Pruning Mahonia

One of the biggest concerns for many people, even experienced gardeners is how and when to prune.  The quicker growing the plant (Wisteria is a good example), or the more spiny it is, the less likely it is to be given the chop – the first is intimidating by size, the latter by pain.

A close relative of that most vicious of shrubs, the Berberis, is Mahonia and the garden cultivars,  Charity and Winter Sun, brighten up many a dark corner with their spikes of yellow, lily-of-the-valley scented flowers on a cold winter’s day.  There they grow untroubled by pest or disease becoming ever taller, lankier and ending up just plain, downright ugly.  All of this can be prevented by pruning with the additional bonus of having flower spikes at nose height.

The Mahonia in the photo below has not been left to grow tall but been given a regular clipping with shears to form a ball shaped shrub: this often happens to plants that have to be kept under control resulting in a garden full of ‘blobby’ shapes.  For a Mahonia that, by nature, wants to be upright, this is an especially hideous way to end up.  The shrub to the fore is Sarcococca, the Winter Box, also clipped to a ball shape, a style that does suit that particular plant although, in my opinion, it is more attractive when allowed to grow naturally.

By April, the elongated flowerheads (raceme) will have faded to be replaced by bluish berries.  This is the sign that pruning time has arrived.  Mahonias are very tough, coping with temperatures as low as -20 degrees Centigrade and I have pruned them in frosty weather without loss.  It is always best, however, to do any pruning task when the weather is more clement.
The difficulty with seeing inside a shrub that is growing as densely as this particular Mahonia is easily resolved by simply cutting off a few of the top clusters of leaves anywhere.  Once you can see what you are doing life is much more straightforward and those first random pruning cuts can be rectified later.  In the photo below a branch has been revealed to show how the leaves join the main stem.  The newer growth at the top is a much paler green than the darker, older wood but both have leaves growing from it.
The pruning cut can be made anywhere between the leaves – I tend to be quite drastic and only leave one or two leaves in place.  It can be seen that I have cut this stem hard back into the older, darker wood – new growth will shoot from this point giving flowers again by the following winter.
Gradually, the shrub opens up to expose many branches of varying ages.  The older they are the more gnarled and twisted they have become.  Once these are readily visible it is possible to cut some of the oldest growth much harder still: this thins out the plant allowing more light and air to reach its centre.

Although no growth is visible below the cut, dormant buds will break and create new branches.  Again, these will flower the following winter but, of course, at a much lower height than before.
The end result is a shrub that has had much of its centre removed or lowered.  In this particular example, I have left more of the outer growth in place as this gives a more attractive appearance through the summer.  Next Spring this outer growth will be pruned more severely exposing the newer growth inside which can be pruned much more lightly.  By the Spring of 2014 this  mahonia will have been transormed back to its natural shape, a mass of healthy stems, leaves and flowers.

It was only when I returned to the bonfire that I appreciated the beautiful pale jade tones of the underleaf, not normally noticeable.  Another feature of Mahonia is the bright yellow colour of the cut stem – one that it shares with its Berberis cousins and, like them, the root system is also coloured yellow, a useful way of identifying what root system belongs to it when digging in a crowded shrubbery.

 Click on any of the photographs to enlarge them

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Anatomy of a Flower Arrangement

How often does a garden plan go awry only to find that you have something equally as good, if not better, instead? This is what happened to one of my designs, a large area taking up almost one quarter of a walled kitchen garden.
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Formal beds, surrounded by box(wood) hedging and topiary, were planted to create what was to be a tisane, or herbal tea, garden. All the plants were supposed to be suitable for making infusions for either medicinal or culinary use. Something went wrong and, for reasons unknown, half the plants either died or refused to flourish. In desperation, we turned it into a cutting garden where flowers could be harvested for arrangements for the big house – actually, the mystery house I used to dream of as a child. I have written about this house before and the tale of my arriving there two hundred years after I had died….

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Concentrating on those plants that survived the initial planting, I decided to see how they would cope with being used as cut flowers and the result was much better than expected. The flowers were cut in the middle of the hottest day of this year so far – not ideal conditions – and then plunged up to their necks in water for the rest of the afternoon. They looked poorly and drooping when first arranged but perked up overnight and now, ten days later, look as fresh as ever.

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Much of the structure is created with a framework of Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’. I find that to get the best results it is necessary to prune this shrub down to ground level each spring. They then produce long wands of stunning silvery foliage. A bitter herb used for all sorts of ailments, I would have to feel very ill before I would consider drinking a tea made from this!
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At this point, I should stress, that I am no herbalist so I do not recommend that you try out any of these plants without deciding for yourself whether they will do you good or kill you instead.
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Hemp Agrimony, Eupatorium cannabinum, is a British native plant, normally found growing in damp places but quite happy in the garden border. The Joe Pye of America, it is claimed that it is good for many different ailments but especially good for gout.
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A big surprise, was this Spearmint. In the cutting garden it has grown exceptionally tall (and like all mints, proving rather invasive) with attractive, fine flowers. This is, of course, one that I can safely recommend for use as a culinary herbal tea, very refreshing on a hot summers day and good if you suffer with indigestion.
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Lavender needs no introduction. Oddly enough, because of soil conditions, I thought they would struggle in this garden. Instead, they have thrived.
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Marjoram, another common herb that grows wild in England on sunny banks, also needs no description from me. It is our best bee and butterfly plant in the garden, even outrivalling Buddleias. We grow it in huge patches throughout the garden.
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Leaving the best to last and the biggest surprise of the lot! Marsh-mallow, Althaea officinalis, another UK native. This was the first time I had grown it and it is now one of my ‘signature’ plants that I try to incorporate into every design. Related to Hollyhocks but only about half their height and very much more delicate in every way, except one – they are as tough as old boots!
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Beautiful, downy, soft-as-velvet leaves and the merest hint of pink flowers, they require no staking, suffer from no pests or diseases and grow year after year, getting ever stronger. And, of course, you can always make marshmallow sweets to eat from their dried, powdered roots.
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This recipe comes from my old herbal, although I have never tried to make them:
2oz marsh mallow root, 14oz fine sugar mixed with gum tragacanth and enough orange flower water to bind altogether. Quite what you do after that I have no idea – perhaps just eat them?
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No Time For Growing? A Recipe For Guaranteed Success

We all lead busy lives these days and often don’t have time to sow seeds, despite our best intentions. I garden for my living and, in the tradition of cobbler’s children, my own garden is, more often than not, far from text book perfect. I simply do not have the time for all that seed sowing and pricking out even though I spend all day encouraging others to do it!

Raised beds are often described as labour and space saving and, indeed, they are. They are hugely productive and can look lovely, as the many posts and photographs by fellow Bloggers prove. But what if you don’t have the time even for that?

Here is my recipe for growing summer suppers…..

1. Purchase a box of lettuce. No, not joking! Supermarkets sell a wide range of salad ingredients including growing pots of near full grown lettuce. Recently they have started to sell mixed leaves as seedlings, the idea being to keep them fresh for a few extra days.


2. Carefully remove all wrappers and tip out of their packaging. There is quite a good root system already started.


3. Divide carefully and, just by using your fingers, plant direct into your soil or compost. Water well. In the photo below, for even more speed, I just pinched a few plants out of the growing medium and planted together in one hole. I ended up with about twenty groups – planted separately I would probably have had nearer a hundred. Note the herbs behind the lettuce, all grown the same way.


4. The lettuce in the photo above may have looked a little sad but within a day, the seedlings perked up. Ten days later here are some of them again below. Enjoy!

Recently I have been taking the idea of raised beds a stage further and creating much higher raised beds that avoid the hardship of bending. I use them as ‘walls’ to separate different levels of a garden, I use them on the flat and I use them where the client is elderly or has a disability.

Made from chunky timber so they won’t rot for years, I also make them bottomless as that is always the first place to go. They require less watering that way too. Lining them with black plastic prevents water seeping through and disfiguring the boards which is important if they have been painted or stained. And the boxes just seem to be getting ever bigger!

This box separates the lower dining terrace from the house level and creates a sense of enclosure when seated below. As it is situated close to the kitchen door, the box is planted with a mix of herbs as well as garden flowers. The twisted stemmed bay gives a degree of formality as well as height.

Exotic planting works well in this square box. A hardy palm is underplanted with coleus, the magenta splashes of the leaves are emphasised by the identical colour of the petunias and of this favourite plant of mine, Lythrum. Lythrum is native to the British Isles and grows besides streams and in boggy places. This variety, ‘Robert’, is identical in every way except for its shorter height and is a great garden plant. I’ve found that it grows in quite ordinary soil in the border and it certainly thrived here in these conditions.

 

PS I’ve just remembered! Spring Onions (Scallions) bought as bunches from the supermarket: when planted out early in the year, grow to become reasonable sized onions. They don’t store well but help to bridge the gap that occurs before those grown from sets are ready for harvest. Try some in your boxes!

Watercress works as well: eat most of the stems you buy and plant just the last 2 – 3 inches in ordinary compost. Keep moist and it will provide food up until the first frosts.

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Planting Plans: Looking for Inspiration

I am often asked where do you start with a design. This is a tricky question as I have had relatively little training in this area – I originally designed by trial and (lots of) error like most people who garden do. It is only in recent years that I have designed more formally for clients. Obviously, when working, my first concern is that the garden is suitable for the owners lifestyle, whether it should be formal or low maintenance or more complex. This post is about what I find the most exciting part – the plants.

Inspiration for planting is easy for me. I began by looking at nature and trying to emulate it, not always with a natural ‘wild’ look but more by texture and colour. Over the years, this has developed to include anything from furnishings to paint colour charts to pebbles on the beach….. The photo below show how sunsets (which are always full of amazing colour combinations) in the mountains inspired an herbaceous border.


Sometimes it seems as if flowers have inspired the sunsets! Here is the rose Rosa x odorata ‘Mutabilis’ trying to outdo another mountain sunset. This rose starts with the most intense pink bud and, as the flower fades, turns to the softest apricot, ending up with this wonderful colour combination.


This old mossy wall was the starting point for a mini parterre – the ‘moss’ is made from the box (boxwood) framework, the ‘stones’ from variegated Iris and Cotton Lavender. The wall reminds me of our garden wall in the secret valley (Sunday 20th September 2009) but this one is in north Wales and is a hard, cool grey and silver granite unlike our soft, mellow Cotswold stone. This planting is tiny compared to the usual grand parterre designs and has been used to link two levels of a small garden.


I found this reproduction plate in a second hand shop. It became the inspiration for this blue and white border in an old walled garden. It would never have occurred to me to be so sparing with the red (or to put any red at all into a blue and white garden) but the plate told me otherwise. This planting is a combination of delphinium, tall aconitum and two salvias – the dark salvia nemerosa and the taller, whitish salvia sclarea var. turkestanica. The dots of red are just our native wild poppy which I use quite a lot in my gardens although care has to be taken not to let them run riot.

So let your imagination take you where it will. Sometimes the combinations don’t work but, more often than not, there will be some exciting discoveries to be made and a lot of fun will be had along the way. And make sure you tell me all about them……

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Rain, Rain & even more Rain!

After all the scorching weather we had a little while ago, now it won’t stop raining. Suddenly temperatures dropped from the upper 80’sF (scorching for England!) by 20 degrees and, day after day, we have woken to grey skies and rain lashing the windows. There have been times when the sun breaks through to remind us that it is still mid summer and we can get on with our outdoor work in comfort.

The garden has been overdue for a tidy as working with other people’s gardens takes up most of our hours at this time of year. This weekend we were able to cut the tall hedges and they look a lot better for it – not a job I especially enjoy but a sense of satisfaction once done.

Hand clipping box hedges is a joy however, providing you have plenty of time for accuracy. There is nothing worse than a ragged, uneven finish to a formal hedge. Powered hedge trimmers rarely do a good enough job and the slow, rythmic sound of hedging shears is mesmeric.

I have heard that the dreaded box blight is in the area. Let’s hope that it doesn’t find any of ours!