Lewis Cottage is a hidden gem of a garden buried in glorious countryside, between the Mid Devon villages of Colerooke and  Spreyton. Twenty years ago Richard Orton and his friends Michael and Penny Pell took over an overgrown one acre woodland garden and, inspired by the styles of Beth Chatto and Gertrude Jekyll, they have expanded it into beautiful informal gardens combining relaxed planting schemes and formal borders with woodland areas dedicated to attracting wildlife. The gardens are open every year to visitors under the National Garden Scheme.  In the first of his blogs, Richard reports  on the unexpected success of their tropical border.
Red Castor Oil plant complemented by canna, agapanthus and sweet peas.

As storm Ellen rampaged through the South West recently, sweeping all before her, I lay in bed that first evening wondering how much havoc she had wreaked in the garden and whether the Balsam Poplars would hang in there. The largest, which I can see from my bedroom was bending to the wind as if its life depended on it. Notoriously brittle when they reach over 30 feet this one is an offshoot from an original tree that snapped in half many years ago. But I’d not be without one, for the scent in spring truly heralds the start of the gardening year. Fortunately, nestling in the hollow of a combe we escaped the main force of the storm, though our new tropical border must have thought the hurricane season had begun early! This tropical border, as we’ve come to know it, has been the big success of the season and no one is more surprised than we are. In March, as lockdown began, and it looked like there would be no open garden weekends, we thought that we’d put aside any plans for the new border and instead just fill it with whatever plants we had left over in the nursery and a few pots of summer annuals to fill in the gaps. We gathered together the following collection – sweet peas, overwintered agapanthus, a few straggly cannas, a collection of ‘end of sale’ dahlia tubers, half a dozen angelica plants, a couple of globe artichokes and some tropical red castor oil plants grown from seed in January. We then proceeded to simply ‘shove them in’ not really giving much thought to design other than to their eventual height. Those already in pots such as the agapanthus were planted in their pots to constrain their roots and all have benefited because of this. 

The agapanthus were planted in their pots to constrain their roots and all have benefited because of this. 

The border faces south and is in full sun and maybe this is part of the success, but my gut feeling is that it is due more to the quality of the soil. Originally lawned, the border has been fed over the winter months with any spent compost, overturned turf and copious amounts of grit to improve the drainage of the heavy clay. It appears to have done the trick; never having had much success with cannas or dahlias, and only a modicum of success with amaranthus, tithonia and monarda, this year they have simply romped away and far exceeded expectations. 

The biggest surprise of all has been two small common canna plants that I bought a couple of years ago from an NGS garden gettogether. No more than 5 inches tall the label boasted that whilst the flowers were insignificant the foliage would grow banana like and the plant itself would grow in excess of 7 feet. Sceptical, I planted them in the centre of the border and I’m so glad I did – they are, in their first year easily 6 feet tall with the bonus that the flowers aren’t so insignificant after all. Encouraged by this, we have invested in some new canna plants (Canna Durban, Monique, Pretoria and Stuttgart) all of which have quite remarkable leaf markings. To fill in the gaps between these architectural gems, we sowed seed of amaranthus green cascade collected last year and planted dahlia Bishop of Llandaff; the addition of the climber ipomoea lobata (Spanish Flag) to the ‘lockdown’ obelisks has helped extend the flowering season as the sweet peas begin to wane. 

Vivid, architectural Canna.

You might think that this cornucopia of colour can’t possibly work but in a strange way it just does. The clashing bright oranges and reds of the cannas are counterpointed by the azure blue of the agapanthus and softened by the pastel shades of the sweet peas. The sheer lime greenness of the amaranthus is highlighted by the violet monarda and yes the tithonia (Mexican sunflower) simply clashes with everything, bursting through like a frenzy of fireworks or shooting stars. From humble beginnings this border has given so much joy this year, created from nothing other than plants and seed we already had, that we might repeat the whole thing next year (maybe with a bit more planning and even more vibrant plants to shock everyone with). 

Mixed border facing south.

With that in mind, I’m going to reach for next year’s seed catalogues….

Richard’s gardening tips for September

It’s harvest time, the days may be getting shorter but there’s plenty to do. 

  • Plant new perennials, trees and shrubs. The soil is still warm and with the increased chance of rainfall they’ll have time to get established before winter. 
  • Divide and replant overgrown perennials or those that have outlived their space.
  • Whether buying online or in person, do remember to support your local nurseries and independent garden centres. The chances are they’ll have a much more interesting range of plants than the big chains and will be grateful for your business after a terrible year.
  • Start planting your spring flowering bulbs such as daffodils and hyacinths.
  • If you sowed biennials such as sweet Williams or wallflowers earlier in the year now is the time to plant them out.
  • Pay attention to your rhododendrons, camellias and azaleas – keep them well watered so that next year’s buds form.
  • Harvest your sweetcorn if they’re ready (pinch a kernel, if ready it’ll ooze a milky sap)
  • Begin an autumn clean up on your veg patch, clear away any weeds and old crops of veg.
  • If you’ve shaded your greenhouse during the summer now is the time to remove it so that your crops get the maximum light.

More information on the Lewis Cottage garden and plant sales can be found on our website.

Sep 17, 2020

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