A New Look for the National Garden Scheme!


Eagle-eyed garden visitors in search of snowdrops or hellebores may have noticed that the National Garden Scheme has had a face lift. Offically, however, the new brand wasn’t launched until earlier this week at the Royal Festival Hall in London, alongside the announcement of this year’s record donations of £3 million.

National garden scheme launch 2017

Investec sponsor the scheme, hence the zebras awaiting the audience

To top it all, 2017 is the 90th anniversary of the scheme – it must have been quite an occasion. Since its foundation in 1927 the organisation has donated over £50 million to charity and is the most signifanct funder of nursing charities in the UK. If you’d like to see how this year’s donations were distributed you can read about it here.

The new year book

The rebranding was announced to some 3800 garden owners who volunteer to open their gates on behalf of the scheme in the run up to Christmas. The news came in the form of an interesting video presention by our Chief Executive, George Plumptre, and brand consultants from Big Fish. Quite a few changes have been made to freshen up our image and so, we hope, will encourage a wider range of people to visit our gardens. My first glimpse of the 2017 Garden Visitor’s Handbook came earlier this month just as Narcissus pseudonarcissus burst into bloom.

The old and new road signs

Mia, our ever curious cat is always keen to see what’s new in the garden

Last week, our South Gloucestershire County Organisers made their annual rounds to drop off the large pack of publicity material which includes the year book, county pamphlets, posters and signs. Garden owners like me spend time checking that details are correct, but, this year, I was also curious to see how the new look compared with the old. Superimposed upon the new gate logo, in uniquely stylised lettering, is the name ‘National Garden Scheme’ and the word ‘Open’. Significantly, the name has been simplified and the ‘s’ has been dropped in what was ‘Gardens’. The background colour is still yellow but of a richer, warmer hue. Then there’s a raft of playful icons designed to inject personality into the brand, everything from teacups to plant sales ….

New sign for teas 'Fancy a cuppa?'

Ganesha, the god of change and new beginnings presiding over the new sign for teas

Perhaps I shouldn’t mention that albeit ‘trendy’ colloquial contractions like ‘Fancy a Cuppa’ just make me cringe, but, hey ho, they do!

New face of the national garden scheme

The new look of the National Garden Scheme website

Of course, the website has been given the same professional treatment too, and looks to me like a real improvement on what we had before. Let’s face it, in this day and age, website information is probably becoming the main portal for visitors in search of an open garden. In addition, the National Garden Scheme Find a Garden app can be downloaded which saves scrabbling around for a book in the glove compartment of your car.

In celebration of the scheme’s big birthday, there will be a special open garden Anniversary Weekend on 27th – 29th May. Of the 400 gardens that will be opening, 12 originally opened in 1927. Keen photographers might like to check out the competition that will be launched from May 27th, details of which are available here.

Mary Berry in her beautiful garden

© Andrew Crowley, The Telegraph, 13th June, 2015. Mary Berry, the queen of cakes, in her beautiful garden, Penn, which she opened for more than twenty years.

There are some great prizes to be won and, as President of the scheme, the wonderful Mary Berry says “I am looking forward to welcoming the winner to my garden”.

Posters old and new

Posters old (2016 left) and new (2017, right)

Greenfields and Barn House are proud to be opening their gates again this year on Sunday 25th June, as well as by appointment from June to September. The question of how to raise the profile of this marvellous organisation is a good one. Perhaps we shall quiz a few of our garden visitors about this over a cup of tea and slice of lemon drizzle cake?

Sesleria autumnalis : A New Grass for the Little Meadow?


In 2015 I started growing a stock of Sesleria autumnalis with a view to edging the little meadow with a band of bright foliage. This is a low growing grass, said to be usually evergreen and endowed with eye-catching lime green foliage. As a European native sesleria is very easy to grow in UK gardens, either in full sun or part shade – as long as the soil is not too wet.

Sesleria autumnalis

Chartreuse coloured Sesleria autumnalis is one of Piet Oudolf’s signature grasses, here used at Oudolf Field at the Hauser and Wirth gallery, Bruton in Somerset.

Most other members of this useful and underrated family of grass, like blue leaved Sesleria caeruela, can be grown easily from seed, but not this one.

Trays of young sesleria

Trays of promising plug plants, September 2015.

Sesleria autumnalis seed is difficult to germinate, rather than fret over dud seed trays I ordered 24 9cm pots from Knoll Gardens. However, enjoying a gently spreading habit, sesleria can be divided sooner rather than later 😉. This also makes it a wonderful ground cover plant.

Sesleria autumnalis

The young plants were planted out in three 8’x4′ raised beds, 1 month from purchase.

Although autumn was in the air the plants in the nursery beds grew vigorously from day one, as you would expect from a typical cool season grass that has just woken up from its summer siesta. Above is what the same little plants looked like just a month later.

Sesleria autumnalis in June

A fine June morning in 2016, 9 months from purchase.

By the following spring the beds were filling out nicely, when the poppies bloomed in June you’d never have guessed they’d only been planted the previous autumn. This grass has two periods of active growth – spring and autumn – either of which is a good time to propagate it by division. I aim to split each plant into at least three fist-sized divisions in early autumn 2017, pot them up into a gritty loam mix and then transplant them when the meadow is strimmed in mid December. Now, the general rule is not to cut evergreen grasses down but this is an exception : so far, I have cut second and third year plants back quite hard to refresh the foliage in both spring and autumn without setting them back.

Sesleria autumnalis fresh flowers

A month later ….

Sesleria autumnalis starts to flower profusely from mid July, producing fresh inflorescences right the way through until August.

Sesleria autumnalis inflorescence

Fresh inflorescences are laden with loosely held silky stamens that quiver in the slightest breeze (or swish of the cat’s tail).

Sesleria autumnalis seed heads in October

October 2016

As they age the flowering spikes shrink, turning tan in autumn and darkening on damp days. Through the autumn and late winter the effect is like a volley of tiny rockets shooting across the increasingly sharply coloured yellow-green foliage.

Sesleria autumnalis, mid February

In mid February 2017, when I came to cut them down, the plants still looked remarkably green.

Primarily, I’m growing this grass for the colour of the foliage plus size and shape. My hope is that the addition will achieve two things : draw the eye down from the swirling mass of Molinia caerulea subsp.arundinacea, and, conceal the scruffy thatch of Deschampsia cespitosa.

Sesleria in the meadow

When I planted the meadow in the spring of 2015 I placed one 2 litre pot of Sesleria autumnalis on the most prominent corner of the meadow where I could keep a close eye on things. Looking at this photograph taken in October 2016, I wonder if you think the combination works?

Getting Ready for a Christmas Break

Spending most weekdays commuting to London doesn’t leave Hitesh much time to help in the garden these days. Luckily, there’s a merry band of helpers I call on when the going gets tough. Before we went away on holiday just one look at the To-do list was enough to leave me feeling exhausted so I lined up two half days of help in the run up to Christmas.

Deschampsia in the meadow February 2016

The wispy remains of deschampsia in the meadow February 2016

The first job was to clear the little meadow. The planting is a matrix of two native grasses, Molinia caerulea subsp. arundicea which collapses into an easy to scoop up heap in the second or third week of December, and Deschamspia cespitosa which can be left to stand through the winter. Last year I left the deschampsia to see how it fared. Let’s just say I didn’t sigh too much when I came to cut it down.

Learning the meadow this month

So, this winter the whole area has been cleared in one fell swoop using hedge cutters and strimmers. If all goes to plan the deschamspia will form neat green and tufty mounds by the time the snowdrops are out.

A ring of pots in the meadow

I’ve lined the horseshoe shaped access path with old cut off terracotta pots filled with compost, then sprinkled Papaver somniferum seeds mixed with fine horticultural grit over the top. There should be a scarlet ribbon of poppies floating above the silvery deschampsia, the first wave of grasses to flower in the meadow, in time for our NGS day on Sunday June 25th 2017.

Freshly gravelled area

The second task was phase one of regravelling the drive. It took four tonnes to do the turning and parking area at the bottom of the drive. Don’t worry, the pink dust will wash off over the next couple of weeks.

Acer griseum keys sunlit

The third item on the list was to tackle ‘the dumpy blue pine’ which we inherited with the garden in 2006. I often look at the Pinus sylvestris ‘Chantry Blue’ and think that it looks like an enormous bowling ball, one that gets bigger and bigger as the years go by. Although it’s not my favourite tree in the garden there’s lots to be said for keeping it : the blue colour of the needles is rather attractive; the bulky form acts as both a sheltering nurse for Hitesh’s precious Acer griseum to one side and a foil for Stipa gigantea to the other; and, the dense canopy is popular with nesting birds.

Blue pine after its haircut

The bottom quarter of lower branches removed

After a lot of head scratching, which is inevitable when you’re crawling around in a tight space being showered by prickly pine needles, I decided which branches of the lower skirt might be pruned without completely ruining the shape of the tree. From a distance the tree looks the same, however, the scaly legs of the tree have been exposed. At close quarters it looks a bit odd but the plants at the edge of the dripline now have breathing space, at least for a year or two.

Country Homes and Interiors magazine

Between these last minute blitzes, there’s been good news to spur us on and something nice to read over our tea breaks : two lovely pieces about the garden have been published this month. The first, Carole Drake’s article ‘Winter Glow’ is featured in the January 2017 edition of Country Homes and Interiors magazine. (Apologies for the time it takes for the page to load.) The second, ‘Some grassy inspiration from Barn House Garden’ is a blogpost by local designer Lisa Cox and appears on her garden design website The Room Outside.

What a wonderful end to a busy gardening year. This week I can kick off my wellies and finally turn my thoughts towards Christmas.

Frosted cow parsley seed head

Here’s to the holidays!

Morning Walks in Helsbury Park

Last week we were away in north Cornwall, staying at Helsbury Park for the third time in nearly as many years, when the weather turned delectably still, dry and cold. For a whole week the landscape glittered under crystal clear skies. For both humans and dogs it was holiday heaven.

Dawn skies at Helsbury Park

Mornings dawned with the promise of deepening frosts and mysteriously swirling river mists.

Helsbury Park the view from te holiday cottages on a frosty morning

With 100 acres of livestock-free pasture and woodland, plus a mile of riverbanks waiting to be explored our early morning walks got off to a good start from day one.

The view from the sofa

Last year’s view from the sofa.

Three award winning self-catering properties sit at the top of a combe overlooking the Camel valley and to the east the source of the river, Bodmin Moor. Jaw-dropping dropping views equal exposure to the elements, at this time of year that usually means howling gales sweeping in from the Altlantic ocean. I admit, on blustery days I’d be quite happy to take in the panoramic views from the comfort of the fireside sofa in the company of a good book. However, this year the conditions were so alluring that I found myself first at the door and heaving on my wellies without the usual grimace.

The track leading down the hillside at Helsbury Park

The walks are pleasingly circular. Parallel farm tracks lead you down to the bottom of the valley and adjoining woodland, then back again. Centre point is a pond.

A view of the cottages from the pond

This is one of my favourite places from which to marvel at the vision of the owners who have gone to great lengths to develop this site while still preserving its inherent natural beauty.

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The pool building with its green sedum roof is beautifully designed to nestle into the lee of the land. Three sides are built into the slope, while the fourth’s glazing is etched with a map of the winding river which is, undoubtably, the genie in the bottle of this special place.

Staddle stones in a mixed border.

Grand designs like this are one thing, yet, to my mind a sense of harmony relies on a multitude of smaller details, many of which are easily overlooked when making a garden. I find lots of inspiration here, be it from the choice of local materials – some modern, many reclaimed – to the pared back gardens that blend with the landscape and lead the eye to the views beyond. I particularly like the forest of irregularly shaped staddle stones punctuating the gravel garden beside the cobbled drive.

Setting aside my thoughts about why the modern landscaping works so well with its setting, here are just a few of the things that make early morning walkies here such a very special treat

A granite bench overlooking a quite stretch of river

A bench from which to watch the dogs splash about in the river, the bank is shelved to allow easy access.

Oak woodland.

Sniff (and stick) rich woodland speaks for itself.

Hillsides drenched in golden light.

Hillsides drenched in golden light while below them in their shade lay the most marvellous expanse of icy meadow.

Frozen rushes in the misty meadow

Who knew Juncus effusus, the lowly soft rush, could look so stunning?

Wellies on the doorstep.

Not only did we leave with wistful sighs, we left with mud free paws and wellies too 😉.

Surprisingly Blue Roundhead Mushrooms

Over the last week or so I’ve been dismantling thirty odd patio pots at the south end of the house. Partly, to clear the decks for the painters who need access to the windows and, partly, in preparation for loading the containers into the greenhouse for the winter. As it marks the end of the season for this bit of the garden, it’s not a job I relish, especially when it still looks good. However, little did I know : this year I was in for a pleasant surprise.

Patio pots mid October 2016

On Thursday, with all the cutting back done well ahead of time, I took a deep breath and armed myself with the optimistic floor plan with which to brief the two strapping young men who were going to haul the pots of tender and borderline hardy exotics into the greenhouse.

Greenhouse floor plan

This is not a job for the faint-hearted, the pot sizes for the Arundo donax and Muhlengergia dumosa are 75 litres apiece and the remainder average 50. Totally unfazed, they cheerfully got on with it leaving me to sweep up the bamboo leaf litter in front of the 8’x10′ greenhouse. Hidden under a cloak of summer greenery, it forms quite a deep layer around the pots of gingers and cautelyas.

Greenhouse and bamboos, blue mushrooms.

As I reached for the broom I spotted a rash of startlingly blue mushrooms at the base of the bamboo stand to the right.

Bamboo blue mushrooms

I just had to take a closer look ….

Newly emerged from the mixture of leaves and bark mulch, the rounded young caps looked distinctly slimy. Older caps are first scaly, then less smooth with traces of a white veil showing at the edges. Although the caps loose the lustrous appearance as they age they are still an interesting sea-green colour.

I couldn’t resist picking a couple for closer inspection. The details of the reverse sides are quite delicate and equally beautiful.

Turning the cap over the milky coffee-coloured gills are distinctly notched where they meet the stalk. The stalks are pretty too, with streaks of a more cobalt blue against a shiny white background. In the older mushrooms, faint traces of brown spores collect in a ring towards the base of the stalk, below that the surface is covered in scaly down and flecked with soil.

Mushroom resting on poppy seed head

Wondering what they could be, I googled ‘blue mushrooms’ and came across a very helpful website, First Nature. Identifying mushrooms or toadstools can be a minefield  but as there are only a few blue mushrooms in the UK it wasn’t quite as hard as I expected. Of these, the ones in my garden are recognisable as either Stropharia caerulea Kreisel or Stropharia aeruginosa, although they look very similar, especially in colour, a good guide can help pinpoint the subtle differences between the two. It comes down to each species showing differences between the rim/gill and gill/stalk edges. These turned out to match the Blue Roundhead rather than the Verdigris Roundhead mushroom.

Like the vast majority of mushrooms, these are respectively noted as being inedible and, possibly, poisonous. They’re for ‘looking not cooking’.

Mushroom under bowl

As it seemed a shame to waste the ones I’d picked, I decided to see if I could catch a spore print. It’s not hard to do and is fun try : select a fresh, fully opened mushroom; place downturned caps on a sheet of stiff white paper; pop a glass/bowl over the top of them to stop the spores drifting in air currents; and, then leave undisturbed for at least a few hours, if not overnight for the print to develop. Damp conditions keep the caps moist and help with the release of the microscopic spores. I left mine outside under a heavy Pyrex pudding basin, but a damp swab of cotton wool works well too.

Mushroom print

The following morning I rushed out to see if It had worked. Attempting to lift the first cap as carefully as I could by hand smudged the print, the second I skewered with pointed tweezers. I was amazed at the number of spores that had been released. Apparently, they can be fixed as a keepsake. Now, where’s the hairspray?

Wordless Wednesday : An acer and its grassy friends

Acer edged with variegated hakonechloa

Acer palmatum (unknown) edged with Hakonechloa macra ‘Albovariegata’.

Acer and hakonechloa

Makes a sharp autumn contrast and, as a neat edging, hides a multitude of hard landscaping sins😉

Acer leaf against hakonechloa

Acer and miscanthus adagio plumes

More harmonious, are the plumes of Miscanthus sinensis ‘Adagio’.

Acer and bamboo

In turn, bamboos act as an evergreen grassy backdrop.

Seating area

Right now, it’s one of my favourite spots to sit and stare.

Westonbirt Arboretum : Walkies in Silk Wood

Westonbirt Arboretum was created by two generations of the Holford family at a time when Victorian passions for plant hunting and pictureque landscapes were at their peak. What were once common, wood, and chalk down lands were fashioned into an ambitious showcase for the family’s taste and considerable wealth.

George Holford, family and visiting royalty

Sir George Holford (far left) Equerry to Prince Edward shown here with the royal party and Queen Alexander, 1908 (Wikipedia)

Today, the 600 acre estate is managed and conserved by the Forestry Commission along much more scientific lines. It ranks as one of the finest collections of trees in the country. Every year it attracts well over 300 000 visitors, many of whom flock to see the six week long spectacle of autumn colour.

Westonbirt visitor centre

The gently curving gateway visitor centre soon after it opened (June 2014).

I admit I’d forgotten this when we jumped in the car on Sunday morning. We arrived mid-morning, which is peak time, especially when the weather is warm and sunny. Finding ourselves first parked miles away from the newish entrance and visitor centre, then swept along with the throng across the really new Treetop Walkway heading for Silk Wood, I wondered if we’d made a mistake. We are such quiet country mice ….

Westonbirt Treetop walkway

The walkway in June.

Last time we were here, bright and early on a wet Saturday morning in early June, we had the wonderful 300 metre long walkway all to ourselves.

Detail of construction

It’s a marvellous construction ….

Treetop walkway from below

Step-free, it gradually ascends and descends to and from a height of 13 metres.

This time our progress was inchingly slow, as the dogs were delighted to be making as many friends as possible. We were intent on heading towards one of our favourite areas, the Japanese Maple collection.

The glade of larch and acers

Most of the acers here have been planted over the last ten years or so.

Miraculously, the beautiful cathedral like glade, sheltered by towering larches, was deserted, perhaps because it is still rather early for colour from the carefully nurtured 400 acers it contains.

Westonbirt acers

More mature specimens are to be found on the southern edge of Maple Loop.

We always linger here for a spot of wistful window shopping.

Oak Avenue

Oak Avenue’s native mixed woodland

Beyond this point and following the ride called Oak Avenue the character of the woodland changes dramatically. Gone are the clusters of artfully arranged rare and exotic trees, in their place is burgeoning native woodland rich in wide ‘weedy’ margins, and so, rich also in wildlife. Back in the late spring I stood transfixed watching a hedgerow teaming with goldcrests.

Rosebay willowherb in seed image

This time it was the swathes of rosebay willowherb with their corkscrew seed heads glinting in the sunshine that caught my eye. It has good autumn leaf colour too.

The start of Waste Drive

Waste Drive is a name that predates the arboretum, to the time when villagers used this path to get to the common or wasteland.

Where the unregimented avenue meets Waste Drive you can see how the modern management of the woodland works, here on the periphery of Silk Wood are the species trials plots containing hundreds of trees raised from seed or propagated by cuttings. Plus, mountainous piles of by-products from the never-ending tree work.

Sterilised woodchips galore.

Conveniently close-by is the impressive Woodchip Sterilisation Unit with its mighty state of the art, temperature controlled bays that ensure the mulches are free from diseases like honey fungus.

Dogs racing for a biscuit The reward

Silk Wood is quite simply doggie heaven, well behaved dogs are welcome off lead so the place is full of friendly wagging tails. All of which which made it a brilliant place to socialise our dogs when they were young.

Westonbirt sea-buckthorn in berry Sea buckthorn

This final stretch of the walk towards The Downs has an excellent collection of mature shrubs, small trees, plus conifers – among them a wide range of continus and shoulder high sweeps of sculptural silver leaved sea-buckthorn. Throughout the arboretum, information boards are nearly as numerous as benches, it was news to me that native sea-buckthorn is so good for the skin that Russian Cosmonauts used it to protect their skin from solar radiation. Personally, I’d rather use it as a salve than eat recipes construed from the bitter bright orange berries😉.

A young stand of cercidiphyllum magnificum

The combinations look great at any time of the year but for me on this perfect early autumn day one in particular stood out. The delicious scent of candyfloss wafting from the closely planted group of a dozen or so young Cercidiphyllum has the same allure to me as a Bonio to the dogs, off I went for a closer sniff. As you might expect, Westonbirt excels in the provision of precise botanical labels, in this case, it turned out to be the very same C. magnificum Roy Lancaster has written about in this month’s RHS The Garden magazine.

Cerdiphyllum magnificum


We have a little, lone Cercidiphyllum japonicum growing on in fits and starts at home, this year the leaves on its upper branches have been looking so crumpled and parched that I’ve wondered if it hasn’t missed the light shade and shelter of the big blue cedar we felled in February. Westonbirt have the katsuras facing the morning sun, then protected by an arc of tall conifers to the rear. They say, planting over a gravel path where the fallen leaves are crushed by passing feet heightens the aroma.

Full moon acer canopy Swooning branches

In between are a mixture of medium height trees with wide canopies including a very beautiful veteran Acer Japonicum or Full Moon Maple with its swooning branches topped with a crown of dazzling colour.

The newly restored chalk downlands

Until fairly recently this part of the beautiful Grade 1 listed chalk downlands served as the main carpark. Since the new carpark opened, the view from the terraced restaurant is vastly improved too.

It reminded me that, once ablaze, the star attraction for thousands of visitors will be Robert Stayner Holford’s Old Arboretum (which is sited opposite Silk Wood). Then the air near the old visitor centre will be heavy with the smell of bangers and burgers sizzling away in gourmet catering vans. Maybe next time I shall take a spin around the dog free zone while one man and his dogs partake of a bacon butty for breakfast?

Wordless Wednesday : Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Red Head’

Pennisetum red head

Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Red Head’ (to our right of Lily the cat) started flowering in early September.

Pennisetum red head

Not only is it floriferous and long-lived, it’s fully hardy even when grown in a pot.

Pennisetum alopecuroides 'Red Head'

Richly coloured before the large panicles fully open.

Pennisetum redhead

Fully open 7″ long panicles are designed to trap moisture be it dew, mist, rain or frost.

The secret is said to be in its three sets of bristles …

Pennisetum red head

Against a dark background, a fuzz of white down can be seen coating the intricate central stem structures too.

Pennisetum red head

Conjuring moisture from thin air is a pretty neat trick!

A Room with a View ….

When I’m asked why I made this garden I reply I simply wanted a room with a view, not not just for myself but for the dogs who were otherwise fixated by any passing interest on the lane so they might enjoy a volley of woofs. Airedales are like that😉.

Slope in front of the house 2007

The gentle, rocky slope in front of the house 2007

Personally, I was fed up with looking up the awkward rocky slope to the gates across from the drive lined with parked cars, not to mention the yellow sticker on the neighbouring electricity pole. Arcadia, it was not.

We cast a shadow on something wherever we stand, and it is no good moving from place to place to save things; because the shadow always follows. Choose a place where you won’t do harm – yes, choose a place where you won’t do very much harm, and stand in it for all you are worth, facing the sunshine.”
― E.M. Forster, A Room with a View

It took me several years to grow the mainstay of hundred of grasses : standard forms of Calamagrostis x acutiflora.

Digging out the patio beds 2006

This was the ground preparation for planting our grasses in 2007. It was a lot of hard work.

Year after year I divided them out, while their numbers increased, it gave me time to figure out what I’d plant with them and how I’d arrange them to create a view that felt in keeping with the gentle valley slope. It also had to look good for most of the year with as little extra help from me as possible.

Knowing the slope was exposed to each and every passing wind, I didn’t want plants that would keel over with the slightest gust nor those that gave up the ghost in high summer. I wanted something that was so very simple, so pared down to the essentials, that the view would delight me in each and every passing season.

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As a bemused friend observed in the late summer of the terraces’ first year in 2012, “but” it is just the same plants in lines with the odd block of Periscaria amplexicaulis thrown in for bee friendly colour. Her “but” lodged in my mind, because, yes, the planting was really that unsophisticated.

Kitchen view of grasses terrace 2016

The improved dogs’ eye view from the kitchen September 2016.

Miraculously, for the most part, it works.

Liatris spicata

Alas, Liatris spicata died out after the first two years. © Charles Hawes GAP photos 2013.

For at least 10 months of the year I have my longed for room with a simplified view and we are all quietly contented. From late summer through autumn the planting sings its dazzling technicolour aria accompanied by the joyful thrum of happy bees.

Dogs playing in the paddock

But, to be honest, the reason I’m writing this now is that, one of our very dear dogs is so very unwell I really can’t say if she will make it or not. So much of this garden has been built around the two of them. Our two furry tanks have been such an inspiration.

The Chatty Gardener

‘How did you get to be on television then?’ asked a recent visitor as they gazed at some bindweed flowering in the miscanthus hedge. That’s a very good question. Without going into the subplot of how I have shamelessly waylaid any poor unsuspecting professional (or good garden blogger😉) who happened to be passing, in my quest to pick their brains about how I can improve upon my work, the answer is ‘Thanks to the NGS’. Horticultural journalists like Mandy Bradshaw with a critical eye for plants, design and the niggling details found us in The Yellow Book in 2013  – their flurry of articles sent us on our way.

Western Daily Press Image 2013

© Western Daily Press. This was the hedge back in 2013, in July of this year Mandy noted how the rudbeckia is diminishing

Cotswold based, she recently ventured across The Severn Bridge and braved the narrow lanes, this time to visit Jackie Healy at nearby Greenfields. Since we last met Mandy has set up a great website, The Chatty Gardener.


I love this image of Jackie’s nasturtium hedge! © Mandy Bradshaw.

She has kindly posted two pieces, the second ‘Gardens on the edge 2# is about how my grassy garden has developed over the years.

Bindweed Miscanthus

Bindweed drives me bonkers …..

The title made me laugh, perhaps she means ‘of reason’ too?

Exciting News from the BBC

Answering the phone on Friday evening, I sighed thinking ‘oh please, not another sales call’. Wrong : the caller was a researcher letting us know the garden will be on Gardener’s World on Friday 19th August, BBC2 at 8.30pm.

Filming Barn House Garden, BBC Gardener's World

Filmed in late October 2015, the footage was to be shown this autumn. Hearing that it had been brought forward was a nice surprise.

NGS logo

Who knows, given that the garden is open until the end of September we may even enjoy a few more NGS visitors?

Abigail Rex image : Hitesh and Kate September 2015

Image © Abigail Rex, September 2015

As confusing as it may seem to viewers, we’re described as a Gloucestershire couple living in a Welsh postcode whose grassy garden was “inspired by living in the Far East”. Given the blurb, I’m hoping for some esoteric ‘dingly-dangly’ music to complete the Bermuda Triangle effect.


The footage of Barn House Garden is 15 mins into the YouTube video.

If you’d like to see what the garden looked like last October please press play.

Nearly Wordless Wednesday : Ladies in Lavender

Lavender edgeSandwiched between the grasses terrace and the house is a sunny patio edged by Lavenders Munstead and Hidcote.

From left to right, clockwise, the cast of characterful ladies in lavender includes geraniums, with a cameo appearance by Clematis Petit Faucon.

‘Vision Light Pink’ and ‘Blue Sunrise’ win as many adoring glances from their fans as …

Judi Dench and Maggie Smith in lavender

these two marvellous grand dames of the theatre.

Sunshine is the cue for a mesmerising array of extras to flit upon the lavender stage.

Lavender edge patio tableToday, being our twenty fifth wedding anniversary and so deserving of a special treat, we have booked front row seats from which to watch the high summer show.

NGS Day 2016

I’m delighted to say that Greenfields and Barn House gardens had a very successful afternoon on Sunday 26th June. Getting on for two hundred visitors dutifully consumed quantities of tea and cake before heading home with armfuls of gardening books and plants. All in all, the event raised the best part of a couple of thousand pounds on behalf of the NGS and local charities – Gwent Wildlife Trust and the Moravian Church, who provided refreshments, help with car parking and tickets.

NGS day weather forecast

First thing in the morning the forecast looked dismal, but, as it turned out the weather gods were on our side. It stayed fairly dry until the last hour when the heavens opened. As all good garden bloggers know, numbers are definitely higher on fine days which makes all the difference to the spirits of garden owners and your kind wishes were appreciated.

Grasses terrace after NGS day

Drying out after a wet ending to opening day 2016

It’s one thing to end up with a spick and span if soggily empty garden, but, quite another to have spent seemingly fruitless days on the logistics of posters, parking, signage and sorting out all the trappings of a mini garden fete. A successful day justifies all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes, starting with the publicity provided by the NGS.

NGS guide 2016

The Yellow Book is the tip of the iceberg

Apparently, it takes something like 55 visitors for the well oiled machine that is the NGS to cover its costs. All of which explains why NGS gardens often open on more than one day and why NGS garden owners go the extra mile to make their visitors feel welcome on the day.

Since its foundation the NGS has raised £44 million for charities

Last year donations raised £2,637,000 for nursing and caring charities. Since its foundation the NGS has given more than £44 million to such charities

Although our Brockweir Common gardens don’t open for another ‘big day’ both gardens are open by appointment until the end of September. So far, we have a dozen smaller groups of 10-30 booked in throughout the summer and, as it’s all a lot of fun as well as for good causes, we’re very happy to see if we can accommodate people who happen to be passing. Contact details are on the gardens’ websites as well as on the NGS website.

Poppy enjoying the sunshine late June

Two days later we were basking in the evening sunshine

Opening the garden jointly with Greenfields has worked out really well for both garden owners and visitors alike. Even if we’d have preferred wall-to-wall sunshine everyone seemed to enjoy themselves, which is what it is all about. As new garden owners. Jackie and Fintan deserve a medal for their alternative wet weather arrangements, very few of us would decant a conservatory of furniture in order to set up a tea room!

Glastonbury mud 2016

Glastonbury mud 2016 : image from http://www.getintothis.co.uk

Having had a quick conflab to assess tickets and takings, there’s another to come about plans for next year. One thing is for sure, we shall remember to avoid the mud cursed Glastonbury Festival weekend like the plague.

NGS Day June 26th 2016 : Gates Open Today from 1-5.30pm

Having planned for rather mixed weather today, I’m delighted to say not only is the sun is shining but the rain is likely to hold off at least until late afternoon. Finally, I have a few spare moments to sit down and write a brief post.

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Thanks to the amazing plants we grow our Wye Valley garden is looking great this morning, there’s just enough of a gentle breeze to stir the grasses and keep us cool.

Plant sales

There are lots of lovely plants for sale, most of which have been donated by our dear friend and horticultural mentor Roger Grounds. We’re delighted that Roger will be here today to help greet our guests.

Book sales

Roger has also generously donated a wonderful selection of books. Proceeds from both  plants and books will be given to the National Garden Scheme which supports a raft of deserving charities such as Marie Curie hospice care and Macmillan Nurses.

Chris Mary lavender june

And, of course, the afternoon would be not be complete without a range of refreshments, delicious homemade cakes are floating in through the kitchen doors as I type. Paws crossed, there will be lots of friendly faces to help make the day a success.

Poster : NGS day June 6th 2016

Like all new NGS garden owners, Jackie and Fintan Healy, who live just down the lane, have been working extra hard to ensure that : the garden is up to scratch, easy to find, there’s ample parking and, most importantly, visitors can be assured of a very warm welcome come rain or come shine.

Wildlife Wednesday – A Perfect Storm

I’m reblogging this in response to Christina’s suggestion that Julie’s recent post might be of great interest to gardeners in general.


Inspired by Tammy’s Casa Mariposa blog, I have been trying for some time to compile a list of UK Garden Centres and Nurseries which sell plants without neonics – systemic insecticide us…

Source: Wildlife Wednesday – A Perfect Storm

The Cedar Stump : A Happy Ending


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A few months ago I wrote about the felling of the big blue cedar which used to dominate the front garden.

View of the terraces from the barn steps

Everyone was right to say I’d get used to the void. At the end of May as I sit on the apple barn steps I find I’m enjoying the more open view of the garden.

Blue cedar stump 2016I’ve stopped looking up and fretting about replacement tree planting. Instead, a new use has been found for the stump situated where two paths converge. I think the solution suggested by a friend brings the eye back down to earth.

Mia surveying the terraces in late May

Mia siting on the wall which runs parallel to the access path

In late spring the bank of Calamagrostis surges from a knee to thigh high sea of foliage. In a few weeks the grasses will be even taller and topped with purple flowering spikes at just above head height. By mid June the four staggered rows of Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ (to the far right of Mia) will obscure the curving path running along the wall top. The obvious way around the terraces will be via the wide gravel path between the lower wall and the single row of variegated Calamagrostis ‘Overdam’ (to the left).

Lily grazing on nepeta

Once the grasses are singing their summer song only those in the know, like Lily the cat, will venture along the secret path. Like the meadows around us, the grassy terraces are home to lots of interesting creatures. Occasionally some loose their way.

Drinking moth caterpillar

Last week I came across a 60 mm long furry Drinker Moth caterpillar inching its way across the gravel towards the grasses in search of a snack. As I was heading that way I offered it a lift on the trowel.

I delight in finding a reason for a stroll along this maintenance path simply because the child in me loves hearing the grasses rustle as I brush past them. My latest springtime excuse is to see what the latest variation in the promiscuous aquilegia seedlings has turned out to be. They seem to be at home in what was the shady area under the cedar and, lately, like me, their flowers have been looking a bit frazzled in the heat. Otherwise, their leaves seem quite healthy.

Meadow in May

According to the RHS there’s less risk of introducing the dreaded Aquilegia downy mildew if plants are raised from seed. (If buying plants, or if there’s concern about existing plants, the expert advice from Touchwood Plants is very helpful.) I’m tempted to sow some greeny-white ones to add a starry springtime sparkle to the little meadow. Sarah Raven’s descriptions of either A. ‘Munstead White’ or ‘Lime Sorbet’ sound perfect. If I’ve understood Derry Watkin’s online cultivation notes correctly, there’s less chance of aquilegia cross-pollinating if different forms are sited a minimum of thirty inches away from each other.

Seed pod

While we were wandering along the access path a friend kindly pointed out that in my wild and wooly garden I don’t stand much chance of enforcing chaste behaviour among the carefree columbines. This is quite true, I might just as well sprinkle a mix of the predominantly purple or pink seeds that are ripening in the jolly jesters’ hats with a shrug and a smile for good luck.

Cedar path

The more serious question arose when we arrived at the T-junction where the two paths meet, dead ahead of which is site of the stump. Even in April, when the perennial planting is not shrouding it, the path is barely three feet wide. We decided that as there isn’t room to manoeuvre a stump grinder without unpacking a lot of the planting, it will have to stay.

Poster : NGS day June 6th 2016

Greenfields is Jackie’s garden

In which case, Jackie suggested, why not use the stump as plinthe for a simple sculpture to draw the eye in my rambles along the path. This conjured images of bespoke budget-busting spheres which would look more at home in a Chelsea Show Garden than in our rustic patch. On the other hand, the earthy coloured salt glaze globe that I bumped into in the garden centre while dropping off NGS posters seemed just right.

The globe from the gravel path

It’s also a perfect springtime perch from which to enjoy the aquilegia.

Globe and aquilegia

Perhaps one of the best things about gardening is the friendships it fosters and, as a result, the sharing of good ideas.

Springtime Sport in the Meadow


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Last week I set out to inspect the little stylised meadow for weeds, I was curious to see if anything more interesting than creeping buttercups had popped up. Among the swathes of fresh grassy growth I secretly hoped I to find opium poppy seedlings in the gritty mulch. Their blood-red blooms were beautiful last summer.

Meadow may 2016

The meadow, emerald green in early May 2016

At this time of year it’s the fresh new growth of the semi-evergreen Deschampsia cespitosa that catches the eye, at least, from a distance. In my search for tiny poppy seedlings I was peering at the mulch of horticultural grit around the forty or so molinias which otherwise go unnoticed at this time of year. All except one of them looked the usual dull and uniformly mid-green.

Variegated Molinia April 2016

Much to my surprise this one contained a rash of stripy leaves.

Looking at the rogue more closely, the leaves in question range from a simple white striped vein to a sporty profusion worthy of a George Melly suit.

Molinia rootball lifted from meadow

I dug up the four year old plant in order to divide the variegated and plain green portions. The rootball was a good size.

Molinia roots may 2016

Separating the plant revealed the shaggy mass of tough, wiry roots.

This was the best I could do at this time of year, it’s getting a bit late to divide cool season grasses, especially those with a cespitose or tightly bunched, clump forming habit.

Molinia crown showing abscission layer

Molinia crown showing new shoots and the nubs of last year’s flowering stems, severed at the characteristic abscission* layer.

As there’s more growth to come I shall continue pinching out the plain green shoots as they appear. Next year early spring will be the time to divide the plant again using the little electric saw. I imagine it takes many years, not to mention probable losses, to produce a predominantly variegated plant in this fashion. Still, it will be fun to give it a go.

Variegtaed division in large pot

Potted up into a snug fitting 15 litre pot for now.

As with so many of my little grassy adventures one thing leads to another. In rummaging through online sources and reference books I’ve discovered lots of things I didn’t know about cream-green variegated dwarf molinias. According to Seedaholic there are four variegated clonal cultivars, one of which is widely available and well known, Molinia caerulea subspecies caerulea ‘Variegata’ (AGM). Less commonly seen cultivars are ‘Camarthan’ and ‘Claerwen’. Presumably, they originated in Wales. Beth Chatto and Marchants nurseries both list at least one of them in addition to ‘Variegata’. Marchants lists both of the rarer ones and describes ‘Claerwen’ as being the “choicest” form. Roger Grounds compares it to ‘Variegata’ as being “similar but more subtly coloured and distinct in its narrow, almost black panicles” (RHS Grasses : Choosing and Using these Ornamental Plants in the Garden, Quadrille 2006). It sounds wonderful!

Molinia caerulea 'Variegata'

CCPlants image : Molinia caerulea subspecies caerulea ‘Variegata’ AGM (dwarf) which is more readily available.

Prior to my discovery in the meadow, I’d have glanced at the image above without thinking too much about it. Now that my interest in the patterns of variegation in molinias has been piqued it’s a different story. In the lower right hand section there’s one green leaf as well as two green flowering stems – the rest of the flowering stems are cream coloured.

Dandelion seed head

The first battalions of yellow creeping buttercups and dandelion clocks are timely reminders that next week I really must get back to the more serious business of weeding the meadow. If I get a bit of free time next week I’ll pop back and do the links to websites.

*It seems the serrated looking abscission layers explain why the flowering stems of these grasses tend to topple in December. According to Bob Brown’s notes in his Cotswold Garden Flowers website the dwarf cultivar ‘Dark Defender’ doesn’t develop this layer and so stands throughout the winter.

A Walk in a Bluebell Wood


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Bluebells are the quintessential wildflower of spring. Surely, the sight of an ancient forest floor carpeted in violet-blue is among one of the wonders of the natural world?

Bluebell woods late April

Traditonally the Early May bank holiday weekend is bluebell time, where we live on the border between south Gloucestershire and Wales we are spoilt for choice as to where to see them at their peak. In the woodlands of the Lower Wye Valley they have been flowering for over a fortnight, whereas in the nearby Forest of Dean, thanks to the higher altitude and cooler climate, the bluebells lag behind by about two weeks.

Yesterday morning we set off bright and early to Blakeney Hill Woods near Soudley, one of our favourite spots for quiet woodland walks with the dogs. Wide forestry commission roads and public bridleways criss-cross the woods.

St George's day bunting in the woods

Bluebells are said to start flowering from St George’s Day

Despite the celebratory bunting strewn around a stout beech tree and a poster advertising teas in the local church the bluebells in this wood were not yet fully open. The woods were deserted and with a cool start to May we can hope for a couple more weekend walks in the bluebell woods before the understorey is engulfed in bracken and the tree canopy closes for another year.

Bridleway in the bluebell wood

This year the signs of the barrage of late winter storms were all around, with piles of brash and side boughs littering the forest floor. Where the rides were blocked the brash has been moved aside.

Fallen tree in the bluebell wood

One or two old veterans have succumbed to successive winters of wet, windy weather leaving surreal living walls. Here bluebells, foxgloves and moss cling to the turfed up rootball.

Besides the charismatic bluebells, the woods are full of other tiny treasures making it interesting to see how the bulbs fare in their natural habitat. Since we started visiting these woods nearly fifteen years ago things have changed a bit.

Deschampsia in bluebell woods

We grow Deschampsia in our meadow, under cultivation it doesn’t look like this ….

In certain places Deschampsia cespitosa, a clump forming semi-evergreen grass with a vigorous self-seeding habit, has migrated from the network of damp ditches towards the heart of the forest floor. Elsewhere yew seedlings have grown into stout young trees that shade out everything including the bulbs.

White bluebell

White form of the common bluebell or Hyacinthoides non-scripta

Pink or white bluebells are uncommon, the contrast in colour makes them stand out from the crowd. This one growing in the woods near Soudley bears the hallmarks of our indigenous Hyacinthoides non-scripta with its delicate drooping flowering stem and one-sided racemes of up to a dozen or so nodding recurved flowers held elegantly above narrow foliage.

Bluebells in the garden

Bluebells in the garden growing under a hedgerow

My guess would be that at home in the garden we have the results of a mix between the native bluebell and its more vigorous Spanish cousin, Hyacinthoides hispanica which was introduced to the UK in the late 17th century. In 1909 it was first recorded as having naturalised in the wild. Although the two species are quite distinct, their hybrids, which were first recorded in 1963, can be hard to tell apart from either parent.

Perhaps puzzling over the degree of scent or fusion between the anthers and perianth, or the colour of tepals, let alone tint of the pollen in the hybrids may be best left to skilled botanists or DNA analysis. To the left is a neighbour’s probable H.hispanica, to the right an interloper from my garden’s hedgerow.

Spanish bluebells

Spanish bluebells?

Most of the country gardens around here contain inherited clumps of Spanish bluebells dating back to a time when the wisdom of planting them in a rural setting wasn’t questioned. I pass this naturalised display every day, with their taller, upright stems, broader leaves plus paler, shorter bells arranged in a radial fashion you’d think they’d be recognisable for what they are at a glance.

Bluebells Hudnalls woods

Bluebells in the Hudnalls Wood

Across the lane and a short stretch of field beyond that, is the historic Hudnalls woodland. Composed mainly of beech it remains a typical home for bluebells. Following the enclosures of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the commons were apportioned into smallholdings for pasture, orchard and meadowland. Bluebells persist in our gardens today to the extent that some regard them as a nuisance and turn to the RHS Bluebells as weeds for sound advice. It’s curious to think that the cottars might have pulverised bulbs from the neighbouring woods to starch their washing.

Bluebells crossing from wood to field margin

The margin between the wood and field

Even if the ocean of bluebells shimmering on the local woodland floor or threading their way along the field margins and hedgerows are the hydbridised Hyacinthoides non-scripta x hispanica, syn. H. massartiana, I think they are still a charming springtime sight.

Cicely Mary Barker The Bluebell Fairy

From Cicely Mary Barker’s ‘Flower Fairies’ published in 1923

According to Plantilfe International’s report Bluebells For Britain the UK is home to almost half of the world’s common bluebells. Apparently, at the time of the 2003 survey, one in six of our woodlands contained a proportion of hydbridised bluebells. Apart from the ‘threat’ of competition from non-natives, the report highlights : habitat loss; the unsustainable and, if for sale, illegal collection of bulbs or seed from wild populations;  and, possibly, climate change as factors endangering what was voted as being Britain’s favourite wildflower.

April is the sweetest month ….



Sailing merrily through April, Chaucer’s uplifting take on spring burbles away in my thoughts like the comforting murmurings of an old and dear friend.

View of mist iver the valley

Vernal wind and rain seem gentler on the senses, the valley’s morning mists a passing, soft caress.

Tree peony bud unfurling

Tree peony bud

Meanwhile below ground there’s a gathering crescendo, each day a little more growth unfurls in response.

Greenhouse and bamboos April 2016

As the season ratchets up a gear I weed and dig, divide and replant with a greater sense of purpose. Last week, I rejigged the greenhouse to accommodate 18 pots of hastily purchased then speedily planted dahlia tubers, having never grown them before, I followed Sarah Raven’s How to plant dahlias. The tubers, Bishop of LLandaff, came from Avon Bulbs, they’re destined for the late summer/early autumn display of patio pots.

View of front garden April 2016

Stripped back to the bare bones of its design the front garden resembles a stage set, finally it’s starting to look as though the garden is ready for the year ahead.

Mia the cat and the grasses terrace

Mia inspecting the terraces prior to the morning’s work.

The last job was a shrubby one I’d been putting off until the very last mid-April minute : coppicing the jaali screen of red, lime-green and orange Dogwoods, they line the winter garden on the upper terrace in front of the house.

Pruning cornus mid April 2016

Helping hands busy in the thick of it.

However, this week I’ve been enjoying some very special company in the garden, my father and his wonderful wife are visiting all the way from southern Ontario. Extra pairs of happy helping hands are most welcome at this busy time of year, between us we’ve cleared the thicket of multi-coloured cornus in no time at all.

Multicoloured cornus prunings

Cornus prunings.

When they set out from home there was still snow on the ground – the late winter sort that quickly turns to salty brown slush. In early May I’ll weave the prunings into supports for the rudbeckia hedge, by then I’ll be wondering if their garden is fast-forwarding to high summer.

A chain of violets in the paving

Which reminds me to celebrate the fleeting springtime blessings bestowed by our mild and gentle temperate climate while I can. At such a busy time of year it’s easy for me to overlook the demure charms of wild violets lacing their way through the cracks in the paving at the foot of the Lonicera nitida hedge.

Carpet of crocus leaves studded with celandines

Grassy crocus leaves and celandines.

Here on the rural Welsh borders my so-called ‘lawns’ are verdant pools of mossy green studded with tiny treasures. Between the shady double set of main gates, the patch is densely packed with Crocus tommasinianus, I see the adventurous lesser celandine has crept in amongst them.

In spring 2006, when we viewed the property, the garden was a riot of blowsy blooms. We tease each other that we’d made our minds up before we reached the front door. Aina’s exuberant mixtures of daffodils, planted with ardour in the 1990s only to be corralled by me a decade later, are still the hallmark of the season in my garden. Among them, the paler or daintier ones are my favourites.

Orchard daffodils

Only those in the orchard are as my predecessor left them, perhaps this year I’ll find time to move some aside to create a navigable path through the orchard.

Dog in a patch of wild daffodils

Daffodil loving dog.

Moving the masses that once filled the dogs’ paddock left me with a green swathe of grass, not to mention a seasonally sore Achilles’ tendon. The shorter, sturdier wild narcissus pooled under an old red leaved cherry tree bounce back from this treatment better than our furry tank’s ancient football.

When in April the sweet showers fall
And pierce the drought of March to the root, and all
The veins are bathed in liquor of such power
As brings about the engendering of the flower ….

This is the poetic earworm of opening lines from Chaucer’s The General Prologue, translated by Nevill Coghill.

The first of several pre booked groups of NGS garden pilgrims will arrive in several weeks time in search of flowers, foliage, tea and cake. This year our ‘big day’ is Sunday 26th June, we’re delighted to be joined by Greenfields, a beautiful new NGS garden created by Jackie and Fintan Healy who live just down the lane. Spring is nature’s prologue to another busy, thrilling, and, paws crossed, successful gardening year.


This morning’s brief flurry of plump snowflakes was a lovely surprise!

Evergreen grasses : to cut or not to cut?


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Unlike their deciduous cousins, which once established can be cut right down to the ground in late winter/early spring, evergreen grasses grow throughout the seasons so they won’t thank you for treating them in the same way. Here are three of the several evergreens I grow, each is groomed in different ways according to the instructiions on their care labels. Given the right conditions none are hard to grow, I’ve rated the annual effort it takes to keep them looking good.

Chionochloa rubra : easy

C.rubra March 2016 Around millstone

Chionochloa rubra is the lowest maintenance grass I grow, since planting it in 2011 I haven’t laid a finger on it. Chilly weather enhances the foxy-red tints in its foliage. Thatchy strands blend in, as do spent flowering stems.

Flowering in July 2015

Last year this group flowered rather inconspicuously for the first time alongside the opium poppies and red valerian. Noticeably, in mid-summer, tussocks look greener than in winter.

Weaker division

Unlike many grasses Chionochloa rubra doesn’t divide happily, let alone romp away. Five years ago a 0.5 litre division struggled to establish, this is what it looks like today. At a third of the size of the ones bought as larger plants from Pan Global Plants a year later, this is slow progress.

Foliage C.rubra 2016

Admittedly, conditions are much more favourable down in the sheltered yard, the plants growing in gravel in an open sunny spot are much stronger as a result. Even so, I’d hesitate to risk one of these tightly bunched mature specimens. So far, seed hasn’t germinated. All of which suggests that sourcing good-sized plants from a specialist nursery is a sound investment.

Stipa gigantea : medium

New growth Stipa gigantea late winter 2016

These days I’d say Stipa gigantea is a close second to being ultra-low maintenance. Since finding them a sunny, sheltered, and spacious spot in well-drained soil they’ve thrived on very little attention from me. Having sulked in four other positions in this as well as my last garden, I’d almost given up on them. Since 2012 the original three at the front of the border did so well that I added a further five in 2013.

Dogs racing past backlit Stipa summer 2015

Orientating them to catch the sun pays off, tall airy flowered grasses look amazing backlit, here by the mellow evening sun in high summer.

Iris and Stipa early June 2015

Much earlier in the year, planted a metre apart on centre allows room for clumps of Iris sibirica ‘Tropic Nights’ to be squeezed in between them, both flower early in May so any tidying of the stipa has to be done sooner rather than later in the spring. There’s not much to do, the flowering spikes fall by December here, which only leaves snipping out the woody stubs of last year’s stems in early April. If they’re looking thatchy I might lightly rake them through either using a spring tine rake or by running my hands through from the base of the plant. Stipa leaves are leathery, for me gloves are a must. Showa gloves are great for gently grooming grasses by hand, designed to be slightly tacky loose leaves stick to them. Three of these plants are now in their twelfth year, remarkably they’re still looking good, I’d expect them to be getting a little bald and nobbly in the centre. I haven’t tried it, but I’m told mature clumps divide well.

To my utter delight and amazement, the once miserable plants self-seed profusely now. The above images of seedlings lifted from the gravel path were either potted-up or planted in a nursery bed last spring. Seedlings take two years to grow a good root system, only then do they make sturdy plants for spacing in the border. Until then they’re top-heavy and, although stipa doesn’t like to be overcrowded, they work well from a young age with early summer flowering bulbs like alliums. Stipa gigantea comes in a range of sizes, from the shortest ‘Pixie’ to the tallest ‘Gold Fontaene’, last year Neil Lucas introduced ‘Goldilocks’ which is of medium height.

Anemanthele lessoniana : harder

Perhaps it’s the third of the evergreens that’s trickiest to grow well. The regime can seem complicated, especially where greater numbers of plants are involved. Anemanthele is a stunning subject for mass planting but as a short-lived New Zealand native the key is a steady supply of new plants. Fifty of them are planted a metre apart formimg a low hedge beside the drive which then curves back in a loop around the Acer griseum. Planted in three waves, they don’t need replacing all in one go. This grass doesn’t flower fully until its third year, after which a steady supply of seedlings are available to keep the structured planting going.

It took me a while to work out that young plants thrive best on relative neglect while older plants can be treated more ruthlessly. Part of my winter reading was Lawrie Metcalf’s The Cultivation of New Zealand Native Grasses. I was whooping in agreement when I read his authoritative cultivation notes : anemanthele should never be cut right back to ground level. The veteran group above planted around the acer are due for retirement next year – April 2016 was their last haircut. I reduced them by 30%.

A plant cut back in March

In our exposed garden overwintering foliage tips are first tinted, then dried by frosts as well as by desiccating winds, cutting them back too soon risks the new foliage too. Prolonged cold and wet spring weather can also put off them off. This year the younger and more vigorous row beside the more sheltered cedar path were cut back by 50%. For a while the blunted ends may look unsightly but as long as the tightly bunched foliage is green and lush the plants should recover.

Weak plants in April

Once the centre of the plant looks this thatchy it’s time to replace them with seedlings coming into their third year. I don’t mind the extra bit of work because between the third and fifth year the impact of the continuous mass of flowers is sublimely beautiful.

Anemanthele with day lily stems August 2015

Spent day lily stems in a mass of anemanthele inflorescence

The longevity of grasses versus their seeding or growth habits fascinates me, I can see that some are much lower maintenance for being truly perennial than others. For me short-lived, free-flowering, self-seeding grasses are useful, even if their habits have to be controlled. In 1998 Metcalf warned that in optimum conditions NZ landscapers should be aware of anemanthele’s propensity to become a self-seeding nuisance, the gossamer sprays of infloresences are loaded with fine seed held on arching wiry stems intent on being tracked by hoof or boot rather than being windborne. In a garden setting this   makes it easier to deal with unwanted seedlings.

To curtail wayward seedlings I deadhead anemanthele, preferably on a damp day before the seed sets. I also site them where either the mower or passing cars will check their spread. Come spring I hunt out the remaining seedlings, they’re usually huddled close to the parents, then pot them up.

Based on my experience, anemanthele does well for at least five years, more perhaps depending on the conditions in which it’s grown. Above is the runt of the driveside plants, ticking over in a very inhospitable spot this one deserves a little extra TLC, hence time with a wide-toothed dog comb. Anemanthele is a likeable chameleon, in a dry sunny spot the orange tints are sharpest, in damp shade foliage is more olive-green. In either extreme flowering seems to be restricted. Come summer I move first-year seedlings into a shady spot in the nursery area, second-year seedlings are grown on in a shadier nursery bed.

C.rubra yard

Imagine hundreds drifting down a sunny slope ….

Brian Skeys also grows grasses, among them beautiful Chionochloa rubra. Thanks to a top-tip from him I’ve recently discovered an inspirational planting of this easy-going grass in Devon. Googling Chinonchloa rubra along with The Garden House will transport you to designer Sophie Dixon’s oh so tempting images of what can be achieved planting this grass en masse. Alas, I don’t have an extensive sheltered, sunny slope for such an ambitious planting here, a late summer sortee to Buckland Monachorum will have to do. Meanwhile, I shall enjoy the small group of zero maintainance grasses planted in the sun trap of the yard.


Replacing the Vine Pergola


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The shady vine pergola is my favourite place to sit in the back garden.

Pergola June 2014

Pergola June

Or, I should say, it was until recently.

Pergola storm

Storm Jake hit us on the first Wednesday in March causing the pergola to sink to its knees. This was a wild wolf of a wind, it huffed and puffed in gusts well in excess of 50 mph throughout the day, I hardly dared venture out. Little by little the pergola sank neatly to one end until it came to rest on the two big pots of Chionochloa conspicua sitting on the steps behind it. Ever the hero in a gardening crisis, Hitesh helped me prop things up when he returned home from work that evening and we sorted out the tangled mess of metal and woody top growth the following weekend.

Further storm damage March

As it turned out this was to be the first of two rounds with the pergola on dark and stormy nights. Precisely a week later another storm howled through the garden casting the now freestanding corners aside. From the bedroom window the patio looked like a bowling alley.

Parasol propping pergola up 2015

Admittedly, the pretty pergola’s demise has been on the cards for a while. Last year we added a parasol to help support the weakening central boss of the pagoda style roof and kept our fingers crossed that it would see the summer out. It worked a treat, kept the rain off and bought us time. In the late autumn 2015 a local metalworker was found to supply a more robust replacement by Easter 2016 – in time to salvage the climbers before they came into leaf.

Spring early summer pergola table

All things considered, we are far from saddened or surprised. The powder-coated tubular steel structure had given nearly ten years’ sterling service. Designed to support the weight of a flimsy canvass cover, not to be heavily draped with unruly vines, it did remarkably well. Thanks to the shade their large leaves cast, this was our haven on an otherwise inhospitable southerly facing sun-baked terrace.


At the end of the second year, when the canopy with which it came showed signs of deteriorating beyond repair, two sets of grape vines and actinidias were planted to succeed the cover. As the vigorous vines grew, the shade grew denser. To my delight with the shade came caps of moss shortly followed by wild orchids, their lance-shaped, spotted leaves were just peeping through in mid-March. That was when the apologetic metal worker got back to me to say the order couldn’t be filled until Whitsun … at the earliest.

To avoid playing skittles throughout the spring we cancelled the order and hit the garden centres.

New pergola match 2016

Newly installed pergola, March 2016

It took three of us a full day to install the new one. The calibre of the metalwork is very similar to the old one, with a gauge of 1mm (where 3mm would be optimum). Kits like this that are all about convenience and cost-effectiveness, they’re manufactured to be boxed, shipped, then loaded into cars at the garden centre. Everything is configured into boot-friendly lengths and sizes – inevitably, rot sets in where lengths are joined together on assembly. In their defence, manufacturers do recommend dismantling metal pergolas at the end of the season. However, going through the specifications for a bespoke frame suggested other ways to prolong a shop-bought pergola’s life. These include light welds to weak spots such as fixture plates and bolt heads, plus, a cap of lead flashing at the apex where the roof struts meet and are bolted together. Ideally, sanding back the paintwork followed by repainting it using a zinc based primer, then topcoat would better protect against rust. With all this in mind, and much of it yet to do, I was rather bemused by the inclusion of a nail polish sized pot of touch-up paint.

Autumn colour vine pergola 2015

Funnily enough, the new canopy is of a much higher quality fabric than the original. Of course, that makes it heavier too, perhaps at least equal in weight to the vines. Given time and a bit of retraining the mature vines will recover the roof. Meanwhile, we’ll use a parasol to shade the table and consign the superior canopy to the store cupboard.

Actinidia leaf buds unfurling March 2016

Actinidia Kolomikta April 2016

Remarkably, all but one of the two pot grown Actinidia deliciosa ‘Jenny’ has survived. Hope is on the horizon.




Wordless Wednesday : Spot the difference

Bringing In the Sheaves


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A couple of week’s ago we were glued to the telly, eyes agog, watching the nation’s favourite gardener wading about knee deep in a mass of grassy leaf litter.

Monty Don grass border

Bless you Monty, for reminding me of “jobs you can be getting on with this weekend”.

Grasses are very low maintenance plants yet what needs doing, needs doing in good time. Monty was right to remind me to pick up the pace. Faced with three mass plantings containing hundreds of grasses one solution is to bring in a couple of helpers armed with power tools and to stock up on chocolate biscuits. Each year we get a few steps closer to getting the job done as quickly, neatly, and efficiently as possible.

The meadow : Deschampsia cespitosa and Molinia caerulea subsp.arundinacea

Meadow March

Meadow : deschampsia mid-March

The little meadow has just had its first birthday. As expected Deschampsia cespitosa* is looking a little more urchin-like than it did last year. There’s no sign of the molinia, as the only truly deciduous native grass we grow in UK gardens it collapses in a heap in the run-up to Christmas, then likes a long lie-in until soil temperatures rise. Knowing this, there were two plans. Plan A was to treat it to a severe haircut once we’d cleared the spent molinia. Plan B was to leave the remains of the deschampsia to see how it stood over the winter months. Curiousity got the better of me, through the later part of the winter I watched how the remains of the light and airy deschampsia fared as weekly storms swept through the garden.

Ollie strimming meadow

Strimming the meadow mid-February

In mid-February they looked like a pile of Pick-Up Sticks, so as soon as we had a break in the weather, out came the strimmer. Deschampsia is a native semi-evergreen grass, it was already in active growth. A 5″ cut was as low as seemed sensible. The stubborn thatch held at the base of the plant ducked below the strimmer blades.

Deschampsia rough grass February 2016

Frosted deschampsia planted in rough grass February 2016

In comparison, a test patch of deschampsia planted in turf under the walnut trees looked emerald green in February. These were strimmed to ground level back in late November along with the rough grass. As a result they have recovered well and are now showing as much neater, tufty mounds.

Pot in the remains of the remain mid Fenduary

The meadow just before it was cut in February : Molinia is the straw coloured one, front right

All things considered, I think it best to stick to Plan A : to strim them sooner rather than later. Weeding may be easier too, goodness knows what’s lurking beneath the thatchy mats. Although a combination of tall forms of molinia underplanted with airy deschampsia works brilliantly throughout the spring, summer and autumn, being blitzed by the winter Breacon Blasts proves too much for airy stems.

For total staying power through to early spring I depend on fail-safe cultivars of Calamagrostis and Miscanthus sinensis, they look so good in their late winter finery that I sigh when the time comes to cut them down.

The terrace : Calamagrostis xacutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ and ‘Overdam’

Cutting back Calamagrostis February 2016

Cutting Calamagrostis in mid-Febrary it showed green growth

Three weeks ago it was the terrace’s turn. After a bit of deliberation, two extra pairs of hands armed with snippers helped me cut back the banks of calamagrostis. Even though the job was done by hand it only took until coffee time. The hedge cutter’s heavy duty blades chewed up the fine dried flowering stalks and spat them everywhere. Investing in a set of handy, lightweight rechargeable electric clippers would be a good idea, they’d work better on the fine, brittle stems. I’m told a saw-edged grass hook does a good job too.

Calamagrostis regrowth mid March

Lily checking the re growth mid-March

Now that the grassy screen is gone Lily is missing her games of hide-and-seek with the voles.

Phlomis seed head and bleached grass

I’m missing the combination of Phlomis fruiticosa seed heads against the feather reed grass.

The miscanthus hedges : Miscanthus sinensis ‘Malepartus’ and ‘Starlight’

Luckily for me, Miscanthus is a warm season sleepyhead, slumbering until light levels and soil temperatures rise. All the better for me, I can leave cutting it back for even longer.


Background tall hedge of Miscanthus ‘Malepartus’, foreground dwarf hedge M.’Starlight’

When the day came to cut the miscanthus down I was out bright and early to tie up two hundred-odd stands of tall stems of Miscanthus ‘Malepartus’ into tepees. On such a beautiful morning I knew I was in for a final treat. The hazy sunlight filtering through the trees set the fluffy plumes alight like a row of flaming torches.

Heavy duty hedge cutters are the perfect solution for cutting tall stands of stout-caned grasses. In a couple of hours the miscanthus hedge was cleared and cut into mulch sized lengths (the sheaves were laid across the log saw horse). The results were a neat buzz cut, very little debris to clear from the crowns, plus two builder’s bags full of straw.

There’s a 19 second video (January 2015) which shows how the McBrides at Sussex Prairies clear their vast mass plantings which were designed to be razed by fire. (I hope the link will play.)This method is explained by Pauline in her post ‘A Burning Question’. The motto of their garden which is set in several acres of former farmland is “Daring to Disturb the Universe”. The big question for me is, dare I disturb the neighbours? 😉

*Deschampsia cespitosa is a prolific self-seeder, it’s a beautiful, short-lived grass. In time I  may replace it with divisions of Seslaria autumnalis that I’m growing-on in nursery beds. At this time of year the two semi-evergreen grasses look very similar and can be strimmed in the same way. In the first meadow image there is one Seslaria on the left hand corner.

Chionochloa : A Case of Mistaken Identity


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New Zealand Snow Tussock grasses are among the most beautiful evergreen grasses, especially in winter. Yet these grasses are rarely seen for sale in the UK and it seems that growing them from seed can be a bit of a lottery.

“I see again the upland wilds, stern, rugged, bleak and bare;
The strong winds sweep o’er hill sides steep
And the tussocks toss in the icy air,
Silver and gold in the changing light,
Gold and silver far-up on height
Of the mountain wild and bare.”

David McKee Wright (1869-1928) was an Irish-born journalist, on his arrival in New Zealand he worked on two farming stations in South Island’s Otago region. This extract from his nostalgic poem The Open Country recalls the magestic sight of vast, wild colonies of these grasses. Clearly, he was badly smitten.

Wild colony of c. rubra

Chionochloa rubra : Ricke Darke The Encyclopedia of Grasses for Livable Landscapes (Timber Press, 2007)

Just gazing at jaw-dropping images such as the one above, I fell for their charms.

Chionochloa rubra in gravel

Chionochloa rubra ‘red’ leaved form March 2016 (bought as 2 litre plants from Pan Global Plants, 2011)

My much more modest version, a group of five down in the yard, have yet to reach square-metre maturity. I wrote about them last year in a post Easy Evergreen Grasses. At that time I grew two snow tussock grasses, one red and one green leaved form.

Chionochloa conspicua in large pots

Chionochloa (green leaved form) March 2016

These magnificent two-metre tall specimens were a generous gift from a friend, they’d been grown from NZ seed supplied as Chionochloa flavicans. Even in late winter their flowers are stunning.

Throughout the course of 2015 it became apparent that they may in fact be an entirely different species of chionochloa, the alternative green leaved species being flavescens or conspicua. Perhaps there was a clue in the specific epithet itself?

Chionochloa conspicua, Metcalf

Chionochloa conspicua subsp.conspicua, Metcalf (1998)

Conspicua possesses the most conspicuously showy flowers. In February, a seriously grassy minded friend lent me an excellent handbook, Lawrie Metcalf’s The Cultivation of Native New Zealand Grasses (Godwit, 1998). As well as containing good quality plates of mature specimens, it’s packed full of useful information about lots of NZ grasses many of which are widely known in the UK. It’s a shame that the second edition of 2008 is unavailable in the UK.

These are the other two green leaved forms. At a glance they look less similar to the ones gracing my patio steps, and, the closer you look, the greater the differences between them.

Allan Cunningham (1791-1839) botanist and plant hunter

Allan Cunningham (1791-1839) Botanist and plant hunter

Metcalf’s botanically detailed observations plus line drawings have been very helpful, he describes two subspecies of conspicua, one of which is named ‘cunninghamii’.

Hairy leaf sheath

The nitty gritty : hairy ligules?

Metcalf states that Chionochloa conspicua subsp.conspicua is distinguished from C.c.subsp.cunninghamii “by the basal leaf-sheaths being rather flattened and silky-hairy, while those of the latter are more rounded and smooth.”. This was exciting news to me.

Especially as I bumped into a lovely one bearing a proper (if broken) label in a bona fide planstwoman’s garden back in December. I wrote a post about my visit to this garden, Pinetum Park and Pine Lodge Gardens here. What I thought, pre Metcalf and the all important hairy ligules, was that the flowers looked different from those I had at home. The panicles were more upright and the flowering spikelet airier … the leaves looked broader too.

All of this might seem a bit dry and dusty, but it raises some important questions for an amateur collector like me. Who’s say-so or what information can I trust? I assume trusting Metcalf is a safe bet, he is pre-eminent in the world of hebes in particular and an authority on New Zealand flora in general. His outstanding contribution to horticulture is internationally recognised : he was awarded the prestigious RHS Veitch Gold Medal of Honour in 1991. Then, in 2010, he was appointed as a Companion of the Queen’s Service Order (QSO) for his community service in posts such as Assistant Director of Christchurch Botanic gardens. Ever helpful, Wikipedia has a link for an NZ government page which explains the symbolism of the modern QSO badge : inscribed above the native Manuka flower is the commendation ‘For Service – Mō Nga Mahi Nui’ ; it’s suspended on a ribbon in traditional Maori colours (black, white and red); and, while the stepped pattern refers to the steps of service it’s also happens to be a common Maori motif for the steps to heaven.

Chionochloa conspicua

Rechristened : Chionochloa conspicua (possibly) subsp.conspicua March 2016

I’ve really enjoyed my winter reading odyssey, I’ve come across lots of interesting stuff along the way. Based on Metcalf’s observations, I’m updating last year’s post to Chionchloa conspicua. Armed with a hand lense, sleuthing for botanical clues in my own plants was fun. However, on a fine spring day watching the way the remains of last year’s airy plumes nod in the warm breeze and catch the light remains the greater pleasure.

By way of a postscript : a good range of chioncohloa is available from Jelitto Seeds and Plant World Seeds.

With thanks to Tawapou Coastal Natives for the image of Lawrie Metcalf, here is a link to their post ‘A Visit from Lawrie Metcalf’, 1st September 2015.

The story of the big blue cedar


Until this week I had been putting off a couple of winter jobs in the front garden, partly because a photographer was working in the garden on a last minute winter set, and, partly because I wasn’t quite ready to say my goodbyes. The first was to start cutting back the mass plantings of grasses, starting with the terraces in front of the house; and, the second, to have the ailing blue cedar felled to the ground.

Grasses terrace February 2nd 2016

This journal entry is about how this particular tree came to be the focal point of the front garden. The blue cedar is the second, tallest, and rather gaunt looking conifer from the left shown in the image above.

Aerial view of garden 1970

In 1970, when the house was a commune, the cedar was tucked away in the right hand side of this arc of conifers that ringed the north end of the house. Possibly it’s behind the one cloaked with a rambling rose. Perhaps they were intended as a shelter belt. If so, they were planted very close to the house.

Aerial view fraintbgarden 2010

By the time we moved here in 2006 only four of them remained. On the advice of the surveyor the tallest (a conical shaped green cedar) was felled, leaving the stump to the left. At the time the photo above was taken in 2010, the blue cedar sat behind a billowing Scots Pine in the top right hand corner of the frame. Perhaps the pine had sheltered it from the northerly valley winds, which regularly hit 50mph, as well as the harsh winters of 2010-11.

Rough sketch for front garden 2011

In the summer of 2011 we started drawing up plans to remodel the front garden, starting with the rocky barren slope in front of the house. One of the first things we considered was which of the trees we’d build the design around. We also had to consider which of those had either outgrown their space or were on their last legs. The very first teatime sketch of the slope in front of the house shows the blue cedar (green pin) at the midpoint of concentric terraces, with the diseased pine to be deleted.

Structural plan 2011

Plotting each and every tree, slope, and sightline etcetera on a structural plan led to curving parallel stone walls that echo the contours of the valley hillside. The position of the cedar is marked by an eggcup, the dashed line shows the all important extent of its dripline. From the scribbled jottings on this enlarged section of my dog-eared plan I can see I was jumping ahead, noting ideas for the fun bit – planting, including nearly a dozen small ornamental trees to replace those that had been lost.

The resulting garden plan

To my mind’s eye, the late summer colour plan looked ‘right’ with the statuesque blue green tree as the centrepiece.

The new terraces 2012

February 2012

Six months later, the ground work was completed and the new terraces, which taper to ground level just beyond the dripline of the tree, were ready for planting. This image is not flattering to the tree, taken at this angle it shows that the cedar’s shape had suffered, its ‘skirts’ had been lifted leaving 3 metres of bare trunk. Planted as it was so close to the drive, lower side branches had been snapped off by successive passing builders’ lorries or removals vans. Branches on the opposing side were lopped off to balance the shape. A knowing visitor once wryly observed ‘such is the fate of a parkland specimen in a modest sized English country garden’.

Blue cedar July

The tree at its bluest and most beautiful best July 2013

Once the areas around the tree were planted up the tree sat more comfortably in its new surroundings. Personally, I liked the shock of the vibrant blue rising above the technicolour summer ‘prairie’ planting, and, I liked the way this jolly blue giant arched its long limbs in greeting across the garden. One way or the other, the cedar worked its way into practically every image, often boldly so. But sometimes the effect was more subtle, perhaps a feathery bow fringing the roofline of the house, or, extending like a finger across either a path or the planting below.

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Then, midway through 2014, the tree turned an anaemic looking green colour before shedding abnormal quantities of rusty coloured needles. The advice was to monitor it for a year and in following it closely in its decline I came to appreciate the not so blue cedar all the more, knowing that if we lost this particular tree the garden would never be quite the same again. Even sadly defoliated, minus its lush blue mantle and brittle limbs on show, the tree in its entirety still possessed a certain graceful charm.

Blue cedar stump 2016

So, the decision to fell a 50′ tall tree, that must have taken nearly as many years to grow, wasn’t taken lightly. Short of leaving it to die back further, and then perhaps turn it into a totem pole, we felt we had no option but to call in the best tree gang we could find. They were brilliant, so gently was the framework dismantled that to my amazement not one cyclamen nestling among its roots was damaged in the process.

Grasses terrace 2016 minus cedar

This is the same view from the apple barn steps as in the opening image, I take a shot of the garden from here at least once a month for my records. This is the first in which the cedar doesn’t feature, a red trug sits on its stump as a marker. The terrace of grasses, rudbeckia and nepeta has been cleared too, revealing the cheerful mix of dogwoods, birches and luzulus. Just as I was studying the gap left by the missing cedar, we had some good news : the photographer’s set has been accepted by a magazine for publication in late winter 2016. I shall be looking out for a glimpse of the blue cedar among the images that the editorial team select.








The plight of the honey bee


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Thursday was such a blissfully warm, sunny and still day that, for the first time this year, I had my lunch outside. I always count this as an important milestone on the road to spring and it’s nice to have company to help celebrate its passing. This year, the company was very special : honey bees!

Mass of crocus tommasinanus

Conditions were perfect for the bees too, they’d come out to gather, what is I’m told, up to half their body weight in pollen and nectar from the swathe of crocus tommasinanus that have taken over the lawn between both sets of gates. Whoever planted them did so a long time ago, as they have spread throughout the front garden.

To my delight, these cheerful purple ‘tommies’ that are so beloved by bees pop up everywhere. Like most gardeners, I’m concerned about the plight of our pollinators and keen on growing as many insect friendly flowers as possible, be they wild or cultivated. I think it’s marvellous that more and more people are becoming beekeepers – including one of my brothers. His enthusiasm and yearly pot of ‘happy bee’ honey was infectious and for a while we considered keeping bees of our own, after all, the surrounding wild flower meadows and the flowering perennials, shrubs and trees in the garden are perfect for many beneficial insects. Through our friends and our local garden society we found out that grants are available to help prospective beekeepers train and set up hives – I’d even sourced a fetching lavender coloured bee suit with matching headgear. We were all set to go!

What stopped us was the discovery that we already had two colonies of ‘wild’ bees in cavities in the disused outbuildings. This was pointed out to us on our very first NGS open day by a visitor who also happened to be an experienced beekeeper. He suggested that we might have the bees moved into hives, or, if they weren’t in our way leave them to their own devices and monitor them discretely. I had a go at videoing them earlier in the week in slow motion, it seems to have reverted to real time. As this is the first time I’ve tried to include one in my garden journal, I have no idea if the clip above will play back when clicked to view.

Crocus tommasinanus and bee

We learned a lot from this visitor as well as the local expert with whom he put us in touch. Colonies of this sort are usually feral, having swarmed from hives. Colonies of the truly wild, native black bee of the sort tended to by Queenie in Flora Thompson’s Larkrise to Candleford are extremely rare, perhaps even extinct in the UK. This is not only because of a century of various bee diseases but, more significantly, because bees are outbreeders, the queen mates with a large number of drones in flight. As different races of Apis mellifera mellifera have been introduced into the UK from various parts of Europe since the 1830s, the chances of maintaining a ‘pure’ colony of native bees is slight.

Varroa mite

Wikipedia : varroa mite feeding on bee

All this aside, feral colonies, which may help in the international campaign to bolster the decline of healthy bee populations, are in jeopardy too. In 2014 Dr Catherine Thompson was set to publish her study of such colonies, she showed that they were often infected with the Varroa Virus caused by the Varroa destructor mite, as these are disease burdens prevalent among untreated managed colonies she deduced that they had been transported with the bees when they swarmed from captivity. The inference of her research is that beekeepers have a great responsibility for ensuring the health of colonies of bees and, by extension, feral bees too. Dr Thomson estimated that a badly infected feral colony of bees would be unlikely to survive for more than three years.

Bee collecting pollen/ nectar from crocus

Varroa mites cause Deformed Wing Virus in bees which affects their ability to gather supplies for the nest. Once infected, its effects are more virulent in colonies that are either managed but untreated or feral than it is in managed but treated colonies. Apparently, these tiny bees have to beat their wings at a mind boggling rate, something like 200 beats a second to sustain flight. Not only do they beat them, they twist them too creating a propellor motion – hence their amazing manoeuvrability. If this sort of endeavour fascinates you there’s a fabulous slow motion clip of a minute or so from the BBC Hive Alive series here.

With all this in mind we watch our bees with interest and concern, keeping our fingers crossed that the colonies will make it through another year. We can’t be sure when the bees arrived, we can only speculate. There was a swarm in an apple tree back in 2010 which had moved on by the time a local Swarm Collector arrived, perhaps that accounts for one of them. The building they occupy has been unused for a generation, so it would be nice to think a colony has lived there unnoticed for a long time. Who knows, maybe our dear friend Chris Williams who came to shoot insects in the garden last summer caught Barn House bees in action? Above is a selection of his beautiful images.

This weekend bees in general are topical in Saturday’s The Telegraph, with Val Bourne’s ‘Give a bee a home’ and it seems this an appropriately timed article. In the Weekend section, ‘Confessions of a Valetine’s Veteran’ we’re reminded that he was the patron saint of bees too.

For further information :

The British Beekeeping Association (BBKA)

The Natural Beekeeping Trust 




Pennisetum alopecuroides : a late winter friend


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On the last Friday in January yet another storm tore through the valley leaving us with an extended power cut that made it hard to get on with much indoors. As a result I dipped into a well-indexed kindle edition of Dear Friend and Gardener a personal exchange of letters written over a two-year period between Beth Chatto and Christopher Lloyd that was first published in 1998. For an excellent review of the republished, newly illustrated edition of 2013 written by The Anxious Gardener, please click here.

The flower heads of the grass are almost black, dark, caterpillar like heads, with closely set, green seed cases enclosed in long, almost black hairs which protrude like cats’ whiskers, forming a filmy brush or tail more than 5cm (2″) across.

These are Beth Chatto’s observations of a late flowering grassy beauty, Pennisetum alopecuroides viridescens recorded in a letter to her ‘pen pal’ dated 22nd September 1997. Although the letters were written at the publisher’s behest, they contain a wealth of fascinating information, often about plants.

P.a. Black Beauty flower head

P.a.Black Beauty

Since planting an equally visually stunning cousin Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Black Beauty’, shown above, in my own garden, I have also become smitten with these knee to thigh high grasses. In 2014, I added ‘Hameln’, ‘Dark Desire’ and ‘Red Head’ to my collection, so far they are doing well whether grown in the ground or in a large pot.

‘Red Head’, shown above, is one of the most distinctively coloured forms, typically, it fades as it ages, in this case to maroon. Others range from creamy buff to almost purplish black. I’ve yet to meet either the smallest of the cultivars, ‘Little Bunny’, or, the tallest of all Pennisetum alopecuroides, the straight species plant. This year, in mid autumn, I plan to collect and then sow seed while it’s still fresh, just for the fun of seeing how the seedlings vary. Seedaholic gives excellent advice while Marchant’s Hardy Plants’ garden notes advise marking seedlings as such, for instance, as Pennisietum alopecuroides ex ‘Black Beauty’.

Pennisetum viridescens


The image above is of P.a. viridescens taken at Ouldolf Field last September where it is used to striking effect as repeated accents at the front and corners of borders. The garden is still quite young, perhaps the more characteristic flowing fountain shape is yet to develop. Had I dipped into Dear Friend and Gardener beforehand I’d have looked for the “silhouettes … repeated as shadows” falling on the grassy paths, as they do in autumn in the The Beth Chatto Gardens in Essex. Here it’s planted at the edges of a damp pondside border, mimicking conditions in which it often grows in the wild. In her garden, this pennisetum was also the key plant used to stabilise a reclaimed area of wasteland, combined with white rosebay willowherb and variegated ground elder which suggests a robust nature.

Pennisetum alopecuroides black beauty autumn

P.a. ‘Black Beauty’ October 2015

Visits to Ouldolf Field last autumn sent me scurrying home to scrutinise a close relative, Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Black Beauty’ planted in 2010 at the base of Prunus serrula. Last October saw an especially dazzling show of sharp orange/green leaf colour against the dusky flowers. Since the introduction of ‘Hameln’ many modern cultivars have been developed for improved hardiness and a freer flowering habit. In my garden I grow them in an open sunny spot in moist but well drained soil – builder’s rubble strewn infill augmented with sterile loam, for the first two years they were kept well watered along with the newly planted sapling.

Pennisteum and alliums

P.a.’Black Beauty’ early June 2015

By early June 2015, the mature clumps looked luxuriant, the uniform mid green colour complements the tree and, as they have a neat, compact habit, was a good choice for lining this narrow path. If well spaced, here at a metre apart on centre, clumps work well with Allium ‘Christophii’ and Geranium ‘Rozanne’. Pennisetum alopecuroides is a warm season grass, originating from Eastern Asia and Australia they may remain evergreen in warmer climates (and self seed). In more temperate gardens : they become dormant in winter, can be slow to get going in spring, and, in my garden, are the last to flower. That said, they’ve survived temperatures of -10 in the winters of 2010-12 plus prolonged spells of winter wet. Buying a good sized plant makes sense to me, they settle in more quickly. I have heard some sorry tales about smaller slips that establish poorly in open ground, if at all, which makes me think that growing young seedlings on under cover through winter would be a good idea.

By late winter, thoughts of how to raise my own plants from seed must be set aside, despite the fluffy appearance of the dried flowerheads the seed is spent. Beth Chatto’s touching phrase “soft brown like sandalwood now” (January of the same year) describes the finale of desaturated colour, shortly followed by a guide to their winter party tricks. She reminded me to brave the weather and early starts while there’s time to catch them in action.

Pennisetum alopecuroides is special in having three sets of bristles that excel at snatching hints of moisture from thin air causing the the flowers to plump up. Following either autumn dew or, in this case, overnight winter mist delivered last Sunday morning, the minuscule beads are suspended along the elongated bristles.

P.a.black beauty mist

Close to … all I can ever manage is an ‘Oh me, oh my!’.

Hoar frosted seed head

Black Beauty mid January 2016

Hoar frost etched the second set of inner bristles and bleaching them into a mass of sparkling wands for two days solid in mid January leaving me spellbound.

All-grass borders are generally evidence of a shortage of original thought.

Although Christopher LLoyd, the maestro of Great Dixter Gardensfamous succession planting,  didn’t reply specifically to Beth Chatto’s descriptions of her “good grass” he did make a few pithy comments about the uses of grasses in general. This one in particular raised a smile from me. I think we’ve benefitted from their combined wisdom and come a long way since then ….






Touches of Frost


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As a preface to this entry to my garden journal I should say that on Monday I cancelled the ‘pop-up’ NGS day planned to take place on 14th February. Quite simply : the parking field is waterlogged. This is such a shame because despite being tested by wind and rain for two months solid, the grasses are in great shape.

Sky on a frosty morning

Hard on the heels of a disappointing decision two consecutive days of frost and dazzling sunshine created a very welcome change of scene in the garden. Tuesday and Wednesday started with wonderful predawn skies to the south.

January sunrise

Promising first light was followed by flamingo-pink sunrises to the east.

Sunrise grasses terrace in frost

An early morning moment spent watching the low angled winter sun filtering though the Thujas and illuminating the terrace in front of the house is my idea of wintry heaven.

Winter garden catching first rays

Transitory rays of sunlight struck two young birches in the winter garden behind the grasses, all too soon they’d moved on. One lone anemanthele in the row lining the drive was momentarily set ablaze.

Miscanthus hedge frost

At first glance the indefatigable miscanthus hedge looked untouched.

Miscanthus rudbeckia frost

At its knees a hint of frost lingered here long enough to add a lacy fringe to the seedheads.

Among the crystals riming them the melt had begun, the droplets refracted the light daring me to capture them. The fuzzy results reveal a myriad of glistening rainbows.

Dogs paddock January

Sodden turf strewn with long shadows in the deserted dogs’ paddock made me shiver and sigh, beneath a crispy coating the clay will stay saturated like a sponge for weeks to come.

Split echinacea cone

Atop tangled stems, echinacea cones become more curiously ragged by the day revealing secrets of their structure. Does this one look like a miniature prehistoric monster?

Frosty shows like this have been in pitifully short supply this winter making their brief midweek cameos extra special.

View of frosted planting from back door

For two whole days the view through the north-facing boot room door remained heavily frosted until Thursday morning, reminding me to reach for the hat I hate wearing.

Patio with shadows cast by reflected light

In contrast to the east side of the house, here tall windows bounced light around to cast cunning shadows across the lower terrace. They had me outfoxed for a while – standing square-on and looking across the patio the sun was to my right, not left.

Pennisetum fairy tails frost January

In the back garden I put my winter blinkers on, in its smaller areas some of the planting is patchy. Among the things I enjoyed most this week were the pennisetums, especially the leafy mound of ‘Fairy Tails’ on sentry duty at the entrance to the orchard.

Hakonechloa January sunshine

But, the most memorable sight was the hakonechloa glorying in sunshine beneath the yellow bamboo canes. As with many grasses, slightly damp dried leaves show richer colours, even on a dull day.


In February over a hundred gardens across the country are opening for the NGS to take part in its very first Snowdrop Festival, including several on our muddy doorstep in Gloucestershire. Now we know why so few amateurs open their gardens in late winter, we’ll make the most of those who are brave enough to fling wide their gates in celebration of the heralds of Spring. And, we’ll really appreciate being able to park our car on firm ground.



Happy New Year



With the holidays coming to an end and rain lashing at the windows, we spent a cosy morning listening to The Archers Omnibus while cooking a cauldron of chicken curry. Big questions for the never-ending radio soap opera this new year are : will David Archer loose the dairy herd and what are the Grundys up to now?

View of rainy garden from kitchen

An occasional glance through the rain spattered windows should have been enough for me to feel contentedly occupied with the pile of vegetables I’d been assigned to peel and chop ….

Raindrops on window pane and terrace of grasses

After all, at least at first glance, the wet and woolly garden outside was not an inspiring sight ….

Close of a gang of rain drops

I am not, nor will I ever be a good photographer : that these droplets were in focus at all was a sheer fluke. What I inadvertently captured reminded me of something I’ve come across in blogs this year – to look closer and closer still.

Raindrops reflected inversion of grasses terrace

To my delight, not only is the garden reflected in the lenses of the rain drops but it appears upside down. This is one of the many marvellous things I wouldn’t have thought to look for had I not started blogging this year. In this case, it was an exquisite image in a post  ‘The upside down world in raindrops’ by Frogend Dweller back in November 2015.

Close up of rain drop

So, I’d just like to say thank you to the bloggers I’ve enjoyed following this year, it has been such fun, I’ve learned a lot and seen some astonishing things along the way. Never mind The Archers, I can’t wait to see what you all get up to in 2016.



Pinetum Park and Pine Lodge in winter


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While on a last minute pre Christmas break in Cornwall last week we visited the nearby Pinetum Park and Pine Lodge Gardens, a series of ten themed gardens set in thirty acres on the outskirts of St Austell. The gardens are family run and were painstakingly developed over more than thirty years from what was a disused tin and copper mining site. Of particular interest to us was the winter garden, said to be one of the most extensive in the West Country.

Pinetum Park view of Japanese garden across lake

On our way to the winter garden we wandered through the Japanese garden, even at this gloomy time of year it is full of welcome green foliage and contrasting textures.

Although it might not be the best time of year for many of the flowering shrubs or trees, or, for that matter, many gardens, I particularly liked the ground cover and edging provided by a mixture of evergreen grass-like plants : carex, ophiopogon and flowering liriope. The paths feature reclaimed granite insets that looked good glistening with damp and trails of mind-your-own-business, it was interesting to see how this had been used instead of grass (or moss) to create a bright green carpet in shady areas. If it can be contained like this it makes a fine alternative to a lawn, especially in tricky sites. Many of the plants throughout the gardens were grown from seed or cuttings collected by the Clemo’s from their travels, this particular garden was inspired by visits to Kyoto Botannic Garden where they were befriended by a gardener who then sent them material to propagate. Over the years, Shirley Clemo earnt such renown as a distinguished plantswoman that she was awarded the MBE.

The lake on an overcast day

By the time we reached the lake, the light levels were threatening to plummet to a low, smudging the woods and water into a murky blur. We hurried on.

Boundary to the winter garden

The circular winter garden is shown clearly on the map, there are two entrances both at the far side as you approach it from the lake. We avoided the lower sodden path bordering the woods and walked anti-clockwise around the fenced boundary, wondering what lay beyond.