You Can Have Any Colour, As Long As It’s Rose

Since the first batch of wine I ever made was very drinkable, I’ve done a second batch with more of the frozen fruit in the garage. I used most of my red gooseberries last time, so this time I mixed up what I had to get:

33% blackcurrant

58% redcurrant

9% oriental quince

I then added other ingredients based on ‘averaging’ the recipes for the different ingredients in my book. To be honest, most of them are more or less the same apart from the amount of sugar, so the book’s a bit repetitive. And speaking of sugar, I upped the sugar a bit since last time it was a bit dry for my taste, and the volume since it’s not much more effort to make 20 bottles than 6.

So far it all seems to be going well, the only disappointment is the colour. I thought the blackcurrants would have more impact, but so far it’s only a slightly deeper pink than the gooseberry wine. Like Ford used to say, you can have any colour as long as it’s rosé.

I’m looking forward to tasting it in time for Christmas! Fingers crossed the slightly loose interpretation of the recipe(s) works out.

Mixed fruit wine, with blackcurrants, redcurrants and quince

Mixed fruit wine, with blackcurrants, redcurrants and quince

More Flowers

I spotted a few more late flowers over the last few days. One is Evening Primrose, which I’m not sure should be flowering in October. The other is a final attempt at repeat flowering by the Kew Gardens rose I planted at the beginning of the year. It has single white flowers that open together in small heads.

Evening Primrose flower in early October

Evening Primrose flower in early October


Kew Gardens flower bud in early October

Kew Gardens flower bud in early October


Choosing Roses

So I’ve spent the last rose shopping. We just had some work done on the house to move an external door, and a plan to plant a climber where the door used to be has expanded into a project to cover up as much of the pebble-dash rendering as possible. We love a lot about our house, and it was a good compromise for us, but the external rendering isn’t one of the pluses.

My idea is to cut some holes for beds into the concrete driveway and then plant three climbing roses with smaller shrubby roses underneath for groundcover. I decided to go for roses because whatever covers up the rendering should be attractive, my wife wanted something scented, and I didn’t want anything likely to leave marks on the wall. Even climbing roses aren’t really true climbers, they’re sprawlers that need to be tied in place. It means more effort up front but less problems with removal or hacking them back.

The things I was looking for, the things the perfect rose for us would have, were:

  1. Thornless, or if thorned then flexible/trainable enough so family members and guests don’t get caught and shredded in passing
  2. Strongly scented
  3. Repeat flowering
  4. Single flowers and attractive to pollinators
  5. Good disease resistance, since I don’t plan on spraying
  6. For the climbers, growing big enough to cover most of a two storey wall (e.g. 4 – 5m), but not so vigorous that I need to be up a 5m ladder every month trying to stop it going over the top and engulfing the house
  7. Nice colour – white, pink, scarlet are good, yellow and orange are a much harder sell

Needless to say, it’s pretty hard to find any rose that meets all of those criteria. The harder ones are the thornlessness, which I basically gave up on, and the single flowers. Repeat flowering tends to be a property of highly bred roses, and many of those have also been selected for double flowers.

So, after much agonising I can now reveal the compromise to achieve something for both myself (wildlife friendly, nice colours) and the wife (scented, long flowering).


The roses below go in order from largest and wildest to smallest and least wild (double flowers). All of the climbers are supposed to be strongly scented.

Rosa moschata

Rosa moschata, source: Wikipedia, by Arashiyama

This one is very much my choice. It’s basically a wild rose that flowers late but over a period of 2 – 3 months. It’s supposed to be very strongly scented, as in you can smell it tens of feet away, and very attractive to bees. I’ve seen conflicting reports about size and David Austin claim it needs a warm wall to hit 4 or 5m, so we’ll just have to see how it works out. Hopefully it can cover 10 – 15 m2 of wall if it can get high enough and spread horizontally as well.

The Lady of the Lake

The Lady of the Lake, source: David Austin

This one is is one we can both go for. It’s a highly bred, repeat flowering English rose, but the flowers are only semi-double so you can actually see the stamens and stigma. In the pictures it looks an attractive shade of pink. It should be a big less vigorous than r. moschata, and I thought we might train it around the bathroom window and over the door.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles

Tess of the d’Urbervilles, source: David Austin

This is very much not a wild rose in terms of flower shape. A bit fluffy for me in shape and probably useless for wildlife, but chosen for scent, colour, and lack of vigour. It can go against the single storey utility room wall.

Groundcover / Shrub Roses

Centre Stage

Centre stage, source: David Austin

A low growing groundcover rose. Single flowers, supposed to flower continuously over a long period. Probably not strongly scented.


Cambridgeshire rose, source: David Austin

Another groundcover rose, repeat flowering. My wife loved the colours. I agree the mix of gold and orange looks really good, I just need to decide which climber to match it with. Supposedly not strongly scented.

Munstead Wood

Munstead Wood rose, source: David Austin

This one is more of a small shrub. Supposed to have a very strong scent, and it looks like a good colour match for Tess of the d’Urbervilles, or maybe it would look good under the pink Lady of the Lake. Double flowered.

So I guess the scores, based on available internet info, are:

Criteria Score
Thornless 0/6
Strongly scented 4/6
Repeat flowering 5/6
(Semi-)single flowering 3/6
Right size for the space 6/6
Nice colour 6/6

Which I guess means my priorities ended up being colour, size > repeating > scent > single flowering > thornlessness. I wish I’d been a bit more successful in finding single flowered varieties that also had the right size, repeat flowering and scent, but combining single flowers with repeat flowering in particular is pretty hard. For example, many ramblers, and especially the fairly common single flowering ones, do not repeat.

I’ll let you know in a year or two how it all works out…

Post-Equinox Blues

The Autumn Equinox is always a depressing time. It’s not just that the days are getting shorter, that’s been happening since late June, it’s that now is the point when the days are getting shorter fastest. You can almost see the night coming earlier day by day, and you know that before too long you’ll be driving to work in the dark and driving home in the dark and the sun will be a distant memory.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. I was outside today putting down stepping stones in some of the beds, before the perennials start to die back and I don’t know what’s where, and the weather was amazing. There were plenty of bees and butterflies making the most of the sunshine and the remaining flowers, and I couldn’t resist taking some photos.

We should still have a month or so until the first frosts arrive, and some things will soldier on until the bitter end. So let’s make the most of what’s left, and hope for a warm and sunny Autumn!

Verbena 25/9/2016

Verbena 25/9/2016

Perennial and annual sunflowers 25/9/2016

Perennial and annual sunflowers 25/9/2016

Buddleja with a Red Admiral in port 25/9/2016

Buddleja with a Red Admiral in port 25/9/2016

Marigolds 25/9/2016

Marigolds 25/9/2016

Marshmallow 25/9/2016

Marshmallow 25/9/2016

Anise hyssop with bee, 25/9/2016

Anise hyssop with bee, 25/9/2016

Hydrangea, 25/9/2016

Hydrangea, 25/9/2016

Viola, 25/9/2016

Viola, 25/9/2016

Bergamot, 25/9/2016

Bergamot, 25/9/2016

Feverfew and lavender, 25/9/2016

Feverfew and lavender, 25/9/2016

Bellflowers, 25/9/2016

Bellflowers, 25/9/2016

Bee on winter savory, 25/9/2016

Bee on winter savory, 25/9/2016

Up, Up and Away

Over the weekend, I measured the Cockle Pippin that I planted last winter. I knew it’d gone from 1.3m to taller than me in the course of a year, but even so I was a bit surprised when it clocked in at 2.4m. Growing over a meter in its first year in the ground, after having half its roots hacked off for shipping, is pretty impressive. Here‘s what it looked like a few short months ago.

What happens when you plant an apple on M25

What happens when you plant an apple on M25

The theory was that, given it had a conifer hedge on one side and a hawthorn hedge on the other, the more vigorous the tree the better, so I went for a very vigorous apple rootstock and left the central leader uncut to hopefully get a decent length of clear trunk instead of branching low and getting tangled up with or shaded by the hedges. The practice might turn out to be a bit different…

I actually keep meaning to keep some kind of growth diary by species. There are clear differences in when shrubs and trees grow – for example, the Amelanchiers I have in my garden tend to show a strong growth spurt in spring but then stop early on, and I’ve heard that Persimmons do the same. I think this might be common in species which evolved in places with dry summers, since in those conditions it makes sense to stop after spring before the dry spell starts. Apples on the other hand seem to keep going throughout the growing season.

I’ve searched online for data about growing patterns, but not really found much. Has anyone else noticed anything interesting in their shrubs and trees?

Next Season: What’s Out

So the last couple of weekends I’ve been trying to catch-up in the garden after spending much of August away. After a month of neglect the garden looked like a jungle, but I’m slowly hacking it back into shape and opening up the gaps for new experiments. In order for new things to be planted, the things that haven’t worked out need to go.

So what’s out? So far:


Lonicera caerulea, source: Wikipedia, by Opioła Jerzy

I tried. I really, really tried. I had these in my old front garden, and when we moved we brought them with us. I gave them years, always hoping for better yields or sweeter fruit (supposedly fruit quality improves as they mature). I tried a few other varieties that were supposed to have bigger, better fruit. The end result: every variety I’ve tried over the last six years or so produces small, sharp berries that aren’t worth the effort. If you want something similar but sweeter and high yielding, plant raspberries. If you want sharp and higher yields, plant currants. If you’ve already planted honeyberries, then don’t waste too many years before admitting defeat and tossing them on the compost heap, as I just did.

Asparagus Peas

Asparagus peas, source: Wikipedia, by Hans Hillewaert

These are annuals. I’ve tried them a couple of times, but for reasons explained here they’re not the best vegetable in the world. Their only positive is that they look quite pretty when in flower.


Achocha, source: Wikipedia, by Zyance

Another annual. I tried these for the first time this year. They’re extremely vigorous climbing members of the cucumber family, and extremely productive as well. So what’s wrong with them? Two things:

  1. While they probably can be used fried in most recipes that call for green peppers, they have a bitterness to them that I find unpleasant. Not enough to stop me eating some, but why grow something that’s going to produce tons of vegetables you have to force yourself to eat?
  2. Vigorous doesn’t begin to cover it. They look like (and grow like) weeds. They get everywhere – I had a constant battle to stop them smothering the kiwis, which themselves have a reputation for thuggish behaviour, and they leapt off the arches I was growing them up into the undergrowth, the apple tree, the cherry tree, and over two nearby paths.

This weekend I decided enough was enough and ripped the damn things out. Waiting for the cold to kill them off meant I’d have to keep looking at them for at least a few more weeks.


Chokeberries, source: Wikipedia, by Mrigashirsha

I’m not as negative on these as some of the above. They’re not that great raw unless very ripe, but I’m told they have culinary value. The problem is that only two out of the four plants I have produce large berries, and I don’t get to use them anyway. Despite being very astringent, they act as a bird magnet and all the fruit suddenly vanishes before I get round to picking it. For that reason, one of the smaller berried bushes is going to make room for another Actinidia Kolomikta. The bigger ones I’ll probably keep since, even if they’re not productive, they grow more sparsely than the honeyberries so underplanting is much more viable.

Cido Quince

Flowering quince, source: Wikipedia, by Pollinator

I grow three kinds of chaenomeles: Cido, Fusion, and Crimson and Gold. I had a post earlier about how, despite claims to the contrary, I don’t think chaenomeles are self-fertile. This year, after adding extra varieties, I finally got a good yield from the Fusion and Crimson and Gold. The two Cidos, though, still managed almost nothing. I’m tempted to remove them, the only question is whether that might stuff up the pollination again (e.g. if Cido pollinates one of the other two, but is not itself pollinated by them).


We’ve officially reached the time of year when plants run rampant and bare ground completely disappears from the more established parts of the garden. In a temperate climate like ours this is what should naturally happen, since most plants lose their leaves or die back for the winter before filling out again in the spring and the summer, and it has a lot of advantages. Increased shading of the ground discourages weeds, creates a cool environment that helps retain moisture and provides habitat for helpful wildlife like frogs and toads. It also means you don’t notice so much if one particular plant passes away, since any hole will quickly be filled by neighbouring plants. The only problem is that it looks very messy to modern man/woman, and even the most environmentally friendly often feel the need to wade in and bring order to the chaos without actually identifying any real problem with letting the plants get on with it.

Some homegrown mess

Some homegrown mess

I think part of the problem is that we spend most of our lives in a completely controlled, managed environment. We spent 5 days a week working in a shop, or an office, filled with straight lines and rules and regulations, then we spend half the weekend regimenting our homes in the same manner, and when we walk outside we just can’t let go even when intervention isn’t necessary. We can’t just wait and see and gently nudge things in the right direction if they seem to be going wrong, vigorous preemptive action is called for, even if it’s actually counterproductive.

Of course, even with high densities of compulsive tidiers, urban gardens are actually in many ways better than most of the countryside nowadays. A few weeks ago a German study of wild insect populations in the Orbroich Bruch Nature Reserve was in the news. Despite being a nature reserve, the biomass of insects caught in the park using the same trapping methodology fell by 80% between 1989 and 2013, likely due to the reserve being a small island in a sea of industrialised agriculture. Farming is worse because it combines the ‘carpet-bomb the area just in case’ mentality of some gardeners with the short-sighted externality-ignoring logic of business. Let’s look at the logic:

1. Kill Everything Just in Case

Firstly, predictable financial returns are important to most businesses, especially if they’re highly leveraged as many farmers are. This means that, even if on average organic / low pesticide farms aren’t obliterated by pests, any small increase in the risk of crop failure is unacceptable. Far better to kill everything that you don’t definitely need now, than see your business struggling because the one thing you didn’t kill turned out to be a problem afterall.

2. Short-Sightedness

The list of sustainability problems with agriculture as conventionally practiced is quite long, so here’s an incomplete summary:

  1. Leaving fields bare for too long destroys soil structure and causes erosion and rapid surface run-off (flooding)
  2. Chemical fertilisers kill beneficial soil micro-organisms which would otherwise build and retain fertility
  3. Those same fertilisers are either unsustainably mined or produced using energy intensive processes that mean 10 calories of (fossil) energy often goes into one calorie of food
  4. Herbicides and pesticides decimate populations of beneficial insects, including pollinators, by either killing them directly or killing alternative food sources

What this all adds up to is that modern industrialised farms are eroding their natural capital and calling it income, a fundamental accounting error.

3. What Externalities?

And then there’s the externality problem. Actions that individual farmers take yield immediate benefits to them, but a long-term cost to everyone else, and that long-term cost is greater than the individual benefit. The financial incentives don’t align with the common good.

Let’s take bees. An awful lot of crops need pollinators to yield successfully, so you’d think farmers would be willing to put time and energy into helping them. But if one farmer uses bee harming chemicals and his neighbours don’t, then he reaps the benefits and bees still come in from other farms. And if everyone is using them, then him not using them won’t help the bees (they’ll just get poisoned by someone else) but it will mean a reduction in his own income, so why would he stop? It’s the good old tragedy of the commons.

And it’s even worse than that, because even if a farmer could make a difference by being bee friendly, his efforts would help not just himself but also his free-loading neighbours. What that farmer wants is the ‘Automated Pollination Machine (TM)’, or APM for short. Imagine:

You buy your APM with a 10 year warranty and install it in an old barn. It needs feeding with borage flowers, so you plant up 10% of your fields with borage and feed them into the machine. You lose potential yield because of the borage, but you gain far more because of better pollination. You program the machine with the boundaries of your land, and it sends out thousands of automated pollinator drones, programmed to pollinate the flowers of your crop but not the weeds or your neighbour’s plants.

Unfortunately, nature doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t understand human rules or boundaries and it isn’t designed with simple, well-specified interfaces. Where people think in straight lines and APMs, Nature thinks in messy, complex networks. And when we say that we want it our way or no way, then the long term answer is no way.

There’s no easy answers to the farming question. We need to somehow make sure that we feed everyone in the short-term, while also learning to let go a bit, to be gentle and subtle in our interventions and respect that the ecosystem we’re living in is too complex to be thought of purely in industrial terms. But there is an easy answer to the gardening question – learn to love a little mess!

In Praise of (Most) Campanulas

We were in the local Aldi the other day and I couldn’t help but notice they were selling campanulas in with the bedding plants. This was pretty exciting, since supermarkets tend to focus a lot on gaudy annuals and not enough on things you can just plant and rely on to come back year after year. That is, until I looked at the label and saw ‘campanula rapunculoides’, creeping bellflower.

Why, Aldi, why? Out of all the beautiful campanulas out there, why did you pick one that’s indisputably a terrible weed? The species was named after campanula rapunculus, Rampion, which was widely cultivated historically for its edible root. And it’s true that creeping bellflower also grows lots of roots… because it spreads like crazy via rhizomes, any tiny segment of which will regrow. It’s basically ground elder with pretty blue flowers. Chiltern Seeds has this charmingly understated description:

This plant is easy to grow – very easy. Still, the number of plants that will take your garden over, yet do it gracefully, are very limited. This is a most attractive plant with its long and charming spikes of bluish-violet, drooping star/funnel-shaped flowers in summer.

The truth is, Aldi had a lot of nice garden species to choose from. I’m a big fan of bellflowers as a whole – they’re hardy, tough as nails, reliable, and beautiful. They easily hold their own against highly bred and modified garden plants like roses, but at the same time look perfectly at home in a bed of wildflowers. With roses, you can normally tell at a glance the wild species from the bred varieties, but even named cultivars of bellflowers don’t differ much from the wild species, except perhaps in colour.

This is not the bellflower you’re looking for. Source: Wikipedia, by D. Gordon E. Robertson

And why would they? It’s not obvious what else you’d improve. The elegant flowers tend to stick around for a long time, they’re popular with pollinators, and the most common colour of royal blue or purple is hard to beat (I like blue and purple flowers – my wife says I must have been a bee in a previous life). Oh, and almost every member of the family is edible, if you like wild edibles – the flowers are nicest, but the leaves are also edible if often a bit tough and/or hairy, and some also have edible roots (like the aforementioned Rampion).

The ones I have in the garden right now, or at least the ones I can remember, are:

  1. Campanula latifolia
  2. Campanula lactiflora
  3. Campanula pyramidalis
  4. Campanula glomerata
  5. Campanula poscharskyana
  6. Campanula punctata
  7. Campanula persicifolia
  8. Campanula takesimana

Of course some of these are also aggressive spreaders, but there’s a difference between “spreads but new plants/growth can be weeded out” and “requires years of total warfare to even weaken”. In general I’m quite tolerant of plants other people would consider invasive, just as long as unwanted bits can be pulled up if necessary. The only plants I really hate are the ones where division just seems to make them stronger, typically because they spread via very resilient rhizomes (ground elder again).

Racking away

I wrote before about my attempts to make gooseberry wine. Well, after a few weeks fermenting away in the demi-john, a thick layer of sediment had formed and the bubbling was down to a minimum, which meant it was time to separate the wine from the dead yeast.

Racking gooseberry wine

Racking gooseberry wine

The wine looks lovely and clear now, and still smells pretty alcoholic. The only thing that disappointed me a bit was the wastage due to the height of the filter at the bottom of the syphon. Having put so much home-grown fruit into it, the losses at every stage in the process are a bit saddening. I think that losses from the initial open fermentation stage should be smaller for larger volumes, so the only thing to do is ramp up production next time…

…And Normal Service Resumes


Back to gardening! And I thought I’d make a list of some of the lessons learned trying to grow fruit trees over the last few years. Your mileage may vary, but here’s the start of my list.

Trees don’t want to grow in pots

I’m not even sure this is tree-specific. In my experience, growing plants permanently in pots is just making working for yourself. Pots heat and cool much more quickly, which means plants can be shocked into doing the wrong thing, or even killed if they’re a bit tender. They dry out quicker too, which means very regular watering. And then of course you’ve got the problem of nutrient depletion, which means feeding with chemical fertilisers or replacing soil.

Almost any plant is easier to grow directly in the ground, and that applies doubly for large shrubs and trees.

Dwarf rootstocks are too much hassle

So if pots aren’t working out, and you’re still determined to not let a tree be a tree, then the next stop is dwarfing rootstocks. There’s just one problem, and that’s that the really dwarfing ones are just as finicky as keeping something in a pot. They mostly work by being really bad at the job of being roots for the tree grafted on to them. They can’t tolerate any competition, they can’t tolerate drought, they can’t anchor the tree and stop it falling over if a stiff wind blows in the wrong direction. The stress they induce also, in my experience, makes the tree much more susceptible to disease.

I lost an apple on M27 and a cherry on Gisela 5, and that was enough for me. I’m not saying that you should always go for the most vigorous rootstock possible, but semi-dwarfing (QA, MM106, …)  should be the limit for low maintenance growing.

Quince is fussy

I’ve got pears and a medlar on Quince A rootstock in a well-drained corner of the garden and the pears especially have been less than vigorous. Quince likes moist, fertile, neutral to acidic soils. If your soil is dry or alkaline then you’re better off going for pear rootstocks, especially if you want the tree to go anywhere fast.

No tree ever looks like the pictures in the pruning guides

Books on fruit trees are full of pictures of young trees with nice evenly spaced branches, which can be trained into perfect goblet shaped bushes. At least for me, the world doesn’t work that way. For example, I’ve got:

A Fiesta apple that wants to be a weeping willow. It generates lots of thin, twiggy growth which then sags under the weight of an apple or two. Pruning it into a nice goblet is basically impossible, so in the end I decided to let it be a twiggy mess, since it presumably knows how to be an apple tree better than I do.

A Howgate Wonder which almost is a nice goblet shape, but which completely refuses to grow in one particular direction. Every year I carefully prune it to encourage it to fill the gap, which happens to be towards the south with no obstruction of the light, but the new growth just won’t go there. It will, however, happily grow towards the nearby, light obstructing leylandii hedge.

A Yellow Egg plum that’s almost columnar in growth habit, despite initial attempts to prune to outward facing buds and discourage vertical growth.

I’m sure I’m not unique, and my trees aren’t special in any way. It’s simply that plants have their own ideas about how they want to grow, and sometimes it’s not worth fighting. I personally just forget the pictures from the books and:

  1. Try to steer branches growing in awkward directions by pruning to buds facing in the right direction
  2. Remove dead, diseased and crossing branches
  3. Remove very vertical side-shoots

If the result looks nothing like a bush then that’s fine with me.

Old varieties are often less finicky

New varieties are often low vigour and heavy cropping. A tree that doesn’t grow much and diverts all its energy into fruit production while still very young is going to be a stressed tree. While I have some happy newer varieties (Fiesta), there does seem to be a pattern of older varieties being the happiest to look after themselves. Since most of them are no longer commercially significant, they’re also often more naturally disease resistant than the mass planted varieties like Cox, and they may have interesting flavours (modern varieties tend to be bred for supermarket standards and mass market appeal).

The cost of that is that those varieties often have their own problems, like more variable yields, biennial cropping, and less self-fertility. But for those of us who have to work for a living, low input – medium output may be a better deal with high input – high output.

Sometimes you just have to cut your losses

Trees are a long term investment. They’ll hopefully be going for decades or centuries, so it’s hard to accept when after a few years a serious problem develops. But when it becomes obvious the end is coming, you’re better off accepting it. You have to be realistic – you know in your heart when something’s on its last legs.

There’s at least two reasons not to wait for a recovery that isn’t coming:

  1. If the cause of the death might be disease, you don’t want it to infect any other trees in the same family
  2. Given the long lead time to get a tree into production, you want to get the replacement in sooner rather than later if a tree really is doomed. That extra year or two for it to shuffle off this mortal coil could be time for its replacement to settle in and start growing.