Gardening and Gardens

Each Month in my Garden: December – The Right Weather & Plant Names

The Royal Horticultural Society’s magazine arrived at the beginning of the month and I was struck by the fact that most photographs of gardens in winter are actually pictures of interesting weather. Mist, bright sunlight, frost and snow all make for great photos. Less so the greyish days we usually get. Christmas trees brighten everything but it’s usually the fairy lights that do the brightening rather than the actual trees. So there won’t be any photos of my garden this month.

The magazine also had an article on the change of rosemary’s Latin name. It is now to be part of the genus Salvia, and Rosmarinus officinalis has become Salvia rosmarinus. I see the logic behind the change but I mourn the loss of officinalis which, according to William Stearn (Stearn’s Dictionary of Plant Names for Gardeners) means ‘Sold in shops; applied to plants with real or supposed medicinal properties’. Nowadays plants are sold in a vast array of shops, not just in nurseries and garden centres but almost everywhere from gift shops to supermarkets, but historically officinalis conferred a certain status on plants. In Botanical Latin William Stearn expands the definition, writing ‘It is derived from opificina shortened to officina, originally a workshop or shop, later a monastic storeroom, then a herb-store, pharmacy or drug-shop’. The name gave rosemary a sense of importance which it has now lost, presumably because common sage, or Salvia officinalis, got there first. 

Russian sage has also been absorbed into the genus with Perovskia atriplicifolia becoming Salvia yangii. What would have been wrong with Salvia perovskia? Poor Russian General V. A. Perovski, 1794-c.1857, (according to William Stearn), loses his credit, which seems rather harsh. But then the RHS Illustrated Dictionary of Gardening describes him as B. A. Perovskii, a Turkestani statesman. Both are books I would normally trust without question. The internet, which I don’t necessarily trust credits Vasily Alekseevich Perovsky, who seems to have had an interesting life fighting in Turkey followed by time on the then Russian Empire’s south-eastern border, extending the frontier with varying degrees of success. It seems unlikely he had time to go plant hunting so perhaps he doesn’t deserve the credit. Another count, Count Lev Alekseyevich von Perovski, who lived at the same time, has given his name to the mineral perovskite. His Wikipedia article starts with the following charming warning:  

Not to be confused with Lev Nikolaievich Perovski, Aleksei Alekseivich Perovski, or other Counts Perovski.

As the RHS article points out plant labels tend to be printed in large batches so it may be several years before the changes appear on retailers’ shelves anyway. By the time we’ve adapted there may well be further discoveries……


Each Month in my Garden: November

My primary aim for the back garden is for it to have lots of places to sit surrounded by flowers. Although it is tiny I have four different areas which accommodate all needs and weathers: the bench by back door that catches the sun at elevenses time, two sets of tables and chairs (sun/shade, eating/sewing/reading/making, friends/alone) and the summer house which catches the last rays of sun in the evening and is perfect for times when it’s too chilly or too wet to sit outside. By November the sun is too low in the sky to do much other than fleetingly appear over the tops of the surrounding buildings and even the summer house (no heating, a draughty window and a bit damp) is too cold to sit in. The garden gets an autumn tidy but that’s about it.

The front garden is different as I go through it every day and look out onto it from the table in the bay window where I supposedly work. The grasses here last well into autumn, the rose flowers, albeit intermittently, till Christmas and there are more flowers but even so I do little actual gardening as everything starts to close down. An unexpected bonus this year is the jasmine which I planted in the summer to twine along the front fence. This is the third time it’s been moved; in its two previous homes in the back garden it was very unhappy, the first because of too much shade and the second because of a very dominant ivy. Now it gets the afternoon sun, seems much happier and this year, for the first time, has beautiful autumn colour. In the past it’s always just given up in October, dropped its leaves and sulked. 

When I was in Edinburgh I walked through Inverleith Park and the Botanic Garden but, if I’m honest I went mostly for the amazing views of the city’s skyline. The bare branches silhouetted against the blue sky were an unexpected bonus.


Each Month in my Garden: October

It’s autumn. Every morning I look out of the kitchen window and the colours of the witch hazel remind me that summer is over. Not that I mind; the garden has shifted and the colours of the leaves and grasses are beautiful. There are even some flowers.

There’s been a lot of rain and I’ve noticed that grasses, in particular, look beautiful with raindrops hanging from their wafty stems. I’ve also realised that they are impossible to photograph successfully, at least with my fairly basic camera and even more basic ‘point and click’ attitude. Next year’s forget-me-nots were easier.

Many years ago I fell in love with a house in Edinburgh. Or, to be exact, I fell in love with its bay window. It was a perfectly ordinary Victorian house but there was a table in the bay window, with a lamp and a pile of books. I had no idea who lived there but I imagined wonderful books being written at the table. I came home and rearranged the front room and this is now the table where I do much of my writing. For most of the year the grasses create a perfect screen from the street, particularly at this time of year with their airy plumes and autumnal colours.

I’ve bought bulbs from de Jaeger again this year. They are slightly more expensive than many others (especially if you aren’t careful when choosing the cultivars) but last year I had a 100% success rate. Every single bulb I planted produced a flower and most lasted very well. This has never happened before. I’ve planted bulbs and, at best 75% have flowered. The aim this year was to plan carefully and buy fewer bulbs as I knew I could rely on them. Of course, like a small child in a sweet shop, I bought more than I intended. But I have planted them all, a bit late for the daffs and alliums, and a bit early for the tulips, but they are at least all in the ground.   


Each Month in my Garden: September by the Seaside

September is one of my favourite months. Partly because it is ‘autumn’ but nearly always behaves as if it is still summer; it feels like stolen time, a sort of permanently sunny bank holiday. At the end of the month I went to Devon and, driving there, I was surprised how autumnal the countryside looked. It may still have been summer in London but the fields and woodlands of Hampshire, Dorset and Somerset all had a distinctly golden tinge. It was lovely but in a slightly wistful way. As I was driving, in the interests of safety, there are no photos.

My friend lives by the seaside and this too had tipped from the buckets and spades of summer to deserted expanses of sand. But it was still warm enough to paddle.

This has nothing to do with gardens but it was one of the best puddings I’ve had for a long time. It was called something like ‘Every Child’s Worst Nightmare’ and tasted every bit as good as it looked. Thank you Relish in Ilfracombe



Each Month in My Garden: August

For the last few years the kerria has overtaken my long shady bed. In spring it looks wonderful and it blocks next door’s conservatory but by mid summer it has always grown too tall so the yellow pom-pom flowers are on stems 10-12ft tall. From a single stem it has spread the length and, more crucially, the width of the bed. Nothing else really grows here apart from some Welsh poppies and an aquilegia, which wasn’t very happy this year. The neighbours have ‘done’ their garden and we need a proper screen above the wall between us. When asked, I tend to say that flowers are the priority in my garden, followed by places to sit but, if I’m honest the order is privacy, seating, flowers.

On two sides ivy, kept reasonably under control, provides the garden with a beautiful green screen above the walls. Some years, when I’m organised, sweet peas, morning glory or cucumbers grow up the front.  The plan for the gap above the remaining stretch wall is ivy (kept very under control) with a rose in front which will the arch over the summer house roof, meeting the one that is already there on the other side.

The bed is not deep; about a foot down it turns into impenetrable rubble, so large plants go into bottomless flower pots to give them a bit of extra soil. I picked out every single piece of kerria root, leaving just a thin row of stems at the back of one end of the bed. Some of these stems probably won’t survive as I’m sure I will have damaged their roots but I’ve left enough, and the plant is tough, so I hope I’ll retain a slim, wafty screen.

The list of requirements for the rose is rather alarming: shade tolerant, soil tolerant, climbing but not too rampant, repeat flowering, fragrant, ideally not pink (the other one which arches over the summer house is a mixture of pink and yellow). David Austin’s ‘Claire Austin’ does all these and, by good luck rather than good management, the flowers are exactly the same shade of cream as the edgings on the ivy leaves.

I’ve replanted the aquilegias, alchemilla and a rather sorry-looking hardy geranium I found lurking between a mass of kerria stems. None of them looked particularly happy but with watering, food and a layer of mulch they have all recovered.

I have a very small shed, roughly the shape of a sentry box. The theory is that all my gardening paraphernalia lives in it, thus ensuring that the summer house does not become a dumping ground. Slowly, over the last three or so years, the roof of the little shed has disintegrated. I botched a repair with a couple of bin bags weighted down with old hoses. It worked but was not very sightly and clearly wouldn’t last for ever. Thanks to my friend David it now has a new roof which is waterproof and attractive. The photos show the spectacular difference between before and after.


Each Month in my Garden: July

July seems a long way away. Partly because it is a long way away but also because I’ve done a lot in the garden this month, which has rather blocked out what happened in July. Luckily I have photos. I have never taken photos of the garden consciously each month and it is interesting how much it changes in character as the year progresses.

So, briefly; the self-seeded evening primroses in the front garden were (and still are) amazing. A colony has established itself and there are already plenty of rosettes forming which will be next year’s flowers. This is undoubtedly due to the hose as the whole area gets well-watered on a regular basis. There is a particularly fine group where the hose doesn’t fit onto the tap properly and drips. Also in the front my new David Austin rose, ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ flowered; it will look stunning once it grows round the front door.

I finished the patchwork cover for the extremely-pretty-but-staggeringly-uncomfortable-bench and I now have five seating areas in my very small garden: wooden bench by the kitchen door for elevenses in the sun (shared with a sundial and basil), blue and white round and Provencal rectangular tables for meals in the sun or shade, as required, the summer house for writing, painting, reading, sitting with the cat on my lap and now a delightfully secluded and almost comfortable bench for reading and admiring the flowers.

For the first time the buddleia flowered; I moved its pot into the sun and it is clearly grateful. The blueberries and mulberry are still thinking about whether to fruit. Clearly none of them have read their labels which specified fruiting quite early in their lives. But the Japanese wineberries provided a long harvest of deliciously tart berries which are the perfect accompaniment to my morning porridge. And the long evenings were perfect for suppers in the garden.


Each Month in my Garden: June

I have just realised that with the excitement (and smugness) at having completed the Hundred Day Project I forgot about my garden in June. Luckily I took photos as I realise the garden changes a lot each month at this time of year. The main bed looks positively empty compared with how it is now.

Briefly, the Gladiolus ‘Nanus Nymph’ (another triumph from de Jager Bulbs) were spectacular. The photo doesn’t do them justice at all, partly because it kept raining on them. Next year I shall order lots more and have a striking pink garden in June.


The Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ was planted years ago and I have spent ages trying to get rid of it as it’s a bit of a thug in my one sunny (and small) flowerbed. But the buds are beautiful and I love the way the brilliant flowers swoop above everything else. I think it’s earned its place for another year.

Matilda is taking her gardening duties very seriously; she has almost learnt that she can eat her grasses but nothing else. 

Sadly she hasn’t yet learnt that you shouldn’t stand on plants whilst eating them.






At the time I thought the garden was looking very full, only now, a month later, I realise that at this point it was actually very neat and controlled.


Each Month in my Garden: May

It seems hard to remember that May was warm, and sunny, and really rather nice. But my photos prove it was, and the Chelsea weather was perfect. The garden performed brilliantly with, it has to be admitted, not that much help from me. I’m worried that the pink rose in the front garden (unknown, fragrant, flowers from May to Christmas but already old when I moved in nineteen years ago) may be on its last legs. It has always had too long a main stem so I can’t cut it back properly. This year it sent up ridiculously long shoots which swayed hysterically in the wind and, in several cases, snapped. Now it’s finished its first flush of flowers I’ve deadheaded it quite hard in the hope that the next batch of flowers will be at eye-level rather than reaching for the roof.

Also in the front, the geraniums – hardy and otherwise were lovely, especially when viewed close-up.

In the back garden it was all a bit shaggy but the aquilegias flitted about like little coloured aeroplanes, the Welsh poppies seeded themselves charmingly all over the place and the red valerian managed to stand up reasonably straight. Only the blueberries sulked, which is unreasonable of them as I repotted them, religiously save rainwater for them and give them more tlc than most of the other plants put together.

Even so, all in all it was a really good month.


The Hundred Day Project Day 61: It’s Summer

For me summer is driving with the roof open (and not having to have the heater on and wear a coat, scarf and gloves), wearing plimsolls and using the summerhouse. It (the summerhouse) is small, old and ramshackle, and takes up a lot of premium growing space (where the sunniest beds would be) but I absolutely love it. From now until autumn I shall write, make, read and sit here whenever I can. It is never too hot and gets the evening sun as it sinks down over the roof of the house. I have to share it with seedlings, deck chairs and Matilda but all that adds to its charm.