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A trip to Somerset

May 1, 2019
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Last week, I was invited down to speak to the Somerset AGS Group. My hosts were Paul Cumbleton and Colin Everett and I took the opportunity to go down a little early, to get a chance to see how their new garden is developing on the chalk hills above the Somerset Levels.

I visited last in July last summer, when the newly built crevice garden was burgeoning, with a focus on plants from the hot, dry, southwestern states of the USA. A new bulb bed had just been built where they planned to plant out all sorts of Mediterranean and South African bulbs to experiment with hardiness in the open garden in a very free draining compost. I’m going to start with a few pictures from that visit.

Crevice Garden

Calylophus hartwegii subsp. fendleri

A tough, heat-loving annual from the arid lands of the southern USA, this loved the long hot summer last year and was flourishing on the crevice garden.

Zinnia grandiflora

Another xeric plant from the southwestern USA, this Zinnia looks superficially very simila to the Calylophus. Again, it likes a hot sunny spot in well-drained soil and that was what the crevice garden provided.

Castilleja latifolia

Paul has managed to establish a couple of species of the hemiparasitic genus Castilleja from the western USA on the crevice garden. I am not sure what, if anything they are parasitising here.


In that long hot summer, the Origanum cultivars on the crevice garden were a delight. So here are O. ‘Barbara Tingey’, O. ‘Kent Beauty’, the lovely O. ‘Emma Stanley’ and a white cultivar I did not record the name of.

Penstemon ambiguus

Another plant from the grasslands and deserts of the southwestern USA is the beautiful, appallingly photographed, Penstemon ambiguus.

Phlox nana var. ensifolia (syn P. mesoleuca)

Again from Texas and Mexico, this lovely phlox is notoriously difficult to grow, ‘requiring gritty but not poor soil and warm dry summer weather to flower well; best in the alpine house’ according to the AGS Encyclopaedia. It seems to be very content in the crevice garden here.

Vertical cracks

The vertical cracks in the sides of the crevice garden were carefully stuffed with stone chocks and fat clumps of plants like these two, Jovibarba heuffelii ‘Black Star’ and Sempervivum calcareum ‘Extra’.

Tufa Garden

As well as the crevice garden, there is a small tufa garden which is covered in winter.  Here all manner of difficult plants nestle in holes in the tufa, including the three species from the small section Delphiniopsis of the genus Viola: V. cazorlensis, V. delphinantha and V. kosaninii. At the time we were there, the only plants with flowers on were an eye-catching Delosperma, which I think is Delosperma ‘Jewel of Desert Peridot’ and Edraianthus serpyllifolius. Edrianthus always seem to thrive in tufa; the Delosperma might be fine in the crevice garden but probably needs the winter cover.


Down the garden away from the crevice garden, there were some fine Eucomis in the herbaceous border.

Sempervivum calcareum  ‘Extra’

Around the pond, there were a number of plants in pots, which appeared to have been moved out of the alpine house for the summer. This was a fine pan of Sempervivum.

Erica cerinthoides

Also by the pond, and no doubt returned to the alpine house in the winter as it is not reliably frost-hardy, was this fabulous South African heather with bright scarlet flowers.

Jamesbrittenia bergae

Also from South Africa, and definitely not frost-hardy, is the wonderful Jamesbrittenia bergae. A short-lived but highly ornamental perennial, this should be renewed regularly for a good display.

South African bulbs

I took a quick peep into the South African bulb house. Most of the plants have been repotted but Paul was in the process of planting many of them directly into the sand plunge. I think the purple labels laid flat on the pots related to this operation. Sadly, I had just missed the flowers on Gethyllis barkerae, which appear out of nowhere in mid-summer.

Ptilotus manglesii

Paul was delighted to have finally obtained and grown seed of this curious Australian plant, which I have only seen before at RBG Kew. There was another seedling growing in the crevice garden but I don’t know whether it survived the winter.


In the propagation house, along with the remnants of Paul’s Pleione collection is a collection of the tricky South African orchid genus Disa, which need to be cool and damp – in fact they are usually grown standing in water. A number of these had flowered. I managed to photograph Disa ‘Orange USA’, Disa uniflora ‘Xantic Yellow’ and Disa watsonii ‘Sandra’.


Inside the house, there were orchids everywhere. Here are Oncidium ‘Sweet Sugar’, a Phalaenopsis (?) and Psychopsis ‘Mariposa Green Valley’.


Moving forward to last week, I found that I should have visited earlier in the spring. The front lawn has many spring bulbs naturalising in it but most were over. The South African bulbs planted directly in the plunge had flowered prolifically, though a few had failed unexpectedly. Outside in the bulb bed, there had been a similar mixture of wonderful successes and a few failures but in both there were few plants left in flower. In the bulb bed, Spiloxene caniculata had performed far better than it ever does in a pot and Allium karataviense ‘Ivory Queen’ was in bud.

Crevice garden

However, all was not lost, for the crevice garden was just springing back into life after the winter rest.

Townsendia parryi

Paul always grows lots of seedlings of this daisy from the western USA, for it makes a wonderful display. It is supposed to be a short-lived perennial but he finds it best treated as an annual. I think he starts the seedlings in the autumn.

Aethionema capitata

A nice compact, well-flowered species of Aethionema from Turkey.

Campanula tridentata

This is a Campanula you don’t often see on the show bench. It seems to be quite uncommon in cultivation, though it does appear from time to time on the seedlists.

Daphne cneorum

This little Daphne was looking very happy in a crevice and blooming heavily.

Daphne calcicola x. gemmata

This was an unusual plant to find out in the crevice garden. I would not have expected it to be hardy but it seemed to have been there for quite a while.

Erigeron  ‘Canary Bird’

In amongst the Phlox and Aubrieta, I found this little Erigeron, a popular cultivar of E. aureus from the Rockies.

Globularia incanescens

This Globularia was just coming out, with Phlox bifida ‘Ralph Haywood’ behind.

Phlox  ‘Boranovice’

This is a new Phlox cultivar from the Czech Republic. It is a lovely pure pink but is apparently very tricky to propagate. I hope it becomes more widely available.

Pulsatilla caucasica lutea

Putting on a fine display.

Iris reichenbachii

An excellent form of Iris reichenbachii – I think originating from Aberconwy Nursery.

Echium webbii

One of the dwarfer Echiums in a pot outside, but ready to be moved back under glass if frost threatens.

Fritillaria grayana x. biflora

I had a brief look in Colin Everett’s alpine house, full of his Fritillaria collection, but most were well past flowering and the chief interest was the variety of seedpods. However, I did manage a snap of an interesting hybrid between F. grayana and F. biflora. Also, here are the seedpods of F. carica and F. chitralensis.


Paul’s first interest in plants (and mine) was cacti. There is a reminder of this early interest with huge, ancient specimens of Rebutia and Mammillaria. Moving past them, we can see the plunge in which the South African bulbs have been growing and flowering since the autumn, with Tropaeolum azureum and austropurpureum growing along pea-sticks next to the glass. Beyond them are Paul’s collection of Leucocoryne and the tall stems of Ixia viridiflora.


I think this pale Leucocoryne is L. ixioides but the thing that was spectacular was the mass of flowers of different species mingled together. This is what they are like at RBG Kew and it is spectacular.

Placea arzae

In front of the Leucocoryne was a plant which I knew Paul grew but which I have never seen in flower before. This is Placea arzae from Chile – very difficult to obtain but absolutely gorgeous. I once had seed from John Watson but the seedlings did not survive to flowering size. The backdrop of the Leucocoryne made a fabulous sight.

I would like to offer my thanks to Colin and Paul for their hospitality, an excellent meal and the chance to view this lovely garden. Also for their permission to post the photos here.

Image of Jon Evans Jon Evans

Jon lives and gardens on the north side of the Hogsback on the border between Hampshire and Surrey, on a heavy clay soil. He is a long standing member of the AGS and has been treasurer of the local group in Woking for many years. He is especially interested in bulbs of all sorts, particularly those from South Africa, and is progressing slowly towards his Gold Medal at shows, at the rate of roughly one first per year.

However, he is best known within the AGS as an enthusiastic amateur photographer. For about 10 years he was responsible for organising the artistic and photographic section of the AGS shows around the country, and also for organising the show photography. During this period, he set up and ran the AGS Digital Image Library. He is still actively involved in plant photography, both at shows (he visits many shows each year to catalogue the extraordinary achievements of the exhibitors) and in gardens both public and private, and he makes regular outings to view and photograph wild flowers in the UK.

If you have any comments or queries for Jon, you can contact him direct at