Philadelphus ‘Belle Etoile’

This is my season of loss, and of recovery. In the garden I can confront sad and painful memories without feeling their sting too keenly. The beauty surrounding me is an immediate balm, and the cycle of the seasons carries the healing deeper. I am comforted by the profound indifference of the flowering world to my pain. The work itself is also a cure. I tend to the needs of the plants, I secure the vision of the garden, and I forget myself. The days pass and I grow in strength. When the scent of sweet peas reminded me of a woman I had loved, I didn’t remember her in her final months, I remembered her beautiful star shooting through our sky.

When I  opened the gate and walked in the garden this week, the air was filled with the scent of Philadelphus ‘Belle Etoile’, heady and intoxicating. It is heavier and sweeter than my usual taste, but perhaps as I am most aware of it in the chill of the morning after a clear night, or the cool of the evening after the heat of the day when the scent is tempered, like a sweet dessert wine, chilled until its glass frosts, I enjoy it deeply. It settles within the walls as if it is denser than air. It was one of the favourites of a former lover and I had thought its flowering season, from now into July, would probe wounds which are barely healed. I find a garden not only enables me to confront painful memories, it also gifts me new, happy ones. Although I barely sleep, I am starting to dream again.

There are plants in the garden which give consistently. Nepeta, for example, starts to flower in March or April and will flower all summer until it is cut back to its crown in autumn. Other plants give in waves, having two or three seasons of interest, such as Crataegus pedicellata. Then there are the plants which burst into fire and blaze so brightly, and for a time their glory outshines the rest of the garden, but, within a month, they are gone, retreating into anonymity. ‘Belle Etoile’ is one of these. The flower is lovely in its simplicity. The flowers are borne along the arching stems, each with four white petals arranged equally, each petal marked with a purple throat. Don’t be fooled if you read that the shrub reaches 1.2m/4′ tall: I have seen plants twice that height. Some recommend it for an informal hedge, but I am ambivalent about this. It is deciduous and unlike beech or hornbeam does not hold its dead leaves through winter. It becomes a tangle of bare stems. I like my gardens to hold surprises, particularly ones which play with visual and olfactory expectations. I once placed a bench below a wall on the other side of which grew a honeysuckle. The honeysuckle was out of sight, but anybody sitting on the bench would enjoy its scent flowing over them in waves. Philadelphus can be complicit in this trickery too.

There is a strange French fairytale – surely strangeness is one of the necessities of such a tale – titled ‘La Princesse Belle-Etoile’. She had two brothers,  Petit-Soleil,  and Heureux, happiness. Beneath the gentle sun of early summer, Philadelphus ‘Belle Etoile’  makes me smile without shadows.


Geranium ‘Blue Cloud’

Many years ago, I was asked to turn an odd little patch of ground into a formal garden. It was an unpromising site for such a transformation – although four-sided, it was asymmetric, and there were two flights of steps descending into it from walls which weren’t perpendicular. Being a sunken area bounded by walls, it was both very damp and a frost-pocket. The owner desired cruciform paths with a circular pool complete with fountain at the intersection. All of these challenges could be resolved with thought and labour, but, worse than any of them, the garden was to be a ‘white garden’. My heart sank: Vita Sackville-West’s influential garden at Sissinghurst still casts a long shadow. I don’t blame Vita. The garden as she originally imagined it and wrote about it in 1950 was not a white garden at all, but a grey, green, and white garden. This has been largely forgotten, including by the National Trust, but the difference is significant. When she wrote of her proposed new garden, she imagined enjoying it at dusk. This, of course, is one of the few times a white garden can be enjoyed. In bright sunlight, white flowers are not pleasant viewing; the sun strips them of all subtlety and they glare back at the viewer, defiantly guarding their secrets.

I began to translate our conversations into a garden, sketching out a workable plan of the right proportions. The riven York stone would be laid open-bonded so that the paths could be planted with Gypsophila nana and Thymus serpyllum. I chose plants for a green, silver, and pale garden: there were whites, certainly, but also the palest blues, pinks, and washed yellows I could find – colours which retain their beauty even in bright light.

Geranium ‘Blue Cloud’ was one of these choices. It is aptly named. A single crown can form a loose mound of mauve-blue flowers over 1m/3′ across. Its habit is described as ‘lax’, but I prefer the positive ‘relaxed’. It is a plant which enjoys the support of its friends and neighbours. It is most effective when it can rest through the grey-blue-green blades of Iris germanica, the shades complementing perfectly, and the forms contrasting pleasingly. It softens the bristly, rigid stems of Salvia nemerosa ‘Caradonna’, the mauve of the geranium and the purple of the sage being most harmonious.

Geranium ‘Blue Cloud’ is a study in the number five. The flower is small, perhaps 20mm/>1″ across, and its effectiveness stems from its profusion. Each flower has five petals and each petal is marked by five red veins. The petals are widely spaced by mid-green sepals, which adds to the sense of coolness. Ten anthers of dusky purple float above the corolla. It is a thing of beauty, plant it where you can. Pair it with Cynara scolymus ‘Violetta Precoce’, Stachys byzantina ‘Silver Carpet’, Iris germanica ‘Frost Echo’, or Salvia turkestanica. Pour yourself a glass of gin and tonic – the drink shares the same ultraviolet hue as ‘Blue Cloud’ – sit, rest in the garden. The fountain moves so that you don’t have to, just sit and be. Watch the play of light in the falling water, the flowers of ‘Blue Cloud’ caressed by the breeze. Heaven will not be more beautiful.


Lathyrus odoratus

I sow my sweet peas on the short days between Christmas and the end of the year. It is a quiet, gentle activity which helps me to reflect on the year which has been and to think happy thoughts about the year which lies ahead. I sow three seeds to each 7.5cm/3″ pot, water the compost well, and line the pots out in a cold glasshouse. In a week to ten days, the bright green shoots are through. When they reach 10cm/4″ tall, the tip of each one can be pinched out – another way to thwart the apical dominance – which encourages the development of side shoots. This is something I have done on time only occasionally. The end of January and the beginning of February is one of the quietest times in an English garden and I usually venture far enough south to find the sun. Sweet peas can be sown as early as November and as late as April, but I prefer to sow when I do as the plants are better timed in the garden calendar and the right height for planting out after the risk of frost has passed. They are native to southern Europe, Sicily through to the Aegean islands and Cyprus and enjoy full sun. I have not seen them in the wild, although I would love to do so. I imagine they enjoy river banks and wet places, as when growing in England they thrive best in humus-rich, very moist soil. Indeed, my greatest success has been to grow them in a spot where a land-drain had collapsed and the soil was almost boggy.

I worked in a garden for seven years and sweet peas were the lady-owner’s favourite flowers. During my first summer there, she would be out every day, cutting the flowers to take into the house, tie-ing the growing stems into the trellis which we used as support. She favoured the softest of pinks and blues, cultivars such as ‘Frolic’ and ‘Leamington’. In late spring the following year, she came and asked me how to plant them out. The trellis had 20cm/8″ squares, so one pot per square was the right planting distance. When next I passed that way, I quietly removed half of all she had planted. Her harvesting that year was erratic. In my third year she wanted bold colours like ‘Beaujolais’ and ‘Daily Mail’; her tastes had changed. We planted them out together, but she lost interest and I finished the task alone. In my fourth, I asked if she wished to help me, and with words which broke my heart, she asked “What are sweet peas?” Throughout that year and until I left, I would cut the flowers every day through their season and take them into the house for her. I would offer them to her and she would go through the motions of enjoying them, even though she had lost her sense of smell. I wonder if anyone grew sweet peas for her after I left. She had the brightest spirit of anyone I have ever met, piercing the world with her intense blue eyes. Her suffering has ended now. I have picked sweet peas today and they scent my house. I cannot help but think of her, and her light which dimmed too early.



Rosa ‘Souvenir du Dr Jamain’

Choosing a red rose for a garden is a little like trying to choose a blue iris – there is a tyranny of variety. I always prefer certain characteristics. When presented with two same or similar coloured roses/irises, one of which is scented and the other not, I will, without fail, select the scented one, unless it is prone to some disfiguring disease like blackspot, in which case I might falter. But, why would one not choose the scented one? I have worked in a garden created by designers, more than one in truth, and they always fail and fail in the same ways. I’m yet to meet a designer who understands soil, or climate, or aspect, or plants, but they can sell cloth of the finest weave which only the most intelligent can see, I give them that. This garden failed in additional ways, being composed with no regard for scent whatsoever. It was filled with scentless honeysuckle and weakly scented roses. Being in it was like watching a film with the sound turned off: a whole dimension of sensory engagement was absent. It was a strangely dull and soulless experience.

Scent is not the only reason to choose Dr Jamain’s souvenir rose. Its scent is delicious though, sweet and clove-spiced, no soapiness at all, a characteristic which afflicts some more recent rose cultivars. It is quite jealous of its scent, holding it close within the flower. The blossoms are luxurious, flat, many-petalled doubles with a velvety texture. It invites you in, asks you to engage with it intimately. To stick your nose within the cool, moist folds. The breeders’ catalogues list it variably from claret to maroon. It isn’t maroon, but it is darker than claret. Barely visible within the many petals, the golden stamens nestle. It earns a place in my garden for its love of growing in shade and semi-shade, which makes it suitable for an east or north-facing wall. The one pictured is facing east. Like other deep red blossoms, such as Hemerocallis ‘Night Wings’, the red pigment bleaches in strong sunlight. This doesn’t trouble me when planting Hemerocallis, the day lily, as each bloom lasts only one day and the damage from the sun never really manifests. But, the flowers of ‘Souvenir du Dr Jamain’ can last for ten days, which is, without question, another reason to find a place for it in the garden. It is also quite restrained in its growing habit, reaching 1.8m/6′ tall and 1.5m/5′ wide. It lends itself to that small, awkward place between the door and the window, a place which needs something. 

It can be grown as a shrub, although its lax habit requires some supporting, which always seems a bit of an avoidable error when breeding a woody plant. It thrives as a climber. Train its stems along horizontal wires and they will bloom along their length. This thwarts the apical dominance, whereby all the resources are consumed by the top of the plant. I’m not a socialist, I’m an Epicurean, but apical dominance does seem to be an affliction of capitalist societies as well as of plants, and needs correction. There is a first flush of blossom and the whole plant is laden with red jewels – a flush which started here ten days ago – then lesser recurrent flowering throughout the growing season. Smell the flowers while you can.





Polemonium reptans ‘Lambrook Mauve’

I adore generous plants in the garden and Jacob’s Ladder is one of the most open-handed. Last year, I planted a garden for clients in March. The soil was borderline – wet, cold, difficult. The season had turned mild though,  and the planting could not be delayed. Within a month, it was flowering. This year, it has been a full three weeks later, but it is worth the wait. The plants are a mass of flower – so much so that the leaves are barely visible. After its first flush, it will carry flower in less profusion, off and on, until October, which is as much as anyone can reasonably ask.

I assume that the oppositely paired leaves on a rigid central stem are what gives this North American native its common name. I had hoped, when researching this, to discover hallucinogenic potency sufficient to bridge heaven and earth, but it does not seem to be the case. It is one of the strangest of the biblical images, Jacob’s ladder, with angels ascending and descending (I give you ‘wheels within wheels’ for consideration, or anything in the Revelation of John). It is beautifully depicted, on the west front of Bath Abbey, albeit somewhat obviously.  I think I encountered a less figurative, but more accurate rendition of it in the Vatican some years ago. There is a double-helix spiral staircase there to which a one way system has been applied. It is difficult, whilst walking upon it, to understand how one avoids the people on the other staircase: such is the power of the visual effect. I have never been an angel; I pass no comment on my fellow travellers, ascending and descending.

The reptans of the name means creeping. If it likes where it is growing, it will wander, but gently – it is never a thug. The plants which I planted last year have probably doubled their circumferences in a year, and I would estimate their volumes are in the region of three times greater. Lambrook is a large house in Berkshire, England, latterly a  private school. It gives its name to an Artemisia too, ‘Lambrook Silver’. The mauve Polemonium and the silver Artemisia are an interesting proposition, if paired. Both have soft, delicate, somewhat busy foliage. The silver and the mauve harmonise beautifully. But, the two together are like too much chintz and frills in a living room or, worse again, like the pastel walls and Monet prints of British psychiatric outpatient units. Give me an Edvard Munch or Hieronymus Bosch any day of the year. If I ever need to plant the ‘Lambrook’ siblings, I would need to interpenetrate them with something sharp-edged, definite and unequivocal. Iris chrysographes springs to mind. The keen, clean blades of the iris leaves would be a welcome respite from the froth, whilst the dark purple flowers with their mysterious gold lettering challenge the ‘Lambrooks’ to raise their game.


Syringa vulgaris

Time may be relative, but in the garden it is relational. In the British Isles it is common to sow runner beans, Phaseolus coccineus when the lilacs are in flower. Runner beans are frost-tender and although lilacs often flower when there are still frosts, by the time the beans have germinated and are poking their heads through the soil, the risk of frost is almost always over. As spring arrives with variation across the country, at different altitudes, at different times of year even, the lilac blossom is a better guide to benign conditions for beans than a fixed date on the calendar. In Oxford, the blossom is starting to brown at the edges of the petals whilst eighty miles further north in Worcestershire, it is at its fullest glory. It is a welcome flower in the garden, arriving before the roses, and occasionally over-lapping with the paeonies.

When T.S. Eliot wrote his poem The Waste Land, it had either been an exceptionally mild year, or he was writing about an experience of lilacs somewhere other than in England, or he was writing from memory and making a mistake – his lilacs flower in April. I do start to look for lilacs in the last week of April, in part prompted by the first line of the poem, but more because they are another signpost of the turning year. Along with runner beans, it signals the right time for other garden tasks and a change in expectation of the crops which can be enjoyed from the vegetable patch. In the garden, time is cyclical too, or rather, helical.

Syringa vulgaris is a member of the olive family OLEACEAE, and native throughout the Balkans. Syringa shares the same derivation as syringe, meaning a small tube, which is a reference to the sweet-smelling flowers which are born in terminal panicles, usually in pairs, but sometimes in threes. The abundant, short funnel flowers are an excellent food source for the short-tongued nectar feeding insects. The colour range of the species is from pale lilac to white, but the great French nurseryman Victor Lemoine had terrific success breeding new cultivars with deeper colours, or double flowers. I planted a pale garden a few years, quartered around a pool and fountain. It was quite small and sheltered, and I filled it with highly fragrant flowers of all types. The centre-piece of each quarter was a multi-stemmed ‘Madame Lemoine’, white-flowered and lovely.

The lilac spread through the gardens of western and northern Europe in the late 16th Century, having been introduced from Ottoman gardens. They had reached North America by the 18th century and it is the state flower of New Hampshire. The tree itself is hardy down to -20 Celsius and the challenge for the North American plant breeders has been to create later-flowering cultivars so that the buds and blossom are not struck by late frosts. As a relatively late introduction to British gardens, there is little folklore or folk uses for lilac. The flowers are edible, but smell better than they taste and I cannot recommend eating them. The picture is of New College Lane, Oxford and pairs with the previous postcard of Wisteria sinensis which grows on the opposite wall.


Wisteria sinensis

In early summer I try to visit Oxford. In May and June the city of dreaming spires becomes the city of hanging gardens. The walls of the colleges are draped in the lilac and white racemes of Wisteria sinensis and its scent fills the rarefied air. It is a visit which transports me in time as well as space as the memories of being in the early summer of my life, my undergraduate years and a year of graduate study, return with such clarity and presence that I almost feel young again. I spent many happy hours walking through the University Parks, the flood meadows of the Isis and Cherwell, and the college gardens, filling my eyes with beauties both built and grown, smelling the flowers whilst I could.

In Christ Church meadow a corner of the old city wall had been bridged by a wisteria escaping from a garden within. We stood beneath it, looking up at the blossom-sky above us, resting our eyes in its gentle shade and breathing it in. We kissed perhaps, before we walked on – certainly, that is how I remember it. Beyond our bower, the bright sun was glaring from the hot gravel which crunched beneath our feet, a shimmer rose over the long grass of the meadow, and the many clocks chimed again.

Wisteria does well in Oxford. It has the time and space to grow to its full glory, covering three or four storeys of the college buildings. In its native China it can reach 30m/100′, twining around a supportive tree. On walls, two thirds of that is more common. The lilac flowers and the golden cotswold stone of the walls are a serendipitous pairing. Wisteria needs care through time too. It flowers on spurs and needs careful pruning in January or February and again in July or August to help these spurs develop and to keep the vine contained within the space available.

I had two wisteria in my care for many years. Sadly, the designer who had planted them considered my beloved Wisteria sinensis vulgar and had selected a white cultivar which verged on grey and which was less fragrant than the species. They were greatly appreciated by the goldfinches though, and four or five pairs would nest in each one every year. I would leave the summer pruning as late as I dared, hoping that the last chicks would have fledged and only the empty, delicate mossy cups of the nest would be at risk from the head of my ladder.

I have known thirty year-old wisteria die suddenly from graft failure, which is when the rootstock rejects the scion. It is better to grow a new plant from a cutting and be patient. It will flower in four or five years, but what is that in the life of a plant which endures through centuries. The oldest wisteria in England was planted in 1816 at Fuller’s brewery in London and it still looks splendid. It became the mother plant for the specimen grown at Kew as theirs had failed to establish.

My favourite wisteria of all is in Oxford. Walk down New College Lane into the canyon between New and The Queen’s College. There is an old, high stone wall topped with an iron turnpike. Many years ago, the adventurous stems of a wisteria wound around and through the metal, rendering the spikes still. The black iron spikes garlanded by the soft blossom of the wisteria has always affected me deeply.