In a Vase on Monday. Tribute to Constance Spry.

I have  been reading a great biography of the wonderful Constance Spry who was an amazingly innovative flower arranger. Fans of  In a Vase on Monday owe her a great debt. She was the first one to browse the hedgerows and to use wild flowers, seed heads, fruit and vegetables in her  arrangements. Beverley Nichols adored her. This is what he said in the foreword to her book: How to do the Flowers:

To do a Constance Sprymeans standing before a bed of hydrangeas, when summer has fled, and seeing beauty in their pallid, parchment blossoms. It means suddenly stopping in a country lane, and noting for the first time a scarlet cadenza of berries, and fitting it in one’s mind’s eye, into a pewter vase against a white wall. It means bouts with brambles, flirtations with ferns, and carnivals with cabbages’. 

Yes, she even used cabbages or rhubarb leaves. There was great controversy when she made an arrangement using just kale, nobody had done such a thing before.  Here it is, I think it looks lovely.

Kale. Constance spry

Kale. Constance Spry










So here is my first vase in homage to Constance. I cheated a bit and used two kinds of Kale; Cavello nero and Pentland Brig , an heirloom variety which is delicious, so we can eat this arrangement tomorrow. In the meantime we have friends coming round this evening and I am interested to see their reaction to a vase full of vegetables.

Kale. Chloris

Kale. Chloris

Constance Spry was an incredibly energetic lady, she built up a successful shop and flower arranging business and did the flowers for the rich and famous. She was the darling of the gilded hedonists  of the 1930’s who spent vast fortunes on flowers. She even managed to keep going in the more austere war years. She did the flowers for the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and as a result she was out of royal favour for a while, but eventually she was forgiven and did the flowers for the Queen’s wedding. After the war, she ran a school for young ladies to learn how to cook and do the flowers and she even found time to write books.

Page for How to do the Flowers. Constance Spry. 1953

Page from How to do the Flowers. Constance Spry. 1953

My mother was a keen flower arranger and very good at it. She was very much influenced by Constance.  She had most of her books and several Constance Spry vases. I can see her now, prowling round  the garden with the secateurs at the ready, quite unaware of my father’s scowl as he watched his precious blooms being picked. My image of my father is bent over his flower beds, bottom in the air. If you came into my garden you would find me in the same pose as my father.

The vases Constance Spry designed were made by Fulham Pottery and if you look on eBay you will see that they go for silly prices. I wish I still had the ones my mother collected. In the 1930’s there was a craze for wall vases and Constance did many arrangements featuring these. You never see them now. I have an old French Quimper one. I have never used it before but  I filled it with foliage for this post and I am pleased with the result. I used the leaves of Euonymus and Choisya ternata ‘Sundance’ and the long green tassels of Garrya elliptica. I am very fond of ivy and have quite a few different ones although I can’t remember their names apart from ‘Goldheart’. The only flower I used is the green, native Helleborus foetidus which pops up everywhere in my garden.



dsc_1137Constance Spry died in 1960. In 2004, there was an exhibition celebrating her work at the Museum of Design. Two of the directors,  Sir Terence Conran, the furniture man  and George Dyson, creator of overpriced vacuum cleaners, threatened to resign in protest.  Conran  referred disparagingly to her ‘high-society mimsiness’.  She might have mixed with high society and  she always wore a pretty hat; she might have run a finishing school for over-privileged debs, but she made flower arranging into an art form and one that can be enjoyed by everyone. And for those of us who love old-fashioned roses she was one of the first to seek them out and champion them. The rosarian, Graham Stuart Thomas went to her for advice when he was designing the rose garden at Mottisfont Abbey.

Actually, if you read Sue Shephard’s biography ‘The Surprising Life of Constance Spry’ you will find out that Constance wasn’t so ‘mimsy’ after all. Divorce, adultery and living ‘in sin’ were considered outrageous in the 1930’s and Constance was not even married to Shav Spry as he was married to someone else. Nobody knew though. And starting in 1932, she had a four- year intense relationship with the artist, Hannah Gluckstein, who insisted on being called simply Gluck.



They met when Gluck painted an arrangement of white flowers that she ordered from the Constance Spry shop.The painting took so long that the flowers had to be changed and rearranged over and over again for weeks. Constance was intrigued and went to meet Gluck. She loved the painting which was eventually finished and called Chromatic and the two quickly became close. White interiors were all the rage in the 30’s. People were rebelling against the stuffy, over-furnished rooms of their parents.  Beverley Nichols wrote with delight about his whitewashed room in his book, A Thatched Cottage. Somerset Maugham’s wife, Syrie was an interior designer and she adopted white walls and furnishings in her own home and for many high society customers. Constance introduced Gluck to her friends who immediately commissioned paintings of white flowers from her. So in homage to the 30’s mania for pure white I have produced my next vase. I used my pure white Furstenberg vase and ordinary Galanthus nivalis. I can’t bear to pick my specials, although I did add a couple of Ginn’s Imperatii which smells of almonds.

Apart from her white flowers Gluck was a fine artist. Whilst I was writing this I wondered whether there are any of her paintings in galleries. She was so slow that she didn’t paint a great many pictures. What a coincidence; I found there is a retrospective exhibition of her work at the Fine Art Society, New Bond Street, London this month which runs until the 28th February. I shall be going up to see it. If you are interested there is a good biography by Diana Souhami called Gluck.

Well this is my contribution to Cathy’s great meme In a Vase on Monday. As usual, I can’t seem to cut a long story short.  My followers will probably know by now that I can’t resist a story, specially if it is spiced with a bit of gossip.

Do pop over to Ramblinginthegarden and see what everyone else is putting in their vases.


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The Gingerbread House.

Grayson Perry’s ‘A House for Essex’ has been likened to a gingerbread house. I’d say it looks more like  a cross between the Taj Mahal and a Victorian public convenience.



On a dull January day when the ground was frozen too solid to work and I had finished examining each little shoot of every bulb and counted all the green spots on my snowdrops, we set off in the car and ended up over the border in Essex. The general feeling about Essex, in Suffolk where I live is- ‘There be dragons’ *, but I am fearless in my quest to find something new to entertain my blogging friends and also, my brother-in-law, who is an artist was staying with us and he was keen to see it. So off we went.

The house is one of five created for Alain de Botton’ s scheme, Living Architecture in collaboration with Charles Holland of  the London based architectures FAT.  His idea is to allow people to stay in houses designed by architects and artists. The House for Essex is so popular that you have to enter a ballot to get a chance to stay here. If you win you have to pay at least £850 for two nights and a lot more at weekends.


The tiny village of Wrabness on the  muddy banks of the river Stour is not the sort of place you expect to see a shrine to the butt of hundreds of ‘Essex Girl’ jokes. The definition in the Oxford dictionary for ‘Essex Girl’ is far from flattering and indeed there is a petition to have it removed. Actually, it is appalling that this awful stereotype of the  dumb, promiscuous  peroxide-blonde,  is perpetuated in a dictionary. But Grayson Perry who is an Essex boy himself, celebrates the life of his fictional Essex girl, Julie May Cope; indeed she is shown here as the divine female.


The story of her life and rise from a deprived background in Canvey  Island, her two marriages and death under the wheels of a take-away delivery moped is dramatised in tiles and inside on huge tapestries. There is a room devoted to both of her marriages and the deadly moped is hanging from the ceiling as a bizarre sort of chandelier.

There are four descending parts to the building  and it has been compared to Russian dollies, fitting one into the other.


The roof is made of shining copper and there are about 2000 , olive green and white ceramic  tiles.  The symbols are the Essex shield, a  large swirly J for Julie, safety pins, cassette tapes, hearts and  wheels. Julie  is depicted as  a naked, pregnant woman with her arms raised in a hieratic quasi-religious gesture.


This year the House for Essex has been nominated for the Meis van der Rohe award which is the highest accolade in European architecture. I am  not sure what to make of it. Perry admits that it is absolutely ‘bonkers’ and indeed it is. But the idea of a folly is not a new one. Indeed there is Freston Tower on the other side of the river which is a six storey Tudor folly. And at Pentlow, not too far away there is a seventy foot tall, Victorian tower built by a Vicar in 1859 because his parents liked that particular spot.  So the House for Essex carries on a tradition of eccentricity.

Pentlow Tower, Essex

Pentlow Tower, Essex

Eccentric it is and great fun, but is it art? That is a thorny question. Grayson Perry is the cross-dressing, self-publicising,  former winner of the Turner prize. In 2013,  he produced the four Reith lectures with typical flamboyance, dressed up in an astonishing frock and  heavy make-up which made him look like a cross between Dame Edna Everage and Little Bo-Peep. The title of the book he has written on the same theme as the lectures is appropriately called ‘Playing to the Gallery’.   He asked all the right questions about art- ‘What is good art and who decides?  But he failed to really answer them. He was too concerned with making the fawning audience laugh with one-liner gags. He is right that critics, curators, dealers and gallery owners are the arbiters of taste in art, but this  is not a new idea. It was addressed  in far more depth  by  Arthur Danto in two great books, ‘What Art is’ and  my favourite, ‘Beyond the Brillo Pad’. Perry is critical of the rise of curators and  awful arty jargon and the fact that art is big business . Ironically, it was the incredibly influential Saatchi who first made Perry famous.  Now he is very popular and at this rate he will soon be a ‘national treasure’. I am not sure why. I like his ceramic pots, some of them are beautiful, but I wish he didn’t have to make them ‘edgy’ and try to ‘push the boundaries’ in the words of these tiresome, arty clichés, by painting  obscene pictures on them. Some of them even have rude words written on them, which makes him seem like a naughty little boy trying to shock.

But enough about potty-mouthed potters, this is a gardening blog and it should be snowdrop time. The snowdrops are opening painfully slowly this year. In fact as the Pianist pointed out they should be renamed ‘Slowdrops’. ‘Three Ships’, ‘Faringdon Double’ and ‘Mrs. Macnamara’ have been going strong for ages and now at last  gradually, they are joined by buds on quite a few of the others. So soon I hope there will be more to show you.



* I was joking about the dragons.  Actually, I love parts of Essex, specially the estuaries, and what John Betjeman called the ‘level wastes of sucking mud‘ are hauntingly beautiful.
There are also beautiful rural parts which Betjeman described as:

The deepest Essex few explore
Where steepest thatch is sunk in flowers
And out of elm and sycamore
Rise flinty, fifteenth-century towers. ‘

He is talking about the the Essex he found in an Edwardian picture book but not much has changed, apart from the total disappearance of the majestic elm trees.



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In a Vase on Monday. Scentsation.

Goodness, it’s cold. Every day we wake up to a frozen garden. The snowdrops are hanging their fragile little heads and looking so limp and dejected. Last January I filled  a vase with different snowdrops on the the 25th; winter blooms were abundant.  This year they are coming into bloom far too slowly and I am getting impatient, specially for the wonderful  scents which make a winter’s day so magical.

So this week, although some of them are still only in bud,  I have filled a little Chinese vase with some sprigs of the most fragrant winter bloomers. It seemed appropriate as most of them come from China. The lichen is there because I like lichen, it’s such a lovely shade of green and we need green in January.

Trying to decide which is my favourite scent is difficult as they are all gorgeous. I think probably Daphne bhloua ‘Jacqueline Postill’ is the winner. I have it by my front door and it stops visitors in their tracks. The pink  buds are just beginning to open.


Next, a close second, comes Chimonathus praecox with yellow, waxy claw- like flowers with maroon centres. The common name ‘Wintersweet’ is very apt. It has a delicious spicy fragrance.

Coming in at number three is Sarcococca confusa , it spreads its scent far and wide around the garden on a sunny day. It is spicy and exotic. It is on the right of the above picture. It  has shiny evergreen leaves.

Number four is the gorgeous witch hazel, Hamamelis x media ‘Vesna’. It would have a higher rating if it was a little more generous with its sweet fragrance. You can only detect it when it is brought into the warmth.


I keep showing Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’ and its pretty, primrose- yellow racemes are still going strong. Mahonia ‘Charity’ has finished blooming, but this one will take us through the winter until in early spring, Mahonia japonica, the sweetest smelling of all the mahonias will be in bloom.

The winter scented viburnums are good value and even though we have had hard frosts the flowers haven’t gone brown this year. I think it is because this one, Viburnum bodnantense‘ Charles Lamont’ is sheltered by the huge walnut tree.
I have added a couple of buds of fragrant flowers which I hope will open in water. The winter honeysuckle Lonicera standishii is beautifully fragrant but frustratingly the buds are still tightly closed. Skimmia japonica ‘Rubella’ has pretty pink buds and when they open they smell delicious. On the left in the photo below, you can just make out my last fragrant flower. It is the  delicate, primrose, pea-shaped bloom of  Coronilla glauca ‘Citrina’.dsc_1066

For foliage I have used the variegated leaves of Pittospermum tenufolium ‘Irene Paterson’. I have added a couple of sprigs of catkins from a birch tree and that is my fragrant vase complete. Already the warmth of the room is bringing out the scents. Delicious!
Cathy at Ramblinginthegarden has decided to enjoy some fragrance this week. And her Lonicera standishii bloom has unfurled, unlike mine. Thank you Cathy, for hosting.

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Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day. January.

In this cold,  two- faced month of snow, ice and gales, my infatuation with my garden always dissolves. Other bloggers show beautiful scenes of pure white snow. I hate the stuff. And then there are exquisite shots of seedheads rimed with hoar frost. We have had more hoar frost than usual this winter, but it is always accompanied by freezing fog. The sight of all that chilly dankness has me hurrying back under the duvet.

All year round I see the garden through rose- coloured spectacles and love it passionately. But in January, it’ s as though, if it were a man I would wake up from my infatuation and suddenly notice unwashed straggly hair, blackheads, nasal hair, a vulgar shirt, a tie with egg on it and the noisy slurping of soup. That’ s how my garden seems to me right now; thoroughly unkempt, a bit like Les Patterson. But still, the 15th is Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day so I have been prowling round to see if I can find any blooms to rekindle my love affair with  the garden.

If anything can work the magic it is the  spidery flowers of Witch Hazel. They prefer acid soil but if you can provide plenty of moisture they will cope with neutral soil, but they must not be too wet in winter. They really require that well- known horticultural oxymoron ‘moist but well drained soil’.  Last year was very dry, so some of them are not as floriferous as they could be. But still they are lovely. I am still waiting for the primrose yellow ‘Pallida’ and  last of all, the darker yellow ‘Arnold’s Promise’ to open.  But to be going on with,  Hamemelis x intermedia  ‘Vesna’ named after the ancient Slavic goddess of spring is one of my favourites. It also has glorious autumn foliage.

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Vesna'

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Vesna’

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘ Livia’  has lovely wine- red flowers.

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Livia'.

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Livia’.

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’ has gorgeous coppery orange flowers.

Hamamelis x intermedia Jelena'

Hamamelis x intermedia Jelena’

Cathy at ramblinginthegarden blog clearly adheres to the philosophy that a  girl can never have too many Witch Hazels. I think she is right and what could be more cheering than a trip to find yet one more? I think it should be an annual January event. They are grafted so they are expensive, but still they are cheaper than the Xmas tree which I threw out after a week. The trip home with one in the car is blissful as the warmth  brings out the gorgeous fragrance. My find this year is the stunning Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Orange Peel’. It even smells vaguely of marmalade. Now can you get any more orangey than that?

Hamamelis intermedia 'Orange Peel'

Hamamelis intermedia ‘Orange Peel’

I haven’t planted it yet. I was going to put it behind this evergreen Sarcococca confusa with its gorgeously fragrant little cream flowers and shiny green leaves.


But then I realised the obvious place for it is with the orangey  grass  Anemanthele lessiana.


I love sarcococcas with their spicy fragrance which spreads round the garden. Ideally I would like a hedge of it like the one lining the path from the car park at Anglesey Abbey.  I have three plants of Sarcococca confusa which makes quite a large shrub. Sarcococca  hookkeriana var. digyna is my favourite. It makes a small bush and the leaves are finer.  The flowers are touched with pink. These plants like shade. The only problem with them is remembering how many o’s and c’s they have. Personally, I think 4 c’s is a bit excessive.

Sarcococca humilis var. digyna

Sarcococca humilis var. digyna

Another plant worth getting out of bed for in January is the Wintersweet, Chimonanthus praecox. This amazing shrub comes from China. In January it produces claw- like yellow flowers with maroon centres on its bare branches. Sometimes, as in the plant in Cambridge Botanical Gardens, the flowers are pale cream or almost white.  The spicy scent is exquisite and one small twig of it will fill a room with the most delicious fragrance. It needs the warmth of a south wall to produce an abundance of blooms. I know many people are reluctant to give it such a privileged position as it is so dull in summer. I grow a  Clematis viticella up it for summer interest. There are plenty of  other flowers to enchant us in summer but nothing like chimonanthus to cheer up the gloomiest time of the year. I grew mine from seed but I don’ t recommend this. It grows readily from seed but it takes at least 7 or 8 years to bloom. Mine is about 18 years old now. When I dug it up to bring it here it sulked for about 3 years and refused to flower but now it is back to its full glory.

I also have Chimonanthus praecox ‘Grandiflorus’ which has larger flowers but I don’t think it is as fragrant.

Mahonia ‘Winter Sun is still going strong.

Mahonia x media 'Winter Sun'

Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’

And the pink flowers of Viburnum bodnantense ‘Charles Lamont’ look good.

Viburnum bodnantense 'Charles Lamont'

Viburnum bodnantense ‘Charles Lamont’

The flowers of Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’ are a darker pink.

Viburnum bodnantense ''Dawn'

Viburnum bodnantense ”Dawn’

Much as I dislike January, I think February is an absolute delight and it will soon be here. The late afternoons will be  light, the birds will be singing and there will be so many early spring blooms to delight us. February is Hellebore Heaven and galanthophiles like me can indulge our strange obsession. To keep me going until then  Hellebore x ericsmithii ‘Shooting Star’ is showing promise.

And so is this one.
The January snowdrops are fully open. And there are plenty more to come very soon.

Actually, if the garden is looking like Les Patterson it is because I need to get out there and do some serious tidying up. And so that is what I will do. Next month I will show you the winter garden which I made 2 years ago. It has filled out nicely and in 2 or 3 weeks it should be full of colour.

Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day is hosted by Carol at Maydreamgardens, do go over there and see what everyone else has in bloom at the gloomiest time of the year.

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In a New Year Vase on Monday.

It is nice to start a brand new year with some freshly cut flowers for the table. I picked them rather late so I am afraid they are all taken with a flash.



I bought the little jug in France not long after we were married.  So it is special.

For flowers, I used Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’, Skimmia japonica ‘Rubella”, Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’, Jasminum nudiflorum and a few sprigs of white heather, Erica carnea.  I also had a few sprigs of Salvia ‘Wendy’s Wish’ in the greenhouse. The foliage is Lonicera ‘Baggessen’s Gold’,  a shiny, red leaf of Bergenia ‘Eric Smith’, a marbled leaf of Arum  italicum ‘Pictum’ a sprig of Garrya elliptica with its pale green catkins. I  used some bright red twigs of Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’



As we are entertaining today, I cheated in my second vase. Obviously the roses aren’t from the garden and the eucalyptus fell into my hand as I was walking in the little wood nearby. I love the colours with my glass vase. Never mind,  in a few weeks it will be February and there will be plenty of winter treasures for vases and I shan’t need to buy flowers or steal  foliage.


So here we are then,  it is 2017; a time of resolutions and new beginnings . The slate is wiped clean and we can reinvent ourselves into a nice, shiny new 2017 edition of ourselves.

Here is what I have got planned for the 2017 new me. I am going to amaze my loved ones by becoming a domestic goddess. I will keep up with the ironing and cleaning. My windows will gleam and there will be no tottering piles of books by my chair. I might even sew a few buttons on. If I can find a needle.

I will stop buying jugs.

When it comes to gardening, I am going to sow all the seeds I order and prick them out. And I will even make sure they all get planted.

I am going to stop creating new areas in the garden so that I can take better care of existing ones.  Actually, I don’t think I will manage this one.

I am going to clear out the plant pot shed. OK, I know you might have heard this before.

I am going to clean my tools each time I use them and put them away in my nice new shed.

I am going to show a little restraint when it comes to plant buying.

Actually, I don’t know why I am making all these resolutions. I just checked the list I made on this blog in 2013 and I failed with every one.

Cathy at Ramblinginthegarden doesn’t need to make a new year’s resolution to fill a vase with flowers every Monday. She never fails and she inspires many bloggers to do the same. This week she has picked some of her fabulous witch hazel and made a furry caterpillar with it. Do go and see.

I have got a bit behind with other blogs the last few days, but I shall catch up soon. Being a domestic goddess is very time consuming.  Oh, and  my other resolution which is to cycle 50 miles a week has kept me busy too.  That one probably won’t last long ; just until the garden looks a little less monochrome and a little more inviting.

A very Happy New Year, dear blogging friends,  I am looking forward to sharing  your garden delights over the coming year.

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The Witch’s Garden.

In a post last winter I pondered the question of why we garden and asked blogging friends for their opinions. I suggested that one of the reasons we garden is to try to recreate a paradise we remember from our childhood. As Christmas Eve is traditionally a time for story telling, I will tell you the true  story of the  lost childhood garden I try to recreate. There are no Christmas Eve ghosts here, just a witch.

The witch lived in a huge Victorian Gothic, stone -built house with turrets at each corner.  On our way home from school we dared each other to crawl through  the hedge and sneak through the overgrown garden to peer in the window or even ring the door bell, then hide in the shrubs whilst she hobbled out  and waved her stick, angrily calling out curses and no doubt casting malign spells over us.

Finally, one day she lost her temper entirely and instead of turning us physically, into the little toads we already were, she released her horrible looking Bulldog.  He came after us growling and snapping furiously.  We fled in terror. When we were safely on the road, we assessed the damage; apart from the fright, we had one ripped skirt, two scraped knees and several painful thorns embedded in tender flesh.  We decided we had gone too far, the witch had won and we daren’t go back.






But…. but… on our headlong flight I had noticed a huge patch of pure white snowdrops.  I just had to have another look. So just before it got dark on a cold February afternoon I crawled through the hedge to see the snowdrops.  They were even more beautiful than I remembered but like everything else, overgrown with brambles. The next day I took some secateurs from my father’s shed and a little fork and set about freeing the snowdrops.  It was the first gardening I ever did.   Little did I know that I was laying the foundations for a lifelong obsession.


I am very glad to have been young when instead of being shut up and constantly supervised, children were free-range.  When I was a child, parents had no curiosity as to where their children went, as long as they had a clean handkerchief and were back in time for tea. So at weekends as long as it wasn’t too cold and the ground wasn’t frozen I would go out with my secateurs and trowel and clean up a bit more garden.  I loved Frances Hodgson Burnett’s ‘The Secret Garden’ and now I had my own secret garden to rescue.   It was hard work and a lot of what I would have liked to do was beyond my strength and limited range of tools.  I was baffled to imagine how the small girl and a sickly boy in the book could have done all that work themselves.  All I could do was tidy up little bits here and there.  And of course I lived in terror of being discovered by the witch and her snarling dog.

One day my worst fears came true.   I was totally absorbed in my work.  Trying to clean up round the yellow aconites, I  had drawn closer to the house than I usually ventured.  I never even heard the witch creep up on me until her claw-like hand had me by my collar.  ‘I’ve caught you, stealing my flowers, you horrible child. Shame on you! You’ve even brought your own trowel to dig them up with.’

Terrified, I explained that I was gardening, not stealing. I told her that I had already rescued her snowdrops and started on cleaning the brick path and I couldn’t bear to see the celandines trying to grow through so many weeds.

 ‘Celandines!’ she said contemptuously. ‘You mean aconites!  If you love flowers you must learn their names.  Now come with me.’  I got to my feet and followed her, although I really wanted to run away.  Nobody knew where I was.  I was alone with the witch. All the witchy stories I had ever heard  came back to me.  None of them  had a very good outcome. Apart from Hansel and Gretel and that was only because they had pushed the witch into the oven. I was a nicely brought up little girl and clearly couldn’t go around pushing old ladies into ovens. She took me to the house and gave me a little basket. Then she led the way to edge of the woodland where there was a bank covered with violets.  I had never smelt violets before and at first I couldn’t think where the scent was coming from.  Nowadays, the elusive scent of violets always takes me straight back to that moment.

 Don’t stand there gawping child, fill the basket with the flowers; no stalks mind and then come back to the house and I will show you some magic’.  

Pulling the heads of flowers seemed a curious thing to do but I was too frightened to disobey.  She clearly needed the flowers for a spell and I dreaded to find out what sort of spell it would be.

When I went back to the house the witch led me into her kitchen and told me to spread out the flower heads on a board. She separated an egg white from the yolk and told me to beat it up and not to stop until my arm ached and the froth became stiff. She then told me how to paint the egg white on to each flower with a little brush. Finally she made me sprinkle sugar over each one.

 ‘Right, now off  you go home.  Come back tomorrow.  And this time come through the gate like a civilised person and knock on the door. ’   She looked at my scared face and added a little more kindly.  ‘I’ll make you some hot chocolate and you can taste the violets.’

I made my way home feeling quite baffled. Had she really said ‘Taste the violets?’  Maybe she wasn’t actually a witch but just a bit batty which was just as scary really.

The next day I knocked on the brass loop which was hanging from a lion’s mouth door knocker and was ushered into the huge kitchen.   The dog was curled up in his bed and didn’t even glance at me, although I heard a low growl. The witch made me sit down next to him by the Rayburn and gave me hot chocolate in a beautiful, china cup which was decorated with rosebuds.  As I drank I found playing cards painted inside the cup.   I had never seen such beautiful or such strange china.  On a plate there were the violets; crystallised and frosted with sugar. They were sweet and crunchy and really did taste of violets. The witch smiled at me, her witchy face quite transformed. ‘You see?  It’s magic. Flowers made into sweets.  Now, you can’t sit around here all day, out you go. If you go into the potting shed you will find some proper tools, you can’t do much with that silly little hand fork.  And don’t go near the pond, it’ s very deep and the grindylows may get you and pull you in. They live in ponds and have long strong arms and hands to grab children with. Keep right away from the water’

I didn’t even know there was a pond but after that of course I had to go and find it. It was in part of the garden I had never explored before and was big enough to have a small island in the middle.  It was an enchanted place, quite hidden away.  Obviously, it was a bit scary because of the grindylows.  I didn’t really believe in them, but still the idea of long armed monsters was enough to give me a delicious frisson of fear.  Each day I was drawn to play at the water’s edge.  I watched frogs and then tadpoles and one day in spring I found huge buttercups growing round the margins.  I knew that these were called ‘May Blobs ‘and I rushed to get Miss Middle-Um, as I now called the witch. I didn’t know how her name was spelled, and I still don’ t, but in my mind it was ‘Middle-Um’  I wanted to show off my knowledge because I knew she was very keen on the naming of names.  She had made me learn the Latin names for all the spring flowers in her garden and I fell asleep each night rolling the lovely words round my mouth. ‘Primula denticulata, Pulsatilla vulgaris, Puschkinia libanotica’. The words were like poetry to me.

Miss Middle-Um scolded me for playing near the pond but all the same she was delighted to see the buttercups which she told me were not buttercups but Caltha palustris ‘Flore Pleno’. She explained that ‘palustris’ meant ‘of marshes’ and  ‘Flore pleno’ meant ‘double flower’. She said that the word ‘May Blobs’ was a local name for them so although it was pretty, I had to think of it as a nickname and make sure I knew the correct name too.  ‘Elsewhere they may be called Marsh Marigolds or Polly Blobs or any other local name’ she explained. ‘That is why Latin is important because it is universal. If you love a person or a plant you should do them the courtesy of remembering their proper name even if you call them by their nickname now and again’.

Eventually my secret came out and my parents found out where I spent so much of my time. I think Miss Middle-Um must have told them because I never said where I was going.   My parents were incredulous.   Why did I spend so much time with an old lady in her overgrown garden?   It was very odd behaviour. Why didn’t I play with my friends instead?  And anyway, if I was so keen on gardening why didn’t I garden at home?  I could have a little patch of my own if that is what I wanted.   My grandmother was even more hurt  that I never wanted to spend time with her in her garden.  ‘I didn’t even know you were interested in gardening. You never seem to want to spend any time in my garden. ’ she told me reproachfully.

As I have said before, I believe most gardeners spend their adult lives trying to recapture the gardens of their childhood. Often it is their grandparents’ gardens which people grow nostalgic for and spend their lives trying to recreate.  I couldn’t love my grandparent’s garden. It was too formal and old- fashioned for my taste. They were very proud of their Monkey Puzzle tree, or Araucaria araucana, as Miss Middle-Um insisted I called it when I told her about it.  I thought it was hideous and was delighted that Miss Middle-Um shared my prejudice.  They also had bedding out plants in patriotic red, white and blue. Red salvias and blue lobelia alternating with white allysum. They had huge dahlias, each tied to its own bamboo cane. If you examined these too carefully they were found to be full of earwigs, which everyone knows creep into your ears and gnaw into your brains given half a chance.  Besides their garden was ruled by a terrifying Mr. McGregor look-alike called Sid. He waged war on rabbits just like in the Beatrix Potter book.  In those days my sympathies were firmly on the side of Peter Rabbit.  Besides Sid was very suspicious of me and convinced that my one desire was to stamp all over his flower beds unless he was constantly vigilant. Now and again in an attempt to be pleasant he would show me his party trick of eating worms, or pretending to, I hope.  I found this even more disturbing than being shouted at.

My father was a fanatical gardener and my parent’s garden was immaculately kept. I found it a bit boring. It has given me a lifelong aversion to tidy gardens with cliff edges to the scalloped borders and brown soil round each plant with little labels to remind you what everything is.  I preferred a wild, romantic garden where grindilows lurked. My father had a rockery and formal rose beds where stiff hybrid teas grew out of bare soil. These roses didn’t smell as wonderful as Miss Middle-Ums; they were in garish colours and although I learnt their names, I thought them very dull compared to the poetic names of Miss Middle-Um’s roses which I added to my night time litany.  In summer her garden was transformed into fairyland.  I loved the scrambling roses tumbling from every tree and sending out prickly arms to entangle you as you walked past. They had lovely full faces and an exquisite perfume.  I collected baskets full of petals and Miss Middle-Um and I crystallised them just as we had with the violets on that cold winter’s day.  I couldn’t imagine crystallising my parent’s hybrid teas.

I spent a wonderful year in Miss Middle-Um’s  garden.  I never managed to get it looking very tidy, but to be honest I soon stopped trying. I loved it the way it was. It was exuberant and romantic and full of hidden treasures.    The shrubbery was full of overgrown, ordinary shrubs and trees like lilac and laburnum but it had little winding paths leading to a glade at its heart.  Miss Middle-Um said it wasn’t a shrubbery at all but a   ‘Sacro Bosco’ which meant sacred wood. She said anything could happen in such a place because it was magic.   Although she taught me legends and tales of folk lore and magic, Miss Middle-Um was a scientist at heart and she taught me to use my eyes and examine plants.  She shared her garden and her knowledge generously.   On my birthday she gave me a magnifying glass so I could examine flowers more closely.  She also gave me a book from her bookcase called ‘Wild Flowers  by Mrs. Lankester which was published in 1864.


Before  the year was out I was devastated to hear that Miss Middle-Um’s nieces decided she couldn’t be left to manage any longer in her huge house with another winter coming on.  They persuaded her to go into a home.  She didn’t want to go. She didn’t want to leave her garden.  She had even confided in me that she was going to buy a horse to keep in one of her stables. Even I thought that a horse was a bit ambitious, as by now she needed a zimmer frame to walk with. I wished I could do something to save her and the garden,  but everyone said it was for the best really.  Her last gift to me was the china cup with rose buds and playing cards inside. I have it still.


Her house was sold and converted into flats  and the enormous garden was divided into building plots.  For the rest of my childhood I had to avert my eyes every time I walked past my lovely witch’s garden which was gone forever.  But it lives on in my mind and little corners of my own garden where I have tried to recreate its magic.

Are you trying to recreate the magic of a childhood garden? And talking of magic, I wish all my lovely blogging friends a truly magical Christmas.

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Winter Solstice Blooms.

Tis the years’s midnight’ as John Donne said in his  not very cheery poem ‘A Nocturnal on St.Lucie’s Day.’ St.Lucie’s Day  falls on the 13th December which before the Gregorian calendar reform was the winter solstice. This year the winter solstice falls on the 21 December, so today is the first official day of winter.

‘The sun is spent and now his flasks

Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;

The world’s whole  sap is sunk.

The general balm th’ hydroptic earth hath drunk.

Whither, as to the bed’s feet, life is shrunk.

Dead and interr’d; yet all these seem to laugh

Compared with me who am their epitaph.’

OK, the shortest day can be depressing, specially for a gardener,  but I think John Donne should pull himself together, it’s not that bad. There are a few blooms to cheer us.

The winter jasmine provides  a wall of sunshine and is great for picking.

Jasminum nudiflorum

Jasminum nudiflorum

The winter flowering mahonias are gorgeous. The blue tits like to peck their buds but that’s fine, I like to watch their antics.

Mahonia x media 'Charity'

Mahonia x media ‘Charity’

Near this mahonia there is a variegated laurel and a Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald n’ Gold’. I would never have planted them, they are not my favourite shrubs,  but at this time of the year they are a welcome sight and brighten up this corner, specially with the Garrya elliptica behind, with its jade green tassels.
I pruned the Mahonia x media ‘Charity’  and so it is nice and bushy. If left unpruned, they can be very gawky with their flowers way too high to enjoy.

I have several bushes of Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’, I didn’t get round to pruning this next one and you can see how leggy it looks. I will cut down each stem when it has finished flowering, to just above a knobbly bit . As it is, only the birds get to enjoy the flowers.

The next one has been pruned, it is lovely and bushy and I can enjoy the lovely flowers which are slightly fragrant. The flowers are more erect than the ones on M. ‘Charity’. I love the glossy, green  leaves which look good all year round. Sometimes you see mahonias with leaves which have turned red. This looks pretty, but unfortunately it is a sign of stress.

Mahonia x media 'Winter Sun'

Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’

Cathy at Ramblinginthegarden has witch hazels in bloom already. Mine have just a tiny bit of colour showing on their buds hinting at the delights to come. There are also plenty of buds on the chimonanthus and my daphnes, so there is plenty to look forward to. Abutilons seem to bloom on and on. This one is outside so I was  surprised to see it has flowers looking unscathed by the cold.

Abutilon megapotamicum

Abutilon megapotamicum

The incomparable Clematis cirrhosa ‘Freckles’ starts blooming in December and is full of buds so it will cheer up the darkest January days.

Clematis cirrhosa 'Freckles'

Clematis cirrhosa ‘Freckles’

Kris at Latetothegardenparty blog has Erigeron glaucus ‘Wayne Roderick’ in her Monday vase this week. Well, that’s not amazing in Los Angeles. But here it is blooming away in my December garden.

Erigeron glaucus 'Wayne Roderick'

Erigeron glaucus ‘Wayne Roderick’

At this time of the year we start to get excited about hellebores and snowdrops which will be delighting us soon.
This Helleborus niger is living up to its name of Christmas rose. The black grass is Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ which I love to grow with snowdrops and snowy white hellebores.

Helleborus niger

Helleborus niger

And there are Christmas snowdrops just starting to bloom. Galanthus ‘Three Ships’ has been trying to grow through a carpet of leaves, but now I have rescued it so I hope the stems will straighten out.

Galanthus 'Three Ships'

Galanthus ‘Three Ships’

Galanthus ‘Santa Claus’ shows no signs of blooming in time for Christmas, but you can always rely on Galanthus ‘Faringdon Double’ to be nice and early. In fact it is the first double snowdrop in bloom. I know it is still only a bud and totally underwhelming unless you are one of those strange people whose heart beats faster at the sight of a snowdrop in December.

Galanthus 'Faringdon Double'

Galanthus ‘Faringdon Double’

I don’t think my little Narcissus ‘Cedric Morris’ is going to open in time for Christmas although it often does. Still it won’t be long.

Narcissus minor 'Cedric Morris'

Narcissus minor ‘Cedric Morris’

It is nice to think that after today the days will start to get longer again and we can start to dream about spring. In the meantime I thought I would try and get Hector in a Christmassy mood. But it’s not working. He’s saving himself for the big day.
I shan’ t say Happy Christmas today because in a few days it will be Christmas Eve. Traditionally this is a time to sit round the fire with a glass of something nice and tell stories. And my Christmas Eve post is a story. See you then.

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In a Vase on Monday. Not Radishes.

Like Cathy at Rambling in the Garden I am rather keen on haikus. Here is one by the master of the art, Matsuo Basho.

‘When the winter chrysanthemums go,

there is nothing to write about

but radishes’.

Fortunately, I don’t have to resort to writing about radishes yet because the wonderful Chrysanthemum ‘Chelsea Physic Garden is still looking fabulous.

Chrysanthemum 'Chelsea Physic Garden'

Chrysanthemum ‘Chelsea Physic Garden’

I know I talk about this chrysanthemum a lot, but I have quite a few mums and none of them perform like this one and go on for quite so long, despite several hard frosts. I have picked a bunch today and there are still plenty left for the Christmas table.

The only other thing in the garden at the moment with any impact is Mahonia x media ‘Charity’ which is just about to burst forth. I have several of these dotted about the garden so I shan’t need to resort to radishes this month for my vases.

Mahonia x media 'Charity'

Mahonia x media ‘Charity’

I decorated this little basket with leaves years ago and amazingly it still looks just about alright, although next year I must remember to refresh it.

The greenery is Eucalyptus, I’m not sure which variety it is, as it is not actually in my garden. So I am cheating a bit. Well quite a lot actually, as I nicked it. But it is a huge tree which someone has planted in the little wood near here which I like to walk through. I find it very handy for winter arrangements.

I used seed heads of clematis and asters to look like little snowballs to give it a seasonal look.  OK, I admit the aster seed heads look like dirty snowballs.

But look at the rich colours of this peerless chrysanthemum.

The dedicated followers of Cathy’s meme, ‘In a Vase on Monday’ are sure to have been creative in coming up with something for their vases even at this bleak time of the year. I am sure nobody has had to resort to radishes. Do go and see.

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Winter Lights at Anglesey Abbey

We always enjoy a visit to the winter garden at Anglesey Abbey.

dsc_0793 This year we went a bit early because we had tickets for their Winter Lights event. Several National Trust properties are holding these now and it adds a whole new, rather magical element to  the garden.

The colours in the winter garden were enhanced. The Cornus alba ‘Baton Rouge’ looked very red indeed.

The berries of Callicarpa boudineri sparkled like purple amethysts.
The gorgeous shiny brown bark of Prunus serrula looked shinier than ever.

Prunus serrula

Prunus serrula

You could have it in purple too with the ghostly white bramble, Rubus thibetanus in front.


The twisted hazel Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’ looked like Medusa’s head.


I love the way the yellow dogwood, Cornus stolonifera ‘Flaviramea’  gleamed and a few stems turned white. On the left the yellow flowers of Mahonia ‘Charity’ turned a ghostly white too.


You would think that the famous birch grove couldn’t be improved upon and changing the colours of the gleaming white stems would be like dyeing flowers. But everyone stood transfixed watching the ever-changing kaleidoscope of colours.

The tall poplars along the canal kept changing colour too.

Allium seedheads were planted amongst white birch branches.

A surreal touch was the white umbrellas in the rose garden.
The snowdrop garden at Anglesey Abbey is famous and we had a little foretaste of the pleasures to come.
I am looking forward to going back to the winter garden in January and February and seeing all the winter flowers in daylight and even better smelling them; so many winter blooms are fragrant. But on a dreary evening at the end of November it was fun to see it looking magically different. And a bit surreal.

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A Chic She Shed.

Suddenly sheds have become trendy. I remember when I was a child, my father’s potting shed  smelt of damp, mouse droppings,  cigar smoke and no doubt, carcinogenic chemicals. It was home to spiders, mildewed  garments, dead butterflies  and all my father’s complicated garden paraphernalia. My father had never heard of shed chic and he would have snorted in derision at the very idea.

Tool Shed. East Ruston.

Tool Shed. East Ruston.

Today, we all want a shed. I’m not sure why men like them, maybe so that they have somewhere to play with their tools. But I think women never grow out of their love of playing ‘house’. We all have perfectly nice houses but we want a Wendy  House to play in.  Maybe in all of us, the need for a cave is an atavistic thing. Our early ancestors needed it for security. And we still crave a cave, or in modern day terms, a little hut of our own.

I visited Long Melford Hall this summer with my niece. It was fascinating to find that Beatrice Potter used to stay there regularly and in their library they recently found some of her original drawings. But what also fascinated me, was the boudoir decorated with French eighteenth century furniture and Meissen porcelain. The very idea of a lady needing a boudoir is such an odd concept nowadays. And back then, as ladies didn’t seem to do much anyway, it seems strange that they needed a special room to do not much in. But nevertheless, I like the idea of a room of your own. A boudoir. I  don’t  just want somewhere to sit elegantly sipping tea from a Meissen cup. Or even like Hyacinth Bouquet, out of Royal Doulton china with ‘ hand painted periwinkles’ .  But maybe the modern equivalent of a boudoir is a shed.  A shed with a potting station and shelves and all  my tools nice and clean and hanging from their own hooks. And a nice comfy chair with cushions. And a big table to work or write on.

I have been planning my boudoir/ shed all summer. In fact not only have I been dreaming about sheds but I have been lying awake for several nights planning mine. The Pianist was incredulous when I told him that I couldn’t sleep because of my shed. But then he nodded and said wisely: ‘Ah yes, sheds, a common cause of insomnia, ask any doctor.’  I think perhaps he was being ironic.  Anyway, at last my dreams have come true, I have my shed and I want to share it with you.



You may wonder why I need a new shed when I already have three old stables. But honestly, although I try to kid myself they are shabby-chic, what they are really, is hopelessly  tumble-down and scruffy. And they are all full of stuff accumulated over many years by many past owners of this house. One is full of wood and discarded windows. I wrote about my efforts to clean up the plant pot shed in an earlier post. Shamefully, it is no better, in fact it is worse. I am only grateful if I can close the door. And the other is full of – well, I don’t know -stuff.

Even if I am not potting on my lovely potting station, or doing other shed- related things, my new She-Shed is a place to take a  cup of  tea into. Obviously, I don’t drink out of Meissen, or sit in an elegant gown entertaining charming young men . I don’t know any charming young men, except for my son and my son-in-law and they would be a bit surprised if I invited them to take tea in my shed.  But  nevertheless, this  shed is my boudoir.

I have painted it inside  in a shade called Cool Marble, despite everyone’s incredulity that I thought the inside needs painting. So many people have hastened to tell me that the inside of a shed doesn’t need painting. Of course, it doesn’t need it. ‘Oh reason not the need’ as  King Lear said, under rather more exacting circumstances.  The floor is painted with slate coloured deck paint. The outside is painted Silver Birch. On an impulse I painted the window frames Cool Marble and painted stripes on the door so it looks like a beach hut. The great thing about a shed is you can indulge any whim.


Ok, the nearest beach is more than 30 miles away and I know that Alexander Pope said that we should consult the genius loci, the spirit of the place in the garden. This mantra has been repeated from Russell Page onwards. I heard Arne Maynard speak recently and this was his theme too. In fact, the original use of the phrase was used by the Romans to mean that we should propitiate the gods or spirits of the place who live there. Well as I have said before, I do not want a midden and a cabbage patch to make this in keeping with a sixteenth century garden. So the gods of this place will have to stay unpropitiated. I live here now and I will indulge any whim that comes into my mind. And if I want a beach hut I shall have one. In fact I am toying with the idea of  a shingle beach,  Derek Jarman type mini -garden in front of it. I even have a plump bathing beauty on the door.


Maybe I can rig something up to play George Formby singing ‘My Little Stick of Blackpool Rock‘ when I open the door. The Pianist can accompany him on his banjolele.

But inside I have abandoned the maritime theme . I cleaned, oiled and sharpened all my tools and they are hanging up in neat order,  thanks to the Pianist’s efforts in erecting this special tool- hanging thingy. And no duct tape was used at all. How wonderful it will be not to have to run around from garage to shed to greenhouses looking for all my tools. And how lovely to see them all clean and gleaming. I can’t bear to get them dirty now. The Pianist asked me to dig him some leeks and I had to try to persuade him that he didn’t  really need leeks. I didn’t want to get my fork dirty. I can see this is going to  scupper my winter gardening plans a bit.


And yes, that is a picture you see on the wall. Well why not?


And then the dear Pianist has given me  four long shelves. I keep my vases here because from now on I shall do all my flower arranging in the shed. This has come just in time as I have run out of cupboard space in the house for all  my jugs. I do have this weird thing about jugs. I hadn’ t realised quite how many I have until I put them all on the shelf.


And then I have a special potting station. I have never had such a luxury before.

Next to it it is a wipe clean board to keep track of what has been sown.dsc_0713

Miniature Xmas card pegs hold the seeds waiting to be sown soon. All my other seeds are in my grandmother’s gas mask tin from the war.  This used to hold her sewing kit but as I am allergic to the needle sort of sowing this is a much better use for it.


It is nice to find new uses for things that your family have owned. I keep plant pots in my father’ s old tool box. I believe this was his tuck box at school.


My Mother’ s tapestry basket holds my gardening gloves. The chickens hold labels.



I use an old fashioned bread bin to keep my vermiculite in.


Much more practical are the two galvanised steel bins for potting compost and the large plastic boxes  for grit and sand.


But I like old things. This old walnut box does not actually contain gants but a hammer and nails. I love it, how wonderful that people used to have a special box to keep their gloves in and one that they could  lock so that nobody could steal them.


My Chinese umbrella stand seems the obvious place to keep bamboo canes. It didn’t serve any purpose in the house as all our brollies are telescopic.



The long table was an eBay buy and came much cheaper than making one. Fortunately it just fitted in the car. The wicker chair was ridiculously cheap on eBay too.



dsc_0661The great thing about a shed is that you can indulge in the sort of whimsy which you wouldn’ t tolerate in the house. For instance I have ladybirds in odd places.

I have even brought my pottery pig and owl in here; my children made them for me when they small and so they are very precious.

And maybe I am propitiating the genius loci because as you see I have a green man, symbol of the ancient spirit of nature.

I am quite sad that my shed is finished now because I enjoyed doing it. Never mind, it’s on with the next project. Life is never boring if you have a garden.

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