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News from the Gravel Garden

When we moved to our current house almost fifteen years ago we inherited a blank canvas. We had the house built and the front garden is south facing but very exposed and open to winds from all directions. The topsoil was removed before the build began but we were lucky enough to get some delivered for nothing once we were ready to make the garden. The soil is not deep but the underlying subsoil is very free draining which coupled with the sunny aspect, make it an ideal site for a low maintenance gravel garden.

Low, mound-like evergreens were planted first including the grey leaved Hebe pinguifolia ‘Pagei’ and sticky leaved Cistus x hybridus which always makes such a neat shape and is covered with glowing white flowers in early summer that the bees love so much. Cotton Lavender (Santolina) also makes a neat evergreen shrub with aromatic leaves and yellow flowers like buttons held on wiry stems in summer. I prefer the deep green leaves of Santolina virens to the silver leaved varieties – the flowers contrast much better.

For height on the windward side we planted a tough Phormium tenax ‘Purpureum’ in front of a ‘hit and miss’ fence which filters the worst of the winter gales. Taller Hebes also thrive here and have to be cut back hard every couple of years in early spring to keep them in shape. Grasses are a great addition to any garden but here, they defy even the most violent of summer winds, flexing and swaying without stems breaking.

With the bones of this area well established, we introduced some smaller plants which love the hot dry conditions. Rock Roses (Helianthemum) of various colours spread over the gravel and glow when in flower through the summer. Cutting them back hard once they have finished blooming keeps them in shape and makes them live longer than if they are allowed to produce straggly growths. They are available in a rainbow of colours from pure white to deep plum-red and the single flowers are loved by bees. The more unusual double flowered forms are beautiful but no good for pollinating insects – they hold less pollen and are more difficult for insects to navigate.

Low growing Euphorbia myrsinites (Spurge) flops its long stems over the stones and produces flat heads of flowers in late spring. They are acid green and contrast beautifully with the grey-blue evergreen leaves. This along with a prostrate form of Evening Primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa), relish the dry conditions and are easily raised from seed. The exotic, saucer shaped blooms of the Evening Primrose belie its hardiness – the plant sensibly dies to ground level in the winter but will appear each year as long as the soil drains well in persistent wet weather. We have another self seeded form of this lovely plant which is upright growing and has smaller yellow blooms which open at night and have a delicious scent.

The stars of the show right now are Cerinthe major var. purpurascens (Honeywort) and Allium moly. The Allium is slowly seeding around this area, loving the free draining gravel and the fact that we only pull out seedlings that we can identify as weeds! The bright yellow heads of star shaped flowers are popping up at random and always make me smile. Allium christophii which were planted on a bed of coarse grit last winter have also been outstanding and will hopefully produce offspring of their own in future years.

I have always loved the look of Cerinthe and finally remembered to buy some seed this spring. It germinated very quickly in the propagator and the silvery grey leaves soon made sturdy plants that were ready to grow on in small pots until they were established enough to go into the garden. They have grown into the most beautiful plants with amazing flower clusters that are remarked on by neighbours as they pass by – a definite winner which should also seed easily and create a colony over the next few years.

When an area of the garden does well, it inspires me to try new things and start again with other areas which are no longer up to the mark – what next I wonder?


Gardens are never finished - They just keep evolving

At this time of the year, with plants growing so fast, I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the garden. New growth is everywhere and shrubs that were too small for their allocated space only a few years ago are now jostling for room with their neighbours!

‘Gardens are never finished – they just keep evolving’ - I keep telling myself this as I make decisions on what to leave and what to prune back, what to dig out and what to reprieve for one more year.

Perennials are easy to deal with and can be divided after they have flowered to reduce their size or to maintain their vigour. Clumps of Day Lilies which have flowered well in the garden for years have less flower stems emerging this year and this is usually a sign of the plants becoming congested, although I know I am pushing it trying to grow them in dry soil and shade! I have decided that they must and have donated the plants to a local nursery where they will make admirable stock plants!

Border Geraniums are simply cut down to size after the first flowering and fed and watered in the hope that they will produce further flushes of blooms. These easy plants love our shady back garden and do not sulk and withhold their flowers like the Day Lilies. We have plenty of varieties from the spring flowering Geranium phaeum ‘Dusky Rose’ to stalwarts of the summer border which include blue and white flowered ‘Rosanne’ – a real beauty that is so easy to please and keeps flowering until well into the autumn.

Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ the South African Montbretia, also sulks in the shade and needs to be moved to our sunnier front garden but needs moist soil to do well. I love it for the sword shaped leaves and bright red flowers which top wiry stems in late summer. This plant went great guns in its present position for several years but now looks tired with only a few leaf clumps that look as if they will produce flowers. The encroaching Cotoneaster and Parrotia trees have shaded the area too much for their liking!

 Astrantia on the other hand loves the shade that this area produces and has seeded freely. These long lived perennials have fresh green leaves that create a cool feel to a moist shady spot and the flowers remind me of jellies with their wobbly centres. They are produced for months through the summer and are great dried for winter arrangements - cut fresh they last for weeks in a vase but don’t smell good!

But it is the bully boy evergreens that really take the light from the garden and several of these are due for a drastic prune this year! The Arbutus unedo which copes admirably with strong winter winds had got enormous but now looks ugly where my husband pruned the front of it today. He has fed and watered the plant to encourage new growth and the plants ‘round. about already look much happier.

A trip to the local green skip is in order I think!


Summer Scents

Summer scents are everywhere in the garden now. From the pungent smell of the Curry Plant near our front door to the sweet smell of Honeysuckle so seductive at night, the garden is full of them.

Just beginning to flower at last are the Mock Orange Blossoms, their creamy white flowers gradually emerging to cover fresh green leaves. I am always straight out in the garden as these start to bloom – one flower is enough to give off a powerful, sweet scent that I really look forward to each year.

The Mock Orange does not flower for long but there are plenty of other scents to enjoy and Roses have to be one of the most memorable. From the light ‘tea’ scent of some of the modern varieties to the powerful, fruity scents of old shrub roses, I never tire of burying my nose in their sumptuous blooms and marvelling at the differences.

Dianthus (Pinks) are good tempered plants for a sunny spot and poor, limy soil. Like roses, the scent varies depending on the variety, from hardly any to a rich clove-like perfume. Even the smallest of these versatile plants, suitable for the front of a sunny border or rock garden, can have a powerful smell – the magenta-pink blooms of ‘Warden Hybrid’ are one of my favourites! Along with ‘Fusilier’, ‘Annette’ and ‘Watfield Can Can’ they make low mounds of stiff grey leaves that are studded with flowers at midsummer – delight for my nose and passing bees!

Of course, flowers are not the only scent in a garden and at this time of the year, there is plenty of foliage to stroke releasing powerful aromas. Lavenders, especially the tufted-flowered French varieties are my favourites – the scent of their needle-like grey leaves never fails to please. The flowers of both the French and English varieties are a magnet to bees as are many herbs. Thyme and Marjoram are also favourites with bees and butterflies and again have beautifully scented leaves – ideal to plant near a path at the front of a sunny border where they can spread and tolerate being trodden on!

The tall stems and bright green, feathery leaves of Fennel make it worth growing in a border as an ornamental plant as well as for its aniseed flavour in the kitchen. The bronze form with its foamy brown foliage is especially beautiful to mingle with herbaceous plants in a sunny spot that is not too dry. Here it will send down a long tap root and come up each year with little bother – the leaves glow when covered in water from a recent shower.

A quick trip to the vegetable patch and there is more scent to enjoy from the black and white blooms of Broad Beans busily being worked on by bumble bees and the deep purple globes that are Chive flowers. Chives are members of the Allium (Onion) family and are another great plant to attract bees. The taller Allium christophii have been in flower for weeks in our well drained sunny front garden. Each individual flower opens to a mauve star on a slender stalk and there must be hundreds on each strong stem, slowly creating a perfect sphere and attracting bees by the dozen. I am so glad that I planted these bulbs last autumn and hope that they will multiply in the free draining soil and be around for many years to come.


The Vegetable Garden

I am really enjoying my raised vegetable beds this spring and they have already proved to be very productive although keeping birds off some of the plants has been a challenge! We have been eating salad crops for weeks and the leaves last so much longer in the fridge than those bought in the supermarkets as well as tasting much fresher! Spinach too has been a bonus in the kitchen cooked in a gratin as a side dish or with pasta and cheese sauce in a bake. I like to use the larger leaves in cooked dishes and enjoy the smaller ones as part of a mixed salad.

I planted some broad beans towards the end of March and despite the recent gales they are now full of flowers and have small pods appearing – a sign that the bees have done their work! With plenty of water if the weather gets dry, they will soon swell and we will be able to enjoy one of our favourite early summer vegetables. This year I will definitely make an autumn sowing for hopefully an earlier crop next year!

Carrots that were sown at the end of March have grown well and soon we will be able to harvest baby finger carrots – delicious steamed or roasted in the oven. Nothing beats the sweet taste of home grown carrots even if they are misshapen and not perfect like shop bought ones!

A row of beetroot was destroyed by birds - attracted to the bright red shoots as the seedlings came through the ground - and the space has been filled with a double row of dwarf French beans which were covered with a makeshift cloche of wire netting and fleece to protect them from the strong winds. These will take a few weeks to mature but always fill the gap between broad beans and runner beans and are a handy vegetable for summer dishes as well as pickle for the winter.

My courgettes have just been planted out and are looking a bit yellow so a liquid feed to green them up and get them growing is in order. Courgettes and other squashes hate cold weather and strong winds so they deserve some special treatment now with the hope that the weather will soon warm up! I can never have too many courgettes and picked when they are the size of my little finger, fried whole in butter and lemon juice they are a special treat although my husband would not agree. He does however love the courgette and walnut chutney that I make through the autumn once this vegetable threatens to overrun the kitchen!

A few days ago we visited a local garden owned by the National Trust and we were drawn to the lovely walled kitchen garden there. As well as vegetables there were neat rows of flowers  being grown for cutting including Snapdragons and Sunflowers but what really caught my eye was a beautiful variety of broad bean with crimson red flowers – definitely a variety to try next year. I must start to hunt down the seeds now!


One of my favourite shrubs is the Mock Orange Blossom (Philadelphus) and we have two in our garden. They are very easy to grow in sun or partial shade and soil which is not too dry. At this time of the year, the beautifully scented flowers are beginning to open - glowing white against their bright green backdrop.

Like many flowering shrubs the blossoms only last for a few weeks but the bubble gum scent makes them a memorable plant and I always look forward to the following summer when I can breathe in the fragrance once again.

Roses on the other hand have it all. Beautiful blooms in almost any colour you wish, from simple singles with fluffy yellow centres that bees love to clamber over, to the old fashioned ‘Cabbage Roses’ - packed full of petals in flat flowers that resemble a cabbage that has been sliced in half showing its complicated heart. Most of the old fashioned shrub roses have delicious scents so that I want to bury my nose and never stop inhaling! Many, unlike the Mock Orange Blossom, will ‘repeat flower’ through the summer and early autumn or put on a tremendous midsummer show.

The New English Roses, many bred by David Austin, are the best of both worlds. They combine the flower shapes and more often than not the heady scent of old roses, along with more modern day repeat flowering and resistance to the pesky diseases that roses can be prone to. Black spot and mildew are often rife in the older varieties and can debilitate them to the extent that they will never thrive. Good growing conditions are always a help; they like to be planted in rich soil that is retentive – that means that it should not be too wet or too dry. Adding organic matter such as blended stable manure or homemade compost to the soil before planting and applying the same as mulch around your plants in spring and again in late autumn should do the trick. Feeding twice each year with a suitable fertiliser such as Top Rose is a good idea – once in late spring and again in the summer after the first flush of flowers has gone. If the plants are ‘in good heart’ they are more likely to fend off serious attacks of pests and diseases.

Weather conditions also play a part in the likelihood of diseases and pests appearing in numbers. Warm, humid weather is ideal for aphids to breed and mildews to multiply, so a preventative spray of Roseclear is a good plan when these conditions arise – especially in early summer when there is lots of soft, fresh growth on the plants!

Clematis are the perfect partners for Roses and planting one to clamber through a climbing rose is an old idea but one that can be used effectively in a small garden. A contrasting colour can be used to highlight the beauty of both the rose and the Clematis or a variety can be chosen to flower at a different time of the year, using the framework of the rose as a support and extending the season of interest. For ease of maintenance, I like to choose plants that flower after the end of June (Group 3) or early flowering species which flower in winter or spring and are in Group 1. Clematis in Group 1 require little or no pruning – just a tidy of long summer growths should they get out of hand – and those in Group 3 are pruned hard at the beginning of February which means that the old growth can be chopped off and simply pulled from the framework of the rose ready to start growing once again for a late summer show.

Like roses, Clematis are ‘gross feeders’ and will relish the same attention as their hosts – perfect partners for sure.