Show Gardens – Have They Lost The Plot?

Show gardens – have they lost the plot?
Their photos adorn the covers of our gardening magazines, they are written about in the weekend sections of newspapers, people jostle with each other to get the best views of them, celebs want to be seen in them and they have hours and hours of television coverage dedicated to them. But what do we really think of them?
Are they rather like the Emperor’s new clothes? Is it that the media daren’t say a bad word against them? Does the bizarre, the clever and the ridiculous have a place in our gardens?
I have visited Chelsea, Hampton Court and Gardeners World live many times over many years (I’ve even had a couple of show gardens myself). I’ve always been excited about my day out, I love the sense of occasion, the pungent flower marquees, and the exhibition stands but recently I have been disappointed by the show gardens. This got me thinking ‘what is a show garden and why do we have them?’
I started to look for the answer on the RHS website: “Every year BBC Gardeners’ World Live brings an exciting collection of Show Gardens to life in a celebration of how imagination and creativity can transform any type of outdoor space. A central focus of the Show, these gardens reflect current trends and design ideas covering a diverse range of themes which together will make up an impressive and inspiring selection for visitors to enjoy”
So, yes it was certainly imaginative use of materials, new ideas, new products, new plant varieties and new styles in planting that over the years had drawn me and my camera to the shows, but I also wanted to see a thing of beauty, to look at gorgeous planting and to really wish that I was sitting in that particular garden with a glass of wine.
So why have I been so disappointed with most of what I’ve seen this year? It’s not the quality of the workmanship and I guess that just as much work has gone into the planning and preparation of the gardens as ever, but I have to say that I really didn’t get any inspiration from the gardens at Chelsea or Hampton Court. I’m fed up with seeing naturalistic planting, it just doesn’t work for the majority of gardens, it looks a mess after a couple of weeks and they are far harder to maintain than anyone lets on. I love wild flower meadows, long grass with cut grass pathways, areas of wild flowers in a woodland area or under a tree but I don’t think that a whole garden of naturalistic planting can look attractive.
I don’t get show gardens that replicate a real place – a bit of Yorkshire, a lock-keepers cottage, a hillside in Jordan etc. Where’s the imagination in that? Which trends and ideas are they reflecting? Are we all going to rush off and buy limestone boulders and mock ruins to make our gardens look like our favourite bit of England? We’re also getting an overload of gardens pertaining to be environmentally friendly, crammed full of recycled materials, often looking like they are full of old junk and certainly not gardens that you would want next to your own.
I’m sure that there was a lack of sponsorship this year, there certainly seemed to be fewer gardens. I guess there hasn’t been as much product development either. It is expensive to build a show garden. It takes far more of the designer’s time than people imagine (Diarmuid Gavin is already working on next year’s already), the contractors have to be extremely organised and their time is 100% dedicated to the show for many weeks. So a show garden should be a showcase for the designer, it could springboard them on to major projects and even a career in the media but it could also be their downfall. I’m not sure if the adage ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity’ actually holds true anymore. If you are looking for a designer is the fact that they have had a show garden enough or does it matter to you what the show garden actually looks like? Would you be inspired by seeing a garden full of bits of old metal or by flower-beds full of meadow plants?
So, interesting concepts like Diarmuid Gavin’s seven storey pyramid make for great media and give us lots to talk about but to me it goes no further than that. You could have actually walked past it at Chelsea and not even known there was a garden there – a load of old scaffolding poles is all that you saw. It was nothing like what we saw on the television with the smart Chelsea pensioners all lined up in their red uniforms. It looked great then but to the paying public it was a rip off. I don’t think that it’s me being ‘old fashioned’, It’s always interesting to see how the ‘people’ vote and yes it is usually different from how the RHS vote. ‘People’ appreciate lovely planting, they like gardens that have soul and they want ideas that they can take home and use.
I think that visitor numbers were down this year – it’s not a cheap day out, so perhaps the paying public is voting with its feet. It is my opinion that they haven’t got the mix of gardens right, they have too much of the weird and whacky and not enough of the inspirational and aspirational. I think the large show gardens are too big and that perhaps the designers have had to make compromises with their materials to keep within budget. The designs have become rather samey, you know what to expect before you even see some of the gardens. Let’s not keep having the same designers year after year and lets change it around a bit for the Daily Telegraph, M&G, Laurent & Perrier and Trailfinders by giving them different plots.
So, designers, make sure that you don’t lose the plot. Think about why you are doing a show garden and consider who your audience is. Ensure that the end product is interesting, impressive and inspiring and something for visitors to enjoy.

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Poems and stories have been written about them, they are the focus of plant collectors, an artist’s delight and a photographer’s pain in the neck.

The beautiful, simple, graceful, snowdrop (Galanthus) is the first bulb to flower and by using a few carefully chosen varieties you can be delighted by their simple elegance from December to March.

They are native throughout much of Europe; many people think that they are a British native wild flower but they were probably introduced here around the early sixteenth century.

There are more than 20 species of snowdrop and over 500 cultivars. They differ in size, shape, markings of the flower and the period of flowering.

They are excellent for naturalising in grass and very useful for planting beneath trees, in-fact they will cheer up any border in winter. A moist but well-drained soil is best for them, they do well on chalk, but not on heavy clay; They need rich loam or leaf-mould, and to be planted deeply in light shade, making sure they do not dry out in summer. The jury is still out over when to plant but ‘In the green’ after the flowers have faded, rather than as bulbs is the favoured option.

Once planted, snowdrops can be left to establish for a period of 4-5 years before they become overcrowded and congested. They then need lifting and dividing. This process is best done at the end of the flowering period when the leaf tips are just beginning to turn yellow. Lift the clumps and split with a garden fork then carefully separate using your fingers to prise the bulbs apart. Replant in groups of 3 or 5 at approx. 2-3 inches deep.

An active substance in snowdrop is called galantamine. It is said that this can slow down the progression of dementia and can help to ease the symptoms of memory loss, confusion and changes in behavior. It works by increasing the amount of a natural chemical in the brain called acetylcholine which is known to be low in people with Alzheimer’s.

In the next few weeks you can see displays of naturalised bulbs at specialist gardens throughout the UK. So quickly check out where your nearest garden is, put on your warmest clothes and get ready to join the love affair with this understated beauty.

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Is it a case of buyer beware or should we be getting a better service from our garden centres?

Many garden centres are increasingly becoming major retail outlets. Amongst Christmas decorations, gifts, food, pets and clothing it is just possible to find some plants, but it is almost impossible to get reliable, honest information about them.

Should we have to take responsibility for reading plant labels? When we’ve crouched down to ground level and got soil down our fingernails and mud on our arms in search of the elusive piece of plastic, does it give us the information that we need? When it’s missing, is it up to us to go in search of reference books to try and find information on a specific species or cultivar? And could someone please tell me why some companies have started stapling the label to the inside of the pot? Are they worried that we are going to run off with it? I would also like know if most people can actually understand the symbols on shrubs shipped in from Holland, Belgium and Italy? I think that the answer to all of these questions is a resounding NO.

So many times I’ve heard people say ‘I bought it because it had lovely flowers but it’s done nothing since’, or ‘I didn’t realise it would grow so big’ or ‘I’ve no idea how to look after it’. I think that even if some of the information is on the label, it’s rather like instructions on how to work our TV or video – we rarely actually read them. What is needed are large information notices in every plant bay at the garden centre. Some places do this, some even replace them when they are faded and weather worn but generally we are lucky if the plants are even in alphabetical order. We need to know the truth about the plant before we buy it, so let’s campaign for honest, realistic labelling. We should be told if the plant is going to end up being a monster or if it is a weak under-performer. We want to know if it needs wrapping in fleece at the first sign of a chill or if it’s going to curl up and die if we’ve not had rain for few days. Perhaps if we’d known that the plant sitting next to our purchase at the garden centre actually flowered for weeks longer and had fantastic winter form, we might have made a different choice. So come on garden centres, not everyone has a degree in horticulture, give us information that is easy to find, useful and honest. Yes you may end up with some plants being left on your shelves, but you know what? If that is the case, it’s probably because they deserve to be there.

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Nerium oleander (oleander)

When you go on holiday abroad you often see beautiful flowering plants that you recognise as being house plants here in the UK. Many years ago whilst traveling through Australia I was enthralled by such a shrub which was being used as hedging between fields, it was covered in pretty pink flowers which were delicately scented. When I researched it at the time I found out that it was Nerium Oleander and the fact that stayed with me in particular was that it was highly poisonous to animals and to humans.

This thought has stayed with me ever since and Oleander has always been on my list of ‘disliked’ plants. Imagine my surprise when we moved into our new home, to find our neighbours growing it in a pot on their patio. I really like my new neighbours but I had to question James’s taste in plants. James explained to me that he had lived in Zimbabwe for many years and that it reminded him of happy times there. Fortunately,  due to the very harsh winter that we had in Oxfordshire the Oleander perished and I thought no more about it until we were recently on holiday in Croatia and there it was in pale and dark pinks, whites and even double flowered, beautifully scented and looking absolutely splendid against bright blue skies.

I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt and to do a bit more research on it. I didn’t get very far before my initial reaction was reinforced, this came from a good, but quite controversial book that I was reading which suggested that poison from Oleander is currently used in some instances to kill unwanted baby girls in Northern India. 

Oleander is considered to be extremely toxic to humans, pets, livestock and birds. The most significant of these toxins are oleandrin and neriine; they are present in all parts of the plant, but are most concentrated in the sap. Oleander bark contains rosagenin, which is known for its strychnine-like effects. The entire plant, including the nectar is toxic, and any part can cause an adverse reaction. Ingestion causes nausea, vomiting, cardiac arrhythmia, hypotension and death. The sap has even been used as rat poison.  Dried or fresh branches of Oleander should not be used for spearing food, for preparing a fire, or as a food skewer, it even holds its toxicity after drying.

I have to say that it is very attractive, but in my opinion no-one should be encouraged to grow such a toxic plant. So, sorry James, but on reflection I actually think that it should be banned from sale in the UK.

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Take a look at the Natural England website . It has lots of information about wildlife gardening and some very useful tips and hints. The following is certainly good advice:

Relax! Don’t feel that you have to be too tidy in the garden. Leave some areas undisturbed, especially between March and May. Piles of leaves and twiggy debris in a hedge bottom, or out-of-the-way corner, will shelter frogs, mice and hedgehogs, and the seeds in dead flower heads can be valuable food. Let a patch of grass grow longer, as this encourages wild flowers, provides shelter for small mammals and food for some butterfly caterpillars.

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I was recently helping a friend clear a small border in her garden and in this border were some very scraggy, old bits of Aubretia. Many of us keep plants that are past their best just because we don’t know what to do with them. The technique with Aubretias is to shear them hard as soon as they have finished flowering. This way they will develop a new cushion of tight foliage by September time.

In late summer you can take cuttings by tugging out a piece of the plant (with the heel) that has about 3 inches of brown stem below the foliage. Ideally this will need to be placed in a cold frame.

Aubretias prefer to grow in thin, alkaline soil in full sun but they do seem to flower happily in many different situations. They attract bees, look great tumbling down walls and can even be planted in containers.  If you are using them at the front of a border, it is a good idea to plant with low growing Geraniums, Helianthemums or Dianthus because on their own they do look ragged during the summer months.

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Wildlife gardening – myths exploded

There are many myths regarding wildlife gardening that have grown up with time. The Sheffield University BUGS research exploded many of these:

‘Only big gardens are of value’ – This is not true, even tiny gardens can offer excellent environments for most insects. Sheffield University found that lots of little gardens together created a large and varied habitat for wildlife.

‘Native species are better for wildlife’ – This is not true, the results from the BUGS project showed that there was no correlation between the number of species of wildlife and the number of native plants in gardens.

‘Wildlife gardens must contain nettles for butterfly breeding’ – Nettles are everywhere in the wild and we do not need to grow them in our gardens. Bizarrely in the BUGS research gardens butterflies didn’t use the nettle patches that had been specifically placed in the gardens at all.

‘Buying special homes for animals and insects is necessary and effective’ – Again this is not true. The BUGS project found that bumblebee nests didn’t work and that piles of wood were more effective than man-made insect houses. Bird boxes were good but only if correctly positioned (which most aren’t) and dormouse and hedgehog boxes wont entice dormice or hedgehogs into your garden unless they live in woods next door.

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Wildlife gardening

I recently went to a forum given by Dr Steve Head on ‘The Why and How of Wildlife Gardening’. It was a fascinating evening and Steve was not only passionate about wildlife but also realistic regarding the needs of the gardener. He informed us of some research done by Sheffield University (the BUGS project – Biodiversity in Urban GardenS).  The BUGS project was actually started in 2001 when sixty-one gardens in Sheffield were used for detailed surveys of fauna and flora, and another thirty-five for trials of wildlife gardening techniques.  Some of the facts that they found are really interesting, such as:

  • The average number of plant species in individual gardens was 119.
  • Larger gardens had more species.
  • The most species poor garden still had an incredible 48 different plant species.
  • The record holder had an impressive 268 species.

Another interesting feature of garden floras is that most species are very rare: 490 species occurred only once, and only 35 species occurred in more than half the gardens.

Makes you want to go outside and start counting doesn’t it?

Upon doing a bit of further research into Wildlife gardening I realise that there is a lot of ignorance and many myths about what is good for wildlife and what isn’t. I have therefore added Wildlife Gardening as a new category on my blog and will contribute to it on a regular basis.

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Phacelia, mystery plant identified

In my article ‘nearly stumped’ on the 11th May, I mentioned that I had found a plant that I couldn’t identify; A beautiful lilac-mauve flower that was emerging from caterpillar like cymes held aloft from finely cut leaves. I looked through all of my books and tried various on-line sites, I asked a group of gardening friends and designers if they knew what it was and no-one could put a name to it. Then I got an email from a lady who is also working in the garden where we first found the plant and whilst looking at a website for organic vegetables she had stumbled across it.

Phacelia tanacetifolia is actually a hardy annual, grown from seeds. The lavender-blue, bell-shaped flowers, are laden with nectar and attract bees and other beneficial insects in their droves. The ‘blurb’ says that they are perfect for wildflower meadows, or naturalised planting schemes, but I saw this growing as a good clump in a perennial bed and it looked gorgeous. The foliage is fast growing and could provide good cover for Alliums as their foliage dies back. If you do not want the plants to set seed, remove the spent flowers as they fade. Because I was trying to identify it I had actually picked a couple of stems and I have to say that they lasted for a couple of weeks so it is a perfect plant for cut flowers. It also has a long flowering season in the garden, June- September makes it a very good ‘doer’.

This is a very useful plant; It is planted in vineyards and alongside crop fields, where because of its nectar-rich properties it attracts pollinators such as honey-bees. It is also attractive to hoverflies which are useful as biological pest control agents because they eat aphids and other pests. In the garden it can also be treated as a green manure crop, which will help enrich the soil. The National Trust are suggesting that we grow Phacelia as a cheap way of looking after our soil without using harmful chemicals.

How to sow the seeds: From early spring the seeds can be sown into small pots filled with good seed compost and initially protect with a cold frame or unheated greenhouse. Pinch out the growing tips to encourage bushier growth and harden off before planting out. Alternatively sow direct in autumn into a sunny, well-prepared seed bed.  Once established it will freely self-seed.

The seeds are available on-line. I’m definitely going to sow them in my garden, I hope that you have a go too.

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Nearly stumped

I’m a bit of a plants-person and pride myself on being able to identify most plants, but in the last week I have come across two plants, in two very different circumstances, that I am unfamiliar with: I spotted the fist plant whilst on a weekend away with my sister in north Norfolk. A stunning perennial growing out of a sand dune, what amazing tenacity! Although quite stumped, I did say that it looked like it was a member of the Borage family. I took this photograph of it and starting my research when I returned home.

It’s funny how plants come in and out of popularity, how what may be classed as a weed today will have a slightly different form tomorrow and will be on the best sellers list. If I lived in Norfolk I would probably walk past this wild flower every day and think nothing of it, but because it was new to me, it was a rare gem indeed. It’s rather like when we are abroad, we marvel at their hedgerows and fields of beautiful wild flowers but we often just think of our own as weeds.

My mystery plant is Cynoglossum officinale and it is a member of the Boraginaceae family. It is a biennial; preferring sandy soils particularly near the coast and on ground that is subject to regular disturbance. Apparently unpalatable to grazing animals it can therefore be found in over-stocked pastures and on the disturbed ground of rabbit warrens. It is also found on coastal dunes, field edges and waste land.

The flowers are quite small in comparison to the size of the plant and are deep maroon in colour. It has large, grey-green, hairy leaves. Two of the diagnostics are that it has four quartered bristly seeds and that it smells of mice. I have read that one of the old English names for this plant was Rats and Mice. Commonly, it is now known as Hound’s tongue.

It is a very attractive plant (I didn’t smell it), but I have read that it has compounds that if taken over a long time would cause liver failure.

The seeds are available to buy and that it is easily established from seed sown in the autumn or spring. So, if you have sandy soil it could be worth having a go, but remember not to sow near a bench or path unless you don’t have a good sense of smell!

I’m still stumped by my other mystery plant but I’m enjoying trying to find out what it is.

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