Friday, 12 September 2014

The Incredible Bulk

It is the time of year for hearty soups, comforting crumbles and the warm glow of smugness which comes from a newly propagated plant. I love stodgier, bulkier food as much as I love bulking up plant numbers in the borders, so without further ado I will grab the tools required: 2 spoons (one dessert; one soup) and a sharp knife and scurry headlong into autumn.



First under the knife is always lavender. I am currently planting out new borders with the grandchildren of the Old English lavender plants I introduced to the garden over a decade ago. I propagate lavender every autumn because not a year goes by without the garden screaming out for a new plant or sixteen. Lavandula x intermedia and Lavandula angustifolia clipped into shape just after flowering can look great for years, but I garden with wildlife in mind so even if just one new flower spike is thrown up in early autumn, the plant will remain unshorn. Anyone who has ever neglected lavender will know that it soon becomes woody and falls apart if it isn't clipped and if you have a wayward lawnmower which hungrily devours mammoth chunks out of the side of the shrub, you will be familiar with the astonishing speed at which fleshy young plants can age. 




It is a similar tale of woe for Salvia officinalis in our garden. I wouldn’t be without Salvia officinalis 'Purpurascens' in the mixed borders as it makes such a fab ever-purple foil to other plants. Consequently I grow a lot of sage and if I were to pick them all on a regular basis to keep them looking young and beautiful, we would have sage for breakfast, lunch, supper and all those little snacks in-between. Fortunately I don't feel any inclination to replace my usual chocolate snacks with anything sage-based, since sage isn't great at holding itself together when we let it flower. Bees love the blooms (as do I), so I prefer to enjoy the beautiful flowers and propagate replacement plants to wait in the wings for that moment when their predecessors fall unceremoniously apart. All of which gets me rather neatly out of eating industrial quantities of sage.

Sage as a backdrop to Nepeta
Although Agastache 'Summer Sunset' looks too washed-out for my taste, it has its uses, particularly where a full-on orange might be too much. Its scent is astonishingly moreish and every time I see this plant I can't resist a quick squeeze of its leaves. Agastache can be short-lived at the best of times and I suspect that my over-exuberant leaf crushing tendencies are doing little to further its existence in my garden, so I will be grabbing a few cuttings this week as an insurance policy. I only hope that I can keep my hands to myself for long enough to allow the new plants to root.  



There is plenty of information on the internet about how to propagate plants and there seems little point in adding to those voices apart from to say that I just pop Lavandula x intermedia cuttings in gritty compost in a pot in September or October and leave them to it. One year I got sidetracked and left the pots by the plants I had just taken the cuttings from and forgot about them. They did rather well. I suppose if the parent plant was happy there, why shouldn't their babies enjoy the site too?  



If you have never taken a cutting from a plant before, try it! It is a slightly addictive habit which can have excellent results and Lavandula x intermedia and Salvia officinalis are pretty straightforward and a great place to start. After all that constructive dibbling, you can reward yourself with a spot of brambling and a blackberry crumble doused with custard. Isn’t early autumn perfect?

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Trial, Corruption and A Few Good Plants

Gardeners are an optimistic bunch. If a crop or plant doesn't succeed in one growing season, we reason that we can always try again next year. Eventually, after another year (or years if stubbornness and tenacity are combined with our natural gardeners' optimism), we might decide to move on and when we do there is usually something new, more vigorous, sweeter, higher yielding, more floriferous, taller or more compact to try, all thanks to the huge amount of work involved in breeding, selecting and trialling plants.  



I had the immense pleasure of touring the Thompson and Morgan trial site last week. The remnants of Hurricane Bertha had swept across this secret location the day before and threw hail and thunder at us while we were there, yet the Delphinium looked splendid. These glorious Delphinium are from Terry Dowdeswell in New Zealand and they are strong growing, blackspot resistant and have well-spaced flowers. 



The site is home to an extensive collection of plants being trialled in containers. These include shrubs such as Buddleja 'Buzz' and Hydrangea paniculata ‘Sundae Fraise’ which look great in pots. Needless to say, this is a popular spot with butterflies.


I love Limonium vulgare. We see it growing in the dunes on the beaches in Norfolk and I grow it in the farmhouse borders. The problem for me is that it is so insignificant in the garden setting that it is easy to overlook. Limonium ‘Blue Velvet’ has none of these shrinking violet tendencies. It is beefy without looking as if it is pumped up with steroids and although it is a good house plant, it looks wonderful outdoors. I sincerely hope it makes it through the trials as it has been catapulted to the top of my wish list. 


The container plants at the trial site are given a liquid feed every other day. At the other extreme, those growing in the field are watered when they are planted and then left very much to their own devices. The field, with its rows of crops and flowers battling with the elements is more akin to the growing conditions in my garden, so naturally I was keen to discover how the plants there fared. The truth is that not all of them are happy, which is just as it should be, otherwise how would we gauge any improvements?



I am particularly partial to pea tips, so I would normally look upon a pea trial as a potential grazing opportunity, but since most of the peas were mildew-ridden, I was saved the embarrassment of being caught eating the trial. I wouldn't have minded some of ‘Terrain’ though, it stood out like a beacon of health in a swamp of mildew. The contrast between the plants was astonishing. 



Strangely enough, an ornamental carrot really got me drooling. The frothy burgundy flowers of Daucus carota ‘Dara’ added that intriguing combination of darkness of colour and lightness in form to the border.  Although it is ornamental it produces a white edible root, but since it is a carrot, the flowers ought to be attractive to pollinators so despite my unseemly drooling, I won't be pulling up the roots for lunch.



A plant which is definitely great for pollinators is Ageratum. I have spent the past few years feeling guilty that I don’t grow it as I sow only larger annuals. Ageratum houstonianum ‘Timeless Mixed’ which is new for 2015, is a taller version which means that I will be re-introducing Ageratum to my garden next year. It also makes a good cut flower, which will doubtless continue the Ageratum cycle of guilt when I steal stems from the pollinators to pop in a vase. 



On a happier note, Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Cupcakes’ is simply beautiful. Even a cake-shy coeliac like me will want to see these cupcakes in the garden in 2016. It is just a pity we will have to wait for so long. 



In the meantime, there are always tomatoes. In a blind taste test of five varieties, ‘sweet aperitif’ came out tops for me. It will certainly be making an appearance on my seed wish list for 2015.



During the evening after the tour, it became apparent that my camera and computer were no longer happy to communicate with one another. My camera card was corrupt and my lap top was having none of it, so I was left pictureless. My thanks go to Thompson and Morgan for supplying the wonderful photos in this post. Thank you too to Michael Perry, Kris Collins and Hannah Ashwell for a fascinating tour coupled with timely cups of tea and the sweetest of pink blueberries to nibble on. 

If you want to know more about Thompson and Morgan, they are at:
http://www.thompson-morgan.com/

If you want to read more about the day:

http://www.blackberrygarden.co.uk/2014/08/a-visit-to-thompson-and-morgan-trial.html
http://blog.plantpassion.co.uk/2014/08/great-new-cut-flower-varieties-at-the-thompson-and-morgan-trials-field.html
http://gardenerinnit.wordpress.com/2014/08/18/my-first-attempt-at-this-blogging-malarkey/
http://hoehoegrow.blogspot.co.uk/
http://vegplotting.blogspot.co.uk/


Friday, 27 June 2014

Dame Judi Dench and the Great Garden Conundrum

When is a garden not a garden? It might sound like the set-up to a very bad joke, but it is a question I have been chewing over ever since I decided to undertake a major overhaul of my compacted soil by hand (a tiring and tedious task which gives me biceps of iron and too much time to think). Usually boredom costs the earth because I have a tendency to daydream and my reveries are inevitably expensive. This time though, I haven't had a chance to ponder ideas of massive mortgage-sized proportions and for this we must thank Dame Judi Dench. 



I took the photo above in Norwich. Is it a garden? It looks and smells like one, but if you peer beyond the carefully crafted borders and behind the willow hurdles you will glimpse reality.

It is a film set. The lawns in the Norwich Cathedral Cloisters were remodelled for Tulip Fever with Dame Judi Dench, Christoph Waltz and Cara Delevingne. So is this a garden? Many of us grow plants in pots. Often these plants are temporarily sited and were we to suffer from indecision and a surplus of spare time, they could be moved every day of the year. So is a container garden a garden? How different are the temporary plant arrangements in the Cathedral Cloisters from those pots of half-hardy annuals we plop into borders to plug a gap?

It is intriguing to experience the effect that a garden/film set can have on a place. Certainly the Cloisters felt more romantic, which is just as well since Tulip Fever is a romance. It is set in the seventeenth century, so leaf blowers are out and draw-droppingly beautiful props are in.   

Isn't it strange how some gardening paraphernalia is a delight? Lengths of hosepipe hissing hither and thither do not fill my heart with joy. The number of Chelsea Flower Show gardens with hosepipes strewn across them this year was shocking. Tickets aren’t cheap and visitors deserve better. Yes, I know plants need water, but a few years ago, when I was allowed entry prior to opening, I saw gardens being watered before the paying public arrived.  

I do not have a problem with the act of watering plants during the show. A person with a watering can constitutes the ever-delightful gardener gardening which viewing gardeners love to see. It is less intrusive as the person will be out of the picture in under a minute and it is encouraging to see a designer taking care of the plants. Here, Luciano Giubbilei with his watering can and a cloth for spillages gives his lupins a drink in his gold medal-winning, Best in Show garden. He really did mop up after himself, taking garden care to a new level (if indeed a show garden is in fact a garden). 



Which brings me back to my original question. Naturally, I sought help from The Oxford English Dictionary. I don’t want to bore you with long definitions, so you will doubtless be relieved to learn that The OED defines a garden as "A piece of ground adjoining a house, used for growing flowers, fruit, or vegetables."
Brilliant! So if that area in front of your house, commonly known as your front garden, is laid to lawn with the occasional tree, it is not a garden since trees and lawns have no part to play in The OED’s definition! Strangely enough, the Tulip Fever set fulfils more of The OED's requirements of a garden than the tree/lawn combination. I wish the people at The Oxford English Dictionary would pull their fingers out and find us a decent definition of a garden to get our teeth into. In the meantime, I am going to chew up the noun, embrace the verb and get out into this...

Is it a garden? It has a handful of flowers, fruit and veg and adjoins a house, so according to The OED it is! Plenty of words spring to mind when I look at it, but garden isn't one of them. It's time I got back to digging out the claypan from hell and started daydreaming...

Friday, 13 June 2014

Garden Rebels

When I was a teenager, a boy told me that I was a rebel. I must have been doing something wondrously hair-raising at the time, like playing Karate Champ under the influence of half a bar of chocolate and a bag of chewy sweets, but the words struck a chord. I rather fancied myself as a rebel in spite of a gaping absence of anything to actually rebel against. If only I had gardened in my teens, I would have found conventions aplenty against which to mount a rebellion.


I have just moved into a new office and with me came 200 or so precious gardening books. As I lovingly arranged them on shelves, I reread excerpts (the probable cause of my lack of blog posts of late) and realised how laden with rules these tomes are; and what are rules for? Exactly. 



Of course, any act of rebellion against conventional wisdom has to be well thought through. It would be folly to fly in the face of centuries of experience without knowledge. Leaves might yellow and plants could die, or at the other extreme, invasive species might take over and run amok through our borders and beyond. But if we intelligently question accepted wisdom, we stand a chance of experiencing the wonderfully exhilarating buzz of rebellion whenever we veer away from best practice (provided that everything goes swimmingly).  



Gardeners are a rebellious bunch. Just think of Christopher Lloyd’s use of colour at Great Dixter or the green walls we see adorning the sides of shops and hotels. This fascination with questioning best practice or fine taste can result in exciting strides away from convention and is one of the reasons why gardening can be so interesting. If we were to garden for a hundred years, we would still not know everything and if we did, some adventurous gardener would soon break with tradition and we would have to reconsider what we thought we knew. 


Until recently, we were advised to place broken crocks at the bottom of our plant pots. Then those rebels at Which? Gardening questioned our plant pot heritage and trialled plants with and without crocks in their pots and guess what? Nothing terrible happened to their Million Bells Trailing Yellow plants without those magical crocks and to cut a long scientific story short, we are now advised not to pop crocks in pots. 



This places the rebels in the gardening community uncomfortably on the horns of a dilemma. It is all very well to say that no crocks is the new crocks, but in order to rebel, clarity is required. How can we fly in the face of convention when convention keeps changing its face? On a selfish note, I have no issues with crocks since I have used recycled polystyrene in pots for years. It may do little for my perched water table, but I like it because it is light and it fills big containers cheaply. I see no reason to change, which is potentially a problem in itself. Is this rebellion or a worrying new development? Perhaps I am not a rebel after all; I may simply have Belligerent Old Gardener Syndrome (BOGS). 



P.S. It is always exciting to learn about new ideas and I’m really interested to hear about how you break with gardening conventions. You never know, you may be saving a fellow gardener from BOGS.
and... 
We are seeing so many bees this summer! All the photos in this post were taken in the farmhouse garden where Geranium, Cirsium rivulare 'Atropurpureum', Knautia macedonica and even fading Allium hollandicum 'Purple Sensation' flowers are top bee magnets.