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What is a biennial?

A biennial plant is one that takes two years to reach flowering size, and then dies after the effort. Although the plant’s life spans two calendar years, it only takes about 12 months to grow and flower. Sow biennials in early summer, plant out into their flowering positions in late summer and autumn and they will flower in late spring or early summer the following year. Most are frost hardy. The most popular biennials are wallflowers, foxgloves, forget-me-nots, pansies, Canterbury bells, bellis (daisies) and sweet Williams. Polyanthus and some other plants, such as wallflowers, are really perennials and can be kept for several years but are traditionally treated as biennials.

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Berberis ‘Stenophylla’

The arching habit of this attractive spring-flowering shrub makes it very useful as a specimen. Bright yellow flowers adorn the stems which also carry lance-shaped, short, dark, glossy green foliage which is retained year round. Good for planting en-masse or for inclusion in mixed or shrub borders. If planted 1m (3ft) apart in a single line it makes an attractive informal hedge.

In 10 years it will reach 2m x 2m (6ft x 6ft). It is hardy and will tolerate full sun to medium shade on a wide range of soils, except extremely dry.

Soak the root-ball before planting. Plant in a hole twice the diameter of the root-ball or pot. Mix an organic soil improver and general fertiliser with the infill soil. Water regularly until established.

Three years after planting remove one in three of the shoots to ground level after flowering, choosing the oldest. This will, in turn, maintain a good display of flowers and foliage.

Barberry and evergreen this vigorous shrub with spine-tipped dark green leaves produces clusters of deep yellow flowers from April to May followed by blue-glaucous, black fruits from June.

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Golden bamboo: easy to grow

This graceful bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea) stays in a nice, tight, well-behaved clump and has masses of tiny leaves covering fresh-green knobbly canes. It’s fantastic as a single specimen creating a focal point and, being tall and upright, it makes an excellent screen too. Plant it in rich, moist soil in a sheltered position away from strong winds, which can scorch the leaf edges. It can reach 15ft (4.5m) or so, but clip it with shears if you want it shorter. Don’t let this one dry out – keeping it in a pot isn’t wise unless you can provide automatic irrigation. The only pests likely to attack are green aphids, which sometimes appear inn late spring or early summer. To keep them under control, pick them off and squash them as soon as you spot them.

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Which Bamboo where?


In Pots:

Most bamboos look wonderful in pots, but they’ll be hungry and thirsty, and need dividing, often with a saw, every two years.



Chimonobambusa tumidissinoda

This bamboo has swollen nodes on the stems and arching foliage





Fargesia murielae

Forming dense arching clumps of leafy canes, it’s great on a terrace where the swaying is mesmerising





Semiarundinaria yashadake f. kimmei

Plenty of thin yellow canes with green stripes



(8ft 4in)





Clump formers for borders

Thamnocalamus crassinodus ‘Merlyn’

A graceful blue-stemmed plant with tiny leaves. Perfect for small gardens





Sweet Bamboo (Phyllostachys dulcis)


Grown in China for its sweet, edible shoots. It has very thick canes




Black Bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra)


It has polished ebony-coloured stems when grown in full sun




Phyllostachys vivax f. aeurocaulis

A spectacular, tall and hardy bamboo with golden-yellow stems striped with green.





P. vivax f. huanvenzhu

Similar to above but with the stem colours reversed





Chusquea culeou

A wonderful plant with tightly packed leaves, making a ‘bottlebrush effect’. It forms a dense clump





For hedges and boundaries

Pseudosasa japonica

Known as arrow bamboo because of its straight stems and glossy leaves.


(6ft 8in – 13ft)



Phyllostachys aureosultcata

Very upright, this bamboo could line a pathway. Its green stems have golden grooves and kinks near the base.




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Is there a way to stop bamboo from spreading without moving the plant?

Most bamboos have spreading underground root (rhizome) systems and these can be very invasive. However, it is possible to restrict an established bamboo by inserting a physical barrier in the ground. Dig a circular trench around the plant: this should be at least 9in deep and 12in from the edge of the bamboo clump. Then trim back any exposed roots. Select a piece of rigid, non-perishable plastic sheeting and insert this vertically around the trench — this will act as a barrier to outward root growth. Fill in the rest of the trench with the excavated soil and firm-in the sheeting well. Make sure the top of the barrier is close to ground level.

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What is a good bamboo when so many of them have a bad name? Bamboos were making us incandescent with rage long before Thomas Edison used a fibre stripped from one of them as the filament of the first light bulb. The problem has been that English gardeners started with the runners and invaders, bamboos such as Pseudosasa japonica and various Sasa species which will cane it over even a short distance. The more desirable species tend to form slow-spreading orderly clumps – hence the rule of thumb that the more expensive a bamboo the less likely it will be to misbehave. We also began by growing the bores. Although it was introduced to English gardens in the Regency period, the incomparably chic black bamboo, Phyllostachys nigra, for example, took more than 150 years to become anything like widely available simply because uglier and more aggressive species – the basis for our prejudices – were running amok and discouraging us from trying out the good ones.

In my own town garden (minute, walled, and basically containerised with rectangular planters) there is no room to accommodate marauders and mediocrities, but we still manage to grow more than a dozen different bamboos. Each has its own role and character, and each creates a different tempo and mood in an area so small that it should, by rights, have no ambience at all. Taller species with colourful canes include the ebony Phyllostachys nigra, the tortoiseshell Phyllostachys bambusoides f. lacrima-deae, and Phyllostachys aureocaulis ‘Spectabilis’ in jade-striped gold that flushes amber and ruby in sun and cold. Cooler and calmer, Thamnocalamus ‘Kew Beauty’ sports verdigris canes that turn mahogany with age and swarm with minute leaves. In large pots, inky wands of Fargesia nitida bow beneath whispering pearl and pea-green foliage. As a counterweight to its shimmering gracefulness, Semiarundinaria fastuosa marches along one wall with 20ft-tall ramrod canes tinted plum and sheathed with long, apple-green blades.

These are bamboos to play the parts of small trees and large shrubs; but there are slimmer, smaller kinds for less extravagant, if no less dramatic, effects. For foliage colour, try the white-brushed Pleioblastus ‘Tsuboii’, the emerald and gold Pleioblastus viridistriatus, and the blushing, ivory-combed x Hibanobambusa tranquillans ‘Shiroshima’. And, as a clever and clippable alternative to box in shady places, there is dwarf, bushy Shibataea kumasaca, verdant either way in sharp-looking metal containers or in its classic locus among gravel and stones, with a carpet of ferns and Pachysandra terminalis at its feet. Try any one of these in a pot or the ground, and you will soon discover why in Paris and London this season’s style is bamboo.

Need to know

Bamboos are excellent natural fences. Larger types that can be planted to form screens and boundaries include Semiarundinaria fastuosa (very tall and straight) and (less formal) Phyllostachys species such as the black P. nigra and the golden P. aureosulcata ‘Spectabilis’. Planted in a line (say, 1m apart in a narrow bed) young plants will expand and coalesce within a year or two. To make an elegant divider for terraces and small gardens, plant a long narrow bed, set into paving, with just a line of black Phyllostachys nigra top-dressed with gravel or pebbles, or use bamboos grown in zinc or wooden rectangular planters.

Most bamboos are either runners or clumpers. Clump-formers are ideal for pots. Unless you have plenty of space, avoid the energetic runners Pseudosasa and Sasa. If your chosen bamboo should send up a cane where it is not wanted, just cut it off at ground level.

Bamboos will grow in sun or shade, but the hotter and more exposed their position, the more water they will need. Do not let young plants or ones in pots dry out.

They are best protected from fierce cold and drying winds: a walled or fenced site is ideal, or against the building if on a terrace or balcony.

Whether in pots or the ground, give them a rich, moisture-retentive growing medium. In pots use John Innes number 3, or a soil-less potting compost mixed with fine grit and a handful or two of granulated all-purpose feed.

Between late spring and autumn, give pot-grown bamboos a fortnightly dilute liquid feed (Miracle-Gro, for example) and an occasional hosing-down.

Large bamboos can be thinned to remove older or surplus canes throughout the year. Once the new season’s crop of canes has developed, these can be pruned of their lower branches to show off their colour and form.

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How do I grow a black bamboo, and where can I get one?

The black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra) is a clump-forming evergreen grown for its arching, green canes that turn ebony in their second or third year. It has lance-shaped, dark green foliage and the mature canes reach 15ft. It does best in a fertile soil that is moist but well-drained, and will thrive in sun or dappled shade — avoid areas prone to cold, drying winds. (see also . . .)

It can also be raised in a large container (with drainage holes) containing John Innes No 3 compost — keep the earth moist and apply a liquid feed monthly in summer.

Black bamboos are available from Architectural Plants (01403 891 772, www.architecturalplants.com ).


Although it may take some years to make a dense fence-hiding screen, this bamboo is worth the wait. It maintains a strong vertical shape with glossy black canes and can be prevented from becoming invasive by planting it in a large sunken concrete pipe. If this species is a little too pricey, try Arundinaria nitida, but be sure to restrain the roots. A moisture-retentive but not soggy soil is perfect for Phyllostachys. H2.5m, S1.5m.

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Although hardy in the ground, a bamboo in a container can suffer from drought in the winter. Bamboos need regular watering all year round, including winter, when the evergreen leaves can be stripped of water by cold winds and its root system is unable to replace the moisture from frozen compost. If planting out in the garden is not an option, then repot. Other than dwarf and very slow-growing species, most bamboos will fill their pots with roots within two years, and if not repotted will deteriorate for lack of water and nutrients.

Divide the plant by sawing or chopping through the congested root ball. After division, remove old, thin and weak growth, and about 30%-50% of the top growth, which will concentrate growth into the new shoots, making them come through thicker and stronger. This is best carried out in autumn or early spring. Use a soil-based compost and add a slow-release fertiliser and water-storage granules; remember that, although bamboos have a high demand for water, they will not tolerate water logging.

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Propagate a bamboo?

The quickest way to propagate a bamboo is to remove any suckers from the main plant, ensuring each one has a healthy set of roots as well as a sturdy stem and leaves. Replant them in a sunny, sheltered spot and keep the soil moist until they are established.

Alternatively, in late spring, dig around the bamboo and carefully lift the root ball out of the ground, before dividing it into sections with a spade or sharp knife. The strongest segments can be potted up and grown on, or replanted in the garden.

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A black bamboo, which is about 18 months old and is kept in a large pot, has recently started to display disturbing symptoms — dry leaves, withering and losing colour — in spite of regular watering. How to revive it.

Bamboo leaves can die (indeed the whole plant can die) through lack of watering, in winter as well as summer. So if you bring the pot under the eaves, say, where it is protected in winter, it can dry out enough to shrivel, especially during high winds which alone can discolour the foliage. A frozen rootball can have the same effect, because the foliage cannot draw up water. Bamboo foliage takes a few weeks to shrivel, especially in winter, so the damage itself may not be recent. Ensure generous watering all year.

Remember that in a clump of bamboo a few canes always die naturally each year, and should be cut out. But if the whole clump withers it’s usually dead, and that’s that. If your bamboo does not make new foliage by May, cut it all down, feed, and pray for a season.

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Digging in the bark

Bark chippings were put down on borders a couple of years ago, but now they need replanting; can the bark be dug in or does it have to be removed?

It can be dug in. Just be aware that bark is high in carbon and therefore takes a while to mulch down. The soil microbes that decompose bark require nitrogen to function, as do garden plants, so they need to be observed over the next season. Feed them with a fertiliser that’s high in nitrogen if they start to show signs of nitrogen deficiency (generally seen as yellowing leaves). If the bark is old and already starting to break down when it is dug in then that is less of a problem.

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We've had a bay tree in a pot outside for five years. About a year ago, the leaves turned from dark green to yellow - I suspect it became waterlogged at one point. We have already repotted it, trimmed back the roots and changed the compost.

The first response when any containerised plant starts looking sick is to do as you have done and get it out of its pot, brush the compost from around the roots and surface, and repot it into some fresh stuff. You will, of course, have ensured it has a layer of broken crocks beneath it, to stop the drainage holes getting blocked with compost. However, long-term potted plants can get waterlogged no matter how good the drainage you initially provide, as the roots can get so matted that no water can move. I am hoping that when you say you trimmed back the roots, it was to ease this sort of congestion, and not because all you found was a mush of dead, brown or black roots. If the latter was the case, then the waterlogging may have done serious harm, and you are witnessing the plant's death throes. Tip it out of its pot again and look for signs of healthy, white roots. If the root ball is very shallow, or most of the roots look black and dead, it is already lost and is just taking its time to croak. If there are hopeful white roots, put it back in the pot and give it a feed - something hearty such as seaweed extract or chicken manure pellets; in this case, it is probably just recovering.

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When should a bay tree be pruned?

People see little lollipop bays outside chic restaurants and think that is the size bays like to be. But in the ground, in a warm spot, they will happily grow to 5m or 6m, and as much across when they lose their leader and become multi-stemmed trees (which most do in British gardens).

You can prune bay viciously. Sometimes a severe winter will do it for you and cut it to the ground. But cutting through trunks more than 6-7cm in diameter tends to induce eventual die-back, even though they may sprout in the short term. Suckers from the base then take over.

Spring is the time. Leave some upper branches to hide your cuts. If you don’t have room for a big bay, prune it little and often, and avoid major surgery.

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Dividing and propagating bearded irises is easy enough. You lift the whole clump with a fork and throw away the mass of old rhizomes, slicing off and saving only the best, fattest pieces for replanting (use secateurs). Then replenish the soil with well-rotted compost and bone meal (nothing too high in nitrogen) and set the rhizomes on the soil surface pointing towards the sun, to encourage flowering. Spread out the roots sideways, like wings, to anchor the fan of leaves.

When to divide

Tradition says you lift bearded irises after flowering, at the time when the rhizomes begin to put out new roots underneath the tip of the un-flowered fans.

However, if you lift too soon there will be no new roots and nothing to anchor the rhizome when you replant. Wait until new roots are a few inches long before you start in earnest. (Lift one fan and see what’s happening there first.) If you rely for anchorage on older, shrivelled roots further back along the rhizome, you will be replanting more old rhizome than necessary, defeating the object of division.

Shorter bearded irises such as ‘Knick Knack’, ‘Lilli-White’, ‘Green Spot’ and ‘Austrian Sky’ flower earlier than the tall, blowsy June flags, and begin to produce roots sooner. They can often be divided as early as late May while others should be checked out about the end of June.

How often

Generally speaking, older varieties of bearded irises are tougher, and will go longer between divisions. The rule book says three to four years, but some of these oldies, such as ‘Jane Phillips’ and ‘Indian Chief’, will go well beyond that. If your irises go on flowering strongly year after year, feel free to leave them alone until they begin to produce smaller or fewer flowers.

If you grow the newer American-bred irises with amazing frilly flowers (‘Yosemite Sam’, ‘Tanzanian Tangerine’ and ‘Baboon Bottom’), they will require regular division to strut their stuff, as well as a position in blazing sun. The oldies are more forgiving, and cope with poorer soil and less sun. All love lime.

Irises do well in heavy soils so long as the top of the rhizome is on the soil surface to ripen. On heavy soils, they will go longer without division, whereas on light hungry soils they may need regular division to revitalise the soil with compost.

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What to do with bearded irises when they have finished flowering and are rather unsightly.

Cut back to the base all flowering stems, and leave the foliage until it discolours, as it is building up strength in the rhizomes for next year. Irises need plenty of sun to bloom well, thriving in heavy or light soil if drainage is good. Rhizomes need to be lifted and divided every three years, or when congested. To do this, lift the clump and split it, cutting off young rhizomes with a sharp knife, and discarding the old rhizomes. Avoid handling the roots. Replant in a sunny position, firming the soil gently around the roots, but not covering the rhizomes, and keep moist until established. Shorten leaves to a 10cm-long fan to reduce water loss and prevent wind rock, and feed with bonemeal.

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Bergenia (Elephant ears)


Evergreen, Hardy Perennial, Any Soil, Sun / Part Shade

Flowering season: April / June

Bergenia, otherwise known as Elephants ears, is a tough survivor in spite of its tropical appearance. The plant grows from a creeping rhizome usually above ground, giving it the ability to grow on the shallowest of soils. From this rhizome, the large evergreen leaves appear, and the plant can be used to cover building rubble or drain covers. Pink or white flowers appear in early spring to add to the attraction.

Bergenia is quite happy in both shady and dry situations making this a valuable plant for difficult gardens. (see also . . )


Remove dead flowers once the blooms have faded, and periodically clear away the old dead leaves.

Curtail any unwanted spread of the plants by simply cutting and clearing away. Rhizomes may be re-established elsewhere by pinning them to the soil surface with a peg or a weight such as a brick.

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A two-year-old bird of paradise has never flowered. What’s wrong?

Strelitzia reginae is a large, clump-forming houseplant with evergreen, lance-shaped leaves and spectacular orange and blue flowers that come out mainly in the spring. It is called “bird of paradise” as each inflorescence looks like the head of an exotic, long-beaked bird.

The plant will eventually reach a height of 5ft with a slightly smaller spread and is best grown in a well-lit conservatory (shaded from hot summer sun) at a minimum temperature of 5C-10C.

During spring and summer, water regularly (allow the compost surface almost to dry out between each application) and apply a liquid feed every month — irrigate sparingly in autumn and winter. The reason your bird of paradise has not flowered is almost certainly due to its age, as these plants only begin flowering when they are four or five years old.

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NEST BOX - smaller birds, such as sparrows and tits (jpeg)
NEST BOX - others (jpeg)

Also see Photo Gallery for feeding

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1 Put out a bird table and offer high calorie seed mixes. Put out kitchen scraps on the table such as animal fats, grated cheese and soaked dried fruit.

2 Put out hanging feeders with black sunflower seeds, sunflower hearts, sunflower-rich mixes or unsalted peanuts. Provide food in safe, rigid containers, such as wire mesh peanut baskets, to avoid the risk of birds trapping their feet or tongues in fine plastic mesh bags (we still receive reports of such incidents).

3 Ensure a supply of fresh water every day. If it is very cold use tepid water, but do not use antifreeze.

4 Offer apples and pears for blackbirds, song thrushes and other thrushes: you may be able to get bruised fruit from your local shop.

5 Food bars or fat, hung up or rubbed into the bark of trees, help treecreepers, goldcrests and other birds that aren't helped by conventional feeders.

6 Put up nest boxes as roost sites for the smaller birds. They may then be used for nesting in the spring.

7 Plant berry-bearing plants in your garden, such as hawthorn, rowan, holly, elder, cotoneaster and berberis.

8 Leave wild, weedy or shrubby areas in the garden, however small, to provide natural seeds, natural cover and a supply of small insects.



Robins, tits and blackcaps will eat these on the table - look out for the dunnocks, wrens and pied wagtails on the ground.

85 g flour
30 g lard, butter or high-fat margarine - remember birds need the fat.
No maggots!

Put the flour in a bowl.
Mix in the lard with the tips of your fingers.
Rub the dry mixture into little crumbly rolls that look like maggots!
Sprinkle these on the ground, bird table, among bushes or in flowerbeds.



What you need: Broken branch Hooks

Ingredients: Peanuts Raisins Suet
Bird cake mixture Kitchen scraps Sunflower seeds

Find a broken branch with rough bark.
Cut it into 50cm lengths.
Cut holes of different sizes through the branch.
Screw a hook into the top of the branch so you can hang it up.
Fill the holes with peanuts, raisins, suet, bird cake mixture and sunflower seeds or anything else you can cram into the holes.



Look out for tits, greenfinches and great spotted woodpeckers. Blue tits and great tits will be sure to feed acrobatically from the bird cake.

What you need:
Suitable container - coconut shell or clean yoghurt pot String

Beef suet or lard Seeds
Dried fruits - raisins, sultanas

Mix 1 part of lard or suet to 2 parts of seeds/nuts/dried fruit mixture. You can just use seeds in the bird cake, but extras are welcome, such as finely chopped bacon rind.
Melt or soften suet.
Pour onto the seeds/nuts/ dried fruit and mix well.
Drape the string into the container and pour in the mixture.
Cool and remove outer container.
Hang up with string.



There's plenty of easy, quick bird food from the kitchen:

Bread: crumbled brown or white, but moisten if dry. Pastry: cooked or uncooked - excellent if made with real fats (birds do not need a low ­fat diet: quite the opposite). Rice: cooked brown or white without added salt. Fat: particularly welcomed by tits, great spotted woodpeckers, thrushes and wrens - don't put out polyunsaturated fats though, as they don't give birds the high level of energy they need in the winter. Bacon rind: chopped up finely for robins, suspended on string for tits - avoid salty bacon.

Mild grated cheese: a favourite with robins, dunnocks, blackbirds and song thrushes, good for wrens if you put it tinder hedgerows and in other areas where you've seen them feeding.

Potatoes: baked (cold and opened up), roasted or even mashed with added real fats. Dried fruits: raisins, sultanas and currants are loved by blackbirds, song thrushes and robins.

Apples, pears or other fruit: chop up bruised or part rotten fruit - very popular when cut up with all thrushes, tits and starlings.

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Make your garden a haven for birds during the winter – you’ll see more of them and they’ll love you for it! (October)

Gardens are hugely important for birds, and every responsible gardener should provide a habitat where they can feed in safety. Many birds have come to rely on food put out in gardens for their survival, while others are occasional visitors who pop in when food becomes scarce elsewhere, especially during the winter.

So what should you do to encourage birds into your garden? In support of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds here is a guide to preparing your garden for the difficult months.

Many gardens have natural resources the birds love. Trees such as birch, rowan, holly and yew are all winners with birds, while berry-bearing shrubs like Pyracantha, berberis, cotoneaster and hawthorn also provide good sources of food.
            And don’t worry too much about having a pristine garden through the winter months. A ‘relaxed’ garden with plants that haven’t been deadheaded will attract seed-eating finches, while a few piles of leaves and twigs in secluded corners will help ground feeders like dunnocks and low forages like wrens.
            If you’ve the space, allow an overgrown area of brambles and nettles for shelter, and don’t sorry about a few weeds like honesty, groundsel and thistles – goldfinches and linnets love them.

Even if your garden doesn’t lend itself to natural bird-attracting features, there are still lots of ways to encourage them. Of course, the old favourite of throwing stuff on to the lawn still works, but a little more creativity will do wonders. Try setting up a feeding station in a regular spot, so the birds will come to associate it with food. It could be a flat surface or, even better, a bird table close to thick cover for protection against cats and sparrowhawks. You can also stuff scraps into cracks in fencing, tree stumps or walls.


  1. Kitchen scraps like cheese, crumbs, soaked and dried fruit, fat and stale cake.
  2. Fresh (not desiccated) coconut and suet. Woodpeckers love suet rubbed into tree bark.
  3. Make a bird cake from melted saturated fat, nuts, raisins hung upside down in a yogurt pot. Tits will be attracted to these.
  4. Ready-made bird seed mix. Keep it low in cereal and you might attract exciting winter visitors such as brambling. High-cereal-content mixes (which tend to be cheaper) are more attractive to woodpigeons and collared doves.
  5. Peanuts and sunflower seeds. Ensure the peanuts are free from bird-killing aflatoxins by buying them from a reputable dealer. Put them in a feeder and you’ll soon be watching great tits, blue tits and greenfinches.

Birds need a fresh supply of water. If you have a pond or bird bath, keep it ice-free. Alternatively, create your own bird bath with an upturned dustbin lid resting on a low pile of bricks. Fill with fresh water and keep clean. A gentle candle night light underneath will stop the water freezing. Don’t use the anti-freeze – it will kill the birds.

Birds you’re most likely to see in your garden this winter…
House sparrow, starling, blue tit, blackbird, greenfinch, chaffinch, collared dove, woodpigeon, great tit, robin, dunnocks, magpie, long-tailed tit, goldfinch, coal tit, jackdaw, carrion crow, wren, rook.

Birds you’ll be lucky to see in your garden this winter…
Song thrush, mistle thrush, siskin, brambling, blackcap, bullfinch, reed bunting, green woodpecker, great spotted woodpecker, goldcrest, jay, linnet, nuthatch, treecreeper, waxwing, marsh tit, willow tit.

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The frozen months might seem a long way away, but get planting now and you'll be able to lure birds into the garden with tasty morsels when food is scarce

Ken Thompson, Saturday September 27, 2003, The Guardian

There is a contradiction at the heart of wildlife gardening. This is the idea that there is good wildlife (pollinating bees, for example) and bad wildlife (slugs and aphids). Wood pigeons decimating winter brassicas notwithstanding, birds are welcome visitors in most gardens. Indeed, many gardeners devote some time and effort to attracting birds. Much of this effort goes on provisioning a bird table or other forms of artificial winter feeding, but here I am more concerned with the food provided by the garden itself - i.e., berries. Given limited space, which shrub and tree species will provide the best food, and which will attract the greatest variety?

A major consideration is the seasonal nature of fruit availability. Most shrubs have berries during late summer or autumn, with currants and cherries about the earliest to ripen. Birds, however, need feeding in winter, too. Indeed, birds need a lot of energy in winter to keep warm, and the very survival of some species is determined largely by the availability of winter food.

The great mainstays of British winters are holly and ivy, and of these the least reliable is holly. This is because holly ripens relatively early, usually in October, and bushes are often completely stripped of berries by the end of January, or even December. The survival of berries beyond this period depends on a bush being defended by mistle thrushes. Mistle thrushes are the largest of British thrushes and routinely defend holly bushes against other birds to provide a long-term supply of berries for themselves in late winter. They also defend mistletoe in the same way (the bird's name comes from this habit), but mistletoe is not common in gardens and is difficult to cultivate.

Ivy flowers in autumn and the fruit ripens in winter, or sometimes not until early spring. Ivy thus provides a double bonus to wildlife. Its flowers are the last big source of nectar for insects before the winter, and its berries ripen at a time when there is very little other fruit available. Its fruits are also exceptionally nutritious, being unusually rich in fat.

Holly and ivy, although very often grown in gardens, are of course native shrubs. Among the alien garden plants useful to birds, cotoneaster and pyracantha are pre-eminent. Bushes of both may sometimes be defended by mistle thrushes, and at times by other members of the thrush family, such as blackbirds. Of course, many other garden shrubs produce fruit, including viburnum, mahonia, berberis and ornamental cherries and hawthorns, but few rival cotoneaster and pyracantha for the consistency and quantity of their fruit crops.

Which birds can you expect to attract to your garden with berries? Principally the thrushes (song thrush, mistle thrush, blackbird, fieldfare and redwing), the robin, the starling, three crows (carrion crow, magpie and jay), and maybe a warbler or two (most likely the blackcap). This is not an exhaustive list, but other fruit-eating visitors are all much less likely. If you grow apples, leave windfalls for migrant redwings and fieldfares - they are very hungry when they get here from Scandinavia, and they love apples. And if you are lucky, your garden may experience a winter invasion of waxwings from Scandinavia. Of all European birds, waxwings are the most specialised for a fruit diet; their particular favourite is rowan berries.

Normally, however, the largest quantity of berries are likely to be consumed by the thrushes, and pre-eminently the blackbirds, Britain's commonest garden birds. This is because fruit, when available, forms a large part of their diet and because they are relatively large, so they can consume most sorts of berries. This is a crucial point - very many native and garden shrubs have berries in the 8-11mm range, and birds need to have beaks big enough to swallow fruit of this size. The smaller fruit eaters, such as the robin and the warblers, tend to concentrate on smaller fruits such as dogwoods (Cornus species), spindle (Euonymus species), honeysuckle, elder and privet. Oddly enough, starlings have a similar problem, despite being relatively large birds. This is because their narrow, pointed beaks are well adapted for poking in the ground, but this makes them inefficient fruit eaters.

The most popular shrub with small berries is the elder. Elders have abundant, nutritious fruit, and are available in August and September, before the fruits of many other shrubs ripen. Both the red-berried Sambucus racemosa and the black-berried S. nigra are available in a range of interesting cultivars with variegated, purple, gold and finely divided leaves. Remember, however, that bushes subject to the hard spring pruning recommended to produce the best foliage will not produce as much fruit. If you want lots of berries, you will have to put up with your elders being a little untidy. Starlings in particular love elderberries, but they are also much favoured by robins and blackcaps. (Note that although we associate berry-eating birds with winter, warblers are in fact summer visitors, and elders and other early-ripening species are important in helping them fatten up before they set off on the autumn trek to Africa.)

Many familiar garden birds never, or only rarely, eat fruit. Sometimes this is not obvious, since some birds pluck berries in order to get at the seeds inside. The specialist seed-feeding finches, particularly the greenfinch, will often do this, as will several species of tits.

Seed eaters are best provided for with nuts, but they will eat seeds from flower heads, too, so don't be too enthusiastic about cutting down dead stalks in autumn. Sunflowers and teasels are particularly favoured. And don't forget water - birds need to drink as well as eat.

Finally, those Scrooge-like gardeners who don't want birds to eat their berries should stick to species and cultivars with white or yellow berries. But remember: there are about 125 million individual breeding birds in Britain, which sounds a lot until you consider that's just two birds per person. So if you have a pair of blackbirds or blue tits nesting in your garden, take good care of them - they are your share of Britain's birds.


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January 2004

Gardening: Strictly for the birds
Neil Wormald welcomes flying visitors ahead of this week’s Big Garden Birdwatch

Next weekend is the annual Big Garden Birdwatch organised by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), when everybody is encouraged to go out into their garden or local park to note down the birds they see in order to find out what species visit our gardens.

Birds don’t just provide entertainment — they have a key role to play in devouring vast numbers of slugs, snails, greenfly and soil pests that would otherwise damage plants.

To thrive, birds need food, water, cover and nesting sites. Mixed boundary hedges make perfect bird havens without using up valuable space and provide shelter and food for a wide variety of species, especially during the colder months. Use native shrubs with colourful spring blossom (to attract insects) and autumn and winter berries. If you can, plant about a quarter of the hedge with dense evergreens such as holly. Perimeter walls are just as important and, when adorned with climbers, provide seeds, fruit and nesting locations for robins, wrens and bullfinches.

Trees provide birds with lookout posts, food and nesting sites. Alders are excellent for damp soils and attract siskins and goldfinches; beeches are adored by chaffinches; and birches, crab apples, rowans and cherries encourage a host of species.

Shrubs are the mainstay of most gardens and many are bird-friendly. The best are those with late-season berries and edible seeds. Try cotoneasters, pyracanthas, lavenders, roses and berberis. Herbaceous and annual plants also play a vital role, and cornflowers, evening primrose, Michaelmas daisies, honesty, teasels and sunflowers are all bird-magnets.

A mown lawn may not seem important, but starlings, blackbirds, robins and thrushes spend a lot of time there looking for worms, grubs and small flies. A pond is a wonderful place for birds to drink, bathe and feed. Annual weeds, including groundsel and chickweed, act as a source of seeds for birds, so allow a few to grow in a “wild” corner of the garden.

The easiest way to encourage birds is to give them food. Though many plants do this with their fruit and insect populations, the RSPB and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) recommend supplementary feeding all year round.

The most popular foods are seeds and peanuts (keep in a wire feeder during the breeding season or crush them on the bird table), although breadcrumbs, cooked rice, half-coconuts and raisins will be quickly devoured. Bird feed should be purchased from a reputable supplier with a BSA (Birdfood Standards Association), RSPB or BTO logo to guarantee it is free from contaminants and not from a GM source. In recent years there have been concerns about fat balls supplied in plastic mesh bags, as the mesh can trap the feet and tongues of birds. So it is best to remove the balls and put them on the bird table.

Bird tables and feeding stations should be positioned away from places where cats can hide, and should have a rim to stop food blowing off, as well as drainage holes and a sturdy roof to deflect rain. Each should be mounted on a 4ft or 5ft post (or hung from a stout branch) and cleaned once a month. Certain birds (such as wrens and blackbirds) like to feed on the ground and placing food on solid boards will help in icy conditions.

It is best to put food out by early afternoon so it is eaten by nightfall, otherwise rodents can be a problem. Fresh water is essential for drinking and bathing and a shallow saucer placed on the bird table, and a bird bath, will prove invaluable. Check every day to ensure they don’t dry out.

In small gardens, food might be readily available but there are often not enough trees or hedgerows for the local bird population to nest in. Here, nest boxes are useful, especially to bluetits, sparrows, robins, house martins and even owls. All should be predator-proof and out of direct sunlight.

To deter cats, position the box at least 1.5m above ground and wrap a collar of bramble or rose prunings above and below the house. Most nesting takes place in the spring, so leave twigs, clippings and dry grass in a corner of the garden for birds to use. Hopefully, they will then set up home in your garden.

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Rich pickings in the border

Jewel-coloured berries make a splash in the winter garden, and provide birds with food

Birds help themselves to the free food growing in our gardens all year round, but it’s in autumn and winter that they benefit most from berry-rich shrubs or trees. A blackbird gorging on the flame-coloured berries of a wall-trained pyracantha is one of the most rewarding sights in the winter garden. There is a wide range of fruit-bearing plants that will feed birds while adding colour and form to planting schemes.

Most ornamental berries ripen at about the same time, yet some hang on the branches for longer. Physical characteristics are one determinant for longevity: for example, the juicy, thin-skinned fruits of berberis, if left only to the elements, are rarely found after Christmas, while the hard leathery berries of cotoneaster and pyracantha last until February or March. Just how quickly birds polish off any particular variety is the other factor, and here colour is the key: as a rule of thumb the darkest, ripest-looking ones are eaten first — red, then orange, then yellow. White curiosities such as Sorbus cashmiriana and the snowberry Symphoricarpos albus are eaten only when times are especially hard.

For as bird-friendly a menu as possible choose luscious berries that are early to ripen and fast to fall for starters, such as those of Viburnum setigerum or the exotic looking purple clusters of Leycesteria formosa, the pheasant berry, a striking member of the honeysuckle family that was once commonly planted in game coverts; make the main course as bold, brilliant and varied as space permits; then round off the feast with clusters of late-ripening English ivy in early spring.

Autumn is the ideal time to buy container-grown plants from garden centres: they settle in well, and you know precisely which berry colours you are getting. Deep borders or mixed island beds of shrubs provide the most shelter. Hedges are a great alternative in smaller gardens and they crop more heavily since they present a proportionately larger surface area to the sun. And many berrying plants can be trained as wall shrubs — Cotoneaster horizontalis, for example, presses itself hard against any upright surface, even one that faces north.

Hedges are surprisingly cheap if you send off for bundles of bare-rooted “whips”. These are planted in trenches about four to the metre. Lay them at a 45 degree angle and cut back the growing tips to encourage side shoots to branch more readily.

Double, staggered rows about 30cm (12in) apart give denser cover still. Prune away about half the new growth annually in February until the hedge is the size and shape you want, then simply trim it every other year. The timing is important: any earlier and you rob the birds of berries, any later and you disturb their March to September nesting season.

Trees and large shrubs often arrive with root balls wrapped in hessian. Ease this away only after lowering them into their planting holes. The best support for a tree in its formative years is a stake 50cm leeward of the stem, pointing into the wind at 45 degrees. Always bear in mind a tree’s eventual height and spread, especially when planting close to buildings.

Fine food and shelter


Berberis Spiny stems and spiky leaves make barberries good candidates for perimeter hedging. Deciduous B. ‘Bountiful’ and B. x carminea ‘Barbarossa’ have coral-red berries, evergreen B. calliantha has blue-black fruits.

Chaenomeles japonica Ground-feeding birds peck at the fruit from September. Impenetrable masses of thorny stems make good nesting sites.

Cotoneaster C. conspicuus is a large evergreen with shiny red fruit. Deciduous C. frigidus attains tree-like proportions, C. f. ‘Fructu Luteo’ has golden yellow berries that match its autumn foliage.

Ilex aquifolium Male and female flowers are borne on different plants so you need a female for berries. ‘Silver Milkmaid’ has creamy white variegated leaves and scarlet berries, ‘Pyramidalis Fructu Luteo’ has amber-yellow fruit. Pruning keeps them as shrubs, otherwise they grow into trees.

Leycesteria formosa Wood pigeons and blackbirds perform acrobatics to get at the dangling spikes of fruit that hang from arching branches.

Pyracantha Produces copious berries. P. coccinea, P. ‘Orange Glow’ and P. ‘Soleil d’Or’ speak for themselves.

Viburnum – The guelder rose V. opulus has translucent red fruit, those of V. o. ‘Xanthocarpum’ are yellow. The leaves of V. setigerum are metallic blue and red in spring, green in summer and bronze to orange in autumn. The fruits ripen to bright red.


If you don’t have room to grow fully-fledged trees, consider adding a few to a hedgerow where the pruning regime will keep them shrub-sized.

Alder, Alnus glutinosa The cones attract siskins, goldfinches and redpolls.

Beech, Fagus sylvatica Beech mast is taken by tits, chaffinches, bramblings, great spotted woodpeckers and nuthatches.

Crab apple, Malus sylvestris The wild crab and its many cultivated forms are attractive small trees.

Rowan or mountain ash, Sorbus aucuparia Birds gorge on the berries from August onwards.

Whitebeam, Sorbus aria A small tree with silvery undersides to the leaves and similar fruit to the rowan. Unlike rowans, whitebeams will grow on chalky soil.

Wild pear, Pyrus pyraster A tall narrow tree with soft sweet fruit.


Hawthorn, Crataegus monogyna As host to around 150 insect species and 25 species of bird, hawthorn should be the mainstay of a wildlife hedge.

Alder buckthorn, Rhamnus frangula Shiny black berries.

Hazel, Corylus avellana The nuts are eaten by woodpeckers.

Hornbeam, Carpinus betulus A good windbreak as the dead leaves remain on the tree until spring. Hawfinches eat the winged seeds.

Wild rose Choose from the field rose Rosa arvensis, the dog rose R. canina and the sweet briar R. rubiginosa. Their hips provide autumn food.

Spindle, Euonymus europaeus The orange seeds are encased in scarlet fruits.

Wayfaring tree, Viburnum lantana Red berries ripen to black.

Wild privet, Ligustrum vulgare Spikes of round, shiny black berries.


English ivy (Hedera helix) and honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum) provide berries, and old man’s beard or traveller’s joy (Clematis vitalba) plenty of seedheads

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A bog garden is looking dull. What to plant for winter interest?

Use ornamental shrubs, especially those with vivid displays of bark. Choose hardy varieties with roots that are happy in damp soil, such as Salix alba ‘Britzensis’ for its orange-red stems; Cornus sericea 'Flaviramea', which has yellow- green shoots; or Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’ for its beautiful red stems. All should be cut down to just above ground level in the spring.

The American cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon) is a useful mat-forming evergreen for pond banks. It has dark-green leaves that turn a rich bronze in winter. On larger sites, try Taxodium distichum (swamp cypress), a deciduous conifer with orange-brown autumn foliage and russet-coloured bark.

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How to fill a small border with colourful flowers which come back every year and don't grow too tall.

Consider thymes, such as Thymus 'Doone Valley', which has green and gold scented leaves and pretty pink flowers in the summer. Or try bugle (Ajuga reptans). this has green, purple or variegated leaves, with blue flowers in May. It will spread and cover more ground each year.
Bulbs are good value. Crocus, grape hyacinths and snowdrops will come up every year at the start of the season. You could plant some of these among the thyme and the bugle.

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Which bulbs will survive in a reasonably dry and sheltered border in full sun?

Some of the best bulbs to use are summer-flowering ornamental onions, including Allium cernuum (nodding onion), which has short, upright stems bearing clusters of bell-shaped, pink blooms; Allium caeruleum for its rounded heads of starry, bright blue flowers; or Allium flavum, which has small, yellow blooms held above narrow, grey-green leaves.

Go for the colourful, bowl-shaped flowers of Tulipa kaufmanniana; and the red or yellow Tulipa greigii. For a beautiful autumn display, try the fragrant, pink or white blooms of Amaryllis belladonna (belladonna lily), or Nerine bowdenii, which has pale pink flowers.

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January is no let-up for the determined gardener. Now’s the time to plan the year’s triumphs

Strange as it may seem, this is the most important time in the gardening year — a time for maximising last year’s successes and minimising the disasters, buying and planting, hatching plans, executing them and bringing the garden to a state of preparedness for the year ahead. And if, like me, you have a border of flattened stems, brownish stalks and a few shrubs, there’s no time like this weekend to make a start.

Cut and clip

First decide what must go (for me, it is the non-flowering daylily and the weedy evening primrose), what needs to be reduced, what repositioned and which newcomers you want to introduce. Next, put on your outdoor gear and cut the dead top growth of herbaceous perennials back to just above soil level. Be merciless with plants with attractive seedheads and ornamental grasses: by now they probably look dingy and should go straight on the compost heap.

Hard prune any shrubs grown for their foliage or summer flowers — in the case of my border, Sambucus ‘Black Lace’ and Phygelius ‘African Queen’, both of which I keep as fairly low and bushy specimens. While clearing away the clippings, remove fallen leaves and weeds, but look out for seedlings of any ornamentals that you may want to keep.

Lift and protect

If you have not already lifted tender plants such as cannas, dahlias and chocolate cosmos (Cosmos atrosanguineus) — successive frosts and thaws cause the damage — do so. Dig them up, check for vital signs (firm, fleshy tubers and rhizomes), pot them up with barely moist coir or soilless potting compost and move them to an unheated greenhouse or shed. In April, start watering, and move them closer to the light before planting out in June; or take your chances and plant them out while still at rest in late April with a deep mulch protection. If lifting them is not an option, cover the crowns in bracken or straw and leave in place until Whitsuntide.

Unless you are in a sheltered spot or have used horticultural fleece, other tender plants such as the pineapple sage (Salvia elegans) may already have been killed off (these are now so readily available that they can be treated as annuals). Dig them up, along with the remains of any true annuals, and fork over the soil.

Divide and rule

Dividing clump-forming perennials is doubly rewarding: it rejuvenates the plant, giving you stronger and more generous growth, and prevents it from playing too dominant a role in the border. The textbook technique of prising a clump apart with two forks back-to-back is not as easy as it looks. Fingers are good for delicate specimens while a slice of the spade will work for larger plants. For congested grasses such as Miscanthus, running a saw through the rootball and rhizomes will do them no harm. At this time of year cormous plants such as Crocosmia will shatter into numerous pieces when forked up: discard the old withered bits and keep the topmost, one to two-year-old sections of growth, replanting them en masse in freshly prepared soil. Divisions should have at least three viable leads (growth shoots) that are dormant.

Prepare the soil

This is the best season for buying and planting hardy herbaceous perennials. Devour books and catalogues, contact the nurseries listed in the RHS Plant Finder. Before planting, fork through the soil and work compost and a little fertiliser such as Growmore into the hole. Surplus plants can be lodged temporarily in an unused patch, or potted in soil from the border and kept in a cool, sheltered place.

The finish

Finally, complete the job by forking a scattering of granulated fertiliser into the border. No matter how heavy the rain, water the replanted border thoroughly. Then mulch the surface with a 1-2in layer of soil conditioner, garden compost or leafmould, avoiding the crowns of the plants themselves. The best mulches are moist, porous, well-decomposed, and able to deliver a rich, blanketing finish (see soil conditioner offer). Steer clear of mushroom compost (which compacts, sours and in creases alkalinity), coir (which dries out), and peat (which also dries out and is an environmental insult). Protect against slugs.

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What to plant in a north-facing herbaceous border.


Why not choose predominantly white plants to glow luminously in the shade. For tall, back-of-the-border plants, there is Campanula persicifolia var. alba or C. trachelium var. alba.

Anemone x hybrida 'Honorine Jobert' flowers endlessly from late summer to autumn, and can reach 1.5m.

Another late-flowering perennial is Lysimachia clethroides, with arched spikes of small, white flowers on 1m stems.

Solomon's seal has white flowers that hang from arching stems in late spring.

For bold, architectural foliage, go for Angelica archangelica, with its large, rounded heads in summer.

Lower growing plants could include Primula denticulate var. alba, with dense clusters of flowers, Dicentra spectabilis 'Alba' (bleeding heart) and lily of the valley, all of which flower in spring.

Snowdrops tolerate shade, as do bulbs such as Hyacinthoides non-scripta, Crocus tommasinianus and Narcissus pseudonarcissus.

And don't forget hostas.

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Bougainvillea (Climber)
'Bougainvillea glabra Sanderiana'

Magnificent clouds of magenta-pink floral bracts from July to September are the highlight of this strong-growing, evergreen climber. Great for growing against a conservatory or in a tub on a sunny patio. While it can be moved outside during the summer months, it must be moved to a frost-free spot, such as a conservatory or temperate greenhouse in autumn.

Position: full sun
Soil: loam-based potting compost
Rate of growth: average
Flowering period: July to September
Flower colour: magenta-pink
Hardiness: tender
Garden care: Water moderately during the growing season, applying a balanced liquid fertiliser each month. Water sparingly during winter and re-pot or top-dress in spring.

H & S: 5m x 2m

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Bougainvillea brings to mind balmy holidays by the Mediterranean. But its origins are much more alluring


Aboard L’Étoile there had been mutterings from the start. Soon after the ship embarked in 1767, the 116-strong crew began to notice that one of their number had even more epicene charm than was usual for a cabin boy, and that their most distinguished member had obviously fallen for it. But they kept their sniggering to themselves: such attachments were not uncommon on long voyages, and the older man, the Aschenbach in this little tale, was not to be offended — he was Philibert Commerson, botanist by appointment to the king, and a useful physician to boot.

That year, L’Étoile coasted South America, the South Pacific and Java alongside La Boudeuse, the two vessels joined in one of the first great circumnavigations of the globe and led by the French scientist, sailor and explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville. Wherever they put in, Commerson went ashore to botanise, accompanied by the boy — Jean Barret — who had become his valet and assistant. One shipmate’s account of their activities has Barret forcing a way into undergrowth, clambering through the canopy and carting specimens with a gutsiness out of all keeping with his size and age, “as if to prove his virility”. These efforts earned him the nickname “little beast of burden”; whether they silenced the mockers on board, they helped to reveal a world of uncharted flora.

So they voyaged, Le Maître Commerson and his Ganymede, with nothing more amiss than the botanist’s chronic mal de mer and Barret’s refusal to remove so much as a scrap of clothing even in equatorial heat. Meanwhile, the great Bougainville seems to have viewed the pair’s closeness with that Claude Rains-type unshockability that has to be one of the best things about being French.

At least, that is, until April 1768, and the expedition’s arrival in Tahiti. One of Bougainville’s aims had been the quest for that Enlightenment ideal of the Noble Savage, peoples whose vision and instincts were uncluttered by the paraphernalia of civilisation. On Tahiti he found them, and so clear was their sight and so fine-tuned their instincts that they sensed at once that the botanist’s boyfriend was not Jean but Jeanne Barret.

The little beast of burden was ambushed by natives, and is said to have spun like a top as yards of sweat-stained webbing were stripped from her flattened breasts. Bougainville himself had to step in to save her. Jeanne insisted that Commerson had had no clue of her crossdressing: to him she was he. In fact they had been clandestine lovers and botanical collaborators for at least five years, and driving her decision to embark was the recent death of their illegitimate son.

There was no kudos in having allowed the first French woman to cross the globe. Moreover, stowing away and harbouring a woman on the high seas were both capital offences. Yet Philibert and Jeanne were allowed to continue on-board as man and wife until November 1768, when the couple left the mission to settle on Mauritius. Bougainville was undoubtedly a civilised fellow, but some have wondered why he should have looked so kindly on this peculiar Transit of Venus.

The answer lies in something Philibert and Jeanne had discovered in Rio de Janeiro early in 1767. It was a woody vine, tall, robust, somewhat prickly and with small creamy flowers. But these so-so blooms were cradled by papery bracts of a crimson whose brilliance had scarcely faded during the tempestuous year on deck since the little beast of burden plucked them. It was the finest of their finds so far and Commerson offered to name it after Bougainville as a merci for his liberality. The botanist and the explorer bartered immorality for immortality.

A long tale, I know; but it always comes to mind when someone tells me they love bougainvilleas because it makes them think of holidays on the Mediterranean. The real love story behind this plant’s discovery is so much more transgressive and alluring. And in the past year we have been faced with thousands of reasons for remembering it as bougainvilleas have progressed from being a backdrop for basking vacations to a garden centre bestseller.

Their new popularity can be credited in part to a “look on the bright side” approach to climate change. Grown in tubs and trained on canes or as standards, bougainvilleas make flamboyant summer residents for balconies and terraces. Simply position them outdoors in sun from May onwards, keeping them well watered and fed fortnightly. In November, bring them into the shelter of a well-lit glasshouse or room and keep them on the dry side. We are not yet quite Mediterranean enough to grow them year-round in the open garden. Although Bougainvillea will withstand light frost, what it cannot take is that mixture of cold and wet, sharp freeze and soggy thaw, at which the British climate still excels. If the plant is to face cold (winter temperatures between 0 and 10C are fine), then it needs to be dry.

What has really put a shine on Philibert’s and Jeanne’s Brazilian treasure is the proliferation of the domestic conservatory. Most new conservatories are inimical to plants — too much light, too little humidity. Bougainvilleas exult in both these drawbacks, needing no shading and luxuriating in arid air. In fact, there is no better way of shading a conservatory than training a bougainvillea to do it for you.

And the choice of shades is vast. While the classic bougainvillea combo is carmine bracts (‘Barbara Karst’) against whitewashed walls, modern cultivars run from white (‘Apple Blossom’, ‘Jennifer Fernie’) through purple (‘Purple Queen’, ‘Royal Purple’), mauve (‘Lavender Lady’), pink (‘Bridal Bouquet’, ‘Donya’, ‘Mary Palmer Special’), peach (‘ Rosenka’), gold (‘California Gold’) and flame (‘Glowing Sunset’, ‘Orange Glow’ and ‘Isabel Greensmith’).

Each is an opportunity for striking a harmony outside the usual Mediterranean range. For example, as an outdoor display this summer I am experimenting with a black iron pot containing the maroon-leaved grass Pennisetum ‘Purple Majesty’, lilac-pink Nemesia ‘Amelie’ and a semi-trailing plant of Bougainvillea ‘Coconut Ice’, with rose-tipped ivory bracts — more neotropical baroque than Benidorm.

When Jeanne’s beloved Commerson died on Mauritius in 1773, she opened a bar to make ends meet. It was closed down for promoting drunkenness (what else?) and so, in 1774, the Little Beast of Burden returned to France with a new mate, a soldier. She died in 1807 aged 67, barely remembered as the woman who circled the globe and helped to wreathe one of the greatest navigators with the plant that bears his name.


Garden centres and Westdale Nurseries, Holt Road, Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire (01225 863258; www.westdalenurseries.co.uk

How to grow

Use large containers or create a bed in the conservatory floor filled with a free-draining loamy mix of John Innes 3 and grit. Train the bougainvillea as you would a climbing rose, selecting a few good stems and tying them in to canes, trellis or the rafters. Prune them lightly once flowering has finished, removing the dead inflorescences and any short, weak branches. Then, in early spring, give them a hard prune to create or maintain the shape and size you want. In summer, water them freely, allowing the soil to dry slightly between times. From spring until midsummer, give them a high nitrogen liquid feed once a fortnight to promote growth. Thereafter a fortnightly high potash feed until autumn should help to ripen the new wood and prepare the way for next year’s flowers. If you forget or cannot be bothered to feed, for a while at least, bougainvillea will probably thank you — these plants hate to be fussed. In winter, water very sparingly and do not be alarmed if, in cold spells, they drop their leaves. Under glass, control red spider mite and whitefly by whichever biological or chemical method you prefer.

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A west-facing conservatory which gets pretty hot in summer has planted therein a bougainvillea in a large planter adjacent to the house wall which goes through to the subsoil beneath. In the first year it flowered, and in the spring it was cut down as instructed but few flowers appeared. It was then cut back in autumn, which worked for the third year, but since then whatever is done there is luxuriant growth and few erratic flowers. It is never watered or fed. Any suggestions for better flowers?

Bougainvilleas thrive if kept cool and very dry in winter, with their roots restricted in a container. The ideal is 7C (45F). In summer they need plenty of water, warmth and light.

It sounds as if the bougainvillea has got its roots down into the ground and so is being well fed and watered. If such a spoilt plant cut “down” in spring it will grow like the clappers. It needs to be cut “back” in spring instead, shortening the long wands to just a few buds. If it still fails to slow down and flower It should be scrapped another bought, this time keeping it in a pot.


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1. Pot up box into a loam-based John Innes No2 compost. It’s easier to re-wet than peat-based compost, which is important because box is tolerant of drying out between waterings and hates to be over-wet.

2. Once frosts have finished (end of May in the south) and a pale fuzz of new foliage has appeared, give it light clip with shears. If you find standard two-handed shears unwieldy, you’ll probably find the stainless steel one-handed type easier to use, such as trimming shears.

3. Around the same time start feeding with a balanced fertiliser such as Miracle-Gro. Once a month is ample, but for lots of growth and to get a shape faster, feed more frequently.

4. If plants are placed in shady corners or windowsills, turn them occasionally so all sides take their turn in the light for even growth.

5. Water regularly, and to allow free drainage that box prefers, don’t use a saucer or drip tray under the pot as this tends to make the plant sit wet.

6. Stop feeding and clipping by the end of September. Though hardy, soft new growth is susceptible to frost damage.

7. In winter, box needs just the occasionally water so it doesn’t totally dry out. Box makes a lot of root growth at this time, ready to shoot away in spring. Your plant will do this more readily if you re-pot into fresh compost every three to four years in spring, adding a slow release fertiliser, such as Osmocote, at the same time.

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In primordial forest, garden corsetry, even abstract planting . . . box will thrive anywhere.

To some gardeners, box is forever cast as the neat edging plant below a hundred summers of shrub roses and billowing clouds of catmint. It is, undeniably, the whalebone in the corsets of many gardens, rolling out in green ribbons across the Cotswolds. But it also has a new life, thanks largely to the good works of the Dutch plantsman Piet Oudolf. Oudolf freed Buxus sempervirens from its spherical and cuboid chains and made it roll like thunderclouds though his marvellous herbaceous plantings. For me there is something even more primordial in the heart of box. Let me take you back, just for a moment, to its origins as a forest.

I have just returned from the prehistoric gorges of southwest France. Here the landscape is made up of aromatic, stunted oak and box forests. On this limey soil the hardwoods grow with a slow burning intensity and box exhibits its amazing natural characteristics. An underground spring pours forth from a cleft in the rocks into an icy, crystalline pool approached through a confounding 1m-high forest of box trees of unimaginable antiquity: narrow crusty trunks are festooned with ribbons of moss almost a metre long. The wood has the feel of a Grimm brothers’ fairytale. Prehistoric nature is palpable. Cotswold border edgings seem distant and frivolous. Yet when you reach the village lane, you see the box semi-tamed: the council has begun to clip the plants into a sort of cliff to allow cars to pass. The box has responded to this treatment by growing a denser cover of leaf. A few metres further on, the first house of the village has annexed this wild box into its front garden hedge and clipped the top into a quirky series of crenellated shapes. In a few short metres it has lost all sign of its broody forest nature and become domesticated.

Box is versatile and its garden characteristics well documented. The steady evergreen growth may be clipped hard and transformed into anything from a razor-edged cube to a Modigliani face. It may be dug up and moved in winter with impunity. At Sissinghurst Castle in Kent the beds are bordered with box. In winter, when the seasonal clear-up and replanting operations are in full swing, box hedging is simply dug out and laid aside with its small fibrous roots protected to allow machines into the big beds. Once work is completed it is replanted, fed and watered and reprises its summer role as a series of mature hedges once tended by Vita Sackville-West. The box at Sissinghurst also provides graphic anchoring shapes within the garden structure, large squares and lozenges of almost mathematical precision. This talent for structure explains its ubiquity.

Adapting well to planting in pots and containers, its hardiness and receptivity to clipping make box essential for urban gardens. For miniaturists, Buxus sempervirens ‘Suffruticosa’ grows very slowly and stays comfortably small. Maintained with nail scissors and teaspoons of food and water, it is the chihuahua of the box world. A row of these in pots along a window ledge is a potent statement. But I prefer that old warhorse, Buxus semper- virens, the common box. It will thrive anywhere. I have grown it in chic oak planters to great effect on roof terraces, one of the most testing places for any plant as they are so exposed. Box seems to cope with shade or full sun with equanimity, although its natural preference is for an overarching canopy of deciduous trees.

The clipping season has almost departed unless you are in the warm south. Clipping usually takes place in mid to late summer. Shaping happens at this end of the year but renovation or repair pruning should be done in late spring. Neglected plants may be cut hard back into old wood then. Feed and water them well and they respond with alacrity.

A Greek island hillside once caught my attention, covered as it was with seemingly ornate Japanese box topiary. The Greek conservationist I was with told me they call it Goat Baroque. The goats’ endlessly chewing on the fresh growth turns the plants into extraordinary shapes. So, if a goat can manage it, I’m sure you can.


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Moving two 5ft-high box plants. Does box like moving? Can they be put in sunken containers to restrict root growth if they are to be planted near the house?

No established shrubs actually like moving, but while some absolutely won’t tolerate it, box will. Your beauties should recover with the right treatment. Now is a good time to do it. Deciduous shrubs and trees want moving while the leaves are off over winter, but evergreens transplant best in autumn or spring, when there is some active growth.

First, though, reconsider your sunken container idea. Moving these large plants into a pot, where they cannot put out roots to search for water and nutrients, will prevent them from ever re-establishing themselves: they will be as dependent as houseplants. Insurance companies like to make us worry about invasive plant roots, but box has surface roots and is certainly no bullish drain or foundation invader. Instead, dig large holes and put in a generous amount of garden compost or well-rotted farmyard manure, forking over the bottom to mix some with your soil. Then trim back each plant as much as possible without ruining its shape; water is lost via leaves, and this counters the inevitable reduction in water-absorbing roots. Dig a trench around the outside of each plant and then work your way under, taking as much root as possible. Slide some tarpaulin beneath. You’ll need at least one helper to shift them. Once each is in its hole, backfill a little at a time with compost and soil, treading it down gently as you go. Then give each a couple of buckets of water: rain is insufficient for the newly transplanted. Mulch with bark chippings or compost, and water all summer long.

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Stop bugging me

How to stop uninvited pests making flying visits


Summer often brings a host of unwanted visitors in the form of insects such as flies, midges, mosquitoes and wasps. Fortunately, there are many ways of dealing with them.

Some herbs contain natural oils that are known to deter flying insects with their scent. The most useful include eau-de-cologne mint, pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium), rosemary, southernwood (Artemisia abrotanum) and tansy. Grow plenty of them in the garden (a well-drained soil in a sunny spot is ideal) or in pots on the terrace, and then cut a few leafy sprigs when required, which helps to release the oils. Before you eat outside, lay a bundle on the table and on the arms of a garden seat, or hang the sprigs from doors and windows to discourage insects from drifting indoors.

It is worthwhile encouraging birds into the garden, too, as many of them — notably house sparrows, tits, swallows and spotted flycatchers (if you’re lucky) — eat vast quantities of flies and midges. An ideal way of attracting these and other birds is to grow plants such as pyracanthas, cotoneasters, sunflowers, ivies and teasels, which provide them with food.

Ornamental trees, including crab apples (malus) and rowans, will provide perches and nesting sites. A water source in the form of a birdbath or shallow pool is important for drinking and bathing. Certain areas of the garden offer the perfect environment for flies to breed and feed, so a little foresight will help keep down their numbers.

Ensure that the compost heap is well away from the house and terrace, preferably in an out-of-the-way corner (the same goes for rubbish bins) and make sure it is covered at all times to stop flies breeding.

Similarly, don’t leave decaying plant material lying around. Water butts should have a lid placed on top, as they provide an ideal home for mosquito larvae.

Place a citronella candle (from £9.50, RK Alliston) on the table half an hour before dining, and it will scent the air and keep unwelcome visitors away. The Citronella Bug Spray (£5.25, The Organic Gardening Catalogue) is a ready-to-use spray based on natural plant extracts that is applied to tables, chairs and other surfaces to deter flies, midges and mosquitoes.

An Insect Snappy (£7.95, CJ WildBird Foods) is a safe way of dealing with solitary wasps without harming them. Do not destroy them, as they are excellent natural predators. Just place the end over the creature, push the switch to capture it, then release it elsewhere in the garden.

Large flies can be a nightmare when eating alfresco. A Flitrap (£9.99, Green Gardener) works well in distracting them and reducing their numbers. Hang the lantern-shaped trap in a corner of the terrace or near the barbecue. Flies are attracted inside and there is no escape.

Ants, including the odd flying specimen, can be troublesome in the house and garden. If you know where the nest is (usually between paving slabs, cracks in walls or the lawn), flood the entrance with water because ants prefer drier conditions and this may encourage them to move elsewhere. To stop ants marching indoors and climbing into containers and window boxes, apply Barrier Glue (£10.99, Green Gardener) around doorways, windowsills and pot rims.

Alternatively, use Ant Stoppa Tape (£10.48 for two 4m rolls, Green Gardener) as a barrier to ants and other crawling insects. Stick it to the legs of outdoor tables and chairs and across doorways — the ants either become attached to the tape or simply won’t cross it.

CJ WildBird Foods, 0800 731 2820, www.birdfood.co.uk;
RK Alliston, 0845 130 5577, www.rkalliston.com;
Green Gardener, 01603 715 096, www.greengardener.co.uk;
The Organic Gardening Catalogue, 0845 130 1304, www.organiccatalogue.com

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BULB/CORM/RHIZOME/TUBER (What's the difference?)

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Most spring- and summer- flowering bulbs are ideal for growing in containers. However, if the drainage is inadequate, the bulbs will sit in wet compost for long periods through the autumn and winter and eventually rot and die. To prevent this happening, always choose a pot with plenty of drainage holes in the bottom and cover these with a 4in to 6in layer of broken crocks and rocks, before planting the bulbs in John Innes No 2 compost. Position the container in a sheltered spot and raise the base off the ground by using bricks or “pot feet” — this allows any excess moisture to run out and drain away.

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Suggestions for bulbs in a dull and bare area under a deciduous tree.

A wide range of bulbs will happily grow in the dappled shade at the base of a deciduous tree, as long as the soil is reasonably fertile and well drained. They will also need regular feeding to keep them in good condition. Try Cyclamen hederifolium for its curious pink flowers in autumn, followed by distinctive mottled foliage; Eranthis hyemalis (winter aconite) for golden winter blooms; and the white flowers of snowdrops in early spring. For the late spring to early summer period, plant bluebells; lily of the valley, with its scented white blooms; and muscari (grape hyacinth) for masses of bright blue flowers.

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Should be planted at the beginning of May in rich sandy loam, 8cm deep and 15cm apart. They should be planted in a sunny position and will flower during August and September. The corms should be lifted and stored before the first frost. (Treatment same as Gladioli).


Flowering July/September (June under glass). Excellent for greenhouse pot cultivation. Only winter outdoors in mildest regions and cover well in winter. Plant 5cm below ground level in well drained soil in sunny, sheltered location or place pot outdoors in April. Cut back after flowering. Propagate by division.


Plant 5cm apart in well-drained soil. They do best in a sunny situation. Cover the bulbs to 3 or 4 times their own depth. Leave untouched for years until bulbs have multiplied to the extent that flowering potential is impeded. Flower June/July.


Plant in well-drained fertile soil in a sheltered position where they can be left undisturbed. They may not flower the first season but will do so freely when established. Give protection during the winter.


Hardly any flower can compare with the endless variety of shades produced by these flowers. They may be had in bloom almost the whole year by planting at intervals. All anemones are perfectly hardy and are ideal subjects for cut flower, border and rockery work. Plant 1.5-5cm deep and not less than 10cm apart and soaking in water for one day prior to planting is recommended. While they do not object to partial shade, a sunny position suits them best. A rich, moist soil is essential to success; indeed the richer the soil the more flowers each corm will give, although care should be taken that there is good drainage as they are sensitive to dampness. They may be grown in pots as long as they are not given heat, but are best suited to beds, borders and rockeries.


Begonia tubers maybe started into growth from February onwards. The easiest way is to put them into shallow boxes containing a mixture of loam, leaf mould and sand. Meanwhile, prepare the potting soil. Good top soil mixed with one-sixth part of manure should form the basis. To this prepared soil add leaf mould in a proportion of 1 part leaf mould to 3 of loam and enough sand to make a fairly porous compost. Soot and bonemeal added to the compost will be appreciated. As soon as the shoots of the tubers are about 2cm long pot them up in 15cm pots and place them into larger pots as soon as the roots reach the sides of the pots.


Begonias are particularly useful for bedding purposes and, if planted in beds which are enriched with well-rotted manure or leaf mould will make a fine show. They should be started in shallow boxes in light soil; the saucer like tubers should be planted very shallow with the hollow side up. As soon as all danger of frost is passed they can be transferred to their position in the garden at least 30cm apart. Begonias are great lovers of moisture and during dry weather should be watered in the early morning or the evening.


This can be grown outdoors only in the warmest of southerly locations, otherwise it is recommended for a cold greenhouse for use as a pot plant. Plant in equal parts of loam, leaf mould and sand. During the summer months can be temporarily located outdoors. Do Not over water in winter.


Caladium are grown for their spectacular foliage. Start the small tubers indoors at a temperature of 21°C (70°F). Place on damp peat and syringe daily. When growth has commenced pot on 2.5cm deep. Reasonable moisture is essential but good drainage is imperative. Never leave to dry out. A humid, warm atmosphere is necessary. Gradually bring outdoors during the height of summer if used as a pot plant. In autumn, when leaves fade, the tubers should be rested in a semi-dry state for winter at a temperature of 13°C (55°F).


Can be grown as a conservatory or house plant as well as a patio plant (May-Oct). Grow in humus rich moist soil in full sun. Should be protected from frost with seep winter mulch. Can be cultivated indoors in loam based potting compost in full light. Water freely and apply a balanced liquid fertiliser every 2 weeks until the flowers have faded. Keep just moist in winter.


Store in cool but not cold place, not below 40°F until planting time earliest April. Plant out in loamy soil or if in containers in a balanced compost. Can start earlier than April like Dahlias in a greenhouse or even windowsill indoors. The tubers should be lifted and stored indoors after the first autumn frost.


Can be left outdoors in the milder areas only, otherwise must be lifted and stored in a frost free place. Plant in April with the nose of the bulb just showing above soil level. Need well-drained soil. Can be grown in pots starting off in March in a loamy compost.


Height: 75cm. Flowers July/August. Plant 10cm deep in a well-drained soil facing a sunny aspect. May need a season or two before it is free flowering but when established will naturalise and flower prolifically every year.


These like well-drained, fairly sheltered spots in the garden. Ideal for naturalising. Plant 5cm deep, 15cm apart. NOTE: They will not necessarily flower in the first year. They often take time to establish themselves in their new environment.


Tubers should be planted outdoors in the late spring when there is little chance of further frost. They prefer a sunny position in rich, loamy soil and should be planted 10-12cm deep and 45-60 cm apart. The tubers should be lifted and stored indoors after the first frost.


Hardy perennial plants which require good, deep cultivated soil enriched with compost or well rotted manure. The roots will develop to produce substantial plants for a great many years. Propagate by dividing the plants.

DUTCH IRIS (Retarded)

Plant 8cm deep and 12cm apart in a well-drained soil. A sunny, sheltered spot in the garden is an ideal place and they will come to a strong, well developed plant, producing fine, well shaped flowers when planted in a well prepared soil.


Plant from the end of April onwards about 2.5cm deep and 5cm apart. It is preferable to plant in a shaded position, between low growing shrubs is ideal.


In the ordinary garden the cultivation of Gladioli is similar to that of most other bulbs. They prefer deeply dug, well-drained soil containing plenty of sand as well as some leaf mould. The soil should be dug at least 45cm deep, more if possible, and well decayed manure should be worked into the bottom 30cm. If no decayed manure is available, bonemeal should be worked into the soil prior to planting. Planting can be done in succession from early March onwards to the end of May at fortnightly intervals. This ensures a continuity of flowers throughout the summer and autumn months. The corms must be planted at least 15cm apart and will display much better if they are massed together instead of being dotted simply along the borders. They should be planted 15cm below the soil; shallow planting encourages the flower spike to topple and therefore requires staking. When planting in a heavy soil, put a small portion of sand underneath each corm at planting time. This will assist drainage and prevent the development of disease.


Plant in groups in March and April in ordinary well-drained soil in a sunny position. Plant 15cm deep and 15cm apart. A useful pot plant in a cold greenhouse.


Plant in a cool greenhouse or outdoors but only in a sheltered location in a mild district. Start in pots in a minimum temperature of 13°C. Use a light compost and water freely during the growing season.


The bulbs of Ixia, which are small, should be planted 8cm deep and apart in a well-drained, sunny and sheltered position or the plants will grow too tall and slender. They are ideal for pot culture and could be forced in a cold greenhouse or cold frame.


Liliums do not like rich food but so appreciate moisture. Most Liliums do not like lime in the soil. They like leaf mould but dislike bog peat because of its acidity. It is a mistake to enrich soil for Lily culture with fresh animal manure as this inclines to bring fungoid disease as well as introduce pests, which may ruin bulbs. When Liliums are to be cultivated the soil should be deeply dug so that it is well-drained and if leaf mould cannot be obtained some old, well rotted, manure may be dug into light soil. When planting, each bulb should be surrounded with a little sharp under and above the bulb to prevent slugs and excessive wet and ward off disease. As most Liliums are stem rooting it is strongly advised to plant 15cm deep. They give a much better display when planted in clumps of 3, 6 or 12 bulbs, 45cm apart. They appreciate the shelter of low growing shrubs or other plants near their roots. Planting time is from December to April.


Plant in April when there is no danger of frost in a sheltered, sunny site. A light, moderately rich soil is required. Tubers can be stored in a frost free room during winter.


These like rich, well-drained soil and a sunny position. They can be planted until the end of April, 5cm deep and apart. They should be left undisturbed and will develop into large clumps. Ideal subjects for borders.


Must be planted in a sunny position. They should be left undisturbed and may take a season or two to establish themselves before flowering. Plant with the top of the bulb just below ground level. Plant in a soil containing a lot of peat and sharp sand (acid soil) and give plenty of winter protection. Nerines are ideal for potting up and introducing to the garden in April. Water should be held back when the bulb is dormant.


This lovely scented subject will grow in any good, well-drained soil. Plant 15-20cm apart with the neck of the bulb just below soil level.



The bulbs should be planted in April/May about 5cm deep and 10cm apart and will bloom from July – October. One bulb produces several vigorous stems reaching an average height of 40cm. Well manured humus soil is necessary. Plenty of water and an application of fertiliser is beneficial during flowering time.


Recommended for indoor cultivation. Bring on in cool greenhouse. The use of additional heat can result in flowering times being staggered throughout the summer/early autumn.


These thrive in any ordinary soil. Plant 5cm deep and 10cm apart, pressing the tubers firmly into the soil with the claws downwards. The tubers can be easily preserved in a dry state and may be planted at any time. A sunny position suits them best and one that is not exposed to strong winds. They should be protected against frost. They can also be successfully grown in a cold greenhouse or frame. IMPORTANT: Soak well for a day prior to planting. They will swell to 6 or 8 times their dried bulk.


Plant from end of April onwards, 5cm deep and not less than 8cm apart. They will grow in any good soil but they favour a warm, protected spot in the garden.


Not perfectly hardy. Bulbs should be planted in March/April, 8cm deep and 15cm apart in a well-drained sunny border. Flowering July, reaching a height of 30-60cm. Give plenty of water in dry weather and protect from severe frost and wet weather in winter. They can also be grown as pot plants in a cool greenhouse.


Plant 8-10cm apart, covering with 5cm of soil. Suitable for plant cultivation in cool greenhouse.

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Now there’s an onomatopoeic word; the Latin for bumble bee. Watching two young Bombus lapidarius queens feeding on my lavender, the word perfectly conveys the deep, resonant hum as well as their bumbling progress from flower to flower.

It’s one of the delights of lavender that it attracts so many different kinds of bee. There are at least six sorts of bumble bee: little lion-maned Carder bees (Bombus pascuorum), the occasional small black B. pratorum with a yellow stripe around its neck, a whole flotilla of big black-and-yellow striped ones (B. terrestris, B. lucorum and B. hortorum) — but it’s the two female B. lapidarius, the Large Red-tailed Bumble Bee, that caught my eye. With their plump velvety-black bodies, red tails like fox furs, and huge, shiny black transparent wings like glossy 15-denier stockings, they look like princesses: sleek, well-fed and with the world at their feet.

Like honey bees, bumble bees are social insects and operate within a similar caste system of queen, workers and drones, but unlike honey bees they do not store honey, and each colony dies out at the end of the year. Only young mated queens like the two B. lapidarius will survive the winter. The big, jazzy males are still bombing about, eating and drinking themselves silly, unaware that the end is nigh.

But then one morning it’s that little bit colder, and the sun takes that little bit longer to reach the garden. And like solar-powered cells, their batteries start to run flat. As the sun’s rays reach them, they’ll slowly heave up one leg, then another, then stop in mid-movement. Left out in the cold, they’ll be dead soon. Meanwhile, the new queens snooze in hibernation until they emerge in spring to found a new colony.

Bumble bees are very important pollinators of early crops and increasingly they are being used in greenhouses for strawberries, courgettes and tomatoes.

They are especially important now, with the decline of wild honey bees due to the parasitic mite Varroa. But unless we plan our gardens with at least some thought for them, they will become a lot scarcer.

Insecticides are a problem as many bumble bees sleep on the flowers at night, so there is no safe time to spray. Also, the modern regime of silage-making in June (instead of hay-making in August) destroys the nests of ground-breeding species.

I asked 90-year-old Natalie Hodgson, who runs a pick-your-own lavender field at Astley Abbots Hall in Shropshire, what one can do to help. She advises planting early flowers such as pulmonarias, hellebores, heathers and crocuses, as well as catkin- bearing trees like pussy willow. Bees also prefer single flowers to double forms. And they love lavender. You can ensure a succession of lavender from May to the first frosts by planting L. stoechas, followed by L. angustifolia, followed by L. vera (now L.x intermedia Dutch Group), with L.x intermedia Old English Group bringing up the rear.

It also helps to not be too tidy: the species all have different nesting and hibernation requirements, but piles of stones or twigs, and patches of long grass may provide sites, as will the pocket of your garden coat left hanging up in the tool shed. But don’t worry: although bumble bees can sting, they seem rarely to do so.


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Small mounds of soil have appeared all over my lawn. At first, I assumed they were worm casts, but it's now obvious they are caused by miner bees. I do not wish to use pesticides, so how do I get them to move on?

You should consider yourself privileged. These bees are native, solitary and non-aggressive - they do not sting. They will improve aeration in your lawn and are fantastic pollinators. Our native bees are in serious decline due to the changes in the landscape brought about by intensive farming. Gardens such as yours are fast becoming primary havens for refugees from the countryside. Miner bees are active for only about four weeks a year. In spring, they dig a tunnel about 1ft deep into the lawn, then off this dig small chambers into which they deposit pollen and eggs. The adult then dies and the eggs left underground to emerge the following spring. Once you are sure the adults have gone, wait for a dry day and brush away the mounds of soil, taking care not to fill in the holes. Do not do this any earlier, because the adults use the mounds as visual landmarks. Miner bees specialise in pollinating early-flowering plants, so will improve cropping of plums, apples and pears. They also love blackthorn and hawthorn blossom.


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