Annual surprises in the October border



I’ll bet you clever gardeners realised this long before I did: a few annuals spangled across an autumn border can be terribly effective.

This is the first year I’ve really seen this in action. The orange daisy above is calendula “flashback mixed”, and elsewhere I have morning glory looking stunning and deeply purple every morning. Alongside the more sturdy perennials, like the Aster Frikartii Monch in the background above, the annuals make a great picture this time of year.

I showed my daughter the morning glory through the window before school today, and asked her what she thought it looked like. She looked at the heart-shaped leaves and the purple flowers and said, “it looks like the trumpets are blowing love kisses.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

What’s in your autumn border looking gorgeous?


New Year’s gardening resolutions I can live with


I’ve decided it’s sensible to keep my gardening New Year’s resolutions short and realistic, but still of a certain scope, so there’s some sense that I’m aiming high and not just planning more of the same in the garden this year. Click for larger image

Last year one of my key gardening New Year’s resolutions was to stop and sit in the garden more (done) and the previous year it was my own personal Eatin’ Project I was planning, trying vegetable growing for the first time (done).

Gardening resolution one – water those vegetables

Speaking of vegetables, this year I will do the edibles better, because I’m resolving to plan my watering properly. The beans and other edibles never had the best chance because my watering was so erratic, but 2012 is the year I will irrigate. Must find a good leaky hose supplier. Suggestions?

Gardening resolution two – force bulbs properly

I will not mess up my hyacinths next winter. This year I could have (just barely) have had them flowering for Christmas but I never brought them in from the cold conservatory to the warm sitting room – I never realized I had to until @imogenbertin set me right. Here in Scotland I have to plant the prepared bulbs in August, as soon as they are on sale, so I can get them into the light by October, and into the conservatory by November. Until now I’ve never known I needed to do a final step of bringing them into the warmth in December, but I will get it right in 2012.

Gardening resolution three – love my window boxes

I’ve never done window boxes well, but this year my mother-in-law gave me books on the subject, the bare windowsills of our roadside cottage here at the market cross are desperate for plant life, and I love the idea of challenging my worst gardening vice – I willfully, spitefully neglect container plants. So, window boxes it is. Secret weapon in the war against my neglectful side: when I prepared the new window boxes last week, I mostly used plants I’ve grown myself, so their said, thirsty faces should (I hope) move me more than the nameless, shop-bought trays of pansies I’ve watched die in my window boxes in the past. I’ve chosen vinca, fern, schizostylis, hosta, hebe, lamium and ivy, along with a rash of bulbs and tubers including cyclamen coum, muscari armeniacum fantasy creation, Kaufmanniana tulips Heart’s Delight, triteleia (formerly brodiaea) and autumn crocus to plug gaps between the plants.

Gardening resolution four – train a stepover apple

It won’t really be a stepover apple, because the single tier I’m planning will be about 90 cm off the ground, so I guess we can call it a leap over. I’ve Click for larger imagechosen the Apple Greensleeves on an M106 rootstock, and since it’s on the north side of the short fence, the horizontal cordon will only see the sun if it starts at 90 cm high. I’ll let you know how that one goes. I credit this resolution to Helen, who was tweeting about the stepover apples she was planning; it’s something I’d always wanted to do, and who was I to resist a three-year-old tree on sale for just 9 pounds sterling?

Gardening resolution five – easy cutting garden

Earlier on Stopwatch Gardener I video blogged about how to nip out cosmos to encourage more side shoots and robust flowering, and the US flower farmer Lisa Ziegler who taught me that technique has now inspired me to try her scheme for a 3′ x 10′ cutting garden. It’s meant to be a low-maintenance plot of zinnia, celosia, choice sunflowers and lemon basil. Any advice on telling my husband I plan to remove 30 square feet of lawn?

I really want to know what you all are planning for the new year — please drop me a comment below before you go!


Ten signs you’re obsessed with the garden


Click for larger imageThis year I’ve put most of my gardening budget into a professional garden design, so I’m in retail shutdown and can’t buy any new plants – at all. But I’ve discovered there are plenty other signs of my garden obsession in my behaviour, even with plant-buying taken out of the equation. Any of this sound familiar?

  1. My beautiful baby (plants): I’ve more photos of my borders than my children. From their earliest seed leaves to when they’re big (they grow so fast), my plants dominate my Flickr albums.
  2. Tick tock, sun by the clock: I know precisely when each area of the garden gets sun, especially in nooks that see just an hour or two of direct light. This makes me very boring, but it also makes it easier to plan where to put seats, especially for winter sun.
  3. In my dreams: Dreams or nightmares about the garden are a regular thing for me. Whether it’s a chat with Alan Titchmarsh or a late frost that killed the hellebores, they’re always unlikely and always feel utterly real.
  4. Count plants, not sheep: If I want to distract myself – at the dentist, when swimming laps, or when trying to drop off to sleep – I recite an A-Z alphabet of plants (*has a realisation about the cause of #3 above*).
  5. Weather geek: I worry about and watch the forecasts for killing frosts, heavy snow and gales in a way I never did before the garden drew me in. I’m constantly amazed at the plants’ drive to grow, flower and set seed, regardless of the weather.
  6. Love the Latin: I now love and want to learn more Latin plant names, a transformation from my first impression of botanical nomenclature as a needlessly pretentious quirk of gardening. The folksy common names are interesting, but you can’t beat the precise, no-room-for-confusion Latin.
  7. Stand and stare: Standing outside – or, more usually, looking out a window – I may stay motionless for many minutes, imagining small or big changes I could make to the space. It looks like an absent seizure, but it’s just the gardening obsession.
  8. Not great company: Because gardening has taken over eleven-tenths of my brain and this is tedious for people around me, I strain to keep gardening out of conversation. But like any hobbyist, my obsession is how I make sense of the world. Or, more precisely, it is my mental release valve: the vocabulary, beauty and order of it are a great comfort to me. I do try to muster some small talk about holiday plans or current events, but really I’m just waiting for someone to talk about tulips.
  9. These are my people: Meeting another garden-obsessive is as good as it gets. The conversation doesn’t just flow, it pours – about everything from holiday plans (for our seedlings) to current events (Chelsea). We need some way to recognise each other faster, like the brooches the masons used to wear.
  10. Forever young: Surprises in the garden give me a regular supply of Christmas-morning wonder. The first snowdrop, germinating seeds, baby newts, self-seeded plants – all these first-time-discovery moments make me feel small, safe and sure that everything in the world is well.

Are you garden-obsessed? How can you tell? I’d like to hear about it.

If you like this post, subscribe by email here in the right margin & I’ll drop you a mail whenever I publish a new piece.


Grow plants from seed and let the healing begin


Click for larger imageTell me something more exhilarating than growing from seed. I’ll bet you can’t. Drop a hard little fleck onto a fertile bed of damp compost, and just days later feel a gasp in your throat when the seed leaves push their shoulders up into the light. At the moment I’m looking at the purple-streaked leaves of baby baby beets, hairlike shoots of spring onions and round carrots, the fleshy heads of robust wild lupines, and the minute green specks of teensy alpine strawberries.

A number of the experts on some of the US gardening podcasts I listen to have been saying recently that they prefer to buy “starts” (young plants) for some of their gardening. And compared to buying a broad bean seed packet I’ll never use up this year, maybe six broad bean plants would save money. It would certainly save time. But give me seeds any day. In gardening I’m all about the miracle, less about the practical.

The real world presses in on me, as I’m sure it does on you: this week alone offered me a big dose of unloveliness, including one vomiting bug (mine), then another one (my son’s), the imminent loss of a client (government cutbacks) and the likely sale of the house I grew up in — all against a mustn’t-grumble backdrop of guilt as images of tsunami, war and death scrolled across the TV.

I need my gardening to be as absorbing and as miraculous as possible if it’s to be an adequate salve against the real world. Those seed trays may give me beets in June. But right now I see a windowsill full of hope, and that’s the food I need.


Briefly California


Click for larger image

Until now, I’d never bothered with seed sowing in summer. The seedling fatigue of spring usually leaves me uninterested in repeating the whole affair during July and August. But two things have come together this year to change all that: my sharper awareness of the way the garden grows like mad in July; and the Eatin’ Project, where my early success in growing edibles has inspired me to try to keep the crops coming.

I listen to the folksy “Gardening with Tim and Joe” from BBC Radio Leeds, and a few weeks ago gardener Joe Maiden was encouraging everybody to sow more French beans and carrots right away to get strong young plants developing. I did, and they have. This evening I planted out some of the young dwarf French beans “Masterpiece” (thanks for the recommendation, Marc Diacono): their little root balls were full and raring to go.

The growth in all corners is rampant. I was stunned to see a fab root system on a bit of pelargonium that I’d knocked off the plant and had thrown into a cup of water. I planted it up and it’s flowering now – the whole process took just a few weeks. So I tried the same with a bit of Aster Frikartii Monch I’d yanked off the plant and sure enough, voila, roots. Today I’ve also sown dianthus seed; cuttings would be easier, but it’s my mother’s favourite flower, and these fell from the pinks I’d cut for her bedside when she was staying with me earlier this month. It is always hard to see her go back to Boston, and I couldn’t throw these seeds away when I was clearing up her bedside table this morning. If I can get some of these to germinate, that’ll mean something to me. Click for larger image

This is the first year I’ve tried to exploit these few weeks when Edinburgh is briefly California: long bright days, warm soil, and easy abundance everywhere in the garden. In past years I’d noticed how the borders went ballistic during July, but I’d never used it. July is a wave I’m riding this year instead of a flood that’s swamping my borders, and I like it. This is the first time that I’ve slashed my aquilegias to the ground in June, and I wasn’t afraid to do it, knowing it would give everything else more space during July and August.

It’s been a revelation to sow and nurture seedlings in summer: nothing like the slog of sowing in the dim days of spring in Scotland, where equal parts willpower and liquid seaweed are the only thing that keep the seedlings going.

Do you ever feel that your garden is a mute entity whose signs and moods you spend years studying? I think I’m starting to speak her language.

« Older Entries