Saturday, 24 September 2016

Parting gifts from the Garden Gods ...

As a parting gift from summer, the Garden Gods have given us some clear, golden days so that we can squeeze out the last rays of hot sun. And so we have. From breakfast outside to cold beers in the summerhouse at sunset,  we have wrung out those rays and soaked them right up, so that the memory will help to see us through the leaden grey of November, and the gales of March.

This September light has a mellow quality all of its own, gentle and golden, suffusing the garden and making the plants radiant and glowing.

These glorious days were the ideal time to wander round the garden, to assess the success and otherwise, of this season. I think it probably looks better at this current point than in most other years, due to the long spell of good weather, which has provided ideal growing conditions. The plants have loved it and kept flowering and growing although some of the bedding has already been despatched as it has grown too leggy. Most of the pots are still doing well, however, and providing lots of colour still.

The new decking area planting has really filled out now, and the plants are very happy there. The dahlias and cannas have enjoyed the warmth of this protected area, warmed by the thick stone walls.

There is a ligularia and an astilbe right at the back which are not so happy, as the bed is very well drained, and so a little dry for their liking.

Although many of the garden stars have already played their part and disappeared until next year, many remain, meaning that the garden still has colour and vigour.

This is our first year with Canna 'Cleopatra' and what a showstopper it is ! The flowers are a mixture of red and yellow, some being composed of a single coloured flower and some being a random mix of both.

The foliage is a thing of beauty and has elegant stripes of dark chocolate. If you want muted and tasteful, this exuberant plant is not for you. Ours is over six feet tall, and is no shrinking violet!

The photo above shows Canna 'Cleopatra', alongside banana 'Ensete Maurelli' and Ricinus (grown this spring from seed).

The garden is full of a number of varieties of dahlia, some named and others unknown, as they are our number one garden plant, giving non stop flower power until the first frosts. 

Below is one of the cactus dahlias , grown from seed this season. I love the slightly tousled, wildness of the petals. They grow absolutely massive, and are worth the additional efforts needed to stake them securely.

For me, this season has been my wake up call to Salvias - a wide ranging genus, ranging from hardy to definitely tender, but all bursting with colour. I am very drawn to the tender ones, and have been lucky enough to pick up a few on our visits to other gardens. 

This is Salvia Involucrata 'Boutin', which flowers reliably and heavily from July to November. I assumed it was tender, but Dysons Salvia nursery report that it is hardy to -11 degrees with them. It has an AGM and I have found it to be an exceptional plant. It roots very easily from cuttings, and I have taken lots, all of which have taken.

Below are photos of the most gorgeous Salvias going - the 'Wishes' series. These are tender and need to be overwintered in a greenhouse. They may survive in an unheated one, but I plan to heat ours to a relatively high temperature to protect all our tender plants.

Above is Salvia 'Black Knight', a vigorous grower, and prolific flowerer, with quite a loose habit, common to all the 'Wishes' series.

This is 'Embers Wishes', again a prolific flowerer, not quite as vigorous for me, as 'Black Knight', but still a great plant, and easy to take cuttings from.

This is 'Love and wishes', showing how it likes to spread itself out in a mixed border.

My personal favourite is 'Black and Blue', which has the same intense shade of blue as Salvia Patens, which contrasts so well with the black stems. Not pictured is 'Wendy's Wish', which I believe was one of the first in the series.

The Abutilons have also been a delight, and, as with the salvias, they are so easy to propagate by cuttings, with a very high strike rate. I guess the real disadvantage with Abutilons, for some people, is that the flowers are not as readily visible as many other plants, as the bell shaped blooms hang down, and are often half hidden by foliage. I quite like this quiet modesty, and I will grow them every year from now on.

This glossy, strong red flower is probably my favourite, although there are pinks as well as the reds and yellows, all of varying intensity of shades.

Abutilon 'Milleri Variegatum' has survived, but not thrived, in the garden this season.

I was initially puzzled by this plant, which came into flower a couple of weeks ago. I couldn't identify it, and thought that the nearest match to the flowers was something akin to a hyacinth. However, I came across it by accident on a website, and it is Clematis 'New Love'. Not a climber, this is a shrubby perennial with large leaves, and these lovely scented blue flowers.

The Garden Gods are still smiling and sending some golden days, and each one seems like a gift.

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!