About Sel Calderbank

I'm a journalist, English teacher and gardener in Brussels, Belgium. I love gardening and writing about my garden, so I hope you enjoy reading my blog and sharing your gardening moments and photos too.

Six on Saturday: 08 May 2021: A walk up the front path

Looking down the path, sunny side on the left, shady side on the right with the big yew ball. The forget-me-nots have colonised the sunny side, and I’m hoping the white Honesty will too.

I associate May in Belgium with paddling pool weather, as when my son was younger he loved a splash in the garden at this time of year. But it’s far too chilly for paddling, I’m still wearing my woolly cardigan! At least it has rained, so the plants are content. I’ll only be content when I can sing along to “Here Comes the Sun”.

This week I’m going to show you the front path, which was once dolomite, laid to grass on either side, with some old roses on the sunny side. It made for extremely awkward mowing and represented, mais oui, a wasted planting opportunity. So, little by little, turf was lifted and things became more interesting. My first choice for this week’s Six on Saturday goes to a sun lover by the front gate:

1 Iris germanica (I think). The first time I’ve had an iris flowering in my garden. It’s with its other iris friends in the sun-baked front-end of the front path, right by the gate, but none of its friends have come out to play with it, which means it looks a bit silly all on its own. What’s the secret with Irises, are they tricky, do they need more than just sun?

2 Geranium. I’m a big fan of geraniums, if only I could remember all their names. This one is further up the front path, a nice, clean blue. I like the simplicity of the flower too.

3 Rhododendron ‘Horizon Monarch’. More front path action, but this is on the shadier side. I was horrified when the buds started to emerge in a saccharine peachy pink in the first year after I bought it, and I thought a terrible labelling error had occurred. Thankfully, the peach is just a teaser, the soft Cornish clotted cream yellow reveals itself splendidly when they open up, with just hints of peachy pink, phew. It’s an impactful shrub that doesn’t grow to the monstrous size of some rhododendrons, max 2 metres high.

4 Euphorbia amygdaloides ‘Purpurea’. Neighbouring the rhododendron is this bright wood spurge which has been adding zingy tones to this shady spot for weeks now, but got shoved off the Six on Saturday slot by limelight-hogging tulips. It’s time to remedy that, as this really is a super plant for those tricky spots in dry shade. I wish I had planted another patch on the other side, so I’ll try some cuttings this year. Has anyone tried this with Euphorbia? Behind it are ‘Fire King’ wallflowers, which seem happy enough here, but are out of sniffing range.

5 Tiarella ‘Pink Skyrocket’. Such a dainty little thing, but tougher than it looks, I’ve got three of these in the dry shadow of a large yew, shaped by the previous owner into a giant ball. They don’t seem to mind at all. When they’re not in flower, the deeply dissected leaves make an attractive ground-covering slowly spreading mat of purpley-green. Highly recommended for tricky spots.

6 Strawberries. When we laid new gravel on the path last year to replace the dolomite, the workmen thought I was a bit of an eccentric/batty English lady, insisting that they don’t remove the self-seeded strawberry plants that they called weeds. Belgians, I find, tend to favour clean straight lines and perfect symmetry in their gardens, but I like the ways these cheekily break into the gravel, and who can complain about picking wild strawberries just outside the front door? I will have to watch those runners though, otherwise the front path may become a strawberry field.

Well, hope you enjoyed that little stroll down the path, I’ll revisit it soon when the roses, catmint and more geraniums erupt into a frothy cottage-garden flower fest. So much to look forward to, and hopefully some paddling pool weather will be on its way too. There’s much more to see over at the Propagator’s Six on Saturday page, pop over and have a look. I need to decide what to do with all my pots of going over tulips, and hopefully do some planting out of seedlings in the greenhouse if the weather allows. Have a great weekend everyone.

Belgium’s most famous bluebells

This morning I was in Hallerbos (Dutch for Halle Forest), a stretch of woodland in Flemish Brabant, just half an hour’s drive from Brussels. It’s famed for its carpet of blue at this time of year: it’s not just England that can boast this beautiful spring phenomenon!

Bluebells are often an indicator of very old woodland, and Hallerbos is a remnant of the ancient charcoal forest that once covered vast swathes of Europe, now scattered and dissected by roads and settlements, and of course greatly reduced from its original size. Hallerbos also suffered the misfortune of being razed by German forces during world war one, but was replanted, mainly with tall, stately beech, between 1930-1950.

Now in the interests of honesty, I will tell you that this lovely forest has a major downside. There’s a great big roaring motorway running right alongside, audible above the birdsong even when you venture deep inside. I notice that people tend not to mention this in their Facebook posts. I suppose it’s a reminder that true wilderness is getter harder and harder to find.

Six on Saturday: 01 May 2021: Festival of Flowers

Wishing everyone a happy May Day: a significant festival for gardeners, as the first celebrations marked the festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, during the Roman republican era.

Ah such a lovely morning to bring in the month of May, full of promise. I love this time of year. I decided to take a few pics of how the back garden is looking this morning, and pretty much all you see has been transformed from lawn and few lone shrubs when we moved here almost four years ago. You know what, I’m going to give myself just a little pat on the back, before I start thinking about how to improve it further.

After last week’s tribulations with tomatoes, things have calmed down a bit, especially as new homes have been found for at least half of them, considerably easing my work load. Also, we have focused on welcoming our cute feathered friends to their new abode – they are of course featured on this week’s Six on Saturday round-up:

1 The Vibrant Border. It’s living up to its name, with three main party-goers having a good time together: orangey-red Tulipa Dillenburg and Geum ‘Scarlet Tempest’ have been joined this week by fuchsia pink tulip ‘Barcelona’. This border reminds me of a Spanish fiesta at the moment. Hard to believe it was a patch of bare clay just last autumn, and before that just lawn. Things will calm down once the tulips are over, but am hoping that alliums, oriental poppies and day lilies will take up the baton. Meanwhile, seedlings of Tithonia, sunflowers and Cleome, and Dahlias, are being nurtured in the greenhouse for late summer colour.

2 Tulipa Cassini. Yes, more tulips, I’ve gone a bit tulip mad this year (or last autumn, to be more accurate, it must have been the weather, or an attempt to distract myself from grim reality). Here two pots of Cassini are brightening up a corner of the veg patch, they are a bit short and dumpy but I like to soft orange shade. I like the lime green growth on the box hedge too, which has finally become a hedge rather than individual little plants, it took about three years. Argh the box blight, argh the box tree caterpillar, I hear you cry, but I am deaf to these portents of doom, all is well and green for now.

3 Bluebells, Hyacinthoides hispanica. Onto something cooler and calmer, let’s head to the glade, where ferns are unfurling gracefully, Geranium macrorrhizum ‘Spessart’ is flowering daintily and the bluebells are nodding their pretty heads. There’s a perfect unblemished Hosta in a pot, I love the blue-green colour but don’t know the variety. Keeping Hostas in pots is the only way to stop them looking a total slug-ravaged mess in my garden!

4 The potato trials. I’m participating in an experiment to grow potatoes in containers this year, along with Fred a French Gardener, Piglet in Portugal and N20 Gardener. I’ve got one large bin filled with four King Edwards, and three compost bags with two or three potatoes per bag. Here you can see pics taken earlier in the week, pre and post earthing up with fresh compost, and finally a photo taken this morning to show how quickly new growth emerges after earthing up. So far, so good.

5 Lettuces on the rooftop. Another intrepid experiment, to grow lettuces on the roof of our shed, in the vain hope that slugs will not scamper up here to dine on Lollo Rosso, Oakleaf Red and Paris Island Cos. What a menu, they might be tempted to make the trek! As an afterthought since taking this photo, I covered the crates with chicken wire cloches just in case the roosting pigeons in the trees overhead felt like a free lunch.

6 Our new garden inhabitants. Welcome to our Pekin bantams! They are still very shy and getting used to their new surroundings. Much smaller than the normal breed of layer, they are round, have feathered feet, and – I quote – “are generally less destructive of ornamental gardens”. It’s great to have chickens back in the garden again.

That’s all from me this week, be sure to browse The Propagator’s Six on Saturday post for links to fabulous gardens with dedicated custodians from around the world.

Six on Saturday: 24 Apr 2021: Tulips and Tomatoes

‘Can you all get in an orderly line please?’, I feel like saying to all the seedlings that are clamouring to be potted on, and particularly to the 19 tomato plants, which have demanded a lot of my time and attention this week. All of them had to be potted on, staked and tied in, but after doing about fifteen of the them, I got fed up and decided to plonk four straight into the veg bed where they can frankly take their chances. I’ve been kind enough to give them a fleece covering at night, making a sort of makeshift greenhouse. Despite giving quite a few away, I still have too many – I am reminded of that each evening when I have to bring them all in after hardening off on the sunny terrace during the day. Phew…

Well, apart from feeling tomatoed out, I’ve really enjoyed the glorious spring weather we’ve been having, although it’s been so dry, it won’t be long before the water butt is empty. I’ve even had to get the hosepipe out to water the veg bed. Is this a sign of what’s to come as our planet warms up and spring is over by April? I’m increasingly thinking about which plants will survive best in these conditions, and try to focus more on drought-tolerant species that won’t need constant watering (the dahlias definitely don’t fit into this category).

Right, let’s do Six on Saturday:

1 Tomatoes. You’ve heard my complaints! So here are a few images of potting on, hardening off, greenhouse contraptions and all that other ritualistic stuff.

2 Tulips. They’ve been putting on quite a show. I haven’t chosen subtle, soft tones this year, it’s all loud and energising this year, and unapologetically cheerful. Here are the lily-flowered tulips Aladdin.

3 Tulips in the vibrant border. Here I’ve planted a drift of the old Dutch variety ‘Dillenburg’ which is flowering at the same time as Geum ‘Scarlet Tempest’. There are also some magenta ‘Barcelona’ tulips to add even more zing, but they are only just coming into flower.

4 Tulipa ‘Dream Touch’. These are more sophisticated! I like the shape and there’s the subtlest white border to the very tips of the petals that gives them a good outline, especially against the gravel of the new path.

5 Pollinator border. I’ve sowed lots of cheerful annuals here. It’s a sunny south-facing small border right by the front door, but the soil isn’t deep, there are pipes and other obstacles lurking underneath, so it’s been a tricky planting site. After reading more about bumblebees and other pollinators, who face an uncertain future as their traditional habitats disappear, I’ve planted nectar and pollen-rich selection including Phacelia, Calendula, Nasturtium, corn flowers, poppies and French marigolds. Let’s see what comes up! The trellis is to keep our feline friends off.

6 Honesty and forget-me-nots. Along the sunny side of the front path, Honesty, Lunaria annua, is in flower. I’ve also just added in five Hesperis matronalis, or sweet rocket, or even dame’s rocket, which I think will blend in well with this naturalistic planting and is another great plant for pollinators, plus it smells nice in the evening (the clue is in the name: Hesperis is the Greek word for evening).

It promises to be another lovely day. Potting on is the big priority right now: lettuces and some annuals sown earlier, Cosmos, Cleome, Larkspur and Coreopsis all need dealing with. It’s a really busy time for gardeners right now, but let’s all take a moment to sit back and peruse the multitude of Six on Saturday posts over at the Propagator’s site – the perfect excuse to put the kettle on.

Just the right shade of red, Your Majesty?

Tulipa ‘Dillenburg’ surrounded by day lily foliage

As the much anticipated tulips open up in our gardens, it’s a joyous moment, but also a curious one, as we see just how much the promised shade in the bulb catalogues or online suppliers matches the reality of what we see with our own eyes. I have found myself delighted with some of the new tulips I planted, and disappointed in others, which didn’t really seem to be the colour described or photographed in gardening books.

Tulipa ‘Dillenburg’

My favourite tulips to emerge this spring have been a very old Dutch variety, Dillenburg. Now I would describe these as a sumptuous and complex blend of sunset orange at the tips, fading almost imperceptibly to a soft pinky peach – a really ripe, delicious peach that is, one you bite into on a sweltering day in high summer, and your mouth is flooded with flavour, and the juices drool down your chin. However, my dear OH didn’t quite describe it in those terms. “What’s the red flower that you planted over there?”, he asked. Errrrr….

Tulipa ‘Aladdin’

Perhaps he meant the Aladdin tulips I have growing in pots against a cypress hedge. These catch the light very nicely in the morning, and have the fluted, elegant shape and long stems of Lily-flowered group tulips. The pointed tips of the petals are yellow, and the remainder is orangey-red.

The colour confusion called to mind a story I was told where a misunderstanding over colour led to royal displeasure. Sources must be protected but let’s just say during a cost-cutting exercise many years back, a clever British civil servant identified a significant savings opportunity by changing supplier for the flowers planted in beds very near to our most famous palace. These flowers were chosen to match to perfection the uniforms of our monarch’s guards, just the right shade of red. Unfortunately, the new flowers turned out to be quite a different shade: most definitely not ‘Royal Guard Red’. We were not pleased. It was communicated from on high that this had been noticed, and the whole lot had to be ripped out.

Geum ‘Scarlet Tempest’ with Tulipa ‘Dillenburg’

I won’t be ripping out my Abu Hassan tulips, belonging to the Triumph group, even though I have to say they are not quite the sultry shade of deep red contrasted with golden yellow margins that I had expected, and seen in a nicely photographed gardening book, The Pottery Gardener.

Tulipa ‘Abu Hassan’

There are more tulips still to emerge, so no doubt more surprises await me. Have you ever been surprised by a plant that looked quite different to what you were expecting?

Awaiting the flowering of Tulipa ‘Dream Touch’

Six on Saturday: 17 April 2021: still cold!

We’re having a very cold spring here: the garden table, optimistically uncovered earlier this month, is used mainly by the pigeons as a landing site for their droppings, as they roost in the trees above. It’s not exactly the kind of weather than induces much gardening. In fact, I’ve been away from the garden this week, as we took off for a refreshing change of scene in east Belgium, where we went for bracing walks on the fens and dodged snow storms. The region has an interesting history and a compelling, wild landscape which I wrote about here. So, very little gardening, but heavens it felt good to get away (said somewhat guiltily, thinking of those who yearn to but can’t yet). Despite my absence, the garden grows without the gardener, so there’s no getting out of Six on Saturday this week:

1 Aconitum ‘Henryi Spark’s Variety’. It’s been fascinating to watch this tower of shaggy foliage grow steadily upwards, and surprising to see flower buds. Isn’t Monkshood supposed to flower in late summer? The fact that it is deadly poisonous – you are advised not to plant it near your veg in case you end up eating a root by mistake – only adds to its allure. Just keep it away from your carrots.

2 Pulsatilla vulgaris ‘Alba’. The main reason for this being here is that I was green with envy after seeing Kind Hearts and Corydalis’ gorgeous photo of it in last week’s Six on Saturday. I happened to be at the garden centre and spotted it, and we all know how that story ends. It will be planted here to mix with the forget-me-nots and blue Anemone blanda.

3 Clematis alpina. The delicate nodding heads are just opening up now. Easy to miss, it’s been quietly climbing the wall, unpruned.

4 Oakleaf lettuce and upcycling. At least the lettuces don’t mind the cold. They’re growing on well in the mini greenhouse, so OH was tasked with drilling holes into wooden crates, which will be lined with old compost bags, also with holes, and then the lettuces will be planted and housed on the flat roof of the shed (I’ll show you pics of this novelty planting site when it’s up and running – the hope is that slugs won’t take up mountaineering to reach them). Meanwhile, my tomatoes, which are on a sunny windowsill indoors, are growing about a foot a day, it seems, which is alarming because it’s definitely too cold for them to go out yet but they desperately need potting on. They have reached the top of the window, so from the outside of the house, if you happen to be in the street and glance up, it looks suspiciously like there’s a cannabis factory on the top floor.

5 Heuchera ‘Caramel’. I like the way this one is constantly changing colour. The grape hyacinths make quite a bold contrast. Maybe too bold? Some geraniums have been divided and put into pots while I decide what to do with them, that could take a while. In the background, the viburnum with its snowball blossoms continues to fill the air with delicious scent.

6 Tulip ‘Abu Hassan’. These are the first of my tulips to get going – well, they are almost there. They were described to me in a gardening book as ‘dramatic’ and I can see they have the potential to be, more so perhaps if the hedge behind them could be the Moroccan blue shade of the pot in the background. The book that inspired me to plant them – The Pottery Gardener – has them in a metal container against a black background, and there they look sumptuous.

If you seek more gardening drama, have a look at The Propagator’s Six on Saturday page and enjoy the show in the comments section. I believe that our host also has some theatrical tulips to showcase this week. I hope that everyone has a great weekend, and that the weather warms up round these parts. I now need to call a man about some chickens, for the time has come to welcome our feathered friends back into the garden: watch this space.

Whisperings of war among the marsh daffodils

A prisoner at the camp of Bôsfagne

Where once RAF pilots were shot out of the sky by enemy fire, and Russian prisoners of war awaited their fate in a harsh wilderness, now a patch of naturalised daffodils grows. I’m in the high fens of eastern Belgium, or Ostbelgien, right up against the border with Germany, an atmospheric, wild place, borderland country which once belonged to Prussia, became Belgian after the first world war, only to find itself occupied and its inhabitants forced to fight in the German army in the second world war.

We came here for a much-needed change of scene, to walk in the wooded hills, and to visit Belgium’s largest nature reserve, a remarkable upland plateau of marshland and sphagnum peatbogs, barren, cold, but beautiful, where streams the colour of whisky gurgle through the swampy tussocky marshes and birds of prey hang eerily in the thermals, awaiting the moment to strike.

Boardwalks protect the park and prevent the visitor from sinking into the swamp!
A typical view of the upland plateau

German influences can be seen and felt everywhere in these parts, even though the region is now largely French-speaking. Despite that, Belgium’s German-speaking minority are officially recognised with their own parliament, and German is one of the three official languages of the country. In the village of Sourbroedt (Sour Bread?) a disused train station where those unfortunate Russian prisoners of war disembarked, has an unmistakably Germanic air.

Sourbroedt Station

The rusty trucks parked up on the rails reminded me of the troublesome trucks from the Thomas the Tank Engine stories, and an old signal tour marked the beginning of our walk.

The landscape of wooded hills and small fields gives way to sparse moorland, which like other moors I have visited (Dartmoor and Exmoor in England), has an eerie air to it, a sense of secrets buried in the swamps. It’s also very cold, with patches of snow still on the ground, and the weather is wildly unpredictable: we set off in gentle sunshine, but made it back to our car just as a lively snowstorm was getting underway. This is Belgium’s highest point, where the moist winds coming off the North Sea meet their first major land obstacle, and so it’s often cold, snowy or damp.

Near the highest point of the Hautes Fagnes (High Fens) national park
Here fields give way to the dun-coloured marshes

So it was surprising in the midst of this melancholic landscape to suddenly stumble upon a cheerful cluster of daffodils growing right out of the marshy land. I cannot imagine who planted them, or why, but they have since multiplied and spread, unshackled and free to do as they please.

Not much further on, a striking contrast: the old site of a prisoner of war camp, known as Bôsfagne. Erected in March 1943, it held a group of Russians who had been brought to Sourbroedt by train from the eastern front, and put to work in the fens, cutting wood, clearing snow, working the fields and so on. Not a trace remains of the camp itself, except perhaps a whisper, and a cross in the Russian Orthodox style, which marks the spot. I found the old photographs of the prisoners, displayed on a modest board nearby, haunting.

Life at the prison camp
A cross marks the spot

As the war drew to its conclusion, allied troops approached this part of eastern Belgium, and the prisoners here were transferred to another camp, at Elsenborn, and then deep into Germany. Their fate is unknown, though two died during their internment, both of poisoning: one from eating wild mushrooms, another from indulging in wild game that had clearly past its best.

As we walked on, we came across another reminder of the tragic losses of war, at the site commemorating where an RAF pilot was shot down en route to Cologne.

There’s much older history too, like the medieval castle of Reinhardstein, tucked away on a rocky outcrop in a narrow, wooded valley. As we approached it, the snow started falling, and we were surprised to hear the sound of bagpipes coming from within the castle (I suspect this was for a group of visitors, not a ghostly musician).

Reinhardstein castle

The wet conditions in the woods encourage the damp-loving plants to make their home here. There’s lots and lots of moss, many ferns, and also waterfalls lined with what I now know to be opposite-leaved golden saxifrage, Chrysosplenium oppositifolium. What a lovely feature this European native would make in a garden water cascade.

There were also large colonies of butterbur, Petasites hybridus, in shallow woodland streams. Also known as pestilence wort, or even Devil’s hat, this strange plant with pale pink inflorescences was used in traditional medicine as a treatment for infections and fever.

Among the thickets of woodland, bucolic scenes unfold, adding to the peaceful feeling of the place. Peace perhaps somewhat disturbed by Formula One racing cars, as the Spa-Francorchamps racing circuit is incongruously nestled among the hills. As is often the way in Belgium, it is a place of contradictions.

A country dwelling, looking out across the valley

Six on Saturday: 10 April 2021

Plans for a leisurely Easter break pottering about the garden were stymied by the fickle weather. Snow only looks pretty when there isn’t gardening to be done, and I was most disappointed to see the garden on Wednesday looking like this:

The delicate spring blossoms were all smothered in snow, although the viburnum did carry it off rather jauntily:

Thankfully, the snowy interlude was a brief one, and by Thursday afternoon all was green and abundant in leaf and bud again. The roses are filling out with their fresh new foliage, geraniums are appearing where I’d forgotten I had any, and forget-me-nots are asserting that spring really is in full swing. Let’s dip into Six on Saturday:

1 Gardening for Bumblebees. Afternoon tea in the garden with a good book, one day after the snowy interruption. This delightful book, ‘a practical guide to creating a paradise for pollinators’, is filled with beautiful photographs, useful identification charts and an interesting classification of the best plants for pollinators. Different flower shapes suit short-tongued or long-tongued bees, while as Charles Darwin discovered, some clever bees simply make a hole in the side of the flower to access nectar. I’ve already started chasing bumblebees around to try to identify if they are Buff-tailed or Early Bumblebees, and I’ve noticed Queens scanning the ground for suitable nest sites.

2 Forget-me-nots (Myosotis, which endearingly translates as mouse’s ear in Ancient Greek). Here they surround a much-prized Honesty, which was sowed as a seed back in August last year, planted out in the autumn and is now almost at the point of flowering. Quite thrilling. It’s a damp and cloudy morning, so the anemone blanda have not deigned to open their flowers.

3 Iris. It’s always surprising when a strappy leaf suddenly becomes a flower bud, and even more exciting when you’re not quite sure what colour it is or how it’s going to turn out. Irises are new to me, and were acquired as part of a local plant-swap last summer. They’re in a hot spot at the front gate, somewhat nibbled but the bud is perfection itself.

4 Narcissi in pots. There comes a point at which defeat has to be conceded. My narcissi in pots were all a total disaster this year. I think that the hard Siberian freeze in February did for them: as you can see, the growing tips were scorched, and the buds shrivelled up and died. Am not sure what to do with them now – plant them out and hope they restore themselves for next year, or tip them onto the compost heap? Has such a calamity befallen anyone else growing narcissi in pots?

5 Rosemary cuttings. Let’s quickly move on to something more positive. The rosemary cuttings have rooted well, despite earlier appearances to the contrary, and have now been potted up into fresh compost, so am hoping they put on some decent leaves now. Just as well I have these, as the predations of the rosemary beetles on my established plants continue, and I caught two of them in flagrante making the next generation earlier. I had to leave them to it, some things are sacred, but will return to place them onto the bird table later.

6 Violas. There are quite a few things coming into flower now: the Pieris, the first geraniums, pulmonarias, wallflowers, and the tulips are almost there. I’m going to give the sixth slot this week to these perky little violas, perched up in a pot on the back wall. They deserve the prize for both effort and achievement, as they’ve been performing superbly for weeks without flagging.

As I’m writing this, am listening to the radio (BBC), which is replete with tributes to the Duke of Edinburgh. What an interesting life, from his stateless beginnings to his role as support to the Queen and champion of many causes. I would like to salute his work promoting environmental causes and conservation long before it became fashionable.

“We depend on being part of the web of life, we depend on every other living thing on this planet, just as much as they depend on us”, he once said.

“If we as humans have got this power of life and death, not just life and death but extinction and survival, we ought to exercise it with some sort of moral sense. Why make something extinct if we don’t have to?”. As I read my book on bumblebees, sadly noting that three species in the UK have become extinct, these words resonate more than ever.

I wonder how many other Six-on-Saturday bloggers from different corners of the globe will mention the late Prince? There’s only one way to find out: have a look at the posts on the Propagator’s page. Have a lovely weekend and thanks for reading!

Annuals or Perennials? Can’t we have both?

Calendula flowering in July

In researching an article on annuals for a gardening newsletter (while it snows outside), I came across this startling quote:

“An annual is a plant that lives and dies in one growing season. A perennial regrows and reblooms year after year. In our busy world, why plant anything but perennials?


– Jeanette Marantos, The Los Angeles Times, 28 Feb. 2020 – quoted on merriam-webster.com

Now this is a position I find it hard to get my head around. We could start by throwing back this: in our busy world, why plant anything at all? For me, the whole point about gardening is that it is an escape from ‘our busy world’, not just another task to be fitted into it. Has anyone read one of those self-help books about how to bulldoze your way through your to-do list in half the time and at double the efficiency, while simultaneously getting your hair done and paying your gas bill? If efficiency were the goal of gardening, would we end up with a garden? I think not.

Phacelia growing in a pot

Philosophical quandaries aside, I decided to think up as many reasons as I could to encourage readers to try annuals. Here is my list so far – do let me know if you can think of some more:

  • Annuals grow fast and perform well in the only year they have, whereas perennials can often take two, three or more years to look good.
  • Annuals often flower for many months rather than just a few short weeks, especially if you deadhead them regularly (remove the spent blooms so fresh ones grow in their place).
  • Annuals are often cheap and easy to grow from seed, and many can be sown directly into the ground with minimum fuss.
  • They are great gap-fillers, while you wait for other plants to get established, or perhaps until you decide on how you want to plant up an area more permanently.
  • They can be used to attract pollinators such as bees, butterflies and hover flies to your garden, and are invaluable for growing alongside veg for this reason.
  • They can add quick colour to pots on terraces, balconies, window boxes and hanging baskets.
  • While annuals might only live for one year, their babies might come back the next year if you let them self-seed freely.
Alyssum growing happily in an awkward dry spot, flowering all summer long

So I would be bereft without my annuals. One of my favourite sights in the garden is to see the cheerful jostling of calendulas and nasturtiums in the veg bed, creating a long-lasting riot of colour and bringing in the bees, butterflies and hover flies.

Veg bed summer exuberance

I have featured some photos here of just a few of the annuals I like to grow, and I wouldn’t be without them. Do you have a favourite annual that you always grow?

Six on Saturday 03 Apr 2021 – Happy Easter

Spring in a good mood: neighbours’ cherry blossom and Magnolia

Oh what a capricious time of year, as spring toys with us, flitting cruelly between a glorious taste of summer and the slap of a ten degree drop in temperature and the threat of snow next week. Today, we’re being slapped, but for the past week, we basked in the magnificent sunshine. Mind you, I did not sit on my laurels, I was busy as a bee, merrily ticking a few things off the gardening to-do list, and occasionally just stopping to marvel at the lovely things growing all around.

1 Bramble support. One big job ticked off the list. Our savage bramble, which redeems itself with the tastiest blackberries for what is probably my favourite jam, has been tamed for now, with a trellis frame. Order has been temporarily restored.

2 Tomatoes. I can not believe the rate at which these are growing. They seem to like their sunny windowsill very much. I have far too many: currently 7 cherry toms Miel de Mexique, 7 Davis all-rounders, and 5 beefsteak Portuguese. The Nostalgic Gardener has become The Generous Gardener, dolling out tomatoes to Irish neighbours and Swedish friends, and soon others from a panoply of international and Belgian residents will find themselves the recipients of green gifts.

3 Dahlia potting up. The upside of early school closures in Belgium is that I had my son on hand to help pot up the Dahlia tubers. It’s great to have a garden helper and it made the job fun and efficient: we set up a little assembly line, with my son putting the tubers in and filling with compost, and with me labelling and watering, it was all done in a flash. There are now fifteen pots – some were squeezed into the greenhouse, and these others are sitting it out against the back wall and will need to be moved into the shed when we get slapped with that threat of snow.

4 Viburnum carlesii. Onto the pretty stuff. A few days apart, photo one shows those pink buds about to burst, and then ta-daa! the tiny flowers appear daintily, and the garden is completely flooded with sweet scent on a sunny afternoon. Another name for this lovely, elegant shrub is Koreanspice Viburnum, and there is an exotic spiciness along with the intense sweetness to the perfume. When this comes into flower, it’s one of those wow moments in the garden.

5 Clematis armandii with Japanese quince. This is the clematis’ fourth week in flower, and as well as looking good, it’s combining with the quince to give the bees both a first course and mains. They are buzzing around this area non-stop. I tried to photograph them without much luck, so you’ll just have to enjoy the flowers.

Spot the bee tucking in?

6 Ferns unfurling. What, we’re at six already? Alright then, the final slot goes to the little aliens in found in conversation.

Tomorrow these little creatures may clasp a chocolate Easter egg between them, as I think a garden Easter egg hunt is in order. There may be more Easter surprises to discover on the Six on Saturday page hosted by The Propagator and enjoyed by many a gardening bunny. So it remains for me to wish you all a Happy Easter, Joyeuses Pâques, Prettig Paasfeest, may the Easter bunny be generous to you, whether in the form of tomato plants from an overly-enthusiastic gardener, or just lots of chocolate, preferably of the Belgian variety – it’s the best in the world, you know.