Friday 23 December 2016

Hoe hoe hoe

Much as I love Christmas, I am excited for it to be all packed away, because then, and only then, can the new growing season truly begin. I am savouring the thought of compiling my seed order, but I refuse to give in to such a delight, until the last remnants of the turkey is eaten, and the last cracker is pulled.

Outside the window all is dank and decaying, but in my head everything is young and fresh and green. I know that there is lots to love about winter, from the beautiful bare skeletons of the trees, to the mist rolling gently in across the fields. I am a huge fan of log fires, cosy nights and good books and enjoy respite from the garden which enable me to enjoy those pleasures. But, once Christmas is out of the way, we are heading towards spring. From the Winter Solstice we are heading out of, and not into, winter. The days begin to lengthen, imperceptibly at first, but lengthen they do. It won't be long before there are the first heralds of the season, and then, before you know it we'll be knee deep in roses and wisteria.

My increasing excitement for the new growing season is due, in part, to a new and cunning plan ... to start a cutting garden to supply the house with flowers through the whole year, if possible. I currently spend between £7 and £10 per week on cut flowers which costs approximately £400 per year. It makes sense on an economic level as well as unmanly other levels too.

Although I grow a garden full of flowers, it turns out I can't bring myself to cut more than an occasional stem for the house. Surely this way, with a designated  patch just for cut flowers, I will be able to wield the scissors without guilt.

I need to learn about how to set up a new cutting garden, and need some advice on what to grow, how to sow successionally and how to provide flowers for as much of the year as possible. There is a wealth of information out there, in the form of blogs, vlogs, podcasts and books. Father Christmas has his instructions and will hopefully be dropping 'The cut flower patch' by Louise Curley down the chimney very soon. I have also put in a request for florist's scissors and snips.

I am already deciding which favourites will be guaranteed a place in this new cutting garden. It is not huge, so everything will have to earn its place. I want to have flowers available all year round, so my planning will have to take this into account. Flowers in mid summer will be easy, but having something to cut in November is a different matter. Steep learning curve here, I think ...

Definites will be cosmos, dahlias and sweet peas, so all I need to do with these three, is to decide which variety I fancy. Hopefully the books etc will supply countless ideas for other flowers/ foliage to grow. I will be growing everything from seed, so the cost will be minimal.

I have allowed myself to start a teeny bit of research, and have been onto the Sarah Raven website, and looked at her 'cutting garden pack' of seeds containing her best-loved varieties. I may take that as my starting point and develop it from there, using my personal preferences. I grow lots of different flowers for the garden already, but because I never cut them, I have no idea about their properties as cut flowers. I suppose I will be growing for longevity in the vase, but have little idea which varieties will be best.

I love Rudbeckias, and they would give reliable  colour late in the season, but will have to research whether they are good as cut flowers. 'Cherokee Sunset' and 'Cherry Brandy' are lovely in the garden.
As for foliage, no cut flower vase is complete without some, and I can actually  use foliage from shrubs in the garden, as I consider cutting it as a form of pruning, so can bring myself to do it !

I would like to grow some foliage plants in the cutting garden, but again, will have to learn what is most suitable for the purpose. Melianthus Major is a glorious plant with wonderful serrated leaves, of a cool glaucus grey. It is easy to grow from seed, and the young plants grow very quickly. But is it suited to life in a vase ? I need to find out !

I try to save as many seeds as I can every year, for many different reason. Obviously there is a cost implication as self collected seed is totally free, and it is also organic. There are no seed miles' involved, as the longest journey these seeds make is up the garden path! Self collection usually equates to more plants, as seed is usually produces in large quantities, and with many plants it can be collected over several weeks, so there is more to turn into lovely plants! I think I have enough sweet pea seed saved from this season, including 'Midnight', shown in the photo above. It is such a dark, rich colour, ad goes beautifully with cream and lilac varieties.

So, I wish you a very merry Christmas and a happy, healthy and peaceful 2017 !

Wednesday 16 November 2016

Fifty ways to lose your begonias

Buying tender plants at the height of summer is so easy, when the ice and snow of winter are but a dim and distant memory. It is easy to get carried away and buy far too many, far too large plants. I know. I am that person. However, once the temperature drops, they all need to be kept snug and frost free, if they are to survive until spring. I have been struggling to find the best way to do this for years, and, believe me, there have been many casualties along the way!

As an inexperienced gardener I tried the 'ostrich' approach, which meant that I stuck my head firmly in the sand and ignored all dire warnings on plant labels. I basically just left tender plants outside throughout the winter, and they died in their droves. I then progressed to wrapping them in fleece, which, although better than nothing, only gave minimal protection of a couple of degrees at most. Real divas just disregarded it and still died, although it really did help the borderline frost hardy plants. Wrapping most palms gets them through cold weather, and stuffing tree fern crowns with straw seems to do the trick, but it is finding the solution for the really tender stuff which causes the problems.

Getting a greenhouse was the first real step towards raising the survival rate of the delicate plants, but an unheated space is not necessarily frost free, as I found to my cost. Initially, I tried a paraffin heater but found it to be totally ineffective in the space, and impractical to use, as it is dependent upon you being there to light it.

The conservatory (which is heated) has been my saviour for the last ten years or so, and plants usually jostle together for space in there. It is a great solution for the plants, but not for the humans, as it virtually decommissions the conservatory from any other purpose other than that of a greenhouse for almost half of each year.

This year I decided to get the job done properly and to get electricity out to the greenhouse, so that I could have effective heating installed. Once that was in place I looked around for a good greenhouse heater, and researched online for recommendations.

They say you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince, and, although not as enjoyable, I think the same may be true of greenhouse heaters ! I tried a 2 kw electric fan heater, first, as sold by 'Two Wests and Elliot'. Rightly or wrongly I trust them as a company, and so felt confident in buying a heater from their website. The heater, itself, was actually fine, but I hadn't done enough homework, and had bought a heater which was just too small to heat the area of the greenhouse. Big fail.

Back to the internet, and I found a beast of a thing which would do the job - a powerful electric heater capable of heating the Albert Hall. Trouble was, when I asked the advice of Jim, our electrician, he just burst out laughing  - never a good sign! To run it, he pointed out, would need a whole new armoured cable, as it was so powerful - and it would also cost a fortune to use.

Jim suggested heating tubes, which are cheap to buy and to run and could be installed on the current system. He duly installed three tube heaters, to heat the entire space, and cleverly linked them to a thermostat, so that they come on automatically when the inside temperature drops below about 6 degrees. So far they have been very effective and the temperature has not dropped below 5. 2 degrees, even though there have been some cold nights. I have a max/ min thermometer, so that I can check the range every day, and monitor it carefully.

Although I know, in theory, that insulating a greenhouse makes a huge difference, it has taken several years for this fact to goad me into taking action! This year we have put up horticultural grade bubble wrap across windows and glass roof, and it makes a noticeable difference. It has to be horticultural grade to allow uv light in, I believe.

Ventilation is always an issue in a heated greenhouse, and it seems contra-intuitive to heat a space, then open a window, but moisture is the biggest danger, as it can cause mould, rot and all manner of unpleasant things. Insulation serves to hinder the free circulation of air even further, and can compound problems with moisture.

I try to open the doors when the weather is mild, to get as much air circulating as possible. Plants are checked regularly and dying flowers and foliage removed.  Everything is kept as dry as possible, as this makes a huge difference to survival rates. I barely water at all, and only give plants a little drink when they are starting to droop.

Precious things have joined us in the conservatory, and I have brought in young seedling, like Tetrapanax, and put them on the windowsill, along with cuttings of favourites such as Abutilons and salvias. In this way I hope to ensure I still keep some for next season, even if it all goes pear - shaped in the greenhouse. The big Ensete Ventricosum Maureliis are all snuggled up inside, as are some abutilons, which are still flowering. The Begonia 'Angels' have retained their foliage and still appear to be growing.

All succulents and cacti have been put into the smaller unheated greenhouse, which is kept ridiculously dry. There is an Astelia in there which has actually survived for two mild winters outside, but I don't want to chance it again. Also sheltering from the winter are agaves, aeoniums, aloes and yuccas. The theory is that they will be able to withstand the cold, as long as they are dry. If allowed to suffer the dreaded combination of wet and cold then their roots will rot, and death will surely follow. In spells of exceptionally cold weather they can be covered with horticultural fleece.

I will have to wait and see what this winter has in store for us, before I can measure the success of our new arrangements. We have already had some frosts and everything is still looking healthy.

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!