Gardens of Spain

With the summer gone, the sun ever lower in the sky, the days shortening, and our British gardens becoming ever more damp, from rain and from dew, ever more cold and forlorn, I was very fortunate to escape to Andalucia last week. Blue skies and 34 degrees centigrade really did feel like an escape.
Oranges ripening on the trees – the joys of a hot climate!
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Autumn Gardening Tasks

It’s come round to the time of year when the lawn mower morphs from a tool for cutting grass, into a vacuum cleaner for fallen leaves.

Autumn seems to have pounced on us this year. I can trace it back to a day about a week and a half ago, when the air took on a chill, and the heavy dew on the grass lasted the whole day. The trees seemed to start turning in an instant response, with leaves colouring up and beginning to fall.

By then, the asters were barely into bud, but the sudden change seemed to kick them into action, and they’re now fully out and looking good. Asters are pretty much the last summer perennials to flower. When everything else is going over, their leaves are fresh and vital, their intricate daisy flowers in purples, blues, pinks and white, are pristine and vibrant – oases of shining beauty among a sea of decay. If you want to extend your garden’s flowering season into the autumn, you can’t do better than to plant some asters.(1)

Aster novi-belgii ‘Audrey’ – for the bad news, see note (1)

We typically think of autumn as a time of tidying and clearing up – clearing leaves, cutting back dead foliage and flower stems on perennials, pulling up spent bedding plants, taking out tomatoes and cleaning the greenhouse. But it’s also a busy time for more creative tasks. Now is the time to plant spring flowering bulbs, in pots and in the ground. Daffodils need to be planted as soon as possible, but most tulips can wait until November – in fact it’s best not to put them in the open ground until then, particularly if you have heavy soil. It’s a good idea to cover bulbs with wire mesh to stop rodents digging them up (easier to do with pots than for those planted directly into the ground).

Now is a good time to divide many perennials, although some people prefer to wait until the spring to do this, as there’s a danger that the reset plants could be killed by the cold weather. On the other hand, doing it now gives them a chance to establish a good root system, so they’re ready to get growing in the spring. And it’s easier to see what you’re dividing at this time of year, because by the end of the winter, perennials often don’t have much showing above ground.
Aster novi-belgii ‘Climax’ – again, see note (1)

And of course, autumn is a great time to plant roses, as well as most other shrubs, and trees. The soil is still warm (even if the weather isn’t) and reliably moist, giving them a chance to develop their root system so that, as for the perennials, they’re ready to start into growth the following spring. And woody plants can be bought bare-rooted, which is much cheaper than buying potted specimens – particularly relevant if you have a lot of plants to put in (say, for a deciduous hedge).

When it comes to the autumn clearing up, there are decisions to be made. Ideally, fallen leaves can be collected up and made into leaf mould. If you’ve got a lot of leaves, you can make a leaf mould bin by wrapping wire mesh around four wooden posts set out in a square. If you don’t have enough leaves for this, or anywhere to put it, you can fill a black plastic bag with leaves, tie it up, put a few holes in it with a garden fork, and leave it somewhere out of sight. Either way, you should have leaf mould by this time next year.

However, for some plants that are diseased, such as roses with black spot, apples with scab ,or quince with leaf blight, experts suggest collecting the leaves and burning them. The theory is that if you compost them, the spores of the disease may survive and re-infect the plant the following year. The problem comes where your leaves have blown about and intermingled – you can hardly sort them one by one!

The other decision is whether or not to cut back the dead foliage of perennials. Some people can’t bear to see them making the garden look untidy over the winter. Others think that they can look attractive, particularly when the frost is on them, or when they’re backlit by the winter sun. And they do provide homes for insect wildlife to spend the winter. Personally, I tend to wait until the spring to cut back the dead growth.
Canna Neubert, taken only a few days ago – who said the summer was over

(1) In what appears to be an ongoing scheme to make our lives difficult, botanists have recently re-classified some (but not all) asters, and given them the new name ‘Symphyotrichum’. Maybe they’re jealous of our ability to speak horticultural latin. Or perhaps they’re just trying to justify their own existence. It seems to be the later flowering novi-belgii group that have been renamed.


Words and pictures copyright Graham Wright 2017

If Trees Could Talk…

We’re not long into September, and I’d like to think it’s still summer, if only just. But it seems that many of the trees think otherwise. I can’t help feeling a little antagonistic towards them. It’s as if they’re trying to deprive me of what little summer is left; as if they somehow know there isn’t any more good weather to come, so they might as well get on with the autumn business of dropping their leaves. I have an instinctive sense that trees are wise, but in this case it may be less about being in touch with the rhythm of the seasons, and more about giving up regardless. If trees could talk, they’d be saying ‘we’ve had enough!’

My Quince Tree (Cydonia oblonga ‘Vranja’) has suffered a lot this year. In spring, its freshly emerged leaves were ripped to shreds by strong winds. Likewise its second growth. It’s lived through prolonged drought, excessive rain, vastly fluctuating temperatures, and now a long period of dull, humid weather. And now it’s losing its leaves at an alarming rate. Continue reading

Hedge Cutting Frenzy

The hedge cutting season is upon us. At this time of year you can swing your blades into the largest, most unruly hedge in the neighbourhood, without too much fear of disturbing nesting birds. The only problem is how to fit all that extra work into a busy gardening schedule. And with all the rain we’ve had recently, it’s not as if the grass has slowed down.
Hedge of variegated privet (Ligustrum) undergoing trimming. I find laying down plastic sheets makes clearing up easier.

In the past few weeks I’ve cut quite a few hedges. Some are more satisfying to trim than others. The laurels – common and Portuguese – tend not to look so good after cutting, as the edges of the cut leaves turn brown. They look better once they’ve grown out a bit. You can at least cut into the older wood to renovate a hedge that’s outgrown its allotted space, or grown into an undesirable shape. They may look bare for a while, but they will throw out new shoots, and look better for it. Usually. Though you can’t always be sure, particularly as there are some nasty diseases affecting laurel at the moment. Cut back beyond the layer of green growth on the outside of most conifer hedges, and they won’t grow back. One small slip with the hedge trimmer, and you’re left with a hole that can only be covered by the plant world equivalent of a comb over! Continue reading

Attack of the Killer Slugs

I’ve read that we shouldn’t be too quick to rid ourselves of all of the slugs in our gardens, because certain species predate other slugs. I’ve never really been convinced of this. Anyone who regularly goes out into their garden at night to search for (and eradicate) these slimy creatures will know that slugs will eat pretty much anything, from carrion to cat faeces. Kill a slug one night and you can almost guarantee to find three more feasting on it’s carcass the next. So while I have often seen slugs eating other slugs, I didn’t consider that to be proof of predation. Continue reading

Do you want to borrow my hedge cutter?

‘Do you want to borrow my hedge cutter?’ he said. A generous offer, you might think.

One of my customers lives on a nice quiet cul-de-sac, with a rear garden that unfortunately backs onto the main road. I’d been trimming a large Pyracantha and, unable to reach all of it, had picked up my loppers, step-up, and a green waste bag, and walked the short distance round the corner to get the rest of it from the other side of the fence. I’d just about finished when a white van bumped up the kerb and came to a stop right by me. The head of a young man poked out of the window and spoke the offending words. Maybe it was the Barry bad boy accent, but I didn’t catch what he’d said immediately. And when it registered, it took me a while to assimilate the offer. I didn’t need a hedge cutter, and if I had, I would have used mine, which was in my van. I simply replied, as politely as could be expected under the circumstances, ‘No thank you’.

Undeterred, he continued, ‘Or I could do it for you’, giving away the true nature of his offer. ‘Only, I do this for a living, see’ he added, condescendingly (that’s when someone talks down to you). I realised that he meant gardening, rather than poking his nose into things he didn’t understand (though I suspect that if such a career path existed, he would be rather better suited to it).
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Great Dixter

Anyone who’s interested in gardening will have heard of Great Dixter. But despite having seen the gardens on various television shows, and read about them in magazines, I’d never taken notice of where they are. And so, when I picked up a leaflet earlier this week, while having a few days away in East Sussex, it came as a complete surprise to find that I was only twenty minutes away from Great Dixter. Obviously, I had to go, even though it had to be a shorter visit than I would have liked. Sadly there wasn’t time to look around the house, but the garden was the main priority.

The first thing that struck me about the place was it’s rusticity. You enter along a path that leads up to the front door. Flanked by orchard trees set in wildflower meadows, it reminded me of the illustration of Kelmscott Manor on the frontispiece of William Morris’s ‘News From Nowhere’. It’s a classic Arts & Crafts look. Despite the garden’s frequent appearances in the media, the only part that I recognised was the front of the house – I remember an article showing the gardeners very carefully composing the many pots that are clustered around the front door. Arrangements of pots are a big feature of Great Dixter, along with narrow paths and wildflower meadows. I particularly liked an arrangement of plants in the exotic garden, and when I got closer I was surprised (and impressed) to see that the Gunnera was in a pot.

I liked all the long grass. It’s good for wildlife, good for the environment (no temptation to resort to chemicals to keep the lawns green and weed free) and it looks good too – it makes a good contrast with the formality of the topiary hedging. The long border was looking good too.


The Long Border

But though I very much enjoyed looking around the gardens, I was a little underwhelmed, considering all the hype they get. Christopher Lloyd (who created the garden and is no longer with us) was apparently known not to mind the odd weed or two, and this ethos has been continued under the current administration. The gardens are an interesting mix of the formal and the informal. But informality often slips into a lack of order, and occasionally descends into full-blown chaos. You can see this in the photo of what I think is the high garden. It’s a mass of plants, without much contrast or, at this time of year, much in the way of flower.

Maybe at some point this garden will explode with colour – I don’t know because I struggled to identify individual plants from the confused mass of mid-green.

In the sunk garden, disorder gave way to a rather careless health and safety disaster waiting to happen, with a self-seeded, eight foot tall Euphorbia sprawling across a narrow path. It was impossible to get past without brushing against and breaking leaves, and that sap is nasty stuff, particularly if it gets in your eyes or your mouth. I’ve known people who have ended up in A & E.

Having said all that, it is a very special place. I like to see plants labelled, so that I can identify the ones I don’t know, but labels can make a garden look like a collection of exhibits, rather than a garden. At Great Dixter there are no plant labels, but any disappointment you  might feel over this will surely be forgotten the moment you walk into the nursery area. So many gardens have plant sales areas with a small range of standard garden centre fare, usually bought in from Holland, that bears little relation to the plants in the garden. But the nursery at Great Dixter is amazing, with a fantastic selection of plants, many of which are grown in the gardens. With only a few exceptions, the stock was all very healthy, and the prices were quite reasonable too. You pay for them in a fantastic old barn, busy with various potting activities, and with a doorway that can’t be more than four feet high.

The estate consists of a collection of ancient buildings – the fifteenth century house, an oast house, and various barns (one of which was being thatched while we were there) – which make a fantastically picturesque architectural environment around which to build a garden. It would, I think, be a wonderful place to work, and with all of the gardeners working away, it looked, not like a recreation of a medieval idyll – it looked like the real thing.

And so, despite my criticisms, I’d love to go back. Great Dixter is beautiful, and perhaps unique, with an amazing atmosphere. If you ever get the chance to visit, I can thoroughly recommend it.