A day in the life of... Gardens, Weeds & Words

To The Walled Nursery in Hawkhurst on a baking Sunday afternoon. Someone forgot to send the weather the memo that this is England, and it’s supposed to be chucking it down every August bank holiday weekend. People caught up with, and plants bought. 

Read More

Orange is the happiest colour

According to Frank Sinatra, orange is the happiest of colours, but while Ol’ Blue Eyes may have loved to be surrounded by it in his garden, orange is a something of a departure for me. This summer I've found myself embracing orange with an ardour suggestive of a wish to make up for lost time.

Read More

Forever Freefolk

In a departure from the norm on this blog, I’m publishing a post about a garden I’ve yet to visit. In this case, there’s an excellent reason – it hasn’t been built yet. Work on Rosy Hardy’s first show garden at Chelsea began last week, and I’m delighted to be part of the team who will be planting it up once the contractors have completed the heavy construction work. Until then, I’m taking the opportunity to find out as much as possible about the design concept, and to hear Rosy’s thoughts on moving out of the Great Pavillion and onto Main Avenue.

Rosy didn’t have to look far when it came to deciding upon a concept for Forever Freefolk, her show garden for Brewin Dolphin at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Inspiration lies all around the award winning nursery which she and husband Rob have been running since first setting it up in their back garden 25 years ago. Located in the heart of the Hampshire countryside and within walking distance of the River Test, today Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants occupies a 13-acre portion of that chalk landscape that stretches from Dorset, across South East England, beneath the Channel to France, and northward into Norfolk. 

The inspiration

This is Watership Down country – the local pub in the village of Freefolk has been renamed in honour of the much-loved book by local author Richard Adams – renowned for its rolling green hills, close cropped pastures and crystal clear streams. These chalk streams provide a unique environment, home to iconic species such as otters, water voles, salmon and brown trout, and it's this biodiversity, coupled with the vulnerability of fragile habitats in the most populous region of the country, that has led WWF to a declare that Britain's chalk streams “are our rainforests”, with all the incumbent responsibility that confers upon us for their conservation.

Rosy presents her design for Brewin Dolphin’s sixth RHS Chelsea Flower Show garden to the gardening media

Rosy presents her design for Brewin Dolphin’s sixth RHS Chelsea Flower Show garden to the gardening media

The design

Rosy’s design for the show garden on main avenue references one of the starkest possible outcomes: dried up stream as a result of excessive water extraction represented by an area of gravel planting traversed by stepping stones constructed from flint-filled gabions. There’s certainly an element of cautionary tale, but the garden overall is more a celebration of both the natural landscape and the manner in which we interact with it. 

“While the main concept informing the design is the chalk stream, the garden also draws upon the flora of the chalk downlands, our local industrial heritage and its effects on the area,” says Rosy, pointing out how the silver path that meanders through the space represents the metal security thread to be found in the banknotes made from locally milled paper. From one local industry, set up by Huguenot refugee workers in the eighteenth century, to another, and a photograph of a fishermen’s hut from which a raised walkway over the river leads to a series of eel traps. 

“This image gave rise not only to the floating aspect of the pathway, but also to the structure that I wanted hovering above the space.” Seeing as this is Chelsea, something a little more high concept than a shed on stilts is called for, so for the design of the structure, Rosy turned again to the chalk bedrock of Hampshire, only this time at a microscopic level. The chalk itself, laid down in the warm, shallow seas over millions of years during the Cretaceous period, is made up of elaborate structures formed from the skeletal remains of microscopic marine plankton, or coccolithophores .

The garden building

The characteristic geometric shape of these tiny fossilised creatures has been used as the basic building block for the frame of the garden building – the ‘Coccosphere’ – an elegant sculpture constructed from cast aluminium.

The 'Coccosphere', newly erected on site at Chelsea

The 'Coccosphere', newly erected on site at Chelsea

The plants

There are four planting zones in all: shade, dry, damp with part shade and lush damp. Rather than slavishly recreating the planting communities of the calcerous grasslands, Rosy has drawn inspiration from the flora of her local chalk downland landscape, using a palette of soft pastel colours in the dry gravel bed, with deeper, more saturated hues in the wetter zones. Yellow tones will also run through the garden, with plants such as the marsh marigold Caltha palustris and Achillea 'Moonshine' bouncing golden light about.

Of course, this is a perfect opportunity to introduce new hardy perennial cultivars, and four new plants will be making their debut: a compact catmint, Nepeta x faassenii ‘Crystal Cloud’, the white thistle Cirsium rivulare ‘Frosted Magic’, pale blue Veronica ‘Mountain Breeze’ and the appropriately named pink gaura with red foliage, Gaura ‘Rosy Shimmers'.

Gaura  ‘Rosy Shimmers'

Gaura ‘Rosy Shimmers'

Veronica  ‘Mountain Breeze’

Veronica ‘Mountain Breeze’

Cirsium rivulare  ‘Frosted Magic’

Cirsium rivulare ‘Frosted Magic’

Nepeta  x  faassenii  ‘Crystal Cloud’

Nepeta x faassenii ‘Crystal Cloud’

With such a wealth of information and expertise packed into every element of this garden, it’s hard not to see this project as yet another out working of an impulse to share knowledge and enthusiasm, for both plants the environments in which they thrive. “I love trying to educate people in plants and how they can be used in the garden”, admits Rosy, when I quiz her about this aspect. It’s that passion and generosity of spirit that shines through, and is sure to make this garden one of the highlights of Chelsea 2016.

Plant shopping

One of the many things I love about my job is that I get to buy an awful lot more plants than would be the case were I buying solely for my own garden. I may not benefit from seeing these plants growing to maturity in the beds and borders at home – at least, that’s not the idea – but it does nevertheless give me the opportunity to indulge in regular bouts of horticultural retail therapy. Tax deductable, to boot. This isn’t the first time I’ve shared with you the contents of my shopping basket through the blog, and it’s reasonable to assume it won’t be the last. Plant porn might be entirely innocent, but it surely seems addictive.

To Hassocks this afternoon, keen to see how Ed and Josie are getting on at Garden Sage now the larger plants are in place (you can read about this new nursery in West Sussex here). I’d been impressed with the display on my first visit, but it’s amazing what a difference the addition of the upper story of mature trees and shrubs makes within the polytunnels! There’s been a fair amount of rejigging, Josie told me, as several of the larger specimens have already been sold and delivered to customers – not bad going for a business in its first month.

But I was here for something considerably more modest. With an eye to the coming season, one of my clients had made mention of lupins – something which simultaneously gladdened my heart and caused a feeling of slight despair – the former as I love both the exuberant flower spikes and the tiers of whorled foliage (particularly when accessorised by a drop of dew at the centre of the palmate leaf), and the latter because the garden in question is the very front line of a battle fought with ravening rabbits, excavating badgers and voracious slugs. Still, if we play it safe in such locations we’d have to put up with a garden of euonymus, choysia and the smellier of the hardy geraniums which even the rabbits won’t touch, and one of the reasons I was brought in was to move away from that. Lupins it is then, even if we have to cage them for the first few weeks, and scatter non-metaldehide slug pellets about (coffee grounds have been suggested as an alternative, which is an excellent idea, although I don’t drink enough of the stuff, and have yet to find a friendly cafe that will donate their leftovers. Watch this space, though.).

I bagged a  selection consisting of the white 'Noble Maiden', which I’ve grown before, the pink and white 'The Chatelaine', and blue and white 'The Governor' (surely the London cabbie’s favourite plant). They’re all part of the 'Band of Nobles' series of Lupinus x russelli, bred by lupin supremo George Russell in the middle of the last century and possessing the RHS Award of Garden Merit. Nurse them through the early vulnerable stages by keeping the beasties at bay, and you’ll be rewarded with an impressive presence in the border, reaching 90 to 120 cm in height.

Lupins in the 'Band of Nobles' series

Lupins in the 'Band of Nobles' series

The lupins were the reason for my shopping trip. But, of course, I was waylaid but something else, and couldn't avoid taking home with me these beautiful hellebores. Helleborus x sternii - creamy green flowers with a grape red blush to the back of the petals, quite breathtaking in groups, though to be honest these three will probably be split up and integrated into mixed hellebore plantings in different sites, even though it's tempting to keep them for myself! 

Helleborus  x  sternii

Helleborus x sternii

And finally, as I was about to leave, Ed thrust this spectacular trillium at me as a ‘thank you’ for helping unload the big Italian plant order a few weeks back. Fair payment indeed. This is Trilium kurabayashi 'Ruby Realm' – a very Ed plant, hailing as it does from Oregon, where Mr Nugent spent part of his horticultural apprenticeship. My biggest concern is keeping the plant slug and snail free while it gains the necessary strength to see of the hungry blighters. I’d best get on to the local coffee houses.

Trillium kurabayashi

Trillium kurabayashi


The Garden Sage

Last weekend, Ed and Josie Nugent turned a long-held dream into reality with the launch of Garden Sage Nurseries, a new nursery in Hassocks, East Sussex. I may have missed the grand opening, but I was keen to visit, and they soon had me lending a hand.
The Garden Sage

A new horticultural venture is a cause for celebration in itself, but doubly so when you happen to know that the venture in question has been rattling around inside your friend’s head for some time. Ed had mentioned Garden Sage to me in passing several years ago, initially as an idea for a service offering gardening advice and assistance that would be flexible enough to allow Josie to work it around caring for their young family, with Ed helping out whenever his duties as plant manager for a local garden centre would allow. That the concept has touched down as a fully fledged nursery in its own right comes as no surprise when you consider the couple’s combined 42 plus years of experience, Ed’s spent latterly in horticultural retail, and Josie's as a landscape gardener in London, and then senior gardener at the National Trust’s Scotney Castle in Kent.

Ed unloading a delivery of trees and shrubs

Ed unloading a delivery of trees and shrubs

I arrived just in time to witness the unloading of a huge lorry full of mature trees and shrubs. Not your run of the mill stuff either, beautiful Malus 'Evereste', huge pleached hornbeams, and shapely standard wisterias, to name but three. Ed’s honed his eye for fabulous topiary and expertly-trained trees over the years as he’s visited many a European grower, so it should be no surprise to see such wonders arriving here, though it might seem wondrous to some to encounter specimens of this quality on a commercial unit off the A293. Just one more reason to visit.

Josie and Ed will deliver these monster plants to your address, but there’s plenty of smaller fare should you want to drive away with something for your garden. As the temperature steadily rises over the coming weeks, the scent of sarcococcas will be replaced by the fragrance wafting from the benches of Mediterranean subshrubs, the lavenders, rosemarys, but if you’re after something a little different, you could snag yourself some Antipodean charm with Grevillea victoriae, a tough, low maintenance relative of the proteas, with silver-grey leaves, and clusters of red flowers in summer. “It’s a great one for catching out my students on plant IDs” says Ed. “The leaves look a bit like brachyglottis/senecio, but then you get these crazy red flowers.”

Silver grey leaves of  Grevillea victoriae

Silver grey leaves of Grevillea victoriae

Benches of lavenders and Mediterranean subshrubs

Benches of lavenders and Mediterranean subshrubs

Back outside, where the shrubs share a space with the larger trees and trained fruit, I spied another ideal plant for bringing some colour to the back garden. Very probably we’re all a bit tired of that landscaper’s favourite, Photinia x fraseri 'Red Robin', but it's smaller cousin, 'Little Red Robin', is relatively unused and, to my mind at least, presents a far more charming prospect.

Photinia  x  fraseri  'Little Red Robin' with it’s red flushed new growth

Photinia x fraseri 'Little Red Robin' with it’s red flushed new growth

Growing to no more than 3 feet in height, it exhibits the same flame red colouring on the new leaves as its larger relation, but the foliage as well as the plant, is much more compact and delicate. It will tolerate hard clipping, ideal for a hedge, or even topiary. I’m desperate to see it planted somewhere with Nandina 'Flirt', so desperate that I’ll probably have to do it myself, just as soon as I can find an appropriate location for a black, dark green and red colour scheme.

Ed explains to me how he and Josie are aiming to create a nursery with a difference. “So often, when you succeed in tracking down something a little out of the ordinary, you come home with a couple of sticks in a 9cm pot, but you often need a fair bit of skill and know-how to nurture a plant at that stage through to maturity. We want to present customers with interesting plants that they may not have come across, but in more usable sizes, to give what they buy the best chance of survival.” Presumably, then, this means there are plans to do a lot of growing on. “Absolutely. I’m in the process of assembling a rather posh Cambridge glasshouse for that purpose, and we have the option to expand into the tunnels behind the current nursery plot. Eventually at least fifty percent of the stock will be grown on site.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly given Ed’s background, there’s a real understanding of the retail experience here, no more so in evidence than in cafe space, where you can find the most excellent coffee. Here customers will be able to take a break, mull over their prospective plant purchases and discuss their gardening requirements with Josie or Ed in a comfortable setting. “We also wanted to provide a space in which landscapers and designers would feel happy to bring their clients, where they could discuss their plans with the plants in front of them, and where we’d be on hand should they want to talk through alternative solutions, or the finer points of sourcing something particularly special.”

It’s early days yet, but you can feel the excitement in the air at The Garden Sage. I drove out of the car park feeling energised with a huge smile on my face – which may have been attributable to the triple espresso I’d had from the coffee maker. But I think it’s more likely a result of seeing a gardening dream become a reality, and the prospect of everything to come.

A cheery sign greeting the first customers

A cheery sign greeting the first customers

Who can resist a monkey puzzle?

Who can resist a monkey puzzle?

Having bought from Ed many times over the years, I can testify that his stock is always in tip top condition

Having bought from Ed many times over the years, I can testify that his stock is always in tip top condition

Josie, doing all the heavy work

Josie, doing all the heavy work


Garden Sage
London Road
Hassocks, BN6 9NA

Opening hours
Mon - Sat: 8:00am - 5:00pm
Sun: 11:00am - 5:00pm