Skip to main content


Showing posts from 2010

Sparkling Snowdrops, Batman!

I was talking to my botanical uncle about snowdrops the other day, in the context of bigging up our welsh garden. Turns out that my paternal grandmother put in all sorts of exciting things but he reckons that quite a lot have faded away – and anything that has any susceptibility to slugs just gets munched and won’t bulk up. Anyway, we have a niceish spread of Galanthus nivalis ,and some others which I have been told are probably G. elwesii (they have bigger, greyer leaves, apparently) although my uncle suggested they could just be from a different population of G nivalis, snowdrops being a heterogeneous bunch. I will go and have a closer look in the spring, but the flowering times are certainly different. I would like to get some interesting ones, but at the same time it would be a bit daft to splash out on slug food. We shall see. I had quite a party week last week, with the annual Garden Media Guild Awards in London. It has been blogged to death, so I will sum it up as glitteri

Adventures in Floristry

Ingredients for a bouquet Back in the summer I went on a floristry course to Green and Gorgeous in Oxfordshire. Historically, I have not been at all keen on formal floristry. It seemed rigid and stuffy, coming up with arrangements that had names like ‘Orchid and Sphagnum on a Tortured Twig’. But at G&G they laid my demons to rest with an intensive day learning how to make fashionable naturalistic bouquets. Since then I have had little need to use these dark arts, but as the autumn colours intensified the floristry bug intensified too. Venturing out with the secateurs I acquired Pyracantha berries, bronze and gold forsythia leaves, soft grey goldenrod seedheads (cunningly stabilised with a blast of extreme-hold hairspray to stop the seeds dropping off), and some Sedum flowers. I bought some Physalis and cellophane from Lulu Flowers round the corner – where they also gave me a quick refresher in wrapping them for travel. So, with much garden wire and raffia, I assembled my ha

A Series of Doors

 The Woodshed, still not as accessible as it might be!  Actually managed to do a spot of gardening yesterday – it has suffered because of a major veg-planting extravaganza in Wales in aid of my forthcoming series in Kitchen Garden magazine. Starts in January. Look out for it. (And my adventure at the National Gardening Show in the December issue of Period Homes and Interiors). Anyway, I cut back a few perennials to stop them strangling some other stuff, liberated the door of the woodshed from encroaching evergreens (so at least we can tell if there is something nasty in it, if we want to*), and started to lay waste to some really cheeky brambles. All very therapeutic. The picture above is of the woodshed after I had done most of the cutting back. I fear my work is not yet done. When I was about six I had a protracted argument with my Grandmother about favourite colours. I liked red and black. She said that she liked brown best. I said that black was sharp and striking and

Red Planting and Political Blues

Verbena bonariensis and Cornus alba sibirica, with sedum in the background I have been taking a good look at my front garden, which, despite needing a bit of a tidy is coming on nicely. It is north facing on very sandy soil so not the easiest spot, and its autumn-to-winter look is basically red and green. The leaves have come off the Cornus sibirica leaving red stems, there are big heads of sedum flowers, a few dark red snapdragons left, Parthenocissus henryana climbing the wall (although the Hydrangea petiolaris seems to have died on me) and lots of lovely ornamental fruit on the little Malus sargentii . The green bit is provided by Choisia ternata , bamboo, a small rosemary, a Sarcococca and a few other odds and sods that flower at other times of the year.  Malus sargentii and sedum, neatly colour coordinated with my neighbours' car and front door  Trouble is, I think I am being too subtle. There are a few mauve highlights from the sage which is romping away (tol

The Queen and the Worlds Biggest Caterpillar

Today, we are mostly hitting our head against horticulture. Hmmm. We are not the Queen. Today, I am hitting my head against horticulture. What to plant in the veg patch to make it gloriously productive and wonderful through winter. And if I plant it, will it survive anyway? The potatoes have gone and an early frost nipped the corn. I have stopped picking the beans and hopefully the last ones will fatten up to produce some very superior kidney beans, for very superior bean salad. Then what? I think that various oriental things such as mizuna and mustards might be the thing, and spinach sounds promising, but it is all terribly experimental. I am going to put in some exciting garlic varieties and I have scored some rather jolly looking flower sprouts from Suttons. Like mini pink and green cabbages, I hope they taste as good as they look. I also have a big box of bulbs from De Jager, which is extraordinarily exciting. De Jager does big bulbs as standard and in the spirit of getting

Vast Veg and Sweet, Sweet Music.

I visited the National Gardening Show last Friday. I had not been there before and my diet so far has been rich RHS fare such as Chelsea so I did slightly wonder what I was going to. It was fun though – lots of obscenely vast and occasionally visceral-looking vegetables, stonking dahlias, some good nurseries and generally all the fun of the country show. I also came across a plant new to me called “Good King Henry” twice on the same day. When that happens you just have to try it. At risk of being a plant bore, I drove back up the A303 spotting apple trees in full fruit in the hedgerows. I quite like the A303, mostly because it goes past Stonehenge and you can also play ‘spot the long-barrow’, but this time I was trying to remember the tune to that late-90’s song by Kula Shaker which goes on about driving down the A303. I read in Smash Hits or something at the time that it was all about running away to Glastonbury, man. Two thoughts; 1) Did they not realise that running away to Glaston

Satchkin Patchkin

Devonshire Quarrenden I spent most of yesterday up a tree. But there is method in my madness – I was picking the first apples of the season. We picked the Discovery a week or so ago to finish ripening off the tree as they were being so badly attacked by birds and squirrels, other than that we have big green Reverend W Wilks and the early eater Devonshire Quarrenden. The problem with early apples is that they don’t store all that well – the Quarrenden is a beautiful, deep red creature, all tart and juicy, but within about a week the flesh starts to become speckled with brown. And Rev Wilks is so soft that you can bruise it with your fingers as you pick it. So we picked carefully, sent some of the lovely fruit to the Royal Oak Inn , the shop and a B&B. Apple crumble is back on the menu and we have sent a whole bunch of fruit for juice. And for my next trick I will make some chutney. I rather like apple picking. It reminds me of the story book Satchkin Patchkin by Helen Mor

Hampton Court Show - but is it art?

Well, it is that time of year again and as I am far too busy to think of anything interesting or funny to blog about, here, for your delectation, is Hampton Court Show 2010 in shapes, colours and textures. Enjoy x

Bags of lavender

Sometimes, when you least expect it, the garden starts giving you presents. You spend ages fretting over it, feeding it, topping it up with plants. Stuff dies (there is a spot where I want a small tree and so far it has eaten a Hamamelis and a Magnolia, it is the most expensive corner of the garden so far!), the whole thing takes the mickey. But then the cuttings take better than you ever dreamed they might; plants survive and propagating themselves at will and all sorts of pretties turn up. Finally shamed into weeding my front garden (north facing, extremely dry, shallow, sandy soil) I was picking out dandelions and rogue goldenrod, I suddenly realised that the lavender had seeded itself into the ridiculously dry and trampled strip by the car. I had no idea lavender did that sort of thing. It is a pink one and while I’m not over excited by the colour the scent is lovely. I think it is 'Miss Katherine', a refugee from a show. I took softwood cuttings in spring from severa

Great Hairy Weeds

Well, Chelsea has come and gone. Thought it was rather nice, actually in a green-and-white fashion. I liked the show garden by Roger Platts, and the little Rhubarb Crumble and Custard Garden. Congratulations to Thrive for their well-deserved gold medal – and thanks for the smart green tea towel that came in the press pack. Slebs spotted include Bill Bailey, Bernard Cribbins (who I always confuse with Bilbo Baggins as he read The Hobbit on Jackanory when I was little) and that Anita off Birds of a Feather who is always there. A bit short of rock stars for my personal taste, but Ringo just tends to tear around being rude to people so maybe it is no great loss. Although I was rather pleased to meet Brian May a couple of years ago. Gardens. Celebrities. Schmoozing. Chelsea in a nutshell. This is the time of year when it is all about multi-tasking. Weeding is something that has to be kept on top of, or civilisation as we know it crumbles. This is best done on the phone to ones mother

Slug Food, Chelsea and Underage Drinking

A week ago I bit the bullet and planted some sweet peas to go up the trellis of my new border. I bought some and then T&M and the Beth Chatto Garden gave me a packet each, so in a free-spirited frame of mind I planted the lot. Now, where I grew up there are slugs the size of baby crocodiles so I am generally a bit jumpy about planting out slug food. This does not, however, appear to be the main problem. The main problem appears to be that my border is neatly situated in the middle of an extended game of volleyball between my children and the kids next door. For normal domestic goddess behaviour on my part a bit of warning of such antics is required. Didn’t get it. Rocketed out of the kitchen door shrieking “For the love of CHRIST! What are you doing to my PLANTS!!” Pause. Deep breath. Very calm. “It looks like a lovely game darling. Now, could you please be a little bit careful and not squash this, and this, and this...”. Resilient things, plants. On page 7ish of the Garden

Proceeding At Speed In All Directions

This week has been outstandingly busy. Went to the Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst Place on Friday, which was deeply satisfying for my inner geek. Monday I went to Cliveden – Italianate balustrades with an unusual snail residing in them, vast parterre, great big house, originally built for somebody’s mistress, apparently. Must have been quite some chick. And some tulips. Last night went to interview a very nice lady for a garden feature that will be in The English Garden in the Autumn. Really great garden and fantastic eye for colour. Scheduled for September, so look out for it. Coming up, I am doing a gardening event for children at Waterstones, based on the RHS Garden Explorers Handbook. This promises to be mayhem of the highest order – but in a good way, with mural painting, making insects out of sticks, writing garden poetry and many a good thing. There is also a seed giveaway (thank you T&M ) and the chance to win a family ticket to Hampton Court Flower Show (thank yo

A Chelsea Complex and a Young Pretender

The new Mediterranean border is coming on nicely. The trellis is up and painted in my favourite shade of aqua and the neighbours approve – although I did have a heart-in-mouth moment when, having thoughtfully painted both sides I realised that it is quite a full-on colour and they might not like it. I am now planting up and trying to resist the ‘I want it all and I want it now’ urge (something I am rather prone to at the best of times), which is common to anyone who has ever built a show garden and then has to garden like other ordinary human beings with a timescale of years and a shoestring budget. Simple maths. If you have things that will be 4ft across, plant them 4ft apart because they can be expected to grow 2ft in each direction. Even if they are only 6inches across now. Yes it looks tiny and dotty at first, but if you pack everything in so it looks wonderful you will have a fight on your hands in about a fortnight. This, people, is what annual bedding is for. That is what I k

Chasing Spring

As spring continues to unfurl, the garden reveals what is hot, what is not and what is just plain dead. Echinacea ‘Fatal Attraction’ seems to have pulled through (woohoo!) and is pushing up little scarlet sprouts while the Zantedescia has not (boo!) and nor has the Weigela (meh). Interestingly, there seem to be shoots on a lilac branch that I cut last spring and turned into part of a wigwam for a clematis. At about eight feet tall it is the biggest cutting I have ever seen – that is not a willow, obviously – and if it survives the summer I will have to find it a new home, somehow. Just got back from a few days in Wales and some more full-on gardening. Everything in Berkshire is running 2-3 weeks behind where it was last year, but west Wales is at least 2 weeks further back even than that. The new veg patch is coming on nicely, though, and it is absolute bliss to be able to sow entire packs of new seed rather than feel honour-bound to use up the scrappy packs left over from small s

Nascent Botanical Anarchy

Everything is happening at once in the garden. The daffodils and tulips are trying to come out at the same time. The rhubarb is muscling its way out of the ground and the newly cut back Cornus is sprouting little green flames from each red stem. I have been planting David Austin roses, in my nascent ‘pink, blue and silver, slightly Mediterranean-style border’ as it is snappily known. It was my birthday this weekend so an uncontrolled, but terribly satisfying, garden centre bender was in order. Trophies included a clematis, Magnolia ‘Leonard Messel’ and some rain daisies to go with the existing lavender and Lychnis coronaria – just as soon as I have finished digging out the evil goldenrod. A few suitable grasses and a spot of Verbena bonariensis and the job should be a good ‘un. We have also been getting a move on with planting veg seeds. Last year the dwarf bean 'Purple Teepee' ( T&M ) did terribly well, so we will sow some of those again – even though the freezer

Allow me Lord, to Rock Out…

….frequently* Music advisory: This post is going to be more about gigs than gardening, so those of a sensitive disposition or seeking horticultural antics and tips on seed sowing please check back in a few days. Those who have been paying attention, will know that of late I have been organising rock concerts rather than gardening. Live music is a very good thing. And even parents want to go dancing sometimes. Or all the time, in some cases. So I am happy to report that the pioneering family-friendly gig at Ace Space in Newbury last night was a glorious success and complete sell-out. So thank you to the fantastic bands – Big Hand , The Screenbeats and Brendan Driscoll who stepped in at the last minute with a nicely thought-out blues set. Thanks to everyone who bought tickets (and sorry if you couldn’t get one!). To all the kids (and grownups) playing air guitar (and air trumpet) and power sliding across the dancefloor – good work! Hooray for those people who danced their socks o

Pop and Perennials

While it is still regularly below freezing, the perennials are poking their first leaves above ground. It has been pretty grim out there but every time I poke my own nose outside some new plant is optimistically back on the scene. There are finally tête à tête daffodils, the tulip foliage is looking sturdy and there are shoots on the tree paeony, Geranium phaeum and phlox. I have a shocking track record for growing poppies, although I love them, so I am happy to report that it is looking good on that front too. The sunshine-yellow Helenium (whose name escapes me) is basically slug bait and takes half a season to get more than 2” high, despite sharp grit and copper barriers, although it is doing its best. Curiously Helenium ‘Sahin’s Early Flowerer’ does not get nearly so chomped. Echinacea ‘Fatal Attraction’ was an impulse purchase Hampton Court Show last year and I am waiting with bated breath to see if it has made it through the winter. Bet it hasn’t… Perennials need regular

Of Orchids and Art

Have just been alerted to the rather lovely sounding RHS Orchid Show on 20-21st March. A selection of the 22,500 species available will be on display alongside the RHS's biggest ever botanical art show. In 1897 the RHS commissioned Nellie Roberts to paint a portrait of every award-winning orchid (her Brassocattleya is above), a tradition that has continued up to the present day with current artist, Deborah Lambkin. Usually tucked up in the Lindley Library, it should be an interesting look at the evolution of orchids in art since the Victorian era. (And at just a tenner the preview evening is a cheap mother’s day present !). Botanical art is an interesting one, some love it, others hate it. For me it is either awe-inspiring or slightly pointless, depending how good it is. When I worked in publisher sales shortly after graduating, some buyers were rather nervous of buying prints by American  botanical artist Georgia O’Keeffe . “Rather biological” they explained, embarrassedly

Chocolate Apples and Floating Pumpkins*

It is officially Spring. Jackdaws were collecting nesting material this morning; the sun is shining, the birds are singing and the snowdrops and crocuses are finally out in force. Buds are swelling on the climbers and on the apple tree – which means one thing: I am rapidly losing ground on the pruning. Apple pruning should be done while the tree is dormant in winter – but not when everything is frozen solid – and has proved something of a headache the last few years. When we moved here, the two apple trees had been clipped into a dense, snaggly lollypop shape and then neglected to grow long antlers. (Above is a picture of the tree in my garden in Jan 07, it looks better than that now!) I have spent several winters on a mammoth thinning and rationalisation exercise, but while it is possible to use secateurs and even a pruning saw with a baby under one arm, long handled loppers? Forget it. So the unidentified Malus (probably Bramley and Blenheim Orange) keep getting away, but cont

All Sorts of Compelling Mayhem

While making the tea the other night I idly wondered how much green potato you would have to eat to get solanine poisoning. Potatoes are in the nightshade family (look at the flowers – similar to tomato flowers, above) and I am sure I once read that if they were introduced now they would not be approved as a food plant. According to a swift web-trawl , the answer is, apparently, not all that much. Solanine develops due to the action of light on potatoes but the green colour that the potato skin becomes is down to chlorophyll rather than the toxic glycoalkaloid. So although the two things are related, the green-ness is no absolute indicator of how much solanine is present. Solanine is part of the plant’s defence against pests and apparently commercial varieties are screened to minimise human consumption. And since the lethal dose is around 5mg for each kg body weight, green potatoes are best avoided as the alternatives can include diarrhoea, vomiting, dizziness, hallucinations, paral

Last Ditch Planting and Family Affairs

My mother always laughs at me about gardening on the draining board. And it is true, I do. But what the uninitiated do not appreciate is that sometimes things need planting, as in, right now. And sometimes it is too cold, dark or busy to do it any other way. So far Broad Bean Aquadulce Claudia has been enrobed in a confit of compost in my kitchen (you see what I mean. This is an autumn sowing variety that really should have been in by January, but better late than never and they will probably be ok…). Sweet pea ‘Heirloom Bicolour Mixed’ has gone in too. I have some more sweet peas to do later – and some ordinary peas and mangetout as soon as I get a chance (the picture is of an ordinary pea). The old variety ‘Carouby de Maussane’ is good and I’ll grow ‘Purple Podded’ if I can find some. I also want to try my hand at growing grasses; they look good in swathes but this is expensive to achieve with garden centre plants. Teasing aside, my mother is a fine and deserving lady and as offs

Crimes Against Plants

I have decided to start a register of crimes against plants, as mostly perpetrated by municipal planters but it seems no plant is safe. First up: Rubus cockburnianus . In summer this blackberry relative is not really all that, but in winter it comes into its own. Powdery, mauve-white stems arch delicately and thornily across the border, a striking contrast to other seasonal gems such as Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ and early spring bulbs. Yes, it is a bit of a thug; and yes, the colour is best on young stems so it needs hard pruning, but I would suggest that it is generally better to do this in early-mid spring. Not to cut it back to six inches high well before Christmas, people. That is when you are supposed to be looking at it. It has been a busy few weeks. Went to the launch of the National Gardens Scheme’s illustrious Yellow Book – a directory of gardens open for charity. And mighty fine they are too. The picture above is Tithe Barn, Berkshire. Watched with mild awe as they gave some

Save Our Gardens

Settle down vine weevil, aphids go to sleep; one of the most pernicious and vexatious gardening pests to stalk the land is the garden grabber and I am not sure that there is yet a decent solution. Pellets, or something. Round the corner from me is an attractive and imposing Victorian house, one of the nicest in the neighbourhood with a large, landmark garden containing a protected yew tree. A few months ago, it went on the market and there was a genteel scramble as virtually every family in the neighbourhood with more than two children made an offer, keen to realise a dream. It went to sealed bids. It went to a developer at an inflated price. It then went back on the market only, this time, with less than half of the original garden and some rather ugly plans were submitted. The other part of the was bulldozed, plants, garage and summerhouse all flattened. The neighbours are pretty unimpressed. Objections are rife. This is an area with narrow roads and limited parking. We need plea

Feeling Protective

I am nervous. Our loft conversion starts today and there will imminently be a whole bunch of dynamic chaps jumping all over my front garden. When we first got here it was almost entirely paved and inelegantly adorned with a dead fir tree and two nasty Lonicera nitida . I promptly withdrew their planning consent, although one of the loniceras enjoyed a brief reprieve while I tried to clip it into the shape of an ogres head. Since then, I have added a Malus sargentii ‘Red Sentinel’, Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’, Choisya ternata , a Sarcococca (as recommended to me by the late John Cushnie, as it happens), Lonicera fragrantissima and a black bamboo – the general idea being that things that are not evergreen are red, scented, or at least interesting in winter. There are also lots of Narcissus ‘Jetfire’ which are just risking poking their noses out of the ground (just in time to get stomped by a hobnail boot, I shouldn’t wonder) and lavender and purple sage bordering the path. And I only

Petrified Pastry and Breeding Rock Opera

I love the Alps in winter. The Christmas card scenery is glorious (and the fact that, physically, skiing can take you from zero to hero in a week flat appeals as well). But despite floral spring joys to come, a metre of snow renders the place pretty sterile so it was a pleasure to drive back down into valleys clad in an opalescent mist, trees fresh with dusted ice and bearing dense clumps of mistletoe. And fascinating geology, strata of rock like puff pastry all folded and twisted, mistreated and left to petrify. According to Terry Pratchett, any CD left in the car for long enough will eventually metamorphose into a Best of Queen compilation. While this was not strictly the case, as we approached northern France, after about 1300 miles, there was a definite rock anthem theme developing. In fact I think we have a small breeding population. Perhaps if we add Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, or similar, we might get an F1 generation that is rock opera without any need for Andrew Lloyd-Webbe

Winter Garden

It snowed again yesterday. For a while, white clumps hung in the trees like frosted magnolias, but it is now starting to melt. Some real winter flowers like Lonicera fragrantissima are a bit scorched and the Zantedeschia aetheopica has gone all mushy (this never happened in London!) although I expect it will all bounce back. Maybe this year I will actually get around to digging the pond and bog garden I have been planning. The Zantedeschia is in a big pot but it might be more resilient in the ground. It is pretty easy to make a garden look exciting in spring, but January is a different issue altogether. There are some performers though, I need to get a Hamamelis mollis and Daphne bholua (see picture) smells lovely, but it is also poisonous so I might wait until the children are past the chewing things stage. Or see if there is space in the front garden. A couple of jackdaws have been lurking around on the roof, looking suspiciously down the chimneys. The chimneysweep tells me

Experimental Vine Pruning

There are plusses to this winter wonderland. The branches of the apple tree are outlined in snow, reaching and twisting like a black and white scribble against the soft grey sky. There are half a dozen goldfinches scrambling around the remains of the lemon balm looking for the little black seeds and the blackbirds are fighting over a bumper crop of pyracantha berries and what remains of the crab apples. It all looks pretty, but I am a bit worried about the birds going hungry (According to the RSPB, a robin needs to consume half its own weight in food each day in weather like this), I keep feeding them and putting out water, but it keeps getting covered in snow. Better hope the Gulf Stream keeps doing its thing. Last week I was in Wales checking out a garden that looks like it might fall to my care. There is lots of stuff there but most urgent was the pruning of some grapevines. I have never owned a grapevine before so it was all a bit of a learning process but my uncle handed me his

On The Snowdrop Trail

When it comes to plants I wear my heart on my sleeve. If I look at something in depth and it fires my interest I want it. Or them. All of them, probably. That one and that one and that one. This can be impractical – Walnut trees, for example. Ancient yew trees. Potatoes. Fortunately, my current passion is for snowdrops. Having recently visited a number of snowdrop gardens including Welford Park , Kingston Bagpuize and the national collection at Colesbourne Park I am now thoroughly converted. Details of my pilgrimage can be found in the Jan 2nd 2010 issue of Amateur Gardening magazine, but it turns out that snowdrops are more than short, white and quite pretty when there is not much else to look at. They are not keen on deep shade (oh!), they have a vast natural variation (really?) and, as I was emphatically told by Colesbourne’s snowdrop supremo John Grimshaw, the planting-in-the-green thing is a myth. Move ‘em in summer, apparently. It goes against everything I have ever been told,