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July - August - September 2006

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02 Jul 2006 - PINEAPPLE LILY

At this time of year, I am often to be found peering about in the pots in my garden, looking for signs of the pineapple lily, or Eucomis, which sprouts into growth around now.  Greenhouse-raised eucomis may already be in bloom, but those of us who grow them out of doors will have another few weeks to wait for the striking columns of flowers, crowned with a spiky green tuft, that give the plant its common name. Its exotic appearance makes the pineapple lily one of those plants that always attract comment, and lead one to think they must be difficult to grow. Happily, nothing could be further from the truth.

I first saw eucomis at Newby Hall in North Yorkshire, whose spectacular gardens are at their peak right now. Candleabra blooms of Eucomis bicolor, with its curious lime and maroon colour scheme, were cascading from a couple of large pots in the orangery, and I remember being immediately smitten. Delighted to find a small plant with a single flower spike on sale, I took it home and marvelled as the tight clusters of buds began to open from the base of the stem, each starry flower outlined in finely-drawn dark red, until the entire plant was bristling with blooms. Since then my eucomis has put out a further flower spike each summer – re-potted the third autumn into a tall galvanized metal florist’s bucket with holes punched in the bottom for drainage. This year I can see eight flower spikes. Not bad for almost total neglect.

Despite its eye-catching appearance and obliging nature, the pineapple lily is still somewhat rare in British gardens, and deserves to be much better known. Native to southern Africa, it requires water only during its brief period of growth, and can put up with – indeed, prefers - dry conditions during its dormant period from October to May. Plant bulbs in spring, 4 inches (10cm) deep in well-drained soil-based potting compost with horticultural grit added – individually, if you are patient, or grouped in threes or fives in larger pots for a bold initial impact. Water sparingly until the green shoots emerge – and don’t panic if this is not until well into summer – the plant is a late starter, but will soon make up for time. Planting in pots is easier, and shows off the plants to their best, as they can be shunted into prime position for their few brief weeks of glory. But eucomis can also thrive in open soil, enjoying a sunny position beneath a south-facing wall. They might need a protective mulch in autumn, and some attractive foliage nearby to mask the strappy leaves when they turn to mush in autumn, but are otherwise undemanding.

Many gardeners grow eucomis under cover to bring the blooms on early, and larger garden centres or specialist nurseries may have plants just coming into bud now, so you can take them home and watch them open over the coming weeks.  However, I’d be inclined to leave the plants outside once they’ve bloomed and treat them as outdoor plants in future. The stems on greenhouse-raised eucomis tend to flop, particularly after heavy rain, when the sodden flowerheads are simply too top-heavy to support, and will probably require staking. Plus, it is lovely to have a plan in place for the tail-end of summer, when the garden can all-too-often look drab and dreary. If you have some black-red, crimson or burnt-orange dahlias coming on, arrange some eucomis in pots to occupy the foreground and sit back and enjoy the show.

There are five or six varieties of eucomis readily available in the UK, their flowers ranging from pure white (Eucomis autumnalis) to pinky reddish-brown (the sultry E. comosa). E. bicolor ‘White Dwarf’ has a shorter (16in/40cm) column of delicate white flowers and fabulously wavy leaves, while E. pole-evansii is pale milky green and can top 43inches (110cm). My own favourite is still the striking E. bicolor, with its greenish-white flowers and picotee red edge. On some plants, even the thick fleshy stems are splashed with brown leopard spots, all adding to that air of jungly glamour.

Eucomis has only two draw-backs that I can think of. One is its smell – which I think resembles mushrooms but others consider worse. The other is that it does not die well. Having opened all the way up the stem, the flowers then begin to form button-like green fruits, and the leaves start to flop and turn yellow. A hard frost and the whole plant will be like soggy brown lasagne on the ground.  But it’s a small price to pay for instant – and dead-easy – exoticism.

De Jager’s current catalogue lists most of the above varieties of Eucomis (01622 840229).



Sometimes in gardening, cosseting plants can lead to nothing, while neglect can pay the most spectacularly undeserved rewards. A case in point is the green glazed pot on my garden table whose sides are spilling over with tiny sempervivums, or houseleeks. I’ve long been a fan of these small spiky rosettes in all shades of green and reddish brown, and many years ago bought a selection of rather special named varieties, which I planted in gritty soil in a shallow well-drained container, just as the books recommend. The few plants that wouldn’t fit into my arrangement I tucked into the edges of a taller pot which then contained violas, I think, and normal run-of-the-mill compost. Eight or so years later, the plants in the shallow dish are nowhere to be seen – victims of over-zealous watering, probably, and hungry slugs and snails – while the pair of unwanted extras have multiplied with abandon, colonizing the entire pot and throwing out new carpets of “baby” offsets every summer. Every so often I gently pull off a few of the “babies” and pot them up for friends, or tuck them into the edges of my other pots to see if they do as well.

There are smooth sempervivums (S. tectorum) and hairy ones (S. ciliosum), green ones with scarlet tips and dark red ones with a lime green interior – some even have tiny white spider’s-web hairs spun between the leaves (S. arachnoideum). The joy of these attractive little plants is not only their huge variety of colours and textures, all of which mix well together, but also their easy-going nature (the rough translation of their Latin name means “ever living”). Traditionally grown on rooftops and over porches to ward off evil spirits, they can flourish with only minimal amounts of soil and moisture. I have been cultivating some of the little offsets this year to join the smaller-leafed succulents on the “green” sedum roof soon to be added to our seaside house – and they also do well in the gaps in paved terraces or the nooks and crannies of dry stone walls. Unlike many of the other decorative succulents they are also completely frost-hardy. 

Other succulent plants that form beautiful rosettes include echeverias and aeoniums, neither of which are hardy below about minus 3 degrees. In most parts of the UK they must therefore be grown in pots and brought under cover for the winter, but on a recent trip to the spectacular Abbey Gardens on Tresco in the Scilly Isles, I was thrilled to see echeverias cascading from the high rock terraces and dark black-red Aeonium arboreum the size of small trees that would stand out all the year round. Echeverias – (or “hen-and chicks”, after their habit of sprouting smaller offsets around the larger parent plant) have attractive bell-like flowers in shades of pink, orange and yellow that are the perfect complement to their glaucous grey-blue leaves. Some varieties, such as the fashionable ‘Perle von Nurnberg’, have a pinkish tinge to the foliage, while others have a smart maroon edging. Among the aeoniums, the near black A. arboreum var. atropurpureum  is the one to go for, while A. canarienese has curly, almost cabbagey leaves, sometimes streaked green and white, and A. tabulaeforme has flat horizontal rosettes over 1ft around.

The main mistake that people make with these succulents is to water them too much. As a general rule of thumb, the potting mix should dry out before watering: poke a finger in to the top two inches of soil to check, or with smaller pots, check the lightness of the container. When you do water, do so thoroughly and well. Where the size of the pots allows, submerge them in a water-filled bucket or sink and give them a good old soak. For containers too large for this method, fill them with water, let it drain and then repeat several times – this should prevent the water streaming down the sides of the dry rootball and straight out the bottom hole. Don’t be tempted to sit the pots permanently in a saucer of water as this will keep the soil soggy – a sure-fire way to rot the roots, particularly in cold weather. Placing gravel in the saucers will solve the problems of run-off while keeping the roots dry. Some succulents like being given a shower with a fine-spray rose overhead – this washes the leaves and refreshes the plants in dry dusty weather. But avoid spraying those with a fine covering of hairs (such as Sempervivum arachnoides) or a protective dusting of bloom, like some of the echeverias – these are all best watered from the base. And try to water early in the day, so that water lodged in the crowns and leaves can dry out in the sun rather than linger and harbour fungal disease. When in doubt, water less rather than more – succulents certainly aren’t the plants to worry over with a hosepipe ban in place.



Seaside properties have never been so fashionable. Despite the warnings of rising sea levels and flooding, houses by the British seaside have been fetching record prices recently, with homes in forgotten parts of North Yorkshire and the East Kent coast being as fiercely fought over as those in traditionally desirable Norfolk, Suffolk and Cornwall. Fuelled by photographs in books like ‘The Way We Live By The Sea’ by Stafford Cliff and the late Gilles de Chabaneix (Thames & Hudson £19.95) and the magazine ‘Coast’ (founded just TWO years ago and recently bought up by the company who own Country Living), the trend looks set to continue, particularly if the anticipated hot summer lives up to its promise. The pictures show people lazing about in gardens against a backdrop of blue seas and sky, with hammocks slung from trees, tables laid for lunch under smart striped awnings, and plenty of decking, driftwood sculptures and ropes strung with pebbles.

   But what is the reality of a garden by the sea? Those who take possession of a coastal garden will quickly discover, as I did, that views of the ocean come at the expense of scorching salt winds, and that the range of plants that will thrive in the poor stony soil that is usually the lot of the seaside gardener may well exclude their erstwhile favourites.  The exact conditions will obviously vary as to whether the garden is on a cliff top or among sandy dunes, directly on the beach or slightly inland, but the likelihood is that the many benefits of coastal gardening (open skies, high light levels, free-draining soil that warms up easily in spring) can only be enjoyed if certain strategies are put in place to manage the accompanying problems. Some sort of shelter belt against the prevailing winds is usually necessary, with views carefully constructed so they won’t create wind tunnels. Of the trees, the lovely tamarisk, Pinus nigra, holm oak, hawthorn and birch are all tolerant of salt and wind, and should be planted young, as larger specimens will be more susceptible to wind rock around the roots.  As for hedges, scented flowering escallonia, glossy apple-green Griselina littoralis, Thuja plicata and sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) with its slim silver leaves and orange berries, are among the many attractive evergreens that can provide shelter within the garden – for people as well as other plants.

    As luck would have it, many of the plants best-suited to seaside gardens have high fashion credentials. Spiky architectural plants such as hardy palms, phormiums, silvery astelias and thistle-like eryngiums are good choices, as are many of the ornamental grasses, whose feathery plumes will catch the light and dance with the breeze. Silver-grey plants such as cistus, santolina, senecio (now known as brachyglottis) and the curry plant (Helichrysum italicum) all thrive – their subtle colouring in fact the result of a hairy protective down on the surface of the leaves) – and can be clipped into waves and mounds to withstand the winds and echo the forms of the sea. And there is no shortage of bright flowers to display against this backdrop, from electric blue echiums to flame-coloured crocosmias and smouldering red hot pokers. There’s even a rose – the fragrant Rosa rugosa in white or rich crimson – that can cope with anything the sea weather can throw at it.

    One thing that the fashionable seaside gardener will definitely enjoy is decking out the new plot with desirable furniture and accessories. Deckchairs with jolly striped covers strike the right breezy note, and if you can’t find vintage ones with faded canvas, try Re-Found (01434 634567 www. Re-foundobjects.com) whose ‘French Stripe’ deckchairs (£60) have a choice of removable striped cotton covers with names like ‘Biarritz’, ‘St Malo’ and ‘St Tropez’. Their matching table-cloth fabric (180cm wide, £30 per metre cut to the length required) would also make a fantastic impromptu awning, with ropes attached to the corners and slung between branches or anchored on posts in the ground. Some of the loveliest garden furniture I’ve seen comes from ‘Odd’ (01993 830674 www. Oddlimited.com), whose stand you might have admired at the Chelsea Flower Show this year. Their ‘Old Rocker’, is a fully upholstered swinging sofa with tasselled canopy and sides in a choice of plain, striped or floral fabrics – as far a cry from the flimsy green swinging seats on sale in garden centres as a traditional Knole sofa from an Ikea job. The description in their catalogue as ‘the Aga of the garden’ may refer to its price as much as its desirability (it retails at a hefty £2799.00 for a plain canvas version with patterned hangings extra), but it’s definitely one to save up for. As is their ‘Garden Bed’ at £579.00 – a Lloyd Loom wicker recliner on wheels – which I am assured is hardwearing enough for me to imagine being trundled around my seaside garden in for many years to come.



I have never had to leave a garden I’ve created. When I moved from the tiny rooftop terraces that were my lot before making my first proper garden in London ten years ago, it never felt like a terrible wrench. In each case, the  new property had more room in which to garden, and I was able to take my best-loved plants along with me. A Clematis armandii that is still thriving here has survived no fewer than three house moves, and other climbers were sown from seed in the days when I used my ancient VW camper can as a greenhouse, trundling it round from one side of my block of flats to the other in pursuit of the afternoon sun.

Recently, though, I’ve had an inkling of the heartbreak that is involved in leaving a garden in which a sizeable chunk of one’s life, and love, and time, has been invested. I spent an afternoon wandering among the magical hedged and walled compartments of the Lincolnshire garden belonging to the garden designer Arne Maynard – a garden I have known since he and his partner, William Collinson, first began carving it out of the flat Fenland fields fifteen years ago. Their every weekend was spent clearing brambles, planting windbreaks and cleaning each of 30,000 salvaged original bricks by hand – a labour of love that has rewarded them with a romantic two-acre garden of sunlit lawns and herbaceous borders, formal pleached limes and box parterres – an ordered green oasis in the unrelenting and somewhat forbidding local landscape of open fields and sky. The first area they got growing was the kitchen garden and it is still here, one senses, that Maynard’s heart lies – with glorious glimpses of the house’s 17th century façade behind serried ranks of leeks, beans and sweet peas for cutting.  “This place has taught me so much,” he says, stroking the trunks of trees like old friends as he passes. “There are so many memories bound into the paths, the lawns, the trees. And yet it is time to move on.” He and Collinson have put the place up for sale and are already looking forward to creating a new garden – much more wild and free and “woollier round the edges” – in rural Herefordshire.

It is always easier to leave a place when you know where you are going. Some other friends have just exchanged on the coastal house and garden where they have lived for 25 years, with its stunning driftwood terraces and harmonious mounds of sun-loving, drought-tolerant plants. The sale period has been stressful enough, without gardening being added into the equation. “Normally at this stage we’d be thinking of next year, and have cuttings taken and seedlings rooted for planting out in the spring,” says one of them. “But our hands are tied, as we have no idea where we’ll be by then.”  They hope to take a few of their most treasured plants with them, to kick-start the creation of a new garden elsewhere. “I like the idea of bringing something of this place with us,” he reflects.

Sometimes, the leaving of a garden is bound up with grief at the loss of the loved one with whom the garden was created. When Mirabel Osler suddenly lost her husband Michael, with whom she’d made the tree-filled, rose-festooned garden immortalized in her book, ‘A Gentle Plea for Chaos’ (Frances Lincoln £xx), she had absolutely no qualms about leaving the old place after a year and creating a brand new, easy-to-manage garden for herself. “Leave while you still feel good about it, before the garden you loved together becomes a burden,” she counsels. “And never look back. Immortality and gardens don’t work.”  Sixteen years on, her narrow town garden in Ludlow is every bit as feted as the one she left behind.

Arne Maynard has decided not to take anything from his garden with him when he goes. “It’s all staying put – garden furniture, pots, all the plants - the lot,” he declares. “I’d rather make a clean break than take the emotional baggage with us. Besides, everything was chosen specifically for this garden. I don’t want to be burdened at the new place with the obligation to fit it in.’ It also, he says, feels right to leave the garden intact – “rather than with gaps in the borders and an empty space where the chairs and table used to stand.”  He might just allow himself some seed from a rather special cyclamen, but will leave the parent plant for the garden’s next owners to enjoy.

Arne Maynard’s house and garden, complete with all garden furniture, pots and other features, is for sale at £xxx through Jackson Stops 020 7664 6646.



There has been a home-grown feast awaiting us on our last few visits to the seaside house.  The wooden apple crates in which I have done most of my vegetable growing this year have really come up trumps, and we’ve been enjoying broad and french beans, beetroot, courgettes, radishes, loads of lettuce and rocket and, last weekend, the first tiny sweet ‘Tumbler’ tomatoes. The crops WERE a little late – thanks to that slow, cold spring that now seems a lifetime away – but are none the less welcome for that. First to be ready were the radishes, a two-tone torpedo-shaped variety in crimson and white, the seeds for which I’d bought on holiday in France; then came the lettuce – silky, wavy-edged ‘Salad Bowl’ in lime green and russet red that can be pulled leaf by leaf, and crisp little Cos which we have thinned out gradually, eating slim leafy seedlings first, and then fist-sized hearts, leaving about every fourth one to fill out to its full potential. Of the beans, I can recommend the broad bean ‘Sutton’ (Mr Fothergills 0845 1662511/www. mr-fothergills.co.uk), which grows to just 18 inches high but creates sturdy, bushy plants bristling with packed 6in pods. The dwarf french beans (Thompson & Morgan 01473 688821/www. Thompson-Morgan.com) were said not to need staking, but have sent out snaking tendrils two to three feet long, so I have draped them between the cos lettuce heads at the front of the box so the slim green pods can ripen in the sun.

As for the courgettes and tomatoes, we can hardly keep up with the supply. One of the problems with “remote control gardening” of the type that one does at a weekend house is that in hot weather the inch-long courgette one leaves on a Sunday evening has morphed into a marrow by the following Friday. The first task on arrival is to pick absolutely everything that is ripe and ready and put it in the fridge. Luckily, my two-year-old daughter, Mary, loves to help with this – and I do feel pleased that, at this tender age, she is able to learn first-hand that food doesn’t have to come oven-ready and vacuum-packed from a supermarket.  The fact that a good part of the harvest – broad beans and tomatoes in particular – is popped into her mouth en route to the kitchen seems a small price to pay for her assistance; indeed, I am pleased to have produced a child who likes vegetables.

At the risk of sounding unbearably smug, I am also very happy about the money we are saving. When I started growing my own vegetables on an allotment ten years ago, I had fewer financial responsibilities and gardened for the sheer thrill and pleasure of my first crops. A couple of mortgages and a child later, I have become more conscious of the price of good, fresh organic fruit and veg – and came to resent the money shelled out for often mediocre produce from our local box scheme. I reckon we could save ourselves at least  £1000 a year provided we can keep this up.  Of course, once we are living down here full-time, we’ll need more than a couple of old apple crates to feed our family and the friends who pitch up at weekends. As the soil is so stony, I’m contemplating a high-rise potager, with eight crates  in a square around a central tree, bower or bird bath, with a rotation of different crops in each and one permanently given over to asparagus. The only other way to raise the volume of crops we’d need would be to take on an allotment again – and I’d encourage anyone interested in growing their own produce to look into this. The trick is to do as I did and share it with friends: not only does the average plot produce far more than the average family can eat, but sharing the produce also means sharing the work and the watering, enabling you to go off on holiday guilt- and worry-free.

Though it might not seem like it, now is a good time to take an allotment on – clear a small area for winter and early spring crops and sling a tarpaulin or layers of thick cardboard over the rest, to starve off the weeds. Try to use the space for things that are expensive or difficult to find in the shops: I worked out that £ for pound, wild rocket, salad leaves, rhubarb, raspberries and blueberries saved me more money than anything else, while the earthy freshness of home-picked sweet corn, peas and new potatoes can’t be beat.  There are a few things to be sowing or planting out now, including purple sprouting broccoli and spring cabbage (a bit late for sowing, but you may be able to pick up young plants at garden centres), oriental greens and winter spinach. If the water shortages continue, leading the shops to push up prices still further, both you and your bank balance will be very pleased you did.

For information about how to find an allotment contact the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners on 01536 266576/ www. nsalg.org.uk) or the Allotments Regeneration Initiative 01179 631551 farmgarden.org.uk.



In centuries gone by, gardens were made not only to be beautiful; they were useful places, too, with plants grown not just for food and flavourings, but also for their cleansing and healing properties. I was thinking about this the other day, as I explored the beautiful ‘Queen’s Garden’ behind the newly-restored Kew Palace at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. The palace, a striking red-brick mansion built in 1631, became home to King George III, Queen Charlotte and their daughters during the constitutional crisis caused by his illness in the early 18th century, and has recently been sensitively restored and opened to the public for the first time.

The gardens, created around the then dilapidated palace in the 1960s using elements that were fashionable at the time the house was built, took quite a battering during the ten-year, £6.6 million renovation project, but were given a good spruce-up for the grand opening in April. The parterre has geometric box-edged beds filled with lavender, santolina, purple sage and delicate blue spires of perovskia around a central stone pool, and is a stunning foil for the house’s formal façade. But it is the smaller sunken garden to the side - formal beds frothing with more than 200 types of herbs within a shaded laburnum “allee” – that really caught my imagination. Here are all the plants and herbs that a 17th/18th century household would have used as a sort of “herbal medicine chest” against common (and not so common) ailments and diseases, all labelled with quotes from the leading herbalists of the day. Lemon balm (or Melissa officinalis), for instance, “driveth away all melancholie and sadnesse” according to John Gerard, whose famous Herbal was published in 1597, while loosestrife (Lysimachia vulgaris) is “good as a gargle for sore throats” (Culpeper, 1618-54) and an oil made from hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) “doth comfort benummed sinews and joints” (Parkinson, 1629).  What struck me immediately, from my growing interest in herbal remedies, is how little the uses of many of these plants have changed throughout the centuries, with lemon balm tea still recommended as a herbal pick-me-up and hyssop as a relaxant bath for coughs and colds as well as aches and pains. Some of the other herbs had uses of which I was not formerly aware: Lady’s mantle (Alchemilla vulgaris) was said by Parkinson to be of help to “such mades or women that have overgreat flagging breasts”, while wormwood (Artemisia absinthum) was credited as a cure for those “suffering from nocturnal goblin visitors” as well as its continued use as a flea-deterrent.
I fell to thinking how great it would be to have some healing herbs to hand in my own garden, with which to concoct simple remedies and cures. Talking with Jekka McVicar, whose organic herb farm near Bristol won its eleventh gold medal at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show with a display entitled “Herbs are our Past and our Future”, and consulting various contemporary herbals, I have come up with a list of ten top herbs which are easy and effective to use. The following is intended as a rough guide only: though none of these plants is toxic in mild doses, they can occasionally provoke unexpected reactions, so self-medication is not advisable without the initial help of a trained herbalist.

Top of everyone’s list should be rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), a tea made from which is a good general tonic for everything from headaches and indigestion to lung and liver disorders, low blood pressure and depression. Lemon balm is still used as a tea to counter depression, stress and insomnia, and to lower high blood pressure, while hyssop is good for expelling mucus at the end of a cold, as well as a general sedative. Elder is another all-rounder: a tea made from the dried flowers is great for warding off colds (and as a general detoxifier, with added effectiveness against shingles and hayfever), while the berries (1kg berries to 250g sugar, with a grating of ginger root and four cloves) can be stewed into a ‘rob’ to fight coughs, colds and ‘flu. Comfrey is known as “knit-bone”, with chopped leaves used as a poultice for wounds and the tea as a cure for gout, while a peppermint infusion can be used for everything from bad breath and aching feet to indigestion, bloating and (with elderflower) as a tea taken at the start of a cold. Chamomile tea is soothing for insomniacal adults and colicky babies alike, and an infusion can also help heal burns including sunburn; marigold flowers (Calendula officinalis) can help relieve grazes, burns and painful varicose veins. Fennel seed is good for breast-feeding mothers and as an aid to healthy digestion and lower cholesterol, while hawthorn berries, dried and infused in boiling water, are a strong but gentle cardiac tonic, lowering high blood pressure and countering heart palpitations and irregularities. Encouragingly, some of the most effective herbal remedies are derived from weeds – but I’ll save “winning ways with weeds” for a future column.

The Queen’s Gardens can be visited as part of the normal admission fee to the Royal Botanic Gardens (0208 332 5655 for opening hours and prices); there is an additional charge for entry to Kew Palace (ring 0870 751 5179 for details).



In my mother-in-law’s lovely garden in Bristol there is a corkscrew willow tree – about five feet tall and wide – whose twisted branches are covered in pussy-willow puffs in spring and form a striking sculptural silhouette in winter. A similar sized tree would cost at least £40 in the shops, but my mother-in-law got hers for free, by simply sticking in moist soil a large sprig of Salix babylonica ‘Tortuosa’ that had formed part of a church flower arrangement several years ago.

    This got me thinking about the possibility of creating plants from cut flowers. Though few plants “take” as easily as willow, many other flowering shrubs or foliage plants that are commonly found in flower arrangements can be propagated fairly easily from cuttings. Not long ago, it was common for gardeners to propagate their own plants by growing from seed, or from stem, root or leaf cuttings. But the recent spate of “makeover” programmes on television has led the new generation of gardeners to believe that plants are to be bought in, fully-grown from garden centres rather than lovingly raised themselves. The very idea of taking cuttings raises terror in even quite experienced gardeners: I’m ashamed to say that I myself have seldom strayed beyond the most foolproof candidates such as pelargoniums and brugmansia, which I simply stick in a jar of water on a sunny windowsill and wait for the roots to form.

    It was to encourage and revive an interest in propagation that John Cushnie – a landscape gardener but best-known as a regular panellist on BBC Radio 4’s Gardener’s Questiontime – wrote his most recent book How to Propagate: Techniques and Tips for over 1000 Plants (Kyle Cathie £19.99 – see offers box). Cushnie has been growing plants from cuttings for more than 40 years – while still a schoolboy, he raised a bit of extra pocket money by rooting hundreds of chrysanthemum cuttings and growing them on into plants – and it was to him I turned for advice on creating plants from bouquets. “It’s a great way of saving money and letting that gift or floral tribute live on,” he says. “Obviously fresh material is desirable but if the stems are in water and the foliage is fresh with no signs of wilting then there is every chance of success”. At this time of year the things most likely to take are semi-ripe cuttings of conifers and lavender, but by October he says that hardwood cuttings of hydrangea, philadelphus, weigelia and roses can be rooted out in the garden border. Hebe, hypericum and skimmia are other good candidates that are commonly used as greenery in cut flower bunches.

     There are three different types of stem cuttings – softwood (young sappy growth from lilac, lavender and fleshy-stemmed plants such as busy lizzies and begonias), semi-ripe (springy shoots that bend but do not snap which can be taken July to October) and hardwood cuttings that are twiggy sticks of this year’s growth and best taken after leaf-fall in October or November. Each type requires special treatment, so exact instructions are impossible to give here – but it’s always crucial to water the plant well a day or two beforehand, to use a very sharp knife or razor blade (reducing damage to the stem) and to make sure that hands, tools and work surfaces are scrupulously clean - many cuttings fail due to rot or disease setting in to the wound. For detailed instructions for taking your own cuttings from a huge variety of plants, buy Cushnie’s book, or order an excellent DVD on the topic made by another of the real experts – Derry Watkins of Special Plants nursery in Wiltshire (see offers box).

   If, like my mother-in-law’s willow, the stems in your bouquet have already sprouted roots in the vase, Cushnie advises taking advantage of this and letting them continue. “The trick is to transfer the water loving rooted plant to compost,” he says. “Remove the stems you don’t need and gradually add soil to the water until it becomes wet compost. At that stage pot the cuttings, weaning them off the waterlogged conditions as you go.”

     Creating plants from cuttings is a lovely way of making something lasting from a particularly special bouquet – one given for a silver or golden wedding anniversary, perhaps, or even flowers from a funeral. The most obvious example, of course, is a bride’s bouquet, which might contain roses, jasmine, honeysuckle, mimosa or frothy white philadelphus (commonly known as ‘bride’s blossom’) – all of which are relatively easy to raise from cuttings. Myrtle is another bride’s favourite which can be propagated with ease –in fact, many of the mature myrtle trees in large public and private gardens in the UK are descendants of cuttings from sprigs of myrtle in Queen Victoria’s wedding bouquet nearly a hundred and fifty years ago.


04 Sep 2006 - HYDRANGEAS

No one who has seen it will ever forget Hydrangea Valley at Trebah Gardens in Cornwall. More than two acres of mop-head hydrangeas form a frothing sea of blue and white that flows right down to the river at the garden’s southern boundary. Seldom is such intense colour seen in such a broad expanse: on a sultry day in late summer, when the sky and water beyond take on the same hue, it can feel like drowning in an ocean of blue.

Seeing Hydrangea macrophylla in a dramatic mass is one thing; the single mophead specimen in a suburban garden is another. Though dark red varieties such as ‘Sunset’ can hold their colour well into winter, and are one of the few dried flowers I allow in my house, it would take a lot of skill and imagination to make the bright blue and bubblegum pink flowerheads look anything other than artificial. Is it the fact that the colour itself can be manipulated (add lime to acid soils to turn flowers pink, or sequestered iron for blue), that, for me, links them forever with Barbie dolls and blue rinses?

But there are other hydrangeas with subtler charms. Come August and September, when the mainstays of late summer have given their best, the crisp white flowers of species hydrangeas are a cooler alternative to the sizzling reds and oranges of a ‘hot’ border. And they can even thrive in shade. Forget the blowsiness of the mopheads; ‘lacecap’ hydrangeas have elegant horizontal flower heads with central clusters of the small, fertile flowers (often cream or purple) surrounded by the familiar four-leaf sterile bracts. On a large bush, thrown into relief by healthy green foliage, the effect is, indeed, akin to circles of fine handmade lace laid out to dry. H. paniculata and its hybrids are another stylish option, with conical panicles of creamy white buds and flowers that become pink-tinged with age and can often top 12 inches in length. Names like ‘Brussels Lace’ and ‘White Moth’ bear testimony to their delicate beauty – a friend ordered twenty ‘Brussels Lace’ paniculatas to decorate a garden for her wedding.

Another great favourite is Hydrangea aspera subsp. sargentiana with dinner-plate heads of small mauve fertile flowers surrounded by a ring of larger white sterile blooms. I am thinking of planting this in a corner of my London garden where a winter-flowering cherry tree is giving up the ghost. The long velvety leaves are attractive from early summer, and there are creamy-green buds long before the electric-violet flowerheads open in late August.  Partial shade is its preferred habitat, and the stunning colour combination will complement the silvers and smoky purples in the sunnier parts of my plot.

I remember the first time I saw a large lace-cap hydrangea in full bloom. It was late summer in a garden down in Dorset, where a table had been laid for tea in front of a bank of snowy-white blooms. It seemed to me the height of Edwardian elegance, though these classic flowers are equally at home in modern gardens. Garden designer Anthony Noel used white lace-caps in antique terracotta pots to bring pop-star glamour to the formal garden he designed for Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant. He also likes to stand pots of the bright blue varieties around ponds and swimming pools (see box left for details of a lecture by Anthony Noel). Of the cultivated lacecaps, H. serrata ‘Bluebird’ is highly sought-after, bearing blue florets on acid and pink on alkaline soil, and flowering well into autumn, when the foliage turns red. H. s. ‘Grayswood’ is pure white, as is H. macrophylla ‘Veitchii, though the flowers of the latter fade to soft pink as they age.

If you’re still sold on those huge mop-head blooms, there are a couple of stunners to look out for. Hydrangea arborescens, or the snowhill hydrangea, is one of the most opulent-looking shrubs, forming a loose mound covered in large creamy spheres. H. a. ‘Grandiflora’ has attractive greenish flowerheads fading to pink, while H. a. ‘Annabelle’ is as glamorous as the nightclub of that name, with pure white snowball heads and pretty pointed leaves.  When it comes to cultivation, hydrangeas are reliably easy, as long as you can keep them moist in hot weather. The best way of doing this is by digging in plenty of well-rotted organic material when planting, and by mulching with a deep layer of compost or bark when the soil is wet. For the biggest and best flowers, prune immediately after flowering (except H. paniculata and H. arborescens which flower on the current year’s growth an d can be cut back hard in March).  The catch is that then you lose the lovely faded flowerheads, so prune out old woody branches close to the ground and leave a few blooms to see you through winter.

Trebah, nr Falmouth, Cornwall is open daily 10.30am-5pm (01326 252200).



Every year in the heat of the summer, a group of garden writers, growers and designers meet to select over lunch the International Flower Bulb Centre’s official bulb of the year. Each of the twenty or so participants has to nominate two bulbs – one spring-flowering, one autumn - and try to coax, convince or cajole their colleagues into voting for them. I’ve always found gardeners a pretty mild-tempered lot in my experience, so I’ve been amazed, whenever I’ve been on the panel, by the heat and fervour of the debate.

This autumn’s clear winner (selected in summer 2005) is Muscari latifolium – a variation on the humble grape hyacinth. There are many species and cultivars of Muscari, most of which are variations on the theme of an inverted, miniature bunch of grapes in different shades of blue, but there are a few that really stand out. M. latifolium is one of them. “The Marge Simpson of the garden” according to the panellist who championed it, has a striking bright blue tuft of flowers (or “grapes”) on top of a darker, almost indigo body. It may be small – only 6-7cm high – but it can pack a mighty punch in the garden, planted in river-like swathes as at The Eden Project, or mixed with other spring flowers in an orchard or meadow. Other varieties with this unsual “two-tone” effect include ‘Mount Hood’ (deep blue florets at the base of the flower-spike and white at the top), the sombrely beautiful M. neglectum (lower bells of darkest blue-black rimmed with white, with violet-blue tips) and M. macrocarpum ‘Golden Fragrance’, feted for its greenish- yellow flowers, neatly rimmed with the purplish maroon of the top tuft of unopened buds. Two of the major bulb suppliers chose to put a photograph of the latter on the front of their autumn catalogues, so I’m tempted to try it – as a foil, perhaps, for the grapey-mauve Fritillaria persica, or woven among dwarf iris or other small spring bulbs.

There are white forms of grape hyacinth (of which M. botryoides ‘Album’ is often thought to be the best, pink forms (‘Sunrise’) and grape hyacinths in every single shade of blue, from the pale blue ‘Valerie Finnis’ through bright mid-blue (‘Cantab’) to the intense deep ‘Heavenly Blue’. M. ‘Dark Eyes’ even has a silvery-white rim around each royal blue bell. There are also double-flowered types where each unassuming flower has burst into a candy-floss froth of blue – M. comosum ‘Plumosum’ (or the feather hyacinth) is particularly unusual, with a crown of Medusa-like tassels or tendrils on top of a violet-blue flower-spike.

Most Muscari are easy to grow from bulbs – indeed, they have a reputation for spreading like wildfire in the garden and crowding out other, more delicate plants. Some gardeners are understandably loath to plant them in the border for this reason, but they do make excellent container plants. Cram the bulbs thickly into your chosen container – they’ll manage to look pretty and cottagey in worn terracotta, or sculptural and modern in a contemporary pot in a colour that complements those electric blue blooms. Or do as garden designer Anthony Noel did and plant them through a pyramid of soil enclosed by fine-grade chicken wire for a stylish living obelisk of blooms. I sometimes plant small bulbs such as this in old cracked jugs or teacups and bring them inside when the buds are showing, where the lovely little flowers can be appreciated at close quarters. Don’t bring grape hyacinths inside too early, however, or the foliage will grow over-long at the expense of the flowers.

In container planting, too, award-winning M. latifolium has the edge over other varieties. As the Latin name suggests, its leaves are broader and flatter, wrapping themselves, tulip-like, around the stem of each flower – an elegant improvement on the usual strappy green spears that look messy in the garden when the plant is dying down.

As for the results of this year’s lunch, they must be fiercely guarded until this time next year. What I can tell you is that my own favourite spring-flowering bulb came a close second after a fierce argument. And that the champion of another, rather rare form of grape hyacinth got so cross I thought she was going to slam down her score-sheet and storm out. Forget Pop Idol; it’s not a patch on Bulb Idol…

The International Flower Bulb Centre is a Dutch–based organization offering free advice and inspiration on using bulbs in the garden. For a free booklet on “How to Create Contemporary Containers with Spring Bulbs, ring 0207 915 4776 or visit www. flowerbulbs.co.uk.
Bloms (01234 709099/ www blomsbulbs.com) and De Jager (01622 840229) offer all the types of Muscari listed. There should also be plenty among the spring bulbs on sale at the Royal Horticultural Society’s next show in the RHS Halls, Greycoat Street, London SW1 on 12 and 13 September, 11am-7pm Tues (£5) and 10am-5pm (£3); RHS members free. 
To book tickets in advance, call 0845 612 1253.


The onset of autumn divides gardeners into two camps. Some can hardly wait to get out with the secateurs to cut back dried perennials, sweep up leaves and put the garden to bed beneath a blanket of mulch. Others simply relax and let nature take its course. Whether the latter are lazy, love the look of a little autumnal untidiness, or have the needs of wildlife in mind, there is undeniable beauty to be found in the dried seedheads of many garden plants – it’s not just the birds we deprive when we cut them all down.

Seedheads in the Garden, by Noel Kingsbury (Frances Lincoln) celebrates seedheads in all their glory and makes a case for considering their autumn appearance when selecting plants for the garden. Few would perhaps go as far as the Dutch designer Piet Oudolf, who declared that “a plant is only worth growing if it looks good when it is dead”, but who can deny the appeal of feathery dried miscanthus plumes in the low afternoon light, the filigree brooch heads of sea holly (Eryngium giganteum) or of poppy pepperpots, sputnik alliums, firework fennel heads and wispy whorls of old man’s beard The book includes a directory of plants with special reference to their individual autumn appearance and care, but also offers advice on combining those with contrasting colour, shape, height and growth habit to create stunning autumn effects. Seedheads with dark, distinct outlines (sedums, monardas and phlomis, for instance) are wonderfully offset by a pale nebulous background of bleached grasses, while the shiny orange capsules of Iris pseudacorus [p14] provide a startling injection of colour among reeds and grasses by a pond.

However much one may love this autumnal beauty, some plants will inevitably need to be cut right down, and one of my favourite guides to have to hand has just been re-published in a revised and expanded edition. The Well-Tended Perennial Garden by Tracy DiSabato-Aust (see below for offer) is an unusually thorough and detailed manual covering all aspects of plant cultivation, but with specific chapters on pruning and cutting back. Don’t be put off by Tracy’s Bo Derek-style plaits in the author’s photo: dubbed “The Queen of Deadheading” in her native Ohio, she is a well-known designer and lecturer in the States, and even has a thing or two to teach our own Beth Chatto, who in the sleeve notes admits to having “spent two days making notes to pin up on the potting shed wall – and that after 60 years of gardening.” The book is, indeed, full of useful and inspirational ideas – cutting back plants earlier in the summer (to revive the foliage) in two stages, so as to cause less trauma to both plant and gardener, and leave less of a gap in the garden; pruning to stagger height or blooming time to create specific effects in the border; pruning to extend the life of short-lived perennials and even biennials such as hollyhocks and foxgloves, as well as her own time-worn tips as to what to cut and what to leave in autumn. Cutting back in high summer (perhaps before an annual holiday) can extend the amount of autumn foliage and seedheads good enough to leave till spring, but mildewed mint and monarda, blackened geraniums and veronicas, felled rudbeckias and discoloured imperata grasses are among those Tracy always gives the chop. She also advises losing seedheads when the foliage is the main autumn interest, citing Stachys byzantina (lambs’ ears) and heuchera as examples. When cutting back any plant, a little coddling reaps rewards: keep the plant well-watered, areate the soil around it with a little light hoeing or weeding, and top-dress with garden compost or a liquid feed.

To return to the two camps of gardeners: like many, I fall somewhere between the two. My idea of an autumn tidy up is to spend a warm afternoon, as I did recently, cutting back plants whose remains are straggly, soggy or simply not an asset to the garden, clearing away any dead or diseased material around the base, and making sure that the seedheads I leave are tough enough to withstand the first strong winds and rain. The garden looked wonderfully well-groomed when I’d finished – and the stachys and sisyrinchiums in particular really benefited from having their seedheads cut right down – but I’m glad that I stopped when I did. Some plants – like the lovely Erisymum ‘Bowles Mauve’, sedums, morning glory and pineapple lily, were still gamely flowering; others, like the alliums and acanthus really did have seedheads worth keeping. And I must confess to a little light cheating: where my splendid spherical Allium cristophii seedheads had begun to blow over, I stuck them firmly back in the soil – and not always in the same place. Well, what is gardening if not the ambition to improve on nature, in whichever way we choose?


25 Sept 2006 - CEZANNE’S GARDEN

Artists’ gardens are fascinating places, especially where there is a strong connection between the gardens and the art. William Morris, Emil Nolde and Patrick Heron are among the many artists who drew on their gardens for inspiration; for Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore the garden was both workplace and gallery; while Claude Monet created the glorious garden at Giverny expressly in order to paint it. For Paul Cezanne, whose paintings bridged the gap between impressionism and the abstract advance into cubism, gardens were a recurring theme, leading him to create a studio in the garden at Les Lauves, the Provencal property in which he was to paint every day for the final four years of his life. In celebration of the centenary of his death – following a collapse on a painting expedition during a thunderstorm at the age of 66 – Tate Britain is holding an exhbition (“Cezanne in Britain” see details below) of his works held in British collections, which includes several with a garden theme.

    It is for vast monumental landscapes, such as those of the iconic Mont Sainte- Victoire, rather than intimate garden scenes, that Cezanne is best known - but he also found endless inspiration in the grounds of the houses he grew up in and around. Indeed, some of his most enduring motifs – tunnels of trees, paths through woodland, views through a cross-hatching of branches or hazy backlit flowers and foliage – have their roots in these gardens, which were atmospheric and often overgrown places as opposed to the formal, flower-filled borders that were the fashion of the day.

Cezanne’s family home, the Jas de Bouffan, with its melancholic mature garden of ancient trees and a dark, formal pool with mesmerising reflections, was important from the start of the artist’s career. No fewer than 39 oil paintings and 17 watercolours were produced here, including the almost impressionistic “Pool at the Jas de Bouffan”, and countless views of the red-roofed house seen across a sunlit lawn or through a tracery of chestnut tree branches, some of which are featured in the exhibition.  The equally gloomy grounds at the neighbouring neo-gothic Chateau Noir, which Cezanne tried to buy when forced out of the Jas de Bouffan following his mother’s death, were also a great inspiration – he loved its gnarled, ivy-clad trees and crumbling terraces, and was still painting it when he moved to Les Lauves, the property he bought in 1901, just five years before his untimely death.  It was here - a sloping half-acre plot with fine views out over Aix and the Mont Sainte-Victoire - that Cezanne’s great love of gardens could really take root. For him this was an unspoiled, unsuburbanized corner in which he could create a sanctuary from the world and from his frequent dark depressive moods. Though the house he built there was certainly big enough, Cezanne chose not to live at Les Lauves, but walked up the hill every day from the flat he shared with his wife and either painted in the studio (with its 3m slit in the wall for passing out paintings) or shady terrace, or made excursions out into the surrounding countryside to draw or paint direct from nature. The garden itself, with its shaggy shrubs, flowering trees, labyrinthine paths and frequent resting places made from rough-hewn blocks of stone, was a favourite place to walk and paint – and he often included fruit and potted pelargoniums from the terrace in still lifes – there are a couple in the exhibition from this period.  Vallier, his trusted gardener, was instructed not to tidy up too much in the wilder reaches of the garden, but to maintain the preferred air of poetic neglect. It is fitting that one of Cezanne’s best-loved paintings, “Portrait of Gardener Vallier” (now held at Tate Britain and also shown in the exhibition) was his final work completed at Les Lauves.

Les Lauves and Jas de Bouffan were opened to the public for the first time this spring (for details see below) so you can visit and see for yourself the strong correlations between Cezanne’s gardens and his art. Walking in an painter’s footsteps and appreciating the effort to which he went to compose particular effects can help us when we come to designing our own spaces. No one knew better the importance of well-constructed views than Cezanne, whether at the end of an avenue or out across the surrounding landscape; and in his use of plants as a frame or veil in the foreground one could even say he pioneered the current fashion for gauzy or “see-through” plants. It can also help us come to a deeper understanding of the natural world, both cultivated and wild.  As Cezanne put it, “Nature is not on the surface; it is in the depths. Colours are the surface expression of the depth. They grow up from the roots of the world”.

Cezanne in Britain, featuring 40 works by the artist that are held in British collections, is at the National Gallery’s Sunley Room, Piccadilly, London SW1 from 4 October 2006 to 7 January 2007, admission free. For further information visit nationalgallery.org.uk.
Cezanne’s Garden by Derek Fell is published by Simon & Schuster $35.
For further information on visiting Jas de Bouffan or the studio and garden at Les Lauves, and for details of other commemorative events in Aix-en-Provence, visit www.atelier-cezanne.com or www.cezanne-2006.com


30 Sep 2007 - LATE FLOWERS

In the lovely walled garden in our local park the other morning I counted no fewer than 45 different flowers still in bloom. Some, like the lychnis, pink valerian and cranesbill geraniums, were hangers-on from summer, seduced into staying by the unseasonably warm sunshine. Others, such as sedums, michaelmas daisies and dahlias, were classic autumn plants, whose moment of glory had come. The brightest blooms, however, were in the borders devoted to summer bedding, where this year’s displays have been truly spectacular.

There must be a revolutionary in the parks department. Some brave soul has cast aside the regimental rows and concentric circles beloved of municipal bedding schemes and gone for a wilder - and much more fashionable - look. It’s not often I get ideas for planting from our park, but I found myself jotting down notes for future years – and pass them on here for those after an unusual scheme for a bed or large container for next summer. All the plants used are readily available from garden centres, or can be raised quite easily in a greenhouse from seed.

The largest bed was a jewel-bright jumble of scarlet, deep purple and green flowers and vegetables, with dots of orange and white as contrast. Ruby chard, red ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ dahlias and Nicotiana sylvestris were the large  ‘anchor’ plants, each set a foot or so apart and now several feet high – the chard’s red stem and veins in its glossy rumpled leaves illuminated by the low slanting sun. The gaps between were filled with red and deep blue salvias, the foxtail plumes of Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’ and – a real stroke of genius – crisply curled heads of dark purple kale, while the pinprick violet heads of Verbena bonariensis on their tall spindly stems, waved in a purple haze overhead. The odd orange dahlia (‘David Howard’, I think, with his sunset-coloured blooms) shone like a light among all this rich splendour, while an edging of orange pot marigolds, purple basil and parsley spilled onto paths. It was an exercise not only in dramatic colour, but also in how to combine decorative herbs and vegetables in an ornamental border.

Another edible plant – sweetcorn - took pride of place in the second scheme. This was no humble corn-on-the-cob, however, but a multi-coloured maize with mottled brown, white and yellow cobs and leaves striped red, green and brown like smart mattress ticking. In amongst it were white cosmos flowers, fluttering like butterflies up five-foot stems, more fragrant white trumpets of Nicotiana sylvestris, and fuzzy white pennisetum grasses forming a fringe around the edge. I’m surprised, given the level of crime in our part of south London, that no one had tried to steal the corn cobs, but perhaps they’d been put off by the colour – varieties such as ‘Indian Summer’ (seeds from Thompson & Morgan 01473 688821/www.thompson-morgan.com) have outlandish white, red and purple kernels on 8 inch cobs, but are every bit as tasty as the plain yellow types.

In my London back garden, other flowers were still going strong. Blood red, orange and ochre nasturtiums are romping through the leaves of the aptly-named crimson glory vine (Vitis cognetiae), which light up like church windows in the low afternoon sun. Is it me, or do nasturtiums have a sense of recklessness, saving their greenest, most luscious leaves for the weeks and days before the frost will catch them? By the time you read this, those festive swags may have turned overnight to slimy green spaghetti that needs scraping off the ground. The morning glories, too, have been sending out stunning sky-blue blooms each day – I counted twenty this morning – which linger long into the afternoon. They look to me like bunting, fluttering in defiance of the inevitable first frosts. Though these late flowers are often raggedy, tattered things beside the fat perfect blooms of summer, they have a certain decadent beauty – like the crumpled clothes, tumble-down hair and danced-out glow of young girls at the end of a party. They certainly don’t deserve to be cut down and bundled up in an over-zealous autumn tidy-up. If our flowers want to keep dancing, who are we to call time?

Back in the park, I stopped to tell one of the gardeners how much I admired the display. “All be coming out next week,” he said dourly. And what would take the place of such an inspirational scheme, I wondered? No surprises there. It’ll be back to the usual polyanthus and wallflowers, I’m afraid.



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