Autumn Colour & Continuing to Build the Garden…

Canna Wyoming – nice to have a few stunning flowers left at this time of year!

Most of the autumn colour in our garden is coming from plants in pots this year. This collection by the back door includes michaelmas daisies (Symphyotrichum ‘Audrey’, and ‘Climax’), a white hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’) and a paperbark maple (Acer griseum).

The acer is a seedling from a large multi-stemmed specimen in the garden of one of my customers in South Wales. I remember that it produced a fantastic patchwork of reds and oranges in autumn. When they fell, the lawn became a magic carpet, and it looked so beautiful I was always reluctant to clear them (but had to, of course, or the grass would have been smothered). The acer will become the main focal point in the north east corner of the garden, where I’ve been clearing an old patio (this garden had far too much hard landscaping for my liking). I’m re-using materials for paths and patios, and yet I’m still having to go back and forth to the recycling centre with van loads of rubble.

I’m removing the paving slabs around the pond so that I can make a more natural edge. The water level in the pond never stays high for so long. I think it must be leaking, so I’ll need to empty it and fit a new liner. I’ll take the opportunity to make it a more natural shape. I also intend to create a few boggy areas, by putting perforated pond liner under the soil and allowing the pond to over-flow into these areas. I can then plant them up with moisture loving plants such as Rogersia, Ligularia, and Hosta.

The curse of the poisoned compost is still showing. Compare the canna below (which I think must have been potted into the poisoned compost) with the one at the top of this post. It’s half the size it should be, has produced no flowers this year, and the leaves are a sickly green, rather than the normal rich, dark colour.

Conversely, the rowan tree (Sorbus aucuparia ‘Eastern Promise’) which was planted in late winter, and which I didn’t think would make it, because it had so little root, did, and is showing superb colour…

Now that the dormant season’s here it can relax, gather its strength, and hopefully put on some growth next year. The beech hedge behind has done reasonably well, and hopefully that too will fill out somewhat next year.

The wildflower meadow in the front garden was sown earlier this year. It was slow to get going, but has established itself now . The Achilleas and the Silenes were particularly pretty. When we cut it back at the weekend there were still quite a few plants in full flower. After cutting it back, we planted some bulbs in the meadow. Species tulips are not tall but should (hopefully) flower before the meadow has taken off. Allium hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’ flowers a bit later on, but has tall stems that should rise its purple spheres above the level of the meadow plants. Using cultivated, non-native plants in a wild-flower meadow might be seen as not quite the thing to do, but it’s gaining popularity, and if it looks good, and the non-natives you plant provide food and shelter for wildlife, why not?

The wildflower meadow after cutting – at this stage it looks almost like a ‘normal’ lawn!

Other plants that are still in pots (for now) and which have spectacular autumn leaf colour include Cotinus coggygria (an unknown cultivar)…

In the ground, this will make a very large shrub, with clouds of wispy flowers (hence the common name of smoke bush), but if you cut it back to just above ground level each spring, it will throw up long shoots with very large leaves. You miss out on the flowers, but the foliage is much more impressive than if left to do its own thing, and the plant doesn’t take up half your garden.

This Rhus typhina will probably have to stay in a pot, as sumachs have a tendency to throw out suckers, and can annexe large sections of your garden. This variety has delicate, intricate leaves that turn bright colours in autumn (as you can see). I think the dark-leaved dhalia (Dhalia ‘Bishop of Leicester’) sets it off well. It hasn’t been a good year for dhalias. The flower buds seem to form and then come to nothing. I suspect it’s down to the dreaded earwigs (more on that another time) which eat the flowers. I keep meaning to go out and look after dark to confirm this theory (but keep forgetting!)

In terms of remaining flower colour, the hardy fuchsias are in full swing now. This one is (I think) Fuchsia ‘Mrs Popple’…

The borage is still hanging on…

Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Goldsturm’ (a bit of a mouthful!) is still in pots, waiting for me to get the borders fully prepared. This one was hosting a shield bug…

The marigolds were late starting, but are still looking good…

The nasturtiums haven’t thrived (despite the sandy soil) but are making something of a comeback now the cabbage white caterpillars have moved on…

The opium poppies self-seed around freely and have played a huge role in filling the gaps in a garden that would otherwise have been rather empty. Sometimes I wonder why I feel the need to buy plants when you can have flowers like these for free…

Last, but not least, these lilies (‘White Triumphator’) are doing their thing rather late, but are a welcome sight (they smell wonderful too)…

Text & photos © Graham Wright

The Trouble with Wasps…

Anyone who’s ever eaten outside in the summer will know that wasps can be a problem. The wasps we see most are the social wasps (Vespula species); the ones that make large nests, generally where you don’t want them. A few years a ago I had a nest in my compost heap. I didn’t empty out the compost until they’d gone, and it was only then I discovered they’d excavated a hole the size of a bucket. Sometimes when I went to the compost bin a wasp would fly out of the nest entrance straight into my forehead, bounce off and then carry on around me, but they never really bothered me. But if they identify you as a threat, then you’re in trouble!

Comings and goings at the nest entrance

There’s currently a nest in ‘the hill’ – the mound of earth and rocks behind the pond. The hill is due to be removed, as it doesn’t feature on my garden design (a free-draining rockery with alpine plants doesn’t sit well by a pond), but I’ll probably not get around to that until after the nest has been vacated, so the intention is to live and let live. I’ve only been stung once so far. Apart from trying to help themselves to our lunch, they haven’t been too much trouble. But I’ve been removing a large and decrepit patio, and one day the vibrations from my pick axe must have disturbed them, because the next moment I’d dropped the pick axe and was running back to the house, waving my arms about like an idiot.

My RHS Pests and Diseases book tells me wasps can be a significant pest because they eat fruit – apples, pears, plums and berries. It doesn’t mention that they also eat rose buds. I first noticed this while volunteering at Dyffryn gardens in the Vale of Glamorgan. In my garden there are currently only two roses. The red climbing rose by the chicken run has escaped unscathed, but the yellow rose, which is currently by the compost heap (but due to be moved soon) is closer to the nest. In June and July the blooms were fine. But then the wasps started to munch on the buds. Ever since, very few buds have made it to be flowers, and those that have are raggedy.

One of the roses that made it – not much to look at.

The book also says that wasps are important predators of garden pests (illustrated by a nice picture of a wasp carrying off a vine weevil). Which is fine as far as it goes, but I know wasps don’t just kill pests, but beneficial insects such as pollinators too. In fact, they’re the only insect I’ve seen killing for reasons other than to eat. I once had an old ivy tree that was a magnet for insects when in flower. One year the whole of the crown was alive with flying insects. On closer inspection I saw a scene of carnage, because the wasps, rather than share the feast with bees and hoverflies of all kinds, had decided to see off the competition. It was a mini massacre. Each wasp would grab its victim – be it hoverfly, honey bee, bumble bee, etc. and sting it repeatedly. Killer and victim, neither able to fly while in the deadly embrace, would fall to ground together. After a short moment the wasp would rise up to look for it’s next target, leaving the unfortunate victim in it’s death throes. The ground became thick with dead pollinators.

I have to admit to a grudging respect for wasps – in a world where the fittest survive, they are far and away the fittest. Solitary wasps, many of which are plain black rather than with the danger-warning yellow stripes, are just as tough. In my last garden I would regularly see them fly down, grab a woodlouse spider (which is a fearsome looking beast and, apparently, one of the few British spiders with fangs that can pierce human skin), casually sting it to death and then carry it off to its lair. Parasitic wasps lay their eggs inside the bodies of other organisms (such as caterpillars). When the eggs hatch out they feed on the poor creature’s insides; literally eating it alive. Everything’s got to live somehow, I know, but to me, that’s just plain wrong!

Wasp nests tend to finish in the autumn – having sent out new queens to find places to hibernate, the rest of the wasps die. I’m hoping that will happen soon with our nest, so I can get on with the work around the pond.

text & photos © Graham Wright 2020

Racism in the Rhododendrons; Discrimination among the Daffodils…

The RHS, in their monthly magazine ‘The Garden’ (which, if you haven’t seen, I can thoroughly recommend), briefly mentioned that there has been a ‘worldwide discussion on diversity, race and inclusion within the horticultural industry’, initiated by the Black Lives Matter movement. It must have passed me by. And in fact the only mention of it in ‘The Garden’ was in the introduction to the letters page, where there were three letters from members on the subject.

Is the industry racist? If so, that’s a particular shame; because if the interest of gardening, and the connection with the natural world it brings can’t bring people together and make them forget any prejudices they may have, I don’t know what can.

To work or relax in, gardens should be there for everyone, regardless of race or culture

The letters were certainly critical, but they concentrated on what we actually see – too many white faces in the media; a general lack of racial diversity in images shown in ‘The Garden’; complaint about ‘the number of white hands highlighting a flower or demonstrating how to plant things’. I don’t feel this really gets to the heart of the problem. It seems rather superficial to me. I suspect the proliferation of pale skin reflects the ethnic make up of the industry, rather than being a problem in itself. Using more dark-skinned models wouldn’t change anything – just make it look as though everything was fine, destroying any impetus to make real changes.

If we want to do something, we need to address what it is that’s holding back people from different ethnic backgrounds. An assumption seems to have been made that it’s all down to simple discrimination, but is that right? Can we reasonably assume that the ethnic (and indeed gender) make up of a particular interest group or industry should exactly match that of the general population? I wonder whether that lack of ethnic diversity in the industry might not be as much down to two other factors.

  1. Culture.
    I know that people from East Asian cultures have a history of preferring apartments to houses. In Sydney, for instance, Chinese people account for a large part of the market for apartments. Might it be possible that people from a culture where domestic gardens are a rarity might be less inclined to think of gardening as a career? And my experience of South Asian communities in the UK suggests a significantly lower proportion of households show an interest in their garden. Please correct me if you think I’m mistaken. I don’t have sufficient knowledge of Afro-Caribbean communities to know whether the same is true there.

    These are generalisations – I know there are a lot of people from minority ethnic and cultural backgrounds who have a love of gardening and plants. Many will already be working in the industry. Others may be keen to enter it. From watching Gardeners’ World on the BBC for many years it seems as though allotment holders are a very diverse bunch, although ethnic minorities may have been disproportionately represented because of their great ingenuity and skill in growing produce that is more exotic, and therefore interesting, than the usual peas and beans.

    One of the main aims of the RHS is to enthuse people in gardening and plants. It may be people from some cultural backgrounds present more of a challenge, but it must be worth making an extra effort, because plants, gardens and the natural world should be an integral part of all our lives, whatever our background.
  2. Class.
    A thorny issue, this one, but from my perspective it looks as if the industry is dominated by the plummy accented and the double-barrelled; the spouses and offspring of those who have already made it to the top. Could it be the colour of your skin is far less important than who you know, and what school you went to? This is probably true across much of society. Most opportunities that arise find their way to the privileged. If what we hear is true – that ethnic communities are on average considerably less wealthy, and less privileged than the indigenous white communities, then the class system will be a huge barrier to people from ethnic minority backgrounds getting the breaks; a huge obstacle in the way of equality.
Perhaps we need to be more like chickens – my mob don’t appear to have any prejudice against visual differences. Although the two bigger hens do tend to pick on Lola; the little bantam.

Could it be that gardening – horticulture in general – is something that those of us in the racial category ‘white European’ have a particular interest in – an interest that isn’t generally shared by people from other groups? Is it the class system that’s holding people of other denominations back – jobs for the boys; nepotism, a game the whole family can play? Or is there a sinister shadow of racism lurking among the herbacious borders? Personally, I’ve not experienced or witnessed any discrimination in the industry, but up until now at least, I haven’t got out much. What, if any, experiences have you had?

text & images ©Graham Wright 2020