Failed by foxglove

June 19, 2013

Failed by foxglove

I didn’t read the seed packet properly. I read the bit about the white foxglove with a purple throat. I read the bit about how stunning it was. I gazed at the picture. I didn’t read the “£2.99” and “12 seeds”. But two years ago I put them in pots with glass over them, grew on the six that germinated. I planted them in this spot, behind the luscious peony and in front of a glossy green backdrop. I waited while they made healthy rosettes. After the dreadful winter I was delighted to see that one had survived. It grew and grew and was weeded and watched. The buds came out. They looked pink. The flowers came out. They were pink. Three quid and almost two years for a self-seeded bog standard foxglove. Disappointed doesn’t even come close.


In Memory of Lettuce

May 21, 2013


The death of Lettuce, the cat to whom this garden belonged when I moved in, has prompted me to revive this diary of renovation. She was a lovely little thing and deserves to be remembered.

The long border is really taking shape. The photo shows just where Lettuce is buried. It is nice and sunny with deep cultivated soil over clay. Perfect for a rose to mark Lettuce’s spot. I don’t know which one yet (there is a committee of Lettuce devotees) but it will be a David Austin English rose. I am favouring Carolyn Knight as Lettuce was a tortiseshell cat and the colour is fitting.

This part of the long border is where I am trying to be more adventurous with colour. The peony to the top left is a sumptuous dark red (even though it was bought as the sugar pink Sarah Bernhardt). Next to that is a white foxglove then a row of helianthus Lemon Queen by the fence, fronted by an unnamed purple Michaelmas daisy bought by a stall by the side of the road.

In front of the peony is an echinops which has been sulking in a shadier and shallower part of the garden. If it bulks up, its electric blue spiky flowers would look fabulous with an apricot rose. Just spied at the far right is a spindly rosa mundi which again has been transplanted from somewhere too shady. I do hope it recovers and thrives but its pink and white blooms may need separating from the orangey rose. But the new rose will be a bare-rooted one planted in winter, so we have time to contemplate.

And in the meantime, what annuals am I going to plant on the grave? Why, lettuce of course.

Gardening by design: nature knows best

September 10, 2012

I can’t believe how much this garden has changed in such a short time. I came to it in 2006 and photographed it from the start. This photo was taken three years and one month ago. Today the curved bit of lawn that the bench is sitting on has been incorporated into the border. The tiny newly planted alchemilla mollis are fully fledged plants and they and the new ones now form a straight(ish) border edge that now heads towards where the pot of santolina Lemon Fizz sits. The pergola over next door’s front door, just out of sight on the left, has a Canary Bird rose that spills wonderfully into our garden, meeting the black bamboo that spent a few years all polite and slimly black but is now shooting out huge stems that go way beyond the guttering. A veritable jungle of lush privacy.

Now that the new long border has been carved out, there is much less lawn, but as said lawn is more weed than grass, that’s no bad thing. This end is now mainly dandelions but the clover can get lovely and lush when the mowing is left at the bottom of the priority list. The apple tree is in the process of being de-ivyed and this winter will see the bigger branches lopped to bring air to the crown. All these jobs must be done before the new plants go in.

The wooden box of mixed salad leaves to the right of the bench served well for a few years before falling to bits. The space has been rampantly taken over by pink geraniums, which are soon to be cleared, and the bare ground behind the bench is now home to peonies. These were bought bareroot in those sad boxes that the sheds sell, often at totally the wrong time of the year. They were put in, probably too deep, and promptly ignored (our favourite gardening method). Nothing happened for a full year and then some unmistakeable leaves pitched up. Hurrah! No flowers, but more and more leaves as the seasons went on. Then last year a flower. Great excitement, but instead of the sugar pink Sarah Bernhardt as the packet promised, one deep, deep luscious red flower appeared. This year there were two, floppy and devastated by wild summer winds, but I have no idea what they are called.

That’s the thing about gardening. I plan these borders, spend hours poring over books, magazines and catalogues. I choose the plants, I see the finished border in my head. Just like decorating, I see the room in my mind as clearly as if it were a photograph, and with paint and fabric, that’s how it turns out, just like the picture in my mind. Gardening’s not like that really. By the time I’ve found the plants, they’re in the ground and just where I want them, nature happens and everything just changes slightly. Plants move themselves around, the little devils, others just arrive, by seed, by invisible runners. My drifts of echinacea, ice plants, pinks and lavender turn into a messy patchwork, with added geranium, verbena and hyssop. But it looks great. They’re all plants that like the same conditions (this is a thin layer of topsoil on top of the rubble that used to be a path) and they’re all harmonious colours. And for the colour theorists, the opposite of pink is green, so the alchemilla mollis complements them perfectly.

I think I design my garden, but as always, nature does what it wants, and nature usually knows best.

The new long border is underway

August 28, 2012

The picket fence in this picture is the picket fence behind the daffodils at the top of this blog. The daffs went in as there was precious little else. Six years on it’s a whole different story.

It’s all Bob Flowerdew’s fault. He was the one who said, and I paraphrase, “You don’t see big herbaceous Gertrude-Jeckyll-style borders because people don’t have 6ftx36ft pieces of land to spare any more”. Ooh, I thought. We do.

So I didn’t rush into it (I can’t dig, for a start). I broke it gently to Gareth. He rolled his eyes a bit but didn’t say no. I got the edging tool and marked a line along the lawn parallel with the picket fence between us and next door. It looked do-able.

I started collecting plants. We already have rosa mundi that’s not being shown off to its best in the back garden. I spoke to Sarah next door and suggested that the rambler rose (possibly Rambling Rector) that is constantly trying to escape its miniscule confines and attacks everyone that come through her garden gate might move to our side of the fence and scramble up the apple tree right on the perimeter. That way she can enjoy it in its full glory. And we have two Winchester Cathedrals, one of which is happy and one that doesn’t quite get enough sun and could move over.

As for perennials, we have phlox paniculata David, papaver orientalis Chequers, an unnamed shasta daisy, loads of geranium Johnson’s Blue, achillea ptarmica The Pearl, cephalaria gigantea and helianthus Lemon Queen all big clumps looking for a slightly less shady home. From the 75p per plant stall outside a house I got a Michaelmas daisy (yet to flower), something scarily like mare’s tail, a pink geranium with dark pink markings, a penstemon, a perennial cornflower and two pink aquilegias. These are all bulking up in the nursery bed along with stipa gigantica and perovskia from Great Dixter.

This trough comes in handy to stop all the pots drying out. The plug plants of lavender (“free” from Thompson & Morgan) are on the bench, visiting the trough only when showing signs of drying out completely.

Sitting in trough by the front door and bought from an alleyway nursery in Lewes are big examples of physostegia (obedient plant), pink sidalcea, red monarda and yellow sisyrinchium which are being divided and dotted around to bulk up over autumn. Oh and something with large heart shaped leaves and bottlebrush red flowers. The plants were healthy and cheap but didn’t come with labels, but I am assured they won’t mind our clay and a bit of shade.

Speaking of clay… there’s been a lot of digging. The soil itself doesn’t look bad, quite loamy but it’s what’s underneath that’s the problem. The road that fights its way up this steep slope is called Clayhill. Nuff said. Then there’s the problem of not one but two apple tree right on the perimeter divide. Luckily we have access to unlimited well rotted horse manure. Gareth is digging it to a spade’s depth, picking around the apple roots, but cutting back those of the shrubs that are staying (some sort of privet, elderly multi-self-layered-scrappy choisya ternata) and the remains of a dispatched field maple. Then trug after trug after trug of well rotted manure will be piled on top for the winter, forked over in the spring and then the planting will begin. Ideally tulips should be put in before winter starts, but I think they will have to come later, to be placed in a year’s time for the second spring.

Steps in Time

July 13, 2011

There has been a lack of posts to this blog as I have had a long hard think about whether to continue. It follows an attack where a section of border was sprayed with weedkiller. However, mindless violence should not win, and onward and upward as Eric Robson would say.

So many things have happened in the garden it’s difficult to know where to start. Borders are growing into themselves and maturing. Trees are getting their roots down and starting to look like proper trees. The weeds are still in charge though.

The steps that were built a while back are looking particularly pleasing. Built from sandstone from a reclamation yard and tiles from around the garden, they are influenced, as is everything in the garden, by Great Dixter. The banks of soil either side have been planted up with whatever was hanging around looking for a home. Divided shasta daisies dominate at the moment. In spring it was the euphorbias.

Balance and colour is always at the back of the mind and the blue of the globe thistle echinops ritro on the left is balanced by the cupid’s dart (catanche) on the right. Eventually, I will whip all the plants out and put them back in a much more regimented order that is at the heart of all cottage gardens, no matter how haphazard they look.

Before that happens, Gareth has to remove the huge pussy willow stump at the bottom. I won’t hold my breath, and luckily the amelanchier that we have to replace it seems perfectly happy in its big pot in the back garden for the time being.

Sh*t stirring

May 16, 2011

The tulips have gone now, the white petals fluttering away in the windy weather. So I pulled out most of the swathes of forget-me-nots which had mostly gone over.

There is now a big patch of bare earth, full of forget-me-not seeds but I could feel the weeds moving in as I pulled out the plants. It needs filling up with something but before that can happen, it needs feeding. Luckily, I happen to have a very large pile of rotted horse manure to hand and I’m not afraid to use it.

There are four horses in the fields at the back of our house. Every Sunday morning that we are at home, we go round and get a couple of dozen trugfuls. That’s about all our backs can take. Then it gets dumped on the hard standing for easy access.

So that patch of bare ground is now covered with a thick layer of the best possible soil food. Those potatoes I put in the pink border now need earthing up – tip a trug of manure over them. The tulips have gone over but need feeding up for next year – each patch gets a trug of manure. We planted a couple of rhubarb plants (Timperley Early, rescued from the sale bench at Homebase – £1.49 each for big plants) and they got a generous helping.

I trimmed the lonicera nitida Baggensen’s Gold balls and promptly made up for it with a good hearty meal spread around their bases (making the golden topiary stand out even more). Every planting hole gets a shovelful, every newly cultivated bit of ground gets some dug in and a thick layer is added on the top if it’s not going to be planted straightaway.

It doesn’t give instant results, but next year we will reap the benefits. The hornbeam hedge at the front made steady progress but now that each plants gets a trugful dumped on it twice a year, it is racing along, with thickly clothed strong poles turning into a proper hedge rather than a row of baby trees.

People who keep a shovel and container in the car and leap out in country lanes to collect freshly dropped manure should not be mocked. It is worth its weight in Growmore.

Formality in Chaos

April 29, 2011

In the front garden the daffs have had their fading heads chopped off and it’s all about tulips and forget-me-nots now. Not exactly cutting edge, but soft and romantic and traditional.

With the front garden taking care of itself, it’s been all hands on deck in the back garden. This area has been very scrappy for a very long time but the blurry edges are being sharpened and it is all starting to come together.

There are sandstone and brick steps outside the back door instead of a 40cm drop into patchy grass. The ‘lawn’ has been cut into a precise (almost) semi-circle. The overgrown hard standing has been broken up and the dead earth is waiting to be turned into fertile soil.

A woodland area has been planted in front of next door’s leyland cypress hedge. The wild cherry put itself there and the strawberry tree, snowball tree and pittosporum (every single leaf brown and crisp from the winter, but greening up slowly) were existing, and between these holly, silver birch, hawthorn, mahonia, foxgloves, euphorbia, geraniums, Michaelmas daisies, alpine strawberries, hellebores and daffodils.

The straight line of the semi-circular lawn stretches from the back door steps to this woodland area and butts up to the brick patio. This patio has spent many years overgrown with all manner of grass and weeds and is as uneven as can be. It is a perfect companion to the lawn of weeds: both as scruffy as each other. So some crisp, new formality is to be introduced between them in the form of a clipped box hedge.

About February last year Homebase were selling packs of box, essentially rooted cuttings, 10 for £9.99. Potting them up I managed to get an extra plant out of them so I have been growing on 11 plants which are now the size and shape of my hand with the fingers outstretched. They are all happily in the ground in a straight line.

They are about 40cm apart and at the moment have been interplanted with Little Gem lettuce. It may be that the spacing is just a little too much, but cuttings have been taken and are safely tucked up in a propagator to infill in 18 months from now.

If these cuttings aren’t needed, then I can always have a go at recreating the topiary peacocks (except in box, not yew) at Great Dixter.

Cutting Edge

March 19, 2011



I got this hebe at a village fete a few years ago. It wasn’t labelled and it has never flowered. It is, however, one of those well behaved, dome shaped hebes that look good all year and give structure, especially in winter. And this garden needs structure in winter.

I wanted more and as I have no idea what it’s called, the only way was to make my own. Hebes are dead easy from cuttings and you have to do something seriously wrong not to get a high success rate. Late summer last year I took five 50mm cuttings, stripped the lower leaves off and poked them into a 9cm clay pot filled with half multipurpose and half sharp sand. I put the pot in the cold frame.

Today was warm and sunny so I took the pot out and could see bits of root coming out the bottom of the pot. I cut them apart with a knife, teasing the roots away from each other, and put each one into its own clay pot in peat-free multipurpose. After watering them, I left them in the sun to enjoy the warmth and the breeze and popped them back in the cold frame when the sun disappeared behind the house.

The plan is to grow them on for a year and plant them out in a row with the parent plant. This will give a bit of formality which is always welcome in an overly wild cottage garden, plus that winter structure.

I am toying with the idea of planting rhubarb in between them. I known that hebes and rhubarb have almost diametrically opposite growing requirements but I think it could work. As the hebe isn’t a flowering version, the manuring that the rhubarb requires won’t affect the flowering and the little plants might catch up with the parent quicker.

This is the plan today. Tomorrow is a new day.

Spring Loaded

March 11, 2011

Morning sunshine casts long shadows over the blue and white border

The shadows are still very long but there is at least sunshine. The blue and white border is bursting with daffs and tulips pushing their way through the thick layer of horse manure.

Last year I got Gareth to dig out all the white tulips as they weren’t as I expected them to be from the picture in the catalogue. I think they were some kind of Fosteriana and opened fully to reveal black and yellow marks. They are all now in my friend’s garden. Well, I say all, because it looks like we didn’t get all the old ones, despite removing them while there was still a little bit of foliage as a marker.

Not only that, but the new ones (Maureen, white cup, May flowering) have been planted been planted right next to the old ones. Some feat when we dug up the old ones in June and planted the new ones in November. I can only hope that they don’t flower at the same time. If my memory serves correctly, the old ones are earlier than the new ones.

To go with this feast of white tulips, the forget-me-nots are everywhere, just waiting to burst forth with their blueness. They will take over from the hellebores (some white but mainly pink – they’re allowed in the blue border as there is precious little else). This is all going on in the west half, to the right.

In the east half, to the left, there are a few little blue anemone blanda just poking their heads above their thick mulch blanket. I planted more muscari last year so the plan is that this side of the border will be covered in anemones and grape hyacinths until geranium Johnson’s Blue gets going.

The lawn is getting nice and shaggy, ready for its first cut. The knife sharpening men knocked at the door this morning so the lawn mower and two pairs of shears are all set to go. When the tulips and forget-me-nots are out and the shape of the bed has been sharpened by a nicely mown and edged lawn, I doubt if I shall get any work done.

The Shape of Things to Come

February 28, 2011

The last dull, grey day in February

So a lot has happened since last August, both in life and in the garden. I work from home and no longer have to think wistfully about what may be happening in the garden as my office overlooks it. Well, the front garden and a bit of the veggie garden anyway.

The above picture is the view from my office and I will take a picture from the same angle every week to see how it changes. There will of course be updates from the rest of the garden, including the newly planted woodland garden, the integration of the orchard garden into the veggie garden and the long awaited start on the overgrown pond garden.