A Celebration Of Peonies

Close up of pink, peach and cream peonies

Peonies in pastel shades: Paeonia ‘Coral Charm’ with Paeonia lactiflora ‘Sarah Benhardt’

If I was forced to name my favourite flower, there’s a good chance it might be the peony. I love to see the red fronds of the herbaceous type pushing through the soil back to back together in their unearthly  fashion around this time of year, full of promise for the season to come. And when their blooms appear – well, could you blame me for deserting the rose in favour of these?

Primrose Hall, a fixture at all the best UK flower shows, are currently teasing a sketch of their proposed 2019 Chelsea Flower Show design online. Arrangements of blooms tower over a garden of peonies. In the background, a garland tumbles down towards flowers floating in a traditional clawfoot bath. That’s my kind of outdoor bathroom!

The pictures I’m sharing here were taken on their stands at last year’s RHS Chatsworth and Hampton Court Flower Shows.

A large flower bouquet made from 'Coral Sunset' peonies

Paeonia ‘Coral Sunset’ on the Primrose Hall display at the RHS Chatsworth Flower Show

I had thought that there must be more than one peony here but as Primrose Hall’s Alec White, who kindly agreed to identify the peonies, observed, “Note that the corals change colour quite a lot as they mature!”. Continue reading

From The Alpine House at Harlow Carr Gardens: Ten Tiny Treasures

A small primula covered in a mound of flowers

Primula allionii

The northernmost of the Royal Horticultural Society’s gardens, Harlow Carr, has so much to see that most repeat visitors must feel torn about where to go first. Not me – the Alpine House draws me in like a magnet. It’s show time there, whatever stage of the year. The gardeners tend a stock of plants behind the scenes, picking out tiny treasures when they are at, or around, their best for their turn in the Alpine house spotlight. This week our treats included several primulas, some flowering so madly that their leaves were hidden, others wearing their leaves with pride.

Lavender coloured primula with toothed, mealy leaves

Primula ‘Tantallon’

Some of the plants in the Alpine greenhouse are inside because they need protection from cold, wind or rain; others would grow outside just fine. Common species plants are treated as carefully as rare or special cultivars, all raised up on broad, sweeping benches so we can admire them at close quarters. Plants are grown in traditional clay pots, sunk into a mixture of sand and sharp grit to help keep the roots cool and stop them drying out too quickly. Continue reading

RHS Hampton Court Flower Show’s Twilight Zone

Cross-sections of a boulder fitted together to make a path

A 8ft meteor has fallen to earth, coming to rest in a garden. The impact has blackened the fencing, scorched vegetation and reduced trees and shrubs to charred branches.

The path is miraculously unscathed: not quite so old as the meteor, it has been made from a Caledonian boulder formed millions of years ago. Smaller boulders lie around, giving the floor added dimension and creating a lovely backdrop for the silhouettes of low growing plants and twisted embers of wood.

Charred, twisted branches amongst foliage and flowers

The dark planting scheme glows red hot in places: the chocolate-red cosmos and orange-red helenium firing up the green and pewter foliage, the burnt wood and the futuristic lilacs. This is the Elements Mystique Garden from RHS Hampton Court Flower Show 2018, but the setting would not be out of place in an episode of The Twilight Zone.  Continue reading

Finding [urban] Nature | RHS Tatton Park’s F[u]N Garden

If you’re the kind of person who smiles to see plants growing in cracks in (someone else’s) walls and pavements, puzzles over vines emerging from nowhere and loves the summer weeks when Buddleias with masses of arching, lilac-like flowers cling on to ‘seemingly every derelict building‘, this one’s for you.

Community garden on a brownfield site with deckchairs and bunting

I spoke to Roy Lancaster (a lovely fellow) at the Chelsea Flower Show years ago. Identifying me as a fellow Lancastrian by my accent, he told me how a local quarry’s unusual and diverse range of plants were brought to light when a schoolchild took a bunch of flowers to school for a nature project.

An abandoned area of disturbed land where people rarely tread is as good a home, if you happen to be a rare orchid, as anywhere else. Nature doesn’t have any concept of location, location, location – or at least not in the human way, where a house is worth ten times more in one place than in another.

Plants poking through layer of broken bricks and concrete

Plants flower where the seeds happen to fall, if they can. We’ve all seen a tangling of nature and building debris like this: we just don’t expect to see it faithfully recreated and offered up for our consideration at a flower show. Eds Higgins’ Finding [urban] Nature garden (hereafter, the F[u]N garden, following the designer’s styling) imagined a brownfield community garden as part of the RHS Young Designer Competition. Continue reading

My Top Twelve Picks from the RHS Tatton Park Flower Show

  1. Award-winning fruit (and veggies)
Basket of cherries, gooseberries and currants

Andrew Baggaley’s first prize winning basket of cherries, gooseberries and currants

2. Bees for Manchester

3. The Young Designer Competition

To celebrate the tenth anniversary of the competition, five finalists have been invited to create gardens rather than the usual three. This is always one of my favourite parts of RHS Tatton Park Flower Show.

Calm in Chaos Garden was designed by Max Harriman to be like a woodland trail

Continue reading

Gate leading into wildflower field with foxgloves

Hay Time In The Dales: People’s Choice Award Winner At RHS Chatsworth

Chris Myers and I were chuffed to bits by the turn of events at The RHS Chatsworth Flower Show last week. We both had good reason. After a slow start (the judges’ Silver Medal theoretically rated it worst in show), the garden he’d designed was validated by the popular vote, being named the one the public loved most. Me? I’d been rooting for it!

Foxgloves and wildflowers growing beside a cottage

Naturalistic plantings were a theme of this year’s show, but his garden was a hymn in praise of wildflowers (or more of a folksong). I enjoyed lingering awhile, listening to the sighs of pleasure as people glimpsed Hay Time In The Dales for the first time and felt its emotional pull. I knew this garden would haunt me, and it already is.

I thought of it when our evening walk took us past a flower-rich hay meadow between Edgworth and the Wayoh Reservoir. Around its peak now, the wildflowers include buttercups, yellow rattle, meadow vetchling, red clover, wild blue lupins, and a blend of grasses. A public information sign beside the meadow explains this patch of land represents what is now one of the rarest habitats in the UK.

It all seems so normal, and that’s part of the problem.    Continue reading

Six on Saturday From The RHS Chatsworth Flower Show

I’m joining in with The Propagator to share my six favourite plants from the ongoing UK flower show that runs until Sunday 10th June. It’s a good discipline to be just allowed six, but you should know there was a small battle for every one of these slots. I hope I’ll not be the only one this week to share pictures from Chatsworth, as I’d love to see other people’s highlights. Here goes:

  1. Digitalis ‘Foxlight Rose Ivory’

Pink foxglove flowers with speckled, cream throat

Looking this up online, the first search result is a data card for trade sellers, saying: ‘…bold novelty colors boost retail appeal and drive impulse sales’. I’m sure they will! I had thought this foxglove was part of the Illumination series, but was puzzled by the pointed lip, so was pleased to find I’d photographed the label. This doesn’t always happen, especially if I am over-excited to see the plant.

2. Polemonium ‘Northern Lights’

Polemonium cultivar with blue backed flowers, lighter inside

I’ve always had a soft spot for polemoniums. This cultivar has a radiance because the lighter centres of the flowers are displayed against lavender blue petal reverses. The yellowy-orange stamens help too.

3. Gaura ‘Rosy Jane’

White gaura flowers with a pronounced pink edge

I love gaura (butterfly bush), even though it does much better in my sweetheart’s Mississippi garden than it ever did in my own tiny Lancashire one. Continue reading

Highlights of the RHS Chatsworth Flower Show 2018

Model in white dress and flowery hat

Model with flowery hat at the RHS Chatsworth Flower Show

As we wound around Derbyshire’s beautiful but narrow Peak District roads towards our sneak preview of the Chatsworth Flower Show yesterday, knowing how limestone has shaped the environment, making the ground glitter in places, I thought of one of my favourite poems: W.H. Auden’s ‘In Praise Of Limestone’.

I love the poem’s conversational style, but its abrupt changes of tone and subject matter might not suit everyone. Just as we can only read a poem from within the landscape of our own mind, we can only ever experience a flower show from our own perspective. My idea of tasty flowers and planting schemes might not be yours.

Labrador dog in a show garden at RHS Chatsworth Flower Show

‘The Great Outdoors’ by Phil Hurst won Chatsworth Gold…

This year’s Best in Show award, for example, went to an attractive display with a lot of interesting elements, including the characterful wooden arbour, bench and water feature. Continue reading

Summer gardens from the RHS Hampton Court Flower Show: Final5 Retreat Garden

Final5 Retreat Garden

The small show gardens are a great way to see how plots of land diverge when each is dressed in carefully chosen colours, features and accessories to create a designer’s idea of gardening heaven.

I’ve only recently arrived back in the UK and this year’s show is all over but for the shouting. Undeterred, I’m determined to get into the spirit by giving a shout out to the Final5 Retreat Garden from last year. If you’re concerned that these pictures are old hat now, as styles have moved on to quarries and such-like in 2017, I won’t be hurt if you give this a miss and search The Reader for Hampton Court Flower Show instead. But if you’re still with me, here goes!   Continue reading

The Healing Urban Garden

Healing Urban Garden, Hampton Court

I’ve been meaning to share this picture of the HUG (the Healing Urban Garden) designed by Rae Wilkinson for the Hampton Court Flower Show. The garden looks much more open viewed from the front, but from this angle, it’s easier to see the style of the planting, which is densely packed and surprisingly linear. That’s the part of the garden that fascinates me.

It’s an interesting, textural effect, reminding me of the rows commonly used in crop gardens, such as cutting gardens or kitchen gardens. I wonder if for some people, the sense of order and rhythm underpinning the design makes it more relaxing? If asked beforehand, I’d have said I preferred plants to mingle together naturally, but something in my pattern-loving nature responds to the technique, especially as it’s not rigidly applied.

The plants included lots of aromatic perennials and healing herbs, such as lavender, artemisia, thyme, stachys, rosemary, salvia, allium, eryngium and nepeta. The calming, subtle colour palette of silver, blue and green was lifted by purple, the bronzy foliage of head-high, multi-stemmed trees and lavender, the latter carried through to the walls and accessories.  Continue reading