Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Eranthis, Crocus and Galanthus ‘Merlin’

Friday was a good day for the Aconites, glorious sunshine flexed their blooms, offering pollen ‘on a plate’ to the bees that hummed and buzzed; the most transient of scents cupped by the mild, still air. Winter Aconites can’t help but brighten a dour day; however a blue-skied, softly tempered day emblazoned by the sun is the stage on which they present their best performance.

The bees have also found the pollen of Crocus tommasinianus, my favourite Crocus, it’s elegant and delicate blooms belying the fact that it can elbow it’s way to the front and impress.

It can be seen in violet, mauve and lilac streaks along the edges and corners of borders, it’s such a good doer, seeding about and never minds being un-seasonally dug up and re-buried as part of the collateral damage of gardening throughout the year; in fact it seems to thrive on the anarchy. Crocus tommasinianus does; however throw up lots of grassy foliage after flowering that can get to the psyche of the gardener that likes control and order; but we just ‘graze’ it with our hands as soon as it starts to pull away without the corms coming with it, later in spring. I’d forgotten how impressive it is, not only in beds and borders; but in the lawns, where it’s seeded under the Lime Walk (only moss grows here) as well as between the gaps in nearby engineering brick paving.

Galanthus ‘Merlin’, a Snowdrop with an almost entirely green center, grows at the base of the wall, near the gate into the lane.

Thursday, 7 February 2019

It's not 'Goodbye', just 'See You Later'!

The 30th of January, last Wednesday, was my last day as Head Gardener of Barnsley House. It could have been an emotional affair; but I’d been through that in the three months and more leading up to the day, instead I cleaned the pond out and then spent the afternoon with the team feeding a bonfire. 

At the end of the day I took the keys back to reception and walked out of the garden, by the quickest route, it’s no good getting maudlin; I had the best of Barnsley House, for me, and it’s now time for someone else to have the same. I’ll still be in, a couple of days a month, and the odd event, for the next year, to help guide and steer; but Jen’ (the new Head Gardener, my Deputy the last two and a half years) will soon get on with it in her own way, as it should be.

A week before my final day, Barnsley House out-flanked me, putting on a surprise afternoon tea, attended by past team members, colleagues and villagers, I very nearly showed my emotional hand; but I put on my best poker face. 
A quick count now reveals more than twenty five people have passed through the potting shed, many becoming long-term friends. I inherited the team of Ann Farnsworth, Tony Verey and Mark Bayston (friends) which morphed into the present one of Jen’ Danbury, Tony Verey, Ralph Moore, Morgan James, Catherine Blissett, Ann Farnsworth and Anna Rose Critchley (more friends), the team’s grown with the hotel. Through the years wonderful individuals have made up the team, of these I chat on Sunday evenings to Chloe (moved back to Essex), walk dogs with Jo to catch up, attend all you can eat Asian buffets with Joff or have a couple of halves in the Village Pub with Brian. 
Barnsley House gave me a lifestyle most would envy and continues to do so, due to the people I’ve got to know. To have spent twenty years married to a garden and not get to know the wider community, then leave, would have been sad.

I have much to be grateful for from the garden at Barnsley House, from tending Mrs. Verey’s fire, talking with her about Oemleria and Whippets to working for Charles, who stressed that good gardening required art. 
I came to Barnsley House almost twenty years ago, an intricately woven four acres, part of an expansive tapestry covering thousands of acres, soon to become mine and the dogs’ playground. 
I love the garden at Barnsley House, it has been the pinnacle of my career; but life is finite and there are other challenges I want to meet. 
There’ll be no bunjee jumping and seeing the pyramids, just me being a little more creative, having more flexibility in my life for my own garden, daughters and getting dogs fitter; my employers have been very understanding. 
The trade-off is that I’ll never again have the relationship with Barnsley House that is the Head Gardener’s privilege, those magical moments of alchemical immersion into the flora, fauna, scent and birdsong of that moment, the pure magic of the garden; this dividend of the job will have to be given away.

Almost exactly thirty years ago I was sat at Heathrow (feeling a little like I do now), with my climbing kit, eyes scanning for someone I’d never met or seen; but had promised me eight weeks’ work as an arborist in Frankfurt. That evening I shared a room in a hostel with Simon from Slough and two middle-aged Turkish gentlemen that were to disapprove of my coming in late at night; but by the end of the eight weeks we shared beer and pistachios. I lived in the hostel for over a year and I remember the communities within the larger hostel community that it housed; one floor had Yugoslavian gentlemen, another floor Italian and another floor Turkish. Each floor had a communal kitchen and a very spacious communal loos, shower and washing area where each nationality had their own ‘pop-up’ barber shop on Saturday mornings. I was soon billeted on the Italian floor and I remember walking in to wash being greeted by the subtle nods of twinkly eyed older men with great moustaches in grey suits and collar-less shirts reading la stampa. The three years in all spent in Frankfurt was a great period in my life, meeting people I’d never get to meet otherwise, all from making a jump with a little risk attached and it was the same coming to Barnsley with it’s immediate and wider communities that I have become immersed in.

The garden at Barnsley House is the jewel in the crown that is the village and fields of Barnsley, this little bit of England, where  I’ll  bump into Davina along the Hairy Hedge or wave to Austin, a field away, as his quad races on to Turks Barn. 
For me magical moments will still be found in my own tiny garden, or with Whippets, a Cocker Spaniel and a recently acquired English Toy Terrier, I quite fancy getting some glossy black Racing Pigeons from Johnny May. 
I’ve said, many times, that when I arrived at Barnsley House I had a five year plan and after this the world would be my oyster; but I’ve found that plans are only useful for short term stability, they stop the mind wandering too much and keep you on track for the job in hand. 
Three different owners, over nineteen years of flux, produced an evolutionary career path that meant I didn’t really need to change jobs to get that dream post and it’s still the same now in that I can’t quite tear myself away, I’ll still have my input at Barnsley House; but as a consultant. This has been a long winded explanation of where we’re at and normal blog service will resume! To end on the subject of dream jobs, I think I may have just landed the perfect job as (volunteer) Environmental Assessor for Church Farm....... in Barnsley of course.

Alchemical  immersion, hare prints heading to Rooksmoor.

Monday, 21 January 2019

Garden Scent, Pruning the Juniper and the Scarecrow's Arms.

The Wintersweet has serendipitously wriggled and wiggled it’s way up the wall and put on a scented display outside the open window of suite 1. Normally grown as a shrub, previous gardeners have strategically turned a blind eye allowing it to chimney it’s way through Wisteria and Honeysuckle, to eventually proffer it’s sweet all spice perfume to the guests of suite 1. It was planted in about 1959 and by 1994 Mrs. Verey wrote how it had scaled the house wall. I’m always envious of January residents of this room as I look up at the house; but before I get this far, upon entering the garden from the lane, I’m arrested by the scent of Mahonia japonica Bealii Group.

Mahonia japonica bealii Group.
A prosaic name that doesn’t convey this shrub’s ability to fill it’s neighbourhood with the softest yet most potent intoxicating Lily of the Valley scent possible. Waxy lime washed sulphur yellow flowers adorn this architectural evergreen. Another scented shrub is the Christmas Box, Sarcoccocca confusa, with tiny and very inconspicuous flowers; but not many parts of the garden are without it's honey perfume, it grows very well in the limey soil of this area and loves the shelter of the old wall, where the scent can linger. 

One job, last week, was the annual styling of the Pfitzer Juniper in Bed 4. I call it styling due to the fact that we don't trim or shape it; but take out the longer growth back to shorter side growth, thereby reducing the overall size and volume of the shrub without it having a disciplined topiarized look about it. I think it's the layering technique that hairdressers talk about; although my head is more glabrous than hirsute! This Juniper has a naturally upswept form and Mrs. Verey took advantage, clearing the basal growth to create a table top, allowing plants such as Snowdrops to grow around it's feet. It also gives a uniquely quirky element of structure to this part of the garden and highlights the need for this slightly more relaxed, unfussy treatment that a good tight clip would never achieve, quintessential Barnsley gardening. 

In the Potager the scare crow had lost his straw arms and hands, Ralph came to the rescue by bundling together red Dogwood stems, absolute brainwave! Whilst discussing this anatomical rescue, the new mown hay perfume of nearby Sweet Woodruff, bruised by frost could be detected, a really unique scent that not many get to experience; a real treat that always makes me smile.

Scarecrow's new arms.

Friday, 28 December 2018

Seasonal Interest.

If ever there was a plant that represents the importance of seasonality in the garden at Barnsley House then Pulmonaria rubra 'Redstart' is it. A long term resident of Barnsley House, this unassuming Lungwort tirelessly flowers from just before Christmas and then well into spring, with rosy red flowers that sometimes, when young, look brick red.
Pulmonaria rubra 'Redstart'

The above picture was taken yesterday; but there are many other plants in the garden flowering; interestingly the Winter Aconites are yet to make an appearance. Here's a list of what's in flower:

Helleborus foetidus.

Helleborus orientalis, not many out yet; but the beginning of the season for this charming Cotswold garden favourite that comes in many colour forms. 

Galanthus elwesii

Chimonanthes praecox, sweetly scented Wintersweet.

Cyclamen coum, just starting to appear at the top of the drive and on the Lime Walk.

Mahonia japonica  Bealei Group, sulphur yellow flowers with a beautiful Lily of the Valley scent that carries well on the breeze.

Parrotia persica, the Persian Ironwood.

Galanthus 'Atkinsii', just poking it's heads up along the Winter and Laburnum Walks.

Sarcoccoca confusa, tiny honey scented flowers on the Christmas Box.

Galanthus 'Rodmarton', a tall double Snowdrop.


Vinca difformis, a prolific winter flowering Periwinkle.

In addition there are other interesting plants:

The red stems on top of the pleached Limes, Tilia platphyllus 'Rubra'.

Great evergreen leaves on the newly planted Acanthus mollis.

Polystichum setiferum 'Herrenhausen', a form of the Soft Shield Fern.

Polystichum aculeatum, the Hard Shield Fern.

An attractive yellow (Autumn coloured) Astrantia on the Winter Walk, a chance seedling, I think.

Sunday, 25 November 2018

Parsnips, Christmas, Voles, Mice and Guinea Pigs.

We grow a strip bed of Parsnips for Christmas; just a strip bed, they take up so much room and have a long season of growth, sitting around until the Christmas weeks. This week Morgan and I lifted the Parsnips and put them in trays of sand, ready for the festivities; they’d been there too long. The problem is that to leave any root crop in the ground, in the colder months; especially in the field is asking for trouble, it’s a banquet for voles. If you do leave them in the ground then it pays to give them a little regular attention, let the Voles know you’re about, remove old leaves, keep them weeded and generally fuss around them. Complacency will result in the shoulders of the roots hollowed out by the perfect chiselling of Voles, confident that they won’t be disturbed. We now have four large trays, heavy with Parsnips and coarse sand, in the polytunnel which is now consistently cold enough to keep them in suspended animation until roasting. However danger is not far away, as the tunnel and glasshouse are Woodmouse territory; a beautiful white bellied Mouse with large dark eyes and quite big ears, that likes Parsnips too; so fussing about is still part of our duties. To help the situation, our trays of Parsnips are placed on some staging that is isolated from other benching so that if they are to be successfully raided, it would take an SAS style mission by these mice.
Photo, Morgan James.
The variety of Parsnip we grew this year is ‘Gladiator’, the world’s first hybrid  Parsnip, a variety familiar to me as it was one commonly found in the Gatenby vegetable garden of the 80’s, chosen due to it’s resistance to the disease canker. This morning was frosty; but the rising sun turned the paths of the vegetable bed into oozy mud making the harvest a little sticky; however we didn’t wash the roots. When preparing to store, washing the roots of any root vegetable seriously shortens it’s shelf life, rub the thick off for practicality’s sake; but don’t wash. Put them in paper sacks, trays of sand or compost and keep them frost fee; but cool. From about 1977 until 1985 I used to visit the fruit and vegetable wholesaler in Middlesbrough, very early on Saturday mornings in winter, to collect a large paper sack of carrots. The unwashed carrots keeping, unbelievably, so much longer than the washed ones. Why would a teenager need so many carrots? To feed my Guinea Pigs, another root loving rodent.

Tuesday, 6 November 2018


Gingko near the Potager.
It's pointed out many times that gathering leaves is a tedious business; but I like to think of it as a harvest  of a valuable resource. Leaf mould is a valuable commodity, quite often under-rated these days; but here we love it, so much so that we even accept extra loads from the Dower House at the other end of the village when it's generously offered by Howard. There's a tradition in the garden of mulching beds with it after the autumn/winter bed work, sometimes it's a luxury ingredient of our compost and our Hepaticas love a dressing of it.

Cotinus 'Grace' on the Broad Border path.
You must tell yourself, whilst it's raining leaves when you're clearing them away that you're making an improvement..."what would the place look like if you hadn't cleared them?". Wind loosens the leaves and places them in an informal order of drifts, lines and eddys; a calm frosty night results in an in-discriminate blanket of leaves. My favourite view of fallen autumnal leaves is immediately post clear-up, when a light leaf confetti garnishes a path or mirrors the tree that dropped them.

Sorbus 'Joseph Rock' on the Broad Border path.

These photographs were taken by Morgan James, a member of the garden team.

Wednesday, 17 October 2018


Galanthus reginae olgae  in the Broad Border this week.

";but if anyone should have so perverted a taste as to desire the sight of a Snowdrop in Autumn, there is Galanthus olgae, which comes from Mount Taygetes, near Sparta, and flowers in October". (Sackville-West, V. 1968). So wrote Vita Sackville-West in 'GARDEN BOOK', twelve, monthly, chapters gleaned from her contributions to The Observer. The unofficial precursor to Mrs Verey's 'A Country Woman's Notes', published in 1989, and taken from her writing in Country Life.