SWG009 Mid May: garden purples and wonderful wisteria


May garden with wisteria and alliumsThere is no better month in the calendar than May. In my garden the lilacs, dusky parrot tulips, early alliums and herbaceous peonies all cavort with the aquilegias I never got around to weeding out (and I’m glad I didn’t).

In this episode of the podcast I’m sitting back and marveling at what this month does in the garden. All of the things I love best, including lilacs, rhododendrons and wonderful wisteria are at their fragrant, flowering peak.

Most of the tones in the garden are purples, with the occasional shot of Barbie pink from a herbaceous peony I’ve never managed to identify. If you’d like to come see for yourself, my garden here in East Lothian is open this Saturday 24 May from 10am-1pm, raising funds for research into an ultra-rare disease that affects a close family friend.

So in this podcast I’m also looking at some of the stunning plants donated for the “Rare Plants for Rare Disease Research” fundraiser. If you are within driving distance at all of Edinburgh, please visit us (postcode EH34 5DA if you’re traveling by GPS), and enjoy wonderful homemade cakes and teas, as well as a selection of plants from some of Britain’s best-known nurseries, many of whom just picked up medals at RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2014.

All proceeds go to researching the causes and potential cure for neuracanthocytosis (NA), a neurodegenerative disease which affects just one in 7 million people: sadly one of those people is Alex, daughter of my very good friends in London. Please come on Saturday with a fat wallet and a full heart, and help us fund the research that can make such a difference to Alex.

Here are some of the plants I’m looking at in this episode:

  • Rhododendron purple splendour
  • Wisteria floribunda
  • Allium Hollandicum Purple Sensation
  • Tulipa Muriel
  • Herbaceous pink peony – unknown name
  • Narcissus Baby Moon
  • White lilac
  • Purple lilac Charles Joly
  • Rambling rose Lykkefund
  • Clematis Montana
  • Geum montanum
  • Aquilegia saximontana
  • Geum Borisii
  • Osteospermum
  • Mertensia lanceolata
  • Primula (alpine various)
  • Trollius
  • Scilla peruviana



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.


Gifts for gardeners in the UK? Support those who supported rare disease research


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Something amazing happened this past spring. I contacted nurseries to see if they could help with a little fundraiser I was organizing for rare disease research. They didn’t just respond, they fairly broke down my door to help, with more than 300 plants donated. If you’re thinking of getting gifts for the gardeners in your life, please consider giving your business to those nurseries who gave so generously to our cause this year. These are knowledgeable, well-stocked nurseries, many of whom sell unusual, covetable plants you won’t find just anywhere:


With the support of those who donated plants, we raised more than £1000 for research into an extremely rare neurodegenerative disease, neuroacanthocytosis. When my friends in London discovered some years ago that their youngest daughter was suffering from NA, they’d no idea she was one of just a few hundred known cases worldwide. Today the advocacy they established is one of the few steady sources of funding for researchers wanting to investigate this ultra-rare disease. Thanks in part to fundraisers like our Rare Plants for Rare Disease Research sale, advocacy-sponsored scientists have made major strides. Researchers have discovered that NA is caused because a vital, missing protein leads to brain cell death, which in turn creates severe movement disorders. Every penny devoted to research into this rare condition matters, which is why I can’t quite find the words to thank the generous nurseries — and of course the avid gardeners and kindly donors of home baking from our village — who supported us this year.

To the nurseries, thanks go to Lesley at Birchwood Plants, Mark at Otter Farm, Sue & Bleddyn at Crug Farm, Alissa at Sarah Raven, Stella & David at Kevock Garden Plants, Beth & Asa at Beth Chatto, Billy at Binny Plants, Beryl at Macplants, and Michael at David Austin Roses. Have a happy and healthy 2013!

Want those web addresses again? Sure, you do. Go buy!



Nectar-rich versus Franken-flowers: Sarah Raven’s buzz


We’ve been drinking in the glory of high-def tv this week with the sumptuous floral close-ups of Sarah Raven’s latest Bees, Butterflies and Blooms episode. Unfortunately Britain’s insects are drinking very little in gardens that lean heavily on double begonias, busy lizzies and other flowers that offer no pollen or nectar. They are empty: their sweet nectary bits have been bred out of them, in exchange for extra petals and other showy attributes. (Jump to the bottom of this post if you want tips on how to choose flowers that are bee-friendly).

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Our garden here at Mercat Cottage is fairly buzzy with flowers that make insects happy, from the February crocus to the early November cosmos daisies. This flower choice was more through accident than art; so was our choice to put in a pond, which was really meant for the newts and slugivore frogs, but which I’ve learned is vital for bees, who consume litres of water. (In this week’s episode, Sarah Raven’s beardy garden naturalist told her she could bump up the wildlife value of her walled garden “two points” by adding water).

The “perfect for pollinators” initiative launched by the Horticultural Trades Association and the RHS, also discussed in this week’s show, was probably the single most important blow for Sarah’s campaign. Gardeners need advice at the point of sale, and the yellow and black logo will now make it easier to choose pollen and nectar-rich plants in the garden centre. It’s a shame it’s taken so long to do something so sensible; gardening magazines, even those I love, haven’t done enough to drive home the urgency of the biodiversity message. The magazine messages I remember about pollinating insects and garden plant choice have been along the lines of, “double plants don’t do much for bees.” After listening to Sarah, I think her alarmist opening gambit (“pollinators are in crisis and we gardeners have to act now”) is more appropriate at this stage of the game: three species of bees are extinct and hundreds more insects are on the brink because traditional habitats (country wildflower meadows) have been replaced by modern farming methods.

The millions of hectares of British back gardens could feed rather than frustrate pollinators who land on our flowers looking for a nectar payload, not just pretty colours. My husband calls the foodless plants — like the double begonias — “Franken-flowers” and he’s right. Over-bred and over-valued by gardeners craving a “wow” factor, they could easily be exchanged for colourful and nutritious alternatives, flowers that take care of the “wow” as well as the welfare of insects. Don’t forget, they’re the ones who pollinate the crops that feed our families.

“Why does biodiversity matter?”

It’s fair to ask the question, and I did once, when speaking to an ecologist. I’m a writer by day and was doing a brochure for a university wanting to attract more students to study science at third level. I asked him why biodiversity — multiplicity of habitats and species — is so important. He told me the stories you’ve probably already heard, but which were new to me in 2009, about the disappearance of bees in parts of China, where crops now need to be hand-pollinated by humans. That’s expensive — but it’s also the beginning of who-knows-what kinds of chain reactions in the environment.

Biodiversity, the ecologist said, is like the rivets in an airplane: lose one habitat or species, and it may not matter; but you never know which loss will trigger the catastrophe.

“What flowers should I plant to help bees and butterflies?”

In the cutting garden I’ve been planning as part of my New Year’s Gardening resolutions, I’ll have lots of sunflowers, lemon basil and zinnias. I’d thought about skipping the sunflowers, but now that I know the bees and other insects need them badly, they’re going to make the cut.

Sarah’s experts on the show this week made it clear what to look for when planting bee- and butterfly-friendly flowers:

  • Visible pollen: If you can see the yellow centre, there’s probably something there for bees. Bees need daisy-like flowers and other “singles” that aren’t so packed with petals you can’t see the flower’s reproductive bits.
  • Variety of shapes: Imagine a crocus, a foxglove, a daisy, a buddleia (butterly bush), an achillea and a lily. From trumpet shapes to goblets, flat landing pads to long clusters of close-packed flowers, all require the insect to work in a different way to get the pollen and nectar. This attracts and feeds a wider range of insects than loading up your garden with a single flower type or shape.
  • Early to late: Look for plants offering food in the quiet periods like February and October…fill any gaps like these with flowers guaranteed to offer nectar and pollen, so insects never go away empty-handed.
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  • No excuse for no water: If you’ve no water already, go outside today and fill a large drip tray or shallow bowl with water and put a stone in the middle for insects to land on. Tiny ponds are also cheap to buy and easy to maintain, if you’re feeling more ambitious.

Make a bee-loud border

Remember the Yeats poem about his desire to live in a “bee-loud glade”? Imagine if British domestic gardens were full of bee-loud borders. We may live in imperfect and troubled times, but still — what a wonderful world that would be.


Planting tulips in a row


Click for larger imageYes, I’m doing it, though I’ve read a dozen times that I shouldn’t. But I really want to go old-style: I want the lineup to be a nod to old New England colonial front gardens, and the painted red-on-yellow of these single earlies to lend a Rembrandt vibe. They’re Mickey Mouse and I haven’t grown them before, but they’re now in a double row under my office window. (Digging a trench for the tulip lineup was also a much faster way to work — in they went, each nestled on a bit of sand.) It’s the squat gable end of the cottage, which supposedly dates to the 1600s, so the whole combo should look righteously retro. The antique rowans overhead should be blazing with blossom by the time the tulips are over and distract from their decline.

I’m going less traditional with the back garden tulips, adding a bunch of violet Passionale through the stunning orange parrot, Professor Rontgen, delivered last autumn from Rose Cottage Plants. RC is my only choice now for mail order — orders from J. Parker’s, Sarah Raven, even direct from the Dutch at Gardens4you.co.uk all got me dozens of the wrong thing, and make-goods still don’t take the edge off, especially when it’s wisteria…the wrong wisteria…that’s taken four years to flower. (I better not start on mislabeled stuff…why do so many vendors get this wrong?!)