Tips for small gardens

small gardens

Small gardens may be easier to maintain than rolling acres but they are far more challenging to design. Hidden away in the heart of Cheltenham is a walled garden packed with interest and some great ideas for dealing with a small space.

Faced with a town centre garden that is little more than a courtyard, few of us would start by planting trees.

Yet, that’s just what Ro Swait did when she took on her Cheltenham garden.

Rather than planting in scale with a plot that is just 40ft at its widest point, she went big with Cornus ‘Norman Hadden’ and a katsura tree.

small gardens
The garden has lots of pots to give height

“You need to think big,” she explains. “and not be afraid to. The most important thing is structure, which you can then build on.”

It was all very different when Ro moved in 11 years ago. Then, the L-shaped, south west-facing plot was wall-to-wall paving, burning hot in summer and devoid of anything green.

“I nearly wept,” admits Ro, who works as a gardener with her daughter, Tam.

small gardens
Salvias add late season colour

One of her most successful alterations was extending out from the house using metal girders and glass to create a covered area.

“It keeps everything sheltered and means I can have really tender plants and keep them outdoors. It makes them tougher too.”

They include aeoniums, aloe and echeveria that are displayed on shelving against the house wall and in pots clustered on tables. Other containers have sempervivums, grasses and small shrubs.

Kalanchoe, more commonly seen as a houseplant, is thriving in its outdoor setting.

“I have some indoors as well but the one outside is doing much better.”

small gardens
The trees are pruned to keep them small

Further into the garden, the cornus and katsura now give all-important shade. They are cut back each winter to stop them getting too big and are gradually being trained to arch over the garden. Likewise, a Judas tree and Morello cherry are also kept small.

And they are not the only large scale plants as Ro has also planted holly, pittosporum, yew, eucalyptus and even a Magnolia grandiflora.

These provide winter interest and form a backdrop to seasonal colour that ranges from Martagon lilies, sedum and actaea to jasmine, campsis and echinacea.

Much of the planting is in raised beds and ground-level borders, created by lifting most of the original paving. The rest is in pots that frequently contain more than one plant.

small gardens
The elegant blooms of Actea simplex stand out against painted walls

“Things have to double up,” Ro says with a smile.

She also makes the most of the borders, keeping the ‘skirts’ of shrubs high to create space to plant underneath, while the walls, which have been painted to give them more interest, are used for climbers.

The high walls and closely planted borders mean that Ro is rarely troubled by weeds but the restricted space does mean she thinks carefully before buying something new.

“You have to really want the plant,” she says.

7 ideas for small gardens

small gardens

Make storage space double up as a plant display area. These shelves hold bamboo poles and labels as well as plants.

small gardens

Even small gardens can have fruit and veg. Here a tomato is grown in a pot.

small gardens

Plant in layers and lift the skirts of shrubs to give space for bulbs and low-growing things.

small gardens

Play with levels either with raised beds or by putting pots on tables or plinths.

small gardens

Add a seat – small gardens are better suited to sitting in than walking around.

small gardens

• Use containers to change the display, either with seasonal bedding or bulbs, or by simply moving them around to create a new look.

small gardens

• Think big: fewer but bigger plants will be more effective than lots of small things.

Read my review of New Small Garden by Noel Kingsbury here

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Review: Monet’s Garden by Vivian Russell


I’ve always loved Impressionist paintings and those by Monet in particular. As a student, a visit to the National Museum in Cardiff to gaze at their collection was an instant pick-me-up. Years later on our honeymoon, I dragged my other half into Paris’ Orangerie to see the famous waterlilies. Naturally, as a gardener, Giverny has long been on my list of must-see gardens.

Yet, it’s somewhere that I knew very little about – beyond the instantly recognisable pictures of the wisteria-festooned bridge, the mass plantings of iris and sprawling nasturtiums.

Photographs show Giverny’s planting schemes

I say ‘knew’ because writer and photographer Vivian Russell’s book Monet’s Garden, Through the Seasons at Giverny, has filled in many of the gaps.

It’s a new paperback edition of a book that was first published in 1995, winning The Garden Writers’ Guild ‘Book of the Year’ award. Whether the text has been revised to allow for any changes in practice in the garden is unclear but that doesn’t detract from what is an enjoyable and informative read.

The book charts the history of the garden at Giverny from 1883 when Monet and his family moved in, starting as tenants and later buying the former cider farm, to the painter’s death in 1926 and beyond.

We learn how the various borders were designed, from the ‘paintbox beds’ to the Grand Allée and the book describes how Monet created his famous water garden, despite initial local opposition, turning the stream into a pond and slowing the water flow with a grille to protect the waterlily blooms.

A picture emerges of someone who gardened with a passion, searching out new varieties, sending plants to friends by train, worrying about his plot while away and even sitting up all night to ensure a new stove would adequately heat his greenhouse. He was a perfectionist, leaving detailed instructions for his head gardener, down to how many sweet peas to sow and the dates for starting dahlias into growth.

The book charts the garden through the seasons

That Giverny is today a popular tourist attraction is due to Gérald and Florence van der Kemp who masterminded its restoration 50 years after Monet’s death.

“There is no question that, without this formidable duo, Giverny would by now be history,” Russell tells us.

Yet, there is more to the book than a mere historical journey and it is as much about how the garden is managed as it is a description of what is there and why.

Working through the seasons, Russell outlines the extraordinary lengths the garden team goes to in order to recreate the Monet look. These range from the wholesale lifting of borders in autumn in order to store tender plants to the sowing of thousands of annuals and the endless tidying and manicuring of plants through the garden’s months of opening.

The behind-the-scenes life of Giverny is explored

Along the way, she gives details of varieties grown, from dahlias to roses, and the atmosphere of Giverny at different times of the year, all underpinned by numerous photographs that chart the life of this famous garden.

Yet, despite all this Giverny is, says Russell, a garden of “compromises”. Plants that would have been grown in blocks are now woven through borders, the banks of the pond are today densely planted as the original grass was being ruined by visitors’ feet, and the once open boundary railing now sports pyracantha to prevent a “free peep” into what is a commercial operation.

“Most visitors want to be dazzled more than they want authenticity,” explains Russell. “It is only the few purists who wish to see the garden as it was in Monet’s day with some beds in flower for just a few weeks of the year and positively dull the rest of the time.”

Monet’s Garden, Through the Seasons at Giverny by Vivian Russell is published by Frances Lincoln priced £16.99 RRP. Buy now. (If you buy via the link, I will receive a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Quarto Press.

Read more of my book reviews here

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Celebrate autumn

Two of the Cotswolds’ popular gardens offer the chance to celebrate autumn this weekend with their last big events of the 2016 season.

Colesbourne Park and Painswick Rococo Garden are both better known for their snowdrop displays but each has plenty to offer at this time of year as well.

At Colesbourne there’s a rare chance to see the arboretum and enjoy the autumn colour spectacle on Friday and Saturday, while from Friday to Sunday, the Rococo Garden will be showing off its home-grown produce and explaining how to get the most out of the harvest.

celebrate autumn
Squash are among the homegrown crops at Rococo

Among the trees

Colesbourne’s arboretum was started by Victorian plant-hunter Henry John Elwes and has been added to by his great-grandson Sir Henry Elwes.

It now numbers around 300 trees, with six registered as the largest of their variety in the UK and some 120 years old.

“This is very much a plantsman’s collection of trees from around the world,” said Sir Henry. “The arboretum was started by and is still managed by the Elwes family.”

celebrate autumn
Colesbourne’s unusual blue lake

The rest of the 10-acre garden will also be open with woodland walks and views across the lake, which is believed to get its unusual blue colour from lime.

Learn about apples

At the Rococo Garden, apples and pumpkins are just some of the produce on show as the historic garden encourages visitors to celebrate autumn.

On National Apple Day this Friday, there is a children’s Apple Activity Day with the chance to learn how to cook with apples, bug-hunting and apple games.

The apple theme continues on Saturday and Sunday with talks by Martin Hayes on orchards and how to prune trees. The Gloucestershire Orchard Trust is supplying information about traditional local varieties and there will be demonstrations of rural skills, apple-pressing and wreath-making.

celebrate autumn
Learn more about apples at Painswick Rococo Garden

And if you’ve got a mystery apple tree in your garden, you can take in the fruit for identification by Martin on Sunday.

“It’s an opportunity to find out what to do with autumn produce and the last chance to see the garden before we close for the year,” says garden director Dominic Hamilton.

Painswick Rococo Garden’s Apple Activity Day for children is on Friday October 21 from 10.15-3pm and costs £7.50. Book online at The Rococo Garden or call 01452 813204.

The Autumn Festival is on Saturday and Sunday, October 22 and 23, from 10.30am to 3pm. The 2016 season ends on October 31. For more details, visit The Rococo Garden

Colesbourne Park is open on Friday and Saturday, October 21 and 22, from 12.45pm with optional guided tours led by Sir Henry and head gardener Arthur Cole. Admission is £5, to include a cup of tea. For more information, see Colesbourne Park

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Roy Strong on Shakespeare, gardens and hanging baskets

The history of garden restoration can be traced back to the knot garden on the site of Shakespeare’s home in Stratford, says historian and gardener Sir Roy Strong.

Sir Roy told an audience at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust that work to create the garden at New Place in 1920 marked a new departure in gardening.

“It was the first time anybody seriously tried to recreate an historic garden. Think how many of you have visited gardens that have been restored at historic houses. The knot garden at New Place is the beginning of all that.”

The former director of the Victoria and Albert Museum and The National Portrait Gallery, was speaking at an event to launch his new book, The Quest for Shakespeare’s Garden, which traces the story of the playwright’s garden.

roy strong
Sir Roy Strong was launching his new book

It follows the re-opening in the summer of the New Place garden following a £6m project by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust to revamp the area.

An archaeological excavation uncovered the outline of the last house there, which was demolished in 1759, and this is now depicted in bronze laid into paving.

There’s a representation of Shakespeare’s desk, references to his plays and poems and many modern sculptures, including a bronze tree at the heart of the garden.

Work has included renovating the knot garden (pictured top) for the first time since it was created by Ernest Law, who later worked on the knot garden at Hampton Court Palace.

Roy Strong
The New Place garden has been revamped

During the conversation with Glyn Jones, head of gardens at the trust, and Roger Pringle, former trust director, Sir Roy Strong warned against believing any restoration was historically accurate.

“There’s no such thing as an accurate recreation of an historic garden. It can only ever be an approximation.”

It’s a view that’s upheld by the recent work at New Place: the audience was told the team have had to use Japanese euonymus as a replacement for box that had succumbed to blight.

The new layout was praised by Sir Roy, who admitted to being nervous about seeing it, having not visited New Place for some years.

“I didn’t have happy memories about it all.

“I was thrilled with what you had achieved. I think it’s marvellous and very different from how I remembered it.”

And he described the previous planting scheme of begonias and pansies as “absolutely horrendous”.

In a wide-ranging talk, that saw him describe Ellen Willmott as “a dreadful woman”, take a sideswipe at municipal planting and declare that “hanging baskets should be abolished”, Sir Roy talked about his early experience of gardening. He described it as a “big minus”, as he didn’t get on with his father, who “dominated” the garden behind his childhood terraced home.

Roy Strong
The terrestrial sphere in New Place garden

He didn’t enter what he calls his ‘garden period’ until he and his late wife, Julia, bought The Laskett in Herefordshire.

“I don’t think either of us realised we were going to create what is thought to be quite an important garden.”

An big influence on its design, along with Italy and the theatre, was Hidcote Manor Garden, where Glyn was head gardener before joining the Trust. In particular, The Laskett makes full use of vistas, spaces and structure.

“If a garden looks amazing in winter you really don’t need to worry about flowers,” explained Sir Roy.

“Flowers are the sign of a complete failure.”

The Quest for Shakespeare’s Garden by Roy Strong is published by Thames & Hudson, priced £14.95.

For more information about The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust including opening times and prices, see here here

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Rediscovering asters

Sometimes you think you know a plant only to find there’s far more to it than you realised. Asters – commonly known as Michaelmas Daisies – are such a plant.

To many gardeners they are those mauve daisy-like things that flower in autumn and grew in their parents’ garden. They have a slightly old-fashioned image and are generally seen as a filler in the border rather than a star.

Yet, the colour range is vast from cool white through to claret and it’s possible to have them in flower from early September to almost Christmas.

There’s far more to asters than mauve

I was reminded quite how interesting asters can be at the Malvern Autumn Show where a display by Old Court Nurseries, holders of the National Collection, won gold.

It’s been some years since I visited Old Court and its display beds in The Picton Garden and I’d forgotten what a spectacle a mass planting of asters makes.

The display had a lightness and grace that is rarely associated with other autumn bloomers, such as rudbeckia, helenium or helianthus, and was something different to the usual yellows and oranges so often associated with the season.

Deciding it was time to rediscover asters, I attended at talk by Helen Picton hosted by Allomorphic in Stroud.

From the outset, it was clear there’s more to asters than mere mauve. A bucket of flowers, cut that day from the nursery, had white, pale pink, deep purple and some with a hint of red.

What’s in a name

And if the sudden realisation of the choice available wasn’t confusing enough, there’s the name. Work by botanists has led to many being reclassified and they are no longer called asters; nearly all the North American species are now Symphyotrichum or Eurybia.

Helen, who has a degree in botany, skipped through the explanation with ease but, perhaps realising that the switch is going to take some time among their customers, the nursery is still using the term aster as well as the new name for its plants.

Flowers cut from the nursery showed the range of asters

She is the third generation of the Picton family to run the Colwall nursery, which was founded more than 100 years ago by Ernest Ballard, one of the first people to specialise in Asters.

The National Collection was started by her parents, Paul and Meriel, with many varieties owing their survival to two Bristol enthusiasts who collected them; their plants joined those at Old Court in the 1980s and today the collection has more than 400 varieties.

Growing asters

Asters do have a reputation for being prone to mildew that can turn their leaves an unattractive grey.

We were told that the novi-belgii group are the most susceptible, not least because they are shallow-rooted and therefore dry out quickly during the summer.

Helen suggested a garlic foliar spray was one method of treatment – though it is essential to cover all the foliage – and division every three years would help to keep plants vigorous.

Helen is the third generation to run Old Court Nurseries

Varieties with smooth leaves were more likely to get mildew than those with rough leaves, she added.

The majority need open, sunny positions to flower well, although a few are tolerant of shade.

Other cultivation tips included hiding the “naked bottoms” of the New England asters.

“They are definitely back of the border plants. Give them a nice skirt of something more interesting.”

What to choose

If you’re looking for something that will be smothered in flowers, the compact ‘Gulliver’ is a good choice. It grows to around 45cm and has mauve blooms.

Another small aster is ‘Purple Dome’, which again gets to around 45cm high, and has large purple flowers.

“It needs as much sun as you can give it,” advised Helen.

The Picton Garden displays the National Collection

For arching flower sprays, Helen recommended the species asters, such as ‘Photograph’, which has smaller, pale blue flowers

“It is more relaxed in habit and mixes better with other perennials.”

‘King George’ had a rapid name change after it was introduced as Kaiser Wilhelm in 1914 and is now a popular variety. Its large purple flowers are loved by hoverflies and butterflies. Upright growing, it is mildew-free but needs good winter drainage.

One of the blowsiest is ‘Fellowship’, which has masses of pale pink double flowers. It grows to around 100cm and is one of the more mildew-resistant of the New York asters.

‘Fellowship’ produces a mass of double flowers

And, if you want something to tumble over a retaining wall, ‘Snow Flurry’, the only prostrate aster, might be the answer. It has long, horizontal flowering stems that are covered in tiny white flowers.

The Picton Garden and the National Collection of autumn flowering Asters and related genera is open until mid-October. For details and more information on Old Court Nurseries and growing asters see here

The next in the Allomorphic series of lectures is on November 11 when nurseryman Bob Brown of Cotswold Garden Flowers will be talking about his favourite plants. More details here

Acers fire up for autumn

Winter bedding and bulb-buying aside, autumn can be a quiet time for nurseries. There’s a sense of winding down, taking stock and starting to prepare for the next season. Yet for one independent nursery, October is the pinnacle of the year.

Howle Hill Nursery specialises in acers and autumn sees it explode into colour. Butter yellow, crimson, scarlet and orange are beginning to work their way across the nursery, near Ross-on-Wye, culminating in a fiery show.

‘Chitose-yama’ is turning a rich, dark red that glows in the sun, ‘Sango-kaku’, the coral-bark maple, is golden with pink tips, ‘Aoyagi’ is a pure yellow, while one of the best reds is ‘Osakazuki’.

The nursery was started by landscaper and designer Peter Dowle, who began growing the autumn stars when tracking them down for his garden projects proved difficult.

‘Sango-kaku’ is a fiery mix of red and gold

“I could never find trees of any size,” he explains. “It started out being driven by what we wanted to use in schemes but couldn’t get. Now other people in that situation come to us.”

The choice at the nursery is huge – the firm prides itself on having the widest selection in the South West with many hard-to-find varieties.

They range from dainty dwarf trees suitable for containers to others so big that they will make an immediate impact on a garden; some of the trees are up to 40 years old.

Acers were a key part of Peter’s gold medal-winning garden at this year’s RHS Malvern Spring Festival

The stock is grafted for Howle Hill by a British specialist and the nursery takes delivery when the trees are around four months old. The acers are then grown on to be sold at the nursery, through its online arm Acers Direct, or used in clients’ gardens; Peter designs four or five Japanese-style gardens a month.

How to grow acers

But even if you don’t want a true Oriental garden, Peter believes you should make space for an acer.

“They are such a fabulous genus. You get a huge amount of variation and seasonal interest from them.

Blazing reds are lighting up the nursery

“They are suitable for a very wide range of soils including clays to chalky and sandy soils.”

And he dismisses as a myth the commonly held view that acers need acid soil to thrive or that they can’t cope with windy spots, although he advises against planting on the top of a hill or as the first line of defence in a seaside garden.

“Average wind conditions are not an issue with maples so long as the soil preparation is correct,” explains Peter, whose landscaping business has built many RHS gold medal-winning gardens.

Instead, he believes brown edges to leaves, often blamed on wind burn, is more likely to be poor soil without enough humus.

The nursery has a wide selection of trees

“The important thing for gardeners is to mimic their natural habitat on the fringes of deciduous woodland.”

Adding lots of leaf mould, well-rotted farmyard manure or composted bark would give acers the conditions they need.

Peter also says you shouldn’t be afraid to prune an acer to get the best shape – just be careful when you do it to avoid the plant ‘bleeding’.

“The golden rule is to prune from late June to the end of December.”

Spoilt for choice

‘Garnet’ makes a small tree

Acers can be grouped as dwarf, small, medium and large, making them suitable for any garden, even courtyards.

A good dwarf for containers is ‘Little Princess’, which grows up to 1.5m in height, while ‘Garnet’, which has purple, dissected foliage is classed as a small tree.

Among the medium acers is ‘Osakazuki’ and ‘Bloodgood’ is a popular large tree, which has a strong red colour.

If it’s orange tones you want, Peter suggests ‘Orange Dream’, which has a golden orange autumn display.

‘Orange Dream’ is starting to live up to its name

Yet acers are not just for autumn with many having beautiful colour early in the year.

“Spring is such an underrated window for maples. There’s a whole range of spring fizzlers that are just knockout.”

A top choice is ‘Deshojo’, whose new leaves are cerise pink.

‘Deshojo’ has a wonderful cerise spring colour

“When it’s pink in spring and you’ve got sunlight through that it’s just unbeatable.”

Planting companions

Among the nursery’s top choices for planting companions with acers are Hakonechloa macra and Mukdenia rossii, which has a white flower, glossy leaves and good autumn colour.

And a favourite partnership is Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifolium’ underplanted with winter aconites, the tree with its aconite-like foliage opening just as the yellow blooms are fading.

Howle Hill Nursery is hosting an Acer Week from October 17-22 open 9am to 5pm daily, with the preview week from October 10. There will be trees for sale and advice on growing acers. More details here