Creating A Winter Garden (Part 3)

I was chatting to a friend at the community garden yesterday as we collected leaves and pruned the willows about the beauty of oca with its lush trailing leaves and jewel-like edible tubers. To my mind, harvesting these colourful tubers is one of the most joyful moments in the winter garden, along with watching the birds pass through – we had long-tailed tits, goldfinches, goldcrest and red kite at the community garden this week. So for the final part of the series, I’m taking a look at the way seed heads, containers, crops and birds all add a little bit of extra magic to the winter garden.

Seed Heads

During the winter months, as we gardeners spend a little less time outside due to short days and cold weather, the birds increasingly use our gardens to supplement their winter diets. The berries on my cotoneaster and pyracantha disappear into the bills of hungry thrushes, pigeons and even, in cold winters, waxwings, whilst winter seed heads attract smaller birds. Supplementing these natural food sources with seed feeders is important, but nothing beats watching birds feed on the seed heads and berries in your own garden.

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Waxwing in next door’s tree

Stems and seed heads also create winter habitats for invertebrates which, in turn, provide more food for birds. Perhaps my favourite seed heads in the garden are the tight balls of globe thistle (Echinops ritro) against the dusty light grey plumes of Russian sage (Perovskia ‘Blue Spire’). In the back garden, the softer combination of Verbena bonariensis and Knautia macedonica provides ideal perches for passing charms of goldfinches. These gilded songster bend the heads low, balancing delicately, bobbing up and down as they search for seeds, delighting my children who are watching from the window. Echinacea, phlomis and sedum seed heads also have mesmerising shapes and I love any form of umbellifer head, such as fennel, at its best when encrusted with rime frost on cold mornings.

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One of a small crowd of redwings in the cotoneaster

Containers

Even if there’s little scope to add plants to your garden, or your plot is a courtyard with no planting area, a winter container will brighten up the entrance to a house or an area on the patio visible from a window. Simple arrangements of violas, pansies or primulas create a cheerful effect and in larger pots you could include shrubs or grasses for a longer lasting display. I often plant a dogwood as the centrepiece as my ‘Midwinter Fire’ has a tendency to sucker so I always have dogwoods looking for a home. Adding some of our excess black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’) from the front garden creates a contrast around the base of the container and leaves room for winter bedding or early spring bulbs like snowdrops, iris or miniature daffodils.

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The large container outside our front door

Crops

Finally, I can’t ignore the potential to grow food in the winter garden. Most of the fruit is now over, with the quince (Cydonia oblonga ‘Meeches Prolific’) and Chilean guava (Ugni molinae) being amongst the last harvests in October and November. The autumn raspberries peaked early this year and were gone by the end of October, whereas last year we were still picking ‘Autumn Bliss’ and ‘All Gold’ on Christmas Day! But this doesn’t mean all the colour and edible potential has to come to an end with the arrival of winter in the kitchen garden. Early winter is the ideal time to harvest oca (Oxalis tuberosa) – by now the foliage is generally frosted so it’s an unprepossessing looking crop above ground, but it more than makes up for this below the surface. Stealing out into the garden or allotment on the grimmest of winter days, armed with fork and trug, to unearth strange red, orange and yellow nuggets is one of the joys of growing your own.  The tubers taste best after a a couple of weeks sweetening on a sunny windowsill, so you will be able to enjoy the gleaming hoard arrayed like Christmas decorations for a full fortnight before adding them to a Sunday roast, warming stew or spicy stir-fry.

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Trays of oca which I harvested from the allotment last year

Sprouts are another winter pleasure, especially if they also add to the culinary colour palette. Last year I grew ‘Rubine’ with its purple-red balls of sprouty goodness which looked attractive in the cold allotment and tasted great after the first hard frost had sweetened them. Later on we also ate the cabbagey heads of the plant which shared the same purple coloration. Kale is another cruciferous delight, both to harvest and simply for its textured beauty which equals that of any ornamental plant.

Frosted cavolo nero and purple sprouting broccoli in the garden

I love the festive magic that Christmas lights bring to a dark winter garden, especially if they are used to highlight an attractive tree trunk or well clipped hedge and I’m excited by the prospect of visiting the sparkling trail of over one million lights at Kew Gardens next week. But before you switch on the Christmas illuminations this weekend, spare a thought for the garden by daylight and add a plant or two to create some winter glamour up to Christmas and beyond.

If you would like to read the first two parts of Creating A Winter Garden, you can find them here…

Creating A Winter Garden (Part 1)

Creating A Winter Garden (Part 2)

For further reading about winter gardens, I would recommend...

The Year Round Garden, Geoff Stebbings

The Winter Garden, Val Bourne

What Plant When, RHS Publications

What plants have you added to the garden this season to add that extra sparkle when the weather turns cold? If there was one plant which every winter garden should include, what would it be? 

Do leave me a comment and let me know what winter brings to your garden. Thank you and happy gardening (once the snow clears 🙂 )!

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Creating A Winter Garden (Part 2)

Last weekend, the first part of Creating a Winter Garden considered structure and flowers. Thanks to everyone who shared images of their winter gardens: those small moments which lift our spirits on short December days.

Stems and Bark

The scarcity of winter flowers means that a wall liberally covered in clematis ‘Freckles’ is a precious sight, but a successful winter garden needs to rely on more than flowers for year-round visual impact. Stems and bark create drama in a garden of any size – if you have room for a small tree like the popular Tibetan cherry (Prunus serrula), it will add a coppery sheen to even the dullest winter afternoon. I used to have the privilege of a mature specimen just beyond the garden and without any room in our own plot for extra trees other than the apples, plum and greengage I planted upon arrival, I counted myself fortunate to be able to ‘borrow’ this cherry, along with a tall silver birch in my neighbour’s garden to the left and a hazel to the right which drops its nuts over our fence. Then, a few years ago, the cherry was removed to make way for a shed. I still mourn the loss of the mahogany giant, more than I miss the resulting loss of privacy beyond our fruit cage.

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Himalayan silver birches at Anglesey Abbey

Himalayan silver birches have an ethereal quality which lifts any dark space. In the magnificent grove at Anglesey Abbey these slender trees are underplanted with evergreen Bergenia ‘Bressingham Ruby’ and tulips in spring. However, unnamed forms of Himalayan silver birch (Betula utilis) vary greatly in size and most will outgrow a small garden. Val Bourne recommends Betula utilis var. jacquemontii ‘Silver Shadow’ as the smallest, slowest growing birch with white bark, reaching 8m when mature. The Chinese red-bark birch (Betula albosinensis) is also a winter beauty with smooth cinnamon bark beneath the peeling layers, although cultivars will reach up to 15m when mature. Acer griseum – the paper-bark maple – also looks spectacular in winter as its textured bark peels and flakes like a lizard shedding scales. At a mature height of 10m or less and with vibrant red autumn foliage, this is a hard-working tree for any medium-sized garden.

If your garden, like mine, is too small for additional trees – don’t despair! Rich colours can still be achieved by using stems rather than tree trunks. Bamboos offer colour all year round. Phyllostachys nigra has matt black culms and Phyllostachys aurea golden-yellow. Over the summer I visited the 2 acre Henstead Exotic Garden in Suffolk, where the bamboo grove is both delightful and powerful; the height of the plants alongside the sheer density of the thicket, transported me to another world. I felt drawn to the plants, to run my fingers up the smooth grain and round the ridged nodes. Even a small area of bamboo can create a tranquil ambience in a garden with its exotic form and gently swaying culms, but the atmosphere will be far from relaxing if the bamboo rhizomes transgress outside their allotted space, so always find out which species are suitable for your garden and add any necessary barriers to protect the rest of the garden from exploring roots.

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Bamboo grove at Henstead Exotic Garden

I couldn’t end my musings on winter garden stems without mentioning shrubby dogwoods. As regular readers will know, I admire these plants for their resilience, versatility and vibrancy in the depths of winter. I currently have ten dogwoods in my garden, of three different species: Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’, Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’ and Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’, but I also love the variegated Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’ and the dark, almost black stems of Cornus alba ‘Kesselringii’, both of which I’ve planted in previous gardens and Cornus alba ‘Aurea’ which was looking fresh and alive with such bright yellow-green foliage en masse at Bressingham Gardens in Norfolk earlier in the year.

 

 

Grasses and Cornus alba ‘Aurea’ creating contrasting layers in Bressingham Gardens

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Potting shed ‘Midwinter Fire’

The advantage of these shrubs is that they can be stooled (cut back to near ground level) in spring and will slowly regrow throughout the summer as a quiet backdrop to other shrubs and perennials, and then be ready to take over once winter arrives. Single plants can be used in this way in small borders, but they look better in groups of three or more, especially if they are kept as smaller plants. Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ is not as tolerant of hard pruning as the other species, so I lightly prune the three in the front garden each year to manage their size and shape, and to encourage new stems which have the best winter colour. I have a larger specimen in the back by the potting shed, which I leave to grow to around 1.5m and cut back by about a third every couple of years. ‘Midwinter Fire’ also has the advantage of gentle orange autumn colour and this year, in the shelter of the back garden, the foliage remains even though it is long gone at the front.

Scent

One of the most pleasurable sensations on a winter walk is when you suddenly catch a sweet scent stealing over a garden wall or from a hidden shrubbery. Using fragrance in a winter garden entices you to stop and appreciate the sensory experience, grounding you in the physical garden rather than just passing quickly through en route to the warmth of the home. Plants with winter scent need to be situated carefully – in a place where their fragrance will be caught in passing, so front gardens and containers are ideal spots. One of the best plants for winter aroma is Christmas box (Sarcococca confusa) with its tiny white flowers belying its intoxicatingly sweet scent. Alongside evergreen foliage, its tolerance of shade and ability to create a neat hedge mean that Christmas box is a must have for any serious winter garden.

Viburnum x bodnantense is another shrub whose insistent perfume causes a pause for a moment’s joy when out walking and Dan Pearson recommends the cultivar ‘Deben’ or Viburnum farreri ‘Candidissimum’ which can be seen at Anglesey Abbey with its white scented flowers. Winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) has lemon scented flowers which cover this rather untidy looking shrub for much of the winter. It doesn’t stand alone as a specimen plant, but works well combined with evergreen shrubs, waiting in the background whilst its perfume pervades the surrounding area. Daphnes also provide a beautiful winter scent, with Daphne odora and Daphne mezereum being the best choices for colder gardens. It’s worth noting that daphnes are highly poisonous, so not suitable for gardens with young children. Where scent is concerned, it only takes one fragrant shrub to add magic to a cold bare garden and if grown in a container, once the flowers have gone, the container can be moved to make way for spring bulbs.

 

 

Look out for winter jasmine this month and flowering quince and hazel flowers in late winter/early spring

Part 3

On Saturday, I’ll be looking at seed heads, containers and crops in the winter garden. Hopefully the weather will be kind over the weekend and enable a few forays out into the fresh air. 🙂

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Creating A Winter Garden (Part 1)

The speckled flowers of Clematis cirrhosa ‘Freckles’ and its creamy white counterpart ‘Jingle Bells’ have begun to festoon the bare apple espaliers with some intrepid stems nearly trailing along the ground. I planted the clematis by the post closest to the dining room window so that we could see it from the table and judging by the profusion of tight buds, we should be enjoying their swaying bells throughout the next few months. I’ve just been chatting to Nick Coffer on BBC Three Counties Radio this afternoon (our chat starts at 2:38:20 on the iplayer link) about the precious beauty of winter flowers and why every garden should have at least one dogwood to shine out in the darkest days (but I would say that!)

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Clematis cirrhosa ‘Freckles’

To my mind, one of the key aspects of a successful winter garden, especially on a smaller plot, is being able to see plants from indoors. Although I love nothing more than wrapping the family up like a troupe of miniature snowmen to venture out in frost or snow to explore magnificent winter gardens like those at Anglesey Abbey, Cambridge University Botanic Garden and Hyde Hall, the average back garden doesn’t have the space for groves of silver birch or sweeping vistas of dogwoods and willows, and much winter viewing will be conducted from the warmth of the home. So it’s important to consider the overall winter structure of the garden first, to ensure that when viewed from the house there will be strong lines to create interest. Then other factors can be explored, such as adding scent and colour to the garden within the evergreen structure.

Structure

The key element of any garden is its underlying structure, created by the hard landscaping (patio, paths, etc…) and its use of evergreen plants, especially trees and shrubs. When other plants lose their foliage as winter approaches, these evergreen stalwarts take centre stage and the bare bones of the garden are revealed.

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Front garden rosemary hedge from January to March

Traditionally low hedges and topiary are used to create this structure, often in box (Buxus sempervirens), yew (Taxus baccata) or holly (Ilex). In my front garden, we’ve adapted this principle by using edible evergreens – trisecting the space with a rosemary hedge (Rosmarinus officinalis) and defining the boundary with a low Chilean guava hedge (Ugni molinae). Alongside three box balls, the hedges give the garden a strong structure in winter and their low height allows my summer flowers to quickly overtop them, softening the garden and creating a less formal atmosphere.

 

Winter bare bones followed by summer profusion

We’ve also used this idea in the side garden, where the relatively slow growing balls of Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Tom Thumb’ create a stunning contrast to the golden gravel. These chocolate-purple shrubs with their sprinkling of light green new leaves are a good alternative to box balls if your garden suffers from box blight (a fungal disease) or box tree caterpillars (extra-voracious versions of The Very Hungry Caterpillar).

 

The evergreens going in and maturing

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If you don’t have space to add shrubs in the ground, any of these plants can be grown in containers and simply moved into position in beds and borders to act as winter focal points when the perennials die down. Using containers also has the advantage, in a small garden, of allowing winter stars to shine in their season and to be moved into a less obvious positions as the spring and summer plants get into their stride. For this reason, I have two witch hazels (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’ and ‘Diane’) in containers behind the shed, ready to place on the patio in full view of the windows as their flowers emerge in late winter and to return to the shelter of the shed later in the year.

 

‘Diane’ and ‘Jelena’ in flower

Flowers

As I write, sitting on the window seat in the December sunshine, I can see next door’s mahonia (very likely Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’) with its yellow racemes of flowers reaching into the blue. I used to dislike mahonia with its tough, spiny foliage and cold lemon flowers, but recently I’ve come to admire the colour it adds to the garden on darker days and its tolerance for partial shade and a wide variety of soil types, including our heavy alkaline clay. My volte-face was complete when I learnt that the fruits are edible – their common name is ‘Oregon Grape’ and they are often used for preserves in the US due to their tart, earthy flavour and large number of seeds.

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How could I have failed to relish the sheer winter joy that is mahonia?

Hellebores are also an important element in many winter gardens with their delicate down-turned flowers encouraging a close-up study best undertaken lying recumbent in the leaf litter. I’m excited to be growing hellebores for the first time this year, especially as I bought the plants from our community garden open day, so their exact colour is currently a mystery. It’s a plant I’ve wanted to grow for many years and I’m looking forward to getting to know this understated woodland beauty better.

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Winter sun washes the hellebores in Regent’s Park

Part 2

Next time I’ll be considering scent and stems/bark as ways to extend the season of interest in the garden. In the meantime, enjoy the unexpected sight of any winter flowers (although in my garden a couple of summer annuals seem not to have realised that it’s December) and celebrate evergreen structure wherever you find it. Happy December!

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Calendula ‘Snow Princess’ is living up to her name and resolutely refusing to admit that it’s December!

 

 

 

7 Best Alliums To Plant This Week

Growing alliums makes me happy. I love their versatility, their diversity and their sheer brilliance in the spring borders. They are equally at home in cottage gardens, amongst perennial grasses, in containers and as an architectural feature throughout contemporary planting schemes. I’ve grown quite a few varieties over the years and have reliable favourites which always make it into the garden alongside new additions each year, chosen either for their striking colours, interesting shapes or to extend my allium season. With their dramatic globe-flowers fading to structural seed heads, alliums create interest in the garden for much of the spring, summer and into autumn (as I type, the tall ‘Cristophii’ in the back border are still punctuating the late summer rosemary growth).

Bee Happy

Allium flowers delight the bees – in fact at RHS Tatton Park Flower Show this year on the allium stands, it was hard to decide whether the displays were there to celebrate the flowers or their apian companions. This adaptable plant can be used in so many ways in gardens and containers, depending on the size and height of the flowerhead and the density of planting. Alliums can be planted in the next few weeks in borders, cut flower patches and pots – so here are my favourites, either planted in my garden or to be added this year…

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The bees loved these Allium ‘Giganteum’ at Tatton Park

1. Atropurpureum

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This is my absolute favourite allium for its graceful shape and rich crimson-purple starry florets with deep smoky plum centres. It has real presence in the border, but is subtle enough to co-exist happily with other alliums (I grow it in the narrow herb border beneath the espalier apple trees alongside ‘Cristophi’, ‘Purple Rain’, ‘Purple Sensation’ and ‘Sphaeracephalon’). At around 75cm high, they create continuity throughout the long, narrow border without being imposing and the thick stems make them ideal for cutting.

2. Purple Rain

I first grew this allium a couple of year ago and was delighted by its spreading firework flowers. As a cross of A. ‘Purple Sensation’ and A. ‘Cristophii’ it is a reliable allium with sturdy stems up to about 1m. I grow it beneath the windows in the front gravel garden where it thrives and, unlike many of the bulbs in the back garden on our clay soil, in the front sandy soil by the foundations ‘Purple Rain’ has proved consistently perennial.

3. Mount Everest

Another of my front garden alliums, A. stipitatum ‘Mount Everest’, creates a striking contrast dotted within drifts of purple alliums such as ‘Purple Sensation’, or it can be planted en masse for greater impact and set off against the dark foliage of shrubs like Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’ and Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’. The creamy white flowers also emphasise the fresh green allium foliage and the pea green eyes at the centre of each floret.

4. Cristophii

IMG_20170511_164912‘Cristophii’, or star of Persia, lives up to its name with its spiked purple florets touched with silver. At around 50cm and with its imposing, yet intricate globes, it encourages the eye to focus on the details in a border, which in my garden always includes bees feeding from the florets. ‘Cristophii’ is a reliably perennial allium and the seed heads are long-lasting. Last year we collected the ageing seed heads and after a few weeks drying in the shed, sprayed them silver to use in a Christmas display with dogwood stems and fairy lights.

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5. Red Mohican

I met this allium at Chelsea last year and have been wanting to add it to the garden ever since. Its funky topknot gives it a modern charm which would add a sense of fun to a border and I love the rich burgundy colour dotted with creamy white florets. A rather more expensive cultivar than some, this would be good to dot through a border with white alliums or the darker A. atropurpureum.

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6. Purple Sensation

One of the most popular alliums, A. hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’, marks many people’s first foray into allium growing, mine included. Its bright purple spheres create impact in large drifts, but also look spectacular under planted with blue Camassia leichtinii or the greenish-yellow flower clusters of Marsh Spurge (Euphorbia paulstris). It’s an affordable allium, so can be bought and planted in greater numbers than some of the rarer cultivars.

7. Sphaerocephalon

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These small, late-flowering drumstick alliums are a cheerful addition to the July garden. They can be planted in swathes against paths and border edges to soften the margins and lead the eye through the space. ‘Sphaerocephalon’ also look great mixed in with grasses such as Deschampsia cespitosa and Stipa tenuissima. I’ve been growing this variety for several years and unlike the larger alliums in the back garden, not only is ‘Sphaerocephalon’ reliably perennial, it also self-seeds along the path edges. With its tight, rich blackcurrant heads it creates a dramatic flash of colour and can be bought in bulk to create maximum impact as it is the cheapest allium bulb available.

Growing Alliums

Allium bulbs should be planted in early autumn, so this week is a great time to place an order or start getting your bulbs in the ground. They prefer well-drained soil in full sun, so if you have heavier soil (as I do), it is a good idea to use a handful of grit (about 5cm depth) under each bulb to improve drainage. They should be planted at 3-4 times their own depth to help ensure they remain perennial. Smaller alliums should be 8-10cm apart and larger ones 20cms. After planting, firm down the soil to remove air pockets and add a balanced fertiliser in spring on poorer soils.

Over the past few years I’ve mostly bought my allium bulbs from Sarah RavenSuttons and JParkers, all suppliers of quality bulbs with good allium ranges to choose from.

What are your favourite individual alliums and combinations? What spring bulbs are you most excited about planting this autumn?

If you’d like to follow my blog and read more about my bulb planting and plans for next year’s new perennial border, you can click below to subscribe. Thanks very much and happy gardening…

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Mix of atropurpureum, ‘Purple Rain’, ‘Purple Sensation’ and ‘Cristophii’ seed heads

Cutting Patch: Into The Limelight

Last month I wrote about my allotment woes which had resulted in an accidental potato monoculture, but since then the allotment has been working hard, producing an exciting range of cut flowers by the bucketload. After an inspiring spring harvest of daffodils and tulips, I planted summer corms and tubers, and sowed a host of seeds with the intention of filling the house with brilliant colour and heady scent all summer long.

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This lot had to come back from the lottie in a bucket!

Taking Stock

I planned the summer cutting patch way back in January and it’s been a tale of two halves – with the gladioli and dahlias providing vivid, deep blooms which have lasted well both in the ground and in vases, whilst some of my seeds failed to germinate or develop strongly. Notable exceptions are the cosmos, sweet peas, cerinthe, rudbeckia, zinnia, salvia, nasturtium, bells of Ireland and calendula  – all now flowering with relish and abandon in the allotment and garden. Less successful were the bunny tail grass, poppies, scarlet flax and hare’s ear, so I’ll be having another go with these from seed next year and trying to sow a little earlier to give me a second chance if there are germination issues.

Limelight

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I was impressed by the height and impact of this year’s gladioli

Bright colours – deep magenta, rich purples and zingy lime greens were my inspiration this year. To this I added some soft creams with Dahlia ‘Cafe au Lait’ and ‘Henriette’, the arresting yellow/orange of Rudbeckia ‘Marmalade’ and the odd accidental bright orange Zinnia. These colours have given me lots of different combinations to play with – my favourites have all included the fresh limes of Gladioli ‘Green Star’, Zinnia ‘Benary’s Giant Lime’ and Moluccella laevis (Bells of Ireland), which act as a foil to the darker colours whilst adding a viridescent joy all of their own.

Pinks

Favourite pink performances this year have included Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Double Click Cranberries’, Gladioli ‘Plum Tart’ and Dahlia ‘Ambition’ and ‘Downham Royal’.

 

The dahlia patch just gets better and better

Purples

The combination of Salvia viridis ‘Blue’ (actually a purple colour) with the lime gladioli is perhaps the display which has given me most pleasure this summer. It has a fresh spontaneity which lights up the kitchen and really brings the outside in. Here I’ve added the orange Dahlia ‘New Baby’, Cerinthe major ‘Purpurascens’ and Zinnia ‘Benary’s Giant Lime’. We also had our old favourite Gladioli ‘Flevo Cool’ – a dwarf gladioli which survived being potted up and moved earlier in the year, Gladioli ‘Purple Flora’ with rich deep purple flowers and another rogue zinnia!

 

Oranges, Reds and Yellows

I have always found myself tending towards blue, purple, cream and white colour palettes, but in the last couple of years I’ve been experimenting with the rusty oranges of Verbascum ‘Clementine’ and Kniphofia ‘Tawny King’, alongside Thunbergia alata, Dahlia ‘Happy Single Date’ and Potentilla x tonguei. This year’s cutting patch has confirmed my new appreciation for brighter flowers and I now can’t imagine my garden without a mix of vibrant and more restrained colours. Highlights at the vivid end of the spectrum have included Rudbeckia ‘Marmalade’ (definitely a keeper), Zinnia ‘Benary’s Giant Scarlet’, Argyranthemum ‘Grandaisy Pink Halo’ (more of a cherry red colour) and Dahlia ‘Happy Single Date’, ‘Con Amore’, ‘Jowey Mirella’ and ‘Sam Hopkins’.

 

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New Plan(t)s

In January, I ended my post with the hope that the seeds, corms, tubers and bulbs I intended to sow and plant in the cutting patch would create a little magic during the year. The reality has exceeded all my expectations and I’ve really enjoyed learning more about growing annual flowers for cutting, to add to my love of growing edibles. Although I think my heart will always lie with perennials, edibles and plants which encourage wildlife into the garden, I do feel there’s a place for a cutting patch in my allotment next year – many of the flowers (like nasturtiums, calendula and cerinthe) have brought in the pollinators and the bright colours have lifted my heart. The cutting patch has provided flowers for my house and to give away to family and friends – bringing a little garden magic indoors. Now I’m starting to think about the mix for next year and I’m interested to know what has worked well for other gardeners.

What flowers have you grown this year which you wouldn’t be without? Are there any other green flowers/foliage which I should add to the limelight?

My go to suppliers for bulbs, tubers, corms and seeds:

Suttons – wide selection of seeds, plants and tubers with really interesting varieties like Ranunculus ‘Mirabelle Vert Mix’

Sarah Raven – lovely collections of bulbs and seeds – I particularly like the rich, deep Venetian collections

Special Plants Nursery – I always learn about new plants from the Special Plants Catalogue and the range of unusual flowers is breathtaking

If you’d like to follow my blog and read about my planning for next year’s cutting patch and a new perennial border over the autumn months, you can click below to subscribe, thanks very much and happy gardening…

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We aren’t the only ones enjoying the dahlias this year!!! 🙂

3 Floral Favourites at RHS Tatton Park

We took the kids to RHS Tatton Park this year and they thoroughly enjoyed the children’s activities – decorating plant pots, studying butterflies, sky-riding on the big wheel and learning about the history of the site on the discovery trail. But when my 8 year old asked to explore the floral marquee (it had been his idea to accompany us in the first place) and began to hunt for genera which he particularly wanted to see, I saw the enthusiastic stirrings of a thirst for botanical knowledge which inspires me in all of my work. His favourites were the hostas and cacti – he liked the variation in foliage colours of the hostas and the different shapes and arrangements of the spines on the cacti.

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My littlest going in for a closer look at the sumptuous Hydrangeas in the plant village

I love my hostas – which thrive in pots on the shady patio, dusky glints of copper tape visible beneath the corrugated canopy, and my cacti collection which I began last year in an attempt to recapture my youth – the nearest I’ve yet come to a mid-life crisis. But at Tatton this year, my eye was drawn to both bold and understated uses of colour in the planting palette:

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Zantedeschia ‘Cantor Black’

1. Zantedeschia ‘Cantor Black’

I bought my first zantedeschia, or calla lily, just after Hampton Court in 2015, lured in by those aubergine spathes and the delicately speckled foliage. It was supposedly ‘Cantor Black’, but when the flamboyant funnel finally unveiled, the expected velvety soft blackness was actually a mild pink. This year I tried again and when my new calla lily opened this week it revealed the inky throat and luscious sheen I’d been hoping for.

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A moment of joy when a deep purple black flower finally unfurled

In the floral marquee, Brighter Blooms presented a striking display of calla lilies – looking dramatic en masse with wide swathes of purples, whites and pinks. As usual I preferred the deeper colours – ‘Cantor Black’ and ‘Picasso’ (a large, bi-coloured variety displaying white trumpets with purple veining and purple throats). It must be something about zantedeschias, as I’ve also grown this variety and instead of the eye-catching colour contrast, mine, once again, produced a pink (albeit rather lovely) flower.

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The supposed Zantedeschia ‘Picasso’!

I grow my zantedeschias in pots on the patio which means I can bring them inside in winter out of the frost and, just as importantly, out of the wet. Unlike Zantedeschia aethiopica (Arum lily), the coloured zantedeschias don’t like to be too wet and favour well-drained compost in a sunny spot. I put mine out in late May when the danger of late frosts has passed, and wait for the inevitable pink flowers to appear!

2. Allium ‘Red Mohican’

It’s hard to believe what variety and interest stem from a flower which is, essentially, a purple ball on a stick. But alliums bridge the seasonal gap between tulips and the perennial summer stars, working beautifully alongside other early herbaceous flowers, adding vertical structure to evergreen backdrops such as box or grasses, as edging along a path or creating visual continuity when dotted throughout a border.

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Alliums in the front and back garden

I love any allium where the purple blends with red tones – my favourite is the stately Allium atropurpureum. At the W.S. Warmenhoven stand (one of the 5 RHS Master Growers this year), amidst a wash of bees, I found Allium ‘Red Mohican’. This maroon-red drumstick allium with its tufty yellow flowers at the tips grows to 1m tall and would work well in borders or pots. I’ll be giving this quirky late spring-flowerer a try next year as I generally have to treat alliums as annuals due to my clay soil. Alliums thrive in free-draining soil in full sun and even with grit underneath the bulb, they struggle in my garden. But that does allow me to trial new varieties every couple of years, in a relatively small garden, so I’m not complaining.

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Allium ‘Red Mohican’

3. Verbascum ‘Pink Petticoats’

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Many verbascums have soft, dusky orange and peach flowers with subtle darker tones in the flowerbuds and centres which stop the colour becoming cloying. One of my favourites in our garden is Verbascum ‘Clementine’ with washed-out orange petals and a rich purple centre. It creates a lovely contrast planted amongst blue perennials like Perovskia ‘Blue Spire’ and Echinops ritro ‘Veitch’s Blue’. Verbascum ‘Pink Petticoats’ has delicately ruffled petals which I’d say were more salmon than pink. It makes a soft foil for purple flowers like these drumstick alliums and also blends well with the glaucous foliage in the background, so would combine well with eryngium, perovskia, artichokes (Cynara scolymus) and cardoons (Cynara cardunculus).

 Striking Verbascum ‘Clementine’ and soft ruffles of Verbascum ‘Pink Petticoats’

4. Fatsia japonica ‘Spider’s Web’

Yes, I know I can’t count and that Fatsia japonica ‘Spider’s Web’ offers colour in its foliage rather than flowers, but I couldn’t resist adding it as its presence was everywhere at the show. I first noticed it in the cool basement of The Live Garden and then I struggled to find a display or garden with evergreen structure where the spreading white-flecked spider’s web fronds weren’t engaging in photo-bombing fun.

The Live Garden

I first used this Japanese aralia in a garden a few years ago and it offers a smaller alternative to the standard fatsia (‘Spider’s Web’ reaches 2.5m x 2.5m). It likes partial shade and the delicate white variegation helps to add light to these darker areas, especially when combined with other plants with white flowers or foliage, like Brunnera macrophylla ‘Looking Glass’ and Anemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Joubert’.
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Fatsia japonica ‘Spider’s Web’ can be a bit of a marmite plant – but I love it

It was lovely to experience this last RHS show of the year with the family, rather than visiting with colleagues or by myself with a camera, notebook and pen for company. We returned today with two decorated plant pots filled with oregano and thyme nestled in the car door pockets and a shared sense that our family plant explorations are only just beginning.

London Glades: Forest Garden Solutions For Urban Spaces at RHS Hampton Court Flower Show

Sitting on top of the flowery mound with my bare feet in the chamomile I could be on a woodland hilltop, but beyond the medlar and hawthorn the bustle of Hampton Court Flower Show is just visible. What Jon Davies and Andreas Christodoulou of Future Gardens have achieved with London Glades is a space which excites the senses whilst calming the soul. Designed for a client who wants to re-engage with nature in a beautiful and wild setting, this garden creates a quiet sanctuary in busy urban surroundings. Almost every plant is edible and most are perennial and low maintenance, relying on the surrounding ecosystem for support.

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The fresh, green woodland in dappled shade

Jon told me they were inspired by Martin Crawford‘s forest garden in Devon and also the permaculture practised by Masanoba Fukuoka in Japan. London Glades feels like a botanical library of fascinating plants in a magical setting – from the shady planting of shuttlecock ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) with their edible newly-emerged fronds to the hilltop grasses and meadow flowers which were attracting the damselflies and hoverflies; the whole garden has a sense of being in the moment. Jon has purposely introduced some plants which are not at their best – some have gone over, others are not yet flowering, which creates credibility in a garden that values food production – from roots, leaves, buds and fruits as well as flowers – equally with aesthetics.

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The damselflies enjoying the garden as much as I am

The raised areas of the garden are constructed in the German tradition of ‘hugelkultur’ which roughly translates as ‘mound culture’. This involves creating mounds of wood and green waste covered with top soil to mirror the components of the woodland environment. As the material decays it creates a consistent long-term supply of nutrients for the plants which last for twenty years or longer. Heat is created by decomposition, allowing a longer growing season and as the wood breaks down, soil aeration is improved, thus removing the need to dig the beds. Water is absorbed by the mounds and released in drier periods, so irrigation should not be required, except in long periods of drought and they also sequester carbon from the atmosphere. So the ‘hugelkultur’ element of the garden works alongside the creation of a self-sustaining plant ecosystem to minimise the need for human intervention whilst maximising the environmental benefits.

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An example of hugelkultur to show how the mounds were constructed

The detail in the garden is magnificent and deserving of the Gold Medal it achieved. The spreading canopy of limes, crab apples and quince creates dappled shade under which the edible crops of horseradish, strawberries, fuchsia, bettony, skirret, masterwort and wineberries are thriving.

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Lush shady planting

On the mound, lychnis, monarda, oregano, rosemary, mint and chamomile add their aroma to the heady mix of damp woodland and warm hilltop scents.

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The mound is a peaceful and productive place to relax

Swales (carefully positioned ditches) collect water for the garden and are filled with moisture loving plants and logs growing shiitake mushrooms. Around the boundary of the garden is an edible hedge, providing berries and fruit for the client and food and habitat for wildlife. But it was the ground cover that drew me into the garden with an almost reverent feeling as I walked barefoot across the alternative lawn of heath pearlwort (Sagina subulata).

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The garden is cool and soft underfoot

This delightful evergreen carpet can withstand fairly heavy footfall, tolerates drought or moist conditions, has tiny white flowers in later spring and early summer, and feels soft and springy beneath the feet. Around the margins, a tapestry of other intricate ground cover plants like Leptinella squalida with its tiny fern-like fingers, succulent white stonecrop, red clover and low-growing thymes provide miniature vignettes in which the higher planting layers recede, leaving only the magnified colours and textures of the forest floor.

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Fascinating detail on the woodland floor

The dense matrix of planting in London Glades gives the garden a vibrant energy. The visitor is encouraged to move lightly around the space, stopping to sit and relax on one of the large smooth boulders, the only non-plant material in the garden. As I sat, I considered the other reason I felt at home in this garden – there is clearly an educational mission behind London Glades – to show an alternative to the traditional kitchen garden, to showcase how forest gardening can provide sustainable, wildly beautiful, productive spaces in an urban setting, and to offer an alternative way for gardens to connect us with the landscape.

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‘Taunton Deane’ perennial kale just below the mound

The message is conveyed subtly – at first glance the garden could appear to be a traditional woodland with just a few rhubarb and kale plants visible to the casual observer. However, London Glades offers practical ways to suit forest gardening to small, urban plots, using readily available plants and ingenious, yet traditional methods of landscaping and planting like ‘Hugelkultur’ and swales. Jon is hoping to relocate elements of the garden to Mind charity in Harringay, where it will no doubt continue to provide a peaceful environment and an educational resource.

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The winding path through London Glades

Owning a garden like London Glades would certainly be an education, but it would be a gentle, life-affirming way to engage with the land and the sustainable, low-maintenance approach would allow the client to develop their stewardship of their garden. I like this soft approach to learning and have followed similar lines in my own ‘hidden allotment‘ front garden which uses similar plants to my neighbours’ gardens and appears to follow traditional ornamental design, but incorporates many edibles which forest gardener Stephen Barstow would call ‘edimentals’. Jon explained that clients would receive a bespoke book with the initial chapters explaining the thinking behind forest gardening and the second half offering recipes to help with harvesting and using the ‘gourmet’ ingredients which would be available in the garden throughout the year.

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The beautiful, wood-bound guide book

This would be an invaluable resource in a process of learning about the plants and how to make use of them. London Glades takes you on an edible journey of discovery through different habitats and plant ecosystems. The stewardship of such a garden would be certainly be an inspiring and fulfilling adventure.

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Soft pink monarda creates a gentle atmosphere in the understorey

If you’d like to read more about edible and sustainable planting at Hampton Court over the next few days and follow my blog as I experiment with all manner of fruit, vegetables and herbs, do subscribe below…

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Dogwooddays does not take any responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. Not everyone reacts positively to all edible plants or other plant uses. Always seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally.

Gardening For A Sustainable Future

Wild, evocative show gardens like James Basson’s M&G Garden, inspired by the landscape of Malta, new plants to discover (my favourite this year is Raymond Evison’s Clematis ‘Pistachio’) and new technologies like the use of microalgae to capture energy at Capel Manor’s ‘Compost, Energy, Light’ Garden: these are all part of what makes RHS Chelsea such a captivating and vibrant show. But after six hours exploring the showground, learning about new plants and discovering new ways to combine old favourites, I had still to find a garden that evoked feelings strong enough to draw me into its story and planting, creating what Coleridge described as the ‘suspension of disbelief’ – in which the show garden recedes and you find yourself immersed in a landscape where nothing external exists. Then I found myself in Nigel Dunnett’s RHS Greening Grey Britain Garden and the showground faded away. Wandering through the garden, past the black elder (Sambucus nigra ‘Gerda’), surrounded by the loose planting of Camassia quamash, Euphorbia palustris, Dianthus carthusianorum, Libertia chilensis Formosa Group and Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’ in deep purples and vibrant lime greens, with soft water over pebbles and looking up to green walls and roofs, I was in a garden that created a sense of peace: an instinctive oneness with both the planting and the environment.

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Nigel’s vibrant planting remains soft and delicate throughout

Up on the balcony overlooking the lower garden, Nigel explained that the main garden is designed as a community space where residents of high-rise and apartment developments could come together to relax, socialise and enjoy the planting based on drought tolerant, low maintenance species like Euphorbia cyparissias ‘Fen’s Ruby’ and Stachys byzantina that will thrive in our warming climate. The water channels running beside the walkways and benches create a sense of tranquility for residents and also provide hollows and wetland areas to deal with runoff from flash floods, whilst the pebbles enable water levels to remain higher even in dry periods. Like Nigel’s 2015 Greening Grey Britain Garden at RHS Hampton Court, this garden includes recycled materials, green walls and green roofs. I was pleased to see the binstore green roof, having designed a similar roof on my binstore after being inspired by the idea at Hampton Court in 2015. Next to the binstore, tall, multi-tiered ‘Creature Towers’ designed with recycled materials mirror the high-rise apartments, offering urban homes for the insects which form such an important part of the natural ecosystem.

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High-rise insect homes

On the balcony, intended as a private garden, Nigel demonstrates how even tiny outdoor spaces can provide colour and edible crops. The small wooden planters are full of tomatoes, artichokes, herbs and a wisteria which trails along the balcony, whilst the walls provide a vertical growing space with a simple pocket design attached to a mesh on the wall. These pockets can be used for planting or simply to place plants still in their pots and the wall is small enough to be watered by hand, making this a practical and sustainable way to maximise space, especially as many of the plants (like the Mediterranean herbs thyme and oregano) require little water. Looking down from the balcony the private garden is set in context – a small space to provide privacy, flowers and food: a personalised area within a larger landscape of community planting.

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Edible green wall

As a community garden volunteer, I believe that working with plants is a healing and nurturing activity. Gardening also helps us to appreciate the fundamental role that plants play in our lives: a role that will become even more important in the future. As climatic challenges arise we will need to develop our understanding of horticulture, crop production and environmental protection to keep up with the changing climate, so engaging young minds with the beauty and importance of nature is a priority. With this in mind, the fact that the plants and other elements will be relocated to a school garden via the BBC One Show’s competition after Chelsea ends exemplifies the ethos of the garden and adds to its environmental credentials. The only addition I would like to have seen was more detail on the information leaflet about the plants chosen for their drought-resistant or pollution-soaking qualities, for example links to the informative RHS website pages, such as the section covering plants which tolerate dry conditions.

During my recent sessions running a growing club at my local primary school, I have seen firsthand the impact that becoming involved in gardening has on children. They are so open and keen to learn about the magic of nature, so receptive to the ‘wow’ moments when a seed germinates or when they learn to identify a plant. After half term I’m planning a session about careers in horticulture and botany – looking at what it takes to become a greenkeeper, a NASA plant scientist, a horticultural therapist or a park ranger. Maybe one of my pupils or a student from the school which receives the RHS Garden will become a future soil scientist or a biodiversity officer. Let’s hope so because we need experts in these fields like never before. The RHS Greening Grey Britain Garden has engaged the horticultural community in discussions about sustainable gardening, offered environmentally-friendly options for both domestic gardeners and landscape architects and I’m sure it will go on to inspire the next generation when it becomes part of a school garden. The creation of a show garden with this level of aesthetic and environmental integrity is an impressive achievement, especially when it provides such a practical model for the development of urban spaces in the future. 

A garden full of practical ideas, yet suffused with beauty

Further information about the Greening Grey Britain campaign and to sign up to turn a grey area green, follow the link to the RHS website.

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My Garden Right Now: A Mini Tour

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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.

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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.

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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

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.

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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  🙂