Saturday, 16 July 2011

Taking the rough with the smooth

I have been waiting for rain, so that I don't have to waste productive gardening time writing the blog, but the phrase "Be careful what you wish for" springs to mind. As I write rain is hammering on the roof and my elder son is on his way to the Isle of Skye for his Duke of Edinburgh Gold expedition - with rain, rain and more rain forecast for north-west Scotland. Sorry lads!

I must look on the bright side - at least the outdoor plants probably won't need watering this weekend.

Hostas, ivy, hydrangeas and box - shades of green in a selection of Whichford pots
Ever vigilant
Rain can lull you into a false sense of security: pots close to buildings (such as those above, which are on the northern side of the Octagon) may not receive much water, so we will still have to check them carefully even if it carries on raining.

The last week or so has been mainly warm and quite sunny, so flowers and growth have been plentiful, the plantings are developing nicely. The alpines are fighting it out between themselves, growing far too lushly and crowdedly for a purist no doubt, but delightful nevertheless.
A happy jumble of alpines in a Whichford Orange Pot
Contentment in containers
Succulents in the Kew Gardens pots
The succulents I planted last week are already looking happier - they always respond surprisingly quickly to fresh compost and lighter conditions than those found in our rather grubby and shaded greenhouse.

Along the entrance path the flowers of salmon pink pelargoniums, blue lobelia, white begonia and bacopa are at last beginning to show in noticeable numbers.
One of a pair of Pastry Pots by the entrance path
planted with a box ball surrounded by zonal
pelargoniums, Lobelia 'Monsoon' and
Begonia 'Non-stop White'

By the entrance arch on the path I was glad to see that one of my all-time favourite flowers, Anagallis monelli 'Skylover' has begun to produce its intense blue blooms

Anagallis monelli 'Skylover' begins to flower by the entrance to Whichford Pottery
 Inconsiderate parking
Agapanthus add impact
I have parked rich blue Agapanthus (happiest by themselves rather than in mixed plantings) in this group - there is only just room for them either side of the path but they look so gorgeous and enjoy the open position so much that even though they encroach on the walkway I am keen to keep them there while they flower. I'll replace them with pots of salvias, fuchsias and dahlias when they have finished.

Mixed plantings flourish in large Italianate pots, accompanied by
Agapanthus in Icicle Pots
Striving for effect
In our changeable and changing climate I try not to rely purely on fleeting flower colour for visual satisfaction. Foliage colour is much more long-lasting and reliable. In the large italianate pots which flank the entrance arch maroon Ricinus 'New Zealand Purple'  and blue-grey Nicotiana glauca are sprouting upwards and contrasting dramatically with each other.

So consideration of colour, height and spread are all vital in plant choice.
Texture is also important. It's a funny thing, you aren't always conscious of it but if you analyse a plant combination that you find pleasing you will find that texture plays a major part.

Crinkly Salvia corrugata contrasts with smooth Nicotiana glauca
Crunchy vs fluffy vs smooth
I know I haven't photographed this brilliantly but if you bear with me and look closely at this photograph you will see that the creamy-smooth leaves of Nicotiana glauca and Salvia corrugata (there are clues in the names) have a similar colour but sharply contrasting texture. Salvia corrugata is a miserly producer of dark blue flowers and I grow it mainly for its crinkly foliage which has a tawny indumentum (covering of fine hairs) on the underside.

The textural effect can be in individual leaves or it can be the character of a whole plant. There are plants I think of as smooth (eg Nicotiana glauca), fluffy (Kochia trichophylla), crunchy (Pelargonium sidoides), furry (Cineraria maritima), shiny/metallic (Convolvulus cneorum) or spiky (Cordyline, Phormium).

It may seem eccentric to give these plants texture personalities - but it all helps in effective plant choice. That's my excuse anyway.

Fluffy Kochia trichophylla and Nemesia 'St George'
anchored by smooth Eucomis bicolor foliage
(with the added bonus of crunchy Eucomis flowers)
 Hands on
The visual effect usually tallies with the tactile sensation, but not always so. Keen gardeners are often to be seen feeling the foliage like a dressmaker assessing fabric - something I encourage but with the proviso that you wash your hands afterwards! It is worth encouraging children to do the same with plants you know to be safe - and even then it is worth teaching them not to put their hands in their mouths afterwards and to develop the habit of washing hands after playing in the garden. A surprising number of common garden plants can cause allergic reactions, especially in strong sunshine.
Metallic Convolvulus cneorum with soft, furry
Cineraria maritima 'Cirrus'. Both feel soft and velvety.

Pelargonium sidoides - definitely a crunchy plant.
Many succulents have a distinctly rubbery look about them - this fat smoothness contrasts well with the roughness of terracotta, which is why succulents look so much better in real terracotta than in terracotta-coloured plastic.

Echeveria secunda var. glauca - shown off so much better in Whichford terracotta!
 And finally, if the rain lets up I hope all my British readers are going to take part in The Big Butterfly Count, which starts today (July 16th) and carries on until the end of the month. Butterflies are an important indicator of the state of health of our ecosystems so the more data that can be compiled the better. What could be better than taking a few minutes sitting in the sunshine and watching the butterflies flutter by?
Male Gatekeeper basking on the long grass in the walnut field at Whichford Pottery on Monday this week

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