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.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Miriam Goldberger's Wildflower Farm

After attending the Garden Bloggers' Fling in Toronto last weekend, a few of us stayed on for a trip to Miriam Goldberger's Wildflower Farm. Miriam and her husband Paul Jenkins produce not only wildflower seeds for gardeners, but also "eco-lawn" seeds and other grasses which can be used for bio-fuel.
They do all this themselves, in a delightfully low-tech way, under the supervision of Penny, their gorgeous dog.

We'd had a lot of rain in Toronto, but our farm visit was blessed with fine weather; so hot, in fact, that a few of us joined Penny in seeking shade under the trees. The wildflower meadows won't peak until August, but there were still enough flowers to keep us happy - mainly false indigo (Baptisia australis), beardtongue, or wild penstemon (Penstemon grandiflorus), golden alexander (Zizia aurea) and wild lupin (Lupinus perennis), the Texas bluebonnet's tall cousin.

This is blue false indigo, but Miriam and Paul also have yellow and cream-flowered versions

Bladder campion, or Silene vulgaris. We don't see this as much as we used to in the UK these days, so it was sad to hear that this is considered a weed in North America. It looks so pretty here with the grass - and I can think of lots of weeds I would rather NOT have in my garden!

Beardtongue, or wild penstemon. I love this plant, and although it isn't native to the UK, I'm going to grow it in my meadow patch.

Wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), just coming into flower. Now, this is the sort of wild flower I would be a bit dubious about growing, since I have a garden full of thuggish umbellifers, rampant ground elder (goutweed to American readers) and stubborn docks. Wild quinine can reach a metre tall, and it looks like the sort of thing that would take over a whole border if you turned your back for five minutes. However, this is a member of the aster family, it has long been used as a remedy to reduce fever, and it attracts all sorts of pollinators.

Spiderwort, or tradescantia, as we would call it in the UK, where it is only grown as an ornamental garden plant.

Golden alexanders, or Zizia aurea. I love this plant, which looks like yellow cow parsley. I'm going to try this in my meadow as well.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), which got its name because its leaves insist on pointing north and south, rather than just growing in a clump. Apparently, the new leaves face any old way, but orient themselves within two or three weeks. And according to Wikipedia, the early settlers on the Great Plains could find their way in the dark by feeling the leaves. (Although if I was an early settler, I wouldn't be out in the dark, thanks very much. Supposing you felt the tail of a mountain lion instead?)

Louise Hartwig enjoying the view and soaking up the idyllic atmosphere.

Miriam showed us how they process the seed. First, it's dried in the old greenhouse, which is baking hot.

Second, the seed is cleaned. Paul found this machine, invented by one Melvin R Dybvig, who unfortunately died after making only 50 of them. Paul bought it on the internet, and the buyer stipulated "collection only". so he had to drive down to Georgia to pick it up. That's right, Georgia USA. And Paul lives in Ontario, Canada.

A variety of sieves are used to clean the seed, all made by Paul. Farmers, like beekeepers, never buy anything if they can make it themselves.

However, this mincer, or meat grinder, was added to the cleaning kit, because it's good for sorting seeds that have very tough husks or shells. Behind it, a small rock with a handle in the top is also used ...

... and even a cement mixer is employed. As Miriam pointed out, if you send out your seeds full of chaff or other debris, you're ripping off the customer.
I love the way Miriam and Paul package their seeds, with really clear, full instructions on how to grow them. None of this "sow direct from March to May" nonsense. I also bought a copy of Miriam's book, Taming Wildflowers, which takes the same approach; it's both practical and passionate.
We rounded off our visit with the most spectacular lunch, cooked by Paul, which included devilled eggs, ham, cheese, two kinds of potato salad, and a wonderful carrot salad with a curry-flavoured dressing. I had so many helpings I lost count. If Paul ever feels like doing a book, I think it should be a cookbook.
However, perhaps the biggest thanks ought to go to Helen Battersby, who not only helped organise the fling, AND an extra day at Niagara, but also drove us all the way from Toronto to the farm and back, a round trip of four hours.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

How the garden looked on village open day

There's nothing like being stuck in an airport to make you get on with some blogging. I've been meaning to post these for days, but I've been whizzing around Toronto with a bunch of Canadian and American garden bloggers, having a wonderful time.
Now, however, I am stuck at Toronto Pearson, where the rain is lashing down and my British Airways flight has been delayed by the storm. Never mind...

I should first say a big thank-you to Pianolearner, who took most of these pictures. In my experience,  one never gets around to taking pictures on open day, you're too busy doing other things. Pianolearner (aka known as the husband of Louise Curley, author of The Cut Flower Patch) has commented regularly over the years both on my blog and my daughter's blog, so it was great to meet him and Louise at last. I loved Louise's book, and would recommend it to anyone thinking of starting a cutting garden.

The picture above shows the alliums in flower, and the picture below (which is mine) shows the verbascums. The idea is that the purple shade at the centre of the verbascums picks up the colour of the alliums, but I didn't manage to get a proper picture of the two next door to each other.

This verbascum variety is 'Clementine', and it seems very reliable so far. If you cut down the flower spikes when they start to fade, you get a new flush - last year I had three lots of flowers.

The view looking up the garden. Immediately behind the house, the garden is much more formal and (hopefully) manicured. In the foreground is the "not-a-hedge", which is composed of fastigiate yew, white broom and phlomis, with assorted grasses and irises. I wanted some kind of demarcation here, but not a solid wall or hedge or fence.

This border includes Euphorbia characias subs wulfenii, which has gone bonkers this year. It looks terrific with the Erysimum 'Bowles Mauve', but the lime-green flower heads grew so big, they took a bit of a hammering in the wind and rain. The white is yet more white broom - Cytisus praecox albus. 

The pond is beginning to look really established now. I've tweaked the planting a bit to include more big leaves, such as Rheum palmatum tanguticum and lots of hostas. The candelabra primroses were looking good just before I left, but unfortunately, the pictures are still on my phone.

This is the view looking down the garden to the pond. Earlier this spring, I planted two Magnolia stellata 'Royal Star' either side of the urn. Their blossom has faded and they are now in leaf, but the cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) is doing a great job of providing a flowery substitute.

I love succulents, and like to arrange them in shallow terracotta dishes. This is stonecrop, which most people regard as a bit of a pest in the garden, but it's fine in a pot, and looks great with sempervivum, as here, or with echeveria.

The colours of the stone wall suggested this colour scheme to me: the lichens turn the stone orange, white and black. Here the white flowers are Libertia grandiflora, the dark leaves are Sambucus nigra 'Black Tower' and the grasses are Stipa (or Nasella) tenuissima and Anemanthele lessoniana (formerly known as Stipa arundinacea).

I mentioned echeveria, and here is some, growing with Sedum reflexum 'Blue Carpet'. I don't know which variety this is, but I do have lots of different ones, and no, they don't all look alike!

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Garden open today (with a bit of help from my friends)

It's been a busy week. Monday was press day at Chelsea, Tuesday morning I had to file for The Independent, so that left Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday to get ready for the Bibury Open Gardens day today.

All went swimmingly until I tripped over the kitchen step while running into the house to answer the phone. I was taking off my gardening gloves as I ran, and I fell on my left hand, which was clutching my gloves. At first I thought I'd bruised a rib, but when I asked the local pharmacist for advice about painkillers,  she said it sounded like an intercostal strain, or even a torn muscle.
Great! And I'd just started getting a cold. Sneezing or coughing was going to be a whole heap of fun.
The Open Gardens event raises money for the village hall, so to be asked to take part is not only a huge compliment but also a practical way of helping to sustain community life. I was determined to go ahead with the garden opening, but the way I was feeling (and I was feeling very sorry for myself), how was that going to happen?
Luckily, my new next-door neighbours came to the rescue. Neil is a professional gardener, who for the past few years has worked with Stephen Crisp, head gardener at Winfield House, the residence of the US Ambassador to London.
Neil's partner Anthony is also a keen and knowledgeable gardener, while Stephen himself was coming to stay with them for the weekend. Between them, they managed to turn the mess that is my garden into something approaching respectability.

Anthony mowed the lawn...

Neil cleaned and weeded the terrace ...

And in between bites of chocolate cake, Stephen helped Neil clean up and rearrange all my pots and furniture into a far more pleasing arrangement.

My daughter helped too, fishing the gunk out of the pond. However, gardening is not really her thing, so she cleaned the house instead. There's nothing to beat a tidy, sparkling kitchen.

This picture of Rufus pretty much sums up how I feel right now, so I'll wait until tomorrow before posting photographs of the garden.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Chelsea Flower Show 2015

It's a good Chelsea this year. There is a wider variety of gardens than last year, there are some new(er) faces, and while some of the big designer names are taking a year out (Andy Sturgeon, for example, plus Cleve West and Tom Stuart-Smith), others have returned to the show - notably Dan Pearson, with his Chatsworth garden, inspired by the trout stream at the famous Derbyshire estate.

The garden (above) is an example of what Pearson does best - a deceptively simple design that looks as if a piece of the English countryside has been uprooted and transported to the centre of London. The lush waterside planting includes ferns, rheums and candelabra primulas.
Three of the most striking gardens on Main Avenue (where most of the big show gardens are housed) are inspired by very un-English landscapes, however. The Hidden Beauty of Kranji recreates the tropical atmosphere of a suburb of Singapore, the Sentebale garden is inspired by the southern African country of Lesotho, and The Beauty of Islam, designed by Kamelia Bin Zaal, is a modern interpretation of Arabic and Islamic culture.

The Singaporean garden (above) is an ambitious design with two waterfalls which I bet gave contractor Mark Gregory a few sleepless nights. From a distance they look like sheets of glass amid a sea of orchids.

The Sentebale garden (above) is designed to promote the charity set up by Prince Harry to help children living with the HIV virus. It's designed by Matt Keightley, who did a wonderful garden for the charity Help For Heroes at Chelsea last year. It looks very exotic, but with a few exceptions, most of the plants are fairly easy to come by; the bright orange in the foreground, for example, is the perennial wallflower Erysimum 'Apricot Twist'.

I found the Beauty of Islam garden one of the most interesting show gardens. We owe such a huge debt to the paradise gardens of Islamic culture, whose basic layout is still echoed in millions of gardens throughout the world, including here in the UK.
The word "paradise" comes from the Old Persian word meaning a walled garden, and a traditional paradise garden has not only religious significance but also practical advantages. There are often four sections, divided by four rills or canals which represent the four rivers of paradise - named in the Bible as Pishon, Gihon, the Tigris and the Euphrates. The rills also serve to irrigate every corner of the garden, which is traditionally planted with fruit and flowers. Even the most basic Islamic garden has at least a rectangular pool.
Kamelia Bin Zaal's garden does not have the four quadrants, but it has water and pomegranate trees and that sense of an oasis that you get in any walled garden. Instead of date palms, she has used the powdery grey-blue Bismarckia nobilis, or Bismarck palm. It's a native of Madagascar, off the east coast of Africa, and can grow up to 60 feet.

Chelsea on press day may be a seething mass of expert horticulturalists, but my understanding of the garden was enhanced by a young Muslim student who was working as a steward at the show.
We got into conversation while i was looking at the garden, and he told me that the flame-like sculpture below the palm on the left is a stylised representation of the word "Allah", and that the calligraphy inscribed on the walls of the garden are verses from the Quran which refer to paradise.
Until recent years, Islam was regarded as one of the most tolerant of the world's religions. I know many Muslims are horrified by the atrocities committed by organisations such as Islamic State and Boko Haram, and saddened that their faith has become associated with violence and death.
I can completely understand that they would want to reinstate the image of Islam as a religion of peace and serenity, and to present it as a garden is a beautiful idea.
To English eyes, the expanses of white marble can seem overpowering, especially in full sunlight. But as my Muslim student friend explained, you wouldn't spend time in this garden during the day if you were living in the Middle East - it would be far too hot. Instead, you would use it in the evening, when the white marble would gleam in the cool dusk.
Now, I could (and often do) go on at length about Islamic gardens, but I can hear all you non-Brits out there starting to fidget and say: "Come on, Victoria, we want to see some traditional British garden style!"

So here we go: this is Chris Beardshaw's Healthy Cities Garden for Morgan Stanley. The vibrant colours are provided by Geum 'Prinses Juliana' and Salvia nemorosa 'Caradonna', backed up by 'Masterpiece' lupins. After the show is over, this garden will be recreated at an inner-city site in the east London district of Poplar.

More traditional English romanticism from Jo Thompson, with her garden retreat design for show sponsors M&G. It features a natural swimming pond, and an oak building inspired by writers such as Vita Sackville-West, Dylan Thomas and Roald Dahl, who famously hid themselves away - whether it be in a tower or a shack - in order to work. The planting is a mouth-watering melange of pink, lavender and blue, and features roses and peonies.
It may be the middle of May, but that doesn't mean it is reliably sunny here in the UK. Press day at Chelsea yesterday started off with steady rain, and when the sun finally made an appearance, it was accompanied by a stiff breeze that brought the plane tree pollen down on us hapless hacks. I didn't stop coughing and sneezing until I got home - and I don't normally suffer from hay fever.
It was interesting to see that the gardens that used a lot of wood, or a lot of orange, seemed to glow even beneath the black skies.

The Homebase garden (above), designed by Adam Frost, was a good example of this, as was Matthew Wilson's garden for the Royal Bank of Canada (below) which is designed to demonstrate efficient ways of using and saving water. (That's Matthew on the left.)

It isn't just the garden designers who excel at Chelsea. The nursery people put on a fantastic show in the floral marquee, as you can see from this detail from the Hillier exhibit (below). I don't want to give you the impression that I only write about people who give me glasses of champagne, so let's put it this way. The massed ranks of champagne bottles and glasses at the Hillier stand ensured that the cream of the British gardening press took an intense interest in their plants. Thanks, guys - and here's to your 70th consecutive gold medal at the Chelsea Flower Show.

This stand by Redwood Stone also caught my eye - I wouldn't mind a few of those urns on my terrace.
For gardening journalists and serious gardeners, Chelsea is a must-see. It's difficult to keep up with what's going on in British horticulture AND pay attention to your own garden, so the Chelsea Flower Show provides a one-stop source of gossip, news and ideas, not to mention a chance to catch up with friends and commissioning editors.

And it is jolly good fun too.