Three weeks ago I saw the most welcome sight: the first flowers on my plum tree (Opal), which is fan-trained against a south-facing wall of my house, and one in which I can see up close from the elevated storm porch at my back door. And I smiled! Soon after, more flowers opened and the bees were buzzing and my heart sang!
This mass of flowers on trees and shrubs, known collectively as blossom, is a welcome sight. Other than early flowering plum trees, Amelanchier lamarckii is another tree that flowers in April along with early flowering shrubs, such as Spiraea 'Arguta', Corylopsis pauciflora and flowering currants, such as Ribes sanguineum 'Pulborough Scarlet'.
So I say, let us celebrate the arrival of blossom as it is done in style in Japan - in the form of the cherry blossom festival, Hanami. Every year between the end of March and early May, people in Japan congregate around the country's cherry and plum trees for 'flower viewing', or Hanami, which is a traditional Japanese custom to celebrate the transient beauty of the flowers (see Wikipedia for more information on Hanami). I think that we should not only embrace this custom but extend it to be one in which we celebrate all early blossoming trees, not just plum and cherry trees.
Our festival can be one that celebrates the beginning of spring and the warmer months to come. After all, there is nothing quite like the sight of early blossoming trees buzzing with bees to bring a smile to your face.
Of note, Helensburgh's Tree Conservation Society will be celebrating the return of the Spring Blossom this Saturday (30 April) in Hermitage Park in Helensburgh. This event will be opened by Lee Stetson, an actor who plays Tom Muir, who will plant a Sequoia in commemoration of the famous conservationist. For more information, visit The Tree Conservation Society's website.
Today, the sun was shining on James Street park - literally and metaphorically. I had a fantastic time talking with local residents of all ages about the vision for James Street Community Garden. I was working alongside the community group who want to see the park used and several council members and councillors at the consultation for the proposed design.
In case you could not make it today, the proposed design for the community garden is shown below. It aims to turn an under-used green space, which is pretty much an uninviting blank canvas into a garden where the community can enjoy quiet play within natural play areas to basking in the sun whilst hearing bees and other wildlife go about their daily business.
The community group had asked me to find an attractive and inspiring low maintenance solution for the park, one that would provide space for parents and children to enjoy and a place for retired people to relax. In particular, the community group asked for a wildlife garden and a natural play space for children.
According to a spokesperson for the community group "The design has met this brief and uses natural materials where possible (and practical), has provided a natural play space for imaginative play, and has creatively turned the wet area into a positive addition to the garden, rather than a negative."
From talking to many visitors to James Street park today, the positive feedback to the vision for the park was incredible with a number of local residents offering to get involved. This is wonderful news because the garden will need a strong community involvement to come to fruition. Efforts will be needed now to raise funds for the project and in the longer term to actively create and then maintain the garden (even a low maintenance garden needs some tender-loving-care).
I look forward to getting involved in making the garden come to life and to seeing it develop. I also look forward to gardening alongside members of the community.
So, in case you did not make it to the consultation, the masterplan and a full description of the design, which makes the most of the site and its conditions can be seen here: Masterplan for James Street Community Garden.
This garden is for the community, so please get involved and also send in your comments by completing the online questionnaire by 30 April 2016 at: http://www.helensburghcommunitycouncil.co.uk.
I am privileged to be involved in two community group projects at the moment. For the first project, I am devising a planting plan and approach to populating the two wildlife pond in Duchess Wood with plant . The second project is the renovation of James Street park for which I have been commissioned to design a new community garden for the space. This design will go out to consultation on Saturday 23 April. Though I cannot say too much at present, the design for the park aims for an attractive, slightly wild space that can be enjoyed by all whilst being low maintenance. Two very different projects with a common thread - wildlife.
For both projects, I am considering native versus non-native plants. Putting the overall aim of Duchess Wood to return it to it’s native state aside, I feel it would be inappropriate to introduce non-natives into Duchess Wood given it’s position in the landscape. The wood is adjacent to regenerating woodland and links to other broadleaved woodland on Glenoran Road to the west and to the north. It would not take much for vigorous plant species to widen their reach. We already see Japanese knotweed on the outer-reaches of the wood that was until recently threatening to encroach this local nature reserve. So I turn to the natives here.
The new ponds in Duchess Wood would support native plants such as the yellow-flowered Iris pseudoacorus, Filipendula ulmaria (meadowsweet), and Juncus sp. - three plant species already found in damper areas of the wood. These native species would be right at home around the margins of the pond along with Lythrum salicaria (purple loosestrife), Valeriana officinalis (valerian), and Caltha palustris (marsh marigold) . The pretty sky-blue, though sometimes pink flowered Myosotis scorpioides (water-forget-me-not) would grow well at the edge of the ponds or in shallow water. Whereas, the white water lily, Nymphaeus alba, with its large flowers and leaves, Mentha aquatica (water mint), which has spherical lilac flowers that are loved by pollinators, and Potamogeton natans, with floating leaves that are appreciated by insects, would be happier in the water. Together, these native plants would provide habitat for wildlife in and out of the pond and the oxygenating plants within the pond, such as Potamogeton natans and Myriophyllum spicatum increasing pond biodiversity.
On the other hand, non-natives combined with natives would be far less controversial for James Street community garden. This green space is in the centre of town and bounded by gardens and buildings. In fact, non-natives would be welcome here as they would extend the season. For us, we can enjoy the later flowering plants, such as Helenium, Anemone x hybrida, Eupatorium maculatum, Ageratina altissima, and Aster sp. that give such a wonderful autumnal display. And for the wildlife, the food that some at least of these plants provide long after many of our native plants have finished flowering. I say some - those that are considered near-natives (i.e., those naturally occurring in the northern hemisphere, but not native nor naturalised in the British Isles, and from at least the same family if not the same genus) are better for our pollinators than exotics according to an extensive study carried out at RHS Wisley (1). Though even exotics have their place in providing food for our pollinators.
So in short, my answer to that question - native or not-native - is yes to both, but (and it is a very large but) it very much depends on the context and the wider landscape. These really need to be considered - carefully.
Reference: (1) Salisbury et al (2015). Journal of Applied Ecology 52: p.1156 to 1164
For more information, visit:
RHS website: plants for pollinators
Butterfly conservation: plants for butterflies
I am currently implementing a design of a perennial edible and wildlife friendly garden that I did for a client and it made me reflect on why perennial edible gardens are really no-brainers.
Whilst I love growing annual fruit, vegetables and herbs, it is my perennial edible borders that are a constant source of food year-on-year and they look attractive too - year round. What I mean by this is that no matter how busy I get during the year, especially in spring and early summer when most annual crops are sown and nurtured, my perennial food plants just get on with what they do best. They grow, produce flowers, fruit, leaves and seed with only a little input from me.
Whilst temperatures prevent me sowing annual seed at this time of the year as they will just not germinate, my perennials are growing. Most of this growth is going on below ground as the root systems extend, getting ready to transfer energy into leaf production as soon as the time is right.
And all this is happening with the very littlest of care from me mostly over the winter months: some annual pruning for fruit shrubs, or in the case of the trained apple trees biannual pruning, cut back dead herbaceous material, feed with compost, weed where the previous years mulch has got a little thin, and reapply the mulch where needed in the form of leaf mould or shredded bark. Every few years, my herbaceous perennials are divided to renew their vigour, but this is a simple winter task that provides me with new plants. Old strawberry plants are replaced with their own offspring, which are sent out on runners in late summer.
So despite relatively little care, my perennial edibles provide kilos of fruit (blueberries, blackcurrants, red currants, gooseberries, strawberries, plums and apples), endless supplies of leaves for soups, salads and stews (such as a variety of sorrel, perennial kale, garlic and onion-flavoured leaves, sweet cicely, mitsuba, leaf celery), tasty herbs (rosemary, oregano, thyme, sage, fennel), and attractive edible flowers, which are good to eat as well as support wildlife. They also provide good ground cover reducing the need to weed and in terms of the shrubs and evergreen herbaceous edibles, they provide structure and winter interest to the borders.
So all in all, growing perennial fruit, vegetables, and herbs requires less time and energy than annual varieties, they can provide an abundance of produce, which compliment annual veg by adding diversity to the menu, provide year-round structure and interest to borders and can be good for wildlife.
With Christmas over, I am now done with winter and am looking for any signs of spring - be it the tip of a snowdrop pushing skywards through the earth to shrubs in full flower. OK technically these are winter-flowering plants, but they bring me hope that warmer and lighter days are just round the corner.
Whilst pottering around my garden over the past few weeks, I have photographed some plants that have made me smile and in some cases break into song!
At the moment, the evergreen shrub Viburnum tinus ‘Eve Price’ is flowering beautifully in my garden. The dainty clusters of white flowers, which open from buds tinged a pale pink, will go on bringing me daily joy well into spring. After flowering, this shrub provides a lovely backdrop to more floriferous perennials that come into their own in the late spring and summer months.
Laurus nobilis (aka bay tree) with it’s bright green evergreen leaves and red stems glows in the low winter sun and if trained into a particular shape, such as a lollipop, provides not only structure but interest in the garden year round. In my garden,
I have a characterful 8-year old lollipop bay tree in a container made from half a whisky barrel that stands proudly at the bottom of the steps to my kitchen along a south facing wall. Here, my bay tree is on hand to provide flavouring for winter soups and stews; in return, this location provides a sheltered spot from cold winds and frost and where she can happily soak up any sun with which we are blessed. In fact, this bay tree survived the two cold winters of 2009 and 2010 in this location without any additional protection.
As a lover of ferns, I have these prehistoric plants growing intentionally, as well as unintentionally all over my garden. Given the mild winter we have had so far, the small, semi-evergreen Dryopteris erythrosora is still looking stunning. From the open-arching shape of the clump to the copper-pink tones of the young fronds amidst the mature green fronds, this fern really lights up my woodland garden.
Another fern that is still going strong well into winter is Adiantum venustum. This fern has the most delicate of fronds that can add a lightness to a border. In my garden, this fern is growing well in a terracotta bulb bowl in the shade where it greats visitors to our house.
Hellebores can provide winter greenery under deciduous shrubs, but their large leaves also provide an interesting horizontal form. The unassuming bowl-shaped flowers, seemingly a little shy, come in a variety of colours. The ones I have in my garden at present (I am considering adding more to my garden on my next visit to the nursery) are the white variety Helleborus x hybridus 'Clear White'.
As I mentioned, these plants can provide winter greenery, though I had to remove quite a number of leaves that showed signs of being infected with a fungus that causes Hellebore leaf spot. Having fed the Hellebores with a good mulch of compost, I am hoping that the plants will be stronger to fight of this fungus in the coming year and they will be healthier. On the upside, removing these leaves lets me see the flowers a little better!
And finally (for now), Iris reticulata (possibly the variety 'George'), which I have growing in a pot on my back steps, is about to break into flower. This is early for even this early flowering dwarf iris. The mild December we experienced I am sure seduced it into bloom earlier than it normally would. And of course, no sooner than it raised it's beautiful head, did the weather change bringing with it snow and freezing nights. I really hope that the snow has protected the flower bud from the cold rather than causing it undue stress. Only time will tell......
As gardeners, we are manipulating nature to a greater or lesser degree, creating our perfect space to live and play in. Some do this with a plan on paper others do it as they go along. But once created, no garden is static - it changes from month to month, season to season, year on year. We are working with living organisms that grow, reproduce, and die.
And with these changes we see seedlings appear, self seeded from one parent or another, borders fill out and dappled shade cast as the canopies of shrubs and trees grow.
For some, this creates a plethora of interest and opportunity. Unexpected, but pleasant planting combinations may arise from self-seeders moving into a gap in a border or existing plants vegetatively moving around the garden; new planting conditions may arise that allow for different plants to thrive; and spaces may open up for the inclusion of yet more plants!
For others, this change creates a mountain of stress because the garden is changing beyond the original plan. Of course, no amount of planning and designing will halt the tide of change, and trying to keep it to plan will result in a lot of work.
Nevertheless, we should, no need, to delicately tweak our gardens through seasonal maintenance to prevent our gardens returning to their native form - in this country it would be woodland, to increase vigour of the plants in our care, and to keep with some kind of plan, even if it is a naturalistic one.
I feel we should embrace the expected as well as unexpected changes in our garden and see them as opportunities to create new experiences rather than hindrances to our original ideas. By doing this, we will feel more connected to our gardens and to nature around us.
Although this year is far from over, now is a good time to assess your garden, while it is still in growth (and it still warm enough) to spend time pondering it’s successes as well as it’s failures.
First, decide what you like about your garden, then consider where you feel it could be improved. To help with this, you could ask yourself the following questions whilst perusing your garden:
(1) Does the garden entice you outside, even on an inclement day?
(2) Do you use all of the garden or are there areas that you do not spend time in?
(3) Do you have all the features and functions you need from your garden, such as a watering system, lighting, vegetable beds, somewhere to raise young or tender plants, such as a greenhouse, etc.?
(4) Are your borders full of plants that provide colour and interest year round?
(5) Are all your plants growing happy and healthily in their current location?
If the answer is no to any of these questions, think about why you do not spend time in your garden, or visit particular areas, what features you would like, and consider the times of the year that your garden does not seem to sing with floral and foliage displays.
After answering these questions, you can formulate a plan to help improve your garden for next year, however, the dormant season is a good time to make some of these changes!
Autumn is the perfect time to plant bulbs, such daffodils, snowdrops, and crocuses, for early colour and interest, and other plants so that the roots have a chance to grow before winter giving them a better start next year. Any plants that are not doing so well could be moved at this time of the year to a new location or removed entirely if they are diseased. And any gaps in the planting could be marked with a stick - if only small areas - so that new plants whether bought or home-raised can fill the space when you get them.
Over winter is also a great time to make structural changes to the garden, build new features, prepare plants and borders for spring (more on this later) and to have a general clear up (though leave some shelter for hibernating wildlife).
So I leave with some parting words: enjoy your planning but do not leave all the work until the spring - some of the improvements will be best done before the new growth starts!
Despite less than desirable weather, I ventured to Rhu to visit the garden of Glebeside House, which was open as part of the Scotland’s Gardens Scheme. Divided into fluid ‘rooms’ by a pergola, a very impressive laburnum archway, and palatial beds brimming with plants, this garden was definitely worth a visit.
I first travelled behind the house, passing a standing dead tree trunk clothed in Clematis tangutica, carpets of Alchemilla mollis, and a lemon-flowered nasturtium (among many other things). Here, I loved the use of a mixed shrub border of Cotinus, Camelia, Sambucus, and peony that gave the illusion of depth, blurring the boundary and disguising the neighbouring Cupressus x leylandii hedge.
Raised beds, newly built in stone outside the renovated washhouse were filled with plants that complemented each other in colour, and contrasted in form, from the large lowering pale pink Clematis, to the purple Salvia, Lavandula, and Viola, and a crimson Fuchsia. Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ and the bronze-coloured Carex testaeca gave a restful break in the riot of colour.
In the shady part of the garden, a Weigela, clipped into a dome shape, and the broad leaved hostas provided the perfect foil to allow the various ferns in this part of the garden to sing. Other shady areas included Gunnera sp. underplanted with hostas, and a Tree fern underplanted with Epidmedium and ferns, among other things. I noticed that there were a number of different fern varieties, as well as hostas, Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’, and Epimedium (possibly E. rubrum) repeated in other shady parts of the garden, under trees and large shrubs, adding a sense of unity amongst the planting.
The shady borders led through the laburnum archway, not at its best this time of the year as the yellow chandelier-like flowers are now over but I am assured it is a sight to be seen. However, the beautifully sculpted pergola provided a wonderful support for winter-flowering jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) - just green at this time of the year, honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum), and a wild rose of sorts with red hips that were starting to swell.
Mixed borders are clearly favoured at Glebeside House, and rightly so. Mixtures of the odd Rhododendron, a green backdrop at this time of the year, a reddish-purple acer, a variety of Salix alba underplanted with a red Phormium, Astrantia, and Lysimachia punctutata. In the sunny border, a purple pittosporum was intermixed with Campanula, Achillea, and Fuchsia. The trees and shrubs providing structure year-round, coming into their own at various times of the year, and acting as a calming backdrop during the summer season when the herbaceous perennials run riot.
On complimenting the owner, Peter Proctor, on his garden, he said, “you know, this is a high maintenance garden”, which he told me that he does get to enjoy of an evening over a (well-deserved, might I add) glass of wine. All-in-all, the garden was a wonder to explore, a complete delight, and I could have spent much longer there. Roll on next year when I can visit again!
Visiting flower shows is a wonderful way to get inspiration for your own garden. I had the fortunate opportunity to visit the RHS Tatton Park flower show 2015 during the final stages of the build as well as pop in for a flying visit on my way south, after the show had opened.
Tatton stages a number of competitions not seen at the other RHS shows, such as the Young Designer of the Year. This year, the theme was an English country garden, and that’s just what Tamara Bridge’s ‘The Sunset Garden’ evoked. Tamara was awarded the coveted title and was also awarded a Gold medal. Marrying a formal layout and lush planting, there was a lot to like. In this garden, I loved the planting, and in particular the planting combination of a burgundy Penstemon with Gaura lindheimeri - gorgeous!
The circular design of young designer Kate Savill’s Gold-medal winning ‘Time is a Healer’ garden encouraged an inward focus. I liked this - the sunken seating area with its central water pool that was enclosed almost entirely with mixed planting providing a place for contemplation and engagement.
I often hear - “I just don’t get it” - when referring to the conceptual gardens at flower shows. But not this year. The three conceptual gardens were fantastic, with their messages clear even without the brief in front of you, and wonderful planting to boot. They were all awarded Gold!
The year of light was the basis of the three conceptual gardens at this year's show. The light catcher garden by Sharon Hockenhull was awarded best conceptual garden, and was my personal favourite. The light and airy planting in iridescent purples, whites and yellows, which was to die for so to speak, softened the almost harsh but sculptural PVC clad metal arbour. Despite it’s conceptual nature, I could see this garden incorporated into my own back garden (well, almost - the wet climate here would see off most of the lovely grasses)!
Helen Elks-Smith and Kate Hart’s fun garden ‘Reflecting Photonics’ used the colour of their planting and sculpture and the contours of their garden to enhance their message about cutting edge research at Southampton University on fibre optic research. As a scientist (my first love), I was pleased to see a show garden as a platform for public outreach!
The large show gardens that stood out for me were the Perennial Legacy garden designed by Paul Hervey-Brooke's and R-Space, a garden for a large family, designed by Pip Probert.
The perennial legacy garden, awarded best in show, was inspired by large English country estate, and as with such an estate, it could not all be viewed in one go, adding intrigue and interest. Large stately Ginkgo biloba trees and tall shrubs and herbaceous perennials, such as Physocarpus and Veronicastrum, within the long borders obscured views, and making the garden feel much larger than it was. A sculpture nestled within one of the borders at the end of a narrow path drew my eye across the garden, adding depth. Behind the pavilion, which was viewed along the length of the garden flanked on either side by the long borders, was the kitchen garden and gardeners bothy. This garden was one to explore - if only I was given the chance!
R-space, designed by Pip Probert was a garden to love and one you could have at home. This beautiful garden used repetition of form, colour of planting within the expansive mixed borders, and an angular path to direct the eye and add movement to the garden, whilst providing an ample lawn for lounging or playing. A water fall and rill, which ran under the dining table, added interest in the dining area, which indeed could hold a large family!
In contrast to the richly planted, vibrant borders, Pip created areas around the dining area that were planted with a limited palette, such as the lilac Verbena bonariensis, blue Agapanthus and Carex 'Ice Dance' as underplanting to the lollipop Ligustrum trees, pink Echinacea and Anemanthele lessoniana, and Lavendula with Carex ‘Ice Dance’ creating an area that was calm. One could spend hours in here, gardening as well as relaxing!
Last but not least, the small, but perfectly formed back-to-back gardens. My favourite was ‘A Quiet Corner’ by Anna Murphy and Sarah Jarman. I loved the use of pewter grey render on the wall, which provided the perfect backdrop for the subdued and calming planting palette. However, in amongst the planting were a few gems - such as Acaena inermis ‘Purpurea’ These designers really showed restraint on their planting, but it paid off - they were awarded Gold and best back-to-back garden.
I very much enjoyed speaking with and being inspired by the designers and their gardens. I only wish I could have spent more time there as I missed so much! Still, there is always next year......
Whilst cycling round Helensburgh, I came across the most delightful sight - a strip of plants, commonly associated with the margins of a pond or water course, happily growing within a mown grass verge!
Helensburgh’s many wide grass verges often have a swale, or narrow depression, that runs parallel to the road to catch road-water run off. An innovative local resident had in fact planted up the swale in his adopted verge using plants such as Darmera peltata, Primula, Rodgersia, Iris, and Miscanthus, all of which would all thrive in these damp conditions.
Rachel Bailey, a garden designer and gardener in Scotland.