A good old fashion summer


It’s been a great summer for us gardeners and we can’t complain, we’ve just had a proper summer! We actually had sunshine and warmth throughout most of August just what the summer flower displays needed and the roses seemed better than ever. Sunny days have been bringing back childhood memories of running in dry stubble fields after the combine harvesters, getting blistered fingers from trying to haul straw bales onto the trailer and climbing on mountainous stacks of baled straw – all without a fluorescent jacket and hard hat! Not to mention my first taste of ‘scrumpy’ with the farm workers in the tractor shed. God we were tough in them days!!

Enough reminiscing. This year has also seen the first results of the Hydrangea trials that are being grown in the gardens on behalf of the Royal Horticultural Society. Another trial running for comparison is at the Crown Estate, Saville gardens in Winsor Great Park. Hydrangeas are a popular garden shrub with delicate heads of flowers in shades of pink, white or blue. The mop heads and lacecaps are well known for their ability to change colour in different soils.

Hydrangea beds

Hydrangea beds

Here at Abbotsbury the trial is concentrating on growing the alkaline soil colours of rich crimson, red to pink. What are the judges looking for? – Awarding the RHS AGM. An award for garden worthiness which will act as a guide for gardeners when making a choice. These are only awarded if a plant can meet the following criteria *A plant with stable colour * Availability * Of Good constitution   * Plants which are reasonably resistant to pests and disease * Excellent for ordinary use in appropriate conditions.

Travel has always played a big part in my life and more so in recent years where I have been lucky enough to get to see wild native plants in different regions of the world growing in their natural habitat, many of which are instantly recognisable as a good old garden plants back home but often seem to be seen as growing more vigorously in their own native wild habitat. Sometimes I have been lucky enough to obtain seed from wild sourced plants and have grown these species back home but with the added knowledge of knowing exactly the right conditions for the plant to grow in, therefore replicating the right habitat and environment is key to successfully growing them. Some years ago I travelled through the National Parks of Chile, in one particular area known as La Campana National Park, northwest of Santiago in the Chilean coastal range mountains. Within the dry scrubby hillsides all sorts of interesting plants survived but one colourful scarlet flowered plant caught my eye.

Lobelia excelsa

Lobelia excelsa

This was Lobelia excelsa. It is an evergreen sub shrub that grows up to 2m tall and seems to thrive on the dry hillsides with coastal fog and salty air. Perfect for Abbotsbury’s conditions. I have been growing it here since 2005 but this year it has flowered continuously for at least 3 months, that’s value for money! It can get severely cut back in the coldest winter but plenty of mulch will help it pull through from the root-stock in the spring. The locals call it “Tobacco del diablo” or Devils tobacco, with its clusters of tubular, coral red flowers and silvery green foliage it is similar to but not to confused with – the smaller more herbaceous Lobelia tupa.


Flaming June

Flaming June!!

Right now I am mentally confused over the weather! Some may agree with the narrative that I am mentally confused but that’s usually until I’ve had my first cup of coffee of the morning. It all started back in January when I had a wonderful family holiday in Costa Rica. We arrived at San Jose airport to a wonderfully warm 28C and clear blue skies. Travelling through this pastoral landscape with exotic jungle in the background, we ended up having to cope with chilling out on long, empty, Palm fringed beaches, sipping Pina coladas, and hanging out with the local Sloths. It was hard going but we endured it. On return to Heathrow we were thrown back into the reality of a cold damp January morning. It’s then that my body clock was thrown into confusion. Where did the summer go!! Oh well at least our summer is coming. And now as we pass the summer solstice or the longest day of year, cool and unsettled conditions have prevailed all month which has prompted many to sardonically comment on the absence of a “Flaming June”. On the positive side many of our freshly planted garden plants are thriving with the mild damp conditions by putting on lots of new growth. If only we had some sun at the same time to promote flowering!

NFlaming_June,_by_Frederic_Lord_Leighton_(1830-1896)ot all is as would seem with that often used quote. It turns out that flaming June was originally nothing to do with early summer heat; rather, it was the title of an aesthetic late-Victorian painting by the artist Fredric Lord Leighton completed in 1895, a year before his death. It is thought that the women portrayed in the painting alludes to the sleeping nymphs and naiads the Greeks often sculpted. The toxic oleander branch in the top right of the picture symbolizes the fragile link between sleep and death.

This interesting bit of background has made me look into another proverb associated with the weather. “Mad March winds and April Showers”.                                                                         This could apply to June right now, but looking on the optimistic side we might have a “Scorching July, or pigs might fly” This is my new proverb! We may have heard at some point by an early age at school “April Showers bring May Flowers” It’s a popular saying in springtime, but research has proven that the rhyme can be traced back to the mid-1500s, although earlier use of this may have existed. In 1557 a gentleman by the name of Thomas Tusser compiled a collection of writings that he called “A Hundred good points of husbandry”. In the April husbandry section he wrote: “Sweet April showers do spring May flowers”


Abbotsbury Gardens 250 years old in 2015

It’s the end of the year and what a busy year it has been. The gardens have achieved remarkable longevity as they are 250 years old this year and they are still managed by the same family many generations later. We celebrated by holding events in the garden throughout the year and to finalise the season we had “The Abbotsbury Gardens Story” published in November.

This book has been an ongoing recollection of my involvement with the gardens restoration, investment and development. It also reflects over ten years of research and detective work to piece together snippets of information about the Earls and Duchesses of Ilchester and succeeding generations of the Ilchester family that were connected with the gardens of had any horticultural influence.

As I sit here in my garden office on Christmas Eve morning the rain is hammering down in a stormy warm south westerly gale. Bedraggled Pheasant are wondering through the puddles and dead leaves are scattering in the wind. The talk is of how mild the weather is for the time of year, certainly no stereotype white Christmas this year!

I thought I’d end the year with an extract from my book, a piece on the weather. Something us British love to talk about at any given moment.

“Further generations of Fox-Strangways kept the Gardens maintained as a ‘pleasure garden’ for guests and to indulge their passion for plants. However, on 23 November 1824 a violent storm hit much of the south coast and was referred to as the ‘Great Storm’. It was documented in various newspapers and caused quite a sensation at the time. In the book Elizabeth Lady Holland to her Son (edited by the 5th Earl of Ilchester) it states that Lord Ilchester ‘lost his decoy or Swannery entirely’:

 The embankment gave way, and the whole is filled with sea and shingles. The house at Abbotsbury was filled with wretched shipwrecked mariners of all nations. Happy for them to meet with shelter and hospitality.

 The height of the sea which had been forced over Chesil Beach by the violence of the waves was 22 ft 8 inches above ground at the entrance to the Swannery. It is recorded that ‘38 pheasants were picked up drowned, besides hares, rabbits, mice, etc innumerable’. There was little reference to the Gardens at this time, presumably because the trees were still quite small in most of the plantations and no mature specimens were there to be blown down. In a letter dated 4 January 1825 from Lady Elizabeth Fielding to William Henry Fox Talbot she says:

 On leaving town I went first to Abbotsbury where the late storm has changed the face of nature. The bank of pebbles is greatly lowered and will remain so in future for centuries to come. I saw a boat in the middle of a ploughed field far from the sea. The swans were dispersed far and wide. Fleet church which had stood 500 years was washed away. In the village of Chesil 36 houses were washed away. The sea reached Wyck wood far inland. They are going to erect stones to mark to future generations the points the sea reached. The boathouse at Abbotsbury was the only building on the beach that survived the storm from Weymouth to Sidmouth.

Gardens story 001


Have a very happy Christmas and New Year.

Garden updates

The year 2015 corresponds near enough to the 250th year that the walled garden at Abbotsbury was conceived. It was built for Elizabeth Fox Strangways, the 1st Countess of Ilchester, primarily as a sheltered kitchen garden where espaliered fruit trees were grown on the walls and vegetables were harvested for the family home known as Abbotsbury castle that stood on a bluff of land overlooking Chesil beach just a short distance from where the gardens are today. In order to celebrate this remarkable achievement of longevity we have had a special beer brewed by a local microbrewery ‘Gyle 59’ . We searched for an added ingredient that could add a spice or hint of flavouring from plants that were growing in the garden. One plant that seemed a likely candidate was Tasmannia lanceolata or ‘Mountain pepper’.  It is a shrub native to woodlands and cool temperate rainforest of south-eastern Australia and grows well in our woodland. The first brew nearly blew your head off as it was very strong but Gyle 59 did a great job on the second attempt and we now have a beer with a very distinct spicy taste and not too strong at alc.3.7% vol. The second phase was to start a competition open to our regulars on facebook to come up with a name for the beer. The final name was selected as “Tropical Thunder” and a green leaf logo on the bottle has added the final touch.

Tropical Thunder Beer

Tropical Thunder Beer


Beer Label





I must manage my time better and not commit to more projects, words that echo in my head but the trouble with creative gardening is that there are never ending options and developments to pursue and no sooner have I seen off one new landscape development along comes another. The new ‘Burma rope bridge’ was built early in the year and has seen constant use ever since, making a nice addition to the Jurassic swamp garden at the bottom of the valley. We planted new plants that were sourced from various nurseries that had plants with a provenance from the Myanmar region of the eastern Himalayas, many that I had seen in the wild on my trek to ‘Phongon Razi’ on the Burma Indian border back in November 2014. There are many plants I had seen in Myanmar that were originally written up in the journals of Frank Kingdom Ward who travelled extensively in this region in 1920. Having also trekked on jungle trails and over steep gorges high above fast flowing tributary rivers of the Irrawaddy  it is fun trying to replicate or mimic a little part of that journey.

Portesham Primary School childern

Portesham Primary School children

This new rope bridge is of course designed for children and families with safety in mind, whilst the steel roped bridges I traversed were a little dodgy to say the least with rusted cables and great sections of planks missing from the base as you peered down to the white water below! The grand opening ceremony was conducted by the well-known plantsman and author Roy Lancaster, who gave a wonderful speech about Rudyard Kipling’s

Roy Lancaster opening the Rope Bridge

Roy Lancaster opening the Rope Bridge

‘The Jungle book’ to inspire the children of Portesham primary school who then proceeded across the pond along the rope bridge with lots of enthusiasm and exited chatter.

In July the gardens also held a Barn dance in the tea garden of the Old Colonial Restaurant which was well attended by holiday makers and staff. The band were the ‘Black Sheep’ who really livened up the evening with some great fiddle tunes and the caller managed  to get everyone together on the dance floor.

Black Sheep band and  mystery Mandolin player !

Black Sheep band and mystery Mandolin player !

In August we held a garden fair with various activities all taking place on west lawn. There was a face painter, a rock climbing wall, a giant bouncy castle, an artist caricaturist and taking center stage was the ferret racing which was great fun for children and adults alike.

Another project successfully started this year are the Hydrangea Trials in the gardens. We have planted up the Hydrangeas in the woodland behind what was once the sculpture trail, making an unused area into a colourful shrubbery. The Royal horticultural society has been running plant trials for many years but has recently decided to extend trials to new sites and gardens other than just at their headquarters at Wisley. The idea is to grow and monitor selected new cultivars over a period of 3 years, to check their vigour, disease resistance, flower colours and growth habit. I am joining the panel of experts that include site visits to Saville gardens in Winsor Great Park who are also growing a trial but growing on soils that are more acid than ours which will show a greater concentration of blue flowers. We will meet twice a year to take notes and the outcome will be that selected plants will be given an AGM (Award of garden merit) which then will help the nursery trade in potential sales and provide public information.

Hydrangea trial beds

Hydrangea trial beds

Inspirational spring plants and Garden development

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At last spring is well under way with the woodland valley full of bursting Magnolias and vibrant Camellias, Daphnes, Corylopsis, and the waxy beaded flowers of Stachyrus chinensis.  I had a walk around the garden with fellow plantsmen and passionate gardeners Jim Gardiner and Roy Lancaster on a chilly and damp day in March when there was much to see and talk about.

2015-03-19 09.04.06

Daphne bholoa


2015-03-13 13.57.23

Buddleja officinalis

One plant that has been flowering in the Victorian garden since Christmas caught our eye. That was a Buddleja in full flower with the palest of mauve panicles and a soft downy grey leaf, a plant I had often thought of as Buddleja salvifolia from South Africa. It certainly resembles that species but the clue in its identity lies in the time of year that it has been seen flowering. Because this is a winter flowering species it was agreed that it is more likely to be B. officinalis, a semi-evergreen shrub from Western and central China that was introduced by Ernest Wilson in 1908. Another very notable Daphne bholua in flower just off the main ride was unusually covered with not just from the terminal buds but spreading along the entire stem, most definitely a plant worthy grafting in the future. The Magnolia campbellii trees have flowered excessively well this spring with some later cultivars following through as the very early Magnolias lose their petals to the recent gales.

Magnolia campbellii

Magnolia campbellii

The gardens are always being developed with new inspirational input, from rare plant collections to improved infrastructure. This winter is no exception and work began in mid-February to build an impressive “Burma Rope Bridge” or “Myanmar Rope Bridge” as the country is now known, across the Jurassic pond area at the very bottom of the valley in a site that really does have a steamy tropical appearance and a very Jungle like atmosphere. In time new planting will improve the site and keep a theme of plants that are native to the higher elevations of the Myanmar Himalayan region.2015-03-20 15.08.07

Another project that is well under way is the addition of over 200 new Hydrangeas provided by the Royal Horticultural Society to be grown as a woody plants trial. A team of experts will assess their garden merit over a three year period. They will be grown above the area where we had the sculpture trail. This site has seen some changes recently where some big Pine trees have blown down and opened the site with better light levels creating the perfect woodland conditions for growing Hydrangeas.2015-03-10 11.47.35

It is not often a British garden can celebrate its 250th year but Abbotsbury has achieved this landmark this year, and remarkably it has been cared for by the stewardship of the same family ever since its conception when the walled garden was built in 1765. There will be many events to follow this year, all listed on our website, and hopefully later this summer I will have  a new book published about the gardens development, past , present and future.