Saturday, 1 December 2018

Zero waste Christmas decorations from the garden

Do you fancy joining me in zero waste Christmas decorating this year? My definition of ‘zero waste Christmas decorations’ are things found in the garden, are responsibly gathered from the countryside or involve re-using decorations...

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Saturday, 24 November 2018

My best autumn trees for small gardens

Autumn trees are the stars in my November garden.

If I didn’t have trees, there would be very little to look at.  And trees improve air quality and support wildlife. Their height gives a smaller garden presence and proportion.

So I thought I’d round up my favourite autumn trees, in order to help you choose.

Maples, of course, are autumn’s prima ballerinas, but they do not do well in my garden. So here are the alternatives:

Cotinus coggyria ‘Grace’

This is more often grown as a shrub but is outstanding in both summer and in the autumn. ‘Grace’ is less well known than ‘Royal Purple’, and it’s larger, but still reasonably small for a tree. (note: links to Amazon are affiliate, which means I may get a small fee if you buy through them, but it won’t affect the price you pay.)

Autumn trees for small gardens

The star of the show this November has been Cotinus coggyria ‘Grace’, one of the larger cotinus varieties. Most people grow cotinus as a shrub, but this has grown to over 20ft high and is stunning both in the summer and autumn.

Cotinus coggyria 'Grace.'

Another view of the Cotinus ‘Grace’. The white bark is from a silver birch.

Crab apple trees

Crab apples for autumn and winter colour

I think this crab apple is Malus ‘Gorgeous’. It holds its fruits well throughout the winter.

Crab apple trees are usually compact (but not always – do check!). They offer pretty blossom in spring and fruit in autumn and winter. When choosing a crab apple, look for one that ‘holds its fruit well.’ This crab apple of mine still has fruit in February so it looks beautiful in frost.

Malus ‘Gorgeous’ holds its fruit well – I think that’s my variety, but I’ve also seen it looking good in other gardens.

Choose a crab apple that holds its fruit

This photo was taken at the end of January or beginning of February so this tree has really earned its place in my garden.

Heritage fruit trees

There’s something very satisfying about helping to keep a species from dying out. Although quince, which is my next recommendation, is fast becoming fashionable. It has beautiful white blossom in spring, and then fragrant fruits in autumn. They look like a cross between a pear and an apple.

Heritage trees for autumn colour

Quince fruits in November. I’m fairly sure that this is ‘Vranja’…

Even if you can’t face wrangling the fruits to make ‘quince cheese’ or membrillo, a bowl of quince will perfume a room for several weeks.

Quince trees for small gardens

Shaping this tree has been a bit of a struggle, but I love it now. I think it’s worth checking a young tree for shape when you choose it.

Other heritage fruit trees include damson and medlar. We did have a damson, but it didn’t do well and wasn’t a particularly good shape. It’s from the plum family and they can be very fussy.

Silver birch

We have several silver birch (‘Jacquemontii’) in the garden. They do grow quite tall but they are wonderful trees because their pale bark is a focus point, especially in autumn and winter.

Silver birch is a striking tree

The silver birch you can see has just dropped all its golden leaves. Personally I find fallen leaves very beautiful, but I suppose I will have to get them off the lawn somehow.

Silver birches work well in smaller gardens because they can be pruned to be airy and light. Their roots are not very invasive. Multi-stemmed silver birches are currently beloved of Chelsea Flower Show garden designers, and they are also likely to be less tall.

Silver birch underplanted with Cornus 'Midwinter Fire'.

Just a beautiful tree. The Cotinus is in the background and the yellow leaf underneath is Cornus ‘Midwinter Fire’. Soon the cornus will be bare, showing off its bright orange stems. It grows very happily under the silver birch.

I wash my silver birches. (See how in the video). Since I started doing this I have had a lot of compliments – people really do say ‘what silver birch is that – it’s wonderfully white.’ When I say I wash them, they fall apart laughing.

Silver birches may seem large for smaller gardens, but there is a garden near me that is around 45ft long and wide. It has three beautiful mature silver birches at the end. The lightness of the bark stops them being oppressive.

So what’s your favourite small (ish) tree for autumn colour?

Pin for reference:


Best autumn trees for small gardens

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Saturday, 17 November 2018

Are you embarrassed by your Latin plant names skills?

Do you avoid using Latin names for plants? Do they seem too complicated or even unnecessary?

After all, we can all have beautiful gardens without knowing the Latin names of our plants. So I try to pretend I don’t know the proper plant names. And I also try to pretend that this is OK.

I’ve just been sent a children’s book called Perfectly Peculiar Plants by Dr Chris Thorogood (Quarto £12.99) of the Oxford Botanic Gardens. And the plants in it have their Latin names.

Dr chris Thorogood and Perfectly Peculiar Plants at the Oxford Botanic Gardens

Dr Chris Thorogood and Perfectly Peculiar Plants at the Oxford Botanic Gardens.

If children can manage Latin plant names, I thought it was time we amateur gardeners got a grip of them. So I went to the Oxford Botanic Gardens to ask Dr Chris Thorogood to explain them.

(note: links to Amazon are affiliate, which means you can click to buy and I may get a small fee, but it doesn’t affect the price you pay. Other links are not affiliate.)

What are Latin names for plants?

Firstly, they aren’t necessarily Latin names, says Chris. ‘Some of them are Greek. Strictly speaking they’re called the ‘scientific names’ of plants.’

In this post, I’m (mostly) sticking to the phrase ‘Latin plant names’ because it seems to be the phrase that most of us use.

Chris says he included the scientific plant names as well as the common ones in his book because it would help children become familiar with the fact that such names exist.

Perfectly Peculiar Plants by Dr Chris Thorogood

This is the Tank Bromeliad or Aechmea zebrina. Other Bromeliacaea include pineapples and air plants.

‘Up to 1 in 5 plants worldwide is at risk of extinction, so it’s essential to enthuse the next generation of botanists. When people think of conservation, they commonly think of pandas and tigers – I want to show children that plants are just as extraordinary.’ Understanding the names of plants is part of that.

Why do we need Latin plant names

Before Karl Linnaeus devised the current plant naming system, plants were given lots of different names across different languages and culture.

‘We use plants for medicines, food and horticulture, so it’s important that we know what plant we’re talking about in order to use it and grow it consistently,’ says Chris. ‘It helps to make sense of the seemingly chaotic diversity of living things.’

For example, ‘Michaelmas daisy’ is the common name for a number of different and entirely unrelated flowering plants. We used to call them ‘asters’, but botanists discovered that although they looked alike, many weren’t related genetically at all.

Latin plant names demystified

The top flower is Aster mellus ‘King George’. For many years, the pink flower beneath (Symphyotricum novi-belgii Heinz Richard)was also considered to be an ‘aster’ but DNA testing has shown that it is no relation. Yet the common name of both is ‘Michaelmas daisy.’

This doesn’t matter if all you want is a beautiful plant in your garden, but it would be critical if you discovered a medicinal or food use for Michaelmas daisies.

For example, begonias…

I became interested in Latin plant names when I interviewed plant-lovers in their own gardens. Philip Oostenbrink, Head gardener of Canterbury Cathedral and Dan Cooper, blogger at The Frustrated Gardener. When I asked what a plant was, I often got the answer ‘Begonia luxurians‘ or ‘Begonia Martin Johnson…..’

Begonia 'Martin Johnson' - why Latin plant names matter

Begonia ‘Martin Johnson’ in Dan Cooper’s study. It’s the plant with the blue and purple leaves and jagged tips.

Why Latin names for plants are important

Begonia sutherlandii on my mantelpiece….you wouldn’t initially think that both my and Dan Cooper’s begonias were related….

None of these begonias looked like the begonias I’ve seen for sale in garden centres or used in pot displays. How big is the begonia family, I wondered? It reminds me of a friend of mine who has 45 first cousins. When there’s a wedding her side of the church is entirely taken up by relations.

How to understand Latin plant names

My begonias from Great Dixter: Begonia ‘Burle Marx’,’Garden Angel Blush’, Begonia carolineifolia, Begonia sutherlandii, Begonia scharffii, Begonia luxurians

So I bought six begonias at the Great Dixter Plant Fair. They all look very different from each other, and some are very different from pot begonias. But they are all related. And they have lots more cousins….

How to understand Latin plant names

Now that’s what I call a begonia. Begonias(unknown varieties) seen in a pot display this summer.

How Latin plant names work

Back to the Oxford Botanic Gardens… Chris explains that Karl Linnaeus devised a system known as ‘binomial nomenclature’. That translates as ‘two names’.

‘The first name is the generic name of the plant. For example, a banana palm is Musa. And the second name is the specific branch of it,’ says Chris. ‘So I’m standing next to a Musa ornata or Ornamental Banana Palm. These are written in italic.’

Bromeliads are another big plant family.

You would definitely want to know that you were buying pineapples, airplants or tank bromeliads….especially if you were shopping for supper….Bromeliads are another big plant family.

Then there are further varieties, often cross-bred deliberately to create better yields of vegetable or more beautiful garden plants. These names come after the generic and specific names, and are called ‘cultivar’ or variety. For example, I have an Aster mellus ‘King George’.

So it’s like our system of identifying people by using first names and family names, only in reverse. I suggested to Chris that if he were a plant, he might be called ‘Thorogood Chris Dr.’ Or written: ‘Thorogood Chris ‘Dr”.

How to write Latin plant names

The first two names are written in italics, with a capital letter for the generic name. Any cultivars or variety after that is in standard text with capital letters if necessary (ie ‘Martin Johnson’).

A fun present for a future generation of botanists?

Although Perfectly Peculiar Plants (Quarto £12.99) is aimed at 8-12 year olds, I felt I learned alot from it. It would be a great present for anyone wanting to interest their children in botany, conservation or gardening. And if you enjoy reading aloud to children, I think it would work for children younger than eight, too.

Perfectly Peculiar Plants

There’s a fuller interview with Dr Chris Thorogood on this video:

The Oxford Botanic Gardens and Arboretum are the oldest botanic gardens in Britain. They’re open every day, with a series of lectures, workshops and tours, and over 6,000 plants.

Oxford Botanic Gardens & Arboretum

It’s a pleasure to see such beautifully shaped and cared-for trees.

The Oxford Botanic Gardens are a green heart right in the middle of Oxford – check for different opening hours in winter and summer.

The Oxford Botanic Gardens & Arboretum

Dating back to 1621! The Oxford Botanic Gardens & Arboretum…a delightful place to visit.

The Middlesized Garden blog is published every Sunday morning, so do join us. And do subscribe to the Middlesized Garden YouTube channel which uploads every Saturday.

Pin for reference

How to understand Latin plant names

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Saturday, 10 November 2018

My escape from fear to a healing garden

Many people are now talking openly about their physical and mental challenges and how their garden or gardening has helped them.   I want to talk about my story of trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder and the garden, and I hope my story may help other people.

I’ve also done a video on this, so if you prefer watching to reading a post, it’s here:

Going back to the beginning…

I was born in Gibraltar, but as my father worked for the British government we moved a lot in my childhood. After five safe and happy years living in South East England, my brothers and I found ourselves living in an unsettled and unhappy Caribbean country.

A Caribbean paradise?

A Caribbean paradise?

Thirty-one years of an exceptionally brutal dictatorship had ended in the dictator’s assassination around a year earlier. It was also around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, so everything felt very unsafe.

A series of revolutions culminated in a civil war. Fearing ‘another Cuba’, the US Army intervened and we fled the country, briefly becoming refugees.

From a war zone to a healing garden

This notice, from an old family film, sums the sense of upheaval that lingers from that time.

Earthquakes and revolutions…

After we left the Caribbean island, we then lived in another South American country. It was a wonderful place to live, but it still had the occasional revolution, a higher level of violent crime than Britain and several earthquakes.

So I knew that the world could literally open up and swallow you at any moment. But I always believed that I would be safe if I got back to England. When I had nightmares, it was always about trying to escape to England to be safe.

But I thought England was safe…

I came to live in England permanently when I was 18. Eventually I began working in journalism and moved into a house with one of my brothers.

On the second night we were in the house, I woke up to find four men in my room, three with balaclavas concealing their faces. They attacked me with some kind of bat and also with a knife. We subsequently discovered the knife had been taken from our own kitchen.

I screamed and my brother came tearing down the stairs to help. Fortunately they ran away.

I have no idea how long it all took, because although I wasn’t concussed I seemed to have lost a small piece of memory. It took several hours before I realised that my arms and legs had knife cuts across them and that my back was bruised from the blows.

The immediate effects

I felt as if I had stepped into a strange, unknown world, where everything seemed very bright and loud and menacing, and where I could no longer assess whether a knock at the door was someone come to hurt me or just a delivery.

For the first ten days or so, I had to deal with considerable physical pain too, as the blows and some of the knife cuts were painful, although not ultimately serious. Were those footsteps behind me a threat? What was that noise in the middle of the night?

My brain no longer knew what the rules were or how to evaluate even the most ordinary event. My senses were on hyper-alert, so that every time I dropped asleep I was jerked awake as if someone had thrown a bucket of cold water over me.

Above all, it was exhausting and painful, as if someone had imprisoned and tortured me.

What is PTSD?

It was, of course, my own mind that had imprisoned me and for a while it seemed as if it refused to let me go. Friends were enormously supportive and I went to counselling, which had some limited help.

A psychiatrist friend of mine has since told me ‘Bad things happen, and when they do, it’s normal to feel terrible.

But I was still feeling many of the effects over a year later and that is post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. Everyone said that time would help – and it does, but so slowly and in small increments.

Take on new challenges?

However, over the next four years, I got my dream job working on women’s magazines, met my husband and had twins, all of which was wonderful.

Taking on new challenges helped me, but the jumpiness, the sleepless nights and the inability to properly distinguish between a real and imagined threat – it was all still there. I began to get panic attacks in the London Underground and in shops.

Eventually I went to my GP who signed me off sick for two months.

Learn to ‘stop and stare’.

One of the counsellors advised me to do four twenty minute sessions of relaxation and meditation a day.

‘I couldn’t possibly find time for that,’ I said. ‘Well, do you want to get better or not?’ was the reply.

It was the first time I properly understood that unless I looked after myself, then I wasn’t going to be able to look after my family and do my job. There is a reason why you have to put your own oxygen mask on first.

One of the exercises I was asked to do – every day – was to lie down in a calm and comfortable place, with the door shut and away from all distractions. ‘Take yourself round somewhere beautiful,’ they said. ‘Imagine you’re on a Caribbean beach.’

Coverage of the revolution

Not relaxing memories….

Well, my memories of Caribbean beaches involved armed soldiers. Not relaxing.

A healing garden

So I chose a garden for my meditation. Not a famous garden, and not my own garden (we only had a small courtyard at the time).

It was the garden of a house for sale, which a friend had shown me once. The owners had already gone, so garden was slightly overgrown. But you could still walk up its lavender lined front path and go round the side to see the beautiful raised veg beds just outside the back door.

It was long and thin, a typical English town garden in many ways, and divided up into sections. There was a tiny lawn, rose borders, a wilder part with long meadow grass and fruit trees.

As this was over twenty years ago, that blend of cultivation and wildness was before its time. It was a revelation to me.

A tranquil green courtyard at the Agapanthe garden in Northern France

I don’t have any photographs of that first garden, but I do have memories of other peaceful gardens. I think this scene from the Agapanthe garden in Normandy sums up the sense of a journey to a healing garden, with somewhere to sit to enjoy the greenery.

Create your own healing garden

My meditation is a mental walk around this garden, imagining the sounds, feelings, scents and sights of each part of it. I’ve put together a meditation based on going round a garden in a separate video, which you can adapt for your own imaginary garden tour if you like.

I think one of the reasons I chose a garden was also because my favourite childhood book was The Secret Garden, a wonderful Edwardian children’s book about a boy in a wheelchair, a traumatised orphan girl and a farmer’s son coming together to heal by restoring a hidden garden.

Then I started to love real gardens

As I recovered from the panic attacks, I started to notice plants and flowers in the London streets around me.

It was a grey, windy February, but suddenly the brilliant yellow blaze of forsythia tumbled over a wall. A few snowdrops or anemones pushed shyly up in a front garden. The spicy floral scent of witch hazels wafted their elusive breath across the road. A friend’s winter flowering jasmine twined around her front railings.

The healing power of flowers that emerge in winter

There’s something very special about flowers like witch hazel which emerge in the bleakness of February.

I could see that even in a bare, cold winter there could be hope, joy and beauty.

A healing garden isn’t only the answer…

Of course, the meditation around the garden wasn’t the only thing that helped. I had Cognitive Behavioural Therapy which focused more on tips for managing panicky situations rather than examining either the trauma of the burglary or my time in South America.

No-one could promise me I would never be attacked again, but tips that helped me sleep a little better or shop without a panic attack, all reduced the stress.

At the time we had a tiny courtyard – around 15ft wide and 20ft long, but I longed for a garden of my own. When we moved out of London, I got my garden. But I discovered, with a shock that loving gardens wasn’t quite enough.

Learning about gardening helps relieve stress

I had to discover the difference between weeds and flowers, though finding my own ‘gardening style’ was the most important part.

I had to learn about gardening – fast!

It takes time

Healing and gardening both take time to learn. And it also takes time to make your garden yours. Even if you find a house with a beautiful garden, we all have to discover our own gardening style.

It took us about six years to work out what we wanted. That was the beginning of a whole new adventure, which culminated in the Middlesized Garden blog and YouTube channel.

I don’t visit that secret imaginary garden so often now – but sometimes I still need to. If I wake with a start at 3am, I re-create my walk around that garden I only visited once. I usually I fall asleep again quite quickly.

Now I’m interested and excited to find out all the plants, ideas and strategies that gardening has to offer.

I’m still learning, so do join me on that gardening journey, and let me know if you’d like to hear more about gardens and stress relief as well as garden ideas and inspiration.

And if you have a story of stress and gardening, please do share it in the comments below. If you’ve blogged or vlogged it, then feel free to include a link – everyone’s approach is different and sharing stories can help us all. Thank you.

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How to escape from fear to a healing garden

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Saturday, 3 November 2018

Do you really need to do a soil test?

‘So how many people in this room have done a soil test?’

This question was asked by garden designer Adam Frost at a recent talk at the Painters Forstal Gardening Club.

There were over 80 keen gardeners in the room. About half a dozen raised their hands. Embarrassingly I wasn’t one of them – even though a friend of mine had lent me a soil tester and was also in the audience. Rumbled!

Have you done a soil test?

Only about half a dozen keen gardeners in this room had done a soil test.

Many gardening friends say they don’t feel they need to do a soil test. ‘I know what I can grow in my garden.’

However, I’ve had very erratic results in the veg patch over several years. Several people have suggested that it’s my soil. Everyone who grows plants has failures – but if plants are consistently failing to thrive in a particular spot, it’s clear that a soil test is essential.

And if you move to a new house, you can circumvent the many years of discovering that acers (for example) don’t do well in your soil. If I’d done a soil test when we moved in, I wouldn’t have planted either of the two acers that struggled for a few years, then died. I would have planted another type of tree, and it would now be a decent size.

And no, seeing your neighbour’s lovely acer isn’t always a help. There are often pockets of different soil types, even in middle-sized town gardens.

It’s time to conquer my fear of anything that reminds me of school science classes and do a soil test.

Which soil test to buy?

I looked online for reviews, and also on Amazon to see which soil tests were rated most highly. The Testwest Soil Test kit and the Moon City 3-in-1 Soil Tester seemed to be top favourites.

I bought one of each, intending to compare them. (Links to Amazon are affiliate links, which mean I may get a small fee if you buy through them, but it won’t affect the price you pay.)

In fact, they are completely different. The TestWest Soil Kit tests pH, Nitrogen, Potassium & Phosphorus. The Moon City 3-in-1 tests pH, moisture and light. So actually both very useful.

Start with the really easy part

The Moon City 3-in-1 is outrageously easy. I cannot imagine why I worried about it. All you do is jam it in the soil.

Moon City 3-in-1 Soil Tester - the verdict

The Moon City Three Way Soil Tester – it really couldn’t be easier. It measures how much light and moisture a particular spot gets, and the pH, but not the level of nutrients. Excuse the weeds…

It has a three-way switch, which you change accordingly to whether you are measuring the moisture in the soil, the light available in that spot or the pH. The dial responds quickly. Apart from the awkwardness of having to lie flat on the ground to read the results, you have an instant easy answer.

Bearing in mind that Adam Frost tested dozens of spots in his garden, I did the same. The moisture readings were what I expected, and in most of the garden, the pH read as neutral (pH 7).

But in one spot – one of my veg beds – it read as very acid, with a pH below 4. I looked up what grows well in such soil. Nasturtiums, apparently.

And that part of that veg bed is full of self-seeded nasturtiums! They don’t go anywhere else in the garden, but I’d never thought to wonder why.

Plants that like poor soil thrive in parts of your garden where nutrients are low

These nasturtiums self-seed vigorously, but only in one of the borders – the one that is exceptionally low for nutrients and pH level.

The next soil test

I needed to delve deeper, so suppressed unhappy memories of the school science lab and opened the Testwest Soil Test Kit. I’ve video-d this. If you are someone who hates reading instructions, you may find watching less tedious.If you just want the soil test ‘how to’, fast forward to 1 minute, 16 seconds.

The Testwest Soil Test kit has four vials, each with a different chemical, for measuring the pH, Nitrogen, Potassium & Phosphorus. You don’t measure Nitrogen until the spring, so I didn’t do that.

There are also four little sample bottles, each with a coloured cap, a small amount of powder in a coloured marked container and a tiny coloured spoon. The colours are the key!

You dig out 50 grams of soil from various spots in the garden, and add 200ml of water. I took the kitchen scales outside, and a measuring jug.

Put the soil and water in a jam jar, shake it for 30 seconds or so, then leave until it separates again.

Repeat for several parts of the garden. I can only think that Adam Frost must have a magnificent collection of jam jars if he did dozens of soil tests in his garden.

Keep everything labelled and written down

I used Post-it Notes to make sure that I knew which jar connected with which part of the garden. And I wrote the results of each test down as soon as I had them, on the relevant Post-It note.

That may sound simplistic, but if you’re juggling three different tests for six different soil test samples, it can easily get confusing.

The linked colours on the test tubes, vials, powder containers and spoons mean that the test is not difficult, although the final stages of the soil test do get a bit fiddly.

Once your soil and water has separated out again, you use the pipette (provided) to add 3mls of slightly cloudy water to a test tube. Then add 0.5ml of the liquid in the vial that matches that test tube and a ‘heaped spoonful’ of the powder (the matching coloured spoon is tiny). Shake thoroughly and leave for around five minutes to settle.

How to use the Testwest Soil Testing Kit to measure nutrients in the soil

The Testwest Soil Tester Kit measures pH, Nitrogen, Phosporus and Potassium in your soil.

Then you match it against a palette of colours in the booklet provided.

By this time, I was not only impressed with Adam Frost’s (theoretical) collection of jam jars, but also his patience.

Interesting results

My soil test results indicated that most of my borders have ‘medium’ amounts of nutrients. And the Testwest kit pH test results echoed those of the Moon City 3-in-1. I have neutral soil at a pH of 7. Lucky me.

However, the veg bed that had shown up as acid in the Moon City test also showed as very deficient in both Phosphorus and Potassium in the Testwest soil test results. I’m not really certain why, as I thought I’d given all the beds a good mulch of homemade compost every autumn. But it’s possible that I missed that bed out.

Find out which nutrients your soil lacks with a soil test

The veg bed is very low in phosphorus, according to the chart.

It would certainly explain why the veg have not grown well there – but the nasturtiums have flourished – this year.

So what now?

The whole garden needs a proper mulch this autumn. There’s nothing to worry about if you have a ‘medium’ level of nutrients, but it’s not exactly bursting with health, is it? I don’t propose to add specific fertilisers, but I’ll re-test next year and see whether I have to do anything more.

I shall be following Charles Dowding’s No Dig advice – although I can find no trace of reference to soil tests in his excellent book Organic Gardening, the Natural No-Dig Way. (There is a pithy remark on ‘soil health has more to do with biology than chemistry.’ So we’ll take that as a ‘no soil test’ then, shall we?)

But I shall let the compost sit on the top of the soil, allowing the worms and micro-organisms to do the hard work of digging for me.

I also see that the addition of seaweed may be helpful, and we live near the sea. You are generally allowed to take small amounts of seaweed from the beach in the UK, but check your local council regulations.

Seaweed nutrients for the garden

Nearby Whitstable beach. You don’t have an automatic right to take seaweed off a beach so ask your local Council – or other beach owners such as the National Trust.

Meanwhile perhaps I should try out that recipe for Nasturtium Pesto I spotted somewhere on the Internet the other day….

Let me know if you have views on soil tests and whether you’ve found them useful. And if you have other brand recommendations, let us know in the comments below. Thank you!

Pin for reference

Why you really need to do a soil test. #gardening #backyard



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Saturday, 27 October 2018

Autumn garden ideas – what works beautifully and what doesn’t

This year’s autumn garden has taught me a lot about choosing plants for late-season colour.

Trees for autumn garden colour

The leaves of the Robinia frisia (False acacia) and the Cotinus coggyria ‘Grace’ are a splendid sight in my autumn garden.

I’ve always thought of trees and leaf colour as the defining element of an autumn garden. And usually we do have good late-season leaf colour.

But the weather in summer dictates much of your autumn leaf colour. This summer has been exceptional – long, hot and dry. My leaf colour is not as good as usual, so I have realised how much shrubs and perennials contribute to a beautiful autumn garden.

Trees for autumn colour

The most magnificent tree for colour in this garden is Cotinus coggyria ‘Grace’. It is stunning in spring and summer, with dark green-red leaves and fluffy clouds of flower. But in the autumn it is usually a blaze of fire-gold. This October a few branches have turned, but many of the leaves are dropping almost without changing colour.

This Cotinus leaf changes from dark green to this red, and usually eventually turns flame-coloured. For the first time in 15 years, this isn’t happening this year.

The trees in this garden have always been fantastic in autumn. But I think this means I’ve overlooked the importance of the other elements – the perennials and shrubs.

I recently interviewed garden designer and BBC Gardeners World presenter, Mark Lane. He travels around the UK a lot, and says that the long, hot summer has had a different impact in different parts of the UK. Autumn leaf colour is affected by how much sunshine and rain you get in the summer. He saw excellent autumn colour in the north of the UK, not much autumn colour in the Midlands and thinks that the South East  has been very variable.

Beautiful autumn leaves

In my garden, the leaves seem to be dropping without changing colour as much as usual.

Even here in Kent, there is good late-season tree colour in his garden, but not such vibrant hues in mine – and the two gardens are only half an hour apart.

The best flowers for autumn garden colour

Dahlias for autumn garden colour

Dahlias are great for autumn colour. The Rip City dahlia showing off its elegant outlines

Dahlias, asters (most now called symphotricum) and sedum are all flowering in my garden now. But I have missed a trick by not having rudbeckia, gaura and penstemon. Japanese anemones are often recommended for autumn colour, but ours are over.

And perhaps it’s just me, but echinacea- another oft-recommended autumn favourite – never survives long in this garden. I have just planted some persicaria, given to me by a friend, and am looking forward to their impact on next year’s autumn garden.

However several roses are on their second burst of flowering – the Bonica roses in the front garden, and Burgundy Ice in the main border.

Choose roses for their autumn colour

Bonica roses and Nerine bowdenii bulbs are two easy-care and super-reliable flowers for autumn colour in The Middlesized Garden.

Bulbs for autumn colour

We had a burst of white cyclamen earlier on in the month, but otherwise my top bulb for autumn is Nerine bowdenii. It was planted along the front wall of the house by my predecessor. In fifteen years, I’ve thinned them out once, but have otherwise done absolutely nothing to them.

Nerines for pink autumn garden colour

So shockingly neglected that I think you can even see weeds behind them, but they go on and on. But apparently they do take a few years to get established, so hang on in there if yours aren’t doing much.

Shrubs are the late-season stars

So this autumn I have really appreciated what good autumn-leaf shrubs bring to the garden. And I realise that I’ve missed a trick or two. I’ve always adored peony foliage in the spring. It emerges a glorious dark red and looks wonderful with primroses. But I hadn’t appreciated what peonies can -sometimes – bring to the autumn garden.

No autumn glory for this peony...

The peony leaves behind the stone dog aren’t really contributing anything to autumn gloriousness…

I have an unknown peony with beautiful autumn colour. And several very large peonies with no autumn colour at all. Their green leaves are just dying. Think how much more spectacular the garden would have been had I considered late-season foliage and peonies!

Peonies are a wonderful addition to the autumn garden

I wish I’d chosen more peonies for their autumn foliage as well as their flower colour. I don’t know which peony this is as it was planted by my predecessor.

Apparently Monty Don doesn’t like viburnums. It seems hard to see why not – both the viburnums in my garden make a very useful contribution in two seasons of the year. In winter, Viburnum bodnantense has delicate, fragrant pink flowers.

Viburnums for autumn garden colour

Viburnum bodnantense – wonderful autumn colour.

Guelder rose for autumn colour

Another multi-season star – Viburnum opulus or guelder rose has pretty white pompom flowers in spring and beautiful autumn colour. But it should have berries too, and I don’t know why mine doesn’t?

Hydrangeas and cornus are two more multi-season shrubs. I planted my cornus for the vivid colours of the winter stems, but am enjoying their autumn foliage too.

Cornus are good in autumn as well as winter

Cornus ‘Midwinter fire’ (left) and Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’ (right) with Viburnum opulus behind.

Check hydrangeas for autumn colour before buying.

As with the peonies, some of my hydrangeas have beautiful autumn colour and others don’t. This is an oak-leafed hydrangea, probably Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Snow Queen.’

Grasses in the autumn garden

Grasses really come into their own in the autumn garden and I have some in pots. But this is probably an area where I could improve.

Autumn garden colour in pots

The parterre in mid October with Panicum ‘Shenandoah’ and topiary cut box in the pots.

The most important lesson about autumn garden colour

I feel I’ve learned a very important lesson about autumn garden colour. You don’t necessarily need to plan it. All you need to do, when choosing plants for spring or summer, is to check what their autumn foliage is like too. Given the choice between a peony with good autumn foliage and one without, all other things being equal, you can get two seasons for the price of one.

Take a tour of the garden

There’s a full tour of the garden here on this video. If you just want a quick overview, fast-forward to the 30-second tour (with music) which you’ll find at

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Autumn garden colour - what works beautifully and what doesn't

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Saturday, 20 October 2018

Accessible garden ideas – how to make a garden everyone can enjoy

Does an accessible garden only matter to people in wheelchairs? Or to the partially sighted, or to someone with a chronic illness?

What about mothers with small children, or grannies…or those who worry when paving or decking gets slippy in winter…?

Mark Lane and accessible garden design

Mark Lane of Mark Lane Garden Design and the BBC Gardeners World at his home in Kent.

Mark Lane is the UK’s first garden designer in a wheelchair. He is also one of the presenters on BBC Gardeners World.

Mark showed me around the garden he shares with his partner, Jason, as well as talking to me about how you design an accessible garden.

That means a garden which is beautiful, safe, secure, welcoming and (preferably) usable for 365 days a year.

How long do you plan to live here?

Most of Mark’s garden design work is for private gardens where accessibility isn’t a specific element of the brief.

However, he still asks people to think about how long they plan to live with the garden. ‘None of know what’s round the corner,’ he says, ‘so it’s worth future-proofing your garden to some extent.’

Autumn colour inspiration in Mark Lane's garden

Aster ‘Twilight’ against Jackson’s acoustic fencing, in Mark and Jason’s garden. Mark says he always asks clients what colours they want in the garden – and he doesn’t mean flower colour. He means the colours of the paths, fences and structures. I think this pale fence really shows off his autumn colour.

Interestingly, there’s legislation around how accessible new homes must be but it doesn’t extend to the garden around the home.

So if you’re doing a re-design, think beyond the next year or so. In five years’ time, will your needs be different? What about thirty years’ time? Of course, you can make changes further down the line, but sometimes it’s cheaper and better – in the long run – to get it right first time.

Key areas for accessible garden design

Mark talked to me about paths, edging, lighting, garden furniture and planting, and how you can maximise safety or accessibility. These issues apply to all gardens, not just gardens which need to be accessible for specific conditions.

The first thing that surprised me when I arrived at Mark and Jason’s house was the wide gravel path that leads all round the garden.

But Mark says that gravel is a cost-effective choice for paths. If you’re creating an accessible garden, you’ll probably want a path that goes everywhere in the garden, and that can get expensive.  Mark and Jason’s garden is nearly an acre (middle-sized!), so that’s alot of path.

If you lay a gravel path properly, it will be fine for wheels (and that means wheelbarrows and buggies, too).

Gravel paths for an accessible garden

A wide gravel path goes all round Mark’s garden, with paths leading off it so that Mark can access benches, statues and all borders.

You need what’s called a secure MOT type 1 base. This is a sub-base made of crushed recycled concrete, consisting of lots of different-sized chunks. It is compacted down to make it very secure (it’s used as a base for roads, too).

Then Mark had a layer of gravel added and pounded down, so that it, too, was very secure. This was followed by a top layer of gravel (‘so it’s only top few inches that move’, he says).

‘The National Trust uses a self-bonding gravel, for example,’ he says, ‘because it’s easy to lay and repair.’

More accessible garden path advice

Under the pergola, the gravel path slopes slightly. To stop gravel sliding down to the lowest part, it has been laid in lateral sections. This is a grid below the surface level of gravel so it can’t be seen.

Other options include poured rubber or even Tarmac. If you use pavers, remember that they can get uneven over time, which could be a trip hazard or be difficult for wheelchairs.

How to make a gravel path work in an accessible garden

The gravel path with its timber lip concealing a long run of LED lighting. Here seen leading to the ‘white border.’

Paths need to be wide enough for two people can walk along them together. That also makes them wide enough for a wheelchair, a wheelbarrow, a buggy or perhaps for someone using a stick or walking frame or who has someone else walking beside them.

Edging is important

Edging is important in accessible gardens. Someone using a wheelchair or walking frame, the visually impaired or those using a stick need to feel where the path ends and the border begins. Mark has raised timber edges around his paths.

On top of the low timber edging, there is a small overhang (made of a fence topping, in fact). This means that his wheelchair can sense where the border is. And it also conceals a long run of LED lighting. ‘When it’s dark, the paths are lit and the whole garden seems to float above it,’ says Mark.

Edging for accessible gardens

The almost teasel-like heads of Eryngium agavefolium and a cloud of blue Aster ‘Twilight’ are kept in their place by privet hedging.

He also has privet hedging at around hand height. This stops plants from flopping over the ground. It’s also at the right height – Mark can cut the privet edging himself.

Accessible garden seating

Seating is one of Mark’s bugbears. ‘Everyone is a different height, so why don’t we have different heights of seating in a garden?’ he asks. ‘

He suggests varying the heights of your seats, benches or perches around the garden, so that they are equally comfortable for children and very tall or small people.

In fact, this is something we do without thinking inside our homes. As an exercise, I’ve just checked the heights of the chairs and sofa in my sitting room. There are five different heights. Although they don’t vary hugely, one chair is much more comfortable for tall people. Another is my favourite (I’m the shortest in my immediate family).

Accessible garden furniture

Chairs (at two different seat heights) around a table that Mark can get his wheelchair under.

He also suggests having some garden benches with arm rests and others without, because if you want to transfer from a wheelchair to a bench, an armrest can get in the way.

And tables need to be a specific height for wheelchair users – you can’t get a wheelchair properly under some tables, even tables in restaurants.

A new look at garden lighting

Lighting is obviously a big safety issue, not just in accessible gardens but for all of us.

Mark says you should think of your garden lighting the way you think of the lighting in your home.

You’ll need big spotlights where you need to do practical things like take out bins or clear away tables, accent lights to outline a tree and atmospheric lighting at the table. But think about the height of a wheelchair – a row of bollard lights, for example, is at absolutely the wrong height. It will dazzle a wheelchair user.

He also says coloured lights should only be used decoratively – ‘it’s impossible for a wheelchair user to negotiate a path lined at ground level with rows of blue lights,’ he says. (I get the feeling he is thinking of a specific path here, as I’ve never seen a path lined with blue lights. But that might just mean I’m a bit behind the fashion.)

Should you choose easy-care planting?

Mark believes its important to get the structure of a garden right first, and then to consider the planting.

Like most garden experts, he just doesn’t really believe in what is called ‘low maintenance gardening’.

But he does point out that grasses and perennials are relatively easy care: ‘you chop them down once a year, and they pop up again the next’.

Accessible garden planting includes trees, shrubs and perennials

Forsythia in its autumn glory, hydrangea ‘Vanilla Fraise’ and the tree lupin or Lupinus Arboreus. Shrubs and perennials are easier to care for than annuals.

He also says it’s important to think about where branches and plants overhang – something that you might brush your hip against could hit a wheelchair user in the face.

Trees are easy to look after in accessible gardens

Trees are also easy to look after, but don’t let branches overhang at the wrong height. Gleditsia shedding the last of its autumn leaves.

More of Mark’s garden on video

See more of Mark’s garden here on this video:

Be realistic

In the end, Mark says that there’s no such thing as a ‘fully accessible’ garden. People’s needs are so different. But he advises thinking in a logical way about the needs of the person or the group of people who are going to use the garden. There are more posts about garden design here: see Adam Frost’s garden design tips or discover the essentials of garden design from the professionals at KLC.

Find Mark Lane Designs here or catch up with BBC Gardeners World here. Mark is also involved with a number of charities, including Accessible, who have a directory of accessible gardens. When I mentioned this to a friend of mine she asked – aren’t they obliged to be accessible by law?

Well, there’s the law, and there’s commonsense – Mark says that designers may make an entrance wide enough for a wheelchair, but still have a small lip on the ground which stops the wheelchair in its tracks. And I don’t suppose that lip is much fun for those who have to trolley a wheelbarrow full of compost over it…

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Accessible garden tips and ideas - create a garden everyone will enjoy

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