Victorian Glasshouses & a Day at Cambo…..


I was lucky enough last week to be invited to Cambo Estate, near St. Andrew’s, home to Sir Peter & Lady Catherine Erskine, to a presentation of their beautiful new glasshouses. Their walled garden had beautiful Victorian timber framed glasshouses that had seen better days and were needing an upgrade.

They engaged Alitex, mastercraftsmen to undertake this project and I have to say I think the Alitex Glasshouses are simply stunning. Keeping the Victorian style which undoubtedly is the best for this beautiful walled garden, Alitex glasshouses combine the use of modern materials and technologies but retain the elegance of the Victorian style and the same growing experience as Victorian timber frames.

In place of timber they use aluminium which doesn’t have the associated maintenance such as scraping, sanding or repainting and as a result they offer a lifetime guarantee on their products.

My clients will generally be looking to replace a timber greenhouse rather than a larger structure such as a glasshouse and I would have no hesitation in recommending they look at Alitex Greenhouses. They will always ensure that their Victorian Greenhouses will complement your garden and fulfil your growing needs as they have the engineering and structural expertise, especially when it comes to bespoke solutions and flexibility of design.  Browse their website for yourself and see what they have to offer, you won’t be disappointed. I’m sure the Victorian pioneers of glasshouses would be as impressed as I was…..




Planning and Designing a Small Garden

Cambo July 12 047

I spent a lovely afternoon in July at Cambo Estate Gardens in Fife listening to the advice and wise words of Elliott Forsyth the Head Gardener. There is always so much to learn and a practical afternoon looking mainly at planting design is a great way to get hints and tips on what to do and why, whatever level of gardener you may been.  I enjoyed it so much that I decided to blog about it and share the tips that Elliot gave us all. I should hasten to add that most of the group were novice gardeners so these guidelines are to help and inspire gardening enthusiasts of all levels!

Elliott’s advice and my comments:
Rule 1:  Good design understands both your needs and the conditions in the garden & fits them both.

Consulting the Conditions

• Man made permanent features – things you can’t change
• Climatic & soil conditions in your garden – frost pockets, boggy ground

Considering your needs

• Use & function of the area – how would you like to use your garden
• Maintenance – how much time you have to do this
• Financial constraints – your budget

Cambo July 12 003

Rule 2:  Effective theming is key to creating coherent design.

Aesthetic Criteria – The Look

These are the cornerstones:

• The habitat e.g. themes such as dry grassland planting or cut flower garden
• Colour choices
• Form – the shapes of plants and their leaves
• Timing – when and for how long do they provide interest for
• Naturalistic gradient – how relaxed and informal the planting is or isn’t

Rule 3:  The smaller the garden the more rigorous the plant selection needs to be.

• Ecological fit e.g. all woodland plants or  bog planting
• The 3 stages of a plant :

1. Pre-flowering
2. Flowering
3. Post flowering

Ask yourself what each plant looks like in each of these states and choose ones that look good at all 3 stages. That includes looking at the leaf shape and form of the plant.

• Look at the maintenance requirements of the plants
• Make a wish list border by border of the different themes (habitats) you’d like to create     e.g. woodland.

Rule 4: Less is more with hard landscaping – it must be elegant, simple and functional.

Hard landscaping design

• Opening & blocking views & areas
• Inward & outward looking spaces – low garden wall which requires consideration of the view beyond or walled garden with no real view
• Selecting materials appropriate to the theme and site
• Use of space
• Access & flow
• Viewing angles
• Ease of maintenance

Rule 5:  Any planting area should only be expected to flower for a maximum of 4 months.

Rule 6:  In the small garden form is more important than colour.

Cambo July 12 050

Planting design

• Put in key players first – evergreen plants and winter interest
• Support them with secondary plants –  herbaceous perennials and deciduous shrubs
• Create links by echo and contrasting form and colour
• Consider rhythm and unity
• Always look up plant spacing and measure. Try to group perennials in groups of odd   numbers e.g.  3, 5, 7, 9  to give impact
• Give shrubs & trees a 10 year spacing and infill with perennials
• Avoid putting shrubs too close to paths
• Don’t be overwhelmed and trust your innate sense of taste!

Rule 7:  Don’t rush in but take time to do some research and think things through.

Rule 8:  Look at examples of successful design.

Rule 9: Be very clear on your intention before you begin.

Cambo July 12 022

Making a plan


– 20-30m tape measure x 2
– Square edge for example a biscuit tin lid
– Circle template & compass
– Scale rule
– Calculator
– Clip board
– Range of drawing pens and pencils
– Putty rubber
– Flexi edge


– Scale: 1:20 or 1:50 depending on the size of garden

Rule 10:  Creativity is dealing with a number of problems and trying to find the best response in the face of millions of option. You will feel unsure, which is normal. Just try to make your best effort in the midst of doubt and enjoy the process. You can always make adjustments later.

Elliot’s courses are always great, very informal and relaxed with the opportunity to ask a lot of questions and take great photos. If you’re looking for a practical and fun way to learn more about planting design for your garden keep an eye out on the Cambo Estate Gardens or the RHS websites for details of these days which are fun and extremely good value for money!

Helping Our Feathered Friends This Winter

Bird and food

Birds have a tough old time of it and recent studies have shown that farmland species like the house sparrow are especially vulnerable. Nature is finely balanced and unforgiving and that’s why the food we provide in our gardens is so vital to our feathered friends.


Different birds have different types of beaks. For example,a robin has a neat tweezer – like beak which it  uses to delicately nip at insects whereas the big broad bill of the greenfinch is perfect for cracking open large seeds.

Different birds visiting your garden will have different food needs, so check out who is visiting and make sure you are serving up what they enjoy. A little bit of research into this will have you attracting a wide range of birds to your garden.

Small birds simply can’t store  fat due to their size and as they burn off a lot just keeping warm each night in the winter, leave them fatty foods on a daily basis to keep them warm and cosy. Lardy bird-cake or fat balls are perfect for these customers. Whilst birds need fatty foods during the winter to give them instant energy and keep them warm their requirements change when spring comes and they’re feeding their young.

Most garden birds switch to foraging for insects, larvae and worms because the chicks need protein to grow, so live food is the order of the day for them!

Keep feeding birds all the year round if you can and also leave them clean water. If you have a bird bath, keep it clean by disinfecting it regularly and keep it free of ice in winter by adding boiling water.

s nest


The trees and hedges in your garden may well be providing birds with places to nest but it’s still worth putting out a wide selection of nesting materials in late winter, such as pet fur, fluff, bits of wool, moss, dry grass, plant stems and even string.

Artificial nest boxes work very well for hole-nesting birds such as tits but many house sparrow and starlings will also use these now as many sites have been lost in the countryside.

Always remember, even a few small actions can help more birds survive and your reward will be an influx of interesting and attractive new visitors to your garden.


Recipes For Autumn Fruit

berry crumble

Autumn is one of my favourite times of year. There is such an abundance of fruit in the garden and allotments and this time and I often find myself on the receiving end of home grown fruit from client’s gardens as they have almost too much to consume themselves! I thought that I’d share some easy recipes to help you use up all that lovely fruit. The apple crumble recipe was given to me by a  lovely client who supplied  both the apples and  an incredibly simple recipe that  even I  managed to get great results from! The recipes  for  the plums and cranberries  were taken from The Kitchen Garden Cookbook by Carina Contini and Delia’s Christmas Easy Magazine, 2003 and Delia’s Happy Christmas  respectively . I like the fact the recipes are all straightforward, so even the most reluctant cook should have some fun and great results as well!

 Apple Crumble

Serves 2-3


100g self – raising flour,

Doves Farm stuff has a nice flavour with no funny aftertaste which you can get with ‘cheap’ flour

50g margarine ( butter also works)

50g sugar – castor or everyday sugar

1. Mix the flour and margarine together until it resembles breadcrumbs, through in the sugar and give it a mix about.

2. Spread evenly onto fruit which has already been stewed and sweetened to taste.

3. Stuff in the oven at 180 degrees(ish) for 20-25 minutes. I find that if the oven has been on prior to that for roasting something else then 20 minutes is fine.


Pan-fried plums and parsnips

A flavoursome  side to accompany a roast, especially poultry.

Kitchen Garden Cookbook by Carina Contini (Frances Lincoln)

Serves 4


3 firm parsnips

Salt to taste

25g unsalted butter

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

8 firm plums, halved and stoned

2 sprigs of lemon thyme

A large handful of watercress leaves

1. Peel, trim and cut the parsnips into cubes the same size as the plum halves. Blanch the parsnips by plunging them in boiling salted water for a few minutes until tender but not overcooked. Drain well and set aside.

2. Melt the butter and oil in a large frying pan. When they start to bubble, add the plums. Cook for about 5 minutes until they start to soften. Add the blanched parsnips and the lemon thyme. Just before serving, add the watercress and heat through.

 Cranberries in bowls

Spiced Cranberry Chutney – Delia Smith

This, as you would expect, is a lovely, bright, Christmassy colour, and it’s excellent served with cold cuts, as well as sharp, assertive cheeses. Keep in a cool dark place for a month before eating.  

  Makes 2 x 1 lb (350 ml) capacity jars


 2 Cinnamon sticks

 1 teaspoon of ground cloves  

1 lb (450g) Cranberries

 2 tablespoons freshly grated root ginger

1 medium red onion, chopped

12 oz (350g) of Demerara sugar  grated zest and juice of 2 oranges

15 fl oz (425ml) good quality red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon sea salt

15 fl oz (425 ml) good quality red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon sea salt


1. All you do here is place all the ingredients in a wide, shallow pan. bring everything up to simmering point and stir well, ignoring the scum that rises to the surface – it will soon disappear.

2. Now, keeping the heat at a gentle simmer, let the chutney bubble and reduce for about 45 minutes, or until you can draw a wooden spoon across the surface and leave a trail that doesn’t fill up with vinegar. Don’t forget it will thicken as it cools, so don’t let it get too thick.

3.Towards the end of the cooking time, sterilise the jars (see note below), then fill them with the hot chutney (you can discard the cinnamon now).

4. Cover with waxed discs, seal with the lids and label when cold.

NOTE: To sterilise jars, wash the jars and lids in warm soapy water, rinse well, then dry thoroughly with a clean tea cloth, place them on a baking tray and pop into a medium oven, gas mark 4, 350°F, 180°C, for 5 minutes.  

The Patio Gardens of Córdoba

Once the Christmas festivities are over, my thoughts always turn to holidays and where I’d like to visit in the New Year. A couple of months ago, I was lucky enough to spend some time in Córdoba in Spain and completely fell in love with ‘ the patio garden’ an integral part of the culture and landscape of this part of the world.


Patio gardens evolved out of a need for the inhabitants of Córdoba to keep cool during the dry, hot weather. The Romans built their houses with a focus around a courtyard, which usually had a fountain in the centre and in many cases a well that collected rainwater. The Muslims later adapted this scheme ushering the house from the street through a hallway and placing abundant vegetation in the garden to increase the feeling of freshness.

These patios not only offer a visual feast of colourful flowers, stone mosaics and ceramic decorations, but also bring out the classic scents of Córdoba : jasmine and orange blossom mixed with a myriad of scents from the many flowers and plants.


As you stroll down the many winding narrow streets you get the chance to peek at the many patios through the iron gates of the houses. They really are an oasis of calm and beauty and it’s hard not to wish that we had a climate here in Scotland that could sustain such a set-up. If you’d like to go, once a year, the doors open and everyone is invited in to see the wonders of Córdoba’s patios.

Córdoba bursts into bloom with special festivities for the month of May. Starting off with a parade known as the “Battle of the Flowers”, the city officially launches into its spring celebrations with the May Crosses festival usually taking place during the first week of the month, followed by the Patio Contests. This can easily continue well past the middle of the month giving residents time to get ready for the annual fair at the end of May. Locals and tourists alike wander from house to house admiring these beautiful displays of hundreds and hundreds of pots, filled to overflowing with geraniums, carnations and jasmines, adorning every available window ledge, staircase and doorway surrounding the patios.

The Patio contest sponsored by the Córdoba City Hall began as long ago as 1918.


A vast range of patios await your viewing. It’s not only private, single-family homes opening their doors to show you the lovely courtyards around which their old-style homes centre. There are also larger, low-built, apartment-style buildings that have amazing courtyards where often many gardeners will work together all year to cultivate the special gems that are their shared meeting areas.

However, the patio displays go even beyond the wide array offered by the private sector to include numerous “monument” patios. The Viana Palace, a 14th century edifice, is actually known as the Patio Museum and offers around 12 different patios to its visitors. It’s well worth going to see. Lovely in early November it would be stunning in May……

Making Smart Moves With Your Garden

If you’re thinking about appointing a garden designer or contractor to help you sort out and improve your outdoor space, here are a few hints and tips to help you.

Design of garden bed

Tips for appointing the right garden designer or contractor for you.

Regardless of how impressive someone’s portfolio is, there are some other things you should consider before engaging anyone:

  • Do you get a good feeling about the person you may be engaging, when you first meet them?
  • When you ask for references, are they willing to give you names & contact details of previous clients or do they appear reluctant?
  • Could you stand having them around your property for the time it takes to do the work? Some projects run on for months.
  • Do they have professional insurance if anything were to go wrong?
  • In the case of Garden Designers, have they undertaken any formal training? Where and for how long?
  • Are you clear about the services a contractor offers as opposed to a designer?

Tips for making your budget go further.

  • Spend your money on having a design done that will give you a garden that meets all your needs and aspirations.
  • Split the garden build over a period of time so the build can be resumed as and when you have the money. Having a blueprint to work from is essential so that the garden feels right and ‘hangs’ together properly. Without it and doing the garden a bit at a time tends to result in a less pleasing end result. Having a design will allow a contractor to give you a price for each section which will help with your budgeting and planning.
  • Whether you are having your entire garden redesigned or just a part of it, clearing the garden yourself with friends and family will reduce your costs significantly. People are often most shocked at the costs for someone to excavate the site and dispose of unwanted materials.
  • Use any contacts you have who can perhaps supply materials including topsoil and plants and discuss this with your contractor or designer at the start of the project so that can be taken into account. This will affect the quote that the contractor in particular.
  • Again, when it comes to planting, you can have a planting plan done at any time of the year, so if you’re short of cash have the plan done in the autumn and the planting done the following spring, that will give you at least a 6 month break between payments.

What can you do if you decide not to engage anyone?

Going it alone – Tips for making the most of your budget.

  • Try your hand at a design. To make sure you’re on the right track, why not contact a Garden Designer once you’ve finished it and run it by them. Most will charge a consultancy fee of between £40-£50 per hour but you’ll probably only need one or one and a half hours with them. It is a much cheaper option than getting a design done and will ensure that any ’mistakes’ you have made can be corrected before you spend any real money!
  • You may want to appoint a contractor to do the hard-landscaping but if you’re pretty competent and want to do it yourself or with friends then a website I would recommend to give help and support is:

This website will give you incredible tips and instructions on the vast majority of tasks that anyone would need to undertake building their own garden.


Planting plans

Do think this out carefully and again use the library resources and the internet to get advice on how to put together a planting plan well. People waste a lot of money on plants that fail quickly for a number of reasons. If you put a planting plan together yourself, here are some key guidelines to follow:


How much do you want to spend on plants? Be firm with yourself as this is the easiest place to get carried away and spend more money than you intend!

Do you want a Chelsea Flower Show look or are you prepared to wait?

  • If your budget is small and you are prepared to be patient buy ’small’ fast growing shrubs and 9cm herbaceous plants.
  • If you have a bit more money to spend then I’d buy larger shrubs and the 9cm herbaceous. Plant in spring so they get as much growth on before the winter.
  • Next price bracket up – larger shrubs and 1 litre herbaceous
  • Finally larger shrubs and 2 litre herbaceous for a more instant impact.
  • With regards to trees and deciduous shrubs and hedging plants e.g. Birch, why not wait and order them bare-root (without soil) and plant them between November and March. This will reduce your costs, but the garden needs to be snow and frost free when planting them.

Aspect, soil and weather conditions.

These are crucial to the success of your planting!

Basic things to start with are:Does your garden face north, south, east or west?

  • Is your garden battered by northerly or westerly winds?
  • Do you have any frost pockets in the garden?
  • Is your garden on a new-build estate and does it have poor soil or indeed any topsoil at all?
  • Check the pH of your soil to see if you have any areas of acid or alkaline soil? You can buy soil testing kits from any garden centre. Remember that different parts of your garden can have different pH levels and this will affect your plant choice.
  • If there are particularly dry, damp or boggy areas, then that again will affect your plant choice
  • Do you have beautiful loamy soil? Most people don’t, so be sure you know what you’ve got! Plants that will thrive in sandy soils will be different from those suited to a clay one. The same applies to the location of the garden. Seaside gardens and town gardens will require the same thought and consideration when it comes to planting.

Where you buy from matters!

I’d suggest with our unpredictable weather that you buy fully hardy plants locally. That will ensure but not guarantee that you give your plants the best chance of survival in your garden.

It is tempting to buy a frost tender plant from Cornwall that catches your eye! Buy it, but be prepared to lose it. You may be lucky and in a sheltered part of the garden with fleece or brought indoors to overwinter it may well be fine. But if sourcing plants yourself then I would suggest you buy plants grown in Scotland for a Scottish climate!


Attracting wildlife to your garden

More and more clients are asking for wildlife friendly gardens and planting. It’s not difficult to make this happen you just need to do some investigation and planning and away you go…



Don’t be too tidy with your garden but leave undisturbed corners where you can. Many small creatures will hide during the daytime here and by allowing insects and other invertebrates to congregate, they act as a snack bar for birds. Try to avoid using the spray gun when you see a few greenfly unless they are causing serious damage – let the birds clear up your insect pests.


At this time of year continue to provide water and a variety of food for visiting birds. Remember to clean the feeders and ground feeding areas regularly to prevent disease build-up.

By using a range of feeders, including those that hang, a bird table and food on the ground, together with a mix of foods, you’ll attract the widest range of species.

Whatever the adult diet, all baby birds are fed on insects, worms, spiders or other invertebrates, at least to begin with, as they need concentrated supplies of protein and fat for rapid growth.

Make a twiggery by pilling prunings in a quiet spot in the garden or allotment, behind the shed or under a hedge. This makes a good habitat for smaller mammals, birds that nest near the ground and insects.

Leave dead herbaceous stems as long as possible before clearing away. They may be carrying seeds for birds or housing insects. They will also shelter the plants emerging shots.

Complete winter pruning by the end of February, as leaving it later may disturb early nesters such as blackbirds. If pruning buddlejas, cut some back hard now, but leave others until March. They will flower later, giving a longer season of nectar for birds and butterflies.


A good butterfly garden will have a wide range of plants flowering from spring through to autumn and producing nectar. They like warm, sheltered sunny spots in a garden so think

about your garden design before you decide where to plant. Some of my favourite plants to attract butterflies and birds are listed here to give you some inspiration:

Agastache foeniculum
Aster novae – angliae
Astrantia major
Echinacea purpurea
Knautia Macedonia
Liatris spicata
Phlox paniculata
Scabious spp.
Sedum spectabile
Verbena bonariensis
Ajuga reptans
Anemone ‘Honorine Jobert’


Mason bees are important pollinators in the garden actually better than honey bees, as they work harder and fly in poorer weather. You can encourage them with specially designed bee nests from wildlife catalogues or make your own packed in a tin. Position the nests above the ground in a sunny spot such as a south- facing fence.


Frogs and toads hit a peak period of mating and spawn producing in March. Although it may be tempting, you shouldn’t move spawn into your garden from other ponds as this could spread disease. If your pond is suitable, amphibians will find it. Lizards and snakes that have been hibernating through the winter start to emerge on warmer spring days, hungry for a tasty beetle or a tender frog.

Shady Characters

Shady parts of the garden are places that people aren’t always sure how to deal with. I always reassure them that there are plenty of plants to choose from. However, if like them you’re struggling to come up with some ideas and inspiration, read on.

Shady parts of the garden

The first thing I’d encourage you to do is to check and see whether you are dealing with ‘moist shade’ or ‘dry shade’. This will be your starting point along with knowing what soil type you have e.g. clay, sandy, loamy.

Once you have established those things you can start to make a plan to ensure you have shrubs and perennials that flower at various times of year to give you year round colour and structure in your borders.

Dry shade shrub suggestions

  • Berberis darwinii
  • Euonymous fortunei
  • Mahonia aquifolium
  • Taxus baccata
  • Daphne laureola

Moist shade perennial suggestions

  • Aconitum
  • Astilbe
  • Astrantia
  • Actaea
  • Dicentra
  • Hellebores orientalis
  • Tolmiea
  • Pulmonaria
  • Primula
  • Geranium ‘Johnson’s blue

These are all plants I use regularly and can recommend as ‘good doers’ for these particular sites. Green and white are a particularly effect combination in a darker shady spot. Most green looks better in shade and many white flowers have evolved to shine out in shade or at night, so drawing the eye in.

Climbers that look good in shade generally are ones such as Clematis Montana and Clematis macropetala ‘Snowbird’ and if you like Roses then Rosa ‘Madame Alfred Carriere’. The winter flowering Jasmine, Jasminum nudiflorum is a lovely climber to grow in shady conditions as it’s yellow flowers are very welcome when they appear in December flowering through to February and sometimes even longer. Finally, the other lovely choice for a summer flowering climber for shady sites is Hydrangea petiolaris. Although deciduous, it has lovely thick woody stems that look great in the winter wrapped round railings or trellis.

Shady Colour

Dry shade perennial suggestions

  • Euphorbia amygdaloides ‘Robbiae’
  • Brunnera macrophylla
  • Astrantia maxima
  • Hellebores foetidus
  • Galium oderatum
  • Liriope muscari
  • Tiarella cordifolia
  • Geranium endressii
  • Geranium macrorrhizum

Moist shade shrub suggestions

  • Camellia
  • Choisya
  • Chaenomeles
  • Fatsia japonica
  • Pieris
  • Skimmia
  • Hydrangea


Go for Grasses!

Grasses aren’t everyone’s cup of tea but I have to say that in terms of planning an effective and interesting garden I wouldn’t be without them. Ornamental grasses usually flower in the autumn and often retain their attractive seed heads throughout the winter. Some of them are even evergreen!  Planted in amongst shrubs and perennials you will  always be able to find a grass that will fill the space you want however big or small that may be.

Ornamental grasses

Ways to use grasses

Grasses are very useful in any mixed herbaceous and shrub border to help provide year round structure and interest. Mass planting over a large area and running a line of grasses along a path perhaps in between garden lights can look very attractive too.


Grasses to try

My favourite and the one I find most versatile to use is Stipa tenuissima. It’s like a ponytail swishing around in the wind and is a great all round grass. If you have a windy garden then grasses are a great asset. By ‘swishing’ in the wind they create movement in the garden which contrasts nicely with more clump-forming perennials. If you have a corner garden perhaps in front of your house, grasses can provide you with a low maintenance, eye-catching choice of plant here.

Festuca glauca is a lovely blue grass. Needing full sun and being relatively low growing, this is a regular choice by my clients. It contrasts beautifully with pinky or terracotta coloured sandstone paving but can be used with almost any colour successfully. It looks fantastic in large drifts.

Although most grasses need full sun all is not lost if you don’t have a sunny garden. One of my favourites for shade is Luzula nivea. It has flatish heads of white flowers on narrow stems over evergreen leaves and edged by white hairs. I’ve used it successfully in damp basement gardens so one to bear in mind if you want a grass for a tricky spot.

How to look after them

Grasses are definitely one of the easiest plant groups to care for. If you are looking like most people for a low maintenance garden then these are a must. I’d recommend planting in spring as planting before that runs the risk of their roots rotting while sitting in wet winter soil.

How to propagate them

Spring is also the best time to propagate them. You can lift and divide large clumps by splitting them using two large forks back to back to pull them apart and plant in small sections.

If you’d prefer, most grasses can be easily propagated from seed, either by letting them self-seed or sowing seed fresh.

A lot of people are unsure when to cut back grasses, but my advice would be to leave it until the last minute. Grasses are beautiful through the winter especially when frost and even snow settles on them. The deciduous varieties can be cut back about 10cm in early spring and evergreens like a light trim in late spring. You can also give them a light feed with chicken manure in spring to encourage plenty of fresh growth.