Still making a virtue of the virtual

Stay at home and tour the world: Part 2 South and North America

Welcome back to Weeds Roots & Leaves’ global garden tours. Today we’re visiting the Americas: south, central and north. There has been some debate at tour HQ (interesting how a pandemic amplifies one’s internal dialogue!) about whether North and South America are classed as one continent or two. Whilst researching this point I have read that before the Second World War the USA viewed them as a single continent, but now geographers worldwide treat them as separate continents. When I calculated the total number of continents visited on this tour (five) I adopted the latter approach.

Had this tour been real rather than virtual we would at this stage have embarked from the shores of New Zealand to cross the Pacific. The nearest body of water I can muster is a small pond. A few days ago rustling sounds emanating from the dense thicket of hard rush (Juncus inflexus) at one end of the pond and a faint series of croaks hinted at the return of amphibian life to the garden. On Easter Sunday I saw two frogs luxuriating in the cool water and the warmth of the spring sunshine. Once this dry spell of weather comes to an end they will no doubt have an endless supply of snails and slugs on which to predate.

We find the first two plants from the New World in Brazil. I first saw bog sage (Salvia uligonosa) in the gardens of the Palace of Versailles on a visit last August. It was the unusual shade of blue that attracted me: light but not insipid. Fringing parterres near the palace, their height (1.5m to 2m) and profusion of flowers made an impact. Last October one of the gardeners at Osterley gave me a portion of a plant which had recently been divided telling me it was quite tender and would need to be under cover in the winter. I have been checking the specimen regularly and until this weekend it would have been an exaggeration to say it was thriving but this weekend I was relieved to find a couple of fresh stems emerging at its base. Once the threat of frost has passed at the end of April I shall plant it in a sunny spot next to its close relatives, natives of the next country on the itinerary, Mexico, in what I have decided to call the ‘Salvia Bed’, in homage to Kew’s splendid Salvia Border.

I cannot leave Brazil without taking a look at Verbena bonariensis. This too I first saw at a grand palace: Blenheim in Oxfordshire. It was probably 20 years ago and at that time these tall slender stems topped by purple flowered ‘cymes’* swaying above lower growing species were an unusual sight. Since then this has become a very popular choice for providing height without bulk in a planting scheme. It is elegant, takes up little room at its base and is easy to grow. Its geographical range is from Brazil to Argentina: indeed its alternative species epithet is V. patagonica. Although it self-seeds quite freely, I’ve always found it does so in appropriate places. Flowering from mid-summer to early autumn, it has to be one of the hardest working herbaceous perennials in the garden. Furthermore the seedheads can be left untrimmed over winter for structure and interest.

Leaving South America, our route leads us beyond Central America to the North American continent, first stop Mexico. There are three Mexican plants in this section of the tour, all introduced to my garden from the gardens at Osterley. Yesterday I planted the sage relative, pakaha or pitcher sage (Lepechinia hastata), in the Sage Bed after a winter’s protection in the upright cold-frame next to the kitchen window. Were I to adopt airs and graces I could call this a mini greenhouse, but in my opinion to qualify as a greenhouse it must be possible to open the door and step inside. Until I can find a way to miraculously expand the garden to accomodate such a structure, this two shelf solution is wonderfully useful: more later. A mature specimen of this sub-shrub can grow to 1.5m bearing spikes of tubular purple-magenta flowers in late summer. Its felty grey-green leaves are spear-shaped, or ‘hastate’, from the Latin ‘hasta’, meaning a spear. When rubbed, the leaves have an intense fragrance, like a rich blend of essential oils. Judging by the number of stock photographs featuring visiting bees, the flowers will be attractive to pollinators.

I recently planted up a Dahlia tuber into a container but have no idea what colour its flowers will be. It came from last year’s scheme in one of the potager style beds in Osterley’s Tudor Walled Garden which means it could be a deep wine red, vivid scarlet or the very pale pinky beige shade the fashion pages refer to as ‘nude’. A good place to see a spectacular Dahlia display in late summer is in the asymmetric walled garden at Kelmarsh Hall in Northants. Let’s hope the current crisis will have eased by August and September when I anticipate there’ll be a frenzy of garden visiting. In the meantime we shall have to settle for virtual tours such as this.

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Dahlias in the Walled Garden at Kelmarsh Hall

I’ve no wish to mimic one of those tour operators promoting hotels which on arrival turn out to be half built, so I confess here that the next Mexican plant has yet to germinate. I sowed the flat papery seeds of the cup and saucer plant (Cobaea scandens) approximately a fortnight ago, having harvested them from a fruit of one of the specimens trained up the hazel pole pergola which is the centrepiece of the quadrant of beds in the Tudor Walled Garden at Osterley. I had left the fruit on the kitchen windowsill for months, fearing it might go mushy and mouldy, but it dried perfectly and when opened, revealed dozens of seeds neatly stacked inside its four chambers. I understand the seeds need bottom heat to germinate and fear they may not reach the requisite temperature. But it’s too soon to give up and I would be thrilled to grow one of these vigorous climbers from seed. The large flowers can be cream or mauve and do indeed resemble a cup resting on a saucer. A prolific example of the plant grows at the base of the down spiral staircase in the central section of Kew’s Temperate House (diagonally opposite the Tree Ferns). While clearly at home in that protected environment, at Osterley it flowers well into a cool and rainy autumn, until finally seen off by a frost.

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Cobaea scandens, the cup and saucer vine at NT Osterley House & Gardens

Following the spine of mountains northwards from the Sierra Madre to the Rockies, leads us to the home of that versatile ground cover plant, Heuchera. Coming from rocky woodland sites, in my garden it thrives in the ‘Woodland Area’ and alongside Cyclamen hederifolium in a large terracotta pot beside the garden gate. The beauty of Heucheras lies chiefly in their foliage, with wide variations in leaf margins and colour. Leaves range from deep mahogany (H. ‘Palace Purple’), through a lime green cultivar to my favourite, the roundly lobed leaves of which are shaded apple green fading towards the centre to a silvery white, intersected with burgundy veining. I touch wood as I write this, but I have not known these specimens to suffer vine weevil larval damage, a common problem for this group of plants causing the entire upper structure to part company with the roots when the pest has munched through the stem.

I grow another North American ground cover plant, Tellima grandiflora, which comes from cool moist woodland from Alaska to California. Like Heuchera it grows in a low rosette and carries its flowers above the plant on slim stems.

Before leaving the Americas, I should mention that I have joined the dig for victory brigade and am growing two crops introduced to Europe from the New World. Tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum) and potatoes (Solanum tuberosum), both members of the nightshade family. The tomato seedlings are doing well in the tall cold frame having sprouted their first non-seed leaves and I’m growing the potato variety ‘Charlotte’.  I’m experimenting with new kinds of container for both crops and shall explain more in a future post.

In my small garden alone it’s been striking while planning this itinerary to discover how many of the plants in my garden come from Asia or the Americas. But the time has come to travel east across the Atlantic to Europe. And I haven’t forgotten the promised side trip to Africa. I look forward to welcoming you to the third and final part of the tour.

*As in Part 1 of the tour I thought it would be helpful to include a drawing showing some differing flower forms.

cyme umbel drawing

Making a virtue of the virtual

Stay at home and tour the world: Part 1 Asia and New Zealand

Join me today for the first leg of a round the world tour. In case you’re thinking that Weeds Roots & Leaves didn’t receive the email about staying at home, this tour, like so many of our activities during this period of lockdown, is virtual. The itinerary covers the Far East, South and North America, New Zealand and Europe. There is even an optional side trip to sub-Saharan Africa.

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One of the many joys of a visit to Kew Gardens is reading the country of origin of the plants in Kew’s vast living collection. The distinctive black labels with their indented white lettering include not only the botanical and sometimes the common name of the plant, but the country or region from which it comes. For example, in the Davies Alpine House you might see a wild tulip (Tulipa sylvestris) from southern Spain planted between a gentian from the Alps and Ipheion, a member of the onion family from South America.

With Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew out of bounds it occurred to me that a botanical Cook’s tour is still available even closer to home, in my own back garden. Many of our classic garden plants are not native to these shores. The plant hunters of yesteryear braved inhospitable terrain across the globe discovering new species of plants, some of which were found to have horticultural merit and now grace our gardens. I have calculated that on this tour of a plot measuring 5m x 8m you will encounter species from six continents. So pack your virtual bags and be prepared for some surprises en route. The first part of the tour is predominantly centred in Asia emphasising the influence plants from that continent have had on our gardens.

From western China comes Sarcococca confusa with its elegant narrow evergreen leaves and the shiny black berries which in late autumn succeed the cream flowers the scent of which give the plants its common name of sweet box. I planted this small shrub about a year ago having been given a well established cutting by a client in my street. It seems happy in a semi shaded position. A new plant to the garden and one first found in China and Japan, is Daphne odora ‘Rebecca’ which I bought in the Kew plant shop a couple of months ago. It is still in flower with its waxy, intensely perfumed pink blooms that to my mind throw all other winter-scented into a cocked hat. The fragrance is fresh yet intense, sweet but with a hint of citrus. The light margins to the leaves attracted me to this plant since I anticipate they will lighten a shady area long after the flowers fade.

Until researching the itinerary for this tour I confess to not having given a lot of thought to the provenance of the ice plant (Hylotelephium spectabile) but I find that this too hails from China and Korea. At this time of year the fleshy young leaves form a dense crown low to the ground. By late summer bright pink star-shaped flowers in flat clusters or umbels will be attracting bees and other pollinators. I always leave the flowerheads over winter for structure in the garden.

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Hylotelephium spectabile

Notwithstanding the second part of its name (the species epithet) Pieris Japonica originated in eastern China and Taiwan. My specimen is at least 20 years old and has occupied the same large container for much of that time. When I first moved here in 1992 I created a very small pond in a sunken plastic half barrel. That has since been replaced with a larger rectangular pond stacked with bricks at one end to aid access for the annual influx of frogs. I repurposed the original container to house this handsome plant. Growing Pieris in a container makes it easier to top up with ericaceous compost each year. The soil in the rest of the garden is neutral. I think Pieris is at its best now with the new growth emerging in vivid pinks and reds and the lily of the valley like flowers spilling forth in generous clusters.

Planted side by side are two more plants linked to Japan but the first of which the textbooks indicate is of garden origin: the white form of Anemone japonica ‘Honorine Jobert’ which will flower in late summer. The other is Japanese quince, Chaenomeles japonica which I am training against the fenceThe flowers of this are a deep peachy pink and have been going strong for a good couple of months.

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Chaenomeles japonica

You can see the buds developing plumply in the Wisteria planted in the far right-hand corner of the garden. This popular climber is an import from China, Korea and Japan. About two months ago I spent several hours pruning back the spurs to two shiny scaled buds and eliminating any long bud-free stems which escaped the autumn trimming back. Close examination of the spurs reveals those brown scales being forced outwards to reveal the emerging flowerheads. Over the course of this week I have seen the latter increasing in girth and length. By the end of April the garden will be suffused with the perfume I most closely associate with the month of April and the fence, which in this part of the garden tends to look a little bare in the winter, will be clothed with delicate pale green leaves and blowsy racemes of lilac flowers.

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Wisteria in bud on 30 March 2020
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Wisteria in bloom on 14 April 2020

The next stop on our itinerary is in the wooded foothills of the Himalayas from where hails the most hard working shrub in my garden, Skimmia. My cultivar is S. confusa ‘Kew Green’ named I assume for its colour rather than the pretty open space and cricket pitch that lies on the south side of Kew Bridge between the South Circular Road (A205) and the Elizabeth Gate entrance to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. This shrub has been poised to flower since before Christmas. The tiny individual flowers densely packed into what botanists call a ‘panicle’*, were firmly closed until recently in a shade of cream that reminds me of Cornish ice cream, but last week’s warmth encouraged many of them to open. This cultivar is said to tolerate full sun, unlike most other Skimmias. However I moved it from a very sunny bed into its present shady position about 18 months ago because the leaves were yellowing and it wasn’t thriving. Since the move it has doubled in girth and its dark green leaves are shiny and healthy.

The other Himalayan native is Sorbaria sorbifolia which I featured in a blog post last year. Its ferny leaves are now emerging in shades ranging from pink to chartreuse.

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Sorbaria sorbifolia

Before we journey to the Antipodes there are a couple more Asian plants in the garden. Both herbaceous perennials, the first is Thalictrum delavayii from Tibet and western China. Its dainty cup-shaped mauve flowers with contrasting yellow stamens held on slender but surprisingly strong 1.5m stems will emerge in June. In the meantime the prettily shaped blue/green leaves are developing into a tidy mound at the edge of what I grandly call the woodland garden, which centres around the only tree in the garden, of which more when we return to Europe in the third part of this tour.

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Thalictrum delavayii

The rear of the woodland garden is occupied by a favourite plant, Epimedium x versicolor. This is effectively a non-shrubby evergreen and when not in flower it retains its interest via the heart-shaped leaves with a prominent drip tip held about 50cm from the ground. As these mature they take on a reddish tinge. The frothy lemon flowers in March and April tend to be hidden by the older slightly leathery leaves which is why a fortnight ago I cut back the leaves to display the flowers to best advantage.

Australasia is represented by only one plant in the garden which was new to me until last year when I was researching suitable trailing plants for window boxes and hanging baskets. Muehlenbeckia complexa  is commonly called New Zealand wire vine and I like it as an alternative to ivy in container arrangements to soften the sides of the container. It has small dark green disc-shaped leaves arranged along fine but strong purplish stems. This is essentially a climbing or creeping shrub, and because garden designers recommend introducing small-leaved plants into smaller gardens to create an impression of space, I have planted the vine in a sunny position near the end of the garden where it is beginning to disguise the boards of the fence. According to my RHS A-Z Encyclopaedia of Garden Plants, in summer M. complexa bears ‘greenish white flowers in racemes* 2.5cm-3cm long, followed by fleshy white fruits 5mm across’.

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Muehlenbeckia complexa New Zealand Wire Vine

In my two next posts I shall resume our tour, when we travel to the Americas and Europe, to find two kinds of sage, a plant resembling a cup and saucer and an elegant plant named after a very wise man.

 

 

*Gardening, like other professions and pastimes, has its fair share of jargon and I thought it would be useful to include in your tour documents an extract from Brian Capon’s ‘Botany for Gardeners’ (ISBN: 9780881926552) showing the distinction between a raceme and a panicle. 

Capon

 

Clean, Calm and Camellia

Camellia oil? It sounds like a luxurious product I should be applying to my face after a hard day’s gardening. But it’s my precious hand tools which will benefit from a treatment with Niwaki’s Camellia Oil. Made with oil from the cold-pressed seeds of Camellia oleifera, it is a traditional Japanese method to protect tools from rust.

I first heard about Niwaki when Jake Hobson addressed the Kew Mutual Improvement Society in December 2017 on ‘The Art of Creative Pruning’. Jake’s artistic approach to shaping shrubs reflects his origins as a sculptor, and his work combines both Japanese influences and traditional topiary techniques. I recall inspiring images of the extraordinary topiary garden at Levens Hall in Cumbria and cloud-pruning both here and in Japan. In addition to his creative pruning activities, Jake Hobson co-founded Niwaki which supplies Japanese garden and kitchen equipment with an emphasis on cutting tools and accessories. When I started Weeds Roots & Leaves 18 months ago I invested in a pair of the company’s hedging shears which are light, very sharp and are supplied in a substantial leather holster. They have been invaluable when shaping and maintaining large yew and Cotoneaster dammeri specimens in two of my client’s gardens.

I chatted to a company representative on the Niwaki stand at last week’s Garden Press Event at the Business Design Centre in Islington. I asked if I could hold and weigh in my hand the Hori Hori, which translates from Japanese as ‘dig dig’. This narrow, asymmetrically bladed trowel is very versatile and I can see how useful it must be for tackling long rooted weeds (I’m thinking bindweed, both ‘hedge’ and ‘field’) as well as for planting bulbs.

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The Hori Hori

The tool was on sale at the shop located next to the exit of the sculptor Antony Gormley’s exhibition at The Royal Academy last autumn. It somehow didn’t feel incongruous to see this elegantly designed garden tool displayed in such a venue, particularly in conjunction with a show where many of the exhibits were executed in steel. After all, designer William Morris famously wrote ‘If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.’

At the event last week, as well as the Hori Hori, I admired some rather more expensive implements which were hand-forged, the blacksmith’s hammer marks being clearly visible on the intriguingly shaped Japanese trowel and axe. As I left the stand I was given a ‘Crean Mate eraser’ with which to clean rust and sap from my hand tools. I tried it the other day on my secateurs and as the images show it is very effective. The gently abrasive block can be dipped in water or Camellia oil before being rubbed across the area to be cleaned. I used water but have now bought a 100ml bottle of the oil with which to protect the secateurs (and the shears mentioned above) in between gardening sessions.

In my recent blogs I’ve commented on how mild the weather has been this winter and I can see that the buds on the camellias currently in flower in local front gardens and along Camellia Walk in Kew Gardens are undamaged by frost. They have unfurled into perfect blooms, without the browned petal edges which can occur in severe winters when the buds are subjected to very cold conditions.

I included the word ‘calm’ in the heading to this blog not only for alliteration (and a rather laboured pun on the title of Culture Club’s hit single in 1983), but because the good old cuppa is made from the leaves of another species of camellia, C. sinensis. Amidst the current uncertainties, when a cup of ‘Rosie Lee’ helps us to keep calm and carry on, it’s comforting to know that the cup that cheers is another product of this useful and beautiful genus of plants.

Capital embellishment

I can still see them, bound in scarlet leatherette with gold embossed lettering, the three volumes of the Reader’s Digest Encyclopaedic Dictionary, which my father bought when I was about ten years’ old. They were kept in pride of place in the book case in the sitting room. Unlike the flimsy paged dictionaries in the school library, these felt rather luxurious and many entries were accompanied by small black and white line drawings which were perfect for tracing, and I illustrated several school projects with squares of greaseproof paper showing smudgy images of cocoa pods or Elizabethan costumes. But the pages I seemed to return to most often were those showing architectural features. Here I learnt to distinguish a Norman arch from a Gothic arch, a buttress from a gargoyle. And here I first learnt the three basic classical orders of architecture from a drawing of the capitals of antique columns. First the austere Doric style, then the moustachioed Ionic and finally the flamboyant Corinthian.

Outings to country houses and a few archaeological sights, notably the Forum in Rome and Jerash in the north of Jordan, provided examples of the types of capital. But many years passed before I connected the elaborate ‘Acanthus Scroll’ of the Corinthian capital with a plant that grows in British gardens: Acanthus mollis, commonly known as bear’s breeches.

Before spreading a mulch of shredded horse manure on a client’s flower beds last week, I made sure I wasn’t suffocating the crowns of any precious herbaceous perennials emerging from their winter dormancy. Gleaming in some rare sunshine, I found the glossy dark green leaves of A. mollis. There have been few frosts this winter in this area, and this was in a very sheltered town garden, so the leaves have already grown quite large. Late last year I cut back the spent leaves and distinctive flower spires measuring up to one metre in length on which are stacked curved pinkish bracts (resembling the bears’ breeches which give the plant its common name) protecting white two-lipped flowers. This is no modest plant content to blend into the background, but an extrovert of a specimen strong in both design and structure.

It’s easy to see why the ancients chose the architectural form of its leaves to decorate their buildings. But the plant wasn’t just used as architectural inspiration. In Claire Ryley’s ‘Roman Gardens and their Plants’ (ISBN 0-904973-16-6) I read that both A. mollis and A. spinosus were used by the Romans to line paths in formal gardens. The leaves of A. spinosus are more deeply lobed than those of A. mollis and each lobe has a sharply toothed outline. According to Claire Ryley the cooked roots of both species were applied as a poultice to burns and sprains as well as being used to treat gout and prevent hair loss.

Acanthus leaf decoration can be found in the National Trust’s Osterley House, where as regular readers know, I volunteer in the garden each Friday. In the late eighteenth century the house was modernised by Robert Adam. The Tudor building was transformed into a sophisticated grand mansion in the classical style. Adam’s designs reflected the latest discoveries. of the ancient world which he had seen for himself during a tour of Europe from 1754 to 1758. When I went inside the house for the recent ‘Treasures of Osterley’ exhibition I didn’t have to look far to find Acanthus leaves used in elaborate wall and ceiling plasterwork mouldings and on marble fireplace surrounds.

Thanks to those red bound volumes published in the 1970s, I still admire Corinthian columns with their leafy capitals as these photographs taken over the last year or so testify.

I was disappointed this morning when I inspected the A. mollis in my garden to find that the broad shiny leaves seem to be peppered with the first signs of the disease to which the plant is prone, powdery mildew. No doubt the frequent heavy rain of the last several weeks has spread the spores of the mildew from leaf to leaf. My strategy will be to remove the affected leaves, allowing unaffected leaves from beneath to unfurl comfortably. At least two millennia have passed since the Greeks and Romans chose Acanthus leaves to decorate their homes, public buildings and temples, and I am happy to report that with or without powdery mildew, it remains a handsome plant.

TLAs, DMCs and AGMs

During a recent meal with friends I learnt a new Three Letter Acronym (TLA): DMC or Deep & Meaningful Conversation. And it struck me that like most activities, gardening has its fair share of TLAs, about which there may well have been some DMCs.

So before we all go MIA (Missing in Action) for the Christmas and New Year festivities, I thought I’d share a few of the obvious horticultural TLAs. When it comes to late winter  we can lavish much TLC (Tender Loving Care) on our gardens with an application of WRM (Well Rotted Manure). When pruning mature shrubs we should be using the mantra DDD (Dead, Diseased, Dying).  I would argue that useful as this is as a guide, it doesn’t include the reminder to eliminate those crossing branches which rub together, potentially creating a site for disease to enter.

Having prepared the garden to withstand the winter, during any quieter times ahead we can plan new planting schemes, perhaps inspired by a gardening book received as a Christmas gift. One of my favourite sources of ideas for combining shrubs with herbaceous perennials, is ‘The Creative Shrub Garden’* by Andy McIndoe published by Timber Press. The book groups garden styles and colour combinations, with the shrub suggestions supplemented by ideas for complementary herbaceous perennials or grasses. There are also expanded schemes for larger gardens. I heard Andy McIndoe speak at a lecture a couple of years ago hosted by the Kew Mutual Improvement Society (KMIS): a FLA? His enthusiasm for his garden in Hampshire and practical approach was infectious and inspiring.

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Many of the cultivars listed in my now well-thumbed copy of the book bear the epithet AGM indicating that they have been awarded the Award of Garden Merit by the RHS (Royal Horticultural Society). This means the RHS has trialled the plant in question and that it fulfils certain criteria including that it is ‘excellent for ordinary use in appropriate conditions’, ‘of good constitution’ ‘stable in form and colour’ and reasonably resistant to pests and diseases (PADs?). It must also be available which of course makes perfect sense as there would be little point in bestowing the honour upon a plant no-one can get hold of. I have read that if for some reason it is not practical to trial a plant, the RHS might award the AGM after a roundtable assessment by a forum of horticultural experts who debate its characteristics and garden performance.

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I recently planted climbers in a couple of clients’ gardens, and each plant bore the reassuring AGM suffix. One was Trachelospermum jasminoides AGM, commonly known as Star Jasmine or Confederate Jasmine. I see from the nursery label that it has recently been renamed Rhynchospermum jasminoides. This perfumed white flowered evergreen ticks so many boxes in terms of being a good ‘doer’ for clothing a fence or wall. It needs some support whilst getting established, either on a trellis or strainer wire, but in due course it thickens up and supports itself and I have seen it entirely framing a friend’s back door.

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Trachelospermum jasminoides AGM planted in October 2019 supported on newly installed strainer wires.

The other AGM  climber I used was Clematis ‘Ernest Markham’ AGM whose flowers are described as velvety crimson-red on the RHS website. It looks unremarkable at the moment but I hope to see it in flower in the client’s garden in early to late summer.

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Clematis ‘Ernest Markham’ AGM

My client with the cottage style garden full of unusual shrubs (which I wrote about in a recent post entitled The Generous Gardener), told me a couple of weeks ago that she plans to plant an AGM shrub this coming year which she read about in the December issue of The Garden (page 82), Heptacodium miconiodes AGM. The common name of this autumn flowering tree is the wonderfully evocative ‘seven son flower tree’, which hints at its origins in China. This is another plant with fragrant white flowers and I understand they are very attractive to bees.  Pink bracts remain when its flowers fade, lengthening the season of interest well into the autumn.

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Heptacodium miconioides AGM

No doubt there are many more TLAs applicable to or peculiar to horticulture and I am now on the look out for some more to add to my list. Before I start my quest, I wish you a happy Christmas and a successful and satisfying start to the new decade.

*ISBN 978-1-60469-434-5

Plug in meadow

It began with a simple enquiry from my ‘client in the country’ (in fact my niece!) asking if I could recommend a supplier of meadow plants in plug form. A quick Google search led me to Crocus’s collection of ‘wildflowers for a stronger colour meadow display’, perfect for the south facing site with very little shade. It was agreed that I order the plants and bring them to plant on my next visit which was in the first week of November. The collection arrived in less than a week in a neat cardboard box containing 104 perfect little wildflower plants, in a black plastic tray divided into egg-cup sized plugs.

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The 13 species were arranged in clearly labelled rows of eight, each plant being well established with a substantial root system.

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The weather was thankfully dry and bright on the morning of planting, enabling me to mow the grass as short as possible before marking out the 4 metre x 5 metre site with short lengths of bamboo cane. Crocus’s instruction sheet advised a density of five plants per square metre, grouping the smaller plants in fives and the larger specimens in threes. The rain of the previous couple of weeks had softened the clay soil satisfactorily, making it relatively easy to dig the tiny pockets into which to deposit the plugs. As I inched my way around the grid, I was glad of the integrated knee-pads, just one of the many practical features of my investment purchase this autumn, Genus gardening trousers.

 

I had company during the whole process: my niece’s three hens: two feather-footed bantams and a very inquisitive ranger. I did my best to dissuade them from grubbing up the newly installed plugs by heeling them in as firmly as possible. Reports from Somerset indicate that I have been largely successful although said niece has had to re-plant a couple of the plugs after the hens’ excavating activities.

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The final stage of the project is to rake the seeds of Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor) onto the plot so as to suppress the vigorous lawn grass. Yellow Rattle semi-parasitises the grass and is said to almost halve a lawn’s vigour once established.

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Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor)

The list of specimens reads like the edited highlights of my Collins’ guide to ‘Wild Flowers of Britain and Europe’.

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It features meadow specimens in predominantly yellow, blue and pink shades, for example Cowslips (Primula veris), Harebells (Campanula rotundifolia) and Maiden Pinks (Dianthus deltoides). The client is keen that the flowers attract bees and butterflies to the garden and most of the plants featured in the collection are rich in nectar. The pale blue flowers of Chicory (Cichorium intybus) are visited by bees and hoverflies and the brighter blue flowers of the wonderfully named Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare) lure both bees and Painted Lady Butterflies. Dusk should be a fascinating time in this little patch of meadow next summer judging by the several moth species mentioned on the labels: Northern Rustic Moths are partial to Cowslips and Harebells and two of the plants attract their namesakes. For example, Yellow Toadflax (Linaria vulgaris) is pollinated by the Toadflax Pug Moth and Ragged Robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi) by the Lychnis Moth. Another bee magnet is the Oxeye Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) whose white flowers on one metre stems should stand out beautifully when the meadow area becomes established.

The mint family is represented by two of the plants in the collection, violet blue Wild Clary (Salvia verbenaca) and pink Betony (Stachys officinalis).

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Betony (Stachys officinalis)

I love the old fashioned names of these and all the wildflowers featured in the list and am so looking forward to seeing this little patch of meadow develop in the next couple of years. I shall report back next summer with a progress report and some photographs of my own. Those I have used to illustrate the various species I have found on the web and cannot claim the credit for these beautiful images.

Clockwise from top left hand corner: Ragged Robin, Wild Clary, Cowslip, Oxeye Daisy, Heartsease, Chicory, Harebell, Maiden Pink, Lesser Knapweed, Red Campion, Yellow Toadflax, Viper’s Bugloss.

 

 

The Generous Garden(er)

‘I describe it as a generous garden’, my new client explained earlier this year when showing me around her garden before engaging me to assist with seasonal maintenance tasks as and when needed. The long slim plot behind a Victorian terraced cottage was brimful of treasures when I first saw it at the beginning of May and vegetation was thrusting out of every available inch of soil. At every turn along the narrow lawn between deep curved edge borders I spied interesting plants- to one side a statuesque tree peony and the Euonymus alatus or Spindle Tree. And on the other side: large stands of Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Fascination’ and Acanthus mollis (Bear’s Breeches). The overall effect was punctuated by light purple dabs of Honesty flowers (Lunaria annua).

A keen and knowledgeable gardener, my client has loving maintained this extraordinarily productive space for more than three decades. She attributes its ‘generosity’ to regular and liberal applications of well-rotted manure and garden compost. These have contributed to a deep layer of humus rich soil, teeming with earthworms. An open aspect, unimpeded by mature trees in neighbouring gardens, and an irrigation system snaking across all the borders, also play their part. Unlike more recently planted gardens where the black irrigation pipes can look quite unsightly lying on the surface of the soil, these pipes are hidden amidst the undergrowth.

Inevitably uninvited guests presume on the garden’s generous hospitality. One morning last week I removed at least a dozen substantial plants of Green Alkanet (Pentaglossis sempervirens), those Borage relatives which masquerade so convincingly as Foxgloves until the last minute when their forget-me not blue flowers emerge. By this stage their deep roots have secured a toehold at least six inches beneath the ground, rendering them tricky to extricate from surrounding growth without snapping. Like Dandelion removal, it is all the more satisfying when the root emerges intact. Fortunately the recent rains and a fundamentally sandy soil mean that in this garden this is a relatively easy task.

More welcome guests I have seen whilst working in this garden are robins and blackbirds and last week a vividly green-plumaged Rose-ringed Parakeet roosted for several minutes on a branch a few metres from where I was working.

During one of my May visits one job was to tidy the three chunky clumps of Liriope muscari near the rear of the garden. I stripped away last year’s browning leaves from the healthy dark green strappy leaves into which they were embedded. It was a joy to discover that the garden had repaid my earlier efforts with a stunning display of bright purple flower spikes, a sumptuous foil for the orange, yellow and scarlet flowers of the hugely overgrown and soon to be grubbed up Nasturtiums which had escaped from a neighbouring bed and overrun the sunny paved area at the rear of the site.

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Liriope muscari

Beyond this paving is a deep border backed by a brick wall which I cleared of spent tomato and runner bean plants, as well as several suckers of the Stag’s Horn Sumach (Rhus typhina). My client tells me this spectacular tree was itself a blow-in from a nearby garden. The same border also houses a fair sized peach tree which is ideally placed in its due south-facing location.

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Golden dahlias in the foreground of the Stag’s Horn Sumach in its autumn glory
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The client often sends me home with a bunch of beautiful Dahlias

In another client’s garden, that adjective ‘generous’ crops up again, this time applied to a David Austin climbing rose which I recently pruned and then trained against the fence, having first installed three rows of strainer wire. ‘The Generous Gardener’ (the definite article is part of the name) is described in David Austin’s catalogue as ‘a rose of delicate charm with beautifully formed flowers…a soft glowing pink at the centre, shading to palest pink on the outer petals…when open, the numerous stamens create an almost waterlily-like effect’. Judging by the girth of some of its lower stems this rose was planted many years ago and had, as often happens, grown into the habit of reaching skywards with few flowers below a height of a couple of metres. The time had come to fan out the stems against the fence, and by encouraging them in a near horizontal direction, to produce flowers as far down to the base of the plant as possible.

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Generous she may be but in her mature years this rose has developed some serious thorns and both pruning and training proved challenging. But now that I have started the taming process, I am optimistic that next summer the promised perfume of ‘Old Rose, musk and myrrh’ will fill the courtyard garden rather than evaporating into the branches of the neighbouring garden’s trees. Some yers ago I gave this rose to a friend as a present and earlier this year helped her to support it with a hastily lashed together trellis of bamboo canes. I anticipate this proved a flimsy solution and have made a mental note to ask after The Generous Gardener and check that the extravagant horticulturist of the rose world has not exceeded her brief and attempted a takeover of my friend’s garden.

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