Countryfile visits Batsford

Conservation work at Batsford Arboretum will be featured on BBC Countryfile this weekend.

Presenter Matt Baker visited the Cotswold arboretum near Moreton-in-Marsh to find out how a form of X-ray, known at Tomographing, can be used to detect decay in trees and decide whether they need to be felled.

Mat Baker
Matt Baker helps to X-ray the tree

Head Gardener Matthew Hall and a team from Oxford Brookes University tested an ailing 100-year-old purple beech. The tree was found to be beyond salvage and was cut down.

Matt Baker then helped plant a Serbian Spruce, which is under threat, as part of Batsford’s contribution to the International Conifer Conservation Project, based at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

Batsford is one of a number of sites throughout the UK that hosts rare and endangered species in a bid to safeguard them for the future. The first trees in the scheme to be planted at the arboretum were Chilean conifers and there have also been species from China, Japan and Vietnam.

Batsford will feature on Countryfile on Sunday January 17 at 6.30pm on BBC1.

Grow rainbow potatoes

There’s no doubt that when it comes to grow your own, spuds have an image problem. Potatoes may be a staple of many diets but for the average vegetable gardener they are seen as space-greedy and suitable only for allotments. Why devote time and effort to something that’s cheap to buy and, frankly, a bit dull?

The answer, as with so many crops, lies in the taste. There’s nothing quite like newly dug potatoes and growing your own gives you the chance to try varieties ignored by the supermarkets. They can also be raised in containers, so even balcony gardeners needn’t miss out, while choosing one of the colourful varieties means you could be harvesting rainbow nuggets of gold.

Potatoe 'Red Emmalie'
Try ‘Red Emmalie’ for some different mash

The start of the potato growing season is one of the highlights of the year at Dundry Nurseries. The Cotswold business hosts an annual Potato Weekend that sees thousands of seed potatoes sold to customers who travel from all over the country for the event. As little as one tuber can be bought, making it the ideal way for beginners to start, or for old hands to try something new.

This year, the 19th event, there will be around 135 different varieties on offer with coloured spuds set to steal the show.

Dundry Nurseries
Thousands of tubers will be sold over the weekend

“We like to be a bit different,” says Steve Mercer, manager at the family-owned nursery. “As with everything we do, it’s a bit of fun.”

Unlike varieties such as ‘Red Duke of York’, it’s not just the skin that’s coloured on these spuds but the flesh as well. Some are Heritage varieties, others newer introductions.

‘Violetta’ and ‘Salad Blue’ are both a deep blue-purple, ‘Red Emmalie’ is a glorious pink-red, while ‘Highland Burgundy’ has almost all red flesh with just a narrow band of white under the red skin. ‘Shetland Black’ has dark blue skin and creamy flesh with a distinctive purple band.

potato 'Shetland Black'
‘Shetland Black’ has a distinctive purple ring

When it comes to more mainstream varieties, ‘Charlotte’ is still the bestseller.

“It’s because everybody knows it and it always grows well. Why change a good thing?” says Steve.

There has been a trend though for growers to move over to ‘Annabelle’, which crops earlier than ‘Charlotte’ and with more uniform tubers. In the same way, ‘Mozart’, which Steve describes as “bombproof”, is gradually becoming the spud of choice among former ‘Desiree’ growers. Meanwhile, ‘Jazzy’, a popular waxy spud with great flavour, sold out on the first day at last year’s event.

“We’ve tripled the order this time,” says Steve.

Steve Mercer getting reading for the Potato Weekend

Last year, around 1,800 people visited over the two days of the Potato Weekend with many more calling in during the run-up to be sure of getting a particular variety.

“Around eighty per cent still come back for the weekend to talk to fellow growers. It’s really a social gathering.”

Dundry Nurseries, Bamfurlong Lane, Cheltenham, holds its Potato Weekend on Saturday and Sunday January 16 and 17 from 9am to 4.30pm. Tubers are 20p each; £1.75 a Kg; £4.50 3Kg. Nursery owner Chris Evans will give cookery demonstrations using coloured potatoes on the Saturday. Gloucestershire gardening groups will have stalls, there will be advice about growing potatoes, antique tools on display and a potato-themed play on the Sunday. Refreshments will be available. For more details, visit

How to grow spuds

Always use certified disease-free tubers.

Tubers should be chitted to develop shoots before planting. Place, eyes uppermost, in a light, frost-free place, such as a conservatory or porch. Old egg boxes are an ideal container.

Ground should not be freshly manured – prepare it in the autumn. Pelleted chicken manure is a popular fertiliser when planting.

Plant around the end of March for first earlies; early to mid-April for second earlies and mid to late April for maincrop.

First and second earlies are planted 1ft apart, 5ins deep with 2ft between rows. Main crop: 18ins apart, 5ins deep.

As shoots start to grow, earth up by drawing earth around them to protect from frost and stop light turning the tubers green. Keep well-watered.

Harvest first and second earlies from June, when the potatoes are egg-sized. Harvest main crop from September when the flowers go over.

Allow potatoes to dry before storing in a dark, frost-free place in sacks. Do not store damaged tubers and check remainder regularly.

A 35L bucket can be planted with three tubers. Keep well watered and either fill the bucket immediately or earth up as the tubers grow.

Potatoes are an underrated crop

Rococo opens a new era

Painswick Rococo Garden opens its gates this week for the 2016 season with a bigger display and a new garden director.

Dominic Hamilton takes over from Paul Moir, who stepped down last week after 27 years running the historic garden.

“They are big shoes to fill,” admits Dominic. “My ambition is to continue the good work Paul and the team have done because it works.”

Dominic Hamilton
Dominic Hamilton looking forward to the challenge

That task includes the slow process of restoring the eye-catching follies and fundraising for a new entrance building when the lease on the current one comes to an end in 2022. He is also keen to get local people more involved in the garden by tapping into the skills available in Painswick.

“It’s just a question of finding the right person and inspiring them to do things and this place has the capacity to do that.”

Dominic comes from another iconic Gloucestershire garden, Snowshill Manor, and says it’s the quirky nature of the Rococo that attracted him.

“It’s part of the appeal for me. It’s got to be interesting for me to want to do it. There’s nowhere quite like this place, which is why I like it.”

Although he was buildings manager at Snowshill, gardening is something he enjoys.

“I had an allotment until I had children,” he says. “I do love being outside gardening.”

While the Rococo is best known for its follies, such as the Exedra and Red House, when it comes to plants it’s snowdrops that steal the show.

Huge drifts of snowdrops are a winter highlight in February

The 10-acre garden is home to one of the biggest displays in the county with thousands of blooms turning the Rococo white during February. Most are the common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, in both its single and double form, although there are some named varieties including G. Atkinsii, ‘Magnet’ and ‘James Backhouse’.

When the garden first started opening for the snowdrop season back in the 1980s, the display lasted for about a fortnight. Today it spans around six weeks, depending on the weather.

“It’s not because we are necessarily using different varieties,” explains head gardener Steve Quinton, “We just think about where we plant them in the garden. Changing the aspect and different soil alters the flowering time.”

This autumn, Steve and his team have been ensuring the display lasts long after the snowdrops fade with the continuation of a five-year plan to plant 10,000 bulbs in the nature walk. Funded by the Friends of the garden, they include crocus and narcissi. The bluebell show has also been improved with 6,000 more planted.

“We’ve put them in an area that has not been open to the public before. It’s at the top of the garden and has a nice view through of the Exedra and Kitchen Garden,” says Steve.

Hundreds of hellebores have also been added to sit alongside the already good show of cyclamen.

“We’re trying to make it a spring garden. It should look pretty.”

Painswick Rococo Garden opens at 11am on Sunday January 10. For admission prices and information on the expected flowering time of the snowdrop display, visit

Review: The Company of Trees by Thomas Pakenham

As a writer trees worry me. Faced with an herbaceous border, I’m in my element but charged with talking about a garden based largely on trees I start to flounder. First, there’s the tricky question of identification: I’m fine with the obvious but start to struggle with anything other than ash and oak. Then there’s simply what to say beyond the clichéd adjectives of stately, magnificent and graceful? Given this I was intrigued to see how Thomas Pakenham could fill a whole book talking about trees.

The Company of Trees

The Company of Trees’ isn’t his first foray into the subject: he has published several titles, starting with the popular ‘Meetings With Remarkable Trees’. This featured 60 portraits of trees notable for their age, size, history or simply shape.

Whereas that was a book for dipping into, his new publication is far weightier with fewer of his beautiful photographs and a more obvious narrative thread following a year at Tullynally, his Irish estate, and his travels, collecting rare seeds. What the two volumes share is a writing style that sparkles with his passion for the subject. Early on he states that “Like most sensible people I find them [trees] irresistible” and by the end I was beginning to see why.

To Pakenham, trees are more than just a horticultural exercise and his descriptions bring them alive. Young seedlings are “pushy adolescents”, ancient specimens are “old retainers” while a group of beech are known as ‘the Ents’ and have, he tells us, “very different personalities”.

Each tree death or removal, either through storm, disease or simple necessity is for him a personal loss. Needing to thin his arboretum, he watches as 16 oaks are felled – a process he likens to “murdering your friends”. He describes how the “bigger ones fought back” while the “small ones died without a struggle”.

Thomas Pakenham
Thomas Pakenham

Woven into this delightfully evocative prose are solid horticultural facts and historical detail, often about the great plant-hunters in whose footsteps he literally travels in his search for rare specimens.

He rails against the slow response to the threat of the ‘Four Horsemen’, his name for the new diseases afflicting many of our trees, worries about the effect of climate changes and condemns ‘the Talibans’, as he calls some environmentalists, for what he regards as their puritanical and narrow view of what constitutes a native tree.

Explorations of other great tree collections, including the envy-inducing maples at Westonbirt Arboretum and sumptuous magnolias at Mount Congreve, are set against the account of his own work to both restore and improve the planting at Tullynally.

With lively chapter headings – ‘Knicker-Pink’ is particularly memorable – and a self-deprecating style that does not gloss over his planting mistakes, this is an engaging account of a lifetime’s work and a life-long passion.

The Company of Trees by Thomas Pakenham is published Weidenfeld & Nicolson, priced at £30.

Review copy supplied by The Suffolk Anthology

For more book reviews, see here

Dishing up egg and chips

One of the most unusual crops I’ve trialled in recent years is the Tomtato®, which combines tomato and potato on one plant. Now, Thompson & Morgan have gone one step further in the strange veg stakes and produced the Egg & Chips™ plant with the potato hosting an aubergine, or eggplant.

The new dual-cropping variety, unveiled in the 2016 catalogue, is the result of lengthy grafting trials and should, according to the firm, produce three or four aubergines and up to 2kg of white potatoes per plant.

Egg @ Chips
Thompson & Morgan’s latest development combines aubergine and potatoes

“For those without the luxury of an allotment or large vegetable patch it makes the most of available space in the garden,” says Michael Perry, Thompson & Morgan New Product Development Manager. “Even the smallest patio or balcony can accommodate a pot-grown Egg & Chips™ plant – pair it with a Tomtato® plant and you’ll have three easy to grow crops from just two pots.”

As well as the obvious space-saving benefits, Thompson and Morgan believe it will also make growing aubergines easier in the UK climate, as the potato’s rootstock is stronger and more vigorous and the plants will not need a greenhouse.

Huge secrecy surrounded the development; the firm even moved its annual summer press day off-site to keep final crop trials under wraps.

“It’s been hard keeping quiet about this amazing plant,” adds Michael. “I’ve had to bite my tongue for the past year! Egg & Chips™ is a real innovation. For seasoned veg growers this is a really novel development.”

Orders are now being taken for mail order with dispatch from April onwards. With limited first year stock, Thompson & Morgan recommend ordering early. One 9cm potted plant is £14.99 or two are £19.99. Visit or call 0844 573 1818.

Gazing back, looking forward

Gardeners tend to be optimistic, always looking forward rather than back, convinced that next season will be better. At the end of the year, however, it seems fitting to cast an eye over the past, grumble at the mistakes and celebrate the triumphs.

2015 has been strange for gardeners. Spring came as a cold blast while the year has ended unseasonably warm. Some things have fared well – there’s been a bumper crop of ‘Rainbow’ beetroot and the greenhouse continued to earn its keep – but others, notably members of the squash family, sulked in the wet summer.

Squash were not as plentiful as usual

Parsnips were another problem crop. They are notoriously difficult to germinate, resulting in either feast or famine, and this season was very nearly famine.

I was advised many years ago by a prize-winning grower to hold off sowing for as long as possible to allow the soil to warm but with the cold start, this proved challenging. The first sowing failed and the second was patchy. I was resigned to a small harvest and started to replant the first bed with squash. No soon had they got their feet down then the sulky parsnip started to appear, presumably encouraged by the rising temperatures. Whether they will have caught up after their late start remains to be seen as I have yet to investigate what lurks underground.

The greenhouse crops continued to produce well

In contrast, new varieties of runner beans and tomatoes were absolute winners and are sure to be repeated. Nearly every runner bean claims to be stringless but in the case of ‘Desiree’ it seems to be true. As usual, I struggled to keep up with picking and some beans were definitely on the large side but whereas that would normally mean a mouthful of inedible fibres, ‘Desiree’ lived up to its billing. Thank you, Thompson & Morgan for the trial packet.

Another recommendation came from Paolo at Franchi Seeds. What, I asked, would be a good tomato variety for making sauce, as full of flavour as a cherry type but without the fiddle of skinning tiny fruit? One suggestion was ‘Costoluto Fiorentino’, which produced whopping fruits, packed with flavour and as good raw as cooked; definitely one to grow again next year.

'Costoluto Fiorentino' tomatoes
‘Costoluto Fiorentino’ tomatoes were a huge hit

Nowhere is the changing climate more obvious than in the flower borders. My tulips shivered in the spring chill, the garden lost its sparkle under grey summer skies and now the unseasonable warmth has produced odd flowering companions. As I type, the garden is sporting scabious, roses and marigolds alongside the first of the snowdrops, winter honeysuckle and hellebores, while I fear for the already showing euphorbia bracts if we get a frost.

Galanthus 'Mrs McNamara'
Galanthus ‘Mrs McNamara’ is already in full bloom

More negative was the nightly ravages of wildlife in the garden with a mole criss-crossing the lawn and a badger attacking what was left. Just don’t get me started on slugs and snails.

Iris unguicularis
Iris unguicularis has suddenly produced flowers

Highlights include wisteria dripping with blooms – thanks, probably, to finally hitting the January pruning deadline. Splitting clumps of the early flowering snowdrop ‘Colossus’ means it can be seen from even more windows on those stay indoors days, and an unexpected surprise has been the flowering this month of Iris unguicularis after being little more than a clump of leaves for several years.

And that’s the hope that keeps all gardeners going: next year will be better.

The wisteria was covered in flower

Chance to count down again

I’ve recently been sorting out around 12 years’ of gardening photos and came across some favourites. I decided to share them in a flower Advent calendar, which I have been posting on Twitter and Facebook. Here’s the astrantia that started it all off.

Day 1. An astrantia in the spotlight.
Day 1. An astrantia in the spotlight.

For those who don’t follow me on those platforms, or for anyone who wants another look, follow this link to see the daily posts.

Click on a picture and you can view them as a carousel.

Happy Christmas!

2015 Flower Advent Calendar