My Garden Right Now: A Mini Tour


Over at Veg Plotting this weekend Michelle Chapman has created the #mygardenrightnow hashtag for people to use with a picture of themselves in their garden (or allotment) to show what our growing spaces really look like at the end of winter – with all their glorious intimations of spring and their untidy, bare spaces (at least in my garden as you’ll see). I thought this was a great idea – so here’s my contribution. As well as the picture where I’m hiding and waving in the winter filigree willow den, I’ve taken a few short videos of different areas of the garden just before all the daffodils open, the perennials start to romp and the vegetables are sown. Vlogging is a new one on me (as you’ll see in the videos!) and nowhere near as comfortable a medium as writing, but I hope you enjoy the quick tours…

dsc_0054-3It’s interesting that last year the daffodils were poking their noses through on Christmas day and by the first weekend in March weekend they looked like this. I guess most bulbs are later this year and I’m looking forward to the start of the daffodil/tulip/wallflower cycle in a couple of week’s time and all the colour which I’ll be enjoying as I go to and fro through March 🙂

The hashtag is, of course, open to everyone, so do download your garden picture with #mygardenrightnow this weekend and join in the post-winter celebrations 🙂

I’d be really interested to know how your garden/allotment/pots are looking right now. Please leave me a comment below – I love reading your thoughts and ideas.

The videos show several areas of #mygardenrightnow which aren’t as organised as I’d like and where tangled winter debris has played its part in harbouring insects and needs clearing ready for spring growth. So I thought I’d also share some photos of some of the winter/early spring highlights in the garden…

If you’d like to follow the garden as it begins its spring journey you can subscribe below. Thank you 🙂

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If you’d like to read more about how the different areas of my garden were created, you could take a look at the following articles:

Out With The Ugly, Bin With The New

My Hard-Working Garden: An Ongoing Transformation (Part 1)

My Hard-Working Garden: An Ongoing Transformation (Part 2)

Side Gardens And Shared Spaces

My Secret Garden (A Guest Post on the hidden edibles in my front garden on The Unconventional Gardener’s Blog)

Creating a Community Forest Garden

The Triangle Community Garden

Community gardens are special places. They bring together people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds working towards a shared goal. My local community garden – the Triangle Community Garden – has been a thriving public space for the past 16 years. Over this time it has expanded to include several social therapeutic horticultural and health/well-being projects for people with learning disabilities, two allotment plots with a new polytunnel and a developing forest garden site.


The forest garden site at the beginning of the clearing process

Forest Gardening

Forest gardens are productive, self-sustaining areas which are modelled on the structure of natural woodland. They include a wide range of plants grown together in ways which are mutually beneficial. Forest garden plants might produce food, medicine, dyes, wood or cloth. Many also play a supportive role by fixing nitrogen or raising nutrients in the soil, by providing structure for climbing plants or by adding weed-suppressing ground cover.

Volunteers preparing the ground and planting

Our forest garden is still in its infancy. Over the last few years the perennial weeds have been partially cleared, mulch laid and the canopy layer (of trees and larger shrubs) has been planted. The next stage is to start adding the herbaceous perennial and ground cover planting, whilst ensuring that canopy layer continues to thrive. As a member of the garden committee, I’ve been privileged to be involved in some of the planning and planting. The potential for creating a rich eco-system with real practical and environmental benefits makes this a hugely exciting project.

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Shrub layer developing

Regular readers will know that there’s nothing gardening-related that inspires me more than planting which is productive, aesthetically pleasing and environmentally sound. Forest gardening fulfils all these criteria, as woodland is as beautiful in its own way as any designed border. Learning more about this method of gardening has been fascinating. A good place to start is Martin Crawford’s Creating a Forest Garden and I also regularly use the Plants For a Future Database for information on practical uses of individual plants.


Fruiting hedging

Canopy Layer

So far the canopy layer includes Apricot ‘Tomcot’ and ‘Orange Summer’, Apple ‘Pitmaston Pineapple’, Damson ‘Shropshire Prune’, Plum ‘Mirabelle de Nancy’, Quince ‘Leskovac’, Asian Pear ‘Kumoi’, Strawberry Tree, Autumn Olive, Loquat, Hazel, American Elder, Judas Tree, Cornus Kousa, Italian Alder and Almond. The shrub layer so far includes Pineapple Guava, Chokeberry, Honeyberry, Red, Black, Pink, White and Buffalo Currant, Fuchsia, Goji, Chilean Guava, Goumi and a Rosa rugosa hedge.

Some plants are doing well and others have proved less successful, like the Chilean Guava which has succumbed to the cold and died (unlike my plants half a mile away which generally tolerate winter temperatures, but they are in a more sheltered position). The future of the Goji berry is also undecided as it has turned out to be too vigorous (a polite way of saying it’s a right thug) and needs either controlling or removing this year.

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Our American elder

Interesting Plants

Asian Pear, US Elderberry, Goumi and Chokeberry were all new to me this year – here’s a little on why they earn their places in a forest garden…

American Elder

American Elder (Sambucus canadensis) is a slowly suckering shrub. Each stem lasts several years and then dies back to be replaced by a new one. I’ve grown European Elder for its flowers – nothing encapsulates spring better than the first glass of elderflower cordial. But the flowering window is only around a fortnight and then they’re gone. With the American Elder, flowering lasts from July to November in the UK for cordial, wine or champagne all summer and autumn long.

Asian Pear

The Asian Pear derives from two Asiatic species – Pyrus pyrifolia and Pyrus ussuriensis. ‘Kumoi’ is a pyrifolia with golden fruit which taste sweet and store well. Asian pears are normally shaped more like an apple than a pear and have a crunchy texture.


Goumi (Elaeagnus multiflora) originates from woodland areas of Japan. It has cherry-sized fruits which ripen in August and are best used in jams and fruit leathers. The shrub is also good for the bees and is a nitrogen-fixing.

Buffalo Currant

Buffalo Currant (Ribes odoratum) has berries which are similar to blackcurrants. They taste like a spicy blackcurrant and can be used fresh or cooked. Yields are lower than blackcurrants, but they have aromatic yellow flowers in spring, encourage bees into the garden and the leaves can be used in teas.

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Buffalo currant harvest

Gardens to Visit

Many forest garden plants are suitable for domestic gardens and will increase general productivity. But few gardens have enough space to create a dedicated forest garden – so if you would like to visit a forest garden, you could try…

The Agroforestry Research Trust – Martin Crawford’s 22 year old, 2 acre forest garden in Dartington, Devon. Forest garden courses are also on offer.

Littlehempston Forest Garden in Devon – the new Agroforestry Research Trust site, started in 2011 and covering 11 acres with 2 forest gardens.

Edible Landscapes London in Finsbury Park – these beautiful gardens grow over 200 edible species to propagate and give to community gardens around London. They offer forest gardening courses too.

RISC Roof Garden in Reading – designed in 2002, this edible garden is used for educational and research purposes

Old Sleningford Farm near Ripon – a 2 acre forest garden begun in 2004. The farm runs courses and events as well as organising group visits. Individuals are welcome on workdays.

The Forest Garden at the Centre for Alternative Technology in the foothills of Snowdonia – an amazing place which inspired my love of the environment on a visit back in primary school.


Beginning the canopy layer

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Do you have forest garden plants in your garden or perhaps you volunteer in a community garden with edible plants? If so, I’d love to hear which plants are your favourites and any issues you’ve had with different plants. Do leave me a comment below and I’ll get back to you. Thanks  🙂

Planning a Cutting Patch: Bulb Time

I started a cutting patch in the back garden last year. It was a disaster. I planted Echinacea purpurea, Monarda, Calendula (‘Indian Prince’ and ‘Porcupine’), sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus ‘Barry Dare’, ‘Cupani’ and ‘Arthur Hellyer’), Gladioli (‘Flevo Cool’, ‘Flevo Flash’ and ‘Flevo Sylvia’) and nasturtiums. It was a bit of an odd mix with little forethought, just plants and seeds which I had available and which I knew would also be good for wildlife. The patch grew beautifully and created a mini pollinator paradise. It also added a focal point with vibrant colours at the end of the vegetable raised beds, but herein lay the problem. It was too lovely. Every time I contemplated ravishing it with my scissors, I hesitated and backed away. I did cut a few blooms, but each time I harvested flowers for the house, I felt I was depriving the bees and butterflies, and diluting the visual effect.


The cutting bed was wild and wonderful

So this year I’m approaching a cutting patch with a new plan. I intend to interplant my veggies with edible companions like calendula, nasturtiums and borage to create colour and cater for the insects. Then in the allotment – far away from the kitchen window and my view as I’m washing up – I’ll plant my cutting patch which will be one bed about 1.2m by 6m. This time I’m putting a little more thought into the planting so it really earns its keep year round. We have a half plot (I’m banned from taking on any more land or responsibility for any more gardens at the moment), so every bit of space matters.


The calendula now self-seed and create a blast of colour throughout the summer

I have plans for bulbs, perennials and annuals, plus I’m hoping to squeeze in a Cornus alba ‘Kesselringii’ when no-one’s looking. I already have Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’, Cornus sericea ‘Flaviremea’ and Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ in the garden providing wonderful winter cutting material, so a ‘Kesselringi’ will add to this collection with its stunning deep purple/black stems. I’ve been reading up on plants which offer good material for cutting at different times of year and thinking about how they might combine in arrangements. I’ll be writing about my choices of perennials and annuals in a later post, but here are my bulb plans and some of the thinking behind the combinations.


Sweet peas are a must for my cutting patch – this is the striking ‘Barry Dare’

I have never grown enough tulips to have many for cutting and it struck me that including tulip and narcissi bulbs in the cutting patch won’t require much extra room. The soil will not be supporting large plants during early spring so the tulips can easily come up between the perennials as they grow and the dying foliage should be covered by the annual flowers later in the season. I’ve chosen the Sarah Raven ‘Vintage Silk’ collection as I haven’t grown ‘Apricot Beauty’, ‘Mistress Grey’, ‘Spring Green’ or ‘Groenland’ before and I love their subtle smoky look. I’m also planning on including ‘Shirley’ (which I vowed to grow again when I wrote my tulip review earlier in the year), ‘Attila’ (deep purple), ‘Carnival de Rio’, ‘Hollandia’ (these two make a red/white striped and red mix), ‘Slawa’ (an amazing maroon tulip with outer orange stripes), ‘Ronaldo’ and ‘Jimmy’ (these two create a deep crimson and coral orange mix). I’m hoping these combinations will look great in vases – they should last for 10 days or longer and will also mix well with the greens of Euphorbia palustris and Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae which will be planted in the cutting patch.


This is as far as I’ve got with tulips in arrangements so far – the odd ‘Queen of Night’ with Ammi majus, Centaurea montana ‘Jordy’ and Centaurea cyanus ‘Black Ball’

The narcissi should provide blooms from March to May – from ‘Gigantic Star’ with a vanilla-like fragrance in March/April, through ‘Thalia’  and ‘The Bride’ in April/May to ‘Piper’s End’ in May.   J.Parker’s have offered me the narcissi and the seven tulip varieties ‘Shirley’ – ‘Jimmy’ to trial this year, so I can see how the varieties perform in the allotment and how suitable they are for cutting. The tulips bulbs will be planted about 15-20cm deep, 10-15 cm apart and the narcissi 10-15 cm deep, 8-10cm apart, depending on the bulb size. The extra depth will hopefully encourage the tulips to flower well in subsequent years. Both bulb types will be planted with a handful of grit beneath them as we do in the garden, to aid drainage. Then the perennials can be planted alongside the bulbs and the annuals sown above once spring arrives. I’m also considering planting winter/spring bedding to reduce weed cover, add colour and provide material for cutting before the spring bulbs and annuals begin.

Once I’ve added in the Gladioli ‘Flevo’ series from the garden and a mixture of dahlias which I already have and some new faces (‘Café au Lait’ and ‘Henriette’ – with their milky coffee and peach hues, alongside the deep velvets of ‘Thomas A. Edison’, ‘Downham Royal’ and ‘Con Amore’), I’ll have pretty much filled (probably over-filled) the available bulb/tuber/corm space. The dahlias will go in after the frosts next year above the narcissi, to maximise the use of space. And I’m literally bouncing off the seat with excitement at all the promise which will be hidden underground throughout the winter months. I’ve no idea how I’ll contain myself when I get to planning perennials and annuals – maybe I should read up on rabbit damage, greenfly infestations and fungal problems to introduce a degree of pessimistic balance.


Gladioli ‘Flevo Cool’ looks magnificent in the garden and in a vase

But whatever problems lie in the future, for the moment I can watch the leaves falling with my cup of tea in hand and dream about vases of glorious spring blooms adorning the house. Then it’s back to the allotment, trowel in hand, to start digging.

I enjoy flower arranging and I’ve been on a couple of courses, but it’s very much a work in progress!

Are you planning a cutting patch or garden, or do you already have one? What tips would you give a newbie cut flower grower like me? I’m in two minds about whether to plant the narcissi singly or in groups and would be interested in thoughts on this. I’d also love to hear about what works and what hasn’t been as successful in other cutting patches, so do leave me a comment below  🙂

If you’d like to follow my cutting patch as I continue to plan and plant, you can follow the blog below. Next up it’s perennials and no doubt some photos about how the bulb planting is progressing…

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6 Ways to Create an Ornamental and Productive Garden

When I started gardening I had a small patio and a keen desire follow my father’s footsteps and grow fruit and vegetables, but I also wanted flowers and colour, so I started to learn about ways to combine the two. Now, 20 years on, I’m still exploring ways to create garden spaces which encourage relaxation and an enjoyment of the beauty of nature whilst also providing a harvest for the kitchen. Over the past 6 years we’ve turned our back garden into a family space which includes a willow den and lawn with climbing frame for the kids, a flowerbed, a fruit cage and two vegetable beds. I’ve tried to maximise our space by using both horizontal and vertical structures for plants and also by combining the aesthetic and productive wherever possible.

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My first house had a patio which I covered with pots – many containing herbs and edible flowers

Three years ago we started work on the front, the aim being to create a hidden allotment – a space which would blend with the surrounding suburban front gardens and offer us a secret harvest throughout the year. As the size of modern gardens diminishes and the pressure on our outdoor spaces increases, it will become more important to combine productivity with aesthetic appeal. Here are a few of the ways we’ve been adding edibles to our outdoor spaces within an ornamental framework:

The front garden has changed from a sterile, unappealing lawn to a cheerful gravel garden filled with ornamental and edible plants

1. Eat a Hedge

Hedges are an great way to create separate areas, edge borders, establish boundaries and attract wildlife. They are also often used to add formality to a garden. With so many different functions, hedges are likely to be included in most gardens, creating an ideal opportunity to add an productive element. I have many low hedges in the garden – all evergreen and edible – and they provide a harvest throughout the year.


My low alternative box hedge of Chilean guava (Ugni molinae)

After discussing Chilean guava as an alternative to box hedging with James Wong a few years ago, I thought I’d try it as the edging to the front garden. It has matured over the past three years and it looks like being a good harvest this autumn despite keeping the hedge at only 50cm high. It hasn’t established as well as box, partly because it is more prone to dieback in cold weather and because I haven’t been as assiduous as I should have with watering and feeding, but it isn’t going to contract box blight and its berries are not only edible – they are truly delicious. The children love snacking on them and they work really well as tiny bursts of flavour in muesli and cupcakes. Best of all, when I am weeding or pruning in the front garden, the scent of the fruit from midsummer onwards saturates the air and makes all the hard work worthwhile.


Rosemary hedge in the front garden

I also have several rosemary and lavender hedges in the garden. I dry the lavender for scented bouquets in the house and add it to sugar for cakes and biscuits. The rosemary provides an invaluable year round harvest for adding to meat dishes, sprinkling over homemade chips and using in savoury biscuits. I’ve used the rosemary hedge in the front to trisect the garden, helping to disguise the rectangular shape. It almost disappears in summer as the flowers take over and then reappears in winter, adding definition and interest to the garden.

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Summer chaos in the front garden envelops the hedge almost entirely


By early autumn the tripartite structure is becoming clear again

Lavender is generally used to edge the borders. There’s a hedge of dwarf lavender alongside the back flowerbed and one under the front windows. Hedges offer a wonderful opportunity to explore different varieties of lavender and we’re lucky enough to live close to Hitchin Lavender which has an extensive trial field. Summer often finds me wandering around the rows, learning about the different colours, foliage, habits and scents of this intoxicating plant. I grow ‘Twickel Purple’, ‘Dwarf Blue’, ‘Blue Ice’, ‘Munstead’ and ‘Hidcote’ and wish I had room for more varieties.

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Hitchin Lavender trial fields – a favourite summer haunt

Another way I’ve used hedges in the garden is to create compartments in the herb bed. When we moved to the house, the back garden had a long fence with an ugly concrete base which made the left side of the garden grey and monotonous. We planted alternating rosemary and lavender ‘hedgelets’ along the border to break up the line and create areas for different herbs – sage, mint, chives, oregano and thyme – arranged based on the increasing amount of sun as you go down the garden.

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The alternating hedges before their summer trim

If taller and less formal hedges are required, there are lots of suppliers offering native hedge plants these days, like the collection from the Wiggly Wigglers which I’ve often wished I had the space to plant. This particular collection includes ‘blackthorn (for sloe gin), crab apple (for jelly), damson (for jam and a luscious homemade alternative to Ribena), dog rose (for rosehip syrup), elderberry (for flu-preventing syrups from the berries in autumn and delicious cordial from the flowers in spring), hazel (for cob nuts), cherry plum and wild pear (for jams, liqueurs and syrups)’. (Links in the blog are not sponsored – they are simply from companies that I have used in the past and liked.)


2. Look up – Walls and Fences

In a small space it is important to use the vertical as well as horizontal plane. We’ve covered the fences around the whole garden with a mixture of soft fruit and trained fruit trees to expand our growing space and hide unpleasant concrete and overlooking windows.


The apple espaliers went in as a priority

I’ve enjoyed growing our three apple espaliers (‘Bountiful’, ‘Egremont Russet and ‘James Grieve’) as they provide such structure and style along the boundaries. We also have a pink seedless grape ‘Reliance’ trained up the end espalier wire next to a fig ‘White Marseille’. There’s a thornless blackberry ‘Apache’ trained up wires at the back of the garden with a plum ‘Opal’ and greengage ‘Cambridge Gage’ in front, helping to screen the windows of the overlooking houses. The fruit cage has two rows of summer and autumn raspberries at the back, screening next door’s shed and we’ve covered a blank section of wall at the front with a cordon apple ‘Fiesta’.

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Fruit trees have the added advantage of fabulous spring blossom

With the foliage, blossom and fruits, trained fruit trees and bushes should be grown more in our gardens. Requiring little maintenance, except at pruning and feeding times, they form the backbone of our relatively small garden and bring us much pleasure throughout the spring, summer and autumn months.


Now the espaliers have covered the fence with foliage and are providing us with crumbles, cakes and preserves


Cordons, fans and espaliers are all suitable for growing against walls and fences


3. Build a Green Roof

In the same spirit of using vertical spaces, I’ve tried to use horizontal spaces even when they are off the ground. When I got tired of ugly bins of the driveway, I designed a binstore with a local carpenter and included a green roof to create more growing space. This is now filled with a mix of edibles and ornamentals – sedum, dianthus, thrift, sempervivums (which although not edible, have a juice with herbal properties similar to Aloe vera and are hardy into the bargain), chillies, herbs and nasturtiums.


The green roof brimming with herbs, edible flowers and chillies

The herbs (thyme, lemon thyme, summer savoury, golden marjoram and French tarragon) are thriving, as are the succulents, thrift and dianthus. The chillies have suffered from lack of water at times, so if I plant them in the roof again I’ll need to keep more of an eye on them if we want a larger crop. I’m also intending to try alpine strawberries (Fragraria vesca ‘White Soul’) in the roof next year to develop the edible theme.


My first ever Habanero (Habanero Red) in the green roof


4. Spread Scented Ground Cover

Many herbs provide great ground cover, adding attractive foliage, flowers and scent to a garden, whilst also being extremely useful in the kitchen. Our front garden had a muddy path to which we’ve added paving and gravel, leaving plenty of space to plant ground cover herbs. There is a range of thymes, including woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus), creeping white thyme (Thymus serpyllum var. albus) and creeping lemon thyme (Thymus citriodorus ‘Aurea’), alongside pennyroyal mint (Mentha pulegium) and chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile ‘Flore Pleno’). They create an aromatic effect as you wander along the path (along with the oregano which has self-seeded down the side passage and releases the most lovely scent when we put the bins out). They are enjoying the location, in full sun, and have rewarded us by increasing in size, creating plenty of ground cover even when they’ve just been harvested.

We turned the weedy muddy area into a path with room for ground cover herbs


The woolly thyme is doing a good job colonising the water meter cover



The herbs also have beautiful flowers in the summer – an extra bonus



5. Munch on Edible Flowers and Colourful Veg

Many vegetable patches are visible from the house these days rather than hidden at the bottom of a long plot, so it’s important to consider how the productive area will add to the aesthetics of the garden. Including annuals and perennials with edible flowers in the vegetable patch is an easy way to engage children with gardening and create a visually appealing, vibrant space.


The kids love picking petals from the garden to adorn their salads

We grow calendula, borage, bergamot, marigolds, nasturtiums, viola, dianthus, primroses and lavender either in the veg beds or elsewhere in the garden. Although they don’t add a great amount of bulk to meals, they can be used to brighten up salads, cakes, biscuits and ice-cubes, adding a bit of creative fun to family meals.


This is a summer plateful which we harvested and added to a crisp Caesar salad

Colourful vegetables are also a valuable addition to an ornamental vegetable patch as they create visual interest. From pea ‘Blauschokker’ with its delicate purple flowers and deep purple pods, rainbow chard with its thick stems shining like jewels in the sun to purple kohl rabi with UFO shaped swollen stems, there are so many interesting coloured vegetables from which to choose.

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Fabulous rainbow chard with vibrant stems


6. Pot it up

If you don’t have a fruit and vegetable patch, but want to grow ornamental crops, containers could be the answer. Several years ago I bought a great book called ‘Crop in Pots’ by  Bob Purnell. I loved the illustrations which pay as much attention to creating attractive displays as they do to providing food for the table.


The redcurrants and dianthus work so well together here

I’ve tried several of the combinations over the years and made up some of my own, like the fruit salad hanging baskets for the school fete with alpine strawberries (we used Fragraria vesca ‘Baron Solemacher’) and chocolate mint (Mentha x piperita ‘Chocolate Mint’) with its deep brown stems and bronze flush to the leaves.


This lovely combination is right up my street as a I love growing chillies and herbs for curries

Even with a small patio, windowbox or windowsill, it’s possible to grow beautiful plants which taste good too. My chilli collection includes some really ornamental plants like ‘Numex Twilight’ and ‘Purple Gusto’. I also love edible houseplants like Vanilla Grass (Pandanus amaryllifolius) and Kaffir Lime (Citrus hystrix) which can bring a little productive beauty into any house, whether or not it has a garden.


My chilli ‘Numex Twilight’ looks great surrounded by mint and lemon verbena

Growing edibles is in the garden is great fun and connects us with the origins of our food, reminding us of the fundamental yet often overlooked role plants play in our busy, modern lives. Best of all, in an ornamental edible garden, a feast for the eyes can be transformed into a feast for the table and that’s a truly beautiful thing.

What are your favourite ornamental and edible combinations? Do leave me a comment and let me know what you are growing and how it’s going. What would you advise me to try next in the colourful veggie patch and what new varieties are on your wish list?

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Dogwooddays does not take any responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. Always seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally.




Banish the September blues with my top 10 tulips

It’s been a dreamy summer holiday. We’ve been swimming in the sea, learned to ride without stabilisers, lost baby teeth, wandered around maize mazes, explored woodland dens and returned from the allotment stained with raspberry and blackberry juice. Now, in the first week of September, there’s school on the horizon for both my 7 year old and my reception baby – how can 4½ years go so quickly? Tonight I watered the garden in the dark for the first time for months, the first James Grieve fell off the apple espalier and my Rosa ‘Jacqueline Du Pré’ dropped her final petal. There’s still plenty to celebrate in the garden – the never-ending greenhouse chilli, tomato and cucamelon harvest, the thriving purple Brussel sprout plants in the allotment and the quinces maturing under their furry down in the side garden. But there’s been a subtle shift in both my family and my gardening life, and I can’t help feeling that it will never be quite the same again.

When the September blues strike, I am grateful that the cycles of life draw me forwards, planning, reading and shaping the new year in my mind. As the autumn catalogues arrive on the doormat, my thoughts turn, squirrel-like, to bulbs which can be buried over the next few months ready to herald the arrival of the new spring. Over the past few years I’ve spent countless hours on my knees with a trowel in the back and front gardens planting  daffodils, fritillaries, hyacinths, grape hyacinths, alliums and tulips – hundreds of massed tulips. Mostly this furtive activity takes place at dusk, in the snatched half hours after the children are asleep, with evening life going on all around me, unaware that I’m crouched in the shadows, preparing for spring.



My favourite spot for relaxing – not that that happens much!

Planning my tulip display involves remembering old friends and opening the door to new acquaintances. I do browse catalogues with a cup of tea in hand, but I also revisit old photos – reminding myself of displays which lit up my garden in the past and also combinations in other gardens which I’d like to get to know better in the future. Over the years my love of tulips (the thrill of seeing such vivid colours and delicate forms so early in the year) has grown as I’ve explored their use in public and private gardens. Now I’d like to share my favourites in the hope that they might help and inspire others in turn.

1. ‘Ballerina’

One of my favourite tulips for its perennial nature, its zingy colour and the way its shape and hue changes as it matures. Initially almost red, it matures to a bright orange with red stripes down the middle of each petal. It looks stunning on its own, for example as an edging plant in these images taken at Capel Manor gardens…

It thrives in my gravel garden despite clay soil, although I do plant all of my tulips with a handful of gravel beneath each bulb. I combine ‘Ballerina’ with ‘Queen of Night’ in the front gravel garden. In the back flowerbed it blooms alongside ‘Purple Prince’, ‘Queen of Night’ and blue forget-me-nots and never fails to lift my spirits when I see it emerging in the spring.

The versatile ‘Ballerina’ thrives in the back garden, front garden and in pots

2. ‘Swan Wings’

Generally I favour simple shapes and colours with my tulips, but I photographed ‘Swan Wings’ years ago at RHS Wisley and have always wanted to grow it. I think this year it’s time to try it out and I might pair it with red Bellis perennis as in my image, to create contrast and impact.

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3. ‘Queen of Night’

I love deep purple/black flowers and foliage, and I use them in my garden and my work as often as I can. I’ve been growing ‘Queen of Night’ for years and find it reliably perennial. It combines well with lighter purple and orange tulips, but also looks stunning with white or off-white bedding plants. I’ve combined it this year with the wallflower ‘Ivory White’ which I grew from seed and was very pleased with the result.


I can’t resist getting up close and personal with plants and ‘Queen of Night’ has the most glorious interior

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‘Queen of Night’ standing proud


4. ‘Monte Carlo’

As a general rule I’m not that keen on bright yellow flowers and only have this tulip because it was sent as a part of a mixed set. However, when it emerged this spring I was surprised to find myself making detours past its pot in order to get another blast of its exuberant power.

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I’d never have chosen this tulip, but now I’ve watched it bloom it’s staying on my list


5. ‘Prinses Irene’

Possibly one of the most beautiful tulips I’ve ever grown, ‘Prinses Irene’ is a subtle, understated winner. I love the Sarah Raven ‘Venetian Tulip’ collection and have grown it for several years both in pots and in the ground. I’ve never had much luck in the border beneath the apple espaliers as the bark mulch seems to attract the slugs early in the year which then eat holes in the tulip leaves and flowers, twisting them as they emerge. This year, in pots at the front, they have thrived and I’ve been impressed by the new addition to the collection – ‘National Velvet’ in place of ‘Couleur Cardinal’ – which has a superb colour and sheen.

‘Prinses Irene’ and ‘National Velvet’


6. ‘Purissima’

Another favourite (perhaps I should admit they’re all favourites!) is ‘Purissima’ with its white/cream flowers which open up to a dinner plate size in the sun. It is another good perennial tulip and has lasted several years in big pots in the garden.

In pots with wild strawberries at the back and with mixed muscari at the front

7. ‘Shirley’

‘Shirley’ was the only tulip in the first garden I owned, although I didn’t know its name at the time. I loved its soft markings and photographed it in wonder. I think it’s about time I grew it again…

‘Shirley’ in my first ever garden

It looks great in a pot (here at Capel Manor with ‘Jackpot’) or in borders (here with ‘Paul Scherer’ at the back)

8. ‘Purple Prince’

I grew ‘Purple Prince’ a few years ago to create a purple accent against the orange of ‘Ballerina’ and dark purple of ‘Queen of Night’. Then I decided I preferred the orange and dark purple on their own and marked the ‘Purple Prince’ tulips so I could remove the bulbs after flowering. Two years on they are still appearing en masse in the flowerbed and I’ve decided they can stay. Instead I grow ‘Ballerina’ and ‘Queen of Night’ on their own in the front. Then a serendipitous combination this spring pleased me very much – ‘Purple Prince’ emerged in front of the foliage of my Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’. Try taking my ‘Purple Prince’ out of the border after that and I’d have something to say about it!

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9. ‘Zurel’

When we moved into my current house 6 years ago there was a purple and white rembrandt tulip in a border we had to remove to make room for the apple espaliers. I replaced it the next year with ‘Zurel’ – a striking, upbeat tulip. Unfortunately the bulbs didn’t reappear this year – probably because I overwintered the pineapple sage which was sharing the same pot in the greenhouse and they dried out. The area at the end of the vegetable beds hasn’t looked the same and we definitely need to get our stripes back next year.

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 10. ‘Paul Scherer’

This tall, almost black tulip creates maximum impact paired with white tulips like ‘White Triumphator’ or ‘Snowstar’, or with other white flowers. Here the underplanted white forget-me-nots (Mysotis sylvatica ‘Snowsylva’) make the tulips look like little black holes floating above the ground, absorbing all the light.


More tulip images from my albums which have me reaching for the catalogues…

Which tulips can’t you be without and which new ones have bewitched you? Leave me a comment so I can make my wish list even longer  😉

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Side gardens and shared spaces

Shared garden spaces can be tricky areas, divided by property boundaries and subject to different gardening styles. But plants are not bothered by boundaries and they can be a great way to forge links, cross gaps and bring both gardens and gardeners together. The front of our property has a side garden strip of about 2m x 10m bisected by the property boundary. When we bought the house 6 years ago the garden strip was overgrown with hollies, dwarf conifers and weeds. Initially all we did was cut back the weeds to reveal an extra 50cm of driveway. Then, earlier this year we were finally ready to make the space into a garden.


The side garden after removing the hollies

Our friendly neighbour was more than happy to get rid of the overgrown shrubs and trees so we could plan a more attractive garden. I drafted a design based on a gravelled area like our front garden but with a more Mediterranean feel to fit in with the style my neighbour wanted to establish in her front garden. In this way the side bed aims to blend the two gardens, creating continuity and harmony.


The digging begins…

We removed the existing plants and dug over the area ready for new plants to go in. I laid semi-permeable membrane so that the weeding wouldn’t get out of hand and then we were ready for the fun part – laying out the plants.


Trays of aubretia waiting to go in


More plants ready to go in



The empty border…

I’d chosen a quince tree (Cydonia oblonga ‘Meeches Prolific’) to go at the back as we’d always wanted one and never had room. It adds some height in front of the new binstore and lovely spring blossom. It had far too many fruits this year for a new tree, so I reluctantly thinned them, keeping only 7. Even this might well prove to be too many for it, only time will tell. But I’m deriving an enormous amount of pleasure from watching the furry fruit grow and thinking about the stewed apple with quince and quince jelly we’ll be able to make in the autumn.


The whole tree was covered with wonderful blossom


Tiny fruit developing

The rest of the border is edged with lavender (Lavandula angustifolia ‘Munstead’) underplanted with aubretia. I’ve found in the back garden that these two plants work really well together. Just as the aubretia is ending the lavender takes over, ensuring a colourful hedge for several months in spring and summer.

Edging of aubretia and lavandula with permanent colour through spring and summer

This is interspersed with Potentilla x tonguei – a lovely ground cover plant with delicate orange flowers and Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ to link to our front garden and create winter interest.


Potentilla x tongue

I’ve added Choisya ternata Sundance, Euonymus fortunei ‘Silver Queen’ and Pittosporum ‘Tom Thumb’ for evergreen backdrop colour and then continued the orange and blue/purple colour theme with the beautiful Verbascum ‘Clementine’, Perovskia ‘Blue Spire’ and Echinops ritro. Now the garden is beginning to develop and the colour shines out, attracting lots of positive attention from passing neighbours and happy pollinators.


Our littlest helper planting the Choisya

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Plants in place


Gravel added

We went out a few days ago and there were so many bees and butterflies on the flowers that my youngest renamed it the pollinator garden… and the name has stuck.

Our pollinator garden

We share the watering and the weeding with our neighbour and her children. Just as the planting was shared without prior discussion, so tending for the garden happens without negotiation. Every few days I look out to see next door’s kids watering the plants and we do the same. We’ve had some lovely chats about the plants and wildlife outside in the sunshine. This small garden has done what good gardens should – it has brought pleasure and developed relationships with people and nature.


Echinops – spiky perfection



Verbascum ‘Clementine’ – one of my favourites this year

Now we can all look forward to the pleasure that new gardens bring as it develops over the coming months and years.


The pollinator garden really hit its stride in midsummer

From dark and overgrown to colourful and uplifting

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I’d love to hear what you have transformed in your garden and whether shared gardens have been easy to design and manage. Have you had a positive experience sharing gardening with your neighbours? If so, please do leave me a comment and let me know about your experiences… Thanks.

RHS Feel Good Front Gardens: ‘A Herbal Retreat’

Back in February I entered the RHS/BBC Local Radio competition to design a front garden for Hampton Court. It was intended to show how plants and good design can have positive effects on people’s health and happiness. Inspiration had to be local in origin and I based my design on the long history of herb growing, distillation and pharmaceutical production in my home town of Hitchin, North Hertfordshire. One of the best aspects of designing the garden was the opportunity to learn more about the role of different plants in my local history. ‘A Herbal Retreat’ was the garden which grew out of my research – a garden with exclusively herbal planting – either with culinary, medicinal or distillatory purposes.

‘A Herbal Retreat’

My garden was designed to create a herbal haven to enrich life through relaxing, aromatic planting and the production of herbs for the kitchen and medicine cabinet. The garden included a quarter herb wheel by the entrance filled with familiar culinary herbs and then took visitors on a journey along a reclaimed brick and gravel path through a range of plants (such as Echinacea, Monarda, Nepeta, Agastache and Passiflora caerulea) whose herbal properties might be less well known, to demonstrate the practical applications as well as beauty of our garden plants. In this way, the herb wheel acted as a herb garden within a herb garden.


My design for ‘A Herbal Retreat’

The front door was adjacent to a small thyme lawn (of Thymus serpyllum) with a wooden recliner and lavender filled cushion. Two pots with mixed planting for herbal teas were situated next to the seating, with Pelargonium ‘Attar of Roses’, Lemon verbena ( Aloysia citrodora), Peppermint (Mentha piperita), Chocolate mint (Mentha piperita ‘Chocolate’) and my favourite mint, Moroccan Mint (Mentha spicata crispa ‘Moroccan’). The path also included herbal planting with attractive creeping specimens like Corsican mint (Mentha requienii), Indian mint (Satureja douglasii) with its lovely white flowers, Creeping savoury (Satureja repandra) and Woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus ) to soften the edges and release an enticing fragrance for visitors or anyone delivering the post.


Woolly thyme thriving in my front path

Hitchin’s Lavender History

I showcased lavender within the garden, moving from the old variety ‘Vera’ along the boundary, likely used by William Ransom who founded the UK’s oldest pharmaceutical company in Hitchin in 1846, through to more modern cultivars in the borders. Hitchin was an important lavender producing area, with commercial production beginning in the 1800s and over 100 acres of award-winning lavender fields at its peak. William Ransom distilled the lavender for local chemist Perks & Llewellyn and the resulting product was so good that in 1851 Queen Victoria’s train stopped at Hitchin so that she could receive a bottle of essential oil.

Lavandula angustifolia ‘Twickel Purple’

We also have the superb Hitchin Lavender with around 25 miles of lavender rows. Armed with a paper bag and a pair of scissors, you can amble through the field picking your own lavender for cake making or drying at home. Then there’s my favourite area – the trial grounds where I can get lost for ages in rows upon rows of different varieties. The best thing about lavender is that it epitomises herbal use – it has culinary, medicinal and distillation applications and its scent adds to the healing ambience of a garden.

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Hitchin Lavender

My garden wasn’t selected, but I learnt a lot about herbs and local history during the design process. As a result I was looking forward to visiting Hampton Court to see the winning gardens and learn a little more about some other areas of the UK.


RHS/Local Radio Feel Good Front Gardens


The Winning Gardens – Manchester

I particularly liked Manchester’s Lee Burkhill ‘Fancy a Brew? Take a Pew’ with its nod to Coronation Street in the cobbled path and its exuberant planting which mixed grasses and perennials in a celebration of summer colour.


Stunning summer colours

Red and orange Echinacea, Red Helenium, purple Verbena bonariensis and lemon Salvia shone out through the Stipa gigantea, Pennisetum ‘Cream Falls’ and Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’. It was a calming yet uplifting summer space in which to relax with a cuppa and I’m sure many people would covet it for their own front garden (I did!)


Soft summer froth


The Winning Gardens – Kent

I also enjoyed Kent’s Sarah Morgan ‘Beachscape Oyster Garden’ which used wooden planks set in gravel from the front door to take you on a journey from land, across the beach to the water’s edge. The planting was a combination of soft and spiky, with Achillea, Euphorbia and Daucus carota alongside Agapanthus, Eryngium yuccifolium, Cirsium rivulare and Festuca glauca. I loved the gabions filled with pebbles, fossils created by local school children and planted with different Sempervivum.


Pebbles, fossils and sempervivums

The garden also included the wonderful Dianthus cruentus which I discovered at Chelsea this year and which creates amazing jewel-like spikes through other frothy planting. My only concern about this garden was that the rills taking the water to the eye-catching rusty pool were significantly raised above the level of the path – possibly creating difficulties for anyone attempting to reach the front door!


Spiky and soft


Greening the Grey

At the end of the day, it matters little whether your front garden has a beach theme, includes tropical plants or references local tin mining history. What matters is that front gardens have become an endangered national resource. They are disappearing at an unprecedented rate despite our growing understanding of the importance of natural outdoor spaces on human health, flood defence and the protection of wildlife. If inspiring designs like the ones at Hampton Court can encourage people to create small green areas outside their properties, then they become part of an important movement towards recognising the value of collective green spaces and joining them up across the country for the benefit of ourselves, our wildlife and the environment.

My actual small front garden greening the grey throughout the seasons

I’d love to know your thoughts about front gardens. How does your front garden use plants to create a green space outside the house? Did you find any of the Hampton Court designs inspiring – if so which ones and why? Do you have plans to green the grey outside your house and what have other people on your street done to create green spaces?

Please leave me a comment so I can learn more about what others are doing or want to do in their front gardens. Thanks.

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Clematis ‘Belle of Woking’: An Unusual History

In 2008 I went to the Chelsea Flower Show for the first time and was entranced by another newcomer – the stunning red Clematis ‘Rebecca which was being launched at the show by Raymond Evison.


The magnificent Clematis Rebecca named after Raymond Evison’s oldest daughter

Clematis Inspiration

On the stand it was paired with Clematis ‘Artic Queen and the combination of the red and white intertwined large flowers was breathtaking. I returned home determined to grow the two climbers together and to create a flowerbed which also showcased other red and white flower combinations.

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One of the amazing displays which inspired my love of clematis – Raymond Evison Clematis display at Chelsea 2010

New Garden

In 2010 I finally bought a house with a garden big enough to have a flowerbed and work started on creating a red and white border. I also created a space for clematis to climb up the pole which supports my apple espaliers. I bought ‘Rebecca’ and ‘Marie Boisselot’ (a large single flowered variety) as I couldn’t source an ‘Artic Queen’.


Huge flowers on ‘Marie Boisselot’


Rebecca and ‘Marie Boisselot’ happily co-existing

We enjoyed these lovely plants for a couple of years – and then the ‘Marie Boisselot’ disappeared and ‘Rebecca’ was left alone.


This year Rebecca has been better than ever

Clematis Mystery

I visited our local nursery and bought a clematis labelled ‘Snow Queen’ which is another large single flowered variety. When it flowered later that year I was surprised to find the white flowers had a mauve flush and were fully double, not at all what I was expecting.

Belle of Woking

Mystery clematis

I didn’t think much of it – I assumed the ‘Snow Queen’ was a mislabelled ‘Artic Queen’ (which has double flowers) and ignored the mauve flush. Then this year I visited Chelsea again and when I was enjoying the display at the Raymond Evison Clematis stand (always one of my first ports of call in the Great Pavilion) I noticed the ‘Rebecca’ and ‘Artic Queen’ combination and my odd clematis came to mind.


Rebecca and Arctic Queen on the Raymond Evison Clematis display at Chelsea 2016

Clematis Investigations

I turned to ask someone about my clematis and by chance Raymond Evison was standing behind me. I explained how I’d bought the clematis and what it looked like. I also had a few pictures I’d taken that week on my phone (always full of images of flowers and cabbages!) He suggested it might be a sport of ‘Artic Queen’ and offered to take a look if I sent him some more photos after the show.


Rebecca and her new mystery companion

The following week I sent lots of images of the buds, flowers and foliage. Raymond was kind enough to study the images and identify the plant as Clematis ‘Belle of Woking’. He was working during the week on his former clematis collection, which is now curated by The Guernsey Group of Plant Heritage and which contain some specimens of ‘Belle of Woking’. The identification was a surprise, however, because he didn’t think that this cultivar was still in commercial production. Quite how it arrived at the nursery remains a mystery.


Clematis ‘Belle of Woking’

A Rare Chance

Clematis ‘Belle of Woking’ was raised by Jackman’s of Woking in 1875 and is reported to have been raised by crossing Clematis lanuginosa ‘Candida’ with ‘Fortunei’. ‘Candida’ is very rare these days but a plant is flowering at present in Guernsey at the Saumarez Park Walled Kitchen Garden (Raymond gave this plant to the garden some years ago). ‘Fortunei’ was thought to be a species from China although it is listed as a cultivar.


Delicate colour with endless petals

Raymond also sent me some excerpts from Dr Magnus Johnson’s book The Genus Clematis explaining that Dr Johnson’s description of ‘Belle of Woking’ fitted his understanding of the plant and the way it looked when he visited the clematis collection a couple of weeks ago.

Extracts from The Genus Clematis

Clematis Celebration

Although this chance meeting and spur of the moment question hasn’t uncovered a new sport, it has been a fascinating investigation into the history of an unusual clematis. I’ve enjoyed learning about the different cultivars and hopefully I’ll be able to treasure my old, rare ‘Belle of Woking’ for many years to come.

Some of the red and white plants in my flowerbed inspired by the Rebecca/Arctic Queen combination

If you have come across a ‘Belle of Woking’, or have any red or white clematis to recommend, or any comments on your own clematis experiences I’d be interested to hear. Please leave me a comment and/or subscribe to my blog to follow my plant explorations in future…

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Binstore Green Roof (Part 3): Plants, plants, plants…

We’ve had our binstore with its green roof since March and it’s been lovely not to return home each day to our recycling bins lining the drive. In that respect the binstore has been a great success, but until this week the green roof was only very partially planted, waiting for me to source more plants and get round to putting them in. The substrate had been added and the binstore even has resident bees nesting in the holes in the side, so now it’s time for the best bit – choosing and adding the plants.


The thyme corner

The first plant to go in was Thymus vulgaris ‘Silver Queen’. Thyme seemed a natural choice as the site is in full sun and the substrate purposely low in nutrients to make it suitable for sedums and other alpine plants. Next I added two small sedums which I found at my local nursery – Sedum spathulifolium‘Cape Blanco’ and Sedum spathulifolium ‘Purpureum’.


The first few plants arrive…

To Eat or Not to Eat?

I had a few Dianthus deltoides and Armeria maritima left from some planting in the front garden and gravel path, so I also added these to the roof. By this point I’d abandoned the principle of only including edible or otherwise useful plants and decided that aesthetic appeal could also count on the ‘useful’ front as they make me feel good, especially when the Sedum ‘Cape Blanco’ flowered and then retained its yellow flowers for weeks and weeks. I’ve also decided not to grow alpine strawberries on the roof this year. I was intending to dig up some Fragraria vesca ‘White Soul’ which I’d grown from seed last year and planted temporarily in the front garden, but their temporary position seems to be suiting them and they’re thriving, so it seems a shame to move them. Instead I’m going to grow some more from seed and plant them in the roof next year.

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Sedum flowers shining in the sun

Handy Herbs

Then, earlier this week, I was ready to add the rest of the plants. I planted an Indian Mint (Satureja douglasii) which is a lovely trailing herb with light green leaves and dainty white flowers. It can be used as edible edging in hanging baskets and containers, and although it isn’t a true mint (it’s a tender perennial), it can be used to make an aromatic mint tea. I also planted another Satureja – Satureja montana or Winter Savoury. This hardy perennial is great with mushroom dishes and in stuffing. It can also be used as a replacement for thyme in many recipes. Salad Burnet (Sanguisorba minor) joined the herb collection, to be used as a cucumber flavoured addition to salads, sauces and sandwiches, along with French Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus) for adding flavour to chicken dishes.


Thyme and dianthus settling in nicely

Edible Flowers

I’d grown two varieties of nasturtium from seed – Tropaeolum ‘Tip Top Velvet’ and Tropaeolum ‘Salmon Baby’, so I added my small plants around the back and sides of the roof. These will hopefully trail downwards to create colour and also provide spicy leaves and petals for salads. Previously I’ve grown nasturtium in the veg beds with the kids and they haven’t flowered well, possibly because the soil is too high in nutrients. I’ll be interested to see if they flower more prolifically in the lower nutrient content of the green roof substrate.


Nasturtiums ready for planting


Local Treasures

Last weekend I spent 12 hours over two days selling plants I’d grown from seed at my son’s school fete and at our local community garden open day. I love meeting people who are interested in plants and helping to raise money for good causes. I also get to explore other people’s plant donations and add to my own stocks by buying a few lovely specimens. This year I bought some Sempervivum arachnoideum to add to the green roof and some cheerful dahlias for the pots at the front of the house.


At head height the sedums and sempervivums can be appreciated in all their fine detail

Thyme and Chillies

I added another thyme – Thymus x citrodora ‘Aureo’ next to the silver thyme and then I selected several chillies from my seemingly endless collection this year – ‘Piri Piri’, ‘Habanero Red’, ‘Habanero Big Sun’, Prairie Fire’ ‘Albertos Locoto’ (tree chilli) and ‘Jalapeno’ and planted them in the middle of the roof. I’m not sure whether they’ll thrive – it’s a bit of an experiment. I’m going to feed them to encourage flowering and fruiting and we’ll see how it goes.


Chillies in their new home

Climbing Companions

Finally I planted some Thunbergia (Black-eyed Susan) at the base of the binstore where they will hopefully climb up the trellis, covering the front with summer colour and meeting the nasturtiums as they trail downwards.

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The thunbergia began to climb almost immediately


And within a week has produced its first flower

An Inspiration Gap

There is still one space at the back of the roof which is empty. I’m not sure what to add to finish the roof for this season – it needs to be happy in full sun, be able to tolerate fairly poor soil, look attractive and, if possible, be edible. I’d love to hear any suggestions for this space as it’s always great to grow and learn about new plants.


The final space…

Over to You…

Please leave me your plant suggestions in the comments and I’ll pick one or two to plant in the roof. I’ll include a comment below in a week or so, to explain which suggestions I’m going to get and why. Then I’ll post again later in the summer when I’ll hopefully be able to share images of the plants in at their best, including the selections offered by my readers.

Thank you in advance and do subscribe to my blog so that you’ll hear about the progress of the green roof in a few weeks’ time.

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Chillies and nasturtium waving in the wind


The (mostly) completed green roof

How to Engage Kids in a Small Family Garden Part 1: Building a Willow Den

scots pine

My Scots Pine tree

Many families have small gardens these days and they’re getting smaller. Kids engage with wild places and love anywhere where they can be alone with nature, but this isn’t easy in modern outdoor spaces. Running around the countryside without adult supervision isn’t an option for most young children these days and so the garden, if they have access to one, becomes the only space where they are free to roam.

When I was a kid I was fortunate enough to live in a house and garden on a 1/3 acre plot. In our back garden we had fruit trees, a vegetable patch and a greenhouse. At the back of the garden there was a wild area and tall Scots pine tree which was my favourite haunt with an apple and a book. I spent hours in this arboreal retreat, experiencing nature on my own terms. Having my own private space in the garden gave me a sense of exploration, ownership and independence not as easily achieved for today’s children.



Me (looking unimpressed) in our garden around 1989

Maximise your space

Now I have a relatively small suburban garden with no mature trees or any likelihood of having any whilst the kids are young. Three years ago I started thinking about how to involve the kids (now aged 4 and 7) in the garden. I decided to include somewhere where they would be able to hide and be alone with nature. I wanted an area which was multi-functional to maximise the use of space and I’d been inspired by willow structures like this one in Capel Manor gardens, so I decided to build a willow den into the flower border.


An impressively sized den at Capel Manor gardens

Our willow den sits at the side of the border, adding structure in the winter and looking to all intents and purposes like a shrub in the summer – but with a hollow, secret interior accessed from the back.


The bare patch in front of the shed was a great spot for the willow den

Where to begin

It’s really easy to make a structure out of willow. The first thing you need to get hold is the willow itself, easily bought online from a range of suppliers as willow whips (long unrooted willow cuttings which can be inserted into the ground and will then self-root.) You can buy a kit with instructions on how to plant the willow and weave/tie it to create the den, wigwam, dome or tunnel, or just buy the whips and create the design yourself.


The willow den just after completion



The border and willow den begin to take shape

I bought a den kit from Willows Nursery and have been very pleased with the quality of the willow, the instructions and the aftercare the nursery has offered when I’ve had questions. Their willow kits range from £23 for a fedge kit (combination of fence and hedge – a living fence) to £83 for the largest children’s playhouse den kit. Our small playhouse den kit was £39, plus £19 P+P, but if you can source the willow locally or even from a friend or neighbour’s garden, then the cost would be reduced. (I’m only recommending this supplier because I was pleased with our experience – I’m not receiving anything for mentioning them in this post.) Individual willow whips can also be purchased to customise a design. It’s worth remembering that this is a living structure and therefore it should continue to get better year on year. It can also provide you with more willow each year if you want to build other structures.


Some of the willow joints are tied with twine – in this picture the den is just beginning to produce leaves

When and where to build your den

This time of year is ideal to start planning where to site a willow structure and to decide what size/shape to build. The 2015/16 willow season is now finished as the whips are delivered in a dormant state between November and February, so the next few months is a great time to order the willow (to be delivered from November 2016) and start preparing the area. Willow does best in loamy soil, but will tolerate most soils (ours is clay and provided the den is kept well watered during hot periods, it seems to thrive).


Newly planted willow den – year 1

We dug over the area in advance, added organic matter to the soil to improve moisture retention and laid membrane to help control weeds. Then we planted the whips through the membrane, following the instructions that came with the kit on how to lay out and weave in the willow. It’s worth noting that willow should be planted at least one and a half times the height of the structure away from pipes and buildings. It also needs relatively moist soil, so should not be planted too close to established trees with which it might have to compete for water.


Starting to shoot

How much maintenance will my den need?

In early spring the shoots will begin to grow and by early summer should be long enough to weave into the structure. This is an easy task which can be completed in one go or just done piecemeal as you pass the den during the day. This is also a job which my kids love doing and they are good at standing inside the den (a bit of a tricky proposition for an adult) and passing the stems back to me as I weave them in.


Getting into its stride – year 2

In the first two years we wove all the stems back into the structure, but now we only need to weave in areas which are rather bare and all the other willow is cut off. In the winter any remaining stems can be woven in whilst the whole structure can be clearly seen. Alternatively, I’ve sometimes let long stems grow at the top and then cut them to use for other projects.


Willow explosion this spring – year 3

Kids in the den

The willow den has always been popular with the kids. We have extremely cute video footage of my daughter aged about 1 playing peepo by tottering out of the den and saying ‘Ooo’ (Boo). They both head straight for it when we play hide and seek in a garden with otherwise sparse hidey holes, and they enjoy exploring in it – looking for mini-beasts to examine in their magnifying pot. There is something engaging about a den that is alive, that changes with the seasons and swallows them up in the summer, hiding them from the rest of the world.




Small waving hands

Last year I started growing a couple of clematis through the den. This has been very successful and in the summer the green willow is decorated with purple flowers to add to the effect.


Clematis ‘Westerplatte’ climbing through the den


What to do with willow prunings

I’ve tried a number of different experiments with the offcuts from the den. They make good pea sticks and garden supports – providing you don’t mind them rooting in the soil! They can even root upside down, so be warned! I’ve tried using the cuttings to create a tunnel into the den, but they didn’t take, probably because they got too dry as I planted them in the spring and they didn’t have long enough to grow roots before the warmer weather arrived. It might be better to grow long stems in the autumn and try rooting them in November if you want to extend your structure or add new stems around the base of the den.


First attempt at a living sculpture

I’ve also tried creating a smaller living willow structure in a container which has been much more successful. Last autumn I cut several long whips and twisted them together, tying them at the top to create a living sculpture. This spring they are looking healthy and I’ve just rubbed off the buds up to the top section to leave clear stems. Over time the structure will develop a leafy ball on top and have clear bare stems below. This is just a bit of ornamental fun, but can be done on a grander scale as shown at RHS Hyde Hall with their living willow sculptures which shine out in the borders on a cold winter’s day.


Stunning living willow sculptures at RHS Hyde Hall (Salix alba subsp. vitellina)


More family-friendly ideas…

Further posts in the ‘How to Engage Kids in a Small Family Garden’ series will include ‘Magical Lands’, ‘Wildlife Wows’ and ‘Sowing and Growing’.

If you’d like to see more of these ideas for inspiring kids in the garden, subscribe here or use the sidebar follow buttons… 

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Leave me a comment and let me know if you grow willow in the garden or if you’re planning on growing a den. How is it going? What structures do you grow and how are they getting on?




And after… weaving and a haircut