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Tuesday
May192015

Containers For Summer Colour

We have plenty of containers of all shapes and sizes in our garden – some full of Tulips and other spring colour and some empty, waiting to be used. From a gigantic pot containing an aged Hosta which dominates a shady corner through spring and summer, to tiny terracotta pots inherited from relatives and other gardens - only large enough to accommodate one bedding plant, they are all useful. I prefer plain terracotta containers as they look better with age once the algae and weather set in on them, but we have a mixture of glazed pots as well and these always look good grouped together when they are planted.

Firstly I must deal with the Tulip pots, which have been beautiful this year. Some, such as the Lily Flowered variety ‘Ballerina’ are in their first year, so I will ‘hide’ these in a dry part of the garden out of site and hope that the cat keeps an eye on mice and voles which may eat the bulbs before they appear next spring! Those that have flowered for the second year will be congested, so I will empty them from the containers and heel them into a spare piece of ground before planting them out in late autumn. November is the best time to plant Tulip bulbs both in the ground and in pots.

There are always some casualties amongst my pots and these need to be replaced with new ones but the old ones live on in the form of ‘crocks’ – broken pieces of terracotta which are placed in the bottom of other containers to help with drainage. Once I have decided which containers I will use for summer bedding plants the agonising over colours and the types of plants to use begins!

Some are always on my list and Lobelia richardii is one of them. This beautiful half hardy perennial makes traditional bedding Lobelia look like a cheap firework and once you have grown it you will see why! The glossy, waxy leaves are borne on vigorous spreading stems and the china blue flowers look stunning against them. There are other varieties of half hardy Lobelia available including ‘Waterfall Blue Ice’ with royal blue blooms that have a bold splash of white to the centre – perfect for a shady spot and you will only need two or three to fill a medium sized pot that will be packed with colour for months.

Calibrachoa is another favourite of mine. The trailing ‘Surfinia’ Petunias are all very well in a big basket or container on their own but will come to dominate a mixed planting, pushing out many smaller plants.  They need a lot of feed, plenty of watering in dry weather and regular removal of dead flowers to look good all season. Calibrachoa are the smaller cousins available (like the Surfinias) in a huge range of tempting colours including white, beautiful bright yellow and terracotta shades, searing reds and deep blue along with ‘Hot Pink’ which was a winner in my pots last year. Many have a contrasting deep eye to the centre of the flowers which only adds to their charm.

The rise of Bacopa is amazing! This reliable trailing plant is excellent to lace through the front of a sunny border or for use to hang down the sides of pots or in baskets. The ‘original’ white variety ‘Snowflake’ is still justifiably popular and has been joined by larger flowered white varieties including a lovely double called ‘Snowball’. There are other colours as well including one of my favourites ‘Colossal Blue’ with its orange-eyed soft mauve flowers -stunning to tone down the hot colours of Cape Daisies (Osteospermums) and Marguerites.

I’m off to round up my pots and get planting!

Monday
May112015

Perennials

Some of my favourite plants are herbaceous perennials. They are so versatile in the garden and varieties can be found for any conditions and to provide blooms throughout the year.

The Lenten Roses (Helleborus x hybridus) are quiet plants for much of the time, concentrating on making a mass of leathery, evergreen leaves through the growing season and growing happily in a dry shady spot. But their beautiful blooms are a highlight of our garden in early spring when the nodding heads rear up from the ground on sturdy stems. Their only fault is that the flowers hang their heads and must be scooped up to admire their colours. We have plenty of seedlings which are offspring from the original plants and which have produced a range of colours including whites which are heavily freckled with deep purple, pure apple green and slate-blue – all tributes to the bee’s work. Hellebores are important early food plants for them.

Phlox, Delphiniums and Lupins are all stalwarts of summer borders and we have a lovely clump of white Phlox which has a sweet scent and seems to produce its green-eyed flowers for months from early summer onwards. I like to give this one the ‘Chelsea Chop’ albeit in late April rather than at the end of May and the plant grows back bushier, more compact and with more flowering stems than ever. The tops are used to make soft wood cuttings and increase my stocks for other parts of the garden.

We had beautiful Lupins in our previous garden but here, I dare not risk them or Delphiniums due to the slugs that patrol our patch, dispatching small plants overnight! The organic slug pellets based on ferrous sulphate are very effective but I prefer to choose plants that they do not eat or eat to a lesser degree!

Perennials for dry shade are some of my favourites especially as some are the first flowers of spring. Dicentra spectabilis has plenty of common names - ‘Dutchman’s Breeches’, ‘Bleeding Heart’ and ‘Lady in the Bath’ are three -  and the elegant pink and white flowers hang like mobiles on wiry stems, set off by the smoky green leaves. We have a clump in very dry shade where it spread slowly each year and has produced several seedlings. Dicentra spectabilis is an amazing plant, appearing almost overnight from fat buds on the surface of the soil. The tall stems motor upwards and flower for several weeks before the plant dies down for the summer and emerges again in the following spring for its brief but endearing display. There are plenty of other varieties of Dicentra including the new ‘Heart’s Series’ that have blue-green filigree leaves setting off vivid pink or red flowers on shorter stems. These dumpy plants make beautiful mounds of leaves and are in flower for months – much longer than the original D. spectabilis, creating a cool picture at the front of a shady border.

Another favourite time is late summer when the daisy-like Asters (Michaelmas Daisies) Rudbeckias and Heleniums come into their own. These handsome plants look beautiful massed in one of our borders in heavy clay soil which is enriched with good mulch made from homemade compost and applied in a thick layer each spring. The tapestry of golds, reds and inky blues and purples that they produce are the perfect end to the year before the garden fades out to tawny seed heads through the winter months.

 

Tuesday
May052015

I believe in keeping plants in ‘good heart’ which helps them to withstand or fight off attacks from common pests and diseases that are likely to occur in our gardens. This, along with encouraging beneficial insects, birds and other animals are the principles of organic gardening and although our garden is not organic I am a great believer in being vigilant and treating problems when they are first spotted. ‘A stitch in time saves nine’ – wise words indeed!

By learning to spot problems early, they can be treated before a pest or disease really takes hold and becomes debilitating to the plants involved. Anticipation can also pay dividends and often pest or disease attacks are linked to weather conditions or certain stages of plant growth. For example, Aphid (Greenfly) attacks often happen in late spring or early summer when there is plenty of soft new growth on plants and is often worse during a humid spell of weather. Many a time I have walked into the garden to see the new growth on a purple leaved Berberis embellished with lime-green aphids clustered on the growing tips, distorting them by sucking the sap! Rubbing the aphids off with your fingers is a gooey, organic cure but if the problem persists I spray lightly with a ready to use bottle of Provado. A few squirts are enough as this pesticide is systemic which means that the active ingredient will be taken up by the plant and protect it from the inside. Any aphids which consequently feed will be killed and protection should last for a few weeks. Although I pinch out the tops of my Broad Bean plants when they are in full flower, they always end up with the dreaded Black Bean Aphid – a fatter, messier relative of Greenfly. Ladybirds and their larvae love to feast on these but sometimes cannot keep pace so again I use Provado and try to spray just before I think the aphid will turn up so that no Ladybirds or their offspring will be harmed. 

Slugs and snails are another problem in our garden and I am always mindful of imminent attacks on plants such as Day Lilies and Hostas after a good downpour of rain. I use the organic slug bait which is very effective and only needs to be used in small amounts but often. As soon as rain stops I go out and sprinkle a few handfuls of pellets around the garden. These are washed back into the soil as ferrous sulphate completely harmless to other animals and insects. There is another product called ‘Slug Gone’ which I will trial on my Hosta pots this year. The product is made from sheep’s wool which contains lanolin. It forms a protective mat as it expands on watering and irritates the underside of slugs and snails so that they are deterred from crawling over it.  

Watering correctly is one way that plants can be helped to withstand attacks – especially from mildews which often occur when plants are put under stress from being too dry or too wet. Downy mildew is seen on the underside of leaves and Powdery Mildew on the upper surface as white patches. When at college we were taught to remember the difference as ‘downy = down / under’. Both can be caused by too wet or too dry conditions so a good mulch of homemade garden compost or well rotted manure to improve the soil helps enormously. I try to mulch the garden at least once a year usually in the spring when I can see the soil surface before it is filled with plants! Giving plants a good start in the garden by taking time to prepare the soil well is also important so I add homemade compost to the soil at this time as well. Containers should be watered little and often so that young plants do not get too wet until their roots are established. Once the plants are growing away well, they will need more water – up to twice a day in breezy, sunny weather – and I try to feed once each week through the growing season which also helps to strengthen the plants against attack.
The dreaded Vine Weevil larvae are voracious feeders on the roots of many plants especially when they are growing in pots or containers. Vine Weevil are especially fond of Primulas, Heuchera, Fuchsias, Cyclamen and bedding plants. There is a product available called Provado Vine Weevil killer which can be watered onto pots and is very effective against these little white grubs. The biological control of microscopic worms called nematodes that will swim through the soil and seek out the grubs to kill and feed on them is also very effective but the soil must be kept moist after application and this product cannot be used until the soil is above a certain temperature in spring. 

Vegetable growing is fraught with problems. The weather is either to wet or too dry, Potato Blight can strike after a humid, drizzly spell of weather, Flea Beetle can eat salad crops such as Rocket, Mustard and Radish leaves and mice will feast on peas and broad beans as they are germinating. 

But for now my problem is the Sparrows eating my beetroot seedlings along with pea shoots that are (were!) just piercing through the soil. Shot gun anyone?
Monday
Apr272015

News From The Cutting Garden

The new raised vegetable bed in our back garden is doing well. Although I broke a long standing rule of mine and sowed last year’s seed - some from opened packets - everything has germinated and is growing well. Some soft rain as I write this is much appreciated towards the end of what has been a very dry and non showery April! I sowed the seeds quite thickly in the rows to compensate for its age and now will have to thin some of it out!

The cutting garden is still work in progress and I have confined my Dahlia tubers to containers for this year until the area is ready to be planted. There will be a battle to keep this for flowers and not allow it to be taken over by the burgeoning vegetable area! However I am determined to have some plants for the vase and have grown some Sweet Peas from seed. They are hardened off and growing away now so a place must be found for them. I like to prepare the ground well for them as they need plenty of moisture at their roots to produce the best flowers. I dig a trench out the depth of a spade and add homemade garden compost to this. A sprinkling of Blood, Fish and Bone then follows along with a couple of cans of water to help the moisture levels. The displaced soil is put back over the top of this rich mixture and the six foot bamboo canes that make the wig-wam can go in. The plants are put into the ground with as little disturbance as possible and encouraged to begin climbing! 

I would not be without Sweet Peas through the summer and although I do not have the room or patience to train them as cordons to increase the length of the stems, I usually get good results and friends always gasp ‘Oh! Sweet Peas’ as they breath in the delicious scent. 

I have grown a mixture of annuals from seed this year and if the cutting garden is not finished (or taken over by vegetables!) I will use them in other areas. The sea-green leaves of Cerinthe major ‘Purpurascens’ are bewitching enough and make an eye-catching mound in free draining soil and full sun but the flowers are clusters of beautiful dusky blue tubes with inky purple middles, freely produced over a long season and excellent in a vase if the ends are seared first in boiling water. The common name is Honeywort and the bees adore it, buzzing happily around the blooms and encouraging the plants to gently seed around the garden! 

Sunflowers are a classic for the vase but the taller varieties are a challenge in our exposed garden so I have opted for varieties which will only grow to three feet at the most. ‘Little Dorrit’ is a new one to me and I am looking forward to the large, golden yellow flowers that have the typical brown centre again loved by bees. This variety will grow to two feet and will be ideal in a big pot if I cannot find room in a border. The seeds have come up very well and I have plenty of plants to experiment with! 
Honesty is a biennial that has long been grown in our gardens and it is easily raised from seed. Happy in sun or part shade, I love it for the early flowers that attract plenty of bees and for the translucent discs that are the seed capsules. These follow the flowers and persist on the plants for many months making them attractive for dried arrangements. I have raised some of the purple flowered plants (Lunaria annua) and will plant them in a shady corner for flowers at this time next year. Along with late Daffodils and Forget me Nots they will light up an area that until now has been somewhat neglected.
Wednesday
Apr222015

Versatile Herbs

I love to walk around a garden and brush the leaves of plants that I know are scented to release their powerful aromas. 

Some, such as Curry Plant (Helichrysum) need no encouragement - their scent is detectable from a long distance away and is said to deter cats - but Cotton Lavender needs to be brushed to release the medicinal fragrance. Sprigs of this bushy evergreen were strewn on the ground in Tudor times to mask bad odours! In the garden, this lovely shrub will make a tidy mound of leaves topped with yellow button-like flowers in early summer. Santolina virens is my favourite with fresh green leaves that make a pleasing contrast to the flowers. The silver leaves of S. chamaecyparis are a great feature through the year but I think that they clash somewhat with the citrus blooms.

I can never resist stroking the leaves of Lavender and to me the French Lavender (Lavandula stoechas) has a much stronger scent than the English varieties. French Lavender grows into a bigger plant by far and the curious flowers are produced on wiry stems - tiny specks of black, topped by plumes of various colours – either pink mauve or white depending on the variety. These plumes flag the flowers to passing bees who adore them as much as English Lavender. English Lavender is a beautiful plant to grow as a low hedge in a sunny spot and very free draining soil. Clipping the plants to remove the faded flowers in late summer will keep them in shape but some of the blooms should be collected fresh and used to make scrumptious Lavender biscuits – an impressive but easy addition to the tea table!

Rosemary is another herb with a lovely fragrance to the needle-like leaves and the plant is a lover of sunny, dry conditions. The ground covering varieties are excellent in coastal locations and when grown to tumble down a wall or to cover a free draining bank. The blue flowers are on the plants for months from late spring onwards depending on the variety chosen and area another magnet for bees and butterflies. Like Lavender, the taller growing varieties such as R. ‘Miss Jessopp’s Upright’ make a lovely hedge kept clipped in late summer to prevent the plants from turning ‘woody’. In the kitchen, I like to use Rosemary with roasted new potatoes and garlic as well as with lamb. 

Thyme is another favourite herb of mine and is a great addition to the front of a sunny border where it will spread to soften a path edge or grow between paving stones to create a mat of scented leaves and tiny pink or mauve flowers in summer. Fantastic thrown into the roasting dish with freshly pulled carrots and beetroot or even Parsnips in the winter months I would not be without it and the bees would agree through the summer when they love to feast on the flowers! 

Marjoram has the Latin name of Origanum and there is much confusion over this as both names are available as jars of dried herbs in supermarkets. Origanum marjorana is Marjoram and the flavour is sweeter and less pungent than Oregano which is sometimes called the ‘Pizza Herb’. Origanum are one of the easiest herbs to grow and seed around our garden in sun or shade and any soil. We even have the Golden Marjoram (O. vulgare ‘Aureum’) at the front of a shady border in heavy clay, where it has grown along with Ginger Mint for many years!
Mint is another subject with wise gardeners confining ‘Garden Mint’ (Mentha spicata) to an old tin bath or terracotta pot so that the roots do not take over the whole garden! There are plenty of other sorts – all deliciously scented when the leaves are rubbed and fit for a myriad of uses in the kitchen. From Chocolate Peppermint to Basil Mint and Strawberry Mint my culinary imagination runs wild with ideas of how to make the most of these, some of the most useful of herbs. Along with Borage flowers I will certainly be adding a sprig or two to my summer drinks this year!