Postcard from Chelsea: Best in Show


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The M&G Garden, James Basson


I can’t help feeling a bit smug about this year’s winner of Best in Show. I have been saying for quite some time that I thought James Basson was destined for great things: I first met him in Japan back in 2012, when he was doing the Gardening World Cup and created a fine, thoughtful and delicately judged garden based on the Wilfred Owen poem ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’. Even back then I knew he was doing something rather different.

I have loved everything he’s done ever since. Last year’s garden for L’Occitane recreated a Provence landscape with breathtaking attention to detail and was, for my money, head and shoulders above the rest (the RHS judges, sadly, didn’t agree with me).

Which is why it is a little painful for me to confess that this year’s garden is not, for me, a favourite. I hope he won’t mind me saying that I found the strongly geometric hard landscaping, meant to evoke a Maltese quarry, overwhelming and over-dominant. I think it’s something to do with the crisply-cut, cuboid, modernist shapes. There was a lot of rock in his L’Occitane garden, after all, but there it complemented the planting. This swamps it.

And that’s a shame, as the plants themselves are quite remarkable. Typically of James’s attention to detail, each one is thoughtfully chosen and grouped to recreate particular microclimates: many are Maltese natives, rarely seen on these shores.

These are austere wildflowers, with none of the over-the-top prettiness of Chelsea. It’s a harsh, uncompromising landscape which perfectly evokes the dry, edge-of-existence environment that is as fragile as it gets. It is brave, for Chelsea (especially in the sponsor’s garden), and makes no concessions to crowd-pleasing. It is, in fact, what James Basson does best.

So look past the overly-geometric, jarringly modernist stonework which I wish had more rough edges, more chaos, more wildness; and concentrate instead on the gaunt, stark dignity of the plants between. For that is where the real truth of this garden lies, and that is why James is such a very special and very different kind of designer whose moment in the spotlight has, at last, arrived.

Malvern magic


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malvern1A happy day yesterday pottering among the plants at the RHS Spring Festival at Malvern. This is one of the most low-key of flower shows, rarely talked about yet hiding treasures at its heart. Not least of which is one of the very best floral marquees of them all: for my money, second only to the marquee at Chelsea in terms of quality, quantity and sheer wow factor. I never tire of it.

By the time I left I was three scented-leaf geraniums, three salvias, a solar-powered irrigation system and a lot of large bamboo plant labels the heavier. All of which, no doubt, more later. But since I also had a camera loaded with pics I thought I would resurrect an old Constant Gardener tradition, last seen in 2012, and dish out a few gongs for the bits of the show that I thought were worth singling out for special attention.

Best Use of a Borrowed Landscape
At One With… A Meditation Garden (Gold and Best in Show)

Head and shoulders above the rest, and a shoo-in for Best in Show, Peter Dowle’s garden was a study in how to transport you to another place using plants, water and very, very clever design. Not least of which was nicking the grandeur of the Malvern Hills to make your acers look like they’re at one with the landscape.

Best Use of Recycled Materials
Team AK’s Grand Day Out, Ashton Keynes CofE Primary School, Wiltshire (Highly Commended)

I adore the school gardens at Malvern: they never fail to provide new ideas. I think it’s something to do with the way that kids see the world differently – and that includes gardens. Loved this painted bottle path edging – it just made me smile.

Best Wildflower Planting
The Refuge (Gold)

Ragged robin and corn poppies in a sublime little mini-meadow on Sue Jollan’s garden for Help Refugees UK.

Wall of the Year
Buckfast Abbey Millennium Garden (Silver)

How lovely this garden was. Dominated by a delicate wire sculpture of a deer drinking, it combined gentle, airy planting with green oak arches – infilled at the base with cut logs to make a wall which combines natural beauty and elegance.
Highly Commended:
Molecular Garden (Gold)
Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best: this wooden wall art transformed a stretch of render in the winning garden in the Spa Gardens category, by visiting designers Denis Kalashnikov and Ekaterina Bolotova, on an exchange from the Moscow Flower Show.

Garden Furniture I Most Wanted To Take Home
Ocean Garden (Bronze)

Colour… and comfort. Love it.

Funkiest Sculpture of the Year 2017
Nik Burns

Garden grunge at its best. Loved this chap right down to the bulb. Now that’s what I call garden lighting.

Plant of the Show 2017

They were everywhere: breathtaking, blowsy, beautiful. I particularly liked that the ravishing display on Primrose Hall Nursery’s stand was staged close enough for you to be able to smell the blooms and work out which are as perfumed as they say they are. I will be filling my garden with la Duchesse de Nemours forthwith.

Most Astonishing Stem Colour
Acer palmatum “Sango-kaku” (Staddon Farm Nurseries, Gold)

Extraordinary: and those lime green leaves just popped against the stems.

Plant That Most Resembled a Pillow
Scleranthus biflorus (D’Arcy & Everest, Silver Gilt)

Hands down the weirdest plant in the marquee. I had to look twice before I realised it even was a plant. Then all I really wanted to do was lay my head down on it and go to sleep.

The “Why? Oh Why?” Wooden Spoon Award for 2017
Bubble Drops (Spa Garden, Bronze)

It had one slightly lonely-looking plant in it. In a pot. ‘Nuff said.

Garden words: Purely for medicinal purposes


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The Gardener’s Companion to Medicinal Plants
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Confession time: I do like to self-medicate.

Not, I must hastily add, in the alcoholic sense (well, not very often and only in extremis). But in the reach out into the garden and grab your remedy of choice sort of sense.

Herbal medicines can be as simple as a sprig of peppermint dunked in a mug of boiling water to ease your indigestion after an overindulgent meal: tastier than a Rennies, and at least you know exactly what’s gone into it.

Or you can go the whole hog and start boiling up comfrey roots into a sticky paste to smear over gauze in a poultice: wrap it around a sprain and it’ll ease pain and reduce swelling. Not for nothing is comfrey commonly known as knitbone.

I use sage tea to soothe a sore throat; I try to drink a rosemary tisane at about elevenish to aid my failing memory (the redoubtable Jekka McVicar swears by this one). There’s an aloe vera plant on my kitchen windowsill in case anyone should burn themselves; and I’ll pick a leaf of feverfew in the herb garden to slip into a cheese sandwich (just a little as it’s quite bitter) to ease the pain of headaches, including migraines, which my youngest occasionally suffers from. There are loads more: in fact there’s a whole chapter on the subject, including recipes, in my new book (in all good bookshops from September 7th!)

But I wish I’d had this book on my shelf to refer to while I was writing it. My knowledge on herbal medicine tends to be a bit piecemeal, handed down from friends and relatives or snippets picked up from books and magazines. So I’m not all that adventurous, really: I stick to my known remedies and go to the doctor for the rest.

This book, though, gathers all those scraps of herbal lore into one beautiful tome, along with a whole load of other remedies I never even knew existed. Who knew you could brew hawthorn berries into a spicy wine to help with poor circulation? Or that squash leaves are anti-inflammatories – you can rub the sap on burns, apparently. Elderberries prevent colds from taking hold – take a teaspoon of elderberry-infused vinegar three times a day at the first signs of a cold and you’ll head off the worst. And chickweed, of all things, can help soothe eczema.

I particularly like the considered, measured approach to the subject. This is no flag-waving sales pitch for the benefits of herbal medicine: it’s an impartial assessment of the potential uses for each plant and – best of all – the scientific basis (if any) for its effectiveness.

So let’s take hops, for example: I’m familiar with them as a sedative, usually the dried flowers slipped into a pillowcase to help you sleep. That use is listed here (along with others including mixing it with poppy seeds to treat bruises and boils); but there’s also an analysis of the evidence. There are few clinical trials (yet) which support its usefulness for treating restlessness and anxiety; but solid evidence confirming that the essential oils are antibacterial.

A balanced view is a rare thing in the field of herbal medicine, so this alone would have earned this book a place on my “essential reading” shelf. But it’s also packed with recipes and instructions – everything from rosehip syrup to calendula lip balm and passionflower tea (it helps you sleep). And all in a book which is a useful size – a tad larger than A5, so you can hold it in one hand quite comfortably while stirring the chickweed cream with the other. And I haven’t even mentioned yet the exquisite illustrations lifted mainly from Kew’s archives of botanical art. My one and only criticism of this otherwise thoughtfully compiled book is that there is no detailed list of who painted these beautiful works of art; credit where credit is due, after all.

But overall this is one of the best books to land on my desk in ages, and one which I can already see I shall be thumbing through again and again. In short – an essential reference work for anyone who has even a passing interest in picking their medicines from the garden. I will treasure my copy for years to come.

So… what’s new?


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large_6a017d41d9ea05970c01a5116c8aa0970c-piA quick whizz round the Garden Press Event up in London the other week – and I do mean quick, as I didn’t arrive till lunchtime having flown in from Bordeaux in France that morning, fingernails still muddy from clearing the garden in the little house my family has bought there.

It’s tempting at this point to get diverted into a little rhapsody about the delights of sitting outside eating a lunch of ham-stuffed baguettes baked that morning, sun shining and temperature a balmy 19 degrees (in February!), back aching pleasantly from raking leaves, loading bonfires, dismantling rotten-roofed sheds and climbing a lot of old trees to pull out ivy.

But I will resist the temptation (until later, anyway) and instead talk about the many little things I came across at the show which caught my eye. The Press Event has become one of those must-attend punctuations to the gardening year: it sort of kicks things off as everyone lines up to show you what the horticultural talking points are likely to be this year.

There’s quite a lot of toot there too, of course, but I tend to avert my eyes tactfully from the stuff that I can’t see the point of or of which I frankly disapprove (one year I listened open-mouthed as an earnest lawn company representative described how their new product would efficiently murder every earthworm in your garden. Not that she put it in quite those words, but I politely refused the free sample she offered: quickest way I know to kill a lawn stone dead).

So here is a little distillation of the good stuff: the half-dozen bits of kit, new plants and innovations which I hope will find their way onto my plot too before too many seasons have passed by.


Grow lights you can use: Oh I know I’ve been banging on about my Vitopod lately but it does have quite a major role in my life just at the moment. So it’s not that surprising that these natty grow lights caught my attention. The only grow lights I’ve come across have been offered me from slightly dodgy sources and are enormous industrial-scale things with questionable electrics. These on the other hand are dainty little things that just clip over your Vitopod lid and extend the day length to up to 12 hours. Daylight being just as important as warmth when starting early seedlings, this could be the missing piece of my jigsaw puzzle.


Tiger nuts: So excited by these. They look a bit like chickpeas, but they’re actually the tubers of an unremarkable sedge, Cyperus esculentus, a close relation to papyrus (the kind you grow in your pond) only not quite as pretty. It’s quite prolific – an average clump yields about 1lb of dried tubers: the texture and taste is similar to coconut, with a little hint of almond, and they’re packed with nutrients. You can dry them for storing over winter, then rehydrate them overnight to eat raw or in cakes and bakes. On coming home to do a bit more research, though, they do seem to be a bit on the tender side. I’m making them this year’s experiment, anyway, to see how they do.


Ornaments that double up as bird feeders: I did think this was pretty, and useful too. I found it on the Crocus stand: you fill the central bowl with seeds, or cheese, or whatever you happen to be feeding the birds at the moment, and they can perch on the ledge to feast. Much prettier than your average wire-and-plastic peanut job.


Charles Dowding’s new book: Charles was there with his partner Steph – also a very talented kitchen gardener and writer – and a lot of copies of his latest publication, Charles Dowding’s Vegetable Garden Diary. a wire-bound allotment notebook-cum-diary interwoven with pages of Charles’s no nonsense advice based on sound practical experience. I have long admired Charles’s quiet ability to plough his own furrow: he draws his own conclusions, he only ever follows what other people say if he’s already proved it to himself, and as a result he is a true pioneer. And Steph gave me some parched peas, too (thanks Steph!)


Dwarf mulberries: Alongside the tiger nuts on the Suttons stand was this little cutie: the first proper mulberry bush. By which I mean one bred to grow just 1.5m tall – or the size of a large-ish shrub, unlike the conventional mulberry bush which is actually a small tree (does anyone know why mulberry trees are called mulberry bushes in the song? The best I can find is this blog post which says it was originally a song about blackberry bushes, or possibly juniper bushes, though it all seems rather vague.) It goes by the pretty name of ‘Charlotte Russe’ and it’s got proper mulberries and everything (and within a year rather than the usual eight or so).


A rude veg competition: Ah yes: rude veg. We all love a bit of double-entendre when harvesting the carrots. Anyway: Van Meuwen enjoyed its Vulgar Veg competition so much last year that it’s doing the same again. There’s £500 of vouchers on offer: the winner last year was a positively pornographic carrot from Weston-super-Mare. What with wonky veg in the news (when you can find any veg at all in the shops, that is) there’s no better time to expose your oddities to a wider audience (double entendre entirely intended): just go to and enjoy.

This month in the garden…


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Signs of hope are everywhere

Well. Hasn’t it got busy around here lately.

There I was, listening morosely to the tumbleweed (well, gales and splattering rain) and wondering if the winter would ever end. And then all of a sudden spring sprung. The frosts retreated, the snowdrops came out, and everyone emerged blinking in the watery February sunlight.

And all that sulking indoors has left a ton of stuff to do in the garden, so I’m already behind before I’ve even begun. And now that we can all agree it’s spring, there are garden articles to write and book proposals to hone and student assignments to mark and garden holidays to plan… Welcome to a new year!

Here’s what’s on my to-do list right now – all to cram into the remaining fortnight before it gets even more crazy in March. Wish me luck…

Hitching up the propagator: I think I actually love my Vitopod. It’s not often I say this about a bit of kit, but this has really transformed the way I can garden. It’s eye-wateringly expensive, but believe me: it’s worth it. The moment it comes out of storage each spring is the moment my year begins. 

Sowing tomatoes: See above. This wouldn’t be possible, this early, without a heated propagator – and a good one at that. I set mine to 20°C, and then once the seedlings are up switch the thermostat down to about 12°C to grow them on. Frost? What frost?

Sowing the earliest root crops: I like to get an early crop of the hardy stuff going as soon as I can (cue: heated propagator again. Sorry). It’s too cold to sow yet, even in an unheated greenhouse; my rule of thumb is 7-10°C day and night before I’ll risk it. But once the toms are finished, turnips, beetroot and kohlrabi go in at 12°C and germinate like a dream.

Planting Jerusalem artichokes: There’s planting to be done outside, too; this year I picked up some of the not-quite-as-knobbly Jerusalem artichoke, ‘Fuseau’, along with the seed potatoes. They’re tall, and have flashy golden sunflowers in summer, so they’re going straight into the ground in the exotic edibles garden. Just hope I can keep them in bounds, that’s all – I have tried (and failed) to curb their enthusiasm before…


Lovely fat Jermor shallots waiting to go in the ground

Planting shallots: Shallots go in earlier than onions, so mine are in the ground this month. As always, I’ve gone for a French variety, ‘Jermor’ – though I’d have preferred ‘Hative de Niort’, fiendishly expensive but the largest, most reliable and – most importantly – tastiest shallot you’ll ever grow.

Experimenting with new stuff: This year it’s Welsh onions – I never have any luck with spring onions, so I thought these perennial bunching onions might prove a useful substitute. Also Carlin peas, aka parched peas, thanks to a kind gift from skilled kitchen gardener and Charles Dowding‘s other half, Steph Hafferty. And tiger nuts, if I can keep them warm enough. All of which more at a later date.

Cutting hazel stems: You’ll find me swinging monkey-like among the thickets of hazel that line the back of our garden this month: they’re perched precariously on the side of the bank but produce some lovely long, straight stems. Cut at around 2″ diameter, just before the buds break, they supply all my beanpole and peastick needs.

Potting up dahlia tubers: What’s a dyed-in-the-wool veggie type like me doing growing something as fancy as dahlias, you ask? Well, dahlias are edible too, so they earn their place in my kitchen garden. Plus they’re dead pretty. I pot mine up in 2ltr pots this month to save them from the slugging they’d otherwise get in the open garden.


Ripe with promise: the potato crop chitting on my windowsill. Not strictly necessary, but I do like to get them out of their bags while they’re waiting to be planted.

Forcing new potatoes: The one time I bother with growing potatoes in sacks – otherwise an exercise in retrieving the minimum harvest possible from the maximum outlay – is in early spring, when I force a couple of sacks’ worth of new potatoes just for the smug value of eating them weeks before anyone else can.

Mulching & feeding fruit: The fruit garden gets a lot of attention this month: I’ve just about finished all the pruning, but right behind the secateurs are the spade and wheelbarrow. A good scattering of slow-release fertiliser – I’m a fan of pelleted poultry manure or Vitax Q4, but this year I have Carbon Gold to try too – topped off with a thick layer of mulch sets the whole fruit garden up for the rest of the year.

Seed swap 2017


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I do like a good seed swap.

It’s a simple idea: you take your spares along to your local village hall, or wherever the swap is taking place, and offload them to someone who can make better use of them than you can.

Then you browse around what everyone else has brought and take your pick. Everyone’s a winner.

Seed swaps started in Brighton, where the biggest, Seedy Sunday, still takes place: this year’s is on 5th February so if you’re in the area, do pop in.

But the idea has caught on, and now seed swaps are held all over the country. You’ll have to Google your local venue – there used to be a listings page on the Seedy Sunday website but it doesn’t seem to be active these days – but they’re not difficult to find.

Or, of course, you can just stay right here. Because I have been clearing out my seed boxes in a fit of efficiency and have set aside an exceptionally large pile of seeds which I know I’m not going to get around to sowing this year.

Last time I did this we had a few Royal Mail related issues with the SAE system, so I’ve changed the way things work a little. Most importantly, I’ve decided that instead of asking everyone to pay postage, I will instead ask you to donate the money to the Greenfingers charity, which in case you haven’t heard of it plants gardens for children and their families spending time in hospices all around the country.

So as long as I get the email with your address you should get your seeds in the post asap with no hitches!

Please follow the instructions carefully:

  1. Choose your seeds from the list below: maximum 10 packets per person please.
  2. Post in the comments section so I know who wants what and can update the list so everyone else knows what is left. This is first come first served, so read earlier comments to make sure your seeds haven’t been bagged already.
  3. Visit my JustGiving page and make a donation of at least £1.
  4. Email me your address with your full name (so I can match you with your JustGiving donation) and what you’ve ordered to sally(dot)nex(at)btinternet(dot)com so I can send you your seeds!

Here’s the list:

(seeds are no more than 2 years old; *=opened packet, but still with a good quantity of seeds in it; **=home-saved seeds so can’t guarantee germination, though all seeds have been kept in cool dry conditions)

Artichoke ‘Purple and Green’ x 2 packs
*Artichoke ‘Purple de Provence’
Aubergine ‘Black Beauty’ x 2 packs
Begonia ‘Bada Bing Pretty Mix’
Beetroot ‘Boldor’ (yellow)
**Borlotti bean ‘Firetongue’
Broccoli raab ’60 Days’
Cabbages – mixed pack of three, Sir, Attraction and Minicole
Cabbage ‘Golden Acre’
Cabbage ‘Gunma’
Calabrese ‘Ironman’
Calabrese ‘Sibsey’
Campanula carpatica ‘Blue’
Cauliflower ‘All the Year Round’
Celery ‘Giant Red’
*Chickpea ‘Principe’
Courgette ‘Black Forest’
Cucumber ‘White Wonder
Gherkin ‘Diamant’
Green manure Caliente Mustard
*Hibiscus ‘Simply Love’
*Ipomoea pennata
Kale Duo Mix – ‘Emerald Ice’ & ‘Midnight Sun’
Leaf salad ‘Spicy Oriental Mix’
Leek ‘Bulgaarse Reuzen – Lincoln’
Leek ‘Elefant’
*Leek – mixed varieties, on a seed tape
Mint (small packet)
Mustard (white) ‘Tilney’
Onion ‘Ailsa Craig’
Pea ‘Magnum Bonum’
Pea ‘Maro’ (marrowfat, for mushy peas)
Pepper (sweet) ‘Boneta’
Pepper (sweet) ‘Mini Bell Mixed’
Pepper (sweet) ‘Mixed’
Radish ‘Mooli Mino Early’
Runner bean ‘Prizewinner’
Sorrel ‘Red Veined’
Spinach ‘Samish’
*Spring onion ‘White Lisbon Winter Hardy’
Sweetcorn ‘Amaize’
Tagetes (French marigold) ‘Alumia Vanilla Cream’
Tomato ‘Apero’
Tomato ‘Montello’ (bush)
Tomato ‘Red Cherry’ x 2 packs
Tomato ‘Red Pear’
Tomato ‘Super Sweet 100’
Tomato ‘Sweet Aperitif’ x 2 packs
Tomato ‘Tigerella’
Viola ‘Bunny Ears’
Viola tricolor ‘Bowles Black’
Watercress ‘Aqua’

I will update this page daily as this gets under way, and the swap will run for as long as it takes for all the seeds to go, or for everyone to get a bit bored – whichever comes the sooner! Enjoy 😀

Gardening words: An Orchard Odyssey


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orchardodysseyIt is time to think of fruit. Gleaming apples and fat ripe plums; perfumed quinces and sugary pears. Great heavy boughs of it, weighed down by abundance: gnarled trunks and sweet scents, drunk wasps and bubbling jam.

Of course all that’s in the future: at the moment, it’s more like dinner-plate boots caked with three inches of mud, the squelch of a spade and the stinging of fingertips as they gradually thaw out after planting yet another new tree.

But planting fruit in winter is among my very favourite jobs. Was there ever half an hour spent which offers as much promise? Years and years of fruit for a short burst of digging in the cold. It’s not much to ask.

I am currently waiting impatiently for the arrival of the three new apple trees I’m planting this year. They are bare root, all on MM106 rootstocks (the middle-sized one), three varieties. ‘Warner’s King’ is a cooker I’m planting in tribute to a fantastic tree in my mum’s old back garden, boughs weighed almost to the ground with fruit: we had it identified at the Barrington Court Apple Day a few years ago and I’ve wanted one of my own ever since. There’s ‘James Grieve’, which I grew when we lived in Surrey and loved as it produces both crisp, tasty eaters if you pick them early, and sweet cookers if you leave them on the tree. And finally ‘Egremont Russet’: just because I need a good storing eater and I love russets.

So with all this fruity activity going on it was timely that Naomi Slade’s latest book, An Orchard Odyssey, dropped through my letterbox. I have been absorbed ever since in its wide-ranging and eclectic mix of story-telling, people-watching and up-to-the-minute analysis of the state of our orchards today. And then in the second half of the book there’s a refreshingly modern take on setting up an orchard yourself: the 21st century kind of orchard more likely to be planted in pots than paddocks, and all the more inventive for it.

I have loved its gentle stories of how apples and pears emerged from the wild to become our best-loved fruits. Naomi has dug deep to find some truly enlightening gems, the kind of thing that sheds light on something you thought you already knew.

I greeted the appearance of Johnny Appleseed like a long-lost friend, only to find out that he hadn’t, as I’d thought, walked across America scattering seed as he went (I’d always thought it mildly unlikely that many would have germinated) but in fact set up mini-orchards which he then tended to to maturity before selling them on to settlers travelling West.

I never knew there are wild figs growing on the bank of the River Clyde, near Glasgow; or that the word ‘scrump’ comes from a 19th century dialect word meaning a withered apple. Hence ‘scrumpy’ cider, too.

I am a magpie for this kind of randomly interesting snippet. I learned that China produces nearly half the world’s output of 80 million tonnes of apples. And that you can find rhubarb growing ‘wild’ (actually, planted, but thriving) in hedgerows in Lincolnshire. Well. Who knew?

There is more: so much more. Ancient orchards and the wildlife who live there; foraging and the importance of wild fruit; nutrition, and the significance of names. How to weave fruit plants into the fabric of your garden; practical stuff about pollination groups and rootstocks; and down-to-earth instructions about looking after your trees.

And sprinkled in among them like so much blossom are pen portraits of the people whose devotion to fruit has gently shaken apples from trees and generally made a difference. Tom Burford, working to gather and protect America’s apple varieties; the dedicated fruitaholic Joan Morgan, whose epic Book of Pears has just won Reference Book of the Year at the Garden Media Guild Awards; Mark Diacono, pushing the boundaries of fruit-growing on his East Devon farm; and the wonderfully-named Barrie Juniper, who went all the way to the mountains of Uzbekistan to trace the origins of the domesticated apple.

I love books like this; the kind you can pick up to dip into on a lazy afternoon and always learn something new. It’s a little apple heavy – no surprise when you realise Naomi runs an artisan apple business and so really, really knows her apples; but perhaps I might have liked to find out more about other orchard fruit like plums, cherries, quinces and mulberries. They are mentioned here and there, but only really in passing.

But that’s to quibble about a book which is a delight from start to finish, underpinned by a deep understanding and love for the history, folklore and modern-day phenomenon which is the humble fruit tree. I will be dipping back in, again and again, for a long time to come.

Life in the greenhouse: January


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Half-finished insulation to the left, not-quite cleared cucamelons to the right: I have, it is fair to say, totally failed to sort out the greenhouse this winter.

Blimey it’s chilly. Inside and out: life got a bit hectic last autumn and I didn’t get around to my usual bubblewrap-insulation-and-greenhouse-heater routine. So my greenhouse – usually a cosy refuge at this time of year – is distinctly less than welcoming at the moment.

However: the decision not to heat the greenhouse this winter, if a little unintentional, has been enlightening. Normally I would have the heater on 24/7 when the weather is like this: I don’t heat my greenhouse to tropical temperatures but I do like to keep it somewhere around the 5°C mark. When it’s -5°C outside, as it was last night, that would mean having to lift the temperature by a whole 10°C above ambient – loading my electricity bill to groaning point and playing who knows what havoc with the environment.

I’ve always felt mildly guilty about heating the greenhouse. As well as being positively profligate with resources I normally shepherd carefully – that is, electricity and warmth – it is very expensive and makes something of a mockery of my pretensions to thriftiness. After all, when your overwintered chillies cost you at least £50 to keep alive in a frosty winter you could probably buy gold-plated ones for less.


But – avert your eyes from the weeds, please – I can’t be going far wrong when I’ve got lemons like these

Failing to heat my greenhouse, though, has been an eye-opener. Just look at my lemons! (No smutty jokes at the back, please). The scented-leaf geraniums have fared well too, and the lemon verbena.

Most of the tender herbs and edibles which I move into the greenhouse over winter to protect them from frost can survive down to a few degrees below. Lemons, for example, can tolerate -5°C; geraniums (pelargoniums), lemon verbena and French tarragon to about -1°C. The secret is to keep them dry. Soggy compost freezes at anything below zero, wrecking delicate root systems, while dry compost, though cold, will not freeze so does no damage.

So I haven’t watered my lemon tree, or the geraniums, since I brought them indoors in early November. They’re fine. So is the grapefruit, and the lemon verbena, and even the Nerine sarniensis which is the only thing in here which isn’t edible but I can’t bear to evict it as it’s so lovely when it flowers. The overwintering chilli (an Aji type, one of the more hardy) has succumbed, so I’d guess that very heat-loving Mexican types with fleshy, tender stems freeze at zero.


I brought my three-pot salad system in here this autumn too: the extra shelter has kept them growing and I’ve had salads to pick since October.

But for most, just bringing them into a greenhouse without heating it has been enough. The glass alone raises temperatures by about 5°C, after all (and much more on a sunny day, though that heat is lost by nightfall). So if you take last night, the coldest here for several years at about -5°C, inside the greenhouse it will still have been only just at freezing. Not enough to do any damage. Line the greenhouse with bubblewrap or – I’m told but haven’t tried myself – cardboard, or wrap plants individually in horticultural fleece, hessian with straw tucked underneath, or more bubblewrap – and you can raise that by a few degrees further, potentially keeping even quite tender plants frost-free without the need for heating.

Other little tricks to try include keeping a pond in the greenhouse to act as a heat sink, absorbing the sun’s heat by day and releasing it by night; and of course hotbeds, which is too big a subject to tackle here but the most natural greenhouse heater you’ll ever have.

But I think my days of artificially heating a greenhouse are over. I’m sure the environment will thank me one day. My bank account certainly will.