Friday, 25 November 2011

A festive feast of inspiration for garden and home, no less.

The Whichford Pottery Christmas Sale got off to a great start last weekend, not only were there plenty of bargains (and cake) to be had but we had the bonus of two really good speakers upstairs in the main making room to give us inspiration for our gardens and our homes.
Discounts available on all our pots until Sunday 4th December
Garden design for real people
Saturday kicked off with Bunny Guinness on 'Transforming Your Garden'. I always prefer to listen to garden designers who still get their hands dirty on a regular basis and Bunny is one of those, still working in her own substantial garden one day a week. She is full of really practical ideas which can be scaled down to 'normal' gardens, from paint effects (instead of expensive cladding) to nifty ways to hide eyesores and divide spaces.

Some designers seem to focus exclusively on aesthetics but Bunny keeps in mind the way you actually want to use your garden: she is well-known for her great child-friendly ideas (sunken trampolines, treehouses, smart sandpits, drainable paddling pools...) but also thinks more long-term about the way a garden evolves from playground to something a bit more sophisticated. I particularly liked her thoughts about the approach to your house, using containers, plants and paving to guide visitors and encourage vehicles to park out of sight while still allowing you to drive right up to your door and unload your shopping if necessary.

We also learned that Radio Four's Gardener's Question Time potting shed actually exists!

Bunny Guinness signing her latest book after one of her two talks at Whichford Pottery
Everybody needs good neighbours
I returned to work on Sunday morning so that I could watch floral artist Fiona Perry's talk and demonstration which provided a veritable feast of ideas for alternative Christmas decorations and Christmas trees. I know Fiona well because she lives near me, and I am always impressed by her enthusiasm and her ability to generate an endless supply of ideas for interesting and beautiful things to do with plant material.

She started with a classic but delightful oasis-based treelet in a tiny Jekyll pot.

Here's one I prepared earlier. Fiona reveals her first tree idea, while her glamorous assistant, Sally, looks on.

Mulled wine tree in a glazed Buxus Pot
Tasty ideas
My favourite tree was the Mulled Wine Tree, using dried orange slices, cinnamon sticks, clementine pomanders, berries and crab-apples on a small bay cone.

I must remember to find my glue gun as I really want to try some of these ideas.

Fiona also did some deceptively artless things with florists' wire, examples were passed around the audience, provoking much appreciative murmuring.

We have a few useful floristry items for sale at the pottery but if you are local BHGS near Evesham stock a wide range of floral sundries (as well as useful horticultural things - must remember to go there soon and get new boots!) they also sell online. Fiona also suggested Easy Florist Supplies as an online source.

Florists' wire and crab apple
Skeleton leaf plus buttons and beads

Pallet tree star

Don't chuck out old sticks
Fiona's wildest and wackiest idea was the Pallet Christmas Tree. She's a bit like me in that she tends to keep apparently useless items because they might become useful. In this case she had kept the dead trunk of a standard bay tree, even I would have junked that. But no, she also cadged an old pallet from Whichford, chopped it up, drilled holes in the pieces, painted everything white and slotted them onto the dead trunk. Hey presto! A vaguely Scandinavian tree with ecofriendly credentials.

This is the kind of thing you can use outside - Fiona's will probably end up in her front garden. Willow is a useful alternative for outdoor structures which can hold lights or other decorations.

Two speakers giving generously of great ideas in one weekend. The best thing of all is that so many of them are actually achievable!

Christmas tree made from an old wooden pallet. Eat your heart out, Ikea!

I can see clearly now the pane is on.
In other news - the marvelous John and Dave have replaced the broken panes in the roof of my greenhouse, a job I dreaded tackling. They were broken by acorns, yes acorns! Who else has a greenhouse with two oak trees planted three feet away? Is it just me? I'm waiting for the rest of the leaves to fall before I clear out the gutters and clean the glass - you can see how filthy it is.

John and Dave earning my undying gratitude

Meanwhile I have plodded on, planting pots and digging up dahlias. The days are shorter and shorter but dusk at the pottery can be magical, with low light and silhouettes made more atmospheric by the shrieks of pheasants, hooting of owls and chinking of blackbirds echoing across the misty valley.

Dusk in the back-up stock area at Whichford Pottery. Just add owls.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Jack Frost holds the sword of Damocles and the handbag of Mrs Christmas

Winter planting at the entrance to Whichford's stockyard
Winter plantings are settling in well but this gardener is unsettled and uneasy because of the lack of frost. This time last year everything was frozen solid and didn't really thaw out until January so I am braced for unpleasantness.

I have even found myself picking the leaves off deciduous shrubs which refuse to admit that winter is nearly here. There are better ways to spend your time.

Planting in the gloaming
I am still planting madly, sometimes in the dark - so if you visit and find messy patches around my plantings or wonky plants either Dominique's chickens or the lack of carotene in my diet are to blame.

There is still a lot of sorting out to do in the greenhouse and polytunnel so that the maximum number of plants are safe over the winter but my priority at the moment is the public garden because we will have a lot of visitors for our Christmas Sale, which starts today (Friday 18th Nov).

I'm looking forward to Bunny Guinness and Fiona Perry's talks over the weekend - we are lucky that we always seem to manage to get hold of very interesting speakers for our events.

Conifer doesn't cut the mustard when backed
by rosemary
New life for our logo
Although I normally still have a few plantings to do at this time of year I was determined to get the Ham House Urn done, the pot which greets people at the entrance to the garden. We use this urn as our logo so it would be a shame to leave it full of half-dead petunias and Fuchsia boliviana. I emptied it and brought some new plants out.

I thought this conifer (left) would be ideal until I plonked it in the urn for a coat of looking at.

I had committed the schoolgirl error of not thinking about the background and saw that what I thought was a strongly-shaped plant completely blended in with the rosemary behind.

Leymus arenarius works better

Doh! Try again.
So I tried again with a Leymus arenarius.
This worked much better because, even though the colour is similar, the form contrasts well with the background and is reinforced by the fact that Leymus arenarius has also been planted in the giant Orange Pot on the well.

This is quite a windy site because of the adjacent gateway to the stockyard so it may be that by spring all the grass is pointing to the left. We'll see.

Re-use, recycle.
I was glad not to have to go and buy another plant for this pot, I buy very few plants except for bedding plug-plants, re-using shrubs and perennials partly to save money and partly to reduce waste. I also reckon that this is how most 'normal' home gardeners function. Don't get me wrong, I like a bit of retail therapy as much as anyone and it would be easier just to go and buy a batch of smart new plants, but I don't want to be like those chefs who produce appetising recipes with appallingly expensive ingredients.

Decision made, urn planted.
Bulbs will pop up in the spring.

Here's the finished article: the Leymus is flanked by two Festuca glauca, and a Heuchera 'Plum Royale' and four Pansy 'Can-Can' sit on top of some Tulip 'Negrita', Narcissus 'Bath's Flame' and Iris 'Lady Beatrix Stanley'. These are all colours and plants repeated in other plantings in the garden and on the entrance path, I am hoping that the eye will travel comfortably from one to the other so that visitors are drawn into the garden. That's the theory anyway.

Pearls and pink phormiums
The pot featured below is just across the walkway from the urn. it is a Pearl Pot, designed for the Pottery's 30th anniversary, five years ago. Its clean lines make a change from some of the more elaborate designs that we produce.

I'm risking phormiums again this year (this is P.'Pink Stripe') even though I lost so many last winter. You can't really beat them for strong, clean verticals with a bit of colour. I have also stuffed in an artichoke seedling which may or may not survive, but its grey leaves are interesting for a while at least.

Phormium 'Pink Stripe in Pearl Pot
Tidy-up time
This week I selflessly (it's a job I rather like) gave Donna, my work experience helper, the job of starting the autumn tidy-up of the flowerbeds. She was tentative at first but I did my best to reassure her that she was unlikely to kill anything precious and she did a nice, thorough job of cutting back herbaceous perennials and pulling out weed seedlings in several beds. It looked very neat after she had finished. Little does she know that Dominique's chickens have been back and scattered soil into the paths she swept so carefully...

Nice and tidy, for now...

John and Dave have also been very helpful with sweeping and leaf-clearing this week. I suspect that John rather likes the chance to play with the leaf-blower, ah these boys and their toys!

John - happy to get the leaf-blower out.
 'Tis the season to go shopping
Right, I'm going to leave you now with a few pictures of my favourite goodies in the Octagon, which has been stocked up for Christmas (note to self: get husband to look at this page). I try not to go inside it too often in case I am tempted to buy something, also my boots are always filthy - but this week I used my camera and this blog as an excuse for a mooch. Never mind the footprints.
Teapot and mugs by Jim and Dominique Keeling, Whichford Pottery
Beautiful and unusual lamps
Restored antique tools from Garden and Wood - all eminently usable
Dinky Whichford glazed pots filled with gorgeously scented candles from St Eval

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Still busy planting pots for winter/spring

It's oddly mild for November and the bees are still busy in the last of the summer plants, as good a reason as any for leaving the tender plants I don't need to save out for as long as possible:
Bees are still slaving away in the Salvia leucantha

Still looking a little sparse, but little purple patches from Pansy 'Can-Can' and
Callicarpa bodinieri var.giraldii 'Profusion' provide interest.
Our (Pre-) Christmas Sale starts next weekend, however, and (especially as the first weekend includes talks from Bunny Guinness and Fiona Perry) I will try to finish the winter plantings before then. The new plantings look a bit stringy but already the way I look at things is changing. Instead of revelling in lushness my eye homes in on small spots of repeated colour and detail in plants.

Pansy Potter
I use a large number of violas and pansies in the winter/spring plantings. Yes they are as common as muck but you can't really beat them for a reliable trickle of colour through the winter followed by a burst of enthusiasm in spring to underpin the daffs and tulips.

Some pansies sulk in winter cold and wet and some are prone to leaf spot infections but I find that thorough dead-heading and the picking off of yellow/spotty leaves usually keeps them going.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: dead-heading is vital. Do it really thoroughly once a week and your displays will look brighter and last longer.

Cyclamen hederifolium and Pansy 'Can-Can'

I often use Pansy 'Can-Can', a mixture which, despite its flouncy appearance, usually sails through the winter. Plainer pansies such as Moonlight Mix (shades of blue and white) are valuable too - this one did brilliantly for us last year.

Et Viola!
Viola 'Sorbet White' and Leucothoe
'Scarletta in a Vine Pot
Violas, with their smaller flowers and generally more spreading habit, are often even tougher; by spring they should be overflowing from the pots and you will be heartily sick of dead-heading them.
To the right is Viola 'Sorbet White' planted with Leucothoe 'Scarletta' in a Vine Pot at the end of September. Below you can see the same viola as it looked last spring (19 May) in a Swag and Acanthus pot on the entrance path. By May the dead-heading is driving me round the twist and I can't wait to rip them out and plant the summer displays.

Viola 'Sorbet White' in a
Swag and Acanthus Pot last May

A 'Jester' Viola in one of our tiny pots last spring

Jester minute
Viola 'Jester Mix' is another favourite for its interesting colour blend and endless supply of cheeky little faces.  Single plants in a variety of little pots look great dotted here and there, perfect for windowsills or tea tables, I also enjoy it massed and mixed with bulbs - practically anything, from alliums to fritillaries, looks good, this year it will be supporting Tulip 'Negrita' and quite a few others.
Cheery Viola 'Jester Mix' in Whichford's courtyard garden last April

One of the new (to me) varieties I am trying this year is Viola 'Tiger Eyes' - I have to say it looks promising. I have used it in the giant Orange Pots at the entrance, with Tulip 'Black Jewel' beneath it and some Scilla siberica to give a few little highlights of blue. We'll see.

Viola 'Tiger Eyes'

Do what I do or do what I say?
Here's a quick step-by-step series of pictures of a Parrot Tulip Pot I planted this week (one of a pair by the entrance path). I know that it is getting a bit late to be planting Narcissus and Iris bulbs but if they are still firm and not mouldy it is worth giving them a go in the hopes that the freezing weather will hold off long enough to allow them to establish. I end up having to take these risks every year simply because I can't plant 200 pots before November when I only work at the Pottery three days a week! Usually it works...

1. Pot filled to tulip planting-level with compost. The "underplanting" (surface plants) all have rootballs small enough to fit above the tulips so I can spread the tulip bulbs (16) evenly through the planting. This one is T. 'Yellow Spring Green'. A little compost then added to cushion the bulbs before more plants added. 

2. Carex 'Curly Whirly' and Salvia officinalis 'Icterina' added, plus another dose of compost to support them. Then two clumps of five Narcissus 'Little Witch' are nestled into the spaces, just above the tulips.

3. The pot is filled to an inch below the rim with compost and then small plants are added. Here we have Lamium maculatum 'Anne Greenway' and six Pansy 'Midnight Glow'. Then I make planting holes (a couple of inches deep) between these plants with a forefinger and gently push in bulbs of Iris 'Lady Beatrix Stanley'. Her Ladyship is only a few inches tall, so the bulbs are near the edge of the pot so that the flowers should not be hidden by other plants.
I wear surgical gloves because at this stage in the season my nails start to get sore from being full of compost! Latex gloves allow you to feel what you are doing so that there is less risk of damaging delicate bulbs or plant roots.

4. I give the pot a good shake and bang its bottom on the ground to settle the compost among the plants. Then more compost is added, making sure to fill between all the plants and top up evenly over the bulbs. Pot is given another shake. The compost now reaches to about 1cm/half an inch below the rim but will settle down when watered in so that the surface of the entire planting lies about 2cm/1inch below the rim. This leaves room for watering/rain to soak in without washing any compost out of the pot.

Now water in gently and evenly with a hose spray or a watering can with a rose fitted on the spout. Inspect the planting again to make sure the compost doesn't need topping up a bit more - you don't want to leave any root-balls or bulbs at all exposed.

Enjoy watching your winter plantings develop and don't forget to dead-head your violas!

Friday, 4 November 2011

Pumpkins, plump plants, pubescence and passive pests

Hallowe'en pumpkin
This week started with Hallowe'en, of course. Let's hope Jim and Dominique's carved pumpkin (grown on our compost heap) has kept evil spirits away from the pottery. I feel a bit sorry for the terracotta version underneath it.

Popular plants
The prize for most asked-about plant this week goes to Ornithogalum saundersii.
Ornithogalum saundersii

It is a bulb I have grown before and lost, so I was delighted when Rene sent us these bulbs along with our dahlia order last spring. They started flowering at the very end of the summer and remind me of the studs on my son's dress shirt. I'm not sure whether the bulbs would survive the winter in the polytunnel so I shall take the whole pot into the greenhouse and keep it dry under the bench when sharp frosts finally arrive.

I have to slip in another picture of Salvia leucantha 'Purple Velvet' too, because it has been wowing our visitors - most of whom think it is a buddleia. I can relax a little now as the small plants in the greenhouse are flowering and I can be sure that I have spares of both this one and its white-flowered sister so I can leave this right up until the frosts arrive.

Mild autumn, plump plants
I have been planting like mad and the mild weather has allowed plantings done in the last two or three weeks to knit together more quickly than usual. I cram a lot of plants into winter plantings but it is necessary to leave some space for plants to develop and bulbs to flower, so in a cold autumn/winter the pots can look a bit sparse until early spring.

The pot pictured below is a Pastry Pot I planted at Hanney Garden Club a month ago. Tulips 'Queen of Night' and 'Backpacker', Narcissus 'Jenny' and Iris 'JS Dijt' lurk beneath Juniperus squamata 'Blue Star', Erysimum 'Bowles's Mauve', a cabbage, a purple Heuchera and a few Pansy 'Can-Can'.
Juniperus squamata and Erysimum 'Bowles's mauve' form the
backbone of this planting
It is coming along nicely and the pebbles I used to dress the space between the plants are hardly necessary any more.

Pansy prejudice
The large Italianate pots by the entrance arch, which I replanted a couple of weeks ago are also looking happy. I am quite pleased with the tinge of warmth in Euphorbia 'Ascot Rainbow' and Tellima grandiflora Rubra Group against the acidic Pansy 'Frizzle Sizzle Twizzle'. I nearly didn't buy this pansy because of the silly name but I'm glad I overcame my prejudice.

It remains to be seen whether the Tulip 'Avignon' and Narcissus 'Little Witch' will complement these colours when they emerge. I am hoping it will be a fruit bonbon kind of combination - there I go tasting colours again, I hope you know what I mean.

Tellima grandiflora, Euphorbia 'Ascot Rainbow' and Pansy 'Frizzle Sizzle Twizzle' looking tasty

Here's another Bulb FAQ : Should I use bulb fibre in my winter/spring plantings?

Bulb fibre contains charcoal and sometimes oyster shell to help keep it sweet - and this may be useful in an indoor container with no drainage holes. To be frank, I never bother with it: I always use pots with drainage holes (placed on saucers) for indoor bulbs and use the same multi-purpose compost I use for everything.
Bulb fibre is more expensive than ordinary compost and I don't think it has as many nutrients as multi-purpose because it is intended for bulbs alone rather than mixed plantings. It is therefore completely unnecessary, expensive and possibly harmful to a mixed planting of hardy bulbs and plants for outdoors. Just use a good-quality, well-drained multi-purpose compost. I usually mix in a sprinkle of slow-release fertiliser so that the plants can keep going well through the spring.

Fresh talent
This week I planted up some of the pots featured in our current mail order offer.

Some of the new pots included in this year's mail order offer

The pot in the foreground was designed by Andy, who has been at the pottery from the very beginning, I think this is likely to become one of my favourites to plant as it has a large surface area, an elegant flaring shape and is not too heavy to lift easily.

Adam Keeling at work on one of his 'one-off' pieces.
The pots with contrasting decoration are a new range designed by Jim's eldest son Adam, a pale slip is applied freehand before firing. This technique is a good way to tone down the orangeness (not always popular) of the new terracotta without having to wait for weathering to occur. I like the contemporary look of these; I think they will probably invite more simple plantings than my usual overflowing style.

I can not emphasise enough how much talent there is here at Whichford - I think the Pottery is unique in this country as an employer of talented makers and in making everything by hand. The pots have life, personality even, and work not just as containers but as garden sculpture. I really do recommend a visit so that you can see the making and the enormous amount of skill and experience which goes into each pot. And I am not just saying that because I work here!

What was I doing?
Anyway, back to horticulture: here is the display at the plant-positioning stage:

Some of the mail-order range being planted up. The colours will be based around  Pansy 'Aquarelle'

I'll put up some pictures of the finished article soon, when I have planted the whole range. I will soon have lily bulbs from Rene and bare-root hostas from multi-Chelsea-Gold-winner Bowden's (all featured in the mail order offer) to play with as well. More details on the plants next week.

One little diversion on Tuesday November 1st was the planting of this pot face. You may not be able to see it but he has the beginnings of a moustache made of Leptinella squalida 'Platt's Black'. This bit of silliness is in support of the team of horticultural chaps (and some inventive ladies), or MoBros, at Bristling Garden. They are growing moustaches this month (Movember)in aid of Prostate Cancer Research. The results are already hilarious. Please support them if you can and  drive them to further facial feats. If you are a tweep you can also find them, and indeed me, on Twitter. Simon (one of our throwers) grew a fine moustache for the same cause last year, so we are familiar with Movember and it has our full support.

A PoMoBro for Movember
I hope the moustache develops well; if the weather turns cold I may have to cheat and bring him into the polytunnel. Any suggestions for a name??

Feeling waspish
Sleepy wasp emerges from my sleeve
When it started to rain yesterday I grabbed my coat from the greenhouse and was about to put it on when a wasp fell out. Then another. I had to eject seven more before I could put my coat on. I instinctively recoil from wasps so I have to remind myself that they are an important part of the ecosystem and prey on other annoying insects.
Wasp roulette

But I would prefer them to stay out of my toast and marmalade and out of my clothing. I shall be a bit nervous of sleeves for a while.