Friday, March 27, 2009

Perfect partners #4

Juniperus squamata 'Chinese Silver' and Erica carnea 'Springwood White' spotted at Wakehurst Place, Sussex, earlier this month. Who said the old conifer-and-heather combo was boring?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The bamboo boogie

You may already know that I'm no fan of bamboo.

The trouble with urging people to dig up all their bamboo and throw it on the nearest bonfire is that if you happen to be the gardener, you're the one who gets to dig it up. And if you've ever tried to dig up even the smallest hawser-like root of a bamboo you'll know this is The Job From Hell.

Since I have a number of clients who have bamboo in their gardens - and therefore require me to do something about it - it quickly became time for some rapid backtracking.

So while I still won't have the stuff anywhere near my own garden and am seriously tempted to pour petrol - or at least a little well-aimed glyphosate - on pots of bamboo waiting for sale to unsuspecting customers at various garden centres across the land, if it's already in your garden there's only one way to go: Proper Maintenance.

The trouble is, bamboo is generally touted as a low-maintenance or even no-maintenance plant. Even if you're going to be wilfully blind to its thuggish habits, if you don't spend at least a little time each year sprucing them up a bit they end up looking like this:

This is a Phyllostachys nigra in the back garden of one of my clients which has never been touched, like most of the ones I come across. As you can see, it doesn't just behave like a thug - it looks like one too.

So - you take out the thinnest of the canes, right down to the ground, leaving just the nice thick well-coloured ones. Then you remove the suckers migrating out from the main clump, as ruthlessly as possible, followed by those annoying canes that flop out to the side too much. After that, trim down the tops to the height you want - in this case there was only one stem that needed shortening as for some reason known only to itself it had headed skywards and left all the others behind. After all that, you end up with something like this:

Actually I think I overdid it a bit on removing the arching branches - this is a little upright for my liking, though I'm not sure I had much of a choice really. But anyway, it'll start leaning outwards again soon (the overriding principle of bamboo is to revert to the most troublesome way of growing at the earliest possible opportunity). The client and I also agreed that this is a bamboo in desperate need of some company (there used to be a swimming pool on that circle).

But what we both loved - and the whole point of the exercise - is this:

Aren't they lovely? Strong, slim, elegant canes of near-black, and you can actually see them now. Not only did I remove the messy ones in between, I also stripped away the leaves up to about a third of the way up. Now, that's a bamboo I can see the point of growing.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Perfect partners #3

Betula utilis, Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens', and Galanthus nivalis. A little island at Wakehurst Place earlier this month: perhaps the black-and-white snowdrops-and-lilyturf thing is becoming a tad clich├ęd nowadays but I don't care. This looked fabulous.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Close encounters of the horticultural kind #2

At Wakehurst Place, Kew's garden in Sussex, I came across another truly unforgettable tree.

I first noticed it for its heady perfume that filled the air. I couldn't work out where it was coming from - there were witch hazels around, but it was sweeter than that. Then the ranger who was showing me around put me out of my misery:

"Oh, that's the Osmanthus," he said, grinning a little mischievously. Right, well that was fine, but I couldn't see an osmanthus anywhere. You know them - nice neat medium-sized evergreen shrub, right?


I was actually standing underneath it at the time. This was Osmanthus yunnanensis in full flower - about 30ft tall and scenting the air all around with these lovely little powder-puff white flowers.

There are apparently only 11 left in the wild, and this particular one was brought back by Ernest "Chinese" Wilson in the early 20th century. It's not that difficult to get hold of these days - about ten nurseries around the country stock it. Another one for the 'must-grow-before-I-die' list...

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Seeding the world #2

What surprised me on my behind-the-scenes tour of the Millennium Seedbank at Wakehurst Place was just how many plants there are in there.

There are a lot of sidelines to the Seedbank's work, all of which seem to have just grown (excuse the pun) from their original premise of saving seed from every plant in the world.

Now they not only collect rare seed: they germinate it (sometimes in very complicated ways) and grow it on to re-patriate it. These are seriously rare plants - six are entirely extinct in the wild - and it's not long before you're looking at a lot of seedlings of plants you've never even heard of before.

Nearly all these plants have a story to tell. Here's a cracker: this is a Leucospermum from South Africa, but not just any leucospermum.

You might remember reading about it in 2006 when it was found, tucked into a notebook owned by Dutch merchant Jan Teerlink and left, forgotten, in the National Archives at Kew. They'd been there for over 100 years. Yet despite their hair-raising journey - the ship they were on was captured by the British Navy - some of the seeds were still viable, and this, two years on, is the result.

Here's another one: this is a Banksia brownii....

...also known as a feather-leaved banksia (you can see how it got its name). This is critically endangered in its native Australia, with only two or three populations left in the wild. The Seedbank is growing on dozens of them in its cool greenhouse ready to go back home. One batch was returned last year: without this work the plant would be extinct within a decade.

I did recognise one plant there - this protea, just about to flower, is from wild populations on the Cape. The Seedbank works almost exclusively with wild populations - if I understood right, it's because the lineage is purer, and seed from cultivars rarely comes true in any case.
Looking at these plants standing in rows on benches in the greenhouse, they look entirely normal and unremarkable. But these individuals at the forefront of survival for many species: without them their kind would simply die out.
You may be tempted to think that while that might be regrettable, it doesn't really amount to a hill of beans in the grand scheme of things. But bear in mind that not one of these plants has been tested to find out what illnesses it can cure, or what useful purpose it can serve. Not that every plant has to have a purpose - but as was pointed out to me, a few years ago we didn't know that daffodils contain galanthine which they now use to treat Alzheimers. So if we let any one of these plants die out, we could be throwing away chances we wouldn't even know we might have had. That's as good an argument as any, if you ask me.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Identity parade #5 - the answers

Nigel rose admirably to the challenge and guessed correctly no's 1, 2, and most amazingly 4 - and gets half-marks for nearly guessing no. 5, too. Well done that man. Here for those who are curious is the low-down on last week's idents:

Ruscus aculeatus - Butcher's broom. Very useful plant to know as it grows in the deepest of deep shade and has some rather pretty red berries in autumn. Most interesting for me though was those flowers - the 'leaves' aren't actually leaves at all, but modified flattened stems, and the flowers are borne right in the middle. Fascinating, and a little wierd.

Chaenomeles speciosa 'Nivalis' - I used to grow this in my previous garden and the flowers are for me the most beautiful of all the Japanese quinces.

Scilla mischtschenkoana - Pretty little thing, isn't it? If you want to know the difference between this and the earlier-flowering Chionodoxa, or 'Glory of the Snow', look at the petals - scillas have a blue stripe down the middle, whereas the Chionodoxa don't. At least, I think that's the way round...

Sequoiadendron giganteum - or more commonly, Californian redwood. Instantly recognisable as a tree - but this is the very lovely foliage. Slightly flattened and down-turned, and I think a bit of a revelation for those like me who haven't got much further than looking with mouth agape at the trunk.

Prunus 'Okame' - as Nigel said, there are so many flowering cherries and this could have been pretty much any one of them, so not really fair, but then who said this had to be fair?

There isn't an ident for this week - we're in the middle of a huge project at the moment (which is doing my head in and using up nearly every spare evening - my family is forgetting what I look like). So I thought, since we're having a pause, that I'd hand out a few virtual bouquets to you virtuoso plantsmen and women out there:

Big bunch of blowsy roses to VP with 14 points
Consolation chrysanths (but nice ones that weren't bought at the garage) to Nigel with 10
A handful of scented daffodils to Niels - 6
and a little posy of snowdrops to Anna - 5

back with some more wickedly annoying teasers soon....

Sunday, March 15, 2009

March flowers

It must be spring... I'm joining in with Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day again!

Last month there were one or two but as I remember it we'd barely recovered from the snow... but give it four weeks and a little sunshine, and just look what we've got. Time to get planting!

PS Sorry, that's not Narcissus 'Jack Snipe' at all - it's 'February Gold'. There are some 'Jack Snipe' somewhere but haven't found them yet. I need a map of my garden...

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Seeding the world #1

Sometimes I feel so privileged in my job. The other day I got to poke around in the back rooms of the Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst Place in Sussex - home to the seeds of 25,000 of the world's plant species, some of which are the rarest plants in the world. Six of them are entirely extinct.

The place is like a nuclear bunker inside - in fact if World War Three ever does break out, head on down there as the walls are built of reinforced concrete so thick they're entirely radiation proof and would survive a direct hit by a crashing aeroplane. Don't ask me how they worked that out.

The seeds themselves are kept in huge walk-in freezers about the size of my kitchen, but the really amazing thing is that for now - they want to add to their number over time - there are just two of them. For 25,000 plant species. The concentrated biodiversity in those two freezers is just mind-boggling.

If you want a look at the kind of thing they have there, here's a selection:

Aren't seeds beautiful? And yes, that is a coco de mer - largest seed on earth. When you compare it to the dust-like antirrhinum seeds I put in last week, you realise just how much variety there is in the world.

The seeds come into the seedbank in big breatheable sacks from every continent - Kew has teams of botanists working with local experts in the field finding and collecting more and more plant samples to add to the bank. This is a sample of huge sycamore-like seeds from Madagascar. I think they're called Gyrocarpus, at least that's what it sounded like - in an environment like this even if you think you know quite a lot about plants, it's not long before you're out of your depth.

They test all the seeds for viability before they store them, using digital x-ray machines and all sorts of things. Then there's the problem of working out exactly how to germinate them. Here's one way of finding out - a mat with varying temperatures in bands across it. You put the seeds in little packets in rows along the heat bands, and wait. Then those that germinate on a certain heat band reveal the temperature the seed must be at in order to sprout. If that doesn't work, there's always cold stratification, chipping, bashing, soaking in various chemicals and even setting on fire (mainly reserved for the flora of the South African Cape, I believe).
It makes my little experiments in my greenhouse look like child's play...

Friday, March 06, 2009

Identity parade #5

A bit late this week but blame the spring lunacy that is my workload in the run-up to Chelsea... not quite as bad as those actually building gardens for the flower show but crazy nonetheless.

Anyway, just because I'm busy doesn't mean I haven't got time to set a few more plant-related teasers for you, courtesy of Capel Manor who supply the sometimes more than a little battered twigs, leaves and flowers from their garden in Enfield - no wonder they're tatty by the time they get to us, the other side of London in Gunnersbury. Anyway, I thought last week's were far too easy so I'm bowling you a few googlies this time.

1. (if you look very closely you'll see the flowers - these are a giveaway clue)



4. (a bit unfair, really, as this is merely the foliage of a tree, but can you guess which one?)


Monday, March 02, 2009

Spring has sprung

This is what's been cheering me up over the weekend.

Yep - the sun is out, the birds are singing, the ground has finally dried and I'm gardening again!

As you can see I haven't quite got round to the mulching yet but who cares?

I'm just happy to be outside again.

Anyone else noticed how particularly wonderful the snowdrops and crocuses (croci?) have been this spring? Is it something to do with the weather, or is it just me being so punch-drunk with seeing sunshine again that everything looks more sparkly than it ever has done before?
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