I was talking to Guy Singh-Watson, who runs the Riverford vegetable box scheme, about the problems of bringing in fresh veg from Europe. After Jan 1, for each lorryload he brings in from Europe he has to fill in nine forms 48 hours in advance, detailing exactly what is on board. This is difficult as you don’t necessarily know what is good to pick 48 hours in advance. Prices for imported veg are expected, on average, to increase by six per cent. Last year Singh-Watson started a UK-grown box and he can see demand for this increasing. He is already growing more leeks, brassicas and roots to compensate for anticipated shortages from Europe in the early months this year. Hopefully, Brexit will encourage us to grow more of our own. Supermarket veg are generally less tasty and if they have been held up in transit will have even less goodness and kerb appeal. What I’m sowing now My first sowing list of the year is exciting. My kitchen windowsill has three cell trays of onion seeds stacked one on top of the other, all sown with Robinson’s Mammoth Improved onion. Ideally they require 18-24C to germinate – way hotter than my unheated greenhouse but my kitchen is around 17C. Onion seeds start to shoot in a week at this temperature. But as soon as they germinate they need a cooler environment or they grow too leggy. So I watch the top tray like a hawk and when the action starts it goes straight to the greenhouse. Like leeks, I sow two or three seeds per cell, and let them mature. You get bigger yields this way but slightly smaller onions (or leeks). Onions good and bad Last year I tried ‘Walla Walla’ and ‘Isobel Rose’ onions from Suttons, which it claimed were sweet and juicy. It even said that you could eat ‘Walla Walla’ like an apple. However, they were disappointing, small, low yield and with an ordinary onion flavour. The Mammoth Improved, though, were whoppers, crunchy and juicy. Also on the list... Other things I am sowing now include additional broad beans ‘The Sutton’, lettuce ‘Buttercrunch’, wasabi rocket, pea ‘Tom Thumb’ (a hardy pea that grows to 23cm with sweet flavour), pea shoots ‘Samish’, watercress, leek ‘Nipper’ and hispi cabbage. All from Robinson’s. Getting the right temperature is key to speedy germination. The longer germination takes, generally the weaker the plants. I use the charts from Cooperative Extension Sacramento County (visit sacmg.ucanr.edu and search “Soil temperature conditions for vegetable seed germination”). Then with the aid of a thermometer, windowsills and a heated mat in the greenhouse, I can get a pretty good temperature range. New citrus plants
Every week, Telegraph gardening expert Helen Yemm gives tips and advice on all your gardening problems whether at home or on the allotment. If you have a question, see below for how to contact her. Gardeners of my acquaintance (and, dear readers, that includes many of you who tell me a lot about your gardening habits), seem in the main not to have gone mad for dramatic, wafty grasses. However, we dabble, as often as not starting with strategically placed dramatic singletons as “punctuation marks” in traditional borders. Now, as the new year reveals, many such grasses are starting to look a little weather-weary and it may be a good time to air a few maintenance basics. Botanists/gardeners have handily put ornamental grasses into two groups, governed, presumably, by their climatic origins. Cool season grasses This group includes the popular stipas, deschampsias and festucas. They start producing a subtle amount of new growth early in the year to flower in high summer, many of them remaining more or less evergreen. To maintain their looks and lengthen their lives give them a thorough grooming session and trim in spring and perhaps an extra spruce-up in late summer if they start looking ratty. This treatment suits them better than a radical early-season annual cut back (from which older plants in this group don’t recover easily). Use gloved hands or a small metal shrub rake, palms or tines facing upwards, to comb through clumps, teasing out the previous season’s beige remains. The best time to lift, divide or replace cool season grasses is shortly upon us: late winter or early spring. It is worth noting, at this point, that grasses do not need rich soil or fertiliser, and that many grow well in containers. Some members of this group self-seed generously if allowed to do so – notoriously the peroxide blond Stipa tenuissima and auburn pheasant tail grass, aka Stipa arundinacea now renamed Anemanthele lessoniana – I know, I know, annoying. The upside to the self-seeding is an easy supply of youthful replacements for exhausted parent plants. Warm season grasses Unlike the first group, warm season grasses (e.g. arundo, cortaderia, imperata, miscanthus, panicum, pennisetum and phalaris) start growing later and should not be divided or planted until late spring, when they are in active growth. Their great annual cutting-down session (to a few centimetres from the ground) can take place once these grasses no longer make a pleasing autumn/winter “statement”, but (importantly) well before they start to produce their new base growth, which could easily get damaged in the fray. So check before you start carefully cutting them in early to mid-spring. Tying clumps around their waists with twine before shearing them off at the ankles (for which one-handed Jakoti shears are the perfect gadget) ensures far less tidying up afterwards. Design tips Finally, where do you start with placing grasses – deciding what will be good where and with what, given that it is almost impossible to buy potted grass plants that give any clue as to their eventual stature, form, and allure? Summer research on the hoof is essential And I can recommend Designing with Grasses by Neil Lucas (Timber Press) of Knoll Gardens nursery in Dorset. Also, Nancy J Ondra’s book, Grasses – Versatile Partners for Uncommon Garden Design (Storey Books), despite being written by an American for North American gardeners, describes and illustrates some inspiring combinations. Tip for bulbs in late winter
Last year, more than any other, I was asked to recommend a medium-sized tree for a domestic garden, invariably intended as a standalone feature. I suppose, forced to spend unending time at home throughout 2020, we’re all either radically revamping our gardens or upping sticks to gardens new. And what single act of horticultural intervention – nay, what hopeful gesture – beats planting a pretty tree? In any case, narrowing a list of suitors has been an enjoyable distraction, sifting through reliably compact varieties of sorbus, cherry, cornus and strawberry tree; maple, medlar and multi-stem magnolia. The best, of course, is the all-rounder: a tree delivering seasonal flourishes of blossom, berries and fiery autumn foliage. On this basis, Amelanchier lamarckii – the juneberry – comes out on top. Unfussy of site and soil, light or shade, and even throwing “architectural interest” into the mix, amelanchiers are distinguished members of the Rosaceae family, arguably the first port of call for anyone seeking small tree inspiration. Under this genetic umbrella you’ll find many more strong contenders, from pear and rowan to plum, crab apple and tree cotoneaster (Cotoneaster frigidus). But now, following a recent and impromptu quest, I have a new recommendation to add; perhaps, even, among the best of the Rosaceae tribe. A little while back, I received a letter from a reader enclosing a photographed stem cutting and an appeal for its identification. The author was Roger, a retired rivers inspector and nature diarist who, walking his local beat, noticed unfamiliar leaves “shimmering” in early autumn light, and was lost for a name. Pictured was a grey and angular lichen-covered twig; it bore elongated dark leaves and a cluster of rose hip-red berries. “The tree resides in an old hedgerow which surrounds a farmed field near our home,” the letter read. The farmer, apparently, was similarly in the dark, estimating its age to be more than 40 years. A puzzler. Let it be known, dear reader, that I savour a challenge like this – all the more when, by wonderful coincidence, the challenge lies virtually on my doorstep, down a rural Suffolk lane not far from where I live. With only a few inches of plant to scrutinise – from an underexposed image on printed-out A4 – my thoughts turned first to crab apple or cotoneaster, though the fruit pictured was either too small or too misshapen, respectively. On account of the crooked stems, I began to consider Crataegus, the hawthorns. The issue, however, being the decidedly un-hawthorn-like leaves (ovate and more like apple) and, once again, berries too large for haws. I wrote back requesting directions. I had to meet this mystery tree. Relocated from London and still new to rural Suffolk, a walk through the county in the clasp of autumn remains a heightened novelty. By chance, the afternoon on which I set out was one of those freak intermissions in a stretch of soggy gloom: a still, chill air; golden sunshine lighting the lofty boughs of great English oaks, set against dark but distant clouds. A good omen, hawthorns laden with maroon fruit lined the roadsides, too, with haws fuller and fatter and less blemished, I noted, than those I’d picked recently for jam (having mistakenly made for the nearest rather than fullest fruit-bearer). Following Roger’s directions, I entered a slim lane bordered on one side by traditional, age-old agricultural hedging and on the other by a ditch fiercely defended by the composite armoury of dog rose, bramble and blackthorn. Conspicuous among the field maples and poplars interspersed along it stood the tree in question, still full of leaf and loaded with red berries. Its shape was a rough yet beautiful dome, suspended on a straight, rugged trunk; its branches upwardly dense with flurried twigs. Wherever I roam, a tattered copy of Collins Complete Guide to British Trees travels with me – given at the start of my horticultural career and a book that, with its clear photographs and descriptions, never lets me down. Turning to Crataegus I came to the “cockspur thorns”, garden ornamentals from North America, and among these the hybrid cockspur, Crataegus × lavalleei. The “Lavalle hawthorn”, with its large bright drupes, glossy and semi-serrated leaf form and stubby buds, was a perfect match. For some reason, despite living in a country so historically and comprehensively ploughed, planted and gardened, I still presume that a curious tree growing in a rural hedgerow will be one of our limited British “natives”. Of course, it might just as likely be an introduction or a garden escapee. Snipping a twig to be certain, and later confirming back home, I contacted Roger with the good news. The true cockspur thorn, Crataegus crus-galli, is an understorey tree of the eastern American woods. Similar to our beloved and folklore-ridden native hawthorn, Crataegus monogyna, cockspur thorns hybridise frequently with interrelated species. Lavallée’s hawthorn, named after 19th-century French botanist Pierre Lavallée, is one such hybrid, as is the broad-leaved cockspur, Crataegus persimilis; both cultivated for their seasonal charms. Popular as they might be in parks and gardens across the Atlantic, however, and despite both their beauty and market availability, cockspurs are less well-known to British gardeners than clearly they ought to be. As with the finest of the cultivated hawthorns – pink-flowering laevigatas like ‘Paul’s Scarlet’ and ‘Plena’, or Crataegus schraderiana with its purple fruit – they are robust, hardy, small trees that will grow in more or less any soil not waterlogged. Suffering few diseases and requiring little to no pruning, they’re best planted in isolation where sunlight can embellish their form and ripen their copious berries. More than this, however, cockspurs and hawthorns share the promise of brilliant spring flowers that, like the swifts that return screeching to our city streets or swallows to an open barn, or like primroses lighting the waking verges and bluebells once again carpeting our beech woods, remind us of a steady, reassuring earthly rhythm. No matter how drab, draining or positively demoralising a year has gone before, there will be blossom on the hawthorns in May, with almond-scented flowers of “dazzling whiteness” – to quote Proust’s novel, In Search of Lost Time – and “bouquets of stamens, delicate as gossamer’”. So if I were looking to plant a small, hopeful tree in the new year when the weather has turned milder – whose late berries might carry the soul through to unbridled spring flowers – for my money it would now be a hawthorn, or better yet a cockspur; and to Roger I am very grateful. Five hawthorns to plant Crataegus x lavalleei ‘Carrierei’
It’s “garden to the rescue” again. My family’s positive test result has burst my support bubble, so I’m willing their symptoms to be mild and hoping my immune system remembers it has met this virus before. For now, pruning the wisteria is a welcome distraction. We’ve all found ways to cope. For those lucky to have nature nearby, this often means spending time outside. My Silent Space colleagues have noticed the strategies visitors have developed. Faith Douglas, curator at Thorp Perrow in North Yorkshire, says the arboretum is busier than ever: “Visitors are being more adventurous than usual. Rather than sticking to the tea room and visitor centre loop, they’re exploring further afield. We’ve also seen a big increase in the number of season ticket holders as people are staying local.” Rosie Fyles, head gardener at Ham House, Richmond, has noticed a similar trend: “The biggest change has been the number of people visiting regularly. One couple told me they are here every week. They hadn’t visited before the pandemic. Others tell me that it’s started to feel as if it’s their own garden. They see it as their ‘oasis’.” With a background in mental health nursing, Faith knows that the next few weeks could be difficult. She emphasises the importance of getting outside, whatever the weather. Of course, that isn’t always possible. Gary Webb, of Sulgrave Manor, has a few suggestions: “One way to enjoy gardens and the natural world in winter is through the spoken word. Audiobooks and podcasts, for example, can help you experience a woodland or garden, or the thoughts of the narrator about a special place.” I like the idea of listening and using my imagination. It feels less passive than watching a screen. Gary also recommends bringing the outside in. “Two or three winter stems in a vase, with their sleeping buds, can create an instant connection with the world outside. Or perhaps buy a small pot of plants that look good in winter and put them near a window. They’ll create a hit of interest and colour to keep us going.” Wherever we are, it’s worth taking time to notice the small changes as new life begins to appear. As Rosie says: “Birdsong was one of the soundtracks of the first lockdown. In the past few weeks, I’ve started to notice it again. Our first daffodil flowered in early December. There’s always something to remind us that nature and wildlife go on regardless. This is often all the encouragement we need.” I felt this myself when, virus finally vanquished, I went back to my allotment. I expected weeds, and there were lots. The joyful surprise was the glorious cloud of purple sprouting broccoli. I sobbed. Yes, it was relief at being back out in the world, seeing fellow humans and being well. It was also the wonder that four little seeds sown months before had carried on growing without me and produced what felt like a gift. I even loved the whitefly. There is something we can do to help us notice the rest of the natural world carrying on “regardless”. Almost a decade ago, Professor Miles Richardson developed the “three good things” approach. His aim was to improve our connection with nature. Since then, his research has shown that it also benefits our wellbeing. It’s very simple. All we need to do is note three good things we see in nature each day. This could be through a window or outside on a walk. We can keep our findings to ourselves or, for those who like to share on social media, use the hashtag 3naturethings. They won’t be difficult to find. Just be still enough to notice. Nature to the rescue again. Liz Ware runs silentspace.org.uk
Provided the ground is not frozen, this time of year is a good opportunity to plant bare-root roses. This winter I am planting three plants of opulent, ruffled, deep purple 'Charles de Mills’, a gallica rose, highly scented and perfect for edible use, just in case I fancy mixing handfuls of petals into a perfumed, summery cake. Sow radishes Having said all that, I have chanced a proper sowing of radishes this week, in pots in the greenhouse, tucked up with horticultural fleece for warmth. 'Mirabeau’ is a fine variety for early sowings, cylindrical and shiny red and white. Houseplant TLC My houseplants are looking desperate: central heating is not their friend. Give them a treat by wiping their leaves then standing them on trays of pebbles and water to increase the humidity around their poor, dried out leaves.
My garden’s pretty boring at the moment. The hedgehogs stopped coming in weeks ago. There are no frogs behind the shed or slow worms basking under the roof tiles in my sunny border. The one treat of winter is usually that the cold brings interesting birds to the garden. But it’s been so mild, I’ve barely seen them. No matter, because I know the wildlife is just sleeping. I hope hedgehogs are snuggled in my large compost heap, slow worms are buried deep in the soil and frogs are nestled among thickets of uncut meadow or beneath the leaves. Most wildlife needs a long, cold winter to hibernate successfully. A steady, low temperature ensures they don’t wake up and waste energy looking for food. Damp, mild winters can be catastrophic for insects, which are more likely to succumb to fungal diseases than during cold, dry winters. Disturbances from gardeners can put wildlife at risk, too. Accidentally uncovering a hedgehog can force it to seek alternative accommodation. Digging up bumblebees exposes them to the elements, while other species might end up on the compost heap or bonfire. As a wildlife gardener I create as many hibernacula as possible and leave them alone between autumn and spring. Here is a list of potential hibernation sites, so we can all ensure our garden wildlife survives the winter. Compost heap All sorts of wildlife hibernate here, from bumblebee queens, beetles and other invertebrates, to amphibians and hedgehogs. Avoid disturbing the heap until the end of March. You’ll then have a short window to turn, move or empty it before species return to start nesting. Log piles Great places for hibernating wildlife, particularly if you’ve packed the gaps with leaves. Amphibians could be nestled tight beneath the logs, along with lots of things they eat, such as beetles and slugs. Long grass Those with perennial meadows should cut grass back in early autumn, but it pays to leave it a bit long and tussocky, so wildlife can use it over winter. You’ll find anything here, from caterpillars and beetles to small mice and even hedgehogs. Leave well alone until March and then check carefully before strimming. Plant pots That pile of pots behind the shed might look a mess, but wildlife could be sheltering here, including springtails, centipedes and worms, spiders and small mammals. If there’s soil left in the pots you may even have a hibernating bumblebee queen, or leafcutter bee cocoons that were laid in the compost as eggs in summer. Tree bark Loose tree bark is the perfect habitat for queen wasps and other insects to hibernate. Take care not to disturb when pruning, and remove bark from wood before burning. If you accidentally disturb a hedgehog, leave a dish of dog or cat food out. If you see one in the day it’s in trouble – take it in, keep it warm and call your local hedgehog rescue. For other wildlife, particularly insects, gently transfer them to a dry place that you won’t disturb. Let creatures rebury themselves. Butterflies can be transferred to the shed, but don’t forget to open the door in spring so they can escape!
In 2020, when the coronavirus crisis hit, a nation of accidental gardeners rediscovered their plots. While everyone was working from home (or furloughed), lockdown gardening took off. Right on cue, garden centres shut on March 23 and did not reopen in England until May 13 (May 28 in Scotland). The closures coincided with hot weather, peak garden season and Britons with all the time in the world to do up the house and surroundings. New – and old – gardeners bought their gardening supplies online, or from those essential retailers that remained open. Demand was so high, at times, you couldn’t get hold of products ranging from swingballs to seeds, bulbs to barbecues. When garden retailers reopened there were plant shortages because growers had not been able to work during the lockdown. Some nurseries lost millions – but the clamour for plants was so great, right through into winter, that many eventually clawed back many of their losses. Gardening winners in 2020 were mail order companies, “essential” retailers such as Wilko and B&Q and, of course, supermarkets. Importers did well, filling gaps in demand; this is a concern for 2021 – importing plants will be more difficult thanks to Brexit. There could also be delays at ports. Losers were the big garden charities such as the National Trust and RHS; closures meant loss of revenue from events, cafés, membership and retailing. The legacy of the rollercoaster year is an army of up to three million new gardeners. How many will stay engaged when we are all vaccinated remains to be seen. Greener living Peat
Every year, headline-grabbing snowdrops change hands on eBay for enormous sums. In February 2015, Joe Sharman’s deliberately bred and appropriately named ‘Golden Fleece’ went for an eye-watering £1,390. But, as I know to my cost, an expensive snowdrop is not necessarily a good garden plant. Some resolutely refuse to bulk up, making more impact on your bank balance than on your garden. And demand constantly outstrips supply, so the price never comes down. I’ve had just two bulbs of Galanthus nivalis ‘Flocon de Neige’, a six-petalled snowdrop, for years. I have also grown the pixie-hatted G. plicatus ‘Trym’ since 1997, but still have only a few. However, some expensive snowdrops have real vigour, probably due to some hybrid blood, so they thrive in everyone’s garden and get passed on to friends. Prices quickly tumble. The superb six-petalled G. plicatus ‘EA Bowles’ fetched £120 per bulb in its first year, but went for half that in the following year. It lingers on sale benches now, purely because it’s such a good doer. The following 10 are excellent and distinctive, so you won’t have to worry about losing the label! Galanthus elwesii ‘Mrs Macnamara’ AGM This is one of the very best early snowdrops, often out at Christmas time. The pale-grey foliage indicates a preference for a brighter position and I find my clump thrives on the sunnier side of an apricot. The single flowers are decidedly elegant, with crisp, dark-green inner marks, and they’re held on taller stems so they resist inclement weather really well. Mrs Macnamara was Dylan Thomas’s mother-in-law and this elegant snowdrop may have Irish origins for Yvonne Macnamara’s father, Henry Vee Macnamara, had two estates in County Clare. Mrs Macnamara had a difficult relationship with Thomas: she’s thought to have burnt his notebooks after his death. However, one of her ancestral homes, Ennistymon House, is now the Falls Hotel with a Dylan Thomas bar! Galanthus woronowii ‘Elizabeth Harrison’ This is the only yellow form of Galanthus woronowii, a squat snowdrop with wide green leaves. This unique yellow seedling, produced by the bees, was found in Elizabeth Harrison’s Dunblane garden in 2002. Scottish snowdrop grower Ian Christie realised its importance and the first available bulb was auctioned on eBay and bought by Thompson & Morgan for £725. Although brilliant publicity, ‘Elizabeth Harrison’ is notoriously difficult to chip, ie to cut into slivers, because it’s slimy. Like all yellows, it needs to get the spring sunshine on its flowers. The greentipped ‘Cider with Rosie’, discovered in a Tewkesbury garden centre by perry maker Kevin Minchew, is an indicator of what could be lurking in your local garden centre. Galanthus plicatus ‘E A Bowles’ AGM One of my latest snowdrops and one of my most substantial, with enormous globular white flowers held above green foliage. It was spotted by Michael Myers in 2002, rising above long grass at Myddelton House near Enfield, which is the former home of E A Bowles. Bowles, who coined the term “galanthophile”, did a watercolour painting of a six-petalled snowdrop in 1912. It is held in the RHS Lindley Library. I am also fond of the dumpy seer sucker-textured ‘Augustus’, named after Edward Augustus Bowles, who was affectionately known as Gussie. Galanthus elwesii ‘Godfrey Owen’ AGM
In these shortest of days, life below ground is quiet but active, many invertebrates are surviving, like travellers to Mars, only as eggs or chrysalises. Sean Borodale, the poet, puts it better: “the sleeping time, the closed membrane of the egg – half of eternity’s symbiosis. This is how winter stores its greater proportion, in preoccupation: packets of forming anatomy.” Leatherjackets, the pupae and larvae of all sorts of insects, as well as frogs and snakes, wait out the winter down below the frost layer where conditions remain constant and steady. If the top layer of soil dips below seven degrees C, biological activity slows down considerably. Worms burrow as far as 6ft down; some produce an antifreeze called glycol; some wrap themselves in mucus slime. Mycorrhizal fungi survive winter as spores. Archaea, soil microbes only recently discovered, are thought to be among the most ancient living things on or in the earth. They are unperturbed by extremes of circumstance, living in hot springs as well as permafrost. Strange and opaque are the ways of the underworld. Soil is a mixture of organic matter, minerals, gases, liquids, and organisms. It is teaming with organisms, more than a billion to the gram – an astonishing thought. Most of them, 98 per cent, humans have not identified. Disrupt this equilibrium at your peril – I am only beginning to understand it is best to disturb your soil as little as possible. The expertly dug and raked plot can be a thing of beauty, but I have always been too busy, too much a “short cuts” merchant, to care for the tidy winter garden. It has its satisfactions, but I realise now that my recalcitrance may have made me, however inadvertently, better in tune with the soil and the commonsense way of gardening. Why? Because the “pedosphere”, as the scientific classification of the soil layer of the planet is called (companion to the more familiar “atmosphere”), is the medium for plant growth; water storage; the atmospheric modulator extraordinaire; the great carbon sink. It acts as a global engineering medium and recycling facility, abounding with animate life.
Back in March, just as the first lockdown was ushered in, Fiona Haser-Bizony, owner of the Electric Daisy Flower Farm in Somerset, found herself in a similar predicament to scores of growers and floral designers across the country. The wedding and events industry came to an abrupt standstill with almost every booking cancelled. The flowers, of course, kept on growing. But Fiona was in a more precarious situation than most – just one month previously she had launched a London shop in Hampstead, which was abruptly closed just weeks after it had opened. Like many others she found a lifeline in drying her crops. “With all the vagaries of Covid-19 it feels like the dry flower stock we have in our barns is our winter gold. We feel like virtuous ants who have stored their harvest while the grasshopper made music all summer,” says Fiona, who added walls, windows and a wood-burning stove to her barn to ensure the flowers on her giant drying racks stayed in pristine condition. “We are going into our least flowery period and having opened a retail shop in London, having no flowers is not an option.” On the Suffolk coast, at the Southwold Flower Co, it has been a similar story, where flower farmer Liz Mobbs lost all but three of her summer wedding bookings. While she did a roaring trade in “pick your own” fresh flowers, serendipitously she had already decided to turn over about an eighth of her field to growing annuals, perennials, grasses and foliage for drying with colleague Sharon Hadden. “It was really a complete punt,” says Sharon. “But we couldn’t have picked a better year to start.” Their dried bunches sell to wholesalers, retailers – such as the nearby arts complex Snape Maltings, which swiftly sold out of its first delivery – as well as from their own flower-filled barn. They’ve also hosted sell-out workshops where visitors can hand-craft their own dried wreaths and everlasting floral domes. “We live in this technological world which is crazy and instant but we need something to pull us back,” adds Sharon. “Everyone is looking for that.”
‘I am not a passionate gardener, although I have become quite passionate about this garden. I care about the detail,” says the Countess of Sandwich, who has presided over the 10 acres of early 20th-century formal Italianate gardens at Mapperton House in Dorset, since the late 1980s, taking on more as her father-in-law, Victor Montagu, became increasingly frail (he died in 1995). You can’t blame her, for both the honey-coloured 16th/17th-century manor house and the the narrow, hidden valley it overlooks, lined with yew and box topiary, terraces and long ponds, are really rather special. Not to mention the orangery, pavilions and further five acres of arboretum started by Victor and continued by Caroline and her husband, John. And she is not the only one to feel strongly: Mapperton has just been made Garden of the Year by the Historic Houses Association. The national award, sponsored by Christie's auction house, is designed to recognise the importance of some of the country’s most spectacular gardens with outstanding horticultural and public appeal. “We are very pleased to get this award, which I think the gardens deserve – and have deserved for years,” says Caroline (the family doesn’t stand on titles), heaping praise on her head gardener, Steve Lannin, and his staff for their efforts in the most difficult of seasons, as well as the plants themselves for performing so well. Together with John, the 11th Earl, Caroline now lives in the old rectory on the estate while their son Luke, Viscount Hinchingbrooke, and his American wife, Julie, have taken over the main house with their children William, 16, Nestor, 14, and Julie’s children, Emma, 22, and Jack, 19, from a previous marriage. The garden, however, is still very much Caroline’s territory: “One hundred per cent,” confirms Julie, a television presenter and yoga teacher, when we meet later, just in case I start quizzing her about her favourite variety of tree peony or what is the best way to take cuttings from Caroline’s splendid salvia collection. And, although by default introduced to gardening at an early age, Luke’s set of horticultural skills has so far not progressed beyond mowing. Nestor, however, is showing a keen interest in nature, and will no doubt be thrilled to see the photos of caterpillars on his grandmother’s cavolo nero that she is about to send him.
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. How to look after poinsettia 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