• Flowering Cherries

    By on April 28, 2015

    Since Easter things have really begun to move at Hodnet. I cannot remember when the magnolias have been better or have lasted longer. Of course all the warm weather we have enjoyed has helped.  The dry weather has been advantageous in other respects too. Weed growth has been held back whilst herbaceous growth has rocketed from under the protective layer of mulch that we have applied. The mulch has sealed in the moisture and kept the soil cool as well as looking good.  Our mulch is made from leaves collected in the autumn of the previous year and left to decompose. Once rain comes, and it will, the balance may alter as weeds skyrocket.  It is important to use the hot dry weather to hoe off as much weed growth as possible.

    The gardeners have begun the mowing regime in earnest, starting with a high cut first and working lower as time goes on. We have also applied a spring dressing of weed and moss killer to improve the condition of the lawns. People often think of lawns in terms of a sward, but really it is more helpful to think of thousands of individual plants which all need care and attention and reduced competition from weed growth.

    Another important task is to give protection against future problems. Roses and peonies need spraying to guard against mildew, blackspot and peony wilt later on.

    What really takes my breath away is that other genus of flowing trees; the cherries. The genus Prunus has many members which define the different seasons in many ways.  In the countryside the blackthorn is the earliest tree to flower especially in the hedgerows.  In the kitchen garden the peaches, apricots and almonds flower early and need protection from frost.  The hawthorn follows along with the plums.  By the end of the summer we will be harvesting the bounty from these extremely useful trees, from damsons, sloes and bullace in the hedgerow to plums in the orchard.


    Prunus pendula Stellata

    The other side of the family is represented by the ornamental cherries which really make the heart skip a beat.  In April and May buds burst forth with the first leaves to reveal flowers that are the last word in beauty.  Perhaps it is the papery, almost translucent texture of the flowers that gives ornamental cherries their wow factor.  But this seeming delicacy belies a toughness that these remarkable trees possess in spades. The flowers often emerge with the first leaves which mean that there is a fringe of green or burgundy that frames the flowers. I prefer white cherries such as ‘Mount Fuji’ but even if your taste runs to Barbara Cartland pink there is a cherry for you.


    Prunus Tamagaki

    Many cherries have interesting bark with prominent lenticels (pores in the bark where oxygen transfer occurs). The most famous is P. serrula the Tibetan cherry which has shiny reflective bark that is a real winter feature.  P. maackii also has attractive winter bark with upright candles of white flowers in summer.

    In autumn, cherries put on vivid displays of autumn colour in shades of red, orange and yellow so there really is nothing to lose, plant a cherry!

    Ross Underwood

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  • Roses In Spring Time

    By on March 26, 2015

    As the weather warms up and the sunshine returns there can be nothing finer than being in the garden. Hodnet Hall reopens for the 2015 season this Easter weekend.

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    It may sound like a cliché but Easter sunshine with burgeoning new growth is really a spectacular moment in the garden.  Every garden is a sequence of moments. Sometimes a particular group of plants, flowering at a certain fleeting time, can make that moment. At other times, changes in light, the intensity of birdsong or a rise in temperature can be marked as special. Hodnet Hall is unrivalled in Shropshire for the beauty of its landscaped gardens which extend to over 60 acres and include woodland, lakes, ornamental borders and meadows which are alight with thousands of glowing daffodils.

    The extensive ornamental plantings include one of the finest collections of camellias, magnolias and rhododendrons in the north of England many of which will be at their best in the coming weeks. From shell pink, purest white to blood red the garden is awash with colour, and many of our azaleas have heavenly scents to match the vibrant spring hues.

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    Camellias make excellent garden shrubs, tolerant of shade, dry conditions and happier than rhododendrons in neutral soil. They can be grown successfully in pots if kept well fed and watered in the summer. After flowering the shoots can be cut back which means camellias can be grown as hedges. Camellias offer the spring garden a depth and complexity of colour and a sophistication of flower shapes.

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    The flowering season begins in the autumn with the sasanquas such as ‘Hugh Evans’ and ‘Narumigata’ which is later flowering but is renowned for its scent. The sasanquas require sun too flower well and are best when given some shelter. Perhaps the best all-rounder is C. x williamsii ‘Bow Bells’ which can start as early as November and finish in June. The single pink flowers with a boss of yellow stamens are set off nicely by the dark green shiny leaves.

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    For a family day out, a walk with the dog or a chance to enjoy the peace of a garden give Hodnet a try this Easter.

    Ross Underwood 

    photo 1-1

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  • Keeping Us All Even And Regular At Hodnet Hall (And More Besides!)

    By on February 10, 2015


    Like many of you I have been watching the comings and goings of the Crawley family in TV’s “Downton Abbey”. Yet I am left with just one question, ‘where are all the gardeners?’. Every large house was supplied with fruit, vegetables and flowers. Today Hodnet Hall still retains its kitchen garden.

    Our acre is surrounded by wonderful red brick walls and still does everything that it always has. Vegetables are grown on organic principles which go to supply the house whilst orchids, peonies, sweet peas and chrysanthemums in succession fill the rooms with colour.

    This past winter we have been concentrating on the fruit grown in the garden. This also finds its way to the kitchen in the ‘big house’ where much is used for jam making and other preserves. We have removed some unproductive plum trees that had been trained on the walls. These were probably planted 50 years ago and had come to the end of their productive lives. After cutting down the trees a cubic metre of soil was removed and replaced along with copious amounts of manure and compost. Of our new trees one is a green gage, one is of course ‘Victoria’ and another is ‘Marjorie’s seedling’.

    We have also been making strenuous efforts in the peach house. This was originally used for vines but at some point in the past these were removed and replaced with peaches. This must have been some time ago as they had grown into venerable specimens. Recently these trees had been suffering from bleeding canker, a bacterial disease, which had encircled the main trunks and killed the plants.

    They obviously had to be removed but replaced with what? In the end we decided to go with figs. Figs do not need to be grown under glass but they will produce an early crop if given protection.

    Figs are generally pest and disease free but they are vigorous. Naturally they come from areas of the world where drought, poor soils and aridity are features of the climate. In cultivation those conditions have to be replicated as far as possible otherwise the plant produces growth at the expense of fruit.

    The traditional method (which we adopted) is to plant figs in a box that contains the roots. We used 3ft x 2ft concrete slabs reclaimed from one of the houses on the estate. We made three such boxes into which we will put brick rubble and loam. This will restrict the roots and concentrate the plants efforts on fruit production.

    In nature figs are pollinated exclusively by a species of wasp which completes its entire life cycle on the plants. However figs do not need a pollinator. The flowering parts are actually contained within the fruit (that is what you eat). ‘Brown Turkey’ (the variety with an AGM) which we have planted has all female flowers and can produce two crops per year by parthenocarpy or without sexual reproduction.

    Syrup of figs anyone?

    Ross Underwood 

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  • Winter Wonders

    By on January 19, 2015

    I always think of January as being when winter really bites. In 2010/11 we endured minus 19C for three weeks. In subsequent winters snow and floods also made the headlines. Gardeners can be obsessed with the weather, it defines so much of our working life. We have all become more conscious of the weather in recent times, which probably lies in wider acceptance of global warming.

    This winter has been remarkably mild. We only had any significant  snowfall in the last week and although we have been hit by gales they have not done the damage that was done last February by freak winds. Over the last month in the garden we have been covering plants vulnerable to cold weather with thermal fleece. We have also continued cutting back plants in the herbaceous borders.

    We have taken some risks this winter. (Whoever said gardening was a gentle profession).  Some oversized Rhododendron fragrantissimum were planted out in autumn and are now shrouded in thermal fleece. These are usually kept in the greenhouse until they flower, after which they are displayed in the ‘Big House’. When I last dared to peak they were surviving!

    There is no flower, with the exception of perhaps the snowdrop, that brightens a winter day more than that of the witch hazel or Hamamelis.  We are all easily beguiled by their bright display, which is actually made up of floral bracts, the flowers being a rather insignificant cluster.  Moreover, descendents of H. mollis, the Chinese species, also offer a spicy aroma that can fill the garden on calm days.


    There are more than just witch hazels in the garden. One of the best wall shrubs for this time of year is the winter jasmine, J. nudiflorum. The cheery yellow flowers open in mild weather and contrast well with the green stems. It only lacks the spicy perfume of its summer flowering relatives. There is plenty to enjoy in January!

    photo 1

    Ross Underwood

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  • ‘All the leaves are brown and the sky is grey.’

    By on November 21, 2014
    A Mosaic Of Fallen Leaves

    A Mosaic Of Fallen Leaves

    Perhaps the lines of the title are all that need to be said about November, which can seem like a poor relation sandwiched between the bonfire and fireworks of October and the diamond sparkle of frost in December.

    Yet the often mundane tasks that can be carried out in this month can see the gardener through the winter and lay important groundwork for spring.

    At Hodnet our chief task this month is clearing leaves especially from areas of grass. The volume of leaves produced by all our trees, if left to lie on the grass, would seriously weaken or even kill large patches of turf. We gather our leaves with the aid of a machine which chews them up and fires them into our trailer. This helps them rot down more quickly over the summer so that they turn into fine, sweet smelling, friable leaf mould.

    Leaf mould is often termed ‘gardeners gold’ for good reason. When made well it makes a superb mulch for almost any situation or an addition to a planting hole. The open texture gives body to a light soil and breaks up a heavy loam. Leaf mould is different from compost in that it has a low nutrient content so it does not feed the soil but opens up the structure to allow greater root penetration. If put through a sieve it makes an excellent potting or sowing medium.

    The other principal task we have this month is beginning to cut back herbaceous growth which is dying down for the winter. It is often said that too tidy a garden is bad for wildlife.  Bugs, beetles and other insects make their home in stems and fallen leaves. It is possible, by leaving twigs etc under hedges to provide refuge for insects. November is a good month for digging out, lifting and dividing herbaceous perennials or for removing shrubs suck as Kerria Japonica which can be thugs in the garden.

    Finally, while the weather is still comparatively mild it is worthwhile to continue planting trees and shrubs including bare root plants. It is worth taking your time over the planting hole. Frost later in the winter can literally heave a plant from the ground. Wind rock can have the same effect leaving the roots exposed and vulnerable to damage by frost or physiological drought. This is where a little leaf mould mixed in when back filling, can make all the difference.

    Plants which arrive bare root are tremendously exciting to unwrap from the damp newspaper in which they are often packed. In an age of garden centers bare root plants can often seem old fashioned. But when freshly lifted, their roots free from the restrictions of a pot and transplanted to your own garden they establish more quickly than pot grown counterparts. This winter in the kitchen garden we will be establishing a new raspberry patch. This will take over from our existing patch, which after 12 years is starting to decline. The new patch will be ready for cropping in 1-2 years. A good helping of well rotted manure and leaf mould will help speed the process up. Once the old canes have been dug out pumpkins and squashes will fill the space whilst the ground is allowed to rest.

    In November the leaves might be brown, the sky might be grey but in the garden it can be full of possibilities.

    Ross Underwood

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