Author Archives: The Constant Gardener

About The Constant Gardener

Head Gardener at Horatio's Garden, Salisbury

Buried treasure

I had run out of compost last week, which rather brought things to a shuddering halt. Cuttings and seedlings which were in need of attention were languishing in their trays and small pots, unable to push on to their next stage of growth. One of the other tasks which risked becoming late was to take the dahlias out of winter storage and give them the kick-start they need at this time of year. Thankfully, compost was found (thank you very much Wilton House Garden Centre – who delivered a load of peat-free compost with great efficiency), and the starting-gun was duly fired…

So, this morning has seen the dahlias see the light of day. Some of the Dahlias at Horatio’s Garden are left in the ground over winter, it being mild and generally dry (or at least free-draining) up on the top of Odstock Down. However, they’ve declined of late – looking at photographs of the garden from even 3 years ago revealed a much better display. So I lifted those that were worth the effort, and they have been stored under the staging in our polytunnel. Christopher Lloyd is rather rude about gardeners who don’t lift and store their dahlias:

“Some people rather pride themselves on leaving their dahlias in the ground year after year and getting away with it. Good luck to them…” (Cuttings, 2007)

It was Christopher Lloyd’s enthusiasm for dahlias which first turned me on to them, while he in turn (somewhere, I can’t find the reference) credits the arrival of Fergus Garrett at Great Dixter with his renewed enthusiasm. Either way, I feel I am in good company, having come to dahlias late in my gardening life.

Taking the dahlia tubers out of winter store always reminds me of getting the Christmas decorations down from the attic. There is a similar sense of anticipation (after all, the dahlias won’t actually flower until late summer), along with disappointment (some tubers have gone soft or shrivelled up – the equivalent of finding that a bauble has broken in the box), and surprise when you discover a pretty one you’d forgotten about.

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Stored dahlias are not a thing of great beauty, somewhere between an alien and a dismembered  scarecrow, but they are full of promise

One or two of the tubers were already showing green shoots, in spite of having been deprived of any earth since October time. I potted them all up in nice, fresh peat-free compost, and gave them a good water. They will now sit happily in the (unheated) polytunnel for a few weeks, possibly yielding some root cuttings as they start to sprout, and then being moved outdoors for the summer when we get there.

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Most of the dahlias have been potted-up in fresh compost. Those scruffy pots behind contain cane begonias, which were also left over winter and have now started to emerge.

At home I am lazy and tend to leave my dahlia tubers in their pots over the winter in the greenhouse. Then in spring I check them over, freshen up the compost and leave them to get on with it. I’ll move them outdoors once the spring bulbs are over and there is some space in borders and large pots (currently full of tulips). What this does mean is that they can get a head start, weather and snails permitting, and produce new shoots good and early.

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This dahlia has had a head start as I left it in compost all winter. Unfortunately it’s lost its label, so we wait to see what it is…

Rather as taking out the Christmas decorations is both a pleasure in itself and a foretaste of the enjoyment to come, so too the dahlias’ emergence promises colour and joy later in the year. And goodness knows we need that.

The end of ‘February Gold’

Nothing spoils the joy of an emerging Tulip display so much as the fag-end of a Narcissus display. So this morning I’ve deadheaded several hundred of the N. ‘February Gold’ which have been delighting patients and other visitors to the garden since 30th January.

N. ‘February Gold’ at its best


I know it was the 30th January because I always take a photo of the first ones to appear. The prize usually goes to a clump which sits in the lee of the hedge but facing south-west up a path towards the ‘top gate’. A combination of factors, I believe, give them a head-start: they’re sheltered from cold winds by the hedge, but the leafless winter hedge doesn’t cast much shade, and they get the best of the low sun down the pathway through the afternoon when it’s at its warmest. It may be something else, but those are my best guesses. However, this year they were pipped at the post by a few bulbs which I’d put in one of the planters: even more sheltered, tucked against the wall of the building, and facing south.


In any event, the ‘February Gold’ have put on a fantastic display, bearing up through the gales and rain of Storms Ciara and Dennis (remember them?), and only starting to fade about 10 days ago. There time had come, and they’re now safe to concentrate on fattening up their bulbs in preparation for next spring.

‘February Gold’ no more


The same treatment will be meted out to Narcissus ‘Thalia’ in due course, although this will be harder as the herbaceous growth will continue to make access to the borders increasingly awkward.
There is more than ‘just’ aesthetics behind deadheading Narcissi (though their browning flowers are a very sorry sight). You want the plant to put all its energy into next year’s flowers, for which it needs its green foliage but not the spent flower head. The plant’s genes, of course, want it to reproduce and so it will try to set seed – the seed-head developing (in Narcissi) as a swelling behind the flower. This is what you need to take off – but nothing more. The leaves must be left, as they have plenty of photosynthesising to do in the next few weeks before they yellow and die back – that’s where the bulb gets its food from.

The sorry sight of a faded Narcissus


There’s a bit of controversy about whether or not the whole flower stalk should be removed, or just the flower head. Admittedly, deadheading and leaving the decapitated stem is usually best avoided, as the headless stems of many plants look ugly and/or silly. However, Narcissus flower stems are – from anything more than a yard away – indistinguishable from the leaves. Furthermore, there is evidence that the stem can photosynthesise more effectively (maybe up to 4 times more effectively) than the leaves, so in terms of feeding the bulbs it makes sense to leave it.


I’ve never understood the ‘traditional’ practice of bending over the foliage of Narcissi and tying it in an odd little bundle. I suppose it was meant to keep it out of sight without wholesale removal, but those little trussed-up parcels of dying leaves look obtrusive and unnatural, drawing more attention to themselves than if left alone, to my mind. I fear that, like pot washing and several other ‘traditional’ winter jobs, it was a task invented by 19th century Head Gardeners to keep their underlings occupied and out of mischief.

A better picture – Narcissus ‘Thalia’, Tulips including ‘West Point’ and ‘Brown Sugar’

Easter Day

This, from 5 years ago – different times in so many ways.

The Constant Gardener

No potato planting – the traditional pastime for allotment folk on Easter Sunday – but a really useful day nonetheless. Mrs G and I weeded and weeded, trying to get the Couch Grass under control, and to clear the ground for sowing and planting in due course. What a bugger it is, with some rhizomes I dug out today being a good 18 inches long or more, and usually tangled with others into some kind of weedy Gordian Knot. Short of dismantling the entire plot, raise beds and all, and starting again after cleansing the site, there is no alternative but to keep weeding. 

The raised beds were all clean and tidy when we’d finished, as was the fruit cage where raspberries are promising to do very well. We must be more diligent about picking them though this year. One of the reasons for growing them is that we, our…

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Potted bulbs

Partly by design and partly by accident, there were a good few bulbs which missed going into the ground back in the autumn and had been happily growing in plant pots over the past few months.

The accidental part is that the filthy wet weather kept me away from the borders for much of the autumn and winter (sic) when bulbs such as Narcissus and Allium should have been going in. Bulbs being, as they are, almost entirely self-sufficient they do not harm from being grown in pots for a time. This applies whether the pots in question are large, ornamental planters or plain black plastic jobs. When I mean by ‘self-sufficient’ is that a bulb is essentially a package containing an entire miniature plant including embryonic leaf, stem and flower parts surrounded by fleshy scales (providing food for the young plant) and a basal plate (which produces roots). If you’ve ever left an onion in the bottom of the fridge, or left a bag of spring bulbs in the shed, you’ll know that they carry on growing quite well without going anywhere near the soil.

Of course, the best method is to ensure that you get all the bulbs into the ground as soon as you can when they arrive in the autumn. However, this isn’t – as last autumn proved – always as easy as it sounds. And the warmer, much wetter winters we seem to be having to get used to are not good news for most spring-flowering bulbs, which are prone to rotting if they get too soggy. Even here, on free-draining chalk, some Tulips in particular struggle to overwinter happily: on clay or poorly-drained ground, they are very unlikely to make it.

Rather than leaving unplanted bulbs in their bag, where chances are they will rot – and, deprived of the fresh energy they derive from being in the ground, they will almost certainly fail to survive for next year – put them into pots of peat-free compost (add a bit of grit to aid drainage) and let them quietly do their thing. 

The ‘by design’ element is that bulbs over-wintered in pots are an absolute boon at this time of year. However hard you try, there are always one or two ‘bald spots’ in the borders, where bulbs have either failed to grow, or – more probably – you overlooked a patch when planting. Sometimes this can be the result of cutting-back herbaceous plants which were still standing when the bulbs were planted, and which were spreading over soil which has now been revealed. Whatever the cause, having some extra bulbs in pots means that you can drop them in to cover the bare patches, providing more-or-less instant cover and colour.

This morning we put in several pots of ivory-white Narcissus ‘Thalia’ to bulk-up one border which was looking a bit sparse, as well as many pots of Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ which will provide both height and colour in a few weeks’ time. Alliums are renowned for having rather ugly, floppy foliage so they are better planted where the lower part of the plant will be covered by other growth, allowing the colourful globe-shaped flower heads to emerge into the air above.

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Narcissus ‘Thalia’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you have nothing better to do…

I’ve not got much time this afternoon for ‘original’ content, but if you’ve exhausted the endless box-sets, classic novels and live-streaming operas we’re all being encouraged to enjoy during self-isolation, I have merged the content from two old blogs (dating back to 2012) on this one.

Goodness knows, you’d have to be really desperate.

Bird food

Well, no warmer this morning, in fact I had to scrape some ice off the car windscreen before driving up to work. And that keen wind is still there, knocking a degree or two off the ‘published’ temperature.

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White Honesty (Lunaria annua var. Albiflora

The bird feeders have been very busy, both at home and at Horatio’s Garden, with Goldfinches particularly abundant. These were unusual birds when I started birding as a schoolboy in the early 70s. In fact, I remember clearly a day when my mother told me about these ‘really exotic looking’ small birds she’d seen in the road not far from our house. I fished out my bird books, and we quickly identified them as Goldfinches, distinctive with their red, black and white faces and gold wing flashes. Nowadays they’re common garden birds for most of us, making the most of humans’ increasing provision of seeds throughout the year. They’re especially fond of sunflower hearts, along with thistle or nyjer seeds – mimicking their natural feeding on teasels and thistles in the late summer. Thinking about it, back in the 1970s, when bird feeding was a very ‘niche’ activity (outside of Mary Poppins, at least) not only were there no foods as exotic as nyjer or sunflower hearts available, feeding was very much a winter activity. Putting out peanuts (one of the bird foods which was available) or any other artificial food between March and October was absolutely the wrong thing to do. We were told that fledglings would choke on these indigestible foods: little realising that birds know perfectly well what to feed their young, and that the adults – run ragged in the effort to keep their young alive and well-fed – benefit enormously from easy access to these energy-rich ‘artificial’ foods during the nesting season.

I haven’t included any pictures in the last couple of blog posts, so here are a couple, linked to plants I’ve written about (I know they’re in the Instagram box on the right hand side of the page, but here they are in bigger, brighter, better versions).

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Tulip ‘Brown Sugar

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Tulipa sylvestris

 

Colourful but cold

Yes, Spring’s arrived – the clocks have changed, Gardeners’ World is back on Friday nights, the birds are singing – but it’s very cold. The wind, which has been in the north or north east for quite a while, really cuts through you even when the sun is shining. I heard that there was snow in Aylesbury earlier this morning. So, let’s not get too carried away.

Nevertheless, the first Tulips are up and about, really quite early. Their colour is more than welcome at the best of times, and these are definitely not the best of times; but their appearance in mid-March is also concerning. It’s almost certainly a product of the warming world we now inhabit, and something we’ll have to get used to in the short term at least. In Horatio’s Garden we have lots of Tulips, which are intended to pick up where the Narcissi (first ‘February Gold‘, then ‘Thalia’) leave off, and then carry the garden through to the beginning of summer. This year the sequence has got a bit compressed and muddled. I am still dead-heading ‘February Gold’ (and some are still looking good) even as some of the first of ‘Thalia’ are starting to fade. And the first Tulips are crashing the party too: ‘Brown Sugar’, ‘Negrita’ and ‘Prinses Irene’ have been flowering for a week or more, and ‘Angelique’ is now showing well. The first flowers of ‘Purissima’ and ‘Ballerina’ are also starting to emerge, so we’re in for an amazing – if slightly anarchic – fruit cocktail of pinks, oranges and the rest within a few days.

Tucked away shyly is the species Tulip, Tulipa sylvestris, a very different character from its cultivated cousins. It comes originally from the Mediterranean and Central Asia, and is often called the ‘Wild Tulip’ or ‘Woodland’ Tulip. We have mixed success with it at Horatio’s Garden, and have planted more bulbs to build up the stock; although where it is really happy it will naturalise and spread quite freely. It grows well on the bank among Sesleria autumnalis (Autumn Moor Grass), and there is another patch under one of the two remaining Betula nigra. Short stemmed and quite delicate it is an unobtrusive flower, but up close you can detect its lemony scent and admire the pretty yellow blooms.

Two years on…

Well, almost two years to the day since my last post on this blog, I’m picking up more or less where I left off… Except that this year’s Spring is well under way already. And, of course, there’s the current unpleasantness to contend with.

Gardening has suddenly become all the rage, with newspapers full of ‘how to’ articles exhorting people to use their new-found free time to grow vegetables, dig ponds, refresh their houseplants, make over their tired plots and the rest. There has been, for the past week at least, a sense that we’re somehow faced with a slightly extended Bank Holiday weekend (minus the traffic jams on roads to the seaside). This, coupled with what have been some lovely, sunny days, has sent everyone scurrying into their gardens to tidy up, enjoy some fresh air, and get going.

Easter  is the time when ‘lay gardeners’ (if I can call them that) start to venture forth, cutting lawns and even getting the rusty barbecue out from the back of the shed. The Easter weekend is therefore – normally (remember ‘normal’?) – the busiest time of the year for nurseries and garden centres. Not this year. The unavailability of compost, seeds and bedding plants will doubtless bring many folks’ good intentions to a sudden halt. Mail order suppliers will certainly enjoy a bit of a boom, which is good news for them – especially the smaller ones – but will it last?

I’m sort-of-regretting that I handed back the key to my allotment last year. It had become a burden rather than a pleasure, and offered diminishing returns as regards produce. But there were some fantastic rhubarb plants, which would have kept us in crumbles for the duration.

And my ‘day job’, looking after Horatio’s Garden at Salisbury District Hospital, has taken a surreal turn. The garden is still open, as the patients in the Spinal Injury Centre are in need of it more than ever. Being able to leave the wards and enjoy a spell of fresh air, sunshine and birdsong will doubtless make the long days a little more bearable. So, I am able to get in and ensure that the garden is safe (no fallen branches or toppled planters) and lovely, but then get out of the way by late morning when patients begin to come out. There is also a greenhouse full of plants and seedlings to keep an eye on, as well as our polytunnel/nursery. Sadly, the annual Plant Sale – for which many of these plants were being grown – has fallen victim to the lock-down: but I can keep many of them for next year, and those which won’t last can be used for a spot of  ‘guerrilla gardening’ around the hospital site if that will brighten the place up a bit at this difficult time.

I will try to keep posting now, and share with you some of what I am up to. I’m off Twitter at the moment, but am putting photos from the garden on Instagram, should you care to have a look.

Thanks for reading, and stay well.

 

When will it be spring?

In February I spent a few days with my family in the far west of Cornwall. Spring was most definitely in the air, the hedges were greening-up nicely, birds were singing enthusiastically, and the sun was warm. Yes, there was rain on and off, but very much in the fashion of April (sic) showers. We even had a hailstorm during one of our walks on the SW Coast Path between Mousehole and Lamorna. But still, it felt decidedly vernal – and we all commented, as we drove home, how the landscape shaded from green back to wintery brown as we drew closer to Wiltshire. Not long now, we innocently thought, before the Penwith green catches us up…

How wrong we were. Since then we’ve had two dollops of snow, the heaviest in getting on for a decade, along with some really cold nights and bitter easterly winds. ‘February Gold’ Narcissi, which were well on their way when I got back from Cornwall, suffered two squashings by the snow – and not only recovered well, but are still going strong in early April. Other spring flowers, however, are well behind, and who can blame them?

It’s been incessantly wet as well. Long days of drizzle at least, and often heavy rain, coupled with overcast skies and chilly temperatures, have all made it feel like we were still in late winter. The occasional burst of sunshine quickly reminds you that the sun is getting stronger now we’re past the equinox, but they’ve been few and brief. The soil is still cold and clammy, certainly far too chilly yet for any seed-sowing outdoors.

The greenhouse is backed-up with seedlings sown with February enthusiasm, but which are not ready to brave the cold frame quite yet.

There is blossom – Blackthorn in the native hedge is out, as is my Fuji Cherry (Prunus incisa ‘Kojo-no-mai’), and the ever-reliable Forsythia – but it is later than usual (or so it seems). No sign yet, though, of Magnolia stellata either. But even getting into the garden seems an effort when the light and the weather are so poor. And with every passing dreary day the list of jobs still to be done can appear daunting, if not overwhelming.

Easter weekend is traditionally the busiest gardening weekend of the year, and one which can be crucial for those dependent on the ‘garden shopper’ . I hope that the wet and cold weather of this Easter will not be too damaging to the fortunes of nurseries and other gardening businesses, who find life hard at the best and sunniest of times.

The Art of Gardens

To London, and the Royal Geographical Society.  I’d never visited Works on Paper Fair before, but this year the organisers have chosen Horatio’s Garden as their charity partner, so this was work. I did have a brief chance to look at some of the fabulous art on show – including some wonderful pieces by neo-Romantic and mid-20th century artists – including John Minton, John Piper and Edward Ardizzone – of whom I am especially fond. Sadly, all out of my league price-wise (one is, after all, only an ‘umble gardener).

 

 

The real reason for the visit was not to look at pictures, but to talk about gardens. Or rather, to listen to others talking about gardens. Horatio’s Garden has been consistently fortunate in having its gardens made by designers from the top drawer of British garden design. And here they were on stage, all five of them, being asked by an audience of 350 guests for their opinions, thoughts and ideas about ‘the art of gardens’.

Cleve West, who designed the first Horatio’s Garden in Salisbury in 2012, was joined by James Alexander-Sinclair (Glasgow), Joe Swift (Stoke Mandeville), Bunny Guinness (Oswestry) and Tom Stuart-Smith (Stanmore)*. Inevitably, the focus was on what makes a successful garden in the context of a hospital setting, and with an eye to accessibility and practicality. Slopes, for instance, are utterly useless for a garden which will be used mostly by patient in wheelchairs – 1 in 100 is just about tolerable, but nothing more or it ceases to be accessible. At the same time, the gardens must be good gardens which hold their own irrespective of the healthcare context: beautiful, thoughtful, rewarding places in which to spend time. Works, dare I say it, of art.

The rights and wrongs of raised  beds (Cleve hates them, Bunny was quite keen); the necessity of encouraging insects to animate the garden as well as to sustain its ecosystem; the need for planting to appeal to all of the senses; and the glory of birdsong – all were entertainingly debated.

Tom Stuart-Smith was spot on when he observed that gardening observes two temporal horizons. On the one hand, there is the familiar annual, seasonal cycle of growth and dying back. But there is also, and must always be, the long view – which Tom felt some modern designers tended to forget, used as we are to immediate gratification and quick results. He likened the design and creation of a garden to the child’s act of pushing a toy boat off from the side of a pond or onto the open sea – it is no longer the child’s, and will follow a course which can not be predicted with any certainty. Nature will do its work – and nature is always the best gardener.

Interestingly, a question about the possible impact of Artificial Intelligence on gardens and gardening elicited a related comment from Bunny Guinness about the use of computer graphics to visualise Capability Brown landscapes. The software allows one to ‘wind back’ the garden to the day it was planted, and then play around with time as the trees ‘matured’ over decades and centuries – showing on screen what the Brown and his peers could only ever see in their minds’ eyes. Which does make their achievements all the more remarkable, I always think. Drones too have their place for the designer, allowing landscapes to be surveyed accurately and pared back to the contours. As to the merits of robot lawnmowers, I think it fair to say that the jury was divided.

As for the essential ingredients of any garden, the plants, each of the panellists was asked for a ‘must have’ plant. These were their choices: Salvia ‘Amistad’ (TS-S), Persicaria ‘Fat Domino’ aka ‘Fat Bastard’ (JA-S), Osmanthus heterophyllus (BG), Aruncus ‘Horatio’ (CW), Sarcococca confusa (JS).

The last word should go to James (he would have it no other way). Gardens should be about joy. If you find that you no longer enjoy gardening, the answer is simple. Stop.

*Horatio’s Garden, Salisbury opened in 2012, and the Glasgow garden opened in 2016. Stoke Mandeville will open later this year. Fundraising for the gardens in Oswestry and Stanmore is underway.