Saturday, 29 December 2012

Cerney House Gardens

Winter, a time to reflect on gardens visited earlier in the year...

Back in June I went to Cerney House gardens, which truly is a "hidden treasure" of the Cotswolds. You need a map and directions to find it, as it's tucked away up a narrow winding lane, and you have to drive up and up, far beyond where you would think it would be. Suddenly you find yourself on what is clearly the entrance to a proper "old" estate, and then you get directed into a field to park.. and that's it. No-one on gate duty, no-one to tell you where to go, and no-one in sight.

Using your native intelligence, you walk up past what appears to be someone's private cottage, and eventually you find the way in, greeted only by an Honesty box, into which you slip the money.

Don't you think, by the way, that the whole Honesty Box thing is so typically and wonderfully English-garden? Where else could you just leave a flimsy wooden box with an invitation to drop money into it, and still find it there at the end of the day? With money in it? I do the same at my Plant Sales Bench, there is a sturdy wooden box, and although sometimes I am disappointed, most of the time it contains the right money. Wonderful!

Anyway, after popping the money in the slot (as always, nervous and uncomfortable, and strongly feeling the desire to wave the coins aloft as much as to say to any hidden camera "Look! I'm paying!") you go through the doorway into basically a walled garden, set sideways along a slope.

I've been there twice now, and have never seen another soul... not another visitor, no gardeners, no-one trying to flog me garden tat or ludicrously expensive guide books, no-one.


The overall effect is delightfully shabby, with a good set of weeds, and a fair amount of topiary waiting to be trimmed, but that only adds to the Sleeping-Beauty charm of the place.

It also benefits from being set partly in, partly across a steep valley, so there are no vast empty spaces on the treeline, but a nice comforting feeling of being enclosed.

This is, I have to say, the sort of garden in which I could work, and work... and work....

The layout is more or less simple straight strips along the slope, like contour lines made into hedges, which give a succession of vistas. Here's one, with a cute little stone summerhouse at the far end:

As you can see, herbaceous borders, more or less tidily fulfilling the instructions of "big ones at the back, little ones at the front" and frankly, it's a perfectly sensible way to arrange things.

Being an amateur photo, the general effect here is of a mass of greenery with splodges of colour, but in real life it was somewhat more organised. There was a feeling of colour co-ordination, not slavishly, but melting gently from one shade into another as you strolled along the grassy paths.

In one strip I found the classic box-edged  "knot" gardens - well, every garden of this size has to have them - but they had made a bit of a twist: the knots contained fruit trees, making it impossible to see the overall pattern of the knots. Not exactly standard!  Also, and I really liked this idea, they were pretty much empty.

I gathered from some scattered labels that they are stuffed with tulips in Spring, and that must be a sight to be seen. Then they seem to grow some of their veg in them - you can see,  below, the remains of a runner-bean wigwam - and other than that, they leave them bare.

As you can see, desperately in need of clipping (this was in June) but nonetheless still very attractive.

I was rather taken with that idea, to have nothing but spring flowers and fruit trees in my knots - although I expect I'd get tired of trying to clip intricate hedges with an apple tree snagging my hair and poking me in the eye, so I'd probably either skip the fruit trees, or (more likely) prune off their lower boughs to allow clear access to the box.

At the back of the garden I came across a nice use of foliage: a run of Cotinus coggyria, probably "Royal Purple", all substantial shrubs but cut down to stumps a mere two foot off the ground, and allowed to grow super dark foliage at knee height.

The stumps were at least 8-9" across, so they must have been quite hefty specimens at one point; I always love to see evidence of someone who is even more hard-hearted at cutting things down, than I am.

There - isn't that lovely?

Fabulous foliage right where you can see it,  terrific contrast with the other greenery, and a nice compliment to the wall behind.

It would have been so easy to have left them as standard shrubs, and I have no idea if the drastic chop was intentional, or the result of damage or disaster: but it certainly works.

After wandering up and down the strips a few times, I found my way to the far end of the garden, containing a raised area for herbs.  Not just your average sage and chives, but genuine "herbal" herbs, all beautifully labelled with their names and former uses. And in some cases, a warning!

Beyond that, again, I found the working area, comprising greenhouses, composty heaps (always of interest) and rows of plants in pots, presumably cuttings that were being grown on ready for use in the garden proper.

I love to see that sort of thing, it's always interesting to me to see how others do it. Round the back of the greenhouse seemed to be a woodland walk that is probably wonderful in spring, and returning to the main walled garden, I made my out past the "house" gardens (far too shy to go and have a good look at them), past the ice house, and back up the main drive to the parking field.

And still, in two visits, not another person in sight. *sigh* perfect...

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Friday, 28 December 2012

Double Digging: don't do it!

I was given a book for Christmas: called, intriguingly, The BAD tempered Gardener" by Anne Wareham.

It seemed like a whimsical play of words on Christopher Lloyd's book about the Well-tempered garden, and seems to be written by a lady who genuinely loves gardening, but at the same time, really, really hates it. She loves the effect, but hates the hard work involved.  You should hear her on the subject of double digging!

Mind you, you should hear me on the subject: summed up by the phrase "Nope."  I don't do double-digging: in my opinion it is one of those exploded myths, that has been scientifically proven to be a waste of time, but which people still seem to torture themselves with.

What is double digging?  Oh, it's horrible - you start at one end of a plot, generally a vegetable plot of the old-fashioned large allotment size. You dig out the first strip to a depth of one foot deep, putting the soil onto a piece of plastic or into a wheelbarrow. This leaves you with a trench. You then fork over the bottom of this trench to loosen the soil, and add some manure.You then dig the second strip, turning the soil over into the first trench. Thus creating a second trench. Whose bottom you then fork over, and add manure. You then dig the third strip, flipping the soil into the second trench. And so on. When you reach the end, you trundle round the soil from the first strip, and tip it into your final trench.

Simple, huh?

No mention of the fact that more than one spit deep, your soil turns into solid blue clay that weighs a ton, breaks your back, refuses to slide off the spade, and when scraped off with a stick, lies there as though awaiting the potters wheel, looking about as far from "fine tilth" as it is possible to get.

No mention of the fact that all your decent topsoil is therefore buried under a layer of clag, stones and whatnot, leaving cracks and lumps in equal numbers.

Nor any mention of the fact that you are unable to plant anything into this mess for several months, until the top layer has weathered down a bit, to the point where it becomes possible to break it up into clods.

Nope! As I say, "exploded theory", it is now accepted that double digging ruins the soil structure, destroys all those lovely interactive eco-systems of worms, beetles etc, and does not bring new vitamins and minerals to the surface. It's what I call "received wisdom" which is also known as "blindly doing what you were told to do, even though there are patently better ways of doing it."

OK, on soil that has been badly compacted over many years, ie under mown grass, or on a new build site, then you would need to aerate the soil - but frankly,  in either of those situations I would seriously consider hiring a chap with a rotavator. Or just tipping compost on the top and letting the worms get on with it. Or planting spuds, and letting them loosen it up. There are many options other than double digging, and there are very few instances where double digging is the right and only thing to do.

Let me tell you a story about the Sunday roast.  It's a joke, ok, not a true story:

Newly married husband compliments wife on her Sunday roast. "Mmm, very tender" he says. "Glad you enjoyed it," she responds, "Roasts are dead easy, your turn next week." (it's a proper, modern, marriage.)

Next week, his turn to cook the roast: being less good at cooking than her (give him time, he'll learn) he asks advice on several points, and is reminded to cut off the end of the roast before putting it in the oven.

"Why?" he asks.
"To make it tender" she replies.

Afterwards, being of an enquiring turn of mind, he is thinking about this issue. "Why, exactly, should cutting off the end make it more tender?" he asks. "Dunno," she says, "I've always done it." Continued discussion leads to the fact that it was her mother who taught her to do this.

They visit the mother and ask her.

"Oh, yes," replies the mother, "Always cut the end off the joint, makes it tender, always done it." Cross-examination leads to the fact the it was her own mother, in turn, who taught her this.

They rush off to the nursing home and find the ancient grandmother. When asked why she taught her daughter to cut the end of the roast off, she replied "so it would fit in the dish, of course."

There you go, the classic demonstration of  Received Wisdom: doing it a certain way because it has always been done a certain way, without ever asking why... or whether it can be done better, faster, easier, some other way.

In gardening, you should always challenge Received Wisdom. It's easy - and after all, it's not as though gardening were something vital like open heart surgery, which is clearly a sphere in which you definitely would stick to the Received Wisdom: "shall I cut this artery open before I clamp it? Hmm, everyone says you should clamp first, cut second. Guess I'll do what everyone else does, in this case. "

No, unlike surgery, gardening is a field in which mistakes, in the biggest sense of the word, really don't matter very much. The worst you are likely to do is kill a plant or two. But you might make some really useful discoveries.

As a point of interest, SmugAmanda used to boast about her mass bulb planting style: she would lift an area of turf, scrape out some of the soil below, scatter a handful of bulbs and press the turf back down on top. No time wasted setting the bulb the "right" way up - she would just dump them in, and bury them. Saved her hours of time, considerable backache, and the results were 100%  flowering, regardless of which way up the bulbs were.

Now, any gardener can tell you about bulbs that have been found upside down but still sprouting beautifully, I know that I've found a few over the years.  But not all that many... I also know that many bulbs have contractile roots with which they pull themselves deeper into the soil, so it's not too much of a stretch to imagine that some bulbs are capable of "turning" themselves right side up in the soil.

So SmugAmanda was right in her slapdash planting style - it really doesn't matter about "setting" the bulbs beautifully upright.

A good example of a time when ignoring Received Wisdom was the right thing to do. Refusing to double dig is, I feel, another good example.  Taken to extremes, you get the "no dig" veg garden system, whereby you use heavy planks or sleepers to create small, accessible raised beds, fill them with good soil,  plant your veg,  and never, ever have to dig them over. Just weed out the weeds, lift out the produce, gently fork over with a hand-tool, or rake it level, and re-sow.

The trick is to get the beds sufficiently narrow that you can reach to the centre from each side, so you don't need to tread on it to weed or harvest. If it never gets compressed by your big gardening boots, then it never needs to be dug over, just "fluffed up" as necessary.

All of which is a long way from reviewing a book, but very much in the spirit of it!

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Wrapping Hydrangeas for the winter: Part II

Talking of last week - as it's been too cold to work this week - I did a bit more Hydrangea-wrapping, for those who expressed an interest.

 Actually, it was about two weeks ago - my, how time does fly - and this was a special case.

Firstly here is the hydrangea in question, surrounded by a sea of Brunnera, with a splendid fern adjoining it.

The first job was to gently tie up the fronds of the fern, to keep it safely out of the way.  Not rocket science - just make a loop, place it a third of the way up the plant, and gently pull it tight. Then make a couple more loops, above and below, and pull them tight as well.

This keeps all the fronds neat, and prevents anyone stepping on the base of it. "Stepping on it?" you ask? Yes, stepping on it - for we are expecting the tree surgeon and his men in the near future, and the more precious items in this area are going to need protection.

 Step 2: chop back all the Brunnera. They won't take any harm from the chopping, and I suspect they won't actually be badly hurt by being trodden on, but we will see.

Originally I suggested to my client that we cut them down in a strip, to make a clear pathway, to encourage the men and their big boots not to trample the entire bed.  But on reflection, we decided that it's a huge tree, and the men would be working with a massive amount of wood, being both heavy and dangerous, so it would make more sense for us to protect the plants, leaving them to trample the area as much as they needed to.

I had already moved "Pat Elmore" (the sculpture) to a safe place under the trees, along with her plinth, so all we had to do was cut down/dig out/cover upwhat was to remain.

Once the fern was tied up and the Brunnera chopped back, it began to look a little more hopeful: I carefully dug up and potted some nice Aster divaricatus or Wood Aster (now apparently known as Eurybia divaricata, hate the way they keep changing the names...) which have delicate white daisy-like flowers on long, lax, black stems which zig-zag around, hence the name: just think of diversions, divaricatus, it will all make sense.

A couple of other treasures were dug up and potted, and a couple of less-treasured items, such as the Digitalis ferruginea on the left, were left to fend for themselves, along with the geranium at the Corsican Ivy at the back.

This clearance revealed another Aster divaricatus which had been hiding - there it is, on the left - so I whipped that one out as well, and stuffed it into a pot.

Well, I say "stuffed it into..", by which I mean that I carefully and lovingly potted it up.

Then the Hydrangea was trussed up in fleece, like a rather unappetising Christmas turkey.

But, aha, I can hear you thinking that I didn't make a very good job of wrapping this one up.

Well, there's a reason, and here it is:

 Yes, the incomparable romance of an upturned dustbin standing on a couple of bricks.

If the tree men still manage to break the Hydrangea after all this, well, then I guess it was just meant to be...

Of course, my client and I accept that any tree work bears the danger of destruction to the plants below, and the tree in question (the Scots Pine at the back) has been assessed as "about time it was removed" as it has a split trunk, and there is the constant worry of it splitting one day, and crashing down on the neighbours' outbuilding, represented by that wall behind the trunk. It's not a particularly lovely outbuilding, but my client feels, quite rightly, that any tree-led destruction would not help neighbourly relations, so she has taken the bold step of having it cut down now, before something happens.

And here is the reason - as you can see, split trunk, and it's quite a substantial tree.

We are both quite keen to see how the bed below the tree responds to the sudden increase in light and rain that it is going to receive next spring!





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Friday, 14 December 2012

Hellebore leaves: no, I don't compost them.

Here's a slight mistake I made last week:

Without thinking, I flung an armful of Hellebore leaves on the compost bin, before remembering that I don't compost Hellebore leaves.

So I had to carefully pick them out again, and move them to the bonfire heap.


In my experience, they don't rot in any sort of satisfactory manner: the leaves are spiky, the stems are woody, and they ruin the texture of the compost.

It always seems a shame, to put what appears to be green stuff on the bonfire heap, but there is something about Hellebore leaves, rather like Horse Chestnut leaves: they just don't seem to want to rot properly.

Of course, this is quite a small composting operation, and I have no doubt that if you were to add them to a very large bin or pen, and if you didn't mind leaving it for a long time, they would eventually rot down.

But in this garden - in fact, in all of my gardens - I prefer to keep them away from my composting activities.

Ah, last week *sighs with nostalgia* when it was warm enough to get lots of work done..... 



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Thursday, 13 December 2012

St Agnes' Eve, ah, bitter chill it was...

...OK I know it's not actually the 20th Jan (allegedly the coldest day of the year) but it's beginning to feel like it.

For the fourth consecutive day,  we have thick frosts, and it's not even Christmas yet.... at this rate, January is going to be truly horrible.  The only ray of hope is that the forecast is set to get milder - with heavy rain, alas - on Friday, with the winds swinging round to the south.

Well, I could do with a milder week, I have masses to do in all of my gardens, and it would be lovely to be able to get out there and get on with it.

So who is St Agnes?  Patron saint of chastity, gardeners, young girls, rape victims and engaged couples, amongst others. How did she become a patron saint? Oh, another of those horrible stories of religion: she lived in Roman times, around 300ad, and by the age of 12 was beautiful and sought-after, but she had committed herself to god and would not accept any offers of marriage.

A local big-wig (The Prefect Sempronius) wanted her to marry his son, and when she refused, he condemned her to death.  Charming.  Apparently it was against the law at that time to execute a virgin, so - are you ready for this? - the Prefect had her stripped naked and dragged through the streets to a brothel, specifically for defiling, to make her eligible for execution.

Tales of what happened there vary: some versions say she grew hair all over her body, ie to make her repulsive to men (although frankly the sort of men who would drag a naked child through the streets to a brothel would not, one assumes, be that fussy), some say that anyone who tried to rape her became impotent *laughs heartlessly and hysterically at that one*, some versions say they were struck blind: all versions agree that she was sentenced to death by being burned alive. However, the wood would not burn, so one of the soldiers had to cut her head off with a sword. Or stab her to death.  Accounts vary.

All of which seems a little harsh for a vow of chastity.

Her day of martyrdom is the 21st Jan, and on the night before, legend has it that if a virgin fasts, she will see the face of her future husband.

And the only reason we even know about this is the Keats poem, St Agnes' Eve, a chilling celebration of how cold winter was, before the invention of central heating, global warming, and the general effect of the industrial revolution.

If you are not familiar with it, I highly recommend it. I studied it as part of my English Literature A level at school, and it's one of those poems, like the Ode to Autumn, which just stays with you all your life.

Without wishing to get started on a dissertation, I will just repeat my favourite parts, from the first two stanzas.

The famous opening line sets the scene:

St Agnes' Eve, ah bitter chill it was

Bitter chill, you notice - not any old chill, but a bitter one.

The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold

Lovely image of the owl, feathers fluffed up, yet still cold. Or, a-cold, as the poet would have it, in order to make it scan properly.

The hare limp'd, trembling, through the frozen grass

Oh, the poor hare! He not only limped - pronounced the way we pronounce it, the removal of the "e" prevents readers of that time from saying "limm-ped"  which is how they tended to say things back then - but he was also trembling. Awww, sad.

And silent was the flock in woolly fold

Which to me nicely sums up the dumb resignation of sheep, who are not exactly noted for their intelligence. The hare was on the move, presumably trying to find somewhere less cold for the night, but the flock just stood there, silently, suffering. 

We then go on to a bit of description of the beadsman, a sort of religious servant, paid by rich people to say prayers for them when they could not be bothered to do so themselves. He shivers his way around the family chapel, his breath rising in great wreaths, and he can barely contemplate the dead entombed bodies lying there: they have those carved effigies above them, made from cold, cold stone, surrounded by what are described as "black, purgatorial rails", mmm, lovely, and - my favourite line - of this beadsman

....and his weak spirit fails
To think how they may ache in icy hoods and mails.

I love that! His "weak spirit", and the way it "fails" altogether, at the thought of how very much colder than himself they are: the hoods are bad enough, but the "mails", metal chain mail - can you imagine how cold it would be to wear metal mail in cold weather?

And the relevance to gardening? Sometimes, when confronted with a massive task, or something really unpleasant, I say that last line to myself, to remind me that my spirit is not weak, and it will not "fail" before the challenge.

And then I get on and do whatever it is.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Caryopteris pruning.

Wow, is it that time again, already?

Yes, it is, time to prune my stylish and shapely Caryopteris.

When I say "my",  I actually mean "belonging to one of my Clients and under my care", of course....

Here it is, looking shaggy and scruffy, having flowered magnificently this summer, as always:

Caryopteris before annual pruning
This is the one I have mentioned before, which was annoying planted rather too close to the edge of the bed, so I have to employ some ingenuity and skill at pruning, in order to keep it clear of the grass but to avoid ruining its lovely shape.

Shrubs like these are simple to prune: you just work to the basic principle of roses, vines, wisteria etc to have a framework of old wood that you prune back to, each year.  Err, possibly "to which you prune, each year" would be more grammatically correct. Anyway, all I do is carefully chop back each and every long flowered stem, right back to the knobbly base: then remove every single whisker I can see, until this is what remains:

Caryopteris part way through pruning

I have cheated slightly with the photo, I am standing in the bed in order for the pruned stems to be clearly seen against the grass.   (In case you were wondering.)

Sometimes I leave a promising shoot, which is growing in the right direction, to thicken up and become part of the framework: it's often a good idea to have a couple of reserve shoots growing from lower down the plant, in case of damage to the upper sections.

Next week,  one of my jobs will be to clear out underneath and around it, to give it some air for the winter. Although it is now going to be bare and brown for several months, by pruning it into a shapely form, it can still bring enjoyment to the viewer.

And this one always brings entertainment value: the client here could never remember what it was called, until I told her about my mnemonic for it, which goes something like this:


Cary Grant, film star.

Optician, Optical, Optometrist - all to do with spectacles and eyesight.

So it's Cary Grant in spectacles. Cary-Opterist.

Simple, huh? 



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Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Opening a new compost bin.

Aha, I always enjoy this moment - at last, it's time to open up one of the compost bins!

Here it is, after I've opened the front panels, and taken out the first barrow-load of wonderful compost:

Compost bin

This is one of three pens: earlier in the year it was full up, in fact it was heaped higher than the top, and now it has shrunk down to a mere one foot high of solid, lovely, lovely compost.

This set of bins (built by me, from leftovers, about six years ago) are each roughly a yard deep, a yard high, and two yards wide. We use them in rotation: first we fill one, re-filling it as it sinks: when it gets to be higher than the sides, we start filling number two, leaving number one to rot.

In this garden, I have an old doormat that I lay across the top of the "filled" pen - not to keep in heat, or keep out water, or anything like than, but purely to remind the gentleman of the house not to put any more grass clippings on it!

If all goes well, he spots the mat, and his grass clippings go into pen number two along with all the garden waste, until that one is also full right up to the top.

At this point, pen number one is usually down to about half height, but it's important to leave it to rot, and not to add any more to it. Instead, we move on to pen number three, filling that one, and leaving number two to rot.

This is the danger point - I have to move the mat to pen number 2, leaving number one open, and trusting that Mr Client will remember not to use it!

By the time number three is about half full, number one is ready for use: if the very topmost layer hasn't quite rotted through, it gets tipped into number three, and the rest can be used on the garden. If all goes well, the pen is emptied before pen number three starts overflowing: at that point, the cycle moves round one step and we start again to fill  up pen number one.

I always advocate building compost pens in threes: I never, ever have to turn the heaps (a back breaking job I am happy to avoid) nor do I have to "stir" the heaps: they are practically no work to maintain, other than moving the mat across.

And if you want my "trick of the trade" for compost bins, it would have to be "don't ever make a pyramid".

Always spread out the waste - in fact, if anything, make a slight hollow in the centre, so that any rain, including dew, runs into the heap, not out of it. More compost bins fail from being too dry than from being too wet, I assure you!

I never bother with carpet covers, or lids: I find that they process the waste perfectly well, if you leave them open unto the sun and the rain.

I often get clients telling me that their compost heaps "didn't work" until I came along, which always mystifies me, as I don't do anything special to them.

I do, however, offer a lecture on Composting and Leaf Mould, so if your gardening club or social group would like to learn how an expert does it..... give me a call!


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Monday, 3 December 2012

Time to wrap hydrangeas for the winter.

Last week, one of my clients presented me with a pile of horticultural fleece and a bag of pegs.

Well, I can take a hint.

So off I went to what we call the Left Hand Shrubbery, to wrap up the Hydrangeas for the winter. We do this every year, regardless of the weather forecast, as my client has quite a large collection of them.

The job is very simple:

  1. Take a length of fleece.
  2. Fold in half to get a double thickness.
  3. Wrap around the plant in question.
  4. Use pegs to hold it together.
There, that wasn't exactly rocket science, was it?

Pegs, by the way, are an excellent method of holding fleece in place - so much better than trying to get string to stay in place, without crushing the plant below.

I don't prune the hydrangeas before wrapping: the principle is to use the fleece as frost-protection, to keep as much of the plant as possible safe over the winter. Then in spring, we cut back to nice fat buds, choosing well-placed ones, at whatever height we want.

"So why bother to wrap them up?"  you ask.

Well, if we didn't, the frost would spoil a lot of the buds, and we would not have as many to choose from, the following year. 

Here's the Left Hand Shrubbery, partly done:

Hydrangeas wrapped in fleece for the winter
As you can see, I don't worry too much if a bit of the plant sticks out the top - in the case of those three skinny ones, it's H. arborescens 'Annabelle' which sends up new shoots from the base in spring. So we will probably remove most of this year's shoots next year - but we like to keep them protected until spring, just in case. Especially as these three are newly planted - hence their tiny size  - and will benefit from a little extra cossetting.

On the subject of anti-frost wrapping, don't use bubble-wrap! It's plastic and nasty, as when the sun shines, the plant will "sweat" inside the wrapping, and by spring you will have lots of mould and other unpleasantness.

Horticultural fleece is the best stuff, as it is light and doesn't squash the plant. It also does not soak up the water (as hessian does, weighs a ton when wet) and it lets a certain amount of light through, which keeps the plant in tune with the, errr, what's it called? Circadian rhythm? *rushes off to google it*  Yes, that's the one, the 24hour rhythm of light and day which tells plants and animals when to grow, and when not to.

Bubble-wrap is best kept for wrapping up pots, to protect the terracotta: or in the case of plastic pots,  to protect the roots of the plants within. A good double layer, tied around with string, and make sure you cover up all of the pot, right down to the ground. If you can, raise the pot up on "feet" or on blocks of some sort, as another way to protect them from frost. "Ground Frost" is called that for a reason, it forms at ground level, so if you can raise the pots, you give them a little extra protection.