How do you tell whether the plants you see on sale are any good?

I have just been sent a generous sample box of evergreen hedging for review from Hopes Grove Nurseries. Looking on their website, they say they are the largest specialist hedging grower in the UK, only selling direct to the end user. I thought readers might like to know how to evaluate plants in a nursery, so here is my review.

Hopes Grove sent me a photo of their sample:

Hedge sample in nursery

And this is what I got:

Hedge sample I received

Which is pretty like the promise! In the box, I got two samples each of regular box (buxus sempervirens), dwarf box (buxus sempervirens ‘Fruticosa’), euonymus ‘Emerald n’Gold’, yew (taxus baccata) and Golden Japanese Holly (ilex crenata ‘Golden Gem’).

Looking at the RHS book on hedges, its advice on examining plants before buying is to examine roots and top growth.  One examines the roots by taking the plant out of its pot; it should have a well-developed root ball, but not be pot-bound.  There is a fine line sometimes between these two, and a few of the pots overstepped it a little with roots tightly packed in the pots, but the plants all had well-developed roots.  The top growth should be ‘robust, closely-branched and healthy’ with ‘no sign of pests or disease’.  All the samples fulfilled this except one pot of the Golden Japanese Holly which I thought was slightly sparse on top, but still mostly healthy  Here are some of the samples:

Above is the dwarf box (Buxus sempervirens ‘Suffruticosa’ which is good for edging when you want a low, formal hedge.  A healthy plant, just slightly pot-bound.

Above is Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald n’Gold’ – as you can see, a healthy, well-formed plant.

Lastly, this is the Golden Japanese Holly (Ilex crenata ‘Golden Gem’.  It seems to have a more branching habit than box, but it can be clipped in the same way and is a useful substitute as it does not get box blight.  The species plant Ilex crenata is green; this one has gold leaves though the sample did have green leaves underneath.  I would cut this back a bit on planting so it grows more densely from the bottom, thus making a better hedge.

The box and yew were both healthy and well-branched.

All of these are good plants for an all-green evergreen hedge, and Hopes Grove should be happy with their plants.


For my birthday in May, I spent the day at my nearest stately home and gardens – a small ‘stately home’ but one with an unspoilt feel, as it is not much altered since it was built in the 1550s. 

Canons Ashby used to be a twelfth century priory, and the medieval priory church still survives, with a little village around it.  The site is in the rolling gentle hills and fields of South Northamptonshire; it is an open situation and the views are lovely.

Lower beds and view

The house is an interesting place to visit in itself, however I’m concentrating on the garden here.  It was laid out in formal style in the early 18th century by Erasmus and Edward Dryden, and the layout is the same today – unlike many gardens of the era, which were obliterated in favour of the Romantic, informal style of designers like  ‘Capability Brown’.  This is one of the few Baroque gardens to survive in the UK.

Since 2008, the gardens have had a restoration programme, with planting schemes now based on the plans drawn by Sir Henry Dryden in the 1800s.

The main garden is to the south, with a simple, formal layout of 4 levels connected by steps and slopes down a gentle hill. This leads down to gates opening out onto a wide view of the surrounding countryside.

The top levels are full of bedding plants. 

Flowerbeds in front of manor house

Close-up of spring bedding

This spring bedding is replaced in summer by other colourful plants such as dahlias and fuchsias.

Here is the second terrace down.  It’s reached by broad stone steps and steep grassy slopes, which are ideal for rolling on, as children quickly find out.

Second terrace

The bottom two terraces were originally designed to be fruit gardens.  Nowadays there are also vegetables.  It’s a lovely place to wander, and one of the most beautiful settings for fruit and veg – much more open than the usual walled gardens in these kind of places.

Veg beds in Canons Ashby

Apple trees

Not pictured are a big cedar tree under which there is a croquet lawn: people play there just as they did in previous centuries.  Round the west side there is a topiary garden, containing a lovely statue of a shepherd boy and a collection of ferns.  this used to be the main approach to the house, and there is a pair of gates with magnificent pointed finials on one side.

Old entrance gates

Facilities include a tea room, a second-hand bookshop and a big picnic area.  Across the road the old priory church is worth a visit. I recommend this for a relaxing day out.

PS: I have been included on Feedspot’s ‘Top 75 Gardening Blogs’ round the world.. goodness! Here is the link to their other choices:


Update on the meadow, and May blossom

May 25, 2017

The meadow has changed radically from April to May. In April the bluebells overpowered everything else. Unfortunately Spanish ones, hard to eradicate – I take care they don’t spread beyond the garden as there is a danger they cross-pollinate with our native bluebells, almost unique to Britain. In May, I am reaping the benefits of […]

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Porcelain – the new wonder paving material

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 You may think of exquisite Chinese pots, or bathroom tiles – smooth and slippery – when you think of porcelain. But porcelain is now a fantastic non-slip material for paving, in all kinds of finishes. It’s made of earth and ground up stone, basically quartz, kaolin, feldspar and clay, fired in a hot oven then […]

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How to get ideas for your garden

January 7, 2017

It’s nearly time for gardens to come alive again. If you have recently moved, or want a change, you may be thinking how best to use your plot when it gets warmer. Where do you start? Magazines like Gardener’s World may seem overwhelming if you are not familiar with gardening or want advice on layout, […]

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Mediterranean planting with a difference

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Now is the height of the season for plants from the Mediterranean – suiting that warm but temperate climate that features mild, wet winters and hot dry summers. I aim to post this in time for you to get ideas for your garden when you go on holiday. Whether we will eventually have this climate […]

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Tropical gardens

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Now that it’s been pouring down for weeks, and we all want to go anywhere warm, here is an article from ‘Houzz’ about how to get a tropical feel in your garden.

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Action Week for Flowering Blossom (and Chelsea)

May 31, 2016

It’s time for the countryside to explode in frothy blossom. The Northamptonshire hedgerows are decked out like a wedding cake in creamy white hawthorn blossom, with masses of cow parsley flowering below it. The artist David Hockney called this short period of time ‘action week’, as everything seemed to come out at once after the […]

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Trees for small gardens

April 15, 2016

I have been designing a planting plan for a small garden, about 9m across by 11m deep, overlooked by other houses as are many new gardens nowadays. The problem is that to provide a screen one must also cut down on sunlight a little, as the garden faces southwest. I have included a tree on […]

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What plants do you need for your space?

March 21, 2016

It’s the peak season for plant buying and getting out in the garden. How do you decide what to buy for your plot? I have just designed a planting plan for a little courtyard garden, and think some of the principles I used might be useful this time of year. 1. Think when you want […]

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