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Gardening with Hannah Genders

Colours of spring

Posted on February 17 2009 at 2:43:09 0 comments

Erythroniums in bulb meadow

Hannah Genders visits a colourful bulb meadow and advises on how to create your own.

I do love visiting gardens for inspiration and ideas at all times of the year and all over the country, but my favourite to see in the spring has to be in Devon, on the edge of Dartmoor.

The garden is called the Garden House and it sits in a beautiful valley near Buckland. Buckland itself is famous for its abbey and its ale and the Garden House has many historical ties with the abbey and its former residents.

The current elegant house was designed and built as the vicarage for the local church, but the site holds a wonderful walled garden that belonged to a priest from Buckland Abbey, and this part dates back to 1305. The walls and tower still stand, although crumbling a little, and this area has been planted in a very romantic style with roses and cottage garden perennials.

The garden finally lost its association with the local church when it was bought as a private residence in the 1920s – a man called Lionel Fortescue saw the potential in the position and its aspect. He is the person we need to thank for what can be seen today; he was a painter and a fanatical plantsman and it is the combination of colour and textures he planted together which really inspire the visitor in this lovely garden.

The whole site covers eight acres and contains so many different areas, from the South African garden to cottage garden borders and a quarry garden. The walled garden I mentioned earlier is a wonderful place to spend some time, but I have to say that my favourite part, and the reason I would choose it at this time of year, is the bulb meadow.

The bulb meadow is just below the main lawn and has been imaginatively planted, but in a very unfussy, natural way. This part of the garden has been created on a sloping bank with a central path that winds through the area under some beautiful and very stately magnolias (Magnolia x loebneri). The dappled shade and natural leaf mould from these is perfect for the drifts of bulbs underneath, and there are thousands.

The bulbs in this spring garden display flower continuously from January to April; first the snowdrops and cyclamen, with the little iris reticulata poking its head through in February.

These are followed by dwarf daffodils, and towards the end, in April, the fabulous Erythronium revolutum, sometimes called “dog tooth” violets. These wonderful flowers have petals curling backwards from the centre. Snakes head fritillaries (Fritillaria meleagris) also grow in profusion in the more open areas.

The reason this area of the garden works so well is down to Fortescue’s knowledge of his plants and the conditions they needed to thrive. What has been created in the bulb meadow is a replica for any woodland environment.

The magnolias create the tree canopy and as they drop their leaves in the autumn, this allows enough light to reach the woodland flora during the early spring months when it is needed for the plants to flower. The leaf mulch that builds up is also perfect for feeding and protecting the early bulbs.

I also spotted a beautiful woodland anemone on my visit, with a blue tinge to the flower petals – it turns out that this was a local variety and on sale in the garden shop.

Not only are these gardens a joy to visit – they can also inspire ideas for our own gardens at home. A spring bulb meadow like the one at The Garden House can be recreated on a much smaller scale.

If you have a small deciduous tree (one that drops its leaves each year) or a few large shrubs in a spare corner, try your own bulb planting. Bulbs like jostling for space so don’t worry too much about planting plenty next to each other, and to make it look natural you can create “drifts” with the bulbs by throwing them down in an area and planting them where they land to avoid straight lines.

You will need to do this in the autumn when the bulbs are dormant and then it can be there for you to enjoy each spring.

The Garden House has a very good website: http://www.thegardenhouse.org.uk  The opening times are 11am to 3pm from February to November.

For more inspiration and practical advice, The Garden House also runs plenty of day or weekend courses in the gardens.


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