Kew Gardens

The Palm House Kew Gardens
The Palm House Kew Gardens

Formally called the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew the gardens are said to have begun in 1759 when Princess Augusta started constructing a 9 acre garden around Kew Palace, though there may well have been some garden around the palace before this. It has now grown to over 300 acres in one of the world’s biggest cities.
Kew is where horticulture and botany overlap and merge. As well as being a stunning garden this is a vast living collection of plants from all around the world many of which reached the west via Kew. If you are looking for to find what a specific plant looks like you can go onto the Kew Gardens website and see if they are growing it and where, alternatively you can trust to serendipity and allow the garden to inspire you.
Although not really a “garden” it is one of the finest living collections of plants in the world and therefore worth several visits by anyone interested in plants.

Prunus laurocerasus

Prunus laurocerasus foliage
Prunus laurocerasus foliage

The cherry laurel is one of the most widely planted screening plants in gardens having reached western Europe by the end of the 16th century and is recorded in cultivation in Britain in the 17th century. It has been cultivated that extensively its geographical origins seem to be a little hazy but would appear to stretch from the east coast of the Adriatic sea eastwards along the south coast of the Black seas as far as the Caspian sea.

It is hard now to appreciate the effect that this plants arrival would have had in western gardens at the time of its arrival. Gardens at the time would have had very few evergreen bushes and along comes this large vigorous bush with its mass of large smooth shiny evergreen leaves. Added to this is the masses of white flower spikes in late spring and the small black fruits in autumn. Few plants offer such a range of attractive features. Sadly now it has been relegated to being a plant of little garden value.

Prunus laurocerasus flowers
Prunus laurocerasus flowers

This is in part because we have so many more plants to choose from now but also it has been a victim of its own success. It has been over planted in the past because of its appeal as a fast growing evergreen leading it to being used where a fast evergreen hedge is wanted’ a role it isn’t really suited to. Its large leaves look tatty and unattractive when it is cut with shears or a hedge cutter and it should really be cut back with secateurs. If you must have an inappropriately fast growing hedge you are better with × Cupressocyparis leylandii. On the rare occasions it is allowed to grow unmolested it makes a fine large flowering shrub in a large garden. Unfortunately it most often ends up crammed into far too small a space with its hacked leaves blacked at the cut edges. I have seen examples of people trying to grow it as a 600 mm high by 300mm wide hedge, something such a large and large leaved plant will never do successfully and which there are far more appropriate plants for.

Prunus laurocerasus 'Castlewellan'
Prunus laurocerasus ‘Castlewellan’

In most cases the form Prunus laurocerasus ‘Rotundifolia’ is grown in place of Prunus laurocerasus having leaves half as broad as long and a yellower green than the species. Other cultivars of note are Prunus laurocerasus ‘Castlewellan’ (syn. P. ‘Marble White’) a less vigorous plant with white marbled leaves, Prunus laurocerasus ‘Otto Luyken’ )a low shrub with upward pointing leaves and stems and Prunus laurocerasus ‘Zabeliana’ a low horizontally branching shrub which makes excellent ground cover even under the dripping shade of trees.

Prunus laurocerasus fruit
Prunus laurocerasus fruit

Along the way it acquired a variety of names until Linneaus set it as Prunus laurocerasus L. in the 1753 in the first volume of Species Plantarum. Prunus is the Latin for a plum tree which is in the genus and laurocerasus comes from laurel, the Latin for laurel, and cerasus, the Latin for cherry. This and the common name reflect the small round black fruits which resemble cherries. These cherry like fruits or their common name of cherry laurel should not lead you to believe the plant is in any way edible. All of the plant is poisonous and the reason you do not hear of people being poisoned by it is because you will be very ill before you have chance to eat sufficient to poison yourself. These poisonous chemicals are also the ones which produce the almond smell from the crushed leaves. That said this has not stopped people from trying to use it as a quack medicine. Laurel water was used for various treatments but is basically a solution of hydrogen cyanide of varying concentration and so extremely dangerous.

Brodsworth Hall

Sculpture at Brodsworth Hall
Sculpture at Brodsworth Hall

Situated just 6 miles North West of Doncaster this is a garden you will find or hear little about which is a great shame as it is an excellent example of a garden of a wealthy English gentlemen in the mid-19th century. Funded as a result of a most peculiar will, the house and grounds were created for Mr Charles Sabine Augustus Thellusson in the 1860s and as a result of remaining the house remaining in the same family, all be it with a decreasing ability to afford it upkeep, meant it remained virtually untouched from the manner Charles Thellusson left it in.
This unusual history means we are left a rare glimpse of what a mid-Victorian garden might of look like. I say “might of” not as a criticism of its present owns English Heritage, who have done an excellent job of restoring the house and gardens, but because it is just one person’s garden and therefore their personal view of what a garden should look like at that time.
As it was Charles Thellusson chose what has been described as an Italianate style, with grass terraces linked by steps to the north and west elevations of the house along with the extensive use of statuary in the classical style. The house is not visible from the gates and is revealed as you approach it along a sweeping drive through a large lawn, in the manner of the early landscape movement but greatly scaled down. The majority of the garden lies to the north and east with a rose garden, rockery, bedding, topiary and wild garden each in its own allotted area. 50 years later the idea of compartmentalising a garden into areas or rooms fully matured with the creation of Hidcote.
Bodsworth Hall therefore shows a step in the evolution of the English garden from the sweeping vistas of the landscape movement towards what would become the arts and crafts gardens in the early part of the 20th century as gardens sort to accommodate the influx of plants from around the world.

Chateau Cheverny

Water feature at Chateau Cheverny
Water feature at Chateau Cheverny

Cheverny is a 17th century chateau approximately 16 km south east of Blois in the Loire Valley but any sign of the geometric gardens of that period have sadly gone. The chateau itself is approached across a large expanse of plain gravel which contrasts well with the ornate building. Behind is a small garden with an arbour and an attractive pond which leads to a café. These have been carefully aligned with the axis of the chateau to provide an attractive view of the north elevation of the chateau as it is view from the cafe Each side of this central axis is planting and shady walk.
Though modern in origin the gardens are nice if limited and to the south there is a very nice wall garden though the contents is a little eclectic.

Aesculus hippocastanum

Aesculus hippocastanum flower
Aesculus hippocastanum flower

The Horse Chestnut tree immediately brings to mind the quintessential English village green with its broad spreading canopy, masses of white summer flowers and autumn games of conkers. In reality this is a plant which contradicts itself at every turn. Originally coming from the Balkans Peninsula (the bit that hangs down to the right of Italy with Greece hanging on the bottom) it was unknown outside of the region until the 16th century. The first written reference to it was in a 1557 letter from Istanbul by the wonderfully named Willem Quackelbeen. A description of the plants discovery and rediscovery by Professor H. Walter Lack can be found here . Even when first introduced it was believed to be from Asia and the first botanist to claim to have found the plant growing wild in the Balkans was disbelieved. In France its common name is still Marronier d’Inde which literally translates as Chestnut of India. The English Horse Chestnut comes from the belief that it could be used to treat horses, though it is actually poisonous to them, and that it was a close relative of the edible Sweet Chestnut, though all parts of the plant are poison to humans. In fact A. hippocastanum L. is only distantly related to the Sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa Mill.) with taxonomists placing them in separate orders.

Aesculus hippocastanum
Aesculus hippocastanum

So as well as not been a chestnut A. hippocastanum L. does not produce nuts, the conkers loved by generations of school-children are seeds and the spiky case they are found in, the actual fruit, is a “valvate capsule”! The scientific name is little better Linnaeus chose Aesculus as the genus name but it is the Latin name for a kind of Oak which bears edible fruits and the specific name hippocastanum comes from the Greek name for the plant hippocastanon with Greek for horse ίππος is pronounced “hippos.

The rapid A. hippocastanum L. spread across western Europe following its introduction and its continued popularity are testament to its value as an ornamental tree as it is of very little commercial value; it is poisonous and the wood is little used. This is soft, not very durable and difficult to give a good finish to. In the wild it is a short lived component of mixed hardwood woodland and only in cultivation is it allowed to grow to an impressive sizes of over 30m forming a wide dense canopy of leaves.

Aesculus hippocastanum young flowers and foliage
Aesculus hippocastanum young flowers and foliage

The tree is easily grown in normal garden soils but it does need a lot of space. Since 2000 the disease bleeding canker has become a wide spread problem but it appears to progress slowly and given time trees do appear to recover from it. The main problem with the disease is that it can weaken all or part of the tree and so cause a danger in that way.

Aesculus hippocastanum fruit
Aesculus hippocastanum fruit

A number of cultivars are available including Aesculus hippocastanum ‘Baumannii’ which is sterile so preventing the problem of conkers. There is also a red hybrid Aesculus x carnea which you see planted but it rarely lives up to expectation and the improved cultivar  Aesculus x carnea ‘Briotii’ should be chosen if a red chestnut is wanted.

How to build a sleeper retaining wall

Retaining walls are never cheap or easy but building one from timber railway sleepers is probably as cheap and easy as you are likely to find. As the sleepers are simply screwed together their construction is well within the abilities of most people without any specialist building experience.New sleeper retaining wall

Equipment:

 

  • Spade
  • Sledge hammer
  • Tape measure
  • Pick axe
  • Shovel
  • Drill driver
  • 190mm circular saw
  • 200mm landscaping screws
  • Sub-base
    X

    Subbase

    This is a layer of crushed stone used under paving to form, in effect, a stable foundation for it and is found between the bedding course and the subgrade. It is made of stone which has been crushed and sieved stone to end up with a mixture of sizes from  normally about 40 mm down to dust. The proportions of the different sizes should be such that the smaller stones bind the larger ones together to stop them moving and these are bound together by the smaller onesl. The source of the stone varies widely according to what is the cheapest local supply and includes limestone, dolomite, and waste concrete and waste tarmac. It goes by various names; dolly, dolomite, crusher run, type 1, MOT type 1, road plannings, 40mm down  and many others. Ministry of transport type 1 is a type of subbase produced to stringent standards which while making it perfectly suitable for garden use it is a degree of over engineering. There is also type 2 and when I asked a technician at a quarry the difference compared to type 1 he just said “very little”!

     Dolomite has the disadvantage that it becomes saturated with water when you attempt to compact it there is a tendency for it to turn to something resembling plasticine in texture, although it hardens on drying out and road planning tend to become greasy when wet. Only hard stone should be used as even the hardest sandstone, for example, will rapidly breakdown to sand in use. Once spread subbase should be compacted with either a vibrating roller or plate BUT do not attempt to compact more than a 150mm deep layer at any one time.

  • Spirit level
  • String line
  • Square
  • pencil

In Summary:

  1. Plan out your wall.
  2. Dig down to firm ground.
  3. Lay the first course of sleepers, levelling them with sub-base and leaving gaps for drainage.
  4. Install a drain behind the wall.
  5. Lay the next course, butting them together and staggering the joints.
  6. Screw the courses together.
  7. Repeat with subsequent courses until you reach the required height.
  1. Plan out you wall.

When deciding on the line of you wall think carefully about the space you need, always allowing for the thickness of the wall. For example if it’s along the edge of a path how wide does the path need to be? Not just to walk down but will you need to take wheelbarrows and lawnmowers? Also do you need to consider drainage, if all you are creating is a level area of soil on free draining land this is not going to be much of a problem but if on the other hand you are paving the area the water needs somewhere to go. Lastly what happens at the ends of the wall? If the end of the wall is near a fence or wall you are going to have to support that and you may need specialist advice.

  1. Dig down to firm ground.

Once you have marked out the line of the wall you need to excavate the excess soil, keeping the topsoil separate. Moving even small qualities of soil is hard heavy work and you are at the very least going to have to spread the work out. If there is much to move there are a large range of excavators available for hire and some will go through a standard doorway. (While excavators can save a great deal of work without care they can also do a great deal of damage!)

Once the area is cleared you can prepare the foundation for the sleepers. Make sure you are down to good solid ground and you can simply build up from that.

  1. Lay the first course of sleepers, levelling them with sub-base and leaving gaps for drainage.

First set up a string line along what will be the front edge of the bottom course of sleepers and lay sufficient subbase over the ground the sleepers are to be laid on to level them. Use no more subbase than is necessary, not thicker than 150mm, and lay the sleeper widest face down onto it. Bed the sleepers down onto the subbase with a sledge hammer to get them level. It is important to get the sleepers as level as possible as you will not be able to correct this later on. Make sure they are level not just along there length but also front to back or the wall will end up leaning either out or in.

  1. Install a drain behind the wall.

New sleeper retaining wall end viewThe new wall is going to block the natural drainage down the slope so level 50 mm wide gaps between the sleepers along the bottom course and put a length of perforated drainage pipe behind the sleepers and cover it with gravel to stop it blocking up with soil and roots. This should make sure any water behind the wall is collected up and can drain away.

  1. Lay the next course, butting them together and staggering the joints.

Once the first course and drainage are in place you can lay the second course on top of it, but starting with a short length to ensure the joints are staggered. To cut a sleeper measure off the length needed and make around the sleeper using a set square and pencil. Then simply cut the sleeper from both sides using a circular saw with a cutting depth just over half the sleeper’s thickness. The sleepers can then be laid butted up end to end and screwed into place. Screw the two courses together.

  1. Screw the courses together.

New sleeper retaining wall screw detailUse landscape screws at least 50 mm longer than the thickness of the sleepers with at least two to ever sleeper. These are driven in with a drill/driver.

 

  1. Repeat with subsequent courses until you reach the required height.

Keep adding courses as you did in parts 5 and 6 above until you reach the desired height making sure to stagger the joints between the sleepers.New sleeper retaining wall close up

 

This technique will work well for low walls around the garden, including raised beds, and with a little ingenuity you can also built steps in!New sleeper retaining wallside wall

Actinidia kolomikta

Actinidia kolomikta foliage
Actinidia kolomikta foliage

This beautiful wall shrub deserves to be far more widely grown yet currently only about 53 suppliers are listed in the RHS plant finder. This is surprising as few other wall grown plants provide such an attractive display for so long. The foliage opens green but quickly develops a white and pink variegation as if they had been dipped in pots of white and pink paint. This variegation only develops in the presence of plenty of sunlight and along with the shrubs scrambling habit means it is always seen grown against a south facing wall, although I can imagine it would also be very attractive scrambling over a south facing bank.

Actinidia kolomikta growing against a wall
Actinidia kolomikta growing against a wall

It’s white, slightly fragrant, summer flowers are over shadowed by the foliage and as it is both dioecious and it is only the male plant which appears to be in cultivation you are unlikely to see the fruits which are said to be edible. The closely related A. deliciosa (A.Chev.) C.F.Liang & A.R.Ferguson which is better known as the kiwi Fruit and several of the 100+ species of Actinidia Lindl. are cultivated commercially for their fruit.

Actinidia kolomikta (Rupr. & Maxim.) Maxim. is easy to grow not being particularly fussy as to soil type and vigorous, reaching up to 4.5 to 6 metres up a wall. They are reasonable easy to propagate by cuttings or layering and are perfectly hardy.

Actinidia kolomikta grown as a shrub
Actinidia kolomikta grown as a shrub

First described by Carl Johann Maximowicz and Franz Josef Ruprecht two botanist working in Saint Petersburg in the 19th century; they initially placed the plant in the genus Prunus but subsequently both revised their decision and Maximowicz placed it in the genus Actinidia created by the British botanist John Lindley which he named after the Greek for ray because of the styles in the flowers. The plant is native to the region of Amur in Russia where it is known as kolomikta and Maximowicz described the plant growing wild in his 1859 book Primitiae Florae Amurensis (Beginnings of an Amor Flora). Amur Oblast is still a largely remote region with temperatures that can range from above 30°C in summer to below -40°C in winter.

How to cut back over grown shrubs

Before reaching for the pruning tools you need a clear idea of what you are hoping to achieve and in the context of this post it is a healthy plant which fits, both physically and aesthetically into its location in the garden. When you have finished you want something which does not overwhelm the area around it or look unattractive to the eye.

Pruning is not the easiest of things to teach, partly because of the different requirements of different plants but equally because it is as much art as science. To start with a few preliminaries:

  • Plants don’t always respond well to pruning – not all plants will come again if you cut into old wood, this includes nearly all the conifers but also a number of others.
  • Those that do, don’t always do as you expect – often a plant will respond to pruning by producing a mass of soft shoots rather than one or two useful ones.
  • Once you’ve cut it off you can’t put it back – so if in doubt delay cutting and then take off a bit at a time to see how it looks
  • Think ahead to prevent accidents – you would be amazed at the number of people who actually cut off the branch they are sitting on!
  • Make sure you are suitably equipped – as you will never make a tidy job using poor/blunt tools.
  • Plan first, act second – have a really good look at what you’re tackling and how your cuts are going to affect the plant before you do anything.

The first step is to remove any dead and diseased material, the second remove crossing branches and the final one is to shape the plant.

Any dead or diseased parts of the plant are going to be no benefit to you or the plant and if not yet diseased it probably soon will be. Yes that branch may be in just the right place for what you wanted but if it not healthy it’s never going to look right and will end up causing problems further along the line so cut it back to healthy growth just above a bud or close to where it branched off a larger part. If it’s a larger branch do it in three stages to prevent it damaging the rest of the plant when it breaks away from the plant. Work methodically, starting with the larger branches so that any damage caused by removing them can be cleared up as you go.Branch pruning

Once we’re left with a collection of healthy branches we can turn our attention to any which are crossing through the bush. This is not a hard and fast rule as the first but  there are reasons for it. First such branches almost always end up rubbing against one another as the plant moves in the wind. This causes the bark to be worn away at these points and it is the bark which acts as the plant’s main defence against diseases getting in. This means that sooner or later these places will be where problems are going to occur. The second reason is that plant diseases tend to benefit from a still moist atmosphere and this is more likely to occur in a tangle of branches than a nice open structure which the air can move  through freely. Finally it tends to be more visually pleasing not to have a lot of branches crossing through.

Now we can come to shaping the plant and this is much more a matter of personal taste.There are though a few things to consider. If by nature it’s a big plant and you are going to cut it down a long way , then it will quickly re-grow and you will soon need to repeat the process. Should you allow it more room or is it simply not in a suitable place? If you are trying to lower the height of the plant, remove the tallest branches completely low down where they divide and allow the shorter branches which are left to form the new top. Nothing looks worse than just choosing a height and cutting everything off in a level line at this height, but you regularly see this done and often by people claiming to be professional. Once done the plant is very unlikely ever to recover aesthetically.

The important thing is to take your time and regularly step back to get an overall view of the job as you go. Whatever plan you start with you will have to fine tune it as you go as the job progresses and new ideas occur.

How to tackle an over grown garden

The first stage is to have a really good look around your garden and decide what you like, dislike or simply don’t understand. Look where gets the sun and when, are you over looked and to what extent; most gardens will be overlooked by some bedroom windows but in practice people spend little time looking out of their bedroom windows – so they are not as much of a problem  as a kitchen  or sitting room window. While you’re at it consider which plants you like and how much space large plants are occupying, but don’t be too quick to condemn; that large bush could be there to hide a hidden eyesore.

One of the problems with plants is that you are not really aware of them growing; they kind of do it sneakily behind you back, so you just don’t notice how big they are getting. This is where the new home owner’s fresh pair of eyes comes as a big advantage. Have a good dig, metaphorically speaking, in the back of borders; you could be surprised what you find. If nothing else you may well find a lot of underused space. While you’re at it take a good look at the trees in the garden because if these need attention now is the time to do it.

Are the trees appropriate for the garden? Are they going to, or have they got, too big for the garden? If you have large mature trees in the garden do they need a professional to look them over to check they are safe? If the trees need any major work it will both create a lot of upheaval and dramatically change the garden so it’s best to get it done as soon as is practical. Beware there are many very good professional arborculturalist (tree surgeons) but sadly there are also a lot of butchers out there. So check they have a proper formal training, carry appropriate insurance, get more than one written quotation and remember if a price sounds too cheap, and tree work isn’t, be suspicious!

One common problem is people buy Christmas trees with the roots on and then come the New Year can’t bring them to throw away a living tree they’ve spent the holidays keeping alive. Then comes the problem of what to do with it, so it gets planted in a corner of the garden. This all sounds nice and remarkably quite a few of these Christmas leftovers survive, looking quite nice tucked in the border. The problem is the type trees sold as Christmas trees are the type that grow quickly into big trees, which makes sense if you’re trying to produce trees that are sell-able at the best price. You can probably see where this is going, they sit quietly at the back of the border growing! These are not a good choice for a domestic garden. People get attached to trees. So you soon end up with what is in effect a large and growing arboreal pet in the garden. I’m afraid the only realistic solution is to remove it before it gets any more of a problem, or more expensive to remove.