Friday, May 16, 2008

Magnolias at Kew

Yes, I know it's long past magnolia season but I thought I'd just recall for everyone just how lovely these trees are. My excuse is that I've been having a bit of a magnolia fest this year, as not only did I get to write a whole article about them which included talking to some of the country's best growers and enthusiasts but also got to see the National Collection down in Caerhays which got me totally smitten - especially this fine specimen.

Well, just a few days after I got back from Cornwall I was over at Kew on another journalistic jaunt (I do love my job) and while wandering back from doing my interview, went to have a look at the magnolias. They'd been rather clobbered by frost, unfortunately - occupational hazard if you're a magnolia - but there was still enough there to make me swoon.

This one was amazing (and this pic is now my desktop - VP take note, I've shown you mine now too!). This is M. 'Phelan Bright', and these flowers are 10" across. Pretty amazing anyway, but even more so when you consider the tree is only 3 years old (some magnolias can take up to 20 years to flower).

Sadly this lovely thing was just about the only flower on the whole tree not reduced to brown and tattered ribbons by frost. Made it all the more special that this one survived. This is M. heptapita 'Yulan' - I'd never heard of the species, but the flower colour was the purest white of the lot.

Magnolias aren't often praised for anything except their flowers, but the buds are just gorgeous (fuzzy brown nutkins you can't help but stroke) and the leaves are often spectacular too. None more so than the leaves of M. grandiflora - it's evergreen and as you can see has lush, almost tropical foliage.

I love magnolias for their branch structure and their habit of flowering before the leaves come out - yes, it exposes them to frost, but it also shows you how spectacular pure white flowers against the stark outline of a tree trunk can be. This one is M. x veitchii 'Alba'.

Note to self: plant another magnolia. I only have M. stellata but every time it comes out in my front garden it looks more spectacular and I promise myself I'll get another one soon.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Drawing conclusions

I've spent a lot of time drawing lately.

Last night I was drawing an onion. The other day it was my hand, closely followed by a large director's chair on a table.

What this has to do with gardening I'm not quite sure - but all I know is it's great to be the one nicking the pencil sharpener out of the kids' art box for a change.

It's all to do with the Drawing and Graphics course I've now started at Capel Manor. Lovely teacher, great fellow students (all of whom are well into gardening so I now have lots of new friends to discuss the pros and cons of coppicing eucalyptus with), and I'm learning a great deal about negative space, tonal drawing and the value of a 4B pencil.

Can't quite see the connection between director's chairs and garden design yet - but am willing to suspend my disbelief for the luxury of being given permission to draw pretty pictures and call it work.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Beauty in unexpected places

This was the scene a few weeks ago at a road junction where I live. It's the most unpromising place - a corner between one main road and another pretty busy minor road - and it had roadworks opposite and traffic to right and left. But in the middle was this stunning display of spring sunshine. I wasn't the only one taking photos - it would put a smile on your face in the worst traffic jam ever!

Monday, May 05, 2008

Scary gardening

I got called a scary gardener the other day. That was by a client of mine when she saw what I'd done to her forsythia.

The trouble is, I keep getting asked to put right the effects of years of neglect. This inevitably means reducing large, overcongested shrubs to a fraction of their original size and density.

This is of course very good for the shrub: you cut out all the dead wood that's been suffocating it for so long, you let air and light into the centre from where it'll send up lots of lovely new young shoots (especially now it has room to do so), and particularly in the case of this forsythia, you restore some of the natural shape to the plant. The forsythia in question had been given a haircut once a year for several decades, which involved clipping the top to a blobby kind of dome shape and cutting off a large proportion of next year's flowers in the process. The centre of the shrub was so congested you couldn't see between the branches, and it had also more or less stopped flowering.

In my defence, I had intended to go quite easy on it - forsythia don't normally enjoy being very hard pruned, so I usually only remove a couple of the thickest branches. But in this case the decision was made for me: once I got up close and personal with the centre of the shrub, I discovered that at least half of it was dead. Once I'd removed that, there was a bloomin' great hole in the middle, so in the end the only live branches I had to remove were to re-balance the shrub again.

Result: a much healthier, but much reduced forsythia. The owner came out to see what I'd been up to, and gasped.

"Oh... my.... god.... " she croaked, for some reason clutching her throat.

At this point I began stumbling over myself in my haste to reassure her that it would be much happier now, produce lots more flowers next year, would actually move in the wind rather than just sitting there in an approximation of rigor mortis... etc etc etc. Whereupon she called me a scary gardener.

Well... I shall be suitably smug next April and May when it's smothered in tons of yellow flowers. Honestly, it's a good thing I don't require any thanks for this job....
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