Sunday, 25 October 2015

A walk in the woods

A beautiful, dry and sunny autumn afternoon for a walk in West Wood. The leaves are beginning to fall, but still there are more on the trees than the ground.

Hawthorn, field maple, sycamore, sweet chestnut and hazel – each turns its own rich shade of yellow gold before releasing its leaves. We wandered along gilded corridors between stands of coppice understory, shafts of bright sunlight piercing the ceiling and spotlighting individual works of art – here a patch of moss on the trunk of tree, there a single leaf picked out on the muddy forest floor.

A gallery of sylvan wonders. Dogs welcome.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Great Comp Autumn Extravaganza

Sunday saw me driving the few short miles to the gardens of Great Comp for the aptly named Autumn Extravaganza. Having been at Great Dixter the weekend before, October is shaping up to be a month of great gardens and gardening events, and we’re not even half way through.

I arrived in bright sunshine to find the borders in their full late-summer glory, grasses and perennials having filled out and drawn themselves up to their full stature, and giving every impression of returning the admiring glances of the visitors with something approaching condescension, arising from a pride in the knowledge that this, of all moments in the year, is the moment in which they look their absolute best. I think we can allow the contents of the borders their lofty attitude; they look very fine indeed.

On to the plants. A goodly selection of specialist nurseries, although I had the impression that there were fewer than at the Spring Fling. Sufficient in number to provide temptation to a gardener with a roving eye, however.

I was half hoping to track down my unicorn, a plant that I’ve been after all year since one of my clients saw it in the prairie gardens at Wisley. I’d seen a few diminutive pots of the Arkansas bluestar, Amsonia hubrichtii, at Dixter last weekend but, having left my wallet at home, I was saved from having to buy the things – something of which I was quite glad, not having been entirely confident of my ability to see the tiddlers through the winter. Amsonia seems to be growing in popularity – a mainly North American relative of the periwinkle, although not sharing the vinca’s slovenly posture it bears its light blue, star-shaped flowers in early summer on upright stems. It hasn’t been hard to get hold of Amsonia tabernaemontana, and I spied A. ciliata on the stand of Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants at Chelsea earlier in the year (Rob and Rosy stock several species, I’ve subsequently found).

But Hubricht’s bluestar has much thinner, needle-like leaves, and in autumn, it does this...

Amsonia hubrichtii in full autumn colour
...giving the impression of the original Old Testament burning bush. I’ve learned from badgering various people that it does take a good while to bulk up, and had resigned myself to having to wait till next year. So you can imagine my joy to find that Paul Barney of Edulis, had brought several decent sized specimens with him. Those were coming home with me.

Today’s offerings, as you might expect from a plant fair in October, were distinctly shrubby, with the odd climber or tree thrown in for good measure. You might think this would be boring but, in that opinion, you’d be wrong.

I’m always a bit of a sucker for an attractive ilex, and the prickly pineapple holly, Ilex aquifolium 'Myrtifolia' bears perfectly formed, glossy green leaves about an 3cm long by 1cm wide, bristling with spines. It’s a neat, compact specimen, with the young shoots exhibiting a slight purplish tinge.

Ilex aquifolium 'Myrtifolia'
This next plant might quicken the pulse of even the most hardened hater of the ubiquitous evergreen euonymus. Euonymus fortunei 'Wolong Ghost' can be used as a mat-forming ground cover, or trained as a climber. It has thin, deep green glossy leaaves, with a prominent white mid-rib and veins, together with the usual pink spindleberry winged fruit.

Euonymus fortunei 'Wolong Ghost'
Now, writing about what I saw at the weekend, I wish I’d bought them all! But one plant that did come home with me is a variety of something very familiar, in the guise of something completely alien. If I hadn’t read the label, I’d never for a moment have believed this to be a cultivar of the wonderfully scented Confederate jasmine. This is Trachelospermum jasminoides 'Water Wheel', its deep blue-green leaves now having taken on the autumnal purple tint, although the silvery midrib still evident. The flowers are present in summer, although small.

Trachelospermum jasminoides 'Waterwheel'
Continuing the oddly narrow leaved theme of the day, this version of the alder buckthorn was new to me. Frangula alnus 'Fine Line', a deciduous shrub of columnar habit, not quite yet in its autumn shades.

Frangula alnus 'Fine Line'
And who can resist the wonderful autumn colour and rounded lobes of the rootbeer tree, Sassafras albidum? Not I.

Sassafras albidum. Used to flavour rootbeer
As I made my way towards the exit, clutching my small haul of plants, I became aware of a delicious smell, some baked fruit pudding, covered with caramelised sugar and just beginning to catch and burn at the edges. I spend t a few moments scouting the area for the culprit, and soon joined a group of people shuffling about in the fallen leaves beneath a katsura tree, Cercidiphyllum japonicum.

What’s that smell? Probably Cercidiphyllum japonicum

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Container Gardening with
Harriet Rycroft, week 4

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The final week of the container gardening course with My Garden School. ‘Summer Luxuriance’, it’s entitled, and brimful of information to help you take full advantage of the long days and warm temperatures. Containers should be bursting with fabulous foliage and jewel-bright punches of floral colour from June well into September and beyond, and Harriet guided us through with advice on plant selection, what to grow in sun and shade, as well as some useful tips and tricks, such as growing climbers in pots, and using them to weave in and out of the display.

Irrigation is of course of prime importance during the hottest months, and watering methods were covered, along with other maintenance tasks such as feeding and deadheading.

Once again I was thrown something of a curve-ball by the assignment, in which we were asked to base a container display around our favourite colour. I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t have a favourite colour, tending to base my planting ideas around either harmonious or contrasting colour combinations, rather than monochromatic schemes, which can seem a little flat. So, I have favourite colour combinations to which I return time and again – greys and pinks, greys and yellow, lime green and deep red tones, to name but a few. If there’s one colour to which I’m drawn, it would those tones variously described as black, or burgundy, or deep red-purple – as with the foliage of Cotinus coggygria 'Royal Purple', or Actaea simplex 'Brunette', for example – and so I took this as my starting point.

The brief involved suggesting three plants, each of a different habits (tall, bushy and spreading or trailing) that feature the chosen colour in either foliage or flowers. After some head scratching, the following scribble emerged.

My tall plant is the switchgrass Panicum virgatum, which grows to 1.2 metres, although younger plants in a container are less likely to achieve the full height. The glaucous grey leaves will give some relief to the otherwise monochrome scheme, with deep, metallic red flower heads in August.

Panicum virgatum 'Warrior'
The middle layer is the purple leaved Sedum 'Matrona', with its dense clusters of pink-white flowers.

Sedum 'Matrona'. Image © Crocus
The spreading plant is one of my favourite hardy cranesbills, the pale pink flowered Geranium 'Dusky Crug', again with deep, maroon foliage.

Geranium 'Dusky Crug'
Relatively low maintenance, with minimal deadheading required, all three choices will prefer a free-draining compost, none being voraciously hungry (the sedum in particular has a tendency to become floppy with too rich a medium); neither watering nor feeding need be too onerous a task – depending on conditions, you could water when the compost begins to feel dry (perhaps once a week) and feed once a month.

I’m fond of this combination, but aware that it’s not perhaps quite in the spirit of the brief, reaching its peak in August and September – a pot for late summer and early autumn. If I’m to bring the season of interest forward into early summer, I could stretch the colour theme a little, to embrace deep red stems and foliage and/or crimson flowers. Then we could try a combination built around Lobelia cardinalis 'Queen Victoria', with Heuchera 'Autumn Leaves' occupying the middle layer, above the trailing deep green foliage and of Pelargonium 'Mexican Beauty' this would work well in partial shade, and although the lobelia would be the last to come into flower (August again), there would be plenty of interest throughout the period with the deep maroon of the stems, over the vibrant shades of the heuchera foliage (softened slightly by the white flowers from June) and the longer flowering period of the ivy-leaved pelargonium.

Lobelia cardinalis 'Queen Victoria'. Image © Crocus
Heuchera 'Autumn Leaves'. Image © Crocus
Pelargonium 'Mexican Beauty'. Image ©Fibrex Nurseries
The pelargonium would need to be included in my regular picking-over regime in order to keep it in flower, and a weekly high potash feed would help. Watering needs to take into account that the loblia favours damper conditions than the pelargonium, while the heuchera isn’t too bothered. Which sounds like a faff, but a can minus the rose, or the similar setting on a decent hose attachment, would make it perfectly possible to direct the majority of the water towards the centre of the pot. A good dousing, every other day, unless exceedingly warm or windy.

My imaginary courtyard pot display is now looking rather flamenco-inspired, with this container situated in a slightly sunnier spot than the partially shaded area enjoyed by the panicum-sedum-geranium combo, along with pots full of Dahlia 'Bishop of Llandaff', Cosmos atrosanguineus, Aeonium 'Schwartzkopf' and Ricinus communis 'Carmencita'. With plenty of green in between, and a large jug of sangria.

With thanks to Crocus and Fibrex Nurseries for the use of images.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Details at Great Dixter, and
Planty Fare

Would you mind terribly if I were to bore you with a load of photographs of Great Dixter? I thought you probably wouldn’t. It’s just that I can never walk around the gardens there without snapping away hundreds of exposures, torn between attempting to record the perfect, wistfully romantic garden image, recording new (to me) plants and planting combinations, and a desire to put the camera away and just be still. There is so much to learn from every visit here, but while some teaching gardens (Wisley, for example) manage to do this with an engaging but ultimately didactic approach, here it’s a totally immersive experience.

I visited yesterday ostensibly for the autumn Plant Fair, another fantastic event which sees the gathering together of some fine specialist nurseries from the UK and beyond, with a programme of regular talks from the nursery-folk throughout the weekend and, of course, rather good food. On arriving I was pleased to see a friendly face, although Rosemary on the Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants stand was in mid flow, drawing the attention of a crowd to the benefits of some of her stock. First up was what I would until recently have called Aster turbinellus, my parents would still call a Michaelmas daisy, and Rosy was at pains to point out has been reclassified as Symphyotrichum turbinellum (why use two syllables when you can use five?). Growing to four feet tall, it has a lovely open habit, is fairly mildew resistant, and, as I can testify having planted several in a garden besieged by the rotten creatures, will hold its own against rabbits (although they will have a good go at it).

Rosy Hardy explaining the joys of botanical reclassification
Symphotrichum turbinellum from Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants
Next up from Rosy was the beautiful red foliage shrub Physocarpus opulifolius 'Lady in Red'. Bearing sprays of white to pink flowers like the better known P. 'Diablo', it has a more compact habit than typical for a ninebark, which can get a little unruly when established.

Physocarpus opulifolius 'Lady in Red' from Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants
Other familiar names were in evidence. As ever, the selection from Binny's Plants was looking very tempting.

The Binny’s Plants stand at Great Dixter
By the time I’d finished nosing through the selection from Derry Watkins at Special Plants, I was beginning to regret my cunning plan of leaving my wallet at home to prevent me from yet another spending spree.

Derry Watkins of Special Plants, chatting to a fine beard
The Great Dixter Nursery stand, about 50 yards from the actual nursery
I lingered quite some while, effectively window shopping, but inevitably found it was useless to resist the call of the garden, trudging back up the hill and entering through the meadow, full now of autumn crocuses. As ever, the first thing that strikes you on walking down this path is the porch of the house, with containers arranged around the doorway.

The porch displays are always changing. Worth the visit alone.
Plenty for me to analyse here from my photographs over the next few days, but this time of year provides a perfect time to admire the blue-grey Eastern thorn tree on the right hand side, Crataegus orientalis, with its large, round amber haws. A perfect colour combination.

A different kind of hawthorn. Crataegus orientalis
I spied pelargoniums in the grouping of pots to the right of the porch, including one of my favourite species, Pelargonium sidoides with its glaucous kidney-shaped leaves and deep maroon flowers (bottom right). These tender plants will be protected for a while from the cooler temperatures, nestled into the display and out of the immediate chill, although they'll have to be brought into the greenhouse in a week or so. I was also pleased to see the glamorous Persicaria 'Purple Fantasy' that I’d first noticed on the Binny's stand at Wisley last month.

Pelargonium sidoides on the far right, Persicaria 'Purple Fantasy' two points to the left
A visit to Dixter’s gardens can be tricky for me to pace, not least because my favourite sections are right at the start – the meadow, the porch, and the peacock garden, with all their wealth of detail, so that before I'm half way through, I'm both delighted and mentally overstimulated. On my next visit, I might make my way through the garden in the opposite direction. Yesterday, however, I turned left at the house, and headed for the peacock garden.

Entering the Peacock Garden
I do like a detail. The more intricate, and the least fussy – if that's not a contradiction in terms – the better. It could be a small section of wall, with ferns and mosses clinging to the stones, crowned with the vibrant red berries of a self-sown cotoneaster which has been given leave to remain. It might be the pleasing combination of textures framed in my viewfinder – the planes of tightly clipped yew, the russet coloured house, and the feathered silver-gold plumes of miscanthus. In each little vignette, I look for the essence of the garden – that delicately balanced counterpoint between irrepressible force of nature, allowing itself for a while to subdued by the hand of the gardener. You don’t need to be in possession of a peculiar sensitivity to see that at work here.







In the High Garden, I had a moment of affirmation. I've been mildly berating myself for undertaking a slightly bonkers brief early in the new year, to transform an old vegetable garden into a prairie-style planting, but incorporating the fruit trees and soft-fruit. Standing here, however, I felt justified and, knowing this space so well, I’m fairly certain that it must have been there all along, deep in my subconscious, preventing me from trying to talk my clients out of the idea.

Fruit trees, grasses and prairie style perennials
Mine has a little way to go in comparison. But at least I can be confident in my reference point.




Climbing down the steps through the hedge into the orchard garden. What a treat.


Descending again to the long border, and another lesson for me with this openly pruned golden lonicera, echoing the form of the miscanthus in the background. Where I might feel pressure to clip this tight, how much more charming to allow it the space to breathe and assume an open shape. Artfully done, though, L. nitida being notoriously unruly when allowed free reign.

More lessons. I will use a golden spiraea as a blob in a border, but I hadn't thought to allow the form to flow and merge with an erysimum, let alone drape it around with nasturtiums.

Finally, for this trip, an encounter with a rather revolting variegated phlox, which nonetheless proved to be just the thing needed. Now, I can’t say with any certitude that the variegated phlox is a thing which should by law be allowed at all – I have my suspicions that quite the contrary should be the case. But on the long border, it somehow managed to ease a transition from predominantly warm colours to a patch of much cooler, greys, blues and pinks, which might otherwise have seemed to jar. Food for thought – I'm still not entirely sure what I think about the plant, or even about this patch in the border from which the colour appears to have bled, but that is one of the wonderful things about the way Fergus and his team are continually experimenting here, reviewing every element and assessing the role it plays within the whole.


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I didn’t get round the whole garden, for reasons already mentioned. But I think I have time to visit over the next few weeks, before it closes on the 25th of the month.