My conservatory

Pelargoniums and paperwhite narcissisi in conservatory

There’s a clash of the seasons in my conservatory at the moment. Some paperwhite narcissi have flowered way earlier than I was expecting, and some pelargoniums (including the wonderfully named ‘Happy Thought’, in the front) have decided to flower again.

The tiny space is getting very congested – I’ve already brought in some tender plants, such as lemon verbenas, which was a bit premature given the ridiculously mild weather we’ve been having. Soon a couple of bananas and a fuchsia will be making their way in. Mind you, the effect I’m going for is Andie McDowell’s indoor greenhouse in the film Green Card, so a bit of congestion is fine by me.

A shady corner

Ferns and Japanese anemones
Brook Green, London

I’ve walked past this shady little front garden many times but had never noticed it before. Now that the Japanese anemones are out, though, it caught my eye. I like the contrast of leaf colours and textures, and especially love the crinkly, purple pittosporum. It’s an attractive, low-maintenance solution for a tiny Victorian terrace.

Summer review

Gaura and verbena bonariensis

Now that our Indian summer has most definitely come to an end, I thought I’d look back at the first growing season in my garden. The highs, the lows, the courgettes…


My new borders
I dug two new borders out of existing lawn earlier in the year. (Actually, I didn’t do it, I paid a strong young man.) The turf was turned over and left in situ, then topped with loads of well-rotted manure and topsoil. I then left them alone. I was a bit worried about how they would turn out, but I planted the borders up last weekend, and the soil seemed good – easy to work and not too sticky or heavy (the soil around here is heavy clay).

My Eindhell push mower
My dad gave me an old Flymo hover mower when I moved house, and despite its cute retro appearance, I loathed the thing. It was heavy and unwieldy, especially on slopes, and it didn’t so much cut the grass as flatten it. I couldn’t face yet another piece of kit that needed a power lead or battery charger, and didn’t fancy going down the petrol route, so I went for a push mower. I did some research online, and found that everyone loved the convenience of their push mower and wished they’d got one sooner. However they all thought the grass collection boxes were rubbish. There didn’t seem to be much difference between the expensive models and the cheaper ones, so I bought a cheap one. It’s great – I can cut what’s left of the lawn in about ten minutes. But the grass collection bag is rubbish.

Wind-tolerant plants
My garden is pretty windy. It’s on top of a hill, and is very narrow, surrounded on both sides by high fences (I didn’t put them in, and there isn’t enough room to replace them with hedges). But Gaura lindheimerei (above), despite looking so dainty, has withstood it all. Plus, it’s been in flower since June. So much so that I’ve planted a second one. Verbena bonariensis has also put on an amazing show. A friend gave me 10 baby plants this spring, and they’ve flowered their socks off. They gave the illusion that my virtually empty borders were full.

My temporary veg patch
I cleared a raised bed that was full of junk at the back of the garden in spring, and turned it into a temporary veg patch. As I dug out the bicycle chains, bricks, paving slabs, child’s hair grips, rusty nails and endless bindweed shoots, I could tell that the soil was actually quite good. I enriched it with some manure and got planting. My first courgette plants got eaten by slugs, so I rashly planted four more that were given to me by a friend. They all bloody grew. I now have some patty pans that are the size of spaceships lined up over every available surface. I also rashly planted two wigwams worth of runner beans, going against the very advice that I’m forever dolling out in articles. As a result I’ve eaten runner beans every day for about three months.

Sweet peas
Sweet peas are my favourite flower, and it’s a sad day when I pick the last one of the year. That day hasn’t come yet, as some ‘Spencer Tall Mixed’, from a free packet that I sowed late, left to languish in loo rolls and eventually bunged into an unpromising part of the veg patch, have come into their own. They’ve got frilly flowers that look like cancan dancers’ knickers. ‘Spencer Tall Mixed’ aside, I planted a mix of autumn-sown plants, spring-sown plants and young plants, and picked them in succession from May onwards. I put them in a very sunny spot, and their stems got short very quickly in the hot weather. The sweet pea expert, Roger Parsons, suggests growing them somewhere that is shaded during the hottest part of the day, so I’m going to try that next year.

Mara des Bois strawberries
I’d been itching to grow these perpetual strawberries that taste of alpines, and I wasn’t disappointed. I’m still picking the odd one now.

In the absence of a greenhouse, I grew tomatoes in my conservatory. It was fine until they reached triffid-like proportions, at which point I moved them outside. I grew the much talked-about ‘Indigo Rose’, a black variety, and ‘Rosella’, a new cherry type. The fruits on ‘Rosella’ were ridiculously sweet, almost like a fruit. I managed to ripen some ‘Indigo Rose’ eventually (they take a very long time, especially outdoors) and enjoyed growing them – they look very striking when they’re at the black stage (they’re ripe when half the fruit has gone the colour of tomato soup), and I loved the little red star shape that develops around the stems. My only criticism is that they took so long to ripen that many of the stragglers got eaten by slugs.


My back
I buggered it early in the year, doing too much heavy stuff. Hence why I had to pay a strong young man to dig my borders.

The lack of progress.
I shan’t be inviting Gardens Illustrated round anytime soon. Sometimes I’ve spent an entire day in the garden, with nothing to really show for it (except a bad back). I didn’t get half of what I was hoping to do done this year. Gardening is a bit like decorating – there’s a hell of a lot of necessary but unglamorous preparation.

Ladybird poppies
I sowed some seeds in the spring. Not one came up. Not one. Nada. Zilch.

Red spider mite
I didn’t notice the signs of this critter in the conservatory until it was way too late, and lost my little lemon tree to it. I’m wise to it now, though, and have got myself a magnifying glass so I can see them under the leaves before they’ve done too much damage.


Everything takes a long time.

There’s always something to do.

There’s no time to sit in a deckchair.

Even if there was time to sit in a deckchair, I’d just sit there thinking about all the things there are to do.

Patience is a virtue.


Imperial Gardens

Miscanthus sinensis 'Kleine Silberspinne'

I work in Cheltenham a couple of days a week, and the last leg of my long journey takes me through a park called Imperial Gardens. I love walking through it, and often have the place to myself. It’s laid out in the traditional Victorian style, with thousands of bedding plants, and always looks always immaculate. Come the evening, when I do my journey in reverse, the park is full, with groups of people lounging on the grass.

The planting around the statue of Gustav Holst is a complete contrast to the bedding displays – it’s mostly grasses, predominantly (I think) Miscanthus sinensis ‘Kleine Silberspinne’, with some Stipa tenuissima in there too. They’ve been steadily getting better and better since early summer, and are really coming in to their own now.

The park is currently one of the venues of the Cheltenham Literature Festival, and much of it is covered by festival marquees. I don’t think the lawns will look quite as immaculate when the festival has finished.