One of the most unusual crops I’ve trialled in recent years is the Tomtato®, which combines tomato and potato on one plant. Now, Thompson & Morgan have gone one step further in the strange veg stakes and produced the Egg & Chips™ plant with the potato hosting an aubergine, or eggplant.
The new dual-cropping variety, unveiled in the 2016 catalogue, is the result of lengthy grafting trials and should, according to the firm, produce three or four aubergines and up to 2kg of white potatoes per plant.
“For those without the luxury of an allotment or large vegetable patch it makes the most of available space in the garden,” says Michael Perry, Thompson & Morgan New Product Development Manager. “Even the smallest patio or balcony can accommodate a pot-grown Egg & Chips™ plant – pair it with a Tomtato® plant and you’ll have three easy to grow crops from just two pots.”
As well as the obvious space-saving benefits, Thompson and Morgan believe it will also make growing aubergines easier in the UK climate, as the potato’s rootstock is stronger and more vigorous and the plants will not need a greenhouse.
Huge secrecy surrounded the development; the firm even moved its annual summer press day off-site to keep final crop trials under wraps.
“It’s been hard keeping quiet about this amazing plant,” adds Michael. “I’ve had to bite my tongue for the past year! Egg & Chips™ is a real innovation. For seasoned veg growers this is a really novel development.”
• Orders are now being taken for mail order with dispatch from April onwards. With limited first year stock, Thompson & Morgan recommend ordering early. One 9cm potted plant is £14.99 or two are £19.99. Visit www.thompson-morgan.com/eggandchips or call 0844 573 1818.
Gardeners tend to be optimistic, always looking forward rather than back, convinced that next season will be better. At the end of the year, however, it seems fitting to cast an eye over the past, grumble at the mistakes and celebrate the triumphs.
2015 has been strange for gardeners. Spring came as a cold blast while the year has ended unseasonably warm. Some things have fared well – there’s been a bumper crop of ‘Rainbow’ beetroot and the greenhouse continued to earn its keep – but others, notably members of the squash family, sulked in the wet summer.
Parsnips were another problem crop. They are notoriously difficult to germinate, resulting in either feast or famine, and this season was very nearly famine.
I was advised many years ago by a prize-winning grower to hold off sowing for as long as possible to allow the soil to warm but with the cold start, this proved challenging. The first sowing failed and the second was patchy. I was resigned to a small harvest and started to replant the first bed with squash. No soon had they got their feet down then the sulky parsnip started to appear, presumably encouraged by the rising temperatures. Whether they will have caught up after their late start remains to be seen as I have yet to investigate what lurks underground.
In contrast, new varieties of runner beans and tomatoes were absolute winners and are sure to be repeated. Nearly every runner bean claims to be stringless but in the case of ‘Desiree’ it seems to be true. As usual, I struggled to keep up with picking and some beans were definitely on the large side but whereas that would normally mean a mouthful of inedible fibres, ‘Desiree’ lived up to its billing. Thank you, Thompson & Morgan for the trial packet.
Another recommendation came from Paolo at Franchi Seeds. What, I asked, would be a good tomato variety for making sauce, as full of flavour as a cherry type but without the fiddle of skinning tiny fruit? One suggestion was ‘Costoluto Fiorentino’, which produced whopping fruits, packed with flavour and as good raw as cooked; definitely one to grow again next year.
Nowhere is the changing climate more obvious than in the flower borders. My tulips shivered in the spring chill, the garden lost its sparkle under grey summer skies and now the unseasonable warmth has produced odd flowering companions. As I type, the garden is sporting scabious, roses and marigolds alongside the first of the snowdrops, winter honeysuckle and hellebores, while I fear for the already showing euphorbia bracts if we get a frost.
More negative was the nightly ravages of wildlife in the garden with a mole criss-crossing the lawn and a badger attacking what was left. Just don’t get me started on slugs and snails.
Highlights include wisteria dripping with blooms – thanks, probably, to finally hitting the January pruning deadline. Splitting clumps of the early flowering snowdrop ‘Colossus’ means it can be seen from even more windows on those stay indoors days, and an unexpected surprise has been the flowering this month of Iris unguicularis after being little more than a clump of leaves for several years.
And that’s the hope that keeps all gardeners going: next year will be better.
I’ve recently been sorting out around 12 years’ of gardening photos and came across some favourites. I decided to share them in a flower Advent calendar, which I have been posting on Twitter and Facebook. Here’s the astrantia that started it all off.
For those who don’t follow me on those platforms, or for anyone who wants another look, follow this link to see the daily posts.
From vibrant poinsettias to the obvious Christmas cacti, giving pot plants as a festive gift shows no signs of losing popularity. Yet for some they can be a present wrapped up in worry. Get the care of these colourful exotics wrong and you could be left with little more than limp leaves and bare stems by January.
The answer is to follow a few basic rules about temperature and watering, says Cheltenham florist Richard Brazington. He works at Bumblebeez where pot plants are a firm favourite with customers.
“Pot plants last a bit longer than cut flowers,” he explains. “Also with something like plant arrangements you get the choice of planting things out in the garden later.
Typical arrangements include ivy, a small evergreen and bulbs. They should be allowed to die back naturally and can then be planted out in the garden.
“It’s the gift that keeps on giving,” adds Richard with a smile.
Poinsettias have long been top of the festive flower list and today they come in far more than just the traditional scarlet with a range of colours that includes burgundy, shocking pink and salmon.
Unsurprisingly, given that they come from central America, poinsettias need warmth to survive. Indeed, they are most at risk on the journey to your house when, unless they are well wrapped, they can catch a chill.
“It’s essential for them not to get cold,” says Richard. “It’s why I always think you should never buy them when they’ve been on show outside a shop.”
With this in mind, don’t leave your poinsettia out in the cold on a windowsill behind curtains at night as the drop in night-time temperature can be fatal.
Overwatering is the other peril: “They will rot and go mushy underneath.”
Water them sparingly, waiting until the compost feels dry and ensure they drain well.
If poinsettias like it hot, cyclamen are the cool customers among potted plants. They find centrally heated homes challenging and much prefer a position away from radiators or open fires.
Again, care needs to be taken with watering, which is best done from the bottom by standing the plant in a few inches of water for about 15 minutes and then allowing it to drain.
“The corms have a dimple on the top,” explains Richard. “If you water from the top and get water in that, they will rot.”
Orchids are among the most showy plants and, treated right, can be in flower for months. Phalaenopsis like plenty of light and warmth – but don’t overheat them next to a radiator. Water them freely when the compost is dry; use rainwater for the best results.
“You can throw as much water at them as you like, but let it drain well. If they sit in water, they will rot from the bottom up.”
Cymbidiums also like plenty of light but prefer a cooler position. Again, they should be watered when dry to the touch and allowed to drain.
If you’re buying them as a gift, Richard advises choosing a plant with plenty of open flowers as the shock of moving can cause them to drop buds.
Christmas cacti are also prone to losing flower buds when moved but, once into the house, are generally trouble-free. Steamy bathrooms out of direct sunlight suit them well and putting them on a saucer of moist gravel can help to increase the humidity.
To get the best results, they need regular feeding and watering from April to September and two ‘rest’ periods where the temperature is lowered – easily done by moving them to a cooler room – and watering is reduced. The first is when they finish flowering, usually late January to late March. The second is from mid-September until new flower buds have formed. Then move them back into the warm, resume regular watering and they should reward you with a fresh crop of flowers just in time for Christmas.
Glyn Jones is leaving Hidcote Manor Garden after 16 years of leading the gardens team.
He is going to be Head of Gardens for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon looking after five gardens in and around the town.
It was, he said, a big decision to leave Hidcote and the National Trust, where he has worked for 29 years, but he was looking forward to the new challenge, which he begins on February 1.
“It took me a while to make my mind up, as I really love Hidcote,” he said, “but I’m really excited.”
A turning point was his year-long secondment in 2014 to the National Trust’s Dyffryn Gardens in Wales where he was responsible for writing a management plan.
“I learnt a lot at Dyffryn last year. I came alive and really loved it.”
During his time at Hidcote he has overseen a 10-year project to rejuvenate the garden and restore Lawrence Johnston’s original features, including covered alpine beds and a plant shelter for tender specimens.
“Glyn has played a pivotal role in getting Hidcote to where it is today,” said Ian Wright, the Trust’s SW gardens advisor. “He will be missed from the property as it enters its own next phase of development. We wish Glyn every success.”
The job at Stratford will involve looking after gardens with a wide range of styles, including a traditional orchard at Mary Arden’s Farm, a cottage garden at Anne Hathaway’s family home and a new garden at New Place, which is due to open in 2016, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.
Glyn will head a team of eight and two apprentices, who he will help to train.
“One of my real passions is training the next generation. We’ve done so much of that at Hidcote.”
The National Trust is expected to begin the hunt for Glyn’s replacement at Hidcote in the New Year.
Unlike some of my nearest and dearest, gardening friends and family are easy when it comes to buying presents. Newcomers to the joys of growing can be given starter kits of forks, trowels and fool-proof seeds while there are unusual plants and top quality tools for seasoned campaigners. And everyone loves a book.
But what of the professionals for whom gardening is not a hobby but a way of life? I’ve been talking to the head gardeners at some of the Cotswolds’ best known plots and asking them to share their letters to Santa.
At Barnsley House, home of the late Rosemary Verey, head gardener Richard Gatenby is hoping for new tools, but not just any old fork and spade. He has his eye on some traditionally made items from Holland.
“Dutch tools do it for me,” he explains. “I’d love the DeWit planting spade. It has a beautiful curve to the shaft and not too big a blade. But I’d need boot protectors!”
Richard, who worked with Mrs Verey on the world famous garden, is also hoping for a Great Dixter Tickling Fork. Designed by another horticultural giant, the late Christopher Lloyd, and made by Sneeboer, it is ideal for working the soil in tightly planted beds.
“I like the sound of it and again it just looks perfect.”
At Batsford Arboretum, head gardener Matthew Hall is in charge of 56 acres of woodland and garden that include the National Collection of Japanese flowering cherries. The wide-ranging arboretum has around 1,300 different trees, shrubs and bamboo, and more than 2,850 labelled specimens.
Unsurprisingly, top of his Christmas list is something to make keeping a track of everything a little easier.
“If someone was to hand me a GPS system to map the arboretum and catalogue the plant collection, I would be very happy!” he says.
It’s not trees but vegetables that are on Greg Power’s mind this Christmas with a wish list that encompasses something that’s practical and beautiful.
Greg, who took over as head gardener at Sezincote earlier this year is hoping to see some forcing pots under the tree.
“I’d like some that are a modern design and some old 19th century ones,” he says. “I want them for my sea kale.”
One of the Cotswolds’ newest head gardeners is Vicky Cody, who took over as Gardener in Charge at Snowshill Manor in April. She’s hoping for an old-fashioned scythe to use in Snowshill’s orchard, a quieter alternative to a flail mower and strimmer.
“I also think it’s good to keep old techniques and practices alive,” says Vicky, “and it’s much more in the spirit of Snowshill and would be kinder to the environment to boot.
“If Poldark happened to come along with the scythe – even better!” she adds.
And after a wet autumn, she has also looking for a fleecy, lined, waterproof jacket for her spaniel, Cookie.
Meanwhile, Vicky’s former boss Glyn Jones at Hidcote Manor Garden is after beauty and creature comforts.
Top of his list are some mohair socks, such as those sold by former TV presenter Selina Scott.
“I already have one pair and they are so toasty,” explains Glyn, who is Garden and Countryside Manager at Hidcote. “Having spent many years with cold feet these are simply fantastic.”
Plants are also welcome, particularly a dark blue wisteria – “Grafted as I don’t want to wait ten-plus years to see its first flower” – and a pink clematis, such as C. x vedrariensis ‘Hidcote’, to climb through it.
“It’s a classic pink and blue combination and would screen a fence in my back garden at home.
“So, something to warm the heart and something to warm the toes!” adds Glyn.
At Colesbourne Park, home of Sir Henry and Lady Elwes, head gardener Chris Horsfall has his eye on a set of grading riddles for sorting seed.
“It’s loads of fun and pretty important when planting a garden,” he explains, “but seeds vary so much that one riddle simply won’t do.”
A new Silky Fox pruning saw is another request: “They’re one of the best saws, so convenient and sharp. They are as necessary as your secateurs when you’re out and about in the garden.”
Finally, he wants something to combat the cold in this garden famous for its snowdrops: “Above all, I would love a wood-burning stove for the potting shed. It’s a long winter and autumn, and spring can be challenging too. A wood-burner turns a damp shed into salvation. Yes please, Santa!”
Oneof the best ways of learning is to consult an expert and there are plenty of opportunities for gardeners in the Cotswolds.
February sees the snowdrop season get underway and the return of the popular Colesbourne Park study day.
This year, head gardener Chris Horsfall will be giving his first lecture, entitled ‘Never Waste a Bulb’. In it he will outline a typical year at Colesbourne (pictured above) and how he manages the garden.
In addition, ‘More Special Snowdrops’ by galanthophile Jim Almond will feature some unusual varieties and will give tips on everything from twin scaling to photography.
Numbers for the study day on February 11 are limited to 35 and places cost £35 per person to include lunch, refreshments and a private tour of the Colesbourne collection.
Award-winning designer Chris Beardshaw, designer and writer Mary Keen, vegetable grower and writer Lia Leendertz and bulb expert Christine Skelmersdale are among those taking part in The Generous Gardener lecture days.
The talks, held in Ampney Crucis near Cirencester, cover topics ranging from growing flowers for cutting, good design and planting, and the gardens at Sissinghurst.
Two speakers, lunch and refreshments are included in the £90 cost of the lecture days, which run from 10.30am to 4pm; the first is on March 31.
The unique history of Painswick Rococo Garden has been put to good use by head gardener Steve Quinton.
It formed part of his studies for a degree in Garden and Landscape History at the University of London.
Steve, who joined the Painswick tourist attraction two years ago, fitted his studies around work at the 18th century garden and travelled weekly to London for the course, which was paid for by the Friends of the Rococo Garden.
Vicky Aspinall, chair of the Friends, said: “I am thrilled that Steve has done so well and we have enabled the garden to use its resources to encourage and support staff development.”
When Painswick Rococo Garden closed its gates to the last of the 2015 visitors it signalled more than just the end of the season. Its director Paul Moir leaves later this month after 27 years spent guiding this idiosyncratic garden from near dereliction to popular tourist attraction.
It will, he admits, be a time of mixed emotions. Relief that he will no longer need to anxiously watch weather forecasts, hoping for the cold, clear days that encourage visitors during snowdrop time. Regret at no longer being part of a close-knit team.
“It’s the camaraderie of the volunteers and the staff,” he explains, stressing that it was his decision to leave. “I will miss my colleagues in the industry.”
It will also be a new era for the garden as, with Paul’s wife, Claire, also handing over control of the catering it’s the first time the garden has been led by someone outside the family, although his parents will still be trustees.
Paul began in 1988 just as the Painswick Rococo Garden Trust was established to continue the restoration work started by his stepfather Lord Dickinson, who inherited the garden in 1950.
“There was nothing here but a lot of grass, a few trees in the orchard and two yew hedges,” recalls Paul.
What they did have was a 1748 painting by Thomas Robins of the garden and this has formed the blueprint for a project that has seen the restoration of paths, planting and the follies for which the Rococo is known.
These buildings – the iconic Red House, the pink Eagle House and icing sugar white Exedra – have been at once a source of pride and frustration for Paul. While they undoubtedly are an essential part of the Rococo’s charm, they are also challenging and expensive to manage.
“Because our hard landscaping has been restored in the way it would have been done in the 18th century it makes it very expensive to maintain. I’ve certainly become experienced in the challenges of restoring listed buildings.”
Indeed, one of his niggles is the fact that it has proved impossible to fully restore the interior of the Red House to its ornate original.
In contrast, he is proudest of something that would not have featured in the original garden, the maze planted to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Robins’ painting. Unlike most mazes, this depiction of the number 250 is designed to be looked at as much as explored.
“People love it because they can stand above it and look down. That’s its unique quality.”
Attractions like this have helped the garden extend its interest beyond the few weeks in February when the snowdrops bloom; just over a third of the annual 27,000 visitors arrive then. A snowdrop Sunday can see as many as 2,500 people arrive or as few as 50, depending on the weather. Indeed, the vagaries of the weather, along with foot and mouth and floods are just some of the challenges Paul has faced over the years.
There’s still work to be done: the area below the Red House is not fully restored and fundraising is due to start to build a new entrance building.
But all that will be left to his successor, Dominic Hamilton, who joins the Rococo from Snowshill Manor.
As for Paul, he has no immediate plans beyond more weekends off and the chance to get out to other gardens, particularly during the snowdrop season.
“I’m looking forward to going to see other places and being able to look at them without comparing them to here,” he says.
• For more information about Painswick Rococo Garden, visit www.rococogarden.co.uk