Seen at the Festival of the Tree

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

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Going Local With Peat-Free Compost

Huge piles of compost ingredients
Huge piles of wood fibre awaiting their turn to make peat-free compost - the darker the pile, the older it is

Like many gardeners I try to be peat-free. It's not always successful - for instance I still have to get it right with seed composts - but on the whole my results have been OK so far. Sadly a couple of years ago I found the gardeners' usual peat-free of choice - New Horizon - had become less consistent and more twiggy in its constitution. Boo hoo.

So last year I was pleased to find a new product on the market - SylvaGrow® - which is produced locally by Melcourt Industries Ltd just outside Tetbury. Naturally I invited myself along to see for myself, where their Technical Director, Catherine Dawson kindly showed me around.

Beautifully dark fibre ready for adding to the mix - and not a twig in sight
Beautifully dark fibre ready for adding to the mix - and not a twig in sight

It turns out this is the product many peat-free nurseries have used for years and was the source of their bewilderment when ordinary gardeners like me admitted their struggle to go peat-free. Some nurseries had begun to sell-on the product they used as customers had cottoned on they had access to a better product not yet available to the public. Melcourt responded, and so last year Sylvamix® (the product used by nurseries) was introduced to the retail market as SylvaGrow®.

The bulk of Sylvagrow® is derived from wood fibre and bark waste from the UK's timber industry, which adds a virtuous dash of recycling into the mix. Some coir is added to these after sufficient time has allowed the wood fibre to undergo its own composting process. Unlike many peat-free composts on the market, this one doesn't contain any green waste. Catherine told me they'd found it too inconsistent for use in this particular product.

Hoppers of compost ingredients ready for mixing and packing on the production line

The result is a much finer compost than most peat-free products I've used. I was assured that during the mixing process the composition is tested at regular intervals to ensure consistency.

My visit ended with a couple of bags loaded into my car for a spot of home testing. So how did I get on? My first observation was I didn't need to water my pots so often - every couple of days instead of every day. You may remember we had quite a hot and dry summer last year, so that's pretty impressive.

I also found it retained a more open structure throughout the season and didn't develop the usual hard crust followed by moss on the top. It's been a wonderful product to handle and use for both my pots of flowers and tomatoes. All my plants stayed healthy throughout the season and produced lots of flowers and fruit.

A filled and sealed bag of compost hurtling towards the stacking area
A filled and sealed bag of compost hurtling towards the stacking area

This year Melcourt have added more products to their range for gardeners - Ericaceous compost, plus pine bark mulch and flakes. The company was formed in 1983, so they have a lot of experience in producing these and other products such as play/equestrian surfaces, soil improvers and biofiltration media. Catherine studied soil science at university, so has found herself in the perfect job related to her studies!

Evidence of the compost being used at Chelsea Flower Show
Evidence of the compost being used in the Great Pavilion at this year's Chelsea Flower Show

The compost retails at £6.99 for a 50 litre bag (2015 prices) and you can find your local stockist(s) here. Many nurseries using it had great success at Chelsea Flower Show - they're listed here. I can add at least 2 of my local nurseries to this list - West Kington Nurseries and Evolution Plants. It's also come out as a top performer in Which?'s compost trials, so it's not just me reporting good results with it.

This post forms my contribution to the International Year of Soils. It's great to see the key foundation of our growing focused on this year.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

The Legacy of Chelsea: It IS Rocket Science!

I was pleased to see science had a strong showing at this year's Chelsea Flower Show, with 2 amazing gold-winning show gardens in the Fresh category which took the subject outside of the Great Pavilion for a change.

However, it was an exhibit inside which I really liked as it chimed with the experimental side of my gardening. The picture shows part of the Rocket Science exhibit which told the story of how man will have to find ways of growing food in space if our exploration is to go to Mars and beyond.

I've left the cast on my photograph as it illustrates the special LED lighting needed to maximise plant growth. There's also a special hydroponic system set up to squeeze as many plants as possible in a small space and to ensure they have all the nutrients and water they need within the closed growing system.

What made this exhibit most exciting for me is it's tied in with an inspirational experiment schools are invited to join. 2 kilos of rocket seed are set to be sent to the International Space Station for six months, where they will whizz above the earth at 17,000 kilometres per hour.

They will then be brought back to earth by British astronaut Tim Peake and distributed to participating schools. They will grow their seeds alongside a batch which stayed earth-bound for the duration, to see if there are any differences between the two.

As someone whose first attempt at growing involved radishes and insecticides, I'm envious of the half a million or so schoolchildren who will be taking part. The project starts in earnest at the start of the next school year in September, but you can register now on the Rocket Science page on the RHS Campaign for School Gardening website.

My thanks to Jonathan Ward, who was involved in designing and staging the exhibit and was my guide at the show. He also tells me that had it been eligible for judging (RHS sponsored exhibits are excluded), it would have garnered a well-deserved gold.

Update: A special welcome to everyone who's come over from How Does Your Garden Grow at Mammasaurus. I've had some great comments from you thanks, and I hope it leads to more schools signing up for this exciting project.

Update January 2016: The Rocket Science experiment is getting plenty of publicity now Tim Peake is at the International Space Station. This news from NASA shows they're growing flowers too.

Update November 2016: The results of the Rocket Science experiment are revealed. There was a slight effect on the seeds flown in space compared to those which stayed earth bound.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Separated at Birth? Surreal Pillars of Mexico

Just like last year's Unexpected Items in the Bagging Area, time spent in the Great Pavilion on the last day of this year's build provided a neat insight into how Chelsea happens. Here we have the original design drawings and the execution of the National Dahlia Collection's Surreal Pillars of Mexico exhibit.

This gives a nod to the south American origins of the late-summer blooms I love. I always marvel how so many bright show-grade flowers can be produced so early in the season. This was one of the largest exhibits in the Great Pavilion and deservedly won Gold.

Thursday, 21 May 2015


Dan Pearson's award winning Chatsworth show garden at Chelsea Flower Show 2015
The overall view - based on Joseph Paxton's trout stream and rock garden

When I heard Dan Pearson was returning to Chelsea after an absence of 11 years, I got very excited. Then when I learned his design would be based on the famous rock garden at Chatsworth, I was both excited and afraid.

Why the fear? Well, I've usually been disappointed when designers talk about using a particular garden as their inspiration. I either fail to see the connection between reality and the show, or to my untrained eye it's a pastiche.

In this case I needn't have worried. Dan Pearson's show garden is a triumph and even more remarkable because it's on the show's notoriously difficult Triangle plot. It deservedly won Best in Show and was the buzz of the gardening press on Monday. His sense of place and attention to detail made it seem like it had been there forever. It promises to be one of the gardens talked about for many years to come.

Why the excitement? There's a deep resonance with this garden, both for me and the RHS. Chatsworth is owned by the Duke of Devonshire, whose Chiswick home in the 1800s was next door to the RHS's then headquarters. The Duke spotted promise in one of the RHS's young gardeners - Joseph Paxton - and eventually lured him away to gardening greatness at Chatsworth.

Planting detail on Dan Pearson's Chatsworth show garden for Chelsea Flower Show 2015
No crevice left unfilled. Exquisitely detailed planting with a Robinsonian-style mix of wild and cultivated plants

Furthermore, rock gardens were a popular feature at Chelsea in the 20th century and were a forerunner to the show gardens we see today. Their former position in the grounds is immortalised in today's Rock Garden Bank. Dan Pearson's garden is right opposite that area.

For me, the resonance lies in my visit to Chatsworth with NAH when we holidayed in Derbyshire 10 years ago. We always indulge in some keen negotiation when deciding our holiday activities; one trip to a heritage railway equals a day spent at a garden.

The view from the topp of Chatsworth's rock garden in 2005
The view from the top of Chatsworth's rock garden in 2005

Chatsworth turned out to be a breakthrough visit. We'd spent a happy day there and particularly enjoyed the climb to the top of the rock garden to admire the view. NAH turned to me and said. "You know, I don't mind coming on garden visits, when they're like this".

He of course denies all knowledge of making this surprising statement, but you and I dear reader know differently don't we?

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Singing in the Rain

Previously I've experienced plenty of gales, strident heat and shivering coolness at Chelsea Flower Show, so I suppose a trot around in the rain was long overdue. Luckily Monday's weather turned out to be a good thing...

Raindrops fall on the World Vision Fresh garden at Chelsea Flower Show

Raindrops add an extra dimension, especially if you're using your client's signature black water like John Warland did for World Vision's Fresh garden. Dark shadows add intrigue too - for once I wasn't annoyed by someone getting into the shot either. The zingy lime greens and yellows, plus the attractive 'windows' into the world below provided contrast. I revisited this garden a number of times.

It illustrates World Vision's vital work in Cambodia. I'm pleased to see they also have a key project in Nepal at the moment - something close to my heart now I have a Nepalese allotment neighbour. You might also like to note they're having a Floral Friday on July 10th to highlight children living in fear - something for us to join in with online perhaps?

Chris Beardshaw's Healthy Cities Garden in the rain at Chelsea Flower Show

Gardens look good in sunshine, but it takes skill to make them sing in the rain. Chris Beardshaw chose a predominantly sultry palette for his Healthy Cities Garden, so it's the hardscaping which lifts this view on a rainy day. I particularly liked how the rain added some shadowy details to the paving, even it it did result in my most embarrassing conversation of the day:

Me: Has Chris's garden been judged yet?
Jane Southcott (Chris's PR person): No, it's not until 11.30
Me: Is Chris going to remove that piece of string on the paving? (that wiggly line you can see just in front of the first set of fountains)
Jane: That's a map of the Thames...

...Thank goodness I didn't have that conversation with the man himself.

Elsewhere it was notable how the use of wood in both Matthew Wilson's and Adam Frost's designs added warmth and a glow on a rainy day, something Victoria also spotted in her fine review of the show.

The Telegraph show garden at Chelsea Flower Show 2015

If the hardscaping doesn't do it, then a careful choice of plants is needed for a rainy day. Here the white, yellow and silver make the planting sing on The Telegraph's garden. For me, the Eremurus was the star plant of the show as it was used to good effect on several gardens, even if Matthew Wilson had to apply some emergency bamboo staking to his

Elsewhere, orange was another striking plant colour of the day, particularly on the Sentebale garden as noted by Alison and a number of other bloggers at the show. Perhaps we should make better use of this oft-derided colour in our own gardens.

We sit in our gardens in sunshine, yet often view them in the rain. My trip to this year's Chelsea Flower Show gave me lots of design pointers and food for thought as I re-work through the design of my own garden.

Finally, it's always good to bump into blogging buddies, who make it much easier to shrug off the weather. Here's Naomi in action, one of the many friends I teamed up with for a while on the day. It was interesting to see what her eyes spotted in the Fresh gardens we visited and it was fun to play the role of her 'assistant' so we both got the benefit of that red umbrella.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Postcard From Chelsea Flower Show

Prince Harry with Matt Keightley on the Sentebale show garden

The Chelsea Flower Show is always full of surprises, but I didn't expect my first at 7.15am yesterday when I found Prince Harry at the show garden which highlights his Sentebale charity. He'd arrived well ahead of the rest of the royal party for a conducted tour by Matt Keightley, the garden's designer.

It's a fantastic show this year. If you've got tickets, then you're in for a treat. There's more from me to come...

Monday, 18 May 2015

Tulip Time at West Green House Garden

A collage of the tulip display at West Green House Gardeb

I chose the best day to visit West Green House Garden last week - glorious sunshine, fresh green growth and the jewel-like tulips in the walled garden and potager was most uplifting.

Marylyn Abbott - the garden's lessee* - was my guide and it was great to have her insight into the garden's creation and what it was like when she arrived 10 years ago. It's unbelievable to think there was once a huge thickets of bramble where now there is beauty.

Hers is a constantly changing creation as she tries out new ideas and plants. There were hints of glories to come too - the mass planting of 'streams' of irises were just starting to pop and they must be a spectacular sight when in full bloom.

The moongate at West Green House Garden

I love moongates, so it was wonderful to peer through this one into the water garden and up to the Nymphaem. There's a quotation from Pope up there, which will sneak itself into Muse Day quite soon.

Here be dragons at West Green House

Here be dragons in the garden. There are all kinds of interesting and fun structures awaiting exploration in this and other parts of the garden.

This is a place which bears lots of repeat visits and I'm looking forward to showing you more soon.

West Green House Garden is open Wednesday to Sunday from 11.00 to 4.30pm from now until November 2015. Entrance is free to National Trust members, so don't forget to bring your membership card.

* = she has a 99-year lease from the National Trust

Friday, 15 May 2015

GBBD: First-time Wallflowers

Collage of one of my garden pots of wallflowers

Unlike most gardeners, I've never grown spring-flowering wallflowers before - there's always a first time for everything! I was given a mixed bunch of plants after my visit to T&M's trials ground last year, which was handy as they're biennials.

Mixed bunches of plants are always a bit of a shot in the dark as you're never sure what you're going to get. Most of my pots have turned out to contain just the burnt-orange version, but to my surprise I prefer my truly mixed pot with its contrasting cooler tones of lemon and apricot.

This pot is close to the patio doors and my seat at the kitchen table so I've had time to observe the subtle changes in colour from emerging bloom to mature flower, and also spot the scrawled veination across each petal. Their scent is wonderful too.

Erysimum 'Bowles Mauve'
Until now I've preferred their perennial cousin Erysimum 'Bowles Mauve', which is also in bloom this month. If it stays true to form it'll remain so for the rest of the year. However, don't be surprised if I come home from our local market in the autumn with another mixed bunch of wallflowers. I'll be looking forward to further surprises next spring.

Garden Bloggers Blooms Day is hosted by Carol at May Dreams Gardens. Have a look at my entry for April, to see how my pot has changed in just a month.

Latin without tears

According to Val Bourne's article in 2013's Gardens Illustrated, the genus Erysimum is derived from the Latin erno, which means to draw up. Biennial wallflowers were previously of the genus Cheiranthus (now placed within Erysimum), which was derived from the Greek cheir, meaning hand and anthos, flower. This name is probably derived from the wallflower nosegays used to ward off the stench of Medieval streets.

Val's article is well worth a read as she tells a tragic tale in the History and Legend section as well as providing a number of recommendations of varieties worth growing.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Plant Profile: Petunias - Surfinias and Tumbelinas

Picture of last year's hanging basket outside our front door
Last year's scented hanging basket - Surfinia 'Purple Vein', Tumbelina 'Priscilla' plus Bacopa

It's almost time for summer hanging baskets. Mine's resting in the cold frame at the moment, getting its last shot of hardening off before it goes up at the end of the month.

My needs are simple: a large willow basket stuffed with scented annuals ready to greet our visitors when they reach the front door. There are all kinds of fancier options available, but I find the use of trailing plants works well. I think of it as a horticultural 'horn of plenty'.

I used to plant ordinary petunias, but as you know they don't really like our English weather, particularly rain. I discovered petunia's descendants, Surfinia 'Purple Vein' and Tumbelina 'Priscilla' (the double variety you can see) not long after we moved here and they've been my plants of choice ever since.

Lots of people like to ring the changes every year, but I'm happy with the cool look of these scented beauties. What's your choice for 2015?

Cultivation Notes

My choices are only available as cuttings raised plants as they're protected by plant breeders rights, so I don't need to feel guilty about not growing them from seed. I buy them at the beginning to mid-May and harden them off over a couple of weeks in my cold frame. About half way through this process, I plant up the basket and then let everything settle down over a week or so. I use 10-15 plants in my basket, to give it a 'burgeoning' look. Pinching out the tips of the plants when I buy them also helps to create nice, bushy plants.

I water sparingly in the last couple of days before the basket goes up, so that it's not too heavy for me to lift, then I give it a good drink afterwards.

Once up, regular dead heading is key to ensuring the plants keep on flowering well into the autumn. The stems can get a bit woody after a while, and I find cutting them back to a healthy set of leaves, plus giving them a feed with a liquid seaweed fertiliser gives them a second wind. I also give them a regular feed every 7-10 days.

Most advice says baskets must be watered every day. I've found I can get away with watering every other day because my basket is north facing, plus I add water retaining gel to the compost. I also put a small terracotta saucer at the bottom of the basket, which absorbs some water and helps keep the compost moist. 

I've also found a wood-pulp based compost such as Sylvagrow doesn't dry out as quickly; though beware, looks can be deceptive. The compost may look dry on the surface, but digging down with a finger may reveal it's still damp. 


Further References

You may also like

  • My Crazy Petunias - I tried a new petunia variety a couple of years ago called 'Crazytunia', with some interesting results

Latin without tears

Petunias hail from south America and their name is derived from the French word petun, which in turn was derived from a south American word for tobacco. Petunias are in the Solanaceae plant family, which also includes tobacco.
Plant Profiles is sponsored by Whitehall Garden Centre

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Monday, 11 May 2015

Mediterranean Malvern

Mediterranean street scene at Malvern Spring show

Malvern spring show always has a few surprises up its sleeve, but I never expected to be transported back to my time in Mallorca. This street scene put together so expertly by Villagio Verde may be rooted in Andalucia and particularly the wonderful patios of Cordoba, but I was transported back to a street in Puerto Pollensa instead.

My final job of each stint out there was to find the local ceramic shop to buy a present for Margalida, the most temperamental of cooks with the biggest of hearts. Our team's woeful performance in washing lettuce properly and the preparation of the potatoes for the lunchtime tortilla would all be forgotten instantly on the production of a jug or bowl of the local design.

Here the ceramics are characteristic of Granada and were imported specially for this magical show garden. Other terracotta pots were painted and colour co-ordinated around each door in the street. This is a proud neighbourhood, with each owner keen to show off their pots overflowing with pelargoniums, lavender and other Mediterranean plants.

Senor Gonzalez's greengrocer's shop at Malvern Spring Show
The exception is SeƱor Gonzalez, the owner of the Fruteria y Verduleria aka greengrocers. He is the grumpy neighbour who doesn't join in, but at least his array of fruit and vegetables is colourful and tempts passers by into his shop.

My thanks to Jason from the Villagio Verde show team for the tour and telling me the story of the imaginary characters who 'live' in this muy autentico show garden. It may seem strange for a Mediterranean garden to be found in Malvern in May, but when your company specialises in olive trees, then it makes perfect sense. And on last Thursday's blustery day, this shot of Spanish sunshine made the world seem much warmer.

Almost all of the Spanish street scene from Malvern Spring Show 2015
Here the village fountain has a minimal drip, representing the state of the groundwater feeding it in summer
Have a look at my Meet at Malvern blog for another award winning show garden, plus a round-up of this year's posts.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Tree Following With Lucy: Green Shoots of Recovery

ash tree stump with 3 new shoots sprouting at the side
You may remember my previous Tree Following post last December was rather dramatic as most of the ash tree on the public land next door was removed by tree surgeons. It left us with the view of a tall stump from our bedroom window and a shady-no-more side border in the garden to have a think about.

In that post I wondered if the stump would resprout as the tree surgeon said it would and I'm delighted to report he was right. Our spring stirrings have included the pictured three green shoots of recovery.

I nearly posted last month that I thought it would happen. You may remember I showed you a 'stealth seedling' which had crept up unnoticed at VP Gardens until I spotted it last June.

I couldn't chop it down completely as by then there were too many other plants in the way, then in late March I spotted the remaining stump was beginning to sprout.

However, I didn't post about it last month as when I came to take the photograph of a tiny twig against a brick wall, it was far too boring for words. This is much better :)

Mistle thrush nesting on top of our garden fenceMr and Mrs pigeon have moved a couple of trees down the block to continue with their billing and cooing. They've been replaced by a rather magnificent mistle thrush, who uses the stump to sing in the sunset.

I had a bit of a surprise last week when walking down the bottom of the garden when I found Mr and Mrs mistle thrush have set up home on top of our fence, You may need to click on the picture to spot what I found.

Thank goodness I haven't disturbed them, they're now merrily flying in at full throttle to keep up with meeting the demands of their hungry brood.

Have a look at Loose and Leafy to find out how this month's other Tree Followers are faring.
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