NEWS

  • “If you can keep your head…”

    By on January 25, 2016

    The above line at the beginning of one of Rudyard Kipling’s most famous poems starts an evocation of manly virtues. Kipling was surprised at the warm reception the poem “If” received. He commented that it seemed to have gone “around the world in a day”.

    Another idea which seems to have circumnavigated the world, at least amongst gardeners, is that of leaving herbaceous plants which are able to withstand the winter in situ. At least until they finally collapse after fulfilling the natural cycle of growth, flowering, reproduction and death. There are sound ecological as well as aesthetic reasons for doing this. Seed heads provide much needed forage for birds and stems provide refuge for invertebrates. I love the woolly seed heads on clematis which are so tactile, whilst those on my cardoons (Cynara cardunculus) seem armour plated by comparison.

    Fluffy Clematis Seed Heads

    Fluffy Clematis Seed Heads

    Yet if temperatures do not dip too much then winter can be perhaps one of the greenest of seasons because there can be little to distract the eye. It has often been pointed out though not, I feel, widely accepted, that our climate has more in common with the Mediterranean than with continental climates. Though gardeners are obsessed with hardiness and have tended to choose plants from continental climates because they are able to survive the harsh winters. Mediterranean winters are mild and damp, just like ours even before the recent run of mild winters grabbed media attention. This means that we can have the luxury of green foliage.

    Acanthus mollis is one such Mediterranean plant that can be appreciated now for its large shiny leaves that look like a much oversized holly.  Like many Mediterranean plants the Acanthus makes much of its growth in winter whilst temperatures are lower and moisture is more abundant. Acanthus mollis can spread aggressively in good soil so a good way to control it is to cut back the foliage completely in some years.

    Another Mediterranean plant giving its best right now is the Corsican hellebore which has tough glossy evergreen leaves topped with open greenish yellow flowers. This hellebore seeds well in well drained soil or into gravel where it is nearby but it is not invasive.

    Another winter favourite of mine is the so called ‘stinking hellebore’ or Helleborus foetidus. This plant can be found wild in the British Isles and can give off an unpleasant smell if the foliage is crushed, though why anyone would want to do this is a mystery to me. The foliage is narrow and glossy dark green and the flowers are charming, hanging like green bells which are unscathed by the frost.

    Geranium macrorrhizum comes from the Balkans where the snows can be heavy but it does not go completely dormant. It’s lemony scented foliage can still provide a cheerful ground cover carpet as the plant is able to photosynthesise whilst others are dormant.

    Perhaps the classic winter evergreen is box (Buxus) which despite box blight is still being planted by gardeners who want a clean topiaried look. The formality of box is perfectly complimented by something looser such as grasses or the seed heads of Lunaria rediviva which look like small stained glass windows, shining silver with the light behind them.

    There is plenty to look at as well as eat in the vegetable garden where brassicas are without doubt the stars of the show. Kale can be extremely decorative with curly, crinkled or coloured foliage.  Swiss chard can look a bit ragged but the stems are still attractive and it remains productive for a long time.

    The humble leek is perhaps the most reliable of all winter veg and quite attractive in rows where the grey leaves acquire a silver sheen.

    A lot of hard work has to be done in the winter vegetable garden, digging over the soil when conditions allow. But it is also a very productive time and can be as productive as any so why not continue to stir-fry, soup, bake and roast your way through your winter veg.

    Ross Underwood

     

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  • The Last Plant Standing

    By on November 20, 2015

    I have always resisted talking about the weather in these articles. It tends to dominate so much of the conversation in these isles anyway that is seemed hackneyed to mention it here.  Yet I feel I have to do it so here goes…hasn’t it been mild! True it has been wet and windy but on days when it wasn’t I have often been working in my shirt sleeves.

    I must say that the mild weather has posed a few dilemmas, particularly in relation to cutting back perennials in borders. Usually I am pressed for time trying to balance clearing leaves, tidying borders with construction or maintenance projects so I sometimes opt for a blanket cutback to save time returning later.

    But things are not dying down quite as fast as expected and I have often had to question whether I should use the secateurs or not. There has been no frost to hasten these things to their conclusion. A few usual suspects have decided to pack their bags for the year anyway. The Hostas have collapsed into a mushy heap as they usually do so they can be whisked; or rather scooped away to the compost heap. Many other plants are still standing tall without having gone brown including hemerocallis, aconitum, aster, and others.

    Nerine Still Going Strong

    Nerine Still Going Strong

    Since the groundbreaking work of the ‘new perennial movement’ whose most famous son, Piet Oudolf, has done much to show us the beauty of winter skeletons. We have all become used to the idea of not clearing everything away at once. In addition as we have become more environmentally aware, the importance of leaving seed heads for birds and stems for invertebrates to shelter in has made us all I hope less tidy minded.

    Of course whether you cut now or not, all of this debris has to end up somewhere and the compost heap is the best place so that it can be recycled back onto the garden. People often ask me why I separate my leaves from the other detritus and use them to make leaf mould rather then compost. As so often in garden the reason is all about subtle differences. Leaf mould is the decayed matter made purely of leaves which has little or no nutrients and is broken down by fungi. This means that it does not need to warm up the same as the compost heap it just needs to be kept moist so that it will rot evenly. When it is ready in about a year it can be used as an ameliorant to improve soil structure so plants can feed themselves better without actually feeding the soil. For these reasons it makes an excellent mulch as it is very stable and does not disappear quickly.

    Compost on the other hand is made up of everything else from the garden, grass cuttings, spent flowers and stems as well as weeds that have been pulled out. Compost is broken down by bacteria so it needs heat to get the bacteria working and to ‘cook’ off any weed seeds so they don’t get put back onto the garden. Regular turning helps the heat build up and spreads the bacteria. Compost is full of nutrients so it can be used in a variety of situations and feed plants directly. Compost can be made in as little as three months so it is always advisable to have more then one heap on the go but it is continually being broken down even when it is on the garden. This lack of stability means that it needs to be reapplied throughout the season.

    One of the great joys as we clear away our borders is to notice how well things have established, aided of course by all that lovely compost or leaf mould.  But gardens are not always so predictable. Self seeding is now an established part of our gardening vocabulary. Once it was thought the height of thuggery for a plant to put itself in a place other then the one we chose. Gardeners like Beth Chatto have shown us that it is ok to abandon some control as it adds a bit of vivacity to a planting. Some of the best self seeders are aquilegias and the range of colours attests to the genetic diversity one can get from only a few seeds.

    The degree to which plants self sow depends on a number of factors. Some things will put themselves anywhere, alchemilla and geranium oxonianum are two of the worst for me. Echinops can become a pest sometimes but after a while it often settles down because of competition from other plants. The more fertile your soil the greater the amount of self seeding so it pays sometimes to spare the compost and use leaf mould instead.

    Ross Underwood

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  • Lessons Before Dying

    By on October 13, 2015

    Despite the industriousness of this time there is always an air of finality around, it feels like getting our affairs in order before the big freeze. Although if last winter was anything to go by that might never come!

    I usually start to take precautions at this time of year against any sudden cold snaps. If I have remembered to take cuttings from any half-hardies like pelargoniums, fuchsias or Brugmansia I usually put them somewhere under cover or against the house wall to afford some protection against night frosts. If the worst threatens I usually take them in to the greenhouse where they will stay for the winter.

    Usually I am a little cautious about potting things on too late. I don’t like the idea of my plants being surrounded by a moat of compost over winter which might hold extra moisture and cause rotting. Peat based composts can be very susceptible to this so intend to use a loan based alternative if I am going to be leaving things in pots for a long time. So I tend to prefer a tight fit or not to pot on at all. As the plant responds to the season and slows down growth its requirements for water and nutrients drop. This often means it will sit more happily in a smaller pot than at other times of the year.

    Hygiene is an important consideration when bringing in your precious plants. I usually give the greenhouse a good scrub down first as it can be a magnet for fungal attack.

    If you have dahlias or cannas in the ground don’t panic if they get a touch of frost. As winters are mild these days many people just mulch them down heavily and leave them in the ground. Only in five or six years when the vigour declines do they lift and divide. As I garden on clay I like to play it safe and lift plants annually.

    This is also a great time to split herbaceous perennials such as geraniums, astrantias and so on. Use only the best pieces and discard anything woody or congested, usually at the middle of the clump. Replant the new pieces with a little compost to settle them in and trim back the foliage. The roots will continue to grow even without leaves.

    Every gardener knows the satisfaction of taking up fallen leaves from prize lawns and the frustration when contrary winds blow them right back again. Beware of those winds if you are planting large shrubs and evergreens. Firm plants in to prevent the wind rocking them around and prising precious roots away from contact with the soil. Be prepared to water for the next few weeks, especially in dry weather as pot grown plants are especially vulnerable to drought. This is because they are still transpiring ( that is losing water from their leaves) and you have to replace lost water at the root as the plant is yet to root out into the surrounding soil.

    One thing that I have become more and more aware of the more I garden is the value of things that die well rather then collapse into a heap on the first misty morning. I have also become more aware of autumn colour on herbaceous perennials and that if you are aware of this you can plan ahead and prolong the interest in your borders. The grasslike foliage of daylilies (hemerocallis) can take on wonderful yellow golden tones which work well with the misty blue of late flowering aconitum. I would use an aconitum called “Royal Flush” which is shorter, sturdier and can be planted in between or just behind your hemerocallis. The foliage will form a nice contrast when the hemerocallis are in flower and the strong blue will be accentuated by the glowing gold of the dying foliage. A word of warning though, aconitum said are amongst the most poisonous plants in our gardens so beware. Avoid handling them without gloves and especially if you have a cut or wound on your hands.

    Daylilies and Aconitums

    Daylilies and Aconitums

    Keep looking for interesting juxtapositions, which are often best when they happen by accident. I planted tome hydrangea ‘Limelight’ in a trough in front of a wall covered in Boston Ivy (Parthenocissus). The flowers of the hydrangea are beginning to brown now but retain enough of the greenish white to contrast well with the bright scarlet, deepening to wine red of the climber. This is an effect which will last a little further as the hydrangea flowers age to brown they will show off the orange/red petioles (leaf stalks) which are retained for a short time by the Parthenocissus after its leaves have fallen.

    There are lots of interesting fruits and seed heads to look out for as well as flowers. The best in my humble opinion are provided by euonymus or spindle trees. The common spindle or Euonymus europaeus to give it its Latin name, can be found in many a hedgerow. You might miss it any earlier in the year but in Autumn the scarlet capsules containing orange coated seeds stand out a mile. ‘Red Cascade’ is the cultivar you are probably going to encounter first though ‘Scarlet Wonder’ is worth seeking out for its shorter bushier habit. Euonymus planipes ‘Sancho’ is a wonderful tree growing to three metres or more high and perhaps as much wide with gorgeous autumn colour.

    Euonymus are very adaptable and are happy in almost any soil or situation.

    One of my favourite shrubs, which can become a small tree is still displaying its white scented flowers in tight clusters is Heptacodium miconioides which hails from China where it is known as the seven son flower. In a good summer the bracts surrounding the flowers turn red adding another dimension.

    Heptacodium

    Heptacodium

    If magnolia flowers can be described as being like candles in spring time then the seed capsules look like molten wax hanging heavily from the branches in the autumn. As magnolia leaves can be amongst the last to turn and are not noted for their autumn colour this is a welcome bonus. Magnolia salicifolia is perhaps the best magnolia for autumn colour turning a rich buttery yellow.

    Magnolia Fruits

    Magnolia Fruits

    The seed capsules of magnolias can be appreciated when they split to reveal shiny jet black seeds. Soak these for 48 hours in a little water and washing up liquid and then plant in pots and leave outside if you want to grow your own.

    Happy Autumn.

    Ross Underwood

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  • Naked Ladies and Other Excitements

    By on October 5, 2015

    The nights are definitely drawing in and there have already been frosts in parts of the country. Yet there have been some marvellous compensations, especially over the last week. Once the morning chill has lifted the afternoons have been sunny and warm. I am almost tempted to say that we seem to have had more sun in the past week than in the whole of August! This is a wonderful time to be in the garden and to get up to all sorts of stuff. By and large the soil is moist and workable without being wet. This means it is a great time to move plants around as there is still enough warmth in the soil for them to put out some roots in their new position and get re-established. You can even move large shrubs and evergreens. The key to success is preparation. For very large shrubs and small trees that have outgrown their space I sometimes dig a trench around them in the spring,severing many roots and preparing the plant for the shock of removal. For plants of a more manageable size it is vital to take as much root as possible which means digging around the plant, usually at the level of the canopy. If your spade meets resistance you know there are roots there but if not then you can get a little closer. When you have dug around and underneath sufficiently, grip the plant firmly as low down as possible on the stem or trunk if it is woody. Lift transfer to a wheelbarrow or some sheeting so that it can be wheeled or dragged to its new home. Once you have your plant next to where you want it prepare your planting hole. Dig a hole at least a foot wider than the rootball you have. This is so you can back fill making sure you get as much improved soil in contact with the roots as possible. Then water to settle the plant into its new home and keep it well watered. With good preparation the plant should suffer no apparent checks and should romp away in its new home!

    October is also a great month for planting bulbs, corms, tubers and rhizomes! What a wonderful thing to have something delivered wrapped in its own package from which a tulip, daffodil or some other wonder will emerge. I like to grow bulbs in pots or containers. They can be moved around the garden to create different groupings and as things start to go over you can make the most of what you have left. Bulbs are also great for planting in borders or in long grass. The trick, whether planting in pots or  in the ground is planting depth. Often the books say plant three times the height of the bulb but I tend to ignore this mostly. I go for a depth of about four inches whether in the ground or a pot. This works just as well for tulips as for snowdrops. It means that the bulbs get a relatively consistent regime as far as temperature and moisture goes. It is all too easy to think of bulbs as self sufficient but if planted too shallow they can be vulnerable to
    drying out either as the roots emerge or after flowering when they most need to feed the bulb to produce blooms for next year.

    Cyclamen

    Cyclamen

    The main exception to my four inch rule of thumb is cyclamen. They are not technically a bulb but for all practical purposes they are a storage organ which experiences a period of dormancy in the summer. The main cyclamen I grow is the autumn flowering Cyclamen hederifolium the ‘ivy leaved’ cyclamen. The flowers emerge in autumn in shades of pink or white followed by beautifully marbled leaves over winter. Native to woodlands the plants are best grown in light shade. They go dormant in the summer just as the canopy above expands thus cutting off light and moisture. Cyclamen prefer to be planted shallowly, no more then an inch below the soil surface. I tend to nestle them in the soil then throw on some leaf mould or chipped bark as cyclamen have contractile roots so they will pull themselves down to the correct depth. Once established only C. hederifolium can be mulched, if you mulch the spring flowering C. coum it will disappear.

    Colchicum

    Colchicum

    Another star this time of year are the autumn flowering crocus or colchicums. Often referred to as ‘naked ladies’ because they flower without the leaves they come in purple, blue pink and white. Autumn crocus require a bit of decent drainage so you could put a little grit under them if you have heavy soil. Colchicums however come from Asia where they grow along streams and even in quite brackish conditions in Japan so are generally pretty amenable. Colchicums are generally quite an expensive bulb but these ladies are worth the investment.

    Happy Gardening.

    Ross Underwood

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  • Remarkable Trees, Remarkable Stories

    By on September 21, 2015

    Anybody can see that autumn is here without needing confirmation from the MET Office. The nights are drawing in and there is a nip in the air. This time of year my thoughts turn to woody plants which give such a warm display at this time and until winter. Already, the berries on my whitebeam (Sorbus spp.) have already turned red. But do any of us think about where the trees
    in our gardens, streets, parks and countryside come from?

    Britain has a depauperate woody flora and whilst the unbroken forest that stretched over much of the country has been depleted and broken up by human activity that activity does not explain the dearth of species. This lack of diversity can be explained by looking at the fossil record. Millions of years ago trees that we would recognise from Asia or North America were part of the European flora. Many of their descendants are now solely restricted to Asia or North America whilst Northern  Europe and the British Isles in particular are sparsely populated.

    What accounts for this catastrophe? The answer can be read in the gentle folds and undulations of the Shropshire landscape. Our gentle hills were rounded and smoothed by repeated glaciation which forced all to retreat before the long hard winters and encroaching dark. Our woody flora retreated southwards until it met obstacles it could not cross such as the sea or more
    particularly mountain ranges. The Pyrenees and the Alps run east to west and make an impressive barrier. In America, by contrast the mountains ran north-south thus providing a route of retreat whilst in Asia the glaciation was not so severe.

    As the glaciers retreated there was a recolonisation northward but the melting of the ice made sea levels rise, creating the channel and stopping further invasion. Only about forty species made it across. To put this into context one mountain in China can contain more species than the whole British Isles!

    It is little wonder then that those with the will to do so have set about reversing the work of the glaciers. Thanks to its arboreta, scientists, foresters but most especially it’s gardeners, Britain is home to one of the most diverse floras in the world. Our climate is hospitable to almost every species from temperate areas of the world that we might wish to grow. From the late eighteenth but particularly the nineteenth century plant explores pushed themselves to the limits of endurance to collect seed and specimens of new species which they sent back to be studied by botanists or to grow in the gardens of private collectors, institutions and finally in the gardens of people like us!

    There have been some remarkable discoveries indeed. Discoveries which have literally brought to life and to cultivation, species from aeons past thought long dead and fossilised. One of the more famous of these recent introductions has been the Wollemi Pine found growing in Australia and known previously only as a fossil.

    For me the most touching example of this resurrection is the Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glypostroboides), seeds of which were sent to the west from war-torn China in the 1940s by Chinese botanists. This example of international cooperation became a shining demonstration of what could be achieved when interested and collaborative minds around the world were united in common endeavour. With the establishment of the People’s Republic the rich warehouse of Chinese plants was closed until the 1980s. By being curious, British gardeners have accepted the worlds’ flora into their front and back gardens; enriched and beautified their surroundings and perhaps even rescued that which no longer survives in its natural habitat. The American tree, Franklinia alatamaha, for example survives only in gardens and is thought extinct in the wild. This should teach us not to take for granted that which we might see every day.

    Franklinia alatamaha

    Franklinia alatamaha

    Our flora is constantly changing, even species such as Sycamore, that many consider a native (if pestilential one) are imports. The Sycamore itself comes from the Blakans. We should all welcome as much diversity as possible.

    Ross Underwood

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