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North Pennines

North Pennines

I’ve always had a thing for Scandinavia. I’m not sure where this comes from but ever since I can remember it’s held a deep fascination for me. Our honeymoon was spent in Norway. Neither Wellyman nor I have complexions suited to tropical climes so we chose fjords and mountains rather than desert island beaches. If you gloss over the eye-watering prices and the fact that we spent a night in bunk beds in a youth hostel Scandinavia was everything we thought it would be.

My love of all things Scandi hasn’t abated. I can highly recommend the book The Almost Nearly Perfect People, The Truth About The Nordic Miracle by Michael Booth which is an intriguing look into why the inhabitants of the Nordic nations regularly top the tables of the happiest people on the planet. It’s also at this time of year I wonder how our friends across the North Sea cope with the long winters. For me it’s a tricky time of year. My body and brain crave a break from the garden to recharge my batteries. I even like the changing seasons. I’m not sure what it would be like to live somewhere where it was sunny all the time and there was no autumn or spring as we know it, but I do know I’d miss the first leaves unfurling, snowdrops poking through, the autumnal harvest and leaf colour. Oh, but the long dark nights and the gloomy days make everything so much more of an effort. Perhaps if I lived somewhere where snow glistened under sparklingly clear winter skies I wouldn’t mind winter so much. Instead Welsh winters tend to deliver damp and grey. Farrow and Ball might have done much for the colour grey’s reputation, rebranding it from dour to trendy with names like ‘Skylight and ‘Mole’s Breath’, but so far no one has managed to convince me of the merits of dampness. And whose bright idea was it to come up with the name Seasonal Affective Disorder? Yes, I know it sums it up rather neatly and produces the acronym SAD but no one who approaches the lack of light with trepidation wants to refer to the lamp which is a pretty poor substitute for the sun as their ‘SAD lamp’. Even the act of calling it that makes me long for spring sunshine.

Christmas tree

Embracing the Danish idea of hygge is one way to deal with winter. After much consultation online I was still none the wiser as to how it’s pronounced – Søren (Flaneur Gardening) can you help? It can’t be translated directly into English but it roughly means cosiness, taking pleasure in the simple things in life such as gathering around a roaring fire, enjoying a steaming bowl of soup, lighting candles, snuggling under a blanket. This is all right up my street. It might be why I love Christmas so much. I know it’s not the done thing to put decorations up too early. Obviously there are the practicalities of keeping a Christmas tree alive for a long period of time in a centrally-heated home. But there’s most definitely a judgemental attitude to when it is deemed acceptable to adorn your home. I’m certainly not opposed to anything – candles, twinkly lights, a sparkly bauble or two – which adds a bit a glam to the house as the nights draw in. Our ritual has always been to restrain ourselves in terms of the tree and full on decorations until the 1st of December. I know for some Christmas Eve is too early!

No gardening for women

Spotted this on the wall of an old school at the weekend. A woman could apparently be a headmistress but not run a gardening club.

So imagine how I felt when I was asked to make some Christmas decorations for a magazine and that they’d need a tree, lights, the works. Eek! So Christmas came to the Welly household on the 12th of November this year. We collected a tree from a nearby farm – it was the earliest tree he had ever sold in twenty years of business. There were slightly startled looks and ‘we thought we were early’ comments from other visitors to the farm. They were choosing their tree for collection later on, as we walked off clutching a sawn-off tree and huge branches of noble fir for the wreath making. I’ll admit it was a tad disorientating to have a fully dressed Christmas tree, mince pies and mistletoe in the house in the second week of November. I did have to pinch myself as I was making the decorations. I was an avid Blue Peter viewer as a child and would make the Christmas decorations they featured every year. To be able to come up with ideas and make them for magazines myself is a dream come true.

It was a short-lived burst of festive spirit. Even though we picked a Nordmann non-drop tree we didn’t want it to look forlorn by Christmas Day so it’s having a break from the central heating and it’s in the garden at the moment, tucked away in a corner, where it has so far survived the battering of the Atlantic storms passing through. I didn’t want to take everything down though so we still have lights, baubles and candles dotted about adding sparkle to the house.

November snow

November snow

We had a surprisingly early taste of winter last weekend. We were visiting family in the north-east when an icy blast of weather from Iceland was forecast. There was the lightest of dustings of snow in the garden on the Saturday morning but I knew that the higher parts of the North Pennines would certainly have more, so we set out to hunt for snow a bit like those storm chasers in America. We headed north to the fascinating village of Blanchland, built from the remains of the 12th century abbey. There was a good inch of snow and the paths were lethally icy under foot and it all looked enchanting under the blue skies. It was apparently -11°C with the windchill and the kind of cold that makes you feel like the air has been sucked from your lungs. It was quite a shock after such a mild autumn to go straight to winter like this. After lunch in front of a roaring fire we drove north to the pretty market town of Corbridge on the banks of the Tyne. From here there’s a road which takes you south over the very tops of the North Pennines, the spine of northern England. Sparsely populated with small villages of sturdy stone cottages and farmhouses, it’s a stunningly beautiful but little visited part of the country. It’s hard to imagine now but this was once a hub of industry. Mining for lead and other minerals was the main employer. Every now and then you’ll spot a cluster of buildings, remnants of the area’s industrial past and at Killhope there’s a restored 19th century lead mine, working water wheel and museum. It was on this stretch that the snow was at its deepest. It was a magical scene from the warmth of the car but a reminder that it must have been an incredibly hard place to live before central heating and electric lights.

It was a short-lived blast of winter and now we’re back home we’ve returned to the grey and damp, but it’s December in a few days and I can’t wait to indulge in some hygge.



A change is as good as a move …


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Syringa meyeri 'Josee'

Syringa meyeri ‘Josee’

Well maybe that’s going a bit far but a bit of a garden revamp has certainly reignited my interest in my own back garden. This time last year both Wellyman and I were excited about the prospect of moving house but when we decided to put that on hold I pretty much lost my gardening mojo. I had entered into gardening limbo. As the summer progressed it got worse. I was still growing for work but inside my heart wasn’t in it. I spent a lot of time wracking my brain as to how to marry the situation with my need for a change. I didn’t want to spend much money and didn’t have the inclination to rip out everything I had planted over the last 8 years and start again. The idea of creating a cutting garden had been at the back of my mind for a while. A space packed with shrubs, bulbs and herbaceous perennials which would supplement the annuals from the cut flower patch. A place where everything could be picked for a vase. I’d always planned for it to be in another garden, somewhere a little bigger, where I could start from scratch. I hummed and hawed over whether it would be worth trying it here and if I actually had the space to do it. After 7 years of being in place the raised beds needed a few repairs anyway and the pond no longer worked where it was. So a few weekends ago we bit the bullet. Wellyman cleverly rejigged the raised bed configuration. By removing a few oak boards we incorporated a path into the beds and reusing the boards meant we didn’t need to spend any money.

The next job was to move the pond. I say pond, it’s more of a puddle to be honest, one of those preformed liners. It’s initial spot was fine, but then the greenhouse came along which made access to the pond tricky. Cleaning out pond weed required Wellyman (his longer arms were needed) to perform a yoga-like balancing act. Being tucked away meant not only did it not get cleaned as frequently as it should have but we also didn’t get to appreciate it. We did consider removing it completely, to put the space to better use, but we thought we’d at least try it out in its new location and then decide. Wellyman decanted two-thirds of the water into trugs and we gingerly lifted it out of the ground. Then two little eyes appeared. There was a frog staring back at us looking a little perturbed by the disturbance and us rudely waking him up on a Sunday morning. Well, what could we do? The decision was made for us, we could hardly make him/her homeless, so the pond is to stay, albeit in a new, more accessible spot.

Plants were divided and some went to the compost heap making way for others which had been sitting in pots waiting for a new home. Out have come grasses, a helenium, and some sedums, in has gone a small, repeat flowering lilac, a Viburnum opulus and some hesperantha.

Garden revamp

Garden revamp

With time soil had made its way on to the gravel paths, so much so that I’ve had as many plants sprouting in the paths as in the raised beds this summer. As everything was getting an overhaul the gravel was moved on to plastic sheets whilst the weed membrane was swept. We made a fantastic muddy mess by washing the gravel to remove any soil and plant material before putting it all back on top of the membrane.

Working outside at this time of year brings its problems. For a couple of weeks after the clocks change, the shorter days take me by surprise. You come back after a break for lunch and realise there’s so much still to do but that daylight is already slipping away. I seem to have spent quite a bit of time in recent weeks scrabbling around in the dark with a torch perched precariously whilst bulb planting, tidying out the greenhouse or potting up plants. I think a head torch might be making it to the top of my Christmas list this year.

The raised beds in spring

The raised beds in spring

The other problem is mud. It’s impossible to do anything in the garden without creating a mess and the damp weather means nothing dries out. You start this kind of work with the best intentions taking wellies off every time you come indoors but when the phone rings and you’re trying to do the welly removal dance at speed or you’ve forgotten something for the umpteenth time it’s all becomes too much of a faff. The wellies remain on and the floor starts to resemble the mud splattered patio. Then there’s the clothes. It was hard to tell if there were gloves under the hand-shaped clumps of mud which Wellyman left by the back door.

I didn’t think a patio caked in mud was what the magazine editor and photographer would be looking for to accompany shots of spring bulb planting. I’d scrubbed and scrubbed with a brush but it didn’t seem to make the flagstones look any cleaner. Day after day of thick fog and moisture saturating every surface didn’t help. I was contemplating hiring a pressure washer at one point, until I woke one morning to the sound of rain pelting the roof and more importantly the patio. Every cloud has a silver lining.

You can’t call what we did a garden redesign but I think it’s enough to fire my imagination for another couple of years. It’ll give me the opportunity to grow new plants, to experiment in the garden and in the vase, and to excite me as to how elements of the garden will change through the seasons. And, perhaps most importantly for now, there’ll be lots of lists and scribblings this winter as I scour the plant and seed catalogues.

Have you got any plans, grand or small, for your garden this autumn/winter?


Clearing the decks

Indian Summer sunshine - Bunny tails (Lagurus ovatus)

Indian Summer sunshine – Bunny tails (Lagurus ovatus)

I’ve always been a great believer in the adage ‘a tidy house, a tidy mind’. There definitely seems to be a correlation between how clean the space is around me and how clear my brain feels in order to get on with work. Perhaps that’s why I’ve noticed in the last few years the fog that descends on me in August as the garden takes on a slightly wild appearance and I realise that it’s in control and not me. It’s not that I want a garden which is pristine. I prefer a relaxed space with plants tumbling over paths and self-seeded plants popping up in unexpected places, but there is a line where relaxed becomes chaotic. I’m sure I’m not alone in the reluctance to remove or cut back plants which are past their best but still flowering. With autumn comes a release, the freedom to feel able to empty pots of their tired and overgrown bedding plants, to pull out those annuals which have seen better days. It all feels very therapeutic.

October will be a busy month and time in the garden will be in short supply so we’ve made the most of this brief Indian Summer to gain some control. Pots have been cleared and replanted with violas for autumn and winter cheer, hanging baskets have been dismantled, the compost heap has been emptied, the last of the tomatoes picked. Then there was the plot. Work up there is restricted to weekends now but at least I’ve got Wellyman helping out now that he has finished his degree. Apart from brief trips to pick flowers or collect some fruit and vegetables it had been over three weeks since I’d done any work on the plot. I felt a bit guilty it had been so neglected but there’s nothing like a spot of weeding and deadheading to give you the chance to mull over the year and think about what you’ve learnt, the successes and failures, what you want to grow next year and what isn’t worth devoting soil to anymore.

Cosmos 'Psyche Rose'

Cosmos ‘Psyche Rose Picotee’

A few thoughts which crept into my head:

  • You can have too many pots – they overwhelmed me and the patio this year. Many of them were for work so were a necessary nuisance. But it has shown me the need for space in a garden particularly if you don’t have a lawn. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but you can have too many plants.
  • It’s surprising how inconvenient it can be to have lettuce and herbs growing on the plot rather than at home. It’s only five minutes away but it might as well be the other end of the country when I’m mid-sandwich prep and realise I’m short on salad. It would make sense to have these in pots at home but I refer you to my previous point.
  • The frustrating and unfathomable nature of nature. Wasps have plagued our raspberries this year. Apart from them adding a certain amount of frisson to the picking process – Russian roulette with a sting rather than a bullet – they have the annoying habit of eating a hole in the base of a raspberry and then moving on to the next where they do the same. If they all clubbed together and at least picked a berry and ate the whole thing I wouldn’t mind so much, we all have to eat, but no, they work their way through our raspberry patch nibbling away as if they’re at a food festival and want to try a bit of everything.
  • I love growing potatoes. For several years I haven’t bothered with the humble spud but back in January we were in a garden centre looking for something else and ended up coming out with a few paper bags of seed potatoes. Perhaps I’ve loved them so much because for very little effort they reward you handsomely. I’m looking to double the amount for next year. Any recommendations gratefully received.
  • I can’t get enough of dahlias. As with the potatoes these fabulous plants need so little attention and yet they just keep on producing the most exquisite of flowers. They’re happiness in a vase. If the bank balance will take it, a whole bed will be given over to them next year.
Dahlia 'Karam Naomi'

Dahlia ‘Karma Naomi’

  • Despite feeling like I can’t keep on top of everything I can’t bring myself to hand in the allotment. I don’t spend as much time up there now as I first did. But where would I grow all those potatoes and dahlias if I didn’t have my little patch of land.
  • Nobody mentions storage when they extol the virtues of growing your own produce. We had over 60 apples from one small espaliered apple tree this year. Fabulous! That is until you have to find somewhere to store them all. I look at those beautiful wooden apple storage racks that appear in stylish gardening magazines at this time of year and wonder who has the space for them – I can’t get into my downstairs loo because it’s become home to a trug for the recycling, vases which won’t fit anywhere else and a collection of pots filled with ‘Paper White’ narcissi for forcing. Best I stick to early potatoes next year.
  • I need to be more ruthless. We have three rhubarb plants – two is plenty. I’ve been meaning to get rid of one of them for a few years now but never seem to get round to it. It’s the same with flowers. I seem to grow some each year despite not really using them as cut flowers. I’m finding that my flower patch is a bit like my wardrobe – I have my favourites that I go to all the time and others go untouched. Fashion magazines talk about capsule wardrobes – does anyone ever achieve that, even the top stylists must have something lurking in their wardrobe that they thought was a good idea when they bought it but they’ve never actually worn it. Well I think I need to attempt a flower version of the capsule wardrobe with my cutting patch. I need to ruthless with flowers that are taking up valuable space and ditch them next year, then I can squeeze in some more dahlias.
  • Last year I’d missed the opportunity to sow some green manure and I really regretted it. I don’t like to see bare soil over winter particularly after persistent heavy rain when the soil takes on a pulverized look. It can be tricky using green manures though. That desire to eek out plants for as long as possible (this seems to be a running theme) means that it can often be too late to sow a green manure so that it puts on enough growth at this time of year do actually do its job. Well, on Sunday any vegetables and flowers that had seen better days came out, the ground was cleared and raked and in went some winter rye grass. Hopefully by the end of the month it will have formed a tufty, green duvet to protect the soil over winter.

I’d love to hear what you’ve taken away from this growing year.

A Book Review – Brew It Yourself


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Brew It Yourself

My first introduction to the world of home brewing was my dad’s concoctions bubbling and burping away in the corner of the living room – a strange soundtrack which accompanied our TV watching. Demijohns of wine were placed in this spot because the warmth of the nearby fire aided the fermentation process. On one occasion it aided it rather too much as red, winey bubbles exploded one evening as we watched Corrie*, peppering the wallpaper with frothy red stains. After this wine making was banished moved to the bathroom airing cupboard.

Fascinated by the whole idea I decided aged 5 or so to undertake my own brewing. No alcohol was actually involved, just a rag-tag collection of dried fruit which had been lingering in the cupboard from the previous year’s Christmas cake making, various bits of fresh fruit, some sugar and a bucket of water. Oh, and I vaguely remember an enormous wooden spoon. The stirring of this weird mix kept me amused for a while but it never made it to the bottling stage.

Brew It Yourself

Then there was the inevitable tasting of home brew at university. A friend would bring back supplies of pea pod wine from her family’s farm in Shropshire, it was very much like The Good Life** and was potent stuff to fuel a party.

In recent years more successful forays have included the fabulous jewel-coloured damson vodka which was opened with some ceremony on Christmas Eve in front of a roaring fire.

Brew It Yourself

Spruce bitters and spruce martini

All this brings me to the book Brew It Yourself by the bloggers Two Thirsty Gardeners otherwise known as Nick Moyle and Richard Hood. There was a time when making your own booze was seen as the height of hippyness, all knitted sandals and face-puckering attempts at creating your own alcoholic drinks, but Nick and Richard have made it their mission to bring home brewing to a whole new audience. They’ve taken their two loves – gardening and alcohol – and created a book of over 70 different recipes which shows that home brewing can be fun, quick, inexpensive and tasty.

Well, I loved it, as did Wellyman who kept disappearing off with the book if I put it down for any length of time. It’s well thought out with a good mix of recipes for those who want something quick and easy such as liqueurs which can take minutes to concoct, to those for the more experienced or adventurous brewer such as India pale ale which needs a few hours of your time. Nick and Richard take you through all of the basics you’ll need to get yourself started including how to use a hydrometer to measure the percentage of alcohol – you don’t need this or much other equipment for many of the simpler drinks. The different sections cover wine and mead, cider, beer, ale and lager, sparkling drinks, liqueurs and cocktails. Alongside the recipes are interesting snippets and tips which makes it a thoroughly enjoyable read. I loved the design and stylish photography but most of all I thought the writing was engaging and witty.

Brew It Yourself


It was fascinating to discover how drinks that are part of our heritage are made, such as the fabulously named Lambswool traditionally drunk when wassailing. Inspiration from further afield has also been included – there’s Sima a Finnish drink using lemons or rumtopf from Germany among others. And for those who want to dip their toe into home brewing there are suggestions for liqueurs where you can buy the basic alcohol – either whisky, brandy or vodka – and then give it a home spun twist using fruit, herbs and spices. Nick has included a recipe devised by his mum, Julia’s Orange whisky with its star anise and cinnamon, which sounds just perfect for a Christmas present.

And now’s the time to be using up gluts from the allotment and scouring the hedgerows. I do love the sound of the wild bramble brandy and the damson and fennel vodka, then there’s the cherry fortified red wine (you can use shop-bought wine). To be honest they all sound delicious. Not only could you create a variety of home-brewed bottles to impress family and friends with as Christmas presents but the book itself would make a fantastic present (sorry for mentioning the C word).

*Coronation Street otherwise known as Corrie – a soap opera set in Manchester which has never surpassed its peak of Derek with his travelling gnome and car with a huge paperclip on top of it.

** The Good Life – Seventies TV comedy based around Tom and Barbara Good who decide to become self-sufficient in their suburban garden. Felicity Kendal who played Barbara did the seemingly impossible by looking gorgeous in dungarees whilst splattered in mud.

Brew it Yourself is available to buy now. Thank you to Nourish Books for my review copy.


Rain, rain go away and publication day


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raindrops on web

A wet August has made for a decidedly sodden garden and allotment, and at times a soggy gardener. I wouldn’t have minded so much if it was just drizzle but it has been the sort of rain, those big fat drops, which soaks you in minutes.

I’ll admit I’m a bit of a fair weather gardener. It’s the cold that mainly makes me retreat indoors. Rain doesn’t bother me so much, particularly if I’m prepared and wearing full waterproofs, even if I do make a passing attempt at the ‘trawlerman off to sea’ look. The problem with gardening when it’s wet is the mess that results. It’s impossible to not end up looking like a creature from the deep or like I’ve spent the last few hours bog snorkelling rather than gardening. Or is this just me?

Weeding is initially quite pleasurable as dandelions and thistles with long tap roots slip from the rain-softened earth so much more easily than from sun-baked soil. It’s not long though before I’m covered in mud. Using the trowel or hoe elicits a squelching noise from my rain-soaked gloves as another weed is removed. Deadheading isn’t too bad but then the petals and leaves stick to me.

I trimmed my yew topiary cones by the front door last week. The forecast promised wall to wall sunshine and little chance of rain. The yew needed taming. It had taken on an unkempt shagginess which meant it was no longer possible to distinguish any real shape. I wish I hadn’t planted them in the first place. Clipping them, although a task only needed to be done once a year, has become a chore. One of those jobs I’ll put off until I have to accept I need to do it or we won’t be able to get to the front door. Of course the wall to wall sunshine included a series of heavy downpours – it’s been that kind of summer. I sheltered in the hall during these cloud bursts but each time I returned outside the soggy yew clippings would cling to everything – me, the shears, the path and the brush. Much muttering about stupid yews and their annoying need to grow and chastisements of the inexperienced gardener who planted them 8 years ago ensued.

Autumnal flowers

There’s an autumnal feel to my arrangements now

I absent-mindedly left the shed door open last week. The next morning it looked like a torrent had streamed through it. A neighbour asked if I’d heard the storm that night. I sleep with ear plugs in so had been oblivious to the deluge the heavens had deposited on the village.

At least showers have replaced incessant rain. In the intervening dry spells I have been trying to get as many garden jobs done as possible. Hardy annuals have been sown, biennials are in their final homes on the cut flower patch, the plot has been weeded and the box balls no longer look like shaggy hedgehogs. All this means I can go off for a bit of a break knowing everything is as it should be, well, for a couple of weeks at least.

The Crafted Garden

So it’s finally here. The Crafted Garden is published today. It’s an exciting and nerve-racking time. I’ve had some lovely feedback already which is always a bit of a relief. I really hope if you get a chance to read it you’ll feel inspired to try some crafting using nature. Whether it’s simply collecting a few bits and pieces on a walk and creating your own nature table at home, making natural wreaths or finding ideas for home crafted Christmas decorations. Even if crafting isn’t your thing I’ve included some fabulous garden-worthy plants that will make great additions to any green space and there are tips along the way on how to grow a variety of plants. And of course, there are plenty of flowers.

The Crafted Garden is available from bookshops and online, or you could take advantage of this special discount price.

To order The Crafted Garden by Louise Curley at the discounted price of £13.99 including p&p* (RRP: £16.99), telephone 01903 828503 or email mailorders@lbsltd.co.uk and quote the offer code APG355. 

*UK ONLY – Please add £2.50 if ordering from overseas.

Finding my way


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Capturing summer

Capturing summer

Life is like a maze, sometimes it’s easy to find your way to where you want to go, other times you stumble around coming up to dead ends or not being quite sure of which direction to take.

I’ve never really enjoyed mazes. Wellyman on the other hand, with his more logical, problem solving brain, loves them. He tackled one in Belgium three times in the same afternoon. The second and third times he was unaccompanied. As mazes go Drielandenpunt is pretty impressive. On the borders of Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands it is Europe’s largest hedge maze, created by the English maze designer Adrian Fisher from 17,000 hornbeam trees. Once was enough for me though.

I’m feeling a bit like I’ve been stumbling around in a maze for most of August to be honest which explains my absence from the blog. August always brings a lull. It’s a no man’s land, ideal for those on holiday but a strange void of time for those who aren’t. I was meant to use this month productively and make the most of the quiet spell. We’ve caught up with family and some friends which has been lovely but the admin and tax return still await, silently nagging me as I walk past them piled up on my desk. Other jobs I had hoped to tackle remain on my list and September is approaching fast.

Discombobulated is the word for it. I’m sure the weather hasn’t helped. It is August, isn’t it, and I haven’t slept Sleeping Beauty-like for several months and woken up in November. I need some clarity as my mind has developed a fog which won’t seem to shift. Even my garden and plot aren’t providing the same respite they normally do. I’m not sure if they are actually contributing to some of the fog. They’ve both had to work hard this summer with pots and plants galore and the garden is feeling cramped – perhaps I’m asking too much of it. Certainly the crab apple needs attention as it’s casting too much shade over the end of the garden hence the back border flagging so early this summer. Where it once created pleasant, dappled shade it is now downright gloomy. It feels like I need room to breathe and that the garden needs room to breathe too.

Dahlias from the cut flower patch

Dahlias from the cut flower patch

But through the fog come the flowers. My love of dahlias grows every year. They just make me smile and I’ve noticed it’s a reaction others have to them too. They are joyful blooms and I want more. I picked some Dahlia ‘Karma Naomi’ and D. ‘Amberglow’ yesterday, along with some other flowers to take to a friend who has just moved into a new home. Ann is a feisty, spirited lady in her seventies who used to be our neighbour when we first moved to the area. She has just taken the plunge and left her home of over 20 years to move into a flat as arthritis takes its toll, so I thought the flowers might bring a smile to her face and they did. On the journey there I had so many people asking about the dahlias. I fear for my bank balance as my dahlia wish list is growing daily thanks largely to all those flower growers I follow on Instagram. Could I devote a whole bed at the plot to just dahlias? Well, half a bed at least.

Dahlia 'American Moon'

Dahlia ‘American Moon’

This one is a bit of a monster. The flowers on D. ‘American Moon’ are big and I love the intricacy of the petals and the flashes of lemon among the pink. It’s a bit tricky to use with other flowers in arrangements as the flower heads are whoppers, but it’s beautiful enough to warrant a vase of its own.

Cosmos 'Xanthos'

Cosmos ‘Xanthos’

One of the stars of the show this year has been Cosmos ‘Xanthos’. It’s been flowering now since the start of July. I know lots of gardeners shy away from yellow or just don’t like it as a colour. I interviewed a gardener recently who told me she’d told the designer Tom Stuart Smith that she didn’t want any yellow in her garden. He went ahead and added yellow plants and she now loves the colour. I’ve loved ‘Xanthos’. In fact, it might even be my favourite cosmos. I find many of the pink varieties a bit too girly. They conjure up images of cupcakes, frills and candy floss. I’ve loved ‘Xanthos’ because it’s like a hit of acidic lemon juice cutting through all that saccharin sweetness. It looks fabulous planted and arranged with the striking blue of Salvia patens.

Another favourite is Larkspur ‘Misty Lavender’. It has an aged vintage beauty about it even as the petals unfurl. Like all larkspurs it dries really well, retaining its colour beautifully. I have used larkspurs in several projects in my new book The Crafted Garden and have bunches of larkspur drying in my airing cupboard at the moment. I love plants which have other uses, whether it’s a pretty seed pod, petals that dry or fabulous foliage, as well as stunning blooms. In a small space it makes sense to grow plants which can be used for different purposes.

Cobaea scandens

Cobaea scandens

Then there’s Cobaea scandens or the cup and saucer plant. This exotic beauty is finally putting on a show. It’s a tender climber so it only started to flower in August, perhaps a tad reluctantly as grey skies have loomed over head, but it’ll keep going until frost cuts it back. Hopefully that won’t be until well into autumn and then we can enjoy these fabulous flowers for some time yet. I’m growing the purple variety but the fascinating thing is that as the bud opens the flowers are white. When I first saw one open I thought there had been a mix up with the seeds. Then over the next day or so the trumpet started to flush with colour until the whole flower had been transformed into the purple flower I had ordered. They look beautiful climbing up and over the hazel arch Wellyman made for me back in spring.

Helianthus 'Italian White'

Helianthus ‘Italian White’

There was a point when I wondered if I’d have any sunflowers at all this year. At the end of June my Helianthus ‘Italian White’ plants looked dreadful. I always start sunflowers off indoors as slugs will devour seedlings over night. My little plants went into the ground in June about a foot tall with healthy green leaves and they looked fabulous, if I do say so myself. Of course pride comes before a fall and two weeks later they were in a sorry state. Slug-mauled, wind-battered and covered in blackfly. Wellyman attempting to squish the blackfly accidentally decapitated one of the plants too. I wish I’d taken a photo of them but it was too embarrassing. Well the transformation is quite remarkable. I now have 5ft tall lemon-coloured flowers reaching for the sun (desperately hoping they’ll see some). They’re more delicate with smaller flower heads than most sunflowers and I find they are much easier to arrange with other flowers.

Not everything has worked. There have been annoying mix ups with seed varieties and tubers. Chatting with others this seems to be a problem which afflicts most seed and bulb companies. It’s frustrating but occasionally they bring a pleasant surprise. Antirrhinum ‘Snowflake’ has turned out to be a multi-coloured selection with beautiful lemon flowers and striking cerise blooms on fabulously tall stems. Fortunately I don’t grow for weddings otherwise I might be quite grumpy about these unexpected colours in the flower beds.

Through the fog my love of flowers hasn’t diminished and maybe they might even help me to find my way out of this maze.

My new book – The Crafted Garden


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The Crafted Garden

My new book ©Jason Ingram

A heavy envelope which felt like it had books in it arrived the other day with the postmark of my publisher on it. It’s funny how after nearly two years in the making, and the pulling teeth process of editing which can make even the most committed of authors fall a little out of love with their book, the excitement is still there when you see all that work come together for the first time. It’s not as if the content comes as a surprise, you spend hours in front of a computer writing the words, there’s the time coming up with the ideas, in my case growing the plants to provide the material and there’s the photo shoots. Finally there’s the editing process. Time spent working with your editor and the designer marrying the photos and text together, and the juggling of it all to fit the layout and design of the book. Weeks and weeks of looking at PDFs and going through edited text can strip you of most of the passion and excitement you had when the book first started to form as an idea.

Fortunately there is a breathing space when it all goes quiet, the emails from the publisher stop and you return to a life no longer dictated to by your book. You stop waking up early, usually with a sudden jolt, worrying about whether you’ve spelt someone’s name correctly in the acknowledgments, or whether you remembered to send that urgent email about the photo that’s in the wrong place.

The Crafted Garden

A spring project – The Crafted Garden ©Jason Ingram

Several months later the emails start again – publication date is drawing closer. Then a package, a book-shaped package, arrives and that excitement you felt all those months ago when you first starting working on the idea returns. It’s a little odd seeing all those long hours, the frustrations but also the fun times, staring back at you in book form. It’s a team effort to bring everything together and it was a delight to work with the very talented team behind my last book, editors Helen and Joanna, photographer Jason Ingram and designer Becky Clarke. Wellyman is also rather chuffed that some of his photos have made it into the book too.

The Crafted Garden brings together my love of gardening, crafting and nature. For me these three loves go hand in hand. Why buy a fake wreath to adorn your door when the natural materials to make a gorgeous seasonal wreath can be grown so easily in your garden or foraged from the hedgerows? Why buy Christmas decorations shipped in from the Far East when simple ways to festoon your house can be made from cones, lichen-covered twigs and evergreens collected on a winter woodland walk? They can be thrifty, fun to make, connect you and your home with the seasons, and they can be composted when the New Year arrives.

The Crafted Garden

The Crafted Garden ©Jason Ingram

I think more and more people have grown tired of mass-manufactured products that have little or no charm, made in vast factories and shipped from the other side of the world in massive container ships. Many of us are rediscovering the pleasure in making our own or seeking out skilled craftspeople who make bespoke pieces. I think this is all a bit of a backlash against the homogeneity of the high street. Being creative is also good for us. Neuroscientists are looking into how creative tasks impact on the brain. It’s believed it can have an impact similar to meditation, and increasingly crafting is being used as a way to help people suffering from stress or mental health problems. Why do gardeners and florists regularly top the lists of people happiest in their jobs? Because there’s a real connection between a task and a visible outcome and in many cases the chance to be creative.

I’ve found crafting with natural ingredients has broadened my ideas about what I might grow in my garden or on my cut flower patch. I now regularly include flowers which dry well alongside those I pick fresh. I also look out for plants with great seed heads which I can save or pretty leaves for pressing.

 The Crafted Garden

The Crafted Garden ©Jason Ingram

For me it has also been a great way to beat those winter blues. Projects give the mind something to focus on as the light levels drop and by creating projects based on the seasons it has made me learn to appreciate what each season has to offer. I’ve always loved the weeks before Christmas and decorating my home but I can’t be the only one who really feels the gloom of January, the house bare after the winter festivities. But if you have some pots of paper white narcissi and flamboyant hippeastrums waiting in the wings to decorate a dining table or windowsill it’s amazing how they can lift the spirits and remind you spring isn’t far away.

The Crafted Garden is divided into the seasons with projects inspired by the plants and countryside of each. And, because I’m a gardener and plant lover, each project includes details of how to grow plants which could be used in the project with some other recommendations too. The projects range from ways to make your home look pretty, to floral fascinators perfect for a wedding or festival, with some ideas which would work as presents too. And there are ideas on how to craft and arrange flowers in a more environmentally friendly way. I’ve included a range of projects; some are very easy, others a little more complicated but still achievable. Lots of them are fantastic for crafting with children and inspiring them to appreciate nature.

The Crafted Garden is published on 3rd September by Frances Lincoln and is available to preorder now from Frances Lincoln, Waterstones and Amazon.

The Barn House Garden


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The Barn House Garden

The Barn House Garden ©Ian Curley

One of the most lovely and unexpected results of writing The Cut Flower Patch has been the people I have met as a result. I had no idea when I started out on the whole process of creating a book that people would take the time and trouble to send me lovely emails once they had read it. Last September one such email came from a lady saying she loved growing grasses too and would I like to visit her garden. It turned out that Kate didn’t live too far away from me, in the stunning Wye Valley, so a few days later Wellyman and I found ourselves discovering the most fabulous garden, tucked away in the lush countryside of Gloucestershire. We arrived and found a note on the door telling us to find her in the back garden, along with a map and sheet of paper describing the garden. We found Kate, trowel in hand, weeding. I felt a little guilty when we left three hours later that we’d taken up valuable gardening time, but Kate was a delight to talk to – passionate, knowledgeable and generous with her time. Now I’m partial to including grasses in my garden and quite a few pop up on the cut flower patch too, but I’m the first to admit my small number of grasses don’t really do the plants justice. For true drama grasses need some space and to be planted in quantity and this is what Kate has done at the Barn House Garden where a variety of grasses have been planted en masse to create a bold and dramatic impact.

The Barn House ©Ian Curley

The Barn House ©Ian Curley

I love grasses despite the fact that I’m allergic to their pollen. As Kate says, ‘isn’t a love of wild grasses/cornfields innate? To me, grasses sing of woodland margins and meadows.’ I’m very much with her on this. Her first experiences of growing grasses on an ornamental scale came when she lived near Kew Gardens where she was fascinated by their grassery and watched the Bamboo Grove being renovated. ‘These were lessons on how to tame the biggest grasses of all’, she says. Kate’s love of grasses grew when she spent time in the Far East. ‘The best thing about Taiwan is the hilly walking country and the miscanthus grasses. Then there’s the miscanthus which lines the rail-side of the bullet train in Tokyo and the bamboos colonising hillsides in Thailand. We grew bamboo on balcony gardens in Bangkok (several) and then London (hundreds!), to screen out unsightly views, noise, pollution’, Kate explains. After years on the move and then tending a small London plot. Kate and her husband Hitesh settled in the Wye Valley. ‘Never mind the nice house, we were looking for the right garden’, she says. They moved to the Barn House nine years ago and the house and garden have been transformed in that time. It’s been an epic undertaking. It took over five years to complete the landscaping of the main parts of the garden. Storm drainage has been installed, and to create level planting areas over 100 tonnes of red sandstone were removed. It’s incredible to think that what now looks like such an established garden is one where much of the planting is only three years old. This was one of the reasons behind Kate’s choice of grasses to create the structure and interest in the planting scheme – grasses tend to be quick to produce a mature look to a garden.

The Barn House Garden

The Barn House Garden ©Ian Curley

The back garden – an area which wraps around one side of the house – was tackled first. This gave Kate the chance to work out what they wanted from the rest of the garden. It’s a space which has an exotic feel to it, inspired by Kate and her husband’s time in the Far East. Towering bamboo and lush planting thrive with shots of vibrant colour from plants such as crocosmia and cannas. I love this sort of planting which envelops you and transports you to another place.

The Barn House Garden

The Barn House Garden ©Ian Curley

One of my favourite spots was the terracing which leads down to the main aspect of the house and a seating area. Using local red sandstone terraced beds were created allowing Kate to plant in what had previously been a rocky part of land with little soil depth. The grass Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ looks fabulous. Planted in clumps along the terrace beds they look like rockets or fireworks shooting up towards the sky. Kate has also used Miscanthus sinensis ‘Malepartus’ as a dramatic 70 metre long hedge and the smaller Miscanthus sinensis ‘Starlight’ to screen a seating area.

The Barn House Garden

The Barn House Garden (image courtesy of Kate Patel)

Kate uses grasses in the way many of us use shrubs as a foil to other plants, most notably herbaceous perennials like rudbeckias, persicarias and veronicastrums. Most of us imagine a garden planted with grasses only has a short season of interest and that a garden based around grasses would be at its peak in September but these photos show how stunning Kate’s garden looked for her midsummer NGS open day last weekend.

The Barn House Garden

The Barn House Garden (image courtesy of Kate Patel)

The Barn House Garden

The Barn House Garden (image courtesy of Kate Patel)

Kate has discovered that there are grasses which come into their own early in the year and has cleverly planted bulbs, evergreen grasses, multi-coloured cornus and beautiful specimen trees to provide year-round interest.

The Barn House Garden

The Barn House Garden in winter (image courtesy of Kate Patel)

It’s not a surprise to discover Piet Oudolf has inspired Kate. Noel Kingsbury, Anne Wareham’s garden Veddw, just down the valley and Roger Grounds, an early pioneer of using ornamental grasses, have influenced Kate’s ideas too. One of the joys of growing grasses is discovering how easy they are to propagate. Kate grows many of her own plants from seed. And her next project – a stylised meadow – has been planted with home-grown deschampsia and molinia interplanted with perennial flowers. I can’t wait to see this come to fruition. If you’d like to see Kate’s garden the Barn House Garden is open by appointment from June to September with money from the openings going to the NGS. There’s no minimum group size and teas and plants are available to buy. It’s a stunning part of Britain if you fancy combining a visit with a weekend away. (I’m not on commission from the tourist board!! I just feel very lucky to live in this beautiful, somewhat undiscovered part of the world.) For more details you can visit Kate’s website. I can heartily recommend a visit to her website anyway as Kate is writing an online journal about growing and the changes to the garden, which makes a fascinating read and there are some gorgeous photos to drool over. Her next post, I’m reliably informed, is to be about the bamboos she saw growing alongside the Thai – Burma railway’s notorious Hellfire Pass & the incredible Australian Museum. And whilst you’re on her site have a look at the page about the history of the Barn House to discover more about this intriguing place.  

Scent in the garden, British Flowers Week and a flowery giveaway


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Home grown cut flowers

Home grown cut flowers – sweet Williams and pinks

First of all, my apologies for the lack of a May ‘Scent in the Garden’ post. Chelsea Flower Show, work, Wellyman’s final exam and then a week in Dorset have intervened and meant May has disappeared in a blur.

It just so happens that this month’s scented post coincides with British Flowers Week. This is the third year this week-long celebration of British grown blooms has taken place. Britain used to be self-sufficient in cut flowers before the advent of cheap/subsidised fuel meant it was cheaper to import flowers from across the world. In recent years a greater awareness of the environmental costs of imported flowers and a growing interest in seasonality have meant there has been a resurgence in British grown blooms. Thanks largely to a growing band of incredibly hard-working and talented small-scale flower growers across the country it’s now possible to buy super fresh, seasonal flowers with a local provenance.

Scent is one of the features so often lacking in imported blooms. Cut flowers have often been bred for other qualities – longer stems, shelf-life, ability to withstand cold stores – and scent is lost in the process. Chilled storage which keeps flowers fresh as they are transported also impacts on scent. Just think about those strawberries you pick at the allotment and how you can smell them, all warmed by the sun, now think about those from the supermarket kept chilled; the contrast is quite amazing. Growing your own flowers for cutting or seeking out British grown flowers with scent is the way to bring scent indoors. And even if you’re reluctant to pick your own flowers – I know how hard it can be when you have a small garden to take a pair of flower snips to your favourite blooms – there are so many fabulous plants that will fill your garden with scent all summer long.

For me June is a fabulous month for scented plants. Sweet Williams have started to bloom on the cut flower patch. There’s an air of the old-fashioned about them, conjuring up thatch cottages and gardens festooned with honeysuckle-clad arbours. I find them tricky in the garden though as they are quite stocky plants, they don’t tend to mingle like other plants, hence me devoting space to them on the allotment. They are biennials, so sow some now for flowers next year, but don’t feel you must dig them out after they have finished flowering in late summer, I have a clump from last year which is healthy and flowering once again. They will tend to get woody over time though so sow some every year to have young plants at the ready.

Carnation 'Memories'

Carnation ‘Memories’ ©Ian Curley

Sweet rocket is another deliciously scented biennial with the purest white flowers or dusky-pink blooms. It’s a great plant for attracting moths to your garden as its scent is much stronger on an evening. Pinks have to be one of my favourite flowers. They don’t really like my soil – it’s a tad on the acid side for their liking – but I tend to get a few years from plants before they need to be replaced with new ones. I have ‘Gran’s Favourite’ and ‘Fragrant village Pinks’ in flower at the moment, lining a bed on the cut flower patch. The white-flowered ‘Memories’ is in a container – one way around not having the chalky soil they prefer. Garden worthy plants, they also make fabulous cut flowers which I’m picking in huge bunches at the moment.

Philadelphus is a plant I remember from childhood. There was one by my parents’ gate and I used to love standing there and sniffing the flowers. It’s blooms are fleeting compared to other plants, but I wouldn’t be without the mass of white, orange blossom-scented flowers taking over a corner of my front garden at the moment, the scent drifting in through an open window into my lounge.

Rosa 'A Shropshire Lad'

Rosa ‘A Shropshire Lad’

Roses are perhaps the classic scented flower – as long as you don’t buy the imported cut flowers which never have any perfume. Currently in bloom in my garden are ‘Gertrude Jekyll’, ‘Geoff Hamilton’ and ‘A Shropshire Lad’. If you’re thinking of growing roses, now is a great time to seek out a specialist rose garden (the National Trust has some of the best rose gardens). June is their flowering peak and you can take notes of those that please your nose the most.

Red Valerian (Centranthus ruber)

Red Valerian (Centranthus ruber) ©Ian Curley

Red valerian (Centranthus ruber) is an underrated plant, in my opinion. It’s incredibly easy to grow. Why do underrated and easy to grow seem to go hand in hand? OK, it does have a tendency to self-seed, but it will tolerate most soil types. If you keep on deadheading it over the summer you will curb its tendency to pop up all over the garden and encourage it to flower right through into autumn. It might not be high on lists of scented plants but it does have one. Maybe not as sweet as a rose, but lovely nonetheless, and as it’s another where the scent is strongest in the evening, it’s great for moths. There’s honeysuckle too clothing the fence in the front garden and this little beauty, Tiarella ‘Creeping Cascade’. I bought it mainly for its foliage but have discovered that its pretty flower spikes are also sweetly scented.

Tiarella 'Creeping Cascade'

Tiarella ‘Creeping Cascade’  © Ian Curley

All this scent means it’s a veritable feast for my nostrils. And they all make great vase material. If you’re a reluctant flower picker I urge you this week to celebrate British flowers, to take your flower snips into the garden and to just pick a few stems. Even if you simply plonk them in an old jam jar and put them on the kitchen windowsill I can guarantee they’ll make you smile.

In honour of British Flowers Week I’ve joined forces with two lovely ladies to offer 3 fantastic gifts. Chloe Plester of Bare Blooms and the British Flower Collective grows beautiful flowers in the garden of her home in North Oxfordshire and is offering one of her gorgeous bouquets. Sian Cornish of the online haberdashery Lancaster and Cornish uses flowers and foliage from the countryside around her Cornish home to hand-dye bamboo silk ribbons. They’re perfect for tying a bouquet, decorating a vase or embellishing a gift and she’s giving away 3 ribbons. Alongside these will be a signed copy of my book The Cut Flower Patch.

For more details on how to enter (UK entries only, sorry!) take a look at the following links.

The British Flower Collective

Bare Blooms

Lancaster and Cornish

or take a look at my Instagram page. Good luck!

Gone to Pot


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A Posh Planter from The Posh Shed Company

A Posh Planter from The Posh Shed Company

For seven years or so I gardened pretty much solely in containers. Renting meant we couldn’t do a great deal to any of the gardens that came with each new house other than mow lawns and trim hedges. In other words, the boring bits. Container growing was the only way to get my growing fix. Our pots mainly consisted of edibles. We had good crops of courgettes, French beans, tomatoes, spuds and salad leaves. To be honest though by the time we had our own patch of soil my interest in pots had rather waned. Growing in the ground was a bit of a revelation. For about 5 years I had hardly any pots and I think I found it quite liberating. Pots, particularly small ones are demanding on time with all that watering and feeding.

However, over the last few years my love of containers has been rekindled. It has taken a while, but pots have slowly started to creep back into the garden, partly because I’m running out of soil and partly because I’m learning to appreciate them all over again. There are pots by the front door, pots with succulents, and planters with herbs. But what to use as a container?

I was lucky enough the other day to receive a wooden planter for a project I’m working on. Made in Herefordshire by The Posh Shed Company it’s rather lovely – good and solid, and in a very fetching shade of blue (they’re available in a selection of other delicious colours too). You could plant directly into the planter if you lined the slatted wooden base line with an old compost bag or some plastic sheeting with holes punctured into it. I rummaged in the shed for a pot that fitted snugly inside instead. It was as I was planting this wooden container that I caught myself thinking about how the choice of pot can make such a difference to a particular display and your garden as a whole.

In the past I was rather limited in my choice of pots. Moving constantly meant I didn’t want anything too heavy and my gardening budget was quite small. If I’m honest though it was more my imagination as to what to use as a pot that was the limiting factor. Plastic was my first choice. It was cheap, practical and lightweight, but let’s face it plastic pots aren’t particularly attractive. However, as they tended to be home to courgettes and potatoes I wasn’t too bothered at the time.

Terracotta is probably the most widely used material for containers. Most of my pots were clay but I’m less fond of it now. For me, the colour seems to jar in my garden and I’m not sure it’s the best foil for many plants. I find the orange tones don’t work with pastels which dominate my planting. It’s all a bit fake tan-like for me. I still have a collection but it dwindles every year as I lose some pots to frost. I do like the older-style terracotta which tends to be less orange – more of a pale, creamy colour, and most of my succulents are at home in these terracotta pots picked up from flea markets and second-hand shops. They’re easy enough to find and generally inexpensive. I’ll often find them hidden under a table in a box covered in cobwebs and the fragile skeletons of spiders. Larger terracotta pots, especially the older ones are pricey, and one of the lessons I have learnt is that if you are growing in pots the larger the better. One of the biggest mistakes I made as a rookie gardener was to buy small pots which a plant would fill all too quickly. Often I hadn’t given much thought to proportions either. By the time the plant had reached maturity it would more often than not look like it had out grown it’s home, rather like the teenager who has had a growth spurt and is sporting half-mast trousers.

Zinc planter

Zinc planter

Gradually I’m moving away from terracotta in favour of other materials. Vintage finds are some of my favourites. Zinc baths are fabulous. If you’re after a large planter they can be excellent value for money. Flea markets and shops are the best places to find them and the cheapest. You can also find them online and in shops which specialise in gardenalia. This rectangular metal box was £10 from Malvern Flea Market. A trader had bought a job lot of them from an old garage which had closed down. They were a bit on the greasy side when we got them home but nothing a good clean couldn’t shift, and they’ve looked beautiful this spring planted up with tulips.

French enamel pots

French enamel pots

I’m a bit obsessed by vintage enamel. I’m a bit like a bloodhound who has the scent when I go to one of my favourite flea markets. These were great value – £15 for the 3 from Toby Buckland’s Garden Festival.

Bonsai pot - a home for succulents

Bonsai pot – a home for succulents

I discovered this bonsai pot on a recent shed clear out and thought it would be perfect for a few succulents.

Rusty urn

Rusty urn

Then there is this vintage urn – it’s part of a pair. Crikey, they’re heavy – hence me moving only one out of the shed for this picture – but they look amazing. Sadly they aren’t mine, I’m just looking after them until I can deliver them to a friend.

The problem with vintage stuff is that if you’re not careful your garden can start to resemble a scrap yard or flea market and that’s generally not the look you’re trying to achieve. Balancing out the use of vintage pots with other containers is one way around this.

Wood makes an excellent material for containers. Old wooden fruit crates are one of my favourites. I line them with old compost bags to stop any compost falling out and it also helps the wood to last as long as possible. They’re a particular good depth for tomato plants with some basil planted around them. Then there are the more substantial wooden planters like the one from the Posh Shed Company. Containers like this make a statement in a garden and can be a focal point in themselves. Choosing containers in colours that blend with your garden and planting scheme is another way of tying a garden together. You don’t need to spend a small fortune on having a garden specially designed. Simply using containers in complimentary colours to your house, garden and planting combinations will give your garden a harmonious feel.

For more details about wooden planters from The Posh Shed Company.

Some of my favourite places for vintage finds – Shepton Mallett and Malvern Flea Markets, Toby Buckland’s Garden Festivals, The Foodie Bugle, Mabel and Rose.


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