NEWS

  • The Wisdom of Plants

    By on October 3, 2017

    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.

    Evolution & ecology produce leaf shapes

    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.

    Leaf Shapes

    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.

    Ross Underwood

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    Hodnet Hall Gardens
  • The Ripeness and the Harvest

    By on September 18, 2017

    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!”

    Ross Underwood

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    Hodnet Hall Gardens
  • Amongst the back woods of North Carolina

    By on September 5, 2017
    The Smoky Mountains

    The Smoky Mountains

    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.

    Walnut fruit

    Walnut fruit

    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!

     Tulip tree seedling

    Tulip tree seedling

    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.

     Paris ssp

    Paris ssp

    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.

    Ross Underwood

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    Hodnet Hall Gardens
  • A Few Perennial Favourites

    By on July 20, 2017

    Broad beans. This might be an unusual way to start a sentence but I thought I would mention how well my early sowings had done. They have come to an end now but we have enjoyed them. Because they are such mainstays of the vegetable patch and I have been patiently expecting them since they were sown last winter it is like saying goodbye to old friends. I prefer to pick them when the pods are small and the beans only about the size of a 5p coin. They can be used raw as an addition to salads or put straight into a risotto and allowed to cook with the rice. My absolute favourite has to be broad beans liver and bacon with the liver floured, fried gently and only just done. The gravy is to die for though it’s hard to find companions who will eat offal so it is often a solitary pleasure.

    I have heard many tales of woe from growers of runner beans and peas this year who planted and were caught out by a dry spell. I have to confess to a some disappointment myself. A family holiday meant that the pigeons enjoyed the peas before I did and my next batch of peas and beans have needed a lot of water to get away at all.

    I have had more success in the herbaceous border and with my containers. The regale lily bulbs (Lilium regale) have put on a magnificent show. The large trumpet flowers white inside with a yellow throat and a pink back are filling the warm air with scent. It is a thick heavy scent and you feel that you have to wade through it once it has you in its grasp. Of all the bulbs that I take from containers and plant in the garden these lilies are some of the most successful. They like plenty of sun and good drainage. I always put a handful of gravel underneath them when planting. I usually plant in groups digging a hole big enough to lift them straight from the container into the ground without breaking them apart.

    Lilium regale

    Lilium regale

    Another scented favourite are the Philadelphus also called mock orange. They are members of the same family as hydrangea and are really indispensable garden shrubs. They give a good display even on poor or chalky soils. Most have white fragrant flowers borne in June or July. The old flowered wood should be cut out after flowering leaving wood produced this season to take its place. They can become large shrubs over time though if this happens the whole thing can be cut to ground level from where new growth will spring.  The most commonly encountered is Philadelphus coronarius which is a strong upright growing species even in dry ground. The cultivar ‘Virginal’ is still perhaps the best double.

    Philadelphus

    Philadelphus

    Danger does lurk deep within the border in the hooded flowers of monkshood or aconitum. Though highly poisonous they are worth having for bed use as they are so amenable as to soil and aspect. A. x bicolor, A. carmichaelii and A. napellus are all good to have and will spread the flowering season from early summer to Autumn.

    Aconitum vulparia also known as A. lycoctonum is also worth growing. It gets its common name ‘Wolf’s Bane’ because it was used as a poisonous bait for wolves in olden    days. Like its blue relatives it has dark divided green leaves though the hooded flower is white or parchment colour and quite tall.

    From edible beginnings to poisonous ends the garden has everything to offer.

    Ross Underwood

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    Hodnet Hall Gardens
  • Fun in the Sun

    By on June 19, 2017

    “Our England is a garden” said Rudyard Kipling and there is no greater proof that we are a nation of gardeners than the interest given to the Chelsea Flower Show. This floral spectacle engages visitors and TV viewers the world over. Away from all of the razzmatazz and in the humbler surroundings of our own gardens there is plenty going on for the ambitious gardener to make the most of what the season has to offer.

    It is Iris time in the herbaceous border whether the Irises are tall or short bearded with voluptuous standards and falls that shine like satin they will need a good baking their rhizomes planted shallowly towards the full sun.

    Iris sibirica

    Iris sibirica

    More amenable in good garden soil with some moisture and in shade is Iris sibirica which come in shades of blue, pink, purple and white and grow from between 30cm and 90cm. We have many stands of an excellent blue cultivar which I do not know the name of. But it has been divided successfully over several years in the autumn and Spring and spread around. Usually the centre of the plant becomes congested with most of the growth on the outside. It is easy to chop it up with a spade and discard the parts that are showing less vigour and replant the rest.

    Poppies

    Poppies

    Perennial poppies, Papaver orientalis, are excellent border plants and a good partner for alliums or mingled between late flowerers that are still growing. Poppies have petals which always remind me of slightly ruffled tissue paper. ‘Beauty of Livermere’ has wonderful scarlet petals with a black basal blotch but there are also white, plum and pink cultivars. It is not worth letting them go to seed if you want reliable seedlings as they are easily cross pollinated. They grow from basal foliage and they can become untidy after flowering so cut the whole plant down, leaves and all. It will quickly replace the old leaves with new until the flowers appear next year.

    Whether on walls, in borders or shrubberies, Roses are the quintessential English summer flower.  I love the climbing rose ‘Madame Gregoire Staechelin’ which has stupendous pink blooms that have a subtle sweet pea scent. It is a shame that it only flowers once but if you partner it with a late flowering clematis then you can enjoy two plants in the same space.

    Honeysuckle

    Honeysuckle

    Another excellent climber for a wall or growing into a tree or large shrub are honeysuckles. If left unchecked then they can become rampant though they will respond well to a heavy pruning in winter. If the shrub is large enough then you can happily leave them to their own devices.

    Cornus kousa

    Cornus kousa

    Finally for those with patience and space, then the flowering species of Cornus (flowering Dogwoods) are spectacular. I grow cultivars of Cornus kousa which includes old favourites such as ‘Eddies White Wonder’ as well as the species which is worth growing in its own right. There are another group of hybrids hailing from North America and bred from Cornus florida. Cornus florida likes a long hot summer and can sometimes underperform in our cooler summers. It also has an unfortunate habit of clinging onto its leaves in winter, though if you have a sunny spot, cultivars such as ‘Rainbow’ and ‘Cherokee Princess’ are worth a try.

    The best thing about an English summer is that there is something for everybody. And it’s not over yet!

    Ross Underwood

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    Hodnet Hall Gardens