Thursday, 23 March 2017

Irritating Plant of the Month March 2017 - the hyacinths

I nearly could not think of a plant that was irritating me this month.  I almost decided to give this month a miss (my blog, my rules), but then when I thought about it I thought of a plant I could name and shame, except possibly not so much of the shame really, more of a mild tutting at.

I present to you......
.... the hyacinths I planted in the Wild Garden a couple of years ago.  This one is Peter Stuyvesant, rather fab isn't it?  I actually cannot bear hyacinths indoors, I find the smell suffocating; but when visiting Evenley Wood back in 2014 I was reminded how I love them outdoors.  I used to have some in my garden at Nottingham and it was a nice memory to return to.  So I duly purchased some hyacinths to plant the next autumn and they flowered reasonably well the following spring....

.... and then disappeared.  I thought they were dead.  I looked for them but nothing appeared so I mourned them briefly and moved on.

This year, pop, there they are.  Not all the ones I planted have reappeared but a few have.  Enough to encourage me to buy some more.  At least this time I will know not to give up hope in year 2, they clearly like a sulk.

So why are they irritating if they have flowered this year?  Well where were they last year?  That is why they are being tutted at but also gently encouraged as I am very pleased to see them.

What plants are currently irritating you with their behavior in your gardens?  Do let me know.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Book Review: Urban Flowers by Carolyn Dunster

or to give its full name: Urban Flowers creating abundance in a small city garden.  I was asked if I would like to review this book and I happily said yes.  Whilst I currently have a fair-sized garden for an urban environment I have lived with much smaller gardens in cities/large towns for most of my life.  There are  lots of books written about gardening small spaces, but this one offers far more than most.
This book packs a lot of information into not that big a book.  Carolyn begins by talking about her own gardening origins which is a really nice touch.  There is something about the gardens we have grown up in, they are part of what has shaped us whether they be grand, small, a backyard or a balcony.  Carolyn quickly takes us onto to look at how planting in the urban environment matters and how to evaluate our own urban environments.

The book takes us through gardening basics such as understanding our soil.  I like Carolyn's descriptions of soils as they are easy to understand and not too complicated.  There are also good descriptions of perennials,  bulbs, tubers and annuals etc. Carolyn makes no assumptions as to level of knowledge and also does not patronise; this is very welcome.  There are boxes in the text of hints and tips, such as buying potting compost and these are good common sense tips.

The book works when discussing small spaces.  It is a frequent bug-bear with books that claim to cater for small gardens as to how small is small?  Carolyn describes working with really quite small areas.  Many of the projects Carolyn discusses involve containers of all different shapes and sizes.  Some are as simple as what you can place on a table or hang from a wall.  There is a real feeling that there is something you can plant where-ever you are living.

There are chapters about different styles of gardens.  The photographs by Jason Ingram complement the text perfectly and add to the inspiration.  Just when you think what is left to talk about in the book, Carolyn takes us into different colour combinations and gives us examples of plants we might like to try.  There are also small projects that can be used to enhance very small spaces.

I liked this book a lot.  I was amazed at the amount of good information and advice that was packed into it.  If you have a new garden it would extremely useful and for the more experienced it gives good advice and ideas.

Urban Flowers is published by Frances Lincoln.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Product Review - Forest Whitby Arch

A few weeks ago I attended the Garden Press Event.  This is where companies can show off their new products to garden writers and it is very much where they are hoping that things will catch your eye.  It is a bit like being a kid in a candy shop as there are many wonderful things to look at and talk about but one thing in particular caught my attention:  The Whitby Arch made by Forest.  I walked past it several times, I stroked it a few times and I could be heard to say "it will be mine, oh yes, one day it will be mine"*

As soon as I got home I measured up the space where my previous rose arch had occupied.  It had finally met its end after one storm too many this winter.  Measurements taken I then looked into where I might get the arch from.  I quickly found that Garden Site, who I have previously reviewed products for, sold the arch.  An email or two later and the deal was done.  I have to be transparent with you and say that I was given the arch to review, I did not buy it.
One reason that I like to work with Garden Site is that delivery from them is very easy.  They turn up when they say they are going to and left the arch where it was easy for me to move into the garden.  You will note that the arch quickly found Esme approval.
The arch was unpacked and moved to where I needed to start assembly.  The instructions are fairly minimal but they are sufficient.  One thing they state clearly is that this is at least a two person job and I can confirm that it really is.  
After a couple of hours I had reached this stage.  The instructions said place the sides in position and then sort out the top.  I had to enlist help when I got to this stage and we soon concluded that this method was not working well for us.  It was also definite, as suggested in the instructions, that this arch needed proper anchoring. So I wandered to off to find some ready-mix concrete and we agreed we would meet up again in a week to complete putting the arch up.
Meanwhile Esme continued to explore the arch....
and Flossy thought it was worth checking as well.

A week passes, ready-mix concrete is purchased and I also bought some stronger bolts to hold it together.  The bolts supplied are probably fine, but I was not quite sure of them and I wanted this arch to be right.  I also took about six inches off the height as the instructions said this would help stabilise it.  I put the arch together as one piece and then it was really quite simple for the two of us to lift it into position.
Ta da!  the arch was up!  I braced it with a rake and a hoe (garden tools are so useful), concreted it in and left it to set hard.

Another week passes, no it did not need a week to set, but as I work during the week and it is not properly daylight when I get home this time of year, gardening only happens at weekends.  
It looks as beautiful as it did at the show and it is completely stable.
Esme says it is solid enough for any cat to make full use of.
and it makes me happier than a garden arch should be able to.  I also like it that it is called the Whitby arch and that its shape is based on the whalebone arch at Whitby.  I am very fond of Whitby and I have stood by that arch many times.

When standing here looking at the garden through it to the Portmeirion bench at the top of the garden, I realised that this was a shape that I clearly have an affinity for.  It is now a repeated shape, which if I was a designer I would say was totally deliberate, whereas it is just serendipity at work again.  
I am hugely grateful to the nice people at Garden Site for providing me with this arch.  I can genuinely recommend the arch and Garden Site's service.  

The arch is made from pressure-treated timber to protect it from rot for fifteen years.  

I am also hugely grateful to the Cynical Gardener for giving up her time on two weekends to help me put the arch up.  Her advice as always was extremely useful and any excuse to have a catch up and a chat is a good one.

*with due respect to Waynes World/Mike Myers

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Prairie Haircut Time

It is the time of year when the Prairie Borders have their annual hair cut.  This is a definite sign of spring for my garden, but it is also the start of the period when these borders look at their worst.

Before the haircut they look like this:
The borders consist of Stipa tenuissima, Stipa arundinacea (which is now apparently Anemanthele lessoniana) and verbena bonariensis.  There are a few Vebascum bombyciferum as well dotted through.  All the plants were grown from seed and I weed it carefully to stop other self-seeders from wandering in.  All through the winter they give movement and structure to this part of the garden.  When rained on, when frosty, even if we get some snow I think they look good.  Even the dead echinops stems give height and colour and provide winter sleepy-places for insects and wildlife.

I began planting out this area way back in 2011, a few years after I came to live here.  I wrote about their origins here.

Once the weather starts to warm a little and there gets to be a flush of green in the stipa tenuissima showing it is starting to grow again, I know it is time for its haircut.
This hand sickle from Burgen and Ball is the tool of choice for this task.  You can see it is a few years old now and it makes light work of the grass cutting.  I usually twist the S.Tenuissima around and then saw through it close to the base.   It is a very satisfying way of spending time in the garden.
As the work progresses the borders start to look really quite grim.  There is no disguising this.
It also creates lots of composting material.  I like to think that all the nesting birds in the area have lovely stipa-lined homes.
Even Esme gets interested in the process.  As I am cutting the grasses back I am always delighted to find how much the wildlife love these borders.  I had worried they might be a bit of a monoculture and not very interesting to wildlife.  In the summer they are alive with bees and butterflies, particularly on the echinops but also in the grasses as well.  As I was working on this day I found several large bumble bees.  I am not sure if they nest in the borders or what, but I had to be careful to work around them.
Several hours later and it is all done for the year.  Like I said, it is not looking pretty, but I don't mind this.  Not every part of my garden is at its best for every part of the year.  The Spring Border is at its best now (clue in the name),and in September I will be looking more at these Prairie Borders and thinking that the Spring Border is way past its best, c'est la vie!

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Book Review - The Deckchair Gardener by Anne Wareham

I was delighted to be sent a review copy of 'The Deckchair Gardener',  Anne Wareham's latest book which follows on from The Bad Tempered Gardener and Outwitting Squirrels.   It is subtitled: 101 cunning strategems for Gardening Avoidance and Sensible Advice on your Realistic Chances of Getting Away with it.  My first advice when starting to read this book is start at the beginning.  I say this as if, like me, you have a tendency to flip into a book, read a few pages, flip again and read a bit more, you will not get the best from this book.  If you do start at the book you will by the end of page one be aware that Anne says that this book is not for the keen gardener but for the more reluctant.  This book is aimed at those who have little time, little knowledge, a big garden, or just not really a lot of interest...... except.....except.....
Very shortly into the book I found I was quickly agreeing with much that Anne said and had also learned at least one very useful tip.  I could tell you the tip couldn't I?  but then you might not buy the book and then Anne would not be happy.

Whilst regular readers of my blog will know that I fit the description of keen gardener, I also have a full time job and gardening has to fit into weekends, evenings and the odd day off.  Time matters to me and I cannot spend ages faffing around doing the unnecessary.  There is much in this book that I could identify with and even justified some of what I have thought of as my lazier habits.

Now Anne and I do not agree on everything.  Anne encourages you not to sow biennials because 'life's too short', but I enjoy a good biennial.  Anne's opinions on lawn care, which is to do as little as possible, coincide totally with my own.  Things that I worry about, like getting my apple trees pruned, Anne says just don't.  She never has and her trees are fine.  Now I am still looking a little anxiously at my over-large Bramley tree but really this is missing the point.

Anne's point, as I see it, is don't listen to the gardening magazines and tv programmes giving you lists of things to do, they are just enjoying themselves making lists.  Don't do what you do not think looks right for your garden and don't just put up with things because that is the way the garden looked when you moved in. Anne gives one very important piece of advice, no two gardens are the same and what works in one will not always work in another.  Anne both cites expert advice and tells you why expert advice might not work for you.

The book is written in an authoritative and good-humoured way.  Anne has a clear voice when she writes and her strong opinions are plainly put.   I like the illustrations by Kate Charlesworth which are simple and amusing.  There are 'deckchair tips' littered through the book, some of which are humorous and others which are genuine pieces of gardening advice.

Did I enjoy the book?  Yes I did.  At times I agreed with it, at times I disagreed (wisteria is a great plant!) and at times it made me smile in recognition.  I think the book will give courage to those who want to garden but feel overwhelmed by the experts and advice that bombards them.  I think that more experienced gardeners would find it amusing and actually any book that makes you question your general way of doing things cannot be a bad thing.

Oh, and do you remember that 'song' from back the in day that was advising people to 'wear sunscreen'?  Well for Anne's version just think of one word...... mulch.

The Deckchair Gardener is published by Michael O'Mara books.

Sunday, 12 March 2017


Regular readers will know that I am very precious about my Edgeworthia chrysantha.  I keep an over-protective eye on it at all times, and this is heightened over the winter months.  For many years I longed for an Edgeworthia.  I first tried growing one over ten years ago.  I grew it successfully in a pot for a couple of years but when I moved to this house I planted it in the garden and promptly killed it.

Undeterred, I bought another and foolishly planted it in the same place as the first one.  It died - quel surprise!

Refusing to give up I bought another and planted it as one of the Four Sisters.  Before planting the shrub I checked (again) what type of conditions it prefers.  It's one of those 'moist-well drained' types which, let's face it, is very difficult to achieve.  When I checked back it turns out this was in March 2013 - how time flies!

For all this time I have anxiously kept an eye on this beloved shrub.  Luckily I have been helped by mild winters and this does help a lot, but also I think I have been helped by my knowledge of the garden.  When I planted this current Edgeworthia I knew my garden better.  I had lived with it a few years and I knew how the soil was in different areas.  I also knew where was more sheltered from the prevailing winds.  There is better drainage where the Four Sisters are placed unlike the thick heavy clay that most of my garden is made of.  I had hopes that it would suit the Edgeworthia and so far so good.

Last year the Edgeworthia flowered successfully for the first time.  That was exciting.

But this year......
It has many flowers,
It opens each flower slowly, one at a time,
but as it opens....
..... the most amazing scent is released.
and look how beautiful the flowers are.  They have a downy-fluff about them that is just so special.

Yes I am over-fond of my Edgeworthia, yes pride comes before a fall and yes, I fear that one bad winter will wipe my beloved out.  But for now it is truly the Edgeworthia of happiness.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

A visit to Croome to see the snowdrops

I had reason to be in Worcester the other day and I thought on the way home I would find a snowdrop garden.  After a bit of looking around, I realised the Croome was sort of on the way home, so it became the destination of choice.

I first visited Croome about eight years ago, it was in a period of transition at that time as I think the National Trust were just starting to lease the house.  I remember that the house was empty except for exhibitions inviting comments on what they might do with the house.  The house and grounds have had a varied history of ownership, including a period as a school, a conference centre, a hotel and also requisitioned in World War 2.  As ever though, my focus was on the grounds.  Croome was the first landscape completed by Capability Brown and it is a fine example of his work.
I start though with the first thing I saw when I parked, this wonderful ancient apple tree that has fallen over.  I am pretty sure it is still alive and if you look you can see there is mistletoe growing on it.  I never fail to be impressed how some trees refuse to give up.
Croome is a big estate to walk around, so I asked at the ticket office where the snowdrops were so that I did not miss them.  Instructions duly received I set off and I soon found them.  They are mainly around the Church....
and around the rather wonderfully thatched ice house.  It is not the longest snowdrop walk you will ever experience, but it was nice and made a good lead in to the rest of the grounds.
I paused to admire the ha ha.  I love a good ha ha and I love a good curved wall.  A curved ha ha is probably my idea of heaven.  There is something about the simplicity and the skill of them that makes my heart sing.
The sun decided to come and out shine for a while, this had to be cherished as we have seen little sun in recent days.  Croome is set in the most wonderful landscape.  I realised how much I needed this walk as I was going along.  I needed the time to let my mind relax and just be for a while.
The house is the most wonderful mellow colour.
and is guarded by these wonderful sphinxes.  Ok they are a bit bosomy, but they are wonderful creatures. I am starting to think my garden needs a sphinx.
From the house you walk around to this rather wonderful bridge.
and you walk along the water towards where the follies are.
The walk does that 'light and dark' thing and you do feel like you are exploring.  There were quite a lot of people there on the day I was but the park is big enough that you can feel like you are the only one there at times.
My favourite bit of Croome is the grotto.  How I would love a grotto.
Whilst I stood and admired Sabrina (I call her Brenda, but apparently her real name is Sabrina) a passing couple told me that she was going to be restored so that water pours from her pot again.  I think I might have to come back and see this. There is an inscription in the stone by the grotto that translates to something like: "A cave of hanging rocks. Inside, there are sweet waters and seats of stone. Nymph home". It is not a bad home, though I hope it has central heating too as she is a little half-clothed.
The view from the Grotto is wonderfully peaceful.
There is a monument to Capability Brown, which is apt.
I am deliberately not showing all the follies, but I did like the temple greenhouse very much. What a fine greenhouse it is.
It is currently under restoration but I had a moment of bench-envy.
and again the view across from the temple is rather wonderful.  As you would expect from Mr Brown, everything lines up perfectly.

I was probably walking for around an hour and it was such a good way of clearing my head.  I returned to the car a tired but happier person.

Other snowdrop gardens visited this year:

Hodsock Priory

Easton Walled Gardens

Little Ponton Hall


Blackberry Garden

Holme Pierrepont Hall

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Tree Following March 2017 - a little late

Last year spring arrived rather early, this makes this year feel late, when I think it is actually probably more like it should be.  This means that the quince tree is now suddenly starting to produce leaves.
The two quince trees, that I know should be one but I am seeing them now as quince-major (primary, original quince) and quince-minor (Johnny-come-lately), are getting that haze of green.
Quince-major is well on the road to developing blossom now.
I stare at the branches willing the blobs of green to become quinces.  Each one is a potential quince-let.
Quince-minor is not so far along.  This gives me already the concern that if they do not blossom at the same time how can my self-fertilising trees benefit from the cross-pollination I am hoping for?

See, as one worry ends another takes its place.  Life is ever thus.

Que-cera etc.  Time will of course tell.  Thanks as ever to Squirrelbasket for hosting the forest of followed trees.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

The Snowdrop Walk at Holme Pierrepont Hall

Recently I visited Holme Pierrepont Hall for the first time.  I am slightly ashamed that it was my first time as I grew up and lived close-by for many years.  Even worse, at one point my favourite route to cycle was down to the nearby National Watersports Centre and cycle around the lake a couple of times.  It was therefore beyond time that I visited the hall and gardens.
The hall dates from around 1500 though there was a house on the site before then.  The descendents of the same family have lived there all this time.
There is this impressive courtyard garden which was originally designed in 1875.  Even in the dark grey days of this time of year, the structure means it is worth seeing now.  I look forward to visiting again when it is in flower.  The pictures they have of it inside the Hall show that it is worth seeing.
But we were there to look at snowdrops and we did not have to walk very far from the house to see that there were plenty.
This winter walk is carpeted with snowdrops and some very good winter planting.  Rubus cockburnianus is used here to great effect.  Placing it against the dark background works perfectly.
The pink haze on this tree is the early blossom of Prunus Ben chidori, a favourite tree this time of year.
There are also scented shrubs such as a fantastic daphne and some winter honeysuckle lining the route.
This area of walk was ablaze with fantastic stem colour.  It was a masterclass in how to plant for winter.  We stood here for quite some time.
Onwards into the walled orchard and we stopped and admired these ancient fruit trees that were still insisting on throwing up new growth.
This corner room was clearly the bedroom of a sheep,
maybe this sheep, his name is Jacob.
We were a little distracted by the occasional sight of this old edging.  The urge to do some garden archaeology was strong.  What stories are lurking beneath this grass?
The woodland walk is not a long walk, but it is a good walk.  There are many snowdrops and we could see that soon there would be wild garlic, bluebells and apparently wild tulips as well.
We wandered back towards the house where these wonderful yew domes stand guard.  It is a simple yet stunning effect.
There is great use of lawn and yew towards the house that make good areas of colour and calm.
and it should not be forgotten that this is a family home.  I resisted the urge to have a go on this swing but it was very tempting.
It was a really grey, blustery, afternoon when we visited.  There was virtually no sun for most of the day but when it appeared it was welcome.  We had a lovely afternoon which included a wander around the hall itself (and cake, of course there was cake).  Now I want to visit again to see how the garden changes through the seasons.  Strange isn't it how one has to move away to appreciate what had been on the doorstep?

Other snowdrop gardens visited this year:

Hodsock Priory

Easton Walled Gardens

Little Ponton Hall


Blackberry Garden Snowdrops

Croome Park