Wild about Cow Parsley

May 18, 2006

It was a visitor’s comment that made me realise the magic which cow parsley bestowed on The Laskett garden in May. The remark referred to its beauty as a backcloth to a mixed border, in a sequence that ran: grass walk, border filled with shrubs and herbaceous plants along with clipped box accents, a froth of Queen Anne’s Lace on a grassy bank with a wall of dark-green clipped yew behind.

As I walked through the garden, I became keenly aware of the miraculous prettiness this wildflower brings to so many areas from mid to late May. On sun-dappled days, it is like wandering through one of those extraordinary plein air Impressionist paintings. In his wonderful Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey gives an amazing list of names for this plant, ranging from Fairy and Spanish Lace to Grandpa’s Pepper and Rabbit Meat the last, to me, inexplicable. No matter; this is a supremely decorative plant but, I confess, one that calls to be set off by a clipped hedge or built structure to bring out its elegant waywardness as it froths above the vibrant new grass of spring, which is inset with buttercups and Welsh poppies.

And that is what spells its success here. In the orchard, low beech and yew hedges quarter the domain. Within each quarter, the cow parsley romps, its flowerheads touching the lower branches of the fruit trees on their dwarfing rootstocks. Towards the end of this month, the rugosa roses dotted hither and thither erupt with the blowsy claret blooms of Roseraie de l’Haÿ, and standard Wisteria sinensis adds pendules of pale lilac to the scene. Along the pleached lime avenue, its sweet disorder is sandwiched between another low, clipped yew hedge and the swagged one that links the limes. Here, more than anywhere else, the lesson of the importance of contrast in letting this wayside plant run wild is to be learnt. Sir Bernard Lovell, a splendid 93-year-old and creator of a fine arboretum in Cheshire, was bemused, on a visit here, by my ecstasy over this common wildflower, which he ruthlessly fells.

May is a month when you get obsessed with your own patch, because just about everything is happening, and you generally never see anyone else’s garden. By a stroke of luck, last year, I was asked to give a talk at Wollerton Old Hall near Market Drayton, and so a visit to a garden I had always wished to see was firmly etched in the diary.

Younger than The Laskett by a decade, it is a remarkable achievement by Lesley Jenkins. We had shared many of the same impulses above all, the obsession with rooms delineated by beech or yew hedges to provide a tranquil enclosure, changes of mood and planting and, of course, surprise. At Wollerton, the plan was a rigid grid of rectangles, with no ovals or circles, but at The Laskett those shapes occur at odd angles, surrounded by asymmetrical links. At Wollerton, the progression was the classic one, with a meandering wild area beyond the formal confines; not true here. I was also struck by the fact that all the hedges were flat-topped. I could never resist curves and curlicues. But it did set me thinking about introducing some really tall yew obelisks soaring upwards.

So far, Shaun has let me down on only one thing: we don’t yet have a continuous supply of flat-leafed parsley in the kitchen garden. How awful to be reduced to buying a pot of the stuff from the supermarket. He’s planted some, and it’s popping up, but I’ll have to wait. But what have spread across the kitchen garden are flowers, rows of them, interspersed through the vegetables. The lustrous blue spires of delphiniums soar above the grey-green spikes of globe artichoke leaves; multi-coloured aquilegias nod to the broad beans, and a border of my mother’s favourite flowers, old-fashioned Sweet Williams, add tufts of deep pink and crimson close to the feathery fronds of coriander.

I can see the rows of old-fashioned marigolds to come, along with giant sunflowers, which seem so natural in a kitchen garden. They always make me think back 30 years to when we started here and paid a visit to the artist John Piper, whose garden was at Fawley Bottom near Henley-on-Thames. Seeing an autumn evening in his kitchen garden was such an inspiration, with those glorious flowers soaring above us in a golden evening light. Unforgettable.

This article first appeared in COUNTRY LIFE magazine on May 18, 2006