Sunday, 14 August 2016

Exoticising the garden

I think I may have inadvertently invented a new verb - 'to exoticise', meaning to change part of a traditional garden to one with densely packed planting giving a sub-tropical feel. Anyway, that is mostly how I have been spending my time over this season, and it has been a massive learning curve. I know I have not got it right yet, but it has been enjoyable learning about new methods and new plants. My partner has been gardening in this way for about fifteen years, so I have my very own maister to guide me. 

In some ways it is easier than traditional gardening, as mistakes can be rectified more easily. Most of the tender stuff is wheeled out every year, after the threat of frost has passed, and placed in position before planting. In a way it feels more like flower arranging, as you can move the pots around to get maximum effect, before planting them, so you can try arrangements out and improve them very easily.

I find the difficult bit about traditional gardening is that it just seems right and then a week later it CHANGES, due to plants dying back after flowering ! So many perennial plants look superb at the back of the border for a few weeks, then they inevitable finish flowering and fall into a rapid downward spiral of decay before finishing with a vanishing act. Then there is a hole in the border, and something else is needed to take over. A bit like spinning plates, it is an art to keep them all going. 

The majority of plants in this brave new world of exotic planting stay the same. You plant them. They get bigger. They may flower. They get bigger. You protect them at the end of the season. There is little staking, cutting back or bringing in replacements. They just stay the same. Bananas, palms, hedychiums, calocasias, cannas, dahlias, yuccas and lots of others, need little attention once they are planted.

The bit of garden we have exoticised was o.k. before we did it ... nothing special , but it was o.k. It had forgiving shade tolerant planting like ferns and hostas, but I never felt I had got it right. I grew things that survived easily there, like hellebores and castor oil. Once we took the decision to exoticise, we realised that a lot of the current planting would complement an exotic look, giving a hardy backbone, which could remain permanently in position.

In March we drew up a long shopping list for big plants - palms and tree ferns which we took to 'The Urban Jungle' near Norwich, and 'Evergreens' in Beccles. We needed a van to deliver everything we bought. Getting the big chaps planted was hard, miserable work in the cold days of March, and when we finished, it was incredibly disappointing as it didn't look sub tropical or exotic at all - it just looked like a suburban garden with a few palms dotted about in the mud.

Once the threat of frosts had passed we started planted out all the tender stuff.  I grew lots of it from seed, so plants were plentiful and cheap. I grew 5 different varieties of Ricinus, Tithonia 'Torch', nasturtium 'Empress of India',  Amaranthus 'Velvet Curtain' and 'caudatus', cactus dahlias and dahlia 'Redskin', swiss chard 'Bright Lights', and Begonia 'Illumination'.

Again, the annuals looked nothing when they were first planted out, as per usual. Despite all the nurturing and care needed to produce these young plants, they are so small they get lost in the garden until they start to put on growth. It is a real act of faith to plant them out as they look absolutely nothing initially, and it is hard to believe how much they will grow in a few short weeks. They are really filling out now, as they have established themselves.

Some of the annuals have been more successful than others and the Tithonias and Ricinus are now just about the same height as me. The nasturtiums have scrambled and climbed through the planting so that there are flowers, like little beacons, in unexpected places.

I am told that the key to successful exotic gardening is a good balance between tender and hardy so that a solid backbone remains in the garden throughout the year, while gaps are filled with colour and exotic foliage supplied by the tender plants. 

Some good hardy plants which add to a tropical feel are Euphorbia, Castor Oil, bamboo, ligularia, tall grasses like Miscanthus, Inula, gunners, rheum, ferns, hosts, cotinus, crocosmia, crambe cordifolia, cardoon, aucuba, some yuccas ... the list is endless, and is mainly dependent on foliage which complements an exotic look. Trachycarpus Fortunii is a very hardy palm and can cope with temperatures as low as minus 17. Ours got through the terrible winter of 2010 unscathed.

Hardy exotic looking flowers include lilies, hemerocallis, clematis, anenomes, bergenia, irises, crinum, ligularia, Inula and Phlox.

The next group is plants which will be hardy through most english winters, but may need protection in really severe weather, and include, cordylines, hebes, brunnera, Tetrapanax Rex, Musa Basjoo (banana), some eucomis and phormiums. They remain in the ground and will be fine unless the temperature drops very low (below around minus 8). Some may lose their leaves but are root hardy. 

This is knowledge we have gleaned from our own little micro-climate, and so will not necessarily be true elsewhere. We also learned very quickly that young plants need more protection and care than established, more mature ones.

The next major group is the tender group, which need to be kept frostfree all winter, and can only be planted out once all risk of frost is over. It includes dahlias, calocasias, alocasias, hedychium (gingers), Ensete ( more tender banana), abutilon, salvia, agave (will stand low temperatures but hate to be wet), aeoniums, some eucomis, begonias and persicaria.  Some of these will need a heated greenhouse in the coldest weather.

Persicaria 'Painter's Palette'

There is another group which includes plants which stay in the ground but need protection to ensure their survival. Some are left mainly because their size makes it impractical to overwinter them inside. They include tree ferns ( ours wear a jaunty cap made of chicken wire and stuffed with straw), some palms and some bananas.

Annuals make up another group, and the choice is fantastic ... coleus, nasturtium, tithonia, begonia, amaranthas, ricinus, cosmos, salvia, and zinnias for starters.

While the majority of planting can be accomplished using plants which are both easy to acquire and propagate, it is always enjoyable to have some which are more unusual. The tree ferns come into this category and lend a special atmosphere to the garden. We have also acquired a couple of Astelia (silvery, spear shapes leaves), Daisilirion (spikey, very spikey!), Yucca Rostrata, Podophyllum Versipelle 'Spotty Dotty', Tetrapanax Rex, Catalpa, Pawlonia, Agave Montana and Begonia 'Angels' (like Begonia Rex but will take lower temperatures).

Two bamboos have been added - a lovely golden caned Phyllostachys Viva Aureoulis and the black 'Nigra' too.

An additional benefit of a sub tropical garden is that it reaches its peak late in the season, when a  traditional english garden is beginning to wane. It really seems to extend the gardening season, as it is still improving at this time of year, and looking extremely fresh and lush.

I am definitely NOT looking forward to autumn, however, as there is the hard work involved in dismantling the exotic bits, and lugging all the tender stuff under cover! 

Monday, 18 July 2016

Just like the Inflatable boy ...

Just like the Inflatable boy with a pin, some plants have let themselves down badly this year! Every year there are the star performers and then there are those which have disappointed beyond belief. The alchemy of each summer's heady brew of temperature, moisture and sunshine produces different over- achievers every year and, sadly, under achievers too.

I don't want to dwell on the under- achievers, but you know who you are ... hang your heads in shame all those of you in the Amaranthus family, and all of you in the Celosia family too. You have failed to thrive and grow despite being lavished with care and attention. Although you showed early promise, it has never been realised, and if I want to find you in the garden, I need a magnifying glass. Most of you, however, are no longer with us, having been devoured by any number of bugs, and, to be honest, you deserved your fate. You've let yourselves and the the garden down.

Hang your head in shame, too, Pennesetum 'Purple Majesty' ( maize) which looked so great in the seed catalogue, you zinnias with your microscopic flowers and the pathetic Thompson & Morgan Cosmos 'Xanthos'. I always thought Cosmos couldn't go wrong, as it has been so reliable over the years, but I have been proved wrong. This year I have one plant left from all my healthy seedlings in April, and it has grown into a sickly, stunted plant with nondescript, no - colour flowers the size of a button.

But enough of the failures! I want to celebrate those plants which are putting on a death - defying extravaganza of colour, despite what the weather has thrown at them this summer.

Rosa Wollerton Old Hall

The roses got off to a late start after a cold spring, and just as they were getting into their stride, along came frequent heavy downpours, causing many blooms to ball and rot. Whilst some could be saved by gently peeling off the dried outer petals, many could not. However, they have overcome all, and are finally in gorgeous, billowy bloom.

My current favourite is a new rose to me, 'Pomponella', with unusual, almost spherical flowers, of a strong pink. As it is a repeat flowerer, I hope there will be a succession throughout the summer. It looks very healthy so far, and is showing resistance to blackspot and  insect infestation.

Always reliable are the dahlias, and I am growing both old favourites and new varieties this year. I grew 'Victoriana', 'Redskin' and also some Cactus dahlias from seed, but have not seen them flower yet, so they may join the Invisible boy, in his class, if they fail to live up to expectations. I do tend to prefer the dark, rich colours, so the one pictured below is a bit of a disappointment, as it looks very washed out, particularly when the sun is on it.

This new bi-colour certainly smacks you in the face, and brings colour to the new sub-tropical area, as does the un - named dark red one too.

When I went to Chelsea earlier in the year, I bought some Abutilon plug plants, and also found out more about these lovely shrubs. In the intervening weeks they have put a lot of growth on, and have started to flower. The photo below shows Abutilon 'Mayan Magi', which is a lovely soft apricot colour, shot through with red veins. I am hoping to take cuttings a little later in the season, as I would like to try growing some in a sheltered position outside, but don't want to risk losing them.

Not quite as spectacular in flower is Abutilon 'Milleri Variegatum', but it more than makes up for it with  fantastic variegated leaves.

The flowers on all three varieties are not large, but are a very graceful bell shape. Below is Abutilon 'Kentish Belle'. The variegated form is the most tender, but the others can stand a few degrees of frost, and will survive mild winters in a sheltered spot, so I am reliably informed by the nursery owner I bought them from ('T3 Wall End Nursery').

Above is an un-named variety I bought from a nursery, and it has been covered with glossy, almost waxy flowers continually. It is a lovely plant, which I am also hoping to propagate.

Abutilon 'Megapotamicum' looks like little hot air balloons, and it flowers very freely. The shrub is in the greenhouse and is clearly enjoying the temperatures in there.

Last summer we went to Easton Walled Garden, which specialises in sweet peas, and gives the opportunity to see many different varieties growing, and also to purchase the seed. We chose six varieties, and all are doing well, and the flowers are spectacular. The varieties pictured below are 'Our Harry' (lilac), and 'Black Knight' (deep maroon) .

The pink sweet pea below came from seed which I seem to remember, came free with a garden magazine.

Now, we come to the biggest star in the garden this season, Salvia 'Love and wishes', dark and luscious, with fairly loose, lax growth. It's pink and plum colouration make it a good foil for many garden plants, and works well in the border with Acer Palmatum, a dark foliaged Dahlia 'Bishop's Children', and a dark heuchera.

Salvia 'Love and wishes' is in the centre of the photo above. It prefers a sunny position and will grow to about 32 inches in height. It has a long flowering season, if dead headed regularly, and it is hardy to about minus five, so needs protection in very cold weather.

I grew Lychnis (pink and white) from seed a couple of years ago, and it is really fantastic this year. The hot pink flowers and silver grey foliage contrast well with the dark red of Cotinus Coggyggria and the pink of the Sweet Williams (also grown from seed).

So, perhaps it is too early in the season to be evaluating individual performances, but I think I already know the winners and the losers!

Saturday, 18 June 2016

It's all a bit Gertrude Jekyll

A friend leaned over my garden gate and gazed down the garden, then shook his head slightly and said "Oh dear, it's all getting a bit Gertrude Jekyll isn't it..."

I don't think he meant 'It's all wonderfully planned, planted and managed, isn't it ?', as, of course, Gertrude Jekyll's gardens all are. Sadly I think he meant, 'It's all a bit out of control and wild as the wind, isn't it?'

Taking my friend's interpretation of a Gertrude Jekyll garden, I can say, with my hand on my heart that I am glad it is 'a bit Gertrude Jekyll', as, if a garden can't be wild, rambling and overflowing in June, then when can it ! It isn't well manicured, but it does celebrate all the many plants which are accelerating towards their zenith, outgrowing their allotted spaces as they do so.

There is so much work to do out there, trying to keep them staked, tied in, cut back, cut down, that I did wonder today if I am a weeny bit crazy, and really I should be lying in a hammock on a square of artificial grass with not a leaf or flower in sight. I could smell the BBQ's firing up in other gardens, and hear people starting to relax and to enjoy the evening, but I just couldn't justify stopping. Whilst the process of gardening is infinitely enjoyable and rewarding ... so is just sitting sometimes.

So, I have resolved to let it become even more 'Gertrude Jekyll' and take time to smell the roses, as well as weed around them. I will sit on the deck chair which has served only as a resting place for my gardening gloves ! I will take the time to enjoy the days of summer which are slipping by so quickly.

We have been busy with new projects, that there has been little time for relaxing. We have developed  three new areas in the garden since March, and they have all needed digging, hard landscaping and  planting but are now well on the way to completion. 

The fourth new area is shown below, and still has a long way to go.

We didn't do the decking ourselves, as we know 'a man who can', but we are beginning work on the raised bed. Topsoil is on order, and then we can start planting hostas and ferns, as it is an area of partial shade. The whole bed will be lined with heavy duty plastic sheeting to keep adjoining walls free from damp. I am in the process of selecting a couple of climbers too.The area is very sheltered so I could try something reasonably tender - perhaps a couple of the Abutilons which I bought at Chelsea.

Above is one of the new areas we have made this season. It is using land which we have never cultivated in 30 + years, so was very hard to dig initially. It is an extension of the exotic garden, and very much in its infancy. Skeleton planting of palms and small tree ferns has been completed and underplanting, such as hostas and brunnera is in place. I have grown loads of annuals to fill gaps, and am waiting impatiently for these to get moving.

 I have grown Amaranthus Caudatus, Amaranthus 'China Town' and Amaranthus 'Velvet Curtain', all for the first time. I will not be growing 'China Town' as you need a magnifying glass to see them, even though I sowed the seed very early! Although you can't see them in the photo there are also Tithonia 'Torch', coleus and zinnias 'Candy Cane. You can just see, bottom right, Ricinus and nasturtiums, starting to put on some growth.

As well as making new areas in the garden, we have been planting up annuals, in pots and tubs.

Again, they need time to fill out, but at least the hard work is done - just watering and dead heading from now on ...

We have also made a purchase from our new, local reclamation yard - a Victorian/ Edwardian garden gate. It has seen better days and needs some tlc, but there is something very quintessentially English - garden about it, and I love opening it, and thinking of the other hands, down across the generations, which have done the same. Cost is not important, but it was actually only £30, which is the equivalent of a few basics in the trolley at Tesco, which seems slightly ridiculous, for all that history.

Underneath the gate as a sort of ornamental threshold, we have put another piece of salvage. This is  a panel from an Indian railing, and shows a depiction of the young Queen Victoria.

What a strange journey indeed, from India to deepest Lincolnshire...