Ben Nicholson – artist or sculpter?

A few years ago I went round the garden at Sutton Place in Surrey. This very special garden was designed by Geoffrey Jellicoe and at the time I visited, the house was owned by the Getty foundation. Within the grounds was one of he most stunning pieces of garden art that I have ever seen. A very simple white wall, which I understand was probably made from wood and synthetic board with carved reliefs of rectangles and circles. The wall was situated at one end of a shaped. rectangular pool, surrounded by lawns, contained within tall dark green Yew hedging and sitting underneath a dense canopy of trees. The overall feel was one of purity, of calm and peace. Although perhaps Nicholson or the Getty foundation were trying to convey a different message; one of domination, control and manipulation.

Yesterday, I went to an exhibition that showed some of the art works of Alfred Wallis and Ben Nicholson. I hadn’t realised that Nicholson was also famous for his paintings. The exhibition explored the influence of Wallis on Nicholson’s early work. To me the work of Wallis. which were mostly  seascapes, was very simple and very naive. Nicholson may have explored this style for a while but he then became influenced by Modernism, Cubism and by his friend Mondrian. He was influenced by the landscape and his paintings from the 1940s often show a landscape observed through a window.

Although I enjoyed the exhibition, the art didn’t affect me in the way that his sculpture did. To me, his pictures were quite unremarkable and instantly forgettable, however his white wall, is imprinted on my mind forever.

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Wisteria sinensis – for the senses


I’ve never had a garden with a Wisteria before, I’ve never even been a great lover of them – they are not one of my ‘doer’ plants, in that they blossom and are over and done with very quickly; they don’t have berries, aren’t evergreen and they need pruning twice a year. So why am I so in love with my Wisteria? Well, it is totally ‘in my face’, curled around the kitchen door. I see it and smell it all of the time. Its gorgeous perfume wafts in through every open window and its stunning clusters of pendant blossoms tumbling down the walls make you just stop and stare. It is absolutely beautiful. It started flowering during the first week in April, it is very early but it is in a very warm spot. May to June would be the usual blossoming time.

I have concluded that it is a Wisteria sinensis, native of China; it is a member of the pea family although it is not edible and the seed pods are actually poisonous. When it has finished flowering I should expect to see decorative, velvety bean pods.

The stems of the Wisteria twine in an anti-clockwise direction and when the flowers have finished they have fresh green fern-like leaves. This Wisteria will withstand the toughest of winters and it is also resistant to most pests and diseases. Plant it in good, well drained soil by a sunny wall, and prune in July – August and again in December. Sometimes plants will have a second, but less prolific season of flowering in August.  Plants are very tolerant of even the most drastic pruning and will re-grow even if cut right back to the base, but this is best carried out in the spring, immediately after flowering.

It can take plants several years before they start to flower but if your Wisteria has lots of foliage and few flowers it could be that the soil is too rich or that it has too much shade.

There are many claims for the oldest Wisteria in the UK; one of the contenders was planted in 1816 at the Fullers brewery in Chiswick. Several National Trust properties have magnificent specimens; one that I would recommend is at Greys Court in Oxfordshire. Go and see it this Easter if you get the chance.

Wisterias are available in many colours and shades from white through mauves and deep purples to pinks. There are Chinese, Japanese and American varieties and some have blossoms up to 60cm in length which sound lovely but are a nightmare if you are trying to walk underneath them. Therefore, if you plan to buy one make sure that you read the label and get one that is right for your location. 

Interesting information: I read on another website, but have not been able to verify; in China the flowers are washed and then boiled or made into fritters. They are also cured in sugar then mixed with flour and made into a famous delicacy called “Teng Lo”. The leaves are sometimes used as a tea substitute. A fibre from the stems can be used to make paper; the fibre is about 1.3 – 3.7mm long. The leaves are removed and the stems steamed until the fibre can be stripped. The fibres are cooked for 2 hours with lye and then put in a ball mill for 3 hours. The paper is a buff colour.

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Carpe diem

‘Sieze the day’, I was reminded of this wonderful saying last week when I went to a talk and book signing by Katherine Swift, garden writer and author of The Morville Hours and The Morville Year. Katherine read extracts from her new book and I was immediately hooked. For one with so much knowledge and talent she was hesitant and quietly spoken yet authoritative and engaging. I wanted her to read for longer, to tell her wonderful anecdotes and to take us with her on her garden journey. Speaking from her own experiences she reminded us not to be too busy ‘doing’ to see what is happening around us. Borrowing two well known phrases; ‘Sieze the day’ she said, and remember to take the time to ‘stand and stare’, to take in the details of your garden, to smell the fragrances and to watch as nature magically goes about it’s business. Good advice indeed.

I’m looking forward to reading her books, I’ll review them later in the year.

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Tulipa sylvestris

After writing about Tulips earlier this week, yesterday I was delighted to visit a garden that held a real treat for me. Kelmscott Manor, Nr Lechlade in Oxon was the country home of William Morris from 1871 to 1896. The house which is also open to the public contains a colection of William Morris furniture, textiles, carpets and ceramics but this wasn’t what I came to see; It was the delightful walled garden. Small and quite naturalistic this garden has spring flowers delicately scattered throughout. Underneath an old Mulberry tree, at home amongst fritillaries and celandines are the lovely, delicate, sun-shiny flowers of the wild tulip – Tulipa sylvestris. Apparently this tulip only recently re-appeared after the grass under the Mulberry, rather being cut, was left long to accommodate the other spring flowers. Sometimes it pays not to be too neat.

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Tulip time

You will find that most articles written about Tulips are published in the autumn, this is because it is when we plant our bulbs. We often buy them on a whim, plant them where there’s a gap and then forget all about them until they start to grow through the middle of a shrub or a clump of perennial foliage. NOW is the time to plan for new tulips. NOW is the time to take a critical look at gaps in the garden and NOW is the time to study the different varieties and colours of tulips to ensure that in the autumn you plant the right ones. Some gardens that are open to the public specialise in spring bulbs. One of my favourites is Chenies House between Amersham and Rickmansworth. It’s certainly worth going along and making a note of the ones that you like the best.

Writer Anna Pavord author of ‘The Tulip’ has written many articles on this very historic and interesting bulb. If you have the time take a look at the history of the Tulip it will amaze you. Her favourite tulip is Tulipa orphanidea Whittallii Group, a cumbersome name for the most gorgeous tulip that she’s ever grown, this species tulip has burnt-orange flowers that are stained brown at the centre.

Sarah Raven has several tulips that she recommends to give a succession of flowers and colour from March until June: The earliest tulips are usually Tulipa biflora, maybe a week earlier than T. turkestanica but to start with she suggests the Fosteriana varieties, ‘Purissima’ and ‘Orange Emperor’ and says of these that she hasn’t yet discovered any more lovable earlier tulip. Next she would use  ‘Prinses Irene’ and ‘Couleur Cardinal’. These are both classed as single-early tulips. They begin flowering in early April and excel in their length of flowering, keeping going for longer than most tulips they also have good foliage which is green washed with a lovely copper blue.

The next group are the triumph tulips that include the best of the beautiful deep reds. She loves the wine-coloured ‘Jan Reus’ that flowers by the middle of April, closely followed by the almost-black ‘Queen of Night’ (one that I regularly use)  and ‘Havran’ which is a spectacular blackcurrant colour with up to three flowers per stem and a smoky wash on the outer petals.

I’m still not completely sold on the Parrot tulips but they do flower in the middle of spring, Sarah likes the red, green and gold stippled ‘Rococo’; she follows this with the sweetly scented brilliant orange ‘Ballerina’. This is tall, with pointy-tipped petals and slim, elegant, haughty-looking flowers. This flowers at the same time as, and can be mixed with, ‘Black Hero’ (a double late), a tall, stately variety that looks just like a peony flowering in the middle of spring.

At about this time other lily-flowered tulips come into their own; ‘Doll’s Minuet’ is a beautiful viridiflora tulip with deep pinky-red, pointy petals that are lightly flushed with green and that flare outwards at the top of the flower. It is highly prized for its unusual colouring and slender petalled, spidery blooms that have a really interesting silhouette.  The lovely green-splashed viridifloras are among the last to flower and these seem to be the longest-lasting group in the garden, coming up in corners where they’ve been left undisturbed. The designers favourite is ‘Spring Green’, an elegant tulip with broad, white, slightly feathered petals each with a bright green central band. It looks particularly lovely teamed with silver foliaged plants or with other tulips, especially the dark plum coloured varieties. 

Finally ’Orange Favourite’ is a bright and showy, feathered tulip with markings of green combined with different shades of orange. A truly opulent and fragrant flower.

With this planning you can have a succession of tulips flowering for several months but if you have a shady garden it can be tricky as they do prefer warm, sunny spots. Tulipa sprengeri is the answer, it will grow happily in grass and can look wonderful under shrubs.  It grows in the shade, does not mind moist soil and will even self-sow, naturalising if it is happy.

So plan now, make out your shopping list and put it in a safe place ready to buy the right bulbs in September / October.

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Winter Jasmine – time to prune

Just a quick reminder that it is now the time to prune your Jasminum nudiflorum (winter flowering jasmine). When it has finished flowering cut the stems back to where you can see a strong pair of buds. Easy!

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Spring, nature’s big colour clash

Spring is my favourite time of the year. Everything makes me smile: Gorgeous sunshiny daffodils, pretty primroses, delicate blossoms, buds bursting out of dead-looking stems, green shoots pushing through unloved soil and new-born lambs frolicking in the fields.  Nature’s having a laugh too, after the serious business of winter she has decided to play a joke on us with her shocking, clashing-colour palette.

At college I was taught about colours and shown how to use the colour wheel. There are books galore on plant and colour combinations, they describe primary and secondary colours, hues and tones. They explain how to harmonise and contrast and show us hot, cool and complimentary planting schemes.

Nowhere do they suggest that brilliant yellow and candy pink make good bed partners. Yet everwhere I look I see daffodils with pink hyacinths, with pink ornamental cherry blossom and with pink tulips. I see rhododendrons splendidly showing off their spectacular flowers in every shade of pink and yellow and I see pink blossomed camellias with bright yellow stamens.

The late Christopher Lloyd of Great Dixter garden was famous for his different colour combinations. He said “We do not all want to float endlessly among silvers, greys and tender pinks in the gentle nicotiana-laden ambient of a summer’s gloaming. Some prefer a bright, brash midday glare with plenty of stuffing”. One of his favourite combinations was the shocking pink Nerine x bowdenii with lemon Limonium sinuatum, to me this is just ok because the yellow is actually lemon but had it been a bright, sunshine yellow then it would be an absolute no no.

It’s interesting that some plants have built in clashes; Many pink paeonia have golden yellow stamens, there’s the odd pink hemerocallis with yellow veins running through the flowers and lilium and alstromeria are well known for being ‘show offs’ with their exotic colour schemes.

Pastel shades of yellows and pinks look ok together but perhaps are best suited to ’Martha Stewart’ kitchens. Bright cerise pinks give a great contrast to any yellow but pretty cherry blossom pink and bright yellow daffodils, I just don’t get.

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Perennials for dry, shady spots

Dry, shady spots in the garden can be quite tricky and often end up being the neglected areas or dumping grounds. With a little effort in tracking down the right plants you can create some very pretty beds. Here are my favourite perennials:

Alchemilla mollis,  just so useful,  frothy lime-green flowers in early summer and with gorgeous fan-shaped leaves that collect dew and raindrops, these plants shouldn’t be restricted to ‘cottage gardens’. Great for planting under roses.

Centranthus ruber, not a plant that is often considered for shady beds, but it tolerates both sun and shade and grows in the driest of places. Fleshy leaves and heads of deep red, it will flower all summer.

Epimedium, there are over 50 different species to choose from. Beautiful ‘spider like’ flowers in white, pink or yellow and tough heart-shaped leaves, many of which are evergreen, make this a plant that you will want to start collecting more of.

Euphorbia amygdaloides robbiae  thrive in difficult conditions and is good for planting under big trees. Upright spikes of lime green flowers emerge in spring and last until early summer.  Also look out for Euphorbia x martini.

Geraniums, I love Geraniums and use them in all of my planting schemes. There is a Geranium for every site and condition in your garden and they can provide you with flowers fom April to October. Look out for varieties of Geranium macrorrhizum, Geranium phaeum, Geranium nodosum and Geranium sylvaticum.

Helleborus argutifolius.  Spiny, evergreen foliage and pale green flowers that stay on this winning, winter-flowering plant from March until May.

Liriope muscari, A lovely, evergreen plant with neat, low, grassy foliage. Throughout the autumn it has prolific crops of blue flowers that are similar to grape hyacinths and which are suitable for the front of a borders or for planting under trees and shrubs.

Have a go with any of these or use them all to create a scheme that will last from March to October.

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Growing minds

I read a newspaper article last weekend that stated that older adults who garden have more of a zest for life and feel younger than those that don’t garden.

A survey conducted by researchers from Texas A&M and Texas State Universities showed that adults age 50 and over who spent time gardening were likely to be healthy, energetic and optimistic about the future.  84% of gardeners said they had made plans for things they will be doing in one month or one year, while only 68% of non-gardeners had made similar plans. The study also suggested that gardening is better for mental well-being than doing puzzles indoors.

I don’t think that you need a university survey to find this information, you just need to chat with someone whilst they are working in their garden or allotment. Passion, strength and energy are immediately apparent. Future planning is critical for gardeners, optimism is essential and crosswords are for winter and rainy days only.

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It’s a material choice

If you are considering having a new patio, terrace or path in your garden then you may be feeling a little bewildered by the huge choice of materials available, or you may not even be aware of all of the options that you have; Brick, stone or concrete pavers, granite setts, cobbles, poured concrete, artificial stone, sandstone, limestone, travertine, slate, gravel, wood chippings, hoggin, resin bonded concrete, tarmac and wood (but to name a few).

Decisions have to made regarding colour, size, style, new, old, smooth, textured, sawn cut and rivened. Maybe you are concerned about where the materials have been sourced from and the welfare of the people involved. Do you know if the materials are suitable for the job? Will they get slippery when wet, will they stain, will they withstand harsh winters? Do they compliment the building materials of the house? Are they of the right architectural style? It’s so easy to make the wrong decisions, decisions that can cost a lot of money.

It pays to use an experienced and qualified designer; they will have the knowledge to guide you through this minefield, they will know what is the best solution for your requirements, they will bring you samples of materials and they will have the answers to all of the questions.

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