And the garden

When modern architecture goes outside


How to Pleach

It seems as though every article I read about pleached trees includes the nugget of information that the word comes from the French word plechier or plessier, meaning to plait or weave.  Gormlessly, I accepted this at face value, despite having grown up in then French-speaking Brussels; despite having spoken French rather well at one point; despite having plaited my hair as a schoolgirl and discussed this – in tedious detail, as one did – in French with my francophone friends; despite my never ever having encountered either variant of the word before.  Someone, somewhere, made this up (or dug it out of an obscure French equivalent of Chaucer), and it has been repeated, unquestioningly, ever since.  The correct term is ‘palissé’ or ‘en espalier’.  So there.*

Whatever size trees you start with, you will first need to make your structure.

If you are starting with young trees that you will train from scratch, you need tall posts set in concrete at regular intervals (5m apart or thereabouts) with tensioned wire making up the horizontal bars between them (four or five bars is usual). Later this year in the courtyard garden I will be doing this too, with seven crab apple ‘Red Sentinel’ that I had to buy young (oh the satisfaction of ordering something on the right rootstock so that its ultimate size will be just right for my purposes).  I have heeled them in beside the garage and will train them myself because I am looking for the lowest bar of the pleached branches to start lower than is usual with nursery supplied trees.  And because it is much much cheaper.  I will teach myself how to do this and post about it in due course.

This post however is about how to treat mature trees which have already been trained individually in the nursery: how to create a structure that links them together; and how to train them to it.

rootballed limes in situ

We planted six small leaved limes (Tilia cordata) in April 2014.  By rights we should have done it a little earlier in the year (the trees were just starting to come into leaf), but although these were field grown trees they were dug up one day and transported to my garden the next, and they were to receive the very best of care, so we risked it.  Their planting holes were large, the backfilled soil mixed with generous amounts of organic matter, and their rootballs sprinkled with liberal quantities of root growth enhancing mycorrhizal fungi (Root Grow, I SWEAR by it).  They were tethered against windrock by an underground guying system (the excellent Arborguy from GreenBlueUrban), which means we didn’t have to have unsightly supporting posts, and each tree had a circle of perforated drainage pipe looped around its rootball with the end sticking up out of the ground, so that I could water them copiously (but only every now and then).

With a lot of hard work, we got them into position. I will not dwell on how unpopular my insistence that the trunks line up with the distant window breaks made me, nor how no one, myself included, made the leap of logic that suggested that a telegraph pole would indeed have an underground cable leading to it, which we promptly dug through.  Once in position, I proceeded to do absolutely nothing to them (except water them and keep them weed free) for the next year.  Mainly because I thought that they needed time to settle in before I started hacking them about, but in part because I didn’t really have a clue what to do next.

limes in leaf year one

They passed an apparently happy summer (see photo above), coming into leaf and putting on lots of new growth while I bided my time and googled.  Monty Don had what seemed to me to be sound advice, and equipped with my magnificent tripod ladder from Jake Hobson, my trusty Felco secateurs, a ball of twine and more bamboo canes than I imagined possible, I set to work in February 2015 to link these six disparate trees into a coherent whole.

limes - six distinct trees

Tip: wrap up warmly and wear wraparound glasses – being poked in the eye while balancing up a ladder in a howling gale is best avoided.  Also, cut the twine into lengths (short bits of 35cm and longer bits of 80cm) while still in the warmth of the house, and stuff the different lengths into different pockets before you go up the ladder.

limes - building the bamboo structure

I found it was best to split the job into two parts: creating the new structure first and only once that was complete tying the branches onto the structure. My trees each had four bars of bamboo to which they had already been trained, so the first thing I did was to run new bamboo canes across the gap between the trees, weaving the canes in between the bamboo uprights and the trunks of the trees, and tying them securely into place to the existing bamboo bars with twine in at least four points along their length.

Once I had a solid – if slightly wavy – line of canes along each of the four bars, I then extended the structure out at either end with more canes, one end tied into the bamboo structure, the other reaching out to the point I wished to grow the foliage (above but abutting the datum).

limes - lining up edge with datum

Because the shape I am going for is a sort of shoebox on stilts, I want to train the branches of the two end trees to form right angles and meet in the middle.  I therefore connected the two rows of trees with four horizontal canes (which I also braced with verticals in the corners for strength).  By now the trees had more bamboo in them than they did tree (and over a week had passed), but I could finally start tying the branches to my bamboo structure.

limes - lining up the end structure

Although the trees were quite twiggy and it had been fiddly to get the bamboo canes in place, until this point I had restricted myself to only pruning out the deadwood.  One never knows when a branch will come in handy, and I learned that small leaved lime is amazingly bendy, which, it dawned on me, explains its popularity for this purpose.  (I will have to be a lot more gentle with the more brittle crab apples when I come to train them.)

limes - back row pruned front row unpruned

I tied in whatever I could to the horizontal bars, and then marshaled my quailing resolve and pruned out everything that was not in the right place for the shape I wanted, some branches back to 4-6″ or so, some right back to the branch bark collar with the trunk or main stems.  I removed most of the new growth, as illustrated in the above photo showing the pruned back row and the unpruned front row (I started with the least visible bit until I got my courage up).  The photo above also shows how we really should have thought at the outset about placing the six trees according to their straightness of stem, and hidden the one at the front on the left which has a backwards lean to it in a far less prominent position.  I have built the structure to compensate, but I will have quite a job to train the bushy new growth out so that the vertical face of the ‘green box’ appears straight.

lime branches before being tied into line   lime branches tied into line

The two photographs above are before and after.  And although I suspect that I might not have been ruthless enough, I will be very relieved come Spring to see them come into leaf.

limes with weights

The above photograph shows the end result. I am very pleased with it, but looking at it now I think I will have to get back up my ladder and lop the tops of the vertical bamboo canes that break the lovely horizontal lines.  The two orange bags hanging from the branches are mesh bags that some of my Peter Nyssen bulbs arrived in (see?  I knew they would come in useful), weighted with rocks and tied to joins that had an upwards arc to them, to try to bring them slowly into line with the horizontal.  My husband finds them vaguely unsettling, reminiscent of a medieval display of the heads (or worse) of one’s enemies on spikes .  I can’t see it myself, but there’s a novel idea for a show garden at Chelsea if ever I heard one.

* I blame Anne Wareham for my pugnacious tone.  I have just finished reading ‘The Bad Tempered Gardener‘ and I am feeling inspired.



Pinheads and Dinnerplates

Hardy cyclamen are wonderful plants, quite unlike their trashy indoor cousins.

I have a particular weakness for scent, autumn colour and plants with winter interest, and although unscented the ivy-leaved (or Neapolitan) cyclamen excels in the latter two categories, sending up its charming pink recurved flowers in the autumn, and most obligingly holding on to its heart shaped leaves, intricately marked with silver, over the winter months, shedding them over the summer when their absence goes unnoticed in the midst of all the other star horticultural performances.

cyclamen in planter

I really should investigate Cyclamen coum, which flowers from December to March and would take over nicely from the September to November flowering of C. hederifolium, but I have read that if planted together C. coum will in time (which is relative – centuries, probably) come to dominate, so I will have to wait to find a source and a good spot.  However their circular leaves are unmarked and nowhere near as interesting.

The greatest downside of C. hederifolium, if one wants a swathe of them (and who would not?), is their cost.  Even my first choice of bulb supplier, Peter Nyssen, was charging over £1 per tuber.  At this point, I turned my beady and acquisitive eye towards my unsuspecting mother.  My mother is not a gardener but she is hugely generous of spirit and has a lovely garden, blessed with great drifts of hellebores and, I remembered covetously, hardy cyclamen.

When we were building the house and lived for almost five years in rented accommodation with a pocket handkerchief of a garden, she made me up a horticultural care parcel containing plants from her garden which I arranged together in a planter and which lifted my frustrated gardening spirits no end.  (In the preceding sentence I use the term  ‘made me up’ as a euphemism for ‘allowed me to plunder her garden during one of my visits, digging up what I wanted, and leaving it for her to wrap in damp newspaper and post them all up to me in a cardboard box’.) There were a number of cyclamen tubers in this planter, and I had noticed that the flowers had set seed – those seedpods on curious little coiled springs – and that many had germinated into seedlings, a year or so old.  I resolved to turn out the planter, carefully, and prick out the seedlings into a tray of jiffy modules – why, I would soon have hundreds of hardy cyclamen.  Pricking out seedlings is soothing pastime, providing one sets up the bench or table to avoid being hunched over and getting a crick in the neck or between the shoulder blades, and I spent a restful and virtuous sunny October afternoon doing just that.

IMG_5880      IMG_5882

Pleased though I was with my labours, I recognised that it would be many years before the pinhead sized tubers produced any flowers, so I turned once more to my mother and asked her, with what I hoped was engaging directness, whether she would dig up some more tubers and send me them (or ‘instruct Tim who comes on Wednesdays to dig up etc’). Again she obliged, and Parcelforce duly delivered two boxes filled with magnificent tubers, some bigger than my hand (see photo below).  I have no idea how old they are, and while the literature relates how they can grow to the size of dinner plates, I have found nothing that gives a timescale for this development. Readers, if you can shed some light, I would be delighted to hear from you.


The tubers themselves are odd, unpromising things, with hardly any roots, and it is difficult to imagine them ‘throwing up hundreds of flowers’ per tuber, as the books would have them do.  Bought dormant from bulb suppliers, many have no roots at all and it is often difficult to know which way up to plant them.  Planting any bulb, I think, is an act of faith, but cyclamen require belief of Orpheus-like proportions.

Out of curiosity, I also ordered some tubers from Peter Nyssen to compare, and a plant from Crocus, and then succumbed to buying some more tubers when I was in Dobbies (despite the recent mis-labeled anemone experience), to see which would  give me the best results for my time, effort and money.  Contenders in my unofficial and woefully unscientific hardy cyclamen trial are:

1) Five dormant tubers from Peter Nyssen (photo below left) – £6.50

2) Five dormant tubers from Dobbies garden centre (photo below right) – under £10

Nyssen cyclamen tubers     Cyclamen tubers Dobbies Taylors

3) Two boxes of tubers from my mother’s garden, semi-dormant (i.e. freshly dug up and showing some signs of root or leaf growth) – free, but clearly not everyone has access to such cyclamenic munificence

4) 300+ seedlings – free, ditto

5) A plant in a 9cm pot from Crocus (photo below) – £2.99

crocus cyclamen small

The plant (by its very definition in a non-dormant state) from Crocus was the real surprise, with that little 2cm tuber throwing up dozens of leaves and all those fine root hairs.  If the dormant tubers lumber into life with anything near this fecundity I shall have veritable carpets of cyclamen, I’m just finding it incredibly hard to believe this with any conviction. Having planted them this winter – a bit shriveled and apparently dessicated, with their crowns just below the surface of the soil and hopefully the right way up – I am not sure when I should expect signs of life, especially since winter is normally their non-dormant season.  Might I have to wait until September to see the first leaves? I just know I will not be able to resist digging one of them up to check whether root development is actually happening, and I hope this doubter’s impatience will not irretrievably damage the plant*.

I went to check on the tubers from my mother that I planted in the beds under the pleached limes, only to find to my annoyance that their stems have been neatly severed, and a few leaves left on top of the mulch.  The culprits are our resident rabbits, and I will position some cloches over the cyclamen while I hone my plans for a multi-pronged attack on the blasted creatures.

I will update this post with progress on the plants over the course of the year.  Yes, you have heard me say that before, but remember this is still a very young blog.  You may or may not have noticed that I have resorted to copying and pasting comments under my WordPress posts that dear and valued readers have put on my Facebook page.  I have been wondering what I could do to attract more comments, suggestions and questions to these posts – I would love to get some dialogue going. Is it because WordPress requires some horrid sign in process?  Clearly, if this is the case then you are hardly likely to sign in in order to tell me so.  If you prefer, you could tweet me @AndTheGarden?  Perhaps this too is merely a matter of time, and comments will emerge in the natural order of things. Or, for that matter, not.


* Should I ever be in the privileged position to name a new species of cyclamen, I shall call it Cyclamen eurydice, and take my chances at being smacked in the face for being such a smart arse.


A bed for all seasons

Faced with the 1/2 acre of compacted, partially waterlogged, marestail-infested rough grass that currently constitutes the back garden, the only sensible response is to ignore it until such time as dealing with it becomes unavoidable, and to busy myself with less intractable problems.

I have successfully employed this stratagem for over a year now, much to the benefit of the front garden, which has seen my unadulterated horticultural attention lavished upon it.  In particular, the rectangular bed set in gravel in front of the house which separates the family and visitor parking areas.

Front bed empty

It is a comparatively small bed, measuring only 6m by 2m, but those 12 sq meters have received an inordinate amount of thought.  I have written before of the different approaches I have to planting up the front and back gardens, but here there was an added imperative:  not only would this highly visible bed have to sing for its supper during every month of the year, it would also need to be of horticultural interest to me – no easy task.  I sometimes think that the planting around contemporary houses is one of the most depressingly formulaic things about them.

Let’s face it:  most architects don’t understand plants (and a lot of the clients for whom these houses are built aren’t gardeners).  They may have an appreciation of how the structural quality of a plant may offset some aspect of the built environment, how the texture or movement of a plant may frame or complement a building, how outside space can provide a balance or a foil for the dwelling, but with all their spacial awareness few of them have any plant knowledge* and they don’t fully appreciate the magical fourth dimension that plants have and buildings don’t:  change over time.  Once a building has been constructed, at the most it might weather a bit, but unlike plants it won’t change shape or size.  One of our team of highly talented architects was here this morning, and on hearing my plans for the garden she remarked ‘but that will take years‘.  Well yes.

The photograph a few paragraphs above shows the empty bed in April 2014 with some of the select number of mature plants I bought for the garden being lifted off the lorry: six pleached limes for the back gardens, and three multi-stemmed birch for this front bed.  On this occasion I did cheat time and bought mature plants for instant impact.  Used judiciously, there is a role for large plants, I just think that if you plant the whole garden with mature plants, you’re decorating, not gardening.  In addition, your garden can then only decline (sometimes gallingly quickly, as mature plants need a lot more cossetting than younger specimens, and are prone to die at the drop of a hosepipe).

I swithered a great deal in choosing what trees to plant in this bed:  after all, silver birch Betula pendula is hardly a choice horticultural rarity (and is moreover, it pains me to admit, a common choice for modern buildings).  I toyed with flowering trees, trees with striking bark, trees that flared with autumn colour, even with different varieties of birch.  On and off my list at some point were Betula septentrionalis and jacquemontii, various Sorbus spp., Amelanchiers, Cercis and Catalpas, Arbutus and Stewartias, Magnolias, Acers and Malus, Cercidiphyllum, Liquidambar, Parrotia and even a single Platanus.  But they were all either too big, too small, too stiff, their leaves were too large, their crown was too rounded, their form undistinguished or they were not reliably hardy on the east coast of Scotland.

Ultimately, nothing – in my eyes – is as beautiful in movement and in the shadow it casts as our native silver birch, with its diminutive delicate leaves and pliable flowing branches.  Also in the birch’s favour was that some of the most pleasing trees in nearby gardens were birch, lending a satisfying repetition to the streetscape and subtly linking our modern house to its older neighbours; and finally, birch’s status along with Scots pine as our beloved national woodland tree.  From this last thought came the idea that I might paradoxically plant the bed – so formal in shape – as a naturalistic upland birchwood community, underplanted with blaeberry and a smattering of wood sorrel, ferns and grasses.

Autumnal birchwood, Craigellachie NNR.

(Picture of Craigellachie NNR by photographer Peter Cairns)

This idea lasted until it hit the buffers of my list of horticultural demands: sticking dogmatically to only those plants found in the Scottish birchwood habitat would severely limit my plant choices, and all for the bleak reward of botanical authenticity.  In my town setting, to choose a square island of native self-righteousness from an ocean of horticultural diversity and abundant plant choices struck the gardener in me as downright perverse, and the idea duly evolved into the concept of an interpretation of a birchwood.  This gave me both the framework within which to choose plants (some limits, if not too draconian, are very helpful), and the freedom to look elsewhere in the globe for plants that would provide the attributes to give this prominent bed the year-round interest I asked of it.  Because the bed is small, and must not distract from the approach to the house with too much busy-ness, I added a further restriction that the planting be predominantly green and white.

So we have three multi-stemmed silver birch – unevenly spaced to give an air of naturalism yet also positioned carefully to break sightlines from the pavement through the glass to the inner deck.  A small up-lighter sits at the foot of each tree, illuminating their stems at night.  The trees are staked: while normally I favour underground guying, the discovery that the ground workers had used the base of the bed as a convenient dumping spot for rubble put paid to that.  The tree ties are initially set at breast height, but over the next few years I will gradually lower their level, before removing them along with the stakes in about five years.

Front bed midplanting

In the bed is a variety of plants that I deemed to fit the bill, some bought mail order, some I had dug up from our last garden and had kept in pots over the intervening years, some bought from gardens I’d visited, some grown from seed, some stowaways and self-seeders, and some dug out of the garden of a generous friend.  The only duds were the Anemones bought from a garden centre, that revealed themselves in late summer to be pink instead of white (the refund never assuages one’s annoyance over the lost growing season).

Given its position in front of the house, I felt that the planting should appear fairly uniform when seen from a distance, the detail only revealing itself as one gets closer.  In this instance, this translated to one species of tree (the three specimens of Betula pendula) and one main species of shrub, eight plants of the heavenly scented evergreen Christmas box Sarcococca hookeriana var humilis, arranged in two informal groups of three and five plants respectively. At about 80-100cm high at maturity they will not outgrow their position, and while waiting for them to fill out I have planted the ground between them with bulbs and ground cover.

I did, in a moment of weakness, add two more shrubs (one specimen of each):  a Fothergilla major that I had bought from the Edinburgh Botanics years ago and which I felt would work well with the woodland theme, and a plant I had been yearning to place in a south facing position close to an entrance ever since meeting it for the first time outside the lecture block of my horticultural college, Askham Bryan.  No one could ever accuse the winter honeysuckle Lonicera x purpusii ‘Winter Beauty’ of possessing either grace of form or interesting foliage, but its scent is captivating and has the power to stop me in my tracks.  Both these two shrubs have the potential to grow slightly too large for their situation:  I envisage pruning the honeysuckle annually and eventually moving the Fothergilla.

front bed Jan 2015

Moving to the herbaceous layer, I have arching clumps of Maianthemum racemosum (formerly Smilacena racemosa), dug up from my last garden, and a drift of the understated perennial honesty Lunaria rediviva, the initial plant got from a plant stall at a local SGS garden opening (and the next three from a lovely neighbour who was digging out her borders and had some spare) .  New this year will be white foxgloves, Digitalis purpurea ‘Alba’, which I grew from seed last year and which should flower this June, followed later in the summer by the correct anenome, Anemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’.  A solitary specimen of a wonderful Actaea pachypoda, bought from the inspirational Scampston Hall in Yorkshire last summer sits under one of the trees, its seed carefully gathered last year and sown in seed trays as I try to bulk up its numbers.  I may have a while to wait.

Temporary residents of the bed, dug up from a friend’s garden and very useful to fill the space while the slower growing stuff works up some steam is a ribbon of shuttlecock ferns Matteuccia struthiopteris (but it’s not really shady enough for them to thrive and they did look rather miserable last summer) and pockets of Tellima grandiflora, a good do-er if a bit invasive.

front bed primula and snowdrops

Moving ever closer to the ground, I have drifts of the single snowdrop Galanthus nivalis, which I will increase once I can tell which of the trays of snowdrops I have are singles or doubles – I love them both but prefer them planted apart – lungwort Pulmonaria ‘Sissinghurst White’ with its glorious silver marked foliage, and a darling little pale cream primrose, unnamed, that seems to be in perpetual flower.

I decided against wild garlic Allium ursinum, because it is such a thug – but I do love it so I will plant it to run at the foot of the new beech hedging that lines the drive, once the hedge has established itself.  Lily of the valley Convallaria majalis is just as thuggish, but I may succumb and plant a few pips.  Or not.  I have tucked away a couple of other treasures that I thought would work:  a cobra-headed Arisaema (I forget which one, but it showed its delight at having been released from its pot by flowering enthusiastically last summer) and the always welcome bleeding heart, Dicentra spectabilis Alba (and I’ve just checked and the wretched thing has been reclassified as Lamprocapnos spectabilis ‘Alba’).

Forgive me for the lack of pictures and abundance of botanical names.  Throughout this year, I will take photographs of all the plants I have talked about in this post and add the pictures to this post, paying especial attention to anything that really didn’t work – I find the failures are always so much more interesting and instructive than the successes.  Even more so if they are other people’s.



*Christopher Bradley Hole is the honourable exception.  Other architects, you don’t have a leg to stand on.


Christmas Gifts for Impossible Gardeners

When buying presents it is always a mistake to aim – unguided – at the recipient’s main interest, whatever it is.  So far over the course of his life, my husband has been given enough random or whimsical golfing paraphenalia to start a small shop.  Had we but kept it (Ahem).  My much loved late mother-in-law was prone to this and absentminded with it, and I have very fond memories of the look on my husband’s face as he unwrapped – for the second year running – the little framed cartoon depicting some humorous egg/golf ball confusion.

Gardeners are terrible people to buy presents for, unless you are a gardener yourself, and, moreover, an equal or better gardener than they are.  What follows is harsh, but true.

Do not give them a book about gardening.  The book you give them will be the equivalent of giving ‘How to read Music’ to James Levine, or ‘My First Cookbook’ to Mary Berry.  If by some stroke of luck you do give them a book they really want, they will already have it, having bought it themselves, being unable to wait.

No you may not give them a plant.  Not unless you collected it from the wilds of Tibet yourself (or you know someone who did).  They struggle enough with where to put the plants they bought themselves on impulse, without having to place your offering.  It will sit with the other plants in their pots in the corner of shame – every garden has one, usually by the garage – and deliver mute, root-bound reproach to the gardener whenever they walk past.  And there’s the worry you might ask about it, next time you visit.

You especially may not give them a houseplant.  Just because the Poinsettia is one of the few plants you can recognise and name, doesn’t automatically mean your gardener will welcome it.  They may not be very good with houseplants [blushes]. Unlike cut flowers, one is supposed to keep houseplants going year after year, for diminishing returns (and I include the entirety of Orchidaceae in that).

That garden-motto’ed mug with its special compartment for the biscuit?  It will make good crocks in the bottom of a pot of bulbs, but that’s probably not what you intended.

You are perhaps feeling a bit less charitable now towards the gardener in your life (or towards me.  Hopefully just towards me).  If you haven’t been put off by this glimpse into the blackness of our hearts, anything on the following list is certain to be received with unalloyed appreciation by your gardening friends and family.

Ten Presents for Picky Gardeners

1.  One tonne bag of fine bark mulch.  Providing your gardener has space to put this outside within reach of a tarmacked road, this is a perfect present.  No one ever has enough mulch to spread on their borders, and the bags that one buys in garden centres are expensive, heavy to hoist into the car, and disappointingly small.  From £75 per bag, delivered, from people like Scotbark.

2.  Felco secateurs.  The best secateurs in the business.  Models 6-12 are all good, £40-£55.  From Felco.

3.  Plant voucher.  A plant voucher from a good nursery that delivers mail orders to your country.  My favourites in the UK are Ashridge, Victoriana, Jacksons, Junkers, Kevock Garden, Peter Nyssen and the ever reliable Crocus.

4.  Root grow – 2.5L.  Mycorrhizal fungi that you sprinkle on the roots of trees and shrubs to help them establish and grow faster than they otherwise would.  Recommended by the RHS and in my own experience this makes a huge difference £45, a tub is a great luxury but small sachets also available for stocking fillers, £2.25.

5.  Solar powered/wind up radio.  Very handy to take around the garden with you – never miss the afternoon play because you’re gardening.  Lots, but here from £25.

6.  Landscaper’s rake.  They make have a rake.  Bet they don’t have a rake this good.  It’s twice the width of a usual rake, light as a feather and invaluable for creating a tilth and other wierd things gardeners do. £40-£50

7.  Niwaki tripod ladder.  This one is pricey.  Maybe for Christmas and birthday combined?  A joy to use, weighs nothing at all and the tripod design means it’s super stable and you can position it anywhere without squashing your plants.  I love mine.  From £160 to £300.

8.  Twine.  One can never have enough, and it’s handy to have tins of twine in different places.  £7, from Nutscene, the best.

9.  Jiffy pellet seed trays.  Brilliant way of sowing seed – get Ref R-JPT38PK2 which gets you two trays with 60 cells,  each with a pellet that swells on contact with water.  Some spare pellets (R-J7C42PK), the whole set should come in around £30 from LBS Garden Warehouse.

10. Neom Organics bath oil.  Taster set of six £20, probably for the she-gardener.  Heavenly smellies, just right for relaxing after a cold wet day’s digging.


Perhaps as a result of being bludgeoned with their respective hobbies for so many years, my husband’s family now circulate lists of the stuff they really want (by email, with the links to the online item).  I found it surprisingly easy to get over my initial disapproval.

Update: Christmas 2016 list of 10 gifts for gardeners, all of ’em under £15, can be found here.

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Choosing a Tree, part One

There are two main types of plant-buying gardener: those who buy what is in front of them (often in flower) and then plan where to put it; and those who first plan what they want and then source it.  No gardener ever entirely overcomes the first behaviour, it’s just that the impulses tend to be for more unusual plants in special nurseries – or late night online temptation.

The available garden space that most people have does tend to limit impulse buying to shrubs and herbaceous plants – it is a foolish gardener, or one with a very large garden, who buys a Wellingtonia, Sequoiadendron giganteum, on a whim.  I am that gardener.  I then compounded the error by dithering over where exactly in our 10 acres to put it and temporarily heeled it in quite close to the drive.  When we sold the house ten years later, it was still in its temporary position, only it had grown considerably.  I am struggling to phrase how relieved I felt that the wretched thing was now someone else’s problem without appearing utterly craven, and failing.


Sequoiadendron giganteum; Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Worplesdon’

I do learn from my mistakes and have not repeated that one, unless you count the Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Worplesdon’ bought as soon as I clapped eyes on it in the excellent Kirkdale nursery in Aberdeenshire, but I placed it successfully, so I don’t.  And an unnamed, as yet unidentified tree found (slightly root-bound) in a corner of the Dundee Botanic Garden plant shop that had such blazing pink and magenta autumn colour that I had to have it, no matter that none of the available gardeners (or for that matter, visiting gardening friends) knew what it was.  It will probably turn out to be something ploddingly ordinary that is usually a shrub but that has been trained as a standard, and this denouement will almost certainly take place during a visit from gardeners I had been hoping to impress.

In his thoughtful and inspiring account of planting his former London garden, ‘Home Ground: a sanctuary in the city‘ (I urge anyone planning a garden to read this exquisitely written and photographed book), Dan Pearson describes his deliberations in choosing a tree for a prominent place.  I particularly appreciated following his thought process as he debated the merits of first one species then another:  even more so, his sharing of the fact that the first two he planted were not quite right and were subsequently moved.  Too often, gardening authors only divulge the end result, which makes them appear very knowledgeable and decisive, but which can make the novice despair of ever commanding such a unerring grasp of plant possibilities.

Because they take a while to reach a good size, and you will be looking at it for many many years, if you are going to plant a tree both you and it deserve your spending a bit of time choosing what sort.  Why plant any old thing when you could plant something that will enchant you year after year, whose seasons you can anticipate with delight, and which by observing it through the cycles of the years will enrich your life?

If you don’t know where to start, have a think about what pleases you in a tree – be inspired by childhood memories, great holidays, gardens visited, neighbourhood trees that you always notice, paintings and photographs.  (Here is where I admit to Google Image searches, and an unhealthy Pinterest addiction.).  Go and visit some local gardens, take your phone and photograph the trees you like best.  Make a note of what you don’t like, too, as it is very useful in narrowing down the endless choices.  Many books have been written on the subject (and please do add your suggestions – about books or trees – to the comments section, it would be lovely to hear from you.)

While we are discussing tree choices I feel I must take a swipe at the many excellent conservation organisations who routinely distribute free native tree saplings.  While a spreading oak in the right setting feeds both wildlife and the soul, most of us simply do not have large enough gardens.  This applies to most of the other native species too, and smaller native trees such as Sorbus, the rowans, are rarely as colourful as their ornamental cousins.  I would make (and have in my garden made) an exception for both silver and downy birch, Betula pendula and B. pubescens:  although the bark of the natives is not as striking as many exotic species or cultivars, the delicacy of the leaf in movement is unparalleled.   And they cast little shade so you can grow lots of things underneath them.  And…  excuses, excuses.

birch shadow small

Shadows of Betula pendula on the white rendered wall of the house

The important thing is to justify your choice of tree because you love one or more of its characteristics.  Remember: at this stage you are merely gathering information and inspiration, not worrying overmuch about practicalities.  The more trees on your list, the better.  As you get your eye in, you will find you start to recognise certain trees, and with this comes a great satisfaction.  The next stage is to look at your site with a gimlet eye to whittle down the list, and we’ll do that in the next post.

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One thing after another

While there was still some money in the garden budget, I invested in six pleached limes.  That’s invested, you understand, not splurged.  Our house is made up of a series of different sized boxes (or pavilions, if you are an architect), and the garden needed a boxy counterpoint of its own to balance things out.  The account of the delivery and planting of the limes this past May is for another post, as is the reconnection of the phone lines we dug through in the process; this post is about what I planted at their base, last week.

Long view down the large unplanted back garden towards the contemporary house

A green box to counterbalance the built boxes

The trees, Tilia cordata or small-leaved limes*, are arranged in two rows of three in a rectangular shape, like the six on a domino, and my initial idea was to grow the crowns together and prune them with straight sides and top to resemble a shoebox on six stilts.  This idea faltered as I started shaping the outlines in situ with bamboo canes, as it dawned on me that it would be impossible to prune the middle of the top of it – the lid of the shoebox – without annual scaffolding or a crane.  Whatever shape they took had to be maintainable by one woman on a tripod ladder (another investment).  So the current plan is to train the external sides into the shoebox shape but leave a hole in the middle, completely hidden from view unless you are standing right under it.  Once a year I can emerge through the hole at the top of my ladder, to tame the flat expanse of leaves.  Like Venus rising from the sea, except clad in overalls and wielding a petrol-driven hedge trimmer.

But what to plant beneath them?  Since the purpose of the trees was to serve as a mass of green, suspended in space, this ruled out shrubs and anything tall enough to detract from that shape, or even to mask the uprights of their clean trunks (more on this repeated design feature in another post).

Ornamental grasses were and to a certain extent still are a possibility, but their May to November season of interest is too similar to that of the limes, although I grant that the trees will contribute sculptural winter presence through the structure of their bare stems.  I love my adopted country and have lived here in Fife for longer than anywhere else in my life, but no one would deny that winters here can feel long, wet and bleak, especially having lived in Italy.  Gardening in Scotland has taught me that one should plant for the winter, because the summer can look after itself (insofar as any keen gardener can bear to let it).

Under the limes, I decided, would be a changing swell of green ground cover, punctuated by successive waves of a single species at a time.  The golden stamens and rich purple petals of Crocus tommasinianus ‘Whitewell Purple’ kick off the year in February, followed in March to April by a yet to be decided silver leaf lungwort (Pulmonaria angustifolia ‘Sissinghurst White’, probably) – and alas, since my supplier has sold out, also yet to be bought or planted.  In May, as the first young leaves of the lime begin to unfurl, the flower spikes of snakeshead frillitary Fritillaria meleagris emerge tall above the foliage of the lungwort.  There is then a hiatus over the summer as one’s attention is drawn elsewhere in the garden: the clean lines of the green shoebox serving as a calming foil to the adjacent horticultural excitement.

Coinciding with the leaves on the limes turning first yellow then burnt orange, September marks the appearance of the delicate little pink flowers of the hardy autumn flowering cyclamen Cyclamen hederfolium, which continues to throw up flowers throughout October. Unaccountably, colour combinations of pinks, oranges and yellows, even blues, that would give me pause at other times of year somehow please me immensely in the autumn (nerines, I’m looking at you**).  From November to January the baton would be carried by the green foliage of the pulmonaria and the cyclamen, both marked and dappled with silver.

pnyssen crocus tom whitewell p  pnyssen pulmonarie sis white

fritillaria_meleagris_3_540_673  IMG_5881
Crocus tommasinianus ‘Whitewell Purple’; Pulmonaria angustifolia ‘Sissinghurst White’; Fritillaria meleagris; Cyclamen hederifolium.  First three images from Peter Nyssen online catalogue – I will take my own photographs later this year.

My bulbs duly arrived from Mr Nyssen, the cyclamen tubers (subject of their own future post) dug up from my mother’s garden, and spurred by the memory of the tulip bulbs that lay mouldering reproachfully in their paper bags until January one year, I set to work immed within the fortnight.


Preparations underway for the planting of crocus and fritillary bulbs with cyclamen tubers.

When planting large numbers of small bulbs in a defined and virgin area, you are just as well taking off a whole layer of soil and positioning the bulbs on the surface of the ground.  Once you are satisfied with their arrangement – I favour the ‘random scatter with judicious tweaking’ method to get the artless drifts I desire –  you poke them gently into place and backfill the soil.  This is also an opportunity to ferret out and remove the roots of any perennial weeds, and then you have lovely friable soil into which to plant any small herbaceous plants: in my case, the cyclamens and the virtual pulmonarias.

Working off planks left over from building the deck allowed me to define the edges of the two beds beneath the rows of limes with a half-moon edger, and vitally, it kept me from compacting the squelchy soil.  A high micro-water table runs across this part of the garden, and I really ought to have mixed in barrow loads of grit to improve the drainage, but I …  didn’t.  Until recently the area was a muddy field with no vegetation at all to hold it together and to moderate water flow, and it is my hope that the trees will dramatically improve the drainage, as will the rough grass I have sown.  I recognise that this is lame.  Still.  The fritillaries and pulmonarias should love it, C. hederifolium is reputedly the toughest of the lot, and both the beds will be covered in a 5cm layer of fine bark mulch.  I’m just glad I didn’t pay too much for the crocus.

In a year’s time I will post a photographic record of how well this all worked: man proposes; God (and weather) disposes.  A further wave of snowdrops in January may yet be added, in part because I might find the wait for the crocus too trying, in part because I have crates and crates of them, dug up from my previous garden.



* I blush to write this, but there was a time when the only lime I knew was the citrus plant.  Reading 19th C  literature at Uni, I would be disconcerted – fleetingly – by references to grand houses reached by imposing avenues of stately limes, vaguely imagining gravel drives lined with rows of vast terracotta pots.

limetree avenue      limetree pot
Spot the difference


pnyssen nerine bowdenii
** Nerine bowdenii, one of my many guilty pleasures