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Simply Beautiful – more catkins – No 28 in a very occasional series

Simply beautiful no 27 was about the catkins of Hazel and as a follow up to that here is Simply Beautiful no 28 where I share my photos of the beautiful catkins of one of our Salix shrubs, Salix gracilistyla Melanostachys. A willow with a mouthful of a name but also the most amazing of all catkins coloured black and red.



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My Garden Journal 2018 – April

I began my April entries in my Garden Journal 2018 with the words, “April this year is a month to play “catch up” as the poor weather in the first quarter of the year has held us up so!” But as will be revealed during my entries this month things didn’t play into our hands as far as the weather was concerns. It rather dashed our hopes!

I continued, We had two weeks at home to garden before we went away for a Spring holiday. There was very little sign of the new season, a few daffodils and other Spring bulbs flowered but little fresh growth on perennials. Strangely, our Witch Hazels had a quick second flush of flowers.


Coppicing and pollarding feature strongly when we turn over to the next page, two of my favourite garden activities.

We usually aim to coppice and pollard our shrubs grown for their colourful stems, Cornus and Salix, before the end of March. The weather prevented us doing so this year so we tackled the job in early April. It is a job I love because I like to picture the results of my actions.

Some pruned stems are selected as cuttings to produce new plants to sell or as replacements.


Hazel rods become bean poles and the brash become pea sticks to be used on our allotment. We tidied up around the hazel stools and gave the footpath a mow over.


On the page opposite to the notes about coppicing and pollarding, I moved on to look at re-instating some of our grass paths, writing, A major job for this April was to repair and re-seed our grass paths. This is a result of having so many visitors when we open our garden for the National Garden Scheme.


We used my big vintage Bulldog fork to spike deeply into the lawn surface and top dressed the lawn with compost. We brushed this in and added fresh grass seed into bare patches. To stop our garden birds eating too many seeds we spread prunings over the surface. 


Over onto the next page we can see that I shared a quote from Dan Pearson’s Natural Selection, then looked at more of this month’s jobs.

Dan Pearson in his book Natural Selection wrote early in April, April is spring at its best, with the intensity of green being notched up daily until it is as vibrant as it ever will be. It is the time of some of my favourite plants and an opportunity to get to know better those that flourish in this brief window.

He moves on to speak of three of his favourite spring flowers namely Magnolias, Snakeshead Fritillaries and Tulips. We do not grow Magnolias here at our Avocet garden as we feel it difficult to justify growing a plant that performs for such a small period and sits static and dull for the rest of the year. We enjoy those growing in our neighbours’ gardens instead. Snakeshead Fritillaries and Tulips however we grow in profusion.

For the first few weeks of April this year there was no sign of the “intensity of green” mentioned above. We left to go away for the third of April, leaving our patch still firmly in the grip of Winter.

Before we left however we had jobs to do such as featured in the previous pages and several others which I feature next.

Our key job of this month was to add a single step to the slope into our Japanese Garden. The gravel tended to move beneath our feet as we stepped down the slope. A half-sized “railway sleeper” did the job nicely.


We topped up the log edging to the wildlife pool, topped up the bark paths and spent a day cleaning and sharpening all our secateurs and loppers.


Turning over to the next double page spread I wrote about the birds in our garden and then mentioned a sudden sign of spring.

I wrote, When we work in the garden we do so to a soundtrack of bird song as birds mark their new season’s territories. The loudest songbirds of all are members of the Thrush family, the Blackbirds and Song Thrushes and the more diminutive Robins. All the Titmice and Finches join in calling busily from songposts.

We enjoy watching all of our garden birds collecting nest materials and taking it off to well-hidden places. Throughout the UK people have nicknames for our most common birds. I did some research and came up with these.

Robin  –  Redbreast, Bob Robin

Song Thrush  –  Mavis, Throstle

Blackbird  –  Merle, Woofell, Colley, or Black Uzzle

House Sparrow  –  Spadger, Spuggie, Spaggie

Wren  –  Stumpy, Toddy, Sumpit, Old Lady’s Hen

Dunnock  –  Creepie, Shufflewing, Scrubber

Greenfinch  –  Green Olf, Greeney, Green Lennart

Great Tit  –  Black Capped Lolly, Black Headed Bob

Blue Tit  –  Tom Tit, Blue Cap, Pickcheese, Blue Bonnett

The most exciting bird spotted this month was an early Cuckoo who sat on top of a bush. This is a bird often heard but rarely seen, so it was a memorable sighting. 


The third week of the month saw Spring arrive very late and very quickly and dramatically after a few days of record setting high temperatures. Suddenly our spring flowering bulbs burst into life and leaf buds opened to reveal the brightest of greens, bronzes and pinks.


Tulips take over every part of our garden splashing their brightness among fresh greens of perennials growth.


A cold easterly wind blew back into our patch as the month came to an end. It has been a destructive force in our garden this Spring, burning leaves of even the toughest of shrubs. Every variety of Mahonia has been hit hard but do seem to be fighting back, dropping the dead browned leaves as new buds thrust from the branches.

So here I finish my report on my April pages in my garden journal. I will return in May when the weather may be more kind to us.


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The Avocet Collection

It feels so magical when you discover a chance seedling that is a natural hybrid that has happened under your nose with no help from the gardener. It is equally special when a surprise seedling is so special and different that you want to give it its own name. We have a few of our own Avocet plants that occurred in this way, two Hellebores, two Hollies, a Cotoneaster, a Willow and a Cornus.

I thought it would be interesting to share them with you and let you see some photos of them to see what you think.

Firstly I will share our two Hellebores, the first pictured below we called Hellebore “Jo’s Jewel”after our daughter Jo who creates beautiful jewelry. It has flowers of a delicate pink with tiny purple dots inside and faint hints of green at the base of each petal turning deep green at the base. The reverse of the petals are of a deeper pink colour. The petals are rounded in shape.


Our second selected Hellebore has purple-pink outer petals with fine lines of a deeper purple and spots adorn the inner petals. Each petal, although rounded comes to a point. We have named this seedling after our daughter-in-law, Sam so we call it Hellebore “Sammi’s Smile”. So these sister seedlings are named after two sisters!


Our Ilex was selected from dozens of seedlings grown from berries from our garden at our last garden prior to our Avocet patch. We grew them on our allotment nearby and watched and waited to see if anything special developed. After a few years they began to show their potential and naturally most were pretty ordinary apart from half a dozen with very dark stems and foliage. We kept these and composted the rest. We carefully watched these finalists develop until we could identify their growth habit, leaf and stem colour and their flowering and berrying. Eventually we ended up with a select three with very dark and shiny stems and leaves, two we thought would make good standards that we could topiarise, and a third which seemed more delicate.


Our third selection we have called Ilex “Avocet Flat Black” and after ten years it has grown to just 3ft tall and 5ft across. It has delicate dark shiny foliage and black stems, it flowers well and its flowers attract bees and hoverflies. The deep red berries are enjoyed by our resident Blackbirds and the shrub is enjoyed by our garden visitors.

Here is our Ilex “Avocet Flat black” in flower and attracting bees.

Salix alba britzensis “Wendy’s Orange” is a plant we grew by taking cuttings of a few branches of a friend’s Salix alba britzensis which showed very rich orange coloured stems. These stems glowed so brightly when caught by the sun. The friend was called Wendy hence the name we christened our plants, Salix alba britzensis “Wendy’s Orange”. We grew our cuttings on until large enough to take cuttings from them and so on. We grew a few on as standards that we could pollard and three of these now grace our Rill Garden. They look wonderful and so brightly coloured! See how the sun brings out the orange and makes the branches glow brightly. The first photo is taken under cloud, the second and third in sunlight.

We pollard these willow trees to thicken their trunks and force them to grow fresh, colourful stem growth each spring.

Our selected seedling Cotoneaster was again planted out on our old allotment near our previous home and garden. We selected out one very strong growing plant which looked far superior to the rest, its stems darker than usual, its leaves also darker coloured and heavily textured. When it matured enough to flower it did so profusely, attracting bees and hoverflies. These were followed by deep red berries, ruby red in fact, and highly glossy. Each berry is like a red gem, a ruby, and so we named it Cotoneaster “Jude’s Ruby”. It is much admired by visitors on our garden open days and group visits, who often ask if we have cuttings for sale. We are now trying to build up stock. Cuttings seem slow and not very reliable so we will also try growing from collected seeds.

Our other shrub seedling also features the colour ruby red but not berries, coloured stems instead are its main feature. We named it Cornus “Avocet Ruby”. We selected it from seedlings which appeared on the bank bordering the wildlife pond, and were hybrids between Cornus Midwinter Fire” and other dogwoods grown for their coloured stems. We are now taking cuttings to help build up some stock from which we will be able to sell specimens to our garden visitors. The picture below shows its autumn colouring. Once these yellow leaves fall the brightly coloured stems of yellow, orange and ruby red are revealed in readiness for glowing so brightly in late winter sun.

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A Garden in Winter – RHS Rosemoor – Part 2

We continued our tour of the RHS Rosemoor Garden as we passed under the underpass which led us to the original gardens now called Lady Anne’s Garden. As we left the tunnel and regained daylight, albeit rather dull, we heard the sound of water falling. A narrow ribbon of white water was falling down a huge rock face created from large stones. A white stemmed birch close to it matched it perfectly. Bamboos enjoyed the damp atmosphere here and appeared very much at home.

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The damp atmosphere also meant that any trees growing here were home to algae and mosses giving their trunks and stems unusual textures and colours.

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As we followed gravel paths towards Lady Anne’s house we were interested to see many areas of new planting, with young plants growing in much improved soil.

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Within these new areas of planting we were attracted to a small shrub with tiny delicate flowers. We didn’t recognise it but we were lucky as it had a label to help us. It was a Correa “Ivory Bells”. We grow a Correa at our garden in Shropshire but we never get them to flower. After seeing these little beauties we certainly wished we could!

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The path we were following took us slowly uphill where we followed a path half way up the slope on the edge of a the garden within the woodland. The damp atmosphere here with its dappled shade gave a home to some special plants. This rich blue flowered Primula was so delicate that its stems looked too fragile to hold up the flowers. We didn’t recognise it but once again there was a label to come to our rescue – it informed us that its name was Primula “John Fielding”.

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The habitat here encouraged mosses and ferns to grow profusely. Some plants even manage to get a foothold on a flight of stone steps.

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Perewinkles or Vincas are very common plants and often too invasive for smaller gardens, but this one attracted us and encouraged us to take a closer look at its delicate white flowers.

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Small flowering bulbs brughtened up the dull semi-shade along the woodland edge.

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We found another plant that presented another mystery. We recognised the beautiful mahogany coloured buds of this Salix so looked close up and studied its label when we discovered it to be Salix fargessii. A few steps further another young shrub looked very similar but close up we noticed subtle differences. This we discovered, once again by reading the label, was Salix moupinensis, a willow we had never heard of. We must now do some research to see which is most worthwhile to add to our garden. A good gardener never stops learning!

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I shall finish with a lovely winter shrub, Sarcoccoca which displays its black berries and its white flowers at the same time and in addition it has a rich deep scent.

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So RHS Rosemoor Garden in winter proved itself to be as good as at any other season, the sign of a very good garden. We discovered new plants and enjoyed the scents and sights of so many good plantings. The Winter Garden and the Foliage Garden were the stars of the show just as we expected. As I often say after visiting a garden, we will be back!



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Somerset Willows

I love Salix (willows) – they are one of my favourite trees almost on a par with Betulas (Birches). I always have liked them, our own native species and the garden varieties we can grow. We have several at home in our garden and use them on our allotment communal gardens where we have a Withy Bed with 17 different varieties with different coloured stems and leaves. From these we have made a Fedge, which is a living hedge and a Willow Dome and Willow Tunnel for the children.

I used to like seeing them as a child when I fished a local stream. We moved from one ancient gnarled willow to another. Many were hollow pollarded specimens completely open on one side. We explored the hollow ones as we could often get inside them and look up at the sky. They were great shelters when rain showers stopped us fishing.

When we found ourselves in Somerset we realised that we were close to the Wetland and Willows Centre, so we just had to drop by and have a wander.

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We followed  a sign taking us for a tour around the productive land around the centre. We passed over a bridge with sides constructed from willow with decorative willow features within.

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The path took us to an area full of willow structures mainly places for children to explore, even including a willow snail!

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As we moved on we came across a willow drying fence where the harvested willows were hung out to dry. A little further on as we made our way through a wooded area we found this willow spider in its web, a beautiful hedgehog and a buzzard flying through the branches.

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Leaving the wood we found ourselves walking through the wetlands, the drainage of which was controlled by windmills, sluices and a series of ditches. Large areas were willow plantations, the productive heart of the wetlands.


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As we were reaching the end of our tour of the wetlands we discovered the drying racks where the harvested willow wands were left to dry.

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Before leaving we just had to look at the centre’s museum. We were amazed at how many things are made from willow and all the other items from the past. My first museum photo gives a taster of the delights in the museum. To find out more look through the gallery below. To enjoy my gallery just click on the first picture and use the arrows to negotiate your way through.

We enjoyed our visit to find out more about willows and came away simply amazed! We came away with this unusual willow bird table.

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Walking the Shrewsbury Battlefield – Part One

Although we have lived in Shropshire for years it is only now that we have finally visited the site of the famous Battle of Shrewsbury and the Church of St Mary Magdalene built there to commemorate those who died in battle.

There were absolutely no clues that a battle ever took place here as we walked the footpath across the site of the battle, but we enjoyed wandering along the hedgerows with the song of Skylarks high above us and the distinctive call of the first returning migrant warbler, the Chiffchaff. We enjoyed seeing and hearing a Yellow Hammer a scarce farmland bird.

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Signs of spring were to be seen every step of the way, freshly bursting buds with the brightest of greens emerging and the earliest of blossoms.

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The willows were giving a light show, as the sun shone through their catkins.

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Some trees were still bare skeletons against the blue skies.


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As we approached the scatter of buildings around the church, a shallow stream flowed alongside with banks of water plants coming to life.



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In the woodland around the church we discovered the remaining fish ponds used by the college chaplains.



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We wandered past the church and made our way to the nearby Battlefield Farm Shop which luckily had a coffee shop! We decided to have a look at the church on the way back when we would be well-refreshed. In converted old farm buildings an exhibition explained all about the Battle of Shrewsbury.

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We began our walk back around the battlefield site following a narrow gravel path between a tall hedge and an old chestnut fence. In a field showing signs of ancient ridge and furrows agriculture we spotted a drainage pond rich in vegetation and a old fallen tree with the most amazingly shaped trunk and branches.

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In part two of our look at the Shrewsbury Battlefield site we will look at the church and the skeletal tree in more detail.

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Croft Castle month by month – part two – February

So here we are back at Croft Castle for the second wander in 2015 around the grounds for my February post. We thought we would find that little would have changed since our January visit, but we found plenty to see and really enjoyed our wander. Fresh buds looked ready and waiting to burst into new life when temperatures rise and light values increase. Droplets of rain from a recent shower caught the light where they lay upon the leaves of a Hypericum.

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In the long mixed border beside the tall walls which enclose the walled garden the first flowers of the year had opened, the delicate blooms of the snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis and a few pink blooms dotted amongst the marbled foliage of the Cyclamen coum.

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Gardeners had recently discovered a cobbled path running diagonally beneath the lawn close to the gateway to the walled garden. We imagined the excitement when the first signs appeared or perhaps the chink of a spade heard as it hit a cobble. When fully excavated no doubt it will join up with the network of cobble path to be found throughout the garden and grounds.

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Inside the walled garden the temperature rose noticeably and we were well protected from the cold of the winter winds. Enjoy this batch of photos showing what we found within the walls.

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The foliage of two different Epimedium plants looked good together, one with its coat of glossy green the other a rich shining bronze.


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This old willow with branches rambling haphazardly and randomly caught our attention as its silver catkins shone out in its dark corner of the walled garden. Some branches were severely affected by fasciation causing them to be deformed and tightly curled. Others were subject to gall growths caused by gall wasps.


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The blue gate that had enticed us to pass through it in January was open again, and we diverted easily to see what was happening in the bothy and greenhouses.


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Snowdrops found the shelter under every tree within the walls and encircled their trunks in white bracelets.

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We left the protection of the walled garden and wandered around the borders closer to the castle. We were amused by the sight of this caterpillar up a tree. He was a part of a children’s trail discovering the delights of Alice in Wonderland.




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When we had skirted most of the castle we reached the little church which on our last visit was covered in scaffolding due to being subject to renovation. We were glad to find the builders had left the little building in peace.



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Little narrow borders feature in the grounds of the church and looked full of promise. For now though we had to be content with the display put on by this wonderfully colourful Euphorbia.

From there we returned to the car park to make our way home. On our next visit to Croft Castle we will hopefully discover many more signs of spring.

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The Allotments at Rest

We took a walk around our allotment site today to see what was going on and check that everything was okay. We had just watched the site on TV as we featured on a BBC2 series called the Great British Garden Revival. I filmed with Dermuid Gavin a feature on wildlife gardening. It was a strange experience seeing our allotment site on the screen but even stranger seeing our own plot being used as an example of a wildlife friendly garden.

For today’s wander we arrived during a period of sunshine with a clear blue sky over our heads, but by the time we were half way around the clouds had arrived and we were subjected to light but very cold rain. The pure white catkins of the Violet willow in the Spring Garden sit like droplets of rain water after a storm. They are bright enough to be visible from a long way away. They draw attention to themselves very well!

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Probably the brightest of winter colours on any veg plot is provided by Swiss Chard especially the cultivar called Bright Lights. Light catches on the textured leaves emphasising their undulating surface. The other crops still in evidence are sprouts that have overwintered and the new fresh foliage of the Globe Artichoke. These leaves now just a few inches long will expand to a massive few feet in length and the plants will reach a good nine or ten feet in height. Their purple, teasel like flowers will delight our pollinators the butterflies, bees and hoverflies and the seed heads that follow will be a magnet to greedy Goldfinches and Linnets in the autumn. Perhaps the strongest pattern of all was found on Tom’s plot, where he has set out all the old clay drainage pipes that he dug up from his plot.

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Both the male and female catkins glow purple on the Alders in the Autumn Garden where their neighbours the Buddlejas are showing fresh foliage with their texture like reptilian skin.

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Last year’s plants in the meadows and borders are now skeletons of their former selves. There is a strong structure linked with subtle beauty in these spent seed heads.

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The wildlife shelters sitting in the orchards and meadows hide so many hibernating creatures. They shelter creatures from the winter cold and house anything from the tiniest insects up to amphibians such as frogs, toads and newts, birds like Wrens and Dunnock and mammals including  our confident Weasels. A lost glove adds a splash of colour! In our “Dedge” the bright colours of the various Lichen, yellows, chartreuse and greens, glow however dull the light is.

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A few spring flowering bulbs are showing spears of green piercing the cold soil. Some are even flowering such as the diminutive Iris reticula and Snowdrops.

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Variegated foliage always looks good in the winter when the silver or gold stripes, spots or squiggles shine against deep green backgrounds.

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Perhaps it is only right that the most colourful and interesting garden of all at the moment is our Winter Garden. The coloured stems of different forms of Cornus and Salix give us reds, oranges, greens and yellows and even black. The white stemmed Birches are now over 20 feet tall and they dominate this garden. Euphorbias and Hellebores give colour at close to ground level, while the Viburnum bodnantense “Dawn” and Cornus mas provide pink and chartreuse at eye level. Both these shrubs are also powerfully scented.

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Elsewhere the coloured stems of a Salix in our Withy Bed shines gold and the Cornus “Midwinter Fire” glow like flames.

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Our tour finishes off with a look at this year’s major project, our wildlife pond. We inherited this large farm pond in the summer and are busy tidying up around it in readiness of the work that lies ahead.

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This little character is hidden for most of the year under a patch of Chrysanthemums grown for cutting but in winter he appears to cheer us all up.

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I shall finish this post with a couple of bright jewels.

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Three Winter Gardens – Part Three – Anglesey Abbey

This, the third in my series of three posts looking at winter gardens, sees us at the most well known of all winter gardens, Anglesey Abbey.

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Situated near Cambridge within the larger gardens and grounds of this National Trust property the winter garden here is often considered to be the best of all and a big influence on all others that follow. We shall look at further aspects of the gardens at Anglesey Abbey in future posts.

We visited the winter garden at Anglesey Abbey many years ago the first year it was open to the public so it was like meeting an old friend but one who has changed a lot in the intervening years.

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This set of gates welcomed us as we arrived at the start of the winter plantings.

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We soon met the friends we had seen in our other two winter gardens, the dogwoods, rubus and willows grown for their stem colour underplanted with hellebores and ivies. There was some wonderful pruning techniques on display here too.

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Grasses featured strongly with their wonderful warm colours and strong structural shapes.

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We were once again interested to see which plants the gardeners from Anglesey Abbey used as ground cover to help reduce weed growth. Various low growing grasses teamed up with Arum and Bergenias to perform this role.

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All these plants acting out their roles as ground covering plants encouraged us to look down as we were seeking ideas for our allotment Winter Garden, but we were struck also by specimens higher up.

The Viburnum pictured below didn’t just look good it smelled sweetly too. The Pulmonaria has not just flowers of two colours but unusual foliage to catch the eye.

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The fresh foliage of the Cercis had leaves of a delicate bronze which was a strong contrast to the much more brash reds of the Photinia “Red Robin”.

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The white bark of the trunks of Betula utilis although now used in every winter garden still deserve to be centre stage. Here at Anglesey Abbey some had been “dressed” in bright colours for added humour.

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This golden stemmed ash is rarely seen in gardens but in the winter its black pyramidal buds strongly contrast with the golden stems. It is one of those plants that are simply too big for the average garden but when space allows it can be really attractive.

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I have concentrated so far on the attributes of individual plants but we need to see how they fit in to the whole to fully appreciate their impact and the atmosphere of this amazing winter garden.

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We entered the winter borders through interesting sculptural gates and we left through another. A quick look over the shoulder gave us a final chance to appreciate this brilliant garden.

So there we leave the series of three posts concerning winter gardens. Although Dunham Massey is the newcomer it looked good against the other two, but in the end it has to be said that the “original” winter garden at Anglesey Abbey remains my firm favourite.

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colours community gardening garden photography gardening ornamental trees and shrubs shrubs Winter Gardening winter gardens

Stems of dogwoods and willows at BAC

Earlier in the winter I posted a blog about the value of coloured stems in our garden. We have lots more up in the community gardens on our allotment site, Bowbrook Allotment Community. Now we have a little sunshine brightening our days I thought it would be interesting to see the colours in Cornus (Dogwoods) and Salix (Willows) that we have accumulated in our 4 year development.

First though a look into my sketchpad.


We put together a collection of stems of all the different Cornus and Salix  that we grow in the communal gardens and photographed them on a rare sunny day.

First the Dogwoods ….

stems 2 stems 3 stems 1

….and then the Willows.

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