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

Tomato Recovery!

You may remember that last time, I posted pictures of our horribly distorted tomato plants. I sent pictures of them to the RHS advice service, and they confirmed the cause was herbicide damage – even though I never use weed killer in the garden! There were some fruits on the plants, so I decided to cut off the most affected parts (the tops) and hope for the best. And things started to look a little better.

You can see that the fruits are ripening nicely. In fact, we’ve been enjoying them for more than a week now. I just hope we’re not poisoning ourselves! They taste OK. Hopefully those nasty chemicals won’t have made their way into the fruits. This is how the top of the plants looked…

I never thought I’d see them produce trusses like this…

This one is exceptional mind – they’re not all so full. The cuttings from the offshoots are outside, growing in the garden soil, and they look perfectly normal, which supports the idea that the compost was contaminated with weed killer. They are starting to set fruit, but it’s late in the season now, so there might not be time for the fruit to ripen. I guess I should start looking for a recipe for green tomato chutney!

Elsewhere, the runner beans plants that are growing on the new pergola this year (in the autumn I’ll get some more permanent climbers in) are finally starting to produce beans.

They’re quite late. I had a nightmare with the white flowering variety I tried first. I tried everything – numerous sowings in pots, in different composts, in the ground, but they just wouldn’t germinate. Finally, I resorted to sowing them on wet kitchen towel on the kitchen windowsill. Even that didn’t work too well. Most of the seeds rotted. From a rotting, fly-infested mess I salvaged three mouldy seeds, with pathetic, weedy shoots, and planted them in the garden. Two of the plants survived, and are producing some beans. But most of the plants are Scarlet Emperor, grown from seed later on, after I’d given up on the white ones. The red-flowered plants are more vigorous, and producing more beans.

There have been a few disasters this year. I’m going to use the rather pathetic excuse that I’m somewhat new to growing produce, being more of an ornamentals man (though by no means an ornamental man!)

The courgettes have been a learning experience. I intended to grow those up the pergola too, but they never really stretched out in the way you would expect; just stayed as small clumps at the base of the uprights. I think the problem might have been that they were sown (indoors) too early, and by the time it was safe to plant them out, they had been sitting around for too long. They are producing, but intermittently, with a lot of the fruits rotting while still small. The weather has been up and down – too hot and dry at first, then cold and dull. More excuses!

The new fruit trees that were planted in the lawn in late winter have rewarded us with…

…one apple! Actually, one of the pear trees had a fruit earlier on, though it’s not there now. I’m not complaining – by rights you should remove any fruits that form in the first season to make the trees concentrate their efforts on roots and foliage. But I’m sure this one apple won’t exhaust the tree!

The sunflowers – sown to fill in for the first year while we get the garden sorted (in the long term the beds will have mostly perennials) have been a glorious success, but I’ve given up dead-heading now. The seed heads can stay over winter for the birds. Storm Francis tore the sunflowers to shreds, along with the beans -the garden looked like it had been hit by a cyclone.

Being able to cut sunflowers for a vase over perhaps two months was a luxury I will try to keep in my memory all winter…

text & images © Graham Wright 2020

Termata Disaster!

The tomatoes started so well this year. We grew them from seed (Gardeners’ Delight) on a windowsill. They germinated quickly, grew strongly, and it wasn’t long before they needed potting on. When the weather had warmed up, we moved them into the greenhouse. Flowers came, followed by nascent fruits. We potted them up into their final, large pots. They continued to grow. But we began to notice some curling in the leaves. The new leaves, as they came, didn’t look quite right – too thin and spidery. There was clearly something not quite right, but it wasn’t until recently that we noticed just how bad things had become…

Not a pretty sight, is it? But what could be the problem? A virus, maybe? The lower, earlier leaves had curled a little, and had brown and yellow markings, but it wasn’t blight, because the plants weren’t so much dying as becoming hideously deformed. It looked like an example of weed killer damage, but how could that be, when we don’t use any weed killers in the garden, and when we generally buy organic, peat-free compost? I did wonder whether it was drift from the weed killer used on the adjacent farmland, but I don’t think the timing was right, and it’s unlikely enough would have drifted into the green house to cause the problem.

I sent pictures to the RHS for their advice (you have to be a member to use this service) and the answer came back that yes, it almost certainly is weed killer damage (to which tomatoes are very susceptible) – almost certainly from the compost. The RHS expert didn’t seem especially surprised. It seems that there isn’t too much control over the material that goes into compost.

Weedkillers are used extensively, including by councils, on roadside verges etc. ‘Weed & Feed’ type products are used in large quantities by householders on their lawns, which then grow like Billy-Oh. The clippings are sent to be recycled by the local council, who sell on the resulting compost (which, of course, will be heavily contaminated with chemicals). Perhaps this is one of the problems of avoiding peat (which, I would guess, is free of chemicals in its raw state) – you have to make compost from other materials, which may not be so pure.

We need to continue to move away from using peat, because of the degradation its extraction causes to the environment. But makers of compost really should be ensuring the material they use isn’t contaminated. Particularly if they’re labelling it as organic.

Annoyingly, we can’t remember which compost we used for the tomatoes. We potted them into their final pots early on during the lockdown, when it was very difficult to get compost. We had to bite the proverbial bullet and buy a few bags of non-organic compost from the Co-op. It may well have been that batch that was contaminated. But I’m not going to make any allegations at this stage.

We took offsets from the plants before they started to distort. It’s easy to do – you just pick out a reasonable sized side shoot, pop it into compost, and it roots in no time. These plants are now a good size, and are setting fruit. We’re taking no chances with them – we’ve planted them outside, in the soil (there isn’t much room left in the greenhouse anyway). It will be interesting to see how they progress, but so far, they’re fine.

I’ve got a plan for next year. I’m going to record what compost we use, and I’m going to grow one of the plants in soil from our garden, as a control. If that plant is OK, but the others have the same problem as this year, I’ll have evidence it’s the compost – and I’ll be straight on to the manufacturer. I’ll let you know what happens, and I’ll name the culprits if there is a problem.

For this year, there are some fruits that don’t seem to be affected lower down on the plants, and they’re beginning to ripen. I just hope they won’t poison us!

As a great robot used to say, ‘What a bummer Buck’…

text & images © Graham Wright 2020

Wildflower Meadow

Traditional lawns are something of a dead zone for wildlife, so why not save yourself time mowing and create a wildlife-friendly wildflower meadow?

‘Meadow’ is perhaps rather a grand term for the fairly small patch in our front garden. But even a small area of grass and wildflowers (left uncut, of course) can provide a habitat and food for critters. And as our house is on the edge of farmland, a more natural alternative to a formal lawn seemed more in keeping with the wider environment. Although on second thoughts, I may have been looking at the agro-industrial wasteland that surrounds us with rose-coloured spectacles. And I suspect most of the neighbours are appalled. Some of them have been cutting their lawns three times a week during the lockdown.

This is what the front ‘garden’ looked like shortly after we moved in at the end of last year:

Once the gravel had been cleared, the membrane lifted, and the soil prepared, I sowed a native wildflower and grass seed mix, with varieties specially selected for dry, sandy, gravelly soil. The wildflower mix has been slow to establish. I seeded it in early spring, which is normally a good time, but the weather took a long time to warm up again this year, and there was precious little rain around. There were times when I thought I would have to start again, but it’s finally beginning to come together. There are a wide range of plants coming up. One of the most prevalent is campion (Silene) – both the pink form, and the white…

There are cornflowers, achillea, and various types of clover…

And a few surprising interlopers. It looks pretty, and gives a splash of bold colour, but I can’t imagine this petunia was in the mix…

Likewise this Snap-dragon (Antirrhinum – or ‘Bunny Rabbits’, as we used to call them as kids)…

Both may have grown from seed from neighbours’ bedding plants. They could have been deposited by birds. Or perhaps they were in the soil – there was a garden there before it was buried beneath a layer of gravel and used as a parking lot. Corn Marigold seems to be prevalent in the area, and features in our ‘meadow’…

Bird’s foot trefoil is another wild-flower standard…

In the rear garden, we inherited a large, traditional lawn, which I think had been cut and treated with chemicals (such as the ubiquitous ‘weed & feed’) on a regular basis. I’ve mostly kept it cut for now, while we take bits out to make new beds and so on, but the plan is to make that a wildflower meadow too.

Every time you cut a lawn and dispose of the clippings elsewhere, you reduce it’s vigour. If you want your lawn to remain lush, you need to feed it regularly. But to make a successful wildflower meadow you need to reduce the fertility in the soil – otherwise the grasses take over and the wildflowers won’t flourish. So I’m hoping that if I keep cutting the grass this season, next year the soil will be less fertile, and I can incorporate wildflowers without them being smothered. There’ll be mown paths running through the longer areas, so we can walk around the garden.

The grass is very mixed at the moment. Half of it grows quickly and is very lush, with few ‘weeds’. The rest is growing slowly, so as a half-way house, for now I’m mowing these areas less, on a higher cut, to allow the lower growing wildflowers (or ‘weeds’) such as self-heal, daisies and clover, a chance. The bees are very happy…

Text & images © Graham Wright 2020

A New Greenhouse…

It’s been a while coming, but we’ve finally got our greenhouse. Here it comes…

The base under construction, with the topsoil put aside. It doesn’t look much, but days of work went into moving rubble and gravel from elsewhere in the garden.
Eight bags of cement, a large pile of ballast (sand and gravel) and numerous back-breaking mixes later, and the paving is finished. I re-used paving from elsewhere in the garden – the greenest materials you can source.
The greenhouse under construction. I’ve built a (smaller) greenhouse before, I can make short work of flat-pack furniture, and I’ve built two kitchens (one from scratch, the other from kitchen components) but I struggled with this. You really do wonder about some of the design decisions that went into it, and as for the instructions; well, had it been cold, they would have been more useful as kindling. But finally…
The finished product.

Despite the traumatic construction process, it’s actually a very good quality greenhouse, with none of the nasty sharp edges of the one we built in our last garden, and a doorway you can walk through without bending double (and risking lacerating the top of your head). It took us the better part of three days to build, and with amazing timing, we’d literally just tightened the last bolt and put the tools away when there was a cloudburst.

The greenhouse is a Hercules Hastings, in Old Cottage Green, from The Greenhouse People. We got it up and running not a moment too soon – just in time to get the tomato plants in (proudly grown from seed) before it was too late. We’ve also got a pepper plant, which is doing well. We picked it up on a fraught and hurried trip to a garden centre and food store earlier on during the lockdown. I must have picked up the wrong plant, and it was only recently that I discovered my mistake. It will be nice to have fresh peppers, but the one plant will only produce perhaps half-a-dozen, while a single chilli plant would have kept us in chillies all year.

Elsewhere in the garden, we’ve been dividing our time between watering, to keep all the newly planted trees and shrubs alive during the Mediterranean weather, and digging out bootlace fungus. Not my idea of gardening, but we have been able to concentrate on some of the nicer things. For instance, the sunflowers are coming into bloom…

Since the weather broke the annual weeds have suddenly burst into action, and the grass has turned from brown to green and started to actually grow. I’d forgotten it did that. So there’s been some mowing to do.

The chickens are continuing to keep us amused. The garden reached the stage where we couldn’t continue to let them out (too many delicate seedlings for them to destroy) so we bought a long roll of chicken wire and have sectioned off an area where they can’t do too much harm.

The chooks enjoying a dust bath huddle – chicken heaven!

So, the greenhouse is done, but there’s plenty of garden building still to be done…

Dorothy Clive Gardens

Visiting gardens is one of the things I’ve missed most during the lockdown, so it was a joy to finally be able to get to a garden. We (Mrs Pullingweeds and myself) headed out to the Dorothy Clive Garden near Market Drayton in Shropshire, on one of the hottest days of the year so far (reaching 31 degrees in the afternoon).

A flower-lined path meanders up from the car park to the tea shop. I love the way the colourful borders are set within the wider context of the arboretum, rather than being hidden away in ‘garden rooms’

The gardens have an extensive collection of rhododendrons, azaleas (which are, I believe, now classed as rhododendrons) and camelias. I expect they will have looked spectacular. I hope the gardeners enjoyed them, because by the time the gardens were able to open to the public once more, that particular seasonal show was over. As was the laburnum arch. Never mind; there was far more on offer, on what turned out to be a much larger site than I had realised (it actually covers twelve acres). Spring flowering shrubs are history – we’re into the summer show now.

Roses are in full bloom, as well as many of the perennials, such as salvias, heleniums, campanulas, delphiniums, nepeta, to name just a few. Judging by the number of verbascums, the soil may be quite sandy.

Verbascum chaixii ‘Album’ works well against a backdrop of… what? I should probably know what that spiky-leaved plant behind is, but I can’t think just at the moment.

Many of the roses smelt wonderful, but be careful; I’m beginning to think smelling roses can become an addiction. Rosa ‘The Generous Gardener’ (one of David Austin’s roses, I believe) climbing up a trellis, was one of the best.

Of the tender plants, dahlias were getting into their stride – mostly zesty oranges and rich, velvety reds (perhaps, like me, they like their dahlias as they like their wines). There were plenty of cannas and hedychiums (ginger lilies) out in the beds and in pots, though they won’t begin to flower for a while yet.

The hot borders. A lush, single dahlia (‘Mexican Star’?), with Salvia ‘Amistad’, against a background of tropical bananas.

That damned covid meant of course that facilities were limited. Plant sales are off this year. The cafe was serving drinks and cakes (a little over-priced I felt, at £2.95 for a coffee) to have outside. The counter was cordoned off with a row of upholstered chairs, curiously set up facing the counter, as if they were the front row in a theatre where the stage was set for a play set in a cafe. You had to eye-up the cakes from a distance, and shout your order from the back row, then wait at the end for the staff to bring the card machine to you. They were doing their very best under difficult circumstances. Fortunately the gardens weren’t very busy, so there weren’t too many awkward moments where ‘social distancing’ became tricky.

The gardens include an old quarry site, long since grown over (some of the large, older trees are reaching the end of their lives). Labyrinthine paths weave to and fro, up and down, so that finding your way isn’t easy. It took us a while to find the waterfall, but it was worth the hunt.

By the side of the waterfall a mysterious figure is almost obscured by the large leaves of a Rodgersia.
A lone Iris sibirica stands out against the background of ripples in the pool at the foot of the waterfall.

Even with the doors open, with the temperature in the high twenties the heated glasshouse was something of an endurance test, but we were rewarded with some beautiful blooms, such as Brugmansia (also known as Datura, or more commonly, ‘angels’s trumpets’)…


And the air was filled with the intoxicating vanilla fragrance from the Heliotropes near the entrance…

The gardens are surrounded by countryside, with views out here and there…

We had a lovely picnic lunch on the grass among the trees. All we were missing was one of those rich, velvety reds, but then we did have to drive home, so it was probably just as well. I don’t know whether, like so many other gardens, they have been operating with reduced staff during the lockdown, but if they have, it didn’t show – the gardens were looking superb. We had a great day out, and were sad to have to leave. But as we don’t live that far away, I’m sure we’ll be back before long…

Text & photos © Graham Wright 2020

What Makes a Garden? Bringing the Garden Indoors

Have you ever given any serious thought to what makes a garden? For as long as I can remember, eminent garden designers and TV pundits have pushed the idea of the garden as an extension to the house – a ‘room outside’. I’ve heard this repeatedly, particularly when researching garden design for my post graduate diploma. Apparently, garden design is not about plants. Comments like ‘ plants are the last thing you think about’, or ‘the plants are just the icing on the cake’ (John Brookes, among others) proliferate. But now, with the rising popularity of indoor gardening, comes the fightback – while they try to persuade us to turn our beloved gardens into ‘indoor rooms’, we’re letting the plants take over our houses!

A small selection of my cactus collection, with the blades of an Australian Grass Tree (Xanthorrhoea preissii) in the foreground

Indoor planting allows us to compensate for the increasingly denuded state of our outdoor environment by packing our indoor spaces with plants. Maybe we can use this to persuade the unenlightened of the inescapable truth; that as well as being beautiful, plants are a physical and psychological necessity.

My two Aloe plants are coming into flower now; probably because I neglected their watering!

Too many people have been persuaded that what they want and need from a garden is copious space for eating and socialising, play areas for children (and adults), every type of cooking facility you can think of, from a simple BBQ to an ‘outdoor kitchen’, fire pits, hot tubs, covered areas and outdoor heaters (global warming, anyone?) to make the weather irrelevant, and extensive lighting systems to turn night into day. You can even buy powerful weather-proof sound systems, telling us it’s perfectly OK to broadcast our choice of music to the wider environment, as if both neighbours and wildlife don’t have a right to peace and quiet. Too many garden designs are predominantly hard landscaping – a room outside – with very little in the way of plants, and what planting there is tends to be isolated clumps of wildlife dead-zone plants such as bamboo. Don’t even get me started on the state of Britain’s front gardens.

A Schlumbergera (known as ‘Christmas cactus’ because they are often covered in showy blooms at that time of year) looking resplendent in dappled sunshine in the corner of the lounge.

There is another way. My garden hero takes a very different approach. The late Geoff Hamilton wrote of the garden as an escape from the speed, the complexity, the pressure and the noise of everyday life. He wrote of our biological need to spend time in touch with nature. Yes, we might want to be able to eat outside when the weather allows, and share our gardens with family and friends, but for me, the primary functions of a garden are as a sanctuary from the world, and a place to immerse yourself in nature. You can use plants to create a garden that, even in a town or a city, can cocoon you from the outside world, and in which you can imagine you are deep in a beautiful wilderness. Until the neighbours fire up the BBQ and the outdoor hi fi, and the heavy bass beats of what popular culture laughingly considers to be music drives you indoors. But don’t despair, because as they make use of their ‘room outside’, you can retreat to your indoor garden sanctuary.

My Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum) is thriving. Peace Lilies are known to be particularly effective at improving the quality of air in rooms
An unknown cultivar of Streptocarpus. Streps, as they’re commonly known, are easy to grow, produce copious flowers all summer, and can be easily divided in the spring to produce more plants). They can even be used as an outdoor bedding plant in the summer if you end up with too many.

If we re-group indoors, maybe one day soon we’ll be ready to go out and change our twisted society’s attitude to gardens. Plants are not ‘the icing on the cake’, but rather the basic building blocks, into which the functional elements of the garden should be fitted. Garden design should attempt to create beautiful environments on a small scale; ‘paradise gardens’ in which we can escape from the ‘real’ world and commune with nature.

You heard it first here – let’s have a revolution…

Text & images © Graham Wright 2020

Things take a dark turn in the garden…

While moving turf and digging out new beds I’d noticed lots of very tough, long, dark roots all over the garden. They looked similar to the long tap roots of cinquefoil – the perennial weed Potentilla reptans. But I never saw any top growth. And these roots were mostly travelling horizontally, a few inches below the surface, rather than down. And they really were long – too long for cinquefoil. And then finally, I realised what a dolt I’d been. They’re not roots, but rhizomorphs – it’s the dreaded honey fungus (or as it’s also known, bootlace fungus, after the long, black rhizomorphs that grow out for great distances).

Rhizomorphs on a section of tree root

My only excuse for not realising sooner is that up until now, I’d never seen it before. The two dead trees we inherited in the garden should have been a good clue. Entering panic mode, they had to go; starting with the biggest, right in the centre of the garden…

That took some effort! I felt a bit guilty burning it, but I did at least wait until the wind was in the right direction, so that the smoke blew away across the fields, rather than back towards the neighbours. And the guidance is to burn infected material. Mind you, it was still smouldering late into the next day! I’m now trying to cut up what’s left for a more controlled burning experience.There are a couple of roots still there under the grass, heading out in different directions – we’ll need to lift the turf and dig them out too. I may hire a chain saw for the other dead tree!

There are, apparently, five different varieties of honey fungus, or Armillaria, only two of which are generally found in gardens. I think we have A. gallica, which has large, easily visible rhizomorphs. Thankfully, this is considered to be the less damaging variety. The other, more destructive variety, A. mellea, has rhizomorphs that are much less visible, so very difficult to find. Looking on the black side, I suppose this means we could have that too! Let’s hope not.

These evil rhizomorphs have spread across much of the garden…

There are no chemical treatments for Armillaria. The only things you can do are to dig out and destroy infected material (difficult, if not impossible), bury impermeable barriers to a depth of around half a metre around infected plants or stumps, or around healthy plants you want to protect (difficult, if not impossible) and to use plants that are less susceptible to honey fungus. But apparently no plants are immune, and the data around which are more, or less susceptible seems questionable. The RHS list, for instance, has Pyrus (pear) in the least susceptible group, and Choisya (mexican orange) in the most, whereas Gardening Which says exactly the opposite! And the RHS contradicts itself in different articles. In their defence, they do point out the problems in identifying susceptible species – those that are most reported are likely to be those that are most prevalent (and/or, most valued) in gardens.

So; what’s our plan to eradicate this pernicious enemy?

  • Remove the dead trees (including as much of the root system as possible),
  • Hold off with any more tree planting for now – hopefully by the autumn, deprived of their food source, most of the rhizomorphs will have died (good riddance!),
  • Cultivate (i.e.; dig over!) as much of the garden as is reasonably possible. Go through the ground with a fine-tooth comb (alright; a hand fork!) and pick out as much rhizomorph as possible,
  • Keep on digging down around the trees we’ve planted (but not too close; we don’t want to damage their roots) to head off any actively growing rhizomorphs,
  • Hope for the best!

The dry weather may well be helping us, drying out any rhizomorphs left in the ground.

It’s not all doom and gloom. The white lilac (Syringa) in the chicken run has just flowered, and looked (and smelt) a treat…

And the Iris sibirica we brought with us in pots is flourishing…

text & images © Graham Wright 2020