HOW TO GROW THE CHRISTMAS BOX - Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis

Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis shrub
Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis

Commonly known as the Christmas Box or Himalayan sweet box, Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis is a popular garden choice for a winter blooming effect. Native to the Himalayas, the original species is a rarely found, erect -growing evergreen shrub and named in honour of Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker (June 1817 – December 1911), Charles Darwin's closest friend and Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew.

The 'humilis' variety is a dwarf, densely-branched selection which seldom reached 60 cm high. It was first found in Western China and was introduced to British science by Ernest Wilson in 1908. The shiny elliptic leaves are a deep green colour. The flowers are creamy-white with pink anthers and appear over the winter. Once pollinated these are followed by small black berries. While the flowers are not as attractive as spring and summer flowering specimens, this is more than made up for with the heady, honey scented fragrance that accompanies them.

Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis will perform best in semi-shade to full shade, but it will tolerate full sun if grown in permanently moist soil conditions. It will require a sheltered position in any moderately fertile, moist but well-drained humus-rich, slightly acidic soils although it will also thrive in heavy clay and chalk. It is also tolerant of atmospheric pollution, dry shade and (which is good news for most gardeners) neglect. Newly planted specimens will need to be watered regularly until they become established.

They are relatively cold hardy and will grow fine in the warmer regions of the United Kingdom and Ireland. The further north you go you will need to consider apply cold protection.

You can also grow Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis as a low maintenance container plant using soil based compost such as John Innes No.3.

It is generally, pest free, trouble free and does not require regular pruning. However you can remove any unwanted suckers from the base of the plant. If you do need to prune the do so in the spring after flowering has finished.

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HOW TO GROW THE CHRISTMAS BOX - Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis


Mature coffee plants in full flower
How to grow a coffee plant from seed

Everyone is familiar with coffee, and you can purchase the beans readily enough when required to ground down and make a steaming cup of coffee. However, be aware that you cannot germinate these beans as they have been roasted prior to package - rendering them effectively lifeless.

The actual bean is of course the seed. When harvested and cultivated correctly will germinate and grow into a new coffee plant capable of producing its own beans. The two most commonly used species for coffee production is Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora. Coffea arabica is indigenous to the forests of the southwestern highlands of Ethiopia, while Coffea canephora has its origins in central and western sub-Saharan Africa

To grow a coffee plant from seed you will first need to purchase fresh, viable coffee seeds. These can usually be found at specialist seed suppliers online or available in good quality garden centers.

Once you have received your coffee seeds they will need to be soaked in tepid, sterilised or distilled water for 24 hours. Cooled, previously boiled water will be fine

Using a modular seed tray filled with damp sand or preferably wet vermiculite in which the excess water has been drained sow the seeds by pressing inseed into the surface of the media, but do not bury. Otherwise, you can place the seeds between moist hessian material, which should be watered twice a day. Drain off the excess water as the roots will not survive waterlogged conditions. Place the coffee seeds in a warm bright position but out of direct sunlight. Using a heated propagator will provide the fastest germination times, use a temperature of between 18-22 degrees Celsius. Germination time will be between 2 and 6 months depending on rooting temperature.

Once the coffee seeds have germinated and are large enough to handle, very carefully remove it from modular tray hessian fabric disturbing the root system as little as possible. Those seedlings grown in vermiculite should lift out with the least damage.

Using 9-10 cm terracotta pots containing a well-drained slightly acidic (ericaceous) loam soil with a high humus content, make a hole about 1.25 cm deep and gently plant the coffee seedling. If you are growing a large number of seedlings then consider adding well-rotted manure, bone meal, and dried blood to the compost mixture. The seeds should be watered daily to keep the roots moist at all times, but again allow any excess water to drain away.

Orchid fertilizer can be used once a month.

The coffee plant has evolved to grow in tropical conditions and so cannot be left to grow outside in mediterranean or temperate climates. Once established, water twice a week, keep the soil moist but well drained. You can expect your speciment to reach flowering age after 2-3 years, which of course are followed by coffee berries.

Main image credit - CC BY-SA 3.0,

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Mature wild garlic plant in white flower
How to get rid of wild garlic

I love wild garlic - Allium ursinum, but as a native to Asia, Europe and the temperate regions of the United Kingdom it has a nasty little habit of self-seeding and taking over your carefully manicured borders. Now a thousand years ago or so this wouldn't have been much of an issue as the bulbs of the wild garlic were a particular favourite of both the wild boar and brown bear (Ursus arctos). Of course, a thousand years ago there wasn't much call for gardening. Alas, both species have since become extinct in Britain (although wild boars are now being reintroduced to the shores), but not due to the efforts of despairing gardeners sick of shooing large mammals from their property.

Now while they may look like a cross between a white bluebell and a lily of the valley, wild garlic is notoriously difficult to eradicate once it takes a foothold. Not only does it self-seed, it produces bulblets from the parent bulb and occasionally the seeds germinate to form growing bulblets (also in leaf) from the pericarp.

Weeding wild garlic

Germinating wild garlic seeds still on the plant
How to get rid of wild garlic
This is the initial response to an outbreak of wild garlic, however in heavy soils the stems tend to break away just below the soil surface. This leaves the bulb in place for the plant to regrow from. In light soils it is possible for the bulb to lift straight from the ground however it is likely to leave any bulblets that may have formed. They best way to lift wild garlic bulbs is to try and loosen the soil below the bulbs using a hand fork or trowel and then lifting the bulb gently with the aid of the hand tool.

There is another issue here as wild garlic is an ephemeral plant meaning that it comes into leaf and flower before deciduous trees leaf in the spring. By the end of June the leaves begin to die back returning energy back to the bulb so if you haven't finished weeding by the end of the spring it may be too late as they would have disappeared to below ground level.

Weed killer

Old photograph of weed control
How to get rid of wild garlic
Of course the reason why you are reading this article is because weeding isn't working and so apart from boars and bears your best method of control is likely to be chemical weed killers. That being said you will require a systemic weed killer (such as a glyphosate based product) where the active chemical is drawn into the bulb to kill it off. However wild garlic is surprisingly robust and a single dose will not be enough on mature plants. With systemic weed killer the plant will need to be active growing for the chemical to work efficiently, once overnight temperatures are regularly above 7 degrees Celsius. This means that there is only a short period of time from when the weed killer will work to when the leaves die back so timing will be all important as you will really need at least two applications.

Organic Control

Old carpet being used to kill off weeds
How to get rid of wild garlic
Due to the robustness of wild garlic there is arguably only method of organic control and this is probably best suited for overgrown allotments. This method is to cover the area with old carpet for a year (maybe two, possibly three) and then hand weed any plant resulting from seeds still viable in the soil.

Main image credit - Kurt Stüber - part of

In text image - By U.S. Department of Agriculture - 00DI0874, Public Domain,

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Lunette of Villa di Castello as it appeared in 1599, painted by Giusto Utens
Early artist's impression of Villa Castello

Ask anyone with the right passions to name Europe's most important gardens and you can expect to hear the likes of Versailles, the Alhambra and Kew amongst of course many other worthy contenders. However there is one that you have probably never heard of and yet is perhaps the most important of all European offerings. They are the gardens of Villa Castello, located in the hills north-west of Florence, Tuscany. Why is this place so important? Because Villa Castello is the earliest garden  in existence from which you can draw a line of influence directly from its inception during the renaissance through the mannerist, baroque, neoclassical, and romantic periods right up to the present day!

The front entrance of Villa Castello
Villa Castello
Since 1477 Villa Castello was owned by the de' Medici's, an elite banking family whose incredible wealth allowed them to dominate their city's government. With such influence at their fingertips, Villa Castello was 'unofficially' accepted as the seat of power in Florence.

However it was set to change in 1537, when the current resident of Villa Castello, the Duke of Florence, Alessandro de' Medici, was assassinated by a distant cousin creating a massive power-vacuum in the region. The influential men of Florence decided to take advantage of this and replaced Alessandro de' Medici with the little known Cosimo I de' Medici. They believed they could rule the city state with the 17 year old Cosimo I as a puppet figure, enriching themselves in the process at the expense of Florence.

Cosimo I was persuaded to sign a clause which entrusted much of the power to a council comprising of 48 members, but quickly rejected it. During this same period the news of Alessandro de' Medici's death, spurred Florentine exiles (along with the support of France) to invade Tuscany with the objective of deposing Cosimo I. The invasion failed, and all prominent and high profile prisoners were beheaded. In an extremely short period of time and against considerable odds Cosimo I had manage to established himself as the unrivalled ruler of Florence.

Cosimo I de Medici by Jacopo Carucci
Cosimo I de Medici aged 19
Of course Florence was still in turmoil, but with his position as head of the de Medici bank secure Cosimo settled back into Villa Castello and focused his attention on a grand and ambitious plan for the gardens. It may seem strange to undertake a major project during such uncertain and dangerous times but Cosimo had been inspired. The garden was to act as a symbol of his new order, a distinct contrast to the many previous years of Florentine family feuds, political confusion, and poor economic conditions. The renowned sculptor Niccolò Tribolo was commissioned to create the fountains and statues, but more importantly Tribolo was required to design a garden that would become a physical representation of good government as well as reflect Cosimo's sophistication and power. This new garden would prove to visiting rulers and dignitaries that the de' Medici's were the only family that could bring long term prosperity and happiness to Tuscany.

A garden that was deliberately intended as a parade of cultured power was something new in 16th century Italy. Yet while the layout of the gardens exemplified the high renaissance and maximised the views of the surrounding countryside, they are both based upon well-established models of garden design.

It was divided into sixteen compartments, each one reflecting further, perfect geometric shapes which demonstrated the control of man over space and nature. It was also the first time that an axis was used (and still exists to this day) splitting the central path from the Grotto to the Villa using the extraordinary and impressive fountain of Hercules and Antaeus as the centre point. This highly geometrical design created a perspective not seen in any other garden at this time.

Container grown citrus plants at Villa Castello
The gardens at Villa Castello in their full glory
Tribolo placed symbolic messages throughout the garden, the clearest being the fountain of Hercules and Antaeus.  In Greek mythology Antaeus was the son of Poseidon and Gaia, and he would challenge all passers-by to wrestling matches with the intention of killing them to collect their skulls. Mythology states that so long as Antaeus remained in contact with the ground he would remain strong and tireless. Of course when it was time for Hercules to fight Antaeus he found that he could not beat him simply by throwing him to the ground as Antaeus had the power to rapidly heal all wounds. However Hercules soon discovered the secret of his power and holding Antaeus aloft he crushed him to death in a bear-hug. This showpiece fountain at Villa Castello is a representation of how Cosimo, like Hercules, defeated his enemies through wisdom rather than just brute strength.

All the fountains at Villa Castello depended upon gravity and water pressure to function, and fortunately the villa was located near a Roman aqueduct. In fact the name Villa Castello is taken from the old water cisterns (known as ‘castella’) near the site. Frustratingly, the Roman aqueduct was in no fit state to supply the villa and so Piero da San Casciano constructed a new system of aqueducts to bring water into a new reservoir built in the sacred bosco.  This is still in place within the elevated section of the garden. The reservoir controlled the water using a system of bronze pipes which, hidden from view,  entered the main body of the garden. While it is true that many of the fountains have been removed, the statue of Appennino which symbolise the mountains of Tuscany,still survives in the reservoir. Here he is portrayed as a shivering old man and when the hydraulics were still functioning would have spent his life under a constant flow of cold mountain.

The figures of Hercules and Antaeus designed by Niccolò Tribolo
 The fountain of Hercules and Antaeus
The reservoir also fed two fountains that were once fitted within the recesses either side of grotto. Each of these fountains represented one of the two rivers of Florence, the Arno and Sieve. These 'rivers' flowed in channels through the garden, while other pipes carried water to the two main fountains. The water pressure was so effective that the fountain of Hercules and Antaeus produced a jet of water which spouted a full three meters from the mouth of Antaeus. The second fountain, 'The fountain of Florence, or Fiorenza' was originally located in the upper part of the garden near to the grotto. However in 1788 the fountain was moved to La Petraia, a villa also owned by the Medici’s where it can still be seen today.

Once the water had passed through the fountains, the overflow was split into and channelled into two small private gardens on either side of the villa. From there the overspill entered two large fish ponds in front of the villa. After that, the water was used to irrigate the fields and gardens below. The area where once the fish ponds existed have long since been filled in and turned over to lawns.

Sadly today most of the formal ponds have also been filled in, and the majority of the original fountains have been dismantled and the water to the grotto switched off. However in its heyday the hydraulic system of this garden was one of the wonders of the High Renaissance. Designed and engineered by Piero da San Casciano they too played an important part in the symbolism of the garden.

Not everything in the garden was to do with expressing power and control, it was also about fun. With the turn of a key the gate to the grotto could be locked, leaving  guests inside to be soaked with water from hidden pipes. In the original design the fountain of Hercules and Antaeus was surrounded by a circle of trees and yet again by a  hidden pipe. Once again, unsuspecting visitors looking at the fountain could be sprayed with water from hidden nozzles.

The Fountain of Appennino, by Bartolomeo Ammannati (1563)
The Fountain of Appennino,
Perhaps the most famous feature of the garden is the ‘grotto of the animals’, an exquisite man-made cave entered by a doorway at the far end of the garden. The walls of the cave are covered with limestone to resemble a natural cavern. The roof is also decorated with stones, mosaic and seashells. In three chambers around the grotto there are set pieces of marble birds and animals housed above a large sculpted marble basin. When the grotto was fully functional, water streamed down from the ceiling and down walls into the marble basins.

The important point to remember is that garden at Villa Costello was one of the first and most influential of a great wave of Italian gardens that were built during the latter half of the sixteenth century. Villa Costello not only stamped its highly distinctive mark on subsequent Medici properties (such as Villa di Pratolino and the Pitti Palace), but it reached out beyond Italy to influence the gardens of the French, and later the English renaissance including the grand gardens of Versailles and Hampton Court.

It hard to believe that the entire citrus collection of approximately 500 plants was almost lost during the Second World War. The building used to over-winter the collection was converted to a hospital leaving no place of the seasonal protection of these tender plants. Left outside, many of the citrus specimens died during the cold, wet winters but all was not lost. Gardeners returning from the war quickly assessed the dire situation and were able to save some of the trees through grafting. You can still see the effects of these traumatic years in citrus plants bearing carefully bandaged scars.

Today, Villa Costello is perhaps the most authentic renaissance garden in existence, and holds one of the world’s largest collections of cultivated citrus grown in terracotta vases. Incredibly, some of these vases date back to 1790 and a few still include the original plants! Although the Villa has been the home of the prestigious Crusca Academy since 1583, this fascinating history along with the plants and gardens can all be yours for free. Why? Because there is no charge for access to the gardens. Get the timing of your visit right and you can also gain access to the secret gardens, but don’t tell anyone you heard it from me. As I said, it’s a secret!

Main image in public domain
Image of Cosimo 1 in public domain
Image credit: Gardens layout by Parco di Castello  -
All other images copyright Simon Eade

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Male grey catkins of Garrya elliptica
Garrya elliptica autumn catkins

Often overlooked among the shrub benches of garden centres, and generally only known to those truly passionate about their plants, Garrya elliptica is an extremely attractive ornamental shrub noted for its impressive autumn display of oversized catkins. Hence its common name of 'Silk Tassel Bush'.

Native to the coastal ranges of California and southern Oregon, it is an evergreen species with a number of notable cultivars, the most popular of which are Garrya elliptica 'James Roof' and 'Evie'.

It has an erect habit, which under favourable conditions can reach a height of approximately 3 metres although individual specimens have been recorded as being as high as 5 metres. It produces thick, leathery, grey-green, evergreen leaves. On male forms the flowers grow in decorative, grey-green catkins which can be up to 25 cm long!

Close up image of gray Garrya elliptica catkins
Garrya elliptica autumn catkins
It is of particular use in the suburban garden as it is both suitable for both full sun and shaded positions. That being said, outside of the mildest regions of the United Kingdom it will need to be planted in a sheltered position otherwise it can be prone to leaf scorch. This is a particular issue in areas which experience strong winds and extreme conditions. To maintain good conditions it is best planted against the shelter of a south or west facing wall, you can even go further and train it as a wall shrub. This then makes it much easier to protect it under extreme cold and freezing conditions by using horticultural fleece.

New plants are best planted in the spring so that the root systems can establish before the following winter. To be on the safe side it is usually good practice to provide 1st season specimens a winter protection of bracken or horticultural fleece. In the milder regions of England and Ireland winter protection will not be necessary after the first year except during unseasonably cold conditions.

Garrya elliptica will perform best when grown in a reliably moist yet well-drained soil with an approximate pH of 6-8. Even when established it is worth watering during periods of drought as this can cause the appearance of leaf spots in response to the environmental stress. That being said damaged leaves will usually be dropped in the spring and any sparsely leaved stems will soon become hidden by the new growth. In its natural habitat Garrya elliptica has proven to tolerate moderately heavy clay soils, just beware that it will perform poorly in environments which experience wet, freezing conditions.

Be aware that Garrya elliptica does not transplant easily and resent any root disturbance. Large, established should never be moved unless the intention is to throw away.

Strongly growing specimens may need to be pruned back to a suitable size for the garden but otherwise pruning is unnecessary other than to remove dead, diseased or dying stems or those which have produces excessive, straggly growth. To maintain the year on year effect of the catkins, aim to prune in the spring as the old catkins lose their ornamental value, but before the new foliage emerges.

CALLICARPA BODINIERI var. giraldii 'Profusion'

Callicarpa bodinieri var. giraldii 'Profusion' with its attractive purple berries
'Bodinier's beautyberry'

Commonly known as 'Bodinier's beautyberry' or just plain 'beautyberry', Callicarpa bodinieri var. giraldii 'Profusion' is for most of the year a surprisingly uninteresting specimen. At least it is in my opinion, until of course the appearance of its ornamental berries in late autumn.

And herein lies the problem, while Callicarpa bodinieri var. giraldii 'Profusion' has gorgeous autumn effect should you plant in in a prime location to make the most of its almost unique ornamental value or should you try and grow it as a container specimen so that it can be effective hidden from view for the majority of the year and then moved to 'front and centre' for the key, precious few weeks? That being said, with mature specimens able to reach an overall height of 3 metres and with a width of 2.5 metres, growing as suitably decent example as an easily movable pot plant is a lot easier said than done! So the positioning of 'Bodinier's beautyberry' is mostly going to be some compromise but consider planting it near to a prime location behind as few herbaceous plants known to lose their leaves before the show starts. Get it right and you can enjoy the almost unique delight that these jewel-like berries offer every season going forward, arguably only bettered by Pollia condensata, the marble berry. Unfortunately the marble berry is neither hardy or in general cultivation, whereas Callicarpa bodinieri var. giraldii 'Profusion is both.

The original species is a native to Western and Central China and named in honour of Émile-Marie Bodinier (1842 - 1901), a French missionary and botanist who collected plants in China - although not this one. The genus name is derived from the Greek meaning 'beautiful fruit'. It was introduced to the Victorian gardening establishment in around 1845, followed later by the Giraldii cultivar which entered production in England 1900 and receiving the First Class certificate from the Royal Horticultural Society in 1924. 'Profusion' was a further selection from the Giraldii cultivar. It is now the most attractive and widely cultivated of all species and cultivars within the genus Callicarpa.

Callicarpa bodinieri var. giraldii 'Profusion' is a deciduous cultivar with a rounded habit. The leaves are narrowly elliptic, toothed and have a downy bloom which is more prominent when young. The new foliage emerges bronze-purple in spring, turning to a dark green over the summer before finally turning to golden-purple prior to leaf drop in the autumn.

Small purple blooms appear from June-August in dense sprays no more than 3-4 cm wide on the new wood however these are largely overlooked. Once pollinated these are followed by eye-catching, glossy violet-purple bead-like fruits which appear in clusters of 30-40 individuals. These ripen in September, although the colour steadily improved through October and into early November. be aware than when planted in isolation Callicarpa bodinieri var. giraldii 'Profusion' will tend to fruit poorly, so for best berry affect plant in loose groups or for best results in a mass display.

Callicarpa bodinieri var. giraldii 'Profusion' received the Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society in 1984, along with the First Class certificate in 1921.

Main image credit - Kurt Stüber: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

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CALLICARPA BODINIERI var. giraldii 'Profusion'


The autumn display of catkins of Garrya elliptica
When and how do you prune back Garrya elliptica?

Garrya elliptica is an extremely handsome evergreen, and a popular choice for going against shady walls in suburban gardens. It is native to the coastal ranges of California and southern Oregon, and is named in honour of named for Nicholas Garry, secretary of the Hudson's Bay Company from 1820-1835. A strange association being that these two locations are almost as far as you can possibly be being that they are situated at opposite ends of different countries!

As attractive as it is, with a mature height of up to 5 metres, at some point it is likely to be necessary to prune it back to suitably maintainable size. While still within a suitable size regular pruning is usually unnecessary and hard pruning should be avoided as this can cause invigorated shoots to soils its natural habit.

Catkins of Garrya elliptica?
When and how do you prune back Garrya elliptica?
There is a general rule of thumb that can be followed with the majority of evergreen shrubs which is to prune back over the summer. This makes sense as many evergreen species from Mediterranean, subtropical or tropical enter a kind of dormancy period as a way of coping with the summer heat. Of course if you pruned back Garrya elliptica in the summer you would be removing the juvenile ornamental catkins and therefore robbing yourself of their ornamental value during the late winter.

Therefore, where pruning is required (as in reduction in height, removal of errant, disease or damaged stems) the best time to prune Garrya elliptica is in early spring. This needs to be timed to fit between just as the catkins start to fade, but before the new spring growth emerges.

With regards to unkempt, overgrown specimens, these can be renovated by cutting them back gradually over three to four years to create a low framework of branches. So long as the specimen is healthy. You will find that the re-growth will be invigorated and will itself require thinning out the following spring. Select the strongest, best-placed shoots and remove the rest.

HOW TO GROW THE SNOWBERRY - Symphoricarpos albus


Yellow blooms of Erysimum cheiri at the Botanische Tuin TU Delft, Delft, The Netherlands
How to grow wallflowers from seed

Once an extremely popular plant during the Victorian period, wallflowers have steadily fallen out of fashion over the years arguably in favour of the even more brightly coloured and mass-produced (read inexpensive) Tulip bulbs. Despite this, and maybe in part due to the ubiquitous presence of modern Tulips cultivars, wallflowers still manage to maintain a place in the garden. The reason for this is down to those gardeners who are becoming bored of seeing little else other than a sea of different sized, coloured and shaped tulips throughout the spring, wallflowers are without doubt the next in line for being the toughest and most colourful of all Spring flowering plants. In fact wallflower cultivars Erysimum cheiri 'Persian Carpet’, 'Sunset Apricot' and 'Sunset Primrose' have all received the Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society.

There was a time when the shops were full of bunches of bare-root wallflowers for little more than 10 plants for £1.00, but nowadays you are likely only to see pot-grown plants at a significantly more expensive price point. However this shouldn't stop you from enjoying these gorgeous flowering biennials as they are easily grown from seed.

As far as traditional bedding plants go wallflowers are amongst the hardiest, but this is understandable as the original species is a native to most of Europe. As such there is no need to propagate under protection as wallflower seeds will happily germinate outside.

Wallflower seeds should be sown during May or June in order to produce plants that can be bedded out in the autumn. Sow the seeds either individually in large modular seed trays containing a soil based seed compost or thinly in an open, prepared seedbed of any ordinary soil. Gently water them in and they will germinate within a week or so. Generally wallflowers are extremely easy to germinate, just keep the soil or compost on the moist side bt without waterlogging the rots. When the seedlings are large enough to handle (usually around October) they can be carefully lifted, try to disturb the roots as little as possible, and bedded out in preparation for the spring. Pinch out the shoots before planting to create a compact, bushy habit. They are tolerant of most neutral or alkaline soils and will even cope well on very poor soils.

Wallflowers are usually sown one year to flower the next, and then afterwards discarded. This is for two reasonably good reasons. The first is that wallflowers have a tendency to become leggy during its second year. The second is that as time moves on wallflowers become increasingly prone to clubroot.




Skimmia japonica 'Rubella' in red flower bud
Skimmia japonica 'Rubella'

Arguably the most popular and attractive of all species and cultivars within the genus Skimmia, Skimmia japonica 'Rubella' is a compact, evergreen shrub noted for its glossy foliage and ornamental flower buds. The original species is native to Japan, China, and Southeast Asia, and is known to have been cultivated at the Royal gardens, Kew as far back as 1838, albeit under its earlier name of Skimmia oblata. It is a dioecious species, meaning that male and female flowers are produced on separate plants.

Botanical illustration of Skimmia japonica female form
Skimmia japonica - female
With the male form being the more compact and ornamental than the female it was the one selected for production. However, it did not obtain any particular attention from 18th century horticulturists as it did not produce the the expected beautiful fruits experienced with Skimmia reevesiana (the original recipient of the 'japonica' species name) until it was introduced from Japan by Scottish botanist Robert Fortune (1812 – 1880) in 1861 to Standish’s nursery in Greater Manchester.

The original species has since produced four cultivars (including Skimmia japonica 'Rubella') which have received the Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society. The 'Rubella' cultivar was introduced to France from China in 1865 by French naturalist Eugène Louis Simon (1848 – 1924) and then on to Britain before the end of the century.

Under favourable conditions you can expect Skimmia japonica 'Rubella' to reach an approximate height and width of 1-1.5 metres. It is a rounded evergreen shrub with glossy, dark-green, leathery leaves. Each leaf is elliptic in shape and up to 10 cm long and aromatic when crushed. It is most noted for is panicles of long-lasting, showy red buds which appear late winter. These open to fragrant, less-showy, creamy-white flowers in the early spring

Skimmia japonica 'Rubella' will perform best on a good neutral to acid soil in a North-facing or West-facing or East-facing position. Dig in plenty of leaf mould or well-rotted manure before planting to help maintain moist conditions. Avoid planting in full sun as this can cause yellowing of the leaves.

This species and its cultivars have proven to be generally trouble free although they can be prone to attack from scale insects, especially if grown under poor conditions. They require little pruning except to remove any untidy or elongated shoots.

Skimmia japonica 'Rubella' works well in the garden when used as an understory plant positioned under deciduous trees. It can also be used to form a low, informal hedge.

HOW TO GROW THE SNOWBERRY - Symphoricarpos albus

HOW TO GROW THE SNOWBERRY - Symphoricarpos albus

Naturalised snowberry growing in a mixed hedge
How to grow the common snowberry - Symphoricarpos albus

The common snowberry - Symphoricarpos albus, is an ornamental fruiting shrub native to both Canada and the northern and western United States. It is a plant valued by Native Americans who used various parts of the plant as a medicine, the crushed berries as soap, and sometimes as a food for livestock (although the berries are poisonous to humans, causing vomiting, bloody urine and delirium!).  The wood of the snowberry was also particularly suitable for making arrow shafts, something that early European colonists would have been only all too aware of! Symphoricarpos albus was introduced to English scientists in 1879.

1918 Botanical illustration of the common snowberry - Symphoricarpos albus
How to grow the common snowberry - Symphoricarpos albus
It is a small, deciduous shrub which under favourable conditions can be expected to reach an approximate height of 3 metres by 2 metres wide, although it has a habit of spreading further by suckers. The broadly ovate leaves are pale to mid-green with a grey caste. The bright pink blooms are small and rather insignificant, appearing from July to September. However it is the pure-white berries for which Symphoricarpos albus is most noted for. These are globose or ovoid, approximately 12 mm across and produced in abundance from September onwards. While the berries are known to contain a number of poisons, they tend to cause vomiting when eaten so the effects of the toxins are rarely encountered.

In its native habitat, is generally found growing on the banks and flats in canyons and near streams below 1200 metres. When planted in gardens it has proven itself to be a surprisingly robust species tolerating most soils and conditions. It will perform well in both well-drained soils and heavy clay and is equally at home in full sun or shade.

Thin out overgrown specimens and remove unwanted suckers between October and February.

Weird fact!

Due to the extreme whiteness of the snowberry berries, they also have the common name of 'Corpse Berry'! So called as some believe that they are a food source for wandering ghosts.

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CALLICARPA BODINIERI var. giraldii 'Profusion'
HOW TO GROW THE SNOWBERRY - Symphoricarpos albus


Euonymus alatus displaying red autumn colour against a sussex flint wall
How to grow Euonymus alatus
Commonly known as the 'burning bush' or 'winged spindle tree', Euonymus alatus is for the most part a rather unexceptional specimen. Native to central and northern China, Japan, and Korea it is a hardy deciduous shrub noted for the corky ridges or 'wings' which appear as the stems mature. However it is mostly considered for garden space due to its spectacular autumn colour as the leave turn a brilliant crimson-pink prior to leaf-drop. Hence the popular and far more relevant common name of 'burning bush'.

Close up of Euonymus alatus displaying red autumn leaf colour
How to grow Euonymus alatus
It was introduced to British science in 1860; however it wasn't until 1984 that it received the Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society. The common name of 'Spindle tree' is in reference to it close relation to Euonymus europaeus - the wood from which was traditionally used for the making of spindles for spinning wool.

Under favourable conditions you can expect Euonymus alatus to grow to a height of 2.5 metres tall, and up to 3 m wide. The species name 'alatus' is from the Latin for winged and refers to the broad cork structures which appear on the branchlets. The ovate-elliptic leaves are between 2–7 cm in length and 1–4 cm wide with an acute apex. The small flowers are greenish colour and appear over a long period in the spring although they are fairy insignificant to the eye. The fruits are reddish-purple which open to reveal bright orange-coated seeds.

Euonymus alatus will perform will in most soils but will prefer a moist, well-drained soil. It will be happy in either full sun or partial shade. Plant fro October to March.

Pruning of Euonymus alatus is not particularly necessary although the shoots can be thinned out and shortened in February in order to maintain a tidy form.

Main image credit - Simon Eade
In text image -  Famartin

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HOW TO GROW THE SNOWBERRY - Symphoricarpos albus


English Ivy - Hedera helix growing up an old painted house wall
How to grow English Ivy - Hedera helix

Although often known by the common name of English Ivy, Hedera helix is actually native to most of Europe and western Asia. It is a hardy, evergreen climber which under favourable conditions can be expected to reach a maximum height of between 20–30 m. Although considered little more than a noxious weed in the many countries where it has successfully naturalised, it was once held in higher regard when it was used for making wreaths which were worn by dancers and on the brows of the Greco-Roman deity in the tales of Bacchus - the god of wine.

The leaves are glossy dark-green, often with silver markings along the veins. The green-yellow blooms are formed in umbels from late summer until late autumn. Each flower is 3 to 5 cm in diameter and very rich in nectar. It is considered to be an important late autumn food source for bees, butterflies and other native insects.

Hedera helix flower buds on arborescent growth
How to grow English Ivy - Hedera helix
English ivy is an extremely robust and vigorous (some might say aggressive) species capable of growing in most soil types in almost any situation. It is one of the hardiest of all species within the genus and arguably the most useful for both ground and wall cover. It will perform best in full sun although it will benefit from some shade during the hottest part of the day over the summer.

Pot grown specimens can be grown in 10-15 cm pots containing good quality soil-based compost such as John Innes No.2. Keep in a position of full sun but move to a position away from direct sunlight over the summer. Keep the compost just moist throughout the year and feed monthly with a half dose liquid soluble fertiliser.

Unusually two forms are produced. The first is juvenile, sometimes known as runner growth with lobed leaves and adventitious roots able to attach themselves to any surface. The second form is adult or arborescent growth in which it bears flowers and fruits. In this state the leaves are entire with wavy margins, but unlike the juvenile growth it does not have adventitious roots. This arborescent growth is produced on the upper levels of the runner growth when it reaches the top of its support.

Along with its many cultivars, Hedera helix has proven itself to be an excellent houseplant particularly in unheated rooms.

English ivy - Hedera helix growing into the thatched roof of an old cottage
How to grow English Ivy - Hedera helix
When grown on walls or fences cut it back close to its support during February or March each year. English ivy can be pruned again during the summer to remove excessively long runners or any other unwanted growth. If growing on a house or small building wall keep an eye out for runners damaging gutters or entering the roof space. This can be a particular issue with thatched roof properties.

Note. Cuttings taken from the arborescent growth will retain its adult form and develop into rounded, bush shrubs which both flower and fruit freely.

Image credits - Simon Eade

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Close up of Banksia hookeriana flower
How to grow Banksia hookeriana

Commonly known as Hooker's banksia, Banksia hookeriana is a bushy evergreen, half-hardy shrub native to southwest Western Australia. It was described by Swiss botanist Carl Meissner in 1855, and is named in honour of Sir Joseph D. Hooker (1817 – 1911) a founder of geographical botany and director of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew.

In its natural habitat Banksia hookeriana can be found growing on grows on deep white or yellow sand on flat or gently sloping land. Sadly it is not possible to grow Banksia hookeriana outside in the United Kingdom as it requires frost free conditions. However that doesn't mean that it can't be grown under protection of a large conservatory or glasshouse. When grown as a pot specimen provide full sun and plant in John Innes ericaceous compost or produce your own mix of equal parts loam, grit and moss peat. If grown in a greenhouse border it will perform well when plenty of leaf mould and sand are dug into the soil prior to planting in order to create well-drained conditions. This is important as Banksias require almost permanently moist conditions during their growth period, however they will quickly succumb to fungal infections in waterlogged conditions. The same can be said for high humidity and so make sure that excellent ventilation is also available. Provide a half-strength liquid soluble feed once a month from April to September and water sparingly over the winter.

If you can provide suitable soil conditions then it may be possible to grow Banksia hookeriana outside in the mildest regions of the Unite kingdom, notably the southwestern coasts of England and Ireland. However every cold protection measure will need to be applied.

In countries which experience frost-free winters then Banksia hookeriana can be grown outside. Once again they will require a free-draining, preferably neutral to acid soil in full sun.

Under favourable conditions you can expect Banksia hookeriana to reach and approximate height of 4 m and a width of 3 m. The leaves are long, narrow and serrated, and approximately 6–16 cm long by 0.5–1.2 cm wide.

The bright flower spikes, initially white before opening to a bright orange arise at the ends of branchlets, appearing from late April to October. As the spikes mature woody seed pods known as follicles develop. Like most Banksia species, Banksia hookeriana serotinous meaning that large numbers of seeds are can stored in the plant canopy for years until seed release occurs in response to an environmental trigger. In this case it is being burnt by bushfire!

Image credit - Gnangara  under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Australia license.

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HOW TO GROW THE SNOWBERRY - Symphoricarpos albus


Freshly cut verdant lawn with stripes
Why scarify a lawn?

Let's face it, scarifying lawns is hard work and I don't think that anyone would do this job willingly unless it was to reap some serious rewards in the future. So why scarify a lawn? Well the point of scarification is to keep the levels of thatch down to acceptable levels. Thatch being old grass stems, dead moss and any other such plant material taking up space at the base of your lawn.

The reason why we scarify is because a thick layer of thatch (anything larger than 1 cm deep) will impede the effectiveness of fertiliser applications and absorb rain water like a sponge preventing it from reaching the mat-like roots of your lawn - two things that can seriously affect the quality of your grass. Removing the thatch will help the grass by increases the levels of water, air and nutrients that are available to the lawn's root zone. This encourages the grass to thicken up, making it stronger and therefore less susceptible to disease. A thick layer of thatch will weaken the lawn making it more susceptible to diseases and less able to compete with common weeds and moss.

However with collection boxes on lawnmowers as standard and weed and moss killers readily available as well as cheap as chips, is there really still a need to brave the elements, wear out your arms and blister your hands?

Unfortunately the answer is yes, because lawnmower collection boxes will not collect every single grass clipping and any moss or weeds controlled by weed killers do not magically disappear. So thatch will still build up over time, although perhaps not as fast.

Ok, so if you you have made up your mind to scarify then you have two choices. The easy (more expansive) way or the hard (traditional and fitness enhancing) way. The hard way is how most gardeners scarify a lawn and that is to go over it vigorously with a spring-tine rake. A regular garden rake is not the tool for this job. The easy way is to purchase a rolling lawn scarifier, however for larger lawns and deeper pockets electric and even petrol powered scarifiers can be purchased.

Scarifying is quite and invasive procedure even for well-maintained, established lawns so don't over scarify as this can cause more harm than good. Avoid scarifying in the spring as your lawn will struggle to recover. Autumn is the best time of year to scarify lawns.

Main image credit - Simon Eade

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How to kill off Ivy Common Ivy
How to kill off ivy

Our native English Ivy - Hedera helix, is a fantastic example of a species perfectly suited to its environment. The trouble is that it has a reputation for both strangling other plants (which it doesn't) and for damaging the mortar in brick or stone walls (which to be fair it does). While it can be argued that it doesn't strangle it will both out-compete a 'host' plant by smothering or cause it to fall down due to the sheer weight of the continuing Ivy's growth.

How to kill off ivy
How to kill off Ivy
What is undeniable is that Ivy can easily outcompete the majority of ornamental garden plants, and often reseeds itself to the point of becoming a pernicious weed. If left unmanaged it can completely cover single and two story building as well becoming a menace in both tiled and thatched roofs.

So how do you get rid of ivy? Well there are two ways, the first is the hard work organic way while the second is the easier herbicidal (using weed killers) way.

How to kill off Ivy organically

How to kill off Ivy
How to kill off Ivy
Quite simply you would cut off all growth from the base of the plant and allow the top growth to die off before removing from whatever is as attached itself to.

While you are waiting for this to happen you can spend your evening digging out the extensive though usually quite shallow root system.

If your Ivy is growing against a tree then it is unlikely that you can dig out the root system without damaging the trees root system. In this case cut the Ivy stems back to ground level year on year which over time should help to weaken it to the point of death. Alternatively you it may be able to cover the Ivy in sheets of thick black plastic - effectively smothering it over time.

You can't throw your discarded roots and still-green stems onto a compost heap as it is likely to form new growth. Arguably the best policy is to burn it once dug up or removed.

How to kill off Ivy using weed killers

How to kill off Ivy
How to kill off Ivy
Translocated weed killers can be used throughout the growing season so long as temperatures do not drop below 7 degrees Celsius.  They are best used on Ivy growing on walls, fences etc but cannot be used when growing on other leafy plants. Glyphosate products affect chlorophyll and so can be used when growing up barked trunk. Tree genera such as Juglans (Walnut), Tilia and Laburnum are not suitable as they have significant levels of chlorophyll in the stems and trunks - especially when young.

Gel treatments will perform best using a gel application while larger specimens will require a spray. Be aware that nearby plant specimens may also be at risk from the weed killer application, especially in windy conditions, and so may need to be covered to prevent accidental weed killer application.

Once your chosen treatment has been applied wait until the leaves turn brown before cutting the main branched to near-ground level. The stems can be allowed to dry off before removing, however the root system remain in the ground where over time it will naturally rot back into the soil.

For Ivy growing on trees which have had the branched removed, the remaining stump can be treated with a stump and root killer containing the active ingredient of glyphosate or triclopyr. Always read the packaging before application.

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Over ripe cherry laurel fruits on natural stone floor
Are Cherry Laurel fruit poisonous?

They look like cherries and, when they are lying on the ground fermenting, they smell like rotten cherries. However if you have young kids or idiot dogs around, whether the fruits of the Cherry Laurel are poisonous or not is probably a question that is likely to cross your mind. Especially when you consider the huge amount of fruit drop you can get from a single mature specimen.

Native to southwestern Asia and south-eastern Europe, and sometimes commonly known as the English Laurel by the Americans (I don't understand why either), the cherry laurel -  Prunus laurocerasus is an large evergreen shrub or small tree grown for its large, glossy, leathery foliage. It is a widely cultivated ornamental plant most often used for hedging which accounts for why there are so many large, fruiting specimens around.

Surprisingly for many plant common names, the name 'Cherry laurel' is surprisingly accurate as not only are the fruits cherry-like in appearance, this species is indeed from the genus Prunus where all the ornamental and edible cherry species and cultivars reside.

So if the Cherry Laurel is so closely related to edible cherries that that mean that the fruits are not poisonous?

Well both the foliage and the fruit stones contain cyano-lipids which are capable of releasing cyanide and benzaldehyde when ingested, particularly when chewed. The fruits themselves are edible although rather flavourless and somewhat astringent. To a lesser extent the fleshy fruits also contain small amounts of hydrogen cyanide but usually not enough to cause any ill effects. That being said, if any of the fruits do have a bitter taste to them then they should be avoided as this is indicative of larger concentrations of hydrogen cyanide being present.

So to conclude, Cherry Laurel fruits are not usually poisonous but sometimes they can be, and the leaves and stones always are.

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Green leaves and scarlet flower of Banksia coccinea
Banksia coccinea

Probably only seen in England as a cut flower, or even more rarely as a specimen under the protection of a large glass house in a botanical garden, Banksia coccinea is a gorgeous evergreen shrub or small tree with a dramatic, erect habit and spectacular flowers. Commonly known as the Scarlet Banksia, the genus name is in honour of British botanist Sir Joseph Banks (1743 – 1820), President of the Royal Society.

Botanical illustration of Banksia coccinea
Banksia coccinea illustration
Native to the south west coast of Western Australia, its distribution ranges from from Denmark to the Stokes National Park, and then north to the Stirling Range.

Under favourable conditions you can expect Banksia coccinea to grow to approximately 8 metres in height, however outside of its native habitat 2–4 metres is more likely. It has an erect habit with little lateral spread. The trunk is generally single at the base before branching vertically further up, and is covered with a smooth grey bark. The leaves are roughly oblong in shape with toothed margins and are approximately 3–9 cm long and 2–7 cm wide.

However it is for its outstanding blooms which Banksia coccinea is best known and as such has become one of the most important Banksia species for the cut flower industry. The squat and roughly cylindrical, prominent red and white flower spikes appear mainly in the spring from the ends of one-year-old branchlets. The true flower is white and covered in grey or pale brown fur. The scarlet structures (can be dark red, orange or pink) are the styles (an elongated section of an ovary) which are 4–4.8 cm long and strongly recurved or looped until they are released at anthesis - the period during which a flower is fully open and functional.

In its native habitat Banksia coccinea will most likely be seen growing on white or grey sand in shrubland, heath or open woodland. So for successful cultivation it will require sandy, very well drained soils in Mediterranean climates where temperatures rarely fall below 0 degrees Celsius. Be aware that in regions with experience summer rainfall and humidity they can be prone to infection from fungal rots from which they can succumb to surprisingly quickly.

The most effective method of propagation of Banksia coccinea is by seed, which unlike many other species within the genus do not require any treatment before sowing. Germination will usually take 12 to 48 days but this can be longer depending on the age of the seed and growing conditions. You can expect these new plants to flower and fruit after approximately three years.

The coloured cultivars of Banksia coccinea can only be propagated by taking cuttings however they are notoriously slow to take and can often fail before rooting has taken place.

Main image credit - Cygnis insignis public domain
In text image credit - Ferdinand Bauer (1760–1826) public domain

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