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.


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.


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).


Tulip ‘Brown Sugar










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.


I got a bit distracted by the previous post’s theme – a consequence of spending the day trying to restore order in the garden, and finding myself with repeated handfuls of soggy brown leaves to decant into my green bin – and went on a bit. Sorry.

The geist of the day, however, was good and productive. I managed to go through the greenhouse plant by plant, checking on a the many overwintering Salvias, Penstemons, Pelargoniums (shouldn’t that be Pelargonia?) – all of which were potted up in late summer, and all but two of which have survived. Indeed, several are thriving with the promise of cutting material aplenty in due course. Which does raise the question of where exactly I am going to put them all when they grow to maturity…

2018-01-28 16.28.29

Inside the greenhouse after a tidy. The sad-looking Musa basjoo is fine, just resting over the winter like an ageing repertory actor.

I think they will fill the various pots and planters which are currently full of Narcissi and Tulips, queueing to flower over the next two or three months. Today I – very belatedly – potted up some Narcissus ‘Thalia’ and ‘Tete a tete’ from black plastic pots into presentable terracotta. They will join the others, planted back before Christmas, when they are flowering, and be placed around the garden to provide focal points of colour and interest.

The main herbaceous border was also a focus of my attention, as I cut back masses of dead and dying stuff. I pulled the plug on a scruffy old Solanum crispum, which used to live in a big pot on our decked area before that was torn up for the new shed. It’s never liked its subsequent location and neither have I – so into the green bin it went. At this time of year I always tend to plan an overhaul of at least part of the main herbaceous border – it currently contains far too much Lemon Balm, Tansy and Marjoram: three plants which are difficult to contain, and easy but fairly unrewarding. I didn’t have time to start clearing today, but their days are numbered. Kerria japonica is another plant I struggle to like – I’m not sure why I planted it in the first place – so it too was dealt with firmly.

One other greenhouse job was finally calling time on the chilli plants. I gathered the last few useable chillies, and then composted the plants. It is already time to sow this year’s chilli seeds, though I tend to grow a mixture of plants from seed along with a few I buy as plugs. The heated propagator isn’t set up yet, so the chilli sowing will have to wait for next weekend. A pot of Sweet Pea ‘Windsor’, sown back in October, has done very well in the greenhouse – strong roots are already showing through the bottom of the pot, and I pinched back the tops to encourage the plants to bush up a bit before I pot them on.

2018-01-28 16.33.04-1

The last of the 2017 chillies

A final greenhouse task was to fit a new automatic opener to the roof light, the previous one having seized up. Although the greenhouse is unheated, ventilation is important – and equally, the south-facing greenhouse can get very hot on sunny days all year round. A fiddly and slightly irritating job, involving repeatedly dropped screws and a modicum of cursing, but it’s all up and ready for the next warm day.

Then, as the light began to fade, and the blackbirds started their dusk chatter, it began to rain steadily but softly. I took the cue, made myself a mug of tea, and sat to reflect on a happy and productive day, clearing the decks for the season ahead.

2018-01-28 16.16.57

A mug of tea in the drizzle – feeling damp but contented.



In theory, I am all in favour of not going for a major autumn tidy-up in the garden. Many people like to ‘put the garden to bed’ some time in late October, once the dahlias and late-summer colours have done their thing. There is a certain appeal in the neatness which ensues, and the way it allows early spring to manifest itself unencumbered: snowdrops pushing through clean, bare earth. And it does allow you both to get a heavy mulch on to borders before the winter sets in, and to have plenty of clear ground for planting spring bulbs.

However, taking a different approach, and leaving herbaceous plants to die back naturally has many – I think, more – advantages. Firstly, many plants will keep going longer than you might imagine. There were dahlias and antirrhinums flowering well into November – a pleasure which an autumn tidy would have cut short. Secondly, leaving stems and seed heads is good for wildlife – providing food, shelter, even spots to tuck away and hibernate. And third – and the point of this post, perhaps – it provides some interest through the winter. There can be great beauty in the way low sunlight catches the browns and yellows of dying foliage, or the way frost gently seizes an Eryngium head or a spider’s web between two stems of Verbena – that image so beloved of the gardening magazines. Bare soil never quite catches the eye in the same way.

This is the approach we take at Horatio’s Garden, where generally we cut back very late in the winter – in fact we’re still doing it now; last year it was well into February. The patients and visitors need to see shape and colour in the garden, even – perhaps most of all – on a dreary January day.

And yet. This winter has been so mild, wet and windy that it’s challenged this approach for me, at least in my own garden. We’ve had no snow at all, and hardly any proper frosts, certainly no prolonged cold spells. I’ve just spent the day clearing and tidying the borders, and regretting that I didn’t do it in November – so much wet mush and soggy mess, foliage turned the texture of dishcloth and soaked paper. It’s unpleasant to the eye, and even more unpleasant to gather up by the handful. Most frustratingly, swamped by some of this gunge are emerging snowdrops, hellebores and primroses – which are now free to enjoy their moment, no longer surrounded by decay and sodden brownery.

2017-12-29 10.15.48-2

Maybe – if mild, wet winters are the anthropocene future here in southern England – I’ll have to rethink the approach…

Back to the lottie

Let me be honest. Last year my allotment was a disaster. Not because of weather or pigeons or tomato blight. Because of my neglect. I failed to prepare, plant or then attend to  the plot at all, and as a consequence it became a weedy mess. My attentions were then limited to a few Blitzkrieg attacks with the strimmer, in a vain attempt to assuage my guilt, placate my neighbours and avoid a stroppy letter from the council. And then the Gotterdammerung climax of a massive bonfire in the autumn, when – in a frenzy of (more) guilt and frustration – I burned more or less everything in sight. Not a happy tale. [I’m not sure why I’m describing my year at the allotment in the same Wagnerian terms as the rise and fall of the Third Reich – no doubt a shrink would tell me].

Over the winter, in anticipation of the request for my 2018 payment, I agonised about keeping the plot on at all. A good gardening friend (that is, a good friend, and a good gardener – you know who you are) had given up hers. How could I justify keeping it on if I not only didn’t grow much,  but couldn’t even look after it?

A conversation with a London allotmenter last summer stuck in my mind. When I confessed to her that my growing plans for 2017 amounted to little more than ‘rhubarb and raspberries’, she looked at me appalled. If that were the case with someone on her site, she said sternly, they’d be given their marching orders, and the plot would be given to someone prepared to do it properly. Wasn’t I keeping someone else from a worthwhile exercise in modest self-sufficiency and healthy eating? 

But then, there’s history bound up with my plot. We got it when the boy was a baby – he’s now heading precipitously for 14. We’ve had happy days there as a family, and have the photos to prove it. Damn it, we were ahead of the curve when we took it on back in the early 2000s, before allotments became desirable again. A young family with an allotment was a novelty – I was interviewed by the (then new) ‘Grow Your Own’ magazine. How could I walk away from those memories?

Admittedly, the allotment is now in a worse state than it was a decade ago. And therein lies another tale, that of my transition from hobby allotmenter to professional gardener. Too many times I’ve not wanted to spend the weekend weeding, when I’ve spent all week on my knees amongst the creeping buttercups and couch grass. And, of course, being a full-time gardener means that my anxieties (never far below the surface) about what the allotment looks like are ever greater. I have no excuse for not having a fantastic, abundant, Instagram-worthy plot. And that burden, really far more about anxiety than time or energy, has weighed me down latterly.

So, it was with trepidation that I approached the plot yesterday for the first time this year. And?

Well, it was a weedy, overgrown mess. There, I’ve said it. I’m not proud, but it was not perhaps as bad as I’d feared it would be. Couch grass has re-asserted itself all over the place. To be honest, it’s never really disappeared since we took the plot on. I rue the hours spent obsessively getting the raised beds level and square, when all they did was give an appearance of good order. I should have spent the first twelve months clearing and weeding the ground, before even thinking about building raised beds, fruit cages and the rest. Now the raised beds are falling apart, and the weeds are back.

I took up my strimmer, and went over the whole patch. It looks like someone cares for it now. And the area I gave the scorched earth treatment last November is still weed-free. There is rhubarb coming, and the fruit trees are looking good.

So I’m going back to basics. First of all, I shall lift and ‘park’ all the plants I want to keep: cardoons, currant bushes. Then, I’m hiring a weed-burner for a weekend to give everything a blast and take all the grass and weeds back to soil-level (at least, that’s what I hope will result). I shall channel my inner Colonel Kilgore, and blast out ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’ as I work. Then it’s the unsightly but practical black sheeting for as much of the plot as can be covered. The shed needs re-roofing and painting. The raised beds need either removing or repairing – about half and half. Get all that done, and maybe, by the time the days are longer and the sun a bit warmer, I’ll be in a position to sow some seeds.