Arthur Hockin, creator of the magic of Maytime, dies aged 91

Hockins with begonia

ABRIGHT LIGHT in horticulture has been extinguished by the death of veteran man of the soil Arthur Hockin.

Few can surely match his achievement of 75 years with one hobby – gardening. And there can’t be many who can equal the utter beauty of the garden he and his wife Sylvia lovingly created and cared for at Littleham, North Devon, for nearly 50 years.

Now, sadly, Arthur, who was 91, has left us, almost exactly six months after his wife of more than 60 years passed away aged 86.

I last visited Arthur and Sylvia for a North Devon Journal feature back in 2014. It was published on the very day the couple toasted their diamond wedding and the year Arthur notched up his personal 75th anniversary of gardening exploits.

I am also privileged to say that not only was their garden one of the most beautiful I had visited in 50 years of horticultural wordage but, as a Mr and Mrs, the Hockins were among the most amiable and most interesting I can recall in a long career.

A one-time farm hand, Arthur and Sylvia built their dream bungalow from scratch and honing their gorgeous south-facing garden from a ploughed field.

Whatever Arthur planted invariably thrived and survived. Sometimes he hatched near-miracles.

One tale concerned five corms of Begonia sutherlandii, which somehow lay forgotten in his greenhouse for an entire decade, kept alive only by water which, fortuitously, dripped onto them from the staging.

Surfinias in front

Arthur later picked up the tiny dried-up corms and popped them around the edge of a large wooden planter full of his favourite compost.

The plants quickly sprang to life and swelled into a monster – a circumference of 10ft, a height of 2ft 6in and bearing hundreds of tiny orange four-petalled blooms.

This is but one of several remarkable stories that emanated from Maytime at Littleham – a garden so lavished in colour, contrast and care that it was impossible to walk past their garden gate without a Wow or an Oooh.

Arthur’s other claim to fame was growing a chance lupin seedling in pure white which turned out to be much superior to all the others. That was in 1989 and, by 1996, Polar Princess had become the star of the Chelsea Flower Show, as well as ending up in Prince Charles’s garden at Highgrove.

One of the “celebs” to swoon over Polar Princess at the Gardeners’ World Show at the NEC was TV gardener Alan Titchmarsh. Arthur gave Alan a plant when they met the following year at Rosemoor – and the Hockins were understandably thrilled when they received a personal Thank You letter from Mr T, as he is popularly known.

When I left Arthur and Sylvia on that sunny morning at Maytime in 2014, the couple were about to put their beloved bungalow up for sale. They were getting on in years and Arthur told me wryly: “It will be quite a wrench to leave. But more and more I find I go outside because I have to, not because I want to.”

I shall miss Sylvia and Arthur.

✴ Magical Maytime: Top – Arthur and Sylvia with their monster begonia; centre – the front of their bungalow studded with Surfinia petunias.




A South African stunner ‘wat’ gives us a fleeting blast of beauty

Watsonia pillansii

SOME FLOWERS can be frustratingly fleeting in their beauty. Often it’s the most stunning blooms that are virtually here today, gone tomorrow.

I place Watsonia in this category and, having grown a couple of clumps for many years, I’m relieved when the summer sun pops behind a cloud for an hour or so and the mercury takes a tumble.

Normally, the star-faced tubes in glistening – almost luminous – salmon-apricot will unfold at breakfast time and start to fade by supper. The consolation, however, is that there is an abundance of these tubes on each stem, so the dazzling array is nicely prolonged.

Watsonias, with more than 50 species to their name, hail from grassy slopes and plateaux in South Africa and Madagascar, many of them thriving in the wild in the south-west Cape, eastern Cape, Natal and the Transvaal.

They grow from corms and vary in height from 1ft to 5ft, though the vast majority bought in the UK will be Watsonia pillansii, aka beatricis, or one of the numerous hybrids bred from it.

With its handsome, sword-shaped leaves, this species reaches anywhere between 20in and 48in and loves life in the sun – and that’s the paradox here, with excessive heat and sunshine considerably reducing its flower power.

Although perennial, watsonias are not entirely hardy, though my plants have come through our occasional bone-chilling winters here in the south-west to fight another season.

For gardeners “up north” where the risk of frost is commonplace, I’d recommend planting the corms in pots plunged straight into their site and lifting in late autumn to the comfort of a greenhouse or a frost-free shed.

The larger of my clumps currently has an impressive 20 stems, the best effort to date, so it has clearly relished the sizzling July in helping to build up bud strength.

Other than being sun-lovers, these southern hemisphere glories are content in any soil and you’ll find a few species listed in specialist catalogues. As for your local garden centre – it’s a possibility, but no guarantees.

Watsonia pillansii G

Which reminds me – I must look out for hybrids that are mauve, red or white as a striking contrast to my present lodgers.

Incidentally, some of the species’ names are a challenge to remember and to get your tongue around, such as Watsonias fourcadei (5ft), knysnana (3ft), versfeldii (4ft) and vanderspuyae (4ft).

Although I cannot be certain – and I’m no Latin scholar! – I’ve a feeling the last-named was bred by the late Una van der Spuy, a renowned South African plantswoman whose wonderful encyclopedia, Wild Flowers of South Africa for the Garden, regularly gets grabbed from my bookshelf and its pages fervently turned.

Watsonia hybrids (book)

✴ Wonderful but ephemeral watsonias: Top and centre – two views of Watsonia pillansii in my garden showing the fading lower blooms; above – a cluster of watsonia hybrids, as illustrated in Una’s encyclopedia.

White: It will flatter its bedmates, glisten and prove a dazzling sight

Carpenteria close

COLOUR is as crucial to a garden as power is to politicians. Whether you prefer pretty summer bedders or bigger, bolder shrubs the aim should be the same – create a dazzling show for friends, family, passers-by and, of course, for yourself.

Yet the colour that’s more influential than any other is not red, purple, pink or yellow. It’s white – surprise, surprise!

Go plant some whites and you’ll be doing all the others a five-star favour.

White can do what the rainbow rest cannot achieve: it flatters them and can become a vital buffer which prevents horticultural hues from screaming at each other.

From snowdrops to love-lies-bleeding, roses to foxgloves, the army of whites is out there and ready to inject its unique allure.

White especially comes into its own in hanging baskets, tubs and troughs. A red planted next to a purple, let’s say, will almost surely clash, as would a crimson paired with something vividly orange.

Stick a white in the middle, though, and the result is dazzling – and easy on the eye.

You’ve got two principal choices here – you can plant an all-white bed or border or you can interplant with snowy shades to enhance the blues, pinks, scarlets & Co.

Renowned plantswoman Vita Sackville-West constructed a white garden at Sissinghurst, Kent, more than half a century ago. She effectively broke the mould and used white in its own right – with a vibrant outcome.

Until her clever creation, it was tradition to follow flower icon Gertrude Jekyll’s style of employing the purity colour to break up the brilliant shades.

If you do choose the bold option of an all-white display, be sure to incorporate a backdrop of green, without which the incandescence could be dimmed or, at worst, lost.

Philadelphus dwf G

Hedges and evergreen shrubs enable white to glisten and you can perhaps add creams, silvers or pale blues and lilacs to enrich the palette.

The pictures included here are among my favourite “white magic” choices. You’ll see cotoneaster, a blossom-packed shrub in spring followed by lots of berries in autumn; Carpenteria californica, not too common, bears glistening white, waxy, fragrant blooms in June and July with gorgeous golden stamens; philadelphus, the mock orange, deciduous and dependable in several species of varying heights, very fragrant; roses – plenty in white, including the highly scented shrub Boule de Neige, also the hybrid tea Titanic, with a creamy-yellow centre (you could dare to plant the floribunda Iceberg close by!); cosmos Sea Shells will sit comfortably alongside vivid annuals in summer, as will any white camellia in spring such as White Swan or Francis Hanger; white foxgloves look supreme, as do delphiniums of similar hue and dicentra Alba.

A couple of others worth a shot – lewisia, normally a pink alpine, look stunning in all-white, but always plant on the slant as autumn rains could rot the heart; and Galtonia candicans, the summer hyacinth, is an imposing South African summer perennial bulb and clothed in waxy-white pendulous bells. Will reach 3ft in late summer.

White – it will turn your garden into a riot of colour. Oh, and don’t forget the snowdrops and dwarf daffodils!

Cotoneaster Chp rd 2

✴ Everything’s aw-white: From top – carpenteria, philadelphus, cotoneaster, clockwise – camellia, lewisia, rose Titanic, galtonia, cosmos.

Gardening in this heat? Only for the brave, so why not think spring 2020?

American Pillar (poss) B Mills

UP, UP and up again soars the mercury and down, down and still down sinks our zest for getting out and turning the soil.

A heatwave has that effect, doesn’t it? We spend many minutes with watering can or hose, desperate to keep our flagging plants comfortable.

But as for actually sowing, mowing, hoeing, feeding or pruning . . .  well, not even I can get too worked up about these routine chores while the sun beats down relentlessly and temperatures push up levels beyond 30degC.

One answer is to face these jobs in late evening when the air is cooling and most of the flowers and shrubs that are taking a bashing from the noonday sun start to perk up. It’s also the best time to hose them down, always remembering that watering is no cheap chore in these days of water meters and rising bills. Always go easy!

For the real gardening keenies I’ve listed a few seasonal tasks well worth considering, but first a quick mention of the two photos here, snapped during a gentle stroll through the “smugglers’ village” of Bucks Mills in North Devon yesterday.

The beautiful rose – I think – is the veteran rambler American Pillar, though some doubts arise because the one I photographed doesn’t appear to have the vivid golden stamens so typical of our American friend – introduced, incidentally, as long ago as 1902 and still going strong.

Right on the corner of the steep walk down to the beach, I spotted a lovely small bed of scabious, a popular hardy perennial and botanically Scabiosa caucasica. This little cluster could be the straight species or, possibly, variety Clive Greaves.

Now for getting out and about for those mid-to-late-July misions – if you are up to it:

✴ Remove dead blooms from water lilies. Most will sink to the bottom of the pond with smelly results, so best get there first by reaching in as far as you can go and pulling off the faded blooms with stem.

✴ Continue summer pruning roses. Cut down stems to an outward-facing leaf joint, halfway between top and where they join the main trunk, and scatter a handful of rose feed or fish, blood and bone around each bush.

✴ If you haven’t already done it, sow further small batches of salads such as lettuce and radishes, preferably not on the original site as that could be contaminated with pests such as root aphids.

✴ Take semi-ripe cuttings of any shrubby herbs that are starting to look past their sell-by date and need replacing.  Lavender, rosemary, sage and bay are herbs that spring to mind.

✴ Sweet peas – especially those sown in autumn – will be starting to look tired, but you can extend their beauty by feeding them every fortnight with a high-potash liquid fertiliser and always remember to snip off unwanted seed pods.

✴ Lift new potatoes, onions and garlic and pinch out runner beans when they reach the top of their canes. If you grow outdoor tomatoes, pinch out the tops when four trusses have formed and take out any sideshoots.

✴ Disbud dahlias if you are seeking bigger and bolder blooms, perhaps for the local flower show. All it means is removing some of the sideshoots at the apex of the stems, leaving the large central bud to bloom on its own.

✴ Old, knobbly iris rhizomes can be chopped off, leaving small, healthy pieces that each have a clump of leaves attached. Slice through the foliage about 6in from the bottom and replant 4in-6in apart, the rhizomes just below the surface.

✴ It won’t be long before spring bulbs will be bulging the garden centre and supermarket shelves, so it’s no bad thing to do some mental planning over where the tulips, daffs, hyacinths,  alliums, aconites et al will be sited for spring 2020.

Scabious B Mills

✴ Beauty at Bucks: Top – rambling rose American Pillar, though I may stand corrected; above – the delicate blue-mauve petals of scabious.


Eureka! End of a 50-year search for the elusive Prophet Flower

Arnebia echioides (web)

FOR THE best part of half a century I’ve been chasing this plant. Now, at long last, there’s one about to be despatched and to take up residence in my garden.

Its name – arnebia, aka the Prophet Flower.

Its full name – Arnebia pulchra, once known as Echioides and, before that, Macrotomia, but now, apparently, happily settled with its present title, unless the botanical boffins decide to play the name game once more.

Arnebia is best described as a hardy clump-forming perennial that’s perfect for a sunny or part-shady rock garden.

It hails from Turkey, Northern Iran and the Caucasus and bears clusters of bright golden-yellow flowers, one inch across, shaped like mini-trumpets and each one with five black spots at the base which fade to brown and finally disappear, the spots said to represent the finger prints of Mohammad.  Stems reach around 12in high.

So patience has finally paid off. Even the renowned Plant Finder handbook failed to list this rarity, much to my dismay.

Then, after persistently checking online for a few years, I spotted Darcy & Everest who run a specialist alpine and perennial nursery near St Ives, Cambridgeshire.

Owners Luke and Laura Whiting grow more than 1,000 different varieties of unusual and choice specimens, most of which simply wouldn’t be found at traditional garden centres.

In addition, the family firm – now in its 27th year – has struck gold at Chelsea and has been awarded the prestigious accolade of RHS Master Grower.

My eye originally spotted arnebia way back in 1970, so I wrote a few lines about it when I was penning gardening pages for the Coventry Evening Telegraph.

A few weeks later I ordered a specimen from the long-gone Robinson’s Hardy Plants at Swanley, Kent.

It cost a princely 38p – one of the priciest plants in the booklet – and the eponymous Mr Robinson described it as “a rather extraordinary plant”. At the time, I pushed the boat right out and ordered ten more alpines, leaving the final bill soaring to £2.24, with postage costing 33p. Those were the days!

So now I’m excited at having this “extraordinary” beauty back on home territory, having unintentionally left my original arnebia behind in the rockery when we relocated from the Midlands in the mid-1970s.

Meantime, do check out Darcy & Everest, who offer nursery tours, workshops and sales days as well as attending many major shows up and down the UK. If you live some distance from the nursery you can always click the computer or tap the phone screen to uncover more details. 497672 or write to PO Box 78, St Ives, Huntingdon, Cambs, P E27 6ZA.

Arnebia CET

✴ Elusive Prophet Flower: Top – The glowing blooms of Arnebia pulchra; above – my original 1970 story in the Coventry Telegraph which featured this appealing alpine.

From Madrid to Evesham, here’s a tiny tom that puts the taste in travel

Tomato Veranda Red (Lub)

SO let’s start with the impressive credentials . . . . for here’s a compact tom that’s distinctly different.

It’s a dwarf tomato with taste . . . it is suitable for a range of pot sizes from two litres (1 plant) to 25 litres (3 or 4 plants) . . . it needs no canes or supports . . .  it has good resistance to ailments including potato blight . . .  it ripens early and starts to deliver crops in mid-July from a mid-April sowing . . . seeds are available from Pennard Plants.

We’re talking about Veranda Red, pictured above, which was today launched at the four-day RHS Tatton Park Flower Show in Cheshire.

The variety is a new development from the Burpee Europe breeding programme and is perfect for smaller patio pots.

It has travelled a long journey with its breeder Simon Crawford, who explained that he has been working on the dwarfing concept since breeding Red Alert, which went public in 1983 and Tumbler which followed in 1990.

Selection of parent plants took place in multiple locations, including just outside Madrid, Evesham in Worcestershire,  Yorkshire and the Netherlands.

Simon commented: “This is a significant breakthrough in adding flavour to this class of dwarf bush tomatoes. I am pleased with the outcome and hope that gardeners enjoy this variety during the coming years.”

When discussing the development of varieties with other breeders, such as Markus Kobelt, from fruit specialists Lubera, it’s generally agreed that the creative endeavour in plant hybridising is often not given the credit it deserves.

The design and implementation of a garden may take a year or so, but a new variety of tomato may be ten to fifteen years in the making – an apple even longer.

Lubera tells me: “We seem to struggle to celebrate the introduction of new varieties and it may be difficult to separate the claims from the reality, but I believe that Veranda Red is a good, solid variety that will stand the test of time.”

Tatton Park Show continues until Sunday near Knutsford.




Bill, 76, becomes a victim of plot plundering thieves

Allotment holder Bill MasonBill Mason pictured on his stripped-bare allotment in Littlehampton, as reported in the Daily Mail.

DESPICABLE was the one word that sprang to mind when I read of the pensioner robbed of his entire vegetable crop on his allotment.

It’s hardly surprising that Bill Mason, 76, was on the verge of tears when he discovered he had become a victim of sophisticated plot plunderers.

The thieves heartlessly stripped his allotment in Littlehampton, Sussex, of potatoes, spring onions, beetroot, cabbages, lettuces, celeriac and rhubarb.

Like many plot-holders, Bill  – pictured above – tended his ground up to four or five hours a day, relying on his hard work to produce sufficient food to last him and his partner through the winter.

Bill’s heartfelt reaction: “They have taken my livelihood away for no reason at all. It is part of my pension – that’s what hurts;  I don’t do it for fun.”

For 18 years Bill has lovingly looked after his allotment and is now calling on the local council to heighten security and to install CCTV cameras. For their part, the council have apologised for the “distress and upset” the theft had caused. Police, too, are on the case.

One wonders what goes through the head of such criminals who, without any thought for the outcome of their actions, went ahead, pulled up around £100 worth of produce and disappeared.

Sadly, it seems the robbing of fresh veg on plots across the UK is a growing menace. In Ipswich in April, thousands of pounds in equipment was stolen, then villagers in Midsomer Norton, Somerset, suffered a series of strawberry and raspberry thefts, while over in Canvey Island, Essex, plot-holders reluctantly gave up their favourite pastime after their allotments were repeatedly attacked by merciless thieves.

It’s not an easy problem to overcome. Installing fences and lighting doesn’t come cheap and nor does employing a security guard.

Let us just hope that whoever is planning a similar raid on his or her local allotment sits down and thinks long and hard about the misery and distress that such actions generate.

Victim Bill Mason will surely concur.