Square One

Of Snowdrops and Other Things

February 2, 2020

Chaenomeles on a frosty January morning (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Chaenomeles on a frosty January morning

It’s that moment in early spring when bulbs and perennials begin poking their heads through the cold soil, reaching for the faint warmth of fragile winter sunlight, that sustains gardeners and non-gardeners alike through the last dreary weeks of winter.  


To gardeners, it is as though old friends are returning from a necessary absence; daffs there, pink bergenias here, and crocus around the corner.  Here at Denmans Garden, the bluebells are already showing their leaves, forget-me-nots are rampant, and the odd (very odd!) perennial is already blooming – a light coral watsonia near the Conservatory, a too-early blue Anemone de Caen at the base of a birch tree.  


Winter shrubs are blooming everywhere and the fragrance of the sarcacocca and daphnes is literally breath-taking. The early camellias, chaenomeles, and Winter Sweet (chimonanthus praecox), to name a few, are in full swing.  

Winter Aconites bloom under the dawn Redwood (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Winter Aconites bloom under the dawn Redwood

The garden, gently blooming, is enchanting despite the gray, drizzly skies.


This year we’ve also had the extraordinary pleasure of discovering a host of bulbs that are coming up in places we didn’t plant them and where we have never seen them before.  It’s like magic.


It’s not really magic.  The bulbs, predominantly snowdrops (Galanthus), have been here for years – decades, really.  We deduce this because John Brookes MBE, the great British landscape designer whose home Denmans was for nearly 40 years, didn’t like snowdrops and wouldn’t plant them.  He complained with a faux-shiver that they looked too cold and stark-white in the barren winter landscape.  He preferred the cheery brightness of lemony winter aconites (Eranthis hymealis) and early narcissus instead. 


Consequently, in the past two weeks Denmans has been liberated from the dullness of January’s damp gloom by his beloved sunny yellow drifts of aconites that have burst into bloom.  They are rampant.  The daffodils are also just starting and the crocus are definitely out.   


But back to the snowdrops.  

Pink bergenias don't mind the dreary winter days (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Pink bergenias don't mind the dreary winter days


John’s predecessor and the woman who started the garden and lived here for 50 years was Joyce Robinson (1903-1994).  A brilliant self-taught horticulturist, she loved snowdrops.  Indeed, the love for snowdrops seems to be part of the British DNA:  The nation of gardeners is also a nation of “galanthophiles”, John’s shivers notwithstanding.


We know Joyce planted snowdrops because she’s writes about them in her book about Denmans, Glorious Disarray (1990).  Ever pre-occupied by the beauty of a winter garden, she nevertheless cautions her readers not to get carried away by planting too many bulbs, making the garden “look rather too busy.  But let there be golden daffodils to welcome you at Eastertide and snowdrops by the seat under the fig tree’’.

Snowdrops by the pond at Denmans Garden (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Snowdrops by the pond at Denmans Garden

As we have been restoring the garden for the past couple of years, systematically cutting back long-overgrown shrubs and clearing endless colonies of weeds, these intrepid little white flowers have begun to poke up in places she planted them and where they have naturalized.  Despite being buried beneath fallen leaves and hidden by ground elder and the shadow of overgrown trees and bushes, they have amazingly endured.


We joyfully discovered a drift of snowdrops last year by the pond and and another small group near Clock House.  This year their straight green leaves and white, bell-shaped flowers are appearing in tentative drifts near the Cottage and the Nut Walk, nestled artistically among beautiful pink and white hellebores and cyclamen.  There are even a few among the aconites.  We take enormous pleasure from each clump we discover and greedily search for others, amazed that they have survived decades of neglect.

And so, despite the endless rain and mist and drizzle of the past few months here in Sussex, allegedly the sunniest part of England, spring has arrived at Denmans.  We are blissfully welcoming our old friends back as gardeners do and jubilantly revelling in those we are seeing for the first time.  It really is magic.  


For more information, visit Denmans Garden.


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A Perfect Garden Set

August 28, 2017

It’s not often you get an invitation to help paint a set for an amateur theatrical production.  It’s even less so when the set that needs painting is in Wales, so when I a friend asked me to lend a hand, I readily agreed. 

The drive from London through the beautiful midsummer countryside took us past Stonehenge and endless fields of gentle golds and greens punctuated with dark green hedge rows and dotted, occasionally, with sheep or cattle.  A typical English summer, the skies varied from partly cloudy to dark and somewhat threatening with an intermittent squall.  All to be expected.

What I did not expect was that the set we were working on was temporarily warehoused in the set designer’s newly-built gorgeous stone garage across from a similarly gorgeous stone Victorian house, situated in a heart-shaped nine-acre garden.  To be fair, I had been promised garden, badger hide, and stunning accommodation but I was still surprised.  It completely exceeded expectation.

It was impossible not to fall in love with the place and its welcoming creative owners, Mr. and Mrs. O.  To begin with, there was a walled courtyard the size of a large Georgetown garden.  Paved in the local gray stone (so no mowing or maintenance issues), roses and clematis spilled over top of the wall suggesting lush plantings beyond, and pots of herbs, perennials, and annuals adorned its interior where a table and chairs promised a quiet meal. A water rill ran through it, waiting (until the next day, as it happened) for sun to activate its solar-powered fountain. 

Heading south. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Heading south.

As you crossed the courtyard from the car park to the archway leading to the garden you knew in what direction you were heading thanks to the graceful stone letters, “S” and “N”, leaning theatrically at either end of the space.  The letters are left over from a project which the owner’s company had completed for a client.  Lacecap hydrangeas brightened the stone walls through the archway and clipped into an old beech hedge across the lawn surrounded by a diversity of shrubs and trees another archway beckoned.   Judging by their size, some of the surrounding trees could easily date back to the 1870’s when the house was built. 

A quick peek through the hedge at the veg and perennial gardens where verbenas and daisies were in full glorious bloom, and then to work, enchanted and armed with paint brushes and gallon cans of paint.  I didn’t want a lot of drama about my slacking off -- I was there to work, after all, not to dawdle over lilies and roses. We spent a productive and amusing afternoon working on the set (discussions of trap doors and set changes all being well above my paygrade) before a thorough garden tour was offered and readily accepted. 

It began at the owner-designed pond.  Mr. O delivered an enthusiastic and colorful soliloquy about the property’s history as Mrs. O fed the resident goldfish but I was distracted by the fantastic diversity of textures, forms, and colors surrounding us. 

A light pink knotweed growing near the pond. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) A light pink knotweed growing near the pond.

A healthy and robust planting of light pink knotweed, (Persicaria campenulata) had caught my eye first.  It is a Himalayan native that is semi-evergreen and grows waist-high in either full sun or partial shade in lovely great clumps.  Thought it doesn’t tolerate drought, it’s a tough plant that looks lovely in winter and blooms for weeks in mid- to late summer with sprays of tiny whitish flowers and pink orbital buds. I’ve never seen this perennial before and it was love-at-first-sight.

Evening primrose growing through dark pink mountain fleece. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Evening primrose growing through dark pink mountain fleece.

It’s cousin, mountain fleece (Persicaria amplexicaulis), an old favorite,was blooming prolifically on the opposite bank.  I have always adored its tiny,dark cerise flowers arrayed at the tip of a long stem – they look like tiny bright lipstick colored bottle brushes. Egg-yolk colored evening primrose (Oenethera) and the quickly spreading lemony circle flower (Lysmachia coronaria) grew through the mountain fleece in a cheering color combination that defiantly proclaimed summer, in spite of steel-gray skies overhead.

Butterbur has been planted to prevent erosion. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Butterbur has been planted to prevent erosion.

I loved how this collection of wispy delicate perennials contrasted with the enormous leaves of adjacent butterbur (Petasites). Though I have seen it growing in a Georgetown garden, I always associate butterbur, a European native, with waterways and ponds. This planting, about 100 feet long and 3 feet high, had been installed to prevent erosion, but looked perfectly natural.   It’s leaves usually seem oversized, but these were dramatically dwarfed by the larger-than-life leaves of a lofty gunnera that punctuated the end of the pond next to a little deck.  I have only ever seen these growing in arboreta, so it was exciting to see a stand so well-placed in an actual garden, its leaves floating 10 feet overhead and shading the path that ran below the pond.  Walking beneath them and looking up felt like I was on set in a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and I half expected fairies to peer out from beyond the gunnera’s thick, thorny stalks.

Feeling dwarfed by the huge stalks and leaves of gunners. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Feeling dwarfed by the huge stalks and leaves of gunners.

We continued our walk through the grounds, enjoying views of the hills beyond and of meadows where sheep were peacefully grazing.  We sat briefly in the badger hide, a beautifully crafted hut perched on what were once the legs of a formidable snooker table, walked through an orchard with aged plums, apples, and cherries, through woodland and meadow, and finally ambled up a drive that was once frequented by horse drawn carriages that inevitably yielded, in time, to new-fangled automobiles.

As we returned to the house for drinks, we paid homage to an enormous conifer with a massive girth that reminded me of trees in the old-growth forests in Western Washington where I grew up.  The owners weren’t certain of its species, but after sending a photo of its foliage and cones to the Royal Horticultural Society we were told by RHS senior botanist Neil Lancaster that it may well be a “Thuja plicata, a large-growing, evergreen species native to western North America. It is an important timber tree, being the source of the “western red cedar”, much used where weatherproof timber is required.”  The western red cedar was introduced to the UK in the 1850’s as a timber tree and can grow up to 5 meters in diameter.  The oldest specimens are estimated to be hundreds of years old and it seemed very likely that this one was well over 100 years of age.

The great Western red cedar on the property surely dates back to the 1870's (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) The great Western red cedar on the property surely dates back to the 1870's

As I walked through this gorgeous garden, I felt like I was walking from one beautifully designed set to the next.  Although Mr. and Mrs. O are not garden designers, they definitely have a designers’ eye and green thumbs, and their garden shows it.  In all, the garden and its setting – and Mr. and Mrs. O's generous hospitality - were perfect: A stunning combination of gracious grounds belonging to an age where garden labor was still affordable, and modern comforts and plantings, all nestled into a landscape that has been cultivated for over a thousand years. A perfect place to be working on a theatre set with friends.  It was hard to leave.

Did I mention the show, “Dick Barton, Special Agent” is on this week? It’s being presented by Red Herring Theatre in association with Span Arts at Manorbier Castle near Tenby, Wales. If you are in the area, you won’t want to miss it.   Bring a blanket and a chair!  

Check out https://span-arts.ticketsolve.com/ for tickets...






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The State of the Union

January 30, 2017

Chartreuse euphorbia are perfectly combined with fuchsia penstemons. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Chartreuse euphorbia are perfectly combined with fuchsia penstemons.

It’s that time of year again when the garden’s drab greens and browns are more than a little depressing.  Ornamental cabbages and pansies are tired and worn looking, and most evergreens seem as though they are gasping for a warming sun and longer days. A sad state of affairs.  A little like the state of the union?  Perhaps it’s best to leave sleeping dogs lie.

Garden catalogues and magazines are somewhat cheering but this year they are not enough to get me out of a mid-winter funk.  Playing hooky from obligations and chores, I found myself flipping through my garden photos instead, trying to find the most colorful garden I’ve photographed in the last year.

I knew what I was looking for so it didn’t take long to find it.  It was an award-winning exhibition garden I saw at the Chelsea Garden Show last May built by the Irish garden designer, Diarmuid Gavin.  Sponsored by Harrods, his design was quirky, even gimmicky as the garden was populated with topiary that, every fifteen minutes, began to rise, twirl and bob, lifted by unseen levers and computerized pulleys, as a pair of mechanized pruners seemed to sheer a revolving tree.  Adding to the visual cacophony of moving parts was an actual band playing an English folk song. 

Chartreuse euphorbia are perfectly combined with fuchsia penstemons. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Chartreuse euphorbia are perfectly combined with fuchsia penstemons.

The special effects were not what I found memorable, however.  What stuck in my mind was Gavin’s bold color choices and textures.

In theory, there were two planting schemes though one seemed to flow into the other.  The first included white, orange, chartreuse, pink, and yellow perennials interspersed by clipped boxwoods – and the dancing topiary.  I especially loved the way the plumy orange-creamsicle colored foxtail lilies (Eremus ruiter “Pinocchio”) punctuated the beds as they stood just above many of the surrounding flowers.  With good sun exposure and well-drained soil these tall, elegant, spring-blooming perennials are supposedly easy to grow and will even naturalize.   Even better, they also come in white, soft pink, and a sweet soft yellow.

A cheering, if somewhat gaudy color combination. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) A cheering, if somewhat gaudy color combination.

I also loved a more classic fusion of chartreuse euphorbias with fuchsia beardtongue (Penstemon “Garnet”).  Penstemons are native to the US and thrive in full sun and medium dry soil.  They also attract bees and hummingbirds and bloom from summer to fall.  They wouldn’t normally bloom at the same times as foxtail lilies, but it’s Chelsea, where a little artistic license, like combining spring and summer blooming perennials, is a good thing.

Gavin’s second planting scheme was stronger still – a combination of sapphire blues, rosy pinks, regal purples, cerise reds, and lemony yellows.  It sounds gaudy and so it was, but tasteful just the same.  Combining red and blue salvias with pink shrub roses is a trick that I’m not sure I could pull off but somehow it worked in this eccentric garden.

Looking at my photos was definitely cheering.  It’s hard to look at pleasing images and stay somber but the question remained:   How to make my garden colorful enough in deep winter to avoid these mid-winter blues? 

Mahonia's yellow flowers will brighten any garden. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Mahonia's yellow flowers will brighten any garden.

As it happens, my garden has become quite shady over the past couple of years, presenting me with an opportunity to replace roses and other plants that no longer bloom with plants that make winter seem brighter and still complement summer flowers.  I’ve long wanted to plant Oregon grape-holly (Mahonia aquifolium), a plant I grew up with in the Pacific Northwest.  It’s sharp, spikey dark green leaves will serve as a contrast to my camellias and ivy, and its late-winter racemes of small round cadmium yellow flowers will brighten any winter day.  The blue berries that follow won’t be especially noticeable, but they will nourish birds like the cedar waxwing.

Variegated green and yellow leaves would look great with crocuses and snow drops. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Variegated green and yellow leaves would look great with crocuses and snow drops.

The mahonia’s flowers will look especially good with the variegated euphorbias (Euphorbia x martini) I planted last summer because their cheery narrow leaves are edged with creamy gold and tinged with just a hint of copper.  I really love this euphorbia because constantly catches my eye.  I didn’t plant enough of it, however, so I think I’ll planted a good deal more.  I have a feeling that they could be stunning if combined with purple crocuses and crisp, white snow-drops and I’m looking forward to their lime green flowers in late spring.

And my final addition will probably be winter daphne (Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’).  

Daphne's blossoms perfume the late winter air. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Daphne's blossoms perfume the late winter air.

Its leaves are also tinged with a creamy yellow and will complement both the yellow mahonia and euphorbia.  It’s small clusters of tiny rose-colored flowers, which emerge in early spring, are deliciously fragrant which is another reason to plant them – there is nothing like it’s perfume on a warm early spring day.  Unfortunately, daphnes are notoriously fussy, but it’s worth the effort of trying to make them happy by keeping them moist but not wet, and making sure they are sufficiently mulched and kept out of full sun.

Variegated leaves, of course, fall far short of the color feast in the Gavin’s display garden, but will improve the looks of my winter garden significantly and should help minimize those winter blues. 

If only fixing the state of our union was as simple ...  



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