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Climbing Plants

Through summer and autumn, the fences, trellis and walls in our garden are softened by climbing plants of all descriptions but there is always room for another! A long, metal trellis is the support for a beautiful ornamental vine (Vitis) which is about to burst into leaf after its winter haircut, when the twiggy growth is pruned back so that the vigorous shoots are kept in bounds at least for a while! By the time autumn arrives, this unruly plant has outgrown its trellis and sets its sites on scaling a small Cotoneaster tree and a larger Myrtle. I can forgive the vigorous growth because when the heart shaped leaves put on their autumn coat of orange and deep red, the plant is a highlight of the garden and much admired as it illuminates the dark green Myrtle for a few weeks.

Scrambling through the vine is a late flowering Clematis with wine-red petals that curve back from the centre of the flowers to reveal the yellow middles. This Clematis viticella, along with another white one that scales a trellis near the compost heaps, is one of my favourite plants in the garden. The ‘Viticellas’ are so easy to grow and there is no head scratching as to their pruning. When February arrives, I prune the woody stems to a fat pair of buds a few centimetres from the ground and feed them with some homemade compost. The plants then get on with growing and produce their charming flowers for months from July onwards – nothing could be simpler!

Honeysuckles are also invaluable in our exposed garden and we have several including the deliciously scented Lonicera periclymenum ‘Graham Thomas’ with golden yellow blooms from midsummer onwards and L. x italica which is a great plant for a shady spot. These too are little trouble to keep with just a prune of the longest growths after flowering to keep them tidy and encourage twiggy side shoots for next year’s show.

The Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica ‘Halliana’) which is evergreen and seems to flower for months, takes the full force of winter gales and provides a much needed windbreak for other parts of our garden. The sweet scent of the pale yellow flowers is a treat on a warm summer evening and a big attraction to many insects including Hummingbird Hawk Moths and many bees and butterflies.

As well as climbing plants, we have some wall shrubs including two Firethorns (Pyracantha) which themselves make a good climbing frame for other plants. One is on a shady fence where it has made a stiff framework of glossy evergreen leaves that highlight the clusters of red berries which are stolen by Thrushes and Blackbirds in the autumn. Some early colour is needed here and I am on the lookout for a Clematis that will flower now – the nodding blooms of Clematis macropetala or C. alpina would be just the job for this shady spot and the plants are not too vigorous that they would take over or need too much pruning. On the front of the house is another Firethorn that makes a narrow column on the sunny wall between the garage and a side gate where it flowers well and produces plenty of orange berries - again stolen by the Blackbird in autumn! Because there is little space to plant another climber here, I have grown some annual climbers from seed, including the brightly coloured ‘Canary Creeper’ (Tropaeolum peregrinum) with its golden yellow flowers. These plants like Sweet Peas, only live for one year but make up for their short lives by packing a real punch with the number of flowers that they produce! I will pop a couple of plants in at the base of the Firethorn and if this experiment works, I may expand my range of annual climbers next year – there are plenty of seeds available from Notcutts to tempt me!


Vegetable Planting

A few days ago when I went in to the garden I put my hand on the bare earth in the new raised vegetable bed and felt the warmth on the surface from the sun’s rays. Even after the large amount of rain that we have had over the last week, the soil is not too wet and now is the perfect time to begin sowing. One advantage of a raised bed is that any excess rain soon drains away and the soil can be worked more easily than it may be in a ‘normal’ border or allotment.


Being watched by our inquisitive cat - who is now banned from this area - I made a start with some seed sowing this afternoon. I have broken one of my rules by using last year’s seeds, but the use by dates are correct and the packets unopened so they should germinate! This bed will mainly be used for salad leaves and other fast maturing crops, so I have started with some Radish ‘French Breakfast’ which will be a good indicator of soil warmth. Radish will germinate within a few days in good conditions and then sowing of other seeds can begin in earnest. I have also sown Mizuna, Spinach for baby leaves, Lamb’s Lettuce and Rocket so that we will have a selection of salad leaves. I was late with my first sowing of loose leaved lettuce, which are still in the greenhouse having just germinated, so I have ‘cheated’ and bought some plants of the deep red ‘Lollo Rosso’ to pop in and give us an earlier crop!  The bed is not large and with a row of Carrots and another of Spring onions, it is almost half full already! I am very glad now that I accepted the offer of my farmer friend to look after one of his!


There will be room for a few broad beans and I have bought these as well. I usually grow ‘The Sutton’ - a dwarf variety that does not need staking and was ideal for the exposed conditions on my former allotment - but these plants are ‘Bunyard’s Exhibition’ a tall variety that I will put in at the far end of the bed so that they still get plenty of sun but don’t shade the other plants as they grow. I will have to stake these with bamboo canes and remember to pinch out the tops once they are in full flower to help prevent damage from the horrid Black Bean Aphid. With the help of Ladybird larvae who eat huge numbers of aphids, I hope that this pest will be kept under control!


The borrowed raised bed which is not far away has been dug over and is also ready to plant. I hope to spend some time here over the Easter weekend and put in my onion sets and pea seeds, along with more broad beans. Now that the evenings are lighter it’s much easier to carry on with the garden and do a little each day – weather permitting! 

Evergreens are still very much to the fore in our garden - invaluable for their shapes and colour when there is little else to look at through the winter months - but the rest of the garden is bursting into life. Handsome clumps of deep purple Hellebores are a feature in shady corners, their nodding blooms clustered on strong dark stems. These elegant perennials are so easy to please and have made huge clumps over the many years that they have been in the ground. Their seedlings are also beginning to flower and we have a mix of colours including white plants which are heavily freckled with burgundy – such a shame that they hang their heads and you have to turn them up to admire the markings on the petals.


The white, multi-headed Daffodil ‘Thalia’ is about to flower and we have planted some white Forget Me Nots to compliment them. These too are beginning to show off their clusters of foamy flowers – I hope that they will seed through this area and produce white rather than blue offspring! 


Slowly leaves are beginning to open on trees and shrubs and with a little warmth over the next few weeks, more buds will expand and the landscape will green up once again. The grey green leaves of Cotoneaster are peppering the bare branches and the smoky pink leaves of Fuchsia magellanica ‘Versicolor’ are also starting to appear. 


Ornamental grasses including Miscanthus are beginning to grow away again after their January hair cut. The spear-like growth of new leaves are piercing through the soil yet to unfurl and make the elegant arching plants that we value so much for their late autumn and winter flowers. 


Climbers too are not idle and the ornamental Vine ‘Claret Cloak’ has huge furry buds that will soon burst and grow into handsome heart shaped leaves which are a joy through the summer as well as in the autumn when they turn deep scarlet before falling. Clematis are growing away and the bare wood of Clematis montana is studded with fat flower buds which won’t open until May month but are clearly visible nested in with the leaf buds that are starting to open. 


The front garden is still looking bare apart from Daffodils and the promise of clumps of Tulips still to flower. Last year we dug out clumps of perennials which had outgrown their spaces and although I replanted pieces immediately, the winter wet has done for many of them. This has given us a big space for sun loving plants and I am tempted by an early Broom (Cytisus praecox) with creamy yellow pea-like flowers at this time of the year. These are loved by bees and the plant will make a low growing mound – perfect for the exposed location! A Ceanothus is also on my wish list but will need to be placed carefully so that it is sheltered from cold winter winds. ‘Puget’s Blue’ is one of my favourites with its tiny deep green leaves, sturdy upright growth and deep blue flowers in early summer which again, are loved by bees. 


Adding new plants is always an exciting prospect and a reminder that gardens are never finished. I look forward to my next visit to Notcutts when I’m sure I will find exactly what I need to suit my garden and plenty more besides!

Delicious Dahlias


The garden looks different every time I walk around it now, with green shoots pushing through the soil and colour from daffodils and early perennials. There are also flashes of leaf colour as Spiraea ‘Gold Flame’ and Fuchsia ‘Genii’ begin to put on their spring coats of brilliant orange and bright yellow. Early spring flowering shrubs which include my old favourites Forsythia and Ribes are also beginning to flower with a hint of colour on the twiggy growths – a precursor to their main show that is not far away. 


As well as enjoying the early spring flowers, this is a time for planning for the rest of the season and for me, summer tubers and corms are a big part of this. There have been white Lilies (L. regale) which have a sweet, heady scent, in pots in our garden for many years now and last spring, on renewing the compost, I was amazed to find that the corms had grown to a huge size – obviously happy in their containers! Spurred on by this easy summer colour I have decided to try more corms and tubers in containers this year – a change from the usual bedding plants although I am still a huge fan of the ‘half hardies’ that include Verbena, Nemesia and Calibrachoa. 


This year it is Dahlias that have grabbed my attention. I have affection for these plants that dates way back to my childhood. My great grandfather would show Dahlias at local horticultural shows and I remember the purple and white pompon variety that many gardeners grew then, along with smoky orange coloured cactus Dahlias, their spiky blooms the perfect hidey holes for Earwigs! (I also remember my great grandfather telling me that ‘If it can run away leave it be. If it can’t run kill it!’ - his answer to pest control!)


Dahlias are such a diverse group of plants. From the huge species that hail from Central America and Mexico, including the beautiful mauve flowered D. imperialis, known as the ‘Tree Dahlia’ due to its enormous height, to the miniature, perfectly round pompon types that can be planted in containers, at the front of a sunny border or on a free draining wall, there are hundreds to choose from. Not all have green leaves and some of the most dramatic for late colour in borders include the ‘Bishops’. Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ is probably the best known with deep bronze purple leaves that set off the bright red flowers but there are also others including ‘Bishop of York’ with the same deep purple leaves and amber yellow blooms and ‘Bishop of Oxford’ with burnt orange flowers. The ‘Mystic Series’ were new to me last year and include the stunning Dahlia ‘Mystic Illusion’ with almost black foliage and lemon yellow flowers that zing against the dark backdrop. As well as being loved by gardeners up and down the country Dahlias - especially the single flowered ones which are easier for them to navigate – are a magnet for bees and many other pollinating insects. 


Many of these varieties are available as potted plants later in the summer but for now I will be visiting Notcutts to choose from the varieties available in packets as tubers. There is a rainbow of colours to choose from in whatever height and flower shape I desire, from pure white single blooms to gaudy, multicoloured complicated doubles which are not so good for bees but a feast for the eyes none the less - I may even need to purchase some more containers to house all of my choices!



Starting Early Salad Crops

I have grown vegetables for years but have had to give up my allotments through lack of time – the stress of being unable to fit the work around other commitments and the early spring weather made it a chore rather than a hobby so for now, this is how it has to be. 

Taking pity on me and knowing full well that I will miss our home grown vegetables my husband has made me two small raised beds in a sunny spot in our back garden. They are small because our garden is small but they will be better than nothing!

The finishing touches of coloured wood stain are going onto the wooden surrounds now and the compost heap has been emptied to help make up the soil levels. Soon they will be ready for me to start planting and sowing seeds. 

One job that I can be getting on with is sowing seed of loose leaved lettuce into modules ready to plant out later once their roots have established. I have always sown lettuce into plastic modules and grow them on, before planting out when they are large enough to fend off attacks from slugs and snails! A few seeds are placed in each cell and thinned to a single plant once they are large enough to handle. I sow mixed packets of lettuce so need to be careful that I don’t always remove the slower growing varieties which often have the prettiest leaves! 

Broad beans are a must in our household and I am sowing some of these in pots to plant out later. My allotment was in an exposed but sunny position so I have always opted for ‘The Sutton’ an old favourite which only grows to about 45cms and crops prolifically. Nothing beats the hum of contented bees on an early summers evening as they go about their work pollinating the scented black and white flowers on broad bean plants - apart from the sight of Ladybird larvae about their business destroying the Black Bean Aphid which are such a pest to this crop!

I usually sow peas directly into shallow trenches the width of a spade and often lament the loss of them to mice. The Field Mice in our area seem particularly fond of Mange Tout seeds, decimating rows of these on my allotment, so we will see how they fare in the garden with our enormous cat keeping watch! For now, I need to get some peas ready to plant out as soon as I can so these too will be sown into pots. 

Radish, Mustard, Rocket and Lambs Lettuce along with Parsley and Coriander will be sown directly into the soil when the time comes but I still think it is early for direct sowings. I like to wait until plenty of weed seedlings are visible - a sign that the soil is warming up - and then sow a short row of Radish which will come up in a few days if the soil is warm enough. Once the Radish raise their heads, it is action stations and all sorts of seeds can go in! 

I am of the old school when it comes to Parsnips and Beetroot, shunning early sowings in cold, wet soil which these plants seem to hate. Better to wait until May when the soil is much warmer – I have always had excellent results with Parsnips sown early in May month and although there are varieties of beetroot that are resistant to ‘bolting’ (flowering instead of producing a tasty beet) I still think they prefer warmer weather and will germinate more quickly and make a better crop if sowings are begun in May.

Apart from Beetroot, I am wary of planting root crops in the raised beds this year – the soil has had so much compost added to make up the levels that I think it will be too rich and the roots will ‘fork’ and grow into all sorts of shapes!

News Flash! After pondering how I am going to fit all of these vegetables into two small raised beds, a farmer friend of mine who lives very close by contacted me having heard of my allotment plight. He is downsizing on his raised beds and has offered me one to ‘look after’ so it looks as though I have lost two allotments but gained three raised beds – I can’t wait to get started!