Saturday, 15 September 2018

A Visit to Howick Hall Garden


My 'Six on Saturday' today aren't from my own garden but a visit I made on Friday to the beautiful Howick Hall Gardens on the North Northumberland coast.  Although the main border displays are past their best, there are lots of beautiful little nuggets to discover there. Here are six of my discoveries for you to enjoy on this Saturday. 

1. Colchicums

There is a surprising array of different Colchicums to be seen around the gardens and woodland. I particularly liked this one with the pattern on its petals rather similar to those on a snake's head fritillary.

2. Hydrangeas 

There were hydrangeas of various types in different locations, and it's so difficult to chose a favourite, but I've selected this blue one from the Silverwood part of the garden, simply because it is blue. My own garden is on neutral soil that contains hard fragments of limestone, so my hydrangeas are always pink, so I love to see blue ones elsewhere.

 3. Combinations

Finding new plant combinations is one of the joys of visiting gardens. I never would have thought of putting pink Cosmos and these blue daisy flowers together, but I think they make a great combination. I found them in Lady Howick's private garden, which is often open to visitors in aid of the local church funds. Make sure you put your pound in the box at the entrance and don't be mean and sneak in without paying.

 4. Cyclamen

Cyclamen seem to be plants that I just can't grow. In my Dad's garden on heavy clay they used to self-seed all over the place. In my wonderful, deep, fertile, moist but free-draining soil they just disappear. Perhaps its because everything else grows so well and overpowers them. So I'm very jealous of all the lovely little cyclamen currently in flower at Howick, and I love how they combine with little blue and white lobelias in the rock garden.

 5. Light and shade

I think light and shade help bring a garden to life and the hedges and trees in this scene at Howick help to make those differences. Howick really is a place for people who like trees because as well as the garden, it has a huge arboretum with trees from all over the world. Imagine what this picture would look like without the trees. 
Sadly I need to say farewell soon to two trees in my garden that I really love. Strong winds last year and this year have put a lean on a silver birch given to me as a seedling more than 20 years ago. And a Eucalyptus planted as a small sapling about 25 years ago is really outgrowing the garden. So l need to make that call to an expert in tree removal so they can be taken down safely. But they will be replaced with something else, so I will still have light and shade in my garden.

6. Autumn colour

Autumn colour is just starting to appear at Howick, and I hope to return again this autumn for a stroll through the woods and arboretum. But one shrub already zinging with colour is Euonymus alatus, the winged spindle tree, with the leaves having turned from their summer green to this fabulous red.

I hope you've enjoyed this little selection of six from Howick Hall Gardens. It is a garden. There is no children's playground or pedal tractors, but kids can run about in the woods and see and hear the woodpeckers, marvel at the huge Gunnera leaves by the stream or take up the Family Explorer Challenge and become nature detectives.
Another of my favourite things about the place is the Earl Grey Tea House. It is the most elegant tearoom I know at any garden open to the public, and you can't visit a garden without tea and cake!
P.S. I recommend Northumbrian Rarebit at lunch, and later a scone with butter, jam and clotted cream (but remember the 'jam first' rule, none of this nonsense of trying to spread jam on top of cream), and any or all of the cakes.

Saturday, 21 April 2018


Most of Six on Saturday is about achievements in the garden, much loved plants or ways of doing things. But while I was down on my hands and knees on Thursday evening, pulling weeds out of a gravel path, I realised that some of them were our plant mistakes - plants we should never have introduced to the garden.
So I am using this week's six on Saturday  as a warning - do not introduce these plants to your garden, as you will come to regret it, just as I have.

1 Mimulus guttata

You can buy this *pretty yellow-flowered Mimulus (although I think the taxonomists have been at it again and changed the name to Erythranthe guttata) but it is also endemic in the wild and we obtained a few little bits from alongside a Northumberland stream where it looked lovely in the field. Planted in the shallows of our pond it loved life and seeded around - and around and around and around. It has clinging roots so that when you pull it up, it breaks, leaving bits to sprout again.

2.  Lysimachia ciliata 'FIRECRACKER'

I was looking for plants with interesting coloured leves when I found this at a garden centre with nice little contrasting bright yellow flowers. it looked nice the first year, then the following year its spreading roots meant it came up all over the bed and in the path and between the edging stones. It may have an RHS Award of Garden Merit, but as far as I'm concerned it has no merit. 

3. Bamboo - Semiarundinaria fastuosa

 We chose this bamboo for the 'exotic' part of our garden as it grows tall and was said not to be one that runs. To quote one supplier: "it remains fairly compact around the base with just occasionally straying rhizomes from the main clump that can be easily controlled."
Easily controlled! Huh! It can run like Usain Bolt. The running roots are  built just like the canes themselves and your spade will glance or bounce off them. Enough was enough when an arrow-sharp runner pierced the liner of our pond - fortunately a fraction above water level. In a massive excavation it was dug up and confined to a very strong plastic tub  but I fear it may be escaping, so that will be dug up to and it is destined for the bonfire.

4. Carex pendula

 The pendulous sedge seemed like a good idea for a marginal pond plant. with its tall flower heads to wave in the breeze. But later they wave seeds all over the place - thousands and thousands of them. And being a British native plant, when they get into damp soil, they love it.
The RHS website now says: "It seeds freely and can become a troublesome weed in damp gardens."  It certainly can and the rest of the RHS entry concentrates on how to control it.

5. Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae

I liked this in my neighbour's garden and other places where i've seen it under trees - after all it is the wood spurge. So I planted it in a shady corner and it was happy there for a few years until it decided to explore the garden and began to pop up all over the place. Despite its wandering habit, I like its dark green evergreen leaves and lime green flowers in spring - but my OH dislikes it intensely. So it will have to go.

6. Phalaris arundinacea var. picta

I should have known better! Gardeners garters (why is it called that?).We'll have just a little bit, we said, out of my father-in-law's garden, and keep it constrained in a pot in the pond, where it will look nice.
Of course, it escaped and is now a nasty big clump preparing to take over the pond (once the pendulous sedge has gone). So it is destined for the bonfire too, as I'm not sure the council's composting process will kill it.

Those are six of my mistakes, all currently growing within a few yards of each other, and about to be disposed of. What plants have you regretted allowing into your garden?


Saturday, 31 March 2018

Six on Easter Saturday

This is my first Six on Saturday blog from my Northern Garden, where I've been gardening about half an acre for more than 25 years. I used to grow quite a bit of veg, but I haven't done so for a number of years. However, we had quite a success with tomatoes, lettuce and pot-grown potatoes in the greenhouse last year, so I'll be repeating that this year, and for the first time ever I'm growing tomatoes from seed. 
For flowers, I tend not to grow annuals or biannuals, except some that seed themselves in the garden, and don't generally do plants that need lifting for the winter, although I have succumbed to a few dahlias this year. I like growing interesting and unusual plants and like something that may be a bit of a challenge. 
But enough about me and the garden in general - here are my first Six on Saturday for this Easter weekend.

1. What's in the propagator

I haven't used the heated propagaor for a few years but it is now re-installed in the greenhouse and filling fast. On the left are four Galina seedings. It's a yellow cherry tomato from Siberia so I'm hoping for great results here in the North.
On the right are seedlings of Latah. which is said to be a super-early tomato variety that tolerates short or cool summers. It's a bush type with red 1-2in fruits.
Other pots are hedychiums (gingers).. I already grow Hedychium densiflorum planted in the garden and comes up and flowers every year, but I've sown two selected varietries of that - Assam Orange and Stephen - that have bigger flowers. I've also sown Hedychium forestii and Hedychium spicatum, which are more exotic and it will be interesting to see if I can get them to flower here Up North. The seed came from Mike Clifford. If you like tropical-style plants see him on Twitter @MikesRarePlants
Finally, in the little tray are some Trachycarpus fortunii (Chusan palm) seeds from one of my own trees. I've already sown a large tray which is on the greenhouse bench but thought it would be interesting to try them with a bit of warmth in the propagator.

2. Highs and Lows

It's been a funny week, weatherwise. We had lovely sunny spring-like weather last weekend with the temperature in the greenhouse reaching 25 deg C on Sunday but since then we've had rain and sleet, and today the garden is like a sodden sponge.
The greenhouse thermometer tells the highs and lows from Monday to Friday this week - high 19 deg C, low 0 deg C - and when this photograph was taken at 4pm on Good Friday it was only 4 deg C in the greenhouse. 










3. Rhodo from Seed 

I'm hoping we don't get any frosts for a few weeks as my early rhododendrons are coming into flower. The 'Mini Beast' finished off some opening buds on one shrub, but the buds on this one have survived and are preparing to open.
My early ones are all Rhododendron x falconeri grown from seed bought at Inverewe Garden in the north west of Scotland more than 25 years ago. I may be daft, growing early rhodoes in the north east of England, but really enjoy them when the flowers survive the frost, and they remind us of a special day at that lovely garden.








4. Trillium albidum

 I love to see trilliums coming through in the garden in late winter. Their common name is Wake Robin. I already have dark red and yellow types planted in the garden and multiplying into good clumps.
I bought this plant last year at the Alpine Garden Society and Scottish Rock Garden Club show at Hexham. It is Trillium albidum and has a white flower which is scented. It is still in its pot and I brought it into the greenhouse a few weeks back when the arrival of the 'Beast from the East' was imminenent. As you can see, it is preparing to flower now and it also has a second shoot. I will find it a suitable spot in the garden this year, where it can settle and multiply.


5. Spring flowers

I always think that primroses are a real sign of spring, and while the bright mixed colours of the various types of primulas are great for brightening up pots on the patio or deck, I like the pale yellow wild primroses in the garden. We have them dotted around in various places around the garden, and they were all grown from seed by my Other Half a good number of years ago. It's lovely to see them reappear each spring.






6. Flowery reminders

Many plants around our garden have come from family and friends and remind us of parents and grandparents. When Pulmonaria shows its flowers, it always reminds me of my mother who used to call it 'Lords and Ladies' because the plants show blue and pink flowers at the same time.
The Pulmonaria in our garden came from her, and while she's no longer with us, her flowers appear in our garden in springtime every year.

So that's it for my first 'Six on Saturday'. Hope you enjoyed it.

Sunday, 16 July 2017


MORE THAN 20 YEARS AGO, when we began gardening this plot, we started out with a clean sheet. Apart from three old apple trees and a couple of huge elderberry bushes, this half-acre garden was bare apart from its carpet of rough grass.
As I sit writing this in the summerhouse beside the pond that’s burgeoning with water lilies, I look out over a very different scene from that beginning. This is the ‘tropical’ or ‘oasis’ part of the garden. Around the pond are dotted five statuesque hardy Trachycarpus fortunei palm trees, and out of the window on my right I can see tall Cordyline australis ‘cabbage palms’ (although they are not palms at all). In a large pot on the deck that cantilevers over the pond stands a Phoenix roebelenii dwarf date palm.
Cordylines have regrown to 12ft
after being cut down to the
ground by -14 deg C frosts.



I can fondly recall where each of these plants came from, and when, and the same for almost everything else growing in the garden. The largest of our palms, with its thick, sturdy trunk and huge fanned-out leaves, was purchased as a small plant from a then-favourite, family-run garden centre, since sold-out to a large national chain. It lived in the greenhouse for a number of years, gradually being potted-on as it grew. Eventually, and in a very large pot, it moved outside for its summers but still returned under glass in the winter. Finally it went into the ground on the south side of the summerhouse.
There it has thrived, and I can see its massive hairy trunk through the window as I write, now around 10ft tall. It has flowered every summer for more than 10
Flowers of the male Trachycarpus fortunei.
years, but until this year its pollen (it’s a male tree) has gone to waste with no female trees flowering. But at last, three of the other four palms have produced their female flowers (the remaining tree is also a male) and for the first time we have Chusan palm seed developing.
One of these female trees came from the excellent Palm Centre at Richmond as a relatively small tree, a present from my father. The others were bargain purchases, spotted at a
Gateshead Flower Show and bought as sizeable trees from a Co. Durham nursery and garden centre no longer in existence.
Seed developing on one of the female trees


Our cordylines came from different sources. The tallest, now regrown to 12ft after being cut to the ground by temperatures of -14°C in winter 2010/11, was bought as a small plant from an Isle of Man nursery during a visit there around 1996. It originally grew as a single stem, to eventually become multi-headed after flowering, before those cruel frosts cut it back. But perhaps that cold winter was a blessing in disguise, for this plant at least. Today it boasts four separate trunks, each of a different height, making it a focal point at the top of the pond’s shingle beach.
"I can see the massive hairy trunk through the
window as I write."
Alongside it grow three or four other cordylines. These originated from a roadside stall at Mount’s Bay, Cornwall, and considering how neglected they were in the following years, being kept in pots too small when they should have been potted on, it’s a wonder they are still alive. I’m a believer in not molly-coddling plants, but there is a line between growing them hard and sheer neglect and, unfortunately, in their case they were definitely on the wrong side of that line.


But eventually they were planted out and finally growing away, with their roots free to explore where they may. They, too, suffered in that cruel winter, when it snowed here from the last week of November until well into January, but while their burgeoning tops perished, their roots remained safe beneath a 3ft blanket of snow. Their regrowth has been much slower than our Isle of Man plants, but I look forward to them eventually holding their narrow leaves, with a red central stripe, high in the air.
The palms and cordylines are the main structural plants that set the tone for our ‘oasis’ garden. Next time, I’ll tell you about some of the others that provide the different foliage shapes and textures to help provide the tropical effect in the garden in England’s far north.

Saturday, 12 July 2014


THERE'S SO MUCH instant gardening on the telly that many aspiring gardeners are missing out on one of the greatest joys of gardening – waiting. Waiting for the first signs that the seeds are germinating. Waiting for the first true leaves to develop. Waiting for the seedlings to grow large enough to plant out. Waiting to see the very first flower.
Perhaps I’m a bit of a gardening masochist, but for me, waiting’s half the fun. And with some of the plants in my garden, that means I’ve had an awful lot of fun. The longest we’ve waited for something to flower so far has been 25 years! Yes, I haven’t hit the wrong numerals on the keyboard – 25 years.
Back then, my better half and I visited InvereweGardens on the North West coast of Scotland on a beautifully-sunny day in May and the gardens were, as always, wonderful. Now, in those days, before ludicrous EU regulations came along, the gardeners at Inverewe used to collect seeds, packet them, and sell them in the shop. It all helped raise cash for the National Trust for Scotland to maintain the garden.
One of the packets of seed we bought was Rhododendron x falconeri. Now falconeri is one of those rhododendrons that has leaves a foot long, wonderfully felted on the underside, grows as big as a house, flowers early and luxuriates in the NW Scotland coastal climate warmed by the Gulf Stream. So what idiot would try to grow it in the North East of England? Well, me, for a start.

 "They came up like cress!"

So, never having previously grown a single rhododendron from seed, I sowed them in a tray, put them in an unheated propagator in a shady north-facing conservatory, and never expected anything to come up. How wrong I was. They came up like cress. I had a tray packed with rhododendron seedlings.
They were pricked out, potted on and sometimes neglected just a bit too much. So the many, many seedlings in that tray back in eventually grew into about a dozen plants. Of course, these plants are all x falconeri, so every one is different from the others. Some have small leaves, some have large. Some flower very early, some a little later. Some have white flowers, others are tinged with pink. And some are even scented.
The first of them flowered at about 10 years old. Its flower buds begin swelling in mid January or early February, according to the season, and it generally flowers in mid February or early March. Some years frosts come at the cruellest time, just before the buds burst, and wipe out the flowers before they can ever show. In other years we’ve had wonderful frost-free weeks in which to enjoy our uniquely special rhododendron.
The others came into flower in the years following, but with a garden not really big enough for large rhododendrons, some headed north to a friend’s marvellous Morayshire garden where we planted them with hope.

"The other enchanted in a different way, with its leaves."

 Back in our own garden, our plants went into a specially prepared bed carefully created to be just on the acid side of neutral. They thrived, with our first flowerer going on to enchant us each spring when the frosts allowed. The other enchanted in a different way – with its leaves. Unlike all the other plants, it has leaves similar to those of the parent plant from which the seed was gathered. Their top surface is a gorgeous deep, deep green, and underneath there’s wonderful rust-coloured felty indumentum. So we forgave it for its non flowering.
But as the end of each winter approached, we watched its buds to see if they would swell to bring us the flowers we so much craved. But instead of growing fat and bursting into flower, the buds burst into growth to bring us more russet-felted leaves. The growth was the strongest of our plants, so eventually the loppers were brought into play to curb its exuberance. But the effect was short-lived, and growth continued as lustily as ever.
A couple of years ago, on a visit to Howick Hall garden, which has rhododendrons with even bigger leaves, we talked to a gardener about our problem. “Don’t cut it back, it’ll make it grow even more,” he said. “Dig it up to give it a real fright to make it flower.”

 "If you don't flower, we'll dig you up and chop your roots!"

So we came home and gave our felted rhododendron a stiff talking to. “If you don’t flower, we’ll dig you up and chop your roots,” I told it, dreading all the hard work that would be involved. Reminders were issued at regular intervals and our rhododendron listened.
This spring, I noticed one of the buds was bulking-up. A flower at last! Closer inspection of the plant revealed just half-a-dozen fattening flower buds. What would it be like? Wonderful, or just a disappointment after all these years of waiting and watching?
Then, just as the bud was about to open the weather forecast was for frost – the first in weeks in this most frost-free of winters and springs. I had little faith in the covering of fleece I put over the plant that evening and, sure enough, Jack Frost simply ignored it and took that first bud before it could bloom. But the others were less well advanced and a couple of weeks later our 25-year wait was rewarded. The flowers were lovely. The buds opened to reveal white petals edged with a delicate pink and speckled with shades of red from light to deepest claret.
It was worth the wait. And now we’re looking forward to next spring – hopefully frost-free.
I'd love to know how long other people have waited for plants to flower. Do get in touch to let me know.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Springing into life

THIS BLOG is springing into life in mid-summer, just when my garden is in full bloom. But while the plants in my garden seem to be rushing through the year, this blog is likely to take things a lot more slowly. That's probably because the plants in my garden are ruled by nature and seem go through life automatically, but this blog is the result of conscious thought, I think!
Until I started to write these words I hadn't really thought about why I wanted to write about the garden. Why do I want to share thoughts and ideas about gardening with people I don't as yet know? We'll I think it's probably because I lost my life-long gardening sounding board a few years ago.
Every Sunday morning, Dad would phone me or I'd phone him and most of our conversation would be about our gardens. Living almost 300 miles apart, me on gorgeous deep free-draining fertile soil, him on thick, thick clay; me within sight of the sea and he about as far from the sea as you can be in England, meant our gardens were very different, so there was always a lot to talk about.

"I dug a hole big enough for me to sit in"

My earliest memory of  Dad is in a garden, picking apples from a tree beside the house where I was born. I was probably two-and-a-half years old at the time.The following year, in the garden of the house we'd moved to, I was given my very own patch in the garden. So, at the age of three, I set to with my little spade and began digging. I hadn't learnt the finer points of gardening at that stage, so instead of just turning over the soil, I dug a hole big enough for me to sit in. And in this rather large - to a three-year-old - hole, I sowed sweet peas.
My decades-old memory of that summer tells me those sweet peas not only grew but flowered profusely - my first gardening success.
A lot of our Sunday morning conversations were about Dad's allotment. He always grew all the vegetables the family needed and he was an allotment gardener until he was 90. While I've grown vegetables in my various gardens -  there's nothing like being able to take something straight from the garden to the pot - I've never had Dad's dedication. So now my garden is purely ornamental; somewhere to sit, enjoy and smell the flowers - when I'm not gardening.

"She's my gardening chum"

I shouldn't really call it my garden because it's our garden, as my wife is equally involved. It's a joint effort, a joint choice of plants, a joint decision of what we do and how we do it. She's my gardening chum and she loves our garden as much as I do. Not long after we met she asked if she could change the garden I'd been developing at the cottage where we lived. To her surprise I said "Yes", and with her artist's eye it took on a new, more harmonious look. And we've worked together on our current half-acre plot for almost 25 years, starting with a blank canvas and developing something completely different.
It's not finished yet. There are areas which are a ragbag of plants, put in as a temporary measure but they're still there. And there are weeds to be tackled and hedges that are getting too tall and trees that really shouldn't be there at all.
So I'll be sharing my thoughts about all of that but, more importantly, I'll be writing about the plants, because it's plants that make a garden. I suppose you might call us plantsmen because we're enthusiastic about our plants, and take the trouble to find out about how to grow them, where they come from and the growing conditions that they enjoy.

  "They have to compete with those alongside them,
and last and last and last and last"

Most of our plants are perennials, and to succeed in our garden they have to compete with those alongside them, and last and last and last and last. Some have been with us from the start, and some from before that, coming from our parents' and grandparents' gardens. Some of the biggest and most spectacular have been grown from seed and with others we've started with a single plant and propagated by seed or cuttings to increase the stock.
So in this blog I'll be sharing our garden as well as my thoughts, and sharing some pictures too - especially of our favourite plants. But it's oh so difficult to choose because we have so many favourites.
And I'll be sharing in another way too, with some choice surplus plants and seeds that I've been selling online for while, now. So just follow the link to see what's available now.
And you'll be able to follow me here on Twitter, where I'll highlight what happening day by day in fewer words when I haven't the time to write a longer piece.
I hope you'll enjoy our garden and exchange your thoughts and ideas too.