Hits and misses of the 2017 garden trials

One of the delights of gardening is trying something new and I’ve been given a whole range of things for this year’s garden trials from spotty nasturtiums to psychedelic radish. Not everything has been successful but there are quite a few seeds and plants that are worth repeating next season.

The Hits

Top of my list in the garden trials this year has to be Unwins’ radish ‘Bright and Spicy Mix’ (pictured top). This was a real winner – great flavour, quick to grow and what a colour! I repeat sowed it throughout the summer and it never failed.

I grow a lot of French beans and ‘Mamba’ from Thompson & Morgan produced strong plants and lots of tasty beans. It coped well growing up a wigwam of poles and was still cropping in late autumn.

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Cucumber ‘La Diva’

For years, I’ve bought a cucumber plant from a local nursery rather than grow from seed having found cucumber tricky to germinate. However, with the arrival of ‘La Diva’ from Unwins, I decided to give it another go. I managed to raise a plant with little difficulty and put it in the greenhouse, although this variety will grow outside. Again, it kept going until autumn, producing small, crunchy cucumbers. Not a huge crop but I didn’t have room for more than one plant.

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Caliente Mustard

Another first was green manure – Caliente Mustard supplied by Marshalls. It germinated quickly and soon covered the vegetable bed. I then dug it in when the bed was needed in the spring. Did it help the soil? Difficult to tell precisely unless you did a side-by-side comparison but the sweet peas that followed certainly thrived and it was much better to be looking at a bed of green rather than just earth over winter.

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Nasturtium ‘Troika Spotty Dotty’

Among the flowers, Nasturtium ‘Troika Spotty Dotty’ (Thompson & Morgan) has been an absolute delight. Flowering in the greenhouse before I managed to get the plants outside and stopped only by the third frost of this winter a few days ago. It’s a trailing variety that would be ideal for hanging baskets though I grew it in the ground where it wove in and out of other plants.

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Calendula ‘Snow Princess’

Another plant that gave months of colour was Calendula ‘Snow Princess’ (T&M). Although it’s described as ‘pure white’ on the packet, I found the flowers were more cream than pure white. Again, this flowered strongly until the frosts.

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Petunia ‘Amore Queen of Hearts’

I’m not normally a huge fan of petunias – something about the way they go ‘sticky’ over summer – but Petunia ‘Amore Queen of Hearts’ (T&M) is a bit of fun. Creamy-yellow flowers with scarlet marking make it a real eye-catcher and ideal for pots.

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Fuchsia ‘Icing Sugar’

Fuchsias are another flower I don’t normally choose to grow as the flowers are just a bit too fussy for my taste. I was sent F. ‘Icing Sugar’ (T&M) plug plants to trial and, while it’s not completely converted me, if fuchsias are your thing, this is one worth considering. I did like the purple edging to the lower petals and it was still in full flower when I had to clear the pot to put in tulips. The plants – still flowering – are now spending the winter in the greenhouse and I will see how well they do a second year.

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Zinnia ‘Cupid Mixed’

Possibly my favourite flower of the season’s garden trials was Zinnia ‘Cupid Mixed’ (T&M), which produced dainty pincushions of vibrant colour. I put the plants into the new cutting bed where, unfortunately, the slugs and snails also appreciated them but I still managed to get lots of flowers for bud vases.

The misses

Pepper ‘Lunchbox Mix’ from Unwins. This is a variety producing ‘snack-sized’ peppers and ideal for containers. I grew just a couple of plants due to a lack of space – too many tomatoes! – and while they fruited well, the family decided the peppers were too crisp and not juicy enough.

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Pepper ‘Lunchbox Mixed’

Likewise, Strawberry ‘Just Add Cream’ (T&M), which I grew in a hanging basket, wasn’t to our taste. It produced fruit with a flavour similar to an alpine strawberry that we found too perfumed.

The worth another go

A few things just didn’t work out due to weather or other factors but are worth trying again next year.

I had a disastrous season with courgettes and squash with plants either dying overnight or failing to set fruit. Among those I was trialling alongside my usual varieties, were Courgette ‘Shooting Star’ and Pumpkin ‘Polar Bear’, both from Marshalls.

The courgette kept trying to produce fruit, which then rotted off, while the pumpkin that did set was eaten away by the resident slugs. A change of location, greater vigilance and possibly raising the fruit off the ground is planned for next year.

New this year was Kohl rabi ‘Kolibri’ (T&M), something I’ve never grown before. It did produce roots but again they were ‘nibbled’ by the garden wildlife. I also think they could have done with more water on my sandy soil and a site away from the beetroot that grew vigorously this year and bullied everything around it. I will be growing it again in a different spot to see if it will fare better.

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Unwins’ planting kit provided a succession of colour

Blackberry ‘Cascade’ from Marshalls is designed to grow in a container – ideal for those with little space. It did fairly well and produced a handful of fruit but I think it needs a bigger pot than the one I gave it. I’m planning to rehome it in something bigger and will see what next season brings.

Finally, Unwins’ container kit produced a steady succession of flowers starting with violas, moving on to crocus, muscari and tulips and the pack had enough to do two pots. While there’s no doubt that the bulb mats are a really easy and convenient way to plant up a pot, I’m not sure it’s a method I would choose as I prefer to be able to pick my own combinations.

And I’m still waiting to see if Leek ‘Northern Lights’ (T&M) lives up to its name. This variety is supposed to turn purple during cold weather. It’s only just got cold here in the Cotswolds so I’m watching the plants with interest.

All seeds and plug plants were supplied free in return for an honest review.

RHS Chelsea 2017 – in among the flowers

Cotswold gardens are generally big on herbaceous perennials so I love the chance to see something a bit different. The Great Pavilion at RHS Chelsea 2017 didn’t disappoint.

From specialist collections by expert growers to striking floristry and innovative ways to display plants, there was plenty to see this year.

Here are just some of the things that caught my eye.

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The waterlilies on Waterside Nursery’s stand were serenely floating amidst all the bustle of the show.

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And I loved the shaggy heads of this Eriophorum angustifolium, a British native.

The orchid display by the Eric Young Orchid Foundation was attracting a lot of attention. This is Paphiopedilum ‘Saint Saviour’.

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There were some interesting ideas for plant displays. This is a ‘living wall’ of thyme created by using Wonderwall planters.

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Or how about these ideas for house plants?

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It was put together by Indoor Garden Design and Ikea.

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I loved the idea of hanging plants. This was above a bed.

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And this makes a change from a budgie.

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The British Florist Association is celebrating a century of flowers and this display was put together by floristry tutors and students at Moreton Morrell in Warwickshire.

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As usual, the Birmingham City Council stand was eye-catching.

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The Interflora exhibit had a lot of cameras out.

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Of course, if it’s Chelsea there have to be roses. This is Peter Beales’ display.

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The delicacy of ‘The Fairy’ is a change from the larger blooms I generally see.

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This is also a beauty – ‘Rose Ball’.

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I’m planting lots more dahlias this year and, looking at the National Chrysanthemum Society’s stand, I may be branching out into those as well. This is ‘Vanilla Sorbet’.

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I also fell in love with Fibrex Nurseries’ new yellow pelargonium ‘Rushmoor Amazon’.

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Gardens may have moved on from tulips but I couldn’t resist photographing this on Avon Bulbs’ exhibit. It’s ‘Hemisphere’.

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And I love iris but seem to have mainly purple. These from Cayeux are definitely on my shopping list!

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RHS Chelsea 2017 the show gardens in pictures

Review: Good Soil by Tina Raman, Ewa-Marie Rundquist & Justine Lagache

For many gardeners, feeding the soil is like the plumbing in a house, essential but frankly uninspiring. Indeed, the women behind Good Soil admit manures and fertilisers are unglamorous. It’s an image they seem determined to change.

From the start, it’s clear this is no ordinary book on the topic. Artwork images, catchy chapter titles – ‘Beauty Sleep’, ‘Magic Carpets’ – and a magazine-style layout lend a sheen of glamour to topics that plumb the very depths of the subject from the effects of different nutrients on plants to how to make a urine tea and the value of composting toilets.

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The book has been beautifully styled

It’s written by Tina Råman, with photos by Ewa-Marie Rundquist and design by Justine Lagache. The trio make it clear that there is far more to good soil than just adding a bit of homemade compost or a dose of plant food. Only by understanding exactly what plants need from the basic nutrients to trace elements will we get the very best results.

The scope of the book is wide starting with why feeding plants is important and moving through different types of manure – cow, horse and even goat – to exactly how to make compost and what biochar is.

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Manure in all its forms is explained

There’s a section on how to recognise nutrient deficiencies and how to correct them, an examination of the whole organic versus artificial fertiliser debate, and advice on mulches.

Scattered through the book are ‘guest’ appearances by some of Sweden’s foremost gardeners, including Lars Krantz of Wij Gardens, who talks about the need to understand your soil’s temperament, and Göran and Margareta Hoas, whose organic farm is world-renowned.

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Knowing the make-up of your soil is essential

Given the amount of scientific fact that is packed into Good Soil, there was a danger it could have ended up reading like a school textbook. That this trap is avoided is largely down to the jaunty style. Plants, we are told, like “to snack” and the soil is seen as a larder for their food and drink. This meal-time theme runs throughout with compost compared to stock and an application of fertiliser in spring referred to as ‘a hearty breakfast’.

Having examined the reasons for feeding the soil, the authors turn in the later chapters to the different elements of the garden: annuals, perennials, shrubs, trees, fruit and vegetables. What to apply and, more importantly, when is explained, with a useful ‘diary’ and rotation plan.

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Fertilising needs to follow the seasons

Some plants, we are told, benefit from growing together, such as, rather aptly, peas and mint, while putting beans among your spuds is another suggestion as the beans “seem to have a ‘generally favourable influence’ on their bedmates”.

It’s useful tips like this that make the book a winner if you want to really understand how to feed the soil rather than the plant.

At the outset, the trio say “being able to wallow in manure has been great fun”. They have done it in style.

Good Soil by Tina Råman, Ewa-Marie Rundquist and Justine Lagache is published by Frances Lincoln priced £20 RRP. Buy now. (If you buy through this link, I get a small fee. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Frances Lincoln.

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Review: Urban Flowers by Carolyn Dunster

It’s been some years since my gardening was confined to a few houseplants and some pots balanced precariously outside a window but I still remember the compulsion to grow despite the lack of space.

It’s a challenge faced by many city dwellers with little more than a balcony or at best a small garden. Yet with just a little thought even the tiniest area can be turned over to plants.

Urban Flowers by Carolyn Dunster is the perfect guide to getting the best out of what little space you have.

Visually appealing with informative and inspirational photographs by Jason Ingram, it’s the sort of book that invites you in and I found myself starting to read as soon as it was delivered.

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Dunster, a florist and award-winning planting designer – she won the People’s Choice Award at the 2016 RHS Hampton show with a small cutting garden – specialises in planting for urban spaces.

She starts by outlining why urban flowers are important: “the absence of greenery can actually cause us to feel stressed,” she says, urging us “plant it rather than paving it over”.

Examples are given of enlightened municipal planting, community schemes and small steps that make a big impact, such as putting flowers below street trees.

She then takes us through the basic steps required to turn an urban patch green from assessing the space available, including soil type and aspect, to drawing up a detailed plan.

Privacy, gloomy spots, maintenance and even buying compost without storage space are all tackled along with suggestions for using roofs, walls and steps for plants.

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There are some nifty ideas for containers, including transforming the plastic trugs many gardeners use, old catering-sized tins and wooden boxes.

“With a little imagination you can create a container garden almost anywhere,” we’re told.

She outlines three contrasting styles – classic, contemporary and rurban, a mix of rural and urban – and details how to achieve them with ideas for hard landscaping and plants.

For me, the section that makes this book a winner is where she deals with colour and plant combinations.

Using five different colour combinations, she outlines plant partnerships for every season, including cultivation tips with each suggestion.

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Thyme is suggested as a space filler in containers

Woven through are projects ranging from hiding ugly drainpipes with plants and creating a rose tepee to making a ‘herb wall’ and putting alpines in crates. I loved the dahlias grown in an old wooden box but wasn’t sure about growing pelargoniums suspended upside down.

The book ends with advice on getting more out of your plants including how to make cut flowers last, creating a preserved wreath and seed-harvesting.

And that’s the book’s strength: it may be primarily about urban flowers but the advice and ideas are applicable wherever you garden.

Urban Flowers by Carolyn Dunster, photographs by Jason Ingram, is published by Frances Lincoln, priced £20 RRP. Buy now. (If you buy through the link, I receive a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Frances Lincoln.

Read more book reviews here.

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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.

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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.

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‘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?

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‘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.”

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‘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.”

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‘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.”

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‘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.

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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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Flower Advent Calendar 2016

Review: Build a Better Vegetable Garden

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On the path of garden DIY

I’ve never attempted woodwork since a compulsory carousel of practical subjects in my first year at secondary school. It wasn’t a high point in my school life though I fared marginally better armed with a chisel than with a sewing machine in needlework. Build a Better Vegetable Garden by Joyce Russell may change all that.

Covering everything from building an easy fruit cage to constructing a decorative obelisk, it shows how to save money and improve your veg plot by a little bit of garden DIY.

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An apple store is one of the projects

The book, subtitled ‘30 DIY projects to improve your harvest’, achieves the near impossible by appealing to both the no-idea first-timer and the seasoned DIY expert; the latter are advised that they may want to skip straight to the projects.

Starting with the basics – what tools to buy, timbers to use and even the difference between galvanised nails and panel pins – Russell outlines in clear but unpatronising language how to get started.

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Each project has easy to follow steps

There are tips on marking up timber, cutting and drilling, along with the sort of advice that comes only with experience: keep tools in familiar places so you don’t waste time searching for them; don’t cut anything until you’ve checked your measurements; be aware that cutting metal pipes makes them hot so allow them to cool before touching.

She suggests starting with something easy, such as the broad bean support, fashioned out of poles and string. From that you could progress through the leaf mould container and simple cloches to a mini greenhouse or garden caddy.

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The A-shaped bean frame folds flat for winter storage

Each project is scaled for difficulty and the hours needed to complete. I particularly liked the ‘slug-proof salad trays’, complete with either copper pipe legs or feet sat in jars of water or old welly boots.

Woven through these practical projects are cultivation ideas from how to plant raspberry canes to crops for cold frames and what to put in a hazel planter.

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There are ideas for planting in raised beds

Given my previous experience of woodworking, this book did not immediately appeal but it won me over. As Russell says in her introduction: “wherever we are on the gardening journey, there are always more things to learn and more ideas to follow”. This is one path I’m tempted to take.

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The wooden planter can be used for flowers or veg

Build a Better Vegetable Garden by Joyce Russell, photography by Ben Russell is published by Frances Lincoln (£16.99 RRP). Buy now. (If you buy via the link, I get a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Frances Lincoln.

For more book reviews, see here

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How to grow cutting flowers

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One of the lovely British flower stands at Malvern

A friend once commented with surprise that she didn’t expect to see me buying flowers. Surely I had enough in the garden, she wondered. Yes, I did but not for indoors. Like many others, I hate cutting flowers from my borders and would rather buy them than reduce the garden display.

Yet the idea of having a cutting garden has been niggling for months. I’m starting to see many more beds devoted to flowers for the house in the gardens I visit and not just those with rolling acres.

Then the British flowers movement has been a vibrant force at the recent Malvern shows with local growers and florists showing how stunning arrangements of seasonal blooms can be.

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I was inspired by the British flower arrangements at the Malvern show

So, I’ve decided to give it a try prompted partly by a surplus of home-grown sweet William plants and the realisation that I no longer need to produce quite as much veg now the two eldest are both away.

One of the British growers at the recent Malvern Autumn Show was Karen Hughes of The Somerset Cut Flower Garden and I turned to her for advice on how to start.

Karen has been growing cutting flowers as a business for the past three years on half-an-acre of her garden in the Quantock Hills near Taunton. It may not sound much space but provides enough blooms for weddings, parties and bouquets.

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Karen’s innovative flower garland at the Malvern show

“People imagine they need five to 10 acres of plants,” she says. “It’s a myth. It’s really all about what you grow.”

And if you’re not planning to earn a living from it, you can afford to be choosy.

“Grow what you like and know you are going to look after it,” advises Karen. “Everyone has their own personal preference.”

That may be for certain colours – pastels or bright jewel shades – or types of flowers be it tulips rather than iris.

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Tulipa ‘Angelique’ is a favourite for cutting

Karen’s top picks are cornflowers for their range of colour and because they can be used for everything from buttonholes to posies.

Tulips are another must-grow with ‘Angelique’ a particular favourite and she would not be without dahlias, which have a multitude of shapes and colours.

“There is an amazing range.”

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Dahlias offer a huge range of shapes and colour

One she has grown a lot this year is ‘Labyrinth’, which starts off as a coral-pink, turning more yellow in the autumn.

Planning is essential, if you want to get the most out of your plot. Karen starts the year with camellia, followed by narcissi, choosing varieties that offer something extra, such as scent or different colours, because they don’t mix well with other flowers in a vase.

“They poison the water for anything else,” she explains.

The year moves on with hellebores, anemones, ranunculus, then into tulips of all shades before the summer stars, including sweet peas, cornflowers, achillea and roses, and then the autumn display of dahlias. In the winter, she may use the dried seed heads of nigella or hydrangea flowers.

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Perennials such as peonies make good cut flowers

Plants, particularly annuals, are grown through a wire grid to keep their stems straight and, where possible, Karen chooses taller varieties. Many of the seed catalogues now indicate if particular plants are suitable as cutting flowers.

She is also careful to get a mix of flower shapes and will ‘mock up’ bouquets using catalogue photographs to make sure nothing is missing.

Regardless of what you grow there are some general points to consider.

Get the right spot

If you’re growing cutting flowers, the first consideration must be the site. Most flowers prefer an open, sunny position but Karen advises growing some in a more shaded spot, if you have the space.

“You can plant the same things in two different parts of the garden and they will flower at different times,” she says.

Pick for longer

Another way of extending the season is to stagger your seed sowing. Karen sows some hardy annuals in September-October, again in spring and another batch in June or early July to give her some autumn blooms.

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Achillea makes a good cutting flower

She also makes good use of a polytunnel: “It really makes the difference in terms of extending the season at each end.”

Plants grown in there also act as a back-up, if bad weather spoils flowers grown outside.

Do make room for some perennial plants, which will help to cut down on the amount of seed-sowing needed. Peonies are one of Karen’s favourites and make wonderful cut flowers.

Look beyond the stars

Don’t forget the understudies in your floral arrangement. The best combine big stand-out blooms with smaller, contrasting flowers, such as Ammi majus.

Foliage is also important and a good bank of shrubs elsewhere in the garden will provide the necessary ‘backdrop’ to your floral stars. Among those Karen suggests are pittosporum, physocarpus – including the lime and variegated varieties – euonymus and choisya, although not everyone likes the smell of it.

In the vase

If Karen is cutting flowers for a client, she will do it either early in the morning or in the evening and she stands the blooms up to their necks in cold water overnight.

For flowers in her own home, she cuts and arranges them immediately, as making them last is not so important.

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Too many Sweet Williams made me start a cutting border

“Who wants flowers to last three or four weeks? The joy of flowers is they are so ephemeral. You have to enjoy them while they’re here.”

And she adds: “Look hard at what is already in your garden. Give anything a try in the vase as it’s surprising what will work.”

Now all that remains is for me to be brave with the secateurs and not turn my cutting flowers into just another border.

For more information on The Somerset Cut Flower Garden see here

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Plant-hunting at the Malvern Autumn Show

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The nursery displays at the Malvern Autumn Show are always the first place I head. Mail order is all very well but nothing beats being able to examine plants and talk to the people who’ve grown them before you buy. And at Malvern there was no shortage of tempting exhibits.

The judges’ favourite was Hampshire Carnivorous Plants’ display of insect-eating plants (pictured above). I confess to finding them somewhat sinister but the colours were stunning and the exhibit richly deserved its Best in Show award – the third at Malvern for grower Matt Soper and number 11 in total.

Elsewhere, Stella Exley, of Hare Spring Cottage Plants, won her first gold with only her third RHS show exhibit; she got silver at the RHS Malvern Spring Festival and Tatton Park earlier this year.

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There was lots of good detail on Hare Spring Cottage Plant’s stand

I loved the sense of timelessness she had created. It felt like the corner of a real garden that the owner had just stepped out of for a moment.

The sense of a garden was also apparent on Green Jjam’s stand. This Cotswold-based nursery, which specialises in penstemon, showed how they could be worked through a border with things such as Verbena bonariensis, helianthus and grasses to create a soft, cottage garden-like effect.

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Green Jjam Nurseries’ stand showed how to mix penstemon with other plants

And there were plenty of individual plants that caught my eye at the Malvern Autumn Show. Here are just a few I spotted.

Rethinking rudbeckias

I’ve never been too sure about rudbeckia, though my judgement is possibly clouded thanks to my struggles to grow them. It’s the combination of yellow and brown that puts me off so a new variety on Hayloft Plants’ stand really appealed.

Rudbeckia ‘Sophia Yellow’ has an orange central cone instead of the usual dark brown and two-tone petals of yolk and pale yellow, giving a real blast of sunshine colour to a late border.

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Rudbeckia ‘Sophia Yellow’

It grows to about 40cm high and needs more sun than the traditional rudbeckia – so much so that Hayloft are promoting them as ‘Sunbeckia’.

“If you put it in the same category as ‘Goldsturm’, it’s going to struggle,” explained Lark Hanham, of Hayloft.

The Dutch breeders regard it as fully hardy but, until it’s been thoroughly tested in gardens, Lark is advising that it’s hardy to minus seven.

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Rudbeckia ‘Amber Glow’

For those who like the familiar brown and yellow combination, ‘Amber Glow’ is a winner. It has a dark brown centre but the yellow petals have striking red-brown markings.

A cool contrast is a Senecio candicans ‘Angel Wings’. This is so new on the nursery they still have no idea what colour the flowers will be or even what shape. As it’s not hardy, it’s being suggested as a houseplant or as part of a summer border.

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The new senecio has lovely felty leaves

New versions of old favourites

I love heucheras: the foliage is good year-round; they have lovely, delicate wands of flowers; the slugs and snails leave them alone. Malvern always has several specialist nurseries, making it easy to compare different varieties.

On Plantagogo’s stand this year, a new heucherella – a cross between a heuchera and a tiarella – was making an impact.

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‘Art Nouveau’ will eventually make a sizeable clump

‘Art Nouveau’ is a beefy plant that will eventually get 2-3ft across with large green leaves that have a striking dark marking.

“It will have leaves as big as your hand and lovely white flowers,” said Vicky Fox, who runs the nursery with her husband, Richard.

And if it’s brown hues you want, Heuchera ‘Mega Caramel’ has tints of orange, peach and pink in its foliage.

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‘Mega Caramel’ has beautifully shaded foliage

The display by specialist aster growers Old Court Nurseries was stunning and a worthy gold medal winner.

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The gold medal-winning display by Old Court Nurseries

Among the familiar pink, white and mauve blooms was a new variety, ‘Jessica Jones’, a seedling from ‘Ochtendgloren’ but slightly taller and with larger flowers.

Growing to about 4ft-high, it has dark pink buds that open to paler flowers giving a lovely two-tone effect on the plant.

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‘Jessica Jones’

“It’s a pretty good size, robust and very free flowering,” said Helen Picton from the Colwall-based nursery.

Don’t forget the scent

Another pretty pink bloom that was getting admiring glances was Clematis ‘Manon’ making its Malvern Autumn Show debut on Floyds Climbers and Clematis’ stand.

It has almost pearlescent lavender-pink flowers, which appear from May to September, grows up to 5ft, making it idea for a container, and is best in semi-shade for the best colour.

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Clematis ‘Manon’

“It is also good for growing up a low-growing shrub,” said Marcel Floyd.

His tip for growing clematis in a container is to give them two gallons of water once a week and let them dry out, rather than watering daily.

“They don’t like wet feet,” he explained.

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They may be tiny but these flowers have a powerful scent

But it was a pink jasmine that followed me home from his exhibit. Trachelospermum asiaticum ‘Pink Showers’ is an evergreen that flowers from June to September, is drought and salt-tolerant, and deer-proof. It is also suited to any aspect except north-facing.

Best of all, it has that wonderful jasmine fragrance.

Also beautifully scented was the Actea simplex ‘Brunette’ on Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants.

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Actea has a wonderful scent

The creamy wand of flowers is held above deep burgundy-brown leaves. It will grow to around 4ft in height, likes humus-rich soil and needs sunshine to keep good foliage colour.

“It will gradually clump up and can be split after four or five years,” said Rob Hardy.

For those who love honeysuckle but don’t have room for what can be a vigorous climber, one of Newent Plant Centre’s most popular plants could be the answer.

Lonicera periclymenum ‘Honeybush’ doesn’t climb but forms a 3ft by 3ft bush, covered in deep pink and golden blooms.

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A bushy honeysuckle is good for the front of beds or pots

“It still has that fantastic, intense scent,” said Mark Moir of the nursery, which is now based near Ledbury.

The honeysuckle is deciduous, will flower from July to October and can be grown in pots or in a semi-shaded position in the garden.

“If you want to tidy it up, you can prune it in the spring.”

And among the edibles

Mint is rarely thought of as a thing of beauty yet a new variety on Hooksgreen Herbs’ display was stunning.

Variegated grapefruit mint, which was discovered on the nursery, has pale mauve flowers above green and white foliage, which has a definite hint of citrus.

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Variegated grapefruit mint

“At this time of year it goes pink and has good autumn colour,” said Malcolm Dickson.

Finally, I love looking at the veg displays at the Malvern Autumn Show – if only to marvel at their absolute perfection. There’s also usually something a bit different, such as the Karella on W. Robinson & Son’s stand.

Sue Robinson described it as a bitter gourd from India that is used as the base for curries.

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Karella is used in curries

“It’s a bit of an acquired taste.”

And if you don’t like the flavour, you could always use this climber as her grandfather used to: as living greenhouse shading in the firm’s glasshouses.

Read my reflections on the Malvern Autumn Show and its future shape here

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Harrell’s – a hidden plant paradise

A trip to Harrell’s Hardy Plants usually requires a somewhat furtive return and a look of wide-eyed innocence if the plants that have followed me home are spotted. It’s the kind of nursery where it’s hard to leave empty-handed and I rarely do.

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The garden is still full of colour

Of course, it’s difficult to know whether to describe it as a nursery. Should it be a garden that sells plants or a nursery that just happens to have a garden? Either way, it combines two of my great loves and I frequently find excuses to call in.

You need to know where you are going though, as the nursery is tucked away in the heart of Evesham and the narrow driveway between two houses is far from promising. What lies behind are the sort of plants that mainstream garden centres rarely stock and the beauty of Harrell’s is you can see them both on the sale stands and also growing in the one-acre garden.

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Echinacea ‘Raspberry Truffle’

The nursery was started by sisters Liz Nicklin and Kate Phillips in 2000 at first as a part-time venture as both were still working, Liz as a hospital matron and Kate as a primary school teacher.

“The nursery is our replacement for a large garden,” laughs Kate. “We’re frustrated mansion-sized gardeners.”

Indeed, the business grew out of their joint passion for propagating: when they ran out of space at home, they progressed first to selling at WI markets and finally to the nursery.

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Most of the beds have themes

They grow and sell only what interests them – not that this in any way limits their scope. Each has a particular favourite: hemerocallis are top with Liz while Kate has a sizeable collection of salvias and has just started another of baptisia; she already has each of the varieties available in the UK.

Things are sourced at fairs, other gardens or nurseries and used as stock plants. If they can, the sisters will buy several, putting some in the garden and dividing the others or using them for cuttings.

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Grasses are one of the sisters’ many favourites

They are attracted to anything unusual: a beautiful double orange crocosmia, variety unknown; the late bell-shaped Campanula ‘Paul Furze’ that has only just come into flower.

As the nursery name suggests, they tend towards those plants that will survive their windswept site on heavy clay soil, though that does not stop them growing a huge range from grasses and dahlias to hostas and erigerons. They have even managed to keep a tender Mandevilla laxa despite a harsh winter that felled a nearby bay tree and rose. The secret, they believe, is the Anemanthele lessoniana (formerly Stipa arundinacea) that grows in front, shielding the roots.

“It’s got its own eiderdown,” says Liz.

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The Mandevilla laxa survives against the odds

Whatever the reason, the scent from the white flowers is, as Kate puts it, intoxicating.

It seems that as a new interest grabs them, so they make a new border in the garden; it’s a running joke between us that every time I visit they have put in something extra and ‘The Last Bed’ proved to be anything but, with a mini orchard and ‘The Berm’, or mound, later additions.

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Chicory is seldom seen in garden centres

When I went there recently, they had finally removed all the old carpet under the bark paths – it was put there to supress weeds when they took over the derelict site – and were embarking on a sustained campaign against bindweed.

At this time of year, the Grass Bed is one of the highlights but there is something to see everywhere you look: the delicate seedheads of dierama hanging like tiny pearls over a path; a bed of different echinacea, yellow, purple, a pompom of raspberry red; pincushion scabious in varying shades of mauve, the offspring of the original ‘Beaujolais Bonnets’ and ‘Black and White Mix’.

“We’ve got every colour under the sun now,” observes Kate.

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Scabious come up in a range of colours

Many of their plants are not favoured by the big sellers because they tend to languish in pots.

“You don’t find chicory in a garden centre,” explains Liz, “because it grows too tall and doesn’t look presentable all the time. Diarama takes too long to grow.

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Dahlia ‘Sam Hopkins’

“A lot of things we’ve grown almost by default because we’ve seen you’re not able to get them so we’ve got seed or a plant, propagated and then grown more than we need.”

The hemerocallis are a good example of this with Liz raising hundreds from seed sent over by an American breeder every year. Over the years, the sisters have registered several, among them ‘George David’, a strong orange, Nick’s Faith, which is cream with a raspberry rib, ‘Kasia’, which is cream with a peach overlay, and ‘Caroline Taylor’, yellow with white on the midribs.

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Hemerocallis ‘Kasia’

The garden has had a similar unplanned journey, starting as just a way to trial plants but today as much a garden as any other that opens for the National Gardens Scheme.

“It was originally planted as a stock garden but it just sort of morphed,” says Liz.

“It’s because we can’t help planting plants where they look good together,” adds Kate.

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Erigeron against yellow potentilla

It means it’s inspirational as a source of ideas while the sisters are invaluable when it comes to knowing how to grow the things they sell, many by mail order, and they give their advice freely.

I managed to resist buying anything this time but only because a looming holiday meant I would not be there to care for any new purchase. A return trip is already being planned.

For more information on Harrell’s Hardy Plants see here

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