6 July 2010

One man went to mow

There is nothing more nostalgic than a traditional meadow full of grasses and colourful wild flowers, however years of intensive farming have significantly reduced the number of wildflower meadows in Great Britain. Over the past few years I have encouraged my clients to allow a bit of meadow into their own gardens, or at least grow some wild flowers to attract beneficial insects.

A meadow can turn a neglected part of the garden into something incredibly special and worthwhile.

It is generally agreed that the very best soil for meadow flowers is poor and low in fertility to keep any competing grasses down. If you have areas in your garden that seem to be fairly uninhabitable it might be worth trying some wild flowers there. A good idea can be to leave parts of your lawn un-mown to let the grass get to it’s natural height and this way encourage any wild flowers to grow amongst it. It is not advised to sow wild flower seeds onto an established lawn as they probably won’t find the room to grow amongst the close growing existing grass.

A good way to slow down the growth of grass is to sow the area with a semi parasitic wild flower called Rhianthus minor or yellow rattle, this will help the grasses you want to grow and gradually remove those you don’t.

There are two ways to go about achieving a meadow, whether it be large or small and in your back garden. The first is to add in plug plants, which can be easily bought online from various suppliers. I tend to use www.meadowmania.co.uk. It is important to first establish your soil type as wildflowers are fussy and will not simply grow anywhere. It is possible to buy flowers to suit any soil type or situation. Plant these in close groups (about a trowel’s length apart) for a perennial meadow. It is possible to grow these in modules from seed which is a much cheaper alternative.

The second way to get your meadow is to prepare the soil by removing as many of the pernicious weeds as you can during the summer months, particularly dock and nettles and scrape the surface as much as possible to remove the grass and topsoil if you feel the ground is particularly fertile and dig in sand or grit. You may need to rotavate the area and leave for the weed to grow and then remove the weeds and rotavate again.

Go over the soil raking and raking until you get a fine tilth, add more sand if the soil left seems heavy to help the seed to germinate. Work out how much seed you need per metre and mix with some sand to scatter it evenly. Seeding is best done in the autumn although it is possible to seed up to May and even through the summer if you are able to keep watering the area.

For a larger area it is worth including around eighty per cent of wild grasses, these can also be easily found on specialist meadow seed suppliers. A wild flower meadow seed mix could include, Cowslips, Lady’s Bedstraw, meadow Buttercup, Ox-Eye Daisy, Red Campion, Self Heal, Ribwort Plantain, Birdsfoot Trefoil, Musk Mallow, White Campion, Wild Carrot, Yellow Rattle and Yarrow. This range of flowers would extend the season for flowering from spring through to late summer.

The poppies and Ox-Eye daisies will be the dominant plants in the first year and after that the others will have had time to establish and will be more visible.

It’s a good idea to look around and see what else grows naturally in the hedgerows, fields and other gardens around and encourage these to grow in your meadow therefore preserving the local ecology.

The beauty of the meadow lies in its wildness and diversity but this takes work and careful management to keep it going year after year. It does need to be cut regularly during its first year to keep any annual weeds down but after this mow it twice a year and allow the cuttings to lie and set their seed for the following year. Use your imagination to mow paths or shapes into the grass or an edge around the borders in your garden to make maintenance easier.

It will take time for the meadow to establish but all this hard work and effort is absolutely well worth it.

8 June 2010

A Short Back and Sides

The pruning and shaping of shrubs and trees is an art that stretches back to ancient times. There are Roman texts which mention the use of precision clipped box hedges as well as amazing sculptures, described by Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia, showing such wonders as ships in sail or entire hunting scenes as well as animals, inscriptions and obelisks.

Pliny the Younger’s garden at Tusculum had ‘figures of animals cut in box’ and a path is hedged with bushes trained into different shapes with an oval drive containing various box figures and clipped dwarf shrubs’.

Buxus sempervirens was the most popular plant used by the Roman topiarists. Usually from Greece, these trained gardener-slaves used sharp knives as well as single-handed shears similar to the ones we use today.

During the Renaissance when garden designers were recreating the classical landscapes of old, enormous topiary schemes were put to use and this architectural use reached its peak in the very grand and formal gardens of 17th and 18th century France. Louise XIV hosted a Ball of the Clipped Yew Trees for his son’s wedding and came dressed as a topiarised yew. Such was the fashion for topiary in those days.

This grand French style inevitably penetrated into some of the great gardens of Europe although the Landscape Movement wiped many of these out with the clean sweep towards open vistas and natural planting. However, it remained in many cottage gardens and endures to this day with revived interest over the past years.

Topiary nowadays takes many forms and can be used in many different ways both formal and informal. I particularly love using it my garden designs in a more informal way, letting it grow in amongst more natural planting and providing an anchor in the border as well as all year round interest. Gertrude Jekyll and Edwin Lutyens have inspired me as they created a very stylised combination of mixed perennials and topiary in a cottage style. This can be seen at Great Dixter as well as Hanham Court, Iford Manor and many other gardens.

There are plenty of shrubs and trees to choose from which are suitable for topiary. The most obvious one being Buxus sempervirens or Box. Now widely available, Box makes a very good hedge as well as being suitable for topiarising into balls, cones and all manner of other shapes. Having compact and dense growth it is shade tolerant, preferring shade, but it also grows perfectly well in full sun. Grow either in containers or in the ground. They work beautifully in a gravel garden, such as at Hanham Court where they can be found nestling up to Iris as well as fennel and sea holly. I have grown them in groups into hoggin (a type of compacted gravel), which work really well and give a defined architectural shape.

Box can also be found used in ornamental vegetable gardens or Potagers and is a useful hedge giving structure to the garden.Traditionally Box hedging was clipped on Derby Day in large country estates, I’m still not sure why this was but probably a good time for clipping would be sometime from the middle of May to the middle of June.

I use either a pair of sharp shears upside down to trim box balls or cones as well as the single-handed sheep shearing types. The trick is to go slowly and to keep stepping back to check on your work from all angles.

I particularly love Yew, although it is relatively slow-growing in comparison to Box, the dark leaves really make for dramatic impact in a garden where it can be grown in many shapes.

Privet (Ligustrum) is another successful topiary plant and comes in different forms including L. Jonandrum and L. Delavayanum. I have been planting using Ligustrum texanum, which is not easy to get hold of but clips into lovely loose shapes and is hardy and evergreen, tolerating most conditions, which makes it ideal! Ilex crenata is another favourite for close dense leaf.

There is a huge range of topiarised plants available now and many unlikely shrubs have been clipped into lollipop and ball shapes. I think that restraint is the order of the day and mixing them in with softer planting so that the topiary remains as a structural feature rather than the main event.

21 May 2010

Know your onions

I don’t think I’ve come across many people who don’t like alliums. There is something so cheerful about their classic pom-pom heads and strong form and it is a sight to see them marching across a border in their serried ranks adding an upright accent in otherwise softly flowering surroundings.

A close relative of the common or garden onion, the allium is part of around 500 species and if planned carefully, it is possible to have them flowering in your garden from spring through to the early autumn starting off with one of my favourites Allium hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’ and rounding off in September with the delicate Allium tuberosum. Purple Sensation has amazing coloured purple flowers and I have found it to be reliable year after year.

Allium giganteum is even chunkier and much taller and flowers later, which means that you can plant a succession of them. Reaching around 1.2 metres tall with a huge 15cm head. Globemaster is another of my absolute favourites with even larger 20cm heads and it can reach 1.5m. The bulbs are expensive, but I think they are a good investment. Bulbs I planted in my own garden eight years ago still return each year making them good value in the long run. They do make a huge statement and for me signal that summer is really happening!

Another good variety in my opinion is the drumstick Allium sphaerocephalon. These survive better on heavier soil. A British native they are also found in Asia and North Africa. A relative of Nectaroscordum these purple reddish flowers are incredibly beautiful and I think a valuable addition to the summer border, planted in groups for maximum impact.

Slightly later in June, the colour of Alliums changes from dark purples to paler silvery lilac. These flowers need hot dry conditions to suit their origins from the eastern Mediterranean, and central Asia, including Allium cristophii and Allium schubertii, both of these have looser globe shapes with small individual flowers radiating from the main stem.

The last allium to flower is Allium tubersosum, also known as the garlic chive. Bees love this flower and they grow very well in the vegetable garden as well as border, or can be used as an edging.

Grow Alliums in a sunny well-drained position and they will come back again and again. Plant the bulbs in the autumn to the usual twice the depth of the bulb and I usually put some small sticks in around the area where they have planted to remind myself for the following spring! During the summer deadhead the flowers if you want to, but in the case of early Alliums I tend to leave the seed heads on until later in the summer as they look very attractive.

They look fantastic planted amongst lavenders, roses, emerging from lower growing planting, either along the front of the border or the back. Throw away the rulebook and put them in a winding ribbon throughout your border starting at the front and weaving through to the back and around larger shrubs. They look particularly stunning planted under Laburnum trees, the shimmering purple flowers contrasting with the bright lemon yellow.

In my 1895 copy of William Robinson’s The English Flower Garden, it seems that he was not overly enamoured with this particular flower, describing it as ‘not an important garden family, and often with an unpleasant odour when crushed’. However, Vita Sackville West disagrees in her Garden Book: ‘I think that some of the Alliums have a high value in a June garden.’ She goes on to describe some of her favourites and states that Allium giganteum, five feet tall is generally agreed to tube the grandest of all. I bought a single one last year and am now watching it anxiously’. Who could have blame her at the price of a bulb but it’s well worth it!

19 April 2010

Guilt Free Gardening

We have reached that time of the year when it is a blessed relief not to be constantly braced against the cold, when looking out of the window brings pleasure not misery and when everything is really beginning to look full of life. Blossom is everywhere, Bath is full of colour and it seems that summer is really on its way.

Unfortunately this also applies to the seemingly endless tasks that suddenly loom ahead in the garden and can lead to stress induced garden anxiety, because not only is the blossom out and flowers starting to bloom but the weeds are too.

There are those of us who simply do not have limitless time to spend pottering in our gardens, and I for one, sincerely hope that a time might come when I do, but in the meantime, there is a business to run, other people’s gardens to attend to as well as a myriad of other wifely and motherly duties, all vying for my attention.

Then of course there is my own garden. This winter seemed to hit it really hard, resulting in everything being covered in a green mossy covering, many plants and shrubs being outright killed by the cold and everything looking generally very sad. Every time I looked out of the window, I would think, I really must get out there soon and get busy! Gardening is one of those tasks, rather like the ironing, which can become a real chore and that is a shame but it happens to the best of us!

Here are some of my suggestions for taking the guilt out of gardening and making it an enjoyable pastime rather than something else on your to-do-list!

1. Keep it simple: This year I have decided not to have hundreds of pots full of thirsty annuals demanding my attention every evening and resulting in hours spent watering. Keep to a few larger pots, and plant up using a water-retentive medium, there are plenty available. Consider planting with more permanent planting, which won’t mind too much if it is left for a week, or two without being watered. Except in extremely hot weather Bamboos, Pittosporum, Box and Acers all work really well in containers and give a good display.

2. Keep it clean: Start your gardening year with a really good clean up, get jet-washing, clean pots, scrub paving, decking and all surfaces which have greened up over the winter. Sweep paths and even gravel using a beezum or witches broom. Get any lawn mowers or strimmers serviced or fixed and spend a good day doing these chores knowing that you probably don’t have to do them again for another year!

3. Keep it covered: Have a look at your borders and areas which are planted and fill in any gaps with more planting, particularly ground cover plants which will keep the soil covered and suppress weeds. Consider planting grasses and herbs such as Rosemary which look fantastic and are not too much effort. Also add a thick layer of mulch in the form of rotted bark chippings, these need to go on really thick (3-4 inches) to have any effect, and also minimise watering during the summer as they can keep the moisture in.

4. Keep it organised: At the risk of sounding too uptight, it might be worth considering keeping a note in your diary to remember to keep on top of any pruning which needs doing. Particularly paying attention to any shrubs that will need cutting back after they have flowered this summer. Also think about a shopping list when visiting the garden centre, this way you won’t be throwing whatever looks nice on the day into your trolley and you will save money and be organised too! Planning ahead will help you to keep a great looking garden but also save your sanity if you are particularly busy.

5. Keep it relaxed: Remember that most of us spend more time looking at our gardens out of the window than we do in them, as long as you can look out and feel pleased with yourself and enjoy your garden that is the most important thing. If you are really struggling, then find someone to help you out in the garden a few hours a week, that way you can enjoy it more.

If your garden is giving you stress, then following these easy tips might help you to have a great summer in your garden. Be in charge of your garden rather than your garden being in charge of you!

29 March 2010

Magnificent Magnolias

One of my favourite moments in the year is when the Magnolias start to flower. Along with wisteria, Magnolias herald the new season of sunny warm days and having been modestly hidden in the garden for months, they suddenly show themselves everywhere with their amazing pinky white cup and star shaped blooms.

Magnolias are unimaginably old, going back 100 million years to the Tertiary Period to a time when the Arctic Circle had a European climate and Magnolias, Ginkgo and Liriodendron grew there. They are among the most primitive of flowering plants and fossils have been discovered in rocks from the Cretaceous period. Their simple shape with thick petals and stiff anthers together with their powerful scent are adapted to pollination by larger insects. However, once the dramatic climate change happened and the polar ice cap expanded these plants were of course destroyed, however, in China, eastern North America and Japan they survived.

Named after a French botanist and noted horticulturist, Pierre Magnol, who died in 1715, there was only actually one species of Magnolia in Britain at that time, the Magnolia viginiana, now not common in gardens.

Later during the late 18th Century Sir Joseph Banks introduced another species Magnolia denudata in 1780. A beautiful variety of Magnolia, it grows wild in China. The flowers grow on bare branches in early spring and have been the inspiration for many paintings. They were often planted in temple gardens and were seen by Buddhists as a symbol of purity. The flowers are considered a delicacy dipped in flour and fried. The only problem with this specimen is that the flowers are easily damaged by frost although the tree is resistant to cold.

It was not until the 20th Century that many of the magnolias we see today were introduced by two British men, Ernest ‘Chinese’ Wilson and George Forrest. They were sponsored plant collectors backed by wealthy horticulturalists.

Ernest Wilson also introduced a great many new species widely grown today, including Magnolia wilsonii, and Magnolia sinensis, sadly he died young but no other plant hunter ever introduced as many species as he did.

One of my favourites, a large specimen, which can be seen growing outside the Royal Crescent Hotel in Bath, is Magnolia grandiflora. This wonderful plant comes from the river valleys of southeastern America and grows in warmer climes as a freestanding tree. During the summer months large creamy white flowers hide amongst the glossy evergreen bronze-backed leaves. Vita Sackville-West wrote that they reminded her of ‘great white pigeons settling among dark leaves’. The scent is quite lemony and strong and Native Americans believed that sleeping beneath one of these trees would overpower them! They grow well in large containers, and are good for giving all year round interest, they do need watering and feeding however as it’s easy to forget about them as they need little attention.

Another great favourite of mine is Magnolia x soulangiana. Named after Chevalier Etienne Soulange-Bodin (died in 1946), he was the founding director of the Royal Institute of Horticulture near Paris. In a very early experiment Magnolia liliiflora was crossed with Magnolia denudata and the new hybrid was much praised and named Magnolia soulangiana. Over a hundred distinct cultivars have been created since. Most recognisable being those with flowers stained pinkish-purple on the outside and white on the inside but there are also very dark pink varieties as well as pure white. This Magnolia is really quite hardy and can cope with temperatures down to -20F; it flowers in early spring and covers an otherwise naked tree with lots of flowers.

A popular smaller tree, which I think works well in front gardens is the Magnolia stellata, it grows to around two metres in height with a slightly larger spread and is hardy, needing neutral or acid soil and is very early flowering, which is a bonus. The buds are flushed pink and it flowers well. If they get frosted whilst in bud or flowering it will simply grow a new crop to replace the old.

A good place to see a wide range of Magnolias is the Botanical Gardens at Victoria Park. There are some breathtaking trees of every size and variety and generally the cherry blossom is out at the same time, making for a wonderful spring visit with plenty of opportunities to get the camera out! Otherwise a walk around Bath will reveal that there are so many amazing trees in the city, normally un-noticeable until this time of year.

8 March 2010

Colour your garden

I am a huge fan of colour in the garden, whether it is from the planting or the structures such as fences and gates, furniture and timber structures as well as walls. Colour can either perk up a grey day, of which we have had far too many lately, or it can be enhanced and illuminated by bright summer days.

Paint is an important garden material and I think much overlooked. Colour can add depth, interest, focus and contrast to any garden provided you have the relevant surfaces available to be painted. We do have a British tendency to be reserved about the colours we use in our gardens and tend to shy away from bold colours, but rather than go the whole hog and paint everything blue, adding accents and emphasising particular features or furniture can transform a dull space into something far more individual and exciting.

Exterior paint is most widely used on walls and furniture but paint can also be used on fencing and garden buildings. There is an amazing range of colours available for either timber or masonry, but the masonry paint colours tend to be slightly more restricted at the bolder end of the colour spectrum.

Paint extends the range of colours and textures available. A painted background colour on a wall can harmonize a group of plants. A painted highlight on furniture can provide an accent to a colour composition. The natural solution is to use gloss paint on furniture, to enhance the highlight, and matt paint on walls, to allow planting to become the highlight. Ordinary emulsion paint works well out of doors. To avoid everything looking too brand new, sandpaper can distress the texture and create a more worn look, which might appeal to some people, particularly where the garden is older and more established.

There are also coloured lime-washes available to use on older buildings particularly in conservation areas or on listed buildings where often it is more appropriate to use natural materials, these come in a range of colours from various suppliers.

A coat of the right coloured paint can transform an old structure and immediately help it to blend in with a new garden. This can work particularly well with old sheds and fencing, or stonework. Likewise, colour in the garden is often associated with minimalist gardens, using large blocks of bold colour with minimal planting.

I have been hugely inspired by architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis and his picturesque village at Portmeirion in North Wales.

Roy Strong, in Garden Party said:

“Clough, one knows from Portmeirion, was never afraid of colour. The buildings are colour-washed ochre, terracotta, primrose, a dusky blue.” The greeny-turquoise of his ironwork in the garden recurs on houses. “How many people ever think of linking house and garden colour-wise? He reminds any gardener that colour is not only flowers. It is what comes out of the paint pot, and the possibilities for the imaginative are limitless” (Roy Strong, Garden Party, 2000).

A walk around Portmeirion on a sunny day is rather like being dipped in a paint pot of intriguing and wonderful colours. Everywhere it is possible to add colour, there it is. Either in the buildings, the sculpture, the many architectural features, the palette is predominantly strong and capable of coping with the elements of north Wales whilst at the same time mimicking a very strong Mediterranean influence.

Bold splashes of rich colour abound, blues and ochres, turquoise and yellow. Often colours are deliberately gradiented (lighter toward the top) as a forced-perspective trick. Sometimes multiple colours are painted on the same wall to create the illusion of grandeur. The entire effect is dazzling and stimulating.

On a much smaller scale, there is a lot of inspiration to be had from these techniques and which can be applied to the smaller garden with stunning results. Whether you paint a wall a bold colour and plant contrasting-coloured plants in front of it, or simply paint a bench and allow the colours to shine out.

As Sir Clough Williams-Ellis wrote in Portmeirion: The Place and Its Meaning (1963) “design and colour really do matter profoundly to all of us as a powerful source of pleasure, if we will but use our eyes as we ought.”

24 February 2010

The wonderful world of Wisteria

As spring approaches, I am starting to really look forward to my journey back from work, which takes in several magnificent Wisterias, one of which covers a huge Georgian house and is truly amazing.

I remember as a young child, I loved staying with my aunt in Sussex. The house was covered with a vast Wisteria, which I could climb into as the trunk and branches was so huge. Now, whenever I catch a whiff of the beautiful perfume I am transported back to my younger days.

The most important thing to remember about Wisteria is to always stay one step ahead of it, in other words, do not let it get out of control or it will wind its way up drainpipes, and into roofs and anywhere it can reach. I have spent too many hours up very tall ladders retrieving wayward wisterias from the upper reaches of various houses in Bath! If possible keep them where you can at least reasonably reach them safely from a short ladder – or get someone in to prune who is unafraid of heights!

Wisteria is a genus of woody vines that originate from Japan, China and Korea as well as the eastern USA. The most commonly found varieties include Wisteria sinensis, Chinese Wisteria and Wisteria floribunda, Japanese Wisteria. They are generally fully hardy but you might find that early flower buds can be damaged by frosts.

They do need something strong and secure to grow on. Over time the stems and branches get very thick and will crush trellis or thinner timber structures. They benefit from having a strong pergola structure or metal framework. It is worth thinking ahead when you plan a Wisteria and imagining how it will look in several years time, therefore do give it plenty of space as well as support.

They like to be planted with their roots in the cool and preferably on a sunny wall where they will reach the warmth, make sure to include plenty of rotted manure or compost and add an annual mulch as they like their food, and will benefit from feeding with liquid feed in the spring. Prune Wisteria first in January or February, cutting back the long whippy growth to two buds and take out any dead bits. It can sometimes be quite hard to determine what is dead and what is not dead at this time of year, but anything without any dark buds on is normally dead.

You can also assess whether the wire or framework is holding up and re-tie in anything. I prefer to use tarred string for this job, as it is soft and yet strong and is not damaging to the stems, it also lasts a few seasons before needing to be replaced. Using wire to tie in often results in the wisteria growing around the wire and this can damage the plant.

Tie the stems to the framework and keep standing back to get an overview to make sure the whole plant is not too congested with growth from the previous year. Once your wisteria has finished flowering, around July or August give the long stems another trim back to five buds and tie in if necessary.

Wisteria can look stunning grown into a tree, but make sure to plant it a few feet away from the base of the trunk and on the south side of the tree. As standards they grow well in either the ground or a container. Start by putting a strong support next to the plant to train it over and prune back side-shoots eventually creating a lollipop effect. Remember that if you are using a container to start off with a cheap plastic one and move the wisteria into a bigger pot as it grows larger.

Iford Manor has some particularly fantastic wisteria planted as standards and it’s well worth visiting there in May or June to see them. They line the entranceway into the main house and lead the visitor up a path to the loggia.

Wisteria have the reputation of being tricky to grow and maintain but with a bit of know-how they certainly give back what you put in.