Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Promises, promises and a quick visit to Chelsea Flower Show

I have started the summer planting, honestly I have. The ones I have done mainly involve plants which were desperate - I had a whole trayful of Lathyrus sativus 'Tutankhamun' which had knitted together horribly and gone a bit yellow at the base. I decided to mix these in with some other plants and I will wait until they have recovered a little before I photograph them. I hope they will recover because they have gorgeous almost turquoise blue flowers with pink veining... Sorry, you'll just have to wait a while.

Alpines beginning to overflow
Remember that alpine planting I did a while ago and then it got knocked over? The plants are romping away now - I can see that I'll soon have to remove or split a few of the plants as it is going beyond luxuriance and becoming shapeless now.

Allium cristophii and Pansy 'Can-can'
Allium cristophii's metallic flowers are gleaming in the stockyard pots. The beds in the courtyard garden are well stocked with Allium 'Globemaster' and the delphiniums are beginning to come out, bursting through cushions of Phuopsis stylosa and geraniums. The overflowing flowerbeds take over from the pots a little now, which gives me a bit of breathing space for replanting the pots.

Mood music
It's at this time of year that the staff linger outside for as long as possible over break and lunch. On Thursday Simon (one of our throwers) brought his new guitar in and we persuaded him to play outside, making the garden even more idyllic.

Ladies and Gentlemen please welcome Mr Simon Day and his 12 strings
Change of tempo
Jim Keeling with his Golden Cypress
I have just come back from a much less peaceful scene - Chelsea Flower Show. Yesterday morning I joined the London commuters on the 6.15 from Moreton-in-Marsh; we aren't exhibitors this year but Hillier has used Jim's latest sculpture, the Golden Cypress, on their huge stand in the marquee, and I was offered a spare ticket for Press Day.

Jim's extraordinary creation is so large and complex that it involved just about everyone at the pottery, firing, spraying, hand-gilding, manoeuvring and packing it for its journey. Now it gleams from amongst Hillier's wonderful collection of trees and shrubs.

Today (Tuesday) we have learnt that for the 62nd year in a row Hillier has achieved a gold medal. Well done everyone!

I left Jim to talk to possible customers and went to inspect this year's crop of gardens and exhibits.

Do I know you?
Press day is also celeb day so I was distracted to a certain extent because I kept seeing people I thought I knew. Some, such as Ringo Starr, attracted swarms of photographers, others managed to be more discreet. I suddenly realised I was standing next to Dame Maggie Smith while we both scrutinised Andy McIndoe's planting on the Hillier exhibit. A photographer thanked her for allowing him to snap her, "Well I didn't have any alternative" was her slightly acerbic response.

Even though she obviously had a book to plug I couldn't help feeling slightly sorry for Gwyneth Paltrow as she was pushed out to walk across  the B&Q garden towards an army of paperazzi (standing on chairs they'd pinched from the exhibitors' restaurant). She did look a bit sheepish.

Gwyneth Paltrow runs the gauntlet

I bet she's looking forward to her shower.

Many other gardens opted for living sculptures with slightly lower profile. Having decorative people in your garden may make for entertaining photos but it does rather distract from the garden. In some cases I suppose it did make up for a genuine lack of interest but in many I thought it was a shame that even keen gardeners like me were being distracted from the plants and design by all the shenanigans. The fiercest competition at Chelsea is for the prize of publicity, however, so the gloves and sometimes a lot of other clothing, are off.
A little t'ai chi in the garden?

There was some clever planting. I always enjoy Cleve West's gardens so I wasn't surprised to find myself drawn to his even before I knew who had designed it. His gardens always seem warm-hearted and useable, whereas some Chelsea show gardens can be stylish but cold.

Cleve West's garden at Chelsea. Gold, Best in Show.

 I also enjoyed the blend of colours in Luciano Giubbilei's garden, a designer I don't remember seeing before.

Planting by Luciano Giubbilei Gold Medal

Planting by Tom Hoblyn
The colour combinations in Tom Hoblyn's planting were fresh and clean and not often seen at Chelsea. There was beautiful stonework and woodwork in all of these gardens and many more but I'm afraid I naturally get more excited about the soft landscaping than the hard landscaping - and, by the way, I saw no exciting container planting at all. Can't help thinking we should do a garden some time!

So it follows that I usually spend more time inside the marquee than outside. I was very pleased to see that Hardy's Cottage Garden Plants had chosen to exhibit their beautiful Anemone 'Wild Swan' in a Whichford pot. We learned this morning that this has been voted Plant of the Year. I'd like to think the pot helped...

Anemone 'Wild Swan' in a Kitchen Garden pot
Plant of the Year
Anemone 'Wild Swan'

So if you visit Chelsea this week please have a look at the Whichford contributions - and enjoy the show.

Your chance to gather some more ideas
By the way Andy McIndoe - who masterminded the spectacular Hillier stand - is coming to the pottery on Saturday June 11th to talk on "Form, Foliage and Flowers", tickets are still available so why not take the chance to hear from someone with a phenomenal track record of growing and exhibiting plants?

I'll be talking the next day (June 12th) on "Pots for Special Occasions" so I really hope to see some of you there - I hope to be able to give you some inspiration for summer plantings. Just call the Pottery on 01608 684416 or see the website for details.
The Golden Cypress
Hillier gold medal-winning exhibit, Chelsea Flower Show

Monday, 16 May 2011

Viola time is nearly over but the birds are still going strong

Pansy 'Can-Can' still colourful but getting scruffy.
Allium karataviense 'Ivory Queen' in the seed pan at bottom right.
Pansies and violas have done a sterling job but are now just reaching the borderline between luxuriance and scruffiness. It seems a shame but Babs and I are just about to start ripping them all out and planting up all the summer stuff.

Fluffy balls
Alliums are still looking good: Allium karataviense 'Ivory Queen' has been attracting a lot of comment from visitors to the pottery. Unlike most alliums this has neat leaves which look sculptural and interesting as soon as they emerge and stay in pretty good shape while the flower - like a fluffy white tennis ball - expands. So it looks great by itself in a pot, preferably with a gravel or pebble mulch covering the surface of the compost.

Violas in a small fritillary pot
We won't empty all the pots at once, the changeover process will take from now until July probably. I'll keep the best survivors until last. The violas will go on the compost heap, some bulbs will be saved, others composted. All the shrubs and perennials will be potted up in plastic and kept for use next autumn.

Waiting in the wings
I've been having difficulty hardening plants off in this sunny but cool and windy weather so the polytunnel is bursting and it is almost impossible to walk through the greenhouse now. I leave the doors of both open during the day and now the polytunnel is open at night as well. It has doors at both ends, so hopefully the plants in there will not find outdoor conditions too much of a shock.

The polytunnel jungle

Hardy annuals such as marigolds are easy to harden off, Linaria 'Spanish Dancer' was positively relieved to get out in the cool air this year. You have to be extra careful with more tender subjects, however, plants like Tithonia rotundifolia and Morning Glory (Ipomoea purpurea) will simply stop growing if exposed to cool temperatures too suddenly.

Le rouge et le noir
Having said that I have been sneaking a few tender things out already. One of my favourites is Pelargonium ardens, with small but astonishingly, properly, red flowers, each petal having a dark mark which invites you to grow black plants with it such as Aeonium arboreum 'Zwartkop'. It seems to like relatively cool conditions so it is one of the first of my pelargoniums to be allowed out.
Pelargonium ardens in a Frilly Lily pot

Pot to Plate
On Friday and Saturday we had one of our special events, "Pot to Plate" with guest speakers Sophie Grigson (well known for, amongst other things, urging people to Eat Your Greens), and Chris Smith from Pennard Plants. Chris gave a really informative and interesting talk on growing edible plants in pots. I found it satisfying because he confirmed many things I have found for myself by trial and error (it's always reassuring when that happens) and he was obviously comfortable with growing plants in terracotta generally.

You'd be surprised how many gardeners are prejudiced against terracotta because they have been told it is difficult to keep watered. I shall rant about this in more detail another time but take it from me it is no more difficult than using less porous containers, in fact in my experience it is easier. One of the things we agree on is that it is not helpful to line terracotta with plastic (advice parroted in some surprising publications).

Chris Smith talking at Whichford Pottery.  Photo by Lynda Dyer
At Pennard Plants Chris grows a wide range of herbs, salads, vegetables and fruit, so he was full of useful suggestions for suitable varieties and combinations (too many to list here I'm afraid...) and brought plenty to sell too. I often use edibles mixed with the ornamental plantings but listening to Chris has made me think that maybe we should find a space for a potted potager of some sort. Maybe next year as I have planned all this summer's spaces already. Food for thought anyway.

Mrs B the blackbird on her nest.
Avian triumphs and disasters
We were also excited last week because Mrs B built a beautiful nest in a wall pot and was firmly sitting in it on Thursday despite the fact that it was right next to a busy path. And we were so disappointed to find on Friday morning that the nest had been raided (jackdaws probably) and little blue eggs were spattered on the path.

She has already raised one brood but she normally does three or four as far as we can tell. I'm glad to say that she is all right and has been busy building in the rose on the wall of the pottery, let's hope the thorns deter predators.

There are other birds all over the place. As I drive to work in the morning yellowhammers and goldfinches burst up from the road. The friendly robin has raised a brood successfully and was escorting them about on the compost heap this morning. A few days ago there was a fledgling robin in the greenhouse - they seem to get the hang of finding their way out relatively quickly, luckily.

Baby robin in the greenhouse
This morning the wren was singing well above its weight (how does such a small bird have such a loud voice?) perched in the backup stock area. I'm not sure where it is nesting but there is usually one living around the sheds somewhere.
Wren in backup.
After a little much-needed rain growth is lush and it is getting harder to move stock along the paths, nevertheless the birds are not the only ones to be busy here and despite the upheavals of summer special events our amazing making team is managing to produce plenty of stock - I think you'll agree it looks fantastic even before it is planted!

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Deadheading in the rain

Rain at last! This means goodbye to almost all of the tulips, and this year Tulip 'Queen of Night' wins the prize for last tulip standing - or rather leaning - and very delicious it looks too, bedecked with raindrops.

Tulip 'Queen of Night'

Tulip 'Picture' in a Great Warwick Pot
Tulip 'Picture' is one of the latest to colour up and has lasted as long as 'Queen of Night'. It isn't to everyone's taste, being such a strangely curly tulip, but it it has strong stems and a clear colour and is one of the sturdy, tall tulips that I can safely recommend to people who are nervous of tall plants in pots and think that everything "suitable for container planting" should be stunted and squat.
Tulip 'Carnaval de Nice' in a Basket Lily Pot
I'm writing this at home, so I can't see, but I am pretty sure that Tulip 'Carnaval de Nice' will have been dashed to pieces by the heavy rain; a few days ago it had opened as far as it possibly could and once tulips have done that the tepals are much more likely to be knocked off by wind, rain, dogs, children, handbags, hosepipes and the fairies at the bottom of the garden.

Off with their heads.
Now is the time to dead-head them. If you only have limited time just make sure that you snap the developing seed-heads off the tulips so that the bulbs don't waste energy on seed production and have a better chance of producing flowers next year. It is, however, worth going further than that: I always underplant tulips with other plants, especially violas and pansies, and in order to keep these in good enough condition to rise up and take over from the defunct bulbs I normally cut the tulip stems down to just above the first big leaf.
Cutting off tulip stems
In theory this does reduce the amount of energy going back into the bulb, but I want my plantings to look good until it is safe to get all the summer bedding out of the greenhouse. Most of our tulip bulbs either go on the compost heap or get planted in my or Jim's gardens, so I don't really mind if they are a little bit weakened. My priority is to keep the other plants happy, so if some of those big floppy tulip leaves are sitting on them I will take those off too by twisting them at the base.

Removing a lower leaf

Before - the remains of the tulips dominate
This means that the plants around them get more light and air and will soon fill the space and carry on flowering. I try to remove just one big leaf per tulip to give it a sporting chance. Doing this and making sure the violas are dead-headed regularly will make your pots look better immediately, it prolongs the display and you will get your money's worth out of your plants instead of letting the bedding languish and rot under dying bulb leaves.

Where did those pop up from?
It's amazing what a visual distraction the redundant tulip leaves and stems are. As soon as you remove them you will find that people suddenly start to notice the other plants in the pot.

After - Blue conifer Chamaecyparis pisifera, Violas, Anemone blanda 'White Splendour', Pinks and delicate white Allium cowanii can all see the light of day again

The four pictures above were taken at my house, so you won't see this potful at the Pottery but there is plenty more to see there at the moment. I have just recently taken the two Echium pininana out of the polytunnel and put them in the courtyard garden - these are officially biennials but I have had to keep them going for three years until finally they decided to flower.

Echium pininana

Echium pininana is the kind of thing you might see on the mild coasts of Cornwall growing outside, but in darkest Warwickshire it needs to spend the winter in shelter. Pots are a great way to extend the range of things you can grow, many tender-ish plants can be sheltered in garages, summer-houses or porches if you don't have a greenhouse or polytunnel.

Tasty trilliums
And finally I'll leave you with the still-fresh Trillium chloropetalum  - I have a small collection of Arisaemas and Trilliums at the Pottery, which do surprisingly well in pots in shady areas and help to provide interest during the pause between the tulips and the lilies. If you have a crowded garden - as most plantaholics do - pots can be a good place to keep such unusual treasures because they disappear so thoroughly when they are dormant that it is easy to lose them in flowerbeds.
Trillium chloropetalum with Heuchera 'Key Lime Pie'

Oh all right, here's one more - this is a pot of Trillium flexipes, photographed last week. Sometimes it's best to keep things simple.
Trillium flexipes in a Long Tom