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In the garden of a true plants-lady

March 7, 2019
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Anyone who makes a garden will have particular inspiration. In my case this came as a child in the 1970s from visiting Joe Elliott and his Broadwell Alpine Nursery in the Cotswolds, and later Beth Chatto whose dry climate in Essex is similar to the garden we moved to in north-east Kent.

As the garden here has matured, an interest in woodland plants has grown and inspiration and plants early on came from yearly visits to Washfield Nursery at Hawkhurst on the Kent-Sussex border. It was a wonderful opportunity then to join a few other friends towards the end of February who had arranged to visit Elizabeth Strangman in her private garden and relive memories of the fascinating plants she grew at Washfield, and marvel at those plants she grows now.

Elizabeth is renowned for her ground-breaking work in breeding hellebores, described in the book she co-wrote with Graham Rice. A sunny day in late-February was a perfect moment to see these in full flower and the very first thing she showed us was the collection of flowers which opens this diary entry. Examples growing in the garden itself are spectacular and superbly cultivated. This picture shows something of the pure and strong colour strains she has developed, especially in the background a good ‘red’ – a particular aim she had when at Washfield. The soil is regularly top-dressed with mushroom compost, creating that open-textured woodsy tilth ideal for the plants.

Amongst the hellebores in her garden one particular plant stands out; the apricot clone ‘Pamina’, which was a happy mistake in a batch of hand-pollinated primrose seedlings. From this, other breeders, such as Thierry Delabroye in France, have raised very rich and warm coloured hellebores with flowers verging on orange and true red.

Elizabeth’s great skill has been in developing true breeding and clear colour strains of hellebores. In her later work, however, she introduced plants with ‘picotee’ flowers, such as this one veined with colour and often with distinctive dark nectaries.

Another rather lovely example has the base of the tepals stained a strong red and well presented to the viewer.

Amongst these more flamboyant examples the more diminutive species H. torquatus and H. purpurascens (shown here) are infinitely more subtle, but delightful to see. Though rarely treasured and maintained in cultivation, these have originally provided much of the variation seen in the more familiar H. x hybridus forms and can return the garden to that closer botanical connection to the natural world.

The inner side of the tepals is often most beautifully coloured and marked in these two species and certainly rewards the gardener for the greater care they need to grow in the garden.

At this time of the year, hellebores make part of an exciting larger picture with the later snowdrops, Crocus tommasinianus and other early woodlanders, as seen below (and incidentally also pictured by Jon Evans in his recent exploration of Ronald Mackenzie’s garden in his Photographer’s Diary). Plantings for any enthusiastic gardener to aspire to as a very natural and beautiful ‘garden ecology’ emerges over time.

Every garden has its own unique snowdrop or two that has resulted from serendipity. This is a nice late example that Elizabeth particularly pointed out. I’m unsure if it is named but from such an impeccable source, it should be treasured.

Snowflakes have never caught the obsession that gardeners have for snowdrops but they are equally fine plants in late winter and are catching more attention amongst the cognescenti. This one is a fine Polish selection, Leucojum vernum ‘Podpolozje’.

In the shade of a tree, this very finely dissected polypody is truly remarkable, one of such a unique group of ferns valuable for their winter form. A leading member of the British Pteridological Society, Julian Reed, holds a National Collection of this genus Polypodium and lives not so far from us in Kent. Polypodies would be fascinating to look at and grow in more detail, and his recent display at the Great Dixter Autumn Plant Fair (which I have mentioned previously) captured a lot of attention from keen gardeners and nursery-people!

On the sunny side of the tree, a colony of Narcissus asturiensis ‘Navarre’ is captivating and reminds the gardener to move on from that obsession with snowdrops a few weeks earlier. Again Jon Evans has recently shown strands of this in Ronald Mackenzie’s garden in his diary; great gardener’s think and garden alike!

Here then is the garden of a dedicated and greatly admired gardener with a style and attention to detail that we can all learn from, and a very great privilege to visit.

Just a snapshot of plants in flower in late-February, which hints at the richness and diversity to come as herbaceous perennials emerge and take the garden on into spring and summer. One can be sure that these will be as special and well cared for and as exciting to see.

As we chatted towards the end of the visit Elizabeth mentioned that a garden is like an autograph book: it is full of connections and experience, it has meaning and inspiration, it is real.

These are wise words from one of the finest of gardeners I have ever met.

Image of Tim Ingram Tim Ingram

Tim Ingram runs Copton Ash Nursery in Faversham, Kent with his wife Gillian. He has has a keen interest in plants since childhoos and his first patch was a raised rock garden in his teens.

Tim has been a member of the Alpine Garden Society for most of his gardening life. He is also an active member of two AGS groups: East Kent and Mid Kent.