Echinacea Heaven


Last week I invited myself to Meadow Farm in Feckenham, nr Droitwich in Worcestershire, to see Rob and Diane Cole’s trial beds of Echinaceas. What a pleasure and a privilege! Rob was formerly a Landscape Architect and his attention to detail is evident in everything he does. Their nursery beds and display gardens are immaculate and I am always impressed when I visit. I just wish I had taken my DSLR camera, I only had my phone camera with me so apologies for the grainy low res images.047

If you have never seen Echinaceas en masse, they are an uplifting sight. Rob Cole specialises in selecting open pollinated varieties which could produce the next “Pom Pom Wow Berry” or “Tomato Soup”. The bees do all the breeding work for him and with his well trained eye and years of experience he selects possibles from the thousands produced every year. These are then grown on for a second year and re-assessed to see if they have the right characteristics to make them a distinct variety good enough for the trade. Rob confided that despite assessing literally thousands of plants over several years, he has produced very few that look really outstanding. Rob is a perfectionist and if and when his progeny reach the trade, you can be sure they will be superb.042

The gardens at Meadow Farm are a wonderful way of seeing plants in context and learning how and where to plant certain species to great effect. Diane’s talent for combining colour and form have made this a garden as good as any you will see. Having also seen the garden in early spring when it was full of bulbs and spring flowers, I was struck by the dramatic difference just a few months can make using herbaceous perennials and sheer exuberance of the planting. Rob and Diane have used the contours and slopes of the land to great effect and have produced interesting ‘rooms’ and beds of all kinds which would appeal to gardeners of all persuasions. 043

Considering they have created everything themselves with little or no outside help,carry out all the maintenance themselves, run a highly successful nursery, sow millions of seeds and divide thousands of plants every year, organise group visits several times a year, conduct talks and demonstrations to gardening clubs almost every week of the year, contribute time and expertise to the Hardy Plant Society at national and local level and still have time to see me..I think they are very special people.034

I have learned a lot from my chats with Rob. He is very knowledgeable and a highly accomplished and respected speaker on the gardening club circuit. He has that wonderful ability to make a subject interesting, funny and memorable. I look forward to my next visit with eager anticipation.


More Keen and Keener This Time

010A return trip to Mary Keen’s garden was called for to see what we had been missing back in April. At that time we were disappointed and wondered if we had done the garden an injustice with our unflattering comments. This time was different and although it is still not one of our favourite gardens, it made more sense. I suspect the rather wild and unkempt look belies a lot of planning and hard work although some things did not make sense. The rhubarb and radishes allowed to go to seed for instance.053                                                 Was there a reason or was it just neglected? My inclination is that someone of Mary Keen’s stature must have had a reason though one doesn’t readily spring to mind.014

The Auricula Theatre in the old outside loo was now given over to Pelargoniums and lilies which also featured in the lean-to greenhouse attached to the old schoolhouse. A clever idea and an unusual attraction for visitors. Sometimes it’s the little things which make the most impact.023

The borders were stuffed with herbaceous perennials amongst the trees and large shrubs and made a good show although the weeding regime left a lot to be desired. 031

In the kitchen garden, next to the seeding rhubarb, I really liked this area of Delphiniums, Cornflowers and Ammi which, I assumed, were for cut flowers. There was a row of Sweet Peas too weaving themselves through hazel twigs which I preferred to canes or obelisks.038

Some areas of the garden were inspiring and no more than this small area, perhaps 6m x 4m next to the greenhouse.                                                                                                045Here the hot plants sizzled in full sun and Knifophias mingled with Eremurus, Heleniums and Eryngiums while white Lychnis coronaria ‘Alba’ cooled things down and provided just the punctuation needed. 040

A beautiful clump of Alstroemeria caught my attention and I made a mental note to try this as an occasional border plant in the hot border at home.049

This grass path bordering the church and graveyard and shaded by apple trees in the fruit garden was lined with wildflowers, mostly poppies but also with toad flax, corn marigolds and grasses.051

It had a certain wild quality about it but it could easily have been mistaken for weeds which had taken over fallow ground. However, who am I to say; Mary obviously thought it was a good idea and that’s what matters.064

This ‘wild’ area, on the other hand, was beautiful and purposeful; a charming place to sit and relax under the old trees and amongst tall waving grasses. Pass the gin & tonic!070

Finally, a lovely arrangement of an old chair, blue clematis and Lillium regale against the house wall which took my eye.


Sadly, Mary took exception to my earlier post about her garden in April and we exchanged comments in this blog. I thought it had ended there but no; Mary decided to mention the criticism again in the Daily Telegraph. She labelled me a spy, although as someone pointed out, I am not sure how you can be a spy on a public Open Day! I am sorry Mary was upset by my comments. At no time have I ever set out to upset her or anyone else I write about. However, as I said in an earlier blog post, if you are going to open your garden to the public, it is likely that not everyone is going to like it (or understand/appreciate it) and so you must be prepared for criticism and take it on the chin. I think it is very brave to open your garden and I applaud those who do. We have seen some wonderful gardens this year but it is clear that my wife and I prefer tidy well tended gardens with perfect lawns, neat edges, colourful planting at the peak of perfection and creative combinations of plants, flowers and foliage. We don’t like modernism in gardens, we are cottage gardeners at heart but we get confused when ‘wild and atmospheric’ actually turns out to be ‘untidy and neglected’. We think that gardening is all about taming nature, manipulating plants and flowers, artistic creations and a pursuit of perfection. Are we wrong? One for ‘The Big Debate’ I think!


Return To Hidcote Manor

078Having some relatives to stay was the just the excuse we had been looking for to go back to Hidcote. Still my favourite, and possibly the nation’s favourite National Trust garden. Relaxed and informal with good plant sales, lovely cafe, plenty of parking and 10 acres of varied, interesting and well maintained gardens.016

The red border was closed for grass maintenance and watering during our visit which was a shame but just catching a glimpse of those Dahlia ‘Arabian Night’, and red salvias backed by the dark Physocarpus, Sambucus nigra and Cotinus was enough.008

The burgeoning borders now spilling over the paths were a real treat to the senses and this Geranium psilostemon (or is it Anne Folkard – I can never tell the difference!) in particular was impressive.028

This yellow and blue ‘room’ with acid green Euphorbias and frothy Alchemilla mollis, Thalictrum flavum glaucum and what appear to be Helianthus yet to come are balanced perfectly by blue salvias, nepeta and veronicas.031

It was a perfect day to visit Hidcote. The warm sunshine made everything glow and sparkle, the army of gardeners and volunteers conspicuously absent and yet obviously working away in the background, and some of the finest gardens in England. Well worth the annual fee to belong to the National Trust just to be able to visit three or four times a year. Inspirational, motivational and educational. A treat for any gardener.

Brockworth Court

143Today we took some visiting relatives to Brockworth Court, a Grade 2* Listed Building on the outskirts of Gloucester and close to Cheltenham which opens for the National Gardens Scheme. Dating back to 1540 and originally built for Richard Hart, the last Prior of Llanthony Secunda Priory. 115

The buildings are truly magnificent and of great national importance. The Tithe Barn pre-dates the house by almost 100 hundred years and was completely rebuilt in 2000 after it was nearly destroyed by fire.104

With the adjacent St. George’s Parish Church, formal gardens on three sides and a kitchen garden over the lane, the current owners must be working very hard to restore and maintain this ancient pile. The ‘Monet’ bridge over the pond to a thatched round house we found rather twee and served no real purpose other than as a visitor attraction. 078

However, the borders and planting combinations were colourful and inspiring.123                      I was particularly impressed to find the Rose Campion, Lychnis coronaria, planted with the bright yellow Potentilla recta ‘Sulphurea’  which worked for me. The strong magenta  coloured Lychnis is lovely on its own but awkward to place unless it is with white. I might try it with Geum ‘Lady Stratheden’ which is long flowering, equally tall and bright yellow.098

The strong yellows and purples were a big feature of this garden and made excellent photographic subjects.124

Equally attractive were the reds and purples of these Monarda, Knautia and Salvias flanked by Solomon Seal and Acer palmatum.129

But sometimes a simple pot or urn is enough.114

I think I would have steered away from rusty peacocks and stone ladies playing the flute in a cupola topped gazebo but everyone to their own! I think this is where garden design and ‘marketing’ often bump awkwardly together in places open to the public.

Overall, a ‘good’ garden to visit, lots of good ideas and some not so good. A place of heritage and history and somewhere we will visit regularly to note the seasonal changes.

Glenfall House

060A short drive from the centre of Cheltenham there is a Grade 2 listed Arts & Crafts house set in 4 acres of landscaped gardens which is a Diocesan retreat, conference centre and place of rest and reflection. 055                                                                                                The house and gardens have largely been maintained by volunteers for many years but despite heroic efforts by The Friends Of Glenfall House Trust, ever increasing costs have caused the centre to close at the end of the month. We decided to visit their Open Garden yesterday to show our support.070

We enjoyed the variety of planting in beautiful surroundings with wonderful ornamental trees and wide herbaceous borders and island beds. 092                                                       The formal mixed with the informal, rose beds and wisteria walk, orchards and prairie planting there was something for everyone.063

The house is famous for the views of the Severn Valley and the Cotswold Hills and the following photo shows why.073                                                                                                     It is sad that the retreat has to close but when you turn the page another chapter begins.

Sandywell Barn House

001The garden visiting season is well under way and I decided to get my ‘looking for new ideas’ head on and take a look at Sandywell Barn House just a couple of miles from home but, remarkably for such a wealthy town, the one and only private garden which opens for the National Gardens Scheme charity in Cheltenham.

This two and a half acre walled garden is the former kitchen garden of Sandywell Park, a grand country house built in 1704 by Henry Brett, an army colonel, Tory politician and ‘man about town’. The Estate was broken up in the 1980’s and the house turned into posh flats. The barn was bought in 1985 by Shirley & Gordon Sills who set about a complete restoration of the garden once their children had grown up and left home. The remarkable transformation from asparagus beds and apple trees to a fully landscaped country garden is a testament to their hard work and dedication over the last fifteen years. 031

Shirley kindly showed us her photograph album charting their progress and it is hard to understand where they found the time, energy and money for such an endeavour in what is, in gardening terms, a relatively short period of time. Shirley is largely self taught although she did attend local gardening courses which helped her understanding of design principles. She is now Assistant County Organiser for the NGS in Gloucestershire and obviously knows a thing or two about how to prepare a garden for opening.041

This is not a review of their garden, more a collection of my thoughts on how and why people like them open their garden for charity, what it takes to do so and a record of the things which made me stop and look and photograph. Despite it being 23 June, gardens are generally a month behind schedule in Cheltenham this year and this one was a further 3 weeks behind that, being 750 feet above the town and very exposed to the elements.


Shirley must have a thing for the ‘Barlow’ series of aquilegias because they were the predominant variety and in all their colours. They certainly seem to stand well in the weather with strong upright stems and durable flowers. I was particularly drawn to the dark red which I believe is called ‘Bordeaux’ and the white form as below.009

Astrantias also play a big part in the spring planting here and the dark red ‘Ruby Wedding’ is one I definitely must get as it is our 40th next year!038

I am not known for my diplomacy skills (!) and am openly critical of gardens I feel are not worthy of opening but this one had me from the moment I went through the gates. Everything was right. The sign boards were timely and well placed, the parking adequate and clearly signed, we were warmly welcomed by the owners and £4 seemed good value compared to some we have been to recently. It was an hour well spent, inspirational and educational, and an example of what can be achieved by an excellent, passionate plantswoman. I have put together a gallery of other photographs which amply demonstrate her skill.005 026 014 035 052 041

Of course, it’s not perfect….nowhere is… and it is always reassuring to find a patch of ground elder, the odd bit of bindweed and particularly at this time of year  aphids!010

A lovely garden, well planned, well executed and well maintained. Good ideas for plant combinations and new plants to try. I couldn’t ask for more.

The Plant Sale

003Back in February I suggested to our Horticultural Society Committee that we hold a Plant Sale at the end of May or early June and was given the task of organising it. Me and my big mouth! However it turned out well.

005One of our members was also organising a village Open Gardens weekend for 8/9 June and invited me to hold the plant sale, feeding off the publicity and visitors generated by  eleven beautiful gardens and scrummy cream teas at the church. The weather was glorious, the people came in droves and we sold hundreds of plants donated by our members and local nurseries. Busy Plant Sale!

We generated £1294 in sales over two days, no mean feat with plants costing from 50p to £2, and donated £524 to charity. As always, our wonderful members rose to the occasion, grew extra plants, divided herbaceous perennials, helped me to set everything up, manned the stalls, counted the money and cleared up at the end. It was fun to do, worthwhile publicity for the Society and profitable for the charities which benefited.

I have a feeling I will be doing it again next year!




The unique Water Garden at Kiftsgate Court Gardens

We met some friends for lunch on Saturday at the Three Ways House Hotel in Mickleton near Chipping Camden, home of the famous ‘Pudding Club’, where we had a catch-up and a delicious lunch. The reason we chose Mickleton is so that we could enjoy our first visit to Kiftsgate Court Gardens in the afternoon. For anyone reading this from another planet, Kiftsgate is the famous house and gardens created in the twenties by Heather Muir, carried on in the fifties by her daughter Diany Binny and now in the care of her Granddaughter, Anne Chambers.

Latina: Rosa filipes 'Kiftsgate'

Rosa filipes ‘Kiftsgate’ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The world famous Kiftsgate rose, Rosa filipes ‘Kiftsgate’, claimed to be the largest rose in England, is now grown by those select few with the vast space needed for it’s rampant but beautiful climbing and sprawling habit. The original rose planted in the 1930s is still going strong at 20 metres high and 25 metres long and now covering three trees in the Rose border.


On arriving at Kiftsgate you are greeted by several tables of plants for sale including, of course, the Kiftsgate rose whetting the appetite for later! 099                                                 The house and gardens stand high in the Cotswold Hills overlooking Malvern and the Vale of Evesham to the south west. Built in 1887 by Sydney Graves Hamilton, the design is a strange mixture of Victorian and Georgian with a grand Italian inspired high portico moved piece by piece from nearby Mickleton Manor.

086The house was bought by Heather Muir and her husband after the first world war in 1918 and she set about  terracing the hillside and installing stone paths and steps winding their way down the banks to begin what was to become one of the most famous and important gardens in England.003

As everybody knows, Spring has been a month late this year so the gardens were not quite into their stride but nevertheless there was still lots of colour thanks to bulbs, magnolias and rhododendrons which were a surprise given the almost certainly alkaline conditions. It was the carefully planned colour combinations that impressed me most and reminded me that gardening is, after all, an art form. Colour, light and shade, shape, form and texture create pictures and images which, for me, are just as valid as anything painted by an artist.031

I found myself making mental notes of plants which worked well and noted the accents and punctuations which made the whole thing hang together.035

These orange ‘Ballerina’ tulips were used extensively with darker colours and muted tones like the Ligularia and the Rodgersia to make stunning combinations.089

The red tulips in this border will be followed shortly by red roses ensuring a seamless transition and maintaining continuity of the theme. Clever.095

It was subtle touches like this simple pot of lilac tulips against the green box hedging and grey paths that inspired me. Kiftsgate is literally next door to Hidcote Manor Garden which we will visit several times this year with our National Trust membership. It is always good to go back to a garden in different seasons and we will certainly be back to Kiftsgate for the roses in a month or so and again later in the year.

A truly elegant and thoughtfully created garden.

My First Alpine Experience

006A new acquaintance asked me to sell plants at his annual open garden this afternoon in aid of charity and I was pleased to help. He is an Alpine specialist and exhibits his exquisite plants at regional and national shows with great success. His garden is a masterpiece.


It soon became clear that my gardening knowledge did not extend to this new range of Lilliputian beauties and I felt rather inadequate in having to keep asking what this or that was but he was very kind and helped me. It didn’t affect the sales which were brisk.015

This was a suburban garden tucked away in the corner of a cul-de-sac on a 1970’s estate and yet it could have been anywhere such was the quality of the landscaping and the attention to detail. You could tell that every visitor was impressed and enjoyed being somewhere a little bit ‘special’.021

A good amount of money was raised for a cancer charity, partly through my efforts which made it very worthwhile. The 50 or so visitors were all very generous and enjoyed a cup of tea and slice of cake in warm sunshine and glorious surroundings. What better way to spend a Sunday afternoon.025

I left at 5pm with some cakes, a box of plants and a lot more knowledge than when I arrived. It was not a branch of gardening I was familiar with and not one I am likely to throw myself into any time soon due to the specialist nature of their care. But I do know more about it than before and I admire my new friend for his skill and achievements.026

With beauties like this which won first prize at the recent Malvern Spring Show you can see why he is an acknowledged expert in his field.

Barnsley Village Garden Festival

056What better way to celebrate my 100th post than by featuring other peoples beautiful gardens. We have just returned from a wonderful day at the 25th Barnsley Village Garden Festival near Cirencester and what an absolute treat it was. Remarkable value at just £6 to visit 11 superb private gardens including Barnsley House, home  of the late Rosemary Verey, the famous garden designer and author. A boutique hotel and spa for the last ten years, the gardens are maintained by head gardener Richard Gatenby who gave us a wonderful conducted tour. Richard clearly loves Barnsley House and is passionate about the gardens and their history. He is about to embark on significant changes to the famous Laburnum Avenue which needs some attention and serious money spent on it.134

All the gardens were beautiful and extremely well tended. They had obviously been closely scrutinised by the organising committee to ensure their suitability! They were all quintessential Cotswold village gardens both large and small but, apart from Barnsley House itself, our favourite garden was The Little House. It’s name belies what lurks behind the tall beech hedge on the main road next to the village hall.  It may have been little once upon a time but it has been significantly extended to the side and rear over the years and is now a substantial and very beautiful family house. The gardens are simply extraordinary and probably extend to over an acre rising gently from the main road to fields at the rear. The owners, I suspect both past and present, have created something really special using the natural lie of the land and surrounding treescape to great effect.113

The owners have lavished love and attention and lots of money (!) on every aspect of this exquisite garden to provide those lucky enough to see it with a horticultural feast.118

It was not obvious whether the owners managed this garden alone or with help and if so, how much help. We met the owner and he looked more like a banker than a gardener which left us with the impression that he probably had the resources to pay for a team of experts on a regular basis.116















The attention to detail was simply astonishing and demonstrated that a “rigorous”  approach, as Mary Keen calls it, is very worthwhile and produces a superb result which is worth paying money to see. I would have gladly paid the £6 to visit this garden alone. There was interest and beauty at every turn, gorgeous topiary, wonderful statuary, themed and layered planting exactly right for it’s setting.117

Although the formal areas were beautifully maintained, there were also wilder areas where grass had been left to allow daffodils to die down, the daisies to grow and camassias to flower which reflected the countryside beyond where curious calves were stretching over the fence to see what all the fuss was about.124

There was so much to see and do at this garden festival. The village hall teas were delicious, the plant sales were good and well priced and we bought some herbs from Rosemary Verey’s daughter, Davina Wynne-Jones who runs Herbs for Healing next to Barnsley House.086

Phil Vickery (the chef not the rugby player) presented the prizes and his lovely wife, Fern Britten, was there to support him and enjoy the day. We will most definitely be back next year.