Weeds Roots & Leaves is out front

I completed my first professional gardening project a week ago. The site, a local front garden, is already hard-landscaped to a high standard, with a Cotswold stone chip parking area bordered with brick edged paving. My brief was to soften the harsher lines of the space and provide an elegant feature to either side of the front window of the house. The existing layout includes a long rectangular border from street to house, a blank canvas save for a shaggy 2.5 metre high Yew shrub near the front door.

Having carried out a thorough weed and leaf clearing exercise and applied and dug in topsoil and well rotted manure to the border, I lopped a couple of feet off the Yew and clipped it to as boxy a shape as possible. This instantly created a focal point at the house end of the border.

I’ve always admired the airy lightness of Nandina domestica, Sacred Bamboo, which isn’t a true bamboo and has none of that genus’s invasive tendencies. It is a member of the Berberis family. The smallish leaflets have a pronounced tip and possess the photogenic ability to suspend water droplets in a similar fashion to Alchemilla mollis, Lady’s Mantle.

There is an extensive stand of these evergreen shrubs in Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew’s Bamboo Garden, surrounding the Japanese silk weaver’s dwelling, the Minka House. These have reached a height of about 1.5 metres and demonstrate the shrub’s quality of creating a screen without the density of traditional hedging species.


Sprays of white flowers in summer followed by red berries are further appealing features. Four waist height specimens filled the border satisfactorily, with space between them in this season for white ‘winter bedding’ Cyclamen planted in groups of three. I continued the white and green theme with a scattering of Muscari armeniacum ‘Venus’ bulbs along the length of the border.

I sourced a recycled plastic range, ECOPOTS, ecopots.eu, for the three containers for the remainder of the planting scheme. These are high quality, beautifully finished and surprisingly weighty and their mid-grey shade is a good foil for evergreen foliage. Rather than opt for the predictable pyramids of Bay, Laurus nobilis, to fill the tall square-tapered containers to either side of the window, I chose a handsome alternative, Prunus lusitanica ‘Angustifolia’, Portuguese Laurel, which has striking burgundy stems. It will require shaping in coming seasons.

The final space to be filled on the site was a very shady corner behind a low wall facing the street, overhang with a neighbour’s Magnolia. I needed a solution which will in due course screen the dustbin and recycling boxes and which will tolerate the lowish light levels. I found it in the heft and strong structure of a Fatsia japonica with a speckled variegated leaf, the cultivar ‘Spider’s Web’. The white veins of the leaf patterning lighten a potentially gloomy corner. Here I used a large circular container in ECOPOTS’ Amsterdam range. IMG_5734 2

I was fortunate in my first assignment in having a straightforward site, a few streets from home with clients prepared to host my first professional venture. May it be the first of many projects for Weeds Roots & Leaves.



Buckets, buttons and St Brigid

Embedded in the heart of one of the quadrants of the ornamental vegetable garden at Osterley, I temporarily lose sight of the bucket into which I am putting the debris from this afternoon’s task. We are deadheading dahlias and pulling out Solanum nigrum, Black Nightshade. I have a vision of this large bed in December- its current plenty reduced to blackened stalks by frost, ready to be cleared away and the bed rotated. Standing in its centre, like the proverbial sore thumb, is a large plastic bucket full of rotting vegetation. My excuse for mislaying the bucket is that very plenty. Towering around me are Canna Lilies, some of whose vivid yellow and orange flowers have developed into seed-cases containing the black pea-sized seeds which give the plant its common name of Indian Shot. The red and yellow remnants of Mina lobata, Spanish Flag, cling to the large wigwam constructed from hazel poles. I remember a crisp day last winter in the park when we gardening volunteers graded into separate piles the hazel trunks and stems coppiced by the ranger team. Spanish Flag can be grown from seed and is a colourful annual climber for a sunny position.


From my position in the centre of this sea of plants I can see a tall Nicotiana, with creamy greenish bells clustered in a spire above large green leaves, the scale of which are a reminder of its cousin, Walter Raleigh’s tobacco plant. Clear pink Zinnia heads clash (in a good way) with the bright orange flowers of the Mexican Sunflower, Tithonia rotundifolia, whose flowers resemble the form of the Zinnias. There are fewer flowers than a month ago when they were a magnet for bumble bees.

The feathery claret flowers of Amaranthus wave throughout the bed, busily seeding themselves and eliciting enquiries from curious garden visitors. The ‘pseudo-grain’ produced from Amaranth resembles Quinoa, source of both protein and pronunciation debates.

Relieved to rediscover the elusive bucket, I continue to pull up the shallow rooted Black Nightshade which is doing its best to choke the surrounding plants by sending up stems closely packed together which entwine their victim. It is identified by small white flowers and glossy black fruits, and seems to grow at an alarming rate. Despite its sinister name, I have read that the berries are barely toxic and in some parts of India are regarded as a delicacy (William Edmonds’ ‘Weeds Weeding (& Darwin)’). On the subject of sinister plants, Ricinus communis, with its dark Burgundy hand-shaped leaves, provides a brooding contrast to the cheerful hues of the other plants in this bed. The seeds of the Castor Oil Plant are the source of the deadly poison Ricin.

Within touching distance are the large yellow dahlia blooms I am meant to be deadheading- carefully avoiding the tight buttoned buds and snipping off only the stems supporting the pointed (and confusingly bud-like) spent flowers, their inner petals still visible.

This morning we had the pleasurable job of planting tubers and bulbs for next spring. Into the front of ‘Dickie’s Border’, named for a long-time Osterley gardener, we planted the bizarrely shaped dark brown tubers of Anemone coronaria (of which more later). The central sections of Mrs Child’s Flower Garden were the locations for clusters of tulip bulbs, in my case ‘Couleur Cardinal’, which is a traditionally shaped Triumph tulip whose purple flowers open to bright scarlet as the flower matures.

Before finishing for the day, gardener Ed takes us to the cutting garden to see a row of the species of Anemone we had planted earlier in the day, which has confusingly started to flower this autumn. The label reads ‘St Brigid mixed’. The cerise, white and purple flowers are double with an almost shredded appearance around a dark purple stamens and ovary structure. I leave Osterley intrigued to have discovered a group of Anemone cultivars developed in Ireland and named after a saint The Penguin Dictionary of Saints describes as revered in Ireland ‘only less than St Patrick himself’! I haven’t been able to identify why this name was chosen. The saint’s feast day, 1 February, is too early to coincide with even a prematurely flowering specimen. Whatever the reason, St Brigid’s namesakes are undoubtedly pretty and I shall be looking out for those we planted when they flower next spring.

From Russia with love: St Petersburg Botanical Garden and how a tropical beauty got its name

When I visit a city abroad I try, if possible, to visit the botanical garden. I am lucky enough to live less than a mile from arguably the world’s finest botanical garden, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Inevitably I draw comparisons with Kew when I go to other gardens, but it’s always fascinating to see, for example, how plants are arranged in their plant families, the standard of horticulture and the method of communicating the garden’s message to its visitors.

In May this year I travelled to St Petersburg in Russia and went to two very different gardens. I shall tell you about the gardens at the Tsars’ summer palace at Peterhof in a future blog post. Today it is St Petersburg’s Botanical Garden I would like to introduce to you and, more especially, to a plant associated with it. The garden is located to the north of the city centre, on Aptekarskiy or Apothecary’s Island, one of the many islands which make up this unique and grandly imperial city. The island is named after the medicinal herb gardens founded by Peter the Great in 1714.

The approach to the gardens from the Metro station is along streets lined with turn of the (19th) century apartment buildings, the last stage of the walk being alongside a canal. I confess that my overall impression of the garden was not favourable. I should mention that the weather was unusually hot and dry for mid May, so inevitably the flower beds looked dusty and droughty. But what I found sad was that, unlike the lavishly restored and maintained visitor attractions we had been to, not least The Hermitage and its annexe, The General Staff Building, this seems to be a site which has yet to receive an injection of cash to bring it up to world class standard. Admittedly, we arrived too late in the afternoon to join one of the guided tours of some of the 25 glasshouses, and had we done so I might be giving the garden a more positive review. What I did find impressive was the alpine area where different species of silky haired Pulsatilla nestle in the crevices of the rocks and the Japanese garden featuring a traditional tea-house facing a pond edged with Azaleas. Near the main entrance to the garden stands the Herbarium which is housed in an impressive three storey building, built in Art Nouveau style or Style-Moderne as it is known in Russia.

It wasn’t until last month, when I explored Kew’s Tropical Nursery during London’s annual Open House weekend, for the two days of which buildings usually closed to the public open their doors, that I discovered a link to St Petersburg’s Cinderella of a botanical garden. This was a rare opportunity to see the organisation’s conservation work in practice, where specialist horticulturists help to bring critically endangered species back from the brink of extinction. There are several different zones in the nursery, where the heating and lighting are adapted to particular plant families, for example ferns, orchids and cacti. On a table outside the Bromeliad section, my eye was drawn to plants native to the South American rainforests, Neoregelia, and a sign noting that the genus is named for Eduard von Regel (1815-1892), director of St Petersburg Botanical Gardens from 1875 until his death. I couldn’t help thinking that he might be saddened to see the garden in which he worked for so many years in its current slightly down at heel state. Not so these magnificent plants with their broad, rather flat leaves which are often brightly coloured in greens and reds with banding or striping. The other striking feature of the plant is the reservoir of water which collects in a shallow depression in the centre of the plant, and through which the flower rosette blooms. There are numerous specimens of this spectacular plant growing in the central zone of Kew Gardens’ Princess of Wales Conservatory.


Readers of an earlier blog post (12 December 2017) where I wrote about the quirky and apparently cantankerous Miss Ellen Willmott, will have noted my interest in the personalities behind names of plants. In his obituary in the journal Nature, the German born Eduard von Regel was described as ‘learned and genial’. I hope that one day his garden will be restored to its former glory and in the meantime his name lives on in the name of a beautiful tropical plant.




The arrival of the autumn equinox ten days ago and the accompanying unsettled weather signalled to this gardener it was time to plan a display of bulbs for next spring. Cooler temperatures and heavy rain justified a few hours of armchair gardening, studying cultivars of tulips recommended by the Royal Horticultural Society for planting in containers and I compiled a wish list in preparation for a visit to the plant centre at RHS Wisley.

I try to achieve a display spanning as long a period as possible, from late March through to early May. Variety of both colour and form influence my choice and whilst it is tempting to stick to the old favourites, I am keen to try some different colour combinations next year. I particularly like the ‘lily’ tulips which have narrow, goblet shaped flowers and pointed petals curving elegantly outwards. Into this category falls sugary-pink Tulipa ‘China Pink’. On a visit to an open garden day at Petersham House in April this year, I discovered the spectacular Tulipa ‘Flaming Spring Green’, its white and green flowers streaked with scarlet. Sadly, these bulbs cost twice as much as their more subdued cousin, Tulipa ‘Spring Green’, and prudence outweighed extravagance on this occasion.


To ensure that the display is not bland, I’ve also bought mauve Tulipa ‘Blue Parrot’ which will open into a curly parrot flower, and Tulipa Cistula, another lily-flowered cultivar with lemon and cream flowers. Glancing back at an image of my tulip display in April this year, I shall certainly also include the orange lily tulip ‘Ballerina’ for both its impact and long flowering period.


When I plant the bulbs in November, I plan to use a 50:50 mixture of compost and horticultural grit, to prevent the bulbs from sitting in a waterlogged growing medium during the winter. Unlike other bulbs, e.g. daffodils, which can be planted any time from now onwards, the experts recommend planting tulips in November to avoid a fungal disease called ‘Tulip Fire’ which distorts the leaves and makes the plant looked scorched. For the third year, I shall protect the planted containers from squirrel damage with the chicken wire cloches made for me by a friend.

I also bought a packet of Snakeshead Fritillary bulbs, Fritillaria meleagris, to plant in pots for a couple of friends who have admired my container of these under the kitchen window.  I resisted the temptation to buy a Fritillaria Persica whose flower spires I also admired in April at Petersham House, as it is too large for my borders.


A recent visit to Kew Gardens reminded me that bulbiferous flowers feature in the autumn garden as well as the spring garden. I found a substantial clump of Sternbergia lutea, Autumn Daffodil, in the Mediterranean Garden, its yellow crocus-like flowers tricking the viewer into thinking that spring has arrived. Nearby, bordering Holly Walk, lilac shaded swathes of Colchicum speciosum glow in luminous contrast to the rich dark soil in which they are planted. These Autumn Crocus are also called Naked Ladies to describe their habit of flowering only when their leaves have died back. Overnight rain had flattened some of the flowers on the morning of my visit, but the overall effect remained striking beneath the evergreen foliage of the holly specimens.

Next time: what links Imperial Russia with Kew’s Princess of Wales Conservatory?