Ghoulish Halloween Gardens!

Getting in the Halloween spirit? Hannah Stephenson reveals some of the 'foul and creepy' specimens that could be lurking in your hedges and borders...

halloween garden design plants

Mischievous trick-or-treaters dressed as ghosts and ghouls may be on the prowl on your doorstep this Halloween – but step into your garden and you might find some spooky spikes, noxious nasties and creepy creepers lurking in your borders.

Some plants can sting, burn, cut or emit an acrid, foul-smelling odour. Others have sinister-sounding names or connections with witches or the devil, while there are some which are said to help ward off evil.

Get yourself into the mood for Halloween with this guide to horticultural horrors…

1. Eye-poppers

When you see the spooky white berries with a single black spot emerging from red stems, you can understand why this sinister-looking plant is nicknamed the Doll’s Eye (Actaea pachypoda). All parts of this herbaceous perennial are poisonous and when ingested can cause hallucinations.

halloween garden plants design

2. Strangling suspects

Also known as strangleweed, devil’s guts, witches shoelaces and devil’s ringlet, but better known as dodder (Cuscuta), this pernicious relative of bindweed twines itself round a host plant and inserts itself into the host’s vascular system – sucking out everything it needs to live and killing its plant victim in the process.

halloween garden plants design

3. Prickly subjects

Among the most prickly of plants is the hawthorn. As a thorny hedge, it will stab its thorns into your fingers, even when you’re wearing the toughest gloves, and mature plants will even pierce the soles of gardening shoes – although on the plus side, a hawthorn hedge can also deter even the most persistent burglar.

Other prickly candidates include creeping juniper, common holly, firethorn (pyracantha), juniper and purple berberis.

halloween garden plants design

4. Toxic terrors

Aconitum, also known as monkshood or wolfsbane, is among the most toxic of plants, with ingestion of even a small amount causing severe stomach upsets. But it also slows the heart rate, which can prove fatal.

You don’t just have to eat it to suffer the symptoms. The poison can be absorbed through the skin, via open wounds, and there have even been reports of people feeling unwell after smelling the flowers.

halloween garden plants design

5. Foul smelling specimens

Then there are the plants which literally smell like rotten corpses. The stinking iris, Iris foetidissima, for example, absolutely reeks. If you can stand the smell, or remain downwind from it, this bulb puts on a spectacular display in autumn and winter, when its gigantic seed pods burst open to reveal brilliant orange and sometimes red seeds.

halloween garden plants design

6. Acrid arums

The titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum), also known as the ‘corpse flower’ as it smells like decomposed bodies when in flower, is nevertheless beautiful, growing up to 3m tall, its gigantic crimson flower spanning 3m, and is a great magnet for pollinating insects.

This acrid arum prefers the rainforests of Sumatra as its natural habitat, although you can admire it in the exotic sections of botanical gardens such as the Eden Project in Cornwall and at Kew, where it’s currently flowering.

Others in the bad smells league include Eucomis bicolor, the pineapple lily, and the dead horse arum (Helicodiceros muscivorus), named for obvious reasons.

7. Ghostly apparitions

The ghost plant (Monotropa uniflora), an eerie white specimen found in shady woods is a rare sight.

It has no chlorophyll, the chemical that allows plants to absorb energy from the sun and typically gives plants their green colour. In fact, the ghost plant is a parasite which sucks on fungi connected to a host plant, which is usually a nearby tree. The fungi acts as the middleman for the nutrients provided by the tree.

halloween garden plants design

8. Bizarre bulbs

While many bulbs bring heady fragrance, including the sweetly-scented hyacinth, others have pretty horrible odours, including the imposing crown imperial (Fritillaria imperialis). But don’t let the smell put you off too much, because its impressive orange flowers make more of a statement than its whiffy pong.

halloween garden plants design

9. Poisonous potions

No Halloween would be complete without its share of witches, whose potions have been linked with some of our most common plants. Hemlock, for instance, is highly poisonous and closely linked with witchcraft. It doesn’t look significantly different from the hedge parsley or cow parsley which grows along roads, ditches, trails, or the edges of fields.

Its white flowerheads resemble those of parsnips, carrots or angelica, while the bright green leaves are deeply-cut, even feathery and delicate. Yet all plant parts are poisonous, with the seeds containing the highest concentration of poison, causing toxic reactions.

Deadly nightshade (Belladonna), another common plant often found in hedgerows, was one of the main ingredients in witches’ brews during the Middle Ages, while blackthorn is often referred to as a witch’s tree. As late as the 1940s, anyone seen to carry a blackthorn walking stick was suspected of being a witch.

halloween garden plants design

10. Warding off evil

Plants including rowan (Sorbus aucuparia), hazelnut (Corylus avellane) and elderberry (Sambucus nigra) were once thought to be ‘magical’ trees and shrubs, which could ward off witches and evil spirits.

Ancient Celts believed rowan berries gave good health, and that if you planted them near grave sites, they would help the dead sleep.

People would use branches as dowsing rods and make crosses of rowan twigs to protect themselves on Halloween, while in old Europe, householders would put elderberry branches above their doorways to protect their homes from malevolent spirits. Strands of hazelnuts, worn or kept in the home ,were said to bring good luck.

halloween garden plants design

Small Trees for Small Gardens

As gardens become smaller, trim trees can be just the ticket, says Hannah Stephenson. Small trees are in high demand, with suppliers increasing production in compact varieties - including crab apples, which bear beautiful spring flowers, and Vossii laburnums, with their upright forms and disease-resistant characteristics.

best trees for small garden

Trees provide structure, screening and shade, as well as colour which continues through the season, creating a sense of enclosure, their height drawing the eye up and out and helping link land with sky – and if you choose wisely, there’s no reason why having a dinky outdoor space should stop you introducing them.

Your tree needs to earn its space in a small garden, so look for one with year-round interest: A tree that blossoms for a week in spring but then looks ordinary for the rest of the year really won’t do.

In really tight spaces, you may be better off with a trimmed and trained plant, either in the ground or in a container, while carefully shaped topiary can also create an eye-catching focal point.

Here are five good examples to consider…

best trees for small garden

1. Amelanchier

Amelanchiers have featured heavily in garden shows in the past couple of years, as designers have displayed their value as choice trees for confined spaces.

Amelanchier lamarckii (10m x 12m), the snowy Mespilus, is often grown as a multi-stemmed showstopper but can also be trained as a light standard. Starry white flowers cover its branches in spring, at the same time as its bronze foliage is opening, while in autumn the small leaves often turn to fiery red and yellow.

They do best in acid soils, so plant them in ericaceous compost. These tall, slender shrubby trees make great subtle screening.

best trees for small garden

2. Flowering dogwood

Flowering dogwoods are long-season stalwarts, their star-shaped blooms appearing in late spring, followed by fantastic leaf colours of reds and oranges in autumn, and strawberry-like fruits which persist into winter.

Good varieties include Cornus kousa (7m x 5m), which bears spreading branches smothered in creamy white blossom in early summer and deep-pink bracts in late spring and orange leaves in autumn, and Cornus mas (5m x 5m), the Cornelian cherry, a small spreading variety which comes into its own in winter when clusters of yellow flowers smother the bare branches.

best trees for small garden

3. Laburnum x watereri ‘Vossii’

These elegant small trees, which produce long chains of brilliant yellow flowers in May and June, are perfect for training over an arch or pergola when branches are young and pliable.

Gardeners can remove the poisonous seedpods to help improve flowering next year. Just be aware that all parts of the plant are very poisonous, so this is not a child-friendly choice.

They’ll grow to around 8m x 8m and can tolerate poor and shallow soil. Laburnum can also be grown in large tubs, forced early into flower. Arguably the best for this is L. anagyroides var. alschingeri.

4. Crab apple (malus)

Flowering crab apples produce a double whammy of eye-catching blossoms in spring, followed by attractive fruits in autumn.

A good variety is ‘Evereste’ (8m x 8m, but slow-growing), which bears a puff of white and pink fragrant flowers in spring which are a magnet to bees, followed by orange-yellow fruits which can be made into jam.

The slow-growing Japanese crab, Malus Floribunda, is also less vigorous, its horizontal branches covered in crimson buds in the spring, which open to blush-pink and white scented blooms. The advantage of malus is that you can control their size and shape, like a fruiting apple.

best trees for small garden

5. Acer palmatum (Japanese maple)

These stunning stars of the show grow equally well in pots, if you only have a courtyard space and need to keep their size in check, or in the ground to create colour and add structure to a scene.

Mix a combination in different pots to create a range of stunning contrasting autumn colours, including Acer palmatum ‘Bloodgood’, which bears rich red-purple foliage from spring to autumn, Acer palmatum ‘Sango-kaku’, whose leaves open orange-yellow in spring, and Acer palmatum var. dissectum, whose finely cut mid-green leaves turn golden in autumn.

Plant them in full sun and try to avoid really exposed areas, where their delicate foliage may be damaged by icy winds. If you’re planting them in a container, use compost consisting equal parts of John Innes No. 2 potting compost and a soil-less multipurpose, with plenty of drainage in the base.

best trees for small garden

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Perk Up Your Patio With Autumn Pots Of Colour

As the new season approaches, plant some pretty pots to brighten the scene. Hannah Stephenson digs up top tips.

patio pots

As pots of tired summer bedding are tipped onto the compost heap to make way for autumn and winter flowers, there are certain things you should do now to ensure your container plants for the cooler months get off to a good start. Here’s our step-by-step guide…

1. Provide good drainage

Once you’ve emptied your pots of summer bedding and given the containers a good clean, line the base of your pots with crocks from broken terracotta pots or bits of polystyrene that your new bedding comes in, to make sure you have ample drainage for new autumn and winter bedding.

As autumn rains come, if your pots are exposed to the elements, the roots of your plants can become too wet if you don’t include sufficient drainage when you plant them up.

Mix a handful of sharp stone or grit into the fresh compost to help drainage and stand your pots on feet, so the moisture doesn’t come up through the pot and soak the roots from below.

2. Fill pots well

Unlike summer bedding, which grows rapidly to cover the whole area of the pot, winter bedding is slower to make an impact – so it’s best to plant winter bedding closer together in tubs, troughs and hanging baskets.

They won’t have as much growing time as summer plants had to make their mark, so don’t penny-pinch on the amount you buy.

3. Don’t over-water

Winter-flowering pansies and other bedding won’t need as much water as your summer annuals did, so don’t mix water-retaining granules into the fresh compost, or you’ll end up with rotten roots and wilted plants.

watering can

4. Shelter containers

If you have planted up pots with spring bulbs, violas and pansies, put them in a sheltered spot – say under a porch or cold greenhouse when the winter weather is at its worst – but make sure they get maximum light so they can benefit from even weaker sunshine.

As the weather gets cooler, protect plants by grouping containers and moving them closer to the wall to keep off wind and rain.

5. Choose plants wisely

Some bedding only appears in the autumn, including dwarf Michaelmas daisies, pot chrysanthemums and miniature cyclamen, while orange-berried winter cherries and ornamental kales appear slightly later on in the season. All can be put to good use in a container and enhanced with evergreen foliage plants.

Garden centres will now be awash with autumn and winter bedding, including pansies and violas, wallflowers, dianthus and cyclamen. Use a showstopper as the centre plant and then use trailers, such as creeping Jenny or ivy, around the outside of your pots, filling the gaps with pretty violas and pansies.

flower pot

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The Grow-your-own Perks Of A Heatwave

Fewer Pests, Earlier Crops And Tastier Pickings! As allotment holders struggle to keep their crops watered, expert Mike Thurlow offers 7 plus points about home-growing in a heatwave.

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The long, dry summer may have been a struggle for allotment holders battling to keep up with watering – but hot weather is also keeping some garden nuisances at bay.

As National Allotments Week beckons, horticultural expert and allotment holder Mike Thurlow, of the National Allotment Society, says there are some advantages of a hot, sunny summer to ‘grow your own’ gangs nationwide, provided you keep your crops well watered.

1. Fewer aphids

“The heatwave seems to have slowed the insect population down. On the open ground, there haven’t been as many aphids. We had a short burst of greenfly earlier on in the year, which came to nothing, and not much since then,” he observes. “Just be aware that aphids have a second burst of activity towards the end of summer, so be prepared.”

2.Slugs have gone underground

“We haven’t had as many slug and snail problems this year, as they’re likely to have gone underground, but once it cools, there will be more, so you need to be vigilant when the rain arrives.”

slugs-gardening-property-hampshire

3. Less blight

If you water erratically, your tomatoes may still succumb to blossom end rot (where they turn brown at the base and split). But the dryness of the weather will prevent blight, says Thurlow, because blight thrives in humid, damp weather, when the spores become mobile.

Water your crops directly at soil level, taking the rose off the watering can if necessary, and give tomatoes and other plants one good soaking that you know will last a couple of days. When watering potatoes and tomatoes, try to keep the foliage as dry as you can.

4. Earlier crops

Gardeners should be enjoying the fruits of their labour earlier than usual because of the heatwave, he says. Harvest your crops young before they bolt (set seed) and produce flowers, which many of them will be doing early because of the hot weather.

“If it looks good enough to eat, then cut it, because the next day it might run to seed,” Thurlow advises.

5. Cut and come again

If you cut crops early, some may return for a second harvest, he predicts.

“Peas may have gone to seed prematurely, but if you cut them down they will regrow, so it may be worth considering leaving them in the ground – which you should do anyway, as they are a nitrogen source – but once the cooler weather kicks in and you keep the watering going, you may well catch a late crop.

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“With brassicas – such as broccoli and winter cabbage – if you cut them and leave the stump in the ground, you get little florets coming off those. Then come October, you might have four little cabbages coming off that stump.”

6. Tastier crops

Provided watering is kept up, sun lovers (such as peppers) may have a more intense flavour, says Thurlow.

“We may notice that we have more intense flavour in some produce, because they’ll ripen in the heatwave.”

7. Early sowing opportunities

“Start sowing early varieties of carrot, beetroot and lettuce. Water along a drill incorporating seaweed in the water. You never know how long it will be until the autumn weather.

Plants which you sow now – brassicas such as spring cabbage and some kale – may have enough time to become established if the warm weather continues, to see them through winter.

Other plants such as Florence fennel, which would normally be sown later in the season, could be sown now and, although smaller, the bulbs may be ready by late October or November.

gardening-fennel-summer-2018

Prioritise crops which will take you through the winter. Brassicas will have been stressed with this weather – Brussels sprouts, broccoli, kale and winter cabbage. If you have crops which normally take longer to mature, harvest them while they are young.

“One of the major difficulties now is going to be your overwintering crops,” says Thurlow. “You need to get them into a position where they will survive the winter without running to seed.

“It’s not too late to sow spring cabbage. Just have a go. If the heat continues, we may have enough growing time left into the autumn where we can get plants into a condition where they will survive the winter.”

National Allotments Week runs from August 13-19. For details visit nsalg.org.uk.

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