Winter colour with pots – Part 1

As I go around customers’ gardens helping to get them cleared up for the winter, I notice that many have emptied their pots and put them to one side waiting for spring to return.  As a result, patios tend to look bleak and neglected during the dark winter days. It is not surprising that many people do this as terracotta pots are generally not frost resistant and there is a risk they will break during the winter period if left out.  However, with the right type of pot it is possible to have a nice winter display.

So, what is the best type of pot to use?  Before answering that it may be helpful to briefly cover the different pot types and discuss their suitability for external use during the winter.

pot-1Terracotta from the Latin terra cocta – meaning baked earth – is fired to about 1080 degrees Celsius and is porous in its finished state.  Because it is porous water can soak into the pot and then when subjected to freezing conditions the clay will begin to flake and crack as ice forms.  It is possible to treat terracotta pots with a sealant which will help to prolong the life of the pot by several years. However, in general, terracotta pots are the most vulnerable pot type during the winter.

The next level up is the Earthenware pot, which is fired to a higher temperature, typically pot-2between 1100 and 1200 degrees Celsius, and although normally glazed it may also be unglazed. Due to the temperature they are fired to these pots can be glazed in bright colours something which is not possible with Stoneware pots (see below for next pot type) which are fired at higher temperatures. When unglazed they are either a cream or buff colour.

pot-3These pots are often more durable than terracotta because they are less porous.  However, water may still soak in via the unglazed interior area of the pot and thus cause the glazing to blow-out as ice forms.  This risk can be reduced by ensuring the pot is well drained and not left standing directly on the patio.  Raising the pot up off the ground with a small stand or pot feet (seen on the left) will facilitate drainage and help to reduce the risk of the pot cracking from frost.

Finally, stoneware and salt glazed pots which are fired to around 1280 degrees Celsius, are the most frost resistant.  This is because the clay at this higher temperature becomes vitrified, a state where the clay is bound together so tightly that water molecules are too big to penetrate it.  Keeping the water out means that the clay cannot be cracked from within as is the case with pots fired at lower temperatures.  Typically these pots are quite dark in colour, see right.

Of course, there are other materials to consider for pots and planters which include: pot-4plastic, fibre glass, recycled rubber, wood, and various metal types too.  The size and the material type of pot/planter you wish to use will clearly vary according to your budget and the style you wish to create.  Pots/planters not made from clay may offer a greater of frost resistance but even metal can be affected by ice, just think of copper water pipes bursting in winter.

If you decide to stick with a clay pot then most frost resistant type is Stoneware. have a lovely range of rustic stoneware pots they claim to be fully frost proof (see image and link to the right).

However, Crail has its own pottery ( and I’m sure they would be pleased to advise as to the best pot to use.

In Part 2, suitable plants for winter display in pots


Flowers of Remembrance

As I start to write this the Remembrance Ceremony at the Cenotaph, in London has only just finished and it got me thinking about the symbolism of the red poppy.  Many of you will, I’m sure, know about the origin of red poppy and its association with World War One via the poem written by Major John McCrae (30 November 1872 — 28 January 1918) ‘In Flanders Fields’.  It is believed that the inspiration for this poem came as a result of the death of his friend Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, on the 2nd May 1915, who died as a result of receiving a direct hit from a German 8 inch artillery shell. I’ve reproduced the poem in full below.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow


Major John McCrae


Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.


We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.


Take up our quarrel with the foe:


Lieutenant Alexis Helmer


To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.


However, linking the symbolism of the poppy with raising
money for veterans came about from two ‘Poppy Ladies’ one an American, Moina Michael


Moina Michael

(1869 – 1944) and the other a French lady Anna Guérin (?).


Moina Michael, a well-healed lady from Georgia and was on duty at a YMCA Overseas War Secretaries’ headquarters in New York on 9th of November 1918, while the 25th conference of YMCA Overseas War Secretaries’ was taking place.  However, it was also a gathering place where U.S. Servicemen about to depart for Europe would say their ‘Goodbyes’ to family and friends prior to leaving.

While she was on duty a serviceman left a copy of the ‘Ladies Home Journal’ on her desk and when she browsed through it came across the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’.  She was so moved by this poem she wrote a response ‘We Shall Keep the Faith’ which is reproduced in full below.

Oh! You who sleep in Flanders Fields,

Sleep sweet – to rise anew!

We caught the torch you threw

And holding high, we keep the Faith

With All who died.


We cherish, too, the poppy red

That grows on fields where valor led;

It seems to signal to the skies

That blood of heroes never dies,

But lends a lustre to the red

Of the flower that blooms above the dead

In Flanders Fields.


And now the Torch and Poppy Red

We wear in honor of our dead.

Fear not that ye have died for naught;

We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought

In Flanders Fields.

Three delegates attending the conference were so touched by the effort she had made to brighten the office with flowers bought at her own expense they gave her a cheque of $10.  She thanked them and stated she would buy red poppies with the money. Later that day she returned with 25 red silk poppies and after keeping one for herself sold the rest to the delegates.  This is regarded as the first sale of red poppies in memory of those who fell during the First World War.

However, it was the French ‘Poppy Lady’ Anna Guérin (seen on the right) who brought the


Anna Guerin

poppy to England.  She wanted to use the poppy as a means to raise money for the children of the men that had died. On the 11th of November 1921 she met Field Marshal Earl Douglas Haig, founder and President of The British Legion and persuaded him to adopt the red poppy as a symbol for the British Legion.  This then led to the setting up of a poppy factory in Richmond.  Some years later, Countess Haig, Earl Douglas’ wife, set up a factory in 1926 in Edinburgh, the city where he was born.

The four petal common poppy or Papaver rhoeas, seen below gets its name from the Latin Pappa meaning food or milk and rhoeas from the Greek for red. It is of Mediterranean origin and it’s thought to have spread through Europe via grain shipments.  It is an annual growing to about 60cm or 2ft and seems to do well in dry, poor soil conditions such as those found at the roadside or on wasteland.  Each plant can produce over 60,000 seeds which means it can quickly colonise a new area. The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew state that the seed is very durable and can lie dormant for over 80 years. 20161115-untitled

The poppy if eaten in large quantities by sheep or cattle it can prove fatal but is not poisonous to humans.  Often used in the past to cure a number of ailments from earache to toothache.  An infusion of petals was traditionally taken to aid digestion, or relieve insomnia as well as coughs.

At one time this plant was in decline as a result of intensive agricultural practices.  However, since the ‘set-aside’ programme came into effect (where the farmer leaves a certain amount of land fallow each year) the poppy has a made a resurgence.

If you wish to have a drift of naturalised colour in your garden to create a meadow affect then seeds can be sown in either in March to May or September to October.  Flowering in either August to September or May to July depending on when the seeds were sown.  Remember these plants do not like rich soil and prefer poor soils so don’t add any fertiliser.

Shrinking Conkers

shrink-1There is a new pest sweeping through Britain -the horse chestnut leaf-mining moth (Cameraria  ohridella).   It isn’t so much the adult (moth) which is the problem but the juvenile stage or caterpillar.  Tiny caterpillars just a few millimetres long munch their way through a leaf from the inside, eventually causing the leaf to go brown and drop early.

According to a Forestry Commission report this moth was first discovered in Macedonia, Northern Greece in 1985 where it was described as a new species. Since then it has spread rapidly throughout Europe to Britain.  The first documented case in England was in Wimbledon, in 2002.


The rapid spread of the moth has been assisted by inadvertent transportation by vehicles as well as the wind.  The distribution is now quite extensive, the moth can be found in almost every part of England and is now spreading into Wales and Scotland, see map below.
shrink-4The adult female moth, which is about 5mm long, lays her eggs on the surface of a horse chestnut leaf in early spring.  The eggs hatch about 2 or 3 weeks later.  On average each female can lay up to about 40 eggs.  After hatching the tiny caterpillars burrow into the leaf and eat their way through the leaf material creating clear tracks along the leaf as it progresses.

In long, warm, dry seasons 5 generations of the moth might be produced, although more commonly in Europe it is an average of 3 generations per season. The last generation of the summer overwinter in the leaf litter and are extremely hardy being able to survive temperatures as low as -230 C.

Although the leaf is often destroyed and falls in early summer, it does not appear to do any lasting damage to the tree.  Usually, the tree will produces leaves shrink-3(flush) as normal the following spring.  However, one consequence is that the fruits of the horse chestnut, known as conkers can be reduced in size compared to an uninfected tree.  This is thought to come about as a consequence of early leaf drop which then reduces the amount of nutrients going to fruit formation.

There isn’t anything which can be used to eradicate the moth as spraying a tree is impractical.  However, removing fallen leaves and composting or burying them will prevent the moth from emerging to continue the life-cycle.

There is no compulsory requirement to report sightings of this pest, although the Forestry Commission would be glad to receive any information in order that it may track the progress of this pest.

Time to cut back.

10th October 2016

It is certainly getting a bit colder now at night and in the early morning, although it hasn’t been too bad during the day.

This is the time of year to start winding the garden down in preparation for the winter. Over the last week I’ve been cutting back herbaceous perennials. I prefer to leave about 5cm/2inches or so of stubble to give beneficial insects somewhere to over-winter.

It is also a good time to cut back roses, especially bush roses. I reduce mine by about half in order to lessen the risk of them rocking in windy conditions loosening their roots. While doing this I also give them the once-over for any dead or diseased branches, which should be removed with clean secateurs.



Climbing Rose – “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” from David Austin

I like to cut back climbing roses at this time too. I look to remove dead, diseased and damaged branches first then cut back spindly shoots to a strong bud or remove the entire branch depending on how weak it is. Look out for really old branches and remove them from the base. I then leave the rest of the pruning for the winter as all I’m doing here is removing undesirable material and trying minimise wind damage that might occur over the winter.


How do you tell if your rose is a climber and not a rambler? The easiest way to tell is to note when they flower. Ramblers will flower once in June or July whereas climbers tend to flower repeatedly throughout the summer and often into the autumn.

If you have a Buddleia then I’d recommend cutting that back to at least half its height for the same reason as the roses.

I’ll be giving my hedges a final cut of the season in the coming week or so. Unless you have some rather intricate topiary I recommend cutting your hedge so that it tapers slightly at the top. This has two benefits: the first is that a wide base and narrower top will reduce the risk of the hedge opening up in the event of being covered in snow during the winter. The second benefit is that it will enable the sides of the hedge to be properly angled to receive an equal amount of sunlight.

If you have any gaps in your borders then this is a good time to order containerised shrubs. Plants in containers can be planted at any time of year. However, I’d avoid planting anything in ground which is frozen. It is too late to order bare-root plants but a good time to plant them bearing in mind the same caveat about not planting in frozen ground.

If you are feeling particularly energetic then I’d consider lifting and dividing perennials. The newer parts of the plant will be found along the outer edge so you want to keep this and maybe dispense with the older part in the middle.

I’m still cutting my lawn but have raised the cut. Cutting it too short at this time of year increases the risk of the lawn submitting to Fusarium fungus. This is a fungus that invades soft growth at this time of year and can kill grass creating patches of brown in the lawn.

Fritillaria – a charming spring bulb

3rd October 2016

There is still time to buy some spring bulbs although many are beginning to sell out. I’ve just bought one hundred Fritillaria meleagris (seen below) from Van Meuwen for £14.99. These hardy spring bulbs flower in April/May – reaching a height of around 30cm/12inches, sometimes higher – and will form a lovely drift under the trees in my garden.

frix-1These bulbs grow well in deciduous woodland, grassy areas or can look good in a rockery. They prefer moist soil and do not like to dry out completely in the summer.

At one time they were common in grassland near rivers prone to flooding. However, as more land has given over to agriculture the fritillaria has declined.

It was first recorded as growing in the wild in Britain in 1736 although records show it was being cultivated during the Tudor period. It seems this is one of those species of plants that became naturalised in the wild from the cultivated varieties as there is little evidence of it being around prior to 1736.

Fritllaria can be found growing in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and even into Russia. However, almost everywhere it is in decline in the wild as more grassland is cultivated.

According to Kew Gardens, Fritillaria is of scientific interest due to its large genome (an organism’s complete set of DNA). A human’s DNA would unravel to about 2m or so. However, the genome of Fritillaria by comparison is enormous as it contains about 15 times more DNA and can be unravelled to about 30m. It is puzzling why it should be so obese and scientists at Kew are investigating in the hope that it might give some insight into the evolution of DNA.

frix-2The Fritillaria’s bulb size is around 5-6cm/2 inches. The general rule of thumb for planting bulbs is to plant them to a depth equal to approximately 2 to 3 times the height of the bulb therefore, in this case, making a planting depth of 15cm/6 inches. I prefer to space them just over the width of a bulb apart.

When planting in a lawn I find it is easier to lift an area of turf and dig a hole so to accommodate a number of bulbs at once. Before the soil and turf are replaced it would be beneficial to mix in some rotted organic matter into the soil to help it retain moisture.

There is no doubt Fritillaria can provide a lovely display in spring which works especially well if planted in large drifts. A good example of this is the Princess Walk at Kew where over 30,000 bulbs were planted – seen below.


A new lawn from turf

26th September 2016

This week I’ve been laying a new 110 m2 lawn in Crail. The great thing about turf is that it can provide an instant effect. It is hard work though as each turf can weigh about 20kg.

Turf can be very expensive and I’ve noticed that a number of online suppliers such as Easylawn won’t supply turf to this part of Scotland anymore. For this job I bought the turf from Stewarts Turf in Lothian. As the lawn was for a family I elected to get their Emerald turf which worked out at £3.49 m2. Stewarts have their own delivery lorries which have a forklift attached. This proved very useful as I had two pallets of turf and the forklift enabled the turf to be dropped quite close to where I needed it. Quite often deliveries of this nature arrive on a pallet and all the driver has is a manual pallet truck. This means the driver can only drop the pallet on hard ground as it is almost impossible to move a heavy pallet over gravel. It is also impossible to drop the pallet on an incline for the same reason.


The secret with laying turf is that the ground needs to be prepared to the same level as for sowing grass seed. That is it needs to be firmed and the top layer must be of a very fine tilth with no stones. The best way to achieve this by digging or rotavating the top 15cm/6inches to break up the existing soil. This is especially important if the soil is compacted. The ground I was working on this week had had concrete paving slabs on and was compacted to the point that digging it over would be a real problem.

If you are not sure how much to get then most turf websites have calculators into which you add the dimensions of your lawn and they will then tell you how much turf is required. Quite often they will add 5% as a contingency. This is a good idea as quite often the turf can get damaged either when it is lifted or during transit. The turf lifting machine sometimes cuts into the edge or the centre of the turf rendering it useless for laying as an entire turf. Also, the turf at the bottom of the pallet can quite often be damaged by the forklifts during loading and unloading. I regularly end up losing several turves at the base of a pallet.

In this case the ground was hard and compacted so I decided to hire a rotavator to break up the ground. I hired one from the Mower shop in St. Andrews for the weekend as this provided the best rate, which was £45 for the rotavator and another £50 for delivery to Crail and pick up on the Monday.

Despite being a bit compacted the soil was quite good however, I thought it would benefit from having some horticultural sand added to give it some structure and improve drainage. I also bought several bulk bags (1 tonne each) of screened lawn loam. I use this as a fine layer to be added to the top of the soil which I feel encourages the turf to root quicker. I bought mine from Garden Topsoil Direct, an online firm whose website also has a calculator to assist with the ordering.

Having prepared the ground making sure it has been firmed and raked to a fine tilth I then lay the turf. I start in one corner and lay the turf so that eventually it forms a staggered brick-like pattern. This is to ensure all joins don’t line up which may lead to a prominent gaps appearing if the turf dries out. I prefer to lay my turf so that all the whole turves are laid down first then leaving any cutting to do round trees or flower beds to the last.

Once the lawn has been laid it is important to thoroughly water it ensuring the turf is soaked right through. You want the soil underneath to be moist to encourage the turf to root into it. For the first year it is best to avoid using any lawn treatments as these may end up harming the young grass.

Pruning Clematis

19th September 2016

I was listening to Gardeners’ Question Time (GQT) last Friday on Radio 4, and a question came up about the best time to prune clematis. The panel stated that it can be difficult to generalise as there are different classes of clematis for the purpose of pruning and in order to give an accurate answer they would need to know the variety of clematis.

I’ve touched on this subject before, I know, but in light it being raised in GQT I thought I’d return to it again especially as I was asked the same question recently.

Clematis is split into three pruning groups, a system which is based on their flowering time as well as the age of the flowering wood.

Group 1 – Prune mid to late spring after flowering and after the risk of frost has subsided.
Group 2 – Prune in February and again after flowering in early summer.
Group 3 – Prune in February/March.

The purpose of pruning is to encourage vigour (more flowers) and to prevent the clematis turning into a tangled mass of stems with its flowers blooming at the top of the plant only. I’ve seen this quite often and invariably the plant breaks and tumbles down after a period of strong wind.

clem-1Group 1 clematis’ flower on the previous season’s shoots and a variety which is in this group is ‘Armandii’ seen on the right. This variety is very vigorous and can reach up to 8 metres /24 feet. This is easy to prune and I often just use hand shears to cut this back. If it is in a real mess and needs renovating then cut back to healthy buds about 15cm/6inches off the ground. This will affect flowering and it shouldn’t be pruned hard like this again for at least three years.

Group 2 – contain the large flowered varieties which flower between May and June or perhaps July in the East Neuk. They flower on short shoots from the previous year’s growth. All these need is to be dead-headed once flowering is over, look to cut back to a large bud. A good example of a Group 2 variety is ‘Nelly Moser’ (see below left), which can grow up to 2.5 metres or about 8 ft.


Group 3 – this group flower in the latter half of the summer on the top 60cm/2ft of the current season’s growth. It is this group which can quickly get out of hand and end up in a tangled mess. These should be pruned around March to about 30cm/1ft from the ground. Remember you need to prune to a good pair of buds to encourage multiple stems. ‘Jackmanii’ (see below) is a good example and can grow up to 4m / 12ft.


If you are unsure about which group your clematis falls into for pruning then the easiest way to decide is to prune after flowering but not too hard and see what happens.