New life

 

Winter’s hand still is keeping a tight hold on the temperatures so far this month, but the noticeable increase in light levels is encouraging and our patient wait though the darkest days is rewarded as a rummage through the dishevelled undergrowth reveals the emergence of the first flowers of spring.

Pointed spears of daffodil bulbs, the delicate white bells of snowdrops, golden yellow winter aconites, witch hazel and rising from last years leaves Hellebore buds are opening out into the most exotic and beautiful flowers. They are a magnet for the first queen bumble bees of the year, tempted out of hibernation early by a mild spell.

 

I've never been the type of gardener who shuts up shop at the end of November, cuts everything down to the ground and puts the garden to bed for the winter, to me that amounts to wilful destruction of essential habitat. I admit there are some plants which collapse into a mushy heap at the first frost and are just too messy to live with, but I always leave the majority of perennials in my garden to stand with the ornamental grasses as bleached silhouettes right through the winter, to offer food, shelter and safety to the myriad other creatures with which I share my garden.

 

In late autumn they are festooned with dew covered orb spider webs, they look fabulous in the frosts, give a home to over wintering insects and are fastidiously picked over by birds searching for any remaining seeds. But they have taken a battering by the strong winds and are looking a bit the worse for wear now so if the weather’s agreeable I’ll get out there to make a start cutting down and clearing up. All that dead top growth has also been protecting emerging new shoots too, so if it stays really cold I'll wait until later in the month or even March and by then there will be a lot more new growth for me to see too.

 

Unlike clearing up at the beginning of winter, after which parts of the garden are left looking bare and bleak for weeks, we know that despite the cold there is so much new life getting ready for the first signs of spring to burst through the soil and break from branches. Now it's an altogether much more cheerful and uplifting exercise and with sweet birdsong for accompaniment what better way to see off any residual winter blues.

 

It's not just plants feeling the very first stirrings of new life, this is the month for amorous frogs to come back to the pond to spawn. Those glistening balls of black studded jelly are for me the real beginning of a new year in the garden and just as exciting to see as they were when I was five. I gave up collecting frog spawn in jars many years ago but despite the finger numbing iciness of the water I just can't help it, I still have to get my hands in there!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not long now.

January plays a waiting game. Not yet time to begin cutting down last season's foliage, yet new growth is emerging and my patience is wearing thin. It's fine when there is snow on the ground or a sharp overnight frost leaves the foliage crisply crusted and shiny, as we view with envy those gorgeous photographs of gardens from colder, drier winter climates than our own displayed in all their winter whiteness.

But today my garden is all sepia, chestnut and dun, very brown and very, very wet. (I live in Wales so it would be wouldn't it, we don't get all that lovely lush green growth without the water to keep it that way.)  Despite the seeming lack of interest to draw me out on such a grim day, a quick walk round the garden to the Hellebore hot spot and mini woodland under the hedge and the pond, which always gives me pleasure no matter the season or weather, I find things to get my camera out for.

This time of year my garden is all about shape and texture, vertical grasses and last year's Iris flower stems, glossy evergreen foliage, reflective rain drops held by the minute hairs of softer leaves and collapsing weaker growth which after a windswept winter and today's heavy rain just can't hold up any longer. Like me my garden is ready for a new season to begin, the birds are already pairing, zipping between trees and singing fit to burst, spring isn't far away.        Not long now.

 

Good companions

It's always nice to be in good company, among friends and with people with whom we share common interests. We don't often imagine that the same is true of the rest of the natural world let alone the plants in our gardens, but it's a trait of nature which can really help us make the best of the plants we grow in our gardens.

The idea of companion planting, for example planting nitrogen fixing legumes like peas and beans to provide a nitrogen hit for the next crop and leaving clovers in lawns for a greener sward are not new, but how many of us have an encyclopedic knowledge of the planting opportunities and permutations available, I certainly don't.

Some smart people at First Tunnels have compiled a guide to help us plant vegetables, fruit and herbs together to enhance the fertility of the soil, deter pests, reduce the incidence of diseases and most importantly, help us all to grow organically. It's something I've always done and have never had the desire or felt the need to resort to artificial herbicides or pesticides.  Sadly a close look at the shelves of products for sale in any garden centre shows me that my way of gardening is far from common.

The turning of the year encourages many of us to make resolutions and as this is also when we're making our choices for the vegetable growing year ahead, a guide to growing our plants as good companions in an organic and more sustainable way has come just at the right time and here it is.

A Guide to Companion Planting

If we told you there was a way of getting even better harvests, without specialist tools or fertilisers, would you believe it? If we said there was a way of getting bumper crops without extending your growing beds, what would you think?

For a long time, as gardeners, we have relied on fertilisers and compost to ensure bumper crops of flowers, fruit and vegetables. But this one simple change in the way you garden could bring even better results.

Companion Planting

It is a method of planting fruits, vegetables, flowers and shrubs that complement each other.

This means they support each other by either taking different nutrients from the soil or giving out a certain aroma that a pest common to another plant detests. For example, horseradish keeps pests away from potatoes – so, it makes sense to plant them together!

But not all plants work well together. Some just don’t get on at all and this is why you need this Complete Guide to Companion Planting.

It shows you what plants work well together and the many benefits to your garden of following this planting regime. Take a peek!

In the right place at the right time

Yesterday was one of those rare but wonderful times when I found myself to be in just the right place at just the right time. Asked to visit a garden built to my design earlier this year to suggest additions or alterations to the planting, I'd left it quite late in the day. As my client got colder and went inside to warm up I had a chat with the gardener but I still had notes to make.

The temperature and the sun were dropping quickly but as they did the quality of the light changed, the low sun, only just above the horizon washed the whole landscape with the gentlest golden glow. The autumn foliage of trees and ornamental grasses simmered in perfect contrast to the last purple flowers of Verbena bonariensis and Erysimum 'Bowles Mauve', the clarity of the air was perfect, the far hills looked close enough to touch, every detail was pin sharp and the garden sang. 

There are times when I wonder if I have the best job in the world and this moment confirmed it.  An amazing landscape setting for a garden and the perfect chance to record something beautiful which from my paper plan has been put together by a great team, now being taken forward by an enthusiastic young horticulturalist and the nicest client I could wish to work for.

How lucky am I to be just in the right place at the right time!

 

Enjoying autumn

By the time autumn begins to nip, my garden has been showing its early warning signs for months. The leaves of Euonymus planipes, a relative of our native spindle tree, begin to colour in early July, so by the time everything else catches up the whole shrub with its the jester’s hat fruits is spectacular. An Acer palmatum overhanging the pond colours early too, I love it for the grace of its shapely branches and layers of cascading leaves. Its universal popularity is due to reliable and amazing autumn colour so it’s an advantage that for it and its many cultivars, autumn seems to be a very long season.

 

With leaves glowing just as fiery red but nowhere near as well known, Amelanchier lamarckii is a brilliant little tree, unfussy where it lives as long as the ground is reasonably moist, it’s also smothered in tiny white flowers as the copper young leaves unfurl in spring, so very pretty at both ends of the year. Like Cerics 'Forest Pansy', Rhus typhina 'Laciniata' and Cornus mas, which I am thrilled were planted by a previous owner of my garden many years ago for me to enjoy now, both Amelanchier and Acer palmatum will never be enormous so great trees for small gardens. The Rhus does throw up suckers so not for the overly controlling gardener but they're easy to pull out so for me not a reason to avoid it.

 

I never mourn the passing of summer, autumn holds so much to give pleasure in the garden. Fruits and berries are displayed like juicy jewels along the branches of trees, shrubs and climbers, ready to tempt the birds in need of as many calories as they can find before the lean months of winter begin.

 

Most years bring redwings to my garden, they pass through on migration swooping down to the cherry plum in the hedge before a quick splash in the pond and away again. I live in hope of seeing waxwings one day and in readiness I’ve planted a small rowan tree, although it’s much more likely that thrushes and blackbirds will feast on its berries. Goldfinches are regular visitors to the teasels standing tall and sturdy among the swaying heads of the Panicum grasses, themselves food for other seed eaters. Even without the birds to liven things up, their dainty seeds partnered by the skeletal flowers of fennel are enchanting.

 

On those first dewy mornings of the season when the mist hangs along the Wye, the orb web spiders reveal themselves sitting patiently in the centre of their delicate webs, made visible by the condensing drops of moisture. The season is changing and there’s a chill fungal smell in the air, autumn has arrived and with it a whole new season to enjoy in my garden.

September

It’s September and there’s a particular quality to the light this time of year, softer than the harsh sun of mid summer which bleaches the colour out of photos and makes us squint. It’s kinder to the plants in our gardens which we often term now to be fading, as they cease to flower and either seed, berry or shade into the colours of autumn.

The beginning of autumn always used to be tinged with sadness for me, as if nature was losing its grip on life, but nothing could be further from the truth. Nature, the very best of re-users and recyclers and of which our gardens are a small part, is shifting into a different gear and preparing for a lower sun, less light and a much slower pace of life in the months ahead.

 

But first there is a lot of feeding to be done, all of a sudden my garden is again full of birds, conspicuous by their absence over the summer and with no need of a calendar to know that the year is turning, they are on the move. A delight to watch as I ate my muesli this morning, a flock of lovely little warblers with dozens of blue, great, long tailed and coal tits enjoyed their breakfasts in the apple and birch trees just outside the front door. A very lucky coincidence that we decided to eat at the same time.

 

Late summer and still looking lovely

By August most traditionally planted gardens are sadly running out of steam, autumn colour is still a while away and as summer draws to a close rather than ending in a blaze of glory too many of our gardens are fizzling out like damp squibs.

 

Choosing plants which flower later in the summer isn’t difficult if we know where to find inspiration, and westward to the prairies of North America is a good place to start.

Asters partnered by Heleniums, Liatris, Echinacea and Rudbeckia, their natural grassland habitat partners, can create some really colourful combinations and if it’s more of a fiery finish we’re after then the red hot poker flowers of Kniphofia and Crocosmia originating from hot and sunny South Africa really turn up the heat.

 

Looking south and east, Japanese anemones are favourites at this time of year, long lived plants increasing over the years into large sturdy clumps but with the most elegant flowers in subtle shades of pink or white. In semi shade they look wonderful with Hydrangeas, many of which share the Anemone’s Asian origins. I like it best with Hydrangea quercifolia which originates from America and is for me the most refined of the hydrangeas.

 

One shrub which very few gardeners would consider refined is Buddleja, so easy to grow and a plant I would never want to be without. We all know that by dead heading roses we can encourage them to keep flowering and the same can be done with Buddleja. If the spent brown heads are removed, it will keep its flowers coming right into the autumn providing us with lovely colour and so many insects with food, it’s perfect for late flying butterflies.

 

Ornamental grasses may not have the same flower power but they add so much interest in other ways, their swaying stems catch the slightest breeze adding movement and structure, although subtle in colour, there are some like Miscanthus that have large flower heads and en masse impress from a distance, while others like Panicum and Descahmpsia are graced by the most delicate of flowers made up of pearl like beads which invite closer inspection.

 

Versatile and so easy to grow grasses are indispensable and partnered by plants with which they are naturally at home they help keep the late summer garden looking lovely.

The best job in the world.

The first visit I make to see a garden newly built to my design is always an exciting one. Whether it's a small garden or a large one, built to a modest or bigger budget, to see the ideas I first sketched out as my client and I chatted round their kitchen table, then drew up into a workable plan is a real thrill. For it to be there in real life and full colour on the ground, every plant in position, every stone slab or piece of timber right where I'd intended, I find just as rewarding and exciting as the very first garden I designed.

Sometimes I will try something I've not done before, like an avenue of purple beech cylinders to reflect the towers of a castle which can be seen from the garden. Or a client will add something of their own, for example a slate water feature in one of the gardens below, so that there's an element of surprise to the visit too. Sometimes there are parts of the design which work even better than I'd anticipated and then it's such a delight, I really do have the best job in the world.

Bumble bee favourites

 

As spring became summer and the longest day of the year slipped by, my meadow lawn reached its peak and although now losing its early freshness, the flowers in their season continue to be a pleasure. I am thrilled by the number of bee species attracted to them and by far the most noticeable now are the bumble bees in all their fantastic furry variety. Buff, white and red tailed, common carder and tree bumble bees all with their different coloured bottoms, some quite tiny, others so fat and heavy looking I wonder how their small wings keep them airborne. I wish I could identify more but they just won’t stay still long enough!

 

Some plants in my garden are remarkable in their ability to attract them, Centranthus ruber, the red valerian and its white relative 'Albus' are firm favourites, enthusiastic bush vetch is too, it scrambles through the borders as well as over the lawn, its beautiful long lasting purple flowers combine so well with blue, purple and cerise hardy geraniums. The shape of the flowers show their relationship to other members of the pea and bean family like lupins, birds foot trefoil and that most beautiful of climbers, Wisteria. They are beneficial to the soil too, fixing nitrogen and increasing its fertility.

 

Catmint, is another firm favourite, soft blue hooded flowers similar in appearance and related to lavender, rosemary and sage. Luckily for the bees we seem to like these aromatic herbs in our gardens as much as they do. Comfrey seems to be irresistible, it flowers all summer and they love it and from the many uses it’s had throughout our history we humans do too. The leaves are particularly rich in potassium so I grow it to make a liquid feed for my vegetables.

 

In recent years much of the common knowledge about plants that our ancestors took for granted and made use of daily has been lost along with our appreciation of the intimate connection between our gardens, nature and our own well being. But one thing we do know now is that bees are in decline and it’s in our own interest to help. Just one pot of lavender in the sun, some catmint in a border or a patch of clover left in the lawn is a small but positive way to make a difference and enrich our own lives knowing that bumble bees are busily foraging on their favourite flowers.

 

 

 

 

 

A tale of two gardens and attention to detail

 

I was offered a tour of two well respected gardens recently and I jumped at the chance, especially as lunch and afternoon tea were included!

 

Our first garden was Stockton Bury Court near Leominster, traditionally designed around the house and outbuildings of a working farm, where the old stone barns and pigeon house give the garden a real sense of age and place, and where the planting sits perfectly around them.

A long view draws the eyes and feet forward through areas of the garden where every opportunity has been taken to encourage visitors to pause and appreciate the finer details which have been perfectly chosen to reflect either the working background and history of the farm or nature of the site.

Taking in the immaculate vegetable garden, with a detour through a hedge to a hidden wisteria covered folly on the way, the path leads past a spring issuing from a bluebell covered bank below which, under the overhanging boughs of an ancient oak, lies a tranquil pond where moss covered rocks enclose the water as if they’ve been there forever.

This mix of skilfully grown and artfully combined ornamental planting and natives allowed to remain around the edges, in a garden so in tune with its own particular history and landscape, is a real gem.

 

Our second garden, The Laskett has history at its core too but not of its site, this garden owes everything to the life and loves of its owner Sir Roy Strong and his late wife Julia Trevelyan Oman. First impressions are of a garden imposed onto the landscape, the planting sculpted into architectural shapes, the pathways dictatorial and the ornamentation theatrical, but within the confining neat and orderly hedges little surprises lie in store.

There are subtly revealing signs of a mellowing style, where wild flowers have been allowed to seed into gravel, mini wild flower meadows hide behind hedges and below the sheltering branches of fruit trees, in a quiet clearing, are poignant memorials to Julia and beloved family pets.

 

We can learn so much from a garden about its history, geography and geology. As an integral part of any garden visit if we look beyond the flowers, tea and cake there’s so much to discover about the lives and personalities of the people who made them, and it’s all there to discover in the attention to detail.

Wonderful wildlife

Spring is joyfully hurtling towards summer and everything in my garden that flowers, creeps, crawls or flies is at its busiest as every plant and animal focuses on producing the next generation to ensure the survival of its kind. Within the interdependent web of species that inhabit our gardens each has its own niche and plays its own small part in the balance of nature. That is until we get involved.

 

Gardens can never be truly natural spaces of course, they are places which to a greater or lesser degree we manipulate to our own ends, but what we must never forget is that in order to thrive our gardens rely on nature’s systems, rhythms, checks and balances. Sometimes though in our short sighted and impatient haste to create a superficially beautiful garden we cause a lot more damage than we realise or intend.

 

The metaldehyde in slug pellets is cited by the RSPCA as the most common cause of dog death in cases referred to the Veterinary Research Service. By 2011 it was found in one in eight of our drinking water sources and by 2013 one source in England had one hundred times the recommended safe levels.

There is no doubt that we have to change our ways, the use of toxic chemicals in gardens in not only unnecessary but contributes to the decimation of our wildlife, if we stop and think it’s obvious.

 

If we spray the greenfly on the roses, not only are we killing all the other insects there too, like the ladybirds which predate them, we are depriving the blue tits of their babies’ food. The fewer lady birds and blue tits the more aphids and so despite feeding the adult birds all winter and putting up a nest box for them, through our own actions the downward spiral continues.

The word ‘pest’ is just that, a word used to describe an element of our gardens which we have been led to believe is undesirable but in reality is an intrinsic part of its web of life.

 

I delight in watching the birds, bees and early butterflies increasing in number as the weather warms, they are as much a part of my garden as the birch tree, buddleja and every other plant I cherish. There are no pests here, just a rich variety of wonderful wildlife.

 

 

 

Artful annuals

 

 

It’s often said that combining plants is a form of art and creating artful arrangements of them is a big part of my work as a garden designer, but every spring when I see those regimented trays of traditional bedding plants for sale like begonias and busy lizzies my heart just sinks. Those flat carpets of colour so loved by the Victorians and parks departments are so difficult to place in an informal or naturalistic setting and for me simply stifle creativity.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t have any time for annuals, far from it, they can be a wonderful opportunity for a burst of summer colour, shape and texture as well as a brilliant source of nectar and pollen for insects.

 

This year I’ve discovered seed of annual plants I’ve not tried in my garden before so as well as the usual pink and white Cosmos I’ve ordered the seed of a pale yellow one, Cosmos ‘Xanthos’, the flower colour will tone beautifully with two of my favourites. Nigella, love in a mist, which enthusiastically seeds itself around my garden every year and Phacelia with its lovely early soft blue flowers which bees adore and is just as prolific.

All have delicate feathery foliage so as soon as they germinate there is something to enjoy, the flowers are fabulous and then the seed pods keep the interest going well into winter.

 

Foliage is important in any combination of plants and so I’m also trying a new variety of an old favourite Papaver somniferum, ‘Lauren’s Grape’. This is the infamous opium poppy but it has so many redeeming features, it’s tall and upright with grey green paddle shaped leaves and swan’s neck flowers which straighten up as they open to reveal silky translucent flowers, as the petals drop pepper pot seed heads swell and remain upright well into autumn.

 

Annual plants have many attributes, although they only live for one season the seed can usually be saved for subsequent years and the cost of a whole packet full of a new variety is so much less than just one container grown plant. The possibilities for experimenting with them are endless and now we’re in April it’s a brilliant time to give them a try, with thoughtful choices they can give us months of artful interest in the garden through summer and beyond.

Wild flower borders and meadow lawns

Bright red field poppies are beautiful and one of our best loved wild flowers. With cornflowers and corn marigolds they colour the vivid landscapes of our memories and aspirations and as their names suggest, these are the annual weeds of corn fields. They flower, set seed and die in one short summer and will only return to flower again by disturbance of the soil, as they once did at the turn of the plough. These are not the flowers of pastureland, but as a temporary burst of summer colour and a banquet for pollinators in a garden border where their seed can be collected and sown yearly, they are perfect.

 

The flowers of traditional hay meadows live different lives, these are permanent perennial plants.

Woven with grasses into a rich tapestry, having evolved to thrive on grazing by livestock, they are well adapted to life as part of a meadow lawn. Anyone who as a child made daisy chains or told the time by a dandelion clock can’t help but have a fondness for these humble lawn weeds which valiantly pop up between mowings. A change in the mowing regime can allow much more exciting wild flowers to be introduced as plug plants or by seeding bare patches. Given time they might spontaneously appear, but only if the conditions are right for them.

 

Buttercups, ragged robin and lady smocks are the flowers of heavy clay and ditches, so they like a moist soil; cowslips, yarrow, birds foot trefoil, and orange hawk weed prefer better drained conditions and full sun whereas foxgloves, violets, primroses, hedge woundwort and red campion are flowers of the hedgerow and will tolerate the shady side of the garden. One thing all these lovely flowers do have in common is their preference for a soil lower in fertility than the average well fed lawn and so including yellow rattle, a grass parasite, helps them compete against strong growing grasses.

 

As we dust off the mower for another summer it’s a good time to take a closer look at the weeds spoiling the lawn, they might in fact be the founding plants of a potential meadow. Left alone to grow and flourish, their beauty won’t just be found in colourful flowers but in the way they enrich the garden's biodiversity with birds, bees and butterflies which will choose to visit our wild flower borders and meadow lawns.

 

 

 

My pre- spring clean

There’s still a while to go before spring officially arrives, but by this time of year I’ve just about had enough of winter. Last year’s vegetation is looking increasingly bedraggled and now after an itchy fingered wait through January, it’s time for my garden’s annual pre-spring clean.

 

I know many gardeners feel the need to ‘put the garden to bed’ with an autumn tidy up but I like to leave everything alone through the majority of the winter so that the remaining top growth protects the crowns of the plants from the worst of the cold and over-wintering insects can find nooks and crannies in which to shelter. There are a few lingering seed heads for the birds to pick through but new growth is already getting going, winter dormant plants are pushing their noses through the soil so it’s time to let in the light and air.

 

I usually cut back and pull up the messy looking stuff first, last year’s dead foliage and stems from perennials and lawn grasses that have wandered into the borders, but the ornamental grasses will be the last to go. They have stood strong and statuesque through howling winds, heavy rain and hard frosts and are still giving the garden definition and structure. I will be sorry to have to cut them back but I learned my lesson one February when I didn’t, the new leaves grew up through the old and looked a mess all year.

 

A good rummage through the undergrowth reveals a lot to get excited about, plants growing back in places I’d forgotten I’d put them, tiny seedlings that germinated last autumn and those treasures of late winter, the first bulbs. Hidden by drifts of decomposing leaves the tips of snowdrops suddenly appear, their green spears showing points of white first then delicate flowers hanging like dainty bells swaying in the wind. The golden chalice flowers of winter aconites run them a close race to be first out and it won’t be long before the earliest Narcissus and Crocus are in flower too.

 

Bulbs are among the very easiest plants to grow, some are brilliant for early pollinating insects and given the amount of colour and impact they give are incredibly good value for money. Once planted in a place that suits them they will spread, naturalise and return year after year, just in time for my annual pre-spring clean.

 

Frozen

As we gaze out of the window at yet more grey and gloomy weather it’s easy to overlook that the damp clinging mist which overhangs the valley like a cold and soggy blanket can also give rise to some of winter’s most spectacularly beautiful days. When overnight temperatures plummet, all that suspended water vapour is frozen and wherever it has settled surfaces glisten and sparkle like frosted glass.

Hoar frost days are few and far between, but when they do happen and the quality of light is crisp and clear and the air perfectly still, our mundane winter brown gardens are gone. Instead of entering the fabled world of Narnia through the fur coats in the back of the wardrobe, there it is right outside the door.

 

Beautiful as it is to look at and pleasantly dry and crunchy underfoot, every drop of water is locked away, inaccessible to our gardens’ wildlife so a bowl of water is as welcome to the birds as the seed in the bird feeders. In my garden as the frost melts and the white patches recede under the edge of the tree canopy, jackdaws, blackbirds, robins and rooks peck through piles of leaves and loose turf for any tasty worms, grubs or beetles brought to the surface by the thaw and gold finches decide it’s time to visit the teasel heads I’ve left standing through the borders ready for just such an occasion.

 

At times like this when it’s so easy to see the direct benefits which our gardens offer to our dwindling biodiversity, I despair at the increasing fashion for plastic turf and artificial green walls. They are most popular in towns and cities where the demand for low maintenance, no mess and no mowing is at the top of the list of most desirable garden attributes and the inhabitants are furthest from nature.

At a time of year when the effects of overindulgence persuade many of us to join a gym or dig out the running shoes, what better time to get outside in the natural environment of the garden.

We know that it’s good for us, mind, body and soul, so good in fact that there have been recommendations for gardening on prescription.

So forget the plastic grass, lets make this the year to get out and active in the garden and enjoy being part of nature, especially when it looks like Narnia.

 

As featured in the Voice Magazines

Solstice

 

December the 21st, the shortest day of the year might not seem like much of a cause for celebration to us, but to our pre Christian ancestors it was a time to honour their gods by lighting fires, symbolic of the life giving light and heat of the soon to be returning sun.

Many of us have long since forgotten the significance of the winter solstice but to those of us tied by occupation or interest to the natural rhythms of our gardens, this is a turning point in the year from which the hours of daylight slowly begin to lengthen.

 

Until the 17th of January sunset will be just one minute later each day, but every little helps and to the plants and animals in our gardens the hours of daylight and darkness are critical.

Photoperiodism governs many of our plants' processes and they are categorised by how they respond to it. Long day plants flower in spring and early summer when daylight hours are getting longer whereas those which flower after the 21st of June as the days are shortening are called short day plants. Animals respond too, some migrate, others hibernate or grow denser fur or feathers.

 

Unlike plants and animals, our own human biology might not be noticeably affected by photoperiodism, but just like my ancestors I'll be pleased to see the back of the shortest day and look forward to the pleasures I know my garden will give me as the light levels begin to rise and one of the earliest and most beautiful flowers begins to bloom.

 

Hybrid hellebores are the highlight of my winter garden, unaffected by the worst winter weather their wonderful flowers have earned them the common name of Christmas rose and although they are not related to roses at all it is easy to see why.

There are amazing varieties of Helleborus x hybridus, flamboyant doubles, anemone centred, spotted, and picotee flowers to rival anything found in mid summer. Their colours range from sultry slate to gleaming white with every shade of plum and pink between, even pale yellow and apricot too.

 

 

In my garden they have self seeded around and carpet the ground under the apple trees where they illuminate the dark days of the winter solstice and like the fires of my ancestors are a sure sign of lighter and brighter days to come.

As featured in the Voice Magazines

Nippy November

 I'm usually asked to design gardens to be of interest all year round, but let's face it, apart from bonfire night, nippy November is not a month we associate with sitting out in the garden.

A few years ago gas fired patio heaters were all the encouragement we needed to get us out there until we decided that they were a very environmentally unfriendly way to heat up the atmosphere as well as ourselves. Now log burning fire pits provide a fashionable way to warm up and a welcoming hearth to huddle around, but I recently came across a brilliant idea to get people outside, by the terrace doors of a hotel was a basket of woollen blankets.

They've always been the choice of the royal family to keep the breeze from their knees and it was great to see young and fashionable hotel guests draping themselves in locally woven and sustainable wool for a warm and cosy alfresco tipple.


As the sun circles lower in the sky we feel very little heat from it, but late autumn days can often be bright and the garden still has plenty to enjoy. Traditional activities like raking leaves from the lawn, hedge trimming and digging over the vegetable patch are all aerobic exercises and guaranteed to create a rosy glow as well as burn off a few calories and get the heart and lungs working, but warm clothes are a must this time of year too. Last year I discovered thermal gardening gloves and thick furry welly socks to keep me comfortable and shiver free.

I will really miss my summer evening meetings with the hedgehogs as they toddle off to find a sheltered place to hibernate, but now is the time for the little eight legged garden residents to produce one of my favourite sights. During the night spiders spin their delicate webs and as the morning mist clears, the strands festoon the foliage and hanging dewdrops gleam, on a sunny morning the effect is magical.

Soon migrating birds will be here, red wings stopping by to feed on the rowan, cotoneaster and hawthorn berries and I've already seen goldfinches inspecting the teasel heads to see if they're ripe.

As the autumn leaves glow and their fiery colours begin to burn I shall wrap up warm and be out there as much as I can, my garden is here all year round with something of interest to enjoy in every month, even November.  

Flower Power

As the year rolls on towards autumn, colour from the flowers in the garden begins to fade away. Our insatiable appetite for it draws attention to the turning leaves, but it's not yet time to turn away from the beauty of flowers, there's a lot more pleasure to be had from them than from their colour alone. Shape and texture are just as worthy of our appreciation and can extend the season of interest, especially from late summer blooms.

The way in which individual plants are put together to create rhythm and drama, like the composition of a piece of music from single notes, can make the garden sing and there is a garden I recently visited which gives a master class in combining plants.

 

Hauser and Wirth near Bruton in Somerset is a contemporary art gallery where the plantsman and designer Piet Oudolf has created a stunning herbaceous perennial and grass garden from a field.

Many of the plants are North American prairie species so are perfectly suited to the open sunny site and are at their best from mid summer onwards. Space is not an issue here so the drifts of individual species are generous and perfectly in proportion with the surrounding landscape. Colour plays its part but it's the form of the plants themselves and the shapes of their flowers heads which are used so brilliantly. There's an overall feeling of movement which draws visitors through the garden, mounds of planting undulate and weave together to create wave upon wave of plants where flowers blend or contrast in style.

 

Flat headed umbels of Sedum and Achillea sit in front of the spires and spikes of Agastache and Veronicastrum swathed in the frothy dew drops of the grass Sporobolus. Rounded bobbing heads of Echinops and Sanguisorba sway in the breeze and the dark daisy like central disks of Helianthemum contrast their weight against the airy lightness of Echinacea pallida as it dances through Stipa tenuissima.

Japanese Anemone and sky blue Aster remind every visitor that they do know the names of some of the plants, but knowing what the plants are called isn't what matters. It's seeing past the initial impact of fleeting colour to the shape, form and texture of them which will linger as autumn draws on. We can't hold back the season but we can hold on to the beauty and power of flowers.

Times change and so do gardens

The way we garden is often a reflection of the times in which we live, my own way is to respond to the loss of habitat and continuing decline in native species and try to redress the balance in my own patch.

Since the first modern humans evolved we've been changing our landscape to suit our own needs, but in recent centuries up until the intensification of farming, our gardens were seen as a place of refuge from the wild not for it and for the wealthy, whose gardens could be more than a food producing necessity, it was a display of money, power and mastery of the natural world.

I visited Hanbury Hall garden recently, in Worcestershire, a unique National Trust recreation of taste and gardening skill at the end of the C18th where nature is kept firmly in her place behind high hedges within which all is geometry, tranquillity and order.

Individual flowering annuals are shown off as specimens inside tightly clipped box hedges and interspersed with neat topiary. Much of the soil is kept bare by constant weeding in a display of complete dominance over nature's processes. The precision and high levels of skill from what would have been a small army of gardeners is only possible today due to the willingness and dedication of volunteers.

Another garden visit, in complete contrast but only a few days later, was to Allt-y-Bela, the garden and home of renowned landscape architect Arne Maynard. So very different in atmosphere from the formality of Hanbury Hall it too harnesses the skill of shaping and manipulation of plants to create its character. The result however is relaxed and informal and where topiary trees stand around nonchalantly in groups, like people chatting in the garden. Much of the grass remains uncut and the resulting meadows drift out into the landscape over a boundary of hawthorn hedges trimmed into undulating waves, linking the garden perfectly with the same trees dotting the hills around.

Using traditional practises and timeless natural materials from a decidedly modern perspective, this is a garden for the way we live now, a celebration of gardening skills but embracing nature with open arms.

The world around us has changed and I for one am very pleased that our gardens have too.

 

 

 

High summer

It's mid July and summer is making its stately progress through my garden. The few weeks ahead of us are traditionally drier and with fewer weed seeds germinating and slowing growth tidy gardeners should have some respite from the perennial battle with whatever weed is currently most despised. Hopefully a lull in hostilities will give them, as well as the happily weed blind gardeners among us time to just enjoy being out there, absorbing the sights, smells and sounds of high summer and depositing them into our memory banks to be used as a restorative pick me up during the short dim days of winter in the same way that we store surplus rumnner beans or apples. To bring them out to appreciate and savour during the colder months is a sensory treat.

During the depths of the darkest days I find it hard to picture the landscape of summer, the deep green hillsides around me, their lumpy duvet of trees in full leaf and my garden packed with flowers and their attendant insect pollinators. So I've been out snapping away with my camera to try and capture these ephemeral mid summer moments which are so easy to forget when the days are short and the sun only manages a low weary arc above the horizon.

Disturbingly, among the flambouyant flowers, there is evidence already of a change to come and in readyness for leaf fall my Acer palmatum and Euonymus planipes are already turning colour. I try to kid myself that this is just due to dry soil but I know that they are already responding to the almost imperceptible shortening of the days.
I can't help wishing that they would wait a while longer but their colours are lovely and contrast beautifully with their surroundings, just a taste of equally enjoyable things to come.