Looking back – National Dahlia Collection

Dahlia Sam Huston - National Dahlia Collection Cornwall UK
National Dahlia Collection Varfell Farm in mid September

On Twitter there seems to be a split between those looking back on summer from the depths of winter, (at least in the Northern Hemisphere), and those who want to keep it real – this is now, snow, frost. rain! Me, I’m sitting on the fence. This is looking back but the lateness of the post is due to laziness and the need now to get cracking with ordering dahlias for this year .

Last year’s dahlias were a bit of a disaster, partly due to the weather (very cold/hot, little rain), although old faithful’s came through the winter and flowered fitfully, including Sam Hopkins, Karma Choc and Dark Desire.

This was my first visit to the National Dahlia Collecton at Varfell Farm in Cornwall and to be fair we had had a very hot summer followed by the remnants of a storm with heavy wind and rain the day before our September visit.

Dahlia Bengale

I have a soft spot for the whoppers of the dahlia world and although many had been downed by the wind and rain, I liked the zing this one has with the slight purpling in the orange.

Dahlia David’s Choice (1968)

Neater all round, zingy orange again but with darker leaves and stems, a possible for the exotic border this year

Dahlia Red Cap (1957)

Well behaved, medium height, another possible.

Dahlia Irene Van de Zwet (1957)

Quite an attractive single as a replacement for Honka Yellow which has more spidery petals.

A medley of singles
Dahlia Moor Place (1957)

Could I love a pompon dahlia? Perhaps one for the old rose bed. I’ve lost a couple in this bed and there’s a dumpy lilac coloured waterlily dahlia Rosella that I don’t like at all. The colour is ‘right’,  it reminds me of the old, later flowering Clematis viticella ‘Purpurea Plena Elegans’.

Not so sure about Buttercup in an open border… too stiff?

Dahlia Buttercup (1971)
Dahlia Asahi Chohji (1962)

A bit of fun, I’ve grown him in the past, pots of this dahlia would be very jolly (and more bee friendly!)

Dahlia register – information in various languages

Kynance Cove Cornwall – this was the sort of weather the dahlias had received their battering in!

The perfect August Bank Holiday

Phlos Hesperis with Hummingbird Hawkmoth

Phlos Hesperis with Hummingbird Hawkmoth
Yesterday – Hummingbird Hawkmoth on Phlox Hesperis


After weeks and weeks and weeks of sun – gloomy grey weather and belting rain. The ground in the parish field remains hard. Plants still wilt within a few days without rain.

Much of our grass seems to be recovering. In Dorset on Friday the hard-cropped hills near the coast still seemed parched looking. It’s odd seeing our ‘green and pleasant land’ scorched to beige, accentuated by flaxen grasses and fields of early ripening corn, reminiscent of Southern Europe. At the peak of the heat the chalk bones of the plain and Pewsey Vale showed stark. The cleaned Westbury White Horse stands resplendent on its slope.

Without wishing to bring the hordes down upon me, apparently there is an over sufficiency of wasps this year. There are a few about here but I haven’t noticed any nests in the garden. Very few hornets just one or two. It’s the dragonflies (mainly Emperors) I’ve really noticed this year, making slow deliberate forays along the paths with quick darts into the borders and a wild clattering of cellophane wings if they venture into the kitchen  skylights. They are gently shooed-out with a soft broom. Thankfully the new kitten appears to have got bored felling and crunching on them – not very tasty I presume.

Some plants are about two thirds the height they would be in a wetter year, Eryngium pandanifolium is one such and the wild angelica also.

But as many have commented, other plants have thrived. This is the first time the Lagerstroemia has flowered and the Vitex agnus-castus is also quite resplendent.


Vitex agnus-castus

Others are reporting a surfeit of figs – not me, sum total 2, one from Brunswick (right) and one from Precoce de Dalmatie.

My fig harvest

No courgettes either, too much shade, not enough feeding probably. I am mocked by the allotments up the road who put out marrow-sized courgettes – Help yourself it says on the sign – Hah!

Visit to June Blake’s Garden, County Wicklow

Dahlias June Blake's Garden Wicklow

Dahlias June Blake's Garden Wicklow
Dahlias just starting to come into flower, June Blake’s Garden, County Wicklow

Today it’s 31C and I’ve retreated inside, it’s too hot and humid to garden seriously!

A couple of weeks ago we visited June Blake’s Garden in County Wicklow, (actually we stayed at The Cow House which is in the gardens so had free access). An evening stroll was particularly pleasurable, even though we had the garden completely to ourselves on one evening, I didn’t quite dare to potter round with a glass of wine in-hand! Although there are plenty of spaces to sit and contemplate the garden from.

June wasn’t at home. We found out she was with her brother Jimi who gardens at Hunting Brook, literally just up the road, giving talks in Seattle.

Gardening interrupted

Interesting spade for precision planting.

It’s hard to do justice to garden borders in photograph’s, even professional images often cannot convey the real sense of place. And to be honest paintings don’t always hack it either. Hopefully you’ll get the gist.

I was very jealous of the granitic sandy type soil, very Scandinavian. Scandinavian gardeners (and any other nationalities) would find a lot of interest here they can take back to their own gardens.

There are sunny and shady areas within the garden which allow for a huge range of plants to be used. I very much enjoyed the planting combinations, the more ‘common’ mixed in with real plantsman’s plants.

In June the garden is very green with gentle washes of colour. Masses of alliums were just going over. Whites, blues, deep purples and bronzy-oranges wove through the beds. The big display will be later summer when the dahlias and other later flowering plants really get going, the mood goes hot and intense to suit the season.

The use of the loose gawky Aralia echinocaulis which Jimi apparently brought back from a plant hunting expedition to China, add height and interest, as well as cooling lightly dappled shade.

Hard landscaping, including drystone walls and gravelled and cobbled paths, and precise use of hedging provide crispness and texture.

We loved the simple planting of Stipa gigantea along the drystone retaining wall by the pool, the awns dancing and shimmering against the backdrop of the wildflower meadow behind.

June Blake's Garden Wildflower Meadow June
View from the wildflower meadow back to the garden

The meadow has lovely fine grasses which allow other plants, including orchids to thrive. I’d copy the wooden ‘steps’ emerging like ship’s bones from the grass to wind you up the hill if I could.

June Blakes Garden Angelica

I’d been working on a talk on umbellifers for the Cothi Gardeners so this is for my umbellifer scrapbook, Angelica archangelica en masse – glorious!

Maybe in some ways it was good not to meet the gardener. All around you you can feel the intensity of thought, effort and creativity that goes into this really rather special place. And if you have an opportunity to visit ‘out of hours’ take it and have it (almost) to yourself!

Thanks June!

June Blake's Garden shadier planting
Shadier planting including trollius, corydalis and disporum

One swallow does make the start of Spring

What a lovely day it was yesterday – the sun shone, the bees buzzed amongst the pulmonaria, the Carrion Crow pair saw off a rival nest builder, and after looking up into the blue cloudless sky all day, a swallow in late afternoon.

The warmth is bringing on tulips fast, some of the smaller species tulips flung themselves open with complete abandon to the sun. Daffodils are beginning to outstay their welcome although we’ve still got Sir Winston Churchill to open, one of the scented heavy hitters.

In your face yellows

Let’s hear it for the humble British native Marsh Marigold – a sunny sight indeed

Tulip kolpakowskiana
Tulip kolpakowskiana

Or is it? A Dutch website Tulips in the Wild suggests that Tulip kolpakowskiana is too difficult to grow in general cultivation so those offered in the trade for general garden use are from the T. ferganica group.

Mellow yellows

Acacia dealbata
Acacia dealbata

The flowers are much paler than ‘normal’ – grown from seed.

Arum creticum
Arum creticum

This year the most flowers I’ve had on Arum creticum so far. The winter emerging foliage has stood up to the low temperatures and snow.

Smiley crocus day – hello spring!

Crocus tommasinianus

Friday was a lovely day – so very spring-like. All the odds and sods of crocuses threw themselves open to the sun. I’ve been adding various named and regular tommies but can’t remember which are which. And due to a lack of rigour on my part some pots go from year to year without being changed out – so what survives survives, hence random crocuses.

A few foraging bees were on the wing and the first butterfly, a Tortoiseshell.

Soil just dry enough to start weeding in earnest and play catch-up before March hoves into view and things start to really get cracking.

Sweet pea seeds starting to come up in the unheated greenhouse.

Told to muck out the potting shed – 5 year’s worth of old pots went to the tip. I do re-use pots but I had rather too many!

Crocus Blue Pearl with bee


Cyclamenic dilemma

Brenda Troyle

The warmer weather is bringing bulbs up. Today I’ve seen daffodils out in a number of places already. I’m guessing they are Rijnveldt’s Early Sensation. Not in my garden though, none are anywhere close.  Although as if from nowhere, the Tete a Tete have appeared over the last couple of days mightily heaving out of our horrid clay.

The rain and wind has battered iris and crocuses, some standing up to the elements better than others. Today snowdrops Brenda Troyle and Magnet started to really show off. Magnet opened up his petals wide for the first time with a bit of sun – and then it rained.

Party pooper

That Dan Pearson is messing with my head, (as they used to say back in the day).

Last week’s Dig Delve was all about Cyclamen coum, and I agree it’s a real sweetie for late winter flowers, especially when there is little else out. It also bookends the year with autumn flowering C hederifolium.

I have big pats of white with red nosed C coum, a dainty pale pink one and a shaded cerise in places one – but I don’t have any of the really shouty look at me, in your face, deep shocking pink! The one’s Dan says he prefers.

Should I care what Dan thinks? Should I be led by Dan?  I was happy with my mainly icily white choices, but perhaps I see the error of my ways, too careful, too conservative.

Back to the drawing board? C coum shouty pink, then later Bergenia Overture followed by a dash of Incarvillea delavayi – that should do it! Happier now!!

Actually I do have one C repandum which comes in a more positive pink, quietly shouty in April and delicately scented too.

In the mood – cyclamen and hellebores

Cyclamen coum with emerging foliage of Crocus speciosus (autumn flowering)Gardening in winter is always a bit hit and miss. Sometimes on a wet grey day I look out at the soggy lawn and bedraggled browned stems, sorry remnants of summer and autumn’s grand finale and think, Nah! Not going out today.

Then I might take a tour round the garden and notice all the weeds that have grown undercover through the autumn, now exposed; Ground Ivy,  Creeping Buttercup, Bittercress, Cuckoo Flower and the winter rosettes of a Willowherb, (possibly Marsh Willowherb). The thought of working the claggy soil with cold wet muddy gloves – Nah!

Other days frost adds glamour to these same browned and faded stems, phlomis and sedum seedheads triumphant in their temporary sparkly attire. Then back to soggy and dull during the next wet spell.

Yesterday I briefly ventured into the fray, the frost didn’t leave the main border all day in places. The frosty crust did make it slightly easier to walk on the lawn which had had its first inundation of the winter season and was a little squelchy under foot.

I tackled a Lonicera japonica Halliana which continues to wind its way insidiously up into trees and along the hedge through the winter, blocking the low sun from some of the beds, starving the iris and others of precious light.

Then it was on to cutting back the various Iris sibirica which are useful during the growing season for their upright stance but now collapsed and splayed out the foliage will smother anything as it emerges. A partial tidy has been done mindful that,

  • Small beasties still need winter cover
  • Foliage offers some frost protection to other plants around them

We may still be in December but Nah! days and impossible to garden days will soon have us thrust into March when growth begins and tidying proper must be done.

There are drifts of mouldering leaves yet to be swept up (I have done some!) And I have cut back and burned the old peony leaves to try to stop the blight they seem to get in spring. But I will still wish that I had got on more enthusiastically earlier with some of the mundane but necessary tasks.


The parish field has water in the dips of what may be old ridge and furrow, these pools will ebb and fill until April. One year a family of ducks had time to raise a brood on the temporary waterways. Yesterday a flock of starlings took advantage of this new waterscape briefly, until they sensed me trying to take a picture and off they went in a swirling mass.

Some farmers around the country, but particularly those based on the chalkland sheep grazing / corn economy built systems to flood fields deliberately through the winter. The water raises the temperature which is said to encourage grass into growth earlier and the silt deposited fertilised the fields.  The job of the ‘drowners’ who managed these systems was to ensure the water flowed rather than staying in stagnant pools as ours does.

What’s in flower?

Anisodontea capensis El Rayo
Anisodontea capensis El Royo on a windy day!

Most of the purple-nosed white Cyclamen coum have been in flower for a couple of months, the rich pink cultivars are only just starting to flower. These cyclamen do provide a good value splash of colour through the bleaker months.

Sarcoccoca confusa, Daphne Jacqueline Postill and D odora Aureomarginata show promise of scented flowers soon.

The Prunus subhirtella Autumnalis has the most flowers I’ve seen on it in 5 years. The gusty wind though scattering the tiny flecks of petal far and wide as another squall line moves through.

The Witch Hazel remains firmly budded, here and there just a glimpse of yellow. My parents in Somerset have one already in full beribboned flower.

Bob Brown in a talk he gave last Autumn extolled the virtues of Anisodontea El Royo (Or El Rayo), this pink mallow flowered shrub from South Africa does remain evergreen and flower on and on. Can be borderline hardy as I lost the woodier parent when we had a few days of -7C this spring. Seems to take easily from late summer cuttings and I think I prefer the younger growth, when woody it loses its litheness!

In the unheated greenhouse a couple of abutilon still flower fitfully. The Acacia dealbata I had high hopes of a spring show from is however moping and dropping leaves not a good sign.

Hellebores various are lining themselves up for flowering, one H argutifolius has been flowering through the autumn, the other plant is still in bud. A H niger cross, Snow Love, looks like it will be the first hybrid in flower well ahead of the orientalis.

Helleborus argutifolius
Helleborus argutifolius from Corsica and Sardinia

Babington’s Leek and Elephant Garlic leaves are thrusting through the soil enthusiastically.The first daffs up are the scented Trevithian, although we have the roughest weather yet to come and quite a wait to see the flowers.

When did we say goodbye to summer?

Tricyrtis formosana Taiwan Adbane

It seems a few days ago I was tripping about in August waiting for some sunshine to ripen tomatoes and set squashes and then suddenly here we are in mid October.

It was getting very dry again but now the rain is tipping it down outside; the dahlia flowers mushing into rotting brown balls, asters bending to swamp their neighbours and any late roses now look sad.

The normally cheery, rich yellow daisies of Rudbeckia triloba at over 2M high are rendered dreary by the rain. (I met a lady last night at a garden talk who absolutely hates yellow flowers..)

I’m not really in a gardening place at the moment but know I have to continue to take the tenders I want, in, because who knows when frost will arrive?

Luckily despite the eerie portents of darkening skies and pink muted sun we had on Monday morning caused by Storm Ophelia, the winds largely passed us by. Poor old Brians everywhere, he’s waiting in the wings to caress us with storm force winds on Saturday – hold on to yer hats!

Late cuttings

Dahlia Magenta Star with Persicaria Dikke Floskes
Dahlia Magenta Star with Persicaria Dikke Floskes

Is it worth taking some late dahlia cuttings and overwintering? Sources say you need to boost light levels over the winter to succeed.

Any which way, Dahlia campanulata and yet again D imperialis have failed to flower. The tuber on imperialis is getting huge after 4 years (one autumn cutting did take root last year). I had her in a big pot this summer having run out of places to plant her, at over 2M tall she was taking up over 1.5 gallons of water a day.

The jury seems to be out on whether dahlias root easily in water, maybe I’ll have a go with some. I may try a few singles like Magenta Star and the dark red Bishop of Auckland. Magenta Star seems to be a bit in vogue at the moment, a larger more open version of D australis and with dark purple foliage. It has added a lightness to the planting. Being single the bees appreciate it.

Wot I have learnt recently

Gunnera can’t grow in totally waterlogged conditions. The Gunnera pot filled with rainwater and with no drainage at that point, sat in water. It didn’t like it and the leaves started to collapse one by one. Drainage holes duly made in pot, small amount of new leaf growth made again means much winter protection. It was bought from Heligan as G manicata (not tinctoria which is said to be more sensitive to waterlogging).

At a talk by Bob Brown from Cotswold Garden Flowers last night, that Kniphofia Atlanta (the quintessential yellow and red poker hated by many) was named after a Cornish seaside hotel in the UK in the 1930’s nothing to do with the US city. We can’t blame the Americans. (NB: or 1962 by Treseder’s Nursery – typo? )

Don’t grow courgettes in the shade of your runner bean poles, (makes a 3 bed rotation a bit tricky). Far too much shade and lots of powdery mildew = 2 courgettes from 5 plants.

Sweet potatoes don’t like my conditions – nary a tuber, not even an attempt at one when dug up at the beginning of October. The courgettes will get this sunnier spot back next year.

Let’s end this on a cheery note…. over to you Crocus speciosus (even if you don’t last very long in wild autumn weather!)

Gooseberry fool and roses

Rose the Doctor
Rose The Doctor (1936)

All the watering you can do doesn’t have the same effect as a goodly drop of rain. OK it also downed a few things and the pelargonium flowers aren’t loving it, petals have gone brown and mouldy but overall everything has plumped up. I started this a few days ago and now I have to say the Mediterranean and similar climatic zone plants are really sulking. What’s left of the older roses in flower are going to mush.

It’s wild weather out there at the moment, misting rain and a whipping wind – very unsummery although it’s not particularly cold – just grey. Not good for squash or courgette set either. Picking up this morning sunny and fresh but more rain expected.

The squirrels have started on the hazel nuts and the hawthorn berries although not yet fully ripe. The pale milky hazel nuts cupped in the finest fresh green do look very inviting. Many nibbled shells are now browning on the ground and felled clusters are being retrieved and buried.

The unrelenting song of the Chiff Chaff has disappeared from the soundscape replaced by the manic laugh of a green woodpecker.

Hybrid T’s

Because of their stiff growth HT roses often look awkward in a general garden context, unlike the rangier older roses. But they remind me of my gran’s suburban garden in Enfield. On visits as a child in summer, we’d pick a big bouquet of mixed colours, mainly pinks and dark velvet reds, wrap them in wet newspaper and travel home from London to Leicestershire with the perfume pervading the car.

I also love the high pointy buds and shape of some HTs, very different to the more flattened heads of many old roses. An added bonus is that most flower for a longer time than the older roses some of which flower once only.

Also I can’t resist the Peter Beales end of winter bare root rose sales even though I HAVE NO MORE ROOM FOR ANY MORE ROSES!

So this year I decided to get a couple of HT’s in the sale and plant them in the veg patch for cutting.

A couple had been recommended in an article in the RHS magazine by The Real Flower Company, Margaret Merril a floribunda released by Harkness in 1977 and Chandos Beauty (another Harkness bred rose which I bought direct from them). The other two from Beales were Comtesse Vandal and The Doctor (dating from 1936). Sadly the Comtesse expired early on, but the others have been putting out intermittent flowers despite the newness of the planting.

  • Margaret Merrill is off-white, lovely in bud and deliciously scented, however fully open she ain’t to me a pretty dame.
  • Chandos Beauty – lovely scent, nice retained HT shape as it opens but as a cut flower quite a lot of orange in her colouring.
  • The Doctor is a revelation, beautifully fruity scented. I love the large soft flowers and although not an absolute classic HT shape very pleasing so far. It reminds me again of my gran and the artificial cloth roses that used to be pinned to hats and dresses from the dressing-up box.

Gooseberry fool

Gooseberry Lady Delamene apparently
A week on from this picture and the fruits are even redder!

This year I decided to buy another gooseberry bush to add to my collection of one, Whinham’s Industry, which is an old variety with fruits that mature a reddish colour.

I have limited space so had a good rummage around online. I fancied an older variety that was green ripening to gold and could be eaten at peak ripeness as a proper dessert gooseberry.

Lady Delamene on the Chris Bowers website after a lot of deliberation seemed to fit the bill. The photo showed a plump green gooseberry which supported the description of a green gooseberry which stayed green.  I was even hoping that Lady Delamene was a typo and what they were actually offering was Lady Delamere an old prizewinning green gooseberry (for size and weight) dating back to at least the turn of the 19th century.

So duly purchased and planted this spring she flowered and set a few fruit. All well and good you might think. However the fruit is v small (yes I know it’s her first year) – and distinctly ripening red!

I approached Chris Bowers and said surely some mistake – No stupid customer! they said (after a second email as the first went unanswered). We’re amending the copy on the website, Lady Delamene is a green gooseberry which turns red like May King.

So I emailed back – but I read the description this spring on your website and bought Lady Delamene based on that description and picture of a large green gooseberry that stayed green.

No reply to the email. There was no oops, no sorry, no nothing.

After the fulsome guarantees given on the Chris Bowers Ltd website – very poor show!

I am now on the lookout (but not from Chris Bowers Ltd) for an old green gooseberry variety that stays green, is large and plump and can be eaten as a dessert gooseberry!

For those actually looking for the recipe for Gooseberry Fool a concoction of stewed gooseberries and cream Nigel Slater | The Guardian

Thank you Cothi Gardeners

On what turned out to be one of the hottest days of the year so far (and the longest day), I was invited to give a talk, Scents and scentsability – gardening led by the nose to the Cothi Gardeners.

After a fab pie dinner at the Dolaucothi Arms opposite we assembled in the corrugated Coronation Hall in Pumsaint, Carmarthenshire for 7:30pm prompt.

This group of enthusiastic gardeners meets once a month drawing people down from their remote hillsides and adjoining villages to talk gardening and swap plants.

Thank you to everyone for their warm welcome and enthusiastic response.

Also thank you to Brenda Timms and Martin and Angela Farquharson-Duffy for letting me have a nose around their gardens the following morning. Especially as they were in the final stages of preparation for a joint Sunday opening for the NGS. Bwlchau Duon | Sculptors Garden

Chairman Julian and Fiona Wormald’s garden was also recently featured in Gardens Illustrated. Gelli Uchaf.

Long may the Cothi Gardeners grow and prosper!