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Against the light – flower and garden pictures by John McCormack

A Photo essay on some techniques for this procedure

[Click the photos to enlarge them]

Pictures of flowers and plants taken against the light can often have a very different look to images taken with the sunlight coming from behind the photographer. The translucency of flower parts and sharply defined outlines of buds are examples of such enhanced images.

Not every photograph can or should be taken into the sunlight, but in a number of instances in flower photography there can be a dramatically improved result by using this method. We are talking about light coming towards the camera, or at a closely oblique angle to the camera axis.

Picture 1

Picture 1

Some of these instances are:

  • Petals and leaves which are translucent often have an internal structure and colouring which is made more visible by light transmitted through them. Picture 1 above illustrates the type of photograph we are going to discuss here.
  • Buds, seed-heads and berries that have an outline which is shown up dramatically by backlighting tracing out the periphery ; similarly spines and hairs on the outline edge of buds and fruit.
  • Individual plants such Cardoons that are mainly grown for their overall shape will show up poorly when photographed with illumination from the front. Backlit pictures can show up their architecture to advantage.
  • Garden vistas can be made to look excitingly different when viewed into the light, especially if they are in the pathway of low morning or evening sun.
  • A few other specific instances such as cobwebs and water fountains.

It is clear that I am talking almost exclusively about natural sunlight, and especially soft very early morning light soon after dawn. Late evening light is also good but this can sometimes change the colour balance and add a red colour cast to photographs. At these hours too, as well as the softness of the actual light, it is at a low angulation which is often just right for capturing pictures at an easily managed axis. High midday sun is not in the equation, neither are  pictures taken with flash.  Around dawn a trace of mist and dew creates a mystical image, and our professional garden photographers are used to getting up before 5 am to get the best pictures!

These photographs can rarely be obtained by just using the automatic exposure setting of your camera. Shooting against the light can often mean that the camera’s internal exposure meter if set to automatic mode ‘sees’ so much light that the exposure is cut down and surprisingly the picture is often under exposed. It can well come out rather dark and uninteresting. So you usually need to increase the exposure when taking pictures against the light, and this is completely contrary to one’s first instinct.

It is this subtle balance between a dull, uninteresting under exposed picture and a burnt out over exposure which makes this area of flower photography so exacting and challenging. There are several ways to correct and compensate for this problem. These are expanded in the technical notes at the end of this article, but you can always start by just taking a number of pictures of the same scene at different exposures. This is called exposure bracketing.  Fortunately with modern digital cameras several pictures can be taken for experiment at no extra cost.

Some Examples

So let us look at some samples of this type of photography. This first example is by not changing the exposure itself, but by simply changing the camera position. This in itself usually alters the exposure which is set by the automatic system in the camera.

Picture 2: A view of a clump of thistles (Cirsum var) in a sunny field.

Picture 2: A view of a clump of thistles (Cirsum var) in a sunny field.

Picture 2 is taken with the light behind the camera, so the thistles are lit from the front that is to say from behind the camera position. The clump is rather flat and uninteresting.

Picture 3

Picture 3

Picture 3 is taken from the other side of the clump directly against the sunlight. The bright sky has dominated the camera’s automatic exposure control, so the metering system has resulted in the sky being perfectly exposed but the thistle clump dark and under exposed. However there is a hint of an exciting picture in the tips of the seed-heads. So let’s change the camera angle.

Picture 4

Picture 4

Picture 4 is taken with the camera tilted down so that the sky is almost out of the picture. This means that the automatic exposure is not dominated by the bright sky. Now the thistles themselves are now far better exposed. Indeed the tips of the seedheads are just on the cusp of what I wanted – very bright and much more interesting but with enough detail.

Post exposure digital adjustment

With digital images some manipulation can be used to obtain a better image. This example of a Chimonanthus  praecox ‘Grandiflora’  flower illustrates that we should aim if possible for a slight under exposure, not over exposure to obtain our favoured result. Under exposure can often be corrected to some extent in post exposure computer software, but over exposure usually results in an image which is burnt out and then highlight  details cannot be redeemed. A RAW image file is preferable but JPEGs need less expertise and are satisfactory for most uses if ultimate quality is not required.

Picture 5

Picture 5

Here in picture 5 is the picture of our wintersweet a little over exposed – it is all rather bright and details of the lower petals particularly are burnt out.

Picture 6

Picture 6

In picture 6 an attempt has been made to correct this by overall darkening of the image in Photoshop. However because the petal details have already been lost, and darkened, the subtlety is never recovered.

pict 07

Picture 7

Picture 7 taken from a slightly different angle but a lesser exposure has been used. This time it is a little under exposed, so there is not enough shadow detail. This is far less critical. The veins on the petals also don’t really show up but when this image is adjusted and lightened overall in Photoshop (Picture 8) the picture recovers much of the lost shadow information. Also this lightens the petals to a desirable extent.

Picture 8

Picture 8

Now they recover almost perfect cellular detail of their surface structure (Photoshop ‘levels’ used for this adjustment.) Many modern SLR cameras can also be set up to take several sequence pictures like this both light and dark – one after the other in quick succession – this is called bracketing. If this is not available on your camera you have to do this manually (see technical details below). It enables the best image to be easily chosen. So – the rule is once again, and this is important   – always veer on the side of under exposure, not over exposure. You can usually get back some shadow detail, but you can rarely recover over exposed and burnt out areas. It can often be as you have seen above that only a small subtle correction is needed to make a critical difference.

Many photographic adjustment programmes can make these small changes. There are though more sophisticated packages like Photoshop. They will also be able to make ‘selections’ of different areas within the picture. By adjusting these regions separately it is possible to to achieve better results rather than a ‘global’ (all over) lightening or darkening of the complete photograph.

The next two pictures of larger flowers (picture 9) Papaver orientale ‘ Snow White’ and (picture 10)  Aquilegia var. show very thin delicate petals and are demanding photographically because they  are so translucent.

Picture 9

Picture 9

Picture 10

Picture 10

Again the smallest amount of over exposure will kill all delicate detail. A flower with a thicker petal is this Hemerocallis ‘Helle Berlinerin’ (picture 11) which is an HPS conservation plant.  Like many flowers they often point almost directly into the light, due to what is known as the positive phototropism of the cellular growth of the plant cells. This means that you are presented with an almost vertically lit subject, but the principle of avoiding over exposure is exactly the same. Take several bracketed pictures, and veer to the slight under exposure. So the rule is once again: expose for the highlights, and then post process for the shadows.

Picture 11

Picture 11

These guidelines do not of course just apply to individual close ups of flower heads. Groups of flowers such these dahlias (picture 12) ( Dahlia ‘Bishop Llandaff’ ) and the Tulips (Tulipa var. picture 13)  also need very exact exposure control because the petal edges are so important in the composition.

Picture 12

Picture 12

Picture 13

Picture 13

The secret is to aim to have the periphery of the petals correctly exposed. Any increase will lose that lovely illumination of the outline. Fortunately in these two examples with low morning light it was possible to find a position for the camera just into the shadow of the surrounding trees. The tulips needed a very low camera position, as do many such short stemmed flowers. A hint here is that a plastic waste sack is a valuable extra to have in your camera bag, so that you can lie down on damp ground and not get wet!

Another piece of ‘kit’ which is occasionally very valuable is a ‘reflector’, This is because when photographing into the light, the interior of a flower, or indeed other parts too can be in shadow, and too dark. By using a reflector some of the light can be back reflected into this shadow area. This decreases the dynamic range of the intended picture, and gives a more even exposure. Beware that too much reflected light can make the image flat and uninteresting and may negate the whole concept of creating a backlit photograph!  You can buy a small folding reflector quite cheaply, but a piece of kitchen aluminium foil, crushed and then spread out flat will be very satisfactory. Picture 14 shows a reflector in use. The following two photographs (15  and 16) show a Schizostylis coccinea var. flower, first without any reflection and then with some added light inside the flower from the reflector.

Picture 14

Picture 14

Picture 15

Picture 15

Picture 16

Picture 16

Dark flowers against a lighter background pose a different problem of exposure. Here a camera with the ability to spot meter a very small area and to control and move it around is invaluable. This can be found in many modern SLR cameras.  The selection spot can be ‘jiggled’ to an exact place on a chosen flower or leaf. For this the camera really has to be on a tripod and not moved thus leaving the composition static in the chosen frame. If your spot can’t be moved, but remains in the picture centre, then an alternative technique has to be used.  Half press the release button to lock the exposure by first centering on the part you want to expose correctly, and then shift the camera position a fraction  and recompose. Finally press the button and expose the photograph. Remember that different cameras can have various alternative settings for this and you may need to read the instruction book to find out what your camera does. Ideally a camera with buttons to lock focus and exposure independently will be best for these tricky techniques.

Picture 17

Picture 17

The picture (17) of a Podophyllum versipelle ‘Spotty dotty’ is an example of this technique. The ideal is to have the camera on a tripod, and to spot measure several parts of the projected photograph area, concentrating of course on the main flower itself. Several pictures are taken, and the best one selected. In this example there is a large dynamic range between the light and dark parts of the flower. It is a matter of quite careful judgement to find a compromise in which the darker parts of the flower show some detail, but the light parts just reflecting off the top of the flower are not over exposed. Also importance has to be given to the wonderful leaf behind. If this were to be in sharp focus then it would dominate the picture. This means that you have to use a large aperture (small f number) to keep the flower only in focus and to throw the leaf into slight blurring. This keeps full attention on the flower, not the background.

There is quite a lot to think about in what at first seems a simple picture to take. Another aspect of image control is selective focusing which is enlarged upon further in a later part of this article.

Picture 18

Picture 18

The red flower spray of  Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’  (picture no. 18) was also challenging to  photograph against the very much brighter sky. Again this spot metering when on a tripod  or if handheld then a number of bracketed exposures are the answer. You can easily think of other non backlit situations that demand such extra care, for instance dark red roses against a white cottage wall immediately come to mind.

Occasionally a creative effect is wanted where under exposure against a brighter sky background is called for. This is usually where the actual anatomical structure of the plant is the chief point of the whole composition and photograph. An example is this is the Cardoon (Cynara  cardunculus picture no.19).

Picture 19

Picture 19

It was exposed at several values but this one which is under exposed is far more menacing and appropriate than a picture which shows the green leaves and flowerheads in their natural colour. The so called hedgehog holly (Ilex aquifolium ‘Ferox Argentea’ ) is another good example of this genre.

Picture 20

Picture 20

Picture no. 20   shows the holly leaves with their edges coloured yellow and this feature, together with a backlit photographic angle makes another picture which is quite aggressive.

Seed heads with pronounced hairs or prickles can make another slightly threatening subject. This Datura (Datura stramonium – picture 21) is an example and perhaps parallels it’s poisonous nature.

Picture 21

Picture 21

The flowerbud of this poppy (Papaver orientale ‘Pinnacle’  – picture 22) taken with the low morning sunlight could be an insipid picture with lighting at any other angle. These last two pictures are quite close up and focusing could be difficult with a handheld camera.

Picture 22

Picture 22

A tripod or similar support is needed not only to keep the camera still, but to accurately focus on the hairs and prickles themselves, and not to rely on built in automatic focusing which can easily produce an average focus depth. This can be fine in many situations but may well fail to produce the crisp accurate image of the periphery that is really needed.

Selective focusing

Depth of field has already been mentioned and should not be forgotten in the concentration needed to get the exposure right. This (DOF) of course depends on the magnification used and the aperture. Picture 23 of the group of Eryngium bourgati ‘Picos blue’ was taken at a distance.

Picture 23

Picture 23

At f8 a good depth of field showed up the whole plant in sharp focus and the background foliage  only just going out of focus. The same aperture was used for a close up of a single flowerhead (picture 24).

Picture 24

Picture 24

This illustrates a more limited depth of field due to greater magnification with the front part of the subject in sharp focus. The back part only a couple of cm. behind has a pleasant slight blurring. This in fact can be very desirable, and the gradient from sharp focus to unsharp focus varies with different lenses. There is a Japanese name for this which is called bokeh. Some photographers choose lenses very largely on the basis of this feature. This is one of the reasons why prime lenses without any zoom multiple glass elements are still sought after for perfect sharp to blurred effects. Don’t forget that a small aperture (larger f number) will produce a deep depth of field in sharp focus which in creative terms may be just what you don’t really want. Blurring of backgrounds can of course be created in a computer, but it is always best to start off with the most appropriate and desired picture in the camera.

Remember that a large aperture (small f number) will focus a smaller sharp area in the centre of the frame, leaving a larger area of often blurred background around it. A small aperture means a greater overall central area of sharper focus and much less peripheral blurred area. It is this purposeful alteration of the picture which is often a major part of photographic creativity. A skilled photographer will have this completely built in to his or her mind before any picture is taken. Such previsualization only comes with constant practice.

An occasional problem  

Against the light images often need a lens shade to stop stray light and to narrow the acceptance angle exactly to the specific scene you are imaging. Even so, because lenses are composed of multiple elements, internal lens reflections can show up as an odd pattern across part of the picture if the camera is ponted too close to the incident light axis. This is seen in Picture 25 of pumpkins (Curcubita pepo ‘Spellbound’).

pict 25

As you see the lens flare looks rather like a ‘string of beads’. This applies especially to modern zoom lenses which can have very many elements. The answer is in the first instance to move the camera/lens axis perhaps down away from the direct light, and this may improve the picture. In many cases there will also often be a slightly blurred or misty appearance to the image as in the modified image (Picture 26).

Picture 26

Picture 26

This is called lens ‘flare’ and was far more common in early cameras that did not have the elaborate lens coatings which cover the lens elements of our modern cameras. The only sure way round this problem is to really move the camera to a different axis altogether.

Some technical notes- expanding some of the themes above.

There are some technical difficulties in against the light photography and this applies to several areas. It is worthwhile enlarging more on some of the methods we have been using for the pictures we have been taking, because this is the key to success in this quite exacting area of photography.

Exposure metering

If a standard point and shoot automatic exposure is set up to be the usual default in the camera controls then you may well be doomed to failure.

The main problem is that the exposure is very often set by the camera  exposure sensor mechanism. This means that when the camera is pointed more or less into the sunlight, then a lot of bright light is a shining into the camera mechanism. The camera then ‘thinks’ there is too much light around so that it closes down or reduces the exposure (aperture or shutter speed or both) so that the sensor is not overwhelmed with a picture that is too bright. Now suddenly we have an image  in which much of it is correctly exposed, but the critical part we are interested in may well be too dark and under exposed, resulting in lost important  information in that area.

I like to use the analogy that the camera perhaps ‘thinks’ because if we leave the camera settings to automatic then the camera does in a way ‘think’ and it takes control out of our hands. Although this can be fine in many situations it should not apply when we are taking some rather different and creative pictures against the light. For this we need our own control of exposure and also a check on the result by looking at the read out histogram which is discussed in greater detail below.

First of all we have to be not afraid to take several pictures of our chosen subject. I don’t just mean waving the camera about and firing off a number of exposures in the vain hope that one may turn out to be correct, but to carefully think of a number of viewpoints that are possible candidates. After composing the picture from several places then this is the time to repeat these with different settings of the camera controls, and this is what we are going to discuss further.

Camera control exposure adjustments.

Many modern cameras have a small control button to change the exposure which has been determined by the metering system. This can change the exposure timing and/or the aperture. The change of timing can be critical if the camera is hand held, or if the plant is waving in a breeze. In this case compensation should be made by upping the ISO sensor sensitivity. In cameras with large sensor areas this does not affect the image if applied in limited amounts. Small cameras with appropriately small sensors are affected more, and image degradation can result. Changing the aperture of course alters the depth of field, and can also alter the timing of the exposure. This may not matter too much for distance pictures, but can be more critical in close up ranges. Remember the Eryngeum pictures illustrated above.

Spot Metering

Not all cameras have a spot metering mode, but if your camera has one  then this is the very time to use it. This is the easiest option to obtain a properly exposed picture in these ‘against the light’ situations.  Set up the camera controls and then spot meter directly onto the flower or area you are photographing. This will ensure that the flower itself is properly exposed. The area outside the flower may of course be under or over exposed but for a start the part we are interested in will be properly exposed.  In some instances there may have to be a compromise. The over exposed area may end up with just too little texture, and so some reduction of exposure may have to be made. Again take several exposures to have some selection available later. And keep in mind the mantra : ‘expose for the highlights – post exposure adjustment to bring out the shadows’.

You may well have to read your camera instruction book to check if spot metering is available on your camera. Some more elaborate SLR cameras have the ability to move the spot around the frame. This was mentioned in the Podophyllum picture above, and is used to obtain a very exact measurement of a special area.  Of course remember to turn it off afterwards for your next photographic subject if you do not need it!

Camera movement metering selection.

This is a simple method of ‘locking ‘ your exposure to achieve a controlled image exposure. Some more advanced cameras have the ability to lock focus and exposure independently. Otherwise put the focus into manual mode and carefully focus onto your flower. However most cameras do have the ability to lock both focus and exposure by half pressing down the shutter release button. So – frame up your selected picture, and focus manually. Now swing the camera a little sideways into a different area, possibly outside your first frame which has a similar image density (darkness or brightness) to the key area you are photographing.

Half press the release button down so that the exposure is locked onto this second area and then swing back to reframe onto your subject again. Both your exposure and focus should then be correct. However, unless your camera is on a tripod you can quite easily not swing back into exactly the same focus again. The answer is to take several pictures, and also to make sure your ISO setting is high enough for your aperture to be say f8 or smaller so that the depth of field recorded is deep enough to compensate for your realignment to maintain your subject in adequate sharp focus. This is quite a lot to think about.


This is indeed an area of photography which could be expanded into a whole article in itself

The nub of it is that most modern cameras can be set to show in the monitor a special type of graph or ‘histogram curve’ whenever we take a picture.  This curve will display at once if the picture is under or over exposed, and also give an idea by how much. This then gives us an idea of how much to adjust the exposure to avoid over exposure of our prime subject, and indeed how much under exposed the rest of the picture may be.  Part of the answer is of course to read your manual to see what is available in your particular camera model. Professional garden photographers are constantly referring to the histogram and take further subsequent images to obtain the curves they need. An alternative to the histogram curve may be to use the option display of ‘flashing highlights’. However they only display over exposed saturation areas and do not give a quantitative idea of over or under exposure.

The monitor image otherwise should be used also to double check that you have not inadvertently missed out a peripheral part of the picture you have envisaged. This immediately leads on to another rule! Always take your picture with an adequate surround of periphery which you may or perhaps may not use. You can always crop a picture to its ideal theme, but you can’t at all easily add peripheries of flowers or leaves or garden content that you don’t have in that master image. This could demand a really advanced cloning replacement in Photoshop and of course one could be starting to enter an area of possible image falsification, and the moral unsavoury overtones of such procedures.

It is worth while noting here that in film camera techniques one was urged to ‘fill the frame’. This was because cropping and choosing the main selected area of both black and white pictures and even more so colour images was difficult. In digital imaging it is relatively easy to crop to an ideal selection of the picture to enhance the impact of the image.

HDR Photography

A new area of digital photography has developed recently called HDR or High Dynamic Range photography. In this technique multiple pictures are taken usually at different exposures, but the camera is locked on a tripod to avoid any movement whatsoever. Pictures from this sequence are then selected which each have an area of the desired image in a correct exposure. These are then combined by special software, so that the optimum image part is extracted from each picture.  This makes a final combination image which has separately controlled parts to make up an optimum picture. This result can never be obtained from a single exposure, and illustrates the advances that have been made with modern digital photography.

I suspect though that this is not the end of the story –  more exciting features of imaging will surely soon emerge !

John McCormack

If you would like to follow up some more advances in flower photography technology, John has a website you may be interested in. This is at

Xmas Party 2012

Today the group enjoyed a talk from Rob Potterton, along with a Christmas feast. Rob took us through his plant hunting expedition to China, and onwards through the process of propagation and sale. Rob experienced altitude sickness at 16,000 feet in the mountains near-ish the border with Tibet, to collect new species of alpine plants, now on sale at his nursery The lovely table decorations were made by the members (if I missed any, sorry), and also the bountiful fancy cakes. Next meeting on the 5th of January with James Alexander-Sinclair. Have a good Christmas everyone.


HPS Chairman’s Blog – October

Chrisanthemum ‘Bretforton Road’

I have been reading the latest edition of the Hardy Plant, enjoying the articles and reminiscing about the Society’s trip to Scotland in the early summer. It now seems such a long time ago. It has also been interesting to read the Tenth Anniversary Handbook of the Society from 1967 (click here to view), now on this website. It struck me just how relevant some of the articles are to today. I particularly enjoyed the article “Americans in the Border” as this is something I often do – walking around the world in the garden.

My season of gardening visiting is over for the year and I settle down to take stock of my own garden, cutting back plants and moving ones that would be better planted elsewhere. I do not have the ability to visualise planting in 3D and always admire those who can. So plants are frequently on the move. However at the moment I am enjoying some of the fruits of last year’s autumn re-ordering. Chrysanthemum ‘Bretforton Road’ is looking stunning with pride of place in the main border facing the house. Chrysanthemums always remind me of my mother, who grew some wonderful ones, and of harvest festivals as a child – just the smell of the flowers in an enclosed space is enough to take me back years. C. ‘Bretforton Road’ is a late flowering variety that will continue well into December with bright deep pink flowers. I now see that to enjoy it at its best I need move the aster that is behind it, and now cut down, and replace it with an evergreen plant to show off its neat habit. A euphorbia perhaps?

I am not really a reminiscing person, generally I prefer to be planning for the future. October is a month of meetings for me with the annual get together of the Society’s Group Secretaries, a Trustees’ meeting, and an officer’s meeting, reviewing the year and planning for next year. I also attended the annual exchange of plants in the Society’s Plant Conservation Scheme. This is always an exciting time. The aim of the Scheme is to ensure that rarer and lesser-known perennial plants are conserved and made available to gardeners generally. The plants are grown by members in many parts of Great Britain, propagated, swapped, reported upon and when stocks allow made available to nurseries and other gardeners through local plant sales. The meeting is a buzz of the lively discussion about the plants – just what this Society is all about! The coordinating group are planning developments for 2013 and beyond, so watch the Conservation area on the website.

Enough for now – back to the garden!


Leave comments for Vivienne on the original page here:

HHPS Twitter Account

To keep up with the times, the Herts HPS Group now has a Twitter account, linked to this website. I believe we are the first and only HPS group (including National HPS) to have a Twitter account, a world first no less.

By having a Twitter account, a wider audience of readers might find and visit our website.  Each time a news item is published on our website, a corresponding ‘tweet’ is also automatically posted, with the title of the news item and a link back to this website.  Should Twitter users be searching for gardening information, or have chosen to ‘follow’ our Twitter account, they will see our tweet and know to visit our site.

To see the account, click here:, you can see see who the account follows and the profile information.

Our Twitter account follows a variety of other garden related Twitter accounts including the Herts NGS Twitter account ( run by our committee member Edwina Robarts. By following other Twitter accounts, I hope that they in return might follow our Twitter account, and bring readers to the website, who might be potential members.

For new readers to our site, check out the programme of events, come along as a guest to our meetings or sign up to be a member of the Herts HPS using the Join Us page. The Spring 2012 newsletter is available to non-members (click here: Spring 2012), the latest Autumn 2012 newsletter (redesigned and with some lovely colour photos) is available to members as a PDF download or can be read on the site.

If you have any garden related questions or queries, either use the Forum to get feedback from our members, or get in touch via the Contact page.

Bill Hodgson.

Gardeners World Appearance

The gardens of Herts HPS members Adrian de Baat and Julie Wise are to be featured on Gardener’s World, as one of four short inset films on garden design styles to be screened at the beginning of the Spring 2013 series. The two gardens have been selected to illustrate the naturalistic or ‘prairie’ style of planting.

Joe Swift and a camera crew visited Hertfordshire in late September and spent a day filming at Rustling End and Digswell Road. Julie says it was fascinating listening to Joe talking about the use of gravel in the garden and how readily plants self-seed into it. He observed that gravel allows a cool root-run in summer combined with a protective mulch in winter, and visually offsets grasses particularly well. He also talked about the low-maintenance aspect of naturalistic gardening, and how leaving seedheads over winter provides a valuable food-source for birds and structural interest until the early spring.

Joe Swift does a piece to camera, at Digswell Road.

Adrian and Julie will not be appearing on the programme themselves but the publicity will no doubt be useful when it comes to opening their gardens for the NGS next year. We’ll keep you posted and let you know when the piece is to be aired.

Rustling End Cottage garden illustrates the beauty of the naturalistic style of planting in late Summer

Marion Jay

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!

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’

Coach Trip To Norfolk, Sat 18th August 2012

Saturday 18th August was the hottest day of the year thus far so it was a good day for garden visiting as we wouldn’t have worked in our own gardens!

Bressingham Gardens had warned us that it was a Thomas the Tank Engine Day and would be very busy so armed with picnics we set off. Children on the whole are not interested in plants so we enjoyed the gardens with very few other visitors.

Those who had visited Bressingham before noticed quite a change. Many of the island beds which used to be filled with conifers and heathers (definitely 70’s style) had been updated with spectacular massed plantings of grasses and perennials . The Dell garden was ablaze with colour from large group plantings and everything was well labeled.

At Liz Bloom’s Garden

Sundown was an absolute delight. We were greeted by Liz Bloom and her partner Graham who told us about the development of their garden, originally with the help of Adrian Bloom. Its one acre is packed with plants mostly AGM varieties – “because I know they are tried and tested” said Liz. We entered the garden along a narrow woodland walk which was a cool green oasis filled with plants of differing shapes and textures. A large new pond in the centre of the garden continued to help cool us and at the far end we found a stylish vegetable garden with raised beds and an immaculate greenhouse.

Our final stop was The Plantsman’s Preference where we indulged in a bit of retail therapy. Tim has a large selection of geranium and holds the National Collection of Molinia. Lots of members made a bee line for the shade section where several treasures were discovered.

Story & Pictures: Edwina Robarts; Click the photos above to see them full size.

‘Sundown’, Liz Bloom’s Garden, Photos by Heather Osborne

The Old Forum

Below are a selected set of the discussions held on the old website forum, which you can comment on further at the bottom.

Bupleurum fruiticosum by Julie Wise – written 09/04/2012 20:34:35

I have just pruned a large branch from my Bupleurum fruiticosum and have taken some 4 – 5 ” cuttings with a heel and slipped them into some gritty compost.  What are my chances of producing some fine plants for the future?  From what I have read this should be taking place in July but I am hoping someone can give me some positive views regarding my present action.

RE: Bupleurum fruiticosum by Alison King – written 17/04/2012 17:43:47

I have just pruned a large branch from my Bupleurum fruiticosum and have taken some 4 – 5 ” cuttings with a heel and slipped them into some gritty compost.  What are my chances of producing some fine plants for the future?  From what I have read this should be taking place in July but I am hoping someone can give me some positive views regarding my present action.

If that doesn’t work try saving the seeds . My large plant was propagated that way and provided some lovely flowers for my daughter’s wedding

Mathiasella by Alison King – written 31/03/2012 14:42:09

After we did the show at Chelsea I bought a plant of Mathiasella bupleuroides ‘Green Dream’. It has survived every winter since but seemed to be held back so far that it was unable to recover in time to flower. Not this year. It is now sporting 4 flower heads! So it seems that it is bone hardy, having got through 2 very cold winters but needs a mild-ish winter to enable it it flower.

RE: Mathiasella by Julie Wise – written 06/04/2012 19:48:17

Lucky you Alison I lost mine to that garden in the sky.

Stipa gigantea by Diana Garner – written 02/03/2012 10:32:07

In the past I have tidied my Stipa by cutting off the dead flowers and combing it to get rid of all the brown grass.  Someone who came to the garden last year said they cut theirs down to the ground like a Miscanthus.  Have any of you treated yours in this way and did it survive?

Thanks Diana

RE: Stipa gigantea by Julie Wise – written 06/04/2012 19:47:02

Hello Diana

I cut my Stipas giganteas back alternate years which seems to rejuvenate them somewhat.  I create a dome effect which can then look attractive during the winter.  In the years that I don’t cut back I too comb through.  They have self seeded here in our garden so eventually the mother plant may be removed but 12 years on she is still performing well.

 RE: Stipa gigantea by Adrian de Baat – written 03/03/2012 08:43:56


When I first had a Stipa gigantea I also cut it right to the ground, but I was disappointed in the growth the following year. Now, I do more or less as you do. I cut out the flowers, rake it vigorously to take out the dead leaves, and then give it a trim with lawn shears to tidy up its shape – seems to work for me!


 libertia grandiflora by Meta – written 06/09/2011 18:21:07

My Libertia grandiflora is now 4 years old. It is very large. This year it did not flower as well as the last couple of years and there are a lot of brown leaves, which make it look rather scruffy. I am not prepared to spend hours cutting out the brown leaves individually…..

Is it time to say goodbye or would it respond to drastic pruning?

RE: libertia grandiflora by Heather – written 22/09/2011 06:13:38

I agree that it’s a tedious job cutting out the brown leaves but can be mildly therapeutic (yes, I do lead a sad life!) and also a good way to find and destroy all the snails that enjoy living down in the depths Seems a shame to say goodbye to it – it’s always the plant most asked about on our NGS days. Haven’t tried cutting it all back I’m afraid.

 RE: RE: libertia grandiflora by Adrian de Baat – written 30/09/2011 20:06:28

Sorry about the blank reply – finger trouble. I am with you, Heather. I also cut out the brown leaves in Spring, It is a lovely plant, which I would not dream of throwing out. The only reason for digging it up, in my view, is in order to divide it and produce more plants!

 RE: RE: RE: libertia grandiflora by Julie Wise – written 22/11/2011 15:21:39

Sorry I have only just picked this message up so you may have already done what you needed to do.  I found pulling the dead leaves worked equally well and is a lot quicker than cutting with scissors especially if they are really old, my clump perked up no end after this treatment.  I have also split them in the past and found that not being too mean about the size of the pieces  ie the larger the better improved survival.

Elaeagnus ‘Quicksilver’ by Alison Metcalfe wrote (26/05/2011 08:33:37):

I have been given this Eleagnus in a pot, currently about 4 feet tall. However, it can grow in sun to up to 5m x 4m & I don’t have that much space in my garden, let alone sunny space, to plant it. If it goes into a smaller ‘space’, can I keep it within bounds by pruning? I realise this plant may not strictly be a hardy plant, but if anyone has any tips about how best to cope with this shrub I’d be grateful. Many thanks, Alison

RE: Elaeagnus ‘Quicksilver’ by Helen Cullens – written 03/07/2011 08:31:47

I have this shrub grown as a small tree, it tends to die back and so has never grown very large.   It is now about 15ft x 10ft, but the canopy is very airy so plants are able to grow beneath it.   The major snag is that it produces suckers at some distance from the main trunk.   These are not ‘Quicksilver’ but a larger leaved more basic form;  they are easy enough to pull up.   I love this shrub/tree the scent is stunning and the silvery effect magical.

Coronilla by Heather wrote (29/11/2010 16:50:47):

My Coronilla valentina subsp glauca ‘Citrina’ is flowering beautifully but has lots of bare twiggy branches round its base (it’s now about 5ft tall). I’d welcome tips on how to prune it (after flowering)to prevent it getting even more leggy. My book says to restrict pruning to the removal of dead wood at the base as they don’t survive drastic renovation, so I fear it will end up a tall lollipop!

RE: Coronilla by Julie Wise – written 09/01/2011 12:07:13

My book ‘The Pruning of Trees Shrubs and Conifers’ by George E. Brown says to cut out any dead tips or shoots to living wood at the commencement of growth in the spring and at the same time cutting out any very old and worn growths.

Perhaps you could plant something evergreen at its base to disguise the twiggy growth. Hope this helps

Salvia confertiflora by Edwina – written 27/10/2010 11:39:57

I have a Salvia confertiflora in a large pot. It is still looking terrific despite the recent frosts. Will it survive outside in the pot or should I cut it back and put in a cold frame or even our barely heated greenhouse?

 RE: Salvia confertiflora by Heather – written 05/12/2010 17:27:49

Helen Yemm, in the Saturday Telegraph gardening section from last week, said she overwinters hers in a cold greenhouse, together with Agapanthus africanus and special pelargoniums. She says in some years their survival is touch and go, but before they go into the greenhouse in October, she sprays them with systemic fungicide. Then she keeps their roots virtually dry, opening the door during mild weather and covering them with loose layers of bubble wrap when the temperatures plummet.

RE: Salvia confertiflora by David Singleton – written 04/11/2010 11:25:39

I cannot believe that no-one has answered your question about this salvia yet. Come on you experts!

We have got to know quite a few salvias over the last few years but not confertiflora which the RHS book has down as ‘one star’ hardy. Our ‘two star’ salvias get quite cut back by the frosts each year so I wouldn’t risk a ‘one star’ outside. A cold green house should be OK. I take cutting of all salvias left outside over winter just in case of really hard frosts and find they seem to strike dead easily even in November.

Mathiasella bupleuroides ‘Green Dream’ by Roger Trigg – written 11/05/2010 00:53:26

It’s now 3 years since this starred in our Chelsea display. How have others found it? My plant is now starting it’s 3rd season. It flowered on a single stem in year 1, made a neat 5-stemmed bush in year 2 but no flowers and the 5 stems are now carrying developing flower clusters. This winter’s frost and snow took most of the old leaves off but the growing tips survived and resumed growth in March. The main point is that it’s not an herbaceous perennial, more of a sub-shrub in the style of Euphorbia characais. My  plant is also making a good deal of new growth from ground level so I’ll cut out the flowered stems when they begin to look tired, mid-summer I should think.

RE: RE: Mathiasella bupleuroides ‘Green Dream’ by Alison King – written 21/07/2010 17:54:34

Mine has proved totally hardy, putting up lots of new growth from ground level but not currently showing any signs of flowers although it flowered last year.

This winter by Richard Stubbs – written 04/03/2010 17:52:35

I have borderline hardy plants in a cold greenhouse for the winter. Survival this year is likely to be worse than usual. But does anyone know what the lowest temperatures experienced locally have been this winter?

RE: RE: This winter by Margaret Bardell – written 10/03/2010 14:16:58

We keep a record of the highest and lowest temperatures in our exposed garden in Welwyn.
The lowest figures for the last two Winters were:-
December 2008 -5.0
December 2009 -7.3
January 2009 -10.3
January 2010 -4.8
February 2009 -5.6
February 2010 -3.0
March 2009 -2.4
March 2010 (to date) -5.1

So, there is no clear pattern. However, these represent only the extremes and not the averages.

RE: This winter by Alison King – written 07/03/2010 10:21:41

How about contacting Rothamsted – they keep weather records.

RE: RE: This winter by Richard Stubbs – written 22/03/2010 21:38:22

The following is Rothamstead summary for Dec. -Temperature December had slightly below average maximum and minimums, 5.4°C (-1.74) and 0.0°C (-1.92) respectively. The highest temperature was 11.87°C on the 5th and the lowest temperature was -8.38°C in the early hours of the 23rd. · We had 15 air frosts and 16 ground frosts.

RE: RE: RE: This winter by Richard Stubbs – written 22/03/2010 21:40:57

And for Jan: – Temperature January was colder than average with mean maximum and minimum temperatures of 3.2°C (-3.1) and -0.9°C (-1.74) respectively. The highest day temperature was 8.04°C (-3.33) on the 17th, and the lowest minimum was -6.5°C (-0.45) on the 7th. · Frosts We had 19 air frosts and 19 ground frosts.

RE: RE: RE: RE: This winter by Richard Stubbs – written 22/03/2010 21:42:25

And for Feb: – Temperature The mean maximum and the mean minimum temperatures were both below average with 5.4ºC (-1.27) and 0.3ºC (-0.47) respectively. The lowest minimum was -3.1ºC (+1.9) on the 20th, and the highest maximum was 10.2ºC (-1.7) on the 5th. · Frosts We had 14 air frosts and 18 ground frosts.

Nerine bowdenni by Alison King – written 02/12/2009 13:27:41

In a garden I work in the Nerines have produced what seem to be fruitlets. They are spherical, fleshy and approx 3/4 cm in size. They don’t seem to have a seed inside. Does any one have experience of propagating them from these. Are they the seed istelf – perhaps not ripe, although they were falling off the plants.

Nerine bowdenii by Alison King – written 04/03/2010 11:16:34

Thank you David for mentioning this in your email. I found some information (in a book!) and sowed 15 seeds immediately in modules and put them in the airing cupboard. They have germinated eratically – about half so far. Once the first had come up I had to put them in the light of course. No doubt it will be years before they flower but my curiosity is satisfied.

Fuchsia (non hardy)  Diana Garner wrote (22/11/2009 11:06:51):

I have just managed to dig up my non hardy fuchsias and bring them into my frost free greenhouse.  Any tips as to how to overwinter them now?  Thanks

RE: Fuchsia (non hardy) by David Singleton – written 01/12/2009 18:44:15

Fuchsias enjoy a winter holiday too! For a good display next year I suggest you cut the tops well back and remove any remaining leaves. You can cut the roots back too – say to fit them back into their original sized pots. More or less any compost will do but don’t let them stand in water or get completely bone dry. In a frost free greenhouse most will soon send out new shoots and grow slowly through winter. Triphylla types (terminal flowering Thalia etc,) like it a bit warmer, though, to keep them ticking over, say 40 degrees C.

Aeonium ‘Schwartzkopf’ by Meta Reeves – written 12/11/2009 17:59:10

I bought a one-headed Aeonium ‘Schwartzkopf’ from the plant stall a couple of years ago. It has thrived ever since and has now grown into a 10-headed gangly specimen, which needs a stake to stop it from toppling over! It spent all summer outside but is now overwintering in the greenhouse.
How do I propagate from it? Do I just cut off one of the heads with a bit of trunk and put it into gritty compost? My plant book tells me to take stem cuttings in the Spring but I am not sure how to do this without sacrificing the whole plant?

RE: Aeonium ‘Schwartzkopf’ by Roger Trigg – written 30/12/2009 23:03:22

BTW, the variety name is ‘Zwartkop’ not ‘Schwartzkopf’, ie, it’s Dutch, not Deutsch!”

RE: Aeonium ‘Schwartzkopf’ by David Singleton – written 01/12/2009 18:25:20

Just so! Chop the top off with about 1 inch of stem, let it dry off then pot it up in a small pot of sandy compost, about half an inch deep. I find they root easily at any time of year. The original plant will send out new stems from old leaf nodes, but you might want to cut it down a bit first and use the discarded stems for more cuttings which will root just as easily: I use about 1 and a half inches of bare stems, several to a shallow pot of sandy compost. You just need to remember which way up they go!

RE: Aeonium ‘Schwartzkopf’ by Julie Wise – written 29/11/2009 12:53:50

In the past I have knocked off heads of my aeoniums whilst moving them and have then just potted them up in gritty compost or if I am running short of time inserted them in the compost at the base of the mother plant.  They have all survived.  At present I have three pieces of trunk in gritty compost and a terracotta pot waiting for some green shoots to appear but I don’t expect that to happen until next spring.  New heads will grow from where you take the cutting as well so it’s a winner all round.  You may also be able to take leaf cuttings but I haven’t tried this.  Good luck.

Fuchsia by Sue Jaye – written 27/10/2009 22:51:17

I have space in the garden for a hardy fuchsia.It will live in a South facing bed , backed by the wall of the house and its neighbour will be my treasured Chimonanthus praecox, which is a dull old thing in the summer, but would make a nice green contrast to the flowers of a fuchsia.It is quite sheltered, as much further along the same wall a a cytisus battandieri is more than happy. Five feet tall would be good. Please suggest a good fuchsia to get, and possibly a source of a good plants.

RE: Fuchsia by David Singleton – written 05/11/2009 10:54:16

A South facing bed, backed by a house wall is a challenging site for fuchsias, generically more comfortable on the misty slopes of the South American Andes. They won’t enjoy the reflected heat from the wall and, above a temperature of about 85 degrees, will just stop growing.

If you are really keen to try, I suggest that you underplant with ground cover to help shade the roots and position as far away from the wall as possible. But an East facing wall – that’s altogether different and hard to beat. . . .

I have had success in full sun with some good old varieties which you could try – Mrs Popple, Phyllis and Rufus to name three which will grow to about a metre high. Many magellanica derivatives will grow taller, e.g. Riccartonii, Whiteknights Pearl and Hawkshead, but tend to drop leaves if it’s too dry.

Best to buy good stock at our own plant sale of course – United Reform Church Hall, Homewood Road, St Albans in early June.

Myosotidium by Madeleine – written 15/10/2009 15:06:32

What am I doing wrong to make my myosotidium look so ill and pathetic? It is in a pot in free draining soil and was overwintered in a frost free greenhouse. I have fed it during the growing season and dosed it with provardo.It is predominantly in shade. It puts up a few leaves but the majority go yellow and it has never flowered Does it need more sunlight and perhaps less water (blame helpful John, intermittently very enthusiastic with the hose)

RE: Myosotidium by Heather Osborne – written 08/11/2009 10:10:23

I have struggled too. Mine flowered wonderfully one year, then gradually dwindled away over the following year despite being kept in the same conditions (in a pot, in semi-shade, well watered, overwintered in greenhouse.) I suspect they need a moister atmosphere than we can provide in the South-east, having seen them looking wonderful in Cornwall.

RE: RE: Myosotidium by Alison King – written 19/11/2009 13:41:22

I’ve had just the same experience -very disappointing.

Fuchsia rust by Heather Osborne – written 24/08/2009 19:49:05

My (not hardy) fuchsias in pots are displaying what I think is rust, i.e. orange/yellow spotting and premature drop of the leaves. Any recommendations for prevention and a suitable fungicide welcome, please!

RE: Fuchsia rust by David Singleton – written 29/09/2009 11:41:50

Picking off all the fungus-spotted leaves and a spray containing myclobutanil may stave off the worst for a week or two but your rusty fuchsias won’t do well again this year. You can rescue them for next year by cutting them hard back and stripping off all the remaining leaves. In this state I have found fuchsias can withstand an accidental spillage of a 200:1 solution of ‘Soap Based Outdoor Cleaner’ when I clean my patio, and new shoots are fungus free. Alternatively, Heather, buy a new plant, it’s probably cheaper than a bottle of chemicals.

Dianella Newsflash! by Anne – written 05/05/2009 20:48:06

After harping on about a lack of flowers and, therefore, berrries on my Dianella I can now report an absolute PROFUSION of buds (I have counted 18 stems!)

The question is: Did it just need time to mature? Was it the cold winter? Or do Dianellas have a secret broadband connection and respond well to threats?

RE: Dianella Newsflash! by Roger – written 28/05/2009 00:43:22

My 3 potted plants are also flowering for the first time in 3 years. They spent the winter in a polytunnel kept just above freezing (except for a couple of nights when the outside temp dropped to -10 and my huge Clivia got it outside leaves singed but survived nonetheless).

Plant ID please? by Janet Horton – written 23/04/2009 08:12:18

Hello all

Below should be a link to my album of unidentified plants – the geranium phaeum I may have bought from Barbara Stalbow, or may have come from the plant sale table many moons ago as “Samobor”, but does not have the markings on the leaves. Anyone any ideas?  The other two ought to be easier – a thistle-leaved daisy and combination photo of verbena, dahlia & what?

If this isn’t an active link, please copy and paste the text into your web browser.

Thanks, Janet

RE: Plant ID please? by Annie – written 27/04/2009 21:53:22

Hi Janet

The second photo is definitely Berkhaya purpurea, which has been discussed on the forum already.

The Geranium could any of many phaeum varieties??

As for the third photo, pass, but it looks very interesting indeed!

Agave Americana by margaret Bardell – written 21/03/2009 10:05:24

My two large Agaves have suffered badly from winter wet. They are, unfortunately too large to take in for the winter.They both have an undamaged central spike but all the side leaves have had to be removed. Is there any chance they will recover or should I abandon them?

RE: Agave Americana by Adrian de Baat – written 22/03/2009 17:32:42

Mine have also been damaged to varying degrees, but I would say that so long as the central spike is still intact then they will recover in time during the summer. Obviously cut off cleanly all the mushy leaves. Certainly some hot sunshine would help! I would persevere, since agaves are great specimen plants.

Incidentally I have a small plant of Agave montana, which I bought on ebay, and has been planted outside in the border all winter. It has sailed through completely undamaged, and is starting to produce a new leaf. Quite a remarkably hardy agave, especially given my plant’s small size. I am seriously considering acquiring another one.

Agave Americana by margaret Bardell – written 21/03/2009 10:05:24

My two large Agaves have suffered badly from winter wet. They are, unfortunately too large to take in for the winter.They both have an undamaged central spike but all the side leaves have had to be removed. Is there any chance they will recover or should I abandon them?

RE: Agave Americana by Adrian de Baat – written 22/03/2009 17:32:42

Mine have also been damaged to varying degrees, but I would say that so long as the central spike is still intact then they will recover in time during the summer. Obviously cut off cleanly all the mushy leaves. Certainly some hot sunshine would help! I would persevere, since agaves are great specimen plants.

Incidentally I have a small plant of Agave montana, which I bought on ebay, and has been planted outside in the border all winter. It has sailed through completely undamaged, and is starting to produce a new leaf. Quite a remarkably hardy agave, especially given my plant’s small size. I am seriously considering acquiring another one.

Berkheya purpurea by Adrian de Baat – written 18/03/2009 09:08:28

Does anyone have any experience of growing this perennial plant?

Clare and I saw it growing in Kirstenbosch when we there in January and were very impressed – surprisingly beautiful blue flowers above dense prickly thistle foliage. I acquired some seed from Chilterns when we returned and this is now germinating successfully. Any advice on how best to use it in the garden would be gratefully received.

RE: Berkheya purpurea by Madeleine – written 04/05/2009 14:32:30

Having despaired that I had lost a little patch of these, two have suddenly re-appeared.

Nick at Reveley Lodge saves the seed and treats them as annuals. I think my survivors are too large to be self seeders

RE: Berkheya purpurea by Heather Osborne – written 18/03/2009 21:06:01

I got a couple at the Seedling Exchange last year – one has overwintered successfully, one hasn’t. It is best placed where no one is going to catch themselves on it, as it does get big and vicious! – but still beautiful.

 RE: Berkheya purpurea by Alison King – written 18/03/2009 13:51:18

Yes I’ve tried it on a couple of occasions (one of them a plant bought from Annie) but have not succeded in overwintering it. It was in full sun and well drained soil . Perhaps this was not to its liking.

 RE: RE: Berkheya purpurea by Annie – written 19/03/2009 20:15:17

Berkheya definitely does prefer full sun and a well drained winter soil, they are quite thirsty when in growth. If plants make it through their first winter they seem to stay perennial. However, if there is a batch on the nursery overwinter we invaraibly lose a third of them, even if they are side by side and seemingly receiving exactly the same treatment. That’s if the slugs don’t make lace curtains of them first!

RE: RE: RE: Berkheya purpurea by Roger Trigg – written 11/05/2010 00:43:06

I’ve had this for some years now and it has survived OK. It’s growing in a sunny spot with very good drainage. Doesn’t really clump up, though – 3 stems at the most.

Ornamental Grasses by Edwina – written 09/03/2009 10:16:39

Yesterday I was cutting down some of my ornamental grasses when I suddenly thought – “This is easy compared to other years”.  The reason? Jokarti hand shears.  Handmade in Greece, they cut cleanly and precisely.  Brilliant on irisand phormium leaves they are a quality product and very comfortable to use. Not only that, with their bright red handles they are easy to spot when mistakenly left in the compst heap.  Find them at

RE: Ornamental Grasses by Annie – written 16/03/2009 22:27:57

Here! here! A client was generous enough to buy me a pair for Xmas last year and I wouldn’t be without them

RE: Ornamental Grasses by Alison King – written 10/03/2009 16:31:41

Thank you for the tip. I’ve just been wrestling with a pampas grass (not in my garden I hasten to add!) and it sounds like they would have made the job much easier.

Monardas by Adrian de Baat – written 06/03/2009 21:39:46

Does anyone share my enthusiasm for Monardas?

We have five different varieties already in our garden, and I have two newer mildew resistant varieties on order, namely “Gewitterwolke” and “Raspberry Wine”. I know they have their problems i.e. mildew (mainly on older varieties), a tendency to wander – or disappear altogether in a wet winter, but they have such fabulous flowers over a long period from mid summer onwards. The plants do not need staking and the seedheads create a presence over the whole of autumn and winter. In my view the pros greatly outweigh the cons. A great plant in a naturalastic style herbaceous border.

 RE: Monardas by Diana Barry – written 01/06/2009 09:17:29

At Glen Chantry recently I purchased a Monarda Squaw; the only one he now grows because it alone does not get mildew, he reckons.

Paeonia mlokosewitischii by Roger – written 25/02/2009 22:55:03

Does anyone share my view that this famous plant is much over-rated? The admittedly beautiful flowers in early spring are so fleeting and the foliage by paeony standards is nothing special. And if grown in a sunny spot the foliage can begin dying back by mid-summer. Pollination is also uncertain and I’ve seldom had a good crop of the red-turning black seeds. I’ve lifted and potted up my 2 plants this winter and will grow then in large pots placed by the front door while in flower then consigned out of the way thereafter!

RE: Paeonia mlokosewitischii by Julie Wise – written 05/03/2009 17:02:37

Sorry Roger I must disagree, I have found my Paeonia very happy in its spot sheltered by a yew hedge, west facing and semi shaded  and it always produces beautiful bright pink seed each autumn.  I must agree that the flowers are certainly fleeting but the foliage remains quite attractive sitting behind a hosta or two, it keeps a pinky soft glow and retains it’s pink stems.  I avoid supporting most plants in the garden but I take care to weave some hazel for support of the Paeonia mlokosewitischii.

RE: RE: Paeonia mlokosewitischii by Diana Barry – written 06/03/2009 09:40:58

I was given a not small clump and after flowering almost immediately it withered gradually.  The culprits were slugs devouring the roots.  I retrieved the remnants, potted them up and it is now showing some good shoots.  I certainly do not want to lose this beautiful plant again so, thanks Julie, I now have a better idea of where to site it – and will apply “slugit” to protect it.

RE: Paeony Mlockesevitchii by Barbara Stalbow – written 04/02/2010 18:07:05

Just a note about this Paeony.
The small coral pink seeds are the ones which have not been pollinated and it is only the round large black balls which when sown will eventually produce what I think is a supremely beatiful plant.

snow casualties by Heather – written 16/02/2009 07:49:37

A Coronilla valentina subsp. glauca and an Abutilon ‘Kentish Belle’, planted last spring on an east facing fence in what I had thought was a fairly sheltered spot, are looking extremely sick and sorry for themselves after the recent cold snap. (Two other Coronillas elsewhere in the garden look fine).

I would welcome any thoughts on how to rescue them. Cutting back in late spring? Leaving them to it and hope they’ll revive and put out fresh growth?

RE: snow casualties by Julie Wise – written 05/03/2009 16:53:07

Heather – I would leave them until late May where you may find life at the base of the plant or perhaps even some new shoots on the stems.  I have two evergreens Cestrum parquii and Nerium oleander (a bit of a risk this one) that have lost all their leaves but the stems are still green.  My experience with the Nerium is that it will shoot from the base but not flower this year.  The Coronilla is found growing in scrubland in North Africa and Europe so probably enjoys well drained conditions, it hasn’t been that wet this winter just cold so will probably survive.  Anyhow leave a little longer me thinks.

RE: snow casualties by Alison K – written 28/02/2009 02:27:10

My Coronilla  died last year for no apparent reason. Do they just flower themselves to death?

Snow and frost casualties in Vancouver  (where the climate is, broadly speaking the same as ours and where they were taken by surprise by very heavy snow and low temperatures at Christmas) include Choisyas, Hebes, Ceanothus and Fatsia. So perhaps we have all been pushing our luck with what we have been growing.

 Mistletoe by Madeleine – written 05/02/2009 19:06:12

Jennifer Parker HHPS member has a very large growth of mistletoe on her small apple tree. In a few years time I would think the little tree will be over whelmed. She has given us bunches at Christmas time for probably 35 years. From time to time I have tried to get a seed to germinate on our large old apple tree, with different stages of ripeness, with/without mud, incisions or cracks of varying depth. All unsuccessful to date. As it is such a rampant plant I am thinking of trying to graft a young piece from a terminal branch onto our tree. Can anyone give me advice please.

RE: Mistletoe by Anne – written 07/02/2009 22:26:39

I have never tried myself but the following website seems to have a pretty comprehensive guide to having a go!  Good luck

RE: RE: Mistletoe by Julie Wise – written 13/02/2009 13:15:20

This website gives very comprehensive advice so I may try and grow some myself. I know thaey can be pretty clever but I always wondered how a bird managed to peel back the bark of a tree and deposit the seed underneath!

Angelica gigas by Adrian de Baat – written 13/01/2009 13:58:58

I am rather fond of this late summer flowering umbellifer. Visitors also often comment on it. Unfortunately it is biennial and seems reluctant to self seed in our garden. Does anyone have any tips on growing it from seed? Does the seed need stratifying? I have tried sowing with fresh seed in autumn and then in spring, but with no luck in germination. I end up with buying another batch of plants from Anne! Come to think of it, perhaps she knows the secret!

Incidentally, I am growing Angelica archangelica and Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’ this year, having been impressed with both at Chelsea last year. Is anyone also keen on these taller wilder looking plants?

RE: Angelica gigas by Julie Wise – written 21/01/2009 23:14:23


I am a great lover of umbellifers and have grown several here at the cottage the most successful being Angelica archangelica which self seeds everywhere and looks good , particularly in shade.  I have grown Angelica Gigas and Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’ but without the success of self seeding.

A couple of years ago on a visit to Waltham Place,  owned by a member of the Oppenheimer family and planted by Henk Gerritson, one of my favourite gardens but not for the tidy mindied, I came across the seedheads of a very tall umbellifer Peucedanum verticillare which was statuesque at about 8ft tall and looked magnificent in the wild borders of The Walled Garden.  I bought a couple of plants which have yet to flower, like most umbellifers they are monocarpic so will die after flowering but there will be plenty of seed to collect.

If you don/t already own a copy I can reccommend the .HPS booklet on Umbellifers by Timothy Ingram

RE: Angelica gigas by Anne – written 14/01/2009 18:03:09

Obviously I am shooting myself in the foot here, but i get good germination results as follows;

I collect seed as it ripens and save it in the fridge. It is sown in early January and left somewhere where the tray will get frosted. I then bring the tray in at the beginning of March and put it in the propagator with a little bottom heat. Germination is then quite rapid.

I use this method for any seed that I have had problems with in the past and generally it works quite well.

Good luck (I don’t really mean that-times are hard!)

RE: RE: Angelica gigas by Roger – written 25/02/2009 22:47:30

I can confirm A. gigas needs stratification. I sowed Derry Watkins’ seed in autumn one year, left the tray in a cold frame and got good germination in spring. I don’t recall any self-seeding however.

RE: RE: Angelica gigas by Adrian de Baat – written 15/01/2009 08:55:59

Thanks, Anne – I will certainly try this method. By the way, never fear! If by chance I am successful then I will be able to spend the money saved on other interesting plants at the nursery – Centaurea benoistii readily springs to mind!

RE: Angelica gigas by Marion Jay – written 02/05/2012 10:59:46

A late submission here but, frustrated by A. gigas’s reluctance to germinate, I performed an experiment last September.  I filled two seed trays with the same compost and placed them in the same spot, outside in sunshine.  In one I sowed A. gigas seeds harvested when still red and shiny, i.e. at a stage normally considered unripe.  In the second, I sowed seeds from the same plant harvested when brown.  Both were sown immediately after harvesting, covered with mesh to prevent disturbance and both trays were watered equally.  The ‘unripe’ seeds germinated en masse within three weeks, whereas the seed tray with the brown ‘ripe’ seeds remained completely barren all winter.  I realised that the scarification through frost, which I’d always considered essential, wasn’t necessary.  I shall be sowing red, ‘unripe’ seed again this year and I’d be interested to hear if anyone else has success with the same method.

 Feeding Containerised Box Plants by Julie Wise – written 12/01/2009 19:08:36

I have several box globes in terracotta containers as features on my terrace and they are looking a little sad.  I re-pot them every couple of years  using a John Innes no. 3 compost and feed them an organic fertiliser annually.  I also remove the top few inches of soil and top up with fresh when not re-potting.  Can anyone recommend a high nitrogen feed, organic or otherwise to perk them up a bit.  I do not want to re-pot again as the containers are large enough.  I also water regularly and fortunately there is not sign of disease.  I have thought about planting them in the ground and also those pots in the shade seem to flourish.

Perhaps I have answered my own question!

RE: Feeding Containerised Box Plants by Adrian de Baat – written 12/01/2009 23:14:55

I expect you already know this, but Chempak No. 2 is a good high nitrogen soluble fertiliser, which I have had success with. It is is available in most garden centres.

RE: RE: Feeding Containerised Box Plants by Julie Wise – written 14/01/2009 14:41:53

Thank you Adrian, I have only tried organic fertilisers in the past but will buy your recommendation and will keep you informed of the results.

 Euphorbia mellifera by Madeleine – written 10/01/2009 22:13:30

I bought a tiny plant from the HHPS plant table some years back. It is now about 8ft high and become quite leggy and unsightly.  It has seeded around but all the seedlings are in cracks in the paving and impossible to transplant. If I take a saw to the parent plant will it bush up and rejuvenate or should I dig it out and start again? Chance it and see what happens?

 RE: Euphorbia mellifera by Helen Cullens – written 05/02/2009 14:51:13

We have an old plant about 15 years old which has survived all sorts of treatment.   It grows to about 6ft high and wide, but has some support.   I cut all the flowered stems out every year right to the ground.     If you let some of the stems sag they will help to disguise the legs of the others behind them.   The sap is very irritating so don’t let it remain on your skin and you probably need goggles if you mince it….   It is an excellent plant especially when wafting honey scents around the garden.

 RE: Euphorbia mellifera by Julie Wise – written 12/01/2009 11:00:49

Madeleine – I have several plants in my own garden seeded from the mother plant but fortunately in the right place.  I generally cut mine back after flowering, in July sometime and with the poor soil they are growing in this seems to keep them in check.  The mother plant was knocked back by a hard frost some years ago and regrew from the base.

If you cut back this spring, not before, your plant should shoot from the base or you could wait and enjoy the honey scented flowers  then cut back completely leaving any young shoots to flower next year (these should be showing now).  You are then left with the problem of a gap left by an 8ft high specimen, I would suggest filling this with tall annuals eg Ricinus communis, Atriplex hortensis or Helianthus annuus until the Euphorbia has a chance to grow.

When they get leggy they aren’t particularly attractive plants, grasses eg Anamenthele leesoniana planted in front can help disguise the bare stems and this evergreen grass also picks up the colours of the Euphorbia.

I hope this helps.

HPS Seed list by Meta – written 03/01/2009 16:31:16

The annual list has an amazing collection of seeds for the members to try their hands at growing on. The only snag is trying to identify the plant names! I have several books and catalogues that I usually refer to – including RHS publications – but many of the names do not get a mention in any of them. I would be very grateful for advice on reference books on hardy plants – especially with a view to identify the seed list!

RE: HPS Seed list by Julie Wise – written 07/01/2009 11:38:36

I would agree with Anne the internet is certainly invaluable also try independent nursery catalogues, Woottens of Wenhaston in Suffolk print their excellent The Plantsman’s Handbook which is full of interesting information and Bob Brown has some great advice about the plants he sells on his own website at Cotswold Garden Flowers.  Alternatively try this forum someone might know/grown said plant.

RE: HPS Seed list by Anne – written 06/01/2009 14:11:57

If I cannot find a particular plant in any of my books, I Google the name and end up with pages of information and invariably photos too.

I would, however, heartily recommend the RHS Encyclopaedia of Perennials which is fairly new, but so good I bought a copy for home and one for reference at the nursery

RE: RE: HPS Seed list by Meta – written 28/01/2009 14:46:58

Thank you, Annie, for recommending the RHS encyclopaedia of perennial plants. It really is excellent and far superior to my old RHS book. I have also found Derry Watkins website very helpful – lots of photographs to help with identification.

Galanthus by Madeleine – written 20/12/2008 21:13:02

Galanthus elwesii Mrs McNamara.  Peter Dixon gave me a small number of bulbs many years ago saying they should flower by Christmas Day. Every year since you could set the date by them opening their buds on Christmas Eve. This year they opened on the 1st of December. Has anyone else found them flowering so early?

RE: Galanthus by Heather – written 22/12/2008 19:16:18

Mine have just fully opened in the last couple of days. I thought they might be later this year with the colder Autumn, but still not as early as 1st Dec.

RE: RE: Galanthus by Diana – written 17/12/2011 16:51:44

I’ve come into the forum to share my amazement that my G Mrs McNamara are well up and in flower.   unfortunately I didn’t check earlier in the month.  like Madeleine’s mine usually flower on Christmas Day but didn’t last Christmas, they were later. .

Dianellas by Anne – written 15/12/2008 16:01:13

Has anyone got any thoughts on why i never get any flower, and therefore, no longed for purple berries on my Dianella tasmanica?

It was purchased at the Old Vicarage, East Rushton about 3years ago and has made a large clump of very healthy foliage in a well drained raised bed, near the back of the house, which is south facing and sheltered. If no one has any helpful advice it will  have to go & make way for something more better!

RE: Dianellas by Roger Trigg – written 29/12/2008 16:45:06

Same thing here. Mine flowered and berried for 2 years, then nothing for the past 2 years. Perhaps it needs a long hot summer.

RE: RE: Dianellas by Barbara Stalbow – written 30/12/2008 22:54:58

is year had the first flowers but no berries as a squirrel or pigeon was rather partial to the taste of the flowers.I think they are hungry plants and need a diet of tomato food if they are grown in pots

RE: Dianellas by Julie Wise – written 31/12/2008 16:18:22

is year had the first flowers but no berries as a squirrel or pigeon was rather partial to the taste of the flowers. I think they are hungry plants and need a diet of tomato food if they are grown in pots

Thanks for that – tomato food it is then Barbara.  I must admit my berries were eaten, mice I think.

RE: RE: Dianellas by Helen Cullens – written 29/12/2008 17:03:04

I have some dianellas whether tasmanica or not I don’t know, but they do flower and berry every year and have done so for ten years or so.   Mine are evergreen and run around in ordinary soil facing west;  I tried some in a shaded bed facing north and they did not thrive.   As they come from New Zealand they probably like our climate.

RE: RE: RE: Dianellas by Julie Wise – written 30/12/2008 09:37:57

Hi everyone, my Dianella is in a terracotta container, often neglected I must add and tucked away under other antipodean plants on the terrace, it also flowered initially but no more.  I tried nurturing it with a high potash feed but no luck, it provides a good strappy foliage element so I enjoy it for that alone, it also seems to be thriving with all that neglect.  I remember admiring Roger’s plant some time ago on an NGS open day.

RE: RE: RE: RE: Dianellas by Brian Franklin – written 13/01/2009 15:35:29

I don’t find Dianella Tasmanica particularly hardy and therefore grow it in a large pot which I sink into the ground in summer and keep in a cool greenhouse over winter. This means that the plant starts growing fairly early, maybe the longer season of growth helps as mine flowers and berries quite well. It seems to prefer being potbound but I do feed it well with Tomorite. I have a variegated variety which I cannot get into flower although it is treated as above.

RE: Dianellas by Adrian de Baat – written 15/12/2008 19:12:18

I must admit that I have also never been able to get mine to flower in a similarly sunny position. It has spread a bit via underground roots, popping up about a foot or so away – but no flowers. I will persist for a bit longer as I too would like to see the purple berries.

moss in lawns by Dennis Sandor – written 06/12/2008 17:31:54

I thought I would pass on to you a tip I learned from the Radlett Horticultural Society, about ridding moss from lawns.  I have tried this for a number of years, and found that this simple treatment is effective.   Of course, unless one treats the underlying cause, the moss will return, usually by the following year.

The best time to treat the lawn is between mid September and mid October,  preferably before the lawn is covered with leaves.   The treatment consists of spreading superphosphate on the whole lawn.   How much?    Quite a lot, but if laid on too thickly, it will smother the grass.  I spread it by hand-broadcasting.  Try not to breathe it in.   Being a fertiliser, it does not matter if it gets onto to plants or borders.

After a couple of days and some rain or heavy dew, you will notice the moss turn black.   The superphosphate acts as an autumn fertiliser for the grass.  You will see that, over the winter, the grass will (slowly) recolonise the patches left by the moss.

Superphosphate is not very soluble.  If your subsoil is chalky (typical in our area) the calcium should prevent the phosphate getting into ground water.  If the soil and subsoil are acidic, then the phosphate may get into ground water, and you may not wish to use this treatment.

Other treatments are – spring, lawn sand;  and in the summer, ferrous sulphate (the active ingredient in lawn sand, without the nitrate).    I have found it difficult to get the dosage right.    Both these will kill some broadleaved weeds too.

These treatments avoid using the poisons found in most moss killers.   Rather they create an environment in which grass thrives and moss dislikes.

RE: moss in lawns by Adrian de Baat – written 06/12/2008 19:29:30

I think that in the long term the answer to keeping lawns moss-free is good drainage. In my experience moss tends to grow either in very wet spots where water just sits following rain, or it colonises area of the lawn where the grass is growing poorly due to shade or soil compaction. I have found that, although quite hard work, spiking the lawn to a depth of three to four inches -particularly the bad areas – in autumn and early winter has greatly improved the quality of our lawn and kept it (fingers crossed) largely free of moss.

ferns by meta – written 03/12/2008 13:33:42

Should I cut off all the fronds of my Matteuccias in the Spring as the new crooks are coming up? If so, should it be done every year?

RE: ferns by Adrian de Baat – written 06/12/2008 19:11:06

I cut off the fronds of mine every year in February during the final clean-up of all the perennial plants, just as the new season is beginning.

RE: ferns by Alison – written 04/12/2008 11:08:24

Yes that’s what I would do – it’s a deciduous fern so the old fronds die back each year. You need to take care not to damage the new fronds coming through.

Stipa tenuissima by Heather – written 05/11/2008 17:20:13

When is the best time to do the ‘push down’ technique you recommended at your talk?

RE: Stipa tenuissima by Roger Trigg – written 29/12/2008 16:43:26

I prefer to give it a short back ‘n sides in February. Within days new leaves appear with all the old brown stuff gone. I do the same with S. gigantea which unless cut back hard often looks a bit of a mess – it comes back vigorously year after year.

RE: Stipa tenuissima by annie – written 05/11/2008 18:00:33

Anytime there is an excess of ‘blond’ foliage that you want to get rid of. Usually this means once around the beginning of Sept, again anytime now and possibly a little pull in early spring. It’s an on-going occasional tidy rather than a once a year job.

Ashridge House and Gardens Opening in August 2012

I am emailing information about the opening of Ashridge House and the Grade II* gardens for guided tours during August and hope  it  may be of interest to members of the Hardy Plants Society.  Whilst the house and gardens are open for tours during August, the gardens continue to be open at weekends for general visits until the end of September. You may already know that they are the finest surviving example of the work of Humphry Repton who set out his vision of 15 separate gardens as Pleasure Grounds  to complement the newly built mansion in 1813. 
The  sparkling white thousand foot long Grade I mansion, with its splendid ornate interiors, houses paintings dating from the early 17th Century and includes the Christopher Tower Collection of oils on canvas, miniatures and watercolours, some by renowned painters such as Sir Joshua Reynolds. There are sculptures and modern paintings too and, in the restored 19th Century stables, there is a new exciting exhibition telling the story of Ashridge from its monastic beginnings in 1283 through the Dissolution,  when it became a royal home to Henry VIII’s children,  to a grand 18th and 19th Century aristocratic estate and finally on into the 21st Century as one of the world’s leading business schools. It is a wonderful pictorial journey including drawings and maps of the most recent exciting archaeological finds from Tudor times.
The gardens, as well as containing Humphry Repton’s Pleasure Grounds, include an arboretum, a moat, skating pond, an italianate garden and a 400 metre Wellngtonia avenue, lined on two inner sides with a 390 metre rhododendron walk, all dating from the mid to late 19th Century.
I know that many local societies and organisations do not normally meet in August but I hope you will be able to circulate the information by email and, if you would like to arrange a group visit to the gardens or the house beyond August, please get in touch wtih Mick Thompson, Gardens Manager on 01442 841042 or email
Thank you so much and we do hope to see you.
Ann Mallinson
for Ashridge (Bonar Law Memorial) Trust
Reg. Charity 311096.