• April in the Garden

    By on April 27, 2017

    We’ve all had a treat this month haven’t we?  The glorious sunshine has been a treat and put me in mind of a few lines of Frost’s which might be relevant to gardeners.

    Why make so much of fragmentary blue 

    In here and there a bird or butterfly,

    Or flower, or wearing-stone, or open eye,

    When heaven presents in sheets the solid hue?

    Since Earth is earth, perhaps, not heaven (as yet)-

    Though some savants make earth include the sky;

    And blue so far above us comes so high,

    It only gives our wish for blue a whet.”

    One of the glories of this time of year is to see early flowers against a clear spring sky, particularly when these flowers are borne at the ends of magnolia branches.

    Magnolia denudata

    Magnolia denudata

    Magnolias are the queens of garden flowers, there is such a variety of form and habit from shrubby types such as M. stellata or its pink form ‘Rosea’ to large trees, amongst the finest of which are the Campbellii species as hybrids such as ‘Darjeeling’ or mollicomata which flowers earlier than most. Typically the magnolias we grow in our gardens are precocious, the flowers appearing before the leaves.   However there is a magnolia for almost every season if you have the site,  soil and situation.  Magnolia grandiflora is an evergreen suitable for growing as a large tree.  Football sized fragrant white flowers are a vision in summer.  As this magnolia comes from the southern U.S.A it is used to higher average summer temperatures and humidity then we get in the U.K so it is better grown against a warm sunny wall, even in full sun.  If you have a north facing wall then a good upright growing variety such as ‘Daybreak’ will prove successful, as the lack of strong sunlight protects the buds from being forced into flower early and thus being damaged by frosts.

     Magnolia M. Daybreak

    Magnolia M. Daybreak

    For fragrance M. ‘Merrill’ which has white flowers and grows 12 or 15 feet high cannot be beaten whilst M. salicifolia has aniseed scented foliage.

    Magnolia M. Merril

    Magnolia M. Merril

    Magnolias come from a wide variety of climates and habitats but those we buy from the nurseries will be grafted onto one rootstock or another to control vigour as well as to induce them to flower earlier.  They are very amenable.

     Most will grow in any reasonable, slightly acidic garden soil but they do demand decent humus and organic content.  Most magnolias are forest plants and so enjoy companionship and the shelter from strong winds provided by other trees.

    Magnolias have a system of shallow feeding roots which, once planted, resent disturbance.  When planting, I don’t even tease roots away from the root-ball as I would do with any other shrub or tree.  Thorough ground preparation with plenty of leaf-mould or soil conditioner is essential and it is important to plant the top of the root-ball level with the surrounding soil.  I have learned to my cost the fatal effects of planting magnolias too deep despite the well intentioned desire to keep as much moisture as possible around a newly planted specimen.

    If Magnolias are the queens of garden flowers then Rhododendrons ( including Azaleas) are the kings.  April and May are the best months to go to gardens boasting collections of rhododendrons and admire their many forms and flower colours.

    Rhododendrons have suffered a fall in popularity over the last few years.  Many people have been of the opinion that this was because they could not be accommodated in smaller gardens, but I rather feel that it was the result of nurseries and garden centres failing to offer a variety of plants.  When many people think of rhododendrons, they often think of R. ponticum or its hybrids, which line the drives of many a stately home and, after flowering, form an unattractive green lump.  When the gardener is looking for a plant that gives interest over more than one season it is understandable that many begrudge giving space to rhododendrons with their short flowering season.  However if we look beyond the common hybrids there is a rhodo out there for everyone.  Many of the species and cultivars have attractive foliage with either silver backed leaves or leaves marbled with brown hairy indumentum as well as attractive bark. Azaleas, members of the rhododendron family, make excellent garden plants.  Many cultivars are deciduous and have the added bonus of scented flowers and autumn colour.  They come in a wide range of colours from the pure white of ‘Persil’ to pinks and the bright yellows of R. luteum.

    We all want our plants to give us value, to perform for as long as possible and with as little demand on our time as possible.  There is nothing wrong with this view; my argument is simply a blend of the practical and philosophical.  Firstly, not every plant is suitable for every garden or situation within a garden so we should all chose plants suitable for what we have, rather than try too hard to change the soil or situation to our advantage.  Secondly, imagine the most beautiful magnolia flower you have ever seen then ask yourself if in fact part of the charm is that very ephemeral nature.  Would you be as excited or notice it as much if it flowered non-stop?

    Finally, my top tip for this time of year is not to cut the foliage of flowering spring bulbs down until they start to die down on their own.  This might not appeal to the tidy minded gardener but these bulbs are entering the most critical stage of their growth when they are making food to support new flowers next spring. Look at your snowdrops. Now they have finished flowering, the leaves have elongated and widened to capture as much light as possible.  If you have daffodils planted in grass leave it alone, don’t mow.  If you don’t like having long grass then you shouldn’t have put the daffodils there in the first place!

    Ross Underwood

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  • Signs of Spring

    By on March 14, 2017

    What a great thing to be able to pause from ones labours and look around at what is happening both in nature and in the garden. Though the weather may be a bit iffy still it is generally getting warmer. In days gone by farmers would proverbially test the soil by sitting on it (trousers down) to see if it was ready for planting. These days such behaviour might raise eyebrows from the neighbours! Though nothing beats being a gardener when the sun is out and you can roll up your shirt sleeves.

    The pace of change is incredible, already there are hosts of pale yellow daffodils like little lanterns throughout the grassy areas. These are the Lenten Lilies otherwise called Narcissus pseudonarcissus. These are native daffodils which are very useful for naturalising. They can often be found under hedges or in ditches where they will tolerate even brackish conditions, a useful addition to the garden armoury. When you are planning your bulb displays these can be supplemented by later varieties.

    Incidentally, it is worth checking your potted bulbs to make sure they are coming up as they should be. Hyacinths, Tulips and Narcissus should all be showing good leaf and the hyacinths should be showing their flower spikes. If you have planted the tops of the pots with spring bedding such as wallflowers or violas make sure that the bulbs are not forcing them out of the compost. Hyacinths will do this especially. If they are, then just nestle then back next to the emerging bulb foliage.

    Showing off amongst the daffodils are the crocus. No flower seems to welcome the sunshine more as the petals close on dull days and open when the sun shines.  Many of the species crocus have a dull colour to the outer surface of the petals which camouflages them from birds. The larger flowers of Dutch varieties are altogether showier but by no means vulgar.



    There are many more plants that have waited patiently to take advantage of the spring sunshine before the trees and shrubs get their leaves. Pulmonarias make superb ground cover. The common name of Lungwort refers to the spotted pattern on the leaves which was resembles the tissue of the organ and was believed in times past to cure lung problems.  Breeders have taken advantage of this patterning to produce a range of cultivars such as ‘Opal’ that are as ornamental in leaf as in flower. The flowers come in blue, pink or white and look delightful amongst the leaves beneath trees and shrubs.



    The ‘wood spurge’ (Euphorbia amygdaloides var Robbiae) which is another native has also seized it’s chance. This is an excellent plant for the more difficult areas including dry shade. It has glossy deep green leaves which reflect light in winter about a foot high and bright acid green flowers.  This plant can be a bit of an aggressive spreader but is wonderful for smothering weeds.  It will often spread quickly, sometimes the original plants will run out of steam and die off. This can be turned to an advantage as I often use it to colonise areas of poor drought prone soil. By the time it turns up its toes it has often improved the soil through the combined efforts of its roots and leaves which have shaded the soil and preserved organic matter thus making it a better environment for succession planting.

    Look upward and there are flowers along the branches of early cherries such as Prunus ‘Kursar’ which has single pink flowers that are abundantly strung in clusters along the branches. It is an excellent and showy variety and a taste of things to come, though for now, perhaps just watching the transformation all around us is good enough.

    Prunus Kursar

    Prunus Kursar

    Ross Underwood

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  • After Doris

    By on March 6, 2017

    I recall having a conversation with another gardener earlier this month. We were remarking on how mild the past winter had been. But this was in January and we both agreed that we could not count on a lucky escape as February was still to come. February storms seem to have become a norm and the most recent, Doris, was no exception.



    The beginning of March brings a kind of cabin fever to gardeners who just want to get out there and get on with a bit of early weeding, soil improvement, seed sowing or the multitude of other tasks which are needed. One task that I try never to neglect at this time is to re-pot containerised shrubs which live year round in their container. If they become too congested then it is easy for potted shrubs to languish and fade. Shrubs such as camellias should be lifted and handled carefully so as not to damage the buds that they are carrying.

    Try to tease out the more fibrous roots and knock off as much old compost as possible. You can use secateurs to prune away some of the thickest and most woody ones so as to leave room for the thinner feeding roots that will regrow in the pot. When you put it back in its home make sure that you water the new compost in so that it settles around the root ball without leaving any air gaps that could lead to the plant drying out. Protect the new plants from getting blown over by the wind before they have gotten a secure purchase in their new home.



    Sometimes it is no good, we get beaten by the weather whatever our intentions. That is when it is nice to do two things. The first is to settle down with some good gardening books. I have read three recently that have kept my attention and that I would recommend to you.

    The first is by Michael and Anne Haseltine (yes THAT Michael Haseltine) and is entitled ‘Thenford’ after the garden that he and his wife have created. It is a large coffee table sized book, certainly not one to carry around. However, it is worth sitting down with as the writing is really very good and the images are excellent. It is always nice to peer into the gardens of the great and the good to see what they have got that we can’t have in our own garden and there is always a vicarious thrill for good gardeners in seeing something grown well.

    My next recommendations cross the Atlantic to the USA which is home to some excellent gardens and in which Chanticleer is amongst the most renowned. I first read about it elsewhere but a recent book about it was on my Christmas list. The book is rather pretentiously titled ‘The Art of Gardening’ but as you read on it seems not far from the truth as the gardeners at Chanticleer use plants as set designers do on stage to conjure magical effects.

    Finally, my last choice for a wet weather read is titled ‘The New York Botanical Garden’ and is a celebration of that institution and a history of the rise and fall of its fortunes until the present day. Since Frederick Law Olmstead designed Central Park and more recently with the creation of the High Line, New York has been an inspirational city in the creation of public green spaces though the Botanical Garden has been comparatively overlooked. Perhaps this book will put right that omission? It is worth a read in any case.

    My final tip for a windy or wet evening is to seek out your local gardening club or horticultural society. Many hold excellent winter lectures by local or visiting gardeners though a good many have suffered a decline in membership and you might be just what they are looking for! Who knows you could swap a few gardening books around.

    Cheer up its almost looking like spring out there!

    Ross Underwood


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  • Getting Down to Brass Tacks

    By on January 31, 2017

    As we reach the end of January and the beginning of February one task stands clear above all others. It is pruning time which means making sure that your secateurs, loppers, saws and shears are all in tip top condition. It is certainly worth taking the time and trouble to do this as a ragged and untidy cut means that plants won’t heal well and are prone to disease and infection entering through open wounds.



    To sharpen your tools well you will need some WD-40 or similar, some steel wool and some oil. Just as it is important to make a clean cut it is important to have a clean blade. Hygiene is vitally important as viral or fungal diseases can be transmitted by the gardener with dirty secateurs that are coated in sap. You can buy specialist products to remove stubborn sap but a little elbow grease when you have nothing better to do works just as well. Rub the blades (keeping the point away from you) with the wire wool and gradually they will come up clean. Sharpen the blades like you would a good kitchen knife and oil them to prevent rust and so that dirt won’t stick. I have a small stone that I keep in my pocket so that I can sharpen my secateurs as I use them.

    Another area where cleanliness is important is in the greenhouse where any number of nasties can overwinter in nooks and crannies. Good light is vital to plant growth so the glass will need a good wash down inside and out. The next step is to insulate it if possible and provide some heat either with a propagator or heat mat if you are going to start seed sowing. Sweet peas can be sown now in long root trainers or in toilet roll tubes so long as the roots can go down. Push a couple of seeds into each one that you have filled with moist compost then cover to keep the warmth in. I use old panes of greenhouse glass rather than newspaper or polystyrene as it means the mice can’t get under them. Mice love sweet pea seeds so it is worth putting a trap or two down as added insurance. The good thing about sweet peas is that although heat will make them germinate faster it is not absolutely necessary.

    Chitting early potatoes is one of the most exciting things to do. I save my egg boxes as they are perfect for holding the potatoes when they are placed inside with the most eyes facing upward. They will need a cool but frost free place such as a window or porch.

    Camellia 'Bow Bells'

    Camellia ‘Bow Bells’

    There is plenty in the garden to bring inside the house if you fancy a bit of colour. I brought a few shoots of Camellia ‘Bow Bells’ in to put on my kitchen table. This is a superb variety which is often one of the first to flower for me. It produces large single rose pink flowers with a prominent boss of yellow stamens in the centre. It is one of the toughest and the buds will prove remarkably weather resistant considering the papery quality of the petals.

    'Winter Sweet' Chimonanthus praecox

    ‘Winter Sweet’ Chimonanthus praecox

    The ‘Winter Sweet’ or Chimonanthus praecox is flowering now, the yellow flowers with reddish purple centres are strung along bare branches. They give off a powerful spicy fragrance that carries very well in the air outside or in a room where they look well with pussy willow, hazel or alder catkins and a little ‘Christmas box’.



    Snowdrops and aconites are thrusting into life reminding us that we cannot outrun nature for much longer whilst parsnips, sprouts and brassicas can all be harvested now and chard provides a welcome bit of colour on the plate. It is a good time for chunky casseroles and warming stews with plenty of stodge. Enjoy!

    Ross Underwood

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  • Stay Awhile

    By on January 4, 2017

    Stay yet, my friends, a moment stay—
    Stay till the good old year,
    So long companion of our way,
    Shakes hands, and leaves us here.
    Oh stay, oh stay,
    One little hour, and then away.

    The year, whose hopes were high and strong,
    Has now no hopes to wake;
    Yet one hour more of jest and song
    For his familiar sake.
    Oh stay, oh stay,
    One mirthful hour, and then away.

    The kindly year, his liberal hands
    Have lavished all his store.
    And shall we turn from where he stands,
    Because he gives no more?
    Oh stay, oh stay,
    One grateful hour, and then away.

    Days brightly came and calmly went,
    While yet he was our guest;
    How cheerfully the week was spent!
    How sweet the seventh day’s rest!
    Oh stay, oh stay,
    One golden hour, and then away

    I think that William Cullen Bryant hit the nail on the head with those lines celebrating the turning of the year. Yet the year, it cannot be said, has quite “lavished all his store.” Waking to a few refreshing and frosty mornings exposes the very bones of nature in terms of the structure of wild and garden plants. When everything is bare you are forced to look closely and pay attention.

    As I stepped out of my door into the garden I bent to look at the frost on the leaves of a Phlomis tuberosa ‘Amazone’ a plant that is at home in full sun, in dry free draining soil, as are other members of the family. In the summer tall stems emerge carrying whorls of pink or on other members, yellow, flowers. The flower stems dry to a brown in winter but stand up above basal foliage which appears matt green. The large arrow shaped leaves are covered in silvery hairs which help trap moisture in dry spells but which are picked out beautifully by the frost.

    Other evergreens are worthy of more than a passing glance as well. Euphorbias largely finished doing their stuff in early or late summer though being a family of many (though not exclusively) evergreens they can stand up to scrutiny when painted with silver. E. characias ssp Wulfenii has bluish grey leaves that are positively delightful when overlaid by silver.

    Euphorbia leaves

    Euphorbia leaves

    Another evergreen which is beginning to flower its socks off is the statuesque and native evergreen the so called ‘stinking’ hellebore, H. foetidus. This native of woodland resides in even dry shade under deciduous trees. The narrow leaves are a deep green but in the winter tall spikes of bell shaped light green flowers open. They are extremely attractive to pollinators and in their own right, delightfully understated might be a good way of putting it. They liven up the winter harden with the freshness of the flower colour amidst all of the faded brown and tawny shades. The flowers are extremely weather resistant and will emerge perfect from any winter battering. The ‘stinking’ epithet comes from the scent that can be given off when the leaves are crushed. I have never really had a problem and you are not likely to unless you go out and stamp on your plants.

    If you are really looking for fireworks then you are in for a treat as it is the start of witch hazel season when papery petals in shades of yellow, red, orange and gold are unwrapping themselves from buds along bare branches. Scent is of course the other feature of these wonderful garden shrubs and whilst you are putting your nose to yours give a look out for suckers at the base and remove them promptly.


    Witch hazels

    The brown stems of grasses stand out starkly when all around them has collapsed though those on the upright Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ are molten gold when backlit by the winter sun. The drooping flower heads of Miscanthus cultivars capture the ice and water drops which sparkle in the morning sunlight.

    Grass flower heads

    Grass flower heads

    Stems provide so much interest in a bare season and the ghostly stems of Rubus cockburnianus overlaid as they are with a prominent white powdery bloom stand out wherever they are placed especially against the dark background of a hedge or other shrubs.

    Golden stems

    Golden stems

    The new year will be arriving soon bringing whatever it will and I would like to say thank you tho those who read my ramblings for your support. Best wishes wishes for 2017. Though Bryant urges you to stay for one more hour of “jest and song” don’t tarry too long lest you meet the boys in blue!

    Ross Underwood

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