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2016 Meeting Reports

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2016 Meetings

NOVEMBER: Plants that should be Better Known

Kathy Crouch

In her talk to the Garden Society in November, Kathy Crouch not only introduced plants that should be better known, she also pointed out why these are plants that a typical garden centre is unlikely to stock.  Take the ‘Big Beasties’ on her list – too tall and too floppy to be easily packed in racks.  Yet tall campanulas, rosebay willow herb in its white form (epilobium) and inula magnifica, a deep-rooting, majestic yellow daisy flower with huge leaves, are all magnificent flowering perennials.  Short-lived flowers are also not popular with garden centres, which want their stock to flower and look good for long periods.  These include aquilegias – not the common pinkish-purple varieties that seed themselves in abundance in St Briavels gardens, but a much nicer aquilegia longissima with trumpet-shaped, lemon yellow flowers.  Slow growing shrubs take years to reach a saleable size.  The beautiful daphne odora aureomarginata, winter or early spring flowering with a wonderful fragrance and pale edgings to the leaves, takes years to reach just a few feet tall. And only attractive looking plants have a place in garden centres.  Some plants in their young form are what Kathy called ‘ugly babies’.  The Cornus controversa variegata, the wonderful ‘wedding cake tree’, is just a spindly twig until it reaches a certain size and starts to branch. 

The important message behind her talk was that independent nursery growers are producing and stocking a much wider range of attractive plants than the narrow, commercially orientated range sold by the big garden centres.  Much of their stock is imported from other European countries.  In a quick internet search, I read about the problems of importing plants – the dangers of bringing plant diseases and pests into the country, the greater vigour and viability of plants raised in British weather conditions, fewer plant miles and support for the British horticultural system.  So, next time you pick up a plant at the garden centre, stop to check the label first to find out where it has come from.               

 Sue Young

Our 2016 AGM was held at the November meeting. *Click the link below to read the meeting minutes

OCTOBER: A Seed Evening - Seed Saving Made Simple

Adam Alexander

Adam Alexander, our local vegetable growing expert, returned to the garden society to talk this time about saving vegetable seed.  As a Heritage Seed Library guardian, Adam grows between 70-90 varieties of vegetable every year in order to donate seed to the library.  These varieties may be old commercial varieties that have been dropped from the seed growers’ catalogues or they may be heirloom varieties, handed down through the generations in old country house gardens or on allotments.  In his travels to many countries as a documentary film maker, Adam has visited vegetable markets and returned home with peas, beans, chillies, tomatoes, tucked in the corners of his suitcase to add to his vegetable seed collection.  Included in his travels was a trip to Syria, just as the conflict began, and he has been able to save seed threatened by the disruption to small-scale horticulture. 

Adam is passionate about peas!  He explained that, 100 years ago, it would have been possible to buy over 450 varieties of pea.  Today, this number has reduced to a mere 20-30.  And this sorry story is repeated for many other types of vegetable and cereal crops.  Modern farming practices are largely to blame.  The reduction of varieties has potentially serious consequences because genetic diversity is being lost.  For example 1,000s of varieties of wheat have all but disappeared and modern, intensively grown wheat crops are increasingly threatened by fungal diseases.  Some of the old and rare varieties may carry genetic resistance to disease, if researchers can find them.  It is clearly far better to control disease with genetic diversity rather than with fungicides.  

Again, as commercial growing increasingly dominates, qualities that suit the commercial grower are being emphasised.  Peas are grown to be dwarf and crop all at once.  The home grower wants a long cropping period and can provide supports for tall and heavy cropping varieties. Adam reminded us that many old and traditional pea varieties have multiple purposes, can be cropped as mangetout, as fresh shelled peas and then stored as a dry pea, thus yielding over a long period.   

It is a myth that seed cannot be kept year on year, but it must be stored dry and cold.  To emphasise this point, Adam showed photos of his two fridges in an outhouse stashed full of jars, bags and packets of seed.  Ensure any home-saved seed is thoroughly dried by placing the seed in a small muslin bag in an airtight box containing silica gel or some dry rice for 2 or 3 days (both will absorb any residual moisture).   

For more information Adam maintains an active blog – veggingoutwithadam.co.uk 

 Saving tomato seed

·       Select a very ripe tomato
·       Cut up and scoop out the seeds
·       Remove pulp through a sieve
·       Rinse well
·       Leave seed to ferment in a jar for a few days (to remove a natural germination inhibitor)
·       Rinse again and spread on to silicon paper (baking parchment) to dry
·       Leave to dry in a warm, airy place – not in full sun
·       Place seeds in a muslin bag in a tub of silica gel or rice to desiccate them
·       Store in an airtight box in the fridge

 Sue Young

SEPTEMBER: 21st Century Cottage Gardens

Sally Gregson

Most people are likely to agree on what we mean by a cottage garden and most to love what we think of as cottage garden style. Sally Gregson began her talk by reminding us that the original cottage gardens were very different. Indeed, for those living in cottages, a garden was not even an option until they were able to afford to fence in an area of land around them. Cottage gardens were primarily places to produce food but herbs and some flowers were grown as well. The familiar representation of the cottage garden in painting, complete with hollyhocks and roses round the door, was more a product of artists’ imaginations than observation from life.

Nevertheless, towards the end of the 19th Century, the formal bedding of the country house estate garden began to be replaced by deep beds of luxuriously flowering mixed perennials, which we recognise as cottage garden style. Hugely influential in this change were William Robinson, who advocated a naturalistic approach and Gertrude Jekyll, whose colour schemes were revolutionary and still fascinate us today. Such approaches were imitated by the rising middle class in their more modest gardens and helped to define the quintessentially English garden style. In the 20th Century, Sally identified the major contributions of Vita Sackville West at Sissinghurst and Christopher Lloyd at Great Dixter to the development of the cottage garden tradition, showing us some wonderful photographs to illustrate the development of these iconic gardens.

Moving into the 21st Century, with gardens becoming smaller, labour more expensive and greater environmental awareness, where do cottage gardens go next? Sally ended by showing us a photograph of ‘one of the best gardens I have ever seen’ – small, densely planted in a naturalistic style, totally contemporary but still containing the essential cottage garden elements: plants centre-stage, creating the design, informality and minimal use of hard landscaping. 

Christine Haines

MAY: Making the Most of a Small Garden

Mary Payne MBE

Mary  Payne  is  Somerset's  celebrated  horticulturalist,  garden  designer  and  lecturer  and  has  won  a gold  medal  at  both  Hampton  Court  and  Chelsea.  She  addressed  a  large  gathering  of  members  and guests  of  the  Garden  Society  on  Friday  20  May,  explaining  that  although  her  talk  title  referred  to small  gardens  the  principles  apply  equally  to  individual  areas  within  larger  gardens. 

Mary  firstly  suggested  some  advantages  and  disadvantages  of  a  small  garden  over  a  large  one. The  main  advantages  being  that it's less  time  consuming  and  lower  cost.  Her  disadvantages  included rather  a  long  list,  namely:  no  space  to  manoeuvre  or  grow  everything  you  want,  every  blemish shows,  cannot  (or  should  not)  submit  to  impulse  buying  and  plants  may  not  be  long  lived  due  to competition.  Consequently  you  need  to  scale  down  your  ambitions,  for  example  use  a  sink  instead of  a  rockery,  an  arch  instead  of  a  pergola  and  a  cold  frame  rather  than  a  greenhouse.  Although Mary  did  go  on  to  explain  that  she  has  now  managed  to  squeeze  in  a  greenhouse  into  her  own small  garden  and  is  very  pleased  with  the  result. 

One  of  Mary's  strong  recommendations  was  to  use  a  mowing  strip  to  edge  lawns,  such  as  a  row  of bricks  or  narrow  patio  slabs.  This  makes  for  easier  mowing  and  also  creates  a  permanent  edge  to stop  plants  encroaching  on  the  lawn.  The  overall  boundary  is  also  important  for  a  small  garden:  A hedge  can  take  up  a  lot  of  space  as  well  as  taking  water  and  nutrients.  A  six  foot  fence  would  make the  area  feel  small  whereas  a  four  foot  fence  with  a  trellis  is  a  good  compromise  between  light  and privacy.  If  possible  make  use  of  "borrowed  landscape",  for  example  by  using  a  picket  fence  which you  can  see  through  to  the  garden  or  open  space  beyond. 

Paths  in  a  small  garden  should  be  narrow.  Grass  should  be  avoided  and  instead  use  paving,  gravel or  bark.  Consider  using  stepping  stones  through  planted  areas.  You  need  a  focal  point  in  the garden  and  this  can  be  provided  by  an  ornament,  a  seat  or  even  a  large  urn.  Lighting  can  be magical  but  is  expensive.  Mirrors  give  the  illusion  of  space  but  can  be  a  hazard  for  birds.  You should  also  provide  as  many  sitting  areas  as  possible. 

Plant  selection  is  important  as  you  cannot  have  as  many  as  in  a  large  garden  or  in such  large  groups. Consider  layering  plants  to  give  succession  from  the  same  space.  Avoid  dwarfs  which  might become  swamped  and,  of  course,  spreaders.  Choose  plants  for  their  foliage  and  possibly  tall  see-through  plants  such  as  Verbena  bonariensis.  Bulbs  can  be  used  effectively  to  extend  the  season. Shrubs  can  be  grown  in  black  pots  and  then  moved  into  borders  when  they  are  at  their  best.  A good  example  for  this  is  Hydrangea  paniculata.  Choose  non-invasive  perennials  that  are  not  self seeders.  A  good  plant  for  its  foliage  is  Sanguisorba  hakusanensis  'lilac  squirrel'  or  for  pots  Roscoea purpurea.  Annuals  are  also  a  useful  addition  -  one  of  Mary's  favourites  is  the  California  poppy. 

Mary  believes  a  lawn  is  important  but  it  should  be  of  good  colour  and  weed  free.  Even  artificial grass  is  a  possibility  as  the  quality  is  now  very  good. Mary  finished  her  talk  by  showing  examples  of  small  garden  layouts  and  then  her  own  excellent   garden  which  has  over  500  different  plants.  The  garden  is  opened  under  the  NGS  on  29  June  and 12  July  but  visits  are  by  appointment  only  (due  to  its  size!).  Please  contact  Mary  on  01275  333146 to  book  a  time.

Mike Weeks

APRIL: Gardening Myths and Misconceptions

Charles Dowding

Charles Dowding’s expertise as a vegetable gardener is well known and his talk to the Garden Society attracted a large audience keen to hear his advice.  Charles explained that many traditional vegetable growing methods evolved in Victorian gardens where, with the advantage of large teams of gardeners, crops could be grown under labour-intensive methods.  

As a commercial grower himself, he has needed to find labour-reducing methods.  By trial and error and careful comparison of cropping yields and quality, he can demonstrate the effectiveness of the methods of cultivation he has gradually evolved on his plots. Famous for his ‘no dig’ approach, Charles does, however, rely on large quantities of well rotted farmyard or horse manure which he lays very thickly on the undug soil, planting directly into this medium.  He even sows his seed potatoes by laying them on the ground (weeds and all) and covering with manure.  Not disturbing the soil too much carries many benefits, he explained. 

Charles discussed and dispelled many vegetable growing myths.  I have picked out some key ones to list in this short write-up: 

  • Don’t bother with hardening off!  Rather than create the extra work of gradually hardening off his young greenhouse-raised plants, Charles plants them out straight from the greenhouse and then covers with fleece.
  • Put it all on the compost heap!  Perennial roots and blighted crops must not, conventional advice tells us, be put on the compost heap.  But roots will die and rot down and blight can only survive on living plant tissue and so does not persist in the compost heap.
  • Pick and come again’: Rather than sowing salad crops at short, regular intervals, Charles recommends sowing every 2-3 months and carefully picking of outer leaves (not cutting).  Managed in this way, leaf crops will produce for 12 weeks.  
  • Pricking out: Prick out seedlings into modules, burying the stem as deep as possible and coiling the long seed root if necessary.  Don’t worry about keeping the root straight.  This produces sturdier plants. 
  •  Watering: Wait to water seed trays in the greenhouse until they look dry on the surface  - don’t follow a regular ‘once a day’ watering routine but look and judge when to water.  Allow water to spray onto the leaves as this helps to toughen up the plants.  Outdoors, it is a myth that leaves will scorch if watered on a sunny day, and Charles waters in the middle of the day if needed. 
  • Tomatoes grown indoors: Charles spreads compost on the ground and doesn’t give additional feed to his tomatoes.  He pointed out that producers of commercial tomato feed have a vested interest in encouraging gardeners to use their product regularly!  Also, he only de-leafs the bottom of tomatoes plants for easier watering, but leaves the bulk of the leaves to feed the growing tomatoes.  On August 10th, precisely! – he pinches out the top of the tomatoes to encourage ripening. 
  • Compost for root crops:  It is a myth that turnips and carrots grown in composted soil will fork.  Root crops grown by his ‘no-dig’ method, straight into the layer of surface manure, were larger and straighter than a comparison crop grown in soil that had been dug. 

Sue Young

PS: Two of our members are growing vegetables in the allotments behind the Brockweir Village Shop, inspired by his no dig approach. In his April Blog, Charles mentioned the work done there to clear the land and included some photos: http://www.charlesdowding.co.uk/april-2016/

Annual Spring Flower Competition: the Winners!

The annual Spring Show on 1 April took place a little later than usual - and because the midwinter had been mild, we included tulip classes alongside the daffodils, thinking that they would be in flower and the daffodils on the wane. As it happened,
daffodils were in full flower, with many entries to the two daffodil classes and just one lonely vase of tulips.  In all the classes, there were well over 50 entries this year (more than ever). The entries are judged informally by the speaker, Charles Dowding, and the winners listed below – but the main aim of the show is to take pleasure in the wonderful display of Spring flowers.           

The classes and winners were as follows

1. 5 Single daffodils: Bob Broughton

2. 5 Miniature daffodils: Jackie Healy 

3. 3 tulips in a vase (any variety): Chrissy Birch

4. Tulips growing in a pot or bowl: no entries

5. A pot of any other Spring flowering bulbs: Bob Broughton 

6. 1 stem of a flowering shrub: Sue Young

7. 5 different Spring blooms: Bob Broughton 

8. 3 heads of hellebore floating on water - 1 or more variety: Jackie Healy 

9. 1 primula in a pot - any type: Christine Haines

10. A novelty, something of interest, something unusual: Sue Burrows


FEBRUARY: The Big, the Bold and the Beautiful - Late Summer Colour

Derry Watkins

Derry Watkins runs the nursery, ‘Special Plants’, just outside Bath beside the converted barn and ‘special’ garden where she lives.  Her talk to the garden society focussed on late Summer flowering plants – those that flower in July, August and September.  An advantage of later flowering plants is that in early Summer they are growing hard with generous and attractive foliage while their Spring flowering neighbours are starting to look past their best.  A garden designers’ tip is to grow two-thirds later flowering plants and only one third early flowerers, placing these more centrally in borders so that their scruffiness is soon covered over.  Derry’s knowledge of flowering plants, particularly tender and less well known plants, is considerable and in her talk she introduced members to a long list of plants she recommends.  Since she grows all these in her own garden she was able to illustrate her talk with attractive photos and hands-on information about where they thrive and how best to cultivate them.  

The full list is posted here. All her recommended flowering plants can be purchased from the Special Plants nursery, either as plants if you visit in person (well worth the trip, particularly on a Tuesday afternoon when the garden is open) or as seeds which can be purchased online http://www.specialplants.net/shop/seeds/ We’ve also posted the list of seeds

Sue Young

JANUARY: On the Wild Side: Keith Wiley

Under Keith Wiley’s 25-year stewardship as the head gardener, the Garden House in Buckland Monochorum, Devon – begun by Lionel Fortescue in the 1940s – became one of the most innovative gardens in England.  In his talk to the garden society Keith explained how he took inspiration from the wildflower-rich landscapes that he visited in Crete, South Africa and the USA, and, pioneering his own methods of cultivation, created naturalistic planting schemes.  In later years, he annexed new areas of garden, landscaping and planting in his distinctive style, always with an eye to the Devon landscape beyond the garden. 

In 2003, he moved to a new four-acre site, just over the road from the Garden House, then a young cider apple orchard.  What attracted him to this site was the light. 'The Garden House is north-facing, and doesn’t get any sun in winter. By contrast, this site faces south, there are no big trees, just wide expanses of sky.  Good light promotes much better flowering and richer colours’.

The new garden he has created at Wildside could be described as naturalistic in style, but Keith has taken it to a whole new level – or depth one could say - since his new garden started with a mini-digger and massive excavations.  He undertook this huge landscaping task himself, digging deep ravines and valleys and piling up hills and banks of soil.  In this way, plants can be given just the right location, soil type and amount of light or shade - sheltered nooks for tender plants, perfect drainage for sun-loving plants, cool shady spots for woodland plants and damp pond edges for moisture-loving plants.  The other benefit of this landscaping on such a colossal scale has been the viewpoints created, looking up or down the steep banks.  While the glorious photos of Wild Side in recent years and Keith’s enthusiastic explanations make it seem straightforward, in truth a deep knowledge of plant growing habits, a wonderful imagination and a very good eye for colour, shape and form underpin the garden design at Wildside and its planting.

Keith explained his guiding principles.  He talked about his growing conviction, while at the Garden House, that gardening is too tied to historic traditions of cultivating ornamental plants with intensive practices, very like vegetable growing, which depend on being able to employ a large number of gardeners.  Gardening practices look back to the past and are not looking forward.  Ignore the gardening ‘rules’ for plant spacings and groupings, and experiment with colour and plant combinations.  Instead of having blocks of one plant against another and avoiding colours that jar, he mixes individual plants, allowing them to grow into one another and the overall effect works well.  There are, he explained, a wealth of gardening ideas to be found in nature.  By observing natural landscapes, whether local or in far-off places, taking the elements, modifying them to suit the Devon climate and plant types, he has created new garden ideas. He spoke of the ‘density and diversity’ that is found in natural landscapes, particularly in flower meadows, and seeks to create the same effect, not necessarily with the same flowers, but with look-alikes. I found all of this fascinating, listening to someone so creative and passionate about gardening - but suspect it is much harder than it sounds to make it work well.

Sue Young