Friday, April 25, 2008

Plant of the month - April

Amelanchier canadensis

Snowy mespilus

Actually this picture was taken a couple of weeks ago, and the blossom has finished since, but for all that its spectacular display is brief, when snowy mespilus flowers in spring it really steals the show.

These delicate, butterfly flowers are far more graceful than cherries: they're less overblown, less in-your-face, far more comfortable in their own beautiful skin. These are not flowers that need to shout their arrival: they just appear one day, and everyone drops what they're doing to stare.

One of the most lovely things about the snowy mespilus blossom is that it appears against the very young growth of the leaves, which at this time of year is tinged a coppery bronze. The combination will take your breath away. This is in many ways the perfect small garden tree: it will now clothe itself with vibrant pale green leaves all summer, provide striking purplish-black berries in autumn, and shed its leaves with a final flourish of vivid orangey-reds. It never gets too big, or too messy-looking, and it's not too fussy about its soil - it even puts up with my free-draining sand. If you don't have a mespilus in your garden, go out and buy one right away: you're missing something very special.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Those were the days...

While I was in Cornwall (told you I'd be going on about it a bit) I popped into the National Gardening Museum at Trevarno, near Falmouth (which is itself a lovely garden - the bluebell walk was in full flower and a welcome respite from the gale-force winds knocking us off our feet everywhere else).

I've only ever been to one gardening museum before - the one everyone's been to, the Museum of Garden History in London. That was a few years back now, and all I can really remember of it was the utterly charming knot garden nestled in behind it - which made it more of a garden visit than a museum visit really.

The National Gardening Museum is less charming, in that it's housed in a rather post-industrial barn-cum-warehouse, so it's best not to look up too often. But what it contains is utterly absorbing and quite surprisingly fascinating.

Garden museums seem to be largely about tools and sundries, not plants, unfortunately, but you do realise there's a story behind each one. I happened to be walking around behind a group of old boys, who kept remembering having used half the things on display. There was a quite absurd number of watering cans, some sinister-looking spray guns, and I'll never view gazebos in quite the same way again after seeing the Victorian version.

But most fascinating of all, to me, was the display of seed packets. Again, it's something you take so much for granted - yet did you know Suttons used to supply their seeds in what they called "close cases" - glass test tubes to you and me, bunged up with a stopper and presented in a sort of large cigar case, beautifully and with much ceremony. Even the labels had a touch of mystery and gave a real feeling that here was a little pot of gold dust.

It makes you feel the romance has gone out of gardening a little these days - I can't imagine them making a display out of your average Suttons seed packet circa 2008. I could be mistaken, though - no doubt we'll all get our seeds virtually in times to come, teleported magically into our gardens with not a seed packet in sight. Now there's a thought...

Monday, April 21, 2008

Close encounters of the horticultural kind

Just sometimes you meet a truly, truly memorable plant. The kind of plant you just know you'll think about for the rest of your life, in an "oh yeah... now that was amazing" sort of way.

This happened to me last week, while on holiday in Cornwall (of which much more later). The plant in question was a Michelia doltsopa in Caerhays - a fabulous garden, with a National Collection of magnolias and their close relatives, which include the Michelia family.

Now, I discovered while doing a bit of research for a recent article that this not-very-commonly-grown tree is causing some excitement in magnolia-growing circles (not very mainstream, admittedly) - since one of its close relatives (M. yunnanensis) in the process of being recategorised as a magnolia. Well - all I can say is, you might think magnolias are spectacular - but cop a load of this.

(my eight-year-old doesn't much like having her photo taken)... and every single one of those millions of flowers looked something like this:

You could walk right inside the tree, and in the centre, too, this was a magical, architectural, unforgettable plant:

And as if all that wasn't enough, the whole thing was scented - a rich, musky, sultry scent that went right to your head. Magnolia fans - eat your hearts out.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Don't Panic!

One of my clients has a small but much-loved bay bush as the central focal point in a rather pretty little raised herb bed made of sleepers sideways on in a diamond pattern.

She rang me the other day in a right panic, insisting it was dying. It's always suffered mildly from vine weevil, which we've been keeping under control with a drench - but she was now convinced the little beggars had got it. So I promised to go and have a look.

The trouble with diagnosing plant problems is that it can be a bit like looking at those medical dictionaries which convince you that every time you have a headache you're about to die of a brain tumour. I realised as soon as I saw our little bay tree that it was a long way from dying - but then I started double-checking, just to make sure, and came up with a whole hypochondriac's litany of ailments, any one of which could turn out to be fatal.

Yes, there were plenty of glossy green leaves on it, and if you looked in the centre of the bush it was a deep, healthy green with lots of dense young growth. My client had panicked over some patches of yellowing leaves, which were rather undeniably a nutrient deficiency, and more specifically nitrogen deficiency. Remedy: a dose of liquid feed once a week until it's perked up a bit. Nothing more serious than that.

But look... some of the yellowing leaves have dark brown edges... and a curious dotting all over them. Hmm... I wasn't aware that bay could get rust, though that's exactly what it looked like. I decided I'd better look it up, just to be on the safe side.

Big mistake. Much like picking up that medical dictionary, I now have half-a-dozen horrible fates to consider for this poor little tree. It might have bay sucker - a mite that causes the edges of leaves to blacken and curl over. No curling on the leaves of my bay tree, mind, but then it might be early days... Now I discover that there's a new pest of bays, called bay rust mite, which only arrived on our shores last year after migrating from its usual home in the Med. As I read about black necrotic spots on the leaf surfaces I got really quite excited - rare diseases are almost as much of a buzz to discover as rare plants. Unfortunately (or fortunately, for my client) I discovered a picture of them on the Central Science Laboratory's plant newsletter - and it looks nothing like my bay leaves at all.

So for the moment I'm keeping my fingers crossed and betting on the odds-on probability that all we have here is a hungry bay tree with a mild vine weevil problem. I'll dose it with vine weevil killer again and give it a nice slosh of seaweed pick-me-up and see if it turns the corner. If not, I'm afraid it may be terminal.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

How to make a coldframe #3

Right, now having blown your brain cutting impossibly shallow angles for the upright dividers (I hope it wasn't that bad - I "borrowed" my husband's professional shed-making machinery so I cheated)... now here's an easier bit of woodwork for you.

The battens you attach to the uprights are to hold the cladding in place, and should measure 25mm x 25mm, though I couldn't find that at my local branch of Wickes so settled for 25mm x 38mm. As you can see from the pic you only need them along the top edge and down the two vertical sides of the dividers - not along the bottom. You'll obviously need the battens on both sides of the two central dividers.

You do need to cut the top batten to shape at an angle, but it's a lot easier this time. Use the edge of a bit of cut-off batten wood as a spacer to work out how far down you need to attach the batten itself (if you're using 25x38mm wood, use the 25mm edge). Just line the spacer up with the top edge of the divider and draw a line underneath. This marks where the top edge of the batten will go.

Then cut the batten to about 10cm (4") too long at each end and nail it on so that it lines up with the mark. After that, it's just a matter of cutting the ends off flush with the divider.

The upright battens are far easier - unless you're a real perfectionist (or are borrowing your husband's shed-building machinery) you don't need to cut the ends at an angle as they go in pretty close anyway, certainly close enough to fix the cladding to. You do still need to do the thing with the spacer, though, or the cladding won't lie flush with the uprights.

After you've done all that, you'll also need to put in an extra bit of battening all around the inside edge of the two end dividers - the divider in the picture is an end divider, so you can see how I've done this if you look closely. This is so that you can attach the cladding across them to form the ends of the coldframe. Again, you don't need to be too exact - just cut the battens off straight and fit them in as snugly as you can.

I'll get on to cladding the ends next time, and all this will hopefully start to make a bit more sense.

In case you missed the previous bits of this inordinately long series, here they are:

How to make a coldframe #1

How to make a coldframe #2
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