As you will remember from my blog on the East Anglia Show, we used the show as an excuse to spend a long weekend in Norwich with my son Robin. On the Sunday following the show, on a morning much sunnier than the day before but still distinctly cold, we visited The Old Vicarage Garden at East Ruston.
The house is a mile and a half from the sea and protected with shelter belts of trees and high hedges. This allows the owners to experiment with an exciting mix of plants, including many that are less than totally hardy elsewhere. We have tried to visit before, but on a Monday when it was closed.
The garden is designed as a series of rooms, allowing the gardeners to experiment with different styles and themes, around a backbone of long straight walks giving view lines to features outside the garden. The rooms and walks are separated by miles of (primarily hornbeam) hedging, neatly clipped.
As we entered the garden, we passed a rather battered tulip. In the sun, the bright splash of colour was rather glorious and it mattered not one jot that the petals were about to fall.
On our left was a wildflower meadow, full of colour at this time of year. The blue flowers of bluebells and Camassia leichtlinii were interwoven with the white of Cow Parsley and some fading Narcissus poeticus.
The way into the garden leads through the plant sales area. Here, there is an out of bounds greenhouse with a large bench of Aeonium ‘Schwarzkopf’ in full flower, with huge panicles of yellow flowers. Of course, every rosette which flowers will die. Also in the greenhouse was a large Fuchsia, covered in masses of small red and white flowers.
Further on up the path we crossed the vehicle entrance, featuring a stylised roundabout, complete with an antique Rolls Royce.
Moving on, we passed between some potted tree ferns – always interesting photographically.
Now we entered the entrance courtyard. I am not sure of the identity of the large umbellifer flanking the gate but the spring bedding with tulips, wallflowers and white Geranium maderense (Guernsey White?) was spectacular.
From here, you pass into a jungle area with tree ferns and maples, underplanted with Euphorbia palustris – very striking at this time of year.
Next we came to an unnamed, open, semi-formal area with a glimpse through an arch to the sculpture in the Rose Garden. Here, the parrot tulips were still looking attractively battered. Other beds were dominated by plantings of individual tulip cultivars enjoying the sun.
The plantings here were a pleasing mix of the familiar and the exotic. The half-hardy legume Piptanthus nepalense rubbed shoulders with white Matthiola (or is this a white wallflower?).
In another border, a large bush of the distinctly frost-tender Australian shrub, Alogyne huegelii, which we saw in several places in the garden, was banked by big clumps of the perfectly hardy Gladiolus tristis.
The walk along the north edge of the garden ends with the Thalictrum garden, which must be a wonderful sight later in the year. Of course, the Thalictrum were not yet in flower but there were big plants full of vigorous shoots. In between them was an assortment of other herbaceous plants and bulbs, including the lovely Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii and a most spectacular tulip cultivar, planted en masse, and dominating this area of the garden at this time.
Passing through the hedge, we found ourselves near a circular hedge at one end of a long walk. Inside the hedge was a rather sinister statue of a ‘Newspaper Lady’.
Moving now eastwards, we entered a garden with a fountain resembling a waterspout at its centre, planted with exotic trees such as bananas but waiting for the under tier to be planted with exotic annuals. Beyond the fountain was a raised pool full of lilies and summer promises.
I think the next area we entered is the Rose Garden, though no roses were in bloom. However, there were various colour forms of Paeonia delavayi and a Fuchsia dripping with flowers, all shaded by a huge Eucalyptus.
In a sheltered corner there was a large Daphne.
On one side there was a shaded pool with a big clump of marsh marigolds, Caltha palustris.
In the centre of the garden, a fascinating modern sculpture in the centre of a larger pool reminded me of Japanese cranes dancing.
Moving on, we passed through a small sheltered area, where the semi-formal planting was composed of woodland plants (hellebores and Lathyrus vernus in particular) dominated by low growing red Japanese maples, probably Acer palmatum ‘Dissectum Atropurpureum’.
Another bed of tulips heralded our arrival in the Dutch Garden. Again, the spring display was composed of a riot of tulips, wallflowers and pansies. I wish I knew the correct name for the deep blue forget-me-not used in the bedding. I have seen it before when visiting gardens but have never found a name or a source for it.
Against the southfacing wall, Paeonia rockii had produced a good crop of its spectacular purple-centred white flowers.
In the greenhouse I found Bletilla striata, Polygala dalmaisiana and an interesting small flowered Pelargonium.
Going further east, past more wallflowers, we came to formal lawned area extending between the house and a brick-built pavilion, containing lines of yew obelisks.
Everywhere there were mass plantings of parrot tulips, many past their best, but glorious in their disarray. I particularly loved the purple ones.
On a sheltered wall near the house, this seldom seen, at most half-hardy New Zealand shrub was in full flower.
Moving on along the south side of the house, past the end of the Red and Purple border we came across a large plant of Coronilla valentina, which must fill this area with fragrance for most of the year.
Now we entered the Glasshouse Garden, with a large central pot bursting with white tulips, and long box-lined borders filled with a glorious multi-coloured selection.
Here, against the wall of the tea room, an enormous deep red form of Paeonia suffruticosa captured my interest for some time.
In the conservatory here, a large pan of Echeveria stood on the table. On the bench behind it, a magnificent cat slept contentedly. I don’t think anyone dared disturb it.
By now my family were keen for a break and some lunch. Our path led us under a most attractive white Rhododendron.
This break proved to be most enjoyable. We had a most excellent meal, in a very elegant tea room, served by a group of charming ladies. The sausage rolls and gingerbread in particular were magnificent.
Leaving the tea room, the way led us through the entrance wildflower meadow, with its Camassia leichtlinii, into an area called the Winter Garden, which focuses on leaves and bark and includes another walk with a borrowed view, through a porthole cut through the sheltering pines, to the lighthouse at Happisburgh. Under the holly and Eucalyptus, this sprawling Ferula was just coming into flower.
Passing through an opening in the hedge, we came to an area with formal borders and little groups of topiary, playing with shape and colour. Across the central path was another meadow area with Camassia leichtlinii and Narcissus poeticus flowering together, backed by a hedge of standard hornbeams, which looked very elegant.
Walking down these borders, there were some striking plants, even in early May. These included a very attractive yellow and white Dutch iris, a lovely pale blue form of Camassia leichtlinii, Mathiasella bupleuroides ‘Green Dream’ and, once again, an even more compelling Euphorbia palustris.
In this area a number of shrubs were flowering. I cannot put a name to either of these.
Our next stop was the Diamond Jubilee Walled Garden, echoing the walled gardens of the great houses of the past. Here in the greenhouse, there were some nice plants of Geranium maderense and on the walls there were well-established plants of the yellow Dendromecon rigida from California and a white form of Clianthus puniceus, neither of them reliably hardy.
Towering over the walls of the garden were some interesting, fun fair-like structures that proved to be a wonderfully ornate fruit cage. Near this was another tree I couldn’t name (Prunus?) and another large Daphne.
Beyond the fruit cage lies a feature known as the Hortus spiralis, composed of a spiral path leading into a circle of burnt wooden spires enclosing two seats. Around these were banks of Euphorbia and what I thought was Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’, though the camera doesn’t seem to have captured the colour quite right. I am sure that as summer moves on, other herbaceous perennials grow up to create an air of seclusion and secrecy about these seats.
In the garden here, another interesting sculpture framed a viewline to the church. Turning the other way, another green walk took us to the Mediterranean Garden, with its series of warm south-facing terraces. All manner of dubiously hardy plants seem to thrive here. The huge blue spires of Echium pininana are starting to rise from a sea of Euphorbia, punctuated by the glaucous rosettes of Beschorneria yuccoides and the purple spires of tree heather.
Against the walls we find more Dendromecon rigida and turning the corner back towards the Winter Garden, a huge plant of Corokia cotoneaster, with its twining branches covered with yellow starry flowers. Beyond the Corokia, a deep orange Geum glowed from the shady border.
The pavilion at the centre of the Mediterranean Garden sits in a paved area, with pots of tulips and Cordyline. It provides a sheltered seat out of the worst of the wind. Behind the seat, Clematis x. armandii has finished flowering for the year. The white flowers are some sort of mallow.
Overhead, the palm tree was flowering, whilst in front of the pavilion there was a small area planted with miniature Narcissus.
The next area of garden features converging walks with views to churches outside the garden and a stretch of green lawn leading back towards the King’s Walk and the house. Windows through the hedges give intriguing glimpses of what is on the other side.
Moving west, you are drawn to another contemporary sculpture, this time modelling the structure of a giant umbellifer. From here, there is a lovely view through the wilderness to the church.
South of this, you can exit the wilderness into an area which has been modelled on dryland areas of America, where occasional storms create flash floods leaving dry channels. Most of the features of the garden are constructed from flints. The planting here focuses on succulent plants such as Agave and Aloe, palms and cacti, growing in extremely well-drained soil. At this time of the year, most of the flowers are Euphorbia (backed in some of the pictures by an enormous Alogyne huegelii) but in summer I am told it blossoms with Californian poppies and other annuals.
Turning back northwards, through the woodland garden, we came across a large clump of Paeonia delavayi in full bloom. Overhead, the new leaves on the maples are fluttering in the wind. Underneath them there are large patches of Brunnera macrophylla with patterned foliage and blue flowers.
I love charming single form of Kerria japonica, which I have grown for thirty years.
Lots of other treasures await those who take the time to explore this area of the garden, including: Omphalodes cappadocica ‘Cherry Ingram’, Paeonia mlokosewitschii, a nice planting of white Symphytum and a curious unlabelled fern.
Now we walked back through the middle of the garden, trying to find areas we had missed. One such was the Clematis Walk. In the summer, this will be garlanded by clematis and climbing roses and beneath them herbaceous peonies which were not yet out. However, there was a large specimen of Paeonia delavayi (var. ludlowii) and the golden box hedges were backed by pools of deep pink tulips – a wonderful combination.
At the southern end of the Clematis Walk, we found ourselves once again at convergence of paths, where the Apple Walk provides a view out to Happisburgh Church. Here, the converging hornbeam hedges have been sculpted into buildings and the benches are surrounded by pots of tulips in glorious abandon.
On our return to the exit, I found some more hidden areas: a patch of grass where buttercups had been allowed to grow and an interesting shaded seating area, with pots of Japanese maples, hostas, Podophyllum and ferns.
In conclusion, this was a glorious garden, full of colour and interest to brighten the spirit on a cold but mostly sunny day. I am sure there are many hidden corners we missed but we found plenty of interest in early May and masses of promise for the summer. I haven’t even touched on the National Collection of Colchicum, or the cornfield areas full of wildflower seed. If I get there when it is flowering, it will be hard to tear me away. I shall make every effort to return at some point later in the year.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org