Plant of the month – February

I can’t help it, I’m choosing 2 plants this month, which just happen to go superbly well together in borders or pots – Sarcococca and winter pansies.

Sarcococca, or ‘Christmas box’, is a subtle quiet unassuming little evergreen that really comes into its own in the winter months, when it produces an abundance of small white flowers up each stem – sometimes with pink or reddish tips. Berries follow, varying in colour from black, to purple and red. These persist so that they are present when the new flowers are produced.  And the perfume…just divine as you breeze past.



There are 11 species from South East Asia, China and the Himalayas, ranging from the largest at 2m tall, Sarcococca confusa, to the spreading ground cover plant S. hookeriana var. humilis, which makes a good alternative to traditional box edging. It suckers, like most of the species excepting S. confusa, but it can be easily controlled.

Other notable species include S. ruscifolia var. chinensis, a slightly smaller shrub than S. confusa which flowers profusely, all the way up the stem. It has nice, thick leaves and red berries which are popular with florists. Another nice species is S. hookeriana var. digyna, which has narrow leaves giving it a graceful look, leading Graham Stuart Thomas to name it “one of the nicest small shrubs of this type that I know”.

There is a form called ‘Purple Stem’ which has reddish purple flower buds and young stems. The less hardy species S. saligna has even longer, narrow leaves. This is one species whose flowers have little or no scent at all.

Sarcococcas can grow on a wide range of soils, including dry, chalky or acid, which makes them very useful. They can therefore cope with tricky spots such as dry shade and under trees with extensive roots. But they can also be planted in full sun, though then they will need more moisture in the soil. The hardiest species are S. confusa, S. hookeriana var. digyna and S. hookeriana var. humilisS. saligna and S. ruscifolia are best suited to southern gardens or need to be given winter protection.

It is happy as a single specimen in pots, in the garden, or it can be used as an alternative to box as a hedge.  It also happens to be very happy growing in dry shade, making it very useful for shady borders and under trees.  It is perfectly hardy, and happy in most well drained soils, chalky or acid, making it incredibly useful.  Paired with pansies or other winter flowering plants, it makes for a very cheery and multi-sensory display.

Winter pansies

Winter pansies, and their smaller sisters, violas, are tough plants that provide a wide range of colours from an almost black purple to oranges, velvet ruby and raspberry pink, and every shade of blue and yellow throughout winter and they’ll cope with the very worst weather.  They’ll often have a blotch or ‘face’ which, combined with their colourful and blousy blooms, make for a heartwarming sight.  This, at a time of the year when most of the garden is hibernating, means every garden should have them (in my opinion!).  They are as happy in pots and baskets as they are planted out in the garden as winter bedding.


The name “pansy” is derived from the French word pensée, “thought”, and was imported into Late Middle English as a name of Viola in the mid-15th century, as the flower was regarded as a symbol of remembrance.

Pansies, and their cousins viola’s, originate from the Viola tricolour.  ‘Heartsease’, as it is commonly known, is a small plant of creeping habit, reaching at most 15 cm in height, with flowers about 1.5 cm in diameter. It grows in short grassland on farms and wasteland, chiefly on acid or neutral soils. It is usually found in partial shade, and flowers from April to September (in the northern hemisphere). The flowers can be purple, blue, yellow or white. They are hermaphrodite and self-fertile, pollinated by bees.

Traditional uses

As some of its names imply, heartsease has a long history of use in herbalism. It has been recommended, among other uses, for epilepsy, asthma, skin diseases, and eczema.  V. tricolor has a history in folk medicine of helping respiratory problems such as bronchitis, asthma, and cold symptoms.

It has expectorant properties, and so has been used in the treatment of chest complaints such as bronchitis and whooping cough. It is also a diuretic, leading to its use in treating rheumatism and cystitis.  The flowers have also been used to make yellow, green and blue-green dyes, while the leaves can be used to indicate acidity.


In the early years of the 19th century, Lady Mary Elizabeth Bennet (1785–1861), daughter of the Earl of Tankerville, collected and cultivated every sort of Viola tricolor (commonly, heartsease) she could procure in her father’s garden at Walton-upon-Thames, Surrey. Under the supervision of her gardener, William Richardson, a large variety of plants was produced via cross-breeding. In 1812, she introduced her pansies to the horticultural world, and, in 1813, Mr. Lee, a well-known florist and nurseryman, further cultivated the flower. Other nurserymen followed Lee’s example, and the pansy became a favourite among the public.

About the same time that Lady Bennett was busy cultivating heartsease, James, Lord Gambier was doing the same in his garden at Iver under the advice and guidance of his gardener William Thompson. A yellow viola, Viola lutea, and a wide-petalled pale yellow species of Russian origin, Viola altaica were among the crosses that laid the foundation for the new hybrids classed as Viola × wittrockiana, named for the Swedish botanist Veit Brecher Wittrock (1839–1914). A round flower of overlapping petals was the aim of some early experimenters; in the late 1830s a chance sport that no longer had narrow nectar guides of dark color on the petals but a broad dark blotch on the petals (which came to be called the “face”), was found. It was developed in Gambier’s garden and released to the public in 1839 with the name “Medora”.

By 1833, there were 400 named pansies available to gardeners who once considered its progenitor, heartsease, a weed. Specific guidelines were formulated for show pansies but amateur gardeners preferred the less demanding fancy pansies. About this time, James Grieve developed the viola and Dr. Charles Stuart developed the violetta, both smaller, more compact plants than the pansy.

Winter flowering pansies are short-lived perennials, which really means they should last for at least three years but, because of their tendency to get leggy and increasingly less floriferous, they are best treated as annuals.  They often bloom in the autumn, rest briefly whilst the days are darkest in December and early January, and then start to truly shine, blooming away as the days lengthen.  Regular deadheading and a feed high in potassium, such as Tomorite, will keep them at their best and continuously blooming.  They are happy in sun or partial shade, and moist but well drained soils.  Why not treat yourself (and the bees!) this February if you haven’t already?!

Know your plants – February Ecotherapy Activity

Your garden can be your sanctuary, even if you don’t consider yourself to be a gardener or want to spend much time tending it.  This little exercise teaches you how to evaluate the plants in your garden and how to slowly, carefully transform your garden into a more positive and rich place to be.

Choose a favourite plant in your garden.  Make a list of all the reasons why you like it and its positive attributes.  How does the plant make you feel?  What does it bring to the garden? Does it hold any special memories?  Really take the time to get to know the plant, its leaves, its bark, the number of petals in its flowers; how the leaves are arranged around the stem (do they grow opposite each other, or alternately up the stem, either on two sides or in a spiral).  How does it feel to touch, does it have a scent (leaves or flowers)?  Research it if you can to find out more about the plant’s origins and needs and wishes.  Do you know how to care for it? If not, research this too.  How is it pollinated?  Is there anything you would change about the plant if you could?  Are there any negative attributes? List these too.

Now you know more about the plant do you love it even more? Does it inspire you to care for it more or do you already take good care of it?  Ask yourself if this plant reflects a little bit of you and how you feel, or want to feel?  If it does, is this a feeling you would like to bring to the whole garden?  If not, are there different feelings you would like to bring to different parts of the garden?  Identify them.

Armed with this knowledge, do the same for a plant that you don’t like or feel ambivalent to.  When you’ve done this, ask yourself if you still want to keep the plant, or perhaps replace it with a different plant that makes you feel more positive.  If you choose to keep it, perhaps now it won’t seem such a negative influence in the garden, and you will better understand and be more willing to care for it.  If you think you would like to replace it, then you are better equipped with the knowledge to choose a suitable replacement that you will like, that will bring positive vibes to the garden.

You can over time repeat this exercise for all your plants if you wish, and you can use this to help you when choosing new plants for the garden too.

Right job, Right time: An effortless action plan for a gorgeous garden – Febuary

Now that the worst of the winter darkness has passed; the days are getting longer and the sun is gaining strength, plants are starting to think seriously about waking up for the year ahead.  Buds will start to swell, and the early bulbs will start to flower.  There are a few timely tasks to do this month to set yourself up for a great garden through the spring and summer.

Cut back roses – for detailed advice and ‘how to’ guides I suggest referring to the RHS website , but as a general rule, prune back shrub and hybrid tea roses to 1/3 of their height, choosing an outward facing bud and cutting about an inch above it at a 45o angle.  Rambling roses are best pruned in late summer, removing the stems that flowered that year and tiying in the new growth for the following year, but climbers can be pruned now.  Remove 1-2 of the oldest looking stems as close to ground level as possible, and cut down remaining stems by 1/3 -1/2 keeping the heights of stems slightly different each time so as to look more ‘natural’, rather than sheared!


Prune Acers (Japanese maples) as they start to show signs of buds swelling slightly.  This swelling indicates that the sap is starting to rise, and so any bacteria introduced from pruning cuts will move out of the stems rather than in, thus reducing the chances of disease and die-back.  Aim to thin out crowded and crossing branches, and reduce the stems to the size of plant that you want (remembering it will grow over the year!)

Cut back grasses, perennials and ferns ready for the new growth in spring

Move and plant any shrubs during this month

“Feed the birds”.  We’ve said it before, but we’ll say it again!  Please keep putting out food and water for hungry birds, including those visiting us over winter from colder climes.  Sunflower hearts are hugely popular for many species of bird, and ground feeders will appreciate foods high in fat and protein – specialist ground feeding mixes, mealworms, or cheese, oats and egg.

Sowings of many summer bedding plants, such as geranium, petunia and nicotiana along with some perennials, can be made in a propagator, in a heated greenhouse or on a windowsill at a temperature of approximately 21ºC (70ºF),. Take care not to sow too thickly or over-water as this can lead to the seedlings damping off (small patches of them suddenly dying for no apparent reason). Many people find that it’s best to pour the seed into the palm of their hand first, rather than sowing it directly from the packet. If seed is very fine, it can be mixed with silver sand to make it easier to sow thinly and evenly across the surface of the compost. Also during this month cuttings may be taken from chrysanthemums that have been over-wintered.

Vegetables that can be sown now include broad beans, peas, leeks, onions, peppers and aubergines (the latter two in pots in the greenhouse)


Remember to regularly deadhead pansies, primulas along with other winter/spring bedding plants as, depending on the temperature, you may find they flower at varying times. Also by removing faded flowers this will help to prevent seeds setting which in turn reduces flower performance.

This month is also a great month to renovate lawns or lay new turf.

5 of the best winter flowering shrubs

Flowering shrubs are perhaps no more welcome than in the winter months, with its bleak, short days and long nights, and when many plants are resting and bare.  They command our attention and brighten our view, particularly when planted where their flowers are easily seen against a darker background such as a fence or evergreen hedge.  If the blooms have attractive fragrance as well, this makes them all the more desirable, especially to the blind or partially sighted.

Winter heathers (Erica carnea)

These wonderful often fragrant shrublets have sadly been somewhat out of fashion in recent years, after a boom in the 60’s and 70’s.  But I’m glad to say they are beginning to make a comeback, and rightly so, for their compact habit and valuable winter flowers make for a very useful and attractive plant.  Being small, they make great winter pot and basket plants, where the extra height makes the scent all the more accessible when we breeze past.  They also make good ground cover in acidic soils, and can cope with shade.  The key to keeping them looking good and flowering well is a good trim all over in the spring after they have flowered. Take off about 1.5 – 2.5 cm of foliage.


Viburnum are a popular shrub in the UK thanks to their tough, hardy, resilient behaviour in almost any garden situation. The deciduous Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Charles Lamont’ gives excellent winter colour with pretty pink, heavily scented flowers, borne on the bare stems from November to March. It also makes good cut stems to enjoy in a vase indoors.  Alternatively, for an evergreen winter flowering viburnum, try V. tinus;  ‘Eve Price’, ‘Gwenllian’, and ‘French White’ are all good varieties for the garden.


Hamamelis is a beautiful larger winter-flowering shrub, commonly known as witch hazel. Its spicy fragrance and spidery flowers on bare stems in yellow, orange and reds make it a must for the winter garden.  Try Hamamalis x intermedia ‘Pallida’ for one of the best yellows.  It also happens to have the added bonus of good autumn colour.


Oh Daphne, one of my most favourite plants.  It’s a tricky customer, but get it right and you will be rewarded with the most amazing heady fragrance from its clusters of white, pink tinged flowers atop evergreen foliage on most species. They need a sheltered position in light shade.  Try Daphne odora ‘aureomarginata’, or if you come across the rarer Daphne bholua var. glacialis ‘Gurkha’ – deciduous back of the border plant with amazing sweet scent.

Chimonanthus praecox

Aka wintersweet, in its summer clothes, Chimonanthus praecox is an unassuming shrub with long droopy leaves. Come winter, though, the leaves are gone and the bare branches throw out clusters of dangly, yellow star-shaped flowers that pack a perfumed punch.  They are prized by flower arrangers who use their stems to fill the house with scent.  Try ‘Grandiflorus’ which has pale yellow flowers with a purple heart.

Series: 20 ways to make your garden a sanctuary

20 ways to make your garden a sanctuary

Welcome to this new series which will showcase 20 ways you can make your garden more enriching, engaging and enlivening for you and all the family.  Over the course of 12 months, you will discover tips, tricks and techniques to help you create your own sanctuary, just like we do for our ‘good causes’ here at Project Nurture.  .

Creating a garden is about more than just a few shrubs, mowing the lawn in summer, and a place to grow some veggies.  Your garden could and should be a place of relaxation, restoration, and revival; a special place which is a joy to be in and to use.  These 9 top tips will help you to think about how to make your garden your sanctuary.

  1. Wonder at wildlife

Choose nectar rich flowers such as sedums, buddleia, chives and asters, and you’ll enjoy an impressive show of helpful insects including butterflies, bees, hoverflies and lacewings.  It’s a perfect relationship – we provide food and nourishment, they eat pests and enrich our garden with movement, colour and life.  Make sure to provide a bird bath too, the birds will be very grateful and reward you with their cheerful twitterings and playful activity.

Hungry goldfinch!

Hungry goldfinch!

  1. Light the way

Create a restful atmosphere in the evening with subdued lighting.  And the good news is that you don’t have to call out an electrician.  Candlelight is a quick and easy way to give you style on a budget.  It’s also a great way to try out different lighting effects and how you might want to illuminate the garden more permanently in the future with electric lights.  Another option is solar lights.  These can often be picked up fairly cheaply at the beginning of the summer in shops and supermarkets.  You can also get solar fairy lights which look delightful all year round strung around a favourite tree.  Lighting is a great way to extend your enjoyment of the garden in the evenings and shorter days.  Another idea is to use mirrors – they are a great way to bounce light around, and create a sense of space and intrigue at the same time.


January Plant of the month – Teasel



Teasel in flower. Image courtesy of

This time of year, I find myself particularly drawn to exploring nature outside my garden, and take advantage of the ‘quiet’ time for gardening to go on plenty of walks.  One of my favourites is round my local reservoir lakes, where there are thousands of birds, both visitors and residents alike, enjoying the plentiful bounty on offer and the safe haven these lakes provide.  One of my favourite plants at this time of year as I walk round is the Teasel or Dipsacus fullonum if you know it by its Latin name.  Teasels are probably most commonly known for their brown, prickly stems and conical seed heads which persist long after the plants themselves have died back for the winter. They stand tall amongst the grass, having provided a summer buffet of nectar for bees from the tiny purple flowers (which cluster together and appear in rings up and down the flower head), and an autumn harvest of niger seeds for birds, particularly the beautiful goldfinch.  To me, they are such cheerful little things, greeting me with a little wave as I pass by; “hi, good to see you” they say!  They also look simply stunning when blanketed with frost on those beautiful cold crisp January days, very Instagram worthy!  I love them, and these dear little natives are my plant for January.

You can enjoy them at home too in your borders – seeds are readily available in garden centres etc.  Try grouping several of them together for a better, more deliberate looking show in the perennial border.  And of course the bees and birds will love you for it!

January Plant problem – xylella

Plant pests and diseases are often sore points for gardeners, as invariably each season brings a new threat to our prized plants.  However small outbreaks of pests are best left for the birds to find and eat their way through.  Each month we bring you updates and advice on what may be causing you problems, and how best to deal with it.  If you have any plant problems that you would like to know about, please contact us and we will endeavour to answer it in the next blog in this series.


This month we focus on a new and rather serious threat to UK plants; the bacterial disease Xylella.  It has spread with worrying speed across Europe, but has yet to reach our shores.

Xylella (Xylella fastidiosa) was first found in Europe in 2013, killing many thousands of olive trees in Puglia, Italy.  Since then it has been found in France, Spain, the Balearic Islands and Germany on numerous ornamental plants and trees.  Xylella can affect at least 359 species across 75 different families, including many herbaceous plants and trees we commonly grow in gardens such as hebe, lavender, rosemary, oak, cherry, almond, ivy and floribunda roses.

The UK horticulture industry is on high alert to try and prevent this disease from coming to our shores, and we need to be ready to respond promptly if it does arrive.

Xylella is a bacterium that infects and clogs up the water conducting vessels (xylem) of plants, affecting the plant’s ability to adequately distribute water to its cells, leaves and stems.  This can lead to symptoms including leaf scorch, wilt, die back, and plant death, which can occur quickly.  Unfortunately these symptoms are not unique to Xylella and are easily confused with other diseases, or environmental causes of plant stress, and some plants are asymptomatic making them even harder to detect.  Xylella can only therefore be confirmed by lab testing, including plants known to be susceptible and sourced from disease affected areas.


Cross section of a stem. Image courtesy of

Xylella is spread between plants by water vessel feeding insects such as common froghoppers and leaf hoppers.  Although insects spread the disease locally between plants, and can move within a radius of 100m from the plant, long distance movement of plants via trade is the main threat, especially for the UK as an island.

The UK government and horticulture industry are working hard to keep the disease out, and there are numerous measures and agreements between government and industry in place both to prevent the importation of plants from infected areas, and a highly planned and advanced response if it is discovered in the UK.   As home gardeners, we can ask questions about the origins of the plants that we buy, and where possible opt for UK grown plants in preference to imported plants.

Ecotherapy Activity – January

January is traditionally the time to reflect on where we are, and it can often be the time we set goals and resolutions for the next year.  This short but wholesome reflection on ourselves and our life can ease the often felt pressure of resolution setting and keeping.  It can help you to understand yourself and whether your goals and resolutions really match your values and where you are in your life; whether ultimately the goals you thought you wanted to set are helpful and productive, or just more stress.

Your Tree of Life for 2018

Choose a tree and stand next to it

What makes up your ‘roots’?

Think of the roots going deep into the ground anchoring the tree into the earth to help it withstand the winter winds, and those that are the feeder roots, seeking nutrients and water, which are needed on a daily basis.  Think of all the things that give you your ‘roots’, your anchoring roots that give you the strength to withstand ‘winter winds’, and those that ‘feed’ you on a daily basis.  Write them down or draw them.

The tree stands solid in the ground.  It is ‘here’, and many trees serve as landmarks and way finders.  Where are you at the moment? Are you ‘here’?  Describe this in a few sentences.

DSC_1442The trunk and its branches stretch up and out in all directions, shaped by both its genetics and its environment.  Does this reflect your own growth?  The branches reach out into the air towards the light.  The thinnest and youngest twigs carry the leaves and the fruit, but need supporting by the older branch’s achievements and growth.  What are the fruits of your life?  What things have you been pleased to have ‘produced’?  What achievements are those new productive branches built on?

Holly fruit

What ‘fruit’ do you want to produce this year?

Think of the new leaves that will grow in the spring, the flowers and fruit it will produce, and how that depends on its roots and its environment.  What new leaves and fruit do you want to produce this year?  Do you need to put some effort into strengthening your ‘roots’ so that you can grow stronger and withstand more ‘winter winds’ or do you need more daily ‘nutrition’?  Do you need to grow new branches in a different direction, towards a better environment? Or do you need to fill in a gap in your ‘canopy’?

If you want to share your reflections, please feel free to do so in the comments below.  And please Note that this is not intended to replace professional help and support, and if this exercise brings up any difficult and hard to manage emotions or thoughts, please seek the advice of a medical professional.

Copyright Hannah Hobbs 2018

Right job, right time: an effortless action plan for a gorgeous garden

Welcome to Project Nurture’s new blog!  Each week we will publish a new post based on 4 series that will run throughout the year, with the occasional one off topical article.  Please follow us and get tips and advice on all things garden, nature and ecotherapy.  We really hope you will enjoy and we would love to hear your feedback.
Whether your garden is big or small, if you want a beautiful and richly rewarding garden, it’s important to tackle the right jobs at the right time.  By doing just a little bit each month, you’ll have plenty of time to enjoy to fruits of your labour.  This blog series gives you monthly advice & actions for your garden.  Start enjoying your garden more!

January to do

It’s usually fairly quiet this month apart from perhaps starting to raise plants from seed and trying to keep the garden looking good. So why not take time to relax in the warmth of your home, and think about what you would like to grow and where this year. Perhaps make yourself a little mood board from magazine pictures or internet images to inspire you and refer to throughout the year.  Also, now is the perfect time to think about any changes you would like to make to the garden, such as a new patio, pergola or even a partial or full redesign.  Research and make contact with a couple of garden designers if you need help or inspiration. Or look at our Pinterest boards and get in touch!  January can be a tough month for many, and this activity may just help to lift your mood a little even on a cold, miserable day.

Continue to plant bare root roses, hedging,

bare root hedging
Bare root hedging

raspberries and other soft cane fruit. However, if soil conditions are unsuitable when you receive your plants, plant them temporarily in a spare piece of land or pot to prevent the roots drying out, until there is an improvement.  Make sure there is adequate wind protection (stakes and ties if necessary) for these new and more delicate friends!


To let in more light, the greenhouse roof can be washed down removing dirt and grime. It is also a good idea to empty and clean water-butts and gutters. Trays and pots can be cleaned ready for use. Another idea is for tools and equipment such as lawnmowers to be cleaned, sharpened and serviced.

If you haven’t done so already, stand planted patio pots up on feet so that they are slightly raised from direct contact with the ground, to improve drainage and reduce water logging. Also during very cold spells move them to a sheltered position or cover them (and the pot) in fleece.

naughty leaves

Naughty leaves!

Disperse worm casts in lawns and pick up any debris and leaves that fall to help prevent the spread of disease and moss, and the smothering of delicate grass plants.  If the lawn is frosty or the soil is very damp, don’t walk on it as it will damage the cells of the grass and the structure of the soil which is important for a healthy lawn.



Inspect stored tubers of Dahlia, Begonia and Canna, and stored apples and veg for rots or drying out.  Cut out any areas of rot and re-wrap in new paper, sawdust or straw.

Prune apple and pear trees, and fruit bushes.  Aim to thin out crossing or overcrowded branches, and reduce height.  Prune just above a bud if reducing height.

Start forcing rhubarb. Dormant clumps of early rhubarb can have buckets or forcing jars placed over them.  This will encourage stems to form giving an early harvest.

Hungry goldfinch!

Hungry goldfinch!

Please keep putting out food and water for hungry birds, including those visiting us over winter from colder climes.  Sunflower hearts are hugely popular for many species of bird, and ground feeders will appreciate foods high in fat and protein – specialist ground feeding mixes, mealworms, or cheese, oats or egg.


Leave netting in place that was put over ponds last month so as to prevent any falling leaves from going in. Also if any filters or pumps haven’t been removed yet it may be worthwhile doing so thereby avoiding any damage from freezing water during cold winter spells.

That’s it folks, we hope you can shake off the January blues in the garden just a little bit.

Coming next week: Plant and problem of the month!


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