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.



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



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.

Rewilding my garden

I've just had two incredibly inspiring days listening to two wonderfully inspiring people. One is George Monbiot, a well known environmental journalist and the other Nicola Chester, a naturalist, writer and all round lovely lady.

I now know that what I've been aiming for in my garden for the past three years has a name and that naming helps me justify the decisions I'm making and also the confidence to write about and share it.

It isn't that I'm actively doing a lot, it's more what I'm not doing that makes the difference and the evidence for the difference between my garden and many can be found in the species that call it home.
My unmown meadow lawn is full of wild flowers including orchids. Bumble and solitary bees abound as do birds and from the number of young ones, several have nested here including two mallards whose little fluffy ducklings have been a delight bobbing about on the pond and leaping up to try and catch the damsel flies.

I began the process by concentrating on the smallest components of my garden, the soil dwellers and coverers thinking that if they were in good heart then the rest would hopefully follow and so they seem to have done.

Now I realise that I have top predators here too and I know that they will be responsible for more change and also balance. A sparrow hawk often jets through, I hear a tawny owl regularly, see buzzards circling high overhead, and twice I've spotted a red kite quartering the sky.
A red fox has discovered us too, no doubt he has his eye on the ducklings but he has his place in the scheme of things.

My garden doesn't cover acres, it's a fairly average size and in a town, so if I can rewild my garden then other people can too. It might not be for everyone but if enough of us do it then together we can make a difference. All there is to lose is a boring garden and why would we want that when we could have a wonderfully wild one?

So what's not to like?

It's no accident that the days with the longest hours of light coincide with all that growth and fulsome flowering in the garden. Plants and the seasons are perfectly synchronised; more time for photosynthesis means more energy for growth and flower production and for us there's so much to enjoy in the lush splendour of early summer.

With everything happening outside I begrudge time spent indoors, I don't want to miss a moment in my garden but the natural world is at its most appealing now too and with so much beautiful landscape on my doorstep I'm spoilt for choice.


I garden for wildlife as much as for myself and where nature and my garden most noticeably overlap is in my meadow lawn, my favourite part of the garden at this time of year. I find it exciting for the range of tightly knit plant species and for the insects which feed upon them. Common blue butterflies are some of my favourites, flitting among the long grasses on sunny days and I like to think that they will lay their eggs here too. In my lawn are their larvae's food plants, birds foot trefoil, white clover and black medick. Many bumble and solitary bees species are at home here too and I'm always drawn to the tawny mining bees, their bright ginger furry little bodies easy to spot and recognise.


I love my meadow lawn for its biodiversity but if all I wanted was just colourful summer flowers and very little effort then I couldn't choose anything better. No weeding, feeding, watering, staking, pruning or even much mowing apart from the path around and through it. Just a strim and clear up at the end of the summer with a couple of passes of the mower between then and next spring and that's about it, maximum return for minimum input.


So what's not to like? Why do so very few gardeners leave their weedy lawns to grow and blossom and so very many weed, spray and mow lawn flowers to oblivion?

Answers on a postcard please…...


Blooming Marvellous

May is a wonderful month in the garden, so much is happening that it's hard to keep up with the changes. The amount of growth being made is phenomenal and as spring gives way to summer the list of things we feel obliged to do in the garden seems endless, but as we approach the longest day and the hours of daylight extend, the longer evenings give us a few more daylight hours to be outside.
We're not the only ones making the most of it. The bird nesting season is in full swing and rushing to and from my hive are the perfect examples of busy bees falling over each other as they hurtle in and out, their hairy little legs laden with pollen from all the flowers newly bursting into bloom.
Fruit trees are some of their favourites, with hawthorn, Cotoneaster and lilac too and under the shrubs and trees, bugle, granny's bonnet, violets and bluebells. Out in the sun are poppies, alliums, clover, vetch and bird's foot trefoil offering a feast of pollen and nectar. No wonder the honey bees are so busy.
I'm lucky that my garden is also home to solitary and bumble bees which nest in the free draining soil under my meadow lawn, but May isn't all about colourful flowers, now is the time that the garden is at its freshest green and the colour, form and texture of foliage is at its seasonal best.
New leaves are opening eveywhere, unfurling ferns beneath beautiful vibrant beech, the fine filigree foliage of Japanese maples and by the pond the thrusting verticals of Iris and lush ornamental grasses create a foil for all those lovely meadow flowers.
The year's RHS shows are well under way now and from the 24th to the 28th it's Chelsea Flower Show time again where the horticultual world displays its finest. With all those gorgeous gardens, fabulous flowers and fancy foliage on offer there's inspiration for every gardener. It's a highlight of the year for many of us and part of what makes this Month of May blooming marvellous!

It's been an interesting week...

Well that was very different!
I've just designed a garden for people with whom I've had no contact and a site I couldn't see which any designer will tell you is a near impossibility.
But that, I've discovered, is TV for you and this was for a very good cause. To give a young family a very well deserved helping hand and a new start in life by renovating their home and more importantly from my point of view, their garden.
I've been working as a volunteer with the BBC's DIY SOS programme and it's been a roller coaster of a ride.
Within minutes of arriving on site it was absolutely full of people, all volunteers like me giving up their time willingly to get their own small part a very big job done in a ridiculously short time.
Don't ever think that programmes like that are not what they purport to be, there are no extra teams coming in or weeks taken over the build, it really is all done in just nine days by the kindness, long hours and hard work of the local community and the core DIY SOS team who keep the wheels oiled and men and women well fed and watered.
Well done Monmouth's volunteers and thank you Nick Knowles and the team for asking us to be part of the project. When the programme's been aired pictures will follow so watch this space....

Up close and personal

There are some remarkably flamboyant flowers in my garden just now. There are big double daffodils which passers by seem to like but I'm not very keen on and drifts of wonderfully varied hellebores under the apple trees which I absolutely love, but it's the small flowers, easy to miss in the exuberance of summer, which at this time of year and given some sun, shine out and are well worth a closer look.

Black flowered willow, Salix gacilis 'Melanostachys' is stunning. Deep reddish black and dangerous looking, especially with the sun behind it and what a contrast to the common pussy willow, all shining silver purity.  They say the devil is in the detail, it certainly is with this flower. Hamamelis is really spooky too,  like contorted orange or yellow spiders, these two would be brilliant at halloween!

Down on the ground beneath the shrubs the flowers are much more as expected. Anemone blanda, Pulmonaria and Primula are the essence of early spring, all dainty prettiness.  Muscari, well know as grape hyacynth, is often a cause for complaint as it spreads through an old garden but close up the tubular flowers can be seen as individuals and are the most striking clear blue.
If the sun shines get out there quick, the closer we look the better we know our gardens and that has to be a good thing.



The frogs are here, hooray!!!

Well it's not every garden designer who measures their  success in the number of black eyed blobs of jelly which overnight miraculously appear in their garden pond, most would rate a Chelsea gold medal as the pinnacle of their achievement. Thrilling as a Chelsea gold medal would be of course, I'm actually much more excited by the fact that I now have frogs!

The arrival of so many of them on a still moonlit night when the season and weather conditions must have been just right to gather together to mate and lay their eggs, means that they are happy enough with the pond and its surrounding garden to entrust their offspring to it and for me that's a perfect endorsement of my skill in habitat creation.

Yes I know I'm completely deluded, there are thousands of garden ponds out there with frogs croaking happily away over their slimy bundles of joy but I've been eagerly awaiting their arrival since we took over the garden and the pond was dug two years ago.

First was the discovery of orchids in the lawn, just one species among so many in what is now a carefully managed garden meadow, their blooming brought with it several species of solitary and bumble bees and beautiful blue butterflies.  A pair of mallards found my pond to their taste first as a honeymoon suit (and are still here much to the annoyance of my chickens) and then last summer came the newts, so they arrival of the frogs has been awaited with much anticipation and crossing of fingers and toes.

What creature will be next to find my garden as desirable as I do will be a surprise but whatever it is I'll be excited to see it because with every new form of life that sets up home here it means that my garden is a perfect wildlife habitat and for me that's worth a lot more than any gold medal.


Gardeners are used to coping with change. Month by month, season by season, our gardens come into spring growth, flowers flourish through the summer, seeds are set and foliage dies away as the plants hunker down for another winter.


Well that's how it used to be, but now things are less predictable and the consensus of scientific opinion is agreed, our climate is changing, our weather is set to become warmer, wilder and wetter and we all need to adapt and do our bit to lessen the impacts wherever and however we can.


Many of us have garden ponds and these can be beneficial in so many ways, brilliant for wildlife, lovely to sit by on a nice day and as the water evaporates in the sun it gives the surrounding plants a more humid atmosphere and that's just for starters.

Mine is fed by rain from the roof via the down pipe so that if there is only a little rain the pond is better refreshed and in heavy prolonged downpours a little less water goes into the main drains and instead the outfall from the pond takes the excess on a meandering route through a border of shrubby willows and other moisture lovers, giving me another planting opportunity and my garden another habitat for wildlife.


There are so many things we can do as individuals which collectively make a difference, like not buying peat based compost, reducing food miles by growing a few of our own fruit and vegetables, reducing the number of times we mow the lawn or reducing the area we mow, thereby reducing the amount of fuel burned and carbon released by the mower.


Planting even just one tree is worthwhile, not a huge Leyland cypress in a small garden of course but an appropriately sized one for the space we have. As trees grow they give off oxygen, absorb pollutants, reduce rain run off and soil erosion, provide food for insects and birds and eventually when mature offer a shady place to sit.

We may not be the ones doing the sitting, but planting a long lived species is planting for the future so that generations to come can enjoy our trees as we enjoy those planted by  past generations, and in doing so we contribute if only in a very small way to saving the planet, one garden at a time.

Ups and downs

As the year comes to an end, looking back over our gardens' successes and failures seems a sensible tradition to follow, to learn from our mistakes and recognise where we can do better is no bad thing in the garden as it is in the rest of life.

This year I thought my meadow lawn was splendid, but apart from raking seed into the bare bits and keeping my husband away from his mower I can take no credit at all, the wild flowers just love my free draining soil, as do the tulips.

The red ones in the grass were so cheerful with the buttercups, the deep dark burgundy 'Ronaldo' and the pale cream 'City of Vancouver' were just lovely and would have been even better if I'd planted them together instead of at opposite ends of the garden, so I've ordered more for next year and will do just that.

Some short and squat shocking pink ones whose name I have forgotten were a big mistake, they disgraced the front border for weeks this spring, so I've made a mental note to pick them as they come into flower next year before they can shriek at more unfortunate passers by.

Embarrassing as the horrible pink tulips were, they paled into insignificance in the face of the dismal autumn fruiting raspberries which I neglected so badly that from a double row I picked no more than a handful of berries. Left smothered in weeds and unwatered who can blame them, but being at the back of the house at least my failure was private.

A shame though that the pond is out of sight too, the plants around it did beautifully, much to my and my bees delight.

A big surprise were the French beans which produced the loveliest pale apricot and cream flowers for months, despite that we only had a few meals from them but you can't have everything and if our gardens teach us anything it's that.

Every year has its ups and downs but one thing we gardeners have in common is an unfailing optimism and belief in the promise of another year.

As this one ends and our gardens appear uninviting, look closer, the hellebores are in bud and under the ground things are moving, bulbs are getting ready to push their noses up through the soil and a whole new cycle of life is just about to begin.

An incredible number of edibles.

Making a cup of mint tea from the patch outside the back door reminded me of the lemon verbena I also like to make tea from, it sits among a few plants in pots which I like the look of together and by coincidence are all edible. 

The garlic chives and varieties of thymes for when I want something to taste of Italy and the scented Pelargonium leaves and the lovely lavender for flavouring cakes.
For no better reason than idle curiosity, and discounting the vegetables which are grown only for eating, I've added up all the plants in my garden that earn a place for other reasons but are also edible. Bay, rosemary and sage are great ornamental shrubs in a dry raised bed through which runs purple fennel for height and very useful near the kitchen no matter what meat's for Sunday lunch.

There are fruits all around the garden, apples, Japanese wineberry, rhubarb, raspberries, wild and cultivated strawberries and in the hedges up sprout hazels, plums, blackberries and elder, from which I make cordial and elderberry flu remedy. I've no idea if it works but it tastes wonderful.
There are less obvious wildlings too, wild garlic packs a punch when the leaves are young and nettles are actually ok if you cook them when very new and in with other things; apparently they're packed full of vitamins.

If I include all the things my chickens peck at in order to make their eggs for me and all the nectar rich flowers the bees forage on to turn into honey then the list is staggering.

It's a huge plus to be able to enjoy the taste of my garden as well as its beauty and the close contact with wildlife it gives me.

Freshness and flavour are guaranteed, totally pesticide free and unlike the number of miles much of our food has travelled to get to our kitchens the few steps needed to pick from the garden are insignificant.

So as I sip my mint tea and wonder if I should freeze some leaves or dry then for using over winter, I realise that the fruits are all finished, the leaves will soon be gone and only the hazel nuts are still to come. It will be slim pickings over winter, thank goodness for Waitrose!

Whatever next!

Every summer begins with my firm intention to visit a few private gardens open to the public, especially those that have been planned by other garden designers. Most summers come and go and the good intentions remain just that but this year I was determined and made the time to get to several. Each one had something to make the trip worthwhile.

In one garden I found not only inspiration but also a challenge to a very long held prejudice where a beautiful burgundy red flower on a lush and leafy perennial grabbed my attention. Stunned, I recognised it straight away as a Dahlia, a species I've never liked nor given house room to in my own garden, despite their return to fashion in recent years.
What a fabulous flower, matched only by two others in different gardens, one of which was another Dahlia!
What a mistake to dismiss a whole species and miss out on such beauties particularly at this end of the year when as I can now see, their bold forms complement the glowing colours of autumn so well.

In complete contrast the other stand out plant was much more to my usual taste, a lovely sky blue Salvia uliginosa, head and shoulders above everything else waving around in the wind among the bleaching heads of tall grasses, a perfect combination.

Other grasses were memorable too, Miscanthus used as a monoculture completely surrounding a swimming pool was simple and serene, a perfect plant for the application as wind break and screening and at its best in mid to late summer when the pool would be most used.
The garden was designed by Tom Stuart Smith so I had anticipated brilliance and found it not only around the pool but also in the way it made me completely rethink my opinion of clipped and shaped yew.
Earlier in the year I'd visited a garden known for its use of tall yew hedges which I'd found dark and oppressive, but here they were much lower, rhythmic and playfully shaped providing a very different atmosphere.

Pictures of gardens might give us the general idea but it's only by being in them that we can appreciate how they make us feel and visiting open gardens is a brilliant opportunity to understand how we respond to them, experience other people's tastes and most importantly question our own.

This year I've been converted to Dahlias, whatever next!

Saving the seeds of success

There are some lovely late summer flowering combinations to enjoy this month. In full sun, tall asters like 'Monch' shine brightly among ornamental grasses like the stately spires of Calamagrostis 'Karl Foerster'. The beautiful white Japanese anemone 'Honorine Jobert' partnered with Hydrangea quercifolia glows in cool shade and the hot oranges and reds of Crocosmia are looking wonderful, but some earlier bloomers are now definitely past their prime.

Having flowered their hearts' out through spring and early summer, for some plants the job is done for another year and the seed of the next generation has been set, so now is the perfect time to take advantage of their generosity and if they have been successful and already proved their worth in the garden then we know that they will thrive and the more the merrier.

In my garden opium poppies have produced enough seed to populate the whole of Monmouthshire with their varied progeny, some in quite astonishing colours but all equally beautiful. The seed heads make statuesque additions to the borders right through late summer, autumn and into winter, so I leave most of them alone to do their own thing and scatter the ripe seed themselves as they sway in the wind, but I like to shake the seeds from a few heads into paper bags 'just in case' which I keep over winter to sow myself in spring in places where they haven't yet colonized.

Forget me not and Aquilegia have much the same prolific nature, they are stalwarts of my garden and have been reliable early flowerers for generations of gardeners before me.
Wild carrot, a biennial mainstay of newly sown meadows and Verbena bonariensis are relative newcomers to our gardens, but when happy will seed themselves around freely. Like the lovely soft feathery leaved herb fennel with which Verbena looks wonderful, they will flower in the first year so can be treated like annuals and sown in autumn or spring just where you want them to flower.

Gardening can often be a very expensive occupation requiring more than a little hard work so when I'm offered lots of easy plants for very little effort and completely free then I'm all for it and if my plants are happy enough in my garden to want their next generation to live here too then that's great.

Happy plants, happy garden, happy gardener!