We need performers!

We all look for outstanding performers … so here are a few plants that in my opinion, merit an ‘outstanding’ award.

I have an all-consuming passion for trying new plants and arranging them in my garden.  There are some that truly add value for many months requiring little maintenance – just an annual trim.  It is a bit like my house really. After all, if there is not time for endless gardening, there isn’t time for endless housekeeping.  I know which one I prefer. 

Here are some notes on three enduring and pleasing plants for you to consider.  Even if these plants are not to your taste, you will find that if a plant is well placed and allowed to flourish, it will become part of the furniture, the backbone, and joy of your garden.  Do not discount them.

Soft shield fern (Polystichum setiferum).  Plant it in shade

I have a few varieties of these, all are graceful, low maintenance, and add essential texture.  I would say that half the people I design for dismiss ferns as they see plants for their ‘flowers’ rather than foliage.   Funnily enough, I used to not like ferns myself, but now I have the perfect site for a collection of them, I cannot have enough. 

In general, when you come to choose a plant for your garden, think first of the foliage, and then the flower.   Flowers are short-lived and are only there for one purpose.  I was given a fabulous book one year, called ‘Plant Love, the scandalous truth about the sex life of plants’, by Michael Allaby.  It has chapters with intriguing titles like ‘tarts and hookers… meet the flowers that are wide open and available to all insect life, or ‘Boozers and Chancers’. 

I am all for plants that attract an insect.  The decline of habitat caused by interaction with mankind, endangers natures pollinators so anything that helps insects is good in my book.  OK.  So polystichum isn’t great for attracting insects, but what it is good for is adding structure to a shady woodland border.   I make the case for plant diversity to help all wildlife.  Better to have choice plants, than bare soil or a lifeless grass lawn (more of that another time!)

Black eyed Susan (Rudbeckia sullivanti)Plant it in full sun.  Not for the feint hearted when it comes to colour with their truly gold / ochre yellow, petals.  Late and long flowering they take no work.  No staking, happy on clay.  They survive drought and heat as well as winter wet, though interestingly this year they did not grow as tall as usual last year, due to a dry spring.  They aren’t too vigorous and their seed heads make a tasty snack for the birds.  Up until they are chomped away, that is, they have structural dark brown seed heads, and are attractive in their own right.  This means they offer a warming spectacle from cheerful to muted, from July one year, through to March, the next. 

And for my final offering today, I share with you the wonderful wildlife plant, tall vervain aka purpletop vervain (Verbena bonariensis).  Sun or partial shade. Did you know there are fashions with plants?  I am told that this is now out of fashion.  Madness!  I don’t believe in plant trends – create your own, that’s what I say!  At maturity tall vervain will grow to between 4 and 8’, depending on fertility and water.   It can make a great see-through screen and is perfect for bees and butterflies as well as later becoming bird food.  It associates well with tall grasses like Stipa Gigantea.   I let it seed wherever it wants, and just move it if clashes with plants where it lands, with its purple lilac clusters of teeny tiny flowers.

It is a great performer.

Feeling fruity? Sharing my favourite fruiting plants with you!

With warm weather and a reasonable dollop of rain a week or two ago, fruit is swelling around the garden, harmonising with my gently growing lockdown girth.  There is no such a thing as too much gooseberry ice-cream.

If you have space to grow fruit in your garden, but think fruit bearing plants don’t look too comely, there are several species that not only offer succulent flavour for your palate, but offer ornamental good-looks to the garden.  Beauty and productivity; the best kind of plant in my book.  

Here are a few of my favourite plants to inspire you, and one or two suggested by my colleagues.

Apricot ‘Flavorcot’; I am growing this on clay soil in a sheltered south facing position.  The tree bears a wonderful fruit, that has no resemblance to shop–bought apricots.  My tree produces soft orange fruit with a superb flavour and Factor 9 on the juicy stakes.  What is more, the tree has attractive leaves and blossom and new flushes of growth are a great peachy colour.

Apple ‘Red Windsor’; It is self-fertile dessert apple, so there is no need to worry about pollination partners. It grows tidily and apples can be picked over several weeks, so you do not have to deal with a glut.  It seems untroubled by the usual diseases of apples and the fruit is a beautiful bright red colour. 

Quince, Chaenomales catheyensis.  This has exquisite white flowers and produces large fragrant fruit.  Also great for making jellies.  The tree is not too vigorous, or too unwieldy.

Japanese wineberry; This is a Japanese climbing raspberry.  Lovely hairy red stems cut through the winter gloom.  It is not too thorny and has gorgeous flower clusters.  Tasty raspberry berries have a  a hint of sherbet on the finish according to garden writer Alys Fowler.   The plant is best fan trained to a wall or fence, but can be grown as a bush.  This one is not prone to pests and diseases or suckering.  I have just bought two for my garden after being inspired on a recent Webinair lecture by Jim Abury the Horticultural Specialist in fruit, at RHS Wisley.

I hope you are inspired.  Whilst you look the plants up, I am off to the kitchen to make sure I put the gooseberry ice-cream back in the freezer…

Nurturing your garden talent!

I started gardening, really quite late. I was one of those people who couldn’t touch a worm (the closest I got was of the book variety) and my knees were permanently free of mud. One day, by chance I started having children, age 26, and decided to nurture them myself. Poor kids. They would testify to this. So of course I looked out of the window, bored stiff with domestic duties and started propagating in a much easier way. I started with dahlia cuttings from a tuber, and didn’t look back. Utterly obsessed I’ve driven my children away from anything to do with gardening, although, reassuringly something has rubbed off, as young adults ageing between 24 and 31, they are more interested now they have their own homes.

So the purpose of this blog is to let you know that after 25 years of growing plants, designing planting schemes, propagating, reading plant bibles copiously and taking endless interest in garden related reading matter, I have found a new avenue to share my enthusiasm. Hopefully you!

Since March 2020, and with ‘lockdown’ limiting how much I have been able and willing to mix with others (we are shielding my daughter’s partner), I decided to set up a WhatsApp group for our lovely villagers in Outwood, and a few friends and family. It has been popular, and I have enjoyed sharing my knowledge on all things gardening, gardens, plants, manure, winter structure, pests. The science element in me has always been strong, and the creative side has grown with age. I always was a bit ‘left field’, but have the drive to put my ideas into practice. Don’t worry, I am really quite sensible!

Enough about me. I’d like to know if you might be interested in joining my brand new service? It is a WhatsApp group where I answer questions to all members, focusing on your garden, your concerns with it, and how I can help, remotely, through the medium of messages.

Once I am able to circulate more freely and not compromising the health of family members who live with me I will be keen to return to visiting people within my area. Until then, why not contact me on 07776 448889 and see if you’d like to join my group. Please see my Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/igarden.me/ for more information, or just contact me via the website. Looking forward to chatting with you about your garden concerns!

A burning question. Is leaf mold edible?

No. Leaf mold is however the ultimate garnish for your garden borders. A culinary equivalent would be a no-calorie, but delicious icing on the cake ; icing that permeates gently through until your cake is light and airy. In the soil, it improves texture – how the soil feels. If you have clay soil it breaks it up. If you have sandy or impoverished chalky soil it bulks it up. Mixing leaf mold into planting holes or using it as a mulch, helps the soil hold on to water. Counter-intuitively your soil will also drain more freely. It is simply tip top at helping create the perfect and most manageable soil. Have you seen those labels in plant pots, which say ‘prefers moist, well- drained soil’? They make you groan inwardly, and dream ‘if only, if only’. Well the good news is that this perfect soil, easy to work and lowering plant care maintenance is attainable: just get your hands on, or better still, make, your very own leaf mold.

How do you do this. Rake up and pile up the leaves, but definitely don’t burn them (think carbon emissions). I place rabbit fencing round stakes so the air gets in there but the wind can’t let them fly. Alternatively bag them up and stick your fork through the bottom of your bags – recycle compost bags perhaps – so air can get in there and speed the decomposition. If you can’t get hold of leaves, any well rotted organic matter is a godsend to add to your border, whatever your soil type.

I saw my hair dresser today, the lovely Sam who told me she spent time with her family in the garden at the weekend clearing up oak leaves and enjoying being outside. I’m looking forward to seeing Sam’s leaf mold (and even more so, her newest family member due in 10 days) Good luck Sam !

To NGS or not to NGS?

Yesterday I invited the Surrey Chairman of NGS around to see my English Cottage garden. Margaret Arnott gave a great talk at my village Hort Soc AGM last week, about the history of the National Garden Scheme, and invited us villagers to queue up and offer up our gardens in aid of charity. The queue was regrettably for the wine and cheese. We are a modest lot.

However, it’s true, I’m a show-off when it comes to my own garden. I LOVE my garden. It gives me hours of contemplation, exercise, mental and physical, as well as calm on a calm day, and excitement in wilder weather. So I took up the gauntlet and thought I’d see if my garden might be worthy some time in the future, and invited Margaret around to see where improvements could be made.

Margaret and her husband Terry spent a good hour with me on a damp but clear November day, when most of the autumn leaves had fallen from the trees. I have created a few new beds recently, and with only the bare bones of the garden showingin general, it was understandable that Margaret thought the garden was interesting (it has an interesting layout and a bit of my quirky whimsy to entertain) but needed a couple more years of growth.

My personal style is for structure, a changing scene over the year, wildlife friendly and nectar rich planting year round, and harmonising colours in different areas. This is not a garden to everyone’s tastes but it works for me. I also love to create a clean and simple design for those who are less addicted to plants than I am, so that they too can enjoy great performing plants.

After a pleasant hour I realised the answer is to brush up on baking skills, and call Margaret up in the summer for tea and cake, when the garden has live leaves instead of dead ones, perennials are filling the gaps, and stone work is pressure-washed. Hmmm, with that list of tasks, maybe I’ll be grateful for a couple of years before giving it a whirl….

Are you enjoying autumn?

Are you a ‘greens and exercise’ outdoor kind of person? Or a ‘look out of the window with half an eye on the television’ sort? Whoever you identify with, I challenge you to find your nearest green space and look closely. The ground is truly soaked, but if you are lucky to have an acer in your garden or local park, some of these are still looking intensely fiery and gorgeous. Well worth a step outside to enjoy one glowing in low evening light.

I have just cleared around Acer Osakazuki (not the one pictured below) and barely had to distrub the ground. The ground is so wet ..at field capacity if you like a technical term.. that all those tap root weeds slide out of even the heaviest of clay like a lychee popping from its skin. I’ve quartered the time it takes to weed an area, spending only 20 minutes in the garden and heaving out enough of the weedy blighters to fill a few bushel trugs. Of course you’re not supposed to stand on wet ground as it compacts the soil, so you also have every reason not to do anything.

Below is a lovely photo of my nephew and my husband under an Acer, so even though you are currently looking at a screen, I give you the gift of autumn colour. Enjoy!

Lazy gardening habits – my favourite.. and yours?

Mizzle, drizzle, downpour…tiresome and not a little worrisome. A sign of our climate change. It is not all bad news : it’s been torrential enough that I haven’t lugged a watering can round to water in transplants, PLUS I am anticipating a glorious show of camellias next Spring; Camellia flower buds are formed during autumn and rely on consistently moist soil.

But my poor old succulents are looking fed up (that is not a euphemism) and my sages are a bit bedraggled. My garden is on the deepest plug of clay in England, I swear it . Clay is hopeless for plants wanting sharp drainage. I religiously add copious quantities of muck and compost twice a year to improve the soil structure and drainage and it is a godsend.

This week whilst it rained, I listened to the RHS John MacLeod 2017 lecture which offered valid information for today. A guest speaker from Cornell University informed the lecture-ees about climate change and how we gardeners can play our part to minimise emissions. Here follows the summary slide. We can all adopt these practices, and enjoy more time sitting in the garden under our newly planted tree, whilst feeling virtuous about being a lazier gardener.

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An autumn frenzy


The first ferocious frost bejewels the garden. Magpies are scavenging beneath the birdfeeders to see off those greedy pigeons. This weekend I am looking forward to extending a bed of grasses of Miscanthus ”Silberfeder’ to make a greater swathe. Grasses are not everyone’s cup of tea, but over the years I have become a convert. There are many plants I have changed my view on. I used to especially dislike fir trees, bergenias, ivy, and the ‘swingers plant’ cortaderia. In the same way, as a child, I disliked cheese, marmalade, olives, uncooked tomatoes, cabbage and marmite … now I love’em all. As with food, plants have to be combined in the right way in order to enjoy them at their best. Although I’m not averse to a bit of marmalade on cheese.

The ivy above is ‘Green Man’. Forget our common hedera helix and don’t judge all ivies by this. The ornamental ivies are great for wildlife, are low maintenance and you can chop them any time of year without worrying. They are good groundcover too and have a wide range of leaf shapes and variegation to enjoy. Some are vigorous, some are petite. Use them in pots too.

Cornus Midwinter Fire starts to show off

Here is the fabulous Cornus ‘Midwinter Fire”. It is has rich coloured autumn foliage and then the stems are stunning once the leaves have dropped. It looks great from now until spring, and low sun makes it glow during winter months. Planted with Chinese lanterns (invasive but oh so worth a bit of extra weeding) and Nandina ‘Fire power’, it is a great combination. The evergreen Euphorbia in the foreground is self seeded and makes a splendid foliage shape contrast. Fortuitous. I love that about gardening, sometimes something arrives where you want it, instead of where you don’t.

Planting ideas…

I adore this tree for its spring flowers which are white fading to rose, and are single and semi-double. It has light green attractive foliage, and then the fabulous autumn colour you can see pictured. It is Prunus shirotae, and is an absolute beauty. If you have space for a prunus (this ones spreads wider rather than taller). It acts as a great natural feeding station for birds. My neighbour loved it so much she has bought one for her garden too.