Evergreen?

After the winter we’ve had here, the term ‘evergreen’ may have to be reviewed. Sadly, I’ve come across a lot of evergreens that will now be forever brown. The following two sad specimens illustrate the point rather well.

The first, a low growing Ceanothus, went into the winter thriving; full and with lush, dark green foliage. Ceanothus usually sail through our winters, but this year many have been badly damaged and may not survive (this one included). At home, we’ve got a Ceanothus growing against a north-facing wall (I know; it isn’t recommended, but I saw one flourishing in the same position on a house down the road and decided to ‘borrow’ the idea). It was hit by the cold weather, and suffered quite a bit of browning, but it pulled through, is greening up nicely, and is about to burst into flower. Despite the north-facing aspect, I suspect the wall helped to protect it.

The next is a Mahonia. I have a difficult relationship with these spiky characters. The flowers are impressive (if a bit on the yellow side) and come at a time when there isn’t much else in flower. But they can be very uncomfortable to work with. And the fallen leaves don’t break down, and even through gloves will prick your hands when you pick them up. And the plants have an unfortunate habit of going very leggy. You can do what’s known as ‘crown lifting’, which is where you cut away the lower branches and shoots to show the bare stems even more, turning them into plants on sticks, or mini trees. Come to think of it, once they start to go leggy, this is probably the best strategy, because even if you don’t like the look of the stems, you can hide them with some under-planting.

Over the last few years, with this specimen I’ve been trying the other, rather more difficult approach, which is to prune it to reduce the height, and to encourage it to produce new shoots from lower down on the stems. It’s responded only grudgingly, but I was getting there. I don’t suppose this weather damage is going to help the process, but I think that this plant should at least pull through, in spite of the damage.

On a brighter note, many plants don’t seem to have been affected by the weather. The tulips, for instance, were safely tucked up underground and sensibly waited until the winter was over before doing their thing.

Tulipa ‘Purissima’ ‘The first of the tulips in our garden to start doing it’s thing.


Narcissus ‘Thalia’ – it’s still my favourite daffodil!

Two of my favourite tulips: ‘Balerina’, with ‘Queen of Night’ just coming through


Queen of Night in their prime – a great tulip, named for a great opera

Whether it’s the affect of low temperature, snow, or the icy, burning winds; or a combination of the three, I’ve come across a lot of evergreens, of various species, that have been damaged in this way, with brown, scorched, dead or dying leaves. I’ve seen examples of Viburnum tinus, a stable of municipal planting and domestic gardens, which, having taken a hammering in recent years at the hands (or rather, jaws) of viburnum beetle have lost most of their leaves, this time over the winter. They’re having to start again now, pushing out new leaves, in the same way as deciduous plants do in spring. We call these plants evergreen, but if winters continue to be as harsh as the last one, we may have to refer to them as semi-evergreen, or even deciduous. That’s assuming they survive…


Text and images ©Graham Wright 2018

Pulverised Penstemons

Penstemons grow so well here in Cardiff by the sea that unless you have a bad aversion to them, it would be rude not to grow a few. It’s the gulf stream. Being a little on the tender side, further inland they get knocked back by the cold. You should cut them back by half in autumn so that there isn’t so much top growth left that they get pulled about too much in the wind, but there’s enough to protect the stems (and shoots) at the base of the plants from the cold.

My rather sad looking Penstemons (unknown variety)

Here, in the mild sea air, they can often get through the winter pretty much untouched, and the purpose of cutting them back is mainly to stop them growing too big and leggy. Not this year though. This year my penstemons came through the winter looking worse than Monty Don’s, even though he lives in Herefordshire, which is generally much colder than here. Maybe he got less snow than us. I was away, in warm sunny Australia (more to follow in later posts) so I didn’t see it, but I’m hearing tales from my customers of how the snow drifted and piled up against their doors five feet high, so that they really were snowed in. Will the Penstemons pull through? I’m keeping my fingers crossed, but I’m quietly confident.

And the Penstemons aren’t the only casualties of the weather. Here’s that Kangaroo Paw I was crowing about before I went away, but which took a pounding once the weather turned.
Anigothanthos manglesii (Red and Green Kangaroo Paw) – though I doubt even it’s mother would recognise it now.

The perennial wallflowers can make a good show. I particularly like Erisymum ‘Bowles’ Mauve’. They’re short lived plants, quickly going leggy and unsightly, but it’s really easy to take cuttings. Taking the cuttings might be easy, but I’ve never had much luck growing them on. Maybe they don’t like my soil, but they never seem to make good, bushy plants. But the snow seems to have just about finished them off.
Erysimum ‘Bowles’ Mauve’ – Not exactly gracing the garden.

Still, at least not everything in the garden is looking sadder than Harvey Weinstein at an awards ceremony for gentlemanly behaviour (what – too soon?) Here are a few of the success stories:
Camassia cusickii – I split one clump into six at the end of last year, and they’re all romping away. The flower spikes are a lovely pale blue.
Some of the lilies in pots are beginning to get going – this is ‘Original Love’, a large, deep red variety.

We’ve quite a few other bulbs coming through as well, in pots as well as in the ground. We’ve got Tulips, including ‘Ballerina’, ‘Prinses Irene’, ‘Purissima’ and ‘Queen of Night’. We’ve got Daffs, including ‘Hawera’ and the lovely ‘Thalia’. And we’ve got some very pretty little blue numbers, including Scilla sibirica and Chionodoxa.

Chionodoxa luciliae Boiss

 

 

Text and pictures © Graham Wright 2018

 

Never Take the Weather for Granted

Strelitzia reginae in Brisbane Botanical Gardens

I’ve just come back from visiting relatives in Australia, where I became used to a rather different climate to the one we’re ‘enjoying’ over here. Daytime temperatures were in the low thirties, nights were balmy, meals were mostly eaten outside, and the only protection needed was against the sun – bliss!
Snow in South Wales this morning

I’d left the UK in mid February, and until then the winter had been relatively mild. I had a kangaroo paw (Anigozanthos manglesii) thriving outside, against a protected wall, and with a flower spike about to bloom. My main concern about leaving the garden was that I might not be back in time to see the best of some of the spring bulbs I’d planted in pots – particularly the daffodils, the Chionodoxa, and the Scilla sibirica. Rather stupidly, I assumed we’d got far enough through the winter not to have to worry about a frozen snap, let alone snow. I’d even hedged my bets by leaving the greenhouse door open a little, as the late winter sun had been bringing the temperature up too high.

All was fine for a while. And then news of the ‘beast from the east’ reached us in Australia. Oh well, I thought, at least it’ll delay the bulbs from flowering. And I was pleased to have escaped the weather. And I still had hopes that, sheltered from the worst of the weather by a sunny wall, my ‘roo paw might get through the storm and be ready to burst into flower when I got back. But we had it bad here in Cardiff by the sea, apparently. Though it only lasted three days, the snow was deep, with many roads being closed.
Unidentified eucalypt in the incomparable King’s Park, Perth

When I left, the garden was looking quite perky, with lots of buds and shoots. I came home to find it looking sick. Many of the plants in the greenhouse hadn’t faired too well (leaving me wishing I hadn’t left the door open!) And the flower spike on the kangaroo paw had rotted. The plant itself was looking poorly, but probably retrievable. The weather was mild though (although it felt cold to me, still being in Australia mode). On Friday, when I checked the greenhouse, the temperature was up to twenty-three degrees, so I opened the door partially, to let out some of the heat.

And then of course yesterday, the weather turned cold again. It’s late for snow but that’s what I woke up to this morning. The forecast is for snow to continue throughout the day, with the worst of it here in South Wales. Looking out at the snowy garden, having just got out of bed, I suddenly found myself wondering whether or not I’d remembered to shut the greenhouse door on Friday. I reluctantly went out into the cold (in my dressing gown!) to discover that yes, the greenhouse door was still open, and the snow had drifted in and covered some of the pots on the floor. While I was out there, I took the opportunity to blow as much of the snow as I could off the kangaroo paw, and put it in the greenhouse (the plant, not the snow!) All in all, I’m carrying a large quantity of guilt for having neglected my plants so badly.
Olive and Agave plants basking in the Mediterranean sunshine on our balcony!

The weather in Australia wasn’t all good. In Brisbane, we encountered rain like we’d never seen before (and which was so extreme that it, and the associated flooding, dominated the news channels in Queensland). Streets turned into rivers, and we were wading ankle deep through it. But it was at least warm enough that getting wet wasn’t likely to leave you shivering.

While in Australia (and on our stopover in Singapore on the way home) we visited lots of gardens, and wild areas, and saw some amazing plants and flowers. I might even share some of these with you in subsequent posts.
Orchids in the ‘Cloud Forest’ glasshouse in Singapore’s ‘Gardens by the Bay’

 

Text & images © Graham Wright

Time to Reclaim the Garden…

At this time of year it can look as though there isn’t much happening in the garden. But while many plants and creatures are still sleeping, others are not. Weeds are among the most resilient of plants in our gardens, and while they may shrink back some what during the winter, some of them will take advantage of any mild spells to put on growth. So by now, when trees and shrubs are budding and some of the perennials are beginning to sprout from the earth, the weeds are well advanced. So now is a good time to get stuck in and take them out.

Scarlett Pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis)


Self-Heal (Prunella vulgaris)


One of the Willow Herbs (Epilobium)?

Pick a good day, when it isn’t too wet, and when the ground isn’t frozen (so not too early in the morning – have a lie-in, you deserve it). And because the soil has been shifted about by the action of freezing and thawing, you should find most weeds can be prised out quite easily with a fork. Put a board down on the soil to step on if you can, to avoid compacting the soil.

Other creatures that rarely seem to stop are slugs and snails, and their grazing on tender new shoots at this time of year can be enough to kill off your perennials. Beer traps can be an effective organic method of control. I sink small glass jars or dishes (something like ramekin dishes are perfect) in the soil, half fill them with beer and put a small piece of stone, tile, or similar over the top of each, suspended on stones, to make a little cairn shelter to keep the rain out

Slug Cairn

Slug Cairn with the lid removed

I put some out a few weeks ago, when the weather was mild, and caught hundreds. I cleaned out and refreshed the traps last week, but as the weather turned colder, this time I haven’t caught many. Rest assured though, that as soon as we have a mild spell, the slugs and snails will be active again. I was doing some digging for a customer last week and came across quite a few slug and snail eggs under the surface. If you want to use slug pellets, do your local wildlife a favour and get ones that are certified organic.

There are plenty of signs that spring is on its way. In my own garden many of the perennials are starting to shoot.
Aconitum (unknown variety)

Hemerocallis (Unknown variety)

And I’ve also had a surprise. A few years ago I grew some Kangaroo Paws (the plants, not the animal parts) from seeds I brought back from Australia. They germinated and grew on well, but one by one they went into decline. I tried them indoors on a sunny window sill – no luck. I tried them in the green house – that didn’t work either. Defeated, I put the last remaining plant outside last summer. It grew well, but didn’t flower. That’s it, I thought. I didn’t bother bringing it in once the summer ended, I thought I might as well leave it outside, even though the cold would be bound to kill it (bear in mind, this plant is native to Western Australia, and semi-desert conditions). Would you believe it, the plant has not only survived, but has produced a flower spike, which shows no sign of being bothered by the frosts. It is by a south-facing house wall, but all the same, it just goes to show that whatever the text books tell you, whatever other gardeners tell you, only the plant can tell you what conditions it really wants!

Red & Green Kangaroo Paw (Anigozanthos manglesii)

Text & pictures copyright Graham Wright 2018

Winter Pruning of Fruit Trees

With the exception of Prunus species such as cherry, which are susceptible to silver leaf disease, free standing fruit trees are best pruned during the dormant season. You can do it anytime from late October through to early March, but I prefer to wait until the tree is fully settled into dormancy, and then get it done well before the buds begin to swell. Anytime during December and January is fine. Ideally, pick a day that isn’t too frosty or wet. Make sure your secateurs, loppers and saws are sharp and clean. I like to sterilise mine with diluted Jeyes fluid before and after, to avoid spreading any disease from one plant to another.

I’ve just pruned my quince tree (Cydonia oblonga ‘Vranja’). Quince fruits are about the size of, and a similar shape to pears. They have a downy coating, and a wonderful fragrance. They can be added to apple pies or crumbles to give them more flavour, or made into membrillo – quince paste – that is eaten with cheese. Apparently. But I know what you’re thinking – ‘who does he think he is; Mary Berry?’ Back to the pruning then, and the first question to ask is ‘why prune?’

The patient before surgery…


…not massively congested, but could benefit from some shaping

Quince makes quite a small tree – one of the reasons I chose it for my small garden – and although this specimen has grown fast during it’s four years in the garden, I’m happy for it to put on more height. I didn’t want to restrict it’s growth (more on that later) so I was pruning to improve the tree’s shape and to promote it’s health. Trees put out shoots in all directions, which can lead to them becoming quite congested. There were a number of shoots that were crossing each other. This is bad, because when branches rub together, they wound each other, and wounds can be entry points for disease. So those shoots had to go – I cut them back to their source.

There were other shoots growing in towards the centre of the tree. What you should be aiming for is an open shape. This lets light into the centre of the tree, which helps the fruit ripen, and allows for a good airflow through the canopy, which helps to prevent diseases. This was particularly relevant to me, as my quince suffered a bad bout of Quince leaf blight last year (Pulling Weeds Post 8/9/2017). So I cut most of the shoots that were growing inwards back to their source, opening up the canopy, and ensuring that all branches had some space around them.

Incidentally, when pruning fruit trees, you need to have an eye on the future. It isn’t quite so important for quince, which don’t tend to produce a huge harvest, but pears, and apples in particular, can be laden down with fruit, and it’s easy to underestimate just how much it will weigh down the branches. So when pruning in winter you need to think about the effect of the fruit, and whether branches will be bent down so far that they rest on the branch below, and prune to try and avoid this happening.

The next thing to consider is what’s generally known as ‘the three D’s’ – identify and cut out any wood that has signs of disease (such as canker), or is dead, or dying.

Finally, I pruned some of the rather spindly top shoots. How much you take off depends how much you want them to grow – perversely, the more you cut off, the more growth you stimulate. I really just tipped them to take off the thin, straggly ends – they should produce new, thicker shoots from the next remaining bud. Getting up to reach the top shoots can be difficult. My ladders weren’t tall enough to get me there, but I’ve found that you can grab the branch lower down and bend it down (gently – don’t risk snapping it!) until you can reach the tip.
The finished result – not a huge difference, but as I’ve said, it didn’t need that much pruning, and my general rule is that any tree that obviously looks as if it’s just been pruned is a tree that’s been pruned clumsily

My quince didn’t need a great deal of pruning, but for older trees, and particularly ones that haven’t been pruned for some years, it can be a different story. You may have to cut back large branches that are growing into the centre of the tree. If you need to reduce the size of the tree, I think it’s best to do it by cutting out some of the higher, leading branches back to their source, to maintain a natural shape, rather than lopping all of the branches to the height you want, leaving ugly stumps, which isn’t a good look. You should be aiming to shape a tree, not round it over. Bear in mind too, that if you cut fruit trees back too hard, they can respond by throwing out lots of long, straight shoots (known as water shoots) which won’t bear fruit, and which really spoil the shape of the tree. If a tree needs serious renovation to check it’s growth, then it’s best to do this gradually, over a number of seasons.
The prunings – as you can see, I didn’t need to remove a large quantity of material

One more thing to bear in mind – be careful up those ladders.

There was a young chap called Vince,
Who attempted to prune a quince.
But he dropped his saw, then fell off the ladder,
When he picked himself up you could see that he had a
Wound that would make anyone wince.

…Happy pruning!

Words and pictures copyright Graham Wright 2018

They Think It’s All Over…

…it is snow!
I’ve been gardening quite late on in the season this year, but the weekend weather could be a subtle hint from mother nature that it’s time to stop. For a few weeks now we’ve had lower temperatures than we’ve been used to before Christmas, and torrential overnight rain turned to snow on Sunday morning. Mind you, we’ve mostly got away with it here on the north banks of the Severn Estuary. It’s been bitterly cold the past few days, but the snow didn’t amount to much here, while I know of several people elsewhere in the country who have been snowed in, or stuck at an airport while the planes were grounded. Ours is an exceptionally mild part of the country. Although I do remember one winter a few years ago when we had thick snow on the ground for several weeks. And I’m wondering whether this winter is going to be a cold one too. And whether, if it is, my Australian plants are going to make it through to next spring. Continue reading

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