Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Garden Art


I often wonder if I have just been lucky, or if fate intended me to have two creative careers.
My horticultural career lasted over thirty years and involved not just growing plants but also using them in the landscape in the design of parks, gardens, housing, highways, retail, industry and forestry.
I got immense pleasure from the creative processes especially returning a few years later when the landscape matured and the improvements could be seen and enjoyed by the public. Some schemes were on a small scale, a shop, a factory, a few flower beds then others were on a more grander scale with ample scope for your creative ideas. A new golf course in Darlington desperately needed trees everywhere, then Livingston new town needing a programme of daffodil planting of over two million bulbs over three years.
All this time I enjoyed a range of hobbies from wine making, swimming, travelling, hill walking and painting.
However, I changed careers in 1992 to become a full time artist and now my horticultural creations are of a more modest scale, such as a hanging basket or plant tub, and my painting has become the source for my creative energies.
Having been blessed, or cursed with the creative gene does bring great pleasure when your work is admired, whether it be a colourful garden, an immense pumpkin or a beautiful painting. The drawback comes when you consider the possibility of retirement. When I officially retire my two main hobbies will be gardening and painting. So, at what point can I tell myself I am retired.

Anyway, coming back from thoughts of retirement, I always seem to find a new project to work on in the art world, and it often starts in the garden or on the allotment.

Allotment Art

A few years back I started growing saskatoon fruit bushes in pots around the house, but soon realised they needed more space to grow, so I decided to find an allotment for them.
It would also serve to grow other fruits, vegetables and flowers getting me back into growing plants again. Then of course there is the exercise value as well as the health benefits of fresh produce all year round.
The new plot needed a fair bit of tidying up to remove old wild brambles, weeds, broken fences and repairing the dilapidated shed. A meandering path in the wrong place needed removing and replacing, so since I have no problem working outdoors in all seasons these tasks kept me on site regularly throughout the winter.
Even when the snow came I couldn't resist a trip to the allotment to see how the plot looked covered in a blanket of snow.
The site was a winter wonderland of untouched pristine snow and as I had my camera with me I walked up and down every path as ideas for winter landscape paintings appeared at every turn. My digital camera was working overtime. City Road allotments have been going for years and now most plots have some kind of shed and greenhouse in every shape possible and in various degrees of hastily repaired dereliction.
Broken down fences, steps, scattered water barrels, pots, boxes, posts, wheelbarrows and old gnarled apple trees covered in snow made perfect subjects for a series of garden winter landscape paintings. One of my neighbours suffering from a bad back recently, had not kept a very tidy plot, but his stack of old boxes, pots, barrels and pallets piled against his semi derelict shed was just perfect. Another plot with an old apple tree pruned way beyond any sensible shape added another perfect image to be captured on canvas.
I enjoyed creating this series so much that I decided to run an allotment painting workshop in the spring.
This turned out to be very popular and at the time there were many plots covered in poppies and other summer flowers. However different people see beauty in different ways. One lady just loved the clever graffiti covering a large shed and for another it was the washing hanging from the tenement clothes lines blowing in the sun.
I also found more inspiration for another series of allotment paintings in both watercolour and acrylic balancing flowers and vegetables against the allotment furniture and structures.

Garden Flowers

Painting the “Winter on the Allotment” series took several months by which time spring had emerged and my garden was a picture of flowers.
This time I decided to throw caution aside and got out some of my biggest canvases. These images were to be very bold using large flowers with impact. My first was the Iceland poppies which brighten up the spring and continue right through the summer as long as you keep taking off the seed heads.
Next was some brilliant candy striped early tulips, Carnaval de Nice contrasting the illuminated blossoms against a deep blue background. A beautiful lemon narcissus was next then my flag iris started to bloom and gave me quite a choice for another large canvas.
I grow a wide range of iris which come in many colours supplied from specialist hardy plant growers in Shropshire, Claire Austin. I chose the deep purple, Dusky Challenger and again used a contrasting pale blue background.
Spring leads into summer and I was overwhelmed with choice of flowers to paint. There was not time to do them all so the camera captured hundreds of images to be stored on my computer so I can pull them out at any time. The digital camera allows you to keep the best and delete the rest.
The apple trees were terrific especially when you zoom in to capture the flowers as a close up, then my bright red oriental poppies gave a fantastic though short lived display.
Rhododendrons and azaleas seem to thrive in this mild wet climate so gave me dazzling blossoms which I like to zoom in on to capture individual flowers or small groups of them.
Another brilliant red tuberous begonia growing in a deep blue flower pot caught my eye. I look forward to getting that one on canvas.
Lilies and fuchsias will always give great value, but you need to photograph them in full sun against a dark background or sometimes I can find a low angle to get them against a deep blue summer sky.

Garden Art Exhibition

John is showing some of his flower paintings at the Dundee Art Society Autumn Exhibition at 17 Roseangle open from Saturday 30th October to Sunday 7th November 2010. Open every day from 11am to 5pm.

Garden Blog

I have created a garden blog to store these weekly articles in, so if you wish to look back to any previous feature they are stored in date order. They can also be viewed by title and keywords. The blog is called the Scottish artist and his garden blogspot.

Saskatoon update

Landward TV will be featuring John's saskatoon fruit bushes on their programme about growing and using Scottish superfoods on Friday 29th October at 7pm on BBC2


Thursday, 21 October 2010

Preparing the Soil


We live in times where just about everybody is suffering from some degree of stress. Modern living lifestyles demand a great need to spend money that may be in short supply.
Although past generations may have been a lot poorer and had just as much if not more stress, they were not aware of it. Television and newspapers have made us all aware of how everyone everywhere is living with special emphasis on celebrity lifestyles.
Now we cant all enjoy that life so we look around for activities at our own level to enjoy or for exercise and relaxation.
There is nothing better than going back to nature, with a walk in the hills, or along the seashore, (we have ample places to visit in Scotland) or turning to gardening where you can indulge in growing a few plants around the house or if you are lucky, on your allotment.
They are now in big demand with councils working hard to reduce the ever increasing waiting lists.
Allotment sites are very sociable places where gardening discussions are going on in every corner to swap information and learn how to grow those huge clean vegetables or special brilliant flower displays.
There is a lot of people coming into allotment life with the romantic notion of relaxing on a seat in the sun amidst the wonderful crops of fruit, flowers and vegetables. For some this is reality, but unfortunately for others they never realised that to achieve this euphoric state without recourse to alcohol, a wee bit of work may have to be performed now and then.
It seems a priority to work hard at creating a visual amenity, so paths,fences, sheds, greenhouses, and patios all get attention. However allotment gardening is about growing plants, and these need soil, so this must not be ignored.
Most seed will germinate and grow on any soil without too much effort, but to grow good plants you need good soil, and if you want great plants that will be admired, you will need very fertile soil.
I would advise every newcomer to gardening or allotments to get hold of a book or subscribe to a gardening magazine and study good soil management. There is also excellent websites on the internet that will advise on everything you ever need to know.
Just ask Google.

Soil amelioration

This topic played a major part in studying horticulture during apprenticeship days as it was the custom to buy in manure or make your own compost or leafmould, and use it in all soils at every opportunity.
Every park kept a leafmould heap. Some were quite huge, especially at Camperdown Park and the old quarry in Balgay Park had been filled in with the parks leaves for years.
As the leaves decomposed on the surface they were riddled to remove twigs and debris then the composted leaves used to ameliorate flower beds, rose beds, and shrub borders.
At the nursery riddled leafmould was sterilised and used to make a Dundee version of John Inness compost where it replaced the peat. It may have helped to save the planet, but the geranium cutting did not like it and losses of 50% were accepted as normal. My lesson was complete when I visited a geranium nursery in England where success was 100% and propagators wore white sterile lab jackets. Cutting were snapped off (no knives used) with just one leaf and inserted into a Jiffy 7 pot. I am still doing the same method now as I grow the same four varieties every year overwintering young rooted cuttings.
Flower beds were always manured in autumn to feed the hungry wallflower plants used for spring displays.
Our training involved both fruit and vegetable culture where manuring every autumn/winter was standard practise and our gardener instructor wanted to grow everything to exhibition standard.
Bulky organic manures feed the soil increasing worm activity and soil organisms which break down the manures into humus. This creates a fertile crumb structure which opens up the soil, aerates it and improves the drainage. Humus also darkens the soil which then warms up more efficiently. Where there is a drainage problem or where plants need a deep root run e.g. roses, fruit bushes and trees, sweet peas, it is advisable to double dig those locations forking in manures at the bottom of your trench.

Organic manures

It is not easy to get hold of good farmyard manure today so go for whatever is available such as horse, cow, pig, hen or even seaweed or leafmould. Most will need to be left for six months or longer to rot down before use.
Remember that these mainly feed the soil to create a good structure and fertiliser will still be needed to grow strong healthy plants.

Compost heap

This is where the fertility comes from. I compost everything unless it is diseased , e.g. clubroot or rose black spot or has seed heads such as poppies. Even domestic newspapers, utility bills, bank statements can be shredded and woody material can be chipped and shredded then added to the heap. Grass cuttings, leaves and annual weeds will all rot down.
However discard or dry out any perennial weeds such as couch grass, mares tail, nettles, willow herb, dockens or dandelion.
Keep the heap for nine months and try to turn it over at least once. Keep it moist to assist worms and organisms, but also keep it covered to retain the moisture and warmth. A good compost heap can kill seeds and weeds during decomposition heat up.

Discovery compost

Dundee council make an excellent very black compost from domestic green waste. This is well rotted and weed free. It is great for adding to soils to dig in or mulch or even added in small quantities to potting composts. It is heavy to handle but for £0.50 per bag of any size it is great value for money.

Green Manuring

This is an excellent method of improving soil fertility. When the early crops such as broad beans, early potatoes, sweet corn, dwarf french beans or even old strawberry plots are finished, dig or fork over the ground, add some fertiliser then scatter some mustard. You can also use annual rye grass, tares, or clover. Dont use mustard where clubroot is a problem as it will hold onto that fungus.
As soon as the first flowers appear, trample down the stems and dig it in before it gets a chance to set any seeds.


Now you have all this lovely compost decide where best to put it. Use the rotation principle where you grow all the heavy feeders together, i.e onions, leeks, beans, courgettes and pumpkins get the lions share, but keep some for the brassicas.
Root crops are happy to grow on soil that was manured for a previous crop, though I still keep some for the tattie patch. Fruit crops do not need any unless used for a mulch, or before planting to get them established.


Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Planting Spring Bulbs


It is always very uplifting to see the emergence of the first spring flowers after a long dark cold winter. They are the sign that winter is ending and warmer weather is on its way.
Traditionally March was the turning point when shoots started to appear, then up popped the first snowdrops and winter aconites. Global warming has changed all that, but climate change is not occurring gradually. It is a bit like the stock market, over time it improves but has wild swings along the journey. Several years ago I was enjoying a coffee break outdoors in glorious warm sunshine at the end of February. Last April my early tulips were broken down with the weight of snow on them. I used to think Narcissus February Gold was a joke as it flowered in April, but now it almost does flower at the end of February. See the drifts of them along the Lochee Road next February or maybe March.

This is the time of year to be planning, buying and planting bulbs for that early flower display. The garden Centres, nurseries and stores are full of bulbs for every situation around the garden.

Bulb planting ideas

Bulbs start to flower in February with the snowdrops and continue till mid summer with the lilies. They will give a more impressive display if they are planted in bold drifts. They can also be mixed together with several types of bulbs to extend the season of display. Snowdrops can be mixed with crocus and tulips which are planted deeper and also summer lilies which flower much later, but all grow happy together.
However consider the location for each type. Snowdrops, aconites, bluebells, chionodoxa and grape hyacinths are all happy in partial or dappled shade, whereas crocus need sunshine to open up the flowers. Many bulbs thrive under deciduous trees as they do their growing early before the trees develop a dense canopy. Often this canopy will dry out the soil surface in summer which may suit the bulb during its dormant stage.

I find numerous places to grow bulbs in association with other plants such as in the herbaceous border, coloured stemmed or winter border, woodland border amongst the Himalayan blue poppies, and of course in the spring bedding displays in borders and tubs.
Bulbs, such as hyacinths and narcissus can also be grown in pots for the house, then later after flowering dried off and planted out in the garden.

Early flowering bulbs such as narcissus and crocus can be planted in lawns, but remember to let the leaves grow to feed the bulbs for the following years flowers. Always allow a minimum of six weeks from flowering before mowing off the leaves, though many people will advise to leave them till they begin to turn yellow. In some wet years that can take a long time especially with the large headed daffodils.
Another great plant association is a drift of Anemone blanda with Cyclamen hederifolium as they both have totally different flowering and growing seasons. Anemone blanda flowers in spring, then grows quickly till mid summer before dying down. The cyclamen flowers emerge in late August to September and continue to grow till winter before dying down.

To capture and enjoy the beauty of those first flowers in late winter plant some snowdrops, aconites and crocus species in view of the main house windows. Then even after a snowfall you can still see them emerging unscathed from the comfort of a warm house. I have a drift of these next to a beautiful pure white Christmas rose, Helleborus niger which flowers at the same time and viewed from the patio window.

Bulbs for the house

Hyacinths are hard to beat for a flowering scented house plant and come in many colours. My favourite was always the red Jan Bos, but there are excellent blues, pinks and whites. For the earliest flowers choose bulbs that have been prepared for forcing and try to get them potted up at the end of August or early September.
Bulbs can be planted close together, even one above the other in bulb fibre compost in wide pots. Water them in then put them outdoors against a north wall. They prefer to be kept dark at this stage for about ten or so weeks and protect them from frost and mice.. This encourages root growth but holds back leaves and flowers. They should not need much watering. Keep checking them for signs of shoot growth and as soon as they begin to grow, probably in late November to December, introduce them to a light but not sunny place such as a cold frame or cool greenhouse. Keep them cold but frost free, until the flowers begin to show. Gradually warm them up but leave it to the last minute before you take them into the warmth of a house otherwise they will grow too tall.
Early narcissus and dwarf tulips e.g. Red Riding Hood, can also be grown in pots for early flowering. I like the scented Cheerfulness types which have double flowers and a heady perfume. Grow them the same way as hyacinths.

Bulbs for the garden

My season starts in early February with a clump of snowdrops planted under my grape vine on a south facing wall which gets a lot of heat from the sun. Then other snowdrops, aconites and crocus species all come together. Crocus should come after the snowdrops, but not any more. Anemone blanda is drifted under our apple trees and follows the crocus before the bluebells smother the ground under our Bramley apple and Victoria plum, all happy to grow together. In the front of our fruit tree mini orchard, (five trees) there are drifts of lilies which grow up into the sun.
The herbaceous border is covered in hyacinths previously grown in pots but now naturalised plus Chionodoxa, the Glory of the Snows. One display after another.

Where ever there is a space amongst shrubs I have planted sacks of daffodils, narcissus, tulips and grape hyacinths which are all left to grow and spread as they wish. I keep adding to them every year. Types of fosteriana tulips have large flowers, are very early and naturalise well.

Tubs and Beds

My Parks Dept training as a gardener was very thorough so I always follow our tradition of planting both summer and winter bedding plants in borders, tubs and hanging baskets.
At this time of year the normal selection will be Wallflowers, Myosotis, Polyanthus and winter flowering pansies.
I choose the tall Darwin Hybrid tulips for interplanting amongst the wallflower, but dwarf early tulips or species to go between the others.
Tubs and pots are also planted with dwarf tulips amongst the pansies and myosotis and often a few crocus are added to give an early display.
I do not use bulbs in my winter hanging baskets as these are usually filled with winter pansies which can suffer from too much foliage from the crocus which just loves to grow when you water and feed them.
All of these bulbs get dried out after flowering to be reused elsewhere in the garden the following year.


Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Tayside Top Fruit


Very few pleasures in the garden can match the delight in late summer of picking that first bright red apple from your own home grown tree. Very few adults let alone children can resist the temptation to pick an apple once it has turned ripe. Nothing from any supermarket can touch the home grown apple for taste.
They are not difficult to grow once you have a grasp of some basics practises.
Apples are the starting point and once you have your first crop harvested, (usually about three apples) you are now ready to take on the next top fruit tree on the list. This will either be a plum or pear, and once they start to crop why not accept global warming will happen and try those more exotic fruits previously only grown in warmer locations.
Lets look out an early variety of cherry and peach tree.
It is always a good move to do a wee bit of background research to find out where it all started, how top fruit growing has developed over the years and how that affects us today.

History and culture

Apples have been grown in Scotland for hundreds of years. They were an important food source in monasteries or private estates, then more recently, grown commercially to supply local markets. Every area would have its own varieties peculiar to its needs and history.
However the world today is a very different place and top fruit culture has seen massive changes. People now prefer to shop at supermarkets and they demand a product that looks good, has a long shelf life, is cheap to produce, handles and travels well, and is evenly sized with a blemish free skin. Growers in turn require a variety with a heavy yield producing apples that don't bruise when bulk handled and can resist or tolerate the majority of pests and diseases..
In the past apple trees were sprayed with chemicals every ten days throughout the whole growing period, but this is now frowned upon, so they prefer to grow strong vigorous varieties resistant to scab, mildew and canker.
To keep costs down the trees are grafted onto dwarfing rootstocks and the apples grown on a hedge row system so all pruning and picking can be done from the ground. It is too slow and costly to send pickers up ladders to harvest the fruit.
Thus today, there is a very limited range of varieties grown commercially as few of our older heritage range would pass the stringent criteria demanded by the supermarkets. Unfortunately good flavour does not seem to be a high priority.

Plums and pears were also once a major crop in Scotland, but economics has wiped them out commercially.
Life however, moves on and there could be a return on a smaller scale to some of our older varieties grown to supply local farmers markets as demand increases for quality fruit with flavour and ripened on the tree before harvesting.
Many older fruit varieties are being found in old derelict orchards and are now being propagated and promoted as interest grows in our past history.
The Bloody Ploughman, Scotch Dumpling, and Tower of Glamis may yet emerge from the mists of time, and my Arbroath Pippin, also known as the Oslin, may be very old and non commercial but is hard to beat for a very early apple.
For the home gardener this is the time of year to be looking out the wide range of varieties in nurseries and garden centres while many have fruit on the young trees and selecting those you wish to try out.

For more information on our heritage fruits visit the Carse of Gowrie Orchard Festival starting at Glendoick Garden Centre on Saturday 9th October and Sunday 10th then continuing all week to Sunday 17th October with events all over the Carse of Gowrie.


If you only have room for one tree then go for an apple. They come in all shapes to suit every ones needs. You can have a bush, tree, espalier, fan, low step over form or even a slender minarette. They also come with one, two or even three different varieties all on the same tree.
In a later article I will cover grafting so you can learn how to add additional varieties to your tree or even rejuvenate an old tree. There is no limit on how many varieties you can have on one tree. My James Grieve apple has now been grafted with Discovery, Red Devil and the Oslin and I will add a few more varieties next April. I am afraid I was just not impressed with James Grieve, though it is still very popular.
Other good varieties for Tayside are Scrumptious, Katy, Red Falstaff and Fiesta. However the latter has a tendency towards biennial bearing.
The best cooking apple has to be Bramley as it is very prolific, has huge apples, is quite disease resistant and the fruit store for a long time.


My favourite has to be Victoria which crops well and has a fantastic flavour. It freezes well and ends up in jams, stewed for a mixed compote and crumbles. It is very reliable. I assist pollination with a Berberis darwinnii planted below it. It's bright orange flowers come out at the same time as the plum and attract the bees who cannot resist it.


In the past I would have said a Comice and Conference combination would be best for good cross pollination and when we get a good summer Comice is outstanding. However as the last four years have been very wet my Comice has suffered badly from scab and the crop has been lost. Conference resists scab but is not as good as Comice.
I will be looking out for a better variety to graft over some of my Comice branches early next year. Pear trees can grow quite big so if space is limited go for a minarette, cordon or espalier trained tree.
Scab in a tree is hard to control as there is very few chemicals available now and anyway a large tree is hard to spray.


I grow Peregrine on a south facing tall fence and now that I have peach leaf curl under control I am getting a decent crop. The fruit is quite large, well coloured, very juicy and sweet. As my small tree is fan trained, the pruning, which can be quite complicated at first, has to be carried out thoroughly. This allows light into the tree, restricts excessive growth and ripens up young shoots which will replace this summers fruiting wood.
I control peach leaf curl with two sprays of Dithane at leaf fall and just before bud burst.


I will try out a bush sized trees grafted on the very dwarfing Gisela 5 rootstock so I can net the tree for birds. My favourite at the moment is the self fertile Cherokee, but by winter I may change my mind after a wee bit more research.