• The Summer Snip!

    By on September 8, 2015

    At this moment the harvest of summer vegetables is in full swing and I am running out of ideas of things to do with courgettes and runner beans! August is always a time when attention turns to fruit in the garden. There is a sense of expectation as early apples such as ‘Fiesta’ ripen and plums and damsons begin to show colour.

    Summer pruning of apples and pears allows sunlight to ripen the fruit and ensures good cropping in subsequent years. This is the main method of pruning for restricted forms such as cordons, espaliers, fans and pyramids but can also be done on free standing trees.

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    It is mainly a practise used on spur bearing apples and pears and when used in conjunction with winter pruning helps manage the growth and maintains the productivity of a tree.

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    Pruning can be done any time from July to September but the timing can often depend on where you are in the country. Pears can be done from mid July onwards and apples in late August. Doing it at this time minimises the possibility of re growth from the cut shoot.

    Choose new shoots which will have a woody base but a flexible top and will usually have the darkest leaves on top and a cluster of leaves at the base.

    When making a cut always use a sharp clean pair of secateurs and cut back to one or two buds above the previous years growth. Having already been pruned this older growth will have formed a small knobbly side shoot which is the spur on which the fruit will hang. If secondary growth occurs after summer pruning, then this should be removed in September. If this persists, leave some longer shoots unpruned as these will draw up the sap and grow at the expense of the secondary growth elsewhere. Cut these back to one bud in spring, as well as any vigorous growth projecting above the level of the supporting wire framework.

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    Summer pruning is not just restricted to apples and pears. Wisteria benefit from some attention at this time of year especially young plants. Whether trained on a wall, trellis, pergola or arbour Wisteria can become a mass of whippy growth. So sharpen the secateurs and take out the ladder. The best rule of thumb is to prune back to a hands breadth (six inches) now and in winter take those same shoots back to two fingers (not a rude gesture but approximately one inch) which puts the plants energy into producing flower bearing shoots for next year.

    Ross Underwood

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    Hodnet Hall Gardens
  • Plants For Damp Places

    By on August 10, 2015

    The terms ‘damp’ or ‘wet’ soil requires some definition, for our purposes here ‘damp’ soil means consistently moist and even subject to occasional inundation but not completely saturated. Very few plants can survive constant saturation where surface water remains and does not drain away. These soils are the realm of bog plants, marginals or semi aquatics.

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    Damp soils create extra demands in many ways. The constant availability of moisture means that growth is not checked even in summer although conversely this often means that plants in damp soils remain lush whilst those in drier soils can look more jaded. Damp soils can speed up the establishment of plants. For example, during the past winter I used the prunings from Cornus alba (Dodwood) to enlarge some of the clumps. The prunings were simply pushed into the soil for up to two thirds of the length. Those on moist soils have established more quickly and have grown more prolifically.
    Selecting plants for any soil is a bit like going to the races, you just have to pick the winner. We all know that this sounds simpler than it really is but once you have used luck and judgement it is a matter of building on success. There is often much trial and error but it is always good to start with relatives or cultivars of those plants that are already doing well. Another tip is to visit gardens where there may be parallels with your own situation.
    People are often nervous of planting trees and shrubs in damp situations and there is often a feast or famine scenario. Either they will grow too large, too quickly, or they will languish. There are plenty of woody plants that will turn up their toes in damp situations. I would never plant a mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia) in a damp soil but the whitebeams (Sorbus aria) are more tolerant.

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    Amelanchier and Aronia are two species that are at home on heavy soils, growing often by creeks in North America. Amelanchier has white blossom in spring followed by good autumn colour whilst Aronia are predominantly grown for the autumn colour and attractive fruits. Amelanchier canadensis will make a suckering shrub or small tree whilst Aronia prunifolia ‘Nero’ grows slowly to around ten feet or so.
    Disanthus cercidifolius is one of my favourite shrubs for a damp soil. A member of Hamamelidaceae (the witch hazel family) it has heart shaped leaves, tinged purple, which colour spectacularly in autumn when it also produces spidery flowers.
    There are very many herbaceous plants which call damp soil home. Astilbe is a genus of clump forming perennials from Asia, the Himalayas and North America. Many hybrids such as ‘Rhineland’ are deservedly popular for their brightly coloured plumes of soft feathery flowers.
    Ligularias are impressive perennials from stream sides in Europe and Asia. ‘The Rocket’ is an impressive cultivar with large palmate leaves and tall spires of yellow flowers borne on purple black stems in July and August. These can reach well over 6 feet. Ligularia dentata and it’s cultivars are somewhat shorter, bearing orange daisies which some gardeners remove as they think the flowers detract from the handsome foliage.
    The genus Lysimachia can serve as warning. Both L. clethroides and L. ciliata will grow in wet or dry soil. In dry soil they are well behaved spreading modestly. In a moist soil however they can soon muscle in on more diminutive neighbours. Both are still worth growing however especially Lysimachia ‘Firecracker’ which has shiny burgundy stems and leaves. When they emerge in spring the dark foliage makes a good companion for blue hyacinths.
    The more I garden the more I have become attached to grasses mainly because they are so adaptable and the leaves and stems last well over winter. They add sound and movement to a garden when they move and rustle in the wind. Miscanthus are one family of grasses that are adaptable to moist soils where they grow into large upright clumps topped with feathery flowers in late summer.  Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’ has narrow leave marked with a white variegation at the edge. Caught by the breeze the plant shimmers like running water.

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    Finally, for those who prefer their plants on the large side and have the room, Gunnera manicata from South America has leaves over 6-8 feet across, big enough to shelter under in a passing rain storm as my wife and I did at our wedding!


    Ross Underwood

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    Hodnet Hall Gardens
  • Flowers For A Day

    By on July 14, 2015

    It is no exaggeration to say that Daylilies are one of the premier flowering perennials.  From only a handful of wild species belonging to the genus Hemerocallis, breeders have produced tens of thousands of hybrids in a dazzling array of colours, patterns, and shapes.  Adding to their appeal is their hardiness, ease of care and propagation and ability to combine so well with other plants.  And many are at their best right now.

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    Daylilies had been cultivated for thousands of years in China before being discovered by the west where they were valued as much for utilitarian purposes, as a food and medicinal plant, as for their beauty.  Indeed almost all parts of the plant are edible except the leaves and flower stalks.  The petals or whole flowers make excellent additions to salads.

    Although species such as H. altissima (which flowers at 6ft with wonderful buttery yellow petals that fade to a soft apricot) are beautiful in their own right, it is the modern hybrids that are so renowned.

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    Hybridising is especially popular in America where daylilies are known as ‘poor man’s orchids’ because of their exotic looks and the ease with which hybrids can be produced, making daylily hybridising a popular amateur hobby.  Because of the proliferation of varieties, those who want to try this for themselves should do a little research first and make sure the varieties they want to cross are not tetraploids with double the number of chromosomes (44 instead of 22) as these do not produce viable seed easily.

    Daylilies are amongst the easiest plants to cultivate in gardens and can survive in practically any climate except the very warmest, so no worries there then!  Daylilies will grow best in full sun although part or dappled shade will do.  Indeed plants with the darkest flowers are better in full sun as the colour will intensify.

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    Prior to planting, preparing the soil with a little organic matter will be beneficial.  Dig a hole large enough to accommodate the root system and tubers.  A spade or two of well-rotted manure at the bottom is as good as anything and plants will feed from it for years and require very little in the way of supplementary nourishment.  Moist but well drained soil is best although plants will adapt to all but the driest or most waterlogged soils.

    Daylilies are amongst the most trouble-free of garden perennials but it is worth knowing about the most common pests or diseases.  Daylily rust, a coppery orange powdery substance, can disfigure leaves but it usually does not persist.  It can be treated with a systemic fungicide.

    A new pest and one that has reached Shropshire is Hemerocallis gall midge.  The tiny white fly deposits its eggs on young flowers where the larvae eat the developing flowers causing them to distort and drop off.  There is nothing to do but pick off the affected buds and burn them.

    Daylilies are also amongst the easiest plants to propagate in the garden.  Simple division with a sharp spade when dormant will suffice.  What many people don’t know, or often encounter, are small plantlets that are sometimes produced on the flowering stem.  These don’t always form roots except in a wet summer but they can be detached towards the end of the summer, before autumn, and put in a glass of water.  Treated like a cutting they will be a copy of the mother plant.

    By and large all daylilies experience some level of dormancy whether they are completely deciduous or only lose some of their foliage.  The removal of old foliage in late winter will keep the plant healthy and prevent diseases or pests from re-infecting plants when the new growth emerges.

    Ross Underwood

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    Hodnet Hall Gardens
  • A Little Bit Of TLC Goes A Long Way

    By on June 22, 2015

    The passing of the longest day is a key event for plants. They recognise that day length has reached its apogee which is a spur to blooming. Right now there are many early summer perennials that are at their peak and others which need some care and attention. It may seem odd to talk about cutting things back but doing just that can reinvigorate some perennials.

    Early flowering geraniums such as Geranium phaeum and it’s cultivars can be susceptible to powdery mildew when the weather turns dry so once they have done their stuff, cut everything back! Feed, water and mulch with a little compost (which can be simply spent compost from early potted bulb displays) and the new foliage should emerge stronger and healthier.

    Another perennial which benefits from similar treatment is Papaver orientale and it’s cultivars. These perennial poppies have large blowsy flowers which seem to be made of tissue paper. I like to grow the outstanding scarlet red ‘Beauty of Livermere’ or the white ‘Royal Wedding’. The disadvantage to such large flowers is that they can be damaged by wind and rain. As the flowers fade the foliage can become a little withered, so unless you wish to collect seed, cut the whole plant back and it will respond with fresh foliage.
    Regrettably neither of the plants mentioned will re-bloom so it makes sense to grow something which will cover the gap.


    Palaver Beauty of Livermere

    Whilst they are blooming it is always good to seek out good partners. Geranium phaeum can be grown in shade
    and makes a good partner for the bolder leaved Hostas, blooming as it does, before they do. However it is also tough enough to be grown in long grass or on the wilder edges where it makes a pretty partner for cow parsley.
    Bold flowers require bold partners and few are bolder than Papaver ‘Beauty of Livermere’. I like to team it with purple alliums and the acid green of a summer flowering euphorbia like Euphorbia cornigera.

    Euphorbia cornigera

    Euphorbia cornigera

    Now is also the time to do something about those potted bulb displays which brightened up spring. Tulips, Narcissus and Hyacinths are storing food for next year, the foliage withering. The bulbs can be allowed to dry out now and stored for replanting next year or planted in the garden to flower again in spring.

    It is not all hard work though. One of the most exciting opportunities is bringing out temporary summer displays in pots or baskets. I like to grow fuchsias in pots which help make the garden more welcoming. One of my favourites is ‘Celia Smedley’ a hardy upright growing bush fuchsia. It is not too late to root your own cuttings to pot up for next year. A little bit of TLC now will reap rewards later!

    Ross Underwood

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    Hodnet Hall Gardens
  • Spring Greens and Other Colours

    By on May 19, 2015

    May is the best month to go to gardens boasting collections of rhododendrons and admire their many forms and flower colours.

    Rhododendrons have suffered a fall in popularity over the last few years.  Many people have been of the opinion that this was because they could not be accommodated in smaller gardens. However, if we look beyond the common hybrids there is a rhodo out there for everyone.  Many of the species and cultivars have attractive foliage with either silver backed leaves or leaves marbled with brown hairy indumentum as well as attractive bark.

    Azaleas, members of the rhododendron family, make excellent garden plants.  Many cultivars are deciduous and have the added bonus of scented flowers and autumn colour.  They come in a wide range of colours from the pure white of ‘Persil’ to pinks and the bright yellows of R. luteum.



    Of course this is only my opinion and you are free to disregard it but in a family as large as rhododendron there is one out there for every size of garden that can provide the right conditions.  Indeed rhodos are very accommodating, needing only moist acidic soil with good humus content and some shade.  We all want our plants to perform for as long as possible but if we have an eye for the subtle, and the energy to seek out nurseries and growers growing more specialist plants and be adventurous enough to try them, then we can all enhance our gardens.

    There are more things happening.  One of the stars of these months are tulips which impart a touch of elegance to any garden.  I like ‘Queen of the Night’ which has shiny satin black flowers or yellow ‘West Point’. If you prefer something more exciting try ‘Mickey Mouse’…I’ll leave you to imagine what it looks like!  We all need to think of filling the gaps left by spring build displays. My pick would be dahlias. They come either as tubers, rooted cuttings or in pots. They will make 3-5 ft of flowering growth in a season. North of Birmingham, planting should be left until June or until all signs of frost has passed. Dahlias like plenty of organic matter so work some manure or compost and fertiliser (or all three) into the planting hole and bury the cutting or tuber just below the surface. My tip is to stake at the time of planting not later when you risk damaging roots or tubers.

    Euphorbias are coming into their own, displaying acid green or yellow bracts. My own favourite is E. palustris which works well in damp soil and has good autumn colour before it dies back.  We grow it next to the purple foliage of astilbes to provide succession and Maianthemum racemosa ( a mouth-full I know) but this false Solomon’s Seal has a scent to die for. There is a euphorbia for even more gardens than there are rhododendrons!

    If you have long grass or borders with retentive soil you could do better than planting some Camassias in the autumn. These hardy bulbs are native to North America where they inhabit moist meadows and woodland edges. From a base of foliage long spikes of blue or white star shaped flowers are thrown up in May/June rising to approximately 2 feet.



    Finally, my top tip for this time of year is to keep hoeing in fine weather, it will save a lot of work later!

    Ross Underwood

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    Hodnet Hall Gardens