Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Gardening Jobs for January - Get Set for a Fruit Glut

Happy new year! January is the perfect month for appraising our gardens, making plans and compiling lists. In my case this involves staring out of a window, tutting and saying, “Call yourself a gardener? Look at the state of it.” 

There are high spots, low spots and downright weedy spots, but from my vantage point in the house I can safely say that not enough of it is hitting the spot. So where to start? When inclement weather, the latest winter bug, and short days end, what shall I embrace first?
Top of the list is the orchard. Quite frankly it isn’t providing enough fruit, and when it does, Basil our beloved dog steals the harvest. I can’t blame it all on Basil though. Our entire garden, including the orchard, is fairly new* and so patience, the virtue so vital to gardeners, needs to dance to the fore and do its thing (whatever that thing might be). 
Basil pretending not to care that he's on the wrong side
of the gate
Apart from patience, a spot of TLC wouldn't go amiss. Judicious pruning, feeding, battling with the grass that is hellbent on swamping the trees, and mulching would be a good start. Top it off with a jolly good wassail and we might find ourselves inundated with fruit.

Wassailing is a ritual traditionally performed in orchards during January. It involves hanging toast dipped in mulled cider from the branches of an apple tree to attract favourable spirits, and dowsing the roots in more cider to bless the tree so that it produces a good crop in the coming year, all this while making a loud noise and serenading the toast-laden apple tree with a suitable song. 
Show apples - will my produce be joining them this year?
Not if Basil has anything to do with it.
There are plenty of wassailing songs online, although I think I might go a little off-piste and warble "Oh Apple Tree" to the tune of "Oh Christmas Tree" or "O Tannenbaum", mainly because I know how it goes and a degree of confidence about what I'm trying to sing might help me to hit the right notes. 

I am a little concerned that my atonal caterwauling might give the neighbours and passing dog walkers something to talk about. My greatest concern though is that it will provide Basil with a delicious sandwich as he takes his morning constitutional, thereby reinforcing the orchard as one of his favourite feeding grounds. It is definitely time for a spot of dog (or is that owner?) training.

In the time-honoured gardening tradition, here is my list of jobs for January:

1. Prune the apple and pear trees (but not the plums and cherries - we don’t want silver leaf)

2. Clear weeds away from the trees' bases

3. Check that tree ties aren't too tight.

4. Switch on the toaster, grab a bowl of mulled cider, sing at the top of my voice and clobber a couple of pans together while keeping Basil on a lead.

I don't know about you, but I am already optimistic that 2018 will be the year of the long-awaited apple crumble and custard glut. 

Monday, 9 October 2017

Roy Lancaster, Achocha, and The Cotswold Wildlife Park

Autumn brings out the forager in me. I love roaming along hedgerows in search of fruit; it makes me feel like the heroine in a Thomas Hardy novel.
I was a scavenging child. My favourite windfalls were almonds. I bashed the shells with a stone until they cracked open. It might not have been the quickest or easiest method, but there was no social media in those days so I could spend happy hours communing with almonds without the pressure of posing for a selfie every five minutes. 
My latest garden grazing took place with the full permission of the head gardener at Cotswold Wildlife Park. Cornus 'Norman Hadden' fruits are blessed with delicious flesh and disgustingly bitter seeds. It is not a fruit I will be caught scrumping any time soon. 
Cornus 'Norman Hadden' fruit
Thankfully, I was visiting with a group of fellow gardeners, and one had a pocketful of cucamelons (as you do). They were wonderful Cornus seed bitterness eradicators. I cannot recommend them highly enough. The cucamelon grower was also carrying achocha. Having never eaten this particular fruit before, I was keen to try it so I took some home for a Sunday breakfast achocha fry-up. It was rather good and made a complete change from the cake that had kicked-off my previous morning.
Cucamelon and achocha
I only eat breakfast cake when I’m travelling. Much of Saturday was spent on the road because with complete disregard for the adage that we should never meet our heroes, I set off on a seven-hour round trip to meet mine. 
Roy Lancaster at Cotswold Wildlife Park
Roy Lancaster, the raconteur with encyclopaedic botanical knowledge, is credited with having introduced some of our most popular garden plants. It would be very easy for him to sit around being the doyen scattering pearls of wisdom at his feet, he has, after all, earned this accolade. But while he is generous in sharing his expertise, his quest for knowledge continues at a staggering rate. As we toured the gardens at Cotswold Wildlife Park, he asked questions about plants that he might not have seen for some years (the gardens are home to some superbly grown rarities). No wonder he is so knowledgeable! He is in his eightieth year, an expert in his field, and still keen to find out more.
I learnt a lot about plants during our tour of the gardens, but the biggest eye-opener was that the most knowledgeable plantsman I am ever likely to meet is still asking questions and learning. We can never stop learning. My gardening hero remains atop his pedestal. I feel privileged and delighted to have met him. 

Do you have a gardening hero?

Cotswold Wildlife Park is very well worth a visit for the plants alone. Needless to say, the animals are wonderful too! 

Roy Lancaster's latest book is 'My Life With Plants'

Friday, 15 September 2017

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - An Annual Event

Every year I grow a handful of annuals to plug the gaps in my garden, and in September they strut their stuff as if there is no tomorrow. Which, in the event of an early autumn, is tragically the case. Perhaps I should elevate annuals beyond gap-plugging, but I love using them to lift a dull corner of the garden or to add a new dimension to permanent schemes so that each border is slightly different every year.
Cosmos bipinnatus 'Cupcakes'
Cosmos is a stalwart of the garden gap. This year I stuck to Cosmos bipinnatus 'Cupcakes' with its remarkable unbroken single petal. It might be beautiful but I should have known better than to attempt to grow a plant with baking connotations. Needless to say 'Cupcakes' turned out like many of my culinary efforts: disappointing. For every light fluffy sponge, there were at least three flops failing to develop that gorgeous cupcake shape. 
Cosmos bipinnatus 'Cupcakes'
I accept that I am no Mary Berry, but for once I am unable to blame my culinary inadequacies. Perhaps other seeds infiltrated the batch, or 'Cupcakes' isn't as stable as we would hope. Either way, I have some very ordinary looking Cosmos among the cakes. It's like getting turnip surprise when you’re looking forward to double chocolate gooey pud with cream and custard. I might be disappointed, but the bees like the flops. Then again, more cupcakes might have made us all happy. 
Persicaria orientalis
A year ago today I posted about my hope that Persicaria orientalis would do the decent thing and seed itself around*. The good news is that it has! The even better news is that it relocates well. I have dug up a number of plants and placed them where I want them and they have all thrived, although they are shorter than their parents, unlike one particular Nicotiana affinis. It has reached dizzying heights by comparison to its bedfellows and would give Nicotiana sylvestris a run for its money. 
Nicotiana reaching for the sky
Tithonia rotundifolia 'Torch' has exceeded my expectations. This huge, glorious clump of shining orange blooms towers over the sunflowers that are hanging their heads in deference to its marvellousness. Who can blame them? Even the wind and rain won't stand in the way of tithonia's magnificent display.
Tithonia rotundifolia 'Torch'

Zinnia elegans 'State Fair' has been brightening up a dull corner for weeks. Next year I plan to sow more. I had intended to add these beauties to the cutting garden, but got sidetracked on the walk there by some Zinnia-sized gaps in the border. 
Zinnia 'State Fair'

Cosmos was destined for the cutting garden too and fell into a gap in the border en route. Seeds were more successful in getting to the cutting garden. Marigolds and cornflowers are mingling together and look particularly loved-up.
I have cut very few cornflowers because they are so popular with bees, yet all of these annuals have been used at some time in flower arrangements this summer. They have made such a difference in the garden and indoors. I really should sow a greater variety of them in future. Which annuals do you use for plugging border gaps and flower arranging?


I am linking this post with Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day, hosted by Carol at
Why not pop over there and see what is blooming in gardens elsewhere in the world?

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Secret Gardens of East Anglia

Beautiful books with depth seem to me to be a rarity. Many of the visually arresting publications gracing my coffee table and shelves have little to say beyond the photos. Secret Gardens of East Anglia differs in that it might have been two books. One, a masterclass in photography by the hugely talented Marcus Harpur, who, sadly, died recently; the second, a fascinating insight into gardeners and their gardens by Barbara Segall. The two combine to create a visually delightful experience and an exceptional read. 
Parsonage House (Photo: Marcus Harpur)
The private tour of twenty-two gardens ranging from a dramatic, densely planted city plot to spacious stately homes is a joy. I have lived in East Anglia for almost half of my life. Some of the gardens in the book I know well, others are new to me. Proximity is irrelevant though, as this is a book for everyone who loves gardens, regardless of whether they will ever set foot in East Anglia.
Ulting Wick wildflower meadow (Photo: Marcus Harpur)
Yes, I want to visit the gardens - who wouldn’t after drooling over all those mouth-watering photographs? But the stories of the gardens and their gardeners, so engagingly told by Barbara, grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and propelled me outside to reconsider my own plot. The stories and photographs in this book have inspired me to be a braver, more audacious gardener. To garden bigger and better and with greater passion than ever before.
Wyken Hall (Photo: Marcus Harpur)
I must confess that I know Barbara and I was sent a copy of the book by the publisher. That said, had I not been given a copy, it would have been at the top of my Christmas list. I have returned to Secret Gardens of East Anglia on several occasions since I read it for the first time. It is, without question, my favourite book of the year.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Why Blog?

After nigh on a month of gallivanting, I have returned home to discover that a rabbit has taken up residence in my garden. This is no ordinary rabbit. It has super-rabbit powers. How else could it have entered a garden fortified by rabbit fencing? The super-rabbit has given a whole new twist to the Chelsea Chop, the method of pruning championed by Christopher Lloyd whereby selected perennials are partially pruned in May to control size and flowering time. The super-rabbit's pruning technique, known as the Hampton Court Chomp, is applied only to much loved ornamentals and involves mowing them down to within an inch of their lives in July. It is clearly not suitable for weeds as they have been left completely unchomped and are romping away.
Geranium, Monarda and Sedum proving themselves to 
be rabbit-resistant (until the rabbit decides otherwise)
The cutting garden has been renamed the weed garden and the sweet peas have jettisoned their precisely placed supports in favour of rampaging through sow thistles. I suppose I should be grateful that the sweet peas haven’t gone to seed. I would cut some for the house if only I could machete my way through the thistles. Elsewhere, the Christmas hyacinths are putting on a most unseasonal show.
Small and preposterous hyacinth

 All of this mayhem will take time to put right, so why am I blogging instead of hurling myself into the fray? This is something I have been pondering because I have been asked to give a short talk to my local gardening club on the subject of inspiration and blogging. The two definitely go hand in hand. Reading blogs inspires me, so much so that I was inspired to join in the fun and write a blog; but it is the wonderfully supportive community of the blogosphere that I miss most when I take a break. Since my first tentative post I have been advised and supported all the way, and for that I am immensely grateful. Thank you!
Cosmos bipinnatus 'Cupcakes'
A fellow blogger recently expressed her concern about being too busy to post. There are times in every year when life takes over. Work, home, family and everything else will not juggle themselves, and blogging is sometimes forced into the back seat. Like many avid readers, I miss blogs when they disappear for a while and I am delighted when they return. This is why you see blogs on my blogroll that haven’t been updated for months. They stay there because I want to read them and I hope that some day the bloggers will post again.
Lavandula x intermedia 'Sussex'
What are the benefits of blogging? For me, I think that blogging has encouraged me to be a more thoughtful gardener. Of course, you might argue that I should think less and weed more, which is a fair point, but if I look closely enough at the bulb catalogue I can’t see the weeds in the garden (yes, I am already compiling spring bulb orders). Meanwhile, the super-rabbit has been named Christo, and as we all know, once we name anything, saying goodbye becomes more difficult. Time to order some rabbit-resistant bulbs.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Crazy paving, Skirret and a spot of Hugelkultur at RHS Hampton Court

Aeons ago, when I was six, crazy paving was de rigueur. Since then it has gone the way of Aubrieta and my all-time favourite boiled sweets, Spangles. While Aubrieta is enjoying a return to being a cool, must-have plant, I am still awaiting the resurrection of my beloved Spangles (my dentist is probably crying into her mouthwash at their sad demise and the resulting loss of income).
Memories of Childhood... rose gardens
As for crazy paving, if I were a betting gardener, I would say that we are on the cusp of a revival. For this we should thank Andy Sturgeon and his cleverly conceived RHS Hampton Court Show garden incorporating iconic elements from a decade of Chelsea show gardens. He has rummaged through other designers' sheds to find ex-Chelsea seating, paving, columns and fins to reuse (which makes my shed seem woefully dull with its clapped-out washing machine, a few sorry plastic plant labels, and the national collection of unpaired gardening gloves). Reliving memories of Chelseas past is fun, but even better is the beautiful modern take on crazy paving. It makes me want to smash up and relay my perfectly linear patio.
As we step back in time down our crazy paving paths, let us spare a thought for colour. Flower shows in the twenty-first century have flirted with a tasteful splash of orange, or a sprinkling of lemon in a sea of blues, whites and greens. The planting at RHS Hampton Court embraces colour clashes and reintroduces estranged sections of the colour wheel to one another in a glorious celebration of dazzling flamboyance. 
Tom Massey's giant colour wheel design
Charlie Bloom's Colour Box Garden sums this up perfectly. The garden exists because of the generosity of the Twitter community. Gardeners have always shared plants, knowledge, expertise and skill, and the Colour Box Garden is proof that this culture of generosity lives on in a new, broader-reaching twenty-first-century form.
Colour Box Garden
Relinquishing control and letting nature take its course does not sit comfortably with some gardeners, but it is at the heart of London Glades, a garden created using Hugelkultur, the ancient process of mounding up garden waste and rotting wood to mimic the rich environment of the forest floor. The plants in the garden are all edible, from skirret to Stachys affinis and there is a genuine sense of calm in this space. It is like escaping to a time long ago - the time that existed before crazy paving, colour, and Spangles. Hang on, was there a time before Spangles? Oh our poor, poor ancestors.
London Glades

RHS Hampton Court Flower Show is open until July 9th. For more details visit

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

In the Pink at RHS Chatsworth

When it comes to gardening pedigree, Chatsworth has it all. William Kent, Joseph Paxton and Capability Brown had a hand in its creation; it is, without question, a breathtaking setting for the newest RHS Show.
The Agriframes Garden
With two floral marquees, a conservatory, show gardens, a plant village and a floral installation by Jonathan Moseley on one of the three bridges, flowers take centre stage. Sam Ovens' Wedgwood Garden is a riot of colour set against purple beech hedging. 
But if there is a colour trend, it has to be pink. 
Paeonia lactiflora 'Bowl of Love'
Deutzia hybrida 'Tourbillon Rouge'
(It looks pink to me!)
Dahlia MT New Pink Single
Pink on Tanya Batkin's Moveable Feast Garden
Even Mary Berry sports pink (accessorised with wellies).
Far be it from me to suggest that disused quarries are a trend, but since James Basson won best show garden at Chelsea with his abandoned quarry and Paul Hervey-Brookes has won best show garden for the IQ Quarry Garden at Chatsworth, we might be forgiven for thinking that old quarries are quite the thing for 2017.
Pink in The IQ Quarry Garden
Chatsworth's long horticultural history provides a strong foundation on which the RHS can build; and build it has. Bees in the twenty-first century, a bug hotel competition for schoolchildren, the RHS Garden for a Changing Climate and Tanya Batkin’s moveable garden for Generation Rent all point very firmly to the future. 
Bug hotels in front of Chatsworth House
Past and future collide with memorable force in The Good Within Garden. The juxtaposition of this installation against the facade of Chatsworth House is unforgettable. The idea behind the garden is that we should look beyond exteriors. Young people, many of whom face difficulties as a result of their start in life, helped in its creation, including painting portraits of Joseph Paxton. Paxton came from humble beginnings and went on to design the Crystal Palace. It is difficult to imagine a more perfect setting to communicate this installation's powerful and optimistic message.
Similarly the placing of Behind the Scenes, which pays homage to gardening tasks and gardeners, could not be bettered. 
The RHS Chatsworth Show is large and varied, but it isn’t too spread out. My gardening-averse family would certainly enjoy it. From a hydrogen car to eye-catching sculptures, with floral sheep and delicious fudge in between, they would all find something to spark their varied interests. 

Will The RHS Chatsworth Show inspire future gardeners? I hope so. It has certainly inspired this present day one.