All I want for Christmas . . .

With Christmas rapidly approaching, I’ve been asking some of my nursery friends what’s on their list to Santa.

Talk to any gardener and it won’t be long before you start discussing the weather. Whether it’s been too hot or too wet, it’s rarely just right.

Sisters Liz Nicklin and Kate Phillips, who run Harrell’s Hardy Plants, are hoping Santa will help them get the perfect growing conditions.

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The perfect weather is on Harrell’s Hardy Plant’s wish list.

“We would like a gift voucher for the weather of our choice for a month – at least!” says Liz.

Failing that, they’d like something a new hose for watering the perennials they grow at their Evesham nursery.

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A hose that doesn’t kink would help with the stock plants.

“Please, please, could we have a non-kinking hose? No matter how much you spend they all kink and usually about as far away from the end as possible.”

Watering is also top of the list at ShadyPlants.com. Sylvia and Tony Marden grow hundreds of shade-loving plants, including ferns, unusual begonias and podophyllum at in polytunnels and glasshouses their home in Painswick and are regulars at Rare Plant Fairs across the region.

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Help with watering is top of the list for ShadyPlants.com

“We would love an automatic watering system that can tell which plants need watering in a mixed collection,” says Sylvia, adding “Tied in a big red bow!”

You could be forgiven for thinking that Christmas has come early for the team at Fibrex Nurseries.

When I caught up with Heather Godard-Key the family business near Evesham had just taken delivery of a new greenhouse for their wide range of plants  – Fibrex holds the National Collections of pelargoniums and ivies, as well as a huge number of ferns.

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Fibrex have plants that are perfect for pots.

Yet, Heather has her eye on something to display their beautiful plants.

“I’d like a really beautiful pot from Whichford,” she says, “or two – but that’s wishful thinking.”

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A Whichford pot – or three – would be perfect.

Perhaps, Santa will oblige.

Of course, it’s not just a busy time of year for him, at The Nursery at Miserden Christmas is also pretty hectic.

The nursery near Stroud stocks a range of perennials, roses and shrubs but this month it’s Christmas trees that are centre stage and preoccupying owner Julie Dolphin.

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Christmas trees are keeping Julie busy.

“We’ve got hundreds of them to be de-netted, displayed and netted again for the customer!” says Julie. “And that’s what I’d like – a de-netting and re-netting robot that also takes the tree to the customer’s car!”

Also on her list are new pots: some that are totally disposable.

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Julie would love some help with the Christmas trees Photo: Britt Willoughby Dyer

“We reuse ours but it would be great for the planet if every pot could be compostable. We grow our herbaceous in peat-free compost so I’d like to think we do our bit but this would be a wish come true.”

Something I’m sure is on every independent nursery owner’s list is the wish for more customers in 2018. If you would like to support our fabulous British growers, you can find details at the Independent Plant Nurseries Guide.

Review: The Wellness Garden by Shawna Coronado

I’ve gardened all my life and cannot imagine how I would feel if illness forced me to stop. Two years ago, it’s what faced Shawna Coronado when she was diagnosed with severe degenerative osteoarthritis. How she manages it and the role gardening plays are chronicled in her latest book, The Wellness Garden.

The wellness gardenShawna’s condition caused severe pain and a curtailing of her gardening; in the past, she had planted around 3,000 vegetables a year.

“There would be no more hefting 50-pound bags on my shoulders, weeding for eight hours straight, or heavy digging in the garden,” she tells us.

It was a situation that left her feeling “devastated”. Determined not to simply take strong painkillers, she decided to explore alternative ways of improving her condition.

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Landscape with vegetables to increase the amount you grow. Photo: Shawna Coronado

These included working with a dietician to radically change her diet and incorporating exercise into her daily routine.

And it’s these steps that are outlined in The Wellness Garden, which is more self-help guide than traditional gardening book.

Key to her approach is eating well, specifically eating more vegetables, while she points out that growing them organically yourself ensures they are as fresh as possible and chemical-free.

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Pea towers, cabbages and thyme make an attractive display. Photo: Shawna Coronado.

To help, the book has a chart giving the nutritional breakdown of suggested crops and tips on raising them without chemicals from making compost to correct watering. There are also ideas for those who have little growing space, such as containers and ‘living walls’.

Growing food is just one aspect of The Wellness Garden and the importance of gardens to mental health is also explored. Shawna advocates daily exercise outside be walking in a nearby park or yoga in your own garden and suggests using parks or even garden centres.

“Clearly, growing is important, but having that regular exposure to nature and the outside world is critical,” she says.

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The Beuhler Enabling Garden at Chicago Botanic Garden. Photo: Shawna Coronado.

There’s advice on choosing tools to avoid straining muscles and suggestions for garden layout that make growing easier, while not doing one garden job for too long prevents injury from repetition.

The book ends with ideas for ‘therapeutic gardening’, including how to design a therapy garden or design a scented space.

Little in the book is new – the importance of eating ‘five a day’ and regular exercise have long been known – but the personal story quality make it very readable and the advice is valid whether you have severe illness or not.

The Wellness Garden by Shawna Coronado is published by Cool Springs Press, RRP £16.99. Buy now (If you buy via the link, I get a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.

Review copy supplied by Cool Springs Press.

Read more book reviews here

Review: Success with Succulents by John Bagnasco and Bob Reidmuller

If houseplants are currently the biggest gardening show in town, succulents have a strong claim to be the star. They seem to be everywhere from supermarket shelves and magazine articles to garden show displays and Instagram feeds.

succulents

Their popularity, say John Bagnasco and Bob Reidmuller in Success with Succulents, is down to a combination of things: a greater range available to home growers thanks to online shopping, their suitability for container gardening, ability to cope with a degree of neglect, and their looks.

“Succulents look great on camera,” they tell us, pointing out that the hashtag #succulent has more than one million posts on Instagram alone.

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Dish gardens are one way of growing succulents. Photo: Rebecca Eichten

Given what they describe as this “stylish plant swank”, I did wonder if the book would be full of trend-following style rather than horticultural usefulness.

In fact, it is more horticulture than gardening fashion. There are detail explanations of the difference between cactus and succulents – “all cactuses are succulents, but not all succulents are cactuses” – and how you can tell the difference; a look at the different types from “mimicry plants”, such as Lithops, to Echeverias, one of the most sought after plants; and reference to some of the uses of the plants from tequila to rope-making.

If anything, the pair seem more interested in saving succulents than encouraging their popularity as indoor plants.

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Not all succulents are suitable for indoors. Photo: Rebecca Eichten

They warn that “care often needs to be exacting, without much room for improvisation” and suggest “growing succulents outdoors is by far the best-case scenario for healthy, attractive and colorful succulents.”

They do concede that is not always possible in climates where snow and frost are commonplace and they suggest putting plants outside for as long as the weather will allow.

And if you do grow indoors, the book gives advice on light, watering, containers and how to deal with pests.

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Windowboxes is one suggestion of where to grow succulents. Photo: Rebecca Eichten

They conclude with their top 100 choices. Each entry is illustrated and there is information on care, hardiness, propagation, and when the plant will flower.

The book is unlikely to appeal to the Instagram growers – it’s not glossy enough for that. It’s also probably too specialised for the novice houseplant owner but perfect as a step up from a basic general plant guide.

Success with Succulents by John Bagnasco and Bob Reidmuller is published by Cool Springs Press, RRP £16.99. Buy now (If you buy via the link, I get a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Cool Springs Press.

Read more book reviews here

RHS Chelsea 2018 – the Cotswold connection

With the announcement of a new gardens section, show debuts and the return of familiar faces, the countdown to RHS Chelsea 2018 has begun.

Initial plans for RHS Chelsea 2018 have been unveiled and the Cotswolds will be there with gardens by leading designers Chris Beardshaw and Paul Hervey-Brookes.

Chris is celebrating 20 years of making show gardens with a design highlighting the work of children’s charity the NSPCCC, while Paul, who is marking 10 years of show garden design, returns as an exhibitor after a four-year break, although he’s been a judge at Chelsea in the intervening years.

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The Morgan Stanley Garden for the NSPCC

The Morgan Stanley Garden for the NSPCC is the fourth show garden that Staverton-based Chris has made for the firm and aims to raise awareness of its current charity partner.

Based upon the idea of the emotional journey a child goes through when the charity helps them, the garden starts with a woodland where the path is unclear before moving on to a more open space filled with perennials and finally ending at a sheltering pavilion by a reflective pool.

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Chris on the first Morgan Stanley garden in 2015

“We want to raise awareness for the charity with a garden that is intrinsically a beautiful, healing and restorative space and which celebrates how a garden can make us feel,” explains Chris, who built his first show garden at the Malvern Show in 1998.

Among the plants he’s hoping to use are azaleas and rhododendrons along with specimen trees and perennials in a palate of purple, pink and blue.

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Chris won the People’s Choice award for his 2017 garden.

As part of his research, Chris visited the NSPCC to find out more about its work, which includes running the children’s helpline Childline.

“It was extremely humbling to visit the NSPCC and to learn more about their incredibly challenging and broad ranging work with children.”

Paul, who also built his first show garden at Malvern, is exploring the link between mental wellbeing and the landscape in a garden for Viking Cruises in the Artisan section of RHS Chelsea 2018.

RHS Chelsea 2018
The Viking Cruises Garden

He’s taken his inspiration from a Norwegian spa, and a wooden sauna and a Brutalist-style concrete plunge pool are at the heart of the garden.

“The Norwegians are much more in tune with the landscape than we are,” says Paul, who is based in Stroud. “I’ve taken the Norwegian spa and the cycle of interaction between the water, the landscape and the mind as the wellbeing point.”

Wooden platforms will ‘float’ over rocks and planting with a semi-wild feel that will include many herbs; most of the plants are being grown by South Gloucestershire herb specialist Jekka McVicar.

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Paul is returning as Chelsea exhibitor after a four-year absence

Paul’s last appearance at RHS Chelsea as an exhibitor was on Main Avenue when he got a bronze medal for an Italian-inspired garden for BrandAlley.

Four years on, Paul says he has put that disappointment behind him: “I think I’m a very different person. Back then I felt that I had everything to prove and now I’ve been chairman of judging at Chelsea and I’m quite a few gold medals on, it’s much more about the idea and not about reception.”

It’s his second garden for Viking Cruises – he won gold at RHS Hampton Court last year with a travel-inspired garden just weeks after getting gold and Best in Show at Chatsworth with his Institute of Quarrying Garden, the biggest RHS show garden ever created.

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Paul’s 2017 RHS Hampton garden for Viking Cruises won gold. Photo: RHS/Neil Hepworth

Exhibiting in the Artisan Gardens rather than making a show garden was, he says, a deliberate choice.

“Most people don’t have large gardens. They want solutions for small spaces and Artisan fits that, it’s an average garden size. On a personal level, I haven’t really got anything to prove – I made one of the biggest gardens. It’s much more about what interests me.”

Other features at RHS Chelsea 2018 include Space to Grow gardens, a new section of smaller gardens with take home ideas that replaces the Fresh garden category, and the first ‘Chelsea Late’ with Ranelagh Gardens open from 8pm-10pm.

The RHS will be unveiling more about the show in the New Year. Tickets are now on sale via the website.

Review: Houseplants by Lisa Eldred Steinkopf

There’s no doubt that houseplants are in fashion. Once seen as a hobby for the middle aged, indoor plants have been given a make-over and are now seen as the cutting edge of gardening. Forget soil, it’s succulents we want.

houseplants

This change is driven partly by the fact that people are renting for longer; houseplants are easily portable when you move and the only option when you have no garden. For years, they were the main way I ‘gardened’. My teenage bedroom, student room, first flat, all were filled with plants in lieu of space to grow outside.

Houseplants also fit with today’s love of the visual and a lot of what is written is as much about how to display as how to grow, driven by a plethora of carefully framed Instagram images.

So, I admit to being a little sceptical when Houseplants by Lisa Eldred Steinkopf arrived, expecting it to be yet another book exploiting a current trend. What I discovered was a comprehensive overview that covers the fashionable ‘how to display’ element but also goes into the equally important ‘how to grow’ aspect.

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Choosing the right container will enhance any houseplants Photo: Chelsea Steinkopf

Pot size, soil type, how to water, when to feed and light requirements are all covered in depth with photographs giving extra clarity to the advice.

There are step-by-step instructions on how to repot – even down to outlining what materials you should assemble before starting – an overview of how to water and different methods, and hints on how to tell if your plant is in the wrong position.

Advice includes quarantining new purchases to ensure they are pest-free, ‘tagging’ plants with details of when they were bought and repotted, and how it’s better to check plants regularly than water according to a schedule: “Watering practices are the biggest killer of plants,” she tells us.

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Terrariums are back in fashion Photo: Lori Adams

I particularly liked the suggestion of growing Paperwhite Narcissus in pebbles and water with alcohol added to keep them compact and stop them flopping.

Problems ranging from pests to plant sunburn are covered and there are instructions for creating miniature gardens and the currently popular terrariums.

Possibly the most useful part of the book is the section that deals with individual plants. Divided into easy to grow, moderately easy to grow and challenging, these give everything from the light needs and watering to size and the correct botanical name – essential if you’re trying to source something specific, as common names vary wildly across the country let alone the world.

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The easy to grow Aspidistra elatior is known as the cast iron plant Photo: GAP Photos

Despite dividing the plants into categories, we’re told that the most challenging are not necessarily more difficult, they just need more time and attention.

It’s this ‘can do’, encouragement that I liked best about the book. In her introduction, Lisa assures us that “There is no such thing as a natural green thumb.”

And she goes on to say: “killing a plant is only a learning experience and shouldn’t discourage you from trying again.”

Houseplants the Complete Guide to Choosing, Growing, and Caring for Indoor Plants by Lisa Eldred Steinkopf is published by Cool Springs Press, RRP £19.99. Buy now (If you buy via the link, I get a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Cool Springs Press.

Read more book reviews here

Hits and misses of the 2017 garden trials

One of the delights of gardening is trying something new and I’ve been given a whole range of things for this year’s garden trials from spotty nasturtiums to psychedelic radish. Not everything has been successful but there are quite a few seeds and plants that are worth repeating next season.

The Hits

Top of my list in the garden trials this year has to be Unwins’ radish ‘Bright and Spicy Mix’ (pictured top). This was a real winner – great flavour, quick to grow and what a colour! I repeat sowed it throughout the summer and it never failed.

I grow a lot of French beans and ‘Mamba’ from Thompson & Morgan produced strong plants and lots of tasty beans. It coped well growing up a wigwam of poles and was still cropping in late autumn.

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Cucumber ‘La Diva’

For years, I’ve bought a cucumber plant from a local nursery rather than grow from seed having found cucumber tricky to germinate. However, with the arrival of ‘La Diva’ from Unwins, I decided to give it another go. I managed to raise a plant with little difficulty and put it in the greenhouse, although this variety will grow outside. Again, it kept going until autumn, producing small, crunchy cucumbers. Not a huge crop but I didn’t have room for more than one plant.

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Caliente Mustard

Another first was green manure – Caliente Mustard supplied by Marshalls. It germinated quickly and soon covered the vegetable bed. I then dug it in when the bed was needed in the spring. Did it help the soil? Difficult to tell precisely unless you did a side-by-side comparison but the sweet peas that followed certainly thrived and it was much better to be looking at a bed of green rather than just earth over winter.

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Nasturtium ‘Troika Spotty Dotty’

Among the flowers, Nasturtium ‘Troika Spotty Dotty’ (Thompson & Morgan) has been an absolute delight. Flowering in the greenhouse before I managed to get the plants outside and stopped only by the third frost of this winter a few days ago. It’s a trailing variety that would be ideal for hanging baskets though I grew it in the ground where it wove in and out of other plants.

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Calendula ‘Snow Princess’

Another plant that gave months of colour was Calendula ‘Snow Princess’ (T&M). Although it’s described as ‘pure white’ on the packet, I found the flowers were more cream than pure white. Again, this flowered strongly until the frosts.

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Petunia ‘Amore Queen of Hearts’

I’m not normally a huge fan of petunias – something about the way they go ‘sticky’ over summer – but Petunia ‘Amore Queen of Hearts’ (T&M) is a bit of fun. Creamy-yellow flowers with scarlet marking make it a real eye-catcher and ideal for pots.

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Fuchsia ‘Icing Sugar’

Fuchsias are another flower I don’t normally choose to grow as the flowers are just a bit too fussy for my taste. I was sent F. ‘Icing Sugar’ (T&M) plug plants to trial and, while it’s not completely converted me, if fuchsias are your thing, this is one worth considering. I did like the purple edging to the lower petals and it was still in full flower when I had to clear the pot to put in tulips. The plants – still flowering – are now spending the winter in the greenhouse and I will see how well they do a second year.

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Zinnia ‘Cupid Mixed’

Possibly my favourite flower of the season’s garden trials was Zinnia ‘Cupid Mixed’ (T&M), which produced dainty pincushions of vibrant colour. I put the plants into the new cutting bed where, unfortunately, the slugs and snails also appreciated them but I still managed to get lots of flowers for bud vases.

The misses

Pepper ‘Lunchbox Mix’ from Unwins. This is a variety producing ‘snack-sized’ peppers and ideal for containers. I grew just a couple of plants due to a lack of space – too many tomatoes! – and while they fruited well, the family decided the peppers were too crisp and not juicy enough.

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Pepper ‘Lunchbox Mixed’

Likewise, Strawberry ‘Just Add Cream’ (T&M), which I grew in a hanging basket, wasn’t to our taste. It produced fruit with a flavour similar to an alpine strawberry that we found too perfumed.

The worth another go

A few things just didn’t work out due to weather or other factors but are worth trying again next year.

I had a disastrous season with courgettes and squash with plants either dying overnight or failing to set fruit. Among those I was trialling alongside my usual varieties, were Courgette ‘Shooting Star’ and Pumpkin ‘Polar Bear’, both from Marshalls.

The courgette kept trying to produce fruit, which then rotted off, while the pumpkin that did set was eaten away by the resident slugs. A change of location, greater vigilance and possibly raising the fruit off the ground is planned for next year.

New this year was Kohl rabi ‘Kolibri’ (T&M), something I’ve never grown before. It did produce roots but again they were ‘nibbled’ by the garden wildlife. I also think they could have done with more water on my sandy soil and a site away from the beetroot that grew vigorously this year and bullied everything around it. I will be growing it again in a different spot to see if it will fare better.

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Unwins’ planting kit provided a succession of colour

Blackberry ‘Cascade’ from Marshalls is designed to grow in a container – ideal for those with little space. It did fairly well and produced a handful of fruit but I think it needs a bigger pot than the one I gave it. I’m planning to rehome it in something bigger and will see what next season brings.

Finally, Unwins’ container kit produced a steady succession of flowers starting with violas, moving on to crocus, muscari and tulips and the pack had enough to do two pots. While there’s no doubt that the bulb mats are a really easy and convenient way to plant up a pot, I’m not sure it’s a method I would choose as I prefer to be able to pick my own combinations.

And I’m still waiting to see if Leek ‘Northern Lights’ (T&M) lives up to its name. This variety is supposed to turn purple during cold weather. It’s only just got cold here in the Cotswolds so I’m watching the plants with interest.

All seeds and plug plants were supplied free in return for an honest review.