Blockley gardens: a lesson in colour at Church Gates

Blockley gardens are one of the most popular village openings in the National Garden Scheme’s Cotswold calendar. I’ve been admiring the tulips at Church Gates.

Visiting gardens can be a dangerous pastime. I rarely leave without at least one more ‘must-have’ plant on an ever-growing list. And Brenda Salmon’s cottage garden is particularly perilous.

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The ‘polite garden’ is a mix of pink, purple and white

Although it’s one of the smaller plots in the Blockley gardens group, it is stuffed with envy-inducing plants, including one of my favourites: tulips.

Name a colour and she has an example, from yellow, white and orange through to deep crimson, pink and lilac. There are slender tulip-shaped blooms, blousy doubles, tall, stately varieties and others that squat low to the ground.

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Lavender Tulipa ‘Candy Prince’ is one of Brenda’s favourites

What makes it stand-out thought is her skill in putting a border together, proving that you don’t need acres of space to make a real impact.

The garden, in the shadow of the village church, divides into what she laughingly refers to as “my polite and my impolite gardens”.

Visitors, who encounter the polite version first, are lulled into a sense of traditional English charm. Shades of purple, pink and lavender dominate a long border that runs most of the length of the cottage garden.

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Wallflowers in shades of mauve partner the tulips

Backed by one of the beautiful old Cotswold walls for which the village is known, it is a harmonious mix with just enough white – mainly from Tulipa ‘Purissima’ – to stop it becoming bland.

Just some of the tulips that have crept onto my list for next year are the double purple ‘Showcase’, lavender ‘Candy Prince’ and the dark ‘Negrita’. I also fell in love with ‘Flaming Flag’, a pale lavender white with darker purple feathering and ‘Vanilla Cream’, which has a hint of green to its creamy petals.

Woven through the display is a striking purple-flowered honesty with dark stems, which has self-seeded along the border.

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In a small space even the compost bin must look good

“As I was planting, I just pulled out what I didn’t want,” says Brenda, “so it appears random, which is quite nice.”

Big clumps of wallflowers in chintzy shades echo the colours of the tulips, there’s more purple from a recently added cut-leafed elder, and the promise of later colour with geraniums, phlox, aconitums, astrantias and masses of alliums.

Like many of the Blockley gardens, the layout of Brenda’s plot isn’t a regular shape and a second part of the garden is hidden from immediate view behind a wall.

This element of surprise has been used to the full with little to prepare you for the blast of colour that awaits. Tulips in fiery shades of orange, yellow and scarlet, narcissi in gold and lemon, yellow and orange wallflowers, and scarlet ranunculus dominate the ‘impolite garden’.

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The ‘impolite garden’ has fiery colours

It should be a jarring clash of colours but it works thanks to the copious amounts of green from still-to-flower herbaceous and the acid green of Euphorbia cyparissias ‘Fens Ruby’, which threads its way through the beds.

“What I want is for people to come around the corner and say ‘Oh! That’s different,” she says.

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Lots of green helps to bind the bright colours

While it’s easy to be dazzled by the immediate display, what both gardens have in common is the need for closer inspection. Tucked in at the feet of the tulips are smaller delights: named varieties of primula and dainty muscari among them.

Step-over apples form a pretty, low ‘hedge’ alongside the greenhouse, there’s a collection of planted ‘pails’ on the tiny patio and a small rockery filling an otherwise awkward space by steps.

Despite its size, the garden has numerous clematis and more than 50 roses, most draped over the boundary walls.

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Step-over apples make a low hedge

Each plant is carefully labelled and the main borders are divided into lettered blocks, a trick learned in her previous Cornish garden, which included a 90ft by 10ft border.

“It helped to know where to go to look for things,” explains Brenda, who moved to Blockley with her husband, Graham, six years ago.

Now, on a smaller scale, the grid system means she can organise her planting more easily: “I spend hours doing plans beforehand but things don’t always go exactly where I planned.”

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Pails are planted with a mix of spring bedding

She usually leaves the tulips in the ground and just adds to the display but fed up with too many ‘blind’ bulbs this year she is intending to lift them all and start again.

Despite the well-stocked beds, she, like me, has a growing ‘must-buy’ plant list and when we met had just been scouring the local market for new things.

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Brenda is planning to replace the tulips for next season

“Because I do plant so close things get overtaken sometimes and I have to move it or lose it,” she says. “It depends what’s the most important.”

Church Gates is one of seven Blockley gardens open for the NGS from 2-6pm on Sunday April 23, 2017. Combined admission is £6. For more details, visit the NGS website

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Acers fire up for autumn

Winter bedding and bulb-buying aside, autumn can be a quiet time for nurseries. There’s a sense of winding down, taking stock and starting to prepare for the next season. Yet for one independent nursery, October is the pinnacle of the year.

Howle Hill Nursery specialises in acers and autumn sees it explode into colour. Butter yellow, crimson, scarlet and orange are beginning to work their way across the nursery, near Ross-on-Wye, culminating in a fiery show.

‘Chitose-yama’ is turning a rich, dark red that glows in the sun, ‘Sango-kaku’, the coral-bark maple, is golden with pink tips, ‘Aoyagi’ is a pure yellow, while one of the best reds is ‘Osakazuki’.

The nursery was started by landscaper and designer Peter Dowle, who began growing the autumn stars when tracking them down for his garden projects proved difficult.

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‘Sango-kaku’ is a fiery mix of red and gold

“I could never find trees of any size,” he explains. “It started out being driven by what we wanted to use in schemes but couldn’t get. Now other people in that situation come to us.”

The choice at the nursery is huge – the firm prides itself on having the widest selection in the South West with many hard-to-find varieties.

They range from dainty dwarf trees suitable for containers to others so big that they will make an immediate impact on a garden; some of the trees are up to 40 years old.

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Acers were a key part of Peter’s gold medal-winning garden at this year’s RHS Malvern Spring Festival

The stock is grafted for Howle Hill by a British specialist and the nursery takes delivery when the trees are around four months old. The acers are then grown on to be sold at the nursery, through its online arm Acers Direct, or used in clients’ gardens; Peter designs four or five Japanese-style gardens a month.

How to grow acers

But even if you don’t want a true Oriental garden, Peter believes you should make space for an acer.

“They are such a fabulous genus. You get a huge amount of variation and seasonal interest from them.

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Blazing reds are lighting up the nursery

“They are suitable for a very wide range of soils including clays to chalky and sandy soils.”

And he dismisses as a myth the commonly held view that acers need acid soil to thrive or that they can’t cope with windy spots, although he advises against planting on the top of a hill or as the first line of defence in a seaside garden.

“Average wind conditions are not an issue with maples so long as the soil preparation is correct,” explains Peter, whose landscaping business has built many RHS gold medal-winning gardens.

Instead, he believes brown edges to leaves, often blamed on wind burn, is more likely to be poor soil without enough humus.

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The nursery has a wide selection of trees

“The important thing for gardeners is to mimic their natural habitat on the fringes of deciduous woodland.”

Adding lots of leaf mould, well-rotted farmyard manure or composted bark would give acers the conditions they need.

Peter also says you shouldn’t be afraid to prune an acer to get the best shape – just be careful when you do it to avoid the plant ‘bleeding’.

“The golden rule is to prune from late June to the end of December.”

Spoilt for choice

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‘Garnet’ makes a small tree

Acers can be grouped as dwarf, small, medium and large, making them suitable for any garden, even courtyards.

A good dwarf for containers is ‘Little Princess’, which grows up to 1.5m in height, while ‘Garnet’, which has purple, dissected foliage is classed as a small tree.

Among the medium acers is ‘Osakazuki’ and ‘Bloodgood’ is a popular large tree, which has a strong red colour.

If it’s orange tones you want, Peter suggests ‘Orange Dream’, which has a golden orange autumn display.

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‘Orange Dream’ is starting to live up to its name

Yet acers are not just for autumn with many having beautiful colour early in the year.

“Spring is such an underrated window for maples. There’s a whole range of spring fizzlers that are just knockout.”

A top choice is ‘Deshojo’, whose new leaves are cerise pink.

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‘Deshojo’ has a wonderful cerise spring colour

“When it’s pink in spring and you’ve got sunlight through that it’s just unbeatable.”

Planting companions

Among the nursery’s top choices for planting companions with acers are Hakonechloa macra and Mukdenia rossii, which has a white flower, glossy leaves and good autumn colour.

And a favourite partnership is Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifolium’ underplanted with winter aconites, the tree with its aconite-like foliage opening just as the yellow blooms are fading.

Howle Hill Nursery is hosting an Acer Week from October 17-22 open 9am to 5pm daily, with the preview week from October 10. There will be trees for sale and advice on growing acers. More details here

Review: 365 Days of Colour in Your Garden

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told a garden is planted for year-round colour. In truth, it’s something very few achieve. Wanting to fill a plot with interest in every season is a laudable ambition but one that’s rarely realised with any degree of confidence.

It’s a challenge that Nick Bailey, head gardener at Chelsea Physic Garden, squares up to in his new publication, ‘365 Days of Colour in Your Garden’. In it he shows how with careful plant selection it is possible to make borders noteworthy even in the depths of winter.

365 days of colour

He opens with an explanation of why colour is important, how it can make the senses sing, affect our mood and how it has evolved in gardens from the landscape movement of Capability Brown where form rather than colour held sway, through the painterly borders of Gertrude Jekyll to the often controversial plant partnerships of the late Christopher Lloyd.

The science of colour and how our eyes perceive it is briefly explained in easy-to-understand layman’s language and Bailey shows how the colour wheel can be used to plan striking combinations, although he warns against slavish adherence to rules, preferring to experiment.

It is choosing the right planting scheme that is vital for success. Putting together pairings where one plant enhances the other and then choosing a third to carry on the show not only results in memorable displays but makes the most of every available inch of soil.

365 days of colour
Salvia and Cordyline australis ‘Charlie Boy’ syn. ‘Ric01’

With this in mind, the picture-packed chapters offering ideas for the different seasons include a companion and a successor for every plant suggested. There are the usual suspects, among them Geranium ‘Rozanne’, but also some rarely seen performers, such as Chrysosplenium macrophyllum. Nor is Bailey a plant snob, recommending Forget-me-nots and Centranthus ruber, although he admits many consider it a weed.

Stopping the book degenerating into a mere list of plants are interspersed chapters on prolonging the seasons either by judicious use of the ‘Chelsea chop’, or by choosing varieties that are the earliest or latest to bloom. There’s advice on everything from soil improvement to staking, using containers to plug gaps and tackling difficult sites.

With an easy-to-read style – some evergreens are described as ending the summer with a “wet-dog-after-a-walk look – all damp and slumped in the corner” – this book is entertaining as well as informative. There’s a good balance between the basics and more specialist knowledge making it suitable for both the novice starting out and the more experienced gardener wanting to improve their plot.

365 days of colour
Nick Bailey

Adding to the temptation to rush out to the nearest nursery, are beautiful photographs by Jonathan Buckley of successful planting combinations, including those by Cotswold nurseryman Bob Brown and at the Gloucestershire’s world famous Hidcote Manor Garden.

365 Days of Colour in Your Garden by Nick Bailey, photography by Jonathan Buckley, is published by Kyle Books, priced £25. Photographs by Jonathan Buckley, supplied by Kyle Books.

Review copy supplied by  The Suffolk Anthology

For more book reviews, see here