Monday, August 30, 2010

Magnolia misery

How sentimental do you get about your plants?

I know I'm utterly hopeless about mine. It is one of the reasons why my garden has never made the metamorphosis into Proper Garden: attempts at designing it have always been waylaid by a hopeless incontinence where plants are concerned, compelling me to reject the beautifully-designed composition of three or four carefully-chosen varieties in favour of the current hodgepodge of one plant here, one plant there and another one I couldn't resist shoehorned in between. I really should know better.

And I also get terribly attached to individual plants. Take my magnolia, for example. I got it while I was still in my last house in south-west London, as one of those freebie offers you get from magazines: not knowing any better at the time, I thought to myself, "Ah! 50p for a magnolia! that's good value!" and sent off for it.

The resulting 6" high twig needed mollycoddling to an absurd degree: I kept it in a pot for the first five years as it was so small I daren't risk losing it in my rumbustious borders. I finally dared to plant it out when we first moved here, by which time it was a more confidence-inspiring three feet tall or so, popping it into a corner of my front garden just outside my living room window. So that dates it: a tad short of 9 years ago, and the plant itself is about 14 years old.

Not long afterwards, it put out its first tentative flower, and I discovered for the first time that the rather unduly optimistic label it came with, which declared it a Magnolia liliiflora 'Susan' with rich burgundy-red flowers, it was in fact a Magnolia stellata with spidery white flowers. This came as some surprise, but rather a pleasant one.

It has been improving its display every year since: plants seem so grateful to you when you rescue them from an uncertain beginning and nurse them back to the point where they can do what they were born to do. Last year my little twig hit the majestic height of about 6ft and in April and May was a riotous fireworks display of flowers that took my breath away every time I looked at it.

But oh, dear: just look at it this year. My poor lovely magnolia.

It did manage a handful of spidery flowers, but they were tinged with brown and quickly died off. This was my only - and most heart-breaking - frost casualty this year.

I couldn't bring myself to write her off so left the apparently dead remains in the border. Then I was rootling around doing the weeding about a month ago and realised all is not lost.

It looks a little peculiar: but there is definitely growth coming from the base.

One really odd large branch in rude health...

...and a great many smaller shoots firing up from the lower trunk. She's survived over a decade to get to this point and she ain't giving up yet.

Now my only dilemma is what to do. The obvious is to prune out the top growth and shorten that long branch so it's all in proportion again: I suspect she'll end up rather multistemmed, but that may be an advantage.

But more to the point, bearing in mind my imminent departure, do you think she'll survive being moved? I had thought I would have to cut her down, so the new owners wouldn't get the joy of all those flowers anyway: now that she's recovered, I'm feeling the urge to continue our long and rather lovely relationship.

On the other hand, of course, I'm going to have chalky soil where I'm going. Though M. stellata is one of the magnolias which is said not to mind a little alkaline, this is a lot alkaline. So I may be putting her through the mill again and it may be better to do the altruistic thing and prune her to shape and leave her for our successors to enjoy.

If I could only be less maudlin about my plants I wouldn't have this problem. But then on the other hand I probably wouldn't be gardening either. There's no hope, really, is there?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A little sneak peek

We went to visit the new house the other day: and this time, I was armed with a camera. Thought you might like a little sneak peak: here's my new garden.

Small children are an optional extra: we've decided to keep the one with the long hair and the one in the blue jacket but the one with the blonde hair is going.

(I should hasten to add that Long Hair is my eldest, Blue Jacket is my youngest, and Blonde Hair belongs to the current owners, and is rather sweet. The dog, unfortunately, also belongs to them: we plan to install our own very soon).

The garden is in what's left of a former quarry, which explains the steep slope at the back. You can't quite make out that there are also very steep banks at either side, presenting some, ahem, interesting gardening challenges.

Anyway: this bit measures about 50ft x 200ft. But that's not all: this is a garden of many parts.

Part II is a smaller and more well-behaved bit to the other side of the house: it's stepped down the hill in a rather attractive sort of way (this is looking down the slope).

And here's part III. We rather optimistically call it the orchard, mainly on the grounds that it has two apple trees in it (as well as a not-very-well-looking pear tree): it's not quite the sweeping vistas you would expect of your average orchard as it's long and very thin. I measured it at approximately 180ft x 15ft.

One of the reasons for the not-very-well pear tree, I suspect, is the lack of air circulation: that hedge is about 10ft tall. You will hear more about that hedge in due course, I suspect: a lot more. There is a lot of hedge. Oh my Lord, there is a lot of hedge.

There's a bit more too, further up the hill, which we're optimistically referring to as the paddock so doesn't really count as garden: we're going to be using that mainly for my chickens and other animals, and possibly my husband (don't worry, I'll invite him down to the house from time to time). There's also a sort of raised rockery sort of thing in front of the house which rather defies explanation, photography or indeed description.

Soil is chalky but not too dry (owing to the bowl-like dip) and it's all on the side of a south-facing hill, with the long side facing south, if you know what I mean. Any ideas, inspirations or just thoughts on what to do will be just wonderful and pathetically gratefully received.

I will introduce you properly when we're in: we're not entirely free of the potential for jinx just yet as we're still a day or two off exchanging contracts. But there is just one week and four days to go until moving day now: and this is beginning to feel very imminent indeed.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

A composting conundrum

I haven't said anything for a little while about my heinous abandonment of my current garden in favour of (considerably larger) pastures new.

The Great Move is however rumbling along behind the scenes, and in fact is now so imminent that we are spending all our time hurling things into skips and filling our living room with cardboard boxes.

Clearing up the garden has however raised a conundrum.

I was going to put a photo of my compost bins at the top of this post by way of illustration but thought I'd spare you that. The thing is, like all good gardeners, I nurse a secret composting obsession and have two fine and large wooden slatted bins.

When told I was taking them both, husband and Removal Van man nodded sagely: large wooden items, especially ones which look quite nice as compost bins go, are apparently acceptable.

However I then added that I was going to bag up the nearly completely rotted compost from one of them, and the not-very-rotted compost from the other, and bring it with me too.

Both husband and Removal Van Man now think I'm utterly, utterly bonkers.

I think a) it's not very welcoming to leave our nice new owners with a big pile of half-rotted guineapig poo and b) I've spent nigh on a year making this compost and I'm damned if I'm going to abandon it now. And besides where I'm going I'll need all the compost I can get.

So: help us out here. What do you think? Am I bonkers? Would you move with your compost tucked in among your furniture? Or would you let it go?

Monday, August 16, 2010


Look what we found on our kitchen wall the other day.

Apologies for the quality of the picture, but if you've ever tried to take a photo of a fairly small insect while balancing on one foot on the kitchen sink you'll find fuzzy photos are hard to avoid.

This is a hornet, Vespa crabro, our largest social wasp. This is quite a little one, as it happens, though it's about twice the size of a regular wasp. And just look at that pointed nose: straight out of Bug's Life, don't you think?

I think we must have a hornet's nest not far away as we found a proper grown-up one of these buzzing extremely loudly and angrily against our skylights not so long ago as well. That one was seriously enormous: a good couple of inches from nose to tail.

Everyone I have mentioned this to has immediately gone into a 'don't panic!!' routine quite worthy of Lance Corporal Jack Jones. In fact, though, I think hornets suffer from a bad press. They are accused of everything from stinging people viciously with no provocation to ripping off the heads of poor innocent little bumblebees. Unfortunately for them, this is a recurring case of mistaken identity, with a good dollop of ignorance thrown in. This is a particular shame as they're actually quite rare, and what's more they eat loads of nasty garden pests - including aphids and caterpillars.

In fact, hornets will only sting when quite severely provoked: on the whole they are quite docile creatures. You're far more likely to be stung by a conventional wasp (which is a spiteful little creature much less deserving of sympathy).

And as for the ripping the heads off bees thing: that's not this hornet. That's the Asian hornet, Vespa velutina: and now that's an insect to strike fear into your very heart. Fortunately you're unlikely to see one in the very near future, as although they've made it to the south of France (where they are ripping the heads off honeybees even as I write, no doubt) they haven't - quite - made it here yet.

However, it is probably only a matter of time: the flood of insects arriving on our shores, largely hiding in imported plants arriving in our garden centres and therefore our gardens, is reaching plague proportions (step forward, citrus longhorn beetle, oak processionary moth, harlequin ladybird and the now ubiquitous lily beetle). They reckon we've got about 10 years before the Asian hornet arrives: when we, and no doubt their relatively harmless European cousins, should be afraid. Very afraid.

Friday, August 13, 2010

OOTS: Top Marks!

I've been meaning to take a photo of this for VP's OOTS campaign for ages. In fact so long has the poor woman been waiting for it that as I remember I first told her about it at the Malvern Spring Show. How sad is that.

But anyway: this weekend I made one of my rare visits to our local mind-numbingly bland industrial park, home to Argos, Tescos and M&S, and as it happens the Brooklands Motor Racing track.

About the only interesting thing about this bit of town is that you can see the old track, banked to a gradient of about one in five, arcing around the shopping carparks. The concrete is cracked and pockmarked with tufts of weeds poking out here and there but a faint echo still lingers of the speed records broken there in the 1920s and 1930s by the likes of Malcolm Campbell and others. It also did a star turn on James May's Toy Stories (sadly not available on Listen Again but here's a clip complete with Tiff Needell) in which He of Plasticine Chelsea Show Garden Fame recreated the Brooklands circuit using Scalextric cars.

But I digress. If you chucked a Scalextric car fairly energetically from the racing track you'd hit the shop I mostly come here for, that wonderfully reassuring British invention Marks & Spencer (what did we do for knickers before M&S came along, do you think?). And while I'm not usually in the habit of noticing trolley parks, this one, newly-installed this spring, was a bit different.

I'm regretting not having remembered to take my camera before now, as following the six or seven weeks of dry weather even tough-as-old-boots sedum matting was looking a little parched. You'll have to take my word for it that it looked terribly smart when first installed. I also missed what was obviously quite a spectacular flowering.

I don't suppose the M&S staffing budget quite stretches to someone dead-heading this lot but I found it quite pretty in an autumnal sort of way.

And you can see from this that the succulent leaves underneath are actually quite happy and have come through their drought without too much trouble. Quite an advert for this kind of very low-maintenance green roofing, I thought.

There was a bike shed just the same round the corner, too. They rather showed up the less eco-minded Tesco next door which had the old-fashioned plastic trolley parks (and no bike shed at all): rain was pouring off them onto the tarmac where it was, no doubt, lost to the drains. And they were as ugly as sin, too. Top marks to Marks, don't you think?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Plant of the month: August

Lilium 'Original Love'

At the risk of sounding a little, well, unfeminine...... Phwoooooaarrr.

We've been watching this one unfurl for the last two weeks like a slow-motion porn film. First the long, fat green buds began to pout and swell. Then they gradually darkened and a deep wine-red stain crept up like a blush. Finally, a few days ago, the first one burst: one petal, then another, then they all peeled back to reveal the most voluptuous, sultry, seductive flower you can possibly imagine. It is almost embarrassing in its suggestiveness: impossible to miss, impossible to ignore, quite possible to fall in love with.

It's an L.A. Hybrid: I'd always thought that meant they were bred by some fanatical britches-wearing and probably bespectacled American lily-grower in Los Angeles, but in fact it turns out the L stands for longiflorum and the A stands for Asiaticum. Much more proper and with a certain RHS correctness about it. That'll teach you to get all romantical then.

That gives you a tall (mine's about 4ft), sturdy, hardy lily that's pretty much trouble-free: heck, if I can grow it, anyone can. This one hasn't even suffered the usual attack of the lily beetle. I've had to harden my heart against these pretty red bugs so that I could squash them: I had less trouble with their larvae which have the attractive habit of covering themselves in their own excrement as they sit munching your lilies.

At the moment I'm betting that my LA hybrid's escape has been less to do with their in-built lily beetle resistance and more to do with the fact that I didn't get around to planting them until late May - by which time the beetles had done their worst to my earlier hardy lilies. I didn't realise lily beetles had only one generation but it appears to be so, and I've murdered the one in my garden. So there.

But anyway. This otherwise ravishing plant does have one downside: in all that hybridising and fiddling about they forgot to leave the scent in (mind you, try telling that to the bees bumbling drunkenly about in its abundant nectar). I have to say, if you're going to do boudoir, you do need it to be at least a little bit perfumed. However, it's imperfections that make you perfect, isn't that what they say? And for such a luscious, seductive, and downright sexy colour I will forgive anything.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

A meadowy miracle

Apologies in advance: I am about to brag, crow, boast and generally be smug and immodest about a bit of my garden. In my defence, I don't actually take any credit for this as it's happened pretty much entirely without my input: as all the nicest things that happen in my garden seem to do.

A few months ago I posted, with much shame, a picture of the duff bit of my garden - also known as the 'middle bit', the 'difficult area', or in moments of particular gloom, the 'dump'. Just to remind you, this is what it looked like for most of last year. Actually, if I'm honest, for several years before that, too.

Shortly after a weekend's work in spring, it looked tidier, but frankly, still not what you might call inspiring.

Ah - but just look at it now.

It's even better close up.

This has been going on since about the beginning of June, and it just keeps getting better. First we had these little vetchy sort of things, spangling the whole area with tiny pea-like flowers in fetching shades of mauve, purple and pink. Then just as I thought those were coming to an end, out popped the cornflowers, followed by poppies, marigolds, and oh, tons of things I can't even identify.

I had heard some pretty good things about the annual seed mixes from Pictorial Meadows - but I had no idea it would be quite this good.

The amazing thing is that it took me all of half an hour to sow, and since then there's been pretty much no maintenance, not even much weeding (I've tugged out half-a-dozen fat hen plants but they're the only weeds that got a look-in). I did have to water it every day for a week or two as we hit that patch of dry weather in spring just after I'd sown it - but since they came up properly I haven't been watering at all, and they're still looking this good after nearly six weeks of no rain.

My problem area has now been promoted to Best Area of the Garden Bar None and I take all visitors to see it before I even give them a cup of tea. I've never had a bit of my garden I actually wanted to show off before.

My only regret is that I shall have to leave it behind when we move and so will miss the loveliness of the seedheads in winter. But never mind: the beauty of annuals is that it all happens all over again next year, and I now know that no matter where we end up, there will be a corner of our garden I shall sow with an annual meadow like this.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Mystery blobs

Any idea what this is?

Found all over some small silver birch trees, while we were rambling about the countryside with assorted small children recently.

They come in clusters, too:

My first thought was, ah - it's a gall. The leaves are of course obviously somewhat chewed. But when you pick them off they're rock hard - and they have hollow innards. And besides, birch gall looks like this, which is not at all the same thing.

I was a little sad to find that it wasn't the rather wonderfully named silk button spangle galls: they look like this:

(the pic is from the compellingly interesting Tree Blog which is following the lives of about 25 trees from seed up, and has an alarmingly comprehensive selection of disease-related pictures to show for it. It actually made me wonder how any tree actually makes it to maturity.)

So - any ideas? I'm still with the galls idea, but am intrigued to know what might have caused this and how. They're very pretty, but clearly not doing the tree any good at all.

Over to you?

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Pocket-sized vegetables

Now, if the seed companies and garden centres and all those people trying to sell you stuff are to be believed, this is the Next Big Thing.

Personally, I don't know quite what to make of it.

On the one hand, I know people are running out of space: the good Lord knows I've come face to face with that particular trend while combing the south of England for a new house. Gardens are undeniably getting much, much smaller: in fact unless you've got a million or so to spend (or are willing to live in the lee of a motorway), large gardens don't seem to exist anywhere within a 100-mile radius of London.

This is particularly true in cities, of course: my last city garden was in Chiswick W4 where I had what was considered even then (and I go back some way) a massive garden: it measured 40ft x 20ft including the patio.

At the same time, city folk - and not a few people who don't live in the city - are mobilising en masse to grow their own grub. This is a fantastic and rather delightful phenomenon which I hope continues indefinitely as it's altogether a Very Good Thing.

Only one problem. Growing grub - if you want to actually feed yourself in some form - takes room. And a lot of it. Allotments, as we all know, are more difficult to get hold of than a Lib Dem spokesman in a crisis: so you can forget that, then. That's when those inventive folk at the commercial end of horticulture started wittering on about vertical gardening. The trouble is - it doesn't work.

Well, that's not quite true. I'm sure it does work if, as at Thompson & Morgan where this rather wonderful vegetable wall was photographed, you have a industrial-standard automatic irrigation system running along the top of the wall into which the exactly-measured amounts of fertiliser are being dripped.

And it probably also helps if, as here, you were only growing for a display to impress journalists rather than actually produce stuff to eat: this wall had lettuce growing alongside beans (so in real life, when it's sunny, the lettuce bolts, and when it's shady, the lettuce is fine but the beans sulk). And a melon, greedy plant that it is, growing in a pocket which would have allowed a rootball all of about 8" across. No melon I know would grow at home kept constrained like that.

I don't want to bash T&M as this was really quite a spectacularly beautiful wall and did show just what's possible. It did however undeniably overlook the fact that the number of people growing at home who can put in the expense and effort required to give their veg growing in this way such ideal growing conditions is vanishingly small. Most people, let's face it, just muddle along: and for these people, growing veg in pockets on the wall is surely setting yourself up for a crashing disappointment.

Growing veg in pots is fine - in fact it works, really well, and I do it all the time. But the First Law of Patio Veg Growing is that the bigger your pot, the better your veg: and in terms of volume, pockets are really, really small.

There are aspects of growing in pockets which definitely do work: shallow-rooted plants like lettuce (if kept in a shady spot and not grown alongside beans) do very well in them, as do drought-tolerant veg like kale, spring onions and chillies. Dwarf French beans don't mind and tomatoes do sort-of OK, if you choose one of the tumbling container types, though they do look very sickly towards the end of the season and it's hard to keep them adequately watered.

I liked the idea of dwarf peas as I haven't tried them yet - they had 'Twinkle' on this wall which is a good type - but how many are you going to pick off that lot? A handful? Maybe two?

And that's the other problem: if you're going to grow your own at home you need to have a reward of some sort to show for it at the end of the day. A handful of peas is simply not worth the expensive compost, pockets, irrigation system and/or time, both in setting it up and looking after it.

And as for growing potatoes in compost sacks.... I went around chuntering for days after reading Sarah Raven's article on growing potatoes in containers in last Saturday's Telegraph Gardening. It all sounds quite sensible until you look more closely at the yields she got from each 60-litre sack.

Largest yield: 3lbs 12oz ('Foremost')
Smallest yield: 1lb 5oz ('Anya').

My Delia recipe tells me that a single shepherd's pie, serving 4, requires 2lbs potatoes.

So, let's see. For £4.99 (peat-free multipurpose compost) plus the cost of fertiliser - never mind water and time - we've barely grown enough for one meal's worth of food. That's about £1 per potato. Heck, even Waitrose's best organic only costs £1.33 for 2lbs.

It's this sort of thing that gives growing your own a bad name. Harrumph. Rant over.
Related Posts with Thumbnails