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COOLGARDENS ON TOUR (in Northumberland)

Two designers from Coolgardens, Charlotte and Holly, headed to the north this weekend to visit some of Britain’s best known gardens and least known horticultural gems. We will come to Alnwick later- here is a sneak preview…..


We didn’t really think about it until we were in the car, but 5 and a half hours up to Northumberland was quite a commitment for less than two days visit, particularly when we only specifically wanted to visit one garden! This was of course Alnwick, one of Britain’s newest and most ambitious gardens since the Second World War. Having headed out however, we were going to make the most of it and set about looking for where else would be good to visit. We did, after all, have nearly 6 hours in the car to research!

Saturday morning arrived dismal and pouring with rain. Having been promised sun for the following day, we postponed Alnwick for sunshine and headed to The Holy Island of Lindisfarne, admittedly mainly because last year’s trip to Cornwall involved a boat trip to a garden and we wanted to do it again. A causeway was our nearest comparison and it was very exciting! We slipped over before the timetable advised (fine, apart from a few puddles – but please don’t take our word for it if you visit!) and were in the village as it opened. Extremely underdressed for the weather we headed out to the castle (closed) and the Gertrude Jekyll walled garden. After rummaging around through wet fields for 20 minutes we finally realised it was a walled off section of grassland about a quarter of a mile from the castle. This was to set a precedent for the layout of northern castles and country houses I’m yet to get to the bottom of. If you know why, please do tell me!

The garden was a quaint and flourishing stone courtyard full of riotous colour and beautiful perennials. It was lovely but slightly odd in the middle of the bleakness of the Lindisfarne coast! The sweetpea were in flower, the Calendula were an orange mass towards the back and the Stachys were on a mission to overtake the whole space. It was a real pleasure despite the pouring rain and the juxtaposition in its environment made it all the more delightful.

After a stop for some excellent coffee at ‘The Pilgrim Coffee House’ and a mooch about Lindisfarne, Charlotte and I headed back over the, by now very safe, causeway and headed for a much too brief stop at Cragside and ‘the largest rockery in the Britain’. We’d initially dismissed this, since the Victorians are quite famous for their rockeries and these can sometimes be quite distasteful, however this was something else entirely! The steep sides of the valley on which the house is perched have been broken up with enormous boulders that have created meandering paths and streams. These lead from the house down to an enormous iron bridge that crosses the river at the bottom. A huge bank of Rhododendron on the steep slope in front of the house must make the view back to the house absolutely astonishing in the spring.

The walled garden was about a 10-15 minute walk from the house (spot the start of a theme!) and was another delight. The main structure of the garden was formed through a white pergola-like framework which enclosed the garden without shutting any of it off. We weren’t sure about it at first, but the more we wandered around, the more we liked the structure it provided. The beds were mainly herbaceous and although some evergreen shrubs provided some grounding, the white pergola really provided a good backbone for it all.


A lovely surprise was the fernery, tucked away through a gate and leading around to a formal lily pond and then a sunken grotto, open to the air but nonetheless well planted and intricate. A complete delight. The walk between the walled garden and the rockery is a Pinetum, a very Victorian concept and one I’m usually sniffy about, but this was again a really excellent example – some fabulous ancient pine specimens were architecturally magnificent and little details such as the Snake Bark Maple grove were inspiring!

Onwards and we squeezed into a tiny little two acre garden called Bide-a-Wee Cottage an hour before it closed. This had attracted my attention through some lovely cottage garden photographs and the fact that it advertised the on site nursery as containing ‘unusual’ perennials, which is like cat nip for the keen gardener! This is an absolute must if you visit the area! I cannot convey quite how much I loved this garden. It’s an English garden par excellence. Overflowing planting beds reveal tiny narrow paths that lead through and around this garden without revealing your final destination until the last minute. There is the sound of water but you can’t quite see where it’s coming from and then you suddenly stumble across a little rill running alongside the path and then disappearing under the slabs leaving you guessing where it might appear next! The bottom most section of the garden is dominated by a lovely pond surrounded by masses of ferns and a lovely weeping Taxodium. Viewable from nowhere else in the garden but accessible from everywhere this is a tranquil and sweet spot. Working our way through the various paths up to the house, the beds ares full of lovely perennials we either don’t know and want, or recognise and want. Either way, I wanted this garden! The car was considerably fuller when we left!

Finally (yes, that’s right, four in one day. It may be impossible to most but we wanted to make the most of every last minute!) we headed to Wallington House. The garden is a 15 minute walk from the house (was this to get the ladies to exercise or for some other reason?!) through a deciduous woodland complete with fairy doors and several lakes. As a walled garden should be, it was a beautiful contrast to the area through some gorgeous oak and iron gates that give you a glimpse to peak your interest. The top of the garden begins with a formal raised parapet that drops down past an elegant double staircase and a lovely water feature running through lawns and planting beds.image

The parapet gives views over the garden, as well as providing a home to a beautifully kept herbaceous and annual bed and a FABULOUS glasshouse. This is just chocka with tender plants, scented climbers running up the pillars and regular garden plants all squished in together. I’ve never thought to use pelargoniums as climbers but it works!

The garden is a mixture of lawns, lush planting beds and the sort of brick walls that make garden designers swoon. The garden ‘rooms’ were lovely with really nice glimpses through to the next but holding back enough to make us go and explore like 10 year olds!

Now. To the meat of the matter. The following day provided the promised sunshine and we headed over to Alnwick in considerable excitement. I’ve had a picture of the famed cascade on my desk wall now for several years and we were excessively hyperactive in anticipation of the real thing (would you want to employ garden designers who didn’t get overexcited at these things??!). The cascade is indeed magnificent; huge and very impressive. It completely dominates the garden and is a perfect example of why going big in a smaller space can work. It could be argued that the garden is not big enough to justify such enormity but it felt to me like it created a sense of space and grandeur that was not diminished by the surrounding garden.

Having been told it was smaller than the cascade implied, I thought we would get round it in an hour and a half, however Charlotte and I were still being delighted by new things four hours later. One of the highlights of our visit was the tour of the Poison Garden by an incredibly knowledgeable guide, we would definitely recommend this! Who knew Alexander the Great was killed by an overdose of hellebore given to him to treat worms?! We certainly didn’t! The bamboo labyrinth was excellent, we thoroughly enjoyed working our way round the sciencey water features and we were both thrilled with the novel ideas in the walled garden – pleached Malus trees and Malus hedging worked really well.

This garden really is a garden designer’s dream, in the sense that it is very much about structure, layout and use of space, however, the ornamental and rose garden provide more than enough to keep the plants men and women extremely busy and engaged. We can’t wait to have a chance to visit again.


Finally, to squish in as much as we could, passing down the A1 we stopped at Northumberlandia. An amazing landform site designed by Charles Jencks that we only heard about because a couple staying in the same pub told us about their day. A huge scale woman made from the excess from a nearby surface mine and built by enthusiastic miners, this is a PR stunt on a grand scale for how mining can be a boon as well as an eyesore. Essentially it is a large nature reserve, but done beautifully and free to get into. A work of genius most definitely and well worth a visit.

Coolgardens Plant of the week #13 Hydrangea aspera ‘Sargentiana’

I love this hydrangea, it has delightful almost furry leaves and these striking purplish flowers. Paired here with hydrangea quercifolia, it provides a big show at this time of year with large interesting leaves and flowers in mid summer. These two only really work if allowed to get quite large, and neither are neat and tidy so they are best given plenty of space to grow. Filling a shady spot nicely, with the quercifolia having good autumn colour on the leaf, these are a great addition to the bulk and texture of a garden- this is the bit that many gardens are really short of. The rather dark leaf is in my view best paired with something a little lighter and brighter (here a mix of lime green and purple berberis in a loose hedge). They do prefer it moist, and a good mulch helps a lot with this.

Coolgardens Plant of the week #12 Cornus kousa 

After years of seeing this lovely shrub/tree at both RHS Chelsea and Hampton Court (flower time depends on the weather and variety) I have finally managed to get one to do well in my own garden. This is a white variety of Cornus kousa – Chinensis ‘China Girl’. Cornus Kousa is generally later flowering than the very similar Cornus Florida varieties (as the names suggest, the latter are from the US whereas the Chinensis are from China and Japan). There are also some delightful varieties with dusky pink flowers (such as ‘Beni-Fuji) do look them up if you are considering one as there is a delightful range of colour. Actually the flowers are not true flowers but leaf bracts (like a poinsettia) but it matters not for our purposes.

I have had a number of years of miserable looking Cornus in my garden and I suspect that the secret of its success this year has been water -they do seem to like it really quite moist (which it has been for most of the spring and early summer). They will grow in sun or part shade and whilst they are not very drought tolerant, like most plants they don’t want to be in waterlogged soil so don’t assume that because they like it moist they will be ok in a bog! I think this is why they struggle a bit in our clay-rich soils as we lurch from drought to bog, but where I have improved the soil with compost and grit they are faring well. 

From a design point of view they are really useful as they grow relatively slowly so can be kept manageable, flower early, and have a naturally spreading habit. They can therefore be used as a focal point on a view line, a stand alone specimen, or as the upper story in a border. You can clear the lower stems to suit and encourage the open vase-shaped structure which is attractive throughout the year without creating dense shade beneath. Think dappled woodlands…As a result of their slow growth rates they tend to be a bit pricey for a given size, and are not as widely available as many alternatives for these positions (such as Acers), but the gorgeous flowers and tolerance of a wider range of soils makes them useful in positions where Acers would not be my choice. Worth a go if you have irrigation or somewhere that is not likely to dry out!

In terms of practical uses- I see many gardens with every shrub clipped into a ball or amorphous rounded shape, and if you have one of these you will be amazed by how much difference it makes getting a few looser shapes in. Be bold and hook out the more unrelenting thuggish green shapes to clear space, add in one or more Cornus or Viburnum, and perhaps some purple leaved shrubs (see previous selections) for some splashes of colour. This will have a much more dramatic impact than adding bedding plants. 

Coolgardens Plant of the week #11- Sambucus nigra Purpurea

This falls into the important group of “large bulky shrubs” that many gardens are short of. We see many gardens that have some hedging and trees and then some small perennials and shrubs, but nothing in between. It is the bulky flowering shrubs that typically add the texture and “feel” to a garden. They link the large and small, create the feeling of enclosure and privacy without looming, and if chosen well, extend and develop the colour, texture and interest in the garden. They allow you to create layering of colour, and to achieve year round interest by moving the points of interest around the garden and from foreground to background through the seasons.

There are hundreds to choose from, and most gardens (even small ones) can fit at least a few, so I have started here with a really tough one- purple leaved Sambucus (elder). Pictured below against the porch of my house, it grows pretty thuggishly and can be cut back hard whenever suits- I usually do so in the autumn when the leaves have dropped. I have cut down to ground a number of times and it doesn’t seem to mind. Like almost all purple leaves plants they prefer full sun, but this is a really tough plant and in this case is growing in a pretty shady west-facing courtyard without complaining.

There are more elegant lacy versions- the cut leaved elder Sambucus nigra ‘black lace’ below which is a little bit more fussy about its position- getting rather leggy if not in full sun as in the image below, but nonetheless a delightful alternative to using Acers for those of us not on acid soil- although it does not have the autumn colour, you do have a good flush of pink flowers to make up for it.

Coolgardens Plant of the week #10- Chelsea Highlights (there’s about 8 here!)

In the build up to Chelsea I have missed a week, so here are my choices from the wealth of wonderful planting that is Chelsea each year. I have been going regularly since I was a child, and with a slightly different eye on things every year for the last 15 years or so- I am always amazed by the fact that there is always, always, something surprising and new. Whether this is a plant we hadn’t thought to use in the way it is shown, a new variety of an old favourite plant, or a design idea, feature, sculpture or treatment. Thanks to all the exhibitors for a stunning show despite the reduced number of show gardens.

So here they are- the Iris colours were so wonderful that I could hardly decide between them. I will certainly be putting in a big order. The supplier was Cayeux- they have a fab brochure and good web site so well worth a look. I decided on Iris ‘Nelly Tardivier’, which I will mix with Iris ‘Black Suited’ an amazing black form.

And then lighten up the display with one of the almost peachy coloured varieties, either Iris ‘Torero’….

Or probably Iris ‘Joy de Rohan’

I could carry on and fill my entire garden with Iris but there are of course some other candidates. The Clematis were simply stunning, and displayed at or below eye level which worked really well. The suppliers Raymond Evison were knowledgeable and helpful, and the range of clematis inspirational. Below is Clematis ‘crystal fountain’ (with ‘Rebecca’ too on the right)

Plenty of more subtle options, such as ‘Corinne’ which I thought delightful

Finally, on the Hillier stand and elsewhere a variety of digitalis I have not seen before, Digitalis x valinii ‘Illumination Cherry Brandy’ and ‘Illumination Pink’

Coolgardens Plant of the week #9 Erigeron (Mexican Fleabane)

Our visit to Jersey this week inspired this weeks choice as many of the granite walls there were covered with these delightful daisies. Often mixed with campanula (but always on the narrow stretches of road where I couldn’t stop to take a photo!). This is a really hardy plant, self seeds freely and tough as old boots. It likes full sun, and dry, well drained locations- hence perfection in cracks in a wall. Also fills out borders with great mounds of flowers from April to November.

Cool gardens plant of the week #8-Wisteria brachybotrys

I have 3 wisteria on my house on the south facing side- one is a standard Chinese Wisteria sinensis, growing very vigourously and flowering well, hard not to love. Then the 2 new ones, both are the silky Wisteria brachybotrys varieties- they look rather different, particularly when in bud, with delightful silky buds opening to a slightly more waxy looking flower in a strong purple. The heavenly scent is wafting across the garden even from these relatively small specimens. The one below is Wisteria brachybotrys “Ikojama Fuji” and is the absolute star plant in the garden at present. It does help that Daniel from our partners at Overleaf Gardens has pruned and trained them all so well. I wish I could bottle the smell for you, but I highly recommend this as a special purchase!

Coolgardens Plant of the week #7

This week I had 2 nominations for the same plant- one of my favourites Anemone blanda- in some ways a humble woodland plant, it works brilliantly as underplanting in pots or more expansively under trees naturalising in a delightful carpet. Thanks very much to William Graham and Jean Marshall for sending these photos through-other suggestions very welcome!

Coolgardens Plant of the week #6

I am away this week so no chance of choosing anything seasonal from my garden, but having been thinking about amazing trees, I have just spent a delightful half hour on Google looking at giant baobabs- not quite sure why, but I highly recommend a little search. These majestic trees can be enormous, otherworldly in shape, almost unbelievable ancient, and important spiritual hubs (although the largest in South Africa is partially hollow and has a bar inside which is not the sort of spirit I had in mind). Some are claimed to be 6,000 years old, and carbon dating certainly gives ages of over 1,000. I am not going to attempt to categorise the wonderful range of delights here, but have included some tasters from Senegal, South Africa, and Madagascar.

Coolgardens Plant of the week #5

Ok a little slow out of the blocks this time! I would like to be a bit more adventurous than simply choosing what is in flower so Clipped Hornbeam Cubes are my choice. The ones below are not yet planted, just laid out ready to go in, but I think you can see the enormous impact they already make on the garden. We immediately have an avenue, leading in this case to a fabulous view of the sea (this is a client’s garden in Jersey). Hornbeam is a very tough and amenable plant, it takes hard clipping- usually a formative prune after planting in winter and for the first couple of years after planting (again in winter) and then maintenance pruning in summer. Hornbeam has a dense twig network and holds on to a fair bit of its leaf in the winter in the brown form making it a good combination for screening without being dark and thuggish in the winter. The ones below have still got a fair bit or leaf despite having just been rolled across the lawn by us! 

Hornbeam is more commonly used as hedging or espaliers (“hedge on a stick”- see lower 2 images). These latter are marvellous for screening above a fence without having to obtain planning permission as well as creating an impact for framing, height and impact within a garden.