New Year’s gardening resolutions I can live with

January1

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!

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

September14

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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?

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Do gardening blogs give bad advice?

October1

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It’s not often I feel personally slighted by something on the radio, but, like super blogger Veg Plotting, I was a bit stung by last week’s comments by gardening expert Pippa Greenwood about know-nothing gardening bloggers. (In answer to a question about bloggers identifying pests and diseases, Pippa said, “I’m always very wary of information on blogging websites, because half of it’s bunkum, and it’s quite obvious that people don’t know what they’re identifying.”)

As VP has already so ably argued, expert gardeners like the Gardener’s Question Time Panel and other celebrity gardeners have been known to give misguided advice or undertake drastically wrong gardening practices. So even if bad guidance were rife among gardening blogs, they would by no means be the only guilty parties.

But my own experience is that gardening blogs don’t give bad advice. Most I writers I read — from gardening journalists like Lia and Jane to well-spoken enthusiasts like Jean and Lisa — publish blogs that are journals of what works and what doesn’t in their own gardens, which helps me avoid mistakes. Even more helpfully, the best gardening blogs are chronicles about the gardener’s relationship with his or her outside space. Although many writers start their blog believing they’ll be giving out advice, many find their posts end up being more searching, more philosophical, and that’s what I love about the blogs I follow.

When advice is doled out, I’m comforted to see it’s usually based on first-hand experience. The comment stream that follows blog posts entails fruitful chats among readers, and authors are happy to stand corrected if a reader points out an error, an omission, or indeed a misidentification of a pest or disease. It’s this conversation which makes blogs live and breathe, and which has made me get over my initial journalist’s suspicion of the medium.

As a journalist myself, I was a blog denier for many years, seeing blogs as nothing better than a mob’s mouthpiece, accuracy optional. In journalism school we revered facts and were trained to question everything we heard (“If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out,” my professor told me). When blogs rolled around, it pained me to see unsubstantiated rumour and opinion being elevated to the same level as proper journalism. I’ve gotten over it. Blog dross falls to the bottom, quality rises, and the chance blogs offer to discuss and interact is worth the occasional mistake.

I wonder if the comments by Pippa Greenwood — who, I must say, is my favorite GQT panelist, with tremendous knowledge and a great skill for drawing pictures on radio — were motivated by a similar, deeply held suspicion of the blogosphere.

So can you trust the advice you read on gardening blogs? Always consider your own climate, soil type and other environmental factors (exposed? shady?) before applying the advice you hear online — that’s just sensible, and most avid gardeners would do this instinctively. The real threat I see to anyone seeking advice online — on anything from horticulture to medical conditions, child development to business marketing — isn’t blogs per se, but rather the nonsense topical content which only exists in order to provide search engine visibility for a website.

I know you’ve come across this kind of thing, stuffed with keywords designed to make Google sit up and take notice. “The thing about gardening with roses is that roses, when they’re in your garden, bring the scent of roses into your garden all summer long. There’s no doubt that, if you grow roses in your garden, bringing them into a house is also a great way to bring the scent of the garden into your home with roses.”

When looking for your answers, use common sense, get a second opinion if you’re very worried, or consult expert panels like GQT or or the immensely helpful Facebook pages connected to other radio shows, like BBC Radio Leeds Gardening with Tim and Joe or KUOW Seattle’s Greendays gardening panel. These guys know what they’re talking about, and you might even get your question read on air.

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November needs the right plant, right place, right time

October31

Click for larger imageIt’s just over three years since I planted a special part of the garden to celebrate our daughter’s birthday. It’s a border I planned the summer I was expecting her and every manic nesting instinct went into it: I combed through books for the perfect autumn performers. When we came home from the hospital I remember standing with her at the window and telling her what I’d done. I love to see these schizostylis and asters shine every October — pity the penstemons fell at the first hurdle that same winter, but all the other plants I put down for her are as strong and lively as she is.

What I now see, though, is that only the schizostylis and the aster Alma Potschke are true October performers. My aster Frikartii Monch starts to flag by Halloween, just as her birthday arrives. To make this border really sing, I need November stars, but what? I tried, but I can’t love grasses — they always put me in mind of an unmown roundabout.

November is such a strange month. Although it’s fading the garden holds onto some of the brightness of late summer and isn’t ready to say goodbye to all that, and I think that’s its melancholy. Because November is neither here nor there, some flowers to me feel wrong in the garden, even if they look good. I’ve been amazed at how strongly the repeating roses flower, even into November. But — and this is from a rose addict — the roses look wrong now. They arrive a bit too late and a bit too overdressed, just as the party’s winding down and everyone else is drifting off.

So what’s left, that feels right? Gladiolus callianthus? Dahlias? Autumn crocus? Or maybe I should go pro-berry and look at callicarpa? I could look at the sedums. The pinky orange flowers on some of the cultivars are a bit insipid, but the dusky purple tones many of them fade to are lovely, and really do belong here in deepest autumn. More than probably any other month, the November garden needs the right plant, in the right place at the right time. I’m still looking.

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