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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A month in… Ulting wick

I’ve been at Ulting wick just over a month now & so much has been happening!
Here’s a quick catch up as Phil & I settle in…

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Phil catnaps on the patio, he’s fully settled in here now & very happy!

With a bit more time I’ve started planning this post early!

Yesterday I took some cuttings of the salvia blue merced I bought at Hampton court from William Dyson of Great comp gardens in Kent. Look at their loveliness! Hopefully all will take & they will look marvelous in the pots next year… fingers crossed

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I also had a surprise on surveying the dahlias this morning, in a clump of Bishop of Auckland I spied a gorgeous anomaly! As beautiful as this lady is she’s just not right and so will have to be removed!

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On Thursday myself & Phillipa tackled the mystery weed that clogs up the stream. Phillipa got stuck right in, almost literally at a few points, leaping into the stream itself and between us we hauled tons of the watery stuff out of the stream!

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Phillipa was kind enough to invite me to join her in the evening to RHS Hyde Hall’s opening of their new veg garden in the evening. Spectacular new glasshouse and raised beds, all beautifully planted up with some quite unusual specimens. I’ve not seen Ullaco or Oca like that for many moons! I’ll be popping over their this weekend coming to offer up some  Achocha seed. Far nicer than the shop bought stuff it has less spines on its fruit, I hope it will be a welcome addition. Mine came from HSL’s own stock available to members.

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one of the lovely melons developing in the glasshouse

Today was Friday & overcast so much box cutting ensued! I’ve finally finished the rather over fluffy sides in the farmyard, it’s taken longer than I expected as it missed it’s cut last year so bringing it back to straight has been a challenge! I’m hoping the tops & pyramids will prove quicker then I can move onto the spirals & balls.

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The farmyard looking increasingly tropical!

We’ve also had to start cutting back the mixed hedges at the front, they are young hedges & are putting on so much growth they’re starting to encroach on the road, not good on tight country lanes!

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salvia bullulata – pale flowered form, with a delicious coleus/plectranthus

Massive changes to the stream beds are now underway. Winnie the Pooh tree (a willow tree) finally gave in to gravity 2 weeks ago. The base of the tree was about 6ft across & 4ft high, swathed in Ivy. It had basically rotted through and it’s one new trunk had completely snagged up in nearby trees as it slowly & graciously fell over! It’s removal has opened up all sorts of exciting new planting possibilities!

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coleus have gone through so many name changes but are still some of the most beautiful leaf colours available, love them!

When moving here I was assured it had the lowest rainfall in England, after the last 2 weeks of almost daily rain I can only assume the rest of England has developed gills? The rain shows no sign of letting up but it has meant watering has been an infrequent task. In between showers though the heat can be quite intense so we seem to be in prime grass growing weather at a time you would normally be expecting to ease up.

We ended the month trying to get everything finished up before Phillipa went away. A constant stream of deadheading & pulling out of things that have finished ready for our visitors.

As I finish this up ready to publish our Dutch group have been & gone, all the feedback was very positive & I hope they will return again, a truly lovely group of people!

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Gloriosa superba rothschildiana

Hard to believe I’ve been here just over a month now, it’s gone so fast, equally it feels like I’ve always been here, in a nice way. I’m starting to settle in… I’ve also found a place I can get free Wi-Fi for 4 hrs!! Woo-hoo!

 

Where the wild things are!

Creating your own meadow or place for wildlife isnt as hard as it seems. Heres a few native wildflower species that will thrive whatever your conditions

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Meadow at Oxford Botanical gardens

There’s been a lot written about wildflower meadows in the last few years and whether the style is prairie or english meadow there can be no doubt they are absolute havens for wildlife.

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Green Hairstreak
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Newts need water but can often be found in leaf debris and thick grass
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Knapweed is an important source of nectar to butterflys

If you’re considering turning an area over to wildflowers there are a few things worth considering before splashing out huge amounts of money on seeds. For example what soil you have. A clay soil will support a totally different type of wildflower to a sandy soil. If you have the benefit of a stream nearby perhaps you would be better suited choosing moisture tolerant plants.

I’ve been lucky to have worked in some beautiful gardens with well thought out wildflower meadows, some even had native orchid species!

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Orchis mascula – early purple orchid

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Dactylorhiza fuchsii – common spotted orchids

If you’d like to know more about identifying native UK Orchids, of which there’s over 50, have a look at this handy guide

But Orchids are a plus, a wildflower area doesn’t always have the right conditions for them, often you won’t even be aware they are there until conditions become right for their germination. Orchid species should NEVER be removed from the wild, the soil in which they grow has very specialised conditions which cannot be replicated and by moving them you are pretty much giving them a death sentence no matter how hard you try.

What about what you have then?

Lets have a look at what you can grow!

Acid/Clay soils

Clay soils are prone to drying and cracking in dry periods and being cold and wet during the winter. They also have an ability to hold nutrients which for wildflowers who thrive in undernourished conditions can be a challenge! I’ve included the description of acidic as most clay soils tend to err towards slightly acid conditions but it’s always best to check your soils PH. Testing is a simple process, kits being available from most garden centres.

  • Autumn Hawkbit( Leontodon Autumnalis)

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  • Birdsfoot Trefoil (Lotus Corniculatus)
  • Common Cat’s Ear (Hypochaeris radicata)
  • Corn Poppy (papaver Rhoeas)
  • Cowslip ( Primula Veris)

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  • Yarrow, (Achillea Millefolium)
  • Yellow Rattle (Rhinanathus Minor) – This is one of the most important ingredients in a wildflower meadow
  • Betony (Stachys Officnalis)
  • Goatsbeard (Tragopogon pratensis)
  • Lesser Knapweed (Centaurea Nigra)

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  • Meadow Vetchling (Lathyrus pratensis)
  • Ragged Robin (Lychnis Flos Cuculi)
  • Common Sorrel (Rumex Acetosa)

Going back to Yellow rattle, the reason this is so important in a wildflower meadow is its fascinating means of extracting nutrients, it’s a parasitic plant! It attaches itself to the roots of surrounding grasses and stunts their growth thereby allowing the other less dominant species to flourish. Getting it established is the most important factor when starting your wildflower meadow and this is best done in the autumn using fresh seed. Of course once its in and in subsequent years this can be done purely by the process of cutting your meadow down.

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Meadow at the Queen Elizabeth Park, London

What if you’re on a chalk grassland though? Chalk will support a whole different range of species, its alkaline, low in fertility naturally. Sandy soils also are well-drained so ive included these two together. You’ll notice that some of the plants are included on both lists, this is because they are “bombproof” so let’s have a look at what you can grow!

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Chalk meadow at Ayot st Lawrence, Herts

Chalk & Sandy soils

  • Agrimony (Agromonia Eupatoria)
  • Birdsfoot Trefoil (Lotus Corniculatus)
  • Common Vetch ( Vicia sativa)
  • Meadow Cranesbill ( Geranium Pratense)
  • Corn Poppy (Papaver Rhoeas)
  • Cowslip (Primula Veris)
  • Dark Mullein (Verbascum Nigrum)
  •  Dropwort (Filipendula vulgaris)
  • Kidney Vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria)
  • Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium Verum)
  • Meadow Buttercup (Ranunculus Acris)
  • Meadow Cranesbill ( Geranium pratense)
  • Musk Mallow (Malva Moschata)
  • Ox Eye Daisy (Leucanthemum Vulgare)
  • Rough Hawkbit
  • Ribwort Plantain (Planatago Lanceolata)
  • Salad Burnet (Sanguisorba Minor)
  • Self Heal (Prunella Vulgaris)
  • Common Sorrel (Rumex Acetosa)
  • White Campion (Silene Alba)
  • Small Scabious (Scabiosa Columbaria)
  • Wild Carrot ( Daucus carota)
  • Yarrow (Achillia Millefolium)
  • Yellow rattle (Rhinanthus Minor)
  • Wild Marjoram (Origanum Vulgare)
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Meadows in the Orchard at Waterperry, Oxford

Come September its time to cut your meadow down. In the past ive used a brushcutter to cut meadows down, this is a great method for seed dispersal and if im honest it’s a job I love! Some people use a topper, which doesn’t always get low enough for the low growing species, others swear by using a scythe which is a very exhausting way & takes a great deal of skill to do properly. Plan to do it when you have at least a week of dry weather ahead.

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Posing for a Brushcutter selfie!

Later the cut grass and wildflowers can be collected either manually by raking or if you have a large area and the equipment you can “box” it up & remove it. This is incredibly important as the removal of cuttings firstly helps spread the seeds and also lowers the fertility of the soil which wildflowers prefer.

What if you have a stream bank or water meadow? What plants love to grow there?

These suggestions are best sown 1-2 metres within the streams edge as these plants do better with damp feet, again you’ll notice some that are included in the 2 previous mixes.

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Stream/pond edges

  • Gypsy Wort (Lycopus Europus)
  • Greater Birdsfoot Trefoil (Lotus pedunculatus)
  • Meadow Buttercup (Ranunculus Acris)
  • Meadowsweet (Filipendula Ulmaria)
  • Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum Salicaria)
  • Ragged Robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi)
  • Red Campion (Silene Dioica)
  • Self Heal (Prunella vulgaris)
  • Teasel (Dispsacus Fullonum)
  • Tufted Vetch
  • Water Avens (Geum Rivale)
  • Yellow Flag Iris (Iris Pseudocorus)

Of course there are many more native species which could be included, one that you don’t often see is this lovely chap. Stellaria holostea – Greater Stitchwort, most often found in hedgerows rather than meadows, its beautiful delicate flowers are a pleasant surprise peeking out from under hawthorns.

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Which leads us nicely to woodland wildflowers! If you havent got an open area to turn into your own personal nature reserve or if your garden is shaded by lots of mature trees this could be your answer. Of course there are Bluebells and wild Garlic but there’s lots more that can thrive in the shade of your leafy canopy!

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The Bluebell Woodland at Hole Park

Woodland Wildflowers

A traditional english woodland when properly managed can be awash with colour and nectar. It’s only an unkempt area full of brambles & nettles if left neglected. Traditionally pigs would be allowed to rootle around in the undergrowth keeping some of the thugs at bay but these days that’s relatively rare. As is the tradition of coppicing, stands of hazel to a gardener are such a boon, it’s a shame we don’t all have access to it. I digress!

If you do have a shady area under trees though you can make it come alive with just a few choice natives

  • Bluebell Seed (Hyancith non Scripta)
  • Common Agrimony (Agrimonia Eupotar)
  • Hedge Bedstraw (Galium Mollugo)
  • Wild Garlic ( Alliaria Petiolata)
  • Hedge Woundwort (Stachys Sylvatica)
  • Herb Bennet (Geum Urbanum)
  • Nettle Leaved Bell Flower (Campanula Trachnium )
  • Ragged Robin (Lychnis Flos Cuculi)
  • Red Campion (Silene Dioica)
  • Self Heal ( Prunella Vulgaris)
  • Square St Johns Wort (Hypericum tetrapterum)
  • Sweet Cicely (Myrrhis Odorta)
  • Upright Hedge Parsley (Torilis Japonica)
  • Welsh Poppy (Meconopsis Cambria)
  • Wild Angelica (Angelica Sylvestri)
  • Wild Foxglove (Digitalis Purpurea)
  • Wood Sage (Teucrium Scorodonia)

Some of these listed are absolute nightmares in a garden setting such as Geum urbanum and Meconopsis cambria but in a woodland setting are perfect. It’s a matter of choosing the right plants for the right place and remember we are looking at this as a “Wild Garden” rather than a cultured bed full of choice specimens. Hopefully this will give you the confidence to go out and select some seed and sow your own little patch of wilderness.

“Let the wild rumpus start!”

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