The accidental shrubbery

Alison Levey of is an obsessive gardener based in Leicester and like our very own Mr McGregor would never describe herself as a professional, although we would certainly always take her advice on board. Through this article Alison tells us why she is growing a fondness for shrubbery.

Shrubberies are a bit old hat really aren’t they?  I cannot think of a time recently when anyone has passed a comment such as ‘that’s a really cool shrubbery’.  Shrubs seem to have become something that are associated with supermarket car parks and are generally seen as dull, boring and a catcher of crisp packets.

I find the more I garden the more my taste in plants and planting evolves.  Now it might not be improving in some people’s view, but I sense changes and start to like plants I have dismissed previously.  Shrubs were not high on my list of plants to buy when I moved into my current house a few years ago, in fact I removed quite a few that I believed then to be in the wrong place.  Thankfully I still think that and I have not planted any back where they were removed from.  I was lucky in that the back garden in particular was pretty much a blank canvas, little more than a slightly shaped field, which excited me hugely at the thought of the possibilities.

The design of the garden has also been an evolving progression than a mapped out drawing.  Some areas have had more formal planning than others and some areas, like the Wild Garden, have developed over time from the messages the garden itself gave to me.  This might sound a little odd so let me explain further.

The garden is south facing and slopes a little down and to the side of the house.  It is a very gentle, barely noticeable slope, but as I have got to know the plot more and more I understand the contours of it better and how it influences what I do.  There is line that cuts through the garden that runs along the edge of this incline.  It is now more formally delineated as it is marked by the edges of borders, the top of the pond and a line of purple beech twigs that will one day be pillars.  At first though this delineation was more of a feeling than something I could see.  It meant I divided the garden in my mind quite quickly; the two thirds closer to the house would be the formal gardening area that would contain the main borders and the formal lawn.  This is all ‘this side’ of the pond that fitted neatly into the bowl of the incline.  The top third is where the Wild Garden would be.  At first I planted a couple of trees in this area and quite a lot of native wild-flower plugs.  I had a meadow-type idea in my head but not the annual flowery meadows that are very beautiful but more work than I would wish to put in.  The meadow has been slow to establish but it now works quite well.  It is particularly enjoyed by various bees, moths and butterflies throughout the warmer months.  I scythe it down in September and give it a mow or two but otherwise it looks after itself.

So what has all this to do with shrubs?  As time has gone on I added the odd shrub or small tree, a viburnum here, a hamamelis there and a hydrangea or two.   After a while I realised I had planted quite a few shrubs as an Edgeworthia was added and a clethra and a rhododendron or three.  These are all still relatively small at the moment but they are changing the character of the wild garden and attracting even more wildlife into the area.  I think the garden is now at its full quota of trees, there are limits to what will fit in and I think this led to a re-interest in shrubs as I see them as useful underplanting and a way of getting even more Spring and Autumn interest in particular into the garden.

I am very fond of my accidental shrubbery, I had no idea that one shrub leads to another, but it turns out they do.


Allotment Tasks

The drier weather has meant that at last I can start to dig the allotment! I am very late this year – the soil has been too wet to even contemplate digging but I was surprised at how easily it turned over with some sun and drying winds on it for a few days. Because I have cultivated the plots for several years now, the soil is in good heart and each spring there are less perennial weed roots to remove, making the job much faster. I am single digging the first plot where I will grow my seed crops this year, burying annual weeds in the trenches, so that the whole plot is tidied up as I go along.

 I have also bagged up some rotted horse manure from a friend’s stable yard. I do this each spring and keep it on the allotment so that it is on hand to bury in my runner bean trench and under the courgettes when they are planted out at the end of May.

Today, we are back to cold weather and lots of rain, so it is far too soon to plant anything. I have learned my lesson well in the past by wasting too much seed that has gone into cold, wet soil and not germinated or has been overtaken by sowings made later when the soil is warmer! Unless you have a polythene tunnel or large greenhouse, early crops are something of a gamble in the open ground! I do like to grow as much as possible from seed sown directly in the ground but this week I am sowing some mixed salad leaves and my first crop of broad beans in pots so that they can be planted out once the weather is warmer and the soil more workable.

The tomatoes and chillies that I sowed a few weeks ago in the propagator are doing well and have been potted into individual pots. They are all safely in the heated greenhouse away from cold winds and frosts and will stay there until at least the middle of May when I grow a few outdoors and keep the rest in gro bags under cover.

The potatoes have been chitting in egg boxes for about a month now and are developing sturdy shoots. The spare bedroom is light and not too warm, so they will be fine there until they are planted out towards the end of April.

I still have plenty of crops to use which have stood the winter well, including kale and the sprouting broccoli which has just started to crop well. Leeks and swede are also fine in the ground at the moment, but I have lifted the last of the parsnips as the tops were starting to grow away with the mild weather. They are now safely in the freezer after being blanched and coated in bread crumbs – perfect to roast in the oven from frozen and a favourite in our house! 


Decisions, decisions........

Leaves are beginning to open on some of the shrubs in our garden including the bright orange Spiraea ‘Goldflame’ which is always a picture at this time of the year, setting off the golden yellow flowers of Forsythia ‘Lynwood’ that is planted close by. All of the daffodils seem to be coming out together and the whole garden is awash with their swaying flowers in various combinations of yellow, cream and orange. There are so many different varieties and I especially love the scented flowers of multi headed ‘Soliel D’or’ and ‘Martinette’. The Hellebores that were not scorched by the wind are flowering now in huge clumps and the white daffodils beneath the shrubs in the green and white borders are just beginning to open.

I have still not pruned too much of the wind damage away from my browned off evergreens preferring to give the plants a chance to catch their breath and begin to produce new shoots so that I can cut back to new growth later in the spring. I thought that the last flower buds on the Viburnum tinus were ruined but the plant has rallied and defiantly produced some new flowers, although they are bruised around the edges and not of a standard for Mrs McGregor’s arrangements!

We have another area of the back garden to redevelop now that the hedge has been cut back to size. I was worried that we had killed the Privet, but there are plenty of green buds on the bare wood now, so it will not be long before the hedge turns green again! Hopefully we can keep on top of the pruning little and often so that it does not grow back into the light excluding monster that it was before!

As a result of the lack of light in this part of the garden, all the other plants lean forward and now need gentle pruning to encourage them to make better shapes. A large Cotoneaster that had grown into a small tree was particularly spindly so it will be coming out and will make room for another small tree, to break up the outline of the Privet and create a focal point in that corner of the garden. The Cotoneaster provided interest through the year with evergreen leaves, white flowers in summer which the bees loved, which were followed by clusters of yellow berries. However, I would like to grow a deciduous tree which has good autumn colour but does not grow too high. The area is very sunny for most of the day, so I am tempted by Cercis (Judas Tree). These upright trees are slow growing and have heart shaped leaves that give good autumn colours but their main feature is pea-like mauve flowers that are crowded on the bare branches in May. The soil is well drained but in good heart, so it should be happy there. Another old favourite of mine is Amelanchier and there are several growing well in the local area. Again this is a plant for all seasons with good autumn leaf tints of red and orange and new growth of bronze leaves that contrasts with clouds of star-like white flowers in spring. They are very elegant trees and would also be ideal for this area.

Decisions, decisions........


Garden designer interview: Helen Billetop

Helen Billetop is a garden designer we here at Notcutts are delighted to have had the chance to catch up with. She is one of the UK’s top garden designers who has built a gleaming reputation for herself in the industry over the past twenty years. Helen believes that a garden should be sustainable, serve the local ecology and minimise environmental impacts yet still be stylish, beautiful and practical. 

You are now working with Sally Court and your new company is called cgd landscape design. How did this partnership come about and where did the idea for cgd landscape design come from?

Sally and I have been friends and fellow garden designers for many years.  We had worked on some projects together and it came as a natural evolution that we should make the partnership official and set up a new company together. We also had some big projects in the pipeline, and since setting up cgd landscape design our business has gone from strength to strength, despite starting in the early days of the recession!

You’ve designed gardens in Jersey, South of France and Moscow. I can only imagine their attitudes towards design and garden life is different to that of our in the UK. Would you agree, and what have you found to be the differences?

Climate, soil and indigenous plants are the essence of the garden designer’s palette, so we immerse ourselves in the local materials and culture to ensure we create gardens that are as sustainable and successful.  Moscow is challenging, with long winters often with 6 metres of snow cover and temperatures down to -30°C.  The summers are very hot and herbaceous planting flourishes, though it is not necessarily popular.  Our client wanted an ‘English Garden’ for her weekend retreat and so we had permission to create herbaceous borders, rose gardens, parterres, orchards and meadows, all quite unusual but a challenge we rose to.   Conversely our work in Morocco and the South of France demand more drought tolerant species. 

What to you makes a successful garden design other than receiving a client’s seal of approval?

Successful garden designs are difficult to generalise about.  They should in the first instance have a sense of place, to be at one with the local landscape.  Whether formal or informal designs, the elements of the garden should flow naturally from one space to another without discord or jarring.  Less is more -simplicity and the clever use of space is always impressive. Having a balance between mass and void is another measure that professional designers can bring to the party.  At the end of the day though, understanding the client’s lifestyle, how they want to use the garden and interpreting their wish list to develop a creative solution is the most rewarding part of the job, as well as problem solving - another big part of the job.

You seem to be an extremely busy being on the editorial panel of the Garden Designers Journal, an adjudicator for the Society of Garden Designers and being active in the professional development of garden designers. You’ve even found time to be a judge for the Association of Professional Landscapers (APLD) in the USA. How do you manage to juggle all of this and when you do have a free moment how do you like to spend your time?

I love being busy.  Putting something back into the profession is rewarding too! Free time is spent with friends and family, enjoying good food and wine, theatre and the arts, and travelling to far flung, hard to reach places. 

You believe in creating landscapes that serve the local ecology and minimise environmental impact. What would be your advice to those who wish to create such a garden?

Observe what works well in your local landscape – research and imaginative solutions can help bring wildlife and birds to your garden.  Whether you want to grow your own food or have a wildflower meadow, talking to a garden designer can help you get it right first time round.  Choice of hard landscaping materials, stone, brick, timber and architectural styles of the house and other buildings are all important considerations in making sure the garden sits comfortably in its locality.  Drainage, water conservation, creating water features, soil improvement and many more skills are all part of a garden designers expertise. 

What does the magic of gardening mean to you?

My ideal garden should be a haven and retreat from the pressures of daily life and provide space to entertain, space to relax and for those that love to work with nature their very own space to get down to work the soil and garden.

You can find more information about Helen’s work at


Mrs McGregor's Cutting Garden

Aster Little CarlowThe soil is finally beginning to dry out a little and I am hoping to start digging the allotment this week. I have usually made a start by now, but it has been far too wet to contemplate any cultivation so I have lots of catching up to do if I am to start planting in April!

For now, I am concentrating on the cutting garden, which is a piece of ground where we grow plants especially for Mrs McGregor’s flower arrangements. Because of the sunny, sheltered location this area fizzes with insects and butterflies through the summer months and I love to spend time there watching the different butterflies – guide book in hand! As well as clumps of perennials such as Asters (Michaelmas Daisies)and Solidago (Golden Rod) there are Dahlia tubers and summer corms to plant at the end of the month. We have visited Notcutts and chosen some Gladiolus corms along with more Dahlias and Lilies. The Gladiolus and Lilies will be planted in soil that has been enriched with blended stable manure and I will dig in some coarse grit so that the bulbs do not rot.

I like to start the Dahlia tubers off in the greenhouse by putting them in seed trays or wooden boxes covered with compost. Once the tubers are shooting, I pot them up and grow them on to a size where they will withstand attacks from slugs and snails before planting them out in rows. This usually happens towards the end of May when risk of frost is past.

We have also purchased some new Pink (Dianthus) varieties. Pinks are easy to grow in well drained soil but dislike extreme wet weather so our plants are all looking very sad after the winter. I didn’t take cuttings last spring and they are such good doers in a vase and in the garden, that we had to buy some more! I have prepared the soil well by digging in plenty of grit and adding some garden lime – Dianthus need alkaline soil to do well. Needless to say that all of the varieties that we have purchased are scented! I am always amazed by the power of the clove-like scent of the miniature varieties and have planted several on sunny path edges where they will form a thick mat of spiky grey leaves and be smothered in flowers in early summer.

There are plenty of annuals which make beautiful bunches in vases around the house through summer and I am very fond of Cornflowers. The royal blue flowers teamed with the acid yellow of Alchemilla mollis are very elegant and easy to put together.

I have grown dried flowers since I was a child and they fascinate me with the way that they dry on the plants. Straw Flowers, which I know as Helichrysum are a favourite with their brightly coloured, pointed edged flowers that are equally attractive as they just open and when they have ‘gone too far’ for drying and the centre has erupted into a fluffy mass!

Signs of spring are everywhere in the garden now and I hope this weather continues into the summer so that the cutting garden produces plenty of blooms unblemished by too much rain!