Archives for April 2011

Supports for annual climbers

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Sally Smith Sally Smith | 07:00 UK time, Friday, 29 April 2011

Ipomea tricolor - Morning Glory vine

Ipomea tricolor - Morning Glory vine

I was pondering the nature of climbing plants today as I was sowing the seeds of my summer flowering climbing annuals, Morning glory and Black-eyed Susans. Climbers start life on the ground and through a combination of rapid and twining upward growth manage to reach the sunlight above the canopy to flower up there in the tree tops often hidden from our view; their blooms are intended for pollinators and not our delight.

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Cornish memories - a Chelsea Show Garden - Part 2

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Tom Hoblyn Tom Hoblyn | 07:00 UK time, Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Tom Hoblyn, Trebah Gardens Cornwall

Tom Hoblyn looks out to the stunning Trebah Gardens, Cornwall (photo: Mischa Haller)

Now I'm not going to use this whole blog to moan about the blasted weather: a couple of weeks ago I went down to Cornwall with a wonderful BBC film crew to cover our Chelsea story. We met at Trebah gardens to film the planty bit of the show garden. The sun was out and the gardens empty - perfect. The rhodos were in full bloom, tree ferns fronding like mad things, even the Gunnera was unfurling its massive leaves. Alarm bells! Rhodos in full bloom? I'm using rhodos en masse, if they're flowering in Cornwall, surely mine will be in flower soon? Didn't have much time to ponder as the BBC crew were on a tight schedule and after some wanging on about plants for a while we went to the beach to film rock pools where the sun had now disappeared. Amusingly, the tide started to close in around us and there was much panic as we had to get all the camera equipment to safety. These guys filmed Coast, surely this is a common occurrence?

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Easter falls at its earliest

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Jim McColl Jim McColl | 07:00 UK time, Sunday, 24 April 2011

easter eggs

This will be about as late as it gets I believe - Easter that is! It may be a Christian celebration but the whole country, believers and non-believers alike are quite happy to celebrate the holiday. My problem is that, here in Scotland, the reluctant gardener brigade regard Easter as the time to come out of hibernation and start gardening! They are a bit late but equally, when Easter falls at it's earliest - the beginning of April, it may be too early for some to be a-sowing and a-planting! In my role as a garden adviser, I would probably vote for Easter to be 'fixed' (second weekend in April would be about right!) I remember the words of rosarian Bertam Park in relation to pruning HT and Floribunda roses 'if I waited until mid March to start pruning, as some would recommend, I would still be at it in mid June'.

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Garden visiting with kids

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Lia Leendertz Lia Leendertz | 07:00 UK time, Saturday, 23 April 2011

Portmeirion Garden

Portmeirion Garden with wild flower planting along water cascade

The moment a garden labels itself as 'child-friendly' it has lost me. Child-friendly means playgrounds, and I detest playgrounds. The kids are irresistibly sucked towards them, and then want to spend the next seven and a half hours there, while I gaze longingly towards glimpses of flowering magnolias and bountiful plant centres, endlessly pushing a swing backwards and forwards, the very life force sapping out of me.

Hence the gardens I have visited with mine, aged three and five, have been at the 'non-child-friendly' end of the scale, even tending towards the 'more than a little perilous to small people'. It's almost become a point of principle: a massive garden to run around in, trees to hide behind and a bit of a picnic should be enough thrill for any child. And let that be a lesson to you.

Having said that, Portmeirion in west Wales two summers ago rather ticked everyone's boxes. The whimsy of the pretty, scaled-down, pastel-coloured houses was not lost on the children, nor were the hidey holes and little cobbled sets of steps. I got vistas and quirky bits galore and fell for hydrangeas in a way I never thought possible, and there's some gorgeous woodland surrounding the obvious bits to get lost in (metaphorically, hopefully) and settle down for that picnic.

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Gardening with my children

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Bob Flowerdew Bob Flowerdew | 07:00 UK time, Friday, 22 April 2011

I guess it is highly unrealistic to hope my children will follow in my footsteps- observation tends to suggest the opposite. Worse; the more you push children (of any age up) into something the more they resist, whilst forbid something and they’re immediately attracted.

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Gardening with children

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Debbie Webber Debbie Webber | 07:00 UK time, Thursday, 21 April 2011

The thing that I love about gardening with children is, now I think about it, hard to pinpoint because there are just so many reasons. I've been visiting my allotment with one or more of my five children for the past nine years and have run a school gardening club for three.

child sowing a seed

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Six steps to a successful gardening club

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Dominic Murphy Dominic Murphy | 07:30 UK time, Tuesday, 19 April 2011

summer fair

It began with a quick conversation in the corridor. I was collecting my girls from primary school and the head teacher wanted a word. She was keen to restart a gardening club and had heard I liked to grow things. Would I be interested?

I can't say why I agreed. I suppose I was flattered. But a few days later, standing in the playing field with a load of excited children and no particular plan, I was having my doubts.

I had inherited a polytunnel, which was a start. But you couldn't say the same for the garden itself. This was a tragic sight. Two patches of clay that turned to mud in the rain, and in sunshine baked to a hard, lifeless crust.

But it was too late to back out. The solution, I decided, was to build some raised beds and fill them with good earth and compost. This would not only drain well, but give some structure to our garden.

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The future's covered

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Alys Fowler Alys Fowler | 07:30 UK time, Sunday, 17 April 2011


There are many ways to measure a friendship. An upright polytunnel may not be an obvious choice, but when Jeremy was still there three days later, still using a spirit level, still enthusiastic, well that’s measure enough.
The self-watering polytunnel turned quite quickly into a nightmare, the sort that keeps you awake at 3am. It failed to be delivered three times. I had nowhere to store it once it was. I knew very little about how to put it up and when I unpacked it to find a paper back entitled ‘The Polytunnel Handbook: planning, siting, erecting, using and maintaining’. I felt a little like fainting, a whole book, really? How on earth was I going to put this thing up?
But Jeremy stepped in, gave up a significant part of his holiday to build the thing and wasn’t beaten by my tepid tea or my slap dash approach ‘those screws are probably just extras’.

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Garden news

In the news...

Bluebell season is a highlight of any gardener's year: those heavenly few weeks when spring reaches an azure-blue climax and welcomes in early summer.


Except this year the bluebells are already here, over two weeks early in places such as Gloucestershire, Cornwall and Devon. You can see the full picture on the National Trust's Bluebell Watch map: add your own sightings via Twitter.

Bluebells and other wildflowers should benefit from plans to create a 'Bee Road', a corridor of wildflowers allowing bees and other pollinators to travel around more easily. The first will stretch across Yorkshire, but eventually the plan is for a flowery motorway stretching the length and breadth of England and Wales.

And there was a sneak peek behind the gates of the Olympic Park – under wraps since work started, apart from occasional tantalising glimpses. But 250 acres of new parklands, including a £5 million garden half a mile long from designer Sarah Price, is taking shape, and it doesn't get more large-scale than this.

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Make a plant support for herbaceous plants

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Sally Smith Sally Smith | 09:00 UK time, Friday, 15 April 2011

Oriental poppies

Papaver orientale ‘Princess Victoria Louise’

Oriental poppies are a particular weakness of mine, gorgeous big blousy blooms, I know they don't flower for long but every year I wait with anticipation for the fat buds to split and reveal the papery petals within. They produce masses of weighty foliage that flops forwards and one windy spring day is all it takes to batter the brittle emerging stems and buds of these and other tall herbaceous plants. It's definitely worth the effort in April to get them staked and tied in to protect and keep them to their allotted space in the borders.

Asters, plume poppy, delphiniums, rudbeckia and phlox all benefit from support, and you can make your own that are cheap, re-usable and made from home grown or collected sticks from winter pruning. The simplest staking is to use twiggy sticks, bend them over clumps of plants and they will grow strongly through the tangle, there's no need for tying in.

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Eco gardening: rain gardens

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Nigel Dunnett Nigel Dunnett | 11:37 UK time, Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Rain gardens are one of the hottest topics in garden design in the US - yet they have hardly hit the headlines here. This is surprising, because they are one of the most exciting (if a little daunting) developments to come out of the 'eco gardening' scene.

RBC Rain Garden, London Wetland Centre

RBC Rain Garden, London Wetland Centre (photo: Catherine Starling)

Rain gardens are simply depressions or slightly sunken areas where rain water can be collected. They are absolutely not ponds or bog gardens - the whole intention is that water is allowed to drain away into the soil. In dry periods they will be dry, and look no different from any other area of the garden.

However, in wetter times, water may collect on the surface, giving the appearance of temporary puddles. Plants to be used in rain gardens must there be able to withstand some wetness, but be able to grow in normal conditions for most of the time: rudbeckias, irises, miscanthus grasses, astilbes, many euphorbias: this list is very long.

The rain garden idea was initially developed in the States around 15-20 years ago, and has spread rapidly. There is also a very big take up in Australia and New Zealand.

The concept was first promoted as a way for gardeners to contribute to reducing the growing problem of severe flash flooding in towns and cities. The idea is that the garden soaks up as much, if not all, of the rainfall that falls on it, preventing the excess runoff running into the drainage system.

In times of very heavy rainfall, all the runoff coming from roofs, paths, pavements, roads, and all the other sealed surfaces, can simply overload the drainage system, resulting both in large areas of flooding, but also, often, the discharge of untreated waste water into rivers and streams. What with issues such as the paving over of front gardens, with the increased run-off into the streets this causes, we're becoming all too familiar with this issue in the UK too.

Rain gardens aim to prevent this happening, by using areas of planting to soak up that runoff. The underlying slogan for the movement is 'disconnect your downpipes!' - cut off the pipes coming from the house gutters, and divert the water into the garden. Paths can be drained off into planting, and large areas of paving or driveway replaced with more permeable materials.

The great thing about rain gardens is that it is all about the house, the garden, and the domestic scale (unlike 'sustainable urban drainage schemes' which are much more about large-scale engineering).

But the very best news is that this will only work with planting - you need the areas of soil and plants to soak up that rain water. So this is where gardeners and garden designers come to the very forefront of tackling climate change. But more than this - gardens with lots of good planting are, automatically, far better for wildlife, and, I am convinced, much better for people too!

I think gardens like this are so much more satisfying than gardens produced purely for ornament or decoration alone. There are so many more stories to be told; so many more interesting and exciting features to be included, and above all, there is the knowledge that your patch is contributing to something far larger than purely your own enjoyment.

If you want to see a rain garden in action, take a look at the new Royal Bank of Canada Rain Garden I designed at the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust London Wetland Centre. As a follow-up, we're also creating a full-scale rain garden as one of the main show gardens for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2011.

And if all this has whetted your appetite to create your very own rain garden, take a look at this step-by-step guide to how it all works:

There's more, including a downloadable leaflet on rain gardening, on the WWT's website.

Dr Nigel Dunnett is Reader in Urban Horticulture at the University of Sheffield. He is author of several books on sustainable garden design and planting, and is currently horticulture and planting design consultant for the London 2012 Olympic Park.

The first weeks of the season at Beechgrove Garden

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Jim McColl Jim McColl | 09:13 UK time, Monday, 11 April 2011

Making the first programme of a new series of Beechgrove Garden is always a bit of a stew. We have been 'off air' since last September and there is so much that has happened since then. Add to that, we now have 5 presenters who all need to show face at the start, no matter how brief! On the appointed day there were 4 in the garden - Carole Baxter, Lesley Watson, George Anderson and meself! The missing contributor Carolyn Spray did make an appearance because she was the lucky one to go to Cambo Estate on the Fife coast in late February to film a little bit of the 'Snowdrops by Starlight' festival, shown as an insert to Programme 1.

Beechgrove garden presenters

Beechgrove presenters, L-R: Jim McColl, Lesley Watson, George Anderson, Carole Baxter

Programme 2 goes out at 7.30pm on BBC One Scotland on Monday 11 April (tonight). There are two of us in the garden with contributions from the other two by way of inserts.

As I have probably mentioned before, as we finish the winter cultivations on our vegetable plots, we cover them over with heavy polythene to keep the soil from being wetted again and again simply because we want to get our seeds and plants in at the optimum time, giving ourselves the chance to produce optimum yields. Soil conditions can be fine enough to achieve a decent tilth but soil temperature has to be in the region of 7degC for the first sowings to germinate as expected. Another good reason for trying to keep the soil a bit dry. As it happens the temperature was up to 10 deg C about 10cm down, under the covers.

jim mccoll

planting tatties

The crop I was anxious to get started were the early potatoes. They have been chitting away in the glasshouse for the past 6 weeks and have fine, short sturdy sprouts on them. Since they are being planted with a 5 - 7 cms of soil on top of them and covered over with the thick polythene, they will be quite snug and protected from these radiation frosts we tend to get at this time. I was able to put in a couple of rows. In this part of the world, the most popular variety is Duke of York. The colour variation Red Duke of York is also popular but others have started to supersede these with supporters of a whole range willing to offer advice! One of our newcomers is Lady Christl but she does carry off seal of approval in the form of an RHS Award of Garden Merit. We shall see how it all pans out.

One of the features of the programme is the 'handy hint' worth about 20/30 seconds of broadcasting time; each of the presenters passes on a seasonal hint. The story behind it will take a bit of telling but I was spraying our roses with garlic extract, something I will be doing on a fortnightly basis throughout the growing season and with a little bit of bravado and gritted teeth, I have suggested that we will also treat our fruit crops with this material.

What's it all about? No 'chemical' pest and disease control materials will be used. The garlic extract whilst doing neither job, applied as a regular foliar spray, will actually build up the plant's own resistance to attack. We shall see but I do know that if you feed too many turnips to cattle, the milk gets tainted! Am I doing the right thing? Never ventured, never gained. Will I treat my own crops at home? Maybe the roses.

Cornish memories - a Chelsea Show Garden

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Tom Hoblyn Tom Hoblyn | 07:33 UK time, Sunday, 10 April 2011

Tom Hoblyn at The Cheeswring in Cornwall

The Cheeswrings, Cornwall (photo: Mischa Haller)

During last year's Chelsea Flower Show a potential sponsor collared me to ask if I was up for 2011. Amy Whidburn from Homebase wanted a show garden that celebrated a life stage and exuded health and well being. What a fantastic brief and, what's more, a whole twelve months to organise it - brilliant!

To me, Amy's brief leant towards a Cornish themed idea - celebration, holidays, change of pace, recreation - you get the picture. And being of Cornish extraction, it all made perfect sense, and a great excuse to visit my old stomping ground.

Cornwall has so many subjects to draw from for inspiration but the moor, coast and gardens conjured up my fondest memories to represent at Chelsea.

On Bodmin Moor sits a geological phenomena, The Cheeswrings; monumental granite slabs stacked progressively larger, their impossibility of structure appears as if they will topple at any moment. I have used this subject matter to design the pavilion with an oversized glass roof of precariously placed and slab-like louvres to add depth. To further authenticate the Cornish theme, I managed to persuade the last working granite quarry in Cornwall to supply the genuine article.

Tom mesmerised by the tiny rivulets

Watching the tiny rivulets etched in the sand (photo: Mischa Haller)

During a visit to the beach, I was mesmerised by the tiny rivulets etched in the sand at low tide and have worked up a watery idea with water wizard Andrew Ewing involving sinuous etches in the granite to create a three-channelled rivulet path. A giant rock pool acts as a destination to the rivulets, but for Chelsea purposes, it will be a natural swimming rock pool. I can imagine the judges donning their swimsuits to properly test it out on press day.

As a child I was sometimes dragged, kicking and screaming, off the beach to look at gardens. Reward was gained by clambering amongst the rhododendrons and bamboo, pretending to be an explorer and also....oh yes, a career in horticulture.

So I have spent most of last summer travelling around Europe bagging rhodos and rhodo-friendly associates for the garden. I've got some fantastic Cornus controversa and kousa, wonderful Rhododendron yakushimanum and Viburnum plicatum. In the bamboo department I have got Indocalamus tessellatus and Semiarundinaria fastuosa. My main trees are Pinus sylvestris, coming in at a whopping seven metres in height and will tower majestically over the planting.

Tom Hoblyn as a boy

On the beach in Cornwall (before being dragged off kicking and screaming to visit a garden)

But last August things went wrong big time. Like a fool, I always assumed I was doing Chelsea Flower Show - far from it; Chelsea was oversubscribed and the RHS had to pick just 17 show gardens from twice as many applications. What followed was four months of sleepless nights: I had spent a third of my sponsorship money on plants, handed out deposits left right and centre, signed agreements and contracts - and yet, there was a real possibility that I might not be going to Chelsea.

On 16th November I got the call from Chelsea show manager Alex Denman. Our design had been accepted and we had been allocated a prime spot at the top of Main Avenue. It was all systems go and I enjoyed the first good's night sleep for months. Probably shouldn't get too used to it though.

Tom Hoblyn's debut at Chelsea in 2008 resulted in a gold medal, followed by a Silver medal in 2009 and silver Gilt in 2010. Follow the ups and downs of the creation of his most ambitious Chelsea Show Garden to date on this blog in the coming weeks.

You can also follow Tom on Twitter.

Garden news

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Sally Nex Sally Nex | 07:00 UK time, Saturday, 9 April 2011

In the news...

Congratulations are due to the scientists at the National Botanic Garden of Wales who this week laid their claim to be the first country to produce a DNA barcode for every one of its 1,143 species of native plants.

Campanula patula

Campanula patula

So what, you might ask? Well:  the project has implications for wildflower conservation, honeybee populations, forensic science, the trade descriptions act, hay fever sufferers, livestock management and tackling climate change. And you thought plants were just there to look pretty.

Venus Flytrap

Venus Flytrap

If you're one of the growing army of fans of carnivorous plants – from pitcher plants, capable of eating a mouse, to spiny venus flytraps and pretty sundews (brilliant for controlling whitefly in the greenhouse, by the way) – do check you've bought them from a reputable source. A report this week revealed the main threat to the survival of carnivorous plants in the wild is not habitat loss, or climate change, but unscrupulous plant collectors who raid wild populations for specimens to sell to gardeners.

Elsewhere on the web...

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Hoorah for the first cucumber!

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Bob Flowerdew Bob Flowerdew | 08:06 UK time, Friday, 8 April 2011

Hoorah, hoorah, the first cucumber, Petita, made it in time, was duly picked on the last day of March and appreciatively eaten. Oh sure I've other fresh stuff but a cucumber is a real prize and announces the 'grow your own' season has really started. Indeed with some jerk seasoned mushrooms, very mixed salad and mashed potatoes the cucumber topped a delightful meal, shame my new potatoes in buckets under cover were not yet big enough.

A dry spell has followed the cold spell and although established grass is growing the newly seeded patches have still not germinated, and with continual thinning by birds I must re-seed.

The first beds of potatoes have been planted but of course their shoots have not appeared - I've put plastic sheet cloches over two beds of earlies, Sharpe's Express, Maris Bard, to help bring them on. I combine incorporating over-wintered green manure with planting their sets. As a planting trench is made it's systematically re-filled with the topmost slice of that bed replete with all it's weeds, the sets are embedded in a layer of sieved compost sandwiched between layers of this weedy fill then the lot topped off with the next spit of clean soil. I do much the same for sweet corn, squashes and runner beans as these are all crops able to use freshly decomposing material at their roots.

The outdoor apricots have finished blooming and the peaches, plums and cherries are picking up, the pears also have fat buds soon to break. No sign of the bluebell flowers yet, but Hyacinths, daffodils and snowflakes are still blooming and the tulips are gorgeous, I reflex their petals to make huge saucer blooms for the twins.

Muscat Hamburg vine

the back porch with the Muscat Hamburg (photo from last year, later in the season)

Back under cover I've wallflowers for cutting however the tomatoes and melons still seem behind expectations, still they'll succeed eventually. The first sweetcorn seedlings are soon to be moved into buckets of compost and cropped under cover as a super early treat.

The forced pots of strawberries, a real favourite, have small green fruits and masses more flowers - they've never looked better, but forced gooseberries are scant and small so far. (I think I've over-cropped previous years and must start new plants to give these ones a rest.)

The tubs of top fruits are taking more watering now as their canopies fill out, the first batch of grapes likewise as their shoots are now approaching the point (between three to five leaves from where the bud broke, if there's no truss of flowers there then there will be none) when I thin the shoots to five or so to each 'head'. My oldest vine, a Muscat Hamburg, in my plastic roofed back porch is most advanced and already showing flower-trusses, but outdoors other vines have barely swollen their growth buds yet. Over-all it's a good start this spring, and ducks are nesting near my pond whilst my hens are still sitting, so maybe it will now be ducklings as well as chicks for Easter.

Trends in iris breeding

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Jennifer Redmond Jennifer Redmond | 15:03 UK time, Wednesday, 6 April 2011


Why produce bearded iris with ever more ruffled and larger flowers? Michael Loftus, who runs a Suffolk nursery specialising in bearded iris, hemerocallis, pelargoniums and auriculas, thinks some of the world's leading Iris breeders seem to have got completely stuck in this rut.

I spend a large part of each winter surfing the web and leafing through catalogues looking at new developments in plant breeding. Sounds fun doesn't it?

But most of what I see often leaves me feeling wearied and depressed.

Old fashioned criteria, such as elegance and good proportions, seem to have no place in the modern iris breeder's lexicon. As a result I find myself searching out historic varieties of bearded iris.

What can be more beautiful than the simple elegance of Iris 'Tishomingo', bred by Caldwell in 1942, or the elegant Benton range of Irises introduced by the painter Sir Cedric Morris in the 1950s.

Modern bearded iris tend to have congested, muddled standards and stubby, scarcely pendant falls. The classic varieties of breeders such as Caldwell and Sir Cedric Morris have tall arching standards which allow and invite the eye to look through and beyond and long narrow pendant falls which balance the ascendant standards.

Much the same story applies to Hemerocallis (daylilies). Most Modern Hemerocallis are bred to have huge multicoloured flowers with thick coarse petals and heavy braided edges. Subtle is not a word one can apply here.

Luckily there is a small group of American breeders bucking the trend. Ned Roberts and Margot Reed over the last five years have introduced numerous lovely new cultivars with elegant spidery petals in retrained colours. Ned Robert's 'Kathryn June Wood' is perhaps the best pink Hemerocallis ever! Margot Reed's 'Brown Witch' is also a great delight - elegantly proportioned and a real brown, rather than just red pretending to be brown.

Much the same goes for pelargonium breeding. Most modern breeding concentrates on producing zonals and regals with ever bigger and more outrageous flowers. Very little work is done breeding from the many elegant species and old scented-leaved varieties - though a recent delightful exception is Pelargonium 'Angel Eyes Orange'.

Outside our specialities, my main dismay is against the creeping tide of dwarfism.

Why dwarf such beautiful leggy lovelies as Verbena bonariensis? They have though - it's called V. bonariensis 'Little One'. Tall, airy Knautia macedonica has been reduced to K. macedonica 'Mars Midget', stately-stemmed Leucanthemum x superbum has a midget offspring in L. superbum 'Broadway Lights', and Perovskia 'Blue Spire', whose stems should stab the sky, is down to a mere 60cm in P. atriplicifolia 'Little Spire').

Of course garden centers love dwarf plants - they present so much better in pots for impulse purchases. As usual the public gets what the retailers want us to have, rather than what we would like to have.

And the horticultural press does not help. Garden magazines endlessly exhort owners of small gardens to choose dwarf plants - why, I completely fail to understand. Small gardens most of all need tall plants. Who wants a flat shoebox of a garden? Let's colonise a bit of the sky!

My hope for the future is that plant breeders look again for their inspiration in species plants; we need elegance, not ostentation, and the natural grace of wild flowers are in this our best tutor.

Michael Loftus is the owner of Woottens of Wenhaston, a Suffolk nursery specialising in bearded iris, hemerocallis, pelargoniums and auriculas.

Organic by accident

I'm never alone in my garden. Backing me up day in, day out is an entourage of supporters - most with six legs, some with hundreds, some too small to have legs at all - keeping soil excited and pests quiet. Crowds of them cheer on my lettuce and dahlias.

But these horticultural helpers didn't arrive all at once, following some organic flag. I became organic by accident, following best practice ideas from broader experience.

Compost heaps offered early support, adding gorgeous organic matter to release embedded nutrients and break up clay lumps for better drainage (or hold everything together in freer draining soils). Compost is like an alarm clock to wake up both soil biology and the millions of creatures which live unseen in our veg beds.

My plants were far more enthusiastic with lively soil structure and fertility. It was like giving them three square meals a day - rather than double espresso for breakfast. This is best practice for trees, shrubs, lovely herbaceous crops and annuals.

Choosing the right site with the right soil became my next organic step. A satisfying mix to offer every plant natural vigour and better resilience to pest and diseases.

Imagine a sturdy growing carrot in sandy, free-draining soil with just the right amount of organic matter, enough to hold on to water yet not so much that they're starting to fork: that's a plant provided with a horticultural bat to fend off antagonists. Moisture-loving willow trees planted in the same dry-ish, sandy soil, though, will sulk and suffer. Knowing what plants like best saves the effort of forcing growth with extra fertilisers, sprays, and water.

Inviting wildlife to sort out ambitious pests was the next organic milestone for me. Frogs enjoy slugs. Birds hunt caterpillars. And the larvae of hoverflies, lacewings and ladybirds enjoy aphids and their lookalikes. These mini-armies of gardeners joined the entourage to reduce pest populations to a murmur, albeit never quite silent. Predators always leave some prey, so expect a bit of damage.

Politely 'borrowing' wildlife avoids the bother and residues of spraying. I enjoy watching them visit and hoping their offspring will set up home. Real estate includes simple flowers, long grass, hedgerows, ground cover, berries, old stems for hibernation and shallow water. Features are tidily ordered in a (sort of) corridor so the medley can wander around my patch, and the neighbour's.

Phil's plastic bottle cloches

Phil's plastic bottle cloches

And eventually, I became organic by attitude. Firstly, leaping over cabbage to investigate dodgy looking leaves, reacting quickly to pests and diseases before they spread. Then learning to whip off gooseberry sawfly in spring, yet leave powdery mildew on end-of-season courgettes. Then opting for least environmental impact when buying, such as wood from sustainably managed woodlands. Or using recycled plastic bottle cloches and durable pest-barrier meshes.

Rather than feel pressured by organic expectations, I've come to think of my 'conversion' to organic methods as a journey. My benches come from reclamation yards - though I love the smell of new sawn timber. I've given in and use extra fertiliser to keep my childhood oak tree growing in a container, though for less sentimental growing I use varieties that reduce tricky problems such as Lettuce 'Amorina', which is resistant to mildew.

National charity Garden Organic has guidelines to help you make such choices too. They use smiley faces of increasing happiness: wide grins for compost, but sad faces for sprays - although there are chemicals which save crops and still fit into an organic regime such as ferric phosphate slug pellets. And you can lend a helping hand by adding your own wildlife, such as Encarsia formosa, a parasitic wasp that controls greenhouse whitefly. With simple steps and enough support, organic growing has something to offer every garden.

Philip Turvil is a horticultural adviser for Garden Organic and also runs their Master Gardeners programme.

I've started an asparagus bed

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Alys Fowler Alys Fowler | 07:30 UK time, Sunday, 3 April 2011

I’ve started an asparagus bed. The crowns were ludicrously cheap and from the supermarket. £2.50 for 5 so I splashed out on ten. They are not the largest crowns I’ve ever seen, but they are plump and alive, which is what counts.

I waved them under H’s nose. ‘Look asparagus, so cheap!’ He peered, ‘when do you get to eat it?’, “Oh you know not for another three years or so” I replied. He looked unimpressed; ‘you’ll be eating those ones alone then’. And there it is, our stark reality, knotted between the spidery roots of the asparagus - a bit of gamble, an uncertain future, but cheap at £2.50.

Asparagus is a maritime plant and a halophyte in that it is salt-tolerant. Traditionally you used to add a little salt to the soil to suppress weeds, but the effect of this meant that nothing else could be grown in the soil apart for asparagus for years to come, so we gave up on that one.


There are many nuances to growing asparagus but the most important one is that it hates competition. It needs very fertile ground to do well and nobody near it to bother its ways. You have to weed ruthlessly for the first two or three years. Pile it high with good rotted organic matter and of course be patient until you can make those first few magic cuts. The funny instruction crudely translated from German for my crowns told me in year two I was permitted one spear from each plant and two spears in the next year. Patience indeed.

I have learnt the hard way that you cannot dot asparagus through a bed in hope that it may behave a little like a grass. It just sulks about having neighbours and disappears.  So another of its demands is that it has to have its own bed. Asparagus beds are usually mounded up to add drainage and keep the soil warm (a trick to getting early pickings).  It’s a good idea to soak the crowns if they look a little wrinkled. It’s also textbook to spread the roots either side of the mound so that the growing point is on top of the mound.

In reality many of the crowns will not spread their legs so to speak and if you attempt to you’ll break off precious roots. IF this is the case with yours just try and get the growth point sit up right so that any moisture will drain away. Saying all this it’s quite possible for them to dry out completely (I’ve killed a few this way) so once you see good sign of growth, add a thin layer of organic matter to keep the moisture in. Every year you add more compost and organic matter until you’ve built up that distinctive mound that you see in older kitchen gardens.

I grew up in a garden with ancient asparagus beds. When the asparagus had run to seed, waving its feathery fronds about, you could get lost between the beds they were that thick. My mother would spend hours on her hands and knees weeding these beds. She stands by this as the success with asparagus, keep the competition down in the first couple of years and you’re away.

She’d also horrified unwitting urban visitors by squishing the bright red asparagus beetle between her fingers (it makes quite a pop) whilst continuing any ongoing conversation without a bat of an eyelid. But then we’ve always said that my mother is ‘some creatures great and small’.

Every season we would gorge on asparagus, dripping in butter, swimming through French dressing, dip into runny eggs, in pasta and on the side until someone would declare that they were sick of the asparagus and shortly afterwards the season was over.

Once I’d flown, I’d get packages of spears. They’d feel damp and dense, these packages, wrapped in kitchen and raffia twine, were bundled into plastic bags to keep their freshness.

Last spring was the first time I missed my childhood home, no package and no foresight on my part to plant my own. So this year when I planted, I did so as an act of defiance to our future. Things may be uncertain, but you never know? Already there are signs of life - those first tender spikes are appearing. It is, perhaps, a little bit of leap to put so much hope in a few plants, but they seem optimistic. So we’ll both set root here and see what happens.

Garden news

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Sally Nex Sally Nex | 07:00 UK time, Saturday, 2 April 2011

In the news...
After the gloom of last year's disastrous fall in garden bird numbers you'd be forgiven for being a tad apprehensive about the results of this year's Big Garden Birdwatch.


In fact, it's good news all round, with goldcrests, long-tailed tits and coal tits significantly up in numbers - confounding predictions these tiny birds would suffer in this winter's freeze.

The RSPB says the surprising results are down to an exceptionally good breeding season in 2010, boosting numbers enough for populations to survive a second hard winter.

Did you get taken in? This year's green-fingered April Fools included the defection of Alys Fowler to a Stateside version of Gardeners' World; and a monster in the lake at Stourhead. Funny how monsters in Wiltshire bear an uncanny resemblance to Scottish ones...

And I thought there was some April foolery involved in rumours that the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra played Mozart to an audience of 100 plants and bulbs at Cadogan Hall in London – until I realised it happened a week ago.

There's a serious point (well, sort of): they were apparently testing whether sonic vibrations such as music, or the human voice, really does affect the growth of plants.

Elsewhere on the web...
Viewers in Scotland will be looking forward to a new season at Beechgrove Garden on Monday; this week they're assessing the damage after another blisteringly cold winter and celebrating spring at the lovely gardens at Inverewe, on the west coast, and the snowdrop-laden Cambo Estate in Fife.

Chickens are continuing their gradual takeover of the nation's gardens: last week Gardeners' Question Time, this week Ryan's bathroom and city back yards in Natalie Haynes's highly entertaining Radio 4 programme Attila the Hen.

There were chickens called Spiderman and Batman, feral chickens living on a roundabout in the middle of the A143 in Suffolk, and - more ominously – a chicken-vandalised former veg garden. Now that's going too far.

This week's best read: garden writer Noel Kingsbury in a thought-provoking defence of modern F1 vegetable strains over increasingly-popular heritage varieties: time we stopped being romantic about food production, he argues.

And unmissable listen of the week has be Elegies from a Suburban Garden on BBC Radio 4: a paean to a gardener's romanticism if there ever was one.

Out and about...
Gardening mums everywhere can take it easy tomorrow and treat themselves to a cuppa and a cake – preferably in the tearooms of some gorgeous garden. And there's plenty of Mothering Sunday pampering to be had.

A slap-up lunch is on offer at RHS Hyde Hall in Essex, Waterperry Gardens in Oxfordshire, and the queen of them all, Sissinghurst Castle in Kent (where there's a free bunch of daffs at the gate for mums, too).

Scrumptious cream teas can be had alongside the spring flowers at Barnsdale Gardens in Rutland, one of several gardens offering free entry for mums on Mother's Day; and at the Savill Garden in Windsor Park – also free for mums - you can really feel like a Queen with carriage rides around the gardens.

This year's show season opens with a bang this week: the much-anticipated RHS Cardiff Flower Show starts on Friday and promises a weekend of daffodil-sprinkled delights. There are show gardens, a giant daffodil, spring flowers galore and a record 75 flower-filled wheelbarrows made by schoolchildren from around the region, the winner picked by public vote. 

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