Taming the wisteria beast


Wisteria is a love/hate plant – somehow easiest to love when you catch sight of its graceful flowers on a drive through the country, past places you rarely or never see. A glimpse of wisteria’s pale purple tresses arrayed down the front of a house is breathtaking.

But if you are the minder of the creature that is wisteria, you’ll know how hard-won that grace is. This is a vigorous, jungle-ready climber, and the slim, year-old plant I put into the ground in 2004 is now thick as a python at its base, with ambitions to cover not just the south-facing wall of our cottage, but our entire village here in eastern Scotland. Coaxing the plant to stay where I want it is like persuading a giant beast to stand against the wall and spread ’em.

Perhaps any wisteria would be like this, but my wisteria floribunda is as vigorous as I’d ever want any plant to be. I thought I was ordering wisteria sinensis – something I still haven’t forgiven the mail-order company for – as sinensis flowers before it leafs up.

This is important: it means it’s easier to see the flowers on sinensis, which resemble bunches of grapes, than on floribunda, whose flower racemes are up to a meter long and come at the same time as its leaves, obscuring the blooms. This means I end up wrenching off a handful of leaves every time I pass the plant in May. By this late stage, I’ve worked too hard on this plant all year — through the years — to let it hide its glory away.

April is probably the most exciting time, as the bare branches burst, like the plant is shaking out 500 shaggy brown tails. These lengthen into snouts, then finally into ultra-long tresses of lavender flowers with a haunting, powdery-sweet scent … providing I’ve done everything the wisteria has demanded up to this point, that is. This includes:

  • the August pruning of unwanted shoots
  • the winter-prune shortening of side shoots to a finger’s length
  • the spring application of sulfate of potash
  • early-years training of the branches sideways along taut wires
  • a decade of clipping the plant’s branches so that most of them stand out from the wall like hanging basket brackets, to let the flowers hang free when they finally appear.

But all is forgiven on those early mornings in mid-May, when the rising sun angles through the elder and rosa glauca in the east of the garden and spotlights a perfect wisteria floribunda, which by that point I’m brutally de-leafing, up to twice a day.

Cups of tea taken on the bench under the wisteria are some of my happiest times in this garden. We’ve attached a mini-pergola to the house, like an awning over the bench, to nudge the plant away from the wall and give its racemes space to hang.

Looking up through it, it’s as if the pale purple tresses of wisteria are hanging from squares of blue sky. These are the good days, when I can feel the neighbours pausing as they pass our back gate, drinking in their annual glimpse of this beautiful beast of a plant.

Balanced against the 350 days of work it takes to get there, the good days are just about worth it.

What plant do you labour with? Is it worth it for you?


Scottish garden in January


winter garrya ellipticaIt’s January again in our part of Scotland, but the suspended, withered state of the garden doesn’t bother me as much this year, for some reason. Maybe because, unlike the state of the world, I know the garden will get through this dark, cold time, without fail.

This morning there is a scouring wind that’s shaking the absurdly tall stalks of last year’s delphiniums and the strappy brown leaves of the dead crocosmia, which are, I think, the only debris that really irritates me. I hate crocosmia out of all proportion: its invasive rhizomes, its cocky orange flowers.

Maybe I’ve just gone off orange.

Can’t think why.

But apart from those dead crocosmia, which I swear I will yank out today, I don’t mind seeing the dead pieces of last autumn’s perennials shake in the breeze. I know this means they’ll snap off with an easy crack, so I can do a quick bit of tidying as I pass through the garden without needing to run in for my clippers.

I have a fantastic garrya elliptica I inherited which you can see in the top right of the photo above: its white tassels catch the breeze, like a wintry weeping willow.

January 2017 is a difficult time for any thinking person on this planet, not just the 5 million who marched last week. But I’ve decided to take my cue from my resurging garden, and my absolute faith in it. It will get through this, and so will we. Yes, a tyrant is trying to hold hostage the country that raised me. But we live in a time when collective action has never been more possible, or more powerful.

We will hold him accountable. And we will be unstoppable: a force of nature.

I am hopeful. Because spring is coming.

What reasons to be cheerful do you see in your garden?

To keep in closer touch with what I’m up to, I’m tweeting at @sheilamaverbuch most days, and I’m also on Facebook and Instagram as @sheilamaverbuch, where I post pictures of my garden with greater regularity. Please come say hello!

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Dreamy bedroom-window clematis



This is my bedroom window, with a 10-year-old clematis Polish Spirit (which I cut to the ground in early spring), morning glory “Grandpa Otts” and an oregano in the background, which you can’t make out too well but which thrills the bees.

The clematis started out as a 9 cm plant from an offer in the Guardian newspaper; now it reliably grows to 8 foot high and 10 foot wide every year, provided I keep it watered.

You might be able to make out the ladder in the upper corner, which is part of the scaffolding that’s now littered our garden for weeks as we get our old window frames repainted.

Hardware aside, I’m thrilled with this corner of the garden. The clematis lives in a huge stone-built planter which is open at ground level. I like to imagine the clematis digging its roots way, way down.

I have an old gardening book called GARDENING IN A SMALL SPACE, and I remember the author, Lance Hattatt, said the mark of an advanced gardener was someone who could control their use of colour. I swore to myself I’d one day have a corner of the garden with a limited colour palatte, and I see what he means now: there are splashes of yellow and some salmon in with the purple planting during other months of the year, but during late summer, it’s purple only, and this area feels cooler, more restful.

The only problem is getting out of bed in August and September: I can see the clematis when I’m propped up on pillows in bed, and I’d rather gaze at those purple stars than do just about anything else.

My book-writing carries on; it’s garden-y, as I mentioned before. At the moment I’m trying to find out whether delphiniums which are cut to the ground in July will flower again in September –in Scotland–.

If you have a garden in Scotland and have successfully coaxed them into flower again in September, can you let me know? I don’t want to include that as a detail in the story if it’s not accurate. If it turns out to be unlikely in my corner of East Lothian, I’ll swap the flowers out for hollyhocks in that critical chapter.

What’s going on in your garden this month?

PS – if you want to keep in closer touch with what I’m up to, I’m tweeting at @sheilamaverbuch most days, and I’m also on Facebook and Instagram as sheilamaverbuch, where I’m posting pictures of my garden with greater regularity.


Enchanted corner for writing inspiration


enchanted corner trough wall fountainI’m writing not one but two children’s books at the moment, which is why I haven’t been blogging here much, but the good news is one of the books is completely and utterly garden focused: think SECRET GARDEN, but written for kids today. I was lucky enough to get an excellent literary agent last December, and since then I’ve been head-down working on revisions.

The garden is a continuous source of inspiration, especially since it’s 13 years old now and getting quite mature. Of all corners of the garden, this shady area with the maidenhair ferns and the wall fountain is the one that most sparks my imagination. I love the enchanted feeling of the startling green and the steadily-flowing water.

It is taken quite a bit of effort to get steadily flowing water. My husband helped me yank out this trough to find and patch the hole in the fiberglass; turns out this stone- effect trough is by no means as eternal as stone itself, but a stone version is unimaginably expensive. The leaky trough was a blessing for the ferns, though: they’ve doubled in size. (Note to self: water the ferns more.)

The ferns here are Adiantum pedatum (northern maidenhair fern on the left, with startling black stems), which I first saw in the garden in northern New York, and Adiantum venustum, the Himalayan maidenhair fern. I got the former from Burncoose Nurseries in Cornwall and the latter from the super-helpful Binny Plants in Scotland.

What’s the most enchanted corner of your garden?



Iris reticulata come fast and disappear even faster



I almost didn’t bother taking this photograph. The cluster of iris reticulata outside my back door was a miracle the day it first bloomed, but almost immediately I began taking it for granted, rushing past on my way to something more important.

Today I noticed it’s faded utterly, and the chionodoxa are out instead. Spring goes fast — it’s right there in the name, I guess. Take photos while ye may!

This photo shows the iris with the Siberian dogwood Cornus alba ‘Sibirica.’ Not just the colour, but the texture of its stems with those corky spots, is intriguing to me.


What’s out in your garden this weather?

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