Win some Dalefoot Compost

Like many gardeners, I don’t like using peat and over the years I’ve tried many alternatives. One of my favourites is Dalefoot Composts – not least because it uses renewable ingredients to produce soil improvers and composts.

Dalefoot was set up by Cumbrian hill farmer Simon Bland and his wife Jane Barker, who has a doctorate in environmental science. Drawing inspiration from old gardening books, which described using bracken as fertiliser and sheep’s wool as a method of water retention, they have combined the two to produce composts that can be used as a planting medium or dug into borders to improve the soil.

The bracken, traditionally cut for animal bedding, is harvested as part of the upland management to improve the area’s biodiversity, and the wool comes from the farm’s own flock.

“By harvesting the often ‘waist-high’ bracken we make it much easier and safer to gather our sheep, whilst reducing the cover of this ever-spreading scourge of many uplands,” explains Jane.

“We use wool from our neighbours’ Herdwick and Swaledale sheep to share the benefits of our farm diversification. Plus, using the natural materials on our doorstep makes the perfect recipe for a really sustainable compost.”

Bracken is high in high in potash, while wool has nitrogen, released slowly as it breaks down, and can hold around 35 times its own weight in water.

Dalefoot

It took the couple about 12 years to develop the range, trialling it first with local gardeners before beginning to sell it by mail order and at shows, including Chelsea, Malvern and Hampton Court. It is also available through some garden centres and shops, such as Allomorphic in Stroud.

“Our peat-free composts give gardeners the option of growing in earth-friendly composts that really work and we’re delighted that professional growers are now using them and winning gold medals at shows like RHS Chelsea,” adds Jane.

The range covers all sorts of gardening and all sorts of gardens. The basic ‘Wool Compost’ is ready to use in potting up or planting out.

‘Double Strength Wool Compost’ is designed to be mixed with soil or spent compost, such as the contents of old growbags. It’s ideal for improving thirsty ground like the sandy soil in my garden.

Dalefoot
I’ve been trying out the Dalefoot seed compost

In contrast, ‘Lakeland Gold’ is designed as a ‘clay-buster’ for those with heavy soil while Wool Compost ‘Ericaceous’, as the name suggests, is ideal for planting acid-lovers, such as rhododendrons. It comes in normal and double strength.

Recent additions to the range include a seed compost, which I have trialled and found easy to use, while my seedlings seem to love it. There is also a compost for vegetables and salads, ideal for containers.

• Dalefoot, which was recently featured on BBC 2’s Back to the Land, will be at the RHS Malvern Spring Festival from May 11-14, 2017.

Enter The Chatty Gardener’s prize draw and you could win some Dalefoot Compost.

Short of growing space? Try a windowsill garden

Franchi Seeds have launched Windowsill Garden kits to bring growing indoors. I’ve been finding out more and
there’s the chance to win a herb kit.

Franchi Seeds may have stocked the ingredients for their Windowsill Garden kits for decades but it was a chance remark that brought them together.

Staff at the family-run firm were eating lunch at their Harrow headquarters when someone commented that it would be even better if they had some basil in the office.

“I thought, we’ve got seeds, we’ve got jars, let’s do something,” explains Paolo Arrigo, who is the seventh generation to run the business founded in 1783.

Like many good ideas  it is simple: take a traditional Italian preserving jar, some biochar and seeds and you can have fresh herbs even if you have no space to grow outside.

“It’s exactly where we sit in the world,” says Paolo. “We are food.”

At first, the Windowsill Garden range was limited to basil, parsley and coriander but such has been its success three more kits are being added – a cherry tomato and chilli with the third as yet undecided.

windowsill garden
The original trio of windowsill kits

“It might be catnip,” says Paolo, “as we have been asked for it.”

The beauty of the kits is that they are straightforward and mess-free. With no holes in the bottom, there’s no danger of flooding desk or windowsill and the biochar soaks up moisture, making it difficult to over-water.

The seeds supplied are Franchi’s own – well known for their easy germination and robust plants; the firm raises all its own seed in Italy.

“You would be growing real Italian basil.”

The half-litre preserving jars are made by B, which has been producing them in Parma since 1825 – I’ve got my grandmother’s jars,” comments Paolo – and they can be washed and used for preserving afterwards.

“They are great for jam or passatta.”

windowsill garden
The firm are trialling nepeta or catnip

And anywhere is suitable for growing, providing it gets enough light from office desks to kitchen windowsills.

“Obviously with a cherry tomato you’re not going to get loads but you get lots of chillies from one chilli plant.”

And Paolo doesn’t doubt the benefits of fresh herbs in food: “In Italy we say you can lift peasant dishes by adding parsley into the food of kings.”

Franchi Windowsill Garden kits are available online here and are due to be stocked by the Royal Horticultural Society.

 Enter The Chatty Gardener’s prize draw and you could win the first prize of a set of three Windowsill Garden kits or be one of the runners-up and get a single kit. For details see here This contest has now closed.

Discovering snowdrops at Colesbourne Park

Take on an established garden in the summer and you would expect to see most of what it has to offer. There may be the odd winter-flowering shrub, or some spring bulbs to discover but the rest of the year is unlikely to hold many big surprises. Colesbourne Park is different as new head gardener Arthur Cole is finding out.

When he arrived last year, the Cotswold garden’s snowdrops were hiding underground. Now, with the snowdrop season well underway, he’s beginning to see what makes this garden special.

Colesbourne
‘Fiona’s Gold’ is one of the yellow snowdrops at Colesbourne

“Seeing things coming up now is so exciting,” he says.

Already there are big drifts of ‘S Arnott’, ‘Ophelia’ and ‘John Gray’ spread out under the trees and this year, there’s the added bonus of ‘Colossus’, which is flowering weeks later than normal.

colesbourne
‘John Gray’ is out in the garden

“I was told ‘Colossus’ came up at Christmas and was finished by the end of January. This year they were only just poking their noses up around Christmas. Now they are looking amazing.”

Meanwhile, more unusual varieties, such as the yellow ‘Carolyn Elwes’, are flowering in raised beds near the house and in the Spring Garden, where snowdrops are grown with a mix of shrubs and perennials in a woodland setting.

colesbourne
The Spring Garden has a mix of early blooms

Arthur, who trained at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh, arrived as the long job of lifting and dividing the snowdrops was underway at Colesbourne.

The garden, which has more than 300 different varieties, is known for its mass displays through woodland and alongside the unusual blue lake; the colour is thought to be due to suspended clay particles in the water.

colesbourne
The blue lake is a notable feature

Every year, Colesbourne’s owners Sir Henry Elwes, his wife, Carolyn, and the garden team, lift, divide and extend the display.

“All that was here was the grass, markers and gaps marked on pieces of paper,” recalls Arthur.

colesbourne
Viburnum flowers add a dash of pink to the display

What guides the work is the knowledge built up over decades of not only Sir Henry and Lady Elwes, who started expanding the collection in the 60s, but also gardener Will Fletcher who has worked at Colesbourne for many years.

“Having that experience is invaluable.”

Arthur says lifting the clumps was like “digging for gold” – an apt description as some of the snowdrops are sold to help fund the garden.

colesbourne
‘Ding Dong’

One third of each clump is replaced with the rest either potted up for sale, or replanted to extend the display.

And making the show even bigger is one of his main objectives.

“What I’m aiming to do is expand the snowdrops right along the lake,” says Arthur. “I want different varieties that are diverse enough to show the differences clearly.”

colesbourne
Cyclamen are an important part of the show

Already, there’s been some replanting on the raised path while on the lake’s banks, where the ground is too heavy for snowdrops, more trees have been put in, including Pinus orientalis and a Californian nutmeg, grown from seed.

Other changes since I last visited include moving a boundary fence to bring ‘George’s Garden’ further into the main garden. Now, you can walk around both sides of the border of shrubs and trees while the arboretum is being extended with more trees and snowdrops up to the new boundary.

The trees, many of them planted by Sir Henry’s great-grandfather the Victorian plant hunter Henry John Elwes, make a stunning setting for the snowdrops, which are mixed with cyclamen and aconites.

colesbourne
Snowdrops are spread throughout the arboretum

And it’s what Arthur refers to as the “macro and micro” interest of Colesbourne that makes it different.

“You’ve got champion trees, the ‘blue lagoon’, and then the snowdrops all in a concentrated package.”

Colesbourne Park, between Cheltenham and Cirencester, is open every Saturday and Sunday until March 5 2017. Gates open at 1pm and last entry is at 4.30pm. Entry is £8 for adults, children under 16 enter free.

A snowdrop study day will be held on February 15 with snowdrop experts John Grimshaw and Judge Ernest Cavallo. Numbers are limited and tickets must be pre-booked. See the website for more details.

For more Cotswold snowdrop gardens open in 2017 see here

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Cotswold Snowdrop Gardens 2017

Snowdrop gardens are universally popular when it comes to garden visiting. From the passionate collectors – galanthophiles – to people who don’t garden themselves, everyone welcomes the chance to shake off the winter blues and get outside.

In the Cotswolds, there are several notable snowdrop gardens and many more with smaller displays.

Some of these are opening as part of the National Gardens Scheme Snowdrop Festival. More than 80 of the scheme’s members across the country will open during February to show off their snowdrop collections or spring displays of snowdrops, hellebores and other early flowers.

snowdrop gardens
Snowdrops are a welcome sign of spring approaching

Launched last year as an addition to the regular charity openings, the festival proved very popular.

“During our first Snowdrop Festival in 2016 many of our garden owners were overwhelmed by the number of visitors that attended their openings,” says NGS chief executive George Plumptre.

So, whether you’re an enthusiast wanting to see unusual varieties or someone who loves the spectacle of a mass planting, there are many snowdrop gardens you can visit. Here’s what happening in the Cotswolds this year.

With all the gardens, it is advisable to check they are still open in the event of severe weather.

Colesbourne Park

One of the best-known specialist displays is at Colesbourne Park, which has around 300 different varieties, one of the largest collections in the country.

snowdrop gardens
Colesbourne Park has a large collection of snowdrops

Once the home of Victorian plant hunter Henry John Elwes, who introduced Galanthus elwesii, it has unusual varieties around the house and mass plantings through woodland and beside the unusual blue lake.

The garden, between Cheltenham and Cirencester, is open every Saturday and Sunday from Saturday February 4 until Sunday March 5. Gates open at 1pm with the last entry at 4.30pm. Admission is £8, children under 16 enter free.

Rodmarton Manor

Rodmarton Manor is another of the snowdrop gardens that appeals to collectors, with around 150 different varieties, including many that are rare.

Although the display begins in October, it is at its peak during January and February.

snowdrop gardens
Rodmarton Manor has many named varieties

The garden, between Cirencester and Tetbury, also has many crocus, hellebores, cyclamen and aconites.

It is open on February 5, 12, 16, and 19 from 1.30pm with group bookings possible on other days.

Cotswold Farm Gardens

The snowdrop collection at this Arts and Crafts garden at Duntisbourne Abbots was started in the 1930s and has been developed since then by generations of the Birchall family.

snowdrop gardens
Snowdrops are found all over Cotswold Farm

Today, it numbers 62 different varieties, including ‘Cotswold Farm’. There are labelled clumps in the main flower borders and areas of naturalised snowdrops through woodland.

There is a ‘Winter Step Garden’ with a focus on scent and texture and the garden also has many hellebores, aconites, cyclamen and crocus.

It is open on Saturday and Sunday February 11 and 12 from 11-3pm in aid of Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust. Entry is £5.

Cotswold Farm Gardens are also open on Mondays February 13, 20 and 27, from 11-3pm with entrance £5.

Cerney House Gardens

Cerney House is another private garden with a mix of named varieties of snowdrops and a naturalised display of the common snowdrop.

snowdrop gardens
Cerney House has an informal snowdrop display around the main garden

Special snowdrops are found around the house with more informal plantings in woodland around the central walled garden.

Aconites, cyclamen and borders full of hellebores add to the show in this garden at North Cerney between Cheltenham and Cirencester.

Cerney House Gardens are open daily from 10-5pm until the end of November. Admission is £5 for adults and £1 for children.

Painswick Rococo Garden

When it comes to a mass display, Painswick Rococo is one of the best snowdrop gardens.

Thousands of mainly Galanthus nivalis, the common snowdrop, put on a spectacular display through woodland with more naturalised in grass and teamed with other spring flowers in the borders.

snowdrop gardens
Winter sun on the Eagle House at Painswick Rococo Garden

There are some named varieties but it is sheer scale that makes this garden stand out.

Winter is also a great time to see the appreciate the structure of this idiosyncratic valley garden with its striking folly buildings.

Painswick Rococo Garden is open daily until October 31 from 10.30-5pm with a snowdrop talk every day at noon during February. Admission is £7.20 adults, children five to 16 £3.30 and the website includes updates on the snowdrops.

Batsford Arboretum

Batsford may be best known for its trees with beautiful spring blossom and stunning autumn colour but it also has many drifts of snowdrops.

snowdrop gardens
Hellebores are another late winter highlight at Batsford Arboretum

Set alongside the privately owned Batsford Park, once the home of the Mitford sisters, the arboretum has a garden-like atmosphere with trees grouped for effect rather than by genus.

Snowdrops, hellebores, cyclamen and aconites make it a great place to visit in the winter with long views over the Cotswold countryside.

Batsford, near Moreton-in-Marsh, is open daily from 9-5pm and 10-5pm on Sundays and Bank Holidays. Admission is £7.95 adults, children aged four to 15 £3.50 (prices include voluntary 10% donation to the arboretum’s conservation work).

Newark Park

Newark Park is one of the snowdrop gardens where the appeal is the size of the display rather than the rarity of the flowers.

snowdrop gardens
Snowdrops are naturalised around the old hunting lodge at Newark Park

The snowdrops are naturalised around the old hunting lodge and through woodland on the estate. There are also long-reaching views thanks to the sloping site.

The National Trust property at Ozleworth is opening for a special snowdrop weekend on February 4 and 5 from 11am-4pm. Admission is £9 adults and £4.50 for children.

The NGS Snowdrop Festival

Four Gloucestershire gardens are opening for the National Gardens Scheme’s Snowdrop Festival.

Home Farm, Huntley, has lovely views and spring flowers along a one-mile walk through woodland and fields. It is open for the Snowdrop Festival on Sunday February 12 from 11-3pm. Admission is £3, free for children.

Lindors Country House, near Lydney, covers nine acres with woodland, streams and formal gardens. It is open for the festival on Saturday and Sunday February 25 and 26. Admission is £3.50, children enter free.

snowdrop gardens
The NGS is holding its second Snowdrop Festival

The Old Rectory at Avening has naturalised snowdrops, woodland and an Italianate terrace. It’s snowdrop opening is on Sunday February 19 from 11.30-4pm. Admission is £3.50, children’s entry free.

Trench Hill at Sheepscombe is well known for its spring display of snowdrops, aconites, hellebores and crocus. It has a woodland walk and good views over the Cotswold countryside. It’s open for the festival on Sundays February 12 and 19 from 11-5pm. Admission is 4, children enter free.

For more details on the Snowdrop Festival and for the gardens’ other opening dates, visit the NGS website.

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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.

snowdrop
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.

snowdrop
‘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?

snowdrop
‘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.”

snowdrop
‘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.”

snowdrop
‘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.”

snowdrop
‘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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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.

garden review
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.

garden review
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.

garden review
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.

garden review
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.

garden review
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.

garden review
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.

garden review
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.

garden review
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.

garden guide
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? 

Setting some gardening resolutions

New Year’s resolutions aren’t confined to those wanting to shed pounds or quit smoking. Gardeners also see the start of the year as the chance to tackle the inevitable ‘to do’ list and gardening resolutions are common.

I’ve yet to come across any gardener who’s happy with what they’ve achieved. There’s always something they want to improve, something new to try or a part of their plot that just isn’t working.

Among the most self-critical are those that open to the public. Nothing concentrates the mind quite like knowing your efforts are going to be scrutinised by visitors.

I’ve been talking to some of the Cotswolds’ National Gardens Scheme members about what they have planned for 2017.

Dealing with a pretty thug

gardening resolutions
Thalictrum is spreading happily among the roses

At Littlefield, at Hawling, Thalictrum delavayi is exercising Federica Wilk’s mind. Planted as a companion to pale pink roses in the Rose Garden, it is doing a little too well and self-seeding profusely.

“For the last couple of years, just before the garden open days, I have gone into the borders and thinned the thalictrum drastically in places, to try to strike the right balance between the roses and this very exuberant tall plant,” says Federica. “This is tricky, but extremely satisfying once the job is done.”

This year, one of her gardening resolutions is to start the job early and not leave it until just before the garden opens in July.

Spare plants are potted up and sold on NGS days where they quickly sell out.

“Visitors seem to like thalictrum a lot, probably because of its dainty, light purple bell-like flowers, which go so well with the roses.”

Another of her gardening resolutions for 2017 is replacing the lavenders in the Yew Walk, which have outgrown their allotted space.

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Lavender is going to be replanted in the Yew Walk

‘Hidcote’ and ‘Imperial Gem’ will be replanted in spring.

“They vary in colour only slightly but the overall effect is superb, if the plants are placed diagonally opposite each other along the edge of the sinuous path.”

At the same time, Federica will thin out the Geranium ‘Jolly Bee’ so that it is in scale with the young lavenders.

She is also planning to get the basics right with a concerted effort on producing good compost – a long-held ambition.

“It’s looking promising and from next year perhaps I will never have to buy potting compost from a nursery again.”

Making an early start

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Cutting back perennials early will stop a rush before opening

At Barn House, Sandywell Park, near Cheltenham, an early start is top of the gardening resolutions list.

Leaving the tidy up and division of perennial borders until spring is, says Shirley Sills, proving a race to beat the clock of opening day, as the two-and-a-half acre plot is looked after by just her and her husband, Gordon.

“It’s a rush to clean and clear, split and replant borders in time for our first opening at the end of May and a lot of stress and cutting of corners to achieve it. In fact, this has led to a couple of borders not having had plants split for some five to six years!”

She is trying a different approach this year, and has strimmed all the perennials and left the dead top growth as a protective layer and habitat for insects over winter. This will then be raked off in spring, something she is hoping will take days rather than the usual weeks.

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Perennials and trees are two of the garden’s highlights

“This largely due to fact that new growth has started before I’m ready to tackle it, which involves more care in clearing borders. It’s an experiment but one I hope will work.”

Removing some trees that are growing into the boundary of this walled garden is going to lead to a rethink of one area.

“This will let a lot of light into a previously dark corner but one that until now I’ve been able to ignore as part of a woodland area so needing little maintenance.”

The resulting space is going to be an east-facing border of around 20m wide and 2m deep that will still have a few trees in it, including espaliered apples, a perry pear and Acer platanoides ‘Crimson King’. Clearing the rampant ground elder will be the first task.

“I have promised Gordon that I will not add to our workload with whatever I plan,” says Shirley. “Neither of us are getting any younger and there’s already too much work for us in this garden.”

Taking back control

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The woodland is a spring highlight

New possibilities thanks to the removal of trees is also shaping the gardening resolutions of Celia Hargrave at Trench Hill, Sheepscombe.

A large area has been cleared of old or dangerous trees and replanted with new plus a mix of cornus and euonymus for stem and leaf colour. One of the felled trees has been turned into a dragon-shaped seat.

“The area is now covered in weeds because we have let in more light and moved soil, explains Celia.

She is determined to “get this area back under control” and plans to plant it with ferns, hellebores, cyclamen and spring flowering bulbs.

“I must also make a decision on how much of this area will be completely tended and how much will be allowed to become more like the majority of the established woodland. The decision is difficult as more creativity leads to more maintenance!”

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More hellebores are on Celia’s planting list

The second of her gardening resolutions is making more of her vegetable garden. Feeling it has been somewhat neglected this year, she is hoping to be more organised both in terms of what she grows and how she uses it.

Top of the list is not over-planting things such as runner beans, staggering the sowing of salad crops and keeping a closer eye on courgettes so that they do not become marrows.

“I love the idea of a beautifully ordered vegetable area but never feel that I achieve this so it seems that early preparation followed by regular maintenance and use is key.”

Creating a new look

The pond is getting a new path and jetty.

The New Year will see some major changes at Brockworth Court, near Gloucester. Tim Wiltshire is planning to revamp both the pond and garden by the historic Tithe Barn.

A new jetty, new path to the water’s edge and some, as yet, unspecified new planting are all top of his gardening resolutions.

“Probably the jetty will be painted the same green as the Monet bridge but I have not yet decided.”

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Work is being carried out in the rose garden

He is also changing the look of the rose area by creating a pebble path around the central border. It’s going to be edged in cobbles that were in the old stable building.

“There’s a bit of recycling going on.”

Adding box hedging on the outer borders will complete the revamp.

Filling in the gaps

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Grasses mix with perennials throughout the gardern

Kate Patel at Barn House, near Chepstow, which is known for its grass collection, has a long list of gardening resolutions headed by tweaking what she describes as a “weak corner” in front of her kitchen window.

Originally purple echinacea were used as a contrast to a band of Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ and drifts of Sedum spectabile but over the years the coneflowers have dwindled leaving noticeable gaps in the display.

Kate has already added clumps of Pennisetum ‘Fairy Tails’ to give some more interest but says the two grasses are crying out for a contrasting hue.

“The answer would be to sharpen the spade and divide the congested clumps of Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Pink Glow’ and then remember to Chelsea chop them (done a little later in early June here) to keep them at the right height to contrast with the taller grasses behind them.”

Veronicastrum has already been used as a contrast further down the bed.

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The garden is known for its collection of grasses

“It makes a stunning combination of seed heads against winter-blond grass that lasts right through the dreary winter months.”

Kate is also planning to boost the spring display by adding more bulbs, such as tulips. These need regular replanting as few like the combination of her heavy clay soil and wet winters but she believes it’s worth the effort for the effect of colour among the newly emerging foliage of deciduous grasses.

Allium hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’ and Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’ is another combination that she likes with the purple pom-pom heads of the allium looking good coming through the nepeta, which in turn hides the uninspiring foliage of the allium.

Other gardening resolutions include renewing some ageing compost bins and growing more veg in 2017. Over the past few years, the vegetable beds have been used mainly for raising grasses and perennials either to restock the garden or to sell on NGS open days.

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Colourful squashes are on Kate’s list of things to grow

“Now I think it’s time to earmark a few of them for the things I’ve missed most like artichokes, multicoloured beetroots, borlottti beans and colourful squashes that are almost impossible to buy around here but that both taste good and look so attractive in a bowl on the kitchen table.”

Most importantly, she is planning to take the time to appreciate her garden in 2017.

“I want to set my never-ending To-Do list aside and make more time to just sit and enjoy the garden over a cup of tea while watching the dogs play in their paddock.”

As gardening resolutions go, that’s one we should all try to follow.

For opening dates for 2017 see the National Gardens Scheme

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Flower Advent Calendar 2016

Christmas gardening jobs

December is a quiet time in the garden caught between the clear-up of autumn and the busy seed-sowing of spring.

Yet there are still some things that need to be done and what better way to escape the festive frenzy than to ‘disappear’ outside for a while.

Here are some gardening jobs that will while away a few hours over the Christmas break.

Look sharp

Now’s a good time to overhaul your gardening tools – and the potting shed. Make sure trowels, forks, spades and secateurs are cleaned of last season’s grime, blades are sharpened and wooden handles treated with linseed oil for protection.

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Now’s the time to get tools ready

It’s worth putting up some hooks or shelves for storage; there’s nothing worse than wasting time hunting for something.

Check you’ve got enough twine, labels and other gardening bits and pieces now rather than waiting until you need them in the spring.

Plan ahead

If you’re anything like me, you have boxes stuffed with seed packets. Some empty, some half-full. Sorting it out is one of those gardening jobs that pays dividends. Go through and check the sow-by dates; quite a lot will keep but some things – notoriously parsnip, sweetcorn and lettuce – rarely germinate well a second year.

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Get your seeds sorted

Be ruthless. It’s so easy to hang on to something you are never likely to grow (often a ‘free gift’ from a gardening mag). If the seed is still good, why not donate it to a local school, swap it at a garden club or allotment group, or see if there is a Seedy Saturday event near you?

Make a list of what you want to grow and what you need to buy – make sure you include something new. Experimenting is one of the joys of gardening.

Don’t be caught out

British winters are notoriously hard to predict. One year we could be inches deep in snow, the next basking in balmy temperatures. Either way, don’t get caught out.

In the midst of Christmas, it’s easy to neglect those ‘out of sight, out of mind’ plants but it pays to keep a close eye on things in greenhouses and cold frames.

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Keep an eye on things that are seeing out the winter under cover

Make sure heaters are working and that lagging is sufficient. Check that overwintering plants don’t need watering; the recent warm spell has seen things in my greenhouse near wilting. Remove any dying leaves to prevent the spread of disease.

On warmer days, open up the cold frame or greenhouse door for a while to allow air to circulate.

Don’t forget to check for other residents: snails love the shelter of greenhouses and it’s a good idea to regularly check staging and corners.

Look out for pots

If you’ve got pots of bulbs tucked away waiting for their moment of glory in spring, make sure they are in top condition. Lag them with bubble wrap, or move into a more sheltered spot if temperatures drop. Standing them on ‘feet’ will ensure good drainage and help them shrug off winter wet and frost.

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Pots of bulbs are already showing signs of life

I grow mine – including tulips, Iris reticulata and hyacinths, in a corner of the garden and move them into the ‘spotlight’ just as they start to flower. Some are already starting to appear through the soil and will need regular checks to make sure I don’t miss the right moment to show them off.

Help your friends

Keep putting out food for the birds and they will repay you by helping to clear up pests later in the year.

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Old sunflower heads have been feeding the birds

Make sure there is fresh water and disinfect bird tables every so often to help prevent disease.

Bring the outdoors in

If you have one of the wonderfully scented winter shrubs, why not cut a small piece to bring indoors? The winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima), mahonia and winter box will all scent a room.

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Winter honeysuckle has a wonderful lemon fragrance

Alternatively, if you haven’t planted early hyacinths or ‘Paperwhite’ narcissi, pick up a pot from a local nursery or garden centre and make a note to plant some yourself next autumn. They are the best antidote to the January blues and help to solve that suddenly bare look when the Christmas decorations come down.

Take time out

One of the hardest things for a gardener to do is to stop and appreciate what they have. It is so easy to see what needs doing – weeding, pruning, digging – rather than what you have achieved.

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Fat hellebore buds are full of promise

So as well as the gardening jobs, take the time to walk around your garden and see what’s already on the move. Snowdrops, hellebores and crocus are just some of the things that are starting to appear in my garden. 2017 is already full of promise.

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It won’t be long before the snowdrops are in bloom

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