A visit to Canterbury Cathedrals NGS Gardens

A visit to Canterbury Cathedrals NGS Gardens
A rare opportunity to see the private gardens open for @NGSOpenGardens in May
Exceptional tranquility in the heart of the city

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One fine day in May I set off for a truly wonderful set of NGS gardens I hadn’t seen in about 2 years. I last visited when I lived relatively locally and I remember the day was freezing. It was the 31st May but I had a coat & jumper on, so different to this visit!

This time I was in shorts and it was still too hot, I say too hot, I’m lying, there’s no such thing! I did worry that the heat would have sent the Irises I remembered so fondly over though, I needn’t have worried…. I’m getting ahead of myself though!

I met Philip Oostenbrink just before he took over as Canterbury’s Head Gardener, he has an incredibly dry wit and an easy smile. His love of plants shines through and working at Canterbury has allowed that passion to grow, his love of the Cathedrals grounds and the team he’s built up is easy to see. So I was keen to not only catch up and have a natter but also to see how the gardens had grown in the intervening 2 years.

We met just before his talk and he’s a mine of information now on the grounds history, of which there’s a lot!

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No.1HG, Protector of paradise, as us mere mortals know him

One of the things I found interesting was the challenge of removing the Ivy from the stonemasonry around the grounds. It’s not just a case of pulling it from the walls as it can do so much damage to the old flintknapped buildings, pulling the mortar out from between stones, the work has to be scheduled to fit with the Cathedrals stonemasons… imagine gardening in that way!

Also it has been recently recognised there are some very special magnolia trees within the grounds. Bred by a now long gone local nursery its hoped the cathedrals collection can be studied more by the Magnolia society.

The Cathedral hold in its library one of the original prints of ‘Geralds Herbal’, those of you who have read some of my older blog posts will have head me talk about this amazing and sometimes hilarious book. Written in 1597 it has some very curious ideas about plants and often refers to the ‘Doctrine of signatures’. This was a method of divining what uses the plants had medically, it was thought a clue would be left by God somewhere in its makeup. Hence Spleenwort which resembles a spleen (if you have a good imagination) is used to cleanse the spleen. The wort part of the name signifies its beneficial. If you come across the word bane however avoid it as it is harmful. Hence wolfsbane (bad for wolves) and hensbane (bad for chickens). You can book an appointment to view this amazing book with the Cathedrals library!

The reason I mention this though is with relevance to the Cathedrals relatively new addition of a medieval style herb garden. Located where the monks dormitories once stood until a 2nd WW bomb flattened all but a few column bases and very near where the infirmary would have been. It has a snazzy little smart app where you can hold your phone near the label and view a page from the Herbal! I have absolutely no clue how this works so I suggest finding a small child and asking them!

After the talk I headed straight across to the plant stall, of course! I know Phillip has a love of unusual plants and was hoping to find something exotic. His staff didnt fail me, I was tipped off that the herb stall had a few coffee plants (possibly Coffea canephora?) and tea plants (Camellia sinensis) for sale so I hotfooted it over there before they sold out! By this time the gardens were well populated and the various stalls were doing a brisk trade My avarice satisfied I then returned to the gardens, with the plants snuggled in my camera bag, to No1 on the list, which confusingly is named No15!

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There are 2 sections effectively to this garden a beautiful, quaint highly terraced backyard full of colour and very much on a domestic scale. Then through a lovely rose arbour into the main part of the garden.

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The front of the house is festooned by a gorgeous climbing rose, pure white & highly scented. Absolutely covered in blooms!

Stretching away from the house and terraced up to the city walls is a fabulous herbaceous border with hidden paths. I loved this border on my first visit and it did not disappoint!

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Next on the tour is the Memorial garden, a place of quiet contemplation which I think is open to the public at all times. at the furthest point to the entrance gate is a small doorway, down here you can find the entrance to the Deacons walk. Now gated and somewhat unused there is an attractive sprinkling of wildflowers giving it a secretive and wild feel.

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The friends garden just outside the memorial garden is a lovely little space edged with borders containing a lovely array of plants, I was very taken with the oriental poppy’s. I think this one is Royal wedding but I could be wrong… either way its lovely!

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Following the map past the ruins of stonework, which I believe are the infirmary ruins, into shady cloisters that surround north side of the cathedral you catch glimpses of the  herbaceous borders that crowd up to the ancient walls. You continue through past the chapter house, above you beautiful ornate ceilings and in front the most exquisite stained glass frames the view of a large green. Secluded completely from the hustle and bustle of a city which surrounds you. It’s easy to forget how close the vibrant city of Canterbury is when you’re here!

This leads you to the entrance of the 4th garden on your tour, the Archdeaconry. The huge yew tree which dominates the garden also lends itself to the style of the circular way the grass is cut. It resembles when viewed from above a stone dropped into a pool, the ripples spreading outwards forever.

Everywhere you look are ancient walls, blocks of carved stone reminding you that this area is one of the oldest sites of worship in England. The history that is contained within these precincts is incredible. Princes, Kings & Queens of England have all sheltered beneath its roof’s, some of the most momentous moments in our fair land have taken place in this now peaceful oasis. Walking here you are walking on the same paths they have trodden and its hard not to think of these things whilst strolling and admiring these beautifully kept grounds.

Here also is the mythical Mulberry tree, supposedly the site where Thomas Becket’s murderers hid their swords before their heinous crime. This is of course a myth, the tree itself although hugely old can be no older than perhaps a 100 years at best, certainly not a 1000… but it could of course be a cutting taken and grown from the original Mulberry … lets say it’s that for the sake of romantic fiction!

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The tree is in a little side garden to the main Archdeaconry, the garden itself is built in older ruins, the remains of flintknapped walls and columns are sympathetically clothed in plants. I lingered for a while admiring a large unusual Callistemon with lovely large pale yellow flowers, possibly Callistemon pallidus. In the process of writing this I’ve discovered another plant name change! Apparently Callistemons are now Melaleuca and the  specific epithet pallida refers to the  pale colour of the flowers. This drew the attention of many visitors and I found I was being something of an impromptu tour guide myself!

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As you leave the Archdeaconry there is a display of classic cars and an excellent, and very popular, Tea/cakes pavilion with ample seating. It’s a good point in your tour of the gardens to take a break and reflect on the wonderful historical architecture and plants you’ve just seen.

I brought my Dad to Canterbury a few years back to see the Cathedral for his birthday, I pointed out some of the graffiti that adorns the walls. I love that there is so much! He could not be convinced of its legitimacy as some are dated back over 400 years, granted it is hard to believe that you’re looking at a mark left by a random person but in some small way they, notable for no other reason than the time they spent carving their initials and a date into the wall, have achieved a weird sort of immortality just by this very act.

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Fully revictualled and refreshed your map directs you onwards to the last few gardens, next on the list is the Deanery. Its kind of mind blowing when you consider that a garden in the middle of Canterbury, which if you walk the streets outside of the Cathedrals grounds are a higgle piggle of houses and shops built atop each other, could possibly measure an acre! The building itself, in parts, dates back to the early 1500’s and the garden has a very naturalistic theme with a wildflower meadow and chickens wandering around.

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It’s really worth taking a moment to appreciate the wealth of roses here, the deadheading must take hours! The scent though is incredible!

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Having now thoroughly lost my way regarding where I was on the map I followed other wandering visitors and found the exit / entrance to the rear of the deaconry once more. I took a moment to appreciate the tiny corridor which, absolutely stuffed with plants, must be a marvellous place to spend a summers eve. The warmth of the day’s sun reflected back from the stone walls, the scent of the plants concentrated in this warm, still environment. It would be easy to imagine relaxing with a glass of wine and good company here.

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It’s definately worth giving yourself a good few hours, possibly even a full day, to really appreciate the gardens here. Especially given that they’re not normally accessible to the general public. There are lots of little secret hidden portions which I shall allow you to discover yourself!

I shall however leave you with a few pics from around the grounds…

Opening times for NGS can be found here Canterbury NGS open gardens

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Oh!

And did I mention there are owls?

THERE ARE OWLS!!!!

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Trialling Thompson & Morgan seeds, Part 2 – Flowers

Some exciting flowers from Thompson & Morgan!
What will we grow at Ulting Wick this year…

Following on from my last blog post, this time im talking about the flower seeds. You’ll have to forgive the lack of pics in this instance of real examples as I’ve only seen a few of them, never mind grown them! Thompson & Morgan have been lovely enough to let me trial a few of their range. Im hoping to be able to fit these in alongside Philippas choices in various places throughout the garden, if we cant find the right space for them though they will most likely find a place in my new garden (if the rabbits dont eat them!) or even on the plant sales which of course all the proceeds from go towards NGS charities.

I’ll start with a plant that’s seen an amazing resurgence in popularity. In recent years several plants which I remember as a young’un have made an comeback from being viewed as something your grannie grew to hip happening showstoppers and rightly so as far as im concerned! I guess it started with Dahlias but it seems to now encompass Pelargoniums, Begonias and of course the wonderful Zinnia. They have all been given a makeover and sent back out on the plant catwalk to strut their stuff

Zinnias in particular seem to have been given a somewhat punky new look and looking through the T&M range I think ive been given the chance to try out one of the funkiest!

Zinnia Whirlygig mixed

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Growing to around 45-60cm tall, that’s 18 to 24 inches in old money, these semi double cactus flowered style blooms promise a great colour range. They can be used either as a bedding plant, intermingling happily with your Dahlias & Salvias or grown as a cut flower, if youre feeling particulary generous with the seeds you could end up with both! As the packet contains around a 100 seeds this could easily be the case.

Sow between March, if you have heat & protection, to May. They are half hardy so wont appreciate getting cold. A second later sowing in June/July will guarantee flowers until the first frosts.

Cosmos Lemonade

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Now as far as I knew there was only one yellow flowered Cosmos on the market and that was xanthos which makes me quite excited to give Lemonade a try. Interestingly I do have a packet of Xanthos handy so thought I would compare and contrast the blurb on the back.

Flowering heights and times are comparable, max 60 cm (2ft), July to Oct. Lemonades blurb says it has a white eye but the pic on the front is distinctly yellow. Now it might be that Lemonade holds its flowers on a longer stem? Maybe its more floriferous? Honestly, im not sure. Only one way to find out, grow them side by side and see if I can spot a difference! Which is no real hardship as either way it looks a lovely plant.

Cupcakes mix & Cupcakes White

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When cupcakes came on the market a few years back it caused an absolute storm. Very much a marmite plant, I came down on the loving it side of the fence, I get the feeling Philippa not so much & she does have a point in her reasons for not liking it. It doesn’t look real and shes right it doesn’t.

A genetic mutation has caused this varieties petals to fuse, instead of having 5 or more separate petals it has one entire frilled cup, sometimes double, having a smaller cup held inside the outer one. A lot of work went into making this variety stable and it received the peoples choice in the trials ground at RHS Wisley.

The mix variety comes in shades of deep pink through to white & the white… well… comes in white. It can get up to 1.2M (4ft) in height if its happy & if deadheaded regularly its flowering period is greatly extended. A half hardy annual it has similar sowing requirements to the Zinnia. Also like the Zinnia a second later sowing will extend its season right up to first frosts.

Its also worth mentioning another cosmos worth growing if you like an oddity, seashells.

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The last 2 on the list are both perennials, the first we already grow at Ulting wick but certainly no harm in increasing the amount we have, the second is giving me a slight headache in trying to work out where exactly it might fit in… but ill come back to that!

Berkheya purpurea

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An odd but gorgeous plant, the RHS A-Z gives an entirely uninspiring description of it so you would be forgiven for overlooking it. Even if you were to see it in its unflowering state you would probably look at its spiny rosette of leaves and think thistle, and move on. Take a moment though, for its well worth your time and attention.

The description on T&Ms packet is a ‘thistle that thinks it’s a sunflower’, which personally I think is pushing it a bit but it does have a modicum of truth in it. In full flower it stands around 2ft tall. An incredibly useful plant for difficult dry conditions. Once established it can withstand long periods of practical drought conditions. Ive seen it grown at the QE park where everything else was wilting this plant was thriving! The flowers themselves are a delicate lavender colour, asteracea in form, up to 2 inches across and it really deserves garden space as its no prima donna. It has very few, if any, pests and diseases, the only thing it really objects to is having wet feet. In a moist position it can be prone to flopping a bit, in worst case senarios it may rot off, so keep this in mind when finding the right spot for it. Ooh! One last thing! You can, if this is your thing, cut off the entire flowering spike and hang upside down to dry. It will keep its colour and shape for many months in dried flower arrangements.

Sowing can start early in the year under glass, or you could sow in autumn if you haven’t got room. If sown in autumn you might get flowers the following year but remember this is a perennial so they like to bulk up a bit prior to flowering. Annuals are under pressure to get everything done before the frost hits but perennials don’t have that rush. Give them some time.

Which brings me to my final and most perplexing conundrum!

Aquilegia skinneri ‘Tequila Sunrise’

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Pic from T&M website

I have a love/hate relationship with Aquilegias, they are beautiful, delicate and enchanting… but they are also prolific breeders. In my first garden I had a few lovely double ones that I left when I redesigned it, the next year I had a few more, mostly double but in slightly different shades. In 5 years time I was on a seek and destroy mission with them. They had cross bred and become invasive, popping up in cracks in the pavement, walls, in between other plants, under shrubs, basically everywhere! I learnt very quickly to take the flowering spike off the instant they had finished and woe betide it if I missed one. Theres a saying in gardening ‘1 years seed, 7 years weed’ and it really rings true with Aquilegas.

Forget that though.

They are wonderful & I will always forgive them for their promiscuous ways.

So, Tequila sunrise, what makes this different? Special? Other than its colouring..

A bright red hood over a canary yellow petals, that’s pretty special, right!

But Aquilegas only flower in the spring right?

Not this one apparently! This one claims to flower from May till sept! Giving a profusion of flowers upto 3ft tall throughout the summer, im absolutely desperate to find a place where I can put this to the test. It has a preference for moist soils and there are a few places that could qualify at Ulting Wick. All I need to do now is persuade Philippa that it would work as it could be quite difficult to place colourwise.

Of course these are just SOME of the flowers on our extensive list & I cant wait for you to come and see what new things we have at Ulting Wick when we open for the NGS this coming year so please do write the dates in your diary and visit if you can!