Garden School:


Garden School:
Teaching this week: Rose pruning (as always!) and water management

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Acer grosseri var "Hersii" Snakebark Maple

I love Japanese Maples in all shapes and sizes, and I have been growing them from seedlings for some years.

At the moment I have just five of these Snakebark Maples left for sale - apart from one in a pot in my own garden, and he's mine, mine I tell you! Sorry, where was I? Oh yes, Snakebark Maple for sale.

Here are my five plants for sale: numbers 1 and 2 have been pruned to form multi-stemmed trees or bushes, whereas 3, 4 and 5 have been left as single-stemmed specimens, which will grow into trees.


Once again, a demonstration of how hard it is to take photos of plants. In my defence, I would say that it was below freezing,  I couldn't remove the dead leaves from the pots as they were frozen to the soil, and it was far too cold to spend any time fussing around with the arrangement!

Mind you, my Guild have send out an invitation to a one-day course or Workshop on Plant Photography in April, and I am seriously considering taking a day off work - yes, it's a weekday, of course - to learn how to improve my photography. I can imagine a few of you out there nodding your heads and saying "good idea..."

Has anyone else been on this sort of workshop? Does it help? What I don't want is to be told that I have to buy an expensive camera in order to get good garden pictures....

Do let me know if you've even been on a garden photography course, I'd love to hear about it.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Hellebores at last

Yes! It's that time, the Hellebores are starting to flower, and once the fallen sticks had been picked up (see yesterday's entry) it was time to remove the horrible old leaves.

Now, I know that there are two schools of thought on this subject: some people leave the leaves in place to protect the plants, and to protect the flowers in  particular.

But other people - my clients amongst them - prefer to have the old leaves removed as soon as possible, so that we can see and enjoy the flowers.

Either way, there is always the need to remove dying leaves, or leaves badly infested with Leaf Spot: I tend to do this as soon as I see any, and I think it's good practice to clear out about a third or a half of the leaves.

Back in October, I performed this task in what we call The Perfume Bed, a long border filled with scented shrubs: it used to be bare earth underneath, but over the last three or four years the client and I have gradually filled in the understorey, in order to extend the season of interest into winter and early spring. We now have bluebells here, snowdrops, winter aconites (just starting to peek out now), Polemonium or Jacob's Ladder - which is not particularly scented but we like the flowers - and a lot of Hellebores.

We started with just three sad plants that had been there for some years: we added a handful scrounged from another client of mine in the same village, and I have diligently moved any spares from other parts of the garden into this bed.

And now, after just a few years, we have a really good covering of plants, and each year I transplant a few more of the Eranthis (winter aconite) and I reckon that in another year or two, the bed will be quite stuffed!

Back in October, I checked the beds and decided it was time to thin out the Hellebore leaves:

As you can see, they were a solid mass, and quite a few of them were starting to show black patches.

Now, this may or may not be Leaf Spot: it doesn't really matter if it's disease or just natural decay, black leaves are not photosynthesising, they are not helping the plant, and they are actively encouraging those dustmen of the garden, slugs and snails.

So it's good practice to remove them.

I went through this bed and removed about half of the leaves, taking particular car to remove any with any signs of blackness or general tatty-ness.

Given a choice, leave the freshest, youngest leaves in place, and cut out all the oldest tattiest ones.

I say "Cut them out" and of course I mean with secateurs: clip the stems as low down as you can, taking care not to knock the tops off any buds that might be just appearing at ground level.

Doing this in October is easy, as there won't be any flower buds at that time, and the most you are likely to do is to injure a new leaf, which is not catastrophic.

You can see the pile on the grass, of the ones that I removed:  and you can see that the bed looks generally less over crowded than before.

So, that was October, and now it's January.

Those fresh new leaves have, in turn, become old, tired, and battered: and are now spoiling the look of the new flowers just emerging.

Here's that same patch of the bed, as it looked Before.

As you can see, no bad cases of Leaf Spot, but many of the leaves are starting to go brown and die off.

Out with the secateurs, and off we go again.

This time, additional care is needed in not damaging any buds, or flower stalks.

Also, you have to watch where you put your feet!

My general rule is to start at the back of the bed, or the middle of the clump: remove the leaves and work backwards, so you don't accidentally tread on a newly-cleared flower clump that might not be so easy to see.

It looks a little sparse in this "After" photo - as mentioned several times, I'm not good at plant photography! But in real life, it looks greatly improved, and you can clearly see all the new flowers.

So here are a couple of close-ups, to prove that there really are flowers to be seen now:  we have mostly two colours of Hellebore, a medium-to-dark pink, and white.

Some years ago, I was very interested in breeding Hellebores. I learned quite a lot about what's required, and made some effort with this collection.


As a result, we don't have many of the wishy-washy inbetween colours,  just a nice contrast between the pink ones...

...and these lovely white ones.

Ah, now I can't wait for them all to open up properly!

The only disappointment about Hellebores is the way the flowers hang from their stalks, so you have to get in amongst them and turn them upwards to fully appreciate them.

Apparently, the way to do it is to cut them off, bring them indoors, and float the flower heads in bowls of water on your dining room table.

Hmmm - I think not! I'd rather go out and bend over them, myself.

What was that lovely quote about not having flowers indoors? "Don't you like flowers, Mr So-and-so?" asked the snooty lady. "Madam," came the reply "I like children, but that doesn't mean that I want to cut their heads off and display them indoors."

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Five, Six, Pick Up Sticks

That's what it's been like, for my first few days back at work: clearing up the mess from the storms we had last week.

Here's a typical barrow-full: this time from the Weeping Ash that throws itself merrily at the ground in any sort of wind.  In order to get as much as possible in each load - in this garden, the bonfire heap is a quarter of a mile away, and uphill at that - I have also performed Seven, Eight, Lay Them Straight, as you can see.


Sometimes I think "oh dear, poor trees, all battered by the wind" but then when you look closely at what comes down, so much of it is already dead that I wonder if I should be celebrating on behalf of the trees, rather than pitying them: perhaps they are flinging their newly-lightened boughs around in glee, shouting to each other "Yay! Got rid of that mass of horrible dead stuff at long last! How about you?"

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Hydrangeas: time to wrap them up for winter

Well, to be honest, you should have done it before Christmas, but we've been lucky with the weather, it hasn't actually snowed yet, nor has it been particularly cold, but it can't last much longer.

This was one of my final jobs of the year,  wrapping up the Hydrangeas against the expected winter cold, but if you haven't done it, well, there is still time.

This is for Hydrangea macrophylla, of course, you don't need to do arborescens or paniculata.

Pardon? Which one is which? *laughs* Oh, all right, here's the Simple Guide To The Main types of Hydrangea:

1) H. macrophylla. Mophead, Lacecap: this is the sort that most people know. Big bushy shrubs with huge rounded bundles of flowers, or flat dinner-plates of them.

The flowers can be blue if you have acid soil, but are more usually pink. 

They need protection over the winter as they flower on last year's growth. If it's damaged - no flowers!

 2) H. paniculata. These are the ones whose flower heads are not round or flat, but are pyramids or spikes.

One of the best is H. quercifolia, especially the double flowered version. I have just had to dig one out from a clients' garden, where it had rather outgrown it's welcome, and it was such a beauty. *sigh*. Never mind, we took several cuttings of it last year, one of which is already planted out in one of the shrubberies, and the client was kind enough to give me one of the cuttings for myself.

I'm now jealously guarding it, in the hopes that next time I move, I'll get a garden big enough to plant it out!

3) H. arborescens. Ah, good old Annabelle. One of my favourite flowering shrubs. Easy to grow, easy to look after, fabulous flowers, what more could you want?

They flower on this year's wood, so you can tidy them up as it suits you in autumn. By that, I mean you can leave the dead brown flowerheads in place if you like that sort of thing, but if you don't, you can either trim them back to a neat shape, or chop them right back.

4) Mustn't forget H. petiolaris - that's the one that climbs up walls, houses etc. There's not a lot you can do about protecting them over the winter! And they don't need it, generally speaking, they are as tough as old boots, even on north-facing walls. Personally I generally trim back any branches that are heading outwards from the wall, in case they get ripped by wind or snow: and in the autumn I am usually also responsible for taking out any too-adventurous limbs, that are heading for dangerous territory, ie windows, gutters, or out of my reach generally.

So, where were we: oh yes, Hydrangeas petiolaris, arborescens and paniculata don't need protection, but macrophylla do.

First job: clear out as many of the old leaves as you can, they just rot and form a mush that invites slugs and snails in to lunch.

Second, don't be afraid to cut off any badly misplaced branches: for instance, I like to keep the branches clear of the ground, and I'm always prepared to snip out any that are too low.

Thirdly, wrap the bush around with something like horticultural fleece, or hessian. NOT bubblewrap! More of that, later.

Fourthly, tie it firmly with string or twine. Make several circuits of the plant, and tie in bows rather than in double knots, so that as it loosens - which it invariable does - you can undo, tighten, and re-tie the strings.

Here are some I did earlier:


Right! Who spotted the deliberate mistakes? Of course you did - the one in the back isn't quite finished, it only has one loop of string: and the one in the front is of course a pot and a plant. It uses clothes pegs, and it's not even a Hydrangea, it's a Fig! Well done. But the principle is the same, honest.

Right, back to the bubble-wrap issue, mentioned in "thirdly" above. You will observe that the pot part is wrapped in bubble-wrap, but not the plant part.

There's a reason for that: bubble wrap is excellent insulation, top-notch, and is just the ticket to protect the terracotta pots, as well as protecting the soil (and roots) within that pot, and the protection in this case is against freezing. Roots that are underground are not touched by the frost, but roots that are just one thickness of terracotta away from frost are not protected, and this can kill or seriously damage a plant.

However, what is bubblewrap made of? Correct,  plastic. So on a day when the sun shines, the moisture in the soil, in the plant, in the decaying leaf matter all evaporates and then condenses on the inside of the plastic. This leaves the tips of your precious plant - ie the bits with the buds on -  sitting in a warm soup, perfect for rot and mould, not to mention slugs and snails.

The reason for using horticultural fleece and hessian are that they "breathe", they let the moisture out on warm days, while still keeping off the worst of the rain. And, of course, keeping the frost off, which is the most important thing.

So please, don't wrap plants in plastic or bubble-wrap, save that for the pots. Use some sort of breathable fabric for the living part. Horticultural fleece is great as it is lightweight, cheap, it breathes, it keeps most of the rain out, you can buy it in great long lengths, and it doesn't soak up the water. I mean, you could use old tea towels if you wanted to, but can you imagine how heavy they'd get? Really, it's well worth buying a roll of horticultural fleece. If you wrap the plants quite firmly, and tie it tightly, it won't get ripped or torn, and next spring it can be shaken out, folded up, and put away ready for the winter afterwards. It should last for years.

So there you go - one roll of fleece, one ball of string, a pair of scissors, a pair of secateurs, and off you go!

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Ginger - can you grow it in the UK?

Back in November, one of my clients took me by the hand, led me into their Orangery, pointed at a small pot on the ledge, grinned widely and said "Go on, then: tell me what that is?"

I hate it when people do that! Unless I immediately know the answer, of course...

Here it is:


Any ideas?   Aha, well, from the title of this post, you will already have guessed what it is, won't you?

Yes, it's ordinary culinary Ginger, Zingiber officinale, bought in the local supermarket, forgotten about, and found in the client's vegetable box, sprouting.

So my client potted it up, to see what it would do. As you can see, it appears to be growing nicely!

At the time, I had to admit that I hadn't a clue, which made the client laugh uproariously.

Afterwards I did a little research on the subject, and discovered that the ginger roots we buy for cooking have normally been heat-treated, which prevents them from growing - presumably this one didn't get the full treatment.

So, can we grow them in the UK? My client was wise to put the little pot in the Orangery, as they won't grow outdoors in the UK - it's a tropical plant, normally it grows in South Asia and the Caribbean (remember good old Jamaican Ginger Cake?) which is obviously a lot hotter than the UK, and apparently they need a lot of water as well.

But it's worth having a go at growing them as an indoor plant, if you have a warm conservatory or - be still my beating heart - heated greenhouse or polytunnel. You can try starting off a piece of root ginger in a pot of moist compost in early spring,  and if you are lucky, it will grow for you - keep it warm, light, and well watered and if all goes well, by autumn you will have quite a nice little plant.

At that point, stop watering it, and let it dry out, which apparently encourages the production of rhizomes, which is the bit that we eat.

If you are very lucky, you might end up with something like this (right) which is where we started.... do let me know if any of you out there have successfully grown a ginger plant from a supermarket root - I'd love to know.