Who cares about window boxes?


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I learn perhaps one thing about gardening each year. (Go here if you’d like my favourite insight from back in 2010 about cut flowers in the garden). Here’s what I learned in 2012: window boxes matter.

I’d never managed to keep them alive before this year. The lovely old stone front of our cottage is right on the pavement, since we have no front garden, but it offered only featureless windowsills to pedestrians, because I couldn’t stand the thought of returning to the dead pansies I remembered so guiltily from 2008.

But it turns out I’m a new woman, because I was actually able to keep them alive all year – at planting time last December I incorporated a submerged water bottle that made it easier to keep them hydrated, but I also gave myself a memorable watering routine (“watering Wednesday”) that worked for me.

Click for larger imageI designed shade-loving, wind-tolerant planting for the north-facing aspect, and here’s what worked: a central small hebe as the feature plant, surrounded by lamium (dead nettle) with a silvery leaf, ivy and vinca minor (periwinkle). Those were my successful evergreens; I had to pull out a much-suffering fern, incidentally, which didn’t like the exposure of the position.

The other plants I included for seasonal interest, including loads of bulbs, are as follows:

  •   Hosta Halcyon (a bluish leaf)
  •   an unnamed hosta with a yellow greenish leaf
  •   cyclamen coum (to my astonishment they were completely dormant during the summer and have only reemerged now)
  •   brodiaea Queen Fabiola
  •   schizostylis (it didn’t flower this year but I’m hopeful for next year)
  •   autumn flowering crocus
  •   the dwarf tulip “Heart’s Delight”

After the hostas had come and gone I put one forget-me-not plant into each window box; the foliage of this biennial, which I grew from seed, looks lovely and green now; the only colour in the window box at the moment is provided by the autumn crocus.

I can’t tell you how grateful I am for these simple window boxes. I pass by them every day, so many times a day. Even without the flamboyance of showy bedding plants like petunias, they bring that soul-nurturing life and greenness of the garden right up where I can see it, even when I can’t escape outside to get my hands dirty.

What do you grow in your window boxes, or do you have another container that you couldn’t live without?


Fields of dreams: going Dutch at Keukenhof this spring


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Keukenhof in particular, and the spring bulb fields of The Netherlands in general, should probably make it to the top of your to-do list if you’re as mad about tulips as I am. Picture a park-like garden, mostly consisting of spring bulb beds and shrubs planted among bright green lawns; now picture old deciduous trees just coming into leaf high ahead. The trees filter the light and the winding river and water features reflect the light here and there, giving the whole garden a rather enchanted atmosphere.

I love these gardens, but because this my third visit to Keukenhof, I genuinely hadn’t expected to see much new. So it was pleasant to be pleasantly surprised: here’s what I found refreshing and extra-gorgeous on this trip:

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Bulb fields at the perfect time: On previous trips, I don’t remember the commercial growers’ fields looking so stunning. The drive into Lisse takes you past rainbow stripes of yellow, blue, red and pink; this year we were lucky to see the hyacinths, single early tulips and taller Triumphs just coming into flower. Previous trips brought me here in Week 1 and Week 3 of April; this time, Week 2 was perfect, although warmer or cooler springs will hugely affect what’s flowering when.

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Show-garden areas offering stealable ideas: I loved the Keukenhof ‘Inspiration’ gardens, something that may have featured in earlier years but which I’d not seen before (my other trips were with my newborn daughter and other family, and this was the first trip I had plenty of time to linger). Notice the clever use of trompe d’oeil in this girly pink garden — it has mirrors, empty frames suggesting mirrors, and double planters suggesting reflection. Love it!

Click for larger imageAnother of the Inspiration gardens was this canalside deck, which at the back features raised planters that hold tiny espaliers of apple trees. The seating area is covered to keep out the rain and furnished with casually gorgeous, just-been-styled-for-a-Gardens-Illustrated-photoshoot elegance. Look at this combination of muscari armeniacum album, with pink bellis daisies, along a lace runner over a simple gray wooden table. If this doesn’t conjure the illusion of effortless outdoor-living perfection, I don’t know what does. Large wooden planters at the canalside, some of which seemed to float over the water, hold a combination of dusky purple hyacinth, mixed tulips and anemona blanda.

The joy of block plantings: Ingenious planting combinations at Keukenhof (crocus, chionodoxa, early and late tulips, alliums) are a particular strength of the place, showing how any garden can keep the interest going for 8 weeks in spring. However, I completely fell for this simple combination of Tulip Purissima and Tulip Flaming Purissima, which was repeated in Click for larger imagehuge rectangles all around the area around the central pavilion. The effect was full, sweet and feminine — like a bowl of strawberry ice-cream (a bride among the tulips looked perfect; I think she was a model on a shoot). Keukenhof always does this to me: it was here I first became betwitched by the Keukenhof ‘blue river’, the mass plantings of muscari armeniacum, and I ended up buying 900 bulbs to carpet a corner of our garden. (Thank God I didn’t get the ones that seed around freely; mine bulk up rather than seeding. I have muscari armeniacum Fantasy Creation, a gorgeous double; pots of this double muscari feature heavily in my Rare Plants for Rare Diseases sale next month). There’s something about Keukenhof that makes me crave mass planting on a grand scale, even if my garden doesn’t have the space for it.

Isn’t it all a bit contrived and un-natural, those bulb beds?

If you think a garden like this isn’t your thing, you may be surprised. No, there’s nothing naturalistic about Keukenhof — “Oh, look, 350 hyacinths in a rectangle”; it’s enough to make Piet Oudolf spin in his grave if he were dead. As breathtaking as I find meadow-style plantings to be, I don’t believe that nor any other loose planting style is the only kind of garden beauty.

Wandering amongst these spring bulb beds, with sun filtering through the breaking buds of the old oaks above, may not make you feel you’ve stumbled on something secret or half-wild. But its formality is wholly a part of its charm. Exploring Keukenhof is like walking through a Klimt design or the contours of a Moorish mosaic: the artistry of the creators, and their mastery over their materials, is part of the wonder.

A few practical notes – make the most of Keukenhof

Don’t worry unduly if you’re thinking of coming to Keukenhof but have limited mobility. Free wheelchairs can be reserved in advance and borrowed for a refundable deposit, and today I also discovered that for €10 non-refundable rental you can borrow an electric mobility scooter. Plenty of older guests get about the garden’s ample 32 hectares with this assistance; I had to use one myself for today’s visit, after badly injuring my foot a few days before.

Do consider bringing a lunch or at least a hearty snack with you; there are plenty of benches and some picnic tables, and a packed lunch leaves you more money for the gift shop.

Thanks, Keukenhof PR team for the press pass; my kids still had to pay, but as my husband was pushing my wheelchair, he came in on my pass. At €14.50 per adult excluding parking — and with children over age 11 paying full price — this is not a cheap outing. But you’re bringing your sandwiches, right? So there you go. Guilt-free and gorgeous. Go!

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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!


Into the darkness with the winter garden


The crispness of winter outlines in the garden and the dramatic sideways sunlight can make December a cheerful time outside, but the weeks of afternoon darkness ahead are never a happy prospect.Click for larger image

In the same way a child clutches a blanket at bedtime, I’m holding onto one or two comfort items as we head into the winter darkness. A terra-cotta pot with snowdrops, topped with some moss scraped off the ground, will sit by my back door to light up my comings and goings. I’ve already placed a chair where it will catch noontime sun this month and next month, and from there I’ll also see the snowdrops. The daphne that’s also nearby will smell powerful and sweet – if a little bit like my Nana’s bathroom – early in the year.

Clipped evergreen for structure
This is the first year I’ve bothered to clip a red-berried cotoneaster (I think it’s a cotoneaster) in the garden here: it was in August that I took out the shears and made it into a tallish rectangular block near the back door. It has red-stemmed cornus to the right of it and an ivy-covered tree stump to its left; along with the fan trained plum behind it and a few helleborus foetidus at its feet, this solid shrub is already making a good focus for the eye in the increasingly naked garden.Click for larger image

The picture here shows the scene two weeks ago – sorry about the plastic pot, but the rest of it is nice to look at.

A big bulb show for February – iris and early tulips
I’ve done a massive re-dig and replanting on the main part of the border in order to give good planting depth to about 50 tulips and 100 iris reticulata. The whole space is only 15′ x 6′, but I’ve rethought it in a way I think will work for the winter garden and the rest of the year. A short graveled path bisects the border from front to back now, terminating in a chimney pot that sits at the base of the ivy-covered wall at the back of the border. Looking at this border with new eyes, I realized that the ivy and wall are great features: a number of different types of hedera cling to the wall, planted by the previous owner. The new path not only echoes the one at the back of the garden, near where I buried my beautiful little dog, but it also gives access for the first time right to the back of this border, for tying in, weeding, and cutting flowers.

Either side of the graveled path I’ve put lychnis coronaria, with the hundred iris reticulata, for a bluish-grayish February show. Some very early Shakespeare tulips and heavenly lily-scented mahonia japonica are also in the border now, and I’ve incorporated a load of manure and compost to help me get better performance from the roses there. I saw how well the plants grew on top of the place where I buried Lizzy, and I’m sure part of it was the great easy run the roots had because the soil was so well-dug.

Renewed commitment to digging the garden
I’ve read loads about the no-dig method for gardening, especially vegetable gardening, but I think my soil wasn’t in the right condition to go down that route. I’m loosening everything up now and I think the results will be better.

Get inspiration from Rosemary Verey
For some more good ideas read the late Rosemary Verey, “The Garden in Winter,” which has been by my bedside for the last few months. She gives practical advice about how certain winter-performing plants behave in the garden, and her ideas about structure have influenced most of what I’ve done with my garden this year.

What are you doing in your garden now? Have you given thought to how it looks during winter, or do you prefer to shut the door on it till March?


Ten signs you’re obsessed with the garden


Click for larger imageThis year I’ve put most of my gardening budget into a professional garden design, so I’m in retail shutdown and can’t buy any new plants – at all. But I’ve discovered there are plenty other signs of my garden obsession in my behaviour, even with plant-buying taken out of the equation. Any of this sound familiar?

  1. My beautiful baby (plants): I’ve more photos of my borders than my children. From their earliest seed leaves to when they’re big (they grow so fast), my plants dominate my Flickr albums.
  2. Tick tock, sun by the clock: I know precisely when each area of the garden gets sun, especially in nooks that see just an hour or two of direct light. This makes me very boring, but it also makes it easier to plan where to put seats, especially for winter sun.
  3. In my dreams: Dreams or nightmares about the garden are a regular thing for me. Whether it’s a chat with Alan Titchmarsh or a late frost that killed the hellebores, they’re always unlikely and always feel utterly real.
  4. Count plants, not sheep: If I want to distract myself – at the dentist, when swimming laps, or when trying to drop off to sleep – I recite an A-Z alphabet of plants (*has a realisation about the cause of #3 above*).
  5. Weather geek: I worry about and watch the forecasts for killing frosts, heavy snow and gales in a way I never did before the garden drew me in. I’m constantly amazed at the plants’ drive to grow, flower and set seed, regardless of the weather.
  6. Love the Latin: I now love and want to learn more Latin plant names, a transformation from my first impression of botanical nomenclature as a needlessly pretentious quirk of gardening. The folksy common names are interesting, but you can’t beat the precise, no-room-for-confusion Latin.
  7. Stand and stare: Standing outside – or, more usually, looking out a window – I may stay motionless for many minutes, imagining small or big changes I could make to the space. It looks like an absent seizure, but it’s just the gardening obsession.
  8. Not great company: Because gardening has taken over eleven-tenths of my brain and this is tedious for people around me, I strain to keep gardening out of conversation. But like any hobbyist, my obsession is how I make sense of the world. Or, more precisely, it is my mental release valve: the vocabulary, beauty and order of it are a great comfort to me. I do try to muster some small talk about holiday plans or current events, but really I’m just waiting for someone to talk about tulips.
  9. These are my people: Meeting another garden-obsessive is as good as it gets. The conversation doesn’t just flow, it pours – about everything from holiday plans (for our seedlings) to current events (Chelsea). We need some way to recognise each other faster, like the brooches the masons used to wear.
  10. Forever young: Surprises in the garden give me a regular supply of Christmas-morning wonder. The first snowdrop, germinating seeds, baby newts, self-seeded plants – all these first-time-discovery moments make me feel small, safe and sure that everything in the world is well.

Are you garden-obsessed? How can you tell? I’d like to hear about it.

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