Garden Tips


Monday, May 30th, 2011

After the recent winds blew down alot of fir cones from the trees I decided to put them to good use.  I have been topping my pots with them to reduce water loss and look decorative.  The only problem with this type of mulch is that the garden birds think it’s a game,  they throw them of the pots and I replace them.  I did hear that the fircones can also make the compost in the pot more acidic, so not too good long term unless the plants in the pots are acid lovers.  Oh well back to making good old garden compost!

Fir cone mulch

Fir cone mulch

slugs and snails

Monday, May 16th, 2011
Hiding snails

Hiding snails

I have been away on a wonderful driving holiday in Scotland.  Amazing weather, scenery and fantastic driving, on near empty roads, such fun.  Anyway coming home, my garden is really parched even though we have had some rain the plants are desperate for water which I have had to do with a hose.  On one of my watering evenings I noticed that a Hosta had been badly attacked. This confused me as there was our Ecocharlie  slug and snail deterrent spread liberally around the plant which normally does the trick.  As I looked closer tiny slugs had found a nice wet place to live in the bottom of the stem where the water had collected.  I hooked them out with my finger and put them on the compost heap. Hopefully I have found all of them and this Hosta will be safe.

Now is the time for planting out your pots with Summer bedding. Those of you who are really organised may have done this already and put your planted pots/hanging baskets into a green house for protection.  We should be safe from frosts now here in the South, so I have started the change over of plants for the Summer colour. Something I noticed from our trip to Scotland was that their seasons were later, which was interesting seeing as we had such glorious weather when we were there I sort of expected it to be the same.

I am sad that at this house I do not had a vegetable garden so I have planted some veg in pots.  A friend gave me some dwarf beans and courgettes and I am going to get started with some salad crops.  I do of course have herbs in pots always.

Other jobs I have been getting on with are tying in climbers, weeding, edging the lawn, cutting back shrubs that have grown out of their space, all over paths and generally keeping nature tamed just a little.  I have also had my trusted contractors in to cut the hedges that we can’t manage.

Well now I am going to check on the slugs again.  Happy gardening.

Natural stakes

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

I always find that Hyacinths tend to be top heavy.  So this year I used some branches that I had cut back from the baytree as supports.  It worked rreally well and looked very natural.  I will do it again.  I also used some fallen silver birch branches to waeve together to support the Hellebours.

Home made support

Home made support

Lovely dry weather

Friday, March 25th, 2011

With the beautiful weather comes watering.  My pots are very dry as are the hedges under the trees.  I used the murky water from the water feature to water the hedges and then the sludge at the bottom to mulch the hedges.

 clean water feature

clean water feature

A bit of a stinky job but at least the pump will work more efficiently now.

Garden Recycling!

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

It’s amazing what you can do with a very old step ladder.  Whilst clearing out a garage last week, I found this ancient step ladder, which nearly found it’s way to the dump!  I had a flash of inspiration, and turned it into a very attractive plant stand, and found some old fashioned flower pots, filled them with spring plants and this was the result .. I even impressed myself!

Floppy Tulips

Sunday, March 20th, 2011

Did you know that tulips continue to grow even when they are cut.  My local florist mentioned this fact to me when I brought a bunch this week.  Apparently, that’s why they go all floppy in the vase.

Flower arranging

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

To brighten up the house today I brought some pots of Daffodils.  I placed them into attractive clay pots and tied some raffia ribbon round the tops.  They will last for a few weeks and can be planted into the garden for next year.


The Winter Garden: Rehabilitating the Conifer.

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

Picea orinetalis 'Aurea'.

Trends and fashions in garden plants wax and wane just as they do in clothes or music, and one decades “must-have” garden plant can all too quickly become the next decades “wouldn’t be seen dead growing it”. Often such plants have become victims of their own successes – so ubiquitous and widely grown that they come to represent an era in their own right.

Picea likiangensis - startling cones of red/purple.

Kniphofia – Red-Hot Pokers – and Cortaderia – Pampas Grass – are pretty good examples. Quintessential plants of the ’70′s they were both relegated to the compost heap of all “fashionable” gardens in the 90′s.  The plants themselves, of course, weren’t to blame, and, as is the way with fashion trends, both are now back in a big way, with Kniphofia, in particular, one of the hippest plants for the border all over again.

Cunninghamia lanceolata

What does any of this have to do with conifers, much less winter gardening you may be asking…well, at about the same time that front gardens were being filled with those Pampas and Pokers back gardens were being planted out with faux rockeries and dwarf conifers. Both of these fell foul of gardening fashionistas sometime later that same century and, aside from use as hedging, the use of conifers in many gardens became all but unthinkable. A situation that, for many gardeners, remains largely unchanged to this day.

Pinus bungeana - python-like flaking bark.

It’s pretty hard to consign such a huge and important group of plants to garden history, however. The problem for conifers in gardens arose not so much with the plants themselves but the way that they were used and the selections that were promoted via garden centres. The dwarf, often shapeless blobs that came to dominate so many gardens denied colour, variance and (ironically) seasonal interest to many plots and were seen as the epitome of suburban gauche, whilst mis-planted leylandii hedges just compounded the problem.

Sciadopitys verticillata.

Conifers are, of course, a numerous, diverse and fascinating group of plants. Having paid homage to giant Sequoia in California, amongst others, I can testify to their enormous appeal and often astounding beauty. These two-thousand-year-old giants are a world away from some golden dwarf perched in a dodgy rockery, but delve into the vast array of conifers now available to the gardener and you open up a treasure trove of forms, textures, scents & colours.

Athrotaxis laxifolia.

AND (finally arriving at the crux of the matter…) Winter is the season when they truly excel. No matter how many winter-flowering bulbs, shrubs and perennials you gather together nothing better gives an air of majesty, structure and sheer personality to the scene than a well chosen and well placed conifer or two. What’s more the effects of frost, snow and winter light can transform coniferous foliage into a thing of sparkling magic.

Pinus wallichiana.

I must say, however, that I still have an aversion to those blobby, often gold-leafed dwarf conifers with very finely divided foliage – Thuja, Juniperus, Platycladus are perhaps the main culprits. For me they lack the two primary joys that conifers can bring to the garden – striking bark and bold foliage. Instead I’d like to turn your attention to three key genera - Abies (the Firs) Picea (the Spruces) and Pinus (yep, the Pines).

Abies koreana - numerous blue-ish cones produced from an early age.

These are three big groups of plants that offer an array of bold leaves, beautiful bark, elegant forms and sometimes spectacular cones. A few of the species are suitably small growing for almost all gardens – the beautiful violet-coned Abies koreana and the fabulous Lacebark Pine – Pinus bungeana are two such for example – but there are also a multitude of slower, smaller, stiffly upright and weeping forms that have been selected.

Many of these offer tremendous beauty and potential for moderate or even small sized gardens. Even in limited space the addition of just one specimen conifer – say Picea omorika ‘Pendula’ – will add tremendous personality and depth to the garden in winter as well as providing a perfect backdrop for winter-flowering shrubs like Hamamelis.

Picea omorika 'Pendula' - every individual forms it's own unique shape.

Whilst these three key genera should perhaps comprise the backbone of the winter garden supporting roles could also be played by a cast of somewhat less familiar coniferous beauties, many hailing from the southern hemisphere. Cunninghamia lanceolata is a fabulous and deeply exotic-looking gem from South America with huge, spiky foliage; Athrotaxis species are small, highly architectural conifers native to Tasmania; Podocarpus salignus is an extremely graceful Chilean native with drooping, willow-like deep green foliage; Sciadopitys verticillata is a unique and extremely ancient species with tremendous personality and a fascinating appearance; Wollemia nobilis is the headline-grabbing newly discovered Australian relic that is proving to be remarkably garden hardy here in the UK.

Wollemia nobilis.

Whichever you opt for the key is to think big, and think bold. Consign the apologetic blobs to yesteryear and allow the full beauty of these magnificent plants to reign supreme in the winter garden.

Podocarpus salignus.

The Winter Garden: Early Arrivals.

Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

In my last blog entry I suggested that nothing much grows at this time of the year. That’s not entirely true, of course, because there are a small, but crucial band of plants that can and do emerge into life in Winter. These seasonal pioneers re-appear pretty much regardless of the vagaries of the British winter weather and I’d have to say that nothing throughout the whole gardening year is more pleasing to behold than those first plants that pop their heads out in Winter. They herald the start of new life throughout the garden and really feel like they’re marking a new beginning. With a handful of these plants strategically scattered through the garden it’s easy to kid yourself that spring is just around the corner – even if may still be months away in reality. Garden centres will be bulging with gaudy winter-flowering bedding plants right now – Pansy’s and the like – but let’s not go there…much better to focus on plants that can provide ongoing interest in the garden year after year and winter after winter.

The boldest, most vigorous plants in our garden right now are Arum italicum ‘Marmoratum’, a well-known  marble-leaved beauty that has been in growth since late autumn, but which is peaking just about now. Despite the extremes of cold and snow of the last month the foliage looks completely fresh. The Arum flowers and vivid scarlet berries will appear in later seasons, but in January the lush foliage looks incongruous against the drab weather and so all the more appealing.

Arum italicum 'Marmoratum'.

The last couple of winters have seen the early arrival of snowdrops, often in December, but February is their more usual month, and things seem to have got back to normal this year. Eranthis hyemalis – the winter aconite – is always earlier, though, and it’s fern-like divided foliage and giant buttercup flowers are an essential ingredient of the woodland understory or shady border. Tuberous Cyclamen coum appears a little later in winter, it’s silver-marbled heart-shaped leaves providing a foil for the pink to white flowers.

Eranthis hyemalis.

Careful selection can give your garden a near-continuous succession of Crocuses from Autumn thorough to Spring. The beautiful Crocus laevigatus flowers right in the centre of the season with lilac-stained white flowers appearing in late December.  C. tommasinianus is much bigger and more robust and produces large flowers in a variety of purple shades from late January, whilst C. sieberi closes out the season with white flowers that open in February.

Crocus laevigatus.

Hellebores pretty much dominate herbaceous perennial beds at this time of the year, their exact floral timing varying with the weather and general temperatures.  H. x hybridus (often, though wrongly called H. orientalis , which is a true species in it’s own right)  is an absolute stalwart of winter, and now comes in a dazzling array of forms and colours, but most of the true Hellebore species and their many hybrids also perform in winter and are well worth checking out.

A whole gaggle of winter-flowering shrubs can be deployed, and many brighten the garden with both flowers and fragrance. Hybrid Witch Hazels – Hamamelis x intermedia - are particular favourites of mine, and late January is when the flowers hit their stride in a big way. The citric fragrance (strongest by far in the yellow flowered varieties) is intoxicating and the bright spider-like flowers are a joy, particularly when viewed close-up.

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Barmstead Gold'.

Chimonanthus praecox – Wintersweet – is more understated in flower, but equally fragrant, whilst Daphne odora and the larger growing, semi-evergreen Daphne bholua are phenomenally perfumed and exquisitely beautiful with their winter-borne tiny pinkish white urn-shaped flowers. Daphne relative Edgeworthia chrysantha is rightly the most prized of all winter-flowering shrubs and opens it’s tubular, fragrant, furry flowers of gold and crimson on bare stems right about now.

Daphne bholua.

Not to be outdone the Honeysuckle family can also pack a winter punch. Lonicera fragrantissima, it’s close relative L. standishii and their well-known hybrid offspring L. x purpusii ‘Winter Beauty’ all do their thing round about now, and though none will win any awards for structural prowess these tough occupants of the winter garden reward with a mass of fragrant flowers.

Mahonias are a tad more dramatic, and, if they weren’t so familiar to British gardeners, it would be easy to imagine that they were delicate denizens of some tropical forest. Most Mahonia species don’t actually flower in winter, but the few that do are highly prized. M. japonica and it’s various winter-flowering hybrids are all pretty much bomb-proof, whilst M. lomariifolia and M. napaulensis are more dramatic species that require some shelter to succeed. Each flowers for a lengthy period and often throughout the entire season.

Mahonia nepaulensis.

Viburnums are a large and incredibly valuable genus of plants that collectively can offer something at most times of the year. Winter sees the unfurling of the earliest flowering species and various selections of the hybrids V. x bodnantense, V. x burkwoodii are widely available, reliable and easily grown in most gardens. Sarcococcas are pretty easy to cater for too, and are very much at their best in mid-winter, when the tiny white flowers appear and scent the air with vanilla.

Viburnum x bodnantense.

Garrya elliptica is another subdued prospect, flower-wise, but it’s elongated winter tassels give the winter garden a unique elegance.

Rhododendrons are almost entirely associated with spring, but the delightful tubular-flowered hybrid ‘Yellow Hammer’ bucks the trend and kicks off in January. A number of Camellias do flower in winter too (though not reliably so in our garden) but these need careful placement if those early flowers aren’t to be regularly burned off by frost. The winter flowering Cherry – Prunus x  subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’ – is well known and widely grown and, although it can’t compete with it’s spring-flowering cousins in terms of flower power, it’s tissue-paper petals certainly brighten the season effectively. Prunus mume – the Japanese Apricot – is more showy, but less reliable as a winter-flowering tree, the blossoms being held back until spring in colder years.

Rhododendron 'Yellow Hammer'.

There are very few true climbers that flower in winter. Canary yellow Jasminum nudum is widely referred to as one such, but is really a sprawling shrub that will forever need to be reminded that you’d rather it was a wall climber. Clematis, though, can provide a couple of true winter-flowering species. C. cirrhosa is surely the queen of them with beautiful bell-shaped flowers of cream through to burgundy, depending on the variety. The delicate ferny foliage is a big bonus too. C. urophylla is a less well known but equally worthy species, and the selection ‘Winter Beauty’ produces an abundance of pure white nodding bells in the heart of the season.

Clematis urophylla 'Winter Beauty'.

The Winter Garden: The Beauty of Bark.

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

There’s no doubt about it, winter is the most challenging time of the year for the gardener.  There are jobs a plenty that can be done – tidying, planting, landscaping etc. – but often the biggest challenge of all is finding the motivation to get out into the garden in the first place. Glancing whistfully through the kitchen window might be the closest that many come to making meaningful contact with their green plot through the dark months. Certainly the notion of the garden as a 3-season-only attraction is pretty common, and it’s easy to relegate gardens to no-go zones until the lengthening days of spring bring about the long-awaited burst of new growth.

Needless to say it doesn’t have to be this way. Disowning your garden through winter is a bit like saying to yourself that you’ll only use half the rooms in the house for a quarter of the year – in other words, a major waste.

Yep, it's a Winter Wonderland. The bottom of my garden under December snow.

It always seems to me that the key to making the most of the garden in winter is to make it as interesting, changeable and diverse as it would be at any other time of the year. Firstly consider that the season has one pretty appealing benefit to any gardener, namely that most plants don’t grow in any noticeable way, which means there is no weeding or grass-cutting to be done.

This in itself means that time spent outdoors can often more readily be spent enjoying the plants without a nagging sensation that you really should be tackling that on-going round of maintenance tasks.  A dusting – or, as in the case of last year – a deluge of snow can transform the garden into a place of otherworldly beauty, but that’s not what you’d call a reliable or indeed long-lasting draw to the outdoors.

Over the next few blog entries I’m going to be exploring a few of the elements that can be deployed to turn your garden into a jewel-box of winter treasures that will have you as keen to dash outside in January as at any other time of the year.

Our journey through the winter garden starts with my personal favourite horticultural feature of the season; the one that has me, bizarrely perhaps, eagerly awaiting the onset of the cold days and long nights each year. Namely, bark.

Now it’s fair to say that a number (though certainly not all) of the trees and shrubs with interesting bark have this same feature year-round, but the great beauty of winter is to see these radiant stems and peeling trunks displayed naked, leafless and bold in a way that is simply not possible at any other time of the year.

Starting with the biggies; full-sized forest trees may not seem like obvious choices for most gardens, but coppicing, pollarding and formative pruning can allow the benefits of some larger trees to be shared in not so large gardens. Eucalytpus’ are too often planted in wildly inappropriate situations, and have garnered a bad rep as a result.

Eucalyptus subcrenulata.

E. gunii is the species most regularly seen, often in small-ish urban settings, which, given that it can rapidly reach 30 metres or more in height, is really not a trend to encourage, but regular pruning can allow it’s flaking bark to be enjoyed in modest spaces.

There are, however, a number of smaller-growing and often more beautiful Eucalypts that make more natural garden subjects. E. gregsoniana and E. vernicosa generally peak at large-shrub proportions and both offer grey and white flaking bark; E. parvula is only a tad larger and has rough grey bark that peels to reveal golden-yellow layers beneath.  E. subcrenulata is larger again, but the species’ deep orange-red trunk surely make this the most appealing of all the Eucalypts, where space allows.

Betula nigra 'Wakehurst'.

Betula – the Birches – are probably the single most valuable genus for winter bark. I’m going to enlarge on their considerable possibilities in a future blog, but for now suffice to say that the range of colour and textures that they offer is both exceptionally beautiful and unrivalled amongst hardy trees. The shining white trunks of B. utilis var. jacquemontii are so ubiquitous as to have become a gardening cliché, but they are completely unique and irresistible at this time of the year.

Birch trunks certanly don’t begin and end with “white” though. We’re fortunate enough to have the space for a large-ish collection of Betula here, and the deep, shining, near-black of B. utilis ‘Wakehurst Place Chocolate’, vivid orange of B. albonsinensis ‘Gansu’, and peeling terracotta-pink of B. nigra ‘Wakehurst’ & ‘Cully’ rank amongst my favourites.

Super shaggy - Acer griseum.

Acers are not to be outdone in the winter-wonder stakes. A. griseum (the Paperbark Maple) is a perfect garden tree. Small and slow-growing with massively flaking bark of glossy chestnut red.

It’s close cousin A. triflorum is of similar proportions but with shaggy grey bark. A. palmatum ‘Sango-Kaku’ is the well-known “Coral-Bark” Japanese Maple. Winter reveals a network of vivid red stems that take on a much less colourful appearance throughout the rest of the year. A. palmatum ‘Eddisbury’ is a similar, rather more robust cultivar.

Acer 'White Tigress'.

A. x conspicuum ‘Phoenix’ can be tricky to establish but is worth every effort for it’s scarlet stems lined with silver.

This last is one of a multitude of  ”Snake-Bark Maples”, most of which make small to medium sized trees of easy cultivation in the garden. They have trunks in all shades of green to red, lined and striped with silver and white. Very beautiful, particularly when wet. There are a lot to choose from, but the many forms of A. davidii, A. grosseri & A. tegmentosum are all equally fine, as are the hybrids ‘White Tigress’, ‘Silver Cardinal’ & ‘Silver Vein’.

Prunus serrula.

Next up has to be Prunus – the Cherries. Only a few Prunus offer great bark, but the ones that do are all show-stoppers. P. maackii and it’s cultivar ‘Amber Beauty’ have glossy, flaking bark of old gold whilst P. rufa produces shining deep red-brown bark that flakes conspicuously. Best known of all is P. serrula which  has incredibly tactile, deeply polished satin-like bark of mahogany brown. Irresistible.

Stewartia sinensis.

Stewartia is a genus whose virtues I’ve extolled before in this blog. They are amongst the very best of all small garden trees with an array of virtues and much beauty at any time of the year. Winter, though, brings focus to their python-like flaking trunks that often create a fascinating lattice-work of patterns and colours. S. pseudocamellia and S. sinensis are the most accommodating of the species and both should be planted far more widely than is currently the case.

Shrub wise there are two heavyweights of the winter bark scene whose presence has almost come to define the look of the best gardens at this time of the year.

Salix alba 'Britzensis'.

First up comes Salix alba – the white Willow. Ornamentally speaking this is an almost featureless plant for most of the year , which, if left to it’s own devices, rapidly turns into a substantial tree, but almost no-body who grows it allows it that luxury.

Instead S. alba var. vitellina, with bright yellow stems, and S. alba ‘Britzensis’ with, brilliant orange and scarlet stems, are generally cut back hard every second year  to encourage renewed flushes of the often spectacular new stems.

The other major shrubby contenders, and probably the number one starting point for winter bark colour, are Cornus alba and it’s close cousins C. sericea and the British native Cornus sanguinea. All of these Cornus make sprawling, suckering, vigorous shrubs, but, as with Salix alba, in the garden they give their best displays of bright, fresh stems when cut back hard every few years. C. alba has stems of crimson, and in the cultivar  ’Kesselringii’, almost jet-black ageing to deep, blood-red. C. sericea also has forms with red stems, although none are as effective as those of C. alba, and the cultivars more usually encountered are those with yellow to olive-green stems.

Cornus sanguinea 'Midwinter Fire'.

For my money the best of these three shrubby species is undoubtedly Cornus sanguinea – the Blood Cornel. Numerous near-identical named selections have been made – ‘Midwinter Fire’ being the most readily available.

They are pretty shrubs in spring with bronze-red new foliage and again in autumn, when their leaves turn to shades of apricot, but their true glory is revealed after the leaves have fallen when the multi-coloured stems of yellow-orange-scarlet are revealed.

The psychedelic  intensity of colour (particularly when displayed against a dark background) has to be seen to be believed, and should serve to get even the most recalcitrant gardener off their sofas and out into the garden in the very depths of winter.