Saturday, May 28, 2011

A shady corner

I have a good deal of shade in the garden.  In part it's my habit of growing a lot of taller plants - the jungle look - and needing to then furnish the understory.  In part it's the situation.  My front garden is shaded for most of the year by the high walls of the house, I have shady spots along the east boundary and to the North of a combination of Prunus 'Amanogawa', Hydrangea aspera ssp sargentiana, Trachycarpus fortunei, Cordyline 'Coffee Cream', Camelllia 'Anticipation', and Chusquea coulou which forms a dividing green wall across the rear garden.  Which means I grow a good many shade loving or shade tolerant plants (the two things are different - as I'll explain in another blog post).

Which gives the opportunity for some interesting combinations.  I photographed this little group this afternoon.  It's rained on and off all day so everything was looking very lush.

The leaves in the top half of the shot that look like they belong to a houseplant maidenhair fern are a maidenhair fern.  Specifically the hardy maidenhair, Adiantum venustum.  This is a gorgeous little plant, pretty nearly evergreen with me (although last winter tested it's tolerance).  It's quite a spreader in a small, understated way.  I have to constantly watch that it doesn't swamp some of my other shade lovers.

The leaves that look like a white striped starfish are Impatiens omeiana.  I now have two populations of this.  It spread both sides of my original planting - and died out in the middle.  I can now expect to see the individual stalks with their rosette of leaves popping up anywhere within a small section of the front garden terraces.

Underplanting it all, with rounded leaves striated with white veining, is a refugee houseplant.  Saxifraga stolonifera is far hardier than you might imagine.  It also spreads quite well, so much so that I'm now needing to remove quite a lot of it so I can get some new plantings in.

Finally, I get the hardiest of all the begonias, Begonia grandis ssp evansiana, seeding itself around the garden.  That's the largest leaves to the left of the photo - though you're not seeing their full beauty as they have bright red undersides.  I say seeding but it employs a method of  vegetative propagation that is found in other begonias.  In the autumn - if we've had a good year - every leaf axil carries a small bulbil that, when the foliage dies back as the nights grow longer, drop to rest over the winter.  In spring the survivors sprout and soon produce new plants.  In the meantime the parents have retreated to frost resistent tubers over the winter but soon produce new foliage in late spring.  I've ended up with a rather too large collection and must harden my heart and weed out a few - although they are fabulous underplanting in a jungle type garden.

One photo, four small scale garden thugs - but together they combine to provide a lovely picture.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

How fast do Dicksonia tree ferns grow in the UK?

I have two tree ferns in the garden.  One Dicksonia antarctica, one D.fibrosa.  Having said that, the D.fibrosa has not yet re-emerged from it's winter defoliation so I may have lost it.  It was only small, a cheap purchase from Morrison's supermarket a couple of years back.

Dicksonia antarctica, on the other hand, came through last winter in good shape.  All the top growth was completely frosted but the trunk and new croziers survived -8C without protection.  I've  had this one for about 9 years now.  I bought it a as a tattered baby, no trunk, half a dozen fronds, discarded in an end of season garden centre sale.  £2 it cost me.  It's now considerably larger.

How much larger became fairly obvious when I cleared the dead fronds earlier this year.  It's managed about 32in /  81cm of trunk growth in 9 years.  In it's early years it wouldn't have made much growth so a better measure is gained by comparing these two photos.  The first I took in June 2007, the other this morning.

July 2007

May 2011
Roughly reckoning it's made about 22 in / 55cm of trunk growth in 4 years.  Not too bad for a tree fern that's often quoted as growing 1 in / 2.5cm per year.  OK, a sample of 1 is hardly statistically significant.  Add to that the fact that I live in a generally mild, moist area of the UK and it could be said that the growth rate is unnaturally high.  However, the plant is in a fairly exposed position, not cossetted in damp, sheltered woodland, and needs daily watering in drier weather - which should slow it down a bit.  So maybe 5-6in / 12-15cm a year isn't a bad estimate.  Which has two implications.  Firstly, if it survives I should be able to celebrate my 70th birthday under a crown of fronds that start more than 6 ft / 180cm above the ground.  Secondly, it's possible that some of the venerable plants in Cornish valley gardens aren't quite as old as everyone thinks.

Here's a photo of the whole plant.  The fronds are still unrolling so it's not quite at full extension and, with the loss of last years growth, the head isn't as full as it will hopefully be by late summer.

It's in an area of the garden that I'm now busily renovating - but it will be one of the centrepieces in the finished layout.

A final word:

Yes, I could have bought a trunked plant, unrooted or rooted.  But I didn't have the money.  At around £40 per foot a 4 ft plant (the extra would be needed for planting to ensure stability) was beyond my plant buying budget at that time.  It still is.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Back from the dead

It's back.  Totally unprotected and it's survived the coldest winter spell in living memory down here in Plymouth.  Admittedly it's not quite in the same place, and it's only small at the moment, but, with a favourable summer, it should clothe a small portion of the south facing house wall again this year and flower from late August onwards.  And, if the climbing stems survive next winter as they have in the past, it may be back to forming a distinctive asset to the garden - and again produce these glorious flowers from early July right through to the cool nights of late Autumn.

Ipomea indica

It is Ipomea indica, the perennial morning glory.  In warmer, sunnier climates it's a weed.  Here, in winter cold and, I sometimes think, summer not greatly warmer UK, it's normally one for the greenhouse or conservatory.  A few years back, encouraged by reports of it growing successfully outdoors on a south facing, sunny wall down here in the South West, I gave it a try.

That was back in the days before global warming (sorry, climate change) when we had a run of mild winters that lured a lot of gardeners - myself included - into trying very marginally hardy plants.  I've lost so many over the last two winters that I've reined back my ambitions - but it's always nice to see a survivor, especially one that gives me the illusion of living closer to the equator than I do.

It's migrated over the years.  It started life in a corner where my south facing house wall joined my neighbour's.  One of the hottest spots in the garden.  It's now moved to a position 10 ft away (3 metres for those metrically inclined) behind the shelter of a myrtle, Myrtus luma.  Easy to do if you root readily from the far flung summer growths that are just as happy to travel horizontally as vertically.  Here it's obviously formed a tuberous root that has been protected by the warmth of the wall and the evergreen foliage of the myrtle.

And now it's growing again.  One small tendril pushing upwards.

Which leaves me with a problem.  I'd earmarked the space for a climbing rose/clematis combination.  But, if the morning glory is happy there and can reproduce it's 2006 display from August to October at least one year in two, it can stay.  I just want to see this again.

Ipomea indica on my house wall in 2006

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A small death

Dead heading my Meconopsis cambrica this morning - a necessary task to get these pretty shade lovers to flower for longer than the three spring weeks that is their norm - I noticed this little scene of life and death.

The crab spider - Misumena vatia - had obviously been waiting patiently on the poppy petals, colouration adjusted to blend in with the yellow background, ready to strike as soon as suitable prey came along.  The poison fangs would have gone in with a swift strike when the unwary fly came within reach, injecting their dose of digestive enzymes to break the fly's tissues into a nutrient soup that the spider could feed on.  It's a scene repeated countless times in any summer garden - I just happened to have a camera handy to capture a little slice of nature.

The butterflies are back...

...Well, actually they've been back for a while now.  I just haven't got round to writing about them.

I don't have a large garden but it does have a diversity of nectar sources through the year so I attract the migrant species whose restless wings can carry them considerable distances.  Butterflies like the small white - a pest on my allotment brassicas but welcome in a garden where it can do no harm.  Although this pair might have had designs on my nasturtiums when I photographed them a few years ago.

Small whites - Pieris rapae - mating in the garden
I do have a couple of resident species.  By resident I mean that my garden is one amongst many that is part of their territory.  In many ways any collection of gardens is a lot like a woodland edge habitat.  Trees and shrubs provide shade and shelter, perennials and annuals the nectar sources and the odd wilder garden or garden patch the food source for the next generation.  Hardly surprising that speckled wood butterflies are regulars here.  I saw my first one back in early April - about the same time as they were appearing in the local woods - and I regularly get males taking up a territory in a sunny spot.

Speckled wood - Pararge aegeria
Later in the year I'll see the other resident.  The Gatekeeper is only small - but very welcome.  Both of these feed on wild grasses - and, looking over the fences into neighbours gardens, there are plenty of those around.

Gatekeeper - Pyronia tithonus
The migrant species will be here later in the year to add their own welcome colour - but that's a subject for another blog entry.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Winter and Cordylines

Unlike many gardeners further North and East in the UK my cordylines have survived the winter.  By survived I mean that the trunk and top growth is still intact.  But we only went down to minus 8C here on the Dartmoor side of Plymouth, not the minus 10C to minus 15C recorded by other gardeners in the UK.  Penny plain Cordyline australis in the front garden has come through without a problem.  It's only flowered twice so hasn't started branching to any extent - and my neglect left it with an insulating skirt of old, dead leaves around most of the stem.  Twopenny coloured "Coffee Cream" in the rear garden, a lightly bronze leaved selection is now, after 14 years, a multi headed specimen.  I've lost the odd branch but not the whole lot.

In an odd way I'm a bit disappointed.  Cordylines are common down here in the South West, adding height to many a garden.  With uninterrupted growth they flower after a few years - and then branch to produce two, occasionally three growing points.  Each year's flowering throws another set of branching.  Older plants that have been undamaged by frost have a head of multiple branches and a relatively short single trunk.  They still look good - but they could look better.

Frost, icy winds or carelessly wielded chain saws can remove the top growth entirely.  No problem for the cordyline.   Nodules on the roots spring into growth and soon develop new stems.  Backed by the mature root system of the parent these head skywards at a pretty reasonable pace.  Not just one - but multiple trunks develop.  And, because of the speed of growth, they can get a long way into the air before flowering and branching.  Multiple stems which gracefully arch away from each other, lots of clean trunk before the first branches, the end result is elegant height in any garden.

Which brings me back to "Coffee Cream".  I've had to cut away two branches which have shuffled off this mortal coil - but that still leaves me with about eight branches.  They look awful.  The terminal buds have survived intact and are now pushing out new growth.  But it's not the clean, elegant growth of undamaged plants, it's growth that has had to force itself through a confining corset of frost damaged foliage and is. in consequence, a little twisted.  Foliage that is now begining to die off, yellowing but still clinging stubbornly to the branches - and still needed to generate energy to fuel the new growth.  This is the second year in succession that I've had the problem.  A good growing season and a mild winter will cure its ills - but deep inside me is that soft seductive voice that is suggesting that if only I'd lost the lot I could be growing a multi stemmed plant that, in a few years time, would be its equal in height, and far more attractive.

But I don't have the courage to cut it off at the roots.  Maybe we'll have an even harsher winter next year to solve my problem.  In the meantime I'll have to live with this for the next few months.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Making use of a flowering cherry

When I first bought my current house the only deciduous tree in the garden was a fairly young flowering cherry, Prunus ‘Amanogawa’.  Over the years it’s made an upright column about 10 metre / 33ft tall.  For a few brief weeks in late April it’s a pillar of pink tinged white blossom.  For the rest of the growing season it’s purely background greenery, culminating in a desultory effort at autumn colour before the leaves drop to leave bare winter branches.  It provides height, a small amount of shade – but not much else in terms of its own intrinsic interest.

But what it does provide is a climbing and support frame.  At the moment it has two climbers just beginning their annual advance into the higher branches.  Passiflora caerulea – one of the hardiest of the passion flowers - now has inch thick trunks which have survived two harsh winters unscathed.  I’ve lost the top growth – in milder years it’s been semi evergreen – but new shoots are already advancing from the permanent framework that has lodged itself against the multiple upright trunks of the flowering cherry.  By June it will have spread  a mass of 3-5 lobed, dark green leaves through the tree canopy and – if previous years are anything to go by - will begin to produce vertical trails from the higher reaches.  

By July it will begin to flower.  Each of the gorgeously ornate flowers only lasts about three days but are produced so freely that there is colour and beauty until well into the Autumn.  Could you resist this?  I can’t.

Passiflora caerulea

The second climber (at the moment – I do have other plans) is Clematis cirrhosa ‘Freckles’, which has crept in from a shed wall.  This is evergreen with me – in colder climates it would defoliate when the weather got too harsh – and notable for its long flowering period.  All the books say it’s winter flowering.  If that’s the classic definition of the English Winter which ends in June and restarts in August then they’ve got it just about right.  In my garden I get a flowering lull between April and June – and then it starts again and does flower all the way through the winter.

Clematis cirrhosa 'Freckles'

A couple of years ago I had some faded Guzmania bromeliads; houseplants that had finished flowering.  A bit of wire, a bit of wrapping in hanging basket liner and they were attached to the trunk of the cherry at about eye level.  It was an experiment – but it worked.  I didn’t have the flower spike and flowers – but I had an interesting effect from the foliage which assumed far brighter colours in the open air.  I’ll be repeating the experiment this year – and maybe, just maybe, I’ll try a stag horn fern, Platycerium bifurcatum as an experiment on the shady side of the trunks.  I'll have to bring it in for the winter, a small price to pay if I can enhance the sub tropical effect I strive for in my summer garden.

Guzmania in my cherry tree

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

April thoughts

We've just had the hottest April on record here in the UK - though weather conditions now seem to have settled back to normal for the time of year.  As might be expected the pace of Spring growth has been accelerated, so much so that for many plants it's already early summer.  I photographed these bearded iris recently - sorry, I don't know the exact cultivar - in full flower at least a month ahead of schedule for South West England.

Bearded iris cultivar
At the same time the last of the narcissus was still giving it's all.  Narcissus poeticus is one of the loveliest of the late flowering narcissus and worth a place in any garden.  Invariably it flowers in April, no matter how warm or cool the spring has been.
Narcissus poeticus
Many spring blooming temperate plants flower in response to two stimuli - day length and temperature.  Increasing day length triggers the start of the flowering process - but warmth is needed to accelerate it.  A cool spring will always be one with an elongated flowering succession, while the warmth we've had recently will always force growth and flowering, sometimes well out of season.  Commercial growers have long known this, using greenhouses to accelerate growth, cool houses to retard it and lighting to manipulate growth initiation.  This is one of the compressed years - hasn't it been glorious.

Time to return

Well, back in January this year I revived John and Maria's Garden Pages - and then left it dormant after 4 posts.  It was a trial to prepare for a future that involved redundancy, semi retirement and the need to set up a new business to provide more of an incomethan pensions and redundancy money could provide.  However, all of this  has left no time for blogging until now.

Blogging has now recommenced.