Homes & Property

09 February 2010 3:55 PM

Winter damage

This bitter weather has left my fingers numb with the wet and freezing weather driving me inside. Now the snow has cleared, the damage to plants can be better seen.

It has left my Senecio a broken plant - the weight of snow splitting the heart of it open so its branches lay almost flat with the ground. Yet this is one of those remarkably resistant plants. Removing half the growth from its over burdened and now weakened branches will lessen unwanted weight but leave sufficient wood to prevent the cold doing any more damage to the wood below. As the weather warms I will cut it back again and wait for the new growth to come through. Once it has re-established itself, I will take semi ripe cuttings in mid summer and start growing replacement plants - the young eventually taking over the place of the mother plant.
With such a small garden every plant should earn its keep and I could be utterly ruthless and rip out the offending plant. I have after all been feasting my eyes over seed catalogues this winter and am keen to try out some new plants. Ray Brown’s catalogue hit my desk just before Christmas with a friendly note attached. He remembered I had visited with Roy Lancaster some years ago to run a feature on his garden, nursery and unusual selection of seeds that he sells through Plant World Seeds (

I have always wanted to grow Dierama or the ‘Angel Rods’ before and they are somewhat of a specialty with him. These beautiful plants from South Africa have slender stems which on the end have dainty flowers in mainly pinks or mauves. They are perfect for my dry soil and will sit nicely above the ground yet providing see though. I will put in my orders and await with delight the returning package.

18 November 2009 3:10 PM

Unusual goings on in the garden

Plants-against-wallThere has been a number of unusual goings on in the back garden. Growbags had been ripped open and one Birkenstock has gone missing in action (presumed mauled) over the course of the summer. The latest is my potted and treasured Cerinthe major which were carried half way across the garden and unceremoniously dumped in some bushes. I think foxy has been up to tricks.

The temperatures have been dropping and rising over the past 10 days. It’s time to bring potted plants, of a slightly tender disposition, against the side of the house to afford them some protection from cool winds, heavy downpours and dropping temperatures.

Olive-in-potPlants that I class in this category are some of my potted herbs such as thyme and my agapanthus. This is in part because I want them to be protected from downpours of rain as these plants don’t like water on leaves or having their compost saturated when it freezes. Better to bring them into the rain shadow of a wall and to water them as needed throughout the winter.

Agapanthus-seed-heads-in-bo Plants will still need to be watered in warm spells throughout the winter. My two standard olives (left) were looking decidedly ill last week as I hadn’t had a chance to get out there and water them – not a job you think you would have to do in early November.

 Now we had started the great garden clear up the weekend before last – clearing the majority of leaves from borders and plants. But I have left a few seed heads such as the Agapanthus (right) - I aim to spray them gold to spread Christmas jollity to the outdoors. Of course other seed heads can be left as a food source for birds over the harder periods of the winter before being finally removed.

06 November 2009 1:50 PM

Getting our hands dirty

Hollyhock The great garden tidy up commenced at the weekend. My husband Neil practically leapt out of bed in his excitement to get his hands dirty. I dallied slightly, enjoying the duvet cover for longer than I should and as a result my beloved hollyhock seedlings were ripped from their cosy seedbed. I felt aggrieved but felt I could hardly say anything after all his other hard work.

I had managed to bring the original seed with me in the pocket of an old gardening coat from my previous garden and had sown the paper like coated seeds 2 years ago with my first flower spike appearing this year. Its deep claret flowers provided much colour and height into the garden and wanting a whole stand of these statuesque plants I dutifully waited for the flowers to mature and the seeds to ripen. Once gathered they were broadcast liberally all over the garden in mid September and lightly tickled them in with a fork. I let the weather do its trick with warm soils from the summer and autumn rain providing ideal conditions to bring on germination.

Hellebore Now I have to give my husband his due, seedlings of the plants you want to keep and those that are going to grow into nasty thugs can be hard to distinguish. The seedling sends out seed leaves first these are generally rounded with few distinguishing features but within days the first ‘true’ leaves emerge and these are the leaves that will take on the plants distinct leaf shape and give you a clue to what plant it might have sprung from. It’s not rocket science but you do need to spend time with plants and observing how they develop and grow from seedling to maturity not to make a boo-boo.

I have managed to guard my other seedlings quite carefully. Two hellebores arrived one day from out of the blue. I think they must have come in with compost on another plant but they are a welcome invader and I have cosseted them all summer. It will be interesting to see if they flower this winter. 

Cerinthe-major Other goodies include foxgloves and a rash of Cerinthe major through the winter pansies. 

Remember these are nature’s freebies so keep a good look out on your clear up for plants that you can use in next years schemes. If they haven’t germinated in quite the right place lift and transplant to other areas of the garden or pot them up. I managed to save three hollyhocks and a bunch of Cerinthe, whilst they looked a little worse for wear when I potted them up they recovered over the afternoon with a good drink of water. So all in all we haven’t done too badly on the free plants this year – Neil all is forgiven.

30 October 2009 5:23 PM

Wearing big jumpers in the garden

Fothergilla-Monticola I don’t know about you but I love this sunny autumnal weather and the scents it brings with it. Sweetly rotting damp leaves give me a boost in the dark mornings and I have a wish to build large bonfires and wear big jumpers in the garden.

The Autumn Harvest RHS London show that was held last week brought the season to life with benches filled with examples of brilliant autumn colour. Fothergilla Monticola Group (shown right) was exquisite and others such as Carya ovata added deep yellow tones to the benches.

As a gardener who is keen to extend the season of interest in the garden, now is the time to visit Wisley (, Kew, National Trust properties and garden centres to take on the full impact of autumn and choose plants Nerine-‘Isobel’for your own garden. Think about the overall size some of these plants reach, how they will fit in with existing plants or how they might lighten dark areas of the garden and bring some pizzazz to your borders with autumn colour.

My treat from the London Show was Nerine ‘Isobel’ seen on W & S Lockyers stand. You will often see the common form, Nerine bowdenii, at the base of south facing walls taking advantage of the drier and sheltered conditions that the wall affords. I therefore knew these plants would do well on my dry and inhospitable soil. 

Lockyers is a family team with father William and son Simon giving me invaluable advice on growing these South African beauties. Nerine ‘Isobel’ is a frost hardy type, as with other N. bowdenii, but watch out as some species are tender and will need to come in over the winter.

Nerine-‘Isobel’-in-garden William took me through their life cycle explaining that the leaf is produced over the summer after which the flower is produced. It is in late spring that you can start to lightly feed with a half strength feed of tomorite to encourage both healthy leaf and bud development. His last piece of advice was to ensure that the neck of the bulb was proud of the soil – this would prevent it from rotting off and spoiling the fun.

I got my little fizz bomb back undamaged from its ride on the District line and it is now stationed in a most prominent position in the foliage filled border outside my lounge window. The pink I thought would contrast nicely against the purple and silver grey of surrounding shrubs.

12 October 2009 5:09 PM

Autumn dawns

I have slipped in not getting my blog in last week but feel I have a valid excuse – Chelsea Flower Show (CFS) is starting to fizz! It is a manic time of year as the planning for the 2010 CFS is at full tilt with Show, Courtyard and Urban gardens being selected in a series of three meetings that looks at every design detail; from choice of paving materials to depth of excavation and from species in flower to those that most definitely won’t be in flower.

The pack assembled last Thursday, with Andrew Wilson as chair of the Show Garden committee. He leads a panel that includes plantsmen, landscape designers and contractors. It is their job to pick the gardens that keep Chelsea as the place to see the very best in international garden design. A lively debate ensued - after all, this is the point at which Chelsea starts to be shaped – who’s in or who needs to convince the panel of the design intentions.

Gentian 'shot silk'It is a tough meeting but backed by sound principles of looking for gardens with good design, good contractors (or garden builders) and signed sponsorship. Only when an applicant meets all three can a design be allocated a space within the show. Whilst I have to keep hush for a little while longer, those buying tickets now (yes they are on sale) will be delighted to hear that an excellent crop of gardens is starting to show itself (

Whilst all this is happening, Malvern (an RHS Partner show) had a spectacular Autumn Show. The most sensational gentians were shown by Edrom Nurseries from Scotland. Don’t worry unduly about their location so far from London as most nurseries now run excellent mail order businesses from their websites and Edrom is no exception Gentian ‘Shot Silk’ (pictured, above) was one plant that really shone out - a real gem of a plant. It flowers from September to October and brings vibrancy to a raised border or container. Find a position in full sun on an acid soil or in a container filled with ericaceous compost for these plants to thrive.

Bougainvillea Other nurseries included Plantagogo with an excellent display of Heucheras and Westdale who showed an incredible range of Bougainvillea (pictured, left) – in their final throes of brilliant colour.

But what I love about Malvern is their open gardening competition that attracts some of the very best growers in the country. The showmanship in putting together displays of fruit and veg is a dying art as smaller shows continue to decline but at Malvern it was there for everyone to see: giant pumpkins, trugs of vegetables and triumphant vases of dahlias (pictured, below).

Late season shows are some of the best - crowds are relaxed and there is a fun of the fair atmosphere, with bargains to be had but also the promise of the year to come. On 13-14 October the RHS stages its final show of the year the RHS Autumn Harvest Show ( held in the impressive art deco Horticultural Halls in Westminster. This is a celebration of plenty, with a feast of autumn colour and produce on display.

DahliasI am thrilled that Charles Dowding ( is back at the show. He will make you look at vegetable growing in a whole different light. Whilst he lives and grows in Somerset many of his techniques on vegetable growing are highly suitable for the city gardener – just ask him about the ‘Dowding lettuce technique’ – it is pure genius and something I always practise! You can also scoff some unusual salad leaves when he is advising you on how to get going.

As well as edible delights there will be many seasonal displays with plants to buy, so expect to go away with several bags of bulbs and the like. This is really the perfect retreat for the city worker in need of a slice of the country – I hope you enjoy.

23 September 2009 6:21 PM

Our 'Gardeners Delight' tomatoes proved a triumphant return to growing for my husband

Our cherry tomatoes – ‘Gardeners Delight’ were bought as a Valentine’s present back in February from the quirky nursery Pennard Plants ( who were exhibiting at the RHS London Flower Show (


It is a triumphant return to growing for my husband who has not been in this line of recreation since he was six. Truss after truss of tomatoes have been grown and promptly devoured, most never making the salad bowl.

We have set them up against the wall of the flat in part so we can easily attach supports but also to take advantage of the heat that the wall will store in the day and give out over night. Keeping the temperature a degree or two higher over night for these tender natives of South America can help prevent a check in growth which is particularly important at the start of the growing season. I believe this sheltered spot next to the back door for easy access has contributed much to their success.

Our hands were covered last night with the yellow dust that comes from handling tomato plants. We removed the last of the flowers and opened the fruits up to the sun by pinching away the surrounding foliage. The flowers would never come to anything at this late stage in the growing season and it will give some of the still green fruits a chance to ripen on the plant.


This year the tomatoes have been relatively problem free although I do know blight has been prevalent this summer due to the wet weather causing crops to fail in spectacular fashion.

It all starts with rapidly spreading lesions on leaves and stems, with the fungus then attacking the fruit and ruining the crop. A horror story if ever I heard. Blight is more prominent on outdoor tomatoes as the spores of this fungus are spread by wind and rain splash.

The only problem we have encountered with our tomatoes is the skin splitting but rather than being the fault of the variety it was our irregular watering. Something in a busy life that can slip but isn’t a disaster if it does, as once thrown in a pan with some garlic they take on another charm. 

For more information on controlling tomato blight see

16 September 2009 1:11 AM

Flower pots and this season's ‘it’ plants

Flower arrangement in jam jar A neighbour has inspired me to put together jam jars of vibrant colour this summer (her own delightful creation is shown on the right). Putting them together for the house or to place on the table when eating outside adds an element of the country which is very welcome when living in the centre of London. Plunder your pots or borders for almost anything – seed heads from poppy plants, sweet peas, marigolds and Shasta daisies (Leucanthemum x superbum).

Many plants I like to include in these simple arrangements are hardy annuals and for me they are this season's ‘it’ plants. They do it all - low in price, easy to source and very forgiving of neglect; perfect for playing with in a communal garden. Get the sowing and ground conditions right in April/May and you are set up for the year. OK I didn’t get my supports in this year but at least the larkspurs are still colourful even if their faces are a little closer to the ground than they should be.

CosmosLast year’s trial of annuals managed to keep going until early autumn – a shot of colour in an otherwise foliage filled border – marvellous! So the aim this year was a repeat performance. I gave them a feed of growmore (balanced feed of all the right goodies) back at the beginning of August and although annuals shouldn’t need extra feed on a reasonable soil, on my wasted and weary lame excuse of a soil it has given them the boost that will hopefully take them through to late October, weather permitting.

Last weekend I indulged myself with a spot of deadheading – what seems a thoroughly tedious task is actually highly therapeutic and a wonderful de-stress at the end of a day – I positively floated into the flat as it grew dark. Taking each flowered stem back to leaf junction will encourage the plants to keep flowering as apposed to setting seed and dying.

Untitled-3Some of my old favourites have done well, such as Cosmos (shown above left), and I have just come across a new plant which looks fab - a form of hardy annual Chrysanthemum carinatum (right) – one to note down and remember for next year for sure.

08 September 2009 7:13 PM

My communal London back garden

It is two years since I made the move to London. Not having made the migration after university due to a morbid fear of being swamped by high rise and lack of green space I was finally tempted by my dream job and quickly realised, to my great relief, that urban green space is not an urban myth.

The flat I eventually bought was described by my city dwelling brother as ‘a dream come true’, a ground-floor flat with an overgrown communal garden and a garage to boot (a god send for seed trays, blood fish and bone and other accoutrements that don’t sit comfortably in the house all winter).

Communal gardening has its trials and tribulations - which is not surprising when so many people get involved. Gardeners who believe that Ceanothus should have its annual hair cut just before it is about to flower; community representatives only allowing a 50cm trim off the top of 6m cherry laurels for fear they will not grow back; and neighbours who are unaware what lies beneath their feet.

But garden spaces are used differently by each member and to me as a gardener I have learnt whilst trees can be used for hanging washing, lawns for disposal bbq’s to sit on and gravel an excellent place to stub out cigarettes, using the space together gets people talking to their neighbours and that can only be a good thing.

Communal back garden in London

But down to the gardening. My garden, I discovered for this blog, is a 10m deep by 15m wide space (right). One size of a Chelsea Show Garden - god forbid if any of the judges should see this space. Two years ago overgrown evergreens ruled the borders, the seating area had no seats and the garden had an air of despondency.

Certain plants were ripped out entirely and others heavily pruned. Remembering this is a communal garden the desire to take out all the plants you positively loath and replace with your dream list is not possible. So I had to make the most of what I had.

Cherry Laurels that had got out of hand were lifted to a clear stem, to not only let in more light but reduce the amount of water sucked out of the ground and give them a more architectural face. The laurel hedge (there is a lot of laurel in this garden) that runs down the side of the fence was given a very heavy cut.

I knew on a dry and exhausted soil it would take time to come back and it has taken 18 months to really recover into a very clean, neat looking hedge which I am delighted with.

This garden and group of 1960s flats sits on reclaimed land and it tells in the soil. It hasn’t had a single ounce of organic matter for decades – I found my first earth worm after a year of cultivation. Soil is the key to all successful planting; if your soil is dead or dying (which mine was) then it is hard to get establishment.

Outdoor dining area

Incorporate as much organic matter as you can in the first year and get plants in the ground with a good dose of slow release fertiliser, such as blood fish and bone, for it will start to bring the soil back to life and with it increase the health and number of plants you can grow.

I am lucky for at the end of each Chelsea Flower Show I go round and scrape up spent compost from exhibitor stands to dress my borders, but many urban garden centres in London do seem to have products such as Revive ( or similar on sale.

I have now owned two gardens of my own and in both cases improving the soil was the key to success. I now aim not to disturb the soil unless I am planting and thinly top dress several times during the year and always after rain, preferring to let the soil beasties do their work whilst I am doing mine.

About Alex

Alex Denman I have worked in horticulture all my working life - yet it seems in many respects like I have only just begun. I studied horticulture at the University of Reading and spent a sandwich year at the Savill and Valley Gardens at Windsor - the instruction I needed to bring woefully poor plant knowledge up to scratch. Then I went off to teach horticulture for four years, at a college in Nantwich. All valuable experience!

The RHS was always there in the background. Visits to the Chelsea Flower Show and the newly-launched Tatton Park Flower Show made me look for jobs within the society. What could an outgoing, travel-hungry, passionate gardener want more than a job at the RHS journal, The Garden, travelling around Britain, searching for nurseries, gardens and plantspeople with new ideas to bring into the pages of the magazine. It was an amazing time.

The draw of the Shows, though, was strong, and when the offer to become the Show Manager of the prestigious Chelsea Flower Show was made, I caught it with both hands. Being at the heart of the gardening world is challenging, at times frustrating but also, incredibly satisfying. Three shows on, and I love it as much as ever, and couldn't imagine a life outside gardening.

01 January 1970 11:59 PM