Category Archives: Garden trip

Bormes-Les-Mimosas, Provence, France

This little town is perched above the Mediterranean coast to the east of Toulon. It is a garden in early spring when the widely planted mimosas are all in flower. I visited in mid February 2017 with friends who know the south of France well.

2017-02-17 16.13.14
One of the many beautiful blowsy acacia trees

The town is pretty with all the blossom, the cypresses, palms and pines at that time of year. Most are in private gardens but there are municipal spaces and a garden which surrounds the town hall – the Mairie. They have a collection of mimosas – and I use the term in the most general sense to cover genera such as Acacia and Albizia as well as Mimosa – and some other subtropical trees.

2017-02-17 16.48.27
The Mairie in its garden

Here I spotted Acacia baileyana purpurea, a very attractive tree which survives much further north in my London garden, albeit in a reasonably sheltered south-facing site. It flowers usually in January, but it is nothing like the more spectacular green-leaved varieties. Its attraction is its lovely grey foliage which is purple when young.

2017-02-07 16.22.59
Acacia baileyana purpurea in London

The garden also included a flowering eucalyptus, which for me is not a common site.

2017-02-17 17.01.34
A flowering eucalyptus – any suggestions for the species?

And in among the pretty little houses of the village area you will find other exotic plants including fruiting citrus trees and climbers.

2017-02-17 17.18.46

2017-02-17 16.45.19

2017-02-17 15.41.49


In short, Bormes-les-Mimosas is a lovely place to go in the middle of winter when the sun is weak and other gardens may be unappealing.

More work needed on Hackney’s Breaker’s Yard

Just opened a month ago, the National Trust’s Breaker’s Yard garden still needs a bit of work to give it polish. Tyre planters remain unplanted and more than a few corners look untidy.

2014-09-04 16.16.25


2014-09-04 16.53.10

2014-09-04 16.47.21

And untidy

Although the theme is interesting and novel, the details need attention. For example, the public gates to the street remain closed and only those brave enough to walk through Sutton House (without paying an entrance fee) can gain free access.

2014-09-04 16.01.02

Gates to the street remain locked

None of the plant containers, which include not only tyres but trolleys and metal troughs, is a show stopper.

2014-09-04 15.59.28

2014-09-04 16.02.23

Plantings not spectacular

The main space is dominated by two vehicles – the caravan-like The Grange and a 1980s ice-cream van. These are perhaps a little old and tarnished. Is the Breaker’s Yard just a resting place for two old artworks on their way to dereliction?


The Grange and a 1980s ice-cream van

One point that needs attention are the custom-built gates, which allow toy cars of the matchbox size, to be bolted in for ornament. But there is just too few of them to be interesting  And visitors might also like to be made aware that Sutton House is less than a mile away from where the factory that made Matchbox toys once stood.

2014-09-04 17.01.20

Just too few Matchbox cars

Another thing is the irrigation system, which includes water tanks and an unfinished channel which runs the length of the garden. It finally empties its flow into the Tudor house’s well. Exactly what this achieves – perhaps rainwater recycling or aquifer recharge – remains a mystery.

2014-09-04 16.13.50

Empties into the Tudor well

There are some interesting things to be seen at the garden, but a few of them are in Sutton House’s long standing front garden and over the fence in a neighbouring garden, which includes vegetable plots, beehives and espaliered fruit trees. The Breaker’s Yard is as yet only a minor addition to Hackney’s growing gardening tradition.

Scotney Castle in late summer

Scotney Castle has been fully in the hands of the National Trust for only a few years since the death of its last owner Betty Hussey in 2006. She lived in the large Victorian mansion at the top of the hill overlooking the valley of the river Bewl at Lamberhurst, near Tunbridge Wells in Kent. One of her predecessors built the house in 1837, having decided that the medieval and Georgian moated castle at the bottom of the valley was too damp and unhealthy.

The Victorian house is open to the public and it looks comfortable and old fashioned inside.

2014-09-03 15.54.25

The house, built 1837

2014-09-03 15.22.06

The study

But perhaps its greatest interest is the view across the valley and down to the old castle, which the family decided to turn into a picturesque ruin once their new mansion was completed.

2014-09-03 16.11.46

The view from the house to the castle

The Hussey family came to Scotney in the 1770s having made their money in the early industrial revolution in Worcestershire. The estate has chestnut coppice woodland, partly used for charcoal production, and a history of hop growing.

The grounds of the castle in late summer lack the flowers of the rhododendrons which dominate much of the garden between tne old castle and the house. But the beauty of the estate is also in the landscape and the waters of the moat which are bursting with life, including pickerel weed (Pontederia cordata), purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) and gipsywort (Lycopus europaeus).

2014-09-03 16.16.27

Pontederia cordata

2014-09-03 16.22.02

Lythrum salicaria

2014-09-03 16.22.07

Lycopus europaeus

There is an old quarry where the stone for the castle was extracted, now well planted up and apparently containing a dinosaur footprint.

2014-09-03 16.08.30

The old quarry

There is also the vestige of a medieval lane where once monks walked to a nearby abbey and peasants hearded pigs into the woods to find acorns and beech nuts.

2014-09-03 16.06.41

A medieval road?

Of interest to gardeners though is the National Trust’s efforts to revive the large walled garden of the Victorian house. It is remarkably tidy and, in late summer, is full of various varieties of runner beans, pumpkins, courgettes, brassicas and dahlias for picking. Some of the last are fine varieties with good long stems for flower arranging including, Mary Evelyn, Arabian Nights and Pink Princess.

2014-09-03 14.56.49

Pumpkin ‘Jack of All Trades’

2014-09-03 14.58.32

Brassicas and the glasshouses in the walled garden

2014-09-03 14.43.23

Dahlia ‘Mary Evelyn’

2014-09-03 14.44.38

Dahlia ‘Arabian Nights’

2014-09-03 14.43.01

 Dahlia ‘Pink Princess’

The very strange South African plant in the Apocynaceae called Gomphocarpus physocarpus also grows in the garden. It has small delicate white flowers and large prickly fruits like hairy balls up to 8cm in diameter. It adds a fascinating element to any flower arrangement.

2014-09-03 14.50.46


2014-09-03 14.49.48

And fruit of Gomphocarpus physocarpus, also known as the balloon plant

Hackney’s new off-beat National Trust garden

Next to Sutton House – the oldest house in east London, built 1535 – was a scuzzy yard where old cars rotted amid the rubbish and weedy sycamores. That was pretty typical of odd corners and backyards in suburban Hackney in the 1980s.

car lot 2003 -2
The way things were

But things are changing. This site is now becoming a wonderland of vehicle sculptures and plants to keep kids entertained.

The Breaker’s Yard will be a garden next to the Tudor brickwork of the house and is due to open at 1pm on 12 August 2014. It has been designed by Daniel Lobb, an established garden planner. The entrance will be marked by special gates, made with hundreds of old toy cars donated by local celebrities. There will be pots of plants made from old tractor tyres and a watercourse running though the length of the garden, then disappearing down an old well.

The garden also contains Daniel’s 1998 remarkable sculpture The Grange, which resembles a two-storey caravan on the outside and a mini-stately home on the inside.

Daniel Lobb’s The Grange 
Interior Grange resized2
Inside The Grange

Also in the garden is a 1980s ice-cream van, decorated by Sir Peter Blake’s daughter Rose, which will act as a playful shop and provide refreshments.

Rose’s 80s ice-cream van

The educational charity The House of Fairy Tales is to engage school children and families in the garden. Their entertainment is due to be supported by a network of “creative artists” – so let’s see what they come up with!

Of course, Sutton House has a very Hackney history. Although it started as a grand house known as the “Bryck Place”, built of brick when most places were wattle and daub, it has been through the mill over the years. It was built by Sir Ralph Sadlier, who was King Henry VIII’s ambassador to Scotland at one point and a colleague of Sir Thomas Cromwell. Besides Tudor courtiers it has housed Huguenot silk weavers, a brewery, the local church institute and squatters. All are represented in what you see in the house today, from linen-fold oak panelling to squatter’s murals. Now the garden will represent a car scrapyard of the late twentieth century!

What’s not so well known is that the soil under the site will have suffered from contamination by engine oil, brake fluid, battery acid and old asbestos brake pads. Therefore the design seals off the soil and uses imported compost to support the plants.

I look forward to seeing the plants in place. But the garden in any event represents and achievement of the National Trust, the mayor of London’s Pocket Parks project, the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts and the waste company Biffa, which have all contributed cash and organisation to the Breaker’s Yard project.

Sutton House as the backdrop to the Breaker’s Yard

A summer visit to Beth Chatto’s gravel garden

Situated in the not-so-pretty village of Elmstead Market, between the Essex towns of Colchester and Clacton, Beth Chatto’s marvellous garden is a great day out. The gravel garden alone, which is just a part of what is on offer, is a morning’s entertainment in itself.

Beth, now aged 90, began the garden with her husband in 1960. They owned a fruit farm nearby and started the garden on what they called “wasteland”. Beth was a flower arranger and speaker at that point and began with an interest in unusual plants. She built up a collection which led to the nursery in 1967 and then began writing books, including The Dry Garden, The Damp Garden, Plant Portraits  and The Green Tapestry.

The gravel garden is not irrigated; indeed Beth says that the original idea was an experiment to see what can be done on an unpromising former car park. Miraculously, you don’t even need to pay to go into the gravel garden, whereas there is an entry fee for the lush water and shade gardens. The tempting and well-stocked nursery is also free to visit and there is a reasonable café which offers meals and cakes.

In July, the gravel garden looks almost like an Australian landscape with the dominant Eucalyptus tree and waving grasses. It was a windy day the movement of the trees and the flowering grasses was magnificent. But there are many plants flowering away, not least the Mount Etna broom (Genista aetnensis) with its scented yellow pea flowers reaching up to 4m above the ground. Other highlights are the tree poppy (Romneya coulteri), standing up to 1.5m high with its large white blooms and the yellow centres, so attractive to hover flies:

Romneya coulteri

But the garden is a lesson in the variety of different plants all in flower: the grasses, the salvias, thymes, oreganos, the yuccas, the mulleins, hollyhocks and umbellifers. Among the grasses I was particularly impressed by Stipa gigantea and more unusually Stipa barbata which has wispy spikes which were fluttering in the breeze, and furry Stipa tenuissima.

Stipa gigantea
Stipa barbata
Stipa tenuissima

Another genus well represented is Sedum: the dramatic ‘Dragon’s blood’, the dark ‘Bertram Anderson’ and the tall ‘Purple Emperor’.

Sedum spurim ‘Dragon’s blood’
Sedum ‘Bertram Anderson’
Sedum ‘Purple Emperor’

The variety of the plants that do well in the garden is immense. I love the giant yellow-flowered umbellifer Ferula communis and Beth even has an unusual Ferula tingitana ‘Cedric Morris’ which has fat seed heads.

Ferula tingitana ‘Cedric Morris’
Ferula tingitana seed heads

To pick out just a few more favourites, I would chose the lovely Verbascum chaixii ‘Album’, and the gorgeous furry rosettes of the big verbascums, probably V. bombyciferum, now developing where they have seeded.

Verbascum chaixii ‘Album’
Verbascum rosette

Two more glories are Onopordum acanthium – the so called Scottish thistle, a lovely big glaucous blue plant with the characteristic mauve flowers, and a subtley beautiful sage Salvia sclarea var turkestanica, which forms tall stands in the garden.

So called “Scottish” Thistle
Onopordum flower
Salvia sclarea
Salvia sclarea blooms