Friday, 28 January 2011

Bring out your dead! Bring out your dead!

Still too blooming cold

Gardening in my sleep.
On Tuesday morning I woke up worrying about the plants in the polytunnel. As my memory and organisational skills have deteriorated frighteningly this seems as good a way as any of deciding what to do on a particular day - letting my unconscious mind sort out the priorities. I hadn't been in there for a couple of weeks and I hadn't looked under the fleece for almost two months so my heart was in my mouth when I ventured in. It didn't look promising. I could see shoots covered in fuzzy grey mould peeping out all over the place. 

The Polytunnel of Doom
First I checked the max/min thermometer. So even in the last fortnight the temperature in the polytunnel has sunk to -7C. Hmmm. Not surprising then that after this and the Christmas Ice Age the few 'spare' pelargoniums I had left there were well and truly dead. A few large cannas and hedychiums that I couldn't fit into the greenhouse had dead foliage but their roots still felt quite firm, so they may live to fight another day. A large Salvia leucantha (one of the most tender salvias I keep) was definitely dead but others such as S.'Indigo Spires' were still showing signs of life. Cordylines fine, Echium pininana OK (hurray), Ensete ventricosum dead (boo), Agapanthus and Nerines seem fine too. Phew. But the damp atmosphere under the fleece coverings had really encouraged rampant grey mould so I decided to risk leaving them off until really low temperatures are forecast.

As it was quite mild that day I kept the door open and removed every bit of mouldy foliage, threw out the corpses, tidied the rows and swept the floor, clearing out the far corner where field mice had had a field day eating field maple seeds. The heap of seed wings was so big I had visions of gigantic roly-poly mice staggering around the polytunnel giggling. Or was that the effect of breathing in too many mould spores?

Wrong plant, wrong place. Fail.
Fail and Epic Fail
I know that in a previous episode I have boasted about the high survival rate in the outdoor pots. This is still true but I did gamble with a few things this year: The phormium in the big pot on top of the well was very exposed to the elements and is looking moribund. I now regret using such a large specimen (which had been ripped from another pot in the summer of 2010) of dubious health and hardiness in such a prominent position. To borrow the terminology of my sons and their friends this is a 'fail'.
Epic Fail

By the same token the large Wisley Gardener's Pot containing an Astelia chathamica 'Silver Spear' by the office door really should have been brought indoors. This is an 'Epic Fail'. Even though I am pretty sure it is dead and it looks absolutely awful I'm going to wait a bit longer before I remove the dead leaves and dig up the plant because You Never Know. January and February for certain plants is when life hangs by a thread and you can save a plant by resisting the temptation to poke about in its innards. Equally you can finish a struggling plant off by pruning off the dead-looking bits, thus leaving the inner bits, which were just about surviving, without any protection - Hebe and Pittosporum are both in the "Don't touch until you're absolutely sure it's dead" category.
Pittosporum - may still be OK...

But I'm not dead yet!
If you really want to know if a shrub is dead you can try gently scraping the bark with a fingernail - if there is a green layer under the brown it is still alive. Even if you see no green some shrubs are good at sprouting from very low down so my advice to concerned gardeners is if in doubt leave it alone for a bit. I find it hard to follow my own advice because I hate to see a sad plant on display at work. Sometimes I lose patience and hoick it out - I did that this week with the rosemary hedge behind the garden bench. It always had annoying gaps in it because the plants in the flowerbed behind lean on it in the summer and it was looking bruised after the snow so I had fun digging it out and then asking my colleagues if they could spot the difference - well you have to make your own entertainment sometimes...

Even if horticultural death and destruction surround you just look at the brave little bulb shoots and take heart. Narcissi are beginning to show themselves now, Rene (our bulb expert from the Netherlands) gave us a collection of historical Narcissi and I'm really looking forward to seeing them in flower. I put small pebbles over them to keep those fat mice out and it seems to have worked. Spring is on its way!
Here they come

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Brightening up considerably.

A little ray of sunshine.
Viola 'Jester Mix' under box
Sunshine! Not warm sunshine, but sunshine nevertheless. When I got home on Tuesday my face was tingling from the UV. It made the small amounts of colour on show in the displays sing out but sadly it didn't help my chilblains.
I got some rose pruning done during the short mild spell because when you are standing still, snipping away and tying stems in with ungloved fingers you can get deeply cold.
On Tuesday, when the clear skies made the temperature drop sharply I was foolishly still up my ladder and beginning to lose the will to live (or certainly to garden) when Lynne came to my rescue with a cup of coffee which thawed me enough to finish tying in Climbing Lady Hillingdon around the staff room door. Little acts of kindness like that can make your day.

Relaxed working conditions
One advantage of working by myself most of the time is that I can change my activities at the last minute to suit the weather. If it is raining I try to work in the greenhouse at least for the morning so that I'm not soggy all day, if it is freezing I can also retreat to a certain extent. I still haven't finished my seed orders so if there is no thaw today I shall go into the pottery where the kilns and the chat will warm me up. Visitors to the pottery often remark on the friendly atmosphere here - I think this is mainly due to the humorous, easy-going collection of people we have. As in any work place there are grumbles here and there but generally we get along pretty well and I think it shows - especially when the windows are open in the summer and Hilary's infectious laugh drifts for miles across the countryside.

Carex and pansies in a small Salamander pot

At breaktime even in freezing weather the makers are to be found clustered like hibernating ladybirds in these patches of sun - it is a bit dark in the pottery, partly because of the clay spattered on the windows, so they have to keep their vitamin D levels up somehow.

Detailed analysis
Detail on a Jim's Tom

As soon as the low winter sunshine hits the garden you begin to appreciate the small details both in plant material and on the pots. Intricate veining and cold-induced red flushes on leaves suddenly become more noticeable, as do the decorative details on the pots. The courtyard garden is on the northern side of the main pottery building, so in the depths of winter a direct ray of sunshine is a rare treat but now the days are lengthening and the sun getting higher in the sky new things are being illuminated every day.

Scratting about in the garden
Pushing her luck
The birds appreciate it too: Dominique's hens have been venturing out to help me when I'm "scratting about" (as Babs puts it). I won't be quite so welcoming to the hens once there are fragile flowers about. Luckily these birds are easy to catch and remove; we used to have a cockerel which would devastate  the garden given half a chance and ran about hysterically when he saw me coming to take him away. He fattened a fox a while ago and I bet he didn't go quietly.

Mrs B shadowing me on Tuesday

Mrs B is fine and has also been taking part in the scratting. I'm grateful for this help because I'm sure the bird life is instrumental in keeping the vine weevil population down.

Lonicera fragrantissima
Quel est cet odeur ...
So as I move round the garden I follow the sun as much as possible, glad of the little warmth it gives. That warmth is enough to release the fragrance of the large Lonicera fragrantissima in the corner and after Jim takes a sprig of it into his studio I am asked by several people where the lovely smell comes from - hard to believe it is that large, ungainly shrub but that gorgeous perfume is the only reason I tolerate its sprawling, untidy presence in the border. A little untidiness isn't a bad thing in a garden - that's my excuse anyway.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Riding one of my hobby horses AND SHOUTING A LOT.


Every year I am surprised by how the plantings stand up to the weather. This winter they have been frozen, covered in snow for weeks and now they are being steadily rained on.  Now I have cleared the dead foliage away from the displays I can see that very few plants (except for a few I knew were not exactly hardy) have given up the ghost so far. The answer is good drainage.

Plantings outside the Octagon this week

Hello? Hello? Can you hear me?
Do you ever get that thing when you say something in a group conversation and no-one seems to hear you, then a couple of minutes later someone says exactly the same thing and everyone says "Oh yes, good point, how clever!"? Is it just me? For about ten years I have been telling everyone who'll listen that you don't need to put a thick layer of crocks at the bottom of the pot you are planting. I have been tempted to stop people in garden centres and lecture them. Perhaps I should get a sandwich board and walk up and down Main Avenue at Chelsea: "DON'T BOTHER WITH A LAYER OF CROCKS, IT DOESN'T IMPROVE DRAINAGE AND WHEN YOU REPOT IT WRECKS THE ROOTS OF YOUR PLANTS AND MAKES AN ALMIGHTY MESS! By the way, the end of the world is nigh."

Well last weekend The Guardian printed an article, "Slugs, Snails and Old Wives' Tales", first printed in Gardening Which? One of the revelations was that a layer of crocks not only "reduces the volume of soil available to plant roots", but "research by soil scientists shows that water doesn't flow freely from fine-textured materials into coarser ones." Hooray! I told you so! A layer of crocks is not just useless but positively harmful, having no beneficial effect on drainage it creates air spaces which impede drainage and root growth, provides a cosy home for slugs, and falls out at re-potting time, ripping fragile roots.

So ignore all those pesky old wives.
What you do need to do is 1) select a pot that has a decent drainage hole or holes (Whichford ones all do) so that when water percolates down it can get out easily. 2) Cover that hole with a crock or two or a piece of polystyrene to stop the compost from falling out. 3)Use a decent compost with plenty of grit that doesn't have a sticky, claggy texture. 4) Be assured that Bob is your avuncular relative.

It seems that much horticultural advice in the printed and broadcast media is merely people repeating things they have heard but never actually tested or observed for themselves.  In my opinion Gardening Which? magazine is the best at taking nothing as read - they routinely test methods, plants and equipment.

And another thing...
The other issue that gets my goat is pot feet. Magazines, books and television programmes all assure you that it is necessary to raise your pots on pot feet during the winter. WRONG! If you use a good terracotta pot (preferably from Whichford...) and place it on the ground - concrete, gravel, or bricks but preferably not soggy grass - the water will seep nicely through the small gaps between the slightly rough terracotta and the slightly uneven ground. Think of your bath sponge: when you dunk it and raise it in the air it drips a little, but as soon as it makes contact with your hand the water pours out. I'm no scientist but I think it has something to do with capillary action, the water moving more easily through a small gap than through thin air. All you have to do is make sure that the gaps under your pot don't get sealed by algae - just shift the pot a little occasionally.

I have to admit that we do make and sell pot feet because people ask for them. Of course ours are decorative and they can keep your plantings out of puddles, on the other hand they can make your pot wobbly and easier to knock over, they provide a lovely roosting space for snails and they let the frost in to the base of the pot so that the whole thing can freeze solid much more quickly. You will often see pots in displays here raised on brick plinths, this is not for drainage reasons but simply to raise the pots so that a bigger display can be installed in a smaller space; the base of each pot has good contact with a layer of bricks and large gaps are kept to a minimum.

My friend shouting on Thursday morning

Right, I will now dismount and go back to enjoying the robin's song and hoping that we have more of the mild weather. Feel free to share any of your own horticultural hobby horses with us - oh and if any physicists can give me a digestible explanation of why tall, thin pots drain better than short, wide ones I will be very grateful...

Sunday, 9 January 2011

New Year, Old Leaf.

After a longer than expected holiday we're all back and only some of us are on a diet of worms.

To think that I thought the weather in early December was extreme! By New Year's Day my fingernails were long, unchipped and strangely clean - gardening was almost impossible for a fortnight. I don't live far from  Whichford but couldn't get there from the 17th December to the 28th and that visit was just to check the greenhouse plants over. We had 14 inches of snow and the freezing temperatures (-8C recorded INSIDE the polytunnel!) meant that our lovely, picturesque roads stayed treacherous for a long time. The snowy picture of the courtyard garden here was taken by Lynda, who makes the hand-pressed ware, lives in the village and is a dab hand with a digital SLR.

Snow just before Christmas

Now we are all back at work, and pleased to see each other too. The outdoors department does look a bit sorry for itself, though: we hadn't finished clearing the autumn leaves before the big freeze clamped them down, in fact the frozen oak leaves were still on the trees at Christmas. Now there is a slimy brown layer in and around pots and the only way to tackle it is by hand, the leaf-blower is useless and rakes and brooms provide only limited help. Jim did find a chap to do some casual leaf-clearing in November and he worked for about half a day at which point the weather got all British, he put down his rake to announce "I don't work in the rain," and we never saw him again.

Can spring be far away?

Frosty oak leaves , late December

There is hope among the slime, however. It is amazing that so few plants have given up the ghost and relatively balmy weather (well, 3C) combined with slowly lengthening days means that previously flat violas are bravely flowering and shoots of crocus, iris and scilla are poking their noses above the rims of the pots. The birds are tweedling and flittering about: dunnocks like furtive mice among the packing straw and tinkling chains of long-tailed tits like pink and black teaspoons moving from tree to tree.

Mrs B enjoying an apple, spring 2010

Mrs B the one-footed blackbird who raises several broods a year in the garden has become so tame that I am a bit worried about her. I literally bumped into her as she flew up from her feeding station on the barrel by the staff room a few days ago and I wonder if her sluggishness might be due to weakness; I hope not, as we always enjoy watching her feeding the nestlings in the honeysuckle behind the bench.

Still chirpy.

Best news of all this week is that my robin is back! Well, I think it's my robin. I hope it's my robin. Last year he (or she, how do you tell?) got so tame that he would take small worms from my hand and follow me even into the greenhouse but I didn't see him after midsummer. Now I have a little khaki and orange shadow in the garden again, with a peremptory "Tick, tick!" announcing his presence in the hedge.

I'd better stop being distracted by feathered friends and carry on with the clear-up, picking off dead flowers and blackened foliage, sweeping and scraping. Not glamorous work but satisfying nonetheless as the displays are immediately brightened and with a bit of luck the housekeeping will keep plants healthy, ready for the spring surge. But if it snows again I may have to emigrate.