Fields of Red

Everyone seems to love poppies. It doesn’t matter if they are the delicate crepes of the Icelandic or big and blousy Oriental poppies – even ‘though the latter so often lie sprawling across the ground, flattened by the weather or their own weight. But most loved of all are the wild scarlet poppies that create a violent red gash across acres of wheatfields.


Despite being forever linked with the trauma and sadness of the Great War, poppies refuse to lower our spirits. Perhaps they even comforted and uplifted the tortured bodies and minds of the survivors of the battlefields. The famous lines from In Flanders Field have immortalised poppies in poetry but thirty years earlier that great (but now almost unknown) British naturalist, Richard Jefferies, was eulogising “proud poppies, lords of the July fields….no abundance of them can ever make them commonplace….”. How right he was.


Even the odd, single flower, struggling in a bit of dirt at the side of some waste ground, brings joy and admiration but it is, en masse, when the sight of thousands of them in flower in a cornfield stops you in your tracks and, for a moment, loses you in a heady delirium of colour.

When the steep, wild flower filled grass banks that make the ‘walls’ of the secret valley have given way to the flatter, arable lands and the lush water meadows and meandering river lie far below, the fields become larger and hidden by high hedgerows. The character of the secret valley is much changed up here: those unfamiliar with it would not know of its existance it is so concealed. The old field names reflect this – lower down the names end with the words ‘banks’, ‘close’, ‘grounds’, ‘meadows’, now they all end with the word ‘downs’ and you could be forgiven thinking that you were on vast rolling downland, for the eye leaps over the valley to more cornfields beyond. And, a few days ago, I climbed the old, timber stile that pierces the hedgerow to walk in the field known as’17 Acre Downs’ to be greeted by the lords of the July fields.

However it was not the sight of crimson stretching as far as the woodland in the distance that stopped me in my tracks for there, at my feet, was a single, pure white poppy. Just one amongst tens of thousands of scarlet.

Walking further I was stopped once again, this time by some pale pink blooms, not many, just about twenty. The sight was enchanting and magical. Why here? Why so few?

Once you look closely at a poppy in flower you realise just how spectacular it is. En masse, your mind is blown by the quantity and you stop seeing them as individuals. Now, with my senses heightened I realised that a field of red poppies are made up of numerous variations even though pink and white are very rare finds. The photographs below show just a few of these: crimped, streaky, waxy, single petalled, multi petalled, plain buttoned, black cross buttoned, the variations seemed endless.

It isn’t just the flower that deserves this close inspection. For the seedhead is also quite lovely. Its capsule, before ripened, the palest green with a black and cream striped lid, a black collar, encircles its tall, upright stem, covered with soft bristles. Once ripe it takes on the same golden hue of the corn crop it has invaded. Will these poppies breed true and will there be pink or white ones next year? Who knows, for the next day the field had been mown and, if not for the photographic record, could have been dismissed as a pure figment of imagination.

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Plant Combinations in the Summer Border

When I designed the summer border (featured in the last post) I made a conscious effort to experiment with plant combinations. Mostly, the results were pleasing – to my eyes , anyway – and sometimes surprising. The brief from my client was to keep the planting relatively low and to give the border a cottage feel rather than, say, the new ‘prairie’ style. They were not plantsmen or even keen to garden themselves: the only plant they really knew they wanted, and in quantity, were lavenders. This gave me my starting point.

The lavender hedge not only gave me plenty of lavenders, it also softened the curved and hard edge of the stone path that extended the whole length of the border. An unforeseen bonus was with the reflected heat from the stone – it seemed to heighten their scent, filling the air along with myriads of bees and butterflies that were attracted to it. Another good bee plant was Purple Loosetrife, Lythrum salicifolium, a native plant normally found in damp places and by pond edges. This is a garden cultivar ‘Robert’, which is shorter than the type and was quite at home in ordinary garden soil. The ground cover rose ‘Magic Carpet’ was a close match in colour, the result quite strident but tempered by the lighter centre of the rose flower. I wouldn’t describe this as me at my most subtle!

A much quieter planting and taking cottage style to it’s extreme was this combination of Icelandic poppies and scabious. I didn’t notice the bumblebee at the time but it really ‘makes’ the photo! The Magic Carpet rose looks much easier on the eye planted against lavender and red sage.
Climbing roses are a passion – no garden should be without at least one. This is a David Austin variety called Snow Goose and is one of my signature plants: it goes into many of the gardens I work with. It is easy, disease free, relatively low growing (about 9ft) so ideal for all sorts of odd corners. It sadly lacks scent which normally would rule it out for me. Certain plants such as roses, sweet peas and pinks, for example, have to have scent, for surely that is their ‘raison d’etre’. Here Snow Goose is growing through Photinia davidiana ‘Palette’ which is being trained as a wall shrub. I love the way the tiny white flowers of the Photinia mimic the rose and the white splashes on the leaves are emphasised by the flower colour.

Rosa glauca is another rose that I use regularly. It is grown mostly for its wonderful foliage although the flowers are pretty, if somewhat fleeting. This shrub rose will grow to 6ft or more but to get the best foliage and stem colour it is best to prune it hard. Cut back severely it sends out these long, dusky wands which are perfect for cutting for use in the house. Here it is teamed with the Oriental poppy ‘Patty’s Plum’. The poppy was planted inside a trio of the roses which hides the poppy’s leaves as these tend to become rather shabby. The thorns of the rose also hook the floppy stems of the poppy flowers which means that there is no need for staking and tying in: why bother with a chore like that when nature can do it for you?

A combination of blues against a blue sky using Love-in-a-Mist (Nigella), Salvia nemerosa ‘Rugen’ and two Iris, ‘Jane Phillips’, pale blue with a pleasant scent and ‘Deep Blue’ with its dark, almost black flowers. The tall, ferny foliage in the background is the giant scabious, Cephalaria giganteum. Its pale yellow flowers give a complete colour variation to this part of the border as the iris fade and the Cephalaria opens to glow like moonshine behind the nigella and salvia.

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Planting Plans: Looking for Inspiration

I am often asked where do you start with a design. This is a tricky question as I have had relatively little training in this area – I originally designed by trial and (lots of) error like most people who garden do. It is only in recent years that I have designed more formally for clients. Obviously, when working, my first concern is that the garden is suitable for the owners lifestyle, whether it should be formal or low maintenance or more complex. This post is about what I find the most exciting part – the plants.

Inspiration for planting is easy for me. I began by looking at nature and trying to emulate it, not always with a natural ‘wild’ look but more by texture and colour. Over the years, this has developed to include anything from furnishings to paint colour charts to pebbles on the beach….. The photo below show how sunsets (which are always full of amazing colour combinations) in the mountains inspired an herbaceous border.


Sometimes it seems as if flowers have inspired the sunsets! Here is the rose Rosa x odorata ‘Mutabilis’ trying to outdo another mountain sunset. This rose starts with the most intense pink bud and, as the flower fades, turns to the softest apricot, ending up with this wonderful colour combination.


This old mossy wall was the starting point for a mini parterre – the ‘moss’ is made from the box (boxwood) framework, the ‘stones’ from variegated Iris and Cotton Lavender. The wall reminds me of our garden wall in the secret valley (Sunday 20th September 2009) but this one is in north Wales and is a hard, cool grey and silver granite unlike our soft, mellow Cotswold stone. This planting is tiny compared to the usual grand parterre designs and has been used to link two levels of a small garden.


I found this reproduction plate in a second hand shop. It became the inspiration for this blue and white border in an old walled garden. It would never have occurred to me to be so sparing with the red (or to put any red at all into a blue and white garden) but the plate told me otherwise. This planting is a combination of delphinium, tall aconitum and two salvias – the dark salvia nemerosa and the taller, whitish salvia sclarea var. turkestanica. The dots of red are just our native wild poppy which I use quite a lot in my gardens although care has to be taken not to let them run riot.

So let your imagination take you where it will. Sometimes the combinations don’t work but, more often than not, there will be some exciting discoveries to be made and a lot of fun will be had along the way. And make sure you tell me all about them……

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Poppy Power

Can there be a lovelier flower than the poppy? What other can look so frail yet be so resilient to wind and rain? And how can such a paper thin petal hold such an intensity of colour whether it is the scarlet of the wild, the pale pink of the domesticated or the dazzling purity of the white?
< Poppy seed needs light to germinate and this is why they appear in their thousands in disturbed soil whether it is the ploughed cornfield, the scarred battlefield or just our humble vegetable plots, newly dug. They can survive buried for centuries and have even been known to germinate from seed found in archaelogical excavations.
< In the garden I use them all the time – sometimes the wild and sometimes the cultivated varieties, either mix with all types of plants and in all situations. <

These double white Icelandic poppies weren’t carefully sown in trays and planted out – just a packet of seed thrown onto the ground where I noticed some of our native White Campion (Silene alba) growing in a border. Both flowered for months and when fading pulled up and put onto the compost heap: there will be enough fallen seed of both to germinate again next year.

< The pink Oriental poppy shown here is the variety ‘Turkish Delight’ growing amongst Geranium ‘Johnson’s Blue’ (not named, unfortunately, after me!). Unlike most of the poppies which are annuals, the Orientals grow year after year from the same rootstock and require some staking to keep upright unless you cheat like me – the Geranium disguises the partially collapsed, sprawling stems.

< A sea of catmint, ox-eye daisies and bright red Oriental poppies I planted below creates a dramatic walk through an old walled kitchen garden. The poppy is ‘Beauty of Livermere’ and has an extravagance that our smaller native poppy could not achieve. Extravagance in space too for this border will only look good for about two months. Once the flowers fade, which they do together, they are all cut off – leaves and all – to ground level. Within two weeks new growth will appear but there will be no more drama until next year.