Tuesday, 06 August 2013 10:50

Gardeners' Question Time

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Yesterday I attended a recording of Gardener’s Question Time held in the Kensington Roof Gardens. It is an amazing location and I haven’t been for about a gazillion years – shame on me - and it’s almost just round the corner.  I think the last time I was there was for someone’s 21st birthday party and in those days my focus wasn’t gardens or plants(!) so I failed to appreciate quite how wonderful they are.

The gardens are celebrating their 75th year this year. Mature trees, shrubs and flowers galore thrive in just 1.5 metres of soil high above the streets of London. Water abounds, four flamingos call it their home and yesterday it was full of garden enthusiasts from London and the Home Counties for the recording.

There must have been about 250 of us and amazingly, Debbie Scott-Anderson, my garden blogging friend (who had been allocated two tickets and kindly invited me) and I, were both selected to come up front to ask our questions. There were at least ten questioners and, as an avid GQT listener, I know they will cull about half of us so we’ll hear on 30th August whether one or both of us make the cut.

But, whatever, it was a fantastic event. The questions were varied and the panel of Anne Swithinbank, Bunny Guinness and Matthew Wilson was great. They were relaxed and fun and Matthew especially created a lot of laughs with his down-to-earth, slightly irreverent answers. He also gardens on London clay and is as useless as I am with house plants so I suppose I empathised most with him.

As ever, it was also really interesting. Even though I was a little nervous about being a questioner, I still became absorbed in the questions and their answers, at least as much as (or possibly even more than) I do when I hear it on the radio. However, when I listen on radio I find I am normally answering the questions myself out loud, commenting on others’ suggestions and seeing if the panellists agree with me. This time I had to shut up and could only nod, shake my head and laugh as appropriate. Quite an unusual “holding of tongue” was done - my grandmother would have been proud of me. But, as an old hand at radio and now video, I know how difficult the edits are when someone speaks out of turn. This obviously didn’t faze some of the questioners who chatted on about their subject willy-nilly.

And one major question I have always had about GQT was answered. We were told and I believe now that the panellists don’t have a preview of the questions – only the Chairman and the director/producer see the questions in advance and decide which will be asked. This makes the panellists’ responses even more impressive.

So from now, I shall listen with an even greater respect ………. but I don’t think it’ll stop me trying to answer them first out loud in the freedom of my car or at my computer!

Videos and photos of the roof gardens can be seen here.

Thursday, 27 June 2013 00:00

Tragedies and triumphs

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The male blackbird who has starred in a couple of my movies loves this garden. He built a nest this year with his mate in the ivy in the side passage: very sensible – well hidden and close to a permanent food and water source. For weeks I watched him and his mate dive in and out of the ivy. Then, a couple of weeks ago, the side passage was full of the cries of newly hatched blackbirds screaming for food.

Sitting at the table on the terrace was almost dangerous – we were in the flight path – as Mr and Mrs Blackbird flew tirelessly in with worms and grubs to feed their young. The noise from the ivy was glorious and exciting. A new brood of little blackbirds was in progress.

Last Friday I was out at the opera and the dogs were thus locked in the house. Saturday morning the nest was silent. I listened to the silence for a few hours and then, with a heavy heart, investigated. I found a dead blackbird chick on the ground – almost fully fledged. It broke my heart. I can’t see the remains of a nest or his other fledglings (maybe they are in my neighbours’ garden) but the nest and family are clearly gone. It must have been a magpie or a cat. Magpies check the garden out and I have caught cats stalking across the fence there, despite the thorny roses and dogs.

It has happened before. Last year a cat attacked when the nest was just eggs and Mr Blackbird and his wife recovered and built a new nest in the roses above the gated arch where they successfully raised a brood. This time I know he put up a fight, albeit unsuccessfully and I don’t think he has built a new nest.

He is now back on the feeder, bruised and battered, with his feathers all messed up and looking like he has been in a cat – or magpie -fight. He can fly and feed so I suppose he’s OK but gosh, every time I see him, I want to weep for his dead family and the fight he obviously put up to try and save it. His before and after can be seen below.


A few days later I found what looked like a dead bee in the pond. As we all know we need every bee we have for pollination purposes, so I fished it out and put it on the edge hoping it might recover. I filmed it too. As you will see it lay looking dead for some time and then miraculously came to life, started to move and clean itself. But then the struggle seemed too much and it appeared to give up and die. However some moments later it recovered its strength and went through the process again. This happened about five times and every time I thought he had given up the ghost. But he hadn’t. 20 minutes later it had recovered sufficiently to fly off – and of course I missed the take-off. However, on the positive side, we have one more bee in this world even if we have four or five fewer blackbirds. I am still in mourning for them.

Monday, 17 June 2013 00:00

Well the roses are loving it

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I don’t know about you but the terrible weather we have had has been fantastic for my roses. They are more floriferous than they have ever been and each flower is simply enormous. They seem to have been less confused by the weather than the earlier plants. Everything was late and then all the others seemed to rush into flower at the same time.

The Daphne flowered until April (which it has never done before – a full sixth months since November!). I had tulips flowering with daffodils and now have roses flowering with tulips – in June! Even the new standard roses in my North facing front garden (1 x ‘Champagne Moment’ and 2 x ‘Cream Abundance’– which is actually very pink on the outside as you’ll see in the video and has a stronger scent than advertised)  have put on a spectacular display – much better than I could ever have dreamed of from roses in their first year. Roses are notoriously slow starters and normally take about three years to really look their best. But these three look like old hands already.
I thought you’d enjoy to see them so watch the short video.

Friday, 08 March 2013 11:37

Daphne – a joy and sorrow

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Daphne has been my joy and sorrow this winter. She was a water Niaid supposedly, a great beauty sought by Apollo, a water spirit. December is transformed by Daphne in my garden as the six year old, evergreen, D. bholua ‘Sir Peter Smithers’ beside my swing seat once again comes into flower as the rain and snow falls. But as a water nymph she has failed. It’s now clear I have lost all the fish in my pond bar three to the heron. Clear in every way. The unfiltered pond is now crystal clear from the freezing temperatures. I can see every leaf or piece of gravel on the bottom as well as the pump, waterlily tuber, and each fish as it “hibernates” as low down as it can.

I came back from a few days in the South of France over New Year and the whole garden was heavy with the luscious, intoxicating scent of Daphne. I was stopped in my tracks by a wall of fragrance. The dogs scampered excitedly round my feet and the garden, seemingly oblivious to the influence, focussed only on finding scent left by visiting foxes and cats. Pickle ran hither and thither barking at anything as small as a moving leaf to re-establish his male presence in his territory. Lottie busied herself doing I know not what but just being very girlie.

Every year I grow plants from seed. There are the “must haves” that happen every year - Tomatoes, Convolvulus and Nicotiana and then I choose a few new plants to try. This year one of them was Leonotis leonurus ‘Staircase’ which promised to be tall and interestingly orange. Perfect for my hot bed I thought - it would be ideal for the back of the bed: stately and wildly hot coloured like in the picture in the catalogue.

However, as we know in gardening, not everything delivers as promised. The seeds germinated successfully in the greenhouse over Feb/March and were no trouble to pot on as seedlings. After hardening them off in the cold frame for a couple of weeks they were getting tall and I planted them out in the red bed. Since when they have shot up to the promised 4/6 feet – and now look exactly like over-large, green, straggly, well eaten nettles – not exactly the look I was after. The ‘flower’ sockets close to the stem occasionally have a flash of red but there has been not a sepal or petal to be seen.

Leonotis In my garden

At the same time, on the other side of the garden in the pink bed, I had been contemplating the fate of the buddleia. Despite hacking it back, nearly to the ground last year, it has grown very large and threatened roses, astrantia and all manner of plants that are now under its shade. I have been thinking it is much too large for the bed and has to go. I have cut it back and thinned it during the summer and removed the most aggressive branches but it is still in full flower.

Two days ago I was about to root up the Leonotis and dig up the buddleia when a Peacock butterfly arrived to feed on the buddleia. Since then I have had the same (or different?) peacocks feeding on it all day, every day - and these were followed by Red Admirals and even a Comma butterfly. See the video.


Apparently Peacock butterflies like to lay their eggs on nettles. All the gardens around here are very well kept and I doubt they have many nettles, if any. I used to keep a crop of nettles for butterflies but they had to go a few years ago for space reasons. Since then the closest I have had to a nettle in the garden is lamium ‘Ghost’ – until the Leonotis.

The seed packet says, “Leonotis seedlings look a little like nettle seedlings”. Actually they look exactly like nettle seedlings and apart from being taller and non-stinging, the full grown plants look exactly like tall, manky nettles. In fact I think they are less beautiful than nettles.

I have now researched the family and the Leonitis is exactly the same family as the dead (not stinging) nettle ie they are both family Lamiaceae (mint family) of Order Lamiales and Subclass Asteridae. So it is a nettle! Incidentally stinging nettles it appears are family Urticaceae, of Order Urticales and subclass Hamamelididae - completely different.

Now the big question is, have the Leonitis fooled the peacock butterfly into laying its eggs on them ‘cos they look like nettles and are they the reason I have so many peacock butterflies in the garden – or is it just the buddleia attraction and the two things are entirely unrelated?

And because I am now totally enthralled by the butterflies, I am in a complete quandary as to what to do with both plants. Is there a link? Should one or both go or should they stay?

Friday, 17 May 2013 15:43

The dirtiest job in the garden

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My pond is unfiltered, full of fish, frogs and toads who have all woken up and are eating and pooing. Inevitably leaves and things fall in it too so, relatively regularly from late Spring through to late Autumn, the working parts of the pump get clogged up with vegetation and the stream turns to a trickle as the pump works overtime to try and push the water around. Thus I have to clean the pump.

Despite all the poo and cold water (and the 30 minutes or so it takes to do this) I must admit I find it very satisfying. I love the fact that I know how to take the pump apart completely (no good details in the instructions of course), it gives me enormous pleasure to clear the gunk from the fly wheel and, when the new rush of water suddenly appears in the stream, I feel a little flutter of joy and, I'll admit it, a little pride. Ridiculous, but there it is.

This is the second such pump I have had in the pond in ten years. The first finally exploded after about six years with a nasty pop, which luckily I was close enough to hear. This one is a little more powerful but the same type (a Blagdon amphibious). As you'll see in the video, I have found the front fitted filter the pump comes with wholly inadequate, so I have removed this and installed the main pump unit in a special cage which I have also mounted on an old set of plastic metal shelves to keep it above the fish poo layer on the bottom of the pond. The whole thing is quite Heath-Robinson looking but works.

This video also marks my debut on camera on this site. Why didn't I choose something more glamorous? But thinking about it there's not much in gardening that's glam other than admiring flowers close up or gently dead-heading, so my plastic apron and I can be seen elbow deep in fish poo.

Filming oneself is pretty tricky. I have to guess the heights and focus, remember to turn everything on (microphone etc), try to check if I am running out of battery or card space and then hope for the best. There are already all sorts of out-takes on this pond pump cleaning procedure and other videos I haven't published (planting Camelias), so perhaps I'll create a Christmas film with all of them together.

Oh yes, I nearly forgot. Please excuse the manky wet plaster on my left forefinger. I had a nasty slice in it which I wanted to protect from all the gunk.

Later note: 18/10/2013

I have to admit that the pump finally blew up in July. Water got in through the wire at the rear so I have bought a new one. This is a different pump, a Pontec Pondomax eco 5000. It has something that chews up the vegetative matter which the Blagdon didn't. It has worked without cease since installed and the water flow has not yet reduced. I'm very impressed. When it eventually needs cleaning properly I'll work it out and let you know how to do it too. As ever, full instructions as to how to get inside it are not enclosed!


Friday, 03 May 2013 10:41

First garden show of the year

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It was small but almost perfectly formed. It was the Spring garden show at The Garden Museum at Lambeth Palace.  On Sunday a friend and I paid a visit. Entry was cheap at £5. The show consisted of about ten plant stalls - some outside and some in the church, plus a number of other stalls selling things of interest like greeting cards with fabulous photos of plants which made me very jealous and were only £1.50 each - see bloomsofpenge.com.

The event was well attended though I have to say the lunch and coffee tables seemed the busiest places but that may have been because we arrived at about 11.30am and the attendees were inevitably somewhat on the older side.

There were three real highlights for me. The first was that the outside stalls were set amongst the fabulous churchyard which is so evocative. Ancient tombs and stones surrounded by ‘wild’ planting in one section (daffs, tulips, Brunnera, grasses) and the other stalls amongst the formal box beds of the knot garden with a fabulous range of interesting plants.


And all surrounded by modern office buildings on one side and the ancient palace on another, a little green haven amongst the busy roads around Lambeth Bridge and St Thomas’ hospital.

Saturday, 27 April 2013 17:54

Spring at last

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It's all in the short video (3 minutes) and I am interested to see whether this frustrates you or not. If you want text too please comment.

Friday, 26 April 2013 00:18

Making videos of the garden

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I’m really pleased with this video of birds feeding and bathing in my garden, cut in time-ish to a Strauss polka (watch the goldfinches and Blackbirds in particular). It’s an example of what I am learning as I create this Blog.

My day job is making videos for large corporates. I advise them on how best to tell and articulate their corporate stories on video – for investors, employees and other business audiences. Almost all of this video is online, so supposedly I am online video savvy. But my role is to think, advise, direct and produce – all bossy talk and no physical action! I am never behind the camera and I sit beside the editor as he/she creates the finished piece with me.

For this site, it has all had to change. I have to be able to do it all myself. I can’t wait for a cameraman to be free when a bee is in a flower – I have to film it. I can’t wait for an editor the other side of town to be free so I can create a piece to show you what’s happening in the garden.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013 00:00

Choosing a new plant for shade

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I have a gap in my Pink bed. It is behind the Rowan tree, along the West facing fence and it looks particularly gappy in Winter.

Obviously, once the Rowan tree comes into leaf, the Berberis gets going and the Buddleja flowers it will be less obvious, but it still needs filling.

The gap was created by cutting off one half of the Ceanothus which bushed out into the Pink bed and by hard pruning the Clematis montana last year, so whatever is put there will need to deal with the original Clematis montana Grandiflora as it grows back as well as the new C. montana 'Mayleen'. But 'Mayleen' seems to be heading off towards the house ie not inclined to cover my gap.

So what to choose?

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