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!

 

 

 

Snapdragons of Autumn Twilight

At Christmas I no more desire a rose
Than wish a snow in May’s new-fangled mirth;
But like of each thing that in season grows.
Love’s Labours Lost

Cerise snapdragon heads (Antirrhinum majus) nod gently each morning as I pass the garden at the top of Benslow Hill. The flowers are doubly surprising – out of season and out of time. This snapdragon has persisted well into November, whilst all around it leaves drifted or hung with marcescent tenacity on the low beech hedge behind the fence. Along with a couple of renegade scilla and bluebells, it is a survivor of an earlier garden, carefully tended by an elderly lady for the eleven years I walked the path and probably for many years before. The small front garden had a central circular depression in which her chaotic, life-affirming collection of spring bulbs and summer blooms, like a miniature amphitheatre, charmed me anew each year.

When the plot changed hands three years ago, the garden was excavated to make way for a new house. In its place appeared the mandatory paving, drive and hedge, but around the peripheries, echoes of the former garden remained. For a while, I felt wistful that the eclectic cottage planting was gone, that this once cherished space existed now only as garden in memory. Then I mentioned it to a friend and she remembered it too; she’d also felt the joy of the gardener in the exuberant planting and even now, like me, sees the old patterns beneath the new when she passes the garden. It pleases me to think of the collective nature of this recollection and I wonder how many more share these local memories and see this garden as a botanical palimpsest through which different layers of plants and memories can be unearthed.

The snapdragon itself possesses a collective past which exists in shared childhood memories. I remember the intensity of colour and texture when I made the hinged mouths yawn, the sudden transformation to mythic beast. The sugar-candy flowers never wore their colour as easily as the low mats of Mesembryanthemum, but their tactile heads drew me in – to squeeze, peer and dream. Now I grow tall red and white snapdragons: Antirrhinum majus ‘Royal Bride’ and ‘Crimson Velvet’. They don’t fit with the more naturalistic, largely compound flowers in the rest of the garden, but they’re comfortable companions, connecting my past with my children’s present as they pinch and wonder, much as I did. My plants also self-seeded this year – the resulting seedlings didn’t flower until late, but they persisted. Generally Antirrhinum majus (a short-lived tender perennial) is grown as an annual or biennial, but more recently it’s been surviving the milder winters in local gardens and now seems more able to spread by seed too.

It is, perhaps, apt that this Janus-headed flower spike simultaneously faces the past – our childhoods and the memory of landscape, whilst also looking towards the future – a plant which no longer needs the attentive gardener to raise it from seed or buy it as a bedding plug in milder areas of the UK. The snapdragon now fills a perennial niche in my local area and though its post-aestival blooms cheer the eye on a dank November morning, the fact that they owe their success to our warming climate makes their unseasonable flowering a bitter-sweet pleasure.

 

 

‘Crimson Velvet’ and ‘Royal Bride’

Thanks to all the gardeners who have contributed their tales of plants from the past and layers of history beneath their own gardens on the Blog, Facebook and Twitter.

I’ve also been receiving reports of snapdragons still in flower all over the country, some are now on their second flush – and overwintering during the past two to five years as far north as Aberdeenshire and the Isle of Skye. 

There are also plants still flowering in Edinburgh, Staffordshire, Derby, East Yorkshire, North Wales, Lincolnshire, Midlothian, Hartlepool, Worcestershire, Manchester, Cornwall, the Midlands and 500ft up on an exposed hilltop wall in South Yorkshire! Also reports of snapdragons blooming in Portugal and in the US in Portland, overwintering in NE Pennsylvania and in North Carolina they are winter flowers, put in during autumn as the summer weather is too hot for them. It’s been a fascinating insight into snapdragon growing around the world – thanks!

Remaking The Seasons

Charting the year’s progress through seasonal celebrations is comforting, but can it eclipse the wondrous yet understated transformations taking place each day outside our back doors?

Autumn is a big word, a catch-all for subtly shifting seasonal changes. On 2 September this year, a colleague remarked that it was nearly Christmas. Behind this provocatively jovial comment is a reductive modern mindset which I have a tendency to fall into if I spend too much time inside. Condensing the year into a parade of seasonal celebrations involves turning away from a reading of the year which delights in its rich, heterogenous and ever-changing beauty.

So autumn is gentle, hearty and comforting. It arrives almost imperceptibly; there’s a morning coolness, the slight weight of dew in the air, but I can still sit outside writing at 6.30am in my pyjamas, the crocs haven’t yet disappeared into the loft and the plastic croquet set and buckets still adorn the lawn. I can hear strident geese calling behind the murmur of tits and soft sub-song of a hidden robin in the birch tree. Elsewhere the geese are massing ready for wetland reunions, the knot are beginning their winter murmurations which we caught, enchanted, in Norfolk last week and the hirundines have already deserted our autumn shores.

My garden hasn’t shed its summer garments yet; the scented pelargoniums still line the paving, zinnia, dahlia and cosmos still blaze and the sweet peas are ready for cutting again. But there are shifts – I can see the blueberry foliage burnishing slowly in the fruit cage, the acer tips are reddening and the quinces swelling. The waning of one phase allows the waxing of the new and this is surely one of the joys of autumn. In spring, as the crisp, pale winter days reluctantly give way to warmth and life, I rarely feel the pull in both directions – I’m too impatient for dawn warbling, primroses by the writing bench and the first tentative sowings. But autumn gently mixes memories of long summer days with the incipient excitement of allotment soups, warm jars of quince and crab apple jelly, woollen jumpers and stout walking boots, chilli harvests, hazelnuts, falling leaves and bonfires on darkening evenings. Each week the temperature, the colours and the atmosphere in the garden and the countryside changes and to appreciate these shifts is to engage with the natural world in all its diversity and richness.

As a child, each yearly remaking of the seasons denoted by the behaviour of familiar plants and animals, formed the backbone to my temporal self: a secure calendar against which I measured time and my progress through it. Nowadays this is no longer always the case as climate change establishes new rhythms as yet unknown, but not unfelt. I find these changes deeply unsettling. Apple blossom in August, snowdrops in December or even, a couple of years ago, a small tortoiseshell butterfly drifting past the fairylights on Christmas Day might be thought seasonal treats, but in reality, they are troubling abberations, early signs of more significant changes to come.

Unless we understand the subtle progression of the seasons, unless we appreciate autumn as something more than the beginning of a new school year, Hallowe’en and Bonfire night amidst the falling leaves, we will lose track of our natural rhythms and the opportunity to be inspired by each season as it unfolds, and we will miss the profound changes taking place both naturally and unnaturally outside our backdoors. There’s a physical calender in the garden, through the fields and along the hedgerows. Seasons are changing slowly, miraculously, whether we notice them or not. They are there to be appreciated, to teach, warn and inspire, and we should celebrate that.

 

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.

Luton Hoo Walled Garden

On an incredibly hot morning this week, the only intrepid (stupid?!) visitors to brave the 30+ temperatures, my dad and I took a tour around Luton Hoo Walled Gardens to see the restoration work in progress. The garden and grounds of the Luton Hoo Estate were designed in the late 1760s by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown for John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, former Prime Minister and unofficial director of the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew. At the time Luton Hoo was second only to the Kew in its splendour and Lord Bute’s garden added to his reputation as a key botanist and horticulturalist of the age. By the 1980s the garden had fallen into decline (despite being restored and developed with glasshouses added in the Edwardian period). Large areas were completely overgrown to the extent that the established apple orchard at the far end of the garden had disappeared from view.

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The orchard walk

The walled garden is a 5 acre site with an additional 5 acres outside the walls known as ‘The Slips’ comprising outhouses once used as potting sheds, gardeners’ quarters, boiler houses and other working buildings. In addition to the buildings, Capability Brown and Lord Bute planted trees to act as a shelterbelt and installed pumps and a complex irrigation system to service the walled garden. There was also an orchard, peach house and cold frame area outside the garden in the area which is now the car park. In 2001, a restoration programme began which saw the garden open to the public in 2007. It is run by a team of around 50 volunteers with only one employed gardener – the Head Gardener – who works four days a week.

The volunteers are slowly restoring the gardens to a productive state – there are fruit and vegetable areas, cut flower borders, a wedding marquee from which all proceeds go back into the garden fund, rose borders and a fabulous cacti and succulent collection in one of the old glasshouses.

Specimens from the cacti and succulent collection

The intention isn’t to create a historical reconstruction of any one period from the history of the estate, but rather to create a productive space which develops the skills of individuals, involves the community and offers a beautiful garden for exercise and relaxation. In the past, the garden was a place where young boys and apprentices were taught horticultural skills and later in World War II it was used by the Women’s Land Army with Land Girls working in agricultural roles on the estate. So the current programme with local schools and classes for children in the holidays, continues the education role of the garden.

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The children’s programme for summer 2017

Volunteers are also involved in researching the history of the garden and have uncovering much new information, for example, the fact that it was a Capability Brown garden was only recently discovered. They are also involved in restoring elements of the garden from the old walls which are unsound in places, to the glasshouses and the agricultural machinery which has been found around the estate. Unfortunately, without significant funding the majority of the glasshouses look set to remain unsafe for the foreseeable future, at least until the 15 million required to undertake restoration work can be raised.

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The middle section of the 200ft glasshouse which has fallen into disrepair since being built in around 1911

The planting in the walled garden has been designed with sustainability in mind – it uses mainly drought-tolerant plants and watering is kept to a minimum. Chemical pesticides and fertilisers are avoided and machinery is rarely used, except to cut grass. This means that the produce from the garden, much of which is sold to residents of the estate, is free from chemicals.

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Volunteer working on the vegetable beds

The garden is open to visitors from 10.30 – 4 on Wednesdays from the beginning of May to the end of September. I felt the £5 entry per person, which goes to support the work in the garden and includes a excellent tour with a knowledgeable volunteer, was good value and I enjoyed the whole experience. Much of the garden’s interest lies in its history and this is celebrated throughout the tour with information about the different stages of development and visual cues in the planting and displays in the outhouses.

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Entrance to the gardens

I particularly liked the perennial/annual borders and the cutting garden with its sweet pea bed, salvia border and mixed cool border. All in all, this was a fascinating (if sweltering) visit and I’ll definitely go again, both to attend the summer children’s workshops and to visit next year to see how the restoration is progressing.

Perennial border

For more information about the garden, opening times, events and volunteering, go to the Luton Hoo Walled Garden website.

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Hot border in the wedding garden

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A Red Kite enjoying the garden from above

The Rose Border at its best this week with ‘The Generous Gardener’, ‘The Pilgrim’ and ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’