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?


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?



Join us on 24 May in East Lothian to support rare disease research



Plant lovers and gardening addicts of Edinburgh and East Lothian, it’s time to do what you do best – pick up a fabulous plant for your garden. Come to my garden on 24 May in East Lothian, postcode EH34 5DA if you’re navigating by GPS, and support Rare Plants for Rare Disease Research.

This sale of familiar plants, alongside rare and unusual plants donated from some of Britain’s foremost nurseries, is a great way to spend a Saturday morning at the end of Chelsea week. All proceeds go to the Advocacy for Neuroacanthocytosis Patients, a charity started by my friends when their daughter was diagnosed with such a rare disease, they resolved to fund the search for a cure themselves.

We’re in Pencaitland, just a half hour’s drive from Edinburgh, and would love to see you if you can spare the time. More details in the flyer above — please share this with anyone you’re connected to, who might enjoy a lovely morning looking at lovely plants, and some fabulous home-made cakes from my wonderful neighbours.

Donations of plants have already been received with warmest thanks to Beth Chatto Gardens in Essex, Crug Farm Nursery of Wales, Sarah Raven, Kevock Garden Plants, Binny Plants, Winton House, Macplants and Frank Kirwan of Humbie Dean and organiser of East Lothian Garden Trail. We’re also holding a raffle for a luxurious cut roses bouquet from the stunning David Austin Roses.


SWG007 Mid April: planting combinations, new peonies and ailing camellias


peony Duchesse de Nemours

I’ve been in my small garden long enough to know that every square inch is precious, so I still surprise myself when I realise I’m giving up space to plants I don’t love, like a pieris near the French doors by my office.

There’s a camellia I love – camellia sasanqua Winter’s toughie – which is struggling in a small pot in the courtyard part of the garden. The right thing to do would be to transplant it into an ericaceous barrel with the pieris, but I’ve hesitated because I’m afraid of crowding out the pieris. The shrub has only just moved into its own barrel after tucking in beside a rhododendron for a number of years, and my natural sympathies for the plant make me reluctant to force it to share space again. But it’s time to be ruthless: the camellia means more to me, and with my full garden getting ever fuller, I really can’t afford to be indulgent.

In this week’s podcast I’m talking a bit about my ruthless streak, including my habit for shamelessly chopping back strong perennials that are crowding out first-year plants like a fabulous Bourbon rose I bought at the RHS Chelsea flower show last year. I couldn’t think of the grower’s name during the recording, but it is Peter Beales Roses, a fine grower who had a most impressive (and crowded!) stand at last year’s show.

You can hear the current episode below, or use an app like iTunes or Stitcher to subscribe to it as a podcast for iTunes, Windows or Android: Stitcher subscribe instructions are here.

Here’s a list of plants and other key names in this week’s episode:

  • Pieris
  • Rhododendron purple splendor
  • Tulips Orange Emperor, Professor Rontgen, Passionale, Moneymaker, Clusiana Sheila
  • Narcissus Sun Disc
  • Zaluzianskya – night scented phlox
  • Anemone Blanda
  • Lavender: Lavandula angustifolia Hidcote
  • Mahonia japonica
  • Lily of the Valley – convallaria majalis
  • Herbaceous Peonies: red Sarah Bernhardt; Duchesse de Nemours (pictured above)
  • Bourbon Rose Mme. Isaac Pereire
  • Peter Beales Roses is the supplier I visited at last year’s RHS Chelsea flower show
  • Sarah Hayhoe is the stained-glass designer: see samples of her work in one of my Chelsea posts from 2013.

What are you doing in your garden this spring? Have you allowed yourself to spring clean plants that aren’t earning their keep?


SWG006 Early April in a Scottish cottage garden


Early spring bulbs from the Scottish cottage gardenIn this episode I’m looking at the delphiniums that are growing like wildfire and planning how to get bigger blooms this July.
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