Monday, 10 September 2012

Clipping Time...

September sees the start of the clipping season at Levens Hall. And with our collection of over one hundred weird and wonderful topiary shapes, it is a trimming task that takes some time…
First for the treatment is the one I get to see most of, just outside our garden gate. This tiered Yew tree is a mere 15 years old, but it does sit squarely in the view from our breakfast table. Hand shears, a good eye and a steady hand are all that are required. Once that has had its annual haircut it is onto the rest of the much bigger and older specimens.

This is where some professional access equipment comes into play. These wonderful old shapes have been sculpted for over three centuries and have grown slowly up and out over that time. The biggest are over thirty feet (10 metres) high now and although ladders and lightweight scaffolding can play their part, we find a hydraulic lift or 'cherry picker' gets us up and out to the work so much easier. 

For the most part, while floating about amongst our clipped tree tops, we use long reach petrol hedge trimmers to shave our shapes smooth. We follow that up soon afterwards with a cut from floor level to complete the trim right down to the ground. It really is satisfying work to see the sharp and closely sculpted forms emerge once more from their fuzzy outlines of blurring summer growth.

But, perhaps best of all are the views we get from up there. The lift goes 40 feet straight up, and although 'maxing out' is a bit of a wobbly white-knuckle ride, it is a once a year opportunity to get a different angle on the garden and to see the bigger picture. The colour schemes in the crisply edged beds fall into stark contrast and act as plinths for our tightly trimmed art-works. 

Yes, we can still see plenty of work to do down there. We have four months of full on clipping, cutting and tidying before we can put the garden to bed for the winter. Then, if we are lucky, a dusting of snow will add the final magic to the wonderful garden at Levens Hall…

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Chocolate Vine...

Here’s a plant of interest for all chocolate enthusiasts and chocaholics, even reformed ones such as myself. It’s the Chocolate Vine, or Akebia quinata as it is often found more scientifically listed. I love the sound of its latin family name too - Lardizarbilaceae! Once you have mastered saying it, you will find it one of the most impressive seven syllable words in your repertoire.

This plant is a wholly hardy and highly energetic climber which will speedily scramble up and over any stationary object you leave in its path. Its rounded five lobed leaves are produced in profusion giving a wonderful leafy softness to its appearance. So leafy in fact that sometimes you have to search out its elusive flowers amongst all that elegant foliage.

It is those dark, dangling clusters of flowers that are of most interest however. Deep, chocolatey purple in colour, their rich satiny sheen just adding to their mysterious appeal. Sadly the scent is more spicy vanilla than chocolate. Ultimately though, given good luck and a very good summer they may develop very strange looking purple blue sausage shaped fruit. 
The good news is that they are edible. Just. The bad news is that like the scent, the taste does not live up to the name of this otherwise most excellent and enthusiastic of climbers.

Saturday, 10 March 2012


The clocks will be changing soon to officially welcome in British Summer Time. But, the birds and the bees have been feeling nature’s wake up calls for some time... The earliest flowers are here already and none is more welcome to hungry honey bees than the springtime crocus.

It is the larger ‘dutch’ crocus, out now in our gardens, that consistently bring bees out from their six month confinement to enjoy the first of the new season’s fresh nectar. Hidden away in their hives since the last, late ivy flowers of autumn, they have eaten their way through much of their winter honey store and need to replenish stocks fast. 

These crocus also give copious quantities of rich orange pollen, high protein food for the growing, baby bees... The colonies are rapidly expanding and have upwards of 500 extra mouths to feed every day.

I kept forty hives once, whose million busy inhabitants brought me in over a ton of delicious honey a year. But, now I just admire the industry and activities of a thriving wild swarm which took up residence in an old chimney at Levens Hall. 

Bees generally may have struggled in recent years, but we can all do our best for them in the garden by planting some dependable and delightful springtime crocus.

Thursday, 1 March 2012


Spring for many has begun and includes in full all the months of March, April and May, but for more traditional calendar watchers it has yet to start with the ‘vernal equinox’ of 20th March. Here at Levens however, we make the break with winter this weekend as our first seedlings sown a while back under glass begin to germinate. It is with their magical emergence that we celebrate the arrival of new life and the new season.

Its cold still out in the garden, but things are stirring there too. As the days slowly lengthen, plants sense it and take their place in the annual sequence of bud-break and flower as in time, their turn comes.

Eagerly away is the first of our crocus, the wonderful Crocus tommasinianus. Sometimes known as ‘snow crocus’ for their earliness, or simply nicknamed ‘Tommies’, they carpet the grass in sheets of colour across our riverside lawns. 

Individual flowers are held high on slender stems, tissue thin petals an iridescent, cobalt lavender surrounding contrasting orange anthers. When warmed by spring sunshine, they are a favorite destination for bees, eager for fresh pollen after their long winter’s rest.

They look wonderfully natural in huge drifts across short turf, and where happy self-seed easily and spread freely, an exciting opener for spring....

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Lenten Roses...

Virtually the first out this spring, and yet still going strong many weeks later are the wonderful Lenten Roses. Although their beautiful unfolding flowers may resemble roses, the Helleborus x orientalis hybrids are really members of the buttercup family.

These hardy perennials have nodding, two-inch wide, open flowers in every shade. From near black and deepest purples, through reds, pinks and creams to whites. Their interiors are often attractively speckled, flushed or edged, and with a complex central mass of stamens are breathtaking in detail. Newer varieties include showy double and semi-double forms too. 

These well behaved clump formers have remarkably tough, shiny leaves and will thrive in many difficult situations, even in dryish shade. They make good undemanding ground cover and their evergreen leaves last the full year round.

Interestingly, what we take for their colourful petals, are botanically the more leaf-like and longer lasting ‘sepals’. After pollination, and as spring moves on into summer, these sepals don’t fall, but fade back to green and stay on to help protect and nurture the developing seeds. 

As an added bonus, this seed does easily germinate around them, giving anyone the chance to raise new hybrids, or perhaps share the surplus with friends. So spreading a little of these hellebore’s especially long lasting spring appeal...

Sunday, 15 January 2012


Of all the flowers in the garden, I think those I welcome most are the humble snowdrops. It is the freshness and purity I love, their light green leaves and snow bright, clear white flowers. Of the same family as daffodils, their latin name Galanthus nivalis literally and poetically describes them as ‘milk-flowers of the snow.’

Winter has been a cold, dark and difficult time for gardens and gardeners. We take what pleasure we can from winter evergreens, bark and berries. But, when the snowdrops flower we know the dank and dismal days are over and spring is on its way.
Fanatical snowdrop enthusiasts, or ‘Galanthophiles’ as they are known, have bred over five hundred variations on this theme. None however are so distinctly different as to have spoiled the true essence of this most natural and perfect of plants. Fortunately selection has not ruined their simple and innocent charms through unnecessary embellishment or ‘improvement.’
If you have some but would like some more, it is best to split clumps just after flowering. Alternatively just leave nature to it... Ants are attracted to their seeds and will help their slow dispersal to new sites.
Snowdrops have long since naturalized along the river bank here at Levens. Winter floods loosened some and washed them away, perhaps to decorate the shores of Morecambe Bay. But many more remain to brighten the lengthening days - these most celebrated signs of spring.

Thursday, 29 December 2011


Perhaps you have had your fill of snow already or perhaps the coldest weeks are yet to come. Although the days may be getting imperceptibly longer, the new year usually brings with it the deepest freeze of the season. 

Snow though, or no snow, there are still a few plants out there that can bring a bit of pleasure on even the darkest and chillest of days. One such is the ‘Snowberry’ or Symphoricarpos albus as it is more correctly and scientifically known. This small shrub has lovely clusters of waxy white ball like fruits held amongst its bare branches. Like shining pure white marbles or tiny globe lights amongst the twigs, they are quietly satisfying and surprisingly long lasting. Break them open and you will find a snowy sparkling white pulp surrounding the two seeds. Birds do eventually eat them, but as in all the best berrying garden plants, they are far from their favourites and will last a long time on the bare shoots.

This plant spreads slowly by suckering and occasionally by self sown seedlings but can be easily kept in check if need be. Usually though, its spreading habit can be quite an asset as it can be left to happily colonise slightly shady areas beneath trees where it makes for an excellent and trouble free ground cover. It grows to about a metre in height, and although not the showiest plant in the summer garden, is certainly one of the more useful. It thrives in full sun and good soils, but can also fill those marginal spaces with no fuss, providing useful cover for birds and excelling at out competing the weeds.
Its flowers in summer are small, modest and pretty in shades of pink, opening in small clusters at the tips of the branches. These later go on to develop into the groups of pea sized fruits which lighten and brighten the branch tops through from autumn’s leaf fall right through into the new year. 

The berries are said to be poisonous, though seldom sampled as we have a natural inbuilt aversion to the look of white fruits. Interestingly, over in their native north america their ghostly whiteness led to their alternative name of ‘Corpse Berries’ and they were believed to provide sustenance to wandering ghosts...
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