Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Motherly love

Damp and misty today - but very still after the winds we've had recently - so I took the opportunity to take a few photos in the garden.  One thing that caught my eye was not a flower but a spider.  A female of the Nursery Web Spider, Pisaura mirabilis, had placed her egg case under the leaf of a peony and then spun a web to protect the hatchling spiders. 

Nursery Web Spider, Pisaura mirabilis

Nursery Web Spider, Pisaura mirabilis
She'll protect her brood for a few days before the silk dissolves and the spiderlings spread to the four corners of the garden and beyond.  Most will succumb to bird and other predation - even to their mother's jaws if they get within reach - but enough will survive to maintain the species after the head start their mother has given them in life.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

I'm a handweeder to my trade

It's easy down on the allotment.  A dry day, ideally warm and sunny, and a well wielded dutch hoe makes short work of new sprung weeds around the growing crops.  It's a bit harder in the garden.  Except for my newly planted areas and the gravel areas I rarely have room to swing a hoe once well furnished summer arrives.  Even where I do I have to be careful.  Aquilegias, primroses and Meconopsis cambrica, the Welsh poppy, seed themselves around and I like to leave enough to provide spring to early summer colour.  So, more often than not, I hand weed.  Down on hands and knees - thank you to whoever invented kneepads - up close and personal with dandelions, annual meadow grass, Carex pendula*, a creeping speedwell, privet seedlings and wood woundwort, the six most persistent weeds in my smaller plot.

Most of the garden is densely enough planted to suppress all but the most persistent weeds and these are easily pulled out when they are noticed.  It's just a quick inspection, removal of offenders - and if I miss a few, well, I'll get them next time.  But three small areas need more individual attention - which implies constant vigilance.

First is the ribbon of Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens' that I've slowly established in front of a slightly raised bed in the rear garden.  Black as night, over the years the clumps of arching ribbon leaves have almost united to produce a ground covering carpet.  Almost.  It's a gentle runner but the indivdual tufts are spaced just a little too far apart for complete coverage.  So weeds get in.  Green weeds.  Which clash horribly with the ebon darkness of the Ophiopogon. So fine evenings may find me in prayer position carefully removing new sprouted weeds to avoid sullying the purity of the ribbon.

Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens' - no green allowed.

Then there's an area under the myrtle.  Despite the dense evergreen foliage canopy more than enough light gets in to grow a good crop of weeds.  Quite naturally I reasoned that if conditions were OK for weeds they were OK for a low carpeter of my, rather than nature's choosing.  I had a small patch of Ajuga reptans 'Braunhertz' in the front garden so, in April last year, I potted up six offsets of this brown leaved creeper to get them established before planting up the area last June.  It's already spread well enough to carpet most of the area though, once again, coverage isn't complete and I spend other evenings on hands and knees removing the green, colour clashing competition.  I've a bit more faith in the Ajuga/s ability to form a dense ground cover so it may be a temporary job.  Thank goodness.  It's an awkward little space to work in.

Ajuga reptans 'Braunherz' unweeded
and weeded.  A distinct improvement.

Finally, there is a small, narrow bed to the west of the raised area which houses my big Yucca gloriosa 'Variegata'.  For years I've tried different combinations in there but I've never found one I liked.  Finally, I realised that the diminutive summer flowering bulb, Freesia laxa, was quite happy to seed itself in the bed and had survived our most recent harsh winters.  Which sparked an idea.  So I've now collected most of my scattered seedlings and added them to the bed and will be adding some autumn flowering crocus and a small Scilla for spring to produce a little ribbon of colour over three seasons of the year.  Of course, they'll never produce a weed suppressing carpet of foliage so, once again, I'll be down on my knees, finger and thumb held like pincers while I delicately remove the weed seedlings without disturbing the delicate bulbs.  Methinks taking up brain surgery might have been an easier option.

Freesia laxa
Mind you, for all my protestations I do actually allow a weed to grow in the garden.  It's the pretty little creeping toadflax, Cymbalaria muralis, which insinuates itself into cracks in local walls and has moved into the garden of its own accord.  It spreads around by seed so I'm forever weeding it out in most of my plot - but I've allowed it to grow over the edging at the west of the pond.  It's so attractive and can't spread into the pond or the gravel area alongside.  I'm happy to leave it to overgrow the edging.  Although I now have to hand weed amongst the weed I'm hand weeding elsewhere in the garden.  Such is the gardener's lot.

Cymbalaria muralis at one end of the pond

* Yes, I know that Carex pendula is often recommended as an ornamental for its evergreen, upright, arching rosettes of triangular leaves and attractive, weeping, flower and seed heads.  It grows wild down here and was in the garden when I bought it.  Like a fool I let it stay.  I'm still getting rid of seedlings years later.  I've even got a clump wrapped around the rhizomes of one of my Hedychiums that I can't get rid of unless I lift the whole lot.  It's not allowed to flower and set seed!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

In which Polar Bear goes hunting for frogs

It's wet outside.  Heavy rain earlier and light drizzle now.  And Polar Bear (usually shortened to Pola - or rat on a rope when she's on a lead), our little long haired white Jack Russell terrier, is out hunting for frogs.

Every year they breed in the little pond.  Enough survive their first few months as tadpoles to keep the population going.  Sometimes, when I'm weeding, I disturb youngsters or adults hiding in the vegetation - and on rainy evenings in summer they come out to play.  I'm happy to have them in the garden to keep down my rampant slog and snail population.  Mind you, lots of these...

Common frog
 ...doesn't seem to lead to any less of these:

Garden snail

Probably because the snails have taken refuge high in my plants and the frogs are strictly ground based.

Polar Bear knows that when it's wet the frogs will be out and about.  So on rainy evenings in summer she'll agitate to go out for a hunt.  Basically, she cons me.  She pretends that she needs a final toilet break before settling down for the night.  But really she's hunting for frogs. 

Not that she does them any harm.  She seems quite content to sniff them and then watch them jump away.  But they do fascinate her - and trying to get her inside again can be a little bit of a problem if she's found one.  About twenty minutes worth of problem this evening.  Little dogs can be very evasive.  No matter how demure they look.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

We once were lost but now are found

One of the joys of renovating a rather overgrown, winter damaged garden is finding plants that you thought you'd lost.  It may be a seedling from the original, it may be a small plant hidden away under the growth of neglect, it may be delayed regeneration from a fragment of root, tuber or rhizome.  I've previously mentioned Euphorbia mellifera, Freesia laxa and Tritelia laxiflora but over the last year as I've slowly cut back and brought the garden back to life I've found others.

Star of the foundlings has to be Hedychium gardnerianum.  I lost a large pot of this to the extreme winter of 2009-2010 but had a rhizome tucked away where I was trying to establish a colony in one of the borders.  I thought I'd lost that as well until, in late summer last year, a small shoot popped up with the unmistakable glaucous sheen of this gorgeous ginger lilyIt will probably take another year or so to re-establish and flower again even though it is now pot grown and cossetted but at least it survived when so many other plants didn't.  And, assuming I keep it healthy, I've again got these fabulously scented flowers to look forward to:

Hedychium gardnerianum
I used to grow quite a few hardy geraniums before my interests turned to more exotic plantings.  A few still grow in the garden but one I thought I had lost as the front garden became more shaded was the sun loving Geranium renardii.  To be honest, I wasn't too bothered.  My tastes had moved on, I thought.  3 bad winters in a row have forced me to be more conservative so I was delighted to find a seedling of this pretty geranium when I was renovating a border in the front garden.  It's well away from the site of the parent - a tribute to the explosive seed pods - and in the wrong place so I've moved it to a sunnier spot in the hopes that it will once again produce an early summer display like the one I photographed in 2005:

Geranium renardii
When I moved into the garden in 1996 there was little here apart from 6 big bushes of Fuchsia 'Mrs Popple', one of the largest flowered 'hardy' forms.  (Stem hardy down here in Plymouth, root hardy in most parts of the UK.)  Six became three, then two and finally down to one as I cleared them to make room for other plants and plantings.  I kept one in the rear garden for its long season of flowering but removed the rest, roots and all.  So, I thought.  Two winters ago I lost my one remaining plant to old age and cold.  It hasn't regenerated - and I hadn't kept any youngsters.  But, coincidentally, one of the plants I removed five years ago has regenerated.  It was in my warmest border and must somehow have survived unseen amidst a host of tender shrubs and perennials until winter wiped them out and allowed it back into the light.  Welcome back.  Though I'll probably propagate it and move it again. Another mild winter and it will get too big for its position - and I need that space for more tender plants.

Fuchsia 'Mrs Popple' alongside Euryops pectinatus in 2006
Bridal wreath, Francoa sonchifolia, isn't the hardiest plant in the world so I was fairly confident in thinking three harsh winters had finished it off.  I was wrong.  There was no sign of it last year but it's popped up again this year, probably from a deeply buried bit of root.  I admire its persistence but, once again, I've had to move it to a less shady site.  Sun, not the increasing amounts of shade in its original spot, is what it needs to produce its airy spikes of white and pink flowers.

Francoa sonchifolia
My final plant is is one I thought had dwindled away, not liking my rather damp acid loam, preferring drier, sandier soils.  Libertia perigrinans is a pretty, grassy leaved plant with a golden centre stripe running through the centre of the upright foliage.  It's also a runner, roving about mildly by virtue of thin rhizomes.  What I thought was dwindling was actually relocation.  The plant had moved itself to the centre of my clump of Iris sibirica 'Perry's Blue' and was hidden amongst the taller foliage of the Iris.  Dividing the Iris clump last summer revealed the Libertia.

Libertia perigrinans
The moral of the story?  Even in a small garden plants can appear to be lost - but isn't it lovely when they come back to life

Friday, June 8, 2012

Oh the wind, the wind and the rain - the aftermath

Still very breezy this morning but, thankfully, the garden has been almost unscathed.  I've some staking to do for my Iochroma grandiflora which returned strongly from the roots after losing the top growth over winter.  The thin stems of Abutilon 'Waltz' need tying back into the house wall and my 'Graham Thomas' shrub rose is listing over the front garden wall and needs some support.  Other than that it's just some clearing up of fallen leaves and twigs.  Looks like my inadequate shelter belt has worked.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Oh the wind, the wind and the rain

It's a bit windy this evening.  Has been for most of the day.  Little gusts up to 70mph / 112kph.  Any plant above 6in / 15cm tall is being whipped into a frenzy unless protected by something taller.  It's an Atlantic gale, blowing straight up the South West facing corridor of gardens to the west of mine.  No trees or tall shrubs to get in the way until it hits the filter of my Phyllostachys nigra / Acca sellowiana.  They offer some protection, but not enough to prevent damage.  I've already had to take down all my hanging baskets and move some containers to a more sheltered location.

We expect gales down here.  They're a common autumn, winter, early spring occurrence.  But not in June, when everything is in full leaf to offer the maximum resistance.  So things break.  I'll probably have a fair bit of tidying up to do in the morning, the bananas will be shredded, and I may have to perform some emergency staking.  I may even photograph and report on the aftermath.

The landscapes of Devon and Cornwall is heavily influenced by the wind.  We may be in the mildest part of the UK but that's only of use to plants if they have shelter.  It's common to see hedgerow shrubs that look as though they've been sculpted, wind pruned by our prevailing westerlies.  The great gardens down here are in sheltered valleys; surrounded by extensive shelter belts - or planted up with species and varieties capable of resisting the salt laden gusts. I have non of those options.  No wonder my neighbours haven't planted anything taller than the height of their walls and fences.

And it's raining.  Horizontally.  The joys of early summer in Plymouth.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Early summer ephemera

In a small garden plants generally need to be of interest for an extended season, not just a brief period, if they are to be worth the space the occupy.  Hence my interest in foliage and half hardy plants that can flower all summer.  But even so I can still find some space for plants that make only a fleeting contribution - providing that contribution is the highlight of its brief season.  The Magnolia 'Raspberry Ice' in the front garden is a good example.  10 days flower if I'm lucky - but glorious for those ten days even if the rest of the  year it's just green height and background.

Now, in early June, another highlight is having its display.  The 4in/10cm flowers of Paeonia lactiflora 'Bowl of Beauty' have opened from fat buds and, in the intervals between some rather heavy rain showers when they close up again, are displaying their blowsy charms.

Paeonia lactiflora 'Bowl of Beauty'
This is still a young plant.  Even in the good soil and sunny spot the plant needs growth has been a little slow.  The tuberous roots haven't built up sufficient bulk to fuel more than a couple of flowering stems - but even this promise of things to come is enough to convince me that I made the right choice when I bought it after lusting over a far larger plant in the garden at Cotehele, a National Trust property on the Cornish bank of the River Tamar.

It won't last long.  By next week the petals will be shattered and fallen, its brief season over for another year.  But it will linger long in the memory and I can always justify the space it occupies in an increasingly crowded small garden by reminding myself that it does actually have two seasons of interest.  In early spring the new leaves emerge red flushed, providing another brief moment of colour, all the more valuable during that bleaker season.

Red flushed young foliage of Paeonia lactiflora 'Bowl of Beauty'
Similarly ephemeral but just as much a highlight at this time of year are irises.  I don't grow many.  I can't justify the space they would occupy during the summer so I content myself with a few isolated clumps.  No bearded irises, they would take up too much of my precious sunny areas - though I am constantly thinking of (but never get round to) growing a few on the allotment for cut flowers.  Instead I have a couple of clumps of Iris sibirica, the elegant species and the stockier cultivar 'Perry's Blue', in the front garden and white striped Iris laevigata 'Variegata' in the pond

Iris sibirica
Iris sibirica 'Perry's Blue'
Iris laevigata 'Variegata'
I've had Iris laevigata 'Variegata' for as long as I've had the pond (12 years now).  It hadn't flowered for a few years as the pond got shadier and shadier but the renovation over the last year has let in far more light and it's flowering again.  It's not the prettiest or most elegant of the water irises - but the white striping of the foliage provides interest over a far longer season than would be the case with its more flamboyantly flowered but plainer foliaged cousins.

Like the peony, these irises don't linger long.  But, for a few brief days bridging the gap between spring and summer, they provide a highlight.  No wonder that larger gardens would set aside garden areas devoted solely to peonies and irises - and visit them only when both plants were in flower at the start of summer.  My four are my homage to more spacious times.