Bean amazed!

Bean amazed!

In the UK one of the most widely grown beans is the kidney bean, otherwise known as a runner bean. They're delicious when picked young and cooked just perfectly, but soon grow stringy and tough. Just half a dozen plants can produce more beans than you know what to do with!


Why not try something different?

There are many other climbing and dwarf beans to choose from and growing a selection can give you more culinary options.

Broad beans give you the first bean crop of the year. You can sow them in the autumn in milder areas, giving an even earlier crop. Choose one of the long pod varieties such as ‘Imperial Green Longpod’ for smaller, more tender beans. The white bean varieties such as ‘Aquadulce’ tend to produce fewer, larger beans that become tough more rapidly. Pick them frequently for young, sweet, tender beans that can be lightly steamed. When the seeds get tough, boil them for longer and remove the seedcoat to make broad bean hummus.

Climbing beans also produce a variety of different types. Pencil pod varieties are best for eating the young beans whole in the pod. For a colourful dish choose a variety such as ‘Blue Coco’, a heritage variety producing purple-podded beans. ‘Coco’ varieties produce short, more rounded seeds in different colours. Haricot varieties on the other hand produce longer bean seeds in slender pods. The ‘Haricot Blanc’ or cannellini types are also good for shelling and drying. You can cook them later to make haricot bean mash.

Dwarf French beans are similar, usually producing stringless slim pods. However, the beans tend to hang down low on the plant, touching the soil. If you have problems with slugs and snails then the climbing varieties are better.

Borlotti types are flat-podded and produce larger, meatier beans for shelling and eating fresh rather like peas.  Conversely, dry them for use in winter casseroles or making your own "baked beans". The purple-/pink-mottled pods are attractive on the plant and have few pest problems.

Lablab beans need a warm season to produce a decent crop. They're attractive plants with purple flowers and broad purple or green pods. Pick them young and eat whole in a stir fry or curry.

You could also try growing your own soya beans, black eye beans and chickpeas. They do need a good long, warm season to get a decent crop but are great fun to grow!

Beans are happy on most soils as they generate their own nitrogen. You can sow them direct in the ground in late May, or start them early in pots in a greenhouse in early April to get a longer growing season. You need to water them well while the pods are forming.

Sowing success

Sowing success

Growing plants from seed is a rewarding process that can generate hundreds of new plants. You need very little specialist equipment or skills, but may lose your precious seedlings to disease or experience low germination rates which can be disappointing. Understanding a few key facts will help boost your sowing success rates.

Seeds are actually tiny packages of genetic information stored within an embryo plant. A protective coating encapsulates this and provides it with a packed lunch to keep it going during dormancy. Dormant seeds are still alive, but they have an extremely reduced metabolic rate. They still need to respire so require a supply of oxygen. Keep them cool and dry, otherwise their respiration rate will increase and they'll be using their food supplies up too quickly. Incorrect storage is one of the main reasons for poor germination rates.

Once seeds have been sown there are a few other problems that can lead to low germination rates or early death of seedlings. Overcrowding is a common factor that can lead to damping off disease sweeping through the whole tray. Overhead watering can worsen this, as it pours droplets onto the tiny, delicate leaves. Avoid sowing too thickly. Make sure that there's plenty of space around each seed in the tray, and water carefully from below. Make sure seeds aren't too warm or too cold. Germinate them in a good light source so they don't become drawn and leggy.

You can sow large seeds individually in module trays, each seed having its own little space to grow on. Broadcast tiny seeds sparingly and evenly across a tray. Cover with a thin layer of vermiculite for best results. Burying seeds too deeply in heavy wet compost can also prevent them from emerging. Prick out into individual pots once they've developed a pair of "true leaves".

Find out about your seeds and their requirements before sowing. Each type will have an optimum temperature range. Seeds of hardy perennials often need a period of chilling to emulate winter time. These won't germinate until after a set number of weeks in the cold followed by a rise in temperature. This is a natural dormancy mechanism that prevents them from germinating when conditions aren't right. Sow them in the autumn and simply leave outside where they'll germinate in spring. Alternatively, keep them in a refrigerator for 8-12 weeks before sowing in the warmth.

Saving your own seeds is fun and free. However, make sure that you don't save seed from an F1 hybrid because the seedlings won't resemble the parent. Cultivars may also not come true from seed – but this can give you some interesting and surprising results.

Mulching explained

Mulching explained

A mulch is basically a material that we use to create a thick layer on top of the soil. This helps to retain moisture, prevent erosion, suppress weeds and regulate soil temperature. You can use any material that will stop light from getting to the soil surface so that any germinating weed seeds will be smothered. Old carpet, newspaper and cardboard are great for keeping empty vegetable beds clear of weeds until you want to sow your next crop. However, they're very unsightly and wouldn't be suitable for ornamental planting schemes.

The best mulches will also add nutrients to the soil and improve soil structure. Organic mulches such as well-rotted manure are excellent if you can get hold of it in quantity. You'll need a layer 5-8cm deep to be most effective. Other good organic mulches include things like bark chippings, composted bark and leaf mould. All of these will rot down, slowly feeding the soil and adding important humus as worms take it down into the soil. This will improve soil structure, as well as adding to moisture retention and nutrient stability. It promotes beneficial micro-organisms in the soil too. It'll need topping up or replacing every 1-3 years. While it will suppress weed growth, you must remove any tough perennial weeds before applying.


Non-biodegradable mulches

Decorative mulches such as gravel, slate chippings and ornamental bark are more attractive and last longer. In order to prevent them from becoming mixed up with the soil it's best to apply a "landscape fabric" first. This is a woven permeable membrane that covers the soil and is a very effective weed suppressant. The decorative mulch goes on top in a thick enough layer so that you don’t see any of the membrane. The downside is that you must apply this before planting (plant through holes cut into the fabric). It's very difficult to apply this material effectively to an already established bed. It also makes any soil cultivation almost impossible once applied, so you need to prepare your soil very carefully beforehand. Subsequently, any fertilisers that you apply will need to be soluble. Never use plastic sheeting instead of landscape fabric as the rain cannot penetrate through and gas exchange cannot take place between the soil and the atmosphere. This makes the soil stale and damages beneficial organisms living in the soil.


Mulches play a big role in organic growing methods and in permaculture in particular, where the soil structure is allowed to build up naturally without any cultivation. Almost anything goes when using this technique for vegetable growing: straw, shredded paper, garden compost, autumn leaves, vegetable waste. Basically, anything that will rot down eventually and contribute to soil carbon and nutrients.

Garden trends for 2018 hydroponics

Garden trends for 2018

In the world of garden design what will be trending for 2018?

February: the perfect time to look at garden trends for 2018. Garden design is keeping up with interior design these days. Trends are moving towards more lifestyle-based use of outdoor spaces rather than gardening in the more traditional sense. In other words, there's increasingly less emphasis on cultivating and more on enjoying the outdoors as an extension of the house. Consequently, the two main trend areas will be relaxing and entertaining, and health and wellbeing.


Relaxation and entertainment

Relaxing and entertaining outdoors is nothing new, but garden furniture is now big business. Gone are the days of a green plastic oval table on the patio. Designers and manufacturers are producing high-quality outdoor furnishings for comfort and style. Along with a rise in outdoor kitchens, we'll see a boom in outdoor dining rooms, bespoke solutions for elegant dining, and multipurpose and affordable ranges from the big "Scandi-style" furniture stores.


Health and wellbeing

We all feel the benefit of fresh air and exercise. This will be another of the garden trends for 2018. Furthermore, gardening is a well-known tonic for our physical and mental health.

Yet this year we'll see a new twist on "grow your own" for healthy eating. Herbs, super foods, edible flowers, baby vegetables and herbal teas will become more popular. Garden centres and suppliers are producing neat systems for growing your own produce on a small scale without the need for a huge plot and a big time commitment.

Taking the lead from the advances in horticultural science, hydroponic and vertical growing systems are compact. Use them indoors on your kitchen windowsill or in an outdoor shed or small greenhouse to produce fast-growing, vitamin-packed salads and herbs all year round. You don’t even need to get your hands dirty! These hi-tech systems involve crops growing without soil or compost. Instead their roots grow in a flow of water and nutrients specially tailored to maximise yield, taste and nutrient value. A special blend of coloured LED lighting provides the ideal "light recipe"’ for each crop to enhance growth. Compact integrated units are widely available in a range of sizes. They can be used to grow a range of salads and speciality veg, so look out for new seed ranges for funky veg, oriental salads, edible flowers and herb mixes to grow and dry your own tisanes.

If you like your daily exercise how about a "green gym". If digging isn’t your thing,you can still get fit outdoors by installing some exercise equipment. Becoming ever more popular in parks and public spaces ("calisthenics areas"), we can tailor these innovative structures to suit small-scale gardens. Your daily routine can be carried out right outside your back door without any expensive gym subscriptions.


Pollarding explained: Top 5 trees to pollard

Pollarding is a term given to the process in which the main branch systems of trees are pruned heavily to short stubs. This promotes vigorous young re-growth from the stumpy branches and is often used in urban areas to reduce the crown size of old street trees. Modern street trees are selected for their size and habit and varieties are chosen that do not grow too large, obscure vision for motorists or pedestrians and do not drop excessive leaf litter. A century ago when many trees were planted in cities the choice of species was limited.


Much of the older tree stock was chosen more for the ability to tolerate pollution than decorative attributes. An example is Platanus x hispanica – the London plane. These large and often over-mature specimens often cause problems with reducing visibility, blocking drains and gutters, restricting light into neighbouring houses and dropping large branches. One way of managing this is to pollard them.


Unfortunately, some of these trees are initially lopped in a haphazard way and the tree can soon become very unattractive. They need regular maintenance – ideally requiring removal of the water shoots that subsequently form at least once every 2 years. Neglecting this process can lead to congested branch systems. This in turn can lead to damage caused by the densely packed stems rubbing against each other as they grow, ultimately creating a very unsightly crown.


The practice of pollarding was originally carried out to produce timber of different sizes for fuel, hurdle-making, charcoal-making and basket-weaving. The regular cutting back produced an abundance of young, vigorous, long stems, then cut at different ages depending on the end use. This process is very similar to coppicing but carried out at an elevated height on the main trunk. Grazing animals would not then be able to reach the new growth.


At its best, when maintenance is carried out professionally and regularly, pollarding can produce highly decorative forms. We see them seen in many cities on the continent, lining boulevards and market squares, where they use the dense canopies of foliage rather like giant parasols. They offer excellent shade during the hot summer months.


Most deciduous broad-leaved trees can be pollarded. The key is that the species must be capable of producing what is known botanically as ‘epicormic growth’. The common term is ‘water shoots’. These vigorous growths are sometimes produced spontaneously, but are instigated into mass production by pruning back the upper growth. Dormant buds lower down the stems are triggered into producing vigorous stems as energy stored in the roots is re-directed. Most conifers do not possess this ability and are therefore unsuitable.


A few of the best trees to pollard include:


Platanus x hispánica (London plane), Tilia x europaea (Common lime), Acer sp. (Maples) Fagus sylvatica (Beech), Catalpa bignoides (Indian bean tree).


Festive foliage: Top 10 evergreens

Cutting your own foliage for decorating the house at Christmas time is an exciting part of the build-up to the festive season. It gives you an opportunity to get creative and put a personal stamp on your decorations.

There's a wide choice of evergreen shrubs, trees and conifers that can be used for making wreaths, swags and table decorations. That said, there are a few different attributes to consider when selecting plants for your garden for this purpose.

Some plants take a while to establish and therefore will take several years before you are able to cut significant amounts of foliage from them. Others may yield good volumes early but are more vigorous, needing greater space and more maintenance.

If you really want to go to town and cut large quantities then you may need to grow a ‘cutting hedge’ or dedicate an area of the garden to this  purpose. Regular cutting back of the current season's foliage will impact on the decorative nature of the shrub or tree.  Hard pruning in the winter can impact on form, flowers and fruits. If you just wish to make a few table decorations and maybe a wreath for your door, then you will probably not spoil your plants too much by cutting smaller amounts. You can therefore incorporate them into the overall design for your garden. Below are some suggestions with their key attributes:


Sarcococca hookeriana ‘Digyna’: Highly perfumed evergreen shrub that flowers at Christmas time. ‘Digyna’ has red-flushed stalks and shiny, long, pointed leaves. This is a compact plant that will tolerate shade in most moderate soils.


Ilex ‘Golden King’: Actually a female variety of variegated holly, so produces berries. Make sure that a male variety grows close by as pollination is needed for berries to form. Hard pruning will trigger vigorous new growth useful for wreath-making. Leave some stems unpruned if you want berries.


Eucalyptus gunnii and Eucalyptus pauciflora niphophila: Both produce plenty of glaucous foliage. E. gunnii has rounded leaves on the young growth where as pauciflora niphophila has longer leaves. Both are lovely for making modern wreaths. Both are rather vigorous but can be kept in check by hard pruning; this also triggers production of more of the younger leaves.


Euonymus fortunei ‘Silver Queen’: Easy care semi-vigorous evergreen shrub that grows in most soils, responds well to pruning and produces plenty of waxy green and cream foliage. It's useful for wreaths and table decorations.


Abies procera glauca and Picea pungens ‘Glauca Globosa’: Two conifers that produce lovely dense growth of soft and blue-grey needles. Abies is more vigorous, while Picea is more suited to a smaller garden. If you have plenty of space, Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca’ is stunning.   


Skimmia japonica ‘Rubella’: Another great winter plant for a shaded corner, the tiny red flower buds offer plenty of winter interest.


Myrtus communis (Myrtle): Small, aromatic evergreen leaves and attractive fruits useful for wreath-making. It will grow in any well-drained soil in a sunny position.


Ivy is useful for its long flexible stems and long-lasting variegated foliage. Of course we should traditionally cut and use ivy alongside holly at Christmastime!

Bare root hedging

Bare Root Hedging

Undoubtedly we should be planting more hedges. especially in urban gardens where they form important corridors for wildlife as well as providing food and shelter for birds, small mammals and beneficial insects. They can also provide us with produce in the form of fruits and nuts and are an attractive screen or boundary. They are well worth the time and effort put in to establishing and maintaining.


Buying plants during the dormant season (between November and March) when they are sold ‘bare root’ is a very economical way of purchasing young trees and shrubs that grew out in ‘the field’ on the nursery. This means that they grow in rows directly in the ground. They are lifted to order at one or two years old, once the leaves have fallen in the autumn. They are then bundled up and sold, usually in bundles of 25. These can cost around 50p - £1.50 each, depending on variety.


These young trees are easy to plant. They just need a ‘slit’ trench - created by slicing into the ground with a spade and pulling the soil back - sticking the tree roots into the hole and firming in with your foot. If the roots are very well developed you may need to trim them or dig a larger hole.


If your soil is very poor then a pinch of mycorrhizal fungi in the hole will help them to establish. Finish off with a cane for support and a rabbit guard if you are planting in a rural area. To encourage a bushy hedge you also need to cut 1/3 off the top of the stem to promote lateral growth right from the base. If you plant in winter they should not need too much watering. You should either mulch around the base or use weed control mats to reduce competition and ensure that your plants get off to a good start.


To make a thicker hedge you can plant a ‘double staggered row’. You get a deeper barrier and quicker establishment of your boundary. It will take 3-4 years for your hedge to become fully grown. You'll need to cut it back each year to keep promoting the lateral branching and thickening of the hedge. Do this in late winter, cutting 1/3 off the ends of the last year’s growth, until you reach the desired height.


It is mainly deciduous varieties of trees that can be bought as bare root stock. This is because evergreens do not go into dormancy. These soon struggle if dug up as they retain their foliage all year round. Thereby quickly losing water through their leaves. However, it is possible to buy Box and Laurel bare root from specialist nurseries. Common deciduous varieties include beech and copper beech, oak, Berberis, Cornus, wild rose, willow, poplar, alder, maple, hornbeam, Viburnum lantana, crab apple.


To buy bare root hedging plants you'll usually need to go to a wholesale tree nursery. Some garden centres stock a couple of common varieties. Bare root trees have a very short shelf life and are usually lifted to order. Some wholesale nurseries may have a minimum order value but many have a cash-and-carry department. You can go to these as a private customer and still benefit from trade prices.



Using Plants for Form in the Garden

Ensuring that you include plants in your garden that have a very strong form is an essential design principle. Without form a garden can lack interest. Especially during the winter – but also unity and cohesion as there is little to tie everything together or create a backdrop or contrast for more ephemeral plants.


Formal gardens tend to rely on structure to create strong patterns, repetition and to lead the eye through the garden. This is often achieved in a minimalistic way using a limited range of plant species. Usually yew or box and minimal colour. Topiary is an obvious choice and can be trained into any number of shapes. It is neat and crisp, and lends itself to formality. However, this does not mean to say that more informal gardens do not need plants with a strong form. Even topiary can be used to create contrast between the strong, clean lines and the softer planting of herbaceous plants and ornamental grasses.


Harmony can also be achieved by repeating form but using different plants. Spikey and linear leaves for example Phormium, day lilies and ornamental grasses. Contrast and interest can be achieved by the juxtaposition of plants with different forms such as fastigiated conifers rising out of a low spreading (prostrate plant) or neighbouring softer rounded forms.


During the 16th century Topiary became very popular throughout Europe. Many good examples still exist in large country estates where the dense forms often take the place of hard landscaping features and form divisions. Decorative folly’s and garden rooms. On a smaller scale topiary can be used as ‘punctuation’ in a garden. It is useful for linking different areas and leading the eye around a space.


Topiary however requires maintenance to keep the crisp shapes. It is worth considering plants that have naturally strong forms such as the fastigiate (tall, columnar) and Juniperus scopulorum ‘Sky Rocket’. The weeping copper beech Fagus sylvatica 'Purpurea Pendula', the striking conical Abies koriana with silvery backed needles and upright purple cones.


Small plants suitable for urban gardens include Berberis thunbergii f. atropurpurea 'Bagatelle' which is compact and retains a dwarf, rounded shape without the need for pruning. It is deciduous so winter structure is less dramatic. Its red foliage and deep crimson autumn colour give plenty of structure throughout the growing season. Another good choice is the weeping rosemary Rosmarinus officinalis 'Prostratus'. (prostrate meaning growing almost horizontally) the weeping rosemary spills strikingly over walls and tall containers.


Phormium cultivars are good, reliable performers that have a strong architectural look with their evergreen linear leaves. Some can get quite large however. Choose one of the smaller cultivars such as ‘Flamingo’, ‘Tom Thumb’ and ‘Bronze Baby’



Bulbs for Naturalising

Bulbs are often used in formal planting schemes and mixed borders to add seasonal interest. Another way of planting bulbs is to ‘naturalise’ them. This means planting in more informal drifts on mass in a more naturalistic way. If you use specie bulbs to do this and plant them in suitable environments then they will self-seed over time and create sweeping carpets of stunning natural colour.


These naturalistic planting schemes are gaining popularity because they are low maintenance compared to traditional mixed borders especially over larger areas. They also provide a good source of nectar and support many species of butterflies and bees. After flowering, grasses and bulbs look a little unsightly. Foliage needs to have almost died back before mowing meadows to ensure that enough energy goes back into the bulb for the following year's growth. If you mow a pathway through the meadow it will help give some definition and help to draw the eye away from fading foliage as well as inviting  you to take a walk through.


There secret to success when naturalising bulbs is to make sure that your choice of bulb species is appropriate for the area that you are planting up. Suitable sites for naturalising bulbs would include, meadow/grassland that receives plenty of sunshine and ideally a good textured, free-draining soil, woodland that provides shade under large shrubs and trees and preferably a damp, humus-rich soil. Alpine bulbs are also suitable if you have a gravelly free-draining soil in an exposed position.


Buy in bulk, in time the bulbs will propagate themselves naturally but this will take a few years. For impact in the first year or two find a supplier that does a good price for larger quantities. Daffodils or tulips may be value for money but don't look natural when different colours are out there together.


For a natural, unplanned look, throw a handful of bulbs over the area. Plant them where they land to avoid planting in rows or grids. Some of the late summer flowering bulbs may not be available until spring. As a general rule bulbs should be planted to twice the depth of the length of the bulb. Plant using a bulb planter or trowel. Make sure that bulbs are the right way up and sufficiently covered.


For dry, grassy areas plant the wild daffodil Narcissus pseudonarcissus for early interest, followed by Ornithogalum (star of Bethlehem) Camassia leichtlinii and Gladiolus byzantinus.


For a more exotic look plant Tulipa 'Queen of the Night'  with a pale cream variety such as 'Cream Cocktail'. Use varieties of Alliums to follow planted into swathes of ornamental grasses. Add Nerine and Schizostylis to take the display right through to the autumn.


For damp soils and areas that receive more shade plant Fritillaria sp.  and Leucojum (Summer snowdrop)





Pittosporum are a genus of evergreen shrubs that are grown mainly for their foliage although their flowers are highly scented in late spring and early summer. Flowers grow on the stems in the leaf axils and mostly hidden by the foliage. It is not until you get up close on a warm day that the heady vanilla scent catches you out. The flowers are dark and close to the stem. It is not obvious here the scent is coming from at first, you have to look closely!


Pittosporum benefit from some protection and more suited to growing in a sheltered spot. They are ideal for city and courtyard gardens where they get protection from cold winds. They benefit from the ‘heat Island’ effect that urban areas bring. Prolonged spells of cold weather can be a danger to pittosporum. Heavy snow frozen on the foliage can cause serious die back. This extreme weather happens rarely in UK winters so with a bit of thought about their planting position these handsome shrubs are well worth considering.


A common species is Pittosporum tenuifolium. This evergreen shrub is medium in vigour and size. It makes a large, broadly conical shrub or small tree when mature given 10-15 years in a good planting position. The oval green foliage is wavy around the margins. The fresh green colour makes a striking and dense backdrop to contrasting colours and textures. The cultivar ‘Golf Ball’ makes a nice, compact and very rounded shrub up to 1-1.2 metres and lacks the wavy leaf margins. It makes an excellent low hedge or topiary piece and is a good alternative to Box.


The most hardy of the cultivars is ‘Tom Thumb’ which, as the name suggests is a more dwarfing variety and  makes a lovely compact rounded shrub with striking deep purple foliage.  The new growth is bright green when young and the margins of the small, oval leaves are heavily wavy and this gives a wonderful texture to this colourful shrub. Neat and low maintenance, an ideal choice for smaller, city gardens.


Pittosporum ‘Silver Queen’ and Pittosporum tobira 'Variegata'  are variegated cultivars with silvery white splashes along the leaf margins. ‘Silver Queen’ makes a fairly tall, conical shrub. A super choice towards the back of a shrub border, specimen shrub or even a formal hedge in a more sheltered spot. P. tobira ‘Variegata’ is more rounded and bears its flowers in terminal clusters. The flowers are visible at the ends of the branches and are sweetly scented.

Pittosporum 'Silver Queen'