Monday, 28 September 2015

Of minor reshuffles, and free plants

The last weekend of September; fresh, sunny days, cold nights, and misty mornings. Autumn arrived with the most perfect weekend weather for gardening I can recall, and the torrential downpours through which it’s been necessary to work over the past fortnight are already receding into a distant memory.

Along with an abrupt drawing in of the evenings, the cooler night time temperatures seem to have descended upon us all of a sudden – the greenhouse thermometer showing below four degrees a couple of days ago. The knowledge that this happens at more or less the same time every year does nothing to diminish the mild sense of surprise we feel at the change; in company with the bees in the ode, we’d come to believe the warm days would never cease.

Apple time. Part of our first harvest of Laxton’s Superb
In spite of this, there’s warmth enough still in the soil for roots to grow and plants to establish themselves before the ravishes of winter. As a consequence, I’m hatching plans to move things around. And so the acanthus is coming out, found for a rough spot by the bonfire, where I have every confidence it will flower its socks off. This gives me a space into which to move Annabelle, one of my favourite hydrangeas, from the deep shade in which she currently mopes to a much brighter spot. albeit one with a tall hedge on the south side. And into the shady spot I’ll decant Fuchsia magellanica 'Hawkshead', another white flowered shrub, but one that seems content to produce its blooms in profusion even in relatively gloomy conditions.

September, then, is a good time for a garden reshuffle. But it’s also a time for discovering you have a wealth of free plants, in the form of perennials crying out to be divided. It is, of course, a matter of accepted horticultural best practice to divide your perennials every few years in order to restore vigour to the individual sections. Apart from anything, it helps to avoid the potential of having ever-expanding clumps of a single plant, with very little growth in the centre. So far, so strokey-beard. But, aside from earning you brownie points with the RHS (which do actually exist and can be exchanged for baked goods in any of the restaurants at the society’s four main gardens)1, the joy of discovering that your stock of plant material has increased, with very little effort on your own part, is hard to describe to any non-gardener, but all too easy to understand for anyone who’s ever felt the pang of parting with six quid for a single two litre pot of some precious specimen.2

Earlier today it was necessary to cut back a small Persicaria affinis (‘Donald Lowndes’, if memory serves), which was in the process of escaping from the border and making its way across the drive. This attractive, creeping plant forms a semi evergreen mat with flower spikes ranging from white, through light to deep pink through summer and into autumn. It’s great for the front of a border, although once established it will need to be kept in check, as it produces roots from every node that comes into contact with the ground, a characteristic which gives you plenty of opportunity to successfully root cuttings with minimal effort. Once I’d trimmed the plant back to its allotted space, I removed the flowers from my cutting material – producing seed can be an exhausting process, and I’d rather the newly establishing plants concentrate their efforts on making healthy root systems.

Appropriately enough for a drive edge, this Persicaria is sufficiently robust to withstand being driven over. However, as it’s shallow rooted, and the planting holes little more than a scrape, today I used long steel pins to hold each section in place until the roots have taken hold.

Free plants, perfect weather, and rejigged garden. Somebody pinch me.

1Utter nonsense.

2That said, and providing it’s not coming out of the housekeeping budget3, noone should have any qualms about spending this kind of money on a plant from one of the many independent nurseries forming the backbone of the horticultural trade in the UK. This is what it costs to raise and nurture a plant to a saleable size in a retailable condition, while at the same time maintaining a viable business, run by experts in the field, with employees and bills to pay. Shelling out this kind of money – or more – at any of the larger chains, where you might expect economies of scale to be passed on to the customer, requires a different set of decision making criteria.

3On the occasions when buying plants can threaten to compromise the housekeeping budget, there are plenty of other options. Plant swaps, car boot sales, kindly neighbours, friendly gardening types on Twitter – gardeners are by nature a generous bunch, and keen to share.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Container Gardening with
Harriet Rycroft, week 2


What’s the difference between growing in containers, as opposed to growing in the ground? I’ve already written about how there’s less margin for error with a plant in a pot, the rootball having access only to the nutrients available in the container, and that much more vulnerable to sudden changes in temperature. In this week’s lesson, we were again considering the materials used to construct containers, but this time rather than from a purely aesthetic point of view, we’ve been looking at how, for example, a plastic or metal pot will typically have less thermal insulation than one made of good quality terracotta or stone, and how this should affect how you think about siting different containers.

Just as you need to develop an awareness of different microclimates in your garden when planting in the beds and borders, so too this needs to be factored in when planning displays of containers. Not just things like aspect, the location of frost pockets and wind tunnels, but also the potential for strong gusts to be bounced off walls and corners against which pots are placed, potentially causing harm to plant material through air turbulence. And, while you may think that your treasured plants are entirely independent of the ground, being safely ensconced within their pot and with roots nestled into your choice of an ideal growing medium, it turns out that the hard surfaces on which the containers are standing can still have a bearing on how well (or not) the plant thrives. As an example, and rather like an inverted version of the storage heater in my old Muswell Hill bedsit, a dark-coloured ground surface will absorb heat during the day, and slowly radiate the warmth back out at night. I remember this arrangement was pretty hopeless for me, as it meant the bedsit was toasty during the day when I was out at work, and freezing during the evening and night, but careful attention to the needs of your plants should mean that you can take better advantage of the principle.

Practical matters covered this week also included arranging containers in groups, watering and drainage, including the thorny issue of crocks, and the desirable properties of a good compost. Already having packed quite a lot to pack into one week, Harriet ended the tutorial with a consideration of what to look for when selecting plants for your containers, with criteria including foliage, flower and form, as well as texture and habit, and seasons of interest. Much to remember, and to help it sink in, this week’s assignment asked us to choose four perennials or shrubs which we thought would earn their keep in a container display.

Here are my choices.

Sarcococca confusa
Perhaps the least fancy Sarcococca, the Christmas box is nonetheless a plant I wouldn’t be without, growing it both in the ground and in containers. An evergreen shrub with a potential to grow over a metre in height after many years, I treasure it for its deep glossy, spear-shaped leaves, and the clusters of black berries. But mostly for the rich, heady, vanilla fragrance of its tiny white flowers in the depths of winter, filling the air with a delicious, warming scent at the most miserable time of year. During the spring and summer months, it lurks within the groups of containers, overshadowed by more flamboyant flowers and foliage, but once the tender things have been put to bed, it begins to come to the fore.

Close-up of Sarcococca confusa. Sadly not scratch-and-sniff.
Good drainage is essential – in fact, I’m learning you can go as sharp as you like with this plant, which will happily seed itself into sand and gravel (we discovered it when a friend noticed seedlings below the window from which she’d periodically lob spent, cut stems that had been brought into the house for the scent). It will also need a certain amount of clipping, as it doesn’t naturally assume a particularly neat habit, and with age it begins to throw out shoots in unexpected directions. A happy Sarcococca will begin to sucker from the root stock, so you’ll need to keep an eye out for an appropriate time to repot, or else pull the suckers off and pot up into a free-draining compost for free plants.

Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii
This evergreen subshrub might not be the rarest of specimens, but it certainly earns its place in many different settings. Growing to 1.5m in height, and often rather larger around, the most striking feature for me is the colour – grey-blue foliage, topped with huge acid green flower heads in spring which persist for months. It’s not known for its fragrance, but having worked around it in several locations, I can confidently announce that it gives off a pronounced smell which might be described as bitterly earthy, or woody, but which reminds me of nothing so much as coffee grounds. 

Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii in flower. Less yellow, more blue in real life.
The leaves are long and narrow and, in common with many spurges, arranged in whorls around the long, serpentine stems, which leak a toxic latex sap when cut or broken (the sap can cause contact dermatitis, so best avoided or quickly washed off). It will survive in a large container, and is relatively tolerant of most soil conditions except waterlogging – err towards the dry to be on the safe side.

Melianthus major
The most tender of my selections, practically herbaceous in my part of the UK, but growing as an evergreen subshrub in climates more akin to its native antipodes, where it has become something of a weed. Here, we love it for its large, pleated glaucous foliage with deeply serrated edges. I was once told by the head gardener of one of our major gardens that it wouldn’t flower in the south east of England, but mine decided to contradict this pronouncement, producing a massive maroon flower spike that November. Just before the frost and the wind reduced the entire thing to black mush.

The leaves of Melianthus major. Remember, not all peanut-scented things are edible.
I have quite a knack for killing this plant, so timely winter protection is a must, and growing it in a pot rather than the ground is, I am convinced, the way to go, at least for me. It will also let me get it up a little higher off the ground than might ordinarily be the case, away from the reach of Bill, with his leaf munching mania, as the peanut-scented leaves (another woody fragrance) are toxic to dogs.

Fatsia japonica
I have heard this glamorous relative of ivy sneeringly classified as a ‘carpark plant’. But, as every plant so labelled is an utterly reliable, unfussy, robust and attractive affair presenting year-round interest, I don’t see it as anything to be sniffy about, and I can’t get enough of its large, glossy palmate leaves. Even better, in summer, older plants flower with the most eerie-looking white umbels. A statuesque presence, in the ground it will happily grow to eight feet in both height and circumference, although in a container it will assume more modest proportions. Happy in shade, dry or damp, it will provide a luxuriant, tropical backdrop to any planting all year round.

Glossy palmate leaves of Fatsia japonica.

Do have a look at the My Garden School website, which is still running its  Back to School campaign for 15% off all £145.00 4 week online courses in October. (Course start dates: Wednesday 7 October 2015). Click here and remember to use the code MGSBTS at the checkout for the discount.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Container Gardening with
Harriet Rycroft, week 1


It can be easy to get carried away when window shopping for containers. With such a wealth of variety in size and shape – not to mention price – I find I’ve often created a wish list that far exceeds my budget, let alone my available space.

And then to complicate any decision further, there are the different materials and finishes to be considered, each with their own characteristic textures: ceramics (including glass), glazed or unglazed, metals, wood, stone, as well as all manner of plastics and resins. I’ve just been exploring the possibilities of making my own containers using hypertufa – a mix of perlite, cement and sphagnum peat moss – and plan to give it a go once I’ve decided upon a sustainable alternative to the organic element. Everyone has their own favourites, and I tend to be drawn towards terracotta and zinc galvanised containers, whilst shying away from plastic.

Materials snob? Possibly, though this isn't snootiness at the notion of mass production, but rather sadness at the cynicism of flooding the market with “containers” that are little more than giant injection-molded buckets with poorly finished seams, not to mention the apparent willingness of the general gardening public to buy the hideous things. It is pleasing to surround yourself with objects and materials which reflect the ethos and values you hold, in the garden, as with every other space in your life. Terracotta speaks to me of the earth, of craftsmanship and skill, while galvanised iron objects possess the rugged honesty of the early-industrial period. Both materials, along with stone and wood, achieve a beautiful patina with the passage of time, while plastic merely bleaches and becomes brittle.

So far, I seem to have made a good job of proving my opening statement. All this fuss over the pot, when I'm really far more interested in the plant than on the object in which its root system will make a home. But, while it can’t be denied that a sympathetic match between container and contents can produce a pleasing effect, there is one exception to all of this: the upcycled container, the old box, tin or broken bit of crockery, destined for landfill but given at least a temporary reprieve, pressed into service as the custodian of a plant’s delicate parts. However humdrum its origins, I can’t help but find the combination of faded utility and luxuriant growth immensely compelling, hopeful and encouraging.

No room for the rubber duck. © Sara Venn

It’s the end of the first week of the Container Planting course at My Garden School. Harriet’s video talk and notes saw her at pains to have us consider our objectives in relation this form of gardening, whilst providing a comprehensive overview of the “whys and wheres” of using containers within the garden. Underpinning all I detected an exhortation to adopt a conscientiously purposeful approach, which could present me with a minor challenge, relying as I do rather on instinct and whim in this area. For the first week’s assignment, we were asked to find photos of four containers we’d like to use, explaining what had drawn us to them, where we would consider siting them within the garden, and why.

Here’s my selection.

The Whichford Pot

There’s nothing quite like a well-made vintage or handmade terracotta pot. I’ll settle for mass produced terracotta if I have to, but I'm not a huge fan of those ugly square rims.

Whichford pots aren’t exactly cheap, but having been to the pottery and seen the care and attention to detail that goes into each one, I have no qualms about parting with the money, even if I can’t afford to do it that often. And it’s not an astronomical outlay – we’re talking eight quid for a 7 inch pot, as opposed to £1.50 for a bog standard diy shed effort – buy one a month and give up the ciggies, or Sky+. Actually that would equate to several small pots, or something more fancy.

Whichford terracotta is unlike the smooth, flat stuff you might be used to. It’s a richer, orangey brown colour, a more tactile, open texture, which reminds me of biscuits (ginger nuts, to be specific). They often incorporate text into the design, whether simply manufacturer’s name around the pot, or a quote from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I’m a sucker for words in the garden.

The pot I’ve chosen for my imaginary shopping list is from the Shakespeare range, featuring a line from one of Puck’s speeches around the rim. I’d have it next to the kitchen door, planted with wild thyme, and other aromatic spices, well within reach when I need something to perk up what I’m cooking.

The trefoil pot

A few years ago, I spotted this container in an issue of Gardens Illustrated, and its haunted me ever since. The article appeared again in the special edition magazine from the publishers under the title “Pots of Style” (still available from the website), so at least I can look at a picture of it, even if I can't find anything similar to what must be a pretty one-off piece in the shops.

The mottled grey and white material is glass reinforced concrete, although at first glance you might be forgiven for mistaking it for galvanised steel. The plants perfectly complement the container – Sedum 'Cape Blanco', Anthemis marschalliana, Jovibarba allionii and Lampranthus spectabilis, planting by Sarah Price.

This is clearly too small to be placed on the ground, too large for the windowsill, and the wrong shape for the shelves of the etagere. But its a perfect colour complement for the slate table in the courtyard, and I could sit and gaze at it while enjoying my morning coffee.

The broken teapot

This is an object with great sentimental value, but one that has sadly outlived its original purpose. I bought it during my first year at university, and it has been my constant companion for a quarter of a century, playing a central role in the many tea ceremonies that punctuate my day. But the glaze has finally cracked in many places, and it has become rather more porous than is useful in a teapot, an article inside which it is useful for the tea to remain until required it, at which point it should exit via the spout, not through various hairline cracks about the perimeter. Unable to bear parting with it, I decide to re-imagine it as a planter, although to date I've yet to find the perfect companion for its slightly awkward nature, and am currently stuck in a kind of limbo of indecision.

It is the perfect size for the outdoor window ledge, or the top of the hideous plastic gas meter cover which I try to obscure from view with an arrangement of pots in containers.

The old boot

I get through a work boots at an alarming rate; something to do with unusually mobile toes. It's a bit annoying – they split and start letting in water, or develop a weakness in some unrepairable spot, but seem otherwise perfectly sound. It's seems a shame to get rid of them, but I can't really have dozens of pairs of old boots cluttering up the place. It has struck me that, with an appropriate lining, and some drainage holes, they would make excellent plant pots – and I'm not the only gardener to have worked this out. Lucy Adams, head gardener at Doddington Place in Kent, created an entire display for this years Chelsea Fringe based around a tower of planted up wellington boots, an absolutely stellar display where the bright colours of the wellies clashed appealingly with the flowers.

Boots full of flowers. © 2015 Lucy Adams
My old work boots are less extrovert, I think, but I don’t see why one or two planted up couldn’t nestle perfectly happily towards the front of an arrangement of pots.

Harriet’s notes for week 1 of the course are downloadable at the time of writing from this link.

In the meantime, do have a look at the My Garden School website, which isstill running its  Back to School campaign for 15% off all £145.00 4 week online courses in October. (Course start dates: Wednesday 7 October 2015). Click here and remember to use the code MGSBTS at the checkout for the discount.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Wisley Flower Show 2015

A quick dash to the Wisley Flower Show, there to spend a couple of pleasant hours mooching about, cooing over plants, saying hello to friends and most definitely not buying anything, the last of which objectives I failed conspicuously to achieve, lumbering back past the RHS Lindley Library towards the car laden with numerous bags of flaars. Hopeless. In my defence, some of them (previous edits read “most”, then “many”) are bound for clients’ gardens, and I entertain every possible hope that they may, at some point in the future, reach them.

Here are my highlights from a brief visit.

It was great to catch up with David on the Binny’s stand (we’d managed to miss each other at Chelsea and for some reason not crossed paths over social media) and to hear how things are going for them. The stand is looking wonderful – an inviting mix of delicate flowers like Geum 'Totally Tangerine' and white japanese anemones, with some wonderfully detail in the foliage, all shades of green and red, with Heuchera 'Green Spice', Rodgersia 'Bronze Peacock' and Tiarella 'Spring Symphony'. And, just in case you hadn't got the green and red thing, the great, dramatic form of Begonia luxurians. I loved the short, vertical accents of the Euonymus japonicus 'Green Rocket' across the stand and, nestling in amongst it all, the wonderful small white flower and acid green leaf of Geranium nodosum 'Silverwood', a great plant for dappled shade.

Not too far away on the stand of Madrona Nurseries from Ashford in Kent, I found the colourful arrow-headed leaves of Persicaria 'Purple Fantasy'...

...just a few steps away from its relative Persicaria odorata from Hooksgreen Herbs. This is used in South East Asian cooking as a coriander substitute, and was nestled among a wealth of other wonderful looking edibles. Had the temperature had been hotter, the smell would have been fabulous, but as it was, the volatile oils stayed put and I had to content myself with the sight of all these fine herbs jostling for space. I particularly loved the inclusion of variegated ground elder Aegopodium podagraria 'Variegata' which, though not as rampant as the non variegated version, can get a bit lively in the borders.

I’m not entirely sure what’s got into me this year, but I keep finding myself drawn towards orange flowers, and it was the sight of these amazing dahlias at Pheasant Acre Plants that drew me away from the herbs. I'm not sure my photography skills were quite up to representing the vibrancy of the colours, but they were breathtaking, perfectly complemented by the lively form of the blooms.

The Plant Specialist have put together a splendid display of late summer daisies, grasses and prairie-style perennials, where I discovered the hollyhock (Alcaea)/mallow (Malva) cross x Alcalthaea suffrutescens 'Parkallee' . Why didn’t I buy this? I was distracted by something else (more of that in a bit), but know it will be haunting my dreams tonight.

x Alcathaea suffrutescens 'Parkallee'

x Alcathaea suffrutescens 'Parkallee'
Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants were as inundated with keen plant buyers as always - so much so that I could barely see Rob when I arrived and didn’t get to say ‘hello’ (sorry Rob). The display and the quality of the plants was as stellar as we’ve come to expect, and also as correct – I was reminded that I've been referring to Aster divaricatus several times in the past couple of weeks, when it’s been reclassified as Eurybia. Shame on me (though, to be fair, it’s still Aster in the Wisley plant shop). I was particularly taken with two plants, both of which boast flowers that, in their natural form, appear to have been caught in a force ten gale. Perhaps they reminds me of my hair.

My own haul consisted of two plants I've been trying to track down for months, and was half hoping to find in stock today – both for other people’s gardens, sadly. Firstly, Althaea cannabina, a wonderful, tall, airy pink-flowered mallow-type specimen, whose presence distracted me from buying the Alcathaea at The Plant Specialist.

Secondly, Tiarella 'Sugar and Spice'. I know everyone says that so many of these cultivars are the same, but there’s nothing quite like the leaf on this – a large, oak leaf shape, deep glossy green, with a dark maroon splash in the centre – and everywhere seems to have been out of stock all year, even at the RHS shows. Six of these came home with me, courtesy of Heucheraholics.

And then, having stuffed my face with pelargonium cake and generally got under the feet of Heather and Fran on the Fibrex Nursery stand as they tried to serve the great and the good, I started treating myself to more plants I’ve had a hankering after: three pelargoniums, P. 'Renate Parsley' (new to me), the very beautiful but slightly difficult 'Ardens', and the scented 'Charity', with its variegated cut leaf and orangey scent. And, on an impulse, the evergreen fern Asplenium trichomanes, largely because it looks a bit like the maidenhair fern Adiantum capillus-veneris, which I am remarkably good at killing, in the hope that it might be slightly better at evading my homicidal tendencies.

Not a bad collection of booty, considering I wasn’t supposed to be buying anything. Sadly, though, in spite of seeing it growing down by the glasshouse, still no sign of Amsonia hubrichtii for sale. I’ll keep looking...

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Container Gardening course with
My Garden School

Spring containers in the porch at Great Dixter. An inspiration at any time of year


There’s always something to learn with gardening. By which I mean, about gardening, not through gardening, although Gertrude Jekyll was undoubtedly bang on the money when she opined that “a garden is a grand teacher”. Rather, I'm thinking about my own continual process of horticultural education, and the efforts I need to go to in order to keep my gardening brain fed. I love my work as a self employed gardener with my own list of clients, but if there's one element missing, it’s the regular input of peers, and the mentoring presence of people with more wisdom and knowledge to impart than I can imagine myself ever being in possession of. That’s one way in which social media has been a godsend – a veritable army of exactly these folk, ready to cheer and to chide as necessary, as enthusiastic and abundantly generous with their superior knowledge as I could wish. And, by some miracle of the modern age, they all live in my phone.

This is wonderful when I need to ask a question, or feel the need of some encouragement or affirmation. But in order to build my knowledge I need to supplement this with some more structured learning, and so I resolved this year to start taking courses on certain subjects, one of these being container gardening.

Containers can be tricky things. Rarely will you get away with bunging a plant in a pot and forgetting about it, unless you have a penchant for brown, dead looking things. Containers are an ideal solution for people who don’t have a traditional “garden” where you can’t plant in the ground – perhaps only a windowsill or balcony. They’re also great in that you can fine tune the growing medium and the conditions to the particular requirement of the plant you wish to grow, but you’ll need to remember that that plant is more dependent upon your attention when it comes to feeding and watering than it might be had you planted it in the ground. There’s less of a buffer against the temperature fluctuations, too, so you’ll need to be fairly constantly watchful for what the weather might throw at you – under the wrong conditions, container-grown plants can go over with alarming speed.

And then, there’s choosing the type of container, planting for succession, and arranging groups of containers in a pleasing display. Anyone who’s dashed home from a visit to Great Dixter, full of enthusiasm and dying to have a go, will be aware that it’s not as easy as it looks.

I have several books on container gardening by a variety of authors, but if there’s one person in the country who really knows the subject, it has to be Harriet Rycroft, until recently head gardener at Whichford Pottery. I met Harriet a couple of years ago on a visit to Whichford in the Cotswold countryside – a fascinating place for the story of the pots and the wonderful variety of forms and texture, but rendered even more so by the flamboyantly joyful planting combinations bursting out wherever I looked. Harriet is one of the generous souls I alluded to above, and we often chat on Twitter, but there's a limit to how much you can quiz a person, even on their specialist subject. Really, I needed to steal Harriet’s gardening brain to gain her knowledge, but how to achieve this without imposing some measure of inconvenience upon the good lady was beyond me.

And then she announced the Container Planting course at My Garden School – a little jig may have escaped me in my joy. This is a four week course, with video tutorials, detailed course notes and regular assignments, and one-to-one contact with the tutor through a virtual classroom – I can ask as many questions as I like without feeling bad about it. I’ll be posting again here as I go through the course – which begins for me today – to let you know more about the course as I work my way through it. I hope you’ll join me again to find out how I’m getting on.

In the meantime, do have a look at the My Garden School website, which is has just launched a Back to School campaign for 15% off all £145.00 4 week online courses in September and October. (Course start dates: Wednesday, 2 September / Wednesday, 7 October 2015). Click here and remember to use the code MGSBTS at the checkout for the discount.