermondo Resta, in the early 17th century (begun 1606). The purpose of this was to extend the privacy of the gardens and courtyards within the inner walls of the Real Alacazar to the gardens immediately next to the inner walls. The architectural style was mannerist, and the planting formal – eight retangular beds bordered by myrtle hedges, each enclosing  a rectangular parterre design. The beds are divided by a central passage, with fountains and water spouts embedded in the paving.

The ‘Damsels’ after whom the garden is named are the now gone statues of  the Godesses Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena, and Queen Helena – not as, one might think, the ‘Damsels’ of the Royal Household who enjoyed the gardens.

The Damsels' Garden

Above  is a spectacular raised walkway, which gives a view to the further gardens of the palace as well as view into the Damesls’ garden.

View over gardens from walkway in Damsels’ garden

Further from the palace are several acres of gardens, partly built in the old orchards and gardens of the Real Alacazar, and partly built on new ground in the 18th and 19th century. Of these, my favourite is the also the newest of the gardens, The Poet’s Garden: a modern interpretation of a classic renaissance theme, itself based on the timeless principles of the Moorish garden – regular geometry, pools, fountains, pathways, evergreen hedges, and places to sit, walk and enjoy the shade an sounds of water.

Central fountain, Poet's Garden

The Poet's Garden: view from the raised walkway

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Paradise indeed – The Gardens of the Real Alcazar, Seville, part 1

Tiled steps into the 'historic' gardens

If you want to understand the long-term influence of the Islamic garden on European garden styles, a visit to the Real Alcazar of Seville will give you both a master class in design history and a walk-through lesson that will stimulate all your senses.

The Real Alcazar  (‘Real’ meaning royal, as in Real Madrid, and pronounced ‘ray-al’) was built in the 14th century, on the site and remains of the 10th century Moorish palace, by King Peter 1, who had been raised in the original palace (Alcazar Bendito). Like much of historic Seville it was built in the Mujedar style (Mujedar meaning ‘allowed to remain’), fusing Spanish Christian gothic and Moorish Islamic styles.

In the tradition of Moorish architecture, internal courtyards and gardens are a fundemental element of the palace design. Tiled rooms and corridors offer glimpses, through archways, of cool greens and the sound and smell of water.  Inside the palace there is the Maidens’ Patio, a central, open, space of a still pool, arcaded walks, and reflective, shining leaves.

Patio of the Maidens


In the immediate vicinity of the palace the private rooms of the royal family give onto galleries and steps leading down to the sheltered courtyards of the historic gardens – The Princes Garden, the Garden of Flowers, the Garden of the Gallery, The Garden of Troy, the Garden of the Dance, and the Pond Garden.

Each of these gardens has its own style, but they are unified by a common sense of purpose – enclosed by the high walls of the inner palace grounds they offer light and shade, delight of the five senses, and privacy; stairs, benches, pools, and fountains decorated with the elaborate patterns of Mujedar tiles; paving of patterned brickwork and tiles; predominantly evergreen planting with the occasional and seasonal burst of flowering colour or fallen fruit; the cooling sound, feel, and sight of running water and still pools; and everywhere, and even louder than the patter of the tour guides, the sound of birdsong. If for humans the Islamic garden was said to be a glimpse of Paradise, for the birds of the Real Alcazar these gardens must be Paradise indeed.

Paving from the Flower Garden

In the historic gardens the layout of paths and beds is strictly geometric – the archetypical divided quadrant of the Persian garden is the dominant motif, with rectangles of green planting intersected by water or paths. At the crossing centres there are sometimes fountains, sometimes patterned paving. In these gardens the views are not long, the eye is drawn along but also upwards and sideways. The one exception to this is the dramatic jet of water at the end of the series of historic gardens, where a huge waterspout erupts from some 20 m high to splash into the Pool of Mercury/Pond Garden.

Water spout into the Pool of Mercury


The gardens are colourful without being gaudy. Everywhere there is the green of glossy leaves, set off against the orchres and dull red (oxblood) tints of the plaster and bricks. Amongst these steady colours there are the brighter and repeated patterns of the tiles, a predominance of blue, but also sage greens with dull golds and earth browns. From the plants there is the bright red stab of Hibuscus flower, the sky blue of Agapanthus, and pitted orange of fallen fruits, echoing the colours of tiles, brick, and sky.

Hibiscus flower

Fallen fruit













And not to be forgotten, climbing against the sky and pitted against the earth, are the slender patterned columns of the date-palms, rich earth-grey, and the huge,  carved trunks of the magnolias, almost slate in their solidity.

What strikes me about these gardens – those within the palace and in its immediate vicinity – is their essential modernity: everytime I design a small urban courtyard garden, or the slightly larger suburban ‘back garden’, this is what I am aiming for – a seamless integration from house to outdoors, so that the eye continues its journey:  an extension of textures and colour, gradually substituting the man-made for the natural; a geometry which is true to the angular geometry of buildings, but softened by the natural symmetry of plants: a view which is constrained by the surrounding buildings, to a certain extent sheltered from them, but occasionally exploded by a trompe  l’oeil ; and a sense of privacy, belonging, and enclosure that city-dwellers need as a retreat from the bustle around them.

In Seville gardens shelter the people, birds, and many small mammals and insects from the heat: in England we need to design gardens that will shelter us from occasional heat, and much more frequent rain, but still allow us to feel that we have a safe and enticing outdoor space to retreat to.

Tile detail, historic gardens


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Wildlife plant for January – the Winter aconite, Eranthis hyemalis

The Winter aconite, Eranthis hyemalis, is one of the earliest perennials to flower in the new year, often flowering before or at the same time as the earliest snowdrops.  This early habit alone would earn it a place in many gardens – it is particularly valuable in the wildlife and woodland garden but can also provide early colour and interest at the front of a border or alongside a path.

In my home city of Oxford one of the most cheering sights of the early year is Winter aconites blooming in the small, iron-railed cemetery of St Mary Magdelen.  Here, surrounded by bicycles and buses, in the midst of the busy shopping area, the bright yellow flowers carpet the grass around the graves from mid-January onwards, sharing the space with snowdrops, and later violet and pale blue crocus.

Eranthis hyemalis is a small tuberous perennial, in the family of Ranunculaceae – unsurprisingly the same family as the meadow buttercup, which it closely resembles. The plant is small – about 5 to 8cm- and the flower is about 2cm when open, held above a ruff of bright green leaves.In the right conditions – full sun or dappled shade in winter, but shade which does not dry out in summer – it will self-seed rapidly and produce a stunning carpet of yellow winter colour. It looks particularly beautiful mingled with snowdrops, and the green and silver leaves of cyclamen and lamium.

Although the plant is not originally native – it comes from the woodlands of Southern Europe – it is fully hardy and has naturalised widely in the UK. In the wildlife garden in provides a valuable source of early nectar for insects and winter foraging bees, with its golden nectar-dusted anthers open and easily accessible. From an insect’s point of view it has the added advantage of being toxic, and therefore not grazed or nibbled by hungry rabbits and deer.

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