Thompson & Morgan Gardening Blog

Our gardening blog covers a wide variety of topics, including fruit, vegetable and tree stories. Read some of the top gardening stories right here.

Propagation, planting out and cultivation posts from writers that know their subjects well.

13 superb soup recipes

Hand ladling out soup from a pot into a bowl

Try out these delicious plot-to-bowl recipes
Image: Chainupong Hiporn

Homemade soup isn’t just good for the soul – it’s a healthy, wholesome and cost-effective meal that makes excellent use of homegrown veg. 

If you’re taking part in this week’s Big Soup Share, or you’re looking for new ideas to fill your family’s soup bowls and lunch flasks, check out some of our favourite bloggers’ recipes for inspiration…

 

Beetroot Soup

Kev at An English Homestead grows such beautiful chioggia beetroot that it’s almost a shame to blend them. His velvety red soup is a feast for the eyes as well as a vitamin-packed winner on a cold winter’s day.

Borage Leaf, Pea and Garden Mint Soup

At The Seasonal Table, Kathy & Tom use borage as a companion plant alongside tomatoes. The fact that the cucumber-flavoured leaves make a beautifully light and delicious soup is an added bonus. Top with a fresh hen’s egg and serve with crusty bread – sensational.

Carrot and Saffron Soup

Come November, Milli at the Crofters Cottage is looking forward to harvesting ‘Jaune d’Obtuse’ carrots that range in colour from almost white to a vibrant yellow. Her beautifully delicate-flavoured soup is simply divine.

Nettle Soup

Nettle soup isn’t rocket science,” says Janie, dismissing a disappointing celebrity chef’s version to come up with her own. Want a good excuse to let weeds run riot in your garden? This iron-rich bowl of green goodness is it! See Hedgecombers for the recipe.

Celeriac and Hazelnut Soup

Celeriac can be expensive to buy but it’s easy to grow. Blitzing to a silky consistency, this ugly root veg is perfect for winter soups. Over at The Veg Space, Kate’s festive flavour combination would make the ideal starter for Christmas dinner…

Image: chomplearn

Creamy Avocado Soup

Served warm rather than hot, Shaheen’s “delicious blanket of green velvet lushness” combines the flavours of Mexican guacamole in an exciting new way. Homegrown onions, tomatoes and chives raise it to a new level. See Allotment 2 Kitchen for the recipe.

Wild Garlic and Farro Soup 

Over at Recipes from a Pantry, Bintu loves foraging for wild garlic. Her soup is the ideal way to warm up after a brisk winter walk in the woods – just think nutty farro, garlicky greens, lemony tahini and sweetness from toasted almonds and pomegranate seeds.

Roasted Roots Soup

Roasting only improves the flavour of root vegetables, enhancing their earthy sweetness, say Sophie & Ade from Agents of Field. For the ultimate bowl of comfort soup, this is the recipe for you.

Marrow 'Tiger Cross' F1 Hybrid from Thompson & Morgan

Image: Marrow ‘Tiger Cross’ F1 Hybrid from Thompson & Morgan

Marrow Soup

Marrows make for a silky smooth soup, say Maria & John at Allotment Garden. But if you’re looking for texture, simply add some cooked rice or soup pasta – along with a generous dash of chilli sauce to turn up the heat.

Sweet Potato, Green Lentil and Spinach Soup

Fancy a comforting and hearty soup that’ll help you get to your five-a-day in one sitting? Try Jacqueline’s sweet potato, green lentil & spinach recipe. Check out Tinned Tomatoes for this amazing recipe.

Curried Brussels Sprouts Soup

Don’t like Brussel’s sprouts? You’ll be surprised what a difference a little garam masala makes! Blended until smooth, Annabelle’s high fibre soup is full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants to see you safely through winter. Visit The Flexitarian for the recipe.

A leek and potato soup with croutons

Image: grafvision

Vegan Leek and Potato Soup

Leek soup is one of Lucy’s favourite homemade wintertime treats – especially if it’s made with fresh, flavoursome leeks and onions that she’s grown herself. See her easy recipe over on The Smallest Smallholding.

Roasted Jerusalem Artichoke and Sweet Chestnut Soup

Nic says “there’s nothing better than soup…to warm your cockles when your heart’s feeling chilly, for whatever reason.” A glut of Jerusalem artichokes required her to get creative, but you’ll want to plant more when you’ve tasted this soup! Visit dogwooddays for the recipe.

That’s it for now. We hope you like our favourite soup recipes and you’ve bookmarked some to try later, and if you’re planning on planting out some ingredients, check out our veg plants range. Let us know if you’ve come across anything that we’ve missed. We’re especially keen on soups that use edible pumpkin innards…!

What grew in the garden

Flowers growing up canes in the garden

Looking for something new to try in your garden next year?
Image: Shelli Jensen

This spring, we asked five of our favourite garden bloggers if they were planning anything new and exciting over the summer. Their responses varied from experiments with onions to enticing a hedgehog into their garden, and more.

Now it’s autumn, we’re intrigued to see how they got on. If you’re hunting for new ideas for your garden, there’s plenty of hindsight here to help you get it right first time. You may even be inspired to run your own controlled experiment next year…

Bunches of onions

Onions planted in bunches from Marks Veg Plot

Planting in bunches saves space but produces a slightly smaller onion
Image: Mark’s Veg Plot

This year,” says Mark of Mark’s Veg Plot, “I planted onions two ways…

  • 30 sets were planted individually
  • Other sets were planted in clumps, each containing 6 – 7 onions

He used the Ailsa Craig variety for both planting methods to see which yielded the best result. None of the onions got off to a great start, Mark says, but once the weather finally improved at the beginning of June, they soon got going. As expected, the clumped onions produced smaller veg but, according to Mark, the overall yield was about the same.

So – pleased or not? It turns out Mark is very satisfied with the outcome of his experiment: “We like to have onions of lots of different sizes for use in our kitchen. The small ones are particularly attractive since you seldom see ones like this in the shops.”

Nature’s bounty

Hedgehog on a rock in the garden

Sally finally has a hedgehog!
Image: Anney P

This summer “I will be growing as much food as I can for my family and visiting wildlife,” said Sally of Sally’s Garden Blog. So how did she do?

I’ve been really quite happy with the amount of veg I’ve produced…I love eating salad with a meal, so [I grew] lots of fast cropping salads, and quite a lot of coriander.” Then there’s the basil and spinach plus six different types of tomatoes this year… According to Sally the tomatoes have been slow to ripen, but it’s great that she hasn’t had to buy any for over a month now. And you must try Sally’s favourite breakfast tip – toast, marmite and sliced tomato…

All in all a good summer for produce then; but how did things go on the wildlife nurturing front? Sally says:

Our garden has literally been full of bees, moths, butterflies, birds and we finally have a hedgehog! We have had a lot of fledgling robins, sparrows and bluetits in the garden… it is joyous just sitting and listening to them all.”

For Sally the highlights of the summer were her crunchy Trombamico courgettes, and her Black Beauty Dahlias – her favourite plant. “I truly think it is the most beautiful flower I have ever grown. It is so simple in its form, and dainty, and the colour of the petals when they first come out is really almost black.

Championing biodiversity

House sparrow with nesting material in beak

Nic is aiming to attract house sparrows – a red-list species of high conservation concern
Image: Erni

Adding holes in the fences and a gate for hedgehogs,” was how Nic at Dogwooddays hoped to encourage some of these special creatures to take up residence on her patch. Sadly, despite her best efforts, none have turned up to fill the vacancy yet – a bit of a tragedy given how close to extinction our prickly friends are, here in the UK.**

Things weren’t all bad though, with Nic recording success on the bird front with blue tits nesting in one bird box and and white-tailed bumblebees taking over the sparrow box. Despite a blackbird nesting in the honeysuckle, Nic says, “the sparrows haven’t nested in the terraces yet, but it’s early days and they have started to visit the garden regularly.”

If you’d like to encourage wildlife to your garden, the key, she says, is to let parts of your plot go wild: “leave bushes overgrown for nesting birds, plant climbers as habitat for invertebrates and birds, leave piles of grass, leaves, logs and stones for the hedgehogs, and ensure that creatures can get in and out of the garden.”

Bird boxes, hedgehog houses and bird feeders are all fine ways to attract wild creatures, but as Nic explains – good natural habitats for wildlife are just as important.

** Nic has just reported some good news on the hedgehog front! They’ve found hedgehog droppings on the path and outside their back door so they’re investing in a trail cam to keep an eye on these most welcome nocturnal visitors. The holes in the fences have clearly worked. We’re delighted to hear it!

Chickpea experiment

Chickpea on branch

Richard found his poorest, driest soil was most successful for chickpeas
Image: Jose Luis Vega

What’s the best place to grow chickpeas? Richard at The Veg Grower Podcast tried several locations:

  • One plant went into good soil in his home greenhouse – it died.
  • Two plants went into heavy clay at his allotment – one died and one survived.
  • Two plants went into his allotment greenhouse where the soil is poor and rather dry – these survived and prospered.

This year, Richard harvested about 100g of dried chickpeas, but next year he plans to plant a lot more saying, “Overall I found these plants to be quite attractive, growing to about 2 foot high with a fern like appearance. Very easy to look after, just a little bit of watering as they seem to like dry conditions.

If chickpeas were a mixed bag, Richard’s vegpod was a great success. He says there was no weeding required and the built-in reservoir made watering a cinch. “What this means is that we have not had to buy in any salads at all this year as it’s all been grown in the pod.

Christmas dinner?

Scarecrow in a vegatble patch

The ‘three sisters’ method for sweetcorn, runner beans and pumpkin is a work in progress
Image: Hurtled to 60

Over at the excellent gardening blog, Hurtled to 60, Ronnie’s plan was to set up the makings of a festive feast in a special ‘Christmas lunch bed’. So how did this work out? “My ‘Christmas Lunch’ bed idea was a little ambitious with the veg peaking too soon…” says Ronnie. Unfortunately the parsnips, a vital part of any Christmas dinner, failed completely. Planting them along with radishes didn’t work. Although it produced excellent radishes, there were no parsnips at all.

What other lessons did Ronnie learn this summer? She also tried the ‘three sisters’ planting method for pumpkins, runner beans and sweet corn. She didn’t quite get it right this year, but she’ll let the sweetcorn get better established next time, before planting the beans.

That said, she chalked up some fantastic successes in other parts of the garden. Her ‘no-dig’ potatoes – International Kidney (Jersey Royal) and Charlotte – tasted fabulous. Her garden peas proved another hit with the heritage ‘Champion of England’ variety providing an excellent harvest.

But the real star of the allotment for Ronnie, this summer, were flowers. Including roses, gaura, salvias, larkspur, day lilies and cosmos, Ronnie says her bed “has drawn a lot of admiring comments and is somewhere to sit with a cup of coffee between doing a spot of gardening.” With such a lovely place to relax and ponder, no wonder Ronnie is already full of plans for next year – including merging her narrow beds into larger, more productive ones.

It’s great to see our favourite green fingered gardening writers and broadcasters prospering in their patches and we’d like to thank them all for taking the time to update us on their progress. If you’ve got a favourite gardening or allotment blog you’d like us to feature, why not drop us a line? We’d love to hear from you.

News update from Thompson & Morgan

Begonia 'MacaRouge', Busy Lizzie 'Wild Romance White' and Busy Lizzie 'Wild Romance Red'

Begonia ‘MacaRouge’, Busy Lizzie ‘Wild Romance White’ and Busy Lizzie ‘Wild Romance Red’

New Spring Range Preview

Plant selection for our 2020 spring range is well under way. As always, full details are kept secret until the launch, but we can give you a sneak preview of a couple of plants that promise to be amongst the stars of the new range. Namely, Begonia ‘MacaRouge’, a fabulous bright red variety with striking golden yellow stamens, and to add to the hugely popular Busy Lizzie ‘Wild Romance’ range, a double-bloomed, red and a white version of this popular impatiens. The first in the range, Busy Lizzie ‘Wild Romance Blush Pink’ will be available again for the 2020 season; all three will be sold separately and as a trio collection.

Begonia ‘MacaRouge’ | Very floriferous from June to frosts | Fleuroselect Award Winner | Great for pots and borders | Sun or part shade | Height: 35cm | Spread: 25cm | Available as jumbo plug plants |

Busy Lizzie (Impatiens) ‘Wild Romance Red’ and ‘Wild Romance White’ | Long-flowering, impressive double rosebud blooms | Ideal for patio pots | Sun or part shade | Height & Spread: 40-50cm | Available as jumbo plug plants |

All three of the ‘Wild Romance’ Busy Lizzies and Begonia ‘MacaRouge’ are available for pre-order on Thompson & Morgan’s website now. Further new and exciting products will be revealed over the coming weeks.


Flower and Vegetable of the Year 2020

We’re pleased to announce our pretty Cosmos ‘Apricot Lemonade’ as Flower of the Year for 2020 and colourful Kale ‘Jardin Mixed’ as Vegetable of the Year. Both varieties are available from our 2020 seed catalogue, our retail seed stockists and online at https://www.thompson-morgan.com/ A full list of our 2020 seed range is available here

Comos 'Apricot Lemonade' and Kale 'Jardin Mixed'

Cosmos ‘Apricot Lemonade’ and Kale ‘Jardin Mixed’



T&M’s Lance Russell – a ‘poster boy’ for post-GCSE practical training

T&M’s Lance Russell was interviewed at the end of the summer by both BBC Radio Suffolk and BBC One Look East as a successful example of someone who went on to practical training and qualifications after GCSEs.

Lance Russell

Thompson & Morgan’s Lance Russell

Following publicity surrounding Lance’s involvement in two gold medal-winning gardens at RHS Chelsea Flower Show, BBC producers were keen to use his story as an up-and-coming horticulturalist to illustrate post-GCSE options for students not wishing to take the university route. At just 24 years old, Lance has worked in the gardening industry since graduating from Sparsholt College in Hampshire with a National Diploma in Horticulture and now works here at Thompson & Morgan. Employed as a trainee manager, Lance has worked in various areas of our business, and has recently been promoted to senior account manager. Lance can also be seen fronting some of our gardening ‘Clips with Tips’ videos.

Win our ‘Urban Jungle’ house plant collection!

T&M urban jungle house plant collection

You can win T&M’s beautiful ‘Urban Jungle’ house plant collection
Image: Thompson & Morgan

It’s competition time, and we’re giving away two prizes of our ‘Urban Jungle’ house plant collection, which consists of four beautiful plants:

  • Calathea orbifolia – This Bolivian native has elegant silver and green stripes on gorgeous rounded leaves, creating a textural, corrugated appearance.
  • Monstera deliciosa – Instantly recognisable, the ‘Swiss Cheese’ plant has lustrous, heart-shaped leaves. This climber plant is happiest trained onto a moss pole.
  • Ficus elastica ‘Robusta’ – The rubber plant’s large, dark green leaves are beautifully glossy, with paler undersides. Over time, this plant will form a stunning indoor tree.
  • Chlorophytum comosum ‘Variegatum’ – The soft structural leaves of the spider plant brighten up any room, and help to keep air clean.

Take part in our Rafflecopter competition below by entering your email address  to subscribe to the T&M mailing list, and let us know your favourite house plant (it doesn’t need to be one of these). You’ll also have the chance to share the competition for more entries.

We’ll choose two winners at random and announce them on Monday 30th September. The closing date is midnight on Sunday 29th September.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

These plants are ideal for any home, and will brighten and freshen your rooms – so get your entries in, and good luck!

Gardening with grasses

Hakonechloa macra and Ophiopogon from Nic Wilson

Hakonechloa macra and Ophiopogon combine to create this stunning border
Image: dogwooddays

Do your borders lack colour, height and movement throughout the year? Professional garden designer Nic Wilson of dogwooddays recently redesigned the beds in her own back garden to striking effect. Her secret weapon? Grasses.

By integrating their elegant structure and interesting foliage she’s transformed her family’s outside space. Here are Nic’s favourite grasses, where to plant them, and how to make them sing…

Are ornamental grasses easy to grow?

Stipa tennuissima from dogwooddays

Drifts of Stipa tennuissima blow gently in the breeze
Image: dogwooddays

I particularly appreciate the versatility of grasses in a design – they can be used in so many different ways, aspects and situations. You can sow them from seed or buy them as plants for more instant results. Just choose the right grass for your border and watch them thrive.

When I changed my beds earlier this year, I decided to use grasses as the structural basis of the new design. I planted elegant Deschampsia cespitosa towards the back for height, drifts of Stipa tenuissima through the centre to create sinuous curves, and annual grasses like Briza maxima along the front.

Now it’s early September, the deschampsia has developed golden seedheads that mingle beautifully with my Verbena bonariensis, and the briza heads are gently rippling in the light autumn breeze. The yellow and oaty brown shades soften the brighter tones – a contrasting purple and orange colour scheme that includes:

The best grasses for sun

Different coloured of grasses in a garden planting scheme

Copper coloured grasses stylishly complement perennials in this border
Image: dogwooddays

Whether your garden is baked by the sun throughout the day or has shady areas under trees where little will grow, there are grasses that will cope. For sunny borders and hot, dry gravel gardens, little can beat Festuca glauca with its mound-forming blue-green spiky foliage. My festuca was grown from seed and I love to combine it with silvery lambs’ ears (Stachys byzantina) and purple salvia (such as Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’) which also thrive in these baking conditions.

Carex testacea is a stalwart in my gravel garden as, unlike many varieties of carex, it prefers dry conditions and the foliage turns the brightest copper colour in full sun. It combines well with Kniphofia ‘Tawny King’ and Achillea ‘Terracotta’.

The best grasses for shade

Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens' from T&M

A spectacular feature plant at the front of borders or winter containers
Featured: Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ from T&M

At the other end of the spectrum, Anemanthele lessoniana prefers dry soils in sun or shade. Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ also copes with dry shade and Melica uniflora ‘Alba’ (or wood melic) thrives at the dappled edge of the woodland canopy.

Damp partial shade creates the ideal conditions for carex and acorus. I tend to favour Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon’ for its golden yellow variegated leaves and Carex oshimensis ‘Everest’, whose evergreen, white and dark green, variegated foliage makes a real statement in your border.

Annual grasses

Pennisetum glaucum 'Purple Majesty'

Pennisetum glaucum ‘Purple Majesty’
Image: dogwooddays

Sowing annual grasses is an inexpensive way to add interest to beds and borders, or create attractive container displays.

I love the tactile flowerheads and deep chocolate-purple foliage of Pennisetum glaucum ‘Purple Majesty’ which looks splendid in autumn containers as a backdrop to dahlia and salvia. Another favourite, Briza maxima, is easily raised from seed in situ in the border. Autumn sowings work well and should grow on strongly the following spring.

Grasses for screens

Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln Gold’ from T&M

Reaching a height of about 1m, this brightly coloured grass makes an excellent screen
Featured: Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln Gold’ from T&M

Taller grasses make attractive screens to separate different parts of the garden or to hide utility areas. Try Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ which forms an informal screen up to 1.8 metres in height, with arching reddish stems fading through beige to warm browns as the season progresses. Calamagrostis looks fabulous in the winter too and can be cut to the ground in early spring before growth resumes for the next year.

Another tall specimen, Miscanthus sinensis ‘Silberfeder’, is topped with silver plumes of flowers in September and October which persist throughout the winter, adding texture and interest.

For slightly lower screens, I have two favourites. Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln Gold’ is a great choice with vivid yellow-gold foliage. Looking for something a little more exotic? Try the flowered plumes of Miscanthus sinensis ‘Zebrinus’. They grow to 1.2m in height, floating above striking bright green leaves striped with horizontal cream bands.

How to plant grasses

Carex testacea and pittosporum planting scheme from dogwooddays

Copper-coloured Carex testacea and pittosporum beautifully complement this simple path
Image: dogwooddays

Perennial grasses are best planted in spring or autumn. Those that originate from warmer climates like miscanthus and pennisetum should be planted in late spring so they can come into growth before flowering in mid-summer. Deschampsia, stipa and festuca, on the other hand, originate from cooler climates and are better planted in autumn to give them the chance to become well established before beginning to grow in late winter.

As we head into autumn, September is the ideal time to plant the following grasses alongside your crocus and snowdrop bulbs:

Ornamental grasses add colour, structure, texture and all year round interest to beds and borders. But they really come into their own in the late autumn sun – the best time to enjoy their gently fading colours and elegant forms. 

It’s a Jungle Out There

We all love creatures great and small, right. I would far rather employ the birds and bees than use chemical bug control and so we go to great lengths to entice them into our garden. But then there is the small matter of our six cats to consider. And so we constructed the Catio: By encasing the pergola surrounding our 27ft x 8ft patio with wire mesh, we created a safe outdoor environment for our cats to enjoy fresh air and exercise, whilst protecting the wildlife in the garden from their basic killer instincts!

Cats in the Catio

© Caroline Broome – Cats in the Catio.

It also allows us to enjoy watching the birdies on our several feeding stations, the main one being no more than a metre from the enclosure. And most pertinent of all, I’ve got myself an amazing micro climate in which I can grow tender perennials such as Cannas, Abutilons and Eucomis and extend the annual summer displays well into November.

All creatures great and small seem quite relaxed in each other’s company, especially the starlings: their manners certainly are! I think pigeons get a bad name; we have two ferals and one wood pigeon as regular visitors and they never mess on their own doorstep, obligingly hoovering up all the scattered bird seed that the aptly named chatter of starlings fling all over the show. 

Mealworms, that’s what’s caused all this riotous behaviour. In early Spring the bird feeder started getting regular visits from a pair of starlings, which I now recognise as a scouting party. Nature having taken its course, within a month or two the fledglings had joined their parents, squawking impatiently to be fed. Ahh, how cute they looked, isn’t nature wonderful. Then word got out to all their relatives and before you know it there were 17 of them (all under the watchful eyes of our cats, a mere paw’s snatch away, under the protective custody of the Catio!) I’m having to refill the feeders twice daily; it’s costing me more to feed the birds than it is to feed the cats, I swear. The chaffinches and tits love the white sunflower seeds, the robins favour the suet blocks as does the woodpecker. Black sunflower seeds, so popular last year, are last resort, so fickle! I’ve even managed to train the squirrels (yeah, right) onto their own bird feeder further up the garden. Yes readers, the caged feeders do deter the squirrels.

Regrettably however, the 25mm mesh surround does not keep out fledglings, frogs or mice. So far, our Siamese kitten Ethel (named after my beloved 106-year-old friend who died last year) has bagged two mice (deceased) and several frogs (survived – clearly more robust.)

Fledglings, frogs and mice

©Caroline Broome – Fledglings, frogs and mice have all made their way through the mesh of the Catio.

The last frog escaped with its life by crawling into the cup of my bra (not, I am relieved to say, while I was wearing it) in the laundry room. But the highlight of our wildlife adventure has been the Female Emperor Dragonfly resting on a Miscanthus grass in the front garden. (Good job that never got in the house.)

Female emperor dragon fly

© Caroline Broome – The Female Emperor Dragon Fly.

We’re very lucky to attract so many birds, due no doubt to numerous large mature trees surrounding us in neighbouring gardens and the church yard. But a mile away in the Hampstead Garden Suburb several Hort Soc friends’ gardens back onto Big Wood. One such garden regularly welcomes woodpeckers, parakeets and goldfinches on a daily basis. Unbelievable racket! Surely Alfred Hitchcock took his inspiration for The Birds from The Suburb! On our NGS Group Open Garden Day recently (we raised £9000 by the way, she mentions nonchalantly) another woodland garden attracted a very friendly bird. It seemed quite at home, hopping around on the drive, amongst the throngs. It even ate out of one visitor’s hand and another identified it as a White Eared Iraqi Bulbul: Many Iraqis owns Bulbuls as pets, and they are considered to be one of the smartest and most intelligent birds on earth. This one certainly wasn’t daft as it soon sussed out the best tea and cake in the group. Hope it was reunited with its owners though, no doubt it was mentioned in despatches on the Suburb Chatline.

 Iraqi Bulbul bird

© Caroline Broome – Me and my new friend the Iraqi Bulbul bird.

Talking of which, when the Hort Soc opened for the NGS in 2017 we held a children’s treasure hunt: a model bird or animal was placed in each of the Open Gardens for the children to find, (on loan – the ornaments not the children – from our very supportive local nursery.) Quite a few garden owners bought theirs afterwards, including our esteemed Chair Doc Page, whose eagle befit his status! Having perched it on the apex of his greenhouse he then posted a photo of it on the Suburb Chatline. Had several residents in quite a flap apparently………(pardon the pun)

Catch up with you all later……..Caroline

Small border planting ideas with high impact

Stock image of an outdoor dining area with table and colourful borders

Use height, structure and colour to create stunning borders in small gardens
Image: photographee.eu

The average length of a UK garden is just 15 metres long, but limited space doesn’t prevent you from having gorgeous borders filled with show-stopping plants and shrubs. We asked Lee Burkhill, the professional designer behind Garden Ninja, for his advice on giving small gardens huge impact.

Here are Lee’s top tips for turning a small garden into an outdoor space with real wow-factor.

Edit your ideas

Garden with ferns, hostas and outdoor chairs

Concentrating on ferns, hostas and a limited colour palette gives this border cohesion
Image: Svineyard

I know just how tricky small gardens can be to design and plant effectively. In fact, I’ve specialised in small and awkward garden design for some years now. The most difficult part is editing your choices to make sure you maintain a consistent style throughout the space.

As eager gardeners we’re all keen to get as much variety as possible, and this can sometimes be our downfall. It’s easy to end up with what I call a ‘pick and mix’ garden that has no real flow or style. Learning to edit is vital in a small space.

Work out your garden’s aspect 

Lee from Garden Ninja planting a south-facing 'hot' border

Lee planting a south-facing ‘hot’ border
Image: Garden Ninja

Before you buy any plants, or reach for your spade, it’s worth spending a little time thinking about the style of garden you want based on its aspect.

The ‘aspect’ of your garden refers to its position in relation to the sun. It’s critical to know how much sun you’ll get so that you can choose the plants that will work best. Use a compass to work out which direction your garden faces and how much sun it gets during the day. South-facing gardens usually get the most natural daylight while north-facing can be quite shaded.

If you’re wanting a hot border, for example, you’ll need to make sure your garden gets enough sun and then focus on hot herbaceous plants like heleniums and grasses. If your garden has lots of shade, then you’ll be looking for fern-like foliage, damp-tolerant plants plus lots of muted colours that thrive in a more sheltered environment. Start with what’s already growing well in your garden to kick off your plans.

Choose a style

Very clear border divide in a garden

Are you drawn to strikingly modern planting schemes or cottage garden pastels?
Image: Del Boy

Saying that you’d “like it to be pretty” is not specific enough I’m afraid! Spending just a couple of hours thinking about what you want will set you up for success.

Are you drawn to formal or informal garden styles? Do you love naturalistic planting, or very modern schemes with striking blocks of colour? Would you prefer a low maintenance, evergreen border or a high impact, high maintenance cottage style?

Researching different garden styles online can really help you work out what look you’re aiming for, and provide much needed inspiration. Skip this step and you run the risk of creating a garden with no identity. I always advise clients to keep it simple and never try to combine two styles at the same time.

Trees in small gardens

Apple ‘Golden Delicious’ (M27 rootstock) from Thompson & Morgan

Growing to no more than 2m, dwarf fruit trees are a lovely addition to a small border
Image: Apple ‘Golden Delicious’ (M27 rootstock) from Thompson & Morgan

Trees are so important – they cool down gardens by providing shade, they feed and shelter wildlife, and they help to slow down the flow of water. There’s definitely a small tree for every sized garden and I’m certainly not the first to advocate this. However, many clients recoil in horror when I suggest trees for their small urban gardens. Even a tiny border can feature a small tree – the trick is to choose the correct type.

Two of my favourite types of tree for small spaces are:

  • Fruit trees on M27 rootstock. These won’t grow much taller than 1.5-2m and you get to enjoy their gorgeous fruits! Apple, quince and plum trees are a doddle to look after once planted – just a light snip here and there is all they need. Or, you could get a stepover fruit tree (trained to grow in a low horizontal line) or an espalier variety to grow against a wall for a real structural statement.
  • Multi-stem ornamental trees. These gorgeous specimens can become the focal point of your border. I love things like Prunus Serrula Tibetica, or even a quince or medlar fruit tree to really wow the neighbours. Their multi-stems allow light to pass through but restrict their overall vigour. Requiring little pruning, their height will also make your garden feel bigger by drawing your eye upwards rather than just across the garden.

Go big with your planting

Small Scottish border brimming with large plant

This small Scottish border is decadently brimming with large plants
Image: Rico Baumann135

If you’ve only got a small border, planting bigger is always better in my experience. Don’t be tempted to use lots of small plants to make your border feel fuller. Instead, go for some larger specimens to add drama. And don’t avoid taller plants. Variety is the spice of life after all.

Here are some of the best, hard-working and visually striking plants that blend with pretty much anything in a herbaceous border:

  • Hebe ‘Mrs Winder’ – This low-maintenance, high-impact evergreen shrub provides year-round structure and flowers.
  • Carex (multiple varieties) – These sedges give year-round colour and interest. Again practically zero-maintenance, and when planted en masse or as an edging plant they are really dramatic.
  • Callicarpa bodinieri – This well behaved, deciduous shrub packs a real punch. With ribbed green leaves throughout spring and summer, during Autumn you get neon purple berries that are a real focal point.
  • Ground cover plants – I can’t stress enough how filling empty spaces with plants such as erigeron (Mexican fleabane), lamium (non-stinging nettle for shade) or a geranium like ‘Johnsons Blue’ brings unity to your border. When you plant these en masse you provide cohesion and consistency to your garden – perfect for bringing a small space to life. Forget leaving spaces for weeds to take root. Pack your borders to get the greatest effect!

Plant groups of threes and fives

Garden order in groups 3s and 5s

No matter what size border you have, plant groups of 3s and 5s
Image: Denise Allison Coyle

My final piece of advice goes for all gardens, no matter what size – plant in groups of three or five. Grouping plants immediately brings a sense of intent to a garden and cohesion to your planting scheme. People often plant one of this and one of that in their borders. I know you want variety, but this approach can make your garden look very disjointed. It sounds counter-intuitive, but having the same plant repeated regularly in multiples around the border gives you a much more effective finish.

‘Pick and mix’ planting breaks continuity and makes your outdoor space feel frantic rather than calming. Unless it’s a specimen tree or shrub, then make sure you use the 3s and 5s rule.

Small gardens rely heavily on flow and unity. When buying plants, keep checking if you’re being consistent. Does it fit with your chosen style, colour scheme and aspect? If not, don’t add it to your basket. Follow these tips and you’ll end up with a strong, well-planned design and a wonderful garden to enjoy for many years to come. 

 

Tough plants for tough places

Sedum 'Herbstfreude' in a garden

Sedum ‘Herbstfreude’ is ideal for poor soil and dry conditions
Image: Peter Turner Photography

Many people have a tough spot in their garden – too dry, too shady, or just too exposed to be able to easily grow plants that will thrive. Others have damp, boggy areas or frost pockets that present challenges to plant life. 

We asked The Sunday Gardener, Carol Bartlett, to share her expert advice on tough plants for tough locations. Here are some of her top suggestions for plants with the stamina and staying power to fill your tricky spots.

Shrubs for exposed areas

Euonymus ‘Emerald Gaiety’ from Thompson & Morgan

The silvery variegated foliage of euonymus brings all year round interest to tricky corners
Image: Euonymus ‘Emerald Gaiety’ from Thompson & Morgan

A blustery corner of the garden could be the ideal spot for a tough shrub such as cotoneaster. There are lots of different varieties in this group of shrubs, and an ideal sized variety that grows to around 2.5m is C. Amoenus. It’s tolerant of all soil types and copes well with partial shade and blustery conditions. An evergreen shrub, its lovely white flowers in the late spring and early summer are attractive to bees.

These are followed in the autumn and winter with masses of red berries – a feast for wild birds, and especially loved by blackbirds. It’s a tough shrub and will grow wherever you plant it, except in wet conditions.

Another tough shrub which is very hardy and tolerant of most conditions is elaeagnus. Most attractive are those with variegated leaves such as ‘Limelight’ and ‘Gilt Edge’ which has the RHS award of garden merit. Equally tough, with bright variegation is Euonymus fortunei. ‘Emerald and Green’ which has golden green leaves, and ‘Emerald Gaiety’ with white and green variations are good varieties to grow.

If you’re looking for a tough shrub with flowers, Viburnum tinus is an ideal choice. It has pretty, white-tinged, pale pink flowers in the spring and it tolerates most soil conditions, sun and shade.

Buddleja davidii is another hardy and easy to grow shrub that’s tolerant of all conditions, except wet and boggy soils. Buddleja is often called the ‘butterfly bush’ as its aromatic flowers attract a wide variety of butterflies into the garden.

Grasses for exposed areas

Carpet of pink achillea

A carpet of achillea is the perfect partner for grasses
Image: The Sunday Gardener

As an alternative to shrubs, you might like to try some of the hardier plants and grasses, but bear in mind that windy positions will cause tall grasses like Cortaderia selloana (Pampas grass) and Miscanthus to shed their lovely plumes.

Stipa tenuissima (Mexican feather grass) is an attractive, compact grass that grows to around 35cm. Ideal in harsher conditions, and with masses of soft fluffy plumes, it combines beautifully with achillea in a dry spot. Achillea’s large, flat, long-lasting flower heads continue to look good as the flowers fade.

Another plant that combines well with shrubs or grasses is nepeta. Tougher than lavender, and tolerant of different conditions including semi-shade and damp, it brings clouds of blue to your borders, from pale mauve through to deep indigo.

For excellent ground cover and as an edging for paths, Alchemilla mollis tolerates full sun, full shade and everything in between. Extremely hardy (to -20 degrees C) and tolerant of all soil types, it’s an ideal plant for tough areas. However, you’ll need to keep it in check as it’s vigorous, almost to the point of being invasive.

Plants for dry soils and rockeries

In dry poor soils, or for the small spaces between paving slabs and in rockeries, Erigeron karvinskianus is an excellent choice with its lovely pale pink and white daisy-like flowers. It will grow in many awkward areas and, once established, re-appears reliably each year.

Equally tolerant of dry conditions, if provided with a sunny spot, is sedum. This group of plants contains many different varieties including larger, upright specimens such as Herbstfreude with its familiar red and rosy pink flowers so loved by pollinators, to tiny ground-hugging plants with small but attractive flowers.

Plants for dry shade

English ivy in a garden

English ivy is a native plant loved by wildlife
Image: The Sunday Gardener

One of the trickiest conditions to successfully garden, and requiring a very tough plant, is dry shade. I recommend trying vinca, commonly known as periwinkle, which has lovely blue flowers to brighten up the gloomy areas.

Equally happy in these conditions is the English ivy Hedera helix. When mature this plant produces late autumn flowers that provide high quality nectar for bees and pollinators just when they need it, before winter hibernation. The flowers are then followed by purple berries loved by blackbirds, thrushes, blackcaps and wood pigeons. It’s a native plant with great wildlife value, as is Hawthorn, which will also tolerate difficult conditions.

With stunning lime green foliage, euphorbia is another ideal plant for dry shade. Varieties such as Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae retains its lovely fresh, lime green leaves and combines well with the blue flowers of Vinca to provide bright colour in a dry shady area.

Plants for damp shade

Hosta in a garden

Slug-resistant varieties of hosta thrive in damp shade
Image: The Sunday Gardener

A tough condition that’s slightly easier to accommodate is damp shade. One of my favourite stand out plants for a darker damp corner is Astilbe. The strong white plumes of Astilbe ‘Professor van der Wielen’ are particularly good.

Astilbe combines well with ferns and hostas which thrive in damp shade. Try planting some of the more slug-resistant hostas such as Big Daddy, Gold Regal, Liberty, Halcyon, and Silvery Slugproof to keep the pests away.

Conservatory flowers

Geranium ‘Moulin Rouge’ F1 Hybrid

Smothered in scarlet blooms, this was the most outstanding pelargonium in T&M’s trials
Image: Geranium ‘Moulin Rouge’ F1 Hybrid

Finally, are you fed up of composting dead and diseased conservatory plants? If the toughest place to grow successfully in your garden is your conservatory, take a look at pelargoniums. These non-hardy geraniums not only withstand the extreme heat of your conservatory – they positively bask in it. They’ll also survive the winter in an unheated conservatory. Tolerant and forgiving, just give them a regular water and occasional feed (tomato food is fine) and geraniums will flower away from March to November. I have to make myself cut them back in November when they’re often still in flower, knowing that this will improve the plant for next year.

Geraniums have many different flower types, some with amazing scented leaves, that will happily live in your conservatory for several years. When they get leggy, simply take a cutting and start again with a fresh plant.

Geraniums really brighten up a conservatory and are one of the few flowering plants which will take the very hot temperatures unscathed.

We hope this has given you plenty of food for thought and lots of ideas for those tricky areas in your gardens. Let us know how you get on over on Facebook or Twitter. We love to hear from you!

 

Late summer sophistication with rudbeckia 

Photo of Rudbeckia 'Savannah Mixed' mix in Nic Wilson's garden

Nic has planted Rudbeckia ‘Savannah Mixed’ alongside grasses in her own garden
Image: Nic Wilson of dogwooddays

Midsummer is a time of plenty in the garden with roses blooming, sweet peas in their prime and borders a riot of colour. But as summer progresses and cottage garden stalwarts begin to fade, there are some fantastic late-flowering plants ready to carry the torch into autumn. 

We asked professional garden designer, Nic Wilson of dogwooddays, to share her thoughts on rudbeckia, one of our favourite ways to add a splash of late summer sophistication to any garden.

Prairie-style planting

Prairie style planting

Prairie style planting displays provide long-lasting colour and attract pollinating insects
Image: Lukasz Stefanski

It’s at this time of year that North American perennials and annuals really come into their own. Unlike meadows in the UK which generally peak at midsummer, North American grassland reaches its zenith around late summer or early autumn, making prairie flower displays ideal to keep the colour in the garden going well past the summer equinox. The daisy flowers of echinacea, helenium, aster and rudbeckia are also fabulous sources of nectar for pollinating insects.

Best varieties of rudbeckia

Red rudbeckia flower in the garden

The striking red of this rudbeckia flower is a glorious addition to any planting scheme
Image: Nic Wilson of dogwooddays

Rudbeckia (commonly known as coneflower or black-eyed Susan) was named after Olof Rudbeck (senior), the Swedish Professor of Medicine and polymath who founded the Uppsala Botanical Garden in 1655.

All rudbeckias prefer an open sunny spot with soil that has been improved with organic matter. They can be planted in spring or autumn, or sown from seed. Charismatic Rudbeckia hirta is a valuable annual to add to container displays and to the late summer border, often flowering up until the first frosts. There are many annual cultivars to suit different colour schemes:

One of the most popular perennial rudbeckia varieties is R. fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Goldsturm’ – a robust and reliable flower that likes to be kept moist in summer. The open yellow petals contrast with the dark central eye, making it a striking bloom, especially when planted in swathes through grasses or with other prairie flowers like echinacea and heleniums.

Sophisticated ‘savannah mixed’

Rudbeckia 'Savannah Mixed' from Thompson & Morgan

Opening in gentle lime green, petals mature to wine-red and burnt orange as summer progresses
Image: Thompson & Morgan’s new half-hardy annual R. ‘Savannah Mixed’

This year I’ve planted Thompson & Morgan’s new and exclusive, half-hardy annual R. ‘Savannah Mixed’ from their own breeding programme. Beautiful colour-changing double flowers with petals in shades of yellow-green, wine-red and burnt orange, ‘Savannah Mixed’ evokes the subtle colours of the grassy African plains and brings real elegance to late summer displays. It looks best planted en masse in containers or borders, where the flowers combine to create a sophisticated scheme.

In my garden, I’m planting R. ‘Savannah Mixed’ with grasses (Briza maxima, Deschampsia cespitosa and Stipa tenuissima) and with other late-bloomers like Helenium ‘Moerheim Beauty’. The muted lime, burgundy and copper tones of the rudbeckia add touches of colour without disturbing the soft mood created by the grass seed heads gently swaying in the breeze. And as the flowers age the colours deepen, providing an effortless transition to autumn in your late summer borders.

Selection of rudbeckia images from Nic Wilson from dogwooddays

Image: Nic Wilson of dogwooddays

Drought-proofing my garden

The recent dry spell has really made me think about the plants I am growing. The drought has taken its toll on a favourite tree in my garden.  In truth, it has been many years since it performed at its best.  This year, I’ll be lucky if there are any leaves left come autumn! I’m blaming my thin, silty soil and a lack of regular rainfall, coupled with hot, drying winds over the past few weeks.

This has had me pondering – do I take some softwood cuttings now to replace it if it dies? Or is it better to accept what nature has given me; to find plants that naturally cope well under drought conditions. After all, the Trachycarpus (Windmill Palm) growing close by is positively flourishing.

Contrast between trees surviving drought

©Sue Sanderson, T&M – Sorbus vilmorinii (left) is suffering drought, while Trachycarpus (right) flourishes.

 

Preparing for dryer weather conditions

I’m a great believer in choosing the right plant for the right position. Why spend hours nurturing a moisture-loving plant that will never thrive on a dry soil? Unfortunately it’s far too easy to be led astray by a pretty flower in the garden centre. I’m sure I’m not the only one! So I’ve decided to let nature take its course and start planning for a more drought resilient garden…

 

Limit your plant choices

A good starting place is to look at what thrives in your garden already, and let these plants become the basis of your planting palette. This will often mean a smaller range of plants used in larger, bolder groups. Apart from being more in tune with the natural order of things, I find that planting in this way is often more attractive than a jumble of individual species, all fighting for attention.

Sempervivums (Houseleeks) are definitely ‘in’ this year. Mine seem to be flourishing since repotting them into a gritty soil mix, and ‘pups’ are popping up all over the place!

sempervivum

©Sue Sanderson, T&M – Sempervivums are resilient little plants that cope well with dry conditions.

These resilient little plants are steeped in folklore! They have been used throughout history for medicinal purposes such as using the sap from their fleshy leaves to soothe burns and abrasions – an outdoor Aloe vera, if you like!

Sempervivums come in a surprising range of colours too, like T&M’s Chick Charms Collection which would look great inserted into the cracks in my garden walls.

Sempervivum 'Chick Charms'

©Newey Plants – Sempervivum ‘Chick Charms’ will add colour to wall crevices.

 

Encourage the colonisers

Speaking of cracks in the walls, these Hart’s Tongue Ferns are definitely some of the top performers on my plot! One small plant that was introduced over a decade ago, and now they have colonised the length of the steep steps that descend to the bottom of my garden.

Take advantage of natural colonisers

©Sue Sanderson, T&M – Take advantage of natural colonisers, such as Hart’s Tongue Ferns (left) and Trachystemon (right).

Another big coloniser is my garden is Trachystemon orientalis with its coarse, heart-shaped leaves and pretty Borage-like flowers in spring. This is a great performer for dry shade and creates dense ground cover. In very dry weather the leaves will flop, but generally there is little that upsets it.

It’s related to the white flowered Symphytum orientalis, another success story that’s growing in the thin, dry soil around the edge of my pond. Both are from the Boraginaceae family, and provide a valuable supply of nectar for pollinating insects in early spring. Clearly this is a group that is worth exploring in my new planting palette!

Stipa tenuissima does well for me too. This billowing grass adds movement to borders. It self-seeds freely but is always easy to manage.

Stipa and Bergenia

©Sue Sanderson, T&M – Stipa tenuissima (left) adds texture, while Bergenia (right) makes good ground cover.

Geranium phaeum and Bergenia cordifolia have really found their stride this year too. I planted a few Bergenia many years ago and they have finally bulked up to create a pleasing clump of glossy foliage, which makes excellent ground cover.

 

Plant drought tolerant species

There has been huge interest in drought tolerant species this year, particularly succulents such as Hylotelephium takesimense ‘Atlantis’ (known to most of us as Sedum). This showy plant was awarded the prestigious honour of RHS Chelsea Plant of the Year 2019 and it certainly is eye-catching.

Sedum Atlantis

©Plantipp / Visions BV, Netherlands – RHS Chelsea Plant of the Year 2019 award went to drought resistant Sedum ‘Atlantis’

There are plenty of other Sedum available too. Given a sunny spot with good drainage, they are always happy to tough it out at the front of my dry borders, attracting pollinating insects as an added bonus!

It’s not all ground cover perennials in my garden. Euonymus is another genus that thrives here. Deciduous Euonymus europaeus is best known as our native Spindle Tree. The curious pink fruits and vibrant autumn colour make it a lovely focal point in autumn. I’m always surprised at how well this tree copes – it seems to thrive on neglect!

Euonymus plants

©Sue Sanderson, T&M – Euonymus europaeus (left) and E. japonicus (right) are surprisingly drought tolerant species.

For year round reliability, you can’t beat the variegated evergreen foliage of Euonymus japonicus ‘Ovatus Aureus’. This tough, resilient plant provides structure and colour throughout the winter months, tolerating the dry summer without issue.

 

Put the pretties in pots!

Of course, we all have to have a few delicate ‘pretties’ in our gardens, but I tend to grow mine in pots close to the house. Not only do I get to appreciate them more, but it also allows me to focus all my watering efforts in one place. As one pot fades, another fresh pot can take its place, and the tired plants can be retired to a less visible spot.    I also use saucers under each pot during the summer to catch the escaping ‘run-off’ and save on water wastage.

Flower in containers

©Sue Sanderson, T&M – Grow flowering plants close to the house to make watering less challenging.

Do you have any top tips for gardening drought-proofing your garden? We’d love to hear about your favourite drought resistant plants. Why not share your tips and pictures with us on our Facebook page?

 

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