Festive balls!

The hanging basket with its chicken wire ‘dome’.This week, my partner in writing crime, Julia Wherrell, has come up with a lovely idea to brighten up the outside of your house in a festive yet very natural way.

I do not claim to have one tenth of Joanna’s skills when it comes to flower arrangement or plant knowledge and most of my gardening ideas are somewhat ‘freestyle’. I work with what’s around and what inspires me and sometimes ideas work out really well and other times… well, let’s just say my compost heap gets a boost.

As December dawned I decide my hanging baskets were beyond saving and took them down, leaving my house looking very plain. Something green and festive, that’s what’s needed, I thought. But what? I vaguely remembered something about making ivy balls using two hanging basket frames wired together to make the ball structure. After excavating my garden shed I could only find two hanging baskets and not the four I would need to produce two arrangements – one either side of my front door. My first bit of improvisation was to wrestle two bits of chicken wire into rough dome shapes to form the top half of the ball. This actually turned out to be a very good idea, as you will see…

Next I set off round the farm, with the dog, a large carrier bag and my secateurs. Half an hour later, I was back with lots of ivy, some holly, someStarting to wrap ivy around the ball…old dried cow parsley heads and a surprising quantity of rosehips. Being a good forager I only took a few pieces from any one place, leaving plenty of cover and food for the birds and not disturbing the habitat too much. The dog was quite bored by all this and stumped round the walk carrying a large piece of wood as I was too preoccupied to throw her ball. Don’t worry if you don’t live on a farm, you could find plenty of material in areas of woodland or hedgerow.

Back in the garden, I spread out my haul on a tarpaulin and started to cover the balls. I began with lengths of ivy and wound them around. The chicken wire worked really well as it was easy to poke the ends of the ivy through and get them to stay put. I worked on the balls alternately to ensure they were looking fairly equal. I paused briefly to spray the dried cow parsley heads silver – and most of my hand at the same time – and left them to dry. 

Next, I added holly and more ivy, trying to cover as much of the ball structure possible. I soon realised I didn’t have enough, so started raiding the garden, adding some variegated ivy and holly and finding quite a bit of ivy in bloom on the back wall. The design I had envisaged was starting to come together, but lacked a bit of oomph. It suddenly dawned on me that the enormous pieris that I kept squeezing past where it had overgrown the I worked on the balls alternately to try and ensure they looked balanced.steps (I think it’s Forest Flame) was looking rather fine at the moment. A bit of judicious pruning later and I had the final part of the design. The pieris added some lovely red colouring and the flower spikes softened the shape really well.

The final touch involved me wiring up the various bunches of rose hips and dotting them around the two spheres. And absolutely finally, I added the silver cow parsley heads for a bit of subtle glamour.

And there you have it, two festive balls outside my front door! You could obviously use pretty much anything that you think will last and, even if it The finished festive ball!wilts a bit before Christmas, take out the wilting bits and add something else. If you could find mistletoe, that would be lovely and if you want more glitz, you could wire up some small silver or gold baubles and add those as well.






Winter in the garden

I have been so busy rushing up and down to help my daughter and baby Grace that I haven’t had a moment to think about the garden. This morning as I went to check on my mother and stepfather (they’re in their late eighties and nineties) I was wowed by the display they have created around their front door. As they find gardening a very difficult task these days the pots at the front entrance are their pride and joy and the way they look certainly reminded me how fabulous winter planting can be.

Viburnum Dawn.They have vivid blue ceramic pots filled with vibrant mixed colours of fabulous cyclamen. They bought a dozen of each colour from the local garden centre and then crammed the pots with bright reds, hot pinks and pretty pastel pinks – and they look fantastic. If the weather were not so awful here today I would take a photo to show you!

That’s a really simple way to bring colour near the house but there are other plants further down the garden that can really make you smile on a grey day. Viburnum ‘Dawn’ is one of my favourites as is Mahonia (I have ‘Winter Sun’) both of them are great shrubs that last for  years and repay the investment many times over. Chimonanthus is another shrub that pays dividends – its lovely yellow flowers are gorgeous when not a lot else is showing off in the garden!

I would be wrong to omit mentioning heathers. They are great value and come in many colours. I get a particularly good display from a white one I have called ‘Springwood Mahonia Winter SunWhite’ – but there are fabulous pinks as well.

I hope that’s given you some ideas for how you could get some bright cheery colour into your pots or garden this winter!


A tale of tulips, Monty Don & my Dad!

Tulip Black Parrot.While Joanna is at the Hobby Craft Exhibition at the NEC, she’s let me, Julia Wherrell, her hen pal and partner in crime (writing), loose on her blog – very exciting!

Joanna was very strict and said I’m not allowed to write about making things out of willow (already done that), or my chickens (ditto), so I thought I’d tell you about my bulb planting scheme for pots, partly inspired by my 89-year old Father, and the lovely TV gardener, Monty Don. 

I know Joanna talked about spring bulbs last week, but I’m afraid you’ve got them again as, if we don’t get them planted out now, it is going to be too late.

While I love the idea of tulips I am always disappointed as they seem to collapse easily and get rather messy but, when I was visiting a garden in Cornwall earlier this year, I saw them in a different light. The garden featured same-coloured tulips closely planted in urns and other pots – and they looked stunning. 

The marvellous Monty Don… and my Dad!While Joanna gets all swoony over Pierce Brosnan, I go weak at knees over Monty Don, so I am always glued to Gardeners’ World every week. Recently, Monty was showing us how to plant up containers with tulips. Not only was he planting them much deeper than I had done (probably why mine fell over – poor things!) but he also layered them, so you get a succession of blooms coming up through each other. Jolly clever, I thought.

I was recounting this to my Father on Skype (he may be 89, but he’s no slouch!) and he said “Ah yes, I used to plant tulips deep in tubs like that, but then I’d also plant a layer of daffodils at the top. So the daffodils flowered first, then when they were over, up came the tulips.” Thanks Dad – another brilliant idea!

So, last weekend, I got into the garden and planted up various tubs – some with two layers of tulips, other with tulips and then daffs. Provided you check which bulbs will flower when, so you get a progression over the months, I am sure you could ‘layer’ other bulbs in this way too.

Tulip Burgundy.I love the parrot-type tulips you see now with their pretty frilled edges, and I also like the more pointed petal varieties. As for colours, I adore the darker shades, such as Black Parrot or Tulip Burgundy. I don’t care for the variegated ones and I rarely have yellow or orange in my garden, it is always a very pink and purple palette as I find it more relaxing – a riot of colour can be rather exhausting!

And so, I will trot off now to chat to my chickens and plan another willow sculpture, but don’t tell Joanna…!



Thoughts of spring…

As we enter November my garden is looking a little drab. There’s lots to do to ‘put it to bed’ for the winter but it’s all somewhat uninspiring. So, to cheer myself up I am already thinking about next spring when the first green shoots start to push their way up through the soil.

I always buy far too many spring bulbs and end up running around like a demented squirrel trying to find empty patches of soil to plant them in. I just can’t resist the thought of all those delicate, pretty early bulbs announcing the arrival of another growing year.

As I was planning this blog, I sat and thought about my favourite spring bulbs. Of course the list is huge, but narrowing it down, I came up with the following top five:

  1. Snowdrops (Galanthus) in a drift are just gorgeous. The moment I see their delicate little flower heads pushing up, even through snow, I know that spring is on its way!
  2. Tiny daffodils, or narcissi (Poeticus recurvus) – so delicate and more subtle than the rather lumbering yellow trumpet daffs we get later on.
  3. Bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) I am a sucker for bluebells. Loved them as a child and still do. A Devon wood carpeted in bluebells is a sight to behold.
  4. Runuculus – great for cutting and bringing indoors, these pretty bright blooms are guaranteed to put a smile on your face.
  5. Aconites (Eranthis hyemalis) This little plant is only about 10cm (4in) tall and looks best grown in a group, preferably somewhere that gets the morning sun.

It’s a bit soggy in the garden just at the moment, but the bulbs need planting. The worst thing that can happen is to not get on with it and then find the ground is frozen – disaster! Here are a few tips to help you get a lovely display this spring.

  • Always plant bulbs in ‘informal’ groups, or drifts – don’t plant ones or twos or in regimented lines! Actually throwing a handful of bulbs across the ground and planting them where they land is a simple way of doing it.
  • When buying bulbs, reject any that are soft or showing signs of mould. Small bulbs may not flower in their first year.
  • Bulbs should be planted in holes three to four times as deep as the bulb itself. So, for example, a 1in crocus bulb needs to be planted in a hole 3-4in deep.
  • Fill large plastic pots with your favourite bulbs and, just before they are about to flower, use them to plug holes in the border. Plastic pots can also be slipped inside more elegant terracotta ones and whipped out when the bulbs are over. Clever! 
  • Finally, do read the packaging on your bulbs to ensure you plant them at the right time. Lots of garden centres sell them from July onwards and they want them sold and out the way before the stock up on Christmas baubles, but July is way too early to plant spring bulbs.


Good luck!


Autumnal Hydrangeas and work in the garden…

One of my favourite tasks of the year is picking autumnal hydrangea heads to dry them. They are spectacular in dried arrangements and if you’re thinking – ‘I don’t do dried arrangements’ – then just fill a basket with them on their own and you’ll instantly see how gorgeous they look!

Once they have been on display for a month or three … simply whip out the gold spray and spray them gold for Christmas and – hey presto – you’ll have a new display all over again! If your hydrangeas are already looking spotted and not so beautiful, then you can jump straight to the gold sprayed version once they have dried off.

When you cut them, allow a fair bit of stem – remove any leaves and bundle three heads together with an elastic band. It’s very important to use an elastic band for this rather than string. Now hang your little bunch of hydrangeas upside down in a warm place… and wait!

Then fill a basket with dried flower (grey) Oasis foam and fill it as full as you can with dried heads. Wow, I love the effect and all for free!

I am just hoping it’s nearly time for the last cut of the lawn this year and now that’s all tidy, and quite a bit of the pruning has been done, maybe the garden can think about going to sleep for the winter. I wonder what is in store for us all weather–wise? Will we get snow here in Devon? Will you have snow wherever you are, and how soon will the first frost come along and help everything look even more past its best than many of my plants are already looking now!

Maybe we should have a competition – first one of us to have snow…! Anyone reading this in Scotland, I bet you would win. But then, if you are reading in Sweden or Norway… OK, maybe I need to rethink this idea!

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