In praise of Genius

Although it probably goes against convention, today I want to talk about a genius far better than I could hope to equal. When I first visited East Lambrook Manor, I was bemused by their proclamation that ELM was the birthplace of the cottage garden. Certainly not true because this iconic garden was created back in the 1930s by this countries best self-taught plantswoman, artist, visionary.

But lets start at the beginning. Cottage gardening has been a feature of the English countryside for centuries, but Margery Fish, when she started work on the gardens at East Lambrook Manor, did something no one else had done before. This was the woman who saw beyond the beauty of our flowers and with her skills as a gardener, plant hunter, plantswoman and artist, was able to create a work of art that surpassed anything done up to that date. Using her plants and flowers as her palette, and the bare ground around the manor as her canvas, she created a work of art never before seen. Was it art? If sculpture is art in 3D, was it sculpture? Certainly a masterpiece? Whatever you call it, her garden grew into a work that is as good as the best anywhere. So ‘birthplace of the cottage garden? No, but the ‘Coming of Age’ of gardening as we know it? Without a doubt.

If I hold any artist in highest praise, it would be Margery Fish. If I hold anyone in highest praise for courage, resilience and faith, it would be the current owners of East Lambrook Manor, Mike and Gail have had the strength to save and restore the gardens around their home back to the work of art that Margery left behind. Without Mike and Gail, we could have lost this masterpiece, but today, if you visit ELM, especially in the next couple of months, when the spring flowers are at their very best, you will be in for a real treat. Margery strived to achieve her goal of flowers every day of the year. East Lambrook Manor still achieves that today. 4 Minutes from the A303 at South Petherton, Somerset TA13 5HH

Now back to the real world of Picket Lane Nursery. Finally, we are seeing more sunlight and suddenly the gardens are bursting in to life. After so many months of dull, damp, cold days, it is really encouraging to see so much new growth everywhere. But there is still much to do before the start of March when we open for the season. Visitors who have been turning up over the last week or two will have seen empty sales tables as all our nursery plants are grown on away from the sales area. We have just 6 days to move 800 varieties not to mention everything else that needs doing, but with the promise of dry days and yes, frosty nights, the next week will see the nursery coming to life. But is this doom and gloom about the weather something to fear, or is it just the Met. Office and the BBC once again, putting us in fear and trepidation for no reason. They have done it so often that I think (and hope) they are just calling ‘Wolf’. We will see.

Hundreds of surplus plants are now being planted in the gardens, and I can’t wait to see the results, especially in the orange and hot gardens. Last year was the first full year for this area, so we supplemented lots of colour by using annuals. This will be the year that the perennials take over. Even now, with basal clumps just showing through the mulch, we can see how much better it will be. With a mass of Kniphofia, Heleniums, Crocosmia and Dahlias as the backbone, it should be a real picture. The new white garden will go through the same process, and as I write this, my greenhouse is full of new seedlings that will give the white garden its colour for this first season. At over 1000 square yards, it’s quite a big lump of wild grassland that is now under our control.

Earlier this year I said that I would be waiting a while before cleaning away last year’s vegetation from the beds. This has a number of benefits, protecting the crowns with a natural layer of mulch, giving habitat to beneficial insects, providing seed for our wild birds, and protecting the soil from erosion caused by heavy winter rain, and all that mud hidden from view, I can put up with the slightly less than tidy beds for the winter. As we move into early Spring, I’ll start the clear up. Plants like Crocosmia are producing their new shoots through the dead foliage. It’s so easy now to simply pull away the dead material. The late summer flowering perennials like Asters, and Phlox have produced their new growth from the basal nodes of last year’s growth, so safe to cut back to the new shoots. Penstemons that were reduced in height by a half last Autumn are starting to produce new basal growth. These can be cut back to the new material. And of course, all this dead material forms the basis of next Autumn’s garden compost, so nothing wasted.

Gardeners are, and have to be eternal optimists. We buy packets containing just 4 or 5 seeds in the expectation that they will supply every tomato we will need. We buy tiny plug plants expecting them to produce 8 months of colour. Even when we have a poor year, we live in the expectation that next year will be better, well, I have some good news. This is going to be a great year. Happy Gardening.

March Diary Dates: (All talks at village halls starting at 7:30pm unless otherwise detailed)

Corscombe 2:00pm 6th March – The Bee-friendly Garden

Newton Poppleford 8th March – Herbs

Uffculme 12th March – Wildlife

Lydford 13th March – Year at Picket Lane

North Perrott 20th March – The Bee-friendly Garden

New Milton 21 March – Why did it Die

Bovey Tracey 22 March – Why did it Die

East Lambrook Manor 24th March Plant fair with 20 nurseries taking part

Fordingbridge 26 March – Why did it Die

Merriott 28th March – 12 Months of Colour


Organised Chaos

From the beginning of August each year, we begin to make our stock for the following year. Much of this stock is produced by propagating existing plants, then each year we try to add two or three hundred new varieties to keep our regular customers happy. Our aim is to produce between 1000 and 1500 different varieties each year, so this really is a massive undertaking.

What is harder is the fact that we have just two months after Christmas to pot up all these plants before the season begins at the start of March. This, coupled with all the repairs and maintenance resulting from winter wear and tear, and of course, the gardens which need to look at least under control if not at their best, means that January and February are absolute chaos. (The gardens don’t really start to look their best ‘till end April onwards).

While I spend most of my time potting, using up to 4 tons of compost each week, Pippa has been working in the sales area, emptying the sales tables, cleaning them, repairing, and all that the sales area requires, then plotting out where the stock plants will actually go on the tables. With just 10 days to go, we are both more or less on target, but anyone visiting us would find that hard to believe. Over the last two months, any unsold and unwanted plants that have been left over from last year have mounted up in piles on the paths so black pots everywhere. But this is our ‘bonus bonanza’. Plants that are surplus to our nursery stock, but too good to throw away are perfect for filling in gaps throughout the gardens.

Stock beds starting to fill

Our main garden which will be over two acres is designed so that all plants within one colour range are planted in colour zones, separated from the next colour by different hedges. Reds, Pinks, Oranges, Purples, Hots, Whites, each colour zone covers over 1000 square yards, so our ‘bonus bonanza’ has a great value, and gradually those chaotic piles of black plastic pots get moved from the paths around the sales tables and are given special attention being placed exactly where we want to see them flourish in their right places. Then as time allows, they get planted in the gardens.

october 2015 022
Late Winter in the colour garden

The top garden is less ‘themed’, being a great mix of perennials and flowering shrubs but without any planned structure to where they are planted, so this is where the remnants of our bonanza end up. Jo Saddler, our part-time gardener has been doing a Stirling job this year doing her very best to make all the gardens look their best, but she has a real uphill battle. Imagine having a job spec. which takes every minute available to achieve, only to find that every year, your job gets bigger by 1000 square yards without any extra hours to achieve it. Welcome to Jo’s world.

Rosie in the top garden

Jo is one of the regions best willow sculptors specialising in life-size willow animals. So good that if she places one of her pieces in the garden, our dog, Rosie, will spend several minutes with heckles up, barking at the stranger in the garden. Even now, after a year or two of new creatures appearing out of the blue, the dog still has not got used to it. If you visited Dillington Court for their Christmas weekend this year , you would have seen Jo’s work in the form of Santa Claus’s reindeer. will get you in touch with her.

The forecast for the next two or three weeks is not looking too good, with a suggestion of very cold days to come, but the word ‘Average’ means that even if we have a slow start to the season, it must eventually come good. I know that we’ve had a particularly wet winter this year, one that has been characterised by very low light levels, and I know that this year our plants seem very slow to start growing, but one thing for certain is that plants very quickly catch up, so by mid April onwards, things will be fantastic. We have had years when very early Spring has been fabulous, only to see all the new growth burnt back by the sting in winters tail. I’d rather have a later start to Spring.

So, organised chaos reigns, 10 days to go, tables to stock, gardens to complete, stock to pot up, car park to tidy, winter repairs to carry out, simple!! Oh I’ve forgotten something. ‘Elf N Safety’. Apparently, if I were to leave a massive, very bright yellow hosepipe across a path, then you tripped over it, it would be my fault. We need to very diligently walk the entire site searching for anything that could be construed as dangerous. So anywhere that rain has washed mud over paths could be a slip hazard. Any timber path edging that might have rotted – trip hazard. The giant Euphorbia pasteurii ‘John Phillips’ that now spans half the path as well the bed it was planted into – hazard. Cut it back next week, then the highly caustic sap will be exactly at child eye-height – big health Hazard. Paths shifted to leave them uneven – hazard. Dead elm tree that started loosing twigs last year, could shed branches this spring – hazard, 60 X 45 feet pond full of very cold water – hazard. I’ll stop my health and safety assessment there because otherwise, I’ll just buy a bigger padlock then throw away the keys.

Health Hazard? I see no hazard. It’s a pond, don’t fall in it!

Anything else? Oh #Yes, Gale force wind from the north west last week revealed that the timber base-ring round our biggest poly tunnel has rotted to nothing. So nothing to hold the ground matting down, and nothing to hold the plastic sheet up. If we can’t do a temporary fix until the tunnel is empty, it may be better to cut off all the plastic rather that risk damage to our stock. Just hope it stays good ‘till spring. Oh the joys of owning a nursery.

As you may know, I always try to add a little bit about our wild birds, and today is no exception. We seem to have had the last of this seasons bramblings, but we’ve had a massive influx of the beautiful little siskins turning up on the feeders in the last couple of weeks. Often more that a dozen birds at any one time, and in that time, they have begun to show their true breeding plumage, so the males are sporting their lovely black crowns. Almost never a second without at least a couple of them right outside the windows. What a treat.

An Unfortunate Legacy

Do you remember, 12 or 13 years ago, the government of the day decided to adopt an EU directive to ban every chemical that could be used in the garden? At the time it was explained that this was an EU ruling, but it was an optional opt-in which caused quite some difficulty for gardeners, not to mention confusion. Jays Fluid could be used to clean your motorbike or driveway, but not your greenhouse. Coffee grounds could no longer be used to deter slugs from special plants, and I can promise you, it worked. Even washing-up liquid could no longer be used to kill greenfly.

The justification for this change was that every chemical for use in the garden had to be tested for ‘efficacy in the garden’ Neither coffee grounds or washing-up liquid has ever been tested, so they remain on the do-not-use list. But why am I talking about that? Well, we started the nursery 12 years ago just after this legislation came in to force. In panic, timber yards that sold tanalised timber stopped using the preservative that had worked for decades, and introduced a new and untested preservative. What they did not realise was that this new preservative only works for about 10 years, then the timber rots.

Twelve years ago, we began fencing off 10 acres of countryside to protect us from grazing deer, and believe me, we have a lot of deer. We used timber for fence posts, to edge the 1000s of yards of paths, timber on the ends of our poly tunnels, timber for our sales tables – all in the expectation that this new treatment would protect the wood from ‘rot’ – well, the rot-by-date has arrived!!!!!

During construction, the fence posts were to support the wire that kept the deer out. Now, the wire supports the rotting posts. The plastic covering the poly tunnels now holds up the timber end frames.


In an almost exact mirror of all the structural work we have done at Picket Lane, we now have to go through our history and repeat it. All I hope is that the newest version of tanalised timber works better than the 12 year old version. We have 60 odd sales tables that need cleaning and disinfecting in time for our opening in March, but as I walked through the sales area this week, I noted that I have 7 or 8 tables that need complete rebuilding. This is a job I really didn’t want to do.

On a happier note, last Autumn, I lifted a number of clumps of named crocosmia varieties from the orange garden, split them, then potted up the corms into small pots for a project I want to work on this Spring. Following a visit last year to the Eden Project in Cornwall, a visit that left me disappointed as a gardener, but in wonder at the scale and scope of the construction, I was left with a truly inspired memory of their National Collection of Kniphofia species. But what inspired me most was their companion planting of the red-hot-pokers along side crocosmia. What a fabulous display.

I have about 25 species and varieties of Kniphofia planted in the orange garden, and over the last couple of years, been collecting less common Crocosmia varieties, but I needed to bulk them up to get the same effect as Eden. This Spring, provided it stops raining, my project should be in the ground. Then just hope that both the Crocosmia and Kniphofia flower at about the same time.


National Collection Kniphofia at the Eden Project. Cornwall

My seed-sowing is going well having sown all the seed that should have been sown in the Autumn after leaving them in the fridge for three weeks. With the cold forecast for next week, and probably a few more cold snaps before Spring, that should be enough to break their dormancy. Germination should start mid-March onwards. A simple guide is that if the seed is too small to count, then simple sow on to the surface of the seed compost then give the pot one light tap, watering from below. Seed that can be counted needs to be covered by little more than the depth of the seed itself. Again, watering from below. Larger seed, that is, large enough to be easily picked up between index and thumb should be sown individually either in seed modules or spaced out in the pot. My ‘Sow in Spring’ seeds will have to wait until Spring, and the signal for Spring is when the crocuses come into flower. We’ve got snowdrops, daffs and hellebores in flower, but still no sign of crocus. If you havn’t collected your own seed or are looking for a good catalogue, go to You could be in for a great surprise. Our nursery sells perennials and flowering shrubs, but we use Chiltern Seeds for our annuals, short-lived perennial and new varieties for our gardens. We have never been disappointed.

Pippa keeps a couple of ponies on what will be our 5 acre flower meadow. By removing the horse poo each day, the ground is being denuded of nutrients. That coupled with the horses breaking up the soil, we hope the flower meadow will improve over time. In just a couple of years, we have seen so many new wild flowers like orchids appear. No, we will not be seeding it with non-native flowers, but hope to encourage British native species. Only trouble is, it has rained and rained and rained this winter. With a two inch top-soil, the ponies are doing more than just break up the surface. When will we get some dry, sunny days?

As many of you must know by now, I have a real passion for birds, and keep a record of anything less than common that pops in. But we did have a big surprise when a mute swan decided to pay us a visit. Not for a couple of minutes, but for the whole day. Taking up station at the entrances of three poly tunnels, it seemed happy to let us get to within just a couple of feet of it, but no less than that. Makes a change from the little song birds.

Nov2015 035Our visitor for a day!

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What a day!! With so much to do as we approach the gardening season, today seemed to be taken up with deliveries. First, we had 20 tons of stone delivered into the car park. That should be enough to top-dress all the paths in the gardens. With just a wheelbarrow, it should only take a couple of weeks of hard work to shift. Then, our weekly supply of compost was delivered – 4 tons into the car park. Should be enough for about 8 days provided the wheelbarrow is free. Then timber arrived to repair, replace and renovate the sales tables. Got 4 weeks to do that before March 1st. Then a lorry load of woodchip arrived, another lump of car park filled, but we need the wood chip to mulch the gardens before the weeds start in the Spring.

Between them, those deliveries took up 3 or 4 hours of the day, but the best delivery arrived when I got home. Seeds. As a member of the Hardy Plant Society, I am eligible to buy seeds through their Seed Distribution facility, 20 packet from their massive seed list, plus 60 more random packets which are pot-luck and always includes seeds from plants I’ve never heard of or plants I would never think of getting. Then in the same post, my order of seeds from Chilterne Seeds, one of the best seed suppliers in the country for great variety, quantity of seeds per packet and price. So in total, something like 100 packets of seeds, and that’s on top of the seeds I’ve collected from the gardens this Autumn.

Where do you start? Forgetting everything else that was delivered today, the seeds are really what excites me but there are a few rules worthy of note. Any of the societies, like Hardy Plant Society or the Scottish Alpine Society who run a seed distribution scheme for their members, have one simple failing. That is, you get no sowing instructions. Just packets with the name of the seeds.

First and foremost is a simple fact that a species is likely to come true from seed, but a variety probably will not come true, so I never choose varieties from seed lists. I have 80 packets of seeds, so lots of research needed. For me it is critical to correctly label all plants so any seed from a variety is labelled ‘Genus’ then ‘Species’ then ‘Ex’ then ‘Variety’. The ‘Ex’ signifies that the seed comes from a variety. If any plant label has a simple ‘X’ between two names, this signifies that it is a hybrid between two species or Genre, a very different thing.

Next thing to remember is that if the books say ‘sow in Autumn’, this tells me that the seed probably requires a period of cold to get it to germinate. It’s now February, and the way it’s going, we may well not get a long enough cold spell, so some seed will need to live in the fridge for a while.

Do the seeds require light to germinate? Heat? So many conditions that need to be thought about, so I’ll be spending a few evenings researching in order to get the best results. So, sort out those that should be Autumn sown. Get them going. Then there’s always the temptation to sow the rest too early. Spring really will not start ‘till mid-March, but there is so much else to do.

Sales flowers

In the nursery we have to pot up between two and three hundred plants every day to get the job done by Easter. So each day we pot up the varieties that are growing fastest. By the time we’ve worked through six poly tunnels, it’s time to go back to the first tunnel and start again. As the hardiest plants are put out onto the growing beds, the more tender plants can stay in the tunnels in the spaces we’ve made. By the time we’ve potted 1,000 varieties we will have used 50 tons of compost. The thought of working with seeds really is a holiday from the hard work.

Many of the growing beds still have last years’ stock on them, most of the sales tables need tidying up, the gardens need work to tidy them up for Spring, the buildings are showing signs of stress where the felt roofs are failing, but above all of that, unless we put plants in pots, we have nothing to sell, so potting has to take priority.

Sales tables

Everything in the gardens is starting to grow now with new shoots and buds popping up everywhere. So exciting to see the hundreds of snowdrop planted last year now in flower. The daffs showing colour in their buds, the clumps of perennials now showing growth, but there is a problem. Some of our spring colour is already in flower, and it’s only the start of February. I planted a pot of pink cow parsley last spring. It was planted in a space in the Pink Garden where it is easy to see because it’s such a nice colour. But why is it in flower now? As I said before, plants respond to past weather conditions, not the calendar, so to have it in flower now tells me that it has been too mild this winter. Sidalcea ‘Rose Queen’ is in flower as are a number of penstemon. Last year so much in the garden was out of step with the calendar, and it looks like this year will start in the same way.

I do lots of talks to gardening clubs over the year on a wide range of garden-related topic, and over the next two weeks l will be at:

1st Feb            North Curry GC – ‘Gardening on Clay’,

7th Feb            Bath Botanical Gardens – ‘The Bee-friendly Garden’,

8th Feb            West Hill – ‘Why did it Die’,

9th Feb            Kilmington – ‘The Nursery Year’,

12th Feb         Rode Gardening Club – ‘Propagation’,

13th Feb         Montacute GC – ‘Why did it Die’

All the gardening clubs invite visitors to join them for the evening, they all meet at 7:15 for 7:30pm start, and most of them meet at their village halls, so if you fancy an evening with other gardeners, come and join us. Drop me any questions you may have through the ‘Comments’ button.

I cannot close without saying some thing about our birds, but what we have noticed this week is that they have been saying it themselves. For the first time this year, the dawn has become so musical, and that music will be growing through the whole of this month and on ‘till April. Birds are pairing up and even now, becoming far more colourful. Spring is certainly on its way. In just 4 weeks, we will be in to March. What a great thought.

Ground Cover

One of the things I really don’t like about winter is MUD, and what’s more, it can be avoided with the right plants. The right plants are those that are both evergreen and ground-covering.

We were blessed with not much more than a 2” top-soil above pure blue, alluvial clay, so we were restricted with our choice of plants. But because we have added mulch every year, our top soil deepens year on year, the quality of the soil improves, and our choice of plants has increased and continues to increase year on year. This means that I’m always looking for new plants and ideas to try. Some fail, some struggle and others thrive, but because our soil is still improving, it’s always worth trying some of those failures again.

One plant that has never failed us, and flowers from about September right through to June is Pulmonaria ‘Bowl’s Red’, and an excellent ground cover plant it is. From our first year this plant has survived despite our clay and as I look out of my window now, I see fresh plain green foliage with masses of pink flowers. If fact, many of the pulmonarias are evergreen, and well worth growing for their foliage as well as their flowers. Another good variety is Pulmonaria ‘Mawson’s Blue’. This is another pulmonaria with plain rather than spotted leaves, and right now, it is starting to put up wonderful blue flowers, and will continue to do so for two or three months. I need to propagate a tray of them specifically for the blue garden that we’ll start this autumn. Plan ahead!
Pulmonaria 'Blue Ensign'Pulmonaria ‘Mawsons Blue’

Another real champion for us is the genus Epimedium. The new, delicate, veined foliage appears in Spring, then lasts right through the whole year, becoming tough glossy, deep green ground cover particularly good in light shade and moist soil. I’ve planted many of them from the car park down through the top garden. Delicate starry flowers stand above the foliage in most species in colours ranging from pure white through yellows, pinks, oranges and violet . Another month, and I’ll remove all of last year’s leaves to get the best from the new foliage. I’ve got E.macrantha, Sulphurium,   Lillafee,  and a host of other varieties, each having their   own charms, but I’m missing a good   white for the ‘White Garden’ It’s on my wish list!

Epimedium frohnleiten        Epimedium frohnleiten

Of course, everyone knows that hardy Geraniums are great ground cover, particularly for light shade. But many are deciduous, so for spring, summer and autumn no problem, but I don’t like winter mud, so this is when I rely on the smaller flowered ‘Endressii’ types of geranium because they are evergreen. However, under our specimen C.leylandii tree it is quite dark and very dry. As Margery Fish said, “If all else fails, plant a geranium”. The best geranium for very dry shade is Geranium nodosum, and what a bit of luck, the Leylandii is on the edge of the white garden, and G.nodosum ‘Silverwood’ has a very bright white flower, so that’s a must. As with the Epimediums, although they are evergreen, it’s always worth pulling off last year’s old foliage just when the new leaves start to grow.

While I’m talking about shade, I can’t miss the Polystichum ferns. Being evergreen, and generally smaller, these ferns really do help to hide the mud through the winter. And then as spring starts to warm the soil, and the days lengthen, I’m always fascinated to see the new leaves uncoil from their central clump. We have P.setiferum in one of our shade beds, and gradually, they are spreading randomly along the path. A little gem, Uvularia grandiflora is one of those transient plants that only appear for a few weeks each year, putting up delicate, drooping, yellow flowers before its foliage appears. Then it’s gone. Fortunately, it grows right next to one of my evergreen ferns which act as a guardian against it getting disturbed whilst asleep. That has worked for the last 8 years.

Omphalodes cappadocica is yet another plant that fulfils my needs for ground cover and evergreen foliage. With fabulous electric blue flowers, Known as the perennial forget-me-not, I think it’s better that forget-me-not in every way. Fully hardy, evergreen, better flowers, ground covering, dappled to deep shade. Need I go on?

Another real champion at this time of year for my campaign to hide the mud, is the evergreen campanula, C.isophylla. I know it’s not in flower now, and I’m not that enamoured with the slightly purple tinge of blue in its bell-flowers, but in the depths of winter, the foliage holds up to the worst of our winters, and looks great right now. Then, early spring it is so easy to pull off all the winter foliage revealing the new leaves, clean and fresh to start all over again.

Campanula isophyla     Campanula isophylla

I did plant a Vinca diformis, thinking it would be good ground cover, but what a mistake! Yes, good ground cover, then Hebe cover, then Centaurea cover – need I go on? Within just a couple of years, this single plant had progressed 20 feet smothering everything. In the end, in desperation, it was given a ‘Roundup’ bath. It’s so important to keep your eyes on how well plants grow in your own garden. What is a treasured, hard to grow specimen for some, is the world’s worst thug for others. I don’t use Vinca anymore for ground cover, it likes our soil too much.

But one plant I do like is the marbled foliage of the Arum italicum. This is a brilliant little ground cover plant for us. Just when the world is starting to look like mud, up comes this lovely foliage looking clean and fresh. Doesn’t flower that freely for us, but I grow it for the leaves. It performs right through the winter and spring, then just when everything else is starting to look great, Arum italicum goes to sleep for the summer. Couldn’t be better.

Arum italicum    Arum italicum

Another good ground cover plant is the hardy form of Osteospernum – ’Paleface’ for example. This is a good evergreen, ground-covering plant with the added bonus of throwing up flowers even in the depths of winter. Remember, plants respond to the weather, not the calendar and with Osteospernum, we only need a couple of warmer, dry weeks, and it will flower. Right now, third week of January, I have a dozen flowers on my plants. Many of the darker flowered forms are less than hardy, so those are kept in a tunnel over winter to be planted out in the spring.

Well, there’s a few ground covering gems to be getting on with, but I have yet to mention so many others like Pachysandra terminalis. The list seems endless, but the gardens are open free of charge, so pop over some time.

If all else fails to cover the mud, we have an inexhaustible supply of good wood chip. Although there are a few problems associated with incorporating fresh wood chip into the soil, it has been proved that using it as a top-dressing eliminates these problems but goes a long way towards helping us in other ways. Firstly, any good mulch will drastically reduce weed seed germination. As we have 3 acres of gardens, and a real shortage of volunteers, this gives us a fighting chance against the weed. Secondly, over time, the wood chip mixes with the top soil helping with drainage and deepening the top soil. Third and  most important for me, it hides the mud! Success!

white gardenBuilding the White garden, (December 2017)

Perhaps a coincidence, but the day after the big ‘snow-event’ up country, we had a skein of 14 canada geese fly over early in the day, then later in the day, possibly as many as 25 grey geese went past. First time we’ve seen geese this winter. Had they come down to West Dorset because of the snow, or have I simply missed them this winter? And what happened to the sparrows? We’ve had 27 species of birds on the feeders this winter, but not one single sparrow. Odd that!!

Bare Bones

This is now our busiest time of the year, knowing that if we don’t pot up our stock, we’ll have nothing to sell when the season starts, so every effort goes into hard work – half a ton of compost a day. Fortunately, the daylight is now increasing and as we have no electricity at the nursery, we work until it’s too dark to work. That means that every day, we work just that little bit longer.

Despite everything that has to be done, I took time out this weekend, to wander through the gardens. This is the time of year that gets missed by so many gardeners, but it is the time when there is so much ‘promise’. The promise that Spring is just a few weeks away. All over the gardens, bulbs are springing up, the first, snowdrops, are in flower, the daffs are in bud, crocuses are pushing through the soil, not long and all the other bulbs will start to appear.

The buds on all the shrubs are now starting to swell, and it’s now that we have the chance to notice how each shrub is slightly different in the way its bare form works. Take a look at the Lilac, Hoheria, Buddleija, flowering Cornus capitata. Each one different, but that difference will soon be hidden by foliage. Now you can see where so many birds nested last year, and what a joy it is to see that the shrubs we planted a few years ago are now  homes for our bird families.

The perennials that originate in temperate maritime environments are now starting to produce new basal growth. That gives me great encouragement when I see that the Monarda, Phlox and Hemerocalis have survived the darkest part of the winter and will very soon begin another year. Persicaria campanulatifolia is a fantastic 4 foot high perennial with clouds of pale pink flowers from mid-summer through to end of winter, but right now, it’s a neat evergreen, ground-hugging plant with really tidy foliage. Only seen during the summer, and you miss the beauty of its winter habits. Time to prune the roses, although there are a couple of climbing roses that we have purposely not pruned, so they flower right at the very top of one of the hazel hedges. Visitors get a real surprise to see large, rich red flowers 25 feet up in the hedgerows.

Now is the time when we can read the history of some of our plants. We lost a massive bough from an Acer way back in 2008 when a very late snow event in the middle of March took out a big branch. Over the years, the scar has very slowly repaired, and I noticed this weekend, that the wound has finally made a complete repair. A few weeks from now, and it will be hidden by foliage, but I now know why the tree has such an unusual, and quite pleasant overall form.

This weekend, I’ve just moved a number of plants into a poly-tunnel. I want to encourage new growth so I can start taking cuttings early enough to have the new plants in flower this year. So a couple of each variety of Penstemons, Gaura, Perovskia and so many others that we propagate from cuttings. The extra warmth in the poly tunnel will bring them into full growth within the next two or three weeks. The cuttings will be rooted by early March, potted into sales pots by end of April and in flower by June. Left outside, then they wouldn’t begin to put on new growth until March and not be new plants on the sales tables until August.

Meanwhile, I’ve noticed this weekend during my walkabout there are parts of the new gardens that are holding too much surface water, so within the next week or two, I’ll dig more drainage trenches. After they have been left for a few rain events and I know they work, I’ll convert the trenches into French Drains. Just one of the problems of having a two inch topsoil on pure blue clay. If you get the chance, spend a few minutes in your garden this month. You see the bare bones of the garden, the promises and the problems. Mind you, for me, these sort of problems are just opportunities to make improvements.

We had another new visitor to the bird feeders, along with the redpolls, a tree-creeper has started visiting the tree we have our feeders on. Not sure which tree-creeper it is, the two look so similar. Best way to tell is its song. One has an ascending call and the other a descending call. Problem is, if it doesn’t sing, I can’t tell. Never mind, it takes our bird count on the feeders up to 26 species, and even now it’s noticeable that the birds are beginning to pair up. Our woodpeckers have started drumming, and it won’t be long before we’ll have the dawn chorus to wake up to. Then we really will know that Spring has Sprung.

Battle lines are drawn

All those years ago, when we first walked the fields that are now the nursery, the most startling thing was the width of the hedgerows. Sometimes as much  as 50 feet wide, solid bramble, and solidly rooted to the ground by Crack Willow, Blackthorn, Sycamore etc. Then, the nasty weeds, dock, stinging nettle, creeping buttercup and the like. Of course, the thing to bear in mind is that back then, the land had lain abandoned for many decades, so we were seeing what could happen across every ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’ in the country if it were not for the fact that our natural beauty is one that is carefully and quietly ‘managed’ by our farmers.

It took us a couple of years to fight our way back to the boundary hedges and ditches. To clear a mile and a half of hedgerows, lay down our hard landscaping and paths, erect deer-proof fencing and install irrigation pipes from the wrong side of the road, down through the nursery to the working nursery. Erect our poly tunnels and growing beds and so much more. That was before we even looked at a plant. This was not going to be a ‘get-rich-quick’ process.

Today, I was very sternly reminded that I had ‘Stolen’ 10 acres of land from Nature. And the scary thing is that Nature wants it back. Our deer-fencing was installed 15 feet in from the boundary fences and ditches, but today brambles are cascading over the deer-fences. Nettles are pushing up from under the fences, sycamore and willow seedlings are sprouting from every bit of spare soil. The big problem with all this is that we have 3 acres of gardens where every plant we offer for sale can be seen growing. Gardens where our rare and special shrubs are growing, these are the plants we rely on for cuttings, and these are the beds that are now under attack.

Only remedy is to get between the fences and boundaries armed with a decent hedgecutter and joint the battle. Cut back all the bramble growth that has invaded the gardens, then spray off the weeds beyond the fences. This is a job that cannot be done during the growing season, so it needs to be done NOW! This is the now when all of this year’s stock has to be potted up, all 40,000 plants. The now when the nursery sales tables  need to be cleaned, repaired, disinfected and painted, all 65 tables, the now when we have to clean and prepare our growing beds to take the stock that we’ve not yet potted up. But I have a cunning plan. Electricity!!! We have none of it at the nursery. Our technology hasn’t changed from the late 19th century, but I do have a battery powered hedgetrimmer, so my plan is to charge the machine tonight, use it tomorrow until the battery is empty, then get on with the day job. Charge it tomorrow, then use it Monday and so on until the job is done, (probably Christmas at the rate I’m going).

On the plus side, many of the shrubs we planted 10 years ago are now fantastic specimens. This past Autumn, we carved out 1000 square yards of untouched ground to create our ‘White Garden’ but we needed a special shrub to act as a focal point for late Spring. One of those now fully mature shrubs was just what I needed. Viburnum plicatum ‘Marissii’. Just dig it out of our very heavy clay, and move it to the new garden. It took two days of digging just to get it to a point where we could see movement at the roots. Gosh, I’m getting old!!

Now replanted, I’m sure it is going to look fantastic with the new pond as a backdrop. If you’re passing later in the spring do pop in. Remember, our gardens are open free of charge, so that’s not an invitation to spend money, just an invitation to come and see what we’re doing.

The mystery bird has finally been identified. We have all the usual winter visitors like fieldfares, redwings, siskins and bramblings. We get oddities passing through like the green sandpiper and reed bunting – where are the nearest reeds? probably the levels or coastal fringe. But for a couple of weeks, a small dunnock-like bird has been on our feeders, but certainly not a dunnock. Striped back, straw colour, fairly non-descript – but today, it was joined by another bird. A male Redpoll, and when they were together I could see clearly that my mystery bird is a female Redpoll. Probably common enough for some, but for us at Picket Lane, a very welcome First. That has made my day!!

Take it easy, it’s winter

Way back in Autumn, I was suggesting that there is no hurry to tidy up the beds, but suggested that leaving the great tidy-up until Spring was beneficial in many ways. I see gardens where every speck of dead leaf material has been removed, and the garden looks so neat and tidy, or to put it my way, looks like mud.

Lets look at the benefits of not being too tidy. First, many plants like Crocosmia need a good mulch to protect the corms from the ravages of winter. Their dead and dying foliage is the perfect mulch to protect from frost. Come Spring, when the new foliage begins to grow through this mulch, it is so easy to remove it.

Many of our plants, particularly those perennials that originate in temperate zones, start to produce next year’s growth from their basal nodes, and require the dying stems as an energy source to generate this new growth. Plants like Echinacea, Phlox etc are among this group. Cut the stems back to the ground too soon, then there is less material for the plant to feed on.

Our semi-evergreen and evergreen plants like Penstemon require leaves through winter to survive. Cut them back hard in the Autumn and you almost certainly will kill them. Cut them back after the new year’s growth is showing and they will live for decades. However, it is important that with all these plants, they are reduced in height in the Autumn to prevent wind-rock. If you want to kill Penstemon, Lavender or Perovskia, leave them at full summer height through the gales of winter. They will crack at their base then rot. I cut mine down by a half.

Our beneficial insects seek out the hollow stems of perennials to over-winter. It’s amazing how many lacewings and ladybirds survive the harshest winters simply by finding the right place to sleep. And equally, amazing how many good gardeners kill them simply because they want to be ‘tidy’.

All that decaying leaf material lying on the soil acts as a weed suppressor. If you cleaned one bed but left an identical bed with its leaf material in tact over winter, firstly, the uncleaned bed will have far less weed in the Spring. Secondly, that leaf material has been created by extracting valuable minerals from the soil. By leaving it over winter, nature will reclaim the minerals back into the soil. Remove the dead material and you remove those nutrients. I don’t understand those people who spend their time cleaning everything up, then more time and money by putting mulch back on the soil.

Finally, erosion! Mulch goes a long way to preventing soil erosion by softening the effect of raindrops hitting the soil. We are on clay, and our very thin topsoil is valuable, so by leaving the dead material in tact through winter, not only do we preserve the topsoil, we improve it and deepen it through the activity of worms.

Needless to say, right now, our 2 acre garden looks a bit of a mess, but by the end of February, a reasonably simply clean-up will give me a better start to the year. There are some plant, like Monarda do need to be kept free from leaf material to prevent the crowns from rotting, but there aren’t that many plants that suffer in that way.

The nursery is closed from November until the start of March, but I still have to look at it, and invariably, we do get visitors turning up, so I have a few rules that I try to stick to. Primarily, I try to plant as many evergreen perennials as possible, and when I have a choice between herbaceous and evergreen, you’ve guessed it, I choose evergreens. Even plants like Francoa, and in particular, F. sonchifolia look really good through winter. Next, I like to have as many plants as possible that leave something to look at during the winter months. It might be the skeletal framework, or seed-heads, anything with form. These plants help to punctuate the beds so even in deepest winter, I still know where things are.

Last year, we recorded 75 species of wild birds at the nursery, this winter I’ve been really surprised how many are still in the gardens. Many birds that are difficult to find in January seem to be happy here, and I think it’s because we have so much going on, even in the dead of winter. Reed Buntings, Willow Tits, Siskins, Bramblings, the flocks of Long Tail Tits and Goldfinches, so much that is more than just plants, simply because we don’t rush to clean up.

But Spring is just 6 weeks away, then the work starts. Just as well that the days are getting longer. Just wish it would stop raining.

2nd January – A welcome harvest.

Why talk of harvest early in January when all about lies little but MUD?

Most of us think of wheat and barley fields or an over-indulgence in runner beans when we think of harvest, but to me there are many harvests that are offered free by nature rather than by the sweat of our hard labours. Let me give you an example. The leaves that fall on our treasured patch of green. Many people rake the lawn, bag up the leaves cursing as they do it, then bundle them off to the local landfill tip. But those leaves are to me, a treasured harvest, and if dealt with correctly can be of great value further on down the line. When I say correctly, I mean that I collect the Ash leaves, and as many as I can get and fill dumpy bags with them. They will compost in no more that 6 months. Leaf mould for my spring seedlings. Other leaves, collected where possible by species, are bagged in the same way. Some will fully compost down in a year while others may be two or three years. The grass areas have the leaves mown off and bagged. The bulk-bags are left exposed to rain, but kept out of sight from the mid-day sun, then left to mature. Autumn leaves are a true harvest – make the most of them.

I’ve been potting up all our un-sold lilies, particularly my favourites, the Turks-head lilies. Each fresh pot will have 3 good sized bulbs in it. I know that by early summer, they will look great on the sales tables or our markets, but right now, the pots look bare and boring. But, the real harvest is in the dozens of baby bulbs or bulblets in each old pot. From a few pots from last year, I now have well over 100 baby bulbs which will be grown on to flower in 2 years time. We havn’t bought a single lily bulb for years. Now that’s a harvest, and it’s free.

We get tons of chipped wood and bark delivered to our gate free of charge. The tree surgeon doesn’t want it and he has to get rid of it. We do want it, so for us it’s a free harvest.

But the best harvest is to be found just outside the nursery gates. Picket Lane is a single track road sunk below the fields and for half a mile, down hill all the way to the river Parrott.  Very heavy rain causes massive run-off from the fields. With nowhere to go other than downhill, the water and soil running off the fields flows down the lane so every time we get a real thunderstorm, the lane turns into a torrential river – so much so that you cannot see any tarmac.

When the water stops, we have tons of gravel deposited just outside our nursery gate. What do you need to improve heavy clay? Grit! What do you need to make French drains? gravel! What do you need to top- dress the paths in the gardens? gravel! We use tons of grit and gravel to improve our gardens. Bradford’s charge over £80 a ton plus delivery. Nature delivers it to our gate free of charge including delivery. Now that’s what I see as a harvest.

January 1st 2018

Something not realised by many is that plants do not have the ability to foretell the future or to read a calendar. I’ve heard people say “judging by the number of berries on my holly, it’s going to be a really bad winter ahead” What rubbish!! The number of berries is directly connected to the season gone not the season to come.

Plants react to stimuli and the job of a good gardener is to create good stimuli and prevent bad stimuli. That way our plants and nature works with us not against us. As I walked through the gardens this morning, I saw the snowdrops and the daffs in bud, nothing wrong with that, but I also saw the flowers on our Penstemon ‘Dandy’, and Pensham Tigerbell Coral, and Sidalcea ‘Rose Queen’. Why? because right now there is enough warmth and light to stimulate them to flower.

In ‘The Bleak Mid-winter’ there isn’t much we can do but plenty of opportunities to help the garden look its best in a month or two’s time. This week, we are continuing to add a good deep layer of bark mulch to the beds. This will protect from frosts which will come over the next few weeks. It will improve drainage on our very heavy clay soil and improve the soil condition as it breaks down. It will smother and prevent germination of weed seed, reducing our workload later in the year. It looks good now.

The second week of May will present itself with what we call the ‘Willow Wind’. A blizzard of willow seed drifting on the wind like snow, settling in every pot of plants in our growing beds. Can you imagine removing 20 willow seedlings from every pot? So this week we will cut down about 20 willow trees surrounding the propagation area. None of the trees are more than 10 years old, but each one has the ability to produce many thousands of new trees each year.

Our sales tables still need to be cleared of plants being offered for sale last year. 65 tables to clear, clean, disinfect, repair and paint in time for our opening on the first of March. In the same way our growing-on bed need the same treatment. So this is going to be a heavy week. Tight schedule but weather permitting, not too difficult.

Our bird life continues to increase with never a day when we don’t have 17 species of birds on our birdtable. The Bramblings, Siskins and Reed Buntings are very much in evidence, but the most amusing of our birdlife is our Water Rail. Every morning at precisely 9:50, it walks up the ditch outside our potting shed, leaves the ditch to walk round under the bird feeders, then back to the ditch to carry on it’s patrol. Just 30 minutes later, it walks down the ditch and is gone. That is until 3:05pm when it does it all again. The Rail is outside, It’s time to put the kettle on!