Black Plants


When horticultural types talk of ‘black plants’ they don’t really mean actual, pitch black flowers and foliage; rather they mean plants which have either flowers, or foliage in shades ranging from almost black, smokey plum, aubergine and purple to the deepest port reds and browns. They also include plants with dusky variegations in foliage.

Dark plants were very fashionable in the late nineties, when they were considered very choice and no chic garden was complete without chocolate cosmos or Actaea simplex ‘hillside black beauty’. Once these plants became omnipresent and the market reached saturation point, with supermarkets selling dark-leaved dahlias the gloss began to wear off.

Helen Dillon says she’s over dark leaved plants, noting that they make no more than black holes in the border. Normally I agree with and slavishly lap up the estimable Mrs Dillon’s every word, but in this case I will defiantly defend these lovely and rare creatures.

Black plants look great in various combinations. If you want a truly hot and exotic looking border mix plants with black flowers and foliage with reds, fiery oranges and yellows. For example deep, claret sweet Williams Dianthus barbatus and bright red poppies look wonderful and dramatic together. The dark and red colour combination is seen to perfection in a some single plants like the ever reliable dahlia,  Bishop of Llanduff. This easy to propagate plant has inky dark foliage and glorious bright red flowers.

Dark foliage plants can also be used in cooler colour schemes.  Sambucus nigra- the more refined, black flowered version of the common elderflower look fantastic as a backdrop to smokey plums and  pale pinks like Papavar ‘Patty’s Plum’ or creamy buffs and whites.

For those who become obsessed with black plants, the Holy Grail is the almost pure black flower – they are never truly jet black but some come jolly close. Helleborephiles like me long to own the darkest of slate coloured oriental hybrids. I have waited for three or four years for a dozen plants to grow from seed and almost cried with frustration when 90% turn out to be a ‘meh’ wishy washy pink. It is the elusiveness of the dark flower is what makes it so desirable. Similarly if you want to grow the black opium poppy Papavar somniferum you will need to grow it from packets each year and not allow it to set seed in the garden, otherwise the following summer you will have thousands of poppies; one or two may be black, but the rest will be a mix of colours and some will be the dreadful, shaggy double flowered variety that look like frilly pink knickers. The same goes for any other self seeders such as Aquilegia vulgaris ‘dark columbine’ – great dark smokey shades the first year, the next a mixed bag of common blues and wishy washy pinks.

You can go for tonal arrangements using various shades of plum or go for a striking contrast. Acid green and glaucous foliage makes a superb partner for dark flowers and foliage.

Remember that gardens change continually with the seasons so you can do successional schemes. For example cardoons and artichokes will look wonderful with black tulips and black aquilegias in late spring. As summer goes on tall spires of dark aubergine coloured lupin varieties and irises can take over the and in autumn the dark Sedum telephium ‘purple emperor’ and dahlias will take centre stage.

If you don’t fancy using using dark-leaved plants in the border, they can look great in containers and window boxes. Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ or black Mondo grass is almost a true black. It is a tiny strap leaved plant and can be swamped in the border so is perfect for planting in pots. It makes a great planting partner for all manner of plants and summer bedding. Aonium ‘zwartkop’ is a tender succulent grown for its foliage. It is best planted on its own in a nice terracotta pot because it doesn’t like much water and it needs full sun to turn satisfyingly dark. Bring it indoors in winter or during cold weather.

I predict a return to fashion for these dark beauties – as in fashion, trends have a habit of returning every decade or so. Below are some of my favourite and easy to grow black plants.

Black Plants

  • Ajuga ‘Black Scallop’ – wonderful scalloped black foliage, good groundcover and at edge of borders.
  • Alcea rosea ‘Black Beauty’ – a gorgeous old fashioned hollyhock, up to 1.5m tall, but prone to rust like all hollyhocks.
  • Angelica sylvestris ‘Ebony’ – this huge umbellifer is a real stand-out plant, dark brown architectural foliage and huge flat headed umbels of smokey purple flowers.
  • Aquilegia ‘Black Barlow’ – a lovely dark double-flowered aquilegia – will not come true from seed.
  • Atriplex hortensia ‘Rubra’ – mountain spinach, really more of a very dark rusty plum colour, this is a hardy annual, will self-seed, grows to about 1m and is edible. A great filler for a later summer border.
  • Cornflower ‘Black Ball’ – dark, deep plum version of the common cornflower.
    Dahlia ‘fascination’ – I love this dahlia, it is short – about 30cm but has dark, dark leaves and lovely bright purple flowers.
  • Cosmos astrosanguinea ‘Chocamocha – delicious chocolate scented dark brown cosmos. Can be difficult to keep from year to year.
  • Fritillaria persica – spires of velvety black bells in springtime
  • Geranium phaeum ‘Samobor’ – delicate early flowering perennial geranium with dark flowers and black splotches on the leaves. Can run riot so keep an eye on it.
  • Hemerocallis ‘Black Prince’ – delicious dark day lily.
  • Heuchera ‘Blackberry Jam’ – lovely dark coloured low growing plant, great for the edge of borders and in pots.
  • Ligularia osiris ‘Cafe Noir’ – great black foliage plant with bright yellow daisy-like flowers.
  • Nasturtium ‘Black Velvet’ – a lovely deep, rich velvety red version of the common orange nasturtium.
  • Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ – small compact plant with black strap shaped leaves, has mauvey coloured flowers but really grown for foliage.
  • Rodgersia pinnata ‘Chocolate Wings’ – satisfyingly dark version of the big leaved foliage plant.
  • Sambucus ‘Black Lace’ – dark leaved version of common elder, lovely lacy foliage.
  • Scabious ‘Chile Black’ – dark pincushion flowered version of common scabious.
  • Tulip ‘Queen of the Night’ – the best and tallest of the black tulips.
  • Viola ‘Roscastle Black’ – a dainty little pansy that is good in pots.



A Spring DIY Project: Make a Pergola


Who doesn’t love the idea of a long narrow table, out of doors, gingham tablecloth, carafes of wine, delicious food and friends and family under a curtain of roses and flowering vines? Ok it is a cliché and repeated endlessly in films, especially those with a mafia theme, but really you can’t go far wrong with a pergola. They date back to the ancient Romans (who probably copied them from the Greeks, who in turn got the idea from the Persians). Pergolas fulfill a number of roles; theyf91d4aad8ed082ffdff61fb72bcb25a6 are really decorative, add a really nice vertical element to a garden, they provide support for climbing plants and make a great spot to put a table under!

You can make a pergola as big or small as you like; it can be more like an arch, or it can be used to link one part of the garden to another, or to create an outdoor room. Some people grow them purely to show off a few particularly good roses or clematis.

It is really quite easy to make a pergola, but very important to do the job properly and make it sturdy. There is nothing worse than seeing a windswept and bockety looking bodge job listing to one side after the first puff of wind. You also don’t want to be sued when a litigious acquaintance who has a crossbeam land on their head at your Italian-style al fresco lunch party.

A DIY job will be hard work but deeply satisfying. You can do it over a couple of weekends or a bank holiday. It will only take two half days of work, the rest of the time is to allow the concrete you set your posts in to set (or go off   as we say in builder’s parlance).

How to do it:

Decide how big you want your pergola to be and choose your material. If you want to use brick uprights, which look great, use a professional, unless you happen to be super handy and good at bricklaying. Brick uprights make a much sturdier and long lasting pergola but they cost more.

If doing it yourself use pressure treated softwood – if it is not treated it will rot quickly – or a hardwood.

You will need:

  • For the uprights – pairs of wooden posts, 85mm x 85mm x 3m (3.3in x 3.3in x 9.8ft) – you will need a post about every 1.5m (6ft) to make the pergola sturdy.
  • As many wooden cross members (for the roof or top) as you like, 33mm x 33mm x 1.8m (1.3in x 1.3in x 5.9ft)
  • Wooden beams to attach the crossbeams to 45mm x 95mm x 3m (1.7in x 3.7in x 9.8ft)
  • Bolts to support the frame
  • Stainless steel screws, countersunk
  • Sand and cement or concrete mix
  • A good electric screwdriver
  • An electric drill
  • A spirit level
  • Measuring tape
  • A plumb line (or piece of long string if stuck)
  • A reasonably competent friend or family member to act as builder’s mate


  • Choose as level a piece of ground as you can. If you are putting your pergola on a patio it will probably be level already which makes the job easier. You will have to lift up slabs where the uprights are to go.
  • Using your mate, measure carefully where the uprights are to go and mark them out. Make sure they are arranged so they’re square with each another. The posts should also be far enough apart to allow a couple of people to walk side by side through the pergola when it is heavy with foliage and flowers and even wider if you want to fit a table underneath.
  • Dig holes for all posts; these should be 30cm x 30cm (1ft x 1ft) wide and 60cm (2ft) deep.
  • Prop a post upright in one of the holes, and then do the same for its neighbour.
  • Put a cross member on top of these two posts, then place a spirit level on top to check they’re level; if they’re not, infill or backfill the holes as necessary until they are.
  • Repeat this with the remaining uprights until all are level.
  • Make a good stiff mix of concrete, using just enough water to bind the ingredients together but not make it sloppy. Have your mate hold the post steady as the concrete is poured into the hole.
  • Compact the mixture around the post with a piece of wood, taking care not to move the post from its position.
  • Make sure that the post is level using a plumb line. Repeat these procedures with the remaining posts.
  • Leave the pillars propped in position so they don’t slide or list – use bricks or garden chairs or batons.
  • If you have got the uprights in straight and they are solid you have done all the hard work. The rest of the job is pretty straightforward.
  • Join all the posts at the sides with your cross members and bolt them into position – leave 30cm (1ft) or so hanging proud either side.
  • To help you position the cross beams across the roof of the pergola and screw into position.
  • If you want you can paint the pergola or stain it. You can also put trellis along the sides if you want it to be more closed. Otherwise just fix wires or plant supports where you need them.

When planting your pergola remember to dig your holes a good 30cm or 1ft away from the concrete around the upright posts and to dig in some compost. Don’t worry if it looks a bit odd don’t worry, you can train the plant up the pergola posts using wires or bamboos.

Plants to suitable to grow over a pergola:

Don’t be tempted to plant a solanum of any kind on your pergola, they are tempting as they grow so quickly, but are far too vigorous and unruly and you will deeply regret it in two years at most.

Actinidia deliciosa ‘Hayward’

Clematis armandii

Clematis viticella

Lonicera japonica ‘Halliana’

Rosa ‘Albertine’

Rosa ‘perle d’azur’

Passiflora caerulea

Trachelospermum jasminoides

Vitis coignetiae vinifera ‘Purpurea’

Winter Colour in the Garden

January and February are the most challenging months in the garden and are the real test of a good gardener. Really, with a bit of money thrown at it, anyone’s garden can have a lively show in summer, but winter is where forward thinking and a little thought ensure that the winter garden need not be bereft of colour and interest. First published in 1957, Graham Stuart Thomas’s Colour in the Winter Garden is a classic of garden literature and still the greatest authority on creating year round interest in the garden and if you find a copy in your local library I urge you to borrow it. The winter garden is not flash or brash, rather it is subtle, relying on foliage, bark and gentle modest flowers to bring it to life. Here are some lists of plants to get you started


Bergenia purpurascens: The large, waxy leaves of this great ground-cover plant turn deeper and deeper red the colder it gets.

Elaeagnus pungens ‘Dicksonii’: This evergreen shrub has lovely elliptical, shiny dark green leaves edged in yellow. Great for flower arrangements for the house.

Hedera canariensis ‘Gloire de Marengo’: really good ivy, with ripples of dark green and silver and edged with white.

Iris Foetidissima ‘Variegata’: the dreariest, stinkiest of plants has its Cinderella moment now, it has green and white variegated, strap shaped leaves and beautiful seed pods bursting with red fruits.

Arum italicum ‘Pictum’: lovely, crinkly spotted leaves make this arum a must for the winter garden, looks great with hellebores and snowdrops.

Mahonia ‘Heterophylla’: long spindly serrated leaves in russet brown – and the bonus of yellow flower spikes later on.


For berries try holly,  Pyracantha, Skimmia japonica and any of the Cotoneasters.



Winter wouldn’t be complete without snowdrops, there are lots of varieties, singles, doubles, large and small flowered, from the thick grey leaved Elwesii species, to the pretty small naturalised Nivalis, all are hardy and with time and lots of lovely hummus will bulk up into significant clumps in a few years. Delicate, tiny little Cyclamen coum are perfect partners for snowdrops.


Flowering shrubs:

Most winter flowering shrubs have the most delicious scent too, the best being Viburnum x bodnantense and Daphne mezereum and Skimmia.


Bark and stems:

Don’t forget that bare branches and lovely barks come into their own now. All the dogwoods are stunning right now, from bright red to yellow the Cornus stems will lift any garden.

Acers are famous for their beautiful bark, particular good examples are davidii, laxiflorum and griseum. Also good are silver birch, the brightest whites are Betula albo-sinensis, Betula nigra and Betula pendula

Jobs for winter

January and February are usually the coldest months and the time to plan ahead for summer and autumn.

  • Soggy, bald lawns should be prodded with a fork and a bit of sand added to improve drainage
  • Cut back dead foliage that is looking droopy
  • Clear dead leaves and debris
  • Check stored dahlia tubers for mould or drying out. If they look very shrivelled you can plump them out again by plunging in water
  • Repot or top dress container plants
  • Order seeds and summer bulbs
  • Sow summer bedding under glass

Invasive Species



Himalayan Balsam


One of the greatest threats to our native ecosystem and domestic gardens is the arrival of pervasive and invasive species. Anyone who has taken a walk along local riverbanks, which are frequently clothed in Himalayan balsam, can see how these can become a real pest.  Himalayan balsam, or Impatiens gladulifera, is a relation of the popular summer bedding plant, busy lizzie. This has colonised huge tracts of river banks, suffocating native plants which our native wildlife depends on for food and nesting. The summertime is when it is most difficult to get in amongst garden plants to weed and sneaky species can get a foothold, so autumn, when you are clearing and cutting back is a good time to look for evidence of unwanted species and dig them out before they become a problem. There are a three categories of invasive plants; the first are the common weeds we all know and battle against year in year out like dandelion, daisy and buttercups. The second category are garden plants like Japanese anemones and Echium that have self-seeded to such an extent that they have become a nuisance, but cause no real damage.  The third category are species which were introduced by horticulturalists as curiosities but quickly naturalized and spread throughout the countryside.  The latter category causes real ecological and structural damage by escaping from our gardens and into the countryside beyond. A classic example of such a pest is Horsetail or Equisetum arvense. This plant has creeping rhizomes which can go down 2m below the surface, making them almost impossible to eradicate by digging. Even when using a pesticide persistent applications are necessary, you may need to call in specialist help. Japanese Knotweed, or Himalayan Balsam, was introduced from Japan in the nineteenth century and since its introduction it has spread nationwide. It can destroy the foundations of houses as it can grow through concrete and tarmac. It also blocks wildlife corridors and clogs up watercourses.

Removal and control of invasive species causes millions of euro a year. Other pests include Bamboos – Philostachys species which form impenetrable thickets, block out native plants and spreads rapidly, again popping up through hard surfaces with ease.



Japanese knotweed

Obviously the best way to fight invasive species is not to plant them in the first place so here are some tips to keep these thugs out:

  • Check a plants habit before you buy it and see if there is a non-invasive alternative.
  • If you have been walking along river banks or areas where invasive non-native species have colonized always wash the soles of your shoes thoroughly before wearing them in your garden. Seeds are commonly brought in on the soles of boots or on animal’s coats.
  • Never add any part of an invasive plant to the compost heap.
  • Invasive aquatic plants have caused considerable problems to our waterways and it is important to stop their spread. Avoid swapping cuttings or fragments from friend’s ponds. Otherwise you may end up with an invasive species in your pond.
  • Wash the roots of plants you buy too – I have a dreadful duck weed problem in my pond which came in on a plant bought from a very reputable garden centre.
  • Learn to recognise seedlings of invasive plants. Dig out seedlings as soon as you see them in spring and before they establish.
  • When weeding out mature plants make sure to remove all of the roots. Plants with tap roots like dandelion species will generate from every little bit of root left in the soil.
  • Rhizomatous weeds such as couch grass, bindweed and ground elder respond well to glyphosate if treated twice over a two-week period. It is very important to avoid drift so apply on a very still day. To treat bindweed, spray the weed killer onto rubber gloves and run your hands along the plant.
  • To eradicate ivy on trees and old walls cut it back to the ground and dig out the woody stump.


Coppicing for better winter colour

Coppicing refers to pruning shrubs and some trees close to the base of the plant.  Late winter is the best time to coppice and pollard. It promotes colourful young stems, ornamental foliage and rejuvenates plants that tolerate hard pruning.

Coppicing is used to ensure that willows and dogwoods produce a fresh crop of bright coloured stems each winter. It is also a good way to rejuvenate an old shrub which is no longer performing well or has become messy in appearance. To coppice just take a deep breath and cut stems to within 5cm-7.5cm (2in-3in) of the ground, or to last year’s stubs. Do this before new leaves appear in March.

Shrubs and trees suitable for Coppicing

  • Acer pensylvanicum‘Erythrocladum’
  • Beech (Fagus sylvatica)
  • Dogwoods (Cornus), including Cornus sanguinea‘Midwinter Fire’,  and  alba ‘Elegantissima’
  • Elder (Sambucus)
  • Foxglove tree (Paulownia)
  • sericea ‘Flaviramea’ Sweet gum (Eucalyptus gunnii)
  • Hazel (Corylus)
  • Hornbeam (Carpinus)
  • Indian bean tree (Catalpa)
  • Judas tree (Cercis)
  • Lime (Tilia)
  • Ornamental bramble (Rubus cockburnianus)
  • Smoke bush (Cotinus)
  • Toona sinensis‘Flamingo’
  • Tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima)
  • Willows (Salix), including Salix albavitellina ‘Britzensis’, S. viminalis and S. daphnoides
  • Yew (Taxus)





Pleaching trees for a formal garden



Pleaching is a more glamorous use of the skills needed for hedge laying for stock control. This technique is used to create a formal hedge on stilts. Suitable trees are standardised by removing their lower branches and the remaining branches are entwined with those of the tree beside it.

As with espaliers you can now buy trees which have been ready-pleached; the branches of these are trees have already started to be trained and are tied to a bamboo frame. In order to create a formal hedge on stilts you need to plant your trees in an evenly spaced row. Pleaching is not for the faint hearted as it is extremely labour intensive. You need to constantly tie in new stems to the tree’s neighbours, prune regularly and loosen ties which have become too tight.

When to pleach

Always select young, whippy plants that are more easily trained for any pleaching.

Plant in winter and during the early years also prune in the winter when the plants are leafless and dormant.

Train and tie new shoots in over the summer.

Once pleached trees have reached their full extent, prune in the summer, pruning to shape the tree growth and reduce its vigour.

How to pleach

Plant trees in single or parallel rows 1.2m (4ft) apart in the row and at the same spacing between parallel rows

Allow 2.4-3m (8-10ft) between rows to provide a pathway

During the spring and summer growing season, tie in new shoots to the supports. Horizontal stems should be plaited or tied in with those of neighbouring trees

Unnecessary or ungainly shoots should be pruned back to one or two buds from the base during early autumn or winter. Pinch out leading growths to encourage bushiness.

Trees suitable for pleaching

  • Generally trees used for pleaching are deciduous. The most suitable evergreen for pleaching is the evergreen oak (Quercus ilex).
  • Lime (Tilia platyphyllos ‘Rubra’ T. x europea ‘Pallida’
  • Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus)
  • London Plane (Platanus x acerifolia)

Pollarding trees



Pollarding refers to pruning a tree’s branches right back to the trunk or stem so that it will produce a dense growth of new shoots. It is often used in cities and parks to inhibit growth branches which might cause an obstruction.

Trees suitable for pollarding

  • Beech (Fagus )
  • Black locust Robinia pseudoacacia
  • Catalpa Catalpa
  • Hornbeam Carpinus 
  • Horse chestnut Aesculus  hippocastanum
  • Linden Tilia
  • London plane tree Platanus x acerifolia
  • Mulberry Morus 
  • Redbud Cercis canadensis
  • Tree of Heaven Ailanthus altissima
  • Willow Salix

How to Espalier a fruit tree

Tb0c95bb73a0d1cb3f9db6718cef5a750espalier-typeshe practice of espaliering fruit trees was brought to Ireland in the seventeenth century by Huguenots fleeing persecution in France. Training apples and pears as espaliers, not only saves space in the garden but also ensures a good crop, keeps trees fairly disease free and creates a good architectural vertical feature in the garden.

The espalier method means growing a fruit tree or ornamental shrub while training its branches to grow flat against a wall, supported on a lattice or strong wire.

When planning to grow a tree as an espalier, make sure you buy one on one of the following rootstocks, this can be complicated so ask in your nursery for advice when buying a tree. Pears trees are generally grafted onto quince stock. You can often buy trees with one to three tiers already formed or grown from one-year-old trees.

Planting and initial training

Firstly you need to establish a training system against a wall or fence. Erect horizontal wires 35-45cm (15-18in) apart between posts, or straining ‘eyes’ on walls or fences.

Trees should be planted 3.75m-6m (12-20ft) apart, according to their vigour.

When planting a new ‘unfeathered maiden’ – garden parlance for a one-year-old tree with no side shoots, cut back the main stem to 30cm (1ft) from the ground

Allow the top three buds to grow out in spring, train the top one vertically up a cane, the others two to canes at 45 degrees to the main stem. In November, lower them carefully until they are horizontal, tying them in with soft twine

Cut back the vertical stem to within 45cm (18in) or the lower arms, leaving two buds to form the next horizontal layer and the top bud to form the new leader. If growth is weak, prune back the horizontal branches by one-third to downward facing buds

The following year train the second tier in the same way as the first. Cut back competing growths on the main stem and side shoots from the horizontal arms back to three leaves above the basal cluster

Repeat the process until the trees have produced their final tier and grown horizontally to fill their allotted space. Then allow two shoots to grow, tie them to the top wire and cut them back to within 2.5cm (1in) of their base the following winter

Remove the blossom in spring, for the first three years, so all of the energy goes into plant growth.

Prune trees after fruiting by cutting back the side-shoots growing from the horizontal leaders to three leaves from the basal cluster, 7.5cm (3in) long. Shoots from previously pruned side shoots should be cut back to one leaf from the basal cluster, 2.5cm (1in) long

If any secondary growths arise after this pruning, cut them back to the base in September. Side-shoots on the vertical stem are best removed completely

Clusters of fruit buds may need to be thinned after seven or eight years of ‘spur thinning’, alternatively, a few can be done each year in the dormant season (November to March), reducing over-complicated spur systems to one or two fruit buds.

Trees and shrubs suitable for espaliering

  • Pears
  • Cercis
  • Laburnum
  • Crepe Myrtle (Lagerstroemiae)
  • Apples
  • Parrotia persica
  • Flowering almond, Apricot, cherry, peach, plum (Prunus)
  • Cotoneaster
  • Pyracantha



Crazy about composting

Give me a compost heap and I am in heaven. I think one of my favourite things about the garden is composting; I get hours of pleasure from it. It is satisfying on so many levels and appeals to the less glamorous side of my character: thriftiness, waste-not-want-not, something for nothing and getting down and dirty. Homemade compost is free and the plants can’t get enough of it. Good, well-rotted compost is a joy to behold. A rich dark brown, sweet smelling crumbly mixture is the end result you are looking for.

The first thing you need to do, if space allows it, is set aside a corner somewhere out of the way. Ideally you need at least 2 heaps (I am so crackers about compost that I have five) – one for fresh material and one that is maturing. The best container for compost is a coral made from either old palettes, slats of wood or chicken wire on posts.  I don’t really have the space for this so I have four bins and one heap. Always have bare earth on the ground underneath the heap and keep it warm and covered. This stops it drying out and keeps it toasty which speeds up the rotting process.

Once you have the spot for your heap established you can start the fun bit, which is filling it. There are two things vital for good compost; the first is air – the bacteria which break down the heap need oxygen to multiply, if there is no air the heap stagnates and anaerobic bacterial get to work making a revolting, smelly sludgy mess. The second is moisture, if the heap gets too dry it will not start to cook but too much moisture will also reduce the heap to a putrefied gunk.

The best results come from a good layered mix of dry and moist ingredients of differing textures. So if you have put on a layer of sappy green leaves, plant trimmings, annual weeds or grass the next layer really needs to be a brown one. Brown stuff includes dry organic matter, shredded newspaper (not glossy magazines), shredded cardboard and old compost. If you have enough heaps You can add pretty much all your kitchen waste to them bar cooked meat (attracts rats) and really anything that was once alive, so the contents of old feather pillows, moth eaten jerseys, and of course the contents of your hoover. Over the years we have had hamsters, gerbils and a rabbit called Basil. When I was cleaning these small rodents cages a thought struck me ‘here I  have the perfect compost mix’ – a nice bit of urine soaked newspaper, some droppings and a bit of sawdust – perfect I thought. I hadn’t factored in the remains of pet food; lots of seeds, and was greatly puzzled to find a fine crop of barley growing in my front flower bed. Almost ten years later I am still pulling out barley. If you have birds the consequences can be even worse – I have heard of a sweet old lady getting a visit from the police about the luscious cannabis crop growing away in her front garden – a result of hemp seeds from her budgie’s cage (though as the late, great Christopher Lloyd said, Cannabis sativa has such lovely foliage!).  If you only have one or two piles you are probably best to stick to old organic material.

The bit I like is the fiddling around with heaps. The more you turn the compost the faster it decomposes as the microbes multiply and get to work faster. While turning you can take out any stems that are too woody and lots of things like missing teaspoons, secateurs, trowels and reading glasses that have inadvertently ended up in the mix. If it is looking too smelly or wet, add some dry materials. Likewise if things are a bit dry, spray the hose over it. When you are turning the heap you should see hundreds of worms, this is a good sign that things are breaking down well. If your heap is full of flies it may be because you have added a lot of old fruit, but don’t worry about it, they are only doing their job, just throw a layer of dry material on top. Ants in the heap are a recurrent pest in my garden, especially when the compost is too dry. Ants can be beneficial to the composting process, they break down vegetable and fruit scraps for smaller organisms in the decomposition process and their tunnels promote aeration but if they are getting out of control spray water into the bin, add plenty of organic material to make it too hot for the ants comfort and give the contents a good turn.

If you have the luxury of a big garden and enough fresh plant and vegetable material to put on your heap you can have a few enormous piles which will heat up to a high temperature strong enough to kill weed seeds and even dandelion tap roots. The more material you put on a heap at once, the hotter it gets and will make perfect compost within 6 months or so. Most of us only have small heaps with material being layered on in dribs and drabs, so you are really best to put the nasties into the bin or onto the bonfire. You can buy compost activators which are supposed to speed up decomposition, but to be honest, left over wine and urine (yes really) are just as good.

When the heap has rotted down and is uniformly brown, crumbly and clean smelling it is ready to be used. If you have puts weeds and flowers with viable seed heads into the compost you will probably get a lot of seedlings growing from it – these can be gently pulled out by hand or destroyed by using a hoe.

Bring on the Changes

As in all walks of life it is possible to become stuck in a dreary rut in the garden. For the past couple of years I have been coasting along, a bit smug, a lot lazy, letting the garden just tick over. The death of a few key plants to a mystery disease has given me a metaphorical boot up rear end and forced me to re-think my, rather grandly named, long border. In late spring it depended on a great showing of huge, lush oriental poppies which no longer thrive. The bed has become heavy with self-seeded/-spreading day lilies, Pachyphragma , Bergenia purpurascens and perennial geranium, disrupting its balance and composition. This in turn has made me turn a critical eye over the whole sorry garden and it is time to make some changes, some attitudinal and some physical. First on the list is the realisation that less can be more; I suffer from a particular weakness common among amateur gardeners – pathetic gratitude. This manifests itself in an inability to get rid of any plant which thrives, seeds itself and does well in the garden –  even if I loathe it, or is in the wrong position. This is something I recommend any new gardener to overcome immediately. As a rule of thumb if it is easy to grow and self-propagates in abundance it is probably nothing special (though of course there are many notable exceptions). However, if the plant is tricky, precious, needs continual faffing and staking and behaves like an all-round primadonna it is generally  very desirable. This explains why slugs adore delphiniums and the nicest of lupins but won’t touch gurriers like Campanula glomerata – or dandelions. So it’s goodbye Acanthus, farewell Agapanthus and death to Anemone japonica  (and that’s just the As). I have spent a back-breaking few days pulling out plants which have over spread or which I have become fed up with (most have been re-homed with friends) and I now have lots of lovely big spaces to fill anew. I have, in the past, been a shocking fashion victim and the evidence is everywhere, most notably in a preponderance of dark leaved plants (in vogue 20 years ago) has made my long border look dreary in high summer and it needs lifting. I have decided to take out most of these but leave a few (Persicaria purpurea, dahlias) and add a bit of punch with the acid yellows and greens of euphorbia and golden tansy. Inspired by June Blake’s magical polychromatic garden I think I will also be less restrictive colourwise and throw a few more into the mix. I love this time of year, my head is buzzing with plans and ideas and it is wonderful to back outdoors and in the garden again. How lucky we are to live this far north when we garden until half past ten or eleven at night!


Jobs for the Months of May and June

  • Start hardening off plants kept under glass by taking out during the warm days and preparing them for planting out at the end of May.
  • Keep an eye out for pests and disease on plants and deal with them now before they get out of hand
  • Re seed bald patches of lawns