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!


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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    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.


    Veg: It’s gardening, but not as I know it


    Click for larger image
    The very last of the snowdrops have just gone over. Delayed flowering has made for the loveliest and unlikeliest of bedfellows: snowdrops on crocus, daffodils and tulips emerging together with the hyacinths, and delphinium foliage that’s now growing like a rocket. With so much noisy life finally breaking the winter silence, I’ll be free of all the planning and the purchasing — mostly bulbs, mostly unnecessary, but what else was I supposed to do in January? — and can start planting.

    My enthusiasm for the Eatin’ Project is growing — just. After all the faff with early vegetable seedlings and sorting the raised bed, I’m feeling protective towards these baby plants. That said, I have turfed them into the bed already — heavily protected winter cos lettuce, with a pot of carrot seedlings at the middle — both to see if they’re made of strong stuff and because the lettuce, for one, really did look ready. The carrot container is raised that extra bit above carrot fly altitude, and the seedlings are inter-planted with spring onions to throw any highfliers off the scent.

    It just doesn’t feel like gardening. In my greenhouse are glossy hellebore seedlings, hair-like snakeshead fritillary seedlings that have just emerged after a year in pots, and white cosmos planted just weeks ago which is already pushing up its first leaves. I look at them and I feel actual joy. They’re all sharing the greenhouse with the newer cos lettuce seedlings — but I look at them and I feel nothing.

    I think it’s because the lettuce has no prospect of being beautiful. This afternoon I let out a yelp when I saw my first morning glory “Grandpa Otts” seedling raise its heart-shaped head. I consider this the most beautiful seed-grown plant in my garden, with violet flowers so intense they make me feel my vision is being pulled to the end the spectrum. My passion for roses, too, is down to the aesthetics: the first time I saw the David Austin Roses catalog, I couldn’t believe anything could be so beautiful.
    Click for larger image

    I do like the ferny carrot foliage, and the strawberries I’ve edged the bed with (thanks for the idea, Grace) are pleasingly pleated. But the aesthetic aspect of the vegetables I’m growing is pretty rubbish. The two pear trees I’ve put in are a different story: I love the progress of their lengthening, pointy buds and I know blossom is on the way.

    I need to persist with this project. And last weekend it was a bit thrilling to plant some vegetable seeds with my three-year-old daughter. “I’m a gardener!” she said. That’s my girl.

    What’s your feeling about the beauty of vegetables? Do you need beauty in the plants you care for? Can you give plants the love they need if you don’t admire them?


    The unbearable sweetness of hyacinths


    Click for larger imageI’ve spent the last few days experimenting with the right place for these forced hyacinths, which went into pots last autumn. On the desk was too much. In the windowsill was too much. At the opposite end of the house near the back door is just about right. It’s not just that the scent is inescapable — it’s the fierce sweetness of it, like being force-fed a pint of syrup.

    Topping my list for what I want from the garden is fragrance, so it’s odd that some of the most common flower scents repulse me. This summer I’ll be cutting every sweet pea in the garden again and handing them over the wall to my neighbour Hilary, for much the same reason — a choking sweetness that I cannot love. I don’t know many other people with a cottagey garden who will admit to hating the scent of sweet peas: if you’re one of them, do me a favour and speak up.

    My top ten thrilling flower scents — and I don’t grow all of these — have to be daphne, rhododendron luteum, phlox, nicotiana, zalutiniskaya, lilies, pinks, monarda, lavender (English, not the resinous French), and above all, roses.

    I shouldn’t throw roses into that mix because their scent, for me, is less a preference and more a requirement for healthy mental functioning. The roseless months of the year are dark ones, and I remember standing at the rose border by the top of the lovely Inveresk Lodge Garden last June, looking at a rugosa rose, the first on the bush, just opening. Do you ever have moments that become a lasting, living image? Before leaning into it I stopped and thought, right, here’s what I’ve been waiting these months for. The scent was — well, you know what it was. Perfection.

    These hyacinths are becoming more tolerable now — my brain is beginning to ignore the shouting scent picked up by my nose — and they do point the way out of this Scottish winter towards spring, so they can stay. At a distance.

    What are your thrilling garden scents? Are there flowers you can’t take, or feel you “should” like, but don’t?

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