Around this time of year, many a gardening hack may be seen gazing into the middle distance, trying to think of something to say about holly or mistletoe. So, for a change, let’s take a look at a less-familiar Christmas staple: frankincense. This may seem familiar from a lifetime of nativity plays, but few will have given much thought to what it actually is. Frankincense is an aromatic resin extracted from the bark of one of several species of the genus Boswellia; the name is derived from the Old French franc encens, meaning “pure incense”. The Romans loved frankincense, the demand for it reflected in its price, at times above gold. In the 2nd century AD, more than 3,000 tons was shipped every year from southern Arabia to Greece, Rome and the Mediterranean world. It was introduced into church ceremonies at the start of Christianity, and ever since has been burned in Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. There are around 20 species of Boswellia, five of which have been exploited for frankincense. Those five occur from West Africa to India, with highest diversity in the Horn of Africa. Any frankincense mentioned in the Old Testament is likely to have come from B. papyrifera and, although other species have been important at various times, that’s also the main source today. B. papyrifera is a large shrub or small tree, but a curious feature of its biology is that when young, it goes through a so-called suffrutescent stage, developing deep roots and a woody base, but the above-ground parts remaining herbaceous, dying back every dry season. Only later, once it’s established a deep root system, does it turn itself into a tree. This odd behaviour is one reason it can survive on dry, rocky outcrops. Unfortunately, you may not be surprised to hear that the future for B. papyrifera is looking bleak. Trees are still abundant, and there are even Boswellia woodlands, but they are under threat from resin-tapping. Trees recover from tapping in moderation, but if it’s carried out too often, or without allowing a rest period, it can reduce seed production and even kill the tree. A survey found that, right across its range, B. papyrifera was failing to regenerate, with three-quarters of studied populations lacking young trees. Fire and overgrazing by goats are also problems. Researchers estimate that unless urgent conservation is undertaken, production of frankincense is likely to halve in 20 years. None of this is helped by the heartland of B. papyrifera being the war-torn borders of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan. In Sudan there has been war in Darfur for more than 17 years, while government forces and rebels clash in the Nuba Mountains in Kordofan. In Eritrea, enclosures to protect Boswellia were abandoned after the 1998-2000 border war with Ethiopia. Frankincense could do with a bit of Christmas cheer. But you’ll be pleased to hear that myrrh, a close relative, is in no immediate danger. For Ken Thompson’s latest book, Notes From a Sceptical Gardener, visit books.telegraph.co.uk.
This year, even the most reluctant of us got our hands dirty, so here are some goodies for every grower. Best Christmas gifts for gardeners Clothing The boiler suit...
Like many during the first lockdown, the one thing I loved was the peace and quiet. There was no one sitting in their car outside my house, tapping at their phone or eating their sandwiches with the engine on. The city’s park team packed up their lawnmowers for a few weeks, and refuse workers collected rubbish less often. Even the low-level hum from the high street disappeared over night. I wasn’t alone in relishing the peace. Along with the sadness played out on the news and social media, another story unfolded – one of joy – as many marvelled at being able to hear birds. While coinciding with nesting season and therefore the time when birds sing their loudest, it was clear that Lockdown One had lifted the blanket of noise that muffled the most beautiful birdsong. We relished the sound of nature and a quieter pace of life. Lockdown One also served to reduce pollution, if only temporarily. A Defra report suggests there was an average 20-30 per cent reduction in nitrous oxide in urban areas across the country to April 30, with a greater reduction – up to 40 per cent – on main roads. We breathed cleaner air, and those who bothered to look marvelled at the clearer night skies, thanks to a lack of plane contrails fogging the view. Now, despite the second English lockdown, the noise has returned and, because it’s autumn, we have the additional deafening awfulness of leaf blowers to contend with. I wrote last year about the German government suggesting leaf blowers should be avoided because they “contribute to insect Armageddon”. Whether this is true or not, I was in full support due to hating them very much. This year leaf blowers are in the news again. A recent report suggests that petrol-powered tools, including leaf blowers, consume gallons of petrol and emit shocking levels of polluting particulates. The report (admittedly published by Ego, a company that makes lithium batteries), follows a combination of surveys, emissions tests and Freedom of Information requests that looked at the extent at which power tools are used, and how polluting they are. It found that just under 90 per cent of tools used by UK councils are powered by petrol engines, using a total of more than 600,000 litres of fuel each year. When subjected to emissions tests, petrol-powered tools were found to use huge amounts of petrol compared with road vehicles – some even exceeded permitted levels of particulates. Specifically, tests showed that in just one second, the most widely used leaf blower recorded more particulates than the legal limit for road vehicles in a kilometre. It seems petrol-powered tools aren’t subject to the same standards and testing as cars and other vehicles – so those of us who use them aren’t just polluting our local environment, we’re doing so above legal limits. I don’t use leaf blowers, I like leaves where they fall. But I do have a strimmer, lawnmower and hedge trimmer. All are powered by batteries. They may not be able to blast air out of a tube at 200 miles per hour, but they do the job with a fraction of the noise of petrol-powered machines, and with far less pollution. If 2020 has taught us anything, I hope it’s to make the most of a slower pace of life and enjoy peace and quiet. Which I also hope means death to petrol-powered leaf blowers.
"As the days lengthen, the cold strengthens" is a saying endorsed by many winters. In January, our gardens may well be frosted and frozen, but in these often beautiful and milder days that run up to Christmas, there are many windows of opportunity. December 1st Poppies are one of summer's most beautiful plants. Results will be far better if they're sown before Christmas. Order quickly, as many councils are also buying vast quantities of Papaver rhoeas (field poppy, corn poppy, Flanders poppy). 2nd Bulb suppliers offer big discounts now. Many bulbs are fine planted up to and even beyond Christmas. Tulips are brilliant stocking fillers (see Gee Tee). I have ordered 1,000 violet-blue Triteleia 'Queen Fabiola' for £25 to form strips of colour along my yew hedge base. The quickest way to plant large quantities of bulbs is to lift a flap of close-mown turf, plant seven or more per pit and push the flap back down. Protect crocus bulbs from squirrels with chicken wire on top (removed as they start to show). 3rd Planting my wallflowers. This gets later every year, but at least if you grow your own (sown in plugs in May/June and then transplanted into some spare ground and pinched out) you will be lifting big, bushy plants with mini root balls, so they cope well with a late move. 4th I'm still collecting seed, especially from my cleomes. Putting them in the fridge in a plastic bag for a couple of weeks helps germinating, then pop them into trays with a thin covering of vermiculite on the kitchen window sill. 5th A last-minute dash to clean up the greenhouse. The quickest way to remove pests and fungal spores is to use a sulphur candle (available from many garden centres), but you must take out any plants and leave it shut up for 12 hours. 6th Get all tender plants moved to snug places – porches, windowsills, garages. Invest in a roll of fleece and lots of mulch. Slightly iffy plants left outside such as agapanthus, dahlias, tulbaghias and Canna iridiflora will benefit from a big, thick duvet of mulch. 7th Move lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla) inside. Add fresh leaves and honey to a green tea. It de-stresses, aids digestion and eases colic. A potted plant would be the ideal present. 8th Get bare-root hedges, trees and shrubs in before Christmas if possible or at least order them. 9th Put spiral plastic tree guards on all young, newly planted trees to protect against rabbit damage. 10th Check that all new plants are labelled. The Touch Labelling Co (01527 574910) labels last more than 20 years. 11th Zap any lingering bindweed or ground elder with glyphosate. It will still be effective now (though slower to work) and will make life easier next spring. 12th Keep on picking and storing apples and pears. 13th Leave some apples, chopped in half, for birds; they are great for fieldfares, redwings and thrushes. Build an apple tower on a cane and watch them enjoy! 14th Put water out for birds too; add a ping-pong ball, which helps slow the freezing. 15th Make a fat ball for them too, but don't use turkey fat as it does not set hard, and so gets smeared on beaks and, worse still, feathers. 16th Leaf sweeping using the mower set high is quick, and speeds breakdown. Avoid if frost is on its way. 17th You may not get around to cleaning your tools, but do get the mower blades sharpened and, ideally, keep a spare pair. 18th Climbing roses need pruning and tying back to stop them waving around. 19th Mulching roses helps them earn their keep; it also keeps down the spread of black spot, especially if you remove all infected leaves too. 20th Bring in the furniture if necessary, let it dry and give a good clean down with a stiff brush to remove any dirt. Then apply liberal coats of teak oil before brushing off excess after the oil has had a chance to soak in. 21st Pot up any promising-looking cuttings or young plants, as presents. Even small-rooted pelargonium cuttings are extremely welcome to gardening friends. 22nd Remove mummified fruit from fruit trees, to stop disease spreading. 23rd Start winding down. Get out a great seed catalogue, such as that from heirloomtoms.org. Order dark purple-black 'Indigo Rose' tomatoes (very high in anthocyanins and tasty), some 'Dragon's Egg' cucumbers – which taste like melons but are far easier to grow – and/or some 'Red Hmong' cucumbers just 5-6in long in a dusky orange but with a bewitching and exquisite flavour. Try Rainbow Beet from Thompson and Morgan, a mix of scarlet, gold, candy-striped and white beetroot, which I found easy, delicious and attractive. 24th Set out some home-made chilli vodka and a mince pie for your favourite Father Christmas, and if you both get done in time you can knock it back together!
Did you think December was just for carols and present-opening? Turns out, there are plenty of gardening jobs to keep you busy during the festive period, from protecting plants from frost to smaller things, like hinting for gardening Christmas presents. We've got our eye on the Silverline ratchet winch - capable of pulling two tonnes - from Amazon, £21.95. It's a piece of kit much-loved by Bunny Guinness, and a total bargain! Get stuck into these jobs and feel relaxed and ready to take on January. Check fruit Check stored fruit and vegetables for signs of rot and promptly dispose of any affected. Stock up Stake or earth up Brussels sprouts to prevent wind rock. Continue harvesting kale, parsnips, leeks and Brussels sprouts. Prune edible vines Midwinter is the best time to prune edible and ornamental vines to prevent bleeding of the sap from the cut stems. Orchids
Poinsettias are one house plant that I’ve always struggled with. They have a fuddy-duddy image, and they’re massively overused, their rosettes of red bleeding to green all too easily feeling like a Christmas cliché I’ve never bought one in my life, although I’ve been given many, but I now feel there are many reasons to reappraise them. First, they are brilliant value. You can buy a British-grown, decent-sized plant for £3.50 at most supermarkets, and if you look after it, that plant will look good for well over a month. What else could come near 10p a day, all over Christmas, at a time of year when every red flower doubles in price? I remember this from when I worked as a florist: suddenly, in mid-December, dark red amaryllis and lovely deciduous, red-berried ilex would cost an arm and a leg. Hyacinths are filling the shops now and I love them in a pot or basket with moss, but for the same impact as a poinsettia you’re talking two or three times the cost. Home grown Two great things about them are that they are cheap to raise, and they naturally colour up in the short days of the year. The variety I’ve chosen is a deep, rich red (called 'Infinity’) but you’ll also find plants in cream ('Infinity White’), a bicolour in red and cream ('Ice Crystal’), as well as shades of pink, including the lovely smoky, pale pink 'Cinnamon Star’. What’s also exciting is that 50 per cent of the poinsettias you’ll find in the supermarkets are now British- grown, with Sainsbury’s buying 100 per cent from the UK. The ones I used came from near Chichester in West Sussex, only 60 miles from where I live. They were grown by Hills Plants, a fourth-generation nursery specialising in indoor plants. Every year, they grow 200,000 plants on their main site and bring in another 200,000 from other UK growers, all to supply Sainsbury’s.
I've put my pots of tender salvias and succulents away under cover, and replaced them on the terrace table with a collection of my favourite culinary herbs. I've also just bought a nice wirework set of shelves from antique shop Branching Out that I'll stock with potted herbs, so I don't spend winter evenings playing hide and seek in the garden. We all know and love evergreen bay, rosemary, thyme and sage, but there are other herbs that will sit out the winter's cold and bring cheer and flavour. So ring the changes and sing the praises of myrtle, hyssop and winter savoury. There's a whole world of hearty flavours in the herb garden. We just need the time and confidence to try them. Myrtle With warmer winters, myrtle (Myrtus communis) should be planted more frequently. Its small baylike leaves smell lovely, so pot it in well-drained gritty compost, and place by the front door to enjoy each time you pass. With small fragrant cream flowers full of furry golden stamens, pinkish stems and pretty blue/black berries, it's a plant for all seasons. Herb expert Jekka McVicar tells me it's one of her favourite herbs: "I harvest myrtle berries in November to make myrtle, rather than sloe gin. It has a warm spicy flavour, ideal for Christmas. The leaves can be used in stews and soups, are especially good with pork and game, and would be excellent in pork sausages," she says. Keep myrtle cosy under the eaves of your house, wrapped in fleece if the temperatures really plummet and away from bitter wind and wet. The variety 'Tarentina' is more compact, and 'Variegata' has silvery leaves that look good with the pink-tinged creamy flowers. Hyssop Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) is a dense hardy perennial and member of the mint family, native of the sunny Mediterranean. In tiny quantities it's delicious with fish, meat and vegetables. A holy herb, traditionally it was hung in homes to protect from the evil eye, and was used to flavour absinthe. Tisanes made with the leaves and sweetened with honey will soothe a seasonal sore throat. With bright blue flower spikes, it looks good edging the beds of the herb garden.
“As long as you have a garden you have a future and as long as you have a future you are alive,” wrote Frances Hodgson Burnett in The Secret Garden, published in 1911. Rarely has there been a year when the healing powers of horticulture’s precious natural “medicine” have been so needed and experienced by millions as this one past. Part of the enduring appeal of Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s tale – the story of Mary and Colin, two unhappy (and frankly rather poisonous) children, finding redemption in restoring an overgrown but once beautiful space – is that everyone has their own “secret garden” in their head; a compendium of memories of places they have come across, either in childhood or later life. They might not even have read the book itself, but that shimmering vision is firmly lodged in our national psyche. Updated to the 1940s, with a flash or two of magic realism thrown in to represent the symbiotic relationship between the garden and the children as they become less poisonous under its influence, the latest film version has recently been released, having been delayed by Covid-19. It features not one but eight locations around the country to create the secret garden, sewn together like a colourful patchwork to evoke Burnett’s fictional idyll, found through an old door in a high wall. Forgoing computer-generated trickery as far as possible, each was subtly enhanced with extra plants and tweaks by the “greens team”, led by Lucinda McLean of Filmscapes, a family firm of landscape designers specialising in film sets. Filmscapes was established by McLean’s father, Ron Whittle, who worked on the previous version of The Secret Garden back in 1993.
We’ve all heard of meals on wheels: in my garden it’s plants on wheels, because I’m always finding more to try. They come and they go, because you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a Prince Charming. This miscellany of 10 contains good garden plants, all slightly out of the ordinary, but not difficult. I won’t use the word “rare” because that’s often code for “likely to die” – and we’ve all been there. The following have done well for me and all deserve a wider audience. Papaver rhoeas 'Amazing Grey'
From a meditation on oak trees, to an exploration of the intellectual milieu of Sissinghurst, to controversial – but potentially planet-saving – ways of delivering ethical veganism, our experts reveal their favourite gardening reads of 2020. American Gardens By Monty Don and Derry Moore (Prestel, £35)
Ever since the school eye test aged seven, when they asked me to read the letters on the eye test board, and I asked “what board?”, I realised that my sight was not my best asset. But I can now see with 20/20 vision, having had cataract operations and new lenses inserted in both eyes. I can highly recommend the procedure: painless and life-changing. The downside of my op is that I look far older than I thought… and my garden definitely needs a bit of a spruce-up. The second realisation has come at the right time of year and I will spend the next few months getting things in order. There will be some big changes. New box for old The first big change involves pulling out some of my old box hedging because the plants are susceptible to box blight. Didier Hermans, of Herplant, started a breeding programme in 2007 and now has four varieties of blight resistant box. He sent me around 300 plants of ‘Heritage’, plus samples of ‘Sky Rocket’ (best for larger topiary), ‘Renaissance’ (for low hedging) and ‘Babylon Beauty’ (prostrate habit). This delivery was the first to the UK. Previously, I managed the blight by spraying with Signum and Topbuxus, but last winter’s endless damp meant more frequent applications. Also, many of my clients garden in parts of the UK that are much wetter than my sunny East Midlands, so would benefit from growing blight-resistant varieties of box. However, I hate specifying plants I have not grown, so thought I should take the plunge and try them out.
My late grandad always ate his breakfast standing up, usually half-dressed for work, with his shirt untucked and no tie or – after he retired – his striped flannel pyjamas. As a child I remember watching him from the kitchen table as he stared out of the window into the garden. I never understood why he didn’t join us – what was so interesting out there? How could he eat so comfortably without a chair? As I grew I learned, of course, that the garden made the perfect breakfast view. I can well imagine his 10 minutes through the window were the perfect way to start each day, and often wonder what he saw over the years. Like Grandad, I love staring into the garden, often, like him, with breakfast and no chair. Usually there’s not much to see, unless a flock of sparrows has descended on the feeders or a lone robin pops in. If I’m lucky I’ll catch the blackbird at the rowan berries or the mouse stealing biscuits from the hedgehog feeding station. But mostly it’s quiet. I look at the reflections in the pond water, the climbers that are slowly colonising the trellis, the shrubs I’ve yet to move. Last week, during another miserable rainy morning, I breakfasted at the French doors opening out to the garden. I watched the rain hit the pond, the rain hit yellowing leaves, the rain bounce off swaying bird feeders. There were no sparrows or starlings to laugh at, and the sky overhead (which I always scan, just in case I see something fancy) was empty. Heavy cloud ensured there were no reflections in the pond, and the climbers looked quite bedraggled after what seemed like 20 days of storms. I finished my muesli and started to turn away, when something caught my eye: a sparrowhawk. The sparrowhawk is a small bird of prey, which evolved to hunt in woodland and is therefore suited to gardens. Males are the size of a blackbird, blue-grey with orange-brown bars on the belly, and females are larger, brown and with brown bars. They hunt anything from small birds to starlings and pigeons, and their presence is a sign of a healthy garden bird population. This one has been coming into my garden since before I moved in. Neighbours text me photos of it resting on my shed roof, or descriptions of gruesome kills two or three doors down. But until last week I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. Amazed that she and I had breakfasted together for 10 minutes without either of us realising, I quietly reached for my binoculars for a better look at her. A female, her large brown body was soaked though. She’d found the perfect spot, perched at the pond edge beneath the small willow tree, which protected her from rain. She picked at something feathery and bloody. A pigeon, I wondered? Or a starling? I watched her tear strips of meat and eat them, before she picked up the carcass with her talons and flew off with it. I rushed to the scene. She’d eaten the lot, wings and all, leaving only a bloody beak behind (Twitter helped me identify this as a goldfinch). How lucky I was to have been breakfasting at the French doors, at just the right time. I learned a lot from this brief encounter. It struck me how much I revelled in the pond-side gore and accepted the loss of the goldfinch. If she’d been a cat or magpie I would have been much less impressed. What does that say about me? I also learned that it’s always worth staring into the garden. I think back to the things I’ve seen by just looking absent-mindedly – daydreaming if you will – often when I should have been doing something else. The first swift of the year, buzzards over the high street, a frog shovelling a worm into its mouth. And now this, a sparrowhawk eating a goldfinch. I wonder what Grandad would have made of that. What surprises have you spotted in your garden? Tell us in the comments section below
Anyone who can remember as far back as the last election will recall the various parties trying to outbid each other with how many trees they were going to plant. Many others have similar ideas – the National Trust is planning to plant 20 million over the next 10 years, and TSB Bank is promising to plant a tree for every mortgage sold. Whether any of these trees need planting is a question for another day (trees are very good at planting themselves, given the opportunity), but what will all these trees achieve? One of the main motives is to absorb and lock up carbon from the atmosphere, thus helping to slow the rate of climate change. How good are trees at doing that? Before we can answer that, we need to think about where all those trees might go. In a crowded country like Britain, many would have to go in uninhabited (or sparsely populated) uplands; it’s estimated, for example, that fully a third of Scotland could be suitable (biologically, if not politically) for establishing new woodlands. At least some of this potential new woodland would replace heather moorland. And we don’t have to guess what happens if you do that, because a variety of experimental plantings, of varying ages, already exist. Researchers have looked at four of these, planted with either birch or Scots pine, and aged from 12 to 39 years, to see how carbon storage is getting on. Their results are published in Global Change Biology. The trees, naturally, store carbon as they grow, so the effect of planting trees is always to increase above-ground carbon storage. Unfortunately, there is a corresponding reduction in the amount of carbon stored in the soil, which more or less exactly matches the increase above-ground, so the net effect is zero. The underlying reasons for loss of soil carbon are complex, but there is certainly a big increase in soil respiration, i.e. in carbon lost from the soil as carbon dioxide. More dissolved organic carbon may be lost in drainage water too, but that hasn’t been measured. Disappointing as this result is, the reality is probably even worse. These results come from fairly small experimental plots and water flowing in from the surrounding moorland means that their effect on soil water content is negligible. But if whole landscapes are afforested, we know that trees have a powerful drying effect on the soil, which further increases soil respiration, so we can reasonably expect that planting trees on heather moorland would lead to an overall loss of stored carbon. Of course, there are lots of other good reasons for planting trees, and planting trees in the right place can undoubtedly contribute to carbon storage. But concern about loss of soil carbon means that planting trees on peat more than 50cm deep is already prohibited, and these results suggest that if we want to maximise the benefits, we need to be even more careful about where we plant trees in the uplands. Incidentally, this work illustrates the importance of long-term research into issues like sustainability and climate change, where the “obvious” answer is not always the right one. Visit ecologicalcontinuitytrust.org for more details on this. Should any of this affect what you do in your garden? No, not at all. Your garden doesn’t have the kind of soil where this would be a problem, and anyway the other impacts of trees, on biodiversity, temperature and flooding, mean that planting a tree is still one of the best things you can do for the environment. Ken Thompson’s most recent book is Notes From a Sceptical Gardener. Visit books.telegraph.co.uk.
Gardening has been on the rise since the start of lock-down this year, with many people seeking solace in the outdoors, be it a garden, an allotment or simply a window bed. Tony is here to give some golden gardening tips for those beginner gardeners or green fingered explorers! Rule number one? Protect your beds from pests! Rule number 2? Make your own compost. Make sure you watch Tony's tutorial to find out more top tips and gardening secrets.
In these uncertain times, the short days of late autumn feel longer, colder, and frost seems mere days away. So far, November has been particularly stormy with high winds and constant rain, and as we go into the second national lockdown, households have more time to prepare the UK's gardens for the harsh winter ahead. Take a look at my favourite tips for November, there's plenty to keep you busy and active in the garden this month. New yew Plan, order and plant new hedges. If you have had trouble with box blight, this is the moment to rip everything out and start again. A yew hedge is slow-ish growing but has all the neatness and glossiness of box and more, and would be my choice should blight hit. Clean pots This is an excellent time for taking stock of the things you’ll need for next year. On a warm day, scrub terracotta pots and let them dry in the sun. Barking mad In winter when we long for colour, trees with beautiful bark are especially pleasing. Prunus serrula has glossy chestnut bark and stays compact, so it will fit happily into the average-sized garden. Cast an eye over the selection at Deepdale Trees, there's sure to be something you'll like. Dry out gnats Fungus gnats can be a great annoyance around winter houseplants, but they are generally a sign that you are over-watering. Cut down and let the surface of the soil dry out, or cover it with a thick layer of sharp sand. Frost cover Globe artichokes are not the toughest of plants, and they can be lost to a cold and wet winter, a particularly risk on clay soils. Cover the crowns with a thick layer of dry mulch to keep the worst of the frost and the rain out, or even with a bell cloche. Cover up
Talk to most gardeners and they will confess to loving a good bonfire. There is indeed something almost addictive about the end-of-day ritual of shoving scrunchy bundles of newspaper underneath a towering heap of assorted uncompostables that is rarely, if ever, tinder dry and painstakingly coaxing it into flames. With total dedication we circle around the slowly diminishing smoky pyre, prodding at it with a poker-of-the-day plucked from its midst that will itself eventually be committed to the flames, dodging the billows of acrid smoke in a vain attempt to avoid, as the light finally fades, going indoors completely whacked out and anti-socially kippered. But as Peter Pollard asks, what, if anything, should we be doing with the ashes? Are they really any use for the garden? He has had conflicting information. Ash from bonfires that consist mostly of green, sappy roots and prunings contains some potash and other nutrients in small and variable quantities, and was traditionally used as a top-dressing/fertiliser around soft fruit before other specifically high-potash fertilisers were available. Ash from these and woodier bonfires will have a slight liming effect on the soil, which is regarded as useful by vegetable growers, particularly those who grow brassicas, since limy (alkaline) soil inhibits club root disease. However, such ash should not be spread about where potatoes are to be grown, since they need a lower soil pH. And what of ash from domestic fires? Log ash from wood burners contains some, but fewer, useful nutrients than bonfire ash. Ash from coal fires, from fires where treated wood has been burned, from barbecues where briquettes (as opposed to simple lump charcoal) have been the main fuel should all be binned. All things considered, I think it is probably best to store wood burner or bonfire ash in a bin (so it stays dry). It can then be added gradually throughout the year to regular compost bins and heaps and mixed in with all the other ingredients with the understanding that the resulting compost mix will be slightly more alkaline than it would otherwise have been. Some gardeners use bonfire or wood burner ash around vulnerable plants in spring as a barrier to deter slugs, but I find that it quickly gets reduced to sludge and becomes ineffective. A final word on burning: I hope that all gardeners have at last stopped burning leaves. In fact, there should be a law against burning leaves. Leaves are for composting. Full stop. Privet and honey fungus I have a problem with the privet hedges in my garden, which are gradually thinning out and dying. A willow, a forsythia and an evergreen shrub (near the hedge) have also died over the past two years. Peter M Federow, Nottingham Dear Peter Several pictures accompanying your letter, of which this is just a précis, included one of the dead willow tree surrounded by clusters of orange toadstools (each with a distinct "collar" around its stalk) growing from its roots. The pictures told me a nasty story: your garden seems to be under attack from honey fungus, with the roots of dead woody plants acting as "hosts" to the fungus that travels via underground rhizomorphs to other vulnerable trees and shrubs. Privet is a number one target. If you are going to tackle this problem head on, you should take out the dead willow tree with as much of its root as you can and also remove more dead sections of the hedge, along with any other dead woody plants. You could then improve the soil with organic matter (there is no truly fail-safe chemical control) and plant a yew or a Lonicera nitida instead. These two evergreens seem to be resistant to honey fungus, and in enriched soil they are not nearly as slow growing as is generally assumed. Make a point of removing future casualties promptly, with as much of their root system as possible, and of keeping other trees and shrubs in your garden well fed. Honey fungus is known to have favourite victims (on the RHS website there are lists of the most susceptible and more resistant shrubs and trees), but looking on the brighter side: happy, healthy trees and shrubs are less likely to be attacked. Tree disease tips Given the problems with horse chestnut trees, should we compost their leaves? Anthony Steed, via email Dear Anthony Here I go, sticking my neck out again. Our gardens form a significant proportion of urban green space and are acknowledged as havens for wildlife. But gardeners themselves surely cannot hope to halt the unstoppable march of Mother Nature's more evil storm troopers. Nor, in my view, should they jump through hoops trying to do so or lose sleep wondering whether and how they should. It is not just the ghastly tree diseases, either. I recall a couple of years ago receiving an angst-ridden letter from a reader who was carefully seeking out and squashing all the (alien) harlequin ladybirds she could find, in an attempt single-handedly to protect our smaller, threatened natives. What, incidentally, became of the invasion of huge New Zealand flat worms (about which we were told we could do nothing), that was due to wipe out our own little brown chaps? (No, please, all you Squirmlogists with fingers poised over laptops, spare me.) And while I appreciate the menace presented by Japanese knotweed, it seems that some scare stories have succeeded in making many of you needlessly anxious. I recently received several little stained envelopes containing suspect leaves from readers convinced that their "knotweed" was about to burst through the kitchen floor. None of them actually contained knotweed, and if you have come out from under the bed to read this, terrified Mrs S from Chester, let me assure you that your leaves were nothing more sinister than the shoot tips of our vigorous native dogwood (Cornus sanguinea). Dismounting momentarily from my high horse to return approximately to the subject of your letter, I will offer a common-sense opinion, since you asked for one. By composting your autumn leaves – whether or not they are visibly blighted or from a tree possibly under threat from something new and thus far unstoppable – and then redistributing them around your garden in the form of leaf mould, you are not going to spread anything that is not already present. Mind you, I bet someone will creep out of the woodpile and tell me how very, very wrong I am. I'm just a gardener, after all. And finally… shredders Apologies to those who think I shouldn't "plug" gardening goods on this page, but no doubt this little item will be welcome to those that don't mind and furthermore find my recommendations helpful when they find themselves adrift in a sea of marketing hype. I sang the praises of shredders in general a couple of weeks ago, but decided (discreetly, I thought) not to say which one I use. Since Georgina Campbell from Dublin and others asked, however, mine is a Bosch, the AXT25D, which is super-quiet, super-slick and "self-feeding". But (and I have whinged to Bosch about this), the apparently now inevitable, over-the-top safety features (bleeps, automatic cut-out if the collection draw shifts out of position) are a bit annoying. Small price to pay, however, for having ones prunings reduced to a fast-composting munch-up about one third of their original volume.
Bonfire Night 2020 is without the usual festivities, though no less fun for it. Though Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced that a national lockdown will resume from Thursday 5 November, due to rising Covid-19 infections in the UK, you can still gather your household together in celebration of Guy Fawkes night. Make some autumn treats, grab some sparklers and light a bonfire. Here, we share our step-by-step guide to building your own, minus the damage. How to build a bonfire Find a site far away from fences, buildings, trees, roots and plants and sheltered from gusts of wind. Clear away any household rubbish and garden waste (including bottles, cans, flammable liquids, anything containing plastic, foam or paint, rubber tyres - these give off noxious fumes). Dig a pit a few inches deep and a few feet wider than you wish your fire to be. Place garden rocks, bricks or heavy logs around the perimeter of the pit. Make a flat bed of charcoal briquets at the centre. Ensure that your materials are dry. Build a 'teepee' shape from light tinder (twigs, bark, grass, dried leaves, garden prunings) over the briquets. Follow this with small kindling, at 45 degree angles, meeting in the middle. Leave gaps for oxygen to reach the tinder. Lay medium-sized sticks (10cm diameter) parallel to each other on either side of the teepee. Build up the kindling in five perpendicular layers. Place large logs at intervals around the base. Ensure that some long, thin pieces of kindling are touching the base and the top of the tower. Tie these pieces together firmly with twine to maintain the shape. Light a match and drop it inside the teepee. (Never use oil, petrol or methylated spirits.) Add wood as needed. Have buckets of water, sand and a fire extinguisher on hand. Don't leave the fire to smoulder, put it out completely with water and pile dirt on top. Never throw fireworks on it, used or not. For information about the legal restrictions and guidelines on bonfires, go to www.environmental-protection.org.uk.
Flower growers, just like food producers, have an important role to play in improving soil health and increasing diversity in our gardens and landscape. Growing cut flowers sustainably does not mean less choice, just a slightly different plant palette and management style. Since I first planted flowers to cut and sell in 2002, I have been seeking my personal holy grail of productive, low-impact gardening, which means growing plants without irrigation or shelter and minimal weeding, trying to avoid using plastics and external inputs. After seven years spent developing a rather maintenance-heavy site, an unexpected house move helped me change focus from what to grow, to how to grow. Instead of concentrating on individual flowering plants, I now aim for communities of interrelated plants that grow happily together, supporting each other. There’s nothing new in this; companion planting has long been recognised, but too often relegated to a slightly naive area of gardencraft. It’s grown up now, and a major factor in creating sustainable ecosystems. Rather than beginning with a specific wishlist of showy flowers and working out how to grow them in your space, start by thinking what will suit your garden, then about the ways plants grow in the wild. Bare soil is rare in nature so, when deciding on your cut flower palette, don’t focus just on the main contenders, think about the important ground cover layer and maybe a middle layer too. Surround your main players with a living mulch of cuttable companions, which help keep plants and soil in good order. Root systems
As a child, Marianne Cartwright-Hignett became fixated on The Secret Garden, a 1911 children’s classic by Frances Hodgson Burnett. “It was by far my favourite book. I reread it endlessly because I loved its secret world so much,’ she says. So when a film crew turned up on her doorstep at Iford Manor in Wiltshire to see if her garden was suitable for a planned adaptation of the book, she was delighted. Her husband, William, was less so. “We have a lot of film companies approach us with projects every year, but they either fall through or we turn them down,” he says. This time proved to be different when production companies Heyday Films and StudioCanal declared Iford’s “slightly wild-looking and overgrown” Grade I listed garden would be perfect. In the summer of 2018, the crew and cast, including actors Julie Walters and Colin Firth, descended for three weeks on the garden; it dates back to the Domesday Book but the architectural design is largely down to landscape architect Harold Peto, who lived at Iford Manor from 1899 until his death in 1933. It was Peto’s sense of the dramatic that clinched the leading role for Iford Manor garden in the 2020 film. The producers had been scouting for potential gardens for several weeks before spotting a photo online. “There was something about the terrace and the wonderful staircase and all the wisteria that made us think ‘that looks like a wonderful secret garden’,” says Rosie Alison, the film’s producer. “Peto had a strong theatrical sense and when we saw the garden it looked like a stage set for a Shakespeare play,” says Alison. “There were terraces on different levels with beautiful planting, lovely statues, mossy staircases and colonnades and follies. We’d seen a lot of beautiful gardens on our travels, but they were all too formal for what we wanted. We needed one that was slightly wild-looking and overgrown.”
The irony did not escape me, pulling into the long-stay car park at Heathrow back in August, that I was summer-escaping to a Greek island where the sunny climes were at that time outshone by England’s own tropical weather. But I loathe London heat – from which there is no refuge – and the first weeks of August had inflicted more than a fair share. So there was appeal in the sea breeze that tempers the island of Naxos. I’ve written before of my despair at our increasingly warming climate and its effect upon an already dry, exposed London soil. So to skip forward: the outcome is a developing appreciation for plants that revel in waterless weather. Give me fleshy leaves and ephemeral flowers over mildewy asters; and the silver-sheen of heat-resistant hairs associated with artemisia, helichrysum and verbascum. These plants being abundant on the scattered isles of the Aegean Sea, I made plans this summer for an uplifting Greek excursion – while Covid restrictions still allowed – sifting through the great assemblage of inviting destinations that are the Cyclades. In the end, Naxos came out on top: for my wife on account of its unpopulated beaches; for me a singularly enticing prospect: the Alyko juniper forest, on the map a silver-green blotch along a coastline of glaring sand and stone. This had me excited. If ever there was a plant that relishes a climatic challenge, juniper would top the list. Its own defence adaptation? Compact needles and scalelike foliage, with roots that both spread and “tap”.
Every year, British gardeners buy around 10,000 tons of niger (Guizotia abyssinica) seed to feed to garden birds. It’s a particular favourite of goldfinches. Niger seed is normally at least 99 per cent pure (that is, almost all of it actually is niger), but out of the huge quantity imported, even a low level of contamination adds up to quite a few other seeds. So what are they? It isn’t that easy to find out, since just tipping a bagful on the garden and seeing what comes up doesn’t get you very far. As it’s nearly all niger, seedlings of other species tend to get swamped. Niger is also subtropical, and so are most of the contaminants, which means they often don’t do well in a normal British summer. However, cometh the hour, cometh the man, and amateur botanist Gordon Hanson has been sorting through bags of niger seed for years now. He’s got pretty good at identifying the most frequent contaminants from their seeds. Anything he doesn’t recognise, he grows on, in a greenhouse if necessary. He published his findings in British & Irish Botany, the journal of the Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland. So far, Mr Hanson has found roughly 90 other species. Almost half of them are grasses, including crops such as oat, rice, millet, teff and sorghum, plus a bewildering variety of weeds. Mr Hanson notes that one of these, Digitaria ciliaris (tropical finger grass), is not only an aggressive weed in Ethiopia (the source of most of our niger), but is now infesting his own garden. Perhaps not surprisingly, since niger is a daisy, the second most frequent family is a variety of other daisies. Among these is Tagetes minuta (Mexican marigold), sometimes sold on the strength of helping to control the growth of perennial weeds such as bindweed, although I think the jury is out on that claim. Another unattractive daisy is Ambrosia artemisiifolia (ragweed), an American native that’s now a serious weed throughout the warmer parts of the world, and also a major cause of hay fever. Ragweed has popped up once or twice in my garden, presumably from bird seed. Other crops, or at least wild crop relatives, include lentil, flax, white lupin, Chinese mustard, radish, turnip, various amaranths and sesame. Ornamental plants – or at any rate, weeds sometimes grown for aesthetic reasons – include Nicandra physalodes (apple of Peru, or shoo-fly plant), Cleome rutidosperma (fringed spider plant), Oenothera stricta (fragrant evening primrose), Salvia tiliifolia (lindenleaf sage) and Euphorbia heterophylla (desert or Japanese poinsettia – not a patch on real poinsettia). Arguably the most curious plant to turn up in niger seed is Cuscuta campestris (yellow dodder). This American is closely related to our own dodder (Cuscuta epithymum), a rootless twining parasite, most frequent on heather and gorse, and often quite common on heathland in the south, especially by the coast. It can sometimes make an area of gorse look like it’s completely covered by a blanket of red string. Most dodders are harmless, but a few are serious agricultural weeds, including yellow dodder, and all the niger imported into the US is heat-treated to kill the seeds of this species. Yellow dodder doesn’t normally set seed here, so this precaution is unnecessary. But as Mr Hanson notes, “One of the most intriguing autumnal sights regularly reported under British bird tables is Cuscuta campestris scrambling up the 2m-tall stems of Guizotia abyssinica”. One thing’s for sure – if you keep your eyes open, you never know what you might find growing under the bird feeder. Ken Thompson is a plant biologist. His most recent book is Notes from a Sceptical Gardener, the second collection of his Telegraph columns. Visit books.telegraph.co.uk
Pumpkins, squashes and gourds have enjoyed rather wet conditions this October. These striking fruits (strictly speaking, berries) are not for the faint-hearted but the recent surge in their popularity is no doubt thanks to their combination of vibrant colour, exuberant vigour and extraordinary shape. The fact that the smaller ones and those with bushier growth will fit into small gardens must widen their appeal. Pumpkins, squashes and gourds are tender annuals, most of which come from three species of Cucurbita: pepo, maxima and moschata. They are native to the warmer parts of the Americas, especially Mexico, where they have been grown since 7,000 BC. Their willingness to interbreed has given rise to many cultivars and for centuries they have been cropped commercially, particularly in the United States and France. Most have trailing stems as well as large, lobed, sandpapery leaves, though the shape differs depending on the original species. And all have yellow flowers with male and female carried separately on the same plant. Where pumpkins end and squashes start is not clear cut. One indicator is that pumpkins are yellow or orange and round whereas squashes come in many wonderful colours and shapes. In layman's terms they fall into four groups: summer squashes, such as pattypans and crooknecks, as well as courgettes, none of which store for long; autumn squashes, such as marrows and vegetable spaghetti (so-called because its flesh comes away in strands), which last in good condition for a couple of months; winter squashes, which store for up to a year and include both pumpkins and butternuts; and ornamental gourds, which are grown for their looks, although several, such as the tiny 'Jack-be-Little' and the wonderful 'Turk's Turban', are also edible. These can be dried and used for decoration, lasting for many months in good condition. Bottle gourds, named after their flask-like shape, are derived from Lagenaria siceraria and have white flowers but are not edible. In countries such as Peru they are often intricately decorated. The fruit can be quite smooth, ridged or as warty as an old toad; they can be green, turning orange with age, or any other colour from red to white, greyish-blue or almost black. And striped. Size ranges from a 1.5lb 'Baby Boo' to 'Atlantic Giant', which has weighed in at more than 1,000lbs. Caroline Boisset is a long-time devotee. A trained horticulturist and author who lives in the East Midlands, she became hooked years ago, by chance, after she bought a single packet of seed of 'Rouge Vif d'Etampes' while visiting her parents near Paris. The plan had been to use them as groundcover in her new kitchen garden. But the orange pumpkins grew so well that she began asking friends and family to bring back new seed from their travels to the US, France and Australia. In 1995, she won a Gold Medal for her display at the RHS. Caroline grows about 20 different cultivars each year but, all told, the tally is 100. She sows pumpkin seed in a cold greenhouse, never earlier than April, two to a 6in pot in garden compost, with the seed on edge, and protects them against mice. She plants out the seedlings immediately the frosts are over into well prepared and fertilised soil. She plants seven to a 7ft by 14ft plot and they flower in three to four weeks. This is the moment to keep them well-watered, with a weekly foliar feed; if they dry out, growth stops. They set fruit themselves and often spontaneously drop surplus flowers. When the trailing stems encroach on the path, she turns them back towards the plant. In October a slight frost often melts the leaves, leaving the fat pumpkins sitting on the ground. She cuts them with a handle (a bit of stem) attached, brings them in to a light, north-facing conservatory to cure completely, then stores them in an airy pantry. This way they should keep long enough to try out most of the delicious sounding recipes in her book. Caroline Boisset's recommendations
This year has been a first for me in terms of fantastic cauliflowers. I sowed the seeds of Fortaleza F1 from DT Brown in mid-May and planted them into a raised bed in the vented section of my Keder polytunnel. In this section, about a third of the roof is covered with green mesh (but no polythene) so is open to the air at all times – and pests can’t get in. With cauliflowers, especially an F1 variety, they all tend to come at once. To pre-empt this, I spaced them about 20cm apart (about a third of the recommended spacing). If plants are grown close together the extra stress usually causes a few to dominate, so you get a variation in growth rates. Raised beds also allow you to tighten your spacings. The protected environment with no water stress is the key. The huge variation in growth rate allowed us to enjoy cauliflower salads, cheese and tray bakes over a far longer period. Seasonal attire