Allotment challenge

Secret Sunday show garden number 2!


This time I was involved in creating a contemporary allotment based on the idea that all things in the garden were either edible or provided medicinal value to science.

We wanted to display planting companions that would not only look good together, but would also grow well together. It was great to be able to develop the practical aspect of a topic I have an interest in. I could finally play around with combinations I had previously only researched about (whilst writing my dissertation on companion planting when at Wisely.)


The garden consisted of multiple raised beds that varied in height and size- and took longer to assemble than we would have liked! This seemly random arrangement had purpose- aiming to provide contrast and kept the eye moving. We also varied the interest in each bed, having some with hot colours whilst others were cool themed. Another objective was to mix planting so that they could protect and support each other, creating a beneficial symbiosis in more ways than one!

Having staggered paths leading into and out of the garden gave the garden flow and made it appear wider than it was, whilst the thyme and sage planted in the cracks gave an additional scent bonus.


The garden provides a mix of colour themes, height, shape, size, growing habit, harvest times and taste


Some of my favourite combinations included the blue and white pastel mix of

Echineacea with Perovskia, Nepeta and Bay (Laurus noblis); the hot mix of Achillea, Sanguisorba and Hemerocallis; and pockets of fennel, lettuce and chard mixed with climbing vines and Malabar spinach (Basella rubra)


Another great little project to be involved in and a privilege to help out on what seemed another success. Well done to all involved and big thanks to all the other exhibitors for the last minute help to finish 3 minutes before opening!


And finally, a big shout out to Sean Cameron from the horticultural channel for getting it all on tape- everyone likes a timelapse don’t they? You can watch it here:


A bit different from your general ‘straight lines’ allotment don’t you think?

A tour with Roy Lancaster

The day consisted of a visit to Sir Harold Hillier Gardens for a tour, (where Roy was the first curator in the 1970’s) before heading back for a tour of his own garden. This was proceeded by a vast spread of cake; freshly made and presented by Roy’s wife!

I probably just lost you there at cake, I promise I’ll come back to that, but alas, I shall cover the rest of the tour first!

Roy’s tour had a touch of uniqueness, as not only did he converse botanical information about the planting and its history (such as that of Clerodendron bungii), but some were the creation from seed he had brought back with him from his various travels.

During the tour, Roy conveyed his view on the importance of retaining a wide scope of interest within the horticultural sector, but it was also clear to see where his passions lay, and seemed particular fond of the collection of mexican oaks he had established with the garden (such as Quercus tomentella.)

Roy was particularly fond of the elms that remained in the garden after surviving the outbreak of ‘Dutch elm disease’ and shared his way of identifying these trees by their leaf. The way to distinguish an elm from any other tree is that one side of the leaf starts earlier along the petiole than other.

A short drive from Hillier’s lead us to Roy’s home in Hampshire, where a tour of his garden followed. With a collection of over 1000 plants, it was a honeypot for a plant lover and a true plantsman garden. Plants ranged from the simple to the rare, to the exotic. Not only was there a great collection; Roy had used them in ways to fit with what worked well on his site, showing importance of understanding soil profiles and types. His front garden, for example is baked, dried sand in long periods of sun, whereas at the back it is a more moisture and nutrient retaining clay.

One favourite plant of mine was a Cordyline indivisa which had large strappy foliage, and an Acer tegmentosa which has fascinating stripy green bark!

Oh and here’s a picture of the cake display, I think it speaks for itself, I was stuffed!

A visit to Wales Botanics

This week I headed over the border to visit my grandparents. It wasn’t long before the topic of conversation swayed to what I planned to do during my stay. A few ideas were discussed before we banked on going to the National Botanic Garden of Wales.

It’s been around 10 years since I previously visited when I was much younger as was the planting in the garden!

It was great to see how it has progressed and was highly impressed with the Mediterranean biome, providing a paradise display on a selection of plants which I have really began to become interested in.

Some particular highlights of the Mediterranean biome where the selection of Anigozanthos flavidus and manglesii varieties, the prolific sight of Hibbertia grossulariifolia in full flower and the subtlety of Hebenstretia dura which remind me of little hands!

I was really impressed with the layout of the site as a whole, but also how individual projects had been planned, the use of symbolic design, planting combinations (either as colours or complementary in botanical classification) and overall impact. To me, it was evident that a lot of thought had been put into it, and found the concepts of display innovative and fresh.

Asides from the biome, other highlights and points of interest for the season included the floriferous display in the walled garden, notably a Hoheria sexstylosa ‘Crataegifolia’ providing great wall coverage. The botanical grouping of plants created some lovely complementary movements, particularly in the Asteraceae section.

The dry garden around the biome was also a great piece to enhance the biome as a focal point of the bigger landscape.

So if you’re ever visiting over that way, it’s well worth a look!

Coastal retreat – a treat for a day

The weekend just gone has been a coastal extravaganza!

I teamed up with fellow trainee and friend Jamie Butterworth to help him build an expression of a coastal garden for the RHS Secret Sunday show for August. (Yeah it’s a kind of a shout out, but trust me he doesn’t need it!)

Unlike many show garden displays, we wanted ours to be interactive and encouraged it to be used and walked through. This was achieved by creating a pathway through the sandy beach at the front to the hard rock, and planting in the latter parts, leading people on a coastal journey.

We used a wide variety of materials within the project, including large boulder rocks, large stones, coarse grade pebbles and 6 tonnes of sand! This was all supplied courtesy of Stone Warehouse and the plants where from Coblands.

The process began by putting down a liner in the area in which the garden would be situated. This was inside the entrance to the Royal Horticultural Halls at Vincent Square in London, a grade one listed building, so it was important to protect it!

Untreated railway sleepers were butted end to end to create the 6×6 metre perimeter the garden would be contained in. Unopened compost bags were then laid out in different areas to help obtain variation in level; these would later be covered in sand to avoid being visible.

The larger groups of plants such as Stipa, Gaura and Kniphofia were selected and set out, with enough density to provide a natural feel but with enough gaps for the mind to imagine that the space could develop and fill out further in time.

The large boulders and large pebbles were next to be shifted into place. This required a fair bit of planning and ample use of the two tonne pallet truck! The sheer weight and shape of some of the stones required three or four of us to lift them for the very short distances required – one of those ‘do not try this at home’ moments! (No horticulturists were hurt in the process!)

When we were happy with where the main pieces in the design were, we began to fill in with sand (predominantly for the front half), pebbles, cobbles or smaller plants. We continued to step back and reassess progress as it was important not to fill in all the gaps with plants. Many plants on the original list were not used and I think one of the keys to success was holding back on this and the significance of simplicity within the design, creating a stronger impact with less rather than filling with more.

Aside from the garden, we also had a flat-packed shed to assemble (without any instructions) and were also required to cut a window in the side of one of the panels so that ice creams could be sold out of it the following day.

A hard day’s work on the Saturday was followed by the Sunday show where our display seemed to receive a lot of attention. It was great to hear so many positive comments and seeing people of all ages using the garden! In the afternoon Jamie and I gave a talk about the creation of the garden, providing some information on the plants that had been used, as well as summarising what we had hoped to achieve.

It was a great experience, and a privilege to be a part of such a success. A feeling of joy and pride mixed with a sense of relief (after the breakdown of the garden had been completed on Sunday night.) We had built a success, put it on view for people to see and cleared it all away in just under 15 hours.

Would I do it again… yes… well I’ve agreed to do another garden in September so watch this space!

Bedding update

So it’s been a little while since the bedding went in, with moderate successes.

Unfortunately the stock of Solenostemon we purchased had been pinched back too late and shortly after planting began to show symptoms of stress and root rot.

These were removed and replaced with a mix of different Solenostemon as we were unable to source enough of the cultivar we required. Ordering bedding now is very late in the year and it is advised that you place orders in the previous autumn.

Since then we have had a mix of hot periods and sporadic heavy rain; this is not ideal for the bedding, and although most plants in the design are tropical they require a lot of water (along with humidity and relative high temperatures) which they are simply not getting. This has led to the impatiens becoming scorched or ‘sunburnt’ on their flowers.

On the other hand, the petunias have been flowering like crazy, creating a mass of new buds from time to time! The cosmos are flowering well in the end beds, and are beginning to flower in the middle beds after being pinched back as they were beginning to sag in the heavy rain storms. The cut back also provides an additional bonus of further variation in height between the three beds.

The cannas on the whole are growing well and have begun to flower. Their height is almost what I had envisaged- perhaps a little small, as the purple foliage and red flowers rise above the flowering cosmos.

General comments from the public are positive and one is quite true – ‘It looks amazing… from a distance.’ Partly what was intended, but the problems of late planting and extreme weather means the planting hasn’t quite filled out how we would love, but I think we are around 5 weeks behind where it should be if it had been planted in early to mid-May as most bedding is. So if the weather stays warm and we get enough rain then we have all reason to stay optimistic and enjoy our creation!

Hampton Court Palace Flower Show

I have spent a large part of the week at RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show. It’s great to be involved in the largest flower show in the world!

I spent press day (Monday) helping the school kids set up their scarecrows for exhibition. It was great to see how excited many of them were to be there and the amount of energy they have!

On Wednesday I spent the day on the RHS advisory desk, answering all kinds of queries and questions from the public, most of them horticultural. Regular questioned included ‘Why are the leaves on my Acer curling’ and ‘My raspberry canes are dying, what have I done wrong?’

Many of the answers to these questions are not necessarily the fault of an individual, but more a case of exposure to weather extremes such as strong winds and excessively wet and waterlogged soil.

Over the course of the week there has been over 5,000 enquires, so hopefully we now have a lot of satisfied customers!

I was fortunate enough to spend Thursday and Friday on the ‘One Show garden’ which was designed by competition winner Alex Noble.

I spoke to her at the beginning of Thursday to get a deeper insight into her thoughts and meaning behind the garden she had created. This helped me to convey and interpret the meaning, impact and impression the garden was trying to create to visitors. It was also important to ensure I knew all the plants; this would help with the guaranteed question – ‘What’s that plant?’ Some seemed impressed and then saw it as a challenge to ask me what others were, hoping I wouldn’t know! One gentleman asked me how I know so much, my response; lots of practice as it’s my job!

Finally today I’ve just spent the day milling with friends and seeing some of the show I hadn’t got round to viewing. It’s been a hot one though, so sheltering under a large lime tree was also a popular choice!

To see all of this year’s show gardens and winners, visit the RHS website here.


This week I completed my final practical assessment for the Wisley diploma. The preparation and build up has been quite intense, but I feel that the pressured environment you may put yourself under to achieve success is important to do from time to time.

There are many challenges you may face in horticulture and I think it’s important to give it your best shot each time. There may be multiple methods of achieving success, but if there is a required method for an exam, I suggest you learn it!

The exam consisted of 16 separate practical tasks ranging from knife skills in grafting and cuttings, identifying ingredients in growing media as well as multiple idents of plants, pests, diseases and equipment used in horticulture.

Now I’ve passed this, my marks, along with the other results from various projects I’ve completed over the two years has guaranteed my graduation with two project marks still pending.

So horticulture can provide satisfaction and a reminded of what you really do know, so don’t forget to test yourselves sometimes. It can give you the inner confidence to enhance your learning and work on what you’re not so sure on.

Happy learning!

Know your weeds!

During the last week I’ve been trying to memorise and retain 60 different weeds for today’s identification test. Here at Wisley we are regularly tested with plant identifications, usually fortnightly, and although it can sometimes feel all too much like hard work with everything else going on, the botanists do try to make it fun!

I do like a plant ident myself, and although I rarely get full marks, I like to take on the challenge and see what I can identify! Over the course of the last two years I feel that my plant knowledge and identification skills have really come on, and the more you do the more you can begin to understand how plants relate; either by genus or families they are a part of.

The weed ident is one that the botanists note as a particularly tricky test, alongside conifers, winter stems and autumn leaves. So to help out they provide a workshop when the list is announced and discuss the plants in question with useful botanical and general identification tips.

Learning the botanical names is always interesting. Some are more simple than others, perhaps because they are more common, or just seem simpler to pronounce. I just found it tough to remember Heracleum sphondyllium (common hogweed) even though I knew it by sight, I just could not remember the name!

I always like to research the meanings of the genus and species names to understand how plant hunters and botanists are trying to describe the plant in such a succinct way. I guess we have Carl Linnaeus (a 17th century Swedish botanist) to thank for the system of naming plants.

But back to the weeds – it’s just so important to try and remember what you can on this subject because then you can keep on top of invasive species and will also prevent you from pulling things out that you actually wanted to keep.


Since the beginning of May I have had the pleasure of working with a vast array of alpine plants. The collections here at Wisley are divided into areas of origin or requirements in the various service houses, before being put out on display. One plant which really took my fancy was Physoplexis comosa.

The tufted horned part of the name is relating to the protruding style and stigma of the flower (the female parts).

The stamens (male parts of the flower) are hidden and encased within the fused petals of the plant.

The various stages of flower development provide prolonged interest and to me, the display in full flower is something unique!

The plants have now gone dormant and have produced seed, which I recently collected and hope to sow soon to multiply the numbers of this fantastic plant!

Top Terrace Bedding Design

I’ve just spent the week with two of the other trainees I live with, implementing our bedding design into reality on the top terrace bedding panels!

Since successfully winning the mini competition amongst the trainees at the start of the year, the three of us have worked hard at find growers and nurseries to produce and look after the plants chosen whilst in their juvenile stages.

Our objective was to do something new, inspiring and thought provoking. Whether visitors like it or not is up for debate!

Our scheme is based on the theme of Chiaroscuro; an Italian artistic term to describe powerful contrasts between light and dark, affecting a whole composition. We were inspired by ‘Death on the Pale Horse’ painted by Benjamin West in 1796.

The white swath of Cosmos used in the scheme is to represent the horse, providing variations in height to show transition from head to tail. Dark foliage plants are used to create stark contrast and bring out the brilliant white. Red is used to represent fear, danger or warning and add another dimension to the colour pallet.

The initial marking out was a tricky business and a lot more complex than the standard – we like to make things challenging!! This was partially due to our unequal shape, which narrowed and widened in various beds. The beds to plant into were also of different areas and were parallelogram in shape, so had no lines of symmetry. This involved lots of maths and some frantic divisions, to ensure even and mirrored symmetry was achieved – all whilst the rain came down!

Motto of the story: pay attention in maths – it is important and you will need it later in life!

Once marking out was complete, we began digging out, mounding and sculpting soil in the beds. This was a key part to our design, which sets it apart from a lot of traditional flat level bedding. Although some height can be obtained this way, we wanted to enhance this further for greater impact.

Next came the layout and spacing of plants. Maths played its part once again! We had already worked out the number of plants (plus 10% extra) required for the complete project, but how many plants went into each section would vary dependant on bed size… tricky huh? So laying out was key before some planting could begin, and we began more conservatively, so additional plants could always be added.

Now for the fun part… the planting! But with over 4,500 plants to put in, we were going to need a little help from our friends! So we sent out an SOS to the garden staff to ask for assistance.

Before we knew it the planting was complete.

Why not come and visit soon and see how it progresses for yourself?