Author: janemcmorlandhunter

Seed Heads: To Tidy or Not to Tidy: That is the Question.

Eryngium giganteum 'Silver Ghost' 1

Every autumn I aim to give my, admittedly tiny, garden a good tidy. Often this doesn’t happen till after Christmas, but by the New Year I have always cut back most of the straggling growth from the previous summer. Seed heads always seem to look sad and soggy in my garden, rather than stately and statuesque. I know one should leave a certain amount of cover for wildlife, but with a surrounding wall of ivy and unkempt jasmine I feel there is enough wildness left. Looking round the garden this week made me wonder whether it would look better if I had left the stems, rather than imposed a rather fierce order on the now slightly flat-looking beds. A recent visit to Wisley and a walk past the Piet Oudolf borders had almost convinced me I’d done the right thing as there were one or two interesting patches there, but most of the plants looked dismal, damp and in need of a good chop. Possibly these borders might look good at this time of year on a bright, frosty morning but I doubt it.

I decided to visit the Chelsea Physic Garden, where they make a point of not cutting stems down. The garden covers a relatively small area of space, but they have an impressive collection of plants and I should be able to see a good selection of stems and seed heads. It was a reasonably sunny day, I can get in free on certain days with my RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) card and the cafe is open this week (an important consideration) as there is a snowdrop festival, not actually what I was after, but an added bonus nonetheless. All seemed well.

Horror of horrors; RHS membership no longer gets one into the garden. I may take out membership again, but I didn’t feel like doing it then and I certainly didn’t feel like paying nearly £10 to see a collection of potentially soggy seed heads.

Instead I went to Fulham Palace, which has a delightful Walled Garden, and is free. The cafe there is charming and, even though the main room may sometimes seem like a meeting place for mothers and toddlers, the cafe spreads into a side room and happily accommodates everyone. It is always possible to find a quiet corner to enjoy one’s coffee and cake.    

First though, I went to the Walled Garden where I thought I would find a reasonable selection of seed heads in the knot garden. Here there are tall grasses, silvery skeletons of perovskia and a lot of plants left over from last summer. The clumps of Rudbeckia fulgida var. deamii resembled a swarm of fat, black bees and the individual heads of Agapanthus ‘Torbay’ looked pretty enough when closely inspected. Overall these beds do look good but, mostly I think, because they had tall, upright grasses and neat box surrounds to give structure. The seed heads and summer stems worked because they were supported by other plants.

The conclusion I came to is that seed heads can look good throughout winter, but only if they are surrounded by strongly-structured or upright plants. They are also best viewed either very close-up, or at a distance where they can form part of a wider picture. My garden is too small for this sort of view and the flower beds insufficiently spacious for enough plants to provide the necessary structure. On balance, I think I’m right to tidy.


Palace Walld Garden Feb 2015 2

Brambles and Butterflies



Brambles and Butterflies

At the RHS’s garden at Wisley there are two very different areas to enjoy at the moment; the Winter Walk and the Butterflies in the Glasshouse. One embraces winter while the other turns its back on the weather by creating an almost tropical environment.

A good starting point for the Winter Walk is, conveniently, viewed from the main café. The low winter sunlight shines through a collection of dogwoods and willows creating a striking display of reds and oranges. The stems are sufficiently bright that even on an overcast day they shine vividly. This is one of the times that I wish I had a larger garden. I’m useless at judging distances, but these stems must be 50-100 yards away from the window seats, the same effect could not be created with the 10ft depth that I have.

Close up the plants are equally spectacular. The path weaves along the edge of the lake through the stems, the colours changing at every turn. Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ is bright red, Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ has stems which are orange at the base, rising to a brilliant scarlet at the tips and there are greeny-yellow willows (whose name I am not sure of). In between everything grows a bramble, Rubus biflorus. This is probably my favourite winter plant. Its long arching stems appear to have been whitewashed, with only the occasional tip remaining green. It is as if the cold has spread up from the ground and painted the stems. Vicious thorns make it clear that this is not a plant to walk casually through, or even past, but you can look into it and imagine a world such as Narnia, held fast in its grip. Horticulturally, it looks particularly good when combined with the vertical red stems of dogwood.

The walk continues past witch hazels, whose spidery flowers are now in full bloom. Deutzias and Christmas box may not be as spectacular to look at but their sudden wafts of fragrance are a delight. The winter honeysuckle is also in flower, with a delicate scent that you will miss if you walk by too quickly. Little snowdrops and hellebores line the paths and there is a new winter border of heathers, grasses and conifers, which looks attractive when viewed from the lake.

The walk leads to the Glasshouse (it is frankly not worth walking up past the Piet Oudolf borders at the moment as they are mostly a sad display of fallen stems and blackened seed heads) and into an extraordinary contrast. A wall of warmth hits you as you pass into the building, increasing as you walk round into the Tropical area. At this time of year the Glasshouse is full of a wonderful collection of butterflies. In shades of brilliant red and electric blue they flutter in between the plants, pausing photogenically at strategically placed feeding stations. They have beautiful names too: Giant Owl, Tree Nymph and King Swallowtail. The plants they fly between are also beautiful and a spectacular treat for those of us trapped in the depths of winter: huge agaves, colourful strelitzias, callistemons with their fluffy red bottle brushes, Plumbago indica and oranges and lemons. They combine to make a wonderful display, but it is not one I can get terribly enthused about. A single visit to the Glasshouse is lovely, but outside the views are constantly changing and reminding us that, even though it may still be cold and dark for much of the time, our gardens are waking up.        

Soon the daffodils will be in flower, the blossom will be out and, when the tulips arrive, Wisley will be a riot of colour. Many of the winter displays will either fade or be cut back to prepare for next year but, for the moment, for me at least, it is the dogwoods, willows and brambles that steal the show.



Quince Jam and Jelly

Quince Jelly, jam and Curd

Membrillo may be the way most people come across quinces in shops, but there are other, equally delicious ways of preserving the fruit. Now is the time to take advantage of the last of the quinces and make jam and jelly. This post was meant to go up before Christmas, but jam and jelly make perfect New Year presents too and, if you don’t need to give it away, you can eat it! These recipes come from Quinces, Growing and Cooking (Prospect Books), which I wrote with Sue Dunster.

A Couple of Tips

Making jam and jelly is perfectly simple and incredibly satisfying, but there one or two points to be aware of. Unless specified the instructions below apply to both jam and jelly even though I have referred only to jam.

The type of sugar you use will not alter the taste of the jam but it will affect how it sets. Most importantly you must always use cane sugar rather than beet. Apparently in chemical terms there is no difference between the two, but cane sugar sets much better. If you use beet sugar your preserve will take ages to make and will always be on the runny side. Whether you use granulated or preserving, refined or unrefined is entirely up to you. Preserving or jam sugar is more expensive than granulated and not quite so readily available. The individual grains of sugar are larger and this means they dissolve more easily and, in turn, this speeds up the whole process. It is good if, like us, you are impatient but it doesn’t make better jam. Using refined or unrefined sugar is entirely a matter of personal preference.

The aspect of jam making which tends to worry people most is the setting point. This is the point at which the hot bubbling liquid in your pot will set when it cools. It is crucial not to overcook jam or jelly as they can become solid and rubbery and may taste burnt. The important thing to remember is that you can always cook the jam bit more, you cannot uncook it. With this in mind, always remove the pot from the heat when you test the jam. This way it will immediately stop cooking. It does not matter how many times you do this, you can even recook cold jam if you decide it is not sufficiently set. Testing whether the jam is set is very simple. Before you start put several saucers into the deep freeze. When you think the jam may be ready, remove it from the heat and, using a teaspoon put a small amount of jam onto one of the cold saucers. The jam will rapidly cool. Push your finger through it and if it forms a wrinkly skin it means the jam is ready and will set when cooled in jars. The jam is then ready to pour into jars. If it remains runny replace the pan on the heat and retest using another cold saucer.

When cooking the jam you will probably find a scum forms on the surface. Do not scoop this off while the jam is cooking as you will end up wasting a lot. When making jam you can disperse the scum by adding a little butter. Once the setting point has been reached, put a knob of soft butter into the jam and stir it until it melts. Any scum will miraculously disappear. The amount of butter you need will depend on the quantity of jam you are making and how much scum there is, so start with about ¼ teaspoon and add a little more if necessary. When making jelly you will need to scoop the scum off eventually as it will spoil the clarity of the jelly. Once the jelly has reached setting point allow it to cool slightly and then scoop off all the scum using a clean spoon. It doesn’t look terribly attractive, but tastes just as good and can be put in a separate jar and eaten.

It is important to sterilize your jars properly otherwise you run the risk of the jam going mouldy. It is perfectly okay to remove any mould and eat the jam below but it doesn’t look very good if you give away a jar of proudly made jam and a layer of blue mould has crept in. To sterilise, first preheat the oven to 110C / Gas ¼. Wash the jars and lids thoroughly in hot, soapy water and rinse well. You can run them through a cycle of a dishwasher if you prefer. Put the jars upside down in the oven and leave them until they are totally dry. If you are using metal lids they can go in the oven too. Drying the jars in the oven removes the risk of wiping them with a less than spotless cloth and also means that they are hot and will not crack when you pour the hot jam into them.

When cooking, simmer the fruit slowly to break it up and dissolve the sugar. Then boil it rapidly, as the quicker it reaches the setting point the better the flavour will be.

Quince Jam

This is a wonderful jam which is not too sweet and really thick with fruit.

  • 1kg quinces
  • 1.8ml water
  • 1.250-1.5kg granulated or preserving sugar, according to how sweet you want the jam
  • Juice of 2 lemons
  • Small piece of butter
  • This will make between 3 and 6 jars depending how juicy the quinces are and how runny you like your jam.
  • Put a couple of saucers in the deep freeze for testing the jam.
  • Wash the jars and put in a low oven (110C / Gas ¼) to dry.

Wash the quinces, removing all the fluff and cut out any bruised flesh. If the fruits are large, cut them in half as they will cook quicker this way. If there are signs that any of the fruits have been eaten by grubs it is worth cutting them anyway to check the inside. Put in a large steel pan, add the water (which should cover the fruit) and simmer until soft. This should take between ½ to 1 hour depending on the size of your quinces. Check periodically to ensure the pan does not dry out.

Lift the quinces out one at a time, place on a saucer and pull apart with a knife and fork and remove the core. You do not need to worry about the skin as this will break up when you boil the jam. The fruit will fall apart as you remove the cores. Cut the pieces in dice sized chunks.

Return the quinces to the juice in the saucepan and add the sugar and lemon juice. Heat gently to dissolve the sugar and then boil hard until the setting point is reached. (See above.)

Pour into hot, sterilized jars, seal and once the jars are cool, label.

Quince Jelly

One of the joys of this jelly is the beautiful, clear colour, quite apart from the fabulous taste. It can be eaten on toast or scones and is also a delicious accompaniment to chicken, turkey and pheasant.

1kg quinces

Sugar – granulated or preserving

Depending on the fruit 1kg of fruit will give you about 300ml of juice which will, in turn, make just over a jar of jelly.

Wash the quinces and rub off the fluffy down. Remove any bruised or blemished parts and cut all the rest into chunks, you don’t need to worry about peeling or coring.

Put into a large, heavy bottomed saucepan and add enough water so the fruit is just submerged.

Bring to the boil and simmer until the fruit has turned to pulp. Stir and squash down periodically to help the fruit break up and to prevent it sticking. This will probably take a couple of hours.

Pour the contents into a jelly bag and allow the juice to drip through into a bowl. It is easiest if you spoon the fruit into the bag first and then pour the liquid over. The whole operation is quite difficult and much simpler with two people, one to hold the bag open and one to pour. Do not squeeze the bag or press the fruit down as this will turn the jelly cloudy. The jelly will take a couple of hours to drip through and can be left overnight.

Put a couple of saucers in the deep freeze to use for testing the jelly.

Wash the jars and put in a low oven (110C / Gas ¼) to dry.

Measure the juice and for every 500ml juice add 400g sugar. Put into a clean saucepan and heat gently until the sugar has dissolved. Once the liquid is clear, turn up the heat and boil hard until setting point is reached. (See above.)

Pour into hot, sterilized jars, seal and once the jars are cool, label.



Bishop Howley’s Drawing Room at Fulham Palace

Bishops Avenue, Fulham Palace Road, SW6 6EA

Until 1973 this was the home of the Bishop of London. Once surrounded by the largest moat in England it has been occupied since prehistoric times. The garden of 1760 has remained largely unchanged. The sweeping lawn is surrounded by one of the best collections of trees in London with a huge holm oak over 500 years old. It rests majestically on its supports while tubby squirrels play tag along its branches. Here in Fulham they make a pretence of collecting supplies for winter, but there never seems to be a sense of urgency to their foraging.

A Tudor arch leads into the Walled Garden. This used to be like The Secret Garden, with a giant, unruly wisteria and the scattered remains of an orchard. It is gradually being restored and while it has lost the forgotten feel, it remains charming. The glass house has been beautifully reconstructed, a working kitchen garden created and more fruit trees have been planted. None of the trees are particularly old but many have lichen-encrusted branches and twisty stems. The new saplings are mere sticks supported by stout stakes, but in time a proper orchard will grow up. Beyond the Walled Garden is a small woodland area and also the Palace’s meadow, which is a sea of wild flowers in summer. The drawing room cafe sells light lunches and excellent teas. You can sit looking out over the lawn or picnic in the seclusion of the garden. Even in winter the view is lovely.

Nearby, Bishop’s Park runs alongside the River Thames. It has also recently been restored with a beach and ornamental lake. The only sad part of this story is that Fulham Palace Garden Centre at the end of Bishop’s Avenue closed earlier this year. We were threatened with a branch of a giant pet shop chain, but this fell through. Apparently the site has to be used for some sort of horticultural business; it seems so sad that they didn’t leave us with the lovely garden centre we already had.  Jane.