How gardeners can help bees

Bees are in trouble. Echinacea flower with beeTheir plight is the subject of an EU vote today, when environment ministers gather to decide whether to vote against the use of certain neonicotinoids – the pesticides that scientists believe are the cause of colony collapse disorder. While most countries are voting for a ban, our environment minister, Owen Paterson is set to vote against. If you haven’t yet signed the petition to press him to change his mind, there’s still time.

While politicians and vested interests argue the toss, gardeners and garden designers can dig in and do their bit to help bees to thrive.

It’s all in the planting. Purists argue that planting native species is best for biodiversity and wildlife. But many of our native species don’t flower much beyond July. Which is bad news for hungry bees and not great if you want a garden that looks good all year round. Anyway, who wants nettles colonising their precious outdoor space? When I’m designing a garden I always think about extending the season at both ends with plants that flower long and reliably, or come into their own in late summer and autumn and provide valuable nectar for bees.

The long, cold winter hasn’t helped. Spring flowers that bees love — hellebores, pansies, muscaris – have been held back this year. I revisited a garden I designed last week, and the bees were gorging on the pulmonaria, which would normally have gone over by now.

At the tail end of summer, sedums, salvias (rigourously deadheaded), echinacea, nepeta are some of the perennials that have both a distinctive form, which we designers covet, and will get your garden buzzing. And when you choose plants, stick to single flowers, not blowsy doubles. Get the right things in and the bees will follow.

But not if you let them be killed off first, Mr Paterson.

A very easy clematis

PeopleClematis 'Constance' with dusky pink flowers Clematis macropetala with nodding flowers are funny about clematis. I have clients who won’t have them in their gardens, believing that they are fussy and capricious – feet in the shade, heads in the sun, greedy, drought-shy, needy, needy, needy. There’s some truth in that.

But Clematis macropetala (above) is a star. It’s normally at its best in April, but this year, like everything else, it’s been held back by the late spring. So right now, here in London, it’s smothered in nodding, double flowers the colour of bluebells that open from buds of deep purple and will last for weeks.

Clematis macropetala will cope with a bit of shade. It can handle dryish soil once established, and it belongs to the group that doesn’t need pruning, except when it outgrows the space you want it to fill, which it does only occasionally, being a moderate grower.

The leaves are pretty; delicately serrated and soft apple green, so it’s useful scrambling up to hide an unsightly corner. And the cultivars are as good. My favourites are ‘Constance’, (pictured above) which has dusky, rose-pink flowers, and ‘Purple Spider’, with finer petals drenched inky purple.

Sometimes Clematis macropetala come back for a second show later in the summer, too. And when they’re finished, each flower turns into a silky seedhead that lasts most of the winter. Just about perfect, really.

Wonders of trees in winter

Now that springWinter Tree seems finally to have sprung out of the shadows of winter, and buds are fattening fast, I wanted to sing the praises of bare trees and their importance in parks and garden design. Here in London, the Acacia dealbata (Mimosa) trees are ablaze with sulphur-yellow pom-poms, and the winter cherry, Prunus x subhirtella are showing off their delicate, snowflake blossoms, but a sunny walk on Hampstead Heath made me appreciate again the particular beauty of bare branches etched against the sky. The crooked skeleton of our native birch tree, Betula pendula, with its delicate linework of drooping twigs; the burnished red of limes, set against ochre willows; the patterns of lichen on the bark of the elder trees and the patchwork camouflage of planes. This long, hard winter, it’s been so easy to overlook them, heads down, braced against the cold, just longing for it to end.

School wildlife garden nearly finished!

The landscapers have all but finished the large wildlife garden I designed for a primary school in Hackney, North London. I’m particularly pleased with the bridge/pond-dipping platform, which is made of a recycled material I’ve not used before. It looks really natural, but won’t collect algae or get slippery, so no maintenance. We had to make the handrail out of wood though, so we’ve stained it a different colour.

I’ve designed the garden around a central meadow with a circular path, with the idea that not all the garden should be visible at once – I want the children to approach it with a sense of adventure. So I’ve put in a long, sinewy living willow tunnel along one side of the path, which, once in leaf, will conceal one of the ‘bug hotels’ and the living arbour at the back, and have the added advantage of hiding the shed and compost bins. The turf mound which skirts one of the paths is made from spoil from the ponds we dug out

The mound looks rather neat at the moment; but I’m going to let it get long to encourage insects, and just strim it occasionally. We’ve had to go with artificial lawn, so that the children can use the garden all the year round, so it’s important that the planting softens the effect.

Wildlife garden in Hackney school with pondWildlife garden in Hackney school

Planning a winter garden

T S Eliot was wrong. April is not the cruellest month. That’s January. Gales and rain, doomy skies and the apparently interminable trudge towards spring. Hardly the time to be thinking about your garden, much less for venturing out there. But a bit of planning can change all that.

It’s now that the layout of the garden is exposed and if the design on the ground is weak, it will be a sludgy mess of broken stems and slimy green paths. Your voluptuous English herbaceous border, so graceful and blowsy and oozing gorgeousness in summer, will look as crushed as a damsel with an empty dancecard.

The great English gardens have Helen Birch on Winter Gardenscrisp walls of yew to frame them and cones, pyramids and balls of box and laurel that act as living sculpture when everything else has retreated from the cold. On a grand scale that seems easy to achieve, but even in smaller gardens it’s possible to include enticements outdoors as well as something to admire through the window. Winter in the garden is about form and structure – and fragrance.

So it’s the time to celebrate evergreens and winter plants that pack a powerful, perfumed punch, along with straw-coloured grasses that still stand tall and seem to filter the hazy winter sun and perennials whose seedheads strike a pose against skies stripped of colour.
Originally published in Meze magazine

Like so many plants that are at their best now, Sarcoccoca confusa, or winter box, has shy little flowers that send out a heady scent. It’s evergreen, too and loves shade. Ideal for cramped urban gardens overhung by trees or a difficult, north-facing site. Go for large specimens or plant a few smaller ones in groups, as they are slow to take off. The spidery ochre flowers of the witch hazel, Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’ remind me of warming licks of fire and their scent is divine.  And the large, upright Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ produces densely packed, pale pink heads on bare branches that pump out fragrance.

Underplant these shrubs with the Harvington varieties of the lenten rose, Helleborus x hybridus, whose colours range from white to yellow through pink to deepest burgundy and come in single or double forms. Handsome as the leaves are, the experts cut them off now so that the clusters of long-lasting, nodding flowers can really sing. Turn them up to face you and they are a thing of wonder.

Grasses will lift the spirits of that crushed damsel-in-the-herbaceous-border. Every garden should have some, because for ten months of the year they earn their place. In summer and autumn they lend height and airiness and act as a foil for flowering perennials. In winter, the tall, sun-loving varieties, such as Miscanthus (there are loads of cultivars, but my favourites are M. sinensis ‘Kleine Silberspinne’ and M. malepartus) and the stiff, architectural grass, Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ give the garden backbone. In the low-slung winter sun their faded tips glow palest gold. Cut them down in late February and they’ll be back in April with fresh, young growth.

It used to be the thing to cut all perennials down in the autumn, but some should be left alone. The sea holly, Eryngium giganteum, for example, with its prominent, bud-like seedheads, together with the tight little pompoms of Turkish sage, Phlomis russelliana, provide textural contrast to the grasses and food for the birds.

For inspiration, if you live in the south-east, visit Anglesey Abbey, which has a wonderful, dedicated winter garden and steep banks scattered with all the different kinds of snowdrop. Then dream of next January.

Six best trees for small gardens

At this time of year, it’s the glitz and sparkle of Christmas trees that hustle for attention.  But spare a thought for the trees in the garden. Plant a new tree now, and it will spend the cold, wet winter months quietly building a strong root system while you put your feet up.

November to February Helen Birch on Treesis the bare-root season, when trees are dug up from the fields where they’ve been grown and can be replanted straight into the ground, rather than potted into containers, when they need to be fed and watered and generally fussed over. Once a bare root tree is in situ, it can simply be watered occasionally and left to strut its wonderful stuff in spring.

In smaller gardens a tree needs to earn its place, with at least two seasons of interest. Blossom in spring, a light canopy for summer, a colourful autumn show, a filigree of branches in winter, or an eye-catching bark. Here are six of the best:

  1. Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’  (Eastern redbud). In April a scattering of dark rose- pink, pea-like flowers burst from bare branches, followed by heart-shaped, burgundy-purple leaves. The leaves are the star. A sunny spot brings out their best colour, creating a summer tapestry of all the vibrant shades of red wine before turning fiery red in autumn.  Forest Pansy copes with most soils, except heavy clay. 8mhx8mw.
  2. Amelanchier lamarckii (Snowy mespilus/Juneberry). New leaves start out pinky-bronze, followed by a cloud of delicate, star-shaped white blossom in April. The Juneberry’s light canopy provides dappled shade for summer perennials, before it goes out in a blaze of red and orange glory in autumn. A multi-stemmed specimen will make a bold, winter sculpture, too. The Juneberry is tough, copes with sun or shade and most soils.
  3. Sorbus vilmorinii (Vilmorin’s rowan) A distant relative of the European mountain ash, this tree is native to China and is about as low-maintenance and unfussy as you can get. Its dark green leaves are divided into pretty leaflets that flutter in the breeze, and sprays of  creamy-white blossoms in late spring give way to deep red berries. But the best thing about this tree is its extended finale. As the leaves stage their autumn show of red and purple and drop, the berries fade to first to pink, then to white and cling for most of the winter.  A stunner. 5mx5m.
  4. Cornus kousa var. chinensis (Strawberry dogwood). Variants of this tree from China were all over the place at the Chelsea Flower Show this year. And no wonder. It has a strong, conical shape,  and in early summer, the branches are smothered in long-lasting, showy white bracts which look like handkerchiefs of snow, before fading to lovely shades of pink. Come autumn, the leaves burn fiery red and orange, and mature trees sometimes have bright red, strawberry-like fruits as well. This dogwood likes fertile soil, including acid, but won’t flourish on shallow chalky ground.  A showstopper. 7mx5m.
  5. Betula utilis var. jacquemontii (Himalayan birch). It’s the bark that takes the breath away. Pure white trunks and branches look ethereal etched against pale wintry skies. In summer, draped in yellow catkins under the lightest of canopies, or glowing brilliant yellow in autumn, this birch has an elegance all of its own. It copes with any soil, with sun or shade and will grow quickly and gain stature. A multistemmed one will be more restrained.
  6. Acer palmatum ‘Sango-kaku’ (Coral bark Japanese maple.) . Not the showiest of the Japanese maples, but a tree with more subtle virtues through the year. Young branches glow coral-pink in winter, and the new, palm-shaped leaves are edged with pink. As they mature, they turn bright green for the summer and soft, butter-yellow in autumn. It likes sun or partial shade and will cope with most soils and most conditions, including, unusually, for acers, drought.

Originally published in Meze magazine

Why the Judas tree died

We’ve had Cercis siliquastrum or Judas treeto take out a majestic Cercis siliquastrum tree in the garden of a client. It’s commonly known as the Judas tree, because of a myth that it was the tree from which Judas Iscariot hanged himself after betraying Jesus. But that’s just a theory. Others say that the name comes from the French common name, Arbre de Judee, meaning Judea, which seems sensible, as it tallies with the tree’s origins in the East Mediterranean. It’s a fantastic garden tree; pretty leaves, gorgeous spring flowers, autumn colour. One that’s not used enough.

I’d never Ganoderma applanatum, the offending fungusseen one as big as this, neither had our tree surgeon nor the tree officer from the council who was to authorise its removal. Normally they live between 25-45 years but the trunk of this one was about 50cm in diameter, so we think it could have been older. It had been invaded by a killer fungus called Ganoderma applanatum, or Ganoderma Butt Rott, a huge, woody mushroom that attaches itself to a wound in the tree and slowly rots the wood from the inside.

Although the tree had been sick for a couple of years and had suffered remedial amputations, this spring the glorious swags of Barbie-blush, pea-like flowers that usually hang from bare branches like ribbons on a party dress were reduced to a few tatty trinkets. It wasn’t going to stagger on and when we felled it, it was rotten to the core.

We will plant another tree in its place. I’ll report back.

Why gardens in winter are worth a visit

My first visit,Wetland centre. Nigel Dunnett's rain garden shamefully, to the London Wetland Centre, a nature reserve in south west London created a decade ago on the site of disused reservoirs. I went to see sustainable gardens designed by Arne Maynard and the ecological plantsman Nigel Dunnett, one of the brains behind the breathtaking pictorial meadows at the Olympic Park.

Sometimes it’s good to visit gardens in the autumn, after they’ve done their star turn. It’s then you can see just how good the planting is. It was a dreary day, but both these gardens shone.

Dunnett’s Rain Garden Wetland centre. The wild side of Dunnett's rain gardenis an masterclass in water conservation designed around a existing stream. Rainwater is collected from in rills and pipes to create boggy areas and ponds filled with plants that cleanse the water. Logpiles and sculptural ‘creature towers’ fashioned from recycled tiles, bricks and bits of wood provide habitats for wildlife. You can walk round and through the whole thing and it’s full of invention and surprise.

Maynard’s garden, effectively a large, island bed planted with grasses and huge swathes of perennials, carefully chosen for architectural prowess as well as summer swagger, shows how clever planting can work even in winter, if you can forget about the messy bits and look at the whole picture with a designer’s eye.

A boardwalk leads you past the the centrepiece of Dunnett’s garden, a recycled shipping container with a green roof (see picture). A creature house made of recycled tile and wood is on the left, and an interactive treadle to pump water on the right. The upright grass, Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ always flatters modern buildings. The second picture shows wild side of Dunnett’s rain garden. Our native Betula pendula (Silver birch) anchors the sweep of Molinia ‘Skyracer’ in the background. This grass was the star, used by both designers. Molinia caerulea subsp. arundinacea ‘Skyracer’, glows even in watery winter light.