A New Challenge…

I started this blog to share some of the ideas, experiences and knowledge I’ve gained as a professional gardener. But having given up professional gardening, for the time being at least, does that mean the Pulling Weeds blog is at an end? Not necessarily. Having just moved house, I’ve taken on a new, larger garden. It’s got a lot of gravel and lawned areas, and not nearly enough planting. My plan is to redesign it; to create something special. And I intend to share the process through this blog.

I say ‘I’ – it will actually be a project shared between myself and my wife, Julie (it’s her garden as much as mine). This time I won’t be the only one pulling weeds!

This is what the garden looks like now, on a cold winter’s day. The planting is limited, with big expanses of grass.

The garden is dominated by a large, mature birch tree at the end. There are dead trunks of two others, one right in the centre and one to the side of the house.

There are some plants worth keeping; quite a few rhododendrons, and this magnolia. It looks mature, despite it’s diminutive stature, so probably a stellata. The buds are already swollen, ready to burst into flower in the spring.

The Rhodies all seem to have lots of buds – I’m looking forward to a colourful show in May.

As you can see from the above, a lot of the beds have been mulched with slate chippings, leaving the plants as isolated individuals in a slatey beach. There are a lot of clumps of ox-eye daisies, which need either splitting or, more likely, removing (the flowers are pretty, but the plants don’t really earn their keep). The weeding clearly hasn’t been kept up with, and some of the shrubs and perennials have been overcome by couch grass. Fortunately the soil is quite sandy, so the digging is easy.

There’s a fair sized pond – deep, too – which was used for keeping expensive fish (all of which left with the previous owners). The rockery and waterfall at the back will have to go, along with the extensive paraphernalia (2 barrel sized filters hidden behind the rockery, a powerful water-blower-cum-filter thing hanging from the bridge, and a large pump on the bottom). The levels need sorting out. There’s an overflow pipe which is keeping the water level well below the rim. Hopefully we can keep the pond, but make it look more natural – turn it into a wildlife pond. The rather twee bridge will probably have to go.

There’s an awful lot of gravel and paving in the garden, and to my mind, it’s taking up valuable planting space – most of it will have to go.

Talking of gravel…

This is the front garden (if you can call it a garden). It’s our first challenge, and as you can see, we’ve already made a start (does anyone want a lorry load of gravel?) The last residents used it as a parking lot, but google images shows me there was once a garden where the gravel is now. The vehicles have left the soil badly compacted, so it will need a good digging over. I’ll let you know how we get on (does anyone know a good chiropractor?)…

Text & images © Graham Wright 2020

The End of an Era?

I’ve been gardening professionally for ten years, first in Buxton, Derbyshire and then, from 2010, in Penarth, in the Vale of Glamorgan. But just before Xmas I moved up to North Shropshire, and I’ve hung up my boots, for the time being at least. I’ve been very fortunate to have had some lovely customers, and I’m sad to have left them behind, but there you are; nothing can last forever. In the end, as the poet (Shelley) said, ‘nought remains but mutability’.

My sadness at moving away from my customers is tempered by the knowledge that I’ll be much closer to my family. But I do have a dilemma – what do I do next? I could try to get new customers where I’m living now. But I’m not getting any younger, and I’ve been finding it tough gardening full-time. I’m just over half way through a post-graduate diploma in garden design. My first priority, while I’ve got some time on my hands, is to get that finished and see if I can get work as a garden designer – ideally freelance.

In the mean time I will need to get a part-time job to make ends meet. Maybe I’ll do some gardening. Maybe I’ll try something else. I’ve spent the majority of my working life in an office environment; I might try to get a part-time office job. After working outside in the elements I rather fancy that; nice and warm and safe (although I remember those paper cuts used to smart a bit). That’s if I can find a job. It isn’t easy these days, and not having been in that environment for a decade is likely to work against me. And then there’s my age. It shouldn’t be a problem, but I know that ageism is rife in the workplace.

But if I’m no longer gardening for a living, is that the end of Pulling Weeds? Not necessarily. In moving, I’ve taken on a new challenge. But that’s for next time…

Text & images © Graham Wright 2019

Welsh Olives…

Yes, it was a surprise to me too! I knew that olive trees grow in the UK. I knew they can produce fruit. But I didn’t think the summers were hot enough, or long enough for the fruit to ripen. But here’s the proof: genuine, full-sized olives from our own tree, growing outside, in a pot here in the Vale of Glamorgan…

This is the first year it’s happened. Having picked the olives, we then had to find out what to do with them. There now follows a long process of soaking them in salt water; it can take six months to a year before they’re ready. You have to change the water periodically, and at the end, you can add herbs, spices, garlic, chilli, etc to the salt water (or use vinegar or olive oil).

We only got a very small crop (this is it!) but then, it is a very small tree…

Only time will tell if they taste as good as olives grown in hot climates. I can’t wait…

text & images © Graham Wright 2019

Aberglasney Autumn Colour

Last Sunday was forecast to be a rare dry day in what has turned out to be a very wet autumn. We probably should have used it to work in our garden, but instead, Julie and I decided to treat ourselves to a visit to Aberglasney gardens in Carmarthenshire. Aberglasney is a very special garden to visit. The gardens are very beautiful, and there’s plenty of history there, going back to Tudor times at least, and probably beyond.

The mansion, seen beyond the stone walkway that surrounds the cloister garden. Cake alert – the cafe is just away to the left!

The sun may be out in the photo above, but despite the weather forecast, for the first hour of our visit it was overcast, light levels were low, and guess who didn’t think to change the ASO rating on the camera? Well, it’s an automatic. And the camera I normally use does it for you. Excuses, excuses! I was having trouble getting a decent quality shot, as you can see from the image below. It does at least give an idea of the range of autumn colours on show.

The surrounding landscape can play an important supporting role in the design, and the success, of a garden. Aberglasney is fortunate to be set in a beautiful, lush valley, lending a fabulous backdrop to the gardens. It does mean they have a lot to live up to, but that’s something they have very successfully achieved.

The landscape beyond, with a young Sorbus commixta colouring up nicely in the foreground

At this time of year there isn’t much flower colour around. Even the Symphyotricums (that’s late flowering asters for anyone who can’t keep up with the botanical name changes) were pretty much over. But there were still some flowers on show. I presume this Camelia is one of the varieties that flower late autumn to early winter (most flower late winter to early spring). Even so, it seems a bit early…

And this hydrangea was looking unnervingly perfect when all around it was in a state of decay. It’s Hydrangea paniculata ‘Unique’…

Talking of hydrangeas; this large specimen in a stream-side setting is a Hydrangea aspera (also known as H. villosa). Hydrangea aspera species are not your typical hydrangea. They make large shrubs, and while they can be a bit scrappy, at their best they are dusky beauties, with long, softly hairy leaves with a slight blue tinge, and cool, purple-blue lacecap type flower heads (and yes; I’m sorry about the poor quality of the photo!)

I suspect much of the ground at Aberglasney is slightly acidic. It’s a very damp area, which promotes lush growth. Like Bodnant in the north, Aberglasney has plenty of acid-loving plants such as rhododedrons and camelias.

Aberglasney has a fantastic collection of plants, and we saw many that weren’t familiar. This beautiful flower looks exotic; like an asiatic orchid. It’s unknown to me, and I couldn’t find a label. It was in a damp, shady spot, but unprotected from the weather. I should try to identify it.
Close by, these tall seed heads were also unfamiliar to me. Again, I couldn’t find a label…

If anyone knows, feel free to put me out of my misery (and ignorance).

When most of the flowers have gone, you start to notice other interesting features. I was struck by the finely drawn texture of the leaves of this next specimen, which is (according to the label) Rubus lineatus. Basically, a raspberry, but an ornamental variety – it’s not clear whether the berries are edible.

I didn’t need a label to identify the plant in the next photo. The seed heads of the evergreen Magnolia grandiflora are fascinating structures. The leaves too, look lush and exotic; shiny and green on top, with a (typically) bronze underside. They need some protection, and in this country are probably best grown against a sheltered wall. The downside is that to keep them against the wall you need to prune regularly, which means they produce less flowers (and the flowers are even more beautiful than the seed heads).

When it comes to autumn colour, I hear plenty of references to this plant. It’s Callicarpa bodinieri, and the variety usually mentioned is giraldii ‘Profusion’ (which is what this specimen is). I believe its common name is the beauty bush. The berries are certainly bright, and unusual, but I can’t say I like them much; to me they look garish and artificial, and just seem to clash with everything around them.

Against the tall stone walls apple and pear trees have been trained into a herringbone pattern

Close to the entrance and shop this huge cedar tree has a massive branch projecting out across the path at just above head height. There’s something primeval about this tree. Close up, it looks like some kind of giant, fantasy creature; sleeping, but at any moment it could wake…

Eventually the sun came out, and the sky cleared, with just a few clouds bubbling up in the distance. The rich, warm colours of the leaves of this Quercus palustris looked stunning against the blue of the sky…

Yours truly standing under the same oak tree. We’d walked around the whole of the gardens by this time, and it was lunchtime. Fortunately Aberglasney has a very good cafe restaurant, so we went and had lunch, followed by coffee and cake.

If you want to know more about Aberglasney, they have a website. They have a couple of holiday cottages, and we’re thinking that we might try to have a holiday there sometime soon, particularly as we’ll soon be moving up to Shropshire, which is a long way for a day trip.

Autumn is a marvellous time, but it’s getting a bit cold and damp now. I can’t wait for the spring…

Words & photographs © Graham Wright 2019

Gardens of Spain

While on holiday in Andalucia a few weeks ago I took the opportunity to drop in on the botanic gardens at Malaga; the Jardin Botanico Historico La Concepcion.

The gardens are just north of Malaga, looking down on the city from a hill. The view of the old town is now mostly obscured by modern apartment blocks, and sadly, the gardens are immediately adjacent to the main A-45 highway. The traffic noise is a bit intrusive, but it fades into the background after a while. Hibiscus play a significant role, with many fine specimens, like the one above. Interesting that all of the many hibiscus plants there were in the yellow/red colour range. The hibiscus that we see in the UK – the varieties that will survive a British winter – tend to be in whites and blues; cold colours for a cold climate.

The Gazebo, or Mirador Historico (Historical viewpoint)
The Gazebo, or ‘Mirador Historico‘ (Historical viewpoint) on a hill looking down on Malaga.
Looking up to the forest route, which runs along a ridge at the western boundary of the gardens. I think of pines as being dark, rather gloomy trees, but on a peak, and in bright mediterranean light, these pines are equal to the ethereal beauty of eucalypts in an Australian landscape.

The gardens are primarily an arboretum; an impressive collection of trees from all over the world. I loved the section they’d called ‘La vuelta al mundo en 80 arboles‘ (around the world in 80 trees) at the start of which is this lovely stone and metal (bronze?) signage:

As you can see, the bottom section has suffered some damage, and the gardens, while generally well maintained, were in places in need of a little TLC. There are quite a few ponds and water courses, many of which could have done with being cleaned out more regularly. The leaflet shows a lot of water features – waterfalls and fountains, but not many of these were in operation. All that standing water is a breeding ground for mosquitoes, and they were voracious – I regretted wearing shorts, rather than long trousers, and got more bites on this last day than over the rest of the holiday. The middle section of the gardens are mostly tropical planting. You could almost be in a rainforest; it’s lush, but dark and damp (despite the 35 degree temperature and full sun). Lovely to experience, but unless you’re fully covered up, you really need to keep moving.

Just one of many beautiful trees in the collection, this Lagerstroemia indica (Crape Myrtle), as you can see, has wonderfully smooth, tactile, patterned bark.

The staff are doing a good job with the labelling, which is very helpful for students of horticulture (such as yours truly) and there’s plenty of information about the history of the gardens, and the collections. Visiting other countries can be a challenging experience when you don’t speak the language very well, but when you visit a garden, wherever you are in the world, the plants all have the same familiar Latin names.

An example of the information boards
A pond with giant water lilies (Victoria cruziana). The flowers apparently open at dusk. I’d left long before then – maybe next time!
Nice to see plumbago rampaging wild; clambering up into the trees. It needs a very sheltered position here in the UK to even survive – no chance of ever reaching this size. A shame that my camera didn’t seem able to capture the intense blue of the flowers.
There were some healthy and impressive cacti on show. These five characters caught my attention – maybe I’m as twisted as they are, but they seem to me to have a rather human quality.
A dragonfly, perched on the tip of an aloe leaf, shimmers in the sunlight.

And in case you were wondering, yes; the gardens have a very good cafe, which I took full advantage of – a tasty salad for lunch, two (damn fine) coffees and a brownie. All in all, it was a sad moment when the time came to leave. Though I didn’t miss those mossers…

Text and images ©Graham Wright 2019

Caligularia dentata

This beautiful yellow daisy, with visiting bee, is a Ligularia – Ligularia dentata ‘Midnight Lady’. I’m not great at remembering latin names, so I like to use associations as prompts. My way of remembering this one is to think of the infamous Roman emperor. Unlike Caligula, Ligularia is thoroughly principled (despite the ‘Midnight Lady’ moniker).

I read somewhere that ligularia is grown more for its leaves than for its flowers, which appear quite late in the summer (these have only just come out).The foliage is impressive – large, heart-shaped and dark (darker still on the undersides) – but as you can see from these pictures, the flowers are well worth waiting for. Ligularias like plenty of moisture (the RHS say ‘moist but well-drained’, but then, they say that for everything). Like hostas, they’re recommended for water-side locations, but as for hostas, they are fine in a border; though they can sulk a bit during dry spells. And they’re martyrs to slugs and snails; as you can see from the picture below.

It’s a shame to see those fabulous, lush leaves unfurl, only to be lacerated by molluscs. This plant is by a pond, but unlike the hostas, doesn’t seem to be protected by the resident frogs. At some point during mid-summer Midnight Lady gives up the battle and learns to live with her tattered clothing; a sorry, defeated character. Or so it would seem. In fact, she’s conjuring up a spell, raising candles into the firmament. When those brilliant orange-yellow blooms appear, even on the darkest day, it’s as though the sun has come out.

Words & images © Graham Wright 2019

Recyclable plant pots

It took governments and businesses a very long time to wake up to the environmental damage caused by plastic. And it seems to be taking them just as long to get off their proverbial backsides and do something about it. It’s good that nurseries are beginning to move to recyclable pots. I could say I’m not convinced this is quite the clever environmental ‘fix’ it’s been sold as. But what I’m really wondering is: am I alone in the universe?

The quote below, from the Horticultural Trades Association, might give you the idea that this is old news. But bear in mind that today, more than a year after this report, most of the pots I see in garden centres are still the old, supposedly non-recyclable black ones:

The HTA (Horticultural Trades Association) reported that; “On Thursday 19th July 2018 a group of leading HTA grower members met to discuss the issue of the garden industries reliance on single-use black plastic pots, that can’t currently be recycled, with the aim of agreeing to move to a new alternative as soon as possible that can be widely recycled through kerbside recycling schemes.
A taupe-coloured polypropylene pot was selected by the group as being capable of recycling through current UK kerbside recycling systems and easily identifiable by consumers.”

The reality of the situation becomes apparent when you discover that to say the current pots can’t be recycled is at best misrepresentation. The problem isn’t that they can’t be recycled (they can) but that the optical readers in the machines that sort materials can’t sense black plastic. There have actually been schemes around to recycle these pots for some time, but they have to be collected separately, and while some garden centres and nurseries have made the effort to do this, the industry as a whole, and government too, weren’t prepared to put in the extra effort required.

It gets worse when you consider what the HTA calls ‘the garden industries reliance on single-use black plastic pots‘. As if they were only using black plastic pots because they had no alternative – as if the poor dears were desperately waiting for science to come up with an alternative. And finally, those clever scientists came up trumps with the ‘taupe’ (basically a rather dull beige) pot. But the reality is that the industry has been using plastic pots in a whole range of colours for as long as I can remember. Particularly prevalent is the terracotta coloured plastic that attempts to replicate old-fashioned terracotta pots. All of the ones I have in my extensive collection of so-called single use plastic pots (which I reuse over and over again), except for the very oldest, have the recycling symbol on the base.

So, to recap:

– The garden industry, for reasons known only to them (but most probably because they didn’t give the idea of recycling any consideration) has for years been using plastic pots that are difficult to recycle.

– Having chosen pots that are difficult to recycle, the industry largely wasn’t prepared to put in the effort to recycle them.

– It appears that, having been found out, the industry then concocted a publicity campaign to try and convince everyone that they had no alternative; that recyclable plastic pots weren’t available (even though we all know that they were). This yarn was spun out still further with the pretence that our heroic industry had actually created an all-new type of pot that could be recycled, because they love the environment more than their profits (though curiously, these new magic pots don’t seem to have been widely adopted by the industry).

Of course, we’re not daft enough to be taken in by this. Are we? Are we? It seems like the media (including the dear old BBC) has swallowed it hook, line and sinker.

Maybe I’m missing something. Or perhaps I really am alone in the universe…

text & images © Graham Wright 2019

Garden Visit – Rosemoor

A few weeks ago I visited Rosemoor, in Devon for the first time. I was expecting a lot – as one of the four RHS gardens you would expect it to be good – and I wasn’t disappointed.

The huge flowers of Allium Globemaster in the foreground, with roses, lupins, geraniums and phlomis in the dappled shade of a cluster of Himalayan Birch trees

The weather was cool, but there was plenty of sunshine, so it was quite a good temperature for walking around a garden.
Roses play a big part in the gardens (the clue’s in the name) and late June was a great time to visit.

One of the two formally laid out rose gardens; this is the Queen Mother’s Rose Garden.
Rosa ‘Malcolm Sargent’
A honey bee helping itself to the nectar of a Gallica shrub rose ‘Tuscany Superba’, which is an unusual, rich purple.
Rosa ‘Pax’
Pillars, obelisks and swags dripping with roses and clematis – the Rose Trail

Rosemoor is a large garden. There are formal areas, such as the rose gardens, hot, and cold gardens, a fruit and veg garden, and the long border; and there are informal areas, including two woodland walks. The gardens are dissected by a main road, with an underpass joining the two areas. There was some traffic noise, but it wasn’t too invasive. The café provides some good nosebag and an acceptable coffee, which was good, as we were there for a large part of the day.

The Hot Garden, quite green as yet, with reds and yellows just beginning to show. I love the two upright purple beech trees (Fagus sylvatica ‘Dawyck Purple’) standing sentinel either side of the rear entrance
A beautiful specimen of Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Diablo d’Or’ in the hot garden.
Cornus koussa var. chinensis ‘Wisley Queen’ – spectacular in full flower (well, technically I suppose you should say in full bract, as the flowers are the tiny clusters at the centre of the white bracts)
The borders were looking good
The Cottage Garden

Perhaps influenced by the garden at Great Dixter, a lot of the open areas of grass at Rosemoor have been turned over to wildflower meadow. It’s much softer, more romantic, than formal mown grass, and of course it’s great for wildlife such as pollinating insects.

Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor) parasitizes grass, reducing its vigour; so allowing the broad-leaved wildflower plants room to thrive.
Podophyllum ‘Kaleidoscope’ – one of many more unusual plants on in the gardens. A good talking point to grow in moist soil and dappled shade

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In the end I was defeated by fatigue – mental, as much as physical. Like a child in a toy shop the excitement was just too much, and the coffee was only going to keep me going for so long. It would be great to have the luxury of being able to make regular shorter visits, but alas, Rosemoor is just too far away to justify that. Still, I hope it isn’t too long before I can go back again.

Text & images © Graham Wright 2019

Geraniums – Old or New?

Geranium ‘Rozanne’ was voted plant of the century at the 2013 RHS Chelsea flower show. Which seemed somewhat premature, considering there was another 87 years of the century yet to come.

Geranium ‘Rozanne’ – lauder by the horticultural elite

Why was Rozanne so successful? Traditional blue perennial geraniums, such as Johnson’s Blue (Geranium x johnsonii ‘Johnson’s Blue’) flower prolifically for a period in June, and then are over, leaving just the leaves (which generally then become tatty, and often diseased). Rozanne was a new variety that flowered continuously through most of the summer. Which sounds perfect. But having grown this modern variety for a few years, I think I prefer the older varieties. Why? Well, Rozanne may flower continuously, but it doesn’t flower consistently. After the first flush, the blooms keep coming, but there are less of them, and the plant becomes straggly and tatty. It’s one of those situations where you know you should really cut the plants back, but it seems a shame to forgo the few flowers that are still appearing. The older varieties don’t give you that dilemma. They flower once, and then you know there won’t be anymore. However, they bloom with more intensity. While they’re doing their thing they have more flowers and are more impressive. And if you cut the foliage right back after flowering, they produce a new flush of fresh foliage, and will often flower again too.  

An unknown older variety, courtesy of one of my customers. I wouldn’t like to speculate on the actual variety, but it’s similar to ‘Johnson’s Blue, which I’ve grown before. Thriving, despite being in a not entirely appropriate situation. In my customer’s garden it looks spectacular.

For Rozanne, Crocus say ‘In midsummer, rejuvenate plants that are beginning to look jaded by removing old flowered stems and leaves.’ So basically; cut them back as you would the old varieties, to promote new leaves and (hopefully) flowers. In which case the only difference is that with Rozanne (as well as some of the other new varieties), if you don’t get around to cutting them back, you’ll still be getting a few flowers on the straggly growth that remains.

This year, in my garden, Rozanne formed a mound nearly a metre high, and then flopped to a sprawling mess once the rains came; all before producing a single flower. Add to that the fact that I’m not so keen on the foliage, which is rather an odd shade of green with an unattractive mottling, and I think I’ll be going back to the old varieties. Johnson’s Blue was popular for a reason.

Text & images copyright Graham Wright 2019

Sunnylands

As previously mentioned, earlier this year your gad-about gardener was fortunate enough to be in Palm Springs. While there, I visited the excellently named Sunnylands Center & Gardens.

The view from the car park – not a bad way to start.

Sunnylands is in the Rancho Mirage area of town. Cruise down the palm tree lined Frank Sinatra Drive, turn left onto Bob Hope Drive and you’re there. In the movies. I mean, in Sunnylands.

Sunnylands was formally the winter home of the wealthy and influential Annenbergs – Walter and leonore (it’s alright for some!) The estate runs to 200 acres, including a golf course and various lakes. The guided tour of the Annenberg’s mid-century modern house was tempting, but at $48 a ticket, and with limited time available, I stuck with the gardens and the ‘center’ building, which is free (yes, that’s FREE) to enter.

The visitor centre (or center, in US English) is a stunning mid-century modern building, very bright, and with a relaxed atmosphere, with comfy sofas on which to rest (if you have the time). The are a few pieces from the Annenbergs’ illustrious art collection, including a small sculpture by Rodin that I would have liked to have taken away with me. There was a short video – interesting, good to look at, but somewhat cheesy – explaining the history, and an exhibition of stunning photographs of birds, taken on the estate.

The gardens were compact, but very beautiful, and very different to what we’re used to here in the UK. Desert plants – Golden Barrel cacti and Palo Verde trees – were marshalled into pristine garden symmetry. Immaculate twin reflecting pools hydrated the air, and provided the magic that made the whole scheme come alive. We sat outside the café, by one of the pools, and it was such a beautiful, calming place to spend some time drinking a coffee and eating a pastry. Both coffee and cake were good, and very reasonably priced too, particularly bearing in mind the amazing setting.

There are no plant labels, but that can be forgiven in a garden that is all about design, rather than showing individual plants.

For a spikey-leaved plant, aloe has flowers that are surprisingly colourful and romantic.

Many of the agaves were in flower, and there were a few hummingbirds taking advantage of their nectar. If only they’d keep still – they’re almost impossible to photograph.

Not the best image of a hummingbird you’ll ever see. Note the swathe of aloe flowers in the background.

Everything about Sunnylands is immaculately presented and very beautiful. Perhaps it needs to be in order to meet the approval of the world leaders that convene there. I’ll probably never share the company of presidents and ambassadors, but it was a privilege to share the beautiful gardens of Sunnylands for one glorious, sunny afternoon.

text & photographs ©Graham Wright 2019