winter garden

frosted rosehip, cottage garden, gardening blog

frosted rosehip

The ‘autumn tidy’ is always a bit of an oxymoron in our garden. Especially so this year. I can’t have spent more than two or three hours out there in November and the only pre-Christmas job I did in December was stringing up fairy lights.

But at last the festivities are over and I managed to sneak out for a few hours yesterday morning.


I mostly wandered about and caught up with where things are at. Snowdrops are beginning to push up leaves; bright red peony shoots are breaking through the soil. We’ll be enjoying the witch hazel flowers’ acid-yellow spideriness soon.

frosted foxglove plant, cottage garden, gardening blog

foxglove ‘Alba’ – we sowed these early summer and planted them out in September to flower next year

The main borders are a jumble of stalks and seed heads. We deliberately avoid chopping plants back in the autumn to provide food and shelter  for wildlife.

frosted rudbeckia stems, cottage garden, gardening blog

Over the past weeks I’ve noticed hordes of finches in the garden – far more than in our previous winters here. Many of them have been flitting in and out of clumps of rudbeckia stalks. I thought they were hunting for insects taking refuge there. But it turns out they’ve been feasting on the seeds.

rudbeckia seed head, cottage garden, gardenig blog

rudbeckia seed heads are being stripped by finches

Embracing untidiness instead of fighting it makes gardening at this time of year an unhurried, leisurely affair.  It couldn’t be further from the mad spring dash to get seeds in and young plants hardened off at just the right moment – exciting though that is.

On bright, crisp mornings this attitude pays off. The collapsing heap of last summer’s growth is transformed into an ice-encrusted wonderland.

frosted rudbeckia, cottage garden, gardening blog

frosted rudbeckia seedhead

We have a few new projects in mind for next year. The two main borders are being extended to give us tons more ‘full sun’ space. And we’re going to start creating some wildflower areas. There will be lots to do, but for now I’m happy to potter and procrastinate.


Let them run wild!

This is a guest post I wrote for the lovely guys at Modern Mint, a garden design firm. I met the Director Darren Lerigo at a Garden Media Guild event, and he asked for my thoughts about what gardens offer children.

For a few scary minutes this summer I lost my three year old daughter. We’d been pottering outside one minute, and she was gone the next. I scoured the garden, then the house, then the garden again. She’s quite sensible, so I was pretty sure she wouldn’t have wandered off by herself. And the dogs would have made a racket if anyone had come into the garden. But as time ticked on I became worried.

I finally ran out to the road feeling a bit panic stricken. Then I spotted her on the overgrown bank at the edge of the garden.

She was quietly gathering leaves and putting them in a stacking-cup, murmuring to herself as she worked. I broke the spell, shouting that I’d been worried, why didn’t she come when I called and what was she doing out there anyway?

It turned out her imaginary friend was unwell. He needed the leaves to make him better. Of course he did.

Adventures in the gardenexploring

I don’t really consider the bank a safe place for a young child. It’s steep and rough, full of nettles, thistles and other spiky things. Not to mention the four foot drop to the lane. It’s sectioned off from the main garden by a stretch of chestnut paling with a seldom used, tricky-to-open gate. I asked how she’d got out there. She answered by pushing a loosened pale to one side and squeezing back through the fence.

A big part of me wanted to say she mustn’t go out there again. But I found myself just asking her to be careful. And not to eat any leaves.

Exploring, hiding, making dens and imaginary concoctions is heaps of fun for kids. Experts in child development reckon outdoor free play is really important. Especially if it involves taking reasonable risks.

Gardens offer a perfect springboard for this. Even a small plot has the potential to offer a wilderness ripe for adventures; providing adults are prepared to be a little bit indulgent.

In a medium to large garden, it’s easy to let a forgotten corner run wild. Leave the hedges untrimmed, the grass uncut. Better still, sow a meadow mix to create a haven for children and nectar-lovers alike. You could leave a few bits of wood, sticks, bricks and other random stuff lying about for impromptu den-making or props.

If the untidiness is difficulsweet pea castle (2)t to live with, you can always screen it off with a trellis and a few climbing plants.

Smaller gardens might be able to accommodate a wigwam or two – these are easily rigged up using hazel sticks or canes from a garden centre. Build them with a wide base, at least 1.5metre diameter, and leave enough room between two of the uprights for an entrance. Runner beans or sweet peas planted in May or June will soon provide enough cover for a little-person’s summer hideout.

Whatever happens, don’t tell the kids what you’re doing or why. Hidey holes and wildernesses are ten times more exciting if the grown-ups don’t know about them. They need to feel like unchartered territory or a forbidden land.

I learnt this the hard way when we made a sweet pea castle for my daughter. She was very enthusiastic about building the structure and growing the plants, but barely ventured in there all summer. On the other hand, every under-five who came to play made a bee-line for it. No doubt they assumed they were being terribly naughty pushing through the flowers to sneak inside.

You can see the original post here: 

the secret life of woodlice

It’s funny what you learn when you have a four year old.

Ours has been fascinated by garden creatures since she was tiny. So back in August we made an insect hotel. We hoped it might provide a winter resting place for bees and ladybirds. Perhaps a few toads would move in at the bottom.

insect hotel, cottage garden, gardening blog

Since we were replacing the veg garden fence at the time, we had plenty of wood kicking about the place. The insect hotel turned into quite a grand affair. Although I think you can see why we don’t get on very well with DIY in the house…

insect hotel, cottage garden, gardening blog

little bit wonky…

Next we filled it with sticks, logs, fir cones, pots stuffed with straw and random stuff, like a bird box we’ve never got round to putting up.

insect hotel pots

A few days later, M started school and we didn’t pay it any attention for a while.

Then the nights started drawing in. One evening we were wandering around out there with the dogs and discovered a  colony of woodlice have taken command of the place. During the day they are nowhere to be seen, but in the dark hundreds of them swarm around it busily doing whatever woodlice do.

M checking out insect hotel at night

Apart from feeling a bit guilty whenever I move a pot and see woodlice scurrying for cover, I’ve never really given them much thought. But it turns out they are quite interesting little things.

I’d always naively assumed they were insects. In fact they are 14-legged crustaceans. There are 3,500 species in the world – about 35 of these can be found in the UK. They live up to four years and play an important role eating and breaking down dead and rotting vegetation in the garden. If you’re really unlucky they might eat young seedlings – but not so much that they could be considered a pest.

2014-10-09 21.10.10 (2)

As you can see, I’ve been doing a bit of research. But one thing I cannot get to the bottom of is something Steve caught them doing a couple of nights ago. Several of them appeared to be tending to a couple of red blobs on the end of a log.

what is the red blob?

what is the red blob?

We wondered if it might be a nest of eggs. Then we thought it might be some sort of fungus they were feeding on. We left them to it, but the next day all that was left was some dried up remains. If you have any idea what they might have been up to, we’d love to know.

...this is all that was left the next morning

…this is all that was left the next morning

wordless wednesday: sunshine & showers

cosmos purity, cottage garden, gardening blog


cosmos, cottage garden, gardening blog


wordless wednesday: seed harvest

poppy seed head, cottage garden, gardening blog

the generosity of dahlias

I felt like I’d been swindled when my new dahlias arrived in March. They were such meager little tubers. When we lifted last year’s, I discarded some that were bigger.

I was cross with myself for having been seduced by the fancy catalogue I’d ordered them from. I potted them up, but vowed that if they didn’t grow well I’d write a stiff letter of complaint.

When the time came to plant them out in May, they were doing OK. Not as vigorous as the ones we’d stored over the winter, but well enough to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Most of them went into a newly cleared border, along with verbena rigida, statice and gaura lindheimeri that we’d grown from seed. There were a couple that still didn’t seem big enough to turn out to the open soil. I popped them into big pots so they’d be a bit more cosseted. Nothing much happened for a couple of weeks and I moaned about them to anyone who’d listen.

Many times over the summer, one of my mum’s favourite sayings ‘Oh ye of little faith’ has echoed in my head. Because the dahlias turned out to be an absolute joy.

dahlia rosamunda, dahlia summertime, cottage garden, gardening blog

Since July they have been flowering their socks off. Each of those small, dry tubers must have produced close to a hundred flowers so far. With October round the corner, the ones in pots are slowing down a bit, but those in the ground are still throwing out new buds on a daily basis.

dahlias, cottage garden, gardening blog

quintessential summertime

Two of the varieties we chose have become firm favourites that I’d like to have in the garden every year: rosamunde and summertime. They both produce long-stemmed flowers that sit high above the foliage. They bounce around a bit on breezy days, but we’ve only had a couple snap right off when it’s been really stormy.

dahlia rosamunde, cottage garden, gardening blog

the beautiful dahlia rosamunde

Rosamunde in particular is an absolute stunner: semi-double, peony-like flowers in a gorgeous pink with dark bronze foliage. She works really hard too, producing flower after flower after flower. It probably helps that I now know how to tell a dead-head from a bud – last year I didn’t find out until quite late in the season that it’s only the pointy ones you’re meant to snip off.

dahlia, cottage garden, gardening blog

fat, round dahlia bud (not to be mistaken for a dead-head…)

dahlia dead-head, cottage garden, gardening blog

pointed dahlia dead-head (not to be mistaken for a bud)

The dahlias have flowered generously for three months now. Providing we don’t get hit by an early frost, we should get another four or five weeks out of them.

bee on dahlia, cottage garden, gardening blog

single and semi-double dahlias provide a four-month feast for nectar lovers

I can hardly believe they had such an unpromising start.

dahlias, cottage garden, gardening blog

each tuber produces tonnes of flowers all summer long

dahlia, cottage garden, gardening blog

dahlias are gorgeous whichever way you look at them

wordless wednesday: growing up fast

cottage garden, gardening blog, sunflowers