Viola riviniana

Week 14 – Viola riviniana

It’s the Easter school break and I’m on holiday in Pembrokeshire. This is a part of the world I know well, return to often and love like an old friend. Walking the coast path is a favourite family activity and yesterday we all walked from Whitesands Bay to St Davids Head. A dramatically beautiful walk along a well trodden cliff edge path, past the ancient Cromlech Stones, which are Neolithic burial chambers (around 5000 years old), dozens of wild horses and a plethora of beautiful flora. The bracken smells like butter and the masses of violets create subtle drifts of purple that are incredibly beautiful. The Common Dog Violet (Viola riviniana) grow well on nutrient-poor soil and this type of vegetation is characteristic of the coastal peninsulas of St Davids and Stumble Head. The plant is an early nectar source for butterflies and is the larval host plant for a range of Fritillary butterflies, including the Small Pearl-Bordered, the Pearl-Bordered and the Silver-Washed Fritillaries. It flowers from April to June but its flowers are not scented, unlike those of its cousin, the Sweet Violet. They are tiny… so get down on one knee to get a closer look and I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Digitalis trojans

Week 13 – Digitalis trojans or Foxglove ‘Helen of Troy’

Apparently foxgloves used to be called “Folks Glove,” because its flower resembled the finger of gloves worn by “good folk” or fairie, who, like the plant, dwell in deep hollows and woody dells. Another theory is that the infamous ‘mr fox’ wore the gloves so he wouldn’t get caught raiding the chicken shed.

For me ‘Helen of Troy’ is a beautiful member of this relatively small family. I love it when they’re planted en-mass, so last week I planted about 100 in a couple of large drifts. Unlike many other members of the genus which tend to be biennials, D. trojans is a hardy perennial growing somewhere between 60-90cm. Straight-backed stems, garbed in gleaming darkly green lanceolate leaves with fine gray haired margins, spring from a handsome evergreen rosette. Indigenous to Turkey, this hard-to-find foxglove’s signature is its remarkable soft-looking, earthy flower spikes. fuzzy, tightly set, silver washed buds unveil caramel-colored blossoms, featuring elaborately patterned gold and rusty brown throats and luminous white lips. Long blooming, more drought tolerant than other digitalis and happiest in a cool, somewhat shady setting.

Planting in action

Week 12 – Planting in action

Gardening is not known as an adrenaline filled pastime. This is as good an ‘action’ shot as you’re ever really going to see. But just in case anyone wanted to see behind the scenes, this is the reality. Mud, compost, plants, spades, a wheelbarrow and lots of plastic pots. In fact that’s actually one of our pet hates. Plastic pots. As opposed to throwing them away we try keep all the pots so Alan can re-use them to pot on the next batch of plugs and 1L plants. Surely this is the least we should all be doing in order to do our small part in reducing unnecessary land fill. Better still let’s start to see a complete rejection of plastic pots and move to an effective biodegradable replacement. Now there’s a good business plan. In the meantime we’re going to push on and finish this monumental planting job. After all the sunshine has arrived.

Crown lifting Rhododendrons

Week 11 – Crown lifting Rhododendrons

On my way up to Nottingham this week I popped into Deepdale Trees to pick up a huge Pittosporum that’s part of the rapidly developing scheme. Whilst wandering around (as I often like to do) I spotted these magnificent Rhodedendrons that have been pruned up to reveal their impressive stem structure. This is a very effective technique as it allows light into the base of the plant which makes underplanting possible. This is exactly what I plan to do as part of our next major project which starts in a few months time in the Lake District.

Echium candicans

Week 10 – Echium candicans

Last week I retuned to Nottingham to start planting a garden we’ve been working on for some time. The hard landscaping is done and the trees are in. Now it’s time for the bigger more architectural plants to go in before moving on to the perennial plants. This stage is always fun, always exciting and always harder work then I remember. This is the first time for quite a while that I’ve found myself planting into the ground (as opposed to a living wall) and the client, a keen gardener and knowledgable plantsman himself, has allowed me to take complete control over the plant selection. As the garden starts to take shape, unexpected vistas start to appear, like the dappled evening sunlight seeping through these newly planted Echium candicans. It’s still a little early in the season, but you can just see the blue flowers spikes starting to open. Wonderful.

Acer palmatum

Week 9 – Planting an Acer palmatum

It’s always fun planting trees, but when I have the opportunity to plant a 4 ton, 6m high Acer palmatum it’s not just fun but exhilarating, terrifying, difficult, heart stopping, exciting and… did I say terrifying already?

A tree this size is too big to pick up by yourself. It’s too big to push around. It’s too big to argue with. You can’t send it back. You can’t leave it on the side of the road. Ultimately you know you have to pick it up… and once you do, you definitely don’t want to drop it.

Clearly the only thing you can do (besides paying it huge respect for being so damn big and beautiful) is get a 20 ton crane to pick it up for you and drop it into a large hole. Then you stand back and breath a huge sigh of relief. Thank you Deepdale trees for supplying such a wonderful tree, to Justin and his team from AKA crane hire for all their help, to the weather for being kind to us, and to our client Neil for letting us plant such a fantastic tree in his garden. Judging from this photo he certainly seemed to enjoy watching the drama unfold. This week we shall return to start the underplanting and I can’t wait. Lets hope that all goes as smoothly.

Soleirolia soleirolii, my trusted not so secret, secret weapon.

Week 8 – Soleirolia soleirolii, my trusted not so secret, secret weapon.

In my continued search for effective creeping ground cover or should I say creeping wall cover, Soleirolia soleirolii is still my number one choice. This tiny unassuming plant is a huge horticultural help to me. Quick to establish, it will tolerate sun or shade and is relatively frost hardy. The masses of tiny leaves clothe slender spreading stems that root as they run, forming a dense deep-pile carpet – perfect as a backdrop on my living walls. When planted in and amongst other favourites such as Asarum europaeum (wild ginger), Pachysandra terminalis ‘Green Carpet’ or Euonymus fortunei ‘Harlequin’ it slowly but surely starts to envelope them creating a power struggle for both light and attention which I find both exciting and intriguing. It is capable of vegetative reproduction which is a process by which new organisms arise without production of seeds or spores so all in all a useful almost maintenance free, not so secret, secret weapon.


Week 7: Barcelona

Last week I went to Barcelona with my family and we all absolutely loved it. It is a dynamic, vibrant city full of friendly people, good food and it even has a rather fantastic beach! Whilst walking around the city it didn’t take long to notice that huge palm trees are a real feature of Barcelona’s landscape. Incredibly there are over 6,000 different species of palm trees in the streets of Barcelona, five of which account for the majority of them. The most common is the True Date Palm (Phoenix dactylifera), followed by the Washingtonias (Washingtonia robusta and Washingtonia filifera) and the Mediterranean Fan Palm (Chamaerops humbles).

Dozens of ancient palms are scattered across the Playa Reial, one of the most ancient and famous squares in Barcelona and they’re used to great effect all along the beachfront promenade. Washington robusta, the Mexican fan palm (or my favourite the sky duster), is the palm of choice here, often planted in long dramatic rows or in a more strict grid like pattern. They do make a very graphic visual statement, but I’m not 100% convinced that the palms are horticulturally or visually entertaining enough when used on their own in this way. I couldn’t help but feel that a nice bit of underplanting wouldn’t go amiss… maybe a mass of agapanthus, or cloud clipped Pittosporum tobira ‘Nanum’ (which I saw used en-mass elsewhere in the city). But hey, I’m just a tourist passing through and so I’ll happily settle for the warm sun on my face, the sand, sea, blue sky, surfers, skateboarders, joggers and dogs to fill in the gaps.


Week 6: Imagination

Designing a garden is all about imagination. This may seem like an obvious statement, but it seems to me it’s often lost during the long process of creating a garden. It’s not just about imagining what the layout of the garden might be, the materials you could use or even the specific plants that might work. It’s not even about imagining what the client might like or worse, request. It is about all of these things and another much more critical thing. It’s about trying to imagine what the garden you create is going to look like in the years after you’ve finished it. It’s all about imagining the future.

When it comes to trees you need to imagine what they’re going to look like in 5, 10, 50 even 100 years time. You do of course also need to imagine how they might look the day you finish, as this is what the client is actually going to judge you on, in the short term at least. This is not so easy, but you need to try and imagine it. It’s all part of the design process.

Right now I’m imagining planting three large Rhus typhina (Stag’s horn sumach) in one of my new schemes. I love the architectural quality of the Rhus which work well when underplanted in a simple monocultural way. One of my favourite designers, Tom Stuart Smith used them to great effect in this garden in Norfolk. I’m imagining my scheme might look as good as this. I’ve clearly got a vivid imagination.


Week 5: The Hellebore – as my son would say, now is your time to shine!

There are few perennials that can rival the seasonal interest of hellebores… often called Christmas or Lenten Rose. Hellebores have long been grown in gardens, although originally for their medicinal properties. Hellebores are filled with alkaloid toxins and have been used both as a poison and a purgative. Most are primarily European natives, growing in open meadows in Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, Turkey, Greece, Italy, and even China, where the deciduous species Hellebores thibetanus can be found. As long-blooming, low-maintenance, basically evergreen perennials these plants have few equals. I’ve included them in my living walls from the day I started and they’ve never let me down. You simply have to love a plant that braves what nature throws at it and still manages to show off at this time of year.