Cutbacks and Restructuring

No, not financial restraints or a cabinet reshuffle, but the theme of most of the jobs I’m doing at this time of year. Before spring arrives in earnest it’s time to cut back herbaceous perennials, prune most roses and some species of shrubs, and restructure woody climbers or old shrubs needing renovation.

Recent cutbacks in my garden have been directed at the Japanese anemones and Hylotelephium (formerly Sedum). Using well-sharpened secateurs is essential, to avoid damaging the new growth already emerging from the crown of the plant at ground level. I support the vogue for keeping last year’s herbaceous perennials for as long as possible, particularly those with distinctive silhouettes, so as to provide structure in the garden in winter.  When Jack Frost visits, he deposits an icy halo around their seedheads or spent flowerheads and outlines any remaining leaves with a silver rim. Although in the mild winter we’ve had to date in south-west London, there have been few icy mornings, meaning fewer frosty photo opportunities and, thankfully, less windscreen scraping.

Symphyotrichum (formerly Aster) in the Cutting Garden at Osterley on 7 February 2020 

In the Cutting Garden at Osterley, we have taken the name of the garden literally on February Fridays, by cutting to ground level the rows and rows of stems which didn’t make it last year into the 65 floral arrangements created for the house every week in spring, summer and early autumn.

We loaded barrow after barrow with sheaths of Verbena bonariensis, Shasta daisies (Leucanthemum x superbum), Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Fascination’, Echinops, Echinacea and Rudbeckia. In what might be deemed a botanical restructure by taxonomists, another of the plants we cut back, Michaelmas daisies,  have been reassigned from the genus Aster to the genus Symphyotrichum.

Among my gardening friends we generally agree that pruning is a favourite task. Not just because much of it can be done standing up, avoiding muddy knees and sore lower backs, but also because when done well, it results in a well-formed plant which enhances the overall appearance of a garden. For myself, I also enjoy the precision involved in identifying the stems to remove, i.e. those that are dead, diseased or dying (‘DDD‘), and those to shorten to an outward facing bud, ensuring the cut is angled downwards to avoid water resting on the bud. I even find chopping the cut branches and stems into smaller pieces to fit in the garden refuse sack satisfying. A fortnight ago I applied this treatment to the Wisteria which grows against the rear fence of my garden, cutting back the stems to a series of nobbly clusters bearing pairs of shiny black buds from which the flowers will appear in April.

A recently pruned climbing rose framing a view of the cutback Cutting Garden

I wrote last winter about the benefits of training or restructuring climbing roses or rambler roses so as to bring stems as close to the horizontal as possible. This encourages bud break along the stems, resulting in more flowers at eye height and below. Left unchecked, roses grow upwards to find as much light as they can, giving the best view of their blooms to the birds and squirrels. To make this task more comfortable, I’ve invested in a pair of tough suede cuffed gauntlets and was very glad of them in a client’s garden last week when I tamed a very large and thorny climbing rose. Because ivy had entangled itself around the rose’s branches I had to remove as much of that as I could before pruning the rose and tying it into the trellis. One particularly stubborn section of ivy needed numerous cuts with the pruning saw before I was finally able to lift from the trellis post, Perseus style, a Medusa-like mass of several seasons’ growth of entwined woody stems.

Perseus with the head of Medusa

Checking my diary for local gardening jobs scheduled for this week, I see that the cutbacks continue with herbaceous perennial trimming tomorrow and Hydrangea pruning later in the week.

Plug in meadow

It began with a simple enquiry from my ‘client in the country’ (in fact my niece!) asking if I could recommend a supplier of meadow plants in plug form. A quick Google search led me to Crocus’s collection of ‘wildflowers for a stronger colour meadow display’, perfect for the south facing site with very little shade. It was agreed that I order the plants and bring them to plant on my next visit which was in the first week of November. The collection arrived in less than a week in a neat cardboard box containing 104 perfect little wildflower plants, in a black plastic tray divided into egg-cup sized plugs.


The 13 species were arranged in clearly labelled rows of eight, each plant being well established with a substantial root system.


The weather was thankfully dry and bright on the morning of planting, enabling me to mow the grass as short as possible before marking out the 4 metre x 5 metre site with short lengths of bamboo cane. Crocus’s instruction sheet advised a density of five plants per square metre, grouping the smaller plants in fives and the larger specimens in threes. The rain of the previous couple of weeks had softened the clay soil satisfactorily, making it relatively easy to dig the tiny pockets into which to deposit the plugs. As I inched my way around the grid, I was glad of the integrated knee-pads, just one of the many practical features of my investment purchase this autumn, Genus gardening trousers.


I had company during the whole process: my niece’s three hens: two feather-footed bantams and a very inquisitive ranger. I did my best to dissuade them from grubbing up the newly installed plugs by heeling them in as firmly as possible. Reports from Somerset indicate that I have been largely successful although said niece has had to re-plant a couple of the plugs after the hens’ excavating activities.


The final stage of the project is to rake the seeds of Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor) onto the plot so as to suppress the vigorous lawn grass. Yellow Rattle semi-parasitises the grass and is said to almost halve a lawn’s vigour once established.

Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor)

The list of specimens reads like the edited highlights of my Collins’ guide to ‘Wild Flowers of Britain and Europe’.


It features meadow specimens in predominantly yellow, blue and pink shades, for example Cowslips (Primula veris), Harebells (Campanula rotundifolia) and Maiden Pinks (Dianthus deltoides). The client is keen that the flowers attract bees and butterflies to the garden and most of the plants featured in the collection are rich in nectar. The pale blue flowers of Chicory (Cichorium intybus) are visited by bees and hoverflies and the brighter blue flowers of the wonderfully named Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare) lure both bees and Painted Lady Butterflies. Dusk should be a fascinating time in this little patch of meadow next summer judging by the several moth species mentioned on the labels: Northern Rustic Moths are partial to Cowslips and Harebells and two of the plants attract their namesakes. For example, Yellow Toadflax (Linaria vulgaris) is pollinated by the Toadflax Pug Moth and Ragged Robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi) by the Lychnis Moth. Another bee magnet is the Oxeye Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) whose white flowers on one metre stems should stand out beautifully when the meadow area becomes established.

The mint family is represented by two of the plants in the collection, violet blue Wild Clary (Salvia verbenaca) and pink Betony (Stachys officinalis).

Betony (Stachys officinalis)

I love the old fashioned names of these and all the wildflowers featured in the list and am so looking forward to seeing this little patch of meadow develop in the next couple of years. I shall report back next summer with a progress report and some photographs of my own. Those I have used to illustrate the various species I have found on the web and cannot claim the credit for these beautiful images.

Clockwise from top left hand corner: Ragged Robin, Wild Clary, Cowslip, Oxeye Daisy, Heartsease, Chicory, Harebell, Maiden Pink, Lesser Knapweed, Red Campion, Yellow Toadflax, Viper’s Bugloss.



The Generous Garden(er)

‘I describe it as a generous garden’, my new client explained earlier this year when showing me around her garden before engaging me to assist with seasonal maintenance tasks as and when needed. The long slim plot behind a Victorian terraced cottage was brimful of treasures when I first saw it at the beginning of May and vegetation was thrusting out of every available inch of soil. At every turn along the narrow lawn between deep curved edge borders I spied interesting plants- to one side a statuesque tree peony and the Euonymus alatus or Spindle Tree. And on the other side: large stands of Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Fascination’ and Acanthus mollis (Bear’s Breeches). The overall effect was punctuated by light purple dabs of Honesty flowers (Lunaria annua).

A keen and knowledgeable gardener, my client has loving maintained this extraordinarily productive space for more than three decades. She attributes its ‘generosity’ to regular and liberal applications of well-rotted manure and garden compost. These have contributed to a deep layer of humus rich soil, teeming with earthworms. An open aspect, unimpeded by mature trees in neighbouring gardens, and an irrigation system snaking across all the borders, also play their part. Unlike more recently planted gardens where the black irrigation pipes can look quite unsightly lying on the surface of the soil, these pipes are hidden amidst the undergrowth.

Inevitably uninvited guests presume on the garden’s generous hospitality. One morning last week I removed at least a dozen substantial plants of Green Alkanet (Pentaglossis sempervirens), those Borage relatives which masquerade so convincingly as Foxgloves until the last minute when their forget-me not blue flowers emerge. By this stage their deep roots have secured a toehold at least six inches beneath the ground, rendering them tricky to extricate from surrounding growth without snapping. Like Dandelion removal, it is all the more satisfying when the root emerges intact. Fortunately the recent rains and a fundamentally sandy soil mean that in this garden this is a relatively easy task.

More welcome guests I have seen whilst working in this garden are robins and blackbirds and last week a vividly green-plumaged Rose-ringed Parakeet roosted for several minutes on a branch a few metres from where I was working.

During one of my May visits one job was to tidy the three chunky clumps of Liriope muscari near the rear of the garden. I stripped away last year’s browning leaves from the healthy dark green strappy leaves into which they were embedded. It was a joy to discover that the garden had repaid my earlier efforts with a stunning display of bright purple flower spikes, a sumptuous foil for the orange, yellow and scarlet flowers of the hugely overgrown and soon to be grubbed up Nasturtiums which had escaped from a neighbouring bed and overrun the sunny paved area at the rear of the site.


Liriope muscari

Beyond this paving is a deep border backed by a brick wall which I cleared of spent tomato and runner bean plants, as well as several suckers of the Stag’s Horn Sumach (Rhus typhina). My client tells me this spectacular tree was itself a blow-in from a nearby garden. The same border also houses a fair sized peach tree which is ideally placed in its due south-facing location.

Golden dahlias in the foreground of the Stag’s Horn Sumach in its autumn glory
The client often sends me home with a bunch of beautiful Dahlias

In another client’s garden, that adjective ‘generous’ crops up again, this time applied to a David Austin climbing rose which I recently pruned and then trained against the fence, having first installed three rows of strainer wire. ‘The Generous Gardener’ (the definite article is part of the name) is described in David Austin’s catalogue as ‘a rose of delicate charm with beautifully formed flowers…a soft glowing pink at the centre, shading to palest pink on the outer petals…when open, the numerous stamens create an almost waterlily-like effect’. Judging by the girth of some of its lower stems this rose was planted many years ago and had, as often happens, grown into the habit of reaching skywards with few flowers below a height of a couple of metres. The time had come to fan out the stems against the fence, and by encouraging them in a near horizontal direction, to produce flowers as far down to the base of the plant as possible.


Generous she may be but in her mature years this rose has developed some serious thorns and both pruning and training proved challenging. But now that I have started the taming process, I am optimistic that next summer the promised perfume of ‘Old Rose, musk and myrrh’ will fill the courtyard garden rather than evaporating into the branches of the neighbouring garden’s trees. Some yers ago I gave this rose to a friend as a present and earlier this year helped her to support it with a hastily lashed together trellis of bamboo canes. I anticipate this proved a flimsy solution and have made a mental note to ask after The Generous Gardener and check that the extravagant horticulturist of the rose world has not exceeded her brief and attempted a takeover of my friend’s garden.




Step out onto any suburban street from mid June to early July and the pervading scent will be that of lime tree blossom. I do not mean the citrus  limes whose juice graces a Mojito cocktail. I’m referring to the flowers which, when dried, become the ’tilleul’ infusion popular in France. Before it became a familiar high street brand, no day trip to Calais or Boulogne was complete without a visit to L’Occitane to buy the delicately perfumed lime flower soap. These last couple of weeks the lime trees have been at the height of their intoxicating power, pumping forth the freshly sweet perfume which to me epitomises early summer.

Close examination reveals that the yellow green clusters hanging below the heart-shaped leaves of Tilia cordata (Small-leaved lime) and the roundly oval leaves of Tilia platyphyllos (Broad-leaved lime) consist of downward facing bunches of four or five stems. These are attached to a wing-shaped bract which aids seed dispersal and each stem terminates in a cluster of yellow pollen-tipped stamens surrounded by five outer sepals, the central core of each of which ripens into a small spherical fruit. The fruit or ‘nutlet’ as I have read it is called, is covered in fine down lending them a whitish grey appearance.


On warm days, lime tree flowers attract many pollinators, and an odd phenomenon has been observed with the Silver leaved lime, Tilia tomentosa, which is pollinated by honeybees. The trees’ nectar appears to have a narcotic effect on the bees, with dead or dying bees found under the trees each year. A team at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is investigating the issue and there is an interesting article on the Kew website entitled ‘Do Lime trees kill bees?’

I haven’t reported recently upon my Friday stints as a member of the team of garden volunteers at the National Trust’s Osterley Park. For the past two Fridays we have concentrated our efforts in the Tudor Walled Garden, preparing it for its annual colourful impact in late summer and early autumn. In fact, thanks to a myriad of self-sown poppies, two of the quadrant beds have exploded into sheets of mauve, pink and red. In the bed where the green manure was sown earlier this year, (see my blog from this March, Rolling along within the walls), the crimson clover blends beautifully with the poppies.


Last week, in the bed closest to the gate leading to the gardener’s bothy, we planted a mixture of four Gladioli cultivars: Roma, Indian summer, Espresso and Purple Flora. I’m looking forward to seeing their blend of colours later this summer. Meanwhile, our colleague Tracey has worked tirelessly to sow, plant and harvest produce on the third bed. Where possible the rest of the team help her with weeding and some planting, as well as harvesting early crops for the coach house cafe. A gentle job I was assigned last week involved deadheading the sweet peas which grow up obelisks at the corner of the plots, the variety this year being ‘Beaujolais’. Removing the seed pods which develop so swiftly after the  flowers have faded encourages more flowers by preventing the plant from expending energy on seed production.


Whilst weeding the edge of one of the plots we found two self-sown members of the Nightshade family, Solanaceae, to which potatoes, tomatoes and aubergines belong. The pioneers we found are the Shoofly plant, Nicandra physaloides, and the Thornapple, Datura stramonium. We left the former in place as its pretty mauve flowers are attractive but the latter will be removed as it doesn’t form part of the planting scheme as well as being poisonous.

Nicandra physaloides: the Shoofly plant

This Friday saw us working on the five round beds  alongside the wall which divides the Tudor Walled Garden from the picking garden (which is bursting with colourful flowers at the moment). A small fruit tree is planted in the centre of each round bed, and is underplanted for spring and early summer impact with Doronicum, Irises, Papaver somniferum (Opium poppies) and Love in a Mist (Nigella damascena). Sadly the plants have finished flowering and our task was to remove the poppies and Nigella (both annuals) and to reduce the iris leaves by 2/3rds and cut their flower stalks to ground level. We had an hour left in the afternoon to begin a similar task on the long border of the Tudor Walled Garden where a repeating planting scheme of Salvias, honey scented Honey spurge (Euphorbia mellifera), Plume poppy (Macleaya macrocarpa) and Foxtail lily, (Eremurus), is bestowed a sprinkling of gold dust by the shimmering stems and flowers of Elephant grass (Stipa gigantea).


Thinking of taller plants growing through lower growing plants, in my own garden I’ve been admiring the delicate yet long lasting flowers of Chinese meadow rue, Thalictrum delavayi, for about three weeks. At a height of about two metres they hover gracefully above the nearby Astrantia major ‘Abbey Road’, a burgundy Heuchera and Houttynia cordata. Like the small leaved lime mentioned above, another plant named for its heart-shaped leaves.


Hollies and composts: John Innes Park SW19

Not for the first time while working for a client in an unfamiliar area, I have stumbled across a public park with an intriguing horticultural history. In my post dated 25 February 2019 I described discovering Grove Gardens in Teddington, formerly part of a garden designed by Sir William Chambers, architect of the Kew Pagoda. Earlier this week I did some pruning in a garden in Merton Park: Lonicera fragrantissima (winter flowering honeysuckle), Viburnum bodnantense and a Pittosporum. Planning my route on Google Maps, I noticed that the clients lived a few hundred metres from John Innes Park and an internet search led me to the website of the John Innes Society where I learnt that this was the same John Innes of compost fame.

The park was formerly the garden of this property developer and benefactor known as ‘the Squire of Merton’, who developed this area near Wimbledon as an early garden suburb, Merton Park. When he died in 1904, John Innes left money for the founding of a horticultural training and research centre, which became the John Innes Horticultural Institution. The composts which bear his name were developed in the Institution’s premises in Merton in the 1930s. In 1945 the organisation moved to Hertfordshire and since 1967 it has been based in Norwich.

Once I’d completed my pruning I explored the park and was delighted to find an Arts & Crafts style entrance lodge, a wooden bandstand, half timbered public conveniences and a bowling green and tennis courts: in short an old fashioned public park. It is fitting that John Innes Park, a public space with such strong horticultural associations, boasts attractively laid out ‘rooms’, linked by paths bounded by tall yew and holly hedges, the latter dating from John Innes’s time, holly being associated with the Innes clan.  The park also contains a large rockery, a rose pergola and a lawned area with a fish pond.

There are numerous species and cultivars of holly throughout the park.

The holly theme is continued in the suburb of Merton Park itself, much of it a Conservation Area, with street signs bearing a holly motif and a stylised holly leaf featuring in the stained glass windows in the entrance halls and front doors of many of the houses. Holly hedging abounds in the estate and in one road I found the hedging is at least two metres high and planted either side of an avenue of stately London Plane trees.

I cannot conclude this post without a brief account of the growing medium I referred to earlier. Each John Innes compost is based upon a soil mix which consists of seven parts medium sterilised loam, three parts peat (or a substitute) and two parts of coarse sand. The basic recipe for each of the three composts, John Innes No. 1,2 and 3, also contains nutrients in the form of hoof and horn meal, super phosphate and sulphate of potash in varying proportions. For example, John Innes No. 3 provides a rich mix for established plants, trees and shrubs and No.2 is suitable for most houseplants and vegetable plants in containers. The more delicate the plant, the fewer nutrients are required, and John Innes No. 1 is suitable for pricking out or potting on young seedlings.

When the John Innes composts were developed, the inclusion of peat in the formulae would not have been deemed to be as environmentally undesirable as it is rightly considered to be today. Whilst researching this post I have been relieved to read that peat substitutes are being included in some products, without deviating from the proportions so carefully laid down by the Institution 80 years ago for the growing mediums which have been in use by gardeners ever since.

Ex box and a princely garden

I recently completed the third front garden planting makeover since launching Weeds Roots & Leaves last autumn. The brief was to replace low box hedging and five larger box balls, all of which had been decimated by the lethal combination of box blight and box tree caterpillar, with Ilex crenata, Japanese holly. Whilst the central circular hedge and that beneath the bay window of the house were relatively easy to extract from the sandy soil, the mature box balls were reluctant to relinquish their positions, having developed very tenacious root systems. They eventually yielded in the face of extreme determination on my part, leaving behind soil in the planting holes which was depleted and dusty. I worked in several bags of well rotted farmyard manure and topsoil in order to improve the soil. This week, with the welcome help of a friend, I re-planted the hedged areas with 56 Ilex crenata plants which I sourced from North Hill Nursery in Chobham, using 2 Litre plants for the bay window hedge and 1 Litre plants for the circular hedge.

IMG_7957Because the garden already has a restrained dark green and cream colour scheme, I planted Anemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’ behind the bay window hedge. The gently curving bed beside the path to the front door already contained two fine Skimmia japonica ‘Kew Green’ and I  added a further specimen of this glossy leaved cultivar in the space left by a box shrub as well as two more beside the wall bordering the pavement.

When I visited Prince Charles’s gardens at Highgrove on Thursday for a guided tour, I learnt that even a future monarch’s plants are not immune from box blight. On a couple of occasions during the tour the guide pointed out box substitute hedging. The first of these was Euonymus ‘Green Rocket’, a low hedge of which surrounds a bed in the Sundial Garden, framing the deep red flowers of an Anemone coronaria cultivar and the blue of Camassia leichtlinii. The guide explained that as soon as the box shows signs of infection or infestation it is grubbed out and replaced with alternative evergreen hedging. It was good to see that many box plants are thriving throughout the garden indicating that the strategy appears to be working. The other example of a successful substitution was in the very impressive walled Kitchen Garden where the box hedges had been replaced with Teucrium x lucidrys, commonly known as germander.

The only area where photography is permitted is beside the Orchard Room visitor centre where I spotted these tulips and olive tree.

The two hour tour took in much of the extensive grounds and, since photography was unsurprisingly not permitted, I jotted down the notes from the guide’s commentary and my impressions of a garden which has been 35 years in the making. A distillation of my notes follows.

  • A ‘signature plant’ whose bright yellowish green foliage highlights several sections of the garden is Philadelphus coronarius aurea, golden mock orange.
  • Throughout the garden are examples of what the guide described as ‘Highgrove whimsy’: wooden or stone pavilions and summer houses which I interpreted as the C21 equivalent of William Chambers’ ‘follies’ for George III at Kew.
  • The organic site is managed on sustainable principles, with all plant waste being recycled for mulch and compost and rainwater collected for irrigation. Biological control methods are implemented rather than pesticides. I was surprised to learn that in two areas of the gardens where azaleas are planted in raised beds, the soil is imported from Bowood House at Calne in Wiltshire approximately 22 miles away.
  • Camassia leichtlinii interspersed with deep red tulips are currently in bloom in the large wildflower meadow to the south east of the house, where the soil is Gloucestershire clay. An avenue of hornbeams, edged with low willow hoops, leads across the meadow to the Winterbourne Garden where more exotic species such as Chusan Palm and Tree ferns create an exotic display.
  • From here a long high walled corridor lined with waist height terracotta pots planted with azaleas, runs between the Kitchen Garden and the Arboretum. Halfway along this Azalea Walk a gate decorated with Egyptian hieroglyphs leads through to the Arboretum. The hieroglyphs read ‘The flowers in the garden are a reflection of the stars in the sky’.
  • In the Arboretum the acidic soil occurs naturally and acers and azaleas abound, the predominant colour being the pinkish red of  Acer palmatum ‘Shindeshojo’. The understorey included Narcissus jonquila ‘Sun Disc’ and wood anemones.
  • An apple arch leads through the Kitchen Garden to a ring of Malus ‘Golden Hornet’ at the centre of which stands a pool into which a woven willow frog ladder has been lowered to assist exiting amphibia. Several gardeners were planting up the vegetable beds when we toured this part of the garden.
  • One of my favourite parts of the garden was The Stumpery, with upturned tree trunks accommodating a profusion of Tellima, ferns and species of Epimedium, Dicentra, Trillium and Pulmonaria. The genus which recurs throughout this area is Hosta and the guidebook reveals that Highgrove holds the National Collection of large and broad-leaved hostas.
  • Topiary features in many areas of the garden such as the yellow yew balls either side of the Thyme Walk which the garden team have fashioned into crowns, helter- kelters and cakes, and the extensive yew hedge which surrounds the most formal parts of the garden and which was designed in 1989 by Sir Roy Strong.
Acer palmatum ‘Shindeshojo’
DCF 1.0
Philadelphus coronarius aurea
Camassia leichtlinii

As we drove away from Highgrove a cloudburst descended which accompanied us most of the way home, the only comfort being that hopefully the Ilex I had planted two days before were receiving a similar drenching. Rain, or the lack of it, was a popular topic in the Gardeners’ Bothy at tea and lunchtime at Osterley on Friday, where my gardening week concluded. The previous day’s heavy rain in the West Country had made less of an impression in Middlesex and it remained dry during our garden volunteering duties on Friday save that at 3.15pm as we were preparing to leave the heavens opened and gave the gardens a much needed soak and us a good excuse for a cup of tea.

The Friday team was deployed in the Winter Garden in the morning, cutting back the colourful stems of the willows and Cornus, before they begin to leaf up further and make pruning a heavier job. This will encourage the plants to develop fresh stems this summer  in preparation for another display of orange, red and yellow stems next winter. Head Gardener Andy pruned out branches of the large variegated hollies in the Winter Garden which were beginning to revert to a dark green. These prunings were shredded in the afternoon and deposited onto the pile of plant material in the yard which is the first stage of the composting system.

To the accompaniment of the shredder we split into smaller teams in the afternoon to work in and near the Tudor Walled Garden. Two of us weeded the area through and around the bean supports in the bed into which most of the edibles have been planted so far this year. Another three pricked out seedlings which will be hardened off in the cold-frames before being planted out in the next few weeks. The week before we had planted both flat leaved and curly parsley and lettuces in this bed which is divided into four quadrants, the planting lines having been marked out with twine. Slowly but surely the foundations are being laid for the profusion of crops which this bed will be producing by the end of the summer.




Sem and Armand

Until the end of last week, each time I glanced through the living room window into the garden, I wasn’t entirely happy with what I saw. Despite regular tidying, trimming and weeding since the start of the year, the end of winter garden looked a little unloved. But two elements have now combined to present an altogether more pleasing aspect.

The first of these was the application of four 50 litre bags of well rotted manure as a thick mulch. This should have been done in February before the herbaceous perennials began to emerge but I was able to work around the few that have already emerged without causing any damage. The dark material has had a unifying effect on the garden by highlighting the woodland plants at the foot of the only tree, an Amelanchier lamarckii, about which more in a later blog as well as the plants which line the gravel path leading around the little rectangular pond to the seating area beyond a wooden archway.

The second element which improves the appearance of the garden at this stage of the year is the rapid eruption into growth of one of my favourite small shrubs, a species of Sorbaria. Several years ago a friend with a very grand garden in Edgbaston gave me a little rooted plantlet which immediately made itself at home in Kew soil. It has serrated and neatly veined leaves and until I started to research it for this post, I have identified it as Sorbaria sorbifolia, but I now realise that it is the compact cultivar ‘Sem’, which grows to a maximum height of 1.5 metres. The RHS describe its distinctive leaf colouring as ‘yellow-green flushed with bright reddish-pink and bronze in spring’. And it is that blend of shades which has this week brightened the far corner of the garden, in front of the bare stems of the Wisteria whose flowering spurs I pruned to two or three buds last month. Even during heavy rain earlier this week the vibrant ‘Sem’ has shone out, a beacon of light on a dreary day.

In summer it will bear frothy spires of small white flowers which remind me of Aruncus and Astilbe, but for me its foliage is its best characteristic. That and its willingness to sucker freely meaning there are always new plants to give away or introduce into Weeds Roots & Leaves’ planting schemes. Last autumn I took several cuttings and I’m thrilled to see they have all taken.

Sorbaria sorbifolia ‘Sem’ is a member of the rose family, Rosaceae, so it is appropriate that one of its neighbours in the garden is the climbing rose, Rosa ‘White Star’, which I am encouraging to wind around one pillar of the wooden arch. Implementing the advice given by Osterley Head Gardener, Andy Eddy, in his recent rose pruning and training session for volunteers. I have trained the stems to twine in as horizontal a direction as possible although in reality they are on a diagonal leading upwards. Even before leafing and flowering I believe the plant looks tidier and more elegant.

Another star of the garden this week is Clematis armandii. Rescued from the sale table at a garden centre three years ago this is its first year to flower profusely. It has produced a mass of large ivory star-like blooms above its clusters of plump rosy buds. I’m not a fan of its leathery evergreen downward hanging leaves which always remind me of washing on a line, but the beauty of its fragrant flowers this month outweighs such reservations.

Garden Ode: horticulture meets Hamilton

The last time I received feedback in verse was in the form of a poem in praise of the Victoria sponge in one of the cafes at Kew Gardens! That was several years ago so it was a delight to hear from the client for whom I completed a new front garden planting scheme a couple of weeks ago that her husband had celebrated the new garden by writing a poem. They have given me permission to reproduce the poem. To set the context, the garden was a birthday gift to my client. The brief was to come up with a scheme that would be magical, as one might imagine The Hobbit’s garden, with something of the traditional style of a National Trust garden and a Farrow & Ball influenced colour palette.

The L-shaped plot included a generously proportioned corner section into which I planted a multi-stemmed birch: Betula pendula ‘Jacquemontii’, under-planted with pastel shaded Digitalis purpurea ‘Excelsior’, blue flowered Geranium ‘Philippe Vapelle’ and the silvery foliage of Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’. Along the front and side of the already beautifully laid out driveway with its variety of complementary surfaces, I planted Philadelphus ‘Manteau d’Hermine’ for its summer scent and white petalled flowers, a fluffy headed Pennisetum villosum and in the shadier section of the beds, the Hard Shield Fern, Polystichum aculeatum. Evergreen structure is provided by blue-flowering Hebes and Skimmia japonica ‘Kew White’. Verbena bonarienis will sway above the low wall surrounding the border and the cottage garden feel will, I hope, be enhanced with the blue bell-shaped flowers of Campanula persicifolia.

I also planted two hanging baskets for the front door porch with trailing ivies, Helleborus niger, Periwinkle and Grape hyacinths.

As for the form of the poem, my client’s husband is an admirer of the musical ‘Hamilton’ with its hip-hop style lyrics composed by Lin Manuel-Miranda. So with grateful thanks to my client for the commission and for allowing me to reproduce the poem and to its author Dan Coles, here it is:

Birthday Garden poem

Every garden has its beauty and its contradictions
Katrina gave us one that takes our favourite floral mixings

With borders brick the trick is truck the soil and toil the peat on
Then hanging baskets mask the house with colour schemes repeat em

We wanted Hobbit themes with trees and plants and teeming grasses
National Trust we must or Farrow flavours in their masses

Upkeep must be low and crucial parking unaffected
With blues and purples purposely procured and pre-selected

It’s for a birthday so the cost it cost was not an issue.
Just hand the invoice over with a smile and box of tissues.

So thankfully Weeds Roots and Leaves delivered to the letter
Even the Virgin TV cable looks a damn sight better

Birds can now perch on a new Silver birch
And a fern at the turn and the lavender works

And the weeds will recede for the seeds we decreed that we need and stampede into bloom.

This one’s for you!


Squills & Brash

For a few days this week mid February has felt more like early April. The daytime temperature reached 16ºC and the sky was an intense blue unpunctuated by clouds.

Two or three times a year the Osterley garden volunteers venture out into the wider parkland to clear brambles or, as we did on Friday, sort out and process hazel branches. The ranger team had already cleared a mass of material from the hazel wood which they had amassed into a large pile. Our job was to extract the felled trunks and branches and identify those suitable for fashioning into supports suitable for use in the garden as plant supports or stakes. As we dragged out each portion of wood we lopped off side branches and tested the slimmer, straightest wands for pliability. These will be used for supporting roses (see last Sunday’s post) or herbaceous perennials. The thickest trunks make good stakes for post and rope fencing. Those with a diameter of approximately 4-5cm are ideal for creating the tall wigwams in one of the quadrants in the Tudor Walled Garden. Once fully clothed with the annual climber, Spanish Flag, Mina lobata, these form red and yellow beacons, amidst the Dahlias, Mexican sunflowers, Amaranthus and Castor Oil Plants.

After one and a half hours of dragging, sawing and trimming we had produced three neat stacks of the useable material and an untidy heap of tangled discarded brushwood. Gardener Ed, who supervised our labours, calls this material ‘brash’, According to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary brash is a ‘mass of fragments’. The brash will be collected by the rangers in a vehicle and taken to the work yard next to the gardeners’ bothy for shredding and composting. As we walked across the park in the warm sunshine, for lunch at the picnic table outside the bothy, we took care not to tread on the bluebell leaves already pushing through the turf. By 1.15pm we were back in the hazel wood where we cut suitable stems directly from the coppiced hazel stands which we added to the morning’s output.


Our route to the park passed the elegant and newly refurbished Garden House, the focal point of Mrs Child’s Flower Garden. Inside the house, against a backdrop of potted citrus trees, stands a colourful tableau of assorted spring bulbs. Terracotta pots contain glossy purple, mauve and yellow crocuses and mid blue irises with darker blue ‘falls’ centred with yellow. Here too are two containers of azure Siberian squill, Scilla sibirica. Close inspection reveals star-shaped flowers held on short stems, each waxy petal decorated with a darker blue stripe. The pollen atop each anther clustered in the heart of the flowers is a surprising shade of blue. After the subtle colours of the hellebores and the virginal white of the snowdrops which have so dominated the gardens in recent weeks, the intense blue of the squalls is a refreshing and uplifting sight.

Wool gathering whilst gardening

Of the many benefits of gardening- fresh air, exercise (what one RHS course tutor dubbed ‘the outdoor gym’), an outlet for creativity- the opportunity to let your thoughts wander at will is for me one of its principal virtues. The meditative state that can arise, particularly when carrying out a repetitive task such as weeding, can sooth anxieties or, as it did when I was working in a client’s garden a week ago, trigger memories. Whilst we are counselled against ‘looking in the rear view mirror’, remembering the gardens we grew up in or the first gardens we created, is a delightful route along which to allow one’s thoughts to meander.

As I worked my way methodically around the garden, knee pads in situ and weeding fork in hand, I recalled the pleasure I derived from making a tiny ‘garden’ at the first flat I owned. The little studio flat in South Kensington was on the top floor of a five storey white stucco building which had once been a hotel. A property developer had converted it into dozens of studio and one bedroom apartments of which mine was probably one of the smallest. Although its one window was behind the parapet which crowned the handsome building, the room had a very bright east-facing aspect. For fire escape purposes, a small flight of wooden steps led from the window sill to the valley behind the parapet. Having grown up in a suburban house with a generous proportioned garden which I had taken little interest in helping to maintain, I suddenly discovered an enthusiasm for growing plants. I indulged this new passion with baskets suspended on decorative ironwork lavatory brackets (from said childhood home) on either side of the wooden steps. In those days, the early 1980s, there was a small garden centre on a triangular plot immediately above Gloucester Road underground station: now occupied by a branch of Waitrose and a large office building. It was in this unique plant centre and at Rassells on Edwardes Square off Kensington High Street that I bought the geraniums, lobelia and Black-eyed Susans (Thunbergia alata) with which I filled the baskets. I revelled in the gaudy colours of the display which decorated my climb to the parapet valley from which I could survey the London skyline. From left to right: Hyde Park , the roof of the Albert Hall, T E Collcutt’s Queen’s Tower in the heart of Imperial College’s campus and the Natural History Museum. I also had a small collection of houseplants including a highly temperamental shrimp plant whose botanical name I discovered whilst researching this blog post is Justicia brandegeana. 

The shrimp plant gave up the ghost when four years later I loved to a larger but altogether gloomier basement flat in West Kensington. The flat did, however, have the advantage of its own garden, albeit one that could not be seen from the flat since it was on the same level as the raised ground floor flat upstairs. In my six year sojourn there I did battle with a compacted clay soil and rather moth-eaten lawn. The garden was surrounded by high brick walls (which I would be very happy to have surrounding my current garden). It was overhung at the rear with a burgundy leaved tree I believe may have been a purple beech, Fagus sylvatica Atropurpurea Group. In my first autumn in the flat, I remember a trip to a garden centre near Maidenhead with my dear friend Pat, where I bought several shrubs and climbers which I had carefully selected from Dr DG Hessayan’s ‘The Tree & Shrub Expert’. These included Spiraea japonica, Choisya ternata and Solanum crispum ‘Glasnevin’, the latter chosen more for its Dublin associated name than for its beauty, but which romped away despite the dry shade in which it was expected to grow. I was also given Kerria japonica and a witch hazel, Hamamelis mollis. Another gift was Paeonia lactiflora ‘Bowl of Beauty’. I moved before it flowered and have often wondered how it fared after I left.


I went to a very inspiring talk by garden designer Dan Pearson at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew on Monday evening, ‘Journey of a Plantsman’. As he described his evolution from schoolboy botanist and horticulturist to world renowned designer and plantsman, I was struck by the detail with which he recalled the plants he included in the first flower border he created in his parents’ Hampshire garden 40 years ago. Hardly on the same level, but when during the gardening session last week I allowed my mind to focus on my own 1980s gardens, I found I too could see those gardens and the plants in them as if it were yesterday.

In other news, I spent today at Kew helping, along with many other volunteers,  to prepare orchids and bromeliads for the Orchid Festival which starts in early February. Attaching moss to the plants pots with elastic bands was a fiddly process but very satisfying and the horticultural chat around the table was fascinating. During a break I took a look at the progress with the installation of the exhibits and it’s already looking very impressive. The theme of this year’s festival is Colombia and the fauna of the country is being highlighted alongside its botanical treasures. A sloth, donkey and turtle caught my eye today. More orchid festival impressions to follow in a future post.