Ann Treneman’s guide to sustainable container gardening

Ann Treneman’s guide to sustainable container gardening

One of my favourite days at an RHS Chelsea Flower Show was in 2022 when my friend, Ann Treneman, had a sustainable container garden on display and asked me to help her hand out leaflets and generally chat to people about it.

 

The Sustainable guide to Growing Flowers, Shrubs and Crops in Pots
Ann Treneman and the RHS

Ann and I are working together on a project to restore a rare 18th century town garden at Bromley House Library in Nottingham, so I’d have been gutted had she not asked. The cheapskate in me was glad of the free ticket, too!

It was enormous fun and I was thrilled when Ann’s “Wild Kitchen Garden” (a garden of pots, each planted with edible plants of various sorts) won a “People’s Choice Award” and a silver gilt.

Now she has produced a book for the RHS – “The Sustainable guide to Growing Flowers, Shrubs and Crops in Pots”.

Martin and Ann at RHS Chelsea 2022 (left) and Ann Treneman’s RHS Chelsea Garden (right)

Anne’s almost apologetic about the book’s title. “’Sustainability’ is a failure of a word to me. The moment you say it people either start to fall asleep or get riled up. It feels tiresome – like there’s a bossy boots person there who’s going to punish you if you don’t have exactly the right kind of dahlia or something like that.

“People think sustainability is all or nothing. They’ve got to learn to love slugs and their lawn needs to be a prairie. Or at least full of weeds. They think you’ve got to have a bison in your back garden or you’re just not really trying.

“My own gardening habits were well meaning but extremely haphazard, I was peat-free – most of the time. I killed slugs. But I was obsessive in trying to help the ladybug. I often didn’t grow plants from seed even when it was entirely possible.

“Becoming a sustainable, greener gardener is all about changing habits. The catalyst for me was being chosen to do the container garden at Chelsea. The RHS really doesn’t give you any choice – you are going to be sustainable. That’s it. And it was really helpful to have someone just lay the law down to me like that.

“What I found was that it’s actually quite fun to be a greener gardener. It encourages you to do some interesting, bold things. I’ve discovered that it doesn’t have to be difficult either. And it’s not all or nothing. You can have your little secret, tidy lawn and you don’t have to be a goody-two-shoes, or even smug – although it is quite fun being a little bit smug.”

As you can imagine, then, this book is encouraging. It makes you realise sustainable container gardening need not be too difficult.

I’ve owned and ignored plenty of container planting books over the years. Most ended up at Oxfam. So what about this one?

Watering toil

I have a couple of issues with pots. Watering them. I hate the job. I’m happy walking round the garden deadheading roses and pulling off damaged leaves, but watering feels tedious. It also has to be done or the plants die. In contrast, if you leave deadheading for a week, it’s not the end of the world. So, for me, watering is a chore, not an act of mindfulness.

I’m all for not using peat – and have been peat-free for several years. But I find many modern soil mixes don’t help my watering aversion. They don’t hold the water as effectively as peat-based mixes. The water seems to run straight through and out of the bottom of the pot!

So fed up was I that this spring I moved all my roses out of pots and planted them in beds. I think once their roots are established roses in the ground cope remarkably well with dry spells and better than if they are relying on me to water and feed them every couple of days. Having emptied a lot of pots I had no plans to refill them. But Ann has encouraged me to give the sustainable container garden another go.

Sustainable container garden

Sustainable container gardening Ann Treneman

Ann Treneman giving a workshop on sustainable container gardening at Bromley House Library

The book advises on clustering pots for effect. So instead of having them spread around the garden I’ve moved most to one spot and tried to create something that looks more artistic.

Ann says: “The classic design concept for a pot arrangement is to have a ‘thriller’ – something that makes people go ‘wow!’. Then a ‘spiller’ – something that cascades over the pot. And, finally, a ‘filler’ – like a mid-height salvia.” I’m looking forward to trying that.

The other advantage of clustering is that it makes watering the pots easier – helpful for any friends when I’m on holiday, too. I’m going to put saucers underneath to collect water and, next year, will experiment with a self-watering (wicking) bed.

Ann warns against watering every day unless the soil is dry right through. It is more effective to water less often but really make sure all the soil gets a good soaking.

Encouraged by the book, I’m also going to experiment with making my own potting medium, using compost from the hot bin, perhaps some soil and horticultural grit or sand.

And I’m going to sort the water butt. I’ve needed to get one or two for a while. I think part of the reason I hate watering is not just the tedium of the job but the guilt that goes with it.

I’m a sucker for going to garden centres and buying plants to fill temporary gaps in the beds. Now I’m going to use my pot corner to sow annual seeds of things like Rudbekia and cosmos. They may stay in their pots, or I might try to plant them on. And I’m going to grow more herbs. All from seed. This should reduce my use of plastic, stop the garage filling up with empty plant pots, and save me a fortune at the garden centre and supermarket.

I like the idea of a pond in a pot. I think that could be fun.

This little book (175 pages) meets the needs of beginners, and intermediate gardeners like me. It’s something I will return to for advice ­– particularly the lists of plants to grow towards the end.

And, of course, anyone who’s enjoyed Ann’s weekly columns in the Times for years, knows she’s a great writer, so it’s incredibly clear. It’s also well designed. Yup, a book on container planting that isn’t going to Oxfam.

Martin paid for his own copy of the book. In so far as it can be, this review is impartial.

‘Cherry’ Ingram – the Englishman who saved Japan’s blossoms

‘Cherry’ Ingram – the Englishman who saved Japan’s blossoms

This book published by Naoke Abe in 2019 has been a big hit with readers – and not just gardeners who love their cherry blossom. It tells the story of a wealthy Englishman, Collingwood Ingram, who developed a fascination for Japanese cherry trees on trips to Japan in 1902 and 1907. In the 1920s, when he saw some varieties becoming extinct, he set out to rescue them. By safeguarding these rare cherries in the UK and sharing them with other gardeners internationally he was able to ensure they could be reintroduced. I tell more of the story here.

 

‘Cherry Ingram’ The Englishman Who Saved Japan’s Blossoms – by Naoke Abe
Chatto & Windus

The best story in the book is about the reintroduction of Taihaku – the ‘great white cherry’. Ingram had discovered it in England in 1923. It had snow-white blossoms nearly two and a half inches in diameter. On a trip to Japan in 1926 a cherry tree expert showed him a picture of the same tree, mournfully telling him that it was now extinct. Ingram gasped: “This cherry is growing in my garden.” He vowed to return a scion, or cutting, of it to his astonished host.

It took him several attempts but he eventually succeeded – by pressing the bottom of the scion into a potato to keep it sufficiently moist and then transporting it from the UK via the trans-Siberian railway so that it would keep cool on its journey.

Political hijack

This is more than the tale of an eccentric horticultural obsession, though that in itself is interesting. It’s also the story of pre-war Japan – how the symbolism of the cherry blossom was hijacked by politicians and used to persuade young Japanese men to sacrifice their lives for their country as kamikaze pilots.

It is perhaps reflected best in this poem by a 20-year-old pilot written in April 1945:

For the glory of the emperor
What is there to regret?
As a young cherry

Life is most worthy when falling

Abe shares other poems like it. They are heartbreaking. She tells how, as the pilots set off to their deaths, schoolgirls at the side of the runway waved cherry blossom branches at them. In all, between October 1944 and August 1945, around 3,800 Japanese pilots died in kamikaze attacks. Their story is told today at the Chiran Peace Museum.

‘Cherry’ Ingram was born in 1880 and lived till he was 100. Even quite recently trees he safeguarded have been returned to Japan. And the cherry tree has taken on fresh symbolism – of the friendship between Japan and the UK. Look in tree catalogues and you will find some of Ingram’s cherry trees, too.

 

Jennifer Potter’s ‘The Rose’

Jennifer Potter’s ‘The Rose’

I have read quite a few books about roses over the years. Many hundreds more have been printed. But this is the book that I refer people to when they want a good rose history.

 

The Rose – by Jennifer Potter 
Atlantic Books

Jennifer Potter’s 2010 work is over 450 pages long but it is beautifully laid out and illustrated. She takes us through the origins of the rose – the 150 or so species of wild roses that grow from the Tropic of Cancer right up to the Arctic Circle.

We see early paintings of roses from 3,500 years ago. She tells of the uses of roses over time – in food and medicine. We learn that Pliny listed 32 rose remedies – from rose juice as a gargle for mouth ulcers, to the charred petals used as cosmetics for eyebrows. The Romans were so keen on roses they dedicated a festival to them. Rosalia was a time of drunken debauchery. Cleopatra welcomed Mark Antony with a dining room floor 18 inches deep in rose petals. The Syrian boy emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (also known as Heliogabalus) was said to flavour his swimming pools with essence of roses and once allegedly smothered some of his guests to death when he released rose petals from a false ceiling.

The Roses of Heliogabalus by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema – one of the beautiful illustrations in Jennifer Potter’s book “The Rose”

These venal associations may explain why the early church initially saw no place for roses, but from the 4th century the rose began to be rehabilitated and become part of Christian symbolism. Potter also explores the place of the rose in Islamic culture.

Rose development

Over the centuries roses travelled, they intermingled and developed. In subsequent chapters Potter untangles the strands of their progress and produces a family tree. She dismantles the myth of crusaders bringing back the Damask rose. She tells of the impact of the Chinese roses and the origins of purposeful breeding.

The book includes a strong section on the Empress Josephine, rebutting suggestions that she had eyes only for roses.Our friend André Dupont gets an honourable mention. As does Reynolds Hole later. And, towards the end she interviews Robert Calkin on scent.

The history of the rose is an epic tale that encompasses all parts of the Northern hemisphere, ancient history, cultural history. It is the Queen of Flowers. Potter’s achievement is to tell that story – lots of stories, in fact – and make it consistently engaging and digestible. Not surprisingly the project took her five years to research. It is an outstanding piece of work.

Miss Willmott’s Ghosts

Miss Willmott’s Ghosts

To many people Ellen Willmott is best known as a wealthy but cantankerous miser who used to maliciously sow thistle seeds into people’s flower beds from a secret stash in her handbag. As these seeds took root later, they became known as Miss Willmott’s Ghosts.

 

Miss Willmott’s Ghosts – by Sandra Lawrence
Blink Publishing £25.00

Willmott was a charismatic figure – plantswoman, gardener, botanist, landscape architect. In 1897, to celebrate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, the Royal Horticultural Society awarded 60 inaugural Victoria Medals of Honour to the great and good of gardening. Ellen Willmott and Gertrude Jeckyll were the only two female recipients. Willmott failed to turn up to the ceremony, to the disgust of the President, who scathingly addressed the “lady and gentlemen”.

And yet around 200 plants have been named after her. So why such a bad reputation – and is gardening’s “bad girl” epithet really warranted?

Writer Sandra Lawrence has tried to answer both questions using material never seen. In 2019 she was given access to hundreds of newly discovered letters, notebooks, lists and receipts found in a damp basement by descendants of Ellen’s sister. This book is as much the story of Lawrence’s exploration of this material – much of it mouse-chewed and decayed – as it is of Wilmott.

Together with archivist Karen Davidson, Lawrence painfully recovered everything possible, creating complex spreadsheets to log the findings and cross reference with other known material to give as detailed a picture as possible of the Willmott story. And what a story. A tale of squandered inheritance, forbidden love, drive and ambition, prodigious creativity and trailblazing talent.

A ‘rocky’ start

Ellen Willmott was born in 1858. Money was something she learned to take for granted. As a teenager, she would receive a £1,000 cheque each birthday from her godmother – a rich countess. In today’s money the gift was worth over £125,000.

Ellen’s father was a wealthy lawyer, and she seemed able to persuade him to finance her various projects, too. These included creating a rockery in their garden, which turned out to be a spectacular three-acre Alpine scene, featuring a 65-metre-long ravine.

As an adult she became recognised as one of the country’s greatest horticulturalists, with three spectacular homes and gardens — Warley Place in England, Tresserve near Aix-les-Bains in France and Villa Boccanegra in Italy. At one point she was said to employ over 140 gardeners.

In her garden at Tresserve, which no longer survives, she focused her passion for French roses. By 1904 she had one of the finest collections in the world – more than 12,000 roses of over 900 varieties. She would visit each May and June to enjoy them.

She befriended plant breeders, funded planthunting trips and was more successful than anyone in nurturing the seeds and cuttings brought back. Her knowledge of plants and gardening was unrivalled.

But by 1907 she had blithely worked her way through inheritances worth tens of millions. Her money was running out and her behaviour becoming more eccentric. As her gardens were sold or disintegrated around her, and unable to admit her situation, her reputation for meanness grew. Certainly, she seemed little blessed with the gift for empathy. She could be rude and downright cruel to loyal staff and friends – “complex, brilliant and confrontational,” Lawrence concludes.

Whether this book rehabilitates her reputation and helps us understand her much better is difficult to say. We are given a possible reason for her absence from the RHS medal ceremony that so shocked the Victorian gardening press. But she still leaves the reader exasperated and confused – full of admiration for her energy and gifts, infuriated by much of her behaviour. I suspect Lawrence feels the same way.

Gardening can be murder

Gardening can be murder

This is a book for gardeners who love reading, and in particular for gardeners who like a good murder mystery.

 

Gardening can be murder – by Marta McDowell
Published by Timber Press 205pp

It started out as an article green-fingered New York writer Marta McDowell contributed in 2002 to the quarterly gardening journal, Hortus (a fantastic publication if you like good garden writing), under the title: Malus aforethought. Great headline!

McDowell flags up a whole host of mysteries that feature gardens, gardeners or detectives who are garden lovers. Many are written by authors who themselves are passionate gardeners, as we discover towards the end.

She starts with one of the first professional crime fighters – Sergeant Cuff – in the Wilkie Collins novel, The Moonstone (written in 1868 – 19 years before Sherlock Holmes appeared in print).

I’ve probably seen a TV adaptation of this at some point but have subsequently been enjoying the audio book on Audible, principally because clever Sgt Cuff (we never learn his first name) is a rose lover. He arrives on the scene distracted by the gravel paths between the rose beds, insisting they should be grass, and regularly singing under his breath – The Last Rose of Summer.

McDowell flags up how his passion for roses was in keeping with the time – this was only 10 years after the first national rose show, at a time when the plant’s popularity was in the ascendancy.

The book is beautifully illustrated and an easy read. But it is frustrating in two respects. The first is that many of the authors are American and the books are not so easy to find over here. The second is… well, I’ve already got a huge pile of books I want to read. Now it’s got bigger. A lot bigger!

Read this book with a pencil, to highlight all the various books you will want to check out. Oxfam online, Amazon Kindle, Abe books, World of Books, Audible, your local library… you’ll find yourself trying to track down cheap copies everywhere.

My list now includes books by authors whose books I should have read sooner (Dorothy L. Sayers’, Rex Stout, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh). There are some I know but want to read more of (Ellis Peters’ Cadfael and a couple of Agatha Christie Poirots). Finally, there are some modern American authors – I’m particularly intrigued by Cynthia Riggs’s 92-year-old sleuth, Victoria Trumbull.

And then there are the plants I want, just for the stories they tell of fictional characters who end up pushing up the daisies from their use. Foxglove (digitalis) already makes an appearance in my garden each year. I wasn’t aware of the murderous potential of rhubarb (leaves, not stalks, in case you’re worried). And aconite is one I’m toying with.

McDowell offers some useful lists at the end of the book. A good accompaniment to this is A is for Arsenic, by Kathryn Harkup, a British chemist who has analysed all the Agatha Christie texts to check out the poisons she used.

English garden eccentrics

English garden eccentrics

The English do eccentricity well, so it should be no surprise that garden historian Todd Longstaffe-Gowan has been able to unearth so many “characters” to grace this engaging 300-year overview of horticultural eccentricity and excess. My favourite has to be Mabel Barltrop. 

Joanna Southcott (1750 to 1814) – a self-described prophetess from Devon who believed the messiah would return to England.

Barltrop (1866-1934) – a mother of four and the widow of a Church of England curate – believed herself to be Octavia, the Divine Daughter of God, whose appearance had been foretold by the 18th century English prophetess, Joanna Southcott.

Southcott had predicted the second coming of Christ in England. Her prophesies were kept in a sealed box, which she instructed must only be opened in time of need by a gathering of all the Church of England’s bishops (there were then 24) – and only after they had spent some time studying her texts.

Mabel Barltrop (1866-1934), who called herself “Octavia”

Barltrop eagerly awaited this second coming, believing Christ would visit her red-brick Victorian semi in Bedford. She claimed that this was the site of the original Garden of Eden and destined to be “the Centre of the world’s work”. Remarkably, she managed to gather round her a community that believed this, too – the Panacea Society. 

It was 1919 and in the wake of the First World War a collapse in faith saw people turning away from the conventional church and embracing unorthodox theology. 

12 Albany Street (now Albany Road) in Bedford – home of the Panacea Society in the 1920s.

As the Society grew it expanded beyond Mabel’s semi-detached house at 12 Albany Street, with its bay windows and suburban privet hedge. Mabel’s own garden was filled with a large shed, converted in 1920, into a chapel large enough to welcome 50 worshippers. Neighbouring properties were bought – garden walls knocked down and gardens joined together – to create “The Estate of Jerusalem”.

Surviving photographs offer us only glimpses of this Eden. Most of it is given over to lawn for events, including the society’s annual summer garden parties, seen as dress rehearsals for the second coming. 

One striking picture shows women in white dresses and mop caps, men in white rustic smocks and straw hats – holding hands and performing a country dance around a large weeping ash tree. Another shows Octavia’s right-hand man, Peter Rasmussen, burning members’ confessions (a key part of the society’s rituals) on a makeshift altar of bricks alongside a toy lamb (symbolising Christ). 

By the mid-1920s the Panaceans decided the Garden of Eden extended beyond their little estate – for a 12-mile radius around their church, “The Royal Domain”. And they were no longer waiting for the second coming. Barltrop had decided her late husband had been Jesus and so now they were anticipating the third coming of Christ. 

Barltrop’s is just one of 21 stories told in Longstaffe-Gowan’s book, which treats its subjects with academic respect, often perhaps affection, and cannot help but surprise and entertain. Other gardens feature mountains in miniature, gnomes, aviaries, caves and burrowings and – at Elvaston Castle in neighbouring Derbyshire – spectacular topiary.

Sadly, none survive in their original form. They are fleeting expressions of the singular character of their makers, but perhaps – though on a much smaller scale – these traces of eccentricity can still be found in thousands of English gardens today. You only have to see a garden full of gnomes to know the spirit lives on. 

And how does Barltrop’s story end? By the time she died, in October 1934, the society had 50 members living in and around Albany Road and another 2,000 elsewhere, across the world. 

For three days her followers kept her body warm, expecting her to rise from the dead. When this did not happen, she was finally placed in a coffin and buried in Bedford’s Foster Hill Road Cemetery, where over a hundred of her supporters also found their final resting place. 

Remarkably, the community continued to grow, peaking just before WWII. It was not until 2012 that the last member died and the Panacea Society’s name was changed to the Panacea Charitable Trust. 

Today the Trust funds and supports academic research into the study of apocalyptic and millenarian movements like Barltrop’s. It operates a museum on the site of the former community and makes grants for the relief of poverty and sickness and to advance education generally, primarily in Bedford and the surrounding area. Its accounts show it has over £40m in assets.

Barltrop’s Garden of Eden may not be what it was in the 1920s, but just a glimpse of its remnants surely makes a visit to Bedford enticing.

English Garden Eccentrics: Three Hundred Years of Extraordinary Groves, Burrowings, Mountains and Menageries
Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, Paul Mellon Centre, 392pp