- January 8, 2018Read more
By the time that you read this Christmas will all be over and done with. The baubles will have been wrapped up and packed away without, hopefully, too many breakages. Tinsel, if that is your thing and I don’t see why not, will have been gathered up and strings of lights carefully wound around a square of cardboard. Despite all of these precautions they might still end up like something resembling a birds nest when you unpack everything next year. The last thing to go out is usually the tree. This is often a daunting task. Size matters when choosing a Christmas tree. How big does it need to be to be impressive? Too big and you end up with neck ache from trying to peer around it to watch the Queen’s speech. When brought from the Christmas tree grower or garden centre it is easy to underestimate the size of the tree whilst overestimating the size of the room!
Cut Christmas trees have surged in popularity. The British Christmas Tree Growers Association estimates the over 8 million trees are sold by its 320 or more members. The BCTGA website also has a code of practise for members as well as advice on caring for your cut tree. The Association holds an annual competition for the best Christmas tree the winner of which gets to supply the tree for 10 Downing Street and the winner with the best foliage supplies the wreath for the famous black door. However by now most trees will be sawn up and sent for recycling with other garden waste or looking sadly forlorn at the bottom of the garden, bereft of needles. If you are like me you will probably be picking needles out of your socks in June.
Yet, have you ever wondered what your Christmas tree might look like if it had never been a Christmas tree? For many years the favourite tree of British shoppers has been Picea abies, the Norway Spruce. This beautifully scented tree can grow up to 60 metres tall with a trunk up to two metres across. It has a broadly conical outline with dense spiky branches covered in bright green needles. The Norway spruce has the broadest natural range of its genus, occurring from the Maritime Alps to Siberia and is one of the most important and widely cultivated species in forestry and horticulture. They can live for 300 years. The Nordmann fir, Abies nordmanniana is the most popular Christmas tree sold in Britain. It has soft needles which do not drop readily. In its natural environment around the mountains surrounding the Black Sea from Russia to Turkey it can grow to 70 metres and individuals can live for 500 years. A popular entry from America is the Fraser fir though it makes a more diminutive specimen growing only to 30 metres. The trunk usual reaches a
metre or so in diameter with flaky grey bark. Originating in the high Appalachian mountains of Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee it is named after a Scottish plant explorer. Though it is naturally short lived it makes a shapely conical tree when young which is why it has made a popular entry into the Christmas tree market.
So when you wave goodbye to your tree you might pause to think of the multi-million pound industry that has grown up. Plants that have been collected in the wild and were once expensive novelties from across the globe are grown and sold by the million. Not bad for an imported tradition even if the man who made it popular was a prince.
Best wishes for 2018!
- October 16, 2017Read more
We may be nearing the end of October but that does not mean that the garden needs to be running out of steam. There are many places that we can look for colour and interest and also scent. The stars of the show at the moment are naturally the deciduous trees.
One of the foremost genera for me is the Katsura tree or Cercidiphyllum japonicum. Ultimately this is perhaps a tree for the largest garden as it can reach a substantial size, indeed it is the largest tree in Asia. The leaves are rounded and at the end of the year turn wonderful shades of red, gold and orange. Best of all is the scent which is carried powerfully all around the tree and smells variously of burnt sugar or toffee apples. It is by no means one of the fastest growing trees so you could plant one in order to enjoy it while it is relatively young. There are also dwarf cultivars which are really just very slow growing forms of the species including ‘Boyd’s Dwarf’, ‘Herkenrode Dwarf’ and ‘Kreukenberg Dwarf’. These could be accommodated in even an average garden.
Sorbus is another genus which I defy anyone not to love. The family is broadly split into two groups, the Aria section of white beams and the Rowans which have light foliage made up of many leaflets. These make excellent garden trees as they do not cast too deep a shade as to exclude things from growing underneath. At this time of year the foliage is deeply alight and glowing. There are a huge number of cultivars with different leaf shapes, berry colour etc. If I had to pick one it would be Sorbus commixta which hails from Russia, Japan and Korea. It has a rather columnar habit with orange red fruits and the cultivar ‘Olympic Flame’ is perhaps one of
the best of all trees for autumn colour.
Amongst the best shrubs for berries are the Viburnums and amongst this family the Guelder rose or Viburnum opulus holds a chief place. The large maple like foliage positively glows in autumn along with glistening fruits which take on a translucent quality. My favourite is V.o. ‘Xanthocarpum’ which has orange yellow fruits that stand out like pearls on a necklace. Undoubtedly, the most unusual if not downright sinister fruits belong to Decaisnea fargesii which hails from China and the Himalayas. The flowers are
yellow-green borne in May but by September and October large groups of metallic blue pods like oversized broad beans hang beneath the foliage. The shape and colour gives the plant it’s common name of drowned or dead man’s fingers. Inside is a squishy mixture of pulp and seeds.
Now is the best time to plant bulbs but it is also the best time to enjoy one in particular. Nerine bowdenii, a species of flowering plant in the Amaryllidacae family. Planted shallowly in full sun the narrow strap shaped leaves give way to clusters of bright pink flowers held in large umbels. The plant itself originates from South Africa though it is reliably hardy unless waterlogged and it is worth making sure there is good drainage. Clumps will increase rapidly and can be divided after flowering. After a disappointing summer it is reassuring to know that there is still so much to enjoy.
- October 3, 2017Read more
Outside my window the trees are beginning to take on their autumn hue and many are already falling especially the horse chestnuts which have already been decimated by leaf miners. These insects live between the upper and lower surfaces of the leaf eating them from the inside. When the leaves fall they overwinter ready to reinfect the new leaves in spring. The multiplicity of different leaf sizes and shapes should give us all pause for thought. Why don’t all leaves look the same?
Scientists have long known about the factors that limit leaf size. Leaves exist to capture sunlight for photosynthesis, so the larger the surface area, the more sun light can be captured. However, the size of the leaf cannot exceed the amount of available water. The evaporation of water from the leaves cools the leaves as well as drawing more water up from the roots to
replace it. Thus a leaf which outgrows the availability of water will soon scorch in strong sunshine. In this way any amount of water creates an impetus towards growth whilst the availability and strength of sunlight restricts growth. Plants find a happy medium between the two according to their own specific set of circumstances.
Yet recently, scientists working in Australia have discovered another variable. Cold. Plants may be just as wary of catching a chill as of catching too many hours of sunshine. The more likely a plant is to experience freezing temperatures the more it will reduce the size of its leaves.
But still leaves have different shapes as well as different sizes, something that can only be accounted for through myriad of tiny adaptations over the enormity of evolutionary time. Each small adaptation is passed down in genetic form from parent to progeny. The evolutionary and ecological history of a plant species is written in the shape and size of the leaf. Style also mirrors function when it comes to plants. They don’t dress up just for our benefit. Getting the style of leaf right for a specific environment can be a matter of life and death. Large round leaves gain more sunlight whilst leaves with sharper edges and rough textures are able to to shade themselves from the strongest rays preventing them from becoming scorched. Large leaves, like those of a banana grow where cold is not a problem whilst small tight leaves such as bundles of pine leaves keep out the cold.
An individual plant may even go so far as to change the characteristics of the leaf according to its own circumstances, how much shade falls on it or what the atmosphere around it is like. Plants are beset by many ecological challenges. Their response over time has been ingenious and hopefully in an era of man made climate change this will prove their salvation and ours.
- September 18, 2017Read more
There is a wild abundance in our fruit garden at the moment particularly on the top fruits. Though the late summer has been poor the early part of the year was good for pollination with plenty of fine warm days that started early and no frosts to speak of. This meant that the flowers and reproductive parts of the plants were undamaged and that foraging insects had plenty of opportunity to do their work. This meant a good fruit set and because ripening takes place over a long period the cold, wet, dark summer has not affected the ripening.
Plums, damsons, apples and pears are weighing down the branches. But what to do with all this abundance? I know that I have extolled the virtues of preserving fruit with alcohol before but winter is coming! I like to use fruit as much as possible especially with meat. Try mixing together some mustard and honey and spreading it over chicken pieces. Pour some oil in a roasting tin and put in a couple of onions and half a dozen dessert plums such as ‘Victoria’ which you have halved and stoned. Add some fresh thyme and roast for 30-40 minutes and serve with mashed potatoes or polenta. Of course the classic dish has to be the crumble and I’m sure that there are
as many different takes on this classic as there are people out there making it. To me you can’t beat apples from the garden (whether they are dessert or cooking it doesn’t seem to matter) and blackberries from the hedgerows around.
If you don’t yet have a fruit tree then you should think about planting one. Even if you have a small garden there are dwarfing varieties of apples and
pears on the market and you should find a good selection at your local nursery. There are also many varieties suitable for containers. The very best time to plant is when the trees are dormant and leafless from late October to March. This means that you have time now to be looking in catalogues from mail order suppliers, online or at the nursery to find what you want. Great as it is to have one of everything or to go for the unusual it is better to grow what you will use the most. There are many multi-purpose varieties of apple that are available.
Apples are one of the easiest tree fruits to cultivate and they make a good looking garden tree as well as a useful one. The blossom is pink and white and the fruit can be used in many different ways. ‘James Grieve’ is one such variety which is excellent for cooking or eating straight from the tree. So called ‘Family’ trees are also available which have several varieties are grafted onto one rootstock. Buy one from a good nursery as the vigour of each variety needs to be matched if the resulting tree is to grow evenly. If you are planting a whole orchard it is better to dig over the whole area and plant all at the same time but if you are just adding one or two fruit trees then dig individual holes. Make sure that the hole you dig is wider and deeper than the rootball and then you can fill in the gaps with soil enriched with organic matter. Firm the soil down gently and water well. Don’t forget to support your new trees. Whether bare root or pot grown the trees will need staking for their first year and dwarf trees will need strong stakes for their whole life. If you are thinking of buying already trained trees then they will need support on wires, trellis or fences.
What more can I say except “Eat, Drink and Be Merry!”
- September 5, 2017Read more
August is holiday time and it seems that everybody has been travelling. I was no exception having planned a getaway to North Carolina a state on the eastern coast of the USA. The state is situated along the Appalachian mountains which run like a spine down the eastern seaboard of the country from Maine down to Georgia. Anybody familiar with the work of Bill Bryson will have read his hilarious account of hiking the Appalachian Trail.
North America has a huge range of conditions from arctic to subtropical and climate is the main factor covering their distribution. Altitude and land mass are also important as the same trees that can be found growing high in the Appalachians can grow near sea level in Canada whilst the Great Lakes create a warmer climate than if the area were all land. Similarly atmosphere also affects habitat, whilst some trees can tolerate extreme aridity others require more rainfall or humidity.
North Carolina is extremely fortunate in having over six hundred species of native trees, shrubs and vines as well as countless herbaceous species which thrive in the diverse climate from mountains to piedmont to coast. The large
forests are mixed with coniferous and deciduous species. When I was there this year I was immediately impressed with the large numbers of walnuts which we some of the most visible trees owing to the large fruits that were held dangling from the branches. The most common species was the black walnut (Juglans nigra). The leaves one to two foot long divided into leaflets which are smooth above and hairy below. The large fruits were two uncles in diameter green on the outside, with a yellowish husk that stained hands and fingers like tobacco. The trees were between 60 and 100 feet high and grew plentifully. Many of the trees I saw were home to tent
caterpillars. What at first I took to be spider webs was the home of these caterpillars, six species of which occur in North America. They are a social caterpillar building nests from silk which hang in the branches of trees. They are often considered a pest because they can defoliate an entire tree. Though I am no expert they looked like Malacosoma americanum as well as something from a horror film!
Another recognisable species which abounded in impressive stands was that well loved denizen of gardens and parks the tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera). Growing as they did in close proximity to other trees they had not developed the large rounded crowns that you see in our gardens and parks. Nevertheless they were impressive at 80-100 feet tall though they can reach 150 feet. Numerous seedlings sprouted up wherever you went waiting for an older tree to fall so they can shoot up. Many of the most impressive of
North Carolina’s native trees are chronicled by the Archangel Tree Archive which is worth looking at.
As in many deciduous forests spring is one of the most colourful seasons and the large areas covered by Rhododendron catawbiense hinted at what must be a spectacular sight when the purple flowers emerged. They formed dense thickets with large glossy leaves that were impressive even out of flower.
Beneath the shrub layer many other plants abounded in the moist humus rich medium decomposing on the forest floor. I was struck by the preponderance of trillium though alas too late for flowers! I could also see Paris plants made obvious by the whorl of leaves clasping the stem. Some were beginning to ripen their fruit capsules. All in all it was a fantastic visit to one of the most bio diverse areas of the world.