Month: February 2019

Garden Inspiration: Dunham Massey, February 2019

20190215 Dunham Massey lake wall

For Jo’s birthday the other week we both took the day off work and made a tram-and-bus trip down to the National Trust’s Dunham Massey to see their winter garden and maybe pick up a few tips and ideas for enhancing our own patch at this time of year.

It was a glorious day, sun-drenched but with enough of a chill still in the air to remind you that it’s not Spring just yet, not quite. The car park was packed and the gardens likewise – it was the last Friday of half term for one of the Manchester local authorities and maybe Cheshire as well – but somehow I managed to shoot forty-odd pics without too many surplus bodies wandering into frame.

The winter garden at Dunham is a woodland glade writ large: huge mature trees surround an area of planted smaller specimens – more of those later – and the ground, at this time of year, is a stardust-scatter of snowdrop, aconite and crocus, with larger clumps of hellebore and iris clustering beneath the shrubs and winter-interest trees.

Here’s a run-through of the sights we saw. I’m afraid you’ll have to imagine the scents and the sounds of the early foraging bees buzzing in the Spring flowers for yourself. (Likewise the ice cream we enjoyed on the way back to the bus…)

Hamamelis (witch hazel)

Jo and I both love a witch hazel. We have a specimen in our back garden – Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’, young but developing nicely – and seeing the trees at Dunham in their prime, allowed to grow low and wide and festooned with flowers, was a real treat.

20190215 Dunham Massey Hamamelis inflorescence

20190215 Dunham Massey Hamamelis orange

20190215 Dunham Massey Hamamelis inflorescence

20190215 Dunham Massey Hamamelis soft focus

20190215 Dunham Massey Hamamelis yellow

20190215 Dunham Massey Hamamelis glade

Floral Delights

Late winter and early spring flowers are always such a wonderfully uplifting and encouraging sight, especially the more subtle, paler species – Galanthophiles are in for a real treat at Dunham at the moment – that grab their chance to shine at the centre of attention for a while before the larger, showier Naricssi and friends rock up and hog the limelight.

20190215 Dunham Massey Helleborus niger

20190215 Dunham Massey Helleborus niger

20190215 Dunham Massey Galanthus

20190215 Dunham Massey Galanthus en masse(y)

20190215 Dunham Massey Galanthus

20190215 Dunham Massey Galanthus

20190215 Dunham Massey crocus

20190215 Dunham Massey viola group

20190215 Dunham Massey viola

20190215 Dunham Massey Viola


There’s a superb mix of trees at Dunham Massey, from massively mature woodland species to the smaller, more delicately apportioned Magonlias, Cornus and Hamamelis that dwell happily in the dappled shade of their much larger cousins. Plus a feature Sorbus with bright white fruits and red-pink stems that stands beside the house and is well worth seeing.

20190215 Dunham Massey lakeside

20190215 Dunham Massey ancient oak

20190215 Dunham Massey Dogwood and Bark

20190215 Dunham Massey Corylus avellana 'Cotorta' I presume?

20190215 Dunham Massey Birch on Blue

20190215 Dunham Massey Corylus catkins

20190215 Dunham Massey Corylus catkins

20190215 Dunham Massey Sorbus and sky

20190215 Dunham Massey Sorbus fruit

Single-Stem Silver Birches

One of the feature-planting sections in the winter garden is this stand of Betula pendula. There’s another section just over the path of trees that have been allowed to grow multi-stemmed, but they don’t have quite the same visual impact as these ones do:

20190215 Dunham Massey Betula pendula single stem group

20190215 Dunham Massey Betula pendula single stem group

20190215 Dunham Massey Betula pendula single stem group

Form, Texture and Contrast

As a gardener and a (very) amateur photographer, I’m always interested in form, shape, shadow and especially contrast, particularly between the man-made and the natural. I love to see a wall or canal bank that was clearly laid out straight, true and pristine, but over the years has gradually been reclaimed, re-greened and softened by encroaching plant life.

20190215 Dunham Massey canal bank

20190215 Dunham Massey Magnolia buds

20190215 Dunham Massey bark light and shade

20190215 Dunham Massey copper bark

20190215 Dunham Massey Betula utilis?

20190215 Dunham Massey dried inflorescence

20190215 Dunham Massey dried inflorescence

20190215 Dunham Massey Citrus

There you go, a few picto-memories of our hugely enjoyable visit to one of the finest winter gardens in the North West. It’s not too late to go see the same seasonal delights for yourself. See the Dunham Massey website for details of opening times.

If you’ve enjoyed a trip to Dunham recently, or can recommend any excellent winter gardens, please feel free to share your thoughts, via the comments.

Pruning: Crown-Lifting a Bramley’s Seedling

A couple of weeks ago I enjoyed the opportunity to work on a rather lovely Bramley’s Seedling tree that hadn’t been pruned for a while and was starting to get too big for its space.

The owner of the tree – which was highly productive last year – was very keen that it shouldn’t just be hacked back, but wanted to gain space around the base of the tree for lawn maintenance and accessing the border that the tree is planted.

The clear answer was a crown-lift: removing three large, low-growing branches to reduce crowding at the base and allow in more light as well.

Here’s a pic of the tree, with the three branches marked for removal:

Jan 2019 tree before pruning

Unfortunately, I forgot to take a pic the side to show just how much it leans out away from the fence: the fence and next door’s garage are to the south to south-west and so the sun is blocked for large parts of the day; the tree grows out into the middle of the garden as a result, looking for light.

The three marked branches plus one more around the back – and particularly that thick one – growing low and potentially dangerous to unprotected eyes, were following the same pattern. In addition, and even more importantly, they were adding a lot of weight to that side of the tree and contributing to the the lean of the trunk.

Here’s a close-up of the area I was working in:

Jan 2019 lower branches before pruning

And here’s how much cleaner and less congested it looks after the branches were removed:

Jan 2019 pruning cuts after

I used good, sharp tools – bypassloppers to take back the branches and reduce the weight, then either a Felco F180 or SilkyFox Pocketboy pruning saw to finish – to make clean cuts that should heal nicely once the tree emerges from dormancy. I cut on a good, steep angle to ensure water would run off as well:

Jan 2019 pruning cuts after

Looking at the rings on the cut end, I reckon that branch that been growing and thickening – adding to the weight on that side of the tree – for a good seven or eight years:

Jan 2019 pruning cut close-up

(RHS Level 3 revision, anyone..?)

Looking at the post-pruning shape of the tree, although the photo isn’t amazingly clear, you can hopefully get a sense of how much more open and balanced it looks:

Jan 2019 tree after pruning

Admittedly, there are still parts of the tree that need work: the crown is a little lofty and could perhaps be reduced, and that odd-angled branch on the right of the pic is another possible candidate for removal. But as I judged I’d already removed around 15%-20% of the tree’s canopy, I decided to stop there and not make any other cuts – aside from removing a few damaged or congested smaller branches from the centre of the tree – rather than risk causing too much imbalance in the tree this growing season.

I’m going to go back and take another look at it in the summer to see how the tree has responded to the cuts I’ve made and then I’m hopeful that I’ll be asked back next winter to work on it again: maybe a crown reduction or a more general thinning next time, once that problem branch has been addressed and corrected.

In the meantime, here’s hoping the owner will enjoy another year’s bounteous harvest. The tree is covered in potential fruit buds, so as long as the weather and the pollinators (the tree is less than half a mile from a 15-hive apiary, so that shouldn’t be a problem) are kind, then there should be plenty more apples to enjoy for many years to come:

January 2019 Bramley's Seedling pic from Louise

Building a Hugelkultur Bed on Plot #59

February 2019 - Hugelkultur bed #6

After researching and constructing a couple of Hugelkultur growing beds for our ‘growing for the future’ project at work recently, I decided that I’d put one in on our allotment as well.

Hugelkultur – it’s a German word meaning ‘mound (or hill) culture’ – is a technique developed by Permaculture practitioners that is said to offer a range of benefits:

  • It’s a good way to productively use up unwanted biomass that won’t compost easily and might otherwise sit around on a site for years before it decomposes.
  • It helps with water retention, as decaying woody matter tends to be sponge-like, soaking up water and releasing it slowly to nearby plants.
  • Nutrients stored in the biomass are released slowly over the 5-6 year lifetime of the mound, without the need for re-fertilisation.

The system does also have its detractors – see the Wikipedia article on the subject for more details – but as I’m only trying it on a relatively small scale, I’m sure the interest of the experiment alone will outweigh any minor drawbacks.


For ‘biomass’ read: pretty much any woody organic matter that you have lying around that you’re happy to bury in a mound of earth.

In our case, I was keen to get rid of two old wood piles that had built up at the back of the plot, consisting of four years’ worth of fruit bush, willow and other assorted clippings and cuttings. Unfortunately, they were both situated right next to my neighbour’s huge compost heap, which is sadly infested with bindweed. Said woodpiles were therefore a bindweed climbing frame for most of the year, and of minimal use for anything else, except wildlife habitat (and we’ll be addressing that with more bug hotels in due course).

I also had a few branches left over from cherry tree that we removed three or four years ago, and some prunings from the overgrown plum at the back of a neighbour’s plot that I tackled for them last summer, and some old, brittle sunflower stems. All good material for Hugelkultur. The one thing I avoided using was the fresh trimmings from the willow on our plot that I coppiced right back a couple of weeks ago. That stuff sets down roots and re-grows at the slightest excuse and I didn’t want to turn the Hugelkultur bed into a willow fedge.

Hugelkultur Bed Construction

If you’d like detailed instructions on how to build a Hugelkultur bed, there are plenty to be found online, including lots of video demonstrations. Edit 12.02.19 Also, Helen – who left a very helpful comment, below, has a post on her ‘Growing Out of Chaos’ blog with some further tips and pointers.

Here’s how I went about it.

1. Trench and Ridge

Last year I grew potatoes and then squash on the two ridges shown here. To prepare for the Hugelkultur bed, I dug out a channel between them, just a couple of inches deep or so, to give an overall height of around 8 inches (18-20cm or so)

February 2019 - Hugelkultur bed #1

2. A Layer of Biomass, a Layer of Soil…

Starting with the thicker, woodier stems that will take longer to decompose, I started building up the bed in layers. First a good layer of woody material, then a thin cover of soil. The latter is to make sure there are plenty of soil microorganisms and fungal mycelium introduced to the centre of the pile.

February 2019 - Hugelkultur bed #2

3. And Repeat

Keep doing the above, until you’ve got a pile that you feel is high enough for your purposes, or until you run out of biomass to add to the heap.

February 2019 - Hugelkultur bed #3

February 2019 - Hugelkultur bed #4

February 2019 - Hugelkultur bed #5

4. Cover with Turf and Soil

I haven’t actually completed this stage yet. Some of the wood from the bottom of the second pile was still quite dry and with persistent rain forecast towards the end of last week, I wanted to leave the top off to give it a good soaking, again, to help with the decomposition.

Next week I’ll be digging out some rough, grassy turf from the centre of the plot, where I need to lay some more flags for our path, so I’ll dump that on top, inverted, and will finish off with a load of leaf-mould that’s been breaking down for a couple of years, and soil that I’m digging out of the back of the plot, where I plan to recycle some more concrete flags.

5. …And Grow

I’m expecting that the Hugelkultur bed will shift and settle as the woody material in the middle breaks down and collapses, so it’s probably not suitable for anything like a fruit bush or a tree. But annual plants should do well, planted into the outside of the mound.

I’m planning to grow squashes in the bed this year, to see how they do. They’re quite hungry plants, so I’m hoping the mass of slow-release nutrients will feed them well through their growing season. I’ll aim to grow the same variety elsewhere on the plot in regular soil at the same time, by way of comparison. I’ll keep you posted.

How about you, have you ever tried a Hugelkultur growing system? Any tips or warnings if so? Please do let me know, via the comments.