NEWS

  • “Hey, Babe, Take a walk on the wild side” Lou Reed

    By on July 4, 2016

    There can be few finer sights than a meadow in full floriferous glory or a spectacle more redolent of the English landscape.  It is amazing to think of the transformation in thinking amongst gardeners over the past few years from attention and admiration of wild nature to trying to emulate or even embellish it in their own gardens. True, many people still prefer the carefully crafted look of a herbaceous, mixed or shrub border but an area of true or ‘cultivated’ wildness can be just as much a display of the gardeners craft.

    At some point in the dim and distant past the nature that surrounded us seemed to grow smaller and we brought what we considered the best bits into close proximity to our dwelling places with because they gave us sustenance or pleasure. As more of the landscape became husbanded true wild nature adapted to our techniques or was pushed to the uncultivated periphery.  With greater mechanisation and urbanisation the most desirable or fashionable plants were brought directly from the wild into our gardens by seed, cutting or wholesale pillaging.  Mechanised farming and the unrestricted use of chemicals completed man’s dominance over the wilderness. This is why people are drawn to meadows and hedgerows, perhaps we find ourselves catching a glimpse of something vanished or what we imagine has disappeared tinged with the honey tones of nostalgia. Ironically much good meadow planting can be seen along the roadside where the soil has been disturbed and poor soil has been piled at the sides to make verges.

    Whatever the case meadow gardening is not for the impatient gardener. Much of our richest flora grows on poor shallow soil which, unless you have it, has to be created by stripping away the richer topsoil down to the subsoil.  For those without the means or nerve to contemplate such a drastic step then the nutrient content has to be reduced over time. The key factor is to start with a weed free area and then either sow an annual or permanent seed mix. Nettles and docks can be a problem on heavy soil and will need to be sprayed off or weeded out by hand.

    Wild orchids

    Wild orchid

    The first year will see astonishing growth including pioneer species such as oxe-eye daisies which will gradually give way to a more stable mix over time. The grass species will settle down over time to a finer mix including common bent, crested dog tail and red Fescue. Yellow rattle (Rhinanthus major) will help weaken any invasive grasses and a mowing regime which starts with a July cut followed by close mowing will help keep on top of more vigorous species and reduce the fertility.

    A few years need to go by before introducing bulbs and perennials such as greater knapweed or Geranium pratense which can be grown as plugs and planted into ground or scattered as seed with fingers crossed.

    Geranium pratense

    Geranium pratense

    Aesthetically when a meadow is brought into a garden it looks best in a semi agricultural setting such as an orchard where a froth of cow parsley beneath a flowering apple tree will make a jaw dropping sight. Otherwise contrast the wildness with structural elements  such as clipped hedges or topiary.

    If you are lucky enough to have the sort of soil that meadow flowers prefer then get out the deck chair and listen to the birds and bees humming the tune…..”Doo do doo do doo do do doo…”.

    Ross Underwood

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    Hodnet Hall Gardens
  • Snowbells and Other Summer Flowers

    By on June 21, 2016

    Where has summer gone? I am sure that I am not the only person asking that question after those blistering hot days that now seem like a memory of last summer rather than this one.

    As we approach the longest day our gardens are running at full speed ahead and as well as the roses and herbaceous plants doing their stuff there are some superb flowering trees. You might not see them in every garden but if you have space they are worth seeking out or if you don’t have room then go and see them at a garden or arboretum while they last.

    My premier choice of summer flowering tree is Magnolia obovata (syn hypoleuca) which is an extremely handsome and graceful tree which hails from Japan. It grows in moist soils in and at the edge of woodland. The young shoots have a purplish tinge when they emerge and the very large leaves are held at the end of the shoots. It is a tree worth growing for the leaves alone but the real wow are the flowers which are large; up to 20cm across; creamy white with a central boss of Crimson stamens and very fragrant. The smell is like a mixture of honey and gardenias and on a still evening with a little warmth and moisture the scent can carry a great distance.

    Magnolia obovata

    Magnolia obovata

    Japan and Korea are also host to another stunning summer Magnolia. Magnolia sieboldii which is more of a spreading shrub that produces nodding white flowers like an upturned teacup.  The flowers can appear from May to August though it depends on the summer but the fruit clusters which are bright red are spectacular.

    If I have chosen two magnolias from Asia then I have to choose one from America though not just for balance. Magnolia macrophylla would make it onto anybody’s top ten list. Coming from the south eastern USA  it has perhaps the largest leaves of any deciduous plant that is hardy in the UK.  These leaves can often exceed two feet in length, are somewhat glaucous beneath and need a little protection from the wind as they can tear. The flowers are like upright white candles marked with purple at the base and carry a spicy fragrance.

    Stewartia is a genus of trees which produce camellia like flowers in summer. They prefer acid soil and although they like their tops in the sun they like their roots in the shade. Individually the flowers last only a short time, falling like snow beneath the tree. The flowers are produced in succession giving a longevity of interest. Added to which the autumn colour can be spectacular and the bark which flakes in an interesting pattern gives winter interest. This is a good all rounder for many gardens. S. pseudocamellia is usually the one that is encountered by most visitors to the nursery or garden centre and is perhaps the best for general planting though if you come across the Koreana Group then you should buy it as it is an improvement over the straight species in many ways.

    Whereas Stewartia is not fragrant, Styrax japonicus is exceptionally fragrant small tree which often has a semi pendant habit adding an extra element of grace. Not that this plant needs too much help to look graceful. The clusters of bell shaped white flowers with prominent yellow anthers which hang on the underside of the branches are dainty and the tree is hardy. It is best planted where it can be admired close up or better still where you can look up into the flowers.  There are a number of purple leaved cultivars which can be found at the more specialist nurseries including ‘Purple Dress’. The flowers on many of these are tinged pink which only adds to their charm.

    Styrax japonicus

    Styrax japonicus

    Finally, spare a thought for those opening their gardens for the NGS. The yellow book scheme raises huge amounts of money for very worthwhile charities and the gardeners who open their gardens work very hard. Whatever the weather I would urge anybody to go out and support a garden which is open for charity. Indeed a visit in adverse weather can be extremely instructive as the better the garden the better it stands up to scrutiny even in the rain.

    You might even encounter some of these wonderful summer flowering trees.

    Ross Underwood

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    Hodnet Hall Gardens
  • All that glitters…

    By on June 14, 2016

    I don’t normally pay too much heed to what happens at the Chelsea flower show in fact I have only ever been once. I was lucky enough on that occasion to get a free ticket form a friend. I was unlucky enough to have a ticket on one of the public days when I stood in crowds eight deep craning to catch a glimpse of the show gardens. The floral marquee was also a see of folks all desperate to buy the latest horticultural trendsetter though I was not immune and I have to confess to sharpening my elbows and diving in. I promised myself that henceforth I would stay away. Besides you get a much better view on TV!

    This year I broke my resolution but for good reasons. I was invited to help out on the RHS Rhododendron, Camellia and Magnolia Group (RCMG) stand in the Floral Pavilion.

    I got to go on Press Day when the public are not allowed in but journalists, TV crews, celebrities and the great and the good all mingle together to see and be seen!

    Rhododendrons have made something of a comeback at Chelsea over the last few years with medal winning displays by Millais Nurseries. Our stand was devoted to celebrating the centenary of the founding of the RCMG and we were lucky enough to have decedents of the groups’s three original founders present.

    The stand aimed to show the diversity of the genus Rhododendron from rare species supplied by Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh to modern hybrids and including a special feature of Rhododendron yakushimanum which came top of a recent poll of the 100 most popular rhododendrons.

    One stand that really caught my eye was the display of Tree Peonies but on by Kelways Nurseries who specialise in this most decadent of flowers. Tree Peonies are not really trees but rather woody shrubs reaching six feet or so in height. They have been cultivated for thousands of years in China where the oldest and most beautiful cultivars are highly prized and can fetch enormous sums.

    Although they bloom for an all too brief period at the start of summer they are worth having for the elegance and sophistication of their blooms. P. ‘Kokuryu-Nishiki’ caught my eye because of the wonderful bi-coloured blooms of burgundy and white though the cultivar ‘High Noon’ was also impressive with large lemon yellow flowers. ‘Shimane Sedai’ was a visit in gentle pink whilst ‘Black Pirate’ had wine red blooms that were quite enormous.

    P. Kokuryu-Nishiki

    P. Kokuryu-Nishiki

    High Noon

    High Noon

    One of the most in testing things I saw was a display of Protea, the national flower of South Africa. These plants are famous for growing on Table Mountain and the display celebrated Kirstenbosh Botanical Gardens. Protea ‘Venus’ had huge cupped pink blooms whilst ‘King White’ was truly regal.  There were many other delights to see including traditional Chelsea favourite including Alliums and Bearded Iris.

    Protea King White

    Protea King White

    Protea Venus

    Protea Venus

    However one plant that did not feature heavily was the Lilac despite it being a showstopper at this time of year.

    The poet Walt Whitman memorialised these most pungent of flowering shrubs in a poem composed about the death of his beloved President, Abraham Lincoln.

    When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,

    And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,

    I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

    Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,

    Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,

    And thought of him I love.

    Walt Whitman, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” (1865)

    The lilac thus became associated with the summer, rebirth, cyclical time, and above all, the pain of grief. The common lilac (Syringa vulgaris), a native of the distant Balkan Peninsula, has become a much beloved ornamental species in many British gardens and has spawned innumerable cultivars. It’s bright and fragrant blossoms mark the height of early summer activity, as trees leaf-out and animals rear their young.

    S vulgaris cultivars

    S vulgaris cultivars

    Syringa vulgaris can become a bit straggly but if the old blooms are nipped of when they turn brown the bush will retain its shape.  Often the plant blooms so prolifically that the stems are bent over by the weight of flower! If the common lilac has one deficiency it is that it can be a bit of an untidy shrub whereas Syringa x prestoniae has pink flowers that are carried much more elegantly, albeit in smaller bunches. For those with less space the diminutive S. macrophylla has pretty flowers on a smaller bush with rounded leaves.

    The Chelsea flower show certainly provides glimpses of the beautiful, the aspirational and the downright outrageous in equal measure, which is what it is supposed to do. Our stand won a silver gilt medal which goes to show that all that glitters is not necessarily gold but the next best thing will do very nicely!

    Ross Underwood

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    Hodnet Hall Gardens
  • People and Places of Sikkim

    By on May 24, 2016

    Sikkim is one of the most northerly states in India, it is certainly the smallest.  It is a tiny Himalayan state bounded to the north by Chinese Tibet and on either side by Nepal and Bhutan.  I was lucky enough to travel there in April of this year to look at some of the wonderful flora in this overwhelmingly green state.

    After several very long flights and a seven hour drive from West Bengal I finally arrived at Yuksam which was to be the starting point for a trek into the mountains.  The drive through the dark was hair-raising to say the least not just because of the precipitous drop on one side but largely because my driver refused to use his headlights!  I arrived at the hotel which was lit by candlelight with some trepidation but when I opened my curtains the following morning I was greeted by the sight of tree clad slopes and distant snowy mountains.

    Yuksam like most places in Sikkim relies on agriculture and tourism for its life.  The tourist season lasts from March to the beginning of June when the monsoon rains make trekking impossible and from August to September when the air clears.  Cardamom is the main cash crop and most families have land on which they live and grow and harvest this valuable spice.

    I spent my first day exploring around the town which lies at an altitude of less than 2000 metres. It has a lush tropical feel with no snow in the winter and orchids growing on trees.  I climbed above the town to Sikkim’s oldest monastery at Dubdi where I met some of the monks and young novices who were having their lunch. Sikkim was formerly an independent kingdom, the first king having been crowned in 1642.  Although Nepalese was the lingua franca there is an ethnic mix of indigenous Lepcha people as well as Nepalese and Bhutia who all have their own customs and traditions.  The Lepcha people in particular have a great reverence for nature and the mountains.

    The next day the trek began for real and I went to meet my porters and guide who would take me to much higher elevations where I would be able to see the flora change from abundance to the sparse sub-alpine zone.

    My main purpose in going was to see wild rhododendrons and their companions and to observe the interplay between climate, topography, and geology so I could better understand how to grow them at home.  It took two days of hard climbing over rocky trails before we reached 3000 metres where there were rhododendrons and magnolias in flower.  Magnolia campbellii alba was in flower on huge trees and the hillsides around our campsite at Tshoka were dotted with white.  Much closer to my sight, Rhododendron arboretum, R. barbatum and R. falconeri were in bloom showing wonderful trusses of pink, red and pale yellow flowers.  Tshoka was also the site of a monastery which was occupied for prominent festivals and there were many prayer wheels which were turned by tourists and the faithful alike.  Inside each wheel were 108 prayers or mantras so with each turn the believer sent off hundreds of entreaties.

    As we hiked further through the rhododendron forest, new species began to present themselves including R. hodgsonii which has huge leaves and large trusses of pale pink flowers underneath a canopy of Abies spectabilis, Sorbus and Acer.  At our lunch stop that day I was surrounded by a forest of R. thomsonii with bell shaped red blooms.  The great advantage of seeing such large plants was that I could able to appreciate the bark and the foliage which is often a neglected feature when people think of rhododendrons!

    After reaching 4000 metres we camped at Dzongri where I was invited to have tea with the caretaker of the campsite.  These caretakers usually spend the tourist season living alone keeping the campsite tidy.  This lady lived in one room where she ate, slept and cooked on a small cast iron stove with meat drying in the rafters.  That night a terrific storm blew down most of the tents while I spent a sleepless night weighing mine down so that it would not be blown across the hillside.  From Dzongri we had great views over the Mt Kanchendzonga range.  Kanchendzonga is the world’s third highest mountain which is sacred to the Lepcha people and cannot be climbed from the Sikkim side.

    The next few days were spent hiking out of the thinning rhododendron forest towards our ultimate destination the Goechala pass at over 5000 metres.  We followed the course of the Prek Chhu river which carried water from the melting glaciers high above to the lowlands below.  We passed boulders the size of houses that were being moved slowly downhill by the awesome power of the water. So much of Indian civilisation has been built around its rivers and it is amazing to think that the water that flows into the famous lowland rives starts here in the mountains.  The Himalayas are a young mountain chain and still growing by the action of tectonic plates but one day in the dim future the pace of erosion will overtake that of creation.

    By the time we reached the highest point on our trek the landscape was still in the grip of winter with hail and snowstorms common during the day.  The temperature dipped to minus 7 degrees at night and about 4 degrees in the day.  The harsh wind meant that the vegetation was a low mixture of dwarf rhododendron, juniper and grasses covering a thin soil.  It was the coldest I have ever been and I literally wore all my clothes at night and lay shivering in my tent.  I was looking forward to a night in a trekkers hut but was kept awake by mice which ran to and fro across my face and chest going about their own business.  Luckily the views of the mountains were enough reward to compensate for cold toes, fingers and everything else.  The prospect of returning through the spectacular rhododendron forest was also enticing to say the least.

    Trekking in the Himalayas was the experience of a lifetime and I learned a great deal about how to grow my plants better which is what makes it all worthwhile.

    Ross Underwood

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    Hodnet Hall Gardens
  • Keeping Royal Company

    By on May 12, 2016

    In the year when the Queen turns 90 a surge in patriotism is to be expected. But the garden has its own royalty. I am sure that everyone has a view on what plants that might be but let me offer my own humble opinion.

    Ornamental cherries are blossoming right now, filling gardens, parks and streets with clouds of ephemeral blossom from purest white to marshmallow pink.  In Japan there is a special name for this moment:hanami. This centuries old custom refers to the way in which the transitory nature of the blossoms can be enjoyed. It is usually taken to refer to ornamental cherries but also includes other members of the Prunus family. Mainstream news channels in Japan often chart the progress of the blossom as the season advances through the country which can be from March to June.

    Cherries both edible and ornamental make up only one member of the Prunus family which also includes apricots, peaches, nectarines, almonds, plums, damsons and sloes. The flowers generally appear on naked branches although by the time many ornamental cultivars open their blooms there is the pleasing addition of green or bronze foliage which gives a wonderful background to the flowers. Ornamental cherries come in a variety of sizes and forms. If you have the space for a monster, than Prunus avium is worth considering or the double flowered form P. avium ‘Plena’. The flowers hang in long drooping clusters in huge quantities from the end on April to the middle of May. On a tree which can reach 40 to 50 feet the sight is nothing short of spectacular.

    Tai-Haku

    Tai-Haku

    If you are lucky enough to have a pond in your garden which can reflect the sky and the light then seeing the reflection of cherry blossoms in the water can be sublime. For smaller gardens there are a number of excellent cultivars to choose from. One of the most popular is the ‘flat topped’ shape. Perhaps ‘Shirote’ (sometimes called ‘Mount Fuji’) is one of the most famous, it is certainly one of the most beautiful of all the white flowered cherries.  Thought it just might be outdone by ‘Tai-Haku’ the ‘great white cherry’. The story of this plant, which was thought lost to cultivation, it’s finding and propagation has become the stuff of gardening legend. It has the largest flowers which open Snow White from pinkish buds amongst bronze tinted foliage. It is very strong and easy to cultivate reaching 20 feet high and wide when mature.

    Shirote

    Shirote

    By and large cherries can cope well with most garden soil but if yours is not particularly free draining or you have a high water table then you might want to consider the snowy mespilus, Amelanchier lamarckii. Their graceful trunks lift the delicate branches free of their companions. Where cherries are prone to dominating, Amelanchier lamarckii makes good company. When they are about to open the tree has a coppery cast, which gives way to just-pink flowers. The tree colours fiery orange and red: a finale to the growing season.

    It is not just cherries that have that priceless royal quality, Rhododendrons are certainly aristocrats of the garden. Rhododendron schlippenbachii is also known as the royal azalea. The flowers are open, they look at you in a pastel pink shade. Native to Korea, China, Japan and asiatic Russia this hardy plant grows naturally at forest edges in humus rich, moist acidic soil. It prefers a warmer position here benefiting from some direct sunlight which will mean that you get the best of the autumn colour which can be red, golden yellow and orange. It is by no means the most common plant in gardens but it is worth seeking out from specialist nurseries.

    Calophytum

    Calophytum

    Whilst azaleas are normally deciduous (though not always), Rhododendrons are well known as evergreens. Whilst the species have an undeserved reputation for being a bit difficult, the hybrids are really the glamour girls, stealing the show right now. Having said that the species are showy by themselves such as Rhododendron calophytum which has large open pink flowers above huge, long, shiny leaves. If you are looking for purity of colour the you cannot beat R. ‘Everest’, which, as you might imagine is pure white. By contrast ‘Horizon Monarch’ has wonderful apricot flowers on a plant that is vigorous and healthy. There has been a new addition to the Rhododendron family from a genus which was formerly allied under the name Menziesia. These are ericaceous shrubs (acid loving) which bear hanging clusters of small lantern shaped flowers reminiscent of a discreet Pieris. The cultivar ‘Honshu Blue’ has wonderful blue foliage making it a plant that stands out in sun or shade.

    Everest

    Everest

    After a recent trip to the Himalayas I am sorting through the 2000 or so photos I took so I hope to be able to convince you of the merits of species rhododendrons but until then the garden has plenty of royal splendour to offer.

    Horizon Monarch

    Horizon Monarch

    Ross Underwood

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    Hodnet Hall Gardens