Sunday 30 August 2015

Cunning new plans...

Since visiting the fabulous ' Secret Garden of Louth' earlier this month we have been inspired to go outside and garden more, plan more, sow more and grow more. It is, as its name would suggest, a hidden garden in the centre of a Lincolnshire market town, presenting a frontage which gives no clue to the riches which lie within. It is a sub tropical garden, bursting with colour and lush foliage with not a straight line in sight. I took no photos on my visit which are worthy of sharing, ( the photos on this post are of our own sub tropical garden), but you can find them on Facebook if you just search 'Secret garden of Louth'.  They open for the N.G.S. several times a year in late summer.

We have had our own sub tropical garden -within-a-garden for many years, but I must admit that I have had little part in planning and maintaining it, as it is my partner who has developed this part of the garden. I am suddenly really enthusiastic about learning more about this type of planting, and also keen to grow as many of the plants as I can myself, in the greenhouse.

It is always a pleasure to see how other gardeners tackle this very specific way of gardening, which can break the conventions of traditional gardening . The main period of colour tends to be in late summer and usually comprises of hot, rich colours like oranges, yellows, russets and reds. Foliage tends to be lush and large, using as many hardy plants as possible for the backbone of the garden, with infill of tender stuff and annuals. Whereas cottage garden borders are graded in size, with the smallest plants at the front, leading to the largest at the back, sub tropical or exotic planting often sites large plants at the front to heighten the 'jungle' feel. In my opinion the best sub tropical gardens have a feeling of enclosure, with large plants so close to paths that you have to brush by them.

There is an area of our garden, affectionately known as the 'Bus shelter bit' for obvious reasons! It has had several reincarnations over the years, but I have never got it quite right, and it has not had a real identity. I have tried it as a grasses garden, and a  foliage garden and it is currently full of mixed planting. After visiting the 'Secret garden of Louth', and discussing it later, over  several glasses of wine, we hit upon the idea of extending our adjacent sub tropical garden into our 'Bus shelter bit'. It would lend itself very well, as it has a lot of appropriate planting already - bamboo, cotinus, Fatsia Japonica, Miscanthus, Hemerocallis, heuchera, hostas, Persicaria, Phlox, ferns and hardy fuchsia . The backbone is halfway there, and there are some mature plants already giving height. It is an enclosed space, as it is flanked by two tall boundary hedges, (laurel and conifer,) and divided from the rest of the garden by a  climber-covered trellis, and a lonicera hedge and arch.

There are some plants which will need to be moved - most worryingly two beautiful English roses "Wisley' and 'St Swithuns', as I don't think they would fit in with the new planting. I have taken lots of cuttings from them over the years, so even if they do not survive, they are cloned elsewhere in the garden. There are also some low growing perennials, such as Phlomis, which will have to be be moved.

The cruellest cut of all will be to the four Picea, growing in the central island bed. They have to go as they are far too formal, but I will miss them as they have been there for years and years.

This bit of planting will be staying - Brunnera 'jack Frost', Bergenia and hosta give low, ground cover planting in front of the 'bus shelter' seat.

There is only one tree, a Prunus Serrula, which will, of course, be staying, although it will have its canopy raised a little to allow more light in.

After all  the unwanted plants have been moved to other areas of the garden, then the fun can begin... and most of it will be free ! I have masses of plants to transplant into this new sub-tropical area, such as a  huge Miscanthus (which will divide into 4), a huge clump of bamboo (which will also divide into 4 or even 6), giant lillies, hostas and ferns.

An existing corner of the 'Bus shelter bit'
We plan to invest in two or three big chaps - a tree fern (needs winter protection), Trachycarpus Fortuneii (hardy palm) and perhaps a big Musa Basjoo (hardiest banana - ok to -5 degrees for roots). These should give instant height and impact. There will be definitely be a Tetrapanax or two, to give a tropical feel.

The huge leaf in the centre of the photo is a Tetrapanax
I am picking my partner's brains, and doing my own research into annuals to grow next year for colour and also for height and impact. I currently grow Ricinus, Cosmos, Dahlias, Tithonia, Melianthus Major and coleus for the subtropical garden but will be extending this next season to include Inula Magnifica, Angelica Gigas and Amaranths Early Splendour'.  'Jungle Seeds' sell a 'Triffid Mix' which promises fast growing, tall plants in one season and comprises 'Amaranth Lotus Purple (8ft), Hibiscus Manihot (10 ft), Chenopodium Giganteum (8ft), Ricinus Zanzibarensis (15 ft), Ensete Ventricusom (12 ft in 2nd year), Helianthus Kong (12 ft) Solanum Quiotense (6 ft - huge leaves).

The photo above shows the Ricinus grown from seed this year. Next year I plan to grow a wider variety of Ricinus, including the massive Zanzibarensis, in another seed collection from 'Jungle Seeds'.

The planning stage has seen us reaching for books by gardeners such as Will Giles, Christopher Lloyd and Miles Challis.  I would also like to give credit to the knowledgeable folk on a Facebook page called 'Hardy Tropicals UK'. You don't know me, guys, as I have not entered into discussions, but I have learnt a lot from reading your posts, so thank you...
An excellent blog I follow is Mark & Gaz's 'Alternative Eden' ( )', as they also have lots of wisdom to impart.

Wednesday 19 August 2015

Off with their heads !

There has been much discussion in our household over the last four years, about the relative merits of the so called 'Pictorial meadow'. Discussion has always been amicable, and our views are not polarised, but we have found it very difficult to make a decision as to whether it is worth all the effort it entails.

When our little patch of meadow looks good, we agree that, actually, it earns its place in the garden, and it can stay.

Days, nay, hours later, this verdict can be reversed as a wind gusts through the flower patch, laying it flat on the ground. It doesn't have to be wind which damages the flowers irreversibly, it can be an errant dog, a pheasant, a humanoid, a grandchild's misthrown ball ...

And once those flowers lie down they refuse to get up, but choose to languish horizontally until the end of the season.

It usually starts in a promising way with lots and lots of densely packed seedlings, which seem to take forever to grow. When they finally begin to flower they look truly fantastic ... but only for a nano second. Even if there are no unauthorised forays into the patch, it quickly begins to flatten and sprawl.

For the first two years we grew a taller mix, which was even more prone to collapse than the 'short' mix we grew this year. We really thought we had found the solution with this shorter mix, but it is going the way of its taller cousins.

The mix itself is fantastic, and the individual flowers are beautiful and well chosen. Although people tend to refer to it as a 'wild flower meadow' this is a misnomer, as it is a collection of annuals, some indigenous, which provide colour over a long period. The most prominent in our mix are cornflowers, poppies, Ladies Bedstraw and cosmos. The individual blooms are gorgeous, and I love the silky , dark red poppies.

Apart from the droop and sprawl, which seems to be an annual occurrence, we have real problems weeding the patch, and so find that certain weeds take over, and then smother the flowers. Because the flowers are sown in a dense area to give maximum impact, it is impossible to get access to weed the centre. Also, it is hard to identify the weed seedlings from the flowers, so mistakes would be made when the plants are small. Once the weeds have grown large enough to be identified, pulling them out would disturb the smaller plants growing around the weed.

To sow even a little patch like ours is relatively expensive, and it is an ongoing annual expense. Yes, there are  perennial mixes, but our site is used for bonfires during the rest of the year, so we need it to be totally free of plants then.

There is quite a lot of preparation needed before the flower seeds can be sown every year, the site needs to be well weeded and perennial weeds dug out. It then needs hoeing,  and fine raking before the seeds can be sown. The seed is expensive, and sown quite densely, so the area needs to be marked out into metre squares, and the seed weighing out before it is scattered, so that germination is even. This would all be worth it if we got months of pleasure from the finished result, but we have been disappointed every year, sooner or later.

So , the most indecisive gardeners in the world have finally made a decision to call time on the flower patch, and use the area for something else. We are contemplating building a permanent fire pit with benches, as we do love our bonfires.

I have seen lots of examples of fantastic wild flower/ annual  meadows, and when they are good they are absolutely spectacular. For some reason, it is just not working for us, and we feel we have given it enough chances. Maybe our site is a little too shady, maybe we have too many pheasants with big feet ... who knows. I shall just enjoy the efforts of others from now on ...

Sunday 9 August 2015

Side order of Begonia with that, madam?

On arrival at Thompson & Morgan's 'Online Media Press Day', we were all immediately encouraged to taste begonia petals, fresh from the plant ... not what I was expecting at all! The taste, should you be wondering, was fresh, citrusy and surprisingly good. 

The edible theme continued as we were shown a new fuchsia, 'Berry', which, you guessed it, has been developed for its large and tasty berries. There is no stone or pip, so you can just pop the whole thing straight in there, as you wander round the garden. Being the sort of gardener who feels peckish as soon as they leave the kitchen, the thought of constant floriferous snacks is quite appealing. Throw the dwarf patio raspberry 'Ruby Beauty' into the mix, and you have your own picnic before you've even left the patio.

Even the cake served to us at afternoon tea was decorated with edible petals  -  and short work was made of that too!

Having whet our appetites with edible flowers, the foody theme continued with a talk about new T & M veg varieties, including a tasting of 'Wasabi Rocket' - a hot peppery leaf with that distinctive Wasabi flavour. We were all given a packet of seeds to try, and, having been assured that it is not too late to sow, I am keen to sow some immediately. They are a successional, 'cut and come again' crop which can be harvested in just a few weeks.

The new T & M 'Trial Garden' is situated on 'Jimmy's Farm' (just South of Ipswich)  for the first time this year, to encourage visitors to look around and see what is available, and how it performs in a garden environment. New additions to the catalogue are featured, and there are also some new plants being trialled there, which are not yet available in the catalogue.

There is a mix of perennials, shrubs, climbers and bedding, with popular bedding varieties, like petunias, taking centre stage. There are varieties with single colours, doubles like the prolific 'Purple Rocket', and also more novel varieties like the splodgy 'Night Sky'...

...  bi-coloured 'Crazytunia'

... and  'Green with Envy'.

Not really my thing, but great fun, I guess, if it is your thing !

More my thing was a lovely Amaranthus called 'Molten Fire', which doesn't have the long tassels usually associated with 'Love Lies Bleeding', but instead has explosions of bright pink at it's core, which increase in size as the season progresses. These would look good in a hot, sub tropical border with Ricinus, dahlias, cannas etc, and I will be giving these a whirl next year.

Another of my favourites was a Rudbeckia mix called 'Caramel', which contains the lovely 'Cherry Brandy' amongst others. The mix has been developed to flower from early July, which is much earlier than most Rudbeckia. The colour mix is a very subtle one, with soft yellows, russet tones and dark reds. Although I haven't personally had much luck at germinating Rudbeckia so far, I will be trying this one next year.

What's not to love about Cosmos? Elegant foliage, prolific flowers until the first frosts, a good cut flower ... The T & M Trial garden showcased several different varieties to demonstrate the versatility of Cosmos, for both size and colour. There was an interesting variety called 'Cupcake' which has frilled, more robust looking petals, and this is apparently very suitable for growing in tubs. One more to add to my list. We were also shown the first yellow Cosmos 'Xanthos', an attractive pale lemon, with darker centre.

One for the sub tropical garden is Begonia 'Garden Angel', which resembles one of its parents, the tender 'Begonia Rex'. However, this new cross is hardy down to minus ten degrees, we were told. It could be a fantastic addition to the sub tropical border.

All these gorgeous plants and glorious sunshine all afternoon too!  Many thanks to Michael, Kris, Terri and everyone else who made it so enjoyable.

Begonia anyone ? Don't mind if I do ...

Monday 3 August 2015

And August slouches in ...

I want to shout "Sit up straight everyone" and "Just keep your legs to yourselves" to my garden plants at this time of year, as they are sprawling like drunks at a party. They want to lounge over every available surface including the lawn, gravel and other plants. For many of them, canes and twine are the only way to stop them slipping down into the horizontal. Geraniums and Alchemilla Mollis are launching take over bids for all the paths, and every time I walk down the garden there is less path visible and more sprawl. I am itching to get my shears out, but am making myself wait until most of their flowers are finished.

Not everything is so badly behaved though, the bedding is just really getting to its best and filling the containers, and, with constant dead-heading, is providing little explosions of pure colour.

The jury is out on the flower meadow, however, but I think the black cap may be donned. This is the third or fourth year we have grown them, and I think we have only had one really successful season. The seed is quite costly to buy and the soil needs quite a bit of preparation before sowing, such as weeding and hoeing. If the results were fantastic, then I could justify all the above, but every year it just gets flattened so early in the season, and never recovers. A spell of heavy rain is enough to beat it down, and it seems unable to recover. This year we have chosen to grow short varieties rather than tall, in the hope of overcoming this problem, but to be honest, it hasn't really worked.

En masse, and from a distance it looks ok, but on closer inspection there are areas of little colour where weeds have taken over, and areas which have been badly flattened. Weeding is really difficult as to reach the middle section, you have to step onto the meadow ... and flatten it some more !

The black cap is donned, executioner booked and log store waiting for this poor thing! It is a twenty year old Weeping Birch which looked fabulous until last season, when there weren't many leaves in evidence. This season was the same again, new leaves unfurled but there weren't as many as usual. Then, at the beginning of June all the leaves suddenly turned brown, so I think we can safely say the poor thing has died, after a long time malingering. It has to go . I can see no evidence of any disease, pests, fungus etc, so its premature demise is unexplained.

On a happier note the sub tropical garden is just flexing its muscles . It is late to get going, but once it is up and running, it has colour, form and texture right up to the first frosts. Colour comes principally from Cosmos, Crocosmia 'Lucifer' plus orange varieties; various dahlias, Tithonia and Ligularia.

One of our worries this year was a poor little Tetrapanax which barely struggled through the winter. We both expected it to die, but it suddenly rallied and is now just loving the present warmth and the wet  and has developed massive leaves, as you can see in the photo below.

The red spheres in this photo are the seeds of Ricinus Communis, which are very poisonous. I am leaving them on the plant, not only because they are highly ornamental, but because I will harvest them  when they are ripe, to sow next year. Ricinus seeds are very expensive and this year I only achieved about 30% germination rate from commercially bought seed.

Some other high achievers in the garden this month are in the photos below.

This is a canna which we overwintered, and it was still flowering when the really cold weather came. It has grown so strongly this year and has made a handsome plant, on which the first flowers are just about to appear.

This dahlia, (unknown variety) is never dug up in the autumn, and stays out, unprotected, all year. It is about eight years old and is now massive and covered with large gorgeous flowers. The foliage is very dark, and a lovely foil for the pink of the blooms.

Below is a newcomer to our garden, but I think it will become a regular visitor. It is Fuchsia 'Millennium', which has many very large flowers, which are a strong, dark purple, coupled with a rich deep purple.

Sadly, my mind is already turning to next year, and the changes I will make, and the plants I will grow. I don't know why this happens around this time every year, as the season is still in full swing. I know I should just relax now, lie in the hammock, and deadhead from time to time, but I am  already fantasising about taking a spade to the bits which haven't worked out the way I planned.

Thanks to Helen, for hosting this monthly meme at

It is a great opportunity to reflect on the progress in our gardens from month to month as well as swap ideas and learn !