Archives for December 2010

Britain's best winter gardens

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Sally Nex Sally Nex | 09:16 UK time, Friday, 31 December 2010

On a crisp December morning, when the sun is shining and the frost is sparkling, or (more likely this winter) when snow lies gracefully over every twig, winter gardens are magical places to be.

In the off-peak season some of our best-known gardens change character entirely, taking on a newly sparse, pared-back alter ego. Richly-coloured bark and sculptural seedheads delicately rimed in ice become the stars: heavy scents float tantalisingly on clear winter air and background structure of clipped box, topiary or elegantly-judged landscaping emerges to reveal its satisfying geometry.

So this winter, get outside and discover a whole new side to the gardens you thought you knew. To get you started, the gardeners behind some of Britain's finest winter gardens reveal what makes them so special at this time of year.

NB in view of the current snowy weather it's advisable to ring ahead before you visit to make sure the garden is still able to open!

Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire

Anglesey Abbey

Richard Todd, Head Gardener: Winter may seem like the time to put your feet up and sit by the fire with a warming tipple - but not at Anglesey Abbey!

We've been braving blizzards (well, the chill fen winds) to pressure-wash the Himalayan silver birches, removing algae to enhance the beauty of the stark-white trunk. The birch grove always stops visitors in their tracks.

Along the 450m serpentine pathway coloured stems and barks come into their own. Prunus serrula is like polished mahogany, and low winter sun behind the peeling bark looks like burnished copper lights - breathtaking.

Tall hedges trap the delicious scent of Sarcococca hookeriana var digyna, and another treat is the sweetly-scented flowers of the shrubby honeysuckle, Lonicera x purpusii.

Making a winter garden is great fun - you can play with design and plants with much more freedom. Create layers by using early flowering bulbs and position plants to make the most of that low sun angle.

The Winter Garden at Anglesey Abbey, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, is open every day, 10am-4pm: tel 01223 810080

Savill Garden, Berkshire

Savill Garden, Berkshire

Harvey Stephens, Head Gardener: 'The Savill Garden to me is a quite magical place to explore during the winter months, particularly when there's been a hard frost or some snow.

I find the bold drifts of colourful willows and vibrant dogwoods weaving their way through the winter beds and along the streamside very inspiring, particularly when the low winter sun catches them. One of my real favourites are the witch hazels (Hamamelis spp) whose spider-like fragrant flowers brave the snow and cold temperatures never fail to raise my spirits through January and February.

The Savill Garden has a tremendously varied collection of colour and patterned bark trees that look particularly good through the winter. Whilst the white stemmed birches are great, coral bark maples, snake bark maples and paper bark maples all provide inspiring colour in the winter garden. Among the cherries, Prunus serrula and Prunus rufa both provide magnificent colour and interest.

The Savill Garden, Windsor Great Park, Berkshire, is open every day, 10am-4.30pm: tel 01784 435544

RHS Garden Rosemoor, Devon

RHS Garden Rosemoor

Jon Webster, Curator: Rosemoor is a very special place during the winter months, abundant with flowering shrubs, architectural evergreens and colourful bark and stems. The Winter Garden demonstrates how all of these features can be combined to create an exciting space during the dreary months before the onset of spring.

On frosty mornings, the coloured stems of Cornus, Salix and Prunus sparkle against a background of dark evergreen foliage in the low winter sun. Heady fragrances from Hamamelis, Daphne and Viburnum cultivars fill the air and a patchwork of pink and white heathers border the meandering pathways.

Here's a picture of one of my favourite winter combinations in the garden: red-stemmed Cornus alba 'Sibirica' AGM, orange-and-yellow Cornus sanguinea 'Winter Beauty' and yellow Salix alba var. vitellina 'Britzensis' AGM, punctuated by the white trunk of Betula 'Fetisowii' and the shiny red bark of Prunus serrula AGM. In the background a froth of yellow fragrant flowers clothe the Hamamelis × intermedia 'Pallida' AGM.'
RHS Garden Rosemoor, Great Torrington, Devon, is open every day, 10am-5pm: tel 01805 624067

Trentham Gardens, Staffordshire

Trentham Gardens

Michael Walker, Gardens and Estates Manager: There's just something about winter that gives gardens a truly magical feel.

It's one of my favourite times of the year. The 'Oudolf' gardens along the banks of the River Trent offer a picturesque wintry scene of soft elegant grass heads against the architectural remains of tall robust stems, creating a display similar to a pen and ink drawing. Clever Piet.

The Italian Garden takes on a whole new look this time of year. Seven chilly, splashing fountains provide a centrepiece, embracing the formal structure of the historic garden, normally hidden behind the vast perennials in Tom Stuart-Smith's superb planting but now fully revealed.

Personally, I suggest a warming cup of hot chocolate before heading off through the western woodland. Winter walks around the mile-long lake let you slush your wellingtons through the snow or frost, surrounded by majestic oaks, well over 200 years old, and towering giant cedars and redwoods.

Trentham Gardens, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, is open every day except Christmas Day, 10am-4pm: tel 01782 646646

The Glasshouses, Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh

The Palmhouse at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh

Alan Bennell, Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh: When winter bites, the Glasshouses at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh offer a haven from the cold and an opportunity to travel through time and around the globe.

Welcoming visitors is the iconic Temperate Palm House, the tallest traditional glasshouse in Britain. Entering through the hot and humid atmosphere of the Tropical Palm House, visitors experience opposing ends of the evolutionary scale in the Orchids and Cycads House: the cool shades of the Fossils and Ferns House offer a peaceful contrast.

The sweet smells and exuberant colours of the Rainforest Riches House give way to the clear, dry, air of the Arid Lands House. And then there are two final houses, set behind the main Glass range. The Montane Tropics and Wet Tropics houses showcase the Garden's international research projects, with the world's richest collection of Vireya rhododendrons. Many flower almost continuously with vibrant colours and beautiful scents, providing a special treat in winter and early spring.

The Glasshouses, Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, Scotland, is open every day except Christmas Day and New Year's Day, 10am-3.30pm: tel 0131 248 2909

Ness Botanic Gardens, Merseyside

Ness Botanic Gardens, Merseyside

Paul Cook, Curator: My interview for the job of Curator at Ness Botanic Gardens was in December. There were salvias in flower, winter-flowering viburnums and banana plants, wrapped up to protect them from the Cheshire frosts. The coastal climate of the west Wirral means we enjoy a sheltered microclimate here.

My favourite winter walk at Ness starts in the Pine Wood, a two acre plantation of mature Scots pine underplanted with rhododendrons, camellias, Sorbus and snowdrops. Although you have to wait until after Christmas to see Rhododendron 'Winter Cheer' in flower, there's always colour from hardy winter-flowering camellias - Camellia 'Winter's Choice', 'Winter's Joy' and other hybrids bred in America from a species camellia, Camellia oleifera.

Out from the shelter of the trees you get the contrast between the close comfort of the woods and the views across the wild marsh landscape of the Dee Estuary. It's what makes Ness such a special place to work in.

Ness Botanic Garden, Neston, South Wirral, is open daily except Christmas Day and Boxing Day, 10am-4.30pm: tel 0151 353 0123

Chirk Castle, North Wales

Snowdrops at Chirk Castle, North Wales

David Lock, Head Gardener: Chirk Castle and its garden perches 700ft up on a Welsh hillside between Oswestry and Wrexham. There are 5½ acres of garden and 7 acres of woodland.

We've opened the garden for winter visitors for the first time this year. This has taken a lot of consideration on our part as much of the garden is only accessible by grass paths. But there's lots to see - particularly the topiary in the frost and snow. Plants in flower include Jasminum nudiflorum, Hamamelis varieties, hellebores, early daffodils and, of course, snowdrops.

We have opened in February for our snowdrops for 15 years now and it's a really popular event. We have about two acres of common and double snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) in the Pleasure Ground Wood. We encourage the public, particularly the children, to help us to increase the coverage of the snowdrops by digging a few bulbs up each year and planting them for us.

Chirk Castle, Chirk, nr Wrexham, Wales, reopens on 5 February, 10am-4pm: tel 01691 777701

What to do with Christmas plants in a pot

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Jim McColl Jim McColl | 09:39 UK time, Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Euphorbia pulcherrima on sale in Menorca, Bussolengo, Veneto, Italy

Are we becoming indifferent to taunts about being a 'throw away society'. "Not me" do I hear you cry? Lets face it we are all guilty to a greater or lesser degree BECAUSE it has become so 'normal'.

When plants are involved, I get quite shirty! Buy a plant in a pot for Christmas and when it has delighted us by flowering it's socks off for several weeks perhaps, it gets neglected, stood outside the back door to be frosted to death or worse still, thrown in a bucket marked 'land fill'!

Thousands of pounds will be spent this Christmas on living growing plants that are perennials and should be looked after to bloom again. I concede that some people may not have space to accommodate them whilst others may not know how. Let's start with flower bulbs.

When they have finished flowering, remove the dead flowers and move the plants from the limelight to a frost free environment with plenty light, apply a half strength liquid feed to encourage the plants to continue growing on for some weeks. In time, when conditions are suitable, they can be planted out in the garden. Having been pushed to flower out of season, they may take some time to revive and flower again but they surely will, best to plant them in a discreet part of the garden away from critical gaze.

Turning now to Azalea indica and all it's derivatives, they will flower for weeks and when the last flowers have faded and been removed, move the plants to a cool greenhouse in the short term for they are not fully hardy. Feeding with an ericaceous fertiliser will help the recovery and if there were any pruning to be done to tidy up the shape that would be the time to do it. Azaleas are usually pretty pot-bound and if you are serious about growing them on for another year, consider potting into a slightly bigger pot. How much bigger? When you stand the root-ball in the centre of the new pot, there should be a two finger wide gap between it and the pot wall! Remember to use a John Innes Ericaceous compost. The pots are best plunged out of doors for the summer, a little light shade is good but don't forget to water them!

The cyclamen is another seasonal favourite. Keep growing after the flowers have gone, feed from time to time and when the foliage starts to yellow, dry them off gradually and allow to rest for 2 to 3 months.

There are some lovely arrangements of live plant material combining mini-cyclamen, primroses, ivies and other foliage plants. When they have given they're all, separate out the plants, pot them up singly and grow on for further use.



I have left the best to last - the Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima). What a wonderful contribution they make to the Christmas scene. Just to confound all I have said till now - when they are done, put them on the compost heap! (also advocated by Bob Flowerdew in his recent blog post!)

Oh yes, they can be cut back and grow away successfully with the new growth appearing at the right time, put in the airing cupboard to create an extended night at the right time to produce the scarlet bracts BUT you won't be able to control the growth in order to produce neat well-balanced plants, you need a growth regulator for that and it is not available to amateur gardeners!


List 11: Things to do this year

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Alys Fowler Alys Fowler | 08:36 UK time, Sunday, 26 December 2010

  1. Bake the perfect beetroot cake
  2. Wear my heart inside and less on my sleeve
  3. Eat more green garlic
  4. Add an orchard to the place I love
  5. Make a new path for the allotment
  6. Celebrate another year together
  7. Create a truly beautiful bouquet for mother’s day
  8. Blast a little Talking Heads back into my life
  9. Build a self-watering greenhouse
  10. Perfect Mahonia aquifolium lemonade
  11. Spend less, give away more
  12. Catch up with the weeds
  13. Grow runner beans and sunflowers together
  14. Stockpile on more onions as I really didn’t grow enough
  15. Love my front garden a bit more
  16. Create the perfect allotment shed interior
  17. Smoke a ham and have met the pig first
  18. Learn how to identify more mushrooms
  19. Catch my first fish
  20. Grow more variegated land cress
  21. Start a bulb collection in pots
  22. Learn to candy angelica
  23. Watch the Daubenton kale grow big
  24. Save a lot more seeds
  25. Grow a Jersey walking stick
  26. Teach my niece how to eat more wild things
  27. Wild swim whenever I can
  28. Train some step over apples from scratch for the allotment
  29. Learn a local ghost story
  30. Enter my veg at the local allotment show
  31. Remember that gardening is my hustle
  32. Have a little more moxie about life

The ever brilliant



Alys Fowler is a writer and broadcaster

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Holly, vines and applewood

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Bob Flowerdew Bob Flowerdew | 11:21 UK time, Friday, 24 December 2010


What with carol singing and parties my twins are being kept well and truly busy. Even so they’ve found time to ‘help’ daddy decorate the house. I’m quite a traditionalist and love evergreens; I’ve three holly trees by my front gate which supply plenty. Most years they bear berries - not from cunning planning but from a mistle thrush who regards these as his own. Being bigger than most other garden birds he’s able to defend his berries and does so most ably, ensuring I get to pick nice pieces. As do two legged rats regarding my trees as self-service centres. This is theft, though it seems churlish to prosecute. Perhaps I should put out a board stating a pick-your-own price!

In these bleak days I like to bring some flowers indoors and most years garner a good selection, mostly from winter flowering shrubs, but this year has been so bleak most are not showing. Indeed I’ve been forced to buy a Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) to garnish the table - and cheap yet gorgeous it is too.

You know as we’re always trying to persuade querists on Gardeners' Question Time this is just one of those plants it’s futile to try and cajole through to the following year. Although possible it’s very difficult to get them to look good a second season, believe me we’ve all tried. Sometimes you have to admit defeat - these are one shot wonders, expecting more is like expecting a bunch of cut flowers to go on for ever.

Anyway amongst all the seasonal activity real gardening still goes on, there are always my plants to tend under cover. I also like to get the grapevines pruned before the new year; the old boys reckoned it set back the next crop if they were pruned any later. I do enjoy pruning grapes; they’re very forgiving and always come back even if I do get too enthusiastic. Indeed it is hard to over-prune grapes, for as long as there’s at least a stub of young wood with a couple of buds then the next crop is assured.

I do believe most gardeners are not ruthless enough - prune them hard and they do much better than when too much wood is left on them. And the other nice thing about pruning grapes is their prunings smell so sweet as they’re burning.

I’ve a mobile incinerator on an old barrow which I trail along with me, it gets rid of the bits as they’re made, makes wood ash for the garden and keeps me warm all at the same time (and gives me a lovely smokey ‘after-shave’). Of course any older branches thicker than my finger are cut up for my wood stove - it would be a shame to waste them.

Which reminds me; I must dig out those apple wood logs I put aside when a fallen tree was cut up last spring. They will burn well by now and give a most delicious fruity aroma to the whole house.

Life in a Cottage Garden with Carol Klein

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Carol Klein Carol Klein | 17:05 UK time, Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Carol Klein in her garden at Glebe Cottage


Over the past few years, the idea of making a TV series about the garden here at Glebe Cottage has taken up more and more of my day-dreaming. No longer - now it's become a reality.

We have just finished the last programme in this six-part series where you can join me, (I hope you will) in my garden and travel through the year with me as I introduce you not only to different parts of my garden but also to what happens there at different times of the year.

Each programme will devote itself to a two-month period, where I extol and occasionally become exasperated with what happens during that time.

You'll see what I'm up to; follow each activity through all its stages, seed will germinate, be pricked out and potted on then planted out into the garden. You'll see these plants burgeon and eventually yield their own seed. The cycle continues.

We've filmed almost every week of the year so what you'll see really shows what's happened here throughout the last twelve months. And when a day has been earmarked for filming that's it. If it pours down, hard luck, but at least you see it as it really happens.

It is beautiful though, from the frosted wastes of January and February through to summer's gorgeousness and the gentle slide into glowing golden autumn and beyond. None of the programme is scripted, so what I say is what I feel.

We have gone with the flow and allowed the garden to be the main character - just an acknowledgement of what really happens.

The garden gives us so much material that it's impossible to use everything. It's all first rate stuff but physically it just can't all be fitted in. We filmed pulmonarias in February, talked about their importance to bees for an early nectar boost and discussed how vital it is to ensure that early insects can find succour in our gardens.

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Carol's husband Neil with the newly arrived honey bees

Carol's husband Neil with the newly arrived honey bees

Later we filmed our new hive and our honey-bees arriving and traced their progress through the summer and saw preparations for ensuring their successful sojourn through the winter. It's been so cold that Neil, my husband has been wrapping the new top-bar hive in insulation through the last few days and unwrapping it when it has become unexpectedly warm. Hope all is well inside will let you know later. The bees were doing brilliantly well but cold weather is always daunting for a bee-keeper, especially a novice one.

Hope you enjoy the series, it's new and different and hugely exciting. All the team would love to hear what you think. Do post your questions and comments below and I'll be back at the beginning of January with some answers and some more clips from the programme.

The 6-part series features lapsed-time photography which brings a real sense of time and the passing of the seasons in Carol's garden.

Specially shot sequences condense months of borders and plants flourishing in a few seconds. An acer passes from bare winter bones through to its beautiful full fiery red, a lily flowers and areas of Carol's garden change within seconds.

Life in a Cottage Garden with Carol Klein begins on Friday 7th January at 20:30 on BBC Two

Where does the snow go?

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Jim McColl Jim McColl | 08:15 UK time, Tuesday, 21 December 2010

melting snowman

"But Grandad, where does it all go?" I wonder how often that question will be repeated in the coming weeks and months.

The subject of the question of course is SNOW and because there has been so much of it already, there are now reports of flooding, which has come with the thaw. As we all know, the snowmelt either runs off into the drainage systems or it is absorbed by the soil and other porous surfaces to percolate away more slowly. It has been well documented that worryingly the increase in non-porous surfaces in the UK brings a serious threat of more frequent flooding to many parts of our land, something that planners and engineers have taken on board or have they? They still seem keen to build on flood plains!

Back to that original question, on garden ground, the snow obviously melts and percolates down into the soil. Have you ever stopped to think how much water is heaped up on your garden in the form of snow? I can tell you - one foot of snow (30cm) is equivalent to an inch of rainwater (2.5cm) or to put it another way, one foot of snow on one square yard of your plot amounts to over four and a half gallons of water. Our garden had 60cm of snow lying on it, that's almost 10 gallons per sq yd!

When that snow has gone, the soil is likely to be completely saturated and whilst root systems are in shut-down mode they can stand that for a time, however, if the condition lasts for a lengthy period, some plant losses will be inevitable. Last winter, the snow arrived with us on 16 December and we had continual substantial snow cover until the end of January. The real damaging sequence came next - snow melt followed by a period of severe frosts that penetrated well into the ground and when root systems were thoroughly encased in frozen soil, the snow returned to seal it all in for another month or two! That was deadly and it could happen again this season.

What can we do about it? Not a lot in the short term. We have to look forward to helping plants to recover come spring. We must avoid precipitate or hasty action, before the soil has started to dry out, then we can fork through the soil to aerate the surface layers, secondly by leaving established plants that appear to have succumbed to the adverse conditions because there may still be a spark of life there and thirdly be ready to apply a pick-me-up quickly followed by a fresh mulch of well rotted organic material.

There is the magic phrase - organic matter. The long term solution to help plants survive the vagaries of our weather is to build up the organic matter levels in the soil. Many will remember the disastrous situation in Eastern England back in the late sixties when the stock were banished from the fields, the fences came down, the ditches filled in and the land was devoted to arable cropping - asset stripping more like. When all the organic matter was used up, the land was almost impossible to cultivate, it had no structure. You have been warned; ignore the regular application of organic matter to your garden at your peril.

Jim McColl presents BBC Scotland's the Beechgrove Garden.

London's best-kept secret: the Lindley Library?

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Alys Fowler Alys Fowler | 08:47 UK time, Sunday, 19 December 2010

Print from the Lindley Library

A print from the RHS Lindley Library collection

I’m in the quiet hush of the inner sanctum. Just the rustle of papers and turning of pages. The RHS Lindley Library at Vincent Square in London is the largest horticultural library in the world though in truth it’s spread about a bit as there are reading rooms at all of themain RHS gardens.

I’ve been visiting this library for half my life now. I first ventured into the Lindley library via the Orchid Society of Great Britain; I went to a lecture by Brent Elliott (the head Librarian) about the history of greenhouses. And yes it was preposterously precocious to be doing such a thing, but the orchid society was rather jolly and more importantly accepted me. That I was an oddly dressed teenager didn’t faze them one bit; I liked orchids, so did they.

They also held rather jolly Christmas parties with sandwiches with their crusts cut off and wine in plastic cups that nobody seemed to mind much if I drank. I took my best friend with me and we chatted about Dendrobiums and other orchid things. But I quickly came to realise it was the library, not the orchids, that I hankered after. 

You can request to see some of the oldest tomes in gardening, to run a white-gloved finger over ancient words about pruning or propagating or dip into Loudon’s Gardener’s Magazine or copies of The Garden as edited by William Robinson and when you are stuck as to the whys or wheres there are on hand librarians who seem to be able to answer any question: the history of the printing press, no problem; why it’s in Greek and not Latin, a translation, of course; a piece of paper to write the answer down and a sharp pencil to write it with (that’s the other great secret - they have a really good pencil sharpener, you get a long point, very satisfying).

Print from the RHS Lindley Library

a print from the RHS Lindley Library collection

Downstairs is quiet and studious; everyone is buried in a book. The only window is a skylight that, at this time of year, frames the seedpods of the London planes that surround the square. Upstairs is open to all (you have to register as a reader to go into the bowels) and there’s my favourite indulgence: a great swath of gardening magazines from around the world.  It’s my treat before leaving to imagine what I might be doing in the garden if I lived in Australia, Japan or was seriously into growing box and signed up for The European Boxwood and Topiary Society journal.

Am I giving away the best kept secret in London, perhaps? But libraries need people. I am always slightly alarmed when I find that I am still the youngest person in the room. I’ve clocked up 16 years worth of visiting and that’s partly why it feels like home, but I’d quite like to find my 16 year old self there soon.

This week in the garden

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Sally Nex Sally Nex | 09:07 UK time, Saturday, 18 December 2010

In the news...

There was a rare chance this week to look around a much-loved garden as it was 70 years ago. The British Council has released 13 archive films, including one about a 1940s Kew Gardens in glorious technicolour.

It's like a wonderfully clipped and precise moving version of those old-fashioned gardening books you find in second-hand bookshops. It also stars the legendary Kewties –  the lady gardeners who caused such a sensation when they first appeared that open-topped buses took detours past the walls so passengers could peek over at britches-clad bottoms. Watch and enjoy.

Also this week, 22 baby hedgehogs are looking for temporary homes after being found shivering in gardens and brought in to the Shepreth Wildlife Park in Cambridgeshire. They're too weak to fend for themselves, so need hand-rearing until they can be released in spring.

And one of Britain's rarest apples has found a haven in a community orchard in its home town of Redditch, Worcestershire, after dwindling to fewer than 20 trees. The Doddin is the size of a golfball and so sweet it was eaten in cinemas instead of popcorn during the war.

Elsewhere on the web...

Whenever you want a spectacular reaction out of a gardener just mention the words 'Leylandii cypress'. Fireworks are guaranteed: as are tall tales of 10m high specimens towering over front gardens or dastardly urinating at dead of night.

If I've just lit your blue touchpaper, you may be able to help the makers of a new BBCONE documentary taking a sideways look at the hedges you love to hate. Landmark Films want to hear from those living in their shadow, and also anyone prepared to lay their gardening reputations on the line to defend them. Call Max on 01865 202099, or email

Also there are some breathtakingly beautiful winter wildlife photos sent in for the Winterwatch Flickr group, Mark and Gaz have been making cookies 'n' cream to paint on their statues and Dawn from Little Green Fingers has some great ideas for gardening-related gifts for kids.

Out and about...

Now I don't know about you but there's only so much over-indulgence and relaxation I can take. After days when the only gardening tools I've seen are wrapped in shiny paper, I start getting itchy: and by Boxing Day I'm outside again, like as not with my wellies on.

Even with family in tow you can still get your gardening fix: many gardens open for bracing Boxing Day walks, sometimes in the company of the head gardener, and at Fairhaven Woodland and Water Garden, in the Norfolk Broads, and Batsford Arboretum in Gloucestershire there's mulled wine on offer, too.

Before all that, though, don't miss the magical run-up to Christmas at Doddington Hall, near Lincoln. They're filling three floors of Elizabethan splendour with dried flowers, foliage and fruit from the the kitchen garden and they've turned the 96-ft long Long Gallery into an enchanted forest, using dried leaves and silver birch saplings. This weekend is your last chance to see it – it'll make your Christmas.

Desiccating winds no good for lush foliage

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Bob Flowerdew Bob Flowerdew | 08:14 UK time, Friday, 17 December 2010

Bob Flowerdew at the recording in Bradford

Bob Flowerdew at the recording in Bradford

What a contrast! For Gardeners' Question Time (recorded early to bridge Christmas and which you can hear on January 7th) I trained to Bradford. Here in East Anglia the scant snow had mostly melted away save for scummy looking drifts in the shade. As I passed through the Midlands the snow became deeper, laying thicker all about. But the freezing cold temperatures remained much the same.

From fellow passengers to taxi drivers the question was always the same “Is all this snow going to kill off such and such; it had a hard time last winter…” Well oddly enough snow is seldom a problem. It’s a very good insulator so plants covered with snow simply do not get anywhere near as cold as those in bare soil. Then secondly the snow covering keeps cold searing winds off.

The east coast is hard on plants because of these winds. They suck moisture out of evergreen leaves leaving them parched and dried. The milder moister west coast is far gentler even if actually windier. This is why I find lush foliage plants so difficult; it’s not the cold but those desiccating winds. I do not like the best cure which is wrapping vulnerable plants with fleece as effective as this may be. I’ll put up with the drab appearance in the vegetable plot; I leave fleece over my carrots and cabbages to keep off both cold and pigeons. But I do not like staring at woolly ‘cocoons’ sticking out of the ‘ornamental’ garden. I say ornamental though currently in front of my desk window is anything but…. I grassed down most of my herbaceous beds to give the twins room to play; sadly their turf has turned to sludgy mud. Then the whole area is decorated with a generous sprinkling of plastic toys, colourful but hardly pretty. And it doesn’t matter how often I tidy up; half an hour later and they’ve re-distributed the lot, bless their disobedient untidy little ways. Mind you they’re not messing up the place on their own.

I’ve let my hens run loose everywhere except onto the vegetable plot. There is little for them to scratch in their run at this time of year so with the ground frozen they’re on much reduced rations. I compensate with huge quantities of mixed grain (organic of course) but they need bugs and greens if they’re going to start giving me superb eggs again. And it’s not long now. They’ve been off-lay this last month but as soon as we pass the winter equinox and days start to lengthen the youngest pullets will commence laying. Generally those hatched before Easter come in the soonest. Then later as they run out the older birds pick up the production. Which reminds me - time to change the straw in their nest boxes, with a pest defeating dusting of wood ashes underneath first. Then they’re all nice and cosy to entice them to lay there instead of those daft awkward spots they otherwise choose.

Bob Flowerdew, Pippa Greenwood and members of ..... in Bradford

Bob Flowerdew, Pippa Greenwood and the allotment ladies of the Bradford Community Environment Project

You can hear the Bradford edition of Gardeners' Question Time at 15:00 on Friday 7th January 2011 on BBC Radio 4.

Make a Christmas wreath from the garden

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Jennifer Redmond Jennifer Redmond | 09:02 UK time, Tuesday, 14 December 2010

wreath on front door

Pop out into the garden now on a hunt for Christmas greenery and you'll be amazed what you can find. Chances are there's some holly not far away, plus some ivy clambering up an apple tree. Then there are all the evergreens and even, if you're lucky, a few lingering flowers - roses in particular keep going even into a harsh winter. And here's what to do with them: a fabulous and easy-to-make decoration from leading floristry teacher Judith Blacklock.

This is a really quick and simple recipe – just a ring of wet foam covered in foliage that's easily found in most gardens, and combined with flowers.

Usually a few garden roses are still in evidence at this time of year, but even if the frost and snow has devastated your garden all the other components will still be available and there are plenty of alternatives you could try - big plates of Viburnum tinus flowers, or even the cheerful red berries of Skimmia japonica subsp. reevesiana would look just as lovely. Or you can always cheat a little and add a few roses bought from the florist for that festive touch.

You will need:

  • a 30cm (12”) foam ring
  • florist's bind wire or garden twine
  • conifer - I used lime green foliage (for once the dreaded Leylandii cypress is perfect – snip some from your hedge) and a grey, such as the dwarf Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Ellwoodii'. But use whatever you have available – you could even snip a few branches from the bottom of your Christmas tree!
  • snippets of holly – the variegated types (such as Ilex x altaclerensis 'Golden King') look pretty
  • purple Heuchera leaves such as 'Plum Pudding' if you have them: if not, ivy leaves are just as good
  • Pittosporum tenuifolium 'Tom Thumb' or any similar evergreen with small-ish foliage
  • handful of fir cones
  • florist's stub wires (available from DIY stores and garden centres)
  • roses - I have used multi-petalled Rosa 'Grand Prix' but garden roses of any colour or form would look enchanting.


  1. Fill a sink with water. Place the ring on top, foam side down. Soak until the foam turns dark green, which will take about a minute.
  2. Secure a loop of bind wire or garden twine through the ring. Twist the wire to secure.
  3. Cut short snippets of conifer and insert into the foam at regular intervals. Angle the sprigs to follow the shape of the wreath.
  4. Add short snippets of conifer to the foam
  5. Insert the Heuchera or ivy leaves at different angles, still following the wreath’s outline. Ensure there is equal coverage over all parts of the foam.
  6. add the heuchera or ivy at different angles
  7. Repeat with the holly and Pittosporum to fill any gaps.
  8. add holly and pittosporum to fill any gaps
  9. Create 'storks' for the fir cones by wrapping a long florist's stub wire round the needles (as close as you can to the base), bringing the two wires together and twisting one around the other.
  10. a the fir cones and cut the rose stems short and tuck them firmly between the leaves
  11. Cut the rose stems short and tuck them firmly between the leaves at regular intervals.

Don't forget to spray the wreath regularly with water to keep it looking at its best. You will need to replace the roses with fresh flowers after about a week, but the base of garden foliage should last well.

Judith Blacklock has written nine books on designing with flowers and teaches floristry all around the world. She has also arranged the flowers at Kensington Palace on a regular basis. She runs her own floristry school in Knightsbridge, London, teaching flower arranging and floristry.

How hardy is hardy?

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Bob Flowerdew Bob Flowerdew | 08:44 UK time, Sunday, 12 December 2010

What a bleak early winter. It has caught me out. My cabbages look miserable. I don’t know if you heard Gardener’s Question Time from Anne’s garden (3rd & 5th December) with a question on storing cabbages. I asserted coleslaw types with hard white flesh were tenderer than Savoy types with crinkled leaves. I’m afraid I’ve demonstrated the point. Still, no use crying over spilt milk, or decomposing cabbages.

Likewise you may recall in a previous blog I mentioned trialling Aloe vera plants outdoors following a question from earlier this year. Well, they had a growing season to establish - plants survive far better the longer they’ve been in the ground - but they do not look well; their thick succulent leaves are flaccid with a dark water logged appearance. I doubt even the centres have survived. The questioner asked whether theirs, which had been out all last winter, would recover. Now this cold spell has been as chill as last winter if not as long and three plants, in different places, have all apparently succumbed despite being well sheltered and not overly moist. Therefore my original suspicions seem confirmed; the questioner actually had the very similar looking agave not an aloe. Both are reckoned to be about equally tender but I’ve had agaves survive outdoors before.

Agave leaves are thicker, tougher and with nastier hooked spines but very similar to aloes. They are often the variegated form and it was the questioner’s comment of a small STRIPED bud appearing that gave me my original doubts.

So to conclude aloes are certainly not much hardier than we thought and temperatures more than a few degrees below freezing do indeed kill them.

Eucalyptus some Pittosporums

Anne Swithinbank's border with Eucalyptus some Pittosporums

Back to the recent GQT from Anne’s garden - we had a great time looking around and her houseplants were of course immaculate. However as noted on the programme, her husband had planted a Eucalyptus very close to their house and they had a mass planting of phormiums. Now we would seldom recommend such to other gardeners as we know of the problems these may rapidly become. But, as Anne mentioned, they would be removing them as the space was wanted for other subjects. This the big difference between hard core gardeners and less experienced.

When we start out almost every specimen is sacrosanct, and to kill and dig out a plant let alone a tree somehow seems wrong. But as we progress we become more ruthless and are prepared to plant, tend, nurture, and then eradicate if that’s required.

Some years ago we found the same when we visited Holland. We were surprised by the Dutch planting forest trees really close to their houses but, as we were told, these would be grubbed out and something else put in when they became too big. After all we do not expect summer bedding, a bunch of cut flowers or even some pot plants to go on for ever and even trees pass away eventually anyway.

Bob Flowerdew is an organic gardener and panellist on BBC Radio 4's Gardeners' Question Time.

This week in the garden

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Sally Nex Sally Nex | 09:09 UK time, Saturday, 11 December 2010


In the news....

It could only be a matter of time. As inevitable as tinsel, fluffed-up robins and the arrival of Auntie Flo at nine sharp on the 25th, the annual obsession with mistletoe has begun.

The National Trust wants everyone to buy home-grown mistletoe this year to support our vanishing orchards. Mistletoe, an odd but beautiful parasitic plant, lives mainly on apple trees: so more apple trees means more Christmas kisses.

You can always try growing your own: it takes perseverance, but you could be picking yours from the back garden a couple of Christmases from now.

On a sadder note, one of our most remarkable trees fell victim to vandals this week: someone took an axe to the oldest of the Holy Thorns, near Glastonbury in Somerset. The gnarled hawthorn tree is, legend has it, descended from one planted by Joseph of Arimathea. It's not the first time it's happened: Cromwell's soldiers hacked down Holy Thorns in the 17th century to stop pesky pilgrims turning up. But at least they gave a reason.

Elsewhere on the web...

Gardeners everywhere have been a-buzzing and a-twittering with news of Monty Don's return for the new series of Gardeners' World on BBC2 next spring. 'The Lord of Cord', as he's somewhat irreverently known to Arabella Sock and others, has been welcomed with open arms by many, though some reactions were less happy. It even inspired poetry.

Several bloggers have been out capturing the spectacular hoar frosts this week while in Shirl's garden there has been much frolicking by starlings, bluetits, bramblings and chaffinches.  Esther, sadly, is gazing out at a shopping trolley. It doesn't have to be this way; not when experienced garden designers like Chris Barnes are offering advice on winter gardens, with some cracking plant combinations.

Finally, one of those posts which makes you fundamentally re-think how you garden is the award-winning article by John Walker on the seemingly inescapable dependence of gardeners on oil-based products. Thought-provoking stuff.

Out and about...

He gets about, that Mr. Claus. He's splitting his weekends between Wakehurst Place in Sussex, RHS Garden Rosemoor in Devon and Trentham Gardens in Staffordshire up till Christmas, and that's not even counting the secret woodland he retreats to at Alnwick Garden in Northumberland. He's also to be found in the Walled Garden at Glenarm Castle, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland, along with the World of Narnia, Alvin and the Chipmunks and a live reindeer. He must be worn out by Christmas Eve.

Those after something not involving fat men in red overcoats can try Christmas foraging – at Lily Hill Park in the Blackwater Valley, Berkshire, you can load up with holly, ivy and other festive foliage next Saturday. Or join the gardeners for an early wassail in the orchards of Cotehele in Cornwall. There's singing and banging large sticks involved: something about chasing away evil spirits and ensuring good apple crops next year. Sounds like a good excuse to drink a lot of cider to me.

The impact of climate change

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Jim McColl Jim McColl | 16:02 UK time, Thursday, 9 December 2010

Global Warming? Huh! Let’s face a couple of incontrovertible facts:

  • We are an off-shore island.
  • We have therefore a maritime climate – a lack of extremes, plenty of moisture all year round but unpredictable because of the all-pervading influence of the sea

Some are sceptical about climate change but I think most people would sign up to the fact that something is happening. Until last winter (09/10) and the present one to date it was being argued that winters would be milder but wetter. Gardeners would be worse off because milder winters would lead to less winterkill of damaging organisms. Is this just a blip on last year's blip?

Evidence that winters are getting milder in some areas has been shown in a serious way, and affecting food production. Here is one example.


A very high percentage of the blackcurrant varieties; now grown in Britain for commercial fruit production, were bred at the Scottish Crop Research Institute; they carry the ‘Ben’ prefix. To be technical, all temperate fruits – apples, pears, plums, soft fruit must experience a period of low temperature to complete their annual physiological life cycle. It is referred to as the ‘chilling requirement’ and will vary from one fruit species to another and indeed one cultivar to another.

The use of the word ‘chilling’ may be slightly misleading. When I worked in this area of endeavour we called them units of ‘coolth’ (as opposed to warmth!) The plants collect these low temperature ‘units’ cumulatively, they ‘bank’ the low temp degrees, which must then add up to a given figure if the cycle is to be completed normally.. For example, in the dormant season, the blackcurrant variety Ben Lomond must collect 2000 hrs below 7.2 °C and if they don’t get them, problems will arise.  It has been recorded that commercial plantations of some of these varieties in the south of England have reported erratic bud break, leading to a reduction in fruit quality. This is one of the classic symptoms of not reaching the chill totals. In layman’s terms, the winters have been too mild.

Go to the other side of the globe and you find that New Zealand varieties need accumulate a much lower dose of cold units (1200hrs or thereby).  Work is therefore going on to breed new varieties with all the excellent qualities of the existing cultivars but with a lesser requirement for units of coolth.

Interestingly enough, climate change or not:

  • We are still the same distance from the equator. So? As we know, that controls our day length pattern  - short days in winter and long days in summer and that affects flowering patterns.
  • We remain the same distance form the sun so the light intensity stays the same - that affects flowering too.
  • More ‘dimming’ is forecast and that may lead to long periods of lower light intensity, which will seriously affect flowering of some plants.

In other words, although conditions may become warmer and wetter, we don’t get a complete package of changes to growing conditions because our global location is fixed.  How will our plants re-act?  Will gardens look different in 50 years time?

Have you noticed any climate related changes in your garden?

Jim McColl presents BBC Scotland's the Beechgrove Garden.

Salad-growing in winter

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Charles Dowding Charles Dowding | 09:54 UK time, Wednesday, 8 December 2010


red mizuna, red komatsuna, rocket, tatsoi and mustards

Left hand tray growing in home made compost, right hand tray growing in cow manure. Endives at front then red mizuna, red komatsuna, rocket, tatsoi and mustards, all sown 13 September.

What are you growing in your greenhouse this winter? If yours is idling away the colder months as an up-market storage shed for the summer garden furniture, you may be missing the chance to grow some of the delicious range of winter salad leaves which thrive in the extra protection under glass, as organic grower and salad leaf connoisseur Charles Dowding explains.

The first thing to do is make a note in next year's diary to get sowing your winter salad leaves in September. They need time to establish for harvesting now, in the depths of winter. Sowing dates in autumn are far more precise than in spring, and earlier sowings grow more quickly than those made later as plants run out of sufficient warmth and light to establish before winter. Later sowings in autumn just grow more slowly.

The photographs (taken towards the end of November) show some winter salads which I started off on 13th September in small plug cells in the greenhouse. Three seeds per plug were thinned to one seedling for lettuce and endive, and two seedlings for most other salads.

A month later I filled some old blue mushroom boxes with well rotted cow manure, after lining them with newspaper, and planted six or eight of each salad’s modules into them. They have grown steadily in the well ventilated, unheated greenhouse, and are now adapting to night frost which the greenhouse mitigates but does not prevent. They are all ready for harvesting some leaves.

The great thing about all these winter salad plants is their frost hardiness. Not that they enjoy being frozen, but they can certainly tolerate it. I have a cloche outdoors of salad from a slightly earlier sowing; this cloche does not keep frost out but it keeps the rain off and gives protection from most of the wind. I leave some air holes because salad plants risk rotting if they are kept humid and airless. That is worse for them than freezing.

mizuna Red Knight F1 and mizuna Waido

Two types of mizuna: Red Knight F1 on the left and Waido om the right

You can still make windowsill sowings in warmth: mizuna, rocket, mustards, pak choi, leaf radish, land cress, lambs lettuce, winter purslane, spinach, chard and lettuce to name some of the many possible winter salads. They won't start producing until January, but that's before you even start your spring sowings.

Looking ahead, you can also plan indoor sowings of some lettuce and spinach in January, also of peas for picking their shoots as salad.

This is a good time for ordering seeds: lettuce varieties I recommend include 'Freckles', 'Bijou' and 'Noisette'. A great spinach variety is 'Toscane' for large leaves and slow bolting, and peas for shoots are most prolific from tall varieties such as 'Alderman' and 'Tall Sugar Pea'.

Seeds for the rest of the year are also best bought now and then stored in order of sowing so that you can find them at the right time. Vegetables grow far better when sown at their best time so I recommend doing a little homework on that and making some notes.

One example is to avoid spring sowing of oriental salads such as mizuna, pak choi, mustards and also rocket, because they are then coming into their flowering season. Also they suffer more flea beetle damage in spring. So if you buy salad seed mixes, check the ingredients and sow lettuce-only mixes in late winter and spring. Wait until August and September to sow oriental leaves, for enjoying next autumn and winter.

Make Korean kimchi if it's too cold to garden

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Alys Fowler Alys Fowler | 09:10 UK time, Sunday, 5 December 2010

Snow doesn’t exactly make for great gardening does it? I had all these December plans for the allotment (I now own a whole rather than a half): I want to put up a greenhouse, create a verandah around the shed and move the grape (that I fear will never be that productive, but at least could make a lovely cover to sit under). All I’ve got round to doing is creating a new compost bin area out of some very old pallets.


Still, before it froze completely solid I harvested some turnips, mooli and carrots to make into kimchi, a Korean fermented pickle. Before I get onto to pickles though I want to say how impressed I am with horticultural mesh for keeping the frost at bay. The turnips, carrots, oriental greens and mooli are under the mesh, mainly to keep flea beetles off the brassicas in August and carrot fly off the carrots, but I’ve left it on for a little protection and I think it might be even better than fleece for doing that job.

Now pickles, I am slightly addicted to kimchi and eat it everyday for lunch. I must just point out that if you intend to make this then a) it stinks, b) it has lots of raw garlic so no-one will kiss you once you’ve eaten it and c) my recipes is a very loose interpretation based on a version of Sandor Katz’s from his book Wild Fermentation, plus a lot of internet research including watching one too many demonstrations (like this one on YouTube) on how to make kimchi. It’s not an obsession, honest.

My very untraditional turnip kimchi recipe

I am sure if you are Korean that is a laughable attempt at making kimchi, but hey it makes me happy.

A bunch of small turnip, no bigger than a golf ball and turnip tops
2 radishes, preferably mooli/daikon
1 large carrot or several smaller ones
1 large onion
4 small cloves of garlic
1 hot chili or Korean chili flakes (I have lots of chilies and it galls me to go out and buy something when I have it at home)
1 tablespoon of sugar
4cm piece of fresh ginger, grated


You need to make a solution of brine to soak all the vegetables in. This needs to be roughly 4 cups of water to 3 tablespoons of salt.

Chop the tops off the turnips and slice away any thick midribs and roughly chop up the leaves. Next slice the turnips into rounds, 0.5-1cm thick, slice the carrot and mooli. Place these in the brine and soak for several hours. You will need to put a weight on top (a plate works fine) to keep the vegetables submerged in the brine.

After several hours drain away but reserve the brine, as you may need it later. Taste the vegetables they should be salty, but not unpleasantly so. If they are too salty, wash them in a colander.

Next, prepare the spices. I do this in a pestle and mortar. Smash up the garlic, chop the onions and add these, grate the ginger, remove the seeds from the chili and chop up very finely, add the sugar and mix the spices into a paste. Traditionally you add fish sauce here, but I don’t.

Now all you have to do it mix the paste with the vegetables and then stuff it (literally) into a jar so it’s all packed in tight. Take the pestle and push down the vegetables so that they start to release their juices. After a little effort the vegetables and spices should be submerged in juices. If not add a little of your brine reserve.

You need to keep the vegetables submerged as this stops bad bacteria from getting to the vegetables and rotting them. If the pickle is exposed to air it will go off very quickly. You can weigh down the vegetables with a smaller jar filled with water (or freezer bag filled with brine).

Keep the kimchi in your kitchen and cover with a tea towel to keep out flies and debris.

After two days or so your kimchi should have started to ferment. It will slowly absorb all the spare liquid. It smells startlingly strong at this point and will stink the place out, so it’s best, after two days or so, to put on a loose fitting lid and place in the fridge, where it will slowly continue to ferment. You can start to eat it at this point. It should taste spicy and hot. You must make sure that you keep squishing down the vegetables so that they are under the brine otherwise it will start to go off. You can tell this happens because the vegetables start to darken. It will keep for a week or two in the fridge - go on try it, I dare you. Perhaps you’ve already made kimchi – how did it turn out?

Alys Fowler is a garden writer and presenter of BBC Gardeners' World.

This week in the garden

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Sally Nex Sally Nex | 09:47 UK time, Saturday, 4 December 2010

In the news....

The Big Freeze continues, with large swathes of Wales and much of the south-east joining Scotland and the north-east in the coldest start to December for... well, it depends where you live, but definitely a very long time. RHS Garden Harlow Carr in Yorkshire became the latest winter garden forced to close its gates this week – though their gardeners (and visitors?) are made of stern stuff and they reopened yesterday.

Meanwhile National Tree Week has kicked off the tree-planting season with volunteers braving the snow to put in thousands of saplings at events from Bristol to Cheshire to Watford. The government also announced its Big Tree Plant: the target is a million trees planted in streets, parks and gardens to boost the number of trees in towns and cities.

Some pointed out the irony, given government plans to sell off vast tracts of the country's woodlands: but it'll certainly help the Natural History Museum whose project to identify and record urban trees is among the biggest UK tree surveys ever carried out.

Elsewhere on the web...

It's been glitz and glamour all the way this week. First the winners were announced in Martyn Cox's OMG Awards: take a bow, Cleve West and Matthew Wilson (sharers of the Most Snoggable Male award) and James Alexander-Sinclair, who effortlessly scooped the title of Best Dressed Gardener.

All that was but an appetiser for the real Garden Media Guild Awards, the gardening world's equivalent of the Oscars. Ken Crowther of BBC Radio Essex walked away (for the second year running) with Local Radio Broadcast of the Year; Lia Leendertz was 'thrilled' and 'smiling in slight disbelief' to win the Blog of the Year Award for Midnight Brambling; while Victoria Summerley carried off the Journalist of the Year Award. Congratulations to all: a full list of winners can be found here.

And that's not all: the long-awaited next episode of the Internet Phenomenon that is 3 Men Went 2 Mow is hot off the press (or whatever it is when it's a Youtube video): this time they're at Kew talking (intermittently) about autumn leaves. Enjoy.

Out and about...

When it's this cold, gardeners have little option but to stay indoors. So make the most of the enforced R&R by listening to some of our most inspirational gardeners talking about what they do best.

In Essex, plantsman Roy Lancaster discusses a lifetime of wandering around on mountainsides looking for plants at Writtle College on Tuesday; while on Wednesday Nigel Dunnett of Sheffield University, whose urban meadow plantings have transformed many a housing estate, turns his attention to rain gardens for the University of Bath Gardening Club.

Hardier types can improve their winter planting with a study morning on Tuesday at the spectacularly beautiful winter gardens at Anglesey Abbey near Cambridge, led by head gardener Richard Todd, or visit Ryton Gardens in Coventry, home of Garden Organic, offering free entry throughout December and January and, in the run-up to Christmas, live reindeer: take the kids, and don't forget the reindeer food.

Sally Nex is a garden writer and blogger and part of the BBC Gardening team.

Not by their fruits you shall know them

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Bob Flowerdew Bob Flowerdew | 10:42 UK time, Friday, 3 December 2010

snow covered walnut tree

The twins keep asking “is it Christmas yet?” as they stare at the snowy covering outside.

I can understand their confusion, only last week autumn raspberries were still cropping, half-ripe strawberries were under cloches and sweet grapes still hung in the old greenhouse. Now it’s deepest winter. The white coating on every bare branch is so cliché yet reveals so clearly the shape and form of each.

It’s great skill to recognise the trees in a garden, but much more so without their flowers, fruits or leaves. Each is so distinct.

The pears with their vertical growth so different from most apples which tend to arch and the plums which droop. The flowering cherries vary from the shuttlecock silhouette of Kanzan to the tall bundle of faggots of Amanogawa and the twiggy sparseness of winter flowering Prunus subhirtella.

My huge walnut creates a canopy of toasting forks at the tips and in the distance I can see similar on another older huger specimen.

Walnuts do well here with our East Anglian summers, as do peaches and apricots though mulberries find this village too dry. Mind you, peaches have not proved long lived, productive yes, but dying after two decades. I’m now trying some Avalon Pride, believed naturally resistant to peach leaf curl, a troublesome infection puckering and debilitating their leaves. So far they’ve shown fewer infections than older trees nearby so we shall see.

Apricots have had a lot of improvement recently and I rate them amongst the tastiest of fruits. I strongly recommend anyone with a sheltered warm spot tries one of the newer varieties such as Tomcot, Perlecot, Goldcot and so on as these are much better than ubiquitous old Moorpark. Even in a riskier spot it may be worth hazarding apricots as but a few ripening one year in several are still worth having.

Forget olives - after a quarter century my two originals still soldier barrenly on. They endure everything nature has thrown yet consistently failing to crop. My newer ones certainly look more hopeful, with bigger wider leaves and masses of flowers they promise, then fail likewise. Of course I could take them under cover in tubs but the space there’s limited and needed by worthier crops, my citrus in particular which have masses of fruit ripening well and looking good despite the chill. Indeed if they’re kept too warm they do not colour well anyway. (In the tropics oranges often stay green when ripe.)

Conveniently citrus can be hard pruned and thus kept compact and easier to move under cover. I was impressed on last week’s Gardeners’ Question Time from Hulme in Manchester where a lady had grown a Jacaranda tree to nine feet in a tub. This beautiful flowered tropical tree must be kept frost free over winter - and nine feet is quite a height to house I know!

If you’re dreaming of ever growing bananas it’s also the minimum roof height required for the tasty edible dwarf Chinese Cavendishii, so plan accordingly. 

Bob Flowerdew is an organic gardener and panellist on BBC Radio 4's Gardeners' Question Time.

Singing the praises of the Rowan Tree

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Jim McColl Jim McColl | 08:16 UK time, Wednesday, 1 December 2010

The flowers of Sorbus hupehensis

The flowers of Sorbus hupehensis

This is National Tree Week, I have to confess that every week in the year could be so called but why not flag up their importance at a time when we can be planting pot grown and/or bare root specimens? Well, as it turns out that would be fine if the ground wasn’t covered in 30cm of snow, as I write.

Yes I am a tree-a-holic, from the mightiest oaks and pines to the dwarf specimens we plant in the miniature landscape of the rock garden. Apart from Christmas trees, my earliest memory of a close relationship with a single tree takes me back to the forties. 'The gang' had a favourite picnic spot at Fairy Hill in my hometown of Kilmarnock. There was a gnarled old thorn, easy to climb and with a number of features which likened it unto a Lancaster bomber!  Most notably two stout branches next to one another that curved to form an excellent aperture from which to release the bombs or indeed to parachute into a grassy hollow below.

That Monkey Puzzle in a suburban front garden

That Monkey Puzzle in a suburban front garden

Since that time, I have planted hundreds of trees of all sorts and cared for many more. I have favourites galore but in my current top ten, numero uno would have to be the Rowan Tree (Mountain Ash), a member of the Sorbus family. Wearing my adviser's hat, I use the expression 'a value for money plant' and in that regard the Rowan is hard to beat. Nowadays, I am mostly advising private gardeners, the bulk of them living in suburbia and that brings me to one of the key considerations when choosing any plant - but especially trees - and that is scale. My photo shows an example of how wrong the choice of specimen can be! This Monkey Puzzle was twice the height of the house and is still growing!

So why does the Rowan in its many varied guises come top of my list?

  • It is tolerant of a wide range of soil types
  • There is sufficient variety in vigour to suit small to large gardens
  • Foliage is comparatively light weight and doesn’t create dense shade
  • The range of foliage types is fascinating - Sorbus vilmorinii being my choice
  • Handsome flower trusses in early summer - Sorbus hupehensis comes tops
  • Glorious range of fruits from white through pink to red, orange and yellow
  • To cap that lot, many have stunning autumn foliage
Our Sorbus ‘Joseph Rock’ caught in the autumn sunlight, in the company of A. nobilis behind and P. pungens glauca in front.

Our Sorbus ‘Joseph Rock’ caught in the autumn sunlight, in the company of A. nobilis behind and P. pungens glauca in front.

In our last garden, we had six or seven different species/cultivars and it was fascinating to watch the pecking order develop as the season progressed. The blackbirds always started on S. commixta, I swear I’ve seen 6 or 7 of them, as Labrador dogs, gorging themselves like there was no tomorrow – and all that before the fruits were fully coloured – we never saw the tree in it’s fruiting glory but the actions of the 'budgies' was ample compensation.  The preference was definitely for red and orange/red fruits. Only when winter really began to limit choice did they turn to pink, that's when S. hupehensis got the treatment.

What are your favourite trees? Are you planting any trees this season?

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