Thursday, 3 August 2017

Rescue plants

I'm a bit of a sale-shelf addict. I can't seem to resist the challenge of revitalising Pittosporums or flopped Buddlejas and so I have been lurking around the bargain plant bins again. Most garden centres and many nurseries have them: shelves of the wilted, the straggly and the frankly half-dead, knocked down to rock bottom prices, 50p here, a pound or two there. My local Homebase sometimes lets you take plants away for free if they think they can't charge anything at all.

There are some great bargains to be had here. Often the plants are just dried out from lack of water and will revive after a good soak. Others have lost their shape and grown straggly, but misshapen plants are welcome: a severe prune and then some TLC will usually see new shoots growing. Reduced price plants have often finished flowering for the season so once you have nursed them back to health you will need to keep them going until next year, but then they will frequently come back as good as new.

Having accumulated a collection of sale item plants that threatened to take over the garden, I had to start planting them out.. Those that haven't found an obvious home in an existing bed have gone into the dedicated rescue plant border: a 7m x 1m strip that is still very much a work in progress and which is being filled, bit by bit, by my bargain basement plants.

I have cheated a little bit by including not just cut-price specimens, but freebies: there's a fig tree at the far end which is a cutting from the mature tree in the garden, and the globe artichoke plants are offshoots from the older plants on the allotment. So far, though, I reckon the bed has cost around a tenner to plant up.

Buddleja are a staple of the garden centre sale shelves, and a couple of years ago I started collecting up Buddleja specimens, preferably with flowers in hot pink, crimson, or deep, deep purple, indigo and also white ... anything, in fact, except railway cutting mauve. This year I have had enough to plant up an informal Buddleja hedge, which should come back year after year and all, again, for around £10 in total.

I have become a bit more discerning over the years though: I used to scoop up the entire contents of the sale rail into my arms as though I was rescuing them from the Child Catcher. Now I am more discriminating about which plants make it into the trolley.

Firstly, I buy nothing that is actually dead. Some sign of life is required. Don't buy anything that is diseased: you don't want to bring spider mite, mildew, mealy bug or whatever into your garden and spread it around your plants. It is worth checking the rootball, if you can, to make sure a) the plant has enough in the way of root to revive and b) that there aren't any weevils or other nasties lurking in the soil.

I also don't buy bedding plants - towards the end of the season, what's the point? Or lavender, these days, since you can buy really good-sized plug plants at the beginning of the season for around £1 a plant. And you can take cuttings very easily in June. It feels a bit like a loss, though, because there is always lavender on the reduced price shelf.
No lavender - unless it's just 50p a plant, of course
Finally, it has to feel like a bargain. And you have to accept that some of the plants won't survive long-term and that they really were at death's door and not even worth the 50p asking price.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Hampton Court Flower Show 2017

I made my annual pilgrimage to Hampton Court Flower Show last week. The comparatively small number of big-name show gardens was noticeable but at least partially made up for by the creativity of many of the smaller, quirkier gardens in categories such as Gardens For a Changing World, and of course the conceptual gardens.

Unlike Bunny Guinness, quoted in the Daily Telegraph as saying, in response to the number of gardens making statements or forming part of a campaign, "I think people would prefer gardens that you might want to walk around, to actually enjoy,” I think that show gardens play a valuable role in pointing to future trends, and future trends will inescapably require us to consider water conservation and the changing climate. Gardens that are thought-provoking as well as beautiful, such as Rhiannon Williams' Urban Rain Garden, which won the People's Choice award in the Changing World category, and the Zoflora and Cauldwell Children's Wild Garden (Best in Show) can be highly rewarding for the visitor. There were still plenty of gardens that were simply beautiful such as Andy Sturgeon's evolving planting for the RHS Watch This Space garden, above, the gardens of the USA, or VaRa Design's gorgeous planting for the Association of Professional Landscapers (APL) garden A Place To Meet, below.

Here's a no-particular-order list of exhibits that caught my eye:

The brick beds on the RHS Kitchen Garden, above, are a rather neater and more aesthetic version of my brick-built keyhole bed, which is currently housing my courgettes. I made mine from bricks rescued from skips in my neighbourhood, but I can see the appeal of using charcoal-grey blocks which blend in and set off the environment rather better. At the show, the RHS was promoting these hand-made beds as compost heaps, which one could enlarge simply by adding more layers, although I reckon it would be difficult to turn your compost in one of these.
Also in the RHS Kitchen Garden, a new take on the runner bean wigwam.
At On The Edge: The Centre For Mental Health garden, these highly functional concrete seats also include storage underneath. These could look great in an urban/contemporary setting.
My own personal favourite among the show gardens was London Glades, by Andreas Christodoulou and Jonathan Davies, in the Changing World category. At first sight, it's a woodland garden, with mixed mature trees and some clever and unconventional underplanting (day lilies, rhubarb, vetch, all mixed together?). The wider significance becomes clear when you realise that every single plant in the garden is edible - it's a woodland potager. The designers clearly enjoyed sourcing unusual plants such as the Japanese pepper - you could hear a constant stream of questions from visitors: "What exactly is that? But which part of it can you eat?"

I overheard one visitor say to her companion: "It's not very realistic, though, for an urban setting, is it?" and I couldn't disagree more. I can think of so many town gardens with that problem shady patch, probably somewhere down near the shed, or in the shadow of a tree that also helpfully screens a bit from the neighbours. Or down the side return ... And this is definitely a interesting way to plant it up that doesn't look apologetic, nor relies on an indestructible Aucuba, or Fatsia.
Deservedly winning Best in Show and the Peoples Choice award, the Zoflora and Cauldwell Children's Wild Garden by Adam White and Andree Davies, was created for children with disabilities including ASD with play areas, a secret cave, edible plants and safe secluded spaces within it. And these gorgeous smooth sawn slabs of stone creating a path running through the length of the space.

Monty Don and Joe Swift presenting in the Brownfield Metamorphosis garden by Martyn Wilson, landscaped using mostly corten steel and concrete and visualising a post-industrial garden, with clever planting using plants which readily establish in an urban environment: Buddleja, Achillea, Verbena bonariensis, Betula and various grasses.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Mixed berries - a new raspberry variant for the plot

Malling Promise raspberries - ready for harvest in June 
As the new allotment slowly takes shape, I've found myself left with a strip of ground about 3m long, and 1m wide, with a 2m tall metal pole framework sunk into it which has proved impossible to dig out. Having removed nearly a dumpy bag's worth of couch grass, bindweed, parthenocissus root and bramble from the strip, I've found a blackcurrant bush underneath all the undergrowth and the ground just needs plenty of organic matter dug into it to be cultivatable.

It's like a little bonus piece of land, a strip that I hadn't realised I had when we started clearing and levelling and digging two years ago. But what to grow in it? That immovable metal pole and crossbar demands something tall that will need training, which immediately made me think of raspberries. But I have thriving raspberries on the old plot: Glen Ample, and All-Gold and the purple Glencoe. I don't really need any more.

It won't be blackberries either: I have enough trouble getting the blackberry bushes to stay within the confines of their bed as it is. I've just cleared a bramble patch measuring 7m by 6m at the top of this new plot and I know for sure that I will have missed some roots which will spring into vigorous life again in April.

But what about the raspberry/blackberry crosses? What about tayberries, loganberries, boysenberries, or, digging out half-remembered names from catalogues, salmonberries, dewberries, whortleberries, chokeberries, or wineberries?

Several hours of pleasurable Internet research later, I think we have these pinned down ...

Rubus × loganobaccus
An American hybrid between a specific raspberry cultivar and a a blackberry, loganberries are thornless and produce masses of fruit which look like large cone-shaped raspberries. However, tayberries, below, are said to be sweeter.

This is a cross between the European raspberry (Rubus idaeus) and European blackberry (Rubus fruticosus). The plant produces prolific crimson fruits which look like an elongated raspberry and are said to be very sweet.

More complicated, this one: as well as the European raspberry and blackberry, the boysenberry also includes the American dewberry (Rubus aboriginum) and the Loganberry (Rubus × loganobaccus) in its ancestry. The result is a fruit which looks like an oversized blackberry and tastes like one too. Boysenberries are hardy and vigorous - maybe a bit too overwhelming for my small 3m bed.

Rubus aboriginum
Not a hybrid but a group of Rubus species, these are trailing brambles. The fruit are reputed to be difficult to pick as they will readily squish under the slight pressure when ripe. The stems are pretty thorny too. I'm not really after a ground cover plant, so I think I'll leave dewberries off the list for now. Even though I like the name.

Wineberry, aka Wine raspberry or Japanese wineberry
Rubus phoenicolasius
This is an Asian raspberry variety, Rubus phoenicolasius.

Rubus spectabilis
Another bramble species, this is Rubus spectabilis.

Not even a Rubus, but a Vaccinum, or blueberry.

Chokeberry, aka Aronia
This is one in a long line of superfood berries. There's a new one every month, isn't there?

Then there are ollalieberries, which are a specific blackberry hybrid; youngberries, which are three-quarters of a boysenberry, being a cross between the European raspberry, blackberry and dewberry; marionberries, a blackberry cultivar (Rubus L. subgenus Rubus) developed in the US.

Differentiating between blackberry and raspberry variants can be confusing: firstly the Rubus genus will readily hybridise naturally, and secondly, because growers take advantage of this trait to try to cultivate versions with larger, sweeter fruits, fewer thorns, and more prolific yields.
Tayberry leaves unfurling in late February.

After considering all of the above, I've bought, just for starters, three tayberry plants this year, and if they go well, there should be space in that bed for a couple more.They are thornless, a big plus having shredded both my hands on the bramble thicket earlier this year, with the promise of fruit in late July and August, which means they should bridge any gap between the end of the summer fruiting raspberries and the start of the blackberries in August.   

Glen Ample raspberries - another reliable cropper.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Winter colour at Golders Hill Park

On a sunny day, the small - but perfectly formed, of course - winter beds in Golders Hill Park in north London bring a welcome glow and colour when the weather is cold and the days are short.

Most of us have gardens that look a bit grey, twiggy and bedraggled in winter. But winter gardens can be surprisingly colourful, making the most of  berries, stems and bark to make a warm and striking display. One of the UK's best known winter gardens is at Anglesey Abbey near Cambridge; The nearby Cambridge Botanical Garden has an impressive winter garden, as does Hillier Gardens in Hampshire. All of them have the bright stems of Cornus - the flowering dogwood - set against the white bark of Betula jacquemontii - as their centrepiece. After that, trimmed architectural evergreens can act either as a backdrop or to create striking silhouettes against a winter sky. Ribes cockburnianus is another popular plant with its arching chalky silver stems, and the black blades of Ophiopogon planiscapus nigrescens offer contrast in edging many winter borders.

Golders Hill Park in north London, managed by the Corporation of London, has a relatively tiny but still impressive winter display edging the more formal beds behind. The classic Cornus sanguinea 'Midwinter Fire' contrasts with the Betula trunks, and this year the Nandina domestica shrubs have produced masses of red berries (below).

The purple stems of Cornus alba 'Kesselringii' are distinctive but to my mind it is 'Midwinter Fire' with its bright yellow stems tipped with red which looks particularly warming and attractive especially when planted as high density.

The purple stems of Cornus alba 'Kesselringii' add a darker, shadowy effect to the other Cornus cultivars and the white birch trunks behind. 

Bright scarlet berries top out the bronze winter foliage of Nandina domestica

Golders Hill Park also boasts its own stumpery, a revival of a Victorian fashion, where tree stumps are arranged naturalistically to become a part of the landscape and provide a structure or backdrop for plants. The stumps are not treated with any preservative and will decay very slowly over time to become a part of the woodland floor, as well as providing nesting and feeding sites for insects and birds and with hiding places for small mammals such as hedgehogs.  I love the way the dappled light is caught on the tips of the wood and highlights the shape and the grain.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Glorious late autumn colour at the Beth Chatto Gardens

It occurred to me only recently that much as I love the Beth Chatto Gardens, I've only ever visited them in summer. With the run of fine dry (and very cold) weather recently, it seemed too good an opportunity to miss to see the gardens in early winter splendour. A bit late for the full glory of autumn foliage, but the gardens were still full of colour in the pale winter light.  

The oak tree which stands near the entrance to the gravel garden was still in fine golden leaf on this frosty morning. The picture right, shows the same view in late May.
The eucalyptus trunk shines white above the greens and bronzes in the gravel garden. This garden thrives without irrigation and for much of the year is a harmonious mix of green, gold and silver foliage, and flowers in many colours though purple and golden yellow always stand out. The gravel garden amply demonstrates that a beautiful garden can be created from unpromising pieces of land: this was carved out of the original car park.

The grasses still look fabulous, above, creating a veil-like backdrop for seedheads in the reservoir garden, and below, Miscanthus sinensis 'Morning Light' glowing bronze in the, er, morning light.

Fine filaments like feathers on Cotinus coggygria on the edge of the gravel garden, and also below.

Flowers and fruits on Euonymus europaeus 'Red Cascade' (spindle tree), lighting up the woodland garden, above.
The Taxodium distichum (swamp cypress) and Liquidambar with its multi-coloured autumn foliage, blend here in this long shot to provide a dramatic backdrop in the water garden.
Surprisingly deep hues for this time of year in this view across the water, the colourful stems of Cornus showing up particularly strongly. The pools in the Beth Chatto gardens are man-made, dug out from a stream running from a natural spring down to the reservoir on the edge of the gardens. In spring and summer the ponds are fringed with the large leaves of swamp cabbage and Gunnera manicata, both of which have died back by the end of November.
The tender crowns of Gunnera manicata need protection from winter frosts, so the leaves are cut and folded over the centre of the plants. It's not pretty - the stems look as though they are wearing shabby raincoats - but it is effective.

The view into the water garden, now sadly without the birch tree which stood like a figurehead at the foot of the ponds. The tree, pictured below last year, was cut down as it had reached the end of its natural life.

The Beth Chatto gardens definitely reward repeat visits. I love the lack of straight lines, the borders marked out in graceful curves, paths winding gently through the planting. I love the diversity of the planting, the gradation from the spiky silver leaved shrubs in the dry garden through the mixed borders and tranquility of water and then into the woods with their colourful carpet of bulbs in spring. I love how plants are left to self-seed (within reason) so that the gardens develop organically over time. It's endlessly photogenic, a garden full of enchanting views, and yet its visual appeal seems effortless.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Chicory tips

A colourful salad of chicory, radicchio and capers is my idea of heaven at the moment. Something crunchy, something bitter, something piquant - and all bound together with a mustardy dressing with a slick of honey. It's the sort of sharp, clean taste that lifts the spirits in a wet sludgy November.

Best to start by disentangling some terminology:

To me, the chicory on the left is a green, or white, or witloof chicory. The plant has been partially grown in darkness, ie, forced, in order to get the tight blanched head of leaves, or chicon. The middle picture is red chicory, the Italian Rossa di Treviso, and on the right, with the round head and variegated green and red leaves, deep crimson towards the heart of the plant, is radicchio. They are all chicories, types oCichorium intybus. None of them are endive, which to me is like a frilly lettuce with thin crunchy stems and is a Cichorium endivia. The beautiful rich red colour of the radicchio and the Rossa di Treviso deepens as the temperatures drop and autumn turns into winter, although the RHS also suggests that the change in day length may contribute to the colour development.

Chicory isn't a difficult vegetable to grow, although it does spend a lot of time in the ground. Radicchio and red chicory are probably the most straightforward: sow in April or May, either in situ or in modules. I do the latter simply because I don't usually have the space in the open ground in May. By July, when I plant them out, something else will have been harvested and there will be room for them. This year I circumvented the space problem by transferring the seedlings to large recycling boxes - trying to avoid the slugs and snails which had overrun all my veg beds earlier this year. They grew very well although I had to knock up a homebrew irrigation system using a 2ltr water bottle and a ceramic cone in order to stop them from drying out.

Chicory seedlings growing bright green                       Radicchio plants growing in a container
The elegant pale chicons that we tend to think of as chicory here in the UK are achieved by cutting off the leafy growth in winter and letting the plant regrow its budding leaves in total darkness - this is the process known as forcing. We tried this out a couple of years ago as a Secret Garden Club project and it was so successful, providing chicons on a regular basis between December and March, that I have forced my green chicory plants each year since.

Witloof chicory after forcing.

This witloof chicory can be sown from April, again, either in modules or straight into the open ground. It didn't suffer too badly from the slug/snail invasion, perhaps because the plants were right next to the courgettes which acted as an attractive decoy. The most pressing problem I find with witloof chicory is that the growing plants look mightily like dandelions and if I'm not careful I find myself weeding them by mistake.

Once winter is on the way, the world's healthiest looking dandelions can be lifted and cut for forcing, removing all the leaves and stems just above the root before replanting into compost in pots and covering with a bucket to exclude all light. The chicory roots need about three weeks in the dark to produce the new leaves,or chicons. One thing I've learned since writing the Secret Garden Club post is to make sure the plant is dry when you transplant into the pots and that the compost is barely moist. Otherwise you lift the forcing pot to find brown mushy leaves instead of plump white chicons.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Pink currants - beautiful coral-coloured berries

I found these plants looking rather sad and forgotten at the back of an end of season sale bay in a Crews Hill garden centre. Alongside leftover hebes and apple standards with crooked stems were three bare-stemmed plants with 'Pink Currants RosaSport' on the label, £3.00 each.

I wasn't sure how serendipitous a find this was. We have a blackcurrant glut every year and two new redcurrant bushes thanks to cuttings a fellow allotmenteer gave me. But I was planning a soft fruit area on the new allotment and so far only had the redcurrants and some rather feral raspberry canes to go in there. The picture on the label was pretty, showing plants abundant with coral-coloured sprays of fruit, and clearly no-one else was going to buy them.

Pink currants are a redcurrant variant, ripening to a flushed salmon-pink in early July. They can be grown just as black- or redcurrants: best in free-draining soils and in a position where they can get a little afternoon shade. Having said that, my blackcurrants are established in the wettest part of my allotment and they don't seem to mind. I built some free-standing brick raised beds for the pink currants to help with the drainage. I also made sure to weed the raised beds properly: the blackcurrants do get a bit overrun each year by bindweed, however diligently I try to dig it out around the roots.

The pink currants came in containers so I removed them, watered well and teased out the roots, before planting them in a hole slightly bigger than the pot. I back-filled with compost, adding another layer as mulch once the plants were in situ and firmed the top. Having watered them in well, I left them alone to settle in.

They fruited just four months later (they must have been in those pots for a while ...). Not a huge crop, but enough to promise much more in succeeding year. The fruit look like little pink pearls, with a fresh, almost floral flavour. Certainly not as strong as blackcurrants or as sweet/sharp as redcurrants. Currants are easy and rewarding to turn into jelly, but until I get an overwhelming glut of these I'll be content to stick with eating them fresh from the plant. Those that did make it home were scattered over fruit salads, used to top breakfast cereal and porridge, and, most successfully, folded into an Eton Mess with a few raspberries, happily also ripe at the same time - see below.

Pink currant mess with raspberries.