Why Willows and Drains do not Mix…

We often are asked questions about how close willow trees (and other vigorous, damp loving species such as Poplars and Alders) can be planted to a house or drain.

The easy answer is “not close at all”. A willow may look beautiful (what is more delicate than a golden weeping willow – Salix sepulchralis Chrysocoma) but there is a monster lurking below. In their class, willows have to be the all time root producing world record holders. Their tentacles will sniff out water and – even better – drainage at long range.

I really have no idea what their maximum reach is, but I think it would be wise to leave AT LEAST 10 metres between tree and drain. If it were me, I might up that to 15 metres.

And here is why – a new horror movie available to you only on this screen-

The Willow from the Black Lagoon 

More seriously with the help of Jae Lee Law, the point is that this (poor) little grey willow (Salix cinerea) which produces some of the most beautiful catkins in the willow world is between 2-3 years old and was pulled out of a downpipe owned by a friend of Rebecca (who works at Ashridge and brought the creature in. The film does not lie – the roots are well over 3 metres long while the plant is about 1.50 metres. The root mass is perfectly tubular and perfectly SOLID. Apparently it was a real tug of war to get it out and another year would probably have seen it a metre longer and completely immovable.

So keep them away from drains…..

Bulbs to brighten your world


'Princess Irene'

Spring flowering tulips like ‘Princess Irene’ bring immense warmth to cold corners

Bulbs are among the best value for money performers of the spring garden picks, bringing glorious colour to even the most challenging of environments year after year with precious little effort on your part. From the first snowdrops of early spring, through glorious carpets of crocus and narcissus, to the allium pompoms of early summer, bulbs provide freshness, fragrance and colour – and often when little else is happening in the garden. And they have long been admired the world over for their ornamental values… Continue reading

Using Copper foliage in the garden (…and why it is it copper anyway?)

Black elder

Black elder

Contemporary gardeners often use dark colours…look how the ‘Queen of the Night’ tulip has become ubiquitous, or the black grass Ophiopogon planiscarpens nigrescens (I don’t know how to pronounce it either)…pops up in urn plantings or as a contrast to pale paving. There is something fascinating about the pool of shade that sombre colours cast to set off bright, hot colours or cool pastels. I love copper or purple foliage in a garden. My father always maintained that one should never see more than one copper beech in a view and although that is a judgement that is only relevant to a very large garden, there is some truth to not overdoing the amount of copper or purple foliaged plants in your garden because their main impact comes from their contrast with the rest of the garden.

I have always wondered how copper coloured foliage photosynthesises so that the plant can survive. Plants photosynthesise using chlorophyll, a green pigment found in chloroplasts in leaves, which traps sunlight to enable the plant to convert carbon dioxide and water to the sugars that it needs to grow. Chloro is Greek for green and the only part of the light spectrum that chlorophyll does not absorb is the green part which is why we see most leaves as green. The by-product of this reaction is oxygen. Copper leaves also contain and use chlorophyll but the green colour is masked by the stronger colours of other pigments that in a normal green leaf only become visible in autumn when the chlorophyll begins to degrade as the days shorten. Anthocyanins are bluey-purple and are celebrated in foods like blueberries where they are accorded super antioxidant status. Anthocyanins predominate in purple leaves. Other pigments like xanthophylls are yellowy and carotenes (yes, as in carrots) are more orange-red. Some of these pigments are able to photosynthesise but less efficiently than chlorophyll.

Fagus sylvatica Purpurea

Fagus sylvatica Purpurea

The largest and most obvious copper plant is the copper beech Fagus sylvatica ‘Purpurea’ or which looks fabulous next to the bright lime green of a Gleditisia or Maple Cappadocian Aureum but for my money I would plant something like a pink horsechestnut, Aesculus carnea briottii for a full-on techni-colour experience. Equally, copper beech make a fabulous and unusual hedge which, in spite of being deciduous, holds its leaves during the winter and makes a great backdrop to an herbaceous border full of pale or lime green flowers. But my real love of copper plants comes less from the Downton Abbey end of the spectrum than to trips to Japan.

No Japanese garden worth its salt would be without its Acer palmatum – named for its hand-shaped leaf – and its Barbara Cartland confection of cherry blossom. Acer palmatum ‘Atropurpurea’ or ‘Garnet’ have wonderful coppery, burnished leaves. Sadly for me I have yet to find the right spot to grow them. They originally hail from woodland and forest and so do not like a draught and require soil that is full of organic matter. My heavy clay on top of a hill is far from ideal. It is possible to grow Acers in pots but growing anything in a pot requires lots of tlc and watering and bubble wrap in the winter to prevent frost damage so I am loathe to do so.

Less temperamental and great for a smaller garden is the fascinating Smokebush, Cotinus coggygria ‘purpurea’. If you can resist clipping it back Cotinus produces clouds of feathery flowers that really do look like the smoke signals that the Apaches sent up in the Westerns of old. The flowers are so ethereal that I want to stroke them.  An alternative would be Sambucus nigra. I am never quite sure whether I like its frilly, granny-pink flowers that remind me slightly of dodgy lingerie but there is something that makes me keep it in the garden nonetheless. Probably, having failed with the Acers, I view the Sambucus as a poor man’s version that I can actually keep alive. Or maybe it is the curiosity to try to make elderflower cordial with the pink flowers and see if it comes out pink. Digressing wildly, my top tip when making elderflower cordial is to use oranges as well as lemons when you leave the elderflowers macerating in the sugar syrup. Somehow the taste is less cloying and I am yet to meet someone who does not prefer it. And if you feel that all of these copper options would make too large a statement in your garden there are always crabapple trees, like Malus ‘Profusion’ or ‘Red Standard’, Heucheras – I love ‘Plum Pudding’,

Purple leaved dahlia

Dahlia Bishop of Llandaff

the wonderful ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ dahlia and many others. Any of them would look great in June when everything is at its greenest. I am not sure why I said that as it is August and the “Bishop” is looking better than ever….

By Georgina

Roses – to climb or to ramble?


Sombreuil climbing rose

People always say that you give the presents that you actually want yourself but I am not sure that that is right because one of the best presents I have received were ten bare root roses from a complete non-gardener friend of mine who loathes roses because she hates the surprise of the hidden thorns behind those innocently deceptive blooms.

The pack included a mixture of ramblers, climbers and shrub roses. Two years later I have to admit to one dying; my fault because I planted it next to an existing climbing rose fondly imagining that they would intertwine and look glorious but instead the new rose shrivelled and died. (See the advice note on Rose Replant Disease).

The others roses remain in fine fettle largely because I managed to put them somewhere where they would flourish. It is such an obvious mantra but “right plant for right place” is essential if you are going to avoid massive disappointment and huge expense ….. and remain gardening happily. Roses framing a door or scrambling artfully through a tree Vita Sackville-West style are so much part of our gardening psyche that they would seem to be necessary in all gardens.

Before using them, though, It might be worth considering the difference between a rambling and a climbing rose. The former are more vigorous, will cover a greater area and are ideal for interweaving through trees, covering unattractive oil tanks, disguising wooden fencing (careful that the fencing is strong enough!) and consequently they can be hard to contain.

Ramblers usually flower once a year in an explosion of clusters of small blooms on the long canes that grew last year. Pruning is simple in that you only need to cut back the shoots that are encroaching into gutters or over roof tiles and, over time when the plant gets crowded, remove some of the old stems once they have flowered. My present included a blush pom-pom type – Rosa Felicite Perpetue.

I ‘saw’ it climbing through some pear trees (Pyrus Beurre Hardy) that grow against a west facing wall, chosen for their frost-proof, pretty blossom. The roses would perpetuate (just like the name) the “blossom” well into June. It worked well and so the next stage was to keep the wall interesting by adding a clematis or two. My preference was to use an early flowering clematis like Clematis Macropetala Blue Bird to contrast with the white pear blossom, and then a late, deep red clematis like Clematis Viticella Abundance or the wonderfully beautiful Clematis Niobe to complement the Astrantia ‘Claret’ and Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’ that are growing below.

Niobe’s story is so sad however – a mother boastful of her fourteen progeny to Leto, mother of only two but they happened to be Apollo and Artemis – who were commanded to slay the fourteen – that I shall probably play safe with Abundance!

Climbing roses on the other hand behave more like the ‘normal’ bush and shrub roses from which they often spring: so for example you can have an Iceberg Floribunda rose and an Iceberg Climbing rose…go figure! (In a wonderful use of language the climbing variety is known as a sport and very successful at climbing it is too.) As a consequence, climbers’ flowers are often more showy, benefit from being viewed from below as they droop slightly, and they generally repeat flower, especially if you dead head the first flush of flowers.


Rambling rose – Coopers Burmese

All of that energy expended on flowering twice (or continuously) means that generally climbers don’t grow as tall as ramblers. They also produce fewer shoots each year which need to be trained in a balanced fan shape.

Climbing roses also insist on a more exacting pruning regime to ensure maximum floral impact, the niceties of which I am not even going to begin to describe. There are lots of books on the subject. Suffice it to say and let’s call it Rule 2, wherever possible train climbing rose shoots as horizontally as possible so that the flowering laterals are produced all along their length to create an amazing display.

My surprise climber was Constance Spry. Named after the great flower arranger, she is a perfection of pink, rococo flowers. Beside and over a dark, green door onto the terrace she has Trachelospermum jasminoides snaking through her branches to double the scent. Later in July Clematis Viticella Polish Spirit joins in to create a riot of flower and colour.

The fun you can have and the combinations you can create using climbing roses as a canvas is endless. Bear in mind that roses can be bought more economically bare-rooted in the winter….if you can wait that long!

Jobs in the garden: May


Spring has burst into life and is now well and truly upon us. Birds are nesting, clematis are climbing, and the darling buds of May are out.

Jobs in the garden for May

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