Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Snow, Angels and Stocking Fillers

Vile sploshy sleety chilly weather.
I retreated to the pottery to take this photo of
the stock yard on Tuesday

I try to avoid getting soaked in the morning so that I don't have to be chilled all day, so before break I lurk in the greenhouse checking on my cuttings, picking over the bigger plants and watering sparingly.

The entrance arch at the Pottery this week

Potting on and on and on...
Like the little lady on my Austrian weather house I pop out when the showers ease up and grab a few small pots to plant in the relative warmth of the greenhouse. Yes I am still planting.

This winter's planting in the Great Warwick Pot
Tulip 'Princesse Charmante'  lurks beneath.
Almost all of the bulbs have found homes now. All the big plantings have been finished and are out there fending for themselves.

Nevertheless on rainy days I have been adding small potfuls to the collection. Not all of my plantings are crammed with bedding and perennials. I like to do a few simple things too. Pots are great for focusing on small, unusual plants - those plants are also less likely to get lost in a busy garden.

True grit
For example the little rose bowl in the picture below just has Muscari 'Pink Surprise' (a present from RenĂ©) in it; the grit dressing keeps it looking neat, stops the compost from getting compacted by the rain, keeps the drainage sharp around the emerging shoots, wards off slugs, mice and squirrels, and generally fosters a sense of satisfaction in the gardener. I never seem to have enough grit and gravel. I hope Father Christmas isn't listening - I draw the line at getting grit in my Christmas stocking.

Small Rose Bowl simply planted with Muscari 'Pink Surprise'

Small Ali Baba jar planted with Allium karataviense 'Ivory Queen'
Fat and full
When I picked up this dear little fat ali baba jar I really wanted to do something clean and simple in it. The layer of pebbles looks nice enough by itself for the moment.  Next spring should see the emergence of Allium karataviense  'Ivory Queen', with smooth, sculptural leaves and buds, followed by white tennis-ball flowers. I am hoping that their clean lines will complement the jar.
Allium karataviense in bud
last spring
Pots in pots
Ali-baba jars are tricky to plant - you have to avoid planting these with vigorous-rooted plants or plants which hate root disturbance because it will be difficult/impossible to extract them when they need moving on. You either need to half-fill the jar with polystyrene and then plant something which can be taken out easily (disposable bedding or dormant bulbs) OR you can place another pot in the top of the jar and plant that. This insert method works very well in the large jars because they have plenty of room for a decent-sized pot.

The picture below shows part of this winter's courtyard display - the Giant Jar has another pot in the top, so that it can be planted, but it would look just as good empty or with some spectacular branches or seedheads arranged in the top.
The pot in the top of the Giant Jar contains Calamagrostis 'Overdam', a Euphorbia seedling and
 2 x Vinca minor 'Argenteovariegata', plus Tulipa 'Picture', Narcissus 'Rip van Winkle',
Crocus tommasinianus 'Roseus' and Pansy 'Can-Can'
I really shouldn't say this but at this time of year I think the pots look just as good empty - the low sunshine (when we get it) shows off the details beautifully and makes the terracotta glow.

Shallow basket pots in the stockyard at Whichford Pottery
The Birds
On Thursday the weather had calmed and as a result there were birds everywhere, stuffing their faces as fast as they could before the next bout of sleet. I wandered about with my camera for twenty minutes and in that time I saw redwings, fieldfares, bluetits, great tits, robins, coal tits, long-tailed tits, a green woodpecker, pigeons, rooks, a buzzard, blackbirds, a bullfinch, a linnet and I could hear pheasants and a mistle thrush. Not bad.

We have a little patch of mixed woodland planted about 15 years ago behind the pottery, it has been left fairly dense, with some paths cut through it and is a great place to go for a moment of peace and quiet. This is where I saw most of the smaller birds, including my very first linnet, looking exotic with his pretty pink chest.
My first linnet
Noisy boys
I am rather fond of the fieldfares, with their smart plumage, noisy chatter and boisterous behaviour. They are the naughty but charming boys at the back of the class. I saw this fieldfare and his mates from the top of the steps above the clay pile.
Fieldfare perch

My perch

I was lucky to catch this picture as it jumped to reach some berries - looking positively angelic:
Fieldfare angel
 Vintage ladybirds
And finally: John (our driver/packing expert) after much hinting and smirking (very worrying considering his usual sense of humour) produced this little heap of delights:
Santa/John brought vintage Ladybird Books
People my age will have fond memories of Ladybird Books. I think this is mainly for the vivid illustrations; my husband and I both remember 'Garden Birds' but 'Trees' and 'Garden Flowers' are both new to me. I like the pleasant clarity of the pictures and the brief, unpatronising text where no effort is made to make the facts either cool or amusing. I shall be studying them more closely but have already learned that the Horse Chestnut gets its name from the fact that it is a 'coarse' or 'inferior' type of chestnut and that pelargoniums "can only be grown in pots". Well, there you have it.

Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Friday, 9 December 2011

Signs of spring, fruits of autumn, chills of winter

Here come the crocus shoots!

Crocus shoots are up already

Solanum not yum
I have carried on stuffing the greenhouse and polytunnel with tender and tenderish plants, the mild weather has allowed us to save even more plants than usual, touch wood. Solanum laciniatum has managed to ripen a few fruits (see my post of 12 Sept) which turn out to be orange. I'm pretty sure they are poisonous, so I won't be reporting on their taste.
The fruit of Solanum laciniatum - not for human consumption

The polytunnel is fairly full now, but I'm trying not to overcrowd it so that air can circulate, I have cut most foliage back by at least half for the same reason. Last year I didn't get the chance before the Big Freeze and we had galloping grey mould as a result.
Still room to circulate in the polytunnel

Clustering bugs
Plants aren't the only things to take refuge in here:
Ladybirds on Solanum quitoense inside the polytunnel

I hope our 'traditional' ladybirds are going to overwinter successfully - they may have tricky times ahead because Harmonia axyridis or the Harlequin ladybird is definitely here and it remains to be seen whether the invader will, as is rumoured, outcompete our native ladybirds.
One of the Harlequin ladybirds I found this summer

Lily potting
On Monday I thought I'd give Donna a break from digging up dahlias and got her to pot up some lilies. We have a wide range of lily pots and at the moment we have a special mail-order offer featuring Lilium 'El Grado' and Lilium 'Mona Lisa', so we have a plentiful supply of nice fat bulbs.

Nice fat lily bulb
Pots of lilies are really useful for providing splashes of colour just before the tender bedding and perennials go completely berserk. 'El Grado' (see post of 23 July) is a deep, rich reddish pink, whereas 'Mona Lisa' (see post of 8 August) is white, blushing to pink, with a deep pink stripe in the centre of each petal and attractive pink freckles and exuding a fabulous fragrance.
A lily pot and lily bulbs makes a great Christmas present, by the way!

Five bulbs fit neatly in a lily pot
I plant lilies a good five or six inches deep, using the same multipurpose peat/loam/grit mix I use for everything, with an extra sprinkle of slow-release fertiliser. The tall, narrow pots give excellent drainage, but you must be careful not to put the pot somewhere where drips from a tree or a roof will keep it constantly wet. They can stay outside all winter (even last winter), they just don't want to be soggy.

Donna shakes the compost down
We then top up the compost to about an inch below the rim of the pot, give it several good hard taps on the ground (don't put your hands in and squash the compost down, you'll ruin its structure and impede drainage and aeration), and water in. An inch of grit as a mulch will help to stop the surface of the compost from forming a water-resistant cap and will make the pot look neat.

You can plant lilies under other plants but I usually keep mine separate just because it is easier to remember where they are. It is also an idea to repot them every winter in order to keep the number of overwintering lily beetles down. See my post of 21 April for pictures of those pesky red critters.

Dried fish with your coffee?
In other news, Jim is back from a visit to Japan. He traditionally brings back a selection of Japanese snacks, some of which are more popular than others. The wasabi-flavoured KitKat definitely went down better than the dried fish this time. It might help if any of us could read Japanese.

Japanese snacks at staff tea-break. The fish was fragrant...

Midwinter blog dog
The weather has at last started to feel wintry. This makes me and Hooley miserable. Hooley is Joe's dog, a labrador/staffy cross, she has a melancholic disposition and she feels the cold. Luckily Joe has an assortment of small children as well as a dog, so this week Hooley arrived looking much happier in a shirt and jumper. She didn't mind us laughing at her.

Hooley looking almost cheerful now she is appropriately dressed

Friday, 25 November 2011

A festive feast of inspiration for garden and home, no less.

The Whichford Pottery Christmas Sale got off to a great start last weekend, not only were there plenty of bargains (and cake) to be had but we had the bonus of two really good speakers upstairs in the main making room to give us inspiration for our gardens and our homes.
Discounts available on all our pots until Sunday 4th December
Garden design for real people
Saturday kicked off with Bunny Guinness on 'Transforming Your Garden'. I always prefer to listen to garden designers who still get their hands dirty on a regular basis and Bunny is one of those, still working in her own substantial garden one day a week. She is full of really practical ideas which can be scaled down to 'normal' gardens, from paint effects (instead of expensive cladding) to nifty ways to hide eyesores and divide spaces.

Some designers seem to focus exclusively on aesthetics but Bunny keeps in mind the way you actually want to use your garden: she is well-known for her great child-friendly ideas (sunken trampolines, treehouses, smart sandpits, drainable paddling pools...) but also thinks more long-term about the way a garden evolves from playground to something a bit more sophisticated. I particularly liked her thoughts about the approach to your house, using containers, plants and paving to guide visitors and encourage vehicles to park out of sight while still allowing you to drive right up to your door and unload your shopping if necessary.

We also learned that Radio Four's Gardener's Question Time potting shed actually exists!

Bunny Guinness signing her latest book after one of her two talks at Whichford Pottery
Everybody needs good neighbours
I returned to work on Sunday morning so that I could watch floral artist Fiona Perry's talk and demonstration which provided a veritable feast of ideas for alternative Christmas decorations and Christmas trees. I know Fiona well because she lives near me, and I am always impressed by her enthusiasm and her ability to generate an endless supply of ideas for interesting and beautiful things to do with plant material.

She started with a classic but delightful oasis-based treelet in a tiny Jekyll pot.

Here's one I prepared earlier. Fiona reveals her first tree idea, while her glamorous assistant, Sally, looks on.

Mulled wine tree in a glazed Buxus Pot
Tasty ideas
My favourite tree was the Mulled Wine Tree, using dried orange slices, cinnamon sticks, clementine pomanders, berries and crab-apples on a small bay cone.

I must remember to find my glue gun as I really want to try some of these ideas.

Fiona also did some deceptively artless things with florists' wire, examples were passed around the audience, provoking much appreciative murmuring.

We have a few useful floristry items for sale at the pottery but if you are local BHGS near Evesham stock a wide range of floral sundries (as well as useful horticultural things - must remember to go there soon and get new boots!) they also sell online. Fiona also suggested Easy Florist Supplies as an online source.

Florists' wire and crab apple
Skeleton leaf plus buttons and beads

Pallet tree star

Don't chuck out old sticks
Fiona's wildest and wackiest idea was the Pallet Christmas Tree. She's a bit like me in that she tends to keep apparently useless items because they might become useful. In this case she had kept the dead trunk of a standard bay tree, even I would have junked that. But no, she also cadged an old pallet from Whichford, chopped it up, drilled holes in the pieces, painted everything white and slotted them onto the dead trunk. Hey presto! A vaguely Scandinavian tree with ecofriendly credentials.

This is the kind of thing you can use outside - Fiona's will probably end up in her front garden. Willow is a useful alternative for outdoor structures which can hold lights or other decorations.

Two speakers giving generously of great ideas in one weekend. The best thing of all is that so many of them are actually achievable!

Christmas tree made from an old wooden pallet. Eat your heart out, Ikea!

I can see clearly now the pane is on.
In other news - the marvelous John and Dave have replaced the broken panes in the roof of my greenhouse, a job I dreaded tackling. They were broken by acorns, yes acorns! Who else has a greenhouse with two oak trees planted three feet away? Is it just me? I'm waiting for the rest of the leaves to fall before I clear out the gutters and clean the glass - you can see how filthy it is.

John and Dave earning my undying gratitude

Meanwhile I have plodded on, planting pots and digging up dahlias. The days are shorter and shorter but dusk at the pottery can be magical, with low light and silhouettes made more atmospheric by the shrieks of pheasants, hooting of owls and chinking of blackbirds echoing across the misty valley.

Dusk in the back-up stock area at Whichford Pottery. Just add owls.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Jack Frost holds the sword of Damocles and the handbag of Mrs Christmas

Winter planting at the entrance to Whichford's stockyard
Winter plantings are settling in well but this gardener is unsettled and uneasy because of the lack of frost. This time last year everything was frozen solid and didn't really thaw out until January so I am braced for unpleasantness.

I have even found myself picking the leaves off deciduous shrubs which refuse to admit that winter is nearly here. There are better ways to spend your time.

Planting in the gloaming
I am still planting madly, sometimes in the dark - so if you visit and find messy patches around my plantings or wonky plants either Dominique's chickens or the lack of carotene in my diet are to blame.

There is still a lot of sorting out to do in the greenhouse and polytunnel so that the maximum number of plants are safe over the winter but my priority at the moment is the public garden because we will have a lot of visitors for our Christmas Sale, which starts today (Friday 18th Nov).

I'm looking forward to Bunny Guinness and Fiona Perry's talks over the weekend - we are lucky that we always seem to manage to get hold of very interesting speakers for our events.

Conifer doesn't cut the mustard when backed
by rosemary
New life for our logo
Although I normally still have a few plantings to do at this time of year I was determined to get the Ham House Urn done, the pot which greets people at the entrance to the garden. We use this urn as our logo so it would be a shame to leave it full of half-dead petunias and Fuchsia boliviana. I emptied it and brought some new plants out.

I thought this conifer (left) would be ideal until I plonked it in the urn for a coat of looking at.

I had committed the schoolgirl error of not thinking about the background and saw that what I thought was a strongly-shaped plant completely blended in with the rosemary behind.

Leymus arenarius works better

Doh! Try again.
So I tried again with a Leymus arenarius.
This worked much better because, even though the colour is similar, the form contrasts well with the background and is reinforced by the fact that Leymus arenarius has also been planted in the giant Orange Pot on the well.

This is quite a windy site because of the adjacent gateway to the stockyard so it may be that by spring all the grass is pointing to the left. We'll see.

Re-use, recycle.
I was glad not to have to go and buy another plant for this pot, I buy very few plants except for bedding plug-plants, re-using shrubs and perennials partly to save money and partly to reduce waste. I also reckon that this is how most 'normal' home gardeners function. Don't get me wrong, I like a bit of retail therapy as much as anyone and it would be easier just to go and buy a batch of smart new plants, but I don't want to be like those chefs who produce appetising recipes with appallingly expensive ingredients.

Decision made, urn planted.
Bulbs will pop up in the spring.

Here's the finished article: the Leymus is flanked by two Festuca glauca, and a Heuchera 'Plum Royale' and four Pansy 'Can-Can' sit on top of some Tulip 'Negrita', Narcissus 'Bath's Flame' and Iris 'Lady Beatrix Stanley'. These are all colours and plants repeated in other plantings in the garden and on the entrance path, I am hoping that the eye will travel comfortably from one to the other so that visitors are drawn into the garden. That's the theory anyway.

Pearls and pink phormiums
The pot featured below is just across the walkway from the urn. it is a Pearl Pot, designed for the Pottery's 30th anniversary, five years ago. Its clean lines make a change from some of the more elaborate designs that we produce.

I'm risking phormiums again this year (this is P.'Pink Stripe') even though I lost so many last winter. You can't really beat them for strong, clean verticals with a bit of colour. I have also stuffed in an artichoke seedling which may or may not survive, but its grey leaves are interesting for a while at least.

Phormium 'Pink Stripe in Pearl Pot
Tidy-up time
This week I selflessly (it's a job I rather like) gave Donna, my work experience helper, the job of starting the autumn tidy-up of the flowerbeds. She was tentative at first but I did my best to reassure her that she was unlikely to kill anything precious and she did a nice, thorough job of cutting back herbaceous perennials and pulling out weed seedlings in several beds. It looked very neat after she had finished. Little does she know that Dominique's chickens have been back and scattered soil into the paths she swept so carefully...

Nice and tidy, for now...

John and Dave have also been very helpful with sweeping and leaf-clearing this week. I suspect that John rather likes the chance to play with the leaf-blower, ah these boys and their toys!

John - happy to get the leaf-blower out.
 'Tis the season to go shopping
Right, I'm going to leave you now with a few pictures of my favourite goodies in the Octagon, which has been stocked up for Christmas (note to self: get husband to look at this page). I try not to go inside it too often in case I am tempted to buy something, also my boots are always filthy - but this week I used my camera and this blog as an excuse for a mooch. Never mind the footprints.
Teapot and mugs by Jim and Dominique Keeling, Whichford Pottery
Beautiful and unusual lamps
Restored antique tools from Garden and Wood - all eminently usable
Dinky Whichford glazed pots filled with gorgeously scented candles from St Eval

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Still busy planting pots for winter/spring

It's oddly mild for November and the bees are still busy in the last of the summer plants, as good a reason as any for leaving the tender plants I don't need to save out for as long as possible:
Bees are still slaving away in the Salvia leucantha

Still looking a little sparse, but little purple patches from Pansy 'Can-Can' and
Callicarpa bodinieri var.giraldii 'Profusion' provide interest.
Our (Pre-) Christmas Sale starts next weekend, however, and (especially as the first weekend includes talks from Bunny Guinness and Fiona Perry) I will try to finish the winter plantings before then. The new plantings look a bit stringy but already the way I look at things is changing. Instead of revelling in lushness my eye homes in on small spots of repeated colour and detail in plants.

Pansy Potter
I use a large number of violas and pansies in the winter/spring plantings. Yes they are as common as muck but you can't really beat them for a reliable trickle of colour through the winter followed by a burst of enthusiasm in spring to underpin the daffs and tulips.

Some pansies sulk in winter cold and wet and some are prone to leaf spot infections but I find that thorough dead-heading and the picking off of yellow/spotty leaves usually keeps them going.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: dead-heading is vital. Do it really thoroughly once a week and your displays will look brighter and last longer.

Cyclamen hederifolium and Pansy 'Can-Can'

I often use Pansy 'Can-Can', a mixture which, despite its flouncy appearance, usually sails through the winter. Plainer pansies such as Moonlight Mix (shades of blue and white) are valuable too - this one did brilliantly for us last year.

Et Viola!
Viola 'Sorbet White' and Leucothoe
'Scarletta in a Vine Pot
Violas, with their smaller flowers and generally more spreading habit, are often even tougher; by spring they should be overflowing from the pots and you will be heartily sick of dead-heading them.
To the right is Viola 'Sorbet White' planted with Leucothoe 'Scarletta' in a Vine Pot at the end of September. Below you can see the same viola as it looked last spring (19 May) in a Swag and Acanthus pot on the entrance path. By May the dead-heading is driving me round the twist and I can't wait to rip them out and plant the summer displays.

Viola 'Sorbet White' in a
Swag and Acanthus Pot last May

A 'Jester' Viola in one of our tiny pots last spring

Jester minute
Viola 'Jester Mix' is another favourite for its interesting colour blend and endless supply of cheeky little faces.  Single plants in a variety of little pots look great dotted here and there, perfect for windowsills or tea tables, I also enjoy it massed and mixed with bulbs - practically anything, from alliums to fritillaries, looks good, this year it will be supporting Tulip 'Negrita' and quite a few others.
Cheery Viola 'Jester Mix' in Whichford's courtyard garden last April

One of the new (to me) varieties I am trying this year is Viola 'Tiger Eyes' - I have to say it looks promising. I have used it in the giant Orange Pots at the entrance, with Tulip 'Black Jewel' beneath it and some Scilla siberica to give a few little highlights of blue. We'll see.

Viola 'Tiger Eyes'

Do what I do or do what I say?
Here's a quick step-by-step series of pictures of a Parrot Tulip Pot I planted this week (one of a pair by the entrance path). I know that it is getting a bit late to be planting Narcissus and Iris bulbs but if they are still firm and not mouldy it is worth giving them a go in the hopes that the freezing weather will hold off long enough to allow them to establish. I end up having to take these risks every year simply because I can't plant 200 pots before November when I only work at the Pottery three days a week! Usually it works...

1. Pot filled to tulip planting-level with compost. The "underplanting" (surface plants) all have rootballs small enough to fit above the tulips so I can spread the tulip bulbs (16) evenly through the planting. This one is T. 'Yellow Spring Green'. A little compost then added to cushion the bulbs before more plants added. 

2. Carex 'Curly Whirly' and Salvia officinalis 'Icterina' added, plus another dose of compost to support them. Then two clumps of five Narcissus 'Little Witch' are nestled into the spaces, just above the tulips.

3. The pot is filled to an inch below the rim with compost and then small plants are added. Here we have Lamium maculatum 'Anne Greenway' and six Pansy 'Midnight Glow'. Then I make planting holes (a couple of inches deep) between these plants with a forefinger and gently push in bulbs of Iris 'Lady Beatrix Stanley'. Her Ladyship is only a few inches tall, so the bulbs are near the edge of the pot so that the flowers should not be hidden by other plants.
I wear surgical gloves because at this stage in the season my nails start to get sore from being full of compost! Latex gloves allow you to feel what you are doing so that there is less risk of damaging delicate bulbs or plant roots.

4. I give the pot a good shake and bang its bottom on the ground to settle the compost among the plants. Then more compost is added, making sure to fill between all the plants and top up evenly over the bulbs. Pot is given another shake. The compost now reaches to about 1cm/half an inch below the rim but will settle down when watered in so that the surface of the entire planting lies about 2cm/1inch below the rim. This leaves room for watering/rain to soak in without washing any compost out of the pot.

Now water in gently and evenly with a hose spray or a watering can with a rose fitted on the spout. Inspect the planting again to make sure the compost doesn't need topping up a bit more - you don't want to leave any root-balls or bulbs at all exposed.

Enjoy watching your winter plantings develop and don't forget to dead-head your violas!