Getting a world class lawn

Most of us try for a reasonably green and weed-free lawn to set off borders and impress friends and family. Few have the sort of pressure Dave Balmer faces. He is responsible for the pitch at Kingsholm rugby stadium and his grass has been on view to millions watching the Rugby World Cup.

Autumn sees the start of the rugby season and for the 16,200-seat stadium that means a new playing surface. Each year the old pitch is removed and new grass sown ready for matches that this season include world cup group fixtures involving teams from as far away as Japan, Georgia and Tonga.

Preparations started in mid-June just before a plastic ground cover went down for concerts by Elton John and pop group Madness.

The divoting team: from left, Dave Balmer, Graeme Balmer, Jerome Vidgen, Geoff Swift, Paul Hathaway, Ben Balmer, Matt Williams, Mac MacCahill, Jake Meloscia

The whole pitch was sprayed with weedkiller so that when the plastic sheeting finally came up 12 days later the grass was dead underneath.

“We got a machine in to scarify and take all the vegetation off the top leaving us with the soil,” explains Dave, who started as the groundsman at Kingsholm 19 years ago and is now also stadium manager.

Re-seeding the 8,500 sq m is a huge undertaking requiring 24 bags of perennial rye grass seed, which is then top-dressed with 120 tons of a 70-30 mix of sand and soil.

Next comes 16 bags of pre-seed fertiliser to get the grass growing strongly.

“We were mowing within 12 days,” says Dave, proudly.

From then on the grass is cut every day, or every other, if the weather isn’t favourable, and the feeding regime is maintained.

“The slow release fertiliser gives us a base and then we top it up with ordinary fertiliser every six weeks,” says Dave, who is helped by his landscape contractor brother, Graeme.

The pitch is also regularly spiked to maintain a good air flow to the roots and kept watered, if the weather turns dry. In fact, rain isn’t helpful as it is easier to regulate the amount of water the grass gets using Kingsholm’s irrigation system.

Understandably, the pitch takes a pounding during matches and a team is on hand to replace divots at half-time and after the final whistle.

“The following day we all put back whatever gets missed.”

The grass is then rolled, spiked and mowed ready for the next match.

It has been a tight schedule during the world cup with four matches and two-hour practice sessions for each team before the games, in some cases leaving Dave around 24 hours to get everything perfect for the international players.

And when the final match at Gloucester is played on October 11 Gloucester’s home matches begin.

“We have a fortnight to get ourselves ready,” says Dave with a smile.

What to do

You may not be aiming for world class grass but even so autumn is the time to give your lawn some care and attention.

If moss is a big problem, use a specialist moss killer, which should kill it within two weeks. This can then be raked out.

Perennial weeds such as dandelions are best removed by hand using a daisy grubber – choose a day when the ground is damp to make the job easier.

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Dandelions are best removed by hand

Dead grass, old clippings and other debris can form a layer on lawns, known as thatch, which stops air, water and fertiliser getting to the grass. Remove this thatch by scarifying, either with a spring-tined rake or, for large areas, with a powered tool that can be hired.

Improve drainage and air at the roots by spiking the lawn. This can be done with a garden fork, pushing it well in and moving it backwards and forwards to create a small hole. On badly compacted ground or clay soil, use a hollow-tine fork, which removes a small plug of soil. Again, they can be hired, or bought at garden centres.

Top dress the lawn to fill in aeration holes using a sandy dressing, available at garden centres. This will encourage strong roots.

Finally, apply an autumn feed, which is high in potash and phosphates.

Highnam blazes into Autumn

Salvias are on Roger Head’s mind when we meet. Tall, inky blue salvias, the sort that turn heads and promote plant envy. They are sat, pride of place, among his other purchases from the Malvern Autumn Show and he’s interested to know if they will elicit the desired response from me.

“Do you like them?” he asks and, yes, I do. Who wouldn’t?

What interests me is that they will form part of yet another new feature, this time one of a pair of herbaceous borders, one pastels, the other hot colours.

It’s always the same when I visit Highnam Court – and I have been a regular for many years – each time there’s something different to see and plans afoot.

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Tree stump sculptures are a feature of the garden

The new borders currently under construction have been influenced by another Gloucestershire garden: Bourton House at Bourton-on-the-Hill, which Roger recently visited for the first time.

“Very few gardens inspire me,” he admits, “because I look at lots of gardens but that’s given me some ideas. I just like the way they put colours together.”

He’s planning a fiery mix of oranges, yellow, purple and reds in one area, using crocosmia, lobelia and red salvias, and softer shades with penstemon, campanulas, delphiniums and those blue salvias in the other.

It will add another dimension to what is already a very varied 40-acre garden that encompasses a one-acre rose garden, listed Pulhamite water garden, lakes, shrubberies and magnificent trees.

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The one-acre rose garden is one of the highlights

Those trees are beginning to come into their own this month as the autumn display gets underway. Magnolias are showing the first signs of buttery yellow, acer foliage has hints of red and orange, and a stately Quercus rubra, near the house is becoming a rich red.

This area of the garden is also being rethought with the removal of old laurel hedges and their replacement by simple grass. It’s a project that is still ongoing but already the effects are clear.

“It’s opened up the views through,” comments Roger, who has spent 22 years transforming the garden, once owned by Thomas Gambier Parry, from a neglected wilderness.

Adding to the seasonal display are great swathes of perennials, planted in Roger’s trademark block style. The flat heads of Sedum spectabile are a dusty pink, yellow rudbeckia catch the autumn sunlight, and asters are opening in shades of pink and mauve.

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The Ladies’ Winter Walk is a mix of traditional and modern

Then there are the roses, still blooming profusely in the Indian Summer. Most are in the box-edged Rose Garden but ‘Icberg’ and ‘Generous Gardener’ also fill long beds in the Ladies’ Winter Walk where polycarbonate obelisks add a contemporary touch.

The pink ‘Generous Gardener’ is Roger’s favourite rose and he is planning to use it on the long rose walk to replace ‘Paul’s Himalayan Musk’ – “no good because it isn’t a repeat flowerer and it had got untidy”. Already the metal supports have been stripped bare and the previous under-planting of perennials and bulbs removed in favour of grass.

And as if that isn’t enough for Roger and his team of two gardeners, he’s planning to use the winter to redesign the Wild Flower Meadow. Yet again, there will be something new to see on my next visit.

Highnam Court, near Gloucester, is having two ‘Autumn Colour’ open days in aid of The Pied Piper Appeal. The gardens will be open on Sunday October 4 and Sunday November 1 from 11am to 4pm. For more information, visit

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A Monet-style bridge spans one of the lakes

Vegging out at the Malvern Autumn Show

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It’s all about the veg as Malvern celebrates its 20th anniversary in glorious sunshine.

The UK Giant Vegetable Championships have seen three world records smashed, allotment growing is celebrated in a feature garden by Pennard Plants and the coveted best in show has gone to vegetable experts Medwyn’s of Anglesey for the second year running.

Meanwhile, celebrity cooks and growers, including Mark Diacono and Joe Swift have been championing a fork-to-fork lifestyle with demonstrations and talks on using homegrown in the kitchen.

“The show is a celebration of harvest,” says Ken Nottage, CEO of The Three Counties Showground, “and of the wealth of produce in the Three Counties.”

Flowers are not forgotten at the show, the last outdoor RHS event of the season, with exhibits ranging from carnivorous plants to cacti and a total of 22 gold medals awarded.

Entries for the giant veg contest are up on last year with more than 300 exhibits and new world records have been set for the longest beetroot at 7.21m, heaviest cucumber at 12.9k and heaviest leek at 10.6k.

In the Home Grown section, there are more than 1,800 exhibits covering everything from chrysanthemums and carrots to beans and beetroot, while the winner of the vegetable trug championships had a staggering 19 different types of veg.

And the allotments that many of those exhibits will have been grown on are explored in Pennard Plants’ feature garden, which has been awarded a Highly Commended by RHS judges.

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Divided into four, it has a traditional allotment with neat rows of crops, a container allotment showing how veg can be raised in a small space, an eclectic allotment with companion planting, while the fourth section is a feast of what has been produced.

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Malvern in pictures

Penstemons beat the weather

Pershore-based nursery Green Jjam are celebrating their best Malvern result – against all the odds.

Julia Mitchell and Jo Yates got silver-gilt for their display of penstemon, their third outing at the Malvern Autumn Show. However, recent cold weather nearly scuppered their chances as their penstemon, which normally bloom until October, came to an abrupt halt with cool days and even colder nights.

“The weather’s been so cold we had to move things into the greenhouse for the first time ever for this show,” said Julia. “It was a struggle to get them to continue flowering.

“We were mega pleased with the result.”

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Meet Monty

Plants and pets rarely go together but Monty the Duck is the exception. He’s the mascot of Heucheraholics and makes a regular appearance on their show stands.

“He’s the first mascot we got and there are now about 30 of them,” explains Sean Atkinson of the specialist heuchera nursery.

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Some have been left by the team who put together the show stands and there’s always one somewhere, even at Chelsea where mascots are frowned upon.

“We hide them at Chelsea and the judges know they are somewhere but they can’t find them.”

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Medwyn’s magic


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It’s difficult to decide what is the most impressive element of Medwyn Williams’ vegetable displays. Is it the unblemished perfection right down to the smallest cherry tomato? Perhaps it’s the sheer variety on display or maybe the chance to see something different such as purple carrots. Then there’s the precision of the staging with one side an exact mirror of the other, each basket of fennel or tomato tower beautifully replicated.

It’s a combination that’s been winning over RHS judges and show crowds for decades making Medwyn a familiar face on the show circuit and the winner of 11 consecutive Chelsea gold medals, with top honours at many other shows, including Hampton Court and Malvern where this year he again won Best in Show.

“I’ve never had less than a gold including shows in America,” he says.

It all started with a square yard of soil prepared by his father and three packets of seeds: radish, mustard and cress.

It was a shrewd choice as the quick-growing seeds kept the eight-year-old Medwyn interested and he still remembers sharing a sandwich made from his first crop with a friend.

His father, a farm worker, was a regular exhibitor at local shows and Medwyn learnt his skill at events all over Anglesey, eventually staging his first exhibit of six kinds of vegetables at the county show.

“This is a hobby that went out of control,” says Medwyn, who is now 73.

Today, his displays are on a far larger scale and take a team of seven around 24 hours to put together; this year the Malvern stand featured a rugby ball made from tomatoes to mark Wales’ involvement in the World Cup.

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Although Medwyn, whose business Medwyn’s of Anglesey started 40 years ago, has a “plan in my head” the final decision on what’s in and what’s left out is made at the venue. What underpins each exhibit is the symmetry that reinforces the achievement.

“You can fold the stand like a book because it’s balanced on either side.”

Getting that perfection is a long process with crops grown in raised beds, on benches, in greenhouses and polytunnels, sometimes in more than one place. To put together two baskets of 120 matching radish the team will grow around 500 plants and sometimes the weather will scupper their plans.

“We normally have white radish but they weren’t ready,” says Medwyn, looking at his Malvern stand.

Medwyn's stand Malvern Autumn (640x480) 2

What it does have is some new carrot varieties, two as yet unnamed. ‘Melodio’ develops very little core, ‘Short and Sweet’ is ideally suited to container growing and ‘Cosmic Purple’ (pictured below) is orange inside with a yellow core.

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All have been tested by Medwyn: “I don’t put anything out to buy unless I’ve tried it.”

And it’s this passion for veg that keeps him growing and showing, although the two Malvern shows are the only events he now does.

“People ask ‘When are you going to retire?’ But how do you retire from a hobby? It’s very difficult because I love it.”


Kitty makes her debut

Every gardener loves something different and several new introductions have been launched at the Malvern Autumn Show.

Among them are two clematis from Floyds Climbers, based in Calne.

‘Kitty’ is the perfect container plant at around 4ft-tall with a mass of white flowers. Happy with any aspect, it will flower from May to September and is hardy down to minus 20.

Clematis 'Kitty' Malvern Autumn (640x480) 2

“In the first year, cut it down to six inches and after that just tidy it up,” advises Marcel Floyd, who has been growing clematis for 30 years.

Also new is ‘Freedom’, which has beautiful pink blooms. It will grow to around 8ft in height and flowers in May/June and again in August/September.

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Such is the appeal of ‘Kitty’, Marcel had sold out at Malvern by lunchtime on the first day, although plants are still available online.


When size really matters

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Most of us would be quite pleased to produce enough spuds to feed the family or cabbages that didn’t sport caterpillars but for one group of growers it’s not the quality but the sheer size that counts.

The Malvern Autumn Show has hosted the UK Giant Veg Championships for the past five years and this year sees a bumper entry.

Gigantic squash, enormous marrows and beefy beetroot are jaw-dropping in their scale. There’s out-sized celery, onions the size of footballs and carrots that stretch the length of the show bench.

While the competition is fierce, it does not reach the lengths of the sabotage and skulduggery of other growing contests and seed is freely swapped among competitors.

“It’s friendly rivalry,” explains Cornish grower David Thomas (pictured below), who broke the world record for the heaviest cucumber with a 12.9k exhibit and picked up first places for watermelon, celery, cabbage and squash.

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And it’s the thrill of seeing what you’ve produced as much as the prizes that excites growers, says Kevin Fortey, whose father, Mike, helped start the contests in the 1980s.

“With some things you don’t know what you’re going to get until you lift it out of the ground. You have some surprises and that’s part of the fun,” says Kevin, who helps organise the contest through his website.

David started about 14 years ago, growing a few large veg for fun at home.

“Once you’ve grown one it becomes an obsession.”

The secret is in the seed: “You’ve got to have the right variety to grow something like that.”

His winning cucumber originated from seed from a former record holder, although no one is now sure of the variety.

David started it off in May, chitting the seed over the cooker before sowing and putting in a propagator. The plants were then put into a polytunnel and nurtured to perfection with plenty of water and feed, while lengths of fleece were used to support both the plant and the emerging fruit.

Such is the size of some of his exhibits he has to bring in a tractor to lift them and hires a trailer to get them to shows.

“The first time you transport one you feel every bump in the road,” he says, “now I don’t worry about it. I’ve never broken one yet.”

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Britain’s blooming at Malvern

One of the liveliest and most colourful spots at this year’s Malvern Autumn Show is the newly launched Floral Fiesta.

Headed up by BBC Big Allotment Challenge presenter Jonathan Moseley, it is turning the spotlight on British flower growers and florists.

“It’s a really lively hub of activity,” says Jonathan, who is hosting demonstrations and hands-on workshops over the two days aimed at debunking some floral myths.

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He explains that the Floral Fiesta is trying to show another more informal side of flower arranging, such as hand-tied posies, many of them using plants commonly found in gardens.

“Floral art is quite a niche area. We are making it more appealing, accessible, fun and friendly.”

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