Archives for February 2011

Growing exotic plants in the UK

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Jennifer Redmond Jennifer Redmond | 08:10 UK time, Sunday, 27 February 2011

Nick Johnson, Team Leader at Kew's Tropical Nursery

Nick Johnson, Team Leader at Kew's Tropical Nursery

Nick Johnson is the team leader of the Temperate and Conservation collections at Kew's Tropical Nursery. Nick has been at Kew for nearly ten years and has worked in the Tropical Nursery for eight of them. Nick manages a small team that cares for the temperate collections and the increasingly important threatened island flora collections.

Someone asked me recently why I like growing exotic plants. Why not grow our beautiful British garden plants? There is such a range in the plants we can grow outdoors, why as a gardener do you find joy in working all your days in a glasshouse? Sweating buckets in the summer heat and struggling to find ways to coax plants through our dismal winters with little of the light they crave?

I took them into one of my glasshouses in Kew's tropical nursery where I work. This particular glasshouse produces all the plants destined for bedding displays in public houses such as the beautiful Waterlily House. On a potting bench one of the diploma students had just finished potting up seedlings of Mimosa pudica which many call the 'Sensitive Plant.' I didn't have to say a word! We just touched the open leaves and they closed up faster than you could say, 'Wow!'

The Waterlily House at Kew

The Waterlily House at Kew (image: RBG Kew)

After wandering through the lush green foliage and flowers (in January!), we came to the tropical pitcher plants Nepenthes. These plants will be planted in the Princess of Wales Conservatory. In particular I showed off a specimen of Nepenthes truncata with its other-worldly pitchers that are a foot long sprouting from the ends of their lush green leaves. Another 'Wow'; this time hushed and awed.

That's one of the things I love about all plants, native or exotic, they humble you with their complexity, their diversity. And for those of us in temperate zones, tropical plants can offer us a whole new range of interesting forms and colours.

Can anyone do it? Can we plant them outside? That's the thing I love about being a gardener, we can always try it. If it doesn't work, it's noted and we can try something else next year. British gardeners have always been at the cutting-edge of trying new plants outside.

Your questions answered

A few weeks ago we invited you to send questions for Nick via the message board. Here are his answers to those questions...

Is it feasible to grow Loofah (Luffa cylindrica) in this country? Do we get a long enough growing season to harvest them? Would I have to start them indoors and move out later in spring?

Kind of like starting off your tomatoes indoors for an early crop, yes you'd have to get them going indoors. Sow them in February or March so you have nice strong plants to go outside. The big issue with using tropical and subtropical plants out-doors is making sure you put them into beds once the soil has warmed up after the spring; late May should be good. Make sure there is plenty of dark organic matter in the soil too, not only will it help retain moisture in the summer but it'll also help the soil stay warm. Dark soil absorbs heat much better than light soil. Make sure they get lots of sun in a south facing aspect and keep them well watered!

Are there any plants from regions with extreme climate we could try for example from Mongolia and Tibet (winter nights as low as -40deg but summer as high as 38)

These plants can be tricky! It's not so much our temperatures that they don't like, it's our unpredictable rainfall. Many come from areas that have distinct rain patterns and will sulk or rot if they are cold and wet. You could get round this by protecting the bed with a cover over winter to keep it dry but this solution may be only for the enthusiast. There are some very nice Himalayan plants in cultivation here that do perfectly well in our climate, such as the beautiful Himalayan Blue Poppy, Meconopsis betonicifolia. There are some fantastic trees from Tibet - Taxus wallichiana, Magnolia officinalis and one of my favorites - Rhododendron arboreum to name but a few. You'd also be surprised at what grows on the steppes of Mongolia - amongst the grasses you'll find Geraniums, Gentians, Delphiniums and others that many consider to be British garden plants.

If a plant is totally hardy throughout the UK, does this make it not exotic, by definition?


We tend to think of exotic as meaning lush and green, tropical big leaves and unusual flowers. But by definition, exotic actually means anything that isn't classed as a British native. Look around your local park or in your garden, you'll find exotics a-plenty! Technically, Horse Chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) is an exotic. It was introduced from the Balkans in the 1600s. Who could imagine an English garden without 'English' Lavender? It was probably introduced by the Romans from the western Mediterranean around 2000 years ago.

Surely growing exotics is bad for the planet and bad for local fauna - is this the case?


If that were the case then surely we should get rid of most of the plants in our gardens! Exotic plants are only a problem if they can reproduce and out-compete our native flora. Invasive exotics such as the Himalayan Balsam (Impatiens glandulifera) and Rhododendron ponticum are examples of escapees from the garden and are a serious concern. But try to imagine life without the plethora of exotic flowers we have in our gardens that are completely benign. Always garden responsibly using your common sense and NEVER bring seed into this country from overseas without careful research and permits from the UK government and the country of collection.

I have often fancied growing a lemon tree but am worried about having to bring it inside each winter. What happens when they get too big to move? Are there any varieties which stay small enough to move in and out of a conservatory?

Don't worry too much about having a lemon tree that gets too big as there are many varieties on the market that have been grafted onto a dwarfing rootstock. Just make sure they are on the dwarfing rootstock 'Flying Dragon'. These trees only get up to around 6 foot tall after 10 years and will never be too difficult to move. Keep the plant constricted in as small a pot as you can fit it into. This will dwarf it even further. My top tip for moving containerised trees around? Let the compost dry out a little before you move them. If they are outdoors, cover the pots with a plastic bag to keep the rain off them for a while and make sure they are not sitting in pans full of water!

Many people asked about plants which appear dead but when dug up show signs of life. Plants mentioned include: Phormium, cordylines, Llomartia ferruginea, Paulownia. How do you care for them?

Patience... don't forget that your garden is a part of nature. Sometimes plants die back to protect themselves from the ravages of the weather. Some trees will drop leaves or even whole limbs to compensate for a lack of water. Get to know the species you are growing, how they grow and find out where they are from and the environment they evolved to cope with. For instance, Phormium tanax comes from low lying areas in temperate New Zealand and can be susceptible to hard frosts, but even though the leaves can look black, most of the time they'll sprout again from the base and grow back fine. Don't be too hasty too dig them up! Wait until early summer just to be sure. It's tempting to fuss over the plants in our gardens too much. Relax... take the time to observe and don't panic if there are times where your garden can look a bit of a mess. A wise man (Benjamin Disreali) once said, 'How fair is a garden amid the trials and passions of existence.' How right he was.

Going to seed

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Sally Nex Sally Nex | 07:14 UK time, Saturday, 26 February 2011

Seedy Sunday

Tell you what: here's enough vegetable and flower seeds to stock your garden for the year (and maybe beyond). No: you don't have to pay. They're absolutely free.

Well - all right, not absolutely free. It'll cost you some packets from your stock of saved seeds: you know, those freebies from gardening magazines you didn't get around to planting, or the surplus from those beans you dried last autumn.

You've probably guessed by now I'm talking seed swaps: the bring-and-buy sales of the gardening world, in which the only currency is seeds, enthusiasm and immense goodwill between gardeners.

"Everyone's mucked in today and it's been amazing," said Sara Cundy, of the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, the hugely enthusiastic organiser of the seed swap I went to in Bradford-on-Avon (they're happening all over the country, right through into April: have a look for an event near you on the Seedy Sunday website). "Everyone's just come in and brought envelopes of seeds and gone away with other bits, and sharing knowledge as well - skill, passion all bound up together."

It's all about sharing and generosity. There are no rules: you don't even have to bring any seeds along yourself, though most people do, and nobody counts what you're taking away. And, it seems, if you just trust everyone to do the right thing, nobody takes advantage: there was plenty for everyone and more.

Seed packets

I brought along several packets of sprouting seeds, left over from an ill-advised attempt to interest my family in beansprouts this winter. Sprouted lentils are a subject we can no longer mention politely at home - but my three-quarters full packet of seed was snapped up.

I also got rid of gave away several spare packets of tomatoes, all those free packets of rocket seeds I'll never get around to sowing, some spare herbs and packets of globe artichokes, kale and alpine strawberries I won't have room for this year.

In return I filled my bag almost full: among my haul were Clematis tangutica seeds (I'm always up for a challenge), achocha seeds (ditto) and several packets of beans, including some I'm really excited about which are descended from those cultivated by American president and gardener Thomas Jefferson. Heirloom varieties, handed down from generation to generation and unavailable in the shops, are at the heart of what seed swaps are all about.

"Most seeds have to be on these national lists and you obviously pay a lot of money, so they've got to be commercially viable," says Sara. "This is celebrating how much variety and uniqueness there is out there."

Seed swaps began 10 years ago in Brighton, where two people from the local gardening club went on holiday to Canada and came back all fired up by a seed swap they'd chanced upon there.

Little did they know what they were starting. The Brighton and Hove Seedy Sunday is now the biggest in the UK, and parent to almost 30 similar events this year taking place from Sussex to Scotland.

'It's a really good way of interesting and harnessing people's passions about growing,' says Sara. 'There's been everyone from real experienced gardeners to novices. It's sharing knowledge person-to-person.'

This was Bradford-on-Avon's first Seedy Sunday - but judging from the delighted smiles on people's faces as they left, I've a feeling it won't be the last. Meanwhile, if you'll excuse me, I've got some seeds to sow...

Oh, rats!

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Emma Cooper Emma Cooper | 17:11 UK time, Thursday, 24 February 2011

Over the winter we've been having some work done on the house, which at various points was enough to drive me to distraction.

compost bin

On one particularly bad day I decided would take my frustrations out by emptying the compost bin, but the finished compost had settled and was too solid for me to wrench the top off my plastic bin, which is my normal means of accessing the compost.

I took the lid off and dived in with a spade, hoping to take out enough to enable me to remove the top. As I delved deeper, what I thought was an air pocket collapsed and the compost level fell. And then the compost moved.

My first thought was that I had disturbed a mouse nest. Horrified at the thought that I had buried defenceless mouse babies, I went back into the house to get my husband, who pulled the top off the composter with no problem.

With better access I carefully dug out the compost, and was pleased not to discover any mice. And then my brain warmed up a bit and I remembered the animal droppings I had seen when I opened the lid. Too big for mice.

compost waste

Big droppings. Large tunnels. Moving compost. Oh rats!

I put the bin back together, but left the lid off for the winter - a cold, wet heap is far less attractive to rodents then a warm and dry one. My mistake was in leaving my finished compost for too long, something I will try and avoid in future.

We're never far from a rat, but I have yet to meet a composter who is happy with them living in a compost heap. And people who don't compost are often put off by the thought that they may attract rats - but as a Master Composter I know that there is no need for a compost heap to cause problems.

Tips for avoiding rats in your compost

  • Rats are shy creatures and don't like being disturbed. A well-kept compost heap, visited regularly, will be less attractive. A swift kick every time you pass wouldn't go amiss either!
  • Try to keep the contents of your bin actively composting (with the correct mix of carbon- and nitrogen-rich materials and water), in a sunny spot.
  • Don't position your bin next to a fence or hedge, which gives rats unseen access - leave a gap around it.
  • Don't compost cooked food, meat or dairy.
  • If you have rat problems then it is possible to stand a compost bin on a hard surface, or line the bottom with narrow-gauge metal mesh. A tight-fitting lid stops them getting in at the top.

If you suspect you have rats in the garden then you have a legal requirement to inform your local authority, who will send out a pest controller. And remember that, whether you've seen rats or not, gardens are grubby places and you should cover any open wounds when gardening and wash your hands thoroughly when you come inside.

Emma Cooper is a garden blogger and author based in Oxfordshire. She advises the public on home garden composting as a Master Composter, under a scheme run by Garden Organic to encourage recycling, cut waste and improve our gardens.

Rooting away nicely

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Bob Flowerdew Bob Flowerdew | 09:57 UK time, Tuesday, 22 February 2011


A warm dry spell has helped me get on top of my vegetable plots and fruit cage, mostly by hoeing. I even got my shirt off for a couple of minutes, mere tokenism but still nice to feel the sun again.

Thirty of my forty beds are under control in some way, either weeded and waiting or with a semi-permanent crop filling them such as raspberries, herbs or cuttings. That leaves ten covered with a thick mat of weeds; these will be skimmed off into the trenches with the potatoes next month. Several of those beds had a borage green manure but this was killed by the cold. I've not re-sown as I'm going to have a huge borage patch alongside the apricot and peach trees I recently put in.

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Domestic bliss

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Alys Fowler Alys Fowler | 09:30 UK time, Sunday, 20 February 2011

I was supposed to clean the house so it would be tidy when H came home. But I just 'cleaned' the garden instead.

Alys with her hens

I dug out the deep litter bed created by the chickens. Pretty much all the compost goes straight into their pen, they have a good scratch and what's not theirs goes into the bin. Every now and then I put down a layer of straw, particularly if it's very muddy.

Alys and hens

Overtime this means their pen has risen in height as they've created more and more compost. If you dig over a little bit it's crawling with worms, literally 20 or 30 per spade full. The girls love to scratch through this, so once a week or so I dig a bit over for them.

It occurred to me that this awesome soil was slightly wasted on them, so I hauled a foot or so of it in tub trugs and filled in all sorts of funny lumps and bumps that had appeared over time in the garden. I mulched all the soft fruit that are dotted up and down the garden and gave the rhubarbs a layer for good measure.

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Garden news

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Sally Nex Sally Nex | 07:27 UK time, Saturday, 19 February 2011


In the news….

Celebrations this week after the government abandoned plans to sell off the nation’s forests. This weekend’s planned protest meeting at the Forest of Dean has turned into a party, and campaign leaders 38 Degrees thanked the 533,877 people who signed their petition. Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman told BBC Radio 4’s PM ‘we got it wrong’ - while refusing to say that the actual policy was at fault (19 minutes in) - yet Alexander Chancellor wonders why the Government failed to anticipate how deeply we value our woodlands. Lesson learned, I’d say.

It’s February, so it must be spring - but after years of hand-wringing over super-early spring flowers, many of us are now wondering where they’ve all got to this year. Even the country’s crop of purple-sprouting broccoli has thrown in the towel (yet another reason to grow your own).

But studies are still telling us spring is arriving, on average, 11 days early, and in Devon and Cornwall the National Trust said spring blooms were 17% up on last year’s annual stock-take. So which is right? The Woodland Trust want you to help them decide: they’re running a nationwide survey collecting dates of the first signs of spring to build an accurate picture of how it was for you this year.

Elsewhere on the web…

The fabulously talented Winterwatch photography group on Flickr have been getting all romantical this week: their collection of photographs taken for Valentine’s Day is breathtaking. Many were snapped in the back garden: among my favourites is the pair of rodents unspecified on a hot date nabbing the peanuts off the bird table.

And thanks go to Arabella Sock for drawing attention to this week’s best watch: Landscape Man and former RHS curator Matthew Wilson sorting out a native pond for wildlife gardening specialists Habitataid, bravely soldiering on in the teeth of tribulations including leaky waders filling rapidly with sludgy water and colleagues more inclined to laugh uproariously than fetch the duct tape.

Out and about…

It was National Nest Box Week this week - and there’s still time to brush up on your birdbox skills at Waterperry Gardens in Oxfordshire. They’ve got a local RSPB expert on hand today for advice and help in siting and managing your des res for garden birds; and at RHS Rosemoor in Devon on Tuesday, take the kids and learn how to make a birdbox at their half-term workshop - hopefully producing something to take home with you at the end.

Other ways to keep your kids’ green fingers busy this half-term: the Chelsea Physic Garden in London is letting little ones loose with a paintbrush in Art of the Garden on Thursday, Ryton Gardens, run by Garden Organic in Warwickshire, has a garden trail and children’s garden to explore; and at Westonbirt Arboretum in Gloucestershire there’s the chance to make homes for minibeasts and create clay animals in their woodland wildlife discovery trail. Head to the bee garden at the National Botanic Garden of Wales in Carmarthenshire on Tuesday and learn all about how bees help in the garden while rolling your own beeswax candle: just pray for rain so you have a good excuse to take cover in the glory of the world’s biggest single-span glasshouse.

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House your pot fruit!

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Jim McColl Jim McColl | 08:21 UK time, Thursday, 17 February 2011

My apples in the glasshouse in full flower by mid-April, at least a month early

My apples in the glasshouse in full flower by mid-April, at least a month early

In the days when garden owners could afford 5 gardeners to the square yard, the level of indulgence beggars belief. I read something the other day about that period in more southerly counties when enough citrus trees were grown in containers under glass for about 8 months, to be set outside in the summer to create an orchard, covering an acre or so. In this part of the world something similar occurred on a slightly more modest scale, using temperate fruits, for a very specific reason - rivalry between neighbouring estates.

One of my mentors, when I came to work in the North East (straight from Leicestershire!) was a man called Ronald Smith; he passed on a few years ago in his mid nineties. Ronald started his gardening life as an apprentice to his father, head gardener to Lord Cowdray at his Dunecht Estate not many miles from where I live. William Smith (remember Sidalcea Wm Smith, one and the same) was one of the last great head gardeners of the era, a regular winner at Chelsea, Southport, Shrewsbury.

Ronald told wonderful stories of life in an estate garden in the twenties and in particular, the Fruit Teas that were the fashion of the day. The local lairds would vie with one another, to see who could produce the best display of home grown fruits in late summer when in turn they would host Sunday afternoon gatherings to show off the fruits displayed on the dining room table. The range included all the seasonal or near seasonal soft fruits, the full range of tropical and Mediterranean fruits grown under glass AND a range of temperate tree fruits, long before the last named were ripe, when grown normally. Including varietal selections, there could be 30 - 40 different sorts! Incidentally some of the fruits were presented in bowls of ice from the ice house. Ron's tales of cutting, carting and stowing the ice in the winter months were very entertaining.

The point of all this relates to my opening remarks. At Dunecht, they grew a huge number of apples in pots, in order to have fruit full-sized and ripe for these Fruit Teas. Having spent the winter outside, to collect sufficient 'cold units' they were brought into the glasshouses about now, I dare say 1st February would probably be the target date. By so doing, at this latitude, flowering was bought forward by at least a month, cross-pollination supervised and only when the fruits were set and almost table tennis ball size, were they put outside, creating a mini-orchard. As fruits developed they would be thinned, pots were turned regularly to be sure that they coloured up evenly, the odd leaf shading a fruit was nipped off - these trees were cosseted beyond belief in the expectation of beating the fellow on the next estate. I imagine the rivalry trickled down from laird to gardener!

Apples Red Devil and Lord Lambourne on 4 August

L: Apple Red Devil on 4 August
R: Apple Lord Lambourne on 4 August

Now to put this in perspective, for a start, they would be dealing with apple trees grown on selected seedling rootstocks, no M1X or M26 etc. to control vigour. Clay pots were in vogue and there would be no automatic irrigation but they did have 5 gardeners/sq yd remember! The results were staggering and a testament to the skill and dedication of these gardeners.

We can enjoy a little of that era today - at Beechgrove Garden, we have a selection of apple trees in pots and indeed, I have 5 pots here at home. They are modern apple varieties on M27 rootstocks, growing in 10inch pots and have just been taken in to the glasshouse. I am conscious that many of you will have pot apples, especially suited for furnishing your patio or decking garden. If you have the facility to accommodate them under cover - glasshouse, polytunnel, glass porch, you may care to try out this ploy to produce some early delights!

Graham Rankin on leaving Aberglasney

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Graham Rankin Graham Rankin | 12:49 UK time, Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Aberglasney, in Carmarthenshire, south-west Wales, is a miracle garden. In 1995 the landscape's 400 years of history lay buried and forgotten, choked by Japanese knotweed. Then the arrival of a wealthy American benefactor, closely followed by inspirational garden restoration specialist Graham Rankin, turned Aberglasney's fortunes around. Graham spent the following 16 years transforming the garden into one of the finest in Wales, but last year caused shockwaves across the gardening world by announcing he was moving on. We asked him to reflect on how it feels to say goodbye.

I must have been absolutely mad to have even considered taking on such a daunting task.

The once well-cultivated gardens were swamped with rampant invasive vegetation. An upper storey of self-sown ash and sycamore trees populated the grounds and specimens grew out of every conceivable crevice in the building's masonry. It is understandable why it was considered by most to be quite literally beyond restoration.

Aberglasney house, before any work was carried out

Aberglasney house, when I first arrived

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Early flowering bulbs

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Chris Ireland-Jones Chris Ireland-Jones | 08:39 UK time, Sunday, 13 February 2011

It may come as some surprise, given the current obsession with snowdrops, but there are many other spectacularly beautiful early-flowering bulbs giving it their all at this time of year. Crocus, aconites and winter iris are also unfurling their exquisitely tiny flowers in little explosions of colour. We asked Chris Ireland-Jones, owner of multiple RHS gold medal winning bulb specialists Avon Bulbs, to recommend some of the best.

With the Sarcococca scent wafting past the door on even slightly warmer days, I am reminded that sight alone isn't enough, even in winter.

We all have noses, and no matter how beautiful a flower is, if it is not scented has it not already lost half of its attraction? And even small, individually unremarkable flowers can boost themselves up the ratings. You would have to wait till April for the fabulous musky perfume of Muscari ambrosiacum - but with a name like that if it didn't have a half decent whiff you would complain to the Trade Descriptions people! Bees love them for when it is just warm enough for them to fly, the flowers will be opening.

eranthis hyemalis

Eranthis hyemalis

Completely hardy and very early flowering, the winter aconites seem to flower even better in colder winters. There are really only two that are widely grown, and generally only Eranthis hyemalis, a European native, grows and spreads. Eranthis cilicica, with more finely-cut leaves and a redder stem, is widely sold in its dry form, but is less likely to be happy so far from its natural habitat in Turkey.

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Garden news

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Sally Nex Sally Nex | 08:23 UK time, Saturday, 12 February 2011

In the news....

'Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind.'

The Wordsworth House Garden

The Wordsworth House Garden (image: NT/Val Corbett)

Wordsworth might have written Intimations of Immortality while looking on his childhood garden, swept away by the Cumbrian floods in 2009. The Georgian walled garden at Wordsworth House in Cockermouth was all but destroyed by the torrential rainfall: oak gates were ripped from walls and the terrace where William and his sister Dorothy played was largely washed away.

He'd be celebrating this week though: the Wordsworth House Garden is one of five National Trust restoration schemes chosen by the public in the Great Outdoors Revival competition, which asked people to vote for projects they wanted to give £20,000 to. Other garden winners included East Riddlesden Hall in Keighley, West Yorkshire, and Cragside in Morpeth, Northumberland.

Meanwhile a report just out is suggesting the organics bubble may have burst. After years of steady growth, sales of organic fruit and veg fell by 13.6% in 2009 - the Soil Association blames the government for not encouraging farmers to make the switch. The dicey economic situation may have some part to play too - but maybe it's just a reflection of the fact that one in five people in the UK now grow their own?

Elsewhere on the web...

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Valentine hearts bouquet

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Judith Blacklock Judith Blacklock | 08:14 UK time, Friday, 11 February 2011

Capture the heart of your loved one on Valentine's Day with a homemade romantic arrangement of flowers and plants picked from your garden or hedgerow, plus a few choice tulips, designed by leading floristry teacher Judith Blacklock

valentine bouquet - you will need: dogwood, berried tree ivy, tall rectangular vase, floral foam, 10-20 tulips


You will need:

  • Long lengths of red dogwood: the young stems of Cornus alba 'Sibirica' are a particularly vivid scarlet at this time of year
  • Berried tree ivy
  • Tall rectangular container - mine is 30 cm high and 15 cm square
  • Floral foam
  • 10 - 20 pink or red tulips
  • Bindwire, garden twine, raffia or decorative wire (this may not be necessary if your tulips are strong). Cable ties from DIY stores work well too.


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Clean air, lichen and early spring jobs

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Bob Flowerdew Bob Flowerdew | 08:37 UK time, Thursday, 10 February 2011

hazel catkins

It's only February yet signs of spring are all around. Down in nut corner hazel catkins are dangling and extending, dancing in the breeze now giving off clouds of pollen while the tiny carmine female flowers opening like sea urchins are extended to catch it. Underneath the hazels the crocus are a sea of purple - I never sowed or planted these; they came in from the neighbour's border and liking the situation have multiplied prodigiously.

The Cornelian cherry is now blooming heavily - it's wonderful how nature arranges her palette with this in primrose yellow, mirrored by winter jasmine, wintersweet and winter aconites, even winter honeysuckle is another pale yellow copy.

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Propagating the bread and butter items

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Jim McColl Jim McColl | 08:09 UK time, Wednesday, 9 February 2011

There is still a curfew on soil cultivation in this neck of the woods, more snow and rain making the land unworkable. That is no excuse for putting the feet up! My wife, the chief propagator, has started taking cuttings. We have a small collection of flowering plants for our lean-to garden room (west facing).

Camellia japonica Moshe Dayan

The Camellia japonica 'Moshe Dayan' in the Garden Room

Let me explain the 'garden room' title. Some years ago I stopped using the word 'conservatory' because that means something quite different to the modern generation. In the modern conservatory, people come first and plants die in their thousands whereas in another era, the conservatory was designed and built to suit plants with a bit of space to accommodate we humans when the weather was not suitable for sitting out. We bring the garden indoors and enjoy it all the year round and grow a few plants that might struggle in the open. For example, one of our pot grown camellias has just come in to flower - the double white 'Moshe Dayan'. It is a Camellia japonica cultivar and would really struggle outdoors in the NE of Scotland. In fact, as a general rule, I suggest that the C. x williamsii cultivars are really the only ones that should be planted outdoors in Scotland, EXCEPT, of course for areas in the west, influenced by the Gulf Stream.

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Open up to gardens this winter

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Sally Nex Sally Nex | 13:58 UK time, Monday, 7 February 2011

So, what are your plans for the weekend? How about going to visit a garden?

It might not be your first thought in the depths of February, when cups of tea and roaring fires are the alternative. But around 90 doughty gardeners each year are brave enough to let other people see their gardens in winter for the National Gardens Scheme, and hundreds of visitors turn out: if you opt for a cuppa instead, you're missing some real winter highlights.

Dr Margaret Lloyd and her Mahonia x media 'Charity'

Dr Margaret Lloyd and her Mahonia x media 'Charity'

Opening your garden to the public in the ‘off’ season is not for the faint-hearted. Every plant must earn its place: and the weather is at its most fickle. Dr Margaret Lloyd is an NGS veteran, and after 16 years opening her one-acre garden, Little Cumbre in the outskirts of Exeter in Devon, she takes such challenges in her stride.

“We’d visited a few gardens and thought, let’s see whether people would want to come to us. So it came out of a wish to share it with people.”

Opening your garden in summer is brave enough, but in winter it's positively heroic. When I visited, days before she welcomed her first winter visitors, badgers had been digging up her lawn and many of her 34 different types of snowdrop were still stubbornly slumbering after weeks of Arctic temperatures.

“The weather is an anxiety at any time of year when you open. Two or three years ago I was praying for some cold weather to hold things back!”

Some people would be out there with hairdryers trying to wake their snowdrops up - don’t laugh, it’s happened - but it’s a sign of the strength of planning behind this garden that such setbacks don’t matter a jot.

Mahonia x media 'Charity'

Mahonia x media 'Charity'

Never mind the snowdrops: just look at the stately Mahonia x media ‘Charity’, with its firework bursts of yellow flower, and just smell that Christmas box! There are hundreds of hellebores in shades of sultry plum purple, and ‘Jacqueline Postill’ - one of the best daphnes - scenting the bits the Christmas box doesn’t reach: “I think it’s such a bonus to have the perfume as well” comments Margaret.

And you suddenly notice that trees have bark. Silver birch glows dazzling white, cinnamon-coloured wafers of the paperbark maple, Acer griseum, curl into tatters, and a lovely Prunus serrula shines copper in the front garden. Climb the hill behind the house, and you’re in a wilder, wooded area where majestic holm oaks and a fine Luccombe oak tower over grass spangled with Cyclamen coum and crocus. This is planting to remind you that even in winter a garden can be a wonderful place to be.

But what everyone comes to see - more than 100 on a good day last year - is the collection of snowdrops. At 34 varieties, it’s not the largest: but each one is chosen with care, and Margaret isn’t one to obsess.

“I don’t hunt them down in the way that a true galanthophile will. And I have no wish to increase my numbers of varieties now because I haven’t got enough space for them - it’s full!”

one of Margaret's hellebores

And I couldn’t see where the cold weather delays had made so much as a dent in the display. The ground is peppered white with snowdrops: early flowering stalwart Galanthus ‘S Arnott’, G. atkinsii nestling fetchingly against some steely-blue emerging dianthus foliage; and exquisite yellow G. sandersii nudging a butterscotch head above ground.

“People love the early start to the year: snowdrops are the first real sign that spring is on the way, It’s the beginning of the outdoor season - it’s just lovely.”

Little Cumbre, Exeter, Devon opens on Sundays 6, 13 and 20 February: adult admissions are £3.50, children free. Visitors are also welcome at other times by appointment.

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The garden is more than just a bunch of plants in the soil

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Alys Fowler Alys Fowler | 08:21 UK time, Sunday, 6 February 2011

alys' garden

My garden last spring

Currently my days are taken up with journeys, endless back and forths. I rush through the crumbling suburbs of east Birmingham to visit the hospital. We watch TV, the two of us cramped on that thin bed, trying to pretend it's all normal. The time is too brief. I rush home to shut up the chickens.

A lot has happened over the last few months. I woke up this morning and contemplated all that change. It seems a lot all at once. Finally I am having time to reflect on everything. I rarely just lay in bed, but it felt right, even the dog agreed. So I let myself off and just drifted through thoughts.

And one recurring thought is that I am probably turning into a fruitcake. Though I'd like to think I am a nice, luxurious one with a big thick layer of icing. For instance, I went to the allotment and stuck my fingers into the freezing soil and sat there staring at the world. The soil is good, rich soil. It was cold and I looked, frankly, ridiculous but it grounded me for a few minutes. Then I attacked an old blackcurrant bush with a little too much vengeance. It was not a nice sight. And once the poor bush was up-turned I felt a great deal of remorse that I had been so angry at it for being unproductive, though grateful for the new space. It actually made me cry. See I'm a fruitcake.

My daily walks to the allotment are more than just exercise for me and the dog. They have become a necessity. I fret if I think I won't get there. I obsess over what I could and should put in. Do we want to eat Turkish rocket? (It would work well in the shadier spots). How many raspberries are enough? Should I make the polytunnel smaller, it is mad to build a self-watering one, will I actually get to do it?

If I were to fall into a pop psychology trap, my allotment's role has become all too obvious. I have taken to nurturing the soil as if it was a person. I have ordered the shed, drawn plans, made lists as if somehow this battle plan might save us.

I got an email about an event in April and I unraveled. How can I be asked to think that far ahead? Then the chillis germinate, the coriander in its little pretty 1950's sugar cup grows stronger, faster, the Saracenia flava starts to flower, the hellebores unfurl and the snowdrops sparkle. Spring is coming whether I am ready or not. I am so glad that the greater picture goes on regardless. It spins and awakens. It grows and gives forth. And my fingers in the soil register how alive it all is.

I've been reading the wonderful Joan Gussow's 'Growing, Older'. Gussow is, I guess, the Joy Larkcom of the American organic movement. She's a nutritionist and gardener. This book is her autobiography about losing her husband, her passion for the environment and her Hudson garden that floods regularly, but still provides her with all her food. She is 82 years old and makes growing old look like one of the most pleasurable activities. The book has some wonderful passages. It's truly hard to put this one down and yet I have that feeling that comes with all good books that I'd like to eke it out for as long as possible.

Anyhow there's this bit where she's wondering why she doesn't feel alone after her husband has died. That sort of hit me. I think anyone who loves their garden, however big or small, will have had one of those moments, so hard to explain to non-gardeners. That the garden, in its whole sense, is so much more than just a bunch of plants in the soil, that it literally roots your sense of well-being to the world around you. Joan:

"That no such loss occurred, that I didn't fell bereft of interaction puzzled me and became another mystery to explore. After years of self-examination, I stumble across another reality that had been staring me in the face all along. As a gardener, I had life all around me. It's just that most of it was not human. As it turned out, the many other species - especially those that appeared invited or uninvited in my garden - were central not only to the maintenance of the planet but to the happiness of my life."

I doubt this book will get many reviews here as Gussow unfortunately is just not known about, but I urge anyone with a love of the earth to read this one.

Learn more about Joan Gussow:

Video: Joan Gussow discusses nutrition, her life, and her new book, Growing, Older -
Joan Dye Gusson -
About Joan's garden -

Garden news

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Sally Nex Sally Nex | 07:42 UK time, Saturday, 5 February 2011

Mr Bloom

Mr Bloom's Nursery - begins Monday 7th February at 10:05 on Cbeebies

In the (TV) news....

There's no getting around it: all the hot gossip this week is about gardening on the box.

First up: the sizzling news that ITV is launching its first-ever gardening show - and it's being presented by 'the nation's favourite gardener', Alan Titchmarsh. Rumours are flying of multi-million pound deals and head-to-head scheduling with the BBC on Friday nights.

As we all know, Alan hosted BBC Gardeners' World for six years until 2002, and has presented the BBC's coverage of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show ever since. It remains unclear if the new deal affects coverage of this year's Chelsea.

Also this week, the announcement that one of the country's best-known small gardens is moving. The Blue Peter Garden, formerly of Television Centre, W12, relocates to the rooftop of the BBC's new headquarters in Salford Quays, Manchester: whether it will still be sunken, or will still have a fishpond, remains to be seen.

Created in 1974, the London garden is full of memories for viewers of a certain age: features include George the Tortoise's final resting place, a bronze statue of Petra the Blue Peter Dog and a plaque commemorating its designer, one Percy Thrower.

While we're on the subject of telly: green-fingered kids (and kids at heart) get set to be charmed sockless by Mr Bloom and his allotment, coming soon to a TV near you. CBeebies is starting its new gardening series for preschoolers this Monday at 10.05am.

Elsewhere on the web...

Fellow blogger Dawn Isaac let slip she's been secretly acting as gardening consultant for Mr Bloom's Nursery: she can now reveal it involves comedy runner beans, a singing aubergine with a French accent, and shy cabbages. What's not to like?

The cries of outrage over the decision to sell the nation's woodlands show no signs of dying down, though Jeremy Torrance of BBC Nature points out there are worse things attacking our forest than cash-strapped government ministers.

Monty Don, whose much-anticipated reappearance on the BBC Gardeners' World team is but a month away, makes an impassioned plea for woodlands, as opposed to forests: "I am inclined to think individuals are more likely to care than governments or corporations," he says. The words 'thrown', 'cat' and 'pigeons' come to mind.

Out and about...

It's getting hot and steamy out there this week: the annual Tropical Extravaganza at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew starts today, with exquisite orchids, dazzlingly colourful tropical flowers and a flooded Amazonian rainforest. I rather fancy taking Vanilla Tea in the Orangery this weekend, if only to try the cocktails made with home-grown tropical vine Vanilla planifolia. We've got Kew's Head of Display Collections answering your questions on exotics from the messageboards here very soon, too, so watch this space.

Orchid-fanciers can also drop by RHS Garden Wisley in Surrey next weekend, where Jim Durrant, of Sussex specialists McBeans Orchids, is giving a talk: there's also a rare behind-the-scenes tour of the spectacular Wisley orchid collection on offer.

And I know you're probably getting a bit snowdropped-out by now but I couldn't resist mentioning a red-letter day in any galanthophile's calendar: Brandy Mount House in Hampshire, home to a National Collection of Galanthus, opens this week. They grow around 240 different varieties (and over 100 species of daphne, too). The first opening is on Wednesday, with another chance next weekend. Unmissable.

What a difference a few days make

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Bob Flowerdew Bob Flowerdew | 08:20 UK time, Friday, 4 February 2011

What a difference a few days make! Last week had only a few signs of winter coming to an end. Now fat white heads of snowdrops are splattered over my borders and the first winter aconite flower has opened its welcome yellow bloom. So I guess the weather will turn nastier again, such is the way.

After all February is a hard month, often very cold and wet, certainly here in East Anglia we expect heavy rain, the old nick name was February Fill Dyke. And it has been dry till now - in the freeze I was only able to get my roots out of the frozen ground because it was not waterlogged so crumbled easily.

My carrots have been much appreciated; they're substituting for potatoes now as my stored ones were decimated by the cold. Carrot mash, carrots buttered and carrot chips may be a tad monotonous but are good fare. Still I doubt they will last till the first new potatoes appear.

I have been planting tubs of potatoes under cover and their tops have not yet popped up making them a tad late. As is the pot-grown garlic - these should have had green leaves showing since the end of last year but none have yet shown though there are plenty of roots sticking out the bottom. Anyway I've brought in and potted up an extra lot just in case. And likewise the onion seed has not germinated yet so I've planted a couple of packs of onion and shallot sets in trays of cells.

I like to get roots on my sets so when I plant them out in the beds in a month's time they can be fixed in position without the birds and worms upsetting them. Before I learnt to do this I reckon I could replant the same onion set up to half a dozen times. My packs of replacement potato sets have arrived and I've placed these in seed trays, rose end up (when not sure I look for the remains of the stalk on the other end), to start sprouting as this ensures earlier crops.

chitting potatoes

The trays of chitting spuds are laid on a bench and covered each night with an old quilt to keep any further cold nights at bay. However it looks as though I over-reacted as maybe a third of my own seed potatoes appear to have survived despite my fears. Not a bad thing as I want to grow many more potatoes this year as the twins are eating much more now - and they just love home made chips. (I know, but chips in themselves are not unhealthy, particularly home-grown organic ones fried in organic oil served with salad!)

But shame on me, I'm having to buy salads! I'm almost out of home-grown leaves and it will be several weeks before the new sowings of loose leaf lettuce, pak choi and rocket amount to much more than a garnish.

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

Tips for sowing indoors

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Jim McColl Jim McColl | 08:04 UK time, Wednesday, 2 February 2011

It is now time for me to start seed sowing indoors. On the bench, I will have a range of containers, suitable growing medium, a sieve, a 'firmer' and tweezers.

The kit for seed sowing - pots, growing medium, tweezers, sieve, labels

The bag of growing medium has been opened up and sat on the glasshouse bench for several days to warm up and perhaps even dry out a little. When you come to use the stuff it should easily run through your fingers as you break up the lumps.

In the old days, when filling pots, we would put a layer of broken clay pot shards in the bottom, over the drainage hole, to prevent it from being blocked with compacted compost. That advice is no longer relevant but I tell you what, I save the coarser material collected by sieving some growing medium and put some that in the bottom of the pot for two reasons:

Firstly, it allows you to re-cycle it and of course it does improve the drainage of excess water from the container. Secondly and more importantly, I find that some people will only half fill the pot with growing medium arguing that it is wasteful to fill the pot since the seedlings are going to be in there for a short time. That is a relevant argument but it has a serious flaw. Sowing in the early part of the year when light levels can be poor, seedlings germinating halfway down inside a pot will become drawn and spindly as they 'reach for the sky'. In my view it is a much better practice to fill the bottom third of the pot with ballast in the form of the roughage then loosely fill the pot to the brim with sieved material. If you are using standard depth seed trays, I find that a drainage layer in the bottom is unnecessary.

Once filled, gently tamp the material down with the finger tips, tap the pot/tray on the bench and sieve a little more g-medium on top before tamping with a firmer to achieve a perfectly level surface. The aim is to finish with a container of evenly graded, evenly consolidated growing medium.

I don't want to belabour the sieving thing but the reason for it is to try and match the particle size (roughly) with the size of the seeds you are going to sow. It follows that the larger the seeds the less finicky you need be and vice versa. For dust-like seeds, you might use a fine sieve to cover the prepared surface with an even, shallow layer of sand then sow into the surface and firm gently; seeds are then held firmly in place amongst the grains of sand. Other wise, once the seeds are sown; they are covered with a layer of medium shaken over the pot from the sieve. When the seeds are covered, firm gently with the tamper. This is essential to ensure that the seeds are in close contact with the compost particles because they first thing they need to do is take in water - from the growing medium.

watering seed trays from underneath

Such attention to detail should result in an even germination of seed so long as you do not ruin the job by watering carelessly. Once I have sown the seeds, the pots/trays are stood in a shallow bath of water which has had the chill taken off it. There they will remain until the medium has drawn the water up, indicated by the surface becoming much darker in colour. My point is, sloshing water over the top, even with a fine rose on the watering can may well re-distribute the seeds unevenly.

Now let's go back to the sowing process itself. Numerous techniques have been devised for delivering the seeds from the packet to the surface of the growing medium. Frankly it doesn't matter how you do it, the important thing is to finish up with the seeds evenly spread over the surface. Because I don't need very many of any one thing and arguably I have plenty of time on my hands, I use tweezers to lift and place individual seeds on the surface, so long as they can be readily picked up. Tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and all the brassicas for transplanting are treated this way. The same applies to flower seeds, until I get down to the really small ones when I would pour some out of the packet onto the palm of one hand, move over the top of pot and sprinkle the seed using the fingers of my other hand.

Do you have any sowing tips you can share?

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