All I want for Christmas . . .

With Christmas rapidly approaching, I’ve been asking some of my nursery friends what’s on their list to Santa.

Talk to any gardener and it won’t be long before you start discussing the weather. Whether it’s been too hot or too wet, it’s rarely just right.

Sisters Liz Nicklin and Kate Phillips, who run Harrell’s Hardy Plants, are hoping Santa will help them get the perfect growing conditions.

Christmas
The perfect weather is on Harrell’s Hardy Plant’s wish list.

“We would like a gift voucher for the weather of our choice for a month – at least!” says Liz.

Failing that, they’d like something a new hose for watering the perennials they grow at their Evesham nursery.

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A hose that doesn’t kink would help with the stock plants.

“Please, please, could we have a non-kinking hose? No matter how much you spend they all kink and usually about as far away from the end as possible.”

Watering is also top of the list at ShadyPlants.com. Sylvia and Tony Marden grow hundreds of shade-loving plants, including ferns, unusual begonias and podophyllum at in polytunnels and glasshouses their home in Painswick and are regulars at Rare Plant Fairs across the region.

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Help with watering is top of the list for ShadyPlants.com

“We would love an automatic watering system that can tell which plants need watering in a mixed collection,” says Sylvia, adding “Tied in a big red bow!”

You could be forgiven for thinking that Christmas has come early for the team at Fibrex Nurseries.

When I caught up with Heather Godard-Key the family business near Evesham had just taken delivery of a new greenhouse for their wide range of plants  – Fibrex holds the National Collections of pelargoniums and ivies, as well as a huge number of ferns.

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Fibrex have plants that are perfect for pots.

Yet, Heather has her eye on something to display their beautiful plants.

“I’d like a really beautiful pot from Whichford,” she says, “or two – but that’s wishful thinking.”

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A Whichford pot – or three – would be perfect.

Perhaps, Santa will oblige.

Of course, it’s not just a busy time of year for him, at The Nursery at Miserden Christmas is also pretty hectic.

The nursery near Stroud stocks a range of perennials, roses and shrubs but this month it’s Christmas trees that are centre stage and preoccupying owner Julie Dolphin.

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Christmas trees are keeping Julie busy.

“We’ve got hundreds of them to be de-netted, displayed and netted again for the customer!” says Julie. “And that’s what I’d like – a de-netting and re-netting robot that also takes the tree to the customer’s car!”

Also on her list are new pots: some that are totally disposable.

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Julie would love some help with the Christmas trees Photo: Britt Willoughby Dyer

“We reuse ours but it would be great for the planet if every pot could be compostable. We grow our herbaceous in peat-free compost so I’d like to think we do our bit but this would be a wish come true.”

Something I’m sure is on every independent nursery owner’s list is the wish for more customers in 2018. If you would like to support our fabulous British growers, you can find details at the Independent Plant Nurseries Guide.

Plants, history and contest plans

Gardeners in Cheltenham are hosting a plant fair and getting an insight into the history of vegetable growing.

Tomatoes will be among the plants at the fair

Lynda Warren will be talking about her father’s experience and her own research in ‘The Wartime Kitchen Garden’.

The talk is being hosted by Charlton Kings in Bloom, a voluntary group that promotes gardening in the Charlton Kings area of Cheltenham.

Members are also planning a plant fair outside the King’s Hall on May 13 from 9am to noon with vegetables, including tomatoes, annuals and perennials.

And the annual garden competition will take place later in the year.

The talk will be held at the Stanton Rooms, Charlton Kings in Cheltenham on Friday April 28, 2017. It starts at 7.30pm and tickets are £6 to include refreshments. They are available from The Forge newsagent (01242 523729).

For more details about Charlton Kings in Bloom, visit the website.

Review: My Life With Plants by Roy Lancaster

my life with plantsI first met Roy Lancaster when he led a guided tour of Plas Cadnant gardens as part of the North Wales Garden Festival. It was a slow procession not because the 80-year-old is unsteady – far from it – but because every time we moved a few feet along the path he found something else to talk about. Latin and common names, cultivation needs and where to find things in the wild were all delivered with such fervour I was left wondering what his reaction had been the first time he’d seen them.

This enthusiasm for his subject colours every page of My Life With Plants, which follows his life from a childhood roaming the countryside around Bolton to becoming one of the country’s most respected plantsmen. It seems that far from being a mere job, hunting out plants and then cultivating them is an all-consuming passion.

my life with plants
Roy on National Service in Malaya

Such is his obsession he dried plant samples under his mother’s carpet, turned down a ‘safe’ teaching job during National Service instead opting to fight in the Malayan jungle because of “its rich tropical flora and fauna” and once there turned his Bren gun ammunition pouches into collecting vessels, stuffing ammunition into his trouser pockets.

Yet, as we discover, it all came about by chance. His first love was bird-watching and on a trip led by a teacher he “spotted a strange plant growing as a weed in a potato patch”. It was eventually identified by the British Museum as the Mexican tobacco (Nicotiana rustica), the first found growing wild in Lancashire and only the second recorded in Britain.

my life with plants
Roy in his garden with Cordyline indivisa, photo RHS/Neil Hepworth

More importantly it sparked an interest in the young Roy that has led to him obsessively plant-hunting all over the world with many leading horticulturalists and the book is as much a who’s who of the plant world as it is about his life.

Although technically an autobiography, My Life With Plants doesn’t follow the usual style. True it charts his progress from an apprenticeship with Bolton Parks Department, through work at Kew, and Hillier Nurseries to television, radio and a successful freelance career but it doesn’t follow a strict chronological line. Nor is there a lot of the personal life that occupies many autobiographies. His wife, Sue, does feature and their children are mentioned in passing but it is the plants that are foremost.

my life with plants
With fellow panel members of Gardeners’ Question Time in 2000

Thanks presumably to the journals he has kept since childhood, he is able to recall exactly where and when he first saw a shrub or tree be it in cultivation or in the wild, while his descriptions bring the scenes he encounters to life.

He describes himself as “a plantsman who loves storytelling” and the book is a series of plant-based anecdotes: the Norwegian taxi driver who refused to stop in a storm when Roy spotted some saxifrage; lying in wait up a tree for thieves at Hillier; battling to give a talk against a séance. All are delivered with the same enthusiasm I encountered in Wales.

my life with plants
Roy in his front garden, photo Sue Lancaster

And his curiosity about plants is still as strong. I next encountered him the following morning at Crûg Farm, the nursery home of respected planthunters Sue and Bleddyn Wynn-Jones, where he and his wife were guests. Breakfast was on the table but Roy was in the nursery garden, eventually stepping through the French doors, eager to tell us what he’d seen.

My Life With Plants by Roy Lancaster is available now, published by Filbert Press in association with the RHS, priced £25 RRP. Buy now. (If you buy through the link, I receive a small fee. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Filbert Press.

Paul sets a growing challenge

There’s a new contest at the Malvern Festival this year. I’ve been talking to Paul Hervey-Brookes about his plans.

Cotswold designer Paul Harvey-Brookes may be well known for his award-winning show gardens but at the RHS Malvern Spring Festival 2017 he’s launching a contest on a much smaller scale.

Rather than large, carefully composed herbaceous borders he’s challenging gardeners to combine growing skills with display flair by showcasing just a few plants in an innovative way.

Although Malvern has always had amateur classes including for alpines and pot plants, Paul believes this contest offers something different.

“The Growing Challenge is about how you present things not just how you grow them,” he explains. “It’s about how you can do it creatively so it’s a thing of beauty and has a narrative story.”

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A display of ferns and other shade-lovers is one category

The first of the five categories in the contest is for a collection of ferns or shade-loving plants, presented in a stylish way while the second is for a terrarium or group of plants that are growing in a sealed unit.

“It could be with soil or without,” says Paul, who is based in Stroud. “It could be ferns hanging from Kilner jars just with moss.”

Houseplants have seen a recent resurgence in popularity and the third category feeds into this trend. It asks for a trio of houseplants in an imaginative display.

“You can grow them in anything you like so long as it can get to Malvern. It could even be in an old grandfather clock or a tea plant growing out of a teapot.”

Paul’s hoping the fourth category in the Growing Challenge will appeal especially to younger gardeners. It asks for a fruiting plant, such as an avocado, grown from seed, and in a suitable container. It doesn’t matter how long it’s been grown, although the sowing date is needed to gauge the growth rate and condition.

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Watering cans could be an unusual planting container

The final category is ideal for those with a small garden or no growing space at all. Competitors have to produce a collection of culinary plants that can be harvested in the kitchen, again with the emphasis on creativity.

“People don’t necessarily have a garden but it needn’t stop you growing things,” says Paul.

And to prove it can be done, Paul is taking the challenge himself and growing something for each of the categories, which he will exhibit at the show in May.

He’s hoping the innovative approach, which is looking for creativity as well as growing skills, will encourage newcomers to have a go.

“I’m really interesting the benefits of nurturing plants and how they can make you feel good about things.”

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Prizes will include vouchers for Allomorphic in Stroud

He will be judging the entries with first, second and third prizes in each of the categories. Among the prizes are Sneeboer hand tools, tickets for a lecture and lunch with Paul, and £50 vouchers for Allomorphic, the gardening and lifestyle store he runs in Stroud; an Allomorphic concession is due to open later this month at Jekka’s Herb Farm in Alveston. The best in show winner will receive a £200 border fork.

It all makes for a busy few days as Paul will also be taking the RHS young designers he mentors to Malvern to pick up ideas and chairing the RHS judging panel looking at the Festival’s show gardens, the first time he’s headed a group.

“It’s a huge honour to be chairman of the judges especially as it’s only my second year as a judge,” he says.

“It’s rather apt that it’s at Malvern as it’s where my design career really launched.”

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The Growing Challenge will be a new feature of the RHS Malvern Spring Festival

And it’s not the only show where he will be leading a judging panel as he is chair of judges for the Artisan and Fresh categories at this year’s Chelsea and will be chair at the Tatton show as well.

With a big show garden for the Institute of Quarrying at the new RHS Chatsworth Show and a Hampton Court garden for show sponsors Viking River Cruises, he’s also got a hectic design schedule.

“It is going to be a busy year,” he admits, “but I think it’s good to see a judge who’s active in the business of making gardens commercially and putting my money where my mouth is and making gardens at the shows.”

The deadline for entries to the Growing Challenge at RHS Malvern Spring Festival is Friday May 5, 2017. Details can be found here

• The Malvern Spring Festival runs from May 11-14 2017. Ticket details here

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.

good soil
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.

good soil
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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Tempted by Rare Plant Fairs

The 2017 dates for the Rare Plant Fairs have just been announced with new nurseries and a second Gloucestershire venue. I’ve been finding out what goes on behind the scenes.

Like most gardeners, I can’t resist a plant sale. Be it a flower show, fundraising community event or merely a table at the end of someone’s drive, I find it impossible to go past without taking a look. So, Rare Plant Fairs with their selection of specialist nurseries are particularly tempting.

rare plant fairs
Rare Plant Fairs are a great way to stock up

Unlike the big shows, there’s no limit on visitor numbers, high entry prices or miles to walk back to your car with purchases. As for shopping online, buying direct from the nursery with the chance to discuss growing needs and suitability for your plot is much better.

And the fairs are invaluable for smaller nurseries, who can’t afford the big shows or don’t have time to open the nursery.

“They are often one or two person bands and it’s a balance between growing plants and selling them,” explains Ian Moss, who runs the Rare Plant Fairs with his wife, Teresa.

“The fairs really do offer the opportunity for these smaller and very good nurseries to get out and put their wares in front of the gardening public.”

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The Old Rectory in Quenington is a regular venue

The idea of Rare Plant Fairs started in the early 1990s with events organised by Derry Watkins, of Special Plants nursery in Wiltshire. She ran them for several years before handing the organisation on.

By the mid-2000s the events were floundering and it was then that the nurseries took over running them, with Gloucestershire grower Victoria Logue of Whitehall Farmhouse Plants one of the first to be involved.

The idea behind today’s events is simple: gather a group of diverse nurseries and let them set up shop in a good garden; entry to the fair includes admission to the garden.

“We try to price the event to be at or slightly below the normal cost to visit that garden,” says Ian.

The money raised is divided between the Rare Plant Fairs to cover admin costs and the garden owner. Some use it to help with running costs, others donate it to charity.

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Highnam Court is a new venue for 2017

This year, a second Gloucestershire date has been added to the calendar. As well as the long-running April event at riverside plot The Old Rectory in Quenington, there is a July event at the 40-acre Highnam Court, near Gloucester. Both will be run in aid of Cobalt Health, a Cheltenham-based charity that provides MRI scanning for dementia and cancer.

Another new venue that is likely to prove popular is Hanham Court, near Bristol, which will be hosting a fair in June. Once the home of designers Isabel and Julian Bannerman, whose many projects include the stumpery at Highgrove, it is now under new ownership and is a classic English garden (pictured top) full of roses and lilies.

The new fair at the Walled Garden, at Cannington, Somerset, in July offers the chance to see a wide range of unusual plants, including a collection of cacti.

“It’s got quite a mild climate for the area so they get away with some slightly more ambitious planting than you would normally expect in Somerset.”

In addition, 2017 sees a second event at the popular Bishop’s Palace in Wells, Somerset. As well as the regular March date, there will be a fair in August when the herbaceous borders are at their best.

Rare plant fairs
The Bishop’s Palace will host two fairs

It also gives Ian and Teresa the chance to showcase some different nurseries: a hellebore specialist will be there in the spring; a salvia grower is booked for the August date.

Organising the fairs is a job that starts before the previous season ends, with the couple visiting possible new venues to check their suitability – parking can be a deciding factor – and checking that existing gardens wish to continue.

Applications for a coveted nursery slot open in October and close a month later. Then comes the task of matching requests to events, making sure everyone gets their share while maintaining a good variety at each fair. There’s also the need to recognise the loyalty of nurseries that have supported the fairs for years while encouraging newcomers.

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Nursery displays are simply plants on tables

For 2017, there are around 250 ‘spaces’ across all the fairs and around 350 requests were received.

Nurseries come from all over the country, including Cornwall, Essex, Leicestershire and Wales and typically there will be around 15 at each fair; the largest at Kingston Bagpuize in Oxfordshire in May has 30 stalls. Many nurseries offer a wide range of plants, such as herbaceous perennials, others are more specialised: orchids, shrubs or alpines. All are ‘vetted’ to ensure they are growers rather than merely retailing plants brought in from elsewhere.

This season, new nurseries include hellebore specialist Kapunda Plants, Gardener’s Delight, from North Devon selling mixed herbaceous and Hertfordshire-based Daisy Roots with hardy perennials and grasses. Fibrex Nurseries, near Evesham, also return with pelargoniums, ferns and ivies after a gap of some years.

rare plant fairs

Once the details are finalised, the publicity drive starts with 45,000 copies of the events guide printed and the newsletter emailed out.

The fairs are popular, not only with nurseries but also with gardeners; many prefer the ‘down-to-earth’ atmosphere with nursery stands merely a trestle table loaded with plants rather than the complex displays seen at the big shows.

Last year, thanks to rain-free days, the events had their best season ever with an average of 550 visitors per fair.

And they are friendly events with the growers themselves often buying from each other before the fair opens. It seems that, like me, they can’t resist a plant sale.

For more details of venues and dates see Rare Plant Fairs

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Review House of Plants by Caro Langton and Rose Ray

Despite growing houseplants since childhood, we’ve always had an uneasy relationship. True, I did keep an asparagus fern going for more than 30 years but then I’m also probably one of the few people who has managed to kill a mother-in-law’s tongue. Houseplants also became less important once I left student days behind and finally got a garden of my own.

So, I was intrigued by the offer of a review copy of House of Plants by Caro Langton and Rose Ray. Would it rekindle my interest in indoor greenery and, more importantly, would it show me where I’ve been going wrong?

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Houseplants are a great way to bring outdoors inside

The authors’ love of growing houseplants began when they inherited a London house from Caro’s grandmother and in it “a collection of ancient cacti, succulents and tropical plants”. It’s these plants that they concentrate on in the book; if you’re planning to grow orchids, it’s not for you.

Wanting to know more about their new charges, they started to research and, more importantly, observe where the plants were growing and thriving in the house. Indeed, knowing what each plant likes is the key to their philosophy.

growing houseplants

“When it is in its ideal position, a plant will be at its attention-grabbing, animated best and it will thrive,” we are told.

Yet this is not strictly a ‘how-to-do’ book. It’s far more interesting than that. Beautifully illustrated with carefully composed photographs and some sketch drawings, it has more of the feel of a lifestyle guide than gardening tutorial and is written in an easy, conversational style.

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Houseplants can be used to screen ugly views

Yes, it does cover how to care for different plants, including watering, feeding, light and temperature requirements, whether they need humidity and how to repot, but there are also ideas on how to display them from using chairs and stools where there are no shelves to creating a foraged wall hanging.

Indeed, display is as important as care when it comes to growing houseplants and there are numerous suggestions: grouping plants in a glasshouse terrarium; sourcing unusual pots from markets and second-hand shops; making your own coir and concrete pots. I’m not sure seventies-style macramé plant holders will make a comeback though.

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There are ideas for displaying houseplants

Many of the ideas are accompanied by step-by-step instructions and photographs, while more advice covers plant ailments, repotting, propagation and even cleaning – with a paintbrush in the case of a prickly cactus.

Some of the tips are simple: taking a cardboard box along, if you are planning to buy a spiky cactus. Others are more complicated: mixing your own compost and how to make nettle fertiliser; I hadn’t realised strawberry leaves were an alternative.

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Houseplants can be used as table decorations

Meanwhile, a ‘cast list’ of plants and a glossary explaining horticultural terms make this ideal for the beginner who’s thinking of growing houseplants.

As for me, I was amused to find mother-in-law’s tongue among ‘The Immortals’, plants that “will keep bouncing back no matter what life (or their owner) throws at them”. Perhaps it’s time to give it another go.

House of Plants by Caro Langton and Rose Ray is published by Frances Lincoln, priced £20 RRP. Buy now. (If you buy via the link, I receive 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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The trials of gardening

As a gardening journalist, I’ve long been given plants, seeds and bits of kit to test in my own plot. Some are established favourites with growers, others things firms are keen to promote, occasionally it’s a variety so new it has yet to be named and it comes with just a reference number. Gardening trials are a great way to discover new things and push the boundaries of what you grow.

This season has seen me raising everything from cosmos to cabbage and testing a peat-free compost. There have been a few disappointments and one or two surprises.

Star plant

Possibly the stand-out plant of the year was Petunia ‘Night Sky’ from Thompson & Morgan (pictured above) mainly because I really didn’t expect to like it. I have a love-hate relationship with petunias. On the one hand, they are a useful summer bedder for containers but they need a lot of dead-heading to look good – something I find a horribly sticky job.

‘Night Sky’ seemed even less likely to appeal as I expected the white-splashed dark purple blooms to be a bit garish.

In fact, I rather grew to like them. The purple had a velvety sheen to it and the white splashes gave them a cheerful rather than comical look.

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Cosmos ‘Xanthos’ proved a winner

I put them in a pot with Cosmos ‘Xanthos’, also supplied by Thompson & Morgan. Launched in 2015, it has pale yellow flowers that fade at the edges and a darker, golden centre. The plants are dwarf, making them ideal for containers.

If there was a problem with them, it’s deadheading, as the flowers are packed onto the stems, making it difficult to snip off spent blooms without accidentally removing flower buds.

There were a few plants over after I filled my container so I put them in some spare ground I had in one of the borders. Expectations were low as it’s one of the shady spots but the cosmos performed well, flowering happily in the semi-shade.

Surprising success

Cabbage was another surprise in this year’s gardening trials. It’s not something I usually bother to grow. Brassicas are fraught with difficulty thanks to cabbage whites and the garden’s resident wood pigeons – there’s only so much ground you can net – and I prefer to use precious space for something that’s a bit more unusual and difficult to buy, such as cavolo nero.

gardening trials
I really liked this cabbage

However, with a packet of ‘Gunma’ seed from Marshalls, I decided I might as well give cabbage a go. I limited the trial to half-a-dozen plants and began to wish I’d grown more. The cabbages are tightly packed, crunchy and with a good flavour. Definitely one to repeat.

Blight blues

Tomatoes are a family favourite and one of my main crops; I generally grow about six different varieties, ranging from cherry type to large Italian varieties for cooking.

This year, I was asked by Suttons to grow ‘Crimson Crush’ as part of my gardening trials. Billed as 100 per cent blight resistant, it is a cordon variety producing large fruit.

gardening trials
‘Crimson Crush’ tomatoes were the first to fruit

Did Suttons know something? For the first time in years my garden, along with those all around, succumbed to a bad attack of blight. And yes, the ‘Crimson Crush’ fell victim along with the other varieties. That said, it was among the last to get it.

What was noticeable was that in a poor growing season – the tomatoes set badly and very late – ‘Crimson Crush’ was the first to fruit, producing weeks before some of the others, both in the greenhouse and outdoors. It wasn’t my favourite to eat raw, but that’s just personal taste as I prefer smaller, sweeter varieties. However, it’s size does mean that it’s not too fiddly to cook with.

Compost testing

The blight rather curtailed another of my gardening trials: peat-free compost from Dalefoot. I had been growing a few tomato plants in my ordinary peat-free mix and a few in Dalefoot’s new ‘Wool Compost for Vegetables and Salads’.

The Dalefoot range, from Cumbria, combines sheep’s wood and bracken, both renewable resources, and claims to cut the need to water by up to half, while providing a steady release of nutrients.

What I did find, before the tomato plants bit the dust, was that those grown in the Dalefoot product were significantly bigger than their counterparts, with exactly the same watering and feeding regime.

gardening trials
Dalefoot composts are made from wool and bracken

I tried the ‘Double Strength Wool Compost’ on a couple of my veg beds to see if it would improve the free-draining, sandy soil. It’s a difficult thing to judge, but certainly the squash fared better there, the sweetcorn grew strongly and the soil had a better texture.

Finally, the ‘Wool Compost for Seeds’ was easy to use and produced good germination. I particularly liked its lump-free texture, quite different from other peat-free composts I’ve encountered. Had I been more organised, I would have tested it against the same seed sown in a different medium but sometimes life’s just too busy.

If there’s a drawback, it’s the price. At £10.99 plus delivery for a 30L bag of the standard ‘Wool Compost’, if you order 2-11 bags, it’s not a cheap option. Prices do drop, the more you order – perhaps with a group of friends or through a gardening club – but it could be too expensive for those on a tight budget. It is also stocked in some garden centres, which would take the delivery charge out of the equation and it could be mixed with home-produced compost to eke it out.

A disappointing dish

gardening trials
The ‘Egg & Chips’ spud harvest

Possibly the most disappointing thing in the gardening trials was unsurprisingly, Thompson & Morgan’s ‘Egg & Chips’ plant, an aubergine grafted onto a potato. Despite being mollycoddled in the greenhouse, it produced just one aubergine and a handful of spuds. Not bad until you consider the £14.99 price tag for the 9cm grafted plant. Definitely in the gimmicky but not a serious contender category.

Planning for spring

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A white pumpkin is on next season’s list

So much for 2016. I’m already looking ahead to the next growing season and new gardening trials. A spotty nasturtium, courgette and pea suitable for containers, two-tone tomato and white pumpkin are already lined up for the gardening trials.

I’ve also just planted up pots using a new planting collection – ‘Winter Wonder Gro Thru’ – put together by Unwins containing a mixture of tulips, crocus and grape hyacinths.

The bulbs are packaged in three ‘bulb pads’ designed to make the planting quicker and easier. All you do is put a layer of compost in a pot, put in the first pad, add more compost and so on, finishing with the viola plugs that come with the kit. The pads are numbered and even tell you which way up to place them in the container.

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Bulb pads make the planting easy

I’m not sure if this will appeal to experienced gardeners as it limits your choice and ‘bulb pads’ seem unnecessary for what isn’t a particularly difficult job. However, at £19.95 for enough to fill two pots, it’s reasonably priced. There is also a ‘Spring Fireworks’ version, which has narcissi, Dutch iris, chionodoxa and pansies.

It’s all in the soil

Finally, I will be trying out a new compost accelerator and a soil improver that have been launched recently by SoilFixer.

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SoilFixer’s compost humification agent

The Northumberland-based company claims that compost made with its activator will double crop growth and yield, while the ‘SF60 Super Soil Improver’ is said to greatly improve water retention while adding important nutrients. My lightweight soil sounds the ideal testing ground.

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Plant-hunting at the Malvern Autumn Show

malvern autumn show

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.

malvern autumn show
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.

malvern autumn show
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.

Malvern autumn show
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.

malvern autumn show
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.

malvern autumn show
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.

malvern autumn show
‘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.

malvern autumn show
‘Mega Caramel’ has beautifully shaded foliage

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

malvern autumn show
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.

malvern autumn show
‘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.

malvern autumn show
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.

malvern autumn show
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.

malvern autumn show
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.

malvern autumn show
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.

malvern autumn show
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.

malvern autumn show
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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Plant sourcing for the pros

When we’re gazing at a medal-winning garden at one of the summer’s many shows, how many of us stop and wonder where they got the plants? Every designer knows that their ideas for a garden are only as good as the plants that go in. It’s something that RHS show gardens are marked on and the sort of detail that can make or break your reputation when it comes to private clients. Yet plant sourcing is like the foundations in a house: essential but rarely thought about once the structure is finished.

plant sourcing
Plants from one designer’s order

In the Cotswolds, Genus Plant Sourcing has turned finding the right plant in the best condition into a thriving business. Their well-oiled machine underpins the work of garden designers, landscapers and architects across the region and beyond.

Boss Matt Coles and his number two Pippa Haines hunt down everything from tiny bulbs to huge trees and everything in between.

Shopping lists and show stars

When we meet at their base just outside Cheltenham, they have just taken delivery of plants that will eventually have a starring role at BBC Gardeners’ World Live in Birmingham.

plant sourcing
Geraniums are one of the many plants they source

Sumptuous ‘Bowl of Beauty’ peonies, starry astrantia, sedum, calamagrostis and cirsium are all waiting on Dutch trolleys.

They will be used by Herefordshire designer Olivia Kirk for a garden she is creating with landscaper Andrew Ball of Big Fish Landscapes in a new contest at the show this year.

plant sourcing
Big Fish Landscape’s BBC Gardeners’ World Live entry

Run by the Association of Professional Landscapers, it features gardens that show what can be achieved in a small space for a specific budget and will be judged as much for the construction as for the design.

Andrew, who is also Herefordshire-based, and Olivia are building a £25,000 family entertaining space with an eye-catching water wall.

Olivia, a Chelsea medal winner, is a long-time client of Genus and, like other show designers, picked out the individual plants she wanted on trips to their suppliers rather than relying on what’s sent in, vital when the condition, size and even shape can affect the marks awarded. It’s more time consuming for the Genus team but something Pippa enjoys.

plant sourcing
Olivia’s 2014 Fresh garden for Cheltenham charity WellChild won silver gilt

“I like working on the show gardens,” says Pippa. “It’s a challenge and I like working one-to-one.”

Each customer is given a copy of the firm’s catalogue – a list of the plants they can supply – to help them make their choices. It covers commonly seen things and some more unusual varieties and has sections for herbaceous, shrubs, climbers and even aquatic plants.

Then their ‘shopping list’ is sent out to all firm’s suppliers to see who can supply and in what quantity. It’s not uncommon for an order to be sourced at several different nurseries, especially if large numbers of a particular variety are needed.

Often, clients are sent photographs of plants, particularly large, specimen trees, to make sure it’s exactly what they want.

Sometimes, the firm will be asked by a landscaper to draw up a planting plan and find the plants.

plant sourcing
Box topiary waiting to be delivered

Genus Plant Sourcing deal with growers all over the country, having found them through word-of-mouth, online research or even, in the case of one grower, by spotting their van and following it back to the nursery.

Only commercial, wholesale growers are used and each has been personally vetted by the Genus team.

Some suppliers are abroad: they deal with Dutch and Italian firms, often for things like box and bay, with a lorry-load from Holland every fortnight, made up of items for several clients. This ‘group ordering’ allows designers to get just one or two things from wholesalers.

Snags and changing fashions

Once the plants are delivered – or collected by the Genus team – from their growers, they are sorted into individual orders at the Cheltenham site.

Of course, it’s not always easy to find rare plants and every few weeks the ‘snagging list’ lands on Pippa’s desk. These are plants that their regular growers can’t supply and, having checked the client is determined to have that particular variety, Pippa begins painstaking research to find the right thing.

“We always strive to find what people want,” she says. “We don’t like to have to sub plants.”

plant sourcing
Roses brighten up the firm’s base

One of the biggest plant sourcing job they’ve had was for a hornbeam for a London garden. It was so large it needed an artic lorry to move it and the road had to be closed to allow a crane to hoist it into position. At the other end of the scale, designers will ask for quantities of bulbs.

With garden shows acting like the catwalks of London or Paris, plant fashions soon start to influence requests to the firm with Anemone ‘Wild Swan’ and ‘Invincibelle Spirit®’ hydrangea – a pink form of the white ‘Annabelle’ – both suddenly becoming popular.

Meanwhile, hard winters a few years ago have resulted in the popularity of ceanothus and escallonia tumbling.

“Plants definitely go in fashions,” observes Pippa, adding “I can look at a list and know who it’s from. People do tend to use the same plants.”

BBC Gardeners’ World Live runs from June 16-19 at the NEC Birmingham and includes show gardens, a display of ‘beautiful borders’, a rose festival, gardeners’ advice centre and nurseries from across the country in the floral marquee.

For more information visit https://www.bbcgardenersworldlive.com/

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