Friday, 30 August 2013

Plant of the Moment – No. 14 Phlox paniculata 'Eva Cullum'


Phlox paniculata ‘Eva Cullum’ was introduced in 1978 by the revered Norfolk nurseryman Alan Bloom, who named it for his then head of retail at Bressingham Gardens and Nursery. 

The shocking-pink flowers, with carmine centres like a smudged 70s lipstick, are set off beautifully by maroon stems and dark green leaves.

In common with other selections of P. paniculata they are highly scented; never more so than on a warm, still evening, when I have been stopped in my tracks as I try to pin down the exact source of the at-once familiar yet strangely exotic fragrance.

I'm sure there are those that would look down their noses at this admittedly none-too-discreet plant, but I love Eva for her sheer joie de vivre.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Dusky ruminations

At quarter-to-nine last night I sat outside in the rapidly gathering dusk and falling dew listening to chirruping grasshoppers and bush-crickets, hooting Tawny Owls, and a Jackdaw chacking somewhere high overhead as it hurried to roost. An experience close to perfection. Amidst the gloaming I could just make out a Pipistrelle Bat flying circuits around the Blaisdon Plum tree close to where I was sitting. It reminded me of when, as a 15-year old, I was still able to hear the high-frequency calls of Long-eared Bats feeding over the venerable cider orchards of west Gloucestershire.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Plant of the Moment – No.13 Crocosmia 'Walberton Yellow'

This robust Crocosmia began flowering in mid-August and will go on lighting up borders for at least a month. It is more orange-yellow than yellow as such, but that only serves to make it an even more vibrant contributor to the late summer and early autumn scene, chiming perfectly with the orange, red and rust tones that typify the season. The large and sturdy panicles of flower-buds are arranged in a 'herring-bone' pattern, recalling the better-known cultivar 'Lucifer', but 'Walberton Yellow' only reaches a third of the height of its devilish red cousin.

In our garden this is a strong plant that makes moderately increasing clumps in moist but well-drained soil in full sun. It does not show the highly invasive proclivities of Monbretia, which is a menace (albeit a deceptively attractive one) round these parts. 'Walberton Yellow' seems to be virtually weather-proof, with the plants requiring no staking or other physical support, the flowers coming through wet and windy conditions largely unscathed, and the corms shrugging off the hard frosts we have experienced annually since 2009 (although we are admittedly in a much milder-than-average part of the country).

'Walberton Yellow' (actually a trade name, as the officially registered cultivar name is 'Walcroy') is protected by Plant Breeders' Rights (PBR), meaning that commercial propagation is prohibited except under licence. Happily these provisions don't extend to horticulture on a domestic scale and so those of us who have come to value this plant for its almost luminous colour and trouble-free nature are free to spread it around our gardens.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Holiday Mud Larking and Hay Making

It was a beautiful holiday weekend with soft, slightly misty, early autumnal mornings, gloriously sunny afternoons, and a cooling breeze off the sea. So what better way to spend your days than alternately floundering about in a muddy pond trussed up in a wet suit, then sweating buckets cutting and raking hay? It was the first time either of our two ponds, each about 4m across and up to 1m deep, has had a serious clear out since we made them 10 years ago, so I knew it was going to be a challenge. Armed with secateurs, shears, a pruning saw – none of which is great to have around an expensive butyl pond liner (!) – and an assortment of trugs, sieves, nets and a tarpaulin, I set to with vigour and vim, to emerge from the murky depths a shattered husk about two hours later. Who knew that the roots of Bogbean Menyanthes trifoliata could be so enormous and that once neatly planted baskets of aquatic plants could so easily become fused into one astonishingly heavy mass that literally had to be hacked apart?

Surf's up! I donned my wetsuit to tackle this monstrously overgrown pond...
The fruits of my labour.

By contrast, hay making was light relief. Thanks to the fine, settled weather, we have been able to tackle it in stages this year. This makes it easier on us and also much better for wildlife, which is able to adapt to a slowly shrinking area of long grass, rather than a sudden disappearance of the whole lot in one day. In the photo below you can see that the area at the top of the slope has been cut and mown, the middle section has been cut and is drying out to allow the seeds to fall, while the lower section is still standing meadow, with Black Knapweed and Devil's-bit Scabious continuing to flower. We have seen several Common Blue butterflies in this area recently, including the magnificent male pictured. Best of all, we disturbed a Slow Worm when raking hay last night and managed to get a couple of photos before releasing it, perfectly unharmed, into an uncut area.

Going, going, gone... Three stages of hay making
Black Knapweed Centaurea nigra
Male Common Blue Polyommatus icarus
Our meadows are home to Slow Worms Anguis fragilis
Early-morning dew on spiders' webs in the meadow

Friday, 23 August 2013

Sedum Season

The bridge between summer and autumn is the time when Sedums, which have been a quiely growing presence in the garden since the spring, really come into their own. Here are a few that caught my eye today; some still in bud, others just starting to open their platters of nectar-packed flowers, and 'Purple Emperor' already coming to a peak. A glance at the RHS 'Plant Finder' shows the plethora of named selections now available, including several with dessert-themed appelations, such as 'Gooseberry Fool' (see below),  'Raspberry Truffle' and – one of my favourite bonkers plant names of all time – 'Stewed Rhubarb Mountain', the latter raised by Cotswold Garden Flowers in the early 90s. Sedums are a promsicuous lot, so I don't expect seedlings to come true, but this means I get some interesting surprises popping up from time to time. While all are good for insects, none can beat the pulling power of the 'bog standard' ice-plant Sedum spectabile, with 'Autumn Joy' (= 'Herbstfreude') deservedly being a widely grown cultivar. This is a quintessentially September plant for us, and given a few sunny days, our clumps of 'Autumn Joy' will be attracting late-season butterflies such as Red Admirals, Small Tortoiseshells, Commas and Small Coppers throughout the coming month.

Sedum 'Matrona'

Sedum erythrostictum 'Frosty Morn'

Sedum 'Ruby Glow'

Sedum telephium 'Purple Emperor'

Sedum telephium 'Gooseberry Fool'

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Of Crimson, Gold, Dragons & Damsels

Azure Damselfly Coenagrion puella
Not the best of photos, but a record of some of the impressive insects on the wing. I was chuffed to get anything of the Common Darters, since they were living up to their name and moving at very high speed – while locked in the most intimate of embraces, the male in front.
Mating Common Darter dragonflies Sympetrum striolatum

The rather beautiful, but diminutive Purple & Gold Moth, barely a centimetre across at rest, flies by day, as well as at night. This paused just long enough on a rock-rose shoot for me to grab a quick snap. Thyme, one of the caterpillars' foodplants, grows nearby between slate stepping stones and I imagine its aromatic scent, carried on the warm air, was responsible for luring this colourful visitor.

Purple & Gold Moth Pyrausta purpuralis

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Plant of the Moment – No.12 Knautia macedonica

This scabious may be native to the Balkans, as indicated by its specific name, but makes itself perfectly at home outside our guest bedroom, spreading from a central rootstock to make a sprawling mass of branching wiry stems that bear a profusion of maroon flowers from early summer right through to late autumn. The flowers are followed by attractive pale-green seedheads, while new flowering shoots form at the joints of each pair of opposite leaves. It is a bee magnet par excellence and indispensible in any wildlife garden.

I coveted this beautiful plant from the moment I first clapped eyes on it many years ago, but it took me a while to find a clone robust enough to cope with winter wet – something that goes with the territory in our damp valley bottom. My first attempt grew well enough to begin with, but succumbed to rot during its dormant season. I also found the cultivar 'Mars Midget' to be unreliable. Happily, persistence paid off and it was third time lucky. We now have a clone that's as tough as old boots and such a strong grower that it sometimes needs reigning back by late summer to avoid trouble with the neighbours (its neighbours, not ours). Softwood cuttings root really easily, even quite late in the season; a batch I made on Saturday should be well-established by early October, though I will protect them in the greenhouse over the winter and not plant them out until next spring.

Knautia has a 'see through' quality and looks particularly good mingling with clump-forming grasses, such as the elegant Molinia caerulea subsp. caerulea 'Edith Dudszus' (a name that doesn't exactly trip off the tongue) that we have weaving through the same border.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Weekend reflections

As another week hoves into view, time to reflect on an eventful weekend. International Rescue was out in force on Saturday morning when a young pipstrelle bat contrived to appear on the lounge floor. After some hasty Googling of bat first aid, we gave said flittermouse a drink of water and held it up to one of the gaps between cottage wall and barge boards, which we know is a regular entrance and exit for the maternal roost of up to 180 pipistrelles in our roof space. With much squeaking – that we anthropomorphically attributed to unbridled pleasure and profound gratitude in equal measure – the poor little mite scrambled through the tiny hole, none the worse we hope for its unscheduled encounter with a carpet. Sorry, no photos; just a warm glow of mission accomplished – F.A.B.

We only made it as far as lunchtime before our search-and-rescue forces were deployed for a second time. Two holidaymakers (shall we call them, for want of a more perjorative noun) faithfully followed their satnav up our tiny narrow lane, past all those peculiar signs saying "UNSUITABLE FOR CARAVANS" and towing... a caravan. What fun! It all went pear shaped when they finally ground to a halt on the 1-in-4 S-bend just past our garden. Either the caravan came unhitched, or they unwisely unfastened it themselves (we never did find out which). Whatever the circumstances, the irresistible force of gravity meant that the caravan hurtled enthusiastically down hill until it encountered a drystone wall at the bottom. A driver heading in the opposite direction, and with his head very much screwed on, unlike exhibits A & B, calmly took control, and with a bit of elbow grease and a nasty smell from the clutch of the happy campers' car, we eventually had them on their way, back down the valley, the drystone wall having come off worse and the caravan suffering no more than a light crumple.

After all that, we had little choice in the afternoon but to treat our physical and emotional exhaustion in the traditional Devon way...

Oh, and we still managed to get out in the garden, particularly on Sunday, when Saturday's rainy gloom gave way to heavy showers interspersed with dazzling sunny spells. Wildlife highlights included Common Blue (first of the year for us, after a number of very poor years), Red Admiral, Painted Lady, Ringlet, Meadow Brown, Speckled Wood, Large White, Green-veined White and Silver-washed Fritillary butterflies, lots of Common Darter dragonflies around the ponds, and a mating pair of Southern Hawker dragonflies. Hydrangea quercifolia 'Snowflake' (which incidentally provides the backdrop to the the scones, above) is looking great, as are the nearby clumps of Penstemon 'Raven', the flared magenta trumpets of which form the perfect landing platform for bumble-bees.

Red Admiral on Buddleja davidii 'Royal Red'
Hydrangea quercifolia 'Snowflake'
Penstemon 'Raven'

Friday, 16 August 2013

Plant of the Moment – No.11 Foeniculum vulgare 'Purpureum'

The thousands of individual mustard-yellow flowers in our modest stand of Bronze Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare 'Purpureum), that classic late-summer umbellifer, are crawling with myriad flies, hoverflies and wasps, all out in the sun after a couple of dull, damp days. I love the aniseed smell of fennel and its bronzed, feathery foliage, which progressively shrivels and dries into what Carol Klein once referred to as "shaggy pubes" hanging from the purple-flushed, glaucous stems. Tidy-minded gardeners can peel these away, leaving smooth, blemish-free stems; a kind of botanical bikini-line waxing.

While admiring the insect bonanza on the fennel, we saw a Common Wall Lizard scuttle across the path and our first Migrant Hawker dragonfly of the season patrolling the borders. We were really happy to spot the lizard – having not seen any since last year, we were a bit worried that the run of poor summers and cold winters might have done for our little colony.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Weedy corner: Enchanter's-nightshade

The Enchanter's deceptive charm...
You've got to admire Enchanter's-nightshade Circaea luteiana, which manages to insinuate itself unobtrusively among your mollycoddled treasures, quietly colonising an entire border – if you let it – before throwing up give-away sprays of tiny, pinkish-white flowers in July and August. By the time you notice these, the Enchanter has cast its spell and ensured that its brittle, waxy-looking, pure-white rhizomes are thoroughly entwined with the roots of all your most precious perennials.

This cunning weed has evolved so that it tends to break away at ground level if pulled up when in flower, leaving the stringy white rhizomes ready to launch a whole new onslaught of invaders. The only answer (short of giving up or resorting to chemicals) is to be patient and painstaking, using a hand-fork to trace back and extract every last bit of rhizome; not so difficult on our light loam, but a nightmare on heavier soils. As always, prevention is better than cure, and learning to recognise the young shoots in spring, then ruthlessly digging them out – rhizomes and all – as early as possible in the year, is far more effective than thrashing about in a mature border in late summer, doubtless inflicting colateral damage and generally using language unbecoming of an RHS card-holder.

The brittle white rhizomes are far-travelling...
Essentially a woodland plant, this 'nightshade' is actually a member of the willowherb family and more likely to be a problem in gardens where its preferred habitat of dryish summer shade and moist, well-lit conditions in spring are found. According to Richard Mabey in Flora Britannica, "No great powers or medicinal properties were ever claimed for it in this country", but 16th-century Parisian botanists considered this plant "...the charm that Homer's witch Circe used to turn Ulysses' crew into pigs".

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Plant of the Moment – No.10 Dahlia 'Arabian Knight'

Dahlia 'Arabian Knight' – young flower
D. 'Arabian Knight' – older flower
Much as I would love to able to grow dahlias in the open ground as part of our mixed borders, our astonishingly abundant slug population and organic principles make that an impossibility. We don't have a problem with underground damage to tubers; simply decimation of shoots and leaves... Even if we protect the young crowns, once growth is more developed and the foliage intermingles with that of neighbouring plants, the marauding hordes of molluscs have easy access across leafy air bridges. We now grow our dahlias in pots, and there is a small collection in full flower outside the office window as I write.

Star of the show is Dahlia 'Arabian Knight', which opens as the darkest of burgundies – almost blackish in fact and with a voluptuous, velvety texture – gradually lightening to blood red on the outer petals as the flower expands and ages. Joining 'AK' are the dark-leaved, orange-flowered 'David Howard' and a rather welcome imposter sold to me as 'David Howard', but which clearly isn't. Anyone got any suggestions as to its true identity?

The pots need daily watering – with a dose of tomato feed included at least twice a week – and regular dead-heading. We have copper tape around the outside of each pot and a copper ring around the crown of each plant. These do a good job in keeping slugs at bay and we have had hardly any damage this year – helped by the mainly dry, slug-unfriendly weather, of course. In late autumn I cut the stems flush with the compost and store the pots under the greenhouse staging, keeping them dry throughout the winter, only watering again in early spring. The young shoots make easily struck cuttings in May.

D. 'David Howard'
An imposter in the ranks – D. 'Not David Howard'!

Monday, 12 August 2013

Autumnal signs of the times

I increasingly think of August as the first month of autumn, a fact reinforced this weekend by distinctly cooler, though by no means chilly, nights, and meadows festooned in spiders' webs glistening with dew. Twice on Sunday morning a Willow Warbler sang briefly from a nearby hedgerow – a sign of hastening southward movement by a trans-Saharan migrant that passes through our valley in spring and autumn. By mid-September, most will have left the UK, not returning until next April. 

The garden is putting on its second biggest growth spurt of the year, with treacherous bramble 'cables' extending across paths virtually overnight, ready to lacerate an unwary leg, and weed seedlings germinating by the score. These signals from nature drop the broadest of hints that now is the season for propagation of so many garden plants, but also one of the busiest times for pruning, mowing, cutting back and generally keeping everything looking as fresh as possible. This has been nigh-on impossible for the last six years, when, come mid-August, I had long-since surrendered to a tide of autumnal decay ushered in by weeks of rain and wind. This year is different and it has been a pleasure to work through borders cutting back flowered hardy Geraniums, Astrantias and oriental poppies, making way for a later cast of grasses, Rudbeckias, Asters and Crocosmias. I have trimmed yew and box hedges, proudly pruned our Wisteria at the horticulturally correct time, and yesterday picked a couple of perfectly ripe figs. Soon these most decadent of summer fruits will also have tipped into autumn, splitting open to be feasted on by wasps and Red Admirals.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Plant of the Moment – No. 9 Patrinia scabiosifolia

As its latin name suggests, this (sometimes short-lived) herbaceous perennial has scabious-like leaves, but there the similarities end. The acid-yellow flowers are borne in flattened heads atop stiff, self-supporting stems, reaching a height of about 1 m. This is a plant that thrives a sunny position, but copes with semi-shade. I have grown it successfully from seed, but not in recent summers as it has always been too dull and wet in August for seed to set; hopefully 2013 will be different!

Verbena bonariensis (below) is a perfect partner for Patrinia scabiosifolia, flowering at the same time and making a fine colour contrast with similarly flattened flowerheads and one of the most popular plants in the garden among insect pollinators.

Saturday wildlife

A buddleia left unpruned since last year, and consequently larger and earlier flowering than those that I cut back hard in early spring, was smothered in butterflies today, including up to six Silver-washed Fritillaries, a similar number of Peacocks, several Red Admirals and a pristine Painted Lady. The warm, sunny morning saw three species of dragonflies patrolling the stream and ponds: Southern Hawker, Golden-ringed and Common Darter. The valley was filled with the high-pitched calls of a family party of Sparrowhawks, while the bird feeders were visited by a continuous procession of juvenile tits, including a couple of Marsh Tits – no doubt keeping a wary eye out overhead!

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Horticultural porn

The David Austin Handbook of Roses 2013/14 has arrived swathed in a plastic wrapper, though not of the opaque variety to be applied to Lads' Mags on supermarket shelves. But perhaps it should be, for this is the gardening equivalent of porn, each page revealing another alluring fantasy in technicolour close-up. Among four new models this year, 'The Albrighton Rambler' is particularly tempting and may join the select band already romping through our fruit trees and hedgerows, such as 'Rambling Rector' (pictured) and that doyenne of climbers, 'Madame Alfred Carrière'.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Plant of the Moment – No. 8 Echinops ritro

Echinops ritro, the Globe Thistle, comes into its own in early August, making a fine architectural statement, particularly when set among other herbaceous perennials and grasses that politely draw attention away from the thistle's sometimes scraggy-looking foliage; airy, white-flowered Artemisia lactiflora 'Guizhou Group' and the subtly variegated Miscanthus sinensis 'Morning Light', for example. The spiked, silvery, individual buds open gradually from the apex of each globe, briefly forming a perfectly round lavender-blue pom-pom, driving bumble-bees and other pollinators wild with nectar-fuelled desire. I raised the plant pictured below from seed, gathered from the original clump (above). Whether due to genetic variation, the vigour of youth or a particularly fine vintage from our compost cellars that year, the offspring have outgrown their parents in every department, with huge globes on plants exceeding 2 m in height. Happily, I did stake them on time; flopped Echinops are beyond tragic.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

A tropical deluge

You wait months for proper rain, then months' worth of rain falls at once – in the space of about five hours on Monday morning to be precise – after an already wet end to Sunday. The stream went from a gentle murmur to a brown, raging torrent in a matter of minutes, sweeping all before it. We had a damaging flash flood in December and while Monday's spate wasn't quite so violent, it seems that our weather continues to lurch from one extreme to another. By early evening, when this picture was taken, the waters had receded, revealing a re-contoured stream-bed strewn with slates and silt. It's amazing to think that there are plants, fish and invertebrates adapted to life in such a dynamic environment.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Plant of the Moment – No. 7 Geranium 'Ann Folkard'

Not fashionable, rare, exotic, difficult-to-grow or otherwise out of the ordinary, Geranium 'Ann Folkard' is simply a brilliant garden plant (recognised by its RHS Award of Garden Merit) that given a reasonably light and not-too-dry position will romp happily away from a central crown, its black-lined, bright purple flowers contrasting with acid-green foliage. We have it growing through the tall, dark-leaved Actaea simplex Atropurpurea Group 'James Compton' and the bright yellow-and-green perennial grass Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola', where it carries on flowering until November – or even later in a mild year – attracting the last insects of autumn. Once it has done its stuff, a snip or two with the shears across the crown and, hey presto, job done. No tough mats of invasive rhizomes to hack through with this Geranium.

Mad World

The Daily Mail website (yes, I know) is all a-flutter this morning about a retired couple in Derbyshire who spent £10,000 making a tropical-themed garden (an amount which, on reading further, you discover was spread over the course of 15 years) and who – this is the truly shocking part in Daily Mail Land – "...went without carpet on their stairs to buy a greenhouse." Can you imagine?

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Monty's tomatoes

What has Monty Don been doing to his tomatoes? I settled down to the 26 July edition of Gardeners' World on iPlayer and nearly spilt wine all over my laptop from the shock of seeing those poor tortured specimens. We use the same brand of peat-free grow-bags as Monty was demonstrating, but have never had any problem with blossom end-rot (sounds painful, doesn't it?!) and all our plants are cropping heavily – see smug photo. Monty was finally getting round to feeding his starved, dried-up and generally half-dead pot-grown plants with a home-made comfrey brew that had him retching over the bucket – surely the tomatoes' revenge. Apparently this is all an experiment for telly, so hopefully Monty's got his "proper" tomatoes tucked around the corner somewhere.

Extreme pruning

Soon after we came here we planted a mix of 20 blackthorn and 20 hawthorn whips in a roughly circular area some 8 m across with the intention of creating a small thicket. This we hoped would be a great habitat for nesting birds and other wildlife, at the same time protecting some of the more delicate treasures in our fern garden from the damaging north-easterly winds that sometimes funnel up the valley. More than a decade on, the thicket is a dense prickly green dome, about 3 m high, that has been home to breeding Goldfinches, Robins, Blackbirds and Song Thrushes. Now we're into August and this year's nests are empty (we've double checked) it's time for a bit of extreme pruning to keep the thicket dense, but leaving enough young growth to develop next spring's flower buds.

The "extreme" part comes from the fact that the thicket is too wide to reach all of it from a stepladder placed around the perimeter – even though we have a long-handled pole-cutter. That's why on Friday evening, which was particularly sticky and sultry, I donned a thick winter jacket, heavy boots, chain-saw trousers, chain-saw gloves, goggles, ear defenders and a helmet with visor, and – looking and feeling like a cross between a michelin man and a trussed-up oven-ready chicken – plunged into the middle of the thicket. Half standing, half crouching I thrust the pole cutter, periscope-like, up from inside the tangle of thorny branches to prune the top of the dome. A few years ago, a friend of ours contracted severe blood poisoning from a blackthorn splinter when hedge-laying on his farm and I have exercised an abundance of caution when working around blackthorn ever since. I may have looked ridiculous and been at risk from heat exhaustion or drowning in my own sweat, but as blackthorn septicemia can really mess up your weekend, I wasn't complaining. Note to self: get a proper pruning ladder off eBay.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Plant of the Moment – No. 6 Thalictrum delavayi

One of the more frequently encountered species of meadow-rue in British gardens, Thalictrum delavayi hails from the hillsides of Yunnan Province in south-western China. This is a tall, refined plant, whose flowers need to be viewed close up to be fully appreciated, and form a delicate, see-through haze of pink when seen from a distance. Sprays of basal foliage, resembling that of maidenhair ferns, set off the branching flower heads, each carrying dozens of small, rounded, drop-shaped pink buds dangling from wiry, thread-like stalks. The four petals open and lift, forming a pink cap over a tuft of bright yellow stamens. The flowers are succeeded by dangling clumps of tiny green seed pods that are attractive in their own right.

T. delavayi 'Album'  (below) has pure white flowers, brighter green foliage and pale green stems, in contrast to the purple-flushed stems of the pure species. Both need a degree of shelter, and some kind of support, to prevent wind-damage to their brittle stems and are best grown in semi-shade in rich, humusy soil that doesn't get too dry. Their airy presence lends an effortless elegance to woodland-style plantings and their flowering usefully peaks at a tricky time when the stars of spring and early summer have mostly gone over, but late-season stalwarts such as Hydrangea and Fuchsia have yet to hit their stride.