Gardening forum The Garden Network TGN is a huge success since its launch in March 2008

Just a quick post to tell you all where I've been for the last few months! Along with all the fun and games my 11 month old boy brings - my new gardening forum has been keeping me busy, alongside garden design work and Toddington Manor- its all go!

I've been running my own bespoke garden design and landscaping business (in addition to Toddington Manor) for the last 10 years or so, and since teaming up with Homebase to provide their homebase garden design service in 2006, it became apparent to me the sheer demand for inspiration from homeowners.

I was inundated with requests for design and landscaping from across the UK, with homeowners saying they 'did not trust business websites' and 'can I recommend anyone locally?' - so I set about creating a 'level playing field' for the industry and a focal-point for consumers to decide who's best for them, by making direct comparisons on gardening businesses.

Seeing the explosion of Social Networks and listening to homeowners, it seemed obvious to use this technology to help them find local businesses and make informed decisions on who to employ. Since its March 2008 launch - designers are meeting local landscapers, homeowners are commissioning projects, students are meeting the industry, amateurs are helping beginners and businesses are forming valuable new connections, it's very refreshing to see!

8 months after starting 'The Garden Network' which very soon has become know as TGN to its members) Im still surprised at the up take - over 3,200 members have joined so far!

A clever search database structure, means you can find and talk to any type of member to further your business or your own garden and was described as "...a networking website that looks set to become the 'Facebook' of the Horticulture world." by Horticulture Week. It's not restricted to the trade, as members showcasing their work has proved a big draw to homeowners looking for reputable companies, with many winning several commissions in the first few weeks of the site going live.

I didn't want to create another faceless 'Quote Database', as industry professionals know how big a part trust, communication and examples of previous work play in securing commissions. Our poll to Homeowners on TGN (on what they rated as the most important factor when choosing contractors) confirmed this - 53% (overwhelming majority) said 'examples of previous work' was their 1st priority. It's just too big a decision for Homeowners to make by 'filing out a form' - hence the 1000's of portfolios, blogs, comments and messages on TGN.

It's still very new, and we have lots of fresh features, areas, software, downloads and other initiatives under development in time for 2009 which we know our amateur gardeners, homeowners and the trade will reccommend it. Unlike many forum and networking sites out there, it's not meant to be a soapbox for one individual or company, but a tool for the whole industry and interested public to use - you can really lose yourself in there for hours!

If you want to see it, start your own Gardening Blog, meet like-minded gardeners, amateurs, designers, students or professionals - click here to visit the TGN Gardening Forum.

Summer Gardening Course

Last week we held our Summer Gardening Course for beginners, and was fully booked. 12 people attended, which give ample time to dedicate to their questions and show them hands on techniques.
This course covered Summer pruning, and we went into the garden to have a hands on session on our tree paeony, paeonia delavayi var. lutea and viburnum farrerii.

Hopefully everyone enjoyed the day, and all the feedback was positive. The sun even came out so we carried out the nodal and inter nodal cuttings on the lawn in the dappled shade of the copper beech tree, which was really quite pleasant.

On every course, a home cooked lunch is provided by Lady Bowman-Shaw in the Manor house, a treat for the gardeners too! Thanks to all the attendees for their great feedback and also to Julie and Ann the TM gardeners who helped on the day.

The Regal Crown Imperial (Fritillaria imperialis)

I think one of the more unusual bulbs we have in the spring garden is the regal Crown Imperial. Its flowers are bold, bright, and indeed very stately. Standing tall at about 3 feet high, the colours stand out from the rest of the emerging leaves and bulbs in the borders, and if they are near a path the pretty flowers can be inspected at close quarters.

Each petal has a large droplet of nectar hanging from its base, and if you are brave enough, dip a finger in and taste it - it is incredibly sweet. Which got us gardeners wondering - what kind of flying animal/insect would pollinate the frittilaria imperialis? After a little while on google, the incredible answer was revealed....

A botanist working in Cambridge has shown that a European flower is pollinated by a bird. The flower, the crown imperial fritillary, Fritillaria imperialis, which is common in European gardens, is pollinated by the bluetit. You can read the full article here

Drawbacks of the crown imperial? this would be the pungent smell, which occurs when the plant is touched, or even when the strong spring sunlight heats the leaves - not sure how I would describe it, but I have heard it likened to the smell of foxes, but not sure what thats like either....!

When is a bulb not a bulb?

Looking at all the tiny specks of green starting to push out of the ground, one of the first signs spring is definately on the way again, but when is a bulb not a bulb? Ohh the conversations gardeners have!?

You may think that if a plant has an underground storage organ, that remains there year after year, pushing through the soil to flower such as lilies, crocus, cyclamen, erythronium, iris, daffodils lily of the valley and dahlias, then it must be a bulb.

But you would be wrong! Although some of these are true bulbs, the internal structures are quite different – if you look at where the buds and roots originate, and cut them in half you can see how they are all really either adapted stems or roots. We looked them up in a book to make sure - its a long time since I was at college...

· Bulbs – Modified stems, where the overlapping leaves have been adapted to swell and store food and nutrients for the plant eg. Lilies & Daffodils
· Corms –Stubby modified stems, which are vertically orientated eg. Crocus & Erythonium

· Tubers - Short, thickened regions of stem or root, which are used to store food for later growth eg. Cyclamen (stem) & Dahlia (root)
· Rhizomes - Modified plant stems that grow near the soil surface and producing the upward shoot and downward root system eg. iris and lily of the valley.

Plants often modify themselves to ensure survival, and all these modifications occur to survive the British climate - when temperatures drop below freezing, the plant does not have to produce food using photosynthesis – it has plenty stored already for the next year.

Climbers for winter interest

Walls and fences can sometimes be overlooked in the garden, and are incredibly useful for supporting climbers and trained shrubs. These add an extra dimension to your garden – a horizontal one! As plants with winter interest need selecting carefully, I have listed a selection of plants which provide either flowers, berries, or evergreen leaves during November to January.

An evergreen Clematis which flowers in the winter is Clematis cirrhosa. There are a few varieties to choose from, the flowers are pale cream, sometimes spotted red, and hang delicately like small bells. Another evergreen is Clematis armandii, with large leathery leaves but this doesn’t flower until spring.

Cheerful yellow flowers can be found on bare branches during late winter covering a couple of wall trained shrubs. Forsythia suspensa has bright yellow blooms, while the delicate looking pale yellow flowers of Chimonanthus praecox are strongly scented. Popular Jasminium nudiflorum, the Winter Jasmine is a tough shrub and easy to grow.

Berries will provide winter colour along with food for the birds, and evergreen Pyracantha’s can easily be trained along fences and walls. They will flower and fruit well even in positions which receive little sun, and varieties are available with orange, yellow or red berries. Cotoneaster horizontalis can also be used to similar effect with bright red berries.

Evergreen Ivys (Hedera) can be used as a backdrop with summer flowering climbers twining through them, as can Garrya elliptica, the Silk Tassel Bush with its dangling catkins throughout winter. Normally seen as a shrub, Lonicera x purpusii ‘Winter Beauty’ can be wall trained, and is worth seeking out for its sweetly scented white flowers.

A Wedding at the Manor

One of the big events of last year was my wedding to Pat, after no less than 17 years of living together - we thought it was about time!

We had a lovely informal ceremony in May at the neighbouring Flitwick Manor, and all guests then travelled to Toddington Manor gardens to have the obligatory glass of champagne and accompanying photos.

All the gardeners had been busy making it look spick and span the previous week, and the alliums which line the herbaceous borders looked at their best. I was lucky enough to be able to create my bouquet from the flowers and foliage in the gardens (my previous job ages ago was in a florists, so the experience came in handy!) and the flowers for the tables also were from the gardens.
It was a small wedding party, so then back to Flitwick Manor for the feast and speeches, and the day was rounded off by a barbeque in the back garden. We had watched the weather all week, crossing fingers and toes, and as luck would have it, we managed to get married on one of the few sunny days last summer, and it even had the decency for one small rain shower just as we were eating, so didn't disrupt the day at all.

The Manors owners we even on hand to help serve the champagne to our guests from the conservatory, and I managed to pose for one photo with a fork, and one on the 3 wheeler garden truck too! We both had a great day, and it was made special by spending time in the gardens with everyone, along with the individual bouquet and finished with friends, family and all the staff enjoying the evening at home.

New Years resolution!

I'm Back!! My New years resolution is to keep up with the blog posts this year!
I hinted that last year was very busy through one thing and another, so I shall be posting whats currently going on throughout the year, and filling you in on last years developments too.

I hope this damp and horrible weather that seems to stick around for ages will dissappear soon, and we can all look forward to springtime. The birds have started singing in earnest already, looking for mates, which is always nice to hear this side of christmas. The first signs of growth are appearing too, it always seems too early each year, but look closely and buds are swelling in readiness.

We have had a few changes in staff recently, I shall fill you in with the details in another post, but Julie, the new gardener has started working part-time and three weeks into the job is getting stuck in, clearing the borders.

Damp January Borders

This January has been damp again, like the last few months, and not the best condition to garden in day in day out, but work must carry on as otherwise spring will be upon us and the beds and borders will not be cleared, shrubs and roses pruned, and sheds tidied.

The herbaceous borders are now cleared, and forked over, in readiness for their mulch which we shall put on during march. This is a process which we carry out on all the beds during winter.
First, all the old and dying foliage is removed to the ground, using secateurs or shears depending on the type of plant. This gets put into our petrol driven 3-wheeler truck (which was incidentally a birthday present to Lady Bowman-Shaw many years ago from her husband - and is still going strong!) to be taken away - much more efficient than barrows given the amount of material we remove.

Then we carefully rake over the soil to remove leaves which have collected during autumn, paying careful attention to the base of shrubs and grasses so no hiding places for bugs, slugs and disease remain.

Lastly, the whole bed is 'forked over' which is carried out using the smaller ladies fork or border fork, and lightly aerate the top 3-4 inches of soil - this incorporates the remaining mulch from last year, and exposes any pests and/or their eggs.

I like to make sure that any dips and bumps are removed from the beds at the same time by gently sweeping the fork from side to side after forking over, this gives that professional finish and also breaks down any large clods of earth left - then we stand and admire for a little while - before the bunnies, pheasants and leaves blowing about in the wind start to mess it up again! We will tidy them up quickly before the mulch gets put on though, so nothing is buried underneath.