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.

Adapted from January article for BL Magazine.

Gardens in January are generally stark and skeletal. Not exactly conjuring up an idyllic scene I know. Seeing borders stripped back to frameworks and trees unclothed is rather useful though, especially when it comes to pruning fruit trees! Yes, we’re back to the ‘grow more fruit’ mission with this month’s nitty gritty guide to pruning apple and pear trees. Before you hastily navigate away, hang on, my mission is to explain this complicated process in simple and logical steps [ok I’ll be honest, with a few technical terms thrown in].

First of all, it’s good to know that pruning can be done in late summer, usually in August, and in late winter, ideally January. Summer-pruning is primarily concerned with cutting back the current season’s leafy growth and is mainly done on the restricted/trained trees like espaliers. Winter pruning is primarily for standard tree forms.

In my mind, pruning is really about getting to know the character of your tree. Once you are familiar with how old it is [a rough idea is fine], how it grows [big standard, bush or trained tree] and how it performs [in terms of fruiting*] you are on your way to understanding the pruning approach your tree needs. All you need now are a handful of plant science facts, a modest amount of confidence and the right tools. 

Start by staring at your tree. Keep staring. Look at the main trunk and follow the branches, see how they form, work your way to the tips. Can you make out the new, fresh growth from last season? Can you work back to the trunk identifying each year’s growth? Can you make out the shorter, stubby, wrinkly-looking twigs? These are referred to as ‘spurs’[see picture below], magical little stems that carry the fruit. It is these fruiting spurs that we are trying to encourage by the way we prune. After gazing longingly up at your tree you may feel confused and walk away unsure. But don’t give up! Keep looking. Keep going back. If you have an older tree you will probably find it harder seeing these growth sections than if you have a younger specimen. Nip down to a local nursery and take a long look at some younger fruit trees. It may help you see the differences more easily.

Now for the science, ‘Apical Dominance’ [keep reading, it’s just about hormones] is when a single, vertical stem grows stronger and more dominant than all other stems. Plant hormones [technically known as auxins] dictate the way a tree grows, flowers and fruits and it is a high concentration of these hormones at the tip of a stem [called the ‘terminal bud’] that causes this apical dominance. The problem with this type of growth is that it is purely vegetative, which isn’t very good if we want more fruit. By reducing the apical shoot [pruning out the ‘terminal bud’], the hormones will be reduced, encouraging axillary buds [this is the name given to buds that develop into side branches] to grow instead.

It is also useful to know that horizontal branches have less concentration of these hormones, making these perfect candidates for producing fruit…so don’t prune these out [unless damaged or crossing others]! Some fruit tree training techniques make the most of this by actually tying young branches down to mature horizontally. Clever.

One final bit of essential knowledge is… the harder you prune back, the more vigorous the new growth will be [it’s to do with the root/canopy ratio and the amount of energy produced]. With this in mind, cut any stronger growing stems by no more than a third, while weaker growing stems can be cut back much harder [say two thirds or to just a couple of buds]. It is also for this reason that any major pruning of older fruit trees should be done cautiously, little by little over a few years to ensure you keep a root/canopy balance. 

Right. You should know the character of your tree, you have a number of essential facts to hand…where do you start? A good pruning saw, loppers and secateurs are handy. Then, start with the three ‘D’s’ – take out all the Damaged, Diseased and Dead branches. Next, look for branches that are crossing and rubbing together. Aim for an open-centred framework as this will reduce the chances of developing scab [a fungal disease] by allowing air to circulate more easily.

If your tree is old and needs a lot of pruning work, you may just start with taking out the three ‘D’s’ one year, crossing and rubbing branches the next, branches growing across the centre the following. For younger and trained [espalier or fan shaped] trees you may only need to keep an eye on branches growing in the wrong direction and cutting back new shoots to 2 to 3 buds [in August] to encourage the growth of side branches and fruiting spurs.

All this may seem daunting and if you are still frightened about pruning your fruit tree there are some very useful video clips on youtube.com and on Landscapejuice.com. Or, for another confidence boost, fruit pruning workshops are brilliant, check with your nearest horticultural college.

* It is useful to be aware that there are two types of fruit-bearing forms. Tip bearers and Spur bearers. Tip bearing varieties tend to fruit at the tips of the branches and will therefore require lighter pruning. Spur bearers [which tend to be the most common form] will bear fruit along the short stubby spurs along the side branches. Some varieties however do bear fruit on the tips and the side spurs! To identify which type your tree is you will need to look carefully for the short stubs and decide where they mainly grow.

Adapted from December article for BL Magazine.

The thought of pottering about in the chilly, damp [sometimes frozen] old garden is probably the last thing on our minds at the moment. Most normal people will quiver at the prospect and opt for the cosy, Christmasy warmth of our homes. If you are bold and mad enough [and glamorously wadded in thermal layers  + earmuffs] to venture out on one of the least harshest days, there is still stuff to be getting on with at this time of year… from de-cluttering the side of the house [mine especially] to attempting to sharpen tools and if you’re really keen, re-organising borders.

Lately, as growth in the gardens has slowed, I’ve found myself  being pre-occupied with composts. Looking at cheap ways to create a stonking 3-binned system; renovation ideas for a rather hap-hazard one that lives in one of my customer’s gardens; and a mental note to make more effort at turning them all [including mine]! Consequently, I’ve been doing a bit of research, refreshing memories and literally delving into crumbly composts, nearly [but not quite] spearing frogs and scaring away families of mice. Lovely.

Despite all the creepy crawlies, composts are the supreme powerhouses for our gardens and no true gardener should be without one. If by some incredible reason you don’t possess one, getting one should be at the top of your to-do list [or Christmas wish-list!].

Composts are remarkable eco-systems of decomposition. Billions of micro-organism [bacteria, fungi, yeast] along with the humble earthworm will transform all your garden clippings and vegetative kitchen waste into beautiful luxurious, dark, nutritious-rich soil.

The whole process is free [apart from the initial buy of the bins if you don’t go down the do-it-yourself route] and it is the best form of soil enricher. Garden compost is the equivalent of our five-a-day balanced diet. It provides plants with all the essential nutrients [nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium] in a form that is easy for them to take up. What’s more the expert decomposers, the miniscule microbes, come with the compost and continue the breaking down of organic [and inorganic] materials…providing the best slow release fertiliser you can possibly have!

And there’s one other thing…because of the light and airy texture of garden compost it helps to improve the structure of your soil at the same time – aiding the drainage of clay soils and bulking up sandy soils to help them retain more moisture. Perfect.

Ok RHS notes to the side. Onto the bins, which can be very cheap and easy to make…with a little bit of imagination and, in some cases, muscle. Wooden pallets are one option, which can be sourced [with a lovely cheeky smile – sorry girls I admit to using it every now and then] from your local builder’s merchant or scavenged from skips [if you like doing that sort of thing]. Three pallets would set you up with one decent-sized, open-fronted ‘bin’ and five will give you two, which is essential when you come to ‘turn’ the heap. With seven pallets you’ll have an impressive three-bin composting system that would make your neighbour’s [and me] jealous. Tip: to secure the sides together, super quick and fuss-free, use some extra extra large zip-ties or rope [go for natural brown coloured rope not the bright blue towing rope I did].

For another cheap and easy-to-make compost bin get yourself four posts and a stylish roll of chicken wire, aim for a square around 3ftx3ft. Or, if you want something that actually does exude real style and sophistication and you don’t mind paying a few quid, there are lots of gorgeous, purpose-built, FSC wooden compost bins available. Check out http://www.recycleworks.co.uk/ for some beautiful top-of-the-range examples like the one pictured below [and if you’re feeling flush order one for me too]. You can also buy plastic compost bins [I have one of these], usually at a discounted rate, from your local council so it might be worth checking them out too.


So, you have your compost bin insitu and are eager to start filling with lots of yummy organic material to jump-start that nifty decomposing eco-system? [Picks up RHS notes again], without getting too scientific about it all there are a few things that will help determine what should be put in. It is best remembered as ‘green stuff’ [green leaves, plant/grass clippings, raw vegetables/fruit] and ‘brown stuff’ [chipped wood, dry grass/plant stems, sawdust, shredded newspaper, egg boxes]. The ‘green stuff’ provides the protein and nitrogen for the little micro-organism guys, while the ‘brown stuff’ gives them the carbon and energy they need to do their magic.

As in life, you are aiming for a balance. Work in a layer of greens, then a layer of browns and keep alternating…if the heap heats up and you can see the steam rising, whoop whoo. If not, add more green stuff! Should your heap start smelling [like cat wee they say], do the opposite and add more of the brown stuff. 

Like us, microbes also like a bit of water and some fresh air. Water sparingly to keep moist and be careful not to over water – they don’t like it too wet. For the aeration part, turning the heap every few days will really speed up the rotting process…keeping you fit and fresh aired too. Turning everyday is unlikely and completely unrealistic, I know. You could do it every few weeks instead. Or if you’re really lazy/busy and don’t turn it at all you’ll still get some crumbly compost … you’ll just have to wait about a year and a half for it! If, however, you can’t wait to get your hands on some of this golden compost… doing the deed every few days will speed up the process so much so that, hey presto, 3-4 weeks and it’s there! Now that’s fast food for plants.

 Article adapted from November issue of BL Magazine.

I have a not-so-secret mission to temp and persuade as many people as possible to grow fruit. Any birthday presents I give tend to be of the fruiting kind, pots stuffed with strawberries, a pair of blueberry bushes, a fan-trained cherry, each adorned with a great big bow. I haven’t had any complaints yet. And the best thing is is that these gifts will continue to fruit their socks off for years to come, perhaps a lifetime. Perfect.

Part of this mission involves conquering those that are non-gardeners by giving them a little insight into choosing, buying and planting a fruit tree, without frightening them away.  Now happens to be the perfect time to do this, buying and planting trees that is… unless you are frozen solid in a winter wonderland!  The dormancy that winter brings allows fruit tree growers a great window of opportunity. Over the next few months sleeping specimens can be carefully dug up, with roots loosened of any soil [hence ‘bare root’] and transported far and wide, without causing too much trauma to the plant.

Buying bare root at this time of year gives you the most choice in terms of varieties and will be cheaper as there is less packaging and so lower transport costs. Choosing the variety of fruit will be the most challenging decision and I would recommend requesting a plant list from a specialist nursery or doing some research on the internet [see contacts at bottom].

Once you have set your heart on a particular type and variety, just check which pollination group it falls into or whether it is self-fertile. The pollination group is categorised by numbers [1 to 7] and refers to the time the variety blossoms. The idea is to choose another variety in the same blossom time to ensure pollination or, if self-fertile, a better crop.

One last decision to make is what form of tree to buy and how big you want it to grow. For a smaller garden you may want to buy a ‘trained’ form like a fan or a tiered espalier, or if you prefer the standard tree form choose a less vigorous rootstock.

Rootstocks!?  Without getting too technical here…fruit trees [mainly apples and pears] are propagated by joining two separate trees, one being the variety you want to eat and the other being the rootstock which determines how big the tree will grow. The clever part is…you can have your favourite variety of fruit on any of the available rootstocks.

There are a number of rootstock definitions that specialist growers will be very familiar with and they will be more than happy to advise you. However, to give you some examples [and make you sound knowledgeable] for apples ‘M106’ is a semi-dwarfing stock that is suitable for small gardens [up to 3m], ‘Quince A’ is the best dwarfing stock for pears and quinces [up to 3-6m] while ‘St Julian A’ is the best dwarfing for plums [up to 4m].

 The next step is to order your bare root specimen[s] and wait, patiently, for them to arrive. As soon as it is delivered, unwrap and plant out. If you’re unable to do this straight away make sure you keep the root system moist and protect from frost.

When you do find the opportunity to plant, there are a couple of things to remember. Dig a hole slightly larger than the root system. Fork over the bottom to open up the soil [roots don’t like compacted soil]. Make sure the trunk isn’t sitting too low, aim for the same level it was planted at the nursery [ look for  the ‘join’ of the rootstock and variety and make sure this is clear of soil level].  Back-fill, firming soil so there are no air pockets left between the roots. Stake, I opt for the angled approach [facing into wind so it pushes the stake into the ground].

That’s it. A fifteen minute job and a lifetime of pleasure to look forward to. You’ll be tentatively watching for the first blossom to erupt in spring, the first bee to pollinate, the fruitlets to develop, the swelling and changing of fruit shape and colour and finally the first taste…for many many moons to come.


Orange Pippin Fruit Trees  

RV Rogers 

Ornamental Trees

Article featured on www.fennelandferm.co.uk [October 2010]

Sometimes life brings along some real surprises. Being approached by the most renowned Italian cook, Antonio Carluccio, to design and landscape his garden was certainly one of those moments. It all came about through exhibiting a small back-to-back garden, ‘Be Fruitful’, at the 2009 RHS Flower Show at Tatton Park. Bizarrely [the Gods must have been looking out for me] the details of my fruit-themed garden had been passed on to BBC Breakfast, who in turn contacted me to find out if I would be up for their early morning live slot to talk about all things fruity. Obviously, and incredibly nervously, I said ‘yeah ok’. Antonio happened to be watching the morning I was featured and happened to have just bought a new property that had a garden that needed some attention.

Antonio’s fruit garden is inspired by the ‘Be fruitful’ show garden as he liked many elements of the design. The show garden set out to challenge the way we perceive growing fruit, no longer relegating it next to the compost bins but bringing it to the forefront and mixing it with ornamental perennials, grasses and roses. The design was contemporary, with clean lines, white rendered walls to reflect light and raised beds to allow for easy maintenance. You can see some pictures of it here.

Antonio’s garden embodies most of these features as well as fourteen different varieties of fruit. The brief included a number of practical requirements: a workshop; plenty of space for entertaining; an area for a barbeque and spacious raised beds. A variety of fruits, as much grass as possible and a ‘herbery’ were also on the wish list.

The layout of the garden maximises the most sunniest aspect for the main raised bed planting area; critical for ripening those fruits. A large circular lawn is central to the garden with a raised curved area of Balau decking leading into Antonio’s dining room. Following the line of the curve from the lawn is the spacious SW facing raised bed, rendered and painted white to give a very clean and modern feel. 

The ornamental planting is a mixture of perennials, grasses, bulbs, small shrubs and roses to give that all-important interest through the seasons. Many of the flowering plants have been selected to attract butterflies and bees, for example various Alliums, Achillea millefolium ‘Red Velvet’, Salvia nemorosa ‘Ostfriesland’ and Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’. Others have been chosen for their scent Dianthus Firestar, Lavender angustifolia and dwarf stocks; all with a colour palette of rich reds, purples, pinks and white. 

Lysimachia purpurea

The garden features three half standard specimen fruit trees, a Cox Apple, Quince Vranja and Oullins Golden Gage, planted in the main raised bed to give height to the garden and to act as a screen to neighbouring houses. More espalier/fan trained fruit trees including another apple; a peach and two double U cordon pears are being trained along stainless steel cables. Soft fruits include strawberries, blueberry bushes, rhubarb, gooseberry, raspberry, tayberry, blackberry and a grapevine… certainly enough for a fruity feast!

The raised ‘herbery’ bed includes a number of herbs Antonio is particularly partial to … Italian flat-leaf parsley Petroselinum crispum var. Neapolitanum, garden sage Salvia officinalis, rosemary and wild garlic Allium ursinum along with many more.

Selecting fruit for the best flavours and textures was probably one of THE most daunting tasks; especially as the opportunity of tasting varieties was impossible – it was the middle of winter! The strawberries I could guarantee as I inherited an unknown variety that tastes divine, it was just a matter of making sure I had enough good-sized specimens [selected from the previous year’s runners]. For the other fruit, research and cross-referencing research on tastes was the only option. Thankfully I seem to have chosen well as the feedback has been very positive – especially the savouring of the single quince!

We all dream of a burgeoning vegetable patch with rows of lovely, pristine leafy greens, but the reality of reaching this vegetable growing equilibrium is not that simple. The pre-planning, rotating, soil warming, successional sowings and the constant care and maintenance to nurture and ward off pests and diseases does take up lots …and lots…of time.

I admit, hold my hands up, I do find it difficult to grow veg in my own garden. The best I can do is herbs and salads in pots and troughs; and potatoes in bags. My excuse? A north-facing plot on snail infested, moisture retentive clay soil is not the ideal start. Put together with a young family; running a business; and the daily routine of domestic chores simply means I find it hard to make time to do veg justice…despite the dreaming of wanting to! Reality tells me that I need something which is tougher, needs less nurturing but can still produce a tasty, and beautiful, crop… enter humble fruit.

Fruit is by far easier to grow and look after than most vegetables. Fruits generally come in a number of fuss-free forms such as perennials, canes, shrubs and of course trees. Buying them will cost more than a packet of seeds, but they are an investment as they will last and continue to produce for many years. Simply planting them in the soil, preferably is a sunny spot, will [in most cases] ensure their growth, regardless of how they’re treated [within reason of course]. In fact, [I’m putting my neck on the line here] growing fruit is easier than maintaining a lawn.

The ‘easy peasy-ist’ of the fruits has to be strawberries. To start get hold of some decent specimens from your local garden centre/nursery and plant either in containers [if you don’t mind watering] or directly into your borders. By summer you will have some delicious strawberries that are far tastier than shop-bought ones. Strawberries are notorious for sending out ‘runners’ [little stems that root into the soil and produce a new plant] which is certainly handy for expanding stocks. If you have enough though, simply snip them off as soon as they appear. The only other maintenance would be to cut back old foliage in the spring and give a good feed [which all plants will love you for].

Next on the easy list is rhubarb. Although you do need a bit of patience with this one as new [and usually small] rhubarb plants need to be left for the first couple of years to bulk up before harvesting. They also love drenches of liquid feed throughout the summer.

Raspberries. These are one of my favourites and are just as easy to grow. I especially like them as they will tolerate the more shady spots in your garden. There is a rule of thumb with raspberries as there are two types, summer-fruiting and autumn-fruiting. The summer-fruiting bears raspberries on growth done the previous year, which means you cut out just the fruited canes in the autumn and leave all the new ones in place. The autumn-fruiting is simpler, cut all canes back to the ground after harvesting as these will fruit on one season’s growth. Blackberries, tayberries and logan berries are also very easy to grow.

If you prefer to have a go at growing fruit trees, choosing which types to grow is probably the most difficult task as there are hundreds of varieties available. Go for your favourite fruit first, then look into the different qualities of the varieties [www.orangepippin.com has good descriptions of apple varieties]. The more exotic fruits like peaches and apricots will need more care especially protection from early frosts but apples, pears and plums will generally do very well.

Then there is the rootstock, which simply determines the overall size of the fruit tree. A specialist fruit nursery will be more than happy to help you choose the best one for the space you have …and if space is really minimal opt for a trained form like a fan or cordon. These are usually more expensive than young trees [between £30 and £60] but will start producing fruit earlier as they are older specimens. One last point to bear in mind is that some fruits need pollinating partners to set fruit properly; again something which a specialist nursery can help you with.

Growing fruit is greatly rewarding, its overwhelming yields and minimal maintenance make it very appealing. It is these qualities [plus the yummy puddings they can make] which have certainly won me over and is why I love to promote the growing of fruit. So, if free time is a rarity and you would love to get involved in growing your own, fruit is definitely the way to go.