My favourite scented standard shrubs for containers

I love a standard shrub - stop reading now if you don’t!

The lilacs I love and adore

The lilacs I love and adore

I love the slightly cutesy, Alice in Wonderland air they give off, the lovely cloud-on-a-stick thing they do, and the fact that they resemble lollypops. A standard ‘tree’, depending on what it is, can give your garden, or entranceway instant gravitas or glamour, or silliness. They provide a second storey in a layered planting scheme - something to fill the space between flower-bed fodder and trees…but most of all, I like to use them in pairs, to flank a walkway, or entranceway where they give me a Beyonce feeling, as if there were two gorgeous extra people in my wake…as if I HAD a wake!

Lilac (Syringa meyeri ‘Palibin’)

I’m writing this as my lilac standards are in full bloom (and yes, they were the catalyst for this post). Every year I get loads of questions about these two lilac standards. I bought them many years ago, from an advert in the back of a sunday supplement (you know the kind, where you can also order pale grey shoes and permanently pressed trousers if such things appeal). Anyway, They arrived as nothing more than a few leaves atop a stalk and I planted them without much hope for glory. But glory came, and continues to come, in abundance. The variety is Syringa meyeri ‘Palibin’, which blooms each May with tiny, pale lilac flowers which pump out the most delectable scent. I have mine planted in two large barrel pots, but for the first few years of their life they lived in such smaller ones and were shamefully neglected (I mean I let them dry out a LOT when I was new to motherhood etc). They have forgiven me though. These would look totally awesome repeated ad infinitum in a courtyard garden, or indeed in groups of two flanking a pathway. Oh the joy.

Buddleia

I do love a buddleia…and so do the butterflies, but goodness they can put on some serious weight if they decide they like you, and obliterate everything else in sight. This makes them an ideal candidate for standard life, preferably in a container, where they can be, well, CONTAINED…(although of course, there’s no accounting for seedlings!). Again, we’re talking about something that will be bare over the winter and again, that’s fine, because a standard, even when bare, has structure, and can always be covered by a net of fairy lights over the winter. This is the ultimate wildlife friendly plant, pretty much indestructible and DEEPLY beautiful to boot. If I didn’t have so many populated pots I’d be plumping for one of these pronto. Oh and then there’s the scent - like a pot of honey on a warm afternoon. Mmmmmm.

Forsythia

I’m going to be quite honest here and say that this plant probably wouldn’t get a look in in its unfettered, unclipped form; it will grow to extremely unruly proportions unless you keep well on top of it and, because it only has a moment of glory, and because that moment is a YELLOW one, having it as a standard is really the only way a forsythia and I could ever be friends, but WHAT friends! I am totally against a mass of twigs with yellow on top (which is how most of us experience forsythia) but oh boy am I here for a lovely lollypop of twigginess which turns into a sizzling lemony explosion every spring! Imagine twelve of them all the way up your garden path! The utter joy of that almond fragrance, and the zingy colour hit, just as we emerge from a long winter. Again, when I get my gigantic garden in the sky, these will be on my list.

x Laetitia

Three more garden tools I can't do without

This is the second of two blogs on my favourite gardening tools…the ones I pull out every time I rush out for my five minute gardening fling. You can find the first three here.

  1. Kneeler

fancy kneeler (un-fancy ones are available, but they’re not so fancy)

fancy kneeler (un-fancy ones are available, but they’re not so fancy)

A kneeler is completely essential for me. I don’t get specially dressed for gardening, so I use a kneeler to stop my clothes from getting covered with dirt or wet, but it’s also vital for saving my ageing joints too. I also pull it out if it’s wet and I want somewhere to sit without getting a wet bottom. My kneeler is very old, a gift from Joules many years ago, but I found this kneeler, by Burgon and Ball, which is almost identical in size, and, crucially, has a handle for carrying it around, as well as hanging it up. Obviously there is lots of choice here - but I love canvas, and I love a print!



2. Hori hori knife

hori hori knife

This is a truly excellent tool. It can be used as a trowel, a weeder, a bulb planter and it also has a serrated edge, which will cut stubborn roots underground and slash dead plant material at the end of the season. It’s a great option if you’re of the minimalist persuasion as it can do a serviceable impression of several different tools, including my beloved widger (see previous blog for a eulogy to this). My Hori hori knife is from Japeto and I can vouch for its brilliance and durability, but of course, there are other models available.




3. Edging shears

Edging shears

Okay. I know this is niche, but in the summer and autumn, these shears are an essential part of my five minute armoury. I love these Fiskars shears because you can swivel them around depending on which way you are cutting. Of course you can totally just use your kitchen scissors, but if you’re edging a lawn once a week over several weeks, it’s worth having a dedicated tool that makes this into a joy rather than a chore. They also have a model with long handles, so if you find crouching or bending difficult, you don’t have to.

x Laetitia

I do a weekly newsletter, full of all the five minute things I do to keep the garden going, along with a bit of personal stuff (mostly how hard I’m trying, and how catastrophically I’m failing, to be a good parent!)

My top three must-have garden tools

I've been thinking a lot about reducing the amount of STUFF that surrounds me, paring things, like clothes and shoes and books and oh, I dunno baking equipment - down to the essential. And it struck me that I don't seem to have the same hoarding problem with garden tools. Over the years I've whittled things down to just what I need, and what serves me. So I thought I would share my essential pieces, so that if any of you were thinking of treating yourselves to something for the garden it might inspire you. Having said that though, it's a very personal thing - lots of gardeners will think I am mad putting a 'widger' at the top of my list, I had a gardener friend once who said she absolutely couldn't garden unless she had a hand fork with her, and couldn't understand anyone who said otherwise. I duly went and got myself a hand fork, which gets used about twice a year (if that). Anyway, for what it's worth, here are the first three of my top six.

  1. My Widger

My excellent widger tool

My excellent widger tool

I've had this trowel thing for years. I own other trowels but I hardly ever use them. This one is not for digging holes per say, it is best for weeding out perennials like bindweed...chasing those brittle roots to their core and removing them complete (can you tell I'm getting a bit excited about the thought of that?) It's the only thing I use, other than a hoe, when I'm weeding. My widger is from Burgon and Ball but there are others available (this one from Spear and Jackson looks almost identical and is a little cheaper.



2. My secutaurs.

Fabulous secateurs

Fabulous secateurs


This is a non-negotiable; you need a pair, whether you're gardening on a windowsill or a massive garden. It doesn't matter what brand they are, as long as they're sharp and they feel good in your hand. Mine are P94 PowerGear Pruners from Fiskars (they’re the guys who make those awesome kitchen scissors, which I heartily recommend) and I love them. Keep them sharp with a stone (basically like an emery board for knives) - you can find all the products I use for tool cleaning and sharpening here.




3. My shears.

Brilliant shears

Brilliant shears


I use these for clipping topiary and trimming hedges and climbers, and cutting back perennials at the end of the season, and sometimes for dead-heading many-flowered things. I love them. they are called Oskatune shears and they are from Niwaki - expensive but I've had rather too many bad pairs in the past for this to bother me in the slightest. I have other Niwaki things, because a good tool is a pleasure to use, always.

x Laetitia

How to deal with box caterpillar

Cydalima perspectalis is the box tree caterpillar and if you don’t already have it, very sorry, but it’s coming soon to a box ball near you.

healthy young box

It lays pale yellow eggs on the underside of the leaves, which hatch green and yellow caterpillars with black heads. These will munch away, leaving only crispy brown skeletons of leaves, and making you both angry and sad.

this is what they do

this is what they do

This caterpillar has no natural predator so it’s not like you can just leave the birds to eat them. In fact birds won’t eat more than a few due to the toxic alkaloids in the box (which is the sole diet of the caterpillar). That means that if we want to keep our box plants, we have to take action and control the pest.

Cydalima perspectalis (box tree caterpillar)

Cydalima perspectalis (box tree caterpillar)

Now of course, there are loads of sprays out there which will nuke the critters, including all other beneficial insects!! That’s not something I want to contribute to, and if you’re looking for chemical insecticide recommendations then this is not the place for you. Before you go though, I would beg you, for the sake of our planet, to take a look at the options below - they are all effective and most importantly, SAFE for other insects and wildlife, pets, your children and YOU!

Firstly, hand-removal. It’s time-consuming and gross, but effective if you do it regularly, remembering that this moth has more than one life cycle every year, and that the caterpillars over-winter on the plant.

A moth trap should be the first port of call for anyone dealing with this pest. It contains a lure which attracts the males and traps them, preventing them from reproducing. You may need more than one trap, depending on how large your garden is, and it’s essential that you follow the instructions, replacing the lure regularly etc, otherwise it simply won’t work (and for something that doesn’t look very nice, that would be a shame!) There is a discount code on the trap I’ve linked above - just put TODMAN10 into the box. If everyone with box had a trap and used it, we would effectively be able to control this pest.

Next is the nematode route, This is effective as long as you follow the instructions religiously. I haven’t used it but it is absolutely safe for use. I use nematodes to deal with vine weevil larvae and they are effective but as I said, do follow the instructions; nematodes are very temperature sensitive and you don’t want to waste your time or money.

Biological control - Topbuxus Xentari contains a microorganism that will kill caterpillars but not bees (indeed bee-keepers use it to control moths within hives). I use it and can vouch for it. The caterpillars stop eating your box within an hour and they die within a couple of days. Be aware that it is not officially sanctioned for use in the UK yet, but also be aware that this is more to do with huge chemical companies and their wish that you should continue to buy their stuff..

If you have a fair amount of box and are using Xentari I highly recommend a Trigger Sprayer - it makes the whole thing much easier and quicker and avoids blisters from repetitive spray injury! If that’s not your thing then of course a normal spray bottle will do; it needs to be at least a litre capacity as each sachet of Xentari needs a litre of water to mix with.

Finally, remember that this pest isn’t going away any time soon, so if you want box the you’ll have to commit to them…big time. Having found a solution that works I’m happy to put the work in, but if you’re not up for this lark, then stay tuned and I’ll put a blog up soon with my favourite box alternatives, all of which respond well to clipping, and none of which will (hopefully) break your heart.

Hope that was helpful. I am not a scientist - just an interested gardener, and sometimes I get things wrong. If you see anything here that you don’t agree with, please do let me know.

x Laetitia

Lilies for Mothering Sunday

Cut flowers are lovely, and I’ll never say not to them (as long as they’re plastic-free and British-grown) but a single pot planted with lilies would also gladden any mother’s heart.

Photo by  Annie Spratt  on  Unsplash

Edit: Do be careful with lilies if you have cats or neighbours with cats, as the pollen is poisonous to them. Many thanks to Fran for pointing this out in the comments - I should have mentioned it in the original post.


It’s as simple as getting hold of some lily bulbs and putting them in a pot. Here’s how:

You need:

Lily bulbs: I have new favourites every year, but the milky-white, heavily scented Lilium ‘Casa Blanca’ always steals my heart.

Compost: I use a mixture of peat-free multi-purpose and John Innes No. 2.

A tall pot: My lily posts measure roughly 30cm across and are 50cm deep. This size will be perfect for tall lilies.

Sharp sand

Osmacote granules: to feed the bulb - about one handful per pot.

Method

Mix up the compost with the granules and fill the pot until you have about 15cm left to the rim. Now sprinkle in a handful of sharp sand, put the bulbs on top (I use three bulbs per pot) and bury them with more compost, leaving enough room at the tip so that when you water it won’t overflow. Water until it seeps out of the bottom of the pot, put it outside in a sunny spot and wait.

If you’ve chosen tall lilies it’s a good idea to put a pea stick next to each one to support it as it gets taller.

You should have lilies by June.

Lilies hate to be too wet, so wait until the compost is dry on top before each watering and then water thoroughly. They also sometimes get attacked by bright red lily beetles, which have brown larvae covered in their own odious poo - so revolting. Squish them on sight.

x Laetitia


Frog love: how to create the best environment for these garden friends.


Photo by  Bharathi Raja  on  Unsplash

Photo by Bharathi Raja on Unsplash

You want frogs in your garden; you really really do.

They eat insects (including mosquitos) and also slimy invertebrates (yes, slugs) and they are also unbelievably cute.

Water

The single most important feature you need is water – a pond is obviously best, but failing that, a large container filled with water and more importantly, a way in and out of it. For a container or pool, this will mean bricks fashioned in some sort of ‘step’ arrangement; for a pond, the marginal (shallower) area on the sides will do the trick.

Plants

They need pond plants to hide in-amongst, and to attract insects. Frogs actually spend most of their time on land, so adequate foliage, providing moist, shady coverage near to your pond or pool is vital.

Patience and consideration

Wait for the frogs to find you, rather than raiding another pond for frogspawn, and be careful with any chemicals you are still using and consider cutting them out – for the benefit of all nature, but particularly for frogs who drink and breathe through their skin. Avoid topping pools up with tap water, because the chlorine in it can harm frogspawn – it’s best to use a water butt, and if you must use tap water, then leave it out for a day or two to evaporate the chlorine. If you live in an area where your tap water is chloraminated, then always use rainwater.

Slowly does it!

Most importantly though (and sorry to make you wince), keep your lawn short, and check it thoroughly before you mow it.

 

x Laetitia

 

Night scented stars

Let’s speculate that there are balmy nights ahead shall we? That we will be out there, chinking glasses in the twilight. Have any of these scented plants where you’ll be sitting for instant luxurious feels.

Photo by  Annie Spratt  on  Unsplash

First up, easy peasy stock. Use multi-purpose compost in a pot, or a well-prepared area of ground with plenty of sun and sow an eighth of an inch deep, on watered compost. Once the seedlings appear begin thinning out, tentatively at first, but then with more gusto until you have healthy, beefy little plants about 12 inches apart. Variety wise, I always go for unassuming and rather raggedy Matthiola bicornis but they all have that delicious, weighty scent.

Nicotiana alata in the border

Nicotiana alata in the border

Nicotiana is another winner, and doubly useful in the border or pots because of its height. N. alata or N. sylvestris are the loveliest in my humble opinion. Sow the tiny seed in containers indoors or buy ready-grown seedlings if you lack the space or time.

Photo by  Annie Spratt  on  Unsplash

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

I’ve ordered an pergola, and I’m planning to cover it with evening scented climbers, to create layers of delicious scent. Don’t be afraid to mix them up; honeysuckle (I love evergreen ‘Halliana’) and jasmine (including trachelospermum) together is never not a good idea. Throw in a bit of chocolate scent, with some Akebia quinata (I love this ‘Amethyst’ variety) and you’re transported to heaven.

Lastly (and best) with the strongest evening scent I have ever had the pleasure of sniffing, is the table-top star Zaluzianskya ovata, of which you can order small plants, or sow in June; put it on your outside table and prepare for a long night ahead because nobody will want to leave its heady embrace.

x Laetitia