True Grit: My new gravel garden

True Grit: My new gravel garden

At home we had a useless patch of lawn as a front garden. It was waterlogged in winter and bone dry in the summer. My husband and I would moan about whose turn it was to mow each week as it involved the onerous and strenuous task of lifting our heavy petrol mower from our elevated rear garden to ground level, which was to be honest a back breaking chore. I was always asking why were we mowing a useless ecologically devoid patch of lawn every week, wasting time and also fuel? This was a space that looked boring throughout the whole year and barely used. A change was in order.

This small space has now been developed to make our lives easier and I have worked with the conditions rather than trying to beat the ground into submission with how we want it to be.  Now, the lawn has gone and a gravel garden is in its place. The reasons for this were three fold. Firstly, by getting rid of the lawn I was dramatically reducing the maintenance needs of the front garden. Mowing has now ceased and because there is a depth of 15cm of gravel on clay subsoil, the weeds are kept to a minimum. Since its development in spring, I have yet to weed the front garden, there are simply no weeds to be seen. 

Tragopogon   crocifolius  visited by pollinators

Tragopogon crocifolius visited by pollinators

The second reason is that I wanted to increase the amount of foraging insects into the garden. A bland monotonous manicured lawn has no nectar value compared to a mosaic of aromatic drought tolerant species that freely flower over a long period of time. Throughout the spring, summer and autumn, we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of pollinators visiting our garden that were not there previously. Garden pests have also declined. Gravel is not a substrate that molluscs like travelling over so there has been a reduction in both slugs and snails.

The unusual and spiny  Erythrina cristus-galli

The unusual and spiny Erythrina cristus-galli

The last reason, and this was purely a selfish botanist wanting to grow unusual plants, was that the gravel garden has enabled me to grow plants that would ordinarily die over the winter due to heavy wet clay. Waterlogged roots in heavy clay soil leads to the death of those plants requiring free-draining substrates.

Nursery woman Derry Watkins of Special Plants explains: “It’s generally not the cold that kills tender and borderline plants but waterlogged soils.”

The ground now drains freely when we do have rainfall and although the garden has yet to go through its first winter, I am hopeful that many of the borderline species will survive due to good drainage.

Vibrant blue form of  Schizachyrium scoparium 'Prairie Blues'

Vibrant blue form of Schizachyrium scoparium 'Prairie Blues'

Gardener friends have commented on various species I am growing in the gravel and it is easy for them to examine, take cuttings and collect seed of these plants by picking their way through the gravel spaces without fear of soil compaction. The garden certainly looks changed. There are different forms, sizes, textures, colours and flowers and it has developed considerably over the months. Despite the possibility that the garden will probably take about 5 years to mature, I am a patient gardener willing to wait and curious as to how it will evolve.  

Vibrant  Dianthus carthusianorum

Vibrant Dianthus carthusianorum

Plants that are now growing well in my gravel garden include:

Striped foliage of  Miscanthus  'Morning Light'

Striped foliage of Miscanthus 'Morning Light'

Aquilegia skinneri ‘Tequila Sunrise’, Agastache ‘Black Adder’, Agastache ‘Summer Sunset’, Allium sphaerocephalon, Aloysia citrodora, Artemsisia absinthium, Calamintha nepeta, Convolvulus cneorum, Cynara scolymus, Daucus carota, Dianthus carthusianorum, Diascia personata ‘Hopleys’, Dierama pulcherrimum, Echeveria sp., Echium pininana, Eremurus x Isabel Reiter Hybrids, Erigeron karvinskianus, Erythrina cristus-galli, Euryops acraeus, Foeniculum vulgare ‘Bronze’, Iochroma australis, Kniphofia ‘Timothy’, Lavandula angustfolia ‘Rosea’, Lavandula angustifolia ‘Hidcote’, Ligusticum lucidum spp. lucidum, Linaria purpurea ‘Canon Went’, Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’, Morina longifolia, Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’, Origanum ‘Herrenhausen’, Penstemon ‘Garnet’, Rhodohypoxis milloides, Romneya coulteri, Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Green Ginger’, Salvia ‘Cerro potosi’, Salvia ‘Emporer’, Salvia ‘Oceania’, Satureja Montana, Schizachrium scoparium ‘Prairie Blues’, Sisynchium ‘E.K Balls’, Stipa gigantea, Thymus camphoratus ‘Derry’, Verbascum bombyciferum ‘Polar Summer’, Verbascum olympicum and Verbena bonariensis.

Annuals that were grown from seed and transplanted into the garden include:

Eschscholzia californica ‘Alba’, Hordeum jubatum, Papaver rupifragum, Papaver ‘Mother of Pearl’ and Tragopogon crocifolius.

Excellent self sower  Eschscholzia californica  'Alba'

Excellent self sower Eschscholzia californica 'Alba'

Species that I am growing from seed and will trial in the gravel garden:

Anenome pavonina, Asphodeline lutea, Asphodelus albus, Bouteloua gracilis, Cephalaria gigantea, Cichorium intybus, Cistus salviifolius, Echium russicum, Echium vulgare, Eucalyptus nicholii, Heptaptera triquetra, Hyssopus officinalis, Papaver somniferum ‘Ragged Robin’, Penstemon barbatus, Peucedanum verticillare, Salvia argentea ‘Silver’ and Scabiosa drakensbergensis. 

Tall and architectural  Heptaptera triquetra

Tall and architectural Heptaptera triquetra

The Beautiful Apiaceae

The Beautiful Apiaceae

Britain’s lanes and waysides always look spectacular at this time of year with a mass of milky white flowers of cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris). Recently, Monty Don expressed his love of the humble cow parsley in his writing garden, revelling in its chaotic froth of flowers. To me it typifies the start of the British summer and epitomises the beauty and lushness of the British landscape and I too revel in its simple loveliness.

Anthriscus sylvestris  at Biddestone Manor, Wiltshire

Anthriscus sylvestris at Biddestone Manor, Wiltshire

Anthriscus sylvestris is a member of the very diverse Apiaceae or Umbelliferae, a family more commonly known as the carrot family. This family contains about 3,000 accepted species of about 450 genera. They consist of mainly aromatic species with an umbel flower shape, hollow internodes with highly dissected compound leaves forming a spiral around the stem. The flowers are highly characteristic, the fruit produced called a schizocarp that splits into a single seeded part when ripe. However, there are many surprise members of the family with flowers very different from the typical umbel shape. These include Erygiums and Astrantias. Some species are highly poisonous such as Conium maculatum (poison hemlock), which killed the philosopher Socrates, after he was given an infusion having been condemned to death for impiety. Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum), not to be confused with the native hogweed (Heracleum sphonodylium), is an invasive weed growing up to 3m in height. It is a plant to be wary of, the sap is capable of causing severe skin blistering. Conversely, other species within the very same family contain many of our favoured root vegetables and herbs including carrot, parsnip, parsley, coriander, fennel and caraway.

The very adaptable  Astrantia  'Gill Richardson'

The very adaptable Astrantia 'Gill Richardson'

The spiny  Eryngium bougatii  'Graham Stuart Thomas's selection (GST)

The spiny Eryngium bougatii 'Graham Stuart Thomas's selection (GST)

Eryngium sp.  seedling

Eryngium sp. seedling

Emerging  Eryngium sp.

Emerging Eryngium sp.

I visited nursery owner, Derry Watkins’s garden last week in Cold Ashton, near Bath, to attend a talk on this plant family, which she considers her favourite. Derry grows a vast range of species from this family in her own garden and she is as enthusiastic about them as the fifty people who turned up to listen to her explain their diversity and usefulness in the garden.

“This plant family is extremely varied and you see species growing in many different locations worldwide. They are useful as well as beautiful as many will self sow.”

All of the species that Derry grows in her garden are hardy albeit a couple of species. There are annuals, biennials and perennials and all of them have beautiful inflorescences. Of the annuals are the ever-popular Ammi visnaga and A. majus, with beautiful loose dome shaped white blooms, and Orlaya grandiflora, with a more delicate and refined white flower head in comparison. Daucus carota ‘Black Knight’ is a welcome contrast to the white umbels, which produces a flush a purple frilly leaves and muted pink flower heads. All of these will self sow prolifically. The annual Eryngium giganteum ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’ is spectacular in flower and so different to the seedling plant that first emerges from the ground. It is the plant equivalent of a jagged skeleton amongst the border, its form and structure is dramatic and eye catching. It is named after Edwardian plantswoman, Miss Ellen Willmott who apparently introduced it into other people’s gardens by secretly depositing the seed when visiting.

Delicate  Orlaya grandiflora

Delicate Orlaya grandiflora

My favourites of this family are what I consider the triffids of the umbels and include Angelica archangelica, a true beast of a plant with huge globose flowers. These are classed as hapaxanthic perennials; each year’s growth dies back to ground level every year with fresh growth the following spring. It only produces leaf growth in the first year, followed by flowers in the second year and it may well last 3 to 4 years if you cut off the flowers. However, the inflorescences are such a stunning feature, it seems a pity to cut them off and so, it is often treated as a biennial. The huge flower heads and impressive architectural form of both Angelica gigas, Peucedanum verticillare and Ferula communis look striking in any garden. They are the oddballs of the Apiaceae and F. communis looks extraordinary when it is emerging like an unfurling leafy arm from the ground in spring. If sheer impact is needed in your garden, then go for the Madeira Giant Black Parsley, Melanoselinum decipiens, another hapaxanthic perennial which is dramatic in it’s structure and size, reaching 1.5m with angelica like flowers and pinky red flushed foliage on a main trunk. It is, however, borderline hardy and so needs a sheltered frost-free well draining spot in the garden. 

The globular flower heads of  Angelica archangelica

The globular flower heads of Angelica archangelica

Architectural  Peucedanum   verticillare

Architectural Peucedanum verticillare

Beast like  Ferula communis

Beast like Ferula communis

The impressive  Melanoselinum decipiens

The impressive Melanoselinum decipiens


One umbel I am going to try to from germinate from seed this autumn is Laserpitium siler, commonly found growing in rocky gorges and slopes in central and southern Europe. This hardy perennial is much smaller than the gigantic F. communis with lacy blue-green foliage and delicate pink or white flowers reaching a height of about 90cm. It will do well planted in free draining sites particularly gravel gardens. Another that I have planted this year in my gravel garden is hapaxanthic perennial, Ligusticum lucidum. This is very similar to Laserpitium siler but has glossier green lacy foliage, white umbels and striking seed heads at 1.2m. If you are looking for delicate yellow umbels, then one species that has caught my eye recently in Derry’s garden is Heptaptera triquetra  (the triangular stemmed carrot), a short lived perennial that is best cultivated from fresh seed sown in the autumn. 

The airy inflorescences of  Heptaptera triquetra

The airy inflorescences of Heptaptera triquetra

Capture the garden

Capture the garden

The author taking photos

The author taking photos

Gardening in itself can be an art form. To capture photographs illustrating the very essence of a garden is artistic mastery. We can perceive with our own eyes the sweeping vista of spring flowers in a garden but to photograph that scene successfully and reproduce that vastness of flowering landscape is difficult to accomplish. The sheer expanse of swathes of wild flowers or the exquisite detail of a fern unfurling can be lost in a photograph when to the naked eye it appears as something quite remarkable. Producing exceptional garden photos not only requires artistic talent but technical aptitude with photographic equipment, an understanding of meteorology, an ability to read landscapes and a fair amount of patience. The expertise involved in garden photography can be off-putting to those new to the discipline but following certain basic principles can produce some surprising results.

 The early bird or night owl

Garden photographers almost always work during dawn or dusk when the light is considered to be better. This then directly translates into photographs creating exquisite atmosphere and impression. For me, this is not good news. I am certainly not a ‘happy’ early riser so any photographs I take, will tend to be those favouring the dusk end of the day. However in his opinion, garden photographer Jason Ingram shoots some of his best photos during the dawn hours.

My local woodland at dawn

My local woodland at dawn

For the last two years Jason has photographed Folly Farm in Berkshire, an arts and crafts garden originally designed by Lutyens and Jekyll and beautifully restored by it’s owners and garden designer Dan Pearson. At Folly Farm, Jason has had the pleasure of photographing the changing seasons, and different light and atmosphere, all of which are hugely influential on how the garden appears in photographs. He considers some of his best photos of Folly Farm to be taken at dawn.

“Photographing Folly Farm has been a real privilege as more often than not I rarely spend very long in a garden,” Jason explained, “and I certainly never see a garden multiple times during the year. This is a project that is going to run for about 10 years and will culminate in an extensive photographic record of the garden.”

For a photographer picking the right moment to take a shot is critical.  If photographs are taken when the sun it at its highest point in the sky then the light is often too hard, heavy shadows can dominate the garden and images can appear oversaturated. Effectively, where the sun is in the sky needs to be taken fully into consideration, as the same picture taken at midday and at dusk can evoke a very different feeling.  

Jason said, “In March last year, I was taking photographs on the wonderful estate of Boughton House in Northamptonshire.  The sun was low in the sky creating a wonderful glow, the sky a vivid blue and there was a beautiful frost, all of which combined to make some great photos. That same photo taken at midday would have looked completely different and nowhere near as atmospheric. ”

Whatever the weather

Often I visit gardens regardless of the weather. Rain, hail, snow, wind and blistering heat do not deter me. However, bad weather conditions for garden photographers can often delay shoots and worst-case scenarios mean waiting another year to take photographs.  

Iced trees in northern Sweden

Iced trees in northern Sweden

“A photographer always consults the weather forecasts,” said Jason. “There is no point in photographing a garden when all the detail is lost under a metre of snow, a smattering of snow is perfect but not masses of it. I often consider myself a part time meteorologist as well as a photographer! Most people think that rainy days are the worst days to take images but winds can ruin any chance of a good photo.”

Photographs taken in the snow or on a frosty morning can be elegantly stark as they often appear monochrome in appearance and help to dramatize the form, shape and structure of gardens. Mists and heavy dews rising off landscapes can accentuate light when captured at the critical time and create a magical glow to a photograph. For many of Jason’s photographs, he uses a neutral density (ND) filter and this greatly accentuates the beauty of the skies in his images. An ND filter basically reduces the intensity of light entering the lens, increasing exposure without affecting the colour of the image. This is important where the sky appears much brighter than the landscape. Using an ND filter can reduce the brightness of the sky but retain good exposure of the land. But even more importantly, it can be extremely effective during dawn and dusk shoots. Jason also uses a transparent filter. This serves to block ultraviolet light, reducing haziness and the purple fringing that often occurs at the edges of digital photographs. They can be really effective in darkening skies and making them more atmospheric.

Working at speed

Often photographers need to work quickly to capture a perfect shot. Being in the right place at the right time is important but Jason explained the importance of the photographer ‘getting their eye in’ first. A good photographer will often have ‘a good eye’, that is they can see beyond the first glance, examining both the composition and the effects of light. They can often see what will make an effective photo very quickly. However there are times when a photographer needs to slow down and even pause for a while.

Jason explained, “Sometimes a garden is simply overwhelming in its beauty, it’s photographic breadth limitless. When that happens it is best to take a break and walk the space.”

If mists are featuring in a shoot then a photographer needs to more even quicker as the mists will quickly disperse. However, it is a fine balance. Too much mist and the details within the image are lost and too little and you lose the atmospheric quality. A small amount is perfect to allow the sun’s rays to break through. Frosts will alter through the duration of the day too and as a photographer you want to capture a garden under a curtain of frost with a small amount of melt to achieve the desired effect. Photograph too late in the day and all of the frost may have melted.

Getting into position

Most people assume that to take photographs you need the sun behind you but many of Jason’s photos are taken looking into the sun. In fact, many garden photographers use this approach.

“I think that photos look much better if they are shot into the sun. You screen and filter the direct glare of the sun by using foliage and features in the garden,” Jason explained. “It can then be really effective in backlighting plants, giving them an ephemeral glow. If the sun is directly behind you the best shots are at ‘ten to’ and ‘ten past’ the hour generally. ”

Positioning yourself in the garden is also important as it affects the angle at which the garden is viewed. Jason always takes a set of stepladders with him to a shoot as he often needs to get a shot looking down into a garden. This gives a great vantage point and captures the garden at quite a different angle to how most people would visualise it. Jason has even taken photos from standing on a chicken house to rooftops of houses to get the best shot. Often the camera can be orientated upwards instead, to help accentuate height and give an airy feeling to photographs.

It’s all in the detail

Snowdrops at East Lambrook Manor Gardens   

Snowdrops at East Lambrook Manor Gardens


Some of my favourite photographs in gardens are those of plant portraits and macro images. The beauty of the shot lies in the detail of the plant, the veins tracing a delicate leaf or clusters of pollen on the stamens of a flower. For Jason, he gets at eye level with the plants and more often than not this means getting really low to the ground especially when shooting tiny bulbs. Quite often for plant portraits, a set needs to be created to get the perfect image and this can involve all manner of clamps to tease the plants into the required shape, and usually the presence of a diffuser to cast the correct amount of shade. Although a plant portrait can look like an easy shot, it requires a great deal of technical skill and patience as it can take days to get the desired photo.

Jason offered up some final pieces of advice to aspiring photographers, “Take as many photographs as you can. If you see a good photo take it to avoid a missed opportunity. Always look behind you because more often than not there’s a great image there.”

Jason Ingram is a garden, landscape, interiors and food photographer who regularly contributes to Gardens Illustrated, The English Garden and other magazines as well as national newspapers. He studied photography at Salisbury College of Art and during his career has won many prestigious photography awards.


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