Monday 29 September 2014

How not to hybridise dahlias

This is definitely NOT one of those 'how to' posts, and is probably more of a 'how not to' ! This is about an absolute novice, groping blindly in the dark, hoping that somebody who DOES know, will come along and give good advice!

My brand new obsession is learning how to hybridise dahlias ... with only the internet as my guide !

I regularly give thanks for the internet, and I gave them again, when finding that knowledge of the alchemy of hybridisation was only a click away. I read that dahlias are a good plant to start with as they are so easy. Easy! Organising plant sex for unsuspecting plants is certainly not easy!

The first step, according to the various websites I consulted, is to identify dahlias which have a characteristic you like.The advice is to breed for only one defined attribute.  After a wander round the garden looking at all my dahlias, the choice of two special ones was made easily. Out of the packet of 'Bishop's Children' seeds I sowed in Spring, there is a plant with wonderful orange, stripey flowers which has caught my eye all season (see photo at the top of the post ). I like the stripe and would like to enhance that characteristic, but feel that the colour is a bit washed out, so ideally would like a stronger, darker colour. The other dahlia is a lovely rich magenta with very dark foliage, which I think is 'Magenta Star', but I couldn't swear to it. The colour just zings, and contrasts so well with the yellow stamens. If you look at the petals carefully there is a stripe of darker colour down the ribs, which I hope will become much more marked if there are any offspring. What colour do you get if you mix magenta and orange ? Probably a sort of muddy beige, knowing my luck! I shall have to wait and see, like the total novice I am !

So, once the parents have been selected it is a little bit like IVF I suppose ! A male flower has to be selected with very visible stamens and pollen, on a fully open flower. Once that is picked, with a nice long stem, it needs to be labelled with its attribute (i.e. 'stripy'!), and taken indoors to have its petals removed. It is taken indoors to stop the pollen being taken by insects and/or contaminated with pollen from other plants. The selected flowers have to be at different points in their development, in that the male flower needs to be fully open with visible stamens, whilst the female flower should not be completely open.

I tested this male flower by touching it gently with a cotton bud to see if there was a lot of pollen on it, and there was!

Poor things look so denuded !

The next step is to select the female flower, and I chose it with the same attribute as before - 'stripey'. My internet notes state that the female flower should not be fully open when selected.  The female flower is not cut, but is covered by a little hood, to shield it from pollination by insects. The hoods can be made from nylon tights, pop sox or stockings which allow light in, but keep pollinating insects out.

Once the female flower is completely open, and the stigma are showing, then the little hood comes off, and all the petals are removed.
 (nb The female flower in this photo is not yet open enough at this point - one of my early attempts doomed to failure !!)

Then comes the plant sex, where the male flower is pushed into the female, and the stamens are rubbed, both ways, across the stigma. As much pollen as possible should be transferred at this time.  The hood is then replaced to stop further pollination from insects and the whole process is repeated the following day.

After three or four weeks the seed head should have formed, all being well, and it should have turned from green to a light straw colour. The seed head can be removed at this point, and when it is completely dry the seeds can be removed by hand, prior to planting the following March.

The back end of September is not the best time to develop a sudden interest in hybridisation of dahlias, as, firstly, there are fewer flowers now than there were earlier in the year, and secondly, everything is soggier than it was, so there is more chance of mould and rotting.  I don't think my chances of developing a new and wonderful dahlia are very high at all, but it has whetted my appetite for next season, when I will have more time to practise these new dark arts !

Saturday 20 September 2014

A fair trial

The other day I received an email from Thompson and Morgan asking me to trial a new rose for them, as they know how much I love a good rose ! The only proviso was that I write an unbiased blog post about it. "Was I interested ?" they asked. Was I ? Do bears pooh in the woods ? I answered in the affirmative, immediately ... and the parcel came today !

Being asked to trial a plant is both a joy and a responsibility. It focuses the mind on the task of looking after it as well as is humanly possible, to give it the best chance of achieving its potential. There is also excitement at growing something new... especially a new rose.

When I opened the parcel there were actually 2 roses inside, one in better shape than the other, as far as the foliage was concerned, but I'm sure that difference will soon be rectified by a few days of tlc, as it was no doubt caused by being packaged, without light, for several days.

On first sight, the roses were smaller than I had expected them to be, but when I checked the T & M catalogue, it specifies that they are supplied in 9cm pots, which they were, so my expectations were clearly unrealistic.

I saw a similar rose, ( 'Blue Eyes'?) when I visited the Thompson & Morgan Trial grounds in August this year, and was told that their new rose, 'Sweet Spot Calypso' is even better than that one. 'Blue Eyes' looked good to me, compact, with no black spot, and some flowers on it.

The rose I am trialling, ('Sweet spot Calypso') is termed a 'Decorator' rose, and it will  bloom continuously from June to October. It is low growing and compact, with a height and spread of about 50cm. It can be used as bedding, in containers, borders or ground cover, and is 'self cleaning' in that it sheds old petals. Although that would keep it looking tidy, I guess that it still needs deadheading with secateurs, otherwise it would develop hips and stop flowering. Pruning is nothing like as complicated as it is for many other roses - apparently just a light shaping and shearing is all that is required.

The flowers are 5 petalled singles, and are quite unusual, in that there is a darker eye in the centre which is red, this is surrounded by a ring of yellow, and then each petal is tipped with pink. There is a technicolour thing going on though, as the colours change as the bloom ages, so that there are many different shades at any one time. The foliage is dark green and new shoots are, pleasingly, red. The flowers are quite atypical for a rose, and I imagine that, to some people, it would not conform to the expected flower type and colouring.

The flowers remind me of 'Alissar, Princess of Phoenicia', although it is not related, to my knowledge. This is a lovely rose, and those single, dark-eyed flowers give me a lot of pleasure. It is a repeat flowerer, although it likes to 'rest' for long periods in between flushes of blooms.

'Sweet Spot Calypso', the Decorator rose, supposedly heralds a new breed of roses, with a long period of non stop blooms. It was bred from two unnamed Rosa hybrid seedlings, in Holland, and has taken 20 years to produce. Hardiness is given as Zone 5, which is around minus 20 centigrade, so no worries there, as much of Britain is Zone 8.

I must admit to not being keen on the term 'Decorator' rose as it smacks of buying books by the yard, or using artificial turf, or just doing stuff because it is easy on the eye, from a distance. It somehow implies that the plant itself is unimportant, and that the overall impression is paramount. I don't know how else to interpret the term, but I won't let it put me off the rose itself. 'A rose by any other name would smell as sweet' ... except that this one has no fragrance. To some that would be a deal breaker, as roses  are often chosen for their fragrance. Although I love scent, I have plenty of fragrant roses in the garden that I can bury my nose in whenever I feel the urge. 'Jude the Obscure' has fragrance to share, as does 'Wollerton Old Hall', so I won't begrudge  'Sweet Spot Calypso' for being scent free.

The roses came complete with a set of written instructions which were clear, concise and informative.

So, having two little roses to trial, gave me more opportunities than one so I devised a cunning plan! I  planted one in a container and put it in a reasonably sheltered place, for its first winter. The other I  planted out in a bed, ensuring it has full sun, and breathing space around it. In that way, it will be interesting to compare growth, flowering, health and vigour. The trial has to be honest and unbiased, and to do this fairly, I have to ensure that the roses are given the best possible chance to succeed in normal garden conditions.

 I planted the container rose in a suitably sized pot - not too big and not too small, and put a slow release rose fertiliser at the roots and used a good, more or less peat-free compost. As it needs a little tlc and nurturing, I have decided to leave it in the cool greenhouse for a couple of weeks to give it chance to recover. If the days are warm I shall move it outside, and bring it back inside at night.

I put the larger, more vigorous rose in the border, as I felt that it would cope better with the conditions than the smaller one, which will get more nurturing in a pot, having no competition for space, light and nutrients.

The rose in the bed was planted into a comparatively large hole, with fertiliser at the base, filled up with more or less peat- free compost. Both will be kept well watered.

As I try to garden organically wherever possible (never say never!) these roses will not be sprayed with anything, and any problems will hopefully be detected early so that they can be dealt with before they get worse. I will monitor them carefully to pick up any early signs of disease or pest infestation etc.

I am looking forward to seeing how they grow and develop, particularly as they are being grown in different conditions. I can't wait for that first rosebud to open next season ...

Sunday 7 September 2014

Fig-uratively speaking

Ah, 'tis the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, and now we can gather in the harvest, after our labours. Mind you, I won't be giving up the day job quite yet - as we only got one solitary, single fig !  Needless to say, once it ripened, it was delicious, and we fought over it, before dividing it in half and scoffing it with our muesli for breakfast!

I can't say I am surprised at the paucity of the harvest though, after what that poor little fig tree has had to endure - it has been brutally pruned (guilty? moi?), suffered as builders re-roofed behind it, and then had the indignity of being pruned AGAIN so the builders could get to the hard-to-reach places !

Despite this, the fig tree has survived, and recovered to the extent that the butchery is not apparent as the leaves have covered everything. It is still growing strongly, and not showing any signs of slowing down.

The clematis was cut back at the same time as the fig tree but, as you can see below, it has not made such a speedy recovery. It is showing regrowth, but we will have to wait until next year until we see any flowers.

We should be ok next year as there are lots of little figlets waiting in the wings, so, barring all lopper- based accidents, they should find their way into our muesli!

There has been a catastrophe quite close to the fig tree, but not near enough to harm it. The ten foot tall stone boundary wall suffered a partial collapse thanks to the power of the tail end of Hurricane Bertha. Our neighbours acquired a surprise rockery on their lawn, overnight.

The apex of the gable wall has fallen, as has a lot more stonework on the other side. It doesn't look half as bad from our side ... poor neighbours next door! So, the builders will be back to build it up again, but this time, the fig can be left alone, as it on the other side of the left hand wall.

So, on the whole, August has been a good month for my little fig tree, and it risen above previous adversity, and even produced a little fig !

Below is a photo from April, so you can really see the progress it has made ...

Thanks again to Lucy at 'Loose and leafy' for hosting this tree following meme. Do check out the huge variety of trees featured at

Saturday 6 September 2014

Harbinger of dooooom ...

I hate to have to say it ...

I don't want to say it ... but ... autumn is here !

There was a mist yesterday morning, hanging over the fields, and I could hear the rooks in the trees nearby. The nights are now chill enough to merit a log fire, and outside it is properly dark again.
When the sky is clear and the sun is shining it still feels like summer, but it is clear that the season is marching on.

All this is usual for the time of year, but what is unusual is that foliage has started to turn colour and to die back, as you would expect in late September or October. I think the signs of autumn have arrived in my little spot on the planet, about three or four weeks ahead what is usual.

I first noticed it in the Horse Chestnuts, in about mid August, but they are always the first to show autumn colour , and it is often visible at the end of the month.

The next thing I noticed was the hostas, which are on their way out ! They are definitely yellow and dying!

The strawberry leaves are turning fashionably red...

The Ligularias are edged stylishly, with dark red...

... and not so stylishly brown!

Berberis Rosy Glow has rekindled the embers and is now turning into a fiery furnace.

The anenomes have barely finished flowering , and yet the leaves are  beginning to die off.

Rodgersia is turning up its toes earlier than usual this season.

But don't despair, its hard to feel sad when there are still fuchsias like this is flower ...

... and 'Gentle Hermione' is just starting on another massive flush of blooms.

All the sedums are just coming into flower, and will be around for several weeks yet.

Because I am worried about things dying back and disappearing altogether, I have started the Great Autumn Move Around ! I don't usually do this at the beginning of September, usually it is at the end, or even through October, but if I don't start now, I will be looking at bare earth, wondering what on earth was growing there. Luckily the soil is ridiculously moist for the time of year, so I have no worries about moving things, as they will not dry out. This is usually the most restful time of my gardening year, as there is usually two or three weeks when there are few jobs to do, and the garden can be enjoyed before all the autumn work begins. Not this year though!

Spring came very early here, and I noticed the first leaves on the hawthorn hedge in mid-February, so maybe everything has just run its natural course. This process was probably accelerated by some very chilly days and even chillier nights in late August, which must have triggered the process of die back leading to dormancy. I've a horrid feeling that it is going to be a long old winter ....