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April - May - June 2006

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Banished to the style doldrums for far too long, begonias are in need of an image update. The rex and cane-stemmed types have some of the most stunning foliage around – striped, streaked, spotted and swirled in gloriously unlikely colour combinations. Leave the red and dark green varieties on your granny’s windowsill – they have ‘Victoriana’ stamped all over them. Instead, choose spiky leaves in deep purples subtly dusted with silver or speckled with pink; gorgeous grey-greens with contrasting undersides, or razzmatazz painted types that go by names like ‘Fireworks’, ‘Fireflush’ or ‘Moondust’.

    Anyone who has ever admired Dibleys Nurseries’ display at one of the flower shows will know what I mean.  Their stand is banked up with begonias five or six deep – a swirling collection of contrasting patterns and textures as complex and colourful as a Kashmiri paisley shawl. The leaves – most of which are an elongated heart shape rather like the Indian ‘boteh’shape of paisley designs – are the main attraction. The names are a clue to their appeal: ‘Vesuvius’ and ‘Sal’s Comet’ are decked out in red-hot shades of crimson, raspberry and purple; others, like ‘Silver Cloud’, ‘Silver Lace’ and ‘Silver Jewel’ have filigree patterns in shimmering silver-grey; while ‘Raspberry Swirl’,‘Red Robin’ (blood red and matt black), and ‘Stained Glass’ (ruby and silver with filigree patterning) speak for themselves. I am particularly susceptible to those whose leaves have a subtly contrasting underside: ‘Frosty’ and ‘Looking Glass’ are silver-patterned with bright red underneath; while one of my favourites, B. hatacoa ‘Silver’, is a dwarf type with narrow lance-like leaves, iridescent silver on top and brownish-red beneath. Some of the most extraordinary of all are the swirl- or spiral-leaf types, whose leaves curl around themselves in an unusual spiral at the centre. ‘L’Escargot’, ‘Rocheart’ and ‘Princess of Hanover’ are among the most striking examples.

     It is tempting to emulate Dibley’s example and group begonias in jungly combinations at home – indeed, I’ve seen a bank of them, on custom-built tiered staging, make a leafy screen before a north-facing bay window (begonias do not like full sunlight). The problem is that this rarely works in longterm practice: not only can the contrasting colours and leaf-shapes compete for space and attention, but different light levels are required to keep red, green and silver leaved cultivars looking their best. Far better to go for the largest plants you can find, and let them thrive in splendid  isolation. Some of the spotted varieties are stunning: try B. maculata ‘Wightii’, with long narrow dark green leaves and well-spaced silver spots (plus the added attraction of pretty white flowers); ‘Flo Belle Moseley’ with its darkest purple foliage speckled pale pink and rose-pink flowers, and that old favourite Begonia strigillosa and its hybrids such as ‘Norah Bedson’ – lime green leaves with tan-brown leopard spots. If you do plant them in company, alternate the richly-patterned varieties with plainer leaves such as ‘De Elegans’ (dark puckered leaves with lime-green veins) or ‘Dewdrop’ (frosted silver). Most begonias are easy enough to look after as houseplants, provided you keep the compost moist enough but never over-water (see below). Check individual requirements when you buy, to make sure you have the right conditions, and that the plants you want to grow together are compatible.

    Many begonias benefit from being placed in a modern environment to rid them of old-fashioned associations. Large maple-leaf types such as ‘Little Brother Montgomery’ (silvery green with a pinkish edge) are particularly well-suited to individual displays. When I planted the spectacular ‘Connie Boswell’ (silver and dark green with lilac-pink shading) in a metre-tall white pot from Ikea and placed it in a corner of the landing, every visitor stopped to admire it, and most were surprised to hear it was a begonia.  When selecting containers, steer clear of fussy shapes and styles: a plain, neutral coloured pot will show off those crazy patterns to best advantage. Place your begonia against an uncluttered white background to make the most of the shadows. Keep the mood clean and contemporary. And wait for your friends to ask, ‘What is that amazing plant?’ The rehabilitation process has begun.

A recently published book Begonias: Cultivation, Identification and Natural History by Mark C Tebbitt (Timber Press £25), published in association with Brooklyn Botanic Garden, is an enthusiast’s guide to the genus, with inspirational photographs of begonias growing in the wild in Ecuador, Vietnam, or the mountains of Kauai, Hawaii, used as a location for the filming of Jurassic Park. It also shows begonias cascading from hanging baskets, making a leafy column as they climb the upright supports of a greenhouse, and a splendid display of two contrasting alternating varieties colonising a summer window box.
Be careful when handling the plants - their fleshy stems are brittle and can snap off easily. A good general purpose compost is fine for begonias, plus one to four parts vermiculite if you need to improve the drainage. Don’t firm the soil in around the stem with your fingers as you usually would – begonias prefer a looser mix. Place the pot on a plate, saucer or tray of gravel or pebbles – this increases the humidity around the plants (they hate dry air) and prevents the roots sitting in water (which they also deplore). Always water begonias from below, to avoid splashing their sensitive leaves, and allow the top inch of compost to dry out before watering again.  During the growing season (spring to autumn) feed fortnightly with a good general purpose fertilizer. Plants can be kept outside all summer if you choose  - though not in full sun or excessive shade. In winter most need a minimum temperature of 10 degrees C (50F) and need to be brought under cover.

DIBLEYS NURSERY, Llanelidan, Ruthin LL15 2LG, North Wales (01978 790677/ www. dibleys.com.  is one of the best sources for mail order begonias. Ring for their catalogue or visit the website. They are offering Sunday Telegraph readers a collection of five different begonias: ‘Rocheart’, ‘L'Escargot’, ‘Vesuvius’, ‘Little Brother Montgomery’ and ‘Sutherlandii’, all
supplied as 8-10cm (3-4ins) jumbo plug plants, with full growing instructions, for £9.95 inc p&p.



My little daughter Mary, now nearly two, has been touchingly fond of flowers since she was tiny, craning her head to sniff passing blossoms while I was still carrying her in a sling. So I’m pleased to report a budding interest in gardening. Actually, I think it is more the thrill of digging about in the dirt with her miniature trowel and fork, but this is all part of it, and much to be encouraged if she is to enjoy accompanying me out in the garden as I work. Indeed, so eager was I not to dampen her enthusiasm that I gritted my teeth when greeted with her first attempt at landscaping: a large tub of tulips by the front door had had its emerging leaves damaged or decapitated by a decorative mulch of scallop shells.

    The solution, of course, is to give Mary her own little patch – and the scallops are part of a growing collection of ingredients (including silver bells and cockle shells) for a ‘Mary Mary Quite Contrary’ garden around a wooden wendy house, with its own white picket fence. Within a few weeks, however, we hope to start work on a big kitchen extension and other building work and, having fallen victim once before to what builders can do to a fledgling garden, I am postponing any ambitious plans till the work has finished. In the meantime, I think I have found the perfect stopgap.

    A few weeks ago I took possession of four salvaged wooden apple crates, each around 1.4 metres square and just under a metre deep. You might be able to find some if you live in an apple growing area, but mine came from the mail order company Plantstuff.com (who are opening their first London shop this month, see below for details). Realizing they would make fantastic containers, Plantstuff’s founder, Jonny Norton, has been buying them up from fruit farmers, and marketing them as ‘instant raised beds’ at £79 each (two for £128). With sturdy zinc brackets holding the planked wood together and the name of the grower stencilled on the side, they are stylish as well as practical, and can be arranged to make a miniature formal potager, with grass or gravel pathways in between.

    I had planned on using them for growing salad greens and strawberries in (I’m hoping the extra height will deter the slugs and snails), but it struck me that one would make a perfect first garden for my daughter. I’ve noticed that children seem happiest standing when playing with sand or water, and are more likely to concentrate for longer than when crouching or squatting on the ground. The flowers and vegetables she sows will grow at her eye level, where she can get a really good look at them, and she’s much less likely to step on tiny seedlings than if they were growing in the ground.

   I decided to treat the timber first, with a non-toxic wood primer from Auro, the ecological paint manufacturers, and to line the bases with black plastic with slits cut in it, to further prolong their life and prevent the water from running straight through. An inch or two of shingle in the bottom to ensure even drainage, and it was just a case of filling with huge quantities of topsoil mixed with well-rotted manure (each bed took ten bags, at £3 each which is worth remembering if you are ordering a few – for adult gardening you can stop 6 inches or so from the top, and the sides will provide extra shelter). Then it was time to sow – and in Mary’s garden we are sticking to fast growers such as radishes (the splendid red-and-white ‘French Breakfast’, nasturtiums, a single courgette plant and some pretty multi-stem dwarf sunflowers. I might put a few purple-podded dwarf beans in, too, when the soil has had a chance to warm up. The important thing seems to be to have a range of colourful shapes and sizes. She can just reach with her little watering can to water around the edges.

    The plan is proving such a success that I am also offering her an end of one of the raised zinc planters I had made to measure for our little back garden in London, where I grow spinach, herbs, salad and tomatoes in the summer months. Perhaps she will have her own pet tomato plant and we can have a competition to see whose bears the most fruit (this would be fun with a family with several children). At the current rate of interest she will be a lot more attentive than I with mine. Children of this age really take time to look at things, and her little eyes are at exactly the right level to spot greenfly, caterpillars or any other pest we might have to attend to. Raised beds often feature in gardens for the elderly, as there is no need to lean down, and the plants can even be tended from a wheelchair. But they can be equally as useful for those at the opposite end of the age spectrum.



We escaped the cold spring by fleeing to the south of France, which was filled with sunshine and spring blossom. White-flowering cherry trees were bursting their buds, and there was mimosa everywhere, billowing out of front gardens and flanking the spectacular coastal “corniche” roads. Our sun-starved spirits soared at glimpses of the bright blue Mediterranean, framed by boughs of the fluffy yellow blossom. And when we arrived at the house we were staying in, we were greeted by a large jug of the mimosa – like a splash of golden sunshine – on the kitchen table. Sadly the cut flowers do not last, the fuzzy yellow pom-poms fading to hard little balls in only a few days. All the more reason for planting a tree, as the blossom lasts far longer on the branch.

Mimosa is the regional flower of Provence, but it can grow quite happily in England. Specimens of the pretty evergreen Acacia dealbata, with its feathery silver-blue foliage, can be in flower as early as February in southern city gardens or areas warmed by the gulf-stream, though those further north may just be coming into bloom now. Slightly less hardy – one for southern plots only - is A. baileyana, which has silvery-grey leaves. There are hundreds of species of mimosa, most of which are native to Australia, where many grow to 80 feet (24 metres) or more. A. longifolia has long narrow leaves, while the curious A. pravissima (or ovens wattle) has drooping branches with spiky triangular olive-green leaves borne all along the stems.  All are fast-growing, and can reach at least 12 metres in the right spot – but in this country they tend to suffer from wind damage, leaning with age and even getting blown over, and rarely reach their full potential. This shouldn’t prevent us planting them, though – the promise of those puffy yellow clouds each spring is well worth the risk. Just make sure they are planted in a sheltered position – ideally with some protection from a south or west-facing wall.

Even in colder districts, a warm wall can make all the difference to the survival of marginally hardy plants – such as abutilons, Fremontodendron  ‘California Glory’ and the tiny yellow pea-like flowers of Coronilla valentina subsp. glauca, all of which I also say growing in France, as well as mimosa. If you were lucky or sensible enough to buy a house with a garden facing south or south-west, such a wall may well be one of the boundaries of a terrace off one of the living rooms, where the sight – and delicate scent – of mimosa flowers can best be appreciated, even on colder days. Later in the year, the warm still air there will quickly become saturated with scent, so plant some jasmine (Jasminum officinale) or evergreen star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) at the same time, to perfume the air on warm summer evenings.

Warm walls absorb the heat of the sun, acting rather like night-storage heaters and conferring a good few degrees’ frost protection to plants grown against them.  And because these walls are not reached by the first rays of morning light, plants are allowed to warm up slowly, avoiding the damage caused by sudden thawing of frozen leaves and flower buds.  The only thing to remember is that the soil is likely to be shadowed from the rain at the base, so plant even climbers at least 45cm away from the wall, in large holes with plenty of moisture-retaining well-rotted compost or farmyard manure added. Luckily, mimosas can tolerate hot dry sights and even sandy soil.

Another tree I saw in France which also thrives in a sheltered position in the UK is Cercis siliquastrum, also known as the Judas Tree and ‘Love Tree’ (the latter on account of its heart-shaped bronzy leaves) - and one of my favourite plants for a small garden. Tiny violet and magenta pea-like flowers are borne all along the bare branches in late spring, so that from a distance the whole tree seems to be outlined in purple. At only 10.5 metres high when mature, it won’t overpower a small space, and flowers best in sunshine away from harsh winds. I have one in my front garden in London, and look forward to the tree’s short-lived moment of glory each year. They are usually in bloom in England from late April onwards – a good month later than in Provence, where avenues of flowering Judas trees lining the streets of hilltop villages are a sight I won’t forget.


07 May 2006 - ASPARAGUS TIPS

One of the many joys of having a larger garden in the country now is the possibility of an asparagus bed. It must be satisfying to the point of smugness to step out into the garden and return with a trug-full of fresh tender spears to steam up and eat straight away. Like sweet corn and new potatoes, asparagus tastes heaps better when cut within the hour of eating. I have only experienced this a few times, at the houses of friends with the luck to inherit or foresight to establish their own asparagus beds, but the unique rich taste – far more intense than that of the shop-bought stuff – made me vow to grow it one day. Asparagus is expensive, even in season, and the price of organically grown spears is astronomical, should you actually manage to find any. It also needs little attention, once established, to provide a splendid annual seasonal treat.

So why aren’t we all growing it? One reason is the space required for a decent crop – you’d need around 30 crowns (or roots) to be able to pick a reasonable bundle of spears at any one time, spaced at least 18 inches (45cm) apart. (Which, as asparagus is traditionally grown in 4ft (1.2m)-wide beds, would mean a pretty large patch permanently dedicated to a crop that will yield for only a few weeks every year. I’ve heard about people growing asparagus in old bathtubs, but have yet to see the results). Another deterrent is the agonising gap between planting and picking. It’s an average of three years before you’ll get any sizeable harvest, and though the wait can be cut by purchasing older crowns (those on sale are usually between one and three years old), these are much more tricky to establish. With one-year crowns, the advice tends to be to no cutting at all in the first year, and only a very few spears in the second. I think the psychological term for this is delayed gratification. And in this hell-for-leather, have-it-all-now age we live in, few have the patience to wait.

The third reason that deters people from growing their own asparagus is the belief that it is hard to grow. Well, it is and it isn’t. The difficulty lies in the initial investment of time and energy to create the correct growing conditions. Get this right, and the rest should be a doddle. The books are filled with daunting diagrams showing cross-sections of beds, and advise incorporating everything from rubble, grit, leaf-mould, bonfire ash, sand and crushed cockle shells to improve soil drainage. (Asparagus will not tolerate water-logging, but neither does it like getting dry.) The simplest option is a well-dug bed with plenty of organic matter, sand or grit dug in, and a shallow ridge down the length of it over which the spidery roots of the crowns can be draped.  A 4ft (1.2m)-wide bed will take two rows, so dig out a pair of trenches, 12 inches (30cm)-wide and 8in (20cm) deep, along each bed and hump up a shallow ridge along the middle. The crowns should be 18 inches (45cm) apart and 4 inches (10cm) beneath the surface when filled in, and will need to be watered throughout the first year. From then on, the only care needed is to keep the patch clear of weeds and mulch with well-rotted compost or manure in late winter. The real difficulty will be restraining yourself from cropping that first and second year.

The ideal planting time for asparagus crowns is supposed to be March or April, but given the cold spring, you can get away with it now. Indeed, there is an argument for later planting, as the crowns are more prone to rot in damp cold soil. Though the most of the stuff stocked by supermarkets throughout the year is grown in Spain and xxx, the many of the best varieties for growing here come from colder climes such as northern Italy, where asparagus is planted in May and rarely if ever eaten out of season. The excellent Seeds of Italy (0208 427 5020/ www. seedsofitaly.com) has the purple ‘Violetta d’Allbenga’, an heirloom variety that turns green when cooked but is deemed far superior in flavour to standard green varieties, and the wild asparagus ‘Scaber Montina’, whose thin tender shoots are much-sought by foodies and top chefs for serving with eggs and black summer truffles (both £11.99 for ten crowns). As the spears are naturally thin, you can harvest them earlier – Seeds of Italy say to pick one spear in three the same year of planting, two the next year and all the third.

The other possibility is growing asparagus from seed – it sounds as if it would mean an even longer wait, but The Organic Gardening Catalogue (0845 1301304/ www. OrganicCatalogue.com) has a variety called ‘Jersey Knight F1’ which, it claims, produces up to four times as many spears as other varieties (large, succulent and with purple-tinged tips, if you’re tempted) and may be ready to crop in the second year (10 seeds for £2.80). ‘Guelph Millenium’ (bred in Northern Canada for hardiness) and ‘Pacific Purple’ (fat sweet purple spears that can be eaten raw) are among the other desirable varieties that can be sown now (from Plants of Distinction’s lovely ‘Simply Vegetables’ catalogue 01449 721720/ www. plantsofdistinction.co.uk; £2.25 for 10-12 seeds). Harvest may seem aeons away, as you sow the seed in six-inch pots, but it will be here before you know it, and your patience will pay off.



We arrived back from France to find that spring had finally sprung in our absence. Our seaside garden was full of bluebells, grape hyacinths and cranesbill geraniums, while the country lanes were billowing with blossom. There is one ancient narrow lane which is particularly beautiful in May. Its steep grassy banks are thick with primroses and wood anemones, while above them the stiff branches of blackthorn, laden with flowers, poke woolly white fingers into bright blue skies. There are places where the tree canopy knits overhead, and the flowers glow against a near-vertical backdrop of ivy, moss and hart’s tongue and shuttlecock  ferns. In others, the newly-emerging leaves – bright lime shreds of hazel and the yellow-green fuzz of oak and its spidery catkins – are backlit by the morning sun, framing a view of fields of young lambs and the distant haze of the sea. And then, rounding a corner, the sudden thrill of a carpet of bluebells beneath a copse of young birch. Though we all have a picture of bluebells in our mind’s eye, nothing can dim the impact of that tide of cobalt blue that floods our countryside for a few short weeks each year. In another ten days it may all be gone, buried beneath  fast-growing grass and nettles and a frothing foam of cow parsley.

On a walk along this lane one quiet early evening, it struck me that I have the means to re-create some of this woodland magic in our garden. At the far end of our country plot, where the garden peters out into the shingle field beyond, is an unruly tangle of elder and young damson trees which I keep meaning to thin out, to afford us a view of the sunset from the house. Why not turn it into a miniature spring woodland? The leaves of the elder – its silver trunk bent double by the south-west wind – are late to unfold, letting through enough light for the delicate spring flowers to bloom. I’d keep it all very naturalistic – nothing but snowdrops to start, followed by primroses, wood anemones and celandines, with ragged robin, bluebells and cow parsley re-located from other parts of the garden given over to building work. The soil is too dry for more showy woodland plants such as trilliums (of which, more in a future column) and erythroniums or dog’s-tooth violets – and anyway, they would look out of place in the natural scheme I’m after. The fanciest I might allow are a few cultivated forms of wood anemone, to sit alongside the wild white Anemone nemorosa. A. n. ‘Virescens’ has curious green flowers, flecked with white, while A. apennina and A. blanda are blue with cream stamens. A scattering of our native violet, V. odorata, would be lovely, too. None of these require rich soil, and should be happy in this sheltered corner, particularly if I infill the slight hollow with some of the topsoil dug out for foundations. I might even plant a hazel or two – mainly for their nuts in autumn, but also for the fresh lime green of those shred-like  early leaves.

The view from this spot is stunning in the evening, especially when a sea mist or frette hovers over the shingle, with the sun sinking pink and gold behind. At the moment the only place to sit and admire it is on the remains of a rotten old boat, its hull pierced by nettles and brambles. But perhaps the boat could be fashioned into a bench beneath the elder, with wind chimes and bird feeders hanging from the branches. 

Incidentally, when I wrote about elders last autumn I said I’d chickened out of cutting some down after having read that it brought bad luck. I’ve since learned of yet another possible reason to keep them. I’d written about making elderberry syrup as a useful remedy against winter coughs and colds, but had been thwarted in my efforts to make more than a couple of small bottles by the birds making off with the best of the berries. I thought little of it at the time, though the bushes are usually heavy with fruit until November, when it starts to shrivel on the branch. Since then, however, a medical herbalist friend told me that herbalists all over the country have reported far lower than average harvests of elderberries, thanks to birds eating unprecedented amounts. Scientists are suggesting that the anti-viral properties in elder berries might make them effective in the fight against avian flu.  Might the clever birds be on to something?


21 May 2006 - HEALING HERBS

Move over cutting and kitchen gardens; the most fashionable thing to be growing this year is herbs. It seems that it isn’t enough to have a garden that just looks lovely; we now want our plots to be useful, too. And herbs tick all the right boxes: they can be used for cooking, for infusing into teas, and as home-grown cures for a variety of common ailments. Most herbs are far less bother to look after than fruit and vegetables, and in these days of hosepipe bans, the fact that the majority thrive in sunny dry soil is an added advantage. Garden designers are frequently being asked to include a herb garden in designs for celebrity clients – the most recent of which is Jamie Oliver, who commissioned Jekka McVicar of Jekka’s Herb Farm to create a wild herb garden and border at his house in Essex.

    From its beginnings on her kitchen table in a Bristol semi-, Jekka’s Herb Farm now has the largest collection of herbs in the UK – upwards of 500 different types - and in 1995 was the first organic herb farm to win a gold medal at the Chelsea Flower Show. Eleven years and nine more gold medals later, McVicar is back at this year’s show, (which starts this Tuesday), with a display entitled ‘Herbs of our past and our future’, exploring the current revival of the time-worn tradition of using herbs for culinary and medicinal purposes. As proof of her point, herbs are everywhere at this year’s show. In addition to her own stand, McVicar has also supplied all the herbs for the Saga garden – designed by Cleve West around an unusual herb he saw growing at her nursery. Herbs weave their way through many of the display gardens – look out for ‘The 4Head Garden of Dreams’, which has a meadow of scented herbs in muted colours and the ‘Living on the Edge’ roof garden, which features aromatic herbs used for cooking and others grown for their healing and relaxing properties. And don’t forget to visit The Cottage Herbery stand, celebrating 30 years of growing herbs organically and without peat.

Wonderful though it might be to have your own professionally designed herb garden, this really isn’t necessary. Herbs do look lovely growing together in a formal display, and this certainly makes gathering them easier, but they can just as well be dotted among ornamental plants in a bed or border, or planted in pots on a terrace or balcony. Before I had a garden I had a row of potted herbs on my kitchen windowsill – all I need to do when cooking was push up the sash window and snip. These days I have a large raised bed (xx by xx) in my London back garden devoted to herbs. Many, like the thymes, chives, marjoram, sage and lovage, survive year after year, but others need freshening up or replacing – and I’ve just added French tarragon, dill and hyssop (good as an infusion for colds and catarrh) to the mix. This bed is in full sun and the plants in it can survive infrequent watering. Thirstier herbs such as chervil, curly and flat-leaf parsley are planted in with the salad leaves in the other, slightly shadier raised bed, which gets watered more, and the mint and lemon balm have their own large pots to prevent them taking over. I’ve also found basil best suited to growing in pots, as the drainage is better, and it sulks in cold wet soil if the weather turns. I used to grow my own basil from seed, but now confess to buying a couple of large plants from the supermarket (look closely and you’ll see they are just lots of smaller seedlings), planting them out with a little more room, and keeping them warm and well-trimmed all summer.

If you’re wondering which herbs to grow, alongside the usual culinary suspects, how about those that can be made into teas?  I have always loved crushing fresh mint in hot water and honey as the Moroccans do (and in white rum and soda with a spoonful of sugar as a Cuban ‘mojito’), but have recently started doing the same with lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), which has relaxing properties as well as a lovely citrus scent and taste. Fennel seed (one teaspoon infused for five minutes in a cup of hot water) is good for indigestion (and for breast-feeding mothers), while just four fresh flowers of chamomile infused for eight minutes are a cheap alternative to a herbal tea bag to induce peaceful sleep. Herbs can have powerful medicinal properties – 80 per cent of prescribed medicines are still plant-derived – so do seek medical advice if you wish to use herbs regularly, and particularly if you are pregnant or on existing medication.


28 May 2006 - WISTERIA

When I lived in Rome many years ago, the sign that spring had come was the slow spread of mauve – a smattering at first, building into a relentless ravishing cascade – across the city’s ancient stone ruins. The first wisteria blooms would appear in early April, and the perfume, intensified by sun-baked walls, was incredible. Rome is romantic enough anyway, but draped in a canopy of fragrant mauve blossom it seemed enchanted.

Though it blooms a good month or two later in Britain, wisteria is just at home in our milder climate, where it performs a similar transformation act on buildings both ancient and modern. The old Kentish farmhouse where I was born has an ancient gnarled wisteria growing around the door that still pokes fragrant flowering fingers through the open bedroom windows in summer. I have seen it covering the entire façade of a six-storey Georgian townhouse, the blossoms cleverly trained to frame each of fourteen sash windows, while it can also soften the lines of a stark modern extension or minimalist pergola. There are few buildings that would not be enhanced by the addition of a well-trained wisteria.

If you’re thinking of planting one, it is worth researching the different varieties. When I bought mine six years ago, knowing no better, I opted for standard Wisteria sinensis – the species most commonly grown in this country, and by no means the less beautiful for that, with its sweetly-scented soft lilac-blue flowers borne in 10in (25cm) long racemes. This is the Chinese wisteria, grown in the Far East for thousands of years, but only introduced here in 1816. But had I done my homework first, I would have sought out its Japanese relative, W. floribunda which, as its name suggests, has particularly prolific flowers, hanging in elegant pendant tassels a good 12-15 in (30-42cm) long. If you see a wisteria that fair takes your breath away by the sheer graceful length of its blossoms, the chances are it will be W. floribunda or one of its cultivars. Another species also in cultivation, though rarely seen outside of botanical collections, is W. brachybotrys, with shorter but broader racemes of flowers borne in great profusion all the length of its long shoots.  There are white forms of all three, with W. sinensis ‘Reindeer’, W. floribunda ‘Alba’ (or ‘Shiro-Noda’) and W. brachybotrys ‘Shiro-Kapitan’particularly recommended, and named cultivars in subtly different shades of mauve, from lilac-tinged white and bi-coloured pink to deepest amethyst.

Now is the time to buy wisteria, when plants are in full bloom and you can ensure that the flowers are the shade and shape you desire.  The cheapest wisterias are small and raised from seed and will take many years to flower. For a plant that will have such a great impact on your garden – and life – it is worth splashing out on a larger, more established specimen. Not only can you be sure of the variety; you’ll get flowers straight away and can begin training it into the shape you want. If growing it up a wall, dig the hole as far from the building as possible, as the gnarled woody trunks of older plants take up a lot of space and the roots can be intrusive. Some neighbours of mine had the bright idea of planting their Wisteria floribunda near the gate in their small front garden and leading the shoots up and over a metal arch and on to the house where it romps away over the roof of the bay window and up into the eaves. I have mine about a metre from the front of the house, and have trained it in two directions – up the façade and at right angles along the low wall that divides us from the neighbours, where I have placed a length of trellis to create a pleasant leafy screen.

When training a young plant, remove all shoots not needed for the infrastructure and tie in all others to horizontal wires strung from vine eyes no closer than 60 cm apart. Then it is a matter of pruning, which with wisteria should be carried out twice a year. Cut back all the long shoots to 8in (18cm) in July or August and then in November, after leaf fall, further reduce those not needed to extend cover to 2-3 buds. Apart from regular pruning, wisterias need little maintenance, and are remarkably free from pests and diseases. The rewards are immense – not just the heavenly blossom in late spring and summer, but also the delicate chartreuse foliage in early spring, the clear yellow leaves in autumn, and the splendid silver grey trunks, fat and twisted into each other like risen bread in older specimens, that provide sculptural interest right the way through winter.



London is one of the greenest cities in the world, with more than sixty-seven square miles of public parks and gardens. They have been particularly beautiful this spring, with the cooler weather keeping blossom, wisteria and foliage fresh for far longer than usual. But the capital also has more than its share of secret gardens, hidden away on top of buildings, behind high walls or in the enclosed courtyards of museums, libraries, its ancient Inns of Court and religious, educational and medical institutions. Walking through the city, one sometimes gets a glimpse of these – a fringe of green on a rooftop, a flash of flowers through a closing doorway, a secluded bench beneath a lilac tree. Some of the most tantalisingly lovely are the many private garden squares – particularly prevalent in Mayfair, Belgravia and the leafier parts of west London – which were created as part of the great estates in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Enclosed by high railings and shrubby planting to ensure the privacy of the lucky residents who live in surrounding flats and houses, they are subject to envy and curiosity from non-key-holders, who can only peer through the gates and dream.

For two days a year, however, the gates of more than 140 of the capital’s secret hidden gardens are thrown open to the public during Open Garden Squares Weekend, organized by the London Parks and Gardens Trust. Some of the prettiest of the keyholders’ gardens are participating, including Kensington Square W8 which, begun in 1693, is the earliest of the capital’s garden squares, lovely Manchester and Fitzroy Squares in W1, Edwardes Square W8, with its meandering paths, rose pergola and Grecian-style gardener’s lodge, and Eccleston Square, which is home to specialist collections of ceanothus, camellias and climbing and shrub roses. Some, like the gardens in Belgrave, Eaton and Cheshire Squares in SW1 are rather grand, while others such as Inverna Court and Sunningdale Gardens, both in W8, are small communal affairs – the latter is shared by just nine houses and holds the trophy for Community Effort from the Brighter Kensington and Chelsea scheme. Some of the gardens have recently been revamped, including Portman Square W1 and Canonbury Square in Islington N1, financed by this year’s sponsor, Loire Valley Wines, who are also providing free wine tastings at some of the gardens.

Other private gardens worth visiting as part of the scheme are the lovely Salters’ Gardens in EC2, designed in 1981 by David Hicks for the Worshipful Company of Salters as a romantic modern knot garden with pergolas, fountains and roses in a sunken secluded site – and the residents’ gardens behind St George’s Fields near Marble Arch W2 – a skilfully landscaped woodland garden that complements the ziggurat pyramid-style 1970s architecture.

We tend to see these private squares and secret gardens as the preserve of the privileged, but some of London’s most inspiring gardens – many open under the scheme this year for the first time – are actually the result of restricted spaces or challenging situations. Garden Barge Square in SE1 is a “floating garden square” created on the decks of several of the old lighter barges moored near Tower Bridge, while the exuberantly-planted Culpeper Community Gardens in N1 were created on a vacant lot for local people and groups without access to a garden of their own.

Newly open this year are the award-winning gardens at Lighthouse-West W11, a centre for those with HIV/AIDS, where tender sub-tropical plants such as brugmansias and bananas flourish in the urban microclimate, and St Joseph’s Hospice in Hackney E8, where seven distinct areas have been designed for recreation or contemplation by patients, visitors and staff alike. Perhaps most unusual of all is the unprecedented opportunity to visit the gardens created by the inmates of Holloway and Wormwood Scrubs Prisons - advance booking is essential for the prison gardens (see below) and security checks will be carried out.

For more details of Loire Valley Open Garden Squares Weekend, on 10-11 June 2006,  visit www.opensquares.org.  Tickets to as many squares as you can visit cost £7.50 on the day from any of the participating squares or £5 in advance by ringing 0208 347 3230 or visiting capitalgardens.co.uk. Capital Gardens are giving away a £5 voucher to be spent at any of their garden centres with all tickets booked by 6pm on Monday 5 June. To book a visit to the prison gardens ring 0207 973 3483.

For a free booklet on the history of London’s garden squares sned a stamped SAE marked ‘History of Squares’  to The London Parks and Gardens Trust, Duck Island Cottage, St James Park, London SWA 2BJ (londongardenstrust.org).


11 Jun 2006 - SUMMER POPPIES

Having a weekend house which we visit only at intervals means there are often rather splendid surprises when we arrive. Last weekend it was a blaze of bright oriental poppies to one side of the front door. The luminous orange blooms were like a beacon; we abandoned our bags on the path as I helped my little daughter gently part the crumpled silk petals to reveal the hidden beauties within: a central sculptural seed pod framed by a fringe of quivering dark stamens – the “big, lewd, bold eye, in its sooty lashes”  of Ted Hughes’s poem – and four velvety black blotches that stain through to the outer side. Few plants have the flamboyant impact of an oriental poppy in full bloom.  Though ours are the bright searing orange often frowned on by “good taste” gardeners, they look spectacular if you take the trouble to team them with the right companions. I suspect that it is only familiarity that has bred such contempt – if these were as rare and difficult to grow as the tricksy blue Himalayan poppies (of which, more later), they would probably be as valued as more subtle, sought-after shades. Papaver orientale can now now be found in a range of colours from white through shell- and salmon-pink to lilac, deep rose and crimson. One of the most covetable – understandably enough – is the fashionable faded pink called ‘Patty’s Plum’, discovered as a rogue seedling on a compost heap. But other new varieties are vying to steal its place in the style-stakes  - ‘Tiffany’ is a greyish maroon-tinged pink with an elegant white picotee edge, ‘Black and White’ a pure white flower with purply-black blotches, while ‘Watermelon’ has petals the mouthwatering bright pink of watermelon flesh. To my mind, though, few modern discoveries can beat the beauty of the old classic ‘Beauty of Livermere’ with its intense deep scarlet blooms as big as a man’s hand.

Anticipation is part of the game with oriental poppies. All parts of the plant are beautiful in my opinion, from the deep-cut foliage, furred with fine silvery hairs, to the sculptural bosses  that remain once the petals have fallen. Large hairy buds can form as early as November in a warm year, and I remember watching and waiting as they swelled in the warmth of my childhood garden, hell-bent on witnessing the longed-for moment when they would split to spill out the petals, as crinkled and crumpled as a screwed-up silk dress. The moment always eluded me, but a few clever photographers have captured it, thanks either to patience or time-release technology, and the image never fails to amaze and enchant.

Though oriental poppies often feature in mixed summer borders along with bearded iris and flowering shrubs, the sumptuous flowers are best set off by a strong simple backdrop. Billowing clouds of silver and grey-leaved plants such as artemesia, santolina and Stachys byzantina  look good, with bronze-leafed fennel or cerinthes for height. Or in a modern take on a meadow garden, why not plant them among frothy cow parsley and marguerite daisies?  This would look fantastic in bold swathes around a contemporary building. And it could all be mown down in late June or July without harming the poppies, which would come up every year. For such flamboyant plants, oriental poppies have a useful habit of disappearing once the show is over. The seed heads look pretty, but the fading foliage will soon be covered by neighbouring plants. All they need is reasonable soil in full sun to keep happy.

Slightly later in the summer it is the turn of the ‘opium’ poppies – Papaver somniferum, with their frilly, glaucous grey-green leaves and jewel-bright petals. Unlike P. orientale, which is a long-lived perennial, these are fly-by-night annuals – though they self-seed so readily that once sown, you may well have them for life. Single and double flowers now come in every colour from white through pink, mauve and crimson to deepest blackcurrant purple, and the pepper-pot seed heads, which bleach to palest straw, are almost as decorative. Sow in situ in full sun in fertile, well-drained soil by scattering seed and raking gently in. The seedlings can then be thinned out and moved as necessary.

And then there is the Himalayan blue poppy, Meconopsis grandis – which I have only ever seen truly happy on the west coast of Scotland, where the moist lime-free soil and humid climate are similar enough to its mountain home for its liking.  Few gardeners fail to be captivated by its electric blue blooms – but we shouldn’t let our thirst for rarity and fashionability blind us to the more commonplace flowers. After all, what can be more beautiful than a meadow full of the field poppy, P. rhoeas, in June?



The irony did not go un-noticed. No sooner had we got our heads round hose-pipe bans and water shortages than the heavens opened. At one of the wettest Chelsea Flower Shows on record, most of the visitors admiring the drought-proof themed gardens and water-saving gadgets were doing so from beneath an umbrella, and the gardens themselves looked pretty wet and weather-beaten by the end of the week. Those showers, though, were really just a drop in the ocean required to return our groundwater and reservoirs to healthy levels. Apparently no fewer than 30 consecutive days of heavy rain are needed – so we should all continue to do our bit to reduce water usage in our homes and gardens.

Some gardeners have questioned the hosepipe bans as nothing but a media-friendly fix that hits private and commercial gardeners hard while letting off the real culprits – the water companies with their thousands of miles of aging, leaking pipes – scot free. But we should all be using less water anyway – according to a fact-filled new book Water: Use less – save more by Jon Clift and Amanda Cuthbert (Green Books £3.99), we use 70 per cent more water than we did 40 years ago, and about 95 per cent of water delivered to our houses disappears down the drain. Garden hoses – and automatic sprinklers in particular – are among the worst culprits. I was shocked to learn that a garden hose left on for an hour can consume as much water as the average family of four uses in a day.

Last year, partly out of laziness and partly as I had read enough about climate change to realize the way things were going, I re-planted the beds in my London front garden as a drought-proof garden. My inspiration, of course, was Beth Chatto’s famous Gravel Garden in East Anglia where, on a sandy dry site with the lowest rainfall in the country, a former car park has been transformed into a stunning garden rich in colour, scent and texture but requiring no watering at all. In her book that charts the creation of the garden (Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden (Frances Lincoln £25)), Mrs Chatto stresses the importance of good soil preparation if you have such a garden in mind, so I broke up all the compacted soil two spades deep and incorporated plenty of moisture-retentive mushroom compost, well-rotted horse manure and garden compost before planting. I added some gravel too, to keep the texture of the soil free-draining and enable the rain to find its way down to the roots.

When it came to planting, I’d already noticed that certain plants had coped better than others with my reluctance to drag heavy watering cans through the house from the tap at the back. Luckily, many of these are among my favourites, and go well with the purple, grey and silver colour scheme. Top of the class is the clumsily-named Convolvulus cneorum – its flowers are fluttery white bells like the bindweed with which it shares the first part of its Latin name, but the leaves are grey with a silverysheen. Many varieties of lavender have also done well, as have rosemary, artemesias, purple sage and small- leafed thymes – their aromatic oils not only smell good, but protect the plants from excessive evaporation. Stachys byzantina or lamb’s ears is another favourite – like many drought-tolerant plants its silvery appearance is due to the presence of tiny silky white hairs on the leaves which keep in moisture and become progressively whiter in a drought. To these I’ve added sedums (both small and large-leaved), which have reserves of moisture in their succulent glaucous leaves, towering verbascums, a few euphorbias, and bearded iris in the sunniest spots. I also planted hundreds of spring bulbs – there is usually enough moisture in the soil for a sprinkling of snowdrops and scillas to do well, and alliums are among the loveliest drought-loving plants in existence. As I write there must be fifty mauve pom-poms of Allium giganteum, A. christophii and ‘Purple Sensation’ in a bed just 21ft by 4ft foot, interspersed with the delicate green-tinged cream and pink bells of nectaroscordums, newly emerged from their pointed papery sheaths.  It’s all looking good despite not having been watered since autumn.

Changing one’s style of gardening is not something that can be done overnight, however, and those of us who love our thirsty roses, dahlias and delphiniums will just have to be careful with the water we have. Installing a water butt is a must (see offer for one that does not mean accommodating large amounts of ugly green plastic), and re-using ‘grey water’ from baths and washing machines also helps. I’ve been trying out a clever but simple device called a ‘Droughtbuster’ that enables you to pump out the water from your bath directly on to the areas of the garden where it is needed (see below). If only we could have those thirty days of rain – but only at night while we’re asleep. Then we’d all be happy.

Droughtbuster – a length of hose supplied with a nifty hand pump and universal connector – uses syphon technology to empty your bath cleanly and easily out of the window and onto the garden. A few squeezes of the hand pump start the process (cutting out the need for any unsavoury sucking) and then atmospheric pressure takes over, emptying the bath in minutes. Attach any standard hosepipe to the connector and the water can be delivered straight away to thirsty shrubs and plants. This should be the motivation to use only ecologically friendly bath products – but a little detergent is a deterrent for aphids. Droughtbuster costs £19.99 including p&p – to order or for further information ring 0870 803 1255 or visit droughtbuster.co.uk.


The heat of midsummer is not often regarded as the ideal time for new planting, but there is one plant which will thrive if given a chance to establish now while the soil is warm. Lavender is a Mediterranean plant, and likes nothing better than to get its feet in well-drained warm earth with a long season ahead of it before the weather turns cold. When lavender fails in this country, it is usually because it has been given the wrong conditions: a heavy soil that becomes damp and cold and compacted in winter is far more likely to kill hardy and even half-hardy varieties than frost. Lavenders also hate a close, airless atmosphere: aim for the sunny, open expanses of a Mediterranean hillside and you won’t go far wrong.

Lavender plants look great in a border, or grown as standards or bushy mounds in pots on a sunny balcony, but if you have the space it is worth considering a lavender hedge. Nothing is more evocative of the long lazy days of summer than fragrant drifts of lavender, buzzing with bees. And if you plant it to flank a path then you’ll have the added sensory pleasures of releasing the perfume whenever you brush past. Lavender oil has calming and relaxing properties, so what could be better to line the path to your front door, or out into the back garden, soothing stressed-out  nerves at the end of a busy day? A lavender hedge complements all types of architecture – like most roses, it has a timeless, classic quality, managing to look modern, traditional and effortlessly stylish all at the same time.

Lavandula angustifolia ‘Hidcote’ is the variety usually recommended for hedges, being hardy and compact, with delightfully deep blue flowers and contrasting grey leaves.  But Downderry Nursery in Hadlow, Kent – one of the most wonderful places to see different varieties of lavender growing in a pretty walled garden – suggests an alternative in ‘Ashdown Forest’. Though its flowers are paler purple, it is chunkier in habit, and thus less likely to grow leggy, and has a stronger scent. A swathe of the same variety looks smart, but if you are tempted to intersperse it with others there’s the ghostly pale ‘Blue Ice’, rich purple ‘Beechwood Blue’, or pale rosy ‘Hidcote Pink’ which looks lovely interplanted with ‘Hidcote’. ‘Loddon Blue’ is an excellent short hedging lavender with mid-purple-blue flowers, while some of the dwarf types such as ‘Nana Alba’ (white with grey-green foliage) or ‘Peter Pan’ (dark imperial purple) would look wonderful as a lower inner or outer hedge, alongside  the taller types.

If you choose to plant a lavender hedge this summer, don’t enrich the soil with manure or fertilizer or the like: too much nitrogen only encourages weak fleshy growth which is susceptible to frost and disease. If your soil is even slightly on the heavy side, you might want to dig in some horticultural grit or gravel to improve the drainage and increase your chances of keeping your lavenders happy through winter. Mail order plants should be unpacked straight away and taken outside: lavender suffers when not given enough air, even for a few days. And when planting, don’t be tempted to tweak out the roots as you might with many other plants: lavender roots resent disturbance, and will soon spread out into the surrounding soil once planted. Plant even quite small plants 15 inches apart for a hedge: they will soon spread to fill the gaps and this spacing should ensure good air circulation.  Though lavenders are pretty drought-tolerant, they don’t like to dry out completely, and are particularly vulnerable during the first two weeks after planting, so keep the rootballs well watered at the beginning. Don’t over-water, though, and if you are thinking of a mulch to conserve moisture and keep down weeds, use 10mm grit rather than bark – not only will this look more in keeping; the bark will acidify the soil and may harbour harmful fungi. Once established,  lavenders are the ultimate low-maintenance plant. Trim hedge plants lightly after flowering and cut back to about five inches high in late March as new growth starts to break from the old wood. This should stop your lavenders getting leggy, though it’s usually necessary to replace the plants in a lavender hedge every eight to ten years.

Downderry Nursery, Pillar Box Lane, Hadlow, Tonbridge, Kent TN11 9SW (01732 810081/ www. downderry-nursery.co.uk.) is open from 1 May to 31 October, Tues-Sun and bank holiday Mondays, 10-5pm.




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