Monday, April 22, 2013

Springtime at Orchards

A view from the bottom gate

It is racing towards ten years since I gave up my Sussex garden but the memories of its beauty and tranquility do not lessen. I still miss it but no longer pine, knowing that another family enjoy the garden as much as we did: and now when I look back at the projects that we undertook I marvel at the energy we both had.  Life is so much different now...less stressful and more tranquil as many may think befits our age but I long for the English countryside and all the wonderful garden plants that grow so much easier there than in Italy. The vista was awash with different varieties of daffodils, the majority planted in the late 1930s/40s when Arthur and Gay were planning to run the garden as a smallholding, many clumps were lost beneath the every maturing conifers which flanked the edge of the front vista. Many more were planted in the 'back' garden where the ground levelled out. These were picked, boxed and sold to local nurseries and taken by rail to London.  Once retired Gay had a passion for the more unusual introductions of the late 1960s/70s when the peachy trumpets and larger fully double daffodils were for sale.

The Camellia Grove
The Camellia Grove was created by Arthur and myself in the late 1970s moving large camellia plants from their crowded situation to create a wide curve around the Styrax japonica. Like most gardeners, no matter how experienced, we didn't allow enough space and by the 1990s these camellias were congested once more: now much too large for me to deal with. On the woodland edge of this group was a Camellia williamsonii which was at least 12 feet in height by that time...always the first to flower, it became a traditional part of the indoor Christmas decorations. The first camellias were planted on the west side of the property beneath the goat sheds but these never fared as well as the ones planted in the top arboretum. 

Rhododendron 'Seta'
Rhododendron 'Seta' was the first rhododendron to flower and it was often frosted. We flung fleece over it each winter to protect it from the worst weather but I think in maturity and increased height Jack Frost always managed to damage the flowers. There were  dozens of different rhododendron's planted at Orchards, many whose names were lost over the years. Gay loved the new small azaleas sporting purple and lilac flowers. 

Daffodils beneath Gay's Oak
Scilla messeniaca followed the snowdrops that were planted on this shady border (above) where both spilled over the narrow sandstone wall. A large yellow tree peony is the stick-like growth springing from their midst. I moved the scilla to other places around the garden where it performed differently in more light shade. I brought it with me to Italy where it behaves differently once again. Planted in Italy beneath an inherited acer, it becomes leggy and paler blue. But I am glad to have it nonetheless.

There were many, many other spring gems at Orchards, but these pictures bring back some happy memories.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

A Good Reason Not To Have a Lawn

When we arrived in Italy in 2005, the lawn, which the sellers had promised to cut, was several inches high. The grass was like an alpine meadow...if I'd had my way it would have remained long all summer. Scabious, Ajuga, Star of Bethlehem, Buttercup, Large clover, white clover, ragged robin, daisy, speedwell, diminutive Geranium pyrenaicum (I think), Calamintha, in a mix of different flowering grasses were just a few of the gems that I recognised. But our daughter had a wedding reception planned in the garden of our new home so cut it was and to the uneducated eye it looked neat and tidy. Only I seemed to notice the scent of crushed mint beneath our feet. A multitude of bedding plants (shudders) was purchased from the local nursery to brighten up the pathways and steps...

Copyright Penelope S Hellyer

It took a few years to persuade OH to allow the Ajuga to flow...and it may well have been the fact that we were away from the garden and came back to this glorious meadow. The bees - both honey and bumble were enjoying the Ajuga: however it was the day a swallowtail butterfly came and stayed within the garden long enough for us both to take photographs that sealed the fate of the lawn forever. Now the grass is still cut but the swathes of Ajuga remain, as are the larger clumps of Star of Bethlehem and is a delight.

This is a good enough reason for us not to worry about a lawn...

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Malta - scrubland or botanical paradise

Malta - scrubland or botanical paradise by Penelope S Hellyer

Excitement and anticipation was felt as my copy of The Hardy Plant Journal (Spring 2013) was pushed through the article about Malta.

Goats and sheep are as much at home on this terrain as the diverse number of plants found

My family are used to me lagging behind on a walk, even along a busy road, where my eagle eye will notice a gem often nestled deep in the grass. They find me touching a wall (where a stonecrop is growing) or fingering lichen. When we visited Malta for the first time, there were so many things that were attractive to my eye...the honey-coloured stone which is used in most of the house building.  The azure sea, endless blue sky, glorious sunny days - for the most part; though when the wind blows it tears at everything, your hair, your clothes, the trees - but almost as suddenly as it is there it is gone. We had driven to a sandy beach with family, flashing by scree; a myriad of colour to be investigated at a later date. We were taken to Dingli Cliff to see the only focus was on the rocky terrain. Stumbling in unsuitable shoes (a mistake not repeated since) across the small rocks and stones I couldn't believe the choice of plants, many already setting seed, hiding in the shade, growing from the indents in the limestone. Fortunately my enthusiasm was infectious as each of my family pointed out further little gems to be photographed. Each time I have returned to Malta, Dingli cliff is the most important point of call...I would like to visit once a month to see what is in flower. 

I will be posting the article here at a later date.

Dingli Cliff viewed from the sea - a boat trip well worth taking
Join the HPS (see page for more information). You can join a group local to where you live. Garden visits and interesting talks are arranged and all the members have one thing in common...a passion for plants.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The First Signs of Spring

Baby Blackbird
We saw this little bird and another (who disappeared as we reached for the camera) under the laurel hedge turning the leaf litter.  It was the first week of April. We were surprised after the coldest March in our area for 30 years. We guessed a nest was occupied because the magpies had gathered but these escaped their notice. 

We planted these grape hyacinths in memory of our lovely Jack Russell Saffron in 2009. Each year they flower well in an inhospitable place without any sun at any time of the year.  We planted the bulbs quite close to the surface; the cyclamen leaves giving protection until the flowers push upwards. A brief reminder - as if we needed one - of our still missed friend. 
You can see the intensity of the sun in the top of the never lasts for long. The following day it was cold and dreary once more but these delightful tulips flower for many weeks. I am a great fan of these diminutive species. The beautiful marked leaves giving longer interest once the flowers are spent. And often if the weather is favourable seeds are set.
The Phlox is rampant but I am happy about is easily clipped hard after flowering and pulled like a weed where it grows into salvia and rose...though it does swamp the poor aubretia a little. A delicate sign of spring.

Monday, April 1, 2013


Primula vulgaris - Common Primrose

As a child I could wander along the shady lanes nearby where I lived and see this delightful plant growing everywhere. It seemed to flower for months; but for a while would be the first spring flowering plant to be seen. The name Primula is derived from the Latin 'primus' meaning first. Nowadays with our topsy-turvy weather patterns I am not certain that this is so. We had a mass of them in the woodland at the top of our garden too, where they would flower happily in the light shade of the deciduous canopy. Other woodland flowers would follow but the primrose was always the first to flower.  As a young woman I noticed them often on steep banks in country lanes, growing awkwardly out of the slopes as is balancing precariously, yet they always were a mass of flowers, so obviously happy. 

Native to Europe, they are a welcome sight and a reminder of 'home'. Here in Italy they grow en masse once they are happy. The lawns of the huge villas which sit between Cadenabbia and Menaggio on Lake Como are carpeted with primrose plants. It is a delight to see. We have tried to introduce them ourselves (with bought seed) but our slope has too much sunlight and becomes too dry in the summer months, so all have perished. 



However, on a walk nearby they grow happily on a slope, in some places devoid of shade, others around the roots of tall plane trees amongst their deciduous leaf litter. This bank remains moist throughout the summer months, even around the large roots of the trees: water seeps gently from the hill.

What is nice is to know that the Italians have an equally intense love affair with the primrose as the English do.

Many cultures and countries make mention of the primrose and hold it in high esteem: it has links with myth and folklore. It can be used in food, beverages and teas can be made from dried plants, young leaves used in salads, with a flavour of mild lettuce to bitter salad greens depending on its age. The flowers and roots yield a fragrant oil. 

Many years ago, I candied the flowers to put on my daughter's birthday cake (March baby). Only recently I saw this being done again but using the leaves as well. The leaves can also be made into teas and the flowers into primrose wine.  

However, since the wildlife & countryside Act 1981 Section 13 - part 1b (page 1377 of link) it is illegal to take them from the wild. In 2002 it was adopted as the County flower of Devon.