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.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Hoe hoe hoe

Much as I love Christmas, I am excited for it to be all packed away, because then, and only then, can the new growing season truly begin. I am savouring the thought of compiling my seed order, but I refuse to give in to such a delight, until the last remnants of the turkey is eaten, and the last cracker is pulled.

Outside the window all is dank and decaying, but in my head everything is young and fresh and green. I know that there is lots to love about winter, from the beautiful bare skeletons of the trees, to the mist rolling gently in across the fields. I am a huge fan of log fires, cosy nights and good books and enjoy respite from the garden which enable me to enjoy those pleasures. But, once Christmas is out of the way, we are heading towards spring. From the Winter Solstice we are heading out of, and not into, winter. The days begin to lengthen, imperceptibly at first, but lengthen they do. It won't be long before there are the first heralds of the season, and then, before you know it we'll be knee deep in roses and wisteria.

My increasing excitement for the new growing season is due, in part, to a new and cunning plan ... to start a cutting garden to supply the house with flowers through the whole year, if possible. I currently spend between £7 and £10 per week on cut flowers which costs approximately £400 per year. It makes sense on an economic level as well as unmanly other levels too.

Although I grow a garden full of flowers, it turns out I can't bring myself to cut more than an occasional stem for the house. Surely this way, with a designated  patch just for cut flowers, I will be able to wield the scissors without guilt.

I need to learn about how to set up a new cutting garden, and need some advice on what to grow, how to sow successionally and how to provide flowers for as much of the year as possible. There is a wealth of information out there, in the form of blogs, vlogs, podcasts and books. Father Christmas has his instructions and will hopefully be dropping 'The cut flower patch' by Louise Curley down the chimney very soon. I have also put in a request for florist's scissors and snips.

I am already deciding which favourites will be guaranteed a place in this new cutting garden. It is not huge, so everything will have to earn its place. I want to have flowers available all year round, so my planning will have to take this into account. Flowers in mid summer will be easy, but having something to cut in November is a different matter. Steep learning curve here, I think ...

Definites will be cosmos, dahlias and sweet peas, so all I need to do with these three, is to decide which variety I fancy. Hopefully the books etc will supply countless ideas for other flowers/ foliage to grow. I will be growing everything from seed, so the cost will be minimal.

I have allowed myself to start a teeny bit of research, and have been onto the Sarah Raven website, and looked at her 'cutting garden pack' of seeds containing her best-loved varieties. I may take that as my starting point and develop it from there, using my personal preferences. I grow lots of different flowers for the garden already, but because I never cut them, I have no idea about their properties as cut flowers. I suppose I will be growing for longevity in the vase, but have little idea which varieties will be best.

I love Rudbeckias, and they would give reliable  colour late in the season, but will have to research whether they are good as cut flowers. 'Cherokee Sunset' and 'Cherry Brandy' are lovely in the garden.
As for foliage, no cut flower vase is complete without some, and I can actually  use foliage from shrubs in the garden, as I consider cutting it as a form of pruning, so can bring myself to do it !

I would like to grow some foliage plants in the cutting garden, but again, will have to learn what is most suitable for the purpose. Melianthus Major is a glorious plant with wonderful serrated leaves, of a cool glaucus grey. It is easy to grow from seed, and the young plants grow very quickly. But is it suited to life in a vase ? I need to find out !

I try to save as many seeds as I can every year, for many different reason. Obviously there is a cost implication as self collected seed is totally free, and it is also organic. There are no seed miles' involved, as the longest journey these seeds make is up the garden path! Self collection usually equates to more plants, as seed is usually produces in large quantities, and with many plants it can be collected over several weeks, so there is more to turn into lovely plants! I think I have enough sweet pea seed saved from this season, including 'Midnight', shown in the photo above. It is such a dark, rich colour, ad goes beautifully with cream and lilac varieties.

So, I wish you a very merry Christmas and a happy, healthy and peaceful 2017 !

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Fifty ways to lose your begonias

Buying tender plants at the height of summer is so easy, when the ice and snow of winter are but a dim and distant memory. It is easy to get carried away and buy far too many, far too large plants. I know. I am that person. However, once the temperature drops, they all need to be kept snug and frost free, if they are to survive until spring. I have been struggling to find the best way to do this for years, and, believe me, there have been many casualties along the way!

As an inexperienced gardener I tried the 'ostrich' approach, which meant that I stuck my head firmly in the sand and ignored all dire warnings on plant labels. I basically just left tender plants outside throughout the winter, and they died in their droves. I then progressed to wrapping them in fleece, which, although better than nothing, only gave minimal protection of a couple of degrees at most. Real divas just disregarded it and still died, although it really did help the borderline frost hardy plants. Wrapping most palms gets them through cold weather, and stuffing tree fern crowns with straw seems to do the trick, but it is finding the solution for the really tender stuff which causes the problems.

Getting a greenhouse was the first real step towards raising the survival rate of the delicate plants, but an unheated space is not necessarily frost free, as I found to my cost. Initially, I tried a paraffin heater but found it to be totally ineffective in the space, and impractical to use, as it is dependent upon you being there to light it.

The conservatory (which is heated) has been my saviour for the last ten years or so, and plants usually jostle together for space in there. It is a great solution for the plants, but not for the humans, as it virtually decommissions the conservatory from any other purpose other than that of a greenhouse for almost half of each year.

This year I decided to get the job done properly and to get electricity out to the greenhouse, so that I could have effective heating installed. Once that was in place I looked around for a good greenhouse heater, and researched online for recommendations.

They say you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince, and, although not as enjoyable, I think the same may be true of greenhouse heaters ! I tried a 2 kw electric fan heater, first, as sold by 'Two Wests and Elliot'. Rightly or wrongly I trust them as a company, and so felt confident in buying a heater from their website. The heater, itself, was actually fine, but I hadn't done enough homework, and had bought a heater which was just too small to heat the area of the greenhouse. Big fail.

Back to the internet, and I found a beast of a thing which would do the job - a powerful electric heater capable of heating the Albert Hall. Trouble was, when I asked the advice of Jim, our electrician, he just burst out laughing  - never a good sign! To run it, he pointed out, would need a whole new armoured cable, as it was so powerful - and it would also cost a fortune to use.

Jim suggested heating tubes, which are cheap to buy and to run and could be installed on the current system. He duly installed three tube heaters, to heat the entire space, and cleverly linked them to a thermostat, so that they come on automatically when the inside temperature drops below about 6 degrees. So far they have been very effective and the temperature has not dropped below 5. 2 degrees, even though there have been some cold nights. I have a max/ min thermometer, so that I can check the range every day, and monitor it carefully.

Although I know, in theory, that insulating a greenhouse makes a huge difference, it has taken several years for this fact to goad me into taking action! This year we have put up horticultural grade bubble wrap across windows and glass roof, and it makes a noticeable difference. It has to be horticultural grade to allow uv light in, I believe.

Ventilation is always an issue in a heated greenhouse, and it seems contra-intuitive to heat a space, then open a window, but moisture is the biggest danger, as it can cause mould, rot and all manner of unpleasant things. Insulation serves to hinder the free circulation of air even further, and can compound problems with moisture.

I try to open the doors when the weather is mild, to get as much air circulating as possible. Plants are checked regularly and dying flowers and foliage removed.  Everything is kept as dry as possible, as this makes a huge difference to survival rates. I barely water at all, and only give plants a little drink when they are starting to droop.

Precious things have joined us in the conservatory, and I have brought in young seedling, like Tetrapanax, and put them on the windowsill, along with cuttings of favourites such as Abutilons and salvias. In this way I hope to ensure I still keep some for next season, even if it all goes pear - shaped in the greenhouse. The big Ensete Ventricosum Maureliis are all snuggled up inside, as are some abutilons, which are still flowering. The Begonia 'Angels' have retained their foliage and still appear to be growing.

All succulents and cacti have been put into the smaller unheated greenhouse, which is kept ridiculously dry. There is an Astelia in there which has actually survived for two mild winters outside, but I don't want to chance it again. Also sheltering from the winter are agaves, aeoniums, aloes and yuccas. The theory is that they will be able to withstand the cold, as long as they are dry. If allowed to suffer the dreaded combination of wet and cold then their roots will rot, and death will surely follow. In spells of exceptionally cold weather they can be covered with horticultural fleece.

I will have to wait and see what this winter has in store for us, before I can measure the success of our new arrangements. We have already had some frosts and everything is still looking healthy.