May 2019 | Dark Canopies

May 2019 | Dark Canopies

Bluebells in Sydenham Hill Wood

Welcome back everyone. No doubt you too have been struggling to keep the plants moist in the face of continuous gale force winds. Easy to forget when it isn’t hot and sunny that strong winds can dry out plants just as much. I have been getting more comments on the blog recently and it is so good to hear from people. Please do leave a comment or a gardening moan or ask about a gardening problem you might be struggling with. You’ll find an area for comments at the end of every post and it would be great to hear from you.

Welcome back too to Beechgrove Garden from the annual winter break – a much loved gardening programme from BBC Scotland. I may be sited in south east London but I think if they can grow it in Aberdeen it’ll grow here just fine.


Woodland scene, Sydenham Hill Wood
Sydenham Hill Wood

I really enjoyed pondering on the mental relationship we humans have with forests prompted by the inspiring Something Understood (Radio 4) presented by poet Michael Symmons Roberts at the end of April. The theme was the responses of people in our literature to being under those dark canopies. It inspired me to find my nearest piece of forest (yes, even in the south east London suburbs – wonderful) and off I went toting camera.

Woodland scene, Sydenham Hill Wood
Sydenham Hill Wood

Sydenham Hill Wood is the largest remaining tract of the old Great North Wood that at one time stretched from Deptford to Selhurst. Lovely place to visit – full of people, children and dogs all making for that happy people “at play” atmosphere in a woodland setting with lots of fallen trees to examine, a pond, an enormous statuesque tree and a smattering of bluebells.

Urban Sparrows

There’s a note in my Diary for 21 March “I saw two sparrows today, yesterday too.” They flew past my window. There’s a big question mark beside my note because it seemed too much of a coincidence – just as I started to focus on sparrows here in the blog I see two when I haven’t seen one for decades! Turns out it could well be true.

The RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch results this year note a 10% increase in sparrow sightings. The project asks people to count bird sightings in their garden or local park over a week-end in January and this year sparrow numbers came top with starlings and blue tits came in second and third.

And then on Good Friday I saw another sparrow, this time very close to, actually at my feet while walking – and there was no mistake. They’re back!

Different approaches to Gardening

This month I am focusing both on woodlands and gardening in arid environments – could they be more opposite? I heard on the radio recently that rivers have run that dry in parts of Australia that shipwrecks that haven’t been seen for decades are now plainly visible rising from the mud. They are suffering from an extreme drought.

Can you imagine keeping your garden going in such conditions? I heard from a contact in Australia recently who remarked that at present she “can only have the reticulation on for 10 minutes twice a week”.

She lives in Western Australia (WA) where water saving restrictions exist on a scale of 1-7. They are currently at Stage 4 – drought conditions. Stage 7 is a hosepipe ban.

Family with small children enjoying the woodland
. . . happy people “at play” atmosphere in a woodland setting . . .

I wasn’t familiar with the term reticulation (a network type irrigation system). For the majority of homeowners in WA it seems lawn reticulation is a given and most people have garden reticulation too. Legions of adverts are offered in the region for gardening companies specializing in reticulation installation so clearly it is a flourishing industry in that part of Australia.

I later realized that I am familiar with the system, if not the name, as one of my clients had this type of irrigation system installed throughout his garden. He augmented it with a couple of sprinklers too. It worked very well although in the lengthy heatwave of 2018 I found I needed to supplement it with hand watering. The pipework is laid below the surface (you have to take care not to attack it with the spade) with intermittent sprinkler heads about 10cm proud of the soil surface.

My Australian contact gardens on sand. Wisely, she has created a low maintenance garden with much of the area taken up with patio. My client, who loved a garden filled with flowering shrubs and plants, gardened on gravel which gives similar problems to sand. I wasn’t involved at all with his irrigation system he operated it entirely himself. I always thought of his garden as a very soggy, wet garden where I needed wellingtons and waterproof overtrousers for nine months of the year. One summer he went away for a few weeks and must have turned off the irrigation system and I was shocked to quickly find myself in an unexpectedly dusty desert.

Pond in forest setting, Sydenham Hill Wood
Pond at Sydenham Hill Wood

Most of my gardening work has been done on clay soil and that holds the water. With both sand and gravel the water percolates away almost immediately as if through a sieve. My client needed to install his system because it was a large garden and it would have been impossible to keep up with the amount of watering necessary. Not many English gardens have such extreme conditions. However, I couldn’t help wondering why in WA if water was scarce almost everyone was installing irrigation systems. On the face of it it would seem they would use more water not less.

The key seems to be the efficient use of what water there is and that really does make sense. When water is sprayed over a wide area as with a hose some of it will evaporate, some will run off the surface and some will land in the wrong place – on the path for example. An underground watering system makes particular sense because it delivers the water to the roots of the plant where it is taken up avoiding any evaporation. An irrigation system is efficient because it completely avoids waste.

The UK is not a hot, dry country but even we who live here will have experienced several hosepipe bans in our lifetimes. Gardening on sand is already a challenge water-wise and at times of drought when use of your irrigation system is very limited the gardeners of WA must have their work cut out.



A pair of deep pink Peony blooms.
Peonies – dazzling and fleeting display.

An allotment friend asked about a non-flowering Peony – in fifteen years she said she had not had one bloom and there were indeed no buds visible on the plant this Spring. It had been a gift from a family member, probably a costly one and from a well-known grower but she had no other details. One thing is pretty likely and that is if it is highly cultivated it is probably more sensitive.

Non-flowering is quite a common Peony problem either without buds or from buds that don’t open. The usual reason is that it is planted too deeply. Peonies need only 3cm or so of soil covering the crown – a lot less than the average. They ideally like full sun, say 6-8 hours a day and this is often the problem with non-opening buds where the light source might have been reduced by late Spring foliage.

An overriding factor is that Peonies do not like being disturbed. If you divide it it may not flower for a year or so. If you keep moving it it may never flower and it seems likely that if you are having problems with a plant one of the natural things to try is planting it in different positions.

If you are likely to keep moving the Peony as was I think the case with my allotment friend’s plant, a solution might be to plant it into a large container once you decide it needs special treatment.

At the Allotment


Enormous tree at SydenhamHill Wood
Sydenham Hill Wood


Many of us at the allotment site find Enviromesh to be the cover of choice for protected cropping as opposed to fleece which is at a disadvantage on an open, windy site. I have had a largish piece of Enviromesh for more than five years which I cut in half. It lasts – it may be holey (as in aerated, not sacred) but I expect it will do another five years and beyond.


Buds opening
Sydenham Hill Wood

Absolutely thrilled with what is happening to my soil since going in for the cardboard and no-dig system described in earlier posts. Several big, fat worms per square metre now – never seen so many before.


Sydenham Hill Wood

A huge solitary bee I saw on my plot was hovering close to the ground at the edge of my compost pile. Apparently there are ten times as many solitary bees as there are social bees living in large nests and the loners are important pollinators too. I think my enormous visitor was the type that excavates burrows in the soil – that’s what it seemed to be doing.

I left last year’s Cavolo Nero plants to go into flower before digging them up as I noticed the bees, particularly the solitary bees, are very partial to the flowers. Please, please, please let all your brassicas go to flower for this reason if you can spare the space for a couple of weeks.





Church-like ruin in Sydenham Hill Wood
Retrieved from a Victorian garden where it had been kept as a talking point the ruin at Sydenham Hill Wood still functions. A couple and their little boy and I spent a good while discussing how old it was.

Note from Rosanna in August 2019: Neither the family mentioned above or I had any idea what we were looking at but then I visited another woodland garden later in the same year, Coombe Wood Garden, where I came across some Pulhamite rocks. It turns out that the Sydenham Hill folly is also made of Pulhamite rock. Do follow the link to my August 2019 post to learn a bit more about these rocks.

Camley Street | Spirit of the Place

At one stage I travelled by train to Newark fairly regularly. When very close to King’s Cross station I repeatedly noticed a very leafy area with a Victorian wrought iron archway of the type used for factory gates of the period. One day finding myself on foot in that area I set out to trace what I was seeing and, eventually, I found the delightful Camley Street urban nature reserve just a stone’s throw away from King’s Cross station on the banks of the Regent’s Canal.

From then on a keen gardener friend and I visited at least once a year to spend half a day in the two acre haven for wildlife in one of the most densely populated parts of London. It apparently was created from an old Coal Yard in 1984 and, like Sydenham Hill Wood, is run by the London Wildlife Trust offering a home for birds, butterflies, bats and many plants and people too.

Around January 2018 it closed for redevelopment and I miss being able to visit. It was due to open again in Spring 2019.

Not everyone was happy with the projected changes. The Wildlife Trust has been urged to ensure the work doesn’t dilute the charm of the space (what garden designers call genius loci or spirit of the place). The redevelopment aims for a more accessible and opened-up space but many question whether it will lose that secluded woodland charm that provided a contrast to harsh, modern surroundings. The Wildlife Trust says that visitor numbers have soared by 50% in the last five years and investment is needed if it is to continue to exist as a haven.

The reopening is rescheduled for Spring 2020. More anon.

You Might Also Like. . .

If you liked hearing about Camley Street you might also like to see my Phoenix Garden visit in December last year. I found the Phoenix Garden some time back in exactly the same way – by following clumps of trees I could see in the distance poking out of the urban environment and wondering what was there.

Cheerio for now, enjoy your gardening and I hope to hear from some of you about your gardens in comments


6 thoughts on “May 2019 | Dark Canopies

  1. Hi Rosanna,

    I have a problem with my climbing rose which has got powdery mildew.
    Will it affect next years growth, weaken the plant?
    Also, what can I use to combat the mildew that isn’t chemical based?

    1. Hi Juli

      Good to hear from you.

      You seem clear that Powdery Mildew is the problem – white, powdery mould on leaves possibly also buds and shoots? I’ll assume it is because roses are a group of plants that are particularly susceptible. I have always treated it environmentally by dealing with the conditions that it thrives in. In a client’s garden recently I spotted a tree sized Cornus that seemed to be prone and the following year I made sure that it was well watered every week. No more Powdery Mildew.

      We have not had a lot of heat in recent weeks but we have had weeks on end of strong winds that dry up the soil and the plants as much as heat.

      As well as regular watering deal with any overcrowding. If you have wall trained it make sure there is adequate space between plant and bricks so that air can circulate. When pruning cut out and burn badly affected shoots. Mulch the soil in spring to keep in the moisture.

      Powdery mildew does tend to weaken the plant but doesn’t kill it. Roses are now available that have some resistance to it.

  2. Having tried a garlic spray for the first time on my Bearded Iris,It does appear to have worked.The plant has remained unmolested and produced the most flowers ever.
    I was a bit dubious about this method,having heard that
    Edible snails are fed on food laced with garlic to give them flavour.
    I recommend giving it a go.(the spraying,not the eating).

    1. Thanks for letting me know about this, Lois, very good to hear. Wet weather is when snails and slugs do their worst and a slight drawback is that the spray has to be re-used every time it rains. Hope the Iris continues to do well.

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