Saturday, 16 May 2015

Chelsea is not the centre of the world!

It's that time of the year again, when the horticultural world turns its attentions to a small patch of London. The Chelsea Flower Show is hailed as the greatest flower show on Earth, and is the highlight of the horticultural year. Anyone who's anyone in gardening will be there, and if you want to call yourself a gardener then you must be there too.

But is this entirely true? Certainly there is a lot of attention on Chelsea, and it's the only time the media really makes much effort to represent gardening. Is it the greatest flower show on Earth? Well it's certainly the most famous. Do you need to be there? No.

People go to Chelsea for different reasons; nurseries go for the prestige of [hopefully] a Chelsea gold medal, designers go because they're being paid to design and build gardens, and a load of wealthy people with no interest in gardening go to get trollied in the hospitality tents at a big social event, one would hope to come home with a coveted 'I got wasted at Chelsea' t-shirt.

Why thousands upon thousands of ordinary gardeners spend quite frankly ridiculous amounts of money (non members day tickets are £99!) to be crammed into a small space with so many other people I simply do not know. I know lots of people who smile and tell me they've been to Chelsea, but when you get past their boasting they've actually seen a fraction of what they wanted to see. Some hardcore Chelsea veterans have learnt to barge their way through the crowds so they see everything, but most seem to just 'soak up the atmosphere' (wander around without being able to see anything).

My advice to gardeners? Avoid the crowds! Think what you could do with the money saved by not buying an all day ticket (yes, you can get cheaper tickets if you only want to be there for an hour or two); you could spend the money on some new plants, and maybe a tree for your garden? Maybe you could put the money into buying a new piece of equipment to make life easier in the garden? Or maybe, just maybe, you could spend that money getting inspiration from one or more of the great gardens looking absolutely fantastic up and down the UK right now?!

I don't mean to belittle the hard work that goes into making Chelsea what it is. Thousands of people are involved in growing plants, setting up displays/gardens and taking it all away. Many nurseries and design teams spend the rest of their year planning (albeit at the back of their minds) what they want to do to create the biggest spectacle and get their coveted gold medal. What you mustn't do is feel inadequate because you're not there. If you want to go and see some extremely expensive gardens built by armies of people and paid for by large corporations then by all means go for it. Failing that, save your money, enjoy your own garden and watch Chelsea on TV!

True gardening neither begins, nor ends, at Chelsea.

If you would like to experience the buzz of a major flower show the I would recommend the other RHS shows, including the Malvern Spring Flower Show, Hampton Court, and Tatton Park. For gardeners in London (and those who are happy to travel to London) there are well regarded flower shows held frequently at the RHS Halls. If you just want to buy plants for your garden then there are hundreds of smaller regional plant fairs across the UK, and there will certainly be one near you!

A rambling guide to bedding...

At this time of the year there are hundreds of different types of bedding plant available and, providing you can keep them frost free, now is the perfect time to get planting. Gone are the days of 'carpet bedding', where vast numbers of tender plants are planted in rows to make patterns. Nowadays the old popular bedding plants such as French Marigolds, Lobelia and Pansies have been joined by new strains of Verbena, Nemesia and Argyranthemum as high-impact plants for containers.
Lotus maculatus, an exotic trailing plant!
If you can keep them frost free, May is the perfect month to get planting your summer containers. Smaller containers can easily be moved into a greenhouse or somewhere else frost free if needed, but when you're planting larger containers it's worth bearing in mind the weight of the planted container  and that you might not be able to move it at short notice; with this in mind keep a decent amount of frost fleece handy just in case!
Argyranthemum 'Aramis Fire'
When you're choosing your container it doesn't really matter all that much what it's made of; there are so many really great trailing plants available that there will be something to grow and hide the pot whatever colour scheme you choose! If you want to use trailing plants or you live in an area with high rainfall it would be a good idea to use a tall pot. I would naturally lean towards using larger containers myself, and would recommend filling them right up with colourful plants for a spectacular display! Remember that smaller pots will probably need very careful attention to watering, particularly once the plants have really started to grow!
Nemesia 'Sweet Lady'
Site your pot sensibly! You want to see your display, so a spot near a front door, a patio or favourite seating area is perfect. You can use a pot of seasonal bedding as a feature in a border, maybe to provide colour where a spring plant has disappeared. If you want to pop your container into the border be sure to put it onto a paving slab just bigger than the base of the pot first; you don't want your pot sinking into the soil and the slab will stop the bottom of the pot getting filthy! If you don't happen to have a paving slab around then a D.I.Y. store will usually have cheap slabs for around £1- the finish isn't great, but you won't see it when your pot's on top.
Verbena Lanai Series 'Pink Twister'
A lot of the most popular bedding plants are quite thirsty, especially later in the year when they've grown a little more; make sure your container is somewhere near a hose and/or watering can! In hot weather you may need to water your container twice a day, so choosing the best spot will save you a lot of time and effort later in the year. Although most of the plants available say they want full sun I would recommend that, if you can, you shade them from the midday sun. Some plants can wilt if they get too hot (maybe on your patio with a wall behind), and if any run even slightly dry during the day then they can go crispy; although they will usually recover I would recommend avoiding any trouble in the first place. You can add water retaining granules/gel when you plant your container... these absorb water when you water or when it rains, and then release it to the plants when the compost starts to dry out. Although they're not a cure-all for watering they can give you a little help in hot weather.
People ask me about compost for bedding containers; by far the best is a peat based multipurpose because although it can be difficult to re-wet if it goes dry it gets too dry it does hold a good amount of water and also drain well. Failing that, a John Innes recipe compost with a little extra perlite for drainage and aeration can work well, but John Innes composts can be heavy around delicate young root systems and are incredibly heavy if you need to move a large pot! In the peat free composts I would recommend Sylvagrow from Melcourt Composts. This peat free compost is fairly moisture retentive but also free draining (unlike so many 'greenwaste' based composts), but like so many peat free composts you need to keep a closer eye on watering, and there is some indication that water retaining granules/gel might not be quite as effective (although they will be a lot more helpful than without them altogether!).
Argyranthemum 'Crested Merlot'
By far the biggest secret to success with bedding plants is feed. Pretty well anything will give them a real boost, but I would recommend higher potash fertilisers (Chempak #4 or tomato food) for the best flowers. Bedding plants want to flower, so if you keep them well fed then you will get the best results. Controlled Release Fertilisers (or 'season long', such as Osmocote) are usually more balanced feeds, so will promote lots of growth as well as flowers. There's enough nitrogen in a high potash liquid feed to aid healthy growth, but more potash means more flowers! I would recommend using a liquid feed (where you mix up crystals in a watering can) myself; feed as instructed on the packet, except when there's heavy rain forecast- you don't want your feed to wash straight out! If there's heavy rain on its way then delay feeding until it's passed. For the best results make sure your container isn't dry when you feed; if needed give it a good water to wet the compost and then add your liquid feed on top... this makes sure your feed spreads out in the compost.
Nemesia 'Sky Blue'
The only other maintenance to be done with bedding plants is to snip off any spent flowers or anything obviously a bit untidy. With big flowers, such as Marigolds, deadheading is important to keep them tidy and flowering, whereas smaller flowered plants like Nemesia and Verbena just need untidy bits snipped off.
Nemesia 'Scarlet'
I've deliberately not recommended colour/plant combinations here. A seasonal container is a wonderful opportunity to play with colours in a way you just can't get away with in your borders. You can use shocking pinks, bright oranges, cool blues and vivid yellows in containers and create beautiful displays. You'll see if you don't like the colours together when you put them in your trolley, and if your container is a fairly neutral colour then that won't be a problem. Be bold and brave with your colours! The only thing I would recommend is the use of white flowers; there's something about white (or very pale pink) flowers that causes some colours to become really strong and others to calm down, so when you're choosing plants try and add some white flowers into the mix.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015


Sometimes it can be very hard to believe the people who mean you well. In a world chock full of cynicism even the kindest comments are taken with a pinch of salt, often as social pleasantries instead of solid encouragement.

Six months ago today, on the 7th of November 2014, I was made redundant from a company I'd spent 10 years working for. During that time I had worked very hard to help that company build and maintain its reputation for horticultural excellence, it must be said against often considerable opposition from some colleagues as well as the business' manager and owners. There were a few of us 'die-hard' horticulturists there, all working tirelessly to produce the best quality products and provide the best possible service to the gardeners of Cornwall and further afield. In the end it was all in vain; the owners of the business had made it plain that they considered horticulture a second rate profession, and so they made their decision to purge the business of meaningful horticulture in order to focus their efforts on their foody nouveau riche customers, and in so doing discarding the customers that had been loyal to them for so many years.

When I left people told me I would have no difficulty filling my time with customers who would appreciate my skills and knowledge, but on the whole this hasn't been my experience. I do have customers who are absolutely delighted with my work and are happy to have me as their gardener, but I've also had my fair share of timewasters (people with unrealistic expectations of what a gardener can actually achieve and how little they can get away with paying!), as well as losing out more 'casual' work to a couple of guys who offer an 'expert gardening and building maintenance service' for less than the minimum wage!

I've been very lucky to have a part time job at the fabulous Endsleigh Gardens Nursery in Devon. It's a fantastic place to be; it's a small nursery that was nearly lost to us gardeners (due to the previous owner's retirement) but is now firmly back on the road to recovery. After my experience with my previous company I must say it's liberating to work for a business where horticulture is the priority, and not just some greenery to decorate a café and shop building. I'm indebted to this nursery not just for offering me work when I needed it but also for opening my eyes to the fact that growing plants actually is still a respectable thing to be doing!

I know I'm lucky to have been made redundant from my former employer; although I can do garden centre work standing on my head, their culture of 'image over substance' would drive me crazy! I started my career in a garden centre in Cheshire and have fond memories of it; we worked hard, had a limited budget and we had a huge garden centre just up the road, and yet we still developed a name for ourselves based on the quality of our advice and service. We had a crumbling infrastructure to contend with and not-so-understanding management team, and yet we had loyal customers because we offered substance. I don't think I could last in a business providing a thin veneer of quality but lacking meaningful substance, and neither would I be happy in an environment where horticulture, an industry and career I truly love, always plays second fiddle to everything else.

Horticulture is where my heart is, and although things haven't gone quite as expected, I do feel that things are moving in the right direction. Here's to the future!
Rhododendron 'XXL'- gorgeous!