Dynamic duo light up autumn with brilliant berries . . . after the spring show

LIGHTING-UP time is here as the Battle of the Berries reaches its climax.

And as a grower of several hardy shrubs, I can say without too much reservation that only two serious contenders fight it out in the ring – cotoneaster in the red corner, pyracantha in the orange.

OK, there are, of course, many pretenders to the title Best Berried Shrub for autumn and winter – callicarpa, gaultheria, berberis, photinia, the little-known ruscus and good old holly for starters.

Yet for sheer performance and pzazz only the dynamic duo deserve Premier League status.

Call it nature’s most vibrant berried treasure trove – and 2018 is up there among the best of the awesome autumns of recent years.

Bright and beautiful to the eye, the pair are useful too, providing a perfect platform for food and shelter for wildlife in the garden, a significant source of nectar for bees and, in the case of pyracantha, a burglar barrier supreme.

That’s because pyracantha, popularly known as firethorn, is armed with needle-sharp spines that are more than vicious enough to make a potential housebreaker think again.

Both shrubs are closely related, but all cotoneasters are thornless and, as such, are the gentler sisters of the firethorn.

Yet cotoneaster, which doesn’t have a snappier title, is a superb choice if you want beauty without the bite and a diversity of shape and size.

There are other notable differences between the two. Whereas all pyracanthas are evergreen, cotoneasters can also be deciduous, though the most commonly grown species and varieties tend to keep their leaves all year around.

Unlike many of their bedfellows, this duo will approve of sun or semi-shade, good or poor soil, acid or lime and are seldom victims to troubles.

Another major contrast are the size and statures of the two genera. Pyracantha embrace about 35 species and varieties and nearly all reach heights of between 10ft and 20ft.

Cotoneaster, however, is a huge race, with as many as 400 species and around 50 varieties in the family. And what names they contain to try to tongue-tie us – qungbixiensis, kweithhoviensis, zeravschamicus and hjelmqvista are – I kid you not – four horror handles.

Fancy a couple more? Practise gonnggashanensis and nedoluzhkoi before you go mental!

Thankfully there are species like rockii and crispii to restore our sanity.

As for size, they range from dinky spreaders that top no more than 12in to mature trees of 20ft or higher.

Do bear in mind that this pair are grown not only for their autumnal allure. In April and May the small, white, shimmering flowers, often in clusters and nicely fragrant, look appealing, not least the firethorn’s which must take the honours by a twig’s breadth.

Pyracantha Orange Glow, which I have grown for at least 25 years, usually hangs on to its fruits until well into December before the hungry birds descend and I suspect the same applies to the similar Orange Charmer and the yellow-berried Flava.

Best-known of the cotoneasters are horizontalis, which weaves a herringbone stem pattern across a wall and sports red berries, and conspicuus which delivers a massive crop of similar coloured fruits which birds seem to adore.

And for David and Goliath? Try dammeri which carpets its domain to a height of no more than a few inches and salicifolius that soars to 20ft and is clothed in long, narrow, evergreen leaves, white blooms and crimson berries.

So which do you prefer? The barbed beauty or the more benign berry bearer? Go search the garden centres ad you’ll find plenty begging to be bought.

✴ To learn more about cotoneasters, read the 2009 definitive work, entitled Cotoneasters, by Jeanette Fryer and Bertil Hylmó, published by Timber Press.

⏩⏩➡» Berried treasure: Top three – Berries and blossom of pyracantha; above left – Cotoneaster horizontalis; right – the white wonder of cotoneaster’s springtime show.


Long-distance runners: Who won seed firm’s gold, silver and bronze


BEANS means . . . no, not tipping them out of a tin but growing them luscious and l–o–n–g.

So it’s congratulations to June Saddington, Alison Cartwright and David Graney for taking first, second and third prizes in Mr Fothergill’s 2018 UK Longest Runner Bean contest.

Last April the Suffolk seed merchant announced its quest to find Britain’s longest runner. The firm’s Facebook and Twitter followers were asked to share pictures of their runners growing and thriving, where they could get spot prizes every month.

But to stand a chance of winning the main awards, they were asked for images of the longest beans with a tape measure showing the length.

It all started last year with Mr Fothergill’s staff competition for the Year of the Bean and – not surprisingly – it created huge interest when the contest was flagged up. The winning bean that year was 47.2cm long – some way short of this year’s top three.

June’s champion measured an impressive 62.3cm, Alison’s “silver” 61cm and David’s “bronze” 53cm. It is not know whether any of the top three sowed Mr Fothergill’s recommended varieties, Guinness Record and Enorma, though there are plenty of other varieties, of course, capable of stretching a point given the right treatment.

Now I have to say that I don’t have a note of the three top growers’ home towns and I only have the winning lengths in metric so, if you are like me and comprehend imperial measures much more clearly, I can only point out that metric measure was the way Fothergills sent out the news release, so I won’t attempt to convert in case the answer is not pinpoint accurate.

June Saddington, who won £50 of Fothergills’ new varieties, says: “I grew the plants in a raised bed in my back garden veg patch, a bag of manure was dug in first, then I grew five plants, one up each pole of a wigwam, and just watered lots over the hot summer.”

Alison Cartwright, winner of £30 of new varieties, applied a different approach. She says: “My beans were surface-sown in a seed tray of compost and then transplanted to one of my raised beds at the four-leaf stage. They were planted just as the hot summer weather started so this meant that watering every other day was necessary. On every third or fourth watering they were given a low nitrogen feed and they were also misted regularly to encourage the beans to set.”

David Graney, who won £20 in new varieties, commented: “I prepped the bed with well-rotted manure, then fed with comfrey tea and also mulched with comfrey leaves when we had the heatwave.”

✴ Runner bean Guinness Record costs £3.55 for 45 seeds from Mr Fothergill’s (www.mr-fothergills.co.uk). The company also stock a wide range of runners, available from retail suppliers, the latest seed catalogue or online.

Longest bean 1st

Longest bean 2nd

Longest bean 3rd

⏩⏩➡» Long-distance runners: Top – June’s winner; centre – Alison’s runner-up; above – David’s third place entry.



A mahonia sinfonia: It almost brings music to the eyes!

MAGNIFICENT mahonias are lords of the lousy spot – winter wonders that delight the eye at the most dour time of the year.

Their credentials are worth noting: Arching stems smothered in panicles or clusters of custard-yellow, fragrant flowers, drooping purple-blue berries to follow, handsome holly-like foliage that’s evergreen and often flushed red or bronze, deeply fissured bark, defiant against winter freeze-ups and a constitution that seems to say: “I’ll grow anywhere. Just try me.”

When all else fails, these tough old shrubs from North and Central America, the Himalayas and China will thrive.

In the often grey days of January and February, it’s the mahonias that fly the yellow flag, beating the daffodils into bloom for a dash of winter warmth that gives us all a much-needed tonic.

It’s fascinating to note that mahonias can claim to be shrubs by royal appointment. For the Queen’s gardens at Windsor Great Park houses the UK’s National – and biggest – Collection of the genus, with head gardener John Anderson custodian of around 90 different species and varieties across the park’s 5,000 acres on the Surrey-Berkshire border.

So what is good enough for HM and her corgis ought to be perfect for the rest of us.

Perhaps the best-loved winter mahonia which blooms around Christmas and into early spring is japonica, with glossy deep green leaves divided into many spiny leaflets. The flower sprays in soft yellow nestle neatly among the foliage and the scent is very sweet.

Bealei, also a japonica, has flowers held upright and both will bear those dark, dark fruits in subsequent weeks.

The media hybrid forms are also a dependable choice for colour late in the year. Charity, Lionel Fortescue, Winter Sun with eye-opening, arching racemes, the equally sparky Buckland, the acid-yellow Underway, and Arthur Menzies which is a little later in bloom and, at 6ft, less lofty than the others – all these will faithfully deliver.

As for the spring delights, the American Mahonia aquifolium must be top of the tree. Also known as the Oregon grape, it blooms from February to April, carries deep glossy-green leaves that turn purple in the coldest weather, bright yellow flowers and ebony fruits that make excellent jelly.

Mahonia G

⏩⏩➡» Mahonia majesty: The golden sprays of fragrant flowers as displayed by Mahonia aquifolium.

Also in the aquifolium team are Atropurpurea which turns its foliage deep red-purple in winter,  Orange Flame with rusty-orange young foliage and the surely unpronounceable Smaragd bearing large clusters of sunshine-yellow flowers on a shrub that tops no more than 24in.

There’s free-flowering Apollo, Moseri with stunning pink-red new spring growth and the upright and award-winning Pinnacle, all members of species wagneri which is a cross between aquifolium and pinnata.

The list goes on and on but, whatever you choose – garden centres have plenty – go plant a few and swoon at your mahonia sinfonia!


✴ Mahonia was named after Bernard M’mahon (1775-1816), an  American horticulturist and author of The American Gardener’s Calendar from 1807.

 Optimum conditions are semi-shade in well-drained soil that’s neutral to acid, though they will tolerate some alkalinity.

 Pruning is hardly necessary, except for an early-summer trim to keep the bush in easy reach. More brutal pruning  will reduce, or wipe out, the chances of flowers the following season.

✴ If yellowing of the foliage happens, this will probably be because the lime content is too high. Feed generously with ericaceous compost to counteract.

thumbnail_Mahonia bealei

⏩⏩➡» Mahonia Bealei


OOKING perky in the autumn sunshine today were these two collerette dahlias, both grown from self-seedlings by a friend who lives near Bristol.

Their vibrant colours and beautifully intricate ring of smaller petals that form a collar cast a bright glow across the garden.

Once any bitterly cold weather strikes, these beauties will quickly succumb but they will be left in situ for the winter and mulched with leaf mould to keep them as cosy as possible. One advantage of living in balmy Devon, perhaps!

Dahlia collerette 2

Dahlia collerette 1

Cracking Kaffirs bring summer sunshine to the autumn stage

HEY HO! It’s that time of year when the buds are beginning to open and the flowers about to unfurl.
No, I haven’t taken a trip in my much-coveted time machine and landed into next spring or summer . . . just in case you were wondering.

I’m talking about wonderful Kaffir lilies, darlings of the October and November stage, which give us a warm glow when other plants are heading for hibernation. Or are simply dying.

I wouldn’t be without them. As the rusty and gold leaves float down from the trees and the garden takes on a bedraggled demeanour – well, mine does! – the Kaffirs unashamedly fly the flag.

There’s just one species of schizostylis – to give it its botanical handle – and that’s coccinea.

They look kind of exotic – well, their native land is South Africa, so you’d expect them to be summer serenaders in the UK rather than presenting us with a welcoming dose of autumnal allure, often extending well into December if the weather is mild.

As hardy perennials, they are simple to cultivate and look fabulous when grouped together, preferably in moist soil which mirrors their wild life in the eastern Cape and Transvaal where they thrive alongside streams.

If there is a downside – and it’s only a little downer – it is their habit of multiplying rapidly and an apparent desire to take over the bed.

So to get your own back it’s best to dig up clumps every two or three years, divide and replant or discard any deemed to be surplus. Alternatively, just yank out the crowds.

Left alone, they will grow to 18in-24in, bear long, sword-shaped leaves and silky, six-petalled stars.

Most of my Kaffirs are the racy red variety Major and the pink Mrs Hegarty, both long-established golden oldies. I once grew a few pure white plants – possibly the old variety Alba – the gift from a local gardener, but these have since gone AWOL, a fate which can befall less vigorous sorts.

One, a relative newcomer called Jennifer, delivers large pink blooms, Maiden’s Blush is another pink ‘un, Sunrise is salmon-pink, Pallida begins as blush-pink but fades to almost white, Viscountess Byng, in candy pink, is an oldie with smaller flowers but very prolific, Professor Barnard is in a deeper pink, Snow Maiden in – you’ve guessed – white, and two newish pinks, Rosalie and November Cheer.

A cheer-up in November? Now, that alone makes Kaffirs worth their weight in gold.


✴ They prefer moist, fertile soil, so apply fish, blood and bone early in the year to strengthen their roots and sulphate of potash in mid-summer to boost flower power.

✴ They make excellent flowers for the vase and often last more than three weeks in water.

✴ As well as outside, Kaffirs are happy growing in pots in the greenhouse, creating colour well into the winter.

 It’s essential to keep plants well watered in long, dry spells in summer, otherwise there’s a danger of losing them to parched roots.

✴ Team them up with the purple spikes of liriope or the bright blue flowers of ceratostigma for stunning effect.

✴ Seed sowing is no great challenge. Try Devon-based Plant World Seeds (www.plant-world-seeds.com/www.plant-world-seeds.com/01803 872939) who stock packs of mixed colours, from white through to pink and deepest vermilion which sounds interesting.

⏩⏩➡» Super schizostylis: Top – Up-close with Major; above left – Major again in the sunshine; right – probably Mrs Hegarty.

Two ‘furry friends’ gatecrash the garden – but how did they arrive?

UNINVITED guests they most certainly are – two verbascums that decided to put down their roots just 2ft apart.

How they arrived in the garden border – in the front stalls which is out of place anyway – I know not, but I do recall seeing a couple of tiny seedlings a few weeks ago that didn’t look like weeds.

So I resisted giving them the heave-ho. And they have now made their presence known loud and clear.

One has since rocketed to 4ft and produced a stem of those familiar canary yellow flowers, the other is still in rosette form, both displaying the characteristic furry, greyish foliage that typifies the livery of Verbascum thapsis, aka Common Mullein or Aaron’s Rod.

Perhaps their unscheduled arrival shouldn’t have surprised me. Mulleins have a predilection for self-seeding almost anywhere, for these lofty biennials prefer dry, poorish soil and don’t demand the sort of TLC that we offer to many of our favourites.

⏩⏩➡» Unscheduled arrivals: Left – the two uninvited verbascums making a home for themselves; right – the striking Violetta.

Verbascums are perfect alternatives if your delphiniums or lupins get devoured by slugs and snails, for they seem to be a virtual turnoff for all those hungry, slimy critters.

But they are host to one winging lightweight, the Mullein Moth – naturally! – and their pretty, spotted caterpillars will chomp with the veracity of slugs on lettuce.

The moths haven’t discovered my pair, thankfully, possibly because they germinated at the “wrong” time. Many, though have plain green leaves and could prove a slug’s target.

Most verbascums are perennial – short-lived, so think three to four years – they are child’s play from seed and their colour range is outstandingly broad. Those, like my commoners, are biennial, so are set to die after showing off their flowers.

Robust without being too elegant, mulleins nonetheless create a handsome and architectural backdrop for smaller choices nearer the front of the border.

Chiltern Seeds stocks an impressive range of perennial and biennial sorts. From species phoeniceum come Violetta (3ft) in purple-violet, the shorter Rosetta (2ft) in intense carmine-pink and Flush of White (2½ft) with attractive seed pods.

Also from Chiltern, I like the sound of Southern Charm (3ft) in shades of peach, pink, apricot and lilac and all with darker eye, and Verbascum olympian (6ft) that looks like an enormous candelabra in golden-yellow from June to September.

From Thompson & Morgan you’ll find Banana Custard (5ft) with two-tone yellow blooms, Snow Maiden (4ft) with a colour that’s pretty obvious, and Album (2-3ft) carrying delicate flowers in white with purple centres.

Other varieties to eye up include Copper Rose (pink, copper and apricot), Southern Charms (pastel shades), Mont Blanc (white), Cotswold Queen (dusky yellow), Jackie (salmon-pink) and Pink Domino.

Four two-word tips:

✴ Remember stakes

✴ Dead-head

✴ Don’t overfeed

✴ Add grit

⏩⏩➡» www.chilternseeds.co.uk/thompson-morgan.com



A catalogue that offers the ultimate in fruitfulness – just like the goddess

POMONA FRUITS’ catalogues are brimming with plants and trees of such sweetness and flavour it’s a wonder the juice doesn’t start pouring from their pages.

The firm’s autumn 2018 booklet of 68 pages is no exception and features all things edible from apples, apricots and asparagus through a veritable alphabet of yumminess.

It follows, of course, that Pomona Fruits has a class act to live up to, named as it is after the Roman goddess of fruit trees and orchards.

Furthermore, her own name is from the Latin for fruit, pomum. She watches over and protects fruit trees and cares for their cultivation, she’s an expert in pruning and grafting and she knows how to ward off pests and diseases . . . or so the story goes.

Trading from Walton-on-Naze, Essex, by its two principal directors, Claire Higgins and Ming Yang, Pomona is currently flagging up its new additions to its ever-expanding range – a blackberry, an apple and – no, you can’t eat these – five flowering cherries.

So here’s a peak at what the new pretenders have to offer:

No ordinary blackberry is Black Cascade. Bred to exacting standards, it exhibits a unique trailing habit that’s perfect for baskets or containers.

You are rewarded with attractive blooms that are magnets to bees and butterflies, closely followed from August to October by masses of large, cascading berries. Black Cascade is thornless, its berries rich and sweet and, when fully mature, each plant will produce up to 2.8lbs of fruit, with an eventual height and spread of 12in x 18in.

While all new apple varieties have particular benefits, newcomer Eden has a unique boast – its flesh is so very, very white that it holds its colour for one to two days after cutting and is, therefore, rated as non-browning.

Eden is a dual purpose culinary/dessert apple and is the result of a cross between Linda and Jonamac. The fruit is attractive and dark red with greenish-yellow markings. There’s a crisp texture and juicy flavour, so extremely crunchworthy and, if cooked, do hold back on the sugar as it’s not needed.

Fruits can be picked in October and will store well into March.

⏩⏩➡» Fabulous fruitiness: top left – blackberry Black Cascade; right – apple Eden; above – whiter than white as Eden’s flesh is shown to advantage against a “brown” variety.

Prunus – flowering cherries and various cousins – are one of the joys of the springtime garden. Famed for their fabulous blossom and, in many cases, autumn foliage, the flowers range in colour from pure white to dark pink and can be single, double or something in between – and they can be columnar, rounded, spreading or weeping.

The one pictured here is Kanzan, possibly the most widely grown cherry and certainly among the showiest of them all. The spring foliage is coppery red, turning green in summer and orange in autumn and the whole tree is upright with wide, arching branches.

Pomona also stock Shogetsu, Pink Perfection, The Bride and – take a deep breath – Kiku-Shidare-Zakuru.

⏩⏩➡» Pomona Fruits – www.pomonafruits.co.uk – is offering a 10% discount on selected items if ordered by 30 November. To order a catalogue phone 01255 440410 or check out the website.

thumbnail_Prunus Kanzan (Roberts)

⏩⏩➡» Springtime glory:  Flowering cherry Kanzan in full bloom.


Gongs galore for the sunflower heading for global stardom

100,000 plants sold in the UK and all set to dazzle the US

IF EVER a sunflower was heading for stardom it’s the aptly named Sunbelievable Brown Eyed Girl.

For following its heady success at May’s Chelsea Flower Show, Thompson & Morgan’s house-bred helianthus has bagged even more awards.

And the Americans appear to love it, bestowing on it a galaxy of superlatives as only Americans can!

Proving hugely popular in the US, the new sunflower was awarded the Retailers’ Choice prize at the Farwest Show in Portland, Oregon, as well as the 2018 American Horticultural Retailers’ Choice at Cultivate in Ohio.

Over here at the Horticultural Trades Association National Plant Show, Sunbelievable struck gold in the annuals category, as well as the Best in Category (Annuals) and the visitor vote in the same section.

This long-flowering sunflower, which reaches a dinky 2ft tall, also won the 2018 Four Oaks Trade Show Best Plant Introduction or Pot Plant.

It took eight years for T & M’s breeding team to perfect Brown Eyed Girl and now it is making a name for itself as the sunflower that can produce a phenomenal 1,000 flowers over a season.

It’s a sterile variety, so it puts all its energies into blooming rather than setting seed. Multi-branching in habit, it will flower from June to November and is a perfect choice for pots or borders. Even its foliage is luxurious to look at, deepening in colour as the season progresses.

With all these impressive credentials to consider, it was no surprise that it gained an incredible third place at the Chelsea Flower Show’s Plant of the Year competition.

Thompson & Morgan’s head of horticulture, Paul Masters, comments:

We’re very proud to have won so many prestigious awards for SunBelievable Brown Eyed Girl both in the UK and abroad. To have gained international recognition for our fabulous sunflower is a great success for Thompson & Morgan.”

 With online and catalogue sales topping 100,000 plants in the UK, SunBelievable will be available for retail release in the United States in 2019.

“Customer feedback has been extremely positive” says Peter Freeman, Thompson & Morgan’s new product development manager. “We’ve been amazed at the plants’ performance this summer – particularly through the heatwave and drought conditions. Those that were planted in the first half of the summer are still flowering now!”

 At Thompson & Morgan’s Floral Fantasia garden at RHS Garden Hyde Hall in Essex this summer, at which hundreds of varieties of annuals were on display, SunBelievable proved to be the favourite of the majority of the almost 140,000 visitors to the gardens.

Paul Masters also commented that there would be further exciting introductions to come in the SunBelievable range.

⏩⏩➡» www.thompson-morgan.com


Sunflowers supreme: Top – a cluster of Sunbelievables; above –  Paul Masters receiving Cultivate Retailers’ Choice award from Jonathan D. Pedersen, vice-president of business development, at Monrovia Nurseries, Ohio.