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I have been the Sunday Telegraph’s weekly gardening correspondent since 1996 when I began the Urban Gardener column, chronicling my efforts to tame two overgrown allotments into producing my first organic fruit and vegetables, and to turn 20x20 feet of bare concrete into a leafy city garden.  A collection of these writings, together with my first experiments with seaside gardening up until December 2002, have been published as The Urban Gardener and A Tale of Two Gardens. I am aiming to get the remaining columns up on the site – those for 2006 and 2007 are here already, and for more current writings visit The Sunday Telegraph website.

January - February - March 2007

¤ For articles, click once on the title below to open and once again to close.


At the risk of sounding preachy, new year is a good time to think about trying to garden in a greener way – after all, the more plants there are in the world, the more they can help combat CO2 emissions, especially if they are raised and cared for with environmental concerns in mind. My own resolutions for 2007 focus on three main areas: composting, water conservation and biological pest control.

Composting itself is not a problem for me – I’ve been doing it for years and love the mystical metamorphosis of smelly scraps and garden waste into a crumbly, chocolate-brown mulch that is quite the best treat that almost any plant can have. Where I fall down is on the method of transferring the stuff that collects in the kitchen out into the garden – too many festering and overflowing caddies and containers that attract fruit flies while I put off taking them outside. Well, thanks to a smart new kitchen caddy from the Organic Gardening Catalogue (0845 1301304 OrganicCatalogue.com, £16.95), all that is a thing of the past. A nifty carbon filter hidden in the lid keeps evil smells at bay, and I’ve even invested in a pack of biodegradable liners (£5.65 for 25) to make the journey from caddy to compost bin cleaner and easier. My main method of composting in London is a wormery (from Wiggly Wigglers 01981 500391 wigglywigglers.co.uk) as I’ve always thought our town garden too small for a large compost bin or bay. However, Wiggly Wigglers’ smart painted ‘Beehive Composters’ have made me think again. Shaped like a traditional beehive and made from sustainable rough-sawn treated timber, their simple yet stylish stacking design allows air to circulate within the bin and, best of all, they come painted in any of nine colours, including pink, purple and aqua blue. The smaller 200 litre version would easily fit into a corner of even the smallest garden, and is pretty enough to be a feature in its own right. After all, now that composting has become fashionable, there’s no need to hide all that worthy work away! (The small model costs from £100; the larger 300 litre version from £120).

When it comes to water conservation, I’m doing better since installing a water butt at the seaside house, and need to get a second plumbed in. The plans for our new eco-extension include an underground rainwater store beneath the kitchen that will be used to flush loos as well as irrigate the garden – and I hope that will be in place by the end of the year. If you’re put off water butts by the thought of something made from ugly (and often unenvironmental) green or black plastic, check out the recycled oak barrels from Plantstuff (0870 774 3366 plantstuff.com). At £145 apiece they are clearly not the cheapest option, but because they look so nice (weathered oak, rusted metal bands and brass bird or frog tap) they, too, can become a feature in your garden and be placed where they will be most useful, not where they will least intrude. I’ve got a good system going now with a couple of watering cans – watering the garden with one while the other sits under the tap filling up. It’s amazing how quickly the butts fill with rain – those with larger gardens might like to consider the huge but handsome slatted wooden tanks from The Organic Gardening Catalogue (0845 1301304/ www.OrganicCatalogue.com) which go up to 600 litres (the average butt takes only 210).

Biological pest control is clearly the way forward when it comes to controlling unwanted wildlife in your garden. Since adding to my stock of bird feeders (my husband says our seaside house looks like a bird feeder shop), we have had far fewer problems with aphids, and the addition of a larger pond sometime this year will hopefully help attract frogs and toads to feast on the slug population. Nematodes are also a good slug control (36 weeks’ worth, sent out at 6 week intervals costs from £59.94 from Green Gardener (01603 715096 greengardener.co.uk - a good way to make sure you remember to renew the treatment. Green Gardener do the same with controls for vine weevil (£35.96 for a year’s worth), whitefly, mealy bug and other persistent greenhouse pests – and their telephone advice service is second to none. I shall be availing myself of their new Winter Tree Wash to rid my apple trees of overwintering pests and eggs. The standard treatment used by gardeners for years has recently been withdrawn from sale, but this greener alternative uses natural plant oils and costs £21.98 for two 500ml bottles. Happy green gardening!

14 Jan 2007 - EARLY IRISES

The few flowers that bloom in these bleak midwinter weeks bring such cheer that it is worth braving the cold and going in search of them. One of the most beautiful must be the Algerian iris. I can still remember the thrill, down on my allotment many years ago, of happening on a clump of Iris unguicularis (formerly known as I. stylosa), and thinking that the delicately-veined, lavender-blue flowers looked far too fragile and exotic to have been out among the frost-rimed cabbages and broccoli. In fact, this iris is perfectly hardy if given a sheltered sunny site, and will usually produce a few blooms in time for Christmas. A spot at the foot of a south-facing wall will suit it best, where it should bulk up year after year, flowering profusely throughout January and February.

The artist and engraver Clare Leighton, whose 1935 classic Four Hedges: A Gardener’s Chronicle, I have recently been given by my mother-in-law, Janet, remarks on the fact that, because there are so few other flowers around, one can really take the time to savour I. unguicularis in all its stages. Like me, she picks them while still in slim elegant bud, like furled umbrellas, and brings them inside to watch them open. “The top part thickens; and suddenly, even while we are looking at it, a petal uncurls from the tight roll and leans back slightly, to show the violet glow of its inner colour,” she writes. “Back and back it leans, and the rest of its petals expand, till it is a parti-coloured pattern of violet and ivory. At last, after a few more hours, the entire flower is free…. There are yellow splashes and white lines upon the deep, rich violet of its petals; sheath and stem show a wonderful clear, transparent green.”

From this detailed description, it would seem that Ms Leighton was talking about one of the cultivars. The simple species Algerian iris is mid-mauve and pretty enough, but if you can get hold of the deep violet ‘Mary Barnard’, silvery-lavender ‘Water Butt’ or near-navy, exquisitely marked ‘Abingdon Purple’, you are in for a real treat. Just remember to remove the tangle of old brown leaves that gathers around the base. Apart from looking untidy, they harbour hibernating snails that too often tuck into the buds as their first snack on waking. It’s heartbroken to have an entire flower riddled with holes as it unfurls.

This winter, I’ve seen Iris unguicularis in bloom as early as November, and I know from your letters that I’m not the only one to have had snowdrops in my garden (the common Galanthus nivalis, not some fancy early-flowering variety) by the first week of December. The mild autumn and winter weather has meant that “hangers-on” from summer such as bizzie lizzies and pot marigolds (Calendula officinalis) and even lavender flowers have lingered far longer than is usual, contributing unexpected splashes of colour to the borders, while ‘true’ winter-flowering plants such as cyclamen, mahonia and aconites have all arrived early. Even the usually recalcitrant Helleborus niger lived up to its common name, the Christmas rose, and put out more than one milky-green bud in time for the festivities.

Since early January, I’ve been enjoying an attractive combination of snowdrops pushing through the strappy black grass Othiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’, with the fresh green leaves of Oxalis ‘Iron Cross’ (like a four-leaf clover with a burgundy blotch at the base of each leaf) creating some contrasting colour in between. I scattered the corms of the oxalis last autumn (along with those of its purple-leafed cousin O. triangularis purpurea), not expecting to see it up so soon, but have been delighted by the result. In fact, those I planted alongside the snowdrops and black grasses in a small green-glazed pot look so pretty that I have brought the pot inside where it sits, like a miniature winter garden on the kitchen table, making me smile whenever I see it.

It’s easy for one’s cheer at all this unseasonal flowering to be countered by gloom about global warming, so I was reassured to find Clare Leighton, back in the 1930s, shaking her head at the premature appearance of scillas and Iris reticulata in December. Of course, we do have to do all we can to make our lifestyles more sustainable, but we can still enjoy these welcome winter offerings along the way.


All gardeners have their Achilles’ heel, and mine is house plants. Out of doors, I manage to keep most plants happy; and often nurse back to health ailing specimens discarded by others. Inside the house, it is quite another matter. I cannot count the number of crisp-leaved carcasses that have been added to the compost heap – even plants I’ve rescued from IKEA, figuring that life back home with me, even with my track record, would be preferable to being stuck in a store with no natural light or ventilation, surrounded by flat-pack furniture and people having arguments. The latest casualties are some scented pelargoniums in our London bathroom, where I like to place a few large plants on the deep dormer windowsill, to provide a leafy alternative to blinds or net curtains.

Plants are particularly welcome in bathrooms. Not only can they soften the often clinical appearance of tiles and shiny white enamel; they can also bring an air of freshness – and perfume too – to a room where it will be appreciated. And unless one has the body of a supermodel, it is always nice to have something other than flab and wrinkles to focus on while soaking in the tub. Luckily, the particular conditions enjoyed by most bathrooms mean that there are lots of lovely plants to choose from. Most modern bathrooms are warm, humid and lacking in droughts, enabling one to grow a range of plants that might struggle elsewhere in the house. Moisture-loving ferns such as the maidenhair fern (Adiantum raddianum) are an obvious choice, but how about begonias, or even bananas? Begonias are available in as many different colour combinations as there are styles of bathroom – if the larger-leaved varieties seem a little Victorian for your taste, go for the tiger-spotted type with smaller dark red, lime-spotted leaves, which have a more contemporary feel. Bananas would bring a real air of the exotic to any bathroom, but bear in mind that they can put on a metre of growth per year – Musa acuminata ‘Dwarf Cavendish’ would be a good one to start with (see box) – but all these will do best if the temperature is kept constant.

In cooler bathrooms, perhaps in a second home, or attached to a spare bedroom that is not often used, tougher plants will be needed. Crassulas and aspidistras are among those that can withstand cold and infrequent watering – and how about ivies? Some such as Hedera sagittaefolia have particularly interesting leaf shapes and a trailing variety placed on a window sill or lavatory cistern can complement a variety of decorating styles, from opulent Victorian to funky Fifties modernism.
Pots of seasonal scented bulbs grow well in bathrooms, and are a nice touch for the guest suite when friends come to stay. Fragrant white hyacinths or ‘Paperwhite’ narcissi are wonderful in winter, and lily of the valley or even tuberose would bring a real feeling of luxury at other times. Stephanotis or jasmine are other possibilities, and can be trained in an attractive shape. Their scent is guaranteed to knock you for six when you open the door.

Provided the room is relatively humid, I would always come back to ferns as the most reliable plants for bathrooms, particularly those with low light levels. The hart’s tongue fern (Asplenium scolopendrium) is one of the few plants that can survive even in a windowless room, and its frilly fresh green foliage looks particularly attractive against a white backdrop. The asparagus fern is another toughie, and looks great cascading down from a high shelf, while the sword fern (Nephrolepis exaltata) and its drooping cousin the Boston fern (N. e. ‘Bostoniensis’) have a splendid architectural presence. Ferns look good grouped together on the floor or in a deep window ledge – and will also benefit from the increased humidity that an en masse arrangement provides.

In the bathroom at our seaside house, I plan to put up a couple of glass shelves across the window recess, and fill them with plants that will screen us from passers by. I shall replace my peppermint-scented pelargonium (P. tomentosa) with its fuzzy, fragrant leaves, and add the trailing rosary vine (Ceropegia linnearis woodii) and maybe a few obliging succulents. Then all I have to do is keep them alive….

Low light, warm and humid
¤ Delta maidenhair fern (Adiantum raddianum) – don’t overwater, but never let the compost dry out
¤ Begonia rex – keep compost moist in winter and spray daily in summer.
¤ Devil’s ivy (Epipremnum aureum) – strong climber.
¤ Palms such as the Curly palm (Howea belmoreana) and Kentia palm (H. forsteriana)

Low light, cool and humid
¤ Hart’s tongue fern (Asplenium scolopendrium)
¤ Boston fern (Nephrolepis exaltata ‘Bostoniensis’ - never let the soil dry out completely)
¤ Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum ‘Variegatum’
¤ Umbrella grass (Cyperus alternifolius) - best grown in a water-filled container
¤ Miniature bamboo (Pogonatherum panaceum)

Bright light, cool
¤ Succulents such as echeverias, aeoniums, crassulas
¤ Kumquat (Fortunella margarita) - small edible orange fruits ripen in autumn and winter.

Bright light, warm
¤ Madagascar jasmine (Stephanotis floribunda) – spray regularly in summer
¤ Angel’s wings (Caladium x hortolanum) – likes humidity, and needs light or the brightly-coloured leaves will fade.
¤ Bananas such as Musa acuminata ‘Dwarf Cavendish’ (which needs good humidity) and the Abyssinian banana (Ensete ventricosum ‘Maurellii’) – the latter needs its compost kept dry in winter.

28 Jan 2007 - WINTER STEMS

The winter sun brings out the colour and form of all bark and stems – those low slanting rays seeking out every nuance of tone and texture. Even a tangle of bare honeysuckle stems is transformed into a glittering crown, while plants with coloured or contorted stems assume an almost otherworldly beauty. I remember the thrill of turning the corner at the far end of the fantastic winter garden at Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire to be faced with a grove of multi-stemmed silver birches (the whiter-than-white Betula utilis var. jacquemontii) underplanted with purple cornus and the red cabbage-like Bergenia ‘Bressingham Ruby’. The dramatic contrast of shapes and colours quite took my breath away.

Most people think of dogwoods when it comes to coloured stems, and there is no doubt that varieties of Cornus such as the scarlet-stemmed C. alba ‘Sibirica’, ochre C. sericea ‘Flaviramea’ and purplish-black C. alba ‘Kesselringii’ look spectacular in winter, especially when planted beside a pond, where the cross-hatching of bare stems can be reflected in the still water. These and the various coloured willows (Salix alba var. vitellana ‘Britzensis’ is scarlet and S. daphnoides violet) are strongly vertical in shape, but there are other plants with coloured stems that have more graceful growth habits. One of the most beautiful is the aptly-named ‘Ghost bramble’ (Rubus) whose silvery-white stems form an eerie, arching canopy that is best set off by an evergreen hedge behind. Rubus cockburnianus looks as if its prickly stems have been dipped in silvery-purple metallic paint, while the less aggressive R. thibetanus ‘Silver Fern’ has a dusty bluish-white bloom. Just one plant can look beautiful in a small garden, but a swathe of them, as at Anglesey Abbey, where they are teamed with scarlet cornus stems and fresh green choysias, is an extraordinary sight. To enjoy the full effect, they should be kept away from pretty flowering shrubs and fussy underplanting and partnered with just one or two strong contrasts.

Contorted hazels and willows can be untidy plants in summer, with leaves pointing every-which-way on their crazy corkscrew branches. Come winter, however, the spiralling bare branches are a real asset to the garden, particularly where they can be admired against a clear blue sky. The contorted hazel, Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’ is the one to go for in an average garden as the corkscrew willow (Salix babylonica var. pekinensis ‘Tortuosa’) grows fast and gulps up gallons of water. Once the plant is established, cut a few stems to bring inside where, festooned with small white fairy lights, they can make an attractive lighting feature for Christmas or any time of year (don’t put them in water as foliage will form and spoil the sculptural effect). If you want a contorted tree but find the spiralling scribbles of these plants too chaotic, go for the Japanese larch (Larix kaempferi) which is a small compact tree with curly, rather than corkscrew branches. With pale green leaves that turn gold in autumn, it would make a striking centrepiece in a small garden, and looks stunning when its branches are outlined by a rime of frost.

Less often considered as a wintry plant is the Corokia from New Zealand, but bereft of its small spoon-shaped leaves, the tangle of fine forked branches, often dusted with a metallic bloom, forms an intricate and attractive tracery. Its growth habit developed as a defence against high winds and grazing animals, and the plant is hardy enough to withstand exposed and coastal conditions. C. cotoneaster is commonly called the ‘wire netting bush’ after the effect of its tangle of grey stems with tiny leaves, felted silver underneath, while C. x virgata has larger narrow leaves and C. xx xx has an almost chocolatey bloom on the grey branches. Well-drained soil is a must, making Corokias prime candidates for containers, where they will thrive even in hot summers with intermittent watering.
For further inspiration about plants that are at their best in winter, get hold of The Winter Garden by Val Bourne (Cassell Illustrated £16.99), a beautiful new book that claims the winter garden can be “as comforting as hot chocolate after a long walk”. Or visit the winter garden at Anglesey Abbey, Quy Road, Lode, Cambridge CB5 9EJ (01223 810080 nationaltrust.org.uk/angleseyabbey) which is open during the winter season, on Wednesdays to Sundays, 10-30am-4.30pm (last entry 3.30pm). Entrance is £4/£2; National Trust members free. The garden is accessible for people with disabilities – wheelchairs and buggies are available free of charge but must be pre-booked on 01223 811260. There is a shop, small plant sales area and restaurant. During the snowdrop season there are likely to be large crowds at weekends.

04 Feb 2007 - WINTER WEEDING

Winter isn’t normally a time I’d associate with weeding, but this year’s mild weather has meant that many weeds have been flourishing. It’s also meant that the ground has been workable enough to remove them easily. There are few gardening tasks more satisfying than pulling up the entire long taproot of a dandelion, thistle or dock plant intact (new plants form from fragments left in the ground) and this is near impossible when the soil is hard – either frozen solid or baked to a biscuit in summer. So the other weekend I took advantage of a sunny afternoon at the seaside and spent a profitable few hours freeing previously uncleared areas from the clutches of unwelcome plants.

Top priority were the brambles, which I have tolerated to a degree on account of their fruit – but there are enough blackberries in the hedgerows to keep us in crumbles and jam, and I can do without shredding my ankles en route to the compost heap. Once the tangle of upper growth had been sheared down to knee height (with the help of a neighbour and his strimmer), I could locate the individual plants and dig them out with a fork – new suckers came out easily with just a gentle tug, while the old parent plants put up quite a fight until their nobbly knuckles of root were finally unearthed. Next came the nettles – at this time of year there may only be a few new young leaves showing above ground, but pull on them with a well-gloved hand (see offer below) and a spaghetti-like mat of bristly white stems and roots will soon surface, sometimes stretching back yards to its source. The roots went on the bonfire pile with the brambles, while I kept some of the fresh young tips for soup.

I’ve been a fan of nettle soup since I was served it for lunch by Beth Chatto several years ago – only the young leaf tips should be used, and soon lose their prickliness when added to braised onions and potatoes and simmered in vegetable stock. The flavour is quite delicious - reminiscent of spinach but more earthy, and enhanced by a squeeze of fresh lemon. But the nutrient content of stinging nettles is staggering – 333 micrograms of vitamin C per 100g compared to a mere 13 in the same amount of lettuce, and 7.8 mg of protein compared to 4.1 in spinach. As I grubbed up flat rosettes of dandelions, plantain and bittercress, and handfuls of the goosegrass and chickweed that had invaded my raised vegetable beds, I remembered a book I’d been sent a few years back entitled Cooking with Weeds by Vivien Weise (Prospect Books £9.99/www.prospectbooks.co.uk) and wondered if there might be some culinary uses for all of this other surplus green growth.

Sure enough, within the slim paperback’s pages were recipes for goosegrass soup, stinging nettle pate, plantain potato pizza and an extremely tasty dandelion and potato salad which I made with the help of a visiting godson and his family – the flowers, leaves and stalks are chopped into the salad along with a handful of sorrel and a yoghurt mayonnaise dressing. Some of the book’s more outlandish suggestions – silverweed gnocchi, hogweed pulao and smooth sow thistle spaghetti sauce – will take me a bit of persuading to try, but I’m intrigued to learn that even ground elder (684 micrograms of vitamin A per 100g compared to 7 in cabbage) can be made into a showy layered pancake dish or chopped into a cheese soufflÈ. Ground elder is notoriously hard to get rid of once it takes hold in a garden, so the author’s advice is “don’t fight it, eat it! And be happy that it is there for the taking.”
When weeding, Ms Weise advocates popping edible weeds into a basket for the kitchen (I do this sometimes with young dandelions, bittercress and chickweed to add to salads) and the inedible ones into a bucket for the compost heap. Her only reservations are that one should use a guide to help identify edible weeds (her book includes black and white photographs), and take care that the ground is not contaminated by weed killers or animal droppings.

I continued my weeding with a happy heart – few gardeners (certainly organic ones, anyway) feel they will ever, completely, conquer their weeds, and this splendid book makes one feel that the garden would be a poorer place were they to do so. And there is one so-called weed that I never pull up as it’s simply too pretty: purple toadflax, with its tiny scalloped leaves and miniature mauve pansy-like flowers, which cascades from the tiniest footholes in walls, and makes a welcome ground cover for pots of emerging spring bulbs.



Sending red roses for Valentine’s Day may be romantic, but it certainly won’t win you any points in the originality stakes. There are several potted plants which, while every bit as scented and seductive, will still be thriving long after those roses have drooped or withered in the vase. They also suggest you’ve given the occasion a little more thought than nipping into the garage forecourt on your way home.

One of the most lovely plants to be given at this time of year is a potted jasmine (Jasminum polyanthum), whose fragrant white flowers are just beginning to emerge from tight pink buds. Readily available from garden centres, even a small plant can be slipped into a pretty cache-pot and wound round a home-made support, but the larger plants, standing a metre or more tall, could be trained into something spectacular. Carefully unwind the delicate tendrils from the plastic supports they come with, and weave them around your own - a wire-coat hanger bent into a circle with the straight ends stuck in the soil will make a classic wreath, but why not go one further and create a heart? Jasmine likes bright but cool conditions, so a bedroom windowsill is ideal, where it will fill the entire room with its scent. Pinch out the tips and cut back after flowering to retain its shape, but the plant may fare better if planted out in the garden in spring – ideally trained up a sunny sheltered wall near a window or doorway where it can waft its scent inside on summer evenings.

You could try something similar with a passionflower vine – the who cares if the ‘passion’ in the title has religious rather than romantic connotations? The most commonly-found Passiflora caerulea is bluish purple and white, but P. sanguinolenta has pinkish-red flowers, and P. citrina, which is more compact and best suited to growing indoors, is yellow. P. ‘Amethyst’, P. x allardii, and red-fruited P. rubra are all scented. Passionflowers do best in a conservatory or near a south-facing window with lots of light, and like a daily spraying with water. Hardier varieties can be planted outside later, in a sunny spot, where they will cover a wall or roof in a carpet of flowers if kept well-watered.

Scent is a great seducer, and one of the many fragrant winter-flowering shrubs would make a good present for a keen gardener. Most desirable of all must surely be Daphne mezereum, also known as the ‘paradise plant’ on account of its delectable clove-sweet scent. This plant is strictly for outside – you could pot it up in an attractive container to complement its pinky-mauve flowers – and should be placed by a doorway where the perfume (at its height round about now) can be appreciated on the way in and out.

Lilies are also wonderfully romantic – the blooms have a voluptuous beauty, and their scent all the richness and intensity of jasmine with none of the heaviness. A big bunch of lilies is always a joy – but you might also find pots of bulbs for sale, with the first fringed shoots pushing through the soil. Or why not give a bag of bulbs along with the bouquet – they can be planted now to flower in June and July. Catalogues (such as Blom’s 01234 709099/ www.blomsbulbs.com) are packed with spectacular varieties, from the huge frilly-flowered Lilium auratum, whose creamy-white blooms can be 10-12 inches across, to Turk’s head or martagon types, with their pretty reflexed petals, upward-facing Asiatic hybrids such as ‘Snow-Star’ and the fragrant florist’s favourite, ‘Stargazer’. To my mind, though, none can compare with the simple elegance of Lilium regale, its long deep pink buds slowly opening into lustrous white trumpets with golden anthers and that famous heady scent. Not for nothing was it chosen almost unanimously as the International Flower-Bulb Centre’s summer-flowering bulb of the year for 2007. L. regale bulbs can be found at garden centres, where three good-sized quality bulbs should cost around £5.

Finally, if inspiration deserts you, or if you are such a traditionalist that only red roses will do, why not give a live rose bush instead of, or as well as, your 12 or 24 stems? There are some stunning red roses to choose from, including dark, velvety ‘Empereur du Maroc’, modern climber ‘Guinee’ [acute accent], fiery, floriferous ‘Intrigue’ and Vita Sackville-West’s old favourite, the sweet, spicy-scented ‘Souvenir du Docteur Jamain’. They might not look much at the moment – just a bundle of thorny twigs in a pot – but now is the time to plant them in the garden, where they will give lasting pleasure to your Valentine for the months and years to come.



One of the few attractive edible plants in the vegetable garden at this time of year is cavolo nero, or black Tuscan kale. Its tall crinkly leaves - actually a delicious shade of deep blue-grey - stand as proud and elegant as the plumes of the Prince of Wales’s crest, and are set off to perfection by a white rime of frost. It’s tasty in the kitchen too, even if its spell as a high-fashion vegetable on the menus of London’s River CafÈ and the like, seems to be over. I have to confess I’ve enjoyed it a lot more since I gave up cooking the leaves whole (that central white midrib can be tough and stringy) and simply chop an entire head finely into soups, stews and risottos.

Its curly-headed cousin, Red Russian kale, also cuts a dash in the winter kitchen garden, with crimped leaves like curly parsley in a stunning purplish crimson. Like all the kales, it has a long useful season in the garden – sown in spring, the tender young leaves can be snipped into salads, while mature leaves make a tasty and nutritious accompaniment to steamed fish or roast lamb.

Even the humble cabbage can be a fine presence in winter, particularly if you’ve chosen one of the red or bluish-leaved varieties such as ‘Marner Lagerrot’, ‘January King’ or a crinkly-headed Savoy. And purple Brussels sprouts must be one of the most dramatic vegetables of all, the cabbage-like seedlings growing taller and taller during summer and coming into their own as winter approaches, with tightly-packed buttons swelling between the large rounded leaves. ‘Rubine’ and ‘Falstaff’ have beautiful dark foliage, but the sprouts turn green on cooking, even when steamed. Go for the recently introduced ‘Red Bull’ and ‘Red Delicious’ (purple foliage with pinkish-red veins) if you want your Brussels purple on the plate.

If you don’t already have these beautiful and useful winter brassicas in your garden, don’t despair: it will soon be time to sow for the coming year’s crop. Sow winter cabbages and sprouts from late winter until late spring, and kales from spring to early summer. Sowing in pots is preferable, to ensure sturdy young seedlings that will survive a little slug or snail damage when planted in open soil. The main predator to protect against with brassicas is pigeons – I’ve got best results with netting covering the entire crop.

And why not make the most of the beauty of these plants when making plans for your garden this coming year? Cavolo nero, curly red kale and purple Brussels sprouts are attractive enough to form the centrepiece of beds in an ornamental potager – or even to be incorporated into borders. An inspiring new book, All-In-One Garden by Graham Rice (Cassell Illustrated £16.99) advocates just this approach, and is packed with ideas for mixing vegetables, herbs, fruit and flowers in the same space. Purple Brussels, coming into their own in autumn, look stunning alongside late summer flowers like bronze or red dahlias, fiery cannas, yellow rudbeckias and tall white Nicotiana sylvestris, and can even have blue morning glory or yellow canary vine entwined among the dark leaves. Red curly kale looks great with grey and silver-leaved plants, pink or purple petunias, blue-flowered geraniums, or a scattering of nasturtiums, while Tuscan kale is best partnered with with blue and white verbenas, nemesia or ageratum, or grown as an annual among border perennials such as phlox, hardy geraniums and heucheras. And what could set off the pink-veined leaves of purple cabbages better than a sprinkling of bright orange California poppies (Eschelzia californica)? Balcony gardeners are not forgotten – just a single cavolo nero or curly red kale plant would make a splendid upright in the middle of a large container, surrounded by culinary herbs such as chives and sage, or cut-and-come-again salad leaves in all shades of green and red.

“All-in-one gardening” brings a whole new mindset to gardening – when choosing plants, try to select an edible tree, bush or ground-cover plant over an ornamental, and when looking at fruit and veg varieties, go for visual appeal along with flavour and yield. Curly kale and red cabbage figure in the author’s “Top Ten All-in-One Garden Crops” (alongside blueberries, rainbow chard, curly parsley, runner beans and strawberries), on account of their long-lived presence in the garden – from seedlings in spring to mature summer plants to splendid silhouettes in the snow.
Seeds of Italy (0208 427 5020/ www.seedsofitaly.com; Simpson’s Seeds (01985 845004/ www.simpsonsseeds.co.uk) and The Organic Gardening Catalogue (0845 1301304/ www.OrganicCatalogue.com) are all good sources of attractive and flavoursome vegetable varieties.



Last spring I fulfilled a long-held ambition and visited the stunning gardens of Tresco Abbey in the Scilly Isles. It was a long journey, by train and then helicopter, with my parents and small daughter in tow, but we were greeted by the sight of palm trees and bright tropical flowers ablaze against a clear deep blue sky. The vegetation on the islands is extraordinary enough, with deep blue spires of echiums and succulent rosettes of echeverias and aeoniums (not hardy in the average British winter) sprouting from rocky outcrops and cascading over roofs and walls. But within the Abbey Gardens, all manner of plants which one would normally only expect to see in glass houses or on holidays much further afield, are growing to impressive sizes and flowering prodigiously.

Embraced by the Gulf Stream that brings warm weather up from the southern hemisphere, the Scilly Isles enjoy a subtropical climate where temperatures rarely drop below 10 degrees C. But around the ruins of the 12th-century Abbey, an even more sheltered microclimate has been created, thanks to a series of windbreaks – mainly Monterey and Norfolk Island pines and high holm oak hedges – planted by the garden’s founder, Augustus Smith, in 1834. Kept up by Smith’s descendants (Tresco is still owned and run by the Dorrien-Smith family) and curator Mike Nelhams, who became head gardener in 1983 and supervised replantings after the hurricane of 1990, it is these unique conditions that make this non-stop, year-round garden possible.

During our visit in March an incredible 250 different plants were in bloom, including Proteas from south Africa with their stiff pink-tinged petals around a sculptural central boss; Sophoras from Chile such as S. tetraptara with fleshy yellow flowers hanging in heavy fronds, and Callistemons from Australia with their bright red bottle-brush blooms. My favourite plant of all, which I had never seen growing elsewhere, was the graceful Silver Tree – Leucadendron argenteum from the Southern Cape, whose long branches densely covered with silvery, silky, lance-shaped leaves, appeared to be dancing in even the slightest breeze. Hearing it grows well in drought-prone coastal areas, I dreamed of being able to plant it in our seaside garden, but Mike Nelhams counselled caution. The problem, it seems, is that very few sites can provide the frost-free, yet windy conditions that the Silver Tree enjoys. In many places, shelter from the frost is only created along with loss of air movement and a rise in humidity, both of which it abhors. Growing up to 10m high, with a spread of up to 4m, it can survive up to minus 6.5C overnight frost, but not sustained cold.

Of the many other plants that caught my eye on a tour of the gardens, Mike Nelhams had a few recommendations for mainland gardeners with free-draining soil, a degree of shelter, and an urge to try something different. One of the mainstays of the garden is the lovely Geranium maderense which, as its name suggests, is a native of Madeira, where it flourishes along roadsides. A rosette of feathery, deep-cut pink-veined leaves spirals off a thick fleshy trunk which is topped by a bouquet of clear pink flowers, exquisitely striated from deep raspberry centres. Plenty of new buds await opening on fuzzy pink-haired stems – indeed, the main stem is hairy too and, when backlit, the hairs form a halo of pink around the entire plant. Over its first three or four years, the plant grows only foliage, forming a sturdy stem as the lower leaves die back – but it’s well-worth being patient. Growing up to 1.5 metres, drought-tolerant and able to survive minus 1C overnight frost, this is one to chance in a frost-free corner, or provide with protection in winter.

Also originating from Madeira and the Canary Islands, most members of the Echium family can withstand up to minus 6.5C overnight frost, but need to be protected from waterlogging in winter. E. pininana forms dramatic, pagoda-like blue spires up to 4.5m high, while E. candicans does the same in miniature (just 38cm) and E. wildpretii has reddish pink flowers above rosettes of beautiful silvery-green leaves. (More on echiums, including a free seed offer and growing competition, next week).

Other plants that can withstand similar conditions or do well in pots that can be overwintered inside include echeverias and aeoniums – it was thrilling to see the dark, almost black-leafed Aeonium arboreum ‘Zwartkop’ grown to over a metre high, with countless branching arms bearing bright yellow flowers – and Correas, with their tubular fuchsia-like flowers in shades of green, pink and red. Drought-tolerant and capable of surviving minus 1C overnight frost, Correas flower particularly well in pots, and C. ‘Dusky Bells’, with carmine-pink blooms, is particularly pretty.

Information on growing all the above plants and many more is provided in Subtropical and Dry Climate Plants: The Definitive Practical Guide by Martyn Rix (Mitchell Beazley £30). For further information on visiting Tresco and the Abbey Gardens see tresco.co.uk.


03 Mar 2007 - ECHIUMS

In last week’s column on the Abbey Gardens on the island of Tresco, I touched on the subject of echiums, and wanted to return to these spectacular plants with their tall tapering spires of electric blue flowers. Whenever I’ve grown them in my London front garden, they’ve been real show-stoppers for passers-by, especially Echium pininana, which regularly reaches ten or twelve feet high. Tresco’s echiums are particularly fine, as many have the perennial Echium fastuosum in their blood, and can develop in the gentle climate into candelabra-like trees, with clusters of flowers at each branch-tip. In spite of being unusual, and undeniably exotic, many echiums are actually relatively easy to grow on the UK mainland, and can even be raised from seed to flower the following year, provided you have a suitable spot in full sun with free-draining soil.

With cultivars named ‘Blue Steeple’ and ‘Tower of Jewels’, E. pininana is definitely the one to choose for maximum impact (see our free seed offer and competition below). In its first season it produces a palm-tree like rosette of leaves on a thick woody stem which, provided it survives the winter, then shoots upwards, sometimes as high as 15-20 feet, bearing thousands of flowers between the radiating leaves. It is said to survive up to minus 6.5C overnight frost, but if prolonged cold should be forecast, it is worth protecting over-wintering plants with fleece. Mine got blackened one year, and I suspected that all might be lost. But though the central shoot was damaged, the plant put out five or six side-shoots, which all flowered beautifully – causing a well-known garden designer to comment: “Oh, I see you stop your E. pininana to create a branching form.” (I didn’t let on).

Other equally eye-catching varieties include the lovely E. wildpretii, which has rose-pink spikes of massed flowers arising from prostrate rosettes of furry silver-grey leaves, E. italicum, with long, branching hairy grey stems bearing icing-sugar-pink flowers, and the smaller E. candicans, with smaller flower-spikes up to 15 inches. Seeds for these and more are available from Plant World Gardens near Newton Abbot in Devon (for details see box below). Worth visiting for its ‘Map of the World’ garden, where plants are grown in beds landscaped to represent the five continents from which they originate, it also has a nursery packed with rare and exotic plants seldom seen outside their native countries. The mastermind behind Plant World, Ray Brown, is a real echium fanatic – in fact, while running the Tresco marathon recently, he had to make frequent stops on his seven laps of the island to admire the many unusual hybrids he saw sprouting along the roadsides. One of his own crosses - Echium ‘Pink Fountain’ - is, he says, the “most lusted-after” plant in the Plant World gardens every June, its ten foot spires of delicate pink flowers inheriting the best from each of its parents, E. wildpretii and E. pininana. He also has seeds for the rare white E. ‘Snow Tower’ which can top 15 feet and looks fabulous planted alongside the blue, mauve and pink varieties.

Echiums make splendid ‘punctuation marks’ in a garden, and associate particularly well with other blues and silver-leaved plants that also enjoy good drainage. I can imagine the tall blue spires emerging, mast-like, from a sea of silvery santolina, Jerusalem sage and the curry plant, Helichrysum italicum, clipped into wave-like mounds, with perhaps some waving stems of Verbena bonariensis, with its tiny violet flowerheads, and dark maroon scabious in between. At the wonderfully restored Modernist gardens at Villa Brazilia on the Cote d’Azur, echiums look fabulous alongside banks of blue agapanthus and fragrant lavender, while in California I have seen them spilling out of gardens and tumbling down the hillsides to the coast, accompanied by spiky agaves, carpets of pink mesembryanthemums and other succulents.

If you’d like to try your hand at growing Echium pininana from seed, now is the time, as early-sown plants should develop a strong sturdy stem to see them through their first winter for flowering the next year - see our offer below. Or if you’d prefer to obtain grown-plants, try Trevena Cross Nurseries, Breage, Helston, Cornwall TR13 9PS (01736 763880/ www.trevenacross.co.uk) where mail order plants start from £4.95. Normally,†after many weeks of flowering,†the main stem will die, although†occasionally if side-rosettes have formed they†will take over for the following year.† To perpetuate the plants, when the seeds have gone brown in late autumn, cut the main stem down and wave it, like a magic wand, over the places you would like the plants next year.†(Use protective gloves as the tiny hairs on the stems can be an irritant.) If we all do well – who knows? – perhaps the UK could be as full of echiums as Tresco next summer.


17 Mar 2007 - CHILLI PEPPERS

Some friends who are fond of Mexican food grow a fine crop of chilli peppers on a sunny windowsill in their south London flat. Not only are the chillis useful in the kitchen; they look fantastic, too, growing fast from tiny spring-sown seedlings into beautiful bushy plants bearing thirty or more peppers apiece. By autumn, the low afternoon sun shines straight through them, illuminating the small, multi-coloured fruits like fairy lights. Though you’ll probably get a greater yield from larger plants grown in a conservatory or greenhouse border, most chilli varieties actually thrive on restricted root growth, and make great pot plants for those short on space. Chillis have become fashionable in recent years and it’s not unknown for garden centres to stock plants, but you’ll get far greater choice if you grow your own.

My own first chilli plant was given to me by one of this country’s keenest chilli aficionados, Matt Simpson of Simpson’s Seeds in Wiltshire. A convert since biting into what he thought was a small cherry tomato while backpacking through Europe as a teenager (his reaction was apparently useful for breaking the ice with the locals), he now grows hundreds of plants every year for the family business, based in the former Walled Garden of the Longleat estate. When I first visited a few years back, I was amazed by the intriguing variety of shapes and colours – anyone who thinks chilli peppers are all long, thin, green and red, should take a look at ‘Friar’s Hat’, ‘Goat Horn’, ‘Habanero Hot Paper Lantern’ and ‘Sweet Wrinkled Old Man’ – to choose just a few whose names can conjure up their colourful appearance. As we strolled around the huge greenhouse, I saw small round red chillis and long chocolate brown chillis; curly pencil-thin chillies and straight black glossy chillies; chillies that dangled on drooping branches like Capuchin bonnets, and chillies that grew upright on tiny prostrate plants in all shades from cream through chartreuse to yellow, ochre and red. The plant Matt kindly gave me was ‘Tri-Colour Variegata’, with purple stems and flowers, variegated white green and purple leaves, and fruit that ranged from green through many shades of purple to deep crimson red. It kept us in chilli peppers all that summer, and as autumn advanced, we picked all the remaining fruits and dried them in a low oven overnight, for using through the winter.

For first-time chilli-growers, Matt recommends ‘Ring of Fire’, ‘Hungarian Black’ and ‘Hungarian Yellow Wax’, all of which are relatively easy, not unpalatably hot, and can be grown on a windowsill or outside on a sunny terrace or balcony. Peppers are essentially tropical plants and require a long growing season in our climate, so early sowing (by mid-April at the latest) is essential if the fruits are to ripen in time. Some of the hottest varieties like the Habaneros and Scotch Bonnets need around 120 days from planting out to harvest, although the milder ones mature faster. Sowing in a heated propagator or airing cupboard can speed up germination from around a month to as little as ten days – the easiest way is to sow two or three seeds to each jiffy pellet or plastic or newspaper ‘cell’ and thin out to the strongest plant. Remove as soon as the seedlings show, and pot on into 9cm pots once the plants have two or three sets of ‘real’ leaves – just pick up the cell or jiffy and settle it gently into the soil. Then, when the roots start showing from the bottom of these pots, plant out into the final growing position – greenhouse border, Gro-bag or large pots (4-5 litre minimum, and heavy enough to balance the weight of a chilli-laden plant). Water regularly – most chillis resent drying out and ideally like to be misted with a fine hose daily, which also helps the fruit set. And pinch out the growing tips to encourage lower, bushier growth – particularly important if you are growing in pots. When buds start appearing, feed weekly with a high potash, low-nitrogen feed (tomato fertilizer or home-made comfrey feed are fine). Stake where necessary, and sit back and wait for those first fire-cracker fruits.

Seeds of all of the above are available from Simpson’s Seeds, The Walled Garden Nursery, Horningsham, Warminster, Wiltshire BA12 7NQ (01985 845004 simpsonsseeds.co.uk). Plants of many other varieties including ‘Friar’s Hat’, ‘Hungarian Black’, ‘Hungarian Yellow Wax’ and ‘’Tri-Colour Variegata’ can be sent out in May (order by 14 April) or bought at this year’s Great Chilli Event at the Nursery on 26, 27 and 28 May, where other companies with chilli-based products will also have stands. A larger Chilli Fiesta is held every August at West Dean Gardens in West Sussex – for details contact 01234 818210. Matt Simpson’s excellent book, Chilli, Chili, Chile, packed with history, folklore and recipes as well as growing advice, is available from Simpson’s Seeds price £6.50.

24 Mar 2007 - HEALING GROUND

I remember reading, during the Miners’ Strike in the 1980s, that the majority of miners, given the choice of their jobs back or a small plot of land, would have taken the land. This is surely not surprising: space to grow food, and even maybe keep livestock, equals independence. Even in the poorest corners of the world, those with a patch of earth out of which they can coax a few corn or squash plants, and tether a goat for milk, cheese and meat, are afforded a degree of dignity that others at the mercy of industrial time clocks and cutbacks can only dream of. Even in the modern-day, more affluent West, many of us are discovering the advantages of growing our own food. Last year, Thompson & Morgan reported that, for the first time, their sales of fruit and vegetable plants and seed had overtaken that of flowers and ornamentals, and the demand for allotments has never been higher.

When I took on a couple of overgrown allotments in south London, back in 1996, my motivation was educational – I wanted to learn how to grow my own organic produce – rather than purely economic. And in fact, with all my early mistakes (digging up and disposing of an existing bed of asparagus among them), I probably spent more money than I saved. But for some of my fellow plot-holders – a disarmingly young man on the dole with six small children and a retired Asian gentleman whose plot produced all the ingredients for an excellent curry, spring to mind – their allotments must have been a lifeline. I have no doubt that, for those with a few hours a week, and perhaps half a day at weekends to spare, having an allotment is by far the cheapest way to provide your family with fresh, organically-grown fruit and vegetables. And I still find it hard to hand over nearly £2 for a tiny supermarket pack of rocket which costs a few pence and hardly any effort to grow.

But whatever one’s reason for taking on an allotment, its purpose and appeal can end up going far beyond the fiscal. The benefits of gardening – and a patch of one’s own in which to do it – can have far-reaching affects on the physical, emotional and even spiritual aspects of our lives. I have just finished a wonderful book, A Handful of Earth: a Year of Healing and Growing, in which the author, Barney Bardsley, records how tending a small scruffy allotment helps her through the difficult year following her husband’s death from cancer. She writes by turns movingly and humorously, but always beautifully, about the struggle to reclaim and plant up her overgrown plot, and the rich rewards to be harvested there – both tangible and invisible. Alongside the winter soups, summer salads, sweet peas for the house and delicious, newly-dug potatoes, she relishes an increasing sense of control over her life and optimism for the future. As she begins to dig in the dead of winter, and then to weed, sow and water, her thoughts turn to her husband’s decade-long battle against illness, and how she and her small daughter coped – her first response to his diagnosis was apparently to create some jolly windowboxes, “planting both hope and supplication in amongst the flowers.” Tips on chitting potatoes, potting up strawberry runners and pruning (“Plants are like living sculptures. If you make a mistake, as I do frequently, it will normally grow back, like a bad haircut”) are seamlessly interwoven with advice on recovering from a bereavement – from taking winter walks to sitting outside with a can of lager in summer– “Enjoy what you already have. Isn’t it lovely?” The key, Bardsley believes, is to find your passion – gardening was hers, but others may settle on something else – “and cleave to it with all your might. Then, somehow, everything will be all right.”

For all its inevitable dwelling on death and decay, this is a gloriously uplifting book, and one I could imagine helping anyone – gardener or not – through the loss of a loved one. “Perhaps the most useful thing a garden can do is the least obvious, and certainly the least glamorous,” she writes. “It teaches us about loss. Nature will win. Death happens. Yet the brightness of new life, of fresh possibility, is already germinating beneath.”

To order a copy of A Handful of Earth: A Year of Healing and Growing by Barney Bardsley (John Murray £14.99).



Sunday Telegraph: Gardening
I write regularly on gardening in the Sunday Telegraph.

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