• Bountiful Fruits of Autumn

    By on October 20, 2014

    To me nothing is more redolent of the bountiful fruits of autumn than a Rowan (Sorbus) bedecked with berries.

    Rowans are attractive, slender trees with silvery-brown bark and frothy white flowers in spring-summer which are especially attractive to bees.  In autumn they bear berries in tones ranging from pinkish white to orange and scarlet which provide welcome sustenance to birds, especially blackbirds and thrushes.  The foliage is also light and airy making them perfect for under planting.

    In the garden they prefer light, sandy, slightly acidic soils and will often thrive in exposed places.  Often in the most exposed places they will be no more than shrubs clinging precariously to rock faces.  When transplanted to the garden however, many make handsome trees of 15-20m tall.  All are extremely hardy and cold tolerant and indeed do best in cold, temperate climates.  What follows are a few of my favourites.

    Sorbus commixta

    Sorbus Commixta

    The Japanese Rowan is most notable for its superb autumn colour, the leaves glow bright orange, red and finally purple.  The orange-red berries seem a sideshow compared to the foliage although they do persist longer than the foliage, until the birds take them anyway.  In cultivation it can reach over 20 feet but is more tolerant of heavy soils if good preparation is made when planting.  The cultivar ‘Jermyns’ is especially choice with outstanding autumn colour and orange berries. ‘Embley’ makes another excellent autumn feature and in a good year the display of red, gold and purple foliage can last up to a fortnight.

    Sorbus Cashmiriana

    The flowers of this species appear in summer and are tinged pink followed in autumn by heavy bunches of pure white berries which are often ignored by birds.  Although it comes from a warmer area of the world it is perfectly hardy.

    Sorbus vilmorinii

    Sorbus Vilmorinii

    This is an ideal tree for the smaller garden.  The foliage is made up of small leaflets giving a ferny effect.  The berries are especially striking as they develop from rose pink to bright mauve fading to near white in the winter.


    Sorbus Sargentiana

    This is one of my favourite trees despite being slow growing.  Although the flowers are quite tiny they are born in profusion and develop into large clusters of shiny scarlet fruit and crimson sticky winter buds as well as orange autumn colour.

     Sorbus Hupehensis

    This is one of the most distinctive trees in leaf as it has blue-green undersides to the foliage.  The berries are pale pink and often left alone by the birds which means they will persist in winter.  This has been the parent of some outstanding cultivars including ‘Pink Pagoda’ which has a well deserved AGM.

    Sorbus Aria

    Sorbus Aria

    Native to northern Europe, including Britiain, this is one Sorbus that will thrive on chalk.  The emerging foliage is covered in a silvery down which is soon shed on the upper surfaces whilst they remain brilliantly white below.  The white flowers are followed by red berries.

    Ross Underwood

    Read more
    Hodnet Hall Gardens
  • September Charms Amongst the Dead and Dying

    By on September 16, 2014

    September is a month of cool mornings and low, diminishing sunlight that elongates shadows and intensifies the red colours of the spectrum.
    photo 1
    It is also a time when the forests begin to produce a particular  fruit.  There is a huge amount of beech mast around now and it looks like a bumper year for anyone wanting to play conkers. But I am not talking about all that, which is a delight mainly for squirrels. It is in September that the season for fungi really gets going.

    Fungi inhabit a kingdom all of their own but are more closely related to humans that you might think. When we buy mushrooms at the supermarket we are buying the fruiting or reproductive structure which is only a small part of the whole.  Below the soil surface or within decaying timber a network of fungal mycelium seek out nutrients. We are only just beginning to understand the full complexity of the relationship between fungi and plants. Often the relationship is mutually beneficial. The plant produces carbohydrates through photosynthesis, something that the fungi is incapable of. Whilst  in return the questing mycelium effectively extend the surface area of the root zone passing nutrients to the plant. Even mighty forrest giants might not survive so well without fungi.

    photo 2

    At Hodnet the woods are home to a huge variety of species. Some betoken illness or death. Honey fungus is familiar to all gardeners as a parasitic fungus predating woody plants. It’s presence is indicated by honey coloured toadstools. There is little to be done except take revenge as they do on the continent by grilling the young toadstools for breakfast.

    Many fungi are not of themselves harmful but expose potential problems. Bracket fungus that digests decaying wood, are found on trees but in many cases exist in a cavity within the tree. I recently harvested a spectacular bracket fungus from two of our most venerable oaks.

    Chicken of the Woods or Laetiporus Sulphureus to give it it’s true name is often to be found in tiers on oak, beech and yew amongst others. The young brackets are orange or yellow and have the texture and mild smell of uncooked chicken. When cooked, fried gently with butter and a little garlic it has all the texture of chicken. Indeed, it could be used as a substitute for chicken in pasta dishes with success, taking on the flavours of the rest of the dish just as chicken does.

    There is a whole world of fungi to explore but first a cautionary note. I double check my identifications with a local mycologist and so should you before eating any foraged from the woods!

    On a lighter note, mushrooms always make for a fun party, why wouldn’t they, they’re fun guys!

    photo 3-1

    Read more
    Hodnet Hall Gardens
  • Assessing The Garden

    By on July 16, 2014

    photo 3-1

    July is often what I think of as the midpoint of the yearlong cycle of the garden from the barrenness of winter to the abundance of late summer.  The spring shrubs such as Deutzias, Philadelphus and Viburnum have retired to the back of the border, peonies have given all their sultry beauty for this season and many roses have finished their first flush. Amongst herbaceous plants such stalwarts as Lupins, Astrantias, Poppies and many geraniums are in need of deadheading or cutting back to promote a second flush.

    We have been cutting back the Astrantias here at Hodnet. I prefer to cut away all of the spent foliage which has usually flopped out wards as well as the old flowers. In its place you should find new leaves growing from the middle of the plant, which will flower again. Geraniums also benefit from removal of old foliage and flowers. The oxonianum varieties can be particularly prolific and the explosive mechanism of seed dispersal means they can become invasive. A hard cut stops this invasive habit. Similarly poppies such as ‘Goliath’ will flop untidily and not flower again. If the plant is cut back it will produce a crop of tidy fresh growth, which in some cases will be kept through winter giving it a head start. One hard and fast rule is to make sure any plants you do cut back are watered to help them recover.

    photo 5

    All this means work for the gardener but it is also an opportunity to assess what is working and what is not, where color might be added for better harmony or contrast and how much things are really paying their way. You can even identify plants which might need moving come winter.

    The obvious problem is that all this good garden maintenance leaves gaps which can appear unsightly. The answer to this can be half-hardy annuals. Grown from seed in the spring or in the winter if you have the right facilities they are fast growing and can be kept in pots until ready to go out. Cleomes come in shades of pink, as well as white and combine well with grasses. Tithonia are orange and are particularly effective planted amongst Euphorbia characias subspecies. wulfenii.

    Whether you grow annuals or not, or you prefer to leave plants to do their own thing take the chance now to plan for the future.

    photo 2-1


    Ross Underwood

    Read more
    Hodnet Hall Gardens
  • Letting Nature In

    By on June 16, 2014

    photo 3-3

    These days gardeners have not just to consider the visual aspects of planting but also how the aesthetics of a particular situation also fit in under the wider umbrella of sustainability and environmental awareness.  As gardeners, we are all more sensitive to the impact of our activities on the environment. This has led in many cases to a change in the style of garden being created, towards a newer naturalism. The success of the planting schemes at the London Olympic Park has shown how gardens can be composed of beneficial plant communities, rather than individuals or groups of individuals, and retain longevity of interest.

    Yet nothing can compare to the exuberance of wild plant communities particularly meadowland in summer. At Hodnet we are lucky to have naturally occurring areas of wild meadow.  In the early spring some of these areas are filled with daffodils. As the flowers fade and the foliage dies down, the matrix of grasses begins to arise through which wild flowers will come.

    Meadowlands are specific ecologists and flourish in a specific set of conditions. What we think of as a traditional English meadow with billowing poppies and oxeye daisies often only occurs on soil which is low in nutrients and where the grass is managed in such a way that nutrients do not build up. This allows finer grasses to flourish which in turn allows flowers to colonize.

    Up to 80% of a meadow is made up of grasses. For those of us not lucky enough to be able to have a meadow of their own, there are specially developed seed mixes. The alternative is to use perennials to replicate the meadow aesthetic if not the actual conditions. To do this most of the plantings need to have a high structural quality in order to carry the looser elements. Think of a fruit cake in which the special element (the fruit) arises from a matrix which gives it form and support (the dough).

    For all the talk of plant matrix and ecologists nothing quite compares to the ephemeral beauty of wild flowers. Sooner or later the grass has to be cut and harvested to preserve this very special feature of the garden. When that happens I am always reminded of these words of Frost.

    “We raised a simple prayer

    Before we left the spot,

    That in the general mowing

    That place might be forgot;

    Or if not all so favored,

    Obtain such grace of hours

    That none should mow the grass there

    While so confused with flowers.”

    Ross Underwood

    Read more
    Hodnet Hall Gardens
  • May and June – A Passion for Peonies

    By on May 14, 2014

    May and June are wonderful months in which to experience the first flush of herbaceous planting and no flower symbolises the glories of early summer more than herbaceous and tree peonies. Both of these genera hit their peak at this time of year, producing wonderful ephemeral blooms and both come in a variety of species and forms. Most peonies in the garden come in two forms, either herbaceous P. lactiflora or hybrid cultivars, or the woody stemmed tree peonies.

    Paeonia Lactiflora

    Paeonia Lactiflora

    Paeonia lactiflora was first introduced into Europe towards the end of the eighteenth century and has given rise to thousands of cultivars.  It is one of the easiest and most popular peonies to grow, tolerating a wide range of soil conditions.  Peonies grow best in fertile, well drained soil but can be grown in sandy or clay soils with the addition of plenty of well-rotted manure.  In fact manure is a must for herbaceous peonies. Applied during the dormant season, it is best to avoid the crowns of the plant to prevent scorching of the developing buds.

    Paeonia lactiflora cultivars come in all colours although, because of genetics, there is an absence of a good red, the closest being magenta.  On the plus side many are deliciously fragrant; ‘Boule de Neige’, ‘Duchesse de Nemours’ and ‘Gainsborough’ are a few of the most fragrant.

    Paeony Duchesce de Nemours

    Paeony Duchesce de Nemours

    Paeonia lactiflora has given rise to a number of hybrid herbaceous peonies when crossed with other species.  These hybrids flower over a long period of time from early spring, when the majority of the species flower, to early summer when the lactifloras are in bloom.  Amongst these are also good red forms such as ‘America’ and ‘Scarlet O’Hara’.

    Tree Peony

    Tree Peony

    By contrast, Chinese Tree Peonies are amongst the oldest cultivated plants in the world and make an indelible impression on anyone who sees them.  They often appear delicate because of their exotic flowers and delicate foliage but in fact they can withstand very low temperatures as well as summer drought.  However, they are slow growing: a mature specimen may be 3m tall but this could take 50 years or more!  Many tree peonies will tolerate some shade as well as full sun.

    It is an oft quoted fallacy that peonies cannot be moved, or that if they are they will sulk.  Herbaceous and tree peonies can be moved when dormant and herbaceous peonies can be propagated by division.  As long as care is taken when replanting they should continue to grow well, although flowering may be affected for one or two seasons.

    Peony Blight

    Peony Blight

    The main disease that affects both herbaceous and tree peonies is Peony Blight which can seriously damage them.  Infected tissue turns brown, then black and finally wilts altogether.  It is most prevalent in wet springs, so good air circulation is important.  It can be controlled by removing and burning infected tissue as soon as it appears.  A preventative fungicidal treatment is beneficial.

    Ross Underwood

    Read more
    Hodnet Hall Gardens