Category Archives: Gardening

Baby birches!

This is by way of being a) an explanation of why I’ve been a bit quiet, and b) a sort-of substitute for my monthly tree-following post, which is clearly not going to happen this month.

A) is simply that I’ve been busy editing a 100,000-word book full of figures and typos and a language other than English (which makes using a spell-checker difficult, presumably the reason why the author didn’t bother). Plus there’s been root canal. Eek. However, am now eating solid food and coming to the end of the editing marathon.

Despite all that, I’ve been managing an hour’s weeding a day – just as well, or the garden would invade the house in the manner of the tropical wilderness generated when Moomintroll put some plants in the Hobgoblin’s hat (sorry). And I realised I’d had a surprising success when I went round the back of the greenhouse:


and this is B), my substitute for this month’s view of my hawthorn. These are three seedlings from the downy birch I ‘followed’ last year. I only took the seeds in October!

They are very healthy little baby birches, and I am soooooo pleased. I did sow a whole seed tray, and only got three decent plants which I potted on – but I didn’t really expect them to survive. Obviously they’ll be potted on again next spring, but this rather raises the question of where on earth I’m going to put them… but who cares?

Right, back to my books…



Free plants, free plants

There is something deeply satisfying about this time of year, especially if you are a cheapskate gardener like me. For now is the time when friends decide to clear beds of things like extra hardy geraniums and grasses and give the excess away, when divided plants reveal if they have survived the savage process of separation, when cuttings take like a dream. So while I’m not actually offering free plants (the huge number of black cow parsley seedlings I have are not yet hardened off enough),

black cow parsley babies

I am celebrating their existence.

Some things come about as a result of insufficient deadheading, or of deliberate lack of it, and I defy anyone to keep up with removing the seed heads of nigella, aka love in a mist, or eschscholzia, aka Californian poppy. As a result they are everywhere, and as far as I am concerned, they’re staying put:

free seedlings!

I did wonder if the recent dip down into semi-Arctic conditions, especially at night, would destroy them, but no, thanks, they’re fine. Last year my random seed bed was a little disappointing – though only really to me, and only to me because it became dominated by wild carrot, which are brutes. Pretty brutes (bit like some men I could name but won’t, hee hee), but thugs nonetheless, and difficult to eradicate completely (er, ditto…). This year I’m hedging my bets. I’ve sown some seeds directly, as last year, but also sown some in trays and they’re currently germinating nicely in the greenhouse.

(Hm. Some of them are, but I won’t be buying from Plants of Distinction again. Grumble. Nor will I be getting shallots or garlic from Marshalls – doubtless I’ll have a separate rant about then when I get onto veg at some point in the future. That will also take in PoD and their **%£1@Z@ tomatoes, double grumble.)

But my favourite freebies are probably the gifts and swaps. I’ve still got a verbascum which I got from Sara Hillwards (who is also celebrating a gorgeous freebie at the moment, incidentally). Then Karen at Artist’s Garden gave me this lovely hardy geranium

hardy geranium

and a great big chunk of her phlomis,


in exchange for a giant garden bucket/trug full of osteospermums (they like it here, but a bit too much, so I had the odd one, er, odd hundred or so, which were surplus to requirements).

Some garlic chives and a tray of baby black cow parsley went to Janet aka Plantaliscious, as she said she’d swap them for some Stipa tenuissima. Some stipa. Just the ‘odd one’, you understand:


Of course I should have known, given the great Offloading of the Osteospermum. ‘Some’ equalled eight big ones.

I know exactly where they are going (once we’ve dug up some dandelions and snowberry) – round the side and back of the greenhouse. Self-sown foxgloves (another freebie) will stand up amongst them, and with a bit of luck I should have a river of stipa and foxgloves instead of a river of dandelions, valerian seedlings and flipping snow flipping berry, stupid flipping ineradicable thing. Flipping. Ahem.

P. also did some perennial splitting this year, and not before time (I did try, but I wasn’t strong enough; that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it). That’s also very satisfying, but I am clearly going to have a garden full of agapanthus:


I am toying with an idea: breaking up the iris bed, which will need to be dug out and refreshed this year anyway, and replacing it with agapanthus. White agapanthus. Which one of my neighbours has said she will swap for some black cow parsley… and so it goes on!

(PS: I’ve still got some osteospermum, by the way…)

Allium addicts unite…

we have nothing to lose but our marbles. Especially if, like me, your garden may not feel the same way about alliums.

My London garden, my first proper garden, ended up stuffed with plants. As time went on there was less and less of it devoted to grass as I extended existing beds into the lawn or simply dug up huge parts. I had, and still have, a stone urn and pedestal combo (subject of yet more Chelsea haggling, and which knackered the front seat of my Mini transporting it home), and it had pride of place. It was backed by a bronze Cotinus and surrounded with alliums, and it was spectacular at this time of year. So when I moved it north-westwards I thought I’d try and recreate the look.


My Welsh garden sneered at this example of metropolitan assumption, and – I suspect – ate the alliums. So I tried again, this time in another place. Nope, though one did grow (and continues to flourish) behind the greenhouse, where I know I did not plant it. Over time, I have come to understand that this garden has a pronounced personality, and that it will do what it wants to do and very little else, and that it will just not tolerate some things. When it comes to alliums, it has strong views.

Ramsons, yes:


no problems there. And completely independently it will produce tons of the other form of wild garlic, the one with the weedy straggly leaves, which spreads like b****** and which requires either major excavation or the use of Agent Orange to dispose of it. Dispose of it? I’m fooling myself again: control it. Slightly.

But I will not be deprived of my alliums, so I grew some in pots. That worked, and I was pleased with the effect:

potted alliums

which rather begs the question of why I decided to dig them up and plant them out. Admittedly, they’re in the new Capel bed – it backs against the wall of the chapel house next door – which is almost the driest bed I’ve got, and will give them the best chance, but I’ve still only had two of eleven produce flowers. The garden evidently noticed.

It hasn’t, so far, recognised these as an allium:

allium siculum

though it is their first year, and that might change as it realises that Nectarscodosum siculum is now reclassified as A. siculum (evidently my garden is using an old edition of RHS Plants and Flowers when it decides what to reject). I have been warned that these will join in the spread-fest of the wild garlics, but will they? I wouldn’t bet on it. Plus they’re so lovely that they’re welcome to spread wherever they wish, though I may regret this statement.

And, in defiance of the prejudice and in a spirit of wild optimism, I planted some A. christophii in the Capel bed. The stray back-of-greenhouse allium is a christophii, so I might get away with it. I do hope so:


I find myself stopping to adore these when I should be doing other things, like spreading slug pellets. The flower buds are so huge and fat and promising before they burst, and the individual floret buds seem rather improbable, almost as though they belong in some William Morris-style interior or on the set of a fantasy movie. They’re heraldic, but not a heraldry I recognise; there’s definitely an almost-alien elegance about them.


They look hard and spiky and odd, but they look good here. Which does surprise me, because generally the odd doesn’t work in this garden (Angelic gigas, while fascinating, was definitely a mistake). They’ve opened very slowly – the weather has been, and continues to be, not very good – but that’s just kept the suspense working, and I have found myself really enjoying their gradual appearance. I’ve got ten. What’s the betting that next year I have two, and one of them has shifted to behind the greenhouse all by itself? I don’t care; it’s worth it for this year.

And now it’s time to battle the slugs which, although they don’t much care for alliums, are really, really enjoying the irises. Who knew?

Please last till the weekend!

It’s the garden club spring show at the weekend, and I’ve been neurotically monitoring progress of several things, especially


this, which I was given just after Christmas. It had actually been a gift to a friend, but she claims not have green fingers so much as brown fingers with yellowy bits and added rust spots.

So I got it. And its timing, I thought, could not be better.


I’ve been watching it like a hawk. I wasn’t quite sure what it was going to look like, despite the picture on the box (I’ve been fooled before), and the leaves are pathetic – about 5cm tall.

How can you stop an amaryllis from opening further?


I moved it to a cooler room, but all the buds are now open and it’s got to last another couple of days.

Next year I shall hedge my bets and get several, and not rely on the generosity of my weedy-fingered friends. Because I’ve moved it down again; I missed it too much.


Garden show, schmarden show, that’s what I say.

(I’ll change my tune by Friday night, especially as I’m helping with the stewarding…)

And in the meanwhile, I have a new friend in the garden. So far she’s eaten several daffodils, protected us from the Giant Hedge Monster, chased blackbirds, had a good go at the rhubarb until we shouted at her a lot, nearly strangled herself with her lead by jumping from a wall where she’d been tethered after the Rhubarb Incident, and killed a watering can stone dead after booting it all over the garden. And had a good shout at people who dared to walk past. Not bad for a couple of hours.


Her name is Jess, she’s an 11-month old red collie and she has more energy than anything else on the surface of the planet. She belongs to P, and will doubtless be appearing here regularly from now on. If her predecessor is anything to go by, that is. So far I cannot add using my garden as a toilet to her list of crimes, but I’m sure that time will come. I’d better get the dog treats in again…

Questions for this gardener…

I have had a good gardeny couple of days, and without doing very much in the garden, which is probably just as well as certain parts have turned to mush. But the snowdrops are coming up (admittedly on very short stems, but they’ll grow), the crocuses are materialising around the base of the big cherry tree and I’ve even got some wallflowers doing their thing. The pruning is complete – er, even the plum, which should not have been pruned at all right now but I lost my temper – and reclaiming the blurry edges of the beds has started too.

I did have to leave the warmth of the house for my good gardening time, though, because I went off to Portmeirion with a couple of friends to attend a recording of Gardener’s Question Time. But before that I spoke to about six million people about what is, to me, a radical decision – not to rejoin the RHS. It was interesting, and revealed a very clear north/south divide.

I joined years and years ago, when I was a baby exhibitor at Chelsea. This was so long ago that The Garden was the tiny size, and very dense, and almost unreadable. When you did read it, it was knowledgeable and often intimidating, but it stretched you. Or it stretched me, I should say. Now it’s bigger, prettier, has lots of bright pictures and sometimes appears to be written for eejits who’ve never been near a garden. It doesn’t work for me, and living here in North Wales very little else RHS-y does. Take a look at the ‘events’ pages, for instance. I picked a Garden at random – I think it was June, when there should be plenty going on – and there were three whole columns of events, excluding pics, for the west and east Midlands (an area also without an RHS garden to bulk up the info). The whole of Wales merited a third of a column. Of the nine gardens very briefly listed there, six were down south – and it’s easier to get to England than it is to reach Cardiff from here.

parpI decided I might have got the Celtic Hump, a well-known disorder, so rang some other friends and this is when the north/south divide became crystal clear. Even my brother, who is within a (long, admittedly) drive of Harlow Carr, has decided to quit. It makes me sad but – so long, RHS. I did ring and explained why I wasn’t renewing, but they’ll probably just assume it was the Celtic Hump Disease and recommend spraying…

Now for something much more enjoyable: GQT.

I learned of an impending visit by the BBC’s Garden Question Time team (try saying that in a hurry) at our garden club, where it was mentioned in the notices. So three of us – well, one other member and A N Gardening Other – decided to get tickets, think of a bright and intelligent question which would transform us into respected gardening gurus overnight, and go along. We also decided to go early, take advantage of the admission to Portmeirion and have a look round; a cold winter monsoon interfered but we’re gardeners, for heavens’ sake, and we went early anyway.

And that is how we ended up in the bar of the Portmeirion Hotel, steaming slightly, drinking wine and discussing our questions.

I had wanted to ask about how you could persuade middle-aged men not to hang out of trees by their teeth while chainsawing, but that was vetoed – vehemently vetoed. In the end I settled for a rather boring one about windbreaks, so it wasn’t surprising mine failed to make the cut, though talking with another audience member gave me some good suggestions. Our other questions, also unsuccessful, were about overwintering pepper plants and whether you really need to disinfect the soil in a polytunnel, one of my companions having taken over the veg garden of a local pub and a vast supply of Jeyes’ Fluid.

The questions which were picked were a combination of interesting – how the heck to stop bamboo spreading (Napalm, IMO), pruning a grandiflora magnolia (don’t) – and wilful battling against the whole concept of ‘right plant, right place’ – trying to move a 5′ x 6′ bottlebrush to an as-yet-undecided location while not killing it and wanting roses and a lawn in a bog (???). Maybe it was the wine – and there was wine for the audience in addition to that possibly unwisely imbibed by some of us in the Portmeirion Hotel – but that was the point at which many of us lost it; the woman behind me was doubled up and wheezing with laughter. The team – Eric Robson in the chair, Matt Biggs, Christine Walkden and Matthew Wilson this time – came up with some great suggestions for the lady with the bog, but I suspect she’ll still try roses.

All in all, by the end of the evening I felt I’d done some gardening. Unfortunately, I don’t think the garden feels the same, but almost all gardens look like the wrath of god at this time of year. But not all gardens have a collapsed rose arch spread across them waiting for someone (ahem) to find the motivation to break it up and take it to the tip along with all the broken pots. Now there’s a question: how do I summon up the energy to load the car with all the non-compostable seasonal rubbish?


fabricI’ve been busy making things for a local Craft Fair, and flipped through my fabric stash. I found this, which sent me immediately into the garden with my camera – it is called ‘seedheads’.

I can sort-of see it, but seedheads of what?  It doesn’t matter, of course, but it did at least prompt me into looking around. This is something I always enjoy (that’s if I haven’t emptied all the viable seedheads into envelopes), but for some reason I haven’t paid much attention to it this year. Perhaps that’s because the seedheads haven’t been particularly memorable.

It does seem strange, given that we had such a good summer, that the autumn crop of seedheads seems more subdued than usual. Admittedly I’ve been more conscientious about dead-heading some things, notably the Cosmos, but not everything. They do just seem to be thinner on the ground. Er, or on the stem. It has indeed been a strange year, even if we did have a summer. Maybe because we had a summer!

S. horminium bouquet

The Salvias are good, though, and the horminium bouquets are even enjoying a second flurry of flowering. Admittedly it’s not as impressive as their first burst – it never is – but it is impressive because almost everything else in the garden has faded. Another salvia (and I’m afraid I don’t know which one) is, I think, better as seedheads:

salvia 2

The flowers aren’t particularly impressive; the red-brown foliage is the key. But I do love the form of the seedheads.

A perpetual favourite is the garlic chives.

garlic chives

I split and moved a giant clump a couple of years ago, and they are just beginning to bulk up in their new homes (they could do better though). I love the flowers – I have a definite allium weakness, which makes it something of a shame that they don’t do particularly well with me – and there’s the added benefit of the leaves being so very good in a tomato sandwich. And in many other things, of course, but – mm mmm, tomato sandwich with garlic chives. Ahem.

This is also a perfect time for reassessing the position of some plants, and I’m toying with the idea of moving my Cimicifuga, sorry, Actaea.


It’s been good where it is, though, and that’s in its first full year, so I’m having doubts. Maybe I’ll move some of the plants around it instead. Maybe I’ll get another one for the place I had in mind… ideas, ideas. A little less rain and some of them might come to reality. And we’re forecast snow for next week (that’s a real forecast, not the Daily Express which runs giant banner headlines about BIG FREEZES at the drop of a hat).

The big Monarda which is near to this plant is one thing I may move instead. It’s been spectacular, but not quite the right shade of red. I think it will fit in better near the garlic chives – if it lives; there’s very little to see right now. Its small pink cousins (also on the moving list) are all seedhead at the moment.


No doubt about where they are. Nor any about the Liatris, which I trapped in a pot to stop it going berserk. It seems quite well-behaved, though. I wonder if it’s trying to lull me into a false sense of security? Or are they just not as vigorous in this garden as they were in my previous one?


But there just aren’t the sheer quantity of seedheads I’ve had in the past. Even the agapanthus, which is normally covered in big, juicy seedpods which look like cardamoms, seems to have shed most of them (or just not developed them in the first place).


And that’s a shame, because they are spectacular in snow, and as we know, snow is coming. Well, might be coming. Possibly. And will provide me with yet another excuse for not getting out there and moving stuff about…

I garden, I get better

I get a terrible crick in the back, too, but that’s not the point. I get results, and I get all sorts of other benefits.


It’s not simply the satisfaction of growing things which are beautiful, though there are plenty of those. It’s not just the satisfaction I get out of growing (largely) organically, which encourages all sorts of wildlife, from wrens and slow worms to crickets, moths and butterflies.

still eating

I started this year not at all well. As it turned out (eventually), an old neck injury had been exacerbated by a more recent fall and that had led to vertigo and all sorts of trouble with my back, one leg, one arm – you name it. Not being well meant I’d spent a lot of time inside feeling sorry for myself, and unsurprisingly I got quite down even though I recognised that the situation could have been a lot worse. Then my doctor suggested using a SAD lamp, on the grounds that last summer hadn’t been a summer. I tried it, and it worked. But even more effective was the real thing, and I couldn’t just laze about when I was out getting my dose of therapeutic light. So I weeded. And I planted.


And when I was tired from weeding and planting, I did my extremely boring physio outside and then sat and admired the view.


But only for a bit, because there was more to do. Pretty soon I noticed that I could look down to weed without getting dizzy, and that I could manage more and more digging and lifting. And the garden really benefitted from the attention,

cool blues

but I didn’t realise that I was also benefitting, and every bit as much. It took one of my friends to say it. She actually said – a little melodramatically, perhaps, but doesn’t translate very subtly – that it had ‘saved’ me. It certainly gave me back loads of pleasure. And some slight hysteria (the dragon, now possibly revealed as Next Door’s Cat, has been back), but there you go.

I shouldn’t be surprised, really. The charity Mind have been running a programme they call ‘ecotherapy’ – using gardening, growing food and doing conservation work to help people with mental health problems. Over 12,000 people have taken part in their Ecominds projects over several years, and – to sum up – the results have shown ‘significant increases in wellbeing’. Participants have reported that their self-esteem has improved, they are more likely to see their families and friends, and that they feel much more part of the community. For myself, I get a huge amount of uplift from colour, and I don’t think that’s unique to spinners, dyers, textile people, artists, whatever. I’m not saying I believe in structured ‘colour therapy’, because I don’t think I do, but I do believe in the sheer joy of colour.

helenium Wyndley

Back to Ecotherapy. The University of Essex analysed Mind’s results – it’s not a fluffy, woolly, PR-based piece of ‘research’ designed to generate feature articles (as an ex-hack, I’ve had my bellyful of those; I’ve written a few, as well). No, ‘ecotherapy’ has been shown to help people struggling with all sorts of issues, particularly anxiety and depression (and I’m not going to make any cracks about gardening actually increasing my anxiety when I discovered the dragon holes, oh, whoops, mentioned it).

Of course many other charities know all about the benefits of gardening and use them. One of my favourites is Thrive, with what they call ‘STH’ – social and therapeutic horticulture: check out some of their feedback to see how effective it can be. Another is Freedom From Torture – previously the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, which may not be as snappy as FFT but tells you more about what it does, and which our family have supported since its foundation. FFT has a ‘therapy garden’ (with gardening and psychotherapy combined, the latter often taking place in the garden), which is part of the natural growth project. There are a couple of FFT allotments in London, too, where their less vulnerable clients can work and find some sort of equilibrium. As one, Suleyman, said, ‘if the garden looks good, I feel good. When the soil sleeps, I sleep. Apart from these things you have, these snails and slugs which were new to me, there is no evil in the garden’.

Makes my recent problems pale into insignificance, and puts them back in their tiny little box where they are emphatically going to stay. And Suleyman is bang on. Go, garden!


Er, not literally – though if the weather forecasters are right, my entire garden might pitch up in Manchester overnight… fingers crossed that it stays put…