Plant ot the Month – April

I was reading the other day that a garden should not have a beautiful view, as the view would be a distraction away from the garden and the garden could never live up to the view. Throwing caution and modesty to the wind – what rot! Unlike Lucy Honeychurch and Miss Bartlett in ‘A Room with a View’, we have a view. Although at the moment some people may be more in sympathy with Mr Emerson and his son George, who had a view but didn’t value it, as the hill opposite our garden has oil seed rape ablaze.

Oil seed rape is a particularly strident acid yellow with a touch of mustard thrown in. Not a colour that would seem sensitive to either the English idyll of a garden or countryside. However, Pettifers is made of stronger stuff and it never shies away from colour at any time of the year. Cue Euphorbia polychroma ‘Major’. This is a 80cm tall dome of yellow that if the colour was reflected on a pH chart, would come in at about 4. Wince inducing but perfectly in keeping with the field opposite. By repeating a colour from the landscape in the garden we have done the clever trick of melting the two together, or as the landscape gardeners did in the 18th century of ‘borrowing’ the landscape.

Within the garden Euphorbia polychroma ‘Major’ contrasts with the usual spring blues that always abound, the dark purple of ‘Queen of the Night’ and ‘Black Parrot’ tulips and another euphorbia, ‘Excalibur’. This is a new plant to the garden and at the moment is a smouldering bush of deep purple leaves striped with white and green – the acid yellow flowers come later. Factor in the mauve of the bench placed in front and you have quite an animated colour palette. But it works because the area is in full sun where subtler colours would look drained and washed out. Sun is what the euphorbias need. They’ll take half sun but they’ll throw up fewer stems from the base each year and won’t live as long.

Well, would Miss Honeychurch and Miss Bartlett approve? It might not be the Arno but for a north facing English garden I think the Cockney Signora wouldn’t receive many complaints.

Picture to follow








Plant of the Month – February

Yesterday was beautiful – the sun was out and warm, the first bees of the year were flash mobbing the hellebores, the sky was so blue I was surprised when I looked up at the magnolia and found it wasn’t already dotted with flowers. Next month maybe.

But today, well, back to grey and gloom. At this time of year you need a friend in the garden. Someone to wave at you and encourage you out, cheekily smile at you from across a border and wink at you when you look down and see them hiding at the bottom of a tree or come on them round a corner. Cyclamen coum. Oh so lovely. All the shades of pink through to white with the odd picotee or streak mixed in. Even if you start with lots of the same

Continue reading “Plant of the Month – February”

Plant of the Month – January

Apologies for no ‘Plant of the Month’ last month, we took the time off for good behaviour.

So, January, new year, same garden. Sounds boring. But we’re excited! Oh yes. The mild weather has pulled the garden along nicely. The first week of January saw the first aconites appear, peeking out from under some ferns. Snowdrops were already showing white before Christmas but Galanthus ‘Mrs McNamara’ and ‘Wendy’s Gold’ are now fully out and jigging in the wind. Pink hellebores seem to be more forward than the white, the latter being this wonderful mixture of gold/lime/parchment colour still in bud with this curious texture like matt silk or shark skin (I read too much ‘House and Garden’).

But, back to those ferns. They are a pash of mine and have been from the beginning. I love they way they are calming and woodsy one minute and then lush and tropical the next depending on how the sun is glinting on them. They act rather shrub like, in that they may sit and do nothing for a couple of years and then in their third, they’ll have got their roots down and will explode in size and vigour. Winter is often their best time as they are at their biggest unless snow has beaten them down. Some, such as the polypodiums are at their greenest or lime-est now. Positioned next to snowdrops they pull the green out and give a much kinder background colour than the usual bare earth. By Spring, the old fronds will have turned brown and you cut them off and then you wait for the new ones to unfurl. But they often take their time – no Spring rush for them.

We have a plant of Polypodium cambricum ‘Richard Kayse’. Very strong lime green colour – like a frilly lettuce from a distance. It is tucked under the dry stone brick walls at the top of the garden, facing north. In the summer it is virtually dormant having a rest during the drier months, its place filled by Alchemilla alpina, a non thuggish alchemilla a third of the size, in all its parts, of mollis. It is unusual to have such a strong, lush green herbaceous plant in winter. Bergenias are leathery and heavy in comparison.

We almost lost Polystichum setiferum (Divisilobum Group) due to sun stroke. We imagined that the plants at the side of it would provide the shade the ferns required. They didn’t. So last summer they were unceremoniously hoicked out and moved to a lovely damp, shady wall bottom – the kind of place that most plants rot in. Aconites have appeared next to them making us feel very smug and pleased. For summer ‘colour’ we put in some  Athyrium niponicum seedlings that had previously fried to a crisp in the same border as the Polystichum before their move. These are streaked with violet and purple over the usual green, delicate fronds. They don’t have any white in them such as in var. pictum – too ornamental for this position.

Care involves mainly watching them – no hardship there. Too much sun, they will tell you. Do something about it or they won’t thrive. They may not die but they will look thin, dusty and wan, and live up to their old reputation of being dull and only useful for boring, forgettable places. No plant deserves that. If you have it, surround them with leaf mould. They’ll adore you for it.

Ferns aren’t boring! I’m off to coo over ‘Bevis’ – in the rain!



Plant of the Month – November

November is a month about trees. I break the habit of a lifetime and force myself to stop mooching around, head down, looking at the pretty flowers and to look UP. I check the branches of all the trees to see if anything nasty is happening – any crossing or rubbing, any die back, anything spoiling the shape or outline. Early next year we are having the crowns of the lime trees lifted to allow more light in. The small trees nearby ( Sorbus villmorinii, Magnolia ‘Spectrum’, Prunus serrata) are growing away from them , becoming mis-shapen and ‘windswept’. Even though we knew what needed doing when the leaves were on, now the trees are bare it’s patently obvious and we feel more confident in calling in our tree surgeon to do the deed. Get a good tree surgeon and you can breathe a sigh of relief – recommendation every time. It’s quite a responsibility, not only to your own trees but often people living nearby will think the firm used by ‘the big house’ must be good and employ them also.

The star of the garden in November?  Sorbus ‘Joseph Rock’. It flamed well even though autumn colour wasn’t great this year. It’s a small tree, a deceptive phrase often used for trees that outgrow the description quite quickly and then start dominating a small space. We have two growing into each other in the Autumn Border – a border as long as many suburban back gardens admittedly but not very wide and they never overwhelm . Also, they are lightly branched and don’t cast lots of shade. Sorbus aren’t long lived (for trees) and can start to suffer die back, loosing whole branches and look a bit moth eaten but by growing two together they are complementing each other, growing into each other and actually filling any gaps in the branch layout.

And, you have the berries. Peach. Very pretty. Generally considered to be the last eaten by the birds in winter but our blackbirds must be gluttons as they’ve already polished them off and moved on to the Malus hupehensis nearby. In the late Spring you have flat corymbs of cream flowers, pretty, not showy but they blend in with fields beyond. Many people don’t like the smell though.

Most fun place to be in the garden at this time of year? The leaf pile. You can fall over in it, kick it around, take a runner into it. . . .Love it. I threw Temba in last week. He sank like a stone, waddled out covered in bits of leaf and twig, shook himself, gave me a look of a disgruntled Pekingese, then trotted off to tell on me. Should have tried it on Tensing – more of a sense of humour.


Thanks to Clive Nichols for the picture.

Plant of the Month – October

October, a ghoulish month; toadstools on the lawn, spiders’ webs between every plant and monkshood in the borders.

Mmm, Aconitum carmichaelii ‘Arendsii’, tall, dark, handsome and slightly sinister standing in the corner of the Autumn Border. . . makes me swoon just thinking about it, or scream hysterically in the case of 1 visitor who told me flatly that we should not grow it as it was so dangerous and poisonous. We’re not in the habit of grazing on our plants as we weed but, point taken, do wash your hands after handling. Not that you’ll have to do much handling. We stake the earlier July flowering aconitums as they tend to lean a little ungainly and then we cut them down when they are setting seed as by then they are looking perfectly louche. But the Autumn blooming monkshood are made of sterner stuff, vamping it up with no support even though they are tipping 6′ by then. By the end of the month their leaves will be turning yellow, joining in with the general cacophony and carnival atmosphere that is the garden in Autumn. The Autumn Border has good loamy soil and receives a generous mulch of compost and a sprinkle of blood, fish and bone (how ghoulish is that?!)

Why do men and women of the Cloth have this austere reputation? People have watched ‘The Name of the Rose’ too often I expect. My experience is otherwise. A friend, working in a certain famous garden near Windsor saw a large tree swaying in a repetitive manor. The bottom of the tree was screened by a hedge but as she walked to the other side she was faced with half a dozen nuns, in full habit, bouncing up and down on the lowest branch of the tree as though it was a seesaw and laughing gleefully at the fun.

“How did you tell them to stop?” I asked.

“Sharply” was her reply!


Aconitum carmichaelii ‘Arendsii’ in the corner with Aster laevis  and Miscanthus ‘Yakushima Dwarf’ with the Malus transitoria avenue behind.


Kniphofia rooperi, Sanguisorba officinalis and Panicum ‘Warrior’


More monkshood under Sorbus ‘Joseph Rock’

Plant of the Month – September

September is a month of mixed emotions; seeing the school buses going through the village again brings that pit in the stomach feeling of old even if it’s decades since the school gates beckoned. Even when you remember that by the end of August you were so bored that mother resorted to ironing transfers on to your father’s handkerchiefs for you to embroider – he could never blow his nose in public for fear of ridicule as daisies weren’t his idea of manly and we ran out of the letter ‘j’ years before.

But in the garden, September is a new Spring. The light is soft and yellow, almost caressing and plants are opening up saying “look at me” just as much as they are in April.

When I don’t know what to choose for ‘Plant of the Month’ I wait for a group of visitors to tell me. This they do unwittingly as one by one they all come up to us and ask about the same plants. So “thank you” to Harpenden Horticultural Society for all asking about Clematis rehderiana and our purple Eucomis bicolor cultivar that we’ve had for years and we just call ‘Burgundy’.

Our Clematis rehderiana is a ‘good form’ ( doesn’t your heart just sink when someone says that?) from Hannays of Bath a long defunct nursery still missed by many. It starts flowering in mid July and continues through September. It’s a noisy plant as it is always accompanied by the buzz of bees. Cowslip scented it will put on 10ft of growth in one season and pull itself up over whatever is in its path. In our case this is the yew soldiers we have lined up next to the garages – one of them must be blushing furiously as he is encircled by a marabou wrap of sulphur yellow bells waving gently in the wind. In spring we cut it down to a massive trunk of twisted branches at the base. And that’s it. We never feed it as its base is below a membrane covered with marble chippings and it never gets anything nasty that we need to spray against.


Eucomis looks like a pineapple. Everyone says so. But pineapples aren’t made up of hoya-like flowers below their top knot of leaves. Ours are stunners in the true Pre-Raphaelite tradition – thick necks, gorgeous colouring, slightly brazen in their languid loll against the metal fence supports we use to keep them off the paths. The bulbs are huge as I found out last Spring when I put a spade through one of them whilst trying to plant gladiolus – the bulb came up and flowered anyway.   And yes, we leave them in the ground. They are planted in the Parterre, a piece of ground on a 20 degree slope, in soil that is so well drained it could be described as ‘thin’. I may feed them, I can’t really remember, probably a handful of something granular as I’m passing but they may have to do with the feed from the dahlias that are planted up hill from them as it leaches downwards.

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So don’t start polishing your tools for storage just yet. We’ve already started our dividing and moving about. There are a few large empty spaces that we’ve cleared this week in anticipation of the roses we’ve ordered. New grasses arrived yesterday for the Klimt border. It’s as busy as Spring here. I’m off to get my new academic year diary as the gardening year starts now. . .

The New English Garden – Tim Richardson and Andrew Lawson

A new book about to be published by Frances Lincoln:

‘In The New English Garden the leading garden writer Tim Richardson, author of The Arcadian Friends, discusses twenty-five significant English gardens made or remade over the past decade. Together these represent a coherent overview of what remains probably the most inventive garden culture in the world.

With the benefit of an international perspective, the author surveys a wide spectrum of gardens in styles ranging from the cutting-edge naturalistic planting design of the Sheffield School to the scientific imagery of Througham Court. While many of these gardens are challenging or thought-provoking, others reflect the sensuously romantic tradition of English planting design, which has also been moving ahead in interesting ways.

Through Tim Richardson’s incisive writing, The New English Garden presents all that is most interesting about garden-making in England in the twenty-first century and is beautifully illustrated by Andrew Lawson’s photography of some of England’s most famous gardens, from Prince Charles’s garden at Highgrove, Christopher Lloyd’s garden at Great Dixter and Arabella Lennox-Boyd’s garden at Gresgarth right up to the Olympic Park in 2012.’

Oh, and Pettifers. And we’re on the cover! (Big smile)

Click on this link for more details

book cover

Plant of the Month – August

Do you remember last June when we said that our Dictamnus had failed to come up? Well, she’s back and in flower. She’s looking a little thin and wan, slightly embarrassed even. And well she may as she won’t recognise anyone at the party she’s gate crashed. Where usually she’s rubbing shoulders with alliums, now it’s agapanthus and the agapanthus is, frankly, looking daggers at her. At least the Buddleia crispa behind is sympathetic.

What happened? Who knows. Slugs is the obvious answer but we weren’t inundated with them in the Spring like last year and the dahlias weren’t bothered by them. Lack of heat? Shouldn’t have been a problem. We wait to see what happens next year.

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I wouldn’t usually associate August with roses, even HT’s are looking rather dusty and our Portland and English Roses are sitting this month out before shaking out their skirts for a final gander in September. However, we have one rose that is still flowering as though it were June (or should I say July as that was when the roses started this year). It was given to us 3 years ago by a friend. He saw it on a  volcanic hillside and thought it would be good to try as it would obviously tolerate good drainage and tricky conditions.

Rosa ‘Gina Price’ (maybe, not official yet) is a ground cover rose which means it’s a pain to weed around and rather gets lost in our borders. After 2 moves to find the right place, it has ended up in a large pot and looks perfect there.

So, 1 plant that shouldn’t be an August plant and 1 that is still trying to surprise us in a good way. Usually I hate surprises (Christmas and birthdays are agony for me. Oh the suspense!) but with these 2 I’ll make an exception.

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Plant of the Month – July

At Pettifers we like our plants to reflect our attitude to the garden – they have to work hard!

Helenium ‘Sahin’s Early Flowerer’ is near enough a perfect plant. It starts flowering in July, brushes off any temperature that the sun throws at it, ignores rain showers, needs no staking and as it’s a mix of yellow and orange it tones with a lot of plants that flower now. We have it next to Monarda ‘Cambridge Scarlet’. This is a jammier colour than scarlet suggests. Near by to contrast later in the season is Aconitum carmichaelii ‘Royal Flush’. This is the typical gentian blue of the genus with the added bonus of red leaves when they first emerge in March. This orange/apricot/strong blue combination is typical of the Autumn Border that starts flowering now and will continue unabated until heavy frosts or mid November. We once had a group visit booked for the last day of October. I was slightly apprehensive that there would be enough to see, but the Autumn Border stood there looking proud and glorious.

Mid August sees us dead heading the helenium. It’s a picky type of job best tackled with a large hat on, the sun on your back and listening to the bees buzzing all around you. You can either snip individual flowers off neatly (one of us) or you can grab a number of heads together in your fist and cut away with impunity (t’other of us). Both work. But do do it. This will see the plant flower through September still looking as fresh as the daisy that it is.

We have a number of Polemoniums in the garden. This seems to be one those genus that you used to see in other peoples’ gardens when you were growing up. Unassuming, needing little attention and always flowering their heads off, and yet now rarely seen unless you go to a garden of a Hardy Plant Societer. We have ‘Sonia’s Bluebell’ and foliosissimum ‘Cottage Cream’. ‘Sonia’s Bluebell’ flowers for 3 months then we chop it to the ground and it will come again. Very accommodating. ‘Cottage Cream’ just flowers and flowers. After the first flush, it falls over and then sends up flowers from all the now horizontal leaf axils. It definitely needs to be put in a place where it can loll with abandon like a Roman senator (someone pass it a peeled grape please). A new polemonium to us is archibaldiae. We were given it by Sibylle Kreutzberger on our visit to her garden earlier in the week. She dead heads it and it keeps on flowering and renewing its leaves. I think it will be a good doer.

So, summer is here. Holidays beckon. The garden is working hard. So we’ll retire to a hammock..

HA! As if. . .

Visitors to the Garden

December. Graham Gough and Lucy Goffin of Marchants Hardy Plants came to stay. Graham bought some of his home baked bread and Lucy some of her exquisite embroidery.

I loved walking round the garden with Graham, as he had a fresh eye and seemed to recognise everything even in mid winter. He has galvanised me into making some changes for the better.

He was very impressed with Head Gardener Polly’s clipping and said the garden looked very professional.