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October - November - December 2006

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01 Oct 2006 - AUTUMN ROSES

It has, in the words of the song, been a good year for the roses. Or rather, a good autumn. There’s a splendid second show of blooms this season – even on old roses and others that usually give their all in summer with just a smattering of autumn flowers. I’ve had twenty or more pink-tinged heads at a time on the lovely ‘Madame Alfred Carriere’ that tumbles over the back wall of my London garden, and have been admiring the performance of other varieties elsewhere. Queen Mary’s Rose Garden in Regents Park – one of my favourite formal rose gardens with more than 60,000 roses planted in radiating beds or scrambling along ropes in Fragonard swags – looked almost as colourful when I visited in September as it had done back in June.

It seems we have our increasingly unpredictable climate to thank.  The heatwave earlier in the year apparently prevented much of the dried feed traditionally put down for roses in spring from being taken up, so it is only now, after all that late summer rain, that the plants are really benefiting, with record numbers of buds opening in the gentle autumn sunshine. There is something gloriously abundant about seeing roses blooming alongside berries such as black elder and orange pyracanthus – the last reminders of summer with the harbingers of winter. The display is all the more startling when it appears on the same plant – and rugosa roses are particularly obliging here, with large orange-red hips from summer’s blooms nestling among the new autumn flowers. (Rosa rugosa ‘Alba’ and other white-flowered varieties provide a more attractive contrast, to my mind, than the usual bright magenta or pink).

Rugosas are among the handful of roses that can regularly be relied upon to perform well in autumn. Hybrid musks, such as the lovely creamy-white ‘Prosperity’ and apricot ‘Buff Beauty’ respond well to the damper conditions that autumn usually brings, while that old favourite, ‘Bonica’, with its dainty clusters of sugar-pink flowers, is prime among the modern shrub roses that put on a good late summer show. For me, though, none of these can compare to the simple beauty of the species climber, Rosa moschata, with its fragrant, five-petalled white flowers held in trusses against glaucous grey foliage. A late bloomer, flowering in mid-July at the earliest, it often saves its best blooms until the second week in October, and would look magical romping up into the boughs of a blazing prunus or parrotia tree  (it can reach 50ft), or scrambling up a wall of scarlet Virginia creeper.

With most roses, and in most autumns, it is the hips rather than the flowers that provide the main interest from late September on.  Those of the delicate species roses are often particularly fine – Rosa rugosa’s are like cherry tomatoes, R. moyesii’s like long orange gourds, while my favourite R. glauca’s are bunched like grapes among the blue-grey foliage. R. pimpinellifolia, the Scottish rose, has deep polished brown hips, while for a real curiosity, R. x wintoniensis has huge clusters of flagon-shaped hips with a purplish bloom. The Catch 22 is that to get the best blooms one should prune after flowering, which means no hips – with my rugosas at the seaside, I dead-head around fifty per cent and leave the rest to fruit.

Autumn is also the season for planting new roses in the garden. The best way to select them is to visit a rose garden or nursery in summer when the plants are in full bloom and take a notebook or digital camera with you. Failing that, you can look at photographs of roses, and those in Dermot O’Neal’s new book Roses Revealed (Kyle Cathie, £25) are exceptional. Unlike many rose books and catalogues, which organize the roses by type or colour, this sorts them according to the purpose or location required – for hedges, security (lots of thorns), trailing over walls, pots and containers, small gardens, cut flowers and so on. Leafing through Sarah Cuttle’s photographs, I was sorely tempted by ‘Fruhlingsgold’ (tiny pale yellow flowers in early May), ‘Guinee’ (dark velvety scarlet climber), raspberry-ripple striped ‘Variegata di Bologna’ and ‘The Generous Gardener’ (sumptuous shell-pink cup-shaped blooms scented with myrrh and musk, disease-resistant and, with a name like that, begging to be given as a present). Trouble is, with only my seaside garden with space to plant in, I should really stick to the hardy rugosas – the creamy amber hybrid ‘Agnes’ has a particularly long flowering period and a light and fruity scent.  Incidentally, when it comes to roses with autumn interest, Dermot O’Neal favours ‘Centenaire de Lourdes’- an unusual French Floribunda from the1950s, which has abundant semi-double pink flowers opening from deep crimson buds, a jasmine scent and clusters of bright orange hips.



Some bulbs, like snowdrops, crocus and species narcissi, look best planted in great sweeping swathes. There are few more thrilling sights than a woodland carpeted with snowdrops, or an expanse of crocus illuminated by the low morning sun. Other spring flowers – and now is the time for planting bulbs and corms – work best in small intimate spaces where the individual blooms can be seen and admired. Some rarer types of iris or fritillary are so expensive that one would have to be a millionaire to afford enough to make an impact through sheer volume of planting. Others have such fine markings, or are so shy and reclusive in habit, that they need to be given a special stage, as it were, on which to shine.

Some of you may have a suitable place in the garden for these diminuitive beauties – a raised bed by a doorway, for instance, or a section of rockery that would raise miniature iris, species tulips or anemones up to eye level. Contrasting ground cover will often show off the flowers to best advantage, and the fresh bright greens of early spring are ideal. I shall never forget seeing scarlet Anemone fulgens with its black-fringed eye among the chartreuse bracts of Euphorbia myrsinites at Beth Chatto’s famous Gravel Garden in Essex.

For others, containers will be the choice for the most cherished spring bulbs. You don’t even need a garden - when I lived in a flat, my study looked out onto a small balcony crammed with potted treasures that I would regularly re-plant and rearrange – early spring saw a trough of pretty narcissus ‘Minnow’ as a backdrop with shorter plants such as blue muscari or scillas, white cyclamen and tiny creamy Tulipa turkestanica in small pots in the foreground. Any of these, separated from its companions and brought inside for a spell on my desk, would provide respite for eyes weary from hours at a computer screen. It is only at close quarters that one notices the different variations of yellow in a single daffodil bloom, or can admire the painterly streaks on the inner petals of a species tulip.

Even now that I have a garden, I still plant up a few special small bulbs – some old favourites, some new impulse buys – in containers that can be moved about or even brought inside as each comes into its own. Ensure the pot is free-draining, use regular or bulb compost, and top with half an inch of pale horticultural grit or gravel after planting.

Dwarf irises are a longstanding weakness of mine – ‘Katharine Hodgkin’ in particular, with its curious sea-green colouring and delicate markings, and the fresher blues like ‘Springtime’ and ‘Cantab’. Every February I look forward to the deep purple nibs of I. histroides ‘George’ unfurling around the potted fig tree outside my London french windows, but I noticed the show was not as impressive last year, so have replenished the planting with 20 new bulbs. (Small spring bulbs are great for filling in spaces under deciduous trees, where they can bloom long before the canopy fills out and blocks the light.) You might like to treat yourself to ‘Natascha’ - the first near-white reticulata iris, with delicate flowers suffused with bluish veining and an orange-yellow stripe on the petals (Bloms – see below – are selling at £6.20 for 10 bulbs).

Species tulips are always especially lovely in pots, and favourites of mine include Tulipa turkestanica (between five and nine creamy-white flowers per stem, with a greenish bronze exterior) and T. humilis ‘Persian Pearl’ (as beautiful as its name suggests, with gleaming purple pointed petals around a golden centre). This year I succumbed to the charms of T. humilis ‘Alba Caerulea’ (pure white with a steel-blue centre), T. polychroma (starry white and yellow blooms against prostrate blue-green foliage) and the exotic T. acuminata – its tapering pointed petals straight out of a Persian miniature.

Sometimes it’s fun to turn the tables and plant a few of the bulbs usually grown en masse in a tiny pot. Snowdrops and crocuses work surprisingly well in my experience, and can be appreciated in an entirely different way on a desk or bedside table. Treat yourself to a few of the more unusual snowdrop varieties such as Galanthus nivalis ‘Viridapicis’ with its green-tipped petals, or delicately-marked crocuses like ‘Prins Claus’ (purple outer petals, white inner), ‘Gipsy Girl’ (butter gold feathered with chocolate brown) and C. minimus (feathered violet outer petals, rich mauve inner). They can always go out in the garden next year.

Bloms (01234 709099/ www.blomsbulbs.com) and De Jaeger (01622 840229) have a good selection of spring bulbs for planting now.


15 Oct 2006 - TERRARIUMS

I was intrigued to find terrariums – interior gardens in clear glass containers – featured in last month’s Wallpaper magazine. What was a publication devoted to hip modern design doing with objects associated with dark Victorian drawing rooms? These, of course, were not any old terrariums (or should that be terraria?), but “artworks” by New York artist Paula Hayes featuring miniature landscapes painstakingly installed in sinuous, hand-blown contemporary glass vessels. Stunning though they were, the price-tag of between $6500 and $15,000 apiece made me wonder whether the time wasn’t right for a DIY terrarium revival.  They’re easy enough to make, provided you select a suitable container, use sterilized soil with good drainage, and choose plants that have similar light, heat and humidity requirements.

The first terrarium was apparently created by London doctor and amateur botanist Nathaniel Ward in 1827. Concerned that pollution from local industries was killing off his fern collection, he was intrigued to find a fern growing healthily in a glass jar in which he was keeping caterpillar cocoons for study. His subsequent glass ferneries were prototypes for the large “Wardian cases” taken on voyages of discovery to enable exotic plants to survive the long passage home. Smaller versions, often with elaborate scrolling ironwork and filled with African violets or colourful foliage plants, were soon a fashionable feature in well-to-do homes. Terrariums enjoyed a brief comeback in the 1960s and ‘70s, with fern-filled fish bowls strung in macramé holders against hessian-covered walls, but then sank back into the style doldrums. Could their moment have come again?

Ready-made terrariums are available from specialist shops or websites such as terrariums.net, but can be created from any water-tight clear glass container such as a fish bowl, aquarium, large jar, jug or wine-making demi-john. Narrow-mouthed vessels will be harder to plant, but enjoy higher humidity and need less watering, while more open containers are suitable for drought-tolerant succulents and will be less susceptible to infestation and disease. Whatever your container and planting, the first step is to provide some drainage up to a quarter of the total height of the glass. Make sure all material is sterile by rinsing gravel and rocks etc in boiling water and, if soil has not been bought in ready sterilized, heating in an oven to 200 degrees F. (Remember, the terrarium environment is one in which bacteria and disease, as well as plants, will thrive.) A sprinkling of horticultural charcoal over the pebbles should stop standing water smelling, while a further layer of sphagnum moss will prevent soil spoiling the drainage layer. A good inch and a half or so of soil should follow – patted flat or formed into miniature hills and valleys as the desired effect and viewing point dictate. When it comes to planting, you’ll need all the ingenuity of folk who construct ships in bottles – for narrow-mouthed jars and taller containers, teaspoons tied on sticks can be turned into spades, while forks become rakes, and tweezers, tongs and chopsticks can be pressed into use for planting. A cork on a bamboo cane can be handy for tamping down soil around plants – and don’t forget long skinny scissors for pruning. Even the smallest plants will grow fast in their sheltered environment, mystifying visitors as to how they might have got there.

Rocks, coloured pebbles, crystals, moss and other accessories can be added after planting. Then mist the whole landscape to clean soil off the leaves and glass and give the plants a drink. Leave the cover off until the leaves are completely dry, and mist every few days for a couple of weeks, taking care not to over-water. An established terrarium has a micro-climate all its own: moisture transpired through the leaves will condense on the glass and drip down to moisten the soil. Completely closed containers will only need watering once every 4-6 months – but different plants will have different requirements, so it’s a matter of experimenting. As a rule of thumb, large condensation droplets on the inside of the lid mean that more ventilation is needed.

Small ferns, miniature bamboos and mosses, creeping fig (Ficus pumila) and mind-your-own-business (soleirolia) are all well-suited to life in a terrarium, and you could even experiment with tropical technicolor caladiums and calatheas. For a more modern look – and lower maintenance – try a more open container with succulents and stonecrops. Or imitate Paula Hayes and plant them up in a lunar landscape of coloured slate chippings and chunks of clear crystal. You’ll impress any readers of Wallpaper magazine – and save yourself a few thousand dollars at the same time.

For further information on Paula Hayes’ work, visit paulahayes.com.



We often blame America for the commercialization of Hallowe’en, but when I was in the States one October, I found a celebration of autumn that went far beyond tacky trick-or-treating. No porch or doorway, from New York to New Orleans, was without its collection of colourful carved jack-o’-lanterns stacked up the steps, while piles of pumpkins were for sale on street corners, from bulbous monsters five feet across to tiddlers for ranging along windowsills. Punctuated by these enormous and improbable fruits, city life took on a jolly, festive feeling, and the scent of pumpkin pie and hot cider hung in the air.

    Long before anyone terrorized the neighbourhood dressed as a spook, Hallowe’en was a pagan celebration to mark the end of the autumn harvest and the onset of winter. November 1st was the Celtic New Year, but the partying began the night before, with the decking of halls with seasonal produce and a communal harvest supper. As on the Mexican Day of the Dead, there was a belief that the gap between the worlds of the living and the dead was opened on this night, and food was left out for ghosts and roaming spirits, too. Whatever one’s beliefs, autumn is a great time for a party, and it feels good to mark the changing of the seasons. Combine harvesting your remaining produce with a timely prune and tidy-up and you’ll have lots of lovely materials to bring inside.

     I love to fill the house with jugs of hips, haws and berries – scarlet rosehips, orange pyracanthus, glossy black elderberries and smoky-blue-grey sloes – and string up swags of hops and tawny grapevines. For a dinner party, it’s fun to strew the table-top with brightly-coloured leaves, and make small squashes and pumpkins into simple candle holders (dug out to the diameter of the candle and 5cm deep) arranged on a dish of nuts. And (though I haven’t yet tried this myself), a friend carefully snips off the casings from Chinese lanterns around the berries and slips them on to plain white fairy lights – fiddly, but apparently well worth it, and just as pretty when the orange fades to a bleached white skeleton.

    With children around, the gathering and creating of autumn decorations is all part of the fun, and there are some great seasonal ideas in Nature’s Playground: Activities, Crafts and Games to Encourage Children to Get Outdoors by Fiona Danks and Jo Schofer (Frances Lincoln £16.99). Leaves, conkers, acorns, rosehips, feathers, grass plumes, ‘helicopter’ maple and honesty seedheads can be strung on strings from branches or wooden batons to make “forest mobiles”, or arranged within a twiggy frame to form Andy Goldsworthy-style pictures or ‘magic carpets’ on a table, floor or lawn.  Coloured leaves and grasses can be stuck or stapled on to cardboard bandanas to make festive ‘woodland crowns’ or masks – the more ambitious could even use an old shawl to make a leafy cloak. Use only non-toxic materials with younger children – and don’t forget to save some seeds, hips and berries (including honesty seedheads) in a cool dry place for homespun Christmas decorations – of which more in a future column.

    Hallowe’en wouldn’t be Hallowe’en without pumpkin lanterns, of course, and I love the annual ritual of gorging out the insides (keeping the flesh for soup and the seeds to be toasted in the oven as nutty snacks) and marking out a face to cut (always harder than you think) with a sharp knife. This year, I’ll be carving the usual toothy grin and triangle eyes to thrill my daughter and her friends. But I’ll also be copying some pretty pumpkin lanterns I saw in the States, using an apple corer to create holes in abstract and zig-zag patterns like those in Mexican tin. We’re having to buy our pumpkins this autumn, but it’s not too early to start planning for growing your own next year. Pumpkins need to be sown or planted in rich soil, with lots of space in which to spread their spiralling tendrils. The biggest I’ve ever grown started out on the compost heap at my allotment, where the seedlings grew fast in the moist warm soil and were soon cascading down the sides and romping through the sweet corn patch, where the large leaves kept the weeds down and cut the need for watering. They also looked fantastic. So when you’re planning next year’s crop rotation, make room for a couple of pumpkin plants for a festive, home-grown feast.



My seaside garden has five apple trees: three large gnarled old specimens in the front and a couple of dwarf trees in what used to be the kitchen garden by the back door. We’ve enjoyed a good apple harvest this year, and as usual I’ve been busy baking, stewing, freezing and bottling in a frenzied effort to keep up with supply. All the trees are pretty prolific, but in terms of fruit per inch of branch, our little four-foot Cox has far surpassed the larger trees. I must have picked 50 crisp, sweet red fruits from this tiny tree – and there are still more to come. It has got me thinking about the possibilities for growing fruit trees in smaller gardens – even terraces and balconies where the only option is container-grown plants.]
Most varieties of apple, pear, cherry and plum trees can be grown successfully in large pots, provided they are bought on the appropriate dwarfing rootstock, supplied with pollinating companion trees, and kept well fed and watered. Proof of this is to be found at the hairdressers Fourth Floor in London’s Bloomsbury, where dwarf fruit trees in terracotta pots are ranged along the narrow roof terrace that runs round two sides of the 1930s building. Underplanted with creeping thymes, which attract lots of bees that help with pollination, the trees look lovely, and seem to be thriving in a potentially exposed and windswept spot. It seems almost surreal to see a view of the city’s roofscape framed by swelling, ripening fruit. 

For gardens with even less space than this, there are columnar or ‘Minarette’ fruit trees which bear their fruits on short spurs all the way up a vertical stem rather than on long spreading branches.  Six to eight feet (1.8-2.4m) tall when mature, minarettes are perfect for container growing, and can be planted as close as 2-3ft (60-90cm) apart in open soil. Fruit specialist Ken Muir has more than 30 varieties of apple and a good selection of pears, cherries, plums, gages and damsons available in this form, starting at £23.50 each (see below for offers). The company has recently started offering ‘Duo-Minarettes’, on which two varieties of the same type of fruit – selected to pollinate one another when in blossom - crop on the single stem, one above the other. For example, ‘James Grieve’ and ‘Falstaff’ provide an early and late apple, both with crisp flesh and excellent flavour, while the choice of pears is reliable ‘Concorde’ with juicy aromatic ‘Comice’. The plums available include early ‘Opal’ and late ‘Marjorie’s Seedling’, and an attractive gage/plum combination with pink-flushed ‘Cambridge Gage’ (similar to the old-fashioned greengage) and juicy purple ‘Victoria’. Thanks to clever grafting, one doesn’t even require space enough for a pollinating partner.

For those with slightly more space there are ‘Family Trees’ with three or more varieties of apple grafted on to a single rootstock. Among the selections offered by Highfield Nurseries (01452 740266) on M27 rootstock (producing 6ft(1.8m) mature trees), are ‘Bramley’, ‘Ashmead’s Kernel’ and ‘Fiesta’ – a combination of cookers and eaters that should give a continuous harvest over a long period. Priced at £37.99 and pot-grown in 12 litre containers, they would make a great present for anyone with a small garden – a miniature orchard in a pot! Also good for gifts are dwarf pears – more akin to bushes than trees, and bearing wonderful white blossom in spring. ‘Terrace Pearl’ is a new variety that reaches a maximum of just 4ft (1.2m) after ten years, and can be grown either in a container or in the open ground. Most handily, it is self-fertile and requires little or no pruning, with the narrow long green fruits ripening in August.

With any pot-grown tree, don’t make the mistake of potting on into too large a planter too soon. A snug pot will not only keep the tree small and manageable, it should also force it into producing a good crop of fruit long before a similar tree planted in open soil. The crucial thing with container-grown trees is to keep them well-watered, particularly during hot summers. Adding water-retaining granules to the soil may be a sensible option, as is mulching or underplanting with spring bulbs or shallow-rooted plants that will keep weeds down and moisture in. (Remember, other plants will compete with the tree for nutrients, so a little extra feeding may be necessary.) Or, for the ultimate in productive, space-saving and decorative gardening, how about surrounding your little tree with strawberries?


19 Nov 2006 - LOSING A TREE

Not long ago I visited a friend’s garden and congratulated her on the re-planting of one of her borders, which was brimming with healthy plants. “But I haven’t re-planted anything,” she replied. “The neighbours have cut down their tree.” It was only then that I noticed that a large sycamore, with its dense canopy of overhanging branches, had gone. Invigorated by the increased light, the plants, none of which had been out-and-out shade-lovers, had filled out like body-builders on a high-carb diet. The previously patchy lawn was now a deep even green, and the pond was free of leaves. The entire garden had benefited from the change.

I’m hoping for a similar effect in my little London garden, where a small winter-flowering cherry – the lovely Prunus subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’ – has been overpowered by the rampant climbers that romp around our walls. For many years it looked lovely in the corner, its pink-tinged white flowers glowing, from November to April, against a backdrop of glossy green ivy. But then the climbers – in particular, a Clematis montana and a crimson glory vine (Vitis cognetiae) with its plate-sized leaves, got into their stride, and it became a struggle to keep the tree’s fragile branches free from their clutches. After a couple of years of it failing to flower or leaf up well, I had to admit that the planting was a mistake. I decided to see if I could move it, root-ball and all, to another more suitable spot. The plants around it – including a couple of silvery astelias, some hellebores and a large Melianthus major, with its glaucous grey leaves – would also no doubt benefit from the increased light.

So one sunny morning earlier this month, I ventured into the garden with my spade and set to work. First attempt to dig down about a foot (xxcm) from the trunk failed completely. The soil seemed to be solid with roots. The second attempt a little further out and to the side failed, too. I was beginning to think a chain-saw might be in order, after all. But then I climbed right into the border and wove my way through the tangle of climbers to the back of the tree. The spade slipped in without any trouble and, after a few hefty lunges, the rootball was finally free. I lugged it out and bagged it up in a bin-liner, watering it well in the hope of re-planting it in our seaside garden. As for the crater-like hole that was left, I had planned to fill it with a large shrub like Hydrangea aspera subsp. sargentiana, with its leathery leaves with silver undersides and electric violet flowers. But in the end I resisted, worried lest the climbers impede its growth –through the shade they cast, through strangling, or both. Instead, I filled the gap with some lower-growing shade-lovers – more hellebores and silvery marbled lamiums and cyclamen.  The existing plants should soon fill out, too. I hope to report a fully replenished corner of the border by spring.

In these climate-conscious days we should, of course, be thinking of planting more trees rather than getting rid of them. But there are some occasions where removing a tree would be the best and safest option. Trees can grow too tall and block out the light to the house as well as the garden; at the same time their root systems, which can spread to a diameter of several yards around the trunk, can interfere with water pipes and de-stabilize house walls.  Trees can also become diseased and dangerous – only last week in our local park, a branch as thick as my body had crashed to the ground right across the path I use with my young daughter every day. Losing the tree outright should only be a last option, however: a clever tree surgeon may be able to prune both branches and roots in such a way that the problem is kept under control. If the tree is small, like mine, you may be able to dig it up and move it, or give it away. And if you do have to have a tree cut down, do it with professional help unless you really know what you are doing. Danger from hazardous tools aside, there’s always the chance that sections of stump left in the soil could lead to honey fungus or other disease. For every tree that comes down, make it a rule to plant a new one. And be sure to choose carefully, considering the height at full maturity, breadth and density of canopy and so on. The last thing you want to do is to store up still more problems for a few years down the line.



My London back garden is a symphony in green all winter. The french windows frame a variety of shapes, shades and textures of green: dark glossy scrolling acanthus, feathery lime bamboo, glaucous grey-green Melianthus major – its leaves with zig-zag edges as if cut with pinking shears - and the fresh emerald fronds of the newest tree fern foliage.  This forms a fine backdrop for my painted garden furniture and mosaic table – and at this time of year I’m grateful for the permanent splash of colour they provide. When we painted our front door and fence a subtle shade of purple (Dulux’s ‘Turkish Plum’) some years back, I used the leftover paint to tart up my rickety folding cricket chairs, and gave a smaller table and chair a lick of chartreuse to echo the lime of the euphorbias and bamboo. This summer, my sister made me a birthday present of a mosaic table top (that fits on top of my salvaged metal table) in all my favourite shades of purple, blue and grey, with fragments of mirror that flicker in the light. Soft dark purple –like the bloom on a bunch of black grapes – seems to harmonize well with the greens of the garden – enhancing, rather than detracting from their appeal.

Of course, I cannot lay claim to any great originality in taking a certain colour as my trademark. Style maven Nancy Lancaster (who once compared white garden furniture to “pill packets on a lawn”) used a lovely blue-green for the seats and benches at Haseley Court in Oxfordshire; her neighbour and fellow interior designer David Hicks preferred a soft willow green (which he claimed was copied by the National Trust) ; while Clough Williams-Ellis, the creator of Portmeirion in Wales, specified a sprightly turquoise for the metal fences, gates and detailing at the famous model village and his less frequented private garden, Plas Brondanw, a few miles away. As a new book on Portmeirion (Antique Collectors Club £25) with a foreword by Jools Holland, points out, the continuous use of this colour throughout the gardens provides a unifying rhythm, like a repetitive refrain in a piece of music.

Now is not a bad time to think about giving your garden furniture a make-over. Treating a few chairs to a lick of paint is not an unpleasant task – and it’s a cheap and easy way to cheer up your winter garden, like jazzing up an old coat with a jaunty new hat and scarf. Farrow & Ball (01202 876141/www.farrow-ball.com) now do all their luscious colours in an ‘outdoor eggshell’ (£16.99 for 750ml), as do Papers & Paints (0207 352 8626/ www.papers-paints.co.uk) - check out their ‘Historical’ range for unusual shades that would suit both period and modern styles.

Colours that work best with foliage tend to be drawn from a subtle palette – blues and blue-greys, from lavender to ultramarine; warm ochres and oranges and rusty oxide red; dark greens that blend into shadows; and soft, silvery greys. Bear in mind the colours of your spring and summer flowers, to avoid any clanging clashes next year. But don’t be put off using brighter shades. Sarah Raven, whose book The Bold and Brilliant Garden (Frances Lincoln £25) is full of inspiration for lovers of bright colour, used searing scarlet for a traditional planter’s chair in her Sussex garden, and Schiaparelli pink to give a modern spin to an antique wooden settle. Mirabel Osler (whose A Breath from Elsewhere (Bloomsbury £7.99)is still one of the most entertaining collections of garden writing around) used a Mediterranean mix of Naples yellow and powder blue in her Ludlow town garden. And even the ever-tasteful Mary Keen, in her book Decorate Your Garden (Kyle Cathie), painted a small café table and chairs canary yellow – heavenly with a tiny pot of tete-a-tete narcissi in early spring.

The great thing about paint, of course, is that it is quick, economical, and easy to re-do. If your first attempt at painted colour in the garden goes awry, don’t despair. Take inspiration, instead, from the garden designer Anthony Noel, who used to paint and re-paint the pots, plant supports and antique seats in his little London garden every twelve months: aquamarine one year, mottled malachite green the next and, for one theatrical season, inspired by a Fifties ball gown, bright shocking pink with black zig-zags.



Most gardeners would rather be out in their gardens than pounding the pavements in the weeks before Christmas, but if you get organized in time with a spot of mail-order shopping you can let the post man do the leg work for you. Here are a few ideas from some of my own favourite companies and organizations.

All gardeners, however well-equipped, love tools, and Refound (01434 634567 re-foundobjects.com), a great company specializing in “recycled, rescued and restored” products, has a range of vintage spades, forks and handtools (from £12) with beautiful well-worn wooden handles. Their giant enamelled thermometer (£35), metal roller with string (£12), photographic print vegetable bags (from £13) and copper and aluminium plant tags (from £3.50 a pack of five) would also all make unusual presents. Labour and Wait (020 7729 6253 labourandwait.co.uk) also include some useful gardening tools in their range of refreshingly “unfrilly” house and garden products. The weeding and potting trowels (£22 each) have hand-forged steel blades specially shaped for their specific tasks, while the beech-handled pocket knife (£7), pruning knife (£12) and dibber and plant label set (£10) would also make welcome presents.

Compost bins may not seem the most glamorous of gifts, perhaps, but composting is becoming fashionable as we all try to do our bit to save the planet, and Wiggly Wigglers’ wooden beehive composters (from £125), shaped like a beehive and painted a range of colours from acqua to pale pink, leave boring black and green plastic bins out in the cold. As their name suggests, Wiggly Wigglers (01981 500391 wigglywigglers.co.uk) specialize in wormeries, with a range of different designs starting at £56. For those squeamish about worms (or who due to space restrictions have to compost in their kitchen) go for their new ‘bokashi bins’ which use a special bran-like mix containing microscopic organisms to break down even fish and meat scraps with nary a whiff. It might sound too good to be true, but I have been trialling one for the past six months and have found it fantastic –as has, apparently, a Labour MP. A complete kit consisting of two 19 litre bins and a 2kg bag of the bokashi bran mix costs £55 in black or grey and £85 for good-looking cream and green.

Though your average gardener is happy working in ancient cords and a misshapen woolly, many secretly hanker for more stylish kit, and Plantstuff (0870 774 3366 plantstuff.com) has a range in soft brown leather including a handmade apron (£95), kneeler (£45) and elbow-length gauntlets (£49) that are all as practical and hard-wearing as they are handsome. Plantstuff’s bird feeders (from £19.95), butterfly habitats (£29) and hedgehog houses (£45) are also attractive as well as useful additions to the garden, and their new Insect Solar Theatre (£39.50) – which uses solar power to light a small ‘stage’ that will attract moths and other insects for viewing in your garden at night – would make a great present for a family. Plantstuff is offering readers a 20 per cent discount on all the above products on orders placed by Dec 11th, quoting reference ET76. Green Gardener (01603 715096 greengardener.co.uk) - a fantastic family company devoted to natural gardening and pest control – has put together some special ‘Green Christmas’ boxes which include chocolate beasties as well as ladybird and butterfly feeding and breeding kits, and a ‘Robin box’ with nesting box, feeder, food and chocolate eggs (from £19.99 to £39.99) which would appeal to children as well as wildlife-friendly adults.

Membership of the Royal Horticultural Society is a great gift for someone just getting seriously into gardening – indeed, it was such a gift from her children, together with a bound notebook for making notes at all the shows, that got the our late grande dame of gardening, Rosemary Verey, started on her career (£44 annual membership includes free and privileged entry to RHS shows and gardens, monthly copy of The Garden magazine and free plant advice from RHS Wisley ring 0845 0621111 rhs.org.uk). The RHS’s own mail order Christmas catalogue (08700 110090 rhs.org.uk) also has some great ideas this year including a traditional chestnut and willow Sussex trug (£35), a set of six different wooden cane toppers (£9.95), stainless steel “steady sticks” that you spear into the lawn to hold wine glasses and bottle (from £9.95), and gorgeous doormats featuring auriculas, agapanthus or tulips taken from illustrations in the RHS Lindley Library (£39.95).

Winter is a great time for gardeners to catch up on their reading, and my ‘top ten’ gardening books for 2006 appears in this week’s books pages. Or why not give a subscription to Hortus – a beautifully bound, black and white-illustrated gardening journal devoted to garden writing (£40 for four issues a year 01544 260001 hortus.co.uk. )Giving gardening gifts feels good because they’re useful – but if you want to feel better still, just £10 buys a gift of seeds, tools and horticultural training for a needy family in the developing world through Cafod (0808 1400014 cafod.org.uk). Now there’s food for thought in all the consumer frenzy.



My little daughter Mary has reached the age (two and half) where all that glitters is a thing of glorious beauty that has to be pounced on, pawed at and if possible, possessed. From the mid November she delighted in spotting the first tinsel-clad Christmas trees in shop windows, and I soon succumbed to the endless imploring for a tree at home by buying her a tiny one of her own – a miniature conifer, all of 45cm high, planted in its own pot complete with garish decorations, (from Homebase (0845 077 8888 for branches) at £9.99).

In an effort to ensure there are at least a few tasteful objects around the house this Christmas – and in the hope of engendering in my daughter a natural aesthetic alongside all the glitz – I have been enlisting Mary’s help in the creation of some natural decorations, made from gatherings from the garden. I’ve long been a fan of the idea of bringing in a few potted plants from the garden and festooning them with small white fairy lights for the festive season. A bay tree trimmed into an obelisk, ivy spiral and box lollipops are particularly well suited, and don’t seem to mind a spell of central heating, but any old shrub can become quite magical seen - quite literally - in a different light. Acclimatize them for a few days in an unheated bedroom before bringing them into the warm, and remember to water occasionally (keep the compost just moist) in their temporary environment.  We also cut trailing lengths of ivy to adorn everything from fireplaces to picture frames and send twining up the banisters, perked up with red berries and old-man’s beard secured with florist’s wire.    

But this year, inspired by a fantastic new book Nature’s Playground  by Fiona Danks and Jo Schofield (Frances Lincoln £16.99), we’ve gone one step further and actually tried to make our own tree decorations. I first mentioned this book (subtitled “Activities, Crafts and Games to Encourage Children to Get Outdoors”) back in October in a column on Hallowe’en, and recommended stashing away some extra poppy, honesty and teasel seedheads for Christmas - but don’t worry if you didn’t, as gardens and hedgerows are still full of useful materials, such as berries and pine cones. Ideas in the book include fashioning twiggy stars from long bendy stems; threading rosehips and rosemary sprigs onto circles of wire (perfumed as well as pretty); making alternative ‘baubles’ from interesting seed-heads strung together and sprayed silver or gold; and even a lovely angel with a poppyseed head and dress and wings made from overlapping, translucent honesty seed cases.  For the ultra-intrepid, there are even ice mobiles, made from leaves and berries frozen in jam jar lids (either in the freezer or outside on a cold night) which would look wonderful strung outside a window if the weather gets cold enough for them to last. 

I’m also going to make my own wreath this year. Home-made wreaths look more natural and homely than shop-bought ones – and are also a good deal cheaper.  The key is to use springy, whippy wood such as dogwood or willow stems, as long as you can cut or find them, to make your circle – as large as feasible, and secured with fine-gauge wire wound all the way around. Keep weaving more stems in, tucking the cut ends into the body of the wreath, until you have a substantial base to decorate, and then poke in shorter stems of whatever is available or takes your fancy – trailing ivy, pussy willow, early catkins and, for a wild and woolly look, swirls of old man’s beard. For a party, or for Christmas Day, add flowers like hellebores or fragrant ‘Paperwhite’ narcissi – if you need them to last longer than a few hours, insert the stems into florists’ water vials or damp cotton wool in foil that you then secrete among the branches.

If all the above seems like just too much work, the unnatural alternatives can still be both beautiful and stylish. Check out Plantstuff’s catalogue (0870 774 3366/www. plantstuff.com) for crystal and bead wreaths that can be perked up with leaves, flowers and fairy lights (from £49) and a vineleaf garland (£52.50) that can be hung above the fire or draped around a doorway.  Bloom (01949 845444/www.bloom.uk.com), a company that specializes in extremely convincing silk flowers and decorations, also does a red berry garland (£18), white berry wreath (£16) and crystal snowflake garlands (£22 for three), along with various larger ‘pine’ wreaths and Christmassy arrangements that are almost as good as the real thing. I’ve never been a fan of false flowers before, but their gorgeous ‘Exotic moth orchid arrangement’ (£78), complete with its own glass vase, ‘earth’ and sprouting buds and stems, had me – and even my gardening friends – completely fooled.



Last time I attempted to plant up some Christmas presents with my daughter, Mary, she was too small to do much more than pull the leaves off the plants. But this year we have been having a lot of fun putting bulbs in pots and making miniature indoor gardens using smaller scented plants. It always feels good to give a present that can grow and give even more pleasure over time, so here are some easy ideas that can be planted up in time for Christmas.

‘Paperwhite’ narcissi are one of my favourites for this time of year – just a few fragrant flowers are all it takes to fill an entire room with their scent. Since seeing them grown on pebbles in a shop in New York many years ago, I have tended to do them this way, buying glass containers (Ikea do a decent tall one for only £3.99), filling them an inch or two deep with pebbles (Homebase (0845 0778888 for branches) do Scottish beach pebbles for £6.99 a large sack or smaller bags of polished green, cream or black stones for £4.99) and placing the bulbs on top, filling with water just to their base. Start them off now in a warm room and the shoots should be a couple of inches high by Christmas and will flower in three or four weeks. I always wrap a festive red or silver ribbon around the pot with instructions to top up with water regularly and use the ribbon to tether the stems if they grow too tall and wayward.

‘Paperwhites’ and other scented narcissi can also be planted in soil, as can hyacinths – my other all-time favourite winter indoor plant. I’ve long since given up on the hit-and-miss business of forcing hyacinths to be in flower for Christmas and now cheat by buying a tray of 20 white ones, still in tight bud, and planting them out into pretty containers. (I get mine from New Covent Garden Flower Market (www.cgma.gov.uk for details – but florists’ and garden centres will also sell them cheaply in plastic pots).  I have planted out hyacinths into everything from tartan mugs to ceramic salad bowls – even an antique teapot – but this year found some galvanized metal troughs (again from Ikea, £2.99) that take five bulbs in a row – great for a table top. Don’t worry about the lack of drainage holes as long as you use bulb compost – the container is part of the gift and the bulbs are going to be thrown away or planted out in the garden after flowering. Covering the surface of the soil with sphagnum moss adds a professional touch – and again, don’t forget the festive bow.

All sorts of other wintry plants can be potted up with moss in attractive containers. Personally, I love white amaryllis and cyclamen, but for something more unusual try cream-coloured poinsettias (so much more restful on the eye than red) or the “winter cherry” (Solanum capsicastrum) which, with its abundant tiny orange fruits, looks a little like a mini citrus tree. Or find a shallow basket or high-sided tray, line with plastic and create a miniature winter garden. This is what we did for the tables at our winter wedding eight years ago, using scented plants such as ‘Paperwhite’ narcissi and jasmine, tiny cyclamen, with their silver-marbled leaves, and nodding snowdrops. Confining yourself to white flowers tends to look best, and you can add twigs as supports for a naturalistic look. A more glamorous version – great for a boudoir – might use jasmine, miniature white rose bushes and heavily-scented gardenias or stephanotis. The effect will be as pretty as a seasonal bouquet but will last a lot longer.

Climbing plants such as jasmine are great gifts as they can decorate a room over the festive period and then be planted in the garden to provide outdoor enjoyment in future years. Try your hand at “cheat’s topiary” by unwinding jasmine, trailing ivy and even winter-flowering clematis from their garden centre supports and training them carefully around wire you have bent into a heart, open globe or festive star shape, leaving ends long enough to spear into the soil.  Special care is needed when bending any woody stems as they might snap. Some tiny battery-operated fairy lights entwined in the leaves would be a lovely finishing touch.

Finally, a welcome gift – particularly for someone without a garden – is a planted-up window box. Create an evergreen framework with contrasting evergreen foliage plants (grey-green hebes, glossy-leaved skimmias with their crimson or creamy-white buds, trailing ivy) and leave spaces for seasonal treats such as pansies and cyclamen which can be replaced (pot and all) with crocus or tete-a-tete narcissi the minute early spring arrives. Happy potting!

24 Dec 2006 - MISTLETOE

Christmas isn’t Christmas in our house without a large bunch of mistletoe hanging in the hall. But no matter how much effort I put into arranging the sprigs, suspending them just so and securing them with red ribbon, it can’t compare to the sight of mistletoe growing wild among the branches of an oak or apple tree. These days, thanks to the felling of old orchards and pollution (mistletoe will only flourish in pure air), wild mistletoe is becoming rare in this country, but you may still be lucky in western parts, particularly in the hillside orchards around Tenbury Wells, where the famous wholesale auctions of locally-harvested mistletoe, holly and Christmas trees are conducted in the cattle market in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

    Since buying our house at the seaside, I have tried unsuccessfully to get some mistletoe growing on the old apple trees that flank our front door. Most books I consulted say that if you squish some berries into a crack in the tree’s bark, then the seed may germinate and take hold, and so that’s what I did. The clean country air made me optimistic, but perhaps the salt (even though most of it is cut out by the sea wall) is against us. The truth is, that no one really knows how to grow mistletoe. Some say it has to pass through the belly of a bird in order to grow with any vigour – deposited by a mistle thrush (hence the name) with a wipe of the beak, or excreted in its own personal manure heap. Some say it prefers apple trees; others that it is just as happy on poplar, hawthorn, willow, ash or lime. Some advise starting it on rough bark, others on smooth. It’s still a mystery as to why mistletoe takes in some places and not in others.

     But there are many other mysteries surrounding this ancient plant. Mistletoe (or Viscum album) has been sacred all over Europe for centuries - there are references to its healing powers in Greek mythology. We know that the ancient Druids revered it, perfecting the art of grafting it on to a variety of  trees and harvesting it in nocturnal rituals around the time of the winter solstice. In a fascinating new book, The Healing Power of Celtic Plants (O Books, £16.99 o-books.net), Angela Paine holds that as the teachers, magicians and medicine men of the ancient Celts, the Druids made use of mistletoe’s hallucinogenic properties in shamanic and healing rituals, and concocted cures from various parts of the plant to treat conditions ranging from epilepsy and nervous disorders to stiff joints, gangrenous wounds and infertility in both men and women.

    What makes this book so unusual, though, is that it does not just dwell in the past. A former researcher into the chemistry of medicinal plants, Ms Paine turns her academic eye to more recent pharmaceutical history, which makes most enlightening reading. When Druidic traditions began to die out in the late Middle Ages, the healing powers of mistletoe were largely forgotten until the 1920s when Rudolph Steiner, convinced that the ancient Druids held the key to the cure for cancer, made a special trip to Britain. Noticing that trees with excessive outgrowths suffered much less when they had mistletoe growing in their branches, he believed that the mistletoe somehow absorbed the malignancy of the growths, and wondered whether it could have a similar effect on human tumours. Extensive research proved that mistletoe does, indeed, contain unique anticancer compounds, which can both inhibit cancer cells from forming, and stimulate the immune system to destroy them when they do. The result was Iscador, a preparation made from mistletoe berries, which is widely prescribed in Europe and is the most commonly-used cancer drug in Germany. It can apparently be used alongside conventional treatment such as surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, and has been found to alleviate the pain and side-effects. Intriguingly, the host tree seems to affect the precise properties of the preparation, with apple and fir mistletoe prescribed for breast cancer, oak or pine for tumours of the digestive organs, and so on.

    Since the 1990s mistletoe has also been used successfully to treat children affected by the Chernobyl accident, people infected with HIV, Hepatitis C and irregular blood pressure. Now there’s a message of hope for the festive season.

All parts of the mistletoe are toxic, so self-medication is never advised. Preparations based on mistletoe can be obtained from registered herbalists (contact the National Institute of Medical Herbalists on 01392 426022 nimh.org to find one); Iscador can be prescribed on the NHS in Britain, at the discretion of individual doctors.  



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