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...

Friday, 16 December 2011


Mistletoe is a rare and mysterious thing. For most of the year it remains hidden and camouflaged amongst the leaves and branches of other trees.  But in the the darkest depths of winter it stands out as living green amongst the frozen bare branches. Its pearly berries shining out in moonlight, speaking to our ancestors of the rebirth of the year from the cold, frozen midwinter solstice.

For millennia it has been associated with those other evergreens, holly, ivy and yew in ritual celebration of the turn of year, from death into life and future fertility. We have come a long way since then but a kiss under the Mistletoe is still a powerful echo from the past.

‘Viscum album’, as it is scientifically known, is a seldom seen partial parasite usually spotted in the branches of gnarled old apple trees. It has no roots of its own, instead it steals sustenance from its host. Surprisingly, the biggest and best specimen I have ever seen is only half a mile from our house, high in the crown of a Lime tree. The most prolific and widespread ‘infection’ I sighted however was in a group of poplars.

We have tried to establish it in the orchard here at Levens, but with no success. Seed left over after Christmas, pressed beneath old bark is not the answer. This year we will try again with fresh seed smeared across younger branches in March. With luck, in ten years time we will have more than enough of mistletoe’s magic.

Saturday, 10 December 2011


As Christmas comes around again each year, so too does the urge to decorate our homes with seasonal greenery. Christmas trees of course bring the living wood inside, but there are older traditions relating to evergreens and their power in the depths of winter. The Holly, Ivy, Mistletoe and Yew are all reminders of a pagan, pre-christian connection to myth, legend and beliefs long forgotten. Alive still in the depths of the darkest, coldest months when all other plants are seemingly dead. They have long celebrated the renewal of life and turn of year at the winter solstice.

2011 has been a good berrying year here for holly, and according to folklore that in turn brings a hard winter. Perhaps it relates more to good weather at flowering time, but with snow and sub zero temperatures coming early to Lakeland the prediction certainly seems to have come true this time. At Levens Hall, we gather branches of this along with our other native evergreens to decorate in seasonal style...

Wreaths are a speciality, their large wire frames hidden by being built up slowly with layers of sphagnum moss tightly bound on by thin wire. This gives the framework onto which the other components are pinned with stubs of stiffer wire. A broad ruff of conifer foliage is first placed at the rear, then concentric rings of prickly plain green holly shoots followed by a smaller central whorl of darker, softer irish yew. They are finished with balancing tufts of golden variegated holly and extra clumps of berries. They are neither quick nor easy to make, but are a magnificent tribute to a traditional craft.

We also often create an imposing evergreen over-mantel above the main fireplace in the great hall. A long beam with a broad central boss and matching swags, entirely created from Holly. The finished article is a fine festive centerpiece with a grandeur and scale to match its imposing surroundings.

Fortunately for us, holly berries are not the tastiest fruits of the forest for our overwintering birds. Unless conditions are particularly grim, they may be left altogether and can sometimes be seen still in May as the following year’s small white flowers are produced. Trees can either be male or female and where we collect ours from the local estate woodlands there are plenty of both. But, if you are planting one in the garden make sure it is a female form if you plan to gather festive greenery with plenty of ripe red berries...

Sunday, 4 December 2011


Fantastic flowers and fabulous foliage are so thick on the ground in the summer that individuals can sometimes become lost in the glorious whole. But, get to this time of year and the cold dark days mean most have packed in, dropped their leaves and gone dormant until the better days of spring arrive. We are left then to take a second look at some of the plants with real staying power. Those that may not shine out in summer, but without which, our winter gardens would be a much barer and more barren place.

Top of my list for reassessment is the much maligned ivy. Seldom given a second glance in summer or even seen as a damaging weed or tree toppling parasite, even the commonest native form retains its beauty through the worst of the season’s weather. Its shiny green leaves, often attractively marbled along the veins, look at their best under a sprinkling of snow, or rimed with an icing sugar edging of frost.

Their flowers too, while perhaps not spectacular are produced in large quantities on the maturer growth. Their ball like heads are made up of many individual open florets which ooze with sweet nectar and are an immensely important food source when little else is available. From early autumn right through till Christmas, though seemingly out of step with the rest of nature, they prove an irresistible last chance hotel for bees, hoverflies and other insects. The resulting seeds ripen to a deep, dark almost black colour in late winter, giving a fresh feast for birds long after autumn’s supplies have been taken and some time before spring’s new opportunities begin.

Broad leaved evergreens as tough and hardy as this are rare, and rarer still those which will grow and thrive in the most difficult conditions. Ivy may go unnoticed for much of the year, but we should appreciate its willingness to occupy ground and situations which would kill lesser plants. It happily gives weed smothering ground cover even in the deepest and driest shade. It also shows its versatility in its ability to clothe dark north facing walls, as an efficient no fuss self clinging climber. Add to that the shelter, nesting and food opportunities it provides for insects, birds and wildlife in general, and you can see why ivy should play a part in every garden.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Top Topiary...

Topiary is the art of clipping trees and shrubs into strange and wonderful shapes and has a history as old as gardening itself. Sometimes in, and sometimes quite out of fashion, none can deny the presence of grand old specimens, their timeless forms carrying us across the generations. They give stability and permanence to a garden. Every one is a character, magical and mysterious. Meet them by moonlight and you will see what I mean!

Seemingly permanent, yet in reality a fragile legacy from the past. As much of the moment and of this year as any annual. These art forms are not abandoned on completion, but are reworked and refreshed through an unbroken line from their creation, decades or centuries past. 

If not re-crafted, re-shaped and re-made each season their crisp outlines and solid forms would quickly grow out and disappear. They are our living link with the generations that have gone before us. It is this sense of continuity as owners and gardeners come and go that make them so special.

It has been my privilege to work with one of the biggest and oldest gathering of trimmed trees, in the garden at Levens Hall for much of my working life. I am also often called upon to rescue or revive endangered topiary elsewhere. 

All the topiary specimens you see on this page are all part of a wonderful collection in a private garden in North Yorkshire. I have been sculpting and developing them for the past ten years...

Pairs of clipped birds seem to call to one another from their plinth like perches surrounding the house. While further down the garden there is a long hedged enclosure, a gallery garden housing the most amazing collection of green clipped sculpture...

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Indian Bean Trees- Better Late than Never...

Some trees are so eager to get growing in spring that their earliest shoots almost always get crumpled and blackened by the last biting frost of winter. The beautiful Katsura trees (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) are a case in point. 

Others, especially the Indian Bean Tree (Catalpa bignonioides), take on an altogether more cautious approach. Its bare branches feign death until the temperature truly rises, carefully and cautiously not breaking dormancy until early summer, long after everything else has leafed up. It is worth the wait however, as fresh leaves throughout the season are always flushed deepest purple before expanding into huge green, dinner-plate sized lobes. 
Slow off the mark it may be, but it is forgiven by the end of summer. This small tree is a memorable sight right now, still in full flower right down to the ground. Smothered in white blossom, closer inspection reveals large, loose clusters of tubular flowers, their throats spotted pink with yellow stripes- almost orchid like in beauty and complexity.
Given warmth for a few more weeks however, and the best could be yet to come. As other trees colour up for autumn or even begin to lose their leaves, the Catalpa’s flowering is followed by a display of dangling trusses of foot long, pencil thick pods. The amazing but inedible beans hang on all winter and give rise to that name- ‘Indian Bean Tree’.

Unless and until a sharp frost stops their development, these trees just keep getting better and better. So lets all hope for a late, long ‘Indian Summer’ this year.... 

Thursday, 18 August 2011


With a name like ‘Daylily’ you might take some convincing that these particular flowers make a worthwhile and long-lasting impact in the garden. Even their scientific name of ‘Hemerocallis’ in translation tells the same story- ‘Beautiful for a day.’ There is certainly some truth in this title through the short lived nature of the flowers. Each individual bloom opens at dawn and is done for by dusk. But fortunately for us, there are always plenty more ready to open the next day, and they continue to put on a good show for just as long as their neighbours.
These lily relatives have the exotic looking, large trumpet shaped flowers of the family and are available in a huge range of colours. My favourites are the often sweetly scented lemon yellows, though we also have the double flowered peachy orange sorts and deeper, richer mahogany reds. Originally from the far east, a few forms have been grown in European gardens for centuries. Early settlers then spread them across America, where their ease and adaptability has made them hugely popular. In recent years enthusiastic U.S. nurserymen have gone on to hybridise a staggering sixty thousand registered variants for the avid collector to crave.

Their main period of flower is through the summer months of July and August, though their beauty is apparent long before that. The arching, grassy foliage is one of their finest features, bubbling up in low lime green fountains along the borders in early spring. Perfectly contrasting with dark soil and the more run of the mill, rounder leaved plants around them. 
Tough, hardy perennials, growing two to three feet high, they cope happily just about anywhere that is not completely waterlogged or in deepest shade. The dense fleshy rooted clumps, when congested do however benefit from slicing up with a spade, spacing and re-setting every few years. A daily dead-heading would be a counsel of perfection, but for the most part the faded flowers drop off on their own and do little to detract from the main display. When the last one has passed, tired leaves can be sheared right back encouraging a fresh flush to revive good looks until autumn. 
Although individual flowers may be ‘one day wonders,’ Daylilies have longer-lasting appeal and earn their place in any garden...

Thursday, 11 August 2011


‘Some like it hot’ - but others may not. As far as spicy food goes, I’m certainly in the latter camp, but realise I am in something of a minority as modern tastes yearn for new, exotic and ever hotter culinary challenges...
The chilli pepper is at the heart of this switched-on food trend and is a truly remarkable plant available in a huge range of varieties. The attractive waxy skinned fruits come in all shapes and sizes, from squat and squashed, scotch bonnet types, to perfect balls, to impossibly elongated thin fingers. Colours too are equally varied, ranging from near black/purple through browns to lighter, brighter yellows, oranges and of course the signature reds.

Although I might prefer the delicate, more subdued flavour of the ‘sweet pepper,’ or its slightly spicy derivative Paprika, I know it is the more fiery forms that attract most attention. Heat output here is measured in ‘Scoville Units.’ My mild mannered sweet bell peppers measure in at a reassuringly bland zero, but those hotter chilli peppers on the same scale score into the thousands. That’s fine for the foodies looking to spice up their dishes, but for real, hard-core chilli-heads there are even a few forms that top out, almost off the scale, at over a million!

I’d grow them out in the garden, just for the look of those shiny skinned decorative fruit. Sadly however, these plants are originally from south and central america and we just can’t give them the warmth they need. In a greenhouse though, or even on a sunny windowsill they will thrive and will flower and fruit with ease. They need an early spring start to grow them from seed, but it is worth remembering most plants will go on from year to year getting bigger and more productive over time. Soil based compost suits them best, and although not exactly thriving on neglect, the opposite in the form of too much feed and water will only encourage lots of leaves.

It may be too late to start plants from scratch right now, but we will have plenty for sale in flower and fruit at the ‘Lakes Chilli Fest’ here at Levens Hall this weekend. Whether your taste is for subtly steamy exotic cuisine or for full on, mouth blisteringly hot food, there is a Chilli to help you get there...

(Ironically, our 'Lakes Chilli Fest' has just been cancelled for this year due to heavy rain turning our event parking field into a Lake! Anyone want 1200 fine Chilli Plants?)

Thursday, 4 August 2011


Catmint, though never a centre-stage, star performer would win prizes for its supporting roles. Always dependable and always delightful, this hardy herbaceous perennial brings joy in a subtle and relatively subdued way for many months every year. More extrovert, flashier flowers burn up and out in a fraction of that time.

In spring, dense mounds of aromatic, grey-green, scallop edged leaves rise up. In time, their lengthening wiry stems finish in loose spikes of light blue flowers. Individually beautiful, they are too small to take note of. It is however the overall effect they create that is quietly enchanting. Growing up to three feet high and easily as much across, they create the wonderful form, feel and fullness of Lavender, which in our wetter, northern climate is difficult to create and maintain in the real thing. 

They begin their long display through the ‘June Gap,’ a difficult period to populate with bloom as spring flowers have mostly faded and the main flow of summer flowers is yet to come. For two full months they continue, then just as the first show begins to fade, new shoots push through and fresh flowers take over, rejuvenating the display until autumn brings all to a close. Tidy minded gardeners will shear the plants right back after the first flush to clear space for the second. Whilst those with a more relaxed approach enjoy seeing the old growth naturally covered in time by the new.
Undemanding, though preferring sun and well drained soil, these tough plants give good service year after year.  Minimal maintenance is simply the shearing off, rolling up and removal of the faded tangle of fibrous stems before new growth emerges in spring. Their lax, sprawling habit makes them ideal for edging along paths, steps and driveways where they can spill out to soften hard edges.
Bees and butterflies love this long lasting nectar source, bringing areas where it is used to life on warm afternoons and evenings. Cats apparently love it just a little too much. They get ‘high’ on its aromatic oils and often roll in ecstasy on the plants, squashing or even shredding them in their excitement. Fortunately, here at Levens, untroubled by our feline friends uncalled for attention, this humble performer thrives and for a hundred yards or more, borders the ancient bowling green in subtle and long lasting style.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Opium Poppy...

A garden’s structure is made up of the long established elements of walls, steps and pathways. Alongside these, there are the seemingly permanent fixtures of trees, shrubs, hedges and climbers. Herbaceous plants return to fill their allotted space year after year, so it is often down to our use of annuals to introduce an exciting element of change into the scene. Through them, the artistic gardener can experiment and paint with an ever changing palette of colour and form.

It is not always our best laid plans either that work out well here. Some of the finest seasonal plantings and associations are happy accidents. Self-seeders will cheerfully volunteer their presence in the least expected places. The ‘Opium Poppy’ is one of these, and once sown is a never without, welcome guest to the garden.

Botanically ‘Papaver somniferum,’ this plant has been cultivated for thousands of years. Its derivative drugs were once widely used to lull children to sleep and adults into darker dreams. Still unsurpassed as morphine where a strong painkiller is required, it is its deadly illegal trade as processed heroin that has given the Opium Poppy a bad name. So much so that it has been widely rebranded “Peony Flowered Poppy’ in these politically correct times!
Whatever we call it, as a hardy garden flower it warrants space from all of us. Its leaves are a beautiful greyish blue giving rise to strong, thin wiry stems, holding high the fat flower buds. These burst open through early summer to reveal the jumbled explosion of crumpled tissue paper petals within. Singles or doubles in white through varying shades of pink to purple, these fleeting flowers are soon followed by the big, round pepperpot shaker seedheads.
Where self-sown in the garden, best results come from thinning the seedlings to allow the selected few room to develop fully. Not at all fussy as to soil or situation so long as it is sunny, the finest one I came across this year was squeezing out of the improbably small gap between a busy tarmaced road and nine foot wall. It proudly stood waist high, pushing numerous full petalled flowers skyward. 
Opium Poppies are ephemeral beauties perhaps, with something of a reputation. But these surprise, self-siting summer guests are a welcome addition to any garden...

Thursday, 21 July 2011

The Cotton Thistle...

Sometimes a patch of garden is just crying out for an ‘architectural plant,’ something bold and angular, something that makes a statement and shouts ‘Look at me!’ Standing up to nine feet tall in a single season, the jagged silvery outline of the Cotton Thistle certainly does this and would be an imposing and eye-catching feature in any garden.

Its scientific name is ‘Onopordum acanthium’ which very roughly translated means ‘prickly donkey food.’ I suspect only a starving donkey would be tempted to even go near it though as it is fully and visibly armed with a fearsome array of protective prickles. 

In the garden though, beyond reach of all hungry donkeys, it makes for an imposing and attractive specimen. Shooting quickly up to over head height, the widely branching stems are topped off in typical purplish thistle heads, only these flowers are impressively larger and splendidly spikier. The whole plant can be three feet or more across and from top to bottom a dazzlingly brilliant white, thanks to a thick felty covering of fine silvery grey hairs. 
This is a plant with a split personality, as far as touch is concerned. The fine cotton flocking all over makes for a very soft feel, temptingly touchable in fact. But, catch your hand on one of those leaf edge prickles and you will quickly learn to avoid close encounters in the future. Even the stout stems carry long vertical wings of leafy material lined with these protective thorns. Grazing animals around its Mediterranean home may learn to leave them alone, but bees and butterflies love them and will bring the plants to life on warm and sunny afternoons.
Easy to grow is perhaps an understatement. Once resident in the garden, it is just a question of ignoring a few of the self sown seedling and allowing them to fend for themselves. Either that or transplant a few whilst small, before their taproot fixes them firmly in place. They are best sited where their display will be a welcome bonus rather than a prickly hazard to passers by. These plants are biennials which means they have a two year life cycle... In the first year they produce a relatively inconspicuous looking weedy rosette of silvery foliage. It is then in their second year that they quickly shoot up to spectacular heights as prickly grey giants of the garden...

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