Day 49: winter honeysuckle

Not much of a looker, and kind of patchily bald in winter. But you plant winter honeysuckle for its scent, rather than its looks…

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Day 37: Hylotelephium 'Matrona'

Everyone loves a dazzling floral display in summer, but those plants that can maintain interest through the colder seasons are greatly to be prized…

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Day 36: frosted ironwork

There’s a moment just as the sun rises on a clear, cold winter’s morning, when the growing light still has the blue tinge of night about it…

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Day 35: Daphne bholua 'Limpsfield'

I think William Morris would have approved of the evergreen, Daphne bholua ‘Limpsfield’, seeing as how it manages to be both useful and beautiful…

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March in the garden

March 2018 – what the heck was that? Just as we were beginning to enjoy the first signs of spring, the Beast from the East brought snow and cold weather from Siberia. Twice. Thankfully for us, rumours of its return at the end of the month proved to be groundless, though our friends in the north were less fortunate. We just got very wet instead.

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January & February in the garden

From a dull grey start to a bitter, snowy end, winter has been topsy-turvy, and is now in the throes of a tantrum at being asked to go home. We may struggle to keep up; the garden, of course, takes all this in its stride.

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#thatwinterspringthing hashtag project

To the uninitiated, hashtags are probably the most confounding aspect to social media. But a little delving reveals them to be a powerful tool for cutting through the online flotsam and plucking related content out from the relentless flow of global chatter. As winter turns to spring, I’m launching a hashtag to encourage Instagram users to share their seasonal images.

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November & December in the garden

It’s new year’s eve, but I’ll leave the annual gardening retrospective for others. For me, that doesn’t feel right till winter’s done and sowing seeds can begin in earnest, and we’re not quite there yet, although the seed catalogues are beginning to look well-thumbed. But I’ve not yet had a chance to look back through November and December in the garden as seen through my Instagram feed, so I hope you’ll join me as I review the past couple of months.

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February in the garden

As trailed in my previous post, I’ve decided to start a series on the blog using highlights from my Instagram gallery to chart the garden through the year. And so, without undue ceremony, let me welcome you to the first post in that series. This week, as we get ready to leave winter behind, I'm taking a look back at February 2017.

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Waiting for snowdrops

January can be a miserable month, so a few weeks of bright, dry weather make for a welcome start to the year. Refreshingly chilly conditions in which to while away the garden hours until the first flowers of spring appear. 

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December light

Light is in short supply this month, and so it makes sense to make the most of the little we have. For reasons of sanity, not to mention Vitamin D. It’s as good a time as any for garden photography, and the more familiar you are with the behaviour of the light, the better your images will be.

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November chill

The garden might be closing down for the year, but there’s so much to see in autumn. Far fewer hours in which to see it, though, so best to be up and out with the first rays of light.

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Taking steps

Autumn, windy and mild, with no sign of a frost. The leaves, like embers in slow motion, glow brightly as they fall, fast fading to dull ash grey and brown. Much of the garden’s energy retreats below ground at this time of year and, with a good proportion of the season’s growth now lying either upon the compost heap or the bonfire, access into the borders becomes considerably more straightforward. Conversely, passage through the garden becomes increasingly difficult. The winding grass path, charmingly informal throughout spring and summer, has by mid November become a muddy cart track, rutted and slippery, making each trip through the garden a messy and potentially hazardous affair.

O, for a red brick path! Solid under foot, and easy on the eye. Throughout my various excavations in the garden, I’ve managed to unearth a small pile of imperial red bricks in fair condition, but nowhere near the quantity I’d need for the path. I keep a beady eye out for the small ads, and auctions of reclaimed bricks on eBay, but somehow, something more pressing and grown up always seems to require paying for – a new boiler, or a replacement cross-member for the chassis on the venerable land rover. Even – dare I say it – plants. And in the meanwhile, sure as eggs is eggs, the path turns to mush.

This winter, I’m taking steps to avoid the quagmire. A roll of grass reinforcement mesh – the kind of stuff you find lurking just beneath the sward of the overflow car park at a country fair – which I unrolled and immediately split down the middle with the aid of a pair of tin snips.

Snip. Figured I only needed a 50mm strip down the centre of the path
A hideously cheerful, bright glossy green – quite revolting – but thankfully grass has already begun to grow up through the holes, and is doing a fair job of obscuring the playground-bright colour. With at least another three months of potential sogginess before us, it’s early to form a definitive opinion but, so far, I am impressed by the difference it’s made. No substitute for my lovely brick path. But, while I’m pining for that, at least I can get to the end of the garden and back.

Not pretty, but already disappearing

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.

A grey day, with berries

Hips of the dog rose in the morning mist

It’s gloomy outside – the kind of day that words like ‘dank’ and ‘drear’ were invented for. But peering through the nullifying fog that hangs heavy in the air, cancelling out familiar views and making us feel like strangers in our own gardens, something rich and rather magnificent calls for attention. Winking, jewel-like clusters of opulent splendour, fat with food for the birds and creatures who share our autumn gardens, the berries take centre stage at this time of year, bringing colour and joy to our surroundings when all around is fading into winter gloom.

In many a garden the scene is stolen by always reliable pyracanthas and cotoneasters, with their showy displays in fiery oranges, yellows and reds, though there are many other genera to choose from when it comes to stocking the garden with berrying plants. The rowan, or mountain ash Sorbus aucuparia, is a wonderful tree suitable for a small garden. Providing year-round interest with its pinnate leaves which turn a rich red in autumn, its slightly bitter berries are used to make rowan jam, a traditional accompaniment to venison and other gamey dishes. Climbing plants, too, make a valuable contribution to the garden’s berry quota: honeysuckle, bittersweet Celastrus orbiculatus, and of course, ivy, with its understated black fruits nestling amongst the mature, shiny leaves.

If I have a guilty secret to confess to as a gardener, it’s that I’m not as fond of roses as I feel I ought to be – other than at this time of year when most of the leaves have fallen. Now the plants are revealed as thorny skeletons with plump, bright hips: some smooth and long, others large and round as a tomato, as with R. rugosa. Appropriately, Bill seems particularly partial to the fallen hips of the dog rose R. canina that arches over the garden gate and so, having first done a little research to ensure these were harmful to neither man nor hound, I decided to try one myself. No wonder then that people make jam from these. They’re practically ready-made jam: thick, sickly fruity goo – one hip was almost too rich a meal – which explains why our winter garden visitors find them such a rich source of food.

But it is in the hedgerows that my favourite berries lurk. Bright red berries of holly and yew against glossy, dark green foliage, dusky blue sloes on the blackthorn, orange-red gems of the guelder rose and the garish fruits of the winged spindle, whose vivid, pink cruciform capsules split open to reveal bright orange seeds. Now is the time to get out into the garden and make the most of the berries. Before the birds beat you to it.

Yellow berries on the firethorn Pyracantha ‘Soleil D’Or’

Mature ivy plants provide a good habitat in which wildlife can overwinter,
as well as berries which are a rich source of food.

Holly, the heraldic symbol for truth, and traditionally a wood for  making
bagpipes. But used more often by overwintering birds for food and shelter.

The rowan tree Sorbus aucuparia provides year round interest,
including fantastic autumnal shades

Deadheading by dusk

October, and while people who ought to know about these things argue over whether or not we were having an Indian Summer (we weren’t, apparently – just a late warm spell), there’s no denying we’ve all been given a late reprieve from autumnal maintenance tasks to enjoy being in our gardens a little longer. Even the supermarkets have been holding back on filling the shelves with Halloween paraphernalia in order to be able to cash in on an unseasonably late weekend of barbequing. It’s been great.

The temperatures having returned to something a little more recognisably Octoberish this week, I find myself engaged in my annual rage against the dying of the light, frantically deadheading everything I can in the vain hope that this will somehow manage to hold off the inevitable approach of winter gloom. Like pruning, deadheading provides a way in which we can influence how a plant grows by working with nature; in this case, a plant’s inbuilt desire to reproduce. Flowers appear, their finery intended not for us, but to attract pollinators (insects, or humming birds, for example – not seen many of these last in Kent), or formed to enable the wind to carry pollen from one flower to another, sometimes over great distances. Once pollinated, the plant sets seed to ensure its precious genetic legacy is maintained. A timely intervention from the gardener, snipping off a spent infloresence, has the effect of prolonging the flowering period as the plant concentrates its energy on creating sufficient seed to give rise to the next generation.

Once the seed is produced, plants tend to feel that their job is done, and either expire (in the case of annuals and biennials), or shut down, overwintering in a state of dormancy until spring (in the case of perennials). No more flowers; and when the asters and the dahlias, the Japanese anemones and the penstemons, and all the rest of the floral rearguard give up the ghost, it is probably time to retreat indoors, light the fire and settle down with a good book and a snifter of something medicinal for the winter.

As it is, I stand defiant among the late summer blooms, flanked by crinkling sunflower heads and the last of the cosmos, shaking my secateurs in impotent fury at the darkening sky.

A note: Apparently the phrase ‘Indian Summer’ has nothing to do with India, but is of transatlantic origin, and had something to do with Native Americans. I heard this on Radio 4’s Today programme, so it must be true.