Another Spring Drought…

For the past few years I’ve written about a prolonged drought at spring – a time when you wouldn’t necessarily expect it. I wondered whether it was just in the Vale of Glamorgan, where I was living until last December. But now I’m in Shropshire, and this year’s drought is like nothing I can remember. Grass is going brown. The 250 litre water butt we installed a few months ago has long since been emptied. And the pond is becoming little more than a muddy puddle…

The alpine flowers look pretty reflected in the water, even if the surface is a bit messy. We inherited the pond, the bridge and an artificial hill with an imitation mountain stream waterfall. Not really our style, but I have to admit that at this time of year the alpine flowers look wonderful…

The darker blue flowers are Lithodora ‘Heavenly Blue’, but beyond that, and the heathers, I’m not sure – alpines are not plants I’ve ever taken much interest in. I suspect there are some alpine phlox in there. They don’t seem to mind the dry weather.

We haven’t had any significant rain for many weeks. Added to that, it’s been mostly sunny, and there’s been a strong, desiccating wind (my OED says ‘desiccative’, but WordPress isn’t so fussy). Not the greatest conditions in which to be creating a new garden. I’ve been moving turf around to set out the beds and the grassy areas, but struggling to stop them drying up altogether. Watering has been a major job, particularly as most of the plants we brought with us are still in pots.

I’m ashamed to say I’ve lost a few, including a small cutting of a fig, some phlox (the border type, rather than alpine varieties), and a yellow bottlebrush/wattle called Melaleuca squarrosa, which was one of a few grown from seed brought back from Australia). The one we planted in our last garden was around seven feet tall by the time we left, but we don’t have any left now. Maybe that’s an excuse to go and buy some more seeds, if ever we’re allowed to travel again.

The plants we bought from Burncoose nursery are all in now, and seem to be hanging on, with regular watering. The buds of the two upright beech trees are swelling and elongating, and I’m looking forward to them opening. The six fruit trees in our mini orchard have been in for longer and are also doing okay. This is Malus (apple!) ‘James Grieve’…

In the raised bed at the end (which will eventually be moved later on in the implementation of my garden plan) we’ve already harvested some of the rhubarb, and the reset strawberry plants are beginning to flower among the rubble…

I’ve been cavalier in moving rhododendrons that were in the way, but they’re coming out now, and I have to admit they are impressive. I may try harder to accommodate them under, and among the structural trees and shrubs in the design. The rich red will really shine out from the understorey. I’m almost excited to see what colours some of the others will be. I hope they survive, though some will need to be moved again, once they’ve finished flowering, and our thin soil is going to need some significant bulking up with organic material if they are to really thrive.

I was initially delighted to discover we had soil that is so easy to work. But in the last few weeks, with the continuing dry, sunny, windy conditions, I’ve seen just how thin it is. The tractors working in the field have raised dust storms, and as I clear more areas of grass and weeds I’ve taken to covering the exposed soil, for fear it will all blow away. It really is a bit like the mid-west here. All we need is some tumble weed. On the plus side, I am looking forward to growing a range of different plants from those I’ve been used to. Echinacea, for instance, and heleniums, which typically didn’t last the winter in the heavy clay of our last garden. Broom seems to do very well here – we have three large plants in the garden, and they are all full of flower, giving off a distinctive, heady aroma. Who needs Chanel?

And the magnolia is finally in full flower. I’m not sure of the variety. Despite having plenty of flowers, it’s something of a disappointment. Magnolia flowers can be damaged by frost; normally it’s the ones that flower early that suffer most. Despite flowering late, many of the flowers on our magnolia are frost damaged, with brown, rotten patches. Those flowers that aren’t affected look good though.

Here’s the full picture…

Actually, it doesn’t look to bad from a distance. It needs some structural pruning to improve the shape. The stems are crossing and congested. There’s another job waiting to be done. I’ll let it finish flowering first.

text & images © graham wright

The Joy of a Plant Delivery

Eager to get the main structural plants for the garden in the ground and growing, we decided not to wait until the ground was prepared, but to order the plants straight away. Impetuous? Certainly. Foolhardy? Perhaps. We hope to be living in this house for the foreseeable future, so what’s the rush? We’ve already bought and planted the bare-rooted specimens – beech hedging, and six fruit trees for our mini orchard. A few days ago we received a delivery from Burncoose nursery

Actually, looking at the picture, it doesn’t look like that much! In fact, there’s the potential for a lot of plant material there. The plants were well packaged, arrived intact, and look like good, strong, healthy specimens. Two fastigiate (tall and thin!) beech trees (Fagus sylvatica ‘Dawyck’, and ‘Dawyck Purple’) will be tall focal points, giving the garden height, lush foliage, and great autumn colour. Two purple-leaved hazels (Corylus maxima ‘Purpurea’) will have large, dark leaves and can be coppiced every few years to provide hazel sticks for supporting beans, etc., or for fire wood. And, if we’re lucky, we might get some hazel nuts from them too.

A viburnum (Viburnum plicatum f. tomentosum ‘Mariesii’) will become a large shrub with fresh green foliage, horizontally tiered branches (a bit like a wedding cake tree) and will be smothered in masses of white flowers each spring.

Cornus kousa var. chinensis will grow into a small, spreading tree, covered in large white flowers (in fact, they’re bracts – the flowers are tiny and at the centre of the circle of bracts). It also has good autumn colour, and will make a great focal point, viewed through the metal pergola we’ve just finished putting up…

Of course the pergola will need plants to climb over it. So we got ourselves started with a chocolate vine (Akebia quinata) which has dark flowers that smell of chocolate (hence the name).

Akebia quinata (photo courtesy of Crocus on-line nursery)

Clearing spaces in the borders where these plants will go is going to keep us busy for a while. Here’s a large patch we did earlier. There’s plenty more to do.

And to end on a prettier note; the Viburnum x burkwoodii we brought with us in a pot is full of flower at the moment. The fragrance is delicious…

text & photos (except akebia) © Graham Wright 2020

Couch Grass

I’m engaged in a battle with a wily, wiry enemy. Just how do you get rid of couch grass? Unfortunately, there’s no easy way. This is what it looks like…

These are the rhizomes (a few of which have produced leaves) of couch grass – latin name Elymus repens – lying on the surface after some frenzied digging by yours truly. The area of the garden where we’re creating the main border is run through with it, and we’ve been digging out great heaps of the stuff. The rhizomes creep along under the surface of the soil, building up a tangled and extensive network. Nodes at regular intervals along the rhizomes can push new clusters of grass up through the soil. Quite impressive, really. But not very helpful when you’re trying to cultivate a garden.

There are a number of approaches to take. Spraying with chemicals is increasingly seen as an unacceptable option. Glyphosate, the main ingredient of most (if not all) weed killers available to consumers, has been linked to cancer (though the big pharma companies are doing their best to hide all evidence) and only has a limited effect anyway. You’ll need to spray a number of times, leaving a few weeks between treatments, to get on top of it. You can cover affected areas, ideally with something that won’t let light through; something like thick black plastic. Okay for a bed with no other plants in it. But you’ll need to keep it covered for some time (i.e.; months, or even a year). And even then, you might not have killed it completely. And, of course, we should be using less plastic!

Digging is an option, and the one we’re using. This is the area I’m working on at the moment…

You have to be careful to get all the rhizomes out, because any you leave in the soil will re-grow. Realistically, it’s not possible to do this in one go. Our thin, sandy, dusty soil makes the process as easy as it could be, but it’s still hard work. There are cultivated plants in the bed too; these can be saved, but it’s harsh on them, because to remove all of the couch grass that’s grown in among their roots, you have to remove pretty much all of the soil around the roots. This is a time of year when you stand a good chance of the plants recovering from the shock. As we salvage plants they get put in a temporary position in our nursery bed. Ideally, having dug a bed over, you should leave it for a few weeks and then dig it over again to find the bits you missed, which may well have sprouted – giving themselves away to you. This time it should be much easier, as the soil should still be loose from the first digging over. But this is not an ideal world, and time is short, so we will probably take a chance and put in some of the plants straight away. This should work, but it will be critical to keep on top of the situation and dig out any couch grass as soon as the shoots appear.

One more option I’ve heard is to bury the stuff. This probably works best where it’s matted together to form turfs – in which case you would stand practically no chance of separating the grass from the soil anyway. The theory is that with couch grass, if you can bury it in a trench, and put a foot or so of soil on top, it will die through lack of light (a bit like the black plastic option). That sounds risky to me though. A safer option might be to cut the top few inches off and create a turf stack. Pile the turves up with the green sides together, and over time they rot down to form good quality topsoil. Here’s one I prepared earlier…

In fact this is made from standard turves, without any couch (hopefully!) The canes and string are marking out the design for the garden. These turves are in what will eventually be a border. I dug a pit so that the stack is partially buried – it’s best to exclude light where possible. And I can make use of the topsoil that would otherwise be under the stack. After six months to a year you can go through the heap and remove any perennial weeds that haven’t rotted. In the worst case, if you’ve made a stack with couch grass turves and the couch rhizomes haven’t rotted, at least the problem weeds are collected together in the one place, rather than being spread all over your plot!

With couch grass, as with most weeds, it’s a war of attrition – by keeping at it you’re constantly reducing the weed population, and weakening those that you don’t destroy completely. In time, you should get the situation under control. But even then, don’t turn you back on it for too long – you may win some glorious battles, but in the long run, you’ll never win a war against nature…

Text & images © Graham Wright 2020