Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Dancing with Hens

Brugmansia sanguinea
The late season sunshine has meant that my Brugmansia sanguinea has had its moment of glory in the nick of time.

Season of fog and ambiguity
There are still quite a few potfuls of summer goodies on display so the season seems to vary depending on which way you look. In the centre of the courtyard garden there are still some dahlias, the Brugmansia and a large pot of Ornithogalum saundersii, all redolent of late summer.
Brugmansia sanguinea, Pelargonium 'Paul Crampel', Ornithogalum saundersii,
and Dahlia 'Black Jack' in Whichford Pottery's courtyard garden

Whereas around the corner in the stockyard the first batch of winter plantings, which I did a few weeks ago, has established nicely and is beginning to fill out.

Ready for winter: Parahebe catarractae, Viola 'Sorbet White', Leucothoe 'Scarletta'.
Beneath these lie Tulipa 'Jan Reus', T. 'White Parrot' and Muscari latifolium
Recent warm, windy weather and cool nights have made it difficult to get the irrigation right and some of the big leafy plants are really beginning to look battered, so Babs (my Tuesday glamorous assistant) and I have dismantled many of them.

Putting it down to experience
This Monday I had more help in the form of my very first work experience person. The pottery regularly takes work experience youngsters from local schools and colleges but most of them are art students wanting experience in ceramics. Donna is studying horticulture at college and will be coming here on Mondays for a few weeks to help broaden her practical experience.

Donna pots up a Heliotropium arborescens 'Marine' (one for the ident notebook!)
I hope the experience will be useful to her - I did carefully tell her that I don't always do things the 'approved' way - but she will at least encounter a wide variety of plants here. I think it will be a very useful exercise for me too, because I have to think harder about why I do certain things so that I can explain them to her. It will probably help me to identify inefficiencies in the way I work, although whether I act on that knowledge or not is another matter!

Clearing away another summer display with the help of Henny-Penny

Andy and the performing hen. Soon to be seen
on Britain's Got Talent.
Helpful hens
This week we dismantled the display inside the entrance to the courtyard garden, much to the delight of Jim and Dominique's hens. The hens have been very free range for a few weeks, their scratching about makes an awful mess and they have marmalised a clump of pinks, but I am tolerating it for the moment because they are doing a good job of gobbling up earwigs, woodlice and vine weevils, all of which have thrived in this dry summer.

This hen is ridiculously tame and has learned to turn up at lunch time, keeping a beady eye on our sandwiches and doing tricks in return for a crumb or two. I'm getting rather fond of her, so the fox is bound to get her soon.
Field maple praying for rain

This way please!
Rain has threatened several times in the past few days, and pregnant black clouds have formed a fine backdrop to the field maples but the showers have been passing us by. I have been feeling more and more desperate and did consider performing a rain dance...

No need! As soon as I had embarked on planting up the new display in the courtyard fat drops began to fall and soon my hair was plastered to my head and a layer of compost was adhering to every inch of my clothing.
Fully committed to planting up and here's the rain at last
Look on the bright side
Although this was particularly wet rain I didn't mind at all because it has been such a long time since we had proper rain; I could hear the plants sighing with relief.

It did remind me that I need new boots though.

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
And when I went into the Octagon to record the plantings in my notebook the contrast between my soggy state and the smugly fluffed-out Puss-puss was painful:

Puss-Puss. Warm, dry and fluffy in The Octagon

Salvia confertiflora enjoying the rain

I did stop planting to run about with my camera for a bit and celebrate the rain: when bright skies mix with heavy showers colours glow beautifully and the paving and pots gleam.

I felt like I did when I was small and thundery showers arrived after a dry spell - I used to make my mother laugh by dancing around in the garden, getting drenched and letting the soggy grass squidge between my toes. No dancing now, especially in steel toed boots, but I still felt elated.

The novelty will soon wear off!

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Last call for plants wishing to take shelter

I am forcing myself to sit down and write even though it is pretty certain that tonight will be frosty and I should be scampering about rescuing all the tender plants in my own garden. One of my favourites is still out at home and at Whichford because it is looking so delicately appealing:
Lotus jacobaeus
 What goes around comes around
The original plant of Lotus jacobaeus was given to me by a head gardener of whom I am in awe. She and her partner have been very generous to me with advice and plants. It is a tricky plant to propagate because as soon as it is growing fast enough to take cuttings it is also producing flowers on every shoot, but I love it enough to persevere. A couple of springs later it turned out that the giver's crop of cuttings had failed so I had the enormous satisfaction of being able to repay her a little with a couple of my scrawny plants. It just goes to show that generosity with plants insures against future loss as well as sealing a friendship.

Brugmansia sanguinea - lots of flowers, but too late?
I realised in the middle of last night that I probably don't have cuttings of the Brugmansia sanguinea which is struggling manfully to flower before the frost. I really hope that the first frost will only knock it back rather than killing it so that I can rescue the mature plants and take cuttings in spring.

Fully insured?
While it was still unseasonably warm and the plants still growing at the end of last week I spent most of a day taking insurance cuttings, so I hope that even if a sharp early frost kills many of my mature plants I will have enough small plants to build up my stocks again.

I know that there are bound to be a few varieties which somehow get lost and to quell the rising sense of panic this brings I have to tell myself that a lost plant is an opportunity to try something new. And very few are irreplaceable anyway. I realised some years ago that worrying about killing plants was cramping my style, so now I repress that fear and feel freer to experiment.

Manic propagation does make me sleep better at night, however.
Insurance cuttings inside the Heath-Robinson propagator
Succulent sardines
I have been carting all my precious succulents back to the greenhouse where they will sit cheek by jowl for the winter. I can't just bring them in, I have to strip off dead leaves, eject stowaway earwigs and snails and inspect for signs of vine-weevil infestation (chewed leaves, loose roots). Infested compost is chucked out for the birds to pick through, infested stems are cut off and used as cuttings.

Not many people see them once they are in the greenhouse, but I think they look lovely banked together.
Succulents crammed in on the greenhouse bench
More propagation potential
As I heave the pots about leaves and stems get snapped off the plants. These are not disasters but cuttings. I dump them on the bench until I have time to deal with them. The resulting pile does look like a small compost heap, but most succulents will start to produce roots from stems or leaf bases like this and will establish more happily once planted than if they had been inserted in compost before the cut ends had had time to dry and form a callus.
Sloppy gardening or propagation opportunities?
Violas and pansies waiting to be planted
The violas and pansies which arrived as tiny plug plants a few weeks ago are now beginning to fill their 9cm pots and are hardening off sheltered in the gap between the greenhouse and the polytunnel.

I wheel pots into the polytunnel with the 'sack-truck', here they can be sheltered from the first frosts until we have time to dismantle them and take individual plants into the greenhouse.

As the polytunnel is not heated I keep the not-quite-hardies in there - Agapanthus, Cordyline, Melianthus major etc. I also experiment with spares of plants of uncertain (to me) hardiness in here. I have brought in a couple of plants of Solanum laciniatum which are far too big to go in the greenhouse because I would like to see if their seed-pods will ripen in there. The plants may even survive the winter if temperatures stay above about -5C. I think I may try taking cuttings too, it looks like it would root pretty easily.
Plants coming and going in the polytunnel

Anagallis monelli 'Skylover'
I can leave annuals such as the Anagallis monelli 'Skylover' which the customers have asked about so much to be hit by the frost because best results are achieved by getting fresh seed or plug-plants in the spring.
Last embers of summer 
There is still plenty of colour for the customers to look at. I have left Begonia 'Glowing Embers' outside too, because last year it survived having its topgrowth killed by frost.

Next week the chucking out accelerates and so do the winter plantings.

Now I'm off to rescue my own plants!

Begonia 'Glowing Embers' still warming in
Whichford basket pots

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Succulence in a dry autumn

We are still waiting for a decent helping of rain and I am glad that I planted out so many succulents.

Succulents in Ham House Urns along the drive at Whichford Pottery
Jim's ruin with succulents in the font
I shall do my best to overwinter as many as possible because they are so useful - I haven't watered any of the succulent plantings at all since I first put them together. The little rain we have had has been enough. And this is why all the pots in the drive are full of succulents, so that I don't have to traipse out there with watering cans.

Flourishing in ruins
I have even put them in Jim's 'ruin', where they have thrived. The original ruin was made for a flower show in Japan but Jim has also built one here. The terracotta pieces fit together a bit like Lego and are cemented together. It's amazing what you can do with clay!

Aeoniums, Echeveria, Kalanchoe and other
crassulaceae in the Kew Collection

Saving treasures
The succulents in Kew pots have filled out nicely. These pots are small enough to grab and run into the greenhouse with when frost is imminent but bigger potfuls will take longer to dismantle. I will leave most of the latter out a little longer as they are looking so good but I am beginning to stow away many of my little treasures; if I have to walk to the greenhouse I make sure that I am carrying a couple of them. I would rather lose a few big plants than have all the little oddities turn to mush.

Haycorns, Pooh!
Despite the warmth Autumn is definitely here. Acorns have been raining down from the young oak trees, which were inexplicably planted between the packing shed and the greenhouse, making alarming bangs on the glass. They are beautiful things and most of us have fond childhood memories of snapping them out of their little cups and fitting them back in again or of making little Oakie Dokes (acorn people).
Beautiful acorns have been raining down
Witches' garage
I have never seen so many fruits on the spindle tree (Euonymus europaeus) in the hedge near the compost heaps. Again, this has been a favourite for me ever since I was a child, partly for the preposterous pink/orange colour combination and partly because one of my favourite books was The Midnight Folk, by John Masefield. In this I found the useful information that witches tether their brooms to spindle to stop them from flying away by themselves. I haven't read the book for a long time of course and really hope that I am remembering this correctly and didn't just dream it.
Reserved parking. Euonymus europaeus or Spindle at Whichford
No gin for me
There are sloes in the hedge by the Octagon but I won't be making sloe gin because thirsty blackbirds are gobbling them up. From her lack of fear I guess that this scruffy creature is Mrs B moulting - she did look a bit like she had gone down the chippy with her curlers in.

"What are you looking at?" Mrs B gobbling sloes
Crocus speciosus in a Wisley Seed Pan
Splendid crocus
We had a few Crocus speciosus bulbs at the sale in September. I really wish we had ordered more as they were popular so I only kept a few to plant. They are absolutely gorgeous.
I haven't grown this autumn-flowering crocus before but I should have taken more notice of the name, speciosus means showy, handsome, beautiful, splendid...

Hedychium gardnerianum has also been flowering over the last 10 days or so in the courtyard. I love the exotic look of it and the sweet scent. We are lucky that plants like this are kept in check by our frosts - in some countries this has become an invasive weed but here it must be taken under cover for the winter.

Hedychium gardnerianum

Before I forget - here's another Spring Bulb FAQ: How close together do you plant tulips?
It depends on the effect I want and whether the flowers open wide (like a parrot tulip) or stay neat (like Darwin hybrids). If the flowers are neat and I want a solid block of colour or a clump then I plant very close together - but don't let the bulbs touch each other so that fungal infections can't spread too easily. If the flowers are bigger or if other plants and/or bulbs will be planted above them then I usually plant them about 2-3 inches apart. you can space them more widely if you want a less full effect, or plant in clumps with a few spaced more randomly for a "natural" effect.

This pot will have a fairly dense mass of Tulip 'Rococo'
Tulip 'Rococo', Spring 2011
This is a planting I did today in a giant Sissinghurst pot (about 3 feet in diameter). The tulip is 'Rococo', a medium-sized flower which curls and opens fairly wide. The cracked upside-down pot is a second which I am using to support a pot containing a large Photinia x fraseri 'Red Robin'.

Above this layer of tulips I have planted two Leucothoe fontanesiana 'Rainbow' and two Helleborus niger, plus 'Moonlight Mix' pansies, Narcissus 'Jenny', Muscari latifolium and Crocus 'Jeanne d'Arc'. The tulips will fight their way through it all, never fear.

Photographic fun in the garden

And finally - last weekend there was another of Liz Eddison's garden photography days. I know a good time was had by all because the participants included my oldest friend - and these two suspicious characters hiding behind cameras turned out to be Andy, a senior thrower who has been making pots with Jim since the very beginning 35 years ago, and Lynda, who crafts all the amazing hand-pressed ware, including the elephants.
Lynda and Andy hide behind their cameras
Keep an eye on the Whichford website for new dates for this popular garden photography course - much learning and laughter guaranteed!

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Pinging, bonging, planting, ripping, tearing, jabbing and chopping

I have finished planting the display I started last week - here's the finished article just after watering in, not very exciting compared to the blowsiness of the summer plantings but it will start to look interesting after it has settled in.
One display group down, ten more to go

In a few weeks time we will be grateful for the little highlights of red provided by the Cornus stems and the Leucothoe leaves.

To deepest Oxfordshire
The glorious warm sun this week has made it quite difficult to think about autumn plantings but on Monday I went (slightly reluctantly) to give a talk/demonstration to Hanney Garden Club in Oxfordshire on 'Planting Pots for Winter Interest and Spring Joy'. This was a friendly and well-organised club, however, and I began to regain my enthusiasm as I talked. They listened carefully and asked sensible questions but I am always left with the same feeling after a talk as after an exam, along the lines of "Oh I should have said this, and I forgot to say that, and I can't believe I said the other".

Tulips finding their way through perennials,
shrubs, bedding and other bulbs.
Early April this year
Bulb FAQ
I was asked a question which had also come up at the bulb sale. Because I usually recommend planting other plants above bulbs I was asked if there are any plants I would not use above bulbs. The answer is not simple because it depends on the depth the bulbs need planting at, their eventual flowering height and the eventual height of the plant you are using. But for now let's just consider the larger tulips, which need planting about 6-8" deep: a wide range of bedding, perennials and shrubs are fine for planting over tulips as there is plenty of room for a one or two-litre rootball above them. Tulips will find their way through or around most plants but I would avoid putting them directly below really dense rootballs such as those of ferns, phormiums or pot-bound shrubs - you can put them really close to them, however.

That'll teach you to jab me in the eye
Favouite Sneerboer tool
The weathered pot I wanted to use for the talk had  a rather overgrown Leymus arenarius filling it so I spent a while levering it out. Luckily the larger sizes of our pots have drainage holes big enough to push your hand through when evicting plants, even so I managed to get a painful poke in the eye while wrestling with it. I got my revenge by chopping this vigorous blue grass into pieces with my favourite Sneerboer tool, so that it can be recycled into various winter plantings. We sell Sneeboer tools at the Pottery; this little spade (I think they call it a Perennial Spade) is intended for splitting plants and does the job magnificently because it has a very sharp, straight blade. It also has a short handle so is perfect for using in pots.

Cutting it fine
The greenhouse and polytunnel are filling up rapidly even though Babs and I have not dismantled many of the summer plantings yet. The weather has just been too good.

Brace yourself.
Miss Babs harvests walnuts
At the end of last week I heard strange rustling, dinging and clattering noises coming from the field where the seconds are kept. I grabbed my camera thinking we were being raided by giant musical squirrels - but no, it was just Miss Babs harvesting walnuts.

Walnuts keep falling on my head
As she shook the branches the walnuts pinged and clanged merrily off the pots. I have often thought to myself that we should get the cast of 'Stomp' here to play the pots as they make such a wide range of bell-like noises when hit.

I once gave a talk to a roomful of 100 ladies who had just had a lovely lunch and would NOT stop talking so that their somewhat diffident organiser could introduce me. After a few minutes of her futile cries I grabbed a crock and banged it on the large, empty terracotta pot in front of me, BONG, BONG! You could have heard a pin drop.

Beautiful walnuts at Whichford Pottery
 Salvaging Salvias
We hardened our hearts this week and I asked Babs to dig out two of the big pots at the front of the stockyard even though the statuesque Salvia 'Indigo Spires' they contained were still looking spectacular. It seemed a shame to uproot them, cut all those intense blue flowers off, shove them in plastic and squeeze them into the greenhouse but I have to salvage as much as possible before the frosts come.

Salvia 'Indigo Spires' doing exactly what it says on the tin
Salvia leucantha 'Purple Velvet' on the left and Salvia leucantha on the right
The salvia behind them, Salvia leucantha, and its sister Salvia leucantha 'Purple Velvet' are looking so fantastic now I couldn't possibly dig them up. I have plenty of young plants of S. leucantha already under cover but when I took the cuttings in spring the plants weren't flowering (and I hadn't labelled them accurately of course) and I failed to take any 'Purple Velvet'. I will have to try taking some cuttings now even though it will be tricky as every shoot is flowering. but this plant is so massive I know I won't be able to overwinter it even if I dig it up in time.

Bodice ripper
My favourite salvia (at the moment) is Salvia confertiflora. I already have spares of this under cover too, so I can leave the large plants out until after the frosts if necessary. It glows so nicely in low sunshine and even in bud you can appreciate its rich purple and orange velvets. A sumptuous salvia for the Tudor court, this one. Oh dear, you can tell I've been reading historical novels recently.
Salvia confertiflora, beautiful in bud as well as in flower
Solanum quitoense brooks no opposition
Another plant Henry VIII might have identified with is Solanum quitoense. Its massive violet-veined green leaves backed with more purple velvet have a rigid, regal bearing and if you aren't careful will completely overshadow, if not crush, neighbouring plants. It is one of the most asked-about plants at the pottery. I am determined to succeed in overwintering it this year, having grown it from seed three years in a row only to lose it. This time I have only planted out three and kept about half a dozen in the greenhouse so that they do not have to be transplanted just before the temperature drops.

You are going to put them away again, aren't you!
The picture below is the rear view of the obstruction that greeted visitors to the pottery last Friday. Jim was creating another photoshoot (you can see his tripod just beyond the arch), this time for the winter mail order offer leaflet. The result is a really attractive picture, but you'll have to get yourself on to our mailing list to receive a copy!
Entrance path looking a picture at Whichford Pottery