Category Archives: Club Lectures

A Life in Five Gardens, by James Alexander-Sinclair

In October 2021, Grayshott Gardeners welcomed James Alexander-Sinclair, who gave us a really entertaining talk about his Life in Five Gardens.

In fact, the title above undervalued James’ talk because, with his rapid fire delivery and enthusiasm, James gave us 10 gardens for the price of 5.  On introducing James, our President came armed with an A4 sheet listing  James’ curriculum vitae but the modest  James soon asked Gordon to cease his recital before he had reached halfway down the page.

From an unpromising start to his working life as waiter,  jeans salesman, Harrods’ Father Christmas  and being an unwilling helper in his parents’ garden James designed his first garden in 1983 although “design” was probably a loose term as against a backdrop of corrugated iron it comprised only a few flower pots on a pile of bricks “borrowed” from the adjoining building site.  Despite this small venture, James received a few requests to dig relatives’ gardens, tasks he found he rather enjoyed.

In 1992, James moved into an old farm building which provided plenty of scope for him to design his first proper garden.   As with all his gardens,  James aims to make a seamless transition from garden to the adjoining countryside often including in his gardens strong structures softened by additional planting (which he describes as “loads of fluff”) such as the use of square columns of beech with softer planting around.   The beech keeps its leaves throughout the year with lovely autumnal colours and, in Spring, the new green leaves appear, the trees avoiding a boring interim of bare wood through the depths of winter.  James manages softer planting by instructing his Bulgarian gardener to scatter plants and bulbs on the ground to fall in a haphazard manner thus producing no tight, neat groups.   He enjoys watching the foliage plants going through their seasonal changes; grasses add movement and look particularly lovely in frost and snow. 

When designing clients’ gardens  James is a great believer in not retaining something just because it has always been there.   He suggested that, if a plant doesn’t give one pleasure, then get rid of it but resist being too hasty to cut back everything in the autumn.  He urged that seed heads and foliage can look wonderful as the season changes and also provide food and shelter for wildlife.

In 2016, James became involved with the design of the gardens in Spinal Injury units in Scotland and Salisbury.   Horatio Chapple, the son of a doctor who specialised in spinal injuries, was inspired to create a garden area in each of the 11 Spinal Injury Centres throughout Britain where patients, their families, and staff could relax and enjoy the surroundings.   Patients typically spend up to 6 months recovering from spinal injuries and peaceful, accessible, and beautifully planted areas are particularly important for their recovery  Sadly, Horation didn’t live to see his dream fulfilled as, in 2011, he was killed in a tragic accident at the age of 17.

In 2017,  James designed “The Garden of Five Senses” for Chelsea in which sound is transmitted through water, the different frequencies making different patterns across the surface.

One of James’ least successful ventures was at Chatsworth where a large imitation bowler hat was made to rise slowly from the ground to expose a garden beneath.   In its second season the electric motor caught fire turning the mobile into a flaming disaster. 

During his delightful talk we all warmed to James’ easy, unstuffy, and joyful approach to gardening.  His message was that, whereas a garden doesn’t have to be perfect, it must give pleasure.   A final bon mot: “When weeding, the best way to make sure you are removing a weed and not a valuable plant is to pull on it and, if it comes out easily, it is a valuable plant”

Jan Bebbington

Planting Pots for Winter Interest and Spring Joy, by Harriet Rycroft

In her enlightening and humorous talk Harriet brought a completely new and exciting dimension to planting pots and showed us the wonderful results that can be achieved.  She emphasised the importance of planning and writing everything down for ongoing reference, showing us her much treasured and much thumbed planning notebook!  Planting in groups for impact, thinking about foliage, form, texture and height, shapes and sizes, blending foliage with flowers and considering the time of blooming of each plant for continuous flowering over a long period. The idea of layering is a great way to maximise the flowering period from pots. Harriet has over 600 pots covering the wall by her back door, with tall shrubs with interesting foliage and structure at the back and smaller pots in the front planted with a wide variety of tulips, narcissi, muscari, crocus, pansies. She suggested using interesting evergreen plants such as black mungo grass, a mixture of grass carex which look lovely during the winter with frost and dew on them and then in the spring allowing narcissi and tulips to grow through them. When there is snow on plants don’t brush it off as it hurts the leaves and shoots, and the melted snow gives nitrogen which is good for plants. 

Planting pots for Spring flowering should be done in October/November and left to sleep over the winter.  Make sure you place pots where you can see them, by the house, driveway, terrace rather than way down the garden!  Be adventurous, try out different combinations of plants and colours – if it works great, if not try something else!!! A good idea for Spring pots with crocus and small bulbs is to scatter small pebbles or grit on the top to prevent squirrels, snails etc. from eating them.

Harriet talked through the months with wonderful photos of February with snowdrops, which she suggests you bring in and enjoy on your windowsill for a few days and then put outside again, and the pretty early iris, like Iris ‘Katherine Hodgkin’. In March there are lots of her favourite narcissi like Rip van Winkle and Snow Lady, Hyacinth ‘Miss Saigon’, chionodoxa, masses of stunning tulips like dark red ‘Hearts Desire’ and ‘Armani’, the peachy ‘Apricot Beauty’, orange ‘Ballerina’ also many Parrot Tulips which always steal the show. The April colour explosion of multi headed narcissi ‘Freedom Stars’.  Remember to place tulips in a sunny spot and if using Wallflowers, you must firm them in well. Hostas are best left to make a statement in a pot of their own.

Harriet demonstrated how to plant a pot with layering.  A suitable pot should have a drainage hole large enough to put your thumb through, also only use one piece of crock to cover the drainage hole, because lots of crocks can damage the root system of the plant when removed. Use peat free compost with added loam and add some slow-release fertiliser, soil should be loose without lumps. The root ball of the plants must be damp when planted so that they can absorb the water, and the root ball should be one inch below the rim of the pot, making sure all the root balls are at the same level in the pot.  Have the tallest shrub at back and the tallest bulbs in groups next to that, plant bulbs an inch apart and not touching. Then plant variety of other bulbs that bloom at different times plus other small plants. Make sure there are no gaps in the compost around the plants. When finished, tap pot on ground, smooth the surface and water in well.

Our thanks to Harriet for a most informative and enjoyable evening.  We are looking forward to planting a fair few pots of our own …. although maybe not 600!

Just what the Doctor ordered, by Roger Hirons

What more suitable subjects could there be for our return to the Village Hall, than “The Plant Doctor”, Roger Hirons, talking to Grayshott Gardeners about plants which like Acid soil and Shade!

Roger, who is  Dorset born and bred, could call on over 35 years in the horticultural industry with his experience from his education at Pershore, plus running plant centres such as Hilliers and broadcasting on all things plant related.

Roger gave a fascinating talk with tips on how to get the best out of our plants, projecting colour images to clarify the points and recommendations he was making of what we should plant and where.

He stressed how important it was to think ahead prior to planting, and to spend as much time and effort as possible preparing the planting hole which will give our plants such a good start in life. He gave us many useful tips, such as incorporating a handful of chalky soil at the bottom of a deep hole for Clematis.

A further interesting tip was to mark your garden into sections and set up a chart on a calendar, then regularly annotate the chart with the date, colours and plants which are in flower as the year progresses. Thus you are able to move or add different plants to create ongoing colour during the growing season.

Roger advocated the benefit and the importance of good mulching for fast draining and dry Grayshott soil to ensure plants can survive. This included using mulch from broad leaved trees where pines are present to reduce the acidity of the soil, and vice versa.

He also explained how to obtain the best flowering from a Camellia in the spring is to ensure it is well watered during the previous September and October, plus ensuring it’s roots are confined and competing with other trees and shrubs rather than in free soil, in which the shrub will grow well but not flower well.

Roger was an inspirational speaker whose knowledge of plants was encyclopaedic, and who shared that information with us with enthusiasm and humour.

Daisy Days, by Helen Picton

On 14th July 2021, Grayshott Gardeners virtually welcomed Helen Picton from Old Court Nurseries and the Picton Garden in Colwall, near Malvern. Helen comes from a long line of horticulturalists and is the third generation of her family to be involved in the breeding and cultivation of Michaelmas Daisies. Her talk was entitled ‘Daisy Days’.

Michaelmas Daisies are of the Asteraceae family; Helen explained that they are the second largest family of plants. Despite appearances, the head of a Michaelmas Daisy is made up of hundreds of tiny florets – which make up the centre of the bloom known as the disc floret – the part of the plant which is attractive to the insect pollinators. Gardeners are generally more interested in the petals (or ray florets) of the flower and in particular the range of colours.

The name Aster means star-like, and the plant has been known since ancient times. In earlier times it was called Starwort. From the 1920’s it became known as the Michaelmas Daisy; in recent years there has been a re-evaluation of the many different species from different parts of the world with new names now being attributed to the existing groups. There are five main groups: Aster Amellus and Associates (the first to be introduced into the U.K,), Symphyotrichum Novi Belgii (New York, the biggest group), Symphyotrichum Novae Anglicae (New England), Small Flowered Species & Cut Flower Hybrids and Other Species.

The heyday of the Michaelmas Daisy was in the large country estate gardens of late 19th century and early 20th century with the development of the more naturalistic approach to borders as extolled by such famous gardeners as William Robinson, Gertrude Jekyll and Edwin Beckett. The founder of Old Court Nurseries, Ernest Ballard (who was in cider vinegar production and from a wealthy Herefordshire family), led the way in the breeding of new stronger colours and more complex flowers (from about 1907 onwards until his death in 1950) making Michaelmas Daisies freely available to the ordinary gardener. Post the Second World War, Helen’s grandfather – Percy Picton – took over as Nursery Manager and the 50’s and 60’s saw Michaelmas Daisies become hugely popular with numerous new varieties coming onto the market. By the 1970’s, however, they fell out of favour (as did many old herbaceous border favourites) and many cultivars were lost. Largely thanks to the work and dedication of two ladies from Bristol, Miss Isabel Allen and Miss Joy Huish, who began collecting in the 1940’s, many cultivars were saved and eventually the Michaelmas Daisy was recognised by the Plant Heritage Society as one of the first National Collections.

The most important requirements seemed to be to provide a rich, moisture retentive soil and to divide regularly. Helen said that in Grayshott, with its acidic, free-draining soil, probably the best Michaelmas Daisies to grow are from the New England group and the Small Flowered Species group.

Helen’s closing advice to her attentive audience was that there is no excuse for poor colour in autumn and her slides certainly demonstrated this – from good companion plants with other herbaceous perennials, good performance in containers and excellent cut flowers.

Why buy from abroad? by Iain Pentney

On 9th June Grayshott Gardeners gave a virtual welcome to Iain Pentney of Classiflora Imports, a wholesale nursery in North London which specialises in the import of hardy European specimen plants, trees, shrubs and topiary.  His lecture addressed the pros and cons of importing plants to Britain.

The disadvantages are perhaps more obvious – given the transport miles and their associated carbon emissions, and the potential for importing pests and diseases.  So why buy from abroad at all?  Iain took us through some of the benefits that we enjoy when we use plants that have been grown in Mediterranean regions.

The first, and perhaps biggest benefit is that we can “buy time”.  Plants mature much faster in a climate where winters are much shorter and growing seasons are much longer.  And plants need to have reached maturity to flower, when they become most desirable to gardeners.  If we choose climates where winters are as harsh as Britain then we know that the plants will be hardy in our gardens.  So mature, garden worthy plants can be raised in about half the time it would take if they were raised in the UK – and, as we all know, time is money. 

Another advantage of the Mediterranean climate is that it has two dormant seasons – one in the winter and one in midsummer, when it is too hot for plants to grow.  Since plants are best lifted in the dormant season, this means there are two windows for lifting, as opposed to one in Britain.

There are also many trees that are being displaced by development, or no longer produce a commercial crop – for example olive trees and grapevines.  These plants have ornamental value, and there is a growing market for them in Britain.

Iain also explained how the issue of importing pests and diseases is now managed, with many controls, passports and certificates. So lots of paperwork, but providing vital safeguards.

So next time we see an imported plant on sale in a Garden Centre,  we will understand why.  Our choices would be poorer (and so would our pockets) if the plant had not made that journey!

Beautiful English Gardens, by Andy McIndoe

With Covid restrictions gradually easing many of us are eager to start visiting beautiful gardens again, so it was very timely for Grayshott Gardeners to welcome Andy McIndoe to our zoom screens, to give us an inspirational tour of some of the most beautiful gardens England has to offer.

As Andy demonstrated, England has a wealth of beautiful gardens, with a huge variety of styles. Our temperate climate gives us the charms of four distinct seasons to enjoy, each with their own moments of magic.  Winter, which often used to be ignored by gardeners, is now a season which is celebrated by many gardens planted specifically for winter interest.  The colours and light of autumn, the unfurling excitement of spring and the extravagance of summer mean that all seasons have their attractions, and clever gardeners can make the most of all of them.

Andy began his tour at home, showing us areas of his own garden near Romsey, and explaining how he had developed the space.  He emphasised the importance of evaluating your garden from the point you see it most often – this is where your major decisions should be made.  In reality, most of us make decisions whilst wandering round the garden, not whilst looking at it from where we normally view it.

He then explored some of the classic English gardens like Hidcote, Great Dixter and Sissinghurst.  He observed that the passage of time is a fourth dimension for a garden; structure matures to give an atmosphere and weight that we see today, and their creators never saw.  When we admire these gardens we are enjoying someone else’s legacy.

Andy took us round Prairie gardens, wildflower meadows, rose gardens and plant lovers gardens, all beautifully illustrated with his own photographs.  His talk really celebrated the diversity of the thousands of gardens that welcome visitors in our country. 

However, he left us with the thought that the garden that you should enjoy the most is your own – if it appeals to you then you’ve got it right!

What have plants ever done for us? by Timothy Walker

On 14th April 2021 Grayshott Gardeners gave a virtual welcome to Timothy Walker who gave us a Zoom lecture exploring “What have plants ever done for us?”.  Timothy is a botanist, gardener, lecturer at Hertford College, Oxford, presenter and author, and gave us plenty of reasons to look at plants in a new light.

Timothy started by answering the question his lecture posed.

Q: What have plants ever done for us?

A: EVERYTHING!

And he then went on to explain why.

Plants are unique in their ability to harness energy from the sun.  Their ability to photosynthesise is something science has not been able to replicate.  All the energy we use has been created by plants – either today, or over many millions of years.  A sobering thought.

Plants created soil, by their decay over millenia.  Plants are the green glue that ensures that the soil stays on the land.  The ability to cultivate plants played a key role in human evolution.  Civilisations were built around areas of cultivation, and plants gave us food, fibres for cloth, many medicines …… not to mention coffee and chocolate.

But 2 in 5 plants are currently threatened with extinction.  Given our complete dependence on them, this is a scary statistic.  So is it time that we turn the question on its head, and ask “What can we do for plants?”

Timothy believes there are three key principles:

  1. There is no technical obstacle to the conservation of any and every plant species
  2. Habitats can be restored and rehabilitated
  3. Gardeners and horticulturalists have a pivotal role to play

To illustrate how gardeners can put back things that have been destroyed, Timothy showed us the progress of projects in Oxford that have turned arable land back into flower rich meadows.  He also referenced National Plant Collections, that can preserve plants whose populations are in vulnerable areas, by propagating and distributing samples all around the world.  Gardens, with plants and ponds, bird boxes and hedges can support many mammals and invertebrates that would otherwise be threatened.

Gardeners have the skills to recognise what the problems are, and the knowledge to be able to make a difference.  So maybe the biggest question of the evening was “Will we gardeners rise to the challenge?”

Making the Best of What You Have, by Benjamin Pope

On 10th March 2021 Grayshott Gardeners held the latest in their series of Zoom lectures.  This time it was Ben Pope who brightened up our evening, with a virtual tour around the beautiful garden where he is Head Gardener, and some valuable lessons to help us make the most of our own spaces.  It certainly took our minds off the howling winds outside.

To set the scene, Ben showed us round the garden he curates.  It has a romantic style, but is careful to make sure it sits sympathetically in its Sussex landscape, whilst making the most of the borrowed views.  The periphery of the garden is less formally planted than the beds near the house, helping the garden to seep out into the countryside. 

Ben explained how much focus he and his team put on extending the season in the flower borders – using a combination of spring bulbs, herbaceous perennials and frothy annuals to make sure there is colour and interest from February to November.  The garden has many distinct areas, so to make it hang together they choose “signature” plants to repeat throughout the space to give a sense of coherence.  They also use topiary and hedges to cleverly link the architecture with the planting.

Ben then drew out some key principles that we can all use to make the most of our own gardens.  To start he urged us to take time to understand our own site and soil – and to appreciate the problems and opportunities that both bring.  And then to extend that to really knowing the plants we are going to use – not just when they are in flower, but how they behave before and after.  This knowledge provides a sound basis for creating harmonious plant partnerships.

Make maintenance a pleasure not a chore, by tackling a job before it becomes too big.  It really is true that “a stitch in time saves nine” in a garden.  And get ideas and inspiration from other people, visiting gardens and speaking to fellow gardeners (of course that’s what GG is so good for – when we can finally meet up again).

We all love getting produce from our gardens, but grow like an artist.  Mix up ornamentals with vegetables to give a lovely effect.  And finally take time – to stop and look, to take notes and to think.

And the most important lesson of the evening?  Mistakes are great lessons!  Don’t let the things that don’t work out make you afraid to have another go, putting your new found experience into practice.  That’s what will turn us all into great gardeners 😀

Creating Good Plant Combinations, by Amanda Patton

Amanda Patton

On one of the coldest nights of the year so far Grayshott Gardeners were treated to an inspiring zoom lecture by Amanda Patton – without having to step outside into the cold night air.

Amanda has a background in archaeological drawing and illustration.  Her early career did not involve gardens at all, until the fateful day she was invited to see the garden a friend had created.  It took her breath away, and her first thought was “I want to learn how to do that”.  And learn she did, now running a successful design practice of her own in West Sussex.

One of Amanda’s garden designs

Amanda brings an artist’s vision and ability to critique to the world of garden design.  She showed us many examples of gardens where the design was excellent, but also examples where the design did not work.  Whilst most of us can see and feel the difference between these two extremes, it can be really difficult to pinpoint what is working and what is not.  Amanda tried to unpick the elements for us following four key rules:

  1. One thing the same
    Try to link plants to their immediate neighbours by having one characteristic in common e.g. both could have the same green leaves, but in different leaf shapes, or pair up the same leaf shapes but in different colours.
  2. Rhythm and Repetition
    Rhythms can be used in different ways to create a calming or dynamic feel, and having a theme that you develop through a border will make all the difference.
  3. Layers
    Give your borders layers – vertical, horizontal and seasonal – to give cohesion and avoid a random collection of plants.
  4. Colour and Value
    Use the colour wheel to create harmonious or complementary combinations. And remember that colours have tones (value) too, so shades and tints can be used to great effect.

Amanda gave us many practical hints to take away too.  Make your borders as large as you can; note where your garden catches the sun and plant in front of it, to make the most of light illuminating key plants; and take pictures of your garden in black and white – removing the colour can help you see where you have form, and where it needs to be introduced.

It was a fascinating talk, that gave us much food for thought.   And whilst not all of us will be able to embark on wholesale redesign of our plots, at least next time we come home from the Garden Centre with that inevitable impulse buy, we now have tools to work out where to position it for maximum effect.

David Hurrion Zooms in on Pruning Practices

David Hurrion pruning Garrya

Our Zoom lecturer for January was David Hurrion, who came highly recommended after his interesting “World Tour” talk for Grayshott Gardeners in March 2020, our last lecture in the Village Hall. Conforming to Covid restrictions, he did not stray far from home this time, but offered a handy, practical and timely guide on the art of pruning to our Zoom audience of 80+ participants.

As well as writing, lecturing, editing, designing and judging (RHS Shows), David is also an excellent teacher: he managed to pin down the practice of pruning to two rules of thumb: hard pruning at the end of the dormant season for late spring and summer flowering plants, and summer pruning (to remove spent flowers) for everything else. Fortunately he did not leave it at that, there were plenty of examples, illustrated with photos, and a few exceptions to the rules too.

David went on to explain various techniques in order to achieve a specific purpose, whether to correct the shape of a plant, to encourage larger or more flowers or fruit, to extend a plant’s life, or to control pests and diseases, and more. A diagram of the effect of different hormones (sap) rising in the plant’s stem, and the result of clipping or lopping at different areas of the stem was especially illuminating, as was the difference between leaf and flower buds.

To complete his pruning lecture, David demonstrated the different types of secateurs and loppers, not forgetting how to keep them clean, and he ended his talk with a bonus tip: he had it on good authority that we can expect very cold and frosty weather over the next 2 weeks. You have been warned!

Pruning a Wisteria in Summer

David has a website at www.davidhurrion.com as well as a YouTube channel with topical tips for 2021.