Willowy supports

I wrote earlier this year about the many different ways in which to support garden plants and trees. On 4 May I learnt how to build supports for herbaceous perennials using willow at a workshop organised by WGFA (Working for Gardeners Association) at the privately owned Dunsborough Park in Ripley, Surrey. WGFA was founded in 1899 as the Women’s Farm and Garden Association and one of its principal objects is to ‘promote, encourage and establish the opportunities to study and practice within the horticultural profession’.

Now I do like a long drive, I don’t mean a three hour slog along a motorway but a gracious tree-lined approach to an elegant house and garden! And Dunsborough Park didn’t disappoint, said drive beginning with four tall brick built gatehouses, topped with domes which wouldn’t look out of place in an adaptation of Wolf Hall.

Redbrick gatehouses

The drive itself seemed about quarter of a mile long and so many rabbits hopped along in front of the car I began to feel I was in a Disney movie! Arriving at a locked gate with an entry phone beside it I realised I’d used the wrong entrance, but thankfully one of the two full-time gardeners at the property, Oleg, kindly opened the gate for me. Apparently access to the garden on occasions such as this is via another entrance behind the High Street in Ripley. I clearly missed that email! Since 1997 Dunsborough Park has been owned by garden statuary dealer Dolf Sweerts de Landas Wyborgh and his wife Caroline. Antique sculptures abound throughout the garden. Even in the work yard where the gardeners’ bothy is located, a ferocious lion stands guard.

But we were there to learn the craft of willow plant support making, (where flexible willow and hazel stems are woven into domed structures through which tall herbaceous perennials can grow, eventually concealing the woody ‘cage’ beneath), not to swoon over our surroundings. We were a group of eight gardeners, all working in horticulture, from across the south of England. Head Gardener James Gillions and Oleg led us to the walled Dutch Garden for a demonstration before we were let loose to have a go at building the structures ourselves. With four slim coppiced willow branches already in situ above a clump of Delphinium, Oleg skilfully bent the pliable wood into a series of arches, at approximately chest height, using garden twine where necessary to secure the structure. He then wove the smaller branches and twigs together to form a rounded dome to prop up the stems of the plant. The finishing touch to the structure is a cat’s cradle fashioned from garden twine, about halfway up the poles for support as the plant grows upwards.

Demonstration over we were set to work in a double herbaceous border intersected by a path leading to the Dutch Garden on one side and to the door of a large Victorian greenhouse on the other. Named the Penelope Hobhouse borders, they were originally created by the eminent garden designer, their distinctive feature being standard Wisterias planted at regular intervals along the borders. Apparently the borders were replanted in 2005 with a blue and white colour scheme. Our task was to build supports for the delphiniums and peonies in the border, still low mounds of greenery in early May. Having picked out four suitable canes from a generous pile of pollarded willows harvested on the estate in February, before the emergence of the leaves, we used a heavy metal pin and sledgehammer to make holes deep enough to accomodate the canes. Given the extraordinarily dry April we’d had this wasn’t as easy as you might think. the soil at Dunsborough is very sandy and free draining but its looseness meant that if the hole wasn’t deep enough, the poles tended to spring out of the soil when you started to bend the stem across to meet the neighbouring pole. The art is to find the natural bending point in the wood. Bend at too sharp an angle and the wood splinters.

We worked in pairs for the first structure, working individually after lunch. I thoroughly enjoyed the process of making the structures, using the natural curves of the material to guide the direction of the arches and ultimate contours of the support. By the end of the afternoon the elegant borders were inhabited by a dozen or so creatures which James observed resembled Doctor Who monsters. For a few weeks, these will be features in their own right until the plants they’ve been build to prop up grow up and through them, disguising the skeletal forms beneath. It was notable how different each ‘cage’ looked, some interconnected to make up an organic series of supports for a particularly large clump of delphiniums. When in the autumn the plants in the border die back, and are cut down, our wooden cages will be removed, shredded and composted.

I tore around the garden at lunchtime to capture the last hurrah of the tulips, a magnificent water garden with a folly-topped bridge, numerous statues and the garden’s resident golden retriever cooling off in the dipping pool. The following photos give a flavour of this fascinating garden.

The Penelope Hobhouse borders

The tulips

The Water Garden

The statues

The box parterre

Gateways and arches

Greyhounds on guard

Dog in pond

Kew Gardens

23 May 2022

Support Act

In January, if I’m not spreading manure on my clients’ gardens, I’m installing strainer wire supports for climbing plants on fences and walls. It’s one of those jobs that’s easier in winter, when the borders are clearer and the subject to be supported will, if it’s deciduous, have shed its leaves. I bought a new drill last year, which has made this job much quicker and means that I can drill into cement posts which I couldn’t with my old Black & Decker drill (inherited from my Dad). Once I’ve drilled the holes, tapped in the rawlplugs (if I’m working with brick or cement) and screwed in the vine-eyes I do battle with the coil of wire! When I first started putting these supports up three years ago I got into horrible tangles trying to unravel the wire from the coil without creating kinks in the wrong places. I’ve now learnt to pay out the wire gradually and avoid this problem. My favourite part of the procedure is after fastening the wire to the vine-eyes when I tighten it by turning the vine-eye through 360 degrees using a screwdriver. It’s so satisfying when the line is good and taut. Depending on the height of the wall or fence I’m working on, I put up 3 or 4 tiers of supports: enough to provide plenty of options when tying in the climber or wall shrub.

With a climbing or rambling rose, my modus operandi is to train the branches horizontally along the wires, tying them in as I go and only then pruning the branches back to an outward facing bud. Last week I worked with two very large climbing roses which had been attached to stylish horizontal timber fencing but in a vertical direction meaning that the flowers had accumulated at or near the top of the rose, 2.5 to 3 metres from the ground. It took several hours and a return visit to finish the task but now these two roses should I hope flower at eye level. Both were English climbers from David Austin, one Rosa Wollerton Old Hall and the other Rosa Mortimer Sackler: the first pale apricot, the other light pink. In the David Austin catalogue, Wollerton Old Hall is described as having a ‘strong, warm myrrh fragrance’ with ‘intense hints of citrus’: sounds gorgeous. Hopefully my efforts mean that this summer the perfume is pumped back into the garden rather than wafting skywards.

Installing these supports has made me consider the myriad of methods used to control the plants in our gardens by either holding them up from the ground or back against a wall or fence. Here I share a few examples from gardens I’ve visited and from volunteering in the gardens at Osterley House. In no particular order, here they are.

Wall supports

In early December last year we garden volunteers cleared ivy from the brick wall between the Long Border in the Tudor Walled Garden and the American Border. I noticed that a stretch of wall was studded with fixings for wire supports and Head Gardener Andy Eddy explained that the wall had once formed the backdrop of one of the Victorian glasshouses at the property which had been used to grow stoned fruits such as peaches and nectarines. The plants would have been trained against the wall onto wires arranged in closely spaced tiers. This was my first experience of using a tripod ladder and it felt so secure and steady in comparison with a stepladder, as well as being more manoeuvrable.

Hurdles

I saw these in use at both Great Dixter in East Sussex and at East Lambrook Manor Gardens in Somerset. These ‘Sussex hurdles’ measure H56 x W69 cm and resemble mini gates. They are used to support herbaceous perennials, preventing them from flopping onto and swamping other plants, or to prevent lawns and meadow areas from being walked on. In one of those moments of frugality I didn’t buy a hurdle from the nursery at Dixter, despite being tempted to do so and have put my name on a waiting list for one. They are made in the Great Barn there, from chestnut harvested on the estate.

Tree stakes

I usually install a single tree stake for small saplings, such as a Prunus Amonagowa I planted in a newly replanted local garden in November 2020. I wrap an adjustable black plastic tie around both tree and stake, ready to be let out once the trunk’s girth increases. I was very taken with this double staking method seen in the orchard beside the World Garden at RHS Hyde Hall in Essex. The tree looks sturdily supported and if the crop is anything to go by, the tree is very happy with the arrangement.

Apple tree at RHS Hyde Hall , October 2021

When I was in Kew Gardens today I was able to study the superstructure for the two huge stands of Wisteria growing in the northern end of the Gardens, between the Stone Pine and the Duke’s Garden. These are deliberately grown to eye level only, rather than on a taller support which means that you can see the flowers at close quarters in April, as well as appreciate their delicate fragrance. The plant’s sturdy branches are attached to cylindrical tree stakes measuring about a metre and a half, using buckled ‘belts’ which can be loosened or tightened as necessary.

Rose supports

Apart from the system I described above for training climbing and rambling roses against fences and walls, there are many different ways to support vigorous roses. I first saw the swag arrangement in Queen Mary’s Garden in The Regent’s Park, where tremendously thick ropes are swung from a wide circle of timber supports. It’s an absolute picture in June when it’s smothered in rambling roses. I saw a similar system, bare of flowers of course, in the Kitchen Garden at Chatsworth in November using a chunky chain rather than ropes. Another favourite of mine is the obelisk, which I’ve seen installed in varying heights in different gardens. Those punctuating the Broad Walk Borders at Kew Gardens are about three metres tall as are those I saw in the Rose Garden at Arundel Castle last April.

In my own garden I grow Rosa Blush Noisette against a wooden trellis and Rosa White Star around the timber support of a single arch. I attached strainer wire to each of the vertical planes of the post and each year I train the branches of the rose around the post in an anti-clockwise direction. Last year, in its third year, it reached the top of the post and I shall now encourage it along the archway.

At Osterley roses are grown against walls and on timber frames. Here is the rose trained onto the rear wall of the Garden House.

Metal supports formed into an arched tunnel were festooned in roses and clematis in Kate Stuart Smith’s garden at Serge Hill in Hertfordshire which I was lucky enough to visit last July. A metal archway is a relatively new feature at RHS Wisley, located near the old entrance into the garden.

In September dahlias are the main attraction in Sarah Raven’s garden at Perch Hill in East Sussex. It was an education to see the methods used to support the array of colours and forms of dahlia abounding in this garden which showcases many of the varieties in the inspirational catalogue. Although almost hidden by foliage I could just make out a timber framework constructed I believe from silver birch. In her book A Year Full of Flowers*, Sarah Raven devotes several pages in the April chapter to the structures used at Perch Hill, each constructed afresh every year. I also admired the cat’s cradle effect of string between coppiced branches in another part of the garden.

Talking of coppiced branches, I spotted this simple but very effective way to hold up lavender used along the driveway at North Hill Nurseries, the wonderful wholesale nursery near Chobham where I buy plants for my clients. A single pole is supported by shepherd’s crook style metal stakes at just the perfect height to prevent the shrub sprawling onto the grass.

In the last year or so I’ve discovered the merits of the half hoop metal support, the taller versions of which are very valuable for keeping exuberant perennials like Salvia Amistad in check. They are very versatile: for example, two can be arranged in a ring formation or a single hoop can be enough to separate one plant from another. They are not cheap though and I shall continue looking for the mythical versions a client told me were once stocked at an excellent price by Wilko!

My final images are a miscellany of sui generis solutions to unique scenarios. V-topped struts support a limb of an ancient lime tree at Great Dixter. A massive banana plant in the Temperate House at Kew is held upright by strong wire encased in rubber tubing attached to very substantial wooden posts. And perhaps the ultimate in plant supports, the brickwork buttress for the trunk of the Pagoda tree (Styphnolobium japonicum) in Kew Gardens, the horizontal branches of which rest on metal stands.

I’ve omitted many, many other forms of plant support in this quick overview and can see this is a subject I shall revisit, as I collect more examples from my travels.

*ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 152662611X

Of scythes and sails

The absence of posts to this blog for a month has been preying on my mind. Other tasks took precedence in the form of gardening work both on site and on the page. On site because it’s mulching season meaning that some gardens in TW9 have been generous covered with a 5cm layer of shredded horse manure from Woodland Horticulture delivered from Somerset. And when not mulching I’ve been pruning wisteria and roses and preparing two gardens for re-planting projects scheduled for completion in the next fortnight. On the page because I was fortunate to be asked to update some pages for a commercial gardening website, the subject matter being garden pests and diseases.

And as if those tasks weren’t enough to fill my time, I’m now at the halfway point in an online course on the history of the English landscape garden through Oxford Continuing Education. This week we’ve been looking at three of the key gardens of the earlier part of the C18, Stowe, Studley Royal and Stourhead. But in fact it was another garden of the period that no longer exists in its 1730s incarnation that I want to share with you, or more specifically three charming paintings of the garden. Hartwell House near Amersham is now a luxury hotel and the current layout of the grounds dates from a later period. The garden was made in the mid 1730s by Sir Thomas Lee. When the garden was complete he commissioned Balthasar Nebot, a little-known Spanish painter, based in Covent Garden, to record his estate and garden.  This he did, portraying the estate workers and gardeners in great detail.

How little and yet how much has changed in the work of a gardener. We still collect weeds and grass clippings in a container, my turquoise plastic trug being the equivalent of the C18 gardener’s basket. In non-lockdown winters we still manoeuvre a roller over the vegetable garden beds at Osterley after mulching them with leaf mould. And we still clip yew hedges by hand using shears. 300 years may have passed but these simple tasks and tools connect us to the gardeners who have gone before us.

And during a passionate talk this week by head gardener Ben Preston of York Gate outside Leeds, I learnt that the use of scythes is not confined to 300 year old landscape paintings and Ross Poldark. The meadow at York Gate is cut by hand by Ben and his team. He explained that by cutting it by hand they can identify the areas where the grass grows thickest. The hay is cut into windrows and sent to a local community farm. Apparently Eastern European visitors to the garden comment that the sight of the hay meadow being cut by scythes reminds them of seeing their grandparents working on the land in a similar way.

Meadow at York Gate

Another element of the garden at York Gate chimed with the Hartwell paintings where clipped yew is used to such dramatic effect. At York Gate a line of yew ‘sails’ cuts through the garden forming both a focal point and a boundary with one of the many ‘garden rooms’. The garden is owned and run by the gardening charity Perennial and a friend who until a couple of years ago also volunteered at Osterley now volunteers in the York Gate shop. I’ve added this special garden to a growing list of gardens to visit.

The yew sails at York Gate

I shall leave you here as I have some course reading to finish about the glorious landscape at Stourhead in Wiltshire, a garden I HAVE visited. I went on a beautiful autumn day in November 2019. Stourhead is only a short drive off the A303, my route to and from my niece and her family in Somerset. It was such a glorious day that I made a detour on the drive home and immersed myself in the tranquil atmosphere of Stourhead, where classical temples reflect into the lake and, on the day of my visit, the scene was all the more beautiful because of the leaves changing colour. A classic image of the garden follows.

The Shearing of the Green

The season started with weeding an artificial lawn and has ended with a variety of lawn maintenance jobs. I was focussed on mowers and grass when I drafted this post while staying with my niece (otherwise known as my client in the country) as I had offered to cut the lawn of her largeish, squareish, south-facing Somerset garden. In fact, a combination of rain, dew and lack of time meant that I left without mowing the grass for her. Most of my jobs have involved lawn work in the last couple of weeks and I’ve also seen a couple of impressively pristine lawns, both with royal connections.

But before we get to pristine, let’s take a look at the other end of the greensward spectrum. With my Osterley volunteering colleague Andrea Blackie (ablackiegardendesign.co.uk) I carried out a thorough tidy-up of a large garden in Twickenham belonging to INS, a fantastic local charity which provides support for people with neurological conditions such as multiple sclerosis (MS), Parkinson’s disease (PD), and Stroke. The garden is usually maintained by a team of volunteers but like so many places the volunteering programme had to be suspended earlier this year because of Covid 19 and the garden had become rather overgrown. We weeded paths and raised beds and rationalised a number of containers whose contents had gone over. In the absence of a scythe , or a Ross Poldark lookalike to wield it, we used hand shears to cut back the tall grasses established across the L-shaped lawn and raked off the cut stalks and thatch. Then we shuffled our way across the plot on kneelers, removing as many of the coarse-leaved dandelions and low-crowned plantains as we could. Only then did Andrea run the electric mower over for an initial rough cut. With perfect timing, a tremendous thunderstorm crashed across TW2 within half an hour of our packing up for the day, and after steadyish rain for much of the following morning, when we returned 36 hours later for day two of the clear-up, the lawn had perked up and looked more green than brown. Andrea lowered the blades of the mower and cut the lawn once more and I followed with an application of Safelawn, which combines seed and feed, to repair the impoverished grass.

Before
After

On a subsequent visit we would like to scarify the lawn even more, remove any remaining weeds and give the lawn an autumn feed to put it in good heart for 2021. It’s never going to rival the Centre Court at Wimbledon, but with some further TLC it will make a lush foil for the deep border which runs the length of the garden. This is effectively a linear orchard of mature greengage, pear, apple and cherry trees (varieties unknown sadly) interspersed with shrubs such as Mahonia and underplanted with hellebores and Japanese anemones. The latter is a striking deep pink cultivar, revealed when we cut back a couple of wayward shrub branches.

Anemone japonica: cultivar unkown

It was fun collaborating with another gardener for the tidy-up project, and I was grateful not only for the shared labour and company but also the recommendation of Hebe ‘Mrs Winder’ to place in the concrete planters on either side of the main entrance. Although almost waist high, the actual planting depth of the containers was deceptively shallow and the Hebes should be less hungry than the previous incumbents, a couple of conical bay trees. I sourced the plants from the wholesale nursery near Chobham, North Hill Nurseries. It was my first visit since lockdown and I was glad to be there again impressed as always by the quality of the stock and the wide choice of cultivars available. I am usually very disciplined when I’m there and resist the temptation to deviate from my core list, but I confess that I did treat myself to a plant for the top right hand corner of my garden where I’ve twice failed with Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’. I succumbed to Caryopteris x clandonensis ‘Heavenly Blue’ with its fluffy sky blue flowers and dainty light green leaves. It looks very good in this position where it will continue the blue/mauve theme from the nearby honesty (Lunaria annua) and Wisteria.

Another purchase that day was a magnificent Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ which I planted in a large terracotta container in another client’s garden a week ago. I also gave the lawn there an autumn treatment, raking out the thatch and aerating (or spiking) it using the fork. I applied grass seed to a couple of bare patches which had developed and here again the rain gods obliged and provided a drenching as I was finishing the job.

I promised you pristine lawns at the beginning of this post. The first is in the centre of the turning circle outside the Elizabeth Gate entrance to Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. I’ve been monitoring it this spring and summer when running around Kew Green, fascinated by its perfection. Short, weedless, stripey: a textbook fine lawn. I’ve watched two kneeling gardeners excise any hint of a weed and I see from this image taken a few days ago that it has recently been spiked. Even the spacing of the holes is precise.

The turning circle at Elizabeth Gate
Aeration by the book

The next lawn has even stronger links with royalty. This striped sward lies within Windsor Castle which I visited at the end of August in order to see the East Terrace Gardens which have been opened to the public for the first time this year.

Within Windsor Castle

Although these rose gardens interspersed with antique bronze statues were beautifully elegant, I preferred the informality of The Moat Garden, adjacent to the Norman Tower of the castle which is the home of the Constable and Governor of Windsor Castle. A snaking red-tiled path runs alongside a border of interesting perennials leading to a rock garden containing a series of waterfalls. Along the way I was drawn towards Poets’ Corner, tucked to one side and lined with garden-themed quotations. The garden is maintained by volunteers and is open to visitors on August weekends.

The stripe maker

A quirky urn nestles beside the plume poppy Macleaya cordata ‘Flamingo’

Next time I leave lawns behind to visit Homeacres, the realm of the king of No Dig, Charles Dowding.

Colour Palettes and Wooden Pallets

One of the joys of the gradual easing of lockdown since June has been garden visiting. From The Newt in Somerset to Vann House in Surrey I’ve enjoyed several days off from a busy gardening schedule to explore some beautiful sites. At the start of August I went to The Savill Garden next to Windsor Great Park. Despite low clouds and fine rain my overall impression was of concentrations of vivid colours brightening dense ornamental woodland. Dazzling pinks and purples welcome you in the double borders leading from the visitor centre. Edged with pinky mauve Osteospermum, a block of warm pink Salvia microphylla is given an airy feel by clouds of Verbena bonariensis hovering overhead. Alongside are dark-leaved Dahlias bearing pom-pom flowers in puce, a shade which here looks better than it sounds. Puce is one of those words describing colour (heliotrope is another) which I associate with gloomy Victorian parlours.

In the Bog Garden I found more colour than I expected with the soft sky blue of bog sage (Salvia uligonosa) contrasting in both form and colour with the buttery yellow daisy flowers of Inula. I should mention that a welcome feature of this garden is the presence of plant labels. Spoilt by proximity to the world’s greatest botanic garden, I expect to find every plant clearly labelled in all gardens which are open to the public! But I accept the argument that whilst Kew is the repository of a priceless living collection of plants from across the world, the plants in many other gardens are to be enjoyed in their own right without a similar emphasis on identification.

The Summer Gardens consists of plantings of herbaceous perennials dedicated to individual colours. Some were vivid,  indeed ‘brash’ as the visitor map put it (yellows, reds, pinks) and some cooler (white and blue). Mauve Cleome blended with the furry pink tails of Sanguisorba and a tall stand of Phlox. 

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In the blue border, alongside dainty Salvia ‘So Cool Blue’  with its almost black stems, I found a plant I’ve not heard of before, the blue lace flower, Trachymene coerulea. I mistook it at first as a form of Scabious, due to its plump lavender blue pin cushion flowerheads atop stiff stems. But the scale of the flowerhead (up to 5cm) prompted me to find the label. The RHS A-Z Encyclopaedia of Plants informs me that the plant is an annual or biennial from Western Australia, long-lasting when cut. The flowerheads are composed of tubular flowers which flare out into clusters of five petalled stars studded with anthers bearing white pollen, all supported by a claw of narrow sepals reminiscent of the setting for a large gemmed ring.

Echinacea purpurea ‘Virgin’ contributed its pearly white flowers to the green and white of another border, to one side of which Thalictrum ‘Splendide White’ was thrown into relief by the dark yew of an adjoining hedge. The mass of cup-shaped flowers resembled a 3m high swarm of white bees.

In another border red was represented by scarlet Dahlias with dark foliage (one of the bishop cultivars perhaps?), fronted by a profusion of red daisies which might be Echinacea ‘Hot Papaya’ although I cannot be sure as I failed to note the plant label.

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That area of The Savill Garden called Summer Wood hosts a wonderful collection of Hydrangeas in muted pastels, a contrast to the primary colours of the Summer Gardens. There’s an excellent plant shop in the Visitor Centre where I bought a Bog Sage to use as a stock plant from which to take half a dozen stem cuttings. A week has passed and the cuttings remain perky, so I am keeping my fingers crossed for a success propagation. When they have taken and grown larger I shall pot them on ready to be planted out in a moist part of a garden next year.

On 7 August I did my third session this summer at Osterley on a day when the temperature reached 36.4% at Heathrow Airport 4 miles to the west. Gardener Ed thoughtfully deployed us to weed the shady cobbled courtyard outside the Study Base. After lunch we worked under the awnings over the tables outside the bothy, tidying the pots of plants stacked in the nursery area.

On the subject of propagation, at home this summer I have created a couple of shelving areas for young plants where they have grown enough to leave the protection of the glazed vertical cold frame which I use like a mini greenhouse in the summer months, leaving the lid permanently raised to ensure plenty of ventilation. The new shelves are simply upended wooden pallets: one from a bulk delivery of shredded horse manure in February and the other kindly donated by clients who were glad to find a home for it. Not only that but they drove it over to me when it was far too wide to fit in my car. I’ve attached the pallets to the outside of the fence where it faces east to the alley between my end of terrace house and the neighbouring terrace. Barely 15 cm deep they take up very little space and have created additional space just outside the garden.

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I shall sign off with an image of the garden itself from a week or so ago, showing a palette of blue, white, pink and purple.

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In the Dock

Last Friday, after an absence of 127 days, I returned to volunteer in the garden at Osterley House. My last session was in early March when we spent the day in the sunshine clearing brambles from the margin of the Middle Lake.

Bramble clearing on 6 March 2020

In the photographs I took that day I see that the rosemary in the borders at the rear of the house was in full bloom, the grey green foliage complementing the clear blue flowers with their prominent lower petals. In the Cutting Garden I photographed the Anemone coronaria ‘St Brigid’s Series’ against a chrome yellow backdrop of daffodils. Little did I know when I took these images it would be four months until I was in the garden again.

Anemone coronaria ‘St Brigid’s Series’
Rosemary

It felt so good to be back, another step nearer normality in the gradual easing of lockdown. Naturally a new normal has had to be established. Flasks of tea brewed at home replace the lunchtime teapot ritual and the tool handles have to be disinfected when we finish for the day. Two of the five volunteers weeded in the Tudor Walled Garden and planted several new additions in one of the potager style beds. One of these plants was Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare). Thankfully its appearance belies the slightly sinister sounding common name, the spires of rosemary blue flowers being a magnet for bees and other pollinators.

The rest of us trimmed the edges of the four rectangular beds in that area, moving via the Magnolia borders to work our way along the paths in Mrs Child’s Flower Garden, our razor sharp shears guided by the metal edging strips to create that crisp finish which instantly neatens a lawn. Head gardener Andy Eddy was mowing the lawns in ‘Mrs Child’s’ and stopped for a catch up. During lockdown he and his partner maintained the garden, enjoying the temporary lull from fewer planes heading to Heathrow and the vastly reduced traffic on the M4 which borders the parkland surrounding the garden. There was also the novelty of the presence of the neighbouring farmer’s Charollais cattle herd on the field immediately in front of the house.

We sat outside the bothy to eat lunch, the reduced number in the team making social distancing easy to achieve. Afterwards we worked in the cutting garden, keeping the bark topped paths clear of weeds and transplanting stray self-seeders such as geraniums into the relevant sections of the garden. I found that the portion of the border beside the wall where I was working was choked with docks (Rumex obtusifolius) and as I worried away at this patch with first a hand fork and then a border fork I realised that I haven’t had to clear these before and had no idea how difficult they are to tackle. To find out more about what I had hitherto assumed were innocuous weeds with the benefit of calming nettle stung skin, I consulted the RHS website which states ‘They are often difficult to eradicate as their deep tap root can regrow from the top section and they produce large amounts of seed.The tap root can be up to 90cm (3ft) in length.‘ A 3ft tap root: no wonder I struggled!

I did manage to clear a section of roughly a couple of feet square but confess that, with the permission of gardener Graham, I had to cut several of the most persistent plants down to ground level rather than rooting them up. It felt appropriate that almost my first task as a ‘re-opening volunteer’ was the clearance of stubborn weeds, just as that last pre-lockdown session had involved bramble eradication. Despite my emphasis in this post on weeds and weeding, the gardens at Osterley are looking stunning as the following photos attest.

The Cutting Garden 10 July 2020: Echinops and Alliums

Robert Adam’s Garden House
Fuchsia Thalia inside the Garden House
Crocosmia and Honey Spurge (Euphorbia mellifera) in the Tudor Walled Garden

Under African Skies

In my last but one post I promised a virtual visit to Africa courtesy of three plants in my garden. Departure was delayed until the star performer came into flower. Diva like, she makes a spectacular entrance on stage, in this case the front garden which is a rather grand way to describe the space a metre or so deep between the bay window and the low wall beside the pavement. Here are three generous clumps of African lilies (Agapanthus africanus), which expand in volume each year. I described my passion for these southern African giants in a blog post a year ago. For nine months of the year the round ended strap leaves about 50cm long fill the space simply and elegantly. In late May flower stems emerge from the base of the foliage bearing plump pointy tipped buds, settling finally at a height at least half as high again as the leaves. At this stage I usually count the buds (26 this year) and compare notes with a friend who grows his front garden ‘Aggies’ in terracotta pots. One by one, the surface of the buds split, revealing dozens of pale sapphire gems which over the coming days escape the by now paper thin bracts to emerge as distinct flared petalled flowers in a pale blue with a navy stripe running along each petal. At last large blue spheres decorate each sturdy stem. And they need to be sturdy, to withstand my inching past them every evening to water the window boxes arranged around the bay.

Agapanthus africanus
The Agapanthus are coming into flower in the front garden

A slighter Agapanthus cultivar whose name I do not know grows in several terracotta pots on the paved area at the end of the back garden. Unlike their evergreen cousins in the front garden, they die back each winter and I generally clear away the papery brown leaves in February by which time they part easily from the crown. Soon afterwards bright green leaf tips emerge from the tightly packed crown and at this stage I start to apply liquid seaweed feed every three or four weeks.

Unnamed Agapanthus in back garden

The front garden specimens self-seed enthusiastically into the plum slate which covers the little space left in the front garden around the African lilies. Throughout the year I extract them from the membrane beneath the slate, reduce the length of the roots by about a third and pot them up ready to be given away. A few weeks ago gardening clients contacted me to say they were keen to grow Alliums in their townhouse garden. I explained that the flowering season for most Alliums was coming to an end, but if it was tall sculptural plants with spherical inflorescences they were after then Agapanthus would fit the bill. Having stressed they would not flower this year, I was commissioned to plant the nine good sized clumps in a narrow bed alongside their large pond and in another very sunny flowerbed. I’m looking forward to seeing them develop over the next 12 months.

A friend came to tea in my garden a couple of weeks ago and observed ‘There’s a lot going on in this garden’ and she’s right. I have crammed a lot of plants into a small space both in pots and in the borders. The other African plants I want to share with you reside in containers. Having outgrown its original pot, earlier this year I split Cape figwort (Phygelius capensis) into three. They’ve developed into strong looking plants and I’m just waiting for their orange tubular flowers to appear. As the name suggests they are from South Africa. They remind me of Fuchsia ‘Thalia’ but are thankfully less tender and I can leave them outside all winter.

Phygelius capensis

What I love about the next genus of southern African plants I want to share with you, Pelargonium, is their variety. Some grow upright, some trail. Some have scented leaves, some do not but make up for this with spectacular flowers. Some are chunky and robust, others, like velvety petalled P. sidoides are dainty and delicate. Carried on a long slim stem shooting out at a 90 degree angle from the crinkly three lobed leaves, are asymmetric umbels of four or five petal flowers in a shade of deep magenta. This plant is usually displayed in the Garden House in Mrs Child’s Flower Garden at Osterley. I bought one last autumn to use as a stock plant and repotted a couple of the leaf clusters, which were almost like runners, in gritty compost before overwintering them in the vertical cold frame. Now respectable sized plants, I have planted one in a large terracotta pot with another Osterley acquisition, Dianthus caryophyllus. On one of the last Osterley Fridays before lockdown when it was too wet to work in the garden, we spent a very pleasant afternoon in the new potting shed pricking out seedlings, including this ‘pink’. We were given permission to take the surplus seedlings to prick out at home. The fine greyish blue leaves already contrast well with the rounded leaves of the Pelargonium and I hope that when the dark red almost black Dianthus flowers appear they will complement the Pelargonium’s dark hued blooms.

Pelargonium sidoides

My other Pelargoniums are less unusual, and can be categorised as annual bedding. I bought them as small plugs which were delivered in April. I chose both zonal and ivy-leaved cultivars, ‘Pink Passion’ and ‘Supreme White’ respectively. Both have pale pink flowers and I’ve planted them in the Ecopot window boxes I installed last summer. Like the Agapanthus, they relish the south facing aspect and I’ve blended them with two other southern African flowers, Felicia and Bacopa topia (Chaenostoma cordatum ‘Snowflake’).

Pelargonium ‘Supreme White

There were other excess other seedlings to bring home from Osterley that day, several of which I pricked out and labelled (wrongly as it turned out) Rocky Mountain Columbine, Aquilegia coerulea. I began to realise my mistake when the true leaves developed into a pointed ovate shape and then the stem began to demonstrate distinctly climbing and clinging tendencies. For a while I thought I was nurturing some form of cucumber until today when by some wonderful serendipity, the first flowers emerged and I recognised it immediately as Black-eyed Susan, Thunbergia alata. a plant from Tropical Africa! It is one of the first flowers I grew myself when I made a container garden around the window of my first flat, a tiny studio in London. The flat was on the top floor of the building and a wooden ladder in front of the window led from the valley behind the parapet on the facade of the building to the top of the parapet. I trained a Thunbergia to grow up one side of the ladder and can remember being really happy at the effect I achieved.

Thunbergia alata

I’m returning to Osterley next Friday, the gardens having reopened a couple of weeks ago, and shall be asking at what stage the seedlings I pricked out that winter’s afternoon were discovered to have been mis-labelled. More importantly though I shall be seeing the gardens, and some colleagues, after an absence of almost four months. I can’t wait.

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

 

Turfing it out

Extracting weeds from an artificial lawn requires a very different technique to that applied to a lawn of real grass. I soon found this out when I tidied a neighbour’s back garden last week. For a start, a hand fork or trowel is unnecessary since the weeds seem to embed themselves into the weave of the material to which the ‘grass’ is attached. No need here for a sharp implement to loosen the soil around the weed’s roots before yanking the weed from the ground. Instead, the weed needs to be grasped between thumb and forefinger and gradually pulled up with a final gentle twist to keep the roots intact. I have never seen roots so clean! I was surprised to see that even an artificial lawn can host weeds but the weeds I removed were ephemeral weeds like groundsel (Senecio vulgaris) and hairy bittercress (Cardamina hirsuta). No ‘lawn spoiler’* to worry about here like greater plantain (Plantago major) . And I suppose that is the merit of an artificial lawn: even if some enterprising little weeds manage to embed themselves into the surface of the material, the long-rooted perennial weeds cannot penetrate the thick polypropylene base.

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This was my first experience of working with synthetic grass and although I’m by no means a convert, I can see that compared to a real lawn there is no need for cutting, edging and feeding. This lawn looked particularly authentic and included material which seemed to mimic the straw-coloured thatch that accumulates at the base of grass stems over time. In a real lawn this has to be raked out from time to time to make room for fresh blades of grass to grow.

As I carefully removed the weeds I began reflecting on the growing popularity of artificial grass and not only in domestic gardens. A mile and a half from here, were it not for the Coronavirus crisis, the newly built stadium to be shared between Brentford FC and London Irish RFC would soon have opened its doors for the first time. We hope it will still open in time for the new season in the summer.  Having read somewhere that many modern football pitches are created using a hybrid of real and synthetic grass, I determined to find out more. I approached Nity Raj, a parkrun friend and director of Brentford FC, to ask him about the system used at the club’s current ground, the dearly loved Griffin Park, and at the new Brentford Stadium at Kew Bridge. Little did I know as we chatted on Saturday mornings over peppermint tea after the weekly 5k run at Richmond’s Old Deer Park, that Nity knew anything about this topic. Here he generously shares what he knows about football pitch technology:

The current pitch at Griffin Park is a stabilised natural grass pitch.  The stabilised element comes from a plastic weave which was woven into the turf before the grass was grown and the turf was cut and relaid at Griffin Park.  It looks a bit like a tennis net, but with smaller squares.  The plastic matrix significantly reduces the amount that the surface is broken up during play making the regular pitch works much easier to manage and  repair of damage more effective.  We haven’t always had this kind of stabilised pitch.  Until the summer of 2015 the pitch was a normal seeded grass pitch.  We worked with specialists to re-lay new drainage and an entirely new pitch, incorporating the plastic matrix.  Since then I am told we have had the best pitch we have ever had in our history, with significantly less damage visible, especially during bad weather periods, when previously the pitch was prone to getting very badly damaged especially in the high traffic areas of the pitch. 

In the new stadium we are installing a Desso Grassmaster pitch.  Desso are the leading pitch tech company and their pitches are used in many of the most prestigious football and rugby stadiums in the world..  Desso have a different system from the one used at Griffin Park in that it involves a machine injecting fibres into the ground.  We believe this kind of system will best suit the pitch being used for football and rugby.

It’s worth saying that the pitch at Griffin Park and the pitch at the new stadium are both virtually indistinguishable from ordinary grass pitches.  The pitches look, play and smell exactly like grass pitches except for their ability to rejuvenate and resist damage.  Without careful management by our excellent groundsmen, they would also be susceptible to weeds, just like any wholly natural grass surface

The list of venues in the Grassmaster Wikipedia entry reads like a roll-call of world-famous soccer and rugby grounds and includes Wembley, Twickenham, Old Trafford, Parc des Princes, the Emirates Stadium and Anfield. And it will soon be joined by Brentford Stadium.

The hybrid pitches installed for playing professional football and rugby are a far cry from the artificial lawns which are becoming increasingly popular in domestic gardens where the lawn is laid rather like a carpet. Indeed, I’m told that some householders have been known to vacuum their Astroturf! I’ve already mentioned that there is no use for trowels or forks when weeding artificial turf. Nor for a rake as I discovered last week when I initially tried to clear away an accumulation of dried bamboo cane sheaths and leaves. I soon found that a stiff bristled brush is the ideal tool for this purpose. I confess that seeing a green expanse entirely devoid of weeds after a few hours’ gardening was surprisingly satisfying.

Am I now a convert to the pseudo sward? The answer is no, because for all its benefits- neatness, hygiene, consistency- this inert material lacks two of the essential elements of real grass. The coolness under bare feet of grass on a hot day cannot be replicated, nor can the scent of newly mown grass. In the last day or so I have detected that distinctive smell drifting across from neighbouring gardens where the instruction to stay home has prompted many householders to cut their lawns for the first time this year. And to Dig for Victory and grow vegetables, but that’s another story and one I shall address in a future blog.

*William Edmonds ‘Weeds Weeding (&Darwin)’ ISBN-10: 0711233659

 

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.