When I left New Zealand in mid-May to visit my family in the UK, I hadn't even thought of the Chelsea Flower Show. But my family had. Soon after I arrived as part of a significant birthday celebration, they presented me with an envelope which contained tickets for Chelsea. And not just any old tickets, but invitations to the Members Day and Cocktail Party afterwards! None of us are RHS members so I was touched and impressed by the hoops my family must have had to jump through to obtain these prestigious tickets. It was a thrilling day with much to see and take in, only a fraction of which I am able to record here. I have chosen my favourite gardens to discuss, but there were other worthy gardens too, which had been awarded gold, silver and bronze medals.
M&G GARDEN designed by ANDY STURGEON
Winner of Best in Show and a Gold Medal
We headed first of all for Main Avenue and the Exhibition Show Gardens where the first impressions were wild, green and natural! In many of the gardens there was not a lot of colour - the drama relied on textural planting, and clever design. The simplest and most natural looking designs are of course the most difficult to achieve, and there were 2 of these which I particularly liked.
The first of these was the M&G Garden designed by Andy Sturgeon which deservedly won a Gold Medal and Best in Show. M&G stands for M&G Investments which is the main sponsor of Chelsea, and who chose Andy Sturgeon as the designer of their sponsored garden. The aim of the garden was to celebrate the beauty of natures power to regenerate and colonise all kinds of landscapes with new growth. It certainly did that with it's lush and vibrantly green environment featuring plant species from around the world - many of which had never been seen at Chelsea before.
Much of the power of this exhibit was due to it's position where it could use borrowed landscape in the form of existing trees already part of the Chelsea site. Sited against existing mature trees on 2 sides, where the edges of the exhibit and the existing woodland blurred, it created the feeling that the garden went on forever into woodland.
This lush planting was divided by and contrasted against black linear sculptures representing ancient rock formations fashioned from massive charred oak. The regenerative theme was carried through by a series of small pools and streams trickling through the garden. I am in complete accord with the judges in rating this garden the most powerful and strongest design at Chelsea.
THE SAVILLS AND DAVID HARBER GARDEN
designed by ANDREW DUFF
Bronze Medal winner
The second garden I particularly enjoyed was the wild and natural Savills and David Harber Garden designed by Andrew Duff - his first Chelsea design which won a bronze medal. This was wild and natural taken to the extreme, with plenty of long grass and wild plants of the woodland and countryside verging on weeds i.e. buttercup and cow parsley. Nevertheless, we all know how beguiling a froth of cow parsley can look!
Rather than strong and powerful as was Andy Sturgeons M&G Garden, I was captivated by the ethereal quality of this garden as light filtered through surrounding woodland into a clearing and a naturalistic pond with the native iris growing in a most natural way in and around the pond blurring the edges. The plants - weeds and all, were native to the UK, and the trees included Alder and Elder.
To my way of thinking this was a superb example of a simple and natural design, which would not have been easy to achieve in a Show context and could have stood alone without the sculptural shard-like installation as a focus - a double focus actually reflecting as it did in the pond. My initial feeling was that this glitzy sculptural element didn't gel with the natural feel of the exhibit. Or was it there as a foil to the wild and natural and meant to contrast rather than gel?
THE TRAILFINDERS ''UNDISCOVERED LATIN AMERICA'' GARDEN
designed by JONATHAN SNOW
Silver Medal Winner
Another 'wild' garden I identified with straight away was a southern hemisphere garden - The Trailfinders 'Undiscovered Latin America Garden' - Made not by a Chilean or Brazilian designer - but by Jonathan Snow from the U.K. Like Jonathan I had been on a botanical trip to Chile and Argentina some years ago, and his Chelsea garden transported me straight back there. All the planting was faithfully native to South America, particularly Chile, from the large Araucaria araucana (monkey puzzle) to the herbaceous Alstromeria. I felt quite at home with this southern hemisphere garden as so many of these South American species also belong to the same plant families as our New Zealand native species - such as Kauri which is also of the Araucaria family. And the Chilean Nothofagus antarctica (evergreen beech) is related to the New Zealand Nothofagus (native beech) and looks very similar as well. South America's native Fuschia magellanica was represented too, as we also have our native Fuschia (Kotukutuku).
The red walkway may not have been authentically South American, but it certainly added a visual focus to the exhibit.
Jonathan says 'Understanding where a plant grows in the world and the conditions it enjoys, helps us all become better gardeners and designers'.
Ain't that the truth?? And the garden won a silver medal so the judges were impressed too.
THE WELCOME TO YORKSHIRE GARDEN
designed by MARK GREGORY
Gold Medal and Peoples Choice Winner
Another wild and natural garden, the ''Welcome to Yorkshire Garden'' celebrates Yorkshire's canals and the rural drama of the county's industrial heritage. This exhibit illustrates again the way the existing trees of the Chelsea site, can enhance a design which in this instance aims to strike the perfect balance between the industrial and the beautiful. Mark Gregory, the designer says ''My design pays homage to the canals and locks which were vital to Yorkshire as the arteries of industry during the Industrial Revolution and how they have been lovingly restored to create a unique ecosystem and valuable leisure resource''.
It was very hard to get a good photo of this garden as there were celebrities around - Joe Swift was interviewing Monty Don in the garden so the crowds were several rows deep hoping to get a glimpse of the celebs. And a glimpse is all I could get with my phone camera, as I was squeezed from all sides. So the photos are less than perfect, however you might just make out Joe and Monty through the willow chatting in front of the Lock-keepers cottage.
THE R.H.S. BACK TO NATURE GARDEN
designed by HRH THE DUCHESS OF CAMBRIDGE
with ANDREE DAVIES and ADAM WHITE
Everybody wants to know about the Duchess of Cambridge's garden!! It was titled The RHS Back to Nature Garden and was created with the help of designers Andree Davies and Adam White. As an RHS Feature Garden it was in a class of it's own which was not competitive.
Following the theme of wild and natural, it was a like an authentically natural playground for children. There was no gaudy plastic playground equipment here - oh no - all was created from nature. The tree-huts, the hidey holes, the swings, the little wooden bridges over little rocky streams, the winding trails and paths were all created from pebbles, branches, logs and rocks. The naturalistic planting of woodland and roadside, such as ferns, long grass and wild strawberry, was once again verging on weeds.
The Duchess's vision was to provide inspiration for places for children to be able play, learn and discover about the natural world, and although a charming concept and beautifully crafted, this garden did not convey the sophisticated design principals of many of the Exhibition Gardens. Nevertheless, the queues to view the garden were endless.
THE GREAT PAVILION
Not only has it introduced just the colour fillip that the garden needed, it has introduced tall form and structure in it's unique zig-zagging way. Even more, it does the seedhead thing. Not turning beautifully gold like the previous seedheads described, but more of a blackish mauve, and though it might lose a bit of colour, it sticks to it's tall unique form doggedly all winter, so it doesn't deserve to be cut down. While other seedheads might have broken up, rotted or faded away by spring V. boniarensis stays, until even I get sick of it and inspired by new spring green popping up everywhere else, I finally cut it down. I also like the bronze fennel in this front garden not only because of it's feathery bronze summer foliage but also because of its form and seedheads in the autumn/winter garden. And did I mention Stipa gigantea? Such a tall plant in such a tiny garden? It's golden seedheads reach as high as the roof of my verandah. Just because my garden is small it doesn't mean to say I have to have tiny neat little plants.
It was while climbing up Sabalan mountain, that we discovered tulips which were different to those we had found previously in Armenia. This time a lower growing variety of alpine Tulipa humilis growing in groups tucked in and around the rocky scree slope, flowering in different shades of mauve and deep pink. It's such a delight to find tulips growing in the wild, so once more we photographed and marvelled at them.
Then we drove higher towards the snowmelt, where the slopes became bluer, because they were studded with thousands of the delicate pale blue Puschkinia scillioides, which were sometimes interpsersed with the starry yellow Gagea luteoides.
Even higher still, right amongst the snow melt we found tiny little bronze shoots of Colchicum szovitsii pushing their way impatiently through the snow as quickly as it melted.
A place I didn't ever think I would get to, yet here we were - so near and yet so far. 'Can we please go there Jalil' I asked more than once and Jalil, our long suffering guide, was silent for quite a while, then suddenly he announced 'We will have lunch on the shore of the Caspian Sea today'. I was overjoyed, and almost hugged him. Then I remembered just in time that an Iranian woman would never do such a thing, so I contained myself.
Up we climbed through dry foothills, until we reached the top of a pass which looked East down to the Caspian side. It felt similar to climbing the Canterbury side of the Southern Alps to reach the top of Arthurs Pass where the vegetation changes dramatically to wooded hills on the West Coast side. It is the same in northern Iran where the dry hills become wooded as you descend to the Caspian side. Here the forest is mostly deciduous to the east of the mountain pass, descending to the Caspian Sea, where precipitation from the sea creates a moist climate resulting in lush growth.
After such an exotic lunch stop would there still be time for finding flowers? Yes there was! As we drove back over the high northern plateau we noticed patches of blue along the roadside and a familiar but unexpected aroma of catmint - - Nepeta - the same which grows in our gardens at home, and here it was thriving naturally in dry dusty ditches along the road. And in damper patches further back from the road we discovered some spires of the intense almost navy-blue colour of the elegant Gladiolus atroviolaceus
The original species rose - Rosa persica, which as the name suggests was found in old Persia of which modern Iran is a part.
I had been bothering Jalil ever since arriving in Iran, asking him more than once about finding Rosa persica, and he was typically non-committal, but then one day he announced 'We will visit my village today' We all expressed delight at the idea, but still had no idea what that would entail. When we arrived at his village there were 2 of Jalil's brothers awaiting us with smiles and polite gestures to usher us into 3 cars, so we piled in on top of each other into these rather ancient vehicles and proceeded to bump up and down over farm fields, through rifts and hollows for or mile or two, mystified about what could possibly be happening next. Then suddenly we stopped and all got out still not sure what this was all about and Jalil pointing to the ground simply said 'Rosa persica'!
And sure enough in the rift of wild land between two cultivated fields there it was scrambling and sprawling underwhelmingly along the ground. The attractive colour of each small single golden flower with it's distinctive burgundy brownish blotch in the centre made up for it's scrubby appearance. Jalil and his brothers who had driven us there were probably mystified at our delight in finding this unprepossessing plant, which to them was perhaps not much more than a weed, and rather an invasive one at that! Endemic to Iran, (Persia) this scrappy drought resistant bush, is a very primitive form of rose, but it is a plant which could teach us something of the evolution of the rose.
And Jalil's village and rural environment was rich in roses with plentful supplies of Rosa canina,which we had also seen in Armenia, and which has naturalised in many parts of the world, even in New Zealand where it came in on the boots of 19th century goldminers to Central Otago eventually becoming a noxious weed, spreading throughout dry inland mountainous areas of the South Island.
But Iran was different as it was not only the common Rosa canina or the rare Rosa persica, which we found growing in the wild, but also the unusual single flowered yellow Rosa foetida, absolutely thriving in the wild, as was it's dazzling orange cousin Rosa foetida 'Bicolour'. This orange form is named 'bicolour' because the petals are red inside and yellow on the reverse, and so each single bloom appears as bright orange, especially when contrasted amongst the lush blue tinted foliage as these were.
Native to the Caucusus from Eastern Turkey and across Iran to Afghanistan, here they were growing naturally as hedges alongside the dusty road in this rural setting. I couldn't believe we were seeing such a rare and exotic sight growing so casually and happily. It is from these, that the bright orange and scarlet red tones of our modern roses originate.
While here, as April is beginning and the summer season is fading fast, I must learn to love those autumn seed-heads, the turning colour of deciduous trees and the lush greens and strange forms of our own native evergreen flora. But there are always dreams and memories of far-off exotic lands.
Another precious commodity which travelled from East to West were Tulips. Eastern countrys including old Armenia, Persia and Turkey were the original home of the tulip. It wasn't till the 16th Century that tulip bulbs found their way to Europe in the bags of early explorerers, and by the early 17th Century they had become a highly fashionable flower in European gardens. By 1600, Dutch growers had established nurseries specialising in cultivating tulips and it is around this time that tulipmania began. A brief spectacular time when bulb traders could earn the equivalent of $60,000 for a single bulb!
Knowing the history of the tulip made it all the more exciting when we came across a superb colony of them growing in the wild the day before we were due to cross the border to Iran. At the 11th hour our trusty guides, Chris and Tamar spotted them up a rocky cliff. But we weren't the only ones to discover this abundance of tulips, as the locals knew of this spot too. Like mountain goats, they had climbed up to the top of this rocky cliff-face, to places most of us could never reach, and were coming down with their booty. Bucket loads of wild tulips to be sold! Bulbs and all! We wondered at the desecration of such botanical treasure which seemed to be open slather to all. Was there no protection of such a precious resource? But why should there be, we realised, as Armenia had more important things to think about - such as survival, and even if in our view, it seemed very short-sighted, to many Armenians, tulips from the wild were there for the taking and meant a living. And despite plundering the tulips this year, they know they will be back in abundance next year. In fact they thought nothing of generously giving away in typical Armenian style, bunches of their lucrative tulips to us!
But there were still enough tulips left for a few crazy botanists to clamber up cliff faces to examine and photograph. They were all bright red and yellow tulips, similar to the shapely garden tulip. Botanical names? Red - Tulipa sosnowskyi. Yellow - Tulipa florenskyi
As Chris had predicted the landscape changed almost as soon as we entered Iran. The mountains and hills began to open out into vast plateaus and the high snowy peaks were further back into the distance ringing the plains. The lush forested mountains and gorges of Armenia gave way to drier plains, and a more agricultural landscape. There were many apricot orchards which we had also seen in Armenia, as well as mile upon mile of agricultural land which consisted mainly of crops.
The azure blue of Anchusa was reflected in many different hues in the mosaics of the traditional Islamic buildings when we reached the old northern Iran city of Tabriz.
We stayed here overnight before continuing our botanical adventure the next day climbing (in vehicles) 3000 metres up to the snow of Sabalan Mountain east of Tabriz. Here we were to encounter wonderful snow melt flora, including tulips. But that is another story.
Botanising in ArmeniA
Chris and Basak also organise botanical trips through their company, 'Vira Natura' and a trip to Armenia and Iran was coming up soon. Unable to resist botanical journeys to exotic and far flung places, I knew this would be an opportunity not to be missed, especially after reading about the rich botanical habitats, history and cultures of these countries. My friends, Penny and Jane thought so too, so we all went to discover "Armenia and Iran - Irises and Ancient Art".
Armenia is renowned as one of the worlds botanical hotspots, and when we arrived from an early New Zealand winter, it was late spring there - perfect for Irises, Fritillarias and all manner of late spring flowers growing in the wild.
Situated at the southern end of the Caucasus, on a high mountain plateau, this tiny country is overflowing with the grandeur of stunning and diverse mountain landscapes.
New Zealand is not the only beautiful country in the world!
In Armenia we encounter majestic craggy mountain ranges, and deep wide river valleys all within a country only two thirds the size of Canterbury. Though there are no coastal lowlands or evergreen flora, as in New Zealand, there is a great diversity of plant habitat. Sandwiched between Georgia to the north, and Azerbaijan to the east with the giants Turkey to the west and Iran to the south, Armenia straddles Asian and European plant habitats and this along with the influences of a temperate climate to the north and a Mediterranean climate to the south means it is caught in a rich botanical cross current, unlike New Zealand's farflung islands isolated in the south pacific ocean.
The dramatic landscapes of Armenia with its mountainous terrain and deep river valleys creates atmospheric mists and cloud formations. A haunting atmosphere which enhances the old mediaeval monasteries
still standing, despite past earthquakes, they remind one of the ancient roots of early christianity.
Now a fraction of it's original size and too often known for it's tragic past of invasion and genocide, Armenia was once one of the worlds oldest centres of civilisation. And the first country to practice christianity in the first century A.D., adopting it as the state religion in the fourth century. The role of the Armenian Apostolic Church has remained vital up to the present day even though it has always been surrounded by states where Islam was the dominating faith. Despite centuries of wars, oppression and persecution suffered in the name of Christianity, 94 percent of Armenians practice Christianity today.
As well as several different species of orchid to be found growing in grassy meadows and in the shelter of shrubby or wooded areas, there are also irises scattered across grassy hillsides and tucked in against rocks. There are many Iris species growing in different habitats, including the 2 varieties you see here - the blue/purple Iris paradoxa and the stunning purple/brown striped iris with distinctive spotted markings on the falls - Iris acutiloba ssp lineolata
There are also many other species, amongst them the pale yellow I. imbricata which is taller and similar to the garden variety of the flag or bearded Iris, and the ground hugging I. caucasica with its creamy flowers and golden yellow falls,
Such is Armenia today, a small jewel of a land between east and west, north and south full of the wonders of nature and botanical beauty.
What excitement when well-known English designer, commentator and writer on plants, Dr. Noel Kingsbury, accepted my invitation for he and his wife, Jo, to stay with me in my cottage during their visit to Christchurch in February.
Noel has been invited to lecture at the prestigious Australian Landscape Conference which is being held this year in Melbourne from 23 - 27 March. The subject of the conference 'Design with Nature' couldn't be more appropriate for Noel, who has always promoted an ecological or naturalistic approach to planting design, through the many articles and books he has written, some in conjunction with noted dutch plant designer, Piet Oudolf, who is responsible for the planting design of the famous High Line in New York. He has also co-authored books with Professor Nigel Dunnett, noted English ecologist and plant designer.
We saw for real, the perennial and grass meadows we had previously only read about and were inspired.
It was Noel and his wife Jo travelling each day with us, who we really became acquainted with. Despite our invitations for Noel and Jo to come and visit us in New Zealand, he was rather half-hearted, although there was a definite spark in Jo's eye.
Noel felt New Zealand was too far away, and wasn't the native flora -well - boring, with little floral content and virtually no perennial colour? All true we had to admit, but there are lots of other advantages we insisted - like the primeval quality of our native vegetation, and spectacular landscape. Was there a spark of warmth developing in Noels eye after all?
There must have been, because four years later here they are! For a whole month on their way to the Melbourne Conference, and Noel, in spite of past doubts, does seem interested in discovering native plant communities in New Zealand, despite the lack of native perennials.
Just as they begin their adventures, cyclone Gita which has been trawling around the South Pacific creating mayhem in it's wake, is about to hit central New Zealand. They will need to avoid central and western areas for a few days. to escape the worst of the cyclone, but I hope that eventually they will be able to head to the wild West Coast where hundreds of miles of some of the best of New Zealand native forests and plant communities can be found growing in the wild. We wish them well.
The tulips have long had their day along with other spring flowers, as well as early summer flowers and also the roses which are well over. My mini prairie garden is coming into it's own as summer perennials start to flower, rising up between the grasses. But dominant amongst these are the lily's, particularly the lily pictured above. I have no idea what it is called or what area of the lily family it comes from. All I know is that it is very tall and impressive, and it's the first time it has ever flowered like this with many multiple heads on a strong single stem.
The mid-summer mini-prairie in the front garden facing onto the street, is flourishing now with Crocosmia, Dahlias, Knifophia, orange Arctotis and a cluster of golden lily's peeping between the stems of grass, Stipa gigantea. These clumped lily's are a different variety from the multi-headed golden/apricot single stemmed lily pictured above/top.
It is also the season for Canna lily's which adds further splashes of colour to the high summer garden. There are more of these to flower yet in in the far corner against the trellis fence, and they are bright orange with striking yellow and green striped foliage, They are very much more raucous and 'out there' than the rather genteel soft pinkish apricot pictured here beside the Astelia chathamica 'Silver Spear'.
My last post was about planting bulbs - I think mainly tulip bulbs. Can I just say that those bulbs have long since flowered!! Amazingly, as for so long nothing happened, and even when a few green tips start to appear through the ground they seem so small and few - where are those 50 bulbs I planted? I despair thinking nothing will ever happen. But gradually the the green tips multiply and the foliage fills out and develops until the bare soil is almost covered with green. Eventually stems with buds rise up through the strong rosettes of foliage and I heave a sigh of relief after all that anxiety. Perhaps there will be tulips after all. And there are - just exactly what I had ordered - 100 'Temples Favourite' standing up huge, orange and blowsy on their long stems. But now that it is November they have long since gone and much of their foliage has died away too, and is fast being covered over with iris, day-lily, geum and other perennial foliage, so that there is practically no trace left of their flamboyance. l do try to protect and prolong their fading foliage where I can as this is what feeds the bulbs encouraging them to flower the following year.
I planted 100 tulip bulbs last week. 'At the end of June?' you might exclaim. 'Thats far too late?'
Not for me. I always plant my bulbs late, and they come up and flower in spring just like everybody elses.
My small prairie style garden is so thickly planted with perennials and grasses that even at bulb planting time in Autumn, it's impossible to see where there could be be spaces for any bulbs.
I must wait until this abundance has gone before I can see where to fit in bulbs. As I no longer do the big autumn clean up in order to appease my tidy mind, decaying foliage is allowed to linger through winter and the garden to die back in it's own time. I've grown to like a bit of messiness, and am learning to appreciate not only autumn seedheads but also the structure and shapes of last summers detritus. I merely snip away a little bit here and there when something looks too dreary - like frosted droopy Dahlia foliage. That way the winter clean up is a gradual process, which can last through to at least the shortest day or even spring.
While Dahlia foliage looks sad and droopy, the seedheads of the Lychnis chaledonica 'Maltese Cross' are golden and beautiful adding height to the garden on their tall bare stems. Canna lily foliage (see pic). too, adds height and structure to the fading garden with it's tan-brown crispy foliage. I shall enjoy that for a while yet before cutting it back.
In this garden behind the cottage I have planted together 25 'Ronaldo' which are a rich dark burgundy tulip and 25 Pink Diamond, a soft pale pink tulip which should complement the claret, pinks and blue colours of this garden.
I AM A GARDENER, GARDEN WRITER AND ARTIST. AFTER SEVERAL YEARS WRITING REGULARLY AS A COLUMNIST I HAVE MISSED WRITING ABOUT MY GARDEN, OTHER GARDENS AND GARDENS IN GENERAL FOR THE GARDEN PAGES OF THE PRESS SO HAVE RESOLVED TO SET UP MY OWN BLOG AND WEBSITE.