Author Archives: The Constant Gardener

About The Constant Gardener

Head Gardener at Horatio's Garden, Salisbury and at The College of Matrons in Salisbury Cathedral Close.

When will it be spring?

In February I spent a few days with my family in the far west of Cornwall. Spring was most definitely in the air, the hedges were greening-up nicely, birds were singing enthusiastically, and the sun was warm. Yes, there was rain on and off, but very much in the fashion of April (sic) showers. We even had a hailstorm during one of our walks on the SW Coast Path between Mousehole and Lamorna. But still, it felt decidedly vernal – and we all commented, as we drove home, how the landscape shaded from green back to wintery brown as we drew closer to Wiltshire. Not long now, we innocently thought, before the Penwith green catches us up…

How wrong we were. Since then we’ve had two dollops of snow, the heaviest in getting on for a decade, along with some really cold nights and bitter easterly winds. ‘February Gold’ Narcissi, which were well on their way when I got back from Cornwall, suffered two squashings by the snow – and not only recovered well, but are still going strong in early April. Other spring flowers, however, are well behind, and who can blame them?

It’s been incessantly wet as well. Long days of drizzle at least, and often heavy rain, coupled with overcast skies and chilly temperatures, have all made it feel like we were still in late winter. The occasional burst of sunshine quickly reminds you that the sun is getting stronger now we’re past the equinox, but they’ve been few and brief. The soil is still cold and clammy, certainly far too chilly yet for any seed-sowing outdoors.

The greenhouse is backed-up with seedlings sown with February enthusiasm, but which are not ready to brave the cold frame quite yet.

There is blossom – Blackthorn in the native hedge is out, as is my Fuji Cherry (Prunus incisa ‘Kojo-no-mai’), and the ever-reliable Forsythia – but it is later than usual (or so it seems). No sign yet, though, of Magnolia stellata either. But even getting into the garden seems an effort when the light and the weather are so poor. And with every passing dreary day the list of jobs still to be done can appear daunting, if not overwhelming.

Easter weekend is traditionally the busiest gardening weekend of the year, and one which can be crucial for those dependent on the ‘garden shopper’ . I hope that the wet and cold weather of this Easter will not be too damaging to the fortunes of nurseries and other gardening businesses, who find life hard at the best and sunniest of times.

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The Art of Gardens

To London, and the Royal Geographical Society.  I’d never visited Works on Paper Fair before, but this year the organisers have chosen Horatio’s Garden as their charity partner, so this was work. I did have a brief chance to look at some of the fabulous art on show – including some wonderful pieces by neo-Romantic and mid-20th century artists – including John Minton, John Piper and Edward Ardizzone – of whom I am especially fond. Sadly, all out of my league price-wise (one is, after all, only an ‘umble gardener).

 

 

The real reason for the visit was not to look at pictures, but to talk about gardens. Or rather, to listen to others talking about gardens. Horatio’s Garden has been consistently fortunate in having its gardens made by designers from the top drawer of British garden design. And here they were on stage, all five of them, being asked by an audience of 350 guests for their opinions, thoughts and ideas about ‘the art of gardens’.

Cleve West, who designed the first Horatio’s Garden in Salisbury in 2012, was joined by James Alexander-Sinclair (Glasgow), Joe Swift (Stoke Mandeville), Bunny Guinness (Oswestry) and Tom Stuart-Smith (Stanmore)*. Inevitably, the focus was on what makes a successful garden in the context of a hospital setting, and with an eye to accessibility and practicality. Slopes, for instance, are utterly useless for a garden which will be used mostly by patient in wheelchairs – 1 in 100 is just about tolerable, but nothing more or it ceases to be accessible. At the same time, the gardens must be good gardens which hold their own irrespective of the healthcare context: beautiful, thoughtful, rewarding places in which to spend time. Works, dare I say it, of art.

The rights and wrongs of raised  beds (Cleve hates them, Bunny was quite keen); the necessity of encouraging insects to animate the garden as well as to sustain its ecosystem; the need for planting to appeal to all of the senses; and the glory of birdsong – all were entertainingly debated.

Tom Stuart-Smith was spot on when he observed that gardening observes two temporal horizons. On the one hand, there is the familiar annual, seasonal cycle of growth and dying back. But there is also, and must always be, the long view – which Tom felt some modern designers tended to forget, used as we are to immediate gratification and quick results. He likened the design and creation of a garden to the child’s act of pushing a toy boat off from the side of a pond or onto the open sea – it is no longer the child’s, and will follow a course which can not be predicted with any certainty. Nature will do its work – and nature is always the best gardener.

Interestingly, a question about the possible impact of Artificial Intelligence on gardens and gardening elicited a related comment from Bunny Guinness about the use of computer graphics to visualise Capability Brown landscapes. The software allows one to ‘wind back’ the garden to the day it was planted, and then play around with time as the trees ‘matured’ over decades and centuries – showing on screen what the Brown and his peers could only ever see in their minds’ eyes. Which does make their achievements all the more remarkable, I always think. Drones too have their place for the designer, allowing landscapes to be surveyed accurately and pared back to the contours. As to the merits of robot lawnmowers, I think it fair to say that the jury was divided.

As for the essential ingredients of any garden, the plants, each of the panellists was asked for a ‘must have’ plant. These were their choices: Salvia ‘Amistad’ (TS-S), Persicaria ‘Fat Domino’ aka ‘Fat Bastard’ (JA-S), Osmanthus heterophyllus (BG), Aruncus ‘Horatio’ (CW), Sarcococca confusa (JS).

The last word should go to James (he would have it no other way). Gardens should be about joy. If you find that you no longer enjoy gardening, the answer is simple. Stop.

*Horatio’s Garden, Salisbury opened in 2012, and the Glasgow garden opened in 2016. Stoke Mandeville will open later this year. Fundraising for the gardens in Oswestry and Stanmore is underway.

Groundwork

I got a bit distracted by the previous post’s theme – a consequence of spending the day trying to restore order in the garden, and finding myself with repeated handfuls of soggy brown leaves to decant into my green bin – and went on a bit. Sorry.

The geist of the day, however, was good and productive. I managed to go through the greenhouse plant by plant, checking on a the many overwintering Salvias, Penstemons, Pelargoniums (shouldn’t that be Pelargonia?) – all of which were potted up in late summer, and all but two of which have survived. Indeed, several are thriving with the promise of cutting material aplenty in due course. Which does raise the question of where exactly I am going to put them all when they grow to maturity…

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Inside the greenhouse after a tidy. The sad-looking Musa basjoo is fine, just resting over the winter like an ageing repertory actor.

I think they will fill the various pots and planters which are currently full of Narcissi and Tulips, queueing to flower over the next two or three months. Today I – very belatedly – potted up some Narcissus ‘Thalia’ and ‘Tete a tete’ from black plastic pots into presentable terracotta. They will join the others, planted back before Christmas, when they are flowering, and be placed around the garden to provide focal points of colour and interest.

The main herbaceous border was also a focus of my attention, as I cut back masses of dead and dying stuff. I pulled the plug on a scruffy old Solanum crispum, which used to live in a big pot on our decked area before that was torn up for the new shed. It’s never liked its subsequent location and neither have I – so into the green bin it went. At this time of year I always tend to plan an overhaul of at least part of the main herbaceous border – it currently contains far too much Lemon Balm, Tansy and Marjoram: three plants which are difficult to contain, and easy but fairly unrewarding. I didn’t have time to start clearing today, but their days are numbered. Kerria japonica is another plant I struggle to like – I’m not sure why I planted it in the first place – so it too was dealt with firmly.

One other greenhouse job was finally calling time on the chilli plants. I gathered the last few useable chillies, and then composted the plants. It is already time to sow this year’s chilli seeds, though I tend to grow a mixture of plants from seed along with a few I buy as plugs. The heated propagator isn’t set up yet, so the chilli sowing will have to wait for next weekend. A pot of Sweet Pea ‘Windsor’, sown back in October, has done very well in the greenhouse – strong roots are already showing through the bottom of the pot, and I pinched back the tops to encourage the plants to bush up a bit before I pot them on.

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The last of the 2017 chillies

A final greenhouse task was to fit a new automatic opener to the roof light, the previous one having seized up. Although the greenhouse is unheated, ventilation is important – and equally, the south-facing greenhouse can get very hot on sunny days all year round. A fiddly and slightly irritating job, involving repeatedly dropped screws and a modicum of cursing, but it’s all up and ready for the next warm day.

Then, as the light began to fade, and the blackbirds started their dusk chatter, it began to rain steadily but softly. I took the cue, made myself a mug of tea, and sat to reflect on a happy and productive day, clearing the decks for the season ahead.

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A mug of tea in the drizzle – feeling damp but contented.

 

Sog

In theory, I am all in favour of not going for a major autumn tidy-up in the garden. Many people like to ‘put the garden to bed’ some time in late October, once the dahlias and late-summer colours have done their thing. There is a certain appeal in the neatness which ensues, and the way it allows early spring to manifest itself unencumbered: snowdrops pushing through clean, bare earth. And it does allow you both to get a heavy mulch on to borders before the winter sets in, and to have plenty of clear ground for planting spring bulbs.

However, taking a different approach, and leaving herbaceous plants to die back naturally has many – I think, more – advantages. Firstly, many plants will keep going longer than you might imagine. There were dahlias and antirrhinums flowering well into November – a pleasure which an autumn tidy would have cut short. Secondly, leaving stems and seed heads is good for wildlife – providing food, shelter, even spots to tuck away and hibernate. And third – and the point of this post, perhaps – it provides some interest through the winter. There can be great beauty in the way low sunlight catches the browns and yellows of dying foliage, or the way frost gently seizes an Eryngium head or a spider’s web between two stems of Verbena – that image so beloved of the gardening magazines. Bare soil never quite catches the eye in the same way.

This is the approach we take at Horatio’s Garden, where generally we cut back very late in the winter – in fact we’re still doing it now; last year it was well into February. The patients and visitors need to see shape and colour in the garden, even – perhaps most of all – on a dreary January day.

And yet. This winter has been so mild, wet and windy that it’s challenged this approach for me, at least in my own garden. We’ve had no snow at all, and hardly any proper frosts, certainly no prolonged cold spells. I’ve just spent the day clearing and tidying the borders, and regretting that I didn’t do it in November – so much wet mush and soggy mess, foliage turned the texture of dishcloth and soaked paper. It’s unpleasant to the eye, and even more unpleasant to gather up by the handful. Most frustratingly, swamped by some of this gunge are emerging snowdrops, hellebores and primroses – which are now free to enjoy their moment, no longer surrounded by decay and sodden brownery.

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Maybe – if mild, wet winters are the anthropocene future here in southern England – I’ll have to rethink the approach…

Back to the lottie

Let me be honest. Last year my allotment was a disaster. Not because of weather or pigeons or tomato blight. Because of my neglect. I failed to prepare, plant or then attend to  the plot at all, and as a consequence it became a weedy mess. My attentions were then limited to a few Blitzkrieg attacks with the strimmer, in a vain attempt to assuage my guilt, placate my neighbours and avoid a stroppy letter from the council. And then the Gotterdammerung climax of a massive bonfire in the autumn, when – in a frenzy of (more) guilt and frustration – I burned more or less everything in sight. Not a happy tale. [I’m not sure why I’m describing my year at the allotment in the same Wagnerian terms as the rise and fall of the Third Reich – no doubt a shrink would tell me].

Over the winter, in anticipation of the request for my 2018 payment, I agonised about keeping the plot on at all. A good gardening friend (that is, a good friend, and a good gardener – you know who you are) had given up hers. How could I justify keeping it on if I not only didn’t grow much,  but couldn’t even look after it?

A conversation with a London allotmenter last summer stuck in my mind. When I confessed to her that my growing plans for 2017 amounted to little more than ‘rhubarb and raspberries’, she looked at me appalled. If that were the case with someone on her site, she said sternly, they’d be given their marching orders, and the plot would be given to someone prepared to do it properly. Wasn’t I keeping someone else from a worthwhile exercise in modest self-sufficiency and healthy eating? 

But then, there’s history bound up with my plot. We got it when the boy was a baby – he’s now heading precipitously for 14. We’ve had happy days there as a family, and have the photos to prove it. Damn it, we were ahead of the curve when we took it on back in the early 2000s, before allotments became desirable again. A young family with an allotment was a novelty – I was interviewed by the (then new) ‘Grow Your Own’ magazine. How could I walk away from those memories?

Admittedly, the allotment is now in a worse state than it was a decade ago. And therein lies another tale, that of my transition from hobby allotmenter to professional gardener. Too many times I’ve not wanted to spend the weekend weeding, when I’ve spent all week on my knees amongst the creeping buttercups and couch grass. And, of course, being a full-time gardener means that my anxieties (never far below the surface) about what the allotment looks like are ever greater. I have no excuse for not having a fantastic, abundant, Instagram-worthy plot. And that burden, really far more about anxiety than time or energy, has weighed me down latterly.

So, it was with trepidation that I approached the plot yesterday for the first time this year. And?

Well, it was a weedy, overgrown mess. There, I’ve said it. I’m not proud, but it was not perhaps as bad as I’d feared it would be. Couch grass has re-asserted itself all over the place. To be honest, it’s never really disappeared since we took the plot on. I rue the hours spent obsessively getting the raised beds level and square, when all they did was give an appearance of good order. I should have spent the first twelve months clearing and weeding the ground, before even thinking about building raised beds, fruit cages and the rest. Now the raised beds are falling apart, and the weeds are back.

I took up my strimmer, and went over the whole patch. It looks like someone cares for it now. And the area I gave the scorched earth treatment last November is still weed-free. There is rhubarb coming, and the fruit trees are looking good.

So I’m going back to basics. First of all, I shall lift and ‘park’ all the plants I want to keep: cardoons, currant bushes. Then, I’m hiring a weed-burner for a weekend to give everything a blast and take all the grass and weeds back to soil-level (at least, that’s what I hope will result). I shall channel my inner Colonel Kilgore, and blast out ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’ as I work. Then it’s the unsightly but practical black sheeting for as much of the plot as can be covered. The shed needs re-roofing and painting. The raised beds need either removing or repairing – about half and half. Get all that done, and maybe, by the time the days are longer and the sun a bit warmer, I’ll be in a position to sow some seeds.

Taking Libertias

One of the signature plants in Cleve West’s design for Horatio’s Garden in Salisbury is Libertia grandiflora. For those of you unfamiliar with it, it’s (to quote the RHS) “a strong-growing, clump-forming evergreen plant, up to 90cm tall, with narrow, dark-green, grass-like leaves. In early summer, white, bowl-shaped flowers, 2-3cm across, are carried on erect stems and are followed by round seed pods in autumn which turn black when they mature.”

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Close up, the flowers of Libertia grandiflora are simply stunning. 

I’m not sure’bowl-shaped’ really does justice to the flowers, which are gorgeous – and the plant’s real attraction. They float above the strappy foliage on long, arching stems, forming a cloud of pure, white for a few brief weeks in late May and early June.

Sadly, either side of that short flowering season, they retreat to a supporting role, providing a green foil to other, showier plants. Their seed heads remain on their stalks through summer and autumn (unless you cut them off, which we don’t). The leaves, like many grasses, tend to coarsen and lose their charm as the year progresses: and the dense clumps of foliage are a fantastic hiding place for snails (as well as dead leaves and other garden litter, which easily gets trapped). Some gardeners cut them back hard when they have gone over, and apparently they survive, but a better option is to replace them when they start to outgrow their spot.

We have them in a couple of borders, and in the beds along the bottom of the apple and wisteria-clad archway. There is a moment in late spring when the Libertia begins to flower, along with pale pink Tulip ‘Angelique’ and apple blossom up above, which is magical.

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The apple and wisteria archway, with big Libertias flowering. These are the specimens which have grown too big for their boots and needed replacing.

Leaving the seedheads means that they will proliferate, and they do so with great vigour. Libertia likes a dryish, well-drained, sunny and exposed site to do its best – and the garden at Salisbury, perched on the top of Odstock Down, provides just that. Off they romp, growing everywhere they can – wedging themselves between the paving and its edges, and treating the dry stone walls as a de facto seedbed. On the plus side, this gives us a plentiful supply of seedlings to pot up, either for re-use in the garden or for sale to visitors. For Libertia grandiflora is always in demand with visitors. It seems to be a plant many have never seen, and are instantly drawn to. I tend to encourage caution among potential buyers, as this is a big and enthusiastic plant which owners of small gardens might live to regret – but they are readily seduced by its white loveliness. Small plants and transplants tend not to flower straight away, usually taking 2 or even 3 seasons to really hit their flowering stride: the odd customer has grumbled – though lack of flowers might be due to insufficient sun, as much as the plant’s youth.

All good things come to an end, and many of our Libertia – planted when the garden was created in 2012 – have become coarse and unruly, bullying aside other plants, and presenting the untrained eye with unattractive clumps of rather tired grass-like growth, especially as we reach the end of the season and there is less colour to distract the viewer. So, the past couple of weeks have seen us removing the largest specimens completely.

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After. You can still see some big L.grandiflora on the other side of the path, but all the ones on this side have gone, leaving some space for Tulips and replacement specimens to go in.

Thankfully, Libertias don’t have very deep roots – rather they form a dense, fibrous root system which is bulky but fairly shallow. With help from a couple of volunteers, and some deft fork-work, they will come out quite readily. The hardest plants to extract were those which had managed to wedge themselves between the steel arch, the stonework of the rill, and the roots of adjacent apple trees; fortunately only a couple had dug themselves in so thoroughly.

They don’t split very well – and anyway, divisions would still tend not to look as fresh and sharp as new, young plants. We will put in some of our pot-grown seedlings, which look really good, and establish a rolling programme of replacement from now on, never allowing individual plants to get more than perhaps 3 or 4 years old. Meanwhile, in our small nursery, we will be bringing on the next generation ready to take their place in due course. 

Back in May I saw this glorious display of Libertia peregrinans at Hillier Gardens near Romsey. This one is commonly known as Chilean Iris – perversely, Libertia chilensis has the common name of New Zealand Satin Flower – and is sometimes confused with L. grandiflora.

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Chairs and Chelsea

A most enjoyable day yesterday, as the guest of Gaze Burvill at their home in rural East Hampshire, just a stone’s throw from Gilbert White’s Selborne. Simon Burvill, Managing Director of the company, and his team were previewing some of their new outdoor furniture to an invited audience, and I was there to represent Horatio’s Garden. Gaze Burvill have been generous supporters of the Horatio’s Garden project from the outset, and the relationship continues as we expand into new gardens in Glasgow and Stoke Mandeville. The company celebrates its 25th birthday this year.

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Simon Burvill, describing some of the complex design forms which can be achieved using his workshop’s state-of-the-art equipment.

We were treated to a fascinating tour of the company’s workshops, which combine traditional craftsmanship of the highest standard with astonishing hi-tech machinery and design facilities. The attention to detail in the furniture, as well as the company’s commitment to sustainability – heat is provided at the workshops using wood-shavings from the production process, for example – are hugely impressive. The beautiful oak, much of it sourced from France (where the tradition of ‘farming’ trees for furniture is still strong), has a scent which fill the workshops. If I closed my eyes and inhaled gently, I could have been back in the wood-turning workshop where my grandfather worked in my childhood.

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As well as seeing the production process in action, we were given a preview of this year’s Show Gardens for RHS Chelsea. One stand, sponsored by Gaze Burvill, is designed by Aralia Garden Design and Patricia Fox spoke about her journey from brief to finished design, and how Gaze Burvill’s furniture has been showcased in the garden. Catherine Macdonald of Landform Consultants was present too, speaking about her Artisan Garden design, sponsored by Seedlip. Her design incorporates a range of references to 17th century apothecaries’ manuals alongside the process of distillation, and the ingredients which go into Seedlip’s non-alcoholic spirits.

The other Show Gardens for RHS Chelsea 2017 were on display too, with sketches, plans and planting schemes to pore over. As one person said, it’s very helpful to be able to see the gardens on paper before the show, as you can see the subtle changes that occur when designs are being implemented, and also have a clearer idea of what to look out for amidst the whirl of the event.

Thanks to all at Gaze Burvill for a thoroughly enjoyable day.