In these days of awareness of high energy costs, when it comes to home heating, is ivy suitable for insulation (outside – obviously!) or is it a creeping menace?

I ended up talking to this chap at a party the other day. It turned out he was a planning officer. We ended up talking about home insulation. (How come I end up in these scintillating discussions?)

He said that if you really wanted to improve the insulation on your walls the cheapest way was to grow a covering of ivy. I suppose in his job he should know.

However, using ivy for insulation isn’t quite that simple. Grow ivy up your wall if it is in good condition to start with.

Ivy for insulation – only if the wall is sound

If you have crumbly mortar between the bricks then you are asking for trouble. If you have cracked or loose harling – don’t folk in England call this rendering or pebble-dashing, by the way? – then covering it is not going to improve matters.

Ivy on tree-host
Ivy on a tree-host, so that’s OK!
Ivy berries and mature leaves
Ivy berries and mature leaves

But over sound structures ivy for insulation keeps the rain and wind off the wall all year round and helps to raise the temperature. A
protected wall means less heat loss.

I wonder if you’d get a grant for it? Probably not – but joking aside, anything that makes our houses more energy efficient and costs so little to ‘install’ has to be worth looking at.

Ivy and old buildings

Ivy got its reputation for not doing walls any good simply because it is associated with old buildings and ruins. The chances are, the structures were already in decay by the time the plants took hold.

Ruinous 15th-century Cockburnspath Tower with ivy rampant
The not-very-well-known 15th-century Cockburnspath Tower, just off the A1 road, Scottish Borders. A wall collapsed here in 2011-12. Ivy getting a grip?
18th-century Craigmin Bridge near Drybridge, Moray. Designed by Robert Adam (probably). A-listed but ivy making a start here too!

Ivy clings on to vertical surfaces using aerial rootlets with matted pads. These fix themselves quite strongly to rough stone or harling allowing the plant to reach 20–30 m (66–98 ft) in favourable conditions. (Keep it out of gutters and going under roof coverings though.)

Ivy is a useful plant in a number of garden situations.
It grows just about anywhere for a start, and is especially
tolerant of shade.

What to do with ivy in the garden

You don’t even have to train it up a wall. Cover up an old tree stump or drape it over that unpleasant piece of concrete-moulded garden statuary – that gnome perhaps? – that you bought in a weak moment.

Mature plants change their leaf shape on flowering stems. Lobed leaves – what we normally think of as ivy leaves – are replaced by unlobed leaves on flowering stems exposed to lots of sunlight.

These stems produce flowers in summer and then dark bluish berries. These ripen late in the year and are appreciated by the birds, though not recommended for humans. 

Well-grown ivy makes good cover. The local blackbird produced a brood in a friend’s wall-covering ivy this year. In fact, the plant’s wildlife value is quite high, as the greenish-yellow flowers are visited by gardener-friendly hoverflies and small tortoiseshell butterflies as well.

Variegated ivy and other varieties

The leaves of this obliging climber don’t even have to be plain green. Hedera helix ‘Goldheart’ is a popular and commonly seen species with golden-yellow centres to the small leaves. It is reasonably fast growing and easy to propagate from stem cuttings in summer or autumn.

Hedera canariensis with frost damage,
Hedera canariensis (probably) – complete with frost damage. Some of the variegated ivies tend not to be quite so hardy

Some of the variegated forms tend to revert to a green leaved form. If that bothers you, then you have to get busy with the secateurs.

Other good varieties include H. colchica ‘Dentata
Variegata’, another large leafed green and yellow form, as is ‘Sulphur Heart’. And since all varieties are evergreen (or maybe ever-yellow and green), you get the bonus of winter colour as well.

However, I would be a little choosy about where you plant H. canariensis. It’s another variegated form often seen for sale but isn’t, in my experience, quite as tough as the others. According to folk lore, grow plenty of holly and ivy in your plot as a protection against witches, fire and infertility. And, as Christmas approaches, male chauvinists take note.

The folklorists also remind the chaps to take in the holly for decoration before the ivy to ensure you will be boss in the household. No, really. Och, it’s just folklore.

If you want to know more then take a look at Thermal blanketing by ivy (Hedera helix L.) can protect building stone from damaging frosts. This is a paper originally published in the weekly scientific journal Nature.


Picture the scene. Somewhere between the island of Chusan and the China coast in the middle of last century, a Chinese trading junk is being rapidly overhauled by a pirate craft, intent on robbing and sinking the vessel. The pirates sail to within twenty yards of their prey then unleash a broadside.

Suddenly, up pops a young Scotsman from the trader and rakes the pirate decks with his double-barrelled shotgun. Amid screams and bloodshed, the pirate helmsman abandons his post, his ship heels over, sails flapping, and the trading vessel escapes.

It may read like something out of a Russell Crowe movie, but in actual fact it was just one episode in the life of the plant collector Robert Fortune. He had to repeat the tactic several times to fend off pirate attack on the same voyage in the Far East.

Who said gardening was for wimps? Some of these plant hunting pioneers had to face life threatening situations to get their names on to plant labels.

Robert Fortune’s expedition to China

Chrysanthemum. The old favourite – thanks to Robert Fortune
Dicentra spectabilis ‘alba’, trying to tell me something.

Robert Fortune (1813-80) was born at Edrom, Berwickshire. He first went to China on behalf of the Royal Horticultural Society, arriving in Hong Kong in the middle of 1843.

This was quite early in Queen Victoria’s reign and royalty and all those with the money and leisure time to build grand gardens were to be amazed at what the young Fortune was to find.

By the next year he had despatched a whole wave of new plants to the Society back in London.

There were chrysanthemums and the bonnie Japanese anemones Anemone Japonica, of autumn for starters, along with winter flowering honeysuckle Lonicera fragrantissima, plus the winter flowering jasmine that’s cheery with its wee yellow flowers on bare stems.

And for spring there was Dicentra spectabilis that’s still a firm favourite today, and often called the Bleeding Heart, (unless it’s the variety ‘Alba’ – the one I happen to have!)

Another spring flowering discovery was one of the forsythias, any of which give a brilliant yellow display in spring on bare wood and are usually fully hardy given a bit of protection.

Robert Fortune and those Japanese Anemones

Robert Fortune passed through Shanghai on his travels. It was here that he collected those well-known Japanese anemones. He found them growing amongst the tombs on the ramparts of the old city.

From the same place he found the ‘blue plumbago’ Ceratostigma plumbaginoides. This is a fine plant if you can keep it going in a very sheltered spot. The blue flowers and autumn tints are the incentive – but I’ve never had any luck! It’s just too fusionless for this neck of the woods.

Japanese anemone.
White Japanese anemone
Japanese anemone, also available in white

Britain’s grubby empire wars

By the way, he was collecting mostly around Shanghai and other ‘treaty ports’ such as Amoy and Canton because this was just after the grubby episode in Britain’s Victorian mercantile activities known as the ‘Opium Wars’.

It’s when Britain went to war on behalf of drug dealers.

A humiliated China was at that point hostile to outsiders and Fortune couldn’t just wander through the land.

(This was the period when the word ‘kowtow’ came into English. It meant prostrating in front of the emperor. Naturally, this was seen as an outrage by the pompous Brits. “Rolls eyes.”)

Anyhoo, Fortune explored the island of Chusan – then under British control – finding the Chusan palm, Trachycarpus fortunei, hardiest of the palm family, and he was amazed by the way that Wisteria sinensis festooned the trees and hedgerows.

Wisteria is worth a go, if you can give it a warm wall, even in the north – though it does better in the west of Scotland.

Plant hunter in disguise

From Chusan, he also sent back the ancestor of the pompom chrysanthemum, sometimes called the Chusan daisy. He noticed another fine shrub growing in a mandarin’s garden in Chusan. This turned out to be the reliable Weigela florida, now the parent of so many other easy to grow cultivated forms of the weigela in all shades of red and pink.

Robert Fortune probably discovered this larger-flowered clematis’s parents.

At one stage he was wandering around mainland China disguised as an itinerant Chinese beggar, as the still volatile situation did not allow foreigners to travel in the interior.

He still managed to come back with a fine yellow tea rose and a white form of Wisteria sinensis, among other things.

It is thanks to his twenty years of expeditions that we enjoy some of the most rewarding plants in the garden, including notable autumn and winter flowering species.


Mr Forsyth the wily gardener

The story of Forsyth’s Plaister illustrates that when times are uncertain – whether because of pandemics or our United Kingdom’s political acts of self-harm – special government advisors sometimes appear out of the woodwork, attracted by the chance to make money.

(Yes, agreed, we’re not usually very political on this site…but you’ll see where I’m going with this…)

Here is the historical precedents. Let’s go back in time. It’s just after the American War of Independence which Britain had lost. (That was back in the days when the folk on the other side of the pond made sound decisions and got themselves clear of Westminster.)

Britain stood alone. Europe was united against her. Wait, this is starting to sound familiar.

The Dutch, Spanish and French navies were considered a threat to England’s merchant fleet and Napoleon was becoming a real bogey-man.

The Westminster government needed a strong fleet to protect its interests. Back then, warships were built of wood of course. The authorities controlling the Royal Forests went out to inspect their oak trees.

Oh horror! Many of the trees that provided the ‘wooden walls’ – that is, the navy’s warships – were found to be unsuitable for shipbuilding use, because of decay and damage.

Hearts of oak

So, a threat hung over all that ‘hearts of oak…jolly tars’ Rule Britannia stuff. The stage was set for the appearance of a consultant, an expert. Someone who had spotted an opportunity and a gullible set of politicians.

Enter one William Forsyth (born 1737). He was originally a loon fae the wee toon of Old Meldrum, north of Aberdeen. After working in Lord Aberdeen’s garden at Haddo House, he went to London at age 26. He worked his way to the job of Curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden.

From there he landed the plum job of Director of His Majesty’s Gardens at Kensington Palace. So, he was the chief gardener to King George III.

Oak trees on the avenue at Brahan estate near Inverness

Forsyth’s Plaister – wonder cure

In 1798, government committee sent for Forsyth, as he was such a prominent horticultural expert. He, meanwhile, had already been promoting an invention of his called ‘Forsyth’s Plaister’, claiming it was the very dab for re-conditioning decaying trees and healing wounds on the bark.

Forsyth’s Plaister – the recipe

Don’t try this at home. It’s messy and you’ll get a row.

Want to know how Forsyth’s Plaister was made? Right-oh. Take a bushel of fresh cow-dung and half a bushel of lime-rubbish (taken from the ceilings of rooms, ideally). Add a half bushel of wood ash and one-sixteenth bushel of river-sand. The lime, ash and sand should be sifted finely then made into a thick plaster by adding urine and soapsuds.

That’s it. A bushel, incidentally is just over 36 litres. The mixture should be thinly and evenly applied to the tree-wound or infected area. Dinna clart it on.

…good enough to fool Parliament

An inspection committee solemnly trooped round to the Kensington Palace Gardens, where, presumably, Forsyth had rigged up some display or other or healthy, healing trees. Suitably impressed, the committee went up the line to a Parliamentary Committee.

There was a certain amount of to-ing and fro-ing but the upshot was that after further re-inspection the Parliamentarians decided that Forsyth’s claims for the stuff were genuine.

Forsyth was hailed as someone who had invented something of inestimable value to the nation. Get this: he was given £1,500 as a grant plus the promise of the same again when further results were seen.

Back then, that was a lot of dosh for, basically, a pile of doo-doo, and some may even see a parallel to some of today’s government’s special advisors and their ideas.

The controversial Mr Forsyth

The publicity helped Forsyth to advertise his wonder cure widely. He also continued to investigate further ways of improving the health of trees. In a way, he had to…as doubts and question started soon afterwards concerning the value of his ‘Plaister’.

He died six years later, in 1804 with controversy still surrounding his treatment for strengthening trees. Knowledgeable gardening folk were aware that his ‘recipe’ wasn’t even especially original and owned much to other ‘traditional’ recipes for helping trees.

Thus the clever bit in Forsyth’s exercise was not only conning a naive government committee but claiming the idea was his alone. Admittedly, there are no records of him receiving the promised second half of his consultancy fees. Still, £1500 at that time would be worth perhaps as much as £70,000 today. Not bad for a load of…

Anyway, it shows the state of mind of the ministers and how worried they were that the country wasn’t going to be able to build navy ships fast enough.


Forsythia - doing its best in early March
Forsythia – doing its best in early March.

Forsythia – the shrub

And, yes, he was the gardener who gave his name to Forsythia – that cheery shrub that brightens the early spring garden with its bright yellow flowers.

I have in the past looked after a wall-trained Forsythia (probably intermedia ‘Spectabilis’) Though easy to grow, I sometimes have my doubts that some of the species are quite as hardy as the books make out.

Think carefully about where you site them, preferably away from searing (easterly) winds. Nevertheless, their golden flowers on bare twigs make a great show right at the end of winter. (Here are some more suggestions on this website for winter colour.)

As for pruning, obviously not till flowering is over and you have enjoyed a few weeks of their profuse little yellow bells. Cut out old wood low down and, if you like, shorten some of the flowering wood. But please don’t use any home-made mixtures on the cuts. Certainly nothing with the label ‘Plaister’ on it.


Scotland’s Worst Garden Pest

Do you have a wood pigeon in the garden? How things have changed. Once upon a time there was a grey doo that kept itself to itself. This pigeon lived in the forest and nibbled harmlessly on acorns, beech-mast, weed seeds and so on. It was quite an agreeable existence.

There were of course the anxieties about female sparrowhawks – and goshawks too, even bigger and more threatening. But overall, it was a quiet life in the wildwood.

Then, the forest was cut down in many places, for fields and farming. After that, about two hundred years ago, came the improvements in farming methods. Farmers started growing neeps and under-sowing clover with their grain crops.

All this stuff which stayed green through the winter meant there was a much better food supply to see the doo through the hard season. No more wee berries and weed seeds for him.

Wood pigeon in the garden
There’s something a bit brazen about this wood pigeon in the garden, calmly strolling around the grass.

Look at that food’ he said and came out of woods to live on the farmlands.

Even more recently, the agricultural trend towards oilseed rape and winter-sown cereal, has made life even easier for our pigeon friends in the winter.

The wood pigeon – it’s all over the place!

Now there are, according to some estimates, well over ten million cushie doos, or wood pigeons, if you must, in the Untied Kingdom.

They are in towns as well as out in the fields. In fact, there has been a 200+% increase in doos in urban and suburban habitats since 1995, according to British Trust for Ornithology researchers.

Worse (in a way) the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’ Big Garden Watch results for 2022 show it the fourth-commonest bird seen in the average garden – a rise of an astonishing 1133% since 1979! Eeek.

Country gardeners know them well, but these days even the cultivators of inner city plots are familiar with that crash and flap of grey wings as they are disturbed amongst the brassicas. 

Make no mistake, the extremely common woodpigeon in the garden deserves its title of the worst bird pest in Britain. 

It’s a sizeable bird, with conspicuous white wing flashes and some white markings on its neck, altogether more solid looking than your average town doo (descendants of rock doves from coastal caves).

Wood pigeon in the garden alert!

Nothing tastes sweeter to a cushie doo than the young shoots of the brassica tribe. Cabbages, sprouts, kail, broccoli – it’s all the same to this voracious feeder.

Pigeon and sparrow damage
Pigeon and sparrow damage on food crops. Don’t know why I took the net off, to be honest.

Pigeon damage is easy to tell, say, from slug, snail or caterpillar. No slimy trails for a start and the remains of the stripped off leaves have a characteristic snipped look about them.

At least, that’s what my row of young kail plants looked like.

The really annoying thing is I can’t say I actually saw the doos in amongst the plants. These were definitely dawn raiders. However, to add insult to injury, a pair started cooing and hanging around the honeysuckle that festoons an arch.

Next thing, this shambolic collection of twigs appeared, perilously perched on a supporting strut in the arch. That’s what they called a nest. It wasn’t going to win any design awards.

Now, this home-making pair certainly did not lack boldness. The nest was head-high. The path below the arch lead straight to the greenhouse, so was in daily use.

A garden-nesting wood pigeon – what next?

Nevertheless Mrs(?) Doo produced a couple of eggs – white, glossy, no-nonsense eggs – and sat tight, looking me straight in the eye as I passed. I could have reached out and touched her. I was weasel-danced into inactivity by the sheer boldness, and curious about exactly how brazen they could be.

The call of the common wood pigeon

Ah, the soothing (grrr) call of the doo. As you probably know if you have any cover at all in your own plot, the bird goes something like koo-roo-koo-roo-KUK. Well, that’s what it sounds like to me. The oddest bit is the way it stops as if in mid-syllable right at the end of its song.

It’s as if it has just remembered that it has some important pigeony task it has forgotten to finish…

Anyway, things did not end so well though for our over-friendly doo. Or perhaps they did, from a brassica point of view. I think the neighbour’s cat (usually my sworn enemy) put an end to the domesticity, and the birds moved on.

Actually, they only moved on as far as the apex of the neighbour’s roof. (Koo-roo, koo-roo etc.)

The nest was torn down by some predator. Wait, come to think of it, we also had a nearby carrion crow of growing boldness, so maybe it’s just my preference to blame the pernicious pussy-cat.

Woodpigeon on birdtable.
Wait. Wood pigeons are supposed to be put off by confined spaces and obstacles (like a roofed bird-table). Not any more they’re not.

I once lived on the edge of open country, with a thick hedge and conifers, and there were wood pigeons around in plenty.

Wood pigeons – what a racket

Back then, I couldn’t even go into the orchard without a doo or two clattering out of the branches and frightening the life out of me. (Why do they have to be so noisy?)

So I learned to take some elementary precautions. Wood pigeons in the garden back then were wary and didn’t like to walk in or walk under things to reach their chosen food.

They preferred open ground all round, so that strategically placed obstacles like branches can put them off. Or, at least, these tactics used to work.

I reckon the new breed of townie wood pigeons are actually quite tame – certainly that pair on the arch were. These urban generations are now quite accustomed to the fairly enclosed spaces of gardens.

A gallus doo

While I was filling the kettle the other day, I looked out from the kitchen window and came beak to beak with our wood pigeon – on the coal-bunker by the window-sill, if you please. He said he was just wondering when the next scattering of high-quality, high-energy nuts and seeds for birds was taking place…you know, in the sacks my wife enjoys buying. (She thoroughly recommends no-mess Peckish Complete, by the way.)

Wood pigeon on birdbath
And after the feed, what a wood pigeon in the garden wants is a nice cool drink. Oh, how these town gardens provide Scotland’s worst garden pest with everything a gallus cushie doo needs.

A race of super-pigeons?

In short, while their country cousins are still wary birds, ready to take flight as soon as you enter the field in which they are feeding, these townies have been hanging about with the streetwise local pigeons for generations now and have learned a trick or two.

Especially about getting round soft-hearted wives. And ignoring dangling CDs on threads, strategically placed twigs and those ridiculous cut-out cat-shapes with the shiny eyes.

Also, living so close to a town they know they are safe from the farmer’s gun.

Maybe I’m just feeling persecuted, but I’m beginning to think that a race of super-doos is poised in the hedge just waiting for the next batch of hardened-off broccoli to be planted out.

For the moment, I’ve laid one of those fleeces out until I get some more sticks and branches. (It’s pathetic really…) I’ve also been looking at recipes whose ingredients include pigeon, cream and a brandy sauce.

If I can’t get the vegetables off the plot, I’ll try for the meat…though somehow I can’t see that happening.

Now read about horsetails – Scotland’s wickedest weed – and get even more discouraged. (OK, only kidding…)


The very worst weed of all?

I’m nominating horsetail as the worst weed in the garden. Mind you, some of us are troubled by docks, while others are plagued by dandelions – though it’s a shame about the gardener’s war on thrawn-rooted dandelions as they provide vital food for bees in early spring.

Anyway, some gardens have too much of their share of ground elder, with its wee white roots that are so difficult to see when you’re clearing ground. My dad always referred to it as bishopweed.

ground elder with blackbird
Ground elder in the spring. (Not the blue flowers!) Ms Blackbird isn’t bothered though.

Ground elder – that’s bad enough

I am tempted to introduce a completely erroneous ‘folk etymology’ by suggesting that ‘elder’ and ‘bishop’ are connected. Depending on your religious persuasion, when you let one or the other of them in to your kirk, you can never get rid of them…Nah. That’s just a coincidence of names.

Besides, some sources say the name it bishopweed came about because, medicinally-speaking, the plant (whose Latin name is Aegopodium podagraria) was traditionally used as a medication for gout. Bishops got this ailment a lot, apparently. It was the rich feeding and drinking.

Then there’s coltsfoot…

Talking of things you can’t get rid of, long time ago in a new plot – while still a gardening novice – I once enjoyed the wee yellow spring flowers – like miniaturised dandelion heads – that turned out to be coltsfoot. It flowers before it produces leaves (like butterbur, for example).

As I didn’t know what it was back then, foolishly, I spared the coltsfoot in the bed for a season. Big mistake. I dug out coltsfoot roots, great brittle thongs, from that vegetable patch for years afterwards.

But the worst of all….

But my least favourite is horsetail, which some call mares tail and botanically speaking is Equisetum (which at least sounds like it has a horsey connection!) The plant prefers light and sandy soils.

Horsetails with early purple orchids.
I don’t fancy digging this. Fortunately, it’s a piece of waste ground. The early purple orchids (probably) are lovely but they are competing with wall-to-wall horsetail.

Given a chance to establish, horsetail will form mats of thin black tangled spaghetti (or bootlaces if you prefer an alternative metaphor) below ground. Then it pokes up its unmistakable bottle-brush heads in all sorts of inappropriate places.

When I first encountered horsetail I had moved to a new place and spent a winter morning in the garden laying slabs below a tree. I’d never come across these frightful beasties before – gardening newbie, again – and thought the black bootlaces that I had revealed were just part of the tree roots.

So I wasn’t especially careful clearing them. I just levelled the area and put down a layer of sand to bed the slabs in. By midsummer, there was a linear thicket of horsetail all round each square slab.

At the very least I should have been using weed-proof membrane.

Pesky horsetails? Bash ’em down!

In general, if you slice them off, they come back twice as dense. Back then, not knowing any better, when I had them in one of my very first gardens, I confess I resorted to a variety of coorse chemical treatments, none terribly successful.

I was later given the advice that if you bash the horsetail about a bit then chemical treatments were more effective. This is not true in my experience. However, it does make you feel slightly better to give them a sound thrashing before you try to poison them.

I’m reluctant to assign malevolence to the horsetail tribe, but there is something impudent about them. I’ve seen them erupt through beautifully laid out rock gardens and weave their gallus way through carefully planned shrub borders. In lawns, frequent cutting makes them adopt the large flat doormat look.

And once, and only once – as mentioned on the ‘why do we garden’ page I recommended to a friend to pull every single head of horsetail out of his plot before he put his house on the market. Of course that was only a temporary fix in case it put a buyer off. (I still feel guilty about that.)

Horsetails in Autumn
Horsetails going over in mid-October. Fortunately, we are in the wild again. Ugly, eh? The other plant there is woodrush.

And they go down a long way…

So, what can you do about them? I’ll get to that in a minute. I have heard that horsetail can root down about seven or eight metres, say about 25ft.

Experimentally, I once traced a black root down at least a metre and a half before giving off and swearing at it – in the certain knowledge that it would be above ground again, twice as thickly as before.

For sure, they are also an ancient tribe, amongst the oldest type of plants on earth, sometimes described as a foodplant of the dinosaurs.

Frankly, as far as I am concerned, the dinosaurs didn’t eat enough of them. Because they are rich in silica, apparently they were used to polish furniture. I mean the horsetail, not the dinosaurs.

Back then, trauchled and disheartened by this stubborn weed, I once asked an old gardener the best way to dea with them. ‘Move’, was all he replied.

So, now you know, from this ancient enemy of the tidy gardener there may be no escape, unless you leave the problem to the next plot-owner.

Oh, and here’s another pest in the garden. This one has feathers.


Irises for an early show

Come the spring, those slugs which have survived the winter by skulking under stones in the rock-garden,or under outdoor pots, stretch themselves and think about irises in spring. Except in slug world they are known as ‘breakfast’.

As it’s spring, the Hostas haven’t appeared, while the Ligularia are no more than ground-level buds. Two more sluggy, snaily, favourites. But not much eating there for our slimy chums, this early in the season.

To the discriminating, gourmet gastropod, nothing could be more tasty than the scrunchy, munchy stems of the early dwarf irises, especially I. reticulata, histriodes and danfordiae (a particular favourite of the slugs and mine).

Iris reticulata close-up.
I didn’t pick it. The slugs chewed it.

(Above) To see the fine detail on these wee spring irises, you have to bend down a long way. The slugs know this and so, to help, they nibble through the stems and you feel obliged to pick up the felled bloom. Grrr.

Iris reticulata – probably best known

Of this trio of fairly well known little irises in spring, probably reticulata is the most common. Its vivid purple shoots up only six inches out of the bare spring ground along with thin spikes of green leaves.

Danfordiae is lemon-yellow and scented with it (if you’re prepared to get on your knees). For all I know, this may mean an extra taste zesty taste sensation for the average slug.

Histriodes is a paler mauve than reticulata and probably the one you see in supermarkets the least, in those wee hanging-up bags.

The name means ‘brightly coloured like an actor’ and comes from the same root as the word histrionics. However, my histriodes are definitely not play-acting as they lie there, cut down by the slimy vandals.

In fact, sometimes I wonder why I keep trying to grow them. Oh wait, It’s because when they do survive they make such a good show early in the year that we gardeners like to persist – oh, just for one more year.

Irises in spring – and ‘bulblets’

These spring miniature irises have the further annoying habit of dividing themselves up into small bulbs after flowering. These little bulblets also make tasty little snacks for our sleekit, slippery pals.

Those irises that survive take a year or two to flower again, so that the one unexpectedly pops up long after you think you’ve lost the lot.

I remember long ago on an April morning climbing away above Delphi in Greece, by a steep cliff path behind the ancient site. (There are only so many Doric columns you can take…) The track came out on to a high plateau with drifts of wee yellow irises – such an unexpected delight – and I met a tortoise and a blue rock thrush there as well, and…oh sorry, let’s get back to the irises.

Mind you, the iris tribe, originally growing wild in all kinds of habitats in the northern half of the world, has plenty more members and is a particularly complicated family.

Iris reticulata giving an early spring show.

Anatomy of an Iris

Iris leaves are arranged in two groups of three. The outer three are called falls, the inner three are known as standards.

I thought you should know this, should you ever fall into conversation with an iris fancier. (Or my mum-in-law.)

As well as irises from bulbs there are those that grow from rhizomes. Actually, I think we’ll leave the complications for another time – except to repeat what old-time gardeners advised – that the rhizomes should be open to the sun.

(Och, sometimes I think these big irises are just a scutter.)

Irises – all flounces and falderals

This is an awful confession: but I don’t think I like those early summer irises very much. They seem a but, uhmm, showy or histrionic – as if they were just posing, all flounces and falls, trying to hog the border.

And the show seems over in no time. Oh, except you have to give them space – bake those blessed rhizomes as mentioned above.

But they are a favourite of the garden designer and the, uhmm, ‘plants-woman’.

So, back with the wee spring ones, as for protecting them from the sluggy tribe, you might be tempted to make free with those wee blue metaldehyde pellets – that well-known molluscicide. (Yes, that really is a word.)

Please don’t. Those horrible wee blue things are toxic to cats and dogs, hedgehogs and toads – and probably won’t feel your friendly local blackbird and song-thrush feel on top of the world either.

Showy iris in June
What’s going on here? Oh it’s just a fancy iris looking a bit messy and floppy.

Metaldehyde – get rid of it

Just do the environment a favour and dispose of them safely – ask your local authority’s waste people’s advice if necessary.

In any case, this noxious substance is banned from use in our own Untied Kingdom after March 2022. (Check its use in you own country, obviously.) At least, that was a UK government announcement.

Still, who knows? Chiltern Farm Chemicals, the company that manufacture the stuff, had previously managed to overturn an earlier ban, their MD gloating that ‘“The sell-out and use-up periods previously put in place no longer apply – it is business as usual…”

This is another way of stating ‘Stuff the environment – this is about profit…’

There are less harmful alternatives – ferric sulphate for instance. But, personally, I’d make friends with as many frogs, toads, blackbirds and hedgehogs as possible. 

Remember that alpines for spring are another garden delight.


Best flowering shrubs and plants for winter colour.

When it comes to winter colour and winter flowering shrubs in the garden, my dad, years ago, used to shake his head and utter dire predictions if I mentioned I had been out on the plot, say, any time after October’.

‘Oh, dinna ging intae the gairden in the winter. Ye’ll catch yer death…’

Mind you, he said I’d ‘catch ma death…’ if I so much as left the house as a teenager without drying my hair…

The charm of the garden under frost. Nope

If you turn to gardening magazines at this time of year, they are full of idealistic pieces about the charm of the garden when frost is on the ground – as well as beguiling pictures of winter flowering shrubs.

Now, I have thought about this a lot. I hope you don’t mind this confession, but I can see no advantages to deid o’ winter gardening whatsoever. So in that sense, dad was right.

And I do remember, years ago, after a night of hard frost, I even saw an old neighbour take a pick to his vegetable plot so he could prise out a neep from the yird, as his wife was making broth!

No, winter gardening might be fine for the warm south, but hereabouts the best way to garden between, say, November and February, is to sit inside, with a fistful of seed catalogues, making plans for next year.

Sure, as you pull your chair a wee bit closer to the fire, I’ll allow you to enjoy your garden in
retrospect. Think about the taste of the first new tatties, or the sunny afternoon you spent on the sun lounger enjoying the scent of the freshly clipped hedge. Now that’s gardening!

Having advised you to stay indoors till, oh, about March at the earliest, there are some of my favourite plants that don’t quite get it when it comes to the dead season.

Schizostylis coccinea
Schizostylis coccinea – the ‘river lily’ seems happy enough in pots in spite of flowering in the gloom.

Winter flowering shrubs and plants

The one that springs to mind first is Schizostylis coccinea (also Hesperantha coccinea as saying ‘Schizostylis‘ out loud can sound like a cold symptom).

It used to be sometimes called ‘k-word’ lily but no longer as the ‘k-word’ represents a deeply offensive and racist word in the plant’s native South Africa (and derived from an Arabic word meaning ‘infidel’).

I only mention this in case you come across it in an old gardening publication. Its other and acceptable name is ‘river lily’.

Anyway, this is a plant that is easier to grow than to spell. And, as you can guess, the shade differences are all varieties of one species, S. coccinea. (The deep reds are the best IMHO!)

I got my first clump from an old lady gardener. (Why do old ladies keep giving me bits of their garden?) She treated them with care, giving them a bit of protection in the winter. These ‘lilies’ are one of those species that some books will say are perfectly hardy and some say that they are on the tender side.

Schizoztylis coccinea
Schizostylis! Bless you…!

It’s summer in South Africa

Just when the big displays are over, when the nights are getting chilly and the days short, these fragile looking pink or red blooms start to put in their appearance.

But the most remarkable thing about them is their flowering season. Perhaps they still think they are in the southern hemisphere.

They are a bit like scaled-down gladioli and I really feel like having a quiet word with them about when they choose to flower.

September is early, November is common, while December is not unheard of.

I used to keep a tub or two of them in the unheated greenhouse to give them a bit of protection. I always felt sorry for them as I slid the door back on a cold winter’s morning to find their red petals lighting up the gloom.

Either because my present garden is near the sea or because of that global warming thing, but in recent years, my red lilies have thrived with hardly any protection. It looks like they are not as delicate as the books say.

They soon form substantial clumps with tangled roots easily divided, if you want to give some away. (Though I’m not implying that that makes you an old lady or anything…)

Given their preference for damp places and rich soil, I was mystified to find a clump of them come up through the gravel by the front door one year, where they gave quite a good display for weeks on end.

Then I remembered I had stood a tub of them nearby last autumn. Presumably they had seeded themselves and adapted to the unfriendly conditions – just another example of a plant not reading the proper books and doing something unexpected.

But, overall, this is a stunning plant for the winter garden.

Bastard Senna. No, really…

Coronilla valentina subsp. glauca 'Citrina'
Coronilla valentina subsp. glauca ‘Citrina’

And from red to yellow: my current favourite winter flowering shrub has to be Coronilla valentina subsp. glauca ‘Citrina’

It is – I am told – sometimes called the ‘Bastard Senna’ and I suggest you refer to it as that if you want to go for the cheap laugh. I know I would.

This is just a stunner. The shrub has evergreen glaucous leaves and a determination to put out these showy creamy (or lemony) yellow flowers and ignore the weather.

'Citrina' is a delight
‘Citrina’ is a delight. It’s the very best of the winter flowering shrubs. Mine starts in October and goes on flowering for the next six months

The blooms seem to last for months. And they’re scented as well. I mean, it’s horticultural overkill.

They start to flower even before the darkest days of winter, overlapping with the red lilies above – at least they do in my garden. (I just checked…the date is 26th October and both are starting to flower. Citrina will go on through to April, at least.

I give mine a bit of protection, in as far as its sheltered from the north and actually growing below a trellis-arch-thing, festooned with miserable honeysuckle. (Not overselling the garden here, am I?)

But it’s a real golden glow when much else is in winter gloom. Especially me. 

Viburnum tinus
Viburnum tinus (sometimes ‘Laurustinus) is another plant that likes winter.

Another hardy flowering shrub for winter

As an afterthought, here’s another fine shrub that hasn’t read the right gardening books, all of which say Viburnum tinus flowers late winter into spring.

This picture was taken on the 24th October – an autumn flowering for sure.

Viburnum ‘Bodnantense’ is a famous winter flowering shrub too, with its scented blooms. Take a look at it under reliable shrubs.


Colour in the garden in the ending year

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, eh, in the autumn garden? Well, either you like autumn or you don’t. What does it mean to the gardener anyway? An excuse to go wild in the daffodil department, maybe. It’s still not too late to plant some in that empty corner, especially if you strike it lucky amongst the end of season bulb bargains.

dogwood in autumn
Hmm.. dogwood is colouring up nicely.

You probably have missed getting your hyacinths in bloom for Christmas, if that sickly-sweet scent is something you like. To be honest, I do wonder if all this fuss to get bulbs out for the festive season is really worth it.

After all, what with the other decorations in the house, not to mention poinsettias and forced azaleas you see for sale, there is plenty of brightness indoors. It’s colour in the dim days of January and February we all need.

I’ll get on my hobby-horse about poinsettias further down the page.

Sedum “Autumn Joy” – that’s the name – not my mood at this time of year.

‘Anticyclonic Gloom’

Anyway, I heard a rare phrase on the weather forecast the other week: ‘anticyclonic gloom’. It means those calm grey days when I swear you can hear the leaves fall off the trees. That’s when the autumn garden breeds its own kind of nostalgia – especially for the long, blazing days of summer we might have had. 

But these calm days do mean the reds and yellow of the ending year at least hang around for longer before the westerly gales strip the trees bare.

I got a chance to wander round the plot and take note of what was still looking cheerful in the autumn garden. On the herbaceous front, things are decidedly off peak. The damp-loving Scrophularia aquatica ‘variegata’ still has plenty of colour.

This one gives good value if you can grow it on heavy, water-retaining soil. It’s a great foliage feature plant with its creamy margins and upright habit.

Buy it if you see it in garden centres – but give it plenty of space. It’s always sold in wee pots which give no indication of final size.

The other notable bright spot is a Sedum with the unsurprising name ‘Autumn Joy’ . It’s very reliable and keeps its mauve-red flower-heads shining out till late in the season.

Autumn in the city, near the University, Glasgow

Amongst the trees, one of the white-berried rowans (Sorbus hupehensis) has been the colour of flame for weeks now. Just one, though. The others, planted nearby at the same time and bought from the same nursery, have turned a dull orangey-green – attractive enough but hardly as vivid.

Hmm. What’s that about? This autumn colour thing isn’t that simple.

Certainly, the whole business of autumn colours is temperature related. The best years seem to have calm conditions to keep the leaves on longer, as well as low night time temperatures to trigger the colouring up process.

Wait, where do all the leaves go?

Unlike out in the wild-wood, there is the question of what to do with the leaves when they do end up on the lawn. (Oh, that’s such a middle-class problem!)

A very long time ago, I remember bagging up some leaves in a big black bin bag and leaving them beside the shed, hoping they would rot down for mulch. Well, they didn’t because they were too dry. You need to use wet leaves.

Sorbus 'Joseph Rock'
Sorbus ‘Joseph Rock’ at its best in mid-October

However, the bag was commandeered by a passing hedgehog who used it to raise a family. Obviously, I must have insecurely fastened the bag.

Not that I am recommending hedgehog-rearing as a use for autumn leaves. You could set up a hedgehog shelter though.

But before you throw them out or burn them (the leaves, I mean – bad idea, anyway), remember that as many as possible, one way or another, should go back to the soil from where they came.

Whether you let worms and other creepy crawlies do the job, or whether you want to compost the leaves depends on how tidy you feel in the autumn garden. It’s certainly a near-obsession for the over-tidy minded at this time of year.

Poinsettias – the temperamental Christmas decoration

As you gradually withdraw from the autumn garden as it gives way to deep winter, at the same time from the poshest High Street chain store to the wee corner shop, poinsettias for Christmas rear their red heads.

With their bracts colouring up a cheery hue in the dead of winter, they have become strongly associated with the festive season. They just look, well, festive, like some kind of non-jaggy holly in a pot.

This native of Mexico and tropical America has a proper name Euphorbia pulcherrima, though the more usual name poinsettia recalls Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779-1851) US Secretary of War and American Minister to Mexico who raised the plant from Mexican stock. (You never know, you might need this sort of thing in a virtual pub quiz or something.)

However, the question that everybody wants answered is ‘After Christmas, whit do ye dae wi them for the rest of the year?’

Ask me about the azalea hybrids that are also forced into flower for Christmas and I would tell you they are dead easy.

Keep them moist and well lit, then, when the last frosts are passed, feed them and plunge them, pot and all, into a shady, damp spot in the garden. Do not let them dry out. For plunging, a clay pot is probably best.

Then dig them up again – pot and all, of course – towards the end of September and, with a bit of luck, you’ll have them in flower again for the next Christmas. This can go on, year after year. Easy, eh?

But poinsettias? Ah well, they’re a bit different. Wait till you hear what you have to do with them if you want them to colour up for the next Christmas. It’s pretty crazy.

First of all, cut them back in the spring. Put them in a greenhouse for the summer, if you have one. Feed them and keep them in good light. That way you’ll have fresh green growth.

You can even take cuttings from them, if you insist on multiplying the awkward so and sos.

Poinsettia a couple of months after Christmas
Poinsettia a couple of months after Christmas. Still on the window-sill. Starting to go off. Definitely on borrowed time. The compost heap is next.

Poinsettia flowers themselves are wee insignificant greeny things. It’s the leaves round the flowers, called bracts, that colour up.

If your plant survives the summer, you will have a green poinsettia. Your challenge is to persuade the bracts to turn red again.

Alternatively, you could cheat. Cut leaf shapes out of red paper and wire them to the stems. If this sounds like swikkin (Scots: cheating), then, yes, it is! But it is better than trying to paint the leaves with red food colouring.

That definitely doesn’t work. It’s a bit sad really but I tried it once. What an admission for a gardener.

If you absolutely insist on trying to coax your poinsettia back into flower – and I’m doing my very best to put you off the whole idea – then daylight length is critical. From around the end of September onwards total darkness at night is essential. Cover it with a lightproof hood or bag for 14 hours every day. No, really.

Apparently, even a street light shining on them can upset them. You have to keep this up for eight weeks. It is at this point I ask you is it really worth it when they are under a tenner in the shops?

Besides, as commercially grown poinsettias are treated with a dwarfing chemical, the one you grow yourself will be spindly.

Finally, if I haven’t given you a complete scunner, there is the problem of the leaves dropping. Some folk have only to look at a poinsettia for it to turn completely bald, apart from the red bits at the top. Poinsettias seem to be sensitive wee souls.

The trouble with them is that they like it steady and warm with plenty of light from a south facing window. Expose them to hot or cold draughts and they sulk. They also like it moist as well, so you are advised to mist the leaves. In other words, the mantelpiece isn’t ideal.

At the end of the day, poinsettias look good but unless you are a dedicated gardener or tending towards the obsessive, you might as well treat them like a long lasting cut flower. Add them to the compost heap after the festivities are over. Or buy an azalea.

All about roses – let’s look forward to summer.


The instantly recognisable robin

A Cheerful Bird for the Winter

The robin in the garden likes the thick screen that shelters us from the westerlies, even though the hedge seems less secure now that its hawthorn leaves are down. It’s a mixed hedge as well as hawthorn, with beech and holly to give all year interest. But winter’s bareness is on it.

Less cover in the garden means that this resident is also more conspicuous. He’s with us all year, but this is when he gets noticed, our local robin.

As I howked around in the border, he perched there on the handle of the spade, flicking his tail like he was posing for Christmas card.

Robin on gorse. No, it’s not in my garden. This is a down-by-the-coastal-heath robin. A reminder of the ubiquity of the wee birdie.
Robin on gorse. No, it’s not in my garden. This is a down-by-the-coastal-heath robin. A reminder of the ubiquity of the wee birdie.

The robin in the garden was really only asking me to get a move on and strip away some more of that turf. (Hateful job – but if you are extending a bed…) He was waiting to get amongst the wee worms in the soil.

In olden times, long before gardens, his ancestors would have hung around the grazing beasts as they foraged in the woodland. Before that, they hung about with wild boar.

These days its gardeners who provide the disturbed soil through which he hunts.

I was thinking that he really leads a double life. A solitary, if aggressive, kind of existence under cover of spring and summer. He kind of skulks around as well, so that you’re not sure if you actually spotted him or not.

Then when all the other birds fall silent, he turns extrovert and cheers up the garden with that special song, sort of wistful, in a minor key. 

But a singing robin in the garden I always take as the first sign of autumn and the shortening days. (I’m not sure if I’m about to get sentimental here – or just plain depressed!)

Robin on Torridonian sandstone. No, I’ve none of that in the garden.
This is a mountainous robin, actually near Beinn Eighe in Wester Ross.

In fact, I’m not even sure if it is a ‘he’. A birdwatching friend tells me that both male and female robins fight to hold territory, singing to warn off other robins. If another robin ventures on to the patch, the owner really puts the beak in.

Our resident robin at the moment, for some reason, has been feuding for weeks now with the garden’s hedge sparrow, an otherwise meek and furtive little mousey-bird (though I kind of identify with him).

If you’re one of these trompe l’oeil garden designers who play about with mirrors in the garden to make the space look bigger, then spare a thought for the local robin. Actually, if you’re any kind of garden designer then why are you reading this at all? 

No, wait, though: robins are very aggressive and will hurl themselves against their reflections until they kill themselves. What is a mirror doing in a garden anyway?

Apparently, there are 7.4 million robin territories in the Untied Kingdom according to the website of the heavyweight bird organisation the British Trust for Ornithology. Take a look at BTO BirdFacts | Robin.

There’s quite a bit of folk lore about robins. To harm one brings bad luck and it is also associated with other religious stories. Weirdly, up to 1861, postmen were dressed in red coats and sometimes were called ‘redbreasts’ or ‘robins’. Then Xmas cards were invented, often featuring, yes, of course, robins. So you got robin cards delivered by, well, you get the drift.

So, just to prove that robins are not always psychopathic, here is one
I photographed, again, by the coast, having a perfectly civilised chat with a couple of chats. Stonechats (Mr & Mrs), to be exact.

Glasgow’s coat of arms has a ‘robin proper’ on it to recall the bringing back to life of a robin by St Kentigern.

Quite the oddest story about a robin I heard some years from a farmer who was a neighbour. He looked me straight in the eye and said. ‘The wife’s got nae fruit on her trees this year – and it’s the robins tae blame.’

I asked him, in a roundabout way, why this insect and worm-eating little chap should affect the set of the trees.

‘Weel, ye ken whit they say. Ye’ll get nae fruit if ye’ve robins.’ And he refused to be drawn further. 

I puzzled over this weird conversation for a while until it struck me that this man of the soil was probably mixing up the activities of the bullfinch with the robin.

After all, they both have sort of red breasts, though the bullfinch is much ‘pinkier’. However, it was a bit of a downer that this ‘guardian of tomorrow’s countryside’ couldn’t tell them apart. 

It’s true, the bullfinch – but definitely not the robin – will remove fruit-tree buds at the rate
of 30 to 40 per minute, methodically working its way from the tip of a fruit tree branch, right down to the older wood with fewer buds, then fly out to another tip and start again.

Mind you, if you’ve got fruit trees on your plot don’t get too fashed about this as researchers have also shown that half the buds can be taken off a pear tree and it won’t affect the eventual yield. That’s Nature’s way, I suppose.

At last, got him! This year’s robin in the garden on the edge of a raised bed. Note chewed up black kale above his head. Damned sparrows!

Anyway, the local robin is definitely not guilty. If you have the stomach for it, the way to a robin’s heart is to pop down to your local pet shop and buy a poke of mealworms.

Your neighbourhood robin loves them and will soon get very tame. (S)he will come to your hand if you have the patience. (I’ve done this with a blackbird as well – but that’s another story.)

On second thoughts, settle for a bag of dried mealworms – widely available now since bird-food has become big business.

You can always soak them in warm water beforehand, though somehow I’m not sure if I’m going to add ‘Reconstitute mealworms’ to my gardening to-do list.

Anyway, after loitering in the kitchen, camera at the ready, I managed to photograph this year’s robin. More on Scottish birds on that link.

Our robin is much more welcome than this feathered garden pest.


Autumn colour and bird high-energy snack

Browsing through your local plant store, looking for some plants to produce berries for the garden, you arrive at the shrub section and many labels say ‘attractive berries’. Hah. What the label never says after that is ‘Birds will scoff ‘em’.

What is pleasant to the gardener’s eye is also lunch to your nearest blackbird. Bless their wee feathers.

The common (or garden?) rowan Sorbus aucuparia with berries that are starters for the autumn bird feast

With autumn’s arrival the birds get even bolder. Word soon gets around that the elder tree has produced a vintage crop this year. I sometimes wonder if it isn’t the blackbird equivalent of nouveau Beaujolais, that strange annual ritual of yesteryear.

Blackbirds seem to come from miles around and perform acrobatics on spindly stalks while stripping off the handsome purple panicles of berries. I’m sure they get a bit tipsy on all that juice.

This on-going meals service starts in August, usually at the top of every rowan – at least the ‘everyday’ red berried sort. The berries don’t last long – no sooner ripe than guzzled by the thrush tribe.

A tribe of thrushes

It’s good entertainment as well. Last week the local guzzlers were sent packing by a solitary fieldfare, a Scandinavian thrush visitor passing through like a burly Viking. This big grey and brown chap took over the elder tree for the morning, perhaps to refuel after his hop across the North Sea, and certainly ruffled a few of the local feathers.

Redwing in early spring.

(Above) The rusty-red patch under the wing is obvious and gives the redwing its name – though the yellow eye-stripe – giving a decidedly supercilious expression – is also characteristic.

Usually the fieldfares are mixed in with their slightly daintier cousins, redwings – so called because they have red oxters, though in my experience you are more likely to get a redwing in your edge-of-town garden than a fieldfare.

So if you fancy some autumn entertainment, make sure you’ve got plenty of shrubs and trees to produce berries for the garden. (In the long run, it’s a lot cheaper then feeding the birds peanuts!) 

Rowan and hawthorn I’ve mentioned as native species, though you can always choose one of the other rowan species with berries in yellow (Sorbus ‘Joseph Rock’), or white (S. hupehensis).

Some say that the blackbirds are a little suspicious of these ‘non-red’ berries and tend to leave them till they’ve stripped out everything else!

Sorbus ‘Joseph Rock’ in autumn. (24th October)

Rose hips create another splash of red long after the flowers have gone and likewise survive much later in the season before being eaten (at least in my garden).

The native dog rose, common in hedgerows, provides some colour, or you can go in for, say, the big flask-shaped hips of Rosa moyesii, if you have space for this vigorous shrub.

Hollies, too, seem to keep their berries longer than some other shrubs and trees. Maybe the consumers find the spines a bit of a problem. This is just as well, if you want Christmas decorations.

This holly is ready for Christmas. A pity it’s only early October.

Holly? It’s complicated

If the variegated kinds of holly take your fancy, like ‘Golden King’ or ‘Golden Queen’, then don’t assume that the queen variety is female and a berry producer. It isn’t. Don’t ask me why.

However, the most common silver holly ‘Argentea Marginata’ must be, as it usually has plenty of berries. 

Pyracantha, the firethorn is another fairly reliable berrying species, with both red and orange berried varieties. It’s definitely a blackbird preference. (And it’s pretty thorny, so that puts paid to my holly theory above.)

And one of my favourites, for its sheer toughness in the face of sea winds, is sea buckthorn. You will need male and female plants to produce berries, which are bright orange, soft and squishy, with a decidedly jammy smell even while still on the shrub. To our palates though, the smell and taste don’t match. Trust me, these orange berries are very bitter!

Breakfast for the blackbird.

(Above) Look, I can explain this. This isn’t as bad as it looks The upturned hanging basket is a feeble attempt to keep out my local severely obese wood-pigeon but let the wee birds in. I thought Mr Blackbird would have difficulty but it didn’t bother him. He just ignored it. In and out – no bother.

Obviously not to our northern winter visitors from the thrush tribe: fieldfares and redwings go daft for them.

If you live in East Lothian, you’ll have seen them every year feasting on the silvery buckthorn bushes in the thickets along the coast from Longniddry down to the Scottish Borders at Cockburnspath.

If reds and oranges are a bit bright, try the blues. Mahonias will produce funny wee blackish-blue fruits in summer which last about five minutes before a passing blackbird stops for a quick lunch. 

A couple more berry suggestions

Also in a blue, Viburnum davidii will also ring the changes in the local blackbirds’ menu, but to get berries you have to be good at sexing viburnums when buying them, as you need one of each. It isn’t a skill that everyone develops.

Here’s whitebeam. I’m monitoring its appeal in a neighbour’s garden. So far it’s not been touched. But then, a cat patrols that garden, so maybe the blackbirds are wary. Grrrr.

And, of course, it’s a two-way thing. Blackbirds eat the slugs that eat our lettuce. (Have you noticed the way they fastidiously wipe them on the grass first? The slugs, I mean.)

Song thrushes dunt the life out of snails, whacking them on the paving slabs – though the song thrush, as a species, is much more prone to cat predation. (Don’t get me started…)

Ultimately, growing species that produce berries for the garden to feed the birds seems a worthwhile use of your wee plot. There’s a ‘feel-good’ thing going on – especially in a built-up world that embraces ‘lockblock’ and plastic grass and we slide towards the urban desert…

Jammy-smelling, bitter-tasting (to me) sea buckthorn lasts well into the winter, unless the feathered Vikings – fieldfares – descend.


A Giant Lily from the Himalayas

This was year two of growing a giant lily and there was much excitement this summer as Cardiocrinum giganteum shouldered its way above a couple of vigorous rock roses and broke into the open air above. This impressive lily from the Himalayas is famed as the largest lily of all. (It was originally described as Lilium giganteum.)

Cardocrinum doing its flowering thing in June, with Olearia macrodonta – the New Zealand daisy bush or sometimes holly – joining in as a background.

Yes, this was only its second season with us, a gift from mum-in-law, knocked out of its wee pot and put into deep shade at the back of a shrubby corner – and almost forgotten about.

It produced a substantial rosette of leaves in the first year, which the slugs said they quite liked as a change, but not as much as, say, Ligularia, yum. So that was OK, I suppose.

Truth to tell neither the slugs nor I were expecting this burgeoning growth. It soon became perfectly plain that this was to be the flowering year. The sturdy stem seemed to be noticeably taller with each succeeding day.

And then out came the exotic pale yellow trumpets with their reddish-brown markings on the throat. Even the neighbours came round to look. The plant dies after flowering, by the way. Or so the books say.

The Scottish Connections

Lt Col Edward Madden & Dr Hugh Falconer

And this out-of-the-ordinary flower has a couple of Scottish connections as well. For a start the first flowering in Scotland was in Edinburgh in 1852, from seed brought home from India by one Lt Col Edward Madden.

(This Irish-born military man and botanist collected extensively when he wasn’t polishing his artillery with the East India Company – I am telescoping a bit here…)

Anyway, he was an expert on the plants of the high passes of the Himalayas. He also retired to the very posh Regent Terrace in Edinburgh, presumably where the lily was first planted. I like to think that the neighbours came round to see his ever-growing giant lily as well.

(Who knows? He may even have invited over two of the uncles of Robert Louis Stevenson as these famous lighthouse builders lived in Royal Terrace, just across the park beyond his garden wall!)

Another curious connection is that some of Madden’s collecting expeditions were done in the company of a certain Dr Hugh Falconer. And he in turn has a Scottish connection by virtue of his birth in Forres in Moray.

You might be able to visit the Falconer Museum, which originated from funds from Dr Hugh and his brother.

One of Falconer’s tasks in India had been to assess the feasibility of growing tea there (as opposed to China). He was also a strict ‘creationist’ until Charles Darwin himself sent him a copy of his own ground-breaking ‘On the Origin of Species’.

Falconer thereafter cast aside his beliefs in the creation myth and thereafter earned a sound reputation in the fields of geology, botany and palaeontology.

Sheltered spot for the giant lily
Oh, great. I took this picture too low down and made my growing giant lily look a bit small.

(Above) My fault. The foreground foxglove in this photo looks bigger than the background giant lily. Anyway, note how cardiocrinum is planted amongst other shrubs for shelter. That seemed to work.

Growing the Giant Lily Again

Anyway, as I write this, the giant lily seed-pods are ripening in the autumn sunshine. And I could start the whole process off again not just by planting seeds but by replanting the offshoots that, sure enough, are growing round the base of the ‘doomed’ parent plant.

The seeds take some years to reach flowering stage – by which time they could be anything up to 9ft (2.5 tall, approx.) The offshoots do not get quite as tall. Mine just flowered at about 6ft (.8m high). Just as well they stayed at that altitude in a well protected location. Up here I’d have to stake them very securely.

Cardiocrinum seed-heads in close-up.

(Above) Something has been pecking through the seed-heads (or pods). The flat seeds of Cardiocrinum inside look like stacks of CDs! Seeds are worth a go and result in taller plants but you have to wait for some years.

Giant lily offsets – wee bulbs. But be patient.

(Above) Be ruthless. Pull up the dead stalk then separate the bulbs. You could plant one back where the original came from. Otherwise pot ’em up till you have made up your mind what to do!

Luss & The Lily Connection

There are of course many other species in the lily tribe. Even the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond have a connection with lilies. At least, the village of Luss does. 

They are keen on their plantings, in the Loch Lomond village of Luss. They’re just not so keen on the way visitors park – but that’s altogether another story.

There is a local story there involving a certain wellborn Luss lassie of long ago, called Baroness M’Auslan. She married a French nobleman and lived in France with him. He fought at the siege of Tournai.  Now…as Tournai has been besieged ten times in its history, that is one of my less helpful statements.

As this is about gardening rather than history, this entitles me to move swiftly back to the story. So-o…

Unhappily, his wife, the Baroness, then unexpectedly died and her body was taken back to Luss. In memory of her French connections, lilies, which the French call fleurs-de-lis, were strewn on her grave. New plants grew up from them and these were later effective in curing some kind of plague which afflicted the village.

The parish took on the name –  so that fleurs-de-lis are really ‘flowers of Luss’. Apparently.

Now, I’m sure you’ll agree that it is a romantic story. It’s probably just a load of compost though. You’ll find it in print as well, in books written many years ago. I blame these over-imaginative Victorian guidebook writers again. 

Luss – a popular tourist village with bonnie gardens.

However, Luss is a bonnie place in summer with plenty of colour in its gardens. (Even if it is a bit over-run with visitors for much of the year.) 

I think the story is just a fiction. It seems much more likely that fleurs-de-lis are really fleurs-de-Louis because King Louis VII of France used the lily as an emblem. 

Equally, there is another gardening connection with Luss. The name could really be a Gaelic word ‘lios’ meaning a garden – just like the island of Lismore means the big garden. 

Anyway, Cardiocrinum giganteum is worth a go – if you have a sheltered spot – and widely available from stockists. You might like to read about roses now too.


Wallflower is rich in folk-lore

Before we go all horticultural, let me tell you a story, as an example of the folklore associated with wallflower. (“Draws up chair and invites his listeners closer.”)

Neidpath Castle sits high on a grassy knowe above the Tweed near Peebles, an easy Sunday afternoon’s excursion from the city of Edinburgh.

Just like all these other strongholds in the Scottish Border lands, it has tales and legends attached to it.

Neidpath Castle, Scottish Borders
Neidpath Castle, Scottish Borders. A single light burns in the early morning gloom. But it’s probably not Elizabeth of Neidpath. And from this far away, I can’t see any wallflower either.

The Maid of Neidpath

One story is told about Elizabeth, the Maid of Neidpath, who lived in the castle with her ambitious father, the Earl of March.

Her dad wanted her to marry King King Robert III of Scotland. (This was back in the 14th century.)

Instead, she fell for Scott of Tushielaw, the son of a Border chieftain. By the way, this makes him an ancestor of the famous(?) Adam Scott, ‘The King of Thieves’.

His beat was the Ettrick Valley. He was captured and, hung by King James V’s men in 1529.

Oh, wait, let’s stick to this tale. We haven’t even reached the wallflower connection yet.

So, anyhoo, as nothing less than marrying a Scottish monarch had been deemed appropriate by dad, he did what all pushy parents in balladry and stories did back then: he locked her in the castle.

The Wandering Minstrel – a folk-tale stock figure

The love-struck young Scott of Tushielaw thought of a plan to rescue her. First he started a rumour that he had gone off to foreign wars. Then he disguised himself as a wandering minstrel.

It was a stock disguise from a limited choice, as gorilla suits had not yet been invented.

He came to the Castle and sang a song below her window. The words of the song were all about a couple whose love overcame all obstacles and who escaped together one night when the moorcock called.

Complicated lyrics and deaf fathers were the norm in those days.

Sure enough, Neidpath Liz got the gist of the ditty and, pulling a bit of wallflower from the wall nearby, she dropped the sprig of down to him as a token that she would be waiting at nightfall.

(Dramatic pause as narrator relights his pipe and loads another picture into the photo library…)

Neidpath Castle, Scottish Borders, from the River Tweed
The River Tweed flows past Neidpath Castle. It’s October, foggy, gloomy and definitely not the wallflower season. Depressing, isn’t it? Note that the power lines wouldn’t have been there in the 14th century of course.

However, their plan went badly wrong. That night she heard her suitor make the appropriate and pre-arranged bird call.

When the moorcock calls. What? Why?

Wait. Been thinking about this and need to be practical for a moment. Obviously, to choose an owl call would have been silly, because the place would have been full of hoolets back then.

However, the chosen bird, the moorcock, commonly, the red grouse, is notable for making a distinct call that sounds like ‘go-back, go-back, go-back’.

As this is the exact opposite of what he wanted her to do, it surely would have led to confusion.

So, it seems more likely that in reality they would have used something more recognisable and unique.

OK, let’s say they agreed that as soon as she heard her boyfriend make the the call of the Laysan Honeycreeper (now extinct) she would climb over the parapet.

Tragically on the night, in her haste, the rope she used to descend to the courtyard came unfastened. (Maybe she had tied it to a wallflower.) She was killed. Bit of a downer, so to speak.

Broken-hearted, the young man gave up his career in cattle-stealing and bothering Ettrick folk on Saturday nights. Instead, he wandered all over Europe, gaining fame as a minstrel.

He obviously took a real liking to the disguise and always wore a sprig of wallflower in his bunnet.

Other strolling players adopted the wallflower badge as a symbol of constancy to their girl back home. Romantic, eh?

Can we get on to wallflower now, please?

Five hundred years later, the colourful wallflower is still one the great delights of spring time. The plant originally came from the cliffs of the Mediterranean, but has been cultivated for so long that nobody knows how it arrived.

It could even have come in with the Romans or with pilgrims of long ago. Perhaps its seeds were attached to some imported stone.

Here is some wallflower in a mixed border, aka a random planting of vegetation sheuched in to cover up bare earth.

As it adapts easily to parched and rocky soils, it soon escaped from gardens and took to castle and monastery walls quite readily.

You can see it on the Castle Rock at Edinburgh or on the steep rocks behind St Andrews House, also in the capital, as just two examples of old and historic places.

(Hmm. I’m assailed by doubts now. Och, the plant is sure to be still there. Let me check in the spring and get back to you.)

Wallflower and dicentra
Yes, there is almost some wallflower in this picture. Dicentra spectabilis with its wee white bells almost steals the show. Behind that is a contorted willow, as bitter and twisted as ever.

In the wild, wallflower has four large yellow petals, just like the commonest garden types.

As well as the straightforward yellow, there are plenty of more exotically coloured varieties available in single and double form, ranging from pale primrose yellow right through to deep maroon and parti-coloured types as well.

Raising wallflower

Wallflowers are, strictly speaking, biennial. If you want good plants you could sow outdoors and then transfer to flowering positions in the autumn.

Once into their flowering site they hang on for years, getting scrawnier with each succeeding season and also sending seedlings to colonise other places. Fortunately, cuttings root easily.

They were traditionally associated with tulips, as part of the colourful show in the spring border. They’re a bit unfashionable at the moment as well. I think the very best thing about them is their scent, so you could try a clump beside the door.

If you don’t like their leggy tendencies, then choose some of the dwarf forms or go for Cheiranthus x allionii, the Siberian wallflower, which is shorter growing, in the sense pf being stockier.

Alternatively, hunt up its close cousin Erysimum alpinum, a sort of low growing up-market wallflower, good in rock gardens.

Wallflower also grows on the crags below Edinburgh Castle. Obviously, not in this picture though. Look, I’ll get back to you

Finally, you noticed…it looks like Cheiranthus and Erysimum are more or less interchangeable. Let’s just say wallflower.


Take to the hills for inspiration!

(…and alpines!) Well, any excuse. So the weather looks settled and you have a hankering to head for the heights – but there are jobs to do in the garden. At first you might think there is no connection between hillwalking and gardening. 

Scurvy grass at the head of a corrie in the Cairngorms

Yes, I know there is garden work to do, because there always is, but I will now present the case for not spending all the spare time in the plot.

For a start, Scotland’s hills have plenty to interest the gardener, especially the alpine plant enthusiast. High up on the slopes there are lots of flowering mountain plants to enjoy.

Plants at extremes

It’s always useful for gardeners to see the ancestors of some of today’s garden species growing at high level as Nature intended.

I remember one day high on a windy col (or bealach) high in the Breadalbane hills, coming across some common species, close cousins of those we cultivate in the garden, growing in their natural setting.

We generically tend to call them ‘alpines’ to describe this especially hardy range of plants that thrive in extreme conditions.

I recall there was thrift, not the lax and lush hummocks of the town plot, but tight wee mounds, hardly into bud. I found moss campion with tiny pink flowers, huddled in a wee patch amongst the broken stone. There were saxifrages and roseroot in the crags lower down.

Moss campion, in the Cairngorms.
Roseroot on sea cliff
Roseroot on sea cliff, Moray Firth.

Roseroot – very curious

The bold and fleshy-leaved roseroot, Rhodiola rosea, in particular, is a curious plant. It’s very northern in its wild distribution and was known to the Vikings. They used it as a pick-me-up – a kind of Norse ginseng – though how a macho Viking was able to admit that all that pillaging wore him out is another story.

You can even buy it in supplement form for its wholesome properties. Meanwhile some foraging books say you can make sauerkraut with its young leaves. Presumably if you run out of cabbage; or if really wanting to go off-grid.

Mountain top or sea-coast

Anyone thinking about growing alpines can learn a lot by seeing how our native species grow under the extreme conditions.

Talking of extreme conditions, when you think about it, it shouldn’t be surprising to find species like thrift or roseroot growing both by the shore and high on the mountains of Scotland. After the last Ice Age, plants like these, tolerant of harsh conditions, covered the land.

As the climate warmed, they were pushed to the edges where things were still tough and there was less competition – and that meant either down to the exposed coastline or up to the windy hilltops.

To be honest, I’ve also just written that to justify using some pictures taken along the coast of species also found on the tops!

Dryas octopetala
Dryas octopetala – mountain avens. Widely distributed in Europe’s high places on lime (not just Scotland!), these were photographed near Innsbruck.

Good drainage – the secret for alpines

First of all, the advice you always hear about good drainage for alpines is very important.

In the wild, many alpines thrive amongst scree and broken, frost-shattered rocks, with thin or virtually non-existent soil and rainfall running away very quickly.

Then there is the exposure. No overhanging trees or shade for them. Crouched between the rocks up there, they look up to the sun.

Our own mountain avens, Dryas octopetala, a super wee plant with creamy-white petals even follows the sun round, turning its cup-shaped flowers like miniature satellite dishes to focus a warm spot on the stamens in the centre. That’s for the benefit of pollinating insects.

‘Base rich’ – good and limey

The kind of rock is important, too. Limestone or ‘base-rich’ rocks, such as you find, say, on Ben Lawers near Killin or up by Inchnadamph in Sutherland are enjoyed by the greatest variety of species, mountain avens amongst them.

No point in trying to grow the alpine specialist nursery version amongst acid peat.

So if you’re keen to try alpines, give the setting some thought. Obviously, harsh conditions aren’t a problem. They don’t mind wind.

If you can’t guarantee good good drainage at natural soil level then think about a raised bed.

Ben Lawers
Ben Lawers, Perthshire – a mountain with ‘base-rich’ (alkaline) rock. No acid-loving heather here – but a rich botany on the high slopes.

Some gardeners add a top dressing of stone chips to help with drainage and make the arrangement look really tidy.

Good advice – Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh.

(Above.) ‘The Botanics’, Edinburgh – a good place to see a variety of alpines, many in smaller troughs and containers. Note the mauve of purple saxifrage (left side). This is a wee delight in spring, whether on the patio or high in the Scottish hills.

Alpine troughs at the Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh.

This is sometimes taken one stage further as a scree garden, though as any hillwalker will tell you, the last thing you find as scree are wee chips all the same size.

In the most realistic scree garden I ever saw, the owner had created lots of planting sites by bashing up sandstone rocks with a hammer!

All the different sizes of flakes and larger chunks looked much more like natural weathered rock than the sort of chippings more suited for paths. But, hey, perhaps that’s a detail…

Antennaria dioica – mountain everlasting – in the wild. More cringe-worthy, also called ‘pussy-toes’, presumably in the garden. Available in pinks and reds from alpine nurseries.

Don’t let your alpines be overwhelmed

Lastly, there is the important sense of scale. Certainly, there are plenty of rampant species you can buy. You can carpet the rock garden almost overnight with certain vigorous but minute veronicas or some of the campanulas, mentioned elsewhere, probably as ‘garden hooligans’.

But small alpines can so easily be overwhelmed – which is why they look good in troughs where vigorous competition is kept away.

Back at the top of the mountain, the Antennaria with its silvery grey leaves hugging the ground, the mossy cyphel with tiny yellow stars creeping round the rock splinters are little gems half-lost in a wild place.

Hypertufa – if you must

Finally, I got to the end of this page on alpine plants for the garden without once mentioning the word ‘hypertufa’. This is a magical substance that really, really keen alpine gardeners use to make troughs from.

By way of warning, the ingredients for hypertufa include cement, sharp sand and/or vermiculite, coir, chicken wire, and two forms, possibly of wood or cardboard, so you can pour the resultant horticultural custard in between to make the finished box-shape.

A wire brush, mixing container, protective clothing, eye-protection and a safe prep area also come into recipe. You also need a good variety of swear words and be prepared to justify the mess. In short, it’s a complete slaister, which is Scots for mess. Oh, and then you paint the finished article with yoghurt or horse-muck. Or you buy a ready-made container.

There is also a discussion about container gardening on that link on this site if you want to stick around. And you know I’d like you to…

A ROSE FOR EVERY GARDEN – in the right place

There is a rose for every garden. Down in England, they have the rose as a national symbol. In fact, it was King Edward I, the Hammer of the Scots, who first used the rose in his Great Seal of State.

As that was some years before the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 (when his son King Edward II was defeated) you can see that roses have been associated with English royalty for a long time.

The original white rose is thought to be Rosa alba, a wild species, with pale glossy foliage and scented simple white flowers. It flourishes in hedgerows widely right across Europe and beyond.

Rose ‘Pat Austin’ (probably!) getting out of hand but in a good way.

Actually, its close relation Rosa canina flourishes in my garden as well and I have no idea how it got there. Probably a bird. But the hips are nice in autumn, even if the flowers are, uhmm, quietly understated. Or at least they can’t compete with the coppery dazzle of the ‘Pat Austin’ that is established next to it.

Anyway, King Edward of England’s mother, Eleanor of Provence, was French and she had already adopted the rose as her emblem as well.

And it is from this French connection perhaps that, centuries later, we end up with a Scottish connection: the Jacobite white rose or ‘cockade’ of Bonnie Prince Charlie.

Mary Queen of Scots and her great, great, great grandson

Romantic Chairlie’s ancestor, the equally romantic Mary Queen of Scots, married the Dauphin of France (first marriage), and had the right to wear the royal rose (of France). So, it was then associated with the Stewart monarchs of Scotland. They were replaced by the Hanoverian lot and I so don’t want to get into this.

Much later, Mary’s great, great, great grandson Prince Charlie appeared on the Scottish stage, ready to reclaim the throne for the Stuart dynasty.

He or his PR team had the bright idea to wear the white cockade – the simple, white rose of the hedgerow – as a badge for those who had sworn or been coerced into fighting for his cause. And a fat lot of good it did him.

Later on, British nurseries started making money from rose
varieties certainly by the 18th century. The first British rose
catalogue came out in 1833 and soon all these upright Victorian
gardeners were poring over such exotically named varieties as
‘Infidelities of Lisette’ or the ‘Spineless Virgin’ (honest).

Anyway, that’s enough history. But you can see why, with their royal associations, roses always seem to have had a certain cachet.

Rose 'Charles Rennie Mackintosh'
Rose ‘Charles Rennie Mackintosh’

Traditional ‘rose beds’

Today, roses remain very popular and there are probably more
rose care products and books on roses on the shelves of your
average garden centre today than on any other flower family.

The day of the rose bed, exclusively given over to roses, seems
to be coming to an end. Gardeners these days are making roses
a part of their overall planting schemes. Grow shrub roses and you don’t even have to prune – the element of rose-growing that seems to worry rookie gardeners most.

You can still see the ‘rose bed’ practice in municipal parks, for example, at Hazlehead or the Duthie Park in Aberdeen. I mention Aberdeen specifically, as it was formerly strongly associated with rose-growing. It was rumoured in the 1970s-80s that its parks department had a huge annual expenditure on roses and other flowers.

The centre dividing sections of the dual carriageways were lined with displays back then – a changing kaleidoscope of roses in variety. They must have taken some pruning. And Aberdeen was a frequent and consistent winner of Britain in Bloom way back then.

Dog rose. Sorry, couldn’t resist it.

(Above) Well, I looked for a rose in my Google photos. Amongst the results was the picture above. Well, I suppose it does look a bit flower shaped.

These days, the dual carriageways are simply separated by easy to maintain cobbles (setts). I just checked on Google Street View!

So the trend seems to be away from dedicated rose beds, not just in Aberdeen. Roses seem just as popular – you can even buy them in supermarkets – but the dedicated rose bed is only occasionally seen.

Actually, one other place to see a ‘traditional’ rosebed is at the brilliant Saughton Gardens in Edinburgh. It’s fast becoming an Edinburgh ‘must see’.

Most gardeners make roses a part of their overall planting schemes (though scheme may be too deliberate a word – given how often plants are bought on a whim!)

Grow shrub roses and you hardly have to prune. I’ve tied my ‘Buff Beauty’ to a post to stop it flopping over its potentilla neighbour and other than a feed now and again, all I have to do is sit back and enjoy the scent. Tidying and dead-heading should be all.

In fact, it’s ‘pruning anxiety’ that make some a little scared of roses!

The Dreaded Black Spot on Roses

Another subject over which much agonising seems to go on in the gardening press is black spot, which disfigures leaves weakens the plant and generally annoys gardeners.

If your rose has got it, prune out the black bits, and mulch below the plant to prevent rain splashing up spores from the soil. That probably won’t work but you’ll feel you’re doing something right.

The dreaded black spot on rose foliage. Cut it out. Get rid of it.
The dreaded black spot on rose foliage. Cut it out. Get rid of it.

Blackspot is a fungus which also overwinters on diseased leaves. Burn or otherwise dispose of affected leaves and feed the poor wee ailing rose.

Alternatively, get rid of the thing and replace it with a resistant variety. Browse through your favourite rose catalogue to find out which varieties or species are resistant – though the fungus develops new strains frequently, so even a black spot resistant label or description may not be valid for long. 

Not putting you off, am I?

A Rose For Every Garden

Rose historians tell us that it was subsequent breeding from the Persian yellow (Rosa foetida persiana), introduced to Britain in 1836 from Iran, which made so many later varieties susceptible, as it was very prone to the disease. Before it came along most others were highly resistant.

Aside from ailments, all of this amounts to saying that there is a rose for whatever kind of gardening you prefer, from inch perfect pruning to stand back and watch it grow.

And as for all those categories: hybrid tea, old shrub rose, and so on. So long as you know height, spread and flowering habit then make your selection based on that. Leave the labels for the rose-geeks (if you get such a thing.)

Climbing rose ‘Iceberg’ in its first year. Hmm. A bit of discolouration on some of the new foliage. Still, it’s late autumn so we’ll see what the spring brings. Those leading shoots will need tying in though. In year two, the blessed thing was seriously checked by black spot though.

The Mystique of Pruning

On the subject of pruning (if you must), then the advice used to be cut back stems to just above an outward facing bud, using a secateurs, painfully and slowly, one stem at a time.

Alternatively, take the garden shears to your rose and get it done in a moment. (Some say it doesn’t make any difference!) And this might even be heresy – but you know how much I dislike gardening mystique!

Or grow ramblers, scramblers, climbers or shrub roses that just need tidying and a bit of dead-heading if you can be bothered.

As for types of roses, you know already that they come in nearly all colours except some shades of blue. Some are preposterously showy, for instance ‘Masquerade’, with so many colours on one bush that it looks like an accident in a paint factory.

The bonkers rose 'Masquerade'. Probably.
This rose was grown from a cutting. (Easier than you think.) This is probably ‘Masquerade’ and it’s a bit mad or at the very least uncertain about what colour it would like to be.

Then there are easy going species such as Rosa moyesii, which gives the worthwhile bonus of bright orangey-red hips from August till well into autumn.

Tough enough for the Scottish climate in any garden I’ve known, it’s another one which needs no pruning apart from a tidy-up when some of its shoots begin to loom over its companions. (Check the colour though – it’s meant to be a rich carmine-red, but there are lipsticky pink shades around as well.)

Whatever you choose, enjoy the colours and scents. Growing a few fragrant roses needn’t be complicated.

Rosa rugosa – densely prickly but tough as can be.
Rosa rugosa – densely prickly but tough as can be.


Reliable shrubs are those, in my book, that will survive the winder undamaged and not need anything in the way of weather protection. Because, let’s face it, when autumn come along the thoughts of the caring gardener turns to cossetting tender shrubs.

Yes, these temperamental treasures in the garden are going to need a bit bield (Scots: a little bit of shelter) over the winter.

This means windbreaks and wigwams of hideous proportions. Bubble wrap is employed and does nothing for the garden ambience in the winter months.

Chicken wire and netting goes round puir wee rhodies or maybe Phormium (New Zealand flax). Then it’s peat or ashes over Agapanthus, panes of glass over precious alpines. (All that bending of wire and securing vulnerable glass in particular is a scutter (Scots: a fiddly task.). Best to avoid Lewisia and other things that can’t take winter wet.)

Remember – all this is optional. You are invited to take a chance, as far as I am concerned!

Winter protection

Making the tender ones weel-happit for the winter is as much a garden routine as raking leaves. (Oh wait. I never rake leaves. The worms take care of them.)

Plant survival through the winter does depend on factors like distance from the sea, garden aspect, whether or not you’re in a frost pocket and so on.

For instance, we might be about 58 degrees north, but I have kept things with a tender reputation, such as Cistus, thriving for a few years now – mostly because they grow about 200 metres from the sea, I think. When I gardened further to the east on an exposed site it was more of a struggle.

In any case, there are plenty of reliable shrubs that shrug off the worst that winter can throw at them and still give value for money.

Top of my easy-peasy list has to be the everyday Senecio with its felted grey leaves and yellow flowers checking the salty wind in many an exposed or seaside garden.

cut-leaved elder
Sambucus racemosa ‘Plumosa Aurea’ the golden cut-leaved elder is one of the nicest shrubs to say out loud. This one is pictured in October and looks a bit green though, not so much ‘aurea’.

Mix it with spiky sea buckthorn if you want to keep unwanted visitors out. Then there are the trouble-free escallonias, usually guaranteeing all year interest, or the cut-leafed golden elder (Sambucus racemosa ‘plumosa aurea’) if you want something a bit more exotic but easy in the deciduous department.

Cut it back hard in the spring if you like dense growth with big leaves. Otherwise, it’s stick it in and let it grow. Actually, a wee feed or two wouldn’t do any harm. But it’s certainly on any list of reliable shrubs

Shrubs for sale under awnings – beware!

Of course, the other side of all this are those shrubs you fall for in the nursery, especially when they are in windproof polytunnels, yet somehow they never quite cope with the rigours of the place you chose for them out in the open garden. For instance, I never seem to have a lot of luck with any of the mahonias. 

I love the leaf shape and the perfume of the yellow flower sprays of these handsome plants of the deep woods of North America. (The hint of their preferred culture, by the way, lies in their native habitat – like the camellia tribe, they prefer the shelter of woods where the winds don’t blow too strongly.)

A mahonia in October
Here’s a Mahonia doing very well, a location within a mile or so of the sea – so out of the range of the salty winds but close enough to benefit from the winter mildness the Firth brings.

But by March they tend to look a bit scorched if planted without shelter. They simply don’t seem to like the kind of exposure they get in my patch. Yet every time I see Mahonia x ‘Charity’ growing in some city-centre garden I think I ought to persevere.

Cistus - also known as rock rose.
The pure white papery petals of this Cistus fall like snow but there are so many blooms that it gives a great display – if you can keep it through the winter. This one is sheltered on all sides and it hunkers down behind a tough old Olearia.

I find these winter-flowering viburnums a bit erratic, even in shelter. Again, when there is a good display of their pale little scented flowers in the depths of winter, you forgive them everything. Worth a try for sure. So they almost make it on the reliable shrubs listing.

It’s the same with the winter-flowering viburnums. I once knew a v. ‘Bodnantense’ breaking all the rules in an east-facing gable-end wind tunnel which flowered all over from November onwards.

Viburnum burkwoodii
Two blue but not necessarily reliable shrubs

Ceanothus are another family with a question mark over their hardiness. Of course, it depends to some extent on species. My ‘Gloire de Versailles’ is perfectly reliable and doesn’t always need the south-facing wall which some of the textbooks advise. And ceanothus are worth trying simply because that soft powder blue bloom is so unusual amongst large shrubs.

Ceanothus – sometimes called ‘The Californian lilac’.

Having said that, it’s the blue of the plumbago Ceratostigma plumbaginoides that may also tempt you in the plant centre. I’ll bet you see it displayed in that section under an awning. And good luck with keeping that one going! I’ve never succeeded. It’s not on my reliable shrubs list.

Think about the planting site for reliable shrubs

…and be realistic. If it’s autumn planting time, and you are planning to invest in some garden colour and don’t want disappointments, then look closely at your planting site. Will the winter winds sweep through it? Is it in sun or overhung by tall trees? Don’t worry, there’s a plant for every location, it’s just that mistakes can be expensive.

It would be nice to live in those soft and favoured spots where such exotica as Crinodendron Hookerianum, the lantern tree or Desfontainia spinosa, like a very upmarket holly, thrived.

I associated both these lovely things with the mild west of Scotland. Having said that, I could show you a thriving Crinodendron (‘Chilean lantern tree’) in East Lothian, but in a sheltered wall garden.

crinodendron hookerianum
Crinodendron hookerianum, the Chilean lantern tree is one of the most exotic looking large shrubs / trees around. But choose its location carefully.

Sometimes there seems to be very localised ‘micro-climates’ that can make all the difference.

But unless your garden is in of these soft and favoured western spots where the Gulf Stream waters lap then you must be cautious and remember that gardening books for England can be a bit optimistic.

However, we northern gardeners can’t complain. At least we’ve got the toughies.

And I’ve just had this afterthought: some of these opinions of plant hardiness were formed over, oh, quite a few decades. Maybe our warming climate is also a factor – and things that would not survive in the north of Scotland, say, 30+ years ago, are much more manageable now. That would explain why my rock-roses do so well these days…


When it comes to ground coversome plants just don’t know where to stop.

With an expression like ‘ground cover’ you sometimes have to read between the lines in these gardening books and flower catalogues. ‘Ground cover’ sounds quite mild. But ‘garden hooligan’ or ‘plain thug’ might be a more accurate description.

Take the innocent-sounding periwinkle, for instance – or should I say Vinca major, to give it its Sunday name. It was here when I moved and it’s been sending out its strangulating stems in all directions ever since. The books describe it as good ground cover. Too right. The horizontal shoots root almost wherever they touch the earth.

Periwinkle’s bid for freedom. NB This is not my garden.

Hah! Want to talk ground cover? This is Vinca major about to take over the world, or at least the foreshore. An extensive patch, growing only on shingle, yet still vigorously trying to smother all the other garden escapes! At least the occasional hibernating hedgehog enjoys it.

Sure, it has its place. The trouble is that its place was definitely not next to the rather attractive planting – I thought back then – of some fancy rhizomatous irises.

(Good grief, I just made up ‘rhizomatous’ to sound horticultural and, blow me, if it isn’t actually a word! At least, the spell-checker hasn’t underlined it in red.)

I teamed the iris with Celmisia, that attractive New Zealand daisy-thing. It was probably semicordata. Dunno – got it from my dad years ago.

Celmisia is in our front garden too and, can you believe it, last year a lady came to our door to ask its name. We howked out a bit for her and she went off completely delighted. Odd how it’s so seldom in garden centres when it’s so popular.

Garden thugs galore

Now, to get back to the garden thuggery. The one thing irises in general need is plenty of sunshine on the rhizomes.

As for the Celmisias, with their sword shaped silvery leaves and large daisy heads they look best when you can see their overall shape. So I turned my back and both species went knee deep in periwinkle. I turfed it out.

What else comes into this ‘plant them at your peril’ category? Well, snow-in-summer is a well known one.

This Cerastium can work wonders as ground cover for dry banks where its grey leaves and white flowers thrive when not much else will grow.

Keep these ground cover bullies away from alpines!

But keep it well away from the rock garden or any little bed where you grow wee alpines. In fact, the rockery seems to be an ideal hunting ground for all kinds of species determined to take over the plot.

There’s the innocent looking Campanula cochlearifolia ‘Alba’. This is sometimes called ‘Fairies’ thimbles’ – which is a bit toe-curling. Still, it’s got bonnie wee white bells.

It’s the sort of thing you take pity on – especially if you’re new to gardening and see it in flower in the garden centre. So you plant a wee bit.

Whoosh! Next minute it’s over the rocks, encircling your demure little alpine gems in a
pincer movement. It has the impudence to push up its leaves right through the middle of well-behaved cushion forming saxifrages.

Campanula persicafolia seeds everywhere - but is very forgivable.
Campanula persicifolia – better behaved than some of its cousins

Sometimes it has a partner-in-crime with purple flowers and round, toothed leaves. This is the less than subtle C. portenschlagiana. (Yet another name to practise saying out loud to impress garden visitors.)

Open ground, rocks, crevices, spaces in paving – it’s all the same to this one.

Before you know it, your rock garden with its artistically positioned bits of strata, is wall-to-wall campanula: a fitted carpet in mauve and green.

Anyway, if you’d read the books before you planted it, you’d see that they all say ‘invasive and long lived‘. Or ‘mat-forming’. Beware, I say, of any plant description that includes those words. You have been warned.

Invasive and long-lived ground cover. Well, look out…

Come to think of it, even the tall bellflower C persicifolia can go a bit mad by seeding – but somehow that untidy cottage garden effect is more tolerable.

Meanwhile back in the herbaceous border, I’d advise you never to turn your back on lambs’ lugs. Yes, agreed, one of the more curious sentences you’ll read today. But Stachys lanata, lambs’ lugs’ posh name, even has a variety called ‘silver carpet’ and the clue once again lies in the name.

It’s a fine grey-leaved ‘feature plant’ at the front of the border and useful for breaking up an otherwise featureless planting. (I am trying and failing to justify its existence here!) But be ruthless with the spade. Keep it chopped back to let it know who’s boss.

Ground cover to keep an eye on - Stachys lanata (lambs' lugs).
Lambs’ lugs. Just waiting till I turn my back…

(Above) Oh, great. Another muddle here. The woolly-leafed Stachys lanata held in check by other toughies (wallflower and columbine). But, hang on, bottom left, there’s a very small shrub, wintersweet, (winter flowering) that hasn’t a chance in that position. Who planted that there? Added to the ‘to do’ list.

Lithospermum can get out of hand
Lithospermum going a bit bonkers. Pic also photo-bombed by white-tailed bumblebee. You’re most welcome...

Ladies ‘Mantle’ – should have been ‘blanket’

Then in this review of misbehaving plants, there are a few that seed themselves everywhere. recently saw a garden centre selling lady’s mantle, Alchemilla mollis, in a small pot for about a fiver.

This means that by late summer I had been composting about £50 worth of seedlings for quite a few weeks, mostly germinating in the gravel. Lady’s mantle is said to be damp-loving.

Mine thrives on gravel that has weed-prevention membrane below. You can never tell what plants will do…

Talking of which, even well behaved species can go daft now and again. In one of my past gardens I had a very handsome Lithospermum diffusum planted at the dry top end of a raised bed. The experts advise adding peat and keeping conditions acid for this attractive ‘little’ blue flowered alpine.

I’d done that in previous gardens and the result was a demure little straggly affair which petered out after a few seasons.

But there it was planted in peat-free chopped up rotted turf – and it was three foot across, covered in bloom, and still growing. Perhaps it just liked me.

Edible spreaders in veg department

And finally, from the edible section of the plot, there’s mint. Just about any mint. Grow it in a bucket, a pot – in fact, any container, so long as you keep it well-watered (even standing in water for some varieties).

Otherwise, chopping bits off it to keep it within bounds just becomes another gardening chore, even if the smell is nice. 

Oh, and horseradish. That kind of horse definitely needs tethering. Definitely in a container. Out in the open bed, if it gets its toes well in, you might just have to move house to escape it.

And, just a thought here, but is wallflower something that can get out of hand and seed itself around? I still kinda like it.


All-Natural is the best fertilizer for the garden

I think I know what is the best fertilizer for the garden. Long ago I lived in a house in the country. I remember one day that our local farmer came out with his tractor and a hitched on muck-spreader – that long cylinder-thing that chops up the strawy manure and flings it in all directions. 

It’s also a standard comedy turn in ‘blooper’ shows and YouTube. You know, when the spreader jams and the farmer has to go and turn it on…it’s a variant on the blocked hose gag.

Anyway, on that day, tractor-man got on with the job. Meanwhile, on my drying green next to his field, just over the hedge, a washing-machine load of sheets fluttered nicely in the breeze. The machine chugged past, gaily flinging its contents hither and beyond. 

Later, when I saw the sheets I momentarily blamed the dog and almost took him to the vet. 

Rubus tridel ‘Benendon’ – the ornamental bramble – is exactly the kind of hungry shrub that loves a good feed of muck in the spring.

Anyway, washing disasters aside, the farmer had cattle overwintering in the byre, so had ready access to as much muck as he needed.

But where to get the muck?

It’s different for small-time gardeners. While country gardeners can sometimes find a supplier, city dwellers are more in a fix if they are tracking down the best fertilizer for the garden. For instance, I have never seen a load of muck dumped outside one of the these grand facades in the New Town of Edinburgh…

It’s early spring and the new raised bed has been bolted together and is getting a good share of muck – the best fertilizer. (It needed it – the commercial compost bought in bags turned out to be awful.) Note also we are the proud owners of twa graips.
Now it’s autumn and the black kale has been cropped for weeks. The broccoli has gone a bit out of control (Hmm, too much muck, eh?) but is intended for the spring anyway. And from this distance you can hardly see the damage from the sparrows, our demanding little chums.

In the old days of the Victorian or Edwardian gardening, it was common to use the heat from fermenting manure to warm up the soil in a cold frame to grow exotic fruit or just to give cuttings and wee plants a good start.

A hotbed of plots

After all, there were horses galore. Now, in spite of nostalgic tv programmes about old gardening techniques, I think few practice it, even if the expression ‘hotbed’ lives on, often describing political shenanigans. Very appropriate, when you think about it.

No, most folk with easy access to either a friendly farmer or a riding stable will dig the organic stuff into their main plot. Actually, forget most of the digging, just layer it around as a mulch – the worms do the rest. 

Unwelcome guests with your load of fertilizer

In my experience, you can get a ton of weeds from horse manure. Perhaps I’m biased here, as I once came home with a barrowful from a local stable and managed to introduce New Zealand flatworm along with the stuff as well.

Besides, there are so many other factors to consider, for instance, the amount of straw in the manure.  So I am not at all sure it is the best fertilizer.

Growing up in a small town, close to the countryside, one of my early memories is the annual ritual of the trailer-load of muck that Dad got from some nearby farmer. It always arrived in the coldest, greyest Saturday morning of the winter and was dumped in the street. 

Then it was all hands on deck with the graip and shovel to get it barrowed through the penn. (That’s how we pronounced ‘pend’.) To be honest it is a fairly grim memory – but what cabbages and tatties Dad grew back then…

The best fertilizer must have bulk

Why go to all this effort? Well, because clean and tidy fertilizers – the kinds you buy in colourfully-printed poly sacks at the garden centre – may have more nutrients, properly balanced and chemically correct, but they don’t have the bulk or the organic matter.

I reckon it isn’t just about how much nitrogen, phosphate or potash you have in your plot; it’s also to do with getting the best possible soil structure: a growing medium that drains at just the right rate and is in good health. 

Besides, when asked, nine out of ten worms said they preferred a soil with plenty of organic matter. They voted that a load of muck from the farm was the best fertilizer.

This business about getting the soil into good health is particularly important if you are on heavy clay. One of the best ways is to dig in strawy manure, which helps open it up. This can make all the difference. 

Climbing rose ‘Parade’
And here’s another one that likes a taste of muck. Climbing rose ‘Parade’ (I think) has gone mad this year. It’s horribly thorny but very free-flowering – still a bloom or two at Christmas most years.

On the other hand, I once had a garden on very sandy hungry soil and found that poultry manure was extremely effective.

There was a chicken farm nearby and I could get the stuff by the sack load. All the books give dire warnings about it burning plant roots. Maybe I was lucky, but I usually got away with it. It was the egg shells I found a bit disconcerting (not to mention the smell!)

By all means, when the time is right, make merry with the Growmore, an inorganic, balanced fertilizer with just the right amounts of nitrogen, phosphate and potash; or the organic bonemeal (very high in phosphate); or the hoof and horn (high in nitrogen).

But if there is any way you get a few barrowloads of the real McCoy into your plot, then don’t hesitate.

Too much of a good thing?

Remember to caa canny on beds intended for root crops. Whereas beans, leeks and cabbages and so on, are usually fine, sometimes carrots can fork or turn into weird orange claws if they come into contact with fresh manure. I suppose you could scare people with them at Halloween. Otherwise, it’s too much of a good thing. Grow your carrots in the bit you manured last season.

Well-screened compost bin. Hmm

They’re ugly but effective, these dalek-type compost bins. So I took a cutting or two of plain old salmonberry (someone’s garden escape), grew them on, planted them out and – behold – the well-screened bin. OK, I now have great difficulty getting the blessed compost out. Got to think about this a bit more…

What about composting household stuff?

Finally, a quick note about composting household waste – I mean vegetable peelings and the like. This generates a good-going glow of self-righteousness, as well as producing dark friable compost if you get things right. So you know you should do it.

Actually – whisper it – rose ‘Parade’ – just by the back door gets several teapots of tea-leaves emptied beside it most weeks, as well as the muck mentioned above.

The tea-leaves end up there because sometimes it’s raining when I empty the teapot and the compost bin is a few more paces away. And I’m wearing my slippers.

So the rose gets it – plus coffee grounds as well, and seems to thrive on the treatment. Has done for years…

Hmm? What’s that you say? No, why would I use teabags? Wait, you’re telling me you make a cup of tea by pouring hot water over bleached paper with plastic reinforcingExtraordinary. Get yourself a proper teapotAnd some loose tea.

Incidentally, you’ll know things are well in compost-bin-land if there are lots of worms on top, writhing about indignantly, when you take the lid off.

In my experience, you shouldn’t need an ‘accelerator’ like, say, Garotta – especially if you add a bit of paper, say, the odd egg box or sheets of used kitchen-roll or newspaper from time to time.

What you’ll never do is rot down those danged avocado stones. What are they made of? Indestructible platinum or something? But throw them in anyway.

The blackbird is friendly, but…

The only one who will not be cooperating with your efforts to mulch the beds with compost will be your local friendly blackbird. It is his (or her) avowed intention in life to remove blobs and globs of manure (sharn) from bare soil and bedeck the lawn with them.

Presumably, it’s just the endless search for skulking horny gollachs, slaters and their ilk – but it’s still an untidy habit from a gardener’s viewpoint.

This is your reward for spending a small fortune on bags of raisins for the blackbird tribe over the winter. It’s just the deal you made with Mr Blackbird and his lady-friend.

The moral of this little rant is: cow manure or home-made compost – slather it on and stand back.

Cow-muck was also an ingredient of the notorious Forsyth’s Plaister. Read all about it.


Attractive pots are great for gardens – but need a little extra attention

Container gardening is, obviously, just the thing for folk with patios, balconies, wee plots or those who simply can’t resist those glazed pots in garden centres.

I caught myself just the other day admiring some handsome terra-cotta pots in a garden store. Just the thing to bring a bit of colour right up to the back door. I even fell into conversation with one of the staff.

From her I learned that, as well as pots, a top selling line was cast concrete animals, like hedgehogs, rabbits and that kind of thing.

Pots en masse
Containers at their best – a vibrant display in troughs, pots and hangers.

Concrete rabbit, anyone?

She kept shrugging his shoulders and saying: ‘Who am I to decide what the public want to buy?‘ We decided that a concrete bunny had much the same appeal as a garden gnome. You either find it attractive or you don’t.

Well, a resin or concrete animal is just that – and there isn’t a lot you can do with it, except admire it (or squash the pang of regret).

But a muckle great glazed pot? That’s a blank canvas. A big range of earthenware comes in from China and the Far East, in plain terracotta as well as glazed and patterned.

Outside pots – A cracking show if there’s frost

Beware, though: don’t stand a glazed pot outside in the winter as frost can crack it badly. Best to check the label or quiz your supplier if his goods are frost proof.

Wooden half-barrels are another quite popular option. You can line them with black plastic or bubble-wrap to stop the wood rotting. There also seem to be a lot of concrete repro containers around, cast to look like ancient stone urns.

Nice weathered looking container.

(Above) Tulips make a great spring display but like all spring bulbs can look a bit dispirited after flowering. A container is a feature and needs that little bit extra attention. What is going in for the summer here, for example?

You can sometimes buy them ready weathered, though they don’t come cheap. Yet another option is to pay a lot for an antique urn in stone, cast iron or lead, from an architectural salvage yard. That’s upmarket container gardening.

At the other end of the scale, obviously, there are also plastic containers of all kinds on offer, many simulating the heavier materials.

However, out of doors, I’ve found plastic pots tend to overheat in sunlight – especially black plastic. In fact, I reckon you can’t beat terracotta for keeping the all-important roots at just the right temperature and free from water-logging.

Containers are heavy!

But whatever container you choose, there are other points to note if planning to fill your patio or any paved area with colour. For a start, a cubic metre of compost weighs close to a metric tonne.

These clever circular trolleys with wheels might be the answer. Wait, they are really called plant caddies, I think, and are just the job if you think you’ll have to move your huge, heavy container from place to place on the patio perhaps. 

Otherwise you should get the grand pot or tub into its final position before you start filling it. Obviously, really. This is also a thought if you intend to put a tub out on a balcony or anywhere else that might have floor weight restrictions.

Re-using a broken pot. A kind of Pompeii vibe going on here (said he pretentiously)
What lies beneath…

With very large containers, you can save on expensive potting compost by using upturned turves (or is it turfs?), garden soil, or home-made compost on the bottom to help with drainage, then top up with the proprietary compost.

Yes, I know this sounds a bit mean but we do like to cut corners here. It’s not as if the garden police are going to bust you. No-one will ever know.

To be honest, I’ve sometimes put a good layer of gravel or stones (helps with drainage) or even old compost from last year – just to make the fresh compost on top go further!

Try to avoid using any container less than about eight inches (20cm)  across, otherwise, in summer, you’ll be out there constantly watering the poor wee thing. With container gardening, big is definitely beautiful. 

However, remember that if you put a wee plant in too big a pot, it will make root growth at the expense of leaves and flowers.

Circular stone container with alpines

(Above) Solid stone, circular with the interior smoothly bored out – never quite seen a container like it. Planted three attractive alpines in it a year or so back. The vigorous alpine phlox (on right) soon smothered the other two…that’s another thing to remember about container gardening. Choose plants of equal growth rates if possible.

Container gardening – a commitment

Know what? I reckon there is more to this container gardening malarkey than you might think.

Whatever you plant, as well as the watering, it’s always a good idea to rake over the surface crust that always seems to develop on pots to allow air and water to penetrate evenly.

The most important thing, I reckon, is that the all-important roots are above ground, prone to temperature fluctuations, as well as the vagaries oh whether or not you remember to water.

It’s a commitment on your part and it’s very easy to stress even tough plants, in times of weather extremes. Sorry to be a bit gloomy here.

You’ve planted the lettuces in what?

Right, that’s the official line on containers for gardening. But there is another aspect of the topic. You can shove your plants into anything you like! No, really.

Nice enough, if a little twee.
Growing tatties in tyres
No, you can’t disguise the fact these are rubber tyres. Hope the tatties don’t taste rubbery.

I’m not saying in which little town but I used to regularly walk past a house whose front garden feature was – wait for it – a row of toilet bowls, each sprouting an array of greenery and colour.

It looked ghastly, but, hey, the owner of the house obviously was happy. The fact that it was in the middle of a terrace made the effect even more, uhmm, striking.

And then we have the novelty arrangements, beloved of some folk. I’m thinking here of, say, old wellie boots, decrepit wheelbarrows, decaying rowing boats (a real community statement that one) and, my especial favourite (not), rubber tyres.

This particular container, no matter how nice the plants are, suffers from the fact that it always looks like an old rubber tyre.

The only thing that’s worse than an old tyre is a tyre that is still attached to the wheel-hub, with the tyre cut round and unfolded so that the metal hub becomes the base.

This makes the arrangement look like a wheel-hub with an outsides-in tyre on top. (I hope it’s not just me…)

Do old sinks make good plant troughs?

I think the jury is out when it comes to old sinks. All right, I have cast envious glances at old brown earthenware sinks that live out in the fields and (formerly?) functioned as drinking vessels for coos or whatever. More than once,  in passing I have thought they’d look OK with alpines.

And then I thought, hang on, that would be theft…talking of which, fish boxes are mentioned below.

Then there was the once-nearly-fashionable practice of taking any old white porcelain sink, and slathering it with cement to make an alpine trough. But you couldn’t stop there, oh no: the manuals then said you had to paint on yoghurt in order to attract moss to make it look weathered. What? Did anyone actually ever do that? And it had to plain yoghurt. 

By the way, I am talking here about sinks that had been replaced and hence removed from the bathroom. You knew that, didn’t you? I confess I once once got as far as trying to cover a white sink in cement. That was difficult enough on the vertical surfaces but the first frost cracked off the lot. Ghastly.

Fishboxes as growing containers
Green beans coming along nicely in greenhouse. In a fish box. Shhhhh.

Plant in anything you have at hand

Right-oh, final confession. Right now, in the greenhouse, I have an old plastic washing-up bowl that has been great for French parsley. Outside, there’s an old metal sink a neighbour was throwing out. It’s got tarragon and chives.

I’ve just drilled holes in the base of a plastic container that started life as a freezer-drawer. That’s for winter lettuces.

And you should see the crop of tatties I got in the fish-boxes this year. Admittedly, fish-boxes not so easy to come by if you live inland. It’s the tides, you see. And you have to ignore the stern warnings printed on the side that says you have to return ‘em to the ‘box pool’, possibly half an ocean away.

There’s world of a difference between practical containers for food, in out of the way corners, and beautiful containers for attractive plants on display – especially alpines.

And I definitely draw the line at toilet bowls in all cases.


You may never get around to!

So, as I write this, it’s a lowering autumn day and garden tasks are on my mind. Winter is at hand. This is the time of year when gardeners make plans. (How many times have I said that?)

Now, there are those plans for garden tasks which are fairly easily achieved. Things you just have to do. Cutting out or extending a planting-bed, for instance. Even if it’s just tidying up an edge or two with the half-moon edger.

Then there are those other plans. These are the ones which fall into the ‘good intentions’ category and, somehow, always seem to be put off.

A herb midden
This is not a herb garden. It’s a raised herb midden in an old metal sink.

Herb garden project – a garden task that’s a ‘maybe’

Take, for instance, the vexed question of the herb garden, requested, not unreasonably, by my wife.

Gardening cliche, I know, but I fancy one of those cartwheel shapes made with brick edging and with carefully laid out designer herbs, properly labelled, all set out conveniently close to the kitchen, so that I nip out to snip the bouquet garni for the mince.

Stylish or what, eh? But has it happened yet? Nope, you can bet your it’ll be the same this coming year again, stravaigin over half the plot looking for the oregano. I planted it somewhere…

One year we made chicken with wallflower leaves at least twice because I went out in the gloaming – acting under instruction, you understand – to get tarragon. Why it was next to wallflower, I really can’t work out in retrospect. In the dusk it was an easy mistake to make.

Actually, probably not… Still, some day I’ll get the herb garden properly laid out. Honest I will. I’m just adding it to the list of garden tasks.

By the way, wallflower leaves don’t taste of anything. Mind you, you could say the same for yon coorse Russian tarragon. All the best people have the French sort, don’t you know…

And a wildflower meadow – aye, right

Oooh! A wildflower meadow. But not in my garden.

Another thing I quite fancy is to make a serious effort at a wildflower meadow. The fact I don’t actually have the space for anything remotely resembling a meadow is the least of the obstacles.

This is not really a problem because, deep down, I fear it will never quite reach the top of the priorities.

Oh, yes, I think most of us have fallen for the gaily illustrated packets or tubes of wild flowers. We’ve flung them hither and beyond and then – nothing.

Partly because we forgot about them, but partly because I reckon that unless you plant these seeds in wee plugs, and then plant out the plugs, then the wild flower seedlings get overwhelmed.

So, there isn’t anything spontaneous about a well-coloured wild-flower patch. The art is in making it look natural.

I’ll content myself with the odd wild corner instead. This is the part of the garden usually described as: ‘Have you been round the back of the shed recently? It’s a jungle!’

I argue that the hedgehogs like it that way. And those nettles had red admiral butterfly caterpillars on them last year. So they had to stay. But one day I will have a proper go at growing wildflowers in the grass. You know I will. It’s on the garden tasks list.

Garden life on the edge

And here’s another job I’d like to do. The easy-going ladies’ mantle Alchemilla mollis – flops across the lawn edge every summer. Alchemilla is tough and undemanding, inclined to spread but worthwhile all the same.

The logical and neat thing to do would be to lay slabs of some sort to separate grass from herbaceous plant.

Instead, year upon year, every time I cut the grass I catch myself adopting strange contortions. I sort of hop behind the mower with the other leg extended in front to hold back the floppy plant while I cut underneath it.

It’s crazy (and slightly unsafe from an ‘elfin safety’ point of view). But will I lay those slabs? Well, uhmm, maybe one day.

Oh, the list goes on. A sturdy bit of walling instead of the decaying larch-lap fencing; and the extra staging which I have been promising to put up in the greenhouse. Listing garden tasks can easily become endless.

Good greenhouse staging – a garden task achieved!

Actually, can you believe it – I’ve solved the staging issue. Instead of over-priced dedicated staging, I got a couple of metal (yes, metal) structures described as ‘Camping Catering Heavy Duty Folding Trestle Tables’

They were great value for money and are as sturdy as could be – and they seem rust-resistant too. The picture shows one of them in my realistically untidy greenhouse.

Aside from the slightly demanding gardening tasks listed above. There is a minor list of little things that never quite get done out of sheer…well, what? Lack of time perhaps?

Another year gone by and I never got round to planting winter lettuces for just one last trial. I’ve never succeeded with them before, under cover I mean. With me they just go into suspended animation. Then, when the days start to lengthen, they bolt. Ho-hum. But I’m determined to crack this one. Watch this space. 

Potatoes grown for Christmas. What?

Hmm. So no roast spuds this year on Xmas day. Not from the garden anyway.

(Above) The grand reveal: the potatoes planted to be harvested at Christmas. That was what the packaging said. The total crop is in my hand. Smaller than the potatoes I started with. Never again.

So, winter lettuces are almost in that ‘never again’ category – like growing potatoes for Christmas. Who dreamt that one up?

Those beguiling little bags in garden centres. I tried ‘em once – and I think I have mentioned this elsewhere – but the resultant crop was smaller in volume than the volume of potato that was planted. Micro-spuds. It ain’t natural, I tell ‘ee.

But I vow that this spring I will make real efforts to get those herbaceous plant supports in place in time. I mean before the growth really starts to rocket. There are few things more guaranteed to try the patience than trying to bend and coax a big yellow scabious – I’m thinking Cephalaria gigantica here – already reaching for the sky like a lanky adolescent

And I mean bend or thread it into one of these wiry supports that are gradually engulfed by foliage as the spring gets under way. Why do I always leave it too late when those tall plants definitely need staking this far north? I promise, next year it will be different…

Unless you are ruthlessly dedicated and spending all day, every day, in the plot, there are always jobs which never quite happen. The demands of work, family, other hobbies, and a social life make it that way for the average gardener. (It’s quite normal. I wouldn’t worry about it!)

Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a bonny wee cowslip I need to move this minute…I’ve been meaning to do it for months now.

And by the way….what makes a nice garden, anyway?


How thoughtful planting created a real haven

The nicest garden I ever knew was in a city quite a long way from here. At least, far enough away so that the owner could never know if I wrote about it. 

It never opened to the public, not even under Scotland’s Garden Scheme. (This was also because, to be honest, it wasn’t actually in Scotland either!)

I’ve often wondered why it’s my favourite garden of all time. I think I liked this one best because it was a private and personal effort by one gardener, working alone.

You can tell by the past tense that I am going back in time quite a few years. The owner passed away some years ago and the house was sold…I have no photographic record of it. But lots of memories.

Another nice garden. Calming and inviting.

Gardens are transient

After the gardener and creator died, I never saw the garden again. I expect it will have changed totally – because from experience, I know that an hour or two with a mechanical digger can obliterate a lifetime’s work. Gardens are transient.

A few family friends and relations saw it back then. On fine days, they would take tea under
the shade of a laburnum tree halfway down the long, narrow plot.

I remember, In a nearby bed, the seed pods of the bladder senna, Coluteus Arborescens – not common in this neck of the woods these days – made a gentle rattly hiss in late summer breezes as a soothing background.

Each visitor was captivated by the sense of calm and relaxation – and isn’t that what gardens are all about?

The rose ‘Constance Spry’

Let me think back some more…Nearer the house and supporting the spicy-scented pink rose ‘Constance Spry’, from the shady spot with its shoogly table, you could see, a garden shed which needed a coat of preservative.

Actually, I would like to use the word ‘mellowed’ here, of that storage structure. It’s so much kinder than the reality, which was ‘dilapidated’. But it was half hidden by the rose anyway.

(By the way, Constance Spry the person, as you probably know, had a fascinating life and floristry and flower arrangements was just a couple of her pursuits. And ‘Constance Spry’ the rose was the first ever developed and introduced in 1961 by the well-known English rose company David Austin Roses.)

Bistort or Easter ledges
Easter ledges – another name for the common bistort

(Above) Easter ledges is not only an attractive and easy going plant, the leaves are an ingredient in a Northern English pudding traditionally made at Easter. The lady-owner of the garden I am describing here was the first person I ever heard use the term.

The Great Gale

Now where were we? Oh yes, in the nicest garden there was an apple tree in front of the shed. This tree was well tilted over by the great gale or hurricane of 15-16th October 1987 down there in England.

I recall making a rough prop for the leaning tree afterwards from a forked branch.

But it thereafter made an easy scramble for Clematis viticella and its late summer purple flower.

I remember at the foot of the tree were some hellebores and primulas, which give a spring display. So there was colour for most of the year, somewhere amongst the plantings. The art was in making it look so casual.

In this long narrow garden, there was a reasonably sized shrub and herbaceous border, sheltered from the east by a boundary of overgrown ivy, evergreen laurel and the neighbour’s pear tree.

No rarities – it all just worked in the nicest garden

Come to think of it there was nothing really exceptionally out of the ordinary here,
yet it all worked so well together. A purple smoke tree (Cotinus) contrasted with the golden variety of Philadelphus coronarius, happy in the dry soil and scenting the June air as well.

Purple, yellow and glossy green somehow become harmonious. Pinks sprawled on to
the grass, grey leaved anaphalis with wee pearly flowers continued the theme of clever use of colour. Columbines seeded themselves at random, violas colonised the cracks of the path.

Another nice garden
Never sure about these ornaments – but this Japanese-style seems to work.
Another nice garden.

The bottom end had a productive vegetable plot, reached by brushing through a rosemary bush on one side and a lavender on the other.

The vegetable area was tucked behind some larch-lap fencing that had seen better days and seemed to held together and upright by twining honeysuckle.

A big Bramley apple rained fruit down in October as some of its branches were too tall to be picked or reached safely.

Round the sides of the vegetable plot were old soft fruit plants: things like a 40 year old blackberry variety whose name had long been forgotten (it came as a cutting from an English Home Counties big hoose).

Beans, both French and runner, salad stuff in profusion, fennel, tarragon and other herby material were tied back and held in place, so rampant did they all become. 

Better than any garden designer

The whole effect was, I suppose, like a cottage garden, though this was in a city suburb. It certainly didn’t have that self-consciously posing glossy gardening magazine look. And it didn’t have ‘water features’, trompe l’oeil mirrors, hard surfaces or any other ‘must-have’ garden-designery features. 

The artfulness and sensible planting were hardly noticeable. Best of all, in the nicest garden I ever knew there was nothing that was outrageously exotic or difficult to grow or to buy.

But there was a snag…

There’s only one small snag in all this. Indoors, you wouldn’t believe the cobwebs in the lobby and the stoor (Scots: dust) in the sitting room. And the kitchen of the house was definitely a bio-hazard. I suppose it’s all a matter of priorities. It was obvious where the lady-owner’s were – and they certainly weren’t inside!

Well, looking back, I can only conclude that there are only 24 hours in a day and few can create a lovely garden without cutting a few corners elsewhere in the domestic arrangements!

Though I’ll never be back, I bet under the new owners the kitchen is immaculate. And the garden is lockblock with a trampoline. Hmm.


Scottish words in the garden

Why yirdit, you could ask? Well, in my childhood home I often heard this Scottish word in the garden used to mean covered with earth or just mucky – more or less how you might find yourself after a heavy session in the garden.

Then there was the second meaning of ‘bogged down’, usually literally. It might describe a farm cart that had stuck up to the axles in mud. It was ‘yirdit’. Yes, I get bogged down in my garden sometimes.

In more poetic uses, according to my Scots Dictionary, yird can mean the ground, or the grave or the earth itself, as in Planet Earth. Our poet Robert Burns used it more than once:

‘When lyart leaves bestrew the yird.’

The Jolly Beggars

(Lyart here is streaked or multi-coloured and another etymological by-way.)

And of course yird is also cognate with yard, as in back-yard – so here we are back at earth and garden again.

And our Scandinavian friends, Danish and Norwegian, have their own word ‘jord’, meaning earth. So, in short – that’s why yirdit.

So, I hope you enjoy getting yirdit, both out of doors and right here.

Glossary of Scottish words

  • as Yirdit isn’t the only word you might find.

Bield: shelter. (Fleece might do if you weighed it down.)

Coorse: how we say ‘coarse’ in the sense of harsh or wicked.

Doo, (often) cushie doo: pigeon, cf ‘dove’ (often) cushat dove. Wait, has anyone ever said ‘cushat dove’ since PG Wodehouse?

Fashed: upset. As in ‘Dinna fash yersel’ – don’t get worked up.

Fusionless: (pronounced ‘foo-zhin-liss’) lethargic, limited in power. Like a petrol mower when it needs servicing.

Gallus: daring, cheeky; like garden pigeons or horsetail roots.

Gloaming: half-light or twilight. Hopeless time for gardening.

Graip: digging fork. Multi-pronged. Neptune possibly had one, though not for gardening.

Horny gollach: forkie-tail. No? Clip-shears. No again? OK, it’s an earwig.

Howk: to dig or pull up. Tattie-howkers were the squad potato farmers hired at harvesting time.

Loon: boy. The orra loon was the spare hand on the farm, often the youngest. Orra? Oh, that means spare or sometimes just plain uncouth.

Midden: (originally) a kind of agricultural rubbish dump. Can also describe a teenager’s bedroom. Or our garden shed.

Muckle: large. Och, I’m sure you knew this.

Oxter: armpit. Redwings (a kind of upmarket thrush) have red oxters.

Penn (pend): originally an archway. We used it to mean the outside covered passageway linking the back and front of the house.

Rax: (v) to strain; to stretch out or reach.

Scunner: ‘fed-up-ness’. As verb, to be put off or sickened of something. ‘I’m scunnered trying to grow winter lettuce.’

Scutter: a finicky job, a faff. (As verb) to mess about without achieving a lot. Like trying to get poinsettia bracts to colour up in their second year.

Sharn: cow-dung. Sharny-dubs: cow-dung and mud. Nice.

Sheuch (in): to cover with soil temporarily or hastily.

Slaister: a mess. What happens when working with wet cement or mud perhaps. Or when you try to make hypertufa.

Slater: a wood-louse.

Slather: to coat excessively.

Stravaig: to wander about. Pronounced ‘stra-vaig’, with emphasis on second syllable.

Swikkin: cheating. Also verb ‘to swick’ (somebody). Using plastic grass is definitely swikkin. (And the height of vulgarity.)

Thrawn: stubborn, like dandelion roots, or Border terriers.

Weel happit: Properly dressed or well protected for the conditions. The blue plumbago with fleece round it might be weel happit for the winter. On the other hand, possibly not.

Yokit: Set up for work or in harness (cf ‘yoked’). Yokin time – start of day – is the opposite of lousin time (cf ‘loosening’) – end of day – on the farm ie when the horses were yoked up or unyoked.


Some Gardening Observations

A few thoughts on why we are gardeners, with a sprinkling of sanctimony and moralising. (Oh, I’ll get over it…) Assuming you are reading this because you got bitten by the gardening bug, how did you spend your time before?

digging a raised bed

It’s still winter…but there’s a raised bed to fill. The easy way is to just turn over the turf and fill the bed with commercial compost. Why are we gardeners? Don’t ask me right now.

A gardening chum of mine once had his plot right next door to the clubhouse of a golf course. (In the Central Belt – doesn’t really matter where…) Every Saturday afternoon he could hear, over the wall, the banter of the players as they got their golf-carts yokit. Then there was the clatter of their spiked shoes as they came down the steps. The golfers sounded as though they hadn’t a care in the world.

Meanwhile, he’d be down about three feet in the soil, hauling on a reluctant horsetail with roots that went on for ever or, at least, right under the rockery. ‘How come’, he’d think, ‘they’re over the wall enjoying themselves and I’m struggling to get the rock garden clear of pernicious weeds’ Why are we gardeners?’

Non sine pulvere palma. Whit?

Well, that’s the down side of gardening. Isn’t there a saying, something like ‘not without the dust the prize’?

(Why am I asking this question when I know fine it’s Latin ‘Non sine pulvere palma’. The palma part refers to the palm-wreath that bedecked the winner. Ooh, get him and his Boris Johnsonian pretensions.)

In the gardening world you don’t get something for nothing. You work at your ground – shortcuts are permitted – and it brings rewards. (Even so-called low-maintenance gardens need a bit of attention – unless you plump for lock-block and plastic grass, in which case it isn’t a garden at all. Just a parody.)

Gardens. Are they worth the time?

Anyway, my friend admitted to me he was getting to the stage of wondering if it was worth it. The question about why are we gardeners was beginning to prey on his mind.

He didn’t want to play golf – but he did think about the passing of time. There goes another weekend, he thought, when, instead of being somewhere hillwalking, he’d be raxing himself barrowing soil around for a raised bed or laying out another path.

On the Coire Garbh of Ladhar Bheinn in the far west. Clearly, this is not a gardening weekend.

On the Coire Garbh of Ladhar Bheinn in the far west. Clearly, this is not a gardening weekend.

I’m sure most of us have felt like that just now and again. But his gardening did pay off in all kinds of ways.

First of all he noticed his friends from the city centre started to call on sunny Sunday afternoons. They admitted that they just wanted to sit in a lovely garden. This was certainly a reward for his efforts.

And at least it made him sit down as well, instead of rushing around with the wheelbarrow. So his social life didn’t suffer too much.

Then there was the satisfaction of home grown produce. ‘Yes’, his guests at meal times would say, ‘French beans definitely taste different when they have been picked just an hour before the
meal.‘ (It’s true, of course they do.)

Why are we gardeners? Because the fresh food we grow ourselves makes us feel healthy – coupled with the exercise we take while growing it. (Seems a watertight theory.)

home grown tomatoes

From greenhouse to plate. Hint: grow different colours of tomatoes – at least it makes the tomato salad look visually interesting. Wait though, are they very small tomatoes or is that a very large spoon?

Hmm…more to this food photography than I thought.

Why are we gardeners? Well, your garden may be a worthwhile investment

Then there came the time when, with a growing family, it came to move on. He was lucky enough to own the property. The estate agent came to look round and was impressed by all the work outside. He decided that he would take any prospective buyer into the garden first.

In fact, the agent said ‘I’m going to sell this house in the garden.’ And, as this is a true tale with a happy ending, he certainly did, for a very good price.

And that was many years ago. Now the householders lucky enough to have a house and a garden are realising just what an asset it can be. Especially in these grim days during a pandemic when outdoor space is sought after, even if it is only for a ‘garden-office’.

Now, let’s not be too mercenary. Why are we gardeners? Well, we tend our plots for all kinds of reasons. But my friend admitted that, all of a sudden, he realised what all those weekends of work meant in cash terms: quite a few thousand above the asking price – more than the next door neighbour would get.

That neighbour spent all his time on the golf course and only had a boring square of grass in his back yard!

The estate agent said the house sold itself because people fell in love with the garden. My friend almost felt guilty about it especially as he’d only pulled the heads off some of the pernicious horsetails for the purposes of viewing. They were all going to come back again!

(Wait, maybe you pull the tails off horsetails. Let me think about that.)

Celmisia going over, campanula hogging the foreground while Phlomis russeliana harmonises with the stonework. By the way, this Phlomis - 'Turkish sage' - is a bit of a thug and shows no mercy to its neighbours.

Celmisia going over, campanula hogging the foreground while Phlomis russeliana harmonises with the stonework. By the way, this Phlomis – ‘Turkish sage’ – is a bit of a thug and shows no mercy to its neighbours.

Gardening is good for you – and a labour of love

So if you sometimes have your doubts about all those hours of digging, think of the exercise in the fresh air. Think of the taste of carrots straight out of the ground and your own tatties.

And those moments of smug triumph when you know that all of the ingredients of that green salad were actually growing only an hour ago…

And if you’re still not convinced that gardening is one of the best hobbies around, then, you never know, all those backbreaking tasks might bring their own hard cash reward some day in the future.

That is, when your work creates someone else’s dream garden.

But don’t garden for that final reason only. After all, gardening is really a labour of love.