Unaccustomed, as I am, to public speaking

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Back in the Autumn, whilst up to my eyes in work, I received an invitation to deliver a talk to a small group of ladies. I accepted without hesitation, secure in the knowledge that I’d have ages to prepare – the event was not taking place until the following March.

I’ve given short talks before, but this one needed to last for an hour. That should be fine, I thought, until I researched how many words I needed to write and got a bit of a shock – 7,000 should do it, said a lecturer acquaintance. Or maybe 5,000 with a few slides thrown in, I hoped. (For comparison, these Village Breeze articles barely scrape past 400 words.)

Luckily my topic, ‘The History of Garden Design’, allowed me plenty of scope to extend myself (and the opportunity for loads of pictures).


The gardens at Versailles, which may or may not have featured…

I told myself it would be refreshing to immerse myself in the theory and history of design as if I was a student again, and leafing through the old notepads did prove to be an entertaining way to spend the last month or so (of course I left it to the last minute).

So starting with the first garden (of Eden) I set off on a whistle-stop tour of gardening history. I met some interesting folk along the way, like the Egyptian Pharaoh who’s said to have built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon for his wife, and the Chinese Emperor who filled a lake in his garden with wine (which is a great idea and I’ll be happy to design one for any readers out there).

On I rambled. Dwelling briefly on the Romans – real gardeners with a love of elaborate water features and new plant discoveries – through the Renaissance and onwards past Tudor knot gardens, filled with flowers and herbs for making posies (which were carried to disguise the terrible smell of the Elizabethans).

I waxed lyrical about the great British designers Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown and Humphrey Repton, then on to the Victorian plant hunters who scoured the world to bring back exotics for us to impress our neighbours with. Into the last century we met some women designers, Vita Sackville West and Gertrude Jekyll, who combined plants so beautifully.

And there was more – much more, which I’ll save, as I’ve just been invited to give the same talk to the Womens’ Institute. I wouldn’t want to give away the ending! But the talk went well, and almost none of the audience fell asleep…


This article first appeared in the April 2014 issue of Village Breeze magazine.
photo by: Renata Barros

Reading, writing and rhubarb

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If you’re of a certain age, you’ll remember trying to grow beans on a damp piece of blotting paper on the school window sill. Or maybe you grew carrot tops from cuttings, or cress in half egg-shells.

For many people, the fruitless experience of trying to germinate seeds during science lessons put them off gardening for life. And that’s a shame, because gardening is an extremely beneficial hobby, both physically and mentally.

Now school gardening is about to change. From September, gardening will be taught in British schools as part of the National Curriculum. This follows many years of campaigning by organisations as diverse as the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), The Sun newspaper, Morrisons supermarket and the Church of England.

Why teach gardening, when teachers’ time is already thinly spread? Research by the RHS points to a wide range of benefits to pupils, from enhanced academic skills, improved motivation and behaviour, to better health and wellbeing.

Gardening won’t be taught by itself – it will be integrated into core curriculum subjects. It is an ideal medium to transmit important lessons in an engaging and exciting way. All curriculum subjects can be approached through the study of growing plants.

To quote a teacher from Esh Winning Primary School: “The garden is a much more enjoyable place to learn than the classroom. Examining a plant is much more meaningful and memorable than looking at a diagram… Food chains are easier to understand when you have watched caterpillars devour your cabbages and then seen a blue tit pick them off the leaves and feed them to their young in your nesting box.”

Of course not all schools will have the resources or space to set up their own allotments, but that shouldn’t stop them. The carrot tops of yesteryear are now ‘root veg volcanoes’ – carrot, swede and turnip tops, decorated and planted into a landscape of compost in seed trays. Suttons’ sell a seed kit of micro-greens which can be planted on a window sill and studied and eaten within a week.

The new curriculum doesn’t start until September, but if you are keen to introduce your kids to some simple gardening activities, there is a list of resources below. As well as teaching them about the natural world, we could be cultivating the next generation of avid gardeners.

The School Run – a web resource for parents of primary school children

The Royal Horticultural Society – Campaign for School Gardening resources

BBC ‘Dig In’ – lesson plans for teachers

Growing Schools – a website dedicated to teaching children outside of the classroom

Activities for children from the Soil Association – a UK charity campaigning for healthy, humane and sustainable food, farming and land use

Budding Gardeners – devoted to setting up school gardens, by Harrod Horticultural

Outdoor classroom activities from Field Studies Council – an environmental education charity dedicated solely to providing informative and enjoyable opportunities for people of all ages and abilities to discover, explore, be inspired by, and understand the natural environment.

This article first appeared in the March 2014 issue of Village Breeze magazine.

photo by: {just jennifer}

A Low Maintenance Garden

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Low maintenance garden

All the famous gardens you see in magazines or on the television are the result of thousands of hours of hard work. Few of us are able to toil full-time in their gardens (don’t I know it), and not many can afford to employ gardeners to work on their behalf. With longer working hours, later retirement dates and an ever-ageing population, the lure of the “Low Maintenance Garden” is getting stronger by the day.

We were called in by a client in Donisthorpe, Leicestershire, to bring some life to their dull, featureless back garden. The brief was to create an interesting space with fruit trees and space to grow produce, together with colourful planting, and the whole scheme was to be as low maintenance as possible.

The existing garden was a totally blank canvas – the only feature being a mystery gravel path which lead nowhere – and the plot sloped slightly uphill away from the house. Here’s the garden before we started work:

The "before' shot

Lawns can be one of the most time-consuming garden features of all, so we decided to break the space into sections with two circular interlocking, stepped artificial lawns. A gravel and sandstone path lead around the lawns to a sandstone circle seating area, while the outer edges of the garden were planted with herbaceous perennials and shrubs, with ground cover planted into the gravel path to soften the edges.

To give the plant borders a contrasting backdrop on which to perform as they grow, the existing fences were stained black, and we installed some small trellis panels to break the borders into sections.

Low maintenance garden

The planting consisted of a mainly pink/purple palette of Penstemons, Echinacea, Geraniums and Irises, with a structural foliage planting of Phormiums, Melianthus major, Fatsia, Hosta, Euphorbia and Carex. Trees included Gleditsia, Amelanchier, a standard Photinia, as well as a pear and a Victoria plum. Bulbs included miniature and regular Narcissus, five varieties of Tulip in various shades of pink and purple, Alliums and Leucojum, and the path was planted with Erigeron, Thyme, Armeria and Stachys.

Low maintenance garden

Landscaping on this garden was by Design & Pave. The garden design and planting was by ourselves. Photography was by Dan Barker.

Low maintenance garden paths

Tulip mania

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As I touched upon last month, Autumn is the time to plant spring bulbs. A favourite of mine is the tulip – planted en masse in pots they make ideal and portable splashes of colour where needed in the garden, and they can be rearranged and re-potted each year, allowing you to experiment with colour combinations.

With so many varieties to choose from today it’s difficult to understand how, nearly 400 years ago, an offer of 12 acres of land was made in exchange for a single Semper Augustus tulip bulb. Tulip mania, as the period became known, took place in Holland in the 1630s, when prices for the newly introduced Tulip reached extraordinary levels, then suddenly collapsed.

An image from Verzameling Van Een Meenigte Tulipaanen – the 1637 Tulip book of P. Cos, the source document for much of what is known about Tulip mania

An image from Verzameling Van Een Meenigte Tulipaanen – the 1637 Tulip book of P. Cos, the source document for much of what is known about Tulip mania

After their arrival from Turkey in the 1590s, Tulips became sought after by the merchant classes and bulbs started to trade at a premium. As the flowers themselves take 1-3 years to form new bulbs from offsets, or 7-12 years from seed, new tulips bulbs were scarce. As demand rose, supply could not match it and prices started to rise.

Several years after the Tulip’s introduction they became infected with Tulip Breaking Virus. While weakening the plant, the virus also causes vivid striping and feathering to the colour of the petals. This effect further increased the desirability and rarity of the bulbs, pushing prices even higher.

(Here’s the economics bit, so concentrate!) Actual trade in the physical bulbs was only possible between June and September. To enable continued trade Dutch buyers developed futures contracts (promises to buy bulbs when they became available). As demand continued to rise, a futures market was established where these contracts themselves were traded (with no actual bulbs changing hands, just paper promises to buy).

By 1636 speculators had moved into the market, buying bulbs and futures contracts purely for the purposes of selling them on again at a profit. Prices skyrocketed – a good trader could earn up to 60,000 florins a month (approximately £43,600 today). Eventually, in February 1637, the bubble burst when no-one was willing to pay the vastly inflated prices and the whole market crashed.

Today you can’t buy Semper Augustus, as the Tulip Breaking Virus weakened it to the point it could not be propagated. But breeders have replicated the effects of ‘breaking’ without infecting bulbs with the virus. Today you can enjoy the beautiful flames and feathers for about 75p per bulb.

This article first appeared in the October 2013 issue of Village Breeze magazine.

ps If you fancy browsing the Tulip Book of P.Cos from 1637, it’s online at Wageningen UR.

Autumn is the new Spring

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Where did the summer go? It doesn’t seem like five minutes since I was writing about spring, and now it’s harvesting and planting time. And while September provides a glut of apples, blackberries and tomatoes, it is also the best time for gathering seed, taking stock and thinking about what needs doing ready for next year – whether you’re planning for year-round colour, filling gaps or you’re thinking about starting again.

Whilst everyone heads off to the nursery or garden centre at the first signs of spring, the best time for planting your garden, I think, is early autumn. It’s a great time to plant shrubs. The soil is still warm and moist from autumnal rains and plants will set roots and establish themselves nicely before the really cold weather sets in.

If you’re prepared to do a bit of work, you can prepare next year’s plants right now, for almost nothing. Cutting down the stems of perennial flowers will yield seed to grow new plants. You can save these to sow into your beds in the spring or, better still, sow into pots or seed trays now for larger plants ready to add to your borders by early summer.

Now is also the time to take stem cuttings from shrubs such as Bay, Box, Weigela and Philadelphus. Find non-flowering shoots, strip away all but the top-most leaves, trim them at the bottom of the cutting, beneath a pair of leaves, dip into rooting powder and insert around the side of a pot of gritty compost. Stand outside, away from direct sun, water in and keep damp. Your cuttings will root over the autumn and into spring to make new shrubs. It’s a very satisfying and cheap way to grow new stock and, even if you don’t need them yourself, you can feel great by giving them away to friends and neighbours.

September is also the time to start planting spring bulbs. After a long, grey winter, the sight of Daffodils, Crocus and then Tulips a little later are all guaranteed to cheer us up with some colour. Garden centres and nurseries will be stocking bulbs soon, along with all sorts of implements for planting them. Unfortunately I don’t find they work so well – there is little substitute for getting down on your knees and digging!

This article first appeared in the September 2013 issue of Village Breeze magazine.

Japanese-Inspired Garden

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As much as we enjoy designing low-maintenance traditional English gardens, it’s good to be asked for something different once in a while. When we were approached in 2012 to design a garden in a Japanese style, we couldn’t say no.

Our clients had travelled extensively and admired the serene combination of natural rock, stone, gravel and water of Japanese gardens. The problem was that their garden was on a less then serene slope, and was dark, tired and a bit unloved.

The garden before we began work – dark and sloping

The garden before we began work – a bit tired and unloved

Ironically, having undertaken a lot of research, including watching some interesting programmes about Japanese garden design on the Japanese news channel NHK, we proposed a scheme based around a distinctly Chinese-style moon gate. The gate was to act as an entrance way but also to frame the garden from the viewpoint of a decked area with curved granite bench. The lawn area was to be levelled and replaced with a silver-grey granite gravel “sea”, surrounding islands of planting, Gniess boulders and granite stepping stones. The existing garden had some natural stone walling, so we reused this as cladding for the supporting walls.

We created a subtle, bubbling water feature from bamboo spouts and a traditional Tetsu bachi granite bowl, and the scene was completed with a hand carved granite Go Ju No Tou pagoda lantern.

The planting was a combination of Japanese and western. We used Acer palmatum, bamboo, Japanese irises and a Japanese flowering cherry, together with Hostas, Liriope, ferns, Cornus, Pinus mugo, creeping Juniper, Pittosporum tobira and a selection of grasses.

The landscaping was undertaken by Antony Cresswell of AC Creations in Whitwick. Design and planting by ourselves. Many of the features, such as the pagoda, stepping stones, Gneiss boulders and Tetsu bachi bowl, were from Photography was by Dan Barker.

Garden build timelapse

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The phrase “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs” is, when you think about it, the perfect way to prepare a client for the turmoil which is about to engulf their garden. They’ve seen the design sketches, the plans, the mood-board – but none of these give any indication of the mud, skips, mini-diggers and pallet of materials which go hand in hand with the process of turning the design into reality.

So, as a window into the world of the garden build, we decided to create a timelapse video showing the construction of one of our designs.

The garden, in Ashby de la Zouch, was designed in early 2012. The brief was to create a family space with a lot of space for growing fruit and vegetables, together with a seating area and ornamental pond. We’ll showcase the finished garden on a future post, but for now, here’s the timelapse of the construction. The build, by Antony Cresswell of AC Creations, took place between September 2012 and January 2013.

Wildlife gardening by proxy

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There’s a certain irony which comes with working as a garden designer. You’re passionate about plants and gardens and the outdoors, and you spend a lot of time in other people’s gardens, helping to give them a space to relax and enjoy. But as spring gives way to summer – the most exciting and vibrant time of the gardening year – I am so busy with work that my own garden starts looking decidedly rough around the edges.

This year so far I have managed a few occasions outside with the family, but my sun loungers remain as unused as they were last year. Apart from the odd breakfast outside and a couple of BBQs, I’ve barely ventured outside.

People often ask me what my garden is like. Well, I am ashamed to say that the phrase ‘The cobblers children have no shoes’ fits the bill perfectly. We set about the garden with gusto when we first moved in about 6 years ago, so we have a good structure in the shape of a well defined lawn and beds. Some height is supplied by a little apple tree (that one day I hope to be able to hang lanterns from) and trellis screens that divide the lawn and beds from the veg garden.

We have a fine selection of plants that provide year-round colour and interest – although, in a twist to the age old philosophical question, can a plant provide interest if no-one is there to look at it?

But the week to week maintenance tasks, which I piously recommend to you to in these pages, are seldom carried out here.

As for the veg garden – what were once thriving, productive beds. supplying us and the neighbours with most of our 5-a-day, are now a pale shadow with only early potatoes (unearthed up), a few cabbages and tomatoes, and lots of empty space.

I have promised myself a day tidying the garden next week… for the last three months, so I have, this year, decided instead to call it a wildlife garden. This does mean we are seeing hedgehogs, frogs and every type of insect. Birds have got plenty of hiding places and this is all for the good. The garden feels alive with life, not only the plants but the visitors as well. Maybe I’ll leave tidying up for a bit longer…

This article originally appeared in Village Breeze Magazine, July 2013

photo by: Key Foster

A Growing Concern

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Usually, when I write these articles, I’m sat at my laptop late in the evening, trying to produce 400 words whilst battling with umpteen work- and home-related interruptions. This month, things are different – I’m sat outside in brilliant Bank Holiday sunshine with a pad and a pen, surrounded by warmth, birdsong and plants, on the opening day of my new nursery.

Blackfordby Nursery

Blackfordby Nursery

I love plants – it’s one of the reasons I became a garden designer. My love of plants came from a love of flowers (I once considered a career in floristry), and a fascination with the biology of plants. It’s truly amazing to me that the tallest tree and tiniest alpine plant both start life as almost identical seeds.

So when the opportunity arose last year to take over an established nursery, I couldn’t resist.

If you were to ask my garden design clients to name one must-have requirement for their gardens, 95% would ask that it be low-maintenance. That means little place for bedding plants like Pansies, Petunias and Lobelia, or hanging baskets that need constant care. My clients’ planting schemes rely mostly on herbaceous perennials, bulbs, grasses and shrubs. And that is exactly what I’m growing – from cottage garden favourites such as Lupins and Delphiniums, through fashionable grasses like Stipa gigantia, to Aliums, Camassia and shrubs such as Wiegela, Lavender and Sambucus. I will be gradually increasing the range of plants, so there should always be something new to discover.


The nursery is in Blackfordby, where I live and work. I’m sure many of you will have known it over the years – in the 1980s it was the site of a tree nursery run by the Vernon family, who eventually moved it to Smisby where it has grown into the Bluebell Arboretum. Over the last few years the site was home to a nursery run by Frank Mulholland, until he passed away. And now I’ve taken it over to grow plants for my business (and indulge my passion for flowers).

As Frank did, I’m hoping to open up to the public most weekends, offering advice and a quiet spot for some contemplation on what’s growing. So if you’re in the Blackfordby area during the spring and summer, keep a look out for my open signs and come in to say hello. I’ll be very pleased to meet you. And you can follow the goings on, including news, opening times and the “What’s Looking Good” list, via Twitter at @blafferby

This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of Village Breeze magazine

Blackfordby Nursery Open Day

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Primulas at Blackfordby Nursery

The eagle-eyed amongst you, especially those who read our Facebook Page, will have noticed I have taken over the nursery in Blackfordby. After 6 months hard work, I’m proud to announce that Blackfordby Nursery will be opening to the public on Bank Holiday Monday, from 10am until 4pm.

Local garden centres need not worry themselves too much – it’s not our intention to muscle in on their turf. I’m not selling ornaments, pets or Christmas decorations, and there’s no tea room. I’m just growing plants for my garden design business, and selling any surplus direct to local garden enthusiasts. I usually favour herbaceous perennials in my planting schemes, and we have a good selection of traditional British perennials, such as Lupins and Delphiniums, as well as some more unusual ones. We also have good stocks of Aliums, Daffodils, some beautiful Magnolias, and a stock of alpines.

There has been a nursery on and off in Blackfordby since the 1980s. The Bluebell Arboretum in Smisby started its life where my nursery is today, and for the past few years the nursery was run by Frank Mulholland until he sadly passed away. I hope to keep the tradition alive for the many customers in Blackfordby and beyond who have bought their plants there.

So where are we? Blackfordby village is situated 2 miles north west of Ashby de la Zouch, accessed by a turn off the A511. The nursery is tucked away behind the Bluebell pub and the Methodist Church on Main Street, Blackfordby. Access is via the pub car park, through the gate adjacent to the beer garden and, thanks to the landlady of the Bluebell, you can park in the car park. As it’s forecast to be such a nice day I’d suggest a cool beverage in the pub garden after a hard day’s plant shopping – an ideal way to spend a Bank Holiday! We hope to see you there.