Black Sun…

The sunflowers I grew last year were so successful, this year I decided to try another variety. I went for something a little different. This is called ‘Black Magic’…

I have to say, I’m not entirely sure about it. The plants grew strongly, with darker stems and leaves than the yellow sunflowers, and the blooms are certainly impressive. But they don’t stand out. This is ‘Soleo’…

It’s everything we’ve come to expect of a sunflower – bold and bright, you know as soon as the first flower is out. There’s no missing it. Whereas ‘Black Magic’ crept up on me by stealth, and there were half a dozen flowers out before I even noticed. Most of the blooms are a dark, chocolatey brown, but some of them have some orange in the petals…

I’m not sure why sunflowers are so at home in my garden. The soil is loose and dusty, and I’m fortunate not to have as many slugs and snails as I’ve experienced in previous gardens. I have memories of having to nurse the sunflowers through their early stages. There’s that difficult time after planting out, when they spend a couple of weeks putting their roots down and acclimatising. That’s when they’re vulnerable. If you can keep the molluscs off until the sunflowers start into growth, they should be safe – they might lose a fewer lower leaves, but the plants can avoid any more serious damage due to the spectacular rate of growth, and the strong stems.

The central flower is generally on a short stem, so no good for cutting. But the varieties I’m growing produce lots of side shoots with smaller flowers on longer stems, and it’s these that can be cut and brought inside, where the beauty of the flowers can be appreciated close up.

Elsewhere in the garden, the ligularias around the pond are starting to produce their bright orange-yellow daisy flowers…

This is one of three self-seeded plants brought from my last garden. They are Ligularia dentata ‘Midnight Lady’. This is small as yet; the mother plant was around a metre across. It seems amazing to me that such an impressive plant self-seeds freely, giving you plants for free.

White hydrangeas will play a large part in the design. So far there is only one – Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’…

It too is only small as yet, but it should grow into a large bush, perhaps as much as two metres by two metres. The flower heads are just about fully out now, and they really glow in a shady spot. They’re long lasting too, gradually changing colour as they age. Eventually they will dry out, but should be left on the plant over the winter (unless you want to cut them for a dried flower display) because they’re still very attractive. I took cuttings of this plant around a month ago, and roots are poking out of the bottom of the pot now, so it looks like a success (a relief, as I’m ashamed to admit my strike rate with cuttings is nothing to boast about). I’ve also got a cutting from previous years (and my last garden) of Hydrangea quercifolia (oak-leaved hydrangea), which is waiting to be planted, once the area has been prepared.

I brought three plants of a white phlox (Phlox paniculata ‘Peacock White’) with me from the last garden, and just like the sunflowers, they too seem to like the soil here…

Lastly, this combination is a happy accident. The grass (Phalaris arundinacea ‘Feesey’) tends to reproduce freely. I threw this piece into some spare ground by the pond. I used the same area to plant out some seedlings that were seriously stressed from having been left in their seed tray for far too long. It took a while, but eventually they came good. They are Phacelia; often used as a green manure, but the flowers are very pretty, and great fodder for pollinating insects; it would be a shame to dig them into the soil before they flower.

The Phacelia are a one year only crop; the grass is a perennial; I might even leave it where it is…


text & images©Graham Wright 2021

Garden Visit – Wollerton Old Hall Gardens

Wollerton Old Hall Garden, in Shropshire, is referred to in the David Austin rose catalogue as one of the most beautiful private gardens in the country. So beautiful in fact, that they decided to name a rose after it. When I discovered the garden was only seven miles from where I now live, I got very excited, and of course, had to visit at the earliest possible opportunity. That was back in October last year. I kept my review back, so I could bring it out to brighten the dark days of the lockdown. Now seems to be an appropriate time.

We visited on a cool, fairly dull day. It was well into Autumn, and some of the leaves were colouring up well. The late-flowering perennials, such as asters (most of which were probably in the newly created category of symphyotricum – thanks for that, botanists!) had taken over the floral responsibilities. They also have quite a range of salvias, which flower over a long period, and were still going strong…

Most of these are slightly tender, so may need some protection in a cold winter. Having them in well-drained soil, in a sunny, sheltered position, should normally be sufficient. The flower in the next picture is unfamiliar to me, and there wasn’t a label, so if anyone knows what it is, please let me know.

Unidentified, but striking – actually, I’m wondering if this isn’t a form of salvia

Apparently the gardens were created in 1983, but look as if, like the house itself, they’ve been there for centuries. It isn’t clear from the website, but I suspect many of the solid features – walls, pillars and gateways – are original.

Doorway to autumn!

Beyond this doorway, a grass path curves around, adding (cliche alert) a sense of mystery…

There are lots of hydrangeas at Wollerton; particularly the paniculata types, which in my opinion are the best. This magnificent specimen is Hydrangea ‘Unique’ (except it isn’t, because I’ve seen it elsewhere!)…

Wollerton is arranged as a series of themed areas, or ‘garden rooms’. This one is called the hot garden…

There are some decidedly cool colours in there too; particularly the blue aster making its late season entrance among the fiery dahlias and cannas. And there are a few cheeky little blue salvias invading this jungle-like banana and dahlia combination…

This is salvia ‘Amistad’; a large, beautiful deep blue variety with almost black calyces. Salvias are pollinated in a particular way. Called the ‘staminal lever mechanism’, when an insect (say, a bee) enters the flower, they weigh down a trigger that causes the stamen to press down on their back and deposit some pollen, which they then transport on to any other flowers they visit. Except, some bees struggle to get all the way into the flower. So instead, they cheat; biting through the base of the flower to get to the nectar. Here’s one in action…

A peep at the old hall itself, hiding among the salvias…

This is the upper rill garden (not to be confused with the lower rill garden). The design makes full use of different levels, from the height of the standard trees, through the mid-level hydrangeas in large terracotta pots, right down to the rounded shapes of box at ground level. And all of it reflected back up through the surface of the water in the formal pond. The plants are set out like chess pieces facing each other…

Back in October the cafe was still open, albeit with social distancing measures, and masks to be worn when not sitting at your table. It’s an attractive interior space, and I seem to remember the staff were friendly, and the cakes were very good.

The plant sales were limited due to the pandemic (I hadn’t realised it can be transmitted to plants) but I couldn’t stop myself from buying a couple of salvias. Unfortunately they’d had a run on ‘Amistad’, so I picked up a couple of other varieties, including a vibrant red one called ‘Royal Bumble’ – one for my very own hot garden.

To have such a wonderful garden so close to where you live is a great privilege , and not one I intend to waste. I’m going to buy a season ticket, and visit often; I’m looking forward to watching the garden as it changes throughout the year.

Wollerton Old Hall Garden re-opens at the end of this week (Easter Friday).

Text & photos © Graham Wright 2021

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

Aberglasney Autumn Colour

Last Sunday was forecast to be a rare dry day in what has turned out to be a very wet autumn. We probably should have used it to work in our garden, but instead, Julie and I decided to treat ourselves to a visit to Aberglasney gardens in Carmarthenshire. Aberglasney is a very special garden to visit. The gardens are very beautiful, and there’s plenty of history there, going back to Tudor times at least, and probably beyond.

The mansion, seen beyond the stone walkway that surrounds the cloister garden. Cake alert – the cafe is just away to the left!

The sun may be out in the photo above, but despite the weather forecast, for the first hour of our visit it was overcast, light levels were low, and guess who didn’t think to change the ASO rating on the camera? Well, it’s an automatic. And the camera I normally use does it for you. Excuses, excuses! I was having trouble getting a decent quality shot, as you can see from the image below. It does at least give an idea of the range of autumn colours on show.

The surrounding landscape can play an important supporting role in the design, and the success, of a garden. Aberglasney is fortunate to be set in a beautiful, lush valley, lending a fabulous backdrop to the gardens. It does mean they have a lot to live up to, but that’s something they have very successfully achieved.

The landscape beyond, with a young Sorbus commixta colouring up nicely in the foreground

At this time of year there isn’t much flower colour around. Even the Symphyotricums (that’s late flowering asters for anyone who can’t keep up with the botanical name changes) were pretty much over. But there were still some flowers on show. I presume this Camelia is one of the varieties that flower late autumn to early winter (most flower late winter to early spring). Even so, it seems a bit early…

And this hydrangea was looking unnervingly perfect when all around it was in a state of decay. It’s Hydrangea paniculata ‘Unique’…

Talking of hydrangeas; this large specimen in a stream-side setting is a Hydrangea aspera (also known as H. villosa). Hydrangea aspera species are not your typical hydrangea. They make large shrubs, and while they can be a bit scrappy, at their best they are dusky beauties, with long, softly hairy leaves with a slight blue tinge, and cool, purple-blue lacecap type flower heads (and yes; I’m sorry about the poor quality of the photo!)

I suspect much of the ground at Aberglasney is slightly acidic. It’s a very damp area, which promotes lush growth. Like Bodnant in the north, Aberglasney has plenty of acid-loving plants such as rhododedrons and camelias.

Aberglasney has a fantastic collection of plants, and we saw many that weren’t familiar. This beautiful flower looks exotic; like an asiatic orchid. It’s unknown to me, and I couldn’t find a label. It was in a damp, shady spot, but unprotected from the weather. I should try to identify it.
Close by, these tall seed heads were also unfamiliar to me. Again, I couldn’t find a label…

If anyone knows, feel free to put me out of my misery (and ignorance).

When most of the flowers have gone, you start to notice other interesting features. I was struck by the finely drawn texture of the leaves of this next specimen, which is (according to the label) Rubus lineatus. Basically, a raspberry, but an ornamental variety – it’s not clear whether the berries are edible.

I didn’t need a label to identify the plant in the next photo. The seed heads of the evergreen Magnolia grandiflora are fascinating structures. The leaves too, look lush and exotic; shiny and green on top, with a (typically) bronze underside. They need some protection, and in this country are probably best grown against a sheltered wall. The downside is that to keep them against the wall you need to prune regularly, which means they produce less flowers (and the flowers are even more beautiful than the seed heads).

When it comes to autumn colour, I hear plenty of references to this plant. It’s Callicarpa bodinieri, and the variety usually mentioned is giraldii ‘Profusion’ (which is what this specimen is). I believe its common name is the beauty bush. The berries are certainly bright, and unusual, but I can’t say I like them much; to me they look garish and artificial, and just seem to clash with everything around them.

Against the tall stone walls apple and pear trees have been trained into a herringbone pattern

Close to the entrance and shop this huge cedar tree has a massive branch projecting out across the path at just above head height. There’s something primeval about this tree. Close up, it looks like some kind of giant, fantasy creature; sleeping, but at any moment it could wake…

Eventually the sun came out, and the sky cleared, with just a few clouds bubbling up in the distance. The rich, warm colours of the leaves of this Quercus palustris looked stunning against the blue of the sky…

Yours truly standing under the same oak tree. We’d walked around the whole of the gardens by this time, and it was lunchtime. Fortunately Aberglasney has a very good cafe restaurant, so we went and had lunch, followed by coffee and cake.

If you want to know more about Aberglasney, they have a website. They have a couple of holiday cottages, and we’re thinking that we might try to have a holiday there sometime soon, particularly as we’ll soon be moving up to Shropshire, which is a long way for a day trip.

Autumn is a marvellous time, but it’s getting a bit cold and damp now. I can’t wait for the spring…

Words & photographs © Graham Wright 2019

Is it autumn already?

With leaves changing colour all around us there’s no chance of pretending autumn isn’t on its way. All we can do is to embrace the season and enjoy the show. What’s your favourite plant for autumn colour?

Parthenossisus cinquefolia (Virginia Creeper) is early to colour up.

It’s been an unusual growing year. It began with an apparently very early spring, which turned out not to be spring at all; just a mild spell in winter. The cold and the snow that followed was harsher than anyone would have expected and the winter, far from ending early, dragged on.
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Hydrangea Roulette, anyone..?

One day last week I was asked to remove last year’s flowers from a mop-head hydrangea. It’s normal to leave the flowers on over the winter, as they look quite decorative, and then snip them off in the spring (not too early, as they provide some protection from the frost for the new growth). Normally, this particular customer would do this kind of thing herself, but she had been so busy that she hadn’t got around to it. So she asked me to do it.
Spot the problem!
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