• Getting it Right First Time…Or Not

    By on August 28, 2018

    When I first became a gardener my friends were dubious to say the least. After being extensively educated beyond any seeming usefulness to turn to a practical occupation seemed bizarre to aspiring young professionals. More recently as my cohort has grown older, I find myself being quietly solicited for advice on all manor of garden problems.  These include how to tackle weeds, how to establish a lawn and what type of tree would be best to screen them from the neighbours. Whatever question I get asked there is usually a specific answer I give but I always try to add a bit more general advice, so here are some of my principles to pass on to new gardeners.

    My first piece of advice is simple and straightforward. You don’t need to know any Latin or worry that you don’t know any. The system for naming
    plants in Latin was invented to provide a universal language for botanists to communicate when Latin was the lingua franca of the European
    intelligentsia. Latin names describe characteristics of the plant or honour a person or place and help classify it with relatives that share similar
    characteristics. All this can be pretty useful but is not vital. All you need to know is what will it do, how does it grow and do I like it?  The rest is down to trial and error.

    Speaking of trial and error I have lost count of the times I have heard people complain that they are put off gardening because they have killed this or that plant. Well…so what I’ve probably killed hundreds. Talk to any experienced gardener and the list of fatalities will be that extensive they might deserve their own memorial. Gardening is a series of experiments and sometimes you succeed and sometimes not but each result informs the next attempt and narrows the possibility of failure.

    Bearing that in mind, my next piece of advice would be not to take unnecessary risks, don’t take on too much or expect much initially. Pots and raised beds are all the rage and seem like an obvious place to begin but the best place to grow plants is in well prepared and tended soil. Whilst it may seem tempting to fill a pot with rich compost and attractive showy flowers the effect can be transient and difficult too maintain during holidays. Raised beds do save a lot of back ache but I still maintain that soil is the best teacher for novice and experienced alike.

    My final tip is to plan, plan and plan again. All gardening should be two thirds thinking and one third doing. Take your time (it is the only thing
    that comes free) and consider what demands you are making on your plot and upon yourself. Things grow literally and figuratively over time so it is
    worth considering what you want to grow and how it will behave in relation to its neighbours. I have read in many gardening books that you should observe your plot for a full year before taking action. When I made my first garden I ignored this advice completely and paid the price for it when I had to spend more time than I had, moving things around and undoing my hard work. In the end things still seemed unsatisfactory. With my current garden I have advanced more slowly and am a lot happier for it. I have planned on paper and in my mind but have not been afraid to change things around if they suited me better. I have also tried to make lists of plants that I am interested in growing and seen as may of them in other people’s gardens as possible. After all the best mistakes to learn from are somebody else’s whilst you can take credit for your own triumphs! Whatever you do don’t be afraid to get stuck in!

    Ross Underwood

    Read more
    Hodnet Hall Gardens
  • Shaping Up For Summer

    By on August 7, 2018

    A healthy degree of indolence is grrrreat! I’m not talking about out and out laziness which eventually leads to poor bodily hygiene and a loss of friends but taking a relaxed approach to life. The trouble is that as the summer wears on, the garden can take a similar attitude and unless remedial steps are taken the result can be an unsightly mess! Luckily there are a few easy tips to fool the eye into thinking that there is more going on.

    Firstly, try moving tender house plants outside especially those with striking foliage such as Swiss Cheese plants, Spider Plants. Tender pelargoniums they will keep flowering if they are regularly dead headed and can be plunged into borders in pots to give an instant colour boost.  Plants that have been inside can take a day or two to adjust to the stronger light of the outdoors so don’t put them in direct sun at first. Other tender perennials like dahlias and cannas can be plunged in pots into the borders to liven them up. Cannas have great foliage colour and make a strong vertical accent. I especially like the giant ones such as ‘Russian Red’.

    My second tip is to be a little bit ruthless. Many garden centres and nurseries will be trying to sell off their summer bedding and perennials in preparation for getting in late summer and autumn so there are often bargains to be had. Frequently these only need a bit of tlc to restore them to full health and floriferous glory. I often pass the local nursery on my way to and from my out-laws and always try to pop in and spy out a bargain. Whilst we are talking about being ruthless it is time to cast an eye over any perennials that might re-bloom if given a hard cut back. Lupins, geraniums, nepeta, astrantia and other cottage garden favourites will give another (albeit) smaller show if cut back, fed with liquid feed and given some water. Other plants such as helenium, rudbeckia and sedum will carry on blooming until the end of September at least. These performers will close the summer in the garden, they are the fat ladies and they are currently singing!


    If all that flower power seems like hard work then don’t ignore foliage. A strong background of rich purple cotinus such as ‘Grace’ or bright golden yellow such as Sambucus ‘Aurea’ or a cool grey like Phlomis fruiticosa can help to alter the mood of a planting by either heightening or calming a colour contrast.

    As well as dotting plants about the garden to try to hide problem patches you can also try massing together your potted displays to give a wow factor that will draw the attention away from dull areas. Agapanthus, hydrangea and lilies make great partners so group pots of each together en masse. They are all in flower right now and can either be kept in pots or planted in the garden when they have done their thing meaning that they are excellent value for money rather than a passing fancy!


    Growing plants that have attractive seed heads can help to extend the season of interest through summer and well into winter. One of my personal favourites are Eryngiums or ‘sea holly’ that have spiky rosettes of flowers that bees adore.

    If you have the room or the interest you can overcome the seasonal peaks and troughs by specifically engineering your planting to come to a crescendo in a specific season. Often late summer gardens are ‘hot’ gardens because many of the plants in bloom do so in warmer colours including red, yellow and orange. You can take advantage of this by planting large blocks of warm colours which look wonderful in low light on a summer evening. If hot hot hot isn’t quite your thing then there are plants that are more muted. Persicaria ‘Rosea’ has spires of pink flowers and Phlox come in more or less strident tones of blue or pink as well as white. They also have gorgeous scent. The bloooming seed heads of grasses like Calamagrostis or Molinia provide structure as well as a transparent screen through which to view other plants placed behind. They capture the low light and add a sinuous sense of movement as well as giving a softness of tone that means the eye is not jolted by bold colours.

    Yes, when you have done all of that you can take a short break….did you enjoy it? Back to work then!

    Ross Underwood


    Read more
    Hodnet Hall Gardens
  • Timely Tips For July

    By on July 17, 2018

    Summer can throw up some surprises but here are a few things that you can think about doing in the garden in July.

    As well as putting food out for garden birds, water is also important and bird baths can dry up or get clogged with algae at this time of year. Give
    them a good clean out and keep them topped with water. It’s not only the birds that will thank you. Insects also need water and you can often find
    honey bees taking a welcome drink back to help cool the hive. Keep borders tidy by cutting off the spent flowers from perennials such as geranium, campanula, lupins and alchemical. This will encourage more flowers in many cases and help put strength back into the roots. If you cut back container plants make sure that you give them a good feed and water afterwards to keep them blooming for weeks to come. It is also a good idea
    to remove the heads of lilies once they have flowered. This will help to bulk up the bulbs for next year.

    Dead head lilies

    Doubtless rain is on everyone’s mind but if a sudden summer storm should strike plants can easily be flattened. Staking delphiniums and phlox or
    tying in climbers such as clematis will help them to resist getting battered by a sudden downpour.

    Prune the whippy growths from wisteria back to five buds from the old growth unless you need them for tying in. Wisteria sinensis will flower again
    giving out its delicious honey fragrance on summer evenings. The rest of the plant’s energy will go into building up flowering spurs for next year.
    Deciduous magnolias can be pruned now as can plums, cherries, apricots and preaches. Pruning in hot dry weather will help reduce the incidence of silver leaf on the latter group. Keep an eye out for blackfly on cherries especially and either wash off with soap or use insecticide. Fruits grown in
    containers need a regular dose of high potash to keep them looking good and in robust health. Acid cherries such as Morello or dessert cherries such as Stella will be fruiting so protect them from birds using bird scares or by netting them.

    Fruits such as raspberries, Tay berries and Loganberries will all be fruiting and despite the current abundance they will be over in the blink of
    an eye. They are all shallow rooted so will appreciate being watered generously. See what you can do to preserve as much of the harvest as possible. Jams are always an option as is freezing on trays before bagging them up. Another alternative is to make a fruit cordial or syrup that can be
    added to your favourite tipple to make a refreshing drink. Wash the fruit if needed and place in a large bowl and crush with the back of a spoon. Then add about 1/2 pint of water for each 6lb of fruit for juicy fruits such as raspberries and blackberries or 1/2 pint to every 1lb for currants. Cover and leave to soak for 2-3 days then place the bowl over a bowl of boiling water until the juice runs out of the fruit. Strain through a muslin or tea towel and add 350g of sugar to every pint of fruit. Let the sugar dissolve and pour into sterilised bottles. It will last up to six weeks in the fridge or
    can be frozen in ice cube trays.

    Having said all of that, in the current dry spell most of your time will be taken up with watering so consider any changes that you might make for next year. Planting drought resistant plants will help cut down watering next year. Sedums have succulent leaves that help them to endure dry spells. Kniphofia are a South African genus with whorls of aloe like leaves and thick flower spikes which rise above the foliage. ‘Tawny King’ is my
    favourite although ‘Green Jade’ is also attractive. If you want to splash out in a different sense then buy a garden hammock, a sun hat and a good book and enjoy the summer evenings outside. This is England remember and just like our World Cup dreams the good weather won’t
    last forever!

    K. Tawny King

    Ross Underwood

    Read more
    Hodnet Hall Gardens
  • Not So Lazy Summer Days

    By on July 2, 2018

    June sees a climax of sorts. 21st of June will be the longest day of the year which is reflected in the exuberance of growth and flower that plants put on at this time of year. This also means that weeds seem to pop up from thin air. Annual willowherb is perhaps my greatest foe. It seems to spring
    up where once there was not a sign and be ready to flower and set seed almost instantly. On fine and dry days it is satisfying to get out with the
    hoe and cut these renegades down to size. This works well for other annuals too and can even be a short term fix for nasty perennials such as dandelions, docks and your garden nettles. Repeated action will often weaken even those thugs but they are best forked out and dispatched to the bin as soon as possible. (Take care around giant hogweed though as the sap can blister the skin and cause extreme pain if it comes into contact with the eyes).

    Strawberries are coming into fruit now and it is vital to use some form of crop protection if you have not already done so. A simple bird scarer will
    do if you have nothing else but the best defence is a light net place either directly on top of the plants or supported by garden canes topped with plant pots. This will help keep birds away but you need to be vigilant to stop slugs and snails turning fruit into sticky mush. Keeping the fruit dry and above the soil also helps prevent spoiling especially after rain. It is traditional to put straw around the plants to stop the rain splashing them
    with mud. If you have early varieties then it’s probably too late but you could still get away with it for late fruiting ones.

    Greenhouses can be magnets for pests at this time especially red spider mite. Try to keep the humidity up to help prevent these little critters from
    moving in. Heavy infestations are often marked by thin silvery ‘webs’. Affected plants lack vigorous and can take on a mottled appearance on the
    leaves. Splashing plenty of water around will help pollinate glass house tomatoes by moving pollen grains from one flower to another. Tender plants such as dahlias can be moved to their summer homes now. Don’t forget to stake tall plants as it will be that much harder when everything
    has grown up around them. You can also support any tall flowering plants such as delphiniums and hollyhocks which can be reduced to a collapsed heap by a heavy summer shower.

    Enjoy the scent of roses, especially the summer flowering varieties. If you spray then keep spraying as flowering takes up a lot of energy which can
    leave them vulnerable to a host of problems including blackspot, rust and mildew. Fungal problems are not only confined to roses. Sweet peas are prone to mildew so try to keep water off of the foliage whilst giving them a plentiful supply at the root. I like to use soaker hose or porous pipe which delivers a trickle of water which soaks deeply at the root. This also wastes less water as less is lost on dry days to evaporation.

    Plant out tender veg now including pumpkins, cucumbers, squashes, courgettes, runner beans, garden tomatoes and marrows. If after all that you
    still have time then you can look up some recipes using the first broad beans. Enjoying the fruits of your labours will make all that hard work


    Ross Underwood

    Read more
    Hodnet Hall Gardens
  • The Tree Roses

    By on June 11, 2018

    In my last article I focused on Azaleas which make up a major part of the Rhododendron family. However, I wouldn’t want to do a disservice to the familiar evergreen rhododendrons by missing them out; especially now.

    As we pass into June you might have thought that you could forget about all of those spring flowered shrubs that were such stalwarts in March, April and May. Surely they have done their duty of cheering us up during bad weather and can now fade gracefully into the background?  By and large you could be forgiven for making this assumption but a little tender loving care now and you will reap the rewards when next year rolls around. This is because these plants will produce next years flowers on wood that is grown and ripened over the coming summer.

    Though we enjoy the flowers they are a difficult and expensive exercise in reproductive advertising for the plant and it will need to recoup a lot of lost energy if it is to set a sufficiently healthy crop of flower buds. Feeding, if not already started, should be done from now until the end of July. After July this should cease so that the plants have time to harden up the new growth, which can be floppy and tender, before winter. I feed my plants in three main ways. Firstly, I apply a good scattering of a general purpose, organic fertiliser such as blood, fish and bone around the roots. This provides a steady release of nutrients over the long term. I prefer to stay away from pelleted chicken manure which can act a bit like rocket fuel and is useful where demand is more intense. Secondly, I allow fallen leaves to collect and decompose around the plant. Rhododendrons and other calcifuge plants often take up more trace elements than they can use and store them in the foliage. These are then re-released when the leaves break down underneath the plant. I supplement this diet with plenty of leaf mould which improves the condition of the soil around the plants and helps to keep the roots moist during summer drought.

    Thirdly I give all of my plants a copious liquid feed on a weekly basis. If you only have one or two plants in the garden or in pots then this can be done by drenching the roots from a watering can or hose with a feeder attached. However, if you have a large number of plants then spraying on a foliage feed works wonders as the food is rapidly absorbed. Do this when there is no direct sunlight falling on the plants so that they wont scorch. Early morning, evening or a dull day are best. I use concentrated liquid seaweed diluted with water which also does wonders for other plants. I have used it to pep up my yew hedging for example. You can also buy calcified seaweed in granular form as a general soil improver and it has my own seal of approval. Scatter it on the surface or lightly fork it in and it will help to improve the overall health and structure of the soil.

    Percy Wiseman

    With these few tips in mind why not try a rhododendron in your own garden? The name means tree rose and some do grow to the size of small trees with interesting bark and foliage to match. However these monsters require more specialised growing conditions as well as large helpings of patience! For the average garden there is a huge choice available. R. ‘Percy Wiseman’ makes a good choice for most gardens as it is easy to grow and the pink flowers with a pale apricot centre are thoroughly charming. By contrast R. niveum has bright purple trusses which stand out wherever they are. One of the easiest to grow and tolerant of even a neutral soil is the Japanese R. yakushimanum which has small tough leaves and bright pink or white flowers. There are even many dwarf cultivars that you can chose from if space is limited!

    R. niveum

    You don’t have to be an expert. Just follow the simple steps above for a fantastic spring display.

    Ross Underwood

    Read more
    Hodnet Hall Gardens