The forgiveness of a garden


I have been revising solidly for weeks. The weather has been most kind: too rainy to go for walks, too frozen to plant my new Sorbus cashmiriana, which has been waiting patiently in its pot, propped back against the wall with a sack of potting compost (or ‘growing media’, if the RHS insists.) Thanks to the weather, there has been almost no temptation to leave my desk for the entirety of January. I have been surrounded by piles of notes and endless labelled diagrams of plant cells and transverse sections of root, stem and dicotyledonous flowers for months, with the rain and snow lashing down and the garden ignored below a blanket of mud and leaves.

I am studying for the RHS Level 2 exams, and the first four exams are today. This semester’s topics have been Botany, Soil, Pests and Diseases, and Propagation, and I have wholeheartedly enjoyed each one, spellbound by the enthusiasm of our tutors, the arresting facts, and the ‘Oh, that’s why…’ revelations.

Yesterday I finally reached that blissful stage of revision I like to call the ‘Whatever will be will be’ stage, where you are reluctantly hopeful you can pass and you are ready to stop revising and just get it over. I looked up from the past-paper I had just completed, and saw through the window a fat ray of sunlight hitting our front garden, beckoning me to come and inspect the emerging shoots and buds of early spring. Having vowed to revise all day, guiltily I put down my pen, donned a coat and bobble hat, and wandered outside.


The front garden was, at first glance, sparse of life. This was unsurprising, since during the autumn every single plant from the front garden was dug up, heeled in and replanted for the Great Maze Reshuffle (I promise to update you on the maze in due course). Similarly in the back garden, most of the refugees that no longer had a home in the front garden are still finding their (frozen) feet. It’s been a cold winter, colder than any I’ve yet experienced here in Edinburgh. Nonetheless, on closer inspection there were signs of spring everywhere. Green tips abounded: the beginnings of tulips, snowdrops, muscari, iris, alliums, crocosmia (rather too many of those) and some brave gladioli. Primroses and snowdrops were out in the window boxes, and tiny new shoots were appearing on the roses. In the front garden maze, my Iris ‘George’, which I divided and replanted beneath the cherry tree (also replanted) were up and almost out. In fact, two blooms had already made their showy attempts, only to be knocked down by rain, cat or other tragedy. I fetched scissors and rescued them, along with a snowdrop, a fading Helleborus niger flower, some variegated ivy and a sprig of wonderful smelling Sarcococca confusa that is flowering beautifully despite being heeled up in a temporary sack of earth.


I was humbled by the forgiveness of a garden that, though bare earth six weeks ago, already offering up flowers for the house. Everywhere were signs of neglect, but I knew that the garden would keep on keeping on until I had time to pay it the attention it needed. A potted Skimmia japonica with raging chlorosis blooms relentlessly away in a corner. Seeds are as yet unplanted but they’ll catch up. That Sorbus will be just fine in its pot for one more week. And with any luck the weather will continue its kindness until next weekend so that I can enjoy my first gardening session of 2018 in fat rays of sunshine rather than snow and rain.


In a vase on Monday is hosted by Cathy at Rambling in the Garden, and if you follow this link you can visit her page to see what this weekly challenge is all about, as well as find links to vases of flowers and foliage grown in the gardens of many other garden bloggers across the world.

Many of the photos on this blog post also appear on my Instagram page, where you will find a great deal more of my garden photography and regular tiny snippets of gardening life.


End of March View 2016

IMG_9886IMG_9885IMG_9884 Even as I edit these photos, which I took just four days ago, I can see that spring growth has already progressed. The skimmia buds have now opened almost completely, the drumstick primulas have grown another inch, and the hyacinths have stuck their chests out like indignant body-builders. Despite today’s stormy skies and my having to scrape the car windscreen of frost yesterday morning, the garden is blundering onwards in happy spring-time oblivion, well nourished by the weeks of sunshine we had throughout late February and March.


Spring is for colour, and this native primrose, a self-seeded gleaning from my grandmother’s garden, clashes joyfully with its vermilion neighbour, a winter heather that has doubled in size this past year. A lilac drumstick primula prepares to leap like a slow motion Jack-in-a-box from its crown, and nearby several of its divisions do the same.



Spring is for bulbs, and hyacinths burst out through the gravel of their old wooden pot, while their diminutive cousins, grape hyacinths or muscari, stand proud of theirs.





Spring is for scent, and a new Camellia ‘Silver Anniversary’, a Christmas present from my mother, competes with Skimmia Rubella for a prize in deliciousness.



Spring is for new replacing old, and while the hellebore blooms begin to fade, seedlings and cuttings have started to grow up and will soon need pricking out, and potted dahlias wait in rows in the cold frame for warmer times to come.

End of Month View is hosted by Helen at The Patient Gardener. Do visit her page and see how spring is cracking on in other people’s gardens.


End of Month View: February 2016





For non-gardeners, the dark days of February have little to recommend them. But for the gardener, February can be as full of delights as any of the summer months. From our front window my spirits are lifted by clumps of nodding snowdrops, battalions of iris reticulata, a burst of native primroses and winter heather, primula wanda, cyclamen, hellebores, muscari and skimmia. Pushing their way through the soil are the promise of daffodils, tulips and hyacinths. Here come my delphiniums and the peonies I planted last summer. Things have survived the winter. Things are coming back. February is a positive, happy month for me.


February is also a month for plentiful gardening tasks. My seed-sowing got under way this month. I also turned out my cold frame on a particularly sunny day and scrubbed down the interior of a year’s worth of grub and mould. I took the opportunity to inspect the inhabitants and revive anything drooping with fresh water. I turned the compost heap, pruned the roses and mulched everywhere with manure.


February is also a time for planning. Which plants need moving? Where are the bare patches? As plants I’d forgotten I owned start to reappear, I am reminded of niggles from last year: lysemichia too close to a rose, a salvia half-buried by a fern. I also have a deeper sense of dissatisfaction with the garden: too many little plants dotted about. It’s too fussy. I want swathes of things.


Vita Sackville-West said, “I am sure that it is more effective to plant 12 tulips together rather than plant them in two groups of six.” Well, my garden is full of small divided groups, and VSW is right. It doesn’t look very good. When I look out of the window, I plan which plants I can move about to get the effect I am after.


It’s hard to get a small garden looking great in February, but as I walk past the other front gardens of Edinburgh, the ones I like the best are without a doubt those with the most snowdrops. Though not a bona fide Galanthophile, I do think a garden should be full of snowdrops in February. As you can see from my pictures, my garden certainly does not fulfill this important criterion. The question is, do I have the patience to increase my crop using what I’ve already got, or do I blow £30 on importing some more?


End of Month View is hosted by Helen at The Patient Gardener.


End of Month View: December 2015



Bare soil, the bare bones of the garden: winter is when your skills as a gardener are revealed. Anyone can fill a garden with flowers in July, but it’s not so easy to keep the garden interesting through the damp, dark winter months. My main criticism of mine is a lack of structure, which I could easily create with judicious placing of a few evergreen or otherwise interesting shrubs. On the other hand, since the winter months have been so mild, nature has lent a hand at keeping the garden alive. Look closely, and you can see spots of colour all over the garden.


This little primrose has been flowering for months, ever since I brought it back from my grandmother’s Derbyshire garden in the summer.


This cyclamen hasn’t quite found its home; this current spot beside the path and next to the rock lily is a placemarker until a better home turns up. I can see its cheery raspberry ripple flowers from the sitting room window.


I was thrilled to find these shining berries on my Sarcococca confusa, ranging from deep red to chocolate brown.


Bulbs have been shooting up relentlessly. Last year I planted three iris ‘George’ bulbs, and this year I am hugely lucky that they have divided themselves into six. Elsewhere, snowdrops, daffodils and and hyacinths are poking their way cautiously through the soil. My pots of bulbs are looking promising.


And here, a good two or three months early, is the bright pink nose of a peony ‘Avalanche’!



Jobs have been stacking up during the month. My dahlia tubers are at last uplifted, and hanging upside-down on the inside of the shed door. After two weeks of this treatment I will cover the tubers in vermiculite and store them out of harm’s way till March, when they can be planted up again. (Many gardeners, especially in mild areas, don’t bother to uplift their dahlia tubers, but I am in fact planning to move mine to a sunnier spot. Besides, Scottish winters last just a month or two too long for me to wish to experiment with this.)



I have taken cuttings of my favourite salvia, and have lined up all the plants destined for my next project. Now is a fantastic time to go to the local garden centre and pick up bargains!


Finally, one way of bringing colour to a drab winter garden is by planting up beautiful pots of the many plants that are at their festive best at this time of year. One of the many lovely Christmas gifts I received this year was a tiny hellebore from my uncle and aunt, and when I saw it I immediately remembered this page about planting pots for winter colour, which I’d bookmarked from one of my favourite blogs, The Frustrated Gardener. Greatly inspired by the gorgeous, homely arrangements therein, I made several of my own using similar plants: my little Christmas rose, Skimmia japonica ‘Rubella’, variagated azalea (which will have the added bonus of pink flowers in spring), winter heather, white cyclamen, and finished off with trailing ivy. Pushing their way through this are some shoots of muscari to help extend the pots into spring time.


End of Month View is hosted by Helen Johnston at The Patient Gardener, and I find it both wonderful and useful to visit the other gardeners who link in with Helen to see how they have managed the challenges that come at different times of the year.

Botanic panoramic: February 2015

The Brazilian and I went to the Royal Botanical Gardens, Edinburgh.
We went primarily to view the snowdrops. They were beautiful, although not as plentiful as I imagined they would be.
They clustered under the trees and in among the grass.
It was the most beautiful winter’s day imaginable. A deep blue sky, and even some warmth.
The snowdrops were not the only starring bulbs. A handful of crocuses had come out too on this spring-like day.
Naturally there were plenty of hellebores.
Hellebores are one of my favourite plants, and I was interested to see the many different types they had in the Botanical Gardens, such as these H. orientalis.
The Garden looked impressively green for this time of year.
Sun-starved Edinburghers wandered dementedly through the luxuriant light.
There was a great deal of eye-catching foliage…
… like these beautiful Bergenia ‘Margery Fish’.
… and berries galore (Skimmia japonica reevesiana)….
… and galore…
… and galore (Gaultheria poeppiggii)….
…. and galore!
But even more fetching were the dried stalks and seed heads, all that remained of glorious summer past.
These spiny structural remnants had no name beside them, or I’d have ordered some for my own garden.
Old dried hydrangea flowers with their pearl-button petals are another favourite of mine.
The sunlight highlighted the twists, imperfections and eccentricities of the bare bark and gnarled branches of deciduous trees such as this Pyrus salicifolia, a willow-leaved pear. (It may not be lost on those interested in botanical nomenclature or in botanical sources of pharmaceuticals that salicylates, such as aspirin, originate from willow bark.)
This diamond bark reminded me of a baked apple lattice.
While this ancient old Parotia persica resembled a mad old bag lady.
And these dead grasses looked like wild blonde hair.


I adored the many viburnum (viburna?).
These pretty stars belong to a Vinca difformis. Did you know that alkaloids from Vinca species are an important treatment for some types of cancer?
We found more hellebores…
…and more snowdrops. Since we’ve touched on the subject of botanical pharmaceuticals, Galanthus species are the source of galantamine, a drug used in the management of various types of dementia.
This wicked looking Rosa sericea omeiensis comes from China.
Parts of it look like the perimeter fence of a high-security unit.
Although I’m not much fond of bamboo in gardens, the stripes on this one were so interesting to photograph.
And I loved this hazy scene of intricate red branches lit up out of the shadows here and there by sunlight.
I’ll be back as often as possible with further reports on what’s blooming, springing, swaying, sprouting and bursting throughout the year at the Royal Botanical Gardens of Edinburgh.

Taming the wilderness

There is a strip of wilderness alongside the central wall that crosses the communal backgreen, onto which we look from our back windows. Various neighbours have attempted to tame this area, including Left-Neighbour who planted some beautiful tulips that valiantly and attractively broke through the thickets of ground elder at around Easter time.

A wilderness isn’t a bad thing for a garden. An area of long grass and weeds is splendid for wildlife of course, but it also provides a counterfoil for perfectionism, because there’s nothing worse than a pedantic, overdone garden, each bed neatly defined round the edges and every shrub within it precisely coiffed.  However, a blank “greenfield” site is too tempting, and for a while I have had my eye on a small section of this wilderness for my own experimentation. The time became ripe one sunny Sunday a few weeks ago, and when the gardening-averse Brazilian offered to help me dig out the weeds I was so surprised and grateful that in my haste to get started before he changed his mind I forgot to take a “before” photograph to share in this post.


Digging out the bed was tough work. We have a good set of tools in our own small shed, and a further choice of excellent heavy-duty tools in the communal shed, which I believe were provided by the Edinburgh Community Backgreen Association. With spade, fork and trowel, the Brazilian and I tugged away at the weeds and roots for a good two hours. By far our worst adversary was the ground elder with its tenaciously long roots that run and run in all directions. If you leave the least bit of ground elder root in the ground, it will pop up again in a week or so, but getting it all out is nearly impossible.

Eventually it was done, and then came the fun part: buying plants for the new bed, which is sheltered by a wall and lies under the shade of several trees. I didn’t have any idea what I wanted to plant so I went around the garden centre with a trolley and kept my eye out for plants whose label stated that they had a preference for shade.


I chose the skimmia because my mother has one in a pot in a very dark yard, and it is very happy and enormous.


I also found a lamium, otherwise known as a deadnettle, whose label told me will faint if it sees the slightest ray of sun.


Ferns are useful for shade, and can look extremely stately when they get large. I found this tatting fern, which I bought adoring the name and the pretty, delicately beaded leaves.

Tatting fern

I bought two of these mossy alpine saxifraga, hoping they will spread and form a border.


And here is the finished bed:

IMG_0391Attempting to impose civilisation and order upon an untamed land led inevitably to geopolitical contemplation, and after various trains of thought I have not rushed to dig up the remaining, much longer, strip of wilderness, although I have thought of introducing some mint and wild garlic as worthy foes of the ground elder.