A Touch of Frost

The frosted form of an agapanthus seedhead

Last week Jack Frost paid the South East a visit, spreading his icy fingers over fields, woods and gardens. The scenes at sunrise were breathtaking, a great satsuma of a sun illuminating layer after layer of petrified countryside. I was lucky enough to be out and about in Berkshire on one of those magical mornings, watching the day dawn over the River Thames. A gaggle of Canada geese joined me, hopeful of a free breakfast.

As the sun rose, a silken mist hovered above the still waters of the Thames

As the sun rose, a silken mist hovered above the rippling waters of the Thames at Cookham

It’s been a while since I last set foot on grass so frozen that it crunched under foot. Where worm casts had appeared they were transformed into toe-stubbing doorstops of earth. Crisp beech leaves, always so persistent, littered the frozen sward. Every dessicated leaf was fringed with fragile ice crystals.

Beech leaves nestle in the sward, each leaf and blade fringed with frost

Beech leaves nestle in the sward, each leaf and blade fringed with frost

Faded herbaceous perennials, left in situ for days like these, formed a Jurassic forest of twisted and broken stems, each densely felted with ice crystals. Birds darted low and fast between the crippled plants, fervently seeking food and shelter.

A hoar frost cast a spell over a jaded jungle of stems and leaves

A hoar frost casts a spell over a jaded jungle of stems and leaves

The star of the shiver-inducing show was diminutive Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ (otherwise known as Lilyturf), prized for its strappy black leaves but surely never more striking than when encrusted with feathery ice crystals?

Thankfully Mr Frost has given both our gardens a wide berth this winter, but how long we’ll escape his icy grip, nobody knows.

Ophiopogon nigrescens is  even more beautiful laced with ice crystals

Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ is even more beautiful laced with ice crystals

Birthday Blooms

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When one’s birthday falls in early January, one learns not to expect too much in the way of tropical heat or blazing sunshine. However one can guarantee there will be weather, and plenty of it. Today’s conditions I would describe as typically ‘Cornish': overcast and blustery with invigorating horizontal rain. Dandy for seagulls and herring, but not a lot else. Despite this, Cornwall’s finer front gardens are already graced with the lavish ruffles and rubicund rosettes of the camellia. The blooms emerge from tidy, dark green bushes in shades of white, lemon yellow, pink and red, some single, some double and some splashed audaciously with a daring combination of ivory and vermillion. A winning combination, as every Geisha knows.

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Camellias are such improbable flowers for midwinter. They are bold, bright and apparently delicate, but their waxy petals and lacquered green leaves are designed to brave the elements. Camellias hail from China, Japan and the Himalayas, where they have been cultivated outdoors for centuries, so it is strange to think that the first plants to arrive in the UK were treated as conservatory plants (for example at Chiswick House). Now, after extensive hybridisation, they are considered hardy in many parts of the country. A little shelter from wind, rain and full sun will guarantee unsullied blooms, otherwise the camellias’ only other requirement is an acid soil that’s moist but well drained. Camellias do well in pots as well as planted in the ground. There are several hybrids with a compact habit making them suitable for even the smallest courtyard or balcony.

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As for me, after a year’s delay I have decided that we must have camellias, replacing two architectural but dull pseudopanax on either side of our French windows. They’ll be a birthday present to myself, but which variety to choose? If you have any tried and tested favourites, I’d love to know.

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Planting Containers for Winter Colour

Winter planter, Shaftesbury, Dorset, January 2015

January can be a bleak month for us gardeners, our outdoor spaces painfully devoid of colour and working conditions far from ideal. The less hardened among us find solace pottering in the greenhouse, browsing through seed catalogues or hunting out the pointed tips of emerging spring bulbs. However with a little planning it’s possible to enjoy colour, texture and a long period of interest using planted containers.

My advice is to focus your attention on areas close to the house, in view of visitors or in places that can be appreciated from the comfort of indoors. Outside the kitchen window is a classic spot for a cheerful arrangement to spur you through the washing up! There are many plants and shrubs suitable for pot culture that are hardy and will look good for weeks on end. The benefit of cooler weather is that blooms last longer (if spared the ravages of wind and rain) and so a little goes a long way. On a bright day, leaves fringed with hoar frost, even simple evergreens such as bay, laurel, viburnum and holly are transformed into objects of great beauty.

Pure and simple, Helleborus niger

Pure and simple, Helleborus niger

Structure and garden ornament play a key part in the garden during winter when there’s less foliage about to obscure the view. You’ll be seeing a lot of your chosen containers to it’s worth working with the most striking examples you have, provided they are frost resistant. Just this week I was struck by the loveliness of a stone trough, encrusted with lichen and moss, for a seasonal planting of Skimmia japonica, Gaultheria procumbens (with the red berries), Nandina domestica and Helleborus niger, edged with variegated ivy. Positioned next to a solid front door, what better welcome could one give one’s guests?

Even on a gloomy January day, a combination of skimmia, gaultheria, Helleborus niger, variegated ivy and Nandina domestica will brighten the darkest of corners

Even on a gloomy January day, a combination of skimmia, gaultheria, Helleborus niger, variegated ivy and Nandina domestica will brighten the darkest of corners

Plants grow very little in winter, so start with ones that are about the size you’d ultimately like them to be and pack them in more tightly than you would in spring and summer. With cyclamen, violas and other winter bedding, avoid burying the plants too deeply otherwise they may succumb to rot. It will help if you keep pots off the ground, which aids drainage and improves air circulation. Water only if the compost becomes dry, which can happen during milder spells or if the pot is positioned close to a wall or fence. Feeding is not required as plants will find all the nutrition they need in the planting medium.

Light is a precious commodity in winter so position pots where they will receive maximum sunlight. Even shade lovers such as ferns and ivies will appreciate the extra energy. If, like me, you attempt to overwinter tender plants outdoors then it helps to either bunch several containers together or to protect individual pots with bubble wrap.

A display of pots and baskets planted simply for winter colour

A display of pots and baskets planted simply for winter colour

My Top 10 Plants for Winter Containers

1. Violas. Although their show may be temporarily halted by a cold snap, winter flowering violas are one of the most cheerful choices for a winter garden. Their cheeky blooms come in a wide variety of colours from white through to yellow, orange, mauve, purple and blue. Once winter is over violas will leap into glorious action, clambering up between tulips and daffodils and scenting the air with their unmistakable fragrance. I would not be without them.

2. Skimmia japonica ‘Rubella’. It’s a rather stiff and surburban shrub, but my grandma loved it so I am giving it a place in my top 10. When small and grown as a container plant Skimmia japonica has a great deal to offer: panicles of scented white flowers emerge from dark red buds in spring, eventually maturing into clusters of red berries set against glossy green foliage. An all-rounder and readily available from garden centres, skimmias do better in a slightly acidic soil.

3. Gaultheria procumbens (box berry or checker berry). Incorporate plenty of peat into your mix if you want to grow Gaultheria procumbens. This diminutive shrub will pay you back with small white flowers in summer and a carpet of shiny berries above burnished foliage in winter.

4. Hedera helix. There a so many variations on English ivy that it’s hard to pick just one. For leaves splashed with cream, try H. helix ‘Glacier’, or if you’re looking for a touch of gold H. helix ‘Buttercup’ will do a star turn provided it gets as much exposure to the winter sun as possible. Ivy is very attractive to wildlife, which can be a double-edged sword. Just as wrens, spiders and other useful beasties will relish the warmth and shelter it provides, so will my arch enemy, Mr Snail.

5. Erica carnea and Erica x darleyensis. Most winter flowering heathers are cultivars of Erica carnea and Erica x darleyensis. For white flowers, try E. carnea ‘Springwood White’ or E. x darleyensis ‘White Perfection’. If you’re looking for something rosier, turn to E. carnea ‘Springwood Pink’ or E. x darleyensis ‘Darleydale’. One of the best reds is E. carnea ‘December Red’, which is actually closer to magenta than scarlet.

6. Helleborus niger. Ah, the Christmas rose! Although this stubby hellebore was introduced from warmer climes, at times it has almost ‘gone native’ in the UK. Also known as the Lenten rose it’s as well recognised in gardens as daffodils and crocuses. Grown well, with blooms protected from muddy splashes, there’s little to rival the Christmas rose for purity of colour in deepest winter.

7. Narcissus ‘Rijnvelds Early Sensation’. Impatient gardeners will love this daffodil which can be in bloom as early as late December if the weather is mild. Not too tall and with classic golden trumpets.

8. Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’. As close to black as you’ll get in a leaf, O. planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ is a compact, grass-like groundcover plant which creates the perfect foil for yellow and silver foliage. Underplant with short daffodils, such as Narcissus ‘Tete-a-Tete’.

9. Cineraria maritima. This hackneyed bedding plant of the 80’s is surely due a come-back. Tough as old boots and especially happy on chalky soils, Cineraria maritima will reward with with tactile, frilly-edged silver foliage all through the year.

10. Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’. If you are lucky enough to have a very large container, you could do little better than use the dogwoods as centrepieces for a winter scheme. C. sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ reveals brilliant, flame-coloured stems when the leaves fall in autumn.

Miniature cyclamen will keep flowering until the weather gets really cold

Miniature cyclamen will keep flowering until the weather gets really cold

On The Beach

Whistable beach, looking towards The Neptune

Just after Christmas we popped over to Whitstable for a spot of Champagne and shopping with our friend Karen. Situated on the Thames estuary, Whitstable’s beaches are shingly rather than sandy, their tide-rounded bounty stoutly defended by rank after rank of sturdy groynes. As the sun lowered we stumbled towards The Neptune (above far left) for a postprandial pint. With hats wedged on and scarves flying in the wind, we witnessed a magical golden light extending over the shore towards the freezing water of the estuary. The evening was spent warming chilly feet in front of a roaring stove, unpacking the last of the seed catalogues. The perfect way to spend a winter’s day.

The last of the winter sun warms the rusty posts supporting Whitstable's groynes

The last of the day’s sun warms the rusty posts supporting Whitstable’s groynes

Maybe Moss?

Moss centre piece, Restoration Hardware, New York, December 2014

Our garden table in Broadstairs has always been graced by central pot or trough of flowers. We opt for hardy cyclamen or violas in winter, followed by narcissi and tulips in spring. These make way for begonias, coleus, felicia or petunias in summer and then the cycle begins again. There’s usually a fresh pot planted up and waiting in the wings so we don’t have an interval between shows. In a planting scheme that’s relatively fixed and predominantly green this has always been a nice way of introducing seasonal colour to the garden. It’s a feature I enjoy experimenting with and no two years are the same.

Last summer nemesias, Felicia amelloides and Begonia 'Glowing Embers' brightened up our garden table

Last summer nemesias, Felicia amelloides and Begonia ‘Glowing Embers’ brightened up our garden table

Being a firm believer in ‘more is more’, I had never considered moss a suitable subject for this focal point, that is until I visited Restoration Hardware’s flagship store on Broadway in New York. Here, soft hummocks of moss were landscaped in iron or stone troughs and displayed on teak garden tables very similar to our own. In contrast to my pots of plenty, these simple containers made a restrained, elegant statement.

This trough, fashioned from Tufa stone, would soon weather down to match the tones of the moss

A trough, fashioned from Tufa stone, creates the perfect frame for picturesque moss

With our garden becoming ever shadier, and a healthy covering of moss occupying the corrugated iron roof of the neighbouring garage, I think I should perhaps give moss cultivation a second thought. I am not sure I could sacrifice my beloved summer colour for a mattress of green, but through late autumn and winter moss might make a pleasant change. In spring I imagine the verdant landscape punctuated by snowdrops, Iris reticulata or miniature narcissi. I have had my eye on the wares of a British company called Bronzino for a little while, and can imagine these copper basins gently mounded with soft green moss. I had better start next year’s Christmas list now!

These copper basins have been allowed to develop their characteristic verdigris patina

These copper basins have been allowed to develop their characteristic verdigris patina

Whilst there are many types of moss, I believe the sort used by Japanese landscaping maestros such as Kasuyuki Ishihara is known as pincushion moss (Leucobryum glaucum), which prefers a sandy, acidic substrate and shade or dappled sunlight. Pincushion moss is extremely absorbent and varies in colour depending on how moist it is, but under drier conditions is an attractive pale green with a silvery-white cast to it.

Detail of moss in Kasuyuki Ishihara's 2014 Chelsea Garden

Detail of pincushion moss in Kasuyuki Ishihara’s 2014 Chelsea Garden

I have two reservations about creating a moss feature for my garden table. The first is that our resident blackbirds have an enormous appetite for picking the garage roof over looking for food, blocking guttering and littering the path with skid-inducing moss as they go. (Moss on slate is only slightly less dangerous than grapes on marble or banana skins on the pavement.) Second, despite being on the coast Broadstairs is particularly dry, meaning my display might look a little desiccated at times. Nevertheless I think next autumn I will take the plunge and create something marvellously mossy. In the meantime I will indulge myself in tracking down suitable containers.

If you have experience of creating a moss feature in a pot or container I’d love to hear from you. Equally, if you know any good commercial sources of pincushion moss in the UK it would be great if you could leave details in a comment.

A moss-covered wall in Bibury, February 2013, was probably the greenest, brightest thing in town

A moss-covered wall in Bibury was probably the greenest, brightest thing in town on a cold February day

Ring Out The Old, Ring In The New

Mount Everest from the air, April 2013

In his famous poem “In Memoriam”, Lord Alfred Tennyson included the verse:

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

As 2015 dawns who knows what Tennyson’s hoped for ‘truth’ might look like, but what’s for sure is that the year will be what we make it. A few moments ago The Frustrated Gardener attracted its 150,000th view. This was a little target I’d set for myself for 2014, but what difference does twelve hours make between friends? I don’t know very much about visualisation as a technique for attaining personal goals, but I’d rather aim high and risk disappointment than settle for mediocrity. I’d like to imagine that by the middle of 2016 I might have celebrated my 1,000,000th view. What a boost that would be. And if I don’t get there, I can be quite certain I’ll have had a lot of fun trying.

Wishing you all happiness, success and good health in 2015.

Above, the mountain on the left is Everest, a photo taken en route between Kathmandu, Nepal and Paro, Bhutan.

The Very Best of 2014 – A Year In Pictures

Moss, canal edge, February 2014

I embark on my review of 2014 with a degree of trepidation, as this year did not turn out to be quite as joyful as I hoped it might be. The two preceding years were gloriously packed with exotic travel and big events, so in hindsight 2014 was probably never going to live up to expectations. There have been many sadnesses, including the passing away of my granny and great aunt, marking the end of an era in the Cooper family. Work has been all consuming for us both and we have not enjoyed our usual ‘big’ holiday. In retrospect this may have been a sacrifice too far as we love our sun and adventure.

Yet one great happiness, the arrival of my niece Martha, rescued 2014 from the doldrums. I’d re-live all of the last twelve months just for that life-changing event. Happily the two generations, Great Granny Cooper and little Martha, were able to meet before their ways parted again. Martha will be one year old on January 3rd and is an ever-moving bundle of joy, laughter and smiles.

A-one, a-two, a-three, BLOW!

A-one, a-two, a-three, BLOW!

Meanwhile The Frustrated Gardener has gone from strength to strength, thanks to all the people who looked in regularly, or even dropped by just the once. It matters not, as the views, comments and likes are what have kept me going through a year of ups and downs, and will propel me into 2015 with as much gusto as I started 2014. Thank you for looking in and I hope you enjoy my review of this year’s best bits.

Yours truly, pictured in our new vegetable garden

Yours truly, pictured in our new vegetable garden

There is no denying that 2014 was a vintage year for gardening, garden visiting or simply being outdoors. The UK escaped with a mild but very wet winter, followed by a lovely spring, summer and autumn. The growing season in both of our gardens was long and productive, creating an equal abundance of flowers and foliage ….. and for the first time in London there were fruits and vegetables too.

With their lower leaves removed, tomatoes will ripen fast in the autumn sunshine

Our first crop of tomatoes was pampered in the sunniest corner of our London garden

In January, following the birth of baby Martha, we made the first of three visits to Cornwall. There, in the depths of winter, we discovered camellias, daffodils and leptospermums in full bloom. More incredible still was the profusion of aeoniums sprouting from walls and pots in St Ives’ narrow streets and alleyways.

Leptospermum scoparium 'Coral Candy', St Ives, Cornwall, January 2014

Leptospermum scoparium ‘Coral Candy’

A second New Year highlight was the brilliant Hellebore Day at Bosvigo in Truro, the event which kicked off my gardening year. I took the sleeper train from Paddington, arriving in Camborne at the crack of dawn, and just had time to freshen up at Trevoole before joining the long queue for Wendy Perry’s hellebore bonanza. I purchased four beautiful seedlings from Wendy’s ‘Bosvigo Doubles’ strain and gave them all pet names in order that I could identify them in future. I am excited to see their richly ruffled blooms again in 2015, especially ‘Blackberry Fool’ and ‘Eton Mess’. Wendy’s next hellebore day is on Saturday February 21st, 10am-4.30pm.

I named this beautiful Bosvigo double hellebore 'Blackberry Fool'

I named this beautiful Bosvigo double hellebore ‘Blackberry Fool’

March saw us travel up to Sheffield for a family birthday celebration, offering us the chance to visit the city’s wonderful Botanical Gardens. We were blessed with exceptional weather and greeted by swathes of hepaticas, crocuses, polyanthus and oxlips. It is heartwarming to witness the renaissance of public parks such as Sheffield Botanical Gardens, when as recently as the 80’s and 90’s so many seemed doomed to become drug-blighted, no-go areas. As the UK economy improves, it’s to be hoped that councils apportion an appropriate amount of their funds to the continuous improvement of our precious green spaces.

The Glass Pavilions, Sheffield Botanical Gardens

Restored Glass Pavilions, Sheffield Botanical Gardens

To my mind one can never pay enough visits to Sissinghurst, which truly deserves its matchless reputation as a garden of great beauty, style and plantsmanship. I visited three times during 2014, which further proved to me what a remarkable job the Sissinghurst team make of keeping this famous garden looking tip-top year-round. I am ashamed to admit that I never got around to writing up my April sortie, when the orchard and Delos were blanketed by a delightful patchwork of narcissi, anemones, fritillarias, scillas and hellebores.

A swathe of anemones carpets the ground in an area of Sissinghurst known as Delos

A swathe of anemones carpets the ground in an area of Sissinghurst known as Delos

Sissinghurst's orchard studded with cheerful narcissi

Sissinghurst’s orchard studded with cheerful narcissi, an early treat for the bees

It was a lovely day, with fewer visitors than one encounters later in the year. As always at Sissinghurst I was dazzled by the accomplishment of the plant associations, one of Vita Sackville-West’s many legacies which endure through today’s gardening team. A very special combination was Chaenomeles x superba ‘Knap Hill Scarlet’ set against the weathered brick and silvered oak of the Tudor castle. The Japanese quince’s colour is more tangerine than scarlet, but is exquisite next to its emerging lime-green leaves and the terracotta-tinted walls. Equally stunning and thoroughly modern was the dazzling pairing of fiery greigii tulips with the verdigris-coated urn at the centre of the Cottage Garden.

Throughout the gardens at Sissinghurst, climbers are cleverly selected to complement the warm tones of the brick walls

At Sissinghurst, climbers are selected to complement the warm tones of the castle walls

This eye-popping combination is just what's needed to welcome in the spring

This eye-popping combination is just what’s needed to welcome in the spring

May is the month when The Frustrated Gardener gets more visits than any other. For the first time I took a week’s holiday for Chelsea and immersed myself in this greatest of all flower shows. There was much remembrance of the start of the Great War, both in show gardens and the Great Pavilion. This sobering theme was continued through many other RHS shows in 2014, a poignant reminder of the devastation, suffering and loss experienced in a conflict that began 100 years ago. Featuring blackened water and Iris sibirica (both widely employed at this year’s Chelsea), Charlotte Rowe’s brooding pool represented a crater left by an exploded bomb.

'No Man's Land' desgined by Charlotte Rowe

‘No Man’s Land’, designed by Charlotte Rowe

My ‘most read’ post of the year was my write up of The Telegraph Garden designed by Tommaso del Buono and Paul Gazerwitz. When I look back on my photographs I love this garden just as much, if not more, than I did back in May. Those saturated greens and cool blues are right up my street, and I admire the careful balance achieved between structure and informality. It’s not a garden I’d care to maintain – too much precision trimming required – but I could enjoy it endlessly, especially with a glass of Veuve Cliquot in hand.

Style and substance - The Telegraph Garden designed by del Buono Gazerwitz

Style and substance – The Telegraph Garden designed by del Buono Gazerwitz

Later that week, with my Aussie friend Helen, I visited Sissinghurst once again, but it was lesser known Goodnestone Park (pronounced ‘Gunston’) that captured my companion’s imagination. It may have been the roses, it may have been the bucolic vegetable garden, or it may have been the chatty head gardener, but we came away thoroughly inspired by this magical Kent garden and appreciated the relative absence of other visitors.

All set for the season ahead, the kitchen garden at Goodnestone Park, Kent

All set for the season ahead, the kitchen garden at Goodnestone Park, Kent

June saw us visit Amsterdam, me for the first time, to enjoy the city’s open garden weekend. We were blessed with great weather and found the whole event a fantastic introduction to Dutch garden style. Approximately 30 gardens opened their gates to the public, varying from grand museums to small domestic plots. For anyone challenged by narrow, shaded or dry spots it’s great to see what others have achieved in the same conditions, and the refreshments on offer aren’t bad either. Amsterdam’s gardens open once again in 2015, June 19 to June 21 inclusive.

The narrow garden at Singel 124, Amsterdam

The narrow garden at Singel 124, Amsterdam

Late June brought upheaval to our London garden when we embarked on the particularly ill-timed construction of raised vegetable beds, utilising a spot which had been neglected for a couple of years. Furthest away from the building, the designated spot receives plenty of sun, so we chose to incorporate seating for those balmy summer evenings. Despite having to lug over 300 bags of topsoil and compost through the flat, we had it planted up and ready to go by the second week in July. Although the sweetcorn and courgettes didn’t quite hit the mark, we enjoyed as many herbs, tomatoes, salad leaves and beans as we could eat.

Various forms of lighting mean that we can enjoy the garden in the evenings

Various forms of lighting mean that we can enjoy the garden in the evenings

Hampton Court Palace Flower Show was excellent this year and I declared Paul Martin’s exceptional garden, entitled ‘Vista’, my best in show. It had all the elements I love in a garden – generous entertaining space, ebullient planting, modern materials and close attention to detail. The cantilevered table was to die for, although if I were the host I’d have been topping up those glasses of rosé pronto. It was good to see Australia represented again at an RHS show, after we waved goodbye to Flemings at Chelsea in 2013. Jim Fogarty showcased the diversity of Australian flora in a garden full of colour and movement.

For a garden with such a rosé outlook, the glasses were not quite half full

For a garden with such a rosé outlook, the glasses were not quite half full

Essence of Australia celebrates the beauty and diversity Victoria and Northern Territory Flora

‘Essence of Australia’ celebrated the diversity of Victoria and Northern Territory Flora

One thing had been on my mind all year, and that was the opening of our garden for the National Garden Scheme. It seemed such a good idea when our friend Beth suggested it back in September 2013, but as the big day approached the pressure mounted. Sometimes the moon and stars align and this was one such occasion. The sun shone, the flowers bloomed (many for the first time this year) and the people came – 220 of them in the space of 2 days. What struck us was how friendly, kind and considerate all our visitors were and how far people were prepared to travel to see a garden measuring just 20ft x 30ft. When the sums were done we had raised almost £700 for the NGS charities, which is an amazing figure. None of this would have happened were it not for a small band of people who publicised the opening and helped out on the gate and selling refreshments. We’ll be opening The Watch House again in 2015 on August 1 and 2 and hope for another fine turnout.

The Watch House Garden in August 2014, 6 Years after creation

The Watch House Garden in August 2014, ready for opening

The garden was thronged with visitors on both days

The garden was thronged with visitors on both days

The men with the money, Nigel, James and Simon man the front gate

The men with the money, Nigel, James and Simon manned the front gate

September was a sad month, marked by the passing of my last remaining grandparent. Granny Cooper was not a great gardener but loved to be outdoors, either walking or, in later years, sitting in my parents’ garden. In perfect partnership with my grandpa for over 70 years before his death, I like to believe they are now together again, enjoying each others’ company over a steaming cup of tea and slice of lemon drizzle cake. Granny Cooper loved the colour yellow so these roses are for her:

It's not over yet for these miniature floribunda roses

Vera Cooper: 7 June 1920 – 1 September 2014

Late summer was not without its happier moments. We enjoyed three nights of luxury at Hotel Endsleigh, Devon in a room that looked out over the magnificent long border, reputedly the longest unbroken expanse of herbaceous planting in England. Whilst other guests arrived by helicopter, we had to make do with conventional wheels. Soft top down, we crossed the county to visit Cliffe and Gill Heavens, fellow blogger and author of Off The Edge Gardening. Now there is a garden with a view and a gardener with a wealth of knowledge.

The long border is planted to give hotel guests enjoyment throughout the growing season

Hotel Endsleigh’s long border is planted to give guests enjoyment throughout the growing season

The garden at Cliffe (now closed to the public) overlooks the sublime Lee Bay

The garden at Cliffe (now closed to the public) overlooks sublime Lee Bay

As usual, most of October was spent working in China, so it was great to return to two gardens still going strong. Having been blighted with mildew through the summer, Clematis ‘Madame Julia Correvon’ came into her own in October and was still blooming on Christmas Day. She was joined by Anemone ‘Wild Swan’ and Eomecon chionantha, otherwise known as the snow poppy, despite normally blooming in May and June.

A lady with staying power - Clematis 'Madame Julia Correvon'

A lady with staying power – Clematis ‘Madame Julia Correvon’

Most of December was spent in bed, not relaxing, but recovering from a succession of unwelcome bugs. For the most part it was a month I’d rather forget, but by Christmas Day I was well enough to pose with Him Indoors for our traditional festive self portrait. You will spot on the right of the photograph a miniature greenhouse I bought for myself on a recent trip to Holland. Well, Father Christmas took the hint and delivered (albeit in 100 pieces) a tiny, lean-to greenhouse; the sort that stands against a wall but that one can’t actually go inside. It’s perfect for what I need and will allow me to start sweet peas early, bring on seedlings and give tender plants a little additional protection. All I need is time to put it together, and before I know it there won’t be an inch of staging left unoccupied.

Thank you for reading this post and for joining me on my trip down memory lane. The going was a little rough at times and my suspension almost failed, but as 2015 approaches I can see open road ahead. I hope the same goes for you. Happy New Year!

A Happy New Year from The Frustrated Gardener and Him Indoors

A Happy New Year from The Frustrated Gardener and Him Indoors

Simply Red

Red amaryllis (hippeastrum), Christmas 2014

For that essential splash of Christmas red there is nothing quite like amaryllis. Poinsettias are passé and carnations a cliché, so I like to be bold and plump for ostentatious amaryllis when decorating for the festive season. Botanical correctness (of which I am fond but frequently uncertain) requires me to point out that these sizzling South American sirens should properly be referred to as hippeastrums. However, as that’s a bit of a mouthful most gardeners continue to use the generic term ‘amaryllis’.

Having grown amaryllis from bulbs and bought them as a cut flower I am rather torn as to which to recommend. Growing from bulbs has its rewards and is, of course, the only correct thing for a proper gardener to do. In return for very little effort, leafless flower stems emerge quickly, producing their flowers 4-8 weeks after planting. Avoid awful gimmicks, like bulbs coated in coloured wax (completely unnecessary), but do buy the very largest bulbs you can from a reputable source. Although not the cheapest I have found Living Colour Bulbs to consistently send out bulbs of an exceptional size, each producing 2 or 3 strong flowers stems. Home cultivated blooms last extremely well if kept on the cooler side but may need staking to ensure they don’t buckle under their own weight. However it’s what happens after flowering that’s the decider between home cultivation and florist. If you have time, patience and space to nurse amaryllis through the year then it is worth doing, but if you’re restricted for room then cut flowers cost almost the same and last an equivalent amount of time. For example, a single large bulb of Hippeastrum ‘Royal Velvet’ cost me £10 and produced 3 flower stalks, whereas a single cut stem of the scarlet hybrid below cost just £3 from our local flower stall and lasted the same amount of time. A good trick is to insert a stick into the hollow cavity of each stem to support the flowers as they open. The green, split-cane type are perfect. Equally, surrounding the blooms with pussy willow twigs in a vase will create a protective framework.

Loud and proud, the bold blooms of a scarlet Hippeastrum

Loud and proud, the bold blooms of a scarlet hippeastrum

Should you decide to grow your own, then plant each bulb in a pot only slightly larger than the bulb itself. This is for two reasons. Firstly the bulb will produce very few roots before flowering so does not need a lot of compost. Secondly a tight fit will help prevent the bulb from tipping over when the hefty flowers open.

Amaryllis are tender bulbs and so need to be started off indoors in a warmish room (21°C) any time between November and April. Use a soil-based compost such as John Innes No.2 and leave two-thirds of the bulb protruding above the surface. Water very sparingly at first, as the bulbs will mainly use their own moisture reserves to produce their display of stunning flowers. Only when the leaves start to appear after flowering should you begin watering regularly. Turn pots frequently to ensure the flower stems grow straight, and once the buds begin to open move to a cooler spot (about 15–18°C) which will help the flowers last longer.

When flowering is over it’s decision time. Either throw the bulbs out and start again in November or accept the challenge and nurse them through the spring and summer ready to flower again. The best advice is to start feeding with a liquid fertiliser once the strappy leaves appear and move the bulbs to a heated greenhouse followed by a shady spot outside in summer. Continue to water regularly. In late September stop watering and allow the plants to dry out and die back. The bulbs should then be kept in a cool, dark place (a shed or garage will do) for 4-6 weeks before bringing them back indoors into a light position and resuming light watering.

It sounds easy, and it is, but watch out for a fungal disease which causes dark red spots and streaks on the amaryllis’ leaves. If your bulbs become infected, my advice is to throw them out (not on the compost heap) and begin again.

If all of this sounds a bit much, then your local florist will be more than happy to supply you with beautiful blooms, although your choice of colours will be restricted. At their most extensive, amaryllis can be found in purest white, through apple-blossom pink to fuchsia, bright red and deepest vermillion, with all sorts of colour combinations and doubles in between. But for me there’s only one colour and that’s, quite simply, red. 

Blooming Boxing Day

Narcissus 'Rijnveld's Early Sensation' greets us on our Boxing Day walk

Even by London standards it’s been an exceptionally mild start to winter. Our traditional Boxing Day walk from Highgate to Hampstead revealed dahlias in full spate, rioting red geraniums and walls festooned with Jasminum polyanthum, all blooming cheek-by-jowl with seasonal clumps of Lenten rose (Helleborus niger) and the bejewelled stems of Viburnum x bodnantense.

Viburnum x bodnantense manages to look fresh and vital even in the depths of winter

Viburnum x bodnantense manages to look fresh and vital even in the depths of winter

The biggest surprise of the day was a carpet of daffodils (I believe Narcissus ‘Rijnveld’s Early Sensation’, thank you Chloris!) outside a house in Merton Lane near Hampstead Heath. They were accompanied by snowdrops and the pale purple buds of Crocus tommasinianus. It’s a scene I’d have expected to see in March rather than December, and a sign of just how much the seasons have shifted in recent years.

Narcissus 'Rijnveld's Early Sensation' greets us on our Boxing Day walk

Narcissus ‘Rijnveld’s Early Sensation’ greets us on our Boxing Day walk

On the heath itself the landscape was much more as one might expect: damp, bare and dun-coloured. Every muddy pathway was thronged with the well-to-do, resplendent in Barbour jackets, Hunter wellies and ill-advised bobble hats. During winter nature’s beauty is often found in the detail – in the tenacious strands of ivy clinging to every branch; in the dry, copper-coloured leaves of oak and beech still clinging on for dear life; and in the thickets of flaming bramble leaves guarding the damp ground beneath.

Common ivy, clinging tightly to the trunk of a sapling on Hampstead Heath

Common ivy clinging tightly to the trunk of a sapling on Hampstead Heath

The undergrowth was ablaze with bramble leaves

The undergrowth ablaze with technicolor bramble leaves

Reaching Hampstead we sought out Mansfield Place, a hidden pathway between two rows of picture-perfect cottages. In one garden a dark-leaved camellia was studded with white flowers of astonishing purity, as white and waxy as any tropical gardenia.

What’s for certain is that winter’s wrath is just around the corner. We’ll soon either be deluged with rain or frozen to the bone, so we must count our blessings and enjoy nature’s unexpected gifts whilst we may.

Purity itself, an early blooming white camellia

Purity itself, an early blooming white camellia in Mansfield Place, Hampstead

All Hands On Decs

Our coastal Christmas tree, December 2014

Inspired by my judging role on Channel 4’s Kirstie’s Handmade Christmas, I decided that we should have a second Christmas tree this year, at our seaside home. Everything about it would be in stark contrast to the towering 14ft Nordmann fir we have in London, which is decked with thousands of newfangled LEDs and a collection of cherished glass baubles accumulated over the years. It is spectacular, but looks the same every year. I felt it was time to break with tradition and try something different on a smaller scale.

To start with, the new tree would be an artificial one, the first I have deigned to own. It was not cheap, but looks exceptionally realistic, just like Picea pungens, the blue spruce. The needles are a lovely silver-gray colour, highlighted white underneath, with the branches arranged to create a naturalistic outline. For the decorations I chose a loosely coastal theme, inspired by Riikka Kemppainen’s magnificent Scandi-seaside tree which triumphed in Kirstie’s festive show. It was a rare occasion indeed when Him Indoors and I sat down together and made yards of bunting from sisal and tissue paper, followed by snowflake garlands from a kit I bought in New York. We’d normally have fallen out with each other in minutes, but somehow the Christmas spirit saw us through.

These little boats remind me of the ones that bob about in Broadstairs harbour

These little boats remind me of the ones that bob about in Broadstairs’ harbour

I dug out all our old incandescent fairy lights, including a twinkling set, and used these to illuminate the tree. I had forgotten what a beautiful glow old-fashioned bulbs emit, each light surrounded by a comforting, warm halo.

Fantastic Mr Fox

Fantastic Mr Fox

I can’t claim that we made all the decorations ourselves, but I can say that someone else did. In a break with tradition there’s not a single glass decoration on the tree and most are fashioned from needle felt, pewter or wood. I am in love with Mr Fox (above), carrying his little swag bag, and his friend Mr Raccoon who appears to be wearing red braces and reading a map. And why not? Tiny hummingbirds with glittery beaks flit from branch to branch in a vain search for nectar – perhaps Mr Raccoon will point them in the right direction when my back is turned.

Are you lost Mr Raccoon?

Are you lost Mr Raccoon?

My favourite decorations are three blanket-stitched felt geese (or could they be seagulls or swans?) that were made in Kyrgyzstan. They are large, floppy and have a purposeful look in their eyes. I hope they enjoy overwintering in Broadstairs.

A goose visiting Broadstairs from its summer home in Krygyzstan

An elegant goose visits Broadstairs from its summer home in Krygyzstan

To complete the theme there are charming little lacquered boats purchased in Saigon, tempting felt apples found years ago in Tallinn, and pewter mistletoe bundles bought at Blenheim on the day of filming. Our new tree represents so much more than festive decoration, and is already imbued with happy memories. Over the coming years I hope we’ll add to our new tree, always abiding by the handmade or one-off principle. I have grand ideas about knitting a set of Fair Isle baubles for next year: miracles do happen, especially at Christmas!

Wherever you are and whatever you are up to, I hope you have a Joyful Christmas and a Happy, Healthy New Year.

Merry Christmas!

Our homely homemade Christmas tree

Our homely ‘homemade’ Christmas tree