Cutbacks and Restructuring

No, not financial restraints or a cabinet reshuffle, but the theme of most of the jobs I’m doing at this time of year. Before spring arrives in earnest it’s time to cut back herbaceous perennials, prune most roses and some species of shrubs, and restructure woody climbers or old shrubs needing renovation.

Recent cutbacks in my garden have been directed at the Japanese anemones and Hylotelephium (formerly Sedum). Using well-sharpened secateurs is essential, to avoid damaging the new growth already emerging from the crown of the plant at ground level. I support the vogue for keeping last year’s herbaceous perennials for as long as possible, particularly those with distinctive silhouettes, so as to provide structure in the garden in winter.  When Jack Frost visits, he deposits an icy halo around their seedheads or spent flowerheads and outlines any remaining leaves with a silver rim. Although in the mild winter we’ve had to date in south-west London, there have been few icy mornings, meaning fewer frosty photo opportunities and, thankfully, less windscreen scraping.

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Symphyotrichum (formerly Aster) in the Cutting Garden at Osterley on 7 February 2020 

In the Cutting Garden at Osterley, we have taken the name of the garden literally on February Fridays, by cutting to ground level the rows and rows of stems which didn’t make it last year into the 65 floral arrangements created for the house every week in spring, summer and early autumn.

We loaded barrow after barrow with sheaths of Verbena bonariensis, Shasta daisies (Leucanthemum x superbum), Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Fascination’, Echinops, Echinacea and Rudbeckia. In what might be deemed a botanical restructure by taxonomists, another of the plants we cut back, Michaelmas daisies,  have been reassigned from the genus Aster to the genus Symphyotrichum.

Among my gardening friends we generally agree that pruning is a favourite task. Not just because much of it can be done standing up, avoiding muddy knees and sore lower backs, but also because when done well, it results in a well-formed plant which enhances the overall appearance of a garden. For myself, I also enjoy the precision involved in identifying the stems to remove, i.e. those that are dead, diseased or dying (‘DDD‘), and those to shorten to an outward facing bud, ensuring the cut is angled downwards to avoid water resting on the bud. I even find chopping the cut branches and stems into smaller pieces to fit in the garden refuse sack satisfying. A fortnight ago I applied this treatment to the Wisteria which grows against the rear fence of my garden, cutting back the stems to a series of nobbly clusters bearing pairs of shiny black buds from which the flowers will appear in April.

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A recently pruned climbing rose framing a view of the cutback Cutting Garden

I wrote last winter about the benefits of training or restructuring climbing roses or rambler roses so as to bring stems as close to the horizontal as possible. This encourages bud break along the stems, resulting in more flowers at eye height and below. Left unchecked, roses grow upwards to find as much light as they can, giving the best view of their blooms to the birds and squirrels. To make this task more comfortable, I’ve invested in a pair of tough suede cuffed gauntlets and was very glad of them in a client’s garden last week when I tamed a very large and thorny climbing rose. Because ivy had entangled itself around the rose’s branches I had to remove as much of that as I could before pruning the rose and tying it into the trellis. One particularly stubborn section of ivy needed numerous cuts with the pruning saw before I was finally able to lift from the trellis post, Perseus style, a Medusa-like mass of several seasons’ growth of entwined woody stems.

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Perseus with the head of Medusa

Checking my diary for local gardening jobs scheduled for this week, I see that the cutbacks continue with herbaceous perennial trimming tomorrow and Hydrangea pruning later in the week.

Banks & Banking

In the spirit of stepping outside my comfort zone to do something I have not done before, I joined other volunteer gardeners at National Trust Osterley this summer to deliver guided tours of the gardens. Once, sometimes twice a week, two of us led a group of up to 15 visitors through gardens which reflect the history of the house, from its origins in Tudor times, through its elegant Robert Adam makeover in the eighteenth century to today’s innovations, pausing on the way to mention the garden’s role in the Second World War.

As the season changes and we plan to alter our itinerary to take in parts of the garden designed to look at their best in the winter and early spring, I invite you to join me in this post on a virtual early autumn walk through Osterley’s gardens. You start your tour at the rear of the house, at the top of the elegantly curving double staircase facing the park beyond the garden, which Henry James (a weekend guest at the house in the late nineteenth century) describes in the opening passages of his novella, ‘The Lesson of the Master’. The hero Paul Overt, a writer, stands in the same position and observes that the steps ‘descended from a great height in two arms, with a circular sweep of the most charming effect’. He also commented on ‘the expanse of beautiful brickwork that showed for pink rather than red and that had been kept clear of messy creepers by the law under which a woman with a rare complexion disdains a veil’. From this vantage point you can see a classic feature of an eighteenth century landscape garden: bucolic pastureland framed by specimen trees, the pasture grazed by the neighbouring tenant farmer’s Charollais cattle. Before the scene we see today was created, John Roque’s immensely detailed map of London of 1741 showed three avenues of trees radiating from both the front and back of the house. This device is known as a ‘patte d’oie’  or goosefoot. The avenues have long gone save for two oak trees which once formed part of one such avenue.

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The rear of the house and the double staircase
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The Charolais cattle

Trees feature throughout our tour. Let’s descend the steps and head to the shade of the Oriental Plane tree which was planted in 1755. One of my fellow guides describes this huge tree as a grand old lady resting on her elbows, a reference to the gnarled limbs which swoop down to the ground to shade the path to one side. Look up into the leaf canopy and spare a thought for we volunteer gardeners when over the next couple of months we shall sweep up and gather the leaves to deposit in the leaf pile on the boundary of the garden. In a couple of years time we shall use the ensuing leaf mould as a winter mulch to the beds and borders in the garden so as to maintain moisture and improve the texture of the soil.

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The Oriental Plane

Come with me now to ‘Dickie’s Border’, the symmetrically arranged three layered shrub border named after Dickie Denton, the last Head Gardener before the property was gifted to the National Trust in 1949. His nickname was ‘TickTock’ because he was tasked with winding the clock in the Stable Block each morning. In the middle layer of planting compare the red dimpled globular fruits of the Strawberry Trees (Arbutus unedo) with the developing catkins of the Silk Tassel Bushes (Garrya elliptica). A variegated form of Rhamnus alaternus is the third shrub at this level. Alternating Magnolia grandiflora and Loquat trees (Eriobotrya japonica) provide a dark evergreen backdrop, whilst at waist height you can see shrub roses, rosemary and the gold margined leaves of Daphne Odorata aureomarginata

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Dickie’s Border

Our next stop is Mrs Child’s Flower Garden where you have a perfect view of Robert Adam’s recently restored white stucco decorated Garden House which stands at the heart of the ranks of curved flowerbeds planted for spring and summer interest. Here tall Verbascum tower candelabra-like over Salvia sclarea, Maltese cross (Lychnis chalcedonica), Centaurea Montana to name only a few of the intriguing plants to be found in these beds.  The grounds here were used at the beginning of the Second World War for training the forerunners of the British Home Guard in guerrilla tactics and house to house fighting. Led by a left-wing writer, Tom Wintringham, they were described by MI5 as ‘the bunch of socialist revolutionaries at the end of the Piccadilly Line’ and soon afterwards the operation was closed down and the park used for food production as part of the war effort.

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The Garden House with Mrs Child’s Flower Garden to the right

As we walk towards our next stop please take a look at the four beautiful and unusual trees near the brick wall: Foxglove trees, Pawlonia tomentosa, and do mind your head on their low-hanging seed cases which develop from the spires of bluish mauve bell-shaped flowers which the trees bear in April. Other trees to note here include weeping limes and a Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) and nearest the path take a look at the unusually lobed leaves of the Sassafras albidum, whose roots flavour Root Beer, and which this week is glowing with a rainbow of autumn shades.

Let’s proceed to the Picking Garden, where the flowers are grown for the 65 floral arrangements which decorate the house each week. As well as several members of the Daisy family: Heleniums, Shasta daisies and Cosmos, you can also see a row of Pot Marigolds (Calendula). These are the symbol of Childs Bank, associated with the family which owned Osterley. The variety chosen this year is Calendula ‘Radio’. You can tell from its name that this is a modern cultivar. Whilst the species of plants in this part of the garden are era authentic and would have been available to an eighteenth century gardener, their cultivars tend to be more modern and are chosen for reliability and resilience to pests and diseases.

Now we move to the main section of the Tudor Walled Garden which is laid out into four large central beds. In the bed devoted to brassicas you can see the latest member of the garden team, Harry the Hawk, whose job it is to scare pigeons from the cabbages. The next two beds are planted potager style with both ornamental and edible plants and are designed to look at their best in late summer and early autumn. Dahlias feature strongly as do Cleome (the Spider Flower), gladioli and nicotiana. Chard and amaranthus provide the edible element of these beds and at the corners of the beds you can see pyramid shaped supports to which cling the deep purple morning glory, Ipomaea ‘Grandpa Ott’. In the centre of the beds look out for the tall Castor Oil plants, Ricinus communis,  with their spiky pink flowers and large hand-shaped leaves. This plant played a key role in a tale of international espionage from 1978 when the Bulgarian dissident Georgy Markov was murdered in London with an umbrella the tip of which contained a pellet of the deadly poison Ricin which is derived from this plant. The fourth bed is planted almost exclusively with vegetables and salads. At this late stage in the season the various beans have been harvested and their supports removed, but turnips and beetroot (both red and golden) abound as do aubergines and salad leaves.

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Harry the hawk scaring pigeons from the brassica bed
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Amaranthus, Spanish Flag, cannas, dahlias and the Shoofly plant in one of the mixed beds in the Tudor Walled Garden

Our virtual tour is almost over. I shall leave you at the far side of the walled garden, beside the Long Border and point out to you the enormous specimen of the climbing rose Rosa banksiae and ask you to imagine a curtain of pale yellow blooms in April: it is one of the earliest roses to flower. It is named for Joseph Banks, who accompanied Captain Cook on the Endeavour, and on his return advised George III on the creation of a botanic garden at Kew. There is a local connection too, as Banks lived at Spring Grove House about half a mile to the south of Osterley. What remains of his house now forms part of West Thames College. Before we part, consider this: the Osterley site was once slated as a possible site for a national exhibition centre. Thankfully a site near Birmingham was chosen for the NEC enabling us to enjoy the gardens as they exist today. Thank you for joining me today and do come back on another occasion to see the American Border and the Winter Garden.

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Salvia microphylla with fragrant scented leaves in the foreground with Euphorbia mellifera, the Honey Spurge and Stipa gigantea, Elephant Grass behind: the planting beside the last stop on the tour.

 

Sub-Lime

Step out onto any suburban street from mid June to early July and the pervading scent will be that of lime tree blossom. I do not mean the citrus  limes whose juice graces a Mojito cocktail. I’m referring to the flowers which, when dried, become the ’tilleul’ infusion popular in France. Before it became a familiar high street brand, no day trip to Calais or Boulogne was complete without a visit to L’Occitane to buy the delicately perfumed lime flower soap. These last couple of weeks the lime trees have been at the height of their intoxicating power, pumping forth the freshly sweet perfume which to me epitomises early summer.

Close examination reveals that the yellow green clusters hanging below the heart-shaped leaves of Tilia cordata (Small-leaved lime) and the roundly oval leaves of Tilia platyphyllos (Broad-leaved lime) consist of downward facing bunches of four or five stems. These are attached to a wing-shaped bract which aids seed dispersal and each stem terminates in a cluster of yellow pollen-tipped stamens surrounded by five outer sepals, the central core of each of which ripens into a small spherical fruit. The fruit or ‘nutlet’ as I have read it is called, is covered in fine down lending them a whitish grey appearance.

 

On warm days, lime tree flowers attract many pollinators, and an odd phenomenon has been observed with the Silver leaved lime, Tilia tomentosa, which is pollinated by honeybees. The trees’ nectar appears to have a narcotic effect on the bees, with dead or dying bees found under the trees each year. A team at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is investigating the issue and there is an interesting article on the Kew website entitled ‘Do Lime trees kill bees?’

I haven’t reported recently upon my Friday stints as a member of the team of garden volunteers at the National Trust’s Osterley Park. For the past two Fridays we have concentrated our efforts in the Tudor Walled Garden, preparing it for its annual colourful impact in late summer and early autumn. In fact, thanks to a myriad of self-sown poppies, two of the quadrant beds have exploded into sheets of mauve, pink and red. In the bed where the green manure was sown earlier this year, (see my blog from this March, Rolling along within the walls), the crimson clover blends beautifully with the poppies.

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Last week, in the bed closest to the gate leading to the gardener’s bothy, we planted a mixture of four Gladioli cultivars: Roma, Indian summer, Espresso and Purple Flora. I’m looking forward to seeing their blend of colours later this summer. Meanwhile, our colleague Tracey has worked tirelessly to sow, plant and harvest produce on the third bed. Where possible the rest of the team help her with weeding and some planting, as well as harvesting early crops for the coach house cafe. A gentle job I was assigned last week involved deadheading the sweet peas which grow up obelisks at the corner of the plots, the variety this year being ‘Beaujolais’. Removing the seed pods which develop so swiftly after the  flowers have faded encourages more flowers by preventing the plant from expending energy on seed production.

 

Whilst weeding the edge of one of the plots we found two self-sown members of the Nightshade family, Solanaceae, to which potatoes, tomatoes and aubergines belong. The pioneers we found are the Shoofly plant, Nicandra physaloides, and the Thornapple, Datura stramonium. We left the former in place as its pretty mauve flowers are attractive but the latter will be removed as it doesn’t form part of the planting scheme as well as being poisonous.

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Nicandra physaloides: the Shoofly plant

This Friday saw us working on the five round beds  alongside the wall which divides the Tudor Walled Garden from the picking garden (which is bursting with colourful flowers at the moment). A small fruit tree is planted in the centre of each round bed, and is underplanted for spring and early summer impact with Doronicum, Irises, Papaver somniferum (Opium poppies) and Love in a Mist (Nigella damascena). Sadly the plants have finished flowering and our task was to remove the poppies and Nigella (both annuals) and to reduce the iris leaves by 2/3rds and cut their flower stalks to ground level. We had an hour left in the afternoon to begin a similar task on the long border of the Tudor Walled Garden where a repeating planting scheme of Salvias, honey scented Honey spurge (Euphorbia mellifera), Plume poppy (Macleaya macrocarpa) and Foxtail lily, (Eremurus), is bestowed a sprinkling of gold dust by the shimmering stems and flowers of Elephant grass (Stipa gigantea).

 

Thinking of taller plants growing through lower growing plants, in my own garden I’ve been admiring the delicate yet long lasting flowers of Chinese meadow rue, Thalictrum delavayi, for about three weeks. At a height of about two metres they hover gracefully above the nearby Astrantia major ‘Abbey Road’, a burgundy Heuchera and Houttynia cordata. Like the small leaved lime mentioned above, another plant named for its heart-shaped leaves.