Beloved and annoying! Salvia madrensis

A look at a plant that’s teaching me new things about Salvia’s. Propagating itself and teasing us with its flowers

Salvia madrensis

Aka: Forsythia sage

Native to the Sierra Madre, Mexico. Grows at 4,000-5,000 elevation in warm, wet areas. First documented by botanist Berthold Carl Seemann (1825 -1871) who worked extensively in South America.

In a tip of my virtual hat to Alison levey’s blog ‘The Blackberry Garden’ where she regularly features a plant that has been causing problems Id like to tell you about mine. Continue reading “Beloved and annoying! Salvia madrensis”

Behind the scenes at Kew

Behind the scenes of kew’s glasshouses
Rare tropical plants saved for the future of the world and how they do it!

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A few years back now myself and a few others went to Kew one weekend to see behind the scenes of their amazing tropical Glasshouse. Kew opens the doors once a year, one weekend in September, and you really have to keep your eyes peeled for this fabulous opportunity!

I happen to follow several of Kew’s Botanists on Twitter and with only hours to go I spotted a tweet saying it would be happening that weekend. So much excitement!

Unlike the Orchid festival in February where I was given my Wonderful Zygopetlum this is much more about the nuts and bolts of how Kew not only cares for some of its rare specimens but also, perhaps more importantly, how they are saving them and reintroducing them to the wild.

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On hand to give you all the information about the exhibits and massive glasshouses, not normally open to public view, are an army of helpful, knowledgable volunteers and staff alike.

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The different zones are climate controlled giving the plants as close to possible the perfect environment and growing conditions needed to keep them in tip-top conditions for seed production.

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Some of the plants on display are very familiar to us now, the bromeliads over the last 10 or 20 years in particular have become almost ‘throwaway’ houseplants. Sold en masse in a certain swedish furniture shop with the most feeble of care instructions they often die at the end of their flowering season but they need not! I kept a bromeliad overwinter in a cool domestic greenhouse once for 3 years and not only did it rebloom but also had pups…. weird turn of phrase I know, but the process of a plant having pups refers to the babies it produces vegetatively around its base after flowering. They are of course complete clones of itself and many plants do this. Agave’s, Aloe’s and Bromeliads being just a few…

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Bromeliad is a wide term that includes 3475 known species ranging from the humble pineapple through to the more exotic looking Tillandsia or Guzmania. Some are epiphytes, growing on the bark of trees for example. Others are classed as terrestrial, their roots firmly in the soil.

They often have intensely coloured bracts, modified leaves, to highlight their tiny flowers. This of course is one of the reasons their popularity has risen in home decoration. The colour on these can last for many months.

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Another set of plants whose popularity is rising are of course the Orchids although not all orchids are what you would consider suitable as houseplants. Most people will have seen a Phalenopsis, sometimes dyed hideous colours, at their local supermarket. Very few would associate the flavouring Vanilla with an Orchid though! The Vanilla Orchid is a beautiful twining, climbing epiphyte whose seed pods have become synonymous around the world with ice cream, imagine a world without Vanilla, another good reason to save endangered habitats!

Not all orchids have showy flowers either, they are as diverse as we are…

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But lets face it… most do

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It’s not just orchids and bromeliads on show though!

Kew’s work encompasses everything from this massive Amorphophallus titanum

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To these beautiful Colocasia….

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and the incredibly rare Ramosmania rodriguesi, which they have helped save from extinction.

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In fact there are so many amazing examples of plants to view I couldn’t pick just one to concentrate on for a short post! So I’ll leave you with a few of their loveliest/weirdest and urge you to keep your eyes peeled next September for news of when the glasshouses will be open again… and the Herbarium! Another on my “To do” list!

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Finally, one last reason to visit Kew in the autumn…. the leaves!

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My Zygopetalum

A love of Orchids is all consuming, the flowers and scent from my Zygopetalum are one of the reasons why

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I’m a great lover of orchids, as some of you may know, I own about 20 now. The vast majority are Phalenopsis, given the nickname of the moth orchid, it could now be happily called the supermarket orchid. Most are rescues as I can’t bear seeing them thrown away simply because they have finished flowering. It pains me to see a good plant go unloved when I know it will go on to thrive once more with just a bit of tlc.

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For years though I have been hankering after 1 orchid in particular. I’ve never dared buy it for myself, terrified I might lose it! That is the zygopetalum.

Back in February an All horts visit to Kew gardens was organised by @gardenwarrior (twitter handle, his real name is Andrew) to see the Orchids there. These visits to various gardens & events are always great fun as not only do you meet wonderful, like minded, enthusiastic horts but in such inspiring places!

This visit for me was particularly special though as it coincided with my birthday woo-hoo!

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We happily trotted round the glasshouse oohing & aahing as appropriate at what is a truly impressive display of Orchids when the scent of one caught me unawares!

Sweet, so very sweet! And musky, you almost smell it in your throat…I’m not sure if that makes sense but honestly you do! It was a familiar scent and immediately I was looking for the zygopetalums!

Not all orchids are scented and as a rule of thumb the bigger & showier a flower is the less scent it needs but zygo’s break that rule!

Lime green with maroon spots they are about an inch across. To my mind they look like little happy faces with purple flecked beards, like punk gnomes.

My friend Justin (Twitter handle @allotment7b ) , who knows a lot more about orchids than me, had very generously said he would buy me one from the shop for my birthday! Imagine how excited I was! Any orchid I wanted!!

Now I did have several “favourite” orchids in mind, one of which is a purple Vanda, these are relatively tricky to look after successfully in a normal home but are absolutely luscious!

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Vanda

Another I had in mind was a Paphiopedilum or slipper orchid. As I think I already have one in my collection of rescues though it seemed wasteful to not get something different. Even when they do look this good!

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Paphiopedilum

I eventually settled my mind on a zygopetalum which after raiding the unpacked cages of orchids in the shop I found and the wonderful Justin bought for me.

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Look at the stupid look on my face! Such joy!

For weeks it flowered it’s head off, making my bedroom smell amazing & in fact the whole house! Eventually it finished and I worried I wouldn’t be able to keep it happy. I forced myself to NOT fuss over it. Most orchids die from being loved too much! I lost my first one this way. I’ve found they much prefer being ignored for the most part. I water them with rain water if I can get it, if not I’ve been known to fill up the sink & plunge them in for an hour or so. I keep a bottle of water to go stale as an alternative. I bought a mist to encourage them to flower which I use intermittently & I also have a feed which encourages leafy growth which I use every few months but I worry about overfeeding as the build up if salts from these in the growing media can kill them just as quick as abandoning them altogether!

The strong sun on my window sill scorched one of the leaves of my beloved zygo back in June, also caused one of my others to abort flower production. It was the week I was moving & my well meaning housemate closed the windows and cooked them all in my absence. I could’ve cried… but hey! They survived! In the next few weeks as we all settled in to Ulting wick I repotted a few of my beauties & in the process noticed flower buds forming on the zygo!!

SUCH EXCITEMENT!!

I tweeted Justin to let him know.

That’s the thing about giving someone a present of a plant it’s a joy that keeps going.

He had given me my hearts desire & now it’s  scent fills the little cottage. It’s smiley punk faces greet me every morning. I have no idea what I did to make it so happy but it obviously is!

Zygopetalums were first found in 1827 by a chap called Mackay from Brazil. He gave one to the esteemed orchid expert of the day sir William Hooker, who promptly created a new genus for it. They can be found growing in cloud forests of south America and are classed as both epiphyte & terrestrial giving them the ability to be flexible in their growing conditions. The growing media need to be free draining, I tend to go for some of the more difficult to get hold of stuff which I buy from the Orchid experts at shows. This is a mixture of perlite, charcoal, bark and a few other bits.

If you’ve never tried growing Orchids before don’t be put off giving them a go, the Phalenopsis are probably the most forgiving, here’s a tip to getting them to reflower, leave them on a window sill where the temp will drop overnight. This triggers the flowering response, I found out by mistake and all of mine proceeded to flower their heads off for the next 12 months!

Heres a few of the loveliest you may consider…

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Chelsea Flower Show

Chelsea flower show, show gardens are designers dreams, style and fantasy, plants and pimms!
I revisit my Chelsea experiences, horticulture at its finest!

I have had the pleasure of visiting Chelsea a couple of times over the years, sometimes as a visitor, sometimes in a working capacity. Like all shows I’ll admit I have a distinct preference for the actual build process. This to me is a time of magic, from the arrival on site of so many people determined to create structures that give the appearance of having stood forever, the laughing and sharing of biscuits, tea and sometimes plants. The camaraderie that seems to be something special and unique to building show gardens. After all this is an incredibly stressful time for all involved. Months, sometimes years of planning have gone into a single weeks worth of showmanship!

One of my first times building at Chelsea also involved growing the plants for a garden, I’d had experiences at other show builds which fully prepared me for the hiccups and tripfalls to expect but as each garden is different so too are the demands on contractors. I had been asked to help with growing plants for 3 gardens. Firstly for Garden Organics stand in the Floral marquee, secondly for Harrod Horticulture. Their stand was on the outside of the marquee and thirdly for Alitex Glasshouses.

This was to be my special project when it came to the build and I’d prepared thoroughly wrapping each parsley plant individually in newspaper (which I knew I would reuse, stuffed between pots in the actual build, waste not want not!). Transporting the plants is one of the most stressful points as damage done cannot be undone. The memory of a distraught gentleman handing me a Mimosa flower at Hampton court a few years previously, lamenting that this had been its only flower and now everything was ruined always sits at the forefront of my mind.

Myself and a wonderful lady called Helen, who’s tireless cheerfulness was incredibly welcome, set about putting the plants into a half built garden. Sand, dust and noise of machines, drills and builders catcalling each other on a blinding sunshiny day. This is what Chelsea to me is about!

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Sadly most of my pictures of this day are lost, it was in the days of pre-digital cameras & limited to just 24 pictures anyway! Alitex were very kind to send me some of their own promotional pics from opening day, these I will always cherish but the serenity they exude doesn’t give you the blood, sweat & tears it takes to build a garden.

My favourite memory of this day was Helen’s panicked realisation that the sweet peas, grown in tubs, would have the pots visible. I had taken this into account and smugly, quietly packed a drill and jigsaw which I then proceeded to happily wield. Cutting through the hard plastic. As you can see from the pics it worked quite well! For this preparation I can only thank a wonderful man called John, whose second name I sadly can’t remember, who had taught me all I needed to know about Show gardens whilst at Photosynthesis. He was ace!

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My second favourite memory was of the drive home, at about 2 o clock in the morning. Illuminated by the headlights of a car behind I could see what appeared to be the shadow of a ginormous spider! I nervously asked Helen if she could just check how close it was to me and how big, not realising her phobia was far, FAR worse than mine. She screamed, I screamed, we both sat screaming at 60MPH on the M40!

This went on for a while.

It turned out the spider was tiny

I guess its one way of waking yourself up after a long day!

Anyway, the next time I was to visit Chelsea was as a visitor, albeit a working visitor. I’d just started a job working in a private garden and had been invited by my new employers to accompany them to Chelsea’s opening day. Honestly, I was terrified. I felt totally out of my depth which doesn’t happen to me often! I remember this as being my most stressful Chelsea as I realised my every move would be seen by my new employers and we were going to be introduced to the great and good which if done on my own terms would’ve been fine but rightly or wrongly this felt awkward.

Nevertheless, I dressed up in my best “Head Gardener” togs which involved corduroy, of course, and hopped on a train. The rest of the day became something of a blur but a stand out moment, purely for its weirdness factor, was standing on the “Best in show” garden & being introduced to Ulf Nordfjell. He likely doesn’t remember this given how momentous a day it was for him but for me it was overwhelming.

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I stood there in this amazingly glossy garden, its slick, clean lines & amazing construction. Trying to drink in all the details when I realised I felt a bit like a fish in a goldfish bowl! There were hundreds of people all around the edge of the garden, all with cameras and in my own head all going “who the hell is she?”

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So I did the only thing which made me feel comfortable! I hid behind my camera and took pictures of them, perfect!

In reality probably no one even blinked an eye at me & its only years later that I realise this. My life experience at that point in time made this so far out of my comfort zone it wasn’t even on my radar. Its only nearly 10 years later I can look back on this experience and realise it for what it was. I was given an amazing opportunity which was a turning point in my life. Its odd though, often when you’re in these iconic moments you don’t realise it and focus on the parts you can understand and deal with… anyway I digress!

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The rest of the show was a blur, I wish I’d felt in a position to enjoy more of it in a relaxed manner but then this is Chelsea. Relaxed isn’t really how I’d describe it at any point! After being ferried around and introduced to more people than I could ever hope to remember I was allowed to wander by myself. It was at this point I really started to enjoy myself!

These are a few of my best bits of 2009!

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A few years passed, life happened, circumstances changed. I didn’t go to Chelsea, I had a break but continued to watch it on TV. It seemed busier, even more frantic than I remembered?

Then in 2015 I got the opportunity to go again, so of course I did. This time I think I finally got the hang of being a visitor! We arrived as the gates were opening and proceeded to methodically quarter every spare inch of the grounds. From the show gardens to the Marquee not a single millimetre was left unchecked!

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So what had changed?

It was just as crowded as I ever remembered it but this time I was able to take some lovely pictures which feel very calm…

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M & G Garden – Caroline Davy Studio

It wasnt just the fact I had a swanky new camera, although lets face it that does help! I think something about me and how I viewed Chelsea had changed. I still had a slightly awed, inspired love of the gardens but this time I was able to take a moment to draw back and observe the palettes the designers had used. Pick out the colours that spoke to me, think of how they could be transferred into a real situation.

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…and more than that, I now had the confidence I had lacked previously. I was brash & cocky, I probably still am, but now I had the confidence to gently insert myself through the crowds and find the best spot for me to view the garden. Yes, I did get tutted at but that’s ok, I smiled said excuse me but would not be deterred. I saw this as part of my job, it was research.

To that end there were some gardens I had particularly wanted to see, these weren’t the massive show gardens but instead some of the courtyard and artisan gardens. Above all else I wanted to see the Japanese Garden: Edo no Niwa by Ishihara Kazuyuki. So different from anything normally seen in Chelsea.

Apparently so did everyone else!

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One look at that heaving crowd and I very nearly turned tail to run but determined I slowly pushed gently through….

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I was pleased I weathered the storm of bodies, crouching down I managed a few good shots despite receiving a Kath Kidson bag to the back of the head!

Then on to the floral marquee for a smorgasbord of delights!

One of which was of course is Primulas but when presented with so many gorgeous floral displays I realise I have no clear favourites in the botanical world. Each and every plant has something to commend it and the skill of the growers to bring each of them to the pinnacle of perfection is astounding. So I’ll finish up with a few of the best!

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Last year I missed Chelsea entirely! Didnt even watch it on the telly *shocked intake of breath!* I know! How could I! Call myself a gardener!

In my defence I had a very good reason!

I was halfway up a mountain in Peru!

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With these amazing ladies. Between us we raised around £50,000 for Marie Curie by climbing 3 mountains in 3 days, it was an incredible experience!

This year I’ve just received word I’ll be doing my bit for charity AT Chelsea which I’m hugely excited about! I’ve chosen this year to devote my time to help raising funds for Perennial these guys are awesome, check them out!

So far I’ve sold raffle tickets for them at their ball, I’ve raised a bit of cash for them on the Apple pruning course I ran a while back and now I’ll be part of the Chelsea sell off team! This is going to be SO intense!!

The garden they’re involved in is the Mindtrap Garden designed by Ian Price it has a moving story behind it, please do click on the link to find out more.

This wonderful concept also supports Inspire who support those with mental health challenges, based in Northern Ireland they do some amazing work.

There’s going to be lots of Horti faces there too so if you’re going to buy anything on sell off day at Chelsea make sure it’s from Perennial and help a Horti out!

Look forward to seeing you all there…

perennial

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Alnwick Gardens

Alnwick Garden, one of the UKs most spectacular gardens of this century!

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I’m writing this as I sit on my dad’s sofa, he’s opening a bottle of prosecco I got him for his birthday and it’s my first attempt at blogging from my phone. This could get messy…

We’ve talked about visiting Alnwick for years together, mum & dad visited shortly after the Grand Cascade was first opened in 2001 but today was my first visit! For those in the know Alnwick is pronounced Annik…apparently…anyway!

On our approach along the A1 there was a moment of horror as we saw a sign telling us the opening wasn’t till the end of March (which sent me off into gales of laughter & my dad saying frantically “I checked the website!”) But that referred to the castle not the gardens. We also decided to turn up on a day when they were holding another event so there were hundreds of people trooping along the country lane approaching Alnwick but it did mean we got to park in the priority car park.. bonus!

From here we could see the amazing tree house which is a recent addition

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Admission is very cheap by comparison to other gardens, mentioning no names, that have far inferior facilities but that’s in my hugely over inflated opinion.

The jaw dropping entrance to the garden is dominated by the much vaunted Grand Cascade and wow! The scale is amazing, it has echoes of some of the finer Italian gardens in its sheer scale but with wonderfully modern clean lines. Designed by Wirtz international it encapsulates the Duchess’s vision for the garden & what a vision.

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It’s shape is echoed in the incredibly sculpted yew and beech hedges which climb to the summit where the ornamental walled garden is hidden away. We were booked on a tour of the poison garden, something which I’m very excited about…. I realise how odd this sounds but as a gardener there are so many wonderful plants we encounter on a daily basis that are considered toxic that to rule them out would be to almost ruin our gardens!

First though we had a while to explore! So we headed to the bamboo Grove.

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I of course being a complete child immediately ran off down this labrynth of shady tunnels giggling madly & hiding from dad, then running back up behind him like some kind of mischievous bamboo elf! Great fun!

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There are various exits located around this amazing maze and after dad was completely lost we exited and made our way over to the entrance to the poison garden. Now I’m not going to talk in depth about it this time, it deserves a blog in its own right but suffice to say our tour guide Jamie was excellent & very helpful, informative & patient with all my questions (Thank you Jamie!)

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There is a wonderful bank of snowdrops, Scots pines & silver birch as you head towards the cherry orchard on leaving the poison garden. With an amusing owl & pussycat eternally sailing the lake to your left. Then you reach some fabulous mature dawn redwoods. A reminder for dad & I of a trip to Heligan where we argued about whether the giant tree in the distance was a redwood. It was…

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Wandering through we came across a sword firmly embedded in a stone. So of course we both had a go at being Arthur…

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Neither of us will be laying our claim to the crown & the sword is still firmly embedded.

Next came the cherry orchard which sometime around late April, May will be absolutely blissful! There are swing seats between the trees which will be incredibly gorgeous to be on as the petals fill the air and the bees create a melody around you *happy sigh*

As you travel through the garden there are many amusing little statues hidden away from the lion to humpty dumpty to cinderellas pumpkin.

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As you reach the pinnacle of the hill you are once again presented with a fabulous water feature, I can imagine on a hot summers day how this would cool the air. Inviting visitors to paddle and play with the swiftly flowing water.

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This rill emenates from a beautiful pool in the centre of the walled garden where the water bubbles continuously to the suface. Framed beautifully by the ornate gates at the entrance, it invites you to explore what is a very large area. One thing that strikes you over and again with Alnwick is the attention to detail. The construction of the different elements of the garden, the permanent structures is so well thought out. The attention given to what it will look like in winter, one of the most difficult times for a gardener in some ways, is incredible!

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We lingered a long time in the ornamental garden, its sheltered climate home to some lovely Camellias which ive never seen planted this far north. The iris’s & Snowdrops flowering merrily away. The Wisterias on the centre pergola promising a spectacular display in a very short time. The scent of the Chimonanthes beguiling us further to stay.

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The rose pruning is particularly spectacular, everything from intricate towers, arches & wall trained and the labelling is to die for! Accurate and plentiful, I love a good label!

At this point Dad and I started to feel the need for a fortifying cake and coffee. So we started to make our way down the Grand Cascade, it really is spectacular. The sound of rushing water is simultaniously overwhelming and calming.

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Dad didnt really get it when I told him I was going to film and in his excitement at the feat of engineering that the pumping of hundereds of gallons of water involves kept chatting so you get the pleasure of hearing my dad! I can certainly think of worse things!

Alnwick Grand cascade with Dads commentary

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Having partaken of the wonderful spread in the Pavillion cafe and feeling a bit more bouncy once more we set out to cover the rest of the garden befor closing time. Having already played in the Bamboo maze we headed straight for the Rose garden. Now admittedly a rose garden is not at its most spectacular (to most people) in March it is worth seeing the bare bones of the structure.

The hours of pruning this must take!

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Once again its the attention to detail which strikes you as you wander through the garden, the gorgeous gateway with its incredible craftsmanship struck me particularly. Maybe because it reminded me of the jewellery i used to create in my previous incarnation as a jeweller. Metal working and gardens so often seem to go hand in hand curiously. I know many gardeners who dabble in jewellery and metalsmithing and vice versa, perhaps its the creative nature of them, the wish to bring beauty to the world?

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Whatever the reason, inspiration behind this amazing crossover of skills I for one am a great advocate and lover of metal smithing in garden settings.

One last thing before I sign off!

The hedges at Alnwick, incredible, amazing! Often overlooked in their importance in a garden setting, hedges have a multitude of functions. Creating structure throughout the year, giving form and shape, a backdrop for the plants to perform against and seperating various areas. All of my favourite gardens have one thing in common. Great hedging!

When considering the layout of a new garden this is the very first step  and here they have it just right!

I cant wait to return to Alnwick with my proper fancy camera in the summer to capture how amazing I imagine it will be!

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Epicormic growth or canker?

Whats wrong with your Apple tree? A quick guide to Canker identification

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I’m going to attempt to make this a quick short blog post.

I saw on a forum a chap was concerned about his apple tree & confusion as to what was going on with it had caused people to jump to the conclusion it was Canker. Understandably he was concerned but he really didn’t need to be, the tree was perfectly healthy it was just displaying signs of epicormic growth.

What is Epicormic growth?

Epicormic growth is when dormant buds underneath the bark of the tree are stimulated, often through stress, into growth. Often creating a knobbly raised area which i guess to the untrained eye can look a bit sinister. These happen a lot on fruit trees due to the nature of pruning them they are often stimulated to produce new growth. We prune fruit trees to an open shape for ease of picking and to help fruit ripen but left to their own devices they, like all trees want to reach to the sky. When we remove the topmost growth they produce water shoots, strong upright growth from areas that over time will grow to look like this…

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As you can see the water shoots have been cut flush over a number of years creating a gnarled knobbly appearance with sunken areas on what is effectively scar tissue, this is fine, the cuts are clean.

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As you can see above an old tree over time will develop huge knobbles and still be perfectly healthy. Even a tree with Canker will continue to survive for a very long time so long as it is managed well.

So what is Canker?

Infections on Apple and Pear trees is fungal Canker (bacterial affects stone fruit) Neonectria ditissima is the culprit and causes brown peeling sunken patches on stems, limbs and in worst cases the trunk of the tree. Most times if caught early it can be pruned out easily and new shoots trained in, winter pruning is a good time to do this as winter pruning encourages new growth.

But what does it look like?

Depending on the stage it has reached it can have a variety of similar appearances illustrated below….

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The 2 examples above are the early stages of Canker as it progresses it will begin to look like this…

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And finally…

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Even at this stage the tree has healthy fruit producing shoots at the end of the limb but the limb will have to go.

Some methods to avoid introducing Canker are

Always clean your tools between pruning different trees, white spirits and a toothbrush are perfect for this.

Practice good hygiene around your trees, don’t leave prunings, fallen apples or leaves lying around, all a source for reinfection. Dont compost, either burn or send offsite.

Make your cuts clean when pruning, sharp tools are a must!

Remember all wounds are a source of infection so when picking fruit don’t pull off the tree, lift and roll. If it doesn’t come it’s not ready. Leaf fall, harvest and pruning are the time your trees are most at risk of infection.

 

The Winter Garden – part 2

To any of you who havent stumbled on me before let me take a moment to say Hi & welcome!

I asked Twitter what they would like me to blog about & gave 3 options, this was the one that quite frankly came out streets ahead, which of course is the one I was most dreading writing.

This may sound odd coming from me but the concept of a garden totally skewed towards the winter months was something that until recently hadn’t really come up in my radar. Why? I’m not quite sure?

In most of our gardens it would be nigh on impossible to dedicate an entire garden or even section of garden to just plants that look or smell good in the winter. Most urban gardens just don’t have the scale needed for this but what we can do if we want to incorporate this into our lives is perhaps take one or two of the choicest plants and use those.

A common misconception with gardens in winter is everything stops, nothing grows, nothing changes and nothing flowers. This simply isn’t true. Winter can be an amazing time to be out in the garden and if planned correctly can be full of scent, colour and flowers from December through to the end of February when Spring creeps up on quiet feet.

Part 1 (which can be viewed here The winter garden – part 1 )looked at the trees and shrubs which make the cold dark days a little brighter. In part 2 we will look at the smaller denizens and its structure.

Ground cover

Eranthis hyemalis – Winter Aconite

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I’ll be the first to admit that im not totally in love with acid yellow flowers but for the bravest intrepid bees that venture out on the odd bright warmish day we get in the winter these are absolute stars! Bees are attracted to yellow flowers over any other colour, weirdly they apparently see it as blue (im not sure who worked this out or how?) which means also that blue flowers work well for them too… but im digressing again!

Eranthis is a member of the buttercup family (Ranunculacea) and like a lot of plants can be poisonous. Dont panic, it’s not going to jump out of the flower bed and force itself down your throat… at least I don’t think so? It, like all plants, needs to be treated with respect. I know a lot of people get extraordinarily worried about poisonous plants being grown in their gardens but a good rule of thumb is just dont eat them! Teach your pets and children not to eat stuff and everyone is happy. I grew up in a garden filled with toxic plants as did our pets, none of us died. My mum taught us from before I can remember to treat plants with respect. Too often I see children in public gardens running over carefully weeded & dug borders, snapping plants & generally running riot. Is this a new thing? I know that we as children would have been given a sharp clart for wrecking someones hard work in this way never mind the potential danger of running into a plant with virtual teeth… ooh, I think im having a soap box moment… apologies, I’ll get back to the Aconite!

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Eranthis is a european native and has been known and used for centuries. Gerards Herbal, one of my favourite “mad” books includes it under the title of ‘English wolfsbane’ and gives it the title of Aconitum hyemale due to its leaf shape and seed head which are not dissimilar to those of the Aconite family. It grows from tubers in deciduous woodland so is tolerant of a little shade.

Erica – Winter Heather

As the name suggests the Erica family has slightly special needs in the form of ericaceous (acidic) soil but if you’re a gardener who lives on chalk, fear not you can easily grow them in pots of ericaceous compost but the Erica family is more tolerant than the Calluna family of Heathers of less acidic conditions.

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Unbelievably, considering I worked in a garden which had an entire area devoted to Heathers called ‘The Policy’ ( I never did find out the reason it was called this, supposedly it was because that’s the Scottish name for a heather garden? I’ve always understood thats the highlands? 😉 ) I haven’t ever really got excited about them and consequently haven’t taken many pictures of them.

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That said when you get a good display together it can be very impressive, even the odd Erica dotted around can be exceptional in its small way. So a few Heather facts!

Calluna is a distinctively different species from Erica as it flowers in autumn as opposed to Erica which flowers in spring but there are many that will flower a bit earlier and make a wonderful addition to your winter garden. In particular look out for cultivars of Erica carnea,  Erica x darleyensis and Erica erigena. 

One of the most important things for keeping your heathers looking good is consistent pruning. This should be done directly after flowering, if you have a small patch I would use secateurs (but be very careful not to catch your other hand with them, it’s easily done!) for a larger patch shears or even a hedge cutter. Cut right back to the point where you can still see growing leaves but a warning, don’t cut into old wood. like many small shrubs they won’t regenerate! Its well worth doing though as it keeps your heathers youthful and giving a good, compact flower display.

Snowdrops

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Now THIS is where i get a bit* excited!

*a lot

I’m not even sure I can put my finger on the moment this happened exactly, maybe it was the moment i was given some double snowdrops from ryton, maybe even before then? I can tell you when my appreciation became full-blown though, working with Quentin Stark at Hole Park, his love of them is infectious. A true Galanthophile!

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Galanthus nivalis f. pleniflorus ‘Flore Pleno’

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I don’t even count myself as a Galanthophile more an avid lover of these beautiful, delicate, transient, denizens of our gardens that hail the coming of spring. I’m unable to tell one  from the other… unless its ‘Mr grumpy’… or ‘flora pleno’…. but then they’re easy!

There are also some amazingly beautiful ones with a yellow ovary instead of the usual green or glaucous tint. 2 of the most easy of these to get hold of & the most reliable are G. plicatus ‘Wendy’s Gold’ and G. nivalis  ‘Sandersii’ syn.’Lutescens’. The gold snowdrops can be a little unstable and subject to reversion but that makes them all the more desirable to collectors. Their rarity pushes the price they can command and if you can breed a stable form you could almost retire on it. There is one I would love to see in the flesh and that’s a double yellow called  Galanthus nivalis ‘Lady Elphinstone’ Cadwalader, amazing! For all I’ve just raved about these yellow snowdrops I’ve never actually seen any! I’m hoping this will change this year though as Im going to Chelsea physic gardens snowdrop fair.

A quick latin bit! Galanthus literally means Milk Flower, love it, Gala = Milk & Anthos, the second part slightly mangled to fit = Flower. When followed by  nivalis = ‘of the snow’

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I wish I could remember everything Quentin tried to teach me so I could relay it to you with confidence but I do remember clearly the passion he spoke about them with, which somehow communicated itself to me to the extent that you will see me crawling round on the ground, camera in hand squinting to try to spot the miniscule differences between one little white flower and another almost exactly identical little white flower.

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And there ARE differences! The picture above shows that clearly and compare to the one below…imag2906

Snowdrops aren’t native to Britain though as much as we think of them as a naturalised wildflower. Some think that the Romans introduced them, others will tell you they weren’t introduced from Europe till the 16th or possibly 15th Century, depending on who’s telling you.

Leucojum vernum

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Sometimes called the giant snowdrop (or spring snowflake) as it stands at about 30cm and being related, Leucojum flowers slightly later which gives you a marvellous continuity when planning your garden. They will tolerate shade quite happily & waterlogged soils a rare and valuable trait for difficult areas.

They will flower right through from February till April giving bees a good source of nectar. Various members of the Leucojum genus have recently been moved to the Acis genus but Leucojum vernum & it’s later flowering cousin L. aestivum (summer snowflake) have remained for which I’m very glad as I adore saying the name, try it! It’s a wonderful word!

It’s a much underused plant, I’ve rarely seen them grown but once established is pretty much bomb-proof!

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Helleborus

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This is a massive subject! I’m going to try to stay tightly focussed & not ramble too much… but this is me and … well, forgive me if I do because they are SO beautiful!

The genus consists of around 20 species of both herbaceous and evergreen plants so there literally is a Hellebore for every situation.

22 species are recognised and divided into 6 sections.[7]

Caulescent species

These four species have leaves on their flowering stems (in H. vesicarius the stems die back each year; it also has basal leaves).

Acaulescent (stemless) species

These species have basal leaves. They have no true leaves on their flower stalks (although there are leafy bracts where the flower stalks branch).

Other species names (now considered invalid) may be encountered in older literature, including H. hyemalis, H. polychromus, H. ranunculinus, H. trifolius.

As you can see it’s a big subject! So for the sake of this blog we’ll stick with the orientalis and their hybrids. I remember clearly my very first Hellebores. I bought them as little tiny plugs. I didn’t realise I wasnt supposed to just stick them straight in the ground. I had decided to revamp a border that had been full of an awful euphorbia. I dug it out, plonked some ferns in the deep shade then my hellebores, poor tiny things they were, guessing how much space they would eventually need. In my inexperience at the time I thought it would be a marvellous idea to move a large peony that had sat in the back garden to the front where it would be in partial shade. I didn’t know it wasnt supposed to like being moved. I popped it in and hoped for the best as to be fair it had done nothing in the back garden. Looking back I have no idea how I achieved it but not only did they all survive but in fact thrived! So much so I converted my Dad to loving hellebores too (that was next years birthday present sorted!) The peony incidentally flowered its head off producing huge highly scented blooms of the very palest pink, I’ve never been able to replace it, every year the local kids would come and ask me for one or two of them to give to their girlfriends or mums etc. I loved getting them involved, they were good, if a little misdirected kids…. but that’s for another story!

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There have been some amazing advances in the breeding of hellebores giving us a colour pallete that spans from an almost black right through to pure white with reds, pinks and even yellows in between. Not just the colour range but also the flower shapes, singles, doubles even anemone flowered, it’s incredible!

Whilst at Hole Park we entered a few of the classes in the local flower show, this is a great way to see some of the best on offer, especially if your flower club has enthusiastic members.

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As you can see we only came 3rd but the level of competition was high.

I also visited Great Dixters plant fair that same weekend where they had a selection of amazing doubles, one of which now resides outside my old cottage…imag3096

THIS is the hellebore that if I could only pick one is the one though, it’s gorgeous picotee edge, delicate colouring and the shape, wonderful…

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Hellebores are subject to a few odd myths, apparently they are used in the summoning of devils, who knew, they have also been used to “cure madness” but honestly I don’t think I’d try either!

Theres a couple of important things to remember with this type of hellebore, come December cut all the leaves off, completely. Be very careful not to damage the flowering spike which will just be starting to emerge. The reason we do this is threefold.

  1. To prevent infection from fungal diseases such as Hellebore leafspot, this not only looks awful turning the old leaves black in splotches but can also given the chance mar the flowering spike. By removing old leaves you are removing the chance of fungal spores spreading but remember dont compost them otherwise they will just return!
  2. Removing the leaves prevents a wee timorous beastie from hiding under them and making a feast of your flowers! For mice, hellebore flowers are a valuable source of food. Removing the leaves makes it more difficult for them to use them as camouflage from predators.
  3. Removing the leaves allows us to appreciate the beauty of these winter treats with an unencumbered view and does the plant no harm, so make this one of your December “To-Do’s”

 

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Iris

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Finally we reach the wonderful, delicious Iris. Unlike the summers blousy displays of bearded Iris the delicate Iris reticulata, the dwarf Iris, gives a show which bewitches and enchants all in its own right. Originating in Russia it’s well able to thrive in cold conditions but appreciates having dry feet through the summer. Once established you will find that flowering will improve with a hot dry summer, which mimics it’s natural environment. Planted in a south-facing border will also increase the flower power. dsc_0191

 

I would recommend planting en masse if at all possible, 1 or 2 in a pot look fine but in a border they can very quickly get lost and lose their impact

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Climbers

Clematis Cirrhosa

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If I had to pick just 1 climber to include in the winter garden forget Jasminum nudiflorum – Winter Jasmine, its acid yellow flowers are too much for me and lets face it you see it everywhere but consider this gorgeous alternative.  A gentle lemony scent accompanies these understated freckled bells. As if these weren’t enough to recommend this wonderful plant the flowers are followed by lovely fluffy seed heads which are a great attractant for finches to feed on or birds to use as nest material, amazing!

Grow it against a south-facing wall where the winter sun can encourage it’s scent and enjoy this low maintenance climber throughout the year.

Other things to consider in the winter garden

It’s not just flowers that make a garden interesting in winter though, the gardens bare bones are exposed so when planning consider how it will look when stripped down.

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Hedging and topiary are of incredible importance in this situation, they will provide focal points and backdrops that create interest and lead the eye, structures like rose arches and in fact the roses themselves can be used to bring interest if pruned and trained in a creative way. Waterperry’s near Oxford is a great example of how this is done, Sissinghurst adopted these techniques as previous Head Gardeners were trained there. I myself used these techniques at Hole Park.

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Consider also how some plants can be used, phlomis and globe artichokes in particular look amazing in the snow.

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As do grasses, so think about leaving a few things around that can stand till spring to bring movement and structure to your winter landscape.

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Finally I’ll leave you with a few of my favourite wintery pics! I’ve got spring seed sowings on my mind now…

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