Monday, 21 February 2011

Shoots, snouts, spots, stripes and pots.

March 2010. This year Iris 'Harmony' has nearly finished flowering in late February.
That's odd. I've just been looking at last year's photographs and it seems that we are about two weeks ahead in terms of things popping out of the soil.  Bulbs in plantings more than a year old often emerge faster than in this season's plantings but is this global warming? I had assumed that the cold this winter was so drastic the plants would keep their heads down but I suppose last year's cold snap was later, so the plants hung on in their bunkers for a bit longer in 2010. 2008 was comparable to this year I think, but my photographic record shows that there was a hard frost in early March, so we can't get too excited yet.

Not sprung yet?

Oh but doesn't it make you skip about and gleefully rub your hands when you see all those big fat shoots coming up? As soon as I see the snouts of the tulips emerge I know that spring is not far off.

There is a surprising amount of colour in tulip shoots, some are tinged with russet, some glaucous green, others edged with pink or marbled with maroon.

It is worth considering the leaf colour as well as the flowers of tulips when planting - if you can echo these colours in the evergreen plants that are with them then the end of winter can provide some satisfying combinations. Sometimes it happens all by itself, serendipity is a big factor in successful gardening. The trick is to observe it and repeat the effect another year.

Putting on my anorak

Am I getting a bit geeky? At this time of year I can be seen pottering around the garden apparently peering at nothing - some people might assume I'm looking for pixies but really I am looking at details. Fine details drive the galanthophiles to wear out the knees on their trousers looking at the different green markings on snowdrops and the hellebore enthusiasts to slip discs as they peer into the latest picotee.
I. 'Katherine Hodgkin'

We are all hungry for visual entertainment after the greyness of a British winter. In pots and containers the little details such as the markings on Iris 'Katherine Hodgkin' and the flushes of colour on emerging foliage are so important at this time of year: they are easier to see than in the chaos of summer, they feed our appetite for colour and if we take time to look at least every few days we can see that they are changing really rapidly, a sure sign that we are not going to be stuck in winter gloom forever.

Pile 'em high
Once again this is where pots come to the rescue. It is so easy to forget that pots can be moved! As soon as little bulbs and iris are out you don't have to leave them on the ground, you can pick them up and put them on your windowsill or on a wall so that you can study them more closely or give them a sniff.

This one I did plan.
Don't be afraid to put pots on pots; it works best if you set the small pot in the big pot when you do the original planting, a small, narrow pot can be sunk into the compost for extra stability and moisture retention, when filled with similar plants to the main planting it gives extra height and impact. I planted the one pictured right during the talk I did in November and it's looking promising. 

You can, however, use small or medium-sized pots to fill the gaps left in big pots by shrubs that didn't survive the snow.This week I gave up on a bald Pittosporum garnettii and cut it flush with the surface of the compost (digging it out would risk damaging the bulbs coming up around it). Then I filled a narrow-based pot with spare Helleborus foetidus, which I had previously weeded out of the gravel, and set it in the gap, making sure that it was well wedged in and unable to fall down. It looks almost like I planned it that way...

Monday, 14 February 2011

A cheapo planting amid the green shoots of recovery

Here Come the Girls
Spring is coming! If you listen closely you can hear it rumbling. Bulbs are popping up everywhere: Iris 'Harmony' is first out in the pots this year, I. 'Katherine Hodgkin' is hot on her heels, Crocus 'Gypsy Girl' is beginning to unfurl,  C. 'Blue Pearl' and 'Cream Beauty' are still getting dressed but will be out soon.

Iris 'Harmony'
It always seems a shame to leave things flowering in the depths of a wintry garden, you may only see them once a week. If you have spares of any little bulbs it may be worth experimenting with hoicking a few out and putting them in a pot by the door.
Snowdrops are ideal for this - if planted as dormant bulbs in the autumn they struggle to establish as they don't like to be dried out; they are happier being moved 'in the green', ie while the leaves are up. Normal procedure is to move snowdrops after they have flowered but I find they don't mind being moved in flower or bud. A few may get damaged and flop over, but if you dig up a small clump carefully and treat it as a single plant they should be fine.

Snowdropping hints
He won't notice...
If you are not lucky enough to have spare clumps of snowdrops it is worth inviting yourself round to a friend's house for coffee (try taking a cake) and admiring his or her snowdrops wistfully. If they don't take the hint just go right ahead and ask for a clump - genuine gardeners are usually happy to share plants. But don't even think about taking them from the wild or without the landowner's permission. Thursday's mild but slightly rainy weather provided the perfect conditions for moving plants about, so I decided to make a group of plantings using snowdrops pilfered from Jim's garden. Yes, all right, I know what I just said about permission.

I told you they'd come in handy one day
I decided to do  a vaguely naturalistic planting reminiscent of woodland margins. Does that sound pretentious enough? Actually I just thought I could do something quite pretty without spending ANY money on plants. This is possible because I belong to the Untidy Hoarder school of gardening and always pot up little seedlings and odds and ends and leave them cluttering up the area by the polytunnel.

So here's the recipe for a snowdrop arrangement for a shady doorway:
1280 Geranium Pot: Hazel seedling or similar little deciduous tree, 2 clumps snowdrops, Sarcoccoca confusa, Helleborus niger, Vinca minor, Corydalis cheilanthifolia.
Marigold Pot: Ribes sanguineum, 2 Corydalis cheilanthifolia, Helleborus niger, 1 clump snowdrops, small Hart's tongue fern (Asplenium scolopendrium)
1205 Small plain pot: 1 clump snowdrops, 3 little fern seedlings (Athyrium filix-femina? I'm not good at naming ferns)

Waste not, want not
The hazel, hellebore, ferns and corydalis were all stray seedlings. The corydalis will produce little pale yellow flowers from now until May and the ferny foliage will puff up to make a nice dome. My sarcococca is a bit yellow and straggly because it has been stuck in a little plastic pot for too long but it'll soon recover - this evergreen shrub (also known as Christmas Box) has little white flowers in Jan/Feb with a lovely fragrance followed by berries which turn red then black. The vinca was living in a pot with the hellebore - I think it's a white one. The Ribes is a white form struck from cuttings, it will get too big for this pot but will be easy to transplant when it does. The snowdrops and ferns from the smallest pot should be transplanted or potted on after the snowdrops have flowered next year.

All of these plants enjoy a relatively shady location. They will be fine in the largest two pots for at least one year, probably for two or three years. If they start to get overcrowded (the vinca will root about and the corydalis will have babies) just take something out and fill the gaps with fresh compost. I added some slow release fertiliser to the compost - a little more can be added each year. Eventually the plants can be recycled into other plantings, released into the garden or potted up into a bigger pot.

Adding some moss
The natural look
To make the plantings look more natural and established I added some moss which I scraped off some old planks near the compost heap - another good reason not to tidy up too much! Like other plants, moss should not be collected from the wild. At home I find that the blackbirds knock plenty off my roof in early spring and I add it to many semi-permanent plantings because I prefer it to bare compost.

Normally I would plant the pots in their final location to avoid lifting them when full but as it was raining I stayed in the polytunnel then wheeled them to the doorway of the staff room and watered everything in. The backdrop (messy ivy) isn't ideal but hopefully as the leaves expand and white and yellow flowers wax and wane, the seasonal variety will provide interest to people passing through the door. I chose fairly plain and simple pots of similar shapes so that there was not too much distraction from the detail of the plantings. In summer the plantings will be very quiet and green - but this is no bad thing amongst the riotous colours
Jeanette's birthday - cake and snowdrops in the staff room

Small pots of snowdrops can be brought indoors for a while - they have a surprisingly strong honey fragrance. The bulbs can  be planted out after flowering. At break time I came in out of the rain with one clump and gave it a temporary home on the tea table to help celebrate Jeanette's birthday - if you ask me all good days should include cake!

Friday, 4 February 2011

A bad start followed by renewed inspiration

Expletive deleted
Don't you just love Monday mornings? This week I staggered out of the car into the iciness of the pottery car park, gathering up my baggage (extra fleeces, lunch box, bag of notebooks and seed catalogues, camera bag) and what did I drop on the rock-hard ground? My camera, of course. As I had stopped on the way to work to take interesting misty frost pictures of the valley it had its big lens attached and the fall wrenched the connecting ring off the body of the camera. So no fresh pictures this week, I'm afraid, but I do have a good archive.
Succulents safe from frost in the greenhouse last week
Could you just...
I was very glum about my camera, and the continuation of the freezing weather really didn't help my mood but at the pottery there is always someone who can make you laugh. I am lucky that if I need company I can pop indoors. There have been plenty of excuses for this recently: Annabelle, Emma and Sue have been working hard on the new catalogue and they occasionally ask me for a bit of verbiage about ways to use the pots. Jim has been working on the catalogue and on plans for a show garden in Japan - so when he came into the office we had a lively discussion about his colour ideas for the planting of it and somehow I ended up agreeing to give him a list of possible plants. He is maddeningly good at getting you to agree to things without seeming to ask. To his credit, however, he does put up with a lot of 'healthy disrespect' from his staff - and gives as good as he gets of course.

Thinking ahead 

Happy succulents outside last summer

I think I have just about planned the summer displays. First I go into a sort of trance and think about how it looked last year, then I visualize colours and shapes which will hopefully give different effects in the various areas this year. It may look to the untutored eye like I am just sitting around drinking coffee but in reality the little cogs are going whir-whir. I will be re-using a lot of plants, such as my rather magnificent collection of succulents and other tender perennials which I keep from year to year (Ice Age permitting). The challenge therefore is to make the same place look different from year to year by changing the pot combinations, using old plants in different ways and places but keeping them happy by putting sun lovers facing south and west and keeping the shade lovers close to the northern side of the pottery.

 A sucker for a pretty picture

Ricinus 'NZ Purple' towers in the foreground

The seed catalogues are my secret weapon. Gaudy pictures of novelties catch my eye, and I have to include some of them, especially if I think they may annoy Jim (he has a thing about Busy Lizzies...).  But I'll try anything from humble nasturtiums and marigolds to exciting exotics like Solanum quitoense and Leonotis nepetifolia; some of the experimental choices become regulars and I'll order them year after year.

L. 'Riviera Sky Blue' with Felicia and pelargoniums

Lobelia 'Riviera Sky Blue' is a case in point because it has such a lovely clear colour - I just have to think of something else to combine it with. Another regular, Hordeum jubatum, adds some elegant flowing lines in late summer, best backlit by morning or evening sun; Ricinus 'New Zealand Purple' is spectacular in any large pot and a great foil for orange, red, blue, pink... There are so many great plants that are easy to grow from seed.

Hordeum jubatum in the foreground
Three go mad in Hampshire
On Wednesday Richard, Maggie and I visited Hillier's Nursery near Winchester. We have started selling Hillier plants at the pottery and were invited to an open day to see exciting new collections of plants for spring. The site is enormous (about 50 acres I think), huge amounts of glass, tunnels and open areas for a wide range of plants. It was fascinating to see  plant production on such a scale, although Richard was disappointed not to see the Edward Scissorhands pruning machine in action. MD Andy McIndoe and director Kevin Hobbs showed us the new plants with pride and enthusiasm - it was good to see that the people in charge still obviously know and love the plants they are dealing with at the same time as having an eye for their commercial value. I'll have to place an order soon, so that there will be plenty of stock for when our customers start to come out of hibernation and visit the pottery in greater numbers - more tricky decisions!

Hillier Hellebore Hybridising
Kevin kindly took us to see other parts of the Hillier site and my favourite stop was at an out-of-the-way polytunnel which houses Alan Postill and his hellebores. Alan has been propagating plants since he was a teenager and still obviously loves what he does: flitting from row to row, tilting the chin of an anemone-flowered break here, caressing a fine yellow there, he showed us promising new strains with flowers carefully hand-pollinated, labelled and covered with little muslin bags. Odd corners held motley collections of plants from far-flung parts of the world brought back by Roy Lancaster and John Hillier for propagation by Alan, as Kevin said, "Give him a pencil and he'll get it to root". There's an article about Alan and his work in this month's edition of Gardens Illustrated (I really wished I had my camera with me but this article has some lovely photos). That is one of the things I love best about horticulture: every now and then you get to meet the unassuming proper enthusiasts who form the backbone of the trade and are generous in sharing their enthusiasm.