Mad about the snowdrop

Snowdrop expert John Grimshaw is returning to the Cotswolds to talk about these winter favourites at Allomorphic in Stroud.
I caught up with him to chat about his favourite varieties
and snowdrop mania.

With hundreds of new varieties being named each year, the snowdrop world is, says John Grimshaw, a “bit out of control” and he feels at least in part responsible.

He was one of the authors of the definitive work on the winter beauties, a monograph that for the first time looked in detail at each variety, comparing their differences and deciding which was which; some snowdrops had more than one name.

Yet the 2002 book had another unintended consequence as it brought the snowdrop to a wider audience, fuelling what has become an obsession with many.

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John Grimshaw

“The book suddenly made it possible to learn. It was a big catalyst and I do feel partly responsible, I’m afraid.” says John, who until 2012 was Gardens Manager at Colesbourne Park, which has one of the country’s major snowdrop collections.

Interested in the snowdrop since childhood, his enthusiasm was really fired up as a student in Oxford when he met well-known galanthophiles (snowdrop enthusiasts) Primrose Warburg and Richard Nutt through the local Alpine Garden Society.

But the snowdrop world was, he says, very different in the 80s and 90s.

“A relatively small group of people were interested in snowdrops before the book came out and it was more manageable. You knew everybody and people shared material rather more freely and generously than they do now.”

In fact, the monograph detailed only 500 varieties, a far cry from the multitude that have been named since it came out.

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‘Primrose Warbury’ is a vigorous yellow.

“Nowadays several hundred are named each year. It’s just a bit impossible to cope with.”

And snowdrops can be big business with a record £1,390 paid for a bulb of ‘Golden Fleece’ in 2015, though John is quick to stress that the average snowdrop sells for sensible prices.

Top five snowdrops

So, with hundreds of snowdrop varieties on offer, where should someone new to the galanthophile world start?

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‘Three Ships’ is a reliably early variety

Top of John’s list is ‘Three Ships’, a pretty variety and one that flowers early, usually before Christmas.

“It is probably the most reliable pre-Christmas flowering snowdrop.”

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‘Comet’ is a robust snowdrop

‘Comet’ is another recommendation and one that he describes as “very large, handsome and robust”.

Another favourite is ‘Diggory’, which has beautiful, big round flowers.

“It’s so distinctive, it stands out a mile away.”

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‘Diggory’ is very distinctive

When it comes to yellow snowdrops, he suggests ‘Primrose Warburg’ because it’s robust and vigorous, unlike many of the yellow varieties.

And no collection would be complete without ‘S Arnott’.

“It has vigour, charm, beauty and scent.”

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‘S Arnott’ has a lovely scent

Since 2012 John has been running the 128-acre Yorkshire Arboretum where he confesses he has introduced some snowdrops, although not on a grand scale.

“Much of the arboretum is very sticky wet clay which is very unsuited to them so the planting areas are quite limited but we’ve made a start.”

He also still has quite a collection of his own with around 350 different varieties in his private garden.

allomorphic
Allomorphic is hosting a series of gardening lectures

And he urges gardeners to ignore the hype surrounding the snowdrop and add them to their gardens.

“They’re charming winter flowers. You can’t not like a snowdrop.”

John Grimshaw will the guest speaker at an Allomorphic lunch on Wednesday February 15 when he will take a light-hearted look at snowdrops. Details here.

 John is one of two guest speakers at the Colesbourne Park snowdrop study day in February.

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Review: 101 Organic Gardening Hacks by Shawna Coronado

gardening hacks

In my world, a hack is an old hand on a newspaper so it’s just as well Shawna Coronado starts her latest book with an explanation of what it means to her.

Hacks or hacking, she says, are clever ways to solve a problem, preferably while saving cash with the very best being “easy, smart and economical”.

In 101 Organic Gardening Hacks, she applies this philosophy to gardening, outlining ideas for everything from managing weeds to reusing old furniture as planters.

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Old furniture can be put to a new use

Many of her gardening ‘hacks’ make use of things that would otherwise be thrown away – saving money and saving on landfill.

It’s all part of Coronado’s green living lifestyle: “Ultimately, garden hacks are about wellness: an overall state of well-being not just for you, but for the whole planet,” she tells us.

To those of us who have gardened for many years, some of the gardening hacks are obviously aimed at the newcomer. Most experienced gardeners know about making leaf mould, mulching and using composted manure though she does take it one step further with ‘recipes’ for different mixes, such as one suitable for succulents.

gardening hack
Glass insulators are used to edge a border

Many of the ideas are things to make; I liked the idea of hollowing out a tree stump to create a planter while putting coloured tape around the handles of garden tools would make it less likely that the secateurs would end up in the compost bin. Organising seed packets into a photo album is a neat idea and far easier to manage than a tin stuffed with packets.

Other suggestions – using old wine bottles and plastic milk cartons as watering devices – are simple but probably better suited to the veg plot than ornamental flower beds.

Not all the gardening hacks involve DIY: many simply outline how to grow plants – planting tomatoes deeply to encourage roots is one idea – or even what to grow, geraniums if you want to attract bees, for example.

gardening hacks
Wine bottles mark out a path

She explains a way of testing your soil’s pH without using a kit, how to determine how freely it drains, and how to make sure your garden hose isn’t toxic.

Plenty of pictures, a colourful layout and chatty style make it an easy book to read. While there are ideas an experienced gardener could use, it’s probably best suited to someone just starting out on their growing journey.

101 Organic Gardening Hacks: Eco-Friendly Solutions to Improve Any Garden by Shawna Coronado is published by Cool Springs Press, priced £12.99 RRP. Photography ©  Shawna Coronado. Buy now. (If you buy via the link, I receive a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Cool Springs Press.

For more book reviews, see here

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Sarah takes over at historic Cotswold garden

When we meet, Sarah Malleson is just one week into her new role as Head Gardener at Hidcote Manor Garden and still shaking her head in disbelief.

A career change 13 years ago saw her join the world-famous Arts and Crafts garden on a National Trust apprenticeship scheme in 2005. Now she is heading up the 11-strong gardening team.

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Hidcote’s new head gardener Sarah Malleson

“I still cannot quite believe it,” says Sarah, who is the first woman to run the Hidcote garden. “Thirteen years ago I never thought I would reach this.”

She has taken over in the lead role following the departure at the beginning of last year of Glyn Jones to become head of gardens at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon.

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Hidcote attracts thousands of visitors a year

Glyn had worked for the Trust for 29 years and had been in charge at Hidcote for 16 years, overseeing the huge 10-year restoration project that has seen elements of Lawrence Johnston’s original garden reinstated, including the plant shelter and alpine terrace.

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Winter shows off the structure that underpins Hidcote

Sarah didn’t apply when the job was first advertised, as she had just started work as Hidcote’s Visitor Experience Manager, drawing on her previous experience in customer services and marketing. But when the Trust did not appoint and the role was re-advertised last autumn, she put her name forward.

“Doing the Visitor Experience Manager job was a good thing and I enjoyed it but it made me realise my heart is really in the garden,” she says, adding that it’s also given her a better understanding of how Hidcote and the Trust are run.

hidcote
The clipped framework of branches is clear against a winter sky

Meanwhile, Michelle Bailey has been appointed as the new Visitor Experience Manager, and Richard Armstrong took over as Catering Manager last year.

So soon into her new job Sarah has few detailed plans but priorities include maintaining standards of horticulture, getting to know her team and recruiting for another gardener to bring their numbers up to full strength.

She’s also unlikely to make any huge changes after an unsettled few years: Hidcote had a caretaker Head Gardener in 2014 while Glyn was on secondment to Dyffryn Gardens in Wales, followed by Glyn’s departure and part-time guidance from Stourhead’s Alan Powers over last summer and autumn while the Trust sought to fill the job.

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There’s plenty of colour in the garden

“This year is about settling things back down, learning about my role and making longer term plans.”

Adding more jewels and banishing blight

It will include drawing up a five-year plan, important in any garden but particularly so in one with the historic background of Hidcote and Sarah will be working closely with the conservation management plan.

“It will help us see whether things are as they should be.”

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Reinstating the Plant Shelter was part of the restoration project

Sarah, who oversaw the restoration of the Kitchen Garden a few years ago, is planning to look at each of Hidcote’s ‘garden rooms’ to ensure the planting is as good as it can be.

“I want to look at the historic plants and see what we’ve got, what’s missing, what things need propagating, what needs to be brought back into the garden.”

Some of that work has already been started by Assistant Head Gardener Sarah Davis, who has been rejuvenating the “horticultural jewels that sparkle in the borders”.

hidcote
Jasmine scents the air in the Plant Shelter

The team are also partway through restoring The Fuchsia Garden, a move that was forced on them by box blight. Like several Cotswold gardens – not least Highgrove and Barnsley House – Hidcote has had to remove some of its old box hedges.

It’s been used as an opportunity to redo the rest of the area with the beds cleared and brick paths relaid, using traditional lime mortar. Research is now being carried out on what planting Johnston used in this part of the garden.

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Work is ongoing in The Fuchsia Garden

“We’re not going to rush the planting but will look back at the history.”

There’s also been no decision yet on what to use to replace the box. Ilex crenata was tried in this part of the garden but failed to thrive and the team are waiting to see how Euonymus japonicus microphyllus fares in The Maple Garden.

“We need to wait and see how that does before planting The Fuchsia Garden because we will need a lot of plants for there.”

hidcote
Hidcote’s history guides today’s gardening team

Already the ‘to do’ list is starting to grow but Sarah says that’s the beauty of working at Hidcote.

“What’s nice is there’s plenty to get your teeth into here. It’s not as though it’s all done and you’re just trying to keep it the same. It’s ever changing and keeps the creative ideas flowing, which is exciting.”

Hidcote reopens on Saturday February 11, 2017 for one week during half-term. It is then open at weekends with normal opening from March. For more details, visit the website

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Top choices for growing potatoes

Potatoes are a space-greedy crop so growing the right variety is important. No one wants to tie up large areas of their garden or allotment for many weeks only to find they don’t like the taste or cooking quality of their chosen spud.

But making that choice isn’t easy. There are hundreds of varieties and all sound tempting.

I’ve been taking some advice from James Mclean, shop manager at Dundry Nurseries, a Cotswold firm that has been staging a January potato weekend for 20 years, attracting growers from across the country.

potatoes
James and the team are setting out tonnes of spuds

What makes their event my favourite is the chance to experiment, as tubers are sold from a single one at 20p right up to a sack-load.

This season, they will have a staggering 18 tonnes of 130 different varieties for sale covering every potato group: early, first early, second early and maincrop.

New varieties

While many are old favourites, there are several new varieties available this year.

‘Double Fun’ is a purple skinned second early with yellow, waxy flesh. ‘Elfe’, another second early, has a creamy, buttery taste.

Among the maincrop potatoes, there’s ‘Alverstone Russet’. It replaces ‘Russet Burbank’, which Dundry can no longer source, and has white flesh, high yields and stores well. ‘Pippa’, also maincrop, is a salad variety that has been bred from the popular ‘Pink Fir Apple’. It has the same great flavour but is easy to prepare as the shape is more regular.

“The most exciting is ‘Sarpo Kifli’,” says James. “It’s a salad variety but it stores well, which is unheard of, and it has a fantastic taste.”

Add the high blight resistance common to Sarpo potatoes and the fact that it’s suitable for growing in containers, and this variety seems to be one to watch.

Growers’ favourite potatoes

But if those are the newcomers, what about the tried and tested potatoes? James says there are some that always top the poll with Dundry’s growers.

potatoes
‘Charlotte’ is the best-selling salad potato

When it comes to early potatoes, ‘Charlotte’ is definitely the queen. Reliable, high yields of fabulous tasting tubers make this the number one choice for a salad spud.

Honours are shared in the first early category. As the name suggests, ‘Swift’ is favoured for its speed of growth – it’s ready in 12 to 14 weeks – and the tubers are well flavoured and firm. It’s also a variety suitable for growing in a container.

Also popular in the first earlies is ‘Rocket’. Again, it matures quickly, can be container grown and produces a lot of mild tubers.

Among the second earlies, ‘Kestrel’ is the top choice at Dundry. It is a good all-rounder in the kitchen and has possibly the best resistance to slugs.

Finally, the maincrop potatoes are led by the well-known ‘Desiree’. Its red-skinned, waxy tubers have an excellent flavour and a high drought tolerance.

potatoes
‘Apache’ is a colourful spud

But already snapping at their heels are recently introduced potatoes that are gaining a following. Possibly the best known is ‘Jazzy’, a second early that can be boiled, steamed or roasted. It’s been on the market for just two years but is already popular at the Dundry potato weekend.

“We’ve tripled our order from last year,” says James.

And if you want something that looks different on your plate, what about ‘Apache’?. A second early, it has distinctive red and yellow skin and you can keep its colourful looks by blanching it before roasting.

While most of the potatoes are sold over the weekend – this year on January 21 and 22 – the stock is arriving daily and regulars are already in picking up their favourites. The family-run nursery, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, doesn’t do online ordering but will post out orders placed by phone. The website has a list of varieties and whether they are still in stock.

Choosing is going to be a tough decision.

Dundry Nurseries, Bamfurlong Lane, Cheltenham, holds its potato weekend on January 21 and 22 from 9-4.30pm. Details of potato varieties are available on the website: Dundry Nurseries

• Do you grow potatoes? What’s your favourite variety? 

Taking stock: a garden review

January may be the time for resolutions and planning but there’s a lot to be said for pausing between the gardening years to take stock and learn from the past year.

The highs

garden review
Strawberries were the season’s highlight

Thinking back over the year, the strawberries sprung the biggest surprise. Now in their second season, they started fruiting as expected in early June and didn’t seem to know when to stop. I was still picking fruit in late October and the plants had unripe fruit and even flowers in December. A helping of fertiliser in spring will be important after all that effort and I will start to gather runners to replace the plants at the end of this summer.

garden review
The strawberries were still trying to fruit in late autumn

They weren’t the only fruit to do well: the raspberries – summer, autumn and a mystery yellow variety – all produced bumper crops. Our ancient apple tree decided 2016 would be a productive year (it takes some years off) and we managed to get the gooseberries netted before the garden’s resident pigeons spotted them.

garden review
We got to the gooseberries first

Remembering to pinch out the tops of the broad beans helped with blackfly; the rhubarb moved with astonishing speed from pink mounds in the soil to enormous leaves atop thick red stems but was still harvested before turning fibrous; most of the beans – French and runner – were picked before getting too big, with those that escaped ‘podded’ to use as haricot.

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Most of the beans were harvested at the right time!

It was also a good year for flowers – often those planned by nature rather than me. The foxgloves put on a spectacular show, having seeded themselves in a corner.

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The foxgloves chose their own spot

More plants have been appearing throughout the year – often in the veg beds – and these have been transplanted while the spent flowers from this year were left until the seed was dry and this was then sprinkled in the same corner. Hopefully this will ensure a good display this year and next.

garden review
I wish I could take credit for the marigolds

Even better if only for the weeks of colour they provided, were the marigolds. The descendants of plants grown from seed nearly 15 years ago, they pop up all over the vegetable garden in a mass of yellow, orange and every shade in between. This year, they have flowered prolifically and were finally silenced in late November by our first hard frost.

The crab apple put on its usual ‘strawberries and cream’ show, there was a white cloud of cherry blossom for all too short a spell and the summer was followed by spectacular autumn colour.

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The autumn colour was stunning

Most pleasing was the passion flower, grown from a cutting by my dad, starting to cover its trellis and screen the leaf mould bays; fingers crossed it comes through the winter intact.

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I’m hoping the passion flower comes through the winter intact

The lows

No gardener gets it all right and there have been more than a few plans that have gone astray in my plot.

Perhaps the most surprising disappointment was the courgettes. Normally we have so many I resort to ‘hiding’ them in soup, pasta sauces and even chocolate cake. This year, I put the plants out as usual and waited, and waited. The plants simply failed to grow and by the end of the summer many were little bigger than when they were put out.

garden review
Courgettes weren’t plentiful last year

Talking to other gardeners, it seems the cold nights that seemed to last all summer were to blame and the courgettes were simply sulking.

Cool temperatures also took their toll on the rest of the squash family with the slow start making the season too short to achieve much. I did harvest some butternut and ‘Crown Prince’ but not as many as in previous seasons.

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The squash haul was disappointing

There was a near disaster with the tomatoes. Again, the plants were slow to grow and even slower to set fruit and then blight took hold. Complete failure was averted only by picking all the fruit and ripening it indoors.

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Picking the tomatoes early was the only option

While the flavour is not as good as sun-ripened and yields were down, it did mean we were eating home-grown tomatoes right into December.

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Once indoors the tomatoes slowly ripened

In the flower borders, a late frost badly damaged what had been a bud-laden wisteria. I resigned myself to a year without its lovely mauve blooms only for a few to appear some weeks later. It was nowhere near as good as it might have been but I was grateful for some colour.

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Frost badly hit the wisteria

It’s also been a year of inexplicable death – or near-death. First to succumb was Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’, which almost overnight stopped growing. Then a large tree-like cotoneaster shrivelled, a Lonicera fragrantissima started to die back and large areas of dead wood appeared in Choisya ternata.

The viburnum has been removed – not without difficulty as it was underplanted with bulbs and hellebores – as has the cotoneaster, while the other two have been cut back to new growth that was shooting from the base. Meanwhile, I am anxiously watching a Viburnum opulus, which seems to be ailing.

The hopes

Looking ahead, 2017 is going to be a year of overhaul. Some parts of the garden, now into their 20th year, are badly in need of rethinking.

Already, the removal of the viburnum and some solidago that had colonised the border has created a huge planting opportunity. The loss of the cotoneaster has removed an important screen and turned what was a shady area into one with more light. Some research will be required before the gap is filled.

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I’m hoping for a good harvest this season

As for the veg, new paving to replace the chipped bark paths that the badger and mole jointly destroyed should make life easier; at one point I was spending more time weeding the paths than the beds.

I’m also determined to plant more Cavolo Nero and chard next year – we had nowhere near enough of these family favourites – and I will persevere with the courgettes and tomatoes. After all, optimism is a gardener’s best friend.

• What have been the highs and lows of your gardening year?