Hits and misses of the 2017 garden trials

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

The Hits

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

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

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Cucumber ‘La Diva’

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

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Caliente Mustard

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

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Nasturtium ‘Troika Spotty Dotty’

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

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Calendula ‘Snow Princess’

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

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Petunia ‘Amore Queen of Hearts’

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

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Fuchsia ‘Icing Sugar’

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

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Zinnia ‘Cupid Mixed’

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

The misses

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

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Pepper ‘Lunchbox Mixed’

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

The worth another go

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

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

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

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

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Unwins’ planting kit provided a succession of colour

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

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

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

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

Finding sanctuary at The Butterfly Garden

Gardening is now being recognised as therapy but The Butterfly Garden has long helped those who are struggling with life. I chatted to its founder Chris Evans about this remarkable charity.

It’s impossible to walk through The Butterfly Garden without someone stopping me to talk. Students ask my name, am I looking for Chris, what’s the notebook for, and give me detailed accounts of how they plan to spend their day. When we eventually find Chris, our chat is punctuated by interruptions as they eagerly join in.

The Butterfly Garden
Students learn how to grow veg and flowers.

I’ve been visiting the scheme since its early days and yet the sheer scale of what it achieves with little more than goodwill and determination never fails to move me.

Like so many good ideas, it started by chance when a group of autistic children were taken to Dundry Nurseries, Chris’ family business, to talk to him about growing plants. Recognising how much they got out of the trip, he invited them back.

The Butterfly Garden
There are butterflies throughout the site.

“Then somebody phoned and said ‘I’ve heard about your project’ and after that I was lost,” he says with a smile.

The Butterfly Garden

At first, the scheme, which is open Monday to Friday, was confined to developing a garden out of unused land behind the Cheltenham nursery. That original ‘Butterfly Garden’ is still there but the work now covers far more and activities have moved into greenhouses and buildings, acquired through fundraising and donations.

The Butterfly Garden
A butterfly made from old CDs in the original garden.

The students have changed too. Although, The Butterfly Garden still helps those with autism, it now includes all learning disabilities, those who are physically disabled, people suffering from bereavement, stroke victims, those with dementia or mental health issues, and people dealing with alcoholism.

“It’s just about people coming together in the broadest sense. Everybody will have some struggle on their journey and it’s much easier to deal with it if you are able to share it.”

The Butterfly Garden
Composting is one of the gardening tasks.

Today, 15 years on, there are 243 registered students, with up to 60 on site at any one time, and Chris deals with agencies across the county from schools and colleges, to mental health services, social services, day care providers and GPs. Groups, including Help the Aged, a stroke group and Men in Sheds, use the facilities.

“It’s about cohesion and bringing the community together in all its guises. When you can do that you stick massive holes in prejudice.”

The Butterfly Garden
Chris’ multi-coloured coat and hat were a gift from a knitting group.

The Butterfly Garden has grown organically not with any overall plan but in response to a perceived need or a sudden opportunity.

Recycling began when someone dropped off a load of unwanted plastic flower pots.

“Some of the students just naturally wanted to tidy up,” says Chris. “They started sorting and tidying according to size and colour.”

The Butterfly Garden
A scarecrow in the first Butterfly Garden.

Deciding to see if they could be recycled, he discovered he’d need a recycling licence. Having obtained one, the charity now recycles everything from cardboard to old videos.

“People bring all sorts of random things in.”

A recent donation included a box of kilts and Loch Ness monster hats – Chris is exploring the possibility of turning the hats into glove puppets.

Sometimes, the donated goods are used by students; when I visited, the art room was full of poppies for a Remembrance Day display made from the bottom of old bottles and the insides of DVDs.

The Butterfly Garden
Some of the poppies made by students.

Art is just one of the ‘classes’ along with cookery, woodwork, craft, Zumba, drama – there’s an outdoor performance space – knitting and sewing, music and puppetry. Yoga and tai chi are held in the yurt. All are run by volunteers who just turn up and offer their services when it’s convenient.

In the same way, students are free to do what they want. Some may spend hours sorting horticultural plastic, knowing they can break off at any time. Others move from activity to activity. Some stay all day, others just for a few hours.

Gardening is still at the heart of The Butterfly Garden. There’s an allotment-style space where students learn how to grow flowers and vegetables and another area has been turned into individual allotment plots that the students ‘own’.

The Butterfly Garden
Some students have allotments.

“It’s not ‘This is your space and I’m going to tell you how to do it’. It’s all about ‘This is your space and you’re going to learn how to do it’. Some of them have had great crops this year.”

Meanwhile, Chris is experimenting with getting them to look after cuttings and seeds over winter in one of the greenhouses.

The Butterfly Garden
Plants overwintering in the greenhouse.

What was a wilderness at the end of the site has been turned into a wild garden by students, inspired by a poem by Robert Frost ‘The Road Not Taken’.

The Butterfly Garden
The wild garden has a choice of routes.

Based on a figure of eight, it has objects, such as a green-painted bicycle, along the route, making each journey different, according to which path you choose.

The Butterfly Garden
A painted bicycle is alongside one path.

Having managed to buy a piece of ground alongside the nursery, Chris and the students created The Butterfly Garden Meadow, which is open to anyone to use. A carefully constructed path makes it accessible to those with limited mobility, while making two ponds and planting 350 trees mean it attracts a range of wildlife; visitors are encouraged to take photos and add them to a folder recording what’s been seen.

The Butterfly Garden was turned into a charity some years ago to safeguard its future and distance it from the nursery business. Although the charity occupies land behind the firm, the two are separate: students don’t grow for Dundry Nurseries and the nursery staff don’t work for the charity. Instead, flowers and veg grown by the students are either taken home or shared with other organisations; recently some plants were used in the garden at the town’s Sue Ryder home.

The Butterfly Garden
The meadow is gardened for wildlife.

All this work is funded through donations – both of goods and time. There’s a ‘bring-and-buy’ shop, run on an honesty box system and a café, that fills in the gap when the nursery’s main café is closed.

Over the years, local firms have donated the time and skills of their staff to build raised beds or fundraise. The charity extends its facilities to anyone who wants to use them and has hosted everything from NHS team meetings to lunch clubs.

“We want people to feel they can integrate with us.”

This sense of non-judgemental inclusiveness extends to the students. Anyone can turn up and join in regardless of age or need, there’s no charge and no need for a referral by another agency.

“We’re open to everybody,” says Chris, adding, “Sometimes there’s a problem you cannot see.”

For more information, visit The Butterfly Garden website

Dahlias break out

For years, I’ve kept my love of dahlias safely contained. Trying to grow them in borders proved impossible as plants disappeared overnight thanks to the resident slugs and snails. Instead, I had just a few in pots – more successful but high maintenance and deeply frustrating as time, cash and space limited my choice. This year, the temptation – fuelled by seeing dahlias in almost every garden I visited – proved too great and I decided to have another go at growing them free range.

Starting a cutting garden was my excuse to grow more.

The excuse was starting a cutting garden – what better than dahlias for that late summer vase of flowers? With that in mind, I chose colours that would work together and with the rooms I planned to put them in.

There are many ways to judge a dahlia: shape, colour, number of flowers and, if you’re planning to cut them, length of stem.

‘Furka’ produced the most flowers.

Two of my choices scored highly in every category: ‘Furka’ and ‘Totally Tangerine’. ‘Furka’ is a beautiful white cactus-type dahlia. It produced dozens of flowers with long, straight stems.

‘Totally Tangerine’ was the best for length of stem and I loved the dazzling colour and crinkled centre to the anemone blooms. Possibly the only drawback was that it didn’t seem to last as long once cut.

‘Totally Tangerine’ has a wonderful crinkled centre.

‘Blanc y Verde’ is another beauty with white flowers tinged with a hint of green. However, it didn’t have as long a flowering season as ‘Furka’. Perhaps it will be better next year.

‘Blanc y Verde’ is a winner.

I also liked ‘Zundert Mystery Fox’, which had neat dark orange flowers and long, straight stems. It was not as prolific as some of the others but well worth growing.

‘Zundert Mystery Fox’ was more beautiful than its name.

The most disappointing dahlia was ‘Nicholas’, which produced only a couple of flowers before the first frosts. The large, somewhat loose, blooms were also difficult to use with another flowers. A shame because I did like the colour.

‘Nicholas’ was the most disapppointing.

The very best colourwise was ‘Henriette’ a beautiful creamy ivory with hints of peach. Her downfall was the stem. The semi cactus flowers are large and need a reasonable length of stem as a counterbalance. All too often the only way to achieve this was by sacrificing another bud slightly lower down.

‘Henriette’ was my favourite colour.

There was a similar problem with ‘Labyrinth’, a mad whirl of pinky-orangey petals that reminded me of an exploding Catherine Wheel. Again, the head size didn’t match the length of stem I could cut, meaning the flowers easily tipped in a vase. Perhaps it was my lack of skill at growing, or my lack of nerve when faced with cutting off yet-to-develop flowers.

‘Labyrinth’ is a mad whirl of colour.

The dahlias never actually made it to the cutting bed, as I hadn’t the heart to dig up sweet Williams that were still flowering to make room. Instead, the dahlias gradually took over the cold frame, getting ever bigger in the pots that I had started the tubers off in and sending roots out into the ground.

Realising the sweet Williams were not willing to budge, I decided to use some spare corners of the veg beds for the dahlias and they spent the rest of the summer season alongside the brassicas and carrots.

‘Henriette’ got very tall.

This late entry into their final beds was, I think, the reason why they fought off predators. By the time they were finally planted out, the dahlias were strapping plants – ‘Furka’ and ‘Henriette’ eventually stood around 4ft tall and needed careful staking. Quite simply, I think they frightened the slugs.

Of course, having broken out there is no way the dahlias will be contained again. This year’s tubers have been dug up and are now spending the winter in the greenhouse in pots of sand, while I’m starting to work my way through the dahlia catalogues and websites. Having started with creams, oranges and white, the pinks and purples are looking very tempting.

IQ Quarry Garden lives on after RHS Chatsworth

Cotswold designer Paul Hervey-Brooke’s award-winning IQ Quarry Garden has found a new home at the National Memorial Arboretum. He talks about the challenge of moving a garden and the responsibility of designing for the future.

Paul Hervey-Brookes’ re-imagined IQ Quarry Garden may not be facing the scrutiny of RHS judges but he is just as nervous about how it’s received.

IQ Quarry garden
The IQ Quarry Garden won top honours at RHS Chatsworth

The garden, which won gold, Best in Show and Best Construction at RHS Chatsworth, has been re-designed for a site at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, giving it a life span far beyond the norm for a show garden.

“It’s one thing to win the medals we did at Chatsworth but it’s another thing to have a garden that you know has the potential to be there for two or three generations,” he says. “There’s a weight of responsibility knowing generations of designers will be judging my work.”

IQ Quarry Garden
Paul Hervey-Brookes

The move to the NMA is fitting as the garden was commissioned to celebrate the centenary of the Institute of Quarrying and the arboretum is on the site of a former sand and gravel quarry. Yet, despite the move being planned from the outset, the garden’s future use did not influence Paul’s design for the inaugural Chatsworth show.

“What I wanted from the start was that we would re-purpose it rather than just plonk it down brick by brick.

IQ Quarry Garden
The new garden occupies a long, narrow site.

Indeed, the two sites could not be more different. The Chatsworth garden was a large rectangle – one of the biggest RHS show gardens ever built – whereas the new space is a long, narrow and sloping piece of land.

“I was really keen to use a site that nobody else wanted,” explains Paul, who was awarded an Honorary Fellowship by the IQ for his work, the first person not involved in the industry to be given the Institute’s top honour.

Taking key elements of the original garden, including paving, seats and the striking rusted wall by Stroud sculptor Ann-Margreth Bohl, his aim was to create something that gives an emotional break between memorial gardens.

IQ Quarry Garden
The striking sculpted wall is one of the elements that has been reused.

“It’s so that it’s not one very emotionally consuming garden space after another. It is much more an area to sit, think and rest or just walk through.”

While the planting follows the same semi-naturalistic style of the Chatsworth project, there is far more of it, and wide grass paths and level hard landscaping mean it is accessible for those with reduced mobility.

Reusing show gardens is preferable to their otherwise rather brutal demise in skips but it does come at a cost.

“It makes it really expensive,” says Paul. “Once you know things are going to be re-purposed you’ve got to be as careful taking them out as you were putting them in, which is time-consuming and costs a great deal more.”

IQ Quarry Garden
The IQ’s motto: ‘the fruits of the earth for the children of men’.

Much of that cost has been looking after the plants since the Chatsworth show in June. The hard landscaping was stored near the NMA but the trees and plants went back to their original nurseries to be repotted and grown on.

“The nurseries don’t really like doing it simply because they know the stress the plants go through. They really need to go in the ground after the show and be allowed 18 months to recover. Trying to nurture them back into looking good at the end of the year is quite a challenge but it was all part of the deal.”

Meanwhile, Paul called in the same construction team, headed by Gareth Wilson, to rebuild the garden: “I thought it was important to have the same contractor who understood the lifting and shifting the first time around to see the project through to the end.”

IQ Quarry Garden

It’s not the first time the Stroud designer’s work has found a new home. His first Chelsea garden was won in a competition and is now installed at a house in Hemel Hempstead while plants from his two Chelsea gardens for online fashion retailer BrandAlley were sold for charity and the hard landscaping given to community projects.

“I don’t think the physicality of a show garden is important at all but it’s really important that stuff is reused because otherwise it’s an incredibly wasteful kind of journey.”