A talk by Fergus Garrett of Great Dixter

Having read many of Christopher Lloyds books but never having visited his world famous garden, Great Dixter in Sussex, I jumped at the opportunity to get a ticket for a talk from his head gardener Fergus Garrett at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Sadly Christopher died in 2006 but Fergus continues to build on his ideas and achievements. The talk was a sell out  and an absolute guiding inspiration in explaining the strategy for succession planting for creating year round interest in the garden.

Although I got back late and did not get much sleep as my mind was too active wanting to get going on his advice, the next day I did just that.  I wanted to get started on the “layering process” as Fergus spoke about. This is the perfect time of year to identify spots where bulbs can go to bring added spring colour.  Unfortunately they are not for sale at this time of year. Spring flowering bulbs are always for sale in the autumn months when the garden is fully clothed with flowers and foliage.

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At this time of year it is easy to see spaces where spring bulbs can go.

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Harder during September when bulbs are for sale but garden is in full bloom

 However existing large clumps of bulbs or those not in the right place can be lifted, divided and replanted. So I started lifting some of my clumps of snowdrops still in the green, splitting them and replacing them near non vigorous low growing  clump forming grasses such as Carex and  under the bare stems of some deciduous shrubs and intermingling them with daffodils just coming into flower .

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A divided clump of snowdrops replanted towards front of the border to be followed by irises (already passed) then daffodils (now fadding ) and now the flowering succession is achieved by orange tulips

 I have ear marked areas where at bulb planting time I will buy and plant crocuses and irises which will flower and increase colour  in the garden in the time between the flowering of snowdrops and leucojums and  before most of the daffodils flower. To increase colour during and after my daffodils flowering time I will plant more muscari and tulip bulbs. This is what Fergus refers to as adding layers of plants which continually take over from one another to provide colour, foliage, fruit and stem interest as we move through the year.

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Photos are a great way to remind oneself where bulb planting opportunities are for the following years show. Muscari holding  spring show till hosta leaves unfurl. Fergus would be impressed I’m sure.

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Lots of opportunity for spring colour here

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Bulbs can provide the bulk of colour in the spring garden before this task is taken on by the early and late flowering herbaceous perennials and shrubs from Summer to Autumn.

I am sure it will take me many years and mistakes (I prefer  exponential learning curves) to achieve my own “Little Dixter” but I will enjoy the journey, learn and to my garden visitors although I will be aware of where I want to improve they will hopefully think it all looks wonderful.

A final reminder to my local followers of Plant Heritages plant sale in Forfar on the 29th April , 10.30 to 12 am Noon at Guide Hall, Myre Car Park DD81HZ. If you want the opportunity to get some rare and unusual plants not commonly found in garden centres get there early. See you there.

 

April patio plant pots

My last post was about the start of the growing season being an ideal time for planting young trees and shrubs for structure, shelter and privacy giving them time plenty of  time to establish before the winter sets in.  Shrubs in particular are often too small to plant directly into a border as they can look out of place or be smothered by faster growing herbaceous perennials.

These young shrubs as well as herbaceous perennials and climbers can if a suitable location is not available or prepared be grown on by potting them up in larger pots giving them time to mature. This also allows me to experiment with combination ideas by placing groups of containers together, moving them about till I find a pleasing grouping and time to think where the grouping can be placed.

At this time of year I find groups of pots particularly useful near the house such as near my front door, conservatory and  patio where they can be admired from the windows of my house when it is a little too cold or windy to sit outside.

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The grouping from my kitchen window

This is my most recent combination which I have on my patio and easily viewed from my kitchen window. The scale like leaves of Thujopsis dolabrata act as a backdrop for the steely blue- grey foliage of Juniperus communis and the burgundy strongly architectural leaves of Phormium ‘ Rainbow Queen’ in turn  harmonising with the rounded heads of purple drumstick primulas. Either side I have recently planted Acer’s which balance the grouping.

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The containers from my patio chair

These plants would be less noticeable, overshadowed by other plants or even lost if planted out in the  main garden  but on the patio they  make an attractive colourful attention grabbing scene.

Just outside my conservatory doors are blue muscari bulbs emerging through the golden leaves of  Lysimachia numularia ‘Gold’. Normally still brown at this time of year the Lysimachia has remained yellow over the winter allowing this year anyway for this combination to have worked. The muscari blue- green muscari leaves are not too over powering in this little picture and I feel work in quite nicely.

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Planning future winter interest

Positioning of the structural or framework planting of trees and shrubs to provide privacy and for me, more importantly, protection of more tender plants is my first consideration when planting a garden.

Larger mature trees and shrubs for the instant garden effect are more expensive and is the route some of my customers are happy to go. In my garden I have had to accept the slower, cheaper and patient approach of planting younger smaller plants which one day will together with their ornamental beauty contribute to the function of filtering prevailing winds and sheltering more tender plants from cold  and heavy damaging rain.

Many of my strategically placed trees and shrubs are starting to contribute to their intended function and  a few more years growth and my garden will be well protected.  The winter and if I am honest the whole past year  has further  highlighted soft spots where cold and wind exert their influence  shredding even my hardiest  evergreen foliage plants.

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My shelter planting maturing

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As the soil is gradually getting warmer and my plants, as every day passes are showing more signs of growth, I have started planting some young evergreens which will have a whole year to acclimatise and establish before facing the next winter.

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Spot the newly planted winter interest planting (Three to find)

I have purchased a number of columnar conifers, they are not as fashionable as they used to be years ago as they take so long to grow  (I know maybe too long) but they are extremely hardy, will never be so vigorous that I will struggle to keep them under control as we both age and I like their compact columnar shape which I use around the garden as the unifying link of my garden rooms.

Over the years they will contribute more and more to colour, texture and form in the garden in winter.  The plantsman Graham Stuart Thomas always advocated that by choosing plants well, as they mature with you they can with their weed supressing nature look after the garden for you. He also adviced like other garden greats, William Robinson springs to mind, that mature plant size should be considered and enough space provided for this so heavy pruning is avoided to keep  them in their allocated space. Keeping these words of wisdom in mind makes less work for the older gardener and saves on lots of waste disposal.

A problem most often encountered with  young shrubs is that they can take a few years to establish  and grow to a size where they can compete with more  vigorous herbaceous perennials which all too often can smother them making them unsightly if not killing them off completely. I have overcome this issue by growing on young shrubs I would like for the garden in containers or as part of a container display. This gives them the opportunity to mature and me to enjoy their contribution to my garden sooner.  They may be small, but I have time to enjoy watching them grow up.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson    (An American writer and philosopher) said “Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience”.

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Benefiting from container displays till plants are garden ready.

 

Plant Heritage at the University of Dundee Botanic Garden

Plant Heritage is a national charity with the aim of conserving cultivated plants for future generations to enjoy, these plant treasures are part of our culture and history.  Many if not most of the plant varieties and cultivars including ornamental plants, fruits and vegetable mentioned in the older garden books of some of our great gardeners are no longer commercially available.

 Many of these varieties and cultivars do still exist in older gardens, their owners often not aware of the rare treasures they have.  Whenever these treasure trove gardens are cleared to build on the land or make them easier to maintain these plants can be lost forever.  It is the keen vigilance of plant lovers that prevent plant varieties, no longer found in their native habitats or able to be bred by breeders because the parents are no longer available, from becoming extinct.

I have been a member of Plant Heritage for a few years but being a professional gardener and busy during the “growing season “I have never had time to attend visits and events.  This year I decided to make more of an effort to attend meetings so this Saturday I headed to my local Tayside and Grampian area group meeting held at the University of Dundee Botanic Garden.

 Twenty years ago I worked at Dundee Botanic Garden for a short period after I returned to Dundee from working with the Royal Parks in London and before I started up working for myself. How quick time passes. I did not have time to look around but it was a lovely day and what I saw of the gardens was stunning and I fully intend another visit to explore the gardens in the very near future. (Another blog opportunity)

The local Tayside and Grampian Group I found to be very friendly and welcoming helpful bunch and quickly secured a number of invitations to visit member’s gardens.  Some promised to look at my blog so I may pick up some more followers.  For any of my readers looking to join this lovely group of people go to www.plantheritage.com.

Finally a very important date for the diary, on the 29th April from 10.30am to 12.30 pm at the Guide hall in Forfar Plant Heritage is holding a plant sale to raise money for conservation projects.  Members contribute plants from their collections and some rare and not commonly found plants can be obtained at knock down prices.  So if a genuine bargain is wanted that’s the place to be. I have made myself available by volunteering to help out and hopefully grab a bargain myself although I will have to make do with what the bargain hunters leave behind. The guide Hall is on Myre  Road Forfar DD81AZ, right next to the free car park on Myre Road which can be accessed from Forfar Town Centre.

A green planting scheme with white highlights

March sunshine through my conservatory windows can be very warm, tempting me to get out into the garden. When I venture out I am reminded of the winter bite still present as we enter spring.  Generally Scotland is always a jacket colder than further south and I sometimes envy the gardeners who experience long balmy summers down south. I find gardening professionally during the working week in customers gardens in cold, wet and windy conditions is always easier than doing my own. My wife reminds me that from her Facebook timeline four years ago we were covered in snow so I decide to man up and get out there.

As mentioned in my garden rooms, I have divided my garden into different rooms to play with emphasis on different planting themes and colour combinations ideas.  The aim with my front garden is to use the shapes, sizes and textures of predominately green foliage plants to create a cool calming, tranquil leafy green atmosphere brightened by white highlights. The aim being a welcoming and relaxing feel when returning home after a busy or stressful day, rather than encountering vibrant exciting  hotter flower colours.

 As one walks through the various garden rooms I aim to experience different moods, in this room I want to attempt to slow the pace of the mind so the rest of the garden can be fully appreciated and enjoyed .  Green is considered as a calming relaxing colour as it is associated with the peaceful nature of the countryside although farmers may disagree with this concept.

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Today I am transplanting green and variegated foliage plants mainly from other parts of the garden which have acclimatised and shown to be quite wind tolerant and not too prone to winter leaf shredding. Foliage as the main attraction has the benefit of generally lasting longer than flowers which make a shorter contribution to a display. To act as a buffer between different shapes, sizes and textures of foliage and lighten the mood of green I am not only using white flowering plants which reflect light and brighten combination planting  but also  white  or near white variegation on  leaves.

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New planting at my front gate to create a calming tranquil feel

Today I moved the white flowered but powdery white spotted leaved Pulmonaria officinalis “Sissinghurst White” and the white margined Carex “ Everest”. The pulmonaria flowers are now succeeding  the snow drops and Leucojums which are now fading.  Snow drops have green markings which compliment the green theme but I am getting a bit artistically clever and big headed now.

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Pulmonaria officinalis “Sissinghurst White”

 As mentioned the aim eventually is to replace all  non -white  flowering plants to create a green and white area.  Although the purple crocuses I may allow to stay as this bold splash of colour after the winter is welcome.

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 Cornus stolonifera “Flaviramea” ‘s lime green stems add to the green scheme.

Work hard,playhard or grab a bargain?

The relatively mild winter has resulted in me being employed in customers’ gardens through most of January and February  albeit at a pressure free pace.  March is already hectic, this week I have had to turn down requests from potential new customers, a bold but I hope not silly decision. Last year I decided to go down to a four day week so I could spend a day doing my hobby (garden) and keep the weekends free for family life.

Already that plan is out the window with me working the normal five day week and considering the occasional weekend day to try and keep on top of the workload. However, I must not give in and defend my weekends and have a “life. It’s not easy, if I think too much of the jobs I have to get through, panicky insomnia sets in, not wanting to let down or lose good customers. I Just have to take one day at a time.

This weekend I intended to buy the bike I had identified to keep up my fitness (jogging aggravates my hips and knees too much now) and explore my local countryside perhaps hydrated or more likely  dehydrated with a half pint from an idyllically situated country pub. I side tracked myself by curiosity, wanting to know what potential garden bargains my local Home Bargains and B and M store may have.

By way of plants Home Bargains had nothing to tempt me but I noticed some good sized terracotta pots and very cheap (£4.99 and £2.99 respectively). They looked solid and were heavy, but were they frost proof? Goggling the manufacturer’s website Naylor, I discovered they are made in Yorkshire and Naylor is an established firm and they say their pots are frost proof to -15⁰. At the price good enough for me to take the risk knowing that Italian imports are fired at lower temperatures in a warmer climate and a lot more expensive to buy.

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B and M like B & Q have strong buying power and often have good plants from good suppliers but in my experience cheaper.  With regard to herbaceous perennials and alpines, they have some nice plants in one litre pots (3 plants for £5.00). As long as they have not been in the store too long and exposed to time starved staff care you can get some really good plant varieties. They do tend to be young and a bit soft for planting directly into the garden soil and contending with the prevalent climatic conditions.

After they pass my inspection of the roots, (plants I intend to buy I turn them out their pots to check there is a decent root system), I take them home and pot them into larger pots to allow a better and stronger root system to develop. Some I plant into planters as part of plant display. One has to keep them watered and fed  but after about a month they have matured substantially and have a much better survival chance to plant out in the garden.

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Good roots system essential

Although a little more labour intensive growing plants on in pots and planters  allows me time to get to know the plants more intimately so I can meet their needs and team them up with companions they will associate well with. Comparing my grown on plants with prices of the same plants sold in 2l and 3l pots in garden centres at prices commonly now exceeding £10.00 each. This little effort is worth it.

So I have spent much of my weekend gardening but with the pleasure I get is work?

 

Plants: £2.99 or 3 for £10.00

This was a slight error I made when promoting some herbaceous perennials I had bought in to upsell to my customers. Apart from the above mistake (Should have been 4 for £10.00), the idea was to buy in plants in 1 litre pots and although they had a lower individual profit margin, their low retail price would result in volume sales making the money.  Any plants that did not sell would be re-potted into 2l or 3l pots, held over the winter and sold the following year at a price covering the extra compost and time to look after them. Pots are never a problem as over the years I have built quite a collection.

A steep learning curve later, including customer plant loses, the time needed to look after them and rabbits and mice enjoying their nourishing growth over the winter. I abandoned the idea in favour of buying to customers’ orders, leaving nurseries to look after them.

 Cheap young plants in 1l pots are popular with many retail customers, however their foliage and root systems are often not developed enough to withstand the harshness of garden conditions compared to their molly coddled nursery conditions. The result being that many plants do not make it to a second season.  I have lost plants in my own and customers gardens this way and it would be interesting to find if there are any statistics on nationwide losses. I understand that the UK plant sales industry is over 1.5 billion so I am sure failure to establish must run into the millions every year.

Not including plants such as annual spring and summer bedding which are bought as throw away plants by the end of their season. Herbaceous perennials and shrubs are better bought  in 2l or 3l pot sizes as they generally have a bigger better root system, less likely to dry out and able to  establish quicker in their garden environment.

At the start of every season the wholesale cost of plants rise and recently I have noticed this price jumping even higher.  This year’s increases have affected my profit margin on sales already made as I try to keep my plant prices customer friendly. Although this weekend I  did cross reference with the prices of some popular online suppliers.  I now feel much better as the prices have jumped across the board justifying my price increases.

The HTA (Horticulture Trade Association) magazine confirms the increase with import factors contributing including Sterling’s weakness against the Euro after Brexit and rising import costs. UK growers are also affected by minimum wages rising, pension contributions, transport costs and increased costs in composts, labels, etc.

However I remind myself and my customers that plants as opposed to many other commodities such as cars and clothing actually go up in value as they age and if one spreads the cost of a perennial plant over the years one has them they work out  a good investment.  I like the extra positive thoughts of another online gardener ,that  as long as we buy cleverly many plants do not go out of fashion and as they age, like us, gain greater character and increase in value. Many plants such as mature magnolias, camellias and Japanese maples used for instant garden landscaping can cost thousands of pounds each.  With this in mind I think I can convince my wife when I invest in more plants, as by the time we retire our garden may be more valuable than our house.

A useful job for March

Spring continues to make its presence felt, days getting longer, a bit warmer and the earliest flowering bulbs providing a boost in garden colour. At this point I not only enjoy their beauty but also scan a critical eye over things I could have done better or different.

Towards the end of the growing season when the spring flowering bulbs hit the shop shelves, the garden is still in full bloom and often one cannot think where to place these bulbs in their attractive pictorial packaging and their price not too bad.

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When the garden is in full bloom and the bulbs are on the shop shelves one can find it difficult to think of the garden during the winter needing an early splash of colour. 

At this time of year I am able to note areas that would benefit from a splash of spring colour and equally areas where bulbs don’t look right. Here is where my note book and camera phone comes in handy (see Items I always keep within reach).

My favourite place to naturalise spring flowering bulbs are under deciduous trees and shrubs. I also plant hellebores and primulas here where they do not get in the way later in the year when no longer performing centre stage.  Colourful bulbs beneath the bare architectural framework of woody trees and shrubs enhance the picture. When they pass over they are protected by the emerging leaf canopy. Under shrubs and trees they are left relatively undisturbed to colonise and increase in number as their protectors mature. Here there is much less risk of them being weeded out or dug up during planting operations and randomly replanted which often results in them looking like tiny out of place colourful islands in barren sea of winter soil.

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Snowdrops “naturalised “under a newly planted decidious shrub enhancing is bare look. As the shrub matures the snowdrops will bulk up with it.

Now is the time I lift these loners and replace them in better positions. Most of us know it is safe to lift snowdrops in the green but I happily lift daffodils, crocuses etc in flower which I think are in the wrong place and immediately re-plant them elsewhere successfully. Sometimes they look a little bedraggled but perk up fine the following year, a benefit perhaps of our moist free draining soil.

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Snowdrops naturalised next to the groundcover Waldsteinia ternata. As both mature the snowdrops will come through the 10cm tall  Waldsteinia which latter in the year is covered in masses of small yellow flowers. 

Start spreading the news!

Sorry for misleading Sinatra fans this is not about his song New York New York. It is about a recent article I read in the 2017 Jounal of the Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society, (The Caley), by David Knott , the curator of living collections at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, entitled Plant Health Matters.

The article highlights and goes into some detail on pests and diseases which are killing many trees and shrubs with the knock on consequences to the wildlife which depends on them, Although the article focuses on Scotland its significance applies throughout the UK and the world. I think we as gardeners should be aware that some pests and diseases pose a bigger threat than others and have an idea, should we become suspicious, how to act as well as the steps to reduce the risk of spread.

Why is plant health such an important subject? On the grand scale rural economies and the natural environment are affected. In Glen Trool, Scotland large tracts of larch forests have been wiped out by a fungus known as Ramorum blight, affecting both the timber trade and the wildlife within the forests. Pests and diseases such as Ramorum blight are notifiable and must be reported it to the relevant authority.

The relevant authority is DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs). They have plant health officers who regularly visit growers, monitor foreign plant imports and work closely with organisations such as the Forestry Commission on monitoring forests etc.

On the smaller scale, within our gardens we can inadvertently contribute to aiding spread such as buying plants from untrustworthy sources and irresponsible disposal of garden waste. For the average gardener remembering the symptoms of each pest or disease is not feasible. We should be suspicious if any of our garden plants look unhealthy, showing weak, wilting growth,  browning or blackening  foliage crown die back etc.  and is failing to contribute to the  overall ornamental picture. Having ruled out obvious common likely causes as drying out in times of drought or masses of greenfly on fresh growth we have to decide if we need to contact DEFRA.

 On phoning DEFRA to ask what the procedure is I was told that gardeners suspecting a notifiable pest or disease should phone 03000200301 putting them in touch with the Plant Health Team. I have to admit I would not want to call in the cavalry in fear of the embarrassment of the plant suffering from a common problem such as vine weevil damage I would be inclined to err on the safe side and dig it up and burn it  on site which is the usual practice that plant health officers would state to eradicate the problem.

Buying from reputable garden centres etc. is recommended on the assumption that they are behaving responsibly and sourcing their material from responsible growers.  However there is no harm in being vigilant. Visual examination of a plant at a retail outlet (rather than online) allows us to see if a plant looks healthy enough, however, remember many pests and diseases are difficult to detect as they may be in a dormant  phase and not rear their ugly head till planted in our garden. Keeping hold of receipt is a good practice as it can be useful  to get your money back  from the retailer from an infected plant.

Those of us wanting to know a little more can read or download comprehensive information sheets on specific pests and diseases from https://fera.co.uk/plantclinic/plantpestdiseasefactsheet.cfm.

There is also a downloadable poster at, a must for every garden shed

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Those of  you interested in joining the Caley can do so  by emailing: membership@rchs.co.uk

Backlot Tour

Firstly a quick thankyou to the people who are following me, an appreciated confidence boost to the newbie blogger. The weather this past week has not been particularly favourable to gardening and in eager anticipation of conditions improving soon, so I can get down to the business of planting ideas, I will give you a brief  insight of my  garden service area.

To hold the reader’s attention and desire to return, blogging advice tells you that you must ask yourself after writing a blog the question. Is this useful to the reader? If not re- write it.

Being organised is useful and keeping an area aside for growing on, composting, storage, washing lines etc. maximises the potential and space in the rest of the garden for its main desired function (be it productive for fruit and vegetables, play and entertainment or in my case primarily ornamental,) without cluttering it with garden utilities, left out tools etc.

My backlot is where I have my potting shed, glass house, cold frames, composts bins water butt and general holding area for plants, empty pots etc. I find empty pots left near beds always draws my attention away from surrounding planting making me wonder what they held.

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Looking barren over winter in the near future my holding area will be full of colour. (Hopefully not from clothes on the washing line.)

Over the winter my project was to build a couple of raised beds constructed from local stone and filled with top soil. I intend to use this area as a holding bay for plants I lift in my garden, (I keep putting them in the wrong place,) before I decide where they may contribute better. Here I can also experiment with plant colour and texture combination ideas before I plant them out into my existing planting schemes.

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New raised beds ready for planting.