A different colour scheme for the garden

I’ve been playing with some colour combinations for the entry garden, trying to incorporate the orange tulips and roses that were already present. This is a design in progress obviously, so the final planting may well turn out to be completely different.

My own preference has always been towards blues, and initially thought that orange would be quite complex to work with. I surprised myself by being able to use blue, silver, and gray foliage as foils for orange.  Purple was another colour to bring in, as there are purple hazels among a hazel hedge nearby. Plants such as Hyppophae with its bluish leaves and Vitamin C-rich orange fruits or Abies koreana with its blue-green needles and purple cones in spring; certain irises with blue-green leaves and orange and purple blooms; and Berberis with purple foliage and reddish-orange berries helped me see that these combinations are natural complements. Euphorbia species provide much-needed zing to brighten up the purple and silvery greys with acid green (acid yellow, if you prefer) and some, like E. ‘Great Dixter’ and E. ‘Fireglow,’ have orange and purple tones in their leaves and flowers as well. One of my finds is of a new Miscanthus, ‘Ghana’, which colours up orange and purple in the autumn. Exciting!

The design is for an Eastern exposure on a slope, with clay soil, which is very sticky when wet and cracks during the summer. I suspect the soil is acidic but have yet to do a proper test. There are colonies of honey fungus (Armillaria mellea and related species) during the autumn, so plants have to be fairly resistant.


Weeds and living with them

It’s been a while since my last post. I’d been busy with the World Cookbook as well as trying to live harmoniously with the diversity of weeds in the garden. Weeds, as my plant production professor once said, should be the first plants a gardener should get to know. The Oxford Online Dictionary defines a weed as a wild plant growing where it’s not wanted or that disturbs the growth of domesticated plants. I take the view that a weed is a plant whose beneficial uses are yet to be discovered. For readers gardening in Germany, I give the German names of these weeds, just in case you should come across them in conversation with neighbours. Take the dandelion (Löwenzahn, Taraxacum officinale), for instance — whose presence is not welcomed by those aspiring to perfect lawns. I love the cheery look they give to my backyard meadow (the ground and grass are too uneven to be called a lawn). It’s bound to become more appreciated now that its healing power has been demonstrated. An extract from its roots has been found by Canadian researchers at the University of Windsor to be effective in killing leukemia cells. DANDELIONS ON LAWN NACHTIGALLEN

Weeds are supposed to be able to tell us a lot about our soil. (However, as I was later to discover, some published information should be taken with a pinch of salt). Stinging nettles (Brennessel, Urtica dioica), ground ivy (Gundermann, Glechoma hederacea), germander speedwell (Gamander-Ehrenpreis, Veronica chamaedrys), corn chamomile or field chamomile (Acker Hundskamille, Anthemis arvensis) and buttercups (Scharfer Hahnenfuss, Ranunculus acris) can indicate nutrient-rich soils. As does red campion (Rote Lichtnelke, Silene dioica). Moist soils are apparently preferred by creeping buttercup (Kriechender Hahnenfuss, Ranunculus repens), of which my backyard has a very big population.

To deter weeds, I have opted not to use any agrochemicals. Glyphosate, which was claimed to be harmless as it breaks down once it touches the soil, has now been found in groundwater, which means that in actual fact it takes a long time to break down.  Its damaging effects, including to DNA and its association with cancer, have caused it to be banned in the Dutch city of Rotterdam. When we moved here last year, weeds had flourished unrestrained in the long-neglected garden. Stinging nettle clumps were almost 2 metres high, ivy thickly covered the tree trunks, and tangled brambles and bindweed were everywhere. A superficial clear-up was all that could be done before winter set in. As a rule I like to leave a new garden pretty much untouched throughout the first year to see what will come up. It was wonderful to have snowdrops, tulips, lady’s smock (Wiesen-Schaumkraut, Cardamine pratensis), vetch, creeping speedwell, clover, and buttercups. I thoroughly enjoyed the cheerful sight of dandelions all over the lawn. Here at the edge of the woods, a wild-flower meadow, wanted or unwanted, just happens. It was, however, more difficult to appreciate goutweed (Giersch, Aegopodium podagraria). While their white umbels set off the pink roses very well, I suspect they stressed them out.


Goutweed umbels look nice in a spring bouquet, but their thuggish manner with the rose bushes is not welcome.

The rose stems were thick with scale, their leaves pale and misshapen, and badly punctured by capsid bugs. I’ve had to cut down the ailing bushes to spare the healthier ones. I tried a weed-fighting strategy recommended by other gardeners. After digging up as much as I could of the goutweed and bindweed roots, I covered the ground with cardboard sheets, topped them with a thick mulch of grass clippings, and just left everything to disintegrate.  I left the stems of the roses free of mulch. In the past months, no goutweed has appeared. Without access to light, it’s supposed to lose its will to live. Come spring we shall see if this has really worked. Goutweed was once an anti-gout remedy, and its leaves are edible (if you haven’t sprayed them, that is). “If you can’t beat them, eat them” can be an alternative strategy. The country-life magazine Mein Schoenes Land (May/June 2012) featured a Wild Herb Strudel with a filling made from leaves of stinging nettle, goutweed, and wild garlic (Bärlauch, Allium ursinum). Young, tender, unsprayed leaves of stinging nettle and goutweed can be prepared much like spinach.

There was a low edging of flowering wild geranium or herb Robert (Geranium robertianum), that brightened the path alongside the house, but the city council slashed them, which was a pity. On the other hand, they left the stinging nettles on the opposite bank untouched. Later I was glad they did, as among the nettles I discovered corn cockle (Kornrade, Agrostemma githago), considered rare here now, cornflower (Kornblume, Centaurea cyanus, and red campion. I’ve trimmed the flowers off the stinging nettles to encourage new leaves so that certain butterflies can lay their eggs. It won’t be long now before the weeds stop active growth. This first year of living with weeds has taught me that despite the received wisdom that stinging nettles, vetch, clover, and speedwell grow on nutrient-rich soil, I realize now that the soil in this garden is so very far from rich. The wildflower seeds that I’d sown, which are supposed to do well even on poor soil, had really struggled. My soil is definitely poorer than poor. For the coming seasons, I shall have to supply the garden generously with compost.

Midsummer is white

I’ve noticed that now most flowers in the hedges and fields are white, in contrast to early spring when wildflowers were overwhelmingly yellow. I’m curious to know why that is, and if anyone knows, do please share your knowledge. The elderflowers  and Philadelphus (called Holunder and Jasminstrauch here) are cascading frothily against the hedge trees, mostly field maple and Ligustrum. In the fields nearby, wild carrot umbels promise a sea of white. I’m late making my usual elderflower syrup this year. Isn’t that strange, now that I’ve got  trees in the garden and don’t have to go out of my way to gather them? Just typical of me. I made the syrup just in time, as today thunderstorms and hail have changed the past few days’ brilliantly sunny skies to a dark grey gloom, and the remaining flowers on the elder are all bedraggled.

I usually add a tablespoon or so of the syrup to sparkling water for a refreshing summer drink, and my friend Hanna tells of an excellent elderflower gelatin dessert she’d had recently. I might try making that, and M is thinking of making elderflower and yogurt ice cream. Sounds divine. Another friend suggested pouring it over pancakes (thanks Charity!). The elderflowers are best gathered as soon as they open. Try to pick them from places that are not too close to traffic. They’re at their best before they’ve been rained on. No need to wash them, just shake off insects if you find any. Picked early enough, you may beat the insects to them.

Making the syrup is dead simple.


Elderflower Syrup

1 kg refined sugar

1 litre water

30-35 fresh elderflower heads

5 unwaxed lemons

1/2 tablespoon citric acid

1.  Put sugar into a pan and pour water over. Bring slowly to a simmer until sugar is completely dissolved. No need to stir: just allow the sugar to slowly melt and turn transparent. Immediately turn off the heat and leave to cool to lukewarm.

2.  Meanwhile, strip flowers from their stalks with clean fingers into a large non-reactive bowl (stainless steel or plastic). It’s okay if some fine stems join the florets, but try to keep them to a minimum, as they give a foxy scent to the syrup.

3.  Wash the lemons, thinly peel the zest, taking care not to include any white pith as it will impart a bitter taste. Squeeze the juice, and add the zest and juice to the bowl. Stir the citric acid into the syrup and then pour over the flower and lemon mixture.

4.  Cover the bowl with plastic film and leave in a dark, cool place for 3 to 4 days. Pass the mixture through a sieve or clean cheesecloth, and then store in small containers in the freezer. If using immediately, store in the fridge.

5.  To make an elderflower drink: place 1 – 2 tablespoons of syrup in a glass, pour over cold plain or sparkling water, stir, and add ice cubes, if desired. You may wish to freeze some florets in an ice cube tray for decorative ice cubes.


Carried away

In the beginning, I had a plan. As I live near the forest edge and the back garden looks out onto woodland, I’d meant to keep the areas further away from the house to have more of a woodland garden feel. A wild rose hedge all round to furnish the birds with plentiful hips in the autumn and flowers for the bees and other insects. Blue and white hydrangeas and foxgloves popping up at random here and there. Closer to the house I wanted more colour  and in autumn planted species and lily-flowered tulips in pots, to be moved later when I know the conditions of the garden better. Then I thought of creating a wildflower meadow: that’s when I got carried away. And how!


Friends donated seeds to add to my one packet. I sowed them all in one day, and now have a glut of seedlings to transplant. The first seed box took me 2 hours, but happily  learned not to cosset these “wildlings,” and the next 4 boxes were more rapidly transplanted. I’ve got more lupines and flax to sow to create the sea of blue that I have in mind, but I won’t be using seed boxes for them.  I’ve learned my first lesson in Wildflower Gardening 101: I need patience to transplant so many tiny seedlings, and of that rare quality, I have yet to grow more of.

How do more seasoned wildflower gardeners do it, I wonder, short of buying ready-sown wildflower “carpets?”  Or had I sown my seeds  too late?