Tuesday, 25 September 2012



The last time I visited Kew I was studying horticulture for my National Diploma way back in the sixties. I was very impressed and knew that I would go back again another time, but to enjoy the gardens rather than study plants. Anna had never been there before and as she loves gardening as much as me it was a memorable visit. I think we got the last of the summer weather as we enjoyed three glorious days with cloudless skies and temperatures of 27 degrees C. Kew was at its best.

The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew started over 250 years ago as wealthy people liked to show their status with large gardens furnished with the latest exotic plant discoveries from around the world. Plant collections grew in time and buildings and garden structures were created. The tall Chinese pagoda was built in 1761, then a palm house, temperate house, an arboretum and as the gardens expanded they were adopted as a National Botanical Garden in 1840.
It now has a massive plant collection for botanical interest and research, a massive library and a herbarium with 7 million specimens. It participates in the Millennium Seed bank project. Billions of seed from plants all over the world are preserved in nuclear bomb proof underground vaults in case of natural disasters.
Back at ground level it is reputed to have Europe’s largest compost heap created from plant material from its garden maintenance. And I thought I had a big compost heap on my allotment!!!

A museum shows how humans depend on plants for food, tools, clothes, medicines and ornaments.
Two galleries are dedicated to botanical paintings.

The gardens receive about 2 million visitors annually, maintained by about 700 staff. Botanical research is carried out by 650 scientists on projects of a world wide scale, as well as maintaining accuracy on the botanical naming of plants from DNA sampling.

Kew lost hundreds of trees in the Great Storm of 1987, though there is now little evidence of the devastation.


The huge palm house was completed in 1848 but more recently the Princess of Wales Conservatory was opened by Princess Diana in 1987. It has ten computer controlled micro climates for wet tropical plants to dry tropical plants. Excellent displays of tropical water lilies, orchids and carnivorous plants in the middle sections with cactus on the outer areas needing hot dry conditions.
The water lily house is very hot and humid to accommodate tropical water lilies including the large leaved Victoria Amazonica.
The Davies Alpine House was opened in 2006 to house a collection of alpine plants. The construction has an arched roof to allow maximum light penetration, and cool air is circulated for ventilation with automatic blinds to prevent overheating in mid summer. It is glazed with special glass which allows 90% of the ultraviolet light to pass through. All the plants looked very happy.
The Orangery constructed in 1761 never really worked, so it has been converted into a restaurant.

There is so much to see you can wander around for days and always find something new. I was very impressed with some excellent mature sweet chestnuts with huge crops of nuts, but not yet ripe. However we did find a large fruiting Mulberry tree full of red berries. They were delicious and a new experience for both of us.
We found an Italian grotto surrounded with olive trees and white fruiting grape vines. However there was not an olive in sight, and surprisingly the grapes were far from ripe, I was told.
A perfect hot day was finished off with a round of very tasty ice cream.

Plant of the week

Cyclamen hederifolium is perfect for giving a bright splash of colour (pink, mauve and white) at the end of summer in rock gardens and woodland fringe with dappled sunlight. This perennial grows about six inches high and the leaves emerge in autumn after flowering remaining green till spring. They go dormant all summer. Seed is produced in autumn protected as the old flower stem coils around the maturing seed pod. Allow the seed to fall, or scatter it to form a natural drift.
Painting for September

Happy Thoughts
is an acrylic painting on canvas. This study is one of many figurative images being prepared for my exhibition at the Dundee Botanical Gardens in October where I will show studies of my “Artist’s Models” Figure painting presents the artist with a huge challenge combining an attractive model in a modern setting but retaining artistic values of good composition, variety of tones and good use of colour and texture.


Monday, 17 September 2012

James Hutton Institute


The James Hutton Institute, (formerly known as the Scottish Crops Research Institute) is based in Invergowrie, and has been carrying out research into food crops for over sixty years.
In the early years it was recognised that agricultural productivity was very poor due to pests, diseases, weeds, growing systems and poor yielding varieties of crops. Research stations were set up all over the UK to rectify these problems, often at local levels with the Scottish Horticultural Research Institute being set up at Mylnefield farm in Invergowrie in the early fifties.
I can remember my time at SCRI in the mid sixties when research was concerned with plant breeding to create higher yielding crops, disease resistance in soft fruit and vegetables, fertiliser trials, weed control and studies into plant viruses and eelworm in potatoes and raspberries. We also had a museum collection of apple trees from all over the world to assess their suitability for Scottish conditions, and the first blueberries, saskatoons and aronias were planted.
Many problems of that time were solved, as chemical controls were found for many pests, diseases, and weeds, but today most of these chemicals have been withdrawn, creating more problems to solve.
Growing methods have also changed, so plants suited for open fields are no longer the best for tunnel production as demanded by the supermarkets.
Effects of climate change are also being addressed as Scotland suffers a wetter climate but with a milder winter.
Work is also undertaken to establish isotopes to identify the authenticity of Scottish whiskies in the battle to prevent inferior counterfeits. Isotope signatures are also used for olive oils.

Fruit crops
Strawberries no longer suffer from red core disease, botrytis (apart from this very wet year) and virus and SCRI bred Symphony and Rhapsody are very popular
Raspberry breeding gave us a heavy yielding Glen Ample, but now pressure is on to find resistance to raspberry root rot (phytophthora) as it is so widespread that growers are finding it difficult to find clean land unaffected by root rot. They are now growing them in compost bags in tunnels with Glen Fyne one of the most promising new varieties. Work is ongoing to breed other varieties resistant to common strains of root rot, while still having good size, flavour, colour and taste.
Blackcurrants are mainly grown commercially for production of juice high in Vitamin C, though many of the Ben series are excellent for gardeners. I grow Ben Conan on my allotment. It is a very heavy cropper with large sweet fruit and not troubled by any pests or diseases. The new variety Big Ben has huge fruit, twice the normal size, and suited for supermarket retail sales. I intend to plant this variety in the winter as we like to eat fresh blackcurrants straight from the bush, as well as putting them in compote and summer puddings. Research is ongoing to continue to find ways of increasing the levels of vitamin C in the fruit for new varieties. Other research is underway to tackle the problem of lack of winter chill as we get milder winters. Blackcurrants need a period of cold weather to initiate fruit buds and have been suffering poor crops following recent mild winters, which have also advanced flowering times making the young fruit liable to damage with a late frost.
Gooseberry breeding has been successful in creating mildew resistance and an almost thornless bush. A new variety is approaching release. I have harvested some fruit from these bushes and lost very little blood, whereas my Invicta bush has superb fruit, but it is a vicious bloody battle to pick the crop.
Blackberries for tunnel production include Loch Ness and Loch Tay.

Vegetable crops
Potato breeding is looking at the problems of late blight in our wetter climate, as well as increasing levels of vitamin C and other healthy traits. A new range of Phureja varieties such as Mayan Gold with enhanced levels of carotenoides in the deep yellow fleshed tubers have been created from potatoes grown in Peru.
Turnips and Swedes are being bred with resistance to clubroot and powdery mildew, such as Invitation, Gowrie and Lomond

Plant of the week

Livingstone Daisy (Mesembryanthemum criniflorum) is also known as the Ice plant as the succulent leaves have a frosted appearance. However it is quite tender and really thrives best in a sunny hot summer. Gardens are planned well in advance, so I had the perfect spot for a dwarf annual that would thrive in a dry sunny border at the top of a wall. Seeds were sown in early April in trays indoors, then after a good germination (they are pretty easy to grow) they were pricked out into cellular trays to grow on for another few weeks. Nice sturdy plants were planted out in May awaiting the long hot sunny summer so they could burst into a mass of dazzling colour. They were quite outstanding on several occasions, but this was just not their best year.
They can withstand a bit of salt spray so are perfect for maritime planting locations, and are fine for sowing direct into the soil in a normal year.


Friday, 14 September 2012



Herbaceous and border plants are no longer confined to the formal straight rectangular border, but can be planned to fit in with other shrubs or garden plants. However it is useful to group together plants with similar flowering times for impact and maintenance. Modern herbaceous plants can happily be mixed in with other border plants, annual bedding and annual flowers from seed. Underplanting with bulbs such as snowdrops, crocus, anemone blanda, narcissi, tulips and lilies can extend the flowering season and keep an interest going for most of the year.
 Herbaceous plants start flowering in early spring with the Hellebores, Doronicums, Pulmonarias and bulbs planted in between large meandering drifts. There is plenty of time for bulbs to flower and grow before the herbaceous plants need the space, and at the end of the season those that lose their foliage early can be underplanted with cyclamen which flower at the end of summer and come into leaf in autumn.
Flowering continues right through till autumn with the Anemone Honorine Jobert, Phlox, Aster (Michaelmas daisies) and red hot pokers. Whilst we are still enjoying these later flowers many of the earlier flowering types are now looking a wee bit bedraggled and in need of some attention.

Flag Iris is well past its flowering time and even growth has slowed down allowing disease to affect older leaves, so they really need a good clean up. Remove all old dead leaves, flowering stems and give the plant a trim. This is a good time to replant, replace and plant up new varieties. Older clumps can be lifted up and divided to keep them fresh. Use young growths with two or more prominent buds, and some decent roots. Dig over the border, adding garden compost and replant about a foot apart with the rhizomes are still visible above the soil. Make sure the transplants are well watered just in case we get a dry autumn, (it is possible!!!) Try a few new varieties from a specialist UK grower sourced from the internet.

Delphiniums, Oriental Poppies, Campanulas, Shasta daisies and other spring and summer flowering plants now need dead heading and cutting back the old foliage. Also remove any canes or stakes and ties no longer needed. Delphiniums start to plump up buds for next years flowering stems and in this wet season slugs and snails are having a fantastic time, so keep sprinkling the slug pellets or next years show could be quite diminished. Sometimes the Oriental poppies will flower for a second time after cutting back if luck is on your side.

Peonies tend to retain their foliage till late autumn so I leave them intact to build up good crowns for flowering the following year.
Some of these clump forming plants can now be dug up, divided and replanted into a freshly prepared border. It is best to fork out small plants from the outside of large established clumps as these will be the youngest plants. As the borders are permanent for several years, this is the time to add a generous helping of well rotted garden compost. I have a huge compost heap, but it is still rotting down so I will be using the Council’s Discovery compost, which is readily available, cheap, weed free and well rotted down, so very easy to add to the soil. It is also excellent for those areas of established border with a lot of spring bulbs so you can’t really cultivate to any depth. I spread Discovery compost on these areas about two inches thick and lightly fork it in taking care to replant any tulips, crocus or other bulbs I accidentally dig up. Always apply a compost mulch in autumn before any early bulb foliage such as grape hyacinths, appears otherwise you may bury new emerging young leaves.
Herbaceous plants such as some low growing Bellflowers, Campanula are excellent for ground cover to create permanent planting areas of low maintenance, lasting for three or more years, but then every so often you do need to dig up and replant, getting rid of old spent clumps. With careful selection you can establish a border with plants that need no staking. Many herbaceous plants can be quite tall so support is essential, but Iris, Hemmerocallis, some Phlox, Heucheras (see below) Bergenias, Kniphophia (red hot pokers) Anemone Honorine Jobert, Hostas and Doronicums and many others can be left unsupported.

Plant of the week

Heuchera is an herbaceous perennial plant grown for its brightly coloured foliage in green, pink, bronze, scarlet and variegated with long racemes of white, pink and red flowers in spring. It is very popular on account of its evergreen foliage and ability to thrive in most situations, and is the perfect plant to brighten up a dull corner. The common name is alumroot and they come from North America so are very hardy in UK. It tolerates winds, sea spray, dry and many different soils, but will thrive better in rich well manured soils as it can be a gross feeder. It is happy in full sun or moist shade and rarely affected by pests or diseases. Even the slugs and snails leave it alone.


Tuesday, 4 September 2012



The soft fruit season is just about over other than raspberry, Autumn Bliss which will continue till mid October. If autumn weather is mild they will be fine, but if the cool wet weather continues they will not be sweet and will suffer from botrytis rots. Perpetual strawberry Flamenco will be the same, i.e. it will continue outdoors till the frosts come, but although it may look terrific, it will taste like a turnip without some sunshine. Blackberries will continue well into autumn, with late varieties unaffected by early frosts, but newer varieties bred for tunnel production will rot in a cool wet autumn outdoors. My bramble Helen is very early and finished cropping in August. This year was not a good year for Helen as lack of sunshine and warmth reduced the sugar content of the fruit.
However, although the soft fruit season is ending other fruits are now getting attention.

Cherries. The new dwarfing rootstock Gisela 5 has made a huge difference to growing cherry trees. In the past other rootstocks created a tree too big to cover with a net, and on a garden scale the cherry crop from one tree is a huge target for local blackbirds, who can devour cherries at an alarming speed. My smaller growing cherry Cherokee is only five foot tall and I will train it in a fan shape keeping the height down to about six feet. That way I can protect it with a net. This year I got quite a few cherries though many were split due to wet weather.
Commercially, growers in this area are diversifying onto this new crop and planting them in tunnels to protect them from adverse weather and birds.

Peach Peregrine has finally grown away from the menace of peach leaf curl, but it has been a constant battle cutting out and removing every affected leaf. At one point the tree was almost completely defoliated, but now growth has returned and summer spur pruning is being carried out. This tree was to be fan trained, but the original fan shape has been lost with peach leaf curl disease, so I will start again and try to find a way to sort out its shape. Once again fruit drop has reduced my crop, but there is still about a dozen fruit beginning to colour up.

This has not been a good year for the Arbroath Pippin (the Oslin) as brown rot has taken one fruit after another. This disease has also affected Discovery and Red Devil, but if you remove affected fruit as soon as you see them you can stop it spreading. This problem is not usually serious in a normal year. However I did get three Oslin apples. They were not as sweet as previous years, but the strong flavour is fantastic. This is an excellent apple, and my next early variety, Discovery also has a wonderful flavour and should be grown commercially in this area. I just hope the supermarkets stock this UK grown apple. George Cave is another early apple with a distinct aromatic flavour well worth growing.

Plums failed this year so nothing to get excited about, and my pears are just completing their second years growth after grafting, so 2013 will be the first year I sample The Christie and Beurre Hardy.

Figs are showing an excellent crop, but they need a wee bit more sunshine to ripen up. Growth has been strong so some summer spur pruning is being done to allow more light into the wall trained bush and encourage next years figs to form. A high potash tomato feed also helps to ripen up the figs. In Scotland they really need a warm sunny south facing wall to succeed outdoors.

Outdoor grape Brant has had the third spur pruning to discourage vigorous growth, (cutting back every young shoot to one leaf) and allow sunshine to ripen up the bunches. Glasshouse grapes need constant watching as botrytis can form in bunches that have not been thinned. Remove any grape beginning to rot before it spreads to others. Keep the greenhouse well ventilated and I now remove all new growths as well as some leaves to aid good air circulation around the ripening bunches.

Plant of the week

Angels Trumpet, (Brugmansia) is a large leaved tropical plant from South America with long pendulous flowers in a range of colours. They have a strong exotic perfume especially at night as they are pollinated by a night flying moth. This plant is a tree in its native habitat, but grown here as an ornamental specimen plant in a tub or flower bed. It can be lifted at the end of the growing season and dried off. Store in a cool but frost free place till next spring where it can be brought into a warm greenhouse and started into growth again. Take care with this plant as all parts are very poisonous especially the leaves and seeds. Brugmansia belongs to the same family as the potatoes and deadly nightshade and contains high levels of hallucinogenic alkaloids especially scopolamine and atropine. Traditionally, it was used in South American cultures in medicine and rituals for communicating with the dead as well as a poison in black magic.