• Azaleas

    By on May 16, 2018

    When is a Rhododendron not a Rhododendron? The answer is when the plant in question is an Azalea.

    The Rhododendron family is huge and like any large family it has many branches and sub-branches and claims of kinship can be complicated and even contentious. One large division is between Azaleas and Rhododendrons. All Azaleas are in fact members of the Rhododendron family and I would argue they make up some of the most garden worthy members. If they were part of my family I’d certainly invite them to my parties!

    Many people’s image of rhododendrons are of large sprawling evergreen shrubs that grace the spreading woodlands or lawns around stately homes. Often, because they are evergreen they have a reputation of short lived interest. Azaleas tend to be somewhat smaller that rhododendrons and although all rhododendrons are evergreen there are many deciduous Azaleas.

    Amongst the deciduous Azaleas the Ghent, Knaphill and Mollis types are worth seeking out. They have excellent autumn colour and although sometimes the flowers can be individually small they come in bright and sunny colours that make up for any diminutive flower size. R. luteum is a yellow flowered species that has a heady scent which it has imparted to many of its

    Deciduous Azaleas are all hardy and can grow up to one and a half to two metres in ten years. They can be planted in sun or light shade in and acid soil or compost and propagated easily from layers, cuttings or division. A few of them can be prone to mildew especially in dry weather so a small blast of fungicide or a foliage feed of calcified seaweed always comes in handy. If you have room for a selection of more than one plant then you can have flower and scent from April until July.

    My favourite is the double yellow flowered R. narcissiflorum which flowers in May and June and has attractive foliage in autumn and a good scent. More dainty and compact are the evergreen Japanese Azaleas which represent
    probably the highest proportion of Azaleas grown in the trade. This is because many of them are grown for sale as house plants, particularly around Christmas. These varieties are not hardy, though there are many which are. All of them have small foliage which sometimes colours in winter though they are evergreen. A typical specimen might reach a metre over ten years making them suitable for planting in containers and even window boxes. They prefer more shade and moisture than the deciduous types and resent exposure to cold winds.

    Evergreen Azaleas make good edging for borders or along paths. Their dense growth will, over time, suppress weeds which makes them an excellent ground cover. They can be pruned pack easily and recover well. Amongst my favourites is the bright pink ‘Hinomayo’ which looks wonderful in large drifts.


    Generally both types of Azalea make excellent companions for other acid or shade lovers especially magnolias, acers and ferns. Some may be loud and brash, some dainty and beautiful but all Azaleas have some quality that is sure to recommend them. After all…family is family!

    Ross Underwood

    Read more
    Hodnet Hall Gardens
  • Keep Marching On!

    By on March 9, 2018

    The Kitchen Garden At Hodnet Hall Gardens

    Although we have passed the first meteorological day of Spring the recent icy blast brought by the so-called ‘Beast from the East’ might have temporarily fooled us into thinking otherwise. Yet the snow and sub-zero temperatures have provided only a brief reprieve to the gardener. The list of gardening jobs will lengthen as the days stretch out and it is important to get on top of them.

    It is time to order or buy your seed potatoes right away as they will need time to chit before they are planted out. It doesn’t really matter how you do this and I prefer to put them in egg boxes on a window ledge.  It is important to keep the frost away from earlies which can be planted out by the end of the month, so cover any shoots with fleece or straw. Onions and shallots can also be planted out in a sunny well drained spot. Again, this should be done towards the back end of the month when temperatures are potentially going to have risen more evenly.  The young sets should be buried up to their necks and protected from marauding birds especially pigeons which like to pull them up.

    Finish your pruning now if you haven’t done it already. As temperatures rise so does the sap and any shrubs or climbers such as roses, Buddleja, and summer flowering clematis will waste valuable energy putting out new growth only for you to snip it off later.

    It is also getting to the end of the time when deciduous or evergreen hedges should be cut as birds will be thinking of nesting. More delicate evergreens like box can be held over until April as they can struggle to recover from pruning if the weather is too cold.

    Shrubs which flower in winter or early spring and summer (i.e. before June) such as winter Jasmine, Deutzia or Forsythia should have the old growth thinned by a third. This is because they flower on wood grown the previous season. Leave on enough older growth to provide flowers for this year whilst allowing new growth to take the place of the old and give flowers for next year.

    Slugs and snails will be waiting to take advantage of the new growth so don’t delay in using control measures though apply them judiciously in order to avoid harming wildlife and especially bird life.  Many will also have been looking covetously at the lawn as a fresh cut can do so much to tidy up a garden. It is important not to do more harm than good so choose a dry day and set your blades high to make the first cut. You are aiming to gently encourage the sward to thicken up rather than beating it into submission. Never remove more than a quarter of the total length of the grass blades. For anybody wishing to start a new lawn the ground should be prepared now by digging and forking over to reduce the soil to a fine tilth. Hold off laying turf if you can or sowing seed as germination will be better once the soil temperature has risen more consistently above 6 degrees centigrade.

    All in all there is plenty to get on with, though March should be welcomed by all.

    Ross Underwood

    Read more
    Hodnet Hall Gardens
  • Down to Earth

    By on March 2, 2018

    What a curious expression it is to say that a person is ‘down to earth’? We usually use it as a sign of approval; that somebody is plain speaking, without guile or an alternative agenda. They are usually the type of people about whom we might also ‘take at face value’ or ‘call a spade a spade’ or about whom we might say ‘what you see is what you get’. This quality of
    openness is one that we lament not finding in our politicians. Yet a frank exterior can often conceal hidden depths.

    A surprising number of horticultural or agricultural terms crop up in our lexicon. Perhaps because they are seen as professions that possess no secrets. You put something in the ground, it grows you look at it or eat it. Simple? All gardeners know the fallacy of this view. There is a certain alchemy in the garden and most of that magic goes on in the soil and no garden could be made without it. Whether you are making a new garden or curating an old one you cannot neglect the soil and now is the time to give it your full attention.

    What we call soil and the Americans call ‘dirt’ is the product of evolutionary processes. A large component will be made up of the mineral strata that underlies your local area. A geological map of the British Isles makes for fascinating viewing. Our country might be small but beneath our feet are the myriad complexities geology. In my own area the base rock is sandstone which in places comes to the surface in harder outcrops called saddle backs. These are areas of harder stone that have been left proud as the retreat of glaciation gouged out softer areas.

    Overlaying the mineral layer is the subsoil which is what you find when you dig down and get past the more organically rich topsoil. The former can be divided into types ranging from clay to sandy. This can affect important matters such as how well water drains away. Too slowly and you end up with problems of water logging. Too quickly and drought can be a real problem in summer. Where clay is a problem the soil can become deficient in oxygen leaving a greyish colour and sometimes a smell of rotten eggs. Above this layer lies the topsoil which can often be distinguished (if you are lucky enough) by colour and texture. A good topsoil will be dark brown to black, crumbly and sweet smelling hopefully with plenty of worms and other organisms. This is where the real magic happens and where most of the roots of any plants will be concentrated. This is because this is where most of the nutrients are concentrated from falling leaves or applied by the conscientious gardener via the incorporation of organic matter or washed in by rain. The actions of fungi, microbes and ‘minibeasts’ such as worms, beetles and the like help break down organic matter into simpler elements that can be taken up by plant roots. It is therefore very important to look
    after this layer.

    Cover it if it is exposed either with the leaves of evergreen and deciduous plants or with some form of mulch whether that be leaf mould, well rotted manure, straw or chipped bark that has been left to rot at least 12 months. This latter step is quite important as fresh bark can rob the soil of nitrogen. If unsure apply a good application of slow release organic
    fertiliser beneath the bark to counteract nitrogen robbery. A good mulch should be as thick as possible preferably six inches thick. This can strain resources for even the most energetic composter so I use a system of rotation by mulching different beds every year. Better to apply a thick mulch to a few beds than an insufficient smattering to all.

    Covering the soil with mulch not only suppresses weeds but also prevents the soil from drying out due to the evaporation of water through solar heating or the action of wind. A good covering also prevents compaction which is a major enemy of plants. If a soil is compacted then the roots cannot establish themselves compromising a plants’ ability to find nutrients or water or securely establish itself. Even rain splash can cause compaction to say nothing of heavy footfalls on a soil that is too wet and cold to receive it. This is why gardeners often use boards to get about as they spread the weight and fork over the area they have been working to break up any
    compacted soil.

    Over time the mulch will disappear as it is broken down into its chemical constituents and worked in by worms and other creatures but this should give you enough time to get a respite from weeding and allow plants to establish a better root zone. The addition of bulky organic matter such as manure helps to open up a heavy clay soil allowing water and air to penetrate to lower depths. Where a soil is sandy the addition of the same substance will work the opposite miracle by adding ‘body’ to help retain moisture in dry periods. There is always more than meets the eye whether that be in a humble person or a humble substance.

    Ross Underwood

    Read more
    Hodnet Hall Gardens
  • When Size Truly Matters

    By on January 8, 2018

    By the time that you read this Christmas will all be over and done with. The baubles will have been wrapped up and packed away without, hopefully, too many breakages. Tinsel, if that is your thing and I don’t see why not, will have been gathered up and strings of lights carefully wound around a square of cardboard. Despite all of these precautions they might still end up like something resembling a birds nest when you unpack everything next year. The last thing to go out is usually the tree. This is often a daunting task. Size matters when choosing a Christmas tree. How big does it need to be to be impressive? Too big and you end up with neck ache from trying to peer around it to watch the Queen’s speech. When brought from the Christmas tree grower or garden centre it is easy to underestimate the size of the tree whilst overestimating the size of the room!

    Cut Christmas trees have surged in popularity. The British Christmas Tree Growers Association estimates the over 8 million trees are sold by its 320 or more members. The BCTGA website also has a code of practise for members as well as advice on caring for your cut tree. The Association holds an annual competition for the best Christmas tree the winner of which gets to supply the tree for 10 Downing Street and the winner with the best foliage supplies the wreath for the famous black door. However by now most trees will be sawn up and sent for recycling with other garden waste or looking sadly forlorn at the bottom of the garden, bereft of needles. If you are like me you will probably be picking needles out of your socks in June.

    Yet, have you ever wondered what your Christmas tree might look like if it had never been a Christmas tree? For many years the favourite tree of British shoppers has been Picea abies, the Norway Spruce. This beautifully scented tree can grow up to 60 metres tall with a trunk up to two metres across. It has a broadly conical outline with dense spiky branches covered in bright green needles. The Norway spruce has the broadest natural range of its genus, occurring from the Maritime Alps to Siberia and is one of the most important and widely cultivated species in forestry and horticulture. They can live for 300 years. The Nordmann fir, Abies nordmanniana is the most popular Christmas tree sold in Britain. It has soft needles which do not drop readily. In its natural environment around the mountains surrounding the Black Sea from Russia to Turkey it can grow to 70 metres and individuals can live for 500 years. A popular entry from America is the Fraser fir though it makes a more diminutive specimen growing only to 30 metres. The trunk usual reaches a
    metre or so in diameter with flaky grey bark. Originating in the high Appalachian mountains of Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee it is named after a Scottish plant explorer. Though it is naturally short lived it makes a shapely conical tree when young which is why it has made a popular entry into the Christmas tree market.

    So when you wave goodbye to your tree you might pause to think of the multi-million pound industry that has grown up. Plants that have been collected in the wild and were once expensive novelties from across the globe are grown and sold by the million. Not bad for an imported tradition even if the man who made it popular was a prince.
    Best wishes for 2018!

    Ross Underwood

    Read more
    Hodnet Hall Gardens
  • Keeping on Keeping on

    By on October 16, 2017

    We may be nearing the end of October but that does not mean that the garden needs to be running out of steam. There are many places that we can look for colour and interest and also scent. The stars of the show at the moment are naturally the deciduous trees.


    One of the foremost genera for me is the Katsura tree or Cercidiphyllum japonicum. Ultimately this is perhaps a tree for the largest garden as it can reach a substantial size, indeed it is the largest tree in Asia. The leaves are rounded and at the end of the year turn wonderful shades of red, gold and orange. Best of all is the scent which is carried powerfully all around the tree and smells variously of burnt sugar or toffee apples. It is by no means one of the fastest growing trees so you could plant one in order to enjoy it while it is relatively young. There are also dwarf cultivars which are really just very slow growing forms of the species including ‘Boyd’s Dwarf’, ‘Herkenrode Dwarf’ and ‘Kreukenberg Dwarf’. These could be accommodated in even an average garden.

    Sorbus is another genus which I defy anyone not to love. The family is broadly split into two groups, the Aria section of white beams and the Rowans which have light foliage made up of many leaflets. These make excellent garden trees as they do not cast too deep a shade as to exclude things from growing underneath. At this time of year the foliage is deeply alight and glowing. There are a huge number of cultivars with different leaf shapes, berry colour etc. If I had to pick one it would be Sorbus commixta which hails from Russia, Japan and Korea. It has a rather columnar habit with orange red fruits and the cultivar ‘Olympic Flame’ is perhaps one of
    the best of all trees for autumn colour.

    Viburnum xanthocarpum

    Amongst the best shrubs for berries are the Viburnums and amongst this family the Guelder rose or Viburnum opulus holds a chief place. The large maple like foliage positively glows in autumn along with glistening fruits which take on a translucent quality. My favourite is V.o. ‘Xanthocarpum’ which has orange yellow fruits that stand out  like pearls on a necklace. Undoubtedly, the most unusual if not downright sinister fruits belong to Decaisnea fargesii which hails from China and the Himalayas. The flowers are
    yellow-green borne in May but by September and October large groups of metallic blue pods like oversized broad beans hang beneath the foliage. The shape and colour gives the plant it’s common name of drowned or dead man’s fingers. Inside is a squishy mixture of pulp and seeds.

    Decaisnea fargesii


    Now is the best time to plant bulbs but it is also the best time to enjoy one in particular. Nerine bowdenii, a species of flowering plant in the Amaryllidacae family. Planted shallowly in full sun the narrow strap shaped leaves give way to clusters of bright pink flowers held in large umbels. The plant itself originates from South Africa though it is reliably hardy unless waterlogged and it is worth making sure there is good drainage. Clumps will increase rapidly and can be divided after flowering. After a disappointing summer it is reassuring to know that there is still so much to enjoy.

    Ross Underwood

    Read more
    Hodnet Hall Gardens