A living wall of vegetation


A visit to central Birmingham can sometimes surprise.  A trip to see if we could find various large owls set out at certain locations throughout the city as part of the “Big Hoot”. http://thebighoot.co.uk This is a huge art event to raise money and awareness of the Birmingham Children Hospital.  Whilst my children were less taken with the prospect of walking to find the next ‘Owl’ I found the experience very enjoyable.  Having not grown up in Birmingham and preferring the countryside to a city I found it offered me an opportunity to walk around the city see the changes taking place around Birmingham.  There seems to be a desire within the city to raise it’s profile and improve upon a less than impressive national image which does not reflect the wealth this city has to offer.  With retailers such as John Lewis moving in the whole atmosphere seems to be that of a city realising that it is capable of being more than just a metal bashing hub and capable of being a city of culture.

With my landscaping head on I was very taken with the roof garden seating area at the Birmingham Library. www.libraryofbirmingham.

So often roof gardens can be dull affairs, windswept, effected by drought and so often poorly planned and executed as an after thought and given such a poor budget that the design is compromised.  This does not seem to be the case here.  The architect has made the terrace a valued and integrated asset to the library.  With   careful positioned raised beds creating movement and seating areas movement through the terrace area became  more appealing.  The selection of planting was well selected and to date well maintained though I fear in time the planting will suffer from poor maintenance and failures and gaps will not be replaced due to financial pressures imposed upon the library and it’s running costs.  The street/terrace furniture was most attractive reflecting the curves of the landscaping and the buildings facade.  The use of wood for this contracted well against the metal work and the detail of paving.  As a municipal building the ability to draw people in and provide a viewpoint to see the city is valuable and I hope this raises the profile of good landscaping within an urban area.


My walk back to the station was equally interesting for as I rounded the corner from Birmingham’s Bullring towards the New Street Station a wall of vegetation appeared to my right.  The use of such vertical planting is not new but how I valued it.  It could have been so easy to have just put up another brick wall but maybe we now see how the use of plants can make a difference.  Less harsh to the eye with it tones of green and yellows the wall curves down to the station and reflects upon the stainless steel sheets that have been used on the stations facade.  I loved it and hope we can see more use of such features – Ps see if you can spot the garden designer in the image.

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A moden scheme evolves

Responding to a client is very much the role of the designer and whilst there is often a style they tend to work with this should not always dominate the brief.  At every opportunity I try to gain clues about the client from the way they dress, the car they drive and most importantly the way they live within the house.  I like to see a garden reflect the house style and the clients own style so it flows seamlessly between the two (interior/exterior)  Sometimes the house wins the day and I have advised clients that a modern decking against an Edwardian house would not be the best response to the need for an entertaining area.

So when you are provided a house that has a very modern feel with bi folding doors and a rendered finish added to that a client who is very much driven by a clean and simple look the brief and ultimate look needs to reflect this.

The garden has used Global stone’s ‘Petrous Porcelain’ paving using a slightly staggered laying pattern to add detail to the 600 x 600 slabs.  The walls have been rendered using a finish that matches the house adding continuity to the house and making the landscape integral to the house itself.  Bi fold doors offer a great viw to the garden and are the main access from the house so the main flight of steps responds to it by allow rapid access to the lower garden.

I have choosen to angle the paving and walls at an angle from the house for multiple reasons.  The orientation of the house means the main sun in the evening will fall where the decking is located.  By angling the paving we create seating areas where the sun is likely to be reducing the amount of paving where it is unlikely ever to be used.  This is better for the client as it focuses the budget on the important areas and can make for a more interesting response to the scheme.  The rendered walls will provide a sense of enclosure holding the eye on the foreground before you look beyond to the rest of the garden.  There height is also set to allow for informal seating making the area capable of entertaining a significant number of people on an informal event.

With a decked area it is important you place this correctly.  I have already suggested that this surface sometimes is not best used with period houses but equally you need to consider the aspect and the likely impact shade could have to the surface.  Placing a decking in shade is not ideal as the boards will retain moisture making the growth of algae highly probable.  This algae makes the deck boards very slippery and could result in the client falling.  Also if shaded in the morning the boards will retain frost for the majority of the day making them equally treacherous.  Using decking with hidden fixing gives a visually neater look avoiding screw heads showing and the risk of splitting the boards.  My preference is for the boards to have a smooth surface rather than using the reeded surface that is normally used under the misapprehension that it will be less slippery with these grooves.  My experience is the opposite with the smooth boards drying faster and thus avoiding staying wetter.  The grooves tend to hold the water making it more inviting for algae growth.  I also try to use a hardwood board as the softwood boards are less dense and prone to adsorbing more moisture.

Framework in place with decking boards being laid

Work is on going on this site but a few images showing the framework of the decking emphasis the work that is required to ensure the decking remains firm and avoids twisting.  I can not emphasis enough the need to use a skilled contractor.  Cutting corners to get the job in on the cheap means the contractor will do the same to you and cut corners by laying slabs on spot beds of mortar rather than as good practice dictates a full mortar bed; skimping on the slab base to avoid costs and whilst the patio may look good for a few years it will fail and break up.  I have some good teams of contractors that I use and feel extremely comfortable recommending them to my clients for costing a project up.  Sadly they are always busy and timescales reflect this when booking them in to do the work.







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Bees in the Garden

several years ago a friend announced she has taken up bee keeping as a hobby.  This was apparently something she had always been keen upon and at the time she received an opportunity to purchase a bee hive.  After attending some courses she approached the National Trust and has positioned her hive at Baddesley Clinton, Warwickshire.  He her bees pollinate the flowers and surrounding crops but also generate a supply of honey for her too.

Honey bee feeding upon Aster

With Spring upon us and the warm weather stirring the new arrival  of insect life I considered it would be a useful reminder to express the connection between our food and bees.  By bees I refer to honey-bees, bumble bees, solitary bees and other bees. By a simple process of pollinating plants, bees are responsible for one third of our basic food staples.  Ever since there have been flowers bees have been present pollinating the plants providing fruit and vegetable harvests as well as honey.  However honey bee and bumble bee colonies have been on the decline with population levels falling as a result of mite, reduced habitats and other external influences.  As gardeners we can not necessary stop the decline globally but we can help by designing and implementing gardens that offer favourable habitats for the bees.  An easy first step to this implementation would be to plant our gardens with flowers that have simple uncomplicated flowers.  These flowers provide easy access to the nectar that the bees are seeking compared to the more sophisticated hybridised blooms.

Some  of the most useful plants in the garden for attracting bees are herbs.  These can be introduced amongst other garden species or in a designated area. As a designer of gardens I will often introduce low growing herbs such as thyme and marjoram to my schemes.  A particular favourite of mine is Thymus ‘Silver Posie’ which has a white variation to the leaf and small pink flowers.  The use of herbs next to a path provide opportunities for the plant to be crushed releasing scent to the air and making the visit into the garden far more than a visual experience.

Purple fennel with its soft fronds adds height to a border with umbreferal yellow green flowers that attract a great deal of interest.  I will often use this plant next to Russian sage (Pervoskia Blue Spire’). In August this plant is quite literally a buzz with honey bees seeking nectar from its pale blue flowers.

To maximise the benefits to bees plant in bolder groups, not only will this improve the ability of the bees to both find and thus conserve their energy the plants in a bolder group will make for a visually more impressive garden.

Plan to provide plants that flower through the season.  doronicums are some of the earliest plants to flower and will provide a source or energy to emerging bees.

Creating habitats for bees could ing include making a bee hotel.  These are formed from hollow sticks or canes that can be hung in a sunny dry location from a tree.  These form a perfect location for the solitary bee.  Other options are to create a space in the garden with twigs and broken terracotta shards.  These provide cover for bees and will often attract bumble bees who often live in burrows.

Some useful plants to use for attracting bees into the garden are available from the Royal Horticultural Society.  This provides a useful guide indicating when the plants flower and will provide the food source for the bees.




Other plants such as the following herbs will be of great value to the bees visiting the garden.


anise hyssop (Agastanche foeniculum)

bergamot or bee balm (Monarda fistulosa)

Borage (Borago officinalis)

Chicory (Choricum intybus)

Chives (Allium schoenoprasusum)

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgaris)

Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium)

Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis)

Lavender  varieties (Lavandula)

Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)

Sweet marjoram (Origanum Majorana)

Mint (Mentha)

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

Sage (Salvia officinalis)

Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare)

Thyme (Thymus)


Further reading available from:

The British Beekeepers Association


bumblebee Conservation Trust

Bumblebee conservation.org

friends of the earth Bee Cause campaign


Often overlooked but of great importance to bees, provide shallow dishes with stones placed in the bowls to form watering holes for the bees.  The bowls only need to be shallow but if topped up regularly you will provide a useful point where the bees can hydrate themselves during the summer months.

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Aquilegia – Downey Mildew

Having blogged in the past about ash tree die back I recently came across yet another plant disease that has the potential to impact greatly on gardeners.  Effecting Aquilegias a cottage garden favourite whose dainty flowers grace many cottage gardens with their pastel nodding ‘bonnets’ through May to July.  These plants are a useful herbaceous perennial for adding dots of interest preferring light shaded areas.  Once established and happy they seed freely providing seedlings that fill gaps in borders and within gaps in paving.  Carrie Thomas, who holds the Plant Heritage National Collection, noticed two years ago some yellowing to the plants leaves. Discounting this as a symptom of the mid wet weather she turned a blind eye to them knowing they often look unhappy with such conditions.  In retrospect this was a mistake.  The Royal Horticultural Society were contacted by Carrie and has now diagnosed the disease to be a hitherto unknown downy mildew, specific to aquilegia. Having wiped out a third of Carrie’s plants in 2014 we can assume correctly that this is a particularly virulent mildew.   Sadly this is a depressing prognosis of decimation of the genus and Carrie’s collection.

This devastating disease is spreading fast with cases already identified in Cardiff, Devon, Hertfordshire, Essex and Surrey and with fewer nurseries supplying more large Garden Centre chains the likelihood of this disease being transported nationwide is inevitable.

With Spring approaching soon and as the sun warms the soil and aquilegias begin to form their clusters of leaves, it is important you are vigilant to the symptoms and know what to do if your plants are infected. This is particularly important as there are no chemical treatments so far for this new downey mildew.

Aquilegia shoots showing new growth- image taken within Mark Pumphreys Garden Mid February

You will need to check the aquilegia for new shoots as they emerge from the soil. Anything that is longer than normal or whitish should ring alarm bells, as should shoots that look stretched, etiolated, curled, lighter coloured with smaller, fern-like leaves with yellow patches.

Other visual tips to look out for that could provide a clue if you may have this mildew are slug and snail trails around your plant. Usually Aquilegias do not get eaten by molluscs due to the toxins within the plant however the mildew itself seems irresistible to slugs and snails

Spring symptoms develop further and leaves turn brown and die, whole plants become distorted and flower buds look blasted. The key symptom is a fluffy, white downy growth on the undersides of the leaves.

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A February update

It has been a while since I posted anything on the blog page.  Time it seems waits for no man and trying to fit in commitments to clients, family and scouts all seem to conspire against me.  With February being slightly quieter in the design calendar I thought I would put together how I see the landscape industry changing in the West Midlands.

Recently it has been announced that Wyevale are closing their ‘Cash and Carry’ plant centre called Greenlne based at Earlwood Garden Centre.  This is a great loss as I have found the staff helpful and keen to provide a great service when I have required plants.  Hopefully someone will realise there is a need for a wholesale nursery in the South Birmingham area and takes the business on.

Plant sourcing from good nurseries can and will always be problematic with plant supply not always matching the time scale of a project and requiring a substitution where that is applicable.  Having a nursery man/woman who is equally as passionate about plants helps and enable options to be discussed.  I am amazed at the number of landscapers who have little plant knowledge and focus mainly on the hard landscaping element.

As I am sitting in my office I am looking out at my garden and wishing the arrival of Spring.  I plant on a heavy clay soil which resists any work being undertaken until the middle of March.  However as I sit he I can see a Skimmia and a fine daphne.  The later in flower which lifts my soul and tells me there is not long to go before we see more sunshine and opportunities to enter the garden.  My dog ‘Alfie’ has made his usual winter paths through the lawn tearing the grass sward and leaving dark muddy tracks.  These I know will recover once the grass starts growing later in the season but to my eye are a constant distraction.  It also means every time he enters the house he is banished to the utility room.

Our neighbour has replaced a boundary line with a solid feather edge fence which is a great feature but requires me to remove the mixed hedge in front of it as we will not be able to maintain it at the height of the fence and visually I think it would be odd to see 450 mm (18″) of fencing sitting on top of the hedge.  Facing south it may provide a suitable frame and back drop to an espalier fruit tree and also a wisteria.  I will paint the fence first and as I often recommend to my clients I shall be painting it black as this really provides a great back drop to planting in front and helps the fence disappear as shadow.  Working in the garden has been a positive move.  My wife does not complain about the plant catalogues, plans and general pieces of paper and I have the ability to see out at the garden from my office.  I would stringy recommend this approach to home working as I find I am focused away from the house and feel I escape from the office when with my family in the house.  This topic may be my next blog topic and I will post some ideas I have for the position and style of building.

With that in mind I will get back to drawing up plans for my contractor who will be starting work upon the scheme below shortly.






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Media interest

Having come up to the Chelsea Garden show week I am often brought back to fond memories working on stands for both Merrist Wood College and for Notcutts.   It is often the buzz of both staging the exhibit and the atmosphere of all the other exhibitors all working under a deadline to achieve as close to perfection as possible.  After over 18 Chelsea visits I have mixed feelings about not being involved but admire the work that goes into the stands.

Chelsea has become such a media highlight and the gardens are now pure theatre which is great for the spectacle but has sadly seen many forced out due to the vast costs required to stage and manage a stand.

On a lighter note I am delighted that Spun Gold TV has seen some of my work on my web site and will be arranging to visit the gardens view a view to filming on them.  How exciting for the clients who may have Alan Titchmarsh in their garden.  I understand he is filming for a programme called Love your garden.  I shall no doubt let you know once I have further news.


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Plant of the Month-March 2014

Daphne bholua ’Jacqueline Postill’

This plant is growing well in my garden in a semi shaded spot that catches the late afternoon and evening sun.  It is  protected by strong winds by the nearby Crataegus (quickthorn) hedge which helps shade it slightly.  This plant provides an early display of highly scented flowers.  The scent carries well on the air and is a great way to encourage me into the garden to see this plant in full display.  Flowering in late winter this Daphne species and its cultivars are such a joy.  Coming from the Himalayas th species are hardy and provide a semi evergreen shrub.  It and other daphnes within this plant group are often known as paper daphnes, as both paper and rope were once made from the sinewy bark.

As I have already mentioned I grow my daphne in a semi shaded spot though they are quite happy to be in full sun.  I find a semi shaded location provides the cool location it likes and generally find they dry out too much during the growing season if they are planted in full sun.  I try to keep it watered during the growing season as this plant likes plenty of moisture in the growing season, mulching also helps maintain the moisture levels around the roots and enriches the soil which I find helps improve the soil structure of my slightly heavy soil.

A great plant to use in a mixed border as it will generally reach about 1.2-1.5 m in height and will have a spread of about 1.2 m.  Availability is always a problem but if you see one buy it quickly and you will not be disappointed.


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Risks of tree damage in wind

These recent strong winds are a vivid reminder of the hurricane that struck in the 1980′s causing considerable damage to property and the lose of many trees.  I was working for Notcutts at the time of the hurricane and have strong memories of walking through a changed landscape with fallen trees everywhere.  The forest near to Woodbridge bore a close resemblance to the images we associate with the Western Front of World War 1.  Trees were toppled over and many trunks literally shattered as the wind struck.

Fortunately this time the winds are catching trees with no foliage and the mass of the trees’s canopy therefore considerably lessened.  In my village some trees have come over but this is limited.   health of your trees.  Walking in the meadows in Alvechurch we have a fine avenue of Chestnuts, these mature trees are sadly infected with Bleeding Canker and shows how important it is to check the trees. In the recent wind one of the trees has lost a limb.  The image shows the point at which it failed but also shows the fungal brachets on the external trunk of the tree.  The tree whilst looking reasonably well in the Summer it is slowly dying and decay that had been unnoticed had weakened the limb.  This caused the the limb to snap and fail at this weak point.  The white mycelium is clearly visible in the close up image and the wood was damp and soft to the touch.

If you do have trees growing in your garden, you as the owner have a duty of care to ensure the trees are safe.  This means you need to undertake regular inspections of the tree to assertion its health.  Tree surgeons are the most qualified professionals to call in to carry out this work, but I stress you must use a member of the Arboricultural Association as they a qualified and have undertaken a vetting procedure to ensure they operate in a safe manner.  There a too many cowboys in the industry and you need to ensure you gain the correct advice.  A cowboy will often advise the felling of the tree either to cover up ignorance of his or her ability to check out a trees health or to generate a contract to fell the tree.  The likelihood too is they will not check for a Tree Preservation Order (TPO) or put in for the associated application for the removal of the tree.  This could land you as the owner of the tree in conflict with the local council who could fine you a considerable sum.  By undertaking regular checks the trees health can be monitored and if it did fall or ahead a limb you can show you have undertaken all reasonable measures to ensure the tree is safe.  This is important if your tree causes damage to adjoining property or causes injury to others.

Reminiscing again, I remember a discussion with a tree surgeon called Peter Scot from Southern Tree Services, about a Tree of Lebanon (cedar).  He warned me how as a tree they can just drop a limb – no warning.  The tree in question was close to the drive and should the limb drop considerable damage would have occurred to the property and the nearby parked car.  Other trees that drop limbs with little to no warning include Beech.  As a child I remember playing in Danbury Park and hearing a crack similar to that of a loud rifle.  A nearby beech tree had chosen that moment to lose a limb.  It was a dramatic event and one I remember each time I enter Alvechurch.  As I crest the hill by Sandhills Day Nursery I keep  one eye on the road the other at the tall beech oversailing the road.  I do hope they have had a tree surgeon in to look at it!






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Plant of the Month-February 2014

Galanthus nivalis Common Snowdrop

This is probably the best-known and most widespread representative of the genus Galanthus. Often associated as a woodland plant it is not a British native having probably been introduced in the early sixteenth century.  Since then it has proved very comfortable with the conditions and naturalises widely.   I find this plant is one of the first plants to announce the arrival of Spring, and is great fully awaited appearing in milder areas in December – January.  I find in the Midlands generally we see them flowering mid January through to March.

All species of Galanthus are perennial, herbaceous plants which grow from bulbs. Each bulb generally produces just two or three linear  leaves with a flowering stalk that bears the and an erect, leafless flowering stalk, which bears a solitary, pendulous, bell-shaped white flower. The flower has no petals: it consists of six tepals,  the outer three being larger and more convex than the inner series.   After the flowers have faded the leaves die back within a few weeks.

The sight of a caret of snow drops can be quite magical and there are many famous examples of such sites.  The national trust has listed some of their properties that are worthy of a visit. These include Ickworth, Suffolk, Attingham Park, Shropshire & Newark Park in Gloustershire.  National Trust snowdrop site

If you wish to introduce snowdrops into your garden it is best to plant then as potted plants or as plants which have just been lifted and the leaves beginning to die back in late Spring.  If you do buy bulbs you need to obtain fresh bulbs because snowdrop bulbs dry out very quickly .  Bulbs need to be planted in a semi shaded location with leaf mound incorporated into the soil adding to soil moisture retention.  They will also need a site that does not dry out too much in the Summer so it is always worth fully understanding your site before you plant.

Supplier of bulbs in the green Eurobulbs,

Video of planting snowdrops in the Green


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Gardens and water logging

The recent wet weather conditions have continued for such a long period the ground is so saturated that any further rain creates land that becomes completed water logged.  This can cause great problems to the plants within such soils for as the water level rises the air is removed from the soil and carbon dioxide can not escape which leads to the plants roots dying.  Without roots the plant itself dies.  Indeed I read recently that a tree submerged for more than two weeks is likely to die.  The problem is there are few things we can implement whilst the ground is so wet.  It is important to keep off the ground as much as possible to reduce the physical compaction of the soil removing any soil structure and making the situation worse.

As the ground dried up you can help by roving any vegetation on the soil surface.  This will help to dry the soil out and ensures the top soil has a greater contact with the air above.  Damp dead leaves create a barrier the restricts such access.  Remove dying shoots and as the plant starts to make growth encourage it by applying a foliar feed.

Adding organic matter and a sharp horticultural grit will all help open the soil structure up encouraging air into the soil, and providing organic material for earthworms.  Often a good indicator of the health of a soil is the number of earthworms present.

Raised beds could be considered but these can be expensive and they need to be sufficiently wide enough to ensure they do not dry out too quickly.

Providing there is somewhere for water to go such as an existing ditch, drainage can be installed. Or, where appropriate, it may be worth digging out a ditch or seasonal pond at the lowest part of the garden.  This would catch surplus water and let it soak in slowly.  Here you could plant willows and flag iris which have root systems that have become adapted to deal in such water logged conditions.

Taking a tip from medieval farming methods you could plant on slightly raised mounds.  This mimics the plough and farrow method and provides the plant with a slightly elevated position.

A major factor in the flooding has been attributed to the paving over of front gardens.  I have posted various articles about this but if you do consider having a drive ensure you select a permeable method.  Discuss drive planning with your councillors and MP and see if we can help those in a lower catchment area by doing our bit.

There sadly are few quick fixes and inevitably come the Summer the ground will have drained and marginal plants will be struggling to obtain sufficient water.




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