Eight ways to make your garden more drought tolerant

With a prolonged cold winter, wetter than average spring and a summer heatwave this year – our gardens and plants have needed to be more resilient than ever. But climate change doesn’t mean you have to dig up your garden and start from scratch. Here's our tips for helping your garden take the heat this summer...

1. Cultivate the soil. Digging in well-rotted compost and mulching with organic matter consistently year-on-year helps keep moisture in and improves soil structure, meaning you have to water less. Mulch under trees with composted bark, rather than mowing, and it will have significant benefits for the root zone and health of the trees.

2. Site right. Never has there been a more important time to get the right plant in the right place. Plants that might have coped with a bit more sun than usual in a normal summer are now drooping or dying. Extra care needs to be taken to ensure you know the aspect of your garden and locate sun tolerant and shade loving plants in the right place. Some RHS AGM drought-tolerant plants include: Cistus X pulverulentus ‘Sunset’; Fremontodendron ‘Californian Glory’; Helichrysum petiolare ‘Limelight’; Lavender; Lupinus aroboreus and Perovskia. However, before you fill your garden with agaves and yuccas it’s worth considering how these plants might survive once wetter and more wintery conditions return.

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3. Go for greys. Plants with silver or grey foliage are more tolerant of the sun because they reflect the rays rather than absorb them.

4. Plant right. If a plant is fresh out of the nursery then give it a good soak before planting rather than expecting it to ‘get on with it’. Thoroughly soak the root ball and go for smaller plants, which will establish better and adapt to your conditions more quickly. This applies to drought tolerant plants as well. Just because they enjoy droughts in their native settings doesn’t mean they don’t need some TLC on transplanting! Planting trees and shrubs at the right time of the year also aids root establishment. There is definitely a higher success rate if you can hold off planting trees and shrubs until mid November to the end of December.

5. Up the weeding. Keep the competition to a minimum by pulling out perennial and annual weeds. It’s hard enough for your plants at the moment without giving them greedy neighbours!

6. Plant groundcovers. Sprawling and crawling plants such as thyme can catch water and act as sponges, and are especially good for slopes where run-off can be a problem.

7. Create shade. So many clients ask for dining areas in full sun, but in reality few people will enjoy being in the midday blaze. If shade is a problem in your garden, create it yourself with parasols or blocks of trees, which can be crown lifted to allow for a semi-shaded sitting area beneath. This will lessen evaporation on hot days too. Perhaps garden designs will move away from perennial plants and embrace more structural shrubs if our hot summers become more frequent.

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8. Swap a lawn for a meadow. Unless you have a sprinkler system, keeping a lawn lush during prolonged hot spells can be tricky, and near impossible during a hose pipe ban. It’s also very wasteful. Meadows by comparison always look greener thanks to the longer stems, which assist with retaining moisture. Rather than mowing the grass short, which stresses the plant and allows the soil to heat up more rapidly, consider a more wild approach. The wildlife will thank you for it, and there will be a greater variety of plants.

 

 

 

Let’s support more apprentices into horticultural careers

Apprentices are the life-blood of the garden industry and passing on horticultural skills to them secures the industry for the future…

I’m a big believer in supporting and nurturing the next generation of gardeners. Over the years we’ve fostered many apprentices at Abbotswood, cultivating their talents and encouraging them to learn new skills.

We have developed a long-standing relationship with the local College of West Anglia and its apprenticeship scheme, employing five apprentices, with some completing Advanced Apprenticeships and becoming team leaders. We are currently employing two of the college’s apprentices: Dan Fuller, 17, who is working towards a Level 2 City & Guilds apprenticeship in Horticulture and Robbie Matthews who is working towards a Level 3 (read more on Robbie below).

I really enjoy watching the apprentices develop and I’m always so proud when I see someone I’ve taken on as a teen move on and become a gardener or groundsmen in their own right.

Few youngsters realise what a great job gardening is, and what a good career path it can be. Horticulture can give you access to so many skills, from general gardening expertise such as pruning, mowing and planting to people management, landscaping and even design.

 One man went to mow...apprentice Dan Fuller takes lawn care in his stride

One man went to mow...apprentice Dan Fuller takes lawn care in his stride

“Horticulture is an excellent career choice for anyone who enjoys working outdoors and who takes pride in their work,” affirms our apprenticeship advisor Cindy Baldry from The College of West Anglia. “With so many pathways available there will always be guaranteed employment.”

But Cindy says willing employers are crucial in providing opportunities for these budding gardeners. I would add that decent wages would also entice more students to take this career path, but sadly the level of pay can fluctuate wildly across the country.

 Apprentice Robbie Matthews works alongside Abbotswood gardener Jordan Parrett

Apprentice Robbie Matthews works alongside Abbotswood gardener Jordan Parrett

“Abbotswood are fantastic at motivating and encouraging their apprentices,” Cindy tells me. “Work experience is a great way to encourage young people into the profession as their first taster. Apprentices develop skills with their employers, learn to use a variety of tools, the ability to identify plants, weeds, pests and diseases, establish plants and get an understanding of soil science. But employers must be committed to the apprenticeship and must engage in assisting apprentices to learn and develop skills and knowledge.”

We’re currently recruiting for a Level 2 apprentice. If you are interested, please email your CV and covering letter to rob@abbotswoodgardeners.co.uk


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Robbie's Story

Age: 24

When did you join Abbotswood? Two years ago in September.

How many hours do you work: Five days a week, 8am to 4pm.

Have you always enjoyed horticulture? When I was younger, I never thought I’d be making a career in horticulture but I always knew I enjoyed the outside and being hands on. Within a week with Abbotswood I knew I have made the right decision.

What do you love about your job? There’s so much to learn, in fact you’ll never stop learning new skills, which is exciting. We look after 10-12 gardens in Cambridgeshire and I love the variety of the work. There’s a really friendly atmosphere in the Abbotswood team and lovely clients.

Would you recommend on-the-job training to others? Yes. You gain so much knowledge from your co-workers. Although starting an apprenticeship at the age of 23 was tough financially, I told myself to be patient as I know it will be hugely beneficial in the end.

 

 

 

Four key ideas to take away from Chelsea

The camera-ready look of the show gardens at RHS Chelsea might seem unobtainable in our own gardens – but there are plenty of tricks and tips to steal. Abbotswood MD Rob Chew shares the best bits from this year’s show...

Clash those colours

Colour was key at RHS Chelsea this year – and the more vivid the better. For many years, the colour pallete has been all about restrained whites and greens, but these had been replaced by cheerful and exuberant oranges and yellows, and a wide use of rich purples. Lemon yellow was particularly evident, used in the lupins in The Seedlip Garden designed by Dr Catherine MacDonald, but there were also burnt oranges, acid greens and red and pinks. 

 The Seedlip Garden used clashing purples, yellows and reds

The Seedlip Garden used clashing purples, yellows and reds

In the LG Eco-city Garden, Hay-Joung Hwang mixed yellow lupins with orange geums and coppery verbascums to great effect, and in the Trailfinders South African Wine Estate garden by Jonathan Snow, reds, oranges and yellows jostled for prominence in a clashing parade, with red hot pokers intermingled with agapanthus and proteas. Formal box hedges were coupled with pink roses against the Cape Dutch homestead.

 The Trailfinders garden was ablaze with red hot pokers

The Trailfinders garden was ablaze with red hot pokers

 The Silent Pool Gin Garden

The Silent Pool Gin Garden

Jo Thompson used Iris ‘Carnival’ and ‘Kent Pride’ in her Wedgewood Garden, set against the pale yellow of Trollius and primulas, while pale blue meconopsis and orange geums dominated the Silent Pool Gin Garden by David Neale. Inspired by the Silent Pool Distillery in the Surrey Hills, the planting scheme blended beautifully with the copper sculptures. Not sure how to transfer these ideas into your own garden? See my blog on injecting colour.

Go native

There was a definite move towards more native plantings, particularly when it came to trees and shrubs. A growing appreciation for indigenous plants and local flora has been bubbling under the surface for many years – and it was good to see it feature more prominently here. I think people have become tired of the Himalayan birches and betula nigers, and want something a little different. With environmental concerns at the forefront of people’s minds, designers are looking closer to home for stand-out specimens. Find a tree that might work for your own garden in my native trees blog.

Get touchy feely

Interesting textures and surfaces, from paving to pavillions, were in evidence in many of the show gardens, with a continuing sense of ‘bringing the indoors out’. The cedar wood pavillion in the Morgan Stanley Garden for the NSPCC looked serene nestled amongst lush green plantings.

 The Morgan Stanley Garden's wood pavillion

The Morgan Stanley Garden's wood pavillion

Tony Woods’ Urban Flow Garden also took my breath away with its rusting corten steel ‘fretwork’ set against rich plantings of salvias, acid yellow euphorbias and purple lupin. The grey leaves of rose glauca perfectly complemented the steel structures, and I loved the use of hand-crafted clay bricks and porcelain cladding. 

 The Urban Flow garden had beautiful 'fretwork'

The Urban Flow garden had beautiful 'fretwork'

Think green

The idea of ‘growing with nature’ and using more naturalistic plantings was in abundance this year, with lots of eco ideas to take away. Looser, meadow style planting with long grasses, wildflowers and nettles were evidence in many of the gardens – and showed just how you could be mindful of wildlife but also create a lovely garden. There were eco-friendly additions such as rainwater harvesters and bee bricks (with small holes for hibernating bees) too. Running water was used to show how it can dampen noise pollution in urban areas, and in the Urban Flow Garden, rainwater cascaded down a trough first before being filtered out into the flower beds. A pretty but practical way to water the garden. In the LG Eco-City Garden, the emphasis was on trees, focusing on how they can control oxegen, humidity and reduce carbon dioxide levels.

 

 

How to use garden lighting

You wouldn’t design an interiors scheme without adequate lighting, and yet our gardens are often overlooked and badly illuminated. If you want to use your outdoor space after dark this summer, follow Abbotswood’s eight essential tips to using garden lighting…

1. Plan ahead

Think about lighting as early as you can in your garden design project so all the cabling and accessories can be concealed and incorporated into final design. The best lighting is invisible, so you see its effect but not how it is created. Make sure you employ a lightning designer and certified and qualified electrician to install the lightning for you so that it is safe, and ensure cabling is protected from water and curious animals.

2. Go for a light touch

Unless you’re planning on hosting the next F.A Cup in your back garden, no garden needs to be floodlit.  You don’t want to wash the entire garden in glaring light, and neither do you want to create the effect of security lights that pop on and off. Less is more when it comes to garden lighting and you don’t need many lights to create a pleasing glow. If budgets are small, nothing beats a string of copper tree lights or hurricane lamps set around a patio table.

 Even a string of fairy lights can bring a bit of magic to a tree at nighttime

Even a string of fairy lights can bring a bit of magic to a tree at nighttime

3. Try LEDs

We use 12v low wattage LEDs in many of our Cambridgeshire garden designs. They are safe, easy to install, long lived and for very little wattage it’s possible to illuminate a whole garden. Most LEDs will need a ‘driver’ – essentially a small electrical device in a box that regulates the power – so consider where these are going to be hidden.

4. Create two gardens for the price of one

Lightning allows you to create a new look for you garden at nighttime, which can give a completely different feel to the daytime space. For example, a daytime scheme might be centered around a children’s play area but at night time, you might want to throw this into shadow and focus on the garden’s entertaining space. If you’re unsure what areas or focal points to highlight, try walking around your garden with a torch. Point the beam into trees and try different angles to see what affects it creates. A spotlight, for example, will use a narrow beam of light to bring a sculpture or container to the forefront, while uplights can highlight plant foliage. Backlighters will conjure some beautiful silhouettes, for example, when used behind urns or sculptures, and a light at the bottom of an old brick wall can cast interesting shadows and bring texture to a space. An uplit white wall can be turned into an outdoor projector screen.

 Inexpensive hurricane lamps and tea light holders can bring ambience to eating areas

Inexpensive hurricane lamps and tea light holders can bring ambience to eating areas

5. Key areas of the garden to light up

  • Light steps and changes in ground level to enhance safety. Lights can be recessed into paving or decking.
  • Highlight areas close to gates, and entrance and exit points.
  • Create ambient light in shady areas near the house – particularly important if you want to use the patio or decking for nighttime entertaining. These areas will also be seen from the house so save your best and most expensive lighting schemes for these areas.
  • Make a feature of paths. The best schemes are those that direct people through your garden and lead to a focal point, rather than one or two lights dotted about. Path lights should be set around 2-3m apart.

6. Play with diffused light

At nighttime the eye is immediately drawn to bright light, so ensure garden lights are pointed away from the line of sight rather than towards it.  People won’t be able to appreciate your garden, if the outdoor lighting blinds them. Use shields on path lights, for example, so the light points down and across rather than up, and use uplights to diffuse the light through architectural foliage. Down lights can also be placed in trees to create the dappled effect of natural light – called ‘moonlighting’ – and remember that tree bark can be as interesting as the foliage. Artificial lighting can be classed as a statutory nuisance if it unreasonably or substantially interferes with your neighbour’s enjoyment or use of their home, so be mindful to keep anything you do low key.

 7. Embrace the dark

It’s the contrasts of dark and light that make for the perfect garden lighting display, so consider areas of shadow too. Unlike interiors it’s not about illuminating the whole space but rather choosing to highlight certain areas. Keep utility areas hidden or ugly garden boundaries by drawing the eye away.

8. Give the green light to colour

Most LED lights come in warm whites or cool blues. Lighter blues and greens look good when used against foliage but, as with interior lighting, softer whites are better for dining areas and walkways. Some LEDs come in different colours, where you can programme the colour to suit the mood and you can also get coloured fittings such as olive green or copper, which blend better with the outdoor environment.

 

Favourite flowering evergreens

I reveal my go-to evergreens for colour and scent for spring and summer

Evergreens are ever versatile. Whether used to screen eyesores, create privacy or soften boundaries, there’s an evergreen for every job.

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Topiary forms such as taxus and buxus, or Pinus mugo (dwarf mountain pine), can be clipped to form striking clusters on low branches, and taxus baccata Fastigiata (or the Irish Yew) takes little pruning and lends formality. Brighter evergreens such as Griselina, Euonymus japonicus and Privet have fresher leaf tones that work well in darker areas. And mix an evergreen holly with a hornbeam hedge, and you get several seasons of interest. By the end of winter many of the deciduous leaves have fallen to reveal the holly in all its glory.

But evergreens don’t have to be all about foliage. Many of these shrubs have the benefit of flowers and fragrance too. And, although rhododendron and camellias don’t like our alkaline Cambridge soils, there’s still plenty to choose from…

1. Ceanothus arboreus 'Trewithen Blue'

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Fast growing, lime tolerant shrub or small tree that rewards you with deep blue, fragrant flowers in spring. It is a magnet for bees. Californian lilacs can become large and sprawling so keep it under control by training it against a wall.

2. Hoheria sexstylosa

Glossy, toothed leaves and umbels of white, perfumed flowers from July make this a good choice for late season flowers and scent. It has interesting bark (hence it’s sometimes known as the Lacebark or Ribbonwood) and it will thrive in our chalky Cambridge soils. They like a sheltered position and will be happiest against a sunny wall.

 

3. Escallonia ‘Apple Blossom’

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Leathery, toothed leaves with pinky white flowers in late spring and early summer. It can be pruned and shaped to form an attractive hedge. Slightly tender, it won’t do well in exposed or windy gardens so choose a sheltered corner.

 

4. Viburnum tinus

Large shrub with dark green oval leaves and clusters of creamy white flowers, tinged pink when in bud. It flowers all winter and into spring, before producing dark purple-black berries. Great for hedging and for wildlife, it is also unfussy about soil type.

 

5. Choisya ternata ‘Aztec Pearl’

Dark green, glossy leaves and fragrant white flowers from April to May, which have a pink flush in bud. It can produce a second set of flowers in the autumn. Mexican oranges like moist but well drained soil – and are not too fussed about alkaline soils. They also tolerate partial shade. It’s a good choice as a specimen shrub for a mixed border, container or a hedge.

 

6. Sarcococca confusa

The Christmas or sweet box is a compact shrub with tiny, beautifully fragrant white flowers in winter and spring, followed by berries. It’s very easy to grow and very reliable so it’s a good choice for first-time gardeners. Very happy on chalky soils and in shade – even under the canopy of trees. You can cut flowers for the vase.

 

7. Daphne odorata aureomarginata

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The small, purple-pink tubular flowers of this popular shrub emit the most enchanting fragrance as early as mid December. Its compact habit makes it ideal for pots on the patio – so you can enjoy the fragrance close at hand – and it also tolerates alkaline soil.

Beautiful heather whatever the weather

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Easily overlooked and hugely underrated, winter flowering heathers can bring colour, scent and structure to a garden during the coldest months...

There are two main misconceptions about winter flowering heathers: the first that they all need primping and preening with ericaceous soil, and secondly, they must be planted in an island bed.

It was back in the 1960s, when winter heathers, namely Erica carnea and E. darleyensis, reached the height of their popularity. Planted en masse in raised rockeries – multiplying like bacteria in a petri dish alongside dwarf conifers – these island beds soon became monuments to their demise. When the evergreens began dying off and the neglected heathers became a tangle of flowerless twigs, they didn’t seem quite so ‘low maintenance’ anymore. More recently, having become a major plant for the horticultural trade, they’ve been given hideous punk rocker styling with blue and orange dyes too. Poor Erica.

But I love winter heathers. They’re happy in pots, in woodland plantings (as long as they get some dappled sun), as a border edging or pride of place alongside flowering perennials and grasses. And they are also happy in alkaline soils. In fact, winter heathers are not fussy about the soil PH and can tolerate lime and chalky soil, which allows them to be planted in most gardens, even in Cambridge! Inexpensive, evergreen, flowering all winter, and playing nicely with a multitude of plants: what’s not to like?

Blooms for the bees

Heather flowers are the big draw for me. From red to purple, through mauve, pink and white, there seems to be a colour for all schemes. What’s more they flower for very long periods: through December snow and January winds, right up until the first daffodils emerge.

Among the best specimens are the striking E. darleyensis ‘Kramers Red’, or E. carnea ‘December Red’ with urn-shaped blooms that start off pink and turn to light purple as they mature. Then there’s E. carnea ‘Rosalie’ AGM with its deep rosy pink flowers set against dark bronze foliage and E. carnea ‘Springwood White’, providing a drift of snow even if there isn’t any forecast. This particular variety has trailing stems and a lovely scent too.

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The flowers draw insects from far and wide, making heather a perfect wildlife garden specimen. They are a lifeline for bumblebees and solitary bees, which tend to emerge on mild days even in winter. Heather provides one of their earliest sources of food.

Turn over a new leaf

But the interest doesn’t just stop at the flowers. Many types of heather have interesting foliage, and mixing and matching them in one design can produce a vivid carpet of colours, even in shadier spots.

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E. darleyensis F. Aurefolia ‘Moonshine’ has bright lime foliage against pale pink flowers, while E. carnea f. alba ‘Golden Starlet’ AGM holds its white flowers above neat needles of lime-green foliage that turn golden over the summer. E. darleyensis ‘Tweety’ runs through shades of yellow, gold and beige before finishing in a crescendo of orange in winter. Others have unusual colouration in the tips of new growth, which appear like flowers. For example tree heather E × veitchii ‘Gold Tips’ AGM has dark green foliage that is tipped with yellow in the spring.

Heather and friends

With their low-growing habit – and ability to disappear into the background in summer – winter heathers provide a versatile canvas too.

Heathers are best planted in groups in odd numbers, and in late winter there’s nothing prettier than snowdrops, crocuses and cyclamen poking through the needle-like leaves, or spring-flowering dwarf irises and narcissi.

Because they tolerate dappled shade, heathers are a good choice for planting under native trees such as beech, birch and oak too. Dwarf grasses work well, alongside the traditional rhododendrons, but lavender and pieris japonica blend beautifully. An all white winter garden with white heathers, camellia ‘Winter Snowman’ and white hellebores can be stunning.

And if you thought they were only good for ground covering, tree heathers (Erica arborea) can reach up to four metres. They do best when they are pruned, to keep them bushy, and can even make informal hedges.

Planted in drifts you could almost imagine you’re walking among the resinous garrigue on the limestone hills of the Mediterranean coast, or in the sandy scrubland of the Cape.

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My favourite gardening books

January can be quiet time in the garden so I use it to catch up on a spot of reading – around my favourite subject of course! Here’s my top garden books of all time…

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In Your Garden, Vita Sackville West (Frances Lincoln, 2004) Sackville West’s Sissinghurst Garden became a blueprint for the quintessential English garden and this book collates cuttings from her Observer newspaper articles. The diverse articles contain a combination of romantic and practical sensibilities, and I found it fascinating to gain an insight into her gardening preferences in an era of ‘grand gardens’ with knowledgeable patrons.

The Well-Tempered Garden, Christopher Lloyd (W&N, 2014) A garden classic, written by an incredibly knowledgeable plantsman, who was willing to be experimental even though he was born into a period of gardening that was quite rigid and prescriptive. The Well Tempered Garden gives a more personal perspective on his gardening philosophy than his other books, which he honed at his fabulous gardens at Great Dixter. These gardens continue to greatly influence gardeners, designers and plantsmen alike.

The Dry Garden, Beth Chatto (Orion, 2012) The Dry Garden provided me with a great deal of inspiration when I began gardening in the drier conditions of Cambridgeshire. Chatto’s love of plants, the honest accounts of creating her garden and her keen observational eye taught me a great deal.

Thoughtful Gardening: Great Plants, Great Gardens, Great Gardeners, Robin Lane Fox (Particular Books, 2010) An enjoyable read, drawing on the author’s articles in The Financial Times and his experience as Garden Master of New College, Oxford. Funny and informative, if a little superior in parts, you can dip in and out at will and never be bored.

The Art of Creative Pruning: Inventive ideas for Training and Shaping Trees and Shrubs, Jake Hobson (Timber Press, 2011) We love our topiary at Abbotswood and this inspiring and entertaining book, which introduces new Japanese-inspired approaches to pruning, moves topiary beyond the mundane. With a background in fine art sculpting rather than gardening, Hobson brings artistic flair to traditional techniques.

Garden Design Details, Arne Maynard (Harper Design International, 2005) I adore Maynard’s soft, naturalistic approach to the landscape. His gardens appear to grow out of the landscape and are firmly rooted in the place. This book is packed with ideas – and a great read for a dull January day when you can only fantasise about how you want to transform the garden.

Designing with Plants, Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury (Conran, 1999) A wonderful introduction to ‘New Wave’ planting with perennial grasses and flowers. One of the earliest books to unlock how to use these plants in naturalistic drift plantings.

The Natural Australian Garden, Gordon Ford (Bloomings Books, 1999) An early pioneer of indigenous plantings and a more sustainable and natural approach to gardening. “The flora, fauna and landscape of a nation contributes to the identification of the national soul”, he writes. Ford advocates abandoning European gardening trends for gardens that work with the rugged beauty of the Australian landscape. In particular, he swapped the idea of the ‘English lawn’ for bush gardens, which help conserve water – something very relevant to the crisp conditions.

The Herb Garden, Sarah Garland (Frances Lincoln, 2003) My version of this book was inscribed by my grandpa in 1985, and was one of my first gardening books. While there are many more modern books on herbs, I like this one for sentimental reasons. My grandpa was a keen gardener and passed this passion on to my mum and I, and helped me create a herb garden of my own at home when I was younger.

Norwegian Wood, Lars Mytting (MacLehose Press, 2015) Who knew there was so much to learn about chopping, stacking and drying wood? In Abbotswood’s quieter moments, I fancy owning some woodland and doing just this. The next best thing is, of course, is to sit on the sofa in winter with a glass of red wine and imagining doing it!

Late Summer Flowers, Marina Christopher (Frances Lincoln, 2011) Autumn is my favourite time of the year and this book always reminds me to increase the proportion of later flowering plants in the garden. As a very knowledgeable plantswoman and co-founder of the Green Farm Nursery, Christopher provides a good explanation of the approach, with practical guidance and a directory of plants.

Trees for your Garden: Discovering the Very Best of British Ornamental and Fruit Trees, Nick Dunn (Tree Council, 2010) This comprehensive book was recommended to me by a tree surgeon and is packed with expert practical advice and stunning photography.

Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History, Bill Laws (David & Charles, 2010) This part history/trivia book, part plant encyclopedia is beautifully illustrated and is a great coffee table read.

 

 

 

Garden design trends for 2018

We gaze into our crystal ball and predict what’s going to be big in backyards in the New Year…

Grasses

Ornamental grasses will continue to add texture and depth to garden schemes. Tough and long-lasting they are great value for money and we feel sure they will persist in naturalistic ‘New Perennial Movement’ schemes, planted en masse with drifts of perennials. We envisage grasses will also play a role in the rising tide of sustainable and environmentally friendly design, both in corporate and domestic schemes, like those pioneered by designers such a Professor of Planting Design Nigel Dunnett at Sheffield University. Grasses also tap into the Japanese idea of ‘wabi-sabi’, the idea of natural imperfections and gardening in balance with nature. That said, we see a reduction in the types of grasses used. Stipa gigantea, Miscanthus sp., Calamagrostis sp., and Anemanthele lessioniana all have a role to play – but the drawback is that many lose their shape in our damp winters and look limp and messy, especially the early flowering varieties. We find Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’, Miscanthus malepartus, Calamagrostis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster', and Stipa gigantea, Anemanthele lessoniana the most versatile ornamental grasses which overwinter well.

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Shrubs

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With smaller gardens (and smaller wallets), there will be a continuing demand for high performance shrubs, with plants that offer more blossom for their buck. Some interesting recent new introductions include semi-evergreen Daphne x transatlantica 'Eternal Fragrance', with its fragrant pinky-white flowers, and compact evergreen Magnolia 'Fairy Cream', with its spectacular fragrance, which can both be grown in large containers. These two standout plants look good all year and flower their heads off. Gardeners are simply not satisfied with a two to three week flowering time these days – with nothing else interesting happening the rest of the year – and instead, they are calling for plants that have the 'wow' factor for longer periods, and big shrubs that look good now, not in three years time.  

Screening

We’ve been incorporating a lot of pleached trees and panels into gardens this year thanks to the way they create instant impact in small spaces – and screen the seemingly unscreenable (we’ve used ivy on wire mesh panels to instantly disguise an electricity substation, for example!) We’re sure their popularity will not diminish in 2018. In fact, an increasing number of new varieties are becoming available from evergreen shrubs, Euonymus fortunei ‘Silver Queen’, with its green and white leaves, tinged with pink, to Magnolia and even amelanchier trees, with its white star-shaped flowers and rust coloured leaves.

Technology

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We think (and hope!) there will be more automation in lawn care, with robotic mowers and extended battery times on equipment so that this can become a feasible option for larger gardens too. Increasingly electrical garden tools such as professional hedge trimmers, brushcutter/strimmers and blowers are now battery powered or cordless and this looks set to continue. We can only hope the robotic mowers will lead to a reduction in the use of artificial turf, however (an ‘unmentionable’ among gardeners and designers!) as it seems so unnatural and has so many negative implications for wildlife. We predict there will also be a rise in garden tech that’s connected to your mobile such as smart controllers for water irrigation systems.

Lighting

People have been bringing the indoors outside with atmospheric garden lighting for decades, whether to allow them to socialise after dark, to enhance garden features, or simply stop them tripping over the cat on the way to the greenhouse. With alfresco living set to be big for 2018, we expect to see a rise in the popularity of garden lightning with increasing availability of low-voltage lighting and particularly LEDs (much better than halogen as they don’t emit heat and damage foliage). Not so long ago lighting was an expensive business and required significant power usage, not to mention ugly cables that had to be concealed. Now, for the equivalent of a 100w bulb, you can illuminate a whole (small) garden. Prepare to see more fibre optic walls, fairy lights strung artistically through multi stem trees, solar hanging light bulbs and LED grow lights.

Growing your own

The rise in veganism is sure to translate into an upward trend in veg and fruit growing – but we feel this will be limited to certain areas. Generally, there seems a misconception about what can be achieved in a kitchen garden and people do not want to spend the amount of money (or time) it takes to maintain a large vegetable plot to a high standard. However, outdoor kitchens and pizza ovens will become more important, as well as the fresh food to go with it. We envisage a rise in container veg and herb gardens in particular. Perennial herbs such as sages and rosemary can easily be incorporated into a garden design alongside other plants, and they have a long season of interest compared with other edible crops. We’ll see more experimentation in herb beds too, with exotic herbs such as Lemon Grass and Kaffir Lime included in schemes. We predict there will be more fruit growing too, both as espalier and cordon fruit trees but also standard currants and gooseberries.

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New materials

Interiors trends inevitably end up outdoors – and we’ve seen a rise in the use of external porcelain floor tiles. Lighter and thinner than ceramic, the outdoor versions are frost proof and resistant to temperature changes meaning you can seamlessly link them with your indoor space, and they look great in smaller city gardens. There are lots of textures and shades available and their tough exterior means they do not need to be sealed and are resistant to fading and scratches – which means they require minimal maintenance.

Localism

Native plants will be increasingly important in 2018. Local sourcing has been a trend in food and drink for a long time, but with Brexit looming and the cost of plant imports likely to rise we’re likely to see designers and gardeners sourcing plants and garden materials closer to home. Plants such as olives, lavender, and rosemary etc may also start to be imported in smaller quantities as plant nurseries worry about the biohazard of new virulent pests and diseases from Europe. 

Stars of the small screen

This month we offer advice on using pleached trees for garden screening – and pick our favourite plants…

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  Tilia  x  europaea  ' Pallida ' 

Tilia x europaea 'Pallida

If there’s one design element we are most frequently asked to create in our Cambridgeshire gardens, it’s screening.

Whether it’s to hide ugly objects such as trampolines and compost heaps from view, or interrupt views from nosy neighbours, everyone wants their garden to be a private paradise – and screening can do the job nicely.

Walls and fences can be an expensive and very permanent installation – with the harsh façade often calling for concealment itself – while fast growing trees and bulky hedging plants can get out of control, cast shade and eat into valuable ground in a small garden.

At Abbotswood, we’re big fans of pleached (also known as espaliered) shrubs and trees, which create living walls of natural foliage. These so-called ‘tall borders’ and ‘green screens’ are essentially lines of trees tied into a climbing frame, and clipped to form a flat “hedge on stilts” above bare trunks.

In our age of tower block skyscapes, trained trees can be very useful – providing height at a price that’s not as prohibitive as brick (and won’t resemble HM Pentonville), and they help to blur boundary lines and create privacy without blocking out valuable light. They also provide a haven for wildlife, which brings its own liveliness to the garden.

Historical influences

Pleached trees are nothing new of course; in fact it’s thought this formalised hedging was used as a ‘defensive barrier’ against invading armies in the time of Julius Ceasar. Battlements aside, many landscape architects of the 17th and 18th centuries continued to use pleached trees to create living fences, which defined views and created intimate rooms. Pleached limes were particularly prevalent in the French ‘grand allées’ of the 19th century.

But thanks to a recent revival, particularly among Chelsea Flower Show designs, trained trees are no longer associated with just the grand schemes – they can be eye-catching structures for the smaller garden too. And such is their renewed popularity, you can buy them ‘ready made’ to slot into your garden like fencing panels.

There’s a huge range of these ready-made pleached trees on offer, from Acer campestre to Liquidamber styraciflua, and the espaliered forms are the finest quality. Rather than being grown tightly on panels, they are tiered like the espalier pome fruit forms. We’ve pruned some wonderful lime trees grown this way and it is possible to graft neighbouring trees together to form a continuous block.

Practice what you pleach

Grow them yourself, however, and you can save a lot of money and be more flexible about their proportions.

  Carpinus betula  being trained to disguise trampoline

Carpinus betula being trained to disguise trampoline

While they are easy to plant and establish, any pleached tree, by its very nature, will require a good deal of pruning. Examples of non-pruned trees abound around Cambridge and I can vouch that the unkempt forms are not very attractive!

It’s also possible to pleach trees on the horizontal plane, and create ‘parasol’ forms with a square flat head on a standard. Many plants lend themselves to this style including Tillia x europea ‘Pallida’, Parrotia persica, Platinus x acerifolia and Morus platinifolia.

To grow your own, first get the support system in place. This needs to include two sturdy uprights at each end with horizontal wires between the posts, with the lowest at the level you need the foliage to start. How many wires you use depends on the thickness and height of your space. You can also use bamboo frames.

  Ilex castaneifolia  here at a local nursery

Ilex castaneifolia here at a local nursery

Create planting holes twice the size of the root balls and set your plants around 2-3m apart, securing them to stakes. Tie in any horizontal braches there and then, and train the rest as they grow.

In July, and the following winter, you can tie in the leading branch and prune any others that point straight out or in the wrong direction. Secure any branches that are naturally horizontal (don't force them into place) and ensure twine ties are not too tight that they bite into the tree flesh.

Each year, you’ll want to prune and clip in the same way to keep the shape sleek and compact. They will grow up and out so ensure they’re planted in a position where you can get to them from all sides.

Pleaches and cream: our favourite plants for pleached panels

  • Sweet chestnut holly (Ilex castaneifolia)

Plenty of vibrant red berries in autumn. It tolerates shade so is a good choice for a north-facing garden.

  • Holm Oak (Quercus ilex)

Attractive, glossy-green, evergreen leaves with a pale grey back, and edible acorns in winter. It prefers a well-drained spot.

  • Crab apple (Malus Evereste)

Pretty and productive, this lovely ornamental fruit tree has white flowers in spring and small orange fruits in autumn, which make excellent jelly.

  • Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus)

We’ve used Carpinus betlua on the terrace at a design in Windlesham and they are stunning in a courtyard garden setting. Even though they are deciduous, they can create year-round screening thanks to the way they cling on to their coppery leaves and create a dense thicket of stems.

  • Lime (Tilia x europaea ‘Pallida’)

Gorgeous green-yellow foliage and autumn colour as well as sweetly scented flowers.

  • Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos ‘Sunburst’)

A small tree with fabulous, feathery golden leaves in spring, turning lime green in summer. Shade tolerant.

  • Callery Pear (Pyrus chanticleer)

Deciduous tree, which has beautiful blossom (followed by green brown fruits) and retains its leaves until mid winter.

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Why we don’t just design gardens – we help them live on

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Maintenance might be a dirty word to some landscapers, but at Abbotswood Garden Design we believe regular maintenance is what sets a great garden apart from a just-so one – which is why we offer our clients these little extras…

Long-term thinking

While many landscapers walk away from their gleaming designs once the blue print is blooming – Abbotswood take a much longer-term view. We understand that you might not have much time, or that a four-acre garden might be beyond your capabilities, and we continue to offer maintenance as standard after the landscaping has finished. This is because we understand that the very best gardens are created over time, with patience and with care. Instead of filing borders with flowers that will be over in one season, we choose from a wide palette of colours, shapes and seasons that will give long-term, year-round interest. And we ask ourselves: what will those shrubs look like in two, 10, 20-years time? Will that tree need trimming, and will that pond need perking up? Because things grow and change we’re there to grow with them, pruning at the right times, cutting lawns and making sure your garden looks as good, if not better, than when it was first planted.

 

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Acres of experience

Abbotswood Garden Design has been designing and maintaining gardens in and around Cambridge, Saffron Walden, Huntingdon and Newmarket for more than a decade. Because most of these gardens are large (some more than four acres) and belong to some of the region’s most prestigious homes and landmark buildings, we have learnt how to work with complex gardens and understand the intricacies of landscaping and plant care. We also have a passion for problem solving and love the challenge that those awkward spots bring!

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Local know-how

Relying purely on word of mouth from day one (some people call Abbotswood ‘Cambridge’s best kept secret’), we’ve built up a loyal following. We’ve also gained a deep-rooted local knowledge about what works and doesn’t work in the area. We understand the soil, climate, geography and topography of the region and therefore the plants and plans that work best.

Understanding your views

While some landscapers will throw all their efforts into the front garden, we take a wider view – your view in fact. You’re the one who will be looking out into your back and front garden every day, and we take this in to account in our landscaping and maintenance. Our fully collaborative approach to your design doesn’t end at the drawing board; it extends to the maintenance too. So, we won’t let overgrown trees impinge on your favourite vista, we understand that seating areas and patios need to be maintained to keep them functional, and that you don’t want to look out on compost heaps and utility areas. We consider what you want to get out of the garden and what the garden needs to do for you.

Expert plant knowledge

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As well as working in some of Britain’s greatest gardens, Abbotswood’s founder Rob Chew has gained RHS qualifications and is a graduate of the English Gardening School in London. As plantsmen, we bring a wealth of horticultural knowledge to projects: we know our biennials from our perennials, our ground covers from our grasses, and know that good plant husbandry is the key to a flourishing garden, whether that’s tying in climbers, dividing perennials, creating meadows, planting bulbs or clipping topiary. We do the skilful horticultural work, so you can just sit back and enjoy your garden.

A love for loam

We believe good gardens start with good soil. While some landscapers will simply add a layer of mulch on top to give that photogenic look, we know it goes much deeper. We lavish attention on your soil from day one, digging in leaf mould and compost to enrich and support the planting above ground. Give soil some love in those early days and the garden will give back for years.

Greener gardening

Gardening in harmony with nature and not against it is also important to us. Lavishing lawns in chemicals, spraying shrubs and eradiating pests will create imbalance in eco-system of your garden and while it might look pristine initially, you are more likely to get infestations and hard to tackle problems at a later date. Instead we know that by incorporating diversification in planting, encouraging beneficial pollinators, practicing crop rotation and ensuring good housekeeping, we can maintain a garden that is much more able to stand up to the rigours of climate change and other challenges.

Slick scheduling

We remain on top of the practicalities of garden maintenance with rigorous scheduling and time keeping. Just one of our gardens offers a myriad of jobs, but we are fully capable of handling multi faceted projects and getting to grips with seasonal tasks at the right time and in good time.

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My top 10 trees for autumn colour

Foliage takes centre stage over flowers in autumn with trees putting on a glorious show. Here are 10 native and non-native trees that I believe should take a leading role in your garden…

 Liquidamber at Cambridge Botanic Gardens this Autumn

Liquidamber at Cambridge Botanic Gardens this Autumn

1. Beech (Fagus syl. 'Asplenifolia')

This tree’s dense canopy is a haven for wildlife (and one of the best trees to find mushrooms underneath), with leaves a must for mulching. Leaves turn from lime green to yellow, and then copper red in autumn. The ‘Asplenifolia’ is a particularly fine specimen and has all the merits of the native species, with delicate dissected leaves that shimmer in the breeze.

 Leaves just starting to colour this week

Leaves just starting to colour this week

Use: Not many gardens have room for a fully-fledged beech as they can reach around 40m; so hedging is a great bet. Pruning beech tricks the plant into thinking it’s a juvenile so it retains its orange-brown leaves for longer.

2. Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica)

Stunning autumn colour, with rich purple leaves in spring turning to orange-red in autumn - sometimes with a purple fringe. As well as red flowers in late winter, it also has lovely grey bark, which flakes to reveal pinky-yellow, immature bark beneath. The best autumn colour develops on acid soils but it will still fair well on chalk.

Use: Growing to around 6m high, it’s excellent for small gardens and widely available as single or multi-stem trees.

3. Wild service tree (Sorbus torminalis)

Rarely planted and rarely seen, this tree’s sweeping branches, scaly bark and lobed leaves, like a maple, offers a fabulous orange-russet display in autumn. It thrives in this country, even on chalk soils, and can reach 10-15m high. Scented white flowers form in spring and the edible fruits, called chequers, were once picked like dates and used in beer.

 Recent purchase to be planted this Autumn, with strongly coloured leaves

Recent purchase to be planted this Autumn, with strongly coloured leaves

Use: Fast growing and unfussy, it’s a great all-rounder.

4. Maidenhair tree (Ginkgo biloba)

Stunning fan-shaped leaves, and, as the name denotes, the ‘Autumn Gold’ turns a brilliant, amber colour as the seasons change. Keeps its colour over a long period.

Use: A good choice for large gardens, growing to more than 12m high.

5. Wild Cherry (Prunus avium)

The pretty white blossom and bright red fruits of this ancestor of the cultivated cherry have been adding a splash of colour to Britain’s hedgerows for hundreds of years – but it also offers unforgettable colour in autumn.

Use: Preferring alkaline soils, it’s a must-have for our Cambridge gardens and can reach 30m.

6. Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica)

The black gum tree is a North American native with oval leaves and elegant habit. Leaves turn from fiery purple to red early in the season and give a truly spectacular display. Grows up to 12m.

Use: Native to swampland, these trees needs fertile soil but can tolerate waterlogged sites. A good choice for pond or lake margins, but not one for chalk soils.

7. Field Maple (Acer campestre)

This long-lived UK native has shiny green leaves that fade to rich gold. Foliage and flowers are attractive to aphids and their predators, including the sycamore moth. There are many cultivars with different and dramatic characteristics: I love A.c. ‘Red Shine’.

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Use: Its compact habit makes it a good choice for smaller urban gardens, especially given its tolerance to pollution. As with all maples, the sap can be used to make maple syrup!

8. Spindle (Euonymus europaeus)

Small but perfectly formed, native spindles have glowing orange/red foliage and lipstick red seed heads in autumn, with ‘Red Cascade’ being a particularly fine example. The seeds split open around now to reveal coral coloured fruits, which hang in clusters. The wood was once used to make ‘spindles’ for wool making (hence the name) as well as knitting needles.

Use: Tolerates most soils, including thin chalk.

9. Sweet Gum (Liquidambar styraciflua)

I couldn’t leave this spectacular tree out of my list – even though it doesn't do so well in Cambridge soils! The five-pointed leaves offer gloriously fiery colours and are a season highlight in richer acidic soils. In fact everything about this tree sounds delicious: its spiky fruit ‘capsules’ are known by many names including ‘gumballs’ and ‘goblin bombs’.

Use: Although it can reach 25m, Liquidambar responds well to pruning – it can even be trained – so can be kept in check in medium-sized gardens.

10. Alder buckthorn (Frangula alnus)

Bright, yellow-red autumn colour and attractive fruits, which ripen from red to purple-black. The leaves are a favourite with Brimstone butterfly caterpillars.

Use: At 5m, it is a good choice for small gardens and works well as part of a wildlife hedge.

A wave of euphorbia

Euphorbias have a myriad of hidden talents that make them one of Abbotswood’s best value plants for the garden…

 Euphorbia robbiae with Helleborus x hybridus

Euphorbia robbiae with Helleborus x hybridus

Hardy garden euphorbias are the bogoffs of the garden. Buy one and you’ll get twice as much as you paid for. 

Offering winter structure, blousy bracts and foliage colours straight out of a Dulux paint chart – once established they can provide year-round interest, year after year.

Their ability to suit pretty much any soil, location and treatment, depending on the species, makes them a versatile plant for any border.

Spring stunners

Pay more attention to the flowers (or cyathium) of the euphorbia and you’ll notice that they are far from ordinary flowers, with tiny male and female buds surrounded by leaves and bracts, which seen from afar can look like giant flower heads.

  Euphorbia oblongata  with  Cerinthe major

Euphorbia oblongata with Cerinthe major

Looking best when they are left to sprawl, euphorbias need cutting back after the flowers have gone over, removing the whole stem to make space for the new shoots and flowers.

Flowering from December to May, many of the earliest types enjoy partial shade so they’re good for north facing spots. The native wood spurge, E. amygdaloides var. robbiae is a tough evergreen that can tolerate dry soil under trees and makes good ground cover – as well as a fine cut-flower.

Yellow-green E. polychroma also blends beautifully with the blues of the late spring palette and combines well with Pulmonaria 'Blue Ensign'.

Backstage beauties

With so many different types of euphorbia, it’s possible to grow them at the back, middle and front of the border if desired.

Of the big guys, Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii and Euphorbia mellifera offer height, around 1.5m, and evergreen structure with golden to lime-green flowers that look stunning as a backdrop for purple tulips or erysimums. Edwardian designer Gertrude Jekyll described wulfenii as “one of the grandest plants”, and at its full height it brings a real sense of architecture to an herbaceous border. ‘Black Pearl’ is also an eye catcher with visible black nectar glands that look like tadpoles on stalks.

For patios and pots

Originating from the Mediterranean, many euphorbias will also grow happily in gravel and can give a flash of colour in a minimalist scheme. E. griffithii ‘Great Dixter’ is a spreading type that offers fiery orange red flowers, while E. Schillingii, or the Schilling spurge, is clump forming.

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  Euphorbia griffithii  Great Dixter and  Saliva  sp.

Euphorbia griffithii Great Dixter and Saliva sp.

But the star hogging the footlights at the front of border is definitely E. Purpurea, with its acid green flowers against whorls of purple-pink leaves.

If you don’t have more than a patio, there are even euphorbias for pots. Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost’ doesn't feel like it's in the same family with its masses of pure white bracts, held aloft effervescent apple green foliage. Though a tender plant, it is perfect for summer pots.

Although you'd be wise to wear gloves and long sleeves when pruning, thanks to the euphorbia’s skin-irritating milky sap (which is also poisonous when ingested), the plants make wonderful cut flowers, provided you soak the stems overnight and sear to stop them leaking.

Providing a colourful and structural backdrop to other flowers in an arrangement, the flowers and bracts are as much a star of the vase as they are of the garden.

Tree choice: why I’m going native

I’ve changed my mind about using indigenous trees in garden designs – and urge everyone to do the same…

It’s not a groundbreaking thought to suggest planting more native trees. Leading designers such as Christopher Bradley-Hole have been advocating the use of indigenous species for years. In fact, I’m a little late to the party.

Like many other gardeners and designers, I’ve restricted the use of native trees to simple screening, within hedge lines or as retained self-set trees. Gardens are contrived and far from natural anyway, so why use a Betula pendula when you can use Betula utlis with its purer, whitewash bark?

It has taken a few events to shift my views.

First, was the impact of the terrible wildfires in southern Europe, and one particular image that showed a Portuguese farmhouse in a charred landscape of eucalyptus. Being an avid Lusophile, I was shocked to see the destruction but also drawn to the oasis of green, made up of oaks, chestnuts and elders around the house, that had remained untouched. The photo illustrated graphically the risks associated with eucalyptus plantings near houses – and how the fire retardant trees formed a protective barrier.

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I’ve also been hearing a myriad of stories about pests and diseases threatening non-native trees this year. At a recent talk about bio security threats by Professor Nicola Spence, UK Chief Plant Health Officer, I learned of a new bacterial disease – the Xylella fastidiosa – that could have a devastating impact on trees and shrubs in the UK.

Professor Spence’s lecture sharply highlighted the impact and influence gardeners and designers have in sourcing and encouraging the import of plants. Many of the plants we use travel thousands of miles and are grown in multiple countries, exposing us to new pest threats.

I must confess to degree of panic on hearing the current level of risk from imported plants. It could be all too easy to call for an all-out ban to protect our beautiful countryside. But pests also thrive in other transported goods: the wood of pallets, via people’s clothing or in smuggled plant material, so it is our connectivity that is the threat, not the plants alone. A ban would be impractical and ultimately ineffective.

Instead, gardeners and designers need to play their part by using more indigenous species. Why not promote the hawthorn from the hedgerow as a worthy stand-alone tree, for example; intermingle Field Maples with Japanese Acers; or use colourful Smoke Trees as that show-stopping accent or focal point? In short, could we bring native trees to the foreground of our gardens rather than keeping them in the shade?

With the physical space of the garden becoming ever-more limited in the UK, native trees offer an opportunity to appreciate and connect us with the countryside. It doesn’t mean rejecting the beauty of exotic trees altogether – after all, many of them may be the future beneficiaries of climate change and biodiversity – but instead, we need to change our view of native trees as ‘ordinary’. We often feel we ought to choose something more unusual, and forget that our own trees have magnificent qualities. Who knows, one day they may even stop your house from being burnt down.

My top 10 Native Trees (suitable for Cambridgeshire)

  1. Field Maple, Acer campestre – Fast growing tree with fabulous butter-yellow leaves in autumn.
  2. Wild Service Tree, Sorbus torminalis – A rare tree with attractive lobed leaves that tolerates shallow chalk, and has striking red leaves in autumn.
  3. Hornbeam, Carpinus betula – Beautiful as a group of trees or standalone specimen; has a gorgeous, tiered shape with attractive leaves.
  4. Walnut, Juglans regia – Some giant specimens exist in this county with attractive silver bark and glossy pinnate leaves.
  5. Betula pendula - Fine white bark, an attractive pendulous shape and small leaves that flicker in the slightest breeze. Beautiful yellow colour in autumn.  It should be high on the wish list.
  6. Hazel, Corylus avenlana – Admittedly, not your classic single stem tree, but its ‘shrubby' character is useful and enables regular coppicing. It also has attractive catkins and yellow leaves in autumn.
  7. Hawthorn, Crataegus monogyna – Often overlooked; simply because it makes up such a large proportion of our hedgerows. It has interesting bark, pleasant flowers, excellent berries, and autumn tints.
  8. White Willow, Salix alba – I look forward to persuading a client to include pollarded willow in a future design. I adore the soft grey green leaves and timeless characteristics of these trees in our landscape.
  9. Wild Cherry, Pruns avium – A noticeable feature in some of the older country gardens we maintain, intermingled with other native trees on boundaries, they grow tall and slender and have beautiful blossom and fine autumn colour.
  10. Holly Ilex aquifolium – For the drier parts of the county. Evergreen, spiky leaves with striking winter berries. Trees can be shaped and are good for screening.

Too mulch of a good thing? We weigh up the pros and cons of mulching

Autumn is the traditional time for our Cambridge gardens to be lavished with mulch – but what exactly is it, why do you need it and can you over do it? Abbotswood investigates…

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1. Compost and coverings: the types of mulch to use

Mulches are basically loose coverings of material laid over cultivated soil. They can be made from biodegradable bark or well-rotted compost, or non-biodegradable materials such as plastic sheets, pebbles or membrane. We also use composted woodchip (a by-product from tree surgery) in our Cambridge gardens, which, after a year or so of composting, is great as a covering for naturalistic woodland style paths. It looks particularly good around trees when a circle is cut in the grass and the mulch is placed at the centre. Another source of reliable weed-free mulch is the composted green waste from wheelie bins, which is very fertile and sets off plants nicely.

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2. When’s best to lay to rest

Mulching tends to happen in the spring or autumn. In spring, it’s an excellent way to retain moisture before the summer sun dries the soil out. It’s best timed just before the major flush of new growth from perennials, however: too early, and you have another generation of weeds to remove. Mulches applied in autumn help lock in the summer warmth and moisture in time for winter. We’ve found mulching at the beginning of winter is also an excellent way to get mulch to break down more quickly, with the weather and the worms doing the hard work for you.

3. Mulching merits

Organic mulches help retain moisture, lock in nutrients and encourage beneficial insets. They can also help suppress weeds, protect plant roots from frost and can even deter pests. We’ve found wood chip are an efficient weed suppressant for larger, less formal areas, as well as newly planted hedge lines. We often use compost from our compost bins as a mulch too and although not as highly fertile as, say, manure, it adds valuable humus, which increases the soil’s water holding capacity (a very important consideration in Cambridgeshire). Research has shown a 1% increase in humus, increases water retention by 160,000 litres/ha. This translates to more than 104,400 gallons per acre.

4. When mulching goes wrong

  • Laid too close to plants, mulch can soften stems and allow disease to set in. Always ensure there is a good gap between stems and trunks and your soil conditioner.
  • Mulching can be a wonderful way to spread weed seeds! With the best will in the world, a compost heap rarely gets hot enough to kill perennial weeds, and small amounts of seed inevitably get blown in too.
  • It’s easy to cover the soil and lose too much, or all, of your free seeding plants such as aquilegia, cosmos and calendula. We find this a real disadvantage in areas where we are trying to create a naturalistic country style garden. In the same way, it’s also possible to bury smaller bulbs such as snowdrops so they either disappear or come up blind. Aim for around 5cm of mulch and replace only when the first layer has rotted away. It’s easy to form a hard crust of thick mulch that seedlings and bulbs cannot penetrate.
  • Overly fertile mulch can also produce sappy, vegetative growth that becomes a magnet for pests and diseases. This is a particular issue with manures and composted green waste – which can also have a strong odour. If you are aware that the mulch is strongly fertile, try not to over do it. A thin layer will suffice.
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A kick-asana sunken garden

In the final part of our Ascot garden diary, we look back at how we designed an unusual outdoor yoga space for the client...

The client wanted somewhere calm and restful between the two wings of the house, where the family could practice yoga. As the lowest part of the garden, this area presented many challenges – not least, the eight manholes that had to be incorporated or removed and some awkward levels to overcome.

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“With water levels already high, we came up with the idea of a cantilevered deck over a serene pool, which offered stimulation of multiple senses and would relate well with an adjacent indoor swimming pool,” says Rob.

“Incorporating Portland stone (which we also used on the terrace), the contrasting plantings included tightly clipped yew in topiary frames, created by a local blacksmith, and structural grasses and bamboo – with inspiration taken from The Irish Sky Garden designed by Diarmuid Gavin at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in 2011.

“With views of almost the entire garden from this vantage point, we like to imagine our client and her family sitting quietly here and absorbing the transformation that has taken place in this remarkable garden.”

 Transformed here ready for a wedding breakfast....

Transformed here ready for a wedding breakfast....

Kitchen garden glamour

In the next instalment of our blog about this summer's garden design project, we explain how we created a practical and picturesque kitchen garden...

Such an extraordinary garden required an extraordinary vegetable plot. The client explained her passion for cooking, and wanted this to extend onto the kitchen terrace with fresh ingredients ready for cutting, all grown in raised beds for easy picking.

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This part of the garden quickly became the hub of the home, combining elements of a potager garden with the formality of a par terre to create year-round interest. At its heart were a series of striking, kiln-dried oak beds, which, like giant Jenga pieces, wrapped themselves around the herbs, vegetables and espalier fruit trees.

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Crafted by a local artisan carpenter, with an unusual hidden locking system and unique curved sides – planed to create undulating, snaking planters – 10 tones of oak were used in its construction and 15 tones of soil were poured into the beds, using 5 metres of conveyor belts and ramps. The finished construction created a striking sculptural centrepiece, which could be viewed from the drive and from the upper floors of the house.

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In for the lawn haul

Turning a car park into a lawn is not a job for the faint hearted, but our experienced lawn man, Steve Kane, took this and the 3,500 sq metres of lawns at the Ascot project in his stride, despite it being one of the biggest areas of domestic lawn he had ever had to deal with.

Once the diggers and dumpers had left, more than 1,000 tonnes of Fawley topsoil (free draining soil from the New Forest with a similar acidic profile) was imported to raise the lawn level to marry in with the new house and provide a large expanse of flat lawn.

But the challenges didn’t end there. “The high water table led the digger to be swamped on more than one occasion and work on the lawn had to be delayed for four months due to the weather,” recalls Steve. “It was frustrating not to be able to finish the job until March, but at Abbotswood our philosophy is planting and turfing needs to take place at the right time, when nature dictates." Fortunately, the client fully understood this approach too and was prepared to wait.

With his 20-plus years' experience developing golf courses and bowling greens for major sporting events under his belt, Steve worked his magic. The end results: swathes of beautifully kept turf and a managed meadow, which created some of the most important vistas of the whole garden. 

Drive to distraction

Driveways are always a crucial part of any garden design – after all, it is the first thing visitors to the house will see – and they always present interesting challenges. The drive at the Windlesham house was no different, partly because it needed to be lowered by 50cm or so to coordinate with the sunken house, and much needed to be done to improve sight lines.

As well as contending with building site vehicles and dust and wash off from the works, we needed to move 15 cubic meters of compost to the site in order to start planting. Bordered by a collection of forsythia and other unremarkable shrubs on one side and dominated by rhododendron on the other, it took four days to prepare the soil, remove laurel hedging and winch out tree stumps.

“We were keen to take account of the woodland nature of the setting, with plants that could thrive in those conditions and continue to support the huge amount of wildlife,” says Simon. “We chose a mix of white spring flowering plants, Amelanchier lamarckii, Allium Mount Everest, foxgloves, geraniums and hellebores, combined with the limes and whites of Alchemilla mollis, Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Zebra' and Heavenly Bamboo, among others.

“The year-round scheme was completed with jeweled plantings that would make the most of the crystal clear autumn light: Fuchsia hybrida 'Mrs Popple’, Anemone hybrida ‘Whirlwind’, pheasant tailed grass Anemanthele lessoniana and a selection of arching ferns.”

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