NEWS

  • Playing With Fire

    By on November 3, 2016

    Whenever I take a drive around, I can open the windows and smell woodsmoke almost everywhere. Now that days are shorter and cooler it is a privilege to come home and light the stove, yet I come indoors only reluctantly. Outside in gardens, the countryside and the streets of our towns wherever you look, there are bright bonfires happening as plants give their final hurrah before winter.  We are so lucky to live in a temperate climate where we can enjoy autumn colour. Plants that perform at this time of year are to be treasured as the show only intensifies with lower temperatures and light.

    Acer aconitifolium

    Acer aconitifolium

    Many great trees and shrubs that have been in the background all summer are taking centre stage now. Amongst the best are the acers. This family which includes the common Sycamore as well as the palmate or Japanese acers. Thanks to the efforts of nurserymen they are no longer just available to the wealthy but come in a huge number of cultivars. All share common features which are a liking for good loamy soil, a tolerance of shade and a dislike of drought and drying winds. Growth is moderate but the handsome hand shaped (hence the epithet palmate) foliage is perfect for growing herbaceous plants beneath. One of my favourites is A. aconitifolium which as the name implies has foliage reminiscent of a monkshood.  It grows as wide as it does tall and can be quite imposing when it gets mature. The leaves burn scarlet red in the autumn and are held over a long period until heavy frost crinkles them up. They look wonderful deplaned with cyclamen or a small anemone such as ‘September Charm’ which is still going. Acer osakazuki is perhaps the most brilliant of all the Japanese maples and quite a strong grower by comparison with many.

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    A. Osakazuki

    We may not have spared a thought for our cherries since the spring and early summer but look at them now. Next to my house I am lucky to have a group of bird cherries which are orange, red and gold now. It really looks as though flames are creeping up the tree! Yet for the garden, especially when space is at a premium I like Prunus incisa. These more shrubby cherries can have an angular habit of growth. They still flower in early spring but also turn the most fabulous shades of burnt orange and maroon red now. Added to which they are incredibly amenable and will grow in sun or light shade and even in heavy soil which we have here. I have planted the cultivar ‘Kojo-no-mai’ which is quite slow growing with zig zag shoots and pale pink flowers.

    One shrub or tree which is as much of a delight in the hedgerows as it is in the garden are the spindles, or Euonymus. E. alatus is often encountered in garden centres where it’s neat leaves and winged corky bark give it an extra element of ingest in winter. For those willing to seek them out, there are some less often encountered species and cultivars including the wonderful E. bungeanus var. mongolicus which has wonderfully pinkish autumn colour with pinkish fruits produced after a good summer. E. clivicola is a graceful shrub growing to ten feet with slender leaves whilst E. hamiltonianus has produced a number of excellent offspring including ‘Indian Summer’ and ‘Coral Charm’ which are must haves in my book.

    Euonymus bungeanus

    Euonymus bungeanus

    Lindera is a genera of shrubs from the Northern hemisphere which might not have been heard of outside of specialist collections some few years ago but have made a much greater impression recently. L. benzoin is know as the spice bush in the USA, it has scented leaves which turn clear yellow in autumn. My favourite though is L. obtusiloba which has a wonderful erect habit and three lobed leaves which look like molten gold in autumn.

    Lindera obtusiloba

    Lindera obtusiloba

    I feel as though I could go on forever and probably could but I can’t leave you without mentioning a conifer…yes a conifer that I find irresistible. You might have to give up a substantial part of your garden to house it so it’s probably better to go and see it in somebody else’s but hey ho! There are only five genera of deciduous conifer of which Pseudolarix amabilis is the only member of its own genera and superficially resembles a larch. It likes acid soil in which it will grow slowly but happily producing long light green needles which look like butter in the autumn. They make a stately tree over time and ours is just a baby but here’s to many golden October’s to come!

    Ross Underwood

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    Hodnet Hall Gardens
  • The October Checklist

    By on October 14, 2016

    I love lists. I love making them and even when the length of the list outruns my ability to complete all of it! Perhaps it reveals some obsessive or compulsive side of my personality? I find my lists getting longer in the autumn for two reasons. Firstly, there is so much that can be achieved at this time of year and secondly because lurking at the back of my mind is the prospect of the oncoming winter which may end the window of opportunity.

    Now is a great time to tackle garden projects especially rejigging or completely renovating borders that are not really pulling their weight. Because the ground is warm still, it is quite feasible to move even large shrubs or even trees if you have the right equipment. Moving now means that they can start to root into their new places before winter without experiencing drought stress. The key is to take as much root as you can with your plant especially the fibrous roots furthest from the main stem. You can always cut down the top growth so that the reduced roots are not overstretched trying to supply too much foliage.

    The Garden Team Hard At Work

    The Garden Team Hard At Work

    Replanting a border that might have become tired can be hard work but great fun, especially if it was not your idea to plant it in the first place then it is also guilt free! It can be especially fun if you are lucky enough to live in an old or historic property then you can turn up all sorts of exciting finds. I recently found a large oddly shaped piece of metal in one border which is shaped like a large triangle on a stick. The mind boggles but perhaps it was a key to the world’s largest tin of Spam!

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    SPAM Key

    Once you have done all of the chopping, cutting, digging, hacking and slashing you will be left with something that looks like the surface of the moon. Then it is time to break out the sharpened spade and it does need to be sharp otherwise it won’t cut through the ground so run the grinder over the back. Dig over your plot trying to iron out some of the unwanted changes in level as you go. This will break up any surface compaction that has been created and get the soil ready to accept the lashings of organic matter that should follow. The aim is to create an amenable root zone so that your new plants get off to a flying start.

    It is not only in the main garden that you can make changes. Now is a perfect time to plant up containers for winter with bulbs and winter bedding. Wallflowers are a classic partner for tulips though my heart does belong to the viola. These tough little plants will endure any weather and always lift their faces to smile at you. They can be a little at the mercy of slugs but otherwise with a little vigilance can be trouble free.

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    Viola

    Well that’s a few things crossed off the list anyway. Just time for me to grab an apple from the trees before I start again!

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    Ross Underwood

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    Hodnet Hall Gardens
  • Sunflowers And Sunsets

    By on September 12, 2016

    In the rosy afterglow of a long day at work it is nice to sit and relax with perhaps a glass or two of rhubarb…yes I did say rhubarb…gin and watch the sun go down.  Yet there is an undoubted chill in the mornings and evenings which points towards the coming of Autumn and the headlong rush towards winter.  In a few conversations I have even been asked whether we might have an ‘Indian Summer’. Whenever I get asked to predict the weather I usually squint into the sun or look knowingly at a flight of birds before turning to my interrogator and saying something like “how should I know”.  We usually think of an Indian Summer as a spell of unusually mild weather in October and November but a spell in late September cannot be precluded. The actual term dates at least from eighteenth century North America though it was in common usage before then. The Native American tribes relied on a period of warm weather late in the year to complete the harvest and lay sufficient stores to last them through the long cold winter. An Indian Summer also presented a change from the oppressive humidity of high summer from June to August and was much more pleasant to work in, particularly for
    Europeans who were unused to the climate of their new homeland.  By the mid twentieth century the term Indian Summer had gained so much currency in the UK that it had overtaken more colloquial terms describing the same event.

    The garden offers us plenty of late summer perennial interest if we care to take advantage of what is on offer. One of the finest plants for a sunny well drained spot at the front of a border are the sedums. Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ has been around for a long time but it never fails to give a good show of pink flat topped flower heads above greyish  fleshy leaves. The flowers
    are very popular with flying insects though the stems can flop open if not given the ‘Chelsea chop’ or if they are allowed to become too congested.

    Sedum Autumn Joy

    Sedum Autumn Joy

    There has been an explosion in recent years of Rudbeckias on the market fuelled by the popularity of the prairie garden style. Yet many can prove tricky in our generally wetter climate or perform poorly on some soils. For a reliable and adaptable plant look no further than R. fulgida and the cultivar ‘Goldsturm’ which send up shoots from substantial mounds of foliage atop which glow golden yellow ray florets surrounding a dark black eye. This is a plant which is happy in a sunny spot on most garden soils and holds itself up firmly through winter. There is a simply wonderful clematis, C. jouiniana ‘Praecox’ which flowers at its best now. It is not a natural climber more of a sprawler really which
    is why I grow it as an effective ground cover even in a place which receives only partial sunshine. It is very vigorous so wherever you grow it give it space. The clusters of star shaped flowers are pale blue added to which is a pleasing scent.

    Rudbeckia goldsturm

    Rudbeckia goldsturm

    Grasses have become justifiably popular in recent years and there are few gardens without them or few gardeners who have not realised the uses to which they can be put. If I had to express a preference then it would be for the fluffy flower/seed heads of Calamagrostis brachytricha which sit above the narrow foliage like pink tinged feather dusters that wave elegantly in the breeze. If you can position it so that you come upon it when the sun is shining from behind then it will stand out wonderfully well and give the border a more airy feel when placed with less mobile companions.
    Now…where did I put that gin?

    Ross Underwood

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    Hodnet Hall Gardens
  • Off With Their Heads!

    By on September 1, 2016

    The heavy dew and a little rain, swell the warmth that is in the soil at this time of year and it is a good time to be a plant. Root growth is especially good and late summer bloomers are at their best. It is also a good time to spare a thought for those plants which have done their bit but which you might wish to bring back later. Saving seed in order to propagate plants is a practise which may be as old as humanity itself. It is only comparatively recently that the eye of the breeder has taken control of those wild or near wild plants which have been brought into our gardens.

    Unripe Seed Heads

    Unripe Seed Heads

    Seed selection from cultivars can be a lottery. You might sow a hundred or a thousand seeds and 99% will be inferior to the parent but there is always the chance that one will stand out though it is unlikely to make you a fortune. Saving seed from wild plants can be very rewarding and can be the only way to keep rare, expensive or difficult to grow plants in your garden.

    There are a number of dedicated societies and enthusiasts which, for the price of a small membership fee, usually publish an annual seed list donated by other members. This is a great way to get plants and learn from more experienced members every time. I usually buy some seed in this way every year but I always collect some from the garden as an extra insurance.

    I am a great fan of meconopsis and grow several species and cultivars. I like to save the seed of as many species as possible especially of those that are monocarpic, i.e. they die after flowering. I also save seed of cultivars although I make no effort to make sure that different cultivars remain separate so I cannot claim that the progeny are true to the  parentage. The seed heads of poppies are wonderful, they are shaped like small furry bullets and when the seed is ripe the top of the capsule opens and the seed can be heard rattling inside.

    Euphorbias are also worth saving if you have the speed to catch them. The seed capsules are shaped like a piece of medieval weaponry and explode when the seed is ripe. Try tying a small paper or muslin bag over the seed head to catch the seed. Geraniums can be equally quick to fire out ripe seed which can be problematic with seedlings popping up everywhere and pushing out other plants.

    Stipa Tenuissima Seed Head

    Stipa Tenuissima Seed Head

    Grasses have become popular border plants in recent years precisely because they have such wonderful seed heads which dance in the slightest breeze. The seeds of a particular favourite can be collected a little later in the year by simply  combing your hands through the seed heads and on to a piece of paper. The resulting plants may vary somewhat from the parent. Some may be different in habit, height or vigour but usually they can be pretty close.

    Grass Seed

    Grass Seed

    If you are saving seed for sowing then you have two choices. Either you can show them right away into pots or trays of seed compost and leave them outside to germinate naturally. Indeed for many seeds a period of winter chilling is essential. Or you can store them in containers in the salad compartment of the fridge or in a cool dark cupboard. The main thing is to prevent them getting wet and rotting. Small brown envelopes make excellent packages for storing seeds and keeping them viable.

    Lots of other garden perennials can be harvested and sown. Clematis seed heads are like fluffy balls of cotton wool, each seed having a fluffy tail which helps it to be dispersed. These can be separated from the plant and sown on top of a gritty seed compost. The spiky balls of Echinops or Cynara can also be prised apart to reveal the seeds. A good sign to look for is when the spent flower head looks brown and dry and like it is splitting naturally.

    Echinops

    Echinops

    Saving and sowing seed is one of the most fun and rewarding parts of gardening so as you go round with the secateurs try not to be too tidy minded unless you have a few brown paper envelops with you.

    Ross Underwood

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    Hodnet Hall Gardens
  • Mind The Gap

    By on August 8, 2016

    Summer seems finally to have arrived though if you are like me you will want to plan ahead. Spare a thought for next spring and order bulbs for the autumn. Bulb catalogues have been landing on my doormat like early Christmas presents. They are full of exciting things. One thing I always bear in mind is that bulbs look better en masse so I always buy as many as I can afford. It has been a lesson learnt through experience that it is not worth ordering a few and expecting them to go a long way so I always estimate how many I will need then double or even triple it.

    Bulbs For Next Year

    Bulbs For Next Year

    In the last few years I have started using narcissus in containers instead of tulips so that they can be planted in the grass or borders afterwards. I still use some tulips though as they are just that bit more luxurious.

    August is a good month to keep those secateurs sharp as there is a good bit of summer pruning to do. Top fruit such as apples and pears will need the growth reducing this month to encourage fruiting spurs. Wisteria also builds up more flowering spurs if it is summer pruned and after it has reached the required size. The old rule of thumb was to cut a hands breadth from the old growth or six to eight leaves. This should then be cut down to two fingers or one or two leaves in the winter. Long shoots can be tied in to cover more space where needed.

    Repeat flowering roses should be deadheaded (which, after all, is a form of pruning), in order to encourage new flowers and once flowering roses should be deadheaded just to give them a bit of a tidy. Whatever you do remember to give them a good feed afterwards. I prefer an organic fertiliser such as blood, fish and bone. It gives them all the energy they need to perform again. Deadheading will also work wonders on that all important summer bedding, keeping it looking fresh. Begonias are apt to crumple in wet weather but will soon perk up if the flowers are removed. Pelargoniums also keep performing if spent flowers can be removed before they go brown and mushy.

    Repeat flowering roses need deadheading

    Repeat flowering roses need deadheading

    Repeat flowering roses need deadheading

    Repeat flowering roses 

    Double dahlias look better and keep flowering if you remove the spent heads although it is not so important with the single flowered bedding types or the Bishop series which don’t look as bad with a few faded blooms hanging around.

    Dahlias are the August stars

    Dahlias are the August stars

    August can be a bit of a loose time in the gardening calendar.  If your passions are for roses, foxgloves and all things which shout early summer then good for you but by now I am guessing that the party is more or less over. Planning is key, it is good to start of some half hardy annuals from seed in the spring and growing them on to fill gaps. So while you are perusing the build catalogues it is worth flicking through a few seed catalogues as well.  If you have the space to keep things frost free over winter then dahlias are excellent and cannas are statuesque. They will need to be stored in a frost free space over winter and brought out in the spring when they start into growth.  I grow foliage cannas and put them in the border where they reach six or eight feet in a sunny spot.

    If you don’t have the time or the room for either of the above there are perennial alternatives. Ornamental grasses are beginning to flower now and can hold up a border when some of the perennials are looking tired and floppy around them.  If you grow miscanthus, especially the larger varieties then just be aware that they need a bit of shoulder room otherwise they are likely to dominate the things around them.

    Grasses are part of the late summer scene

    Grasses are part of the late summer scene

    August can be a tricky month but with a few tricks up your sleeve and a sharp pair of secateurs it can also be a wonderful time in the garden.

     

    Ross Underwood

     

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    Hodnet Hall Gardens