I'm Jack Wallington. I'm a RHS qualified Garden Designer based in Clapham, London. Training with the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, I aim to transform people's gardens, homes and lives with outstanding garden designs. My style is contemporary and naturalistic, and I can work with any conditions, whether it's low maintenance, dry shade, full sun or even something more adventurous.
I’ve been asked by my Instagram and Twitter buddies to explain how to grow bananas and to give some tips on the floral arch we created for last year’s NGS open day, among other things I’ve recently shared on social media. You ask, I (attempt to) deliver…
How to grow banana plants
I’ve certainly seen banana plants in the UK flower and set bananas – there’s a front garden near me which always has bunches in summer – but their fruit only ripen when grown under glass, such as in the Palm House at Kew Gardens or the Eden Project biomes. Regardless, bananas are grown for their large, instantly recognisable paddle shape leaves and the good news is, they’re easy-as to grow.
I grow two banana species, one is hardy and can be left out over winter and the other is tender, brought inside to be protected from frost. Musa basjoo is the main UK hardy banana plant you see around, with its emerald green leaves. It’s hardy enough that by protecting the stems in winter from frost, they can grow into towering trees here easily. I grow Musa sikkimensis which grows in the same way but is unlikely to be quite so big. Ensete ventricosum ‘Maurelii’, the tender one, I used to put into the shed over winter but to keep it looking a little nicer, I now bring inside to our front room as a giant houseplant. For how many years I can do that until it grows too big I don’t know.
To grow a banana plant you just need to plant in rich growing media, with full sun and keep well watered. They need these conditions to fuel their rocketing growth. So fast are they that you can buy a tiny 20cm plant in spring and it will be soaring well above head height by autumn. In fact, Musa basjoo can be something of a thug, forming a large clump of banana trees, new shoots emerging around its base. This looks fantastic but you need the space. For the first year or two they are fine in large pots but will grow faster in the ground.
Key to growing large hardy banana trees is protecting the ‘trunks’ in winter (which aren’t really trunks at all but that’s another blog post). In hard frost even Musa basjoo can turn to mush above ground, though it will reshoot in spring from the base, usually with three or more new shoots. In sheltered spots they may not need protecting and in London I’ve seen a few gardens with bananas tucked next to a house wall that don’t receive any protection except from the warmth and shelter of the building. If you are less fortunate, you simply need to wrap the plants in straw and hessian tied on with twine to give them a good frost resistant jacket. Bananas in frost resistant pyjamas.
How to build a floral arch
At our last open day (our next is on 8 Sept 2019) Chris, Rosanna and I created a floral arch around our front door out of flowers I’d grown on my allotment. I used mainly dahlias plus the odd Zinnia and Achillea with Eucalyptus for foliage filler.
Many people have asked how we created this, wanting to recreate it for their open days. The truth is that it’s actually cobbled together using nails around the outside to attach long twigs to. At the top, we hung oasis (which isn’t ideal because it’s not environmentally friendly) tied to the top of the door arch. When soaked the oasis was extremely heavy. It was then an easy case of sticking the dahlias into the oasis and twigs until it looked full enough, using some string occasionally to hold it together. The flowers in the oasis lasted for about five days(!) while those in the twigs simply wilted the same day. If we do it again this year we’ll look for alternatives to oasis.
Taking winter cuttings
I’ve been taking some cuttings of plants this month to boost numbers of those I’d like more of. “Gardening Rules” tell us winter is not an ideal time to take cuttings for many plants however, rules shmooles, I find it is still possible with the right conditions (lots of light and warmth) and by choosing the right plants.
Inside I have taken cuttings of Tradescantia pallida ‘Purpurea’ (a key plant on our patio), further cuttings of Aeonium which I find root rapidly when the cut shoot is small, Ficus ‘Amstel King’ (for fun) and Opuntia polyacantha. All bar the Opunita – which I only took this week – have little formations of roots starting, in as little as three weeks.
Outside it is definitely the wrong season to be propagating, but on our warmer patio I find it’s OK. I have taken a few divisions of Persicaria ‘Red Dragon’, Pennisetum, a couple of Monarda and Cirsium rivulare among others. They’ve all put down good roots despite temperatures being at -1C. The riskiest being Pennisetum as grasses don’t like winter division at the best of times, let alone when it’s a borderline tender grass but they seem happy.
I have a few different Cordylines. Outside in the garden we have quite an old C. australis that was planted by our previous upstairs neighbours here about ten years ago. It had grown very tall and was leaning toward the sun over another neighbour’s fence and was leaning worse each year (I like wonky but this was a lean that would eventually topple it).
For a while I’ve been wanting to chop it back down from 3 metres to 1 metre to bring it back below the fence line, which would allow light back into the rest of the border beyond, bring the leaves back down into view and allow the spiky foliage to be a part of the other plants in the scheme again, rather than floating above it.
Cordylines respond well to cutting back, they’re resilient things. Ours will produce a few new sprouts over the coming months at the top of the stump, allowing me to choose how many branches it has. Inside, I’ve stripped a tender species of Cordyline of all its leaves in an attempt to rid it of a terrible mealy bug infestation and I’m pleased to say, so far, it seems to have worked. However – admission time – on inspecting the growing tips recently I accidentally snapped one off (ARGH!) because it was so fragile. Whoops! It’s taken a while to make this confession online because I wanted to wait until it re-sprouted rather than died. Thankfully, little shoots are now emerging. Phew.
I was delighted this week to discover my inability to grow a bolt upright forced Hyacinth is not unique to me, but according to plant expert Robbie Blackhall-Miles, on the wonk is how they grow in the wild. So for all floppy Hyacinth growers, your pots are simply “naturalistic” and therefore, on trend.
Earlier this month I went houseplant shopping in Hoxton with plantsman Tommy Tonsberg and picked up the above mini Paphiopedilum hybrid orchid from N1 Garden Centre. I love its intricate flower, especially the tiny black hairs. The mind boggles.
Other than that, I’ve taken order of tonnes of seeds for at home and on my allotment and have bought a few new plants for the garden (oops my bad). But really, this time of year is about paying closer attention to all of the houseplants with many bursting into growth with the central heating.
Hello vegetable fans! Recently I wrote about why I practice crop rotation on my allotment in my Telegraph column, explaining how that works because it’s the basis of everything I do. And I thought it might be helpful to share what this looks like in practice with my updated plan. Below you can see 2019’s plot and I’ve included 2018’s for reference too. You’ll see the plan isn’t totally finished (finish sminish! ) and I’ll be tweaking until I plant. I don’t spend much time doing this and I never put much detail on as I’ll work that out on the plot, the main things are the core crop rotation blocks.
Allotment plan for 2019
Allotment plan for 2018
About my allotment
I have a very busy full time job as a garden designer and writer, and my allotment is 45 minutes away by train (I don’t have a car) so I only have a couple of hours(ish) to spend on my allotment a week, usually at the weekend. This plan helps me keep things manageable with such a time poor lifestyle and although my allotment is never perfect, it is always very productive. If I can do this, anyone can! I promise.
My allotment (and indeed all of my gardening practices since I was a boy) has always been no dig, organic and wildlife friendly. This year I am not using manure because I’m aware it often comes from animals kept in low welfare conditions, something I first discovered with chicken manure pellets. I stopped using blood, fish and bone on the allotment years ago, now mainly using seaweed fertiliser and compost with a bit of my own homemade nettle and comfrey fertiliser. Making it plant based and so far this is working. You don’t need to follow this though, do what works best for you and you feel happiest with. Not digging beds helps to save time.
I use design software for my drawings as I use it for work, but the above plans could easily be recreated using Google Slides or PowerPoint. Or indeed good old fashioned pencil and paper!
If you have any questions please give me a shout below in the comments
I’ve just had the best day on my allotment for a long time. Zero degrees Celsius, literally freezing, but dry with the sun glowing, muted through low cloud. Throughout the growing season sometimes it can feel like things are all going wrong, a crop fails, weeds take over and everything simply doesn’t live up to our dreams. In reality, with each time you visit your plot and do one thing, you make a difference and over time those little things add up. Today, after I’d mulched and planted a few things, I stood back and saw that no, my allotment isn’t perfect but I’ve made a big impact on my little patch of land compared to what I found when I first started four winters ago. So if you ever feel disheartened when gardening, don’t worry because your gradual efforts will shine through in time.
I took delivery of a tonne dumpy bag of compost to spread across many of the beds as a mulch. A little later than ideal for most of the country – it’s better to mulch in late autumn while the ground is still warm – but in London where it’s warmer anytime is fine really. It took a couple of hours to complete because I was mulching beds carefully and covering with weed suppressant matting afterwards. I’ve always practised no dig gardening, where you mulch on the surface instead of digging it in. It works for me and is easy but on my allotment, where many plots are abandoned, the weeds aren’t suppressed by even a thick layer of compost. Gradually I’m switching to using cardboard to stop weeds as I love the way it creates a barrier over winter that can then be planted through in spring. But getting enough down to the allotment is always a challenge. I need a waste box supplier!
I’m very pleased with the way my winter salad crops are growing. I’ve a range of seven different types from lettuce, leaf beetroot, mustards and others. Usually I’d grow them under a cloche to protect them but this year I’m seeing how they do without. So far they’re growing wonderfully.
I’ve taken to sowing peas in pots at home and planting out when they’re growing well because I find mice or something else gets to them if sown direct. Today I planted out my peas, despite the frozen conditions, these are tough plants and will have no problem. I gave them a nice blanket of warm compost to see them off.
One of my favourite crops is the broadbean, I love the bean itself, I think they’re delicious. And I see them as a crossover from autumn to spring, the very start of the new season. My crop is performing very well this year so far. I planted a little later than normal in November and they seem to be much happier as a result. I’m looking forward to them bulking up over the next couple of months to cover the ground and stop weeds before cropping in spring.
This year I planted a lot more garlic than I ever have before. Another change is that I planted much deeper than I usually do at 10cm. The result so far is nothing short of stellar. All of the garlic is now growing away, including one slower variety I thought I’d never see which has since caught up. I’ve fallen for the romance of garlic and its hearty addition to so many meals. It’s a crop that is easy and looks exactly like those in shops. Stored in a cupboard I’ve grown very attached to always having my homegrown garlic to hand for meals.
My little orchard is in the grass to the right of my compost bins with stepover apples beyond that
When I first started my allotment I wasn’t that bothered about growing fruit except for apples. I still find soft fruits a bit faffy in terms of harvesting and getting back to the flat but I’ve somehow amassed quite a collection of fruit trees and bushes. Over the last few weeks I’ve been winter pruning my mini orchard of apples and pear trees to train them into shape. I’m growing them here as standard goblets and this is their second year on the plot. I should have some fruit this year though I’ll remove a lot early to reduce pressure on them until year three. Today I mulched my existing stepover apples, rhubarb, gooseberries and raspberry canes. That should see them all well into the summer.
I practice a five year crop rotation to reduce nasties and to allow soil to replenish nutrients between crops. At the moment I’m still deciding where everything will go – the importance of keeping notes is evident as I cannot remember where I grew everything three summers ago now! I know where the brassicas are going though, I remember that one because of the anti butterfly netting. So I mulched that bed and covered in preparation.
While I was mulching I came across a root vegetables I’d completely forgotten about: some parsnips, beetroot and salsify. I dug them out for dinner.
Other than that I’m pleased to say that the designed borders are looking happy for a good year ahead and my shed is almost fully painted. I like the pink and turquoise of the protective wrap on the windows so I’ll probably find a way to make that permanent. Most of my seeds have arrived now after choosing them at Christmas and the first activities this year will be sowing chillis, onions and chitting the potatoes.
Many trees and shrubs can be grown from hardwood cuttings, roses being one of the most common examples. Exactly as you’d expect, hard wood cuttings are lengths of woody stems covered in bark and usually planted in the dormant season when leaves have dropped between late-autumn through to late-winter. Every year I cut back my Sambucus nigra f. polyphylla ‘Black Lace’ and Buddleia davidii ‘Santana’ to the ground giving me plenty of material to take cuttings. Others plants to take cuttings from include Philadelphus, figs, gooseberries, Cornus and many more.
Hard wood cuttings cannot be easier. All you need is wood of at least a pencil thickness with leaf nodes at the top and bottom of each stick. Length depends on the plant but generally should be at least 20cm long. Which means on some plants you will have lots of leaf nodes in the middle too, while on others (like Sambucus above) the spacing is wide enough to simply have nodes at each end.
Cut closely beneath the bottom nodes at a flat angle and just above the top nodes at a diagonal. The main reason for this is to make it easier to remember which way is up, it sounds obvious but sometimes it’s hard to tell when the cutting is no longer on the plant. It also helps rain run off the top wound preventing rotting.
Armed with your propagation twigs you then just stick them in the ground burying two thirds deep, leaving only the top third above ground. Next year you will see leaves start growing again and by the end of summer, they should all have developed roots along the stem beneath the ground ready to be grown on elsewhere. Leave about 15cm of space between them. I plant them in the ground in a row on my allotment but until I am back down there, I’ve plonked them in a temporary pot (above) with some sticking out a little too far because of their length.
I thought I’d share some of my favourite edibles from my allotment, organically grown this year. Despite the most challenging conditions, with some failed crops in the drought, my allotment was more productive than any year before. I remember growing fruit and veg as a little boy, podding peas outside our little cottage, while picking daisies, and growing food is still as liberating. How has your year been?
2018 was a year in which I’ve been lucky to be washed in an overwhelming “go on you can do it” from so many people. In the year I took my landscape garden design studio from a part-time passion to a full-time venture, thank you everyone who believed in and encouraged (and hired) me. It’s your support that made it all happen.
Evolution of the jungle
It feels like our garden has reached somewhat of a natural point of evolution. When Chris and I started it, it was the only land I had and so I crammed everything in: bonsai, meadow, tropicals, topiary. It worked in its own way but with my hands now in a number of other gardeny pies – for instance on my allotment I have a mini-meadow and two mini-prairies – I think it’s time for the neon jungle to really emerge from its cocoon. Next year I plan to stop kidding myself and embrace Club Tropicana head on. I’m thinking bigger, bolder, badder, pinker, purpler.
Start-up design studio
As of this week I’ve been commissioned to design over thirty gardens and I have some exciting new designs finalised and waiting to be constructed and planted in spring which I’m extremely excited about. I know I mainly talk about our garden on my blog but it’s the designs of private gardens now that receive my full attention and focus. I’ve intentionally gone into garden design without a set style, to let my head and hands lead me and it’s interesting to look back at this point and see a number of styles and themes from my work emerging. Running a start-up business is hard work but I’ve been lucky to work with landscapers, gardeners, nurseries and clients who are brilliant and fun. It feels less like work and more that we’re collectively working to create something beautiful. It’s very satisfying being in a profession based around a craft, I feel my skills improve every day.
Writing for dinner
I’ve been writing for newspapers and magazines on and off for twenty years now but this year is the one in which I felt writing came naturally and made most sense – I feel my writing is contributing to something bigger. Rediscovering gardening a little later in life was an epiphany for me as I hope is evident through my blog – I write because I love the things I write about and want everyone to experience a bit of the joy nature brings. This year gave me the privilege of writing a weekly column for The Telegraph under the apt title “Two Hours on the Veg Plot” which is the time I manage to allot each week to my own. Over 48 columns (14,400 words) I’ve explored everything I’ve grown in detail to help and encourage anyone to grow, even in the smallest spaces such as pots. The feedback I’ve received makes me happy and the joy of writing about plants that give so much is very special, not to mention slightly comical.
Wild and carefree
If there’s one thing I’d like more of in 2019 it is the opportunity to be back in the wild. Us Wallingtons were not made to be under a roof and this year was so busy I had less time for rambling woods, meadows and hills. It’s only now I realise I completely forgot to pop out and visit one of my favourite wild orchids in late summer – it completely slipped my mind. I thrive from my time outside, I can never explain why properly in words but it’s the distraction of seeing natural beauty and wonder combined with the slap round the face that bigger forces are at work, making little daily woes seem utterly frivolous.
One of the great gifts of the gardening world is the generosity of other gardeners. I don’t know what it is but there’s something about a gardener that seems to make them givers, of knowledge, generous gifts of homegrown plants or access to their plots to enjoy their creations. This year is like no other, I’ve been welcomed into some memorable places that have not only been fun to visit, but have stayed with me, bouncing around in my head to further shape my own gardening adventures. Whether it’s how to grow squash better or entirely new ways of combining plants, I know my life is richer for the people I’ve met and places I’ve visited.
Experimenting with plant combinations
This year you may notice a shift in my thinking which I’ve only just appreciated myself. For many years I’ve been very focussed on how individual plants grow. I still am but my attention and interest has certainly moved on to how they combine with one another. Plant combinations have always been an interest of course but now I come to think of it, it’s one of my main obsessions these days and I think that’s a good thing. All of my time studying thousands of plants grow from seed to maturity helps. Most of my plant combinations are in the private garden designs I work on but you’ll see some of these trends and ideas emerging in my garden and on the allotment. I’m particularly interested in freeform borders right now where plants spread vegetatively or through self sowing over time. This makes for a far more complicated planting mix but long term I believe makes much more sense. A lot more on this to come next year…
When I finally settled on my allotment plan three years ago (here is an updated version) I earmarked a space for a shed. It felt like the right place for it, on the south boundary to not cause shade for my neighbour and slightly in the shade of a tree anyway. Since that day I’ve quietly gone about growing everything around it but I never had the pennies to make it happen. Until now!
I’ve been saving up slowly, which is harder said than done while running a start-up landscape garden design studio. However, I was halfway and then in November, my parents very generously gave me the rest of the money for my birthday (and Christmas). Well, just look at how happy I am to finally have it on the plot.
It’s funny building a shed where there wasn’t anything before. After a few hours of toil, out of nowhere there is suddenly a room to stand in with doors and windows to look out of. Sheltered from the wind it felt like I’d suddenly made the allotment home with a proper structure. Of course, sheds don’t just happen.
I could have waited until spring to buy and build the shed but I really wanted somewhere to shelter in the winter, mainly in sudden downpours, so I ordered it before the onset of winter proper. On its way, I then spent two Saturdays visiting construction shops to buy slabs and sharp sand to form a proper base. Julie Penny and Catherine Crouch gave me some great advice about using wire or mesh under the base to stop rats, and Chris Ashcroft advised about wood preserver on the base first to make it last longer. A fellow allotmenteer helped me getting the base totally level and then Chris was my muscles for hire to help construct the shed. This was done over a few days because the shed was delayed arriving by five hours on the first day, arriving in the dark – all we could do was carry it dangerously through the plot and return a week later.
But, with perseverance through the cold damp weather it is now up! And today it was sunny enough for me to start staining it the light grey I’m aiming for. It will need a couple more coats. It’s now watertight and weather proofed though, so staining and tidying up the roof felt I can take my time over. Chris bought be a camping stove and tea flask for Christmas and I can’t wait to have my first cup of tea on the plot! I’m already thinking about growing chillis inside.
I’m looking forward to sharing how it looks when finally finished and I’ve had a chance to remove the last of the rubbish behind it allowing my herb garden surrounding the shed to grow in spring.
Over the last few years I’ve been surprised at the number of tender plants that can survive outside over winter with minimal protection in our little garden. Now, in December, most of the leaves have fallen and many of our plants have died back to ground level (or just died). But the garden doesn’t rest until spring, in many ways it’s more active now than in what we call the growing season. Birds a plenty are sheltering in trees while plants, having drawn sap back into their stems and crowns, develop new swelling buds as they do. It’s at this time of year that you can see how plants are bulking up as their growing points increase in number. Our Acanthus spinosus for instance will need to be sliced in half to restrict it from growing to unmanageable proportions next year.
Rhodochiton atrosanguineus is a plant usually treated as an annual in the UK that is very perennial in our city patio microclimate. I have a number of these vines that are a couple of years old and find – as with all plants that behave like this – are very happy to keep flowering late.
This year I decided to really push the limits of plants to see what will and won’t survive outside over winter. Pachyphytum oviferum is one of a bunch of succulents I had great propagation success with and the spare plants are outside now seeing off the winter.
Aeonium arboreum ‘Zwartkop’ is another as I have lots of cuttings from last winter. I saw a green A. arboreum growing on mass around the corner outside happily during the bad winter earlier this year so I’m trying mine outside this year too.
My Hellebores are all a little early to start sending up their flowers this winter, which seems to be a trend because my snowdrops and daffodils are all growing now too. Usually I don’t see them until the new year. Look to the right of this Hellebore and you can see a further temperature experiment with a Pilea pepperomioides cutting. It’s been very happy all summer and is still OK now though some leaves are certainly dying back. I have a couple of Calathea cuttings outside in pots too and they’re still fine.
My Fuchsia triphylla is one of my favourite plants and I’ve had this one now for over four years growing outside despite being tender. Though I do offer it some protection in a sheltered corner during coldest moments. Like the Rhodochiton it’s still flowering though slowing down a little. Funnily, even my Brugmansia has the odd flower on.
This Nicotiana alata ‘Lime Green’ is flowering though has of course too slowed down. It’s a three year old plant that I originally grew from seed and have found comes back every year spreading quite aggressively by rhizome. I know for most people they don’t survive but in our sheltered raised bed they’re a little too happy.
Begonia ‘Benichoma’ is reportedly hardy and I can so far report that it does look to be.
I find Solanum atropurpureum gets too large if left, it will certainly keep growing through the winter here. So I removed the large plant last winter and this is one of its many self sown seedlings. Horror tomatoes (don’t eat them!)
In terms of other, hardier plants, my seed grown pine forest looks very happy with plants now going into their full third winter (the first was when I sowed them) looking particularly happy.
I plan to replace my three Viburnum tinus standards with topiarised yew one day and these are hopefully those plants. It will take a few years but I have some nice shapes in mind. The design for the shapes I came up with when first planning the garden four or so years ago and I still want that shape. We’ll get there one day.
Cyclamen persicum doesn’t get the love in gardens that C. coum and C. hederifolium receive because the leaves aren’t as pretty. It’s simply not as daintly. However it does have some of the best colour flowers and with some good dead heading can be kept flowering from autumn well into spring here. Of course, this one is late to the party and my white flowered C. coum will soon take over to work with the snowdrops and hellebores.
Interestingly my ferns have been frisky as their progeny seem to be appearing everywhere. As I have fifty odd different fern species I’ll need to wait until they’re larger to see what I have. In this pot alone I can already see at least four different species. Exciting.
Food wise I tend to grow most vegetables on my allotment these days though I do often start plants from seed at home to be able to water them. Above is bloody sorrel and below are my overwintering peas making great progress to be planted out on the plot in the next few weeks.
I was reading the BBC’s seven charts on climate change article and one major thing scientists say will offset increasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere, preventing global warming, is to eat less meat. Raising livestock (including fish) requires larger amounts of input than any plant based food does to grow.
Even better, if you grow food yourself there is no transportation and no packaging. Our ancestors working the earth showed us early on how to protect it. These days I don’t use cow milk, I use oat milk which I think is nicer and we eat only 30-50% dinners with meat. Usually fish or chicken but I personally prefer inventive vegetable based meals now.
Of course, there are more benefits to eating more vegetables. All of the leading disease charities encourage eating more veg and less red or processed meat to significantly lower the risk of cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s among others.
Growing your own vegetables can also increase the nutrient value of what you eat. Once picked most produce slowly starts deteriorating, which means the sooner you eat it off the plant the fresher and better for you it can be. I also find they taste nicer, fresh veg being packed with water improving its taste and texture.
Cut flowers are the main thing I’d love people to grow themselves. Step out into your garden and year round there is often more than enough to create a beautiful bunch. Plant more flowers and you’ll never need to buy them again, reducing transport and packaging.
Then there are the physical and psychological benefits of growing stuff. If you get serious about gardening, you’ll find it a good workout. Being outside in fresh air and sunlight is good for the body too. I find it can destress me a lot because when being outside my mind is occupied and not focussed on life’s little worries.
Next year I hope even more people rediscover the benefits of growing your own. A simple seed can change the world and your life. If I can do it, anyone can!
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