Category Archives: Our Soapbox and other Annoying Stuff

Bees V RHS – it’s time for the bees to win

Bees V RHS – it’s time for the Bees to win.


The Royal Horticultural Society is an amazing institution. It’s role is to promote gardening and educate current and future generations about gardening and all things horticultural.


No one can argue that it does not fulfil this role admirably. However, the RHS has created a monster in the world of horticulture and it is time to put this monster back in it’s box.


The monster is the Award of Garden Merit, it pits the Bees against the world of horticulture – and it’s time for the bees to win!


What actually is horticulture?


Horticulture is defined as;

‘the cultivation of flowers, fruit, veg or ornamental plants & the science and art of cultivating such plants’


Herein lies the problem, that short phrase ‘ the science & art of cultivating such plants’.


Humans are naturally inquisitive, we love to create, invent, modify and innovate. Horticulture is partly defined as a science, consequently, horticulturalists would be in dereliction of their scientific duty to not look to innovate or modify or change.


Horticulture is also defined as an art form, which drives the passion and provides purpose for creating plants that look more beautiful.


This horticultural definition provides the justification for us to adapt and enhance the natural world. Science and Art further the knowledge and understanding of mankind, so therefore the application of science and art to plants must be equally beneficial.


This creates a monster however, but one borne of another uniquely human trait; one-upmanship!


The RHS Award of Garden Merit


We are a judgemental society, all facets of our behaviour are judged in some way, whether we are successful business people, influential columnists or elite athletes, society provides a benchmark of standards by which others can judge.


In the UK, this standard is provided by the RHS’ Award of Garden Merit and what an influential monster it has become!


For a plant to be awarded an AGM it must pass the following criteria;

– Excellent for ordinary use in appropriate conditions.
– Of good constitution.
– Essentially stable in form and colour.
– Reasonably resistant to pests and diseases.
– Available to buy in the UK.


The AGM allows plants to be judged – which means all those ‘scientists and artists’ in commercial horticulture have a target to aim at and be judged on.


image RHS

A target that, once achieved, provides them with a nice shiny gong of approval.


The AGM shouts out to gardeners across the country that this is a good plant. The plant buying public can then purchase plants with confidence – the RHS has deemed this a ‘good garden plant’, so it must be ‘good’ in the garden.


The question is though – good for what?


The criteria for awarding an AGM in a way isolates and sanitises the role of the plant. It defines the benefit of the plant solely in terms of it’s interaction with humans.


For a plant to pass the test, it must invariably look good and be easy to grow.  It must not look sickly or feeble and it must be convenient to source. No other plant purpose is deemed important.


The monster this creates is driven by commercialism, companies can extol their ‘success’ at breeding plants by the number of AGM medals they hold. The AGM medal provides a profit premium for growers and an incentive to strive to create more plants worthy of the AGM.


So why is this a problem?


The result, well of the 200 or so new AGM awards for plants (excl veg and fruit) in 2016, approximately 8% of these plants were deemed ‘Perfect for Pollinators’ by the RHS.


Which means, 92% of plants gaining an AGM medal were not deemed to be particularly helpful to pollinators!


This is like a Rubiks Cube puzzle for a Bee!

Incidentally, most of the new pollinator friendly plants were Dahlia’s. Although many had extremely complex petal formations that would make it difficult for any bee to even get in!


An analysis of the RHS plant database reveals only 10% have both an AGM and a ‘Perfect for Pollinators’ logo.


Now it is not the case that all plants not bearing the Perfect for Pollinators logo have zero benefit to insects, of course it doesn’t, but the trend is there for all to see.


If usefulness is not even on the AGM criteria, there is no incentive for plant breeders to create a useful plant!


What is the purpose of the AGM to the RHS?


In Rory Stuarts book ‘What are Gardens for’ gardens, to be fully understood must be viewed in the context of culture. The RHS has historically demonstrated how both the science and art of horticulture has created plants of great beauty. It has displayed the prowess of the horticulturalists scientific and artistic ability with lavish shows and promoted the art of competitive show-casing of plants, flowers and vegetables. Thousands have flocked to these shows to see who has been the most successful. We all want to know which plant has been deemed the ‘best in show’.


The culture created is all about spectacle and how well a plant performs – for us!


The AGM needs another overhaul, plants should not be judged so one dimensionally. The purpose of plants, in fact the only purpose of a plant is to reproduce itself. The RHS are wrong to exclude the usefulness of a plant to it’s environment from the AGM criteria. After all gardens are now an increasingly important part of the environment.


The horticultural culture of the RHS needs to evolve, just as nature does. We have created thousands of plants that look great, but contribute nothing other than aesthetics to a garden. In an age where we understand far more the negative impact humans have on our planet, it is an anathema to hand out ‘gongs’ of approval to plants that look good, but offer little else.


So, how about a new AGM criteria:


– Excellent for ordinary use in appropriate conditions.
– Of good constitution.
– Essentially stable in form and colour.
– Reasonably resistant to pests and diseases.
– Available to buy in the UK


– Perfect for Pollinators ?



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Does Your Garden Taste Good

The Trouble with Flower Shows…

The Trouble with Flower Shows…


What trouble, flowers shows are meant to inspire us, show us how to garden & display amazing plants in wonderful garden settings!

Shows are the pinnacle of horticultural achievement, where they lead we should follow….


Or should we?


Well before all horticulturalists rise up in horror, these shows are not being unceremoniously damned. The fact remains though,  flower shows are not the best way for the average gardener to gain inspiration or indeed purchase plants.


So, what are Flower Shows for?


Shows have one main purpose and that is to get us, the general public to buy stuff. They are a large colourful horticultural supermarket disguised as a horticultural competition sited in a floribundant marquee. We flock in our best dressed thousands, to see who wins gongs and awards. We partake in all the glory of the show gardens, infused by the scents of the ammassed displays of flowers and it’s lovely.


Take a more pragmatic viewpoint though and behind every scented bloom is a price tag offering a 3 for 2 deal or a special show discounted price.


Sanguisorbia Hakusanensis ‘Lilac Squirrel’ if you want to know!

Exhibitors have paid thousands (in some cases) to be at the show and it costs vast amounts of money to stage one , feature gardens are ridiculously expensive to create – so the show itself has to make a profit for everyone or there’s no point in running one.


Flower shows are primarily there for trade.

Flower show gardens and displays are simply the means by which horticulturalists entice the general public to the show – and once surrounded by beautiful plants, we quickly succumb to the temptation to purchase all manner of things horticultural.


Now, there is nothing wrong with this at all, but what happens is this. We walk around the displays and see a plant that looks lovely & buy it. Walk around a bit more and see another one that catches the eye….& buy that one too.


Pretty soon, you’ve spent a fair amount on an eclectic collection of plants. Once home the problem that normally arises is where to put them. So you tend to pop the plants in any old gap in the garden and hope for the best!


It’s an easy way to make an expensive mistake.


Who are Flower Shows really for then?



This is a much more loaded question but does it really matter, well yes it does. Esteemed bodies like the RHS lay on shows, they stipulate the criteria for ‘showing’ plants and minimum standards for show gardens and displays. All of which raise the standard of the displays and ensure you, the general public, get value for money.


The rub is this, it is a closed circle. Exhibitors adhere to the rules laid down, these standardise the displays, we flock to see these types of displays (but, they are the only ones on show) and because we do, this reinforces the belief that this is what ‘we ‘ want to see – the RHS deems the show a success and off we go round the circle again.


So, are flowers shows there to promote the standards of horticultural excellence deemed by the RHS and thereby infer to us mere garden mortals that this is what we should aspire to.


Are shows there to showcase the horticultural trades ability to master the ‘science of horticulture’ by displays of plant perfecction, the inference being that anything less than this standard is somehow not good enough?


Or are shows there to benefit the public at large by showing us how to create beautiful gardens at home.


Perhaps flower shows should primarily be for the insects that use them?

There is however, one group for whom shows are not primarily set up to impress. The sad fact is though, these are the main beneficiaries and users of our gardens.


To be fair to the RHS, this year the trend in was a much more relaxed Bee-friendly planting scheme. This is a welcome trend, but the floral marquees are still packed selling plants which bees cannot feed from.


What then, is the trouble with flower shows?


It’s all about mixed messages and the inherent belief amongst the industry; which is that everyone knows lots about plants; which clearly they don’t.


Plant Displays


The general public are presented with immaculate displays of perfect floral specimens. Identical, uniform and perfect in every way, a feat only achievable with knowledge, expertise, patience and resources. These displays are then ‘gonged’, awarded Best in Show, gold medals, certificates etc, which tell us garden mortals this is standard WE THE RHS think is good enough.


This is not a natural standard though, it is a standard of horticultural science over nature.


With equal prominence, the RHS and shows promote hybridised (useless for insects) show stopping plants with these gongs and awards but they also then champion garden ecology.

The two are mutually incompatible – which one should we copy?


Show Gardens


The Show Gardens themselves are now far more conceptual, the idea of the garden being utilitarian has all but disappeared. So how on earth can these gardens inspire?


Show gardens need to inspire but they are becoming so distant from the reality of modern gardens. It is becoming impossible to have any form of cross-fertilistion of ideas.


Take this for example. What possible inspiration can be used in an average suburban garden? Trees that wobble, hardly. Shallow pools sited underneath deciduous trees. More time will be spent fishing stuff out,  just to maintain their reflective qualities.


So, the trouble with flower shows is that they are run by horticulturalists. They are there to promote the industry to itself, to congatulate itself on it’s achievements, to set impossibly high standards of horticulture the average gardener simply cannot aspire to.


What’s needed is a flower show run to show the general public how to really improve the garden. Garden design for the masses, making gardening more fun and less technical, giving us the ability to ‘go home and do it ourselves.’


What flower shows need is to think like IKEA!

Read more articles from the Plotting Shed
Garden Design for Beginners
Get real garden inspiration from our Mini-Makeovers

Hanging baskets & why you should avoid them

Hanging Baskets & why you are better off without them.


We Brits have always had an obsession for hanging baskets. We spend millions on these displays every year. Beautiful displays sing out the conquest of one’s horticultural ability over the elements. More often than not though, the compost heap quickly fills with thrown away shrivelled and dried out displays. 

Should we really keep on faithfully spending millions of pounds or is it time for a rethink?

Now you’ve probably guessed, we’re not great fans of hanging baskets and there are several good reasons why we’re not.


Our mantra is to make gardening easier and hanging baskets most definitely do not.


Why? Well how many of you can identify with these issues…

  • The compost dries out so quickly you can’t keep up with the watering requirement.
  • You don’t see most of the flowers as the basket is above your head.
  • The flowers quickly fade and you can never get the same intensity as in the garden centre.
  • It’s a right royal pain to water properly, unless you put in on the floor first. Mostly the water just runs straight through.
  • After a few days of summer sun – it all seems a bit shrivelled.
  • The plants seem to get eaten by bugs really easily.
  • After a few weeks, you’re unsure whether it’s a feature or an eysore, half the plants seem to have died, apart from the ivy, which has grown over everything else.
  • Birds have pecked out the lining for nesting material, so the basket looks a bit tatty

Need we go on?

Hanging baskets are not good value for money.


As a society, we are supposed to be trying to reduce, reuse and recycle more – it is better for us and the world at large. The problem though is that hanging baskets are largely disposable. Garden centres actually would prefer you to throw the plants (and the basket) away.


Gardening is expensive, so why spend money to just throw it away – it does not make sense.


What then, should we be doing?

Well our advice would be to not buy any in the first place and use the money saved to invest in plants that will look good for years, but if you love your baskets – here’s some advice.


Firstly – Don’t hang them


Most of the problems associated with hanging baskets are created by hanging them up.

Where is the gardening rule book does it state that hanging baskets must be above head height!


Why hang so that you look up to the bottom of the basket too?


Instead how about placing the baskets on top of pots or in pot stands.


Place them on a log or pot and site them in the border. Placing the basket lower down allows you to water and feed more easily. You can even place the basket on the floor, just take off the hanging loops.


Plant your own – don’t buy readymade baskets.


Plants grow fastest and best if they are not competing for nutrients. Nurseries pack plants in to look good at the point of sale.


So by only adding 2-3 plants in a basket yourself, your plants will grow bigger and look better for longer. Because you are not hanging them up, you can also use some soil in the compost which retains moisture more than multipurpose.


Try not to use Bedding plants


There are lots of plants that will grow in a basket really well, that won’t need throwing away at the end of the year. The flowers on most bedding you buy have been intensively bred to look showy which in itself is not very ‘green’.

The plant produces more flowers than it would normally be able sustain & or larger flowers than would naturally develop – all for our aesthetic delight of course. The result, the plants may look spectactular, but only if you follow a strict pampering and preening regime to keep these demanding plants performing.

They are all High Maintenance Plant Divas, which is fine if you adore pampering and preening your plants but it is a pain in the proverbials if you haven’t time to!

It is far better to choose less demanding plants that thrive on a bit of neglect, there are loads to choose from – native wildflowers being one very obvious example.

Perhaps it is time for the fashions to change and we start to grow natural hanging baskets instead. Some of our woldflowers can be very beautiful and all grow without human intervention normally – which makes it sound perfect for a hanging basket!

Try out seed-balls as an alternative to bedding in your hanging baskets instead, the butterflies and bees will love you for it!

Remember, hanging baskets benefit garden centres more than you.


The mark-up on planted hanging baskets is huge, nurseries and garden centres make a lot of money from selling planted baskets.


However, more importantly, it is not in their financial interest for the baskets to survive. If they looked great all summer, we the consumer, would not need to buy any more. The garden centres would lose out financially.


So here’s what they do:


  • Baskets are crammed plants, too many for the size of basket.
  • The plants all compete for water and available food, the most needy die first. Which are always the biggest and showiest flowers.
  • A multipurpose compost is used as it’s lighter, but it also doesn’t retain water very well, so the basket dries out really quickly and the showiest flowers are the first to suffer.
  • They do add a granular plant food to the compost for you – however it can only release enough food if the granules are wet and because the baskets drain really quickly, they won’t get time to dissolve.


Now you may think we are simply being overtly cynical and a tad unfair and maybe so. However, ask yourself this – how many times have you had a stunning hanging basket display all summer.


People can and do have the most beautiful displays – most of these use automated watering systems though – or they have an utterly dedicated owner!


So there you have it, hanging baskets are great – if you like that sort of thing. But if you would like a lower maintenance garden – avoid using hanging baskets.


For lot’s more tips and advice:

Read more from the Plotting Shed.

Garden Design For Beginners

Get some garden inspitation – & not a hanging basket in sight!

Advice on Good Garden Plants


Hedgehog Petition – please sign our petition

Hedgehogs need our help, just think if we all had holes in our fences they wouldn’t need to cross the road.

All you need to do is click the image and add your name to the UK govt petition.

govt petition

All a hedgehog needs is a hole the size of a CD and they will happily wander from your garden to the neighbours chomping slugs!

Once they get enough votes by law they have to debate it in parliament.

My petition:

Change planning laws so all New House Builds must have hedgehog holes in fences.

Hedgehogs are in serious decline in the UK, urban gardens are a vital lifeline. Creating a hedgehog hole in a fence allows hedgehogs to pass from garden to garden without having to cross any roads. A change to planning would require access for hedgehogs in all new house build garden fencing

Details of the plight of hedgehogs can be found at the Hedgehog Preservation Society

Colour enhanced flowers on plant labels

This is what they show you, but not what you get

True blue or not true blue?


So many of the images of flowers are clearly enhanced to give a false impression of the vibrancy and intensity of the colour of the flowers, many of the reds are so ‘beefed up’ there isn’t a shade of lipstick that would compare to them!



Now I understand that  growers want the images to stand out, but not to the extent what you see on the label is impossible to create at home.  I would be a so disappointed if my pot of vibrant flowers looked wholly inferior to the image.


On my images I do add flowers to plant images if the right image of the plant happens not to be in flower – but not to the extent the image is totally smothered in blooms nor do I create lipstick tints for them.  Let’s have slightly more realistic images, so I really know what to look forward too, please?

Mixed boxes of colourful planting

You have all seen these, little 6 packs of different conifers or a six pack of multi colours of pansies, or a six pack of little herbaceous plants.

You get one of each plant, you buy it, go home and then what?

bedding runway

A bit of a bedding runway

mixed bedding

mixed bedding at it’s ‘best’

By all means buy a 6 pack of the same variety of plant, that way you can get  2×3 or 3×2  little clumps of the same plant which will have infinitely more impact in your garden.

viola yellow


Otherwise, leave the little six packs all alone in the Garden Centre and buy something more useful instead!



Hanging baskets!


I can’t do them, so I no longer even try. You really need to invest in an automated dripfeed watering system, or the spectacular display will not impress!  I have really tried with them in the past, but I think the only plants that would withstand my care regime would be Cacti – and that wouldn’t be nice at eye level!

I have tried keeping them well watered, but as most of the plants you put in the basket love the sun, I have to put them in a sunny place, and then after 2 hours the compost is bone dry and already shrivelling.



The main problem with the basket’s is the dichotomy of needing enough compost in there to absorb all the water it needs, but then you end up with a basket so large, it requires a winch to lift it and industrial strength mountings on the wall!

So my advice is this, invest in a drip feed system that automatically comes on every night – or don’t do hanging baskets in sunny places.  Alternatively, you can go for shaded hanging baskets, there are some ferns and other trailing type plants what could create a really lush green basket, but without the sun blasting the basket all day long, you may stand some chance of keeping the thing moist!


Main image: S Austin; small image J Vickers

How can you get ‘inspiration’ from a £250k show garden – really?

Small Garden Design: Show gardens are just for show!


Show gardens are amazing, super expensive, but amazing.  Everything is perfect, most are incredibly beautiful and stuffed to bursting with the most beautiful plants and offset by spectacular sculptures, gazebos, patios and furniture. 


It is our glimpse at how those gardens behind elaborate electric fences would (or should) look – and we all love to dream.


My only bugbear is that very often you hear how inspirational these are and how people can take away ideas to use in their own gardens – well take a look at this (beautiful) show garden, it is beautiful because all the elements work together, but which bit can I take away and realistically use?


So if you are going to tell us that on TV or in a magazine, explain what you mean, so here you could explain that it’s elegance comes (not just from the amount of money spent) but from the fact that only 2 colours are used.  Tell us that white stone may not be the most practical colour in the UK’s climate, however if you used this paving instead, it would be an excellent substitute. Also tell us that maybe don’t use pure white flowers with the non white paving, use only lime greens for example. That way ‘us mere non designer mortals’ can actually get some useful inspiration from a show garden!

House builders planting schemes (usually)

Why do Housebuilders care so little about the gardens they build?


These little front patches are the fault of new house building firms.


  peoples gardens (41)


You can see what has happened, the site manager has said, get some plants and stick them in here to fill it up.

badly planted front

No thought, no plan and no worries for them, the poor person who moves in though will very quickly be faced with the scene below. The vinca (the blue flowered plant) is great for ground cover and grow well where very little else will…


The problem is; if you put a really tough ground cover plant in lovely new fresh sunny rich soil – it will go wild with joy and grow enormously fast …everywhere!




The vinca in the bottom picture is only a few doors away from the first house, so only a few months older and it is already swamping everything.


Few people when buying plants really consider ‘size in 5’ i.e how big will this thing be in 5 years, and don’t think ‘oh it won’t grow that much’..they do and will!  Secondly ‘fast growing’ on the label means just that, but unlike humans who stop growing once we hit adult hood, plants don’t have that STOP gene, so fast growing means fast forever.


However developers who build hundreds of homes should consider these problems for you. So why oh why do they continually use the wrong type of plants – can’t they afford expert advice? 


Make it easier, plant nicer plants please!


Gardeners can be so dull!


I like gardening, because I like to have somewhere to sit outside that is beautiful, interesting and colourful. 

I dislike the boring bits though, weeding, deadheading and aphid squishing, but they are necessary to do.

The only reason I sow seeds or take a cuttings, is because I don’t have the money to buy plants all the time, despite there being a self satisfying smugness in thinking I grew that from seed – I am inherently a lazy gardener!

So whenever I look at garden magazines or watch things on television, why is so much time is devoted doing the boring things!

Inspire me a little more,  if showing a new variety of plant, instead of describing what it looks like – there’s a picture so I can see that – tell me what to team it up with, show me the plant used in different borders.

Funnily enough it’s how shops sell clothes or department stores display their produce. So why can’t gardeners or garden centres be a little more creative?

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