Climb every surface: gardening is on the up


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First, thanks to everybody who helped with donations for Rare Plants for Rare Disease Research in May; we raised almost STG1000 for research into neuroacanthocytosis, one of Britain’s rarest rare diseases, whose sufferers include the daughter of my friends Glenn and Ginger.

The fundraiser gave me a taste of opening my garden to the public for charity, and I’d like to do it again. I’ve realized that a climbing-plants showcase is the most useful attraction this garden could offer. Our old cottage was extended before we bought it, with much of the old lawn carved out to make space for the house. This means the garden wraps around the house in a U-shape: I’m surrounded by a 4 foot high retaining wall that holds back the upper lawn, as well as the usual fences and walls along our boundaries with the neighbors. In 2003 I had what felt like acres of bare vertical space; now most of these are lush and green, and I’m venturing into the tricky business of growing fruit trees flat against walls — trained as fans, espalliers and diamond-pattered Belgian fences.

Here’s what climbs in our garden (this list is what I’m growing, not exhaustive), plus a note on the three big mistakes you should try to avoid when covering bare walls and fences.

What roses climb? What other climbing plants are worth growing?

Climbing roses: Rosa Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Rosa Falstaff, Rosa Gloire de Dijon, Rosa Zephyrine Drouhin, Rosa James Galway, Rosa Margaret Merrill, Rosa Jude the Obscure, Rosa Lykkefund, Rosa Etoile de Holland. Margaret and Jude, by the way, don’t really climb, but they’re against a short three-foot fence and I’m cutting away growth that points out toward me from the fence while spreading the growth I want left and right along the fence. Zephyrine Drouhin is brilliant because it’s 100% thornless: ideal for an arch people need to walk through.

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Winter climbers: jasminum nudiflorum, hydrangea petiolaris (pictured), various kinds of ivy (aka hedera), winter flowering clematis cirrhosa Jingle Bells, lonicera japonica Halliana (an evergreen honeysuckle whose summer flowers have a powerful, glorious scent). The hydrangea is the best plant in my garden but can take 6 years to grow 5 feet. Its leaves drop to show red peeling bark in winter; most of the others keep their leaves. The jasmine is unscented and urgently needs support on taut wires strung through metal vine eyes, as the RHS mentions here.

Climbers that stick to walls: hydrangea petiolaris, parthenocissus quinquefolia (aka Virginia creeper), hedera.

Evergreen climbers: hedera, winter flowering clematis cirrhosa Jingle Bells, lonicera japonica Halliana.

Scented climbers: Wisteria floribunda, Lonicera periclymenum, Lonicera japonica Halliana, philadelphus (mock orange), lathyrus odoratus (sweet pea), summer jasmine, climbing roses. Only the sweet pea has to be grown from seed each year.

Climbers for shady walls: Jasminum nudiflorum, hydrangea petiolaris, Parthenocissus quinquefolia, Clematis Polish Spirit, Clematis Rouge Cardinal, hedera. I also grow Rosa Gloire de Dijon against the shady wall but I think it’s struggling and would prefer more light. Both the Clematis grow slowly but are are happy as long as the soil at their feet is rich and very deep – don’t skimp on that – and they can climb towards the light.

Riotously colorful climbers: ipomoea purpurea (morning glory) and lathyrus odoratus (grow both from seed yearly), Clematis rouge Cardinal, Rosa Zephyrine Drouhin, Clematis Mme. Julia Correvon, Clematis Polish spirit, Clematis Mrs. Chomondeley.

Easy to grow climbers: hedera, hydrangea petiolaris, lathyrus latifolius (perennial pea, unscented), Clematis Montana.

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Edible climbers: plum Marjorie’s Seedling, pear Williams bon Chretien, pear Concorde, apple Greensleeves, peach Avalon Pride, sugar snap peas. given that some climbers can take 5 to 7 years to look their best, I’m surprised at how quickly (3 years – pictured) I can begin to cover a vertical surface with a fruit tree. They have strong roots which throw up lovely long branches quickly to “green up” a vertical surface. I grow my peach outside in Scotland against our warm living room window and it bears fruit. The diamond-trained pears next to it look lovely with their bare stems in winter, and two trees take up ground space measuring just 5 feet wide by 18 inches deep. The RHS explains how to train fruit trees here.

Slow growing climbers: I wouldn’t grow these if they weren’t worth the wait. Hydrangea petiolaris (6 feet in 5 years), summer flowering jasmine (4 feet in three years), Clematis Polish spirit (12 feet in 7 years), wall-trained fruit trees (6 feet in 3 years).

Fast-growing climbers: Lathyrus odoratus (sweet pea) and morning glory (an annual), Lathyrus latifolius (perennial pea), clematis montana (pictured top). The hard truth is that great climbers take time. Try decorating the surface in the meantime with ornaments like a mirror that looks like a window, or a buddleia (not a climber but a shrub that will grow fast as a focal point). All you need is something for the eye to the rest on, you don’t need complete coverage in 12 months.

Don’t make these climbing plant mistakes:

Poor support. If branches are pulling on weak string that’s been tied to badly-erected nails or screws, hard up against the wall, it’s sad to see and bad for the plant! Use vine eyes and wire and follow the RHS instructions for putting them up. They hold the plant away from the wall to allow air circulation (and a cozy home for snails, which are easily harvested).

Haste and desperation. You don’t need mile-a-minute Russian vine or leylandii in your garden; you just don’t. See fast-growing climbers, above. Poorly prepared soil around the roots is another cardinal sin: give your climbers deep, rich, wide wonderful soil to put their roots into, because the roots below drive the greenery above that you’re waiting for. Do wait – it is always worth it.

Vertical roses. If you let roses grow straight up, you’ll get one or two straggly roses at the top, and who wants that? Bend their long branches to a 45° angle and tie them to horizontal support wires. All the dormant buds along those long canes, with a bit of luck, will turn into flowers.

What climbs in your garden? What’s been worth the wait, and what’s been a mistake?


I need late autumn interest in the garden — dahlias need not apply


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Novemberish gales are blowing the September garden sideways and making me think prematurely about mulching, clearing and cozying in. The open wire grille I put down to keep leaves out of the pond has stopped airborne bits of recycling from pummeling the tiny puddle of water and its newts. I’d never managed to cover the pond before this year. Maybe last winter’s swift, shocking start in November is what has me bracing for the end of the gardening year, and a bit too soon. The apples and pears are bearing, most leaves are stuck fast to branches and the late asters haven’t even shown yet.

Do you do dahlias? I’ve never grown one I liked — they are martyrs to earwigs, which means I’m not tempted even by the lighter, arier single types. The more traditional dahlias, great blobs of colour, are repellent to me. The autumn roses I grow are fat and colourful, too, but all are balanced with large areas of their own green foliage. The dahlias are unrestrained, unremitting splotches of red, pink and purple blowing a technicolor raspberry from the border — you can keep them.
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An autumn combination I prefer is growing now in the hall border, which I see foreshortened from my office window, so far-apart plants appear side-by-side. It includes:

  • heuchera palace purple
  • aster frikartii Monch
  • liatris spicata
  • schizostylis coccinea major
  • Lobelia fan blue
  • Rose de Rescht
  • Rose Zephyrine Drouhin
  • Rudbeckia Goldsturm
  • Lonicera (honeysuckle) berries
  • alchemilla conjuncta
  • persicaria

I’ve tried so hard to get autumn colour here, especially late autumn colour, for my daughter’s birthday at the end of October. That means I really need November colour, and that’s hard.
Click for larger imageMaybe this is the real reason I’m looking ahead to November: I’m keen to know if this year’s show will be any better, now that the persicaria and chrysanthemums will add to the later asters (Alma Potschke) and Schizostylis. Claire last year suggested some of the hardy fuchsias as good performers into November, and I’m propagating some from cuttings now.

Sorry if it’s tedious for you, but I keep coming back to this question of November interest (see here and here) because I can’t get it right. My two children are November and February birthdays, and a garden show at those times of year is Advanced Gardening. I have this vision of a blanket of snowdrops beneath black-ball Rudbeckia seed heads from the previous autumn. Do you think this will work? It would be some achievement to have a good autumn-into-winter show that celebrates both kids. But much of the garden gets too little sun for the Rudbeckias, and even those that thrive would need to withstand Scottish wind, snow and thaw.

I’m not sure if this black and white plan will work (I’m trying to propagate the Rudbeckia just in case), or if my kids will even know what I was trying to do for them.

Although plantings that are “for” others aren’t really what we gardeners do, is it? The planting is for us, to echo our feelings or memories of those who mean so much, we need them in the garden with us.

Who have you planted for? What did you plant?


Spring planting combinations that beat the patchy look (and don’t smell like toilet duck)


The resurgence of growth in the April garden is magnificent. But as welcome as spring bulbs are, they can make for a patchy looking landscape.

Gardening experts talk a lot about planting combinations, and I have come to appreciate the importance of using plants together, especially spring bulbs with something more weighty like perennials and shrubs. If you’re an old pro, none of these combinations will be new to you, but for newer gardeners, here are a few spring planting combinations worth trying:

  • Pulsatilla vulgaris and vinca minor: Click for larger imageThe fantastically fuzzy buds of pulsatilla are marvelous in late March and early April. The out-of-focus blue in the background is the ground-hugging vinca minor: this periwinkle is much easier to manage in a garden than its big brother, the greater periwinkle vinca major. Some gardeners will warn you away from any periwinkle as too invasive, but this is quite manageable in my garden and flowers profusely in April if I cut it back hard in autumn.
  • Osmanthus delvayii above plain and parrot tulips:Click for larger imageThis very slow growing shrub is a froth of white for a few weeks in April, and the way it spreads its arms over the tulips reminds me of a tiny flowering cherry tree. Its heavenly, lily of the valley-like scent is fresh and clean, never overpowering. Not to be confused with Osmanthus burkwoodii, which has bigger leaves and smells like toilet duck. The tulips shown here are purple Passionale and the orange parrot, Professor Rontgen, but any pair of contrasting colours would look good.
  • Emerging roses above fritillaria meleagris:Click for larger image The snakes head fritillary picks up the red tones in the emerging foliage of many roses: here it’s the Portland rose, Rose de Rescht. So many emerging perennials offer wonderful foliage which looks great
    next to bulbs and can help disguise their dying leaves. Try to plant the snakeshead where you will see the sun coming through it, so it lights up like an elaborate checked lampshade: otherwise it can look like a dirty purple. I like the white version of the snakeshead even better, and it’s fairly easy to grow from seed; if you can wait a few years they’ll reach flowering size and you can fill a corner of your garden with these elegant little bulbs.
  • Grape hyacinths with aubretia: Click for larger imageSomeone else mentioned this combination and I’m so glad I tried it. The muscari hold their heads above the aubretia, which is that fabulous rockery plant that spills its purpleish flowers over stone walls. “We should get more of that,” was my husband’s one and only comment about the aubretia last year. He doesn’t usually say much, so that means something. If you don’t want to find the grape hyacinth appearing all over your garden, snip off the flower heads before they go to seed.
  • Hyacinth with wild violet, aubretia and vinca minor: Click for larger imageI’m not a great fan of monochrome schemes, but this one sowed itself and was winking at me from the border as I was thinking about this blog post, so I had to mention it. I recall wanting an all-blue border at a certain stage in my gardening life, but I got over it.
  • What I won’t show you today is a picture of my raised bed, which has eight lovely broad bean plants and eight plastic milk bottles (these bottles are God’s gift to the vegetable gardener who needs a cloche or drip tray. I also plant a punctured or bottomless milk bottle next to new shrubs, to give them a good 2-litre drink when I water.) This time, the bottles are covering baby beets and lettuce.

    This is why I was saying last year that I wanted to keep my new vegetable patch in a bit of the garden I don’t see from the window: I hate the plastic, fleece, netting and so forth that vegetable growing so often demands. But I’d like my seedlings to survive, so I’ve rolled out the plastic.

    Like the hosta halos and wire plant supports that have now disappeared beneath the delphinium foliage, the cloches won’t be eyesores for long; they should be unnecessary in a few weeks, when the frost danger has passed.

    What are your favourite planting combinations in your garden? I’d love some more ideas.

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    Garden resolutions 2011: hug a tree, sit for a bit


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    Before I blogged, I never made New Year’s resolutions, much less wrote them down. It’s funny to look over what I resolved a year ago. Happily, I managed two of the four resolutions I made: I don’t scream at toads anymore, and I even knocked apologetically on a few tiles I had to shift earlier today, hoping nothing was asleep beneath it. I also managed to grow food pretty successfully for the first time in 2010: just lettuces, spring onions, a few tomatoes and herbs, but it was exciting, and the children seemed genuinely interested and dragged visitors over to examine the raised bed at every opportunity.

    So briefly, for 2011:

    Don’t look back: never mind about the two resolutions I didn’t manage last year. I’m giving up on trying to make the November border fabulous for the moment, and I didn’t quite manage to bring everything into the cold conservatory that should’ve come in, but, onward!

    Sit down more:
    if you’re like me, every seat in the garden is a hotseat. Jobs call to me wherever my eyes land, and I’m up again in a few seconds. I’m going to strive to make an area of the garden very sit-friendly: it’s right outside our kitchen and conservatory, and it’s almost completely enclosed by the house walls and boundary fence. I’m thinking serene green, hostas, and a rambling, thornless pale rose (“Lykkefund”, already ordered from Peter Beales) that I’ll train sideways instead of up to cover the cottage walls. There’s a vigorous deep purple clematis, “Polish Spirit”, already in this area and I need to tone it down. I’m unsure whether to put up a pergola or awning or anything at all: the space is narrow, so maybe I should keep the sky above open. If the whole area is simply planted and unfussy, surely it will be easier to sit for more than 60 seconds in the garden?

    Give the children what they want:
    I told my daughter and son (4 and 5) they could have their own raised bed in a good, sunny spot to do whatever they want with. He’s not so keen, but she is. She said she wants to grow “cucumbers and pink poppies”. We may have to work on that plant selection but I really do want it to be hers. And I’m not going to give up on trying to interest him, either.

    Hug the trees: I planted two pears from Ken Muir this year, and I resolve to mind them and the two cobnuts I’m planning to get from Ken this year and plant in half whiskey barrels by the garden gate. @MarkDoc says it’s iffy, but it may work if I keep them pruned and well watered. I can feel an automatic drip irrigation system in my future. I am a neglector of containers, but a lover of nuts. I want these wee trees to live.

    What are you resolving to do in your garden this year? Do you think it’s achievable, or are you going more aspirational with your resolutions?


    It’s beginning to look a lot like gardening


    It was pretty awful to end Click for larger imagethe gardening year with a blizzard on 26 November. Last year it snowed for a month starting just before Christmas Eve, and I thought that was bad. We’ve now had 2 feet of snow in two weeks, with a low of -14 Celsius.

    When I was little I loved snow so much I prayed for it, but I have a hard time liking it now. That’s despite having seen how well it protects my plants. I didn’t lose much in the garden this summer, and yesterday I was able to dig out helleborus foetidus from melting snow. It looked like it had just lain its head down for a rest, and it stood up again.

    This proof of life was interesting, but it didn’t change the numbness I’ve felt toward the garden since the blizzard. It’s the kind of ennui that defines ennui: defeated, empty, apathetic. Usually on a tea break or before falling asleep I wrap myself in thoughts about the garden: plans for new roses, spring planting combinations, schemes to get height into the border. But these last two weeks, the thoughts won’t come. It’s as if the garden had been compulsorily purchased and a high fence erected between me and it.

    But today I did Click for larger imagefive minutes of what could pass for gardening. All I did was push pea sticks into a bowl of hyacinths I’ve been forcing. I got the most fleeting taste of that mad joy – nurturing a plant that needs something, studying its miraculous form, anticipating bloom-time.

    Okay, it was barely gardening, but it was enough to dig me out of the snow and help me stand up again.

    I’ve written a sonnet about the snow. Want to hear it?

    Snow angel

    The flakes are smudges on the whiter sky,
    its blankness scribbled over left to right
    by airy, aimless polka dots of snow;
    Its business is silent smothering
    of branches, berries, buds that don’t protest,
    although I do; the plants have left their things
    along the border by the garden wall
    and snow is gaily claiming everything,
    dizzy and oblivious, like one who
    forgets the morning by the afternoon;
    The garden’s gone, why do I seek it here?
    perhaps the snow knows what it has to do:
    protect what has withdrawn into the earth
    and mark the place to watch for white rebirth.

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