Tuesday, 21 June 2016

First glimpse of RHS Bridgewater

The new RHS garden, to be created on a derelict estate in Salford, is one of the most exciting garden projects I can remember in my lifetime. I went up there last week on the first press tour, and wrote this piece for the i newspaper.
The RHS announced the go-ahead in October, but this was the first chance for outsiders to see what was involved. The charity is hoping to open the garden in 2019.
In horticultural terms the challenge is huge. The walled kitchen gardens, all 11 acres of them, are choked with the sort of thuggish weeds that give gardeners nightmares: brambles, horsetail and so on. In the wooded areas, there are volunteer saplings all over the place, and the avenue of limes that would have led from the gates to the estate to the house (now gone) is unrecognisable. Where horse-drawn carriages would once have passed, there is now a tall crop of Himalayan balsam. It's going to be a huge job, but a fascinating one.
I've posted some pictures below that the i didn't use. They don't really give you an idea of the scale of the site, which is 156 acres in total, but they give you some idea of the atmosphere. The day we visited, the weather was absolutely foul, so I was very grateful to the ladies from Salford City Council (who are partners in the project with the RHS) for bringing along umbrellas.

I would say roughly half the site is woodland, some of which will be cleared to provide what were originally intended to be vistas, or - in the case of the lake below - to restore what was an island and which has now silted up and become overgrown.

Tim Upson, RHS director of horticulture (left), with designer Tom Stuart-Smith (holding drawing)

 The gates to the estate are still there, but the carriage drive is now choked with weeds and trees.

 The meadow area is roughly 30 acres, and will probably remain as a meadow, with wildflower planting and perhaps picnic areas. The Bridgewater Canal, built in the 18th century by the 1st Earl of Ellesmere, runs behind the line of trees you can see running along the middle of the picture.

Another  carriage drive, looking a bit like a river bed.

There are rough paths around the site, such as this one, which leads past the concrete civil defence bunker.

The remains of an octagonal fountain, which was on one of the terraces below the house. The house is now completely gone, and the view from the terraces across the countryside is obscured by trees.

Monday, 18 April 2016

In praise of ... Japanese cherries

For beekeepers, the joy of ornamental cherry blossom lies not just in its appearance, welcome though that is after months of winter monochrome. It’s also the sound of contented bees feeding on the nectar, which on a warm spring afternoon fills the garden with a happy hum.
Ornamental cherries, like all fruit trees and their cultivated varieties, put on their spectacular early show specifically for bees and other pollinators, getting in quick before there is too much competition from other sources such as herbaceous plants and trees.
If you are one of those people who think that Japanese cherries are just a little bit suburban, then you’d be right. Their popularity in Britain was fuelled by the growth of the new suburbs in the 1920s and 1930s, which mushroomed out from cities and towns across land that had previously been used for grazing and hay.
In 1900, there were around a million working horses in the UK, but by 1914, thanks to the advent of the motor car, this number had dropped to less than 25,000. (So many horses were requisitioned for the Great War that by 1918, some British breeds were in danger of extinction.) Conversely, there was a huge demand for housing. The population in England nearly doubled between 1851 and 1901, and the number of houses in the UK as a whole rose from eight million at the end of the First World War to 12 million by 1939.
Despite the growth of new housing on the former hay meadows in the suburbs, there was still less pressure on space than in the city, so the new homes had front and back gardens, and a more organised approach to street planting. The new owners didn’t want huge trees like London planes, which would have been out of scale and looked too urban. They wanted something that was smaller, and prettier, and more suited to their idea of a quasi-rustic lifestyle. Step forward the ornamental Japanese cherry, and the man who did so much to popularise them, Captain “Cherry” Collingwood Ingram.
When it comes to heroes, we British seem to reserve a special place in our hearts for those who are multi-talented. W G Grace, for example, retained his amateur status despite being one of England’s greatest cricketers because his day job was being a GP. Leonard Cheshire, war hero and founder of the care homes charity named after him, was a member of the All England Lawn Tennis Club and a formidable amateur player. More recently we have Brian Cox, who followed pop fame with a professorship in particle physics.
Cherry Ingram may not be such a familiar name, but even the Japanese acknowledged that he knew more about their cherries than they did, especially after he reintroduced Prunus serrulata ‘Tai Haku’, or the Great White Cherry, to Japan in the late 1920s, where it was thought to be extinct.
Horticulture was not Ingram’s first passion. He spent the first 40 years of his life as a keen ornithologist, and he was a member of the British Ornithologists’ Union for a record 81 years. The journals he wrote while he was a compass officer with the Royal Flying Corps, published as Wings over the Western Front, detail many of the birds he saw on his reconnaissance flights across the French countryside. (He reprised his military career during the Second World War, when he took command of his local Home Guard in 1940.)
He also collected Japanese art, in particular netsuke, tiny carved figures in ivory or wood. He had such a good collection, he donated it to the British Museum, and it was his interest in Japanese culture, and his birdwatching trips to Japan, that fuelled his enthusiasm for Japanese cherry trees.
Many of the ornamental cultivars we grow today are Prunus serrulata, or sakura, as it is called in Japan. ‘Tai Haku’ is still a popular choice, as is ‘Kanzan’, ‘Shirofugen’, ‘Ukon’ and the columnar ‘Amonogawa’. However, there are ornamental cherries to suit all purposes and all gardens, such as the dwarf Fuji cherry, such as ‘Kojo-no-mai’, which will grow quite happily in a pot. 
They are not particularly fussy as to soil, but they do like to be in full sun, and they don’t like drying out. So if you are planting a young tree, make sure that it is watered well throughout its first season. It’s very easy to forget once those spectacular flowers have faded.
Britain has two native cherry trees - the bird cherry (Prunus padus) and the wild cherry (Prunus avium). It is the wild cherry, or gean, that A E Housman was describing in his poem: 
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now.
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride,

Wearing white for Eastertide.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

In praise of ... amelanchier

A peacock competes for attention with an amelanchier in full bloom at Cotswold Wildlife Park near Burford

Spring is on the tip of Nature’s tongue. At this time of year, it may sometimes as if she is having a senior moment and can’t quite remember the name of the new season, but by the end of the March, the first of the flowering trees are coming into bloom.
One of the most reliable of these, in my experience, is amelanchier, and I’ve never understood why this tree is not more popular. It has delicate white flowers and copper leaves in spring, berries in summer, and good autumn foliage colour.
It has a natural tendency to be multi-stemmed, which means that it can be grown either like a shrub or as a small tree. It will tolerate pruning, and will achieve a maximum height of only 30ft after 20 years, so it’s a great choice for a small garden.
Amelanchier, like Judas trees (Cercis siliquastrum), forsythia, ornamental quince (Chaenomeles ssp) and flowering cherries, are understorey trees, and this is the key to their flowering behaviour. Crucially, they come into flower before they come into leaf – a process known as “hysteranthous” – and the reason for this is pollination.
Understorey species get shaded out once the trees above them start developing leaves, so they need to produce their flowers fast, while sunlight is still available to them, and while pollinators are not distracted by other blossom sources. If they produced flowers and leaves at the same time, they would be straining already limited resources.
They also need the pollination process itself to be speedy, and a frothy display of blossom can be seen much better over longer distances if it is not partially obscured by leaves. In addition, it will attract social pollinators such as bees and wasps, who will quickly communicate the source of this largesse to their colonies.
Finally, these social pollinators - especially in the case of honeybees - will work systematically over the tree until they have exhausted its supply of nectar and pollen.
Amelanchier are mainly native to North America although there are two Asian species and one that occurs in Europe. The two sorts of amelanchier you are most likely to encounter in the UK are A. canadensis, which as its name suggests, is from eastern Canada, and A. lamarckii. A. lamarckii is a hybrid, and strictly speaking should be called A. x lamarckii, but unlike many hybrids, it comes true from seed.
Amelanchiers must hold the record for the number of common names and nicknames they possess. In America, they are known as serviceberry, saskatoon, shadbush, sugar plum, or (my personal favourite) chuckley pear, while in the UK they are more commonly known as June berry, or snowy mespilus, because of their starry white flowers. (Mespilus germanica is the botanical name for medlar.)
As you would expect of trees that grow in woodland, amelanchiers prefer soil that is on the acid side of the spectrum, and most textbooks will tell you that they dislike lime. The textbooks will also tell you to grow them in full sun while at the same time informing you that these trees like plenty of moisture.
So how do you grow them here in the Cotswolds? The best way to get around these seemingly contradictory instructions is to grow them on the edge of woodland, or where mature trees such as beech provide plenty of leaf litter. While it’s true that amelanchiers like sunshine, they don’t flourish in a hot, dry, exposed position. A typical woodland floor, rich in leaf mould and other organic detritus, not only helps to keep the soil neutral but also provides a nice damp root run. 
Could I leave you with one last thought? This comes from Barchams, the tree nursery, who have just announced that they now hold a Royal warrant from the Prince of Wales as well as HM the Queen, so they obviously know their stuff.
They have joined the BBKA in promoting a Bees Need Trees campaign, and as they point out: “It is believed that five or six trees provide more forage for bees than an acre of wildflower meadow. It's so much easier to plant a tree than to try and grow an abundance of flowers.” I couldn’t agree more.

Sunday, 28 February 2016


Drifts of crocuses in flower amid clumps of hellebores at RHS Wisley

It seems odd to think that once upon a time, saffron was widely grown as a crop in Britain. Place names such as Saffron Walden and even Croydon (a corruption of Croh Denu, the Old English for “crocus valley”) bear testament to the fact that in the Middle Ages, England was the world’s biggest saffron producer.
Today we think of saffron as an exotic - and expensive - spice. Ounce for ounce, it costs more than gold, and although much of the saffron we buy in the supermarket is labelled “Spanish saffron”, it is probably grown in Iran, which now produces just over 90 per cent of the world’s crop.
Saffron has to be harvested by hand, and such a labour-intensive process became uneconomic in the UK centuries ago. Each flower has three thread-like stigma, and for every 1lb (450g) of dry saffron you need 50,000–75,000 flowers.
We may not produce saffron commercially any more, but you only have to look at parks and gardens at this time of year to see that many different species of crocus thrive in southern England. 
From a beekeeping point of view, crocuses are the perfect flowers. They are specifically designed to attract bees and moths, so they have nice open flowers that give easy access to pollen and nectar. They flower early in the year, but the flowers only open in good weather - when bees are more likely to be flying - which means the blooms don’t get trashed by wind and rain.
Saffron crocuses flower in autumn, but the earliest spring-flowering species is Crocus tommasinianus, a native of the Balkans, with delicate purple flowers. “Tommies” look far too fragile to be up and about in February, but they are as tough as the proverbial old boots. ‘Ruby Giant’ and ‘Whitewell Purple’ are two forms that are widely available.
The best thing about Tommies, however, is that they are relatively squirrel-resistant. I’d always wondered why my crocuses survived, despite having a garden full of squirrels, and I assumed it was because they were planted quite deeply, under a layer of turf. Apparently, Crocus tommasianus corms contain high levels of an alkaloid that squirrels don’t like, which makes me wonder whether their reputation for naturalising freely in the garden is less to do with any especial vigour and more to do with the fact that squirrels don’t dig them up.
Another of my favourites is ‘Firefly’, one of the Crocus sieberi cultivars. These are also early performers - fantastic if you want to provide flowers for bees venturing out on mild days - and they also have lilac flowers, but with the striking golden-orange throat that characterises C. sieberi. ‘Tricolor’ is another attractive variety.
I also have a soft spot for the Crocus chrysanthus cultivars, such as ‘Snow Bunting’, ‘Zwanenburg Bronze’, ‘Blue Pearl’ or ‘Zenith’, a newer introduction. Some of these have been around for decades but you tend to have to buy them as bulbs, rather than as spring bedding in the garden centres.

                                                           'Zenith' in the alpine house at RHS Wisley

If you go to the average garden centre, you would be forgiven for thinking that the only crocuses in existence are a handful of Dutch hybrids – ‘Pickwick’, ‘Jeanne d’Arc’, ‘Remembrance’ and so on. They are alleged to be tougher, with much bigger flowers, and they bloom about two or three weeks later. Most of them date back to the Twenties and Thirties, so in terms of reliability, they have a good record.
I agree they have bigger flowers, and they flower later, but I would argue that these are not particularly desirable attributes, especially if you are desperate to start cutting the grass in spring. In the most miserable month of the year you want something that flowers sooner rather than later and I prefer the graceful smaller blooms. 
Crocuses like full sun and hate soil that is permanently damp or water-logged. A sunny corner of a lawn is perfect, or beneath an ornamental tree such as a flowering cherry. By the time the cherry comes into leaf and starts shading out the crocuses, they will have gone over.
Finally, the plural. Croci or crocuses? I’m always astonished that anyone spends time wondering about this, but for those who do, both are correct, according to the dictionary. If you want to be really purist about it, use crocuses, because “croci” – like octopi or cacti – is a bit of a mongrel word. It uses the Latin masculine plural for what was originally a Greek word,  whereas “crocuses” is a good old English construction.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Hellebore lore

The Christmas rose, or Helleborus niger, is a fascinating plant from a folklore point of view, and since this is the traditional season for sitting around the fire and telling stories - I thought I would concentrate more on myths and legends than on practical horticulture.
We’ve grown Helleborus niger, or black hellebore, here in the UK for centuries, but it isn’t a native plant. It’s found in the mountainous regions of southern and central Europe, but it has been used by healers since well before the birth of Christ, so it may well have been brought here by the Romans.
It likes partial shade, and neutral to alkali soil, so a woodland garden in the Cotswolds is an ideal habitat. 
First, let’s look at its name, Christmas rose. A legend tells how a little girl accompanied the shepherds to the manger at Bethlehem when they went to pay homage to the infant Christ. She felt ashamed that she had no gift, and stood outside the stable weeping. An angel appeared, and as the girl’s tears fell on the ground, the angel changed them into white flowers. The little girl bent down and picked them, and took the little posy inside as a present for the baby.
That’s all very romantic, but it is actually not that usual to see Helleborus niger in flower in the garden on Christmas Day, so why the connection? Well, under the old Julian calendar, Christmas Day was on 6 January, and you may well find Helleborus niger in flower in the garden by this date.
It is said that a specimen was found growing in an English abbey believed to have been established by St Thomas, one of the 12 Apostles, and every year it bloomed regularly on 6 January.
When the Gregorian calendar was first introduced to England in 1588, and Christmas Day was moved to 25 December, the plant did not flower on the new date. This was seen as a terrible omen, so much so that England chose not to adopt the Gregorian calendar, and didn’t do so until 1751.
In Greek mythology, the physician Melampus used hellebore to cure the daughters of Proetus, king of Argos, after they had been cursed with madness by the god Dionysus. In return Melampus was given one of the princesses as his bride. Black hellebore is still used by homeopaths to treat depression. 
The plant has a reputation for being poisonous, but while it is indeed toxic, it’s not as lethal as history might lead us to believe. Alexander the Great is supposed to have died after being poisoned with hellebore, but it’s likely that the poison was white hellebore - actually Veratrum album, and not a hellebore at all.
As with many flowers that are associated with Christian legends, there is a superstitious side to the hellebore stories. A piece of hellebore root was placed in the ear of an “bewitched” or otherwise unwell cow and it was grown by cottage doors to keep away witches. 
Mind you, so many things were grown by the cottage door in the olden days to keep away witches, it was a wonder anyone ever got inside without tripping over. 

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

In praise of mahonia

Mahonia x media 'Charity', which grows in a neighbour's garden here in the Cotswolds

November can often look like the fag-end of the flowering year in the garden, but in a funny kind of way, it’s the beginning of the following spring. Just to make the point, a stalwart winter performer is already providing a warm-up act for next year’s crocuses and daffodils. 
Mahonia is native to Asia and America, and closely related to berberis. Its bright yellow flowers start appearing in late October, and continue to provide nectar and pollen for honeybees and other pollinators until March.
It is named after the Irish-American horticulturalist Bernard McMahon, who was one of the two nurserymen appointed by Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, to care for the collection of plants brought back by Lewis and Clark from their exploration of western America.
I have to confess I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with mahonia. I inherited a massive clump of Mahonia japonica in my garden, and it used to take up about 40sq ft. I’ve hacked it back, but I still think its long, dark-green, prickly leaves look a bit alien here in the Cotswolds.
Some people might compare the scent of its flowers to lily of the valley, but it has an elusive perfume: you catch a waft of it by chance, rather than being able to bury your nose in the flowers and inhale the fragrance. 
So why grow it? Well, any shrub that is in flower for five months is worth thinking about, and any shrub that attracts bees, and will flower for this long, and in winter, is especially worthy of consideration, if only by beekeepers.
It’s tough, too - not for nothing is it known rather insultingly as a “car-park plant”. Mahonia will flourish quite happily in shade, and are pretty much pest-free. Late spring frost may damage new shoots, but the plant should regenerate without too much trouble.
It’s a big plant and while it is tolerant of pruning, it needs a bit of space. My advice would be to avoid Mahonia japonica, which will eat your garden, and to look for Mahonia x media ‘Charity’, or its more fragrant cousins, Mahonia x media ‘Lionel Fortescue’, Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’ or Mahonia x media ‘Buckland’. 
These last three were raised by Lionel Fortescue, founder of The Garden House at Buckland Monachorum in Devon, and of these, the one that bears his name has a reputation for being the first into bloom. 
All the Mahonia x media hybrids hold their racemes of flowers high above the foliage, so that they look like brilliant yellow fireworks. They can get a bit leggy, but you can cut them back after they finish flowering in early spring to get them to resprout.
For those who don’t like spiny leaves and massive shrubs, a dwarf version has been available for the past couple of years. Its full name is Mahonia eurybracteata subsp.ganpinensis ‘Soft Caress’, but unsurprisingly, I’ve never heard anyone call it that. All you need to remember is the Mahonia ‘Soft Caress’ bit, which is how it will be labelled at the garden centre. It has long thin spineless leaves and the same scented yellow flowers.
It would take quite a few ‘Soft Caress’ quite a while to cover 40 sq ft, or provide a lot of forage for bees, but it’s a very pretty plant, and very tolerant of dry shade, so it’s worth thinking about. The only downside with ‘Soft Caress’ is the price.  It’s protected by Plant Breeders Rights, which means unlicensed propagation is prohibited, so just one plant can cost between £14.99 (if you’re lucky) and £24.99.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Michaelmas time

When it comes to regular blogging, I am a complete failure. I'm way behind on all sorts of things that I meant to record. However, I've been asked to write a monthly column for Cirencester and District Beekeepers, to which I belong, so I thought I'd recycle it and post it on my blog as well. Cheating, yes, but hey...
October's plant of the month is Michaelmas daisies, or asters, which are not only a spectacular addition to the late-summer garden, but also a great source of late-summer pollen. Bees of all kinds love them and we’re lucky in having two gardens open to the public that showcase asters within an hour’s drive of Cirencester. 
Waterperry, near Wheatley (just off the A40 the other side of Oxford) has a magnificent herbaceous border that features every kind of aster you can think of, from stately cultivars nearly six feet high, down to compact versions that form a neat dome at the front of a border. Colours range from vibrant purple, through magenta, red, pink and white, as well as the classic lavender-blues.
Waterperry have special Michaelmas Daisy weekends in September and October when there are tours of the gardens. Our tour was led by the horticultural manager Rob Jacobs, who was both informative and entertaining - the perfect guide.

Part of the herbaceous border at Waterperry, which is planted along traditional lines, which means it includes only herbaceous plants.

The gorgeous lavender aster on the right is Aster 'Marie Ballard', raised by Ernest Ballard at Old Court Nurseries near Malvern

Perennials such as solidago, rudbeckia and helianthus are used at Waterperry to provide a vibrant contrast to the aster colours

I loved this new border at Waterperry, which is designed in a much more contemporary style, inspired by Piet Oudolf.

The stock beds at Waterperry - many of these are for sale in the nursery, thank goodness.

Old Court Nurseries, at Colwall, near Malvern, was started by Ernest Ballard in 1906, and taken over by Percy Picton in 1956. The Picton family still run the nursery, which holds the National Collection of Autumn-flowering Asters. Their show garden, named after Percy, features more than 400 varieties, including some of those bred by Ernest Ballard, such as 'Marie Ballard' and 'Patricia Ballard'.

Asters and pale pink dahlias make a charming combination in the Percy Picton Garden at Old Court Nurseries.

Most asters come from North America, but the European native, Aster amellus, has provided some outstanding cultivars, such as 'King George' and ‘Veilchenkonigen’. It is also a co-parent of the Aster x frikartii hybrids, which as well as being beautiful have inherited their parent's famed resistance to mildew.
Aster x frikartii 'Monch' is great garden flower, as is 'Wunder von Stäfa', which is my own personal favourite. The frikartii hybrids are named after their breeder, a Swiss nurseryman called Carl Ludwig Frikart, which also explains why the different varieties have German names (Stäfa was the name of the town where Frikart had his nursery.) 
If you don't have a sunny garden, grow Aster divaricatus, or the white wood aster, which honeybees also love, but which is pretty much the only aster that thrives in shade.
A word here about names. In 1998, research by an international team of botanists based mainly at Kew Gardens led to the reclassification of the entire plant world according to its molecular structure, instead of going by appearance. 
Nothing wrong with identifying a plant by its DNA, you might think, but many plants were given new names and even expert gardeners get confused. I’ve long suspected that botanists choose the most complicated names they can dream up just to have a laugh. 
Every so often, the Royal Horticultural Society decides formally to adopt the new name, and this year - 2015 - it’s the turn of Michaelmas daisies.
Aster divaricatus, for example, is now officially known as Eurybia divaricata, not only changing its name but also its gender. What used to be Aster cordifolius ‘Little Carlow’ is now Symphyotrichum ‘Little Carlow’ (cordifolius hybrid).  

In the language of flowers, the Michaelmas daisy means "farewell", probably because it blooms at the end of the productive season. Michaelmas (the feast of St Michael the Archangel) falls on 29 September, and according to an old rhyme, the Michaelmas daisy blooms in time for Michaelmas day and continues to flower until the feast of St Simon and St Jude on 28 October.