The June Garden at Aberglasney
My month by month RHS book tells me that June is the month when the garden hits its peak as borders look perfect and the summer vegetables and soft fruit are flourishing. If only this was true for all our gardens but at least it is something to aim for. Talking about reaching the peak, as I will celebrate my 70th birthday during the month all I can say is that I can just about see the receding peak in the mountain mists behind me but at the same time realise that there is still so much to learn about this gardening thing! My book also tells me to enjoy the fruits of my labours, to savour the delights of my garden, to relax and take it easy and if this comes from the RHS who am I to argue? This month I will also be enjoying the delights of the wonderful gardens at Aberglasney and in doing so hope to introduce you to some new plants as well as reminding you of some of the more traditional June favourites.
Before that though, what about the month of May as it comes to a close? Well the rain certainly made up for its absence in April and although rather too frequent and heavy at times it did refill the water butts and replenish the soil moisture. The lawn and herbaceous plants all came on apace and very quickly the beds and borders seemed to fill up again with lovely fresh growth. We have been enjoying the frothy blue of the Forget-me-nots (Myosotis) which we allow to self-seed around the garden as well as the drifts of white and pink-purple Honesty (Lunaria annua). However, as the month ends the Forget-me-nots will be past their best and will be removed to make way for some new herbaceous plants which we have been growing on and for some summer colour from such things as Cosmos, Antirrhynum and Nicotiana. The Honesty will be showing the first signs of the seed cases and we leave as many as we can to go on to produce their ‘Silver Pennies’ which remain attractive well into the autumn as well as ensuring that we get new seedlings next year. Their colour will be replaced with that from the hardy Geranium, Geum, Aquilegia, Thalictrum and Astrantia all of which I have written about before. In terms of the shrubs our Lilac (Syringa) was as good as we had hoped it would be and as it finishes it will be replaced by the first of the roses, Philadelphus and Deutzia.
But enough about our garden which we have concentrated on for the last twelve months of blogs, what about the gardens at Aberglasney which will feature in the blogs for the coming year? The house and gardens at Aberglasney are to be found in a beautiful part of Carmarthenshire on a low ridge between two hills overlooking the Tywi valley and very close to the A40 road from Brecon to Carmarthen. The original house and gardens date from around the year 1600 and were owned and altered by several families over the next 350 years. During the twentieth century, however, the two world wars changed the old order and by the middle of the century estates such as Aberglasney were simply no longer viable and in 1977 the Aberglasney estate was split up and auctioned in several lots. An attempt at restoration followed but the task became too burdensome for the new owners and the property was sold in 1995 to the Aberglasney Restoration Trust. Inspired and driven on by the artist William Wilkins and by the philanthropy of Frank and Anne Cabot the restoration of the house and gardens began at this point. In the years that followed a vast amount of clearance, evaluation and rebuilding began and early on in the project a team from BBC Wales began recording the process on film. The series of programmes, ‘Aberglasney- A Garden Lost in Time’, was broadcast in 1999 just as the garden was being opened to the public for the first time. During those early years two vital ingredients for the future success of the enterprise came together. The first was the discovery of a very rare survivor of a long forgotten historic garden feature- the now famous Elizabethan Cloister Range and Parapet Walk- unique in the British Isles and with very few examples remaining in the rest of Europe. The second was the appointment of the garden’s first Director of Operations, the plantsman Graham Rankin, who together with his talented, horticulturalist wife Frances, led the transformation of the gardens over the next ten years. There had been many garden styles and features at Aberglasney over the preceding centuries and some are reflected in the present day gardens but certainly for me one of the great attractions of Aberglasney today is that it is not consumed by the desire to reproduce what was there before but is constantly looking forward. In the words of Graham Rankin himself “unlike some historic gardens Aberglasney is not stuck in a time warp. With the exception of the Cloister Garden, the new planting does not reflect the garden’s antiquity but looks to the future. The development of the garden will continue to showcase the very best varieties that plant breeders create and will also cultivate some of the most recent plant introductions as plant collectors discover new and exciting species”. Today the gardens have passed into the excellent hands of Joseph Atkin and his skilled and dedicated team who continue to develop the gardens in the spirit of Graham Rankin. I hope that you will discover over the next twelve months that they are a place of delight and wonder as we explore together the treasures of the Cloister Garden, the Upper and Lower Walled Gardens, the Asiatic Garden, The Alpinum, the Pool Garden, the Meadow, the Sunken Garden, Bishop Rudd’s Walk, the woodland and streams of Pigeon House Wood and last, but by no means least, the mysterious Ninfarium!
For our first visit together to the gardens I thought that it would be a good idea to take you through these very different areas, highlighting the plants and plantings which are looking particularly good in late May and into June as we go.
From the entrance to the gardens the path leads down passed the shop and plant sales area towards the north side of the house with its splendid Victorian portico. Opposite is a large lawn with some imposing specimen trees and on the western edge a wonderful and very old Yew tunnel. The path then leads around to the western side of the mansion which overlooks a terrace and the famous Cloister Garden with its Parapet Walk on three sides from which there are great views across the Upper Walled Garden, the Pool Garden and the meadow and woodland beyond. Paving and stonework rather than plants dominate the Cloister Garden which has been restored as near to its seventeenth century state as was possible from the records available. The central part of the planting is a grass parterre which from January to April/May is graced by a succession of spring bulbs. Yew pyramids, Box balls and in the summer Orange trees in beautiful lead planters, a border of Lavenders and a bed of the old rose, Rosa gallica var. officinalis complete the intended minimalist planting scheme.
The North side of the Mansion and lawn The Cloister Garden and Parapet Walk
In contrast to the Cloister Garden, the Upper Walled Garden to the south is a riot of foliage and flower colour, although it too has a very formal, geometric layout designed by Penelope Hobhouse in the late 1990’s as well as the strong vertical forms of clipped, conical Yews. By the end of May the Tulips which have adorned the beds through April and May have just about finished but two other bulbous plants have begun to vie for centre stage, the pink/purple firework flowers of Allium and the many blue but also white and yellow spires of Camassia. However, just one week later right at the end of May most of the Camassias had given way to the beautiful blue of Iris sibirica just to show how quickly gardens can change at this time of year. Alliums are a great flower for late May and into June and even after that because of their stately seed heads which last well into autumn. Even if they do break off we stick them back into the soil for a continued show! They need to be planted in September/October at the same time as Narcissi although for a price they can be bought and planted at this time of year for an immediate impact. They do differ from the Narcissi though in that their leaves by the time of flowering have already begun to yellow and are not particularly attractive. They can either be cut off or better still can be hidden by surrounding lower plants above which the Allium flower heads on their long, straight stems will rise and definitely shine! Also punctuating the planting at this time of year is the purple-leaved Cow Parsley, Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’. If you love Cow Parsley, as I do, but have decided that it is more suited to roadside verges than to your garden then ‘Ravenswing’ is a wonderful alternative with its dark, lacy leaves and umbels of tiny white flowers with small pink bracts. It does seed around a little but in my view this is a good thing as repeating it through the borders as shown at Aberglasney is very attractive and gives the whole garden a sense of unity and harmony.
Two views across the Upper Walled Garden
Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’ Alliums and Iris sibirica
Two other herbaceous plants caught my eye in the Upper Walled Garden which will both be at their best in June, the wonderfully showy Peony and the equally good Thalictrum (Meadow Rue). At the end of May only a few Peonies were in flower such as Paeonia lactiflora ‘Charles White’ but the others will soon follow and provide a mass of their large, colourful, almost ‘over the top’ blooms. Aberglasney is well known for its Thalictrums and I remember Carol Klein waxing lyrical about them on a Gardeners’ World episode from not too long ago. Some of the plants have developed into fantastically large clumps which in late-May were full of flower buds nearly ready to open. Through June they will produce masses of their almost fluffy flower heads in white, yellow, pink, lilac-pink and violet. On the walls of this part of the garden there are also many lovely climbers which at the end of May were dominated by several varieties of Clematis montana and Wisteria which during June will give way to other climbers including the roses.
One of the Thalictrums already in flower
Paeonia lactiflora ‘Charles White’ and an Allium head with the foliage of ‘Ravenswing’ behind
A gateway in the southern wall leads through to the lower part of the Alpinium which begins to climb up the slope behind the house. This is full of wonderful plants at almost any time of the year and has recently enjoyed a replanting programme. The rocks themselves came from a local limestone quarry and contain numerous fossil invertebrates making the area doubling interesting for some visitors. Catching the eye in late-May were a large number of white Mossy Saxifrages, the wonderful seed heads of Pulsatilla vulgaris (The Pasque Flower), Iris, Aquilegia and Armeria.
The very attractive seed heads of Pulsatilla vulgaris
Close to the upper part of the Alpinum the path leads around the back of the old Aviaries into an area generally referred to as the Lower Slopes. This contains several magnificent Magnolias which were certainly that when we visited in April but by June the main attraction will be the roses, many of which are planted along a series of arches forming an impressive rose tunnel. This Rose Border, created in 2004, is full of fragrant, old-fashioned roses and is under-planted with some excellent companion plants for roses including Tiarella, Geranium, Heuchera, Brunnera and Nepeta. It has to be said that the high rainfall of this part of the country is perhaps not best suited to rose growing due to the fungal problems that it encourages, so at Aberglasney it was important to choose cultivars which are less susceptible to mildew, rust and blackspot. The roses are also mulched annually with manure in the winter which not only helps to maintain soil fertility but also has the benefit of smothering any latent blackspot spores around the base of the plants.
The lower part of the Rose Border with the promise of much to come
Beyond the roses further up the slope the visitor enters Bishop Rudd’s Walk, named after the route used from the house to St. Cathens Church at the top of the hill by the purchaser of Aberglasney in around the year 1600. By the 1990s this area was completely overgrown with original plantings of Rhododendron and Laurel together with many seedling trees. To many people it would have looked dark and discouraging but to Graham Rankin it held great promise with its thick layer of humus rich soil and leaf litter, an attractive valley with a gentle ravine and meandering stream, dappled shade from the oaks, yews and spruce trees which were retained and a moist, slightly acidic soil perfect for the woodland treasures which are to be found there today. Near the stream there are many large-leaved, moisture-loving plants such as Rogersia and Hosta which will become even more impressive later in the year. Higher up on the slopes are some really choice and unusual plants including hardy exotic Orchids which have flourished here to become one of the highlights in May and June.
One of several species of hardy Orchid Rogersias and Ferns near the ‘oriental’ bridge
Larger-leaved plants in the dappled shade near the oriental bridge and Trillium grandiflorum
For me, however, at this time of year it is the Trillium which takes centre stage. As the name suggests these have a very distinctive tripartite arrangement- three cup-shaped flowers with three leaf-like outer sepals and three inner petals above a whorl of three, often patterned leaves giving the whole plant a particularly exotic quality. They are not the easiest plants to grow but if you have a shady, moist area with a humus rich, neutral to slightly acidic soil you have a chance! An annual mulch of leaf mould in the autumn is also a very good idea.
Two more of the exotic Trilliums
You may be wondering at this stage why I haven’t yet mentioned one of my particular favourites, the hardy Geranium. Well it certainly isn’t because there is a paucity of them at Aberglasney, quite the opposite as they appear throughout virtually all of the gardens including the woodland area which we are in at the moment. They are so widely used that I could have photographed and written just about them but refrained from doing so as I have written about them extensively before. Let’s just say that if you are a fan like me you will love discovering all the varieties and cultivars that Abergalsney has to offer.
Further up the slope the woodland garden opens up into the Asiatic Garden in quite dramatic style at this time of year with a bank of highly scented, yellow-flowered deciduous Azaleas which you may well smell before you see. This area has only been in existence since 2004 and is not part of the original garden but was created from what was known as Cae Caffyl- the horse field! It is full of wonderful shrubs and small trees from all parts of Asia from which plant hunters over the last few centuries have brought back many plants which have adapted to our climate extremely well. The planting has been chosen to be of interest throughout the year, not just for flower but also for interesting bark, foliage and perfume. At this time of year most of the magnificent Camellias and Rhododendrons have finished flowering but most of the Azaleas are still going strong.
Azaleas in the lower part of the Asiatic Garden
This part of the garden also contains many Peonies, both the herbaceous types as well as the larger tree forms. Some of the Tree Peonies were already in flower in late-May in spectacular fashion. There are also a number of white flowered Viburnums, some with rounded, snowball-like flowers and others with more flattened flower heads and layered branches.
One of the many splendid Peonies Viburnum plicatum ‘Rotundifolium’
You will also have noticed in virtually all the photographs of this part of the garden the presence of a large number of striking Japanese Maples (Acer) in all shades of green and purple and with many different shapes of leaf. As with the hardy Geraniums I could have spent the whole of my visit just concentrating on the Maples in all their variety and beauty. Right at the top of the Asiatic Garden on a raised mound is a wonderful viewpoint looking back down over the garden with in the distance the Carmarthenshire countryside. Until quite recently there was a striking oriental-looking, wooden seat erected in 2005 but this has recently been replaced by a black, metal, domed structure which is supporting a whole range of Clematis plants which will no doubt provide quite a spectacle later in the year.
The view down through the Asiatic Garden from the newly planted Clematis Dome
Whichever way the visitor wanders back down the hill new splendours are to be found at almost every turn including a fairly new wildflower meadow overlooking the car park. In late-May it is just a carpet of green but by mid-summer it will be a mass of flower colour and insects. Also nearer the bottom of the slope are some lovely flowering Dogwoods (Cornus) with their large, white and sometimes pink-tinged flowers. These are mainly cultivars of Cornus kousa with the real flowers in the centre surrounded by large, showy bracts to attract the pollinating insects. These bracts which are actually modified leaves often start white and then become pink-tinged as they age and the central flowers go on to produce strange, strawberry-like fruits which unfortunately are not edible.
Cornus ‘Ormonde’ in early May
The visitor is now down the slope near the house and back to Bishop Rudd’s Walk and quite close to a lovely wooden bridge in oriental style that crosses the stream to the left. Around it are many ferns including several Tree ferns which on closer inspection, apart from perhaps one, appear to have succumbed to the Welsh winters. However, very cleverly the gardeners have left the old trunks which have now been colonised by a variety of other plants, showing as they say that nature will always find a way!
From this point it is fairly easy to find a way back to the Parapet Walk to once again enjoy the views of the Pool Garden, meadow, woodland and not forgetting the enticing sight of Aberglasney’s very welcoming and highly recommended Tearooms.
These areas are all outside the historic walls and as a result the gardens feel a lot less formal and more naturalistic. The Pool itself provides wonderful reflections of the surrounding trees, one of which is the well-named Wedding Cake Tree, Cornus controversa variegata, with its attractive tiered layers of foliage. The Pool is full of small fish (the larger ones are enjoyed by a visiting otter from the nearby river!) and in June and July is partly covered by some lovely water lilies (Nymphea). The rectangular bed to the side of the water provides the Pool Garden with a wonderful splash of floral colour. In late-May the Tulips and Primulas had just about finished and will soon be replaced by this year’s summer bedding display which is always something to look forward to.
A view of the Pool Garden from the Parapet Walk and the Pool border earlier in May
Beyond this bed to the right is a new greenhouse built on the footprint of an original Victorian structure which is used to house the Orange trees from the Cloister Garden during the winter. Opposite the greenhouse is the meadow which when we visited in April was full of Snake’s Head Fritillaries (Fritillaria meleagris) and some late Narcissi but by late-May these have been replaced by the blue spikes of Camassia. These are North American plants of the Hyacinth family, are planted as bulbs in the autumn and are good as cut flowers for the house. As at Aberglasney they look really good in a wildflower meadow but are equally effective as part of an herbaceous border.
The Meadow in late-April with the Snake’s Head Fritillaries and in late-May with the Camassias
Just around the corner from the greenhouse to the right is a very different garden- the Sunken Garden– with its central feature a beautiful reflecting pool and gentle water feature. The planting has been chosen to produce a Japanese garden style with compact and closely clipped shrubs but still with splashes of colour from flowers and fruits. On the entrance side there is a recently planted Wisteria tunnel which although still in its infancy gives a good impression of what is to come in the years ahead.
The Sunken Garden with its Reflecting pool and recently planted Wisteria Tunnel
Back at the greenhouse and meadow the land begins to fall away towards Pigeon House Wood and the most naturalistic part of the whole garden – a wooded glade with streams which flow on down the valley to join the River Tywi. The walk down to the woodland from the meadow takes the visitor through one of the more recently planted areas containing many striking shade and moisture-loving plants. In late-May and on into June it is the Candelabra Primulas which demand attention. There is nothing subtle about these plants, they just hit you with a wall of strong colour and are quite magnificent. However, other plants still manage to catch the eye but for different reasons. The Hostas here are real giants, standing up tall and proud as yet undamaged by the dreaded snails and their vertical lines are echoed by the emerging lime-green fronds of the Shuttlecock ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris).
Candelabra Primulas and Shuttlecock Ferns with some rather impressive Hostas
Nearer the stream in the wettest soils are some other large-leaved plants including the American Skunk Cabbage (Lsyichiton americanus) and the eventually huge leaves of Gunnera manicata. In late-May the spiky-stemmed leaves are just emerging from their winter cover of last year’s leaves and look fairly harmless but later in the season they will be over 8 feet (2.5m) high and large enough to walk under or even shelter from the rain!
Emerging Gunnera manicata by the woodland stream and Epiphytic Fern, Polypodium vulgare
At this point the tree cover is the dominant feature with ancient Oaks lining the garden’s boundaries and towering Beech trees planted as a plantation crop in the nineteenth century on the higher slopes to the right of the path. Although magnificent plants in their own right, Beech is a hungry, shallow-rooted tree casting quite heavy shade in the summer and therefore makes the ground below inhospitable for many other plants. However, one woodland specialist does well in these harsh conditions, the native Bluebell, Hyacinthoides non-scripta, and in late-May and early-June the woodland floor beneath the Beech is a sea of blue before the beech canopy closes over. Away from the Beech trees the ground at this time of year is carpeted with Wood Anemones (Anemone nemerosa), Wild Garlic or Ramsons (Allium ursinum) and Red Campion (Silene dioica) in addition to more Bluebells making this, for me at least, one of the most beautiful parts of the garden. Another lovely and unusual feature of this part of the garden is the native, epiphytic fern- Polypodium vulgare– which grows on many of the older trees and in places forms ‘planted arches’ over some of the paths, testifying to the high rainfall totals in this part of the country.
Bluebells and Wild Garlic carpeting the woodland floor
One path from the lower boundary of the woodland winds its way across the stream and follows the boundary up out of the wood back towards the walled gardens. The path emerges from the trees at the other end of the meadow where some lovely Crab Apples have been planted although I suspect that the very wet and windy weather of the last few days has finished off the blooms for this year. This is almost certainly also the case for the next attraction of the garden- the Crab Apple tunnel- which is just beyond the entrance into the Lower Walled Garden straight ahead. In May this is a truly spectacular sight with literally thousands of single, pure-white flowers with golden anthers of Malus sargentii trained along a fruit arch. When we saw it in the second half of the month some of the blossom had already begun to fall and cover the ground like confetti at a wedding. Later in the summer it will be smothered in small, bright-red, cherry-like fruits which last well into the autumn. The centre of the Lower Walled Garden is given over to the production of cut flowers, vegetables, herbs and fruit as it has done for several centuries. Walled gardens were created not only to protect the plants from the worst of the weather but mainly to protect them from animals and from being stolen! The other benefit, of course, is the heat retaining properties of south and west facing walls and this is well illustrated at Aberglasney with the whole of the west facing wall covered in beautifully trained Apples and Pears. These have been trained in an unusual system of a diagonal grid of branches known as a ‘Belgian Fence’ rather than using the more usual method of horizontal branches which makes the whole wall an interesting feature at any time of year. The trees are pruned in the summer to encourage the formation of fruiting buds and to give the developing fruit as much sun as possible. If this sounds far too complicated a method of fruit production and not one for the ordinary gardener there is another, much more straightforward method on show in the Lower Walled Garden. This is the ‘Step-over’ method which has been used to edge the central flower and vegetable bed. For the smaller garden this is a great way to grow some fruit without taking up too much room and most garden centres either offer or can obtain ready trained step-over fruit trees to get you started.
Malus sargentii on the Crab Apple Tunnel and a view of the ‘Belgian Fence’ training in late-April
The ‘Belgian fence’ in late-May with the flowers of ‘Ravenswing’ and ‘Step-over’ Apples
This route brings the visitor back to the Upper Walled Garden for a second look and if you are anything like us a chance to have lunch and then usually a second tour of the garden but in the opposite direction! I hope that this first look at one of Wales’ best gardens has whetted your appetite both for future blogs but also hopefully to visit the garden for yourselves if you haven’t already done so. The gardens are now back open every day from 10am to 6pm, there is plenty of parking close to the entrance, the entrance fee is £9.75 for adults with children up to the age of 16 free, last entry is at 5pm, the Tearooms close at 5pm and the shop and plant centre at 5.30pm but I do have to warn you that dogs are not allowed in the gardens. For more details and information you can visit the website ‘Aberglasney Gardens’ which is well worth doing just for the stunning photographs taken by a professional photographer and not an amateur like myself!
You may be thinking at this point that he hasn’t described the Ninfarium and the reason is that I am saving it for future blogs. However, just to add a little more mystery I will say that it is a unique, covered, indoor garden created within the heart of the old mansion. If you like house plants in general and Orchids in particular you will love the Ninfarium, a glimpse of which is shown in my final photograph.
The Ninfarium, a temperature controlled indoor garden created amongst the old walls within the former mansion!
Normally at this point I would look at the jobs to be done in the garden in June but I feel that with this already long introduction to Aberglasney I will just refer you to an existing jobs list in the archives for June 2019.
Next month we will make a second visit to Aberglasney to see what is catching the eye in July but until then keep well and enjoy your garden and gardening and try to get to Aberglasney if you can.