Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Time to start the excavations

I'm not sure whether this beautiful indian summer is going to make the arrival of autumn proper more or less bearable. There's no denying the gorgeousness of it though.

The garden at Whichford Pottery on Tuesday.
All plants except the rosemary and the trees in the background are growing in pots.

Brugmansia sanguinea forming more buds at last
I can see that the Brugmansia sanguinea is forming more flower buds, so I'm really hoping that there will be a last hurrah before I have to dig out all the tender plants and cram them into the greenhouse and polytunnel.

Choose your weapons
The thing is, I have to start now. There are about 300 pots to change over so if I leave it too long I will still be planting bulbs in January. I love to see the summer plantings lasting so well but I have to steel myself to start destroying them.

So this week I decided that the display by the arch into the stockyard was looking the worst, fetched my trusty Sneerboer sharp mini pointy spade thing and started to slice through root balls.

Save or chuck?
Annuals such as the remains of the sunflowers, the petunias, Nicotiana glauca and Ipomoea 'Grandpa Ott' go straight to the compost heap. I keep up to about half a dozen of each tender perennial for overwintering, so from this display I harvested some Agastache foeniculum 'Licorice Blue', some purple salvia (name long lost) and a couple of Abutilon 'Canary Bird'.
The entrance to the stock yard at the beginning of August
The Agapanthus have already gone to the polytunnel in their pots. I dug up the huge clump of Dahlia 'Moore Place' (just visible to the left rear of the picture above) and heeled it in in a large plastic tub to die back naturally. I also saved a couple of tubers of the Dicentra scandens which knitted this display together. This is a hardy plant in the ground but as I am going to try to keep it in small plastic pots over winter I shall keep them in the polytunnel and see what happens - this plant is easy to grow from seed so I can always start again next year.

The bones of the display: the terracotta pots are all positioned before planting.
The large pot containing a climbing rose lives there permanently
Fresh start
Once the plants had been removed I changed a few of the pots - choosing some with tulip decoration or Christmassy wreaths for winter. I will keep the chunky garland ovals where they are because they are handy on this corner as they don't stick out as much as round pots would. This wall is directly opposite the doors to the pottery and large trolleys bearing freshly-fired pots from the kilns have to be manoeuvred round the corner - if I take up too much space with plantings I get complaints from Joe, Riv and Chris! The vine pot on the far right probably sticks out a little too much but I have deliberately used a small pot there so that it can be moved easily if necessary.
Hardy perennials and shrubs propped up in position before planting commences
Give it a coat of looking at
Having faffed about for a while arranging empty pots I then half-filled them with compost and brought out some hardy perennials and shrubs, violas and a selection of bulbs. I positioned all the biggest plants (still in their plastic pots) so that I could get an idea of the balance and shape of the display.

Tulip 'Heart's Delight' will feature
in this area

This area will contain red and white tulips and  reddish foliage and stems, mid-green foliage (which I think of as neutral), Viola 'Sorbet White' and a few shots of blue from bulbs such as Iris 'Halkis', Allium caeruleum and Camassia leichtlinii 'Caerulea'.

Rule Britannia
From this you may have gathered that the stockyard will be dominated by red,white and blue next spring. I thought I'd have a go at patriotic colour combinations in honour of the Olympics and the Queen's Diamond Jubilee next year.

At the time of writing (Wednesday) I am half-way through planting this area and will put up a photo of the finished article next week. The planting is slow because it is complex and because I write all the bulbs and plants for each pot in a notebook so that I know what should be popping up in a few months' time. I get faster as my head gets into autumn mode and start being able to imagine the spring results more easily.

A colourful greeting still - the entrance path to Whichford Pottery
Oh get on with it
I'm really going to hate dismantling the displays along the entrance path, I have enjoyed watching them develop. I can't leave them too late because this is a cold, windswept area in the winter, so I want the plantings to be establishing before the hardest weather.

This picture was taken at the end of last week - you can just see Jim rushing around getting ready for the big Japanese weekend.

I managed to avoid helping with this and took myself to Oxford on Friday with my camera

Fair Oxenforde
I had a quick look round  Oxford Botanic Garden; they have some fabulous trees which are just asking to be hugged and their borders were in fine fettle.
Whichford pops up in various guises around this garden and in the many glasshouses, here is one of our rhubarb forcers (they have our seakale forcers too).

Whichford Rhubarb Forcer in Oxford Botanic Garden
Alma mater
Then I dropped in on Brasenose, my old college. They have some pots which we made for their recent quincentenary, featuring the door knocker the college may be named after. BNC doesn't have a garden as such, it has two quads, Old and New, linked by a small space called The Deer Park. This is either a wry reference to the much grander Magdalen's real deer park or there is a story of a stag being hunted all the way from Blenheim to Oxford, only to meet its grisly end at Brasenose. Not so much a garden as a gap.

Whichford pots in Old Quad, Brasenose College

But I digress - BNC is a good example of pots being used to supplement limited growing room - they can be moved when the space is needed for something else, they frame doorways nicely and provide some softness and colour against all that lovely golden stone.

Pots in the stockyard this week

Stridulating until winter comes
Back on home ground I am still torn between two seasons - loving the warm autumn, missing the long days of summer - and dreading winter. I must remember to stay in the moment and enjoy the way things are now.

Just like my small green friend pictured below does.
Speckled Bush Cricket in the courtyard garden

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Flourishing, declining and falling gracefully

Salvias, dahlias and fuchsias are flourishing still, despite cold nights. I often chunter on about fuchsias as part of my campaign against plant-related snobbery. For too long now, fuchsias have not only been mis-spelled but have also been dismissed as "suburban" or "blowsy", the implication being that no-one should therefore countenance them. Unless they are species rather than cultivars, in which case they are just about acceptable as long as their flowers are small and preferably whiteish.

Fuchsia tense
Now, let me get a little rant off my chest: there is nothing wrong with big flowers, blowsy flowers, blobby flowers, double flowers, stripy flowers, bright flowers, cheap flowers or common flowers. They are JUST FLOWERS! If you like them, have them. There are ways of using them which suit different tastes and different situations but THERE IS NOTHING INHERENTLY WRONG WITH ANY FLOWERS.

Except for dried flowers and dyed flowers.

What's not to like? Fuchsia 'Lady Boothby'
Fuchsia 'Lady Boothby' still going strong despite
being associated with frightfully common petunias
A promising fuchsia
I like to use fuchsias in mixed plantings, this probably horrifies fuchsia purists but I say in my defence that I don't need them to be big, beefy specimens, I need them to be threading their dangly earrings through other plants to provide reliable late summer colour whether in sun or shade. This they do admirably.

F. 'Lady Boothby' has won the battle with Ipomoea 'Grandpa Ott' (see 6 July). Her Ladyship is still going strong (these pictures were taken this week) but Grandpa couldn't take the chilly nights and has gone to seed.

Fuchsia 'Thamar'

Investing for the fuchsia
Last year we had a fuchsia event, which I christened, inevitably, "Back to the Fuchsia". CS Lockyer brought a large selection of their vast collection of fuchsia varieties for sale and of course I had to have some. 'Thamar' in the picture on the left is one of my favourites. The colours are sugary but the outward-facing flowers with their sprays of stamens bristle cheekily. It is a plant which makes me smile whenever I see it.

Fuchsia 'Bornemann's Beste' in my garden

Another favourite is 'Borneman's Beste', this is a colour which I can taste (sherbet lemon, since you ask, don't ask me why). I know this one is tender but I have great difficulty remembering which ones are supposedly hardy, so I try to keep at least one plant of each in the greenhouse over winter. This way I can get them growing nice and early and take softwood cuttings from the new growth so that I have plenty of small plants for inserting in the summer plantings.

Pink pendants of Fuchsia 'Shrimp Cocktail' blending
 with Hordeum jubatum and minty pelargonium

Potted shrimps
A little bit of F.'Shrimp Cocktail' peeps out of one of the Swag and Acanthus pots by the path in the picture to the left - this is a small plant rather swamped in an overcrowded planting but as it was from a batch of spring cuttings and cost me virtually nothing I don't mind it being part of the chorus instead of playing a starring role.

Some of the annuals are beginning to lose the will to live, we have had quite a few cold nights now and the petunias and didiscus are really slowing down. Over the last week Kochia trichophylla has done its autumn colour change trick and will soon be dead.
Kochia trichophylla in July

Kochia trichophylla blushing this week

Ping Pong surprisingly strong
One of the new annuals I tried this year was Scabiosa stellata 'Ping Pong'. Apart from the fact that I thought it was going to be shorter so planted it in rather small pots, it has been really interesting. The young leaves were glaucous and pretty but the flowering heads shot up to two feet and promptly fell over. I left most of them as they were because the flowers were delicately pretty:
Scabiosa stellata 'Ping Pong'

In the last couple of weeks, however, it has become apparent that the seedheads are even better:
Seedhead of Scabiosa stellata 'Ping Pong'

I can see that my flower-arranging friends are going to love this. I know what I said about dried flowers - this is a seedhead, so I am allowed to like it.

Just look where you're going...
Talking of falling over  - I arrived at work on Monday, picked up a small glazed pot of coleus, carried it out of the greenhouse and tripped over. I went down like I had been felled by a tiny lumberjack and lay on the path wondering if I had broken any bones. I hadn't even broken the pot and apart from a few bruises and dented dignity I was fine. John helped me gather my spilt plants and my wits and sensibly made me sit down for a bit in case I decided to do an action replay. How kind, I thought.
It didn't last, he was soon calling "Again, again!" like the Teletubbies, followed by various other little witticisms. And this Picasso-style scene of crime appeared while I was re-stocking my compost bucket:
An uncanny likeness
Any minute now (as long as I can manage to stay upright) I will start planting the spring bulbs. I have already potted up some Crocus speciosus (autumn crocus) and a Hippeastrum 'Red Lion', but they don't really count.

Spring bulb FAQ
One of the most frequently asked frequently asked questions at the bulb sale was Do I plant them now?
My answer is almost always Yes. The longer you hang on to bulbs, the more likely they are to shrivel up or rot. For maximum viability plant as soon as possible. If you can't plant immediately keep those bulbs cool, dry, frost-free and mouse-free for as little time as possible. Don't keep them in plastic bags as they may get a bit sweaty.
I know all the books tell you to leave tulip planting until late autumn/early winter but I plant about 200-250 pots and can't wait until then. I plant the tulips 6-8 inches deep and (touch wood) have had no problems with blight, I find the bulbs are much more likely to be affected by mould if you try to store them for too long.
Early-flowering bulbs such as crocus, iris and early narcissi benefit from early planting so that they can get their roots established hopefully before really hard frosts arrive.
Fritillary bulbs don't have a papery covering so are very prone to mould - get them in as quickly possible!

Jim Keeling with one of his Japanese-inspired vases (left)
and a vase from Bizen (right)
Turning Japanese
And finally, we have had the most extraordinary range of Japanese ceramics arrive for the new selling exhibition at the Octagon.

Here's Jim lurking in the garden with one of his own Japanese-style creations in one hand and a vase from the famous Bizen potteries in the other. An exhibition like this is a rare event - so if you like ceramics I advise you to visit soon.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Delicious dahlias and a case of wind

Lots of customers, regular and new, have been to the pottery in the last few days and many of them have been very excited by the dahlias. It seems to me that not only are dahlias permissible now but fewer people are afraid of orange and many are embracing red and yellow. I have noticed that "Of course I don't have orange and yellow in my garden" is a less frequent announcement. And I am glad.
Flashes of red and yellow from (top to bottom)
Pelargonium ardens, Dahlia 'Bishop of York', D. 'Bishop of Llandaff',
D. 'Red Riding Hood' and D. 'Swan Lake'
The picture above is a bit blurry thanks to the fringes of Hurricane Katia but it gives a flavour of the courtyard garden at the moment.The wind has been whipping everything about but I have inserted many willow hoops to limit the damage and only a few stems have broken - so far.

Dahlia 'Bishop of Auckland'
Eye candy
Let me show you a few more of these autumnal eye-catchers. I'm wondering whether we should have a Dahlia sale next year, so before I start lobbying the pottery I'd love it if any of our customers who are interested in buying dahlias would let me know if they like the idea and/or suggest varieties that might be worth trying.

Dahlia Melody 'Swing'

The neat pom-poms below are Dahlia 'Small World'. I'm very fond of this floriferous dahlia but I have to avert my eyes from it because I have been to the scary alternative world that is EuroDisney (nearly 10 years ago) and EVERY time I look at this plant the tune from the Small World ride starts again in my head and doesn't wear off for hours. In fact I know I will pay the price even for looking at this picture as the incredibly irritatingly catchy jingle goes around and around in my head. Google it if you dare, you'll soon see what I mean.

Dahlia 'Small World' - it's a small world after all...

It is quite surprising that the dahlias have done so well when you consider that this is the Year of the Earwig. They are everywhere - in my hair, in the pots, in Babs's mixed fruit and nuts. Admittedly they have marmalised Dahlia Gallery 'Bellini' and munched their way round the edges of  Dahlia Gallery 'Pablo' and I wonder whether this is because the Gallery hybrids are particularly delicious or because they happen to be near popular earwiggy hideouts.

Dahlia 'Ragged Robin' in a Bicentenary Urn
Dahlia 'Ragged Robin', however, has escaped unscathed and continues to flower its little red socks off. It may be that its pleasantly untidy petals hide any damage. Single dahlias are less fequently damaged in fact, as earwigs like to be able to wriggle into the crevices of a complex flower - they like to have both back and front in contact with a surface.

A dry eye
The thing that really puts people off dahlias is the work. I dig all mine out and dry them for storage indoors but that is because I have excessive numbers of them and need to do different combinations each year.

With a smaller collection it is possible to bring the pots into a greenhouse, polytunnel or garage after the first frost has blackened them and let them dry off. This is slightly more risky as the tubers are more prone to rot like this but you can leave them until you have time to excavate them and store them.

This is a time of year when I could easily panic. The bulb sale is still going on and yet the postman keeps bringing me boxes of viola and pansy plug plants which desperately need potting up. Dead-heading takes about a day a week and I have to start planting bulbs and dismantling tired plantings. Oh and the greenhouse is a mess so I need to sort that out before bringing in all the tender plants...

To sea in a marquee, you see?
I spent most of the weekend in the marquee behind the Octagon talking to people about spring bulbs. It's a sturdy metal-framed marquee but it did feel like our moorings were loosening and we were about to sail off across Warwickshire.

Inside the marquee at the annual Whichford Pottery spring bulb sale

Miss Babs packing alliums
This year we have even more varieties than usual - 35 different tulips and 17 hardy narcissi for a start! Of course this means a lot of packing, as we bag them up ourselves. Miss Babs bears the brunt of this but Lynne, Dave and I plus anyone else we can pressgang pitch in too.

During this first weekend we sold out of five different tulips and 10 other bulbs but there are still plenty of goodies left at the moment. It was lovely to see so many happy repeat customers, many raving about the success they had last spring. Several impressively well-organised people arrived with the labels from the bulbs they bought last year so that they could find more of the same, or similar, this year.

I hear you
I have made a list of Frequently Asked Questions and will be tackling some of these in the next few weeks.

Solanum laciniatum drooping in the wind
As I write the wind is still belting about, bouncing off the walls and testing the endurance of plants and people. It makes me very tense, I find it hard to sleep on a stormy night purely because I am fretting about my plants. It is the large-leafed jungly things which suffer quickly. I have been loving exotic-looking Solanum laciniatum, which I grew from seed this year, but it really doesn't like the wind, which is sucking moisture out of those big leaves faster than the plant can take it up even though I have done my best to keep the pots moist.
I am hoping that the distress won't be terminal, as I want to see what colour the seedpods which follow its purple flowers will be.
Solanum laciniatum looking quite happy
A weather eye
I find that is vital to observe the plants and notice the difference between stressed foliage and happy foliage - if you see signs of stress the likely cure is water but always check the compost with a finger before watering as a plant struggling to cope with snail or vine-weevil damage will not thank you for drowning it. Some plants wilt faster than others, so you can use them as a sort of early warning system which tells you when to drop everything except the hosepipe.

The watering gets tricky at this time of year as it is the wind speeding up transpiration rates rather than the heat and you don't want plantings to be unnecessarily soggy so that plants which are prone to rots and grey mould, such as zonal pelargoniums, keel over. It is worth watering in the mornings so that surfaces and foliage can drain before the cool nights.

Vigilance, everyone! We can keep those summer displays going a bit longer...

Friday, 2 September 2011

Yes, We Have Hippeastrums, We Have HippeastrumsToday-ay-ay.

The bulbs are here! The bulbs are here! The lorry from Holland arrived at 8o'clock last night (hardly normal office hours, but never mind), and Jane, John and I have checked through the order and stowed the crates away. Last year we decided not to stock Hippeastrums, even though Rene always gets superb quality bulbs for us, because people are too used to buying piddly cheap ones in supermarkets. This year, however, we have been tempted back by H. 'Red Lion', which Rene The Bulbmaster promised us would be massive. He wasn't wrong.
Jane with Hippeastrum 'Red Lion'
The Whichford Pottery Bulb Sale
The sale starts on Friday 9th September and only lasts for a couple of weeks. We have about 30 different tulips, at least 15 narcissus varieties, fritillaries, crocus, alliums, camassia, chionodoxa, scilla, hyacinths, iris, anemones, nectaroscordum and muscari. I will be planting some of each this autumn, as I do every year: the prospect fills me with dread and pleasure in fluctuating proportions. 
Big, plump tulip bulbs fresh from The Netherlands

I have a love/hate relationship with our annual bulb sale. I hate the extra non-gardening hours and the fact that it always seems to take up the last warm weekend of the year, but I love seeing and chatting to all our faithful customers. They have learned that it is worth coming in the first couple of days if possible as stocks are limited, especially of novelties and/or rarities. They are also a good source of ideas for new bulbs for future bulb sales - as always, the best way to choose a plant is to talk to someone who has actually grown it, so I shall be making notes as well as giving testimonials and advice about various bulbs.

And I do enjoy planning next spring's displays, somehow this is easier when you actually have those plump packages of potential in front of you.

Today, the radio cruelly reminded me, is the start of autumn. Well, if it carries on like this for a while I won't find it too upsetting, this has been a warm day bathed in a beautiful soft light and once again I left work late because I had to take yet more pictures.
The stock yard at Whichford Pottery.
All the plants you can see (except the trees at the far end) are growing in pots.
The arching pink spires are red orache, the blue flowers with it are Salvia 'Indigo Spires'
Red orache - Atriplex hortensis var. rubra
Oh stop being such a weed.
The red orache (Atriplex hortensis var. rubra) has finally stopped looking like a giant weed and now is decorative and pinkish. It was pretty as a seedling but tedious in middle age and I cut some of it down as it was making the plantings look drab. I'm glad now that I spared a few plants as it glows in the sunshine and is exactly the dusky pink I was hoping for.
I will pay for it next year in hours spent weeding little purple seedlings from the gravel.

The two big italianate pots by the entrance arch are looking sumptuous. All the biggest plants are annuals: Ricinus 'New Zealand Purple' and Nicotiana glauca are towering in spite of lousy, windy, cold weather and Cobaea scandens 'Alba' has been guided along the pot arch - I had to use string to stop it from leaping off into neighbouring plantings.

This is what it looked like soon after planting in June, no plants have been added or subtracted since then.

Small but perfectly formed

At the other end of the scale, today's soft but clear light was perfect for inspecting the details of the small succulents dotted about the garden in tiny pots. Our little pots are often literally overlooked because we make such spectacular big pots but a collection of them gives huge pleasure and scope for variation.
This succulent was a nameless cutting given as a gift - can anyone identify it?
The dear little pot is a mini Rose Bowl

Right then, I'm not going to talk too much now - I'll just squeeze in a few more warm pictures - something tells me that soon we are going to be huddling round them, clinging to the memory of summer.

Acalypha pendula in a glazed Buxus Pot
Acalypha pendula's odd little cat tails were glowing this evening against the deep green of a glazed Buxus Pot. I bought this plant a year or two ago as plug-plant bedding and take cuttings in spring as the older plants seem to run out of puff after a year.

Shield bugs cosy in Aeonium arboreum 'Zwartkop'
The Eclipse Pots overflowing with Aeonium arboreum 'Zwartkop', Pelargonium 'Voodoo',
Begonia Non-Stop Mocca and Hordeum jubatum.
The drunken angle is me, not the pots.
And finally - Riv's beloved Staffy, Patrick, has been crowned "Most Handsome Dog" at the Whichford Fete. He hasn't let it go to his head.
Riv and Patrick at break time in the Whichford garden