Day 251: by the back door

Some of the best advice for new gardeners I’ve ever read (it was in Alys Fowler’s The  Thrifty Gardener) is to start your garden at the back door…

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August & September in the garden

By now, Autumn has well and truly got its feet under the table. With characteristic tardiness, I’m taking a look back at the past couple of months – the height of summer recently departed, as portrayed on my Instagram grid. Here’s my pick of the best images.

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Container Gardening with
Harriet Rycroft, week 4


The final week of the container gardening course with My Garden School. ‘Summer Luxuriance’, it’s entitled, and brimful of information to help you take full advantage of the long days and warm temperatures. Containers should be bursting with fabulous foliage and jewel-bright punches of floral colour from June well into September and beyond, and Harriet guided us through with advice on plant selection, what to grow in sun and shade, as well as some useful tips and tricks, such as growing climbers in pots, and using them to weave in and out of the display.

Irrigation is of course of prime importance during the hottest months, and watering methods were covered, along with other maintenance tasks such as feeding and deadheading.

Once again I was thrown something of a curve-ball by the assignment, in which we were asked to base a container display around our favourite colour. I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t have a favourite colour, tending to base my planting ideas around either harmonious or contrasting colour combinations, rather than monochromatic schemes, which can seem a little flat. So, I have favourite colour combinations to which I return time and again – greys and pinks, greys and yellow, lime green and deep red tones, to name but a few. If there’s one colour to which I’m drawn, it would those tones variously described as black, or burgundy, or deep red-purple – as with the foliage of Cotinus coggygria 'Royal Purple', or Actaea simplex 'Brunette', for example – and so I took this as my starting point.

The brief involved suggesting three plants, each of a different habits (tall, bushy and spreading or trailing) that feature the chosen colour in either foliage or flowers. After some head scratching, the following scribble emerged.

My tall plant is the switchgrass Panicum virgatum, which grows to 1.2 metres, although younger plants in a container are less likely to achieve the full height. The glaucous grey leaves will give some relief to the otherwise monochrome scheme, with deep, metallic red flower heads in August.

Panicum virgatum 'Warrior'
The middle layer is the purple leaved Sedum 'Matrona', with its dense clusters of pink-white flowers.

Sedum 'Matrona'. Image © Crocus
The spreading plant is one of my favourite hardy cranesbills, the pale pink flowered Geranium 'Dusky Crug', again with deep, maroon foliage.

Geranium 'Dusky Crug'
Relatively low maintenance, with minimal deadheading required, all three choices will prefer a free-draining compost, none being voraciously hungry (the sedum in particular has a tendency to become floppy with too rich a medium); neither watering nor feeding need be too onerous a task – depending on conditions, you could water when the compost begins to feel dry (perhaps once a week) and feed once a month.

I’m fond of this combination, but aware that it’s not perhaps quite in the spirit of the brief, reaching its peak in August and September – a pot for late summer and early autumn. If I’m to bring the season of interest forward into early summer, I could stretch the colour theme a little, to embrace deep red stems and foliage and/or crimson flowers. Then we could try a combination built around Lobelia cardinalis 'Queen Victoria', with Heuchera 'Autumn Leaves' occupying the middle layer, above the trailing deep green foliage and of Pelargonium 'Mexican Beauty' this would work well in partial shade, and although the lobelia would be the last to come into flower (August again), there would be plenty of interest throughout the period with the deep maroon of the stems, over the vibrant shades of the heuchera foliage (softened slightly by the white flowers from June) and the longer flowering period of the ivy-leaved pelargonium.

Lobelia cardinalis 'Queen Victoria'. Image © Crocus
Heuchera 'Autumn Leaves'. Image © Crocus
Pelargonium 'Mexican Beauty'. Image ©Fibrex Nurseries
The pelargonium would need to be included in my regular picking-over regime in order to keep it in flower, and a weekly high potash feed would help. Watering needs to take into account that the loblia favours damper conditions than the pelargonium, while the heuchera isn’t too bothered. Which sounds like a faff, but a can minus the rose, or the similar setting on a decent hose attachment, would make it perfectly possible to direct the majority of the water towards the centre of the pot. A good dousing, every other day, unless exceedingly warm or windy.

My imaginary courtyard pot display is now looking rather flamenco-inspired, with this container situated in a slightly sunnier spot than the partially shaded area enjoyed by the panicum-sedum-geranium combo, along with pots full of Dahlia 'Bishop of Llandaff', Cosmos atrosanguineus, Aeonium 'Schwartzkopf' and Ricinus communis 'Carmencita'. With plenty of green in between, and a large jug of sangria.

With thanks to Crocus and Fibrex Nurseries for the use of images.


Container Gardening with
Harriet Rycroft, week 3


I always knew that the third week of this course was where I’d begin to find things a little more challenging – in fact, this tutorial was one of the main selling points of the course for me. We’ve been looking at planting containers for winter and spring interest, something I’ve never had trouble with in the past, but largely because I use a far less sophisticated approach. Typically, I’ll create containers for autumn and winter, using plants with interesting evergreen foliage and impressive berries to create the backbone of any display for several months, around which pots of more short-lived seasonal colour can be introduced – cyclamen before Christmas, tulips, narcissi and hyacinths later in the new year.

This modular modus operandi is reasonably foolproof, having the advantage that, as long as you get the main plants right, you can tweak by moving the smaller pots about, removing anything that isn’t performing quite as well as you’d hoped, and perhaps redistributing containers to draw attention to a particularly pleasing element. It allows both for serendipitous discovery, and wiggle room, and I’d be happy to recommend this way of working on these grounds alone, if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s more or less how the wonderful displays in the porch at Great Dixter are put together. And if it’s good enough for Dixter, it should really be good enough for anyone.

That said, there is another way to plant in containers – and, happily, it can be used alongside such a modular approach as I’ve become used to. The only slight fly in the ointment is that it’s a little more involved, requiring both more planning, as the planting needs to present interest over a longer period of time,  as well as a good deal more commitment, there being less wiggle room once everything has been planted in the one container. I’ve seen Harriet’s plantings, both at Whichford and online, and have no doubt that this is a system I need to master in order to take my container displays to the next level. As elsewhere in the garden, there are few things more impressive than seeing an effortless scheme seemlessly transitioning from one season of interest to the next, a continual dance as one performer retreats into the wings, and another steps forward to command stage. This is succession planting in pots. Time to play with the big kids.

The first things to consider when planting any container for the cooler months is drainage. In winter it’s all too easy for the soil to become waterlogged, and no plant likes to sit with its feet in water1. To that end, make sure that whatever container you’ll be planting into has adequate drainage holes, and be sure to use a free draining compost, incorporating horticultural sand or  grit – I’d be happy to use a ratio of one measure of sand to four of compost in order to make conditions a little more sharp. Add no water retaining gel or crystals – great in summer, but deathly in winter – and avoid composts to which these ingredients have been added (it should be clearly evident on the outside of the bag, probably with some daft marketing slogan “Now with ADDED Wet-Water Waffle” kind of thing).

But now comes the crunch, and, as so often seems to be the case with these things, the key would seem to be a matter of perception. Instead of viewing the container and its contents in two dimensions (front to back and side to side), we need to be mindful of four. The third dimension allows us to correctly position within the pot the bulbs which will be so important for creating interest and change in the spring – larger bulbs, like tulips, at a greater depth than smaller bulbs, such as crocuses, for example. With the introduction of a fourth dimension, time, we have to consider the display over a matter of weeks and months, as the initial winter planting gives way to the delicate freshness of early spring, and in turn the vibrancy of mid- to late-spring.

It makes for a much more crowded pot than I’m used to, but the lecture notes were full of advice as to the relative planting densities and depths for different bulbs and, as ever, Harriet’s been on hand in the online classroom to answer individual queries in person, and to discuss the other material covered this week, including colour schemes and arranging containers.

This week’s assignment asked us to create a planting plan for a pot 60cm wide by 30cm deep, providing winter interest while using bulbs to extend the season into spring. I’ve opted for a silvery grey colour scheme over winter, with white flowers, introducing pinks and blues as the weeks pass into spring.

Planting plan of the top layer of evergreen perennials and shrubs

The top layer features evergreen perennials and shrubs that will persist from winter through spring. Planted fairly densely, as there won’t be an awful lot of growth over the period for which this container will be on display.

A rather ropey detail shot of Calocephalus brownii 'Silver Bush'
1. A single Calocephalus brownii 'Silver Bush' as a centrepiece, trimmed to around 25cm in height and width, for its silver, coral-like foliag. Technically it’s a tender, semi-evergreen shrub, but here in the South East I’ve had no problems bringing this through winter in the relative shelter of a container display near the house. That said, we’ve not had a particularly cold winter for a few years now. A hardier alternative would be its distant relative, Santolina chamaecyparissus, but that does tend to get a bit brown and manky towards the base in the colder months. The curry plant, Helichrysum italicum, is reliably and persistently silver throughout, but I’m not sure about the smell in winter (though I love it in the warmer months)!

Heuchera 'Peppermint' Little Cutie Series. Image © Heucheraholics
2. Four Heuchera 'Peppermint', a small introduction in the 'Little Cutie' series, 15cm in both width and height, with strong, mid-pink flowers in spring

Cyclamen hederifolium 'Album'
3. Eight autumn flowering Cyclamen hederifolium alba for their wonderful ivy-like variegated leaves and delicate white blooms

Senecio cineraria 'Silver Dust'
4. Eight large plugs of Senecio cineraria 'Silver Dust' for the soft, grey oak-like foliage

The bulb layers next, in order of descending depth.

Crocus 'Ladykiller'. Image © Crocus
Crocus 'Ladykiller' (white flowers with outer petals tinted purple in Feb/Mar) 8cm high, planted at a depth of 5cm.

Muscari armeniacum Image © Crocus
Muscari armeniacum (blue flowers in April/May) 15cm high, planted at a depth of 7cm.

Fritillaria mealagris var. unicolor subvar. alba. Image © Crocus
Fritillaria meleagris var. unicolor subvar. alba (white flowers in Apr/May) 30cm high, planted at a depth of 10cm.

Tulipa 'Flaming Springgreen'. Image © Crocus
Tulipa 'Flaming Spring Green' (white flowers in May) 45cm high, planted at a depth of 18cm.

Tulipa 'Foxtrot'
Tulipa 'Foxtrot' (pink flowers in April/May) 30cm high, planted at a depth of 15cm.

Narcissus 'Fruit Cup'. Image © Crocus
Narcissus 'Fruit Cup' (white flowers in April) 35cm high, planted at a depth of 20cm.

With thanks to Crocus and Heucheraholics for the use of images.

1Except maybe the swamp cypress Taxodium distichum, and even they like to leave at least their knees out of the water. You’d need a very big pot for one of those, though.

Do have a look at the My Garden School website, which is still running its  Back to School campaign for 15% off all £145.00 4 week online courses in October. (Course start dates: Wednesday 7 October 2015). Click here and remember to use the code MGSBTS at the checkout for the discount.

Container Gardening with
Harriet Rycroft, week 2


What’s the difference between growing in containers, as opposed to growing in the ground? I’ve already written about how there’s less margin for error with a plant in a pot, the rootball having access only to the nutrients available in the container, and that much more vulnerable to sudden changes in temperature. In this week’s lesson, we were again considering the materials used to construct containers, but this time rather than from a purely aesthetic point of view, we’ve been looking at how, for example, a plastic or metal pot will typically have less thermal insulation than one made of good quality terracotta or stone, and how this should affect how you think about siting different containers.

Just as you need to develop an awareness of different microclimates in your garden when planting in the beds and borders, so too this needs to be factored in when planning displays of containers. Not just things like aspect, the location of frost pockets and wind tunnels, but also the potential for strong gusts to be bounced off walls and corners against which pots are placed, potentially causing harm to plant material through air turbulence. And, while you may think that your treasured plants are entirely independent of the ground, being safely ensconced within their pot and with roots nestled into your choice of an ideal growing medium, it turns out that the hard surfaces on which the containers are standing can still have a bearing on how well (or not) the plant thrives. As an example, and rather like an inverted version of the storage heater in my old Muswell Hill bedsit, a dark-coloured ground surface will absorb heat during the day, and slowly radiate the warmth back out at night. I remember this arrangement was pretty hopeless for me, as it meant the bedsit was toasty during the day when I was out at work, and freezing during the evening and night, but careful attention to the needs of your plants should mean that you can take better advantage of the principle.

Practical matters covered this week also included arranging containers in groups, watering and drainage, including the thorny issue of crocks, and the desirable properties of a good compost. Already having packed quite a lot to pack into one week, Harriet ended the tutorial with a consideration of what to look for when selecting plants for your containers, with criteria including foliage, flower and form, as well as texture and habit, and seasons of interest. Much to remember, and to help it sink in, this week’s assignment asked us to choose four perennials or shrubs which we thought would earn their keep in a container display.

Here are my choices.

Sarcococca confusa
Perhaps the least fancy Sarcococca, the Christmas box is nonetheless a plant I wouldn’t be without, growing it both in the ground and in containers. An evergreen shrub with a potential to grow over a metre in height after many years, I treasure it for its deep glossy, spear-shaped leaves, and the clusters of black berries. But mostly for the rich, heady, vanilla fragrance of its tiny white flowers in the depths of winter, filling the air with a delicious, warming scent at the most miserable time of year. During the spring and summer months, it lurks within the groups of containers, overshadowed by more flamboyant flowers and foliage, but once the tender things have been put to bed, it begins to come to the fore.

Close-up of Sarcococca confusa. Sadly not scratch-and-sniff.
Good drainage is essential – in fact, I’m learning you can go as sharp as you like with this plant, which will happily seed itself into sand and gravel (we discovered it when a friend noticed seedlings below the window from which she’d periodically lob spent, cut stems that had been brought into the house for the scent). It will also need a certain amount of clipping, as it doesn’t naturally assume a particularly neat habit, and with age it begins to throw out shoots in unexpected directions. A happy Sarcococca will begin to sucker from the root stock, so you’ll need to keep an eye out for an appropriate time to repot, or else pull the suckers off and pot up into a free-draining compost for free plants.

Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii
This evergreen subshrub might not be the rarest of specimens, but it certainly earns its place in many different settings. Growing to 1.5m in height, and often rather larger around, the most striking feature for me is the colour – grey-blue foliage, topped with huge acid green flower heads in spring which persist for months. It’s not known for its fragrance, but having worked around it in several locations, I can confidently announce that it gives off a pronounced smell which might be described as bitterly earthy, or woody, but which reminds me of nothing so much as coffee grounds. 

Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii in flower. Less yellow, more blue in real life.
The leaves are long and narrow and, in common with many spurges, arranged in whorls around the long, serpentine stems, which leak a toxic latex sap when cut or broken (the sap can cause contact dermatitis, so best avoided or quickly washed off). It will survive in a large container, and is relatively tolerant of most soil conditions except waterlogging – err towards the dry to be on the safe side.

Melianthus major
The most tender of my selections, practically herbaceous in my part of the UK, but growing as an evergreen subshrub in climates more akin to its native antipodes, where it has become something of a weed. Here, we love it for its large, pleated glaucous foliage with deeply serrated edges. I was once told by the head gardener of one of our major gardens that it wouldn’t flower in the south east of England, but mine decided to contradict this pronouncement, producing a massive maroon flower spike that November. Just before the frost and the wind reduced the entire thing to black mush.

The leaves of Melianthus major. Remember, not all peanut-scented things are edible.
I have quite a knack for killing this plant, so timely winter protection is a must, and growing it in a pot rather than the ground is, I am convinced, the way to go, at least for me. It will also let me get it up a little higher off the ground than might ordinarily be the case, away from the reach of Bill, with his leaf munching mania, as the peanut-scented leaves (another woody fragrance) are toxic to dogs.

Fatsia japonica
I have heard this glamorous relative of ivy sneeringly classified as a ‘carpark plant’. But, as every plant so labelled is an utterly reliable, unfussy, robust and attractive affair presenting year-round interest, I don’t see it as anything to be sniffy about, and I can’t get enough of its large, glossy palmate leaves. Even better, in summer, older plants flower with the most eerie-looking white umbels. A statuesque presence, in the ground it will happily grow to eight feet in both height and circumference, although in a container it will assume more modest proportions. Happy in shade, dry or damp, it will provide a luxuriant, tropical backdrop to any planting all year round.

Glossy palmate leaves of Fatsia japonica.

Do have a look at the My Garden School website, which is still running its  Back to School campaign for 15% off all £145.00 4 week online courses in October. (Course start dates: Wednesday 7 October 2015). Click here and remember to use the code MGSBTS at the checkout for the discount.

Container Gardening with
Harriet Rycroft, week 1


It can be easy to get carried away when window shopping for containers. With such a wealth of variety in size and shape – not to mention price – I find I’ve often created a wish list that far exceeds my budget, let alone my available space.

And then to complicate any decision further, there are the different materials and finishes to be considered, each with their own characteristic textures: ceramics (including glass), glazed or unglazed, metals, wood, stone, as well as all manner of plastics and resins. I’ve just been exploring the possibilities of making my own containers using hypertufa – a mix of perlite, cement and sphagnum peat moss – and plan to give it a go once I’ve decided upon a sustainable alternative to the organic element. Everyone has their own favourites, and I tend to be drawn towards terracotta and zinc galvanised containers, whilst shying away from plastic.

Materials snob? Possibly, though this isn't snootiness at the notion of mass production, but rather sadness at the cynicism of flooding the market with “containers” that are little more than giant injection-molded buckets with poorly finished seams, not to mention the apparent willingness of the general gardening public to buy the hideous things. It is pleasing to surround yourself with objects and materials which reflect the ethos and values you hold, in the garden, as with every other space in your life. Terracotta speaks to me of the earth, of craftsmanship and skill, while galvanised iron objects possess the rugged honesty of the early-industrial period. Both materials, along with stone and wood, achieve a beautiful patina with the passage of time, while plastic merely bleaches and becomes brittle.

So far, I seem to have made a good job of proving my opening statement. All this fuss over the pot, when I'm really far more interested in the plant than on the object in which its root system will make a home. But, while it can’t be denied that a sympathetic match between container and contents can produce a pleasing effect, there is one exception to all of this: the upcycled container, the old box, tin or broken bit of crockery, destined for landfill but given at least a temporary reprieve, pressed into service as the custodian of a plant’s delicate parts. However humdrum its origins, I can’t help but find the combination of faded utility and luxuriant growth immensely compelling, hopeful and encouraging.

No room for the rubber duck. © Sara Venn

It’s the end of the first week of the Container Planting course at My Garden School. Harriet’s video talk and notes saw her at pains to have us consider our objectives in relation this form of gardening, whilst providing a comprehensive overview of the “whys and wheres” of using containers within the garden. Underpinning all I detected an exhortation to adopt a conscientiously purposeful approach, which could present me with a minor challenge, relying as I do rather on instinct and whim in this area. For the first week’s assignment, we were asked to find photos of four containers we’d like to use, explaining what had drawn us to them, where we would consider siting them within the garden, and why.

Here’s my selection.

The Whichford Pot

There’s nothing quite like a well-made vintage or handmade terracotta pot. I’ll settle for mass produced terracotta if I have to, but I'm not a huge fan of those ugly square rims.

Whichford pots aren’t exactly cheap, but having been to the pottery and seen the care and attention to detail that goes into each one, I have no qualms about parting with the money, even if I can’t afford to do it that often. And it’s not an astronomical outlay – we’re talking eight quid for a 7 inch pot, as opposed to £1.50 for a bog standard diy shed effort – buy one a month and give up the ciggies, or Sky+. Actually that would equate to several small pots, or something more fancy.

Whichford terracotta is unlike the smooth, flat stuff you might be used to. It’s a richer, orangey brown colour, a more tactile, open texture, which reminds me of biscuits (ginger nuts, to be specific). They often incorporate text into the design, whether simply manufacturer’s name around the pot, or a quote from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I’m a sucker for words in the garden.

The pot I’ve chosen for my imaginary shopping list is from the Shakespeare range, featuring a line from one of Puck’s speeches around the rim. I’d have it next to the kitchen door, planted with wild thyme, and other aromatic spices, well within reach when I need something to perk up what I’m cooking.

The trefoil pot

A few years ago, I spotted this container in an issue of Gardens Illustrated, and its haunted me ever since. The article appeared again in the special edition magazine from the publishers under the title “Pots of Style” (still available from the website), so at least I can look at a picture of it, even if I can't find anything similar to what must be a pretty one-off piece in the shops.

The mottled grey and white material is glass reinforced concrete, although at first glance you might be forgiven for mistaking it for galvanised steel. The plants perfectly complement the container – Sedum 'Cape Blanco', Anthemis marschalliana, Jovibarba allionii and Lampranthus spectabilis, planting by Sarah Price.

This is clearly too small to be placed on the ground, too large for the windowsill, and the wrong shape for the shelves of the etagere. But its a perfect colour complement for the slate table in the courtyard, and I could sit and gaze at it while enjoying my morning coffee.

The broken teapot

This is an object with great sentimental value, but one that has sadly outlived its original purpose. I bought it during my first year at university, and it has been my constant companion for a quarter of a century, playing a central role in the many tea ceremonies that punctuate my day. But the glaze has finally cracked in many places, and it has become rather more porous than is useful in a teapot, an article inside which it is useful for the tea to remain until required it, at which point it should exit via the spout, not through various hairline cracks about the perimeter. Unable to bear parting with it, I decide to re-imagine it as a planter, although to date I've yet to find the perfect companion for its slightly awkward nature, and am currently stuck in a kind of limbo of indecision.

It is the perfect size for the outdoor window ledge, or the top of the hideous plastic gas meter cover which I try to obscure from view with an arrangement of pots in containers.

The old boot

I get through a work boots at an alarming rate; something to do with unusually mobile toes. It's a bit annoying – they split and start letting in water, or develop a weakness in some unrepairable spot, but seem otherwise perfectly sound. It's seems a shame to get rid of them, but I can't really have dozens of pairs of old boots cluttering up the place. It has struck me that, with an appropriate lining, and some drainage holes, they would make excellent plant pots – and I'm not the only gardener to have worked this out. Lucy Adams, head gardener at Doddington Place in Kent, created an entire display for this years Chelsea Fringe based around a tower of planted up wellington boots, an absolutely stellar display where the bright colours of the wellies clashed appealingly with the flowers.

Boots full of flowers. © 2015 Lucy Adams
My old work boots are less extrovert, I think, but I don’t see why one or two planted up couldn’t nestle perfectly happily towards the front of an arrangement of pots.

Harriet’s notes for week 1 of the course are downloadable at the time of writing from this link.

In the meantime, do have a look at the My Garden School website, which isstill running its  Back to School campaign for 15% off all £145.00 4 week online courses in October. (Course start dates: Wednesday 7 October 2015). Click here and remember to use the code MGSBTS at the checkout for the discount.