The beauty of blossom

Blossom – it’s a lovely full, rounded, blousy word (or onomatopoeic if you want to be fancy!) – and at this time of year, there’s a lot of it about.

I absolutely adore seeing trees and hedgerows in bloom and can’t wait until things bursting out, usually in March. The best blossom occurs after cold snaps, so a good chilly winter should mean billowing blossom. Each blossom flower lasts for one or two weeks, weather permitting – so fingers crossed this year’s don’t all get blown or washed away too soon.

First up in the countryside in early March are the blackthorn hedges. Devon, where I live, is blessed with wonderful hedgerows and up on Dartmoor the frothy blackthorn blossom is really striking against the stark moorland. Blackthorn really makes the most of its blossom as it emerges before the leaves, so the white flowers contrast beautifully against the bare branches.

In domestic gardens, the wonderfully showy magnolia should also be out by this time and Cornwall is a great spot to see magnolias in bloom early.

Once things start to warm up, ideally by April (fingers crossed!), we can look forward to the gorgeous sight of cherry blossom. I love seeing its pretty pink and white blooms, so cheering. I have been fortunate enough to visit Japan several times through work, and if you can time it to coincide with the cherry blossom, it is a wonderful sight to behold. They have over 200 varieties of ornamental cherry and it is such an important part of Japanese life that they have a daily ‘Cherry Blossom Forecast’ to tell people where the best blossom can be found as ‘The Cherry Blossom Front’ sweeps slowly north.

Unsurprisingly, the month of May sees the arrival of may blossom, or hawthorn. Again, Dartmoor is a great place to see may blossom where hawthorn is widely used to produce tough stock-proof hedges.

Apple blossom, so delicate and pretty, will start to appear in May. Apple orchards are wonderful things and it is great to see how much work has been put into saving old apple varieties, or ‘heritage’ apples as we are supposed to call them. Just the names make me feel all nostalgic – Worcester Pearmain, Orange Pippin and Egremont Russet – like characters from a Wodehouse novel!

June sees pretty much the end of blossom in this country and the last one to make a showing is the enchanting elder, its frothy blossoms being wonderful in cordial and wine. While many other parts of the world have exotic and technicolour blooms, I remain immensely fond of our delicate and slightly restrained spring blossom.

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Divide and rule!

David Perry demonstrates how to divide a clump of Miscanthus.

This week, I’m handing over to my partner in crime writing, Julia, to tell us about her latest trip to RHS garden Rosemoor where she received some seasonal advice.

It is such a treat to visit Rosemoor on a regular basis, as I am doing this year attending a series of talks, and to see the garden evolving with the seasons. Last week, I went on a garden talk entitled ‘What now? Spring’

The course notes said: ‘Let the RHS experts help you through the gardening year providing a whistle-stop tour of techniques, tips, tricks and advice on seasonal tasks so that you know what you could be doing when. Spring topics covered – dividing and planting herbaceous perennials, spring shrub pruning, cutting back of ornamental grasses, plus other topics of seasonal interest.’

This was exactly what I needed as I am never entirely sure what I should be doing when especially when it comes to pruning. Somehow, I had it firmly in my brain that I had to cut everything back in the Autumn… and was then surprised how many plants I manage to kill off every year! There really is no excuse for such ignorance as there are tutorials online and thousands of excellent gardening books but, somehow, it is always better to be shown how to do something first hand.

Our tutor at Rosemoor was Garden Manager, David Perry. Pruning is always a thorny topic, but within the first minute, David had explained two pruning terms that I had followed but did not know why – prune back to two buds and cut on an angle. Why two buds? If the top one gets frosted and dies, you still have the second one. Why cut on an angle? To provide a difficult surface for water, dust or parasites to settle on. Obvious, really!

The ‘bare bones’ at Rosemoor, beautiful in their own right.

Shrubs grown for their colourful stems or foliage, such as dogwood, need to be cut down in the spring to encourage new growth, known as coppicing. No wonder they hadn’t done well for me before, as I had chopped them off in November! He also demonstrated how to prune shrubs and roses into a ‘goblet’ shape, cutting out shoots that cross over, or were growing inward, to allow free airflow and a general rather lovely shape.

Buying plants can be expensive, so it is really useful be able to identify ones that can be divided to create more. All clump-forming herbaceous perennials, including ornamental grasses, can be divided and, when done regularly, helps ensure healthy plants that will continue to perform year after year. While perennials can be divided at almost any time if they are kept well-watered afterwards, David said it is best to do it when the plants aren’t in active growth. He demonstrated how to divide a substantial clump of Miscanthus using two garden forks back-to-back as levers to loosen and break the root mass into two sections. He made it look easy!

It was interesting to see the ‘bare bones’ of the garden at this time of year. The shape of espaliered and step-over fruit trees were art forms in themselves and it was also great to see the wooden supports staff were creating with coppiced sticks – so much more natural than bamboo poles!

How to divide perennials

Here are simple tips for dividing perennials from the RHS website:

  • Lift plants gently with a garden fork, working outwards from the crown’s centre to limit root damage. Shake off excess soil so that roots are clearly visible
  • Some plants, such as Ajuga (bugle), produce individual plantlets which can simply be teased out and replanted
  • Small, fibrous-rooted plants such as Heuchera, Hosta and Epimedium can be lifted and pulled apart gently. This should produce small clumps for replanting
  • Large, fibrous-rooted perennials, such as Hemerocallis (daylily), require two garden forks inserted into the crown back-to-back. Use these as levers to loosen and break the root mass into two sections. Further division can then take place
  • In some cases, a sharp knife, axe or lawn edging iron may be needed to cleave the clump in two
  • Plants with woody crowns (e.g. Helleborus) or fleshy roots (e.g. Delphinium) require cutting with a spade or knife. Aim to produce clumps containing three to five healthy shoots.

Top photo: Lovely pair of pottery chickens by Somerset artist George Hider.

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Beauty within…

If you were choosing your veg purely for their looks, I suspect celeriac would not be high on your list. It is knobbly, often muddy and all in all, a bit of an ugly beast. But don’t let that put you off!

Celeriac is a great winter vegetable. It combines rooty texture with a spicy celery flavour and is delicious roasted and also excellent for pepping up winter salads. You can roast it in chunks, add it to soups or make a rich mash as a change from potato.

Available all year round, celeriac is at its best from September to April. Choose a firm root that feels heavy for its size and avoid those that are discoloured. To prepare it, use a sharp knife, top and tail, then use a potato peeler to remove the tough skin. It’s quite hard going, but not as bad as a butternut squash!

Remoulade, a classic French salad, is really easy to make and also delicious. This recipe is dead easy – you might want to check how much mustard you add… I like it with a bit of a kick, but you may prefer less.

Ingredients

  • 7 tbsp good quality mayonnaise
  • 3 tbsp Dijon mustard
  • Juice of a lemon
  • 1 small celeriac about 600g (1lb 4oz-ish)

Method

  1. In a large bowl, mix the mayonnaise, mustard and lemon juice together thoroughly. Add a generous sprinkling of salt and some freshly ground black pepper, so it all becomes one sauce.
  2. Peel and quarter the celeriac, then, working quickly, coarsely grate it and stir into the sauce until evenly coated. And that’s it! Serve on toast, or with a salad instead of coleslaw. It will keep in the fridge for up to 2 days.

Cook’s tip: Celeriac is one of those vegetables that goes brown when cut up so, if preparing in advance, leave it in water with a dash of lemon juice.

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Winter garden inspiration

My partner in crime writing, Julia, moved house last autumn and is planning how she is going to design and plant up her new garden. I’ll let Julia tell you what she’s been up to…

One of the many Cornus to be seen at Rosemoor.

I am fortunate enough to live about half an hour away from RHS Garden Rosemoor, where they run talks and courses about all aspects of gardening. My new (new to me, anyway) garden is large, relatively empty, on a very slight incline and south facing… almost the complete opposite of my previous garden that was steep, terraced half in shade, and a frost pocket! My new house is also about 700ft above sea level so I am keen to try and ensure I buy the right plants for the garden.

As well as the right plants for the setting, I also want to try and ensure I have interest throughout the year. My old garden used to be at its best from May to July and pretty uninteresting the remainder of the time. So, my first session at Rosemoor was called ‘Winter colour for your garden’.

The amazing Acer griseum, the aptly named paper bark maple.

Their course brochure says: “Winter is often considered to be a closed season in the garden, but this definitely need not be the case. Colourful and fragrant flowers, striking barks and stems and a wide variety of evergreen plants all help to brighten up the garden and provide a wealth of interest throughout the winter. On this walk we will look at a good selection of plants, all of which are star performers during the winter months, and also discuss how to care for them.”

Luckily for me, the mid-February day was sunny and not too chilly. Rosemoor has a specific winter garden, and it was wonderful to see just how much colour and interest you can create. The thing that struck me most was the scent! I had no idea a winter garden could smell so wonderful. As the air was crisp, the mix of winter sun, birdsong and floral fragrance was just wonderful. Sarcococca is not a shrub I had encountered before, but I will definitely be buying some. Compact, evergreen shrubs with simple, leathery leaves and tiny, fragrant creamy-white flowers in winter or spring, followed by red, purple or black berries they smell divine. While I am familiar with Daphne, it’s another winter flowering plant whose fragrance I had not really appreciated.

Dramatic Camelia.

As well as scent, you need colour. While Camelias are a good bet for dramatic flowers, I was drawn more towards the coloured stems of Cornus, or dogwood as I have always called it, their bright red and yellow stems looking wonderful against a dark hedge or fence in deepest winter. Dogwoods is pretty wonderful all ways around, having blossoms, berries and, when you prune back the stems, providing beautifully coloured whips that you can use to make woven shapes and decorations.

I am lucky enough to have space to plant some trees. Witch hazels, or Hamamelis to use the proper name, are a delight with their fuzzy brightly coloured flowers and attractive scent. They also tend not to grow too large so they are definitely on my list. A tree that I fell instantly in love with at Rosemoor was a paper bark maple, Acer griseum, a beautiful tree with cinnamon-coloured peeling bark. I don’t think I’d ever seen anything quite like it.

Sarcococca confusa… I think!

At the end of our walk and talk, we were given a comprehensive plant list… this is, of course, fatal, as you feel you want to rush out and buy everything on it! I didn’t and am instead trying to draw out a proper plan of what to plant where as I won’t be able to do much in the garden until late summer anyway due building work going on. As an RHS member, I receive discounted rates on any walks or courses I go on. If you live near an RHS garden, it really is worth becoming a member… or get to know someone who is as they can also get you the discounted rate!

In lieu of a holiday this year, I have booked myself on a series of these events looking at what to grow throughout the seasons and, as I am now the proud owner of a greenhouse, how to manage cuttings and collecting seeds. Planting a new garden can be terribly expensive, but if you can grow from seed and take cuttings you can keep the cost down. If you don’t live near an RHS garden, there are hundreds of videos online and hints and tips to refer to. The RHS website, as Joanna has said before, is always worth looking at, as are the BBC Gardening sites. And apart from anything else, gardening is just so good for you!

 

 

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Snowdrops – it must be Spring, surely?

I have loads of snowdrops peeping out of the grass and flowerbeds in my garden – oh how much that sight cheers me – some crocuses too. Does that mean Spring really is around the corner – ooh I do hope so!

I always plant lots of bulbs (yes I add a few more every year), mainly because they brighten my days when Winter is making things just too uncomfortable and I need a reminder that it doesn’t last forever! I hate the cold – not a fan of super tropical heat either just to be difficult, but the cold – nope not good.

This card was really designed just as a happy ‘It’s nearly Spring’ card – but obviously, it makes a great birthday card too. Or, it would be ideal for someone with a pet named Snowdrop… yes I do know a rabbit called Snowdrop!

The Spring flower dies – well all the flower dies – in the Signature range are so easy to use and bring me a lot of joy and fun. You all know how flowery I am and, if I get a chance, a card I make will feature flowers somehow, somewhere – thank goodness many of the men I make cards for are gardeners. You can see from this example that the simplest cards can be made with a repeated die design and they look lovely. This card wouldn’t take more than a few minutes to make and pow! – it looks amazing.

I don’t think you need instructions for the card – it’s obvious from the photo how it is constructed. Your choice of backing cards could be totally different, depending on what you have in your collection and it would still look wonderful. In this instance, the die has been cut out in green and then again in white and all you have to do is pop the white flower heads on – no colouring required!

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