A (gardening) life less plastic


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How did I not notice this?

One morning towards the end of last year some time, I skipped in to my garden as usual through the little picket gate and pulled up short.

In front of me was not a delightful scene of bucolic beauty and calm productivity: but a pile of multicoloured plastic.

I have no idea why I hadn’t been able to see it before. There were teetering stacks of pots and empty compost bags; the greenhouse was festooned with bubblewrap plastic; plastic trays held my overwintering seedlings (themselves in module trays and pots of green, black or orange plastic).


So productive… and so plastic

I looked down to the other end of my garden and it was almost as bad: cloches covered in clear polythene over bright blue hoops of plastic plumbing pipe; winter veg studded tombstone-like with white plastic plant labels and shrouded in plastic-coated insect-proof mesh; and empty veg beds neatly mulched with compost but then covered in sheets of black plastic to protect them from the winter wet.

It could be worse: luckily I don’t favour green plastic pea netting, or plastic ties for my plants. I tend to use wooden and metal tools rather than plastic ones because they last longer and are generally better made; but having said that, many of the impulse buys I’ve made in an emergency after losing yet another hand fork in the compost bin have plastic handles.

How did such a sea of plastic leak into our gardens? There was, I assume, a time when plastic was completely absent: I’m picturing a time of terracotta pots and slate labels, teak-handled tools and wooden plant trays. I think this is actually the fantasy garden we still picture in our heads: but the reality in the 21st century is so very different.

I hate the look of plastic: it looks cheap, and tatty, and artificial, the colours clashing and blaring next to the gentler greens and browns of nature. And I really, really hate what it does to the environment. I won’t start to lecture you here about the horrific sea of microscopic plastic pellets killing everything from fish to albatrosses in the Pacific Ocean; it is headed our way, too, as the fish we eat are increasingly infested with micro-particles of plastic too.

This is not one of those big issues we can’t do anything about and just serve to upset us, like climate change, the Syrian war or the continuing existence of Katie Hopkins. Actually, we gardeners are contributing, very directly, to the problem.


These plastic pots will still be kicking around nearly half a millennium from now

I’d just like you to consider that the split plastic pot you threw out with the rubbish today will still be in the world when you are long dust. In fact it will still be languishing in some landfill somewhere when your grandchildren’s grandchildren have grown into adults and have children of their own.

It takes an average of 450 years for hard plastic to decompose. Just think about that for a minute. I can’t even imagine what the world will look like in 2467. Or to put it another way: a theoretical plastic pot thrown away (as it would never have been, as they didn’t then exist) by a gardener in the 16th century, when Elizabeth I was on the throne, before Shakespeare, before John Tradescant was even born, would only just this year have fully decomposed.

I do not want to be a part of this. It horrifies me that I have sleepwalked into such a state of affairs: when gardeners, who are closer to the earth and more aware of and able to tend to its needs than anyone else, should contribute so unthinkingly to its desecration.

So: this year I have made a new resolve. I will not buy a single thing for the garden which contains plastic. I will use what I have – as it seems a bit counterproductive to chuck it all out and so fill even more landfill with it – but I will not replace what breaks with more plastic. And I will start to think really deeply about how I use plastic in the garden: what alternatives there might be, and whether I can adjust what I do so that I garden more gently upon the earth.

I know it’s not going to be easy: I’ve done a little tentative experimentation over the last few weeks and it’s underlined for me just how dependent we have become on what is, undeniably, an incredibly useful material. Where I can’t find a replacement for plastic, I’ll see if I can find a recycled plastic alternative.

I hope to build everything I find out into a resource on this website, on a separate page, where I will pull together my thoughts and discoveries along with listings for suppliers and manufacturers who are producing stuff for the garden which doesn’t involve using plastic. With luck, it will be useful to other gardeners who don’t like the piles-of-plastic-pots look; at the very least, it should make my garden look a bit prettier.

I welcome any input from anyone who wants to join in. If you know of a good supplier, a technique, ideas or campaigners who might benefit from being included here I’d love to hear about them. Please post below or get in touch via Twitter (@sallynex) using the hashtag #gardeningwithoutplastic. Thanks!


Chelsea 2017: Sneak peek


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The RHS Chelsea Flower Show: never less than spectacular

The revealing of this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show gardens is always an exciting moment, and just the boost you need at this time of year. It reminds you that there is life beyond the snow and the ice: that one day the flowers will bloom and look breathtaking and you will feel inspired by the sheer scope of what’s possible in a smallish garden space.

This year looks like a cracker yet again: 24 show gardens, and the return of gardening heroes like Nigel Dunnett, Sarah Eberle, Jo Thompson, James Basson and Chris Beardshaw. Everyone is clearly in escapist mood as there are gardens to take you to Spain, Malta, China, Japan, and Canada.

You can expect more of the trend towards naturalistic, landscape-evocative planting that’s crept up on the show in recent years: I’m not sure anyone will quite outdo Dan Pearson’s Chatsworth garden of 2015 but they’re having a good stab at it. Nigel Dunnett is something of a pioneer in the field, of course, and this year takes on the RHS’s Greening Grey Britain installation; James Basson is another master and I’m looking forward to his recreation of a Maltese quarry. If it’s anything like the one he did last year it’ll be breathtaking.

Here are my picks for the gardens to look out for this year:


The M&G Garden: James Basson

The M&G Garden: James Basson

James has been for some time now the stalking horse for the Chelsea crown: every year his gardens get better and better, his trademark understated flair producing sublime set pieces which transport you effortlessly into another environment altogether. They’re sophisticated gardens, yet deceptively simple, so you have to pay attention to appreciate the sheer brilliance of his thoughtful, intelligent design style. I’ve loved his work ever since I first saw it in Japan a few years ago: last year he won his third Chelsea gold and I think this could be his year.

The Morgan Stanley Garden: Chris Beardshaw

You always sit up and take notice when Chris’s name is on the card: this looks to be a masterpiece of subtle plant design as usual. The USP is its connection to music: the National Youth Orchestra has been exploring their emotional responses to the garden and its plants through music and have composed a piece of music inspired by the design. Expect lots of contrasts in mood and texture.

Musen Landscape SEEK Garden: Jin Yang

We’ve seen a lot of Japanese designs at Chelsea: but it is rare that a Chinese design breaks through, even though gardens were essentially invented in China many, many years before the Japanese thought of raking a pattern in a bit of gravel. So this garden by first-timer Jin Yang should be fascinating: from the picture it looks like an exquisite piece of Chinese artistry picked out in mosaics and rare rhododendrons.


The Chengdu Silk Road Garden: Laurie Chetwood & Patrick Collins

The Chengdu Silk Road Garden: Laurie Chetwood and Patrick Collins

Just when you think it’s about time you saw a Chinese garden, two come along at once. Actually, this is about China rather than being a ‘Chinese’ garden as such; but it does take East-West trade links along the Silk Road as its theme, and specifically Sichuan province – one of the most florally diverse in the world – and the town of Chengdu which it turns out is famous for embroidery. That is the perfect excuse for a quite spectacular-looking piece of sculpture, a ‘Silk Road bridge’ spun above and round the garden as though swept up in a whirlwind. Laurie Chetwood and Patrick Collins have form with ambitious, architectural designs: this one should be a real head-turner.

The RHS Greening Grey Britain Garden: Nigel Dunnett

I’m not a big fan of the ‘installation’ gardens at Chelsea as a rule: they seem to lack an identity, more PR exercise than actual garden. But when Nigel Dunnett is behind the planting it’s never boring. This is the man who pioneered ‘meadow’ style annual flower plantings for inner city Sheffield and the London Olympics, and brought us rain gardens, too. Here he’s tackling gardening in high-rise apartments with very restricted outdoor space: his ability to think laterally could bring us the solutions we badly need.

Pavilion highlights:

Sarah Eberle is designing the Hillier stand again – she scooped gold for them (yet again – their 72nd I believe) last year with her spectacular waterfalls. Burncoose is looking at plants pollinated by moths, flies and beetles: expect Calycanthus, pollinated by beetles, and magnolias, which evolved before there were any bees so are pollinated mainly by flies.

The Hardy Plant Society celebrates its 60th birthday with 60 plants; Raymond Evison has created an entire seashore to show off his clematis; and Birmingham City Council is recreating one of eccentric inventor Rowland Emett’s whimsical kinetic sculptures in flowers. Finally, it’s always nice to see a new face, and first-timers Calamazag Nursery, from Looe in Cornwall, are going to be popular: their penchant is hardy pinks, among my favourite plants.


The Seedlip Garden: Dr Catherine MacDonald

Small gardens:

The Fresh Gardens look a bit earnest, on paper at least, this year: though I do like the sound of the ‘clementine, coral and cappuccino’ colour scheme to ‘Inland Homes: Beneath a Mexican Sky’ by Manoj Malde. Pray for sunny days at Chelsea to do it justice, though.

The Artisan Gardens are much more promising. Sarah Eberle is back with Viking Cruises and promises date palms, citrus and succulents and inspiration from Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi, who was very into Lord of the Rings style pinnacles. We have a 17th century apothecary in The Seedlip Garden from Dr Catherine MacDonald – right up my street as it’s all about distilling (non-alcoholic) drinks from herbs. Also love the sound of The IBTC Lowestoft Broadland Boatbuilder’s Garden – a bit of a mouthful perhaps but it does feature a replica of an 800-year-old wooden boat plus lots of lovely edibles including chives, peas, garlic and kale.

How to plant rhubarb


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You can never have too much rhubarb. Well, actually, you can: it’s a monster of a plant, with mature clumps expanding to 5ft across, so more than two or three plants will gobble up vast tracts of your garden. But the actual deep red, spicy, fruity stems, first to appear in spring when there’s nothing else sweet to pick? No, can’t have enough of that.

I am currently a one-crown household, my ‘Timperley Early’ next to the fishpond a nod towards gunnera-like swamp plantings: rhubarb has a pleasingly exotic sort of appearance and is one of those edibles that sits well among more obviously ornamental plants. Mine has scarlet pineapple sage scrambling through it and a hardy banana (Musa basjoo) spearing up through its expanding leaves.

But I would like three: the ideal setup for the longest possible rhubarb season, providing one to force, one to rest and one to pick. I daren’t force my Timperley Early, perfect as it is for that treatment being first out of the ground in spring; I know I’d have to give up picking it the year after while the crown recovered and I couldn’t possibly deprive myself quite so absolutely.

Luckily, last year I got to make a video for the Crocus Youtube channel in which I got rather muddy planting a little crown of Champagne rhubarb. After a little house move to the other end of the edible exotics garden and a year left alone to establish properly, this is about about to become clump no. 2.

Now is just the right time to plant new rhubarb, while the crowns are dormant and don’t mind being moved. You can lift and divide an existing clump, making sure each lump you split away to replant has a fat bud plus a root; or you can plant a new crown of a different variety. You can watch how here:

This month in the garden…


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I left my overwintering broad beans and sweet peas outside this winter and they’re doing much better, far less leggy than usual – so as I suspected, it pays to grow them hard.

I have definitely been having a bit of a slump in the garden just recently. This occasionally happens, even to obsessive gardening types like me: you just sort of get out of the habit, somehow.

It’s usually in the dog end of the year that I lose heart. December is a prime month. By the time I’m home from work it’s getting dark anyway; the mornings are cold and dank and there are grumpy teenagers to boot out of bed. More often than not it’s raining, the ground is soggy and all the jobs that need doing at this time of year are easily put off till later.

January, though, is a different matter. I’m not sure why, as the weather is still foul – worse, if anything, than December. Maybe it’s just the symbolic beginning of a new year. And the turning of the solstice has a lot to do with it: it’s as though the extra few minutes on the end of every day tinge the ends of my fingers a deeper shade of green as the month wears on.

So I begin to steal half an hour after work, or just after the kids have left for school, to catch up on all that is left undone and stir into life the embers of another season. Here’s what I’ll be up to this month:


Still plenty to pick: this is my ‘Dwarf Green Curled’ kale, and there’s sprouts, leeks, kohlrabi, cabbages and purple sprouting broccoli too.

Climbing apple trees: Not for fun (though it actually is, quite a lot) but to snip back last year’s growth and encourage as much fruit as I can. I only have one apple tree at the moment, my beloved Devonshire Quarrenden, and it’s a very early one so must be guzzled straight off the tree. Which is why I shall also be…

Planting new trees: I am planning three new apples for the top strip, where my orchard is sputtering into existence at last after several livestock-related setbacks. I’m after a cooker, Warner’s King – in tribute to a legendary apple tree which grew in my mum’s garden once – plus James Grieve, my all-time favourite storing apple, and Egremont’s Russet just because I adore russet apples.

Pruning blackcurrants: And autumn-fruiting raspberries: the fruit garden is in for a stern talking-to this month as it got well out of hand towards the back half of last year and became more impenetrable thicket than chi-chi fruit potager.

Sowing onions: An experiment this year, as I feel like having a go at some really good red onions, the kinds with pink flesh rather than just the red skins. Carmen sounds like a good one; or perhaps Red Brunswick. I haven’t yet found a good red onion from sets, so I’m thinking seed is the way to go.


Freshly-turned compost, covered with cardboard to keep weeds out and moisture in: this will be ready to use come March.

Turning the compost: A great job for a frosty day, as you invariably end up in t-shirt sleeves and glowing pinkly: not only good for the circulation but also very cheering as it makes you feel like the weather’s much warmer than it actually is. I turn my bins about every four months, using the compost as mulch at six months old: the next batch will be ready just in time for the March feed’n’mulch routine.

Mending greenhouse glass: The football club next door has been using my greenhouse as a goalpost again and I have two or three panes to replace. I am determined to get this done now, in the quiet stillness of January, rather than leaving it till I’m filling up the greenhouse in May and everything moves into panic mode.

Building new beds: The very last corner of my veg garden is proving stubbornly difficult to get around to finishing. I’m at that pesky 90% done, 90% left to do stage: all it needs is three boards fixing into place and I’m there. This will be the month I manage it. I hope.

Raking up leaves: The otherwise robust and rudely healthy quince tree in the chicken run developed a nasty case of blight last year and I didn’t get a single quince off it. So this year I’m paying particular attention to raking up the leaves after they’ve fallen, to try to scoop up at least some of the overwintering spores in the hope that they won’t come back again next year.


Garlic seedlings ready to go out: but how will they cope with the rust this year?

Planting garlic: I have had my little garlic cloves growing away in a module tray since I sowed them in November, and now they’re bursting out of the drainage holes in the bottom so I think they can go into the ground. These are the cloves I saved from the plants that held out for longest against garlic rust last year: with luck, they’ll have a smidgen more resistance this season and I might have half a chance of actually eating some.

Planning, planning, planning: The great veg garden plan for 2017 is well under way. I am religious about using the colder months of the year to plan in detail what I’m going to do next season. It’s a good way of keeping yourself optimistic through the dead days of December; and it also saves a lot of trouble next year, too, as you know what to sow and how much of it. It is the gardening equivalent of a hot chocolate by the fire while leafing through a holiday catalogue. You just know things can only get better from here.

New beginnings


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Thank goodness 2016 is over.

I’m not sure things look a whole lot better for 2017, but like all gardeners I’m always up for a bit of optimism. And besides, within the safe confines of my garden it is easy to drift off into a world blessedly free of the likes of Herr Trump, Brexit and the wholesale slaughter of my popstar idols.

The world may seem a bit post-apocalyptic beyond the garden gates: but inside, there are sweet peas to pinch out, onions to sow, the last of the veg beds to clear and the compost to turn, just as there were last January and for every January before that. And – assuming Trump doesn’t, in another misguided attempt at ‘locker room banter’ decide to see what that big red button does – for every January to come, too.

I don’t really make New Year resolutions: much too vulnerable to my slightly distracted and forgetful state of mind these days. But January is always a time of promise: of plans made and not yet abandoned, events anticipated and surprises as yet unguessed-at.

So here is what this year promises: and I look forward to every minute.

  • A new life less plastic: I have for some time now been angsting about the quantities of plastic building up in my garden. So this is my year to cut it out, stop taking the lazy option and find some more environmentally-friendly alternatives. I will be blogging about it right here.
  • New fruit: You can never have too much fruit. This year’s trees are apples: James Grieve, Warner’s King and Egremont’s Russet, I think, all on MM106 rootstocks. I am also going to have a go at growing my strawbs up on shelving in a bid to save a few from the mice (who must, by now, be getting very fat indeed).
  • New tomatoes: I’m delving further into the intriguing world of heritage tomatoes, thanks to the packets of tomato seed sent to me from the collection from Knightshayes a year or two ago. Last year it was Sutton’s Everyday – great all-rounder which I’ll be growing again – and ‘White Beauty’, a white beefsteak which had good novelty value but not terribly productive and the flavour was a bit ‘meh’ too. I have half a dozen left to try and new favourites to discover.
  • La nouvelle vie en rose: I shall be spending a lot of time in France. First of all, beginning the long process of sprucing up a little house and garden the family have bought near Bordeaux; second, leading an HF Holidays garden tour around Provence in lavender season.
  • A new book: I have my first book out in September! Look out for it at all good bookshops near you: it’s all about fitting in self-sufficiency around everyday working and family life, from baby-leaf salads to meat and eggs. Basically what I’ve been doing myself for the last decade or two, really. Here’s the official blurb.
  • New days in the garden: Just try to keep me out. As well as my own garden, I’m looking after a beautiful rose garden, ably assisted by a bevy of feathery under-gardeners; building a kitchen garden complete with polytunnel; and tending two little gardens on hillsides where the view is breathtaking every time I raise my head. I anticipate much muddiness and quite a lot of happy days. Bring it on. 

A very happy New Year to you all, and may all your carrots grow straight in 2017!

How not to stake a tree


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I’ve been working on an interesting little project lately in Dorset, looking after a newly-designed garden which is learning to settle back in to its landscape after some fairly major re-sculpting of a steep hillside into handsome stone-built terraces.

The (extremely nice) owners are keen gardeners but not knowledgeable, so it’s up to me to come up with solutions to the inevitable little problems that crop up when you drop a garden onto a hillside and leave the evolution into maturity till afterwards.

The owners mentioned to me that three little ornamental Japanese cherries planted on one of the terraces hadn’t been thriving this summer. We worked through the usual possible ailments: drought in this year’s relatively dry summer, lack of shelter (the prevailing wind blows directly onto this terrace), silverleaf disease.

But then I went and actually looked at them, close-up. And it was blindingly obvious what the problem was: the above (bar the silverleaf) may have played their part but the clincher was the way these trees have been staked.


It’s hard to know where to start.

Bamboo canes. Far too weak, flimsy and flexible to hold a growing tree steady against gales and the knocks and bumps of everyday life. They weren’t stuck into the ground all that deeply either – you could flap them about with one hand. No support whatsoever.

That flexitie. I have issues with this stuff for all sorts of reasons: but in this case, again, it’s far too stretchy for holding a young tree in position.  It’s also tied so loosely around the tree that it’s simply not doing its job.

All this meant these little trees might just as well have been planted without stakes at all. And you could see the damage: the root balls were clearly lifting out of the ground.


The reason you stake a tree while it’s getting established is to hold the rootball firmly in place. If you don’t, when the top of the tree whips about in the wind it will also pull at the rootball, which (because you haven’t staked it properly) is free to move within the soil. That rips away those delicate feeder roots a tree puts out to explore and colonise the surrounding soil, effectively repeatedly preventing the roots from anchoring the tree in the ground. This keeps the root ball loose, and because the tree can’t develop a better root system than it had in the pot, it cannot grow. That’s why these trees were suffering.

So here’s what I did:


This is a proper tree stake: around 7.5cm (3″) diameter, sturdy round wooden pole about 1.5m (5ft) long (you can use squared timber, as long as it’s good and robust). It dwarfs the tree trunk a little but that’s the point: it’s meant to be stronger.

I’ve driven it in to the ground with a mallet at a 45° angle, firmly enough that you can’t move it easily by hand. Opinion is divided about whether stakes should be parallel with the trunk to about halfway up, or like this: I’ve always favoured the 45° approach as it holds the rootball while letting the top of the tree move, and you’re driving it in a little way away from the rootball itself so you don’t have to damage any roots by sinking it closer to the trunk.

You’ll notice it’s pointing away from the wall, into the wind: this is deliberate. When the wind blows at this tree, the force is pushing the tree against the stake’s anchor, so it shouldn’t move. If I’d pointed it the other way (or straight upwards) the wind is effectively pulling at the tree rather than pushing it into the stake – much less stable.

And last but not least: a proper, collared tree tie. This holds snugly around the trunk and around the stake, the collar making sure the two don’t rub, and is stretchy enough to allow growth but not stretchy enough to give in to the wind. I’ll be checking that tie each summer as the trees grow and loosening it off if it’s needed: hopefully, in a couple of seasons’ time, this tree will be fully recovered from its bad start, well rooted and growing on so strongly I can pull the stake out and let it strike out on its own.

Problem solved!


This month in the garden…


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Just-planted garlic

…it is getting cold. Seriously, properly cold.

Actually I can’t remember being cold before Christmas before (well, a bit chilly, perhaps, but not cold of the three layers and double socks kind just yet).

We have, I think, become a bit soft in recent years what with all this global warming malarkey. Things may be a little extreme in this respect at my end of the country, around 20 miles from the south coast and never the coldest of places generally.

But since the epic winter of 2010 (when we had about 10 winters’ worth of snow, hoarfrost and ice for a memorable three or four months from November to February) we’ve been lucky to get a frost at all. Last year the lowest temperature I recorded was around 1°C, in February; the previous year we dipped to an adventurous -2°C for one night only. It was hardly the second ice age.

Anyway, all this is by way of saying that this month in the garden I have had to get my skates on (not quite literally but you never know) in a way I have not been accustomed to doing, and do all those getting-ready-for-winter things I’ve previously been putting off till about January. So here’s what I’ll be up to…

Planting garlic I have had a bit of a garlic crisis this year: every last plant succumbed to rust. I am therefore launching an experiment: I’m replanting the bulbs from the garlic which survived the longest, in an attempt to select a strain that copes better with the (now endemic) garlic rust in my garden. I will report back with results.

Collecting leaves There are so many leaves. So, so many leaves. I watched them rain down the other day like a golden snowstorm. And so to work with my trusty rake and wheelbarrow to fill as many leafmould bins as I can before they all run out.

Putting the veg garden to bed The endless task continues: clear crops, cart off to compost heap, weed, mulch, cover, repeat. I am still only halfway down the veg garden and I’ve already run out of soil improver.


Spring cabbage still going strong after around ten straight months of harvesting

Picking spring cabbage Yes, you read that right: spring cabbage. I planted it last August (that’s August 2015) and it has been going strong ever since, mainly through my laziness in not getting around to pulling it out, so it just sprouts again. A happy accidental discovery: I shall be doing this again…

Clearing the greenhouse The cucumbers are spent; the green peppers picked. Time to strip out the last of the summer crops and get the greenhouse ready for its winter role. I have only one this year, as we’re having to move the other: I am bereft.

Lining said greenhouse with bubblewrap insulation You save around 25% on the average heating bill by insulating your greenhouse, so they say. I know it keeps things much cosier, and often means I don’t have to turn on the heater at all.


Winter lettuces, ‘White Lisbon Winter Hardy’ spring onions, American land cress and a couple of rows of corn salad and radish seedlings tucked up safely in their plumbing pipe cloche

Planting winter salads under cloches Since I am deprived of my winter salads greenhouse this year I am resorting to planting out my greenery under cloches instead (or rather, one massive cloche made of blue plumbing pipe and clear polythene).

Wrapping bananas The Musa basjoo in the back garden has been going great guns this year, so the plan is to wrap it in the time-honoured way (chop leaves off, wrap in straw and hessian or fleece, big bubblewrap hat) and leave it outside for the first time.

Digging up pelargoniums My scented-leaf pelargonium collection is expanding all the time: I do need to bring it in for winter, though. This year they’ve been in containers on the front steps, making this particular job much easier.

Planting tulips Ah yes: there is some joy to be had this month. This year’s order includes ‘Ballerina’, ‘Jan Reus’, ‘Purple Prince’, ‘Violet Beauty’ and ‘White Triumphator’. I am looking forward to spring very much.

Pick of the month: Crabapples


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Crabapple ‘John Downie’ (I think)

There are some garden plants which can’t make up their mind where they belong. Kitchen garden? Or flower borders?

The answer, almost always, is both. I’m a big fan of including ornamental-but-edible plants in the bit of the garden that isn’t explicitly for growing food: things like the fuchsias I harvest for their berries, or the lavenders and scented-leaf pelargoniums which on the rare occasions I have time and opportunity to channel my inner domestic goddess I use for flavouring cookie dough.

Crabapples fall firmly into this territory. They are pretty little garden trees, with lovely spring blossom and pretty good autumn colour too. They behave themselves impeccably, never outgrowing their space and needing little pruning: the worst you can say of them is that they have a bit of a meh outline that can look downright scruffy if you like your gardens architecturally pleasing. But in a wild garden like mine, that’s fine.


My best crabapple harvest ever

We inherited a crab with the garden but it has never, until this year, fruited. I’m not sure what’s brought on its current outburst of generosity: perhaps it’s because I pruned the top out last year to give it a slightly better shape and pulled off the curtain of Clematis montana that had – as it does most years – leapt across from the fence over which it grows rampantly alongside to climb up and over the crabapple as well. The montana is a lovely plant, and I forgive it everything each May when it smothers said fence (about 20ft long) with a confection of flowers so dense you can’t see the foliage underneath. But it’s sometimes hard to keep its ambitions for world domination in check.


Crabapple windfalls

Or maybe it’s just because it’s been a good year for apples: the Devonshire Quarrenden in the veg garden has been prolific this season, too. But anyway: for the first time the ground beneath was carpeted with little miniature apples. Pound after pound of them. They’re gorgeous.

I’m pretty sure our crab is a ‘John Downie’, the variety most often recommended if you want the best fruit: and I can vouch for its prolific harvest of large (2-3″) fruits. They are flushed red, but cook to a honey yellow.

For brilliant red crabapple jelly, you might try ‘Red Sentinel’, particularly lovely as the (smaller) fruits glow so bewitchingly against the foliage in autumn. ‘Golden Hornet’ I’m not so fond of: there was one in the gardens at Bicton College when I was studying there and its fruits turn an unappetising brown when overripe, still on the tree. It doesn’t, as they say in the trade, die well.

These are the three I have personal experience of: I’m told ‘Gorgeous’ and ‘Dolgo’ are better choices if you like your crabapple Jelly scarlet as the red fruits are somewhat larger than ‘Red Sentinel’. Crabs are naturally high in pectin and mix well with other fruits, so if you’re making jelly or jam, add a few crabapples to help it set: hedgerow jelly, made of crabapples and blackberries, is sublime. And as if that weren’t enough on the usefulness scale: crabapples will also pollinate domestic apples, so if you don’t have room for two full-sized apple trees, try one apple tree and one crabapple instead. They can even be espalier-trained if you only have a fence to spare. Versatile or what.