A year in the gardens
A year round guide to our Gardeners' favourite flowers and wildlife from around the Glyndebourne gardens.
Plant of the Month: Willow Tree
Even common-or-garden varieties of plants play an important role in the Glyndebourne gardens. It would be easy to take for granted the willow trees (Salix alba) that fringe the banks at the bottom of the lake but they form a crucial part of the garden’s treescape. During the summer the curtains that the trees form provide shade along the lakeside path. In spring, the catkins that cloak the trees are an important early source of nectar for bees and insects. But for many of the people who work at Glyndebourne, the joy of the willows is their winter colouring. The new stems that the tree has produced in the previous season are brightly coloured in bright sunlight seem to set the whole tree ablaze. Even on dull days the trees have a coppery-red sheen that makes a dramatic contrast with the sky.
Willow can be cut down to the ground every two or three years to keep the small. Left alone they will soon reach 15 metres tall, so are only suitable for very large gardens and parks. They are easily propagated from cuttings and often a branch that touches the ground will take root.
Plant of the Month: Algerian Iris
As in most gardens, at Glyndebourne, the traditional heralds of spring are snowdrops, crocuses and the occasional primrose. Tucked at the base of the walls around the house, though, is an unsung plant that has been in flower for weeks.
Iris unguicularis, commonly known as the the Algerian iris, has lavender-blue flowers that are sweetly scented. Seeing it flower in the middle of winter is always a surprise, as is where it grows. To thrive, this iris needs poor, dry soil that gets baked by the summer sun. To grow it in your own garden, plant it in the worst, stoniest soil you have and keep it dry. The flowers can be picked and last for days in a vase.
Not even this iris’s most ardent fan would say that the foliage is attractive. To describe it as untidy is being kind. But it is worth tolerating the mess of leaves for the beauty of the flowers. In the summer, when we are drowning it beautiful flowers, this flower would still be a treasure. In the middle of winter, it is worth more than rubies.
Plant of the Month: Cornus mas
Sometimes it pays to ignore the gardening books. Read about Cornus mas, the winter-flowering cornelian cherry, and you will learn that they need to grown away from cold, drying winds, out of frost pockets and in well-drained soil. Whoever planted the Cornus mas in the gardens at Glyndebourne had not been reading the right books, because here the shrubs thrive.
In a cold, windy spot frost pocket in boggy soil near the lake the golden flowers glow in the spring sunlight.
It is a slow-growing shrub that, even after fifteen years years, will only get to about ten feet tall. The flowers are small and by themselves not significant but, together, they smother the shrub and create the glowing effect that has made the plant a popular spring flowering shrub.
After a hot summer, the shrub will produce red, cherry-like berries that look good against the autumn foliage. Again, according to the books, they can be used to make a tasty preserve. None of the gardeners have ever had time to make it, so we can’t verify how tasty (or otherwise) it actually is.
Plant of the Month: Narcissus Tête à Tête
This is probably Europe’s most popular dwarf daffodil. Millions are produced each year to be forced into early-flowering and sold for temporary planting in patio containers or for decorating the house. Most of them will never see another spring, thrown away as soon as they have finished flowering.
That is a real waste because the plant is tough, easy-to-grow and quickly forms large groups. At Glyndebourne there are colonies of Narcissus ‘Tête à Tête’ in the rough grass around the lake and on the edge of the orchard. There are many other varieties of daffodil that have naturalised in the gardens but this is one of the first to flower and its diminutive stature (only six inches high) and clear buttercup-yellow flowers make it one of the most attractive. Most daffodils have a single flower at the top of each stem, this one has several flowers so you get more flower power per bulb.
If you are planting bulbs that have been grown in a pot and have finished flowering, plant them with about two inches of the stem buried under the soil.
Plant of the Month: Camassia
The gardeners have one of the best views of the gardens with, in the foreground, the orchard meadow. The meadow wakes slowly at the beginning of the year with the first tentative primroses and early daffodils. Now, in May, the area is punctuated by the tall blue spires of Camassia. Even before the flowers appear the glaucous spears of the foliage are a handsome sight.
The first of the Cammassias to flower are the dark blue forms, followed by those with china-blue flowers and, finally, the pure white cultivars. Each plant consists of 100 or so star-like flowers that open from the bottom of the stem upwards to form a dense column of flowers. The bulbs are perfect for naturalising in grass and soon form large colonies. The foliage dies away by midsummer.
Camassias are indigenous to North America and the bulbs were once a staple of native Americans.
Plant of the Month: Dianthus carthusianorum
Dancing among the froth of grasses in the crescent border at the moment is a dark magenta flower that seems to be held aloft by magic. The flowers sway and bob amongst the grasses in even the gentlest breeze. Although it looks nothing like a carnation or an old-fashioned pink the delicate flower is on the same family - Dianthus.
It is a wild form, called Dianthus carthusianorum, that is a native of alpine meadows throughout Europe. The plant was brought to Britain from Grenoble by Carthusian monks who arrived in Britain during the twelfth century at the invitation of Henry II. Its popularity as a garden plant is on the increase after recent appearances at the Chelsea Flower Show. It is an easy plant to raise from seed and packets of seed are avilable in the Glyndebourne shop.
Plant of the Month: Lavender
The dry, chalky soil and baking hot conditions with shelter from the wind create a micro-climate in the crescent garden that at times feels almost Mediterranean. It is not surprising, then, that lavender should thrive in this area of the garden. We have planted rows of English lavender, Lavandula angustifolia in two parts of the crescent garden, interplanted with tulips and alliums that flower during the spring. In the summer the flowers of a white Agapanthus push through the lavenders and in the autumn Molinia caerulea stands upright amongst the domes of lavender.
The scent of the flowers is heady and intoxicating on hot summer days and Head Gardener, Kevin Martin reports that on crisp and cold early mornings the scent from the shrubs is also strong.
Plant of the Month: Colutea arborescens
One of the many plants of Mediterranean origin that thrive in the Glyndebourne gardens is the shrub, Colutea arborescens. Throughout the summer it is covered with coppery-yellow flowers that resemble those of the pea family. It’s the startling, inflated seed pods, though, that are the main attraction of the plant. They give Colutea its common name of Bladder Senna.
As the season develops the pods take on an attractive bronze hue and by the autumn they are paper-thin. In a strong breeze you can hear the ripe seed rattle inside the fragile pods.
The plant was introduced into Britain as long ago as the 1560, probably because it was assumed to have medicinal purposes. In 1597, the herbalist John Gerrard records having it growing in his garden, observing only that it is not the true senna.
Plant of the Month: Clereodendron
The air at the end of the long bar is filled with a fragrance so sweet that heads are turning to find the source. But the perfume is not the product of a master perfumer. It is wafting in from a shrub planted close to the opera house.
Clereodendron trichotomum var. fargesii has white, waxy flowers with red bracts that are so delicate they could have been created by Fabergé. In its native China the shrub can grow to 20 feet tall but here at Glyndbourne ours our half that height. To grow well it needs fertile soil and dappled shade.
If you are attending Glyndebourne for a performance of the Tour during October take a look at the fruits that the shrub produces once the flowers are over: they are a striking combination of a bright blue berry surrounded by a dark red seed pod.
Plant of the Month: Glyndebourne Rose
Rosa ‘Glyndebourne’ is a modern shrub rose with flowers that resemble a traditional old-English variety. It is a vigourous, healthy plant that produces masses of roses from late June to November. The flowers are sumptuous, full-petalled and with a soft, delicate fragrance. The centre of the flower is a light peach colour that fades to almond blossom on the outer petals. Philip Harkness has recorded an average of 75 petals in each flower. The plant will grow to 1.4 m tall and 1.0 m wide. They are ideal for use in mixed borders or planted as a group for maximum impact in the garden.
Plant of the Month: Persicaria Orientalis
The Glyndebourne gardeners are always on the lookout for interesting and unusual plants, particularly those that continue flowering into the autumn. We are as fickle as other gardeners and our favourite plant constantly changes but our current ‘coup de coeur’ is a little-known annual, Persicaria orientalis.
The plant is a giant relative of the native bistort. It has thick stems, similar to those of bamboo, that usually grow to 2m – 2.5m tall. This year, because of the wet weather, some of our Persicarias have grown to over 3m tall. From September onwards the whole plants is spectacularly draped in long cerise, velour-like tassels. They resemble the colour and texture of the flock wallpaper that was widely used in provincial Indian restaurants in the 1960s and 1970s, so they might not be to everyone’s taste. We love them.
If you want to grow Persicaria orientalis in your own garden, sow the seeds in small pots in April or May in a cold frame or greenhouse and plant them out in June. Alternatively, you can sow the seeds in June directly in to the soil where you want the plant to grow.
In its native North America it goes by a common name so flamboyant that it’s worth growing just to be able to sprinkle the name into conversations: ‘Kiss Me Over the Garden Gate’.
Wildlife of the Month: Birds
Winter at Glyndebourne is a quiet time for the staff here, however, in the garden the trees and bushes are full with visitors of the bird kind. The grounds are a natural haven for wildbirds; Cuckoos and Little Owls are often heard but not seem, birds of prey such as Buzzards, Sparrowhawks, Kestrels, and sometimes even Red Kites, command the skies whilst at ground level, game and waterfowl patrol the fields and lake.
To help some of the smaller birds through the colder months, every day we replenish over twenty bird feeding stations with peanuts and wild bird seed. The stations are hung in trees and bushes around the theatre, and throughout the garden, and attract all varieties of Finches, Tits, Wagtails, Crests, Thrushes, Creepers and the more common species of birds such as Blackbirds, sparrows and Robins.
Read the gardener's tips on how to make your own bird feeder...