Monday, June 28, 2010

Flower Carpets

True wild mother-of-thyme Thymus serpyllum growing at high altitude in Provence on Mont Ventoux

No plant really enjoys being trodden on despite the optimistic old saying:

                                   'Like a chamomile bed
                                   The more it is trodden
                                   The more it will spread'

So, despite romantic inclinations and a long love affair with Francis Bacon's Elizabethan essay 'On Gardens' I have never created a path made completely of herbs. I suspect Bacon's description of his dreamed of future pleasure garden never eventuated exactly according to his plans: "I will direct that alleys be planted with fragrant herbs, Burnet, Wild Thyme and Water Mints which perfume the air most delightfully, being trodden on and crushed so that you may have the pleasure when you walk."

A path of flagstones with the spaces filled with gravel and planted with carpeting herbs is a much more rugged option. Herbs thrive in the gravel with their roots running cool beneath the flat stones just as they are found in nature. Two other options are a densely woven raised carpet for sumptuous summer reclining, and a raised herb covered seat known as a 'turf seat', a favourite in late medieval and Tudor times. (My book 'In A Unicorn's Garden' about medieval gardens, plants and those who used them gives a description of how they are made).

My favourite carpeting herbs are the thymes. Thyme species fall into two broad types. Some are little subshrubs like lemon thyme (T. x citriodora), mastic thyme (T. mastichina) which is perfect for barbequed meats, 'Oregano' Thyme (T. pulegioides), 'Broadleaf English' (a hybrid of T. vulgaris), 'Fragrantissimus (T. vulgaris)  and common thyme (T. vulgaris) The other group are spreading thymes that knit the earth with a dense fragrant very low-growing carpet. The thymes flower in summer, and a mixture planted about 50 to 60 cm apart will soon meet and mingle to produce a medieval tapestry of gentle colours.

There has been a taxonomic revision of the genus Thymus in recent times. Most of the named varieties of spreading thymes have been assigned away from T. serpyllum, the true and actually rare mother-of-thyme to  T. pulegioides, and T. praecox subsp. arcticus so you might find them in nurseries under any of these names The flower colours range from white to variations on pink to rich crimson and purple and all have scented foliage. Among the prettiest of the carpeting thymes are 'Pink Chintz' with mid-pink flowers, the ancient white flowered'Alba' or 'Albus', 'Snowdrift' (also white) 'Coccineus' (crimson red), 'Woolly' with furry grey foliage, slightly variegated 'Mayfair', 'Annie Hall' (pale pink),  'Lars Hall' with pink flowers, 'Aureus' with golden foliage and pale pink flowers, and intensely lemon scented 'Lemon Curd'  and tiny leafed 'Minus' (all now designated T. praecox subsp. arcticus). 'Pink Chintz' has soft grey-green foliage and clear pink flowers while fragrant 'Doone Valley' is dark green generously speckled with gold. Caraway thyme T. herba-barona is another spreading very low growing thyme with a strong sweet caraway seed scent and rose-lilac flowers. 

Variegated 'Doone Valley' Thyme (left)

Creeping Corsican mint Mentha requienii forms a dense carpet of tiny emerald green leaves which are intensely scented of fresh mint. It prefers a moist lightly shaded area and will not take much foot traffic, so I prefer to plant it in wide shallow pots in moist semi-shade. At least the odd elf will be able to roll around on it. But pennyroyal Mentha pulegium, while needing moist soil, is happy in full sun and will take light foot traffic. It is at its best forming a tight emerald carpet between flagstones The flowers are a pretty lavender and are born in whorls up the flowering stems By the way pennyroyal is poisonous to dogs so avoid using flea treatments involving collars impregnated with pennyroyal oil and the use of a pennyroyal tea. Pet pillows containing dried pennyroyal are safe. The oil was used in the past as an abortifacient but it is dangerous, having a high toxicity and causing liver damage to the mother. Generally speaking, there are much better mints to flavour food and pennyroyal is better kept for ornamental use, for its delicious refreshing mint 'hit' in the garden, and as an ingredient in pet pillows.

Deliciously scented Caraway Thyme Thymus herba-barona (right) takes its name as a flavouring for the vast roasted Baron of Beef (a double sirloin of beef)

  The perennial matting Roman Chamomile Chamaemelum nobile makes a delightful fast spreading, fresh green, dense lawn for a sunny position. The soft finely divided foliage is scented strongly of fresh green apples. For those not wanting to tangle with bees as they dream sunny hours away on their turf seat, the form 'Treneague' is a non-flowering strain. The prettiest form is 'Flore Plena' with prolific very double white flowers. Prepare the ground before planting in the same way as for turf, making sure that it is weed free and evenly smoothed over. Regular weeding and watering is vital while establishing these fragrant carpets. 

If you share my love of antique plants and garden history you may like to look for one of my latest books 'In A Unicorn's Garden' (gorgeously produced by Murdoch Books covering the history of medieval gardens, their plants and those who tended them, lavishly illustrated in full colour, 288 pages) on Amazon sites at (in the UK) or (in the USA) or in your favourite bookstore. My book 'Heritage Gardening' (published by Simon and Schuster, illustrated in full colour throughout, 256 pages ) is available through my website as is 'Country Thyme' (above, sent to the USA, UK, and NZ for AU $20 total). Click on the Products and Gifts button on the home page. You can also link to my author site with blogs, and my cottage blogs, using the links on the home page.
Happy gardening!

© Judyth McLeod


Monday, June 21, 2010

The Medieval Rose Plantain

The thrill of growing and holding ancient plants that gardeners for centuries before me have loved never leaves. Unlike other antiques such as furniture and pottery and jewellery, these are living antiques, rare and exquisite. My current pots of ancient Rose Plantain are thriving, the bright green rosettes of leaves already about 10-12 cm across, doing their winter bulking up before showing their perfect very double 'green roses' in summer. The ideal companion for them in posies are diminutive pale pink fragrant 'Cecile Brunner' roses with their perfect furled Hybrid Tea form (or lookalikes 'White Cecile Brunner', 'Perle D'Or', and sweet pea scented 'Mme Jules Thibaud).

The Rose Plantain is a form of the Broadleaf or Greater Plantain Plantago major The common form may be weedy but it has been dignified as one of the nine sacred herbs of Anglo Saxon medicine, mentioned in the ancient Lacnunga. It was, and still is, used for treating burns, sores, skin ulcers, and inflamed and raw skin. The Anglo Saxons and later herbals also recommended it to treat diarrhoea, undulant fevers and for use as a diuretic. The rose flowered variation has been known since the medieval period, and is a form in which the spike is compressed when young and the bracts are much enlarged to resemble petals. Medieval gardeners were always delighted by quaint variations on wild plants, frequently introducing them into their gardens, and Elizabethan John Parkinson wrote in that most delightful of all garden books Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris (1629): "The Rose Plantaine hath been long in England". It certainly pleased Tudor and Elizabethan gardeners who delighted in quaint plants.

The Greater Plantain has another claim to fame. It became known as 'Traveller's Foot', and later 'Englishman's Foot' as it travelled with entusiasm wherever English colonies arose and naturalised there, earning the additional common names of 'Englishman's Foot' or 'Whiteman's Foot'. Older common names included Poverty Grass, Healing Blade, Canary Food, and two names derived from the old Anglo Saxon, Great Weybreed and Waybread (from 'weybroed').

Unlike the Greater Plantain, the Rose Plantain is not weedy and I am grateful for its very gentle seeding. Summer would not be the same without this reminder of  medieval, Tudor and Elizabethan gardeners who delighted in the curious.

If you share my love of antique plants and garden history you may like to look for one of my latest books 'In A Unicorn's Garden' (gorgeously produced by Murdoch Books covering the history of medieval gardens and plants, lavishly illustrated in full colour, 288 pages) on Amazon sites at (in the UK) or (in the USA) or in your favourite bookstore. My book 'Heritage Gardening' (published by Simon and Schuster, illustrated in full colour throughout, 256 pages ) is available through my website (click on the Products and Gifts button on the home page. You can also link to my author site with blogs, and my cottage blogs, using the links on the home page.

© Judyth McLeod

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Living Willow Fences


I've been having a love affair with living fences for years. A few Floriade festivals ago in Holland, a magical two story house and long winding tunnel arbour were created from basket woven living willow, taking the idea far beyond that of simple fencing. Somehow a kind of alchemy takes place inside these living structures; walking through them, sitting in them, has an other-worldly feeling.  The current fascination with all things medieval from banquets and weddings to mock battles and tournaments, very much including medieval gardens in which I tend to spend a lot of time, has seen a revival in many ancient crafts including the art of making living willow fences. Nowhere are they more widely seen than in France where many authentically recreated or restored medieval gardens have been constructed  around ancient monasteries, abbeys, and chateaux. The one pictured on the left is built around a lavender garden at Le Jardin de l'Alchimiste (The Alchemist's Garden), a stunning medieval re-creation at Mas de la Brune in Eygalieres-en-Provence.

These living fences were originally constructed for less than romantic reasons, to exclude wandering livestock (and thieves) from vegetable and herb gardens. But the medieval gardener also created ornamental open woven diamond patterned fences and tunnel arbours for pleasure gardens.

There are various ways of creating living willow fences, so this is the way I make them. Nothing roots more easily than willow cuttings. The white willow Salix alba is the willow of choice for fences. Cuttings of most plants get progressively more difficult to root the greater their length, but not the willow. Provided it is in moist soil, well firmed down and given some support to prevent root rock, even long branches will take quite easily.

  Before starting, a trellis in the form of posts with wire strung taut between them needs to be constructed to provide support while the fence becomes established. I like to use three levels of supporting wire, the top one at the final fence level. The more rustic the supporting posts, the better the fence looks. Whatever height fence you choose, you will need to allow extra length for the willow cuttings as the base of each is buried in soil for the first 20 cm of its length and is inserted at a slope of 45 degrees rather than vertically. But no advanced Pythagorean calculations are needed. Just insert the bottom of an experimental length of willow at 45 degrees so that the bottom 20 cm are covered by soil. Mark off where the cutting intersects the top wire of the support fence. Add 7.5 cm (3 inches) to allow for the interweaving of the cuttings and to be on the safe side. Cut the stem at this final length and use it as a template to cut all the willow branches. If you plan to make a few willow fences, it is worth marking a length of wood dowelling to indicate the cutting lengths needed for a 1.0 m, 1.5 m and 1.8 m willow fences. (Don't worry if the cuttings are not of even thickness - it really doesn't matter.) Measure out the length of the fence to ensure you have enough cuttings including one to complete the row. I leave gaps of 20 cm (8 inches) but some use a gap of 25 cm (10 inches). If you would like to have turf grown up to the fence, lay an unobtrusive mowing strip similar to that in the image above.

Begin constructing the fence by rubbing off all the leaf shoots and buds from each cutting leaving two or three intact at the top. Nip out the tip of the cutting. If you have good deep moist soil, the willow cuttings can be inserted directly into the soil. I haven't got the perfect willow soil so I start bundles of willow cuttings in a deep bucket half filled with water and take them out for planting when white roots just begin to emerge. The image above makes it fairly clear I think how to plant the fence. Water the soil thoroughly the day before planting. Start by pushing a row of cuttings in at the chosen interval and at an angle of 45 degrees, making sure they are inserted well into the soil.  When the fence is completed in one direction, go back and insert cuttings close to the same positions but angled at 45 degrees in the opposite direction. Weave the cuttings in and out (some stouter pieces may defy being woven but that doesn't matter). Now use soft ties (I've yet to find anything better than strips of old tights) to hold the woven fence against the three support wires, making sure each tip is securely fastened to the top wire.

Spring will get this project off to a quick start in milder climates provided the soil moisture is maintained. In Mediterranean climates, latish winter is ideal. The tops will begin to grow and leaf out if your hedge is successful but check for any side or bottom shoots that you may have missed (there are a few coming from the base in the lower image) and remove them quickly. Check that no ties are biting into the stems. Give the top growth a quick lop over once or twice a year to keep it green and lush. The support wires can always be removed once the fence is well established (usually about three years).

One day I just have to build a willow house. Being short sighted, I will pretend to be Mole as I listen to the wind in the willows.

If you share my love of medieval gardens, you might like to look for my book on medieval gardens and gardeners In A Unicorn's Garden (Murdoch Books) on Amazon in the UK at or the USA at or in your favourite bookshop. Please do check my author website blogs and cottage blog by following the links on the home page of

© Judyth McLeod

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Single Roses

Single roses appeared constantly among the seedlings rowed out for testing in rose breeding programs, and just as regularly they were discarded. Despite their often exquisite appearance, they did not conform to the idea of a 'modern' rose, high pointed, large and fully double. We lost so many, dumped ignominiously for their wild looks. It is true that in formal rose beds from the 1860s onward, they looked totally wrong beside tall cabbage-headed Hybrid Perpetual roses and the emerging Hybrid Tea class. It was not until the idea of roses as shrubs to be used like camellias or lilacs was popularised that they found their way more frequently into gardens. They are also perfect choices for cottage gardens with their innocent looks. and many such as Mrs Oakley Fisher, Dainty Bess, Golden Wings and White Wings are rarely out of flower from mid spring to the end of autumn.

Single roses, like the exquisite very repeat flowering 'Wildflower' bred by David Austin (above), often resemble porcelain roses and seem as delicate as butterfly wings. Despite the carnage in rose breeders' experimental beds for a century and a half, some single flowered new seedlings touched the heart to such a degree that they were saved. Their continued survival, sometimes for more than a century on the world's rose lists, prove not only their charms but their toughness. These are a few of my own favourites:

Climbing Roses
Mermaid (1917) This is a hybrid of the Macartney Rose of Chia, a climber to 9m,  in bloom for many months with quantities of very large clear golden yellow single blooms each with a boss of golden-brown stamens. Mrs Richard Turnbull, bred by Alister Clark in Victoria, is in the same style, constantly re-flowers in the season and is a pure creamy white. 
The Cherokee Rose or Laevigata This vigorous climber was discovered in China and is exquisite in bloom with huge pure creamy white flowers of great substance with a boss of yellow stamens. It is deliciously scented of rose and carnation. Once flowering.
Francis E. Lester This once flowering Musk Hybrid climber is a glorios sight in full flower, with huge terminal panicles of small, single, milk white flowers blushed with pink, resembling apple blossom. The intense fragrance is of bananas and oranges. It is very healthy and grows to around 3.5-4.0 m. The flowers are followed by large sprays of tiny deep apricot heps that are perfect for posies and flower arrangements.
Wedding Day Bred by Sir William Stern at 'Highdown'  in Sussex, this variety is perfectly named. It is a very healthy moderate to larger climber, once flowering, with huge dense trusses of pure white small single flowers richly fragrant of oranges.
Filipes 'Kiftsgate' is only suited to large and country gardens. This world famous rose was raised in the beautiful garden of 'Kiftsgate' (located across the road from 'Hidcote', another famous English garden.) It easily climb into trees forming a spectacular waterfall of single superbly fragrant white single flowers followed by thousands of tiny heps.
Himalayan Musk Rose Another rose strictly for larger and country gardens, free standing like a clump of bamboo with arching branches and drooping, almost willow-like grey-green foliage and huge trusses of delicate, milky-white, small roses intensely fragrant of sweet pure musk (which bears no relationship to those choking, hayfever-inducing cheap 'musk' perfumes).
Gigantea This gorgeous Burmese and southern Chinese rose was introduced into Europe in 1888. The saucer-like very large single flowers are cream and very fragrant. They are followed by huge edible pear-shaped orange heps (which are sold as fruit in Indian markets). It repeat flowers lightly after its first luscious early summer flowering and can reach 10 m making it ideal for larger pergolas.
Altissimo There is no hiding this flaming beauty with large crisp single blooms of clear rich red and golden stamens. It is one of those happy-hearted roses, perfect for climbing over the garden gate or wreathing around an entrance or verandah.
Climbing 'Meg' This stunning old rose bears large pale pink single blooms in abundance throughout the season, spreading a sweet old-fashioned fragrance.
Gwen Nash bred by Alister Clark in Victoria, this glorious climber bred from Gigantea has a profusion of large exquisite mid pink flowers with waved petals and a delightful sweet fragrance.
Nancy Hayward This famous old climbing rose bred by Alister Clark in 1937 is breath-takingly elegant. It bears profuse huge fragrant single flowers of glowing tomato red with gold stamens and constantly r-flowers.

Bush and Shrub Single Roses
Golden Wings This is simply one of the most beautiful roses ever bred and fortunately was appreciated. It is a repeat flowering hybrid forming a neat shrub withvery large flowers which are lemon yellow suffused with golden yellow with a boss of rich deep gold stamens and a sweet wild rose fragrance.
Lord Penzance An all-time favourite, bred from the Eglantine Rose, the wild rose of England, by Lord Penzance of Goldalming in Surrey. The foliage is intensely scented of fresh green apples while the profuse pale to deeper lemon single blossoms are faintly blushed with pink and have a wild sweet rose fragrance.
Dupontii syn. Rosa moschata nivea  Bred in 1817 and named after the head gardener Andre Dupont for the Empress Josephine at Malmaison near Paris, this glorious rose smothers in large single milky white perfect blooms which shade to gold in the heart and have a richfragrance of ripe bananas.Many rate it the finest shrub rose ever bred, despite the magnificent display lasting only 4-6 weeks a year. It was bred from a cross between the Damask rose and the True Musk Rose R. moschata.
Sally This stunning shrub rose bears small clusters of deliciously fragrant, large white flowers unfolding from elegant apricot buds. Repeat flowering. It forms a spreading shrub to around 1.5m x 1.5m.
Dainty Bess Bred in 1925, this is one of the most loved single hybrid tea roses with a profusion of large single clear light pink flowers with wine red stamens. It is constantly in flower throughout its long season, and is vigorous and healthy.
White Wings This exquisite single old hybrid tea rose is one of the most elegant roses ever bred with medium to large, airy, purest white flowered roses and a delicate delicious scent. Like Dainty Bess, it is particularly sturdy.
Mrs Oakley Fisher Bred by Cant in 1921, this is now one of the most sought after old roses, a gorgeous single Hybrid Tea in pure silken apricot with a delicious fresh scent. The new growth is a rich crimson. Simply beautiful. 
Mutabilis syn. Tipo Ideale Although this rose from China was introduced into European cultivation in 1896, it is thought to be very much older. It is unique and remarkable, forming over the years a large shrub. It is never out of flower other than in mid-winter, smothering in airy panicles of large single flowers that open from deep apricot, slenderly furled buds to cream, then apricot, coppery pink and finally crimson so that the bush seems to be covered with multi-coloured hovering butterflies.
Fruhlingsmorgen A gorgeous shrub rose from the 1930s. The arching canes bear a profusion of large single pale pink flowers, each with a cluster of deepest crimson stamens. Fruhlingsgold is its near twin with very fragrant large pale golden single blooms.
Bloomfield Dainty and Irish Elegance are also well worth including in the garden.

Do please visit my website and link to my cottage blog and my author website from the Home Page. Or visit for my books.

Happy meandering and gardening,  Judyth McLeod

  © Judyth McLeod