Sunday, January 29, 2012

The second-month itch

Grrrrr! I'm feeling grumpy today. There's nothing annoys me more than the prospect of a cold spell in February - just when one is itching to get on with some pre-spring activity such as creating new beds, or moving things around, or (ahem) planting the polyanthus I bought the other week.
Those poor polyanthus. No sooner did I buy them - during what I thought was going to continue to be a long mild spell - than we had a hard frost. It got mild again. I thought: "I must plant those polyanthus". No sooner did I poke my nose outside than the temperatures plummeted. It's not so much that the ground is too hard to plant, but I can't walk across the grass when it's frosty - it makes black footmarks on the lawn.
This week, it's going to get colder and colder in London, with temperatures drifting towards -4C(25F) overnight. That might not seem much if you live in northern Canada or Siberia, but a sustained blast of that over three or four nights may wreak havoc with some of the more tender plants I thought might get through the winter unscathed.
The polyanthus are Primula elatior 'Castillian', whose flowers come in cheerful shades of bronze, orange, terracotta and yellow, bunched on the typical sturdy stem of P. elatior hybrids. (Elatior is the clue that their great-grandparents were oxlips, rather than primroses.) Best of all, 'Castillian' is slightly scented.
They look fantastically cheerful alongside yellow-leaved grasses such as Acorus gramineus 'Ogon' and the blue-grey emerging foliage of Sedum spectabile. This year, I'm going to try them with Heuchera 'Electra', which is one of my favourites. It seems to keep its leaves in better shape over winter.
I'm going for colour this February. On the recommendation of James Alexander-Sinclair, writing in this month's issue of Gardeners' World magazine, I've invested in a couple of Prunus mume 'Beni-Chidori', the Japanese apricot, which has brilliant magenta flowers.
I normally like a combination of white and green in spring, but in a couple of weeks' time, I'm off to Miami with my daughter for a week's holiday and I know that when I get back, I will find England in late February something of an anticlimax compared to floriferous Florida.
So it's colour all the way. Hey, even the thought of it is starting to cheer me up!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Snowdrops and other excuses for a day out

The snowdrop season is upon us; indeed it has been lurking in the wings for some time. The Royal Horticultural Society sent me this photograph of snowdrops in bloom at Rosemoor in Devon around Christmastime, I seem to recall, and the January edition of The Garden, the RHS journal, has Silvertreedaze writing on the subject.
Although you now find snowdrops in the wild, they are not technically British native flowers. They've been here at least since the 18th century, however, and many people believe they were introduced during the Middle Ages. Whatever their origins, they are now widely naturalised, popping up in woodlands and churchyards all over the British Isles.
I like snowdrops, but I'm not obsessive about them. My favourite is the Turkish Galanthus elwesii, for the fairly crude reason that they are big - up to 30cm (1ft) tall. I don't like growing things I can't see without my varifocals. As for all those cultivars that are yellow, or green, or crinkly, or deformed in some way, my overwhelming reaction is ... why?
Some people are fanatical about them, I know - and you can bet anything you like that the RHS Plant and Design Show in London on 14-15 February will be full of galanthophiles, pushing and shoving to get at the choicest new varieties.
For a lot of people, however, including me, snowdrops are not about growing flowers, but seeing them. I have the same reaction to bluebell woods in May, or primroses in early spring - I get a tremendous thrill when I see plants happily doing (if you'll forgive the cliche) what comes naturally.
I love the idea of snowdrop days and bluebell walks, because it is the perfect excuse to get out into a more natural landscape. Deciduous woodland is fast becoming an endangered commodity here in the UK, so anything that helps people appreciate it is fine by me. (OK, a lot of those snowdrop bulbs in NGS gardens that open at this time of year have been planted by some dedicated owner, but the effect is of a wild, woodland garden.)
Perhaps we all have some primeval need to go out and mark the passing of the seasons in this way. Perhaps there is some primeval need just to go into the woods from time to time. Whatever it is, I'm going to enjoy going on my snowdrop outing.
I don't care if what I'm looking at is 'Magnet' or G. Atkinsii, or G. plicatus or G. caucasicus or whatever. So long as I see a sea of white flowers and smell fresh air, I'll be quite happy.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

How cold is your garden?

I was intrigued to see that the US Department of Agriculture is to unveil a new hardiness zone map this Wednesday, which I'm sure will come as some relief to America's 80 million gardeners.
There have been proposed alterations to this map during the past 10 years, mainly at the instigation of the American Horticultural Society, but this is the first official government update since 1990, I believe.
Given that Americans are far, far more dependent on their hardiness zone information than we are here in the UK, and that climate change statistics have shown a steady upward trend over the past few years, I expect many of our friends across the Atlantic will be saying: "About time too!"
It's very difficult to equate US hardiness zones to the UK. London, for example, is allegedly the equivalent of zone 9 in the US, which puts it on a par with San Antonio, TX, New Orleans, LA and San Francisco, CA. I wish!
And while any American gardener will be able to tell you instantly whether they are in Zone 7 (Richmond, VA) or Zone 10 (San Diego, CA), they will also tell you that the hardiness zone is only part of the story. It's an important part - it basically tells you what is going to get through the winter - but it doesn't take into account summer temperatures, or humidity, or snow cover, or light levels and so on.
It's the same here in the UK. It's well known that in London, you can push the envelope a bit when it comes to growing exotics, because London is an urban heat island (UHI), and temperatures can be up to 7 or 8C(46F) higher than in the surrounding countryside.
Being an island (or group of islands), Britain also benefits from a temperate maritime climate, and this becomes more pronounced the closer to the coast you are. The west and especially the south-west are further protected by the Gulf Stream.
But just as the hardiness zones are just the start of the "will it grow?" story, even in the UK it's always a good idea, I've found, to keep an open mind about your own garden's microclimate.
Conventional wisdom has it that the south side of a garden will be reasonably warm and sunny, the north side will be shadier and cooler, the east side will get early sun and the west will get afternoon and evening warmth.
That's true - up to a point. If I want to grow something that needs lots of sun, such as tulips, or buddleia, I grow them on the south-facing side. My garden faces south-west, and it's sheltered by mature trees, so it's a warm garden. But the existence of that shelter means that some areas are shaded. It doesn't matter how warm those areas are, some plants just won't do well there. Crocosmia, for example, sulks in certain parts of my garden, but runs riot in others.
I have a Campsis grandiflora on the south-facing fence (below). But while it never seems to suffer from frost damage, it needs good light levels from spring onwards to coax it into flower. Just being on the sunny side isn't really enough. It flowered this summer, because we had a very hot spring - but even then, not until the middle of August. It was a bit like watching one of your children put their shoes on very, very slowly - I wanted to shout: "If you don't hurry up, it'll be too late!"

Cannas (below), on the other hand, don't seem to be quite so fussy. This bit of the garden is north-facing, although it gets quite a lot of light all day. Can you see the tree fern on the left of the picture behind the cannas? I don't need to protect it at all during winter - because on the other side of that fence is my neighbour Peter's garden office.
Peter works in there most of the day - with heating on in winter, obviously - so the tree fern, along with a tetrapanax and a trachelospermum, has a very cosy little life. It's so warm that the big fatsia self-seeds. You can just see a little seedling on the left that has started growing in the pot belonging to the tetrapanax.

Indeed, all along that fence on the left are various sheds belonging to neighbours. I'm near a corner, so I have five gardens backing on to mine at right angles. People usually put their sheds at the end of the garden, so ironically, what should be the coldest place in my garden is one of the best-insulated.
On the south side, my neighbour Ruth's garden runs parallel to mine and, yes, her sheds are at the end of her garden. So my sunny south-facing fence has absolutely no protection at all.
Sometimes Ruth and I think it would be nice to have a lovely big wall between us - not because we don't get on, you understand, but because it would retain the heat, and we could have lean-to mini greenhouses, or wall-mounted fountains, or lots of other interesting things instead of our half-rotted fence with its rickety trellis. Sorry, MY half-rotted fence - I think it's my responsibility.
Then we look at all the things we would have to move, untie, cut back or generally deal with in order to achieve this, and we think - no, that fence will do another year...

Friday, January 20, 2012

What price privacy?

When I was in Seattle last July, I had the very great pleasure of meeting garden writer Marty Wingate, whose latest book, Landscaping For Privacy, is published this week in the UK by Timber Press. I have to admit that while I was looking forward to seeing it, I expected it to be much more relevant to an American audience - after all, Marty is an American writer and the photographs are of American gardens. (Nothing wrong with that - I love a bit of American gardening voyeurism.) However, to my surprise, I found it very thought-provoking.
We British like to think we know all about privacy - all those castles aren't just there to look quaint, you know. We are an island race, and at the first hint of trouble, our instinct is to throw up a huge wall, preferably surrounded by a moat, with armed battalions standing by to pour boiling oil on intruders.
The materials may have changed (it tends to be Leylandii hedging these days, or feather-edge fence panels), and the armed guards may come a little expensive in these times of austerity, but the same sentiment still lurks beneath that stiff upper lip: Keep Out!
Personally I would feel very exposed in a garden that had no visible, tangible boundaries whatsoever. But the problem with merely building a high fence (6ft 6ins is the maximum you can go without planning permission in the UK) is that you end up with a garden that can be a bit box-like. And of course, you wouldn't want a 6ft fence two feet from your front windows.
So what do you do if you still want lots of light and a feeling of space, but you also want the sense of privacy, of having a veil between you and the world? The answer is simple, says Marty. Buffers.
Buffers can be plants - trees, shrubs, perennials - or they can consist of wooden panels, or archways, or perhaps just a large pot or an obelisk. The key thing is that they give the illusion of a barrier, but without compromising your sense of space.
Buffers play other roles as well. They can act as a teaser - half hiding and half revealing the vista beyond, as with the picket fence and arch in this Seattle garden below. You wouldn't feel you could go through this gate unless you had been invited, so it holds you at arm's length to an extent, but you can still admire the garden that you see quite clearly through it.

Yes, that looks lovely, you say - but I can't afford a picket fence and arch, and if I could, I don't think it would suit my property, and I'd have to find someone to do the work for me and ... blah blah blah.
Well, you don't have to do the full picket fence thing. Vertical accents, such as these wooden trellised obelisks in another Seattle garden, behave like punctuation marks - they stop your eye in the same way as a comma breaks up a sentence, so that you take a visual breath, as it were, before moving on to the next bit.

These conifers, below, act just like exclamation marks! They seem to say: "Look at that view!"
No one in their right mind would want a high hedge or a fence here, but the slim columns of the trees not only frame the view but also give you a sense of being separate from the property below.

Yes, well (you might argue), I don't live in Seattle and I don't have the space to grow huge conifers, nor do I have a handy view of Puget Sound.

Well, here's a solution to that problem (well, OK, not the Puget Sound bit). Admittedly, this garden is in Seattle - it belongs to garden writer Lorene Edwards Forkner - but it's an idea that could be borrowed by anyone anywhere. Lorene has planted conifers in huge galvanised stock feeders, thus creating a barrier that is both temporary and mobile. If she needs access, all she needs to do is move them out of the way. (Notice the irrigation hose, which stops them drying out).
I've used my own pictures here to try to give you some idea of what Marty is talking about. The pictures in her book are far better - and she has lots of other good thoughts too: for example, how water fountains, or plants that rustle in the breeze, act as buffers to counteract traffic or neighbourhood noise. Have a browse - see what you think.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Small colourful visitors brighten a January day

I have never failed to find something interesting to see at Wisley, the Royal Horticultural Society's garden in Surrey. It doesn't matter what the weather is like, or whether it is January or June. Yesterday, however, I was visiting the Glasshouse along with Clare, from Plantpassion, to see the colourful visitors that take up residence in its steamy interior during the depths of winter.
Sure enough, there they were, flitting between the towering palms and the exotic tendrils of flowering climbers. Their colours were amazing - brilliant magenta pink for the females, and blue and green, with the occasional splash of bright red, for the males. Some even had those trainers with flashing lights.
What? Who did you think I meant? Oh, the tropical butterflies! Yes, I saw them too. And very lovely they were, but they paled into insignificance beside the sight of children, round-eyed with wonder, thoroughly enjoying a world outside their normal day-to-day routine.
One little girl, in her winter plumage of bright pink parka with fur-trimmed hood, got very excited when she saw a butterfly hatch out and shouted at the top of her voice: "Mummy, Mummy, I saw a WEAF-wing!" It's difficult to say leafwing when your front teeth are missing.
It's the third year Wisley has had butterflies in the Glasshouse. This year, by way of an extra treat, you could also see caterpillars, alongside the emergence cages where the pupae hang, ready to ease themselves out of their chrysalises and into a world of colour and heat.
The butterflies are imported as pupae from Belize, and supplied by the Stratford Butterfly Farm. In the wild, the caterpillar attaches itself to a twig before shedding its skin and becoming a chrysalis. The collected pupae have lost this, of course, and Cara Smith, one of the RHS staff, showed me how they stick the pupae to canes using Copydex glue - it's basically latex dissolved in water, so it's non-toxic (which is why it's good for false eyelashes, apparently).
These green ones below will hatch into Blue Morpho butterflies - they look like a little row of fairy lights, don't they?

Here's an owl caterpillar - it turns into one of those butterflies with a big "eye" on its wings

The butterflies in the Glasshouse have a lifespan of only a couple of weeks, so they die off naturally. They don't perform any pollinating role - they're just there to look pretty. Owl butterflies like laying their eggs on banana plants, of which there are many in the Glasshouse, and the RHS did have a nasty moment once when a mini-plague of owl caterpillars appeared. But they hatched into butterflies, and that was the end of that, said Cara. I suspect f-owl play. (Sorry.)

Here's Cara, below, at the emergence cage, where lots of newly hatched butterflies are waiting to go into the Glasshouse. To my surprise, she showed how to pick them up - she grasped the wings firmly between her thumb and forefinger, quite close to the body. I'd always been told you shouldn't touch a butterfly's wings, because you would cause irreparable damage. But as you can see, these seemed to survive OK, and look quite happy clinging to Cara's fingers.

Actually, it was difficult to decide whether it was the kids, or their parents and grandparents who were enjoying themselves more. It was comforting to see that, although we often tell each other we spend too much time at our computers or in front of the television, there still seems to be something in most of us that responds with wonder and enthusiasm to the natural world.

Cara very kindly released these specimens for us so that Clare and I could photograph them. The minute she let them go, we were surrounded by a heaving scrum of visitors brandishing their cameras and phones. It was as if the butterfly equivalent of Brad and Angelina had arrived in town. Above, some owls, and below are two tree nymphs.

These spectacular creatures below are Malay lacewings. They look like a vintage design by Missoni.

I know, from watching David Attenborough's extraordinary Frozen Planet series on DVD over Christmas (it's available on, American friends) that the sight of an untamed wilderness going about its seasonal business can hold my children transfixed - sophisticated adults though they now are. (I got told off for saying "Wow!" every five minutes.)
But even better is actually going outside to discover the world for yourself, whether you find a piece of it in a leaf, a bug, a puddle, a backyard, a park, or a polar ice field. So all credit to the RHS for giving kids the chance to see these tropical butterflies in such a wonderful setting.

This is either a Great Mormon, or an Asian Swallowtail, as is the butterfly at the top of the post. Both are members of the same family and they look quite alike, so excuse my lack of positive ID.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Treading on my dreams

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

He Wishes For the Cloths of Heaven,
W.B. Yeats (1865–1939)

I love this poem at any time, but the final line always runs through my mind when I'm gardening at this time of year.
I usually delay the big winter tidy-up until after Christmas, because many of the plants in my garden go on well into December, especially if the weather is mild. The snag with rummaging about in the borders at this time of year is that it is so easy to trample on the new shoots of bulbs such as snowdrops and daffodils. You have to tread carefully, or you will extinguish their dream of blooming in a couple of months' time.
It's been a busy Christmas for me, as you may have noticed from the lack of posts. Apart from Christmas Day and Boxing Day, I've been at work most of the time. Coupled with that, my mother - who came to stay with us on Christmas Eve - was ill, and had to be admitted to hospital. She's fine now, I'm pleased to say, but I think both she and I are quite glad to see the back of this Christmas.
So it was with a sigh of pleasure and relief that I stepped outside this morning. It's not too cold here in London - about 9/10C (48/50F), but feeling slightly warmer in the sunshine. A great day to do some gardening.

I always wait until the cannas have been frosted before cutting back their foliage, but as soon as they go over, I am itching to hack off the shroud-like leaves and put the plants away for the rest of the winter. Mine are in pots, so they can go in the garage, which stops them getting too wet and cold.
The red banana below, however, (Ensete ventricosum 'Maurelii') will not regenerate, so that's destined for the tip. If you have a greenhouse, you can overwinter them (Will Giles, at The Exotic Garden, uses the Norwich Cathedral greenhouse for his!), but I don't, so I treat them as annuals. They grow so fast in one season, I'd never be able to lift them if they got really big.

Then there's the general herbaceous detritus. This bed below, for example, is full of old crocosmia leaves. I could leave them, but they are flopping all over the evergreen plants, such as the yuccas, so they get pulled out. I could already see next year's shoots starting.

It's a very satisfying feeling, accumulating a heap of garden waste like this. I love jobs that don't involve any analysis or decision-making, just a vague attention to detail in case you cut off a finger.

Had a quick squint at the pond, above, to check that everything was all right, and that the pump was still working. The fish seemed very lively, perhaps because it was a mild sunny day.

And I found this fat little fellow, cosied up amid a cluster of crocosmia corms. This is the caterpillar of the Small White, or Cabbage White butterfly. He's a bit of a pest if you grow cabbages, so it crossed my mind that I should tread on his dreams pdq. But I don't grow cabbages, and the nasturtiums (which I'm guessing attracted his parent) never seem to suffer from caterpillar predation, so I left him to snooze in peace.