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.

gardening resolutions
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.

gardening resolutions
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

gardening resolutions
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!”

gardening resolutions
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.”

gardening resolutions
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

gardening resolutions
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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Gardening ideas to pinch

Forget the tea and cake or sitting somewhere beautiful enjoying the results of someone else’s hard work, the reason I love garden visiting is finding gardening ideas to pinch.

It may be an inspired plant combination, a nifty way of dealing with a difficult area, or just the way the garden is laid out, while talking to the garden owner can often yield valuable advice on how to cultivate certain plants or deal with pests.

Look carefully and most plots have at least one idea to copy but some are rich in gardening ideas.

Barn House, near Cheltenham, is one of those gardens that always inspires. Created and maintained by Shirley and Gordon Sills, it is a full of cheap and easy ways to add colour and interest.

Here are some of my favourite gardening ideas from their plot.

Water for a small space

gardening ideas

One of the first things to greet you on arrival at Barn House is a simple but stylish water feature, the sort that usually comes with a large price tag.

In fact, it was made by Shirley using nothing more complicated than an old trough that had been lying around in the garden for some years and some central heating copper pipe. Valves are used as nozzles and the water is circulated using a small electrical pump.

“Take the pipework in during the winter so that it doesn’t get frozen up,” advises Shirley.

gardening ideas

Dying the water black not only adds interesting reflections, it also combats the problem of algae and the need to keep cleaning it.

Finally, it is bedded into lush planting, including ferns and hostas that provide a good contrast to the hard outline of the tank.

It’s the sort of idea that could be adapted to any space and is particularly suited to courtyard gardens or anywhere where room is tight and a pond would be unsuitable.

Adding a water spout

gardening ideas

Further into the two-and-a-half-acre walled garden is a second water feature made by Shirley from bits and pieces.

Another old galvanised tank, this time deeper, has been placed against a wall and fitted with a pump.

A ‘Green Man’ head – bought from the RHS Malvern Spring Festival – has been turned into a water spout with a little careful drilling and a piece of pipe.

A small sheet of iron protects the wall while a second piece of metal guides the water down into the tank.

A clump of equisetum completes the picture and the whole thing is surrounded by masses of plants.

“The idea is to have lots of plants in front of it so that you have to look to discover where the sound of water is coming from.”

Potty about colour

gardening ideas

Gardening ideas are not confined to hard landscaping in this garden. There are also some good tips to pick up when it comes to pots.

A large galvanised pail – it’s a recurring theme in this garden – is filled to almost overflowing in a mix of colours that you would not normally put together: red, purple, orange. It works thanks to the amount of green included, which helps the colours to blend rather than jar.

Cramming the plants in – there are several begonias, single and double flowered, a central cordyline for height, nemesia, verbena, calibrachoa and masses of nasturtiums – gives the whole display a feeling of sumptuousness. When it comes to container planting, the less is more rule really doesn’t apply.

This pot is hitched up to an automatic watering system, which helps to explain the exuberant growth; surprisingly even the nasturtiums, which normally need harsher treatment, seem to love it.

If you don’t have an automatic system, regular watering and even more importantly, deadheading, will keep this display going well into the autumn.

Using pots with style


gardening ideas

Sometimes it’s the pot rather than what it contains that will add to your garden.

A far more ornate pot than a mere galvanised pail has been used as a focal point at the start of a path.

This is used as a feature in its own right, left empty and surrounded by plants that pick up the soft colours on the pot. When I visited, the soft lemon of a potentilla was echoing the hues of the pot’s decoration.

To help protect it, the bottom has been drilled with holes so that water doesn’t collect and pose a problem during cold weather.

An all-year display

gardening ideas

Pots don’t have to be large to make a real impact in your garden and with careful choice you can plant up something that gives year-round value for money.

Shirley has used a simple pot with just two plants in it as a focal point on one of her tables.

The sedum and sempervivums are evergreen and need very little attention, beyond picking over any dead leaves.

Her tip for success with them is to choose a shallow container, fill it with gritty compost and just leave the plants to get on with it.

“You don’t have to worry about watering it,” she says. “It just sits there.”

Disguising a fence


gardening ideas

Faced with a piece of fence that needed disguising, most of us would think of planting a climber.

The next in my gardening ideas gives you an alternative solution. All you need are some old pieces of wood and a little artistic imagination.

It was inspired by a Mondrian painting that Shirley saw on a visit to Venice.

“I was going to put trellis up but I thought I would do something a bit different,” she says. “I spent the whole day out here putting pieces of wood up. I made it up as I went along.”

The resulting abstract arrangement of shapes and sizes gives an interesting 3D effect and is popular with visitors.

“A lot of people comment on it and it was great fun to do.”

Hide an awkward shape

gardening ideas

A long rectangle is a familiar shape in many gardens but there are ways of hiding it.

Faced with such a space in part of their garden, Shirley and Gordon have looked to the diagonal, twisting flower borders and a raised pool around so that they are at an angle.

“It used to have two herbaceous borders and you could see straight to the end,” says Shirley. “This gives me more border and it’s got a flow to it, which I love.”

A pergola slanted across the space helps to emphasise the width while keeping it deliberately unplanted stops it cutting off the lower part of the garden by allowing views through.

Perfect companions

gardening ideas

Gardening ideas wouldn’t be complete without at least one planting combination to copy and while Barn House has several there is one that really caught my eye.

Clematis are so often confined to trellis, pergolas or occasionally obelisks in the middle of borders and only herbaceous varieties are allowed free rein among other plants.

Yet, even the usual climbers can be used unrestricted providing you choose their companions carefully.

Shirley has planted a Clematis ‘Jackmanii’ and allowed it to scramble through Anemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’. It provides the necessary support and the deep purple clematis gives a dark counterpoint that sets off the white blooms of the anemone. So much nicer than seeing it trussed up on an obelisk.

Barn House, Sandywell Park, Cheltenham, is open for the National Gardens Scheme on Sunday August 7 from 11am to 5pm. Admission is £4.50. For more information, visit the NGS

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