New design challenges

Wow, this new place is fantastic - fabulous village, lovely, friendly, interesting people and amazing views. It may be the "middle of nowhere" but it is very close to major roads (though you can't hear them) and Shaftesbury, Tisbury, Warminster and even Salisbury. My new home and garden is on the Dorset/Wiltshire border and I am in heaven.

So to the garden....having searched for a country garden of a quarter to a third of an acre, South-West facing and preferably not on clay, I have compromised – well one has to compromise somewhere. I have found my perfect new home so have compromised a little on the garden. It is only four times the size of the London one ie 120 feet long by 54 feet wide (not even a sixth of an acre with the front garden included!) so it’s still a “small” garden – plus it’s North facing and on the thickest, heaviest clay you have ever seen. So, despite moving from London to the Dorset/Wiltshire border, I shall still be writing about creating and gardening in a small garden on clay.

But now I have many new challenges – starting with the design.  

The situation

I have fantastic views which I need to incorporate and not encroach on too much. In London it was easy. Everything was fences onto neighbours’ gardens and I could hide them away with trees and climbing plants. Now I have a beautifully landscaped estate of farmland and magnificent oak trees to build into my view from the back garden and a wonderfully tree-filled hill view over a common to the front. There is not a house in sight from the kitchen even though I am in a terrace of cottages first built in 1880, plus around six other dwellings on our potholed, unadopted road known as "the track”.

The back garden view

Front garden view

Though North facing, the garden is remarkably sunny for most of the day because of the layout and height of the house.  And as someone said, the great thing about North facing gardens is that the flowers look towards the house, not away from it - something to look forward to. But is also quite exposed and windy being surrounded by open fields and commons. It’ll also be colder than London of course.

And the clay is horrendous. In this area I expected to be on chalk or greenstone or at least something not clay. However, I am on a huge seam of Kimmeridge clay which comes up from the Dorset coast. It is very deep and intensely solid – you could throw pots from it in a minute. The garden has very little added top soil except on the old veg bed.

Clay has its positives. It retains minerals and goodness generally so is rich in nutrients but it cracks when dry (which can cause root disturbance) and holds water, which is not great in a wet winter on a flattish site – think bogs and mud. The previous owners have installed under-lawn drainage pipes to stop it getting waterlogged but I am going to have to work through and around these to create my new garden.

The garden as I bought it

The planting on purchase was a whole bed of self-sown hedgerow willows down the left border, two small trees (Bramley apple and Robinia aurea ) at the front of the lawn and a Rhus typhinia, a Viburnum and a Sorbus at the end of the lawn - all obscuring the view. There was also a young silver birch and a contorted willow which I am endeavouring to build into my plans and keep.

However, between the house and the lawn is a terrace and then a vast sea of gravel about 15 feet long, 54 feet wide and 8 inches deep. The house feels miles from the garden and the gravel is Dorset flint which is big, sharp and extremely difficult to walk on for me, let alone the dogs. So the first thing I had to do when I arrived was to create a pathway across it, for all of us, from old planks and bits of wood I found in the wood shed.

The bridge across the gravel sea - almost biblical?

The second, of course, was to completely redesign it,  which I started doing whilst still in London.

The key design challenges

  1. To bring the garden closer to the house, make it feel integrated and bring the wildlife closer for easy filming
  2. To create height and interest without impeding the views. It is level-ish and wooden fenced
  3. To add a large pond and create more plant borders whilst keeping enough lawn for Pickle and Lottie
  4. To re-invigorate, widen and deepen the existing beds – only the veg bed had any reasonable level of top soil and signs of worm life
  5. To create more planting areas for all the trees and other plants I want to grow
  6. To site the new greenhouse, shed, compost bins and a washing line without them encroaching on the view or casting too much shade
  7. To deal with the utilities. Our four cottages share a septic tank next door and all the pipes run through the back garden - somewhere?! The garden has existing drainage we have to work with, and I need electricity and water to the shed and greenhouse and pond pumps.
  8. To keep reasonable access to the gate into next door’s garden so they can fill their oil tank via my side access – and to facilitate their popping over for a drink, as is their wont, plus dog and child swapping generally which is already a feature of daily life
  9. To create cover for the unsightly oil tank and to disguise a large electricity pole
  10. To create alternative privacy for my neighbours to the right. At the moment this is achieved by a bank of brambles and nettles in the dairy farmer’s field which encroach into my garden – not ideal planting companions!
  11. The planting: to combine plant colours and textures. My last garden was so small it made sense to have a hot bed full of vivid colours separate from the cooler bed. And let’s face it, it’s much easier to do. But now I want to learn how to make them work together without banning a single colour. So there will be orange, purple, wild yellow and red alongside the easier pinks, blues and whites, plus greens, browns and maroons etc. - gulp!

Design process

I made lots of rough drawings but knew the design had to be to scale so a garden design program would be really helpful, as it was 11 years ago. I researched lots of potential garden design programs and eventually invested about £60 in one called Realtime Landscaping Pro 2014 from Idea Spectrum.

Overall, I am very pleased with it. It is easy to use, you can work in plan or perspective view, and view in 3D - as mouse controlled walkthrough or using video cameras. It has a good number of features and items to include in the plan, it’s easy to change them and it also does some cute things. For example, if you add a bird bath you get birds using it and if you plant scented plants you get butterflies fluttering around.

However, it is pretty American! You can choose from a thousand different modern house styles, decking types, swimming pools, patio stones and lawns but there is not a single climbing plant and only one vegetable in the plant list. I can’t imagine a garden without climbing roses, clematis, jasmine, honeysuckle, sweet peas, wisteria , even ivy, let alone the more interesting climbers. And I don’t want a vegetable garden completely full of cabbages either. I have offered to advise them on this for their next version but they have politely turned me down.

Initially I tried dividing the garden quite strongly into different “rooms” but it meant losing views or too much lawn with dividing features (hedges, walls, fences etc). So the final design remains a "whole", with different “areas”. I have incorporated some ideas from my London garden that worked well such as the low walls around the terrace which provide well-drained sites for alpines etc, the stream running into the pond and the rustic swing seat from Duckpaddle over which one can grow climbers, but otherwise it’s very new.

The new design

So the new garden will have a greenhouse in almost the same place as the existing one (which was correctly sited East/West and is in a sunny position). It is on order but won’t arrive until January which is OK for most seed planting. We shall build its base and brick walls in advance. It will be 10’x10’, not 12’x8’ so that it does not interrupt the sight line from the kitchen sink window, down the rose arches, to the view. A matching cold frame will sit the other side of it alongside an outdoor sink. The new compost bins will be at the beginning of the veg/cutting beds nearby.

I’ve moved the shed (which will be a new one) to the other side of the garden so it doesn’t block the Southern light through the side access to the veg garden.
There will be a long, six feet wide path up from the terrace towards the new huge pond and rock garden at the end of the garden. The path will be covered in black metal rose arches covered in climbers and have a long border down the left of it with a gap in the middle to allow movement to the left onto the lawn and to the right into the extended veg/cutting garden. At the end of the path will be more hard standing, the rustic swing seat and a bridge over the pond. I shall keep the existing metal gates in the fence at the end (but hang them properly) so that it looks as if the view through them is an extension of my garden.

The border down the left will be widened, the self-seeded willows (and everything else) removed and a peninsular bed added.

The sea of gravel and misplaced young tress will disappear and the lawn will come towards the house (accompanied by the long border). Two beds have been added nearer the house (so will be shadier beds – but shade beds are a fun challenge), with another around the trellis hiding the oil tank and one by the low terrace wall near the new side gate. The path from the side gate is four feet wide and ends up at the gate into the neighbour’s garden. Everything except the rose walk path is curvy - and it'll look a bit like this from where I sit and work.

The same view in the old garden looked like this.

So I am now happy with the overall design – all I need is someone to build it for me and clear what’s there at the moment… this space!

Pickle and Lottie's interim blog

Mum says she is very busy sorting out the new house (boring), working (even more boring) and planning the new garden (crazy!) - this one has a lovely, large, clover and daisy filled lawn for us to play on. We’ve waited five years for a lawn.

Admittedly the garden doesn’t have as many scented plants or a pond for us to fish in and there is a sea of horrid, sharp, Dorset stone gravel between the terrace and lawn (and out the front). We find it very difficult and painful to walk on so we might let her change it a bit. As long as she keeps some lawn for us and sensible paths we shall remain neutral and open-minded about her new design – but watch this space.

Anyway, because she thinks she is very busy, she has asked us to write a quick blog before she fills you in fully (though she has at least made a very short accompanying video – slacker!).

So, what can we tell you? It took lots of lovely people to bark our welcome to in London and lick the be-shorted legs of while they packed everything up in June, and then a fairly long drive to get us here, but now we have a fabulous new home and garden full of exciting new smells on the Wiltshire/Dorset border.

Sadly there are no urban foxes or multi-scented lamp posts and street trees. And we think it is very, very dark at night for our bedtime walk, despite the huge skies, stars and moonlight (which Mum seems to love), so we are finding this quite an adjustment.

However, by day we can scent and see hare and rat, horse (there are even people doing something called dressage out the front window on the church green), and lots and lots of very big, noisy, black and white, munching things called cows at the end of our back garden.

For the first three weeks these cows kept making little ones too – they woke up us at night and we even saw this by day. Luckily, as soon as we arrived, we managed to get through the old trellis fence into the field to bark at the big and little ones more effectively. Silly cows they took no notice, wouldn’t bark back and anyway Mum didn’t seem to think this was a good idea. She got very cross and put chicken wire across the bottom of the fence to stop us – spoilsport! Unhappily she happened to have it with her. What was she doing with chicken wire in Clapham? We need to know.

However, in the house next door there is a Westie who loves to chat with us across the fence – and can you believe she has the same name as Mum? It’s very funny hearing her parents screaming “shut up Rosie” to stop her barking. On the other side there is also a cat and big and little people. We like children and love chasing cats so this is great fun and makes up for the disinterest of the huge black and white cow thingies.

So, we are getting into a new routine. Every morning we walk Mum off the lead most of the way along the footpath, past Alan the blacksmith (who is making things for us), and across Church Green to the wonderful local shop to get milk and the paper (she often seems to buy much more than that too) but of course we put her on the lead to cross the road and go through the churchyard.

We’ve also got a very nice man called Reg who mows our lawn for us. He knows this garden well and Mum obviously didn’t have a lawnmower, so he is very useful. He specially wears shorts with braces so we can lick his legs when he comes.

Not nearly enough people in London wore shorts or had exposed toes, but everyone here seems to. For example, the very famous furniture restorer man (Ivo) who lives in the village and came to quote for mending Mum’s furniture broken in the move, wore flip flops especially for us, as did many builders, roofers, kitchen makers, painter/decorators, oil people and even delivery men who have visited – heaven!

So, overall we are pretty happy. We have tasted lots of new legs and feet but are not getting enough long walks – something we need to discuss seriously with Mum. Our woolly coats get full of seeds which she has to remove all the time – but that means lots of delicious grooming in the evening, so is a good thing overall.

We are still a bit uncertain about the deep, dark night on our last walk of the day - even though she is carrying larger and larger torches to light our way, but the house is now full of comfy chairs and beds and the lawn and carpets are great for rolling and scratching our backs on.

We’ll make her update you properly soon but, in the meantime, please watch her video of a new little cow thing being born, its first walking and feeding, all at the end of our new garden. It’s just a shame she stopped us being in the field with it. We could have added so much more with our conversation, being kicked by a cow or been shot by the farmer. It would have made a much more exciting video but we suppose it’s worth watching and, thankfully,  it’s very short.

Love, Pickle (5) and Lottie (4)

PS She still needs to update the website and welcome video which is all old hat now. Yet another thing on the list she promises she is dealing with while we don’t go on long walks in this fabulous countryside!




Home and plant hunting

L to R: 'Woody' the sound man, Tom Mitchell of Evolution Plants, Kaz (sis-in-law), me, Izzy the researcher and Amy the A P/camerwoman for BBC1's 'Escape to the Country', on location in Wiltshire

So now for a bit of real news – I am moving house.  I am leaving London and moving to Wiltshire, just on the Dorset border – new home, new garden!

Obviously I shall be horribly sad to leave my lovely Clapham home, wonderful garden and the wildlife that shares it with me, especially Mr Blackbird and my robins, and also those who visit transiently - no amazing Jersey Tiger moths in Wiltshire I fear.

But my London garden has wonderful new owners who have always wanted to be gardeners - and now will have to be!  They don’t have children so don’t need a lawn/football pitch yet and they have also volunteered to “fish sit” Big Yellow and the others until I have built a suitable pond at the new house. How brilliant is that?

And, of course, I am terribly excited about my new home and garden which is obviously much larger and almost a blank canvas – but more about that later.

This is a roundabout way of telling those of you who saw my Tweet (and everyone else) that the reason I was lucky enough to spend a day with plant hunter Tom Mitchell of Evolution plants, in his private nursery, was because it was my “activity” whilst filming for ‘Escape to the Country’. If you don’t know it, this is a very popular BBC 1 programme that seeks to help people do what the title suggests. They show you three houses (including a mystery house), in your chosen county. You also have to do some sort of ‘local activity’ that matches your major interests – hence my visit to Tom’s place - but not the house move. I have found my new home separately.

However, it was a very special treat. How else was I going to spend a day with a plant hunter in his nursery which was not open to the public when I visited?

On the first day of our three day shoot for the Beeb, Kaz, my lovely sister-in-law (who was my accomplice and advisor on the house hunting), some of the crew, Kaz and I arrived at Evolution Plants and were welcomed and looked after wonderfully by Helen Bailey.

We had to spend the morning filming Tom showing us round, and Kaz and me having to divide and pot on a really rare plant, so I didn’t get to see much of the nursery. However, when Tom realised I was “Rosie’s back garden” and told me he reads this blog (you could have blown me down with a feather!), he invited me back, on my own, for a proper, private, afternoon tour. And what a place it is!

The BBC crew filming Evolution Plants with the, very appropriately alliterative, Ben Budd in the beds

The nursery is pretty huge with polytunnels and beds everywhere, looks onto a beautiful golf course and is right on the edge of a pretty Wiltshire village at the end of a dodgy lane. And it is full of the most amazing and beautiful plants. Tom  has an incredible Paeonia collection, most of which he inherited but the focus is on propagating from the seed he collects from all over the place: from the Balkans to the Caucasus; from Japan to the jungles of Vietnam; from the coastal sand dunes of southern Mozambique to the mountain ranges of western Europe ie all places where the plants are threatened by human activity ie us – deforestation, industrialisation, population growth and suburbanisation, climate change etc..

His mission is to protect these plants, mostly species varieties, by propagating them here and eventually selling them to us in favour of the mass-produced, Dutch grown varieties that fill our garden centres.

He wants us all to grow these purer varieties and turn our gardens into natural arks for the future. His ambition is to inspire enthusiasm for better, more interesting, more exciting garden plants.

If you could only see all the magical and glorious plants he has you would understand why.

Here are just a few photos of his versions of some plant species you will be familiar with. He has hundreds more you might recognise and thousands more you probably won’t.


I would die for this fabulous Paeony foliage - Paeonia tenuifolia


The better known Paeonia mlokosewitschii (Molly the witch)


Geranium Phaeum (wild and as yet un-named) but very stunning! Jo AJ you'd love it.


 And just wonder at the beauty of this daffodil - Narcisus nobilis


A very exotic grape hyacinth - Muscari Leopoldia comosa, better known as Muscari comosum


I am not a fan of double, over the top, Delphiniums. This is a delicate beauty, Delphinium tricron 'ruby falls'


And this beauty is Moraea pendula

I don’t know about you but I am becoming pretty familiar with many garden plant species, their hybrids and cultivars. The idea of being able to grow something completely different and unusual is very appealing. I understand that hybridisation can add to flower form and length of flowering time, hardiness etc and create lots of variety but there is something wonderfully exotic, yet simply beautiful, about the plants Tom is growing for us.

And I have discovered, in my 13 years of being a gardener, that I’m a plant addict. This means that overall garden design and planting schemes can suffer. But, for me, the plant variety is more important than the overall effect. It’s just one of those things you have decide about yourself - are you a plant lover or a garden design lover?

Obviously, I love to design with textures, foliage, colour and flowers together but I'd rather do it with rare or unusual plants than ones from a chain based, garden centre down the road.

I also think a good, well throught through, hard landscaping scheme, with designated beds, can help us plant lovers keep our enthusiasm in check whilst still creating great gardens. We’ll see. I am about to create my new garden!

Since my visit to Tom’s place in February this year, the great news is that his nursery has now been opened to the public, the dodgy lane has been re-surfaced and so you too can go and experience some of the joy I had.  Please do.  I promise you’ll love it if you are a ‘plantophile’. If you can’t, you can also buy a few of the plants online at

So, I've finally met a real-life plant hunter whilst 'home hunting' with the BBC, a fabulous crew and the lovely, intelligent, Alistair Appleton as my presenter. I quickly (over an early breakfast) discovered that Alistair shares my love of proper ie cryptic, crosswords and my hatred of the sandwich - so we got on like a house on fire.

Back, from L to R: Izzy, Amy, Chris and 'Woody'.    Front, from L to R: Kaz, me, Alistair Appleton

Those three filming days were definitely a highlight of 2014. We had a ball and I think the final programme might be quite fun telly. Alistair and I sparred on camera.

Back to the move. The new garden offers huge potential and thus huge blog potential.  Essentially I am starting from scratch, so will be blogging on garden design, garden design software, plants choices, pond building, product choices (greenhouses, sheds, lawnmowers, pond pumps etc) and, this time, you’ll be able to share it with me as I create it and as it grows and matures.

Having spent months house hunting in Wiltshire, and thus expecting to newly garden on chalk/limestone, I can’t believe my chosen home is on a stream of Kimmeridge clay that comes up from the Dorset coast. Gosh, heavy clay again - but at least I know it and that my favourite plants (roses, clematis etc) thrive in it.

I also can’t believe that, having insisted on a South facing garden, my new back garden is North facing (though it has a front garden too).

As a result, this blog will also be full of North facing stuff, shade gardening, gravel gardening, and how to plant lots of trees and shrubs while still incorporating a stunning countryside view into your garden design, front and back etc. - so it will probably be much more useful to many of you. I am very excited about creating it and about blogging it.

Also, the updated website will make sure you can contribute and ask questions ie it will have much better functionality than it does now, I promise!

The big move is supposed to happen on 25 June. I can’t wait!

Wish me luck – and I’ll keep you updated. There are a few more blogs coming from here before I move.

PS Evolution Plants is now open to the public Thurs-Sunday, 11.00 – 6.00pm.

PPS The London element of this site will be saved for posterity under a separate tab, when brother Henry and I manage to do this. I am pretty busy at the moment with the move and work.

PPPS The Escape to the Country episode will be shown in Sept/Oct this year. I won’t know exactly when until about two weeks before but I shall keep you informed.


How to buy, grow and prune Wisteria ... this glorious, scented beauty.

As I write this evening, the scent from my amazing Wisteria ‘Alba’ that now drapes over the back end of the house and comes all the way from the hot bed (where it is not yet fully in flower) is flooding into the kitchen through the open French doors. Yes, it is mingled with the scent of the Lonicera x americana that grows with it, but the overall, intoxicating perfume is Wisteria. It’s something one only experiences for around a month a year but it’s all the more special for that. And it looks amazing!

Wisteria floribunda 'Alba' across the South facing kitchen wall

I know some people who think Wisteria is a nasty, common, plant like Buddleja. I disagree on both. As well as being a plant lover I am a wildlife lover and both plants attract myriad insects by day and night. That’s great in my book. Yes, they can both get big and ungainly but only if you don’t know how to handle them. And they are so simple to control that no one should worry, even in a small garden. I have three Wisteria (one of each main type) and two Buddleja in a 60ft back garden and they all perform marvellously.

Others are terrified of Wisteria because of the supposed very specific pruning requirements. But the truth is that Wisteria is really easy to handle and prune if you just know a few basic facts.

I don’t normally write “How to..” type stuff in this blog but, given there’s poetry and allsorts already, I don’t really see why not when the need seems to be there. I have met so many people in the last few weeks who are not confident about growing Wisteria that I think it deserves a blog – because the truth is it is a very easy plant to grow and look after, and is wonderfully rewarding. I seek to de-bunk its scary reputation.

So, this piece is written to encourage those of you without a Wisteria to go out now and buy one, in the complete confidence that you will have it in flower, be able to control it and enjoy it for many years to come if you follow some simple advice. It could also be of value to those of you who have recently bought or inherited one but are unsure which it is or how best to care for it.


Past, present, future - and FROGS!

On Tuesday, 18th February at precisely 2.41pm, under a bright blue sky and a warming sun following a heavy shower, I heard frogs.

As you know this thrills my soul after their obvious silence during their winter hibernation.  As I am well aware, following last year’s fiasco of a similar occasion on 26th February, sadly this does not herald the start of Spring. We have to wait for the toads to tell us exactly when we can start vernal celebrations proper.

But it is the start of activity in the garden for 2014. A few lone bees have been buzzing around over the last couple of weeks and the birds have been feeding and singing, despite the horrendous winds and torrential rains. But frogs mean something different. A new noise, a new activity in the garden that at least indicates the beginning of the end of Winter?

On hearing their songs, I rushed to the pond, camera in hand and found six, two of whom were already mating – or at least starting the close-coupled, piggyback, wooing preliminaries because there is no spawn yet. I’ve tried to record one for the video but I doubt you can hear it above the noise of the stream, the aeroplanes and the birds. I turned the pond pump off but they seem to stop croaking when I do this which is very unhelpful because frogs are not happy to be miked up individually.

It’s pretty mixed in the garden just now. It still looks very bare as most of the deciduous trees and shrubs are still leafless but this moment in the year seems to combine past, present and future more than any other time in the garden. Some plants have continued to flower from Autumn through ‘til now such as the odd rose, Cobea scandens, Abutilon 'Kentish Belle', and the daisy. Those that should be flowering at this time like Daphne bholua, Sarcoccoca, Chaenomeles, Mahonia, hellebores and snowdrops are doing it exhuberantly, and those that herald the start of Spring, like daffodils, are opening, the tulips are just pushing up, the Camelias are in good bud or springing into glorious flower and even lots of mid season Clematis are in bud.

And I have more fish than I thought which is great news. I knew Big Yellow was still in there but there were no signs of any others until yesterday. The fish at least have decided it’s the beginning of Spring and come up from the murky depths of the pond to feed. So I discovered I still have at least six. Silver Rocket, the shabunkins and some goldfish have survived the winter and the heron. 

So now I shall keep my eyes peeled for the toads. We could do with an early Spring this year after the prolonged misery of last year’s Winter and this year’s rains and floods.

I use this opportunity to express my sincere sympathies with those across the country whose land, gardens and homes have been flooded this Winter. I can’t imagine what it must be like to see a beloved garden submerged but even worse to have one’s farmlands and home invaded by water, and dirty water at that, with all it means for lack of income, future home saleability, impossible insurances and asset devaluation. My thoughts are with you.

We are lucky here. In Clapham we are high above the Thames though the ‘Honey Brook’ which goes to the River Wandle, runs under my street. The floods have shown up in my cellar in the form of rising water table but I am prepared for that and it is only a few inches of water. The cellar floor is six feet below anything important so I have not been affected like many of you outside London.

I fear we have to be prepared for more similar weather over winters to come but, for me, a tiny consolation and ray of hope has come from this year’s first appearance of the frogs in the pond.

Better late than never?

Mea culpa, I’ve been very late getting the garden to bed this winter. Normally the first frosts hit the Dahlias around November and I dig them up (because they don’t over-winter well in my clay soil), dry them out in the greenhouse, and then store them in an old laundry basket in newspaper and straw in the shed.  I also plant any new daffodil and tulip bulbs in beds and pots and try to do this by December at the latest.

For a variety of exceptionally boring reasons, none of this happened in 2013. Luckily, we’ve only had one mild frost in SW London to date (though horrible rains and winds), so the dahlias were still not blackened by Christmas. As I left for a family holiday time in Worcestershire, I felt guilty......but not very. “It’s been mild” I told myself.

                                                    Dahlia tubers drying in the bubble-wrapped greenhouse

So, I have just come in having finally bubble-wrapped the greenhouse, dug up the Dahlias and planted the tulips. I’ve also re-done my North-facing front window pots (simple blue and lavender shades winter pansies) and kitchen window pot (Hellebore ‘Christmas Carol’ - which has lovely, large, white, upward-held flowers - with two variegated Japanese rushes, Acorus Ogon, whose light green and yellow colours contrast with the dark green leaves of the Hellebore). The Hellebore was very expensive (£10.99), hence only the one, but its large, open flowers sparkle at me through the kitchen window as I write and cheer me, so it was well worth it.

                                                   The Hellebore and rushes in the kitchen window pot

I bought some tulip bulbs months ago but most went mouldy in the shed so I just had two, more recent, packets left – one of orange doubles called ‘Chameleon’ (because apparently they turn red from orange) and one of the statuesque, dark purple ‘Queen of the Night’ given to me by my friend Victoria. Both had started sprouting in their bags in the shed but looked fine. I have planted them together, in two pots, (in John Innes No 2 compost with lots of gravel and a bit of multipurpose on top) in the hope that they will flourish despite being planted so late. I hadn’t planned it like this but, if they flower, they will provide a striking homage to the colour palette of the late, great Christopher Lloyd of Great Dixter fame.

Which is a happy coincidence because I am now reading the new edition of the charming and informative “Dear Friend and Gardener”, the book of letters between him and Beth Chatto. For fear of losing an eye or two I can only read it when out of bed because it’s a hardback.  I've discovered I also need an Encyclopaedia of Plants at my side as I read so I know exactly what they are talking about. I thought I was pretty good for an amateur. I’m only a couple of chapters in but already I now know I know nothing!

I digress.

I have also just given "Marie Antoinette" a severe wig cut (ie hard pruned the roses Ghislaine de Feligonde and Phyllis Bide over the gated arch), and have yet to do the same to R. Graham Thomas and his covering of Clematis macropetala. I have also not yet swept up the fallen leaves. I anyway tend not to sweep them all, I only clear the paths, pond and major piles. In the flower beds I like the worms to pull the leaves down into the clay to add organic matter, even if it looks a bit unkempt for a few months. It’s amazing how quickly they disappear. They provide natural mulch, heat and protection for the soil and insects (so food for birds) and they protect hibernating frogs and toads under the shed. The only downside of this approach is that dog poo is much harder to spot! But the truth is the gravel area by the greenhouse and shed needs clearing of leaves so I shall do this when the rain stops.

                                             View from the end of the garden with the gate arch roses cut back

Talking of tulips (if you are following closely), the blog has just been found by a Dutch gardener and cook and her Tweet has brought lots of welcome new interest in the site from The Netherlands. As it happens I have family in Holland, indeed a have a real Dutch Uncle. My maternal aunt married a lovely, sailing Dutchman and I have two great Dutch cousins and extended family there. So, “dus van harte welkom om de nieuwe lezers en kijkers in Nederland” – though of course this is fairly unnecessary since you all speak impeccable English!

As you will have realised by now, this is a fairly ‘random’ blog with no video. My excuse is it’s winter and there’s not much happening in the garden yet, though there are a few plants in flower and the Daphne is now out again, scenting the air and keeping my spirits up. The birds are still around and feeding, the fish have disappeared to the bottom of the pond, and the frogs and toads are hibernating.

                                     Top from L to R: Abutilon 'Kentish Belle'; Cobea scandens; Sarcocca confusa
              Bottom from L to R: Jasminium nudiflorum; Chrysanthemum frutescens; Daphne bhuloa 'Sir Peter Smithers'

Apart from those of you in The Netherlands, I’d love to know where the rest of you are. Each blog gets between 600 and 3,000 hits so it would be great to know where you are living. We’ve still got a real problem with Google analytics on this site so it would be great if you could either leave a comment and tell me who and where you are (I promise to keep your details secret) or let me know via Twitter @RosiesBG or on Facebook at RosiesBackGarden. Many thanks and Happy New Year to you all.


Time to plant a tree or two

You may not know this but we are in ‘National Tree week’.

The major online plant shops are promoting this as a time to buy trees. And why not? Trees are completely wonderful, an important addition to any garden, and they're much more colourful and interesting than people think because many flower and have fruits, as well as changing colour. And this is a great time to plant them, especially given how late Autumn is.

My garden, as you know, is small but I wouldn’t be without my trees. They add height, structure, cover for birds and lots of beauty and colour interest from their flowers, fruits and leaf colours. If I could plant more trees I would, but I already have twelve in just 140 square metres, four of which I inherited, and there has to be room for everything else too.

I think the selection of trees for a small garden is much more critical because each one needs to be very special. One of my prime requirements is that they don’t stop the ground under and around them from being able to grow flowers and shrubs, so they can’t create too much shade or drop poisonous needles.

Based only on my personal experience, I’d recommend many of the trees in my garden. The inherited small silver birch (unknown variety) adds elegance and lovely colours throughout the year and a beautiful noise as the wind goes through it, but it does drop catkins and twigs.

Silver birch (betula unknown)

The inherited Rowan (Sorbus unknown, probably aucuparia) has interesting shaped branches, stays small and is lovely when covered in its white flowers and orange/red berries (spring and late summer/autumn). The bird feeders sit in it and the blackbirds live in it and then eat all the berries.

Rowan tree (Sorbus unknown)

The leaves on mine go yellow in autumn but there are others I would recommend that turn much more beautiful colours at the end of the year such as ‘Joseph Rock’ with red leaves and yellow berries and the somewhat larger S. 'Olympic Flame' with red leaves and berries.

Above: Sorbus 'Joseph Rock   Photo source:

The inherited fruiting cherry (unknown) is really too big for a garden this size and is the one I have to have cut and thinned on a regular basis. Its leaf cover is very dense causing a lot of shade and the blossom is so brief that I think the smaller, more decorative, non-fruiting versions would be a better choice.

The beauty of pink blossom and burgundy leaves in parents' old garden

I am particularly fond of the dark leaved trees with pink flowers. These include Prunus cerasifera Pissarii but this can get quite large at 5x4m, so smaller ones to look at are:Pendula Pendula Rubra AGM (3x3m) though it has green leaves but good autumn colour; Royal Burdundy AGM which is 5x3m; and Kiku-shidare-zakura (below) which is also weeping and, at only 2.5x2.5m, can also go in a pot.

Above: Prunus Kiku-shidare-zakura   Photo source:

The smaller Acers are also great value. I have four acers (two A. palmatum ‘Orange Dream’, an A.palmatum ‘Sunset’ which is like a purpureum but smaller (and is not ‘Orange Sunset’) and an A. palmatum dissectum ‘Garnet’) the latter two of which are brilliant red as I write, and the former two are turning orange again from their Summer acid green. These colours look great day and night, especially if you have a handy spotlight nearby.

Left: Acer palmatum 'Sunset'. Right: Acer palmatum 'Orange Dream'

The Eucalyptus niphophila I planted is a tall, straight, slow growing one and, though its bark is not quite as spectacular as others, it’s very pretty green/grey white with reddish stems to the leaves. It’s a great size for a small garden and has not had to be reduced. It is now about 5 metres high. Apparently it has white flowers that attract bees and I can’t believe I have never noticed these. It throws old leaves down but only behind the greenhouse, so it’s not a problem.

Eucalyptus niphophila

Crab apple John Downie is a small, tall-ish, thin crab apple so again a good choice for a smaller garden if you want a fruit tree. I have to admit that I am still not very good at apple tree pruning and don’t get the amount of blossom and fruit I would like but I’m working on it and I know it is my fault not the tree’s.

Weeping fruit trees are also a good idea. My mum has a beautiful weeping silver pear, Pyrus salicifolia 'Pendula' AGM, which she grows a lovely pale blue geranium under and through. It can get big (8-12m) unless you prune it, but is slow growing and can be controlled as a small tree.

Pyrus salicifolia 'Pendula' around Geranium

She also has a tree I covet, Styrex japonicus. She has it over a bench because its lovely, scented, white flowers which come out in Summer hang down and are best viewed from underneath. It can get a bit big (ie 8-12m x 4-8m) but it is also slow growing and will achieve this over 20 years and can be pruned back. It is very pretty and highly recommended.

Styrax japonicus                                 Photo shot by Gondahara on May20, 2006

Cornus contraversa 'Variegata' or 'the Wedding Cake tree' is a classic. It is beautifully tiered, has lovely leaves, white flowers in June, good colours in Autumn with berries and is pretty hardy.  But it can get quite big too (8mx 8m), so not really one for very small garden sadly. More for medium sized ones where it can be a feature tree or mix beautifully with others.

Above: Cornus contrversa variegata  Photo source:

The Albizia julibrissia "Ombrella = Boubri PBR" I planted is doing exactly what I needed it for. It is gently hiding a large expanse of my neighbour’s house wall and it has lovely foliage like a mimosa which closes at night. It has spectacular pink flowers in summer and is a tree you see a lot in the South of France, Spain and Italy. It looks much more tender and exotic than it is because it is hardy to -17 C. Apparently this Ombrella form is a rare form. The more common A. julibrissia rosea AGM, which is very similar to look at, is frost tender. I have raised the crown on mine so it doesn’t create too much shade for the nearby climbing roses and it looks very elegant. It now comes with green or purple leaves so really worth searching out if you live south of Scotland and want something exotic, elegant, flowering and controllable with light, beautiful, leaf cover.

Albizia 'Ombrella'

The Rhamnus alerternus ‘Argenteovariegata’ or Italian buckthorn I have in a very large pot down the side passage to hide the water butt is also very successful. Technically it’s a shrub not a tree but is now two metres high (could grow to 4m) and looks like a tree so I’ve included it. It has cream edges to its pretty leaves, very small flowers and then berries and it is evergreen. It looks lovely outside the kitchen window.

Rhamnus alerternus

Talking of large shrubs that look like trees, two of my three Pittospurums are now pretty tree-like. Both P. ‘Garnettii’AGM and ‘Irene Paterson’ AGM are single stemmed and now 2m high. P ‘Tandara Gold’ would be too if I hadn’t been cutting it into a ball shape.

My newest tree, the Aronia prunifolia ‘Brilliant’ is actually a shrub grafted onto a tree stem at 1m. It is supposed to be turning a fabulous colour right now and is not making a very good job of it. Autumn is late like the rest of the seasons so I suppose I should give it a couple more weeks to try.

Apart from the Acers, the unusual star of the show however is the Cytisus bantandieri which I have grown as a tree not a many stemmed shrub. It is semi evergreen with silky grey/green leaves, has enormous yellow flower clusters in early summer which look and smell like pineapples (hence its common name of Pineapple tree) which the bees adore. It casts very little shade and can be easily pruned to shape. I can’t recommend it more highly as a tree for a small garden.

Cytisus batandieri

I miss my Fremontadendron californicum horribly and this is a good and unusual choice if you can cope with the garish yellow/orange flowers and eye and skin irritating leaves and seed pods because it flowers all season.

Fremontadendron californicum

I also miss my Arbutus unidos or strawberry tree with its fabulous bark, dark evergreen leaves and red and white fruits. When I planted it I didn’t realise how big it could get and there simply wasn’t room for it beside the Pineapple tree, so it had to go. They can be controlled like any tree by planting them in pots but it seems a shame.

The only other tree I have “unplanted” is the Amelanchier ‘Snowflakes’ which along with A. ‘Ballerina’ and A. ‘Robin Hill’ is recommended by almost everyone who writes on best value small trees. It would be nice to have it turning red now but the flowers were so sparse and short-lived and the foliage so dull for 50 weeks of the year that it just didn’t have enough wow factor to deserve a permanent place in this garden.

The Catalpa bignonioides or Indian bean tree has always been on my wish list but I really don’t know where I could put one. They have huge, beautifully bright leaves (if regularly pruned) but a lot of them and they can grow to more than 12x8m, so the shade cover would be quite serious to say the least. I also covet a Cercis or two for their flowers, leaf shape and colours and a Euonymous for their crazy seed colours. They can be shrubs or small trees and would be more manageable than a Catalpa, especially in a large pot. I just can't decide whether to go for the Cercis with fab pink flowers or the ones with better Autumn colour.

Where to buy trees is always the question. Crocus has a good reputation generally. However, for tree specialists, online I like Barcham Trees where you can actually select the tree you are buying from a moving photo of it but my favourite place to buy trees is Frank P Matthews Ltd whose brand is Trees for Life. They are just outside Tenbury Wells but also sell online and through garden centres. The basic selections on my shopping list should be available from any good garden centre and I shall be visiting Neal's in Wandsworth and my new favourite Court Farm Garden Centre, in Tolworth to check - when I get a minute.

Just writing and researching this blog has made me salivate and linger for longer than necessary over the Google images tree pages and FlickR selections so, guess what I am doing to celebrate National Tree week! Surely I can squeeze a couple more in somewhere – even if only in large pots?

P.S. And whatever you do, please don't be tempted to let a Sycamore grow in your garden. In my view they are the worst and largest weeds around town - and I have real experience of this. Pull up every seedling you see.

Where the wind blows...

Can you guess what these beauties are?

They are one of the most lovely things I have seen in my garden this autumn - bar the flowers and the pests I blogged on recently.

And they have made me very happy that I bought three Asclepias from the new garden centre I found earlier in the year.

Online details of the Asclepias plants (if you remember the labels were useless) promised me colourful flowers, seed pods and then seeds with 'parachutes'. And this is exactly what they have delivered. The individual flowers (above) are quite small but they have a large 'flower head' effect. I couldn’t imagine what the seed pods would be like.

It turns out that they are enormous, at least 4-5 cms long, almost as long as the leaves. The seed pods start green.

Then they harden, fade and the outer layer curls back to expose lots of brown seeds in what looks like the most intricate French plait every invented.

Then they mature, the wind blows and the seeds expose their electric filament-like parachutes which shimmer in the sunshine and will take them wherever. They are completely amazing to watch – best seen in the video at the top of the page.

They may, of course, cause me lots of problems if they “take” where they shouldn’t ie in the pink bed, but the prevailing winds have blown them towards the pond, greenhouse and not very fertile gravel paths. We’ll see next year and I have decided to harvest some and plant in the greenhouse because they are quite tender and so that I can recognise the seedlings as they grow. I'll have no idea what they’ll look like otherwise and they could easily be scooped up in general weeding.

These beautiful seeds have made me focus on other seed heads and my garden is full of them at this time of year. The rose hips are obvious and seldom create a new rose (though I have a small rose I didn’t plant in a pot by the house).

Nigella seed heads are everywhere, larger than their flowers and luckily are usually successful in self-seeding.

The Convolvulus seeds are much more ‘normal’ in relation to their flower size and are also very successful at creating new plants.

The large seed pods of the Wisteria seem sensible given the size of their flower clusters (I have never let them mature)….

… but the boomerang-shaped Tracleospermum jasminoides seed pods are far larger than the flowers they come from.

My new Solanum laciniatum has very large seed fruits too. They are changing colour from green to yellow - like plums.

And the Crocosmia Lucifer seeds are now about ready to burst from their pods... are those of the Ceratostigma...

..while the Agapanthus seeds have almost all already set flight.

But there is one plant that will keep me mesmerised by its seeds for a long while yet. That's the Miscanthus sinensus around the pond. Most of its heads are still in their early stages. This one below is opening to produce its seeds. And they look wonderful, whether the light is on them or through them. They are a perfect plant for the lower lights of autumn and winter.

So, which of this wonderful haul of seeds am I going to use?

Sadly, my garden and greenhouse are too small for me to need to propagate much - so bring on the gorgeous man with lots of acres and greenhouses that need looking after!

Most of these seeds will go to waste but I do propagate special plants and easy annuals including Begonia, Nicotiana of all sorts, and Cosmos. But mostly there isn't enough room to multiply what I already have.

Some years back I had some wonderful, exotic-looking, Begonias. I bought them from a specialist at The Malvern Show and they were in pots outside.  Each winter I took stem cuttings from them, ensuring I had leaf buds on two junctions, then simply stuck one end in jam jars of water and put them on a kitchen window sill over winter. They all sprouted new roots in the water within weeks and turned into new plants very easily, came true, and flourished. This went on for about seven years - until I got bored. One year I let the cuttings dry out. Inevitably they died. I really regret this lack of care because I miss them - and have not seen them since at flower shows.

I am not fond of the little, boring, yellow and red ones with dark green leaves that live in shade. Nor do I favour the huge, blousy, double ones in a range of garish colours. But I loved these little, tender ones, in pink and white which look like orchids.

They were great value because they flowered from mid Summer until the snows. I must seek them out again at the next Malvern show.

So, I shan’t be collecting or saving many of these seeds. I shall see where the wind blows them - and then probably do a lot of weeding next year!


In the eye of the beholder?

It was 'Wild about Gardens' week in the last week of October and, even though I didn’t do much about it because I had just published ‘Reflections on water and wildlife’, it did make me study the wildlife in and around the house again. I filmed foxes around my streets at night and a sawfly larva eating leaves on my Graham Thomas rose – both classed as garden pests, but both beautiful in their own way.

This has caused me to reflect on beauty in the garden. A perfectly formed, scented  rose is an obvious beauty.

Indeed, any perfect example of a flower or plant would have to fall into this category. But I contend there are other, less obvious, beauties too - like the fox.

Foxes can be aggressive, destructive and what they leave behind stinks to high heaven. But I admire their looks and agility and admit I find them beautiful. I just don’t want them in my garden.

In 2003 I had a major war with foxes when I first moved into this house and garden. I won, of course, eventually but only after a series of major battles.  They became so bold that they were facing me off in between the beds. They dug up my newly planted plants (I’ve not used bonemeal since), they poo-ed everywhere and two of the younger ones tried to make a den in my hot bed.

I tried all the known remedies including a disgusting smelling tar put on rags and sticks, and dried lion poo (because the fox is more closely related to cats than dogs and is supposed to shy away from larger cats). None of these had any effect whatsoever. Eventually, with the agreement of most of my neighbours, I had to resort to a professional fox man, baited humane traps and daily morning removal.  12 foxes were removed from our gardens over 14 days.

Like any well-waged war it was meticulously planned, expensive and effective – with some casualties. Quite rightly, foxes are not allowed to be in a trap for more than 24 hours. I bought the meat (cost) and baited the trap every night. In the morning, before going to work, there was almost always a fox in it. The man had to be called, arrive, deal with the fox and go, before I left for work. Each fox cost £45 to be removed and the humane trap had a rental cost for the 14 days. The major casualty was my outdoor lighting. Whilst in the trap, the foxes decimated the wiring which ran underneath, so that cost a pretty penny too to replace.

Anyway, they were gone. I sorted it. Even now they are few and far between and I am sure that having dogs now helps to keep them away. I see the occasional one looking over the fence at the end of the garden but they are no longer a problem.

But all this doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate the beauty of the urban fox.  Pickle, Lottie and I meet them almost every night as we do our ‘final pee and poo’ walk around the nearby streets before bed.

So, the other night I went out and filmed them in the dark. Fabulously healthy foxes are all over the streets and especially around the bins of a nearby housing estate – as you’ll see in the video. And they are beautiful to watch. I just don’t want them in my garden.

In complete size contrast, but also a pest, I have also been fascinated by the sawfly larvae that are now eating the leaves of my Graham Thomas rose.

They too are destructive, but they’re easily removable by hand unless you have a serious invasion. No major war needs to be waged. No humane traps or sawfly men are required – just remove the leaves with them on, and take them away to the dump.

But, like the garden-destructive fox, the leaf-stripping sawfly larva is also beautiful  - as you’ll see in the video. I watched them first with a magnifying glass. To begin with I wasn’t sure which was the front and which the back but, under the camera, it has become clear where the eyes and munching mandibles are. The roses are still repeating but they are also going over. They are deciduous. The leaves will fall so I don’t really care if sawfly larvae take their fill now. Perhaps I should – for next year - but I doubt it.

Both these creatures are characterised as pests but they also have a beauty, all of their own, which I can’t help revelling in and I hope you will too.

Coming to appreciate the beauty of your garden pests is an interesting place to be, but one I am getting to. The macro lens on the camera is helping.

Drinking roses

October is a mellow month in my garden – the roses are gently repeating, some Clematis, Alstromeria and Geraniums are too. Everything is looking large and green after the rains and much will be cut back soon. The Dahlias are at their best, as are the Cosmos and Abutilons. My A. ‘Kentish Belle’ grows through my now overgrown ball of Pittosporum ‘Tandara Gold’ making it look like a Christmas tree hung with colourful knickerbockers. The Camelias, Daphnes and Viburnums are in bud getting ready for winter and spring and the weather is still warmish at 10 degrees C, but we’ve more rain and chiller winds.

My herbs continue to provide taste in the cooking pot, despite looking a bit straggly but they are not the only tasty things in the garden. This is also the perfect month for me to indulge in what was, up ‘til now, my very secret pleasure – drinking my scented roses.

After it has rained I urge you to wander into your garden and drink the rainwater off your roses. It tastes sublime. Only when you have done this can you really appreciate why all the insects are intoxicated by flowers. I know taste is 70-80% smell but who cares? Rainwater sucked off the petals of roses tastes like their scent, even if you hold your nose while doing it. It is just another way to fully appreciate the wonder of their perfume and to commune with your garden. 

If you are not sure how to do this, watch the very short video. And I promise you, each rose type tastes different, in the same way they smell different. You’ll be amazed. So please, take this opportunity to really taste your roses  - and enjoy! I promise you it is worth it. Just don’t tell anyone, or they’ll think you’re a little nuts. You can tell me of course. Just add a comment to the blog to let me know how it was for you.