This Week’s Guest Blogger is Lou Nicholls

Lou Nicholls is Head Gardener at Ulting Wick Garden and a Blogger that has worked in Horticulture for over 20 years. She gives talks around the country on Organic, vegetable growing and Ornamental plants and is a member of the Garden Media Guild and the Professional Gardeners Guild.

Twitter: @loujnicholls


To Peat or not to Peat?

I’ll make this short, don’t use Peat!

But why not? When it’s been successfully used for generations why change?

The answers is because you don’t need to, in the past we’ve used it for convenience. It’s lighter than loam and has better moisture retentive capabilities and that’s where its benefits end. However over the last 25 years various companies with an eye to the future, climate change, habitat loss and just generally caring about the environment and sustainability, have developed various Peat free composts that do exactly the same job without long term impact into our Peat wetlands.

Gardeners aren’t the most significant consumers of Peat I’ll grant you but it’s our attitudes that change the world as well as our actions. By rejecting Peat in your compost you are making a small but important stand to companies. It’s our pressure, our buying habits that change how companies work.

I’ve never used Peat in my professional career, I worked for Garden Organic and at that point Peat free was just starting to become an option. Since then the options available to the home gardener are so varied and easily available there is literally no reason to use Peat. You can even buy Vegan compost these days! That’s right Vegan, this is a brilliant example of how for the first time in history consumers are leading manufacturers in what they want to see and use as opposed to the other way round.

Peat wetlands are home to sundews, marsh violets and many species of wild orchids, plants that can’t grow anywhere else. This is an area we really can make a difference to and very quickly, by allowing water to re-flood peat wetlands the damage done by draining it can be quickly reversed.

So take a moment to check the bag of compost you’re thinking of picking up, make sure it says Peat free and know that in your own small way you are helping to save the planet.

I recommend in random order and in no way an indication of preference!

Dalefoot – their peat free range is excellent and has great moisture retention capabilities. They have also introduced a vegan compost.
Melcourt – They now have a reusable compost bag for people trying to avoid single use plastic.
New horizon – they do a lovely John Innis loam based compost now too.
Marshalls – recently introduced a peat free compost for vegetable growing.
T&M – Launched their own brand at the garden press event this spring which I haven’t yet tried but I’m sure will be of a good quality.
Fertile fibre – has a coir based range and has been producing for a decent amount of time.


This Week’s Guest Blogger is Mark Lamey

Mark trained in horticulture at the RHS Gardens Wisley and Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.  He has been a Head Gardener to a large country estate and Gardens Adviser to the National Trust during which time he studied for and gained a Masters in the Conservation of Historic Gardens and Cultural Landscapes at University of Bath.  He is now working freelance in the design of gardens for private and commercial clients and as a mentor to professional horticulturists. 

Gardening must surely vie for a place as one of the oldest professions in the world.  In the UK there is a deep heritage of gardening, evident today in the many gardens associated with historic houses and country estates.  It is possible, as a visitor to an historic garden or as an owner, to experience and tread the ground upon which the activity of over five centuries of gardening, as far back as the medieval and monastic period, has occurred.

A common thread that weaves through this gardening heritage, is the skill of a gardener.  With a gentle and creative hand, skilled gardeners have built, cultivated and maintained gardens to meet the needs and desires of their owners for centuries.  Whether it was as a show case of the latest gardening taste, to cultivate a collection of rare plants or to reflect the owners own personality.

The gardens at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, now in the ownership of the National Trust for over fifty years, were created together by Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicholson between 1930 and 1962.  They can be said to run through the veins of any gardener for their beauty and application of high horticultural practice.

The Orchard at Sissinghurst

But the gardens at Sissinghurst maintained by professionals were perhaps not the gardens that amateur gardener Vita created.  When Troy Scott-Smith took the role of Head Gardener for Sissinghurst in 2013, he started to question how closely the gardens reflected Vita.  He commissioned research to better understand her original vision and found that the gardens had evolved overtime as a series of small projects undertaken in-house and when finances allowed.

This reminder prompted a project to re-imagine the gardens as if Vita and Harold still owned them.  It has involved the completion of garden projects, such as Delos, a garden of Mediterranean plants inspired by their visit to Greece, which had been abandoned due to the cold aspect of the site and lack of available plants at the time.

Planting of Delos at Sissinghurst October 2019.  Designed by Dan Pearson Studio

Meadows around the Oast houses have been re-introduced, as have over a hundred rose cultivars that Vita had grown in the rose garden.  Most significant was the change that Troy had to instil in his garden team about how to garden at Sissinghurst.  This was to create the sense of a garden with plants that had colonised a ruin rather than one that had plants being cultivated within one.  Allowing rambling roses to billow with apparent freedom over walls, loosening the cutting regime of the box hedges and encouraging seedlings to grow in wall crevices and paving joints.

It had taken fifty years of Trust ownership, more than Harold and Vita’s 30-year tenure and three Head Gardeners for the decision at Sissinghurst to reinstate the gardens as a closer representation of their ownership, the significance of which had sparked their original acquisition for conservation by the Trust.

Renovation pruning of the weeping pear in the white garden Sissinghurst.

This doesn’t suggest that maintenance of the gardens during the intervening years had been wrong, as they were maintained to an exception standard of presentation.  It does highlight the role that research has in making informed decisions about a garden, the responsibility of any owner to carefully manage change and evidences the art and creativity of gardening in historic gardens.

To learn more about gardening in historic gardens or to find a gardener with experience of and training in historic gardens you might like to contact the following:

Garden Masterclasses –

Learning from the Experts –

Professional Gardeners Guild traineeship –

Historic and Botanic Garden Bursary Scheme –

Further Reading:

Gardens and Landscapes in Historic Garden Conservation Edited by Dr Marion Harney Published by Wiley-Blackwell 2014

Rooted in History: A Garden Conservation Manual Published by National Trust





This Week’s Guest Blogger is Connor Smith, a Horticulturist at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh

All plants have stories. The Botanics over its 350 years has managed to create many, from intrepid tales of plant hunters to discovering plants new to science. Some you hear these stories during walk rounds as a student, others across the canteen table, uncovered in the library and latterly the internet with increasing ease. 

One of the rather unassuming plants newly planted by the monkey puzzles is Berberis empetrifolia. If you haven’t heard of it you are not missing much to be perfectly honest. Phenotypically it is distinctly lacking ornamental prowess to catch the eye. It’s low growing, prostrate habit shows a tough life of having to live in the subalpine to alpine areas in the rocky Andes. However, when you dig a little deeper you unveil a rather interesting story.

A recently planted wild collected specimen of Berberis empetrifolia

B. empetrifolia is often overshadowed by its distant cousin. Berberis darwinii. Which was found by Charles Darwin in 1835 during ‘the voyage of the Beagle’ and subsequently named after him by Joseph Hooker (Icones plantarum 7, 1844). The two species are naturally found in Chile although geographically separated. Therefore a possible hybrid could only be formed in artificial environment. Some say the two have crossed paths in some localities but this is not agreed upon. 

Berberis x stenophylla is the resulting hybrid of the two species B. darwinii and B. empetrifolia. After some digging into how the hybrid happen, the story got even more interesting. In this case a nursery owned by Messrs Fisher & Holmes of Handsworth near Sheffield in the 1860’s, it was Messrs who introduced B. empetrifolia into the trade in 1827 (International dendrological society, no date). His son found the hybrid 30+ years later in the garden.

They are rather “boring” species individually however, these two species have been hybridized to form a very ornamental, popular plant which can be easily grown, interpreted and of significance to the botanic garden.


This Week’s Guest Blogger is Anna Ingram a Head Gardener in South Devon

Hi all

Well what a year it has been so far especially for all the poor gardeners and horticulturalists out there!  I think we only had 2 completely dry days down here in South Devon since September last year until well in to Spring!! Apart from a brief respite over Christmas it was one hooligan storm after another. Now its dry this is where mulching your borders can pay dividends.

The main tasks in the Spring are pruning and mulching. I love mulching and encourage the team to be enthused about helping to spread tons of what I call ‘black gold’ over the recently cleared beds. I like a depth of at least 10cm and spread over any leaf debris is even better. The earth worms etc will work their magic and over time draw the organic matter down into the soil and feed the roots of the plants, create good bacteria and also aid drainage. If you mulch your beds regularly you will end up with wonderfully crumbly moist soil and will cut down massively on your watering during these drier months. Very important though to mulch over wet soil to lock in the moisture – which was not a problem this Spring!! Also mulch through November to late February depending whereabouts in the country you are before the new shoots appear. Your labours will be massively rewarded by lovely strong plants with good root structures and not a weed in sight!!

It is important to use weed free compost that has been heated to at least 80 degrees centigrade to kill off all the weed seeds otherwise you will just introduce weeds back into the soil which will compete for nutrients and water. Local councils usually make great mulch in this way by constantly turning massive windrows of the stuff but if you do  make your own (which is a great thing to do) even if you turn it it won’t build up enough heat to kill off the weed seeds but still great to spread around established and newly planted trees and hedges where it is easier to control the weeds.

Happy mulching