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January - February - March 2006

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The last full moon was on a very clear night, and when I stepped out of doors to admire it, I was struck by the effect of the moonlight on the silver-leafed plants in my garden. The massed foliage of the aptly-named silverbush, Convolvulus cneorum,  which has a subtle metallic gleam by day, seemed to radiate a shimmering silver aura all around it, while the pleated spikes of Astelia chathamica shone like burnished swords. Glaucous grey-green leaves of Melianthus major, their edges neatly serrated as if cut with pinking shears, made ghostly silhouettes against a backdrop of dark ivy, while the delicate marbling on heart-shaped cyclamen leaves was as fine as a filigree brooch. Many of the silver-leaved plants we commonly use in our gardens have their origins in the Mediterranean, which makes us associate them with summer sunshine, but given good drainage and as much light as possible, their splendid year-round foliage makes them a welcome presence in the garden year-round, the striking colour, shape and texture of their foliage contrasting beautifully with the other dark and glossy evergreens. There are even silvery plants that can cast a glow in gloomy, shady corners, as an excellent new book, Elegant Silvers: Striking Plants for Every Garden (Timber Press) can illustrate.

    There is a staggering range of silver-leaved plants to choose from. We may think first of aromatic herbs such as sage, artemisia (wormwood), lavenders and rue, which were planted for medicinal and healing properties long before their aesthetic appeal was appreciated. But there are also the many silvery or glaucous-grey succulent plants – neat rosettes of echeverias, fat fleshy ice-plants and the huge spiny agaves that punctuate the Mediterranean hillsides – variegated silvers such as heucheras, spotted pulmonarias and Japanese painted ferns, as finely-etched as frost on a windowpane, and even silver-leafed palms and conifers. Silver plants can be tiny, like the pincushion mounds of alpines in a rockery, or as huge as the towering blue atlas cedar. Their leaves can be long and thick, small and feathery, curled, cupped or needle-like, soft and velvety like lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina) or hard and leathery like cabagey sea kale (Crambe maritima). The Latin component argentea often denotes a silver-leaved variety, and sometimes a descriptive common or cultivar name gives further clues – ‘Dusty Miller’- the felty, fine-cut Senecio cineraria beloved of Gertrude Jekyll; Heuchera ‘Silver Scrolls’, which has particularly pretty silver-marbled leaves, and Artemisia stelleriana ‘Silver Brocade’ are but three examples. The authors of Elegant Silvers helpfully classify silver plants into three main groups – downy, waxy and variegated – before offering advice on how and where to plant them to best effect, and finish with an impressive directory of the most desirable varieties.

   Plants in the downy and waxy groups are predominantly sun-lovers, covered with a protective layer of white down or grape-like bloom over the plant’s natural green that protects them from extremes of heat (and sometimes wind and cold) as well as imparting their silvery appearance. Artemisias, stachys, verbascums, perovskias and many aromatic herbs are all downy plants, as closer inspection will reveal – and as a general rule of thumb, the hairier the plant, the drier conditions it requires. Waxy silver plants include eryngiums (sea hollies), junipers, spruce and several ornamental grasses, as well as the yuccas, agaves and euphorbias that are further adapted to withstand desert conditions by storing sap in their fleshy leaves or stems. All of the above are useful additions to a drought-resistant garden, as the presence of many of them in Beth Chatto’s famous Gravel Garden in East Anglia can testify. The group that gardeners most commonly forget when considering silver plants is the variegated types – sometimes due to snobbishness, but mostly because silver leaves are so often associated with sun and drought. Yet spotted, streaked and marbled forms of ajugas, asarums, begonias, heucheras, lamiums and pulmonarias are among the many attractive silver-vareigated plants that will thrive in shady corners, and in my opinion often sit more happily in a garden than gold- or yellow-variegated types.

It is for their cool contrasts that silver plants are most appreciated. On a hot day, the shade of a silver tree seems somehow cooler than that of other branches, and a hedge of silvery lavender, or drifts of nepeta or perovskia can provide respite from the hotter colours of a rose garden or buffer the clashing colours in a border. Clouds of artemisia, helichrysum or santolina, either left wild and woolly or clipped into neat low mounds, create a soft misty effect that intensifies the depths of green in other neighbouring plants and brings out pinks and violets particularly well – just as a rainy sky can make colours can appear brighter than full noonday sunshine. And at the end of the day, as the light fails, silver-leaved plants seem to gather in and reflect the last gleams of the sun, giving the garden an otherworldly luminosity. A full moon – and there is one next Saturday night – can only add to the magic.


One of the most stunning sights the English countryside can offer (along with cow parsley in May and sheets of bluebells in June) is bank upon bank of snowdrops, nodding their delicate white heads on a crisp dry winter’s day. Rural churchyards and woodland walks around stately homes are particularly good places to find them (see box below). Snowdrops are not true native plants, and no matter how natural they may look, you’ll usually find evidence of former cultivation nearby.

  This is good news for those, like me, who love snowdrops dearly but do not have space in their gardens for naturalistic swathes of blooms. Even these wild-looking colonies were single clumps once – and a city gardener has to start somewhere. In a small urban plot, the trick is to concentrate them in one key area rather than sprinkle them thinly through the borders.  If you’re lucky enough to have a fine specimen tree – particularly a white-flowering one such as a Magnolia stellata or Prunus subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’that may be in bloom at the same time, a carpet of snowdrops in the grass or soil around it will look beautiful. It’s up to you whether you go for a naturalistic scheme, planting in small clumps and letting them spread of their own accord, or try to confine them to a circular or square-shaped bed. Though traditionally associated with naturalistic plantings, their minimalist form and pure white and green colourscheme  enable snowdrops to look just as good in a modern design. I remember seeing them looking stunning, thickly planted in a foot-wide border around Priscilla and Antonio Carluccio’s London garden some years ago, stylishly complemented by a fringe of strappy black Othiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’grasses.

   Snowdrops look wonderful interwoven through other delicate and diminuitive winter-flowering plants. Springing up through hardy cyclamen in all shades from white and pale pink to cerise and magenta, they create a rich Persian carpet effect, with the pretty marble patterning on the heart-shaped cyclamen leaves only adding to the beauty. They bring a fresh sophistication to clumps of wood anemones (Anemone blanda), and if you want to be really smart, mix them with the pretty, pale-blue-and white-striped scilla, S. mischtchenkoana. For me, though, the perfect combination is snowdrops with hellebores. The snowdrops form smaller clumps with the same overall proportions, and the subtle dusty colours of the hellebores show up so much better among a complement of white. Again, these are combinations often enough found in large country gardens, but there is no reason why you shouldn’t try them in an urban border – or even a large container.

    One of the many joys of container gardening is that you can shunt the pots around as different flowers come into their own. And in winter, when I don’t often venture out even into my tiny garden, it is good to have some things in bloom just outside the french windows, where I can admire them on freezing cold or snowy days. (The great advantage of growing hellebores in tall containers, of course, is that you can actually see their lovely faces without lying flat on the frosty grass.) Dwarf irises are great in containers as well; I have a carpet of the dark blue Iris. histroides ‘George’ around a small potted fig tree just outside my window, and their inky petals, unfolding like tightly furled umbrellas to flutter in the slightest breeze, are a heart-stopping herald of spring. Any of the dwarf reticulata iris will be happy in pots: ‘Pauline’ is deepest burgundy, while ‘Natascha’ is white tinged with blue. And for something more unusual, try the snakeshead or widow’s iris, the velvety black and chartreuse Hermodactylus tuberosus.]

   I can’t be alone in thinking that some of these beauties are wasted outside. Every autumn I plant a few favourite miniature irises and other spring bulbs in tiny pots or old chipped mugs to bring inside the house when just coming into bud. If you succumb to temptation and buy some in bloom at a nursery or next week’s January RHS Flower Show (see box), why not enjoy them indoors in a pretty cache pot before planting outside when the flowers have faded? Snowdrops, of course, are most reliably planted ‘in the green’ rather than grown from bulbs, so whether you beg some from a friend, or buy them potted up, you could always give them a brief sojourn inside. They would be a lovely thing to find in a tiny pot on a bedside table, and I can think of few things more beautiful for a big winter party than a low trough of snowdrops, thickly planted, running the length of the dining table.

RHS Show
Snowdrops, cyclamen, scillas, wood anemones, dwarf iris and other early spring flowering bulbs will be on display and on sale at the next week’s Royal Horticultural Show at The RHS Halls, Greycoat Street (off Vincent Square), London SW1 next Tuesday and Wednesday, 17-18 January, Tues 11am-7pm, Wed 10—5pm, admission £5 Tues, £3 Wed (free to RHS members; ring 0207 821 3000 for membership inquiries).

Snowdrop stockists
Avon Bulbs (01460 242177), Broadleigh Gardens (01823 286231) and Jacques Amand (0208 420 7110) are all good sources of snowdrop bulbs and plants; ring for a mail order catalogue.

Snowdrop Walks are organized in January and February by many gardens and stately homes that are normally only open in summer. Many are listed, with dates and times, telephone numbers and website links in a useful site at www. bellaonline.com. Among the best places to see them are Anglesey Abbey near Cambridge (01223 811200); Benington Lordship near Stevenage, herts (01438 869668); Great Barfield near High Wycombe, Bucsk (01494 536741); Hodsock Priory near Worksop, Notts (01909 591204); Painswick Rococo Gardens near Stroud, Glos (01452 813204) and Walsingham Abbey in Norfolk (01328 820259) – telephone ahead for details and opening times.

Or, to compare the arrival of snowdrops with other gardeners throughout the country, visit gardenbuddies.com.


There are show-stopping winter-flowering shrubs that really get the pulses racing: the scented daphnes, spectacular witchhazels and luminescent wintersweet about which I habitually wax lyrical at this time of year. And then there are the solid performers: the skimmias and trusty viburnums which tend to get taken for granted, but which actually have far greater staying power. No flash-in-the-pan flowers here, breaking your heart with their beauty one day, then gone for another fifty weeks the next; these plants will see you right the way through winter into spring.

   In a mild year, some of the winter-flowering viburnums will begin to bloom in late autumn and continue through the winter, while others have colourful buds during the cold months that burst into flower in spring. One of the most widely planted is the hybrid Viburnum x bodnantense and its varieties, with clusters of tiny trumpet-shaped blossoms, in varying shades of pink, born on naked black stems. ‘Dawn’ has dark pink flowers with purple-pink anthers and a good strong scent – just a few sprigs from a friend’s garden have spread their perfume right through my house - while ‘Charles Lamont’ has bright clear pink blooms all winter, and ‘Deben’s white blossoms are flushed with pink. The parent of these hybrids is Viburnum farreri – less popular now, as its flowers are slightly sparser, and more susceptible to frost, but to my eye its habit is more graceful, with delicately curving branches that look beautiful when brought indoors and arranged in a vase.

    Viburnum tinus and its varieties have no scent to speak of, and their small neat flowers, which open in early spring (or sooner in warm weather) are pretty but unremarkable. What makes it such a useful winter shrub are the tight little buds which range from pink (‘Eve Price’) to crimson (‘Gwenllian’) – at any time from mid-winter onwards these plants will usually have half their flowers fully open or just going over, and the other half in bud or just opening, and the contrast between pink buds, pure white flowers and glossy evergreen foliage is really most attractive. Viburnum tinus is hardy enough to be planted as a hedge, but is also happy in containers where, with a little creative pruning, it can be turned into flowering topiary. I once saw it clipped into a row of neat two-foot cubes – as sculptural as box or bay, but with blooms an added bonus.

    Skimmia japonica is another winter shrub valued for its buds above its flowers – or even the red berries which female plants produce if there is a male plant nearby. At first glance, the clusters of tight red buds – again, set off by dark shiny leaves – do read as tiny berries, but they open into small white flowers in spring. This timing makes them useful among plantings of winter-and spring-flowering bulbs – the red buds bring a richness to the blue and white flowers of early bloomers such as snowdrops, scillas and pushkinianas, but have opened by the time the yellow narcissi arrive, thus avoiding an unsightly clash. If you’re not so keen on the red buds – and I confess that this plant been specified in too many supermarket carparks for my liking - look out for Skimmia x confusa ‘Kew Green’, which has beautiful cream buds. I saw it recently in a stunning piece of planting in the Winter Garden at Anglesey Abbey near Cambridge, along with apricot-berried Cotoneaster salicifolius ‘Rothschildianus’ and underplanted with lemon yellow narcissi and fritillaries.

   The Cornelian cherry, Cornus mas, is another winter plant with interesting buds. From January onwards, the knotty bare branches are covered with what look like olive green dots, but on closer inspection are revealed to be greeny-brown calyces  from which bright yellow petals just beginning to emerge. As the days get longer and infinitesimally warmer, the casings crack further open, and the balls of yellow grow larger and fatter until finally they burst into puffs of starry blossom that create a greenish-yellow haze from a distance. Beth Chatto has it in her woodland garden, underplanted with a carpet of vivid blue Scilla sibirica, which perfectly complements the colour of the blossom.

    Once the buds have burst and flowers faded, these unassuming shrubs retreat into the background for the remainder of the year, the evergreen viburnums and skimmias providing a dense glossy foil for starrier plants and flowers. You can always send a late-flowering clematis such as the pink ‘Comtesse de Bouchard’ looping up the trunk, or an annual climber like the cup and saucer plant, Cobea scandens,  scrambling among the branches. But the chances are you’ll forget all about them for the remainder of the year, till those buds reappear in autumn to remind you of the pleasures yet to come.


I realized I was getting older the other night when I turned down an invitation because I had a previous engagement with some seed catalogues. Call me sad, but I know I’m not alone in enjoying a spot of armchair – or in my case bedside - gardening at this time of year. When it’s too cold or wet to venture outside, and the soil’s too frozen or wet to work if you do, what can be more cosy than to curl up under the covers with a great stack of mail order garden brochures? They have been landing on my doormat since late autumn, gathering steadily in momentum till rarely a day now goes by without another slipping through the letterbox – those from the larger companies garishly illustrated and encased in clear plastic sleeves; those from the smaller family-run firms often little more than a typewritten list in a brown envelope addressed by hand. I save them all up till a suitable clear evening presents itself when, armed with pens, pencils, post-it notes and garden notebooks from previous years, I begin the first of many trawls through their pages. Part of the fun lies in whittling down my initial, impetuous selections of many dozens of plants into a reasonable – and affordable – order. Early on I’m just marking whatever takes my fancy, with scant concern for my soil type and conditions and the limited space available; reality only kicks in the second or third time round. Most years, this has the effect of weeding out practically everything but my faithful old favourites: old-fashioned scented sweet peas, towering fragrant Nicotiana sylvestris,  cerinthes and cosmos and some trailing nasturtiums. Novelty is confined to a dark red or brown sunflower I’ve not seen before, a new colour-mix of cosmos, or a campanula claimed by its breeders to flower for many months on end.

Every year the nurserymen and plant breeders tempt gardeners with their newest and most spectacular creations – rather like fashion designers trying to sell their latest collections.  And every year the majority of their offerings leave me absolutely cold. I’ve never been one to think that newer and bigger and brighter is best, and many of the bizarre new hybrids, with their double frilled blooms and neon colours – often on stems that seem much too short for the huge heads – make me reach once again for the horticultural equivalent of the timeless classics in the wardrobe…. However, this year I have been trying to keep an open mind as I leaf through the catalogues, and have come up with a number of new plants that even the most fuddy-duddy armchair gardeners might be prepared to try.

Top of my list is Cosmos ‘Chocamocha’ – a more compact version of the famously chocolate-scented C. atrosanguineus, with the same rich, dark red-brown flowers and, so the growers claim, an even stronger cocoa smell. Less leggy than its parent plant, it should be great for pots and windowboxes, and will be available from garden centres in early summer. Seed is exclusive this year to Thompson & Morgan (01473 695225/ www. kernock.co.uk for more details). Also chocolate-scented is a stunning new clematis – C. ‘Jan Fopma’ which looks a lot like my favourite C. ‘Etoile Rose’, with its delicate, plum-coloured drooping bells, the recurving undersides dusted with silver, but with the scent as an unexpected extra. It flowers in late summer and is available mail order from Thorncroft Clematis on 01953 850407/ www. thorncroft.co.uk.

Last year saw some great new dark-leafed dahlias that threatened to knock that old stalwart ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ off his throne (or should that be pew?) And this year, alongside the single-flowered red ‘Bishop of Aukland’ and scarlet-streaked ‘Moonfire’ is another pretender, ‘Clarion’ – a strong single yellow with faint brown streaks on the inner petals that are perfectly set off by deep-cut chocolate leaves. This would look sensational planted alongside chocolate cosmos and burnt orange crocosmias or daylilies, and should be available from most garden centres in June.

I never thought I’d see myself recommending a new petunia, as most of the novelty varieties are either striped, or frilly or both – but the more discreet types can look wonderful cascading over pots or hanging baskets. Petunia grandiflora ‘Limoncello’ (Thompson & Morgan as before) is as stylish as the Sicilian liqueur it’s named after – a bushy compact plant with soft felty green leaves and pale lemon flowers fading to white around the edges. Another no-no for some gardeners are variegated plants, but a new honeysuckle, Lonicera japonica ‘Hinlon Hondeydew’ should make them think again, with its two-tone bluey-green leaves and headily-scented flowers that open white and mature to yellow. Nottcutts garden centres will stock this plant from April.

There’s even a new begonia to convert even the most bigoted of begonia-phobes. Begonia ‘Bonfire’ has ravishing pointed bright scarlet bell-shaped flowers – more like those of a tiny, lily-flowered tulip than a traditional tuberous begonia - on pendulous stems interspersed with slender green leaves. Suttons (0870 220 0606) are offering five small plants for £9.95. Go on – send off for some catalogues. You never know what you may find…

The Beth Chatto Gardens (01206 822007 bethchatto.co.uk) catalogue is full of unusual and beautiful plants for every type of soil and situation – her sensitive eye means it is hard to go wrong. The illustrated catalogue is free, but it is worth investing an extra £3 for the Beth Chatto Handbook which is a useful reference book in its own right, packed with spot-on descriptions and useful information.

Plant World (01803 872939 plantworld-devon.co.uk) is the place for seeds of rare and unusual plants collected on the owner’s travels around the world – the illustrated catalogue claims to be the only one in the world selling this year’s fresh seeds.  New introductions this year include Scabiosa ‘Lilac Wonder’, aluminium-leaved hellebore ‘Silver Lace’, Geranium ‘Pink Ghost’ with purple leaves and pale pink flowers and a new foxglove, Digitalis ‘Redskin’, whose flowers are golden yellow, tinged with red, like a ripe apple. 

Secret Seeds (01398 331946 secretseeds.com) is another source of unusual seeds, and their catalogue includes quite a few introductions including a white aquilegia and several new campanulas, clematis, lilies and a mix of spectacular scented tree lupin seed.

Woottens of Wenhaston (01502 478258 woottensplants.co.uk) has well-grown mail order plants, and many unusual and tasteful varieties. New this year are Pelargonium ‘Hanson’s Pinkie’ – a ‘decorative’ type in two-tone pinks; a chocolate ruby day lily called  ‘Invitation to Immortality’ – worth buying for its name alone – and many remontant irises that have a second late summer/autumn flowering.

05 Feb 2006 - ORCHIDS

In the 1980s the white moth orchid, or Phalaenopsis, became almost the stuff of clichés as forests of them, wrapped in white tissue paper or fancily boxed, were couriered London as smart “thank yous” among the fashion and media worlds. Then, as happens in such fickle circles, familiarity bred contempt, and the trend for more naturalistic native blooms such as old roses and peonies took hold. But now orchids are back in vogue, both as cut flowers (as prices have dropped they are, in terms of money for blooming period, brilliant value) – give them warm, rather than cold water, and as potted plants. Forget the single spray of white moth orchids in a minimalist loft; the new way to display them is en masse, either lined up along a north-facing windowsill, or banked two or three deep, to create a little patch of flowering jungle in your home. Choose carefully, and there will always be several in bloom or, if you have the space, take a tip from gardeners in grand country houses, and keep a rolling supply in a greenhouse or conservatory, reviving your display as new plants come into flower. It sounds extravagant, but orchids thrive in company. Massing them together not only looks great – it also creates just the moist microclimate they need, and grouping the pots on trays of gravel or porous clay granules adds to the humidity in the air, while avoiding the risk of the plants standing in water - one of the most frequent causes for failure with orchids of all kinds.

Just make sure you choose compatible types that will make happy neighbours. Orchids need different temperature ranges depending on their country of origin and the altitude at which they naturally grow. Of those that are easiest to care for in the average UK home, Odontoglossums from the mountains of South America – and some of the most gorgeous Miltonia and Oncidium hybrids, splattered and spotted like a leopard’s coat – usually need cooler conditions than Phalaenopsis, which hail from the lowland Philippines and are used to warmer temperatures. And, while sultry streaked Paphiopedilums  (the aptly-named slipper orchid) will enjoy the cool shade of a spare bedroom, the showy, tropical-looking Cymbidiums with their bright fleshy petals flourish in maximum light, and benefit from a spell outdoors in summer. Focussing on one major group for your display is probably safest to begin with, until you become familiar with the particular growing conditions your favourite orchids prefer. Luckily, thanks to the ever-swelling ranks of orchid growers and breeders, there is huge variety to be found – the Odontoglossum group in particular encompasses  an astonishing range, from large pansy-like blooms with a pronounced centre to small fluttery stars with tiger-striped petals. There must be an orchid to suit everyone – even those who profess not to like them: I challenge anyone not to be charmed by the delicate white bells of the tiny Dendrobiums – like bluebells in miniature.

Many people look on orchids as a more expensive, but longer-lasting alternative to a bunch of flowers, discarding them when the flowers fade, but without an awful lot of trouble it should be possible to coax them into bloom again and again. Phalaenopsis should have their flower spikes cut down to a lower node after flowering, and if kept warm (20C average, though a 3-4 degree dip at night is permissible) and watered sparingly, a second spike should sprout before long. Generalizing is difficult when it comes to the other orchid groups, but most need a cooler, drier period when flowering has stopped.   The most important thing is to try to keep the temperature and watering as constant as possible – and on no account allow the roots to stand in water. One friend of mine, who is not a keen gardener at all – has managed to coax six seasons-worth of flowers from a pink and white moth orchid I bought her years ago – and swears the secret of her success is sheer neglect.

You’ll often find a few plants of Phalaenopsis and Cymbidium orchids at your local florist or garden centre, but for the best choice – and by far the best plants and advice, go to an orchid specialist nursery such as Burnham Nurseries, near Newton Abbot, Devon (01626 352233)/ www. orchids.uk.com; Orchid Answers, Birdham, nr Chichester (01243 511322) and McBean’s in Lewes, E Sussex (01273 400228). Ring for catalogues. And for further inspiration, visit the 2006 Orchid Festival at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. This year’s theme is Orchids in Art and Design, and hundreds of different varieties, many of them rare, will be on show in The Princess of Wales Conservatory, with plants on sale in the shop, a programme of tours and lectures, and special evening openings with canapés, wine and dinner on 8th, 14th and 23rd February. Ring 0208 332 5655 or visit www.rbgkew.org.uk for further details or bookings.

Bloom is a company specializing in mail order silk flowers and plants, and their astonishingly lifelike range includes damask roses, lilies and even hellebores that look as if they had just been brought in from the garden. Their orchids, however, are the most likely to fool even an expert gardener – choose from creamy white moth orchids (Phalaenopsis), Cymbidiums, fluttery yellow Oncidiums and a large spider orchid – all “potted” up in genuine glass or cork bowls or aged terracotta planters, and complete with leaves, buds and a mulch of moss. They’re just the thing for bathrooms and dark corners where many real plants would struggle, and virtually the only way to tell they’re not real is to touch them – place the pot out of reach and no-one need know your guilty secret. From £18 for a small potted Oncidium to £178 for a jungle-like collection of Cymbidiums in a huge cork bowl. The beautiful  “Exotic Moth Orchid” arrangement illustrated is £78. For further details ring Bloom on 01949 845444 or visit bloom.uk.com.


12 Feb 2006 - A BIT ON THE SIDE

Our London back garden may be small, but at least it doesn’t have what in estate agents’ parlance is called a “side return”: that dark gloomy corridor at the side of the house in which it’s hard to get anything to grow. The common practice of tacking a dog-leg kitchen and bathroom extension on the back of houses is not confined to Victorian terraces; many Georgian town houses and country cottages have exactly the same layout, resulting in a narrow strip of garden, clearly visible from the house, in which few desirable plants will thrive. It’s hardly surprising that the space so often silts up with a motley collection of dead plants, bikes and dustbins – hardly the first choice of outlook from the kitchen or living room window.

What can be done to make these nasty narrow spaces more appealing?  The first priority is to clear out the clutter. Move the bins elsewhere, if at all possible, and if you can’t, shell out on some smart new ones; or hide them behind a climber-clad screen. You might also consider painting the side wall or fence white, or another pale colour – this will not only cheer up the outdoor space, but also reflect welcome light inside the house. Next to address is what’s underfoot: like changing a grotty carpet in a room, this is the one single change that will make the most impact. Algae-pocked concrete could make way for York stone flags set in gravel, smart limestone pavers lined with pebbles, or a decorative pattern laid in bricks that will weather fast to look as if it’s always been there. I’ve also seen salvaged encaustic floor tiles laid in a harlequin pattern to great effect; since the area is so small it should not cost the earth to track down quality materials, either old or new, that will lift the entire space, from the floor up. When laying stones, bricks or tiles in a pattern, remember that a lateral design may help make a narrow space appear wider, while a lengthwise axis will draw the eye right down into the main garden. Be sure to provide a focal point that is worth the channelled attention - a piece of contemporary sculpture, perhaps, a decorative urn on a plinth or a mirror mounted on the wall.

When it comes to plants, a cluster of small pots may look pretty but will need constant feeding and watering. Just a few large specimens in containers will not only look more stylish, but will also be easier to care for. Consider small-leafed bamboos such as Phyllostachys  aurea or its black-stemmed relative, P. nigra, both of which can tolerate shade (take care in deep shade lest the canes of P. nigra revert to green) and have feathery canopies that seem to capture, rather than block out sunlight. Or how about just one small tree in a decent container, with room for a change of seasonal planting around the trunk? Choose one that has more than one brief season of glory every year – the delectable Amelanchier canadensis, for instance, with its starry white spring blossom and bright scarlet leaves in autumn. A bold topiary statement would also look smart – bay or yew clipped into a spiral, pyramid or cone, or a standard lollipop holly, around which you could wrap small white fairy lights to come on after dark. Or how about a tree fern or two, tipped at an angle so that their feathery fronds throw interesting shadows around the walls, both inside and out.

If kitchen windows look out on the side corridor, try hanging planters on the opposite wall or raising plants up on tables so that they can easily be seen from inside. A friend of mine has built a sturdy outdoor shelf for his collection of bonsai trees, interspersed with little mirrors and Eastern ornaments for an eye-catching display. Or, if you decide to grow climbers up the wall, how about training them to frame a mirror or sculptural plaque?  Lastly, to avoid the unnerving ‘chasm’ effect caused by tall buildings bordering a narrow space, stretch wooden pergola struts across it at what would be roof height – you could train trailing plants and fairy lights along the “rafters” or suspend wind chimes or lanterns to light an outdoor dining area below.

Of course, many people get so fed up with their dingy “side return” that they take drastic action and decide to do away with it completely, by extending their kitchen outward. This tends to work well, though it can leave the former back room extremely dark. Some other friends of mine have recently cracked this problem; instead of glazing over the entire corridor, they have left a small square light well outside the former dining room doors. This tiny internal garden, with two walls painted white and pale pebbles on the floor, not only brings light deep into the heart of the house; it is also a great place to grow tender plants that would not survive in the open all year. At the moment, it is host to an enormous banana palm whose canopy of leaves, shot the brightest shade of lime with the sun shining through them, look like a giant green umbrella.


I’ll never forget the moment of conversion. Many years ago, at Derry Watkins’ fabulous nursery, Special Plants in Wiltshire, I stepped into a greenhouse filled with hundreds of old-fashioned pelargoniums. Till then, like many new-ish gardeners, I’d only known the sturdy, short-jointed  bedding plants in gaudy shades of crimson, scarlet, salmon pink and white beloved of balcony gardeners the whole world over. I have nothing against these cheerful flowers: indeed, when my little London garden was still in its infancy and I was waiting for the climbers to clothe its high white walls, I copied the gardeners of Cordoba in Spain and hung dozens of bright potted pelargoniums from the trellis all the way round. But these new plants were something else: delicate little things with fluttery petals in pretty pale pinks, subtle deep reds or white streaked with wine, and leaves as beautiful as the blooms. Some, like P. fragrans, had a haze of tiny white flowers above silver-grey-green leaves; others had blooms of a much stronger hue – scarlet P. fulgidum, dark crimson ‘Voodoo’ and the deservedly popular ‘Lord Bute’ with its black-red petals neatly edged in pink, as chic and elegant as a Schiaparelli evening gown.

And then there were the scents. I find the perfume of any old pelargonium leaf attractive – and knew there were’ rose- and lemon-scented varieties. But here were plants whose leaves smelled of peppermint (P. tomentosum and pink-flowered ‘Joy Lucille’); of orange (‘Prince of Orange’); spiced apple (‘Lillian Pottinger’); cedar (cerise ‘Clorinda’ and lovely lavender-flowered ‘Copthorne’) and even camphor (‘Camphor Rose’), eau-de-cologne (‘Brilliantine’) and ripe strawberries (the dainty, pale-pink ‘Lady Scarborough’). I spent a heavenly hour or so wandering among the benches, poring over the flowers and rubbing the occasional leaf to release one unexpected scent after another. I still have some of the plants I left with that day: P. x ardens, whose smouldering, ember-red blooms appear from January onwards, bringing warmth and cheer to even the chilliest winter day; the lovely ‘Chocolate Peppermint’, whose large fuzzy green leaves are attractively blotched with chocolate brown and scented the same; and my favourite of all, P. sidoides, with its spidery deep-magenta-black flowers held (from February onwards) high above felty grey leaves with a silvery sheen.

Since then I’ve fallen for many other species and hybrid pelargoniums – at the London Royal Horticultural Shows, where Brian and Pearl Sulman’s show benches have dozens of different varieties banked up in tiers, three or four deep, and latterly from mail order specialists such as Woottens of Wenhaston, whose beautiful catalogue (see below) describes the subtly different blooms and growth habits in devoted detail.

I love ‘Lady Plymouth’, with her deep-cut, lacy cream-edged leaves (rose-scented) and pretty pale mauve flowers; P. ‘Blandfordianum’, which has feathery grey foliage and pretty white flowers, the upper two petals dotted with magenta; and the many beautiful ‘two-tone’ types such as  ‘Splendide’ and ‘Paton’s Unique’, where the upper and lower petals are painted different shades of pink. Some I’ve found hard to keep: though few pelargoniums are not difficult, they can be fussy about potting compost, light levels and watering – it’s easy to overwater in winter and dry them out in summer. But most can be propagated easily enough from cuttings dipped in hormone powder and rooted in plug trays as the books suggest or, as needs often must, simply left in a jar of water on a sunny windowsill (Derry Watkins has made a DVD of the cuttings course she holds at Special Plants – see below).

One of the easiest pelargoniums, and to me one of the most beautiful of all, is P. tomentosum, with its large velvet leaves and strong peppermint scent. The fine hairs on the leaves give them a silvery halo when backlit, and the young growth as it emerges is as soft and downy as a baby mouse. Its scent makes it a great plant for bathrooms: I let mine grow large enough to make a screen at the window – a welcome leafy alternative to blinds or net curtains. Scented-leaf pelargoniums are also useful entrance hall plants, releasing their perfume as people brush past on their way in or out. Indeed, the Victorians used to display them in elaborate tiered staging in glazed entrance porches for just this purpose. If aiming to emulate this effect, remember that the plants need space around them – not just to show off their different flowers and leaves, but to allow enough air to circulate and prevent diseases such as botrytis. 

In summer, of course, pelargoniums can be moved out of doors to decorate your garden. I often have large pots of ‘Lord Bute’ by the front door (as did Vita Sackville-West in the rather grander setting of Sissinghurst) and my treasured P. sidoides sits in a cache pot on the round metal table. There’s no reason why these attractive pelargoniums can’t be used as bedding plants – and I’ve seen this done in style at Scotney Castle, where the herb beds around the lakeside ruins are neatly edged in ‘Chocolate Peppermint’, ‘Attar of Roses’ and pink-flowered ‘Lemon Fancy’. But you’d have to bring them under cover again before the first frosts – though many of the bedding types can cruise through winter unscathed in a sheltered city garden, you’d be foolish to risk it with these rarer, more delicate plants. I envy the gardeners of California and the Mediterranean, where gorgeous P. sidoides can cascade in careless abandon around pools and along pathways all the year round, as pretty an edging plant as you’d ever hope to find.

Special Plants, Greenways Lane, Cold Ashton, Chippenham, Wiltshire (01225 891686 specialplants.net – has many unusual and old-fashioned pelargoniums and many other covetable plants besides, plus a useful DVD on taking pelargonium cuttings.

Brian and Pearl Sulman (01638 712297 sulmanspelargoniums.co.uk) for catalogue offer collections of 10 named varieties of scented-leaf, regal, angel and other pelargoniums for £20.

Woottens of Wenhaston (01502 478258 woottensplants.co.uk) publishes an elegant ‘Book of Pelargoniums’ as its catalogue – a selection of the very best species and varieties beautifully photographed and described.  It costs £2.90 inc p&p, and Sunday Telegraph readers who order it will receive a £3.00 plant voucher. Ring quoting this offer, or order from the website under ‘Telegraph Offer’.

26 Feb 2006 - GREEN FLOWERS

Buds are beginning to swell on the trees. Before long the garden will be wearing my favourite colour: that bright fresh green of young beech leaves, hanging like shreds of silk with the sun shining through them. Lime, celadon, chartreuse, acid green – this elusive shade has acquired many names in attempts to pin it down. The “greenery-yallery” of the Aesthetic Movement comes closest – but I believe that was an insult. To me it is a beautiful colour.

A few years ago this shade of green – let’s call it chartreuse - enjoyed a fleeting flirtation with the fashion world. Suddenly, it seemed, green was everywhere, from T-shirts in The Gap to prim Prada dresses. I thought my hour had come. Sadly, though, lime does little for those with an average English complexion, so I left it for the dark-haired and olive-skinned. This spring everyone’s in white. Thank goodness nature is immune to fashion’s whims and appears in this exact same shade each year. Long before the first leaves unfurl on the trees, chartreuse is to be found in the milky-pale blooms of hellebores Helleborus corsica and H. foetidus, both of which provide a fresh foil for the murkier plum and purple varieties. The olive green buds and lime-yellow puffs of Cornus mas follow close behind; and who can resist the sinister charms of the snakeshead or widow’s iris, Hermodactylis tuberosus, with its green central petals and black velvet outer ‘falls’?

There is something very mysterious about green flowers, and they have acquired a chic, almost cultish status among gardeners in recent years. Plant breeders are eager to get in on the act, with green zinnias (the aptly-named ‘Envy’), chenille-tasseled  amaranths  (Amaranthus caudatus ‘Viridis’) and tobacco flowers (Nicotiana alata ‘Lime Green’) among the annual bedding flowers that are featured in this year’s seed catalogues. We all know the graceful green-streaked cream tulip, ‘Spring Green’, but there’s a lovely lavender and green parrot-type called ‘Green Wave’ and a green and pink stripe called ‘China Town’ whose leaves are neatly edged in white. And anyone for a lime-green gladiolus (‘Green Star’) or the fresh creamy-green spires of Kniphofia ‘Percy’s Pride’ – not so much a red-hot poker as a cool green one? There is even a green rose, the curious Rosa chinensis ‘Viridiflora’, with petals the palest shade of pistachio.

Sometimes, what seem to be green flowers are actually leafy bracts: think of the frilly lime-green spires of Moluccella laevis – the ‘Bells of Ireland’ beloved of flower arrangers, where the tiny star-like blossoms are almost hidden inside the decorative calyces. The many different kinds of euphorbia are similar: the startling yellow bracts, on stems just beginning to unfurl like shepherds’ crooks as spring approaches, all but conceal the small central flowers – bright lime-yellow in E. polychroma  (one of the brightest sources of chartreuse in the garden, and a great foil for ‘Spring Green’ tulips), and a contrasting blood-red burgundy in E. characias subsp. wulfennii and E. x martinii. E. ‘Efanthia’ is a new long-flowering summer euphorbia with acid-green flowers and purple-tinged leaves with red undersides and stems.

   Certain colours acquire an extra frisson when combined with this particular shade of green. True chartreuse plants, which have rather more yellow than blue in them, set off colours at the opposite end of the colour spectrum – dark blood- or black-reds through crimson and cranberry to reddish-purple. Nature does this to great effect in the red, maroon and lime-green-striped leaves of coleus plants, though I’d hesitate to use them in a border. But dark ‘Queen of Night’ tulips and the deep red-black anemones and aquilegias  look dramatic against a lime green ground, as do the ‘chocolate’ cosmos, velvety ‘Arabian Night’ gladioli, and dark dahlias such as ‘’Rip City’, ‘Black Fire’ and ‘Dark Desire’. The blue-green end of the scale looks best with lavender, violet and indigo – lilac field scabious with alchemilla leaves has quite rightly become a classic combination in florists’ bouquets.

Many young spring leaves are chartreuse, but loose their lime-green freshness as the season progresses. There are, however, a few plants that keep this leaf-colour all summer long. I still miss the golden locust tree (Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia) that our neighbour chopped down – its lime canopy lit up like neon when the sun shone through it. The lime-green leaves of the golden hop, Humulus lupulus ‘Aureus’ are useful for spreading this colour around the garden – it can be sent up other trees to shoot some sunshine through the branches, or set scrambling through clematis or climbing roses to enliven the display – but take care it does not overwhelm them.

One of my all-time favourite green plants is the pineapple lily, Eucomis bicolor, which has columns of lime green flowers, each neatly outlined in burgundy, beneath the tufty topknot of leaves that gives it its name. There’s just time to order and plant the bulbs – I planted a single bulb in a pot in my back garden seven years ago, and it continues to increase each summer, adding another candleabra branch of glistening green flowers with every year that passes.

* Seed for Amaranthus caudatus ‘Viridis’, Nicotiana alata ‘Lime Green’, Moluccella laevis and Zinnia elegans ‘Envy’can be ordered from Sarah Raven’s Cutting Garden (0845 050 4848 thecuttinggarden.com).
* Bulbs of Eucomis bicolor for this summer and of  Hermodactylus tuberosa and ‘Spring Green’, ‘Green Wave’, ‘China Town’ and other viridiflora tulips for next spring can be ordered from Bloms Bulbs, Primrose Nurseries, Melchbourne, Bedfordshire MK44 1ZZ (01234 709099 blomsbulbs.com).
* An excellent range of euphorbia and green-flowered hellebore varieties can be ordered as plants from The Beth Chatto Gardens mail order service, Elmstead market, Colchester, Essex CO7 7DB (01206 822007 bethchatto.co.uk.


12 March 2006 - DAFFODILS

In ‘Plantworlds’ Andrea Jones’s recent book of photographs – which must rate as one of the most beautiful books ever published – Tim Smit (of Heligan and The Eden Project) tells the following story about daffodils. Leading a tour group into an area of Heligan where daffodils were flowering in profusion, and hearing all the inevitable ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’, he suddenly demanded that everyone turn their backs on the flowers and describe them. “It was truly remarkable, because other than much talk of trumpets and yellowness, there was little actual description,” he remembers. When the visitors turned to face the flowers again, they apparently did so with new eyes, many thanking Smit for making them realize they had “never actually looked at daffodils, just daffodilness”.

   I thought about this story as I gazed at the jug of bright yellow daffodils on my desk this morning. More than almost any other flower, daffodils seem destined to be appreciated en masse, whether bought as cut flowers (four bunches for £1 at my local flower stand this week) or gracing our gardens in clumps, swathes or the fluttering, dancing clouds of the famous poem. A solitary daffodil looks somehow wrong, and mean-spirited.  But I guarantee that if you pluck one from a bunch, or pick a single bloom from your garden and study it carefully for just a few minutes, you’ll notice things about this familiar, and yet taken-for-granted flower that you weren’t aware of before. There is huge variety among daffodils – even those we think of as bog-standard yellow ‘daffs’ will differ in the concentration of colour, the shape of the cup, and the precise proportion of trumpet to petal. And when it comes to more unusual ones, there are no fewer than nine different types or ‘divisions’ of daffodil or narcissus. In the pages of the better bulb catalogues they are set out in strict sequence: the traditional trumpets in all shades from snow white to canary yellow (and now, alarmingly, pale pink); the large- and small-cupped varieties whose yellow or orange central cup is somewhat shorter than the petals; the doubles and the split-cups; the triandrus and cyclamineus types with their rabbit’s ear reflexed petals; the jonquils and tazettas, which have several smaller flowers per stem; and – my favourite – the beautiful poeticus narcissi, with snowy white petals and a red-rimmed ‘pheasant’s eye’ centre.

   If you want to see people really looking at daffodils, the competitions at the Royal Horticultural Society Shows in Vincent Square are a must. In March and April (see below for details) you’ll find serious looking men in sensible cardigans gazing into the upturned faces of blooms with names like ‘Pink Paradise’ and ‘Precocious’, dusting their petals with make-up brushes and bathing them in adoration. It’s always fun to see who’s won the medals, but the real joy is to be found on the stands of nurseries such as Avon Bulbs and Edron Nurseries, who will have hundreds of different daffodils and narcissi, exquisitely displayed against evergreen ferns and ivy so that the tiniest, palest petals can be shown off to best advantage. It is here that I first came across the delightful ‘hoop petticoat’ narcissus, Bulbicodium conspicuus – its much expanded central cup almost obscuring the tiny peripheral petals, and realized how much I love the jonquils and triandrus types, with their delicate nodding flowers, up to seven to a stem. Looking at these displays, and taking copious notes, is a great way to get ideas for your garden, as catalogues can rarely transmit the true scale and habit of a flower.

   It’s tempting to add more and more daffodils to your garden each year, particularly if you grow them in swathes in the lawn. This is how I like to see them best – in fact, one of my favourite views in Spring is from the top of the tower at Sissinghurst, down on to the ‘Orchard’ with its naturalistic plantings of thousands of narcissi. Since Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson planted so many different types, the display goes on for many weeks, beginning with the early blooms such as ‘February Gold’ and ‘Cedric Morris’ and ending with the later poeticus types. They were huge fans of jonquils, Harold writing to his wife from his office up in London, ‘I never much thought of them before, little meagre yellow things that I was never allowed to pick, then in an orgy of recklessness you put at least seven jonquils into my Monday bouquet, and they smell out the whole Strand and across the river to Oxo they shout in thin little voices… and the whole of spring and Sissinghurst settles on King’s Bench Walk’.

    Vita Sackville-West used to plant her daffodils in pots first and enjoy them in or around the house the first year, before planting them out in the orchard. This is a idea that many of us could copy. Bring them inside when the buds are showing and place them where the blooms will open at eye level. That way you’ll really get to know your daffodils, before they blur into that all-too-familiar golden haze in the garden. To quote another great flower-gazer, the painter Georgia O’Keeffe: “Nobody sees a flower/really/ it is so small/ we haven’t the time/ and to see takes time/ like to have a friend takes time.”

Plantworlds by Andrea Jones (Damiani, £40).


26 March 2006 - LILIES IN POTS

For as long as I have gardened, I have enjoyed the sweet heady scent of regale lilies in midsummer. I love the weeks of anticipation, as the buds on top of the tall leafy stems swell into great pointed pods, growing larger and larger till their dusky pink exterior splits to reveal the creamy fragrant flower within. Most of my regale lilies have been grown in pots – at first out of necessity, when I lived in a flat, and now out of preference. Provided the pot is large enough, many lilies thrive in containers, and there is much less likelihood of damaging the tender emerging stems with clumsy tools or feet. I also enjoy the fact that lilies in containers can be moved quite easily – brought in front of french windows when coming into flower, to waft their scent indoors, or plunged into a gap in the border. One year I experimented with growing tulips and lilies in the same sized pots, sunk into the soil of my wide back garden border. When the tulips were over, I simply removed them, containers and all, to my potting area, to let the leaves die down, and replaced them with the lilies, which were several inches high and past their most vulnerable stage. It is a useful system for small gardens and I can’t think why I haven’t tried it again.

There is still time to plant lily bulbs for a summer display. Try mail order companies such as Bloms (01234 709099/ www. blomsbulbs.com), Jacques Amand (01736 335851/ www. jacquesamand.co.uk), whose catalogues are packed with tempting photographs, or try your local garden centre – but test the bulbs first, by squeezing very gently. It is important that lily bulbs should be firm, and towards the end of the season, some may be becoming a bit mushy. Plant them as soon as you can, in the deepest, largest pots that space will allow. Most of the books say 30cm deep (1ft) as the minimum sized pot for lilies, but in my experience they bloom better in slightly larger pots, and look better too. Though there are many lower-growing ‘patio’ or ‘pixie’ lilies available, to me a lily is synonymous with a long slender stem, and a tall pot will avoid the display from looking top-heavy.

Choose a pot with good drainage and cover the holes with broken crocks. A layer of gravel over this is always a good idea – lilies hate being water-logged, and as a belt-and-braces ploy, you could add a handful of horticultural grit directly below each individual bulb when you place them in the soil. A multi-purpose compost or John Innes no 3 is fine for lilies, and the bulbs need to be covered by two and a half times their depth of soil. Putting supports in place now avoids the danger of damaging the bulbs later – you can buy unobtrusive rings and circular stakes from garden centres, or try Room in the Garden for attractive rust-treated supports that merge into the garden. Keep watered, and give a low-nitrogen but high-phosphate and potash feed for six to eight weeks once the buds have swollen. Dead head and allow the leaves to die back before removing the stem. Lilies in pots should come back for many years provided the potting mix is renewed from time to time – indeed, many varieties such as regale resent being moved. In cold winters they may need the protection of a sheltered spot or a blanket of bubble-wrap.

When it comes to varieties, regale is one of the best for growing in pots, and has a wonderful fragrance, too. Many of the Asiatic hybrids such as ‘Enchantment’ also do well, their pointed orange petals making good partners for bright pink geraniums and near-black hollyhocks. ‘Sweet Lord’ is a lovely dusky rose pink, while ‘Purple Rain’ is a recent introduction with creamy petals with a dark burgundy blotch in the middle. The tiger lilies, with their elegant pyramidal heads and delicately recurved petals are particularly stunning, with ‘White Twinkle’ (green-tinged ivory with maroon-red spots in the centre) and Lilium lancifolium var. splendens (deep bright orange-red with purplish-black spots) recommended for pots. The Oriental varieties derived from L. speciosum and L.auratum are later-flowering, and make brilliant pot plants, too – in fact, their large showy blooms are, to my mind, better suited to containers than the border. The best-known is crimson and white ‘Stargazer’with its amazingly strong scent. It brings an instant air of glamour to a garden – I remember turning up at the garden designer Anthony Noel’s famous Fulham garden once, and being greeted by ‘Stargazer’ lilies in smart blue and white striped pots, standard fuchsias in full bloom and lots of frilly white petunias. The tiny garden looked beautifully frivolous and fun, as if it were dressed up for a party.

One word of warning with your lily bulbs. If you are of a sensitive disposition, or have a strict colour scheme in your garden, check the labels on your bulbs and be sure to buy them from a reputable source. The one time I succumbed to a cheap offer at a market stall, the long pink buds of what I thought were regale lily bulbs opened into blooms the most garish shade of yellow.




Sunday Telegraph: Gardening
I write regularly on gardening in the Sunday Telegraph.

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