Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Hedging your bets

The year rolls on... now it's time to dust off the hedgetrimmers and get to work. A week or so ago it was a client's privet hedge, now it's the beech hedge round our front garden and the wildlife hedge at the back.

I'm more than a bit proud of our beech hedge. We planted it ourselves, about 4 years ago after we'd grubbed up a horrid leylandii hedge. Being me, I didn't do things by halves: I dug a big trench, poured barrowloads of manure in to improve the soil, then planted my staggered rows of beech saplings 18" apart and back-filled. Then I watered them in very, very well and mulched deeply with well-rotted stable manure.

So far, so what most people do. But ever since, I've taken care of the hedge in just the same way as my perennials: I think perhaps this is where people go wrong, in that they forget that hedges are groups of plants, not just inanimate walls, and have the same needs. So I watered the hedge in the droughts, mulched it every spring, and kept it free of weeds.

Result: a four-year-old hedge which looks like it's been there 10 years. Beech hedges are notoriously slow to establish, and the books say you shouldn't expect a dense hedge until at least 5 years. Ours took three: and I'm convinced it's because I took good care of the plants, and am continuing to do so. We're reaping the rewards now: all that hard work has really paid off, and my little beech trees are thanking me in the only way they know how!

Monday, June 25, 2007

Camellia problems

I was up in the 3/4 acre woodland garden I look after the other day, and cutting back a camellia which was overhanging the pathway quite badly (this is the kind of thing I spend most of my time doing in this particular garden - the amount of green waste I remove from there has to be seen to be believed!)

I noticed pretty quickly that behind the curtain of fresh green leaves there was a problem. All the older leaves were covered in a sticky, black sooty mould, which not only looked nasty but also couldn't have been doing the shrub much good.

I wasn't quite sure myself what was causing it - I thought aphids of some sort, since this is what causes it on roses (the aphids secrete honeydew, which drips on the leaves below and is consequently colonised by the fungal sooty mould). I was a bit unsure about this since I've never heard of aphids attacking camellias to any great degree.

Anyway - I came back and looked it up, and thanks to the dear old RHS I discovered we almost certainly have not aphids, but Camellia cushion scale.

I have to go back and check whether there are yellow-brown scale insects near the veins (or indeed "white waxy egg masses"). But everything else fits.

The good news is, this is just the right time of year to control it. I'm going to have to spray; I'll try the organic version first (Growing Success Bug Killer or Vitax Organic 2in1) and if that doesn't work, I'll zap it with the very un-environmentally friendly Provado. My client tells me he has a backpack sprayer in his garage (the shrub is about 15ft tall) - so time to tog up and do battle!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Choice choisya

Another good shrub for cutting back at this time of year is Choisya ternata "Sundance". About now those lovely sunny yellow leaves which lifted your spirits through the worst of the winter weather turn a pale washed-out shade of sickly. It's time to prune them off and allow the new, green growth to come through and turn yellow in its place. It also gives the bush a lovely rounded shape for next winter, as the new growth comes through in nice neat rosettes and all stays the same length, more or less.

It's pretty simple - just take the secateurs and trim down to the next rosette of leaves, usually about 6" or so down the stem. If there isn't a rosette, just trim out the whole stem. You don't need to cut it back hard: just shape it to the size you'd like and leave it.

Choisya is one of the few shrubs you can hack back without ruining the appearance: though it does change colour temporarily, from yellow to green, a healthy plant carries enough leaves in the centre of the bush to keep it looking nice and dense. After you've finished, give it a feed of pelleted chicken manure and a good water and mulch, and it'll be set fair to keep you smiling in winter all over again.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The things you see out gardening...

I was happily laying into an overgrown cotoneaster in the big country garden I look after this morning when I heard a low humming noise.

I thought at first it was a bug flying around my ears so I was swatting away when the hum got louder. And louder. Finally it occurred to me to look up, and there was the biggest swarm of bees I've ever seen. Actually, the only swarm of bees I've ever seen.

They came up the hill from the open fields behind, a great big black cloud of them, making that insistent, purposeful drone as they came. I watched in awe as they flew overhead and made for the far side of the garden (thank goodness - I had momentary panics over what I'd do if they decided I looked interesting). I looked for them later but couldn't see them - not sure what I'd have done if I had, to be honest.

It all prompted me to look into this funny business of swarming. Funnily enough, the first place I found was a local council not far from me, at Elmbridge. Here's what they had to say:

"Colonies totalling as many as 20,000 bees can and will swarm. The noise of a bee swarm can be alarming but the danger is not very great. The swarming bees will cluster, possibly on a tree branch, and should be collected by an experienced beekeeper (contact your local Environmental Health Department or the police if a beekeeper is not known to you). Honeybees can sting, especially if you venture close to their hive. "

Apparently honeybees swarm, but bumblebees don't. And I discovered a whole website dedicated to informing people about honeybee swarms, at here's what they say:

"Honey bees swarm to multiply the number of colonies and thus propagate and perpetuate the species. By division of the bee stocks in the hive, those left behind have honey stores, and along with young bees about to hatch is a young queen in her special cell.

The bees that swarm with the old queen do not go far from the hive. Maybe because queen bees do not fly as well or as fast as workers! They will move on from each resting spot until a new home is found. (Or until a beekeeper collects them and puts them into a new hive.)

Swarms can survive for a number of days on the honey stores they filled themselves with before leaving the hive. As the days pass they will be more upset when approached - hence its important to get a beekeeper to collect them quickly. "

You learn new things every day... hope whoever finds their swarm when it finally settles gets some nice honey out of it!

Monday, June 18, 2007

Hacking at lilacs

This is a great time of year for cutting back overgrown shrubs, especially spring-flowering ones. Lilac is a prime target, as well as evergreen ceanothus, berberis, pyracantha... pretty much anything that doesn't flower later this year, really.

I spent a couple of hours laying into a client's lilac last week. It must have been 20 years old, and about that long since it was last looked at: it was heavily congested in the centre and the 4" thick branches were splaying outward and endangering his shed. And it was about 25-30ft tall, which would have been fine in a big garden but his is a small-ish suburban strip.

I like to think of this kind of pruning as rejuvenating pruning - though it also counts as common-or-garden hacking back. What you do is remove about a third to a half of the wood - taking out the thickest, oldest branches first, and then any which are pointing in the wrong direction, as well as any which are diseased and/or dead, of course. If you're me, you find it hard to know when to stop, especially with lilacs: when they're overgrown, they tend to develop long, leggy stems with the leaves and flowers right at the very end, and that means once you've taken out the bulk of the shrub, you're left with some rather sad-looking whippy lengths of wood waving around in the breeze. It all looks very odd.

Fear not: this is quite normal. The thing to do is to leave it looking a bit wierd this year, and wait until the stump starts pushing up new growth, which it will do very quickly. Then next year you can cut out another third of the long whippy old wood; and by the third year, when the new growth has got to a decent height and will be flowering well, you can take out the last third to be left with a bush that's all the same height, hopefully a nice shape and full of strapping young growth which looks far nicer and is much more healthy.

Friday, June 15, 2007

The Wisley glasshouse

One of the great privileges I have with my garden writers' hat on is that I get to go to sneak previews - and last night I went along to the unveiling of the new glasshouse at RHS Wisley, which opens to the public for the first time today.

Since I'm such a regular visitor to Wisley, I've been watching this amazing structure going up gradually over the years, and went along to another press bash in February to see it as the planting went in - well, then it was almost entirely under water after a winter of torrential rain, and we were all taking bets on whether it would be ready in time to open.

We needn't have worried. It's quite amazing what they've done in the four months since then: it still looks very "new", and the planting outside (designed by Tom Stuart-Smith) is just in so will take some to show what it's made of: but inside it is breathtaking. It's going to be wonderful watching it grow over the months and years to come.

Here it is: a little stark, perhaps, until the exterior landscaping develops, but a remarkable structure nonetheless. It was designed in Holland, and doubles-up as a water collection system.

At the centre is a magnificent waterfall - you walk behind it as you pass from the temperate side into the tropical. The rock is artificial, and hides a "root zone" exhibit underneath.

There were orchids in the palm trees: I wasn't quite sure if they were there for our benefit, or if they're going to stay! They looked fantastic, anyway.

And then there were the plants... these Philodendron leaves were up to two feet long and that soft, velvety texture was so utterly gorgeous. And this is just a baby plant...

Outside in Cleve West's teaching garden, there were loads of great ideas - I'm going to nick this fantastic birch-log path for the jungle area around my pond.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Flopping around

Another little job that always gets the better of me every year is the staking.

In my defence, I will say I keep trying to grow new things and then discovering too late that they are the kind of things that flop in an ungainly way over everything around them once they get to flowering. Last year it was Aster "Climax" (now moved to the cutting garden); this year it's a big clump of Anthemis tinctoria "Kelwayii", a brassy yellow daisy with profuse, pretty flowers which I grew from seed last year. I planted three as young plants, but they didn't do much last year, despite being touted as first-year-flowering perennials - I suspect though it might have been to do with my thin soil rather than anything else. Anyway, this year they've shot up, to about 4ft tall, and as soon as they formed flower buds they promptly crashed to the ground.

Sadly for the hemerocallis behind, to say nothing of the poppies all around and a hellebore or two, floppy plants mean crushed neighbours and a bare centre where the clump has fallen outwards. It's extremely unsightly and very bad for the border.

As usual, I've done a sticking-plaster job - really tricky this time as unlike the Aster, the Anthemis is near the front of the border. Actually I'm quite pleased with how it's gone: I had some old plant supports someone gave me, real instruments of bondage with five vicious-looking wire "arms" which until now had flummoxed me as to how to use them. Fortunately they sink nicely into the ground and the arms hold up the Anthemis nicely. Situation saved: but, like the Aster, the Anthemis are now earmarked for an alternative home next year!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Back to the wall

I've been giving my ceanothus a haircut this week, as it's trained against a fence and needs an annual prune to keep it tidy.

Wall-training shrubs which are otherwise inclined to get a bit big and unwieldy is a great way to keep them in bounds. Ceanothus is a good candidate, and so is Japanese quince (Chaenomeles japonica), pyracantha and Garrya elliptica. The small-leaved cotoneaster, C. horizontalis, holds itself so rigid it practically stands up against a wall by itself, without supports.

The principle is pretty straightforward: you'll need supports, such as wires spaced about a foot to 18" apart, to train the shrub onto before you start.

Then, year by year, you shape the shrub so it's flat against the wall. You do this just after flowering: just prune out any branches growing out away from the wall completely or, if you're at risk of ending up with bare stems, you can prune back to one or two leaf joints from the stem.

Tie in side shoots pointing the way you want them to go, and then trim any upward-growing stems to about an inch (2.5cm) below the top of the fence or wall. If any longer side shoots are growing beyond the bounds you want them to keep to, shorten them, too.

Pyracantha in particular makes a really lovely espalier if you do this: ceanothus is a bit more bushy, so you get a pleasing evergreen "coat" to disguise your fence with. In any case, you avoid the problem you get with climbers where they're forever climbing next door, or over the neighbouring shrubs; and it looks great, too.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Home-made perfume

One of the sidelines of my cutting garden is left over from its previous incarnation as a herb garden: I've got a row of plants specifically dedicated to producing perfume.

At the moment - since the whole thing got interrupted so wasn't completed properly - it consists only of English lavender and Apothecary's Rose (Rosa gallica officinalis). The rose is currently flowering its head off and so I'm gathering the petals and drying them on a shelf in the shady corridor that runs from one back door to the other, between my office and the kitchen. It might sound like an odd place for drying flowers, but in fact it fulfils all the main requirements in that it's shady, cool and there's a draught running through it regularly.

At the moment I'm not quite sure what I shall do with the dried petals: I could make simple rose-petal pot pourri, which just means dried rose petals in a bowl. That would be nice, but I'm not sure how long it will last. What I'd really like to do is to make wet pot pourri - the type for which it is named (it literally means "rotten pot"!). This involves packing layers of petals which have been dried for just two days in a big crock with rock salt. Unfortunately since the pot needs to be clay or similar (i.e. not see-through) I've got a problem sourcing one - large glass jars are relatively easy to find, but big clay crocks went out with my grandma. The search begins!

Friday, June 08, 2007

Plant of the month - June

Rosa "Dublin Bay"

I first spotted this lovely climbing rose in the rose gardens at RHS Wisley, where I was looking for a true, pure red. So often in roses you find reds that aren't red at all - they're orangey-red, or pinky-red, or scarlet (i.e. dark red). "Dublin Bay" comes as close as it's possible to get to a clear, pure, red red. The only downside I can detect is that it doesn't have any appreciable perfume. It's a robust, healthy plant that grows lustily but remains well-behaved: a rare combination that makes this rose all the more covetable. Its strong stems are a dusky shade of purple when young, adding to the charm of what must be one of the best climbing roses available anywhere.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Chelsea chic

As I mentioned a few days back, I had the fantastic experience of spending a whole week at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show just recently. And what a show it was. I had been a bit worried that I'd be all jaded this year - I did the same thing last year and was all wide-eyed and star-struck by it all, so I thought this year I'd be all "been there, done that". I needn't have been concerned. It was just as exciting to be there, the atmosphere was just as electric, and all those mouthwatering, beautiful plants...

The thing Chelsea did to me last year and has done again is to give me a sense of my own insignificance. I tend to strut around here at home thinking, I'm a professional gardener, I know it all - but when you go to Chelsea, you realise what an amateur you are in comparison to these utterly dedicated plantaholics. They're so talented, too: the perfection it takes to get a gold medal at Chelsea has to be seen to be believed. When you've watched someone spend a whole hour teasing dead strands from a Stipa tenuissima, you know you're in the presence of the highest standards it's possible to imagine.

So, suitably humbled, I thought I'd just share my favourite Chelsea gardens from this year's show. There were some real crackers: nothing head-and-shoulders above the rest, like Tom Stuart-Smith's garden last year, but several which really grew on you (like Jinny Blom's Laurent-Perrier Garden, and Ulf Nordfjell's Tribute to Linnaeus). And, just for the record - I entirely agreed with the RHS judges in giving the Best in Show award to Sarah Eberle's 600 Years with Bradstone. It was the only truly original garden there, executed with panache and daring, to say nothing of excellence: and every time you looked at it, you saw something else. You can't ask more of a Chelsea garden than that.

This was Kate Frey's garden for Fetzer Vineyards. Have you ever seen such wonderful flowers? The gorgeous blue ones were Phacelia campanularia - a new one to me, but a native wildflower in California. Kate - a lovely, gentle person who you can tell was just born to be a gardener - is a master at recreating wild landscapes like this: you can't really believe such beauty is possible on such a small scale.

This was Jinny Blom's garden for Laurent-Perrier. Jinny was over the moon about her gold medal - it's the first time she's struck gold after several years of trying. You could see why, too: the planting in this garden was ultra-sophisticated and very, very subtle, and she'd obviously put a huge amount of thought into it. And that moongate sculpture was something else: it moved around the garden with you. Fabulous.

This was another super-sophisticated garden with some really accomplished planting - I thought it had a good shot at Best in Show had the judges been playing safe. Robert Myers reflected the old, traditional nature of the Fortnum & Mason department store which sponsored the garden - but at no point did his charming garden feel stuffy. The garden was full of subtle little touches of brilliance: behind those beehives (which provided a major talking-point at the show) that fencing is made of old Fortnum & Mason hamper lids. And the clock at the back was set to seven minutes past five - or 1707 in 24-hour clock, the year Fortnum & Mason was founded.

Tiggy Salt's small courtyard garden, Where the Wild Things Are, was a big hit, with adults and children alike. This is pure Chelsea theatre: the night sky formed a background to a recreation of Maurice Sendak's classic children's book, and a wonderful copper boat was there to take Max from his chamomile bed across to the "forest" of Fatsia japonica. It was magical.

And an odd little snippet: this Italian Scarce Swallowtail butterfly hatched out halfway through the show, having been imported as a chrysalis on a yew at the Romantic Gardens topiary display in the Great Pavilion. It fluttered over to the Claire Austin Hardy Plants display next door - presumably the irises looked prettier - before finally flying off. Apparently only a handful have ever been seen in the UK before. Look out for this one in SW3 for a few weeks to come!

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Plant of the month - May

Iris "Lothario"

It took a long time to get there, but boy was it worth the wait. I planted this lovely bearded Iris way back in autumn 2004, having bought it from the wonderful iris specialists, Claire Austin Hardy Plants. It had a bad couple of years - too overshadowed by nearby plants in 2005, then took last year to recover - but this year it's come into its own and is producing bloom after fabulous bloom. Palest mauve petals shade down to a lovely dusky purple fall, with that palest yellow beard setting the whole thing off. It's like having a wildly rococo can-can dancer in the garden - and she's stealing the show.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Dear diary...

I've been trying to find a way of keeping track of the plants and jobs in my garden. Until now I've just used a good old notebook and pen, but of course it's difficult to include photos and there's lots of bits and bobs you can't do - like cross-reference plant details or this-time-last-year entries easily.

Since this is an obvious application for a computer programme, I've been having a look at what's on offer. Surprisingly, there's very little by way of interactive gardening calendars: surely someone out there can spot this gap in the market?

Shoot is probably the most recent application on offer - it's actually a way of selling your house by advertising its wonderful garden, which is a great idea in itself. But it also works as a big club for garden owners and allows you to pick out your plants from its massive database and add them to your virtual garden. Even better, they'll then email you regularly with advice on how to care for it all. The downside: you have to pay for it. The paltry eight plants you're allowed to download for free doesn't go very far - cannily, they've made sure it's just enough to get you curious for more so you'll fork out the £20 or so it costs for a year's membership. But if you're willing to pay, it's a great service and well-run enough to be head and shoulders above the rest.

For free, the BBC Gardening website does a calendar too. For some reason it's well hidden on the site and takes a bit of finding - perhaps they're still developing it. It could do with a few extras: the plant list is very limited, and there's no email reminder (and the tips they give you are kind of basic). But they do allow you to keep an online note-style diary for the garden which you can refer back to easily.

And... er... that's it! Apart from a handful of CD-roms which do the same sort of thing but I'm sure have the same sort of drawbacks. I think I might just have to invent my own... unless someone beats me to it!

Monday, June 04, 2007

Back from Chelsea

I've just spent a couple of weeks away from the garden - at the Chelsea Flower Show (fantastic!) where I have had the privilege of a press pass for the last couple of years now, and then on my hols in the Isle of Wight.

More of Chelsea later if I get a moment... but what is it about going away even for a short amount of time that makes your garden suddenly decide it's going to romp away and grow for England? Since I last looked at it, the Goliath poppies have burst into action, to say nothing of several self-seeded orientals - some are a beautiful clear orange, the first time that particular colour has turned up, and really unusual. My roses are blooming fit to bust (Dublin Bay - a scarlet climber - is particularly lovely), and several smaller shrubs have simply disappeared under the mass of vegetation that's suddenly burgeoning from every corner.

Not that I'm complaining: June in my garden is fabulous, and the peak of the whole show. It's so lovely to look out of your window and just stare, transfixed by something that's in your own back garden. What a privilege.
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