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!


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.

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.

‘Good’ Garden Visits

I generally find that visiting so-called ‘good’ gardens which open for charity is great therapy. Some are better than others but they are all usually better than mine. They provide me with inspiration and motivation, a living catalogue of plants and design ideas I may like to try and, normally, a mixture of admiration and envy. We only visit a handful each year but I look forward to them all with great excitement and anticipation. Coming from a background of launching housing developments, showhomes and new products, I know first hand what goes on for weeks beforehand. The work rate is frenetic, all hands are at all pumps, long lists are made and worked through, lots of midnight oil is burnt all with the aim that at 10am on a certain day, everything will be perfect. So, I always imagined similar effort and energy going on behind the scenes in the weeks and days leading up to a garden opening, the immense pride and  satisfaction achieved when the gates opened and people flooded in to admire and coo over beautiful plants at their peak, a manicured lawn cut early that morning, and not a weed in sight.

Perfection! Hidcote Manor Garden in July

However, this weekend we donated £10 to charity to spend an hour in a well known Gloucestershire garden and came away bitterly disappointed. If it had not been for charity, I would have been sorely tempted to ask for a refund. And the reasons for our disappointment? An almost complete absence of colour except green, rampant Alchemilla mollis everywhere , an uncut lawn infested with clover and daisies, borders awash with woundwort, nettles, brambles, sun spurge, chickweed, hairy bittercress and ground elder, and nothing unusual, special or experimental. In short, and my book of humble opinions, not a garden to be particularly proud of and certainly not a garden to put on show for money! My wife and I walked around the garden without a word, occasionally glancing at each other with a grimace or a look of disbelief, but mainly listening to the sycophantic and obsequious comments from what I call the ‘Emperors new clothes brigade’ who either couldn’t or wouldn’t bring themselves to believe the awful truth – the garden was dreadful!

Now, I’m not saying there aren’t any weeds in my lawn and borders, of course there are; but I’m not opening my garden to the public and believe me, if I was, there wouldn’t be any weeds! Talking it over with my wife on the way home, we assumed we must be wrong and that the rather unkempt and bland appearance must have been characteristic of a ‘country cottage’ garden at the end of August. In which case, we both agreed, why bother to open it? If it is a spring/early summer garden past it’s best and with few virtues to show, surely it would have been best to stop opening it in July? I looked at the leaflet when we got home and to my absolute horror, I noticed that the garden has further opening days until end of September!

The garden concerned was not open under the auspices of the National Gardens Scheme but according to them, the top two criteria for opening a garden are:

  • are the plants, landscaping and design interesting and attractive?
  • is the garden well maintained?

Those are the very least I would expect of any garden opening to the paying public. I would go further and suggest that anyone who takes the time, trouble and expense of visiting an open garden is going to be a pretty serious gardener themselves and it had better be at least as good and preferably a lot better than their own!