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July - August - September 2007

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08 Jul 2007 - SHADE FOR SUMMER

Shade is often regarded as a problem in gardens. Of all the gardening questions I get asked at dinner parties, “What can we plant under that tree?” must outnumber all others, ten to one. And yet, in the hot midsummer sun, it can feel wonderfully refreshing to walk through a cool leafy corner of the garden, or retreat into a shady shelter from which to enjoy the dancing dappled shadows of leaves on the lawn. In my London garden, it’s been a challenge to find plants that love rather than merely tolerate conditions in the wide rear border that hardly sees the sun all day. (For the record, unexpected beauties such as acanthus, eucomis, silvery astelia and glaucous grey-green Melianthus major seem to flourish alongside more commonplace ferns, tree-ferns and bamboos.) Our few bright patches here are guarded jealously for sun-loving herbs and salad leaves and seats in the sunshine. But down at the seaside, with much more space under a huge open sky, we miss the shade, and are having to create some for ourselves.

Outside the kitchen extension, where we eat a good deal on the terrace in summer, we’re making a rustic pergola from rough wooden poles that should weather to a soft driftwood grey. As luck has it, there are already two well-established grapevines in the right place to train up and over it. For our purposes, grapevines are ideal, as they should provide plenty of cool leafy shade in summer just when it is needed, but will then die back, hopefully in a blaze of glorious leaf colour, to allow the light back into the glazed kitchen doors come autumn. Relatively slow to come into leaf in spring, they then put on rapid growth – and there should be plenty of ripening fruit dangling overhead. At the base of each of the uprights I’m planting favourite flowering climbers to scramble up amongst them: gorgeous Clematis ‘Etoile Rose’ with its deep crimson bells, annual morning glories and the curious chocolate-coloured flowers of Akebia quinata, which will be backlit by the sun. No evergreens, as I just want the bare wood in winter, and can’t cope with anything that’ll get permanently entangled with the vine.

As well as looking pretty, our pergola should contribute to the principles of “passive solar architecture” according to which the extension has been planned. In summer, the leafy canopy will not only shade diners beneath, but also prevent the glass-walled kitchen from over-heating. In winter, when the structure is bare, the low afternoon sun can slant through the row of French windows unimpeded, bringing heat as well as light to the room behind. In a different setting, planting a miniature woodland of slim-stemmed, light canopied trees such as silver birches could work in a similar way. And the dappled shade they cast would allow for planting underneath them, even in high summer.

Elsewhere at our seaside garden, we’re relying on existing trees for shade – raising their canopies wherever we can, to make them more useful for sitting under. Carefully pruning or sawing off branches below shoulder height has not only allowed the trees to function more like umbrellas; it has also created new opportunities for shade planting beneath them. So here, for those who would like it, is an answer to the old chestnut posed at the start of this article. My favourites to plant in the dry shade cast by trees include epimediums, with their delicately mottled, heart-shaped leaves (cut them down to the ground in early spring to let the clusters of cup-shaped pendent flowers show above the tender fresh foliage); mauve or white-flowered periwinkles (Vinca major can be a thug, so try the more sedate V. minor in smaller spaces) and some of the prettier deadnettles such as silvery marbled Lamium maculatum ‘White Nancy’ (but don’t let the slugs get it). Another really great shade plant, often overlooked in books on the subject, is the humble sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum), whose whorls of bright green leaves and tiny white flowers, create a dense springy carpet that keeps fresh well into summer. All of the above associate well with early spring bulbs such as snowdrops, aconites and anemones, and later shade-loving flowers like lily of the valley and Soloman’s seal. To bring a splash of brightness to a gloomy corner at the tail-end of summer, look out now for young plants of Nicotiana sylvestris, the fresh lime-green leaves and five-foot stems topped by fragrant white trumpets, or the white forms of Japanese anemone – the cultivar ‘Honorine Joubert’ is rightly prized for its pure white flowers and deeply divided, dark green leaves. For pale beauties such as these, shade provides the backdrop against which they can shine.

15 Jul 2007 - SHED CHIC

Much was made of the sustainability theme at this year’s RHS Chelsea and Hampton Court Flower shows, but for me 2007 was the Year of the Shed. Time and time again I found it was sheds and garden buildings that I was photographing – many of the planting and design ideas being reminiscent of those I’d seen in previous years. At Chelsea, I fell in love with the splendidly ramshackle shed in The Fetzer Sustainable Winery Garden – modelled on their original winery in California in recycled redwood, with rambling white roses as well as a state of the art solar panel on its rusty corrugated iron roof. Some of the smaller “chic” and “courtyard” gardens had super sheds, too, with roofs clad in cedar shingles, sweeping curves of matt grey lead, or a living leafy covering of sedums in full flower. One of the “people’s favourites” was the “Shinglesea” garden with its picturesque railway carriage, actually based on one of the neighbouring cottages near our seaside house on the south coast. For those with more modernist tastes, there were Diarmuid Gavin’s minimalist glass-walled pavilion and the smart contemporary slatted wood structures by London-based Ecospace (www.ecospacestudios.com) – the latter can be fitted out as a studio or extra bedroom.

Again, at Hampton Court earlier this month, my eye was caught by more chic sheds – my favourites being the turf-roofed shed and verandah at the Eden Project and Banrock Station Wines’ “I’ll Drink to That” garden – bristling with flowering thrift and cranesbill geraniums as well as the usual grasses, thymes and sedums - and the strawbale shed in The Growing Schools Project’s inspiring “Learning Outside the Classroom” garden (more on school gardens in a future column). And who could forget the charming corrugated iron shepherd’s hut in the Daily Mail “Darling Buds of May” pavilion? I first saw a shepherd’s hut used as a shed at Sticky Wicket, Pam Lewis’s beautiful garden in Dorset, and have hankered after one ever since – the way they can be trundled about the garden on wheels particularly appeals – so it was sobering to learn that restored huts can fetch upwards of £5000 and reproduction ones even more (see www.shepherd-hut.co.uk).

Of course, a garden shed is a functional as well as a decorative feature in the garden. Even the smallest gardens need somewhere to keep tools and garden furniture safe and dry and out of sight, and there’s something deeply satisfying about a neat and tidy shed with everything in its place – ask any of the many British men for whom the shed is their habitual refuge from the world. (It has to be said that there’s something of a gender-divide here. Women are far more likely to paint their sheds a pretty colour and put up Cath Kidston curtains at the windows, while the nearest most men get to interior dÈcor is row upon row of pegs, the more anal among them outlining each tool on the wall in marker pen to denote its rightful place. Check out the forty proud shed-owners in the excellent, eccentric book Men and Sheds by Gordon Thorburn, available through Amazon.) Whatever the style of shed, however, it makes sense to make it as easy on the eye as possible, especially in a small plot where it is visible from the house.

You don’t need to spend a fortune. The garden designer Anthony Noel gave many a bog-standard larchlap shed a glamorous makeover by painting them in jaunty blue and white stripes, with perhaps a deep contrasting pink or green interior. And artist Kevin Wilson, whose south London garden is open through the NGS on12 August and 2 September (see Yellow Book, £7.99 from bookshops for details), has done a fantastic job customizing plain wooden sheds from the garden superstores, adding a decorative pelmet here, a raised paraphet there, and a ballustrated verandah complete with rocking chairs that seems straight out of the Southern States. (A carpenter could do this for you if you’re not so handy with a saw yourself.) Other DIY options include creating your own construction around a striking piece of salvage. At Bryansground in Herefordshire, home of the gardening journal Hortus, owners David Wheeler and Simon Dorrell created a “Sulking House” around three Gothic arches from a demolished Victorian warehouse, while Bristol-based designer Susan Berger put some sheets of old corrugated iron and a skip-salvaged window to good use. Just a pair of unusual French windows, inserted into a standard kit shed, are enough to give it individuality and charm. Paint the entire structure in a simple colour scheme like fresh green and cream, and it could have cost the earth.

When it comes to colours, further inspiration came from this year’s Chelsea show, and the lovely Tribute to Linnaeus Garden. While not exactly a shed, Ulf Nordfell’s open wooden arched structure was painted a stunning silver grey on one side and a rich oxide red on the other – both colours long associated with Swedish architecture, and setting off the fresh green and white planting a treat.

22 Jul 2007 - RAIN GARDENS

Earlier in the year we were dreading another drought, but as I write vast tracts of the country are still recovering from flash flooding. The weather over the past few summers has taught us that global warming is not just about higher temperatures; it’s about coping with extremes at either end of the scale – downpours as well as drought, unseasonal cold as well as scorching heat. A few years ago, gardeners were looking to the Mediterranean for inspiration to beat climate change, but drought-tolerant plants such as lavender and santolina don’t take kindly to having their roots standing in cold wet water week after week, while others, including edible crops, need regular watering in order to thrive. What we need, clearly, is a style of gardening that can cope with periods of both hot, dry and cold, wet weather. It’s a tall order, but a new book, Rain Gardens by Nigel Dunnett and Andy Clayden (Timber Press £25), has come up with some pretty good answers. Building on practices developed in Oregon, USA, over the past five years, it suggests that we make the most of rainfall whenever it happens - storing water for use during drier times, and incorporating features into our gardens that not only help prevent flood damage but also enhance the aesthetic, sensory and wildlife potential of the space. This doesn’t just mean installing a water-butt or two; it involves a total re-think about how we value water as a resource.

At present, rainwater that falls onto buildings or hard surfaces is directed straight into drains, which rush it away as fast as possible into rivers, sewers or massive urban treatment centres, while we still rely largely on the mains supply for watering our parks and gardens. The recent trend for replacing planted areas with impermeable paving, concrete paths, patios and car parking, has only exacerbated the problem, particularly after heavy rains, when storm surges cause over-loaded drains and sewers to flood. And when prolonged drought necessitates hose-pipe and sprinkler bans, our landscapes pay the price. How much wiser, the authors argue, to design around a cycle that a) slows and reduces water run-off and b) stores any excess or transports it whenever and wherever it is needed in the garden.

Their “stormwater chain” begins with the principle of reducing hard surfaces – using permeable rather than “sealed” hard surfaces (such as gravel and permeable paving) where planting is not desired, promoting mixed planting, and creating green roofs wherever possible. The increased vegetation intercepts heavy rainfall, slowing and reducing run-off, while looking beautiful into the bargain. The next step in the chain is to capture any run-off by disconnecting downpipes – practice on a shed to begin with. This can be done with conventional water butts, but also via more convoluted routes – emptying downpipes into deep-sided “stormwater planters”, with run-off rills and gullies dispersing excess water to other spots in the garden where it can be used for irrigating vegetables, or emptied into a pond.

Another important tenet of “rain gardening” is to make water and its flow visible, wherever possible. Downpipes are thus replaced by decorative “rain chains” (in cup or link designs), while the rills and gullies that transport the water become attractive components in the garden rather than buried underground. Designed to look good whether full or dry, the latter can take a wide range of forms - from a delta of six-inch-wide streams in which children can sail toy boats or play at dams (substitute model cars or marbles when dry) to wider channels set within paving or steps inspired by the Alhambra or the Villa Lante. These channels might lead into lower-lying “swales” - dips in the landscape, lined with pebbles and/or planted with vegetation that can cope with periods underwater - or run into permanent ponds, which can overflow, when needed, into further “swales” beyond. Functioning best when long, shallow and meandering in form, swales further slow the progress of excess water, allowing for natural evaporation into the air and absorption into the soil. Only when they themselves become full, at the very end of the stormwater chain, is excess water diverted into the conventional drainage network.

Rain Gardens’ authors stress that it is by no means necessary to include all elements of the chain into your garden. Just one or two will break the conventional drainage chain of roof or paved surface to sewer – but combining two or more ideas will multiply the benefits. The idea of designing an entire garden around the intermittent presence of water is, however, extremely inspiring, and one I feel certain we will see more of in the future. If it helps sound the death knell of the now-ubiquitous “water feature”, run on mains water, powered by electricity, and often stylistically parachuted into the garden, with no use or relevance to the rest of the scheme, I, for one, feel it won’t have come a day too soon.


29 Jul 2007 - INSIDE OUT

Blurring the boundary between indoors and out is becoming increasingly popular in garden design. As the trend to enlarge our homes rather than move and spend the money on stamp duty gathers ground, it’s common practice to extend the kitchen or living space in a way that embraces the garden. Sometimes this is done literally – by swallowing up the shady ‘side return’ into a wider interior space, or pushing the rear wall of the house further into the garden. But one feature that almost everyone wants these days is a large area of glass overlooking the garden – ideally in the form of floor-to-ceiling doors or windows that will slide or fold back in summer to create a seamless transition from the indoor to outdoor space.

There’s no doubt this is a fantastic way to live – especially when the weather’s good. Children can run in and out, taking toys and games with them, while entertaining becomes fabulously relaxed, with tables and chairs shifted easily wherever needed, and food preparation divided between cooker, fridge and barbecue – or even outdoor oven. Go into a Victorian or Georgian house that has not been converted in this way, and the typical old-style layout, with tiny windows – or even a tacked-on utility room or bathroom - along the back wall, and the only door opening onto the side corridor, and it’s hard not to feel claustrophobic.

The fashion for opening up the back of the house also has interesting implications for the garden – or at least, the area of garden that directly abuts the house. By far the simplest method of making indoor and outdoor spaces work together is to continue the colours, materials and proportions used inside right out through the doors. If you are thinking about opening up your kitchen or living room onto the garden, it’s worth thinking about this aspect right from the earliest planning stages, as some materials will make the transition better than others. Slate tiles, for instance, can run out on to an outside terrace relatively easily, as can some types of stone. But it’s not worth getting too obsessive about matching the materials exactly, as they are bound to weather differently in contrasting conditions. The crucial thing when trying to make the two areas ‘read’ as one is to keep the colours similar, and to echo the proportions and geometry of the main components. When using tiles, for instance, keep the shape, size and pattern of the layout the same; while with wood, try to match the width of the planks for the outdoor decking, and run them in the same direction as the inside floor.

A clever trick is to incorporate a strip of a contrasting material – dark slate in a pale wooden floor, an area of pebble mosaic or even a water rill – that stretches (or appears to stretch) the entire length of the room and garden. The minimalist architect John Pawson took this one step further in a London house and garden he designed by continuing one of the raised concrete counter surfaces right down one wall of the kitchen and out into the garden, where it could be used for anything from a barbecue and outdoor food preparation area to a shelf for displaying potted plants. A lower level surface that could be used for seating (perhaps with handy storage underneath) could work in the same way, with cushions brought outside in summer.

Colours for walls and the bases of built-in benches and other surfaces can also be linked with the interior. When
using white, or shades of white, however, go for a slightly darker shade outside, as it will always appear brighter in natural light. The colours of key plants can also be chosen to tie in with the indoor dÈcor. Though green as a backdrop goes with anything, it would be fun to have a rose such as ‘Empereur du Maroc’ whose ravishing deep red blooms are echoed by a cushion or chair cover inside, or to pick out the colours of a favourite painting in the planting.

Try to have at least some planting up against the windows, perhaps to one side. Floor to ceiling glass can sometimes feel a little too exposing, especially in winter, and a selection of tall but ‘see-through’ plants such as wispy grasses, white gaura and electric purple Verbena bonariensis not only creates a pleasant feeling of partial enclosure, it can also throw stunning shifting shadows around the walls. For in a summer such as this one, of course, one of the biggest advantages of linking indoors and out is that when the weather is poor, one can always enjoy the garden from the comfort and shelter of the house.

05 Aug 2007 - AGAPANTHUS

If ever there were a flower for late summer glamour, it’s agapanthus. Improbably large and impossibly blue, the globes of flowers on long, strong stems bring an air of laid-back elegance to the garden that’s perfect for the lazy, hazy days of August. Perhaps because pots of agapanthus are popular in hotels, I always associate their deep singing blue with clear skies, calm seas, cocktails and swimming pools. And when the buds on the plant by the door at our seaside house start to burst, it’s a sure sign the holidays have arrived.

Known as the Nile lily, agapanthus are natives of South Africa, where they grow as readily as weeds by the roadsides. Over here, they’re often thought of as difficult plants, but are actually quite easy provided you choose the right type for the right site, and give them the broad conditions they require. Though all ten or so species in the genus bear the same basic shape and habit, some are evergreen, some deciduous and some are more hardy than others. And though a strong mid-blue is the classic agapanthus hue, colours can vary from purple-black (the recent cultivar ‘Back in Black’) and dark indigo blue (‘Windlebrook’), through purplish- and mid-blue (‘Ben Hope’) and gorgeous ghostly pale mauves and slate blues (‘Windsor Grey’) to pure white (‘Silver Mist’). Stem height ranges from ‘Sky Rocket at 1.75m down to ‘Snow Pixie’ at just 40cm, and there are also some surprisingly good variegated cultivars such as ‘Silver Moon’ with white and green striped leaves and pale blue flowers, and ‘San Gabriel’, whose yellow-streaked leaves set off violet-blue blooms.

In general with agapanthus, the larger the umbel (or flower-head) and individual flowers, the more tender the plant – which is why the most spectacular examples are usually in pots, so they can be wheeled under cover in winter. Certainly, A. praecox subsp. orientalis, its ten inch flowers towering over strappy evergreen leaves, has been a favourite for tub culture since its introduction to Europe in the 17th century. Though it’s tempting to buy a lovely big pot from the outset, agapanthus flower best when their roots almost completely fill the container. Sometimes there doesn’t even seem room for compost, so feed potted plants fortnightly from early spring for an abundant show of blooms. When you do pot them on, perhaps dividing the clump into two or three new plants, they can often sulk for a summer or two before resuming flowering. Beware of keeping them in the same pot for too long, though, as the thick, fleshy white roots are strong enough to break through tough plastic and terracotta. Regular dividing will also promote good flowering in the long term, as when clumps get too large, whether in pots or open ground, they cease flowering if the sun cannot penetrate the roots.

In the garden border, A. campanulatus and A. caulescens are the most commonly grown species, along with the many cultivars bred over the past few decades - the ‘Headbourne Hybrids’, bred by Lewis Palmer and trialled at RHS Wisley, have proved hardy in most parts of the UK. The deciduous varieties tend to have smaller, more delicate blooms, their leaves dissolving into a messy sludge at the first frosts. In open ground, agapanthus do best in a sunny position with well-drained yet fertile soil - a gravel garden such as Beth Chatto’s in Elmstead Market, Essex, is ideal. There, she surrounds them with mid-sized grasses and other herbaceous plants that will not swamp their growth – fluttering white Gaura lindheimeri, silvery artemisia, Perovskia ‘Blue Spire’ and the bleached plumes of Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’.

As agapanthus don’t flower well when the roots are overcrowded, pairing them with other plants can be a problem. Fear of this – coupled, at times, with a lack of imagination – can lead gardeners to plant banks of agapanthus alone, which can look tedious when the plants are in bloom, let alone for the rest of the year. Christopher Lloyd recommended a typically flamboyant partnership of bright pink nerines, red hot pokers (Kniphofia) or crocosmia. At Great Dixter the bright orange C. x crocosmiflora ‘Star of the East’ makes a spectacular partner for the dark, late-flowering A. ‘Loch Hope’, while white agapanthus is paired with magenta Lychnis coronaria, the purple orach Atriplex hortensis var. rubra and the cool green and white stripes of bamboo Pleioblastus variegatus. Another option is to keep the plants in their pots and group with others that associate well – spires of lemon-yellow verbascums, fragrant lime-green nicotianas or the equally sculptural – and glamorous –pineapple lily, Eucomis bicolor, which all flower at the same time. However you plant them, those beautiful blue blooms should keep on coming till early September, when the architectural skeletons with their black pendulous seeds will continue well into autumn and beyond.

Pine Cottage Plants’ agapanthus display at this year’s RHS Hampton Court Flower Show won a well-deserved gold medal, and they hold the National Collection of more than 400 varieties of agapanthus at their nursery in Devon. The nursery and garden are open during July and August, Mon-Sat 10-5pm (other times by appointment only) when visitors can see the spectacular collection of agapanthus flowering at its best. Sunday Telegraph readers visiting this summer can claim 10 per cent off all purchases over £50, as can mail order clients ordering before the end of September. Ring 01769 580076 for a catalogue or further details, or visit www.pcplants.co.uk. Pine Cottage, Fourways, Eggesford, Chumleigh, Devon EX18 7QZ is signposted from Eggesford station.


The last couple of summers may have been a wash-out, but we can usually rely on fine autumn weather in the UK. For the past few years, glorious Indian summers have lasted well into November, and the trend looks set to continue. It’s a good excuse to indulge in some late-summer planting. A ‘hot’ border featuring the fiery scarlets, oranges and yellow flowers that proliferate at this time of the year was once the preserve of larger gardens. In a cold year, some of these plants might only have a month or so to strut their stuff before the first frosts hit. But these days, with relatively frost-free weather often experienced right into December, it’s worth setting aside a patch of ground, however small, for some firecracker flowers, even in an average-sized garden. When the cold sets in and the clocks go back, the warmth of their vivid colours will be almost tangible, both in the border and in vases around the house.

When choosing a site for a ‘hot’ border, the ideal spot is somewhere where the late summer sun, low in the sky, can slant through the plants and illuminate flowers and foliage. The plumes of ornamental grasses, flowers with spires such as verbascum and veronicastrum, spheres of echinops and centaurea, or flat plates of sedum and achillea acquire ethereal haloes when backlit by a golden setting sun. And the clear scarlet of dahlias such as ‘Bishop of Llandaff’, tawny oranges of heleniums and hemerocallis, and glowing umbers of rudbeckias and red hot pokers are infused with the intense luminosity of stained glass.

Some flowers bloom naturally from late summer on. A large number of the daisy family (Asteraceae) are at their best at this time, notably Michaelmas daisies and sunflowers – not just the familiar towering annuals, but more delicate perennials such as golden Helianthus salicifolius and H. ‘Lemon Queen’. Other flowers that bloom earlier in the year can be coaxed into a second, later show by careful pruning and cutting back - Nepeta racemosa (catmint) and cultivars of Salvia nemorosa respond particularly well to such treatment, as do phlox and eupatoriums. Annuals can also contribute to the display, with late sowings of nasturtiums and Californian poppies defying the first frosts. In among the hot fiery colours, Nicotiana sylvestris, its fragrant white bells crowning six-foot stems with fresh lime green foliage, creates a cool contrast, while the bleached stems and panicles of ornamental grasses provide the perfect neutral backdrop. From upright stands of Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ to graceful arcs of miscanthus, fountain-bursts of Stipa gigantea and the furry foxtail plumes of pennisetums, grasses of every shape and texture can be used to set off all the different types of flowers.

You can cram quite a few of the above into a patch of just a few square feet. But don’t despair if you’re short on space, or your borders are already full to bursting. You can still make a super late summer display in containers. A few years back I found some old fire buckets – painted bright red with the words FIRE picked out in white – in a junk shop, and had fun planting them up with suitably fiery flowers. In the centre, Dahlia ‘Moonfire’, its lemon petals streaked with scarlet, was perfectly complemented by ‘Bishop of Auckland’ – scorching red with handsome dark foliage like the more common ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ but with a striking single flower. Around them I placed three small plants of the Japanese blood grass, Imperata cylindrica ‘Red Baron’, weaving their sword-shaped lime and scarlet leaves in amongst the fine-cut dahlia foliage. Lastly, came sprays of Crocosmia latifolia ‘Lucifer’ – the hottest and reddest of the monbretias, its scarlet blooms as bright as sparks from a bonfire. Planted in early August, this sizzling combination soon bushed out to fill the buckets and, encouraged by regular dead-heading, the dahlias kept on and on exploding into flower – a potted fireworks display that lasted to rival the real thing in November.

Late Summer Flowers by Marina Christopher (Frances Lincoln £25) is a wonderful book on late summer planting and the author’s nursery, Phoenix Plants, Paice Lane, Medstead, Alton, Hampshire GU34 5PR (01420 560695) is a great place to see and buy many of the plants mentioned here. Phoenix Plants is open from late March to October on Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 10am-6pm. To receive a catalogue (no mail order), send 4 first class stamps loose in an envelope with your name and address. Until 30 September, Sunday Telegraph readers visiting the nursery bearing a copy of this article can claim 10 per cent off all sales over £50. Signed copies of her book are also available at the nursery at a reduced price of £22.50.


Walking into a room filled with healthy plants can lift the spirits – but did you know it can be good for your health as well? We probably remember enough biology to know that plants take in carbon dioxide and give off health-giving oxygen and water vapour as part of the photosynthesis process. That’s why planting a tree is one of the best things we can do for the environment, and the principle on which carbon offsetting tree-planting schemes are based. But it’s not only carbon dioxide they take in - plants can absorb impressive amounts of other toxins and pollutants as they perform their daily functions, enabling them to act as efficient air and water filters. Inside the home, this has interesting implications as our consciousness of the impact of air quality on health, particularly such conditions as childhood asthma, increases.

The modern home is prone to all manner of insidious toxins, such as formaldehyde (from carpets, plywood, flatpack furniture and insulation materials); benzene (from particleboard and uneco-paint); propanol (cleaning products); and dichloromethane (paint thinners and strippers), whose effects can range from mild eye, nose and throat irritations to breathing difficulties, nerve disorders and even cancer. It might seem unlikely that mere houseplants could provide any defence against such a barrage, but studies have found some to be particularly effective.

One of the most efficient pollutant removers is the dragon tree (Dracaena), which may explain why its spiky variegated leaves on a tall central stem are so often seen in offices. It’s easy to care for, reaching eight feet in ideal conditions (rich soil, warmth, light shade and sparse watering, preferably not from old coffee cups). The goosefoot plant (Syngonium podophyllum), with its gloriously mottled and marbled leaves, is another particularly effective anti-pollutant – it needs a temperature of 15C (60F) and does best in bright, indirect light and a loam-based soil which should just be kept moist. But you don’t have to seek out unusual plants to keep your home healthy. Another of the most helpful plants is the common spider plant, which is particularly effective in the face of formaldehyde and the harmful emissions that come from the back of computer terminals. Though spider plants will survive extreme neglect, give them the conditions they really love (good light, moist compost from spring to autumn and fornightly feeds during the growing period), and they will reward you with cascades of miniature plants, and look a million times better than the dingy specimens often encountered in dark student bedsits.

Ivy (Hedera helix) is another commonly found, but extremely effective anti-pollutant plant, especially against mould. A recent study found it able to remove almost 80 per cent of airborne mould and fungus spores, making it especially valuable in damp conditions, such as rooms that are drying out after flooding. And only slightly further down the scale come palms, ferns and “indestructible” office staples such as rubber plants, philodendrons, the umbrella plant (Schefflera) and the peace lily or aspidistra – good news for those without green thumbs.

Even if you’re not too keen on plants with glossy dark green leaves, there are also plenty of flowering plants that can help combat air pollution. Chrysanthemums (just coming into their late-summer and autumn season), gerberas, African violets, cyclamen and kalanchoes are pretty as well as effective, as are all types of orchid. Orchids have the added advantage of being one of the few plants that produce oxygen at night, and the moth orchid, Phalaenopsis, is particularly recommended for bedrooms.

All this heroic hard work has absolutely no ill-effects on the plants themselves. All they require in return is to have their watering requirements met, and their leaves occasionally sprayed with water and carefully wiped with a cloth to remove dust. It’s worth taking time to care for them properly. Not only do dusty, drooping plants function far less effectively, they look depressing, too.


It’s high time for the rehabilitation of the hydrangea. Not the lovely lacecaps, which I wrote about last year – the desirability of their delicate filigree heads, like discs of lace hung out to dry, has never been in doubt. No, I’m talking about the big blowsy mop-heads beloved of suburban gardens and commonly seen in gobsmacking shades of bubblegum pink and brightest blue. Unless you are blessed with lots of space, these giants can be hard to accommodate happily in the border, but they make stylish and generous container plants both inside and outside the house.

Even the achingly trendy Petersham Nurseries in Richmond was decked out with mophead hydrangeas when I dropped by earlier this month. There were banks of pink and white Hydrangea macrophylla in smart galvanized buckets – the prettiest had a cream edge to the pink petals that set off the milky green centres a treat. Deep blue mop-heads (they must have been a variety such as H. m. ‘Generale Vimcomtesse de Vibraye’) looked stunning in tall basketweave cache pots, while a gorgeous selection of white, lime green and rusty-red blooms was planted with white roses, ferns and trailing ivy in a rusted antique urn. Plenty of inspiration for ideas at home. Personally, I feel you can’t beat a large pot of pure white hydrangeas for bringing a note of coolness and calm into a house in the heat of late summer. H. m. ‘Lanarth White’ and ‘Veitchii’ are among the most lovely, while H. arborescens ‘Annabelle’ has opulent white snowball heads and pretty pointed leaves.

One of the best attributes of mophead hydrangeas is the way the flowers last – they’re about the only dried flowers I’ll allow in the house. Some of the red varieties, such as H. serrata ‘Preziosa’ turn a wonderful deep crimson as they mature, set off by coppery red foliage. And many others metamorphose into an intriguing mix of metallic greens and greys, flushed with rose, that looks good long into winter. If left in place, the dried flowerheads can also help protect new buds from frost damage.

The crucial thing to remember with hydrangeas is that they hate drying out. And in this country, at least, the time when they are likely to reach the peak of perfection is just when they are most likely to be vulnerable to drought – they’re always the first with flopping leaves in a dry spell. In the garden, this can be combatted by digging in plenty of organic matter when planting, and mulching heavily after watering in autumn and spring. In pots, you can still mulch, even covering the surface of the soil with pebbles, coloured beads or shells to preserve moisture as well as looking decorative. I’m also not averse to using moisture-retaining granules such as ‘Swell Gell’, particularly if the pot is likely to be left unattended for a couple of days or more. The key is not to use too much, or it will come oozing out the top like jelly when you water: mix no more than a heaped teaspoonful into the hole when planting or, for plants already established in their pots, carefully insert a pencil or slim dibber into the soil and fill the cavity it leaves with the granules. Plants must also be protected from spring and autumn winds and frosts. It’s no wonder they do so well in the West Country, where frosts are minimal and summer rainfall more frequent than in other parts of the UK.

Of all the hydrangeas, my favourite will always be H. aspera subsp. sargentiana, with its flattish heads of tiny electric blue flowers surrounded by a ring of larger, snowy-white, four-petalled florets. Hydrangea villosa has a similar appearance but with softer, pinker, more rounded blooms. I recently saw this looking fabulous at the gardens of Wyken Hall in Suffolk, planted in a big billowing row against the deep-red painted house, with banks of lavender in front. The greenish grey of the lavender foliage was the perfect foil for the lacy mauve and white flowers, and gave the hydrangeas, with their dusty, Victorian associations, a crisp contemporary twist.


Some plants amaze by their ability to put on extraordinary amounts of growth in the course of a year. One such is Macleaya cordata, the plume poppy - among my very favourite plants. As late as early May, I can be out in the border, fretting that there is, as yet, no sign of the new shoots pushing through the soil. Have I managed to lose what many consider an incredibly invasive plant? Sure enough, though, up they come, growing almost visibly as summer sets in until, by late August, the plant is a stately giant, topping ten feet and crowned with feathery cream fronds. It’s the flowers that give Macleaya its common name – they are certainly beautiful, but soon give way to clusters of tawny seeds. I grow it instead for the foliage: huge glaucous grey-green leaves with lobes as deeply and intricately cut as a map of the coastline of Cornwall. The upper surface has that opium poppy squeak that sends raindrops skittering like mercury; the undersides have a silvery felt that’s revealed by the slightest breeze. So enamoured was I with these leaves that for many years I used the larger, lower ones, sometimes 10 or 12 inches across, as impromptu ‘plates’ on which to serve cheese – until I discovered they were harmful if ingested. Come winter it collapses into a tatter of blackened stalks and leaves; Macleaya’s abundant beauty seldom survives the frosts. Six months underground and the cycle starts again.

Give Macleaya a try in your garden: in all but the driest soils it should do well, and can tolerate some shade, although the fluffy buff plumes look best when backlit. Don’t worry about it taking over: the plant needs a good few years to establish itself, and is easily controlled by pulling out excess stems in spring, or pushing in a spade around the roots and lifting any stragglers.

Another giant currently gracing my garden is the tallest of the tobacco plants, Nicotiana sylvestris. At six to eight feet, with large, slightly sticky lime green leaves that are illuminated by low sunlight it, too, has put on all this growth in a single season – and all the more remarkably since in this case it’s an annual, grown from a speck of a seed. At the top of the stems, the pendulous white trumpet flowers are a cool contrast to the jungly foliage of the late summer garden, and have a scent that seems redolent of steamy tropical nights. Nicotianas have done well in this damp squib of a summer; in a dry year they’re among the first plants to flag. If you don’t have the wherewithal to raise seedlings, look out for young plants in nurseries and garden centres in early summer: you’ll need a good few to create a balanced impact. I sent off for a batch this spring from Woottens of Wenhaston (see their Tall Beauties offer below) and planted them in groups of two or three throughout my front and back gardens. The enormous leaves are good at filling gaps left by tulips or other spring bulbs.

Good partners for sculptural, ‘statement’ plants such as these include some that are equally tall, yet ‘transparent’ in habit. Verbena bonariensis is an excellent, if ubiquitous example. I make no apologies for recommending it again, as its tiny, electric purple flowerheads on top of gracefully swaying stems fit happily into any style of planting – among cottage garden classics such as hollyhocks or rudbeckias, or partnered with trendier canna lilies and tall swishing grasses. Once established, it should self-seed and surprise you by sprouting in unlikely places. Another tall stunner, though less reliably hardy, is Salvia uliginosa, whose sky-blue flowers dance, from late August on, atop slender six foot stems. Their singing pale blue is uncommon in the garden at this time of year, and makes a lovely contrast with the oranges and yellows of dahlias, red-hot pokers and so on, giving depth and body to autumn planting. This salvia creates a colony by suckering, so to ensure its survival, dig up a section or two of root and over-winter in a pot under glass.

Last, but not least, there’s the elegant, ephemeral beauty of Thalictrum delavayi. I can still remember the first time I saw this plant, in the lovely Abbey Dore Gardens in Herefordshire ten years ago or more. Floating on top of tall stems, its cloud of tiny mauve, open-bell-shaped flowers with cream stamens made a purple haze through which the rest of the garden shifted and shimmered in the late summer sun.

09 Sep 2007 - AUTUMN BOUNTY

Some time in early September – and looking at last year’s diary it was roundabout now – late summer slips softly into autumn. It’s not so much a change in the weather; our Indian summer sun can shine well into November and still laps like warm water on my back as I work. It’s more of a shift in atmosphere: we wake up one morning to a crispness in the air, a sweet translucency in the light that simply were not here before. Rosehips wink in the hedgerows and flocks of starlings hang like clouds above the ripening elder bushes. Suddenly there are spiders’ webs everywhere, strung with droplets of dew in the dawn. Though often, in the dog days of July and August, I harbour a childish wish that summer will never end, I invariably greet these golden days of early autumn with relief. I love the simple annual rituals they entail: slipping a soft woollen jersey over suntanned skin; lighting the first log fire; embarking on a gentle autumn tidy-up outside.

Though winter still seems an age away, the cooler nights are a reminder that it will, eventually, arrive. And as the prolific pace of the kitchen garden finally slows, it’s time to store up some of that late summer bounty for the months when a bullet-head cabbage and a handful of sprouts may be all it will yield. Runner beans and courgettes can be sliced into chutneys; plums and blackberries boiled into jams; and endless tomatoes cooked up into sauces to freeze, or dried in the drawers of our electric food drier whose drone is as constant as canned music. I enjoy all this slow, rhythmic chopping and mixing: it feels as if I’m stirring the very essence of summer into endless jars and bottles.

The onset of autumn is also a time to take stock of the garden’s successes and failures. Spring’s slow stop-start, coupled with long weeks of wet in high summer, meant a hard time for many outdoor crops. Spells of hot weather followed by unseasonal cold quite early in the season had the opposite effect of “hardening off” seedlings in a cold-frame – the young plants never got the unbroken run of constant warmth they need to get going, and some stopped growing for weeks on end. Those that like to be sown or planted in warm soil were particularly hard hit, as wet soil takes much longer than dry soil to warm up. Clever or experienced gardeners got out the fleece and coaxed their courgettes and runner and French beans under impromptu cover; others like me put up with a late and lamentably small harvest. Usually by now I’m finding it hard to give courgettes away; this year, for the first time ever, interlopers from the farmer’s market were allowed into my chutney. The tomatoes were good, though – more small sweet fruit than we could keep up with from a trio of ‘Tumbler’ seedlings – and the broad beans, earlier in the year, a real treat, and a reminder of the wisdom of autumn sowing (strong plants, earlier crops and freedom from the bane of blackfly).

There have been two real successes. The sweetcorn, being a grass, benefited from the rains in early summer and subsequent weeks of ripening sun. It was my most delicious yet – picked and popped into the pot before the sugars in the kernels had time to convert into starch, or sprayed with water (to keep it juicy) as it sizzled on the barbecue. The other runaway success – quite literally, in fact – were the pumpkins. I planted them purely to have Hallowe’en pumpkins for my daughter – the second plant being insurance in case the first was eaten by slugs. Of course, the slugs were having such a field day devouring beans and courgettes that they totally ignored both plants, leaving them free to romp through the entire plot, spreading their decidedly green fruit wherever they went. For a while, I was dreading having to explain to Mary why our pumpkin lanterns were not orange like everyone else’s, but in the past few weeks they have thankfully begun to change colour. We shall certainly not be short of lanterns, as there are no fewer than ten large fruit. And very lovely they look too, swelling and gleaming in the late afternoon sun, with the bleached tassle-heads of sweetcorn waving overhead. As we say goodbye to a wet, patchy summer, this sweetness in the air makes me grateful for what I’ve got.

16 Sep 2007 - NERINE LILIES

Bubblegum pink and frivolously frilled, hardy nerines are an unexpected joy in the September garden. Not only is the colour decidedly un-autumnal, but the flowers are unheralded by foliage – the strappy leaves appear in late winter and die down by late summer, leaving the buds to burst from tall bare stems. But if they’re a surprise to us, imagine the impact these beautiful flowers must have had on the inhabitants of Guernsey in 1659, when a ship bearing bulbs destined for the Netherlands was shipwrecked on the island and nerines began blooming along the beaches. In the autumn garden, the “shock impact” of a bright pink flower when so much else is at the tawny, yellow-orange end of the spectrum, can be used to create some spectacular effects. The late Christopher Lloyd, never shy of strong colour combinations, recommended pairing pink nerines with scarlet ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ dahlias and late, deep blue agapanthus such as ‘Loch Hope’, while Sarah Raven, in her book The Bold and Brilliant Garden, suggests purple verbenas or the curious mauve berries of Callicarpa bodinieri. The fine funnelled flowers, often reflexed and wavy-edged, also form a striking contrast with the smaller, daisy-like blooms of Michaelmas daisies such as Aster amellus ‘Violet Queen’.

Nerines are native to Cape Province and Orange Free State in South Africa, but several are hardy in the UK if given good, free-draining soil and plenty of sun. The foot of a south-facing wall is ideal, though they also do well in containers, as the bulbs benefit from a degree of congestion. Plant in early spring, with their noses just above the soil, water with a low-nitrogen feed after flowering, and mulch with straw in winter in all but the warmest areas. Though Nerine bowdenii, one of the brightest pinks, is by far the best-known variety in the border, the lighter pink N. undulata, which has smaller, more delicate flowers, is hardy in warm situations and can also be grown successfully in pots. Like all nerines, it can be slow to get going but, left to its own devices for a few years, should form an impressive clump. I particularly like its pretty soft pink flowers with their narrow, crinkled petals and have ordered some bulbs to naturalize in drifts among wispy bleached grasses at my seaside house. N. flexuosa ‘Alba’, with glistening crisp white flowers and evergreen foliage, is slightly less hardy but can be kept going if its crowns are well-protected through winter. At the Beth Chatto Gardens in Elmstead Market, Essex (01206 822007/www.bethchatto.co.uk) it looks wonderful well into October, its scrolling white blooms forming an elegant contrast with the tawny tints of autumn leaves.

For colours beyond pink and white, gardeners until recently had to rely on cultivars of N. sarniensis which, as its common name, the Guernsey lily, suggests, is only reliably hardy in warmer parts of the UK such as Cornwall and the Channel Islands. In shades of scarlet, salmon and coral through to deep crimson pinks, the flowers are best grown in pots in a greenhouse, but can be moved into a cool room in the house when coming into bloom. The late Sir Peter Smithers used to display them in great style against a sapphire-painted wall on the balcony of his Swiss home – and for the month of October, much of his collection, which he left to Nicholas de Rothschild, head of the UK Nerine Society, will be shown in exactly this way at Exbury Gardens near Southampton in Hampshire (023 8089 1203/www.exbury.co.uk for further details). Nerines can also be seen at The Garden House near Yelverton in Devon (01822 85479/www.thegardenhouse.org.uk), where head gardener Matt Bishop is continuing a breeding programme begun by the late Terry Jones, to cross N. bowdenii with N. sarniensis to achieve a hardy nerine in a wider range of colours. The large bright pink flowers of N. ‘Zeal Giant’ and ‘N. Zeal Salmon’ are already available (see The RHS Plantfinder (Dorling Kindersley £14.99 for stockists), and deep reds and even purples are promised soon.

Whether in or outside the house, these gorgeous lily-like blooms really do have the effect of prolonging summer for several more weeks. Many garden centres and nurseries (including those at the gardens mentioned above) will have nerines in bloom on sale from now onwards, so you can experiment by placing the pots in different places in your garden to find just the right spot to plant them. If you get the bug, and more are required, bulbs can be ordered for planting in early spring from Broadleigh Bulbs (01823 286231/www.broadleighbulbs.co.uk),
De Jager (01622 840229) or Bloms Bulbs (01234 709099/www.blomsbulbs.com). A series of talks on the history, breeding and growing of hardy nerines will be held at RHS Garden Wisley in Surrey on 26 October. Ring 01483 212450 or visit www.rhs.org.uk for further information.

29 Sep 2007 - NEW GARDEN KIT

“Why not just mark the things you don’t intend to buy?” asked my husband, glancing at the fringe of Post-it notes emerging from the stack of garden catalogues by the bed. As children stock up their pencil cases for the beginning of the school term, gardeners, too, start thinking about new kit around the onset of autumn. Tempting catalogues come flopping through the door, and as the evenings begin close in, I like to go to bed early and leisurely leaf through them, marking possible purchases as I go. Some items – what’s the big deal with brightly patterned wellies and bronze animal sculptures? – I know I’ll never buy. But I’ve earmarked a number of really useful items that would come into their own at this time of year, most of which are pleasant to look at as well as reasonably priced.

Autumn and winter are the classic time for pruning, and it’s high time I invested in a proper pruning saw for my fruit trees. A friend still remembers me attacking a hapless buddleia with a breadknife in my student days, and though I have since graduated to a saw, I am tempted by the “no bounce” claims of the True Cut and Bow Saw in The Garden Equipment Autumn Catalogue (0844 314 0043/www.ferndale-lodge.co.uk). Small high-precision teeth at the front and back of the 530mm blade promise a smooth and precise start to the cut, while the larger central teeth should cut through the wood cleanly and quickly. There’s even a metal hand guard and a free blade included in the price of £16.95. Also useful would be the Long Reach Pruner (£29.95) with a swivel head on the end of a one-metre handle that grips what it prunes – ideal for elderly or disabled gardeners, but also great for gathering the finest roses and most perfect fruit that are inevitably just beyond one’s grasp.

Having accumulated a huge pile of prunings, I usually make do with an old tarpaulin and a wheelbarrow to trundle them to the bonfire pile, but I’m hugely tempted by the large oilskin carrier made by The Carrier Company (normally £42 but see reader offer below). A hard-wearing oilskin sheet measuring 1.5 metres square with jute edging and strong jute handles, it’s a larger waterproof version of their Classic Carrier (which, at £30, is as useful for logs as it is for cut flowers and shorter prunings). All the items in The Carrier Company’s catalogue are made in Norfolk, and include long gardeners’ aprons and waterproof rain capes as well as their trademark canvas boot bags (ideal for keeping plant purchases from scattering soil everywhere) and sturdy jute carriers from just £15.

Rather than a scruffy old pile that gets blown about by the wind, how much neater and safer to burn my garden rubbish in an incinerator? Harrod Horticultural (0845 4025300/www. harrodhorticultural.com) has a galvanized 90 litre model that is good-looking in a satisfyingly functional kind of way, and a bargain at £19.95. Using an incinerator also makes it easier to extract ash at the end of the burning process – a high-potash addition to mulches and home-made compost. And to make sure potting compost is of the finest, most even texture, it’s well worth investing in one of their smart green Rotasieves (£39.95). This pleasantly old-fashioned device makes seasonal tasks such as cleaning out old tomato pots and creating new compost for autumn-sown broad beans and sweetpeas a real joy. It’s also great for separating out larger undecomposed lumps from garden compost and supposedly ‘well-rotted” farmyard manure. Place it over a bin or old Belfast sink and you’ll always have a supply of fine friable compost to hand.

Style queen of the catalogues will always be Plantstuff, however (0870 774 3366). My Traditional Ten-Drawer Apple Rack (from £195) is handsome enough to grace a cool kitchen instead of the shed, while their beech Fruit Ladder (£115) is modelled on an old-fashioned classic, tapered towards the top to penetrate higher branches. I swear by their waxed leather kneeler – at £45 it might seem extravagant, but it is heaven to have something that is completely water-proof and wipe-clean as well as super-comfy. Maybe I should think about investing in a brown leather apron (£125) and brown leather gauntlets (£49) to match?

Well, there’s nothing like a bit of armchair (or rather, bedside) shopping to put me in the mood for an autumn tidy up in the garden. I’m not startig quite yet – the wet summer means the leaves are hanging on greener for longer, and I’m a sucker for low autumn sun shining through bleached grasses and tawny grapevines. And anyway, the first thing to prune is my shopping list.


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

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