Thursday, 01 May 2014 00:00

How to buy, grow and prune Wisteria ...

Written by this glorious, scented beauty.

As I write this evening, the scent from my amazing Wisteria ‘Alba’ that now drapes over the back end of the house and comes all the way from the hot bed (where it is not yet fully in flower) is flooding into the kitchen through the open French doors. Yes, it is mingled with the scent of the Lonicera x americana that grows with it, but the overall, intoxicating perfume is Wisteria. It’s something one only experiences for around a month a year but it’s all the more special for that. And it looks amazing!

Wisteria floribunda 'Alba' across the South facing kitchen wall

I know some people who think Wisteria is a nasty, common, plant like Buddleja. I disagree on both. As well as being a plant lover I am a wildlife lover and both plants attract myriad insects by day and night. That’s great in my book. Yes, they can both get big and ungainly but only if you don’t know how to handle them. And they are so simple to control that no one should worry, even in a small garden. I have three Wisteria (one of each main type) and two Buddleja in a 60ft back garden and they all perform marvellously.

Others are terrified of Wisteria because of the supposed very specific pruning requirements. But the truth is that Wisteria is really easy to handle and prune if you just know a few basic facts.

I don’t normally write “How to..” type stuff in this blog but, given there’s poetry and allsorts already, I don’t really see why not when the need seems to be there. I have met so many people in the last few weeks who are not confident about growing Wisteria that I think it deserves a blog – because the truth is it is a very easy plant to grow and look after, and is wonderfully rewarding. I seek to de-bunk its scary reputation.

So, this piece is written to encourage those of you without a Wisteria to go out now and buy one, in the complete confidence that you will have it in flower, be able to control it and enjoy it for many years to come if you follow some simple advice. It could also be of value to those of you who have recently bought or inherited one but are unsure which it is or how best to care for it.


Wednesday, 26 February 2014 18:03

Past, present, future - and FROGS!

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On Tuesday, 18th February at precisely 2.41pm, under a bright blue sky and a warming sun following a heavy shower, I heard frogs.

As you know this thrills my soul after their obvious silence during their winter hibernation.  As I am well aware, following last year’s fiasco of a similar occasion on 26th February, sadly this does not herald the start of Spring. We have to wait for the toads to tell us exactly when we can start vernal celebrations proper.

But it is the start of activity in the garden for 2014. A few lone bees have been buzzing around over the last couple of weeks and the birds have been feeding and singing, despite the horrendous winds and torrential rains. But frogs mean something different. A new noise, a new activity in the garden that at least indicates the beginning of the end of Winter?

On hearing their songs, I rushed to the pond, camera in hand and found six, two of whom were already mating – or at least starting the close-coupled, piggyback, wooing preliminaries because there is no spawn yet. I’ve tried to record one for the video but I doubt you can hear it above the noise of the stream, the aeroplanes and the birds. I turned the pond pump off but they seem to stop croaking when I do this which is very unhelpful because frogs are not happy to be miked up individually.

It’s pretty mixed in the garden just now. It still looks very bare as most of the deciduous trees and shrubs are still leafless but this moment in the year seems to combine past, present and future more than any other time in the garden. Some plants have continued to flower from Autumn through ‘til now such as the odd rose, Cobea scandens, Abutilon 'Kentish Belle', and the daisy. Those that should be flowering at this time like Daphne bholua, Sarcoccoca, Chaenomeles, Mahonia, hellebores and snowdrops are doing it exhuberantly, and those that herald the start of Spring, like daffodils, are opening, the tulips are just pushing up, the Camelias are in good bud or springing into glorious flower and even lots of mid season Clematis are in bud.

And I have more fish than I thought which is great news. I knew Big Yellow was still in there but there were no signs of any others until yesterday. The fish at least have decided it’s the beginning of Spring and come up from the murky depths of the pond to feed. So I discovered I still have at least six. Silver Rocket, the shabunkins and some goldfish have survived the winter and the heron. 

So now I shall keep my eyes peeled for the toads. We could do with an early Spring this year after the prolonged misery of last year’s Winter and this year’s rains and floods.

I use this opportunity to express my sincere sympathies with those across the country whose land, gardens and homes have been flooded this Winter. I can’t imagine what it must be like to see a beloved garden submerged but even worse to have one’s farmlands and home invaded by water, and dirty water at that, with all it means for lack of income, future home saleability, impossible insurances and asset devaluation. My thoughts are with you.

We are lucky here. In Clapham we are high above the Thames though the ‘Honey Brook’ which goes to the River Wandle, runs under my street. The floods have shown up in my cellar in the form of rising water table but I am prepared for that and it is only a few inches of water. The cellar floor is six feet below anything important so I have not been affected like many of you outside London.

I fear we have to be prepared for more similar weather over winters to come but, for me, a tiny consolation and ray of hope has come from this year’s first appearance of the frogs in the pond.

Tuesday, 07 January 2014 17:24

Better late than never?

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Mea culpa, I’ve been very late getting the garden to bed this winter. Normally the first frosts hit the Dahlias around November and I dig them up (because they don’t over-winter well in my clay soil), dry them out in the greenhouse, and then store them in an old laundry basket in newspaper and straw in the shed.  I also plant any new daffodil and tulip bulbs in beds and pots and try to do this by December at the latest.

For a variety of exceptionally boring reasons, none of this happened in 2013. Luckily, we’ve only had one mild frost in SW London to date (though horrible rains and winds), so the dahlias were still not blackened by Christmas. As I left for a family holiday time in Worcestershire, I felt guilty......but not very. “It’s been mild” I told myself.

                                                    Dahlia tubers drying in the bubble-wrapped greenhouse

So, I have just come in having finally bubble-wrapped the greenhouse, dug up the Dahlias and planted the tulips. I’ve also re-done my North-facing front window pots (simple blue and lavender shades winter pansies) and kitchen window pot (Hellebore ‘Christmas Carol’ - which has lovely, large, white, upward-held flowers - with two variegated Japanese rushes, Acorus Ogon, whose light green and yellow colours contrast with the dark green leaves of the Hellebore). The Hellebore was very expensive (£10.99), hence only the one, but its large, open flowers sparkle at me through the kitchen window as I write and cheer me, so it was well worth it.

                                                   The Hellebore and rushes in the kitchen window pot

I bought some tulip bulbs months ago but most went mouldy in the shed so I just had two, more recent, packets left – one of orange doubles called ‘Chameleon’ (because apparently they turn red from orange) and one of the statuesque, dark purple ‘Queen of the Night’ given to me by my friend Victoria. Both had started sprouting in their bags in the shed but looked fine. I have planted them together, in two pots, (in John Innes No 2 compost with lots of gravel and a bit of multipurpose on top) in the hope that they will flourish despite being planted so late. I hadn’t planned it like this but, if they flower, they will provide a striking homage to the colour palette of the late, great Christopher Lloyd of Great Dixter fame.

Which is a happy coincidence because I am now reading the new edition of the charming and informative “Dear Friend and Gardener”, the book of letters between him and Beth Chatto. For fear of losing an eye or two I can only read it when out of bed because it’s a hardback.  I've discovered I also need an Encyclopaedia of Plants at my side as I read so I know exactly what they are talking about. I thought I was pretty good for an amateur. I’m only a couple of chapters in but already I now know I know nothing!

I digress.

I have also just given "Marie Antoinette" a severe wig cut (ie hard pruned the roses Ghislaine de Feligonde and Phyllis Bide over the gated arch), and have yet to do the same to R. Graham Thomas and his covering of Clematis macropetala. I have also not yet swept up the fallen leaves. I anyway tend not to sweep them all, I only clear the paths, pond and major piles. In the flower beds I like the worms to pull the leaves down into the clay to add organic matter, even if it looks a bit unkempt for a few months. It’s amazing how quickly they disappear. They provide natural mulch, heat and protection for the soil and insects (so food for birds) and they protect hibernating frogs and toads under the shed. The only downside of this approach is that dog poo is much harder to spot! But the truth is the gravel area by the greenhouse and shed needs clearing of leaves so I shall do this when the rain stops.

                                             View from the end of the garden with the gate arch roses cut back

Talking of tulips (if you are following closely), the blog has just been found by a Dutch gardener and cook and her Tweet has brought lots of welcome new interest in the site from The Netherlands. As it happens I have family in Holland, indeed a have a real Dutch Uncle. My maternal aunt married a lovely, sailing Dutchman and I have two great Dutch cousins and extended family there. So, “dus van harte welkom om de nieuwe lezers en kijkers in Nederland” – though of course this is fairly unnecessary since you all speak impeccable English!

As you will have realised by now, this is a fairly ‘random’ blog with no video. My excuse is it’s winter and there’s not much happening in the garden yet, though there are a few plants in flower and the Daphne is now out again, scenting the air and keeping my spirits up. The birds are still around and feeding, the fish have disappeared to the bottom of the pond, and the frogs and toads are hibernating.

                                     Top from L to R: Abutilon 'Kentish Belle'; Cobea scandens; Sarcocca confusa
              Bottom from L to R: Jasminium nudiflorum; Chrysanthemum frutescens; Daphne bhuloa 'Sir Peter Smithers'

Apart from those of you in The Netherlands, I’d love to know where the rest of you are. Each blog gets between 600 and 3,000 hits so it would be great to know where you are living. We’ve still got a real problem with Google analytics on this site so it would be great if you could either leave a comment and tell me who and where you are (I promise to keep your details secret) or let me know via Twitter @RosiesBG or on Facebook at RosiesBackGarden. Many thanks and Happy New Year to you all.


Saturday, 30 November 2013 00:00

Time to plant a tree or two

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You may not know this but we are in ‘National Tree week’.

The major online plant shops are promoting this as a time to buy trees. And why not? Trees are completely wonderful, an important addition to any garden, and they're much more colourful and interesting than people think because many flower and have fruits, as well as changing colour. And this is a great time to plant them, especially given how late Autumn is.

My garden, as you know, is small but I wouldn’t be without my trees. They add height, structure, cover for birds and lots of beauty and colour interest from their flowers, fruits and leaf colours. If I could plant more trees I would, but I already have twelve in just 140 square metres, four of which I inherited, and there has to be room for everything else too.

I think the selection of trees for a small garden is much more critical because each one needs to be very special. One of my prime requirements is that they don’t stop the ground under and around them from being able to grow flowers and shrubs, so they can’t create too much shade or drop poisonous needles.

Based only on my personal experience, I’d recommend many of the trees in my garden. The inherited small silver birch (unknown variety) adds elegance and lovely colours throughout the year and a beautiful noise as the wind goes through it, but it does drop catkins and twigs.

Silver birch (betula unknown)

The inherited Rowan (Sorbus unknown, probably aucuparia) has interesting shaped branches, stays small and is lovely when covered in its white flowers and orange/red berries (spring and late summer/autumn). The bird feeders sit in it and the blackbirds live in it and then eat all the berries.

Rowan tree (Sorbus unknown)

The leaves on mine go yellow in autumn but there are others I would recommend that turn much more beautiful colours at the end of the year such as ‘Joseph Rock’ with red leaves and yellow berries and the somewhat larger S. 'Olympic Flame' with red leaves and berries.

Above: Sorbus 'Joseph Rock   Photo source:

The inherited fruiting cherry (unknown) is really too big for a garden this size and is the one I have to have cut and thinned on a regular basis. Its leaf cover is very dense causing a lot of shade and the blossom is so brief that I think the smaller, more decorative, non-fruiting versions would be a better choice.

The beauty of pink blossom and burgundy leaves in parents' old garden

I am particularly fond of the dark leaved trees with pink flowers. These include Prunus cerasifera Pissarii but this can get quite large at 5x4m, so smaller ones to look at are:Pendula Pendula Rubra AGM (3x3m) though it has green leaves but good autumn colour; Royal Burdundy AGM which is 5x3m; and Kiku-shidare-zakura (below) which is also weeping and, at only 2.5x2.5m, can also go in a pot.

Above: Prunus Kiku-shidare-zakura   Photo source:

The smaller Acers are also great value. I have four acers (two A. palmatum ‘Orange Dream’, an A.palmatum ‘Sunset’ which is like a purpureum but smaller (and is not ‘Orange Sunset’) and an A. palmatum dissectum ‘Garnet’) the latter two of which are brilliant red as I write, and the former two are turning orange again from their Summer acid green. These colours look great day and night, especially if you have a handy spotlight nearby.

Left: Acer palmatum 'Sunset'. Right: Acer palmatum 'Orange Dream'

The Eucalyptus niphophila I planted is a tall, straight, slow growing one and, though its bark is not quite as spectacular as others, it’s very pretty green/grey white with reddish stems to the leaves. It’s a great size for a small garden and has not had to be reduced. It is now about 5 metres high. Apparently it has white flowers that attract bees and I can’t believe I have never noticed these. It throws old leaves down but only behind the greenhouse, so it’s not a problem.

Eucalyptus niphophila

Crab apple John Downie is a small, tall-ish, thin crab apple so again a good choice for a smaller garden if you want a fruit tree. I have to admit that I am still not very good at apple tree pruning and don’t get the amount of blossom and fruit I would like but I’m working on it and I know it is my fault not the tree’s.

Weeping fruit trees are also a good idea. My mum has a beautiful weeping silver pear, Pyrus salicifolia 'Pendula' AGM, which she grows a lovely pale blue geranium under and through. It can get big (8-12m) unless you prune it, but is slow growing and can be controlled as a small tree.

Pyrus salicifolia 'Pendula' around Geranium

She also has a tree I covet, Styrex japonicus. She has it over a bench because its lovely, scented, white flowers which come out in Summer hang down and are best viewed from underneath. It can get a bit big (ie 8-12m x 4-8m) but it is also slow growing and will achieve this over 20 years and can be pruned back. It is very pretty and highly recommended.

Styrax japonicus                                 Photo shot by Gondahara on May20, 2006

Cornus contraversa 'Variegata' or 'the Wedding Cake tree' is a classic. It is beautifully tiered, has lovely leaves, white flowers in June, good colours in Autumn with berries and is pretty hardy.  But it can get quite big too (8mx 8m), so not really one for very small garden sadly. More for medium sized ones where it can be a feature tree or mix beautifully with others.

Above: Cornus contrversa variegata  Photo source:

The Albizia julibrissia "Ombrella = Boubri PBR" I planted is doing exactly what I needed it for. It is gently hiding a large expanse of my neighbour’s house wall and it has lovely foliage like a mimosa which closes at night. It has spectacular pink flowers in summer and is a tree you see a lot in the South of France, Spain and Italy. It looks much more tender and exotic than it is because it is hardy to -17 C. Apparently this Ombrella form is a rare form. The more common A. julibrissia rosea AGM, which is very similar to look at, is frost tender. I have raised the crown on mine so it doesn’t create too much shade for the nearby climbing roses and it looks very elegant. It now comes with green or purple leaves so really worth searching out if you live south of Scotland and want something exotic, elegant, flowering and controllable with light, beautiful, leaf cover.

Albizia 'Ombrella'

The Rhamnus alerternus ‘Argenteovariegata’ or Italian buckthorn I have in a very large pot down the side passage to hide the water butt is also very successful. Technically it’s a shrub not a tree but is now two metres high (could grow to 4m) and looks like a tree so I’ve included it. It has cream edges to its pretty leaves, very small flowers and then berries and it is evergreen. It looks lovely outside the kitchen window.

Rhamnus alerternus

Talking of large shrubs that look like trees, two of my three Pittospurums are now pretty tree-like. Both P. ‘Garnettii’AGM and ‘Irene Paterson’ AGM are single stemmed and now 2m high. P ‘Tandara Gold’ would be too if I hadn’t been cutting it into a ball shape.

My newest tree, the Aronia prunifolia ‘Brilliant’ is actually a shrub grafted onto a tree stem at 1m. It is supposed to be turning a fabulous colour right now and is not making a very good job of it. Autumn is late like the rest of the seasons so I suppose I should give it a couple more weeks to try.

Apart from the Acers, the unusual star of the show however is the Cytisus bantandieri which I have grown as a tree not a many stemmed shrub. It is semi evergreen with silky grey/green leaves, has enormous yellow flower clusters in early summer which look and smell like pineapples (hence its common name of Pineapple tree) which the bees adore. It casts very little shade and can be easily pruned to shape. I can’t recommend it more highly as a tree for a small garden.

Cytisus batandieri

I miss my Fremontadendron californicum horribly and this is a good and unusual choice if you can cope with the garish yellow/orange flowers and eye and skin irritating leaves and seed pods because it flowers all season.

Fremontadendron californicum

I also miss my Arbutus unidos or strawberry tree with its fabulous bark, dark evergreen leaves and red and white fruits. When I planted it I didn’t realise how big it could get and there simply wasn’t room for it beside the Pineapple tree, so it had to go. They can be controlled like any tree by planting them in pots but it seems a shame.

The only other tree I have “unplanted” is the Amelanchier ‘Snowflakes’ which along with A. ‘Ballerina’ and A. ‘Robin Hill’ is recommended by almost everyone who writes on best value small trees. It would be nice to have it turning red now but the flowers were so sparse and short-lived and the foliage so dull for 50 weeks of the year that it just didn’t have enough wow factor to deserve a permanent place in this garden.

The Catalpa bignonioides or Indian bean tree has always been on my wish list but I really don’t know where I could put one. They have huge, beautifully bright leaves (if regularly pruned) but a lot of them and they can grow to more than 12x8m, so the shade cover would be quite serious to say the least. I also covet a Cercis or two for their flowers, leaf shape and colours and a Euonymous for their crazy seed colours. They can be shrubs or small trees and would be more manageable than a Catalpa, especially in a large pot. I just can't decide whether to go for the Cercis with fab pink flowers or the ones with better Autumn colour.

Where to buy trees is always the question. Crocus has a good reputation generally. However, for tree specialists, online I like Barcham Trees where you can actually select the tree you are buying from a moving photo of it but my favourite place to buy trees is Frank P Matthews Ltd whose brand is Trees for Life. They are just outside Tenbury Wells but also sell online and through garden centres. The basic selections on my shopping list should be available from any good garden centre and I shall be visiting Neal's in Wandsworth and my new favourite Court Farm Garden Centre, in Tolworth to check - when I get a minute.

Just writing and researching this blog has made me salivate and linger for longer than necessary over the Google images tree pages and FlickR selections so, guess what I am doing to celebrate National Tree week! Surely I can squeeze a couple more in somewhere – even if only in large pots?

P.S. And whatever you do, please don't be tempted to let a Sycamore grow in your garden. In my view they are the worst and largest weeds around town - and I have real experience of this. Pull up every seedling you see.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013 19:17

Where the wind blows...

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Can you guess what these beauties are?

They are one of the most lovely things I have seen in my garden this autumn - bar the flowers and the pests I blogged on recently.

And they have made me very happy that I bought three Asclepias from the new garden centre I found earlier in the year.

Online details of the Asclepias plants (if you remember the labels were useless) promised me colourful flowers, seed pods and then seeds with 'parachutes'. And this is exactly what they have delivered. The individual flowers (above) are quite small but they have a large 'flower head' effect. I couldn’t imagine what the seed pods would be like.

It turns out that they are enormous, at least 4-5 cms long, almost as long as the leaves. The seed pods start green.

Then they harden, fade and the outer layer curls back to expose lots of brown seeds in what looks like the most intricate French plait every invented.

Then they mature, the wind blows and the seeds expose their electric filament-like parachutes which shimmer in the sunshine and will take them wherever. They are completely amazing to watch – best seen in the video at the top of the page.

They may, of course, cause me lots of problems if they “take” where they shouldn’t ie in the pink bed, but the prevailing winds have blown them towards the pond, greenhouse and not very fertile gravel paths. We’ll see next year and I have decided to harvest some and plant in the greenhouse because they are quite tender and so that I can recognise the seedlings as they grow. I'll have no idea what they’ll look like otherwise and they could easily be scooped up in general weeding.

These beautiful seeds have made me focus on other seed heads and my garden is full of them at this time of year. The rose hips are obvious and seldom create a new rose (though I have a small rose I didn’t plant in a pot by the house).

Nigella seed heads are everywhere, larger than their flowers and luckily are usually successful in self-seeding.

The Convolvulus seeds are much more ‘normal’ in relation to their flower size and are also very successful at creating new plants.

The large seed pods of the Wisteria seem sensible given the size of their flower clusters (I have never let them mature)….

… but the boomerang-shaped Tracleospermum jasminoides seed pods are far larger than the flowers they come from.

My new Solanum laciniatum has very large seed fruits too. They are changing colour from green to yellow - like plums.

And the Crocosmia Lucifer seeds are now about ready to burst from their pods... are those of the Ceratostigma...

..while the Agapanthus seeds have almost all already set flight.

But there is one plant that will keep me mesmerised by its seeds for a long while yet. That's the Miscanthus sinensus around the pond. Most of its heads are still in their early stages. This one below is opening to produce its seeds. And they look wonderful, whether the light is on them or through them. They are a perfect plant for the lower lights of autumn and winter.

So, which of this wonderful haul of seeds am I going to use?

Sadly, my garden and greenhouse are too small for me to need to propagate much - so bring on the gorgeous man with lots of acres and greenhouses that need looking after!

Most of these seeds will go to waste but I do propagate special plants and easy annuals including Begonia, Nicotiana of all sorts, and Cosmos. But mostly there isn't enough room to multiply what I already have.

Some years back I had some wonderful, exotic-looking, Begonias. I bought them from a specialist at The Malvern Show and they were in pots outside.  Each winter I took stem cuttings from them, ensuring I had leaf buds on two junctions, then simply stuck one end in jam jars of water and put them on a kitchen window sill over winter. They all sprouted new roots in the water within weeks and turned into new plants very easily, came true, and flourished. This went on for about seven years - until I got bored. One year I let the cuttings dry out. Inevitably they died. I really regret this lack of care because I miss them - and have not seen them since at flower shows.

I am not fond of the little, boring, yellow and red ones with dark green leaves that live in shade. Nor do I favour the huge, blousy, double ones in a range of garish colours. But I loved these little, tender ones, in pink and white which look like orchids.

They were great value because they flowered from mid Summer until the snows. I must seek them out again at the next Malvern show.

So, I shan’t be collecting or saving many of these seeds. I shall see where the wind blows them - and then probably do a lot of weeding next year!


Friday, 15 November 2013 19:01

In the eye of the beholder?

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It was 'Wild about Gardens' week in the last week of October and, even though I didn’t do much about it because I had just published ‘Reflections on water and wildlife’, it did make me study the wildlife in and around the house again. I filmed foxes around my streets at night and a sawfly larva eating leaves on my Graham Thomas rose – both classed as garden pests, but both beautiful in their own way.

This has caused me to reflect on beauty in the garden. A perfectly formed, scented  rose is an obvious beauty.

Indeed, any perfect example of a flower or plant would have to fall into this category. But I contend there are other, less obvious, beauties too - like the fox.

Foxes can be aggressive, destructive and what they leave behind stinks to high heaven. But I admire their looks and agility and admit I find them beautiful. I just don’t want them in my garden.

In 2003 I had a major war with foxes when I first moved into this house and garden. I won, of course, eventually but only after a series of major battles.  They became so bold that they were facing me off in between the beds. They dug up my newly planted plants (I’ve not used bonemeal since), they poo-ed everywhere and two of the younger ones tried to make a den in my hot bed.

I tried all the known remedies including a disgusting smelling tar put on rags and sticks, and dried lion poo (because the fox is more closely related to cats than dogs and is supposed to shy away from larger cats). None of these had any effect whatsoever. Eventually, with the agreement of most of my neighbours, I had to resort to a professional fox man, baited humane traps and daily morning removal.  12 foxes were removed from our gardens over 14 days.

Like any well-waged war it was meticulously planned, expensive and effective – with some casualties. Quite rightly, foxes are not allowed to be in a trap for more than 24 hours. I bought the meat (cost) and baited the trap every night. In the morning, before going to work, there was almost always a fox in it. The man had to be called, arrive, deal with the fox and go, before I left for work. Each fox cost £45 to be removed and the humane trap had a rental cost for the 14 days. The major casualty was my outdoor lighting. Whilst in the trap, the foxes decimated the wiring which ran underneath, so that cost a pretty penny too to replace.

Anyway, they were gone. I sorted it. Even now they are few and far between and I am sure that having dogs now helps to keep them away. I see the occasional one looking over the fence at the end of the garden but they are no longer a problem.

But all this doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate the beauty of the urban fox.  Pickle, Lottie and I meet them almost every night as we do our ‘final pee and poo’ walk around the nearby streets before bed.

So, the other night I went out and filmed them in the dark. Fabulously healthy foxes are all over the streets and especially around the bins of a nearby housing estate – as you’ll see in the video. And they are beautiful to watch. I just don’t want them in my garden.

In complete size contrast, but also a pest, I have also been fascinated by the sawfly larvae that are now eating the leaves of my Graham Thomas rose.

They too are destructive, but they’re easily removable by hand unless you have a serious invasion. No major war needs to be waged. No humane traps or sawfly men are required – just remove the leaves with them on, and take them away to the dump.

But, like the garden-destructive fox, the leaf-stripping sawfly larva is also beautiful  - as you’ll see in the video. I watched them first with a magnifying glass. To begin with I wasn’t sure which was the front and which the back but, under the camera, it has become clear where the eyes and munching mandibles are. The roses are still repeating but they are also going over. They are deciduous. The leaves will fall so I don’t really care if sawfly larvae take their fill now. Perhaps I should – for next year - but I doubt it.

Both these creatures are characterised as pests but they also have a beauty, all of their own, which I can’t help revelling in and I hope you will too.

Coming to appreciate the beauty of your garden pests is an interesting place to be, but one I am getting to. The macro lens on the camera is helping.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013 12:24

Drinking roses

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October is a mellow month in my garden – the roses are gently repeating, some Clematis, Alstromeria and Geraniums are too. Everything is looking large and green after the rains and much will be cut back soon. The Dahlias are at their best, as are the Cosmos and Abutilons. My A. ‘Kentish Belle’ grows through my now overgrown ball of Pittosporum ‘Tandara Gold’ making it look like a Christmas tree hung with colourful knickerbockers. The Camelias, Daphnes and Viburnums are in bud getting ready for winter and spring and the weather is still warmish at 10 degrees C, but we’ve more rain and chiller winds.

My herbs continue to provide taste in the cooking pot, despite looking a bit straggly but they are not the only tasty things in the garden. This is also the perfect month for me to indulge in what was, up ‘til now, my very secret pleasure – drinking my scented roses.

After it has rained I urge you to wander into your garden and drink the rainwater off your roses. It tastes sublime. Only when you have done this can you really appreciate why all the insects are intoxicated by flowers. I know taste is 70-80% smell but who cares? Rainwater sucked off the petals of roses tastes like their scent, even if you hold your nose while doing it. It is just another way to fully appreciate the wonder of their perfume and to commune with your garden. 

If you are not sure how to do this, watch the very short video. And I promise you, each rose type tastes different, in the same way they smell different. You’ll be amazed. So please, take this opportunity to really taste your roses  - and enjoy! I promise you it is worth it. Just don’t tell anyone, or they’ll think you’re a little nuts. You can tell me of course. Just add a comment to the blog to let me know how it was for you.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013 16:27

Reflections on water and wildlife

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So it’s all change again. Last week I was gardening bare-legged in sandals, rolled up jeans and skimpy tops. Today I am firmly back in full length jeans, socks, boots and wool.

And I’m not alone in thinking it’s colder. The fish have moved lower down in the pond and are swimming and feeding more slowly. The abundant berries on the Sorbus (Rowan tree) are being devoured by the blackbirds, and the mice are coming out to forage before winter. I have just been watching the latter doing acrobatics in the plants around the bird feeders and stealing the bird food (see the video). Then today, in broad daylight, one mouse even dragged the remains of a snail I stood on accidentally last night across my terrace and merrily fed on it behind my pots. The bird food stealing didn’t shock me, the dead snail eating did. But mice are mammals and omnivores. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.

So, as we all prepare to bunker down again for the cold months, I have pruned the Wisteria, dead-headed the roses, buddlejas, dahlias and cosmos for the umpteenth time and thus find I have a moment to reflect on the year in the garden, and what I’ve learned. And lots of it seems to be about water and wildlife.

For example, the spray water scarer is the only effective device I’ve tried for keeping the heron, fox and cats away from the fish in my pond. Its major downside is that regularly the dogs and I get drenched when I forget to turn it off. That’s fine at 27 degrees C, less fun at 12 degrees C or when I’m in my glad rags, about to go out.

On the plants side, the abundant rain and long period of cold led to extraordinary combinations as everything rushed into flower at once. And I have discovered that Leonotis ‘Leonora’ is a manky dead nettle (when in my garden - it might be quite wonderful in yours) and it is not required to still have a wonderful array of butterflies and moths throughout the summer - the Buddleja are key. Aquilegia ‘Tequila Sunrise’ does not like being moved (RIP) and Physalis, the Cape Gooseberry, is actually a pernicious weed of the very worst type. Please don’t plant it anywhere except in a pot - unless you want acres of it. In addition, incredibly, cherry trees will send their roots up, above ground, to feed on the goodies in your baseless compost bin - amazing but true.

Top: Fremontadendron 'California Glory'.
Bottom left: Amelchanchier 'Snowfalkes'. Bottom right: Solanum laciniatum

And, despite its brash, orangey-yellow flowers and skin/eye irritating leaves and seed pods, I realise I really miss my Fremontadendron ‘California Glory’. It was in flower for so long each year – from spring to early winter. It was an unruly, wild, wonderful plant, somewhat like a teenager. It was determined to be independent, grow itself into a tree by splitting its pot aggressively and burying its roots underground. It had a vigour and character that the Amelanchier ‘Snowflakes’ I tried to replace it with couldn’t even think of matching. The latter lasted five months and has now been replaced by a semi-tender, Solanum laciniatum which has grown profusely and flowered since planted, so might become a reasonable alternative. We’ll see. It may not survive the winter – which the garden tells me will be hard again. There are lots of berries and hips already and these usually predict a hard winter. I can even see the ivy and Mahonia japonica preparing themselves to be the last season’s food for the birds and insects.

As an aside, many people don’t realise that ivy has flowers and berries but it does, and they are a really important source of late nectar and food for all manner of bees, birds and other insects, so please keep some ivy. It comes in many varieties, variegated or plain, small or large leaved, and is great for covering fences and walls and for harbouring and feeding a myriad of wildlife in winter.

I’ve also learned that many roses will grow very happily north-facing, as long as they are out in the open, and that other plants deemed OK for north facing sites, really are. This year’s project, my miniscule (2m x 42 cms) new front bed, has been fabulously successful against all expectations. It has been in flower constantly. In spring it bore two Camelia ‘Silver Anniversary’, then two Aquilegia vulgaris ‘Munstead White’ and one Astrantia ‘ Hidcote Shaggy Hybrid’ and two A. ‘Orlando’. These were joined by two Geranium ‘Brookside’ and G. 'Sabani Blue’. Then the three standard roses (two ‘Cream Abundance’ and one ‘Champagne Moment’) flowered profusely in June and they have been repeating ever since. The white Hydrangeas (‘Annabelle’ and ‘Steel Black Zebra’) started to add drama to this display in August and now the two Anenome ‘Honorine Jobert’ are in flower, the Astrantia are re-flowering, the Camelias are in bud again and the Sarcococca Confusa is getting ready to scent the path through winter.

Top: the front bed in September. Mid L: Rosa 'Cream Abundance'. Mid R: Rosa 'Champagne Moment'
Bottom L: Aquilegia vulgaris 'Munstead White'. Bottom R: Geranium 'Brookside'

This tiny, new, north-facing bed is looking luscious, green and gorgeous and is very happy making. It’s been a mini project but a major triumph this year. Complete strangers have stopped to thank me for making their walk along the road that bit more enjoyable and sweetly scented. I feel properly vindicated by my risky decision to buck the trend in the street and try to have flowering plants by my front wall and railings instead of the ubiquitous privet hedge.

One of the keys things I also did in the complete front re-vamp was to add a water butt on the side of the bay window. I had no water out there, so this has revolutionised my approach to watering it – i.e. I do it now! It was a neglected desert early last year.

Generally, I very seldom water my plants unless they are in pots or newly planted. In my London clay, once they are established, I reckon they should be able to find water deeper down – and for goodness sake, I live on a road with “brook” in its name for good reason - there was once a stream flowing under here. It occasionally appears in the cellar and so the least it can do is also look after the majority of the garden.

On the wildlife front, I have a major apology to make. I predicted the start of spring far too early, based on the frogs. I realise now that frogs know nothing about the start of spring. Early in the year they will come to the pond in a frenzy of excitement, sing their hearts out all night and mate, far too early. Their spawn gets frozen by late frosts and even snow and ice. The wiser toads wait in their warm beds amongst the leaves under my shed and in the stones around the pond “waterfall” until warmer times.  I’ve learned this year that the day the toads come out to mate is the day good temperatures are really here to stay. Henceforth, I shall ignore the frogs as portents of spring, however sweetly they sing at night.

And, when I think about the garden and what makes it special to me, it is the pond that is at the heart of it. Its pump-driven waterfall means the garden is full of the sound of moving water, 24 hours a day. This detracts from the surrounding noises of London – the inevitable emergency sirens, aeroplanes, traffic - and neighbours. But more importantly, it provides a drinking and washing place for a huge variety of insects and birds as well as a home for the fish, frogs, toads and numerous insects and other organisms.

So, as I reflect, given that the garden is 10 years old now, and despite my abiding passion for plants and scent, I think that what’s given me the greatest pleasure this year is the myriad wildlife attracted to it.

Top Left: Jersey Tiger moth. Top right: Speckled Wood butterfly
Bottom left: Peacock butterfly. Bottom right: Frog

I’ve had Peacock, Red Admiral, Comma and Speckled Wood butterflies feeding here as well the expected blues and whites. I’ve had an Old Lady moth, a Vapourer moth, a Lime Hawk moth and, recently, at least three exotic Jersey Tiger moths.

The birds and bees are many, and lacewings, ladybirds, damsel flies, crane flies and spiders just add to the mix. The ladybirds and tits do fairly well controlling the aphids, and the blackbirds and toads pretty much keep the snails and slugs under control. I’m sure this plethora of life is not just down to the planting. I’m certain the water, and more specifically the pond, is key. It makes the regular chore of cleaning its pump, elbow deep in sludge, eminently worthwhile – as well as being strangely satisfying.

So my advice to any new garden owner would be ‘add water’. Even if it is just a wall fountain, the sound will be relaxing and create an atmosphere away from the surrounding noises. A pond, however small, will encourage a wonderful array of wildlife. If you don’t have fish you’ll probably get newts (the two cannot co-exist because fish eat the newt eggs). Fish add colour, movement, character and noise (as they leap - which they do!) and lots of poo. They can also cause heartache if they die or are eaten by the heron – so get a water spray gismo and fear not. Be bold, put water in. You won’t regret it. Just remember to turn the heron scarer off before you walk past.

Thursday, 19 September 2013 16:40

Mistaken identity

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The Jersey Tiger moths have been a very exciting feature in my garden over the last few weeks so when I saw an unusual small brown/yellow/white flutter in the garden I was even more thrilled. I managed to photograph and film the unusual butterfly on my Hibiscus leaves and then rushed to my trusty Collins "Butterflies and Moths" book to try and identify it.

All I could see was one circle on a fore wing and two on the under wing. The only matching butterfly I thought in my book was a Woodland Brown, which doesn’t exist in this country, it's just in central Europe. And as, you can see, my butterfly looked exactly like the one in the photo in the middle, opposite the Woodland Brown description, albeit with slightly more bashed up wings.

“My garden is becoming a home for unusual butterflies and moths” I thought and became even more excited.

So, in my enthusiasm, I tweeted having sighted one. Honestly, I expected the entire butterfly community to tweet back and converge on my home to witness this miraculous sighting. However, there was a big, blank, nothing in response. Maybe it’s because I only have a few followers so far (so please sign up). Also, on the first day of tweeting about the Jersey Tiger Moth, I got my Twitter account suspended for some still, unknown reason. I begged to be re-instated, promised I wasn’t a computer or someone with spamming software, and luckily they believed me and re-instated my account, within hours.

I have now read every word of all their rules and regulations, glossary, terms and conditions etc (basically the entire site) and still haven’t worked out what I did wrong. As a result, tweeting is still a bit of a risky business and I am very careful now. Despite this, my Jersey Tiger Moth tweet continues to be "favourited" (if that's a word) by many tweeters to this day and the video is getting lots of hits.

I digress. Re this butterfly, I decided to investigate further. I found some sites online, including the UK Butterfly Trust. So I contacted them through the site and, very carefully, by Tweet. Some kind person who runs the UKBT site suggested I was completely bonkers and that, most likely, it was a Speckled Wood or a Meadow Brown and asked for photos and/or video evidence. So I set about providing this.

Whilst I was cropping the images to make them larger, I realised the butterfly had damaged wings – and could have been missing some vital extra rings that would make it a Speckled Wood not a Woodland Brown. And indeed, when they were sent to this un-named specialist, he/she confirmed that it was, of course, a Speckled Wood.

So how do I feel? Well, to be honest I suppose I am a little deflated that I haven’t had a complete foreigner in the garden and that this is not a sign of major climate change etc. but I am still very excited to have been visited by a Speckled Wood. I’ve never seen one before, to my knowledge anywhere, and certainly never in this garden. So it is still a first to be celebrated.

I also feel more than a little stupid and have resolved to be more careful with my Butterflies and Moths book. I've realised three photos without captions and two descriptions is a recipe for identification disaster. I suppose I should have realised the first two photos were the male and female of the same butterfly not the male and female of the second! I am now relying more on the web and my Domino, “Insects of Britain and Western Europe”, which is much more detailed, for identification.


Thursday, 05 September 2013 20:00

Show and tell - a tomato disaster

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I am highly embarrassed to reveal this - but here goes.

For the first time ever, my greenhouse tomatoes are a complete disaster.  I blame it all on the new growbags I chose. Of course you’ll say “well a bad workman blames his tools” and I would understand that. But hear me out.

I always grow the same cherry tomatoes – Sun Cherry, Sun Gold and Black Cherry and I always buy my seed from Thompson & Morgan. And this year was no different.

My usual practise is to germinate them from seed in trays on a heated shelf, in seed compost. I then move them into 3in pots in a mix of general purpose and the material from the same bag as I plan to plant them in. They get moved into the grow bags, three to a bag, when they are about 6 – 8 inches high. And usually they shoot up, thicken up, need their 'overarm' shoots pinching out to control them, and they flower and fruit profusely.
I use the green plastic rings to help with the watering and the plants are supported on canes held up by an invention my father made when I was a child, two of which I still have and which work beautifully, even if they are a little rusty now. It was called the Arley Grow and the metal supports are held in place by the weight of the growbag and three metal rings support the canes. All very simple and effective.

In some years, to be fair, when we have had poor summers, the tomatoes have taken longer to ripen but the plants are always huge, trying to burst out of the top of the greenhouse and covered in flowers and then fruit. Every year to date I have enjoyed lots of ripened fruit by August at the latest.

And this year was no different early on, except that I used new growbags. For years I have used New Horizon, peat-free growbags as recommended by Which?Gardening, with great success.  But this year I tried a new growbag, as uber-recommended by the same authoritative organ – Verve growbags from B&Q.
I also planned to use them for the other seeds I was planting, as Which?Gardening recommended them as a good seed propagation medium too. So I bought five. I should have known better. As soon as I opened the first one I was shocked. It smelled strongly of manure and was black and very fibrous. So, for the seeds, I put some of this in the base of the tray and covered it with proper, fine grained, seed compost. All my seeds did well, not just the tomatoes so, early in the season, I was very happy with my growbag choice.

However, you have never seen such a sad and pathetic sight as my tomatoes now. A couple of the six are still no taller than 1 metre.  As I write, there are precisely three small green tomatoes across the six plants and three small flowers on one plant. There are toadstools growing up in the base of one and they all look sickly, despite having been fed with tomato feed and watered properly. And the bags are very poorly made. They have holes everywhere, not just on the top where they should be if you over-water, but all over. When I water, the floor of the greenhouse gets a good wash.

I am devastated. Each year I rely on a fabulous crop of tomatoes from August onwards to keep me going in salads, in fish dishes and cooking generally. This year I'm going to have to resort to the supermarket again - and tasteless, watery tomatoes.

I love Which?Gardening normally but, to be honest, I am now going to be more wary of their recommendations. I 100% blame them and B&Q for my tomato disaster this year. New Horizon will have my allegiance again next year. It's too late now.


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