New Year, New Garden | January 2020

New Year, New Garden | January 2020

Topiary garden at Levens Hall with a sprinkling of winter snow


Happy New Year to everyone and welcome back to the blog after the festivities.  The big picture this month is of the Levens Hall topiary garden with a dusting of snow – picture courtesy of Chris Crowder and the gardening team there – more of this later.  In my blog you will usually find me looking for solutions to gardening problems, both vegetable and ornamental, based on my garden and allotment plot and ten years of running a gardening and garden design business and teaching horticulture.  This particular post is a bit of a  roundup of the year just gone.  First I have to say I have noticed Allotment rules are not as rigid as they used to be – ten years ago plots had to be nearly all vegetables but now people are able to include more and more flowers and this is a good boost to biodiversity and bees.  We are also encouraged to have small ponds which favour the amphibians.

Since I stopped running the business my involvement with the gardening world has taken new turns.  Something else I like to include in this blog is garden visits, I search out the little-known tucked away places mostly in and around south east London.  If I really enjoy the visit, and I inevitably do, I’ll tell you about it.  I’m surprised just how many interesting places there are.  I appreciate going somewhere that doesn’t take hours to reach when we get one of our good-weather days – and it really is a good idea to make the best of sudden lovely, winter days if you can.

Levens Hall

Ancient conifers shaped by topiary in the garden at Levens Hall
Topiary shapes in the magical garden at Levens Hall

It was good to hear GQT coming from Levens Hall in December.  You may remember my placement and volunteering there that I talked about in my “Harvest Time” post of September 2018 – I have very nice memories of the weeks spent in that extraordinary garden.  Gardening, being a pretty social undertaking, is subject to fashions and other changes and I

 Topiary garden with Levens Hall visible in the distance
Topiary garden with Levens Hall in the distance

noticed Christine Walkden, one of the guests on the GQT programme, referred now to NOT putting sand and/or grit into clay soil to modify it.  This has been a pretty old usage but she gave the reason that it blocks the soil pores and that makes perfect sense.  I guess now we will rely on adding organic matter only or raised beds which really do promote good drainage.


Beware Internet Dangers!

Not as dramatic as it sounds and in fact relates to my making preserves.  Readers probably know I indulge in this from time to time with my harvests from the allotment.  I have drawn attention before to enthusiastic but full-of-holes recipes from grandmother’s days appearing on the internet.  The grandchildren offering the recipes learned them watching someone who probably had umpteen years of experience and had done the same recipe many times before.  I wonder how said grandmother would have fared with a vague approximation of the ratio of water to solids or cooking times based on the altitude above sea level.  (This latter appears to be absolutely true but how many of us would know what to do about it?)

My medlar crop was around 4kg.  I made medlar jelly and medlar cheese and had a huge amount of messy fruit to add to the compost heap.  Four days were employed on this because neither would set.  I boiled up the jelly three times and the cheese twice, adding more sugar and pectin each time.  Vague instructions like “the mixture should be approaching setting” or, without indicating what to look for,  “test for setting” .  What was actually meant was that the mixture should not be a drip-off-the-spoon consistency but should remain stiffly stuck to it.  The amount of water to be added was crucial

The medlar is an unusual-looking fruit, tan coloured, and about the size of a small apple
The medlar is an unusual-looking fruit, messy to handle but makes a delicious jelly

and,  as I found the instructions meaningless, my mixture originally dripped with a vengeance.

I had four or five different recipes for medlar jelly to cover everything I wanted to know but still had problems because of all the gaps in them.   I had bought a book of preserving last year to avoid this ever happening again but when I read it I found it avoided all mention of medlar recipes.  Still, everything worked out well in the end and what I learned I shan’t forget in a hurry.

I hope you won’t have the same problem – it would be good to think ahead and always have a supply of pectin before you start preserving, either shop bought or make your own – see link below  –

Finished product - three large jars of Medlar Jelly on a tray
And finally the finished product – Medlar Jelly


Rose Rosette Virus

Some of you may remember my post of July 2018, headed Disaster, where friends had seen some strange growth patterns in the rose hedge I had put in for them some time previously.   They had done research on the internet which led them to think it might be Rosa Rosette Virus a serious destroyer of roses.  I visited them and took pictures and, although I didn’t know what ailed the hedge, I had a strong feeling that it wasn’t anything that dramatic.  After speaking to the rose grower where I had bought the rose bushes it turned out to be more likely that it was weedkiller.  Back to my friends who confirmed that they had asked their gardener to spray weedkiller on the drive some time before the problem arose.  Weedkiller damage and the dreaded virus both cause very distorted new growth that looks quite similar.

Palmstead Nurseries of Kent, a trade-only nursery, have long been supplying professional gardeners with a technical mailout of various pests and diseases to look out for.  I received one in December  alerting us to Rosa Rosette Virus – once again no incidences of it were mentioned but I wonder if now it is a case of just a matter of time.

DEFRA’s latest information still refers to the virus as plaguing the US and Canada with no UK cases mentioned but the warning repeated how easily it can travel, what great rose-lovers we are and that roses can be found everywhere in our country.

It is a very serious disease so fingers crossed it remains only a threat.


The Swedish Garden, Saltwell Park, Gateshead

There wasn’t time to fit in a visit earlier this year to the Saltwell Park Swedish Garden that a friend and I had planned – it was my first visit to the North East and there were so many distractions.  I half expected to see nothing but empty factories but I saw none and Gateshead and Newcastle look attractive and thriving.  The Tyne riverside at Gateshead is unforgettably stunning at night.

The Swedish garden, however, which is a recreation of the landscape in Western Sweden, was opened on schedule in August and created without the use of any public money thanks to a relationship developed over ten years with the west of Sweden which has involved the creation of an English garden there in exchange.  See link below for images and details of a landscape new to us.  Maybe next year!


Recalling my post earlier this year (May 2019 under the heading Different Approaches to Gardening) and an email from a contact in Western Australia from whom I learned of the serious drought conditions they were experiencing, as I write this now in December I understand that in some places they are now experiencing record-breaking temperatures.

In addition to bush fires raging out of control for several weeks and a less than average rainfall many Australians are convinced that this is a result of man-made climate change and 2019’s bushfires are said to be something exceeding what they are used to in the bushfire season.  New South Wales  has been worst hit with  1.65m+ hectares destroyed,  nine deaths and in excess of 700 homes burned down.

For fuller details see

Since I wrote the above the situation, sadly, has got worse and the above figures have risen.  In places people are now encamped on beaches to avoid the fires.


New Year, new garden

This year, having more time, the 2020 resolution is to rework my own rather neglected garden.  That’s the plan!


Composite picture of early year plants and flowers






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