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.

Six on Saturday: 27 March 2021

It’s Six on Saturday time, the virtual garden tour hosted by The Propagator and his growing (hee, hee) band of followers. Isn’t his Prunus incisa ‘kojo no mai’, featured today, absolutely gorgeous? There’s lots going on at this time of year, and I’ve also got a spring newsletter to send out to my Gardening in Belgium group this morning, so let’s dive straight in:

1 Hyacinth ‘Woodstock’. I find this dusky shade of purple – the colour of my favourite childhood juice Ribena, made from blackcurrants – quite fetching, and it’s surprisingly un-hyacinth-like in form, as the blooms are usually much denser. The tips got frost damaged as you can see. I’ve never grown hyacinth before, I think it would look good with primroses and maybe some muscari in the hopefully trumpet-vine-free glade (more on that later).

Hyacinth ‘Woodstock’

2 Malus ‘Evereste’. A new tree! It was a tough decision, choosing between all the possibilities, but I finally opted for a lovely crab apple. They say it’s one of the best trees for wildlife in the garden, and it has a long season of interest, also important in a small garden. This variety was created by a French governmental institution dedicated to agricultural and horticultural research in the 1970’s, hence it’s Everste with an ‘e’ at the end. It was dug out of a beautiful tree nursery for me, bare root, and I planted it that very afternoon near the glade, to connect up with the neighbour’s larger trees just the other side of the wall. I’ve underplanted with my two hellebores and some transplanted primroses, more of which will be added when I have a moment.

Malus ‘Evereste’

3 Acer palmatum ‘Katsura’ and ‘Amagi shigure’. After selecting my crab apple, I had a little wander round the tree nursery, which was huge and had all sorts of wonderful shrubs too. I couldn’t resist either of these for the glade. Katsura has interesting spring foliage, and Amagi shigure is a new Japanese cultivar that is bright pinky-red. I think that Japanese acers have such elegance. I can see them working well with some heucheras, ferns and carex, all of which I have, so it’s just a question now of rescuing the glade from its muddy upheavals, moving a buddleia and getting creative.

4 Potatoes. It was a comment by French blogger Fred on a post by Irish blogger Padraig that gave me the idea to try growing potatoes in a bin. Such is the ease of learning from other Six on Saturday participants: thank you. This bin has no bottom, so I added a layer of horse manure and a layer of compost, then four King Edward potatoes, then more compost. Earthing up will be easy, just add more compost. The remaining potatoes have been planted in re-purposed old compost bags, with holes added for drainage, aesthetically challenging, but I want to keep space in the main veg bed for other things.

5 Seeds. It’s around this time of year that I get a bit anxious about sowing seeds, after the initial euphorbia of those first peppers and tomatoes has worth off, and the realisation dawns of just how many seed packets I ordered during winter’s day-dreams of summer glory. It’s like the feeling you get after over-indulging in an all-you-can-eat-buffet. Now it’s an all-you-can-sow-race-against-time and something of a logistical challenge to get these seeds going. So far, I’ve managed some lettuces, carrots, broccoli, broad beans, calendulas, nasturtiums, cosmos, coreopsis, larkspur and now, miraculously, more cleome have germinated too.

Lettuces germinating in the mini green house outside

6 Osmanthus x burkwoodii. “An evergreen saved from ignominy by by pure heads of sweetly fragrant white flowers in mid spring – good at lighting up a semi-shady corner behind ferns or glimmering white narcissi” says Val Bourne, a garden writer. It’s true that this in not my most exciting shrub, but it smells divine right now, and it’s no trouble at all. Can’t complain!

I’m adding a PS. My ongoing battle with the trumpet vine (Campsis radicans) has been the most tiring and tiresome of garden jobs this week (actually there are two of them, one monster isn’t enough). The beast has insinuated itself into most of my glade, and after much tracing and digging up of roots, this was the result:

Make of that what you will: murder or manslaughter, on the grounds of diminished responsibility, you decide. In my defence, these are testing times, and getting testier as Belgium tightens Covid-19 measures today (schools are shut, shops are shut, you can see fewer people). One trumpet vine remains, for now.

The remaining trumpet vine is next to the spade against the wall, but for how much longer?

That’s all this week, I suppose I’ll be sowing more seeds. If you’re in Europe, enjoy the extra hour of evening daylight as the clocks go forward this weekend – the icing on the cake is that in Belgium we’re promised warm weather next week too. The good times are coming!

The comforting rituals of growing tomatoes

Last summer’s harvest: Davis tomatoes with yellow courgettes

I love growing all kinds of veg, from the humble radish to the stately sweetcorn, but for me there is always something special about tomatoes. While it’s only recently that I’ve had the opportunity to grow a wider array of vegetables, I’ve been growing tomatoes since we bought our first shared-garden flat in south London in my mid 20’s, and it would now be an impoverished summer indeed with home-grown toms.

Who, after all, doesn’t like tomatoes? And who, given the choice, would choose an imported, cold and watery one wrapped in plastic on a supermarket shelf over a warm, sun-ripened jewel-like beauty growing in your own garden (or balcony)?

Cherry tomato ‘Miel de Mexique’ growing against the wall

They’re incredibly versatile and easy to fit in around everything else. I used to grow them in black plastic pots up the concrete steps leading down into our little garden. I still grow some of them in plastic pots, but these days it’s against a warm, sunny wall. Others go into the ground, or scramble up the framework of those mini-plastic greenhouses.

Portuguese beef tomatoes growing in the veg bed, supported by chestnut fencing and sticks

I love the ritualistic nature of growing them most of all. Firstly, selecting varieties from the enormous choice out there. This year, it was easy. I chose the same three varieties I grew last year, because they were all so good. A Portuguese beef tomato, given to me as seedlings last year by neighbours, who bought the seed in Portugal. Then a dependable all-rounder with with a boring name but perfect plum-shaped fruits and good disease resistance, Davis UC-82, and finally, a sweet, juicy and prolific cherry tomato, Miel du Mexique (Mexican Honey – a variety that copes with some drought).

Then comes the sowing stage. They are some of the earliest seeds to be sown, in dismal, dark mid February, when the thrill of handling seed and soil is like a shot of horticultural Prozac.

The first signs of life on a dark mid-February morning
These LED lights are fantastic for helping along seedlings

Then come all the stages in between. The germination – helped with a bit of warmth from one of those plug-in heat mats also enjoyed by geckos, and this year, with assistance from LED plant lights, which I wholeheartedly recommend as a cure for leggy seedlings, but which are a luxury, not a necessity. Then, potting on, which I am getting on with now, as each seedling is carefully transferred to its very own little nine inch pot.

The first potted on tomatoes this year

Then, in May, the planting out, into big pots or into the raised veg bed. Regular watering begins now too, daily if the weather is hot, and once the fruit set, feeding with tomato feed every couple of weeks – these are hungry plants and need the extra TLC. The staking and tying in of course accompany this stage – neglect this to your peril, as your tomatoes will flop to the ground and often break their stems with the weight of the fruit.

Lots of support is essential to stop flopping over – a bit haphazard here!

Then comes one of my favourite tomato-growing rituals, the pinching out (for the cordon varieties only – if you’re not keen on this, the bush varieties are lower-maintenance). It was my late father-in-law, an enthusiastic tomato grower, who first showed me how to pinch out the side shoots so that the plant’s energy goes up into the central stem’s fruit trusses. Do this in the morning, when the stems are firmer, and enjoy the satisfaction of it.

Then, as the fruit set, there’s the waiting stage, which feels interminable, and you wonder if those green tomatoes will ever turn red. One day, miraculously they do, and that’s a great day.

Then, you wonder, what happens when you have too many tomatoes? No such thing! They go with virtually everything, and if you get a glut, just roast them in the oven with herbs and garlic, and whizz into a sauce that you can then freeze.

A tomato-based supper: lasagne and salad

So, tomato growing requires faith, hope, dedication and service. The rituals nourish the believer, and give the faithful flock of growers a sense of purpose and fulfilment. So, worship, yee faithful, at the altar of tomato growing: it can only be good for your soul!

Six on Saturday: 13 March 2021

Our twig supply has increased greatly thanks to the windy weather we’ve been having. Earlier this week, I audaciously went for a very breezy bike ride in the forest (wearing a helmet) – anything for a thrill these days, right? As the wind got up, I was caught in one of those flurries of leaves that race around with the frenzy of school children let out for break when the bell sounds.

Reckless behaviour aside, it’s been sedate on the gardening front, with two exceptions: we finally pruned the big apple tree, which always feels a little dangerous: OH up the big ladder, me climbing into the branches (my Dad was a mountain climber, but it’s easier to get up than to get down). The other excitement was the arrival of a beautifully packaged box of bare-root perennials from Farmer Gracy, which supplies Europe from the Netherlands. So here we go, it’s six on Saturday time:

1 Clematis armandii ‘Apple Blosson’ is just bursting with buds, I’ll have to show you this one again next week. First flowers have just sprung from all that amazing potential, shown in my first photo above.

2 Chaenomeles japonica. The Japanese quince had been earmarked for the chop, but it got a reprieve and seems to begging for mercy. I may be merciful. It flowers bountifully, and the bees enjoy it.

3 Forsythia. This one is on borrowed time. For me, it’s the suburban shrub extraordinaire, we had one in our garden in south London, and we have one here. I didn’t plant either one. When you get up to the flowers nice and close, they are quite pretty. Step back, though, and it’s just a bit messy, and as for the rest of the year, it does little to justify itself.

Pretty up close
Nothing special from a distance. Spot the robin playing peekaboo?

4 Helloborus x hybridus. From the ordinary to the sublime, I couldn’t resist including these again, this time photographed in their place of residence chez moi.

5 Bare-root perennials. I ordered some geraniums, Geranium phaeum ‘Springtime’ and Geranium bohemicum ‘Brookside’, because frankly you can never have too many Geraniums. Also Echinacea ‘Fatal Attraction’, and some Gladiolus byzantinus corms, which flowers in a fabulous magenta shade. The Geraniums have been potted up for now.

6 Tulips in pots. There were quite a few contenders for slot number six this week, especially as my daffodils are just coming into flower, but I feel most excited about the nine pots of tulips here. The great news is that even the Aladdin tulip bulbs, that had looked a bit dodgy and slightly mouldy at planting time, are in fine fettle. All the pots have been washed and positioned in front of the Cyprus hedge, on the mulch, facing Fort Knox cat protection system.

Depending on the weather, I may or may not finish digging a trench this weekend to make one last attempt at controlling the trumpet vine, which has travelled way beyond its limit on the wall and last year sent up suckers all over the place, I even found it climbing up into my clematis on an arbour several metres away. In the photo here you can see those blasted roots, which I’m going to try to trace and remove, then create a trench and line it with large ceramic tiles that are sitting in the shed.

Trench warfare

Well, wish me luck with that! And do visit The Propagator’s site for more Six on Saturday contributions, and if you like gardening, join in the fun. Have a wonderful weekend, thanks for reading and see you again soon.

The only way to choose a tree

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Harry’

For a long time now, I’ve been umming and ahhing and being generally indecisive about getting a new tree for the garden. Regulars will know that I don’t have a big garden, it’s a medium-sized town garden but with a woodland/country feel to it. We live in an area known affectionately as ‘la campagne en ville’ – the countryside in town – and we are lucky to have a whole forest of trees nearby, and lots of trees in the neighbourhood.

Magnolia ‘lolanthe’ buds

I’m still aching for another tree though. One option swimming around my head is a witch hazel. I saw several of them in full flowering splendour at Kreftenbroeck arboretum, a privately owned garden in the Belgian province of Flemish Brabant, which I visited one Sunday in early March. The trees were stunning against a bright blue sky, and I’m enjoying thinking about that right now as today has been grey and cold.

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Moonlight’

The arboretum had a wonderful collection of witch hazels, mainly Hamamelis intermedia, which were grouped together along a secluded pathway that straddled the valley site. I would have missed them entirely, if I hadn’t caught a flash of colour and made my way up the hill to investigate.

A woodland pathway edged with Hamamelis at Kreftenbroeck

One thing that struck me about these trees is that while they are not large or tall, they are wide and spreading. Look how the branches expand outwards and even arch over the pathway. Although they are known to be slow growers, it is clear that they need space to expand and not be crowded out by others.

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘August Lamken’

At their most pretty against a blue sky, they need that backdrop for their flowers to stand out. This made me realise, that stunning as they are, they weren’t going to be right for my garden. The site I have in mind is enclosed on two sides by a wall, covered in climbers, and has the neighbour’s mature trees overhanging it. The space wouldn’t be wide enough, nor the sky expansive enough.

Sharp yet curvaceous beech hedging

This didn’t mean that there weren’t plenty of other ideas from Kreftenbroeck that could be applied even on a small scale. Look at the wonderful structure this curved beech hedge adds, enhancing the natural contours of the hill. Sharp hedging is a big thing in Belgian gardens, and it adds so much structure and interest when designed imaginatively.

Yew clipped to perfection to make an intriguing arch, softened by more organic shapes at ground level

The usefulness and practicality of wood, as well as its beauty, were nicely demonstrated in this unusual bench.

And finally, here’s an idea to hide an ugly or dead patch in a hedge. Clever, isn’t it?

Making the most of a gap in the hedge

So the lesson I learnt from those beautiful witch hazels was to always see a tree growing at its best, in maturity, before making that all important decision. Perhaps a crab apple then…

Six on Saturday: 06 March 2021: hellebore hard sell

A bright, sunny and frosty morning in Brussels today, cold enough for the bird bath to have frozen solid. It’s been a busy week, work-wise and garden-wise, with quite a lot of clearing out in the borders, pruning a few climbers, tidying up the terrace, strengthening the cat defence system in the veg bed (yes, I’m afraid the cat was so tempted by the deluxe toilet facilities here that it crept under the chicken wire, but last week’s hazel pole system is still holding up well against feline ingenuity), and getting a new path put in. It feels like a good day to be sowing some more seeds, though space on windowsills is rapidly running out. I went on another garden jaunt last Sunday, to visit an Arboretum about 20 km away, where temptation awaited me in the form of a hellebore plant sale. So that leads me on to the first items in today’s Six on Saturday, the regular weekly garden round-up hosted without fail by The Propagator:

1 Hellebore x hybridus. I want you to imagine giant six foot high hellebores, their flowers proudly displayed against a perfect blue sky. You marvel at their beauty as you walk past, each flower exquisitely displayed at eye-level. You want to take them home with you. The reality? They were in pots on a tall shelving unit at the plant sale, so this may be the only time I see the flowers from below, unless I become a woodlouse with a camera. The grower’s hard sell technique was effective of course, even though I’ve been a hellebore sceptic up to now. I only took a limited about of cash with me, thankfully, so could only buy two, this one and number two.

2 Hellebore x hybridus. Now they need to be housed comfortably chez moi, without the shelving unit. I was thinking of the glade area (or glade-in-the-making), a dark green holly as their backdrop, the neighbour’s overhanging lime tree branches above, and planted with crocuses around them. Apparently they need light even during the summer, so planting under a high tree canopy is ideal. In Gardening with Woodland Plants, Karan Junker adds they are greedy, needing lots of organic matter dug in to sustain their deep root system before planting, and benefitting from a generous mulch in late summer, when they are forming next year’s flower buds. Note to self: don’t forget!

3 New path. Hopefully you can see before and after shots in the image compare. We have extended the gravel path to go round the house to the back terrace, where the back door and shed are. Or to be accurate, we got a couple of blokes in to do it for us, otherwise I very much doubt it would have been completed in one and a half days! The path will make for a less muddy experience all round and I think it adds some additional structure to the garden, as well as some path-side planting opportunities.

4 Anemone blanda. This is not a success story. I planted around 50 of the little bulbs last autumn, and so far I’ve seen about five flowers popping up here by the front path. On top of that, they’re shy and I’ve only seen them fully open once. I should have read the warning in the specific epithet ‘blanda’, meaning mild. I won’t bother with them again, and after seeing so many lovely early spring bulb combos created by fellow Six-on-Saturday bloggers – Hortus Baileyana and Paddy Tobin, an Irish Gardener come to mind – but there are many more – in future I’m going to put all the early spring bulbs in one place with the new hellebores.

4 The vibrant border. This is the new bed I created last autumn, planted up with tulips and allium Purple Sensation, plus divisions of existing plants such as orange oriental poppies and Geums. Some purple salvias are there too, having survived winter so far, and a clump of day lilies. Annuals sown this year will be added at the back – sunflower Velvet Queen, bright Tithonias, Cleome Violet Queen (maybe – see below) and probably nasturtiums at the front to replace the tulips. So, I know it doesn’t look like much now, but I have high hopes!

5 Cleome: the miracle seedling. Just one Cleome has germinated! After reading up about them, they apparently need lots of light plus changes in temperature to germinate, and they also hate root disturbance, so I probably should have sown them into deeper biodegradable pots. The chillies and sweet peppers are growing on well to the right.

6 Viburnum carlesii. I love seeing these flower buds emerge and develop. Looking forward to the incredible perfume when they open up into white pompoms.

So, I had better get on with sowing some seeds – I was thinking of carrots, radishes and some salads which can be put out in the plastic greenhouse – and then a few annuals – choices, choices. Wishing everyone a great weekend whatever you’re up to, and thanks for reading.

Six on Saturday: 27 Feb 2021: action

Wooo-hoooo, it’s almost March! A month that seemed so out of reach in the gloomy depths of January, and the dog days of February. We are the survivors of that long trek to freedom through winter (for me, spring begins on 1st March, at least psychologically). We’ve had stupendously lovely weather in Belgium this week: many sunny days, with Thursday afternoon hitting 19 degrees C, adding to the sense of anticipation. This has propelled me into action, including seriously ODing on gardening on my day off on Wednesday, to the detriment of my non-gardening to-do list and my back. I only wish that we’d finished our winter pruning earlier, as now there’s so much to do.

This leads me on to Six on Saturday, the gardening pick-and-mix where we celebrate or bemoan weekly happenings in our gardens, hosted by the Propagator. PS this week’s photos are all quick snaps on the iphone, as I transition between cameras, apologies for the lack of artistry!

1 Hazel pruning. We have two hazel trees in the garden, giving us valuable privacy from neighbours. These supremely useful sticks will be used to make wigwams for sweet peas, edible peas, beans and morning glory, and maybe even the odd trellis structure if I figure out how – the oracle Youtube may be consulted. It’s been a time-consuming and boring task stripping the side shoots off, but we’re nearly done.

2 Iris reticulata ‘Harmony’. These flowered in time for the first alfresco breakfast of the year on the terrace. I love their intense colours.

3 Mulching. Remember my free supply of wood chips / green trimmings from the farm? I’ve used up the remainder to tidy up the area around the raised veg bed, which was getting weedy and untidy, as this area is impossible to mow. The two-stage process involved firstly laying carboard down (after arduously taking off all the labels and sticky tape), and then covering with a generous layer of mulch. Looks a whole lot better now, phew!

4 Veg bed tidy-up. While I was at the mulching, I decided I could no longer tolerate the mess of decimated chard, slug-munched spinach and feline toilet products that was the veg bed. So out it all came, while the green manure of Phacelia was dug in, and a new protection system against the cats was set up using the hazel rods – inspired by fellow gardening blogger Padraig’s bamboo cane technique. The autumn-sown garlic stayed in.

5 Seed-sowing. This has begun in earnest now, with broad beans, peas ‘Douce de Provence’, parsley and three varieties of tomato all sown. A new batch of sweet peas were sown on Valentine’s Day to replace those destroyed by the freezing weather earlier this month – they were in the unheated mini plastic greenhouse and didn’t make it. This is a pity, as I wanted to do an experiment to see if it really is true that autumn or early winter-sown sweet peas perform better than those sown around this time. Has anyone else tried both?

Sweet peas in the cellar

6 King Edward potatoes. These are being chitted on the window-sill of the cellar. Almost all Belgian houses have cellars, and they are incredibly useful. Stuff can be stowed away in them (nothing sinister mind), citrus consignments from Italy can be stored, and as you see, potatoes can be chitted. Ideal conditions here – cool but light, as the window faces south.

That’s all from me, so have a lovely weekend, thanks for reading and may the weather be with you.

The water gardens of Annevoie

It definitely felt like time to get out of Brussels last weekend. A static and at times dreary winter has taken its toll, and while it’s still not possible to leave the country to travel abroad or back to the motherland, we can move around within Belgium. A firm believer in the saying “a change is as good as a rest”, and with a promising spring-like weather forecast of 17 degrees C and sunshine for Saturday, I knew that the moment had come to pack my picnic.

Annevoie is the country chateau of the Montpellier family, and lies nestled in the hills of the Ardennes, a stone’s throw from the Meuse, one of the great rivers the winds its way through the wooded valleys and rocky escarpments of this part of the country. There is water everywhere even before you reach the gardens, from babbling brooks tumbling down the hillside along the road, to the languorous stretch of river snaking its way along the valley floor. So no surprise then that in 1758 Charles-Alexis de Montpellier decided to make the most of this plentiful resource and channel it, quite literally, into a beautiful water garden.

La Cascade francaise, the first creation of Charles-Alexis Montpellier
Looking back from the top of the cascade.

The garden has a French classical style, with plenty of symmetry and clean lines, but it also incorporates elements of English Romantic landscaping, where the water flows in more naturalistic streams, such as this rocky cascade through a wooded part of the garden.

This section was also beautifully planted up with hundreds of crocuses, a rare carpet of colour that was much enjoyed by the bees. Some snowdrops also hugged the banks of the stream, but for me the crocuses really stole the show.

The photos here can only convey part of the experience, as the sound of water is a major element, from roaring cascades, bubbling brooks, vigorous fountain jets, or quietly meandering streams, and sometimes totally still pools like mirrors, helping to give a different sound and therefore a unique feel and mood to each part of the garden. This was a large part of the magic of the place for me.

The chateau itself appears to levitate above its quiet pool. Do you notice something strange about the façade? It’s actually not quite straight, as it follows a slight curve along the valley. The building is currently undergoing renovation, but thankfully the scaffolding is around the sides and not along the handsome frontage.

Another highlight of the garden for me was the magnificent vegetable garden (for I can not call this a patch), laid out with perfect symmetry and enviable organisation. I like the curved lines of planting, with neat borders of straw, within each quadrant.

Space is not an issue here!

Now a little knowledge quiz for the keen gardeners reading this. Can you guess what this is? I will give you a clue: it is a seed pod of a certain garden plant that has featured heavily in recent garden blogger editions of Six on Saturday (the weekly garden round-up which many of my fellow gardening bloggers participate in).

What am I?

Are you ready? The answer is: a Helleborus niger seed pod. It’s a sculpture by the British artist Anne Curry. It was nice to see a bit of my country after all in this very French-style garden! Below are some more images of the vegetable gardens; just imagine how handy it would be to water the veg from the taps conveniently placed in each quadrant, to examine one’s plants from the tidy slate paths, or to stock the elegant lean-to curved glass house with a collection of exotics. We can but dream! Even the insects have it good here, with a deluxe insect hotel.

Near the vegetable garden is a quieter, more intimate area, where beech has been trained to cover a quiet walkway. A statue of the Roman goddess Minerva is tucked away in a little alcove at the back. Through it all, the Montpellier family rest in their crypt, perhaps continuing to enjoy their garden and its ever-flowing water.

And here is the main reservoir of water that powers all the water features in this garden, the grand canal, 400 metres long. Amazingly, there is no machinery to make things work, everything relies on the differences in level of this hillside location. Water has apparently been flowing naturally here for more than 250 years.

A section of the grand canal, looking like an infinity pool disappearing off the hillside.

So we’ve come to the end of my tour. If you’re passing though Belgium one day, you might like to stop off here to soak up a bit of the watery magic of the Ardennes.