As everyone is now saying, there appears to be light at the end of the tunnel!  There is a lot of good news at the moment with both deaths and infections falling and now evidence that a vaccination also reduces the chance of people passing the virus on to others.  Your committee have a meeting this month when we discuss when the club can start meeting first outside and then indoors.  In the meantime, I am sowing and planting as if this will be a normal year so I will have tomatoes, peppers, aubergines and cucumbers to sell.  I hope you are also looking forward to a garden full of flowers and produce.

Hardy Plant Society Devon Group

The group is having Zoom talks at 2.30pm on the first Saturday of every month up to June.  After that they hope to meet together at Longdown Village Hall in September.  Even then there may be occasional Zoom talks since speakers can be booked from further afield without incurring significant travelling expenses.  The chairman needs to investigate the availability of a good WiFi link first.  In the meantime, if practical information is presented during a talk, I will include it in the newsletter as I have done for Harriet Rycroft (see below) who spoke to the group in December.  Some of our members already join these talks; at £2 a talk, a comfortable chair and tea and coffee on hand, what more could you want on a Saturday afternoon, especially if it’s raining. 

Harriet Rycroft – Planting pots for Winter and Spring Joy

She described her first months at Whichford pottery as a steep learning curve, working out the arrangement and successful displays of plants at this renowned business.  What she learnt there she applied at home.

She explained that she arranges pots in groups with some pots raised on bricks to give height to an arrangement and even putting pots on top of one another.  An advantage of grouping is to create a micro-climate which gives protection and reduces water loss.  Harriet used mixed planting to add interest before the bulbs come up.  Because her displays can’t be viewed all round, plants are arranged with taller ones more concentrated at the back and shorter plants in the front.  In the bigger pots some of the larger plants she used included Cypress ‘Gold Crest’, Euphorbia, Sorbaria sorbifolia Sem, Tellima and even Camassia.  No, she doesn’t wash pots!   Old compost, from previous displays, is used at the bottom of pots but bulbs are always planted on fresh compost. 

The compost she uses is Melcourt Sylvamix with added loam, although it says on the bag ‘with added John Innes’ (it does not contain peat) because she felt it held on to nutrients a bit better than the version without added loam.  A sprinkling of Miracle Gro slow-release fertiliser is added at every level of bulbs although she has added pelleted chicken manure.  She constantly shakes the pot to settle the compost down and, after potting up, waters in the plants and then leaves a day to let the compost settle  even further before dressing with grit, gravel or stones.  A water-retaining gel is not added, particularly in winter, since Harriet has found that tender perennial cuttings tend to rot off if gel is added to compost.  She has found that a top dressing of grit is quite effective in deterring mice from digging up crocuses and other bulbs.  We were warned not to knock off snow from plants but allow it to melt naturally.  Often there was a growth spurt afterwards due to nitrogen trapped in the snow.

Another important piece of advice from Harriet was to make notes of the type and the number of bulbs and plants in the pots and finally take a photo of the display so that it can be critically assessed and tweaked if necessary.  Harriet blogs at harrietrycroft.com.

HPS Devon Group Zoom programme

April 3  Martin Fish – Behind the scenes as an RHS judge

Living in Thirsk, N Yorkshire, Martin is a TV and radio presenter, RHS judge, writer, author, and Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Horticulture.

For five years he ran the award-winning Harrogate Flower Shows.  Martin sits on two RHS committees – The Tender Ornamental Plant Committee and the Gardens Committee that advises and oversees the development of the society’s gardens.

May 1    Ian Thwaites – Introduction to Cacti and Succulents

Chair of the British Cactus & Succulent Society, living in Malvern, Ian is an award-winning botanical photographer.  He captures the natural beauty of plants whether in a formal garden, their natural environment or as a simple portrait.  He has built up an extensive image library.  Ian has been fascinated by plants all his life and finds particular interest in cacti & succulents – see his article “Weird and wonderful – 10 unusual choices for a sunny windowsill” in this month’s edition of the RHS magazine The Garden.

June 5   Richard Barnes – It’s not all about the plants!

Based in Morpeth, Northumberland, Richard trained in horticulture and has over 30 years of experience as a Chartered Landscape Architect. Working in all aspects of urban, landscape and garden design, he lectures on a range of related topics including the lives of the great plant hunters, the history of garden and landscape design, and seasonal gardens.   He has a specialist interest in urban trees; the positive benefits of both health and social wellbeing that trees bring to our towns and cities, the mounting pressure on maintaining our current stock and ensuring that there are trees for future generations.

Indestructable plants

I thought I might introduce a regular article on typical plants, excluding weeds!  in my garden.  It would be great if some members wrote about a plant in their garden that they find shrugs off the cold, wet, hot sun and dry conditions during the year.  Here is a start.


There are 5 different varieties of Persicaria in our garden; the RHS lists 205!  They are known as knotweeds, which always causes fear and trembling, belonging to the same family, Polygonaceae, as Japanese knotweed.  Persicaria are clump forming and easily controlled.  Many have attractive chevron designs on their leaves.

Persicaria amplexicaulis and Persicaria affinis- These two species are very similar in habit and features.  I have two varieties of these mat forming plants but haven’t managed to identify which types.  They were in the garden when we moved in.  These form a solid mat spreading steadily and controllably by surface stems which form a dense weed-suppressing mat.  They die down in the winter but new growth is soon seen in early spring and is visible now.  I scatter blood, fish and bone over them and then water it through the mat as the clump is so dense that it is impossible to put a mulch on them.  Plant in any type of soil and any aspect as they are as tough as old boots and are totally frost hardy down to -20C.  To move or plant a new clump just dig out a lump with a spade and move; spring is probably best.  Flowers appear from July to September/October on stems to a height of about 30cm in colours ranging from pale pink to red.  Beth Chatto’s Garden Nursery sells a good range of these plants.

Persicaria microcephala ‘Red Dragon’ – Ann and I bought this plant for large raised beds for Pete’s Dragons charity when we were able to look after their front garden.  This plant is bought for the reddish colour of its stems and leaves; its flowers are small, white and unremarkable.  The RHS describe it as vigorous and spreading.  It certainly puts on a lot of growth in the year producing lots of tall stems in all directions but I haven’t found it a spreader.  At the end of the season I cut it back to about 5-10cm which gives it some protection from frost as it is less hardy but survives to -5 to -10C.  New growth starts to appear in March.  It might be worth taking stem cuttings in the autumn which take very easily.

 Persicaria capitata – This plant is even more frost tender but it usually bounces back after the frosts.  I have seen some sites say it is banned in the UK but this might be based on the fact that all persicaria are related to Japanese Knotweed.  Chiltern seeds sell Persicaria capitatum ‘Afgan’ and the RHS list Persicaria capitata ‘Pink bubbles’.  It is a low growing plant no more than 2-5cm high with running stems.  The leaves have the typical chevron markings.  Like all the other forms of Persicaria it will grow anywhere but its low spreading habit makes it useful in hanging baskets and pots.  It produces small pink bobble shaped flowers in the summer which I think are quite attractive.  It gets knocked back in the winter and often I have thought that I might have lost it but it always bounces back in the late spring, especially in the sheltered area at the back of the house where it doesn’t see much sun but is very sheltered.  It is easily propagated from stem cuttings.

Persicaria virginiana – The leaves on this plant have a very marked chevron which makes it very attractive.  In the summer it produces red flowers.  I have it planted in a shaded area so I guess when I bought it I was told it was less hardy.  It grows to about 10cm and hasn’t spread.  It disappears during the winter and last year I forgot all about it until it popped up again in late spring. 

Other interesting plants are P runcinate ‘Purple Fantasy’ and P odorata ‘Vietnamese coriander’.

A bit of Gardening History

Tomorrow I will be making my first cut of the lawn and by the time you read this I’m sure most, if not all, of you will have given your lawns their first cut as well.  I will fill the mower with petrol, jump on and drive it around the garden – luxury!  You might think that sit-on mowers are a fairly recent advance in gardening but the two pictures below show examples from the beginning of the 20th century.  Try getting those in your garden shed.  These obviously were for dealing with large areas of grass but, as they say, other makes were available.

Surrey County Cricket Club’s ‘Dennis’ mower mower
Bournville’s first motor mower sold to Cadbury’s in 1902
From early 1900s.  The ponies wore leather shoes to avoid hoof marks

Lawns were the province of large estates in the 17th and 18th centuries with gardens designed by people like William Kent and Capability Brown.  These were cut by a skilled team of gardeners wielding scythes.  Generally, such lawns were situated close to the house to give owners and guests a pleasant sward to walk on. Areas further away, often separated by a ha-ha, were cropped by sheep, deer or cattle.

The first mower was developed in 1830 by Edward Beard Budding.  He obtained the idea after seeing a machine in a local cloth mill which used a cutting cylinder (or bladed reel) mounted on a bench to trim cloth to make a smooth finish after weaving.  Budding realised that a similar concept would enable the cutting of grass if the mechanism could be mounted in a wheeled frame to make the blades rotate close to the lawn’s surface.  The general design of the hand pushed mower didn’t change much apart from various modifications to improve noise and convenience.  The cutter on the first ones were driven via gears from the roller on the back.  Later the gears were changed to a chain system which was reported to be a lot quieter.  Finally, the cutter was attached to wheels mounted on either side of the mower, a design many of us might have used as children.  The development of suburbia and its manicured gardens drove the manufacture of mowers, as inner cities were largely populated by back-to-back houses with yards whereas rural dwellings had cottage gardens with flowers and vegetables.  Today, with robots and companies like Green Thumb, we don’t even have to get out of the armchair – do we?!

New Podcast

Sarah Raven has just launched a new podcast with Arthur Parkinson called ‘Grow, Cook, Eat, Arrange’ at https://www.sarahraven.com/customer/pages/podcast .  This is a very practical podcast tending to focus on one flowering plant, one vegetable and a recipe.  The latest podcast, No 4, is entitled Crocuses, Chard and Antirrhinums, so two flowers this time.  They discuss the attraction of the plant, how to grow it and, for a flower, its vase life.

Sarah Raven, and her garden and nursery, are well-known to us, but did you know she is also Lady Carnock, a title she doesn’t use, and studied medicine in London before committing herself to horticulture.  Although he has appeared on Gardener’s World, Arthur, now 28y, is perhaps less well-known.  He and Sarah have worked closely together for a number of years following Arthur’s visit to the nursery for a course and falling in love with everything at Perch Hill.

Book Reviews

A year full of flowers: gardening for all seasons -Sarah Raven

Recently published, this book is advertised as providing inspiration, planting ideas and expert advice for a beautiful garden all year round with stunning photographs by Jonathan Buckley.  Sarah hasn’t published a book for 10 years and I’m sure it would be well worth buying knowing her passion for flowers and her eagerness to share her knowledge.  If you buy it from Sarah Raven you get a signed copy for £25 but Amazon is selling it for £17.29.

The Flower Yard: growing flamboyant flowers in containers – Arthur Parkinson

Arthur lives in a small cottage with a yard just 16 feet long but crams it with pots and containers full of vibrant flowers.  In this book he shares his passion for flowers as well as providing something of his life and career.  All the photographs in the book have been taken by Arthur and there was a very enthusiastic review of this book in the English Garden magazine. Again, if ordered through Sarah Raven’s website you can obtain a signed copy for £22, Amazon are selling it for £17.19.

Open Gardens

Cerne Abbas Open Gardens

Past garden openers have been canvased and given overwhelming support to a plan for opening at our normal third weekend in June (19th and 20th) with a backup date in August (14th and 15th).  Normally we have about 30 gardens open and 1000 visitors.  In 2021 we will open provided we have 10 or more gardens open and will be even more grateful for every visitor.

We will update our website www.cerneabbasopengardens.org.uk in coming months.


2021 will once again see Hospiscare teaming up with local residents who kindly open their gardens in support of what is now a favourite staple in the Hospiscare calendar.

Hospiscare Open Gardens will take place for its 17th year in 2021 and registration is now open for local green-fingered residents to join the programme.

The local hospice charity for Exeter, Mid and East Devon cares for over 2,000 patients and their families every year. Hospiscare relies upon the support of its community through events such as Open Gardens in order to raise the funding needed to provide their vital care at no cost to the patient.

Hospiscare is seeking gardeners to share their outdoor spaces with others and is also looking for anyone who would like to run a plant stall, conduct private garden tours or sell their surplus vegetables and flowers for a donation.

 2020 saw the Open Gardens campaign diversify into virtual tours and plant sales, alongside some gardens opening to the public later in the season.  Despite the challenges 2020 brought, the gardens raised an amazing £23,662.00 for patients living with a terminal illness and their families.

If you would like to join Hospiscare Open Gardens for 2021, please call 01392 688020 or email fundraising@hospiscare.co.uk.  If you live in Exeter, Mid or East Devon, your local fundraiser is waiting to support you every step of the way.

The Future

As outdoor social contact rules will be lifted from May 17th it looks as if we could meet up in a garden. I have booked a visit to Stoneland in Dawlish and there is another visit booked in July to the Italian Garden near Newton Abbott.  The committee will be discussing what to do in the future in a couple of weeks but if you have any thoughts on making these visits please let me know.

As I have already mentioned, I have started to grow tomatoes, aubergines, sweet peppers and cucumbers (all 50p each).  Tomatoes will be Moneymaker, Tigerella, Gardeners Delight, Sungold and Shirley.

I would hope we might have a plant sale in May but I would be willing to drop off plants to people when they are ready.  I also have heucheras (£3-£4) and Scilla peruviana (£5) which looked impressive in the border last year.  There are other things suitable for a plant sale.   Again, we’ll discuss this at committee.


Preparation is all if you are to get wonderful borders, productive vegetable gardens and burgeoning greenhouses.  The following is taken from Tales of the Old Gardeners by Jean Stone and Loise Brodie whichdescribes interviews the authors had with various old gardeners (some since died) who described their experiences as young gardeners in the 30s -50s.

As an example John Borthwick talks about his time at Stagshaw House, Northumberland.  He was there from the mid-30s until he went to war but remembers it as a very good time with a benevolent family; others were not so lucky.  When he started work after leaving school, he shared a bothy with sixteen other young unmarried men; a bothy could be a spacious house or lodgings with very poor facilities.  John’s seemed to be okay.  The head gardener had twenty men under him.  Stagshaw House still exists, is Grade II listed and opens for the NGS.  In 2000 there was just one gardener with occasional help.  In John Borthwick’s early years everything was very manual so you needed a lot of gardeners but under a good head gardener they rotated around the different jobs and got very good training for later in life.  One thing John recounts is the care of the vinery over winter with treating the metalwork with paraffin, cleaning the glass and painting.  They had three large vineries and these had trenches in the borders.  They used to go to the slaughterhouse and collect all the blood, hair and other waste and put it in the trenches.  These were then covered with flagstones.  They never dried out and provided all the nutrient for the vines for the rest of the year.  I hate to think what it smelled like!

Comments, contributions and complaints to the editorMike Wheeler, The Old Dairy, Old Bystock Drive, Bystock, Exmouth, EX8 5EQ.