Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Garden Climbers


I first became aware of the possibilities of climbing plants at the beginning of my gardening career when my small council house garden was just not big enough to grow all these plants I was learning about. By utilising all walls and fences I could extend the range.
It soon became clear that there were plants that would enjoy a north facing wall, whereas the more exotic climbers would thrive on a south facing wall.
A new world emerged for the young very keen apprentice gardener who lost no time in covering every available wall and fence space. The house soon blended into the landscape.
Fences erected along property boundaries, or separating garden areas, or creating privacy and shelter around patios would all be enhanced with scented flowers and autumn berries.
Being a fruit lover these walls and fences would provide the correct conditions to grow many fruit trees and bushes where space was at a premium.
As life moves on the garden is now a lot bigger, but so is my knowledge of plants that I want to grow or experiment with. So I am back to the original problem of not having enough room. I need to be quite selective on what plants I choose to grow..

Special needs

My first success was finding plants that would grow on a north facing wall where good sunshine was a problem. To convert a dull dark north wall to one with flowers was a great achievement. Climbing rose Mme Alfred Carrier, or Ena Harkness and  Jasmine are all  good.
Then what about the east wall where early sun would affect any late spring flowers if there was a late frost. Choose something that flowers in summer.
I placed a great value on walls next to main front doors. These needed scented flowers to enhance the feel good factor for anyone going into the house.  Climbing rose Zephirine Drouhin and Gertrude Jekyll are both perfect pinks for this spot.
Property security can be improved by planting Pyracantha around any vulnerable windows. They can also thrive on north facing walls and although very vigorous, they adapt very well to spur pruning to keep them close to the wall while retaining their thorny framework and bright autumn berries. Blackbirds just love to nest in them.
Walls and fences are becoming very popular places to plant fruit trees and bushes on as people now want an apple, pear, cherry or peach but normally they would grow quite large, so nurseries now cater for this use. Espalier trained trees, smaller growing stepover trees, and dwarf cherries are all now available. Now cherries grown on the new Gisela 5 rootstock will only grow to six to eight feet tall, so can easily be netted against birds so you get the fruit and not the birds.


Some plants support themselves and climb using their twining tendrils e.g. vines. Others will twine around any support, e.g. honeysuckle and clematis, some attach themselves with adventitious roots appearing in the shoots, e.g. ivies, but many others require an artificial support to be trained against. Most climbing roses will need support as will Pyracantha, and fruit trees. Wooden fences may give support by way of their construction, but can be enhanced with strong wires stapled firmly along its length. Trellis is very useful as well as six inch weldmesh. Walls can be drilled and vine eyes inserted to hold strong horizontal wires for training. Every situation will be different and each plant will have its own particular needs.
An overgrown leyland cypress hedge can be cut back to ten feet or so and most of the branches removed, just retaining enough to keep them alive and give support to a few climbers. Allow some regrowth, but not too much to create a nuisance. Clematis will thrive here and some climbing roses can be added. In time the clematis will hold onto the climbing rose  and keep it upright.


Very often there will be a perfect house wall space but totally paved with no soil near it. Most plants only need enough soil to get them started. I have frequently removed a two by two slab against the house wall then excavate ten inches of builders rubble before loosing up a further six inches. Backfill with some decent top soil adding a bit of compost and some fertiliser to the pit. Keep any new plant well watered till it gets established. It will soon find spaces to grow in the builders rubble and be perfectly happy. My climbing rose Dublin Bay will reach seven feet in height according to the catalogue. However once the roots found the rubble it just grew and grew and now I have had to severely prune it to keep in down to twelve feet.


Climbing plants can add interest all year round by using the benefits of each different wall. South facing walls catch the most sunshine so will bring plants on earlier and retain colour longer at the end of the season while north facing walls extend the plant range to those that would otherwise suffer too much sun.
North facing walls are perfect for the yellow winter flowering Jasminum nudiflorum which starts to flower at the beginning of winter and continues for a few months. Camelias on a north wall can follow on into the early spring, and being a woodland fringe plant they do not mind shade as long as they get some sun in summer to ripen up the wood to allow flower buds to develop.
Clematis in its numerous varieties and hybrids will give a display from spring till late summer. Clematis montana rubens may be very common, but it is one of the best for a mass display of pink flowers. It is very reliable, quite vigorous and loves to scramble into old trees, over sheds, tall fences, conifers, etc.
Where scent and flowers are both important go for a honeysuckle. That will take you into summer. Now there are numerous climbers and ramblers to choose from. Roses are very adaptable, but choose a variety that has disease free foliage able to resist black spot, mildew and rust. Chemicals available at garden centres have to be very safe for public use so are usually quite dilute and do not always work effectively unless you spray at fortnightly intervals and each spray does not get washed off with rain soon after application.
My favourite autumn climber for any wall is the Firethorn, Pyracantha Orange Glow, though there are several yellow and orange berried forms.

Fruit bushes

Redcurrants and gooseberries can be trained as cordons on an east or west wall, but keep your south facing walls and fences for those fruit that can benefit from more sunshine.
Apples and pears trained as fans or espaliers thrive on a south wall, but so also do figs, cherries, peaches and the vine Vitis vinifera Brant. The vine needs support for its tendrils to hold onto. It has small but very edible fruit and brilliant autumn colour.
All of the fruit trained against walls require pruning specific to their individual needs to control growth, expose fruit to the sun and ripen up shoots to fruit the following year.


Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Ornamental Berries


Beauty in the garden presents itself in numerous ways throughout the year. The impact of bold bright summer flowers is replaced in autumn with brilliant leaf colours as well as berries, fruit and hips. Most plants reproduce and spread by means of seed dispersal and have all developed amazing methods to ensure their success amongst the competition.

Plants need to ensure that their seed is spread well away from the parent plant so some have developed wings e.g. sycamores and maples, some have hooks such as sticky willie, and some open with an explosive power to shoot seeds good distances, e.g. brooms and gorse.
Chestnuts and oaks provide a food source for squirrels who collect the seed and dig holes in the ground to store them for the winter. There is always a good chance that some will survive the ravages from the hungry squirrel and grow into a tree.
The ornamental fruiting trees and shrubs started of as edible fruit for wildlife who travel away from the source eating the fruit on the journey and disperse fertilised seed in their droppings. Humans have played a role in dispersal of apple trees grown from seed along railway embankments as the apple cores were thrown out of the windows from older steam engine trains.
People have grown plants for eating for generations and realise that there is also a visual pleasure in seeing a tree or shrub in full crop with brightly coloured fruits.
Nurseries and plant breeders have taken this a stage further in developing new improved varieties and selecting the best clones to extend the available range of ornamental trees and shrubs with impressive displays of fruit.


When I was selecting suitable apple trees for my garden in Dundee I decided that they would need to be bright red as well as having excellent eating and storing qualities. Discovery is my early, Red Devil my main season and Fiesta and Red Falstaff my lates for storing, but while on the tree they all provide a fantastic display of bold colour.
Katy and Scrumptious are also very good.
However if a good display is more important than cropping potential try some of the ornamental crab apples such as Malus John Downie or Golden Hornet. After a while if you are tempted to use the fruit they will make an excellent jelly.
For those who are more patriotically Scottish a rowan tree will be high on the list. In past times they were necessary to ward off evil spirits, but old traditions die out and now they are grown in numerous forms for a very wide range of ornamental berries and autumn colour.
The common species, Sorbus aucuparia is grown all over Scotland and has eye catching scarlet foliage in autumn with a huge crop of scarlet berries which dont last too long as the birds just love them. The variety Sheerwater Seedling has been bred for its upright growth making a perfect tree avenue which does not interfere with traffic movement.
The yellow, pink and white berried rowans give a longer display as birds are not in a hurry to devour them like the red fruited types.
Joseph Rock has yellow berries amongst scarlet foliage, Sorbus cashmiriana has white berries and both Sorbus hupehensis and vilmorinii fruits start pink then slowly change to white tinged pink.
The genus Sorbus also includes the whitebeams which have broader grey leaves and scarlet berries which can last a long time. They make very impressive bold trees. The best ones are Sorbus aria lutescens and majestica where the grey summer foliage turns golden in autumn.

Berried Shrubs

Holly grows to a small tree size and is evergreen and will fruit in most years. It is very popular for a festive decoration around the home, is very easy to grow, but is not too fast.
Coming down the scale in size the Cotoneaster genus grows from a small tree such as C. frigidus to ground cover such as C. dammeri. They all get covered in bright red berries that last well into winter. The species C. horizontalis has a herring bone pattern that really excels when frosted. It is very useful for ground cover as is the variety Autumn Fire though it can be quite rampant. Cotoneaster simonsii is a very useful medium sized shrub for screening, but its prolific red berries get eaten and carried by birds all over the garden. It would seem that almost every seed wants to germinate and grow. This can be a problem.
Berries come in all colours from the white snowberry, Symphoricarpos albus, the violet purple Callicarpa bodinieri, the deep blue black Mahonia aquifolium to the bright orange sea buckthorn, Hippophae rhamnoides.
Sea buckthorn fruits are displayed on a silver grey feathery foliage that is great in maritime places as it tolerates sea spray and dry sandy soil conditions. It is a popular plant for vandal prone areas too, as it has a lot of thorns, and its strong root system and ability to sucker makes it useful to stabilise steep slopes and river banks. Breeders have been busy growing plants that can be easily harvested as the edible berries are very healthy once processed into juices and jams and essential oils are extracted from the seeds. It is also used in cosmetics and even in baby foods. The edible berries are very high in vitamin c,  but may have to be cooked in some recipe to get the best flavour from them.
Another excellent evergreen ground cover plant smothered in red, pink, lilac and white berries is the Pernettya. The berries last all winter until they get sweetened up for consumption by birds in late spring when there is precious little else for them to eat
The plants are female so you will need a male pollinator to ensure a good crop of large berries. You may have to order a male plant as they do not have sales potential in nurseries if there are no berries on them. Some species of male Pernettyas do however produce some berries as they may have a slight androgynous tendency.
It doesn't just happen to humans.
There is quite a bit of controversy as to whether the fruit is edible. For some native south American Indians Pernettya fruit was a major food source in summer and winter and different species were reported to have hallucinogenic chemicals or could make you intoxicated. The North Carolina State University studies reported the whole genus highly toxic and warned they may be fatal if eaten.
My local blackbird seems happy to gulp them down every late spring and always flies of in a straight line. He probably hasn't read the report.
Skimmia has always been popular as an evergreen low growing shrub with red berries. It is also dioecious so you need a male pollinator for the berrying female plants.


It is the common practise to remove the seed heads after flowering to conserve the plants energy for flower production, but some rose types have very attractive large bright red hips.
Do not remove these hips as they will be the attraction well into winter. There are many varieties, but they mostly come from the two species, Rosa, rugosa and Rosa moysii.


The Firethorn, Pyracantha comes in many varieties with red, orange and yellow berries. These are produced quite prolifically on tall thorny evergreen bushes which are usually treated by pruning to grow as a wall climber. Birds love the fruit, so although the display is short lived it is quite stunning for a few weeks.
The outdoor ornamental grape vine, Vitis vinifera Brant produces numerous small bunches of black sweet grapes. It is quite vigorous but is easily kept under control with pruning. It is best trained along wires on a south wall. Autumn colour of the large vine leaves is brilliant.


Sunday, 14 November 2010

Autumn Colour


A gardeners world has always entailed a fair bit of energetic graft, but then later you reap the reward. It may be the tasty fresh produce you have grown or the beautiful plants now looking their best, or a tranquil spot in which to relax in a sunny corner. If only you could ignore that never ending voice in your sub-conscious reminding you of that weed that needs removing, the broken fence to repair, a few plants needing potted or some other job from a long line of tasks that never end. However, summer is gone, the sun lounger is in store, so  topping up the sun tan is no longer an option and a new set of tasks for autumn is reaching priority status.
However, autumn does come in a brilliant blaze of colour that can take your breath away.
When the garden is being planned and planted up in the early years, this is the time to consider good plants for autumn colour as the best are usually trees or shrubs that need careful thought to allow them space to grow. Your garden size will determine what you can select.
I usually start by looking at the space for a tree or two. They come in all sizes so it is not difficult to find an appropriate list suited for shelter, screening, blocking unpleasant eyesores, or specimens to be admired. In UK most trees, other than conifers are deciduous so there is plenty scope for colour when they lose their leaves in autumn.

Brilliant trees

If you are blessed with a large garden you can indulge in any amount of forest trees with excellent autumn colour from the scarlet red oaks, bronze beech, golden maples and sycamores, horse and sweet chestnuts, lime, poplar, and even some elm if you are happy to risk the ravages of any remaining Dutch elm disease. They will all give a brilliant display in the autumn, but do some research before you buy as there is always some outstanding varieties within any one type.
It is always hard to pick a favourite but Acer cappadocicum rubrum is hard to beat if you can find one.
There are a few deciduous conifers that put on a dazzling display in autumn. Larch is the most frequently used, but try to find space for the Dawn Redwood, Metasequoia glyptostroboides, the swamp cypress, Taxodium distichum,  or the maidenhair tree, Ginkgo biloba. These are all large trees ultimately though some are slow growing and worthy of a place for ten years or so before they get too big.

Smaller gardens can still enjoy a wide range of good autumn colour with other species such as rowans, whitebeams, cherries, upright forms of hornbeam, liquidamber, amelanchier, maples and  birch. There are very many different forms, sizes and attributes for all of these trees, so as tree planting is for the long term do some research before making your purchase.

Dazzling shrubs

There are just as many types of shrubs as trees coming in all sizes from ground cover to small trees. They are used to form boundaries, hedges, and as ground cover to smother weeds. Some give shelter and privacy and are often mixed into shelterbelts, windbreaks and woodland fringes to add variety, interest and colour. Some types can be used on steep banks to prevent soil erosion with added benefit of providing food and shelter for wildlife.
Shrubs are often grown for their flowers or other features and good colour in autumn is a bonus. Deciduous azaleas have brilliant autumn colour as well as dazzling scented flowers in spring. Contrast them with the smoke bush, Cotinus coggygria which turns a deep scarlet.
However the plant with the widest range of brilliant colours must belong to some of the Japanese maples. I grow several of these, but Acer palmatum Sangokaku is not only fantastic in autumn but also has bright red stems that glow in the sun all winter.
Autumn is also a time when the heather garden attains bright scarlets and golds on many of the Callunas.
Then don't forget the fruit garden as the blueberries brighten up at leaf fall as well as the saskatoons and chokeberry, Aronia melanocarpa. The latter is fast becoming popular as demand for quality superfood increases. The Aronia may only be known as an ornamental large shrub with almost edible berries and excellent autumn colour at present, but its fruit quality is at the highest level for anti oxidants.
My two best climbing plants for autumn colour are the  Virginian creeper, Parthenocissus and the ornamental grape vine Vitis vinifera Brant. Careful with the former as it can be very vigorous and grow very tall, and Vitis Brant is also vigorous, but easy to keep in check with pruning. It will need a support to cling to with its tendrils. Its leaves turn scarlet and gold in autumn and its fruit bunches may be small but they are delicious eaten fresh or as a juice extracted from the fruit and kept in the fridge for up to two weeks. Surplus juice can be frozen.
Now we have enjoyed some blissful moments amidst the colourful gently falling leaves our thoughts go back to the next job needing attention

Autumn tasks

Those once admired leaves have now dropped down and will need raking up, and then this is the last chance to remove weeds before winter begins. I always like to go into the winter with weed free soil. A lesson from history. Hand weeding frosted flower beds in Dawson Park in winter 1960 was not an awful lot of fun. A passing lady walking her dog in the park was overheard telling her friend, “the patients do a marvellous job “
This is also a good time to spread a mulch of rotted compost on those borders planted with bulbs. Once the bulbs begin to emerge it is too late to put any compost on without doing some damage.
Garden tables and chairs can now be brought inside to protect them from winter weather, as opportunity for an outdoor coffee break is only reserved for the hardiest of patients.

Renovate lawns

Lawns may be purely functional as a place for the dog and kids to play on, or it may be a surface of excellence maintained to the highest level. The mower usually determines the standard, ie. use a rotary for the normal suburban lawn, but a cylinder with grass box for the perfect lawn with stripes. To keep the high standard of surface, autumn renovation work is an essential routine. Any broad leaved weeds will have been removed during the growing season, but moss can be a problem in autumn. Spreading lawn sand is the normal practise, but it may contain a fast acting nitrogenous fertiliser, so I prefer to use its active ingredient sulphate of iron alone. This needs careful diluting in a watering can, then test a small patch before you water the whole lawn. It can be very strong so care is needed, but it is very effective. I also use it on any mossy path areas. The moss turns black in two days.
Scarifying the surface with a springbok rake will also remove moss and any build up of thatch.
To improve surface drainage use the garden fork to put small holes about two to three inches deep into the surface at about six to nine inch spacings. Then spread on an autumn lawn compost dressing which will have an organic slow acting fertiliser in it  This should have a higher ratio of potassium and phosphates and be low in nitrogen. Brush the compost into the holes.


Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Preparing for Winter


Autumn is a very important time in the gardening calendar as it is this time we assess the results of the seasons work so we can plan for the next year. It is also the time to get overwintering outdoor crops tidied up before winter sets in and prepare those requiring winter storage. Then there is the winter digging, fruit tree and bush pruning and before long the leaves will have started to fall.
In fact its quite weird and very unusual, but the seasons seem to be normal. Autumn leaves are falling in autumn instead of early winter, snow is falling at low levels in some places, summer bedding would appear to be finished and the rain has stopped. I cannot remember much wet weather during the tattie picking season, though it was often frosty in the mornings. Then as usual thousands of geese flying in formation overhead are making their way up the Tay estuary. Now, this is autumn.
Allotment work

The cold weather is just what we need to sweeten up the winter cabbage, leeks, kale, Brussel sprouts, swede turnips, Swiss chard and my four parsnips that grew from a whole packet of seeds. Next year I will definitely change the variety and supplier.
Last year I left my beetroot in the ground rather than lift for storage and even though we had a very cold winter they came to no harm, so I will try the same again this year, but earth them up a wee bit to give the roots some protection from frosts.
It is a good idea to try to complete winter digging, adding manure or compost, before the end of the year, but this usually depends on good weather so the soil is not too wet to walk on. Any land sown down to a green manure crop such as mustard must be dug over immediately the first flowers appear otherwise they may set seed and end up being a real nuisance.
Gladioli and chrysanthemums have now finished so they can be lifted and stored for next year. Gladioli are dried off and stored in a cool box in dry sand or dry soil in a frost free shed. Chrysanthemum stools are boxed up and kept moist in a cold but frost free greenhouse over winter.

My strawberry varieties Symphony and Florence have both had three fruiting years, so now is the time to replace them from runners. They have produced a lot of very strong healthy runners so I can afford to give the new strawberry bed on freshly prepared and composted ground special treatment. Rows are spaced three feet apart, but I can afford to make each row a double row six inches apart and space the plants up each row at six inch spacings. This way I will establish a thick row in the first year to give a far heavier crop than traditional planting distances.

Winter Storage

Pumpkins have been lifted, washed and are now stored as an ornamental feature in our utility room where it is not too warm. They will be used fresh for fantastic soups up till next April, then any remaining will have the flesh scooped out and frozen for use later. The seeds will be used for next years crop.
Onions have been dried off and stored in nets hung up in the garage.
Carrots are lifted and stored in between dry straw and covered over with soil to keep them frost free.
Potatoes are now all lifted, dried, sorted out and stored in boxes in a cool but frost free spot.
Apples have now all been harvested, even my Bramleys, sorted out and stored in cardboard trays in the garage. The Discovery variety is finished so now we are eating the Fiesta. Red Falstaff and Red Devil will be stored a bit longer to ripen up.
The freezers are packed with enough fruit and vegetables to keep a large family well fed for well over a year. French beans, broad beans, (it makes a brilliant winter soup) and the best of our sweet corn crop are all frozen and surplus kale leaves get frozen as this makes it easier to break them up for soups without losing any of their nutritional value.
When you add soft fruit to the freezer such as strawberries, rasps, red currants, black currants, gooseberries, saskatoons and brambles it makes sense to pack them in square shaped plastic containers to maximise space and minimise empty air space.
Rhubarb, surplus pears and plums which do not store well can also be frozen to be used throughout the rest of the year.
The latest health trend to use any surplus fruit is in a delicious smoothie. This retains the healthy properties of the fruit or vegetables and can be taken as a food or thick drink. They can also be used in place of cream for summer puddings. Our favourite smoothie at present is made with our Aronia berries. This new berry crop is also called the chokeberry as the fresh fruit is astringent if eaten raw, but easily loses this when cooked. As far as superfood status goes the aronia ranks near the top of the list having ten times as much anti-oxidants as a blueberry. As well as smoothie it makes a great jam and can be juiced for a drink with some sugar added.


Geraniums are easily overwintered as rooted cutting taken early in October and put in small pots. Keep them cool and don't over water, but if you wish to build up stock then water and feed oftener and grow in a light warm greenhouse or windowsill. Take the tops out for cuttings as soon as big enough, then take another cutting from the second cutting once it has put on a bit of growth. Grow them fast and repeat the process. It is possible to get ten plants from one plant by late spring.
I will be sowing my Meconopsis, (Himalayan blue poppy) now that it has been in the fridge for three months. It will remain outdoors to complete its stratification period and hopefully germinate in spring.
My saskatoon seed and now Aronia also get stratified before they will germinate. Select good berries at harvest time and squeeze them out of the flesh as soon as possible as the flesh contains germination inhibiting hormones. Wash them and use a kitchen roll to remove the worst of the moisture then store them in moist kitchen roll in the fridge. Do not let them dry out. Sow the seed outdoors in a prepared seedbed or in containers and keep these outside to weather. Germination should occur in spring. However this year my saskatoon variety Smoky has started to germinate. This is October so I do not know if the young seedlings will survive the winter so Smoky will go into my cold greenhouse for a wee bit of protection.

Spring bedding

Now that autumn appears to be with us most of my summer display of bedding plants in beds, tubs and hanging baskets is over. My geraniums are still colourful, so I will leave them alone for another week, and my tuberous begonias still think it is summer. They are still brilliant so no harm will come to them at this stage, even if I have bags of tulips, hyacinths and crocus eager to get planted.
Tubs of begonias will be replaced with a mixture of polyanthus underplanted with scented hyacinths. Smaller pots and hanging baskets will be planted with winter pansies and some crocus, and my main flower beds will be planted with wallflower grown from seed on my allotment, and a mixture of Darwin Hybrid tulips once I finally decide the geraniums are past their best.


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.