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After a roller coaster RHS Tatton show, birthday/anniversary strewn summer holiday [one every week and consequently far too many cakes] and finally a peaceful week away in Cornwall, life is now getting back to a comfortable humdrum of a routine. The September version of the BL Magazine article is all about ornamental grasses, well, more like a pick of my absolute favourites… to be fair…

Ornamental grasses have become increasingly popular in recent years and I am one amongst the gardening fraternity that has also fallen hook, line and sinker for them. I think my love for them started with discovering the wispy fluffy plumes of Stipa tenuissima many moons ago. The slightest breeze will make them billow and sway, giving planting schemes movement and depth, especially when repeat planted.

Using grasses in perennial schemes is a style that was brought to the forefront of the planting design world by the Dutch plantsman Piet Oudolf. His planting schemes are jaw-droppingly sublime, magical and somehow manage to epitomise nature. This ‘naturalistic style’ of planting evolved through observing how grasses and perennials grew in the wild, concentrating on structure and the textural qualities of each plant. It is this link to nature that appeals to many [including me] and is probably the reason why grasses have become enormously popular today.

In true Piet Oudolf style, I will go though some classic ornamental grasses that have become my favourites to use in planting schemes by their structural form. Starting with transparent, and there are many in this category, is a form that tends to include the taller grasses that create a see-through screen. Molinia caerulea subsp. arundinacea ‘Transparent’ [ridiculously long Latin name I know] or commonly known as Purple Moor Grass has incredibly elegant feathery spikelets that will catch the slightest breeze. Their fine see-through flowering stems will reach around one meter in height and will contrast beautifully with bolder perennials. It will do well in most soil conditions as long as it is not too dry, will tolerate light shade but does best in full sun.

Stipa gigantea is another transparent grass but instead of a fine fizz of flowerheads this grass has golden oat-like flowers on huge arching stems; once established they can reach 2.5m in height. It is a lovely majestic grass, definitely for the back of a border and will add height and shimmer in the evening summer sunlight. One last transparent must-have grass is Deschampsia cespitosa Goldtau [pictured below]. Another elegant grass with finely textured flowerheads on long slender stems it will give your borders an extraordinarily magical, almost dreamlike quality. Plant as single specimens dotted amongst perennials for maximum sublime effect.

Grasses for foliage texture is another structural form and offers an important contrast to other plants. Carex comans ‘Frosted Curls’ [also pictured below] is a small evergreen grass with silvery leaves that curl at the tips. Its fine, wiry texture looks great next to broader leaf forms like Alchemilla mollis, even the purple sage in the picture, and gives you interest all year round. Also pictured here is another grass Molinia caerulea subsp. caerulea ‘Variegata’ [these Molinia’s like these long Latin names] which has unusual cream and pale green variegated leaves. This particular grass gives you the best of both worlds, textural leaf contrast as well as the transparent qualities from its purple flower spikelets, which reach around 0.6m high.

One last grass in this category is Hakonechloa macra [again pictured below]. I love this grass and first discovered it only a few years ago in a garden I went to visit [I think it was Dunham Massey, near Altrincham]. The specimen I saw was obviously very happy in its position and very mature as it was a substantial hummock of cascading fresh green leaves. If there is one grass that epitomises nature itself, lush green fields and meadows in the spring, it has to be this grass. On a recent garden design project my client wanted to reduce the maintenance of his garden [bad knee] and decided [begrudgingly] to dig up the lawn, in favour of a more practical patio area. I immediately told him about this grass and suggested we should surround the patio area with borders and plant them en masse with Hakonechloa macra. He went for the idea and now, a year on from planting up, reclining on that patio gives you the impression of a lush green field, albeit in the middle of a suburban garden.

The final category is plumes. This form is a soft, fluffy inflorescence that acts as a great companion to the more bold forms of plants. Astilbes and Filipendulas are classic perennial examples of plume flowers, but there are a couple of grasses that also fit the bill. Stipa tenuissima, which I mentioned at the beginning, creates a plume-like shape, great for softening and blending a planting scheme. Another plume grass is Calamagrostis brachytricha which has rather tall [up to 1.5m] fluffy flowerheads tinged silvery grey with a hint of purple. Use in the middle of a border to soften harder structural forms like Echinops ‘Taplow Blue’.

Ornamental grasses offer garden plantings a wealth of additional qualities that traditional plant types like perennials, roses and shrubs just cannot give. From majestic to magical, textural to just plain practical, there is one out there that will convert you; it’s just a matter of time.

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It is now day eight of the Tatton build and up till today it seems that we have been blessed with mighty fine weather; a bit of a novelty for this event as it is renowned for its inclement weather conditions. Despite the sun I still have a couple of perennials that are not quite in flower, the talking and fondling of foliage doesn’t seem to be helping either. They may not make the grade and will probably end up being sent back to the nursery as time is running out.

My beautiful new trees arrived yesterday after a heart-in-mouth moment earlier in the week when the original specimens arrived far far too tall. Six initial replacements didn’t make the grade either so the ordering of these new specimens and their arrrival in time yesterday was hugely critical. They are now planted, trimmed and all tweaked and I have to say they are looking great.

Planting has started, but today it is my mission to get it completely finished and with the worst sleep to date I’m heading in super early to get a head start. We’ve even been put on the ‘early list’ so we can actually get on site an hour early. I suspect the ‘Coleman event shelter’ will be worth its weight in gold today…we’ve positioned it over the garden so the work can carry on full steam ahead whatever the weather!

The niggles, the worries and the sleepless nights are all gaining in momentum. Progress has been steady over the last two days and has focused on the two wood features in the garden, the seating and the birch screens. The logs we thinned out from a friend’s [Tom’s] woods have been cut to size, lovingly and meticulously scrubbed to reveal the beautiful peachy white  hues of the bark. The careful shunting of the rather large oak and poplar tree trunk sections into position for the seating has also taken place… along with more scrubbing and cleaning.

The majority of plants arrived today and are now sitting in pride of place under Graham’s Coleman event shelter as well as sprawling out across the rest of our surrounding space. You can never have too many plants…always best to have more than you actually need! Still waiting on some other specimens to arrive though including some replacement birch trees.

Remarkably, the night before the big day my mind was not worrying about all the things that could possibly go wrong during the build for St Ann’s Hospice’s garden ‘Embrace’… the plants going over, plant heights, soil levels, fixing the living wall modules, assembling the extensive irrigation system, the seating and screening not turning out as expected, the weather, the genuine block wall going up in time, the pebble paving… I could go on. But, thanks to my landscaper, Graham, my mind was firmly focused on his last words to me that Friday evening…”I have a lovely surprise for you in the morning, you’ll love it”.

The surprise I would never have guessed. A brand spanking new PINK cement mixer kindly donated to use for the build up week by Travis Perkins. It’s certainly turning a few heads that’s for sure! This, together with a super enormous Coleman event shelter [I remember the pair of us drooling over Chris Beardshaw’s team’s event shelter in 2009; Graham was so smitten with it he went and bought one!] kicked the day off to a great start.

The first day always involves faffing. Here I mean important and constructive faffing… marking out, double checking measurements, digging, more digging and starting the foundations. Wall heights are a big issue in the back to back category as no one wants a neighbouring wall towering above anyone elses. We’re on a sloping site so careful calculations and negotiations with the Show Manager have taken place. By end of play, with the help of our volunteers Andy and Adam plus the two lovely fund raising ladies, Clare and Wendy, all is set for the arrival of the super brickies in the morning.

The block wall shot up at a phenomenal rate of knots while I raced down to Garstang, Preston [with hubby roped in to help out] to visit a great little plant nursery for some back up specimens/ substitutes and to collect the pile of birch tree logs we helped fell a couple of weeks back [wood thinning]. The plant sourcing proved successful, although I hadn’t planned to purchase so many and it was a very tight squeeze to fit them all in the back of the Ranger.

The next stop for the logs presented an unexpected challenge. The dodging of swarming bees. Well, if I’m honest more like legging it out the way and jumping in the Ranger until the coast was clear…Ranger electric window decides to quit working at this crucial ‘take cover’ moment…not at all good. The gods must have been with us as the bees shifted up and away over the farm house. I was later coaxed round by the bee keeper to see if they had landed…a crawling, buzzing bough of honey bees. Magnificent. Bees… and cute little kittens… distractions over, logs loaded, the journey down the M6 to the Tatton site was a noisy, breezy and wet one. Any electric window experts passing Tatton tomorrow…please help.

Back at the garden and the walling is up, ready and waiting for the rendering; which is the first job on the to-do-list in the morning. Getting the logs tidy and marked up for cutting is the next challenge, together with the start of the constant on-site plant nurturing regime…dead-heading, staking and watering. Thank goodness for all the volunteers!

This month’s entry is a version of the June article written for the BL Magazine.

Summer, in theory, has arrived. However, June, in reality has been a tad on the disappointing side; May wasn’t that great either. I don’t, obviously, refer to the South but the North West. A couple of days ago the daytime temperature here was just over 9˚C followed by a rather chilly evening; we ended up lighting the wood burner [the one in the lounge, not in the garden]. Doesn’t sound much like June does it.

Earlier this year, around Easter, the North West was blessed with some dry weather; we certainly deserve it after four consecutive years of wash out summers. I often joke about how the wetter summers being entirely my fault… they arrived the first season I set about the gardening round. But they are no laughing matter; gardening in the rain is certainly no fun; postponing jobs means postponing your income; and, more worryingly, they allude to a more sinister underlying fear that our climate really is changing.

The delicately balanced world we inhabit is being bombarded by all manner of ecological assaults [pollution, depleting resources like oil, mass farming, GM crops…etc]; it is inevitable that there will be consequences somewhere down the line. You only need to watch Professor Brian Cox’s ‘Wonders of the Universe’ to realise how humanity hinges on a myriad of scientific laws, subtleties and what seem like incredibly random coincidences. Our world is sensitive and even the smallest changes are bound to make a difference at some point; it is only logical.

Living more sustainably [eyes rolling or not] is gaining in momentum and is something I’m having a go at; from making a conscious effort to buying British to growing my own fruit [and harping on to everyone else how great and easy it is to grow]; to buying the kids chickens instead of rabbits [got to have something that earns its keep].

As gardeners we tend to be patient and appreciate the seasons, we will plant bulbs in the autumn and look forward to their colourful blooms six or seven months later. We will plant young fruit trees and happily wait a few years for the first fruits, we can plant an acorn with the thought that we probably won’t see it in its maturity…but our children will. I love this about gardening and have realised that living sustainably commands the same kind of patience and forward thinking.

There are many things that we can do in the garden to reduce our impact on the environment. Recycling water, from collecting rain in butts to re-using our grey water from our sinks or baths is an obvious step… although up here in the North West we seem to have enough rainfall during the supposedly dry summer months to not have to do this…at all. Next would be the organic way by avoiding the use of pesticides and harnessing nature’s natural predators and remedies to do the work. Growing-your-own is a sustainable choice and the idea of using our gardens more resourcefully is without doubt becoming even more popular.

However, there is a darker side to gardeners. One of the most contentious issues facing the horticultural world and the home gardener is the use of peat. Peat is in demand as a growing medium for our plants because it possesses a number of qualities; it has the capacity to hold good amounts of air and water and has naturally low pH and nutrients… which suits a diverse range of plant species. The problem is peat is a natural material formed by the decay of the sphagnum moss, found growing in wetland bogs, taking hundreds of years to form. Peat lands also have the ability to store carbon [CO2] rather than releasing it all into the atmosphere, making them incredibly important habitats to help balance our increasingly warming climate.

The horticultural demand for peat to fill our hanging baskets, containers and seed trays has resulted in the loss of an incredible 94% of the UK’s lowland peat bogs since the beginning of the 19th century [according to figures from The Wildlife Trust]. What are left are fragmented areas struggling to regenerate. No garden, no matter how spectacular, should knowingly be at the expense of our natural habitat.

There are numerous peat ‘alternatives’ available made from a range of different by-products like coir [coconut fibre], leaf mould, green compost [council compost], garden compost, composted bracken, wood based residues, worm compost and other natural manures. If you live up North, check out Dalefoot Composts in Cumbria www.dalefootcomposts.co.uk for some very interesting sustainable alternatives.

Another option, and a very cost-effective one, is making your own compost. One thing I would add to this previous post [gained from my recent experiences of becoming a chicken keeper] is that chicken poop plus the biodegradable bedding I use [Bliss Bedding] has created the hottest and steamiest compost heap I have ever had! It’s incredible! Within five weeks of having the chickens I noticed the change in the heap; the brown and green stuff ratio is obviously perfectly balanced now and with the regular decanting of chicken droppings into the bin it also gets more of a mix…speeding up the whole decomposing process. All-in-all…chickens rock!

Since writing this article for BL Magazine back in May, Mark Diacono has written a brilliant article for the Daily Telegraph ‘Do we need to use peat?’ which goes into more depth about the alternatives and is accompanied by Monty Don’s peat-free compost recipes.

So, the next time you’re planning to fill up your hanging baskets look out for compost with the Peat Free label on the bag; if they don’t stock any…don’t stand for it, complain and demand the alternatives. By 2020 all growing media products for home gardeners are to be Peat Free… if new Government targets are reached…

This month’s entry is not a rehash of the BL Magazine column but my chipping away at making the future more fruity!

The term ‘self-sustainability’ has been around for rather a long time and while I suspect many of us continue to aspire to be modern day Tom and Barbaras, the world we live in is still heavily reliant on mass production. We horde to the supermarket temples in our millions every week for the convenience shop, as well as the BOGOF bargains. I too am guilty. But, how do we really change our comfortable habits and move, en masse, to a more self-sustainable way of life? Our lifestyles will have to re-evolve at some point, not necessarily by converting our back gardens into mini productive farms like Tom and Barbara, but by finding simple ways of transforming our own outdoor spaces into more imaginative and resourceful places.

The article in  The Telegraph [07/03/11] regarding Prince Charles’ endorsement of how growing organic fruit and veg can save the world is not far from my harpings on about the benefits of growing and sharing fruit. ‘Gardener’s are key to saving the environment’ [he says] and even the smallest plot can ‘make a difference by sucking up carbon, providing food and creating habitat’. Gardeners are doing a very splendid job, they have been for a while, especially those who are wholeheartedly organic and have embraced growing-their-own. The problem is how do we get the busy non-gardeners to embrace this more sustainable grow-your-own activity?


Why do we need to change? The constant barrage of news articles on issues that are detrimental to our existence remind us on a daily basis. Here I mean issues like genetically modified crops; imported food and the associated food miles; depleting resources [like oil and peat products]; intensive farming regimes; and then there’s the big one…climate change; to even obesity and the nation’s unhealthy obsession with cheap and processed foods. Throw in the current economic downturn, rising living costs and the consequent penny pinching… it’s all very depressing.

Our gardens are hugely important spaces, yet a majority simply have no time for them. Front gardens are paved over for our precious cars, borders are left for weeds to flourish and larger areas are grassed for the apparent ease of maintenance; then the Flymos are dusted off for a quick skid over once a month. Then there are the bare-soil gardens with borders completely void of anything remotely green and lush. All this seems shamefully wasteful.

Maybe one answer to getting everyone involved in self-sustainability is to look back at the 1950’s ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign. With food supplies in short supply, people had no choice but to transform and cultivate their gardens into tiny productive plots. Roses were uprooted and our gardens became the trading life force of our communities; eggs, cabbages, potatoes, strawberries, tomatoes and whatever other home grown produce was bartered amongst neighbours. This was the ultimate in local food sustainability.

A more realistic approach for the non-gardening sustainable wannabes with little time would be… to grow fruit! You may laugh, guffaw and roll your eyes but it all makes sense. Fruit is very easy to grow, easier than growing, tending and protecting delicate vegetable seedlings, easier than maintaining a lawn [the proper way and not the aforementioned Flymo regime way]. Fruit is tough and comes in a range of very tolerant forms like perennials, canes, shrubs, climbers and trees. It is also very easy to add a few strawberry plants to a perennial border; replace an overgrown shrub with some raspberry canes; dig out the dead cordylines and plant a robust fruit tree or two instead; or brighten up a dreary corner with some bold leafy rhubarb.

Fruit is also very expensive to buy in the supermarkets…and the varieties grown for mass consumption are usually tasteless…and more often than not flown in from Europe or America. Growing fruit in your own back garden will save you money, will taste so much better and will generally produce such an abundance that you won’t have to worry about getting your five-a-day. The only downside is that buying fruit specimens will be more than the cost of a packet of seeds, but it is a one off purchase that will last many, many years [my father-in-law has a 40-year-old rhubarb that is still growing strong].

Fruit is also beautiful, can be very structural and is beneficial to insects by providing an abundant and rich source of nectar. Growing fruit puts us back in tune with our seasons, is brilliant for our children [they will gobble up a plate of fruit while turning their noses up at veg!] and is packed full of super healthy vitamins. Ok, growing fruit won’t make you entirely self-sufficient, but it’s a huge step in the right direction…and you never know where it will take you.

Prince Charles is right to say that the smallest of plot can ‘make a difference by sucking up carbon, providing food and creating habitat’… but to have significant impact we all need to get on-board and have a go at growing our own. For those of us that already do this, brilliant, a golden star all round [sorry influence of the five-year-old!]; the next challenge is to convert the masses!

Thankfully there are many out there that are trying to persuade more people to embrace a more sustainable life. Startuk.org [set up by The Prince’s Charities]; the Slow Food movement; Soil Association to smaller initiatives like incredible-edible-todmorden.co.uk and fruitshare.net are all trying to chip away at re-evolving the way we live.

To most the idea of being self-sustainable will be either a dream or an impossibility. But by taking a small step and simply growing more fruit in our gardens we are setting into motion a whole list of benefits that will help us to live a more sustainable life. We will re-connect with how and where our food comes from, grow to appreciate the seasons, eat and share more super fruits, educate our children, acquire new skills, refine our tastes for fresher and better food, reduce fruit miles, saves those pennies, we could even start bartering with our neighbours! We just need to find more ways to tantalise, persuade and nudge the non-gardeners to give it a go.

A completely re-hashed version of February’s ‘Planning a Border’ article for BL Magazine.

February is a great month. It’s the shortest, evenings are getting noticeably lighter and those cheery little spring bulbs are blooming their socks off. I am always, always taken over by a giddy eagerness to get outside and get to grips with my borders at this time of year. I had planned to get out at the weekend…but the god’s found out… and it rained constantly. Next weekend I plan to stay in and work [I’m hoping reverse psychology might make things turn out nicer].

I have to admit that with my own garden I happen to be a bit sentimental, not with ornaments but with plants. I’m a stickler for perennials [not just fruit] and will purchase specimens in a heart beat. I just can’t help myself. In fact I’ve recently ordered a couple of the new Verbascum ‘Blue Lagoon’…and yet have no idea where they will go! This is a problem and I know I’m not alone in this random plant hoarding. If I had a bigger garden with a designated nursery bed this type of impulse buying could be justifiable…but I haven’t. The result of this type of plant purchasing inevitably creates a border of chaotic clutter and never usually fills you with that content sense of planting equilibrium. ‘I’ll pop that in there’ and ‘Oooo, that’ll squeeze in here’…are just not best practice and should be avoided.

When creating a planting scheme for a client, on the other hand, my approach and method of selection is entirely different. It is focused [thankfully], logical and completely detached from any hint of sentimentality. A brief is always developed which in turn gives direction and a theme for the planting scheme evolves…which is hugely important to help keep us on the straight and narrow. This time I am going to apply the same focus and tackle two chaotic borders in my back garden…although I suspect I may have a problem with the ‘detached’ bit.

Imaginatively I shall call them ‘left’ border and ‘right’ border. The left border has always been my refuge for ‘nursing’ specimens that have been bought on impulse and desperately need planting. Last year I decided that I would start to incorporate some fruit here and added an ‘Ebony’ black currant bush. I’d like to add more fruit, maybe replacing a rather mature cordyline with a more productive ‘James Grieve’ apple tree or maybe a plum, but I’m not sure I can be that ruthless. The harsh frosts have taken their toll on the cordyline for the second year now…so I’m secretly hoping it may have snuffed it. I would also love to add some strawberries too, but, as the cats use the border as their litter, I think maybe not.

[I don’t seem to take many pictures of the border, this image only shows it in the background behind the terracotta pot, you can make out the mature cordyline.]

Other structure in this border includes a Taxus baccata Fastigiata [bought at just a foot in height and now about 6 foot], a rampant bamboo and a well-behaved one, a metal obelisk with Rosa Albertine and Clematis macropetala ‘Maidwell Hall’, a box ball and…a tree fern. I suppose now would be the moment that I come clean and own up to how the garden first developed. The other half and I fell in love with Cornwall and all the sub-tropical gardens there, in particular Lamorran. We bought our house in Bolton in 1999 and we wed in St Mawes two years later. Subsequently, every trip down there resulted in the inevitable squeeze of a prized tropical specimen into the car to take home to create our own little Lamorran back in the North. The large Agave americana was the most challenging I have to say. Consequently, there are many plants here that I have a certain attachment to and despite my evolving garden style to more productive/naturalistic planting I cannot get rid of these tropical remnants. So they’re staying.

The rampant bamboo, however, can come out, the other can be split and any perennials that don’t fit the new brief can be re-located to borders at Lady of the Vale. White phlox [from Gresgarth gardens in Caton, Lancs]; Cornus canadensis [which took me an eternity to source]; and a tall white anenome [given to me by a customer who is no longer with us] will be staying too.

The new brief then…additional fruit… with a mixed perennial and grass planting scheme. I have always wanted to do the all white border for myself and given the white colour scheme of the plants that HAVE to stay…I think this may be the occasion to go for it. I did plant some Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ in this border in the autumn [well around Christmas if I’m honest] which may just have to stay there for now and replaced with ‘Everest’ for next year.

The size of the border is about 5m in length and 2 to 3m in depth. At the moment there is a very narrow gravel ‘path’ towards the back of the border. It was originally put in to allow us [and the children] to walk close to the bamboo, re-creating the ‘bamboo walks’ of the grander gardens in Cornwall [and the opportunity to drench the other half by shaking the canes]. In reality the path soon becomes overgrown and the temptation to walk down it is lost. I think it’s time to reclaim this space and increase the precious planting square footage.

The soil on this side of the garden is lovely, light and loamy, yet the right side really holds the moisture, is much heavier and despite adding lots of garden compost and manure is still very characteristic of clay. The back also faces North, slightly NNW to be precise. The border is however in the sunniest spot and can get rather dry in the two to three weeks of beautiful, hot, dry weather we seem to get around May! We do tend to get lots of rain here. I think it’s to do with living at the foot of the West Pennines, the weather comes straight in from the Irish Sea and tends to accumulate and huddle around these hills. [It is surprising how much better the weather can be by just travelling down to South Manchester!] With all this moisture, Slugs and snails are a major problem here so any new plant introductions will have to be robust [I have enough hostas for the little critters to be getting on with as it is].

The next step is to start that plant list, do a bit of research and make a proper plan. At least now I have set out my intentions [publicly], admitted that the plant hoarding technique is not at all good and have put into motion yet another project to add to my to-do list! And I haven’t even started on the right border…which is driving me insane as my lovely [and she truly is] neighbour replaced the fence panels in late summer last year… with brown plastic ones. Now that all the leafy foliage has withered and crumbled away these glossy, unnatural panels gleam with intensity. They niggle me constantly and as soon as funds allow I shall be purchasing many bundles of timber slatts to begin the long task of making them disappear! I just need a long dry spell so I can put all my eagerness to good use. I shall report back in the near future to let you know how it all goes.