Sunday, 29 January 2012

Plant a Cherry Tree


When you are in your youth you enjoy fresh fruit throughout the summer because they taste so delicious in their season, but as you get older you get wiser and understand the immense health benefits of home grown fresh fruit. I have always loved fruit so I try to grow just about everything possible in our Scottish garden.
Cherries are full of anthocyanin, a very potent antioxidant, which causes the red pigment colour. These are known to have very beneficial health properties linked to heart disease, diabetes and help to reduce cholesterol, so even if the cropping season is short, at least it will be a very healthy summer period, and then we begin the next healthy fruit crop.
Last year I planted my first cherry tree seeking out a sheltered spot against a south facing fence so I can train it as a fan as my space is limited. I got the variety Cherokee grafted onto the dwarf rootstock Gisela 5.
Last year was not the best year to get it established. Lack of sunshine, gales and continual rain did not help it to get established and put on good growth. However plants do not give up easily, especially after planting on well prepared soil with a lot of well rotted compost added to the planting hole, so eventually it put on some nice growth.
Brilliant, I thought, so I left it alone for a couple of weeks. That was a mistake as they are very prone to attacks of blackfly which suck out the sap causing the leavers to curl up. This protects the blackfly from predators and me, so a spray of insecticide was of little value as it came too late.
Lessons have been learnt so this year I will keep looking for the first signs of this pest and take action before they get a hold.
Cherries are also a very short season plant, so they only get one chance to grow per season, so if it gets curtailed, you then have to wait till the next year.


Cherries prefer a deep heavy soil that has been well cultivated and free draining. They usually flower too late to be affected by frosts unless you get a very late one, so pollination is usually very good and modern varieties are mostly self fertile so you do not need two for cross pollination.
Good varieties in include Stella, with dark red fruit, Cherokee, also with dark red fruit and Summer Sun, similar and suitable for our cooler climate up north. I make sure they are grafted onto the dwarfing rootstock Gisela 5 which is said to keep the height down to six to eight feet. This will make netting against birds easier against my fence.
Give a dressing of general fertiliser in early spring, water in any dry spells and a mulch of compost will help to retain moisture if ever we get back to any dry weather.
Watch out for those blackfly early in the season and net against blackbirds. Bullfinches can also be a problem in spring as they peck out buds and pull of flowers.

Plant of the week

Cornus alba Westonbirt is my favourite dogwood. It has bright red stems that dazzle in the winter sunshine and add interest in the garden at a time when there is precious little flowers, leaves or berries around. Westonbirt is the best red, but in a coloured stem winter border there is a place for the lime green stemmed Cornus stolonifera flaviramea and the bright orange/red Mid Winter Fire.
If you fancy something really unusual then include Cornus kesselringii which has black stems.
To show off the coloured stems to their best grow them as stooled bushes where they are pruned back to ground level every one or two years. Give them some fertiliser in spring to encourage growth, and a mulch of compost in winter which helps to feed them, retain moisture in dry weather and keeps weeds down in the growing season. I underplant my coloured stemmed border with spring flowering bulbs such as snowdrops and crocus to extend the floral impact after pruning at the end of March, so I do not cultivate the soil in this border as it would damage the bulbs.

Painting of the month

“Tullybaccart Farm” This farm sits in an elevated location overlooking panoramic views to Coupar Angus, Blairgowrie and Alyth. This area is very popular for hill walkers and anglers and is served with a busy roadside car park. I walk around Tullybaccart about six times every year in all seasons, so I am always around when the views are at their best. Winter is my favourite time as long as the roads are open and there is always gorgeous sunsets. This painting captures one such winter evening, as I always take my camera with me. I must have done about twenty paintings of the farm and surrounding landscape, and nearly all of them as snow scenes. However the light is always changing so they are always quite different.


Saturday, 21 January 2012

Edible Landscapes


When I look at life today and see how much it has changed in my lifetime, I have the benefit of over sixty years of change for comparison. We live in a modern high tech world where wealth plays a major role as there is so much to spend it on. We all want a nice house, one or two cars, at least one holiday a year, plenty food, drink and entertainment and to get our kids the best education. This puts a lot of pressure on people to find and keep jobs and work longer hours.  To save time and effort we shop at supermarkets, buy ready made meals and travel by car rather than walk.
It is recognised that this lifestyle is not the healthiest option for our wellbeing or the planet, so more and more people are making the effort to get fit, grow and eat better food and recycle waste.
Builders no longer create new houses with much garden space, so those wishing to grow their own food often look for an allotment. That may be fine for a few keen gardeners, but there is a need to look beyond the individual.
It is no longer fashionable to send your kids to the country in summer to pick raspberries and strawberries and potatoes in the autumn. That would be viewed as punishment. There is a recognised need to educate our kids in the way we grow and use food crops and animals in a way they will find entertaining and informative.
More and more local communities and schools are addressing this need by creating edible landscapes within the schools as well as other outdoor landscape areas. This movement is in its infancy, but it is becoming very popular. Landscapes today need not just be planted with ornamental vandal tolerant plants but use of edible plants can provide the same function and still be aesthetically attractive.

Community and school gardens

These projects are all about educating people in how plants are grown, used and enjoyed, and getting involved working together as communities. Kids love to see where our food comes from, to try them out when ripe, grow them from seeds, cuttings or small plants, and see where plants can be used for dyes, basket making, fibres, brushes, fuel, soap, insecticide, fertiliser and numerous other uses. Some rural community gardens also include keeping hens for egg production. This is always popular with kids.
The principles that apply to normal landscape design will also apply to this type of project, i.e. plants will still function as trees, hedges, shrubs, fruit and vegetables, medicinal herbs, ground cover, and climbers. Plants will also be selected for sunny spots, shady spots, and those needing dry or damp soil. However the selection will be based on how the plants can be used in a useful living community.

Forest gardens

This is a further development and may be on a larger scale within a woodland setting, but plants chosen are useful or edible and form a woodland flora from the taller canopy trees such as walnut, sweet chestnut and edible lime trees to the forest floor layers such as blueberries and wild garlic.
Other layers form at shrubby levels, herbaceous types and those that prefer woodland fringe or forest clearings. There are also many edible plants that prefer a pond or bog garden from watercress to reeds, cranberries, white water lily, and other plants that have edible rhizomes, leaves, fruit and seeds. Always make sure you can identify the plant accurately as some may be poisonous in the raw state.
It is the aim to grow a very wide range of useable plants in a permanent setting without soil cultivations but recycling plant materials by composting. It is feasible for a family of four to feed themselves from an acre of woodland and without any harm to the environment. As the woodland is permanent it has a very low maintenance requirement.
More information on forest gardens can be found at

Edible plants
We are all familiar with the obvious apples, pears, plums and cherries, but there is also mulberries, hazelnuts, saskatoons, chokeberries, quince, medlar, fuchsia, figs and hardy outdoor grapes.
There is no reason why other edible fruit and vegetables cannot be added into the landscape plan. Brambles, Tayberries and loganberries make excellent climbers, and currants, raspberries and gooseberries will form good hedges.
Plants with edible leaves include lime trees, nettles, sorrel, bamboo (shoots), campanula, and wild garlic, and the list of herbs and medicinal plants is enormous. We use rosemary, thyme, sage and mint for flavouring many meat dishes and kale and Swiss chard are excellent in a stir fry.
Food for free landscape designs can incorporate any type of plant from edibles to those that have other functions, but the skill is in creating an attractive landscape that functions as well.
A lot of research on edible and usable plants has been done by Ken and Addy Fern on their experimental site in Cornwall. They have over 7000 species of plants on their database.
Their website Plants for a Future is a mine of information.


Thursday, 12 January 2012

A Quiet Time in the Garden


January can be a very quiet time in the garden. A few hard frosts and a blanket of snow soon obliterate any remaining flowers surviving the mild winter. Most early snowdrops and aconites are not yet ready to push up the, though I have had some varieties of snowdrop in bud since December.
Tulips, narcissus and hyacinths are all showing a wee bit of growth, but will be very vulnerable if we run into a cold snap.
Winter cleanup and digging are just about complete, so there is plenty of time to start the pruning of shrubs, roses, fruit bushes and grape vines. Then just when you are all organised and feeling good that you are ahead of the game, along comes more gales and a few more fence panels come tumbling down.
The days are now very short, so garden tasks are quite limited. This gives me more time for studio work and so, back to my easel.

In the studio

Frosty mornings and a covering of snow can give you fantastic opportunities to get the camera out and find those special winter landscape images to capture on canvas. It is too cold to paint outdoors, but travelling around quickly I can get enough good photo shots for four to six snow scene paintings in the few hours while the sun shines. I take lots of photos then compose good scenes for a painting, often using several images together. In the studio I may start off with a good image, but then the creative juices kick in and I explore all the “what if” options. Do I change the sky, do I alter time of day, do I add a man and his dog, or a young mother and child, and do I remove trees or add a few in. Often I can get six to ten very different paintings from one good photo. My allotment site has given me many great images to paint at all times of the year, but it is now time for snow scenes.
My latest winter landscapes will go on display in the West End Gallery in the Perth Road, Dundee.

Outdoor Pruning

January and February are perfect months for pruning as bushes are dormant, and the ground may be snow covered or frozen so you can’t get on with other seasonal tasks.
In the fruit garden the currants, brambles, raspberries and gooseberries all need pruning and I will lop out one or two tall shoots from each of my mature Saskatoon bushes right down to ground level. Over vigorous goji bushes will get some pruning and some tying in to see if I can get them to flower and fruit this year.
Apple trees will get a few taller main branches removed to encourage young growth to keep the trees balanced and not get too big as I want to do most of the picking from ground level.
All rose bushes and climbers can be pruned then spread a bit of compost around them and lightly fork it in.
Before you prune garden shrubs, look them up in Google or a good garden book, as they all have different pruning needs. Do not prune good bushes into square or round shapes just because it tidies them up. This style, often practised by some professional landscapers shows those who have not got a clue. Some like forsythia and philadelphus get pruned like blackcurrant bushes, buddleia gets cut back to just above ground level and others such as pyracantha get spur pruned. Many like rhododendrons don’t need any pruning. Cornus and other shrubs grown for their coloured stems do not get pruned till the end of March.

Outdoor Harvesting

There are still plenty of winter vegetables to keep the kitchen supplied with fresh greens and roots.
Cabbage, sprouts, leeks and Swedes are not troubled by the winter, and if you still have any beetroot left, earth them up a wee bit to protect them from frosts. Kale and Swiss chard are still perfect for soups and stir fries. Parsnips have had their few days of frost to sweeten them up so now appear in many dishes from soups to roasts. Onions in store are still perfect and now quite sweet.

In the kitchen

During summer I look forward to our courgette soup, but at this time of year on a cold winter’s day, the pumpkins are in a world of their own. They are very versatile as they can be stored for months fresh, then you cut them up and scoop out the flesh which can be frozen for future use. Fresh made soup can also be frozen if, as normal you make a pot too big for a couple of days servings.
I no longer ask Anna to make a note of the recipe as every batch is slightly different from the previous one, but they are all brilliant, so what does it matter. Various pumpkin soups have had stock, onion, garlic, celery, carrot, sweet potato, tomato, Swiss chard, kale, lemon, rind of orange, ginger, cloves, coconut milk, butter, thyme, parsley and crisped bacon added, but not all at the same time.

Garden Birds

When the ground freezes and the last berries have been consumed from the garden bushes the birds can have a tough time foraging for food so keep the bird table stocked up and the frozen water dish replaced with clean fresh water. Any apples not keeping too well in store may be ok for the blackie, and bacon rind is ok if chopped up. We have to look after our local wild life even if they still return in summer to eat our strawberries, blueberries and outdoor grapes when our backs are turned.


Wednesday, 4 January 2012

The Garden Never Sleeps


In winter most of the garden plants go dormant, but there is always a few that take this season as their turn to shine in the absence of competition. It is quite surprising what you can find to photograph on a bright sunny day, though often you may need to zoom in close to capture some little gems.
This year it seems we are going back to the normal mild but wet winters with snow up north but not in Dundee, at this moment as I write, but knowing that there could be two feet of snow when this appears in print. So I take advantage of any sunny days to wander around the garden and photograph those plants putting on a wee display to brighten up the winter months.

Flowers and scent

Climbing rose Dublin Bay is on a south facing warm wall so still has several bright red roses to greet you as you climb the steps to the front door. It is never in a hurry to go dormant.
There are also several tubs, planted with polyanthus in autumn intended for a spring display, but which have responded to the mild weather by flowering in early winter and are seeing the year out with plenty of colourful, but a wee bit weather beaten, flowers.
It is really too early for snowdrops, but they don’t know that, so there are several clumps in warm sheltered positions already showing large white buds determined to open up if the sun shines on them for a few days.
However my Helleborus, the Christmas rose, which used to begin to flower at this time has decided to take a rest, as it came into flower last September and October, well ahead of its time. Plants are just as confused as humans about the effects of global warming and climate change creating very erratic seasons. Another confused plant has been my winter flowering yellow jasmine, coming into flower in September, but fortunately still flowering in January.
There are several shrubs that flower during the winter. The wintersweet, Chimonanthus praecox and the witch hazel Hamamelis mollis both have yellow scented flowers from December till early March. The wintersweet is best on a south facing wall in a sheltered location otherwise flowers may be less prolific. A more reliable shrub is the Viburnum bodnantense with pink scented flowers right throughout winter. A good variety is Dawn and Viburnum fragrans is also very popular for its pink scented winter flowers.
Down at ground level the winter flowering heather Erica carnea brings out its red, pink and white blossom from late November through to March. It is very easy to grow, great for smothering weeds and enjoys a moist position in the sun as a woodland fringe plant.

Ornamental foliage

Elaeagnus comes in many shades of gold and silver. It makes quite a large impressive bush that is great as a specimen or for screening purposes. It is another fairly easy to grow shrub that requires no maintenance other than to watch out for any shoots that revert back to the green form. These should be removed as soon as seen.
Another favourite to brighten up the garden in winter is the variegated Euonymus fortunei. It comes in a range of colours but my two favourites are the silver Emerald Gaiety and the golden form Emerald’n Gold. These shrubs are all excellent ground cover and though slow growing due to lack of chlorophyll they can ultimately cover a fair bit of ground if you are patient.

Ornamental bark and stems

The winter garden would not be complete without some coloured stemmed shrubs that can dazzle in winter sunshine. Cornus Westonbirt and Mid Winter Fire are outstanding but also include the golden Cornus stolonifera flaviramea. The willow, Salix britzensis has bright orange stems and for a colour change back to green you have a choice of Kerria japonica and Leycesteria Formosa. Kerria has the advantage of a brilliant flower display in spring. The cornus and salix can both be pruned right back to ground level at the end of March to encourage the formation of a stool. They will soon recover and grow away strongly in summer.
There are a number of trees with very attractive bark. The birch, Betula jacquemontii has brilliant white stems and maple trees have a wide range of features. The snake bark maples have red or green stripes, the paper bark maple has reddish mahogany peeling bark and the Japanese maple Sangokaku has brilliant bright red young shoots.

Flowers in the home

As we begin the new year many plants brought into flower for the festive season have now had their moment and other plants take centre stage. All my Christmas cactus are now finished and are getting dried off for their resting phase. However now is the time for our six year old white Phalaenopsis orchid to provide the flower display. It has been grown in a warm bright bathroom with ample moisture every time someone has a shower. It loves this place so much that it has grown a double spike of flowers.
Winter might be with us but there is always life in the garden.