Gardening Journalist

Articles about Roddy LLewellyn, and snippets from Roddy's own articles.

Cotswold Life Articles - GREEN FINGERS by Roddy Llewellyn

Examples of Roddy Llewellyn's Gardening Journalism Archive


A spot of winter cheer

Think carefully about planning your planting to extend the season up until the first frosts, says Roddy Llewellyn

BY THE END of August I was seriously thinking about buying a boat which I was going to call Noah's Ark II. If, I said to myself, this rain doesn't stop, I will at least be able to row to safety, to dry land afforded by Brailes Hill, my local Mount Arrarat, a mile or two away. But then a miracle happened in early September - the rain stopped and the sun came out! A few colourful butterflies made their first appearance this summer, roses did not brown the minute they opened, and people started to smile along with the flowers. I intend planting an olive in my sunniest, best drained part of the garden, a sprig of which may come in handy next year.

Tania and I moved to our new house in December last year. I never intended to start serious work on the garden until late summer as I have always maintained that you should live with a garden for about a year before you start making changes. After all, how can you possibly know where spring bulbs have been planted in midwinter and how all those bare-twigged trees and shrubs are going to behave in summer?

My fork has not been out of my hand since the rains abated. Digging has been heavy work on wet, compacted ground, the first time I have managed to attack it since the builders left along with their heavy machines. As the tines plunge in I can hear the soil whispering thanks for allowing oxygen back into it. Unearthed spring bulbs were immediately replanted in clean ground and fat, white bindweed roots carefully placed into the bonfire bucket. Once a patch of ground was hand-cleaned I sprinkled it with ash from the bonfire, an efficacious (and free) source of potash, to encourage future inmates to flower all the more next season.

As I look around the garden in late summer I see that I am rewarded with several dollops of welcome colour, something that not every garden has to give. This is because its previous owners thought about planting for late summer/autumn colour to extend the season for as long as possible, right up until the first frosts. As things stand, the main stars of the border are reliably perennial Michaelmas Daisies of various hues, and Verbena bonariensis, with its splendid lilacpurple flowers on stems as tall as 2m/6ft, a plant that does not always survive the British winter because its natural habitat is Argentina and Brazil. My plan is to collect further invaluable plants to cheer me as winter approaches every year. These will include Leucanthemella serotina, a native to S.E. Europe, whose (1.5m/5ft) tall stems burst out with a profusion of daisy-like, white, yellow-centred flowers in September. Because of its height this is a perfect subject for the back of the border. Towards the front I would choose Aster frikartii Monch with rich blue flowers, another Michaelmas daisy that became fashionable at about the same time as we entered the new Millennium and which has remained popular ever since. Helenium and Rudbeckia species are another good bet. They come in a wide range of reds, oranges and yellows, but do remember that their natural distribution is in North America where they are found growing in damp meadows. If you want to see a glorious example of a late-summer/autumn border you should go to West Dean Gardens in West Sussex, 5m N of Chichester on the A286 (Tel: 01243 818210).

There are two plants commonly sold at garden centres that should be sold with a safety warning because of their extraordinary vigour. The first is Leyland cypress which, since its relatively recent introduction, has sparked off many a neighbourly feud, sometimes followed by court proceedings, the length and breadth of the country. The second is the Russian Vine (Fallopia baldschaunica) which had been planted to scramble over a trellis framework in my garden in order to hide the oil tank. In usual fashion it had smothered several shrubs and the entire roof of the building behind it. Oil tanks do need to be hidden away (if only to prevent their contents from being stolen these days) but I am not convinced that climbers are the answer. Why not make a beast into a beauty and front it with an attractive wooden screen? A fašade of a faux summer house or shed with a pitched roof and finial and something like a gothic window, perhaps. This is how I intend hiding my oil tank from view.

The future life of fuchsias

A newly-planted garden can be likened to a freshly finished painting, but don't forget that the paint continues to move relentlessly, says Roddy Llewellyn.

I HEARD my first gardening joke from Percy Thrower, the first great TV gardener and guru of my youth, when I started as a gardening journalist in 1981, at the Shrewsbury Flower Show that same year. He pointed to a large plant in the distance and said, "That plant has a great future." It was a fuchsia of course. I laughed so much I cried. I hasten to add that I love bad jokes.

'Perce' (as he was fondly known) loved his fuchsias. I remember him telling me how he grew his magnificent, huge specimens smothered in flowers in August, from a single cutting taken in January every year. To begin with, of course, artificial heat and lighting within a greenhouse is vital during that cold time of year as the cuttings put down their roots. As the days lengthened he used to gradually increase the feeding programme using a home-made liquid feed, the result of submersing a hessian sack full of sheep droppings in an outdoor water tank for a few months in the summer. The resulting black, thin soup is strong stuff and it needs to be diluted with water if is not to burn plants' roots. In the absence of neighbouring sheep or a friendly farmer, an efficacious alternative is shop-bought, potash-rich, liquid tomato food.

One of the fascinating things about the plant kingdom is that different species of most genera, just like human beings, can vary so much physically. Fuchsias, and there are no less that 2,500 listed in the 'Plant Finder', an invaluable book for plant collector, are no exception. The sort of show fuchsias that Percy so loved, popular ingredients of hanging baskets, may prove too blousy for some, and if that is the case you may prefer the more subtle flowers of some of the hardier fuchsias. No doubt you have seen hedges of Fuchsia magellanica growing in Devon and Cornwall and the Gulf Stream fringes on the west coast. The smaller, daintier flowers of this species can be enjoyed inland gardens as well although they do demand a protected spot if they are not to be damaged by winder winds. There is a variety called 'Hawkshead' with pure white flower. It is a joy to behold.

Many of the basic principles of interior decoration apply to exterior decoration. The lawn is the carpet, climbers the curtains, hedges the walls, trees the pillars and plants the colourful ornaments, cushions and rugs. Colour coordination is a prime consideration when it comes to interior decoration, but I feel far to many gardeners worry about colours too much. There is something much purer, cleaner and almost two-dimensional when it comes to flower colours that, for the most part, they can all be thrown together to great effect. Orange indoors is, I admit, garish whereas outside, and I am thinking of the Orange Border at Chatsworth in Derbyshire, can work a dream. Yellow, however, is a famously difficult colour in the border although when mixed with silver or white, it can work a treat. If you need inspiration for colour and leaf contrast you need to look no further than the magnificent herbaceous border at Arley Hall in Cheshire.

Gardening is not all about collecting plants, the most difficult part being the decision making of where to put them within the layout you have chosen. You can read about gardening as much as you like but it is the actual growing of plants that will give you the knowledge to succeed. A newly-planted garden can be likened to a freshly finished painting. BUT the paint continues to move relentlessly. One of the best bits of advice I can give any gardener is to find out where plants come from and the sort of conditions they like. The RHS Encyclopedia of Garden Plants is extremely useful in this respect. This is particularly relevant to UK gardeners who, because we live in a sheltered island fanned by the warmth of the Gulf Stream, are able to grow a wider range of plants from all over the world than practically anywhere else on the globe.

Because the UK has a paucity of truly indigenous plants, excluding Roman introductions (which include the horse chestnut and ground elder), I reckon the average garden here to contain about 90 per cent of plants from other parts of the world. Oh yes, and resist compulsive buying. Plants in flower may look pretty in the garden centre, but where are you going to plant them when you get home?