Put the buzz in your garden

Gardeners are being asked to think of the bees when planning their borders.

Loss of habitat, climate change and disease, most notably the Varroa mite, mean the country’s bee population is under threat putting both commercial crops and ornamental gardens at risk as pollination levels drop.

“Habitat changes have had the most significant impact on pollinator numbers,” says bee expert Keren Green. “All pollinators, including bees, need food and a home.”

Keren is a commercial bee farmer and keeps around 50 honeybee hives around the Three Counties, as well as working as a Seasonal bee inspector.

Bees can visit up to 1,000 flowers a day
Bees can visit up to 1,000 flowers a day

She explains that bees are divided into different groups: honeybees that live in colonies of between 50 and 60,000 and overwinter, feeding off food stores; bumblebees that have smaller nests of around 150, which die off in the autumn; solitary bees, which include leafcutter, mining and mason bees.

Worldwide there are more than 25,000 species of bees with around 270 in the British Isles, made up of one species of honeybee, 26 bumblebees, including short and long tongued, and the rest solitary bees.

Each transfers pollen between plants while collecting nectar, enabling the setting of fruit and seeds; bees can travel in a three-mile radius to forage and can visit up to 1,000 flowers a day.

And it’s making sure that gardens have a wide range of plants, with different flower shapes, particularly single or bell-shaped blooms, that will be the key to maintaining a healthy bee population.

“Make sure when you’re planting for these insects that you have plants that accommodate both short and long-tongued bees,” advises Keren.

Lavender is a good source of nectar

It is also important to provide forage and habitat all year, not just the summer months when flowering plants are more abundant, and Keren suggests flowering shrubs and trees as a way of extending the nectar season.

Among the suggested plants for early in the year are crocus, ivy, pussy willow, snowdrops and mahonia. Spring and early summer see aquilegia, wisteria, wallflowers and fruit trees, while summer has a vast range of suitable plants, such as hollyhocks, sunflowers, lavender, campanula and delphiniums. Meanwhile, suggestions for autumn, which is important to build up hives before winter, include asters, Japanese anemones and dahlias.

“Even if you’ve got a small garden you can make it attractive with plants that are good for pollination.”

Even so, one of Keren’s top suggestions is unlikely to find favour with many gardeners: the dandelion.

“It is high in nectar, easy to grow and requires little or no attention,” she says. “For years I had been pulling them up and then I took up bee-keeping. Now our lawn is peppered with dandelions.”

Other wild flowers may be more appealing and the fashion for wild flower meadow planting is benefitting our native pollinators.

Patches of wild flowers are good for pollinators

“It’s very important. Bringing native plants in gives the right type of flowers. Just leave a corner to have some dandelions,” adds Keren, with a smile.

National Honey Week is led by the British Beekeepers Association. More details are available from http://www.bbka.org.uk/

The RHS Perfect for Pollinators list is available at www.rhs.org.uk Look out for the pollinators symbol on plant labels. More information is also available from the Bumblebee Conservation Trust at http://bumblebeeconservation.org/

Gardeners are being asked to report any sightings of the Asian Hornet, an invasive species that is a honey bee predator and has recently been found in France. Smaller than the European hornet, it has an entirely dark brown or black body with a yellow fourth segment on its abdomen. Details on http://www.bbka.org.uk/

Details of Government policy on pollinators is available on http://www.gov.uk

RHS to get new garden

The RHS is to create a new 156-acre garden in the North West as part its wider vision to enrich the nation through plants.

Work at Worsley New Hall, Salford, will include restoring the 10-acre Walled Kitchen Garden, one of the UK’s biggest, recreating features such as the avenue of trees on the Garden Approach and recovering lost terraces.

RHS Garden Bridgewater, which is due to open in 2019, will also have a learning centre for schools, a plant centre and a personal RHS garden advice service.

“The development of the RHS’ new fifth garden will be the biggest hands-on gardening project the charity will have undertaken in its 211-year history,” said RHS Vice President and broadcaster Alan Titchmarsh. “Watching how RHS Garden Bridgewater takes shape and grows is going to be fascinating, especially some of the major restoration projects like the Walled Kitchen Garden.”

The project, part of a £100m investment by the society over the next 10 years, is a collaboration between the RHS, Salford City Council and Peel Land and Property and work is due to begin this year. The garden will join the RHS’ existing group of gardens: Wisley in Surrey; Hyde Hall in Essex; Rosemoor in Devon and Harlow Carr in Yorkshire.

Looking beyond the trees

Arboretum seems almost the wrong word for Batsford. True it has a far-reaching range of specimens, is a National Collection holder and is involved in important scientific research, but it’s so much more than that and there’s a sense of fun and a garden-like quality that makes it unusual.

Red painted bridges and a Japanese rest house lend an Oriental flavour, there’s a water garden with pools and streams, and glimpses of Batsford House, no longer part of the arboretum, give the impression of having wandered into a large garden.

“It’s more than an arboretum,” explains head gardener Matt Hall. “It’s not just about trees.”

The Foo Dog is among the Oriental features

Much of this dual personality is due to its past: originally part of the estate of Batsford House, it was developed as a wild, naturalistic garden by Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford, later the 1st Lord Redesdale. He was a keen plantsman who was particularly interested in the Oriental style of gardening and involved in the running of Kew; Joseph Hooker, one of Kew’s directors, was influential in Batsford’s development.

The creation of the arboretum, which wraps around the garden elements, is the work of the 2nd Lord Dulverton, who inherited in 1956 and set about restoring Batsford and introducing rare and beautiful trees, resulting in today’s specialist collections.

Yet, even then the garden element was influential and Batsford’s collections, which include Japanese flowering cherries, acers and magnolias, are not arranged in botanical groups but scattered throughout the 60 acres with an emphasis on planting for visual impact.

It means that at this time of year the autumn colour runs through the arboretum with shades of gold, crimson and pink in every direction, a style that is being continued with many new acers being planted.

Batsford sorbus berries
Sorbus berries add a red glow

As befits a serious collection, among the more commonly seen birch, oak, prunus and sorbus, with berries of white, pink or red, there are some more unusual specimens. These include the Chinese pistachio, Pistacia chinensis, which has good autumn colour, the Korean mountain ash, Sorbus alnifolia, and Disanthus cercidifolius, whose heart-shaped leaves are turning fiery colours.

Meanwhile, a pair of vines are adding flame red to the display and Matt is hoping newly introduced bamboo Borinda papyrifera, which has stunning steel blue stems, will eventually form an impressive clump.

Batsford colour
There is beautiful colour throughout the arboretum

Elsewhere, the team have been thinning trees and clearing the understorey to create both planting areas for new specimens and an increased feeling of space.

Arguably the most important trees are also the most easily overlooked. In an extension to the arboretum, which opened in 2010, are some that form part of the International Conifer Conservation Project, run by Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden and designed to safeguard species that are threatened in their native countries.

“It will generate a bank of material,” explains Matt.

Among those at Batsford are monkey puzzles from Chile, Nothofagus alessandri, one of about eight plants growing in Great Britain and the golden Vietnamese Cyprus.

Countryside views are one of Batsford’s special features

They are found on the outer edges of the arboretum where another new development is taking shape. What was once a field is being planted up with a mixture of trees, including ash, acers and liquidambar. The centre is being left open with wild flowers and care has been taken not to obscure the long views that are one of Batsford’s strengths and something that makes it more than just a collection of trees.

Batsford Arboretum, near Moreton-in-Marsh, is open daily, except Christmas Day from 10am to 5pm. Last entry at 4.45pm. More information at: http://www.batsarb.co.uk

Review: The Writer’s Garden by Jackie Bennett

book review writer's garden

This was always going to be a book that appealed, based as it is on my two great loves: literature and gardens. And it didn’t disappoint.

It sits somewhere between a glossy coffee table tome and a more scholarly work with Richard Hanson’s beautiful photographs a complement to Jackie Bennett’s careful research.

She takes us on a tour of the country through the gardens of such literary luminaries as Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf and Thomas Hardy. For some, the garden was a source of inspiration, for others a place of refuge.

We learn of Dickens’ penchant for scarlet pelargoniums, which he always wore as a buttonhole, while Roald Dahl developed a passion for orchids.

John Ruskin used his garden on the shores of Coniston Water as an outdoor laboratory, exploring ways of working with nature. For others, including Dahl and Jeffrey Archer, the garden was a place to write, while turning land at Abbotsford in rural Scotland into a “wooded Eden” became an all-consuming project for Sir Walter Scott.

The gardens’ influence can be seen in much of the writers’ work: the Battery in Agatha Christie’s Devon plot features in several of her novels; Beatrix Potter’s Hill Top country garden is the backdrop for many of her stories and who can forget Rupert Brooke’s yearning for The Old Vicarage at Grantchester in the poem of the same name?

These references are placed in context by Bennett, who includes in each section a timeline of the author’s work while associated with the garden in question.

With short, easily digested chapters and details on visiting the gardens, most of which are open to the public, this is a book for dipping into and the starting point for further exploration.

The Writer’s Garden, by Jackie Bennett, photography Richard Hanson, is published by Frances Lincoln.

Review copy supplied by The Suffolk Anthology

For more book reviews, see here

Abbotswood gets mix right

As I turn into Abbotswood it’s obvious why there was a change of heart about opening the garden. The October sunshine dances off trees that are sporting shades of butter yellow, scarlet and fiery orange, while the old house is cloaked in crimson creeper. Grass is splashed with small pools of pale mauve, courtesy of autumn crocus, and there’s the gentle sound of running water. This is a garden taking autumn in its stride.

Abbotswood, near Stow-on-the-Wold, has long been a stalwart of the National Gardens Scheme, one of the original founding members in 1927 and a regular on the garden-visiting circuit ever since. However, with the house up for sale, head gardener Martin Fox had planned not to open this year, until he saw the autumn display.

“I decided to open for the colour,” he says. “There should be plenty to see.”

Creeper adds colour to the old house

Plenty is almost an understatement as the seasonal tints of trees and shrubs are just one element of what makes it worth visiting this Grade II listed garden, parts of which were designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens for businessman Mark Fenwick in the early 1900s. Late performers, such as candy pink nerines and mauve asters are keeping the central garden beds alive, there are hydrangeas and roses still in bloom, heathers just breaking into colour and hot borders that are arguably at their best with a mix of red and purple salvias, nicotiana, fuchsias and Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant.

Hedges and walls are kept low to preserve views

It’s this variety that has always made Abbotswood a favourite. Parts of the garden are strictly formal: the lily pool with its simple pots of hydrangeas, the terraces with a summerhouse that pins one corner of the Sunken Garden and provides a focal point. There’s an intricate box knot garden, sharply geometric borders in the central terrace and classic beds of roses hemmed by lavender.

In contrast, the Stream Garden is a relaxed area of trees, shrubs and tumbling water, a place to meander along crisply mown paths. It was designed using natural streams by the Pulham family, pioneers of Victorian rock gardens, who invented an artificial form of rock made from clinker and cement, and the garden has a watercourse that includes many levels and small falls.

Meanwhile, there are rhododendrons and azaleas, unusual in the Cotswolds, which are surviving thanks to the incorporation of tons of acid soil when the garden was first designed, coupled with the addition of lots of leaf mould now.

“There’s a large range of plants here,” comments Martin, who has been at Abbotswood for 20 years. “We’ve got a bit of most things.”

One of the garden’s strengths is its use of setting. The ground falls away from the house at the back and this has been terraced with walls and hedges kept low to allow uninterrupted views of the parkland beyond. In addition, the style moves outwards from formal to informal with the Stream Garden and woodland providing an almost seamless transition into the surrounding countryside.

The Sunken Garden is still full of colour

This blending of garden and landscape has been improved with the removal of a large shrub and conifer border on what had originally been a tennis court. Now replaced with a few specimen shrubs and trees, including Euonymus alatus and Stewartia rostrata, it has opened up views of the nearby summerhouse from other parts of the garden.

It’s just one of many changes Martin and his team have been making; what had been laughingly known at ‘the poor relations beds’ have been replanted with a mix of heathers and small conifers, and old bamboo clumps along the stream have been replaced by azaleas, rhododendrons and new bamboo.

There’s a lovely mix of the informal and formal

And yet he believes there are still things that could be done: “I hope that whoever buys it realises what’s here and that it could be pushed on a bit more.”

Abbotswood, on the B4077 west of Stow-on-the-Wold, is open from 12-4pm for the National Gardens Scheme on Sunday October 25. Admission is £5.

Apples galore at Snowshill

A bumper year for apples will see a huge range on show at Snowshill Manor’s annual apple festival.

The National Trust property’s two orchards have more than 50 different apples, including many heritage varieties, such as ‘Gloucester Underleaf’, ‘Hunts Duke of Gloucester’ and ‘Gloucester Royal’.

In addition, head gardener Vicky Cody has sourced many others from other orchards and the festival will showcase more than 100 varieties.

“We want to encourage people to look at the many varieties of apple which exist – the vast majority of which can’t be found in supermarkets. We have eaters, cookers, crab apples and cider apples each of which can be used in a different way,” explains Vicky.

“There are some delightful surprises. We have ‘Devonshire Quarrenden’ growing in the Snowshill Manor orchard which is a tiny little thing, first recorded back in the 1670s. Barely an inch in diameter and deep red, it is somehow packed with flavour, a bright little thing which is quite unexpected for its size.”

Visitors will be able taste apples in pies, puddings, sausages and chutney in the manor’s tea rooms and there will be demonstrations of apple juicing by a cider maker, talks on successful apple growing and a glass-fronted bee hive on show.

Snowshill Apple Festival runs from Friday October 16 to Sunday October 18 2015 from 11am to 5pm. Normal admission prices apply. More information is available at www.nationaltrust.org.uk/snowshillmanor

Acers light up the autumn

Nurseryman and designer Peter Dowle will be helping gardeners get the best out of autumn with his annual Acer Week.

The Chelsea gold medallist will be on hand to offer advice on choosing acers, how to grow them and planting combinations.

With more than 50 varieties in stock at his Howle Hill Nursery near Ross-on-Wye, he says it promises to be a spectacular show.

“It’s a chance for people to see out beautiful range of acers in their full autumn glory.”

The nursery is open from 9am to 5pm from October 12 to 17, 2015.

Getting a world class lawn

Most of us try for a reasonably green and weed-free lawn to set off borders and impress friends and family. Few have the sort of pressure Dave Balmer faces. He is responsible for the pitch at Kingsholm rugby stadium and his grass has been on view to millions watching the Rugby World Cup.

Autumn sees the start of the rugby season and for the 16,200-seat stadium that means a new playing surface. Each year the old pitch is removed and new grass sown ready for matches that this season include world cup group fixtures involving teams from as far away as Japan, Georgia and Tonga.

Preparations started in mid-June just before a plastic ground cover went down for concerts by Elton John and pop group Madness.

The divoting team: from left, Dave Balmer, Graeme Balmer, Jerome Vidgen, Geoff Swift, Paul Hathaway, Ben Balmer, Matt Williams, Mac MacCahill, Jake Meloscia

The whole pitch was sprayed with weedkiller so that when the plastic sheeting finally came up 12 days later the grass was dead underneath.

“We got a machine in to scarify and take all the vegetation off the top leaving us with the soil,” explains Dave, who started as the groundsman at Kingsholm 19 years ago and is now also stadium manager.

Re-seeding the 8,500 sq m is a huge undertaking requiring 24 bags of perennial rye grass seed, which is then top-dressed with 120 tons of a 70-30 mix of sand and soil.

Next comes 16 bags of pre-seed fertiliser to get the grass growing strongly.

“We were mowing within 12 days,” says Dave, proudly.

From then on the grass is cut every day, or every other, if the weather isn’t favourable, and the feeding regime is maintained.

“The slow release fertiliser gives us a base and then we top it up with ordinary fertiliser every six weeks,” says Dave, who is helped by his landscape contractor brother, Graeme.

The pitch is also regularly spiked to maintain a good air flow to the roots and kept watered, if the weather turns dry. In fact, rain isn’t helpful as it is easier to regulate the amount of water the grass gets using Kingsholm’s irrigation system.

Understandably, the pitch takes a pounding during matches and a team is on hand to replace divots at half-time and after the final whistle.

“The following day we all put back whatever gets missed.”

The grass is then rolled, spiked and mowed ready for the next match.

It has been a tight schedule during the world cup with four matches and two-hour practice sessions for each team before the games, in some cases leaving Dave around 24 hours to get everything perfect for the international players.

And when the final match at Gloucester is played on October 11 Gloucester’s home matches begin.

“We have a fortnight to get ourselves ready,” says Dave with a smile.

What to do

You may not be aiming for world class grass but even so autumn is the time to give your lawn some care and attention.

If moss is a big problem, use a specialist moss killer, which should kill it within two weeks. This can then be raked out.

Perennial weeds such as dandelions are best removed by hand using a daisy grubber – choose a day when the ground is damp to make the job easier.

lawn weeds
Dandelions are best removed by hand

Dead grass, old clippings and other debris can form a layer on lawns, known as thatch, which stops air, water and fertiliser getting to the grass. Remove this thatch by scarifying, either with a spring-tined rake or, for large areas, with a powered tool that can be hired.

Improve drainage and air at the roots by spiking the lawn. This can be done with a garden fork, pushing it well in and moving it backwards and forwards to create a small hole. On badly compacted ground or clay soil, use a hollow-tine fork, which removes a small plug of soil. Again, they can be hired, or bought at garden centres.

Top dress the lawn to fill in aeration holes using a sandy dressing, available at garden centres. This will encourage strong roots.

Finally, apply an autumn feed, which is high in potash and phosphates.

Highnam blazes into Autumn

Salvias are on Roger Head’s mind when we meet. Tall, inky blue salvias, the sort that turn heads and promote plant envy. They are sat, pride of place, among his other purchases from the Malvern Autumn Show and he’s interested to know if they will elicit the desired response from me.

“Do you like them?” he asks and, yes, I do. Who wouldn’t?

What interests me is that they will form part of yet another new feature, this time one of a pair of herbaceous borders, one pastels, the other hot colours.

It’s always the same when I visit Highnam Court – and I have been a regular for many years – each time there’s something different to see and plans afoot.

Highnam Autumn Colour 7 cp 2

Tree stump sculptures are a feature of the garden

The new borders currently under construction have been influenced by another Gloucestershire garden: Bourton House at Bourton-on-the-Hill, which Roger recently visited for the first time.

“Very few gardens inspire me,” he admits, “because I look at lots of gardens but that’s given me some ideas. I just like the way they put colours together.”

He’s planning a fiery mix of oranges, yellow, purple and reds in one area, using crocosmia, lobelia and red salvias, and softer shades with penstemon, campanulas, delphiniums and those blue salvias in the other.

It will add another dimension to what is already a very varied 40-acre garden that encompasses a one-acre rose garden, listed Pulhamite water garden, lakes, shrubberies and magnificent trees.

Highnam autumn colour 3 wm

The one-acre rose garden is one of the highlights

Those trees are beginning to come into their own this month as the autumn display gets underway. Magnolias are showing the first signs of buttery yellow, acer foliage has hints of red and orange, and a stately Quercus rubra, near the house is becoming a rich red.

This area of the garden is also being rethought with the removal of old laurel hedges and their replacement by simple grass. It’s a project that is still ongoing but already the effects are clear.

“It’s opened up the views through,” comments Roger, who has spent 22 years transforming the garden, once owned by Thomas Gambier Parry, from a neglected wilderness.

Adding to the seasonal display are great swathes of perennials, planted in Roger’s trademark block style. The flat heads of Sedum spectabile are a dusty pink, yellow rudbeckia catch the autumn sunlight, and asters are opening in shades of pink and mauve.

Highnam autumn colour 4 wm

The Ladies’ Winter Walk is a mix of traditional and modern

Then there are the roses, still blooming profusely in the Indian Summer. Most are in the box-edged Rose Garden but ‘Icberg’ and ‘Generous Gardener’ also fill long beds in the Ladies’ Winter Walk where polycarbonate obelisks add a contemporary touch.

The pink ‘Generous Gardener’ is Roger’s favourite rose and he is planning to use it on the long rose walk to replace ‘Paul’s Himalayan Musk’ – “no good because it isn’t a repeat flowerer and it had got untidy”. Already the metal supports have been stripped bare and the previous under-planting of perennials and bulbs removed in favour of grass.

And as if that isn’t enough for Roger and his team of two gardeners, he’s planning to use the winter to redesign the Wild Flower Meadow. Yet again, there will be something new to see on my next visit.

Highnam Court, near Gloucester, is having two ‘Autumn Colour’ open days in aid of The Pied Piper Appeal. The gardens will be open on Sunday October 4 and Sunday November 1 from 11am to 4pm. For more information, visit www.piedpiperappeal.co.uk

Highnam autumn colour 6 wm

A Monet-style bridge spans one of the lakes