Viticulture in the South of England, by Alessandra Valsecchi

Programme Secretary Sue Wheeler with Alex Valsecchi

On 10 July the Grayshott Gardeners were treated to a very interesting talk by Alessandra Valsecchi on viticulture in the South of England.  Alex, an academic, studied at the University of Milan, achieving a doctorate in Horticulture specialising in fruit culture and viticulture.  She has had years of practical experience working on vineyards in Italy and New Zealand and worked at Wisley from 1999 to 2009 where she applied the principles of organic growing.  Alex joined Albury Vineyard as Estate Manager and is one of the few female vineyard managers in England. 

Albury Vineyard is situated on the southern slopes of the North Downs and has 40,000 plants. The vines are the traditional Champagne varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, as well as some Seyval and Pinot Gris. The vineyard produces organic fruit and Alex described how they do not use any herbicides and fungicides. Organic growing of vines has minimum intervention, fruit better and produce better wine, it encourages natural biology and microbiology. 

Saying that England was never known for its wine making, Alex told the audience that there are now 900 commercial vineyards in England, with 12 in Surrey.  Denbies, near Dorking, is the largest solo vineyard covering 120 hectares and having 300,000 visitors a year.  They host weddings and have a very good education building and café.  Chilworth Manor is one of the smaller vineyards in Surrey, its history dating back to the Augustinian Monks in the 11th Century.   The vines at Chilworth are of the Champagne variety.  In 1990 Nytimber in West Sussex, won trophies for its sparkling wine which now rivals Champagne

Alex described the best ways to cultivate vines; December to March is pruning and laying down, April to September is the time for weeding pest and disease control.  May is when new vines are planted and June to September is for bird protection and October is harvest time.  There was a diagram on how to prune vines.  The biggest challenges are deer, frost, weeds, birds, mildew and botrytis. 

Albury not only produces some of the best wine in England, but it also produces spirits, one being eau de vie de vin, Attila’s Bite (which is named after Alex’s Terrier, who keeps unwanted visitors away (such as pheasants) from the vineyard). 

Super Seasonal Displays, by Mark Saunders

On 12 June, Mark Saunders gave the Grayshott Gardeners a very enjoyable and informative lecture on how to have wonderful displays in your garden space during every season of the year.

He started with the Autumn Season when gardens can start to look a little drab after the Spring and Summer colours, but he pointed out that there are some plants which can flower until October, not forgetting that October is the time when you should be thinking about bulbs and sowing seeds which can be done inexpensively by ordering from catalogues.

Mark showed the audience some of the wreaths he made for Christmas, all the foliage was from the garden, demonstrating that the foliage from the garden can make colourful things to celebrate the festive season.    Wisley have created a winter display garden and some other public gardens have created a light display for this time of year.  During Mid-February, you should start sowing seeds in pots for the Summer.  Dahlias that were lifted should be potted up now.

Mark said seeds could be sewn directly into the ground in Summer as the ground is warmer.  The best way to do this is to mix seeds into compost and scatter on the beds.  This is a good way of filling spaces in the boarders.  Summer is the also the time to plant up colourful pots they are a good way of drawing attention to where you want peoples eyes to go. 

There are lots of gardens to visit for ideas such as Great Dixter, Wisley, West Dean, not forgetting the wonderful display of tulips at Arundel in West Sussex.

Mark Saunders is the head gardener of Fittleworth House.  The garden is part of the National Garden Scheme and is open by arrangement from 22 April to 22 August.

The Essential Guide to Raised Bed Growing, by David Hurrion

On 8 May the Grayshott Gardeners were treated to an informative and entertaining talk from David Hurrion about gardening with raised beds.

He described how the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, Machu Picchu, Hugelkkutur, straw bale, hot beds, meter square growing, and the African keyhole method were all ancient, raised bed traditions.

David took the audience through the different types of raised beds and described how to make the simple mound bed, how a stone raised bed can add to the attractiveness of a garden and how they can be incorporated into a pond feature.  The advantage of raised beds is that they are good for disabled people, encourage wildlife and are easy to maintain. Herb towers are a good example of a space saving raised bed. One disadvantage of raised beds is that if you do not assemble the bed with the correct compost, topsoil, drainage and aeriation material, they can end up as a compost bin. 

David concluded his talk saying copies of his new book ‘The Raised Bed Book’ were for sale at the front of the hall and he would be delighted to sign your copy.

Davids video on how to build a raised bed is on his YouTube Channel.  You can find a lot of very interesting information on all aspects of gardening on

Hardy Geraniums, by Jacqueline Aviolet

On 10 April, Grayshott Gardeners were treated to an enthusiastic and humourous evening talk by Jacqeline Aviolet who has been giving horticultural talks since the last century.  She runs her own nursery, Rosie’s Garden Plants, growing and selling plants via mail order.  She also sells plants at shows and at her talks.

Throughout her talk, Jacqueline demonstrated how to take cuttings of geraniums and gifting them to members of the audience.  She made the cuttings by taking the leaves off down to the base and then planting it into the side of a pot, not the middle.  She said that planting the base at the side of the pot was the best way of getting the plant to root.  She recommended taking cuttings from now until August and said that as she didn’t own a greenhouse, all her plants are cultivated outside.

Hardy geraniums are mostly pink, blue, mauve and white.  They grow in sun and also like shady areas.  They do not have to be taken inside in the winter,  and different geranium varieties will re-grow and flower from Spring to Autumn. Jacqueline described different varieties of plants, one of which was the Geranium Wlassovianum –  Martyn & Emma (a wedding present for her nephew) which she introduced and is in the RHS listing.  This geranium is a mauve/pink white eye, which flowers in July/September and likes sun and semi shade.

Jacqueline finished her talk with the history of geraniums,  including how the projectile dispersal unit of a geranium was discovered and how the seedhead was thought to resemble the head and beak of a bird. 

Trees – a cut above the rest, by Tony Kirkham

In March Grayshott Gardeners were lucky enough to welcome Tony Kirkham to give our Keynote Lecture.  Tony, Former Head of Arboretum at Kew Gardens, was fascinated by trees from a young age.  His interest can be traced back to a love of conkers – originally ones that dangled from shoe laces and could be used in combat! He was also a proud nature table monitor and pursued this interest as a career – and although he trained in all aspects of Horticulture, it was trees that remained his first love. 

Tony gave us an insight into the intelligence of trees.  Some have developed an ability to communicate with insects, changing the colour of their flowers once they have been pollinated to let insects know that they need not visit – maximising efficiency of both nectar gathering for the insects and pollination for the tree.  Others have developed adaptations that allow them to grow taller – by collecting moisture from their tips and taller branch joints, thereby overcoming the challenges of getting water from roots in the ground to a crown that is over 100 meters tall.

He has spent many family holidays in a quest to find the largest, oldest or tallest tree. He has also had many adventures around the world, sleeping in rough accommodation, braving hostile mosquitos and fording raging rivers in order to find rare tree specimens growing in their native habitat. 

Tony gave us some practical lessons too.  Plant trees in a square hole, at the right depth (never too deep), with a clear mulched circle round the trunk for a few years, and your trees will thrive.  They might even get too big, in which case Tony showed us the best way to cut branches, so that their branch bark ridge and their branch collar will naturally heal and callous over.

It was a fascinating evening, and Tony’s enthusiasm for trees was infectious.  Many of us bought copies of his books at the end of the lecture so that we could learn a bit more.

How I grow Sweet Peas, by Darren Everest

On 14 February, Grayshott Gardeners were treated to an informative and amusing talk by Darren Everest on how he came to cultivate and show sweet peas also on his rivalry on showing sweet peas between him and his father.

His interest in growing flowers started when he was thirteen by growing and showing dahlias but the showing times for dahlias is short lived, so he started to grow and show sweet peas and compete against his father.

The audience learnt how and when to sow seeds. With winters getting warmer, Darren said that it is preferable to sow in January so that plants are ready to be planted out in March/April time. Darren sows his seeds in November on heated beds for them to germinate quicker, so the plants are ready for showing in Spring. He also shared tricks on how to keep mice at bay, so they could not eat your seeds, how to pick side shoots to encourage flowers and how stroking stems helped to straighten them. You can take a tip off the tap root if the plant gets leggy, this will help the plant shoot. As sweet peas flower off the side shoots, he said it was good to take the plant down to two leaves when large enough.

Darren explained that the weather played a big part in growing sweet peas, how they can tolerate frost and temperatures down to -6 but not -14 and that if the temperature dropped dramatically between day and night, buds were likely to drop off.

The audience were treated to a detailed description of how to display blooms for show purposes, how side shoots need to be taken off to get the best blooms on straight stems, and making sure they are not water damaged in transportation to avoid water marks.   He illustrated how to show sweet peas using fifteen stems in a vase for exhibiting nationally. Starting with seven stems at the back of a display, five in the middle and three at the front.

Darren referred to his wedding in 2012, not knowing what to give his wife as a wedding gift he named a sweet pea after her. Cultivating a sweet pea can take up to five years, this flower was ready and ‘released’ at his first time showing at Chelsea last year, where he achieved a Silver Gilt Prize. 

This well attended evening concluded with Darren answering questions from the audience.

Lots more tips and information on how to grow sweet peas can be found on Darrens website:

No Dig and Sustainable Food Growing, by Sheila Das

Grayshott Gardeners kicked off the New Year with a fascinating and thought provoking talk by Sheila Das, Garden Manager Edibles at RHS Wisley.

Sheila shared her passion for growing edibles.  She believes that the transformation of a tiny seed into a huge cabbage is nothing short of magic.  And if that’s not enough to excite you, then being able to eat food that you are confident has not been doused in chemicals, reconnecting with the seasons, avoiding the huge amount of packaging waste that is in built into our current food system, and enjoying the mindful pleasures of being outside in your garden or allotment are other advantages to consider.

Sheila has an aspiration of “minimum intervention” which guides many of her gardening decisions and choices.  Nature does it best when it comes to establishing a balance in our environment, so by mimicking nature we can encourage a favourable balance in our own plots.  That can translate to encouraging a healthy equilibrium of pests/predators rather than reaching for the pesticides, or to growing a mixture of plants that complement each other rather than a monoculture.  Another tip Sheila passed on was to harvest crops at soil level and leave the roots in the ground to rot and provide nutrients without disturbing the soil ecosystem.

No Dig fits in with the aspiration of minimum intervention.  Mulching the soil surface is what happens in nature (although perhaps not at the concentration at which gardeners apply mulch), it avoids traumatising the soil health and structure, it aids moisture retention and adds to soil fertility, without the use of chemicals.  And for those of us that enjoy digging, shovelling mulch can be just as good for your muscles as excavating a trench. 

These things are all put into practice in the World Food Garden at RHS Wisley.

Scientists have now shown that there are more organisms in a handful of soil than there are people on the planet.  And yet we know so little about the earth beneath our feet.  Research in this area is badly needed.

Sheila encouraged us to observe closely and to adapt to our own circumstances, rather than trying to follow a rigid set of rules.  And when we need guidance, Mother Nature is a good place to look.

Cutting out the Middleman, by Benjamin Pope

A Guide to Growing and displaying your own cut flowers.

Benjamin Pope is Head Gardener at a private garden in West Sussex.  Apart from gardening, he takes a keen interest in beekeeping, travel, art and of course displaying cut flowers from his own garden.  He has a Diploma from Wisley and is a Master of Horticulture. 

Chairman John Price and Programme Secretary Sue Wheeler with Benjamin Pope

He gave a very interesting and informative talk about the different flowers you can grow in your own garden and display.  He said one should not be afraid of breaking the mould in arranging flowers.  Different sorts of flowers can be arranged with branches, shrubs and trees to decorate your home, but it is environmentally friendly and inexpensive to use what you have in your garden.   

You can grow different specimens of flowers and shrubs in the garden to pick for your arrangements, ranging from one or two different colours to hundreds.  Putting just two-coloured flowers in a vase can be more exciting that a whole range of colours.  Combining flowers in the garden was not only a good idea to add colour to the borders but also to pick.  Ben also suggested staggering planting of flowers so that you always had flowers to pick.    

He suggested seeds were a good way of cultivating favourite flowers.  They can be collected from spent flowers; they are cheap and can be brought on easily. Division was another good way of cultivating plants and cuttings were also a good way.  When taking a cutting cover with vermiculite and if you don’t have a greenhouse, find a warm place in which the cuttings can take.

When cutting flowers, we were reminded that sharp secateurs or garden snips were needed and a clean bucket.  Bacteria can affect cut flowers, so you need to put stems of flowers into clean water.  The best time to cut flowers is first thing in the morning.  The key is to rest not rush.  After cutting put the stems in a bucket of clean water and leave for 24 hours to soak up the water.  Make sure the water is free from bacteria, foliage (which will rot) and dirt. 

Cosmos and rudbeckia are great grown from seed and are good annuals and biannual.  Perennials such as aster, Michaelmas daisy, delphiniums and crocosmia are also wonderful flowers to display.

Bulbs and tubers such as anemone, gladioli, narcissus are good flowers to arrange.  Branches and flora from shrubs and trees, leaves with small branches such as willows and witch hazel are good for accompaniments for displays, as are rose hips and seed heads of clematis, lilac and berberis.  Herbs can also be used. Sage, zinnias and dianthus.  Moroccan mint is not only a good herb to use but has a heavenly scent.

Long stemmed plants such as dahlias and rudbeckia along with crab apple, asters and scabiosas are good accompaniments with Iris, peonies. 

You can put just three colours together to make a statement.  Sweet peas, roses allium is a good combination and for larger displays you can use delphiniums, alliums and foxglove together with different grasses.

Ben talked about what can be used as vases/containers.  He said they made up half the arrangement.   A bold colour should be used for a strong arrangement.  Snowdrops along with sedums make for a classic yellow and white display and it doesn’t have to be elaborate, cowslips can be used with meadow flowers such as feverfew. 

Different types of bottles can be used for displays.  An example being Hendrix bottles or test tubes containing snowdrops, or large spirit bottles for witch hazel and you can also use different sizes of jugs.  You should think about the weight of the display and consider using wires for structure and flower frogs.  Think about the neck of the container, a small neck limits how many stems you can use whereas large neck containers are good for larger displays.  Junk shops are always a good place to find different receptacles for displays. 

More information can be found on Ben’s website

Growing and Using Culinary Herbs, by Jekka McVicar

Jekka McVicar and GG Programme Secretary Sue Wheeler

Jekka’s eclectic career began when she was a singer and flute player in a progressive rock band.  The band was one of the first to appear at Glastonbury and to perform at the Isle of Wight Festival.  She subsequently worked at the BBC in the drama department and then went on to work at a herb nursery in Somerset.  In 1987, she and her husband Mac established their herb garden, which has now has the largest collection of culinary herbs in the UK hosting more than 500 different varieties.

Jekka has published many books, written for the RHS, contributes to many publications, and has been awarded the Garden Media Guild Lifetime Achievement Award ‘for services to horticulture, design, education and communication and excellence in the field of organic herb growing’ in 2012 and the Victoria Medal of Honour for her services to horticulture in 2017.

Jekka treated us to a fascinating and entertaining talk which started with her reminiscing on how as a child, she would visit her grandmother (Ruth Lowinsky), pick Mint from her garden and make mint sauce with sugar and white wine (or cider) vinegar.   A recipe she still uses today.    She then told us how she had started her ‘Herbetum’ 40 years ago, (etum meaning ‘collection of’) she continued to describe some popular herbs and the different ways we can use them.

Source: Jekka’s website

Mint when grown in a pot will last 6-8 weeks, it should be fed with a seaweed feed.  It should be cut back in September, fed and will keep growing until the frost.  It should be re potted in November.  Mixing Mint with peppermint can enhance good sleep.  Korean Mint is a beautiful plant which is not invasive and good for wildlife.

Bay is known for adding to casseroles, soups and bouquet garni, but is also delicious as ice-cream, the recipe for which is on her website.  

The best time to sow Garlic is on the shortest day and harvest on the longest.   Garlic was used in ancient Egyptian times for sores and has been scientifically proven to aid the healing of skin.  Welsh Onion, wild garlic and Siberian chives are all good for making flavoured vinegars. 

White borage flowers are lovely scattered on salads, also good in ice-cubes.

Calendula is good for putting in creams for skin but not for eating.

Heartease (Viola Tricolor) can be made into tea for long distance flying pigeons, they are nice in ice cubes.

Fennel, (which was introduced into this country by the Romans) helps with digestion and has been scientifically proven to lower cholesterol.

French Tarragon (different to Russian Tarragon) is also a good digestive herb. It is also good to use in oils and vinegar.   Russian Tarragon is just an upper-class grass and bears no resemblance to French Tarragon.

Herbs are good for making syrups, added to soda water is a refreshing drink. 

Celery leaf is a UK native herb which was taken to India.  It has a milder taste than Coriander, which although thought to be native to India originated in Italy.  Coriander, Sorrel and Parsley can be grown in North facing gardens.  Coriander and Dill are annuals.  Seed them when you want them to crop and do not transplant.

Lavender is a useful medicinal herb.  It can be used to make biscuits, cakes and is also good ice cream.  Make sure to prune Lavender, Sage and Rosemary in September as it an become woody.  Sage is a good tea for sore throats.  Rosemary tea is good for memory, also good as a tonic and for hangovers.

There are 10 different types of Basil, good for rubbing on bites, especially mosquito bites.  It also hates being wet at night so must be watered in the morning.  It is better grown against a wall and not in pots.  Marjoram and Oregano used on pizzas, are the same plant.  There are 13 different types of Thyme and a favourite with bees to treat themselves against disease.  Rhubarb and lemon thyme crumble is a good pudding to make.

Lemon Verbena is the Rolls Royce of herbs, best in tea and wonderful in ice cubes.  Not to cut the stems now but to prune in April/May when the leaves just start to appear.

Liquorice is the sweetest of herbs, but invasive.

Jekka stressed that you must feed herbs regularly as you would vegetables to be rewarded.  Seeds should always be kept away from the light and dry, only take seeds from the packet you need, never put them back in the packet after being in your hand. Never keep seeds in the fridge.

Lots of information of growing herbs and recipes are on Jekka’s website and in her many books.  Her new book ‘100 Herbs to Grow’ is published in March 2024.

Thank you Jekka for a very entertaining and informative evening.

Pest Recognition and Control, by Andrew Halstead

Andrew gave a very informative talk on recognising and controlling pests in the garden.  Here is a summary of his talk, but please watch the video which John has uploaded on the website for detailed information.

He reminded us that there are rules and regulations on the use of pesticides.  We should read the information on the products before buying making sure it is approved for the type of trees, vegetable or flowers you wish to spray.  Please check, as some are toxic and not for use on produce which will eventually be for human consumption. 

Andrew suggested the audience look at the RHS website which has detailed information of the products available for pest control.

Andrew listed all the pests and how to control them starting with slugs and snails reminding us that pellets were no longer available and Ferric Phosphate was expensive.  Whilst other controls are used such as copper bands etc he said the best thing to use was pathogenic.

He went on to discuss root fly and how there is no preventative, although putting card or material under the plant can stop the maggots eating the roots.  The carrot fly can be avoided by netting the carrots.

It was interesting to learn about the Chafer Grub which lays its eggs in your beautiful lawn, not only ruining it, but encouraging badgers, which love to feed on them thus helping to destroy the lawn.   Unfortunately, there is no deterrent and no guarantee that the grub will not return.

The Vine Weevil is a nocturnal female feeding on the roots of plants and laying hundreds of eggs on namely Rhododendrons.  Nematodes can be used, or you can hunt them at night.