Monthly Archives: September 2012

Visiting Derry Watkins at Special Plants

Special Plants Nursery

With an afternoon spare while staying in Wells, Somerset, early in September, Bill and I decided to visit Special Plants, near Bath.  Tucked away down a single-track lane flanked by tall hedgerows, Derry Watkins’ nursery is deep in the Wiltshire countryside.  Entering via the small gateway, I was immediately struck by the number of unusual plants around me.  A large platform to my right was arranged with a selection of seasonal interest plants, many of which were unfamiliar to me; Hibiscus trionum, an upright annual bearing large, creamy trumpet-shaped flowers with deep chocolate throats, and Trachelium ‘Black Knight’ – lacy, deep violet umbels and dark foliage.  My eye was drawn to the glowing orange-scarlet flowers of Dahlia coccinea, and then ahead a rich purple Nemesia ‘Belmont Blue’.  Beyond, the benches stretched out, packed with a beguiling collection of plants.  Although the nursery space was fairly small, every inch was occupied.  A happy half-hour was spent pottering about, assembling various ‘must-haves’ in a trolley and passing the time of day with Holly, the resident spaniel.

Inside the greenhouse

Seeds for sale

At 2.30, Derry was scheduled to give a talk on seed collection, so Bill and I took the path round leading to the back of the house and joined a small group already gathered around the kitchen table.  The ceiling in this area was high and the windows on both sides extended to the top, making full use of any available daylight.  Tall, potted, cane-stem begonias grew to the full height of the windows, the light filtering through their pendulous clusters of pink flowers.  Through the open door we could see the terraced gravel garden, and the enticing herbaceous borders dropping away from the house.

The terraced gravel garden

View towards the house

Over a cup of tea, Derry began by talking about plants coming true from seed, saying that she didn’t spend time trialling hybrid seedlings to select new strains, but chooses to grow a lot of plants which come true from seed.  On the subject of hybrids and their progeny, Derry used Eschscholzia to illustrate strain-selection; the Eschscholzias in her garden are cream coloured, as that is the only variety which has been left to set seed.  The commonly grown yellow-orange type never breaks through now because the years of selection have isolated one colour strain, exclusively pollinated by local bees.  I pointed out that if a neighbour grew the yellow-orange variety, the bees may well mix the genes.  Derry’s reply was ‘You need to live at least three miles from anyone else!’.  That said, I have been selecting white foxgloves in my own garden for 6-7 years now and I rarely find a purple seedling these days, despite living cheek-by-jowl with purple foxglove growers, so perhaps the ‘local bee’ can be very local indeed.  Derry also mentioned the value of sterile hybrids which are such a boon to the gardener as, in a perpetual effort to set seed, they flower on and on throughout the season.

The group in the garden

Derry Watkins

I was very interested to gather tips about the practical side of seed-collecting, which of course Derry does on a large scale.  The equipment was laid out on the table; a sizeable trug filled with several metal kitchen mixing bowls and a sheaf of paper bags.  We all trooped out to the garden and Derry lead us from plant to plant, showing us the seedheads of various species and demonstrating how to recognise when seed is ripe and how to harvest it successfully.  Large seed-heads can be placed in the metal bowls and processed indoors, smaller ones collected in paper bags.  It’s important to clean the seeds before storing, winnowing the chaff so that it isn’t sown alongside the seeds where it can sit and rot, affecting the seeds themselves.  Derry advised us to leave the seeds in a paper bag in a dry room indoors for a week or so before storing, fully dried, in the fridge.  It was fascinating to listen to such an experienced plantswoman discussing the her techniques and expressing her opinions about the plants she grows in her own garden, frequently in intricate detail and with great enthusiasm.

A sizeable trug

Gravelled sculpture garden

I asked about Angelica gigas, which I’ve found erratic to germinate.  The received wisdom is that A. gigas seed should be sown fresh but then left open to overwinter, during which time the cold will stratify the seeds, leading to germination in the Spring.  I described an experiment in which I sowed two trays, one of brown, ‘ripe’ seed and the other of dark red, fresh, seemingly ‘unripe’ seed.  To my surprise, the red seed germinated within 3 weeks of sowing, without the usual requirement of frost stratification, but the brown seed failed.  Derry explained that if the seed was very fresh, almost unripe, the overwintering stage could be skipped and germination was almost immediate.  I’m trying the same method again this year – the experiment is already underway.

Late summer colour

Informal planting punctuated by box balls

If you’re travelling to the Bath/Bristol area, I’d recommend you to take time out to visit Special Plants – take it from me, you won’t be disappointed.  Derry’s seed list is on the Special Plants website, Mail Order plants are available from September to March, and every Tuesday from April to October at the nursery, Derry gives an informal talk at 11am and 2.30pm on a seasonal topic.

Derry Watkins will be our guest speaker at the Herts HPS on February 2nd, 2013. (Programme)

Marion Jay

What I bought:

  • Sedum ‘Betrand Anderson’ (dark foliage, pink flowers, good ground-cover)
  • Euphorbia rigida (similar to E. myrsinites – architectural, glaucous foliage, prostrate)
  • Dahlia coccinea (intense, red-orange single flowers, airy habit)
  • Salvia ‘Nachtvlinder’ (deep maroon-purple flowers, quite fabulous)
  • Nemesia ‘Belmont Blue’ (rich mauve flowers; I’ll overwinter under glass and take cuttings)
  • Agastache ‘Black Adder’ (a bushy specimen bought for cuttings, as mine are too sparse)
  • Indigofera pendula (a barely-rooted cutting, much treasured – shrub, wisteria-like racemes)


Special Plants,
Greenways Lane,
Cold Ashton,
Wilts, SN14 8LA

Tel: 01225 891686


Tree Recognition Challenge

Below are two photos of an unknown tree, which is growing in the gardens of Stoberry Park in Wells Somertset ( We stayed for a night at Stoberry Park on our way to Cornwall, it was a lovely place to stay. The tree is about 12 to 15 feet tall, and has striped bark. Please note the zigzag joins to the bark on the trunk. If you have any idea what this might be, leave your thoughts in the comments at the bottom. Click each photo to enlarge it, many thanks for any clues. As an added incentive, a visiting HPS group to the garden has so far failed to identify the tree!

Members Open Garden : Visit Report, Bromley Hall

Members Open Garden – A Personal View

Red Admiral on Verbena bonariensis

During August I looked at the garden and wondered what on earth had made me offer to open the garden to Hardy Plant Society members in September.   This year wild life had done its worst!  A Muntjac deer had deposited its baby underneath the paeonies, rabbits abounded throughout the garden, slugs had eaten practically all the Nicotiana which usually add colour to the garden later in the year.  As for mice, I had spied them eating the clematis and set a couple of traps.  Within half an hour I had caught two and another two were caught later the same day.  In less than three weeks we caught 81 mice at various points around the garden where we had found evidence of their nibbling.  Even the yucca had been attacked.

Come September I was beginning to feel a bit better.  The Cosmos were flowering, Michaelmas daisies just starting, and some of the shrubs were beginning to have a bit of an autumn tinge.  At least the lawn was still green.  Usually on our very free draining soil it is biscuit coloured in September.  Sunday of the opening dawned grey and rather chilly, but by two o’clock the sun was just beginning to show as the first visitors arrived.

I need not have worried as I discovered that opening the garden for fellow Hardy Plant members is not about showing an immaculate, beautiful plot.  It is about having the opportunity to chat about the merits, problems, beauty or otherwise of everything that is happening in the garden with like-minded people.  And having done that, sit down and enjoy a cup of tea and piece of cake in the afternoon sun.

So do please think about opening your garden, large or small, to fellow members.  It really was an enjoyable experience, hopefully not just for me but for those who visited as well.

Edwina Robarts

Ricinus communis


Members Open Garden – A Visitor’s View

Edwina’s garden is the first HPS Members Open Garden that my husband, Bill, and I have attended.  Often, National Garden Scheme openings are crowded affairs with people milling about, monopolising the garden owner and hogging all the available seats.  The Members Open Garden is quite a different experience, more like a gathering at a friend’s house.

Bromley Hall

Edwina and Julian were very welcoming and the garden was still showing a lot of colour despite the lack of rain recently.  I was impressed by the depth and scale of the borders, which were large and generously planted without feeling over-stuffed.  It’s always fascinating to see the garden of someone who has a keen eye and a good knowledge of plants, and I found myself taking notes on several occasions.  Edwina and Julian have lived at Bromley hall for 50 years – during the early years, they planted an arboretum which has matured beautifully.  There’s also a lot of large, structural topiary which provides a green backdrop to the summer borders and colour during winter months.

After touring the garden we all sat down with tea and cake (excellent lemon drizzle, Edwina!) and talked plants, as you might expect.  Bill and I will certainly be going to a Member’s Open Garden again and I’d recommend other members to give it a try.  It combines the stimulation of fresh ideas that come from seeing a new garden with the company of like-minded people, and that essential component – delicious refreshments.

Marion Jay


Verbena hastata

Cosmos ‘Dazzler’ and Macleaya cordata


Echeveria elegans

Pampas grass

HPS Chairman’s Update – September 2012

Aster divaricatus

Taken from the national website, below is Vivienne McGhee’s September update. To leave comments for Vivienne go to the original page here. Click the photos to enlarge them.

August has been a quieter month for me in that I have been at home most of the time. Unfortunately that did not mean a lot of gardening as there was so much rain of the torrential nature. I quite enjoy gardening in light or intermittent rain but I find no joy in becoming drenched in downpours. So I have spent more time than usual sitting in the gazebo that looks over the larger pond in the garden – sounds grander than the reality. Nevertheless it is a pleasant place to sit with a choice of looking at the quiet green of lawn and hedge with trees beyond or across the main borders near the house.

Whilst engaged in the gazebo I became fascinated with the bee activity on nearby Aster divaricatus. I think that this is a superb plant with its wiry nearly black stems and profusion of white stars with golden centres. It does flop a bit but I do not stake it as that destroys its relaxed nature. So I follow the advice of Gertrude Jekyll and Graham Stuart Thomas and plant bergenias in front. The begenias are not adversely affected by being flopped over and also give a lovely solid shiny contrast to the “fluff” of the aster. The bees are on it as soon as the rain stops. I wonder where they shelter nearby?

Aster divaricatus and Peacock Butterfly

Talking of bees, I did have one trip away from home this month – to the Society’s study day “Stars of Late Summer” hosted by the Southern Counties Group. Sanguisorbas were one of the families of plants featured during the talks and the visit to Sussex Prairies Garden. In particular Marina Christopher drew our attention to the various pollinating insect for the species. Did you know that the ones with red flower heads are pollinated by flies whilst those with fluffy pinkish ones one are pollinated by bees. So back in my garden and on a round of sanguisorbas – she is right! You probably knew that all along, so please forgive my moments of excitement.

I love planning and often pick up ideas when visiting other people’s gardens. I came back from Sussex Prairies with the idea of sculpting the hornbeam hedge allowing 3 of the trunks to grow up as trees and adding Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’ to grow behind. Now sitting in the gazebo looking at my “green” aspect I am not sure. This requires further thought and dreaming. My plans do not always come to fruition but the dreaming is enjoyable.

Sanguisorba ‘Pink Brushes’

WGC Horticultural Society: 90th Anniversary, Roy Lancaster

Adrian de Baat forwarded a note from the WGCHS saying there are still tickets available to hear Roy Lancaster speak, full details below. Their secretary said they wanted to achieve a full house, and encouraged members and non-members to buy a ticket and come along.


‘Plants, People and Places’
Tuesday 9th October 2012 – 8.00pm
Hawthorne Theatre, Campus West
Welwyn Garden City
Tickets £9

To celebrate our 90th anniversary, Welwyn Garden City Horticultural Society has arranged an evening with the highly regarded plantsman, lecturer and garden expert Roy Lancaster OBE. Familiar to gardeners through his writing, TV and radio appearances, Roy has travelled the world on plant finding expeditions and his knowledge and easy charm will provide an entertaining evening for all those interested in gardens and gardening.

Tickets now available from Campus West

Book online at

Phone box office 01707 357117

Direct link

Graham Rice: Request for help with Euphorbias

Our member Judy Barker spotted this piece on the Graham Rice blog, he has reached out for help with Euphorbias, you can read his request and provide feedback in the comments on his web page at this address:

Summary below:

Hello everyone, I need your help. I’m working on an article about variegated forms of the Mediterranean spurge, Euphorbia characias, as well as variegated varieties of the related Euphorbia amygdaloides and the hybrid between the two, Euphorbia x martini.

They can look very dramatic, but many gardeners have trouble keeping them for more than a year or two. So I’d appreciate it if you share your experiences. Which variegated varieties have you grown? Did they thrive or sulk? What conditions produced plants that grew well from year to year? Open ground, or containers? Which varieties did well, and which failed?

The varieties I have in mind include: ‘Ascot Rainbow’, ‘Burrow Silver’ (aka ‘Benger’s Silver’, ‘Silver Sunbeam’, ‘Honiton Lace’), ‘Emmer Green’, ‘Frosted Flame’, ‘Glacier Blue’, Helena’s Blush (‘Inneuphhel’), ‘Kestrel’ (above, click [on his site] to enlarge), ‘Silver Shadow’, Silver Swan (‘Wilcott’), ‘Tasmanian Tiger’, ‘Vanilla Swirl’ and ‘Variegata’.

Please add your thoughts in the comment box [on his web page above] or, if you’d prefer, email me your thoughts [the link is on his page above for the email address]

Many thanks, in advance, for your help. The piece will be published in the RHS magazine The Plantsman in December. I’ll be sure to let you know when it’s available.