From vibrant poinsettias to the obvious Christmas cacti, giving pot plants as a festive gift shows no signs of losing popularity. Yet for some they can be a present wrapped up in worry. Get the care of these colourful exotics wrong and you could be left with little more than limp leaves and bare stems by January.
The answer is to follow a few basic rules about temperature and watering, says Cheltenham florist Richard Brazington. He works at Bumblebeez where pot plants are a firm favourite with customers.
“Pot plants last a bit longer than cut flowers,” he explains. “Also with something like plant arrangements you get the choice of planting things out in the garden later.
Typical arrangements include ivy, a small evergreen and bulbs. They should be allowed to die back naturally and can then be planted out in the garden.
“It’s the gift that keeps on giving,” adds Richard with a smile.
Poinsettias have long been top of the festive flower list and today they come in far more than just the traditional scarlet with a range of colours that includes burgundy, shocking pink and salmon.
Unsurprisingly, given that they come from central America, poinsettias need warmth to survive. Indeed, they are most at risk on the journey to your house when, unless they are well wrapped, they can catch a chill.
“It’s essential for them not to get cold,” says Richard. “It’s why I always think you should never buy them when they’ve been on show outside a shop.”
With this in mind, don’t leave your poinsettia out in the cold on a windowsill behind curtains at night as the drop in night-time temperature can be fatal.
Overwatering is the other peril: “They will rot and go mushy underneath.”
Water them sparingly, waiting until the compost feels dry and ensure they drain well.
If poinsettias like it hot, cyclamen are the cool customers among potted plants. They find centrally heated homes challenging and much prefer a position away from radiators or open fires.
Again, care needs to be taken with watering, which is best done from the bottom by standing the plant in a few inches of water for about 15 minutes and then allowing it to drain.
“The corms have a dimple on the top,” explains Richard. “If you water from the top and get water in that, they will rot.”
Orchids are among the most showy plants and, treated right, can be in flower for months. Phalaenopsis like plenty of light and warmth – but don’t overheat them next to a radiator. Water them freely when the compost is dry; use rainwater for the best results.
“You can throw as much water at them as you like, but let it drain well. If they sit in water, they will rot from the bottom up.”
Cymbidiums also like plenty of light but prefer a cooler position. Again, they should be watered when dry to the touch and allowed to drain.
If you’re buying them as a gift, Richard advises choosing a plant with plenty of open flowers as the shock of moving can cause them to drop buds.
Christmas cacti are also prone to losing flower buds when moved but, once into the house, are generally trouble-free. Steamy bathrooms out of direct sunlight suit them well and putting them on a saucer of moist gravel can help to increase the humidity.
To get the best results, they need regular feeding and watering from April to September and two ‘rest’ periods where the temperature is lowered – easily done by moving them to a cooler room – and watering is reduced. The first is when they finish flowering, usually late January to late March. The second is from mid-September until new flower buds have formed. Then move them back into the warm, resume regular watering and they should reward you with a fresh crop of flowers just in time for Christmas.
Unlike some of my nearest and dearest, gardening friends and family are easy when it comes to buying presents. Newcomers to the joys of growing can be given starter kits of forks, trowels and fool-proof seeds while there are unusual plants and top quality tools for seasoned campaigners. And everyone loves a book.
But what of the professionals for whom gardening is not a hobby but a way of life? I’ve been talking to the head gardeners at some of the Cotswolds’ best known plots and asking them to share their letters to Santa.
At Barnsley House, home of the late Rosemary Verey, head gardener Richard Gatenby is hoping for new tools, but not just any old fork and spade. He has his eye on some traditionally made items from Holland.
“Dutch tools do it for me,” he explains. “I’d love the DeWit planting spade. It has a beautiful curve to the shaft and not too big a blade. But I’d need boot protectors!”
Richard, who worked with Mrs Verey on the world famous garden, is also hoping for a Great Dixter Tickling Fork. Designed by another horticultural giant, the late Christopher Lloyd, and made by Sneeboer, it is ideal for working the soil in tightly planted beds.
“I like the sound of it and again it just looks perfect.”
At Batsford Arboretum, head gardener Matthew Hall is in charge of 56 acres of woodland and garden that include the National Collection of Japanese flowering cherries. The wide-ranging arboretum has around 1,300 different trees, shrubs and bamboo, and more than 2,850 labelled specimens.
Unsurprisingly, top of his Christmas list is something to make keeping a track of everything a little easier.
“If someone was to hand me a GPS system to map the arboretum and catalogue the plant collection, I would be very happy!” he says.
It’s not trees but vegetables that are on Greg Power’s mind this Christmas with a wish list that encompasses something that’s practical and beautiful.
Greg, who took over as head gardener at Sezincote earlier this year is hoping to see some forcing pots under the tree.
“I’d like some that are a modern design and some old 19th century ones,” he says. “I want them for my sea kale.”
One of the Cotswolds’ newest head gardeners is Vicky Cody, who took over as Gardener in Charge at Snowshill Manor in April. She’s hoping for an old-fashioned scythe to use in Snowshill’s orchard, a quieter alternative to a flail mower and strimmer.
“I also think it’s good to keep old techniques and practices alive,” says Vicky, “and it’s much more in the spirit of Snowshill and would be kinder to the environment to boot.
“If Poldark happened to come along with the scythe – even better!” she adds.
And after a wet autumn, she has also looking for a fleecy, lined, waterproof jacket for her spaniel, Cookie.
Meanwhile, Vicky’s former boss Glyn Jones at Hidcote Manor Garden is after beauty and creature comforts.
Top of his list are some mohair socks, such as those sold by former TV presenter Selina Scott.
“I already have one pair and they are so toasty,” explains Glyn, who is Garden and Countryside Manager at Hidcote. “Having spent many years with cold feet these are simply fantastic.”
Plants are also welcome, particularly a dark blue wisteria – “Grafted as I don’t want to wait ten-plus years to see its first flower” – and a pink clematis, such as C. x vedrariensis ‘Hidcote’, to climb through it.
“It’s a classic pink and blue combination and would screen a fence in my back garden at home.
“So, something to warm the heart and something to warm the toes!” adds Glyn.
At Colesbourne Park, home of Sir Henry and Lady Elwes, head gardener Chris Horsfall has his eye on a set of grading riddles for sorting seed.
“It’s loads of fun and pretty important when planting a garden,” he explains, “but seeds vary so much that one riddle simply won’t do.”
A new Silky Fox pruning saw is another request: “They’re one of the best saws, so convenient and sharp. They are as necessary as your secateurs when you’re out and about in the garden.”
Finally, he wants something to combat the cold in this garden famous for its snowdrops: “Above all, I would love a wood-burning stove for the potting shed. It’s a long winter and autumn, and spring can be challenging too. A wood-burner turns a damp shed into salvation. Yes please, Santa!”
Innovative Gloucestershire florist Hans Haverkamp is predicting a move away from the traditional when it comes to Christmas colours this year.
While the familiar red and green will still be in evidence, Twyning-based Hans believes turquoise, copper and striking black-and-white will also be on display.
“There are a few trends coming along that are going to be popular in the UK,” he says.
Top of his list for 2015 is white and gold, although he stresses this is likely to be soft gold and champagne colours rather than anything brassy.
“I’ve already seen snowy white coloured trees with gold decorations, maybe some silver,” says Hans, who last month won Best in Show at the NAFAS national competition and has previously come top at Chelsea and the World Flower Arranging Show.
Copper is also likely to be a dominant colour, particularly in baubles.
“A very big trend statement this year will be the use of copper as a real accent colour.”
Pastels in the form of pinks, mint, turquoises and blues are likely to be another popular choice as is the ‘natural look’ with cones, acorns, bark and driftwood.
“Cones are a fairly big feature with oversized cone ornaments.”
A more niche trend is black and white: “It’s for those who want to make strong statement.”
Hans, who trained as a Master Florist in Holland, is using some of these ideas in this season’s workshops, which will cover festive floral decorations including table decorations and door wreaths.
“I’m picking and mixing them a bit. I try to look at the trends and then try to work them into something that’s exciting but not scary.”
His ‘Twinned Candles’, an arrangement using chunky Scandinavian candles, will mix white, taupe, browns, cinnamon and chocolate tones and is wrapped in felt.
Door wreaths this year draw on the cone theme with natural and white-sprayed cones and twigs giving a textured finish.
His party arrangements will be in white and grey with the copper accent, while the table arrangements will feature white, natural wood, greys, champagne and natural tones.
When it comes to flowers, he is planning to use white spray roses, copper carnations, nerines and kochia.
“It’s like a little, grey Christmas tree,” he explains.
Yet, he says despite these new trends there will always be a place for the traditional.
“You will always have reds and golds because that is the traditional colour. But slowly people are looking to make more of a personal statement with what they do. They are daring to leave the golds and the reds behind.”
• Workshops, priced from £55, run from December 2 to 22 and are held in Twyning. To book and for more information, call 07818 040312 or visit www.hansflowers.co.uk
There’s nothing quite like the taste of a freshly picked apple, one that hasn’t been ferried miles and then sat on a supermarket shelf. Growing your own also means the chance to savour different varieties rather than just the commonplace Granny Smith or Braeburn.
In Gloucestershire alone there are 106 different apples and, thanks to work by the Gloucestershire Orchard Trust, many of these are now available to gardeners.
One grower who has been promoting these ‘heritage’ varieties is Rob Watkins, who specialises in old varieties of apple, along with perry pears and plums.
He launched Lodge Farm Trees 15 years ago when he gave up milking at his Rockhampton farm. Every year he raises around 1,000 trees with about 40 different apples and 20 perry pears at any one time.
“At some point I’ve grown all of the apple varieties,” says Rob, who is a Trust committee member.
Among the old apple varieties are ‘Margaret’, an early cropping, sweet, red dessert apple, ‘Severn Bank’, a dual purpose eater and cooker, and ‘Hens Turds’, a cider apple from Rodley.
‘Rose of Ciren’ is another Gloucestershire variety and there is the delightfully named ‘Jackets and Waistcoats’, also known as ‘Jackets and Petticoats’, which comes from Ashleworth.
“It’s a nice apple with a zingy taste,” says Rob, who also grows Christmas trees after collaborating for some years with neighbouring Mount Pleasant Trees.
Some apples, such as the dual purpose ‘Arlingham Schoolboys’, have been saved from near extinction as the original trees have long gone and the variety lives on only through grafted trees grown from them. Some of these new generation trees have now been planted back in the village.
Perry pears, which are found across the Three Counties, include the ‘Christmas Pear’, ‘Yellow Huffcap’ and ‘Merry Legs’, though whether the name has anything to do with the effect of the perry is unclear.
The trees are grown on rootstocks that Rob buys in as two-year trees and plants out in January; these are used to determine the size and vigour of the mature tree.
Budding starts in July using that year’s growth, some taken from his trees – he has planted an orchard of old varieties – the rest from trees across the county, including the Trust’s ‘mother orchard’.
All the leaves are trimmed off the cutting, leaving a small ‘handle’ on the bottom one and a 45 degree cut is made behind a bud. This is then inserted into a similar slot in the rootstock behind a bud and the whole thing is bound together with special tape. Three weeks later the two should be growing as one tree.
The following spring, Rob cuts the rootstock off to just above the graft, leaving the heritage variety as the leader.
“In the first year the rootstock will shoot out of the bottom and I have to trim it off several times during the growing season.”
Trees are sold bare-rooted from mid-November to March and a mini-digger is brought in to lift them to ensure a good root ball on each tree. They are then heeled into a bed of composted bark ready for sale.
And Rob’s favourite? It’s the well-known ‘Ashmead’s Kernel’, which originates from Gloucester and dates back to 1700.
• For more information, visit www.lodgefarmtrees.co.uk
• Gloucestershire Orchard Trust: www.gloucestershireorchardtrust.org.uk
• When it comes to planting, the process is simple. Choose a good, sunny site, that doesn’t get waterlogged and don’t replant where there’s been a fruit tree before; Christmas trees are used as a rotation crop at the farm.
• Dig a hole big enough to take the root ball. Rob doesn’t put compost or manure in as “It will act like a sump and the roots don’t like it.” Instead, he prefers to mulch well after planting.
• A stake may be necessary, depending on the size of the tree and the area around the tree should be kept weed-free. He also recommends fitting a guard if you have rabbits.
Growing flowers for picking is nothing new and many gardeners have a small cutting patch or a wigwam of sweet peas providing blooms for the house. Yet few go to the lengths of Sally Oates who has turned her Cotswold garden into one big cutting border.
The driving force behind her garden near Tetbury is not the appearance of the beds, creating plant collections or the amassing of rare blooms. Instead, she plans and plants to provide year-round material for her floristry business.
Sally is part of a recent surge of interest in the British flower industry, born out of concerns about the environmental impact of importing flowers. The use of home-grown blooms was championed at this year’s Malvern Autumn Show and Flowers From the Farm is just one group campaigning for their increased use.
“It’s a lot of like-minded people all over the country and they are probably making a difference,” says Sally, who describes herself as an ‘artistan’ rather than a traditional florist.
“It’s looser and more relaxed,” she explains. “It’s all about respecting the flowers and the foliage for what they are and the season they are in.”
When we met, she was testing an arrangement for an autumn wedding using russet leaves and the psychedelic orange and red fruit of the spindle berry, a natural mix that is typical of her work.
Dillycot Flowers was started three years ago with sales at local markets, such as Nailsworth Farmers’ Market. Today, Sally does much of her business online, with commissions for celebrations, such as birthday parties, christenings and weddings, providing table decorations and flower crowns.
“I’ve done 70, 80 and 90th birthday parties this year,” she says, with a smile. “They don’t want a large flowering statement; they want really nice garden flowers in a low arrangement.”
She grows her blooms organically in half-an-acre of ground, divided between her own garden and an allotment on a nearby farm. The borders are packed with rows of perennials underplanted with bulbs and any gaps plugged by annuals.
Bulbs are most important in spring and she grows masses of tulips, narcissi and hyacinths, in a vast range of colours.
“One of my favourites is ‘City of Bradford’ hyacinth, which is a very unusual pale blue.”
She particular likes the hyacinth flowers that reappear in subsequent years, as they tend to be less compact: “They’ve got a slightly softer feel to the bloom. There’s more of a gentle elegance about them.”
The summer offers rich pickings with annuals, including cornflowers in all shades of blue and pink, lots of iris, masses of peonies, roses, ranunculus and sunflowers before the autumn blooms of dahlias and chrysanthemums begin.
Over the winter, evergreen shrubs form the backbone of her arrangements with viburnum and pittosporum particular favourites. Scented shrubs, such as Lonicera fragrans, bring an extra dimension to arrangements and she also uses dried seedheads, including nigella, poppy and achillea. If the weather is kind, there may even be late roses to add colour.
And that is the secret of her work: it is based upon what looks good at the time, rather than sticking to any pre-conceived plan, particularly as weather conditions can vastly alter flowering times.
“It’s why I come from a colour direction rather than being flower specific,” she explains.
Those flowers are displayed in vintage containers, sourced from antique shops and car boot sales, and include Art Deco and 1940s pieces, old ink bottles, silver, glass and brass.
“For me it’s not pseudo vintage, it’s the real thing. I also grow older varieties of flowers. It evokes a past era.”
It’s an era that appears to be making a comeback.
• For more information, visit www.dillycotflowers.co.uk and www.facebook.com/RosieOatesPhotography
Gardeners are being asked to think of the bees when planning their borders.
Loss of habitat, climate change and disease, most notably the Varroa mite, mean the country’s bee population is under threat putting both commercial crops and ornamental gardens at risk as pollination levels drop.
“Habitat changes have had the most significant impact on pollinator numbers,” says bee expert Keren Green. “All pollinators, including bees, need food and a home.”
Keren is a commercial bee farmer and keeps around 50 honeybee hives around the Three Counties, as well as working as a Seasonal bee inspector.
She explains that bees are divided into different groups: honeybees that live in colonies of between 50 and 60,000 and overwinter, feeding off food stores; bumblebees that have smaller nests of around 150, which die off in the autumn; solitary bees, which include leafcutter, mining and mason bees.
Worldwide there are more than 25,000 species of bees with around 270 in the British Isles, made up of one species of honeybee, 26 bumblebees, including short and long tongued, and the rest solitary bees.
Each transfers pollen between plants while collecting nectar, enabling the setting of fruit and seeds; bees can travel in a three-mile radius to forage and can visit up to 1,000 flowers a day.
And it’s making sure that gardens have a wide range of plants, with different flower shapes, particularly single or bell-shaped blooms, that will be the key to maintaining a healthy bee population.
“Make sure when you’re planting for these insects that you have plants that accommodate both short and long-tongued bees,” advises Keren.
It is also important to provide forage and habitat all year, not just the summer months when flowering plants are more abundant, and Keren suggests flowering shrubs and trees as a way of extending the nectar season.
Among the suggested plants for early in the year are crocus, ivy, pussy willow, snowdrops and mahonia. Spring and early summer see aquilegia, wisteria, wallflowers and fruit trees, while summer has a vast range of suitable plants, such as hollyhocks, sunflowers, lavender, campanula and delphiniums. Meanwhile, suggestions for autumn, which is important to build up hives before winter, include asters, Japanese anemones and dahlias.
“Even if you’ve got a small garden you can make it attractive with plants that are good for pollination.”
Even so, one of Keren’s top suggestions is unlikely to find favour with many gardeners: the dandelion.
“It is high in nectar, easy to grow and requires little or no attention,” she says. “For years I had been pulling them up and then I took up bee-keeping. Now our lawn is peppered with dandelions.”
Other wild flowers may be more appealing and the fashion for wild flower meadow planting is benefitting our native pollinators.
“It’s very important. Bringing native plants in gives the right type of flowers. Just leave a corner to have some dandelions,” adds Keren, with a smile.
• National Honey Week is led by the British Beekeepers Association. More details are available from http://www.bbka.org.uk/
• The RHS Perfect for Pollinators list is available at www.rhs.org.uk Look out for the pollinators symbol on plant labels. More information is also available from the Bumblebee Conservation Trust at http://bumblebeeconservation.org/
• Gardeners are being asked to report any sightings of the Asian Hornet, an invasive species that is a honey bee predator and has recently been found in France. Smaller than the European hornet, it has an entirely dark brown or black body with a yellow fourth segment on its abdomen. Details on http://www.bbka.org.uk/
• Details of Government policy on pollinators is available on http://www.gov.uk
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 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.
• 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.