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Shrubs for Shade

It had to be done sooner or later. Our Bog Garden needed weeding and whilst the giant Gunnera manicata is still asleep with just a hint of crinkled green leaves in suspended animation, yesterday was the perfect time to get in there. The first job was to remove the old rhubarb like leaves from the Brazilian giant, revealing the handsome, furry russet trunks that remind me of terracotta warriors. There are two springs running through the area which is very wet in places and never ever dries out! In late spring the whole area is a picture with Candelabra Primulas in deep orange, rich purple and pink shades, up to their necks in soggy clay soil and perfectly happy. At the moment, there is neither sight nor sign of them still in their watery winter beds! 


Iris too are planted there – the water loving Siberian types in deep blue and wine red shades, along with the later flowering Japanese Iris (ensata) ‘Rose Queen’ a stunning shade of clear pink with delicate yellow veining on the falls (lower petals). But for now, no real sign of these either except for the rotten brown leaves from last year which have been cut off after protecting the crowns of the plants through the winter months. Tiny green shoots are underneath and will soon begin to grow away to handsome sword shaped leaves that will frame the flowers at midsummer – fleeting but beautiful and replaced by striking seed capsules for later interest. As these flower, so to do the Himalayan Cowslips (Primula florindae), their sweetly scented blooms hanging in clusters atop tall stems. These seed freely in this area – on the gravel paths and in the watery parts as well and I wouldn’t be without them. Walking past them in the morning on a still day and breathing in the sweet perfume is a highlight of early summer for me!


Everything in this shady, wet area is underground for now and after a tidy up of all the old leaves and a day weeding the Creeping Buttercup and Water Mint it looked decidedly empty and desperately lacking in any winter interest at all. 


Luckily there are plenty of shrubs which will relish the wet shady conditions and a few that will be happy on the shady bank above this area.


Dog Woods are the first to come to mind – they don’t care if they sit in water and will reward with their striking red bark through the winter months. Cornus alba ‘Siberica’ is one of my favourites with bright sealing wax red bark and rich autumn leaf tints of deep plum purple – just the thing to plant behind a white and green variegated evergreen grass. Viburnum opulus has the common name of ‘Bog Elder’ and again will grow in heavy soil. The jagged leaves turn rich shades of red and plum in autumn and the plant has flat clusters of white flowers in early summer followed by red berries for the birds. 


Given that the Gunnera will shade a lot of this area out with its gigantic umbrella like leaves, we don’t have room for too many shrubs in the boggy ground but there is room on the bank running down to the site for shrubs that like moist soil and shade from the trees above.


The bubble gum smell of Philadelphus has to be one of the best summer scents and these hardy shrubs are perfectly happy in part shade and moist soil. As well as a gift for our noses, bees adore the flowers so one of these is essential and will fill the gap between the spring and autumn flowers of the evergreen Mexican Orange Blossom (Choisya ternata) another sweetly scented shrub that is as happy in shade as full sun. There is already a beautiful golden leaved Weigela planted nearby which has stunning burnt red flowers in early summer and is another magnet for bees so to complete the picture and add another shade loving shrub to the collection we have opted for an ornamental Elderberry, Sambucus racemosa ‘Sutherland Gold’ with filigree leaves of golden yellow. Kept hard pruned, it should make a pleasing mound in this area, not unlike a Japanese Maple but more able to stand the ripping northerly wind that hits this area of the garden at times. Who knows? We may even get clusters of white flowers and red berries on it once the plant is established. 


Gardens are never finished – they are always evolving and we have taken a big step with this area. I can’t wait to find out how it looks in a few months time!

Vegetables for Small Spaces

One of the challenges facing many of us nowadays is how to fit all that we want into our smaller gardens. Because of this, vegetables are often overlooked as taking up too much room and fit only for large gardens or allotments. The attraction of growing your own is strong for many of us but time and lack of space often limit our ambitions! 


But there is room for vegetables in the smallest of spaces. Take a look at that sunny fence or the side of your garden shed. In a sheltered spot, you can harness the sunlight and warmth to raise tomatoes, peppers or chillies in a growing bag or pots. And that trellis that divides a sunny sitting area from another piece of the garden is just the place for some runner or climbing French beans later in the season. Compost heaps are the ideal environment for a courgette plant – and after all, one is usually enough to keep a family going or to make plenty of chutney!


The big empty pots that are lurking in the garden shed or garage can be put to use over the next few weeks as well. A visit to Notcutts will reveal a tempting selection of vegetable seeds especially bred for container growing. Even a few potatoes can be planted in a large pot or dustbin for a delicious taste of waxy tubers in late June, lightly boiled and served, skins still on, with butter melted over. 


Choose a sunny, sheltered site for your containers and fill them with a good quality general purpose compost mixed with homemade compost if you have it. 


Sow the seeds of salad leaves such as rocket, mustard and lambs lettuce, along with radish, carrots, spring onions and beetroot directly into the pots once the soil has warmed up or start the containers off in a cold greenhouse. For best results, sow one variety to a container as the seeds will germinate and be ready to harvest at different times. Loose leaved lettuce can be sown in modules or seed trays and planted out into bigger pots when they are large enough to handle. Peas and Broad beans are very hardy and can be sown now, directly into the pots. They should begin to emerge in ten to fourteen days time but watch out for mice which will eat the seeds! Try Broad Bean ‘The Sutton’ a dwarf variety that has stood the test of time and will give a tasty crop of beans over several weeks. 


Mange Tout or Sugar Snap peas are a good bet for containers because they will crop prolifically. Remember to stake the plants as the seedlings emerge, using twiggy branches so that they can twine and climb – this will make them much easier to pick and increase the yield. 


Runner beans and climbing French beans can also be grown successfully in large containers but will need to be staked using bamboo canes and given plenty of water – a can full each day is not unusual in dry weather, when the plants are established and flowering.  


As with all vegetable gardening, it is best to start off small and add more containers as you feel that you can cope with them. As well as using good quality compost for planting and fresh seed from unopened packets for the best results, remember to feed your containers once a week with a liquid feed added to your watering can. Notcutts Pour and Feed tomato feed or Miracle Grow Your Own liquid feed are ideal for this. 


Who knows? When the container grown vegetables begin to take over your garden you may feel ready to start with an allotment! 

All Will Be Revealed

Here at Notcutts we think sunny spring days are some of the best times in the garden. There is a peacefulness at this time of year save for the frenzied activity of birds as they vie for mates and set about building nests for the breeding season. Most of us will look at our gardens now and feel that we can start again, improve, redesign or simply try something new.  


The first days of spring always bring a dilemma - to tidy or not to tidy? Jack Frost is still in control for a couple of months at least and a well known weather presenter has recently said that we are more likely to get snow at Easter in this country than at Christmas – a sobering thought but nothing new to experienced gardeners and nurserymen around the country!


It’s fine to tidy leaf litter from borders and reveal spring bulbs, hardy perennials and ornamental grasses. In fact, if this task is left too late, you are more likely to damage tender young shoots as they begin to lengthen and in woodland, where there may be thick layers of fallen leaves, dwarf bulbs may struggle to make it through at all. But try to add mulch of well rotted compost to your borders as soon as you have removed the leaf litter and broken twigs from winter winds. This will protect what you have just revealed as well as improving the soil and you can sort out your compost heaps at the same time. 


Clematis that flower after the end of June should have been pruned to 15cm (6”) above the ground at the beginning of this month and again, this needs to be done soonest along with the pruning of ornamental Grape Vines. Clematis pruning always looks scary – these tough climbers will already have begun to grow away at an alarming rate and it seems unfair that this growth is chopped and consigned to the compost heap. But they will grow back fitter and faster than ever and of course reward you with their beautiful flowers which are so welcome in late summer and autumn. Leave the spring flowering varieties alone or you will remove this year’s colour. Varieties that begin flowering in early summer need only be tidied up and straggly growths pruned back to a few buds from the main frame of the plant.


Vines will still be asleep and the long growths from last year can be taken back to a basic framework, five or six buds from the woody main frame. Extend these magnificent climbers by tying in some of the strongest of the last year’s stems to more wires or trellis. Soon the plants will be covered in huge, heart shaped leaves to give a cool, shady air to the garden through the summer months. 


But it is buds - buds of all colours, shapes and sizes that spring is about. From the glistening silver scales that are the fat, furry buds of Tulip Trees, the ‘still disguised on the bare wood’ buds of Forsythia, the needle-like Beech tree and Hornbeam buds, red scaled Ribes buds and glossy green Rhododendron buds along with, of course the vivid green ‘about to break’ buds of Daffodils and other bulbs, spring is a time when all will be revealed!



Planning a Cutting Garden

Many gardens harbour enough fresh material to ‘knock up’ the odd flower arrangement but for more serious florists a cutting garden is often the easy way to save money and ensure the freshest of blooms, cut at precisely the right stage so that they will last well in water.


The best cutting gardens are planned carefully to contain a mix of plants mainly to provide flowers. Evergreen material and plants with interesting leaves or fruits are often contained in other parts of the garden along with many flowering shrubs that can be the backbone of arrangements but are too bulky to grow in a cutting garden unless it is as a shelter belt or hedge.


One of the first things to consider when planning your area is when you will need the material. Perhaps this is a ‘one off’ to supply flowers for a christening or wedding? In this instance you may like to use a range of annuals or perennials grown from seed. There are plenty of varieties available to sow over the next few months that will ensure copious quantities for the vase and some will flower in only a few weeks from sowing. Cornflowers, Calendula, Nigella, Larkspur and Sunflowers are all easily grown from seeds sown directly into the ground in rows and all give a country meadow feel to arrangements. Successive sowings every two or three weeks through spring and early summer will ensure a regular supply of blooms either for the house or other arrangements.


As well as seed raised plants, there are the tubers and corms of summer flowers such as Dahlias, Lilies and Gladioli to consider. These can also be planted straight into the ground in April and May, once the soil warms up, and the taller varieties given support from stakes and string. An outstanding selection of these beautiful summer and autumn blooms will be available in packets as tubers or corms from Notcutts garden centres over the next few weeks. Gladioli are one of the most reliable of cut flowers available in a range of colours from crystalline white to woodpecker green and deepest black purple with many colours between. No cutting garden should be without at least one variety of Dahlia but which to choose? There is a huge range with different flower shapes from ‘cactus’ to ‘pom pom’, singles and doubles with another bewildering choice of flower colours. They are one of the best value for money plants that the flower arranger can grow – the more you cut, the more buds are produced but beware! Cut the flowers only when they are almost fully out. The tight, wax like buds will refuse to open in water even in the warmest of spots. 


Many herbaceous perennials are invaluable for cutting and if you do not wish to decimate your borders why not find room to grow some of your favourites in rows especially for the scissors? Michaelmas Daisies (Asters) are a good place to start – useful for their autumn flowers that are so long lasting in water. 
Sometimes the most delicate looking of flowers turn out to be amazing in a vase. The border Cranesbill, Geranium phaeum has sombre looking deep purple flowers but is also available in a range of paler purples, dusky pinks and a beautiful greenish white variety if you are lucky enough to find it. An armful of these will fill a vase in late spring and last for weeks. The bell shaped flowers of Campanulas are another winner in water, adding a country touch to summer arrangements or perfect as a big bunch on their own.


Whatever you choose to grow in your cutting garden, remember to pick often to extend the flowering season and don’t forget to change the water in your vases every few days to ensure the flowers stay fresh for the longest possible time. 


They will also supply blooms over a long season, perhaps beginning in early spring with Daffodils and continuing until autumn when plants that include Dahlias and those with interesting seed capsules such as Physalis will be at their best. 

Signs of Spring!

Signs of spring are everywhere. Birds sing to celebrate the lengthening days and to attract mates and Snowdrops and Daffodils pierce through the soil, assuring us that all is well and another year in the garden is beginning. Catkins on Hazel trees lengthen with the days and the bare wood of Viburnum x bodnantense and shrubby Honeysuckle is festooned with scented blooms as are the evergreen shrubs Sarcococca and Skimmia which can fill a garden with their powerful scent. Early varieties of Camellias display their flouncy flowers in creamy white and sugar pink whilst later varieties, along with Rhododendrons, bristle with plump buds waiting to smother their bearers in blooms and light up partly shaded borders or create a stunning focal point on a path in a glade.

Magnolias too, are full of furry buds on the bare wood, waiting to open as the leaves begin to appear – a beautiful, if fleeting sight. The Himalayan Tulip Trees (Magnolia campbellii) can be seen in flower in many of the great Cornish gardens from the end of February through March although much neck craning is required to appreciate these giants. They are a long term project that needs plenty of space and waiting time to see the sumptuous blooms. The Star Magnolia (M. stellata) is a much smaller relative with ragged white blooms from March until April – a much better bet for modern gardens and guaranteed to be smothered in flowers each year as long as the dreaded late frosts do not strike.

Perennials and ornamental grasses begin to show green shoots, soon to cover the earth for another season but some are in flower early. The Lenten Rose (Helleborus) shyly raise their heads of green buds which will soon open to dusky coloured flowers - a treat for gardeners and bees alike whilst the spotted leaves of Lungwort (Pulmonaria) surround flower buds that carry tubular blooms for months until late spring and are another favourite with bees.

Bare coloured stems of Dogwoods and Willows can still be enjoyed before the leaves appear to disguise them but if they need to be pruned do it now, by taking the twigs back to a basic framework a few inches from the ground or to the top of the trunk in the case of Willows that are grown on a stem.

The riotous spring show does not begin in earnest for a few weeks yet but the classic shrubs that we all look to for colour are full of still dormant flower buds, waiting to stir into action once the weather warms and the days get longer. Forsythia and Ribes (Flowering Currant) are two such stalwarts that hit the accelerator early in the year along with flowering Quince (Chaenomeles) that begins to bloom on the bare wood and continues for months - long after the glossy green leaves have appeared. The sweet scent of spring flowering Viburnums that include V. x carlcephalum and the pink budded V. x carlesii are other shrubs that are a delight in spring but for now sit in suspended animation waiting to unleash their scent and beauty on us once again.