Monday, 28 March 2011

Spring flowers, seed sowing and multiple birth

So much to do, so little time
There has been a slightly bigger than usual gap between this blog and the last because there is just too much to do - but there is plenty to look at and it would be a shame not to share it with you. Last week's planting is doing well, the Pulsatillas' fluffy buds have opened and the other plants are settling in nicely.

N. pseudonarcissus in a Buxus pot (644)
I have been a bit disappointed with the crocus and narcissi that I planted in pots this year - I experimented with using compost from the compost heap in the bottom of some of the pots and I think that this combined with the heavy snow and temperatures around minus 12 or 15 for days at a time contributed to some rotting. Well, you live and learn. I won't use garden compost next year but I don't think there's much I can do about the weather.

Old but tough
My vintage narcissus collection seems to be OK though, Narcissus pseudonarcissus was the first in full flower this week, Jim has drifts of this British native in his garden and they look stunning, but in a pot attention is focused on them and you notice more about the details of their pale, slightly twisted petals.

A cheerful heart
The most striking flower in the courtyard garden at the moment is Tulipa 'Heart's Delight', this belongs to the Kaufmanniana group of tulips, valued for their short-stemmed early flowers which open wide in the sunshine, and their leaves which are striped and spotted with maroon. This is the first time I have tried this variety and I am pleased with the soft red on the outside of the petals and the starry cheerfulness of the flowers in sun.
T. 'Heart's Delight' with Carex 'Curly Whirly' and Corydalis cheilanthifolia
 Seed sowing is in full swing in the greenhouse, so I thought I might share my basic seed sowing technique:

1. Use a compost which does not have large lumps in it, or sieve it with a garden sieve. I use a peat-based multi-purpose compost but add a generous dollop of Perlite (the white granules you can see in the picture) so that the drainage is good. Seeds and seedlings like to be moist but not soggy.

2. Over-fill the seed tray, then sweep the excess off the top, level with the edge of the tray, using the flat of your hand (without pressing).

3. Pick the tray up and tap its base on the bench a couple of times to settle the compost in. Then take a block of wood or similar and gently press the compost down by about half a centimetre. This makes a firm, level surface to sow the seeds on so that you will get even germination and there won't be large air gaps for baby roots to get stranded in.

4. Sow the seeds thinly. Don't be tempted to use the whole packet if it means the seeds are in clumps. If they are cheek by jowl the seedlings are more likely to damp off (rot), they will grow straggly and weak and it will be hard to prick them out without damaging them. Large seeds (these are Tagetes 'Disco Mix') are easy to space out.

Small seeds can be sown thinly if you crease the foil packet to make a narrow channel then tap it gently as you move it across the surface of the compost so that a few seeds fall out at a time.

5. Cover the seeds in accordance with the instructions on the packet (or if there are no instructions the rule of thumb is cover by approximately the same depth as the diameter of the seeds). I just use a plastic pot as a sieve and work back and forth, tapping lightly and making sure the covering is even. Do read the packet carefully because some seeds need light to germinate and so shouldn't be covered at all.

6. Label with the name and date and keep the packet to one side in case you need to look at it again or in case the plants are a roaring success and you want the same thing next year. Then place the tray in a box or tray of water so that the water comes half-way up the sides. Leave only until the surface appears moist then remove promptly.

8. Place the tray in a propagator (ours is cobbled together out of scraps of wood and plastic sheeting, with a thermostatically controlled heating cable under grit). I find the vast majority of seeds are willing to hatch at about 15 or 16C but again you need to consult the seed packet for any special instructions. You shouldn't need to water them again while they are in here, but make sure the base of the propagator (gravel, sand or capillary matting) remains moist. Seedlings don't like to be soggy but they will not tolerate drying out, even for half an hour, so check them frequently. Many seeds, especially hardy annuals, are fine on a windowsill sealed inside a clear plastic bag.

9. As soon as you think all the seedlings have germinated and are fully expanded (not still folded up or with seed leaves stuck in seed coats) you can remove them from the propagator or bag. At this stage they may need another drink, so you can give them another dunk in some water but don't get the compost absolutely sodden. Make sure they are not in bright, hot sunshine or a draught and leave them for a few days (still inside the greenhouse or on the windowsill) to toughen up a bit.

Then prick them out as soon as possible - I'll give more details on this another time- I think that's enough for now, so here endeth the lesson.

Talking of propagation
And finally - do you remember the sheep I pictured the week before last looking so uncomfortable? Well this last Thursday she produced FOUR lambs! No wonder she couldn't lie straight.

Everyone up and about in a matter of minutes. I really, really don't want to be reincarnated as a ewe!

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Willow weaving and a pot full of mountainside.

This week I finished pruning the crown-like willow arbour that nestles behind the Octagon. I could only do little bursts of work on it last week because even with two pairs of gloves on I had to keep dashing back into the pottery to warm my fingers by the kilns. But this week I could make much faster progress and was down to shirtsleeves for the first time this year.
Before - work just started in the foreground

The arbour was made by Richard Kerwood of Windrush Willow about five or six years ago and is so solid and well established that it throws up 12 foot shoots every year. Cutting it back is a major exercise but does provide me with plenty of material for making plant supports. Many of you will have seen Windrush Willow and their lovely sculptures, plant supports (much more elegant than my efforts) and baskets at events here; they will be back for the Summer Garden Party this year.

After - all neat and tidy
Chop-chop with Puss-Puss
It is such a satisfying job, lopping most of last year's growth off, leaving shoots that are well placed to repair breakages or reinforce weak points and weaving them in. Puss-Puss turns up without fail because willow shoots are his favourite toy.
Here he comes.

Daft fluffball
Mini landscape for Steeple Aston.
On Tuesday I went to do a spring planting demonstration for Steeple Aston Garden Club. I don't actually plant many pots at this time of year, the vast majority are either planted in the autumn or in May/June but if I do a new planting one of my favourite ways is to make a little alpine landscape in a pot, using stones, crocks or whole pots to make crags, cracks and crevices for alpines to fill.

So I raided the seconds pile for a few odds and ends to embed and picked a beautiful 15 year-old Orange Pot (621C) to put everything in. I always like to take a weathered pot with me to demonstrations because often people look at the new, bright pots and find it hard to imagine them mellowed with age. And our pots do age beautifully, especially if you don't keep them too clean!
Just after watering in.
My turn to do the washing up.
As I started putting my concoction together in front of this friendly group of gardeners I became aware of a few puzzled looks - and had to admit that my arrangement looked rather like a bowl of washing up. To my relief as soon as the plants started to go in it looked better and by the time I added the mulch of gravel and grit the whole thing was meeting with approval.

Most alpines enjoy having cool places under "rocks" to send their roots and like to have their heads in sunny, airy conditions, so raised in a large-ish pot in a sunny area is an ideal location for them. Plants that like cooler conditions, such as most saxifrages, can be sited on the shadier side of the crocks or sheltered behind larger plants - there are different microclimates even within one potful.

Alchemilla erythropoda's pinkish stems pick up the pinkish red in the bud of Pulsatilla vulgaris 'Pinwheel'
Don't just buy plants in flower.
You can also inspect the detail more easily than you can on the ground. This is already quite a pleasing arrangement even though there are no flowers yet! Plants establish best when they are concentrating their energy on root growth rather than flowers, and if you plant them before they flower then you have the pleasure of seeing their whole flowering season, not just the part of it which occurs after you have taken them home from the garden centre. It is also worth looking carefully at foliage colour and form - if you have effective combinations of these the pot will look good all year.

I have planted this fairly densely for instant effect, so I will have to observe it carefully, especially as some of the plants are new to me: if some spread too rampantly I may have to remove or reduce them in order to avoid suffocating their neighbours. Some will creep, some will sprawl and I am hoping a few will start to overflow from the pot.

Here's the plant recipe - but you don't need to use exactly the same things, have a look and see what's available locally and don't forget to see if you already have something you can split and replant.
Main pot, clockwise from front left:
Crassula milfordiae sedifolia
2 Pulsatilla vulgaris 'Pinwheel  Dark Red Shades'
Alchemilla erythropoda
Hebe (it's a scruffy cutting of a low-growing one, and I'm sorry I've forgotten the name - will add it as soon as I find it!)
Saxifraga 'White Pixie'
Chamaecyparis 'Rubicon' (a slow-growing maroon-tinted conifer - if it gets too big it can simply be moved)
Sempervivum (I have used 3 clumps in total, all split from the same overcrowded potful)
Rhodanthemum hosmariense
About 5 Crocus 'Blue Pearl' (from a spent potful - these will hopefully come up again next spring...)
Embedded Frilly Lily pot:
2 Sedum spurium 'Coccineum'
Embedded Rose bowl:
2 clumps Sempervivum
Sedum spathulifolium 'Cape Blanco'
Embedded small Round pot:
Phlox subulata (a pink one - name lost, but there are lots of good ones)

Happy landscaping!

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Spring Delights and Shopping for Plants

Let's start with Plant Combination of the Week. I thought this was rather tasty and I am quite smug about it because I had never grown this crocus before so wasn't sure of the exact shade of pink, I studied photos and hoped for the best; the pansy is from a mix but was flowering when I planted it so I knew the crocus had to fit with these shades of lavender and dusty pink. Note also the way the emerging leaves of Tulipa 'Silver Parrot' have a pinkish edge. I wish I could say that I had planned that detail but that's where serendipity comes in! The tulip is new to me too, so let's hope that fits with the colour scheme as planned...
Crocus tommasinianus var. roseus and Pansy 'Cancan'

 So all the classic signs of spring's approach are here: although the nights are still frosty the sun is almost warm, buds are swelling and threatening to burst and so are Elizabeth's sheep in the field  behind the back-up stock area.

Hard to get comfy nowadays
 The birds and the bees
The birds have gone berserk. It's like something out of Hitchcock. On the way to work a buzzard buzzed me, a rook dropped a twig, no a branch, on my car and blackbirds and pheasants played 'chicken' across the road. This afternoon as I stood at the top of my stepladder pruning the willow arbour a shadow dropped to the ground and there was an almighty shrieking. The sparrowhawk had nailed another blackbird and when I went to investigate  it was crouched on the ground mantling (covering the victim with its wings) and glaring at me to make sure I didn't even think of interfering. The predator got its come-uppance later when a couple of jackdaws called in reinforcements: within two minutes a cloud of angry birds - about 40 jackdaws plus rooks and magpies - was whirling and squawking around the hawk. Eventually it broke away and everyone went home.

A bee dives into Crocus 'Blue Pearl'

Bumblebees have been lumbering about for a while, but this is the first week I have noticed large numbers of honeybees rummaging in the flowers. They need all the help they can get after a hard winter. Joe says that both his hives died out this year, honeybees are in difficulty - mites, disease and now the weather have taken a heavy toll. Having as many early-flowering plants in your garden as possible helps these insects to recover.

To market, to market...
On Tuesday morning I went to the market to buy a few plants because I'm doing a demonstration/talk for a garden club next week so I want to be able to give them a few ideas for things they can be doing now. I'll let you know the recipe for the planting I do for them in next week's post.

I was very pleased to see that there was a new plant stall (Spinneywell  Nursery) at Moreton-in-Marsh market with some old favourites and a few unusual plants all in 9cm pots. Plants in small pots are very useful when you want to cram plenty of material into a planting. Market stalls will usually have competitively priced multibuy offers and of course the stallholder just brings what's looking good now - so it is easy to choose if you are wanting instant effects.

Moreton market - a major Cotswold attraction
Go ahead, have some sweeties!
It was hard to resist the gaudy primulas and little potfuls of daffs that were on display at the other stalls. It looked like a lovely easterish box of sweets. Don't go thinking I'm against primulas - they are great when you want a dollop of colour at this time of year, it's just that I was looking for something else, but I won't tell you what it was until next week. In fact I get annoyed by plant snobbery, it is yet another of my hobby horses (I have a whole herd). After all, why deprive yourself of a certain plant just because someone else thinks it is common as muck? Have the plants you like, that's what I say.
Barn Close Nursery's stall at the market.

Where do you get yours?
People often ask me where I get my plants. I try to propagate as many as I can myself but when I do buy I like to buy from a range of sources. Occasionally I buy a few from an exciting repository of rarities such as Bob Brown's Cotswold Garden Flowers; I also use mail order, go to local garden centres, farm shops, markets, horticultural shows, garden gate stalls with honesty boxes, even DIY stores (but here you have to be careful about the quality of the plants as they may have been under cover for too long or badly watered). In short I go where everyone else goes as I don't want to be like the annoying cookery recipes in magazines which look lovely but demand absurdly obscure ingredients.

I also now have the temptation of the Hillier plants that we sell at the pottery, they do a great range of shrubs and perennials and my next job is to finalise the order I'm placing to replenish our stocks in time for our April Foolishness event. I already have my beady eye on some of the goodies in their availability list...

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Time to get a move on.

Crocus 'Prins Claus' in the Courtyard Garden

More and more bulbs are brightening up our lives as we rapidly slide towards the most hectic part of the year. My new compost has arrived, so have all my seeds and next week I shall be seed sowing in earnest.

So far I have sown the sweet peas, and a few odds and ends such as Cerinthe major 'Purpurascens', saved in paper bags from last year. I have also used up a few packets which were opened last year - they may work or they may be dead, in which case I will still have plenty of time to grow alternatives.
I have to resist the temptation to sow too many seeds early or I will run out of space in the greenhouse and polytunnel when the weather is still too cold to harden young plants off. But those pristine new packets do look exciting!

My glamorous assistant
As the season gathers momentum I start asking for more help. I am allowed to have Barbara (Miss Babs) once a week now. If you have been here you may have met her because she also decorates pots, helps customers, knows where everything is and stops the staff room from turning into a pigsty. She is so omnipresent you might think she is one of identical triplets. Babs is a very big help, she works so hard and doesn't moan when I give her mucky, repetitive jobs either. Most importantly she has green fingers and she makes me laugh a lot.
Miss Babs potting up lilies.

This week Miss Babs hurtled about sorting out the lilies. We have about a dozen pots left over from last year; normally I would completely repot these during the dormant period. This year, however, I am gambling with just replacing the compost above the bulbs and adding some slow release fertiliser. We'll see. It saves on labour time and compost but it may mean that some of the bulbs don't re-flower so well and we may get more lily beetle and vine weevil. She also planted about 10 pots of fresh lilies using bulbs from December's mail order offer: El Grado is a deep reddish pink about 15" tall and Mona Lisa is a scented beauty 24" tall with pink speckled flowers, each petal having a darker pink central stripe.

Ideal homes for lilies.
We make a lot of Lily pots here. If you look at the range you will see that they are relatively tall, narrow pots. This is partly for aesthetic reasons - a plant which naturally is tall and flowers at the top looks more in proportion in a tall pot. A narrow pot which does not flare too much at the top also means that there is little bare compost around the stems.
L. 'Fire King' in a Floral Tom last summer.

There are more important reasons for choosing a tallish pot: lily bulbs like to have about 3 or 4 inches of compost above them and they need at least 3 or 4 inches below them to give their roots room to spread and feed. Many produce roots from their stems too, so deep planting helps them to anchor themselves.

Horticulture in the bath
The weirdest reason for choosing a tall, narrow pot is that the drainage is sharper than in a short, fat one. I am still looking for a physicist who can explain this to me in layman's terms but I would urge you to play in the bath with a rectangular sponge and you'll see what I mean. Anyway, lilies hate to sit in winter wet, so any Whichford pot is good, but a tall, narrow one is best.

Going anywhere nice for your holidays?
This week Tom Negus the tree surgeon came to do some work for us. We have a lot of trees and some were beginning to take more than their fair share of the light and crowd some of the buildings. Tom's been very busy since the awful winter but luckily we managed to get him in before the birds start nesting. He has crown-lifted the oaks near the greenhouse and thinned the large field maples which punctuate the hedges. Like any good hair cut the change in shape and weight has an instantly rejuvenating effect.

Tom and one of the field maples.

Finding it just a little nerve-wracking watching Tom remove large branches above my tatty but beloved greenhouse I wander off to look at the plantings. Every time I time I turn my back on them a few more crocuses pop up. The fat shoots of Fritillaria persica are emerging now... it's all very exciting but I have to stop wallowing in anticipation and go and do some real work!