- April 27, 2016Read more
Last Thursday night we lit a beacon in celebration of the Queen’s 90th birthday. Staff, friends and family at Hodnet Hall Gardens had a lovely evening up on a hill looking out over Shropshire. A very memorable occasion.
- April 27, 2016Read more
As I walk around the garden I see things shaking off the pall of winter and coming to life from small dog’s tooth violets (Erythronium) and Trillium to the huge and dramatic Rhododendron hodgsonii. I am reminded on my walk of all the places that these plants hail from. The Erythronium from North America, the rhododendron from the Himalayas.
As someone who is curious I naturally read up all I can about how to grow these plants and where they come from. However, the descriptions given in the botanical literature can seem rather dry. Take this one of R. arboreum for example.
“Distributed at elevations of 1700-3400m; flowering on the months of March to May. It inhabits open slopes and forms thick forest in the lower reaches of its ranges.”
Whilst this tells me many essential details such as how hardy it is likely to be, what the climate is like and when it will flower it is a rather dry passage that gives little flavour of the habitat in which you might fine Rhododendron arboreum. It tells me even less of what might be growing with it.
There is no better education for a gardener than seeing plants growing in their natural habitat. That is why I shall be travelling to Sikkim in northern India for a once in a lifetime opportunity to see many of the plants I am trying to grow at home in the wild. I am a firm believer that wherever possible, seeing plants in the wild teaches you how to garden better at home. You do not have to travel to the most far flung places in the world to do this, though I understand the temptation for those that do! Simply by taking a stroll through the countryside you can observe plants growing where nature put them. It is also possible to learn some lessons from careful observation.
Right now might be a good time to go and see bluebells in a woodland. If you visit regularly you will have seen the change in the flora around you. There may have been snowdrops early on, maybe some daffodils. By now you will be seeing bluebells and wild garlic and as your gaze moves higher up you will notice the expansion of new growth in the tree canopy. By the middle of summer the canopy will have fully expanded but in clearings there will be a froth of cow parsley. In the deepest shade the foliage of the spring bulbs will be withering away leaving ferns and moss.
By observing how the native flora responds to changes in light levels, moisture and so forth you can translate this into your own patch where you might have a bit of shade from yours or a neighbours tree. By doing a little light reading you will soon discover that there are other plants from around the world that will thrive in similar conditions. Then you can begin to peruse the catalogue of nurserymen or going to plant fairs to pick up those rare and special treasures. Before you know it you to will be booking your next holiday and spending less time on the beach and more time looking at the local gardens and parks. Perhaps sneaking a few seeds back in your luggage! Before you know it, what started as a walk in the woods has led you via books, the Internet or on your own two feet to the four corners of the world. You will probably meet or hear about some remarkable people and plants on the way.
Meanwhile there are many more plants in flower closer to home. One of my favourite members of the pea family is Lathyrus vernus, a perennial member of the same family as garden or sweet peas. It’s purple flowers make a wonderful display especially under shrubs with yellow foliage such as Philadelphus ‘Aureus’.
I love Amelanchiers, especially the cultivar ‘Ballerina’ which has bronze coloured young foliage that emerges at the right time to display the cascades of white flowers.
One of my favourite trees is also in flower at this time. Pyres salicifolia ‘Pendula’ is an ornamental member of the pear family that has silvery leaves that glint wonderfully in the sunlight as well as those simple but beautiful pear flowers.
Whether you are at home or abroad nothing demonstrates the art of the possible like plants.
- April 11, 2016Read more
In like a lion and out like a lamb is often the way I hear April described. The days can be unexpectedly warm but it is still a month when we can expect cold nights and even frost so it is worth keeping an eye on the garden. It is also a great time to do some preparation so that the garden is as ready as it can be and you have time to enjoy it.
If you have had your sweet peas under glass then you should keep them there and keep pinching to stop them getting leggy but is a good idea to get your supports in place to save time later. We grow hundreds of plants for cutting in the summer and it would be a waste of time to make wigwams from canes or hazel sticks so we use a large frame covered in pig netting through which the plants will scramble. If you are putting them in the border try using twiggy material which looks more natural in the garden.
Cannas and dahlias will be sprouting which means that it is an excellent time to take cuttings from the latter. Don’t be too greedy and only take two or three from each tuber. These can be rooted with a little rooting powder and put in pots of well drained cutting compost and covered by plastic or put in a frame where they can be kept turgid until they root. In time they will form their own tubers. It is a good time to take basal cuttings from many plants. Delphiniums can be short lived on heavy soil or fall prey to slugs and snails so a few cuttings taken now will future proof you against catastrophe.
Another plant that will benefit from some timely support are herbaceous peonies. We grow hybrids of P. lactiflora. Their red spears are pushing up from the earth right now and in a short time the leaves will unfurl. We grow peonies in two situations. Firstly, in formal rows where there are primarily for cutting and secondly as border plants. Where they are grown for cutting they are supported with a ring of garden canes around each plant. These are then bound with gain string to stop the plant from flopping and so we can reach down and cut the stems as low as possible. Where they are grown in the garden they are grown together in a border to themselves. We put canes all around the bed and stretch green plastic garden netting over them. We use the type with large squares so the plants have plenty of room. Whatever you do never ever put your cane through the crowns!
April is one of the best times to be out and about. The soil is warming up and life is springing everywhere. The low sunlight and long shadows accentuate structural elements within the garden and as the sun is not high or strong enough to bleach them, the colours of flowering trees and shrubs have a special vibrancy.
The sight of virginal white cherry blossom agains a background of verdant green is one that I find especially uplifting. One of my favourite is the single white flowered species cherry, Prunus sogdiana. This extremely rare tree in cultivation comes from Central Asia and has abundant flowers followed by large fruit which ripens from yellow to red.
For those with an eye to see them members of the Acer family, including Acer rubrum, A. cappadocicum and A. pseudoplatanus (the Sycamore) are in flower now. These are beautiful when seen close up in red or lime green and I would encourage you to do so.
There are many Pieris and Rhododendrons giving their best right now and the show will only get better and better. Rhododendron praecox is always early, the suffix ‘praecox’ meaning ‘the first’. It’s lilac purple flowers open along bare branches in the sunshine and do not get spoilt by frost.
There is plenty to do now but also plenty to enjoy so never mind those April showers.
- March 9, 2016Read more
The grip of February is loosening, you can see it everywhere. As I drive along the road I am cheered by the sight of blackthorn gleaming white in the hedges. First there is just the odd patch here and there and then all of a sudden there are billowing clouds up and down the countryside.
The bees that I keep have been flying back and into warm sunny weather. First they emerge onto the landing strip outside the hole to the hive then take a flight around to orientate themselves before flying off. As well as the blackthorn they will be visiting that other hedgerow stalwart the hazel. Fresh greenish yellow catkins are hanging down, catching the light and providing pollen to my foraging bees. This will be the protein source on which they raise the larval brood.
Though there is still a way to go there is evidence that the year is once more on our side. The greatest symbol of this great turning is the humble daffodil. Few things cheer me up as much as the sight of nodding daffodils. No wonder they inspired Wordsworth!
The daffodil that inspired his poetic lines is Narcissus pseudonarcissus, also called the Lenten or Easter Lily. In truth they are not lilies at all but, like Galanthus, members of the Amaryllidaceae family.
The origin of the botanical name, narcissus, was applied by Linnaeus though there is no clear reason why it should be associated with the ancient myth. This is to be found in the Metamorphoses of Ovid in which the writer tells of a beautiful youth who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool and wasted away in front of it. The nodding heads of the daffodil flowers perhaps represent the head of the youth overhanging the pool. More tragic is the story of Echo whose love for Narcissus went unrequited. Such was the grief that this caused her that she simply faded away to a mere reverberation. It seems strange to thing that the flowers that I so admire now, that signal the onset of the year will similarly fade away into memory until spring wakes them again.
Narcissus pseudonarcissus grows wild from Portugal to Germany and throughout Britain though there is some debate about whether it is natural here or has become naturalised over centuries. It grows in woodland and grassy meadows and is conspicuous by its dark trumpet (corona) and lighter tepals. They are also very easy to propagate by simply dividing an established clump with a spade, though never from the Wild of course! However, if you do happen upon a host of golden daffodils and pick a few then rest assured that you will not do any damage to the plants. In fact daffodils used to be picked in great numbers in the past. In the 1930’s a special train the ‘Daffodil Special’ was run by the Great Western Railway Company to take city dwellers from London up to the Herefordshire and Gloucestershire borders to buy and pick flowers.
Britain is still a major centre of flower production with early crops arriving from the Isles of Scilly and working northwards with the weather.
Commercial daffodils are propagated by tissue culture or twin scaling where the bulbs are separated lengthways into pairs of scales with a little base plate remaining. When put into compost these then grow and form new bulbs.
It is a little late to buy dry bulbs now as they will have been stored for a long time. Better to pick out a spot now and plant in October. The bulbs should be firm and weighty in your hand when you buy them and planted about four inches down. I always plant in clumps as they rarely do or look well on their own and I always by more than I think I will need! They ever seem to go as far when you plant them as you think they will. It is not necessary to feed them though you can of course do this after they flower. Normally the bulb will make all of the food it needs through the leaves which should not be tidied away or tied up too early.
Whatever the flower whether it be a daffodil, willow or a broom there is something wonderful about yellow this time of year as it seems like the sun itself is returning.
- February 4, 2016Read more
By the time that February rolls around it can feel a little like being in Narnia under the reign of the White Queen, always winter, never spring. When you spy the first Snowdrops and winter Aconites (Eranthis) daring to defy the weather then you know that spring is definitely on the way and it is time to spring into action. Seeing bulbs emerging is a great spur to getting on with the clearing up, removing brash, leaves and dead herbaceous growth so that they can come through. Mild spells are also a great time to plant or divide clumps of bulbs. Opinion amongst gardeners often differs on the subject of planting snowdrops ‘in the green’ or not. I prefer to divide, pat and replant in the green as I think that it allows the bulbs to settle into the new position better. It would be unfair to expect a spectacular show from freshly divided stock but those snowdrops that I divided and replanted last year are looking good right now. Snowdrops and aconites planted individually rarely do well so it is best to keep them in a clump. They also look more natural this way and you can tell a long established garden from a new one by the drifts of snowdrops and aconites.
There are ways to cheat however and there are nurseries which sell snowdrops and aconites by mail order. I received a packet this week, parcelled out into bundles of 100 and wrapped in plastic and newspaper with the soil shaken off. Some have flowers on but are still rather short. Plant them at the normal depth anyway and they will sort themselves out. One of the main reasons I prefer bulbs in the green is that there is only a short time in between being lifted and arriving at my door. That way they don’t have much time to dry out and shrivel which can happen when they are put into dry storage. It is testimony to the power of nature and the ingenuity of bulb companies that so many bulbs survive. These dry bulbs will have been lifted soon after they have become dormant, which for snowdrops will have been in the early summer.
Mild spells are also ideal for planting other things such as trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants. If you are lucky enough to have a sandy soil you need not worry too much about compaction but on clay take care that you are not forcing the plant into a hole from which it will never escape. Clay smears and it is easy for even the lightest footfall or spade to squash the air out of the soil. When digging I look at my spade. If the soil sticks to the blade then it may be too wet to be worked or need some organic matter such as leaf mould or compost working in to break up the clay. It is a bit like when you put your knife into a sponge to see if it is done. Indeed gardening and baking share certain alchemical qualities!
February is also a time to release the inner mechanic in all of us. Basic machine maintenance is part of the gardener’s creed and should be something we all feel able to attempt. I’m not talking about major repairs but changing the oil, checking the sparkplugs, basic cleaning and lubrication are not beyond anyone with the right attitude. I was always a bookworm so I always found it easier to pour over the manual than actually do the thing but ‘approach with confidence’ is my motto. It bears repeating that you can never underestimate the importance of plentiful lubrication; it saves both time and money in servicing and mechanical breakdowns.
Keen gardeners will be itching to mow the lawn so start with the mower. Better to get it into prime condition before you need it! If you have a petrol mower which has been left standing it is worth checking the lines and giving it a start occasionally. Hopefully you will have cleaned off any grass from the underside in the autumn so that it does not rot the metal top. If you feel confident and safe enough you might also consider removing the blade, putting it in a vice and sharpening the cutting edge with a grinder. A word of caution; it is worthwhile remembering to put it back on the right way or checking that your engineer has done it for you or even the sharpest blade will be rendered useless. Happens to the best of us!
Finally, take a walk around the garden as often as you an. February is a time when things are turning, symbolised by the purity of the snowdrops, or the sunshine colours of the aconites. Take a companion to, I do.