At the end of June, I visited a garden that has been on my wishlist for a couple of years now.
After parking in a cul-de-sac on the edge of a quiet suburb of Swansea, I walked around the corner and along a row of semi-detached houses, their unassuming front gardens facing onto woodland and fields. Amidst these, it was easy to spot my target: ahead of me I saw plants spilling in all directions onto the pavement, which was crammed with plants for sale, merging into the effusive planting of the garden overhead and behind them. I couldn’t help but smile at this welcome, as I made my way through the gate of Touchwood: the home of not just one, but two National Collections, of Aquilegia vulgaris cultivars and Aquilegia hybrids, curated by Carrie Thomas.
The front garden, recently stripped of the last vestige of lawn in order to squeeze in more aquilegias, as well as other cottage garden favourites, was a riot of colour and texture. I slowly made my way down the front path, drinking in the range of plants around me; not a garden for impartial observation this, but an interactive caress of a garden, where stems weave and bob across the narrow pathways to brush against you and shake your hand gaily as you pass. My visit was nudging towards being rather late in the aquilegia season, with the earliest varieties already all but over, but I would be hard-pressed to tell that from the borders and containers which surrounded me, blazing with bobbing bonnets.
The columbines capered in a kaleidoscope of colour, as anticipated. Double flowers jostled alongside singles; some monotone, others bi-coloured; in pale ivory, warm apricot, red, yellow, purple and pink. Intertwined with these, there was a rather impressive supporting cast of other plants, that not only make a good accompaniment to the stars of the show, but also indicate that this garden continues to hold interest from long before the aquilegias unfurl their first flowers, for many months after the last one has set seed. Masses of self-sowing Briza maxima were particularly striking in the front garden, tiptoeing through the borders, flurries of red-tipped spikelets cascading from tall arching stems to make elegant partners to the flamboyant prima donnas around them.
There was an air of fun to the garden too; a cuddly koala grinned down from the lovely gnarled eucalyptus tree which towers over the front garden, creating areas of dappled shade; and little ornaments and decorations were to be found throughout the garden – along with lots of written information on the collections.
Continuing along the side of the house, I was struck by the way in which every opportunity for planting has been seized here, growing vertically where possible to maximise the space. A handsome rose rambled across a wooden arch beside the house, foaming with mounds of pale pink blooms, while clematis, honeysuckle and other roses were to be seen scrambling up supports and through shrubs and trees throughout the garden.
Behind the house stretched a long and narrow plot, only its contents setting it apart from many similar suburban gardens. I was almost absurdly pleased to find these national collections flourishing in such a modest space, typical to so many of us: no vast indulgent acreage, no over-manicured displays nor taskforce team, but a hardworking garden with no space spared, created and maintained by the vision, dedication and toil of one extraordinary plantswoman.
Carrie Thomas was hard at work as we appeared, but made the time to greet each visitor, chatting and generously sharing information with enthusiasm, before returning to her work once more, allowing us to explore the garden or ask further questions as required.
Immediately behind the house a small circular lawn was flanked by deep borders where a stunning array of aquilegias stood cheek by jowl with hosts of other plants in an effervescent display. Somehow I have ended up without any pictures of this area – too busy chattering or taking in the details of the planting to try and capture them, I suspect.
Moving further away from the house, the working hub of the garden revealed itself: there were orderly rows of young aquilegias, and a greenhouse, mostly empty now but doubtless filled to the rafters each winter with young seedlings seeking protection. Along the rows of tall flowering plants in the nursery beds, no longer distracted by companion planting in this part of the garden, canes bedecked with coloured ribbons marked specimens for sale, somehow reminiscent of prayer flags fluttering in the breeze. The nature of open pollination gives rise to a lot of variety in aquilegia seedlings, and new plants must be observed in flower before their characteristics can be confirmed, to determine their place in the collections or on the sales bench.
Touchwood benefits from the generosity of one of its neighbours, who has allowed Carrie to expand her collection into the lower half of the neighbouring garden. In this extra space, further greenhouse and nursery beds were also packed with aquilegias in various stages of growth. I was particularly smitten with the unusual purple and white flowers below, which bedecked a plant standing about four feet tall in the shade of a tree.
Having explored the collections, I did not end my visit without making a few purchases, of course! After much deliberation, I selected a lovely tall aquilegia with delicate ivory flowers tinged with pale lemon and the faintest blush of pink. Carrie confessed that this was one of her favourite forms, seldom found in the sales area, and I felt very privileged to be allowed to assume custody of this fine specimen. Before I left, I also added a few tiny mixed seedlings and two packets of seeds to my haul. I put the flowering plant into the ground the very next day, in a prime spot close to the terrace where I could enjoy its last delicate flowers, while the seedlings have been moved on into separate pots, to plant out in the autumn.
Following Carrie’s advice, I left just a scant handful of the seed pods to ripen as the flowers ended, to avoid stressing the plant as its roots established, and a few weeks ago eagerly collected the shiny black seed from these pods. I sowed some immediately on the surface of a pot of compost, lightly sprinkling a layer of vermiculite on top. At the same time I sowed some of the seed bought from Carrie, in separate pots: a pinch of each of the Shooting Stars mix of double yellows, and Black & Bruises mix of blues, purples and yellows. Seedlings have appeared in all three pots in the past couple of weeks, and as I watch them grow a small part of my mind is already fast-forwarding through summer’s end and the approaching autumn and winter to next spring when perhaps these new plants will flower, and reveal their colours and form.
Having raised A. chrysantha, A. longissima, A. skinneri Tequila Sunrise and A. stellata ‘Lime Sorbet’ from seed in the previous couple of years and watched them flower and grow in the garden, I had earlier in the summer also sown A. fragrans which have formed sturdy young plants, ready to flower next year. If Carrie can still add over five hundred new plants to her vast collection as she did last year, then I’m sure I will find space for the dozen or so new plants which will soon be jostling on the kitchen windowsill, as well as those in pots on the terrace …
Raising aquilegias from seed is a rewarding process, requiring only a little patience for plants to flower, usually in their second year. While most species will come true from seed if grown apart from others, there is a great deal of promiscuity in aquilegias and the results are often delightfully unpredictable, displaying a wide variety of colour and form – as can be appreciated on a visit to the collections at Touchwood, where Nature is allowed to take her own course, and the best seedlings then selected upon flowering. Here I found a treasure trove of these wonderful garden plants, which are being protected and developed with great passion and dedication.