Saturday, 30 April 2016

End of the month view

And what a month April has been! We have had everything from warm spring days, with blue cloudless skies, to icy sleet and driving rain. The last few days have seen miserable, unseasonably low temperatures, which felt more like winter than winter itself.

All this cold grey weather has affected growth and checked it very noticeably. However, plants are still filling out, albeit more slowly, and there is less bare earth to be seen every day.

There are lots of reasons to be cheerful at the moment, and the notable joy bringers are the tulips (except for the rogue red one in a pot of pink!), magnolia Stellata, Auriculas, primroses and Fritillaries.

The pond has woken up and is full of small but determined tadpoles, striking out across open water, instead of hugging the banks. Although we have pond skaters, water beetles and snails, there is no sign whatsoever of any sticklebacks, which is very disappointing. They must have died off over the winter. Pond plants are starting to grow and the yellow Marsh Marigolds are in full flower.

Buds are forming on the apple trees and it is to be hoped that the weather has warmed up by the time the blossom opens, otherwise it will be frosted.

The beech hedge is just beginning to unfurl, with certain plants ahead of the others, and showing green.

The veg patch is creaking slowly into life and Early Potatoes are now in, and onions are partially in. Courgettes, pumpkins and tomatoes are growing apace in the greenhouse, ready to be planted out when things warm up.

The new exotic garden now has all large key plants in position. The are lots of perennials already planted, which will come into their own over the next few months, and hundreds of waiting annuals to fill all the inevitable gaps.

There is always a feeling of disappointment at this point in a new garden, as although most of the hard work has been done, it still looks unfinished and raw. It is, however, still just a skeleton, and will only take on its true character when the other elements are there too. It is now just a question of waiting for the plants to grow and put some flesh onto those bones!

I have loved all the Erysimums and they have flowered throughout the winter. 'Bowles Mauve' is a trusty favourite, and the mauve flowers look fantastic offset by the glaucous foliage, but the real star is ... if I recall correctly ...'Winter Spice'. The flowers are a rich dark raspberry pink, and were a very welcome sight in late winter and early spring. Sadly the plants are very short-lived, and mine are going very leggy and starting to fall over after only a couple of years.

Magnolia Stellata has been stunning but is now just past its best.

The greenhouse is stuffed to the gunnels with plants ready to go outside when all frosts are over. Dahlias, cannas and melianthus are all growing strongly, enjoying the heat we have in there when it is really cold. The Abutilon Megapotamicum is covered in flowers, as is the white Datura. The lemony scent from the datura, released in the late afternoon/ early evening is superb.

It has been such as odd start to the season, due to the extremes of weather the poor plants have had to cope with, but, due to the mildness of the winter itself, everything has made it through unscathed, ready to start growing again.

I am joining in Helen's 'End of the month view' meme, and you can read posts from all over the globe , over at her blogsite

'The Patient Gardener'

Saturday, 9 April 2016

In deepest, darkest East Anglia ...

Down in deepest, darkest East Anglia, plant hunting can reach a whole new dimension! We have just come back from an expedition to two gorgeous nurseries which certainly hit the spot. Put it this way - it was touch and go whether I had to buy a train ticket to get home, as there was scarcely room for me inside the car!

As we are developing the sub tropical part of the garden, and expanding it into an adjacent area, we needed lots and lots of lovely plants to put in. This plant expedition was not a whim, but carefully planned, and budgeted for, and we went armed with a list, albeit a long list!

Local nurseries are fantastic but just do not carry the special stuff we were looking for, so, based on recommendation, we organised a visit to both ' Urban Jungle' (Old Costessey, Norwich, Norfolk) and 'Evergreens' (Beccles, Suffolk). These two excellent nurseries are about 40 minutes apart, so easy to do on the same day.

We stayed in beautiful Norwich, next to the cathedral, and visited the nearest nursery first - ' Urban Jungle'. Actually, we couldn't have chosen a worse day to visit as it was cold, grey and pouring with almost torrential rain.The wind was gusting so hard it had knocked down lots of large - leaved plants. It was raining so hard, that, hardy as we are, we could not even visit the outside plant sales area initially. I have no photos of this area, as they would not do it justice.

'Urban Jungle' is an intelligent nursery, with very helpful, knowledgeable staff, a fantastic array of plants and a commitment to environmental issues. The layout is interesting and exciting but still manages to be logical, so that things are easy to find.

There are welcome sofas amongst the plants, so that the visit becomes more relaxed, and you can take stock amongst the palms! It was so cold when we were there that the sofas did not seem anything like as welcoming as I am sure they would be, on a sunny day, when the glasshouse would be bathed in sunshine.

We managed to warm up in the upcycled cafe with warming hot chocolate.

Such is the breadth of plants stocked that we were able to find everything on our list and more. There is a complete stock list on the website, so that you could always check availability before a visit, if necessary.

As we were visiting very early in the season, we knew that a lot of plants would be barely in evidence at this stage. A lot of the perennials were just starting into growth, and the cannas and gingers etc were still sleeping. Luckily, we knew what we wanted and so that was no problem, but a visit later in the season would be very different, as the nursery borders would be full of colour, and there would be an even wider choice of plants to buy.

We were so impressed by the whole place that we left, vowing to return in late summer, when everything would be at its glorious best.

The second nursery which we visited was 'Evergreens' which has a strong online presence, and is clearly trusted and recommended by knowledgeable online groups of exotic plant lovers.

We visited later the same day, when the rain had stopped and the day had brightened considerably. The wind was still blowing a gale, however, and, again, it had knocked over many large plants. As they were safer in a prone position, they would not be righted until the wind dropped.

Again we were so impressed by the depth of knowledge of the people there. Carl and Nick were friendly and so helpful, sharing a huge amount of knowledge, particularly about hardiness of certain plants, which they had personal knowledge of.

'Evergreens' sells a lot of the plants and sundries which you would expect from any garden centre, but then has a whole other dimension of wonderful exotic plants. They have several tunnels packed with a large variety of choice plants. We had a long wish list of Calocasias and Alocasias, and we came away with every one ... and more. Lovely big chunky plants clearly just itching to start growing away!

I also got the plant which was top of my personal wish list - 'Dasilirion Longissimum' (pictured below), and I was extremely pleased with the quality of the plant.

There was an excellent cafe at Evergreens, and although we only tried coffee and cake, the meals sounded pretty good!

As, with 'Urban Jungle', we resolved to return later in the season, to see an even more extensive range of available plants.

Above and below are some of the plants we chose. I won't bore you with a complete list, but the main ones were Yucca Rostrata, Dasilirion Longissimum, Agave Montana, Agave Striata, Nolina, Yucca Gloriosa Variegata and Podophyllum Versipelle 'Spotty Dotty'.

There is an interesting impulse buy in there, which is the red - stemmed shrub ' Drimys Winteri, which is totally hardy, grows to 6m (!!) and has fragrant ivory coloured flowers. What is not to love about that ?

'The Urban Jungle' has excellent labels ! Each plant is colour - coded for hardiness, so you can see at a glance how much protection they need. I guess that answers the most - asked question in Exotic nurseries, in a very straightforward way!

I also loved the descriptions of the plants, given on the labels. Podophyllum Versipelle 'Spotty Dotty' (pictured below) was described as having 'something of the toad' about it ! Perfect! I can see just what they mean!

So, once home with our precious cargo, we had to set about planting them, but before we did so, we were extremely ( and uncharacteristically) organised, and photographed each plant, plus their care label, so that we had a full record. When we planted each plant, we carefully matched its needs to its planting position and requirements.

So now the skeleton is in place, in the new bit of the garden, and, as the season progresses, we will be able to flesh it out, using perennials and annuals. For all our hard work, it still looks very empty, and will do until the perennials already planted put in an appearance, and the annuals we have grown can be planted out.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

What's your poison ?

Spring is finally with us, with all its excitement and pleasures - and one of the greatest is seed sowing.

This season we will concentrating on our new subtropical area in the garden, and I am thoroughly enjoying propagating new plants to fill it with.

We have bought some 'big boys' - tree ferns, hardy palms and a phormium, but I am growing lots of 'infill', both flowers and foliage, to give the area a feeling of lush, abundant growth which is fundamental to exotic gardening.

One of the best annual fillers for exotic foliage is Ricinus, and I have grown some every year for a very long time. Not only are the leaves dramatic, but the seedpods are unusual too, almost like colourful sweet chestnuts!

I usually just sow and grow one single packet every spring, but because there is plenty of bare earth to fill, in the new garden, I am growing a bumper packet of 5 varieties from Jungle Seeds.

The varieties included in this packet are :

Ricinus Carmencita Red - a measly  5' tall !

Ricinus Carmencita Pink - same measly 5' !

Ricinus New Zealand Purple - a new one on me, but it sounds fantastic as it grows to 7' and has dark, shiny foliage.

Ricinus Blue Giant - lives up to its name and reaches up to 10', with large glaucous leaves

Ricinus Zanzibarensis - can reach up to 10' in a season!

Although I have never had any problems with germination of Ricinus seeds in the past, I decided to sow one packet early (Carmencita Pink), to compare with height and health of later grown plants. In the past germination rates have been high - so they should be, as the seeds are quite expensive.  I was extremely disappointed with the germination rate of the Carmencita seeds, which I sowed in early February, as up to date there has only been one seed which germinated.

Now, this could be due to my bad guardianship, or to a rogue batch of seeds, or to a million other reasons, but one thing is for sure - I want to give the other Ricinus seeds the very best chance of germination.

So, I went online and did my research, and, yes, someone has conducted trials regarding the optimum conditions for germination! In the trial 4 ways to treat the Ricinus seeds were used. One group were not soaked at all, one group was soaked for 12 hours, one group for 24 hours and one group for 36 hours. A significantly higher percentage germinated after 24 hours soaked in water. Q.E.D.

I must stress at this point that Ricinus seeds are extremely poisonous and should be handled with great care. I make sure that mine are stored in a safe place, and that they are never left lying around at any stage. I wash my hands well after handling them, and I even threw the tubs away that these seeds were soaked in.

After my failure with 'Carmencita Pink', I made sure I followed sowing instructions closely,and, once  the other seeds were sown, I put them all in the propagator to cook. 

In the photo below, the plant you can see on the far left is the only 'Carmencita Pink' to germinate. It is growing strongly, and enjoying the light and warmth. I will be interested to see how it compares to the others throughout the season. Will the others catch up in height, or will its early start be a benefit?

Monday, 29 February 2016

New kids on the block

Just look at them, all young, upright and full of energy! The potential stars of the new season are full of promise and undiscovered joys. Nurtured to perform at their very best and to achieve their potential, meet the new kids on the block ...

They wait in the wings before they take their turn in the spotlight, soaking up the light and the warmth they need for optimum growth.

Our new greenhouse ... erm ... conservatory is proving to be an absolute blessing for plant rearing. I used to struggle in the old one as it was not as well heated, or lit, and so seedlings sulked and grew leggy. The new one has a glass roof which lets in oodles more light, and has a thermostatically controlled panel heater which keeps the temperature constant.

Germination has never been a problem, as a heated propagator will give good results and get the seeds to germinate. The problem came when the seeds were then moved from the propagator and into the old conservatory which had huge fluctuations in temperature, and  got very cold at night. The only way to raise seedlings successfully was to leave sowing as late as possible so that both light levels and the average temperature had both risen considerably. Fine for fast growing annuals like cosmos, and veg like courgettes, but not so good for chilies and peppers, which need a long growing season to be successful.

Another problem which I have resolved this season is that of lack of space. Every year previously has seen seed trays of growing seedlings on every available surface, and, indeed, lack of space has curtailed my growing activity. Not so this year ...

Thank you 'Two Wests and Elliot' for this seed tray shelving unit which we bought a few weeks ago. It is not without fault - it is self assembly but you need the patience of Mother Theresa and the dexterity of Dynamo to be able to put it together. I asked the Exotic Gardener if he had a spare half hour to assemble it, and it turns out he did... three hours later he was still cursing and losing screws and nuts . Very fiddly ... but SO worth it !

It is exactly the same depth as a regular seed tray, and each shelf has a waterproof plastic tray for seed trays to fit into, so they can be watered without fear of floods!

I was concerned that , although the top shelf plants would be fine, that those on lower shelves would have restricted light, and would be leggy and grow towards the light. Not so! All plants are sturdy and straight, although I do  turn and move them around anyway.

Once the frosts are over the unit can be moved to the greenhouse, where it can continue to do a good job. It has castors on it, and is very light, so it will be easy to move.

So, why have I grown 3 different dahlias ? I must have got about 90 babies, and I will not be able to find a home for most of them in the garden! Luckily my friend is running a plant sale for charity, in April, so I will be able to donate the surplus to her stall.

I am trying 3 new Dahlia varieties this year - 'Redskin', Cactus Hybrids and 'Victoriana'. All are growing strongly and look very healthy. I sowed them early in February as I want them to flower well this year, so they need an early start to be able to do that.

As an experiment, I have some 'Begonia Rex' seeds currently sitting in the propagator, and I have a feeling they may be there some time as they are described as 'slow to germinate' and can be erratic. If they do show their faces, I intend to use them as  bedding in the new sub tropical area. However, they are very tender, and usually grown as house/ conservatory plants, so the great outdoors may be just too cold for them, even during an English summer. Thompson & Morgan now sell a Begonia Rex which is borderline frost hardy  (well 3 degrees!) called Begonia 'Angels'. They may be more suitable for a summer outside but they are nearly £20 for 4 plug plants ! I will experiment with the Begonia Rex seeds for this season, and see what happens.

Other begonias in the propagator are 'Illumination' white and 'Non stop' rose pink. I have never grown these before, or used them as part of a bedding scheme, so , again, an experiment to see how they perform.

I am growing  five different types of tomatoes, again, planted early to optimise fruiting, and they are all just growing their first set of true leaves. I am growing 'Sweet Aperitif' - small cherry fruits which are the sweetest imaginable; 'Marmande' (beef tomato),  'Romello' ( good outdoor plum, bush tomato), ' Mountain Magic', 'Losetto' , 'Akron' and  'Fandango (jury is out on these four, I was given free seed, so I am giving them all  a try!).

Other experiments for this season are Amaranthas ( two varieties , 'Caudatus' and 'Velvet Curtains'), and Celocia ('Flamingo Feathers' and 'China Town') which are all being grown as annuals for the new sub tropical area. Also, two varieties of Hibiscus, 'Simply Love' and 'manihot', again, for the new sub trop. Pictured further up this post are the new shoots of Oryza 'Black Madras' - a dark rice grass, which has just begun to germinate over the last couple of days.

Old faves already cooking in the propagator are Ricinus, although these are proving unusually slow to germinate. I also have 6 young Canna Indica growing strongly from a January sowing (pictured at the head of this post).

There are lots more packets of seeds forming an orderly queue next to the propagator, and I will be sowing right through to late April. This coupled with being able to get out into the garden and start clearing all the beds is serving to lift the spirits considerable. Spring is springing ! A whole new growing season is beckoning ...