Sunday 26 January 2014

Wishing my days away

My excitement levels are rising just as the sap is beginning to rise. When I walk down the garden Clematis Cirrhosa 'Wisley Cream' is already out, with poor delicate flowers battered by the rain. Clematis Armandii is full of buds, and, as yet has not been checked by low temperatures. The shoots of the daffodil bulbs are clearly visible in the longer grass of the orchard, and a few brave snowdrops are in full flower.

The tulips are pushing through now, and I saw Aconites in a garden I drove past the other day.
The sap is beginning to rise and on a fine day I swear I smell Spring on the wind.

So why do I feel a little gnawing of discontent ? A little feeling inside that all is not as it should be ? It is because I have just realised that, as gardeners, we wish our lives away.

I want the daffodils to be out, and the leaves on the trees to be unfurling, damn it, I want to see the first rose, and smell the tomato plant smell in the greenhouse. I want the garden hose to be warm and pliable in my hand, and to enjoy the cool water when it splashes me. I'm impatient with leaden skies, bare soil and closed windows.

I wish I was as passionate about knitting , or golf, or home baking, because then I could do it all year round, without a break. As it is, I am a happy content soul until about November, when the last flower has flowered and the soil gets wet and cold. From then until Spring I am mentally crossing off the days until Spring, when the whole roller coaster starts again.

There is even a little app which someone has invented for us gardeners, which ticks off the days, hours and minutes until the official start of Spring. I haven't downloaded it because I don't want to watch the clock.

Blogging has really brought this home to me, because we are all the same, all wishing away the cold winter days, longing for the Spring to come, so we can get out there and do what we do best ... garden! All of us, wishing away those days when we could be  enjoying relaxing by a log fire, reading, knitting, baking ... What a waste of each precious day.

It's not that I don't enjoy making my own homemade bread, or reading a novel, or knitting a wonky scarf, it's just that I don't have the same passion for it.

So, I'll admit it, I'm just waiting, with growing impatience, for it all to kick off ...

Friday 17 January 2014

So sow ???

A new year, and this middle aged woman's fancy turns to propagators, thus kick starting the annual debate with my inner self about the best time to plug it in, and officially begin the new growing season.

As a young, inexperienced gardener I would invariably start all my seeds in early January, thinking that this would mean bigger, sturdier plants later in the year. Not so. Even if my younger self got the germination bit right, I would then leave poor overcrowded seedlings in their seed trays for weeks. Inevitably they would strive for the light, growing leggy and wonky in their desperate attempts to survive.

Ok, so now I am definitely older, and, one would hope, wiser, but I am always filled with dithery indecision when choosing the optimum time to plug in that propagator and grow. Because it is a controlled temperature, I never have to worry about the actual germination, unless the seeds are very stubborn. Most of my usual annual suspects germinate cheerfully, easily and quickly. The next bit is the hard bit to decide. If I leave the sowing until March, then the light levels are much, much better and the temperature is beginning to rise, so seedlings grow on quickly in optimum conditions, generally resulting in good sturdy, healthy plants.  Plant them in January, and they have to take their turn next to  the window, vying for the light through the daytime, before being moved away from the window every evening, so that they don't get too cold. This little game of musical seed trays begins to wear a bit thin when there are legions to juggle.

Some seeds need to be sown early as they need a long time to grow and mature. Plant your chillies too late and they won't produce anything until late summer, so they really benefit from a late winter sowing. The same is true for some other things too, like aubergines. An easy decision with those bad boys then.

Last Spring I bought 72 plug plants of 'Rosa Garden Party' and was very impressed with the growth they put on in their first year, bulking up quickly to be full, healthy plants, covered in flowers right up to October. I used them, mainly, to underplant my new 'Charles de Mills' hedge, and I think it is going to be an effective partnership. I intended buying more plug plants this coming Spring, but discovered that Thompson & Morgan sell them as seeds. Better still, it is claimed that they will flower in their first season from an early planting. Of course I bought a couple of packets and began to deliberate about when to sow.

Rosa garden party plugs  already bulking up (27th may )

I have decided to sow NOW ! Because I want flowers this year, not next. I can nurture them through their first couple of months in the kitchen, moving in an endless round from window sill to table, until they are reasonably sturdy, then, I think, they can go and live in the greenhouse until they can cope with being planted out. The greenhouse is unheated but they are hardy, so should be ok, and I can rescue them from any severe cold, and bring them back inside. The sowing advice is to move them to a cooler place after germination anyway.

9th June - planted out

Rosa multiflora nana perpetua 'Garden Party' is a miniature rose, growing to about 25cm (10 inches) tall with a spread of 35cm (14 inches). It has been bred for improved germination, in 2013, making it supposedly easy to grow (watch this space ...). It is equally happy edging beds and borders, or growing in a container. The flowers are produced freely and are produced in slightly different shades of pink, making an interesting display. I planted some in partial dry shade, as a weeny experiment, and they hung on in there and grew. Not as big as their luckier siblings, but grow they did ! Thompson & Morgan say that they need full sun, and mine grown in full sun were certainly happier. They also give the flowering season as June to September, whereas mine flowered sporadically way into October.

17th June - Rosa garden Party is planted along the edge of the border, far right

This is an extremely inexpensive way for me to grow a quantity of roses as the cost per packet is only £2.89 for 20 seeds, so even if germination rates are poor, it's still good value. As I recall 72 plug plants cost me around £20. Hah ! thank you T & M ... I actually counted 24 seeds in both packets !

17th June

Late June/ early July the young plants are filling out and flowering

So to sow ...

Propagator on. Check.
Seed compost in. Check.
Seeds sown. Check.
Seeds covered thinly. Check.
Compost watered. Check

So, off we go, on the roller coaster of a new growing season with its highs and its lows, successes and failures. I wonder how long it will be until I spot my first little rose seedling ?

I'll let you know ...

Sunday 12 January 2014

Little boxes of smoke and mirrors

They are the horticultural equivalent of ‘Pot Noodles’, ‘Cup a Soup’ and instant coffee - you just have to add water to get results. Instant gardens in a glossy box, or so all the marketing would have us believe. Gardening ‘kits’ for those who do not usually garden.

You probably got one for Christmas from a non gardening relative who knows you like to dabble with a hoe, and who thought it would be your dream present. They are certainly easy presents to buy and wrap, but what function do they really perform ? Do they promote easy gardening for lazy gardeners, or can they be a fast lane into a new passion, aiming straight for the heart of a novice?

There are many different kinds of ‘Instant Gardening’ kits, but at their core they are very similar. Essentially, the spectacular box contains all you need to grow whatever is inside, so all you have to do is to add water. There are seeds or bulbs, compost, a pot or two, and often a label and a set of instructions. Nothing more. They are overpriced and overpackaged, usually marketed mercilessly at the novice gardener and children. Most of these kits retail at around ten pounds, which makes the contents extremely expensive.

 A gardener, a real gardener, who has a potting shed or a greenhouse, will always be able to conjure up a pot and some compost. A novice gardener will have none of these things and could, perhaps, be discouraged from the whole seed - sowing experience because of this. It could be argued that the ‘Sow and grow’ kit could encourage the unprepared novice.

So, should gardening be packaged and marketed and neatly presented in a box, or is the rite of passage that quest for the seeds, pot and compost ? So much of personal gardening experience is learned through trial and error, through over watering or under watering; pruning or not pruning; sowing seed or taking cuttings. Maybe the kit takes little of that away, just presenting the essentials, then letting you learn all that nurturing on your own.

There are other Gardening kits for even lazier gardeners where the seeds are PRE SOWN on a little mat for you, so you don’t even have to go to the trouble of opening the seed packet and sowing them yourself. But, isn’t one of the joys of gardening, tearing open the packet and tipping the seeds into your hand, feeling their shape and texture, wondering what is going to emanate from them. Seeds are extremely tactile things, and a sunflower seed, for example, is something  to be savoured. Seed mats rob you of all that pleasure, and all those chances to learn. If you literally just add water to pre - sown seeds, do you feel any ownership of the seedlings which follow ?

For an experienced gardener, a ‘Sow and grow’ Kit can be more of a barrier to creativity than anything else. A passionate gardener will have not only been making lists for months, of all the seeds they wish to grow, and researching varieties, pondering over different cultivars, colours and flower types. Again, this is part of the pleasure and the learning process, and the Instant Box takes away all manner of choice. It dumbs it down.

So who is the marketing aimed at ? Quite a lot of it is aimed at children, and if it takes a kit like this to get them gardening and give them a lifetime passion, then why get sniffy about it ! However,there is a tendency to be a little cavalier with the truth, and the graphics on the box can be far more exciting than the contents. I imagine that if a child received a box promising ‘Monster Plants’ next to an illustration of a dinosaur, they would be a little disappointed with  the Asparagus Fern, Snapdragon and ‘Moving Plant’ seeds, which are inside. The box promises more. Likewise the ‘Grow your own Gnome Garden’, which consists of  utterly non - gnome-ish bluebell, honeysuckle and primrose seeds. If I was eight or nine I think I would be bitterly disappointed by the contents of the box.The graphics on the box often do not truly represent the contents, and let’s say, they can be the product of an over- active imagination. For example, the ‘Grow your own Christmas tree’ kit, sold  this Christmas and aimed at children, proudly crows, ‘All you need to grow your own Christmas tree in this box’. Although that is undoubtably true, they do fail to point out that the large, bushy tree shown on the box would probably take 10 years to grow to that size.

Although some garden make over shows would have us believe in Instant gardening we know, deep down, that there is no such thing. A box can instantly provide the things you need to promote growth ( seed, compost and container) but the irony is that it still all takes TIME. You can’t hurry Mother Nature, and she works at her own pace, just as she always has. Some of the ‘easy to grow’ seeds in the box can take weeks or even months to germinate, if indeed they ever do. So, in reality, the seeds will take as long as they have always taken and the mantra remains the same - wait, tend, nurture. And repeat. If you don’t do that, there will never be any healthy plants at the end .

So, boxes of Instant gardening can produce gardeners, in that they can kickstart the process by making the initial stages as easy as possible. They gather all the necessary ingredients for growth together so that the non gardener can get cracking immediately. But gardeners, real gardeners, are not made or unmade by amassing a pot, seeds and some compost. Anyone can sow seeds. The gardener emerges in the watching, the waiting, the watering, the nurturing and ultimately the deep satisfaction felt in the result.

Wednesday 8 January 2014

New year - Old roses

What a cathartic experience to be out in the good, cold air, digging, planting and planning. Although festering by the fire is a joy, it felt good to venture out and start the new growing season with a vengeance.

The sun was shining, and, yes, the birds were singing - there was a robin very close to me, in an elder tree, and it hardly stopped the whole time I was out. The rooks were flying overhead, cawing as they flew, and although it is a melancholy sound, it is a something I love to hear. The local sparrowhawk must have been high in the sky because all the birds suddenly took flight at one point, including my fantail doves. I couldn't see it, but they clearly could. Later, I did find a sad little mound of white feathers, and part of a wing, down the garden, so one of my fantails had not been quick enough to escape.

Over the past year, I have become increasingly obsessed with roses, and as I said in my last post          ( 'New years Resolutions - grow more roses. And repeat' ),  this started with David Austin English roses and is now extending to Old roses. I received a couple of books for Christmas, so have spent time going through and choosing 3 Old roses to start me off. I chose 'Comte de Chambord', 'Mme Alfred Carriere' and 'Mme Isaac Periere' and I ordered bare roots about ten days ago. When they arrived, I was unable to plant them immediately, so I pierced the plastic covering the roots, and put them in a bucket of water for a couple of days.

I knew exactly where I wanted to plant them, so I had to move some less exciting plants to make room, just some elderly Michaelmas daisies and some grasses, which would benefit from splitting/ moving  anyway.

This hole was still not big enough - those roots need room to spread out ! I also dug the surrounding area so that the roots could grow easily into nice loose soil. The roses were planted generously, in compost, mixed with a specific rose fertiliser. This specified 29 grams per rose, but as I hadn't taken my digital scales out with me (!) I'm afraid I just mixed in about three slack handfuls, and hoped for the best. I will also top dress with well-rotted horse manure in March.

Now, I hope this isn't just me, but sometimes, when I've forgotten the right tool for the job, I just can't be bothered to go back and get it, so I grab the nearest thing to hand, and it takes me five times as long to complete ! Because I forgot my little knife, I grabbed these topiary shears, then had to cut open the rose packaging with them. Believe me, it would have been a whole lot quicker and simpler to make that trip to the greenhouse for my forgotten knife !

This is 'Comte de Chambord' ready to plant, and it had a good soaking beforehand. It was well packaged with spaghnum moss around its roots to protect, and to maintain moisture. The plants were  good, strong and healthy looking, with good root systems.

'Comte de Chambord' is a pink, repeat flowering Portland rose, bred by Moreau - Robert in 1863. It is recommended by David Austin, and is said to be tough, reliable and trouble free. Its size is given as 4' x 3' but I believe that it can grow much larger than this, in the right conditions. It has a strong Damask fragrance. It has been used in various breeding programmes over the years, and is a parent of  the well known 'Gertrude Jekyll'.

This is 'Mme Alfred Carriere', planted to exactly the same level as she was planted at before. I decided not to water afterwards, as all the plants had soaked for 48 hours, and the soil was very moist anyway. She will soon outgrow the obelisk she is planted next to, and when this happens, she can romp through a nearby Aucuba.

'Mme Alfred Carriere' was bred in 1879 by Joseph Schwartz, and is a white Noisette rose, with hints of pink. It is a repeat flowerer, with a large first flush, and sporadic smaller flushes throughout the rest of the summer. Again, it is said to be hardy and disease-resistant. It is a strong climber, reaching about 20' and can take a degree of shade, so can be grown on a north wall. 

The third of my old roses is 'Mme Isaac Periere', a large flowered, deep pink Bourbon rose, bred by Garcon, in 1881.  It produces masses of well scented flowers in June and again in Autumn. It grows to be a large shrub or short climber.

Just to lift the spirits, I saw and photographed this brave bud of 'Joi de Vivre' battling the January cold, near to where my new girls are planted.

Wednesday 1 January 2014

New Year Resolutions - grow more roses. And repeat!

Munstead Wood

So, it's that time of year again, and gardeners all around the world are making resolutions to be more organic, or to plant pollinators, or to use peat free compost.

I, on the other hand, have only ONE resolution... to grow more roses. And repeat!

Jane Austin

I have come to roses relatively late in life, or to be more precise, I have become  rose-obsessed later in life. The beauty of the rose was always apparent to me, but in a back-of-the-border sort of a way. An 'I like it, but I don't know the variety' sort of a way. A 'buy it from a supermarket' sort of a way.

The Shepherdess

But the half pleasurable/ half painful obsession has grown large just lately, and threatens to take over the whole of the garden. It started with one David Austin rose, 'Abraham Darby' and when that flowered, it was a seminal moment for me. Such gorgeousness could not be ignored. Those huge iconic, sumptuous blooms were the essence of English country gardens to me. Must buy more, I thought, so I did ... luscious pink 'Geoff Hamilton' (still gamely flowering on, as I write); dark, mysterious 'Tess of the D'Urbervilles' and sunny 'Teasing Georgia', amongst others.

Of course I had to buy more so I got a bunch of bare roots, snowy 'Winchester Cathedral', delicate 'St Swithins', silky 'Sceptred Isle'... I needn't go on ...

Brother Cadfael

The romance and the history of the Rose began to exert its influence on me, and I began to read more and more about them, also trying to learn how best to treat my charges. A sunny, open site, generous planting, well seasoned horse manure, regular fertilising and lots of ongoing preventative (organic) health care, to nip any problems in the bud, so to speak!

Spirit of Freedom

Then I felt a different, older power, drawing me, pulling me in. The Old Roses were calling, steeped in history and romance, they occupy a place in cultures which no other plant can claim. With some Old roses dating back to the 16th century, they have played their part in literature, music, poetry and art, for hundreds of years.

Gentle Hermione

Just as the names of the David Austin English roses have a mystique all their own, so the names of the Old roses pique the curiosity. Many are named after individuals such as 'Louise Odier', Mme Alfred Carriere' and Mme Isaac Perriere. I want to find out how these roses got their names, and what part was played by those people, in the history of that rose.


So, I have recently placed some orders for bare root Old roses, and I can't wait for them to arrive. I want to get to know them, to look after them, nurture them ... and watch them flower.

I know I need help ...