Taming the wisteria beast


Wisteria is a love/hate plant – somehow easiest to love when you catch sight of its graceful flowers on a drive through the country, past places you rarely or never see. A glimpse of wisteria’s pale purple tresses arrayed down the front of a house is breathtaking.

But if you are the minder of the creature that is wisteria, you’ll know how hard-won that grace is. This is a vigorous, jungle-ready climber, and the slim, year-old plant I put into the ground in 2004 is now thick as a python at its base, with ambitions to cover not just the south-facing wall of our cottage, but our entire village here in eastern Scotland. Coaxing the plant to stay where I want it is like persuading a giant beast to stand against the wall and spread ’em.

Perhaps any wisteria would be like this, but my wisteria floribunda is as vigorous as I’d ever want any plant to be. I thought I was ordering wisteria sinensis – something I still haven’t forgiven the mail-order company for – as sinensis flowers before it leafs up.

This is important: it means it’s easier to see the flowers on sinensis, which resemble bunches of grapes, than on floribunda, whose flower racemes are up to a meter long and come at the same time as its leaves, obscuring the blooms. This means I end up wrenching off a handful of leaves every time I pass the plant in May. By this late stage, I’ve worked too hard on this plant all year — through the years — to let it hide its glory away.

April is probably the most exciting time, as the bare branches burst, like the plant is shaking out 500 shaggy brown tails. These lengthen into snouts, then finally into ultra-long tresses of lavender flowers with a haunting, powdery-sweet scent … providing I’ve done everything the wisteria has demanded up to this point, that is. This includes:

  • the August pruning of unwanted shoots
  • the winter-prune shortening of side shoots to a finger’s length
  • the spring application of sulfate of potash
  • early-years training of the branches sideways along taut wires
  • a decade of clipping the plant’s branches so that most of them stand out from the wall like hanging basket brackets, to let the flowers hang free when they finally appear.

But all is forgiven on those early mornings in mid-May, when the rising sun angles through the elder and rosa glauca in the east of the garden and spotlights a perfect wisteria floribunda, which by that point I’m brutally de-leafing, up to twice a day.

Cups of tea taken on the bench under the wisteria are some of my happiest times in this garden. We’ve attached a mini-pergola to the house, like an awning over the bench, to nudge the plant away from the wall and give its racemes space to hang.

Looking up through it, it’s as if the pale purple tresses of wisteria are hanging from squares of blue sky. These are the good days, when I can feel the neighbours pausing as they pass our back gate, drinking in their annual glimpse of this beautiful beast of a plant.

Balanced against the 350 days of work it takes to get there, the good days are just about worth it.

What plant do you labour with? Is it worth it for you?


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



SWG005 Mid-March in a Scottish cottage garden


Feu de Joie narcissus a double daffodil


For gardeners it is indescribably exciting when the bumblebees get moving, the pollen starts flying and the blossom on the fruit trees starts bursting in springtime. In this episode of the Stopwatch Gardener podcast, I’m looking at the mystery daffodil that baffled me for years before being identified by the friendly Duncan at Croft 16, and I’m indulging in early fantasies about the roses to come, the first of which will appear in May.

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SWG002 Early February in a Scottish cottage garden


Galanthus Nivalis flore pleno

Welcome to the latest Stopwatch Gardener podcast, where I take a sunny February walk around the garden. If you use iTunes, there’s a link to subscribe at the bottom of this blog, or you can sign up in the margin here to get an e-mail alert whenever I publish a new episode.

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Five minutes with RHS Chelsea designers: Visit Massachusetts Garden


Hollyhock corner in Catherine MacDonald - Susannah Hunter garden at RHS Chelsea 2013

Thanks to the Visit Massachusetts team for introducing me to the designers at its RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2013 garden, which won a Silver Gilt. Below is taken from my exclusive chat with artist Susannah Hunter and garden designer Catherine MacDonald.

Who are the design team?
Susannah Hunter (shown below) and Catherine MacDonald, applique leather artist and landscape designer respectively. I hadn’t realised Susannah is from Arbroath, well north of me in Scotland. Catherine is with Landform Consultants, and Amanda Miller assisted Catherine with the graft of planting on site.
Susannah Hunter's leather stream with water lillies on the garden planted by Catherine MacDonald at RHS Chelsea Flower Show2013

What is the Visit Massachusetts Garden?
A small garden in the “Fresh” category at RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2013. Panels of Susannah’s botanically correct leather murals line the walls of this intimate space, softly planted by Catherine. A channel of blue leather and waterlillies crosses the plot, covered with perspex (I would have loved to see running water here). I loved this garden – and it photographed so well, with foreground “real plants” like foxgloves against a backdrop of the same flower in leather.

Where did Catherine and Susanna get their inspiration?
Susannah wanted to pin the garden to some kind of Massachusetts narrative, and a visit to Amherst and the Emily Dickinson museum helped her understand more about the reclusive poet: Dickinson was a keen gardener and flowers feature heavily in her writing. The Houghton Library and Glass Flower Collection at Harvard University were great resources for Susannah, and Dickinson’s own herbarium (a book of labelled, pressed flowers) gave Catherine a plant list to work from. (Catherine r. and Amanda l. are shown together below).
Catherine MacDonald and Amanda Miller from Landform Consultants

When is the garden set – historic or modern?
“It’s a modern take on the English cottage garden,” Catherine told me, and I could see that: sleekly shaped chair, trendy deschampsia cespitosa, and did I mention the leather? Actually the deschampsia felt retro, recalling long roadside grasses during my childhood near Boston. Undeniably the garden feels historic, with the dainty tea cup, old books and old-fashioned hollyhocks tilting lazily across Susannah’s panels. Key plants are aquilegias (aka columbines) Black Barlow, Ruby Port and Vulgaris Alba; cornus kousa Chinensis (sadly the genuine New England flowering dogwood, cornus florida, isn’t easily available in the UK), Iris sibirica Tropic Night, Matteuccia struthiopteris, Papaver Patty’s Plum.

Why leather in the garden? Isn’t that crazy and perishable?
Susannah’s left some of her applique panels in her own garden as an experiment and they’ve weathered well, but she most definitely hasn’t designed her work to be for outdoors. “It’s about bringing the garden into the house,” Susannah says. “I have clients I’ve done commissions for – for example one client whose yellow irises only flower for a few weeks of the year – and I’ve done a headboard for her, to see the iris all year round.” Susannah hasn’t designed any pieces meant for the outside, although she says she’s thinking about doing so.

How does the artist work?
Susannah sketches flowers from life – her wisteria panel began as a drawing of a friend’s abundant wisteria one May – and also works from photographs, building up an image bank to draw upon for commissions. Plant geeks will love the accurate detail and growing habit of her work: climbing roses reach horizontally across panels, wisteria spills down the wall, tall hollyhocks lean just a bit to one side.

You can see Susannah’s work here, contact Catherine via Landform Consultants and go visit Massachusetts for goodness sake: there are now garden tours to the region. If you enjoyed this, you can click below to share on Facebook or Twitter.

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