Wednesday 26 April 2017

All that glitters ...

Precious things don't have to be valuable things - a shell from the beach or a fossil from the garden can be treasured just as much as objects which have monetary worth. Whilst all plants in the garden are to be nurtured and enjoyed, there are some which are more special than others. Over the last couple of weeks I seem to have picked up more special ones than usual - ones I have been looking for for a long time, or unusual ones which I have been reading about. Sometimes, it is seeing the right plant for a certain place which seems to give it additional value. I bought mine over two trips - one to Harrogate Spring Flower Show, and a second to Stillingfleet Nursery, near York.

Stillingfleet is essentially a nursery growing unusual perennials and well worth a visit if that is what you are interested in, but as they sell little else, it is a little niche. I absolutely loved it, as I was able to buy plants I have been searching for for a long time. There is a comprehensive online plant catalogue so that you can browse it before your visit. I was impressed by the quality of the plants and by the way they are kept. All are watered and weed free - seems pretty basic stuff, but it is surprising how many of the large garden centres can't seem to get that right.

There is an acclaimed garden at Stillingfleet too, but I didn't have time to visit , so will go back later in the season.

One of the main plants I wanted was Podophillum 'Spotty Dotty', a woodland plant with most unusual foliage. I thought my existing plant had failed to survive the winter, as there had been no sign of it coming through - and it is hard to miss! Of course, the day after I bought my new one, I spotted my initial one steadfastly making an appearance. Oh well, you can never have too may!

I once read an entry in a plant catalogue where it was described as having "something of the toad" about it, and that is a perfect summary for both colour and texture, and has stayed with me.

As a woodlander it prefers some shade and also moisture, growing to about 60 cm, with large, mottled leaves.

I also fell for the charms of sibling Podophillum Pefltatum, which is a bit of an unknown quantity for me, but a very handsome chap. Another woodland plant, enjoying partial shade and moist soil. It is described as 'vigorous'.

My next little gem is Euphorbia 'Tiny Tim' growing to a lovely compact 30cm. Euphorbias are some of my favourite plants, and, if they do have a fault, it is that they can be large and rangey. 'Tiny Tim' seems like the perfect solution, and I intend to place my two at the front of a border. Euphorbias will grow in quite difficult conditions, and will tolerate dry shade which would defeat many other plants.

The plant above is new to me, but I fell for the dramatic patterning on the leaves. It is Lunaria 'Chedglow' and leaves start off with this chocolate spotting and gradually become darker and darker until it is a dark purple all over, and nearly black just before it flowers. It is, of course, a variety of the old cottage garden favourite Honesty, but certainly much more interesting than any I have grown before. The flowers appear larger than the norm and are a bright lilac colour. It is a biennial and - joy of joys - it self seeds. The stems are a pleasing dark red, in contrast to the leaves.

Brunnera are just the best plants in the world - they make an appearance early in the year with forget - me - not blue, frothy flowers, and are still there at the end of the season. They give a constant display of the most wonderful, dramatic foliage, whilst the plant itself stays reasonably compact and tidy. I have tried to get some every year to build up my collection, as they are so useful in every area of the garden. Most of mine are 'Jack Frost', 'Hadspen Cream' and 'Seaheart' , and I welcomed the chance to try some new -to -me varieties. The photo above is 'Jack's Gold', with a green gold edging to the leaves, which fades to silver.

'Looking Glass' is a new introduction, and the leaves grow to be totally silver.

The leaves on brunneras start off really small at the beginning of the season, and grow larger and larger as it progresses. They like cool shade/ partial shade and I have found that they will cope with dry shade, and full sun. They are very easy to please actually, and I have yet to lose one.

I also found an interesting Lobelia  'Tania', with variegated, pink flushed foliage and deep crimson flowers, growing to about 3' tall. It is reported to be hardy in it's situation just south of York. Lobelias are another lovely group of plants worthy of further investigation. I have read that it needs damp soil in summer, much like L. Cardinalis, but is prone to rotting over winter. That sounds like a bit of a conundrum, so it may be easier just to overwinter it in a cool greenhouse, ensuring that it is kept drier than in summer.

Last treasure is a giant I have been searching for for a while - Cardiocrinum Gigantium. I have tried growing it from seed with zero success! I snapped this up at the Harrogate Flower show, on the stand of a bulb specialist.

It can grow up to 2.5 m tall and takes around years to flower. It grows in the Himalayas, so can cope with cool temperatures. It is monocarpic, so dies after flowering. Another interesting plant to grow, although the grower assured me that it is easy to look after and very undemanding.

Harrogate Spring Flower Show is held on the Great Yorkshire show ground, which is set in lovely countryside, just off the A1. The show itself is a bit underwhelming as far as the show gardens go, and is more of a showcase for a variety of nurseries and growers, both specialist and main stream. Very enjoyable however, particularly when the sun shines.

New plants are always a learning experience, and one which doesn't always end well! Hopefully I can provide the conditions needed to keep my new additions happy and healthy.

Tuesday 21 March 2017

More in hope than in expectation

It was cold, windy and growing dark. Was I by a warm fire eating chocolate and toasting my toes ? No, I was bent double at the back of a border wresting with a bramble resembling a giant, spiky python! I paused mid - chop to wonder what actually drives me to carry on working outside in the gloom, and came to the conclusion that it is, succinctly, hope that propels me.

Tender plants in the heated greenhouse
Hope that bulbs planted in the cold soil of autumn will give pleasure in the spring, hope that the seeds sown now will be flowering beautifully in the warmer days of summer and hope that the garden will be, well, just better next time round.

There is a simple experiment to test someone's attitude to deferred gratification. You offer them a pound immediately, or two pounds in a month. I guess every true gardener will wait patiently for the two pounds, as we don't really do instant gratification. We are in it for the long game. We have to be, as we lovingly plant a sapling, knowing we will have to wait ten years to, literally, see the fruits of our labour.

Succulents in the cold greenhouse
So this period of early spring sometimes seems to me like a test of endurance and patience, with the bonus of growing rewards as the season progresses.

Fuchsia Boliviana
Although activities in the garden change character throughout the growing season, these few weeks always seems to be the hardest . I don't do much digging now, only the cutting garden and veg beds, but this is the time of year for doing what digging has to be done ; getting in to the back of the borders and dealing with any brambles or self seeded saplings; cutting some shrubs hard back and reshaping them;  clearing beds of winter debris  and hoeing every last one of them. It is hard physical work often in unpleasant cold weather.
But it only takes a few rays of spring sunshine on your back to bring back those happy fuzzy feelings!
And there are growing pleasures too, as old friends start to pop up around the garden.

Coleus 'King Kong'
It does feel good to connect with the garden again, though, and to shake off the slothfulness of winter in honest graft.

Dahlia 'Extreme Double'
Work in the greenhouses remains pretty constant throughout the growing season, as it does not change in essence . The work is easy and very pleasant, especially on a cold day, when the warmth of is very welcoming. I have already sown lots of different seeds, and indeed the sweet peas and cerinthe are quite well grown now. Most are doing well, and Coleus 'King Kong' seedlings (pictured above) have  developed their red colouration over the last few days. having a greenhouse means that there is always an alternative depending on the weather. Good days out in the garden, and rainy ones snug in the greenhouse.

In the heated greenhouse the tender plants are waking up and have had their first drink of water since last autumn. Salvias and fuchsias are putting out new leaves and hedychium , which have kept their leaves over winter, are putting out new spikes. In the unheated greenhouse the succulents have had their first drink too - but a very sparing one as they are kept exceptionally dry until they are in active growth.

Poised on the brink of a whole new season, I guess I garden more in hope than expectation ...

Wednesday 1 March 2017

Them bones, them bones ...

This is the time of year when I am eternally grateful for box, photinia, euonymous and everything else which retains its colour, shape and form over winter. The dry bones of the garden are indeed evident now, and standing alone in the spotlight. As the season progresses they will fade gently into the background, as we focus on the new upstarts taking centre stage. When the delphiniums are in full flower, no one will notice the leaves on the holly tree. But for now, I am enjoying them in the stripped down beauty of the late winter garden.

At least, at the moment, it is easy to see the skeleton of the garden, laid bare as it is, and not masked by other plants. It is a good time to take stock of the basic design, to plan and imagine changes and to try and make improvements.

Gardens are kind and forgiving things, they give us a fresh start every spring, so that we can try to improve on the previous years, to enjoy successes and to make new mistakes - or even the same old mistakes over again!

I look at the patches of bare earth, and promise that this year I will get it right. Plants will not become overgrown, fall over, fail to thrive, survive without being fed, limp on without staking or pruning ...

The garden is so much more simple when it is seen at this time of year, before the succession of plants begins to appear, and then, just as naturally, to disappear. How simple would the conifer and heather gardens of the 1970's be to look after, as they never changed in any way, but remained the same month after month. No gaps left by early perennials dying back, or by bulbs finishing. The contemporary garden, however, is a tapestry which changes day by day, and what looks fantastic one week can become a travesty very rapidly.

Planning that succession of form, colour and texture is an easier task at this time of year when there is little else to distract the eye.

There are changes afoot in our garden this season, and one development is that the area shown in the photo below, will be planted up as an extension to the sub tropical garden. It has only taken us 35 years to cultivate this bit for the first time! It has been made a lot easier by the purchase of a chain saw - which I have finally agreed to after 35 years, as my partner is the most accident prone person I know, and shouldn't be let loose with a spoon, never mind a chainsaw. However, he has promised to have proper safety training and to wear all safety aids, including full chainmail!

He and a friend have felled a silver birch, leaving us with a nice new chunk of garden to plant up!

Spring must be springing as I spotted frogspawn in the wildlife pond for the first time yesterday. Lots of it ! No evidence of the proud parents yet, but I expect they will be cavorting in the water very soon.

The garden has suffered little damage so far this winter, and our lowest temperature has been minus five degrees. We have invested in a max/ min thermometer which has been really useful for charting variations in temperature. I will whisper this bit ... "we haven't lost anything yet" ...  in fear of waking the slumbering garden gods and incurring their wrath. Tender stuff has been affected superficially, but will recover quickly once dormancy ends, and real growth begins. The Melianthus Major in the photo above has barely been checked and is now putting out new growth.

We have four different Tetrapanax throughout the garden, and this is the most exposed one, which has suffered the most. It has lost leaves but the plant itself is fine. Abutilons have made it through so far without any protection other than that offered by neighbouring plants. All the tree ferns have kept their fronds with no evidence of browning yet.

Ours is not a spring garden, and we don't go big on bulbs, but just add a few every year, to what is already there. There are some splashes of colour evident from daffodils, crocuses, hellebores and pulmonaria, but nothing very exciting. My favourite is Iris Reticulata, which is late to bloom this year, for some reason, and has only opened fully over the last couple of days.

There are also three different varieties of Hamamelis  by the back door, so that they give maximum enjoyment. They are nearly over now, but H. Intermedia 'Pallida' is still radiant.

Viburnam Bodnantense 'Dawn' is just making a welcome appearance too.

To see other gardens around the globe, please visit Helen at  'The Patient Gardener' and join her for 'End of the month view'. Thank you to Helen for hosting this meme every month, and giving those tantalising glimpses into some wonderful gardens.

Saturday 11 February 2017

A pox on those pesky garden makeover shows ...

"Let's have an easy year in the garden", we said at the start of 2017, "no new projects - just consolidation of what we have already done".

So why is it that it only takes one bottle of red and two glasses before one of us utters those words which fill the other with such dread - "I've just had an idea ..." And when those words are followed by " ... you may not like it", then that dread is intensified.

Every garden must have those areas which never really worked, where form or function is unclear, or where they have evolved into something which is, as my grandfather used to say "Neither nowt nor summat".

Our garden, to be fair, has many of these areas, and we bumble along with them from season to season, always meaning to do something about them, but never quite getting round to it. Small scale attempts to improve them can be a bit like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, as problems are ignored and not solved.

I blame 'The Idea' which birthed last last, on those pesky garden makeover shows. We were watching a programme where Monty Don advised rookie garden owners on how to have Kew outside their own back doors, and then they worked 24/7 to get everything completed before he came back to inspect it.

There was something so pristine about these shiny new gardens that was instantly appealing. There were no broken pots behind the shed, or sickly roses receiving intensive care, no wonky benches or half eaten dog toys. No gates held shut with string, or rusty obelisks. Everything was new, clean and sleek, and there were no corners of shame.

In one garden there was something which we both  instantly coveted, shameless consumers that we are .... an outside sofa. A great big beast of a thing that two people could lie down on and read their books and drink their Pimms or have a joint snooze in the heat of the day.

We completely overlooked the fact that in all these years the number of summer afternoons spent reading/ snoozing in the garden can be counted on one hand, as we are always weeding/ mowing/ deadheading. Suddenly it seemed possible that if we only had this wonderful sofa then life would be different.

Further down said bottle of red, we had already metaphorically bought the sofa and now needed a suitable place to put it. That was when 'The Idea' was born, and the suggestion was made by one of us (not me!!)  to totally remodel an area of the garden - involving a shedload of hard work, new planting, trellis, arch, gravel, pots and, of course, the sofa.

We decided to enclose an existing gravelled area of the garden (shown in all the photos), using bamboo and trellis as a screen, so that it is an entity on its own, entered through an arch and left via a gate. This area is defined already to some extent, so it wouldn't need much to complete it, and it is a real south facing sun trap, totally underused at the moment. It is bordered on one side by the greenhouses, and already has mature planting on another side. There are three small, shaped bay trees and a trellis covered in Clematic Armandii and Rosa 'Alberic Barbier'. Although a little, let's say, exuberant at the moment, this could be brought back into line fairly quickly with a sharp pair of secateurs. At the moment, this area is my go-to place for depositing sickly plants, pots that are past their best and bags of compost.

The area has never been quite right, and has never really worked. We have had a little table and chairs there, which have been used only rarely and I'm not quite sure why. There are some pots there, but these include lots of small pots, full of finished bulbs, or cuttings I am growing on, so are not really worthy of display. Our new project is to cut down on the number of pots and just have a few large ones, with 'hot' planting of dahlias, cannas, coleus and Ensete bananas, for example. We want the plants to be large and bold, so that they really make a statement, and to be grouped close together, and tiered to give height. The sofa would be positioned in a very private corner of this area, and a table would turn it into our main sitting and eating area. The area would lend itself well to being made more defined, and enclosed, turning it from somewhere we just go through, to somewhere we would enjoy spending time in.

In the cold light of day, and two aspirins later, we are both keen to go ahead and do it, albeit on a more limited budget. Half of me loves a new project to plan, and the other half is wondering what happened to the 'easy' year we originally planned.

Friday 27 January 2017

Reasons to be cheerful ...

There are many reasons to be cheerful right now! Cautiously cheerful, perhaps, but still cheerful. There are signs and portents afoot which indicate that spring is on the horizon. The days are beginning to lengthen, the birds have started singing again, and the bulbs are beginning to appear.

In the conservatory, nobody has told the plants that it is actually winter. We keep the temperature reasonably low, so I was expecting the overwintering tender plants to remain dormant. I thought I would keep them ticking over, but that there would be little active growth. What a joy! They have not only kept growing, but they have kept flowering too, giving many reasons to be continually cheerful!

Begonia 'Garden Angels' are putting out lots of new leaves, and the leaves have kept all their wonderful metallic colouring. They will, apparently, stand a couple of degrees of frost, but, as they are quite expensive, I didn't want to chance leaving them in the greenhouse this year. Also, they are every bit as decorative as Begonia Rex, the house plants, and they have given lots of pleasure over the winter.

This plant, which is flowering its little socks off, is Impatiens Niamniamensis, the 'Parrot plant'. It is easy to see how it got its name, as the flowers certainly resemble  brightly coloured parrots, swinging on the stems. The plant itself can get quite leggy, so I try to ensure that it gets as much light as possible, and will be pinching out the growing tips shortly, to encourage a bushier plant.

The plants which are the undisputed Queens of the Winter, are the Abutilons.  They have flowered non stop all summer, autumn and now winter. The flowers are quite lovely, and the red pictured below is very rich and dark. They are hard to beat for flower power!

I grew lots from seed in early summer and have put several in the greenhouse to overwinter, and these are thriving but not flowering. The temperature in the greenhouse has fallen to 3 degrees and they have been fine.

I have left sacrificial Abutilons in the garden, to see what temperatures they can actually cope with, and so far we have had down to minus 3, and they are still fine, and have even kept their leaves.

However, last night the temperature dropped to minus 4.8 degrees , so I have yet to see whether they have survived , or succumbed to the frost.

Yet another reason to be cheerful is that the red, Abyssinian bananas are all continuing to thrive and to actively grow, and produce new rollers. They look amazing when viewed against the rays of a winter sun.

And the best reason of all to be cheerful is that the seeds have been chosen and bought, and the propagator has been switched on. There are already results, with seedlings popping up every day.