Spring Bulbs – well tulips to be precise

It’s planting time. Buying time is well and truly over unless you are not to fussed about what you’ll be displaying in the spring. On occasion I am one of those who buys up every cheap packet I can find and having mixed them all in a bucket plant out blocks of unknown mixes to bring pockets of colour bowling forward in the dim light of early spring. The last few weeks my inbox, Facebook pages and snail-mail box have been full of catalogues filled with monster discounts on spring bulb-age. Tempting. Tulips in spring garden


Not surprisingly really because although we’ve had a ridiculously mild autumn so far making, we are forgetting winter, and spring,  is on the way and there are jobs to be done. It really is time to be getting any spring bulbs in the ground, giving them plenty of time to put out roots and get established before they shoot from the ground next year.

I’ve recently come across quotes from Christopher Lloyd et al about ‘the perfect (bulb) planting time is when you feel like it‘ is all well and good but some bulbs just need a bit more thought. Tulips. Usually planted a bit later (November/December) than other bulbs this is not whim but a precaution.

Nothing cheers up a grey spring day like a flash of vibrant colour

Nothing cheers up a grey spring day like a flash of vibrant colour


Tulips are prone to be temperamental if you don’t know a thing or two about them. They start rooting action later than other bulbs such as narcissus (daffs). ‘So what?’ I hear you ask. Well, no roots means they are not taking up water, so if we have a soggy autumn, the Tulip bulbs sit in soggy soil. One thing almost ALL bulbs hate is a touch of the soggies. So later planting for tulips means they are less likely to have to sit about in the damp ground before they get moving with root growth.


Dollops of rich colour over the greening of spring

Another feature is the fungus Tulip Fire. Or to give it it’s latin name Botrytis tulipae. By planting later, after a good frost or three has had a chance to kill off spores in the soil, and burying bulbs deep they have  a better chance not to be infected.  Planting late is a traditional method of preventing disease.

How deep?. Typical advice is double the bulb depth (approx 10cm/4 inches), and if you will be treating them as annuals then this works well. If you want them to last a bit longer and be less prone to pests and diseases then plant deeper. Sarah Raven advocates 25cm (10inches) others I have read up to 35cm (14inches). I plant a spit (spade) depth which is about 20cm (9inches).

So if you haven’t already planted, there is still time!

Possible suppliers at this late stage?


I’m one of those wanderlust folks who don’t stay too long in one place. Putting down roots for me is about a 5-7 years exercise though it has been less and it has been more . Usually house moves are within a district or postcode area but sometimes it has been countries and even continents. In a month or so I’ll be moving house again, within the same locale but to a place with no garden! Quelle Horreur. Admittedly it is a temporary jaunt into garden-less lands but it’s a good opportunity to take stock of the garden and whittle plants down to those I love and cannot be without.

texture with a dash of colour

texture with a dash of colour

This house is rented so it is a simple case of putting the garden back to what it was. A bare strip of tatty grass with black landscape fabric on one side border and monstrously overgrown shrubs on the other. Shouldn’t bee too hard. I’ve dug, planted, fed, pruned and nurtured the space into a lovely garden full of foliage and exotic flowers from spring to late winter but that has to go. In the summer I took on a second allotment plot, idly planning a clear out of the garden and now it will be perfect for ‘heeling’ everything in for 12 months while the rest of life gets settled and a new garden is found to house them. Once the specimens are out it’s a simple case of raking over soil and scattering grass seed.

When I sold my London flat and it’s bijoux, plant packed garden a few years back I had to detail every plant and root I was taking on the contract. Laws are much stricter that they were and take a prized rarity, not on the list, at your peril. Plants in pots do not normally fall under this because clearly they are portable, never the less it’s wise to make a note of all containers that will be going, along with  garden ornaments, bird tables to avoid misunderstandings later.

Of course if you plan well in advance you can have a stash of cuttings and divisions stacked in a single pot size to ease the moving process all ready to be transported to a new home and planted in stunning new borders. Many will love the new environs, some won’t. Be prepared to find that a beloved plant loathes you’r new soil or aspect and turns up it’s toes in disgust. This has happened to me a few times and I’ve learn to take it on the chin. Best of all is to leave all but the most treasured plants behind and start from fresh. New house, new garden with all it;s inherent challenges. Be that a garden full of mature 1970′s conifers, a stunning designer plot full of stunning specimens or a field full of builders rubble. Each has it’s own charm.

For further advice on propagating your plants see the wonderful RHS book on propagating almost anything.

Summer planting coming into flower

Summer planting coming into flower

The Collector (Nerd)

The Iris Collection getting under way with flowers at the beginning of June  (Late this year)

The Iris Collection getting under way with flowers at the beginning of June (Late this year)

As well as being a Garden Designer I, like many others, am fairly fanatical about plants. So much so that a few years back I started collecting the apparently unpopular Miniature Tall Bearded Iris. It’s daintier and makes a much better cut flower than it’s big brother the Tall Bearded

Supported by Plant Heritage  and working with a number of knowledgeable breeders and nurseries the collection now tops 65 varieties of MTB’s mixed in with a dozen or so TB’s, IB’s and a smattering of SDB and MDB’s – the classification is all in the height and flower size. My collection is now listed as  National Collection.

Excitingly Plant Heritage is celebrating 35 years in 2013 and the lovely people at the Weekend Guardian asked me to write about being a National Collector (Nerd!). Watch out for the article on 29th June.


Planning & the noxious weed

Getting involved with garden projects where there is an aspect of planning involved can be a time consuming but usually an interesting aspect of being a Garden Designer. I spend a good number of hours trawling through the ‘not so intuitive’ Planning Portal, set up by government to make the process far more transparent. One can search by planning number – trying recalling multiple 6-8 digit number/letter combos I dare you – by address which is not always as straightforward as it seems house names and numbers are not interchangeable and what a human would consider one address , i.e. The Crotchety Barn, 11 Grouch Street…. is likely to show up as The Crotchety Barn, Grouch Street and entirely separately as 11 Grouch Street. That said in the age of Google Search one knows to look for multiple possibilities of face the incomplete consequences.

A basic rule of thumb and certainly in the opening gambit with new clients is to find out about the area in which their home is situated, from a planning regulations point of view of course. Is the house in a conservation area? is the house and/or garden listed? is their home in a SSI? Are there TPO’s on any of the trees? Many, most, clients know this information which makes quick work of those points but not all do. Each affects a potential garden design in different ways and each requires communication with various planning related bodies to ensure rules and regulations are followed and designs approved. Local Conservation Officers, Tree Officers, Planning departments, Highways agency teams are all on a designers speed dial.

Post and finial

Post and finial

It’s sometimes a surprise for clients to discover that though they own the house and garden it is not always theirs to do with as they please. If you live in a conservation area you cannot simply cut down trees down, or indeed even prune them. This also applies to larger shrubs and hedges over 20m long, put in before 1983 (>30 years old) can be protected too. Erecting any kind of permanent structure over 2m in the rear of the property usually requires planning consent as does a decking platform over 300mm and front fences above 1m….Access onto main roads require visual splays of varying width and angle and preservation of protected wildlife can make discovering them slightly less delightful. I recall finding my first ever Great Crested newt in a pond we were about to move….whoops

Of course more awkward than finding protected wildlife on a first visit is noting the Japanese knotweed lurking by the back fence……

Green stuff

Well we have all been waiting for the spring to arrive and FINALLY after weeks of freezing cold, miserable and not so miserable days it finally arrive with a whoosh this week. To be frank I was beginning to despair, clucking over recalcitrant seeds lurking under their blanket of compost refusing to poke out in what was effectively still mid winter. And really who could blame them. Then last weekend out came the sun, up shot the temperature and low and behold it was spring.

I live next to a tree filled park, an enormous beech towers over both house and garden, heralding the change of season with remarkable clarity. Light flood through in winter when the branches are bare, a green dappled light in spring as the steadily rising sun filters through the newly forming, slowly unfurling lime coloured leaves, then summers haze of shady hours and autumns mounds of crisp brown leaf matter, cluttering borders, corners, path and gutters. It’s no surprise then that its rush to burst out with green frothy leaf age is noticeable.

Alongside this green flutters delicate pink and white as the fruit trees blossom, magnolia show off chunky blooms and Amelanchier pushes pink leaves up behind pale white blossom.

Not bad for one week!


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The sudden gloom this week and hazy mists and mizzle have highlighted, all the more, the superb colour we’ve had this autumn.

There’s a small park next door which has coloured up in spectacular fashion making me sit up and take note of it’s beauty. So this post is all about the photos.


Have you seen the Olympic-scapes?

Olympic-Scapes? well the Olympic Landscapes of course!

The Games were not the only draw for this summers BIG event in the East of the city of London. I suspect Mr Coe et al have a set of 3 landscape and planting genius to thank for the sell out sales to the Olympic Park this summer.

Not only were the flocks of folk thronging to see the Olympians and Para-Olympians strut their stuff and give their all but many, many,  MANY of us went to see the planting, just that nothing else! Me included.

Reflected Gold

Reflected Gold

This week the Garden Museum offered a lecture by the Horticultural and Planting Geniuses responsible discussing, in depth, the ins and outs of actually designing and delivering such a project.

Nigel Dunnett, James Hitchmough, renown professors from Sheffield University’s Department of  Landscape and Sarah Price, youthful fine artist and planting designer,  spoke about their own involvement and experiences of the project from inspirations through designs and of course negotiating not only Olympian form filling and professional hurdle jumping but the reality of being onsite with the contractors building, planting and actually seeding the gardens.

Still Golden

Still Golden – Coreopsis, Red orach, Ammi and Cosmos among the trees

I’ve never heard any of them speak in person before but was unsurprised at the effective and fascinating delivery from both professors, after all they do this to earn a crust! Both 10 minute slots ran over but were filled with so much information that the urge to shoot up a hand and ask for clarity and more information was strong. (That is not the GM way though, questions at the end ONLY!) . Who struck me most pleasingly was Sarah Price. I thoroughly expected not to like her having had a mixed, personal, responses to her recent swathe of publicity, interviews and articles but it just shows me how wrong one can be about someone you see only in a one dimensional media.

Olympian Gold

Olympic Stadium surrounded by golden plantings

Her delivery was engaging and delightfully unguarded as  she wove the story of her initial involvement and went on to give glimpses of how she is inspired and some of her methods to create on demand. I came away thinking how lucky the team was to have her,  her superb visual skills and her ability to translate others (Mr Hargreaves!) wantings into stunning plant-scapes. I’m sure she learned a massive amount from the process, the contractors and the professors but it seems unquestionable that she more than pulled her weight in the team.

I visited the park during the Para-Olympics. It was stunning, even though some said it had ‘gone over’ slightly it was still glorious and still golden. I talked to so many other visitors just admiring the plantings and the park itself, non-planty types who were quite awestruck with the simple beauty of it all and rightly so. Now the biggest new park in Europe for 150 years not to mention the UK. The soil had to be completely ‘cleaned’ of industrial contaminants before use, the plants ‘forced’ to flower about a month late (July instead of June), over a 45 hectares planting site if you please, not to mention having approximately 1 flowering season to try it all out and then it has to be RIGHT the next time it flowers, you’ll have to work on a building site, buildings and border will be delivered late so you won’t be able to plant on time and on and on and on. Now as a designer I know that these things happen, it’s part of the job, but on this scale? with the global eyes watching? no wonder Prof. Dunnett said he’d had sleepless nights!

The next phase of transition will see the remaining trees and plantings installed before the legacy phase which will no doubt see the Queen Elizabeth Oplympic Park emerge as one of the great public planting sites in the world.

Coreopsis tinctoria below Anish Kapoor's Orbit

Coreopsis tinctoria below Anish Kapoor’s Orbit

It’s hard not to come away feeling a little overwhelmed by this sort of success and a project of this dimension. Asking oneself if one will ever attain such giddy heights and if indeed one wants to? I was left in no doubt that I want to work on projects that stretch my skills and fill me with such AN ENTHUSIASM, even if the learning curves are of quite a steep magnitude.

Now to the question of how….


Can you learning the art of planting online?

I participated in an online planting course for My-Garden-School several weeks ago, excited but somewhat sceptical I embarked on the 4 week Planting with Grasses course under the guidance of Michael King, Grass and Perennials guru.

Not having much idea what to expect I am surprised how much I did learn and in fact how much more I could have learned had I had the time to invest in the homework and extra study time that always makes courses like this so valuable. They are like a full stop in life where you can (should) put all your efforts into one subject. Stop multitasking and just focus for a period on one thing. To become absorbed in your subject and really bury yourself in it.

OK so some of that is about me trying to do too much at once.

I will admit I didn’t know who Michael King was when I said yes to the course. It was all a bit last minute and I felt as if I was skidding  into class totally unprepared. And, I was. I was unprepared for the depth of knowledge shared, the expectation of time commitment for completing homework and the sheer volume of back reading I would want/need to do.

Now not everyone wants to study the way I do and some people are faster and less easily distracted than I am but I found Michael’s enthusiasm and level of knowledge challenging and it made me want to do my own research and get up to speed so I could try to engage more with the teaching. I already had 2 of the recommended texts (Rick Darke and Neil Lucas) , barely opened let alone read or studied and bought a 3rd half way through the course because I was inspired to know more about grasses.

For me the downside was that it was too much in too short a space of time and I simply could not shoe-horn it into the 4 week window allotted. Once teaching stopped, although learning material remains available for a period,  it loses something of it’s import when no one else is in the (virtual) classroom so to speak. I’ve studied virtually before and this is a common theme. There is a sense of someone is ‘watching’ and so we do our homework and follow our classes  and we are ‘seen’. When no one watches? well the pressure is less.

OK more or my own learning predilections I suspect not everyone needs to be a crowd pleaser when they are learning!

Joyfully the learning materials could be downloaded and printed, to be scribbled on during the half hour video lecture. Annoyingly the 30+ pages per week guzzled printer ink like it was vintage Dom P (a bottle of which is about what it cost to top up ink cartridges!). That said I would mentally factor this into the course costs in future because they were so worth printing and have since been extremely useful as a resource for my own planting designs since. Lots of great pictures IS a bonus as is being able to read the plant names and not try to scribble down close approximations to what you think you’ve heard being said in planterly Latin!

Getting direct feedback from an expert was daunting on occasion and being asked to work in a completely manual way (sketching, hand drawing and so on) was also a challenge, though one which has opened my eyes to my own talent for sketching. I realise that this, long ago ignored, skill is in fact a very useful tool for visualising schemes and luckily for me doesn’t take me too long to do. PLUS it makes my note book look arty and creative. One day it may even get into the Moleskine Blog!

OK maybe not!

Is it worth the money?. Well Yes, I think it is. Next time, and I fully expect there will be a next time, I would make certain I had  emptied my diary accordingly and done some reading around my topic beforehand to make sure I made the most of the course. The quality of content and amount that is packed in to these short courses along with WHO is teaching you, makes them very interesting courses for Pro and amateur a like and in some cases unmissable.




Plant Catalogue time

It’s that time of year when plant catalogue have begun dropping through the letter box, well they’ve been dropping through for a good few weeks now but I find time is now pressing to start ordering and getting things underway for autumn planting and planning some spring colour.

I was waylaid by an offer at Wilkinson’s on bulbs and splurged a whole £10 on packets and packets of them. I would suggest they are indeed exactly the same bulbs that you can find at Homebase but about £1.5 per packet less, I could be wrong but they’re a good price and some lovely exotic looking jewels for spring. Of course having done this I now only have the excuse of bulb hunting for clients and cannot justify more splurging on my already  over planted plot.

There are the usual suspects starting with Eranthus, Galanthus and Crocus followed in close succession by Chinodoxa, Narcissus (Daffs!), Allium,  Tulip DSC_0890 and Scilla (bluebells) taking us from Jan through to May and then the Ornithogalum, Lillies, oriental and Martagon being favourites, Ranunculus and Agapanthus (not strictly  a bulb) take over  to be followed in late summer by the glorious Galdiolus (corms), Acidanthera, Cyclamen hederifolium and Dhalia (I know a tuber, not a bulb) oh and then there are the pink and white Nerine bowdenii iid_2009_0909_6612 from Oct to Nov and we’re almost back to Eranthus and Galanthus again….. As you see a year of  just bulbs flowerings worth taking some time to plan for!

Colchicum autumnale

Though Wilco’s is tempting other favourite places to search are:-

J.Parker BulbsGee Tee BulbsBloms bulbsAvon bulbs

Having planted up my pots for spring I have succumbed to the pull of Sweet Pea mania and ordered a few packets from Sarah Raven’s great collection with root trainers! This year was a disaster for my Sweet Peas being ignored by the grower as much s the poor weather but next year will be a sweet pea year I think. I shall be following received wisdom from Monty Don’s recent trials for Gardener’s World which is plant NOW and AGAIN in spring.


Miserable day at Great Dixter

Well it said light showers and it was wrong, it fair tipped it down over Great Dixter from noon to 2pm today. A short spell of sunshine between two large rain clouds allowed for some hurried shooting and ooohing and ahhing at the glorious Tulips displays and burgeoning herbaceous display but in truth being hampered by a brolly and dampish squib waterproof and hoodie didn’t help.



Everyone seemed a bit mis too, not many smiles from the few who did venture out not even the ‘wet weather geared up’ staff, though the lady in the tea shop/shop was a complete gem and lent us two bin liners so we could perch on a soggy bench in the little garden when the sun burst through.



I have been to Dixteronce before in high summer and it was breathtaking then, this time it was the Springy ‘bedding’ and pots that blew me away. It is an excellent reminder, if one needs it, that Tulips can in fact make a spring border just as vibrant and full of colour explosions as the big blousey summer borders.



The combinations of bulbs and spring flowering shrubs and perennials leads the eye and links seemingly effortlessly, though I suspect a great deal of effort goes in in reality,  through the spaces.



Big blocks of bold colours blend, in a shouty kind of way, with the beautifully with the super-verdant rain drenched greens of the up-coming herbaceous plantings. Sumptuous.




If you haven’t been to Dixter in Spring, GO, GO, GO!! Put it on your list of things to do, places to go, this year in the next week or so before the tulips go over or for next year.