THE DELL GARDEN AT BRESSINGHAM GARDENS
The Dell Garden at Bressingham Gardens is a mecca for hardy herbaceous perennial plant enthusiasts. The Dell Garden was created by Alan Bloom during the nineteen sixties and seventies and is as good today as it was then!
The Island Bed
Alan pioneered the island bed which revolutionised the way that we grow perennials. Up to the creation of The Dell garden, perennials were grown in long formal beds backed by a tall hedge or wall. Tallest varieties were planted at the back, medium sized in the middle and smallest right at the very front. You can still see this today in some historical gardens.
Alan Bloom was keen to explore a way that perennials could be grown to support one another without staking. He also sought a way to grow them so that they could be admired from all sides. This he did by planting them in island beds. We take this for granted nowadays but it was his island beds that transformed our use of this so diverse group of plants!
Alan Bloom’s other great passion was steam engines and during his life he gathered together a very significant collection of steam driven railway engines, fairground organs and rides, traction engines and more. His collection at Bressingham Gardens still draws thousands of enthusiasts today.
I bumped into Alan in Portland, Oregon in 1980. He was looking for more steam engines to buy and I was part way through a large Nuffield Farming Scholarship Trust study tour of USA nurseries and garden centres. We joined forces and spent a day searching the Columbia River valley for new plants to bring back to the UK.
The Dell Garden in late October looked fantastic and we visited it on an exceptionally warm and bright day. In fact, it was so bright that it made photography very difficult and my images do not do the garden justice. A low bright sun with deep shadows make for very difficult photography!
A few trees and shrubs give structure to the garden but it is the diverse range of hardy herbaceous perennials that are the stars.
Gardeners rely heavily on the daisy family and especially in autumn. Asters [now renamed as Symphyotrichum] are at their best at this time of year. Of course I’m referring to the Michaelmas daisy and many were covered in honey bees feasting on their nectar. Most here were single bloomed and with tiny flowers. These are becoming more popular but they are very late to flower. Aster ericoides and Aster lateriflorus types had hundreds of tiny blooms per plant and, although they can get it, often avoid the bete noire of Asters – powdery mildew!
There’s a good range of hardy Chrysanthemum in the Dell Garden and in a good colour range too. If plants survive outside here without protection it is a very good indication of their hardiness. East Anglia can be one of the coldest parts of England so I took a particular note of varieties. Those looking good were ‘Cottage Apricot’, ‘Cottage Pink’, the yellow ‘Erntekranze’ [Harvest Wreath], ‘Peterkin’ [bronze] and ‘Anastasia’ [dark pink].
Miscanthus – the ornamental version of Elephant Grass – was at its best after such a hot and dry summer. They had experienced the best conditions to induce blooms. Some of the older varieties are reluctant to flower in Britain so it’s well worth looking for those varieties that have been bred in Europe rather than the Far East.
My favourite [M. nepalensis] is actually from Nepal and I’ve found that it does perform well here in southern England. I love the smaller more graceful blooms that it produces and on shorter [1-1.5m] high stems too.
Panicum ‘Purple Haze’ looks good and there are many great forms of this Prairie grass. These look great in winter when they become a rich golden colour. The Japanese Forest grass Hakonechloa macra ‘Alboaurea’ is a really good graceful front of border grass.
Other eye catchers
Red gladiolus-like Hesperantha coccinea Major [formerly Schizostylis] looked stunning but small drifts of Nerines were the real stars! This bulb is perfectly hardy but looks very exotic. It likes dry conditions and seems to prefer poor well drained soil. The Hesperantha by contrast will grow in quite damp soil.
Gaura lindheimeri flowers all summer and was still at it at the time of my visit. Many new selections lack the hardiness of this South African species.
Persicaria amplexicaulis ‘Taurus’ is a good dark red form. Persicaria amplexicaulis var. pendula, a form that I hadn’t seen before, had pinker weeping blooms.
In a shady place I spotted a hardy Saxifraga fortunei ‘Wada’s Variety’. This is a beautiful delicate looking late bloomer that should be planted much more widely.
The Dell Garden Summary
This is undoubtedly an important garden and arguably the most important to see a great selection of hardy herbaceous perennial plants.
Adjoining The Dell Garden is son of Alan Bloom’s garden – Foggy Bottom. Adrian Bloom’s garden is every bit as good as his father Alan’s but reflects a more common mix of woody plants and hardy perennials side by side. More on this here!