A Tour of Three Gardens with Sarah Raven

Everyone who is into gardening has their own “must-see list” of beautiful gardens to visit. For more years than I can remember three fantastic gardens, Sissinghurst, Great Dixter and Perch Hill have been right at the top of my list. Imagine finding a tour which included all three! Last autumn we booked on one of Sarah Raven’s garden tours, which Sarah hosted together with her husband Adam Nicolson. It was much more than just a tour it was a great and memorable event.

Sissinghurst White GardenThe tour began with an evening visit to Sissinghurst which is a huge advantage as anyone who has tried to photograph the garden when it is full of day visitors will testify. Adam was certainly on home ground here as he lived at Sissinghurst as a child, the castle having been purchased by his grandparents Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson in 1930. They created the garden together over many years with Harold mainly designing the lay-out and Vita totally immersed in creating the incredible planting. The White Garden is usually the focus for visitors, the planting combinations here are soft, luxuriant and were luminous in the dusk.

Sarah gave us a short talk on the creation of the garden and then we had time to take our photographs and wander to the more distant areas. Later we climbed the tower which gave us a stunning view of the total estate and Adam amused us with tales from his family history.

The Herb Garden at Sissinghurst is, surprisingly, one of the more distant areas of the formal gardens. The yew hedges which now surround the herb garden were planted in 1934 and Vita started planting herbs in 1938. Development was slowed by ww2 but, after the war, work on the garden was resumed with twenty beds being created. Probably the most photographed feature of the garden is the stone chamomile seat built by Jack Copper, the Sissinghurst chauffeur, and christened Edward the Confessor’s chair by Harold and Vita.

The “Persian Carpet” of creeping thymes was originally planted by an inspired Vita in 1948 and is still retained today. The herb beds contain over a hundred varieties of herbs and are replenished as necessary to ensure the garden is full of interest for visitors throughout the season. Certainly in October they were full of interest and colour. Our first evening completed with a delicious herb-inspired dinner in the Barn Restaurant.

Day two began with a visit to the wonderful garden of the late Christopher Lloyd at Great Dixter. Tours of the garden were given by Sarah and Rachel, a full time gardener at Dixter. The garden is truly inspiring in that it throws many garden design conventions to the wind with the jungle-planting of the tropical garden and widespread use of vibrant (some may describe as clashing) colour combinations. Christo was a friend of Sarah’s father and his off-beat view of what a garden should be was a key inspiration to Sarah. Fergus Garret and the team at Great Dixter work hard to keep his vision alive.

The last visit of our tour was to Perch Hill, the home of Sarah and Adam. The Cutting Garden is probably the feature most readers will be familiar with, Sarah published a beautiful book of the same title. The garden was a breathtaking mass of cut flowers for use in the Flower School. It was alive with colour in October with gorgeous dahlias and late perennials. My favourite combination was ammi majus, molucella and deep purple clary sage.

We had a short talk from Sarah and Adam describing their search for their dream home and how hard they have worked over the years to create the stunning garden we see today.
The Herb Garden at Perch Hill has been recently designed and planted on a south-facing sun-trap alongside the large barn. The garden is slightly sunken and this together with heat radiating from the red brick paths ensures it becomes truly sun-baked during the summer months. A beautiful old olive tree provides the centrepiece for the garden, contrasting beautifully with a generous swathe of deep burgundy shiso.

Herb Garden- Perch Hill

The Herb Garden-Perch Hill

The herb garden is bordered by English roses companion-planted with varieties of flowering sages. Pots of lemongrass and huge domes of the scented geranium, Attar of Roses, were placed around the edge of the herb garden. These are used to make teas for workshop delegates.

We enjoyed a second delicious dinner served in the barn at Perch Hill, a really convivial atmosphere presided as all agreed how wonderful the two day event had been. During dinner Sarah asked us to partake in a little market research to help her select varieties for her plant catalogue (which is a complete inspiration). A glorious group of labelled dahlia specimens was laid out for us to judge our three favourites in order of preference.

We left Perch Hill under a blanket of stars and the complete silence and stillness of its enviable location.

Visit Sarah’s website at sarahraven.com for details of upcoming events but don’t think about it for too long, they sell out very quickly.

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Marie Nui Garden Rarotonga

Marie Nui Garden Rarotonga

We discovered this tucked away paradise garden on a recent visit to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. Whilst taking the lovely old bus around the island (there are only two routes, clockwise and anti-clockwise) we spotted a sign for the Marie Nui garden.

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Avenue of Heliconia

Tucked away down a track, almost hidden from the road, the approach to the garden heightens the expectation of what lies beyond.Then a breathtaking avenue of heliconia comes into view, each tree dripping with flowers. Well the entrance certainly had a WOW factor. The path leads to a small clearing where the visitor prepares for the next assault on the senses….the garden does not disappoint. A mass of giant torch gingers some 15ft tall, the flowers of rich deep red surround tables of the Hidden Spirit cafe.

We worked our way slowly around the 7 acres of lush planting not wanting to miss any small part of this magical place. A white arch smothered in fragrant jasmine led into the wedding garden. Two bridges over a small stream provided approaches for brides and their grooms to the heart-shaped lawn where the ceremony would take place. Heavily perfumed Frangipani trees  surrounded the area.

A herb patch contained rosemary, fennel, and Siam basil all growing abundantly and looking very much at home. Vivid  leaf colour from croton, coleus and dracaena almost took over from the flowering plants. One came across many secluded little corners at which the scene was perfected by Buddhist style ornaments.

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Kira

The Marie Nui garden is owned by Kira and John, an Australian couple who came upon the piece of land some time ago and had the vision to plant this beautiful garden. The Cook Islands are just about as far away from the UK as it is possible to go, a four hour  flight from New Zealand, crossing the international date line. If you are in this part of the world, visit this hidden gem, Cook Islanders are wonderfully welcoming people.

 

Grow Your Own Wedding Flowers

Grow Your Own Wedding Flowers

I know what you are thinking as you read the title to this post…phew that’s some challenge! This sums up my first response when my son casually asked me one autumn evening “mum would you like to do the flowers for our wedding? we haven’t much cash and thought you may like to grow some and now that you are going to flower arranging classes?” I hasten to add I had just walked through the door after my fifth class so the prospect was horrifying.
Strange things happen in the head if you are someone who relishes a challenge. By the next morning I was already thinking “well maybe I could do a few arrangements to help out”. I have always been a glass half-full person and believed anything is possible if you try hard enough so, you guessed it, one week on I was poring through stacks of seed catalogues planning what could be grown in the time available (this was November and the wedding was in July).Flower Arrangements 405

Books on Wedding Flowers were borrowed from the library, thankfully the happy couple showed a distinct preference for informal ‘country garden flowers’ There was one colour constraint, no pink flowers, the bride had a total aversion to pink. Now I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about how many of our summer flowers are pink but during my feverish catalogue searches it sure felt like about 75%. Anyway, a very nice colour scheme of purple, lilac, white and green was chosen. Seeds were sown as early as possible, the conservatory floor turned into a mass of seedlings (no greenhouse available).
Planting out was followed by several nights of worriedly running out with fleece to protect against late frost. I have never fed, nurtured and willed plants to grow like I did that summer.

By July the garden was packed with sweet peas, ammmi majus, sweet-smelling stocks, molucella, cleome, larkspur, zinnias, gorgeous spikes of antirrhinum ‘The Bride’, Cosmos ‘Purity’, white mallow and many more. Confetti was made from rose petals and lavender. YouTube was avidly consulted to fill the still yawning gaps in my knowledge and proved to be my saviour on many occasions.


Then disaster struck, a horrendous storm three weeks before the wedding destroyed about 60% of the sweet peas! completely sodden masses were hanging from the supports. With a very heavy heart and, I admit, some tears the plants had to be heavily cut back in the hope that new flowers would generate. Miraculously, everything else seemed to have escaped serious damage. The moral to this is always always have a reliable wholesaler lined up just in case things go wrong.
Anyway the week of the wedding arrived, three nerve-wracking days were spent putting together all the arrangements and transporting a van and car packed with flowers the 80 miles to the venue. Was it all worth it? you bet… the sense of achievement was fantastic, the bride and groom were delighted. A small selection of the photos show some of the arrangements. Would I do it again?…I did 10 months later for our daughter’s wedding. Look out for my second article on wedding flowers which features pedestal arrangements.


If you would like to know the full story, I would be delighted to come and talk to your garden club or society and also demo some of the techniques and tips I learned along the way.Flower Arrangements 366

The Apothecary’s Garden

The Apothecary’s Garden

 

My garden was christened with this title some 20 years ago, by my kids actually! They used to be amused at seeing their mum arrive home from work completely stressed out (high pressure job in the pharmaceutical industry) dash out into the garden, grab a sprig each of chamomile, lavender and lemon balm, crush and inhale deeply then the cares of the day would fade away. The garden was still fairly new at that time a quarter acre plot into which I cram as many herbs as possible, old roses, annual flowers for cutting and basically anything else I have a fad for, the current one is grasses. The garden at the front of the house is laid out in four box-hedge beds around a sundial bed. The beds contain a happy mix of herbs, roses and perennials. I also squeeze in some annual flowers for cutting.

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Felicia – one of my favourite old roses

More old roses are grown in a separate bed with campanulas, alliums and nepeta. The shady part of the garden houses woodland planting my favourites being the hellebores.
The herbs are grown in raised beds with separate beds for medicinal, culinary and aromatic herbs. Can you spot a certain grey persian cat called Portia.FullSizeRender (8)I’ll be including in my blog highlights of the garden throughout the seasons plus posts on how I use herbs from the garden in cooking, for simple medicinal remedies, and for cosmetics.
The Apothecary’s Garden is not an ordered garden or a designer garden, it doesn’t open under the National Garden Scheme, it’s just my sanctuary where I grow all my favourite plants and through my posts I want to share all the highs and lows with you.