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I’ve just been to the annual Garden Press Event, where we get to see what’s new in the world of gardening and I found plenty to catch my eye. Nutscene’s Thick Chunky Twine Ball (£10.95 from www.nutscene.com) is a heavy duty twine that will be invaluable in the garden for those jobs that need something more robust than ordinary garden string.

Forest Garden’s Victorian Walkaround Greenhouse is a great idea for anyone with limited space – the gardener stays outside and opens the doors to get access to the plants inside. Maybe not ideal for the gardener when it rains, but a good place to keep tender plants during winter – I’m trying to work out if I have somewhere suitable for it – it would make a perfect miniature orangery to overwinter my citrus trees. £529.99 from www.forestgarden.co.ukBlooming Amazing (£6.99 for 70 litres) is a soil enricher that is the by-product of anaerobic digestion in which plant material is broken down to create biogas. Think of the process as an artificial cow’s stomach – the plants go in, are chomped up, break down, and release gas and out the other end comes a useful soil mulch that is pleasant to handle, rich in nutrients and an ideal top dressing for the garden. Check their website www.bloominamazing.com for local stockists.

There were several companies at the event introducing new ways of feeding your plants. Envii caught my eye with their probiotics for plants – these work in a similar way to mycorrhizal fungi, but apparently are different. I will be interested to try them, especially the Maximato tomato feed (£20 for 500ml from Amazon). There were several things I liked about this company – on a practical note, the liquid feed containers had a built in measuring device which is something I’ve been requesting for absolutely ages; also they are working hard to make their packaging and delivery as environmentally friendly as possible. Envii is phasing out single-use plastics and they now use a green type of jiffy bag that is entirely compostable, hexcel paper instead of bubble wrap and paper parcel tape instead of the plastic version. To highlight their green credentials they had planted up a jiffy bag and also used the self-clinging hexcel paper to make a plant pot. Good stuff. www.envii.co.uk

Specialist feed producer Vitax has a range of targeted plant foods to meet the specific requirements of a variety of shrubs and trees. The latest additions to the range are an Olive Tree Feed (help for those many starved specimens you see languishing in pots) and a Tree Fern and Palm Feed. None of these plants is cheap to buy so it is worthwhile investing in targeted feed to keep them healthy and growing strongly. Local stockists are listed on their website www.vitax.co.uk

If I needed any more planters (I definitely do not!!!!) then I would be very tempted by the Rustic range at Woodlodge. The moulds used to make them have been taken from natural materials so they give a very good impression of being made from bark, slate and weathered timber. They are extremely heavy (concrete?) so very stable and are reasonably priced. www.woodlodge.co.uk for stockists

Wandering among the seed merchants displays, two that tempted me were Alonsoa warscewiczii ‘Scarlet’ from the Sarah Raven range for Johnsons Seeds and ‘Red Swan’ dwarf French bean at Mr. Fothergill’s. The alonsoa was such a gorgeous colour that I felt I must have a go at growing it – and with the French bean the combination of the pink shade and the claim of ‘incredible flavour’ on the seed packet proved irresistible.

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It’s decades since I last visited the Huntingdon Gardens and my memory of them was quite hazy, other than admiring the Japanese bridge and seeing hippeastrums growing outdoors, so it was top on my list of places to go when we had a two-night stopover in Los Angeles en route to Tasmania.


It has clearly been spraunced up a fair bit since my last visit and parts of it are quite breathtaking – in particular the Desert Garden – it is astonishing. I’m not sure how I missed seeing it on my first visit as it covers ten acres and is nearly 100 years old and filled with a magnificent array of very large and very prickly customers. Mind you, I did have a toddler in tow at the time, so it was probably best avoided!


The contrasting shapes and textures create a magnificent tapestry. I was particularly struck by the golden barrel cacti that were grown from seed before 1915 and many of which now weigh several hundreds of pounds. There are yuccas reaching sixty feet and two hundred species of aloe, many of which were in full flaming flower.


Buds were emerging on the cacti, but it would be a few weeks before they added further colour to the landscape.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Desert Garden was the birdsong – whilst it was quite muted in the rest of the Huntingdon Gardens, amongst the nectar-rich aloes it was unmissable. They clearly loved this garden as much as I did and should you find yourself in Los Angeles make sure that you go there too – you won’t be disappointed.

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Posting my ‘Top Nine of 2018’ in Instagram, it was interesting to see that the most ‘liked’ images were all local – some from my own garden, but also from Perch Hill, Sarah Raven’s always inspiring garden at nearby Brightling and the equally inspiring Great Dixter. The only non-plant post was of the approaching Beast from the East. As we walked along the beach the sky was the most extraordinary colour and it was pulsing like a malign aurora borealis. Fingers crossed we don’t see anything similar in 2019. Follow theenduringgardener on Instagram.

Key to photographs:

Top row: Beast from the East; a carpet of Fritillaria meleagris at Great Dixter; tubs of  tulip ‘Exotic Emperor’ either side of our front door

Middle row: Dahlia ‘Tartan’ at Perch Hill; Rose ‘Simple Life’ at Perch Hill; trough of cutting tulips in my garden (they looked too lovely to pick!).

Bottom Row: Hellebore in my garden (I think it is a picotee) bought many years ago from Elizabeth Strangman; cutting garden at Perch Hill; corner of the courtyard in my garden with Begonia boliviensis.

New Year’s Eve in the Garden

This strange year has been full of horticultural surprises, courtesy of the unpredictable weather – and it continues right to the very end. There are plants in flower  that are hanging on from summer and autumn – most unusually, the Brugmansia that is still in full leaf and producing the odd bloom or two (a neighbour tells me hers is covered in flowers). Salvia ‘Phyllis’s Fancy’ is still blooming against the wall, with winter-flowering iris emerging beneath it – a very unlikely combo. More predictably, the first hellebores are opening and Clematis ‘Winter Beauty’ is dangling from the branches of the quince tree. Meanwhile, overhead the mimosa has started to flower weeks ahead of schedule. I’ve certainly never had mimosa in the house in December before now.   Gardening is always full of surprises and I’m sure 2019 will be no different. Happy New Year.

Mimosa

Salvia ‘Phyllis’s Fancy’

Iris unguicularis

Hellebore

Clematis urophylla ‘Winter Beauty’

Brugmansia

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Mahonias don’t get a particularly good press, mainly because they are too often left to grow straggly – which is not a good look. Bare stems, sparse leaves and a top knot of flowers doesn’t show this plant off to its best advantage, however sweet the perfume of its winter flowers. Later in the year its dusky blue berries also deserve a better setting.  My recent visit to the new Winter Garden at Wakehurst Place was as interesting for the plants that were retained as for those that were newly planted.  The mahonias were especially impressive – after a very hard prune they had regrown into dense, bushy plants smothered in flowers.  They can be given this treatment at any time of year, but ideally immediately after the flowers have faded. So if your mahonia is far from being your pride and joy, hard prune it, loosen and improve the soil around it with some well-rotted compost and next winter your mahonia can become a star attraction in your winter garden.

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An unexpected delivery of a microgreens growing kit from a company called Silly Greens reminded me just how packed with flavour newly sprouted seeds are and how convenient it is to have something growing on your windowsill that will add an extra flavour hit to soups, salads and sandwiches. They are packed with nutrients too, which is definitely a benefit in the season of coughs and colds.

The idea behind Silly Greens is that you sign up for regular deliveries, so that you always have something growing on your windowsill. This is ideal for flat dwellers and students and those too busy to organise it themselves. Each pack costs £4 and everything (bar the plants!) can be repacked and sent back using an enclosed Freepost label.

Of course, none of this is rocket science and anyone with a plastic tray or two, some paper towel, or similar water-holding material (or even soil) can buy packets of microgreen seeds and make their own windowsill garden. Most seed companies, including Suttons, Marshalls, Unwins and Johnsons sell kits and a wide range of seeds. It’s well worth the effort.

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Over the years I have come to realise that the key to overwintering half-hardy and tender plants is not necessarily to cosset them somewhere warm, but to make sure that they stay fairly dry. Cold doesn’t necessarily kill them, unless your soil is frozen for long periods of time, but the combination of cold and wet almost always does. I have a variety of strategies, depending how precious particular plants are – some I will gamble with, some not.

The citrus trees are far too precious to risk losing them and although they are now too large to find space for all three indoors, two come through the winter pretty well on a bench in front of the window in the garage, while the other has pride of place in the kitchen. Come the spring when they all go outdoors, the two less-cossetted trees are soon back in tip top condition.

Then there’s the belt-and-braces approach – one of the brugmansias in the courtyard is ten foot tall and still producing flowers so I’m reluctant to cut it back yet, but I do have a sister plant that was cut back and potted up and tucked under the brick arch of the log store – along with some geraniums – where it will get reasonable light but stay dry. Another lodger in the log store is a pot of black-eyed Susan – it’s a bit of a gamble – I’ve had them come through the winter before and they flowered much earlier than bought in plants and romped up fifteen feet, so rather consign them to the compost heap they can take their chances. Salvias get similar treatment – I leave some plants outdoors, but dig others up, cut them right back and pot them up to overwinter in the conservatory and take cuttings to root in a propagator. Salvias ‘Amistad’, Ceri potosi and Phyllis’s Fancy all get this treatment.

Second brugmansia has been cut back and is cosying up to geraniums

Brugmansia

If you haven’t already done so, just about the most important thing you can do to help outdoor potted plants come through the winter, is to remove any saucers from underneath the pots and lift the pots off the ground – put them on a raised surface, or use pot feet. When moisture can drain away freely the roots of the plants are much less likely to be damaged by frost. It can also help to cover some of the more vulnerable plants with cloches – especially succulents.

There’s one task that I still have on my list – I have several large pots of agapanthus – most winters they do fine as long as I tuck them up with a deep layer of bark that covers the roots and the fleshy base of their leaves, but lying snow can cause them to rot, so I now play safe by adding a fleece cover to their protection – it’s not very pretty but the plants are worth protecting.

Surface rooting agapanthus can be vulnerable to damage from snow

Everything else has to take its chances – I apply deep mulches to plants in the border that are too large to move and most winters they will be fine – if not it offers an opportunity to plant something entirely different!

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Our magnificent tulip tree Liriodendron tulipifera has just had its five-yearly haircut. As much as we would like to leave it to grow without interference, there comes a point when it overhangs the house to such an extent that intervention is necessary. Also, a large area of the garden becomes increasingly shady from July to November and the plants beneath it get increasingly leggy, or give up entirely.

This year the change was particularly dramatic because the tulip tree still had most of its leaves when it was pruned. I asked the tree surgeons if this was a problem but they said it was fine and that the leaves were actually quite helpful as they act as parachutes, meaning that there were fewer casualties amongst the plants beneath the tree. There are always some losses, however careful they are, but on the whole it was a few squashed foxgloves and flattened hellebores rather than anything really serious.

By the time the tree surgeons left it was nearly dark so it was inevitable that there would be some cleaning up to be done and I have spent the last couple of days tidying the aftermath. There has been a definite win in having the tree pruned with its leaves in place – leaf sweeping will be much reduced this year and as we already have a fairly monumental leaf heap we won’t be missing out on leafmould. Tulip tree leaves are pretty slow to decompose, so I always need to move most of them to allow the spring bulbs and flowers to be seen – left in place everything tends to wear a leafy hat and be somewhat starved of light which is not the effect I am looking for!

Post-pruning, the woodland area beneath the tulip tree had a deep layer of leaves, twigs and small branches that needed removing. Twigs and branches are now in a heap ready for shredding and spreading on the paths, while the vast majority of the leaves are on the leaf heap. I can now get on with planting narcissus and tulips that I am naturalising in the woodland area and once that is done I will spread a thick layer of composted bark. It’s always a bit unnerving seeing our much-loved tree cut back, but experience has taught us that it responds well to this treatment and for the next few years the plants beneath it will enjoy living in the light.

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Wisterias are wonderful plants, but once established they do have imperialistic tendencies, wreathing and twining their way to cover walls, reach for roofs and wind through windows, so generally it is not considered a suitable plant for small spaces.  However, on my recent visit to the Hillier Garden  I saw a new technique they are using that makes it possible to grow them successfully in a garden with limited space.

With this system the wisterias are grown up a single sturdy post about 3 metres tall. A single stem is trained up the post and the side shoots are spur-pruned back to a couple of buds from the main stem (similar to how fruit trees are pruned).  As the plants establish this will build a framework that will be laden with flowers in the spring.  It is important to cut back the new shoots that emerge during the growing season to maintain the shape of the flowering column.

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After an amazing summer, autumn seems determined to compete. A group of garden journalists, including myself, were fortunate to take a guided tour of the Hillier Gardens with head gardener, David Jewell and the one-man plant encyclopaedia Roy Lancaster. Roy regaled us with tales of virtually every plant we saw, so progress was slow but hugely entertaining.

Rare Beauties

It is always exciting when you see something you’ve never seen before. The star was a tree called Cyclocarya paliurus, commonly known as the wheel wing nut because of the circular wing around the small nut.  Apparently it has never looked finer – I loved the way the light illuminated the wheels. I was also smitten with an incredibly shaggy birch Betula albosinensis ‘Bowling Green’ that was looking wonderful as the low sunlight illuminated the bark.

Gilded Grass

One of the highlights of the vast Centenary Border was Miscanthus nepalensis – it looks like it has been dipped in gold at this time of year.  Although not hardy in colder areas, it stays relatively compact, so is definitely worth a go if you think you can get away with it.

Clematis terniflora

I’m not sure I have ever come across this clematis before, but my, it is a beauty – fragrant  and as flower smothered as any I have ever seen. It something that takes a bit of finding, but I reckon it’s well worth the hunt.

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Aster frikartii ‘Monch’ with Rosa ‘Cornelia’

If you harbour doubts about the usefulness of asters in the garden, can I recommend a visit to Waterperry Gardens where the borders are made brilliant with these vibrant autumn flowers. Just at the point when their summer companions are fading, they are in full fig, along with salvias, heleniums and ornamental grasses.

Aster ‘White Ladies’

Aster ‘Erica’

Waterperry, just outside Oxford, has an interesting history. In the early 20thcentury it became the Waterperry Horticultural School for Ladies, under the tuition of Beatrix Havergal, finally closing in 1971. Its current owners have kept the gardens open, retaining the horticultural staff who still run the day classes established by Miss Havergal.

A photo of Beatrix Havergal at her desk ©Waterperry

©Waterperry

Anyway, back to the asters. Rather like dahlias, they spent many years when they were out of fashion, but with the advent of prairie-style planting they are back in favour. One of the reasons they fell out of favour was their vulnerability to powdery mildew, which ruined their appearance. The good news is that the New England asters – the novae-angliae cultivars have good mildew-resistance, whilst the novae-belgii varieties are more likely to succumb. In my own garden – even after this long, hot, dry summer and my light, sandy soil, my novae-angliae asters are still looking healthy and glossy-leaved. At Waterperry, several caught my eye. Deepest purple ‘Helen Picton’ is on my want list, but the plants in the nursery were so tall that I resisted and hope to find it at the Great Dixter Autumn Plant Fair on October 6th-7th where I also hope to find the extremely pretty pink ‘Fellowship’. I did come away with the lovely ‘Lutetia’.

By the way, while ‘aster’ or Michaelams daisies remain in common use, there has been a lot of reclassification going on and the North American asters are now botanically classified as ‘symphyotricom’.

Aster ‘Lutetia’

Aster ‘Fellowship’

I picked up some useful information at Waterperry about how and where to grow asters. The New England asters have a tall habit and when grown in a sheltered border against a wall or fence, will need staking. However, when grown in the open e.g. an island bed, the movement of the wind through the plants will make the plants shorter and sturdier, so staking is not required. This is more like their natural prairie habitat.

Staking required against the wall

Island border – no staking needed

The Magic Apple Tree

Waterperry Gardens are equally well known for their apple growing and the ultimate example of this is their multi-grafted family tree that grows an astonishing forty-five different varieties. Apparently the world-record is over sixty varieties on one tree, but quite how they find space for that many grafts is a mystery to me. The tree is mainly an exercise in giving students the opportunity to learn how to graft, but laden as it is with fruit, it is truly a wonder to behold.

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