Great Comp Autumn Extravaganza

Sunday saw me driving the few short miles to the gardens of Great Comp for the aptly named Autumn Extravaganza. Having been at Great Dixter the weekend before, October is shaping up to be a month of great gardens and gardening events, and we’re not even half way through.

I arrived in bright sunshine to find the borders in their full late-summer glory, grasses and perennials having filled out and drawn themselves up to their full stature, and giving every impression of returning the admiring glances of the visitors with something approaching condescension, arising from a pride in the knowledge that this, of all moments in the year, is the moment in which they look their absolute best. I think we can allow the contents of the borders their lofty attitude; they look very fine indeed.

On to the plants. A goodly selection of specialist nurseries, although I had the impression that there were fewer than at the Spring Fling. Sufficient in number to provide temptation to a gardener with a roving eye, however.

I was half hoping to track down my unicorn, a plant that I’ve been after all year since one of my clients saw it in the prairie gardens at Wisley. I’d seen a few diminutive pots of the Arkansas bluestar, Amsonia hubrichtii, at Dixter last weekend but, having left my wallet at home, I was saved from having to buy the things – something of which I was quite glad, not having been entirely confident of my ability to see the tiddlers through the winter. Amsonia seems to be growing in popularity – a mainly North American relative of the periwinkle, although not sharing the vinca’s slovenly posture it bears its light blue, star-shaped flowers in early summer on upright stems. It hasn’t been hard to get hold of Amsonia tabernaemontana, and I spied A. ciliata on the stand of Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants at Chelsea earlier in the year (Rob and Rosy stock several species, I’ve subsequently found).

But Hubricht’s bluestar has much thinner, needle-like leaves, and in autumn, it does this...

Amsonia hubrichtii in full autumn colour
...giving the impression of the original Old Testament burning bush. I’ve learned from badgering various people that it does take a good while to bulk up, and had resigned myself to having to wait till next year. So you can imagine my joy to find that Paul Barney of Edulis, had brought several decent sized specimens with him. Those were coming home with me.

Today’s offerings, as you might expect from a plant fair in October, were distinctly shrubby, with the odd climber or tree thrown in for good measure. You might think this would be boring but, in that opinion, you’d be wrong.

I’m always a bit of a sucker for an attractive ilex, and the prickly pineapple holly, Ilex aquifolium 'Myrtifolia' bears perfectly formed, glossy green leaves about an 3cm long by 1cm wide, bristling with spines. It’s a neat, compact specimen, with the young shoots exhibiting a slight purplish tinge.

Ilex aquifolium 'Myrtifolia'
This next plant might quicken the pulse of even the most hardened hater of the ubiquitous evergreen euonymus. Euonymus fortunei 'Wolong Ghost' can be used as a mat-forming ground cover, or trained as a climber. It has thin, deep green glossy leaaves, with a prominent white mid-rib and veins, together with the usual pink spindleberry winged fruit.

Euonymus fortunei 'Wolong Ghost'
Now, writing about what I saw at the weekend, I wish I’d bought them all! But one plant that did come home with me is a variety of something very familiar, in the guise of something completely alien. If I hadn’t read the label, I’d never for a moment have believed this to be a cultivar of the wonderfully scented Confederate jasmine. This is Trachelospermum jasminoides 'Water Wheel', its deep blue-green leaves now having taken on the autumnal purple tint, although the silvery midrib still evident. The flowers are present in summer, although small.

Trachelospermum jasminoides 'Waterwheel'
Continuing the oddly narrow leaved theme of the day, this version of the alder buckthorn was new to me. Frangula alnus 'Fine Line', a deciduous shrub of columnar habit, not quite yet in its autumn shades.

Frangula alnus 'Fine Line'
And who can resist the wonderful autumn colour and rounded lobes of the rootbeer tree, Sassafras albidum? Not I.

Sassafras albidum. Used to flavour rootbeer
As I made my way towards the exit, clutching my small haul of plants, I became aware of a delicious smell, some baked fruit pudding, covered with caramelised sugar and just beginning to catch and burn at the edges. I spend t a few moments scouting the area for the culprit, and soon joined a group of people shuffling about in the fallen leaves beneath a katsura tree, Cercidiphyllum japonicum.

What’s that smell? Probably Cercidiphyllum japonicum
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The Great Comp Spring Fling,
and The Lump of Green

Glorious sunshine, albeit a bit chilly with a gusty breeze, for this morning’s plant fair at Great Comp. Such a fabulous setting, particuarly in spring, when the burgeoning borders and the upper layers bright with camellias and magnolias charm you to a state where you feel able to smile with benignant forgiveness even upon the ghastliness of of the folly-like mock ruins which are a the only jarring feature of this garden. In a few weeks time, drifts of hellebores in the woodland garden will be succeeded by the epimediums and geraniums mac that are gathering strength, while in the more formal areas paeonies thrust purposefully through the soil, rich with deep red hues and the promise of things to come. It’s a great time of the year to experience a mature garden, especially one as well planted, curated and maintained as Great Comp, and the Spring Fling is certainly worth making the effort to get to if you find yourself within striking distance of North Kent toward the beginning of April.


We arrived twenty minutes after opening, to find the first two car parks full and a good crowd already picking their way around the various nurseries’ stalls, spread out on the square and lower lawns. Louise (she of Rude Border fame) met us on the steps between the two sections, clutching our goddaughter Jenny in one hand and a giant pot of alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) in the other. The plan is to get this to colonise a shady area of the garden – it looks like a beast, so I’m sure she’ll have no trouble there, although to be honest it was happily romping away down by the railway line in Rye in full sun when we were there earlier in the week.

Jenny had secured for herself a rather pretty pot of muscari, which is destined for the rockery. Another colony in the making there, for sure. This came from the well-stocked stall of Rose Cottage Plants, on which I also spied the splendidly odd Campanula 'Pink Octopus'. It was on this stand that I first encountered Persicaria 'Red Dragon', which I love, though have yet to plant.

Muscari 'Bling Bling'

Persicaria 'Red Dragon'

Campanula 'Pink Octopus'
I’m always keen to see what Madrona Nursery from Bethersden have brought with them, having still not managed to get to the actual nursery, in spite of it being only an hour or so away. They always have something which has me reaching for my wallet and, today being no exception, I found myself enamoured with a pot containing a lump of purest green. A perfect, verdant dome, I was hooked on this firm, moss-like cushion, and Scleranthus uniflorus was coming home with me. It’s an evergreen ground cover plant from New Zealand, commonly known as Knawel Cushion, and my instincts are telling me will suit a free-draining growing medium, perhaps planted together with a range of alpine plants. Which is just as well, as the next thing to catch my eye was the diminutive-leaved Roaulia australis, another mat-forming apline native to New Zealand. Two plants, then, to add to my haul from Madrona – I made my escape at this point, though not before casting a longing glance at Ranunculus ficaria 'Brazen Hussy'. Surely I’d be nuts to introduce another lesser celandine to my garden when then native variety does so well? I walked away.

Scleranthus uniflora
Raoulia australis
The sheer variety of succulets from Blueleaf Plants was staggering – aloes, haworthias, crassulae, echiveras, graptopetalums, aeoniums to name but a few. Quite rightly the stand was attracting a huge amount of interest – the interior design world seems to have gone mad for succulents, and you can’t open a magazine at the moment without finding glossy lifestyle photos of terrariums or box frames planted with them, the examples on show today being beautifully executed. It’s also interesting to note that Fiona and her team offer a green roof service from their offices in Warehome, on Romney Marsh.

At this stage I cast about with no luck for Pineview Plants, probably the closest nursery to Great Comp with the exception of Dyson’s Nursery in the grounds themselves (run by the curator of the garden, William Dyson, and specialising in salvias, alongside some rather choice hardy and half hardy perennials – worth a visit in its own right). Pineview will be at the RHS Great London Plant Fair later this week, so I imagine they’re busy getting things together for that. I’ll have to catch them later in the year.

Several times I strolled past the stand with a sign bearing the legend “Usual and Unusual Plants”. It seemed to have an inordinate variety of bronze leaved specimens of all different description among the plants on offer. This is a colour for which I have a particular weakness – ideally as a foil to green, though if I’m not careful I shall be over-run with the things. I was tempted by rather fine primula (if I’m honest, I’m a bit fuzzy as to where primula finishes and auricula begins – something I need to look into, as a matter of urgency), then a dicentra – in the end, the charms of Ligularia dentata 'Osiris Fantasie' proved too much to resist. Surely this will be just as delicious to slugs as the L. dentata 'Desdamona' I planted last year. We shall see.

Still on the subject of bronze plants, I thought I’d resisted Brazen Hussy. The crafty little celandine caught up with me while discussing a selection of alpine sedums with Philip Johnson of Johnson's Sweet Peas – we needed one more plant to reach the five-for-a-tenner mark, and the rest is history. I can’t wait to unleash it in the garden (you may remind me of that in a year or two, when it’s become a bronzed menace).

Ranunculus ficaria 'Brazen Hussy'
Sedum album 'Coral Carpet'

Sedum spathulifolium 'Purpureum'
Altogether a goodly haul...but my favourite has to be the lump of green.



The Great Dixter Spring Plant Fair

A wet and very windy weekend for the Great Dixter Spring Plant Fair. In all honesty I arrived far too late on Sunday afternoon – by the time I’d had a quick peak around the garden to see what had grown since my last visit only three weeks ago, people were starting to think about packing up. I spent all my cash on The Walled Nursery’s stall (Emma had brought scented pelargoniums, amongst other things – any attempt at resistance was clearly going to be an exercise in futility), where I had the pleasure of making the real life acquaintance of a Twitter friend, Philippa Burrough of Ulting Wick near Maldon in Essex, who had come to lend a hand for the day. Philippa and her husband, incidentally supporters of the Great Dixter Trust, open the gardens at Ulting Wick under the National Gardens Scheme several times a year (the next open day being Friday 17 April – more details on the NGS website here). Emma seemed to be doing brisk trade even as the stalls were packing up around her, which was just as well. Back at the nursery, Monty had found it necessary to close due to the high winds, which always carries with it the danger of falling glass (for the latest on the progress of the renovations to the Victorian glasshouses at The Walled Nursery, click here to visit the website).

Emma from The Walled Nursery (left) and Philippa from Ulting Wick
It was also great to catch up briefly with Jill Anderson of growingnicely.co.uk (do pop across to her blog for some cracking garden writing and for details of her book, Planting Design Essentials) – Jill, her husband and I converged upon the wonderful pot display by the porch as I arrived. There’s always such a fabulous splash of colour here, with the different forms and textures of the plants and the play of light and shadow around the various containers; never the same on any two visits, I sometimes think it would be great to have time-lapse footage of this single view of the house and garden, especially for those who aren’t so fortunate to live close enough to make the pilgrimage on a regular basis.




A brief visit then, with lots of weather, but what with meeting friends, buying plants and soaking up a fabulous garden – who could ask for more?

The structure here is always impressive, whatever the weather

The phlox here is much further on than mine – I did divide it quite late


Things to plant with Arum mac. #1 – oriental hellebores


Things to plant with Arum mac. #2 – scilla


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