I went to visit a Yellow Book open garden today. It was a new entry to the scheme this year, and the supply of NGS openings trails off markedly after mid July, so I was intrigued. It was in Lavenham, and my garden visiting chum who lives in that neck of the woods had spotted it. We agreed to meet there at half past two, the theory being that we'd have time to look at the garden and then have tea before the cake ran out.
It was on the very edge of the village, where the streets plunge down quite a steep hill to a little river, more of a stream after a dry spell at this time of year. Following its fantastically wiggly path downstream on Google maps I think it is an upper stretch of the river Brett, which passes through Hadleigh before joining the Stour south of Higham. And it turned out you got a very good view of the stream from the garden, because most of the garden consisted of a long thin strip along the river bank, a good three hundred feet long but no more than thirty feet wide and gradually tapering off to nothing.
It was clearly a real plant enthusiast's garden. We'd assumed it must be, because otherwise who would open in mid August in the dry expanses of East Anglia? A good garden has something to offer in every season, but in truth July and August can be challenging around here in a hot, dry summer. June more or less takes care of itself, which is why so many village Open Gardens happen then. Roses, hardy geraniums, some nepeta and a peony or two and you're away. The leaves are still fresh and the grass is still green. English gardens just fall into place in June. By mid August if you haven't done some planning there's not going to be a lot to see.
I hoped for exotics, and was made gently happy by what I found (both the plants and the fact that almost everything was labelled). The gravelled area at the front of the small, rambling cottage, given over for the day to the teas and plant sales, had some very interesting things in pots, and I imagined the elegant and almost empty greenhouse would be full to bursting come the winter. I was smitten anew by the charms of Amicia zygomeris, a strange half hardy member of the pea family with extraordinary leaves, and two different sorts of Erythrina as well as the usual E. christa-galli, with big, spiny leaves. In a little bed tucked up against the cottage walls were two beautiful specimens of Bergenia ciliata, their gigantic softly hairy leaves miraculously uneaten by slugs (as were the cannas). Christopher Lloyd raved about B. ciliata in his books, and I could see why.
There were flowers too. Although the plant palette was exotic, the planting style was more spaced out than mine, and being given their own space suited the many Echinacea very well. Somebody, and I think it was one of the tutors at Writtle, told me that the reason why so many people lose this species from their gardens was that it disliked being thrust into a mass of competing plants. Given that the many named varieties in vivid shades of yellow and pink that have been released in recent years retail at eight or ten quid a pop, it must be upsetting to buy them only to find the next year that they are nowhere to be seen. There were hydrangeas, and some roses and clematis, and a sprinkling of penstemon flowers though they were largely over (despite the claim for them in some quarters that they flower 'all summer'). There were quite a few grasses, and their seed heads were looking very good. There were yellow daisies, as there always are by late summer, and some dahlias but not as many as I might have expected.
The other name I wrote down in my notebook was Melianthus villosus which had made a handsome shrub about four feet tall and at least as wide. Its leaves are less grey than the more commonly seen Melianthus major, beautifully pleated, and it made a bush plant well furnished down to ground level. M. major can get very leggy. Spikes of brown seed heads showed it had flowered and we'd missed it, but I wasn't really worried about the flowers. The internet tells me they are brown. I was simply enchanted by the leaves. It's no good, though, I really don't have room for one unless I were to remove something else equally substantial.
By the time we got to the tea stall it looked almost as if the cakes were running out, but there was some chocolate sponge left which pleased my friend, and I got the tail end of an obviously home made lemon drizzle cake, which looked hideous but was a huge slice because of being the end of the loaf, and just deliciously slightly tart rather than super saturated in sugar. So the teas were a hit, and so was the plant stall. Rather than sell odds and bobs they'd raised themselves (which can be a good way of picking up really obscure plants) the owners had invited in a local nursery who were giving a percentage to the NGS. Initially I couldn't see anything I wanted as I looked over the plants on offer while waiting for my friend, then suddenly I realised that sitting on the ground was a sole specimen of Salvia 'Amistad'. It is a particularly handsome variety with purple flowers emerging from black calyces with black stems to reinforce the point. I bought one last year but it didn't come through the winter planted out in the border, and I wanted to try again, but balked at paying a full mail order delivery charge for a single plant. Most mail order suppliers seemed to have run out anyway. Suddenly a well grown specimen in a two litre pot was mine for six pounds. I haven't yet decided whether to risk it again in the ground or if it should become an honorary dahlia and live in a big pot in the greenhouse for the winter.
Lavenham is a very pretty little town. When the Systems Administrator and I went there to the church concert it rained, so we didn't wander about and look at it as much as we'd planned, but at least it meant I knew where the car park was. This time as I ambled through the centre from the car park to the banks of the Brett and back again I had a good look. The buildings are fabulous, and I rather enjoyed the quantity and variety of tubs and window boxes in the almost universal absence of front gardens. Top marks go to the square dark grey tubs planted with standard lavender and the tender blue flowered Convolvulus sabiatus, the booby prize to the display of dead Helichrysum petiolaris and dessicated lobelia. Best not to bother if you aren't going to water them.