Seen at the Festival of the Tree

...if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden ~ Chinese proverb

Friday, 21 November 2014

Against the Odds: Canalside

Plant communities in a lock gate on the Kennet and Avon canal at Devizes

During the summer NAH started a new volunteer role with the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust who provide narrowboat trips from their headquarters in Devizes. When our niece and nephew came to stay, we took them to see what he gets up to these days.

I was surprised to find a whole plant community thriving in one of the lock gates we went through. These plants are likely to get a thorough soaking many times a day when boats go through the lock as the water level rises then falls.

The stones lining the top of the lock have thriving mini communities too.

Plant communities along the top of a lock on the Kennet and Avon canal at Devizes

Monday, 17 November 2014

Postcard From Devon

Walking the dog on Exmouth beach with the local lifeboat on manoevres in the background

Greetings from a wilder and more woolly Devon than most postcards show. We've just come back from a week in Exmouth, where blustery walks were the order of the day. The coastal resorts of Torbay and elsewhere might be more popular nowadays, but Exmouth is Devon's oldest seaside resort and has a nice quirkiness about it.

This view is looking across the Exe estuary towards Dawlish, where last week's weather once again halted the coastal trains for a while, though not as dramatically as the storms did earlier this year. Just out of shot to the right is the coastal spit of Dawlish Warren, a national nature reserve as well as a holiday resort. The Exe hosts thousands of overwintering birds, which we had the chance to see when we took a boat trip up the river.

We also experienced a little of Transition Town Totnes, where we at last caught up with our dear friends S and L who moved there just over a year ago. It was great to stay with them and also take part in a community quiz at their local pub. I was deeply envious of their close proximity to the amazing art deco sea filled swimming pool at Brixham, where they spent many a happy hour over the summer.

We had some fantastic walks straight from the doorstep, where the weather helped to make us feel truly alive. I've realised how much I need to step out the door for a brisk walk and find an immediate and dramatic view, something which isn't available in Chippenham without a drive beforehand. In the meantime, I can at least check out the view via Exmouth's seafront webcam.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

GBBD: Hanging On

Photo of Fuchsia 'Hawkshead' blooming in mid November

The blooms at VP Gardens are breaking all kinds of records this month, with all of my late season perennials hanging on and flowering in profusion. My garden's had just one slight frost so far this autumn, which hasn't been enough to bring these plants to their knees.

I've been meaning to tell you all about my favourite fuchsia for quite a while, but I never imagined a November Blooms Day would be the ideal time to fulfil that promise. In most Novembers, the pictured blooms would be a soggy, brown looking mess by now.

I adore the elegant simplicity of Fuchsia 'Hawkshead'. Its porcelain white flowers remind me of dainty ballerinas dancing across the stage. They're a more delicate looking form which belies their hardiness. I see the common name for this species is Lady's eardrops, and I've often thought the flowers would make great earrings.

I forgot to prune the branches down to the ground in the spring and my neglect's been rewarded with the most prolific flowering yet. It seems this and its other hardy F magellanica cousins can withstand this treatment. In time they may become a bit woody and outgrow their allotted space, but I've found the 'rule' regarding annual pruning can be disregarded for a good 2-3 years.

Elsewhere in the garden I still have salvias and dahlia flowers a-plenty and it looks like it'll be a while before I need to bring out the dahlia duvet. 2014's record breaking warmth continues...

How's your garden this month?

Garden Bloggers' Blooms Day is hosted by Carol at May Dreams Gardens.

Friday, 14 November 2014

VP's VIPs: Our Flower Patch - The Finale

Jam jar posy of the flowers Our Flower
schools can grow
Our third and final chat with Our Flower Patch's Cally Smart and Sara Wilman takes a look at their favourite flowers, plus they give us some ideas for planting tulips - the perfect job for now. The scrummy pictures are courtesy and copyright of Sara Wilman.

What are your favourite cut flowers?

I love tulips in myriad colours and grow lots for cutting. I never grow them in the garden borders because they can look messy, especially when they go over but growing them close together in trenches on the allotment gives me dozens of buckets early in the spring. I also grow a lot of dahlias in jewel colours for late summer and autumn colour. I adore ranunculus.

Calendula is my favourite flower to sow from seed with children. It’s beautiful, easy to grow and so, so useful. It looks great in the vase with blue cornflowers, the edible petals look pretty in a salad and it has a history.

My Victorian dairy farmer ancestors used it to make their butter yellower and it was used on the battlefield during the civil war to treat wounds. In fact calendula salve is still used to soothe injuries now. We include a recipe so you can make your own in our materials. And the seeds are easy to collect. Children love them because they look like they may crawl of your hand at any moment. What a hard working flower.

Large picture: Sara's flower beds. Then, top right to bottom left: Cleome and dark Scabious; Cosmos 'Purity';
Nigella; Scabious; and Zinnia, Salpiglossis and snapdragon

Oh My!! That would depend on the season!! Since becoming involved in growing flowers I have noticed the seasonal changes more intensely. I think I focus more on what the weather is doing and am more in tune with the changing seasons and what they bring to the vase.

I have found a new love of Tulips. Having been slightly put off by the tight small buds you see bundled in the supermarkets I have found a new passion for all the many and varied types that are available to grow for your own vase!

Annual Scabious are just stunning and so productive, my Autumn sown plants are still producing and we are nearly at first frost time! The seed heads are magnificent too. I love perennial scabious also. Zinnias are amazing, I love their zingy colours and I couldn't be without Dahlias in my flower patch.

The trumpets of Salpiglossis look like a silk and velvet gown. Cleomes have unforgiving spines, but I can forgive them that because of their stunning flowers. I just end up getting stabbed often! Cosmos, so simple and beautiful, a jug of pure white cosmos is hard to beat for a simple arrangement.

Nigella is such a hard working plant! In the spring I sometimes start to think I prefer the Nigella seed pods in a vase to the flowers, and then I see a new batch of Nigella flowering in October and realise how hard it works for me. Plus I dry the seed pods to use for arrangements after the frosts have arrived.

I best stop now! I’m getting carried away, thank you for not asking what is your favourite flower (singular) as that is nigh on impossible!

Tulip 'La Belle Epoque'

I'm looking to grow tulips for cut flowers on my allotment for the first time this year, which varieties would you recommend?

Tulips 'Ballerina', 'Black Prince'
and 'Princess Irene'
Over to Sara. I look through the Peter Nyssen catalogue for colours and shapes I like and to make sure that I have tulips ready for cutting over the longest period of time. I can never remember the names. Sara is more scientific in her approach. She knows what grows well, sells well and lasts well in the vase. Our different approaches make us a good team.

Ahh, my new passion! Yes I had ignored tulips for cutting as I thought they wouldn’t last. Never will I be without them again. With a combination of narcissi, tulips, ranunculus and biennials such as hesperis, sweet William and foxgloves I’ve been cutting non stop since the end of February – and I don’t have a polytunnel!

I digress! Tulip varieties! Try some viridiflora, 'Artist' or 'Doll’s minuet' – mind you I loved each of them that I grew and they are a type that will most likely return for a few years. I loved 'Belle Epoque' and its scrumptious, silky look. Bizarrely they didn’t sell well. I think for some customers they look as if they are almost over before they’ve begun, but they have fab vase life.

There is an assumption that a tulip is a specific shape, and size, the one we are used to seeing bundled on special offer 10 for £1.99 in a supermarket. They can be soooo much more than that. Lily shaped flowers that are perfumed like orange jelly – 'Ballerina'.

My tastes tend to be for the dark black flowers teamed with orange or bright pink so I had lots of those. But one of the most stunning tulips I grew was 'Snow Parrot' a white tulips that looked like it was sculpted out of porcelain. 'Black hero' was stunning and looked like a peony.

This year I’m trying some new ones, I’ve gone for some coral, peachy ones, and a few paler pinks! I personally am not a fan of the fringed types as they looked a bit raggedy to my mind. Try and get a range of flowering times, and look to get colours to flower together that go together! Or do as I did and just buy anything that takes your fancy and blow the budget completely!!!

Oops! Oooh I’m really looking forward to tulip season now!

Tulips 'Black Hero', 'The Artist' and 'Snow Parrot'

Thanks Cally and Sara for a fabulous interview! It's been really inspiring to learn more about your story and I wish you every success for the future. I'm looking forward to planting my tulips this weekend and showing you the results next year :)

If you missed their previous posts on VPs VIPs, there's how they met and got Our Flower Patch off the ground and then there's the nitty gritty on how they work together and how their scheme works.

Other useful links:

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Plant Profiles: Holly

Photo of holly berries in Trowbridge
Lots of jolly holly berries - found outside Holy Trinity Church, Trowbridge. They had a jolly red door to match. 
It's around this time of the year when I rue not having a holly tree in our garden. I hanker after oodles of red berries like the ones in the above photo, ready to nourish the visiting birds and my designs on wreath making. I've found some holly trees in our neighbourhood, but they don't seem to berry that much.

Readers from a very long time ago may recall I did indeed possess a holly tree at one time. Encouraged by the one I'd admired in Threadspider's garden when she lived at the top of the hill, I impulse bought a fetching Ilex aquifolium 'Argentea marginata'. Sadly as I suspected when I blogged about it, I never found the right spot in the garden and it didn't survive my mistreatment.

However, we're now at the time when the garden beckons with all kinds of possibilities and plans are formed for the coming year. I'm rethinking the shrubbery at the bottom of the back garden, plus the front side garden. I don't think anything with prickly leaves is suitable for the back, but there are a couple of boring conifers at the front which could make way for something more exciting.

I'm looking out of my study window as I write this and pondering that front garden. I've noticed the conifers form a focal point in the winter when the other trees around there have shed their leaves. Perhaps a replacement holly tree with jolly red berries might be just the thing?
Cultivation Notes

Photo of the leaves of the holly tree Ilex aquifolium 'Argentea marinata'
Holly trees are easy to grow and suitable for most soils and situations. They are fully hardy throughout the UK. If you want berries, you need to ensure you buy a female tree and that a male one is nearby. Male trees tend not to be as dramatic, so the general advice is to hide it away somewhere in the garden.

Beware, the tree's name isn't necessarily a guide to its gender, so it's best to check what you're getting when you buy.

Photo of holly tree flowers Hollies can grow up to 12 metres in height, though they can take quite a while (20 to 50 years) to get there. However, they respond well to clipping and can be grown as a hedge, or trained into different shapes. I've seen a couple of houses on my travels where clipped standard hollies in huge pots form a nice welcome to a front garden.

I've looked again at my image at the top of this post and noticed hardly any of the leaves are prickly. Apparently holly trees have adapted to grazing by herbivores by developing prickly leaves lower down the tree and those out of reach are smooth.

Apart from those herbivores, holly is relatively free from pests and diseases. My Ilex died from neglect supplemented by invasions by scale insects and holly leaf miner on my weakened tree. Aphids and holly leaf blight are the two other concerns to look out for.

I also have a nagging feeling at the back of my mind that I've seen some holly tree cultivars that are entirely smooth leaved which might be an option to consider for my garden. I need to do some further research.

Propagation is by seed - if you have the patience - or by semi-hardwood cuttings.

Whilst birds can feast on the bright red berries with impunity, unfortunately we can't. Beware an upset stomach if you do.

The National Plant Collection of hollies is held at RHS Rosemoor in Devon.

Further reading

The photo of holly flowers is courtesy of Penny Mayes via Wikimedia.
Plant Profiles is sponsored by Whitehall Garden Centre.

Note to readers:
Sponsorship goes towards my blogging costs; the words are my own There are no cookies or affiliate links associated with this post.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Unusual Front Gardens #20: Statue

Photo of a front garden in Wiltshire with a statue of a girl dressed for the season

I spotted this jolly scene on a trip out with my SUP friends recently. We were walking through the village of Holt and stopped to admire the sunglasses and umbrella on the statue. October was very warm this year, but umbrellas not sunglasses were needed on our walk that day.

Just as we were about to leave the cottage owner appeared, who smiled and laughed at our appreciation of her handiwork.

"Ah yes" she said, "I really must dig out her coat now that autumn's here".

It turns out the statue is well known locally. Often when she gives directions to where she lives, there's a cry of recognition - "Ohhhh, you're the lady with the girl in the garden!"

Friday, 7 November 2014

Tree Following With Lucy: Autumn's Demise

Photo of ash tree beginning to turn autumnal October 2014
Not quite green beginning to turn yellow, 21st October 2014

As I anticipated last month, Lucy's Tree Following project has allowed me to see how Autumn affects my ash tree in some detail.

This tree species is usually one of the later ones to turn around here and 2014 is no exception. Initially they spend some time deciding what to do and look more not quite green than properly autumnal. My tree looked like that from the beginning of October, and then on the 18th, the change began properly. Just one single branch - the lowest one - started showing distinct signs of yellow.

Photo of an ash tree at its most golden moment October 2014
At peak yellow on October 25th, but already there's a hint of brown

Then in what seemed a flash, the rest of the tree followed suit. It was at this point I tried to film what I call the 'the quiet rain' I remember from previous years. There is a point when the ash's leaves rain down silently on the garden, each twig quietly and suddenly letting go of its golden load.

Alas it was not to be. Each time I got my camera out to record the event, only a few leaves fluttered down obligingly. I think our exceptionally warm autumn means the annual letting go was quieter than ever. Perhaps a good hard frost is needed for the whirl of leaves across my garden I was expecting to happen.

Photo of ash tree with almost no leaves left - October 2014
Leaf drop almost complete, October 31st. Note all the leaves needing to be cleared off the vegetation below

Of course, as soon as I put my camera away, I spotted more leaves falling into the garden. I got my camera out again and the leaves stopped. Even the marvellously named 'remains of hurricane Gonzolo' blowing across the garden didn't stir my tree into dropping its leaves in a spectacular fashion.

Then, I compared my tree with the other ashes nearby to find mine had none of the deep reds the tops of the others were waving about with gay abandon.

Photo of an ash tree in the final stages of autumn 2014
Leaf-clumped branches silhouetted against my neighbour's birch tree, 4th November 2014

Now, just a couple of weeks later my tree is almost winter ready. It's at its most mournful stage where sorry sodden clumps of brown leaves hang onto the end of most branches. This state of affairs will continue until the roaring winds of winter finally strips the tree bare.

I think I might have a duff tree in the autumn department.

Photo of a stray ash leaf on a kitchen floor
A stray ash leaf on my kitchen floor

Have a look at how the other Tree Follower's autumns have progressed over at Loose and Leafy.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

I Love November For...

... Pears

Now is the time when my Concorde pears reach their peak of perfection on the allotment. This variety has better storage properties than most, so we rarely have a problem with too many ripe pears at the same time.

This year is proving to be an exception to the rule as the tree blossomed at exactly the right time during a spell of exceptionally warm weather. This ensured every single bloom was visited by a bee and thus turned to fruit. The tree may be small, but I have over 100 pears and around a month in which to eat them with the juice running down my arms.

So I've devised a variation on my 'Windfall Cake' to soak up some of the abundance. I liked the idea of chocolate and almonds to complement the flavour of the pear and developed a recipe along those lines. It's still a work in progress - the balance of the pear and chocolate flavours with the sugar is right, but there is no hint of almond. A little almond essence is called for methinks.

It's still delicious as it is though, served neat or with a dollop of Greek natural yoghurt to help it go down. Serves 8-12 slices, depending on how greedy you are.

Pear, chocolate and almond cake


4 oz softened butter + a little extra for greasing
4 oz golden granulated sugar
2 large eggs
4 oz self raising flour
4 oz ground almonds
2 oz good quality chocolate pieces (I prefer plain)
4 small ripe pears, peeled cored and chopped into small pieces (best done at the last minute when adding to the cake mixture)

For those of you using metric measures, use 110g for the 4oz ingredients and 55g for the chocolate pieces.


  1. Preheat the oven to 170oC (fan assisted oven), 190oC (electric oven) or gas mark 5
  2. Grease a deep 8 inch (20cm) springform round cake tin with a little butter - there is no need to line the tin with baking parchment if it's greased well
  3. Cream together the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl until the mixture is light and fluffy
  4. Shell the eggs , add them to the bowl and mix well
  5. Gradually add the flour and ground almonds - don't be too alarmed if the mixture is a little on the dry side at this point, the pears will add some moisture
  6. Add the chocolate pieces and the chopped pear; mix together well - the mixture should form a soft dropping consistency
  7. Scoop out the mixture into the cake tin, ensuring it's evenly spread
  8. Bake in the oven for 50 minutes or until a skewer comes out cleanly when the centre of the cake is pierced - non fan assisted ovens may take a little longer
  9. Leave in the tin for 10 minutes and then turn out the cake onto a cooling rack
  10. Slice and serve when fully cooled

Note that the cake won't rise that much owing to the ground almonds. It didn't spoil my enjoyment of the result and the cake had a nice, moist crumb without a heavy consistency. Therefore I'm not going to experiment with the addition of baking powder in the future.

I've just realised it's my blog's 7th birthday today. What better way to celebrate than baking a cake?

Saturday, 1 November 2014

GBMD: A Society Grows Great

Picture of a katsura tree at The Dingle Garden near Welshpool
Photo taken whilst standing beneath a Katsura tree at The Dingle, October 2014
NB This year's National Tree Week is 29th November to December 7th.
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