Keeping your eye on the ball

Box topiary.jpg

I will admit it, I am a sucker for topiary. It is not in the least old fashioned. In fact, it has kept pace with contemporary design and continues to offer enormous design opportunities and benefits. Topiary is not just for large stately homes. Quite the contrary.

If you think about it, topiary works brilliantly for the smaller garden. Whether it is narrow borders requiring evergreen structure, edging or an herbaceous border that needs that extra ‘something’, then topiary can provide the answer. You would not plant an enormous yew tree in your small border of course but you might plant a closely clipped yew cone to add bold upright structure to it. And this is the point, some plants, if left to their own devices become enormous trees, do respond beautifully to being closely pruned and shaped year on year. But you must keep on top of the clipping!

The most often used topiary plant is Buxus sempervirens. Closely clipped box topiary is stunning especially when box is planted in regular patterns or groups. Personally I don’t find topiary clipping a chore because I love it, but do consider that box may need clipping 2-3 times a year at least to keep it looking immaculate. There has been some concern of late about Buxus: box blight and box tree caterpillars have caused major problems. The caterpillars feed within webbing and can completely defoliate box plants. It is a relatively new insect to Britain and has become widespread in London. Fortunately, I have not come across either box caterpillar or blight, and therefore I continue to specify Buxus for my garden designs and for my own garden here in the Midlands. But there are options and alternatives to consider if you are of a nervous disposition (or just fancy something different).

I have already mentioned Yew (Taxus baccata) and this works well as a topiary ball (not just as hedging or tall cones). It is robust but prefers a freer draining soil and, in my experience, can be tricky to get established (once established though it will romp away). It has darker bigger foliage than box and therefore the effect, although beautiful, is not exactly the same.

Other alternatives are Ilex crenata. This is a small leaved holly (it is more expensive than both box and yew). It is not always resilient to the dreaded caterpillar from down South.

Consider also Lonicera nitida (or ‘Poor Man’s Box’). It is very robust with small leaves and can therefore be clipped into close topiary shapes, but it is very fast growing and will therefore need pretty much constant attention.

Other prettier options are varieties of Hebe and Pittosporum. The foliage may not have the incredibly closely clipped appearance of Buxus, but they can nevertheless provide a loosely clipped rounded appearance in the borders and may also have other qualities such as purple foliage and flowers to offer. Lavenders can provide a similar solution especially where you are looking for a low edging solution to a path. That said, Hebe, Pittosporum and Lavenders prefer sun whereas Box will tolerate shade.

Whichever option you run with for your garden and its context, you will not be disappointed by adding topiarised structure to your garden.





June in Bloom by Paul stockwell

June is the 6th month of the year and the first month of summer. It was possibly name after Juno, Roman goddess of marriage…...

Gertrude Jekyll rose by David Austin.jpg

The Anglo Saxons called June “sera monath” or the dry month. After the rather cold damp Spring we have endured, a little bit of dry weather will be very welcome, thank you. Plus, this month has the longest daylight hours of the year, so should offer us plenty of opportunities to get outside and enjoy a spot of gardening or to relax on a warm evening with a glass of one’s favourite beverage. Whilst out there you may well catch a waft of fragrance from your roses (if you have any of course). 

If you were born in June, you might know that the rose is the official birthday flower of June.

Although neither of us were born in June, we do have a couple of lovely roses which we train over an ornamental archway I made to mark the boundary of the more formal part of the garden to the ‘wild area’. On either side, is English climbing rose ‘Gertrude Jekyll’ (David Austin Roses). Named after the famous garden designer Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932), this rose is one of the earliest to come into flower and it has lovely bright pink blooms which have a fantastic ‘old rose’ aroma. When ‘the Gertrudes’ are both on full display, they are not just beautiful to look at; they are highly perfumed too, so also a treat to sniff when walking through to the end of the garden.

 One of our Gertrude twins was a wedding present and has survived several upheavals of being planted, dug up and re-planted. It is quite a robust rose despite its delicate appearance.

June makes for a great wedding month, in that so many plants are in bloom, which means lots to choose from for the occasion’s floral displays. Some cut Gertrude flowers would make a very nice addition. Perhaps the old Rose ‘Juno’ (David Austin again) would be fitting for this too, she being the goddess of marriage……

I end quoting Nathaniel Parker Willis (1806-1867), an American author and poet:

“It is the month of June,

The month of leaves and roses,

When pleasant sights salute the eyes

And pleasant scents the noses”


Nuts in May by Paul Stockwell

Crataegus monogyna by Simply Go Gardening.jpg

Have you ever gathered nuts in May? I certainly haven’t, as (hazel) nuts are not ready until the Autumn. You will probably all know the first verse:

“Here we go gathering nuts in may, nuts in May, nuts in May,

Here we go gathering nuts in May, on a cold and frosty morning”.

There are several more (very similar verses) but this one was etched in my mind at a very early age, with no explanation. Well, this old children’s song dates back to medieval times when, to celebrate May Day, it was common practice for young folk to gather and tie bunches (knots) of hawthorn blossom (aka may), then hang these at home, partly for decoration but more to protect family and home from thunderstorms, lightning and the like.

So, instead of ‘Nuts in May’ read ‘Knots of may’. Nuts in May could still be quite accurate though, as several ‘greenwood marriages’ were conducted after May-time revelry (draw your own conclusions).

The song does have wise words even so, in that we can still get ‘cold and frosty’ mornings in May. If this last winter is anything to go by, we most probably will! So, if frost is forecast, protect your tender plants.

As the days are getting longer, so are the things we should be doing in the garden. Regular lawn mowing and hoeing off weeds in beds and veggie patches are good May jobs. If you’re clipping hedges, check for nesting birds before getting the shears out! May is also an ideal month to lift and divide Spring flowering bulbs (e.g. daffodils). Also, if this hasn’t worn you out, have a bit of a tidy by cutting back Spring plants and put in vegetables and flowers for summer.

It’s all very well giving advice of course. I’ll try to do some of these things but, as Elspeth wrote recently, we will be installing her Show Garden at RHS Chatsworth this May so, our own garden will have to be patient with us. The veg patch has been put over to growing plants for the show and between the showers, I’ll be outside constructing a pair of bespoke oak benches for the same.

I might actually gather some hawthorn blossom for the first time and hang it in the house. I could do without the weather driving me nuts in May!


Unfurling Spring by Elspeth Stockwell

Asplenium scolopendrium.jpg

It seems to have been quite a long chilly winter and I am writing this when outside the landscape has turned completely white with snow (it is the end of February). It is difficult to imagine the warmth of Spring on a day like today. But here goes, let’s take a look at ferns and try to imagine their unfurling fronds and lush green foliage.

Ferns are an interesting bunch, they belong to vascular plants that reproduce via spores and have neither seeds nor flowers. They are found in four types of habitats: moist, shady woodlands; crevices in rock faces shaded from the sun; acid wetlands; and tropical rainforest (the trees ferns). Its important to take note of the original habitats of ferns when deciding where to place them in a garden situation.

Here are some of my favourites that I use in planting plans when designing for woodland settings:

Polypodium vulgare

This is a small evergreen fern, a native to the UK and tolerates damp and dry soils if it has shade. It has long, leathery, dark green fronds and mixes well with other ferns providing size and colour contrast.

Polystichum aculeatum

This is another evergreen native of the UK. It has lustrous, long, narrow, dark green fronds forming a distinctive shuttlecock-like shape. It reaches about 60cm in height. It does well in humus-rich, well-drained soil in part or full shade.

Dryopteris erythrosora

This is a beauty! A deciduous fern that prefers moist humus rich soils in partial shade. It stands out from other ferns because of its coppery red foliage. I use it to echo cor-ten finishes on features such as screens or water features, for example, and its triangular-shaped fronds look great against the strong shapes of Yew and Box topiary.

Asplenium scolopendrium

A lovely, evergreen hart's tongue fern. Its shiny, wavy-edged fronds unfurl in early spring, and remain all year. It contrasts well with other ferns. It needs partial shade.

All the above are hardy and combine well with other shade tolerate plants such as Aquilegias, Digitalis lutea (yellow foxglove), Persicaria ‘Superba’ and Hellebores.

If it is a more exotic look you are after: more rainforest than English woodland then the tree fern (Dicksonia antarctica) may be your fern of choice. It too requires part shade and humus-rich soil, preferably on the more acidic side. They are slow growing but in their native Australia and Tasmania can reach six metres.  They are rainforest specimens and as such absorb their nutrients through the trunk, so the whole stem and crown will require spray watering to mimic the rainforest conditions. They will also require winter protection. 

This is just a drop in the ocean as far as ferns are concerned. There are many more to explore.

I can feel the snow melting already.

Welcome Spring.

The RHS Chatsworth Flower Show, John Deere and 100 tractors by Elspeth Stockwell

We are very excited to announce that Elspeth Stockwell Garden Design Ltd. will be exhibiting a show garden at the Royal Horticultural Society Chatsworth Flower Show later this year. This will be the second year of the Chatsworth Flower Show, a sell out last year and a significant event for the Midlands region. Other RHS summer events include the Chelsea, Hampton Court and Tatton Park Flower Shows.

Waterloo Boy Model N John Deere's first tractor 1918_courtesy of John Deere.jpg

Even more exciting is that the show garden is sponsored by John Deere, a global company, with its UK base in Langar. John Deere are well known for their lawn mowers among domestic buyers and agricultural equipment among farming businesses. What is perhaps not known is that John Deere are celebrating 100 years of tractor manufacturing this year.  They have a longstanding commitment to those who cultivate, transform and enrich the land and this is a special anniversary. This will be their first show garden.

A little history: Blacksmith John Deere founded the company that bears his name in 1837, in Illinois USA, when he developed an innovative plough that could work the heavy soil of the American prairies, revolutionising agriculture and making farming profitable in the region’s tough conditions. In 1918 the company entered the tractor business and has steadily grown to be one of the world’s leading manufacturers of agricultural and turf equipment.

We have designed the show garden with a relaxed communal space and it features 100 golden tractors (a bespoke sculpture designed by Jo Fairfax Studio of Harby especially for the centenary celebration). Two charred black circular oak benches will be designed and built by Paul Stockwell and the timber will be supplied by Belvoir Saw Mill. The planting will be a beautiful mix of monoculture and mixed prairie styles and will be supplied by Oasis in Hoby. Our chosen contractor to build our show garden is David Greaves Landscape Design based in Old Dalby. So, this is very much about bringing together a team of local talents and skills to help John Deere celebrate their very important centenary.

It’s all systems go as we build up to the show! You can follow progress via our Facebook page at

RHS Chatsworth Flower Show runs 6-10 June 2018. Tickets can be purchased via the RHS website

We hope you can make it along to say hello and to enjoy the Flower Show.

Multi stem trees by Elspeth Stockwell

Sorbus aucuparia multistem in foreground with Acer 'Autumn Fire' multistem behind, in one of Elspeth's woodland designs.jpg

Multi stems can sometimes get overlooked in planting schemes and I find that customers are not always exactly sure what they are. Essentially a multi stem tree is a tree with two or more main stems arising from or near ground level, growing from one root system. They are therefore neither a standard tree nor a shrub, but they do provide you with the benefits of both. They are not too dense nor too sparse at the base but instead provide an open habit and foliage at eye level.

I use multi stems a lot in planting design because they are very useful in providing a light screen for privacy and for filtering out wind to provide a little shelter. They have a low centre of gravity too and are therefore stable on windy sites compared with trees, perhaps requiring only one stake at the base. And because their habit is relatively open they are great for framing views or providing tantalising glimpses of vistas through their stems.

Where tree species have stem interest then multi stems are clearly an advantage because you get a lot of stem interest at eye level. Lovely examples include Betula jacquemontii with its gleaming white stems, Prunus serrula has beautiful shiny deep red veined stems. The bark of Acer griseum peels and if positioned well in a garden the flaky bark will catch the low winter sunlight. Needless to say, the beautiful bark features of multi stems provide particular winter interest.

In summer too, multi stems have real advantages over trees because you get a very good amount of foliage at eye level. Acer ‘Autumn Fire’ is a glorious example and its foliage turns fiery orange in autumn. It requires a little space, however, as it can grow large. Cercis canadensis is a better option for a smaller space and has very pretty heart shaped foliage in summer.

Multi stems can work in both contemporary gardens and more naturalistic settings. Multi stem silver birches are a mainstay of Chelsea flower show gardens. But I think multi stems are incredibly useful when you want to create an instant woodland atmosphere without creating problems with tree height or canopy issues. There are some lovely native specimens, and cultivars of which to try, such as Sorbus aucuparia (Mountain Ash), Alnus glutinosa (the Common Alder, but one of my favourites that will also tolerate a dampish ground) and Corylus avellana (Common Hazel). The Hazel and the Alder also have the advantage of being coppiced (cut back to base level) every few years.

Overall, the foliage, bark and the habit of a multi stem can provide some really valuable additional interest to a garden.

Border security by Paul Stockwell

Hedgehog freedom of movement.jpeg

We hope you have all enjoyed recent festivities and are looking forward to the coming year. By now Elspeth and I will hear the patter of (not so) tiny paws around our home in the form of Finlay, our new black Labrador puppy. Also by now I will have finished all the boundary jobs that need to be done, in our own garden for once, rather than those for our clients. For instance, installing posts and stock netting to the outside of our back hedge: this will keep the bouncy canine in but still allow smaller wildlife through, as we don’t want to exclude them. A new side gate looks good adjacent to our neighbour’s newly installed fence and will help with security. There is enough of a gap underneath for hedgehogs to get through and there are a couple of suitable holes in the fence gravel boards to allow them through.

 Related to this but thinking of the gardening year ahead of us, I have recently emptied our four compost bins onto the vegetable patch. We have created quite a lot, and this will put valuable nutrients back into the soil for growing lots of lovely plants and vegetables in 2018. I did however notice some foreign bodies lost within the compost: one of our teaspoons was recovered which was a bonus, but also there were quite a few plastic labels from apples oranges or bananas and a fair bit of plastic which must have been attached to the cardboard we put in to help with aeration and decomposition. So, to avoid wild creatures, or pets accidentally ingesting any nasties, I sifted through and removed unwanted items. I’ll keep an eye out though as things can slip through the net.

The vegetable patch, with its boundary fence and gates, was an integral part of our garden’s design and works very well. It’s not very high but should be enough of a barrier for Finlay. We’ll need to keep the gates closed from now on to deter a young dog from getting in and running riot all over my onions and Elspeth’s cutting flowers! It may not keep out the chickens but hey, I’m not Donald Trump and this isn’t Mexico.

My New Year’s resolution (which thankfully won’t take too much effort) is to check more thoroughly when putting vegetable, fruit, cardboard and paper waste into the compost bin, which in turn will do a little good all round. The garden will look a little more cared for and animals will be more cared for.

Have a fruitful 2018 and enjoy your gardens with your pets and wildlife.