Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Garden Gatecrashers

I have been digging up dandelions with roots like tree trunks and I have come to the conclusion that dandelions are the glitter of the weed world. When we are children, glitter is fun and we scatter it hither and thither. Then we grow up. Suddenly a fleck of glitter becomes a source of irritation and we realise that one fabulous fling with the sparkly stuff over Christmas will still be haunting us in mid-July.

Once upon a time I loved dandelions. They were an unending source of food and fun (unending being the operative word). When we weren’t feeding the leaves to any pet showing a slight inclination towards them, we were aiding the propagation of dandelions (as if they needed it) by blowing on dandelion clocks as a means of finding out the time. How often we needed to know the time! 

I am ashamed to admit that once I was the parent in charge of cutting and sticking, I swiftly replaced tubes of glitter with glitter glue, which still managed to adhere itself to the end of my nose all day long making me look a tad less professional that I might have liked, but at least it didn’t turn up unbidden on the sofa in the height of summer. Even worse, my children were discouraged from using dandelions as time pieces as I explained rather dryly about them being weeds. What a miserable parent. 

Now I am wondering where my love for dandelions went. Let’s face it, they might be considered attractive; they are valuable to pollinating insects; they have pretty seed heads; they are robust; they add year-round interest; they are rich in nutritional value; they make a handy, if unreliable time piece; and children love them. If this were the description of a border plant, we would all be chomping at the bit to grow Taraxacum officinale.

My new year’s resolution is to learn to love my weeds. It’s a tough task in the case of the dandelion, but as I try to dislodge those almighty tap roots from between two bricks (how do they always do that?) I am discovering a grudging respect for them. Learning to love, or at least respect my weeds is making the issue of tackling them less fraught. Whether you view weeds as a challenge; a mildly irritating addition to your long list of gardening tasks; or an overwhelming threat requiring you to rush indoors and put on the kettle (not as a mode of weed control, but because we Brits like a cup of tea in a crisis) in the words of Arnold Schwarzenegger, they “will be back”. After all, one year's seed is seven years' weeds and while you might not dream of allowing a single weed to set seed in your garden, your neighbour might be less than vigilant in the weeding department. Then there is the messy issue of seeds dispersed by birds, like bramble. 

Ah blackberries.... there is so much to love about the humble bramble! Shocking as it might sound, there are weeds about which I actively do nothing (this is my kind of activity). Take nettles, I know they can be a pain, but I always like to keep a few patches for butterflies along with a lovely clump of thistles. I adore thistles! A wayward thistle is easy enough to weed out, but when the thistle patch is smothered in butterflies, it is a joy to behold. It doesn’t stop there (the tidier gardeners among you may wish to lie down at this point). I leave thistles to seed so that they can be swooped upon by marauding finches. 

I live in the countryside and my thistle patch upsets no one. I would not necessarily encourage thistles everywhere and while I am learning to love my weeds, I am always mindful that there are some weeds which mustn’t be ignored. Some of them call for immediate action and official notification depending upon where you live. Thankfully the majority of weeds don’t fall into this category and it is this group of garden gatecrashers which I have this year resolved to love or respect.... or at least to stop calling them rude names.

Of course, weeds shouldn't be too much of a problem until they start into active growth in spring, so I am hoping to be able to stick to my resolution until at least the end of January.

Wishing you a very happy new year. May all your gardens flourish and may all your pests be little ones. Oh... that doesn’t work. Happy new year anyway.

All the photos are of weeds I loved in my garden last year.... and a dandelion. 

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Border Rebellion

Would you believe it? There are still bees bumbling about in the garden and brave butterflies are being buffeted by the autumn wind. Has nobody told them that it is mid-November in rural England?

Centaurea montana 'Alba'
I garden with wildlife in mind and spend time selecting plants so that my garden can offer year-round food sources just in case a passing creature should find itself in need of refreshment. This year, in spite of all of my painstaking planning, the plants have thrown the rule book out of the window and have decided that mid-November is the time to strut their stuff. It's a fabulous party of flowers which never usually meet. Eryngium, Chaenomeles - even spring-flowering forget-me-nots have all forgotten their slot in the gardening calendar and are joining in the fun. If they hang on a bit longer, we may discover Delphinium and snowdrops having a ball.

Astrantia major 'Venice'
To post photos of every last one of this merry band of rebels might lead to you being confronted by the longest post in the history of the blogosphere, so you will doubtless be mightily relieved to learn that I am only going to show you a small selection from this mutinous and beautiful bunch.

Cerinthe major
In the annual department, we have been enjoying Cerinthe major since March. March! For the price of a packet of seeds! Other exceptional performers which don’t know when to stop are Echium vulgare 'Blue Bedder', Cosmos bipinnatus 'Purity' and Nicotiana langsdorffii. I planted Nicotiana langsdorffii in the most windswept, inhospitable corner of the garden and it stood proud and unstaked all through summer. It remains unblemished by autumn and if we don’t get a frost soon, I suspect it might keep going into winter.

Nicotiana langsdorffii 
Of the climbers, the honeysuckles have lost all sense of timing and are continuing to bloom. Good old Lonicera x brownii ‘Dropmore Scarlet’, with its red trumpets blazing, is roaring across a rabbit fence to a family reunion with its quiet winter-flowering cousin Lonicera fragrantissima.

Lonicera fragrantissima
The flowering shrubs are showing unprecendented tenacity. Most of the Hydrangeas are sporting their lovely brown papery flower heads now, but half of the Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’ plants are still in flower, with some starting to take on that tinge of pink we see as they go over. 

Hydrangea paniculata 'Limelight'
Lavandula x intermedia 'Sussex' is still throwing out new flowering stems, while Choisya ternata is showing immense confidence in British winters with masses of buds waiting to come into flower alongside the blooms which are already out. Flower buds on Cistus and Helianthemum are valiantly unfurling while in the shops, Slade are belting out "Merry Christmas Everybody". Then there are the roses. Although a number of rose cultivars flower until November, Rosa 'Rose Ball' has really impressed me. It is blooming beautifully and the flowers are holding well, with only slight damage to their outer petals, despite strong winds and rain.

Rosa 'Rose Ball'
Summer-flowering perennials appear to be blissfully unaware that they are a fortnight away from being two seasons out of season. Echinops is a real bee magnet and it is still producing new flower buds. Lamium maculatum, both 'White Nancy' and 'Beacon Silver' are blooming, as is a Delphinium! My hardy Geranium collection grows by the year which is no surprise since there are so many to choose from and we have been enjoying flowers since late spring. I could have photographed any one of six cultivars in the garden today. This one is the reliable and very beautiful 'Rozanne'. 

Geranium 'Rozanne'
I suspect that this might be my favourite ever autumn. There are seed heads and berries for the birds; pollinators have more flowers than I could have ever planned for; and frost is a distant memory.

Echinops ritro
My gratitude goes to the weather for providing a mixture of sunny and rainy shots. Special thanks go to the wind for the fuzzy photos and to the temperature for convincing the flowers that it is June. Let's face it, if you were an Echinops, would you go to the trouble of throwing out a new flower spike if you sensed frost? Without you, beautiful English weather, this post might never have been written. Thank you. 

Echium vulgare 'Blue Bedder'

I am linking this post to Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day which is hosted by May Dreams Gardens. I am now going to grab myself a warm drink and read about what is happening in gardens around the planet. Why not put on the kettle and pop over to http://www.maydreamsgardens.com/ and see what’s happening in other gardeners’ gardens? 

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Bottoms up Bees!

There are people on this planet who are always prepared for every eventuality. They have wrapped bottles and chocolates under their Christmas tree waiting for unexpected guests and a drawer filled with every conceivable type of card ready to commemorate any event requiring stationery. Sadly I am not one of these people. The sight of a bottle under the tree has me reaching for the corkscrew and I seem incapable of leaving a shop with chocolates still in their wrappers, since shopping is one of the most snack-inducing chores on my long festive to-do list. As for cards, if I write one, I rarely have a stamp, so my good wishes sit forlornly on the postage pile for months on end.

Happily, pollinating insects do not require celebratory stationery and their chosen source of refreshment is not top of my snack chart (although I am unable to resist nibbling Hemerocallis flowers which is a bit embarrassing on garden visits). Since there are plenty of plants which aren't Hemerocallis, I am in with a very solid chance of being prepared for pollinating visitors; and bulbs are a massive help when it comes to having refreshments ready for any early arrivals.

Iris reticulata
Top of the earlies at Le Grys Farm has to be Crocus tommasinianus. Last year I planted a little crocus lawn and on a sunny day in February, I sat on a bench and watched bees tipsily plunging head first into the blooms. Bottoms up my dear friends. 

This year I will be planting more Crocus tommasinianus and they will all be sited close to benches to entice me to sit down and enjoy offering the bees this little hospitality. 

Another flower which saw bee action earlier this year was Tulipa clusiana 'Peppermint Stick'. The outside of its petals are rose-red, edged in white and they open to reveal glorious pure white inner petals. The flowers last very well and it is a joy to have them in the garden, so I will certainly be adding more to the borders this autumn.

Iris reticulata is a late winter bulb which I wouldn’t wish to be without. Two streams of them flank the path to the old farmhouse and although the foliage seems to elongate forever after flowering, they are planted among Geranium which quickly grow up and disguise the dying leaves. In summer, Iris hollandica punch through the Geranium plants. If you have never sat and sipped coffee while watching bees disappearing into these beautiful flowers, you need to get a batch of bulbs and grab a mug. It is one of life’s simpler pleasures and one which is truly worth experiencing. 

Of course, there are plenty of wonderful pollinator-friendly plants available in summer and one I love to see in the garden is Allium. Now is the time to plant the bulbs, not least because buying the plants in spring or early summer will cost a great deal more than a bag of bulbs.

I am always interested to hear about which plants are popular with bees on other gardeners' plots. It can present a garden-based shopping opportunity which is up there with bulb planting as one of my favourite gardening tasks. It certainly makes a very welcome break from the boredom of digging out the clay pan from hell. This seemingly typical clay pan has now mysteriously metamorphosed into the 6" deep concrete slab of a former farm building. Consequently, I am adapting to this alarming discovery by metamorphosing into Popeye. It's not quite the look I was hoping for.

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?