Wednesday, 31 December 2014

...As we greet 2015.

12 months ago I wrote about my resolution to make a conscious effort to enjoy life more. Back then I had no idea that 2014 would be filled with so many twists and turns, good things and bad things. I'm pleased to say that did get to enjoy life more; 2014 was the year I visited more gardens, took more pictures and met more great gardeners, and I certainly enjoyed that!
RHS Rosemoor is always worth a visit
The changing of year seems to be a popular time to make predictions for the coming 12 months. I'm not going to fall into this trap for 2015, except to say that I will certainly be enjoying plants and gardening! I have some strange goals for this year- I want to see Rehderodendron macrocarpum in flower and in fruit (I know, weird!)- and I want to start garden visiting much earlier and see more of the early season displays in Cornish gardens. I don't know why I've missed them in the past; somehow it's always too late before I get to any serious garden visiting.
Cold and frosty morning to close 2014
I feel that this is the right time to thank all those who've supported me during a challenging year. Without the advice of people who've faced their own challenges and won through, my own situation would have been overwhelming. I'm indebted to a lot of people who have shown great kindness and generosity of spirit.

2014 has taught me first hand that a lot can happen in a year, but I certainly hope that 2015 will bring great things to a lot of great people. Happy new year to all, and let's raise a toast to 2015, a year of great gardening.

Ben

(If you're looking for a gardener near the Devon/Cornwall border then you can try me at www.penandtrowel.co.uk)

Monday, 22 December 2014

As we bid farewell to 2014...

Even though the 'round robin' letter is no longer socially approved of in modern times it still seems to be customary to review the year, so here we go.

2014 has been a year that will stay in my mind for a very long time. 12 months ago I was very much aware that life is about more than work, and I was resolute in my need to lose some of the extra weekend work I was doing. A seven day working week all year is not good for anyone, and I've felt much better in myself by working more sensibly and by getting out and getting back in touch with horticulture as a private interest as well as a career. Visiting gardens and horticultural events during the year, from the Rhododendron, Camellia and Magnolia show at RHS Rosemoor back in spring and my trip the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens (which I'm afraid I will still keep calling 'The Hillier Arboretum'), right through to an early December wander around Rosemoor just to see what's happening... being able to recharge my interest and love of horticulture has made life much better.
Rhododendron 'Cinnkeys-Minterne' seen at RHS Rosemoor
This year also saw the first rare plant fair at Tregrehan in Cornwall. Now if you haven't already been to the garden at Tregrehan then I won't spoil it for you; I will simply say that if you like plants you need to visit! The rare plant was almost overwhelming with its range of plants, many of which had simply never been seen for sale anywhere. If a 6ft (2m) evergreen Polygonatum from Vietnam (I think) appeals to you, or maybe the bold foliage of tree-like 'should be hardy' Euphorbia stygiana ssp. santamariae appeals more, Tregrehan's rare plant fair will be the highlight of your year. I am delighted to say that this event will happen in 2015, and will be on Sunday the 31st of May. Best of all, if you do finish your shopping early then you can go for a walk around a world class garden too!
The rare plant fair at Tregrehan
Back in the summer I wrote a piece for the Old Horts book 'How to grow a Gardener'. I wrote about horticultural production and retail, something I have over 10 years experience with. I stand by everything I said in my piece, that horticultural production and retail is a surprisingly challenging part of the industry but is incredibly rewarding for anyone who is passionate about understanding plants, how they work and how they grow in gardens.

It was a sad irony that my copy of the Old Horts book arrived just days after my employer announced that it was shedding jobs and abandoning plant production.

I have to be very careful not to say too much about this process because I signed a contract preventing me from naming or discussing my former employer in the public domain or with any form of media for my entire life. Nonetheless the process was incredibly grim, and watching as a decade of work is dismantled by other people is not a nice experience, especially over an artificially protracted period. That chapter of my life ended on the 7th of November, drawing to a close a full 10 years work for that company.

It was during the final weeks of my employment that I experienced first hand just how great gardeners are. The process of re-homing the more precious plants on the nursery introduced me to some of the great figures of Cornish horticulture, all of whom helped me to keep my sanity during what was possibly the most disheartening time of my horticultural career to date. It was the advice and support of these people that gave me the confidence to move forward.
Poppies at Cliffe, a garden in North Devon
Now I've started a new chapter in my career and I've started my own business doing a mixture of gardening and horticultural consultancy. Although I've had something of a slow start my experience so far has reinforced this as a good decision; I love gardening, and using my skills and knowledge every day is fantastic and has given me renewed passion for learning more and more. I'm feeling incredibly optimistic about the future, and I hope that once my books are filled with happy customers that I will feel the same satisfaction working in gardens that I did when I was working for a nursery.

2015 will bring its own challenges, but I'm really feeling good about the year to come. I would like to take this opportunity to thank a lot of people, the people who've kept me sane and supported me during my bad times, but also the people who I've met at shows and fairs and who have shared their own love of plants and gardens.

Thank you.

Merry Christmas and a happy new year.

Ben

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Talking shop, but by what name?

I get a great sense of pride from growing plants for other like-minded gardeners. To grow a plant from a cutting/seed/young plant, pot it, train it and nurture it so that it can be enjoyed by someone else is a great achievement; waving goodbye to a trolley full of plants that you've grown is a great feeling! There are many others that feel the same sort of satisfaction in what they grow; these are the people who own, run or work for independent nurseries around the UK.

More experienced gardeners know the benefits of buying from independent nurseries. Typically a diverse and interesting range of plants (often at competitive prices) attracts gardeners to a particular nursery, while the quality of the plants, advice and service that they receive brings them back for more. I don't think there's any major competition between garden centres and nurseries, providing that they aren't trying to compete on each other's strengths. A trip to a nursery is a different experience from a visit to a garden centre, so there should in an ideal world be space for both types of business to exist in the market.
Magnolia figo, not seen in a garden centre!
The question is whether or not the word 'nursery' should mean something specific. I'm not aware of any nurseries calling themselves a 'garden centre', but I do keep coming across garden centres calling themselves nurseries, and it's this that annoys me.

Defining a garden centre is quite easy; a garden centre is a business that sells plants that it hasn't produced itself (i.e. it has bought in from wholesalers), along with a range of other things either to do with gardening or, quite often, things unconnected with gardening.

Defining a nursery is a little more difficult; at its simplest definition a nursery is a business that grows and then sells its own plants (either as a wholesale or retail business), but in truth most nurseries water that down at least a little. The majority of nurseries grow most of the plants they sell but also introduce plants from elsewhere to improve the range for customers, typically adding houseplants or bedding from outside to their own produced range of hardy stock. Some nurseries increasingly fall into buying in plants from elsewhere to replace their own stock, buying in plants that they could and should be growing themselves in order to cut labour costs or to cover up gaps in staffing. My question is simply whether or not there should be a clear definition of 'nursery'?
Plants being grown at a nursery
My motive for asking this question could be put down to protectionism. In my experience nurseries are often special places where the plants are the priority for the business. Although many nurseries now boast a café and a shop selling both gifts and garden tools/products, it is still the plants that are the main draw of the business. The lure of being able to find a special unknown plant and get the best quality advice from people who've grown the plant and have experience with it... that's what gives nurseries their status with gardeners, and it's this status that some garden centres seem to try and capitalise on.

A business that buys in all of its plants to provide greenery around its shop selling exclusive (expensive) giftware and its award winning café isn't a nursery, it's a garden centre. It cannot claim to have the plant range and expertise of a nursery, nor should it try to. Nonetheless the customer sees the word 'nursery' and is led to believe that they are buying plants from a proper nursery, with the benefits that entails.
Old varieties like Cistus 'Enigma' can be found in nurseries  
In the meantime it devalues the good work of independent nurseries who must struggle in the face of the pretenders. Should there be a proper definition of 'nursery', not to penalise businesses who buy their plants in but to protect people who are growing their plants themselves?

I don't think it's reasonable to put a specific percentage on nurseries, but I personally think that a nursery should be a business that grows no less than 70% of what it sells, allowing bedding etc. to be bought in but keeping the business true to its name, and I think that an alternative name like 'plant centre' would be more appropriate for a business that grows a small percentage of plants itself, so isn't a nursery but also isn't a garden centre. The term 'plant centre' tells the customer that plants are a priority for the business (as they would be for any business that grows anything itself), but keeping the word 'nursery' for businesses involved primarily in production.

So what do you think? Add your comments here or on Twitter/Facebook.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Put your best foot forward

By now most people with even a cursory knowledge of the horticulture know that it's not the best paid industry around, and this is mostly because the funding simply isn't there to pay more, in addition to organisations having the mentality that garden staff are somehow second rate employees (a fact reflected in wages between different parts of an organisation). The nation's gardens and parks are being tended by an ever dwindling number of employed gardeners, partly as a result of technology making it possible for one person to jobs more efficiently (such as large lawn mowers speeding up the task of mowing big lawns), but also because various financial problems have meant that staff have had to be cut.

The gap between the amount of work to be done and the number of gardeners available to do it is increasingly being plugged by an army of volunteers. These people give their time and energy to helping garden staff to maintain and develop gardens across the UK. Over the years many gardens, especially those run by the National Trust, the RHS and other organisations, have come to rely increasingly on goodwill, but is this willingness to take part and get stuck in actually endangering gardens?
Volunteers are vital in large gardens, but for good reasons?
Over the years I've heard some cracking stories about volunteers; a head gardener of a public garden (which will remain nameless) recently told me about sending a trusted team of volunteers to weed and generally tidy a border of plants which had been specifically grown for the winter interest of seedheads etc. Off he and his team went to work in another part of the garden, but when he came back he found that the volunteers had used their initiative and gone to the shed, picked up some hedge trimmers and cut the whole border back to bare earth. The head gardener telling me this was right to say that he couldn't get angry about it because the team acted without malice and were desperately trying to be helpful but, nonetheless, the winter interest of the border was noticeably absent for that year.

I've heard rants too; one RHS gardener (who again won't be named) got really annoyed that the gardeners increasingly felt that their role in the garden was just 'babysitting' volunteers, some of whom were incredibly able (and sometimes had to be stopped from going too far!) while others seemed to be volunteering simply as a way to pass the time and managed to cause more work than they were doing. Some volunteers were raring to go, while others wanted to doss around all day, but both required the supervision of a gardener.
Even the RHS relies heavily on volunteers to maintain gardens.
Now of course we have two different issues here; the gardeners who cut down the border when they shouldn't have had made an error of judgement which could easily have been made by a new or inexperienced paid gardener, while the rant from the RHS gardener is more about the relationship between gardeners and volunteers when organisations are using free labour to avoid paying staff. The common issue between both stories is supervision. Paid gardeners often have to be the ones who use machinery and do the more dangerous jobs for safety (for that read 'insurance') reasons, but if you take on volunteers you're at the mercy of a lot of variables.

The people who sign up to become volunteers may be incredibly skilled and experienced gardeners or they might have never picked up a spade in their lives, they might be hard workers or lazy, they might be responsible or a liability... this list could go on. The problem is that until they've worked with a head gardener and a gardening team who can assess their skills and weaknesses properly they really should be monitored/supervised, tying down gardeners who should be gardening! I have over the years met some absolutely incredible volunteers, people with passion, skill and expertise who are a real asset to a garden, but I've also heard enough horror stories to know that some cause real headaches. I've heard blazing rows between volunteers who want to do a particular job and head gardeners who have other ideas, I've seen volunteers do bad jobs of things because they've lacked proper guidance and support, and several years ago I was even told by a volunteer at one National Trust property that the gardening staff there were all idiots and that if they had any sense they'd strip the herbaceous borders and turn them to bedding because that's what 'proper' gardeners do (I let him finish before I told him that the head gardener at that property was a good friend of mine)! These people cause grief while others become real assets to a garden and those employed to look after it, but when someone volunteers at a garden it's a real lucky dip as to what that person will be like, and all to often getting rid of 'bad' volunteers can prove difficult.
Volunteers can work in some great gardens!
So should people be allowed and encouraged to volunteer in gardens? Yes, of course. So many volunteers build up a personal bond with a garden and put so much of themselves into it, and so many volunteers bring skills, ideas and work ethics that make them very much a part of the gardening team. The problems come when organisations use the goodwill of volunteers to avoid having to find money to employ gardeners, putting additional pressure on gardening teams and causing disharmony with gardeners who may face losing their jobs. A balance must be struck, because at the end of the day it is the garden that will suffer most.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Glorious Gardens From Above

After such a long time of getting it wrong the BBC have finally managed to get gardening right with their new series, Glorious Gardens from Above, in which Christine Walkden visits some of our great national horticultural treasures. This series manages to bring in new angle on gardens; with the aid of a hot air balloon our presenter encourages us to appreciate these gardens from an angle we are unlikely to see them from ourselves, from the air.

Even though the series is not yet even halfway through I am confident to say that excellent gardens have been chosen. From the intimacy of Beth Chatto's garden in Essex to the grandeur of Powys Castle in Wales, and from the rugged extremes of St. Michael's Mount to the enviable microclimate of Trebah (both in Cornwall), someone has had the unenviable task of choosing just two gardens to represent each county, and yet has managed to choose and to choose gardens with an interesting blend of inspiration, horticultural difficulties and challenges, as well as concise but fascinating human elements.
Trebah in Cornwall, a garden well worth visiting!
In many ways this programme is held together by the excellent choice of presenter; Christine Walkden is eminently likeable, with her down-to-earth approach and her willingness to express, in front of TV cameras, the excitement that excellent horticulture brings to many of us. This show isn't as pretentious as too many programmes about gardens manage to be, neither is it patronising, and Christine Walkden goes a long way to make the somewhat exclusive world of the big gardens accessible and inspirational to a wide audience.

There is of course a but.

But why is this programme being shown at 3.45pm on weekdays? The sheer quality and accessibility of this series would surely make this absolutely perfect for that niche in the schedules where broadcasters need gentle but uplifting broadcasting? Or maybe a winter alternative to Gardener's World? Does the BBC assume that the only people who will want to watch this series are retired or aren't at work? If they do think this then why commission such a high quality series to sit between 'Escape To The Country' and 'Flog It'? Quite simply there is only one thing wrong with this series: it's simply too good to be consigned to an afternoon slot.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Waste of money

Go to any decent garden centre and you will see pallet upon pallet of composts and soil improvements. When you see someone load up half a dozen bags into a car and then find that the customer has spent £40+ on compost in one go it's easy to see why organic matter is big business!

The contents of the different types of compost vary quite considerably. Most ordinary multipurpose composts still have peat as their main ingredient, although with the price of peat rising in recent times and with increasing environmental pressure on peat as a material other ingredients, such as bark or 'greenwaste' (essentially vegetable peelings etc.), to bulk out the compost and keep the price competitive. Some suppliers are able to provide good peat free composts too; SylvaGrow compost from Melcourt is essentially the same product that commercial nurseries are using, so you can be reasonably assured that the product will be consistent and of good quality- nurseries don't take kindly to deliveries of rubbish compost!
Melcourt SylvaGrow- use what the big boys use!
Understanding what you're looking at is key to choosing the right product, especially if you're buying lots of expensive bags full! 'Composts' are essentially split into two categories, growing media and soil conditioners. A growing medium is the product you need to use if you're planting in containers; typically it's a fairly fine mix with a lot of fibrous material (like peat or coir) with a few chunkier bits (usually bark) added for bulk, and often there is a short-lived fertliser content too. A soil conditioner is a lot bulkier, being made up mainly of graded partially composted bark. Soil conditioners are added to soil either as a mulch or by being dug in, and add additional bulk, drainage and organic matter to the natural soil. Knowing the difference between these two types of compost is vital- adding a growing medium to soil won't do any real damage, but trying to grow plants in soil conditioner is really not a good idea!

What I can't understand is why people take their garden rubbish to the tip and then swing round to the garden centre for some compost. Personally I would recommend most gardeners use bagged growing medium for their garden unless they're confident that they can produce a reliable and fine grade growing medium, but all the waste of free soil improver....

Traditional recycling of kitchen or garden waste revolves around the compost bin. There are hundreds of different compost bins out there to suit every garden (and budget), so if you have a garden then there is no excuse. I mean it! Composting is too important in a garden to avoid, so no matter how small your garden you should be able to at least compost something! If you have soil and plants then organic matter should be recycled into the soil; this is more important to the garden than a greenhouse or a water feature because composting is about adding goodness to the soil and improving the well-being of your plants, and no garden features are worth bothering with your plants aren't growing well!

How much space you dedicate to making organic matter is down to your space, your requirements and your ability to generate the right ingredients. Composting can take care of fallen leaves, cut stems, kitchen waste and grass clippings, although no one ingredient should dominate the bin or you will end up with an unbalanced (and often squidgy and smelly) compost goo. If you have excess of any ingredient then this is what can go to the tip, but give the compost bin the first priority!

Don't feel the need to rake borders clear of leaves for the winter. Aside from being a tedious job you are also taking away this much needed organic matter; leaves will break down over winter and be taken into the soil by the earthworms. Leaves must be raked from lawns or the grass will go bad, but all you have to do is spread them on the border (assuming you've got all the ones you need for the compost bin of course) and let nature take its course. Surely this is more straightforward than filling bags to take to the tip?!

The only things you probably shouldn't compost are weeds (particularly perennial weeds), diseased leaves and stems, or meat. Meat in compost attracts pests and is generally not a good idea- invest in a more upmarket composter that will take care of all food waste, or dispose of in the bin. Weeds and diseased material should be taken to the tip, or you can then burn them in an incinerator and add the ash to the compost (any ash from burning wood or organic matter- NOT COAL/PLASTIC/RUBBER/FUEL/OIL- can be added to the mix!). If you don't want to take diseased material to the tip it must be burnt or disposed of in the household rubbish to avoid reintroducing spores into the garden.
Ash from burning organic matter is useful too!
Think before you throw away what could be a valuable commodity; could your pile of 'garden waste' be more use to you if you kept it and used it?

Thursday, 6 November 2014

And now the end is here


So here we go...
 
After 10 years of service to my company, a nursery in Cornwall that cannot be named for contractual reasons, today is my last day. Today will be a day of great sadness as I say goodbye to many of the people I've shared hardships and met challenges with over the years.

It's funny how patterns emerge; it cannot be a coincidence that I know other people who are leaving similar organisations, similar that while we work in horticulture we are owned or run by non-horticultural businesses or organisations. Parks, historic properties, gardens... it seems that good horticulturists are leaving these places in droves. Although I am being made redundant in a restructuring of the business by the parent company, others seem to be saying that they're sick of being treated as second rate.

It must be hard for accountants and businessmen to deal with horticulture, and to deal with those who take great pride in doing what boardroom directors would no doubt refer to as 'menial work'. The idea that there are people around the UK who would rather dig a hole in the rain than work in an office must be such an alien concept for people conditioned to sit behind desks and look at computer screens all day. Nonetheless we're here, out in all weathers, doing what we do best.

To everyone out there changing jobs/paths now I wish you good luck. There are people out there who value our skills, abilities and passions; we just have to find them.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Cultivating Camellias

Camellias are very rewarding plants to grow. Being evergreen they can provide either structure in the garden itself or an excellent boundary, providing privacy from neighbours or deflecting winds in exposed areas. The dark green leaves of most Camellias make the perfect backdrop for other plants in the garden, and as most Camellias flower in spring they extend the season of interest.
Worth every care and effort... C. 'Rainbow' (autumn)

To get the best from your Camellias you must first understand a few basic rules of thumb. All Camellias need neutral to acid soil (pH of 7 or below), none will tolerate lime. Most Camellias prefer shade, although in areas with cool damp summers (such as Cornwall, west Devon, the south of Wales) they will grow happily in full sun. No Camellias like extremes of wet or dry soils; a light, humus rich, moisture retentive soil is perfect. Most Camellias in cultivation are reliably hardy in most of the UK, but their roots aren't as hardy as their tops, so bear this in mind if you want to grow them in pots (make sure the pots can't freeze). In pots Camellias can be grown in ericaceous compost, preferably something heavy like an ericaceous 'John Innes' mix; don't over-pot them when they're small, and bear in mind that one day they will probably outgrow the pots you have chosen for them, at which point they will need planting out. You can feed potted Camellias with an ericaceous feed, but in the ground an annual mulch of good compost (not mushroom compost which contains lime!) or well rotted manure would be better. A mulch will help to conserve moisture as well as improving the all important soil structure.

Camellia flower buds tend to be produced in July/August, and then they swell up for winter before opening in spring. While the plant is producing buds it is particularly sensitive to drought, so make sure your plant doesn't get too dry at this crucial point in the year, especially in pots. The reputation that Camellias aren't completely hardy comes from the fact that their flowers can be damaged after frosts. To avoid damage to flowers make sure your Camellia is shaded from direct morning sunshine during the winter, where the rapid warming of frozen buds by the sun causes damage. Allow your Camellia's flower buds to defrost slowly and they are usually OK. Hard frosts will often damage open flowers, but this is the price we all pay when we grow early flowering plants. 'Camellia flower blight' is a fungal problem that causes blotching on the flowers- rake up dropped flowers and pick damaged flowers off the plant and you should be able to keep this problem at bay. To avoid spreading fungal spores you must not compost Camellia flowers.
Just beautiful! Camellia 'Desire' (spring)
Camellias can be pruned after flowering. Usually removing unwanted shoots or pinching back the tips of shoots to encourage bushiness will be sufficient, but occasionally more severe pruning may be needed. If you need to severely prune your Camellia then I would personally recommend doing so after frosts have passed; this will probably interfere with the flowering for that spring, but it would at least allow the plant plenty of time to break from old wood, grow shoots and then allow those new shoots to ripen before winter.

Camellias are extraordinarily diverse in terms of colour, flower type and season. Broadly speaking most varieties fall into one of three main groups.

Camellia japonica
The C. japonica varieties are by far the most diverse, ranging from varieties with single flowers right through to very complex doubles, and with colours from white through to dark red. Most varieties I'm aware of have fairly large leaves, and all C. japonica varieties (to my knowledge) flower in spring.

Camellia x williamsii
This group are all derived from crossing Camellia saluensis and C. japonica. Typically C. x williamsii varieties produce prolific clusters of flowers, and often flower from a young age. Most C. x williamsii varieties seem to be pink, although a couple are white and one ('Jury's Yellow') is a creamy yellow colour. Some people prefer C. x williamsii cultivars because they drop their spent flowers, but to be honest I've never really noticed C. japonica holding onto its spent flowers for any length of time. There is a lot greater diversity of flower types and colours in C. japonica. With only one exception to my knowledge ('November Pink') all C. x williamsii varieties flower in spring.

Camellia sasanqua
Although Camellias are often thought of as exclusively spring flowering plants, autumn flowering varieties are becoming increasingly popular. By far the best known of the autumn flowering Camellias must be the varieties of C. sasanqua. Many of these varieties are richly scented, and the scent will carry well in a warm and sheltered garden. C. sasanqua varieties are believed to need a warm and sunny spot in the garden for the stems to ripen and flower; this might be true, but they might need that warm and sheltered spot so that they can have a longer growing season to set flower buds. As a general rule the autumn flowering Camellias are a lot more sensitive to feed than spring flowering varieties.

There are thousands upon thousands of varieties of Camellia known in cultivation, but you can view some of the varieties that have caught my attention here on my Pinterest board.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Decisions made

I've not traditionally been a fan of 'taking the plunge', but sometimes life takes an unexpected turn and new options appear for the first time; they do say that when one door closes another opens....

This is my situation at the moment; one door has closed, I am at a crossroads, 'times they are a-changing'. The day I was told that I was to be made redundant by my employer I felt as though my world had been taken from me, but as time has moved on I have come to see this new part of my life as a great opportunity. I've worked for my soon to be former employer for 10 years, and through that time I have faced and overcome great challenges and built up my reputation for competence and knowledge. My 'online persona', Ben's Botanics, has allowed me to indulge my passion for horticulture and plantsmanship outside the confines set by my employer and develop my skills further than simply working for a nursery would allow.
Rare and interesting plants like Brillantaisia subulugurica are still my first love
My future still very much lies in horticulture; instead of simply working for someone else again I am heading out on my own, converting my redundancy payment into machinery and tools, and becoming a self-employed gardener and consultant.

Sometimes the future is dark and scary, sometimes bright and exciting. Those around me have great faith in my abilities and I am determined not to let anyone down, not least myself. On the 7th of November I will leave my employer's nursery for the very last time and will, I hope, embark on the adventure of a lifetime.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

When is a Geranium not a Geranium?

Geraniums and Pelargoniums are both very closely related; both are in the Geranium family (Geranianceae), with some species of Geranium having leaves superficially like those of Pelargonium, and some Pelargoniums dying back for winter like Geraniums. There is sometimes a degree of confusion between the two genera... add the fact that 'geranium' is often still used as a common name for Pelargonium and things can get tricky!

In flower the two are usually easy to tell apart; Geranium flowers have several planes of symmetry (they are 'actinomorphic') while Pelargonium flowers only have one ('zygomorphic'). Let's take for our example probably the best known Geranium of modern times, Geranium 'Rozanne'.
Although the leaves of Geranium 'Rozanne' look similar to many Pelargoniums you can see that the flower can be divided symmetrically several times, as below.
Now let's compare this with a Pelargonium flower, using Pelargonium 'Lemon Fancy' as our example.
As you can see, the flower of this Pelargonium can only be divided symmetrically once, as shown below.
Of course sometimes plants like to make life difficult; below is Pelargonium 'Paton's Unique', a variety of Pelargonium with several planes of symmetry (an actinomorphic flower)...
...while Pelargonium 'Appleblossom Rosebud' is just trying to be awkward!
It doesn't matter how much these modern varieties of Pelargonium break away from the typical zygomorphic flowers of Pelargonium species their lineage can still be traced back to 'proper' Pelargonium flowers, keeping them firmly and unmistakably in the genus Pelargonium.

So now you know.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

A new direction

Well after 10 years with my employer it is time to move on....

In some ways the decision about which direction to take now is easy; my passion for horticulture is so deeply ingrained in me that I can't really think of anything else I'd want to do! With horticulture being such a diverse industry there are still enough directions to keep me wondering which direction to take.

I've worked directly and indirectly in horticultural retail for 11 years, firstly as part of a team trying to turn a struggling garden centre's plant area from a tired loss making space into a healthy and profitable one, then for the last 10 years as part of a production team that has also been heavily involved in retail. I enjoy selling plants and tackling the multitude of problems that gardeners bring to my attention, so I could see myself working in retail in the future. Similarly I've enjoyed working in plant production; taking a young plant and nurturing it up to become a good strong garden plant is immensely satisfying and I'm good at it!

Growing plants and dealing with problems, such as pests and diseases as well as cultivation issues, would I think make me useful in a garden too. Even though I've not yet worked full time as a professional gardener I have always grown plants at home and I have a wide range of gardening skills. Yes there are things that I might be rusty on (I've not yet tackled topiary or a giant hedge!) but my love of gardening and belief in the importance of good horticulture means that I'm very keen to get experience and learn to get it right.

Over the years I have built up a diverse knowledge of horticulture, and I hope that this will be of use to future employers, even though I lack the paper qualifications to 'prove' it. I believe that being self taught has given me some advantage in that I have come to rely on myself for my horticultural learning, and because I find learning about horticulture so much fun I enjoy finding out new things, so I'm continually expanding my knowledge and keeping it fresh.

I also really enjoy writing about horticulture and plants. I've enjoyed building my website and also have a lively Twitter and Facebook account, and a fledgling Pinterest account too! You can read my articles here on my Pots and Polytunnels blog, and even a bit more about my journey into horticulture so far here. If you have a copy of 'How To Grow A Gardener', published by the Old Horts Network, you can read a bit more about the work I've been doing on pages 35-39.

So now I find myself looking for a new job. Although I've worked in retail and production horticulture for 11 years part of me would be interested in working in a garden. What concerns me at the moment with finding a job is the timing; I will be leaving my company on the 7th of November 2014, but this is not the time of my choosing. I would like to make it clear though that I am leaving my employer at this time of year due to a company restructuring and not because I've been naughty!

If you would like to get in touch, maybe if you might be interested in me joining your organisation, you can email me at mail @ bensbotanics.co.uk.

Please note that I have signed an undertaking of confidentiality with my employer and will not be able to enter into any detail about their activities in the public domain, nor will I be able to comment on anything that does not directly affect me or my work at interview. Please bear this in mind if you already know where I work; this is a difficult time for me anyway, and I can't afford to get into trouble with my boss!

Friday, 29 August 2014

Hort. Retail: Deliberately losing a customer

The recession has made life very difficult for businesses. As people draw in their spending they have created a climate where companies have to be incredibly sharp and competitive to earn their money, with incentives such as attractive payment options (as seen in car sales), free fitting/assembly (as offered by a garden centre near me on garden furniture), and even the offer of a cuddly toy from a broker's website for buying something from another company (as seen on a certain Meerkat-centric insurance broker's website)!

Businesses are going all out to attract their customers, and each sale is vital... but is it OK to actually deliberately lose a sale? In horticultural retail the answer maybe yes. There's no doubt that horticultural businesses are feeling the squeeze just the same as every other industry, but we are a bit different. Horticultural retail is a combination of product and advice, whether advice on the label or advice delivered face to face, and the customer is buying both. Customers value good honest advice from people who know a lot about horticulture in general as well as about their products. Sometimes customers enter into lengthy conversations with staff, wanting to know everything there is to know about a plant or a gardening issue important to them, while others just want a brief synoptic answer. But is it appropriate for an employee to actually deliberately lose a sale?

The quality of any horticultural advice is matching the knowledge of the advisor with the needs or problem of the customer. If a customer has heavy soil the advisor will have to be knowledgeable about plants for heavy soils, and if a gardener is trying to grow plants in an exposed coastal garden the advisor will have to understand the problems they face and the plants that will meet their requirements. Giving bad advice is not good.

Let's take a scenario- a customer wants a tree for a specific place. The staff member has a choice of just four trees; one will grow too big, one will grow too small, one won't tolerate the soil conditions and the other won't take the wind. Here the staff member has to make a decision; find the best matching tree to suit the customer's requirements or tell the customer that there are no suitable trees in stock, maybe asking them to come back another time. If the customer is told that the four trees are unsuitable then the staff member has lost the sale and the customer will leave without buying a tree, but what happens with the 'best fit' tree?
'Crab Apples' are great for many gardens, but not all

The first thing a lot of customers do when they get home is to look up their new plants in their books or online. This process allows them to find more information, and possibly reassure themselves that they've bought the right thing. If a customer's source of information tells them that their new plant will grow too big or will be wrong in another way then they won't be happy! Similarly if the customer just plants their plant and then it gets damaged or doesn't grow how they wanted it to then they will be disappointed or even angry.

Let's take the other side of the coin. The customer who has left without a tree may be frustrated that they can't get planting right away, but at least they haven't been coaxed into buying the wrong thing. When buying a plant a customer makes a connection with the business they are dealing with; they are relying on that business' integrity and the quality of the advice given, and if they are happy that the advice they are given has been sound then they will think positively about the business in the future.

The customer who has bought their tree but been given bad advice will have a bad impression of the business they bought it from, whereas the customer given good and honest advice without being forced into buying the wrong thing will feel positive about the retailer and is more likely to make another visit. Subsequent visits with good advice and a high quality of care will cement that customer's impression of the business and its employees, making them much more likely to become ambassadors for the business in the future.

Yes, there is a risk that the customer who has left without their tree will buy elsewhere and won't come back again, but the risks of losing a customer through good customer service are much lower than losing a customer through bad service.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

How To Grow A Gardener

So after months of preparation and waiting the new book from the Old Horts, 'How To Grow A Gardener', is out! It's hoped that the experiences of the 25 contributors, each passionate about horticulture, will inspire others to join take up this exciting career.
The contributors are a diverse bunch, working in all sorts of businesses from a nursery to a public garden, from domestic horticulture to social horticulture, and some are self employed. The diversity of the accounts in this book give it the edge on other books about horticulture, which tend to concentrate on one particular theme, because this is a book compiled from the personal experiences of many different people rather than being focussed on one person (as you see in celebrity written gardening books), and also this book embraces the diversity of practical horticulture. It is a shame that nobody working in horticultural science wrote a piece, and neither did anyone from the horticultural media, but maybe this just reflects how diverse horticulture actually is; 25 different people have told their stories and yet there is no repetition.

There are however certain themes the recur in the writing; every writer is enthusiastic and loves what they do, and many regret not coming to horticulture earlier in their lives. With horticulture still sadly seen as being a lower end career path the latter theme will continue to blight the industry, simply too few young people are seeing the appeal of working with gardens and plants.

Great thanks must go to the editors/collators of this book, Andrew and Debbi Bentley, who have worked hard behind the scenes to generate interest in this project, to edit the book and, presumably, who have had to pay the printers before the book has even been released! Also thanks is due to those who contributed and told their stories. Personally I found writing my piece to be a fun process, and I hope to contribute to any future publications.

'How To Grow A Gardener' is currently only available from the Old Horts network, and is priced at £8 plus £3 P&P (please remember to add the P&P at the checkout). 
http://groupspaces.com/OldHorts/public/pay/shop/

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Getting trendy.

I think we're heading for a new revolution in how we garden. We've gone from the 'exotics and bamboos' phase of around the year 2000, through 'grow your own fruit and veg' (which is surprisingly hard work if you're not a TV gardener) and we're now in a phase of growing cut flowers, as well as growing plants for nature and generally gardening along more natural lines.
Phormium tenax 'Tricolor' used to be a 'hot' plant!
Every year the horticultural media speculates what's going to be 'big' at Chelsea, and pretty well every year they've been wrong. How can they expect to be right when horticulture spans from the commonplace to the rare, the small to the big, the window-box to the country estate? Guessing the trends in gardening is a lot more complicated than looking at what designers have sourced for their gardens at Chelsea, or just what's looking good in May. Picking up trends in gardening is also more than flicking through magazines to see what's nice enough to be on their glossy pages; a magazine photographer will take pictures of what looks nice, not what's worthy.

We know some long-term trends all too well; conifers have sadly fallen from grace despite continuing to be excellent garden plants (it's worth noting that conifers are still popular across Northern Europe where their good looks and resilience to cold are still appreciated). Similarly heathers are frowned upon as being 'dated', despite being excellent garden plants. When was the last time you saw lots of bamboos at your local garden centre, or hundreds of Photinia 'Red Robin', or when was the last time a TV gardener told you how to plant the fairly hardy Musa basjoo? If you want to gauge what trends have been and gone just go to your nearest garden centre or nursery and ask them what they used to sell lots of but don't any more; you'll get this list and probably a few more things.
Pinus parviflora 'Bonnie Bergman' is still a fantastic plant!
Where are Potentilla fruticosa cultivars with their cheerful colourful flowers over a long season? Where are all the grasses that were thought to be the great garden plants of the future? Where are the Astilbes and all the other traditional 'bread and butter' garden plants? They're still out there, you won't have to look far to find one, but they're not fashionable any more.

Media and plant shows used to have a great hold on the British gardener- if Geoff Hamilton recommended a plant on Gardener's World on a Friday night then stocks would be depleted across the country on Saturday morning. Flower shows were the place to be inspired by designers who would dazzle gardeners with exciting combinations. Now, what's happened? Gardeners just don't get excited as much any more; there's no more gardening hysteria. Maybe it was always inevitable, after all people move on in the search for new and more exciting things. Maybe gardening reached the limit of what it could do to capture the interest of the 'man on the street'.
Grasses looking great at Knoll Gardens; has our love of them waned a little?
I think one of the things that has brought mixed changes is internet plant shopping. While very convenient and a simple way to get hold of plants without leaving your home (or even your garden!) the internet has muted our connection with new and different plants. A trip to a good garden centre or nursery was an opportunity to become entranced by lovely new plants, often skilfully and artfully displayed together in combinations worthy of a Chelsea gold. This was the great day of the retailers who sold you plants that you could grow by allowing you to experience them first hand. Plants could be prodded, poked, stroked, sniffed and generally otherwise enjoyed first hand and, if they passed muster, could be put straight into the trolley and be taken home (oh yes, and paid for too!).

Now plants are bought by clicking a button their only chance to shine is by looking pretty for a carefully controlled picture, their only chance to express their texture, form, scent etc. by having carefully worded descriptions written. Where is the interaction with the plant beforehand? And where is the opportunity to ask someone about the plant there and then? Possibly even more crucially where is the opportunity to pick up a plant and carry it over to the other side of a sales area to compare it with another and see if colours work well? Some of the magic of buying plants for the garden has been lost through e-commerce, even though it has revolutionised the way we can buy plants. We're no longer enjoying shopping for plants as much as we used to.

The bright garish colours of Coleus seem to be fuelling their revival
How we buy plants is one thing, but what we buy is another. I think the biggest single influence on gardeners is now other gardeners. Rather than take the word of the TV or a magazine as gospel we now want to hear recommendations first hand. We want to see plants in other people's gardens, we want to speak to other gardeners about their first hand experiences with plants. This makes it very difficult to predict trends because people are now talking to each other instead of to a nursery. That sounds like a very commercial thing for me to say, but think of it this way... if we don't let nurseries know what we want then how will they know what to grow for us? And the more nurseries have to guess or just stick to their guns and pray they're growing the right thing, the more likely they are to make mistakes, lose valuable income and possibly cease to exist.

That would really take the fun out of it, wouldn't it?

(Oh, and my prediction for future trends? Well that would warrant another post...)

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Visiting Cornwall...

This post is only partly tongue-in-cheek.

I'm not Cornish but I've lived and worked here for just over a decade, and here's some advice if you're planning a visit to this wonderful part of the world.

Travelling
Chances are that if you're driving to Cornwall you'll come down the A30 or the A38 once you've left the M5. Both of these roads are long and tedious, and you've got about an hour on them from Exeter before you even reach Cornwall. Given that they are so dull and monotonous I would strongly advise that you stop at or before Exeter to recharge your batteries- even the best driver can find the endless plodding exhausting, especially if you've already been driving for ages. Resist the urge to shorten the journey by putting your foot down; Devon and Cornwall Police are adept at picking up speeders along these roads- this is their patch and they will have no sympathy with you just because you're on holiday. A Volvo traffic car can easily lurk in the long grass of the verge or among the lorries, and they know all the best spots so don't take the risk.

If you're towing take extra care. Your motorway trip will have, on the most part, been straightforward. With three lanes you can overtake lorries and still leave people space to overtake you in the outside lane. The A30 and A38 are both dual carriageways, so overtake a lorry and you will quickly get yourself a following. Not a good following like a band or celebrity might have, no a long following of cars and motorbikes who would dearly like you to shift your arse out of the way! If you're not confident you can overtake quickly and safely then why not just take it easy until the road is better for it? Oh, and unlike the motorway network both the A30 and A38 have some impressive hills, so ease off when you're going down them yeh?! Every year I see jackknifed caravans and trailers on my way to and from work; each caravan on its side or trailer with contents strewn out all over the road represents a ruined holiday... better to take your time, wouldn't you agree?

West of Launceston (or Plymouth if you're on the A38) the roads get smaller. Although the A30 stays dual carriageway until you're near Bodmin (but widens again until you're near Truro) both roads go down to single carriageway roads once you get deep into Cornwall. Bottlenecks are commonplace. Don't forget the speed limit changes down even though it's the same road you've been on at a higher speed for ages. Also remember that tractors and lorries use these roads and in many areas you just can't overtake safely. So don't. Just take a deep breath, sit back and enjoy the ride. The Cornish way of life tends to be quite relaxed, and partly that's because it's usually impossible to get anywhere quickly! Be courteous to everyone else on the road and give yourself plenty of time to travel.

Sat-navs seldom work in Cornwall; villages and surrounding farms can share a postcode, so the sat-nav might take you far from where you want to be. Likewise sat-navs don't know that the road is too narrow for your caravan/motorhome. Use your common sense, and ideally buy a map instead!

If you meet someone in a country lane they won't automatically reverse for you just because you're not local or you've got a shiny new car; be ready to reverse (sometimes up hills or around corners) and if you can't reverse then don't drive in a county mainly made up with lanes or narrow roads!

The Place
Cornwall is a beautiful place and is well worth visiting. Remember though that it is a place much like where you live, where people live and work. Cornwall is not a recreation centre for you to come in and use at your leisure so treat it with the same respect you treat your area.

The moors are great places to walk, but take a map, a compass and some other basic supplies; the moors are beautiful but can be as dangerous as any other part of the UK. When the sun is shining the moors can bake in the heat, so take plenty of water (I know this from my own bitter experience). Remember also that you are in an agricultural county, so keep your dog on a lead so it can't even risk upsetting livestock (remember that it is legal for a farmer to shoot a dog that is worrying livestock- this would really upset your holiday so don't take the risk).

The beaches are also beautiful but can be treacherous. It's easy to get locked into a secluded cove when the tide comes in (people do, every year). It's not worth the risk; yes there are RNLI lifeboatmen who will risk their own lives to save you from your stupidity, but what if they don't get to you in time? And why should they save you if you've been careless?! If in any doubt whatsoever stay on the busier beaches, ideally ones with lifeguards. Oh, and as far as I know dogs are banned from all Cornish beaches during the summer.

Mobile phone coverage is very hit and miss in Cornwall, so if you're lost or in trouble don't rely on getting a good signal. Worth noting that if your phone won't get you through on 999 you might have more luck using the Europe-wide 112 number. Either way you'll need to tell them where you are, so if you don't know the best you can hope for is a very long wait. Buy that map!

The People
I've always found the people of Cornwall to be friendly, polite and hospitable, but there are ways to change that. Firstly Cornish people are proud of where they live, so if you spend your visit telling them how much better your home town is then you won't get a polite response! This is a fairly poor area, and a lot of the people you meet will be struggling to make ends meet; just because property is expensive in Cornwall don't imagine that everyone here is wealthy, it's often quite the reverse. Oh, and locals don't care that you're a doctor down for a week living the surf-dude dream, there was one last week, and there'll be one next week....

Despite its rural nature and remoteness from 'civilisation' as you might want to put it, Cornwall boasts several large towns and a city. You don't need to bring everything you might need from home, you can buy food etc. as easily here as you can at home, and using supermarkets, chain stores and especially local shops you will support local jobs and the local economy, plus you'll have a much more comfortable journey if you're not travelling and wondering if the frozen chicken you brought with you will still be safe to eat! There are pubs and cafes all over the place, so use them; many serve delicious fresh local food (although a few more 'poncy places' with extortionate prices have appeared, but there is now at least two KFCs in Cornwall!) and again your cup of tea and a piece of cake will help the local economy.

Treat the people you meet with respect. About 99.5% of visitors do, but the other 0.5% give visitors a bad name. Cornish people are fantastic and friendly and will help you out if you're lost, but they are not your guides/information service! Often nice and polite visitors at B&Bs/hotels etc. will get juicy tips from locals such as where's best to eat, nice places off the beaten track to visit, and when to go to attractions to avoid the queues. Rude people get the cold shoulder!

As with any rural area it is unwise to think the people around you are bumpkins; you might be from a big city far away but the people around you with their distinctive Cornish accents are solicitors, doctors, accountants, shopkeepers... they are people just like you and they will not take to being talked down to. It's only fair as you explore this wonderful place to treat its locals with courtesy.

Hope these pointers are of some use, so come and visit. Cornwall is a magical place, even in the rain!

Sunday, 20 July 2014

How to choose a Hydrangea

Hydrangeas are some of the most recognisable of all garden plants. They are deservedly popular for their showy flowers in summer, but with so many cultivars available just how do you choose the right one?

Firstly a little about Hydrangea flowers. Hydrangea flowers are themselves tiny and insignificant but are surrounded by sterile florets, and it is these that we see as 'flowers' in the flowerhead. Typical Hydrangeas fall into three groups, the mopheads with their dense domed heads of florets, the lacecaps with their tiny flowers surrounded by florets in typically flat heads, and the H. paniculata varieties with upright panicles of flowers. There are thousands of different Hydrangeas available, so choosing a variety can be difficult. I offer the following as advice.

Firstly avoid Hydrangea macrophylla 'Merveille Sanguine'. It's a popular old French variety and is found in many gardening books. The biggest appeal of this variety is its dark red-tinted leaves, but I'll be blunt and say that it's just not that good a variety. I've never seen a plant that is growing spectacularly well; typically this variety gets very sparse and woody over the years, despite careful pruning, and gets rather tatty and untidy. This, coupled with the fact that it doesn't seem to be particularly hardy, makes me happy to turn discerning gardeners away from this variety, despite its popularity.
H. 'Merveille Sanguine'-looks nice, but leave it at the garden centre!
Dusky leaves of H. 'Merveille Sanguine'
Thankfully if you want Hydrangeas with dark leaves there are alternatives, although they are lacecap varieties whereas H. 'Merveille Sanguine' is a mophead. I have two favourites that I am happy to recommend. H. 'Selina' is a fairly new variety and has beautiful deep burgundy leaves (especially in full sun) and large heads of pink/blue flowers (depending on soil type- see below).
Hydrangea 'Selina'
Deep burgundy leaves of H. 'Selina'
H. 'Dolce Kiss' (Dolkiss) has similarly good deep burgundy leaves to 'Selina' but has white flowers edged pink. I particularly like this variety for the two-tone effect of the flowers and rate this very highly. The flowers of this variety are very similar to H. serrata 'Kiyosumi', an old Japanese variety (I think a wild form), and I'd be very surprised if the latter wasn't a parent of H. 'Dolce Kiss'!
Leaves of H. 'Dolce kiss'
H. 'Dolce Kiss'- love these flowers!
My second piece of advice is to be careful what you buy. Garden centres will try to entice you to buy a nice Hydrangea full of flower but beware! Many garden centres sell Hydrangeas that have been treated with a product called Cycocel, which is a growth retardant. Plants are sprayed with this hormone product which shortens the spaces between leaves (internodes), making the plant more compact but not affecting flowering (or even enhancing flowering). This product is used in the mass production of Hydrangeas, Rhododendrons and sundry other plants to make those attractive dome shaped plants covered in flowers that are so appealing to garden centre shoppers. Resist! Although a Cycocel treated plant looks nice when you buy it, the following year it will behave differently, making longer internodes and flowering more typically, and over the next few years will turn into a rather ordinary Hydrangea, losing the appeal it had when you bought it. I strongly recommend that you go to a nursery and buy a Hydrangea based on the merits of the variety rather than buying what looks pretty at the garden centre. Buy a Hydrangea with strong stems (it might even strike you as looking a little leggy in the pot) and big healthy leaves, but don't expect more than a few flowerheads; you're buying a plant to look spectacular in your garden, not on the nursery! Ask about varieties, get advice about growing Hydrangeas in your area, and make an informed choice. By keeping away from hormone treated plants and choosing a variety carefully you will be buying a plant that will perform better in years to come.

While I'm recommending varieties I'd like to show you a few others that I like. H. 'Zorro' is an improvement on the old variety H. macrophylla 'Nigra', a variety grown principally for its black stems. H. 'Zorro' is a stronger variety, and produces large flower heads of pink or blue, depending on soil type (again, see below).
Hydrangea 'Zorro'- note the black stems!
Another favourite is H. 'Rotschwanz', a variety with rich deep red flowers on alkaline soils. This is a fairly compact variety and well worth growing.
Hydrangea 'Rotschwanz'
Possibly the best known fact about Hydrangeas is that their flowers vary in colour according to the pH of the soil they are growing in; pink alkaline or neutral soils, blue in acidic soils. Although this is correct it's not the pH of the soil that truly affects the colours but the amount of aluminium in the soil. If you have an alkaline soil and want your Hydrangea to turn blue you can add as many old iron nails, pine needles, tea bags etc. as you like but they won't have any effect. Add aluminium, for example by using a 'Hydrangea colourant', and your plant will, after a few applications, produce blue florets. It is worth noting though that it is a lot easier to turn a pink Hydrangea blue than to turn a blue Hydrangea pink; if the aluminium content of the soil is sufficient to make the Hydrangea flowers blue then it is impossible to stop the plant taking it up. Your best option if you wanted a pink Hydrangea but have acidic soil would be to grow your plant in a pot, but Hydrangeas are never really happy in pots so your plant would struggle. White flowered Hydrangeas are not affected by pH, and it is only H. macrophylla and H. serrata cultivars that change, so none of the H. paniculata varieties or any of the climbers are affected.
Hydrangea 'Zorro' changing from blue to pink
As important as pH is to the flower colour it is worth talking generally about soil and cultivation. Hydrangeas enjoy a deep, rich soil which retains enough water for them in summer while still draining in winter; Hydrangeas in full growth can get quite thirsty! In hot areas it's worth planting them with some shade from the sun during the hottest part of the day to help stop them drying out and to preserve the colour of their flowers and stop them fading. Most Hydrangeas are hardy, but in some areas H. macrophylla and varieties can suffer from cold winters, and as we've seen some varieties (like H. macrophylla 'Merveille Sanguine') can be more tender than others. If in doubt H. serrata varieties tend to be hardier. I'm not really sure where hybrids between H. serrata and H. macrophylla (such as H. 'Selina') are with hardiness; only time will tell. Hydrangeas tend to resent being in pots for any length of time. 
Hydrangea 'Mathilda Gutges' flowering happily

Saturday, 28 June 2014

The Veddw

I have visited a lot of gardens over the years, and although I've enjoyed my visits I have found many of the gardens I've visited to be somewhat formulaic; long borders billowing with perennials, the feature tree placed just right to frame the house, well proportioned expanses of lawn... it's all lovely but very much variations on the same theme. When the opportunity came to see somewhere different I jumped at it, ready to be wowed by a different approach.

I'm aware of the Thinking Gardens movement through its website. The manifesto of this group states that it wants to “...reinstate gardens as a stimulus to pleasurable and productive debate and to foster gardens that offer deeper artistic expression”- well a visit to the garden of the movement's founder, Ann Wareham, was guaranteed to broaden my horizons and open my eyes to new possibilities, so time to visit.
The Veddw is a surprisingly small garden set on the edge of woodland on a beautiful hillside in Monmouthshire, with fabulous views on the hot and sunny day I visited. The garden is unashamedly not a plantsman's garden (in fact Ann Wareham reels against such people in her article for The Telegraph), but what strikes you first is how lush and green it all is. The Veddw is known for its iconic wavy hedges, and it is these that greet you when you first arrive- I was absolutely enamoured with them! 
Clever use of copper and green beech to add variations in the tone of the hedge, the way the waves fitted with each other to give the effect of three dimensional hills in a wide landscape... magnificent! Best of all this part of the garden packs a lot of interest and green sculpture into a small space; I saw inspiration for other spaces, not too big, where similar bold ideas could be tried out. The hedges themselves enclose a series of small spaces, within each of which is a different design and idea.
Other parts of the garden are more traditional in their feel, but still nonetheless designed with proportions and form first in mind. The wild flower meadow dotted with orchids and bisected by a mown path flanked with large standard trees, a sunny spot centred by a bird bath where Chamaenerion angustifolium 'Album' (the white flowered 'rosebay willowherb') is allowed to grow to majestic proportions instead of being cramped and confined, a semicircular bed planted with only steely-blue Leymus... all very nice.
Or it would be. Walking around The Veddw I felt something was amiss. Something just wasn't right. The pockets of plants were nice enough, and to be honest I didn't really care that plants weren't labelled because I would know plants that could create 'The Veddw effect' if needed... no, something wasn't right.
This garden is not a manicured plot, nature is allowed to mingle with the cultivated plants to create a soft and pleasant feeling of the garden being in touch with its surroundings. The difficulty with this is that the 'natural look' has to be carefully maintained (ironically) to make sure that nature doesn't get the upper hand. I felt that in some parts of the garden nature was starting to take over, and that three foot willow saplings and other big chunky native plants were in danger of tipping the balance away from The Veddw and more towards Welsh hillside wilderness. Granted, we've just had a mild and wet winter which has allowed weeds free reign in gardens, but by June I would have expected the garden to have retaken its territory from the invaders.

Some of the planting was looking decidedly threadbare. I can't imagine the soil at The Veddw is all that forgiving (nor the soggy South Wales climate) but areas of the garden were looking unloved. Now Ann Wareham makes it plain to anyone who asks that she is not a gardener, she is a creator of gardens but doesn't relish or enjoy the physical act of 'gardening', but the problem for me was that bare patches left by failed plants spoiled the effect that was trying to be achieved. Ann is a garden writer and an advocate of gardens being art, and yet in some places the problems with the planting could be likened to paint flaking from a canvas- you can still see the picture, but your eye is naturally drawn to the imperfections, taking your mind away from what the artist is trying to achieve. A few isolated patches could be dismissed, especially after a difficult winter, but the sense of half neglect was all around the garden. A couple of Valerian seedlings sticking out from the bold planting of Leymus diluted the statement, the area of very bold silver Cardoons underplanted with bronze Heuchera was let down by the patchiness of the Heuchera, the Hemerocallis with buds badly deformed by Hemerocallis Gall Midge let down the view from a seat... combined it was these little details, and more, that accumulated to let the garden down for me. The Veddw sets out to be something bold and artistic, but the execution of the art in places let the overall effect down.
It's fair to say that my visit to The Veddw has taught me some very interesting and important lessons. Firstly be bold with structure in the garden; the thick wavy hedges are not something that I would have had courage to do myself, but oh boy do they work! Secondly try to limit planting, especially in smaller spaces; although The Veddw has a wider range of plants in the garden than I was expecting they are grouped together carefully and with consideration... Rodgersias (my current fetish) are grouped together with other big plants to create harmony rather than a jarring collector's cabinet effect. Thirdly if you are going to stick your neck out and be different and encourage others to break away from horticultural conformity, the execution of your art must be exact; the bolder your garden the less you can get away with.
Don't just take my word for it, you can visit The Veddw on Sunday afternoons until the last Sunday of August, from 2-5pm. http://veddw.com/